103 Evolution News Articles
for December 2017
Click on the links below to get the full story from its source
12-31-17 Our liver vacation: Is a dry January really worth it?
Less liver fat, cholesterol and weight – just some of the benefits that New Scientist staff enjoyed in a pioneering study into a month's alcohol abstinence. “DRY January”, for many a welcome period of abstinence after the excesses of the holiday season, could be more than a rest for body and soul. New Scientist staff have generated the first evidence that giving up alcohol for a month might actually be good for you, at least in the short term. Many people who drink alcohol choose to give up for short periods, but there is no scientific evidence that this has any health benefits. So we teamed up with Rajiv Jalan at the Institute for Liver and Digestive Health at University College London Medical School (UCLMS) to investigate. The liver plays a role in over 500 processes vital for functions as diverse as digesting food, detoxification and hormone balance. In 2009, of the 11,575 people who died of liver disease in the UK, more than a third were attributed to alcohol consumption. Most of what we know about liver health comes from studies of people with chronic disease, many of whom are alcoholics. Very few studies have focused on liver function in apparently healthy people. Our project was on a small scale, but Jalan felt it could yield clues as to the effects of short-term abstinence. On 5 October, 14 members of the New Scientist staff – all of whom consider themselves to be “normal” drinkers – went to the Royal Free Hospital in London. We answered questionnaires about our health and drinking habits, then had ultrasound scans to measure the amount of fat on the liver. Finally, we gave blood samples, used to analyse levels of metabolic chemicals linked with the liver and overall health.
12-29-17 Your body fat may be protecting you against infections
Fat isn’t all bad – it stores powerful immune cells, and seems to boost their ability to defend the body from dangerous infections. Did you pile on the pounds this Christmas? At least you can take some comfort in the fact that not all fat is bad. Evidence in mice and monkeys suggests it is important for storing important immune cells and may even make them more effective at fighting infection. Yasmine Belkaid at the US National Institutes of Health and her team have found that a type of immune cell – called a memory T-cell – seems to be stored in the body fat of mice. These cells learn to fight infection. Once exposed to a pathogen, they mount a stronger response the next time they encounter it. When the researchers infected mice with parasites or bacteria, they found that memory T-cells clustered densely in the animals’ body fat. Tests showed that these cells seemed to be more effective than those stored in other organs, being better at replicating and at releasing infection-fighting chemicals, for example. After exposing the mice to the same pathogens again, the memory T-cells stored in their fat were the fastest to respond. Belkaid’s team found that monkeys also have plenty of memory T-cells in their body fat, and that these cells worked better than those from other organs. “It means that fat tissue is not only a reservoir for memory cells, but those memory cells have enhanced function,” says Belkaid. “The tissue is like a magic potion that can optimally activate the T-cells.”
12-28-17 Plants use sand armour to break teeth of attacking caterpillars
Some plants are coated in sand, and it seems the sand grains act like medieval armour that protects these “psammophorous” plants from munching caterpillars. Some plants may use an odd, yet simple defensive tactic against insect herbivores: sand. New research suggests that some plants use sand grains as an unappetizing and abrasive armour. Psammophorous (“sand-carrying”) plants have sticky surfaces to which sand adheres. The coating was thought to somehow protect the plants against herbivorous insects, but this was only formally tested in 2016. Eric LoPresti of the University of California, Davis and his colleagues confirmed that plants with a coating of sand are eaten less (Ecology, doi.org/chmj). However, they also found that the sand does not work by camouflaging the plant. They have now examined what the sand does to herbivores. The researchers raised caterpillars on beach plants called sand verbenas (Abronia latifolia), which were either sand-covered or “clean”. The caterpillars were either white-lined sphinxes , which take big bites of leaves, or “leaf-miners” that devour the leaf interior. The team tracked the caterpillars’ growth and development, feeding, and plant choices. The leaf miners showed no preference for sandy or clean plants, but more than 80 per cent of white-lined sphinx caterpillars preferred clean foliage. Eating sand hobbled their development, slowing their maturation and stunting their growth. Dissections revealed that their guts were full of indigestible sand. The rough sand also eroded the caterpillars’ mandibles, making it harder for them to feed.
12-27-17 Love at first sight is really just lust or even false memory
One in three people say they’ve felt love at first sight, but experiments suggest the phenomenon is actually just physical attraction or distorted memories. Your eyes met across a crowded room – but was it really love at first sight? One in three people say they have experienced the phenomenon, however a study suggests it probably doesn’t exist. “People think of love at first sight as a lightning strike as soon as they see a person,” says Florian Zsok at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. But research into the experience has mostly focused on people who are in relationships, which is likely to distort our understanding of it. If you are in a good relationship with someone, you are more likely to remember the beginning of that relationship in an exaggeratedly positive light. So Zsok and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments in which volunteers saw new people for the first time. Each person filled in a survey and was asked how they felt about the people they saw or met. The first experiment was designed to mimic online dating. In it, 282 volunteers were shown pictures on the internet of six people of the gender they found attractive, and were then surveyed on their feelings about them. Around half the volunteers were already in relationships. They were also asked about the early days of those relationships. A similar experiment involved showing 50 volunteers nine pictures.
12-27-17 Our lust for tastier chocolate has transformed the cocoa tree
Ever since we domesticated the cocoa tree over 3000 years ago, we have been breeding them to make tastier chocolate – but in the process we have made them vulnerable. The world loves chocolate, but thousands of years of selective breeding have drastically changed the genome of the trees from which chocolate is made. The plants now produce tastier chocolate, but they also make less due to harmful mutations. The key ingredient in chocolate is cocoa powder. This is made from the seeds of the cocoa tree or cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), which is native to tropical forests in Central and South America. Now a team led by Juan Motamayor, a geneticist at food giant Mars Incorporated, has sequenced 200 genomes of wild and domestic trees to explore their evolutionary history. It is the first study of cocoa trees on such a scale. A spokesperson for Mars explained that they fund Motomayor’s work to help protect their business. “There are extreme challenges to cocoa as a crop,” the spokesperson said. “Obviously, as a chocolate company… we want to protect cocoa.” The researchers found deleterious mutations in many trees from different varieties, which affect the productivity of the crop. These mutations were particularly pronounced in a rare variety called Criollo, which has a nutty flavour and is used to make some of the world’s most expensive chocolate.
12-27-17 Why you should let your mind wander
Go ahead, daydream. Wondering minds are associated with creativity. Popular wisdom tells you to live in the moment. So is it better to be unfocused or focused? Let's look at the research. The upside of mind wandering: ou spend up to 8 minutes of every hour daydreaming. Your mind will probably wander for 13 percent of the time it takes you to read this post. Some of us spend 30 to 40 percent of our time daydreaming. The downside of mind wandering: As Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, explained in the Harvard Gazette, a wandering mind is not a happy mind.
A wandering mind takes more in: good and bad. This leads to new ideas. But it can take you up — and it can take you down. Focus doesn't allow the noise in. But the noise is what allows creativity to spark.What you want to do is spend most of your time focused but have rituals that allow your mind to wander on cue.
12-24-17 The future of sustainable meat
Inpossible Foods, a Silicon Valley-based company, has rolled out its new Impossible Burger, genetically engineered from plant protein to look and taste as much as possible like red meat. (Webmaster's comment: But what about the nutritional value?) The new burger, and a similar product from a company called Beyond Meat, seems to be marketed to win over people making the transition from eating meat to a more vegetable-based diet, while not depriving them of the flavor. These products are already available in some restaurants and specialty stores, but making them more broadly popular may take some time. "Vegetarians are not their primary market," says Garrett Broad, a professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University. "In fact, in a lot of ways, they don't want their products to be associated with vegetarians at all. They're really aiming for those meat reducers. They're aiming for those folks who are maybe looking to switch out a meat option once, twice, three times a week. They want this to be a product that is meat. It's just meat from plants." The genetically modified ingredients in the Impossible Burger remain a source of controversy. In fact, it can't be sold at all in certain European countries. The U.S., on the other hand, has a longer history of accepting genetic modification in our food systems, Broad notes. The specific genetic modification occurs in the construction of a substance known as heme. Heme gives the familiar flavor, smell, and texture to meat as we know it, but it's also found in a variety of plant-based sources. The Food and Drug Administration has decided not to certify this key plant protein as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS), but this is not an indication that the burger is unsafe to eat, Broad says.
12-23-17 Can the germs in your gut help fight cancer?
Research reveals a surprising link between your gut and cancer treatment. Scientists are figuring out that our microbiomes — those multitudes of bacteria, viruses, and fungi in our guts — affect far more than digestion. Researchers writing recently in the journal Science describe how the microbiomes of people with melanoma even interact with their cancer treatment. "We actually had known about some science that was published a few years ago that showed … if you look at the bacteria in the mice, you can actually see differences between mice that respond or don't respond to immunotherapy, and you can actually change their microbiome and make them respond better to cancer therapy," explains study author Jennifer Wargo, an associate professor of surgical oncology and genomic medicine at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Her team leaped at the chance to study something similar in humans. Wargo says they collected oral and gut microbiome samples from hundreds of patients suffering from metastatic melanoma, an advanced form of the disease. "What we found, when we looked specifically at patients being treated [with] immunotherapy, is that patients who had a higher diversity of bacteria within their gut microbiome did much better on therapy — and specifically, this is a form of therapy called anti-PD-1," she explains, "whereas patients who failed to respond to therapy had a much lower diversity of bacteria." What's more, researchers found that patients who responded well to the immunotherapy had more of certain gut bacteria.
12-22-17 The man flu struggle might be real, says one researcher
A researcher reviews the evidence for gender bias among flu viruses. Cold weather often brings with it hot takes on so-called man flu. That’s the phenomenon in which the flu hits men harder than women — or, depending on who you ask, when men exaggerate regular cold symptoms into flu symptoms. In time for the 2017–2018 flu season, one researcher has examined the scientific evidence for and against man flu. “The concept of man flu, as commonly defined, is potentially unjust,” Kyle Sue, a clinician at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s, Canada, writes December 11 in BMJ. Motivated by his own memorable bout of flu, he says, Sue began looking into man flu research and summarizes the work in a review article that’s part of BMJ’s Christmas issue, which traditionally features humorous takes on legitimate research. There might be a reason men come across as wimps. In the United States, more men than women died from flu-related causes from 2007 to 2010 across several age groups, researchers reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2013. An analysis of data on the 2004 to 2010 flu seasons in Hong Kong found that in children and adults, males were more likely to be hospitalized for the flu than females. Sue isn’t the first to make a case for man flu. A prevailing explanation for men’s susceptibility says that women have higher levels of the hormone estradiol, which can boost the immune system, while men have higher levels of testosterone, which can sometimes suppress the immune system. However, these hormones interact with the immune system in other ways as well.
12-22-17 The science behind kids’ belief in Santa
The more live Santas young kids see, the stronger their conviction is that the Santas are real. Over the past week, my little girls have seen Santa in real life at least three times (though only one encounter was close enough to whisper “yo-yo” in his ear). You’d think that this Santa saturation might make them doubt that each one was the real deal. For one thing, they looked quite different. Brewery Santa’s beard was a joke, while Christmas-tree-lighting Santa’s beard was legit. Add to that variations in outfits and jolliness levels. But as I delved into the Santa-related research, I found I was wrong to think his omnipresence might throw my kids off. It turns out that the more kids see real, live Santa Clauses, the more likely they are to think he’s real. More exposure actually tracked with stronger belief, scientists reported in Cognitive Development in 2016. That got me wondering about this belief. Like many parents, I feel a little hint of unease when it comes to telling my trusting, innocent children a lie. But lots of parents conspire to tell this lie to their children. An AP survey from 2011 (the most recent I could find on this pressing issue) revealed that 84 percent of adult respondents believed in Santa as a child. Many of these former children had their Christmas beliefs shattered around age 8, other studies suggest. A fascinating paper from 1978 found that 85 percent of 4-year-olds believed in Santa. Five percent didn’t, and 10 percent were still thinking about it. But only 25 percent of 8-year-olds believed in Santa, with 20 percent not believing and 55 percent transitioning in their beliefs. Funnily enough, 60 percent of these same 8-year-olds still believed in the tooth fairy.
12-22-17 Why humans kill other humans
Is morality really at the root of violence? At last count, more than 600,000 of Myanmar's Muslim Rohingya minority had fled the country for Bangladesh. Ever since Rohingya militants attacked Myanmar police outposts, resulting in a dozen deaths in August 2017, Myanmar security forces have begun a campaign of ethnic cleansing. They have burnt down hundreds of Rohingya villages, and murdered, raped, and beheaded the Rohingya they have encountered. What has driven Myanmar security forces to engage in this act of ethnic cleansing? Do they fail to recognize the inherent humanity of their victims, or do their acts represent an excess of morality, morality that can be satisfied only by punishing a fellow human? What's the motive that spurs on this violence? A popular explanation for horrific violence is that perpetrators see victims as little more than animals or objects, and so they feel little remorse in abusing, torturing, or killing them because it is easier to hurt an animal or break an object than it is to hurt a human being. This process of dehumanization has been invoked to explain acts of violence ranging from the Holocaust and the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib to the ethnic violence against the Rohingya people. However, our recent research suggests that this explanation is mistaken. After all, the failure to recognize someone's humanity predicts indifference toward their welfare, not an active desire and delight in bringing about their suffering. To understand the active desire to cause pain and suffering in another person, we have to look to a counterintuitive source: human morality. As we show in the aforementioned research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2017, dehumanization allows us to commit instrumental violence, wherein people do not desire to harm victims, but knowingly harm them anyway in order to achieve some other objective (imagine shooting a stranger in order to steal his wallet). However, dehumanization does not cause us to commit moral violence, where people actively desire to harm victims who deserve it (imagine shooting your cheating spouse). We find that moral violence emerges only when perpetrators see victims as capable of thinking, experiencing sensations and having moral emotions. In other words, when perpetrators perceive their victims as human.
12-22-17 'Milestone' reached in fighting deadly wheat disease
Scientists say they have made a step forward in the fight against a wheat disease that threatens food security. Wheat is a staple food crop, making up a fifth of the calories on our plates. But in many parts of the world, the crop is being attacked by stem rust (black rust), a fungus that can ravage a farmer's fields. Researchers from the UK, US and Australia identified genetic clues that give insights into whether a crop will succumb to stem rust. They discovered a gene in the fungus that triggers a wheat plant's natural defences. A second pathway has been discovered which switches on a wheat plant's immune response. The research, reported in the journal Science, gives new tools for protecting crops from the deadly pathogen. Stem rust has caused crop epidemics and famine for millennia. In the 1950s, wheat rust spread through North America and destroyed up to 40% of the crop. Since then, scientists have developed rust-resistant varieties to boost wheat's immunity to the fungus. But the pathogen is evolving all the time.
12-22-17 Odd fossils hint first complex life hung on long after its time
The strange Ediacarans were some of the earliest complex organisms on Earth. They are thought to have died out 540 million years ago but eight odd fossils suggest they survived far longer. A strange 380-million-year-old fossil that was initially identified as a worm might actually be the last known survivor of an early form of life that no one fully understands. So claims one palaeontologist – but others are sceptical. The Ediacarans, also known as “vendobionts”, are some of the earliest multicellular organisms known. They were strange, bag-like organisms just a few millimetres thick and sometimes 2 metres long, with an intricate quilted appearance. Nobody knows if they were animals, plants or something else entirely. Ediacarans first appear in the fossil record about 600 million years ago. They are thought to have vanished about 60 million years later, shortly after animals burst onto the scene in the Cambrian explosion. It may be that those animals ate them to extinction. However, Gregory Retallack at the University of Oregon in Eugene suspects that some vendobionts clung on in the age of animals for a long time. He thinks a mystery fossil called Protonympha might be a vendobiont – despite living 160 million years after its cousins seemingly went extinct. Four fossils of Protonympha were discovered in upstate New York in the early 20th century. The fossils are a few centimetres long and look a little like segmented worms, which is what they were initially assumed to be. Retallack disagrees. He has revisited the sites where the fossils were unearthed and discovered four more, doubling the sample size. Thin slices taken from the new material reveal that Protonympha fossils had an organic, iron-rich body wall – like some vendobionts.
12-21-17 Lying about Santa might actually be good for your child
. ristmas is a magical time of year, especially for children. Unfortunately, between elaborate Elf on the Shelf staging and fending off questions about Santa, parents are often left wondering how much of the magic depends on them. Specifically, many parents worry about whether they should encourage their children's belief in the physical reality of Santa, about the potential impact of lying to them and what to do when their children realize they've been duped. Rest assured, parents, it's not all up to you. In fact, the best approach involves supporting your kids while they figure it out on their own. They will, and it won't be as bad as you expect. As a developmental scientist, I spend most of my time researching children's trust. I'm interested in how trust develops and what happens when it's broken. During the holiday season, I spend a lot of time thinking about Santa. Research in the field of developmental psychology suggests that such fantastical beliefs are not actually harmful, but are associated with a number of positive developmental outcomes — from exercising the "counterfactual reasoning skills" needed for human innovation to boosting emotional development. (Webmaster's comment: They learn not to trust everything that adults tell them. That is a good thing!)
- When kids question the magic: The vast majority of children will at some point believe in Santa. Yet, despite Santa's impressive marketing strategy, most children will abandon their belief by the age of eight.
- Should you bust the myth? Recognizing these challenging questions for what they are — cognitive development in action — may free some parents from the burden of belief.
- Lies with good intentions: If you choose to extend your child's belief in Santa, and your child realizes you have deceived them, how will they respond?
- Why Santa is for small gifts: Believing in impossible beings such as Santa is a special kind of magic available only to children.
12-21-17 Why we can't engineer cleverness
No matter how good we get at altering genes, we won't create superhumans any time soon. A paper published in Nature Genetics in 2017 reported that, after analyzing tens of thousands of genomes, scientists had tied 52 genes to human intelligence, though no single variant contributed more than a tiny fraction of a single percentage point to intelligence. As the senior author of the study Danielle Posthuma, a statistical geneticist at the Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam and VU University Medical Center Amsterdam, told The New York Times, "there's a long way to go" before scientists can actually predict intelligence using genetics. Even so, it is easy to imagine social impacts that are unsettling: students stapling their genome sequencing results to their college applications; potential employers mining genetic data for candidates; in-vitro fertilization clinics promising IQ boosts using powerful new tools such as the genome-editing system CRISPR-Cas9. Some people are already signing on for this new world. Philosophers such as John Harris of the University of Manchester and Julian Savulescu of the University of Oxford have argued that we will have a duty to manipulate the genetic code of our future children, a concept Savulescu termed "procreative beneficence." The field has extended the term "parental neglect" to "genetic neglect," suggesting that if we don't use genetic engineering or cognitive enhancement to improve our children when we can, it's a form of abuse. Others, like David Correia, who teaches American Studies at the University of New Mexico, envisions dystopian outcomes, where the wealthy use genetic engineering to translate power from the social sphere into the enduring code of the genome itself.
12-20-17 'Longest-frozen' embryo born 24 years on
A baby has been born from an embryo frozen for nearly 25 years - possibly the longest gap between conception and birth since IVF began. The embryo was donated by a family in the US and has become the first child for a woman who would herself have been only one when the baby was conceived. The donated embryo that would become Emma Wren Gibson, a healthy baby girl, was thawed in March and transferred to mum Tina Gibson's uterus. Emma was born in November. "Do you realise I'm only 25? This embryo and I could have been best friends," Mrs Gibson, now 26, of eastern Tennessee told CNN. "I just wanted a baby. I don't care if it's a world record or not," she added. The faith-based National Embryo Donation Center provided the fertilised embryo, which doctors there refer to as "snow babies" because of how long they are kept frozen. The organisation encourages couples who do not want additional children to donate unneeded embryos after their families are complete, so that other couples can try to become parents. Tina and Benjamin Gibson turned to the Knoxville-based organisation after Mr Gibson, who has cystic fibrosis, was found to have fertility issues. Baby Emma was conceived in October 1992 - a year and half after her mum's own birth. The 24-year-old embryo is believed to have been cryopreserved for longer than any other viable human embryo.
12-20-17 Specks in the brain attract Alzheimer’s plaque-forming protein
Results in mice suggest a possible approach for stopping amyloid-beta accumulation. Globs of an inflammation protein beckon an Alzheimer’s protein and cause it to accumulate in the brain, a study in mice finds. The results, described in the Dec. 21/28 Nature, add new details to the relationship between brain inflammation and Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers suspect that this inflammatory cycle is an early step in the disease, which raises the prospect of being able to prevent the buildup of amyloid-beta, the sticky protein found in brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. “It is a provocative paper,” says immunologist Marco Colonna of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Finding an inflammatory protein that can prompt A-beta to clump around it is “a big deal,” he says. Researchers led by Michael Heneka of the University of Bonn in Germany started by studying specks made of a protein called ASC that’s produced as part of the inflammatory response. (A-beta itself is known to kick-start this inflammatory process.) Despite being called specks, these are large globs of protein that are created by and then ejected from brain immune cells called microglia when inflammation sets in. A-beta then accumulates around these ejected ASC specks in the space between cells, Haneke and colleagues now propose. A-beta can directly latch on to ASC specks, experiments in lab dishes revealed. The two proteins were also caught in close contact in brain tissue taken from people with Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers didn’t see any ASC specks mingling with A-beta in the brains of people without the disease.
An inherited form of progressive deafness has been slowed in mice using CRISPR. The approach might lead to treatments for inherited deafness in people. Hearing loss in mice with a form of progressive deafness has been slowed by a one-off treatment using the CRISPR genome editing method. The approach might lead to a treatment that helps stave off hearing loss in people with certain forms of inherited deafness. We have two copies of almost every gene in our body, but in some cases, a mutation in just one of these copies is enough to cause a disease. So-called dominant genetic disorders are caused by DNA alterations in just one copy of a gene, which leads to a faulty protein being made. In theory, disorders like these could be cured by switching the mutated copy off, and leaving the healthy copy alone so that it can continue making the right protein. Researchers have now tried doing this using CRISPR. They focused on a type of deafness known only as DFNA36. It is caused by a dominant mutation in one of the copies of a gene called Tmc1. The mutation is a change in a single DNA letter, and it slowly kills off the hair cells in our ear that detect sound. Children with this mutation start losing their hearing at around age 5, and may go completely deaf over the following decades. To disable faulty Tmc1 genes while leaving healthy copies alone, David Liu of Harvard University and his team made fatty capsules containing the CRISPR protein and an RNA guide designed to target only the faulty gene. They then injected these into the ears of mice.
12-20-17 New research shows popular MS therapy is actually a dud
A controversial MS treatment, once a source of great hope, is "largely ineffective." at many hope will be the final chapter in an unfortunate saga in multiple sclerosis research appears to have been written by the scientist who started the affair in the first place. Italian physician Paolo Zamboni has publicly acknowledged that a therapy he developed and dubbed "the liberation treatment" does not cure or mitigate the symptoms of MS. A randomized controlled trial — the gold standard of medical research — he and other Italian researchers conducted concluded the procedure is a "largely ineffective technique" that should not be recommended for MS patients. The trial's result comes as no surprise to neurologists, most of whom felt Zamboni's theory lacked plausibility from the moment news of it exploded through the MS community in 2009. Many of those same neurologists, though, saw their relationships with their patients fractured as belief in the liberation therapy took hold in the community of patients and their families in Canada, parts of the United States, and farther afield. Doctors advising caution against a procedure that hadn't been proved to work or even to be safe were derided as standing in the way of innovation to protect their own practices. Dr. Jock Murray, an MS expert and retired professor from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, said the history of MS is laden with incidences like the Zamboni episode — though he said this one lasted longer than most. "Belief always trumps evidence," Murray told STAT in an interview. Zamboni, who works at University of Ferrara Hospital, did not respond to STAT's email inquiry about the trial.
12-20-17 Video gaming disorder to be officially recognised for first time
Obsessively playing video games can be so detrimental that the World Health Organization is going to recognise it as a mental health condition. Can playing too many video games be a mental health condition? In some circumstances, the World Health Organization thinks that it can be, New Scientist has learned. The WHO is to include gaming disorder in its International Classification of Diseases for the first time. This widely used diagnostic manual was last updated in 1990, and the latest version – called ICD-11 – is set to be published in 2018. The wording of the gaming disorder entry that will be included in ICD-11 is yet to be finalised, but the draft currently lists a variety of criteria clinicians could use to determine if a person’s gaming has become a serious health condition. According to this draft, someone has gaming disorder if they give increasing priority to gaming “to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests”, and that they will continue to game despite negative consequences. Additionally, the draft says that adverse gaming behaviour will normally need to have continued for at least a year before a person’s diagnosis can be confirmed. “Health professionals need to recognise that gaming disorder may have serious health consequences,” says Vladimir Poznyak at the WHO’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse. Most people who play video games don’t have a disorder, just like most people who drink alcohol don’t have a disorder either. However, in certain circumstances overuse can lead to adverse effects, says Poznyak.
12-19-17 2018 preview: Gene therapy treats disease while in the womb
“You can see during pregnancy that they already have bone fractures in the womb,” says Cecilia Götherström of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. She is head of what will be the world’s first ever trial of giving fetuses stem cell therapy in the womb. The aim is to relieve symptoms of, or even cure, osteogenesis imperfecta, known as brittle bone disease. Babies born with this rare condition have bones that fracture easily, caused by having faulty genes for collagen, the protein that normally reinforces and strengthens bones. Götherström hopes to prevent this before babies are even born, by injecting them with healthy stem cells that have been extracted from donated tissue from aborted fetuses. The team will specifically inject mesenchymal stem cells, which should go on to make bone with fully functioning collagen. “We hope they will home to bones, reside there and build them up, so they become stronger and grow better,” says Götherström. “We hope that by intervening so soon, we can treat them before fractures and other damage develops in the womb,” she says. The team has got approval to carry out 30 treatments. Most of these will be on fetuses, and the stem cells will be injected into their mothers’ umbilical veins around 20 weeks into pregnancy. During their first year of life, they will receive four booster injections. A number of babies and infants will also be treated.
12-19-17 2018 preview: Bioelectricity tweak can regenerate missing limbs
A bold plan to regrow lost body parts in mammals could be realised by cracking the body’s bioelectric code. A bold plan to regenerate missing limbs by tweaking the body’s bioelectricity could be realised in the coming year. Michael Levin and his team at Tufts University, Massachusetts, have started experiments to get mice to regrow parts of their paws. Levin’s team has already found that patterns of electrical activity allow cells to communicate with each other, and control how embryos develop. Earlier this year, the group altered this pattern – which they call the “bioelectric code” – in worms, enabling them to grow heads instead of tails and vice versa. Since then, the team has developed a cocktail of chemicals that alter the electrical activity of cells by changing the way charged substances, such as calcium ions, move through them. Preliminary results suggest this brew can boost frogs’ natural ability to regrow severed limbs. The next step is to do this in mammals – a much more challenging feat since these animals aren’t normally very good at regenerating limbs. Mice and humans might be able to regrow a little piece of a chopped-off finger or toe, but that is pretty much it. Levin’s goal is to regenerate an entire mouse paw – and eventually, human limbs. The team is now applying its chemical cocktail to mice missing parts of their paws. To do this, Levin has created a silk-based gel that can be impregnated with the cocktail and attached to the end of the damaged limb. There have been some early signs of regrowth, although the researchers think they will need to tweak either the cocktail or the way they deliver it to get the results they are hoping for. “We’ve started with a mouse digit, but ultimately it will be an entire paw,” says Levin.
12-19-17 The secrets of your past that lurk inside your ears
It’s not just a yucky bodily secretion – unique chemical signatures in ear wax contain clues to everything from drug misuse to festive overindulgence. YOU can tell yourself you haven’t been too naughty over the festive season. You may even be able to convince others. But whether it’s an extra portion of Christmas pudding, too many glasses of wine or even the odd cigarette, the proof of your indulgences may be lurking somewhere altogether more surprising – inside your ears. Earwax can easily be dismissed as a little gross and something to get rid of, but we are fast discovering that it is more than just another bodily secretion. All sorts of secrets about you are collected in it. With enough detailed probing of the stuff, says Katherine Prigge of fragrance company Symrise, based in Marlow, UK, it is possible that earwax could be used to reveal not only someone’s identity, “but information about where they’ve been, what they’ve eaten and what they were exposed to”. From drug tests to disease diagnosis, the potential of its unique chemical signature is starting to be put to good use. It may even give us answers about the lives of other animals who can’t tell us for themselves. More formally, the glop in your ears is called cerumen, and it is made up of the secretions of the ceruminous glands – specialised sweat glands – and sebaceous glands in the outer ear canal. Most of these are waxy compounds, which clean the ear canal and protect it from drying out, as well as killing bacteria and trapping foreign bodies like dust and fungal spores. Mixed into that wax are bodily cast-offs like shed skin cells and hair, alongside potent antimicrobials and other chemicals.
12-19-17 2018 preview: Get ready to meet your newest long-lost ancestor
The 21st century has so far been a golden age of hominin discovery. New species like the 7-million-year-old Sahelanthropus tchadensis and the 300,000-year-old Homo naledi have added to our understanding of humanity’s past. And the finds will keep coming. “It doesn’t look like [we’re] sampling something that is running out,” says John Hawks at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “I think in part there’s a greater intensity of exploration right now.” There’s a good chance that a new species will be revealed in 2018, with rumours swirling of two major finds that could answer many questions. “Undoubtedly, the biggest gap is between 4 and 7 million years,” says Fred Spoor at University College London. “It’s a huge amount of time that’s so far represented by just a few bits and bobs.” Any hominins from that period are almost certainly new species, and could reveal the earliest stages of hominin evolution. David Begun at the University of Toronto, Canada, wants northerly fossils. In 2017 he studied Graecopithecus, an extinct European ape from 7.25 million years ago. He claimed it might have been a hominin, meaning Europe was home to early hominins. “I would obviously like to see more complete material attributable to Graecopithecus or one of its relatives,” says Begun. But for many, the focus is Africa 3 to 3.5 million years ago. In the 1990s we thought only one hominin lived back then – Lucy’s species Australopithecus afarensis, which seemed likely to be our ancestor. But in 2001 Spoor revealed a second: Kenyanthropus platyops.
12-19-17 Inside the secret chocolate garden built to avert a cocoa crisis
Pests and disease threaten our supply of cocoa beans, but in a field outside London biologists are working to prevent a chocolate meltdown. READING keeps its secrets well. Some might call the town 60 kilometres west of London undistinguished. Exotic is certainly not the word. But hidden in a walled garden in a field to the south of the town is a destination both special and unique. Without what goes on inside a huge white tent here, chocolate would hit a rocky road – and not the sort with marshmallows. This is the International Cocoa Quarantine Centre. Chocolate is the world’s favourite treat: globally, we eat 7 million tonnes of the stuff a year, and demand is rising as Asian consumers develop a taste for it, too. Yet supply is far from assured. Most of the world’s commercial cocoa plants originate from just a few clones made in the 1940s, which have so far proven productive enough to keep up with demand. But this has led to a dangerous lack of genetic diversity, leaving cocoa vulnerable to a host of pests and diseases that love cocoa as much as we do. Some 30 to 40 per cent of the crop is lost to disease each year, and there are fears that climate change might exacerbate the problem. The drive to breed new cocoa varieties that are more productive, as well as hardy and pest-resistant, means sending specimens around the world, which risks spreading disease and making matters worse. That’s why since 1985 the vast majority of cocoa samples being transported to distant regions have made a two-year pit stop.
12-19-17 Gay, lesbian and bisexual high schoolers report ‘tragically high’ suicide risk
Adolescents considered sexual minorities are more vulnerable to suicidal behaviors than their heterosexual peers. High school students who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual are more likely to report planning or attempting suicide compared with their heterosexual peers, a new study finds. In a nationwide survey in 2015, 40 percent of adolescents who identified as one of these sexual minorities or said they were unsure of their orientation reported seriously considering suicide. Thirty-five percent reported planning suicide, and 25 percent reported attempting suicide. That’s compared with 15 percent, 12 percent and 6 percent, respectively, for heterosexual high schoolers, researchers report in the Dec. 19 JAMA. The risk of suicidal behavior among sexual minority youth is “tragically high,” says Anna Mueller, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, who was not involved in the study. The results come more than 15 years after the first study to provide nationwide evidence of the elevated risk of suicidal behavior in sexual minority youth. The new research uses the 2015 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which queried public and private high school students in every state and Washington, D.C. More than 15,500 teens responded. About 89 percent of participants reported they were heterosexual. Two percent identified as gay or lesbian, 6 percent as bisexual, and 3 percent reported they were not sure. The survey did not include transgender as a response option.
12-19-17 The body’s killer immune cells also feed fetuses in the womb
Natural killer cells – which destroy cancer cells and pathogens – also help early fetuses grow, a finding that may lead to treatments to prevent miscarriage. The immune system’s aggressive natural killer cells – which normally kill cancer cells and infectious pathogens – also help nourish early fetuses, helping them grow. This discovery was made by Zhigang Tian of the University of Science and Technology of China, in Hefei, and his team. Analysing natural killer cells from mice, they identified a subset that’s only produced in the uterus, and only during early pregnancy. They named these “uterine NK cells”, and found that these cells produce large quantities of two proteins that are vital for growing fetuses. One of these proteins, called pleiotrophin, drives the growth of blood vessels, bone, cartilage and brain fibres. The other protein, osteoglycin, orchestrates heart development and healthy growth of skin and eyes. When the researchers examined womb tissue from 54 women, they found that those who had recently experienced miscarriages had fewer uterine NK cells than those who’d had successful pregnancies. Genetically engineering mice so that they could not make these killer cells caused them to produce fetuses that were only half the normal size. Giving extra uterine NK cells to these mice when pregnant, however, boosted the size of their offspring.
12-19-17 Specialized protein helps these ground squirrels resist the cold
Being less sensitive to low temperatures may help the animals slip into hibernation. The hardy souls who manage to push shorts season into December might feel some kinship with the thirteen-lined ground squirrel. The critter hibernates all winter, but even when awake, it’s less sensitive to cold than its nonhibernating relatives, a new study finds. That cold tolerance is linked to changes in a specific cold-sensing protein in the sensory nerve cells of the ground squirrels and another hibernator, the Syrian hamster, researchers report in the Dec. 19 Cell Reports. The altered protein may be an adaptation that helps the animals drift into hibernation. In experiments, mice, which don’t hibernate, strongly preferred to hang out on a hot plate that was 30° Celsius versus one that was cooler. Syrian hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus) and the ground squirrels (Ictidomys tridecemlineatus), however, didn’t seem to notice the chill until plate temperatures dipped below 10° Celsius, notes study coauthor Elena Gracheva, a neurophysiologist at Yale University. Further work revealed that a cold-sensing protein called TRPM8 wasn’t as easily activated by cold in the squirrels and hamsters as in rats. Found in the sensory nerve cells of vertebrates, TRPM8 typically sends a sensation of cold to the brain when activated by low temperatures. It’s what makes your fingertips feel chilly when you’re holding a glass of ice water. It’s also responsible for the cooling sensation in your mouth after you chew gum made with menthol.
12-19-17 The secret to becoming more efficient
6 new tips for managing your time. It's hard to be efficient. Sometimes it feels like the world doesn't make any sense. Sometimes you don't make any sense. And sometimes it feels like it's all a conspiracy. As we'll see shortly, these are all, in a way, true. Dan Ariely is the king of irrational behavior. Not that he's more irrational than you or I, but he's studied an impressive amount of it. Dan is a behavioral economist at Duke University and the New York Times bestselling author of three wonderful books. Most recently he's turned his attention to the irrationality of how we use our time and has helped create a new smart-calendar app, Timeful. What's great is the data from Timeful is helping us learn things about what works and what doesn't as it relates to productivity. I gave Dan a call to hear what he had to say about how we can improve time management, how to be efficient and how to get more done.
The 6 tips in a nutshell:
- The world is not designed to help you achieve your long term goals. Passivity is not going to get you where you want to go.
- Control your environment or it will control you. Optimize your workspace for what you need to achieve.
- Write the things you need to do down on your calendar. You're more likely to do what you write down.
- You have about 2 hours of peak productivity, usually early in the morning. Protect those hours and use them wisely.
- Meetings, email, multitasking, and structured procrastination are the biggest time wasters.
- No, you don't need an email break. Switching tasks reduces effectiveness as your brain transitions. The more you do it, the less effective you are.
12-19-17 Exclusive: Most premature baby ever to survive born at 22 weeks
A baby born more than four months before her due date has been revealed as the youngest premature baby ever to survive. The girl is now a healthy 5-year-old. A BABY born more than four months before her due date has become the youngest premature baby to survive. The girl was born after only 21 weeks and 5 days’ gestation, at Samsung Medical Centre in Seoul, South Korea, and is now a healthy 5-year-old. In 2012, the girl’s 38-year-old mother was rushed to hospital because the membrane sac encasing her unborn twins had burst – a sign of impending labour. She was told that her twins, which had been conceived by IVF, were extremely unlikely to live, and that active life support is usually only given to preterm infants born at 25 weeks or later. However, the woman and her husband had a long history of infertility issues and IVF failures and urged their doctors to try to support the twins. The doctors agreed, and gave the mother steroids to try to speed up the development of the twins’ lungs. When she gave birth the next day, the babies weighed just under half a kilogram each, and were 30 centimetres long. Most full-term infants born at 40 weeks weigh about seven times as much, and are 50 centimetres long. The newborns were placed on ventilators and fed via tubes into their stomachs, because at only 12 days past the halfway mark of pregnancy they couldn’t breathe or swallow food on their own (see “Stages of development“). The male twin died two months later from an infection, but the female twin survived and was discharged from hospital six months after she had been born.
12-19-17 Genital parasite crabs are struggling to find sex partners
Parasitic crustaceans called castrator pea crabs spend most of their lives hiding in the sex organs of limpets, and that makes it difficult to find a mate. Castrator pea crabs live up to their name. They live inside the sex organs of marine molluscs and prevent them from reproducing. But it turns out the pea crabs’ parasitic ways also make it terribly tricky for them to find a mate. Castrator pea crabs (Calyptraeotheres garthi) are tiny parasitic crustaceans found off the east coast of South America, from southern Brazil down to Argentina’s Valdez Peninsula. They spend most of their adult lives in the sex organs of various slipper limpets. “They castrate, which means that they halt or stop the reproduction of the snail they use as host,” says Emiliano Ocampo at the National Council of Scientific Research in Mar del Plata, Argentina. Pea crabs only seem to parasitise female limpets. These molluscs normally store their eggs in their sex organs, but won’t lay eggs if they have a resident pea crab. It may be that the weight of the pea crab misleads the limpet into believing it already has eggs. However, the pea crabs don’t eat the limpet eggs. Their diet consists entirely of a green mucus, which the limpets make out of phytoplankton that they filter from the water to feed themselves. There is just one problem with the pea crabs’ lifestyle: it is hard to find a mate when everyone is hiding inside a limpet’s gonads.
12-19-17 Scientists have discovered the remains of a giant penguin
Scientists have discovered a now-extinct species of giant penguin that was taller than most humans. The remains of the bird, perhaps the tallest penguin species ever discovered, help show how quickly giant penguins developed after the extinction of the dinosaurs around 66 million years ago. The animal revealed by fossil fragments found in New Zealand was around 1.77 meters tall and weighed around 101 kilograms. It would have dwarfed the largest penguin alive today, the emperor penguin, which measures 1.1 meters in height and 35 kilograms in weight. The skeletal remains from a single penguin included parts of the breastbone, shoulders, wings, legs, and spine. Its notable features included an unusually thick sternal keel (part of the breast attached to the wings) and an unusually long femur (thigh bone). These were enough to demonstrate the bird was not only a unique species but also a previously unknown genus (group of species). The species has been named Kumimanu biceae, from the Maori words "kumi," referring to a large mythical monster, and "manu" meaning bird. Living penguins all share a set of adaptations such as flipper-like wings, short and smooth feathers that trap air to aid buoyancy, and countershading (a black back and white front) to help avoid predators and increase their own hunting ability through camouflage. While we cannot be certain, it is likely that early penguins such as K. biceae possessed at least some of these adaptations.
12-18-17 Six-year-olds will pay to see bad guys get their comeuppance
Children as young as 6 have a thirst for vengeance. From this age, kids will willingly give up prized possessions to see a mean puppet get beaten up. CHILDREN as young as 6 want to see wrongdoers punished, it turns out. Nikolaus Steinbeis of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, and his team carried out a series of tests involving 72 children. Each of them watched Punch and Judy shows in which one puppet shared a toy with the child, while a second, nastier puppet taunted them instead. Then a third puppet would appear and randomly hit either of the two other puppets. After a few seconds, a curtain covered the action, but children could choose to “pay” with prized stickers to continue watching. On average, 6-year-olds were willing to spend twice as much to see the bad puppet beaten than the generous one punished. This age seems to be a critical – at 4 or 5, children showed no appetite for revenge. “This study tells us that children have a motivation to see deserved punishment enacted,” says Steinbeis. In a similar experiment with 17 chimps, the animals were either handed or denied food by a person, who was then “beaten” from behind by another human. To continue watching, the chimps had to push back a heavy door. Half the chimps made the effort to see the food-denier beaten, but only 19 per cent of them wanted to see the person who’d fed them take a beating (Nature Human Behaviour, DOI: 10.1038/s41562-01700264-5).
12-18-17 Poisonous snail venom could be the drug of the future
One type of venom is 1,000 times more potent than morphine. Nestled inside its bright, patterned shell, the cone snail cuts a familiar figure in tropical waters — you may have even collected its shell on a walk along the beach. But watch your touch — every species of cone snail is venomous, and some, like Conus geographus, can even kill humans. But cone snail venom doesn't deter Mandë Holford, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Hunter College and a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History. She uses salad tongs and scuba gloves to collect cone snails, and back in her lab, she studies their venom for compounds that offer novel treatments for everything from cancer to chronic pain. Holford explains that cone snails use their venom to hunt, harpooning nearby fish and worms with the tip of their tongue-like proboscis and paralyzing them with the powerful toxin. Then, the snails swallow their prey whole. "What the venom is doing, it's shutting down the physiological function of the fish," she says. "So, it's not dead, but it's paralyzed — it's going into what we call [excitotoxic] shock, and then it gets swallowed whole. It's like the worst death you could imagine." But, as she explains, the same qualities that make the venom so horrifying for snail prey also make it an excellent candidate for human pharmaceuticals.
12-15-17 In marine mammals’ battle of the sexes, vaginal folds can make the difference
Patrica Brennan has made a splash with her studies of genitalia and fit. The battle of the sexes, at least among certain ocean mammals, may come down to well-placed skin folds, suggests research by Patrica Brennan, an evolutionary biologist at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., and colleagues. In some species, enhanced male-female genital fit has evolved over time in ways that make mating easier. This is an example of what scientists call congruent evolution. In other species, genital anatomy reflects a battle, as shape and form change over time to give one sex an edge in control of fertilization. Fittingly, this is called antagonistic evolution. Brennan’s recent collaboration, examining genitalia of porpoises, dolphins and seals, required extra creativity. In previous studies, her team used saline to inflate preserved penises from birds, snakes, sharks and bats. But the tough, fibroelastic penises of the cetaceans would not inflate with saline alone. So her collaborator, Diane Kelly, a penis biomechanics expert at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, suggested pressurizing the saline with a beer keg. “We looked at each other and said, ‘This could be the best or worst idea we’ve ever had,’ ” Brennan laughs. But it worked. The scientists then created vaginal endocasts with dental silicone and made 3-D mathematical models to examine male-female fit. The team, led by marine mammalogist Dara Orbach of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, described the work in the Oct. 11 Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
12-15-17 The big scientific breakthroughs of 2017...Landmark gene therapy
The Food and Drink Administration approved the first “living drug,” a medicine that genetically reprograms patients’ immune cells to seek and destroy cancer. The gene-altering therapy, which is marketed as Kymriah, was cleared as a last-resort treatment for children and young adults with an aggressive form of leukemia. The decision came after a pivotal clinical trial in which 83 percent of 63 critically ill patients who were given the treatment rapidly became cancer-free. “We’re entering a new frontier in medical innovation,” says FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.
12-15-17 Some of the things they said were good for us...Marriage
Marriage could help ward off dementia. An analysis of 15 studies involving more than 800,000 people found that those who never married had a 42 percent higher risk for this form of mental decline than those who tied the knot. Married couples tend to encourage each other to stay active, follow a healthy diet, limit alcohol consumption, and stop smoking—habits associated with a reduced risk for dementia. “Staying physically, mentally, and socially active are all important aspects of a healthy lifestyle,” says Laura Phipps of Alzheimer’s Research U.K. “These are things everyone, regardless of their marital status, can work towards.”
12-15-17 Some of the things they said were good for us...Coffee
does more than wake you up. Two large studies involving diverse groups of adults found that people with a daily coffee habit were less likely to die from heart disease, stroke, diabetes, or cancer. Over a study period of 16 years, people who drank two to four cups of joe a day—decaf or regular—were 18 percent less likely to die. Researchers believe the drink’s health benefits stem from its complex mixture of powerful disease-fighting antioxidants. “Drinking a couple cups of coffee a day doesn’t do you any harm,” says study author Marc Gunter, “and actually, it might be doing you some good.”
12-15-17 Some of the things they said were good for us...Chile peppers
Chile peppers may help you live longer. In a study involving 16,000 people over about two decades, University of Vermont researchers found that those who routinely ate the hot pods were 13 percent less likely to die during that period than those who didn’t. They suspect that capsaicin, the active ingredient that gives peppers their heat, might boost metabolism and help prevent obesity, high blood pressure, inflammation, and cancer. Co-author Mustafa Chopan says eating chiles, or even just spicy food, “may become a dietary recommendation.”
12-15-17 Some of the things they said were good for us...Dogs
Dogs help their owners live longer, healthier lives. A Swedish study involving more than 3.4 million participants found that people with a pooch had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death. The link was especially pronounced among people who lived alone: Those with dogs were 33 percent less likely to die early, and 11 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack. Co-author Tove Fall says dog owners are likely healthier because their pets are a “good motivation to get out and exercise.” Dogs may also strengthen the immune system; a separate study found that babies exposed to canine pets have higher levels of gut bacteria associated with a reduced risk for allergies and obesity.
12-15-17 And some of the things we were told to avoid...Social media
Social media is making people lonely. Sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram were designed to help people connect, but a University of Pittsburgh study found that spending too much time on them could intensify feelings of isolation. When researchers surveyed 1,787 adults, ages 19 to 32, they found that those who used social media for more than two hours a day were twice as likely to report high levels of loneliness than those who did so for less than 30 minutes a day. Study leader Brian Primack describes his findings as a “cautionary tale” for social media users.
12-15-17 And some of the things we were told to avoid...Football
Football is even more dangerous than previously thought. A Boston University study found that 110 of 111 NFL players who donated their brains to science had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disease that causes the brain to waste away over time, and which has been linked to aggression, depression, memory loss, and problems with speech and vision. A separate study found that children who play youth football are twice as likely to have problems with self-control, judgment, and problem solving. “Head impacts can lead to long-term consequences,” says co-author Robert Stern. “We should be doing what we can at all levels in all sports to minimize these repeated hits.”
12-15-17 And some of the things we were told to avoid...Keeping secrets
Keeping secrets can lead to stress, sleep loss, and other unhealthy consequences. Researchers at Columbia University asked 2,000 people what secrets they kept and how often they thought about them. On average, participants kept 13, including five they never revealed to anyone. The more time they spent ruminating over these secrets, the less healthy they said they were. “When people were thinking about their secrets,” says lead author Michael Slepian, “they actually acted as if they were burdened by physical weight.”
12-15-17 And some of the things we were told to avoid...Red meat
Red meat increases the risk of death from eight major diseases. In a National Cancer Institute study of 537,000 adults between ages 50 and 71 over 16 years, researchers found that those who ate the most red meat had a 26 percent greater risk of dying from cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, or lung disease. They speculate that heme iron in red meats and nitrates in cured meats trigger oxidative stress, which damages cells. “Mortality is higher with higher meat intake for every major cause of death except Alzheimer’s,” says researcher John Potter.
12-15-17 Hijacked sperm carry chemo drugs to cervical cancer cells
There’s a new use for sperm – delivering cancer drugs to tumours of the female reproductive tract. This targeted approach may avoid the side effects of chemo. There’s a new use for sperm – delivering cancer drugs. Standard chemotherapy is toxic to both cancer cells and normal cells, leading to symptoms like nausea, and limiting the dose a person can receive. But if chemotherapy drugs specifically targeted tumours, we could avoid this. Haifeng Xu at the Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research in Germany and his team are experimenting with using sperm cells to take drugs to cancers in the female reproductive tract. When they loaded sperm cells with doxorubicin, a common chemo agent, and released them in a dish containing mini cervical cancer tumours, the sperm swam towards the tumours, killing 87 per cent of their cells within three days. The team then fitted sperm with tiny four-armed magnetic harnesses that allowed them to be guided by magnets. When the sperm hit a solid tumour, the arms sprung open, releasing the sperm and allowing them to swim into the tumour. As well as cancer, spermbots might be useful for treating other conditions affecting the female reproductive tract such as endometriosis or ectopic pregnancies, says Xu.
12-15-17 Even brain images can be biased
Study samples that are too rich and too well-educated may give a biased picture of brain development. An astonishing number of things that scientists know about brains and behavior are based on small groups of highly educated, mostly white people between the ages of 18 and 21. In other words, those conclusions are based on college students. College students make a convenient study population when you’re a researcher at a university. It makes for a biased sample, but one that’s still useful for some types of studies. It would be easy to think that for studies of, say, how the typical brain develops, a brain is just a brain, no matter who’s skull its resting in. A biased sample shouldn’t really matter, right? Wrong. Studies heavy in rich, well-educated brains may provide a picture of brain development that’s inaccurate for the American population at large, a recent study found. The results provide a strong argument for scientists to pay more attention to who, exactly, they’re studying in their brain imaging experiments. It’s “a solid piece of evidence showing that those of us in neuroimaging need to do a better job thinking about our sample, where it’s coming from and who we can generalize our findings to,” says Christopher Monk, who studies psychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
12-15-17 Zombie fungus infects fruit flies and turns them into slaves
For the first time, a parasitic fungus has been spotted that manipulates the brains of fruit flies before they die, and might allow biologists to work out how they do it. There’s no need to travel to exotic rainforests to find mind-warping parasites. They are probably lurking in your own backyard. That, at least, is where Carolyn Elya found a “zombie fungus” that takes control of fruit flies. She took it back to her lab, where she managed to get it growing in lab fruit flies. “It was incredibly lucky,” she says. So-called parasitic fungi are well-known in the insect world. They usually infect their host, before controlling its behaviour to give it the best chance of spreading to more victims. Seeing a similar fungus attacking fruit flies should help us learn more about how they operate. Because so much is known about fruit flies, as they are one of the standard animal “models” studied in labs around the world, Elya’s team at the University of California, Berkeley, has been able to find out much about the fungus in just a short time. “It’s really cool just to work what’s going on, but we may also learn general principles about how it changes behaviour,” she says. It might also help in the hunt for treatments for brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, says David Hughes of Pennsylvania State University, whose team studies other zombie fungi. “It’s wonderful to have this now in a fully trackable model,” he says. The fungus, called Entomophthora muscae, kills fruit flies in four to seven days, Elya’s team has found. The animals appear to behave normally until the final day, when their gait becomes shaky and they won’t fly even if prodded.
12-14-17 Five science-backed tips for getting more sleep
Tossing and turning? Always tired? Here, some tips from the latest research. er have trouble getting to sleep? Or staying asleep? Or you get plenty of shut-eye but you're not refreshed? Everyone wants to get better sleep. But sleep trouble is incredibly common. And feeling tired the next day isn't the half of it. By not getting enough sleep you're reducing your IQ.
- Avoid smartphones and devices at night. But they're great when you're dealing with jet lag.
- A good nightly routine is key. No alcohol before bed, think positive thoughts, and play the alphabet game.
- Naps are awesome. Just keep them under 30 minutes. Drink a cup of coffee before you lay down.
- Sleeping in two chunks is natural. Get up and do something for a little while and then go back to bed.
- Remember the "90 minute rule." Think about when you need to be up and count back in increments of 90 minutes so you wake up sharp.
12-14-17 An abundance of toys can curb kids’ creativity and focus
. The holiday onslaught is upon us. For some families with children, the crush of holiday gifts — while wonderful and thoughtful in many ways — can become nearly unmanageable, cluttering both rooms and minds. This year, I’m striving for simplicity as I pick a few key presents for my girls. I will probably fail. But it’s a good goal, and one that has some new science to back it. Toddlers play longer and more creatively with toys when there are fewer toys around, researchers report November 27 in Infant Behavior and Development. Researchers led by occupational therapist Alexia Metz at the University of Toledo in Ohio were curious about whether the number of toys would affect how the children played, including how many toys they played with and how long they spent with each toy. The researchers also wondered about children’s creativity, such as the ability to imagine a bucket as a drum or a hat. In the experiment, 36 children ages 18 to 30 months visited a laboratory playroom twice while cameras caught how they played. On one visit, the room held four toys. On the other visit, the room held 16 toys. When in the playroom with 16 toys, children played with more toys and spent less time with each one over a 15-minute session, the researchers found. When the same kids were in a room with four toys, they stuck with each toy longer, exploring other toys less over the 15 minutes. What’s more, the quality of the children’s play seemed to be better when fewer toys were available. The researchers noted more creative uses of the toys when only four were present versus 16.
12-14-17 In a tally of nerve cells in the outer wrinkles of the brain, a dog wins
Comparing neuron numbers across species could provide clues to animals’ smarts. If more nerve cells mean more smarts, then dogs beat cats, paws down, a new study on carnivores shows. That harsh reality may shock some friends of felines, but scientists say the real surprises are inside the brains of less popular carnivores. Raccoon brains are packed with nerve cells, for instance, while brown bear brains are sorely lacking. By comparing the numbers of nerve cells, or neurons, among eight species of carnivores (ferret, banded mongoose, raccoon, cat, dog, hyena, lion and brown bear), researchers now have a better understanding of how different-sized brains are built. This neural accounting, described in an upcoming Frontiers in Neuroanatomy paper, may ultimately help reveal how brain features relate to intelligence. For now, the multispecies tally raises more questions than it answers, says zoologist Sarah Benson-Amram of the University of Wyoming in Laramie. “It shows us that there’s a lot more out there that we need to study to really be able to understand the evolution of brain size and how it relates to cognition,” she says. Neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel of Vanderbilt University in Nashville and colleagues gathered brains from the different species of carnivores. For each animal, the researchers whipped up batches of “brain soup,” tissue dissolved in a detergent. Using a molecule that attaches selectively to neurons in this slurry, researchers could count the number of neurons in each bit of brain real estate.
12-14-17 A family in Italy doesn’t feel pain because of a gene mutation
Six members of the same family have a reduced sensitivity to pain, meaning they don’t notice when they break bones. Now the gene responsible has been identified. An Italian family that is barely able to sense pain has had the genetic root of their shared disorder uncovered. Understanding this gene may lead to new painkiller drugs. The affected family members include a 78-year-old woman, her two middle-aged daughters, and their three children. All of them fail to sense pain in the way most of us do, and don’t notice when they are being injured. When they were assessed, the family members were found to have bone fractures in their arms and legs that they hadn’t realised were there. “Sometimes they feel pain in the initial break but it goes away very quickly,” says James Cox, of University College London. “For example, Letizia broke her shoulder while skiing, but then kept skiing for the rest of the day and drove home. She didn’t get it checked out until the next day.” To find the cause of their lack of pain sensitivity, Cox and his colleagues performed a series of tests on the family members. The team found that all six individuals had normal numbers of nerves in their skin, but that they all had a mutation in a gene called ZFHX2. When the team deleted this gene entirely in mice, they found that the animals were not as good at sensing when painful pressure was applied to their tails, but they were hypersensitive to heat sensations. This suggests the gene may play a role in controlling whether stimuli are painful or not.
12-13-17 The world urgently needs critical thinking, not gut feeling
Our brain’s autopilot can serve us well, but effortless thinking is behind many of the world’s biggest problems. Science training can help turn the tide. IN A classic episode of The Simpsons, Marge and Homer’s night out at a class reunion ends in humiliation when one of Homer’s guilty secrets is exposed: he never graduated from high school. To get his diploma, he must pass a science test. As he sits down to retake the exam, he holds one of his trademark dialogues with his brain. “All right, brain. You don’t like me and I don’t like you. But let’s just do this and I can get back to killing you with beer.” Many a true word is spoken in jest. Homer Simpson’s Everyman character really is an Everyman. For most people, engaging in the kind of effortful thinking that is required to pass a science test feels too much like hard work. It is so much easier to kick back and let the brain’s autopilot take over. And no wonder. Even when lubricated with beer, the autopilot is a pretty impressive piece of kit. Evolution has endowed the human brain with all kinds of mental shortcuts that make life manageable. If we had to think about every action or weigh up every decision, we would be paralysed. As a result, certain ideas and modes of thinking come naturally to us (see “Effortless thinking“). But at huge cost. Our mental shortcuts work fine at the level of individuals and small-scale societies, but in an increasingly interconnected and globalised world, they are a danger to society. Effortless thinking is at the root of many of the modern world’s most serious problems: xenophobia, terrorism, hatred, inequality, defence of injustice, religious fanaticism and our shocking susceptibility to fake news and conspiracy theories. All are facilitated by people disengaging their critical faculties and going with their gut – and being encouraged to do so by populist politicians channelling anger at the liberal establishment.
12-13-17 How World War Zero wrecked three Bronze Age civilisations
The collapse of three civilisations has long been a mystery. Eberhard Zangger thinks he has the answer, but is he the victim of an elaborate hoax? IN JUNE, Eberhard Zangger had an experience most archaeologists only dream of: his very own Tutankhamun moment. Just as Howard Carter had done in 1922 when he entered the boy king’s intact tomb, Zangger was exploring a chamber with the potential to revolutionise archaeology. But Zangger wasn’t in Egypt. He was in north London, in the home of the late, great archaeologist James Mellaart. The treasures he uncovered were reams of documents relating to one of the most important events in prehistory: the near-simultaneous collapse of three great Bronze Age civilisations. One text in particular, Zangger says, points to a crucial missing piece of the puzzle, the existence of a previously unknown civilisation that Zangger believes played a pivotal role in the downfall of the others. This month, Zangger will publish an analysis of that document. It is a 3200-year-old text telling the story of a warlike king and his conquests around the eastern Mediterranean. Zangger has staked his reputation on the claim that this solves one of archaeology’s biggest mysteries. His critics have a different story to tell. They say that Zangger may be the victim of an elaborate hoax. Zangger, a Swiss citizen who will turn 60 next year, freely admits he is a controversial figure. He is the head of an international non-profit group set up to promote his idea that the Luwian civilisation in western Anatolia – in what is now Turkey – was responsible for the Bronze Age collapse. To many archaeologists, this idea is fanciful at best. But Zangger is certain he is right.
12-13-17 Effortless thinking: Thoughtlessly thoughtless
Why are the ideas that come most effortlessly to us often misguided, asks Graham Lawton. “We all have a tendency to think that the world must conform to our prejudices. The opposite view involves some effort of thought, and most people would die sooner than think – in fact they do so” THESE words are still as true today as when Bertrand Russell wrote them in 1925. You might even argue that our predilection for fake news, conspiracy theories and common sense politics suggests we are less inclined to think than ever. Our mental lassitude is particularly shocking given that we pride ourselves on being Homo sapiens, the thinking ape. How did it come to this? The truth is, we are simply doing what people have always done. The human brain has been honed by millions of years of evolution – and it is extraordinary. However, thinking is costly in terms of time and energy, so our ancestors evolved a whole range of cognitive shortcuts. These helped them survive and thrive in a hazardous world. The problem is that the modern milieu is very different. As a result, the ideas and ways of thinking that come to us most effortlessly can get us into a lot of trouble.
12-13-17 Effortless thinking: Why life is more than a zero-sum game
Them-or-us fears about limited resources, fuel supplies and immigrants damage society – but do the true calculations and the result can be altogether better. Children often bicker over who got the most cake or pop. But even as adults, we are acutely sensitive to the fair allocation of resources. Say there are 500 places at a local school, dished out according to who lives closest. Just before term starts, a large immigrant family is moved into a council house near the school and takes five of the places. No matter how liberal you are, it is hard not to think “Not fair!” Plenty of evidence suggests that immigrants contribute more to an economy than they take out. Yet the intuitive belief that they are extracting an unfair share of resources is hard to shake. Blame it on our zero-sum bias. In a classic zero-sum situation, resources are finite and your loss is my gain. Many situations in life follow this pattern – but not all. Unfortunately, this subtlety tends to pass us by. At best, seeing competition where none exists can blind us to opportunity. At worst, it has very unpleasant consequences. Zero-sum thinking was an evolutionary adaptation to a time when we lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers, says neuroscientist Dan Meegan at the University of Guelph in Canada. Under those circumstances, resources such as food and mates were finite and often scarce, so more for one person meant less for another. Today, however, things are different.
12-13-17 Effortless thinking: Beware the voice of your inner child
The wind is alive, heat flows and the sun moves across the sky – childish intuitions shape our world, and can skew views on things like climate change. Children, it is often said, are like little scientists. What looks like play is actually experimentation. They formulate hypotheses, test them, analyse the results and revise their world view accordingly. That may be true, but if kids are like scientists, they are rubbish ones. By the time they enter school, they have filled their heads with utter nonsense about how the world works. The job of education – especially science education – is to unlearn these “folk theories” and replace them with evidence-based ones. For most people, it doesn’t work, and even for those who go on to become scientists, it is only partially successful. No wonder the world is so full of nonsense. Folk theories – also known as naive theories – have been documented across all domains of science. In biology, for example, young children often conflate life with movement, seeing the sun and wind as alive, but trees and mushrooms as not. They also see purpose everywhere: birds are “for” flying, rocks are for animals to scratch themselves on and rain falls so flowers can drink. In physics, children conclude that heat is a substance that flows from one place to another, that the sun moves across the sky, and so on. For most everyday purposes, these ideas are serviceable. Nevertheless, they aren’t true.
12-13-17 Effortless thinking: Why stereotyping is an evolutionary trap
Survival in the jungle dictates judging everything on first impressions – but life in the urban jungle demands a subtler set of rules. We are born to judge others by how they look: our brains come hardwired with a specific face-processing area, and even shortly after birth, babies would rather look at a human face than anything else. Within their first year, they become more discerning, and are more likely to crawl towards friendly looking faces than those who look a bit shifty. By the time we reach adulthood, we are snap-judgement specialists, jumping to conclusions about a person’s character and status after seeing their face for just a tenth of a second. And we shun considered assessments of others in favour of simple shortcuts – for example, we judge a baby-faced individual as more trustworthy, and associate a chiselled jaw with dominance. Unfair, it may be, but it makes good evolutionary sense. Ours is an ultra-social species, so being able to quickly assess whether someone is friend or foe and whether they have the power to help or hurt us is important survival information. But there is a problem. As psychologist Alexander Todorov of Princeton University points out, more often than not, our first impressions are wrong. It’s not clear why, but he suggests that poor feedback and the fact that we meet many more strangers than our prehistoric ancestors would have, both play a part.
12-13-17 Effortless thinking: We’re all suckers for a celebrity
What makes Her Maj majestic? Or gives someone the X factor? The answer lies in our nomadic past, and it is leading us badly astray today. If you ever meet the queen of England, there are certain rules you are advised to follow. Do not speak until spoken to. Bow your head, or curtsey. Address her first as “your majesty”, then “ma’am”, but “your majesty” again upon leaving. Don’t make the mistake of calling her “your royal highness” – that is for other members of the royal family, pleb! And don’t expect her to thank you for the £40 million plus she gets every year from the public purse, or for paying to have her house done up. Apply some rational thought and this is all very puzzling. What has the queen done to deserve such treatment? What makes her “majestic”? Why is her family “higher” than yours? If humans were a wild species of primate, you would conclude that the queen must be the dominant female. But dominance has to be earned and kept, often by physical aggression and threats, and is always up for negotiation. Nobody defers to the queen out of fear that she will beat them up if they don’t, and nobody is secretly plotting a leadership challenge. Human societies do have dominant individuals, but what the queen possesses is something quite different: prestige. And we are suckers for it.
12-13-17 Effortless thinking: Why we’re all born to be status quo fans
There are no right answers in the world of politics – but whether we’re drunk or just pressed for time, the less we think, the further to the right our answers lean. If you’ve ever talked politics in the pub near closing time, chances are it wasn’t an especially enlightened or right-on discussion. When researchers in the US loitered outside a bar in New England and asked customers about their political views, they found that the drunker the punter, the more right wing their leanings. That wasn’t because right-wing people drink more, or get pissed more easily. Wherever people stood on the political spectrum when sober, alcohol shifted their views to the right. Why might that be? The researchers, led by Scott Eidelmanat the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, point out that alcohol strips away complex reasoning to reveal the default state of the mind. And that is why they were chatting to drunks: they were using drunkenness to test the hypothesis that low-effort, automatic thought promotes political conservatism. The team also found that they could push people to the right by distracting them, putting them under time pressure or simply telling them not to think too hard. Participants who were asked to deliberate more deeply, in contrast, shifted their political thinking to the left. Similar effects have been seen with the three core components of conservative ideology: preference for the status quo, acceptance of hierarchy and belief in personal responsibility. All three, the researchers say, come naturally to the human mind. We think that way without trying, without even noticing. More liberal views, in contrast, require effortful deliberation.
12-13-17 Effortless thinking: Adapting our need to feel part of the gang
Tribalism is a very human trait not just on the football field. But what can fuel discrimination is a force we can harness for good. Desmond Morris was 45 when he went to his first ever football match – a club game in Malta, where he lived at the time. He had no interest in football, but had been pestered into it by his young son. For the elder Morris, it was an awesome experience. Fighting between rival fans caused the match to be abandoned before half-time. Most people would have been put off for life, but Morris – the author of the bestselling books Manwatching and The Naked Ape – was captivated. What had caused people to behave so passionately over something as meaningless as a football game? On his return to England in 1977, Morris became a director of Oxford United FC so he could closely observe the culture of football – the players, directors and, above all, the fans. Four years later, he published his conclusions in The Soccer Tribe, which argued that football is essentially tribal. Each club is a tribe, with territory, elders, doctors, heroes, foot soldiers, modes of dress, allies and mortal enemies. Morris saw this as a modern expression of a deep-rooted evolutionary instinct. For thousands of years, our ancestors lived in small nomadic bands of mostly related individuals in frequent conflict – and occasional alliance – with neighbours over scarce resources. Tribes made up of individuals prepared to fight for a common good had a competitive edge over those that weren’t, so tribalism was selected for by evolution. We are one species, but we instinctively and effortlessly identify with smaller groups.
12-13-17 Effortless thinking: The god-shaped hole in your brain
Is that rustle in the dark a predator, or just the wind? It pays to think something causes everything – a survival trait that makes us all hard-wired to believe. If God designed the human brain, he (or she) did a lousy job. Dogged by glitches and biases, requiring routine shutdown for maintenance for 8 hours a day, and highly susceptible to serious malfunction, a product recall would seem to be in order. But in one respect at least, God played a blinder: our brains are almost perfectly designed to believe in him/her. Almost everybody who has ever lived has believed in some kind of deity. Even in today’s enlightened and materialistic times, atheism remains a minority pursuit requiring hard intellectual graft. Even committed atheists easily fall prey to supernatural ideas. Religious belief, in contrast, appears to be intuitive. Cognitive scientists talk about us being born with a “god-shaped hole” in our heads. As a result, when children encounter religious claims, they instinctively find them plausible and attractive, and the hole is rapidly filled by the details of whatever religious culture they happen to be born into. When told that there is an invisible entity that watches over them, intervenes in their lives and passes moral judgement on them, most unthinkingly accept it. Ditto the idea that the same entity is directing events and that everything that happens, happens for a reason.
12-13-17 Effortless thinking: It pays to resist revenge’s sweet taste
When people get their just deserts, it lights up our brain’s pleasure centres. But sweeter still is learning to combine this with our natural taste for forgiving. It is, according to popular wisdom, a dish best served cold. However you like yours, there’s no denying that revenge is tasty. We get a hunger for it, and feel satisfied once we’ve had our fill. You can see why if you look at what’s going on in your head. Brain scanning reveals the neural pathway of the revenge process, according to criminologist Manuel Eisner of the University of Cambridge. The initial humiliation fires up the brain’s emotional centres, the amygdalae and hypothalamus. They inform the anterior insular cortex, which evaluates whether you have been treated unfairly. If so, the prefrontal cortex steps in to plan and execute retaliation. Finally, the brain’s pleasure centre, the nucleus accumbens, swings into action to judge whether the revenge is satisfactory. Revenge appears to be a universal human trait. A study of 10 hunter-gatherer groups found that all of them had a culture of vengeance. The list of wrongs that need to be avenged is also common across all societies. It includes homicide, physical injury, theft, sexual aggression, adultery and reputational damage to oneself, loved ones or members of your tribe. The concept of “an eye for an eye” also runs deep, with punishment usually being roughly proportional to the crime.
12-13-17 We’re homing in on the pathways that shape sexual orientation
WE’RE homing in on the pathways that shape sexual orientation – in men, at least. The latest findings reveal genes and antibodies that seem to be part of the complex biology behind homosexuality. Studies of sexuality have largely tended to focus on men, and for decades there has been evidence that sexual orientation is partly heritable in men. Genetic variations in regions of the X chromosome and chromosome 8 were linked to homosexuality in the mid-1990s, but no specific genes had been found. There was also no explanation for why men are more likely to be gay if they have older brothers, known as the “fraternal birth order effect”. Now, for the first time, two genes that may influence how sexual orientation develops have been identified, while another team’s work may explain the fraternal birth order effect. Alan Sanders at NorthShore University, Illinois, and his colleagues compared DNA from 1077 gay and 1231 straight men. Scanning the men’s entire genomes, the team spotted two genes whose variants seem to be linked to sexual orientation (Nature Scientific Reports, doi.org/cg94). One of the genes sits on chromosome 13. Other research has found that this gene, called SLITRK6, is active in the hypothalamus brain region a few days before male mice fetuses are born. “This is thought to be a crucial time for sexual differentiation in this part of the brain,” says neuroscientist Simon LeVay, who in 1991 discovered that hypothalamus size differs between straight and gay men. The other gene, TSHR, is on chromosome 14 and helps control thyroid function. TSHR function is known to be disrupted in a genetic thyroid condition called Grave’s disease, and this disorder is more common in gay men.
12-13-17 Children are becoming problem gamblers due to a legal loophole
A report from the UK Gambling Commission reveals that children are being lured into gambling through “skin bets” in online games. Huge numbers of children are gambling online, the UK Gambling Commission reports. Around 25,000 children aged between 11 and 16 meet the definition of a problem gambler, according to a psychological questionnaire. And around 370,000 children in England, Scotland and Wales – 12 per cent of the total – have gambled in the past week. The most common forms of gambling that children participate in take place in the physical realm, involving fruit machines, scratch cards or just making wagers with friends. Now, however, a type of online gambling called “skin betting” is also taking off, and a regulatory blind spot means children are able to easily take part. Skins are cosmetic items found in some video games, which can be traded on third-party websites for cash. Some sites also let players gamble their skins to receive a more valuable one. In some cases, this gambling is built directly into the game. For example, during a shoot-’em-up players might have a chance to gamble one of their weapons by spinning a virtual fruit. Skins can normally be earned by just playing the game, but there is often also the option to pay with real money for more cracks at winning them. Nearly half of all children in the UK are aware of skin betting and 11 per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds have placed a skin bet. (Webmaster's comment: Addict them early. Then you can milk them for life!)
12-13-17 TB, or not TB? At last, a urine test can diagnose it quickly
For the first time, a urine test has been developed that reliably detects tuberculosis – a valuable weapon in the fight against an infection that kills millions. A urine test for tuberculosis could make it much easier to identify the disease and treat it before it kills. There were more than 10 million new TB infections in 2016, and the condition killed 1.7 million people. In around 40 per cent of cases, the infection isn’t identified until symptoms become obvious. TB is currently diagnosed using a skin test, or by culturing bacteria from a person’s sputum. But both these methods take days to give results, and can only be performed by trained microbiologists. Now Alessandra Luchini, of George Mason University in Virginia, and her team have developed a urine test for TB that gives results in 12 hours. The test detects a certain sugar that coats the surface of TB bacteria, which usually ends up in infected people’s urine in low concentrations. The test uses tiny molecular cages embedded with a special dye that can catch and trap these sugar molecules. This makes the test capable of detecting the sugar at low concentrations, making it the technique as much as 1000 times more accurate as previous methods for detecting TB in urine. When the team tested their technique, they correctly identified 48 people with TB. Luchini now wants to make the test easier to use, and test it on thousands more people. If all goes well, it could be available within three years, she says.
12-13-17 Restarting dead people’s hearts lets doctors reuse their organs
With a growing shortage of organ donors, doctors are now considering restarting dead people's hearts or even taking organs from patients who are technically alive. ORGAN transplants may seem almost routine procedures nowadays, but they remain mired in anxieties and ethical challenges. The number of people needing a new organ vastly outweighs the supply, because less than 1 per cent of all deaths take place in a manner that makes organ donation medically possible. That’s why some doctors are now seeking ways to allow more dying patients become donors, even challenging long-held ethical principles about the boundary between life and death. Others say the methods being explored go too far, and could jeopardise organ donation all together. After all, most transplants happen only when a family, in the middle of what is often a sudden and untimely bereavement, consent to their loved one’s body being treated in ways that could be seen as unnatural and brutal. Is it ethical to push such families further, if it could save lives? “What we are doing is terribly important. But people are worried that families will get upset,” says Stephen Large of Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, UK. For most of human history, life ended when the heart stopped beating. That still applies to the majority of deaths, but as intensive care progressed in the mid-20th century, a new definition evolved: brain death. It applies to just a few people who end up in a strange twilight zone, often after a head injury or lack of oxygen. Their heart still beats; but their injuries have caused catastrophic and irreversible brain damage. They effectively have no brain function, which can be confirmed with some simple tests.
12-13-17 This is the oldest fossil of a plesiosaur from the dinosaur era
A nearly complete skeleton of an early long-necked plesiosaur has been found in a clay pit in Germany, and reveals they survived a mass extinction. The long-necked marine reptiles known as plesiosaurs are one of the icons of the dinosaur age. But all the fossil skeletons found so far come from the Jurassic period. Now we’ve found a nearly complete fossil from the earlier Triassic period. It is the oldest plesiosaur ever found. The fossil shows that, as predicted, plesiosaurs evolved in the late Triassic and survived the mass extinction that ushered in the Jurassic era 200 million years ago. All other marine reptiles, apart from the dolphin-like ichthyosaurs, died out. The 2-metre-long fossil is thought to be a juvenile. It was found in 2013 in a clay pit in Germany and acquired by a private collector, who notified authorities. Now Martin Sander of the University in Bonn and colleagues have published a full description of the find. There is no doubt that the fossil is a plesiosaur, says Sander. It has all the group’s key traits. Crucially, the team confirmed that it dates to the Triassic period. “We went to the pit and convinced ourselves that we are looking at the Triassic,” Sander says. The great diversity of plesiosaurs found in the early Jurassic suggests at least six lineages survived the end-Triassic extinction. But until now only a few bone fragments, tentatively identified as plesiosaur remains, have been found. “Very early in the Jurassic there are lots and lots of plesiosaurs, as if they appeared from nowhere. So everyone was expecting to find a plesiosaur from the Triassic,” says Roger Benson of the University of Oxford. “But until you actually find it you can’t know what it’s going to look like.”
12-13-17 Sea reptile fossil gives clues to life in ancient oceans
A new fossil is shedding light on the murky past of the sea reptiles that swam at the time of the dinosaurs. With tiny heads on long necks and four pointed flippers, plesiosaurs have been likened to Scotland's mythical Loch Ness monster. The German discovery proves that these sea creatures were alive more than 200 million years ago during the Triassic. The fossilised bones give clues to how the animal survived a mass extinction that wiped out most living things. ''We now have the proof that this extremely successful group of marine reptiles already existed during Triassic times,'' said paleontologist Martin Sander of the University of Bonn, who examined the fossil with colleague, Tanja Wintrich. ''This had been suspected for over 150 years, but it took a surprisingly long time for the hard evidence to emerge.'' The plesiosaur has been named Rhaeticosaurus mertensi. Growth marks in its bones suggest the sea creature was a juvenile, grew very quickly and was warm-blooded. By being warm-blooded, plesiosaurs were able to roam the open seas in late Triassic times. ''Warm-bloodedness probably was the key to both their long reign and their survival of a major crisis in the history of life, the extinction events at the end of the Triassic,'' said Prof Sander. Plesiosaurs were not as hard hit by the extinction as shallow water and coastal animals. Their fossils have been found all over the world in Cretaceous and Jurassic rocks.
12-13-17 CRISPR gene editing moved into humans in 2017
Debates about when and how to use the tool in humans take on new urgency Scientists reported selectively altering genes in viable human embryos for the first time this year. For nearly five years, researchers have been wielding the molecular scissors known as CRISPR/Cas9 to make precise changes in animals’ DNA. But its use in human embryos has more profound implications, researchers and ethicists say. “We can now literally change our own species,” says Mildred Solomon, a bioethicist and president of the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute in Garrison, N.Y. CRISPR/Cas9 is a bacterial immune system (SN: 4/15/17, p. 22) turned into a powerful gene-editing tool. First described in 2012, the editor consists of a DNA-cutting enzyme called Cas9 and a short piece of RNA that guides the enzyme to a specific spot that scientists want to edit. Once the editing machinery reaches its destination, Cas9 cleaves the DNA. Cells can repair the break by gluing the cut ends back together, or by pasting in another piece of DNA. Scientists have developed variations of the editor that make other changes to DNA without cutting, including one version described in October that performs a previously impossible conversion of one DNA base into another.p>
12-13-17 Approval of gene therapies for two blood cancers led to an ‘explosion of interest’ in 2017
CAR-T cell therapy treats patients for whom other therapies haven’t worked. This year, gene therapy finally became a clinical reality. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved two personalized treatments that engineer a patient’s own immune system to hunt down and kill cancer cells. The treatments, the first gene therapies ever approved by the FDA, work in people with certain blood cancers, even patients whose cancers haven’t responded to other treatments. Called CAR-T cell immunotherapy (for chimeric antigen receptor T cell), one is for kids and young adults with B cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL, approved in August (SN Online: 8/30/17). The other is for adults with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, approved in October. Other CAR-T cell therapies are in testing, including a treatment for multiple myeloma. “It’s a completely different way of treating cancer,” says pediatric oncologist Stephan Grupp, who directs the Cancer Immunotherapy Program at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Grupp spearheaded the clinical trials of the newly approved ALL therapy, called Kymriah. Researchers are developing many different versions of CAR-T cell therapies, but the basic premise is the same: Doctors remove a patient’s T cells (immune system cells that attack invaders) from a blood sample and genetically modify them to produce artificial proteins on their surfaces. Those proteins, called chimeric antigen receptors, recognize the cancer cells in the patient’s body. After the modified T cells make many copies of themselves in the lab, they’re unleashed in the patient’s bloodstream to find and kill cancer cells.
12-13-17 The story of humans’ origins got a revision in 2017
Homo sapiens’ emergence pushed back to around 300,000 years ago. Human origins are notoriously tough to pin down. Fossil and genetic studies in 2017 suggested a reason why: No clear starting time or location ever existed for our species. The first biological stirrings of humankind occurred at a time of evolutionary experimentation in the human genus, Homo. Homo sapiens’ signature skeletal features emerged piece by piece in different African communities starting around 300,000 years ago, researchers proposed. In this scenario, high, rounded braincases, chins, small teeth and faces, and other hallmarks of human anatomy eventually appeared as an integrated package 200,000 to 100,000 years ago. This picture of gradual change contrasts with what scientists have often presumed, that H. sapiens emerged relatively quickly during the latter time period. Fossils clearly qualifying as human date to no more than about 200,000 years ago and are confined to East Africa. But the discoveries reported this year — including fossils from northwestern Africa — point to an earlier evolutionary phase when the human skeletal portrait was incomplete. Like one of Picasso’s fragmented Cubist portraits, Homo fossils from 300,000 years ago give a vague, provocative impression that someone with a humanlike form is present but not in focus. “Speciation is a process, not an event,” says paleoanthropologist Bernard Wood of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “When fossil skulls of, say, Neandertals and Homo sapiens look convincingly different, we’re seeing the end of the speciation process.”
12-13-17 Brains of former football players showed how common traumatic brain injuries might be
Signs of degenerative brain disease are also found in former high school and college athletes. There have been hints for years that playing football might come at a cost. But a study this year dealt one of the hardest hits yet to the sport, detailing the extensive damage in football players’ brains, and not just those who played professionally. In a large collection of former NFL players’ postmortem brains, nearly every sample showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a disorder diagnosed after death that’s associated with memory loss, emotional outbursts, depression and dementia. Damaging clumps of the protein tau were present in 110 of 111 brains, researchers reported in JAMA (SN: 8/19/17, p. 15). Those startling numbers captured the attention of both the football-loving public and some previously skeptical researchers, says study coauthor Jesse Mez, a behavioral neurologist at Boston University. “This paper did a lot to bring them around.” And that increased awareness and acceptance has already pushed the research further. “The number of brain donors who have donated since the JAMA paper came out has been astronomical,” Mez says. As the largest and most comprehensive CTE dataset yet, the results described in JAMA are a necessary step on the path to finding ways to treat or prevent CTE, and not just for professional athletes.
12-13-17 Zika cases are down, but researchers prepare for the virus’s return
Plenty of questions remain about transmission and vaccine development. One of the top stories of 2016 quietly exited much of the public’s consciousness in 2017. But it’s still a hot topic among scientists and for good reasons. After Zika emerged in the Western Hemisphere, it shook the Americas, as reports of infections and devastating birth defects swept through Brazil and Colombia, eventually reaching the United States. In a welcome turn, the number of Zika cases in the hemisphere this year dropped dramatically in the hardest-hit areas. But few scientists are naïve enough to think we’ve seen the last of Zika. “The clock is ticking for when we will see another outbreak,” says Andrew Haddow, a medical entomologist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md. Researchers’ to-do list for tackling this once-unfamiliar virus is daunting. But progress has been made, especially in learning more about Zika’s biology and interactions with its hosts, and in developing a safe and effective vaccine. In 2017, the epidemic lost steam because many areas have probably developed herd immunity to the virus (SN: 11/11/17, p. 12). Zika infected a large number of people, who are now presumably immune, and those exposed provide indirect protection to people who haven’t yet encountered Zika. If the mosquito-borne virus can’t find enough people to infect, it can’t easily spread.
12-12-17 Not all of a cell’s protein-making machines do the same job
Some ribosomes specialize and may even play a role in embryonic development, early work suggests. Protein-manufacturing factories within cells are picky about which widgets they construct, new research suggests. These ribosomes may not build all kinds of proteins, instead opting to craft only specialty products. Some of that specialization may influence the course of embryo development, developmental biologist and geneticist Maria Barna of Stanford University School of Medicine and colleagues discovered. Barna reported the findings December 5 at the joint meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology and European Molecular Biology Organization. Ribosomes, which are themselves made up of many proteins and RNAs, read genetic instructions copied from DNA into messenger RNAs. The ribosomes then translate those instructions into other proteins that build cells and carry out cellular functions. A typical mammalian cell may carry 10 million ribosomes. “The textbook view of ribosomes is that they are all the same,” Barna said. Even many cell biologists have paid little attention to the structures, viewing them as “backstage players in controlling the genetic code.”
12-12-17 Mini brains may wrinkle and fold just like ours
Growing organoids on glass provides a window into the push and pull of brain cells. Flat brains growing on microscope slides may have revealed a new wrinkle in the story of how the brain folds. Cells inside the brains contract, while cells on the outside grow and push outward, researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, discovered from working with the lab-grown brains, or organoids. This push and pull results in folds in the organoids similar to those found in full-size brains. Orly Reiner reported the results December 5 at the joint meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology and the European Molecular Biology Organization. Reiner and her colleagues sandwiched human brain stem cells between a glass microscope slide and a porous membrane. The apparatus allowed the cells access to nutrients and oxygen while giving the researchers a peek at how the organoids grew. The cells formed layered sheets that closed up at the edges, making the organoids resemble pita bread, Reiner said. Wrinkles began to form in the outer layers of the organoids about six days after the mini brains started growing. These brain organoids may help explain why people with lissencephaly — a rare brain malformation in which the ridges and folds are missing — have smooth brains. The researchers used the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing system to make a mutation in the LIS1 gene. People with lissencephaly often have mutations in that gene. Cells carrying the mutation didn’t contract or move normally, the team found.
12-11-17 Huntington’s breakthrough may stop disease
The defect that causes the neurodegenerative disease Huntington's has been corrected in patients for the first time, the BBC has learned. An experimental drug, injected into spinal fluid, safely lowered levels of toxic proteins in the brain. The research team, at University College London, say there is now hope the deadly disease can be stopped. Experts say it could be the biggest breakthrough in neurodegenerative diseases for 50 years. Huntington's is one of the most devastating diseases. Some patients described it as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and motor neurone disease rolled into one. Peter Allen, 51, is in the early stages of Huntington's and took part in the trial: "You end up in almost a vegetative state, it's a horrible end." Huntington's blights families. Peter has seen his mum Stephanie, uncle Keith and grandmother Olive die from it. Tests show his sister Sandy and brother Frank will develop the disease. The three siblings have eight children - all young adults, each of whom has a 50-50 chance of developing the disease. The unstoppable death of brain cells in Huntington's leaves patients in permanent decline, affecting their movement, behaviour, memory and ability to think clearly. Peter, from Essex, told me: "It's so difficult to have that degenerative thing in you. "You know the last day was better than the next one's going to be."
12-11-17 We may know why younger brothers are more likely to be gay
An immune response in some pregnant women’s bodies may explain the “fraternal birth order effect” – that men are more likely to be gay the more older brothers they have. The more older brothers a boy has, the more likely he is to be gay when he grows up – an effect called the “fraternal birth order effect”. Now it seems that increasing levels of antibodies in a mother’s immune system could play a role. Anthony Bogaert at Brock University, Canada, and his team think that some women who are pregnant with boys develop antibodies that target a protein made by the Y chromosome. Our immune systems make antibodies to recognise foreign molecules, which have the potential to be from dangerous bacteria. But pregnant women sometimes also produce antibodies against fetal molecules – for example, if their fetus has a different blood group. Bogaert’s team wondered if maternal antibodies might play a role in shaping sexual orientation. The team collected blood from 142 women, and screened it for antibodies to a particular brain protein that is only made in males. They thought this would be a good candidate, because it plays an important role in how neurons communicate with each other, and because it is produced on the surface of brain cells, making it relatively easy for antibodies to find and detect it. They found that the mothers of gay sons with older brothers had the highest levels of antibodies against this protein, followed by the mothers of gay sons with no older brothers. Women who had straight sons had less of these antibodies, while women with no sons had the least.
12-11-17 Fasting may boost brainpower by giving neurons more energy
Some people who fast regularly, like those following the 5:2 diet, feel mentally sharper. Now evidence in mice may explain how fasting boosts brainpower. Could regular fasting make you smarter? People following regimes like the popular 5:2 diet usually do so for weight loss, but some who try it says it makes them mentally sharper too. If this is true, experiments in mice may have explained why. In these animals, fasting has been found to cause changes in the brain that likely give neurons more energy, and enable them to grow more connections. Mark Mattson of the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Maryland and his team looked at 40 mice, which were given regimes in which they either ate nothing every other day, or ate normally – but consumed the same total calories – as the fasting mice. The team found that fasting was linked to a 50 per cent increase in a brain chemical called BDNF. Previous studies have shown that such an increase is likely to boost the number of mitochondria – which provide a cell’s energy – inside neurons by 20 per cent. BDNF also promotes the growth of new connections – or synapses – between brain cells, which helps in learning and memory, says Mattson. The finding makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, as animals that are hungry would need more intellectual resources to find food, says Mattson. “If human ancestors hadn’t been able to find food, they had better be able to function at a high level to chase down some prey.”
12-11-17 Irish DNA map reveals history's imprint
Scientists have unveiled a detailed genetic map of Ireland, revealing subtle DNA differences that may reflect historic events. In their sample of the Irish population, the researchers identified 10 genetic groupings - clusters - that roughly mirror ancient boundaries. The results also suggest the Vikings had a greater impact on the Irish gene pool than previously supposed. The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports. A team of Irish, British and American researchers analysed data from 194 Irish individuals with four generations of ancestry tied to specific regions on the island. This allowed the scientists to work out the population structure that existed prior to the increased movement of people in recent decades. Co-author Dr Gianpiero Cavalleri, from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, told BBC News that the differences between the different Irish groups were "really subtle". He told BBC News: "We're only picking them up now because, first of all, the data sets are getting really big." The other reason, he said, was because of "really clever analytical approaches to pick out these very slight differences that generate the clusters".
12-11-17 This ancient marsupial lion had an early version of ‘bolt-cutter’ teeth
Extinct species was a fearsome predator in Australia’s hot, humid forests. A skull and other fossils from northeastern Australia belong to a new species in the extinct family of marsupial lions. This newly named species, Wakaleo schouteni, was a predator about the size of a border collie, says vertebrate paleontologist Anna Gillespie of the University of New South Wales in Sydney. At least 18 million years ago (and perhaps as early as 23 million years ago), it roamed what were then hot, humid forests. Its sturdy forelimbs suggest it could chase possums, lizards and other small prey up into trees. Gillespie expects W. shouteni — the 10th species named in its family — carried its young in a pouch as kangaroos, koalas and other marsupials do. Actual lions evolved on a different fork in the mammal genealogical tree, but Australia’s marsupial lions got their feline nickname from the size and slicing teeth of the first species named, in 1859. Thylacoleo carnifex was about as big as a lion. And its formidable teeth could cut flesh. But unlike other pointy-toothed predators, marsupial lions evolved a horizontal cutting edge. A bottom tooth stretched back along the jawline on each side, its slicer edge as long as four regular teeth. An upper tooth extended too, giving this marsupial lion a bite like a “bolt cutter,” Gillespie says.
12-10-17 Scientists say alone time may be linked to creativity
You may be eagerly anticipating spending time with friends and family over the holidays. But you may also be dreading the obligation to do so, preferring to be alone. New research suggests that, as long as it isn't driven by fear, there's nothing inherently wrong with that impulse. In fact, it may stimulate a much-valued ability: creativity. When it comes to social withdrawal, "motivation matters," said University of Buffalo psychologist Julie Bowker. In the journal Personality and Individual Differences, she and two colleagues distinguish between three such catalysts, and discover they produce quite different results. The study featured 295 undergraduates at a large public university in the United States. Participants filled out a survey that allowed them to delineate specific reasons for avoiding social gatherings: shyness ("Sometimes I turn down chances to hang out with others because I feel too shy"), avoidance ("I try to avoid spending time with other people"), and unsociability ("I don't have a strong preference for being alone or with others"). People whose answers reflected shyness or avoidance scored low on creativity, and high on both types of aggression, an attitude presumably reflecting loneliness or frustration. But the opposite was true of unsociability. People who displayed that trait were less likely to engage in aggressive behavior, and more likely to report that they were creatively engaged. "Anxiety-free time spent in solitude may allow for, and foster, creative thinking and work," the researchers note. Rather than viewing unsociability "as a relatively benign form of withdrawal," this research suggests it "may be better characterized as a potentially beneficial form of withdrawal." (Webmaster's comment: When pumped up on a social media adrenaline high it's hard to imagine any person having creative thoughts!)
12-9-17 What makes the human mind so special?
It might not be self-awareness, as many have thought for years. Everyone knows what it feels like to have consciousness: It's that self-evident sense of personal awareness, which gives us a feeling of ownership and control over the thoughts, emotions, and experiences that we have every day. Most experts think that consciousness can be divided into two parts: The experience of consciousness (or personal awareness), and the contents of consciousness, which include things such as thoughts, beliefs, sensations, perceptions, intentions, memories, and emotions. It's easy to assume that these contents of consciousness are somehow chosen, caused, or controlled by our personal awareness — after all, thoughts don't exist until until we think them. But in a recent research paper in Frontiers of Psychology, we argue that this is a mistake. We suggest that our personal awareness does not create, cause, or choose our beliefs, feelings, or perceptions. Instead, the contents of consciousness are generated "behind the scenes" by fast, efficient, non-conscious systems in our brains. All this happens without any interference from our personal awareness, which sits passively in the passenger seat while these processes occur. Put simply, we don't consciously choose our thoughts or our feelings — we become aware of them. If this sounds strange, consider how effortlessly we regain consciousness each morning after losing it the night before; how thoughts and emotions — welcome or otherwise — arrive already formed in our minds; how the colors and shapes we see are constructed into meaningful objects or memorable faces without any effort or input from our conscious mind.
12-8-17 Food delivery robots are teaching themselves how to cross roads
Until now, delivery robots have always needed humans to help them when things get tricky. Now machine learning has helped them work out how to manage without us. Ding dong! That’ll be the robot with my pizza. Such a scenario probably seems a bit far-fetched but, in the US and UK, delivery firms like JustEat and DoorDash are already experimenting using small robots to deliver groceries and meals. Currently these systems need human chaperones to monitor the robot’s progress, jumping in if it gets into trouble. But now Kiwi, a company based at the University of California, Berkeley, is using machine learning to teach its delivery robots how to cross the road safely, without any human intervention. It could be an important step in making these robots more autonomous, something that is vital if they are ever going to be delivering our dinners at scale. Such a system could also help delivery firms with the tricky ‘last mile’ problem of logistics – the fact that getting parcels to your door is the most expensive bit of the delivery process. Kiwi launched in April this year and lets students order food from campus restaurants via an app, to be delivered by its small fleet of robots. The robots use a mixture of camera sensors, lasers and an in-built map of the campus to find their way between restaurants and student addresses. (Webmaster's comment: The beginning of autonomous machine evolution?)
12-8-17 When tumors fuse with blood vessels, clumps of breast cancer cells can spread
Tests with fake vessels suggest this is an early step in metastasis. If you want to beat them, join them. Some breast cancer tumors may follow that strategy to spread through the body. Breast cancer tumors can fuse with blood vessel cells, allowing clumps of cancer cells to break away from the main tumor and ride the bloodstream to other locations in the body, suggests preliminary research. Cell biologist Vanesa Silvestri of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine presented the early work December 4 at the American Society for Cell Biology/European Molecular Biology Organization meeting. Previous research has shown that cancer cells traveling in clusters have a better chance of spreading than loners do (SN: 1/10/15, p. 9). But how clusters of cells get into the bloodstream in the first place has been a mystery, in part because scientists couldn’t easily see inside tumors to find out. So Silvestri and colleagues devised a see-through synthetic version of a blood vessel. The vessel ran through a transparent gel studded with tiny breast cancer tumors. A camera attached to a microscope allowed the researchers to record the tumors invading the artificial blood vessel. Sometimes the tumors pinched the blood vessel, eventually sealing it off. But in at least one case, a small tumor merged with the cells lining the faux blood vessel. Then tiny clumps of cancer cells broke away from the tumor and floated away in the fluid flowing through the capillary. More work is needed to confirm that the same process happens in the body, Silvestri said.
12-7-17 Why you need to touch your keys to believe they're in your bag
You know they're there, you just need to feel them in your hand. As virtual reality headsets hit the market, they bring with them the echoes of Macbeth's words: The world they immerse you in might look or even sound right, but can't be touched or grasped. Seeing a dagger on the table before you, you might try to reach for it, but as your arm simply goes through the air, you are left with the ghostly feeling that things are not so real. Impalpable objects are not convincing, and integrating touch into new technologies is the next frontier. But why, to Macbeth and to us, does touch matter so much? What does it bring, that vision doesn't? Missing a whole family of sensations can be disturbing — yet the absence of tactile experiences seems to have more damaging consequences than the absence of other experiences, for instance olfactory ones. Contrary to the proverbial expression that "seeing is believing," it is touch that secures our epistemic grip on reality. Everyday situations show that touch is the "fact-checking" sense. Salesmen know it well: If a client hesitates to buy a product, handing it over for her to touch is likely to seal the deal. We all like to feel our wallets in our bags, even when we just put them there. Despite numerous signs asking visitors not to touch the artworks on display, guards need to regularly stop people from reaching out and touching fragile statues and canvasses. But what does touch bring if vision already tells you everything you need to know? A long-standing response in philosophy agrees that touch is more objective than the other senses. For instance, when Samuel Johnson wanted to demonstrate the absurdity of Bishop Berkeley's idea that material objects do not exist, he kicked his foot against a large stone, and triumphantly asserted: "I refute it thus." Pointing at the colored shape was not sufficient, but Johnson assumed that touch would be unquestionable. The resistance of solid objects through touch is meant to provide us with the experience that there are things out there, independent of us and our will.
12-7-17 Marriage wards off dementia
People who are married are less likely to develop dementia than those who are single and living alone, new research has found. Researchers in London and France analyzed 15 studies involving more than 800,000 people in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. After taking other possible risk factors into account, they found that those who never married had a 42 percent higher risk for dementia than those who were living with a spouse or partner. Those who had been widowed had a 20 percent higher risk. Why? The protective effect of marriage “is linked to various lifestyle factors that are known to accompany marriage,” lead author Andrew Sommerlad tells CNN?.com. These factor include “living a generally healthier lifestyle and having more social stimulation as a result of living with a spouse or partner.” Previously, studies have found that husbands and wives also enjoy better heart health than those who have never married.
12-7-17 Mouthwash linked to diabetes
More than 200 million Americans routinely swig and swish mouthwash to prevent tooth decay and bad breath. But new research suggests this seemingly healthy habit could increase risk for type 2 diabetes, particularly for those already at high risk for the disease. A three-year study involving 945 middle-aged, overweight adults found that using mouthwash at least twice a day was associated with a 55 percent higher risk for diabetes or the precursor to the condition, known as prediabetes. The study’s authors aren’t sure why, but they theorize that antibacterial agents added to mouthwashes, such as chlorhexidine and triclosan, may do more harm than good. These ingredients destroy the harmful bacteria responsible for gum disease and cavities. But they also wipe out “friendly” bacteria that are essential for the production of nitric oxide, a compound that helps regulate insulin, which in turn keeps blood sugar levels in check. “Mouthwash is often advertised for killing germs,” lead author Kaumudi Joshipura, from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, tells Today.com. “Killing most or all oral bacteria is not necessarily a good thing.”
12-7-17 CRISPR/Cas9 can reverse multiple diseases in mice
New use for the genetic tool turns genes on instead of snipping them. A new twist on gene editing makes the CRISPR/Cas9 molecular scissors act as a highlighter for the genetic instruction book. Such highlighting helps turn on specific genes. Using the new tool, researchers treated mouse versions of type 1 diabetes, kidney injury and Duchenne muscular dystrophy, the team reports December 7 in Cell. The new method may make some types of gene therapy easier and could be a boon for researchers hoping to control gene activity in animals, scientists say. CRISPR/Cas9 is a two-part molecular scissors. A short, guide RNA leads the DNA-cutting enzyme Cas9 to specific places in the genetic instructions that scientists want to slice. Snipping DNA is the first step to making or fixing mutations. But researchers quickly realized the editing system could be even more versatile. In the roughly five years since CRISPR/Cas9 was first wielded, researchers have modified the tool to make a variety of changes to DNA (SN: 9/3/16, p. 22). Many of those modifications involve breaking the Cas9 scissors so they cannot cut DNA anymore. Strapping other molecules to this “dead Cas9” allows scientists to alter genes or change the genes’ activities. Gene-activating CRISPR/Cas9, known as CRISPRa, could be used to turn on dormant genes for treating a variety of diseases. For instance, doctors might be able to turn on alternate copies of genes to compensate for missing proteins or to reinvigorate genes that grow sluggish with age. So far, researchers have mostly turned on genes with CRISPRa in cells growing in lab dishes, says Charles Gersbach, a biomedical engineer at Duke University not involved in the new study.
12-7-17 Researchers find 'oldest ever eye' in fossil
An "exceptional" 530-million-year-old fossil contains what could be the oldest eye ever discovered, according to scientists. The remains of the extinct sea creature include an early form of the eye seen in many of today's animals, including crabs, bees and dragonflies. Scientists made the find while looking at the well-preserved trilobite fossil. These ancestors of spiders and crabs lived in seas during the Palaeozoic era, between 541-251 million years ago. They found the ancient creature had a primitive form of compound eye, an optical organ that consists of arrays of tiny visual cells, called ommatidia, similar to those of present-day bees. The team, which included a researcher from Edinburgh University, said their findings suggested that compound eyes had changed little over 500 million years. Prof Euan Clarkson, of Edinburgh University's school of geosciences, said: "This exceptional fossil shows us how early animals saw the world around them hundreds of millions of years ago. "Remarkably, it also reveals that the structure and function of compound eyes has barely changed in half a billion years."
12-6-17 A closer look at '3.67m-year-old' skeleton
It took 20 years to excavate, clean and put together Little Foot, whose skeleton was found in caves north of Johannesburg. Its exact age is debated, but South African scientists say the remains are 3.67 million years old. This would mean Little Foot was alive about 500,000 years before Lucy, the famous skeleton of an ancient human relative found in Ethiopia.
12-7-17 Daughters of older mums are more likely to never have children
An analysis of thousands of women has found that the older your mother was when you were born, the more likely you are to be childless – but we don’t know why. The older your mother was when you were born, the less likely you are to have children – but we don’t know why. An analysis of thousands of women has found that daughters of older mums are more likely to be childless – an effect that can’t be fully explained by social factors like wealth or education. So far, there’s been mixed evidence over whether parental age at first birth is linked to lower fertility in children. There does seem to be a trend that women who are wealthier and more educated are more likely to give birth later in life – and wealth tends to be passed down the generations for multiple reasons. But Olga Basso, of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, is interested in whether there might also be biological factors that make the children of older parents less likely to have children of their own. Her team analysed data from over 43,000 women in the US who were born between 1930 and 1964. More than 19 per cent of women born to mothers aged 30 or over went on to be childless. That compares with about 15 per cent in women whose mothers had been aged 20 to 24 at the time of their birth and less than 13 per cent of those born to teenage mothers. Women who had a post-graduate degree were the most likely never to have any children, followed by women who had never married, and women who were lesbian. Analysis of the figures revealed, however, that having higher levels of education or never marrying could not fully account for the levels of childlessness in women born to older mums. Even among women who held a postgraduate degree, those born to older mothers were more likely to be childless.
12-7-17 What do the new ‘gay genes’ tell us about sexual orientation?
Two gene variants have been found to be more common in gay men. New Scientist looks at what this tells us about the way biology shapes our sexuality. Two gene variants have been found to be more common in gay men, adding to mounting evidence that sexual orientation is at least partly biologically determined. How does this change what we already knew?
- Didn’t we already know there were “gay genes”?
- What’s new about the latest study?
- What genes did they find and what do they do?
- What is the other gene?
- Are all men who have the “gay” variants of these genes gay?
- What about women who are gay? Are there “lesbian genes”?
- Why should we care about the genetics of being gay?
12-6-17 Night exercises: The intense workout we all do in our sleep
You never really sleep like a log. Instead we all twitch, talk and even walk around as our dreaming brains rehearse our waking movements. IT WAS the wreckage of yet another TV that finally convinced one man to seek help. Psychologist Antonio Zadra remembers the patient well. “When we asked what brought him in, he said, ‘Well, that’s the third TV set that I threw at an intruder who isn’t there. It’s getting damn expensive.'” Zadra, who studies sleepwalking at the University of Montreal, is interested in why anyone would do things like this in their sleep. And it turns out that the answer is important to all of us. You might think that when you close your eyes and drift off, your body basically shuts down, and dreams then play out in your head. Due to the inhibition of muscle movement, or muscle atonia, that normally occurs during dreaming sleep, most of us don’t act out our dreams or have one-sided conversations. Just 1 per cent of people sleepwalk regularly. But three-quarters of us will talk in our sleep and a third of us will sleepwalk at some point. And we all occasionally shift position or mumble. Now we are learning that even the seemingly subtle twitches and murmurs we make actually have a surprisingly important impact. Work by Zadra and others is revealing that our bodies play a far more active role in what happens during sleep than people generally think – and not just for sleepwalkers or people chucking appliances at the wall. Their findings suggest that movements in our dreaming minds, or sleeping bodies, serve a far more fundamental purpose, one that shapes how we move and talk in our waking lives.
12-6-17 This new dinosaur species was one odd duck
Unlike other theropods, its mix of birdlike body parts suggests it took to water like, well, a duck. It may have walked like a duck and swum like a penguin, but a flipper-limbed creature discovered in what is now Mongolia was no bird. The strange new species is the first known nonavian dinosaur that could both run and swim, researchers say. To compensate for a long swanlike neck, probably used for dipping underwater for fish, this dino’s center of mass shifted toward its hips, allowing it to stand erect, similar to short-tailed waterfowl like ducks, scientists report December 6 in Nature. Along with the flipperlike limbs, those adaptations suggest the animal, dubbed Halszkaraptor escuilliei, probably spent much of its time in the water, say vertebrate paleontologist Andrea Cau of the Geological and Palaeontological Museum in Bologna, Italy, and his colleagues. To study H. escuilliei in 3-D, and while still partially embedded in rock, the researchers used synchrotron radiation scanning. Zapping the fossil with high-energy X-rays illuminates structures in fine detail without causing damage. H. escuilliei lived in the Late Cretaceous around 75 million to 71 million years ago and belonged to maniraptora, a diverse line of theropods that include both nonavian dinosaurs and birds. Although many theropods, such as the tyrannosaurs, were primarily meat eaters, H. escuilliei’s jaw, nose and number of teeth suggest it preferred fish.
12-5-17 Staring into a baby’s eyes puts her brain waves and yours in sync
Gazing into each other’s eyes makes baby and adult brain waves sync up, a new study finds. When you lock eyes with a baby, it’s hard to look away. For one thing, babies are fun to look at. They’re so tiny and cute and interesting. For another, babies love to stare back. I remember my babies staring at me so hard, with their eyebrows raised and unblinking eyes wide open. They would have killed in a staring contest. This mutual adoration of staring may be for a good reason. When a baby and an adult make eye contact, their brain waves fall in sync, too, a new study finds. And those shared patterns of brain activity may actually pave the way for better communication between baby and adult: Babies make more sweet, little sounds when their eyes are locked onto an adult who is looking back. The scientists report the results online November 28 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Psychologist Victoria Leong of the University of Cambridge and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and colleagues invited infants into the lab for two experiments. In the first, the team outfitted 17 8-month-old babies with EEG caps, headwear covered with electrodes that measure the collective behavior of nerve cells across the brain. The infants watched a video in which an experimenter, also outfitted in an EEG cap, sung a nursery rhyme while looking either straight ahead at the baby, at the baby but with her head turned at a 20-degree angle, or away from the baby and with her head turned at a 20-degree angle. When the researcher looked at the baby (either facing the baby or with her head slightly turned), the babies’ brains responded, showing activity patterns that started to closely resemble those of the researcher.
12-6-17 A boy is missing the vision bit of his brain but can still see
A seven-year-old boy whose brain doesn’t have a visual processing centre has baffled doctors. Despite missing this brain area, he is still able to see. An Australian boy missing the visual processing centre of his brain has baffled doctors by seeming to have near-normal sight. The 7-year-old, known as “BI”, lost his primary visual cortex shortly after he was born due to a rare metabolic disorder called medium-chain acyl-Co-A dehydrogenase deficiency. Normally, the primary visual cortex is crucial for sight because it processes electrical signals relayed from the eyes. People with damage to this area are said to have “cortical blindness”. However, BI has remarkably well-preserved vision, says Iñaki-Carril Mundiñano at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. “You wouldn’t think he is blind,” he says. “He navigates his way around without any problems and plays soccer and video games,” he says. In a series of tests run by Mundiñano and his colleagues, BI scored perfectly when asked to name objects, identify colours, and discriminate between different people’s faces displayed on a screen. He could also identify whether a face was happy, fearful or neutral, and reach out and grasp different-sized blocks placed in front of him. The only major flaw in BI’s vision was strong short-sightedness. He was only able to read the top letter on an eye chart when standing 3 metres away or closer. People with damaged visual cortices have previously been found to sometimes have a degree of unconscious visual awareness, known as “blindsight”. For example, some are able to navigate around an obstacle course even though they don’t consciously feel like they can see.
12-6-17 Little Foot skeleton unveiled in South Africa
One of the oldest and most complete skeletons of humankind's ancestors has been unveiled in South Africa. A team spent more than 20 years excavating, cleaning and putting together the skeleton of Little Foot. Its exact age is debated, but South African scientists say the remains are 3.67 million years old. This would mean Little Foot was alive around 500,000 years before Lucy, the famous skeleton of an ancient human relative found in Ethiopia. Both Little Foot and Lucy belong to the same genus - Australopithecus - but they are different species. Scientists believe this shows humankind's ancestors were spread across a far wider area of Africa than had previously thought. It also suggests there was a diverse number of species. Little Foot was discovered in the Sterkfontein caves, north-west of South Africa's main city Johannesburg, by Professor Ron Clarke. It is thought that she was a young girl who fell down a shaft of one of the caves. "It might be small, but it might be very important. Because that's how it started, with one little bone. And it helps us to understand our origins," Prof Clarke said.
12-5-17 Lizards re-evolved eggs after thousands of years of live births
It’s an evolutionary U-turn: a group of egg-laying lizards evolved from live-bearing ancestors, which are in turn descended from even older egg-layers. Which came first, the lizard or the egg? In the case of at least one lizard, we have an answer: the live-bearing lizard came first and only later evolved the ability to lay eggs. It’s a rare example of a species re-evolving a complex trait that had been lost. The common lizard is just that. It is found across a broad swathe of Eurasia, from Ireland in the west to Japan in the east. Its name Zootoca vivipara means “live-bearing” in both Greek and Latin, and as you might expect it gives birth to its young. But there are exceptions. Two small populations on the edge of the common lizard’s range lay eggs. One of these subspecies is found around the border between Spain and France, and the other in the southern Alps. Biologists had assumed these subspecies were the last remnants of an egg-laying ancestral population from which the live-bearers evolved – something that seems to have happened over 100 times in reptiles. But when they started doing simple genetic tests around a decade ago, the data didn’t fit this simple story. One explanation for the genetic results was that live-bearing evolved at least twice. Another was that egg-laying re-evolved in one population, but this was dismissed by many as unlikely. “There is not really any consensus,” says Kathryn Elmer of the University of Edinburgh, UK. So her team collected 76 lizards from around Europe and carried out more detailed genetic studies, looking at over 200,000 sites in the genome. They used this data to build a detailed family tree of common lizards.
12-4-17 Want to be the boss? How to signal your leadership potential
We all assess if a person is leadership material without realising it. By changing your body language, and talking in the right way, you may boost your chances. We can tell who’s likely to become a leader before we’re even aware of it, assessing a person’s behaviour and body language without realising that we’re doing it. When a group of people who don’t know each other meet for the first time, leaders and followers naturally emerge – it helps us solve many social challenges. We use a variety of signals, such as charismatic behaviour and vocal cues, to infer leadership qualities. But Fabiola Gerpott at Vrije University Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and her team wondered whether such signals might also trigger more automatic changes in who we pay attention to. To investigate, they videotaped meetings of real project teams who had never previously met over a period of seven weeks. At the end of this period, independent mentors rated each team member on whether they had emerged as a leader or follower. The team then edited the videos into 42 brief, soundless clips, and showed them to 18 new people. As they watched the videos, the team measured where each person was looking, and for how long. They found that the volunteers looked more often at people who went on to become leaders within the group, and they looked at them for a longer time on average too. “This is not something we would be consciously aware of,” says Gerpott. She says it might be a mechanism that was evolutionarily useful. “In the past it might have been very helpful to recognise very quickly who was the person you should follow.”
Behave like a natural-born leader
- Use lots of active gestures, like talking with your hands
- Have positive body language, facing yourself towards other group members
- Use speech and facial expressions to show that you are listening and open to interacting
- Don’t worry about smiling – it doesn’t seem to make a difference
- Don’t yawn, frown, or stare blankly when others are talking
- Talk a lot towards the beginning of meetings
- As the discussion develops, don’t focus on the problems – be the one to suggest solutions
12-3-17 Human voices are more than just sound
Why we describe people's voices as sharp, deep, or cold. To make sense of human voices, we rely on senses beyond hearing. The songs of Taylor Swift can be sweet and soft. Lady Gaga's singing feels dark. Johnny Cash's voice was low and rough. That's because voice is not just sound: It can be seen and heard, but also tasted and touched. The sound we hear in voice creates "multisensory images" — drawing in perceptions from many senses, not just one. The phenomenon of multisensory perception can help us to understand why we assign metaphorical properties of softness, roughness, or depth to voice. Think of a politician whose voice is flat. Flatness is a multisensory concept because it is both tactile and visual. We can recognize flat surfaces by either touching or seeing them. These sensory impressions inform us about the acoustic characteristics of voice, implying that it does not have variation in tone. Notably, flatness can also convey lack of sympathy and emotion on the part of the speaker. Softness is another common way to present the auditory perception of sound. Like flatness, it can describe not only the sound quality but also the speaker's emotional state. And what about sharpness, a descriptor that might relate to both tactile and visual experience? Calling a voice sharp could be a metaphor for an aggressive, nasty speaker — or a means of describing acoustic, vocal sounds. Multisensory images allow us to identify and deal with things that can harm or benefit us. A falling mortar shell, a jumping tiger, or a skidding car are not just auditory or visual images: They are perceived as multisensory images and can be conceived of as potential life threats. In cognitive psychology, it is generally recognized that, as Vanessa Harrar of the University of Oxford puts it, "integrating information from individual senses increases the chance of survival by reducing the variability in the incoming signals, thus allowing us to respond more rapidly." In fact, notes Harrar, when the components of the multisensory signals are simultaneous, our reaction time is fastest of all.
12-2-17 The other Dodo: Extinct bird that used its wings as clubs
The extinct Dodo had a little-known relative on another island. This fascinating bird ultimately suffered the same fate as its iconic cousin, but we can reconstruct some of its biology thanks to the writings of a French explorer who studied it during his travels of the Indian Ocean. In the middle of the 18th century, at around the time the US was signing the declaration of independence, a large flightless bird quietly became extinct on an island in the Indian Ocean. Today this bird is all but forgotten. Early explorers to the tiny island of Rodrigues in the Indian Ocean described a "Dodo" living on the forested island. Males were grey-brown, and females sandy, both having strong legs and a long, proud necks... but despite outward similarities to the iconic Mauritian bird, this wasn't in fact a Dodo, but the Rodrigues solitaire. If you look up Rodrigues in satellite images, you can see a huge ring of submerged land around the central island, over 50% of the original dry land is thought to have been lost under the waves due to sea level rise and the island subsiding into the bedrock. That was the stage for the evolution of the huge bird, over millions of years. It's likely this shrinking habitat caused an increase in competition for food and territory between individuals of the species, and perhaps as a result of this, the solitaire evolved a club-like bone growth on the end of each wing. It used this against other solitaires in territorial boxing matches. These would have been quite a sight, as the males stood almost a metre tall and weighed 28kg while the females were sandy coloured and were half that size.
12-1-17 New 3-D printed materials harness the power of bacteria
Items made with ‘living ink’ could make medical supplies or clean contaminated water. A new type of 3-D printing ink has a special ingredient: live bacteria. Materials made with this “living ink” could help clean up environmental pollution, harvest energy via photosynthesis or help make medical supplies, researchers report online December 1 in Science Advances. This study “shows for the first time that 3-D printed bacteria can make useful materials,” says Anne Meyer, a biologist at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands who wasn’t involved in the work. The newly concocted printing ink is a polymer mix called a hydrogel that is blended with bacteria and a broth of nutrients that helps bacterial cells grow and reproduce. Eventually, the bacteria use up all of this built-in sustenance, says study coauthor Manuel Schaffner, a material scientist at ETH Zurich. But the ink is porous, so dipping a 3-D printed structure in more broth can reload it with nutrients, he says. Schaffner and colleagues printed a grid embedded with a breed of bacteria called Pseudomonas putida, which eats the hazardous chemical phenol. When the researchers placed this lattice in phenol-contaminated water, the bacteria completely purified the water in just a few days.
12-1-17 A shipwreck has been found from the time of Alexander the Great
Of three wrecked ships found near Cyprus, one dates from around 330 BC and hints at a vast trading network that spanned the Mediterranean. Archaeologists have used drones and an old cold war spy boat to identify three shipwrecks on the Mediterranean seabed. One contains artefacts dating back over 2000 years, hinting at a vast network of trade during the rise of ancient Greek city states like Athens. “If our dates are correct, this is just as Alexander the Great is beginning his conquest,” says team leader Ben Ballard at the Ocean Exploration Trust (OET), whose father Robert discovered the wreck of the Titanic. In 2010 and 2012, Ben Ballard and his colleagues explored the Eratosthenes seamount, an underwater plateau south of Cyprus, on expeditions supported by the OET. They scanned the seamount using the OET’s Nautilus vessel, which was originally a spy boat built by East Germany in the 1970s, plus other technology such as underwater drones. In 2010, the team found two shipwrecks and 70 artefacts. When they returned in 2012, they discovered a third shipwreck and 149 artefacts. They have now described their finds. The Eratosthenes seamount is an ideal preservation site, because it is 600 to 800 metres down. That is deep enough for it not to be disturbed by deep-sea trawlers while remaining much more accessible than most of the Mediterranean, which averages 2100 to 2600 metres deep. It’s also far from the coast, so artefacts have not been buried by sediment run-off.
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for December 2017
Evolution News Articles for November 2017