6-30-19 We could kill cancer cells by hijacking their odd electrical current
Can you kill cancer cells by cutting off their electricity supply? That’s the implication of a new look at how cells swap electrons. It could herald devices that assemble inside tumours to switch off their electric current and starve them to death. Frankie Rawson at the University of Nottingham, UK, and his colleagues have detected subtle changes in the bioelectric currents emanating from different types of cancer cells. These changes hint at what metabolic changes have happened in the cells to enable the rapid division that is characteristic of cancer. All biological cells use electrons to power themselves. In the early 2000s, however, it was discovered that cells can also send electrons outside their membranes along biological “relays” made of proteins and other molecules. But we didn’t know the significance of this trans-plasma membrane electron transfer (tPMET). “I think we’re only just starting to realise the importance,” says Rawson. People have long suspected that there is a link between the way cancer cells change their metabolism to spread and grow and changes to the way the cells do this trans-plasma electron transfer. Normal cells produce almost all of their energy in the mitochondria, their internal “power stations”. But mitochondria can’t power the aggressive demands of a rapidly dividing cancer cell, so cancer cells dial down their mitochondria, and ramp up a metabolic pathway known as glycolysis, which converts sugar into energy. Reducing the output from the mitochondria creates a problem, because free electrons build up inside the cell, clogging up the glycolysis process. To keep from starving, the cancer cells eject those extra electrons using tPMET.
6-30-19 Does success follow happiness? Or is it the other way around?
Studies show that if you aim for happiness, success will follow. Work hard, become successful, then you'll be happy. At least, that's what many of us were taught by our parents, teachers, and peers. The idea that we must pursue success in order to experience happiness is enshrined in the United States' most treasured institutions (the Declaration of Independence), beliefs (the American dream), and stories (Rocky and Cinderella). Most people want to be happy, so we chase success like a proverbial carrot on a stick — thinking that contentment lurks just the other side of getting into college, landing a dream job, being promoted, or making six figures. But for many chasers, both success and happiness remain perpetually out of reach. The problem is that the equation might be backwards. Our hypothesis is that happiness precedes and leads to career success — not the other way around. In psychological science, "happiness" relates to "subjective wellbeing" and "positive emotions" (we use the terms interchangeably). Those with greater wellbeing tend to be more satisfied with their lives, and also to experience more positive emotions and fewer negative ones. Research suggests that it's these positive emotions — such as excitement, joy, and serenity — that promote success in the workplace. Let's look first at the cross-sectional studies that examine people at a single point. This allows researchers to determine whether happiness and success are correlated. Relative to their glummer peers, happier people are more satisfied with their jobs; they also receive greater social support from co-workers and better performance evaluations from supervisors. Notably, it might be that bosses give happy employees higher performance evaluations due to a halo effect, where a favorable impression in one area (such as happiness) influences opinion in another area (such as work ability): "Tim is happy, so he must be great at his job too." However, there's also some evidence that people with higher wellbeing perform better on a range of work-related tasks. One pivotal study found that sales agents with a more positive outlook sold 37 percent more life-insurance policies than their less positive colleagues. Happiness is associated with excellent work performance in other areas as well. People who frequently experience positive emotions tend to go above and beyond for their organizations; they're also less likely to be absent from work or quit their jobs. People with better wellbeing also tend to earn bigger salaries than those with lower wellbeing.
6-29-19 Deadly drug-resistant fungal disease has ‘infested' New York City
A deadly infectious fungal disease that is resistant to many drugs has “infested” New York and affected more than 600 people in the city, in the biggest outbreak in the US so far. Candida auris is a type of yeast. Between August 2016 and 2018, nearly 60 hospitals and more than 90 nursing homes in New York City were affected by the microbe. Worryingly, the fungus proved resistant to all three major anti-fungal drugs, with a 99 per cent resistance in the case of one medication, Fluconazole. The fungus, which can be deadly for people with underlying health conditions, has spread to healthcare systems on five continents since emerging ten years ago. It was first found in the ear of a Japanese patient – hence the auris name. Although it spreads easily and rapidly via surfaces and people, researchers still do not know exactly how, and its ultimate origin has yet to be found. “It’s quite a big problem, because of the way it is spreading and the way it lives in your body parts, and its ability to shed,” says Sudha Chaturvedi of the New York State Department of Health, who undertook the research. “New York City is infested, especially Brooklyn and Queens,” she says. The big concern with C. auris, she adds, is its resistance to multiple drugs. Of the people affected during the New York outbreak, 277 were infected and 350 had been colonised by the microbe, meaning they are a carrier but do not have symptoms. Of particular concern were two patients who had a strain of the fungus that was resistant to all drugs used to fight it. A major challenge to stopping further spread is the difficulty in detecting the fungus. “It’s a unique bug, it cannot be identified by a simple biochemical test,” says Chaturvedi, who presented her research at the ASM Microbe conference in San Francisco last week. There are only around ten labs in the US that can test for it, she says.
6-29-19 Can smart phones detect a heart attack?
Your Alexa or even your smartphone could soon recognize signs that you’re having a heart attack, said Dalvin Brown at USA Today. Researchers at the University of Washington "found that around half of people experiencing a heart attack made sounds known as agonal breathing." The noise is distinctive enough that the researchers believe it can be detected by "a wide array of smart devices, including Amazon Alexa, an iPhone 5s, and Samsung Galaxy S4." They’ve developed an artificial-intelligence tool for that purpose and are working on software that "could be baked into smart speakers or smartphones" that could listen for the sound of a heart attack and automatically alert medical personnel. The researchers acknowledged that more work and research will need to be done before the technology can be commercialized.
6-29-19 How collapsing civilizations have helped the world
And why it would be a lot harder to benefit from one today. s the collapse of a civilization necessarily calamitous? The failure of the Egyptian Old Kingdom towards the end of the 2nd millennium, B.C., was accompanied by riots, tomb raids, and even cannibalism. "The whole of Upper Egypt died of hunger and each individual had reached such a state of hunger that he ate his own children," runs an account from 2120 BCE about the life of Ankhtifi, a southern provincial governor of Ancient Egypt. Many of us are familiar with this historical narrative of how cultures can rapidly — and violently — decline and fall. Recent history appears to bear it out, too. Post-invasion Iraq witnessed 100,000 deaths in the first year and a half, followed by the emergence of ISIS. And the overthrow of the Libyan government in 2011 produced a power vacuum, leading to the re-emergence of the slave trade. However, there's a more complicated reality behind this view of collapse. In fact, the end of civilizations rarely involved a sudden cataclysm or apocalypse. Often the process is protracted, mild, and leaves people and culture continuing for many years. The collapse of the Maya civilization in Mesoamerica, for example, took place over three centuries in what's known as the "Terminal Classic period," between 750-1050 AD. While it was marked by a 10-15 percent increased mortality rate and the abandonment of some cities, other areas flourished, and writing, trade and urban living remained until after the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500s. Even the autobiography of Ankhtifi was likely an exaggeration. During the First Intermediate Period of Egypt that followed on the heels of the Old Kingdom, non-elite tombs became richer and more common. There's also little convincing evidence of mass starvation and death. Ankhtifi had a vested interest in portraying it as a time of catastrophe, too: He'd recently ascended to the status of governor, and the account glorifies his great feats in this time of crisis.
6-28-19 Flesh-eating bacteria spreading
Climate change is helping spread unpleasant diseases to unexpected places, new research suggests. Over the past two years, five people in New Jersey have been hospitalized after contracting Vibrio vulnificus, a dangerous flesh-eating bacteria. One of the patients died; all five had either eaten or handled crabs or other seafood from the nearby Delaware Bay. Spread through contaminated shellfish, the bacteria is relatively common off the coasts of Virginia and Maryland and in the Gulf of Mexico. But until recently it had rarely been seen farther north; before 2017, New Jersey had only one serious Vibrio vulnificus case in eight years. New research suggests that warmer sea temperatures are now allowing the bacteria to thrive in northern waters that were previously too cold for them, reports CNN.com. “It is important for physicians—who may have never seen this infection before in their medical practice—to have some awareness,” says co-author Katherine Doktor, from Cooper University in New Jersey. People in at-risk areas are advised to avoid swimming in bay or seawater if they have open wounds, and to thoroughly cook any shellfish before eating it.
6-28-19 Red meat could shorten your life
Eating less red meat could help you live longer, a major study from Harvard University has found. While scientists have long known of the association between beef, lamb, and other red meats and serious diseases such as bowel cancer, the link to premature death wasn’t well established. For the new study, researchers followed the eating habits of 54,000 women and 28,000 men, ages 30 to 75, for eight years. They then looked at the participants’ death rates over the following eight years and found that those who increased their red meat intake by half a serving a day (the equivalent of one and a half slices ofroast beef) had a 10 percent higher risk of early death. Eating an extra half-serving daily of processed meats such as bacon and sausages raised their risk of early death by 13 percent. Participants who cut their meat consumption also cut their risk of premature death: Swapping one daily serving of unprocessed red meat for fish was associated with a 17 percent reduction in risk, and switching from processed meats reduced risk by 25 percent. Similar results came from swapping in chicken or vegetable protein. The outcomes were the same regardless of participants’ age, physical activity level, and cigarette and alcohol consumption. “We are not saying everybody should become vegetarian or vegan,” lead author Frank Hu tells TheGuardian.com. “However, there is a significant benefit if you replace some of the red meat with plant-based foods.”
6-28-19 A weekly dose of nature
For an easy and pleasant way to boost your health and well-being, spend a couple of hours a week in nature. That’s the conclusion of a new British study that examined the benefits of spending time in parks and woodlands and at the beach. Researchers from the University of Exeter interviewed 20,000 people about their activity over the previous week. A quarter of respondents who spent little or no time in the great outdoors reported poor health, and half said they weren’t satisfied with their lives. In contrast, only one-seventh of those who spent two hours or more in nature reported poor health, while just a third said they weren’t satisfied with their lives. The resultswere the same across various demographic groups—men, women, young, old—and regardless of whether the two hours were in one go or spread across several trips. “It’s well known that getting outdoors in nature can be good for people’s health and well-being, but until now we’ve not been able to say how much is enough,” co-author Mat White tells ScienceDaily.com. “Two hours a week is hopefully a realistic target for many people.”
6-28-19 The family that feels almost no pain
An Italian scientist’s colleagues noticed she seemed impervious to injury, said journalist Matthew Shaer in Smithsonian magazine. Her family’s rare genetic condition could be the key to understanding chronic pain. Pain is one of our oldest evolutionary traits. It connects us to the outside world and modulates our interactions with it. But pain becomes a problem when its causes are mysterious, and when it persists beyond its usefulness in alerting us to danger—which, as anybody can tell you, happens all the time. We get headaches and bad knees; our backs start to hurt. One in five American adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suffers from chronic pain, or pain unrelated to a recent injury and lasting longer than six months. Despite colossal amounts of study focused on understanding how pain works, the phenomenon remains enigmatic. Unlike senses such as touch, taste, or smell, there is no single brain region responsible for the experience; there may be half a dozen or more. This has made treatment for pain an often crude exercise, as the widespread prescription of opioids and the related epidemic tragically illustrates. “You have a situation where the world’s population is aging rapidly, and more people are suffering from pain. And life expectancy is actually going down in the U.S. as a result of opioid abuse,” John Wood, who heads the sensory neurobiology group at University College London’s Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research, told me this past winter. “So if you could find a solution to chronic pain that’s not addictive, not deadly, well, it would be greatly helpful, wouldn’t it? It would be a breakthrough of tremendous proportions.” For more than three decades, Wood, a molecular neurobiologist, has devoted himself to understanding how the body processes pain. In the mid-2000s, Wood’s lab at University College partnered with a Cambridge University scientist named Geoff Woods on a pioneering research project centered on a group of related families—all from a clan known as the Qureshi—in rural northern Pakistan. Woods had learned about the families accidentally: On the hunt for potential test subjects for a study on the brain abnormality microcephaly, he heard about a young street performer, a boy who routinely injured himself (walking across burning coals, stabbing himself with knives) for the entertainment of crowds. Woods knew that the Wolfson Institute, John Wood’s lab, had recently published a paper on an inherited phenotype—essentially a collection of observable characteristics, such as eye color—that appeared to influence pain resistance. Perhaps, Woods theorized, the boy in Pakistan possessed the same phenotype. When Woods found the boy’s family, they told him that the boy had died from injuries sustained during a stunt leap from a rooftop. But several family members allowed Woods to collect blood samples, which researchers in England scanned for genetic irregularities. Sure enough, the Pakistani subjects all possessed the same abnormality Wood’s lab had documented: a subtle mutation in a gene regulating pain-sensing neurons that disabled a key component known as Nav1.7. In 2006, with Woods as lead author, the scientists published their findings in the journal Nature.
6-28-19 High times in ancient China
Archaeologists have uncovered the first physical evidence of humans using marijuana to get high, high in the mountains of Western China, reports NPR.org. A chemical analysis of wooden incense burners from a 2,500-year-old burial ground revealed residues of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), weed’s psychoactive compound. The burners are thought to have been used in mortuary rituals in which participants would place heated stones in the wooden braziers and cover them with cannabis leaves—producing a suitably atmospheric haze. Signs of ancient marijuana use have previously been discovered at burial sites in Eurasia, but this find, in the Pamir Mountains, is the oldest and farthest east yet. Co-author Yimin Yang, from the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, says the smoke was likely being used “to communicate with nature or spirits or deceased people, accompanied by music.” The residue suggests the cannabis used had high levels of THC. Wild strains of the plant tend to have lower levels, but it’s unclear whether the ancient users cultivated the pot themselves or simply gathered a particularly strong batch.
6-28-19 The origin of puppy-dog eyes
Scientists now know how man’s best friend got its puppy-dog eyes. The sad, soulful expression that turns dog owners into total pushovers is the result of tens of thousands of years of evolution and an eyebrow-raising muscle. To understand how the process of domestication shaped the modern pooch, researchers dissected the heads of wolves and dogs that had died natural deaths. They found that the musculature of the heads differed only in one key area: around the eyes. Unlike wolves, dogs have a small levator muscle that lets them raise their inner eyebrow, making the eye appear larger and more babyish. This, the researchers said, is evidence of evolution in action: In the early days of domestication, some 33,000 years ago, the wolves that could elicit the most sympathy from our Stone Age ancestors would have received the most scraps of food. Ancient canines with expressive eyebrows had an evolutionary advantage that they then passed on to their descendants. “We prefer dogs with these kind of infant-like large eyes,” co-author Juliane Kaminski, from the University of Portsmouth in England, tells The Times (U.K.). “We see this movement, this raised eyebrow, and it triggers a nurturing response. We want to take care of this thing.”
6-28-19 Gettysburg Address stored in DNA using a binary code made of holes
Some of the earliest computers used a punched card memory system – literally storing information on cards with holes punched out. Now researchers have found a way to apply the same concept to DNA. DNA sequences have often been suggested as a form of data storage but many methods for doing this are painstaking or expensive – such as synthesising new DNA in the lab. Instead, Olgica Milenkovic at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and her colleagues have made tiny cuts in existing strands of E. coli DNA, turning them into the molecular equivalent of punch cards. The team nicked or partially cut the DNA strands at particular points every 25 base pairs along the sequence. A cut represents a one and the absence of a cut represents a zero, creating a binary code “punched” into the DNA itself that can store any form of digital data. “We were not sure if we could place the nicks so close together,” says Milenkovic. “It was a really, really great feeling that it worked out.” Despite weakening the DNA by cutting it, she says the molecules still held together, and they could perhaps make the cuts even closer to increase the information storage density. The team used their DNA punch cards to store the text of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and a picture of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. Both files were extracted with “perfect accuracy”, says Milenkovic, by breaking up the DNA and sequencing the nick-severed strands. Comparing those sequences against a reference of the E.coli genome reveals the position of the nicks and, consequently, the binary code it records. Milenkovic says using DNA extracted from E.coli makes it easy to store and read the data later. A separate project previously showed how to write data directly into DNA within the organism.
6-27-19 Our brains replay experiences when we rest to help us make decisions
Our brains never really switch off. When we rest, neurons fire to replay recent experiences – and this seems to improve our ability to make decisions. This replay happens in a region called the hippocampus, which is known to be important for memory. Past research has shown that, when rats navigate a maze, the activity of neurons in the hippocampus follows a pattern. This pattern is then replayed – speeded up by a factor of 20 – when the rats sleep or rest. Rats also seem to use this replay to make decisions. When making its way through a maze, a rat will pause at a junction, replay memories, and then continue down one arm, says Nicolas Schuck at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. But what about humans? To find out if our minds replay memories to aid decision making, Schuck and Yael Niv at Princeton University in New Jersey looked at the brain activity of 33 volunteers while they performed a task in an fMRI brain scanner. In the task, the volunteers were shown a series of images, each of which contained a semi-transparent human face laid over a picture of a house, so that both were visible. They were asked to start focusing on faces in consecutive images, judging each as young or old. After a series of faces in the same age category the volunteers were suddenly presented with a face in the alternative age category. This was a signal for them to switch their attention to the houses in the images, and judge them as young or old. Again, they would see a series of houses in the same age category and then encounter a house in the opposite age category, which was a signal to switch focus back to the faces, and so on. By looking at the activity in the hippocampus, Schuck and Niv could see that the volunteers’ brains seemed to play out patterns of activity during the house/face judging task, and then replay them later, during a rest break.
6-27-19 We jump to conclusions even when it pays to wait for the facts
People jump to conclusions they want to be true, even when it is against their interests to do so, according to a study of how we make decisions. “In the case of topics important for one’s identity, preferential treatment of information consistent with a person’s worldview is understandable,” says Filip Gesiarz of University College London. “It can fulfil many psychological needs other than a search for objective truth, such as protecting one’s core values or avoiding uncertainty.” So when it comes to big, defining issues like Brexit or climate change, we know that objective truth is not always what people are looking for. But Gesiarz and his colleagues wanted to see whether similar factors were in effect even in trivial judgements, and ones where it pays to be accurate. They ran an experiment in which participants had to draw conclusions by gathering data over time. People were asked to watch a screen depicting a factory conveyor belt carrying TVs and phones on it, and then decide which device was predominantly produced by the factory. In some factories, 60 per cent of the devices were TVs and 40 per cent phones, while in others the ratio was the opposite. The 84 participants were allowed to choose when they had enough evidence to make up their minds, and they were given a monetary reward for correct decisions. However, they were also randomly allocated into one of two groups: one received a cash bonus each time a factory that primarily produced TVs came on screen and the other received the bonus for phone factories. They got this bonus regardless of whether they correctly identified the factory as a phone or TV producer. This meant that one type of factory was clearly preferable, but the only way participants could maximise their rewards was to accurately identify the type of factory, as they had no control over which would come on screen.
6-27-19 In mice, a high-fat diet cuts a ‘brake’ used to control appetite
The result shows how food can change the brain’s drive to eat. A gut-busting diet may set the brain up for more of the same. After mice ate fatty food for just two weeks, cells in their brains that send a “stop eating” signal were quieter than those in mice that didn’t eat high-fat chow, researchers report in the June 28 Science. The result helps untangle the complex relationship between food and appetite, one that can become muddled when people overeat. Because food is crucial to survival, the brain has built-in redundancy — a multitude of overlapping pro-food systems to make sure animals eat enough. Neuroscientist Garret Stuber of the University of Washington in Seattle took aim at one brain area known to be involved in eating behavior. Called the lateral hypothalamus, this brain structure contains a large number of diverse cells. Stuber and his colleagues looked at gene behavior in single cells there, and found that one group, called glutamatergic nerve cells, showed particularly big changes in which genes were active when the team compared lean mice with obese mice. Earlier work suggested that these glutamatergic cells acted like a brake on feeding: When the cells were artificially blocked from firing signals, mice ate more food and gained more weight. But it wasn’t clear how these cells actually behaved over a more natural shift from leanness to obesity. “Obesity doesn’t just happen overnight,” says Stuber, who conducted some of the work while at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. To study that gradual transition, the researchers began feeding mice high-fat mouse chow, while periodically using a sophisticated microscope to look at the glutamatergic cells’ ability to fire off signals.
6-27-19 Antioxidants may encourage the spread of lung cancer rather than prevent it
Newly discovered mechanisms that drive metastasis could be thwarted by existing drugs. Antioxidants, once touted as a cancer preventive, may actually spur the disease’s spread. Now scientists have figured out how. Whether taken as a dietary supplement or produced by the body, antioxidants appear to help lung cancer cells invade tissues beyond the chest cavity, two studies report online June 27 in Cell. Experiments in mice and human tissue revealed that antioxidants both safeguard tumors against cell-damaging molecules and prompt the accumulation of the protein Bach1. As Bach1 piles up, tumors burn through glucose at higher rates, thus fueling the cancer cells’ migration to new organs (SN: 1/9/16, p. 13). “The results provide a new mechanism for how lung cancer cells can spread and may lead to new possibilities for treatment,” says Martin Bergö, a molecular biologist at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm who led one of the new studies. Lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide, claims about 1.6 million lives each year — more than colon, breast and prostate cancers combined. Most lung cancer deaths are related to metastasis. The new findings point to methods of slowing or stopping the spread before it’s too late. In one study, Michele Pagano, a cancer biologist at the New York University School of Medicine, and his colleagues connected the dots between antioxidants and common mutations in lung cancer cells. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals, damaging molecules that can naturally build up during cell metabolism. About 30 percent of non–small cell lung cancers develop mutations in one of two key genes that regulate natural antioxidant production. The genetic tweaks either boost production or prevent the destruction of a protein called Nrf2, which activates a suite of antioxidant-producing genes. That lets tumors build up a line of defense against the free radicals let off by their fervent growth.
6-27-19 HPV vaccine has significantly cut rates of cancer-causing infections
The HPV vaccine appears to be working. Countries with vaccination programmes are lowering the rate of virus infection, precancerous lesions and genital warts in girls and women. Boys and men are benefiting too, even when they aren’t vaccinated. That’s the conclusion of a review of 65 studies across 14 high-income countries, including 60 million people, over eight years. “Our results provide strong evidence that HPV vaccination works to prevent cervical cancer in real-world settings,” says Mélanie Drolet of Laval University in Canada, who led the work. HPV vaccination programmes are currently running in around 115 countries, says Marc Brisson, also at Laval University, who co-authored the study. It is too soon to measure how these programmes might impact rates of cervical cancer, so the team looked at rates of HPV infection and the incidence of precancerous lesions and anal and genital warts, which can result from infection. The team found that, between five and eight years into a vaccination programme, the prevalence of two strains of HPV that the vaccine protects against dropped by 83 per cent among teenage girls and 66 per cent in women aged 20 to 24. The prevalence of the virus also dropped by 37 per cent in women aged between 25 and 29, even though most were unvaccinated. The incidence of anogenital warts also dropped – by 67 per cent among girls aged 15 to 19, and 54 per cent in women aged 20 to 24. Diagnoses of anogenital warts was reduced in unvaccinated boys and men too – by 48 per cent in boys aged 15 to 19, and 32 per cent in men aged 20 to 24. This suggests that vaccinating girls and young women can protect boys and men too, thanks to herd immunity, says Brisson.
6-27-19 Swimming in the sea completely changes the microbes on your skin
Taking a dip in the sea can completely change the microbes on your skin for up to a day afterwards. Marisa Nielsen at the University of California, Irvine, and her colleagues found the normal bacteria that make up the skin microbiome were almost completed washed off ocean swimmers in California. The team took samples from nine volunteers at Huntington beach before swimming and then after they had air-dried, with more samples taken 6 hours and 24 hours later. After swimming, the people were covered in ocean bacteria, including potential pathogens in the Vibrio genus of bacteria, which were detected on all the volunteers. In some cases, the concentrations of the ocean bugs were 10 times the levels found in the water. The research, presented at the ASM Microbe conference in San Francisco, warned that the introduction of potential pathogens “could put individuals at increased risk for infection after ocean water exposure”. So should we stop swimming in the sea? No, says Nielsen. “What I recommend is a post-swim shower.” While the amount of ocean bacteria on the skin was beginning to decline after 24 hours, some could have stayed on longer, says Nielsen, although further research would be needed to show that. The presence of these different bacteria on the skin isn’t automatically a bad thing and isn’t going to cause a problem in healthy people, she says. The criteria for being included in the study was strict: the volunteers couldn’t be regular sea swimmers, couldn’t be on antibiotics or have skin problems, couldn’t shower for a day afterwards and couldn’t put on sun block. While this meant the sample size was small, the finding of the research was still clear because the difference in the skin microbiome before and afterwards was so huge, says Nielsen.
6-27-19 Miniature brains grown in the lab have human-like neural activity
Scientists growing miniature brains in a lab have created neural networks that act like those in the human brain. They hope the discovery will enable cheaper and easier research into brain diseases and drug development. In recent years researchers have been working on creating small, three-dimensional human brains, or cerebral organoids. The hope is that they will eventually replace animal models, imaging techniques and autopsies as tools for understanding the brain. These simplified organoids have some of the architecture of the brain’s cerebral cortex – which is responsible for many of the features that make us human, such as thinking, perceiving, memory and language. They have already been used to model diseases such as microcephaly, Zika infection and glioblastoma. But little is known about how the neurons within them communicate with each other, says Hideya Sakaguchi of the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in California. To investigate, Sakaguchi and his colleagues at Kyoto University took a ball of stem cells and grew an organoid with layered tissues that had a similar structure to the cerebral cortex. After about three months, the team took individual cells from the tissue and grew them separately in another dish. These cells began to organise themselves into clusters and form networks with other nearby clusters. The team then studied calcium ion binding, a method of detecting neural activity, to see how and when the neurons within the clusters fired. Sakaguchi says that at first, neurons fire individually, but as they form networks and connections with other neurons they begin to operate in a synchronised fashion. This is an important discovery, because synchronised neural activity is believed to be the basis of various brain functions, including memory.
6-27-19 Flightless bird three times the size of an ostrich used to roam Europe
A giant flightless bird that rivalled enormous moas and elephant birds lived in Europe 1.8 million years ago – just as the first hominins migrated to the continent from Africa. Last summer, Nikita Zelenkov at the Borissiak Paleontological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow discovered a thigh bone, or femur, in Taurida cave on the Crimean peninsula. “It was found on the bottom of the cave, which was a den of ancient hyenas,” says Zelenkov. The bone belonged to a bird and was 75 centimetres long. Based on its size, the team estimates that the bird weighed about 450 kilograms, three times as much as an ostrich. They have named it Pachystruthio dmanisensis. Another thigh bone of similar size was found at Dmanisi in Georgia and described in 2013. It was initially thought to belong to a species closely related to a modern ostrich. However, Zelenkov’s team has re-examined it and concluded that it is a second specimen of P. dmanisensis. He says there are several other Eurasian bird bones that could be Pachystruthio. “It’s the first time these large birds have been reported in this area of the world,” says Delphine Angst of the University of Bristol, UK. No birds as large as P. dmanisensis were known from the northern hemisphere within the last 2.5 million years, she says. Many giant flightless birds lived on Earth within the past few million years. South America was home to the carnivorous terror birds, New Zealand had the moas, and the “demon duck of doom” roamed Australia. The largest of all were the elephant birds of Madagascar, the heftiest of which may have weighed more than 600 kilograms. No such birds are known from Africa but that may be due to a lack of excavations.
6-27-19 Ancient crocodile cousins evolved vegetarianism at least three times
We think of crocodiles as fearsome predators, but it wasn’t always so. During the dinosaur era, many crocodile-like reptiles were peaceful plant-eaters. The strategy evolved on at least three separate occasions and seems to have been both common and successful. Modern crocodiles and alligators belong to a larger group called the crocodyliforms, which has existed since the early days of the dinosaurs over 200 million years ago. Many extinct crocodyliforms are known from fossils. “People had previously hypothesised, just by looking at their teeth, that some of these animals had been herbivores,” says Keegan Melstrom at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City. But these were only educated guesses, because the ancient crocodyliforms’ teeth don’t match those of any modern animals. With his Utah colleague Randall Irmis, Melstrom has taken a systematic look by measuring how complex the shapes of the teeth are. Herbivore teeth are more complex than carnivore teeth, so Melstrom examined the teeth of 16 extinct crocodyliforms to figure out what they ate. Eight were herbivores. One example was Pakasuchus, which had back teeth that slotted neatly together like those of a mammal and probably chewed its food rather than swallowing it whole. At least one of the others ate a mixed “omnivorous” diet. When Melstrom slotted the herbivorous crocodyliforms into the family tree, he found that herbivory popped up in several branches. Herbivory evolved “anywhere from three to six times”, he says. Far from a rare oddity, “this is a really successful dietary strategy”.
6-27-19 Some ancient crocodiles may have chomped on plants instead of meat
Fossil teeth suggest plant-eating evolved at least three times in crocs of the Mesozoic Era. Some extinct crocs may have been keen to eat greens. An analysis of fossil teeth suggests that plant-eating relatives of modern crocodiles evolved at least three times during the Mesozoic Era, which stretched from roughly 252 million to about 66 million years ago, researchers report June 27 in Current Biology. Today’s crocodiles are predominantly carnivorous, and have the simple, conical chompers typical of meat eaters. But in the teeth of their relatives of yore, “there is this tremendous diversity … that we don’t see today,” says study coauthor Keegan Melstrom, a paleontologist at the University of Utah and Natural History Museum of Utah, both in Salt Lake City. Melstrom and his adviser, paleontologist Randall Irmis, studied CT scans of 146 teeth from 16 extinct types of crocodyliforms. (No living member of the group, which includes modern alligators and crocodiles, eats primarily plants.) A computer program treated the teeth like miniature mountains, analyzing their shapes and giving each tooth a score that captured its complexity. In general, the most textured teeth belong to herbivores, while those of omnivores and carnivores are usually less complex. Elongated, sharp teeth help carnivores kill and eat their prey, but broader, bumpier teeth are more useful in tearing leaves and grinding up plants. Comparing the fossil teeth with teeth from modern reptiles helped the scientists get a sense of what the ancient crocodyliforms likely chewed. Some of the fossil teeth were much bumpier than those of plant-eating reptiles alive today, including iguanas, suggesting that the chompers were also from predominantly herbivorous species. Other teeth looked specialized to crush bones, tear meat or eat insects.
6-26-19 Findings that many unconscious people may be aware is a wake-up call
Startling revelations of covert consciousness in 1 in 10 people in vegetative states makes their care more important than ever. THE faces of five people stare down at neurologist Nicholas Schiff from the wall of his office. These are pictures of people who appear to be in a vegetative state, but are in fact conscious. He stuck them up to remind him, he says, that they are still out there, and that doctors aren’t doing anything for them. The sentiment is right. These people’s basic needs are being catered for, but there is little more we can do to help. And now the nightmare has got worse: a 10-year investigation has revealed the extent of such “covert consciousness” in people with brain damage, many of whom may be aware. Nobody can fault the efforts of Schiff and his colleagues to identify such people. But unfortunately, it tends to be very expensive to enter those with disorders of consciousness into clinical trials investigating ways to interact with them. They need round-the-clock care, rehabilitation, brain imaging and long-term follow-up. Studies often need to last six months or more to identify changes in brain health or drug efficacy. Few agencies can, or will, fund this work. However, just knowing that covert consciousness isn’t rare can make a huge difference to patients’ prognosis. And while we wait for the technology that will allow them to communicate to catch up with this revelation, it may be the simplest things that make the biggest difference. We have learned from those who are locked in (fully conscious but unable to move much more than their eyes) that they can be happy and have a greater sense of well-being than people who aren’t locked in. But this is only the case when they get the chance to participate in the world, through the support and interaction of those around them. “Brain damaged patients are the forgotten patients,” says Geert Van Gelder, whose wife Evelyne is in a vegetative state in Belgium.
6-26-19 How palaeontology got cool: Inside the revolution in dinosaur science
Dinosaurs have won a huge following as new techniques revolutionise what we know about how they lived and even looked. How well are popular books keeping up?. “I AM often asked ‘what is the point of palaeontology?'”, writes Michael Benton towards the end of his frustrating new book, The Dinosaurs Rediscovered. I often asked myself the same question while I was reading it. Benton is a renowned dinosaur palaeontologist at the University of Bristol, UK, and the author of many good books on the subject. His aim is laudable and timely: to tell the story of how, over the past 40 years, the study of dinosaurs has been transformed from an antiquated branch of natural history into a highly rigorous scientific discipline. He knows the story inside out, having been one of its protagonists. But insider knowledge isn’t always the best vantage point. Much of the material in the book reads like a textbook on how to do dinosaur palaeontology and an introduction to the arcane academic debates within the field. Hence my frustration. There is a good story to be told about how modern techniques – such as electron microscopy, cladistics, CT scanning and biomechanics – have revealed things that would have been considered unknowable scarcely 50 years ago. These findings include how the dinosaurs rose to dominance and how their family tree fits together, as well as how they behaved, grew so large and even what colour they were. These are all fascinating discoveries, but by concentrating on the process, all too often Benton buries them in interminable detail – and the prolific use of technical diagrams doesn’t help at all. But it isn’t all a slog. Sometimes, inside knowledge is an asset, as it is in a chapter on how fossils are discovered, dug up and prepared. As a lifelong dinosaur fan who has spent many fruitless hours scouring beaches, cliffs and gullies for bones and teeth, this was a revelation. The section on the extinction of the dinosaurs is also fantastic, finally revealing Benton’s true colours as a science communicator and storyteller.
6-26-19 Shocking evidence shows people in vegetative states may be conscious
1 in 10 people thought to be permanently unconscious as a result of brain trauma may actually be aware. The hunt is on for ways to rescue them from their limbo. “I HAVE pictures of five patients on my wall,” says Nicholas Schiff. “They all seem to be in a vegetative state, but we know they are conscious. It’s to remind me they are out there and we are not helping them.” Schiff, based at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, is one of the world’s leading experts in disorders of consciousness. Many of his patients are in a vegetative state. Their injuries have left them with no awareness of themselves or of the world around them. Or so we thought. In 2006, it was discovered for the first time that a woman believed to be in a vegetative state was actually conscious, after brain scans revealed she could imagine different things on request. That breakthrough was quickly followed by a devastating revelation: our ability to determine whether someone is conscious based on their behaviour alone isn’t accurate enough. It is now known that some people have what is called “covert consciousness”, in which they have awareness that comes and goes, but can’t move any of their body. At first, it was believed to be a tragic but rare misdiagnosis. Now, results from a 10-year investigation suggest that many people could be trapped in this way. Their bodies lie still, but their minds are active. This creates an urgent need to find techniques that could awaken them. It also raises ethical questions about what we need to ask these people, and ourselves, when they do manage to make themselves heard. As recently as the late 1990s, it was assumed that people in a vegetative state, by definition, had no conscious awareness. They would show signs of sleep and wake cycles, and occasionally open their eyes or make involuntary movements, but weren’t aware of themselves or the people around them. However, Adrian Owen, then at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK, had a worrying thought: what if we were wrong?
6-26-19 Is There an Outbreak of Doubt About Vaccines in the U.S.?
The new Wellcome Global Monitor survey on attitudes toward science and health reveals pockets of doubt about the safety, effectiveness and importance of vaccines in some parts of the world -- including places such as the U.S., which is currently experiencing its worst measles outbreak since 1992. Worldwide, nearly eight in 10 people (79%) who have heard of vaccines say they "strongly" or "somewhat" agree that vaccines are safe. On its face, this percentage might seem like good news. However, if everyone who found vaccines safe was inoculated, this figure would fall short of the percentage of the population that needs to be vaccinated to achieve "herd immunity" to prevent the spread of diseases such as measles and polio. Americans are even more skeptical than the global average, with 72% strongly or somewhat agreeing that vaccines are safe. Twenty-eight percent of Americans do not agree that vaccines are safe -- including 17% who say "neither agree nor disagree," don't know or refuse to answer, and 11% who strongly or somewhat disagree. Americans are not the least confident nationality in the world about vaccine safety -- that badge goes to people in Ukraine, who are dealing with their own measles outbreak and where just 29% agree that vaccines are safe. And neither are Americans the most skeptical: The French lead the world in disagreeing that vaccines are safe (33%). However, Americans do have much in common with people in a number of other middle- to higher-income countries who, collectively, are more likely than people in lower-income countries to doubt (or at least not affirm) the safety of inoculations. Interestingly, U.S. parents -- though not necessarily of minor children -- are notably less likely to strongly agree that vaccines are safe than are U.S. adults who say they do not have children -- 60% vs. 78%, respectively. U.S. parents are about twice as likely as nonparents to disagree vaccines are safe (13% vs. 7%).
6-26-19 Barefoot walkers have tough feet but sense the ground just as well
The thicker soles that develop on the feet of those who rarely or never wear shoes provide protection without reducing the foot’s ability to sense the ground beneath them while walking – unlike cushioned shoes. That is the finding of a team led by evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman of Harvard University, who took up barefoot running a decade ago when he began studying it. His 2010 findings helped fuel the craze of jogging shoeless. Lieberman noticed that as his calluses grew thicker, his feet got tougher without seeming to lose their ability to sense the surface beneath them. He and his colleagues have now confirmed this by studying the feet of around 100 people in Kenya and the US. Those who usually walked barefoot had calluses up to a third thicker, but could sense vibrations just as well as those with thinner calluses. The reason, the team think, is that hard calluses transmit forces without dampening them – unlike the foam or rubber soles of many shoes. People who don’t have calluses are often very surprised by this, Lieberman says. But he points out that, for instance, guitarists also develop thick calluses on their fingers without losing sensitivity. The team is now looking at whether shoes or sandals with thin, stiff, uncushioned soles that act more like calluses and allow people to get more information from their feet could have some benefits compared with highly cushioned footwear. In particular, the team thinks this might help elderly people with their sense of balance, not least because feet become less sensitive with age. “Any way we could figure out to help people fall less would be useful,” says Lieberman. A 2003 study also suggested that athletes would suffer fewer injuries if they got more pressure cues from their feet.
6-26-19 Thick calluses don’t make feet any less sensitive
A study in Kenya compared shoe-clad versus bare feet of urban and rural residents. The tender feet of the shoe-clad are no better at sensing the ground than the callused soles of the barefoot. Calluses, skin thickened by rubbing against other surfaces, would seem to offer protection at the expense of sensitivity. But that isn’t what Harvard University human evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman has experienced when he runs barefoot in summer. As Lieberman’s calluses get thicker, “it [doesn’t] hurt as much to run — I could step on acorns and other things,” he says. “But I never felt like I lost sensory perception.” To explore why, Lieberman’s research group and colleagues in Germany and Africa measured the thickness of calluses on the feet of 81 adults in western Kenya. The participants, a mix of city and country dwellers, ranged from full-time shoe wearers to those who were usually or always barefoot. The researchers measured how sensitive participants’ foot soles were with a small device that applied pressure to the skin. When participants felt a poke from the device, they pressed a button. The results of the experiment failed to find a relationship between increased callus thickness and reduced foot sensitivity, the researchers report online June 26 in Nature. “People who had thicker calluses had no loss of sensitivity,” Lieberman says. And as human feet once were always bare and callused, it makes sense that “those calluses didn’t exert a cost in terms of our ability to sense the ground underneath us.”
6-26-19 Ancient DNA reveals Neanderthal migration and interbreeding
Neanderthals existed for hundreds of thousands of years but we know little about their early ancestry. Now DNA analysis of 120,000-year-old bones from Germany and Belgium sheds light on their mysterious past. The study reveals a remarkable continuity of European Neanderthal ancestry and a migration to the east that seems to have ousted their Siberian relatives. It also shows that some European Neanderthals hold clues about other ancient hominins in their DNA, as a result of interbreeding. Neanderthals first arose around 430,000 years ago, living in Europe and central Asia until their demise some 40,000 years ago. Few details are known about their population history, not least because the DNA in their ancient bones is hard to analyse due to degradation. Contamination with modern DNA can also be a problem whenever people handle the remains – something that has happened a lot with some Neanderthal bones that were excavated decades ago. Stéphane Peyrégne at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and his colleagues retrieved gene sequences from two different European Neanderthals from 120,000 years ago. One was obtained from a thigh bone found in the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in Germany. The other was from a face bone from Scladina cave in Belgium. The researchers compared these DNA profiles with genetic profiles of two Neanderthals who lived in the Denisova cave in Siberia 90,000 and 120,000 years ago. They also looked at Neanderthal DNA from individuals who lived in Europe about 40,000 years ago. “It’s the first time we can look at Neanderthals in Europe across a long period of time,” says Peyrégne. “It’s very exciting because we don’t know about the early history of Neanderthals. We can start asking questions about the relationships of the different Neanderthals that occupied Europe.”
6-26-19 DNA reveals a European Neandertal lineage that lasted 80,000 years
Fossils from caves in Belgium and Germany provided DNA from these extinct hominids. Neandertals had evolutionary stamina. An unbroken genetic line of the jut-jawed, powerfully built human relatives inhabited Europe for at least 80,000 years until dying out around 40,000 years ago, scientists say. DNA extracted from fossils of two roughly 120,000-year-old European Neandertals displays closer genetic links to 40,000-year-old European Neandertals than to a Siberian Neandertal who also lived around 120,000 years ago, say paleogeneticist Stéphane Peyrégne and colleagues. Later Neandertals in Europe and western Asia trace at least part of their ancestry back to Neandertals represented by the newly isolated DNA, the researchers conclude online June 26 in Science Advances. Evidence of European Neandertals’ genetic endurance starting about 120,000 years ago “fits nicely in the fossil record,” says paleogeneticist Carles Lalueza-Fox of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona, who did not participate in the new study. Ages of several early European Neandertal fossils fall at or near 120,000 years ago, he says. Until now, researchers had Neandertal fossils, but no DNA, from more than around 100,000 years ago, keeping genetic ties among early Neandertals a mystery. Peyrégne, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and his colleagues obtained the DNA from an adult Neandertal’s upper-leg bone unearthed in Germany’s Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave and from a Neandertal child’s upper jaw and teeth recovered in Belgium’s Scladina Cave.
6-26-19 The secrets of how sharks survived so many of Earth's mass extinctions
Vegetarianism and liking underwater volcanoes have helped sharks survive for half a billion years. But can they use their skills to cope with climate change? THE beach at Muizenberg outside Cape Town is a Mecca for wannabe surf bums. But when the beach siren sounds, surfers and swimmers alike tend to lose their cool. That distinctive rolling wail is a warning that sharks may be nearby. Everyone knows the drill – get out of the water as quickly as you can. The mere suggestion of a shark is enough to conjure fear in many of us. But sharks also inspire awe. It isn’t just their elegance or physicality; equally impressive is their tenacity. As a group, sharks have been around for at least 420 million years, meaning they have survived four of the “big five” mass extinctions. That makes them older than humanity, older than Mount Everest, older than dinosaurs, older even than trees. It is possible that sharks just got lucky in the lottery of life. But over the past few years, scientists have discovered that the fish possess some unusual qualities that allow them to be super-adaptable in the face of change, including a fondness for hanging out around underwater volcanoes. The big question now is whether these qualities will help sharks survive the current sixth mass extinction, triggered by human activities. Today, sharks face a new challenge, far deadlier than any they have ever encountered. Sharks, along with rays, skates and chimaeras, make up a group of fish known as chondrichthyes, characterised by a cartilaginous skeleton. Fossil scales found in Siberia indicate that sharks originated in the Silurian period, which began about 440 million years ago. It was a time when the world was warm, sea levels were high and corals reefs were starting to appear. Since then, thousands of shark species have existed, culminating in a golden age about 360 million years ago, when they dominated the oceans, taking many weird and wonderful forms. Today, there are more than 450 shark species, ranging from well-known ones such as great whites and hammerheads to the exotic and bizarre, including goblin sharks, cookiecutter sharks and Japanese wobbegong.
6-25-19 Non-addictive CRISPR-edited tobacco could help eliminate smoking
A gene-edited tobacco plant created using the CRISPR technique has the lowest ever amount of nicotine. It could boost efforts to reduce nicotine in cigarettes to non-addictive levels, as the US plans to do. Felix Stehle and Julia Schachtsiek at the Technical University of Dortmund in Germany used CRISPR to disable six enzymes involved in the production of nicotine in the tobacco plant. They started with a strain that usually contains 16 milligrams of nicotine per gram of dry tobacco, but their gene-edited version has just 0.04 milligrams of nicotine per gram – a reduction of 99.7 per cent. It is almost undetectable, says Stehle. Low-nicotine cigarettes are just as dangerous as normal ones because other substances damage the lungs and cause cancer. However, such cigarettes prevent people becoming addicted and help them give up, according to a 2015 report by the World Health Organization (WHO). Trials of cigarettes with very low nicotine levels show that existing smokers don’t smoke more to compensate. “That was a surprise to people,” says Alan Boobis at Imperial College London, one of the authors of the WHO report. The report proposed reducing nicotine levels in cigarettes to non-addictive levels to eliminate smoking worldwide. That proposal was never officially adopted as policy, says Boobis, but he hopes the WHO will review it. Meanwhile, some individual countries are pursuing this approach. In March 2018, the US announced it was working on plans to force manufacturers to reduce nicotine in all cigarettes. “Approximately 5 million additional adult smokers could quit smoking within one year of implementation,” the then US Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb said at the time. By 2100, more than 33 million people in the US would have avoided becoming regular smokers, the FDA said.
6-26-19 Bystander effect: Famous psychology result could be completely wrong
If you were being attacked, would anyone stop to help you? A famous result in psychology known as the bystander effect says probably not, but now a review of real-life violent situations says this commonly held view may be wrong. The bystander effect purports that in situations such as a robbery or a stabbing, bystanders are less likely to step in if there are a large number of people in the area, so the likelihood of intervention decreases. The idea has its roots in the 1964 case of Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old woman who was raped and murdered in the early morning in her quiet neighbourhood in Queens, New York. The New York Times reported at the time that 38 people had watched for more than half an hour as she was attacked. It turns out that the number of observers in that case was an exaggeration, but the incident has become part of psychology legend. The bystander effect, first proposed by social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley, has been replicated in numerous experimental studies. Potential explanations for the phenomenon include that individuals may feel less responsibility to intervene when many other people are around, as well as fear acting inadequately when being observed. It may also be that if no one else seems to be reacting or taking action, then we may fail to perceive the situation as an emergency. Now, Richard Philpot at Lancaster University in the UK and his colleagues say the effect might not actually be real. They looked at surveillance footage of violent situations in the UK, South Africa and the Netherlands, and found that, in 90 per cent of cases, at least one person (but typically several) intervened and tried to help. In addition, they found that the likelihood of intervention increased in accordance with the number of bystanders – which directly contradicts the bystander effect.
6-26-19 AIs that diagnose diseases are starting to assist and replace doctors
Digital doctors are already in use, but there are big questions about how they work. Are we ready for the rise of AI healthcare? ARTIFICIALLY intelligent doctors are here. Thousands of people in the US and Europe have already been screened by an AI system for detecting diabetes-related blindness without the involvement of a human doctor. The system was approved last year after it outperformed trained professionals in a trial. More AI tests will kick off in the next few years. They look set to improve the diagnosis of many conditions, from breast and lung cancer to broken wrists and glaucoma. Any hospital that can afford the necessary equipment will soon be able to offer the same standard of diagnosis. This is the vision, at least. Yet if we rush to adopt such systems prematurely, they could prove harmful. “I’m bullish about the ability of AI to do good,” says Amol Navathe at the University of Pennsylvania. “But it’s harder than people think.” Take IBM Watson, the AI system famous for winning the Jeopardy TV quiz. It was supposed to revolutionise healthcare by using its natural language processing skills to analyse vast amounts of medical literature to provide more accurate diagnoses and recommend better treatments. But it has been claimed that the cancer system, IBM Watson for Oncology, sometimes made incorrect and unsafe recommendations – which weren’t followed – and that some doctors are abandoning the system after it didn’t live up to expectations. “In my view, it’s a failure,” says cardiologist Eric Topol, author of Deep Medicine, a book on AI in healthcare. IBM has disputed these claims. “Can Watson help oncologists make better decisions for their patients? Repeatedly, the answer has proven to be a resounding ‘yes’,” wrote IBM executive John Kelly in a blog post.
6-26-19 Peru’s famous Nazca Lines may include drawings of exotic birds
The pre-Inca people who crafted the enormous landscape art depicted winged fliers from far away. Massive drawings of birds etched by pre-Inca people on southern Peru’s Nazca desert plateau include several exotic surprises, Japanese researchers say. Three avian images depict species that live far outside the region where the famous drawings were created, zooarchaeologist Masaki Eda of Hokkaido University Museum and his colleagues conclude. A drawing previously classified as a hummingbird actually represents a related species known as a long-tailed hermit, Eda’s group reports online June 20 in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. These hermits (Phaethornis superciliosus) have long, pointed tails, as in the Nazca drawing, while the region’s hummingbirds have forked or fan-shaped tails. In Peru, hermits inhabit rainforests on the eastern slopes of the Andes and in northern regions near Ecuador. Two other Nazca bird drawings, both of which hadn’t been identified definitively until now, depict pelicans that live along Peru’s Pacific coast, the scientists say. Another Nazca drawing previously classified as a baby duck instead portrays a newly hatched parrot, the scientists suspect. Parrotlike features include a short, thick bill and a bump on the forehead. Like hermits, most parrots in Peru inhabit rainforests. Monkeys and spiders depicted at the site may also have lived in rainforests, the researchers say. It’s unclear why birds and other creatures from distant locales were portrayed at Nazca. Species identities of another 12 Nazca birds eluded Eda’s team. Nazca figures include more than 2,700 lines, geometric designs, plants, animals and possibly a labyrinth (SN: 1/12/13, p. 9). The drawings analyzed in the new study were created between around 2,400 and 1,300 years ago.
6-25-19 These fungi drug cicadas with psilocybin or amphetamine to make them mate nonsto
The insects keep at it even if chunks of their abdomens fall off. A cicada-infecting fungus produces drugs that make the insects literally mate their butts off. Massospora fungi make either a drug found in hallucinogenic mushrooms or an amphetamine found in khat leaves, plant pathologist Matthew Kasson of West Virginia University in Morgantown reported June 22 at the ASM Microbe 2019 meeting. The fungi may use psilocybin, which causes people to hallucinate, or the amphetamine cathinone to suppress cicadas’ appetites and keep the insects moving and mating even after they lose big chunks of their bodies. The finding marks the first time that researchers have discovered a fungus, other than mushrooms, producing psilocybin, and the first organism outside of plants to make an amphetamine. Massospora fungi are transmitted sexually from cicada to cicada. Huge plugs of fungi form on the insects’ abdomens, and during mating, parts of the abdomens may break away, Kasson said. Losing body parts would surely slow most organisms down, and yet for the fungal-infected cicadas, “two-thirds of their body might be missing, and they would be whistling as they walk down the street,” Kasson said. The infected insects mate nearly nonstop, spreading the fungi to partners, he and colleagues report June 25 in Fungal Ecology. Overall, the team discovered 1,176 small molecules in fungus-infected cicadas, including the two psychoactive drugs. The researchers aren’t sure how the fungi produce the drugs, which in other organisms require enzymes that seem to be missing from Massospora. So the fungi may be using new ways to make the compounds, Kasson said. The team is also trying to determine what the other molecules do to influence cicada behavior.
6-25-19 Signs of the color blue have been found in a fossil for the first time
Modern blue-colored birds and an ancient bird both have similar color-creating microstructures. A tree-dwelling bird that lived 48 million years ago probably had blue plumage, researchers say. Scientists inspecting a fossil of Eocoracias brachyptera say they have, for the first time, identified the remnants of the color in a fossil. The researchers examined 72 feather samples from modern birds of many different colors, and 12 samples of organic material carefully collected from the fossilized plumage of E. brachyptera. Then, the team analyzed the shape and size of a type of pigment-containing cellular structure called a melanosome found within the feathers. Melanosome shapes have been linked to particular hues in feathers and fur, helping paint a picture of ancient animals. Sausage-shaped melanosomes are thought to contain black pigment, for instance, and rounder meatball-shaped pods contain reddish-brown pigment (SN: 6/22/19, p. 14). Blue is one of the trickier colors to achieve, though. Blue, green and iridescent feathers, like a hummingbird’s, are called structural colors because producing those colors requires a particular setup within the barbs of the feather. That setup includes a spongy, air pocket–filled layer of keratin overlying a layer of black pigment–containing melanosomes. For a blue-colored bird, “the top layer is structured in such a way that it refracts light in blue wavelength,” says Frane Babarovic, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Sheffield in England. “The melanosomes underneath absorb the rest” of the light. Keratin isn’t generally well-preserved in fossils, but melanosomes often are. So Babarovic and his colleagues analyzed whether they could distinguish the shapes of melanosomes in blue-colored feathers from those of other colors.
6-25-19 IVF success rates peak as only one in four attempts achieve pregnancy
IVF success rates peak as only one in four attempts achieve pregnancy The success rates for two common fertility treatments have peaked, with only one in four attempts resulting in pregnancy. The success rate for IVF and a similar technique called intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) have been around this level for about a decade. In the new figures, which come from national registries in 36 European countries, 27 per cent of women became pregnant from a round of IVF. For ICSI, which involves injecting a sperm into an egg, the pregnancy rate was 24 per cent, and this has actually slightly fallen from 30 per cent in 2008. The results were presented at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) meeting in Vienna. ICSI was designed to help men with problems with their sperm, by putting one sperm directly into an egg, but as ICSI treatment cycles now outnumber those of IVF by around three to one, that suggests it is being used for other causes of infertility, says Christian de Geyter, chair of ESHRE’s European IVF Monitoring Consortium. Some believe ICSI is more successful, but the latest figures, which were for 2016, don’t support that, although only a randomised trial can find out for sure. The plateauing of success rates could be because progress in fertility treatments has reached a natural limit. “We are probably getting near a normal pregnancy rate that would happen naturally for one embryo,” says Roy Farquharson, chairman of ESHRE. “Human reproduction is not very efficient.” Alternatively it could be because fertility treatments are being sought by a growing number of older women, who have lower success rates, says Claire Roberts of the University of Adelaide.
6-25-19 Dried Earth microbes could grow on Mars with just a little humidity
In experiments, salt-loving bacteria revived and doubled their numbers after absorbing damp air. Salt-loving microbes can dry out and come back to life with just a little humidity, researchers have demonstrated for the first time. Scientists have suspected that microbes in arid places may get their moisture from humidity alone, but no one has shown that dried-out microbes can revive with water sucked from the air. Dessicated Halomonas bacteria from Washington’s Hot Lake perked up and began growing again after absorbing humidity in a jar, astrobiologist Mark Schneegurt, of Wichita State University in Kansas, said June 21 at the ASM Microbe 2019 meeting. That discovery has implications for the search for life on other planets, and for preventing life from Earth from contaminating other worlds (SN: 1/20/18, p. 22). Schneegurt and colleagues grew Halomonas bacteria in magnesium sulfate brines. Magnesium sulfate (also called Epsom salts) and perchlorates are the main types of salts found on Mars. Those salts don’t play keep-away with water molecules the way sodium salts do, so microbes have a better chance of snagging some moisture. Magnesium salt–tolerant microbes have been detected in clean rooms where NASA builds its spacecraft, Schneegurt said. “There’s definitely life on Mars. It just came from Earth,” he said. The question is “how worried do we have to be that an organism from Earth can survive and grow there?” Halomonas growing in magnesium brines at room temperature double their numbers in three to four days, the researchers found. Even at –4° Celsius — a more Mars-like temperature — the microbes grow, but it takes months. The microbes also held up well to repeated cycles of drying and wetting. “We lose a few, but not an enormous amount,” he said.
6-24-19 3-D mammograms are popular, but are they better than 2-D?
Gold standard trials comparing breast cancer screening methods are just getting under way. In recent years, women getting a mammogram have had a new decision to make: 2-D or 3-D? Some breast-care centers have touted the newer 3-D mammography technology as more accurate. But while initial research suggests that it may be a more sensitive diagnostic test, evidence that the technology actually reduces the number of deaths from breast cancer better than 2-D imaging is lacking. Even so, use of this technology has skyrocketed in recent years, according to a new analysis of private insurance data. Also known as digital breast tomosynthesis, three-dimensional mammography was the primary screening method in 43.2 percent, or 763,982 out of close to 1.8 million exams in a private insurance database in the second half of 2017, researchers report online June 24 in JAMA Internal Medicine. That’s up from only 12.9 percent, or 187,885 out of about 1.5 million, in the first half of 2015. Both 3-D and 2-D imaging methods rely on X-ray technology. And a woman undergoing either method experiences breast-squeezing discomfort. But three-dimensional mammography takes images from many different angles around the breast, which a computer then combines to make a 3-D image. The standard 2-D mammography, which usually takes images from two angles, offers a flat image of the breast. When 3-D screening is used, the radiologist gets both a 3-D and a 2-D image. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which approves medical devices, gave 3-D mammography the green light in 2011. But the American Cancer Society and U.S. Preventive Services Task Force don’t yet recommend the new technology for routine screening, citing lack of evidence.
6-24-19 Gut bacteria might influence how our brains develop as children
The microbes in our guts might play a role in how the human brain develops in our earliest years. The finding is just the latest evidence of how important gut microbes are: they have previously been linked to variation in human body weight, to mental health and even to how individuals react to drugs. Sophie Rowland at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and her colleagues analysed the microbial DNA in stools from 250 children and paired the information with data on brain activity obtained using fMRI brain scans. For children under two years old, the results show “a significant association between higher abundances of these two Bifidobacterium species and [brain] network connectivity,” says Rowland. The bug B. longum was linked to better activity in parts of the brain associated with attention. For the other microbe, B. pseudocatenulatum, the link was with better development in the area of the brain involved in language acquisition. But Rowland stresses that it’s not possible to say yet that we can alter our children’s gut microbiomes to help their brain development. “There could be a hypothesis that more B. longum might help language and attention development within the brain. Whether that’s as simple as giving a kid a B. longum probiotic I can’t say,” she says. The amount of B. longum in a child’s gut has previously been linked with breastfeeding. The next steps for Rowland’s research, which was presented at the ASM Microbe conference in San Francisco on 21 June, is to follow the children for up to seven years. That should show how the early development of our gut microbiome could affect brain development later on.
6-24-19 Can your gut bacteria really make you a better runner?
Want to become a better runner? You’re probably going to have to run faster, smarter and longer. But a piece of the puzzle may lie in a surprising place: the bacteria in your gut. We know exercise can alter the gut microbiome. Now George Church at Harvard University and colleagues say that the microbiome may be a critical component of physical performance. The Boston marathon is famously tough to get into, due to its ever-faster qualifying times. The researchers took daily stool samples from 15 runners in the 2015 race, one week before and one week after they ran, along with a sedentary control group, to see what was in their gut. A genetic analysis found a significant increase in one genus of bacteria, Veillonella, post-marathon. The results were then successfully replicated by analysing the stool samples of 87 ultramarathoners and Olympic trial rowers before and after exercise. The correlation raises the prospect of a causal link between the bacteria and physical performance, the researchers say. To find out more, one strain of Veillonella taken from one of the Boston marathoners was then put in mice. It allowed them to run 13 per cent longer on a treadmill than a control group without it. Further tests saw the team put forward the idea that the bug has a role in breaking down lactic acid, which can lead to fatigue during running. The research potentially points the way to a future where probiotic supplements could change your microbiome and make you a better runner. But it’s too early to tell if that will come to pass, Church says. “This is worth enjoying as pure science for now. Until we complete the human trials, it is merely an interesting correlation in humans and a much stronger cause and effect shown in mice.”
6-24-19 Gut microbes might help elite athletes boost their physical performance
Mice dosed with Veillonella bacteria from an athlete’s stool ran for longer on a treadmill. One difference between elite athletes and the rest of us might be in what hangs out in their guts. Microbes that flourished in the guts of some runners after a marathon boosted the time that lab mice ran on a treadmill, researchers report June 24 in Nature Medicine. These particular microbes seem to take lactate, pumped out by muscles during exercise, and turn it into a compound that may help with endurance. The study “adds to our understanding of how the bacteria in our gut may influence all sorts of different facets of health and disease,” says Kim Barrett, a gastrointestinal physiologist at the University of California, San Diego, who was not involved with the study. While most studies of the microbiome — the medley of microorganisms that live in and on the body — rely on correlation, this work shows that specific bacteria, as well as the products that they make, can improve athletic performance in mice, she says. In the study, researchers collected stool samples from 15 elite runners for five days before and after they ran in the 2015 Boston Marathon, and compared the samples’ microbial makeup with that of poop collected from 10 nonrunners. The runners’ samples showed a bump in the abundance of bacteria from the genus Veillonella after the race. The team also saw an increase in Veillonella in a group of 87 ultramarathoners and Olympic trial rowers after a workout. This finding raised the question of whether these microbes were mere bystanders or were actually helping their hosts. So the researchers cultured one strain, Veillonella atypica, from a runner and fed it to mice. Not all of the 32 mice responded to the treatment, but on average, mice that received the microbes ran for 13 percent longer in experiments than mice in a control group.
6-24-19 Unique chance to confirm there is methane – and perhaps life – on Mars
. NASA’s Curiosity rover has sniffed out methane on Mars again – and this time it offers a unique opportunity to confirm that the Red Planet’s atmosphere really does contain the gas, which is usually produced by living things. The latest measurement, taken last week at Gale Crater, is the largest amount of methane ever discovered on Mars. But the concentration of methane is not the most exciting thing about the latest finding. It turns out that two satellites were observing the area at roughly the same time Curiosity made this measurement. That gives researchers the best chance ever to confirm using independent scientific instruments that there is methane on Mars. “This is what we have been waiting for,” says Marco Giuranna at the National Institute for Astrophysics in Italy, who leads the team behind the methane measurement device on the Mars Express probe, which has been orbiting Mars since 2003. “The data is still to be analysed, and not all of it has reached Earth yet. But we are very excited.” Planetary scientists are interested in methane on Mars because it could be a sign of life. Although it can be produced by geological sources, on Earth the vast majority of the gas is pumped out by microbes and other living things. Although we have spotted tantalising glimpses of methane on Mars a few times over the years, it has been difficult to confirm the detections with other instruments. Some sort of destruction mechanism might quickly remove methane from the lower atmosphere, but the uncertainty has led to scepticism about past methane sightings. This time could be different. Giuranna says that Mars Express just happened to have its spectrometer trained on Gale Crater for an extended period, a technique known as “spot rigging”, around 20 hours before the rover made its detection on the ground, as well as a day later. “We typically have a couple of spot rigging events per month, so we were lucky here,” he says. Another satellite called the Trace Gas Orbiter, which boasts two instruments capable of detecting methane, also has data from the same area on the same day.
6-24-19 Nasa's Curiosity Mars rover senses methane spike
The American space agency's Mars rover Curiosity has recorded its largest measurement yet of methane. The robot frequently "sniffs" the Red Planet for the gas but has never before seen so high a concentration - of 21 parts per billion (ppb). The observations are fascinating because on Earth, methane is produced in large part by living things. That's not necessarily the case on Mars; geological processes are very capable of making it as well. Nonetheless, the latest data will heighten interest in the topic. Through the course of its mission, Curiosity has noticed a number of spikes in methane, and it senses a background level that appears to have a seasonal pattern to it. But although the robot's big onboard chemistry lab - the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument - can detect the gas's presence, it can say nothing about the source. "With our current measurements, we have no way of telling if the methane source is biology or geology, or even ancient or modern," said SAM Principal Investigator Paul Mahaffy from Nasa's Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The issue of methane at Mars is a little confusing at the moment, to say the least. While Curiosity continues to measure some spikes, and one of these has been confirmed by the European Mars Express satellite in orbit at the planet - another spacecraft, supposedly with much better sensitivity, has seen nothing. This probe, known as the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), started observing the planet's atmosphere in April 2017. It should be able to detect methane at concentrations in the parts per trillion. Quite why it cannot see what Curiosity sees is therefore a major puzzle. One suggestion is that there is some kind of destruction mechanism that removes a methane spike in the lower atmosphere very rapidly - before the joint European-Russian TGO can get over Curiosity's operation site at Gale Crater. But if this process exists, scientists are at a loss currently to explain it.
6-24-19 Capuchin monkeys’ stone-tool use has evolved over 3,000 years
A Brazilian site shows the animals’ long history of selecting various types of pounding devices. Excavations in Brazil have pounded out new insights into the handiness of ancient monkeys. South American capuchin monkeys have not only hammered and dug with carefully chosen stones for the last 3,000 years, but also have selected pounding tools of varying sizes and weights along the way. Capuchin stone implements recovered at a site in northeastern Brazil display signs of shifts during the last three millennia between a focus on dealing with either relatively small, soft foods or larger, hard-shelled edibles, researchers report. These discoveries, described online June 24 in Nature Ecology & Evolution, are the first evidence of changing patterns of stone-tool use in a nonhuman primate. “It’s likely that local vegetation changes after 3,000 years ago led to changes in capuchin stone tools,” says archaeologist Tomos Proffitt of University College London. The new findings raise the possibility that chimpanzees and macaque monkeys, which also use stones to pound and dig, have shifted their tool-use styles over the long haul, perhaps in response to climate and habitat changes, Proffitt says. Archaeological sites linked to apes and monkeys are rare, though. Previous excavations in West Africa unearthed nut-cracking stones wielded by chimps around 4,300 years ago (SN: 11/21/09, p. 24). Present-day chimps inhabiting the same part of Africa crack nuts with similar-looking rocks. Evidence of long-term changes in tools used by wild capuchins (Sapajus libidinosus) comes from a site in Brazil’s Serra da Capivara National Park. Excavations there have also yielded ancient human stone tools (SN: 10/18/14, p. 14). But the newly unearthed artifacts more closely resemble stone tools used by modern capuchins at the same site (SN: 11/26/16, p. 16), rather than Stone Age human implements, the researchers say.
6-24-19 Vegetables as well as meat could spread superbugs into food chain
Superbugs can enter our diets if we eat meat from animals fed with antibiotics. But a new study suggests the vegetables in our diet also have the potential to harbour antibiotic-resistant microbes. The use of antibiotics in livestock farming for growth promotion rather than curing sick animals is considered a key way for antibiotic resistant bugs to evolve. A fifth of the 2 million superbug infections in the US each year are linked to eating meat, according to US agencies. By comparison, relatively little work has been done on the role that fruit and vegetables might be playing in spreading antibiotic resistant bacteria to humans. Marlene Maeusli says her research suggests we should consider the whole food chain, not just meat, in transmitting superbugs. Her team at the University of Southern California found that when two antibiotic resistance strains of E. coli were added to lettuce and fed to mice that had been treated with antibiotics for four days, the superbugs were able to survive the journey through the rodent stomach and hide in the intestines. One of two antibiotics used, clindamycin, actually helped the resistant bugs to colonise the mice guts. If the mice can get colonised through eating antibiotic-resistant bacteria on vegetables, humans probably can too, Maeusli expects. The plants most likely acting as a vector for spreading superbugs are leafy greens such as lettuce. They are eaten raw and have crevices on their surface that are difficult to clean during food preparation, meaning the bacteria are less likely to be washed off. “We come across people saying because they’re vegetarian now they’re safe [from superbugs],” Maeusli, who presented her research at the ASM Microbe conference in San Francisco on 22 June. “What we’re trying to say is that everyone, regardless of whether you’re a vegetarian, you’re still connected to the larger food chain.”
6-24-19 Storing sperm in a freezer for a decade hardly affects birth rates
Long-term sperm freezing makes little difference to live birth rates. Despite a time limit imposed in many countries on storing frozen sperm, a large sperm bank study has found this may not be necessary. The findings are based on a retrospective analysis of 119,558 semen samples from donors at the Hunan Sperm Bank in China. The samples were arranged in three groups: those kept in cryostorage for between six months and five years, those stored for between six and 10 years, and those stored for between 11 and 15 years. The study found that the frozen sperm’s survival rate after thawing did decline over the 15-year study period – from 85 per cent to 74 per cent survival. However, this decline made little difference to the pregnancy and live birth rate in women using these samples for donor insemination, with cumulative live birth rates of 82.2 per cent, 80.2 per cent and 80.0 per cent in the three storage groups respectively. Success rates were similarly comparable when the frozen sperm samples were used in IVF, with live birth rates of 81.6 per cent, 79.1 per cent and 73.9 per cent in the three groups. Results of the study are being presented at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology annual meeting in Vienna.
6-24-19 Freezing embryos doesn't boost IVF success rate despite common use
A commonly used fertility medicine technique of freezing embryos and waiting several weeks before using them is ineffective at boosting pregnancy rates, a trial has shown. The approach is growing in popularity, and in the US about a quarter of IVF cycles now use this “freeze-all” strategy, although this includes women who need it for health reasons. During standard IVF, women take medicines to encourage their ovaries to produce several eggs, which are then collected and fertilised with sperm in a dish. Any embryos are allowed to grow for a few days before one or two are transferred into the uterus in the hope one will implant and lead to pregnancy. Any spare embryos are frozen for future attempts. But fertility clinics are increasingly recommending that women freeze all their embryos and wait several weeks before implanting the first ones. The thinking is that this may raise the chances of pregnancy, because if an embryo is transferred straight away, the lining of the uterus may be less receptive due to the medicines women take to produce multiple eggs. Now a trial has put this idea to the test by randomising 460 women at clinics in Denmark, Sweden and Spain to either the freeze-all approach or the standard method of transferring one unfrozen embryo straight away. Freezing all the embryos led to a 26 per cent pregnancy rate compared with 29 per cent for the standard method. This was such a small difference it could have arisen due to chance – but it does suggest freezing offers no advantage. The research was presented at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Vienna today. There have been three previous trials looking at this question, only one of which found any benefit.
6-23-19 New approaches may help solve the Lyme disease diagnosis dilemma
Today’s diagnostics leave too many people in limbo. In 2005, Rachel Straub was a college student returning home from a three-week medical service mission in Central America. Soon after, she suffered a brutal case of the flu. Or so she thought. “We were staying in orphanages,” she says of her trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua. “There were bugs everywhere. I remember going to the bathroom and the sinks would be solid bugs.” She plucked at least half a dozen ticks off her body. Back in Straub’s hometown of San Diego, fevers and achiness tormented her for a couple of weeks. Her doctor suspected Lyme disease, which is spread by ticks, but a test came back negative, and at the time, the infection was almost unheard of in Latin America. For years, Straub struggled off and on with crushing fatigue and immune problems. She forged on with her studies. Dedicated to physical fitness, she started writing a book about weight training. But in late 2012, she could no longer push through her exhaustion. “My health was shattering,” she says. By January 2013, she could hardly get out of bed and had to move back in with her parents. She describes a merry-go-round of physicians offering varying explanations: chronic fatigue syndrome, mononucleosis. She never got a definitive diagnosis, but a rheumatologist with expertise in immunology finally prescribed powerful antibiotics. Almost immediately, Straub broke out in chills and other flulike symptoms, and her blood pressure plummeted, problems that sometimes arise when pathogens begin a massive die-off inside the body. She began to feel better, but slowly. Over the next four years, she could barely leave her house. Stories like Straub’s are what make Lyme disease one of the most charged and controversial of all infections. It’s not hard to find tick-bitten patients who live for years with undiagnosed and unexplained symptoms that defy repeated treatment attempts.
6-22-19 The medical student who died of measles
Until recently health authorities thought they had almost eliminated measles from Europe. But now the potentially deadly illness is on the rise because of a dramatic fall in vaccination rates. Worst hit is Ukraine, now suffering the one of the worst measles epidemics in the world, with more than 100,000 cases since 2017. On an autumn day in 2017, Oksana Butenko waved goodbye to her teenage son Serhiy as he set off for university to study to become a doctor. Eighteen months later, in February this year, she brought his body back to her small village in western Ukraine in a coffin. The young man who wanted to devote his life to curing people of diseases had himself died at age 18, suddenly, of an illness health authorities say is completely preventable - measles, a disease they thought, a few years ago, they had almost eradicated in Europe. "He was a brilliant boy," Oksana says, standing outside the little silver-domed village church where her son's funeral was held. "He was the most precious thing I ever had. It was his dream to become a medic, that's what he lived for. "I don't know why it happened. I remember my childhood, everyone got measles, but they all recovered." Measles is a highly contagious disease that most people get over after a couple of weeks of high temperature, and an unpleasant skin rash. But in a few cases - one or two in a thousand - it leads on to fatal complications, most commonly pneumonia. Serhiy died of pneumonia brought on by measles after several days in intensive care, infection eating away at his lungs, unable to breathe without artificial ventilation. He was one of 39 people to have died of measles in Ukraine since the current outbreak began in 2017. Measles has been surging across Europe, with the number of new cases tripling last year to 82,596. The majority of those were in Ukraine, with 53,218 catching the disease.
6-21-19 Jessica Biel
Jessica Biel was widely criticized after she lobbied against a California bill last week that would tighten vaccination requirements amid a nationwide measles outbreak. The actress, 37, met with state legislators in Sacramento to oppose the legislation, and posed with anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who called her stance “courageous.” State legislators say the bill would stop the practice of parents pressuring their doctors to give their kids bogus medical exemptions from vaccinations, by requiring the exemptions to be granted by state health officials. Biel said she was “not against vaccinations” but wanted parents to have “the right to make educated medical decisions for their children alongside physicians.” In 2015, it was reported that Biel and her husband, Justin Timberlake, planned to not vaccinate their son. Democratic State Sen. Richard Pan of California, a pediatrician who introduced the bill, said privileged parents like Biel “put all of us, our children, and our communities, at risk.”
6-21-19 Sleeping with the lights on
Don’t drop off in front of the TV—it might make you fat. That’s the conclusion of a new study that found sleeping with a television or light on was closely linked with weight gain. Researchers followed 43,722 healthy women, ages 35 to 74, for about five years. After controlling for diet, physical activity, and other factors, scientists found that the participants who slept with an artificial light source on nearby were 17 percent more likely to have gained 11 pounds over the study period than those who slept in darkness. They were also about 30 percent more likely to become obese. The researchers suspect that artificial light may affect levels of appetite-regulating hormones or cause daytime drowsiness that results in people being less active. “Getting a good night’s sleep is really important for health,” senior author Dale Sandler, from the National Institutes of Health, tells The New York Times. “A very simple thing people can do to reduce the risk for obesity is to turn off the lights before going to sleep.”
6-21-19 A truly ancient vintage
Modern wine lovers are enjoying grapes very similar to those grown at least 900 years ago. In a new study, scientists examined the DNA of 28 grape seeds found at archaeological sites across France, where crushed wine grapes were dropped or people and animals ate and excreted them. All were genetically related to wine grapes grown today, and in the case of savagnin blanc—a light, floral white not to be confused with the more common sauvignon blanc—the researchers discovered that the wine people are sipping today is genetically identical to that enjoyed by the French around 1200 A.D. Vineyards often use cuttings of existing vines to replant popular grapes, effectively preventing them from evolving and changing. The new study suggests that this propagating process has been going on for nearly a millennium in the hills of Jura, near France’s border with Switzerland, where savagnin blanc is still grown today. “It tells us a lot about [vintners’] ingenuity,” co-author Nathan Wales, from the U.K.’s University of York, tells TheGuardian.com. “They have been keeping alive certain vines that consumers really like.”
6-21-19 Face-to-face with an Ice Age wolf
The well-preserved head of a giant wolf that died up to 40,000 years ago has been unearthed from the melting permafrost in eastern Siberia—a discovery that could shine a light on the evolutionary history of wolves and domestic dogs. Found by locals looking for mammoth ivory on the banks of a river, the adult wolf head has a fully intact set of teeth and coat of fur. “It looks like it died yesterday,” Julie Meachen, a paleontologist at Des Moines University who isn’t involved in the research, told Gizmodo.com. “We’ve never seen an Ice Age wolf in the flesh before, and this is a huge specimen.” The wolf was between 2 and 4 years old when it died, and at 15 inches, its head is longer than those of modern wolves, whose heads typically measure 9 to 11 inches. Scientists will now examine the specimen’s DNA and build a digital model of its skull and brain. Albert Protopopov, a researcher at the Republic of Sakha Academy of Sciences in Siberia, says that as the planet warms, more ancient remains will emerge from the region’s melting permafrost. Other finds in Siberia in the past year include a well-preserved cave lion cub and a 42,000-year-old foal that still contained liquid blood and urine.
6-21-19 Artificial intelligence could spot early signs of schizophrenia
People in the early stages of schizophrenia have telltale verbal signs that could be spotted by speech analysis software, long before doctors notice. Those who are developing the condition tend to be vaguer in their speech and to use words related to voices and sounds, a study has found. People with schizophrenia have delusions and hallucinations, such as hearing voices, as well as confusion and memory problems. The condition usually emerges when people are in their twenties, but for a few years beforehand, people may have warning symptoms, like odd behaviours or seeing or hearing unusual things. But only about a third of people with these mild symptoms go on to develop full-blown schizophrenia or a similar disorder. One hope is that people who are most at risk could be identified during this preliminary stage and given help, such as talking therapies or even just practical assistance; during this period people are more likely to drop out of college, or lose their job, for instance. “Knowing what’s going on by itself would help a lot, and they could get connected to support systems,” says Neguine Rezaii of Harvard Medical School. Rezaii’s team took advantage of a previous study that tracked the experiences of people with mild symptoms. They transcribed recorded interviews between medical staff and 40 participants, 12 of whom later transitioned into schizophrenia. They used three-quarters of the individuals to train their artificially intelligent software to predict who would deterioriate, and the rest as a test group; in the test the program was 90 per cent accurate. One of the indicators for schizophrenia was that people’s language was less detailed. They might say “they did that to me” rather than stating what happened and who did it, says Rezaii.
6-21-19 Inside Italy's war over vaccines
Scientists say, repeatedly, that vaccines have never been safer - or more effective. So why do some people still refuse to trust them? Outbreaks of diseases are happening in countries where they haven't been seen for decades. And the number of people choosing not to vaccinate their children seems to be on the rise. It's one of the top ten global health risks this year, according to the WHO. BBC Population Reporter Stephanie Hegarty went to Italy, where vaccines have become a big issue in recent years, to explore a debate that's riddled with misinformation and fake news.
6-20-19 We are more likely to return a lost wallet if it is full of cash
The average person is more honest than we think – and is actually more likely to hand in a found wallet if it has more money in it. This is probably partly down to altruism, but also because most people don’t want to be considered a thief. If you find a wallet with no money and don’t return it, you’re just lazy, but when the wallet contains cash, it feels like stealing, says Michel Maréchal of the University of Zurich in Switzerland. Maréchal, along with Alain Cohn of the University of Michigan and their colleagues turned in over 17,000 “lost” wallets to institutions in cities across 40 countries. The wallets each contained a unique business card with contact details of a fictional owner, and some contained a small amount of cash. On the whole, wallets containing money were returned 51 per cent of the time, compared to 40 per cent of those without cash, the team found. In another experiment, the team loaded some wallets with a large amount of cash – worth US$94.15. They were surprised to find that these wallets were even more likely to be handed back than those containing money worth US$13.45. Forty-six per cent of wallets with no money were returned, compared to 61 per cent of wallets with a small amount of cash and 72 per cent of those with the big money. Leaving a key in a wallet also increased the likelihood of its return. This suggests that there is some altruism at play, says Maréchal. “People care about the owner of the wallet,” he says. But surveys conducted by the team indicate that people are more likely to return higher values of cash because they don’t like the thought of stealing.
6-20-19 Lost wallets are more likely to be returned if they hold cash
The global study also finds that the rate of return increases as the amount of money goes up. If you’re prone to losing your wallet, keep it filled with cash. That’s a tip from researchers who “lost” over 17,000 wallets in 40 countries. In all but two countries, the likelihood of a stranger returning a wallet increased if there was money inside. And the more money in the wallet, the higher the rate of return, the researchers report June 20 in Science. “We were expecting a lower return rate when [the wallet] had more money,” says behavioral economist Alain Cohn of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Cohn and his colleagues deployed 13 Swiss college students, wallets in hand, to 355 cities across the globe. Each wallet was clear, letting a finder see the contents without opening it. And each contained a grocery list in the local language, a key, three identical business cards with a local-sounding man’s name and an e-mail address. Some of the wallets had no money in them, while others held $13.45 or the equivalent buying power in local currency. The research assistants then turned the wallets over to employees of banks, museums, post offices, hotels and police stations along with a note, reading: “Hi, I found this on the street around the corner. Somebody must have lost it. I’m in a hurry and have to go. Can you please take care of it?” Those wallet drop-offs were not without hiccups. Flooding in India rerouted the Swiss students, while authorities in Kenya detained one student for a few hours for appearing suspicious. All told, the students handed employees 17,303 wallets.
6-20-19 US suicide rate at its highest since the end of the second world war
The rate of suicide in the US is rising, and has reached its highest point since the end of the second world war. According to a report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US suicide rate increased by 33 per cent between 1999 and 2017. This is calculated using age-adjusted rates that take into account age distributions across states and years. In 1999, there were 10.5 suicides per 100,000 people, while in 2017 there were 14 per 100,000. The CDC’s statistics show that, in recent years, there has been a marked increase in suicide among US people aged 15 to 24 and those aged 25 to 34, although the highest rates remain among those who are middle-aged. The report finds that for men and women aged 45-64, the suicide rate was highest among people who are white. Men have historically died by suicide at higher rates than women, and that trend continues in the new report. Despite that, there are some outliers. The largest increase in suicide rates for women was among people who are of Native American ancestry. The suicide rate in this group went from 4.6 to 11 per 100,000 over 18 years. That is an increase of 139 per cent. For men, the same group saw the highest increase, with a jump from 19.8 to 33.8 per 100,000 people – an increase of 71 per cent. The CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics said in the report that people who are of Native American ancestry are sometimes misclassified as being part of other ethnic groups, and so deaths could be underestimated by as much 33 per cent. Even without accounting for that, men and women aged between 15 and 44 in these groups had the highest rate of suicide in the US in 2017.
6-20-19 Weird whale may be a hybrid of a narwhal mother and beluga father
The first evidence has been uncovered to show two of the Arctic’s most majestic marine creatures mated together. DNA analysis of an unusually shaped whale skull in a Danish museum suggest the creature was a hybrid born of a mother narwhal, known as unicorns of the sea for their tusks, and a father beluga whale, dubbed sea canaries for their vocal nature. Killed by a hunter in West Greenland during the 1980s, the animal’s skull was collected by researchers in 1990, prompting a hypothesis that it was a narwhal-beluga hybrid. A Danish and Canadian team have now provided the data to confirm the idea, with genetic sequencing comparing it to live animals from the same area showing it to be 54 per cent beluga whale and 46 per cent narwhal. The results indicate it is a first generation hybrid male. While it is rare for animals to mate with other species, narwhals and belugas belong to the same family, Monodontidae. Eline Lorenzen of the Natural History Museum of Denmark says the main challenge was there was so little DNA left in the specimen. “[But] there are methods available now to get insights even with super low data,” she says. The hybrid did not have the narwhal’s distinctive tusk and had a different arrangement of teeth to its parents, but beyond that we know little of how the creature would have looked. Lorenzen says that reports from the hunter say the animal was evenly grey in colour, had flippers shaped like those of belugas and a tail shaped like a narwhal. Concentrations of carbon and nitrogen found in the skull implies the hybrid ate different food from its parents, feeding on those near the sea floor.
6-20-19 DNA confirms a weird Greenland whale was a narwhal-beluga hybrid
Genetic analysis of the animal’s skull shows it had a narwhal mom and beluga dad. Researchers have made a whale of a discovery — a hybrid of a beluga whale and a narwhal. DNA analysis of the whale’s skull confirmed it to be the male offspring of a narwhal mother and a beluga father, researchers report June 20 in Scientific Reports. The animal was one of three unusual whales caught during a subsistence hunt in 1986 or 1987 in western Greenland’s Disko Bay, and the only one with any known remains. The three whales were all uniformly gray, with pectoral fins shaped like belugas’ and tails shaped like narwhals’. The Inuit hunter, who gave the skull to researchers, said that he’d never seen such odd whales before or since, says Eline Lorenzen, an evolutionary biologist and curator of the National Museum of Denmark at the University of Copenhagen where the skull is housed. Disko Bay is one of the few places where belugas and narwhals overlap during mating season. Previous DNA analysis of the decades-old skull was “lousy,” Lorenzen says. So she and colleagues used techniques for analyzing ancient DNA to determine that the animal had a roughly 50-50 mix of beluga and narwhal DNA, making it a first-generation hybrid (SN: 11/11/17, p. 16). There’s no way to tell whether the hybrid whale was fertile. Analysis of isotopes, heavier or lighter variants of certain atoms, suggests that the hybrid may have had different feeding patterns than either parent species.
6-20-19 Mice and bats’ brains sync up as they interact with their own kind
Studies of the two mammals show coordinated neural activity. When animals are together, their brain activity aligns. These simpatico signals, described in bats and mice, bring scientists closer to understanding brains as they normally exist — enmeshed in complex social situations. Researchers know that neural synchrony emerges in people who are talking, taking a class together and even watching the same movie. But scientists tend to study human brains in highly constrained scenarios, in part because it’s technologically difficult to capture brain activity as people experience rich social interactions (SN: 5/11/19, p. 4). Now two studies published June 20 in Cell offer more details about how synced brains might influence social behavior. In one study, researchers monitored a pair of Egyptian fruit bats in a dark chamber for more than an hour. Neural implants recorded brain activity as the bats groomed themselves, fought, rested and performed other behaviors. The brain activity of the two bats was highly coordinated. When one bat’s neural activity oscillated in a fast rhythm, for example, the other bat’s brain was likely to do the same thing. This coordination continued even when the bats weren’t directly interacting with each other, the team found. But when the bats were separated into two chambers in the same room, this correlated activity fell away, suggesting that the bats had to be sharing the same social context for their brains to link up. A similar result came from a study in mice. As with the bats, when two mice were separated, their brain activity was no longer coupled, researchers report.
6-19-19 Ruth Mace on human evolution and surviving the apocalypse with yaks
Anthropologist Ruth Mace talks about what motivates us, and how the Tibetan plateau is the best place to be if the apocalypse comes.
- Explain what you do in one easy paragraph. I try to understand human behaviour in an evolutionary light, as an adaptation to the environment. I am interested in everything from life history and social organisation to witchcraft and religion. I have worked in Africa, the UK and now China.
- What do you love most about what you do? I have loved visiting some corners of the borderlands in western China, stumbling across unexpected happenings such as sky burials and horse festivals.
- Sum up your life in a one-sentence elevator pitch… I am an anthropologist, using evolutionary theory to understand why we do what we do.
- What’s the most exciting thing you’ve worked on recently? One matrilineal population I am studying in western China has no marriage in the sense that we understand it. I first visited about three years ago and we are trying to gather data as quickly as possible, as the anthropological diversity of the region is disappearing fast.
- How useful will your skills be after the apocalypse? Useless. My only hope would be if it occurred when I was out on the Tibetan plateau, where the yak herders are pretty self-sufficient and very hospitable. (Webmaster's comment: Other hospitable places would be with the Inuit and Laplanders.)
- OK, one last thing: tell us something that will blow our minds… I have been studying eschatological (“end times”) beliefs in Islamic sects. We seem to have found that those sects that believe in the apocalypse are actually more likely to go extinct.
6-19-19 The pioneering podcast that's breaking the silence on women's health
From IVF to miscarriage, the podcast She Says She's Fine wants women to share their intimate secrets and get informed about sexual and reproductive health. BECOMING a mother is often portrayed as a magical experience where you instantly form a bond with your child. But author and journalist Meghna Pant, a guest on the motherhood episode of a new women’s sexual health podcast, explains that it took her a month to fall in love with her child. “Initially, it’s like an alien creature,” she says. Breastfeeding, too, doesn’t always come naturally. It can also be painful due to cracked nipples and inflamed or infected breast tissue, for example. “Nobody tells you what happens when your milk comes in,” says Kiran Manral, another author and guest on the show. “Suddenly you have stones on your chest, like boulders.” Even in 2019, people still feel shame when talking about certain aspects of women’s reproductive health. But host Munjaal Kapadia, a gynaecologist at Namaha Healthcare in Mumbai, India, is aiming to change that in a podcast called She Says She’s Fine. With 10 episodes so far, the show has tackled topics ranging from abusive relationships, using IVF, being gay and experiencing miscarriage. Guests share their experiences and struggles in an informal and conversational style, and myths are busted. Although the show addresses issues in the context of India, it is relevant globally. Miscarriage, for example, is common around the world, but speaking about it remains taboo. The process is typically beyond a woman’s control because it is often the result of chromosomal abnormalities. An episode on the topic highlights the feelings of guilt often experienced by women, who wonder whether stress, for example, could be the cause. The podcast brings men into the conversation, too. A couple talk about their experience with IVF, providing insight into details of the process, emotions they each went through and ways of dealing with an unsuccessful outcome. The role of male partners is explored, in particular what their involvement should be given that a woman bears most of the physical brunt of the procedure. The message is that men need support as well.
6-19-19 Our astonishing brain is hard to figure out – and that's fantastic
It can seem a Herculean task to establish even basic facts about the human brain, but without its mind-boggling complexity we wouldn't be nearly as amazing. PHYSICIST Emerson Pugh once said that if the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t. Thankfully, the complexity of our brain is so great that we are not simple and neither, therefore, is the task of understanding it. However, it can feel like a Herculean feat to establish even basic facts, such as how many kinds of brain cell we have. Our latest attempt to count them suggests there are 75 types just in the neocortex, the area responsible for our most advanced thoughts and behaviours. That isn’t to say our efforts to unravel the brain’s mysteries are in vain (see “Brain mysteries: A user’s guide to the biggest questions of the mind”). Despite Pugh’s observation, we are learning ever more about how a 1.5-kilogram lump of tissue that flutters and crackles inside our skull can come up with our most elaborate – and even annoying – behaviours. Yet each new insight raises more questions, and also casts age-old problems in new light. Breakthroughs in understanding how our brains stitch together our perception of reality are redefining what it means to be conscious. They also highlight the persistent power of the mind, even in cases when our bodies hide all signs of awareness. We don’t appear to be heading towards a world of jars full of brains, bodies discarded, just yet though. Our brain-body connection has never been so robust. Gut thinking is no simple turn of phrase: microbes in our intestines affect our risk for neurological conditions, and influence our mood and mental health.
6-19-19 This body-on-a-chip mimics how organs and cancer cells react to drugs
Five chambers house different tissues, connected by channels that help simulate blood flow. A new body-on-a-chip system could provide a more holistic view of drug effects than other devices of its kind. Unlike traditional organ-on-a-chip devices that simulate a single organ (SN: 3/17/18, p. 13), the new setup contains five chambers to house different types of cells, connected by channels that circulate a nutrient solution to mimic blood flow. This is the first organ-on-a-chip scheme to examine how a drug and its chemical by-products affect target cells and other tissue at the same time, researchers report online June 19 in Science Translational Medicine. “Until now, to be able to [measure] efficacy and toxicity in the same system, you had to go into an animal,” says James Hickman, a bioengineer at the biotech firm Hesperos, Inc., in Orlando, Fla., which developed the chip. A body-on-a-chip system with human cells could gauge drug effects more accurately, Hickman says. Using a patient’s own cells in the device may also allow scientists to test different drugs or drug combinations to determine the best treatment for that specific person. Hickman and colleagues tested their body-on-a-chip by measuring the effects of different drugs on cancer cells, as well as heart and liver cells. In a device with bone marrow cancer cells, the drugs imatinib and diclofenac both curbed cancer-cell growth, but diclofenac also killed liver cells. In another setup, the drug tamoxifen knocked out breast cancer cells, but worked against drug-resistant vulva cancer cells only when administered with the blood pressure medication verapamil.
6-19-19 Labelling people "anti-vaxxers" ignores real roots of their concerns
There’s no doubt everyone should vaccinate – but to combat “anti-vax” we must understand the legitimate reasons for some communities’ mistrust, says Furaha Asani. MEASLES is making a shocking return to the US. At the heart of this return is a growing reluctance by some groups in society, fanned by social media, to have their children vaccinated, citing mistrust of government, big pharma and scientists in pushing inoculation. It is easy to dismiss “anti-vaxxers” as just misinformed and misguided. But vaccine mistrust isn’t monolithic. To fully and respectfully engage with people, the reasoning behind different communities’ doubts must be unpacked with nuance. An instructive perspective comes from elsewhere in the world. While the World Health Organization reports that vaccine uptake is increasing globally, 60 per cent of children who didn’t receive routine immunisations in 2017 came from just 10 countries in Asia and Africa. A deep-rooted mistrust of Western health interventions is one cause. Take the malaria vaccine RTS, S, which Glaxo Smith Kline rolled out as part of a pilot study in Malawi earlier this year, with Ghana and Kenya set to follow. RTS,S is up to 40 per cent effective at preventing malaria in young children. Not great, but this is the first proven vaccine against a disease that kills 1200 people a day worldwide, most of them children in Africa. Yet the trial has provoked a backlash, with concerns ranging from Africans being used as guinea pigs in an unethical trial to it being a plot to sterilise local populations.
6-19-19 Floppy eared bunnies look cute but they suffer more health problems
Bunnies with floppy ears might look cuter than normal rabbits but they suffer more health problems, a study has found. “People now need to weigh up whether those cute floppy ears are worth the risk of pain, deafness, and difficulty eating for the rabbit, not to mention the extra vet bills,” says Charlotte Burn at the Royal Veterinary College in the UK, who led the study. The mutations that make some strains of rabbits lop-eared don’t just affect the ears, say Burn. They alter the shape of the skull, making the animals more prone to a variety of problems. At least, that what vets would tell you, says Burn. But no one had actually done a proper study to establish this. So her team went to a rabbit rescue centre and compared 15 lop-eared rabbits with 15 normal ones. They looked for signs of pain or irritation such as ear scratching, examined the rabbits’ ears and mouths, and looked at their medical records. They found the lop-eared rabbits were much more likely to have ear or dental problems that cause pain or difficulty eating, such as narrowed ear canals and misaligned incisors. “The effect size is enormous,” says Burn. In fact, they often had such narrow ear canals that it was difficult to insert an otoscope, says team member Jade Johnson, and some examinations had to be cut short because the animals were clearly in pain. So although the number of animals in the study was small, Burn thinks it very likely that the findings apply to all pet rabbits. She hopes the findings will make people think twice before buying lop-eared rabbits, which now account for over half the rabbits sold in the UK.
6-19-19 Ancient Celts were partial to beer, mead and imported Greek wines
Signs of red wine, millet beer and possibly the fermented honey drink, mead, have all been found in pottery vessels from the early Celts living in France around 500 BC. The finds come from a study of organic residues within cups, jars and jugs found at a hill fort site at Vix-Mont Lassois in Burgundy. It is like getting a peek inside their drinks cabinet, says Cynthianne Spiteri at the University of Tübingen in Germany. “Once you apply these techniques they tell a story.” Historical writers such as the ancient Greek, Herodotus, have described the Celts’ fondness for alcohol. “This is the first time we actually see it using scientific methods,” says Spiteri. Vix-Mont Lassois was an important settlement of the early Iron Age, which seems to have had links with the Greek trading empire, perhaps through the Greek colony at what is now Marseille, on the south coast of France. Spiteri’s team took microscopic samples from broken shards of 99 drinking and storage vessels kept at the Museum of the Pays Châtillonnais-Trésor de Vix. Sixteen of the vessels were Greek in style. The team cleaned the surface of the fragments, then drilled into them and collected the powder. Many of the chemical constituents of the vessels’ contents would have broken down in the intervening millennia, but there were remaining traces of some more stable compounds, such as lipids. Some of the compounds were from grape skins, suggesting red wine, mostly in the Greek vessels. As there is no evidence of wine making in this region at the time, “it would have to be an import”, says Spiteri. But the Celts did brew their own beer, and other vessels contained the chemical fingerprint of the grain millet, as well as compounds called hopanoids that are found in fermentation bacteria.
6-19-19 Yazilikaya: A 3000-year-old Hittite mystery may finally be solved
A 3200-year-old sanctuary once described as the Sistine Chapel of Hittite religious art could have acted as a calendar that was centuries ahead of its time. FOR 3200 years they have guarded their secret. The deities carved in limestone near the ancient city of Hattusa are as enigmatic as they are beautiful. Perhaps no longer. A controversial theory suggests the ancient carvings may have functioned as a calendar, with a level of sophistication way ahead of its time. “It’s not only a striking idea, it’s reasonable and possible,” says Juan Antonio Belmonte at the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands, Spain, who wasn’t part of the work. Hattusa was the capital city of the Bronze Age Hittite empire, based in what is now Turkey. A few kilometres to the north-east of Hattusa are the ruins of an ancient religious sanctuary centred on a large limestone outcrop. Archaeologists believe it was one of the holiest of Hittite sites, but its exact purpose is unknown. Even its original Hittite name is a mystery: today it is known simply as Yazilikaya, a Turkish term meaning “inscribed rock”. “Yazilikaya has an aura to it,” says Eberhard Zangger, president of Luwian Studies, an international non-profit foundation. “Part of it is because it’s an unsolved enigma, part of it is the beauty of the place.” The site has been described as the Sistine Chapel of Hittite religious art for the quality of the rock carvings preserved there. Yazilikaya and Hattusa have UNESCO World Heritage Site status, and the carvings on the rock have been studied by scholars for decades. But according to Zangger, they all overlooked something.
6-19-19 What are vaccines, how do they work and why are people sceptical?
Vaccines have saved tens of millions of lives in the past century, yet in many countries health experts have identified a trend towards “vaccine hesitancy” – an increasing refusal to use vaccination. The World Health Organization estimates that vaccines prevented at least 10 million deaths in just five years between 2010 and 2015. It says vaccines have been one of the biggest success stories of modern medicine. The World Health Organization (WHO) is so concerned that it has listed this trend as one of the 10 threats to global health in 2019. How was vaccination discovered? Before vaccines existed, the world was a far more dangerous place, with millions dying each year to now preventable illnesses. The Chinese were the first to discover an early form of vaccination in the 10th Century. Eight centuries later, British doctor Edward Jenner noticed how milkmaids caught mild cowpox, but rarely went on to contract the deadly smallpox. In 1796 Jenner carried out an experiment on eight-year-old James Phipps. The doctor inserted pus from a cowpox wound into the boy, who soon developed symptoms. Once Phipps had recovered, Jenner inserted smallpox into the boy but he remained healthy. The cowpox had made him immune. In 1798, the results were published and the word vaccine - from the Latin 'vacca' for cow - was coined. What have been the successes? Vaccines have helped drastically reduce the damage done by many diseases in the past century. About 2.6m people were dying from measles every year before the first vaccination for the disease was introduced in the 1960s. Vaccination resulted in an 80% drop in measles deaths between 2000 and 2017 worldwide, according to the WHO. Only a few decades ago, paralysis or death was a very real concern as millions fell victim to polio. Now polio has almost disappeared.
6-19-19 Vaccines: Low trust in vaccination 'a global crisis'
Public mistrust of vaccines means the world is taking a step backwards in the fight against deadly yet preventable infectious diseases, warn experts. The biggest global study into attitudes on immunisation suggests confidence is low in some regions. The Wellcome Trust analysis includes responses from more than 140,000 people in over 140 countries. The World Health Organization lists vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to global health. The global survey reveals the number of people who say they have little confidence or trust in vaccination. When asked if vaccines were safe: 79% "somewhat" or "strongly" agreed, 7% somewhat or strongly disagreed. When asked if they believed vaccines worked: 84% agree either strongly or somewhat, 5% either strongly or somewhat disagree. There is overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccination is the best defence against deadly and debilitating infections, such as measles. Vaccines protect billions of people around the world. They have completely got rid of one disease - smallpox - and are bringing the world close to eliminating others, such as polio. But some other diseases, such as measles, are making a resurgence and experts say people avoiding vaccines, fuelled by fear and misinformation, is one of the main causes. Dr Ann Lindstrand, an expert in immunisation at the WHO, said the current situation was extremely serious. "Vaccine hesitancy has the potential, at least in some places, to really hinder the very real progress the world has made in controlling vaccine-preventable diseases," she said. "Any resurgence we see in these diseases are an unacceptable step backwards." Countries that were close to eliminating measles have been seeing large outbreaks. Data shows a rise in cases in almost every region of the world, with 30% more cases in 2017 than 2016. (Webmaster's comment: In the United States 11% think vaccines are unsafe, and 6% think they do not work. We better brace ourselves for mass outbreaks of diseases. We're asking for epidemics!)
6-19-19 Immunisation: Why we do it and how 'herd immunity' works
This is how vaccines work, why they’re important and what the phrase “herd immunity” actually means.
6-19-19 ‘My mum didn’t vaccinate me – this is what happened next’
Meredith's mother was suspicious about vaccines and would never let her have them as a child. For a while it didn't seem to matter, but eventually Meredith (not her real name) starting coming down with some frightening illnesses. It started when I accidentally stood on a nail. Some time afterwards my jaw and shoulder started to seize up and paramedics rushed me to the closest hospital in an ambulance. It was a teaching hospital in Brisbane and I remember vividly that the doctor left the room saying quietly, "Oh my God!" He brought in all the medical students to take a look at me. It was tetanus - also known as lockjaw. They hadn't had a patient diagnosed with tetanus in over 30 years. I was determined and said: "I'm not going to die at 36 because of tetanus." Despite the pain, I felt angry towards my mother, because she deliberately didn't get me vaccinated. The doctors took white blood cells from someone who had already had tetanus - cells that had proved that they were "seasoned fighters" - and injected them into me to help my white blood cells recognise the illness and fight it. With this treatment, eventually I got better. But I was still angry, because this is something that could've been completely prevented. My mum, grandma and aunties are all quite "mystical" and definitely hippies. They tend to believe that the body naturally heals itself. If I had a cold, growing up in New Zealand, I was told, "Eat a cucumber," or, "Have a drink of what the neighbour made." My grandma subscribes to a magazine that gives you tips on how to live better. From this magazine, she ordered a glow stick that cost $200. I know that it's a glow stick because when you snap it, it glows. But she thinks it's a wand that you touch food with, to "give it life".
6-19-19 Brain mysteries: A user's guide to the biggest questions of the mind
What happens when we think? How do we explain consciousness? Why are some brains resistant to decline? We answer the biggest questions about your most important organ. Inside your head is an object capable of feats of computation, creativity and understanding unrivalled in the known universe – and all using the power of a 20-watt light bulb. We have made huge strides in understanding the human brain. In recent years, we have discovered that brain cells can regenerate and pinned down what happens when you start talking before you know what you want to say. Yet, the more we learn, the more we realise how much we still don’t know. In the following pages, we explore the biggest questions about the brain to reveal the mechanisms and mysteries of this phenomenal blob of grey goo.
- What makes our brain special? The human brain, we love to tell ourselves, is exceptional. Other animals might use tools or solve mazes, but can they invent computers or write sonnets?
- What is consciousness? Think of the conscious mind as a furnace. If you are deeply asleep, the flame of consciousness has died down to a low but persistent level. In REM sleep, when you dream, the flame is jumping and burning brightly but erratically. In a coma, it is a glowing ember.
- Are smarter people’s brains different? The short answer is yes. People vary in their intelligence, so how else could we account for this if not for differences in the structure or function of the brain? Exactly what those differences are, however, is a matter of intense investigation.
- What happens when we think? Think about thinking, and it doesn’t take long for your mind to go down a rabbit hole. Thoughts come naturally to us, but pinning down exactly what they are is more complicated. Once they were viewed as immaterial entities, separate from the biological matter of the brain. Now we know that our every thought – whether about a simple object or an abstract idea – is the result of electrical signals pulsing through the brain’s network of 86 billion neurons.
- Are you really left or right-brained? Chances are you have thought of yourself as left or right-brained: rational and logical, or creative and free-spirited. Appealing as this concept is, it is also a complete myth.
- Is your brain ever off? When you rest, it sometimes feels as if your brain switches off too. It doesn’t. If you are alive, your neurons are firing. “There is a lot of processing going on even when you’re not seemingly doing anything at all,” says Deniz Vatansever, a cognitive neuroscientist at Fudan University in China.
- Does the gut influence the mind? We often say we make decisions on the basis of gut feelings, and this may be truer than we realise. Nausea, for instance, makes us judge certain moral violations more harshly. This is just one of many ways in which our gut influences what goes on in our head.
- What makes a brain? A few years ago, scientists took human brain cells and injected them into mice. A year later, the cells had multiplied and the mice had got smarter, learning more effectively than mice with regular brains. Perhaps that isn’t so surprising – until you hear that these brains cells weren’t neurons.
- What makes some brains more resistant to decline? It is a harsh fact of life: as you get older, your cognitive abilities start to wane. But why is it that some people reach a ripe old age with little more than the odd “senior moment”, while others have far greater mental decline?
6-18-19 Rotavirus vaccines may lower kids’ chances of getting type 1 diabetes
The association revealed in U.S. insurance data held true only for those fully vaccinated. The rotavirus vaccine may have an unexpected benefit: a reduced likelihood of developing type 1 diabetes. The vaccine is highly effective at protecting against intestinal infections caused by the virus (SN: 8/8/15, p. 5). Past work in mice prone to diabetes suggests infection with rotavirus can hasten damage to beta cells in the pancreas, the cells that are destroyed in a person with type 1 diabetes. Researchers analyzed private insurance data, covering 2001 to 2017, for close to 1.5 million U.S. children who were infants at the time of enrollment. Among children fully vaccinated against rotavirus, there was a 41 percent reduction in the incidence of type 1 diabetes compared with unvaccinated children, the team reports online June 13 in Scientific Reports. The results apply to both of the rotavirus vaccines available in the United States. In fully vaccinated children, the incidence of type 1 diabetes was 12.2 cases per 100,000 people per year; in the unvaccinated group, it was 20.6 per 100,000. There wasn’t a benefit for partially vaccinated kids either, those who did not complete the full number of doses. In the United States, around 1.25 million people have type 1 diabetes, which occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks insulin-secreting beta cells. The new work was inspired by a study of Australian children, published in JAMA Pediatrics in January, which reported a decline in the incidence of type 1 diabetes after the start of routine rotavirus vaccination.
6-18-19 A severe autoimmune condition may be triggered by 'good' gut bacteria
The billions of bacteria that line our guts have evolved with us, and play a crucial role in our digestion, physical and mental health. But bacteria that seem beneficial for most people can cause harm in others: they can trigger an autoimmune disease in vulnerable people. That’s what Martin Kriegel, an immunologist at Yale University, and his colleagues found when they studied people with antiphospholipid syndrome (APS), an autoimmune disorder in which a person’s own immune system attacks a protein that plays a key role in blood thinning. People with the syndrome are at risk of clots, strokes and miscarriages, and it can be fatal. “Young people can suddenly die if they have this,” says Kriegel. He wondered if, by chance, any gut bacteria might express a protein similar to the one that can trigger APS, and so be attacked by the immune system of people with the syndrome. When his team screened microbiome databases they found a match: Roseburia intestinalis, a species of bacteria that is thought to improve gut health. “It’s probably random due to the sheer number of molecules in the microbiome,” says Kriegel. The team then looked at immune system activity in the gut of people with APS and people without the condition. While R. intestinalis was present at similar levels in the guts of all people examined, the bacteria seemed to be causing inflammation in people with APS. These individuals also made antibodies to attack the bacteria – which looked very similar to the antibodies they made to attack their own proteins. In experiments with mice, Kriegel’s team also found that, in animals genetically prone to developing APS, a dose of R. intestinalis could trigger the syndrome, with lethal outcomes. This all suggests that R. intestinalis can inadvertently trigger APS in people genetically predisposed to develop the syndrome, says Kriegel.
6-18-19 People with narcolepsy may be more creative because of how they sleep
Living at the border between wakefulness and a dream world may do wonders for your creativity. People with narcolepsy are excessively sleepy during the day and can often drift off. Isabelle Arnulf, who treats narcolepsy at Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, noticed that her patients seemed remarkably creative. Many of them were artists and poets, for example. “Even when they were sitting in the waiting room, they were doodling and writing,” she says. “And what they did was beautiful.” Arnulf and her colleagues asked 185 people with narcolepsy to complete a questionnaire designed to test for creativity. They compared the results with those of 126 people who didn’t have the condition. Thirty volunteers from each group also undertook a creativity test, which involved trying to find new solutions to problems, as well as creative writing and drawing. People with narcolepsy did better on every measured aspect of creativity. For instance, when participants were asked to come up with a story that ended with the words “… and the last apple fell from the tree”, most composed a version that included Adam and Eve, Isaac Newton or the end of summer. But the most creative responses came from people with narcolepsy, including a story about trees joining a strike initiated by animals who had decided not to feed humans anymore, and another about a bulimic worm called Jean-Jacques. “We’ve found something positive in the disorder,” says Arnulf. Arnulf thinks this could be because people with narcolepsy experience an unusual sleep cycle. A typical cycle begins with a period of non-REM sleep, but people with narcolepsy usually fall straight into REM sleep – the period when we tend to experience vivid dreams. As a result, they seem to have better access to a pool of ideas, says Arnulf.
6-18-19 ‘Sneezing’ plants may spread pathogens to their neighbors
Jumping dewdrops might help transmit disease among certain plants such as wheat. Next time you pass a wheat field on a dewy morning, you might want to say “gesundheit.” That’s because some sick plants can “sneeze” — shooting out tiny water droplets laden with pathogens, scientists report June 19 in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. In wheat plants infected with the fungus Puccinia triticina, coalescing dew droplets flew away from the leaves they were on and carried fungal spores with them, experiments showed. The pathogen, which causes a destructive disease known as leaf rust, might then be able to infect other wheat plants (SN: 9/25/10, p. 22). The flinging effect, which can happen on healthy plants too, is the result of a quirk of fluid dynamics: When two water drops unite, surface tension is released and converted into kinetic energy that can hurl the fluid away. It’s a “surface tension catapult,” says mechanical engineer Jonathan Boreyko of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The effect occurs only on extremely water-repellent, or superhydrophobic, surfaces, like the leaves of certain plants, including wheat (SN: 3/1/03, p. 132). The drops can jump a few millimeters — high enough to escape the layer of still air that surrounds each leaf, so that a gentle breeze could carry the water and spores to other plants, Boreyko and colleagues report. The catapulting effect was known to occur on other superhydrophobic surfaces, but this is the first time it’s been suggested that it helps transmit disease. Understanding how leaf rust spreads could be important for controlling it. If “sneezing” turns out to be an important source of transmission, plants could be sprayed with a coating to make them no longer superhydrophobic, for example, Boreyko says.
6-18-19 Worm with eyes in head and bottom found off Shetland
A new species of worm which has eyes in its head and also in its bottom has been discovered in the sea off Scotland. Scientists found the animal during a survey of the West Shetland Shelf Marine Protected Area. Measuring only 4mm (0.2in) in length, it was discovered in a previously unexplored part of the seabed of the large protected area. The worm has been given the scientific name Ampharete oculicirrata. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), Marine Scotland Science and Thomson Environmental Consultants carried out the survey. The worm collected during the survey is now in the collections of National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh. Jessica Taylor, of JNCC, said: "The fact that it was found in relatively shallow depths, relatively close to the Scottish coastline, shows just how much more there is to understand about the creatures that live in our waters." "I'm excited about future JNCC and Marine Scotland surveys and what they may reveal. And it's great that specimens of the new species have been acquired by National Museums Scotland and are available for future studies."
6-18-19 Fossil proves hyenas once roamed Canada's Arctic Plains
A 50-year-old mystery surrounding a pair of fossilised teeth has been put to rest by new research that suggests hyenas once roamed Canada's Arctic. A team of researchers have identified the teeth, which were found in the Yukon in the 1970s, as belonging to hyenas one million years ago. Their findings were published on Tuesday in scientific journal Open Quaternary. The discovery sheds new light on the evolution of the ferocious scavengers. The two teeth were found during a paleontological expedition in Yukon's Old Crow Basin in 1973. Indigenous explorers have been working with scientists to plumb the treasures of the region for over a century, says Grant Zazula, a palaeontologist with the Yukon government. But out of more than 50,000 specimen collected, only two that could belong to a hyena have been found. It took nearly 50 years to find out what they were and who they belonged to. The teeth wound up on display at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, which is where Mr Zazula first saw them. Scientists had long hypothesised that they could belong to hyenas, but the theory had not been confirmed. Mr Zazula teamed up with Jack Tseng, an evolutionary biologist with a specialty in hyenas at the University of Buffalo and Lars Werdelin at the Swedish Museum of Natural History. "A meeting of minds came together," Mr Zazula told the BBC. "Because (Tseng) is so well-versed in hyena fossils he knew instantly right away what they were." More testing determined the age of the fossils to be between 850,000 and 1.4 million years old. Although modern-day hyenas mostly live in Africa, fossils belonging to ancient genus have been found as far north as Mongolia and as far west as Mexico. That's a 6,000 kilometre gap. These fossils help connect the dots, and confirm the hypothesis that they arrived to North America from Russia on the Bering Strait, Mr Zazula said. They also suggest that ancient hyenas had a very different life than ones today. "We're so used to thinking of Hyenas living in places like Africa, where they're running around the savannah, he said. "But to think of them living in snow and 24-hour darkness in the winter is totally different."
6-18-19 Female rats face sex bias too
Female animals are perceived as too difficult to study, and one scientist is calling for change. When researchers release a new finding about the brain, it’s often mice or rats who have run the mazes and taken the tests for science. People might wonder: Are rodents good substitutes for humans? Maybe for men, but what about women? That’s less likely, because most neuroscience experiments don’t use female rodents — a fact one scientist says comes from outdated ideas that should go into the scientific dustbin. For years, many scientists have dismissed female rodents as too variable to use in the lab, with tricky hormone surges that can affect behavior and compromise study results. In 2009, male lab mammals in neuroscience studies outnumbered females 5.5 to 1, according to a 2011 study in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. “The idea that women are primarily driven by ovarian hormones [was] a narrative put in place intentionally in the Victorian era,” says Rebecca Shansky, a neuroscientist at Northeastern University in Boston. “That has also infiltrated the way we think about female animals” in science. Male animals can be just as “hormonal” as their female counterparts, Shansky argues in an essay published May 31 in Science, and it’s time that both sexes got equal attention in the lab. Here are five things to know about the issue of sex in the study of rodent brains. In humans, reproductive hormones such as estrogen and progesterone ebb and flow over a roughly 28-day cycle. In rodents, that cycle is compressed to four or five days. Estrogen or progesterone levels on one day could be up to four times as much as on the day before. These hormones affect behavior. Female rats, for example, will self-administer more cocaine during estrous than at other times, and show less anxiety-like behavior immediately before estrous.
6-18-19 Hyenas roamed the Arctic during the last ice age
Newly identified fossils confirm how the carnivores migrated to North America, researchers say. Modern hyenas stalk the savannas of Asia and Africa, but the animals’ ancient relatives may have had snowier stomping grounds: the Arctic. Two fossilized teeth, collected in Canada in the 1970s, confirm a long-held hunch that ancient hyenas ventured into North America via the Bering land bridge, scientists say. The teeth belonged to members of the extinct genus Chasmaporthetes, also known as the “running hyena” for their unusually long legs, researchers report June 18 in Open Quaternary. Like wolves, the creatures could sprint over long distances. That ability that may have enabled the hyenas to make the long trek to America from Asia. Running hyena remains crop up across the southern United States and central Mexico. But before the Arctic discovery, a more than 10,000-kilometer gap lay between them and their closest relatives in Mongolia. “This new Arctic find puts a dot right in the middle of that,” says paleontologist Jack Tseng of the University at Buffalo in New York. “It actually confirms previous hypotheses about how hyenas got to the New World.” The teeth date to between 850,000 and 1.4 million years ago, Tseng says, placing the hyenas in the Arctic during the Pleistocene Ice Age, which began roughly 2.6 million years ago and lasted until about 11,700 years ago. The large carnivores may have hunted ancient caribou, horses, camels and the occasional juvenile mammoth (SN: 4/6/13, p. 9). Paleontologists originally dug up the teeth in the Old Crow Basin in the Yukon at a site nicknamed the “supermarket of fossils.” There, rushing water dislodges fossils from their soil beds and drops them along bends in the river. The spoils can be reached only by boat or helicopter, but it’s worth the effort — over 50,000 known mammal fossils have been collected in the basin to date.
6-18-19 Dogs' eyes evolve to appeal to humans
If a dog has eyes that seem to be telling you something or demanding your attention, it could be evolution's way of manipulating your feelings. Researchers have found that dogs have evolved muscles around their eyes, which allow them to make expressions that particularly appeal to humans. A small facial muscle allows dog eyes to mimic an "infant-like" expression which prompts a "nurturing response". The study says such "puppy eyes" helped domesticated dogs to bond with humans. Previous studies have shown how such canine expressions can appeal to humans, but this research from the UK and US shows there has been an anatomical change around dogs' eyes to make it possible. This allows dogs to create what the researchers call "expressive eyebrows" and to "create the illusion of human-like communication". "When dogs make the movement, it seems to elicit a strong desire in humans to look after them," says the study, co-authored by Dr Juliane Kaminski at the University of Portsmouth. This muscle movement allows dogs' eyes to "appear larger, more infant-like and also resembles a movement humans produce when they are sad". She says that humans would have an "unconscious preference" to protect and breed from dogs with such an appealing trait, giving them an evolutionary advantage and reinforcing this change in subsequent generations. "The evidence is compelling that dogs developed a muscle to raise the inner eyebrow after they were domesticated from wolves," says Dr Kaminski, in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. The findings, from UK and US researchers in anatomy and comparative psychology, show that the facial change has developed over thousands of years of dogs living alongside humans. Previous research has shown that dogs are more likely to use this "puppy eyes" expression when a human is looking at them - suggesting that it is a deliberate behaviour and intended for human consumption. Anatomist and report co-author, Professor Anne Burrows of Duquesne University in the US, says that in evolutionary terms the changes to dogs' facial muscles was "remarkably fast" and could be "directly linked to dogs' enhanced social interaction with humans".
6-17-19 Dogs evolved a special muscle that lets them make puppy dog eyes
Human selection has resulted in dogs evolving more expressive faces. They have a facial muscle for making the “puppy dog eyes” that melt many peoples’ hearts that does not exist in wolves – the ancestors of dogs. This muscle allows dogs to lift up their inner “eyebrow”, which makes their eye look larger. This makes them look more like childlike and also rather sad – the puppy dog eyes look. It really does make dogs more appealing to us. In 2013, Juliane Kaminski at the University of Portsmouth and colleagues videotaped dogs interacting with strangers at a shelter to see what made them more likely to be adopted. “The only thing that seemed to have an effect is this eyebrow movement,” she says. Dogs that made this movement more often were adopted sooner. “It was a surprising result,” says Kaminski, who studies dog-human communication. “That got us really interested.” In 2017, her team showed that dogs make this movement more often when people are looking at them. Now Kaminski and some anatomists have dissected 6 dogs and 4 grey wolves to compare their facial muscles (they used existing specimens – no animals were killed for this study). In dogs, the eyebrow motion is made by a muscle above their eyes, on the inner side nearer the nose, called the levator anguli oculi medialis. Five of the 6 dogs had this muscle. The one exception was a Siberian husky – an ancient breed more closely related to wolves than most dogs. In the wolves – which cannot raise their eyebrows as much – this muscle did not exist. In its place there was a small tendon partially connected to another muscle. So Kaminski thinks this muscle evolved because people favoured dogs that make this expression.
6-17-19 Microbes from farms may protect children from asthma even in cities
Children who grow up on farms have a lower risk of developing asthma, and now it seems that may be due to microbes that can also be found in urban and suburban homes. Pirkka Kirjavainen at the National Institute for Health and Welfare in Finland and his colleagues analysed the microbes from living room floor dust from the homes of a group of 197 children living in rural areas of Finland – half living on farms – and 182 children living in suburban or urban places. They took these samples when the children were 2 months old and likely to be crawling, and therefore exposed to microbes on the floor. Then they followed up at 6 years old to see how many children were diagnosed with asthma. For the rural group there was a clear difference in the dust found in farms compared to other homes. The dust from farm homes had a high variety of bacteria, including those from cattle that were not present in non-farm homes. Non-farm homes had a higher proportion of human-associated bacteria, including members of the Streptococcaceae family and Straphylococcus genus. These differences were associated with differences in asthma rates, with asthma being rarest among children brought up on farms. About 19 per cent of the children on non-farm homes had asthma, while only 9 per cent of kids on farms did. “Where there are more outdoor microbes and a low abundance of human microbes, we see lower asthma rates,” says Kirjavainen. For the suburban children, they found that the homes with a microbial community that was most like that of farm homes were correlated with a lower risk of asthma in the children at age 6, when asthma tends to develop. “There is an indication that early life exposure matters the most. Later exposure would seem to have an influence on asthma, but this is the optimal window to measure,” says Kirjavainen.
6-17-19 Everything you need to know about the hospital food listeria outbreak
Two more people are reported to have died after eating contaminated sandwiches at a UK hospital, bringing the total to five fatalities. Here’s everything you need to know about the listeria outbreak. On 7 June, it was announced that six people in the UK – described as already having been “seriously ill” in hospital – had developed listeria infections. Three of them died as a result of the infection. Now two more deaths have been linked to the same outbreak. The infections have been traced back to a sandwich and salad production company that supplies food to hospitals, which has ceased production as a result of the outbreak. The company providing meat to the sandwich producer has also halted production, according to Public Health England. UK health minister Matt Hancock has ordered a review of hospital food. The bacteria can cause an infection called listeriosis, which is rare in the UK. Although it generally causes only mild symptoms, listeriosis can be very dangerous in young babies, elderly people and pregnant women, as well as people with weak immune systems. In vulnerable people, it can spread through the body and attack the brain, or cause miscarriage in pregnant women. Listeria bacteria can grow in foods, especially soft cheese, unpasteurised milk, and smoked fish, which is why pregnant women are advised to avoid these. It can also grow on other food products, including salads, and can continue to replicate even when food is refrigerated at cold temperatures. Pre-packed sandwiches have been responsible for some past outbreaks. Three cases were linked to pre-packed sandwiches in Yorkshire and the Humber and the West Midlands in 2017, for example. A recent review of cases in Spain found that cheeses and hams were often likely sources of bacteria, and in the US, deli meats, cheeses and frozen vegetables have been responsible for outbreaks. Contaminated ready-to-eat meat products were responsible for a huge outbreak in South Africa, which began in 2017 and went on to cause over a thousand cases and claim 216 lives.
6-17-19 Norovirus close-ups might help fight stomach flu
Detailed views of strains of the virus could aid vaccine and disinfectant development. Knowing your enemy is an important principle of competition, and scientists may just have become more familiar with one nasty stomach virus. Closeup looks at several strains of norovirus reveal that the vomit- and diarrhea-inducing virus can come in a variety of sizes, researchers report online June 10 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Knobs studding the virus’s protein shell are twisted slightly in some strains, and the pathogen may need charged zinc atoms to maintain its shell, the team learned. Those discoveries could aid in vaccine development or help researchers find better ways of disinfecting virus-contaminated surfaces. Scientists have known surprisingly little about the virus, though it is the leading cause of gastroenteritis and foodborne illness, sickening up to about 21 million people each year in the United States alone. No drugs or vaccines against norovirus exist. And the virus is notoriously hard to grow in the lab, making it difficult to study. Only one strain has ever been crystallized to reveal its structure at the atomic level. “We have no idea what cells it’s infecting, how it causes diarrhea, why the symptoms are so short,” says Craig Wilen, a virologist at Yale School of Medicine who was not involved in the study. Researchers also don’t know: why the virus causes more cases of “stomach flu” in winter than other seasons; why only one strain seems to circulate at a time; why immunity to the virus lasts only about six months; nor why some people are more susceptible than others. “It’s a mystery,” Wilen says.
6-16-19 Ebola crosses a porous border
This week the Ebola virus crossed from the Democratic Republic of Congo into Uganda, but there are reasons to hope it can be contained on that side of the border, reports Olivia Acland. On Monday morning, a family was heading from the Democratic Republic of Congo back home to Uganda, after a funeral. The grandfather had died from Ebola and his daughter had gone to the country a few weeks earlier, to try and nurse him back to health. By the time the family got near the Ugandan border, most of them were suffering from high fever and diarrhoea. They stopped in a health clinic and were put in isolation, awaiting tests. But after dark, six members of the family, including a five-year-old boy, slipped out of the clinic and set off down a desolate and poorly policed road crossing into Uganda. A few days later both the boy and his grandmother had died. Health officials have long feared that this outbreak of Ebola virus could pass over the porous border into Uganda. The border is over 500 miles long and many of the crossings are informal - sometimes just a couple of planks laid across a shallow river. An endless stream of traders, some balancing baskets of eggs on their heads or swinging chickens by their feet, moves back and forth across the border each day. One of the main reasons it has been so difficult to contain the disease in DR Congo itself is because it is spreading in a conflict zone. Some 120 armed groups hide in the jungle-matted hills in the east of the country and regularly spring out of the bush to abduct or rape civilians. They make money smuggling minerals like gold and coltan, used in mobile phone batteries, or by plundering villages and stealing livestock. Complicating things further, the local population has little trust in the authorities and their ability to respond. Health workers often move around with armed escorts, which arouses suspicion. And when impoverished villagers see fleets of four-by-fours tearing down their roads they talk about "Ebola business" and are jealous of the money being poured into the response.
6-14-19 The Science of Storytelling is an essential guide to our own minds
Great writers have often used psychology to create compelling stories that take us out of ourselves, but what is it about stories that appeal to us so strongly? In his new book The Science of Storytelling, Will Storr delves into the modern science of the mind to explain why great stories work, and how writers can use these lessons to make novels and scripts come alive. Storytelling is not just something we do for fun: our brains tell us stories to make sense of the world. When we create a mental representation of the world from a story, we are using the same neural tools that we use to model the real world with our senses and memories. Where our senses fall short, our minds fill in the gaps. Psychologists describe this experience of reality as a controlled hallucination. As highly social animals, humans have evolved to be experts at modelling not only our environment but the minds of other humans. Storr recounts the idea that humans, like the pet cats and dogs we’ve tamed, have undergone a process of domestication, making us better at reading social cues and more reliant on others. “The magic of story is its ability to connect mind with mind in a manner that’s unrivalled even by love,” says Storr. We are fascinated by other people, and letting us see the world from someone else’s point of view is a key part of the attraction of stories. While many story theorists have focused on the plot structures that make a successful story, Storr argues that a writer’s most important challenge is to devise characters that feel real and stimulate our social curiosity. Our mental substantiation of fictional people is so powerful that almost a fifth of readers report hearing characters’ voices in their heads even when they weren’t reading. Our entire identity is built around a story the brain tells itself, with our selves as the hero. These stories about our lives are more fictional than we realise. Studies have shown that we create false memories to achieve the identity we want, and conveniently forget instances when we behaved immorally. Storr argues that all good characters have a flawed model of the world and how to control it – and that is what makes them interesting. In a good story, protagonists often face a moment when they are faced with evidence that their understanding of the world is wrong. If the story has a happy ending, the character may recognise their flaw and change who they are to overcome their challenges. In tragedies, the protagonist often refuses to change – and this leads to their downfall.
6-14-19 New York bans religious exemptions for vaccines amid measles outbreak
Lawmakers in New York have voted to eliminate religious exemptions for school vaccines for children, as the state grapples with a measles outbreak. The law passed on Thursday night, and led to chaotic scenes in the statehouse as anti-vaccination supporters clashed with lawmakers. Much of New York's outbreak has centred around orthodox Jewish communities. More than 1,000 Americans have been diagnosed with measles in 2019. Health officials say the disease is resurging. Last month, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned that the US, which effectively eliminated measles in 2000, may lose its "measles elimination status" as infections climb to a 27-year high. The new law in New York, which was passed by the state's Democratic Senate and Assembly chambers, bans parents from claiming religious exemptions which used to allow their children to forgo vaccinations that are normally required for school. "I'm not aware of anything in the Torah, the Bible, the Koran or anything else that suggests you should not get vaccinated," said Bronx Democrat Jeffrey Dinowitz, who sponsored the bill. State Senator Brad Hoylman added: "We're putting science ahead of misinformation about vaccines and standing up for the rights of immuno-compromised children and adults, pregnant women and infants who can't be vaccinated through no fault of their own." Governor Andrew Cuomo, who signed the bill into law only hours after it was passed by lawmakers, said in a statement: "The science is crystal clear: Vaccines are safe, effective and the best way to keep our children safe." "While I understand and respect freedom of religion, our first job is to protect the public health and by signing this measure into law, we will help prevent further transmissions and stop this outbreak right in its tracks." (Webmaster's comment: We should lock up and quarantine all families with unvaccinated members. They are a danger to all the rest of us.)
6-14-19 No need to walk 10,000 steps
If you rarely walk your daily step target, don’t sweat it. New research has found that the 10,000 steps–a-day standard—a popular benchmark for adequate fitness and the default goal for many popular wearable activity trackers—is on the high side, reports TheAtlantic.com. Harvard researchers gave fitness trackers to 16,000 women ages 62 to 101, recorded their step counts for seven days, and then monitored their health for a roughly four-year follow-up period. After adjusting for diet, lifestyle, and other factors, the researchers found that the women who walked about 4,400 steps a day had a 41 percent lower risk of premature death than the least active, who logged about 2,700 steps. Walking more than 4,400 steps further decreased the risk level only moderately—and the benefits plateaued at around 7,500. Lead author I-Min Lee says the 10,000-step goal should be lowered to encourage more people to get walking. “If you’re someone who’s sedentary,” she says, “even a very modest increase brings you significant health benefits.” She found that the 10,000-step target isn’t actually based on research—it stems from a 1960s marketing campaign for a Japanese pedometer that played on the fact that the Japanese character for 10,000 resembles a man walking.
6-14-19 The effects of pre-natal stress
Men whose mothers experienced stress in early pregnancy are more likely to have reduced sperm counts and lower testosterone in later life, a new study has found. Researchers examined health data on 643 Australian men, all age 20. Those whose mothers had experienced three or more stressful life events—the death of a close relative, for example, or a divorce—in the first 18 weeks of pregnancy had a 36 percent lower sperm count and 11 percent lower testosterone level than subjects whose moms had no stressful events. Scientists found that participants whose mothers experienced stressful events in later gestation did not have fewer sperm or lower testosterone, likely because the most vulnerable stage of development for male reproductive organs is early on in pregnancy. Senior author Roger Hart, from the University of Western Australia, tells The New York Times that the study appears to have an important message for would-be moms. “The time to get pregnant,” he says, “is when you’re healthiest, both physically and psychologically, and with an environment around you that is free of stress.”
6-14-19 White meat’s cholesterol risk
Eating white meat may raise your cholesterol levels as much as eating red meat, reports NBCNews.com. Scientists at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute recruited 113 adults, ages 21 to 65, to eat three rotating month-long diets: one centered on lean cuts of beef, the second on lean cuts of chicken, and the third on plant proteins. Half the participants’ diets—irrespective of their main protein source—were high in saturated fats, found in foods such as butter and cheese, while half were low. At the end of each month, researchers measured the participants’ levels of LDL cholesterol, the so-called bad cholesterol that clogs arteries. They found that white meat raised LDL levels just as much as red meat, even when saturated fat levels were equal. Only the plant-based diets produced healthy cholesterol levels. Study author Ronald Krauss cautions that his research does not rule out the possibility that “other effects of red meat consumption could contribute to heart disease.” Further research is needed, he said.
6-14-19 Strange fat cells in our bones grow rather than shrink when we starve
There is a distinct type of fat in our bones that doesn’t act like fat at all. These peculiar fat cells, or adipocytes, grow larger, not smaller, when we starve. “They are fake adipocytes,” says cancer researcher Catherine Muller at the University of Toulouse, France. “They look like adipocytes but they don’t have the main function of adipocytes.” The main function of fat is to store energy and release it when needed, says Muller. This is what most of the fat in our bodies – found under our skin and around internal organs – does. Besides this white fat, as it is known, we also have small patches of brown fat around the neck that actively burn food to produce heat. The fat inside our bone marrow, which accounts for about 10 per cent of all fat in lean people, is usually assumed to be a form of white fat and often regarded as a mere space filler. But animal studies in the 1970s revealed a bizarre property: these fat cells grow bigger when animals starve. Fat cells should behave in the opposite way, by releasing energy and shrinking. The fat cells in bone marrow appear to behave in the same strange way in humans. In 2010, for instance, MRI scans revealed that women with anorexia had more bone marrow fat than healthy women, despite having far less fat elsewhere in the body. Muller became interested because breast and prostate cancers often spread to bone marrow, and it appears that bone marrow fat cells help tumours grow. She was surprised to discover that very few studies have looked at bone marrow fat in people. So her team has analysed samples of bone marrow fat and below-skin fat from people undergoing hip surgery. The researchers found the bone marrow fat cells resemble subcutaneous ones in appearance, but produce a distinctive set of proteins.
6-14-19 Government clampdown on fetal tissue research
Scientists reacted with dismay last week after the Trump administration sharply restricted federal funding for medical research that uses fetal tissue, potentially affecting some $100 million in grants. Collected from elective abortions, the tissue has been used to develop vaccines for illnesses including polio, rubella, and measles, and is currently being used to study diseases including cancer, HIV, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. The new restrictions will result in three research projects at the National Institutes of Health being shuttered. About 200 outside research projects that use the material and receive NIH funding will be allowed to continue until their grants expire. Future research projects will then have to be approved by an ethics advisory board appointed by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. The White House said the research clampdown would “protect the dignity of human life.” The change is a victory for anti-abortion groups. Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, said it was “disgusting” that taxpayers had helped fund “experimentation using baby body parts.” But scientists said the restrictions would severely hamper their research. Stem cells harvested from fetal tissue can transform into any cell, replicate quickly, and don’t trigger the same immune response as adult cells, which means they can be injected into lab mice to study human diseases. “The ban on fetal tissue research,” said Lawrence Gostin, a public health law expert at Georgetown University, is “a ban on hope for millions of Americans suffering from life-threatening and debilitating diseases.” “This is nothing more than a sop to the religious right,” said the Los Angeles Times in an editorial. Clamping down on scientists’ use of fetal tissue won’t save any babies—because abortion will continue—but it will chill research that could help babies, children, and adults avoid suffering and death. You can’t claim to be pro-life if you’re denying science “the best tools available to find cures and create medicine for sick people.”
6-14-19 American health-care
The American health-care industry is becoming increasingly monopolized at all levels, helping drive up prices for medical care. One company controls 64 percent of the market for syringes; three companies control 86 percent of the market for IV solution; and two companies control 92 percent of dialysis clinics.
6-14-19 Brain worms in Hawaii
Health officials in Hawaii have confirmed three new cases of rat lungworm—a rare and occasionally fatal disease spread by a parasite that burrows into brains. The three patients, who contracted the disease separately over the past several months, bring the state’s total number of cases in 2018 to 10, and the 2019 total to five. Seventeen people were infected in 2017—but only two during the previous decade. The parasite, Angiostrongylus cantonensis, starts its life cycle as a worm in rats’ lungs, reports CNN.com. Its larvae are found in rat feces, which are eaten by snails and slugs. When rats in turn eat these snails and slugs, the cycle starts again. Humans are typically infected when they accidentally eat an infected snail or slug—in an unwashed salad, for example. The tiny worms can get lost in human bodies and head for the brain, where they can cause serious issues with the central nervous system. Symptoms include headaches, neck stiffness, fever, and vomiting; a severe infection can be fatal. Hawaii’s Health Department advises people to wash fruit and vegetables—and to not eat slugs for a dare, as one recent patient did.
6-14-19 Fighting malaria with gene-edited fungus
Scientists have created a genetically modified fungus that can kill malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Metarhizium pingshaense naturally infects Anopheles mosquitoes. Using gene editing, the researchers modified the fungus so that it would produce a toxin found in the venom of a funnel-web spider—but only when the fungus was swimming in the insect’s blood. The tweaked fungus proved highly effective in lab tests, so to test its efficacy in a real-world setting, scientists created an artificial 6,500-square-foot sub-Saharan village—essentially a giant greenhouse with walls made of mosquito netting. Mosquitoes placed in tent “huts” containing the uncontaminated fungus thrived, while those in huts sprayed with the modified fungus mostly died off within 45 days. The engineered fungus did not seem to affect bees or other insects. Study leader Raymond St. Leger, from the University of Maryland, tells NPR.org that much more research is needed before any lab-produced organisms can be released into the wild. But he says the study shows the potential of the fungus to combat the spread of malaria, which sickens 200 million people every year and kills some 400,000, mostly children in sub-Saharan Africa. “If it just reduced the transmission of [the disease] by 5 percent, that would still be hundreds of thousands of lives that benefited,” St. Leger says. “And we think it could do quite a bit better than that.”
6-14-19 Pig disease epidemic
The African swine fever that has ripped through pig herds across China is now infecting pigs in other Asian countries. Since last summer, about 20 percent of China’s 440 million pigs have been lost to disease or culling. The virus is harmless to humans but lethal to pigs, and it spreads rapidly, through contact with infected live or dead pigs and even contaminated pork products. In recent weeks, the disease has been found in Vietnam, Mongolia, Cambodia, and North Korea, forcing those countries to implement stringent checks at borders. “There’s never been anything like this in the history of modern animal production,” said agrifinance analyst Christine McCracken.
6-14-19 High-tech vertical farming is on the rise – but is it any greener?
The herbs in your future online supermarket delivery may be grown not in a field in a distant country, but in a shed on the outskirts of a nearby city. This week, UK online supermarket Ocado spent £17 million on vertical farming, an industry that advocates say can produce food in a more environmentally friendly way. But will the investment really allow Ocado to deliver greener food? Ocado has taken a majority stake in Jones Food, which runs Europe’s biggest vertical farm on an industrial estate in Scunthorpe. It has also invested in a joint venture with a further two firms – Priva based in the Netherlands and 80 Acres based in Ohio – involved in vertical farming. Vertical farming sees crops grown indoors under lights, in racks several metres tall. The technology expands production upwards and so requires less land. It also means that crops can be grown closer to where they will be consumed. That partly explains its success in Asia, with commercial vertical farming in Japan dating back more than 15 years. The sector has a much more recent history in Europe, emerging over the past five years. In Scunthorpe, basil and other herbs, watercress and leafy salad are grown in water under LED lights on racking that would collectively cover about 5000 square metres. “There’s always been an energy and employee argument which has probably held back vertical farming over the past decade,” says James Lloyd-Jones of Jones Food. The efficient nature of LEDs has been key to addressing that, along with lower energy lighting that just emits the blue and red wavelengths that plants can use. Fertiliser use – farming’s traditional big energy burden – is “phenomenally reduced”, Lloyd-Jones says. Pesticide use is zero because few insects make it into the indoor environment.
6-14-19 Superweeds are on the brink of becoming resistant to all weedkillers
The most damaging weed in the UK is about to become resistant to the main defence farmers have against it – the weed-killer glyphosate. And the situation is similar in many other countries around the world, with more than 500 weed strains having evolved resistance to at least one herbicide. Many weeds have evolved resistance to several different kinds of herbicides, and some are set to become resistant to all the herbicides used on particular crops. That is bad news for farmers, consumers and wildlife. These superweeds will cause massive crop losses and push up food prices. They will also speed up climate change and harm wildlife as even more land is converted to farmland to make up for the lost crops. “It is not a matter of if but when we are going to be losing chemical control of these weeds,” says Adam Davis of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In Europe alone, it is estimated that glyphosate-resistant weeds will cause yields of wheat, barley and oilseed rape to fall around 10 per cent, causing losses of around €2 billion for farmers and pushing up food prices. An additional 2 million hectares of farmland would be needed to compensate, resulting in higher greenhouse gas emissions and a loss of wildlife habitat. The loss of habitat is the single greatest threat to wildlife and biodiversity. The latest threat is a weed called blackgrass. “It can totally infest a field to the extent you can barely see the crop,” says David Comont of Rothamsted Research in the UK. By outcompeting crop plants, it causes yields to plummet. Strains of blackgrass (Alopecurus myosuroides) have already evolved resistance to many herbicides, and some are resistant to several at once. The herbicide glyphosate is often the last line of defence. And now Comont’s tests on blackgrass collected from more than 100 fields in the UK show that it is evolving resistance to glyphosate too.
6-13-19 Gut microbes interfere with Parkinson's drug - but we could stop them
The main drug used by millions of people with Parkinson’s disease could be made more effective and have its side effects limited, new research into gut bacteria and enzymes suggests. DLevodopa is used to treat many of the symptoms experienced by the 10 million people with Parkinson’s. The drug works by passing the blood-brain barrier and releasing dopamine in the brain. But some of the drug is converted to dopamine before it gets there, which can cause adverse side effects and limit the drug’s effectiveness. A particular problem is that the drug is broken down by enzymes in the gut and blood vessels. For this reason, people with Parkinson’s usually take levodopa in combination with another drug, carbidopa, that inhibits the break down. Researchers have been working to see how much of a role our microbiome could be playing in the varying responses people experience with levodopa. Now a US team has identified the enzymes and organisms in the gut that are responsible for breaking down the drug. “The specific advance is really understanding which specific gut bacteria and enzymes have the potential to metabolise levodopa,” says Emily Balskus at Harvard University. The team also found a way that could allow more of the drug to make it to the brain. It came in the shape of a small molecule, alpha-fluoromethyltyrosine (AFMT), which in tests in mice showed was able to block the pathway through which the enzymes break down the drug. “This opens up the door to the possibility of developing a new class of therapeutics to improve patient response to levodopa – that would be drugs targeting gut microbe metabolism in addition to targeting host metabolism,” says Balskus.
6-13-19 More than half of all Ebola outbreaks are going undetected
At least half of all Ebola outbreaks may have gone unrecognised, and more surveillance is needed to identify them early, before they get out of control. Those are the conclusions of a new analysis involving data from the largest Ebola outbreak in history. Ebola is a horrifying disease. While it starts with similar symptoms to the flu – fever and chills, muscle pain and headache – it often ends in internal and external bleeding, and death. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is in the grips of an outbreak that has infected about 2000 people and caused 1400 deaths since beginning in August last year. Now authorities have confirmed that it has spread to Uganda, following the death of a 5-year-old boy and his grandmother. This makes the outbreak the second largest in history, behind the epidemic in West Africa that killed more than 11,000 people between 2013 and 2016. However, such outbreaks are relatively unlikely, because it is far from inevitable that Ebola will spread between many people if it “spills over” into the human population from bats or other animals. As such, Emma Glennon at the University of Cambridge and her colleagues suspect that more often than not, when Ebola enters the human population it will die out before it grows into a medical emergency on the scale of the current epidemic. To test their idea, Glennon and her colleagues used computer modelling informed by three separate data sets related to the West Africa epidemic: one on all reported exposures in the outbreak, another with information on cases in a single district of Sierra Leone and a third with data on chains of transmission from early cases in Conakry, capital city of Guinea.
6-13-19 Scotland's crannogs are older than Stonehenge
Archaeologists have discovered that some Scottish crannogs are thousands of years older than previously thought. Crannogs were fortified settlements constructed on artificial islands in lochs. It was thought they were first built in the Iron Age, a period that began around 800 BC. But four Western Isles sites have been radiocarbon dated to about 3640-3360 BC in the Neolithic period - before the erection of Stonehenge's stone circle. The prehistoric monument in Wiltshire is one of Britain's best-known Neolithic features. Stonehenge's stone circle was erected in the late Neolithic period, about 2500 BC. Another famous Neolithic site is Skara Brae, a village in Orkney inhabited between 3200 BC and 2200 BC. Archaeologists Dr Duncan Garrow, of University of Reading, and Dr Fraser Sturt, from the University of Southampton, investigated four crannog artificial islands in the Isle of Lewis in the Western Isles. At one of the sites well-preserved Neolithic pottery had previously been found on the loch bed by Chris Murray, a former Royal Navy diver who lives in Lewis. The archaeologists' investigation included making underwater surveys and carrying out excavations at the sites to obtain "conclusive evidence of artificial islet construction during the Neolithic". The archaeologists, whose research has been published in the journal Antiquity, said the crannogs represented "a monumental effort" through the piling up of boulders on the loch bed, and in the case of a site in Loch Bhorgastail the building of a stone causeway. They said it was possible other Scottish crannogs, and similar sites in Ireland, were also Neolithic.
6-13-19 Two hours a week spent outdoors in nature linked with better health
Spending just 2 hours a week in green spaces such as parks, woodlands and fields has been linked with people feeling healthier and happier. The health benefits of being out in nature have been well-documented and will seem common sense to many of us, but until now no one has quantified exactly how much time might be beneficial. The magic number emerged from analysis of a survey of 20,000 people in England, who reported how long they spent in natural environments in the past week, plus their health and well-being. While individuals who spent less than 2 hours in nature were no more likely to report good health or well-being than those who spent no time there at all, those who spent more than 2 hours had consistently higher health and well-being levels. “It’s not a huge amount of time. You can spread it over the course of a week or seem to get it in a single dose, it doesn’t really matter,” says Mathew White at the University of Exeter, UK. Moreover, the threshold is within reach for most people: the analysis found that the average person spent 94 minutes a week exposed to a natural environment. “We have long known that nature is good for physical and mental health and putting numbers on the critical ‘dose of nature’ which gives us the best health is a really important step forward,” says Rachel Stancliffe of the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare in Oxford, UK. After 2 hours, the health benefits of being out in nature seem to give diminishing returns, with a cut-off after 5 hours. White says that could be explained by many of that group being dog walkers who are out in nature with little choice in the matter. The team controlled for the fact that the health benefits might be a byproduct of physical activity, not contact with nature.
6-13-19 When fighting lice, focus on kids’ heads, not hats or toys
I recently attempted a technically demanding “around the world” braid on my kindergartner. On my sloppy and meandering approach to the South Pole, I discovered a loathsome sight that scuttled my circumnavigation — a smattering of small, brownish casings stuck onto hairs. I tried to convince myself that I was looking at sand. She’s always covered in sand! But I’ve spent enough time around insects to know that I was looking at something biological. Bad braid abandoned, I began combing through, looking for more specks. And I sure found them: Lice eggs, or nits, that were glued onto the hair next to the scalp, and precisely one live bug. Today, I am delighted to report that our outbreak is over. (Although with three young children, our situation will probably swing between “having lice” and “waiting to have lice again.”) Our first brush with the little buggers sent me into full research mode, and I’m now armed with a deeper understanding of lice habits and preferences. In the interest of streamlining your next lice experience, I offer below some little-known and helpful facets of lice life. The best way to spot lice and their tiny nits is with wet combing. Compared with spot-checking the scalp, pulling a fine-toothed metal comb through hair that’s slick with conditioner turns out more critters. Pepper-sized nits can range from white to brown in color and are glued to single hairs. These suckers are on tight: You might need a fingernail to pop them off. Live nits need to be close to the warm scalp to survive; casings that are farther than a centimeter away from the scalp are probably empty or contain dead eggs. Once hatched, a live human head louse, or Pediculus humanus capitis, grows no larger than the diameter of a pencil eraser. It’s grayish white. And its favorite — and only — food is blood from a human scalp, which it slurps several times a day.
6-13-19 Chinese tombs yield earliest evidence of cannabis use
Researchers have uncovered the earliest known evidence of cannabis use, from tombs in western China. The study suggests cannabis was being smoked at least 2,500 years ago, and that it may have been associated with ritual or religious activities. Traces of the drug were identified in wooden burners from the burials. The cannabis had high levels of the psychoactive compound THC, suggesting people at the time were well aware of its effects. Cannabis plants have been cultivated in East Asia for their oily seeds and fibre from at least 4,000 BC. But the early cultivated varieties of cannabis, as well as most wild populations, had low levels of THC and other psychoactive compounds. The burners, or braziers, were found at Jirzankal Cemetery, high up in the Pamir Mountains. The scientists think ancient people put cannabis leaves and hot stones in the braziers and inhaled the resulting smoke. It's possible that the high altitude environment caused the cannabis plants in this region to naturally produce higher levels of THC. There's evidence this can happen in response to low temperatures, low nutrient levels and other conditions associated with high elevations. But people could have deliberately bred plants with higher levels of THC than wild varieties. It's the earliest clear evidence of cannabis being used for its psychoactive properties. They appear to have been burnt as part of funerary rituals. The scientists used a method called gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to isolate and identify compounds preserved in the burners. To their surprise, the chemical signature of the isolated compounds was an exact match to the chemical signature of cannabis. The findings tally with other early evidence for the presence of cannabis from burials further north, in the Xinjiang region of China and in the Altai Mountains of Russia.
6-12-19 Fate vs free will: A new book clarifies the determinism debate
We're not wrong to think we have free will, but The Science of Fate by Hannah Critchlow reveals the moral complexities underpinning our sense of unlimited choice. WHEN Bradley Waldroup was accused of murder, his attorney sent his DNA to a genetics lab. The results changed his fate. The lab found he had a rare variant of the MAO-A gene that is strongly associated with violent behaviour in people who – like him – were abused as children. Instead of receiving the death penalty, Waldroup was sentenced to 32 years in prison in 2009. At stake in the case was the issue of free will, considered at length in The Science of Fate by Hannah Critchlow, a University of Cambridge neuroscientist. From murder to what we eat, Critchlow explores the influence of genetics and environment on our thoughts and behaviour, trying once again to deflate public notions of unlimited agency and capability. Although that vision of “free will on steroids” may have personal and societal benefits, ranging from self-affirmation to civic responsibility, Critchlow refuses to give free will a free ride, especially where she believes the science is stacked against it. Take the familiar ideas about the deep evolutionary roots of dietary preference, such as our insatiable craving for sugar and fat, efficient energy sources for survival when food was scarce. Less familiar, but equally key, is the way children are predisposed in utero to like certain foods. As Critchlow explains, the child’s reward system develops there, inclining the fetus to flavours present in amniotic fluid. Together with genetics, such early conditions have lifelong health implications, playing a far bigger role than conscious choices in determining, say, obesity. Love is also fated for Critchlow. Mate selection owes a lot to scent. Critchlow cites the sweaty T-shirt experiment. Women had to rate the allure of men’s T-shirts, preferring the perspiration of males whose immune systems contrasted with their own, and whose DNA might therefore add to the defences of any offspring. “The women could literally sniff out Mr Right, with optimum genetics in mind,” says Critchlow. Society does us a disservice by uncritically embracing free will, Critchlow argues. In particular, she questions a criminal justice system that does not respond to the latest science. The more neuroscience teaches us, she says, the more it seems we may be better served by a system “that treats the problem of criminality as it does public health”. Even if individuals turn out to lack free will, our collective future may be open – and we can all benefit from Critchlow’s book.
6-12-19 Who should pay when medical drugs become too expensive to buy?
We depend on private companies to develop new drugs and treatments, but their need to profit has far-reaching consequences. THIS week, protesters in England continued to call for access to a medicine called Orkambi. The drug delays the progression of the genetic disorder cystic fibrosis, but it carries a price tag of £104,000 a year. Like many other countries, England’s health service has baulked at this cost, and the drug is currently only available privately. Some families have now formed a “buyers club” (see “A generic drug from Argentina offers cystic fibrosis families hope”), which is hoping to source a cheaper, generic version of the medicine from Argentina. Such clubs are becoming more common: in recent years, groups have formed to source drugs that treat hepatitis C and lower the risk of contracting HIV. But even when clubs can source cheaper drugs, the costs remain unaffordable for many people. Some families are now calling for the UK government to circumvent the patent on the drug and provide the generic version in England through the National Health Service. As one of the largest single markets for healthcare products in the world, the NHS has significant clout, and it is often argued that it should take a harder line with multinational drug companies. But the UK government is unlikely to take strong action amid the political turmoil of Brexit. Were drug companies to stop investing in medical research in the UK, this would come as a heavy blow. Drug firms say they charge high prices to recoup their research costs. It is easy to criticise these for being too high, but we are now starting to see what happens when firms are unable to profit from their research. After decades of fruitless clinical trials, major drug firms are closing their specialist Alzheimer’s units. It is now difficult to see how promising drug candidates for the disease will reach clinical trials (see “A drug may prevent Alzheimer’s but there are no plans to find out”).
6-12-19 Tombs in China reveal humans were smoking cannabis 2500 years ago
Cannabis is often promoted as all-natural. Yet in fact wild marijuana isn’t psychoactive and people didn’t start growing mutant strains that could make them high until relatively recently – around 2500 years ago. So say researchers who have found “the earliest unequivocal evidence” of the use of cannabis as a drug – chemical traces of cannabis with high levels of THC, a key component, on wooden braziers found in tombs dating to around 500 BC. The tombs are in the Jirzankal Cemetery near the border of China and Tajikistan. This psychoactive cannabis was likely “smoked” as part of Zoroastrian funeral rites, but joints, pipes and bongs weren’t known in this part of the world. Instead, hot pebbles were put in a wooden container and the cannabis placed on top of the stones. The ritual probably took place in small tents that would fill with the smoke. No tents have been found at Jirzankal but one has been found elsewhere and the practice was described by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus writing around 440 BC: “The Scythians… throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy.” An analysis of the wood and stones by Yimin Yang at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and colleagues revealed traces of cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol. THC – the substance in cannabis that makes people high – breaks down into cannabinol when exposed to air or light. Wild cannabis has very low levels of THC and would leave traces with similar amounts of cannabinol and CBD, Yang says, whereas he found much higher levels of cannabinol than CBD. That shows people had found or bred mutant strains of cannabis with higher THC levels by this time.
6-12-19 People may have smoked marijuana in rituals 2,500 years ago in western China
Mourners gathered at a cemetery in what’s now western China around 2,500 years ago to inhale fumes of burning cannabis plants that wafted from small wooden containers. High levels of the psychoactive compound THC in those ignited plants, also known as marijuana, would have induced altered states of consciousness. Evidence of this practice comes from Jirzankal Cemetery in Central Asia’s Pamir Mountains, says a team led by archaeologist Yimin Yang of the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. Chemical residues on wooden burners unearthed in tombs there provide some of the oldest evidence to date of smoking or inhaling cannabis fumes, the researchers report online June 12 in Science Advances. Rituals aimed at communicating with the dead or a spirit world likely included cannabis smoking, the team speculates. Cannabis remains of comparable age have been found in several other Central Asian tombs, including a site in Russia’s Altai Mountains located about 3,000 kilometers northwest of the Pamir Mountains. But the discoveries at Jirzankal Cemetery offer an unprecedented look at how cannabis was initially used as a mind-altering substance, the researchers say. East Asians grew cannabis starting at least 6,000 years ago, but only to consume the plants’ oily seeds and make clothing and rope out of cannabis fibers. Early cultivated cannabis varieties in East Asia and elsewhere, like most wild forms of the plant, contained low levels of THC and other mind-altering compounds. Some of the earliest evidence for people smoking marijuana comes from the Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote of cannabis smoking roughly 2,500 years ago on the Central Asian steppes, about 2,000 kilometers west of the Pamir Mountains. But a determination of exactly when and where high-THC cannabis plants first developed and which people first smoked cannabis has long eluded scientists.
6-12-19 Another team has used 'jumping genes' to upgrade CRISPR gene editing
CRISPR genome editing technology is revolutionising biology, but it could soon become even powerful. Two teams have developed new variants of the method based on “jumping genes” that might make it much easier to add pieces of DNA to cells. “I think we will see a flurry of excitement around this,” says Samuel Sternberg of Columbia University in New York, who leads one of the teams. For everything from treating many genetic diseases to creating genetically modified organisms, adding DNA to the genomes of cells is a key step. But none of the existing methods work particularly well. During gene therapy, for instance, viruses are typically used to deliver extra genes to cells to compensate for inherited mutations, but there is no way to control where in the genome the extra DNA ends up. This can lead to harmful mutations and sometimes trigger cancer. CRISPR enables researchers to insert DNA into a precise site in the genome. Unfortunately, existing CRISPR techniques typically work only 20 per cent of the time, and they don’t work at all for many types of cells. But Sternberg’s team have now achieved efficiencies of 40 to 60 per cent for adding DNA in a precise spot using a new form of CRISPR based on transposons. Also known as jumping genes, transposons are selfish genetic parasites that do nothing but copy and paste themselves from one part of the genome to another. Last week, a team led by Feng Zhang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported efficiencies of up to 80 per cent using a very similar approach. But Zhang’s method inserts DNA in the target site only half the time, says Sternberg – on the other occasions the DNA was inserted in a random site. Sternberg says his method adds DNA to the right spot on 95 per cent of occasions.
6-12-19 How many steps a day do you really need? Spoiler: It isn't 10,000
Forget 10,000 steps a day. Modern sports science and evolutionary biology now tell us how much exercise the human body really needs. THE Spine Challenger is a brutal race. It claws its way along the toughest 174 kilometres of the Pennines, the geological backbone of England, in the dead of winter. It must be completed in 60 hours. Finishers rack up some 5400 metres of ascent, equivalent to climbing Mont Blanc twice. Participants in 2017 – the fast ones, anyway – would have glimpsed Dom Layfield, an irrepressibly upbeat man in his 40s, pulling away and disappearing into the low clouds and sleet. They let him go, perhaps thinking that this first-timer had underestimated the race’s difficulty and would burn out. They were wrong. After 28 hours of non-stop running and scrambling, he finished first, an hour ahead of his nearest rival, setting a course record. If exercise is medicine – as we are often told – surely the Spine Challenger is a massive overdose. To complete it takes more than 20 times the 10,000 steps that many of us aspire to each day. Yet hundreds of these ultramarathons have sprung up around the world, and the most prestigious have to turn eager contestants away. At the same time, lifts and escalators are jammed with people who would never consider climbing the stairs. In fact, the average person in the US takes fewer than 5000 steps a day and in the UK it isn’t much more. As a species, we have a love-hate relationship with exercise. Many people fail to get enough, some seem to get too much. So, what is the correct dose? Or, put another way for the Fitbit generation: how many daily steps should we take to make the most of this marvellous medicine?
6-12-19 Extra fingers, often seen as useless, can offer major dexterity advantages
An extra digit proves useful for texting, typing and eating, a case study shows. An extra finger can be incredibly handy. Two people born with six fingers per hand can tie their shoes, adroitly manage phones and play a complicated video game — all with a single hand, a study shows. These people’s superior dexterity, described June 3 in Nature Communications, suggests that instead of being seen as aberrations that ought to be surgically removed, extra fingers can bring benefits. The results also highlight how flexible the human brain can be, a feature that will be central to the design of brain-controlled robotic appendages. For the study, bioengineer Etienne Burdet of Imperial College London and colleagues worked with a 52-year-old mother and her 17-year-old son, both born with six fingers on each hand. These extra fingers, positioned between the thumb and index finger, resemble thumbs in the versatile ways that they can move. Brain scans and anatomical MRI scans revealed that the extra fingers are controlled by a dedicated brain system, along with muscles and tendons. That means that these extra fingers aren’t just along for the ride, controlled by the muscles that move the other fingers, as some doctors had thought. These people’s brains had no trouble directing their extra fingers, the results show. Extra robotic fingers or other appendages controlled by a person’s mind could bring similar increases in neural workloads, though the challenge would be greater for a person not born with the extra digits.
6-12-19 Bronze Age British settlement burned down a year after being built
Nearly 3000 years ago, fire swept through a settlement of wooden dwellings built on stilts in the Fens of eastern England. The buildings collapsed into the silt, and were only rediscovered in 1999. Dubbed Britain’s Pompeii, the extraordinarily well-preserved site gives an unprecedented glimpse of daily life in the late Bronze age. But the timeframe of its construction and demise was unknown. Now an analysis of the site shows that the settlement had only existed for a year. The fire was a tragedy for the inhabitants but lucky for archaeologists. The silt preserved not only the structure but also the everyday items not usually found in the prehistoric archaeological record, including 180 textile items, remains of food in pots and faeces. “We can see where things had been lost between the floorboards, textiles being made on the loom. There is a completeness about inventory of the settlement,” says Mark Knight at the University of Cambridge, who directed the excavations. To find out how long the settlement had existed, the archaeologists pieced together different strands of evidence. Analysis of the tree rings from the timbers showed they were fresh. “We think that the wood was still green,” says Knight. Wood chips from the construction of the buildings were found around the site, but very little detritus from human occupation. The absence of wood-boring insects and fleas indicates that there hadn’t been enough time for these creatures to colonise the buildings. Together, the evidence indicates that the site only existed for a year, perhaps even less. No-one seems to have died in the fire. “We half expected to find bodies underneath the roof. That really would have been a Pompeii moment,” says Knight. “Our interpretation is that the occupants did a runner. They got out.”
6-12-19 Artificial Scottish islands are thousands of years older than thought
The ancient inhabitants of Scotland were building artificial islands thousands of years earlier than we thought, ancient pottery discovered in Scottish lochs suggests. Hundreds of these small, human-made islands, or crannogs, have been found across Scotland. They are particularly common in the islands of the Outer Hebrides off the northwest coast of the mainland. Archaeologists had believed the oldest dated back to around 800 BC, in the Iron Age. They then remained in use for around 2500 years afterwards. But the discovery of one major crannog on the Outer Hebridean island of North Uist dating back to the Neolithic period, about 3700 BC, prompted speculation that several of the islands might date to this era. The idea has now been confirmed. In 2012, former Navy diver Chris Murray discovered a series of well-preserved pots of a Neolithic style around another crannog on the Outer Hebridean Isle of Lewis. Radiocarbon dating of structural timbers and pot residues put the age of four sites at between 3640 to 3360 BC – quite close together. While it is unclear what these sites were used for, scholars have suggested they might have been special places for social gatherings, ritualised feasting or funeral sites. The builders used stone and wood to construct the islets, sometimes expanding on existing formations in the water. One of the sites in Garrow’s study measured 26 x 22 metres and was made using stones weighing up to 250 kilograms each. Hundreds of Neolithic pots have been discovered around the sites since 2012, some remarkably well preserved, Garrow wrote. A few pots remained on the islets themselves, but the majority were found in the water surrounding them. The position of these ceramics and the quantity suggested that they were intentionally placed in the water, and some, if not all, were whole at the time, Garrow wrote.
6-12-19 Baby pterosaurs may have hatched ready to fly right out of the egg
Pterosaurs were born to fly. An analysis of a cache of pterosaur eggs discovered in 2017 adds to the debate over whether these winged reptiles hatched ready to fly – and shows that they may have broken out of their eggs with their wings fully formed. “The extraordinary thing about those embryos is they have a set of bones that in many respects match those of adults in terms of proportions. When they come out of the egg, they are like mini-adults,” says David Unwin at the University of Leicester in the UK. He and his colleague, Denis Charles Deeming at the University of Lincoln in the UK, analysed the size and shape of 37 eggs from a collection of 300 found at a site in Jinzhou, China. They found that as the eggs developed, they changed shape from long and slender to relatively round. “What happens is rather like me as I got older, they tend to get wider around the middle bit, rather than taller,” says Unwin. Pterosaurs laid their eggs on the ground, and the shells were pliable and porous like modern reptile eggs, so they took up water as they grew. That allowed the parent to use less energy to lay the eggs, says Unwin. The team also analysed scans of four embryos, all belonging to the pterosaur Hamipterus, midway through development to see how much of the skeleton had formed. Compared to the rest of the skeleton, they found a greater amount of ossification, or bone tissue formation, in the bones that give the wings structure. This indicates that pterosaurs hatched ready to fly and hunt their own food, says Unwin, a condition at birth biologists describe as precocial.
6-11-19 A drug may prevent Alzheimer’s but there are no plans to find out
An arthritis drug seems to significantly cut the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease – but there are no plans to find out if it really works. Last week, The Washington Post reported that pharmaceutical firm Pfizer has data showing that an arthritis treatment it owns called Enbrel may also lower the risk of getting Alzheimer’s by 64 per cent. But, according to critics, Pfizer has elected not to develop the drug for this condition because the patent on it will soon expire, meaning the company won’t profit from pursuing it further. Pfizer, however, denies the patent was a factor. There are ways to extend patents if something appears profitable – and, with an estimated 37 million people with Alzheimer’s worldwide, a drug for this disorder surely would be. The company told The Post that it just wasn’t convinced by the data. Enbrel, also known as etanercept, is currently used to treat rheumatoid arthritis by helping to rein in the body’s inflammatory response. It contains a protein that binds to TNF-alpha, a master-signal released by cells to trigger inflammation when they detect something foreign, like bacteria. Inflammation is useful for destroying pathogens, but it can also harm the body, and it is involved in a number of diseases associated with ageing. Like rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s is known to involve TNF-alpha. Pfizer’s findings are reported to have come from mining insurance company data sets that include millions of people’s diseases, treatments and outcomes. Of about 400 people with rheumatoid arthritis, those on Enbrel seemed to be less likely to go on to develop Alzheimer’s than those on other treatments.
6-11-19 A tiny crater on viruses behind the common cold may be their Achilles’ heel
The indentation could be a target for new drugs effective against the pathogens. A newly discovered indentation on the surface of viruses that cause many illnesses, including the common cold, could be their Achilles’ heel — and a possible target for effective drugs. When scientists tested antiviral compounds on cells grown in the lab, the team found one that blocked the replication of an enterovirus. Cryo-electron microscopy revealed that the compound binds to and appears to jam a previously unknown pocket on the virus’s protein shell, researchers report online June 11 in PLOS Biology. Additional testing suggests that the pocket is widespread among picornaviruses, the viral family that includes enteroviruses — which cause hand, foot and mouth disease as well as more dangerous infections — and rhinoviruses, responsible for the common cold. There are no antiviral medications available to treat these pathogens. The pocket “is an excellent target for antivirals” that may be effective against many of these types of viruses, says Susan Hafenstein, a structural virologist with the College of Medicine at Penn State who was not involved in the study. These viruses mutate very frequently, which makes it “easier for them to escape a drug,” she says. To identify drug targets in the viruses, “it is essential to identify key working components” that these pathogens need to survive. During an infection, viruses inject their genetic material into cells and take over the cellular machinery to make more viral particles. In picornaviruses, a protein shell surrounds the virus’s inner core of genetic material. Previous research suggests the shell changes shape when these viruses are ready to expel their genetic payload during an infection.
6-11-19 Inside the audacious mission to map every microbe in Australia
Waves submerge the algae, forcing us to hop onto higher ground to avoid getting wet feet. For the next few months, the rocky beach outcrop I am on in the Kamay Botany Bay National Park, Sydney, will be a lab for Kim Lema at the University of New South Wales, Australia. She is studying a type of algae whose chemicals attract certain microbes, forming a microscopic community on its surface that plays an important role in its health. To identify these microbes, Lema is getting their DNA sequenced. These sequences will then be logged on a public database. There, they will join information on 1.7 million bacteria, 1.8 million tiny eukaryotes and nearly 1.2 million fungi from across Australia as part of the first concerted effort to catalogue an entire continent’s microbiome. Around 40 organisations are involved in the Australian Microbiome Initiative, which hopes to determine what healthy ecosystems look like at the microscopic level before climate change and habitat destruction alter them irreversibly. It is a very ambitious project, according to Martin Ostrowski at the University of Technology, Sydney, who is contributing marine microbial sequences to the database. “All the data that we’re collecting is a really important resource,” he says. “One way of thinking about it is that it gathers three and a half billion years of evolution of a whole range of different solutions to different problems,” says Ostrowski. This could help us in various ways, he says, from microbial methods of cleaning up pollution to developing new antibiotics.
6-11-19 Grape expectations: DNA reveals history of vintage wine
The French were probably sipping wine made from an identical grape to one used today back in medieval times. DNA from ancient grape seeds shows the grapevine behind a local vintage has been cultivated continuously for 900 years. Ancient grapes found at archaeological sites also reveal what the Romans grew in their vineyards 2,000 years ago. They may have made wines closely related to Pinot Noir and Syrah, according to scientists. It has long been suspected that some grape varieties used in modern wine are identical to plants grown hundreds of years ago. Grape vines are propagated by taking cuttings, allowing grapes behind particularly delicious wines to be passed down the generations. And now, researchers have matched DNA from 28 grape seeds from Iron Age, Roman and medieval archaeological sites across France to a genetic database of modern grapevines. "We found one medieval grape seed from central France that is directly connected to Savignin blanc," said Dr Nathan Wales, from the University of York. "It's a type of grape that's grown today in France and we see that it has a direct link for 900 years, which means that people have taken this one vine and they've propagated it by cuttings for over 900 years." Savagnin or Savagnin Blanc (not to be confused with Sauvignon Blanc) is an ancient European grape variety. It can still be found growing in the Jura region of France, where it is made into Savagnin wine or vin jaune and vin de paille, as well as in parts of Central Europe, where it often goes by the name Traminer. Grapes grown by the Romans, who were known to have advanced knowledge of winemaking, were also analysed in the study. With the Roman grape seeds, the researchers could not find an identical genetic match with modern-day seeds - but they did find a very close relationship with two important grape families used to produce high quality wine, including Syrah and Pinot Noir. While we can't be sure the grapes were used for wine rather than table grapes, the researchers, from the UK, Denmark, France, Spain, and Germany, think it's very likely they became a special vintage.
6-11-19 These knotted cords may hide the first evidence that the Incas collected taxes
Stringed devices called khipus are undergoing more research scrutiny, but most remain enigmatic. While excavating an Inca outpost on Peru’s southern coast, archaeologist Alejandro Chu and his colleagues uncovered some twisted surprises. In 2013, the scientists were digging in one of four rooms lining the entrance to what had been a massive storage structure, and they started finding sets of colored and knotted strings poking through the ground. Known as khipus, these odd Inca creations recorded census totals, astronomical events and other matters of state interest. In a society without a writing system, khipus also told stories about Inca rulers’ exploits. That, at least, is what Spanish chroniclers wrote about khipus in the decades after toppling the Inca empire in 1532. But Spanish accounts, which were based on interviews with royal Inca record keepers, provide only general descriptions of these cord contraptions. Researchers have yet to decipher khipus from various parts of the Inca empire, and it’s a mystery what any particular cord array meant to its makers. So just finding khipus at the Inkawasi site, an imposing military and administrative site unlike any other known from the Inca world, was a big deal. Inkawasi’s khipus were also unlike any found before, and in a weird way. Most were found covered by the remains of regional crops, mainly peanuts or chili peppers. In two years of work at the storage facility, called Qolqawasi, Chu’s team found 29 khipus in three rooms and a central corridor at the front of the structure. Excavations revealed that nearly all the finds lay underneath scattered edibles.
6-10-19 Genealogy companies could struggle to keep clients’ data from police
Blocking access may drive law enforcement to seek more expansive search warrants. After police used DNA sleuthing techniques to arrest a teenage suspect in Utah accused of assault, a public genealogy website shut off most police access in May, following public outcry. That move by GEDMatch to protect the privacy of its users could backfire, some experts warn, creating more privacy issues, not fewer. Forensic genetic genealogy — the use of genetic databases by police to find potential suspects through family members’ DNA — first caught attention as a crime-fighting tool in April 2018. That’s when police used it to identify Joseph James DeAngelo as the suspected Golden State Killer, an elusive serial killer who terrorized California with multiple murders, rapes and assaults in the 1970s and ’80s (SN Online: 4/29/18). That case opened the door for other investigators, and in the year since, the technique has been used to charge at least 50 people, including three women, with murder or rape in cases involving more than 90 victims. Jury selection is set to begin June 11 in the trial of William Earl Talbott II. He was one of the first people arrested after a genetic genealogy search, and is accused of killing a young Canadian couple in 1987 (SN: 6/23/18, p. 11). At least three other people tracked down through genetic genealogy searches have already been convicted of their crimes and sentenced to between 80 years and life in prison. Most of those cases were solved when police matched a portion of crime scene DNA to that of a suspects’ distant relatives in GEDMatch, a free genealogy website where people can upload DNA data. Genetic genealogists then used birth, death and other records to build family trees that gave investigators leads to follow. Finally, the surreptitious collection of suspects’ DNA from discarded cigarettes, napkins, cups and other items led investigators to make the arrests. (Webmaster's comment: DNA is a valid "fingerprint" and should be used to catch criminals! Why do we want to protect those that do harm to others?)
6-10-19 Big data 'can stop malaria outbreaks before they start'
A ground-breaking study in Bangladesh has found that using data from mobile phone networks to track the movement of people across the country can help predict where outbreaks of diseases such as malaria are likely to occur, enabling health authorities to take preventative measures. Every year, malaria kills more than 400,000 people globally - most of them children. Menpaw Mro lifted his young daughter on to his shoulders and began the long journey to the nearest hospital, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, first on foot, then by boat and finally in a small motorised rickshaw. Time was desperately short. For several days, he had assumed the fever afflicting six-year-old Rum Rao Mro was not serious and she would soon recover at home, in their village in this remote region of Bangladesh. Instead, the fever steadily worsened, putting her life in danger. "She could not sleep, she was crying all the time and had breathing difficulties," he says. They never reached the hospital. Rum Rao died on the last leg of the journey. She'd been suffering from severe malaria. Although in many areas of Bangladesh the number of people falling ill or dying from the malaria has dropped dramatically in recent years, it remains a persistent problem in the Chittagong Hill Tracts - with the region recording the highest number of cases in the country. If these stubborn pockets of malaria were now to be tackled successfully, it would open up the tantalising possibility of Bangladesh finally being able to declare itself free of the deadly disease. But doctors in the Hill Tracts believe they have only a short window of time to achieve this, because the parasites carrying the disease are becoming increasingly drug resistant. Many anti-malarial medicines now have no impact.
6-10-19 Night owls: Simple sleep tweaks boost wellbeing
Tweaking sleeping habits can shift people's body clocks and improve their wellbeing, say scientists in the UK and Australia. They focused on "night owls", whose bodies drive them to stay up late into the night. Techniques used included consistent bedtimes, avoiding caffeine and getting plenty of morning sunshine. The researchers say their approach may seem obvious, but could make an important difference to people's lives. Everyone has a body clock whose rhythms follow the rising and the setting of the sun. It is why we sleep at night. But some people's clocks run later than others. Morning-led "larks" tend to wake early, but struggle to stay up in the evening; night owls are the opposite, preferring a lie-in and remaining active late into the night. The problem for many night owls is fitting into a nine-to-five world, with the morning alarm waking you up hours before your body is ready. Being a night owl has been linked to worse health. Scientists studied 21 "extreme night owls" who were going to bed, on average, at 02:30 and not waking until after 10:00. After three weeks, people had successfully shifted their body clocks two hours earlier in the day, the analysis by the University of Birmingham, University of Surrey and Monash University showed. The results, in the journal Sleep Medicine, showed people still got the same hours of shut-eye. But they reported lower levels of sleepiness, stress and depression, while tests showed their reaction times also improved. Their instructions were to:
- Wake up 2-3 hours earlier than usual and get plenty of outdoor light in the morning
- Eat breakfast as soon as possible
- Exercise only in the morning
- Have lunch at the same time every day and eat nothing after 19:00
- Banish caffeine after 15:00
- Have no naps after 16:00
- Go to bed 2-3 hours earlier than usual and limit light in the evenings
- Maintain the same sleep and wake times every day
6-10-19 How your body processes food is only partially down to your genes
As children, Helen Sparre and Sarah Guy appeared identical in both face and figure; a pattern which continued into their twenties – when both twins were underweight – and into their thirties and early forties, when they began to gain some additional pounds. Yet, according to a new study, in which they participated, these similarities are only skin-deep: Just 50 per cent of our response to glucose, and less than 20 per cent of our response to dietary fats is genetic, meaning that even identical twins respond very differently to the same meal. “Everyone is unique in their food response, which may help explain why one-size-fits-all dietary guidelines often fail,” says Tim Spector at Kings College, London, who led the study. He is now developing an app which could ultimately predict the healthiest food choices for any given individual, following a test. The team found that, whereas some people experienced a rapid and prolonged increase in blood sugar and insulin in response to a given meal, such as a high-fat or high-carb muffin, others responded to the same meal with a large and sustained increase in the amount of fat circulating in their bloodstream. The first of these responses is a pattern associated with an increased risk of weight gain and type 2 diabetes, whereas the second is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Surprisingly, these differences were also observed in twins sharing identical DNA sequences. For instance, in response to a sugary drink, one twin had more than double the spike in blood glucose of their identical twin — a pattern also observed when they consumed a standard muffin. But when they consumed a high fibre muffin, their responses were more similar.
6-10-19 California to be first state to provide healthcare to undocumented immigrants
California is poised to become the first US state to offer government-provided healthcare to some immigrants who are in the country illegally. State Democrats agreed on Sunday that adults between the ages of 19 to 25 should have access to Medi-Cal, the state's low-income insurance programme. The measure must still be approved by the full legislature and be signed by the state's Democratic governor. The $98m (£77m) plan aims to provide coverage to 100,000 people. To help pay for the plan, which is part of the latest state budget, lawmakers have proposed taxing people who do not have health insurance. The penalty is similar to the so-called "individual mandate" which had been federal law after the passage of the Affordable Healthcare Act, also known as Obamacare, until Republicans in Congress eliminated it in 2017. Health coverage under the budget plan will not be provided to all immigrants - and only to those that qualify under the state's version of Medicaid - the federal low income health programme that was expanded under President Obama. "California believes that health is a fundamental right," said Los Angeles Democratic Senator Holly Mitchell, who led the budget negotiations. The budget comes after Democratic lawmakers, who dominate the state capitol, scrapped a proposal to provide Medi-Cal coverage to adults over 65 years old. The expansion of coverage to the elderly was opposed by Governor Gavin Newsom who noted that the plan would cost $3.4bn. Republicans have decried the budget initiative as a tax on American residents for not having insurance in order to provide healthcare to those in the country illegally.
6-10-19 Grape expectations: DNA reveals history of vintage wine
The French were probably sipping wine made from an identical grape to one used today back in medieval times. DNA from ancient grape seeds shows the grapevine behind a local vintage has been cultivated continuously for 900 years. Ancient grapes found at archaeological sites also reveal what the Romans grew in their vineyards 2,000 years ago. They may have made wines closely related to Pinot Noir and Syrah, according to scientists. It has long been suspected that some grape varieties used in modern wine are identical to plants grown hundreds of years ago. Grape vines are propagated by taking cuttings, allowing grapes behind particularly delicious wines to be passed down the generations. And now, researchers have matched DNA from 28 grape seeds from Iron Age, Roman and medieval archaeological sites across France to a genetic database of modern grapevines. "We found one medieval grape seed from central France that is directly connected to Savignin blanc," said Dr Nathan Wales, from the University of York. "It's a type of grape that's grown today in France and we see that it has a direct link for 900 years, which means that people have taken this one vine and they've propagated it by cuttings for over 900 years." Savagnin or Savagnin Blanc (not to be confused with Sauvignon Blanc) is a variety of white wine grape with green-skinned berries. It can still be found growing in the Jura region of France, where it is made into Savagnin wine or vin jaune and vin de paille, as well as in parts of Central Europe, where it often goes by the name Traminer. Grapes grown by the Romans, who were known to have advanced knowledge of winemaking, were also analysed in the study.
6-10-19 Mystery hominin had sex with ancestors of Neanderthals and Denisovans
It is the oldest and one of the most extreme case of interbreeding found so far in the tangled tale of human origins. Around 700,000 years ago, a group of ancient humans that would later give rise to both the Neanderthals and Denisovans mated with an unidentified group of hominins. This mystery group had evolved separately from their new sexual partners for over a million years. Despite this, the two groups were able to interbreed – although the hybrids may have suffered poor health. The Neanderthals and Denisovans belong on a distinct branch of the human family tree that split away from our ‘modern human’ branch within the last million years. Neanderthals lived in Europe and west Asia, while Denisovans lived in east Asia. Previous studies revealed both species interbred with modern humans and with each other. They also suggest that Denisovans interbred with an unknown population of “super archaic” hominins, the identity of which remains unknown. To find out if any other inter-group sex went on, Alan Rogers of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and his colleagues compiled DNA from four sources: ancient Neanderthals and Denisovans, modern Europeans, and a modern African group called the Yoruba. The team first asked if the known instances of interbreeding were enough to explain how various genes were distributed among the four populations. They found that many anomalous patterns remained. However, adding an extra episode of interbreeding was enough to get a good fit. The additional bout of interbreeding took place between the shared ancestors of Neanderthals and Denisovans, after they had split from our branch. Their sexual partners came from the same mystery population of “super-archaic” hominins that the Denisovans later interbred with. “This is the only model I’ve come up with that fits well, and no one else has come up with a model that explains these data this well,” says Rogers.
6-9-19 How overconfidence can foil the American dream
Social mobility is less possible than ever, and overconfidence might have something to do with it. merica likes to think of itself as the land of opportunity — but these days, there's an excellent chance you'll be stuck in the social class you were born into for the rest of your life. Precisely why it's so hard to make that leap in status is a complicated question, but new research offers an intriguing clue. A new study finds that people who occupy a higher place in the socio-economic hierarchy often believe, without evidence, that they are more capable than their lower-class counterparts. Crucially, this overconfidence can be misinterpreted by prospective employers to indicate higher competence, giving middle- and upper-class people a significant advantage in terms of hiring and, presumably, promotion. "In the middle class, people are socialized to differentiate themselves from others, to express what they think and feel, and to confidently express their ideas and opinions, even when they lack accurate knowledge," lead author Peter Belmi of the University of Virginia said in announcing the findings. "By contrast, working-class people are socialized to embrace the values of humility, authenticity, and knowing your place in the hierarchy." In a society that rewards brash go-getters, humility can be a real disadvantage. The research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, describes four studies featuring a total of 152,661 people. One featured 1,000 people recruited on Amazon's Mechanical Turk website; researchers determined participants' social class based on factors including household income and educational attainment. In a first round, subjects completed surveys designed to measure their desire for prestige, advancement, and high social rank.
6-9-19 3D-printed replica heads are being used to help treat cancer patients
Radiotherapists are using 3D printed heads to practice cancer treatments before doing the real thing. With the approach a person undergoing radiotherapy first has a CT scan to image their brain, tumour and surrounding bone and facial structure. This is then turned into a life-sized replica of their skull and facial appearance using a technique that converts sequential CT images into a 3D structure. The model is made from a 3D-printed material that absorbs and scatters the radiation used for radiotherapy in the same way as human tissues. The models were approved as safe to use by the US Food and Drug Administration last year and are now being used to treat patients in Greece. Treating brain cancer is notoriously tricky, as being just a few millimetres off can cause damage to healthy brain tissue. With radiotherapy high doses of radiation are targeted to kill cancerous cells, but minimise damage to surrounding areas. To get this right, radiologists have to take into account a person’s anatomy and the size and shape of their tumour. “The aim is to focus a large number of very small radiation beams so they can converge exactly on the spot where the brain tumour is,” says Evangelos Pappas at RTSafe, a firm in Athens that has developed the technique. Using the models, radiologists can have a trial run of treating the tumour and make any necessary tweaks before actually performing the treatment. Each one is filled with water and contains inserts which detect the dose of radiation being delivered in precise locations within the head. “The medical team treats this head as if it is a living patient,” says Pappas. It allows doctors to simulate the planned dose of treatment and verify that the radiation will target the tumour and not any vital structures nearby, such as the brainstem or the optical nerve.
6-8-19 The illusion of DNA ancestry kits
Like the emperor with no clothes, we're all exposed. Most people remember the fable of the emperor's new clothes: A vain ruler, swindled into paying for a nonexistent magical garment, parades in public, only to be embarrassed by a little boy. To me, the story is really about the swindling tailors. Audacious, imaginative, their true product is a persuasive illusion, one keyed to the vulnerabilities of their target audience. In contemporary terms, the story is about marketing; and as such, the tale is tailor-made for an examination of genetic ancestry tests, because these too are sold with expert persuasion, with promises woven from our hopes, our fears, and the golden thread of DNA. With these new tests, as in the old tale, a gap yawns between the promise and the reality — and now and then, as in the story, someone says so in the public square. For example, when Phil Rogers, a reporter in Chicago, tried out home DNA test kits from competing companies last year, he discovered contradictory results. So did the Canadian reporter Charlsie Agro and her twin sister Carly, who mailed spit samples to 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, AncestryDNA, MyHeritage, and LivingDNA. As with Rogers, the companies gave different histories — Balkan ancestry, for example, ranged from 14 to 61 percent — but 23andMe actually reported different scores for each twin. (According to the company, Charlsie has French and German ancestors, while Carly does not.) The tests are sold with variations on a single pitch: Find your story. The companies don't mention that the story might shade into fiction, or that stories can conflict. The evolutionary geneticist Mark Thomas at University College London has dismissed ancestry testing as "genetic astrology," but it could be as useful to think of it as genetic gossip: a rumored past that, like most rumors, is at least partly true. It begins with a test-tube of spit and ends with fractional estimates: a story, whispered by an algorithm, in the language of information.
6-8-19 Lizards' grip became ten times stronger after hurricane Maria
Lizards on the Caribbean island of Dominica appear to have suddenly developed a super strong grip. Measurements before and after a hurricane hit the island reveal the lizards’ grip has become ten times stronger – although it is not clear why. In September 2017, Category 5 strength hurricane Maria devastated Dominica and may have drastically altered some of the nation’s wildlife. Claire Dufour at Harvard University and her colleagues were in Dominica in 2016, studying the coexistence of two types of lizard: invasive crested anoles (Anolis cristatellus) and native anoles (Anolis oculatus). The team captured the lizards, recording the two species’ body size and toe features, as well as their clinging ability by measuring the force required to drag their feet along a surface. After the hurricane, Dufour and her colleagues wanted to see if it had affected any of these characteristics, so in 2018, they returned to Dominica to re-sample the anoles. While body size and toe pad shape didn’t change, both anole species had dramatically stronger grips following hurricane Maria, about ten times stronger than their 2016 counterparts. One possibility is that anoles with stickier feet fared better in the hurricane’s violent winds, meaning the remaining population grew from a group of the strongest clingers. “This study shows that hurricanes may be a previously overlooked driver of performance in Anolis lizards,” says Dufour. “This is pretty unique.” Last year, Dufour’s colleagues published findings that showed a different Caribbean hurricane spurring changes in toe pad shape in anoles, but this is the first study showing the lizards increasing their grip after a storm.
6-7-19 Ultraprocessed foods lead to overeating
America’s obesity epidemic is being fueled by ultraprocessed foods loaded with synthetic flavors, preservatives, and added sugars and salt, a small but rigorous new study has found. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health recruited 20 adult volunteers—10 men and 10 women—to spend a month at a research facility. The participants were split into two groups: one ate a diet of ultraprocessed foods such as sugary cereals, white bread, and reconstituted meats, while the other group ate minimally processed foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, grilled chicken, and whole grains. All meals contained similar amounts of calories, sugars, fat, and carbohydrates—but the subjects were told they could eat as much as they liked. After two weeks, the groups swapped meal plans. On the ultraprocessed diet, participants ate faster and consumed an extra 500 calories a day—equivalent to two and a half Krispy Kreme glazed doughnuts—and gained an average of 2 pounds. On the unprocessed diet, which was 40 percent more expensive than the ultraprocessed one, subjects lost an average of 2 pounds and experienced increased levels of an appetite-suppressing hormone. Barry Popkin, a nutrition expert at the University of North Carolina who wasn’t involved in the study, tells NPR.org that the challenge for the global food industry is to “produce ultraprocessed food that’s healthy and that won’t be so seductive and won’t make us eat so much extra. But they haven’t yet.”
6-7-19 The dangers of fruit juice
Naturally occurring sugars in fruit juice may be just as bad as for you as the refined sugars added to soda, a new study has found. Researchers examined data covering more than 13,000 people for more than six years; almost 71 percent were overweight or obese. They found that the people who drank the most sugary drinks—of any kind—had a 14 percent higher risk of premature death than those who drank the least. Each additional daily 12-ounce serving of cola or other sugar-sweetened drinks was linked to an 11 percent increased risk—but for fruit juices, the risk was as much as 24 percent higher. While the authors caution that the study shows correlation, not causation, they say the elevated risk could be explained by the fact that sugary beverages increase insulin resistance, which raises the risk for cardiovascular disease, while fructose consumption can stimulate weight gain around the waist, another cardiovascular disease risk factor. Co-author Jean Welsh, from Emory University in Atlanta, tells CNN.com that the consumption of “sugary beverages, whether soft drinks or fruit juices, should be limited.”
6-7-19 Medicaid-expanding states had fewer cardiovascular deaths than other states
Cardiovascular disease is more likely to impact low-income people and the uninsured. States that expanded eligibility for Medicaid insurance coverage saw fewer deaths related to cardiovascular disease than if they hadn’t broadened the program’s reach, a new study shows. It’s another indication that Medicaid expansion, part of the Affordable Care Act, appears to be improving public health. Counties in states with expanded eligibility had 4.3 fewer cardiovascular-related deaths on average per 100,000 residents per year than they would have had they not expanded, researchers reported online June 5 in JAMA Cardiology. Medicaid is an insurance program that covers low-income and other qualified individuals. Expanded income eligibility took effect in many states beginning in 2014. As of June 2019, a total of 33 states plus the District of Columbia had implemented the change. Cardiologist Sameed Khatana of the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia and colleagues analyzed death rates due to cardiovascular disease among adults aged 45 to 64 years from 2010 through 2016. The county-level data came from 29 states plus Washington, D.C., that had expanded Medicaid — most by 2014, a handful by 2016 — and 19 states that hadn’t. The researchers primarily defined the years 2010 through 2013 as the pre-expansion period, and years 2014 through 2016 as postexpansion. From one period to the next, “in expansion states, [cardiovascular] mortality essentially remained flat, while in nonexpansion states, it increased,” Khatana says. In other words, he says, if expansion states had decided not to expand Medicaid, their mortality trends would have followed those of the nonexpansion states.
6-7-19 Prescription drugs
The median out-of-pocket cost of the 49 top-selling prescription drugs increased by 76 percent between 2012 and 2017. Sixteen drugs more than doubled in price over the seven-year span. One of them, Lyrica, was raised from $174 in 2012 to $411 in 2017.
6-7-19 Some trees can change sex and are more likely to die when female
Being female can be tough, even for trees. A study of the life cycle of striped maples – which can change sex from season to season – has revealed that healthy trees are more likely to be male, and most trees die while in the female flowering state. “We had a suspicion they were changing sex, which is relatively rare among plants,” says Jennifer Blake-Mahmud of Princeton University. Between 2014 and 2017, she tracked the life cycles of striped maples (Acer pensylvanicum) in state forests and park lands in New Jersey. She visited 457 striped maples each spring, measuring their diameter, the condition of their leaves and branches, and recording whether they had female or male flowers. “It was just me and my trusty field dog. I would go out and count all the flowers and then determine the sex of the different trees,” she says. She found that 54 per cent of the trees switched sex during the 4-year period, and a quarter of those switched sex at least twice. A model based on the data she collected showed that, contrary to previous theories, healthy trees were more likely to be male and the size of a tree doesn’t influence its sex. She found that the growth rate of trees that remained female for multiple years deteriorated, and 75 per cent of the dead trees had produced female flowers just before they died. “It’s remarkable. When I see a tree that’s dead and I look back in my data sheet, it was almost always female the year before,” she says. It’s not clear why this is the case. It could be that females need more nutrients because they produce seeds, and that’s so taxing the trees die, says Blake-Mahmud. But it could also be that when a tree is dying, it switches to female as a last effort to create offspring and pass genes on to the next generation.
6-7-19 DNA reveals ancient Siberians who set the stage for the first Americans
A previously unknown population of Ice Age travelers across Beringia was discovered in Russia. Northeastern Siberia hosted migrations of three consecutive ancient populations that created a genetic framework for Siberians and Native Americans today, scientists say. While each incoming population largely replaced people already living there, mating between newcomers and old-timers also occurred, conclude evolutionary geneticist Martin Sikora of the University of Copenhagen and colleagues. These findings provide a closer look at how complex interactions among different groups of people in Asia led to the colonization of North America. Sikora’s group analyzed DNA extracted from the remains of 34 people buried in northeastern Siberia, northern East Asia and southwestern Finland between about 31,600 and 600 years ago. Comparisons were made with DNA previously obtained from ancient and modern individuals across Eurasia and North America. Teeth from two children unearthed at Russia’s 31,600-year-old Yana Rhinoceros Horn site yielded DNA representing a previously unknown population that the team calls Ancient North Siberians. Those people migrated from western Eurasia to Siberia around 38,000 years ago, quickly adapting to the region’s especially frigid Ice Age conditions, the team reports online June 5 in Nature. Some Ancient North Siberians journeyed onto the Bering land bridge that connected Asia to North America around 30,000 years ago. Mating with East Asians who had also moved to the land bridge produced a genetically distinct population, dubbed Ancient Palaeo-Siberians by the researchers. As the climate became milder after 20,000 years ago, some of the Ancient Palaeo-Siberian population returned to northeastern Siberia, replacing the Yana crowd.
6-7-19 Overbearing bonobo moms
Mothers have been known to nag their grown children to produce grandkids, but bonobo moms take the pressure to a whole new level. These moms are so determined to become grandmothers that they will stand by when their sons mate with a female and fight off any other males that try to disrupt the lovemaking. These overbearing ape moms also run interference, breaking up liaisons between females and males that aren’t their sons. Occasionally, mother and son even team up to attack the latter’s sexual rivals. This forceful maternal behavior is well documented, and a new study has concluded for the first time that it actually helps the sons thrive, reports DiscoverMagazine.com. Researchers found that wild male bonobos in Congo whose mothers were still with them fathered three times more offspring than bonobos whose mothers had died or left the group. Lead author Martin Surbeck, from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, says bonobo moms likely act as they do to “increase their reproductive success without having more offspring themselves.”
6-7-19 Supernovas got humans walking
Early humans may have evolved to walk on two feet because exploding stars destroyed their forest habitats, a new study suggests. Our corner of the Milky Way experienced a series of supernovas that peaked about 2.6 million years ago, says researchers at the University of Kansas. The radiation blasting out from these dying stars ionized Earth’s atmosphere, making it more conductive—which led to lightning strikes that sparked massive wildfires in Africa’s forests. At that point, our ancient tree-dwelling ancestors lived their lives on all fours, clambering up trunks and swinging from branch to branch. But “when the forests are replaced with grasslands,” co-author Adrian Melott tells The Guardian (U.K.), “it then becomes an advantage to stand upright, so you can walk from tree to tree and look over the tall grass for predators.” The researchers’ evidence for the lightning strikes is a layer of highly ionized iron deposits found across the ocean floor; as for the wildfires, the scientists point to carbon deposits in soils that can be dated back to the time of the supernovas. “There’s a lot more charcoal and soot in the world starting a few million years ago,” says Melott. “This could be an explanation.”
6-7-19 A generic drug from Argentina offers cystic fibrosis families hope
“She’s our child, nothing else matters – I’d lose my house before I take her off the treatment,” says Nina White from Kent, mum of seven-year-old Beatrice. Beatrice has cystic fibrosis, a genetic condition causing progressive worsening of lung function, which is thought to affect more than 10,000 people in the UK. People with cystic fibrosis may spend hours a day having physiotherapy or inhaling medicines, and their life expectancy is currently about 47 years. Three years ago a new medicine called Orkambi arrived, designed to reverse one of the genetic flaws that causes the disease. So far, studies of this drug have had mixed results but one of the most optimistic found that it nearly halves the rate of disease progression. But the official price of the drug is just over £100,000 a year. NICE, the body that assesses the cost-effectiveness of new medicines, decided that the benefits weren’t worth that price tag. Some other countries have concluded the same. So Beatrice’s family began to pay for the drug privately, using contributions from all their relatives to pay the £8000-a-month costs. “We’re going month-to-month, everyone’s digging in. It’s completely unsustainable,” says White. She says Beatrice’s health has improved markedly. White is not alone in doing this. Rob Long, in Sussex, is using his pension savings to pay for the drug for his nine-year-old son Aidan. Long had seen other children’s health deteriorate and not recover. “Their health can change rapidly.” The price tag, however, is too much for most of the other estimated 5000 people in the UK who could benefit from this type of medicine. Cystic fibrosis can be caused by many different variants of the same gene, but Orkambi targets the most common one. But there may be a way to get the medicine much more cheaply. Because Vertex does not have a valid patent on Orkambi in Argentina, a pharmaceutical firm called Gador is legally making a cheaper version of the medicine there, and selling it for about £23,000 a year.
6-7-19 Large Ebola outbreaks new normal, says WHO
The world is entering "a new phase" where big outbreaks of deadly diseases like Ebola are a "new normal", the World Health Organization has warned. Previous Ebola outbreaks affected relatively small numbers of people. But the Democratic Republic of Congo is dealing with the second largest outbreak ever, just three years after the world's largest one ended. The WHO said countries and other bodies needed to focus on preparing for new deadly epidemics. There have been 2,025 cases of Ebola and 1,357 deaths from the virus during the outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The largest outbreak, in West Africa in 2014-16 affected 28,616 people mostly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. There were 11,310 deaths. Yet the 12 outbreaks between 2000 and 2010 averaged fewer than 100 cases. So why are modern outbreaks so much bigger? "We are entering a very new phase of high impact epidemics and this isn't just Ebola," Dr Michael Ryan, the executive director of the WHO's health emergencies programme told me. He said the world is "seeing a very worrying convergence of risks" that are increasing the dangers of diseases including Ebola, cholera and yellow fever. He said climate change, emerging diseases, exploitation of the rainforest, large and highly mobile populations, weak governments and conflict were making outbreaks more likely to occur and more likely to swell in size once they did. Dr Ryan said the World Health Organization was tracking 160 disease events around the world and nine were grade three emergencies (the WHO's highest emergency level). "I don't think we've ever had a situation where we're responding to so many emergencies at one time. This is a new normal, I don't expect the frequency of these events to reduce." As a result, he argued that countries and other bodies needed to "get to grips with readiness [and] be ready for these epidemics". The outbreak in DR Congo continues to worry health officials. It took 224 days for the number of cases to reach 1,000, but just a further 71 days to reach 2,000.
6-6-19 Almost all healthy people harbor patches of mutated cells
Tissues exposed to the environment such as skin have more mutations, a study finds. Normal isn’t always normal. A new study finds that large groups of cells in healthy tissues carry mutations, including ones tied to cancer. About 95 percent of healthy people had patches of mutated cells in at least one of the 29 tissues examined, including kidney, muscle and liver, researchers report in the June 7 Science. Most of those mutations found in the 488 people in the study are harmless, but some have been linked to various cancers. About 40 percent of tissues had at least one big patch of mutated cells, and about 5 percent of the studied samples had five or more mutant patches, Keren Yizhak of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and colleagues discovered. Skin, esophagus and lung tissues had more of these mutant patches than other tissues, the researchers found. Those three tissue types are exposed to more ultraviolet light, pollution, smoke or other environmental factors that may cause mutations than internal organs, which are not directly exposed to these external factors. In people of European ancestry, sun-exposed skin accumulated more mutations than covered skin did. African Americans didn’t have the same increase in mutations in their sun-exposed skin. Age also affected the number of mutations, with mutations popping up more often after age 45 in tissues that divide to make new cells. Tissues that don’t actively grow didn’t tend to build up age-related mutations, the researchers found. It isn’t yet possible to tell how close a tissue is to becoming cancerous, but the study is a first step toward answering that question, Cristian Tomasetti, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine wrote in a commentary in the same issue of Science.
6-6-19 Powerful CRISPR upgrade uses 'jumping genes' to directly insert DNA
The CRISPR genome editing technology currently revolutionising biology may soon become even powerful. A new variant of the method based on “jumping genes” could make it much easier to insert pieces of DNA into genomes. “It’s still in the experimental phase,” says geneticist Helen O’Neill of University College London. “But it’s quite exciting.” Biologists would love to edit genomes with the same ease we can change digital texts using the “find and replace” command. What CRISPR currently excels at, however, is “find and delete”. The standard form of CRISPR involves adding a protein called Cas9 to a cell along with a piece of guide RNA. The protein searches through the genome until it finds DNA that matches the guide RNA sequence and then cuts the DNA at this point. Some DNA is lost when the cell sticks the ends back together, resulting in deletions that typically disable genes. This is extremely useful. Many diseases could be treated by disabling genes. It is possible to dramatically lower cholesterol levels this way, for instance. But in many cases it would be better to fix faulty genes rather than disable them. It is possible to do this by adding a corrected gene to a cell along with the CRISPR Cas9 protein and the RNA guide. Cells sometimes splice the corrected version into the genome when they repair the DNA. Unfortunately, this typically works only 20 per cent of the time, and in many cell types it simply doesn’t work at all. Lots of teams are working on improving the “find and replace” function. Feng Zhang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has now developed a whole new approach based on transposons, also known as jumping genes. These extremely selfish genes do nothing but copy and paste themselves from one part of the genome to another using enzymes called transposases. These genetic parasites are extremely common: more than half of our genome consists of now defunct jumping genes.
6-6-19 52-million-year-old fossils suggest oak relatives evolved in the south
Fossils found deep in the forests of Argentina suggest that relatives of oak trees evolved in the southern hemisphere, not the north as previously thought. Fagaceae are one of the most important groups of flowering plants including oaks and beeches, and its trees are a cornerstone of rainforests across south-east Asia. The family’s extensive fossil record has only been found in the northern hemisphere before. But a pair of 52 million-year old fossils discovered in Laguna del Hunco, in Argentine Patagonia, has led researchers to a hypothesis that one genus in the family started life in the south. Since work started in Patagonia’s Laguna del Hunco in 1999, researchers have found hundreds of leaf fossils that looked like Fagaceae members but were not considered evidence enough alone. However, suspicions were confirmed when an international team found two specimens in the area covered in fruits and little flower parts of the Castanopsis genus. “That was when the evidence really became overwhelming,” says Peter Wilf of Pennsylvania State University. His team were “pretty shocked” because the nearest fossils in Castanopsis were found 8000 miles away in New Guinea. The fossils are the oldest in the genus by about 8 million years, and date back to the the Eocene, before Earth’s land masses split, enabling them to spread to modern day continents of the north. The idea of southern roots for some Fagaceae species means researchers will now begin hunting for the fossils of other members of the family in previously unsuspected places, which could shed light on how other shrubs and trees evolved. Mark Chase of Kew Gardens says the research shows Fagaceae “were in the past much more diverse than at present, particularly on the continents now in the southern hemisphere, in which they are absent today.”
6-6-19 Trump administration ends federal foetal tissue research
The Trump administration has ended federal research using human foetal tissue, delivering a victory to anti-abortion advocates. The move, announced on Wednesday, has been criticised by scientists who say such tissue is essential in researching diseases like HIV and cancer. The Department of Health and Human Services cited "the dignity of human life" as a "top priority". Privately funded or university-led research is not affected by the policy. "Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump's administration," the department said in a statement. Any National Institutes of Health (NIH) research that requires acquiring new foetal tissue will no longer be conducted under the policy change. As for external grant applications that would use this tissue, HHS said they will be subject to review from an ethics advisory board to determine "whether, in light of the ethical considerations, NIH should fund the research project". In 2018, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) began reviewing all federal research involving human foetal tissue and halted any new acquisition of tissue. Now, the government will also not renew a $2m (£1.5m) contract with the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) for research using tissue from elective abortions. The contract expires on 5 June. "The audit and review helped inform the policy process that led to the administration's decision to let the contract with UCSF expire and to discontinue intramural research - research conducted within the National Institutes of Health - involving the use of human foetal tissue from elective abortion," the statement said. According to the Associated Press, a senior official said the policy move came from President Donald Trump, not the NIH Director, Francis Collins
6-6-19 Ultimate limit of human endurance found
The ultimate limit of human endurance has been worked out by scientists analysing a 3,000 mile run, the Tour de France and other elite events. They showed the cap was 2.5 times the body's resting metabolic rate, or 4,000 calories a day for an average person. Anything higher than that was not sustainable in the long term. The research, by Duke University, also showed pregnant women were endurance specialists, living at nearly the limit of what the human body can cope with. The study started with the Race Across the USA in which athletes ran 3,080 miles from California to Washington DC in 140 days. Competitors were running six marathons a week for months, and scientists were investigating the effect on their bodies. Resting metabolic rate - the calories the body burns through when it is relaxing - was recorded before and during the race. And calories burned in the extreme endurance event were recorded. The study, in Science Advances, showed energy use started off high but eventually levelled off at 2.5 times the resting metabolic rate. The study found a pattern between the length of a sporting event and energy expenditure - the longer the event, the harder it is to burn through the calories. So people can go far beyond their base metabolic rate while doing a short bout of exercise, it becomes unsustainable in the long term. The study also shows that while running a marathon may be beyond many, it is nowhere near the limit of human endurance.
1. Marathon (just the one) runners used 15.6 times their resting metabolic rate.
2. Cyclists during the 23 days of the Tour de France used 4.9 times their resting metabolic rate.
3. A 95-day Antarctic trekker used 3.5 times the resting metabolic rate.
"You can do really intense stuff for a couple of days, but if you want to last longer then you have to dial it back," Dr Herman Pontzer, from Duke University, told BBC News. He added: "Every data point, for every event, is all mapped onto this beautifully crisp barrier of human endurance. "Nobody we know of has ever pushed through it."
6-6-19 Oozing white mucus from giant salamanders makes excellent medical glue
Chinese giant salamanders, the largest and longest-living amphibians in the world, excrete a goo from their skin that can be used to seal wounds – and it is better than most medical adhesives available today. When giant salamanders are threatened or injured, their skin oozes a protein-rich mucus. Shrike Zhang at Harvard Medical School and his colleagues used this mucus to make glue for sticking skin back together after surgeries. With the medical adhesives currently on the market, there is an important trade-off. Synthetic adhesives are very strong, but not very flexible and give off heat as they bond with the skin that can be damaging, while natural adhesives are more flexible and biocompatible, but not nearly as strong. To make their glue, Zhang and his colleagues gently scratched the backs of Chinese giant salamanders to trigger mucus secretion. They then collected the white material and freeze-dried into a powder for later use by mixing with water to rehydrate. “I think if you happened to have a giant salamander by your side, putting the mucus right on should probably work too,” says Zhang. “If you happened to have salamanders surrounding you all the time that might be something to try.” The salamanders are critically endangered in the wild, though millions live in commercial farms. They tested the strength of the goo on pig skin and found that it was slightly weaker than chemical adhesive but far stronger than the natural kind, while retaining the same flexibility as natural medical adhesive. In live rats, sealing a small wound with salamander adhesive left almost no scar and allowed the hair to regrow almost immediately. It also did not cause significant inflammation and degraded safely in the body.
6-6-19 Brainless fungi trade resources with plants like a stock market
In soils across the world, fungi trade resources with the plants they colonise in a mutually beneficial relationship. But it turns out the fungi are savvy traders, taking advantage of their partners by shuttling goods to nutrient-starved areas where plants are willing to pay more than usual. The discovery is the latest demonstration that even simple, brainless organisms are capable of sophisticated trading strategies. The roots of most land plants are colonised by arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, which comprise elaborate networks of fine white filaments. The fungi provide plants with phosphorous and receive carbon in return. A single fungal network can be connected to many plants, and vice versa, meaning the two parties can switch between trading partners and there is plenty of scope of wheeling and dealing. Toby Kiers, an evolutionary biologist at the Free University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands has previously shown that fungi tend to avoid trading with plants growing in the shade. She has even caught them hoarding phosphorous to inflate the amount of carbon they get in return. Now, inspired by economist Thomas Piketty’s best-selling book on the subject, she was curious to see how the fungi deal with resource inequality. How do they adapt their trading strategies when phosphorous supply is patchy? To find out, Kiers and her colleagues used differently coloured light-emitting particles called quantum dots to tag phosphorous, allowing them to track its movements through fungal networks connected to a host root in petri dishes. They exposed the networks to unequal distributions of the mineral. In one dish, the left side received 70 per cent of the phosphorous while the right got 30. In another, the left got 90 per cent and the right 10. In a control, the two sides received 50 per cent each.
6-6-19 Prehistoric stone engraved with horses found in France
A stone believed to be about 12,000 years old and engraved with what appears to be a horse and other animals has been discovered in France. The prehistoric find by archaeologists excavating a site in the south-western Angoulême district, north of Bordeaux, has been described as "exceptional". Markings appear on both sides of the sandstone, the National Archaeological Research Institute (Inrap) said. It was found during work at an "ancient hunting site" near Angoulême station. The Palaeolithic stone plate, which is said to be about 25cm long, 18cm wide and 3cm thick, "combines geometric and figurative motifs", Inrap said. According to the institute, the most visible engraving is that of a headless horse, which covers at least half of the stone's surface on one side. "Legs and hooves are very realistic," Inrap said on its website (in French), adding: "Two other animals, smaller, are also slightly incised." The other animals featured on the stone are slightly smaller, and could be another horse and a deer - which has a distinct shape to its hooves, the institute said. Other items unearthed at the site in Angoulême include rudimentary fireplaces - concentrations of heated pebbles - bone remains of fauna and a flint-sized post. Arrowheads and cut flints have also been found in the area, suggesting that it may have been used thousands of years ago as a hunting and feasting site. The archaeological discoveries will be presented to the public at a local exhibition between 14 and 16 June. The Palaeolithic period, the larger part of the prehistoric Stone Age, is thought to have begun more than two million years ago and ended around 8,000 BC.
6-5-19 How people with extreme imagination are helping explain consciousness
The first studies of people with hyperphantasia – hyper-vivid mental imagery – are revealing how our imaginations shape the world we perceive and make us who we are. WHEN you are absorbed in a novel, what does your mind’s eye see? For many of us, it is a foggy, low-contrast approximation of the scenes described, no matter how evocatively they are written. Not so for Clare Dudeney. “When people describe things, especially gory things, I visualise them so vividly it’s like I’m experiencing them first-hand,” she says. “A few years ago, I was on the train reading a passage about someone who got a nail stuck in their foot and I passed out.” Dudeney is one of an unknown number of people with this ability, known as hyperphantasia. She only realised it a few years ago. Mental imagery is inherently private, after all. It is hard to articulate what you see in your own mind’s eye, never mind get a sense of how it compares with everyone else’s. But we now know it differs wildly between individuals. Some people find it impossible to picture their own bedroom, while others, like Dudeney, can call to mind images as sharp as they appear at the cinema. These extremes of imagination are intriguing. A better grasp of what is going on in the brains of people who experience them could help tease out the role of mental imagery in emotion and mental health – and may be promising territory in the search for treatments for various psychological disorders. People with extraordinary imaginations might even reveal something about how we all experience the world. “Sometimes I think we know more about outer space than we do our own minds,” says Emily Holmes, a clinical neuroscientist at Uppsala University in Sweden. “And mental imagery is a frontier ripe for exploration.”
6-5-19 Why the truth about our sugar intake isn't as bad as we are told
Read the headlines, and you would think we are eating more sugar than ever before – but the numbers reveal a very different story, says James Wong. UNLESS you have been hiding under a stick of rock these past few years, you will have heard that sugar consumption has skyrocketed. We are eating more of the stuff than ever – a fact decried by commentators, celebrity chefs and politicians alike. Having a bit of a sweet tooth myself, it is something I am prepared to believe. But when I started to dig around for evidence, I found it to be, unlike sugar, in surprisingly short supply. Is it possible we have got it all wrong about the dangers of sugar? Undoubtedly the most frequently (perhaps only?) cited source in the newspapers and blogosphere for this claim is a single graph. It comes from a 2007 paper on the connection between sugar intake and conditions such as hypertension and obesity published inThe American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN). Plotting economic data about sugar supply per capita as far back as 1700, and using that as a proxy for consumption levels, it shows a dramatic increase in consumption starting in around 1850 and continuing to the present day. Oddly, this neat visual isn’t based on the sugar supply of any one place, but of that in two countries on different continents. From 1700 to 1978, it says it uses UK statistics, but then it inexplicably swaps to the US, allowing the line to continue on its dramatic trajectory. According to the authors, the source of this UK data was a 1972 paper by John Yudkin of the University of London (that same year he also wrote the many-times reprinted book Pure, White and Deadly: How sugar is killing us and what we can do to stop it). Curious to know how a 1972 paper could be the source of sugar consumption data up to six years after it was published, I got myself a copy of the original. The graph was there, albeit with an unclear endpoint on the axis label and with no attribution whatsoever of source. Not exactly what one might expect to find for such a ubiquitous scientific graphic: a data dead end.
6-5-19 Children's teeth reveal previously unknown ancient humans in Siberia
Buried deep in an archaeological site in the north-eastern Siberia taiga, two children’s milk teeth from 31,000 years ago have revealed a new population of humans. “The genetic record previously suggested that people were only in north-eastern Siberia in the last 10,000 years, but we know from archaeological sites that these populations were there long before that,” says Eske Willerslev at the University of Cambridge in the UK. Archaeological finds told us that people were in this region about 31,000 years ago, but this new genetic data reveals who was there. They analysed genetic data from 34 samples that range between 31,000 and 600 years old, from high-latitude sites across the Asian continent, from Finland to the Bering Strait. The samples include two fragmented milk teeth from the Yana River site in north-eastern Siberia, which are the oldest human remains found at these harsh northern latitudes. “The general conception is that the first people getting up there were the ancestors of Native Americans that crossed the Bering Strait and died out,” says Willerslev. “What we see now is that this is by no means how it happened.” They found a lineage of people in the region that diverged from other populations around 38,000 years ago, which he and his colleagues have named Ancient North Siberians, that were not directly related to Native Americans. “It’s a people we didn’t know about. They died out. They have left tiny traces of DNA in contemporary Siberians but only a small trace, so that was a great surprise,” he says.Willerslev and his team found that these people moved further south to slightly warmer areas during the Last Glacial Maximum, from about 26,500 to 19,000 years ago. They are genetically closer to the hunter-gatherer populations in western Eurasia that those in the east.
6-5-19 Dragonfish have 'invisible' teeth to help them sneak up on their prey
Deep-sea fish have evolved transparent teeth which, along with their black bodies, make them invisible to prey. While dragonfish are only the size of a pencil, they are fearsome predators at the top of the food chain. Their thin, eel-like bodies support a huge black mouth filled with razor-sharp teeth, that can widen to swallow prey half their size. Marc Meyers at the University of California San Diego and his colleagues have discovered what makes these teeth almost entirely transparent. Using an electron microscope, they found that the teeth contain grain-sized nanocrystals spread throughout the enamel. Materials are transparent when light can pass through them with little scattering, and because these structures in the surface of the teeth are so small, they don’t scatter or reflect much light. Dragonfish teeth are made from an outer enamel-like layer and an inner layer made of dentin. They are sharper than piranha teeth and probably as hard as a great white shark’s teeth, says Meyers. Having thinner teeth than many other predatory fish also helps reduce their visibility, he says. Their dark-skinned bodies already help dragonfish camouflage into the inky blackness of the deep ocean, and they use a light-emitting lure near their mouths to entice prey toward them. But the evolution of transparent teeth means that this bioluminescence doesn’t reflect onto their teeth and blow their cover. This means the mouth would be invisible to prey right until the moment it was caught. “I would see a mysterious light source toward which I would be attracted,” Meyers says describing the prey’s final moments. “Suddenly, I would be trapped and pierced.”
6-4-19 Chemicals in biodegradable food containers can leach into compost
Long-lasting PFAS compounds could end up in plants that are later eaten by people. Composting biodegradable food containers cuts the amount of trash that gets sent to a landfill. But the practice may serve up some unintended consequences for human health. That’s because the items often contain perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, to help repel water and oil. These persistent chemicals can leach out of the packaging and end up in compost, researchers report May 29 in Environmental Science & Technology Letters. When that compost is used, PFAS could be taken up by plants and ultimately accumulate in the bodies of people, though the health effects are still unclear. The scientists measured perfluoroalkyl acids, or PFAAs, a subset of PFAS formed by microbial degradation, in compost from 10 commercial facilities. Seven of these facilities accepted compostable food containers, and three didn’t. With the food containers in the mix, the team measured PFAAs at concentrations from about 29 to 76 micrograms per kilogram of compost, while compost from facilities that didn’t accept the containers contained less than 8 micrograms PFAAs per kilogram of compost. “There was a huge difference in the PFAS levels between those two groups,” says Laurel Schaider, an environmental chemist and public health researcher at Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Mass., not involved in the study. People expect the things they compost to break down entirely and become a sustainable source of nutrients for plants, so it’s concerning that chemicals in compostable items can persist, she says.
6-4-19 'Pumping heart patch' ready for human use
A "pumping" patch containing millions of living, beating stem cells could help repair the damage caused by a heart attack, according to researchers. Sewn on to the heart, the 3cm (1in) by 2cm patch, grown in a lab from a sample of the patient's own cells, then turns itself into healthy working muscle. It also releases chemicals that repair and regenerate existing heart cells. Tests in rabbits show it appears safe, Imperial College London experts told a leading heart conference in Manchester. Patient trials should start in the next two years, the British Cardiovascular Society meeting heard. A heart attack happens when a clogged artery blocks blood flow to the heart muscle, starving it of oxygen and nutrients. This can damage the heart's pumping power and lead to incurable heart failure. Heart failure affects about 920,000 people in the UK. Researcher Dr Richard Jabbour said: "One day, we hope to add heart patches to the treatments that doctors can routinely offer people after a heart attack. "We could prescribe one of these patches alongside medicines for someone with heart failure, which you could take from a shelf and implant straight in to a person." Prof Metin Avkiran, from the British Heart Foundation, which funded the research, said: "Heart failure is a debilitating and life-changing condition with no cure, making everyday tasks incredibly difficult. "If we can patch the heart up and help it heal, we could transform the outlook for these people."
6-4-19 Stem cell patch may help repair damage caused by heart attacks
Heart patches could provide a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of people after a heart attack. The patches are grown in a lab and could one day provide a way to help repair damaged hearts. Each patch consists of a thumb-sized piece of heart tissue (measuring 3 centimetres by 2 centimetres) contain up to 50 million human stem cells, programmed to turn into working heart muscle cells that beat. One or more patches could be implanted on to the heart of a someone who has had a heart attack to prevent or even reverse damage to the organ. During a heart attack, the heart is starved of vital nutrients and oxygen, killing off parts of the heart muscle. This weakens the heart and can eventually lead to heart failure, which affects an estimated 920,000 people in the UK. Once sewn in place, the new patches are intended to physically support the damaged heart muscle and help it pump more efficiently. The patches also release chemicals that stimulate the heart cells to repair and regenerate. Lab tests show that the patches start to beat after three days and start to mimic mature heart tissue within a month. In animals, the patches led to an improvement in the function of the heart after a heart attack, while blood vessels from the heart were able to grow into the patches. Human trials will start in the next two years to make sure they work as well in people. The ultimate goal is to have a stock of pre-made patches that are compatible with all patients, so that a person suffering a heart attack could quickly have one implanted. “One day, we hope to add heart patches to the treatments that doctors can routinely offer people after a heart attack,” says Richard Jabbour at the British Heart Foundation Centre of Regenerative Medicine in London. “We could prescribe one of these patches alongside medicines for someone with heart failure, which you could take from a shelf and implant straight into a person,” he says.
6-4-19 A new experiment didn’t find signs of dreaming in brain waves
By analyzing the neural flickers of dreams, researchers hope to shed light on consciousness. In a nighttime experiment called the Dream Catcher, people’s dreams slipped right through the net. Looking at only the brain wave activity of sleeping people, scientists weren’t able to reliably spot a dreaming brain. The details of that leaky net, described May 27 at bioRxiv.org, haven’t yet been reviewed by other scientists. And the results are bound to be heavily scrutinized, as they run counter to earlier work that described signs of dreams in neural data. The experimental design matters, because scientists suspect that dreams hold clues about the deepest mystery of the mind — consciousness itself. The brain can create rich tapestries of awareness even in the complete absence of incoming information. Studying these instances of brain-created consciousness, which include dreaming, mind-wandering and daydreaming, “is a powerful way to understand the relationship between the brain and the mind,” says study coauthor Naotsugu Tsuchiya of Monash University in Clayton, a town near Melbourne, Australia. Tsuchiya and his colleagues analyzed data generated from nine people who slept overnight in a laboratory while wearing an electrode cap that measured brain waves. The researchers focused on a stage of sleep called non-REM sleep. (Dreams are so abundant during REM sleep that researchers would have been hard-pressed to find enough instances of nondream sleep to use as a comparison.) To identify dreams, researchers employed an irritating method: They would wake up a person once he or she had entered non-REM sleep, and ask whether the person had been dreaming.
6-4-19 How one fern hoards toxic arsenic in its fronds and doesn’t die
Key proteins keep the heavy metal from wreaking havoc on the way to its cellular jail cell. The Chinese brake fern looks unassuming. But Pteris vittata has a superpower: It sucks up arsenic, tucks the toxic metal away in its fronds and lives to tell the tale. No other plants or animals are known to match its ability to hoard the heavy metal. Now researchers have identified three genes essential to how the fern accumulates arsenic, according to a study in the May 20 Current Biology. The fern shuttles the heavy metal, often found as arsenate in soil, from the plant’s roots to its shoots. There, the three genes make proteins that help corral arsenate as it moves through the plant’s cells and into a cellular compartment called a vacuole, where the arsenic is sequestered, the team found. One protein, GAPC1, gloms onto the arsenate, possibly keeping it from doing damage during its journey. Another, OCT4, appears to help arsenate cross membranes, possibly into a structure where a third protein, GSTF1, transforms it into arsenite, the form stored by the plant. Tinkering with the genes caused the plants to die when exposed to arsenic, say Jody Banks, a botanist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and her colleagues. These ferns are already being used to draw arsenic out of soil in some contaminated areas. It “takes a long time, but it’s really cheap,” compared with the millions of dollars it can cost to dig out contaminated dirt and clean it, Banks says. In one previous study, the ferns sucked up about half of the arsenic in heavily contaminated soil in five years.
6-4-19 Tool-use became widespread 10,000 years earlier than we thought
Our hominin ancestors had started making stone tools on a regular basis around 2.61 million years ago – 10,000 years earlier than thought. The find hints that early humans invented stone tool manufacture several times. David Braun of the George Washington University in Washington, DC and his colleagues reached the conclusion after discovering a collection of ancient tools at Ledi-Geraru in Ethiopia. They were found just 5 kilometres from a second site where the oldest known fossil of our genus Homo, a jawbone from 2.8 million years ago, was discovered in 2013. “We think it makes the most sense that early Homo made those stone tools,” says Braun. However, he says we cannot rule out the possibility that a more ape-like hominin like Australopithecus was responsible. The style of the artefacts classifies them as Oldowan stone tools, which were widely used by hominins over the next million years. Previously, the oldest known examples were 2.6-million-year-old tools from Gona, Ethiopia. Those from Ledi-Geraru are up to 2.61 million years old. The team compared the Ledi-Geraru tools with other collections, including those from Gona, and found they were crude. The tools had “significantly lower numbers of actual pieces chipped off a cobble than we see in any other assemblage later on,” says Braun. The toolmakers may have been less skilled, or they may not have needed their tools to be particularly sharp yet. But while the Ledi-Geraru tools are broadly similar to later Oldowan tools, they are drastically different to the oldest known stone tools, which were found at Lomekwi in Kenya and are 3.3 million years old. “Those have nothing to do whatsoever with what we see later on,” says Braun. “It’s possible there are multiple independent inventions of stone as a tool.”
6-3-19 Your gut bacteria may influence whether you get drug side effects
The microbes in our guts could explain why people react differently to drugs, and lead to ways of making treatments work better. We know that genetic differences can influence our response to drugs, but recent research has suggested that the microbial communities inside us could also help explain why some people experience toxic drug side effects when others don’t. Most drugs are taken orally as pills. Often, these aren’t completely absorbed by the body, and the remains subsequently encounter enormous numbers of microbes in our guts. To see what happens next, a team at Yale University and ETH Zurich in Switzerland mapped how 76 strains of human gut bacteria break down 271 pharmaceutical drugs.They found that 176 were metabolised by at least one of the bacterial strains – a strikingly high proportion, says Michael Zimmermann at Yale University. The study agrees with previous epidemiological research showing that microbes are key to how we metabolise drugs, says Tim Spector of King’s College London. “I think it’s a big step forward. People can start to predict, based on someone’s gut microbes, how they might respond to a drug.” When microbes break down drugs, they may produce substances with unwanted side effects or that even render a drug’s active ingredient ineffective. The finding that our gut bacteria may affect so many drugs hints at the possibility of changing our microbiomes to increase a drug’s efficacy or reduce side effects. We may be able to do this through dietary changes or by more drastic measures such as a faecal transplant. The goal would be to change patients to suit their drugs, rather than the other way round. The study mapped the interactions between different microbes and drugs by giving human bacteria to mice, so it is possible that the team’s findings won’t translate to humans.
6-3-19 Gut bacteria may change the way many drugs work in the body
New research could help doctors choose medications for patients based on their microbiota. Prescribing the best medication may require going with a patient’s gut — or at least, the bacteria that live there. Anecdotal reports have revealed that some gut-dwelling microbes chemically alter oral medications, affecting how well those drugs work (SN Online: 7/19/13). But the scope of this problem has remained unclear. Now, a sweeping survey of these interactions suggests that gut bacteria can modify many drugs and that the genetic makeup of a patient’s microbiota may predict that person’s response to medications, researchers report online June 3 in Nature. “Knowing how the gut microbes … affect a drug is hugely useful,” says Matthew Redinbo, a biochemist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill not involved in the work. An atlas of microbial effects on oral medications could help pharmaceutical companies develop more effective drugs and help doctors better tailor a patient’s treatment. Researchers tested the ability of 76 types of bacteria — selected to represent the microbial diversity of the human gut — to alter the molecular structure of 271 oral drugs, from hormones to antiviral medications. The bacteria were incubated with nutrients and drug solutions in test tubes for 12 hours. In that time, 176, or about two-thirds, of the 271 drugs were modified by at least one bacterial strain, and each strain modified 11 to 95 different drugs. “That is huge,” says Nichole Klatt, a microbiome researcher at the University of Miami not involved in the work. But knowing which microbes affect which drugs isn’t enough. Future studies could investigate exactly how bacteria chemically modify medications and the consequences inside the human body, she says.
6-3-19 Two brain-rejuvenating proteins have been identified in young blood
The brain-boosting ingredients of young blood could be two proteins. The proteins help rejuvenate important structures in neurons and may be responsible for why young blood seems to improve cognitive performance in older brains. The rejuvenating power of young blood has been linked to reducing the risk of many diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. It has also been linked to boosting cognition in older animals. To understand how this works, Thomas Südhof at Stanford University and his colleague applied blood serum from young, two-week-old mice and old, 12- to 15-month-old mice separately to human neurons. The team found that the blood serum from young mice had a profound effect on the neurons, causing the growth of a number of key structures needed for the cells to communicate. The young serum led to the cells creating more synapses, while the neurons given the old mouse serum were unaffected. Südhof and his colleagues found the serum from young mice was rich with two proteins, THBS4 and SPARCL1, both of which play a number of roles in the growth and organisation of cells in the body. When they applied only these proteins to human neurons they saw the same “dramatically enhanced” synapse formation and activity, Südhof wrote. This is an exciting study that reveals two new proteins that previously weren’t known to be involved in the brain boosting effects of young blood, says Thomas Fath of Macquarie University. As well as ensuring healthy ageing, these proteins could be used to treat neurodegenerative diseases in the future, says Fath.
6-3-19 Using a meditation app each day may improve your memory and attention
Daily meditation guided by an app may help improve memory and attention. After six weeks of using the app, adults performed better on tasks aimed at testing these attributes than a control group. David Ziegler at the University of California, San Francisco, and his colleagues wanted to see if they could improve people’s attention spans. They randomly assigned 40 adults into two groups: in one participants practiced meditation using an app and in the control group participants used foreign language, tai chi and logic game apps. The trials lasted for six weeks, with participants using the apps for 20 to 30 minutes in total each day, made up of short bursts. The team tested the participant’s memory and attention across a range of tasks. In one, participants had to focus on a crosshair in the centre of the screen and respond only when a square popped up in the bottom half of the screen, which only happened rarely, while squares frequently popped up in the top half of the screen. They then tracked brain wave patterns of some of the participants using an electroencephalogram (EEG). Overall, those who had undergone the meditation training reduced the variation in their reaction times by 8 milliseconds, indicating that they were less distracted, compared to the control group that saw no reduction. The ones who achieved the biggest improvements at focusing on their breath also saw the most improvement at sustaining their attention. The meditation group also appeared to have more consistent activity in the brain regions associated with attention while performing the trials. “If there is high variability, it might reflect switching between cognitive states (e.g., attending vs mind-wandering),” says Ziegler.
6-3-19 CRISPR babies might live shorter lives due to their gene mutations
A genetic variant that makes people resistant to HIV infection may also have detrimental affects. People who have this variant are more likely to die a little early, according to a study of 400,000 people in the UK. The finding has strong implications for our abilities to enhance future generations using genome editing techniques. Last year, He Jiankui (pictured above) in China controversially used CRISPR to mimic this naturally-occuring gene variant in two babies. But the new study suggests we simply don’t know enough about the full effects of most genetic variants to be sure that giving them to people will be beneficial. “This is a good example of the great danger of manipulating genes in humans when our understanding of the function of most genes is so rudimentary,” says Alcino Silva of the University of California, Los Angeles. The CCR5 gene codes for a protein that sticks out of some of the cells in our immune system and in our brain. HIV infects immune cells by first binding to this protein, and some people are naturally resistant to HIV because they have a mutation called delta 32 in both their copies of the CCR5 gene. This mutation disables the protein. As well as making people resistant to HIV, this delta 32 mutation has also been found to boost the memories of mice and has been linked to improved stroke recovery in people. But the mutation may also have negative effects, such as making people more vulnerable to some other viruses, including West Nile and, possibly, flu. To get an idea of the overall effect of the mutation, Rasmus Nielsen of the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues analysed data on 400,000 people in the UK Biobank. They found that people who have two copies of the delta 32 variant of the CCR5 gene were 20 per cent more likely die before the age of 76 than those who had one copy or who did not have the mutation at all.
6-3-19 He Jiankui: Baby gene experiment 'foolish and dangerous'
The first people to be gene-edited - a pair of baby twin girls - may have been mutated in a way that shortens life expectancy, research suggests. Prof He Jiankui shocked the world when he genetically altered the twins to try to give them protection against HIV. But a study in Nature Medicine shows people who naturally have the mutation he was trying to recreate were significantly more likely to die young. Experts said Prof He's actions were "very dangerous" and "foolish". Prof He was targeting a gene called CCR5. It is a set of genetic instructions that are important for how the immune system functions. However, they are also the doorway that human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) walks through to infect cells. Mutations to CCR5 essentially lock the door and give people resistance to HIV. So, Prof He made embryos in an IVF clinic and then used gene-editing technologies on them to alter the CCR5 gene. The resulting girls - known as Lulu and Nana - were born last year. The problem is CCR5 has a bigger role in the body than just making people vulnerable to HIV. It is active in the brain and in fighting off other infections, particularly flu. The study, at the University of California, Berkeley, looked at nearly 410,000 people in the UK. It showed those who had only the mutated version of CCR5 were 20% more likely to die before they turned 78. "In this case, it is probably not a mutation that most people would want to have," said Prof Rasmus Nielsen, from UC Berkeley. "You are actually, on average, worse off having it." Fellow researcher Dr Xinzhu Wei said the gene-editing technology, known as Crispr, was still too risky to be using on children. "The Crispr technology is far too dangerous to use right now for germ-line editing," she said. (Webmaster's comment: Dying some time before you are 78 is hardly dying young!)
6-3-19 Early farmers liked alcohol so much they invented two ways to brew it
Was it the lure of beer that encouraged prehistoric humans to begin farming? Archaeological evidence from China suggests it might have been as the region’s first farmers had worked out how to turn millet and other cereals into alcoholic drinks in two distinct ways, hinting at how important alcohol was at the time. Li Liu at Stanford University and her colleagues analysed the residues left on 8000- to 7000-year-old pottery sherds unearthed at two early farming sites in north China. At both sites, some of the residues contained cereal starch granules with signs of physical damage similar to that caused by fermentation. A key stumbling block when brewing beer from cereals is to break down the starches into fermentable sugars. Significantly, say Liu and her colleagues, the ancient brewers at the two sites appear to have used different techniques to do this. At the site of Lingkou, tiny mineral particles from plants – phytoliths – in the residues suggest the brewers simply let the grains sprout, which frees up the sugars. But at the site of Guantaoyuan, 300 kilometres to the west, the mix of phytoliths and fungi suggests an alternative approach. Here, the archaeologists say the brewers triggered the breakdown of starches by using a ‘fermentation starter’ known as qu, which is made from grains that have been allowed to mould. Qu is still used today to produce cereal wines and spirits. Collectively, says Liu, the evidence suggests the history of these two distinct fermentation techniques stretches back to the early days of farming in East Asia. “That would be very exciting,” says Patrick McGovern at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The origins of qu are hotly disputed, he says. Traditionally, its roots are traced back to the Shang Dynasty in China, which began about 3700 years ago. But even in that period its questionable when qu use started, he says.
6-3-19 Hominids may have been cutting-edge tool makers 2.6 million years ago
Contested finds point to a sharp shift in toolmaking by early members of the Homo genus. Discoveries in East Africa of what may be the oldest expertly sharpened stone implements suggest that early members of the human genus, Homo, invented these tools by around 2.6 million years ago, researchers say. But their conclusions are controversial. New finds at a site in Ethiopia called Ledi-Geraru fit a scenario in which various early Homo groups devised ways to sharpen hand-held stones, assert archaeologist David Braun of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and his colleagues. Ledi-Geraru artifacts date to between 2.58 million and 2.61 million years ago, the team reports online June 3 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Another team previously had unearthed sharpened stones that were 2.55 million to 2.58 million years old at Gona, a nearby Ethiopian site (SN: 4/17/04, p. 254). Until now, those were the oldest examples of cutting and digging devices with systematically sharpened edges. Archaeologists refer to these types of artifacts as Oldowan tools because the first examples were found at East Africa’s Olduvai Gorge. Age estimates for Ledi-Geraru artifacts were determined by where they were found, between a dated layer of volcanic ash and sediment preserving a known reversal of Earth’s magnetic field. Stone tools at Ledi-Geraru “are probably at least 50,000 years older, but could be up to 100,000 years older than Gona artifacts,” Braun says. His team recovered 300 stone artifacts, including sharp-edged rocks and larger rocks from which those implements were struck. Those finds were strewn among 330 fossilized bones of nonhuman animals.
6-2-19 Why children should learn together, not apart
The problem with the mixed-ability model in the classroom. A class of 15-year-olds. We've just read a scene from William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. I hesitate for a moment before launching into a group discussion. Half the students have (I hope) been reading their copies of No Fear Shakespeare, a kid-friendly translation of the Bard's original. For three students, even these literacy demands are beyond them. Another simply can't focus. Having confiscated his iPad, I give him pens and paper to draw with. I just need to keep this one at school for as long as possible. I can ask the terrified No Fear group to identify the key characters in this scene, and maybe provide a tentative plot summary. I can ask most of the class about character development, and how Romeo is feeling (he's very upset, by the way) — if they were paying attention. Five of them might be able to support their statements with textual evidence. Three will be able to explain how the imagery might affect the audience. Now two curious students are wondering if oxymorons reflect Shakespeare's thematic concerns with extremes, and arguing about whether it is better to live a life of moderation or one of passionate engagement. Meanwhile, I non-verbally de-escalate an arms race of scribbled penises that threatens to spill out onto the desks. It is no surprise that teaching involves catering to a variety of different learning needs, and that this can be challenging. In fact, if the discussion went as described above, the class would be going rather well. But wouldn't this class work better if there weren't such a huge gap between the top and the bottom? If we put all the kids who needed literacy support and No Fear Shakespeare into one class, and all the students who want to talk about the virtue of moderation in the modern world into another?