8-31-20 New coronavirus tests promise to be faster, cheaper and easier
Researchers are developing a smorgasbord of tests to detect the virus that causes COVID-19. In the United States, the average wait time for COVID-19 test results is about four days. Even worse, 10 percent of individuals don’t receive lab results for 10 days or more. Quick reporting of test results helps identify infected individuals so they and anyone they potentially spread the coronavirus to can be isolated, preventing further spread of the virus. “If you have a 14-day lag to knowing if someone is actually sick and contagious, then they’ll interact with many, many more people in that period than if you have a one-day or a six-hour or one-hour turnaround,” says Omar Abudayyeh, a bioengineer at MIT. Abudayyeh is among the many researchers and companies racing to develop new and speedier types of diagnostic tests that circumvent clinical labs altogether. Some of these tests complete their analyses in all-in-one machines that are portable enough to be set up in schools, nursing homes and offices. Several companies are developing tests like these that can diagnose COVID-19 in 30 minutes or less, with a level of accuracy comparable to lab tests. Others are harnessing the power of the gene editor CRISPR to deliver rapid results. And another type of test, made by Abbott Laboratories and granted emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on August 26, works more like a pregnancy test. All it requires is a test card the size of a credit card, a few drops of a reaction solution and a sample from a nasal swab. Within 15 minutes, two lines appear on the card if the sample contains the virus; one line appears if it doesn’t. The current gold standard for accurate COVID-19 testing is PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, which can detect even tiny quantities of the virus’s genetic material, RNA (SN: 3/6/20).
8-31-20 Stonehenge enhanced sounds like voices or music for people inside the monument
Scientists created a scale model one-twelfth the size of the ancient site to study its acoustics. Welcome to Soundhenge. Better known as Stonehenge, this ancient monument in southern England created an acoustic space that amplified voices and improved the sound of any music being played for people standing within the massive circle of stones, a new study suggests. Because of how stones were placed, that speech or music would not have projected beyond Stonehenge into the surrounding countryside, or even to people standing near the stone circle, scientists report in the October Journal of Archaeological Science. To explore Stonehenge’s sound dynamics, acoustical engineer Trevor Cox and colleagues used laser scans of the site and archaeological evidence to construct a physical model one-twelfth the size of the actual monument. That was the largest possible scale replica that could fit inside an acoustic chamber at the University of Salford in England, where Cox works. This room simulated the acoustic effects of the open landscape surrounding Stonehenge and compacted ground inside the monument. Stonehenge Lego, as Cox dubbed the model, was assembled assuming that Stonehenge’s outer circle of standing sarsen stones — a type of silcrete rock found in southern England — had originally consisted of 30 stones. Stonehenge today includes 63 complete stones, including five standing sarsen stones and 12 other stones in fragments. Based on an estimated total of 157 stones placed at the site around 4,200 years ago, the researchers 3-D printed 27 stones of all sizes and shapes. Then, the team used silicone molds of those items and plaster mixed with other materials to re-create the remaining 130 stones. Simulated stones were constructed to minimize sound absorption, much like actual stones at Stonehenge, Cox says.
8-29-20 How four summer camps in Maine prevented COVID-19 outbreaks
Testing and “bubbles” were behind the successful efforts. As the coronavirus hit communities across the United States over the summer, four overnight camps in Maine successfully kept the virus at bay. Of 1,022 people who attended the summer camps, which included campers and staff members, only three people tested positive for COVID-19, researchers report August 26 in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. That’s because the people who came to Maine from 41 U.S. states, Puerto Rico, Bermuda and five other countries diligently followed public health measures put in place to stop transmission, the team says. The camps’ success, as well as others including child care programs in Rhode Island that limited coronavirus transmission, could point to a path forward for places like schools that are reopening with in-person classes in the face of the ongoing pandemic, though challenges remain. At the camps, a combination of testing, social bubbles, social distancing, masks, quarantine and isolation prevented outbreaks. Before arriving at camp, officials told all 642 children and 380 staff members to quarantine with their households for 10 to 14 days. Attendees were also tested for COVID-19 five to seven days prior to arrival — with the exception of 12 people who had already been previously diagnosed. Four people tested positive for the virus and isolated for 10 days at home before heading off to one of the camps, which were in session at different times from mid-June to mid-August. (Three of the four camps ran for less than 50 days and the other went on for 62 days.) Once on site, the campers and staff participated in daily symptom checks and activities held largely outdoors. They also hung out in small “bubbles,” or cohorts, that ranged from five to 44 people in size and became like family during the weeks at camp, the researchers say. If people interacted with anyone outside their group, masks and social distancing were required.
8-29-20 Elon Musk demonstrated a Neuralink brain implant in a live pig
Elon Musk has showed off his company Neuralink’s brain-computer interface for the first time. In an announcement on 28 August, Neuralink unveiled prototypes of its device and showed off pigs with the devices implanted in their brains. The device resembles a coin with extremely thin wires coming from one side of it. It is designed to be implanted in the skull, with the wires embedded a few millimetres into the surface of the brain. Those wires can then detect when neurons are firing, or emit their own electrical signals to make the neurons fire. Musk showed a video of neurons responding to the electrodes. Eventually, the hope is that these small devices will be able to both read and write neuron signals, helping with medical problems that originate in the brain and spine and maybe even allowing humans to integrate computers into their brains in the distant future, Musk said. The Neuralink team trotted out three pigs to demonstrate the device: the first, named Joyce, had no implant, and the second, named Gertrude, had an implant that monitored neurons in her snout. Musk displayed a screen showing live signals from Gertrude’s Neuralink device as she rooted around in some hay, produced when she touched her snout to food or the ground. The third pig, called Dorothy, had had an implant installed and then removed. “What Dorothy illustrates is that you can put in the Neuralink, remove it, and be healthy, happy and indistinguishable from a normal pig,” Musk said. This will be important for human users, he said, because they may want to remove or upgrade their implants. “The challenging part that they’ve pulled off is that the animal is happy-looking and walking around and acting normal and the data is being relayed wirelessly,” says Timir Datta-Chaudhuri at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in New York. “Other people that might have done something similar usually have the animal on an operating table under anaesthesia with wires coming from its brain.”
8-29-20 Neuralink: Elon Musk unveils pig with chip in its brain
Elon Musk has unveiled a pig called Gertrude with a coin-sized computer chip in her brain to demonstrate his ambitious plans to create a working brain-to-machine interface. "It's kind of like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires," the billionaire entrepreneur said on a webcast. His start-up Neuralink applied to launch human trials last year. The interface could allow people with neurological conditions to control phones or computers with their mind. Mr Musk argues such chips could eventually be used to help cure conditions such as dementia, Parkinson's disease and spinal cord injuries. But the long-term ambition is to usher in an age of what Mr Musk calls "superhuman cognition", in part to combat artificial intelligence so powerful he says it could destroy the human race. Gertrude was one of three pigs in pens that took part in Friday's webcast demo. She took a while to get going, but when she ate and sniffed straw, the activity showed up on a graph tracking her neural activity. She then mostly ignored all the attention around her. The processor in her brain sends wireless signals, indicating neural activity in her snout when looking for food. Mr Musk said the original Neuralink device, revealed just over a year ago, had been simplified and made smaller. "It actually fits quite nicely in your skull. It could be under your hair and you wouldn't know." Founded in 2017, Neuralink has worked hard to recruit scientists, something Mr Musk was still advertising for on Twitter last month and which he said was the purpose of Friday's demo. The device the company is developing consists of a tiny probe containing more than 3,000 electrodes attached to flexible threads thinner than a human hair, which can monitor the activity of 1,000 brain neurons. Ahead of the webcast, Ari Benjamin, at the University of Pennsylvania's Kording Lab, had told BBC News the real stumbling block for the technology could be the sheer complexity of the human brain.
8-28-20 Scientists target coronavirus immunity puzzle
A new effort is under way to understand how the immune system responds to coronavirus. Scientists from 17 UK research centres are attempting to answer questions such as how long immunity lasts and why disease severity varies so much. The new UK Coronavirus Immunology Consortium (UK-CIC) says learning about immunity will help to fight the virus. It has received £6.5m from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). Prof Mala Maini, a viral immunologist from University College London, who is leading one of the UK-CIC teams, said: “Our immune response to a virus is really what dictates how we respond when we get infected, how ill we get when we get an acute infection, how long we're protected after we've had the infection and how well we might respond to a vaccine. “The immune system is underlying everything that's key to the response to this virus.” Since the virus first emerged, scientists have been racing to learn about how our bodies respond to infection. Prof Maini says for mild-to-moderate cases of Covid-19 the immune response seems to be “textbook”. She explained: “All the right components of that complex immune system seem to be working together well.” But the consortium is hoping to find out the role the immune system plays in more severe cases. It is also seeking answers to how long immunity lasts. This week, researchers in Hong Kong reported the first documented case of re-infection. Prof Paul Moss, UK-CIC principal investigator from the University of Birmingham, said: “It’s the first case out of millions, so we have to keep it in proportion.” He said it was a concern that the immune response to coronavirus seemed to wane over time. But he said the fact that the man had no symptoms during his second infection suggested the immune system could be effective at halting the disease. The consortium will also be studying whether some people have pre-existing immunity to the virus, even though they have never been exposed to it.
8-28-20 Internet outage slows covid-19 contact tracing of thousands in England
An internet outage meant health officials were unable to trace and isolate the contacts of thousands of people who tested positive for covid-19 in England until up to a week later, several days beyond the timeframe recommended by UK government advisers. The performance of the Test and Trace scheme, which has been hailed as “world-beating” by prime minister Boris Johnson, is under scrutiny as the UK government began urging a return to offices and schools reopened. The three month-old system has consistently failed to meet targets on reaching close contacts, but New Scientist can reveal it was also recently hit by fresh technical problems that may have exacerbated the spread of the coronavirus. Between 6 and 12 August, an internet outage in the Southampton area affected the digital infrastructure behind the scheme, according to the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). The impact was a delay in the transfer of thousands of people who tested positive for covid-19 to the contact tracing system, by up to week. The exact number has not been disclosed but New Scientist understands it is in the low thousands. This is likely to be a significant proportion of the people entering the system each week. “This episode is very worrying. It’s standard contingency planning to have backup systems in place and one wonders what went wrong here,” says Martin McKee at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. While test results were not delayed, the hiatus in tracing those cases’ contacts means thousands of other people potentially exposed to the coronavirus were not told to self-isolate for up to a week – far exceeding the 48 hours recommended by the government’s advisers, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). Swiftly telling people to isolate is considered essential to break transmission of covid-19. The median number of contacts for non-complex cases, meaning those outside of settings such as hospitals or care homes, is around 2. A DHSC spokesperson says: “All cases affected were transferred to the system for contact tracing as soon as this issue was resolved.”
8-28-20 How I launched WHO’s covid-19 response in the Central African Republic
Marie-Roseline Darnycka Bélizaire is a country preparedness and international health regulations officer for the World Health Organization. After supporting the response of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to the Ebola outbreak, she was recently relocated to the Central African Republic (CAR) to advise on and assist the response to covid-19. When I arrived, I was posted within the ministry of health, which helped strengthen the relationship between the WHO and the country. It was also very good for me to be in the heart of every process and every decision. The starting point was to review the national preparedness and response plan. At the time, we only had around six confirmed coronavirus cases in the country. The response was already in shape – they had been preparing since January. One covid-19 treatment centre was already functional. But we adapted the plan to several different scenarios that might present in the country. We proposed reinforcing the healthcare system. And we began systematic testing in the community to understand the transmission of the virus. The strategy at the beginning was to test, isolate, treat and trace contacts. So far, around 1298 contacts have been diagnosed with the virus. We had screening at the border and that was how we found that most of the early cases were being imported into the country. We tested all truck drivers entering CAR. If a driver tested positive, they were placed in isolation and underwent treatment. In June, the number of community cases overtook that of imported cases, so we changed the strategy. We are limited in the number of tests that we can perform. So now we only give tests to people with fever, or who have flu or covid-19-like symptoms.
8-28-20 Puberty can repair the brain’s stress responses after hardship early in life
Adolescence could be a time to reset the system that helps people cope with stress.A researcher slips stickers under some colored cups on a lazy Susan, then gives the tray a whirl. When the spinning stops, a preschooler must find the hidden stickers. Most children remember where the stickers are, but a few have to check every single cup. The game tests working memory, which is among the set of mental skills known as executive function that can be impaired in children who faced trauma early in life. Adversity wreaks havoc, and from there, “you have a system that responds differently,” says Megan Gunnar, a developmental psychobiologist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis who has spent two decades studying the impact of early-life adversity in adopted children. The focus of this work is extreme adversity, such as being orphaned, rather than everyday challenges, which might teach beneficial resilience. A childhood characterized by hardship, negligence or abuse can also alter the neuroendocrine system that regulates how the body responds to stress. Problems in the stress response can set kids on a path toward behavior struggles along with increased risk for depression, diabetes and a host of other health problems. But recent studies offer hints that such a difficult future may not be inevitable. As Gunnar and others have shown, impaired stress responses can return to normal during puberty, raising the possibility that imbalances created by early trauma can be erased. The research is prompting a new view of puberty as an opportunity — a chance for people who had a shaky start to reset their physiological responses to stress. When the brain perceives a threat — even a temporary one such as a stressful exam or a high-stakes competition — levels of the hormone adrenaline shoot up, setting off the “fight-or-flight” reaction. Breathing and heart rate soar. Palms get sweaty. Sight and other senses sharpen. Before long, the brain sends chemical messengers to stimulate adrenal glands near the kidneys to release cortisol.
8-28-20 Elon Musk to show off working brain-hacking device
Elon Musk is due to demonstrate a working brain-to-machine interface as part of his ambitious plans to give people superhuman powers. His brain-hacking company, Neuralink, applied to start human trials last year. But Friday's demonstration will involve a robot and "neurons firing in real time", a series of tweets reveals. The interface could allow people with neurological conditions to control phones or computers with their mind. But the long-term ambition is to usher in an age of what Mr Musk calls "superhuman cognition". People need to merge with artificial intelligence, he says, in part to avoid a scenario where AI becomes so powerful it destroys the human race. Founded in 2017, Neuralink has worked hard to recruit scientists, something Mr Musk was still advertising for on Twitter last month. The device the company is developing consists of a tiny probe containing more than 3,000 electrodes attached to flexible threads thinner than a human hair, which can monitor the activity of 1,000 brain neurons. In its last update, more than a year ago, the company said it had carried out tests on a monkey that had been able to control a computer with its brain. It has also built a "neurosurgical robot" that it says can insert 192 electrodes into the brain every minute. University of Pittsburgh assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation Jennifer Collinger described what Mr Musk was trying to do as "truly disruptive technology in a difficult space of medical technology". "Neuralink has significant resources and critically a team of scientists, engineers and clinicians working towards a common goal, which gives them a great chance of success," she said. But she added: "Even with these resources, medical-device development takes time and safety needs to be a top priority, so I suspect the process may take longer than they have stated as their goals."
8-28-20 Earth’s building blocks may have had far more water than previously thought
Meteorites suggest that H2O in the mantle comes from local origins, contrary to expectations. Earth’s deep stores of water may have been locally sourced rather than trucked in from far-flung regions of the solar system. A new analysis of meteorites from the inner solar system — home to the four rocky planets — suggests that Earth’s building blocks delivered enough water to account for all the H2O buried within the planet. What’s more, the water produced by the local primordial building material likely shares a close chemical kinship with Earth’s deep-water reserves, thus strengthening the connection, researchers report in the Aug. 28 Science. Earth is thought to have been born in an interplanetary desert, too close to the sun for water ice to survive. Many researchers suspect that ocean water got delivered toward the end of Earth’s formation by ice-laden asteroids that wandered in from cooler, more distant regions of the solar system (SN: 5/6/15). But the ocean isn’t the planet’s largest water reservoir. Researchers estimate that Earth’s interior holds several times as much water as is found at the surface. To test whether or not the material that formed Earth could have delivered this deep water, cosmochemist Laurette Piani of the University of Lorraine in Vandœuvre-lès-Nancy, France, and colleagues analyzed meteorites known as enstatite chondrites. Thanks to many chemical similarities with Earth rocks, these relatively rare meteorites are widely thought to be good analogs of the dust and space rocks from the inner solar system that formed Earth’s building blocks, Piani says. She and her team measured the abundance of hydrogen in these meteorites — a proxy for how much H2O they could produce — and calculated that local interplanetary debris had the potential to deliver at least three times as much water as is found in all the oceans. The meteorites don’t contain water, Piani says. Rather, they house enough of the raw ingredients to create water when heated.
8-27-20 Earth may have formed with enough water to fill the oceans three times
Our planet may have been born wet. When and how Earth got its water is an open question in planetary science. Now an analysis of meteorites from the inner solar system hints that water may have arrived along with the rocks that formed the planet. According to some models of planet formation, early Earth should have been completely dry: in theory, the young sun was too hot to allow much ice or liquid water to stick to the rocks that eventually formed Earth and the other inner planets. There is a type of modern meteorite – called an enstatite chondrite – that is similar to those pre-Earth rocks. Because these meteorites were thought to be dry, many researchers figured that Earth’s water was delivered well after its formation by wetter meteorites born further from the sun. Laurette Piani at the University of Lorraine in France and her colleagues analysed 13 enstatite chondrites and measured their hydrogen content as a proxy for water. They found that the rocks were far wetter than expected, with the equivalent of 0.08 to 0.54 per cent water by weight. “These meteorites are one of the best analogues we have for Earth’s building blocks, and they are not as dry as we though,” says Piani. “This water was probably in the building blocks over the whole formation process of Earth.” Based on the team’s measurements, if Earth was built from enstatite chondrites, they could have provided about three times as much water as fills the planet’s oceans now. “If this material provided water to the Earth, it could have also been present in the building blocks of Mercury, Venus and Mars,” says Piani. The planets of the inner solar system could have been chock-full of water from the very beginning.
8-27-20 Seaweed: The food and fuel of the future?
Sunshine has given way to wind and rain, as the motorboat chugs through a fjord in the Faroe Islands. "Its a bit windy here," says Olavur Gregarsen. "We'll see how far we can get to the harvesting boat." We soon reach a sheltered spot where steep mountains are looking down on hundreds of buoys bobbing in the sea. "They are holding up a horizontal line," explains Mr Gregarsen, the managing director of Ocean Rainforest, a seaweed producer. "At every metre another line hangs down, and that's where the seaweed grows." Anchored to the sea floor, the cultivation rig consists of 50,000m (164,000ft) of underwater lattice-like ropes, designed to withstand rough sea conditions. "The main structure is 10m down. That way we avoid the largest breaking waves," he says. Despite the Danish territory's remote North Atlantic location, Mr Gregarsen says the deep, nutrient-rich, waters are well suited for growing seaweed, with a stable temperature of between 6C and 11C. His firm is among a wave of seaweed farms that have sprung up in Europe and North America, spurred by a growing demand from the food industry and others. "You have a biomass that can be used for food and feed, and replacing fossil-based products like packaging material from plastic," he says. Seaweeds are fast-growing algae. They utilise energy from sunlight, and take up nutrients and carbon dioxide from the seawater. Scientists suggest seaweed could help fight climate change and offset carbon emissions. Ocean Rainforest recently won funding from the US Department of Energy to build a similar system in California, where there's interest in developing industrialised seaweed production for future biofuels. Aboard the harvesting boat the skipper controls a mechanical arm that lifts lines from the water. The seaweed is chopped free, filling up containers. It's quick but messy work. The lines are then left to regrow. This year around 200 tonnes will be harvested.
8-27-20 Watch cells sniff their way around the maze from Hampton Court Palace
Cells can rapidly solve artificial mazes by generating chemical gradients to predict the fastest route, a clever trick that may explain how they migrate through the body. Our cells often have to traverse highly complicated routes. “If you cut your finger, for example, your white blood cells have to find their way around all sorts of things like nerves and skin cells to get from your blood vessels to the wound,” says Robert Insall at the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute in Glasgow. It is well known that cells can steer short distances by sensing and moving towards attractive chemicals, or “chemoattractants”, in their direct vicinity, but how they navigate longer routes has been unclear. To find out, Insall and his colleagues studied the paths taken by cells through computer-generated and real-life mazes. They found that cells determine the best route ahead by using enzymes to break down chemoattractants in their immediate surroundings, then sensing the extent to which the chemicals are replenished from different directions. “They read the resulting chemical gradients to see where to go,” says Insall. This allows cells to tell the difference between dead ends and clear paths, because fresh chemoattractant only returns along clear paths, he says. “As cells approach a junction leading to a dead end and a non-dead end, they slurp up all the chemoattractant from both sides, but only the good side gets replenished.” This strategy allowed mouse pancreatic cancer cells and soil-based amoeba cells called Dictyostelium discoideum to rapidly solve artificial mazes made out of silicone, including a miniature replica of the famous hedge maze at Hampton Court Palace in London. “Cells are better at solving these mazes than people because they can sniff out a path before even going in, whereas we can’t tell there’s a blind corner until we’ve actually gone in and seen it with our eyes,” says Insall.
8-27-20 Best-preserved titanosaur embryo reveals they had nose horns as babies
The largest dinosaurs of all may have started life looking very different from how they did as adults. A spectacularly preserved fossilised embryo suggests that young titanosaurs had horns on their snouts and forward-facing eyes – neither of which has ever been found on an adult specimen. This may be because juvenile and adult titanosaurs lived separately, in different environments, says Martin Kundrát at Pavol Jozef Safárik University in Košice, Slovakia. The largest dinosaurs were long-necked plant-eaters called sauropods, and the biggest of them were the titanosaurs. Adults could weigh in at 30 tonnes, or even twice that, and reach lengths of 37 metres. Kundrát and his colleagues studied the skull of a titanosaur embryo, which was found preserved in a fragment of eggshell. The fossil comes from Argentina but it isn’t clear exactly where. It was taken out of the country illegally by a dealer, who brought it to Terry Manning, a freelance palaeontological technician based in Arizona. The team has now returned it to Argentina, where it will be housed in a museum. The group scanned the skull to get a detailed 3D image of all the bones. The only other titanosaur embryos we have found were crushed, but this one still had the bones in their original places. Two things leapt out. First, the eye sockets were pointing forwards, whereas the skulls of adult titanosaurs have side-facing eyes. And second, there was a sharp horn on the snout, facing forwards. No other titanosaur fossil is known to have a nasal horn. It could be a new and unusual species of titanosaur, says Kundrát. But he thinks it is more likely that juvenile titanosaurs looked different to adults. “We do not have any evidence of titanosaurian parental care, so they were on their own from the very beginning,” says Kundrát. Whereas adults lived on open plains, he suspects the young lived in enclosed forests. They would have needed binocular vision to spot predators and potential prey – to grow so fast they would have needed protein from eating animals. The horn could have been a defence mechanism against predators.
8-27-20 Coronavirus: Vaccine front-runner China already inoculating workers
Earlier this month, the head of a well-known, privately-owned Chinese conglomerate told his staff that a vaccine for Covid-19 was expected to come to market by November. The boss, whose firm has a healthcare division, said that he saw it as a portent of economic recovery; a chance for his firms to sell more, according to a person privy to the comments. Within a few weeks the Chinese government was forced to go public with its apparent progress. The novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19 originated in humans in China, before it spread ceaselessly across the world. Now China is using its global footprint in a relentless effort to win the race to develop and deploy an effective vaccine. Last week one of the developmental vaccines was pictured in state-run media; a small branded box was shown, held up by a smiling woman in a lab. Sinopharm said it hopes to have it ready to go on sale by December. It even named a price, equivalent to about $140 (£106). China's determination is out there for all to see. We know that half of the leading six candidate vaccines being tested in the final stage of mass trials across the world are Chinese. These global trials are a necessity. Ironically, China is not in a position to test the vaccines on the required scale at home because it's been so successful at containing the spread of the virus within its borders. "All vaccine manufacturers are looking for sites for their phase three trials (in which the vaccine is given to thousands of people) where Covid-19 is still circulating at relatively higher rates," Professor Ben Cowling from the Hong Kong University Public School of Health told me. He's optimistic about all the vaccines currently in development, including the Chinese ones. "I think all of the vaccines currently in phase three have a good chance of being found to be effective."
8-27-20 In a first, a person’s immune system fought HIV — and won
Analysis of 1.5 billion cells from this rare case found no trace of the virus. Some rare people may essentially be able to cure themselves of HIV infections. Twice, people infected with HIV have had levels of the virus in their bodies drop to undetectable levels after bone marrow transplants, never to return (SN: 3/5/19). Now it appears that a person may have cleared functional HIV with no outside help. If true, it would be the first known instance of a spontaneous cure. Analysis of more than 1.5 billion cells taken from a patient known as EC2 showed no functional HIV copies in any of them, researchers report August 26 in Nature. The person still had some nonfunctional copies of the virus. While no one can say for sure that intact virus isn’t hiding in a cell somewhere in this person’s body, the finding suggests that some people’s immune systems can get the upper hand, essentially eliminating the pernicious and persistent virus. A second person, EC1, had just one functional copy of HIV in more than 1 billion blood cells analyzed. And that copy of HIV was stuck in what is essentially a genetic supermax prison. That genetic lockup may be key to being able to naturally control the virus. Those two people are part of a rare group of people known as elite controllers, meaning they are able to maintain very low or undetectable levels of HIV without antiretroviral drugs. These people have no symptoms or clear signs of damage from the virus. “It’s not even that we’re talking about a few months or a few years. It’s extremely long-term,” says Satya Dandekar, an HIV researcher at the University of California, Davis School of Medicine who was not involved in the study. In contrast, for 99.5 percent or more of the world’s 35 million people infected with the virus, drugs are the only way to keep the virus down.
8-27-20 We can train our brain to access our unconscious for a cognitive boost
Have you ever had a solution to a problem pop into your head, seemingly out of the blue? It might have been thanks to unconscious mental processes – and in future there might be a way to harness such brain activity. Aurelio Cortese at the ATR Institute International, in Kyoto, Japan and his colleagues have trained people to learn a simple rule they weren’t consciously aware of, yet subtly influenced their decision making. “As far as I know, no one has [previously] directly shown that people can be trained to use their unconscious mind,” says Cortese. The process involved getting 18 people to do a simple visual task while they watched a screen inside a brain scanner, and then to make decisions that required them to learn an arbitrary rule. This was that a pattern of unconscious brain activity associated with leftward motion would signal A, and rightwards motion would signal B. Before the human learning could start, the team trained an algorithm to recognise each participant’s corresponding brain activity for the two types of motion. They spent an hour watching patches of dots moving either left or right, while their brains were scanned. Then the human training programme began. Now people were shown dots moving around randomly and the computer read their brain activity, as before. Even though there was no true direction of motion to perceive, their randomly fluctuating brain activity sometimes matched what it would have been if the dots were actually moving left or right. Then people were asked to choose between two options, A or B. If they picked the “correct” option – corresponding to their unconscious brain activity signalling left or right, as appropriate – they got a small cash reward, of 30 Yen (£0.21).
8-26-20 How defining women as baby-makers backfired spectacularly on science
In Guynecology, Rene Almeling argues that moving away from gendered ideas about reproduction could improve our health and transform our societies. MALE bodies have long been seen as the norm when it comes to science. It is men and male animals that have been studied to understand what good and poor health looks like, as well as how to treat disease – except, that is, when it comes to reproduction. Historically, baby-making has been viewed as the defining function of women’s bodies, so much so that other aspects of their health have been neglected. For example, heart attacks are less readily identified in women, who are 59 per cent more likely to be misdiagnosed despite the fact that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in women. Meanwhile, research into men’s reproductive health has lagged behind. Attempts to understand their contribution to fertility, miscarriage risk and long-term risk of a child developing some mental health conditions, for example, have only recently gained ground. In Guynecology, Rene Almeling, a sociologist at Yale University, explores how attempts to kick-start the study of men’s reproductive health failed. Even now, as the role of health in sperm function and in the well-being of future children becomes clear, information is still scarce and gendered notions about a woman’s role in making babies persist, she writes. Take the age-old notion of the coming together of “aggressive” sperm and “passive” eggs. The idea that conception is largely the role of the sperm cell is still a very popular one, but it isn’t true. We now know eggs release chemicals to sperm when they are ready to be fertilised, and recent research suggests that these might help select some sperm over others.
8-26-20 Is the rush to roll out a coronavirus vaccine undermining safety?
Some shortcuts are being taken in the race to get a coronavirus vaccine approved, but there are also more resources, openness and scrutiny than ever before. US PRESIDENT Donald Trump is considering allowing the usual procedures to be bypassed so an experimental coronavirus vaccine can be made available to the public in time for the US election in November, according to a report in the Financial Times. AstraZeneca, the drug company developing the vaccine in partnership with the University of Oxford, has said there have been no talks with the US government about fast-tracking the vaccine. But the race to develop a coronavirus vaccine is speeding up. On 11 August, president Vladimir Putin announced that Russia had approved a vaccine called Sputnik V for widespread use after only two months of small-scale trials, before the usual longer, large-scale trials. China has also allowed volunteers to be given a vaccine although human trials are still running. These decisions have led to concern that too many shortcuts are being taken in the rush to roll out coronavirus vaccines. “As long as there are no new, untested components in a vaccine, the need for animal tests is arguable” “There is no possible room for movement on the highest safety standards,” says Danny Altmann at Imperial College London. “The [covid-19] vaccines will be given to billions in the biggest ever medical endeavour on planet Earth. This needs to be effective and safe. Imagine even one in 1000 serious adverse events in a vaccine given to a billion people.” Vaccines typically take a decade or more to go through the development and testing phases required to ensure a safe and effective dosage that most people will tolerate. The first step is to make a potential vaccine, a process that can take many years. As of 20 August, 139 potential coronavirus vaccines are in this initial stage, according to the World Health Organization. A further 30 are already being tested in people (see “How vaccines get to the front line“).
8-26-20 Insights into the neural roots of bias suggest ways to fix the problem
All of us harbour biases resulting from the associations we learn implicitly from the societies we live in and how our brains work, but there are ways to overcome them. FEW ideas from social psychology have captured public attention in recent years as much as unconscious bias, the catch-all term for the assumptions we make about other people without being consciously aware of the process. That reach is partly down to the Implicit Association Test (IAT) created by researchers at Harvard University in the 1990s. Available online, it is widely seen as a quick and easy way to see how implicitly biased you are. The results can be unsettling: you may not think you are racist or sexist or ageist, but, in many cases, your unconscious preferences, measured by instant associations, suggest otherwise. Another reason the idea has caught on is that it seems to offer an explanation for why prejudice clearly persists, despite measures of explicit racism showing a steep decline. As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to draw attention to systemic racism in the US and Europe, many have begun to wonder about the extent to which their own biases are part of the problem. As Pragya Agarwal explains (see “What do unconscious bias tests really reveal about racism?”), recent work has revealed that the IAT isn’t as reliable a measure of individuals’ propensity to be biased in real life as first thought, so the test should be treated with caution. But there is no doubt that implicit bias is a problem. Neuroscientists have shown that all of us harbour deeply ingrained biases resulting from a combination of the associations we learn implicitly from the societies we live in and how our brains work. The brain regions associated with fear light up when we see people who we have been conditioned to think of as threatening, for example. Insights into the neural roots of prejudice suggest ways to overcome the problem. We can work harder to unlearn the associations we pick up, for instance, by spending more time with people from groups we don’t identify with. We can also cultivate awareness. As neuroscientist Lasana Harris argues (see “Lasana Harris interview: How your brain is conditioned for prejudice”), if we educate ourselves to be more aware of our “unconscious” biases – if we teach people where the associations behind them come from and how systemic they are – we can use our conscious minds to control them.
8-26-20 Coating our gut walls with glue could treat lactose intolerance
A synthetic glue that sticks to the inside of the small intestine could form the basis of a treatment for several health conditions, including lactose intolerance, diabetes and obesity. Tests in pigs show that the glue, when enhanced with enzymes or other chemicals, regulates the gut’s ability to absorb key nutrients. The small intestine absorbs nutrients from food, but it doesn’t always work to its full potential. For example, it may not produce enough of an enzyme called lactase that is required to digest lactose, the sugar found in milk. To help treat such lactose intolerance and other digestive disorders, Giovanni Traverso at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his colleagues developed a synthetic glue that can line the small intestine and regulate the uptake of different nutrients. The lining is introduced by consuming a drink containing chemicals that bind together when they encounter an enzyme found in the small intestine. The resulting substance, called polydopamine, is similar to the glue mussels use to grip wet rocks on the seashore. It sticks tightly to the intestinal lining. The researchers found they could control the uptake of different nutrients in the small intestines of pigs by adding various substances to the synthetic lining. For example, they were able to increase lactose digestion 20-fold by incorporating lactase into the lining. They also managed to reduce glucose uptake in the pigs by mixing a particular type of nanoparticle into the lining. This may represent a new treatment for diabetes and obesity, which are associated with excess glucose, says Traverso. The synthetic lining adhered to the small intestine for about 24 hours before naturally washing off and being excreted. This means the drink containing the glue building blocks would need to be consumed daily to keep replenishing the lining, says Traverso.
8-26-20 Body fat transformed by CRISPR gene editing helps mice keep weight off
White fat cells can be turned into energy-burning brown fat using CRISPR gene-editing technology. These engineered cells have helped mice avoid weight gain and diabetes when on a high-fat diet, and could eventually be used to treat obesity-related disorders, say the researchers behind the work. Human adults have plenty of white fat, the cells filled with lipid that make up fatty deposits. But we have much smaller reserves of brown fat cells, which burn energy as well as storing it. People typically lose brown fat as they age or put on weight. While brown fat seems to be stimulated when we are exposed to cold temperatures, there are no established methods of building up brown fat in the body. Yu-Hua Tseng at Harvard University and her colleagues have developed a workaround. The researchers have used the CRISPR gene-editing tool to give human white fat cells the properties of brown fat. Tseng and her colleagues used CRISPR to target a gene for a protein called UCP1, which is uniquely expressed in brown fat. “Its function is basically to turn chemical energy into heat,” says Tseng. The resulting cells more closely resembled brown fat cells – they expressed almost as much UCP1 as typical brown fat cells and had more mitochondria than typical white fat cells. The researchers called them human brown-like cells, or HUMBLE cells. In a second part of the study, Tseng and her colleagues transplanted either white fat, brown fat or HUMBLE cells into mice bred to have a weakened immune system that wouldn’t reject human tissue. All of the mice were then fed a high-fat diet. Over a 12-week period, the mice given white fat cells gained weight, and Tseng says they would likely have shown signs of diabetes had they been typical, healthy mice. But the mice transplanted with either brown fat or HUMBLE cells gained significantly less weight. These mice were also more sensitive to insulin, suggesting they might be protected against diabetes, says Mark Christian at Nottingham Trent University in the UK, who wasn’t involved in the study.
8-26-20 Penarth 'dinosaur footprints' investigated by museum
Newly revealed "footprints" thought to be Wales' latest dinosaur find are being investigated by researchers from the Natural History Museum.. They are imprinted on rock at the beach in Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan. Prehistoric finds have already been unearthed on the same section of coastline, including that of a distant cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex in 2014. If confirmed, researchers said the discovery would be "really, really exciting". The prints are embedded in a section of rock previously thought to contain other fossilised tracks of a prehistoric creature. If confirmed, they would be the third set of dinosaur tracks in Wales and a huge boost to the area's archaeological heritage, according to palaeontologist Cindy Howells, of the National Museum of Wales. "If these are indeed dinosaur footprints it's going to be really, really exciting," she said. "The beds that we were seeing a few years back have been increased, there is even more of them now than when we first saw them a few weeks back. "The new ones, they look better. They look more convincing to be dinosaur footprints. "It's going to be incredibly exciting if they are proved." The process for confirming their provenance will centre on several factors for researchers from the museum, including their regularity, stride pattern and the geological area in which they were found. But one of the key indicators that may point towards the prints being genuine is the pattern of so-called "squelch marks". "If you can't see the specific shape, quite often you'll look for other features, like the fact that you get one or two footprints in a left-right pattern," Ms Howells said. "You also look for the size and shape of these holes and you'll look for things like the rounded rims you've got on these, [which] we call 'squelch marks'. So as the animal is putting its feet into the clay, into the mud, the mud is rolling up around the foot.
8-26-20 Why some people can’t wear a face covering to stop the coronavirus
Do you get angry when you see someone without a face covering? They might have a good reason to avoid one, even if it isn’t obvious. Despite claims to the contrary, face coverings don’t reduce the amount of oxygen in the blood or raise the level of carbon dioxide. So people with lung conditions such as asthma shouldn’t assume they don’t need to wear one. “For the vast majority of people with lung disease, wearing a mask is fine. It’s a mild irritation that they can put up with,” says Nick Hopkinson at the British Lung Foundation. The exceptions are some people who experience occasional breathlessness due to conditions such as emphysema and pulmonary fibrosis. This can be due to genuinely low blood oxygen, but the conditions also make the lungs stiffer, requiring the chest muscles to work harder to pull in air. That sends a misleading signal to the brain that oxygen is in short supply, which creates the feeling of being short of breath, even if you aren’t. Face coverings can also trigger anxiety and panic attacks in those who are vulnerable, says UK mental health charity Mind. People with autism may have issues if they experience heightened touch or smell – so that a mask feels smothering – or if they struggle with the change to their routine. Individuals with learning disabilities may need to see their carer’s face for reassurance and to communicate. In the UK, people are legally exempt from wearing a face covering if they are unable to use one because of disability or if it causes them severe distress. This is subjective, so we should accept the choice of individuals going unmasked, says Tim Nicholls at the UK’s National Autistic Society. Those exempt can wear a badge explaining their medical reasons if they wish, but they aren’t obliged to do so. “We have to encourage people to wear a mask if they can, but be understanding if they can’t,” says Nicholls.
8-26-20 Lockdown may have lasting effects on friendships
"Friendships can deteriorate very quickly if you don't invest in them - it probably only takes about three months," says evolutionary psychologist Prof Robin Dunbar. So the social strain of lockdown, while hopefully short-term, could have some long-term effects on some friendships, he says. In a paper in the Royal Society journal, Proceedings A, Prof Dunbar has delved into the ways in which our social connections will be changed by lockdown. The University of Oxford academic's insight into those effects comes from a social world far from Zoom quizzes and Whatsapp groups. The roots of our friendships, he says, lie in the social lives of non-human primates. For many of those primates, strong social bonds - being part of a "stable group" - means protection from predators and rivals. That goes some way to revealing why many of us treasure our closest friends as though our lives depend on them. In our evolutionary history, they did. And those bonds require a great deal of maintenance. In both monkeys and humans, research shows that the quality of a relationship - measured by how likely a fellow monkey, ape or human is to step up and defend you - depends directly on the time invested in it. "We have to see people surprisingly often to maintain a friendship," explains Prof Dunbar, from the University of Oxford. And, because nurturing friendships requires all that time and cognitive capacity, we can only keep up a limited number of social connections. "In lockdown, many people are forming new friendships with people on their street and in their community for the first time," says Prof Dunbar. "So when we emerge from lockdown, some of our more marginal friendships might be replaced by some of these new ones." One impact of this is something that has been called "relationship funnelling" - an effect picked up by a large survey that social scientists carried out in France during the highly restrictive lockdown there. Put simply, while some friendships were prioritised and even strengthened through care and increased communication, other more marginal connections just "fizzled out". One major problem resulting from this "fizzling" is any lasting impact on older people's friendships. "When we're older, we generally find it more difficult to make new friends," says Prof Dunbar. "And the biggest single factor affecting health, wellbeing, happiness - even the ability to survive surgery or illness - is the number of high-quality friendships you have."
8-26-20 Radiation-resistant bacteria could survive journey from Earth to Mars
Microbes strapped to the outside of the International Space Station can survive for at least three years, suggesting that life has the potential to survive a journey through space from Earth to Mars. “If bacteria can survive in space, [they] may be transferred from one planet to another,” says Akihiko Yamagishi at Tokyo University of Pharmacy and Life Sciences in Japan. “We don’t know where life emerged. If life emerged on Earth, it may [have been] transferred to Mars. Alternatively, if life emerged on Mars, it may [have been] transferred to Earth … meaning that we are the offspring of Martian life,” says Yamagishi. If the journey is possible, then the probability of finding life on planets outside our solar system increases, he says. Deinococcus radiodurans bacteria are naturally very resistant to radiation, because of their extraordinary capacity to repair their DNA when it gets damaged, says Yamagishi. He and his colleagues wanted to investigate whether this might enable them to survive in the harsh environment of space, where levels of radiation – particularly in the ultraviolet range – are extremely high. Yamagishi and his team sent Deinococcal cell clumps of various thicknesses to the International Space Station, where they were placed on aluminium plates and attached to the outside of the spacecraft for three years. Samples were taken each year and sent back to Earth for analysis. Within the clumps that were at least half a millimetre thick, the researchers found surviving bacteria – even in the samples that were left outside the space station for three years. “Ultraviolet light in space is so strong and was expected to kill bacteria. We were surprised to see the surviving bacteria within the cell pellet for up to three years,” says Yamagishi.
8-26-20 If bacteria band together, they can survive for years in space
Dead outer microbes protect inner ones in clumps attached to the International Space Station. Outer space is not friendly to life. Extreme temperatures, low pressure and radiation can quickly degrade cell membranes, destroy DNA and kill any life-forms that somehow find themselves in the void. But by banding together, some bacteria can withstand that harsh environment, shielded from the extremes of space by the group’s outer layers. Microbes huddled in the heart of balls of Deinococcus bacteria as thin as five sheets of paper have survived on the exterior of the International Space Station for three years, researchers report August 26 in Frontiers in Microbiology. Such microbial arks might be able to drift among planets, spreading life through the universe, a concept known as panspermia. Previous research found that microbes can survive in space when embedded within artificial meteorites. But this is the first study to show that microbes can survive this long unprotected, says Margaret Cramm, a microbiologist at the University of Calgary in Canada who wasn’t involved in the study. “It suggests life can survive on its own in space as a group,” she says, providing another possible avenue for panspermia. It also adds weight to the worry that human space travel could unintentionally introduce life to other planets (SN:10/29/19). Akihiko Yamagishi, an astrobiologist at the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science in Tokyo, and his colleagues sent dried pellets of Deinococcus, radiation-resistant bacteria that thrive in extreme places such as the stratosphere, to space in 2015. The bacteria were stuffed into small wells in metal plates, which NASA astronaut Scott Kelly affixed to the exterior of the space station, and samples were sent back to Earth each year.
8-26-20 Eigg beach runner stumbles on dinosaur bone
A scientist has discovered a 166 million-year-old dinosaur fossil while running along the shore of a small Scottish island. Dr Elsa Panciroli was running to meet up with her palaeontology research team on Eigg when she made the discovery. In Scotland, dinosaur bone fossils had only previously been found on the Isle of Skye. The limb bone is about 50cm (19in) long and thought to belong to a stegosaurian dinosaur, like the stegosaurus. Scientists have been searching for dinosaur fossils on the island for about 200 years. Previously the only fossils found on Eigg were of marine reptiles and fish. Dr Panciroli said the research team was looking for these fossils and had not expected to find evidence of a dinosaur. Her discovery has been dated to the Middle Jurassic period. Dr Panciroli, who works at National Museums Scotland, said: "It was a bit of a serendipitous discovery. "It was the near the end of the day and I was running to catch up with the rest of the members of the team, who were quite far away. "I realised I had run over something that didn't look right. It wasn't clear exactly what kind of animal it belonged to at the time, but there was no doubt it was a dinosaur bone." She said it was "hugely significant" find, adding: "Globally, Middle Jurassic fossils are rare and until now the only dinosaur fossils found in Scotland were on the Isle of Skye. "This bone is 166 million years old and provides us with evidence that stegosaurs were living in Scotland at this time." Dr Steve Brusatte, a palaeontologist at the University of Edinburgh, said: "Elsa's discovery of this bone is really remarkable. "This fossil is additional evidence that plate-backed stegosaurs used to roam Scotland, which corroborates footprints from the Isle of Skye that we identified as being made by a stegosaur." The bone is now in the collections of National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh.
8-25-20 Africa to be declared free of wild polio in 'milestone'
Africa is to be declared free from wild polio by the independent body, the Africa Regional Certification Commission. Polio usually affects children under five, sometimes leading to irreversible paralysis. Death can occur when breathing muscles are affected. Twenty-five years ago thousands of children in Africa were paralysed by the virus. The disease is now only found in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is no cure but the polio vaccine protects children for life. Nigeria is the last African country to be declared free from wild polio, having accounted for more than half of all global cases less than a decade ago. The vaccination campaign in Nigeria involved a huge effort to reach remote and dangerous places under threat from militant violence and some health workers were killed in the process. Polio is a virus which spreads from person to person, usually through contaminated water. It can lead to paralysis by attacking the nervous system. Two out of three strains of wild polio virus have been eradicated worldwide. On Tuesday, Africa is to be declared free of the last remaining strain of wild poliovirus. More than 95% of Africa's population has now been immunised. This was one of the conditions that the Africa Regional Certification Commission set before declaring the continent free from wild polio. Now only the vaccine-derived polio virus remains in Africa with 177 cases being identified this year. This is a rare form of the virus that mutates from the oral polio vaccine and can then spread to under-immunised communities. The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified a number of these cases in Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic and Angola. Without a cure a vaccine developed in 1952 by Dr Jonas Salk gave hope that children could be protected from the disease. In 1961, Albert Sabin pioneered the oral polio vaccine which has been used in most national immunisation programmes around the world.
8-25-20 Coronavirus: Dr Anthony Fauci warns against rushing out vaccine
The top US virus expert has warned against rushing out a Covid-19 vaccine before it has been proven to be safe and effective. Speaking to Reuters news agency, Dr Anthony Fauci also said doing so could hurt the development of other vaccines. US President Donald Trump is reportedly considering plans to put out a vaccine before it has been fully tested. Such a move could boost his chances of re-election in November's presidential election. Democrats accuse the US president of being prepared to endanger American lives for political gain. On Saturday, President Trump tweeted that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) "is making it very difficult for drug companies to get people in order to test the vaccines". The Financial Times reported the Trump administration was exploring granting emergency use authorisation (EUA) to a vaccine currently under development by the University of Oxford and drug manufacturer AstraZeneca. Some 10,000 people have volunteered for trials of the drug, but US agencies require trials involving 30,000 people for a vaccine to be authorised. The US has suffered more confirmed cases and deaths from the coronavirus than any other country. According to Johns Hopkins University, it has recorded more than 5.7 million infections and over 177,000 deaths so far. In an interview with Reuters, Dr Fauci - head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - warned rushing out an untested vaccine could damage other trials. "The one thing that you would not want to see with a vaccine is getting an EUA before you have a signal of efficacy," he said. "One of the potential dangers if you prematurely let a vaccine out is that it would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the other vaccines to enrol people in their trial." "To me, it's absolutely paramount that you definitively show that a vaccine is safe and effective," he added.
8-25-20 A man in Hong Kong is the first confirmed case of coronavirus reinfection
A 33-year-old got sick during his first round with the virus, but wasn’t ill the second time. A 33-year-old man in Hong Kong was infected with the coronavirus a second time, more than four months after his initial infection, researchers report. His case is the first confirmed account of SARS-CoV-2 reinfection. The fact that some people can be reinfected with the virus is “not a huge shock,” says Paul Bieniasz, a virologist at the Rockefeller University in New York City and with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. People often get reinfected with the coronaviruses that cause the common cold. And some people may not mount a strong enough immune response to fight off SARS-CoV-2 a second time. “The key unknowns at the moment are how often this occurs and to what extent,” Bieniasz says. If reinfections are relatively common, it could make reaching herd immunity — the proportion of the population that has to be immune to protect other people — through natural infections more difficult (SN: 3/24/20). Vaccines, however, might trigger a more robust immune response and help protect populations by providing herd immunity. Overall, it’s unknown how long immunity to the coronavirus lasts. Some people can test positive for the virus’s genetic material for months after their recovery, but do not shed infectious virus (SN: 5/19/20). A few studies measuring antibodies — key immune proteins that recognize and bind to pathogens — suggest that antibody levels do wane over time. Other preliminary work hints that antibodies that can stop the virus from entering cells remain in the blood for at least three months. Previous anecdotal reports of patients who had recovered from an infection only to be sickened again with COVID-19 months later have surfaced during the pandemic. But without genetic evidence that each round of illness was caused by two distinct viruses, it was unclear whether such cases were true reinfections.
8-25-20 First case of coronavirus reinfection leaves big questions unanswered
A healthy 33-year-old man is the first person confirmed to have caught the coronavirus twice, according to unpublished research from the University of Hong Kong. As details of the case emerge, researchers say there is still much we don’t know. “There have been anecdotal reports of people being reinfected,” says Charlotte Houldcroft at the University of Cambridge, who wasn’t involved in the work. “But this is the first time that there’s good immunological data on the individual.” According to a press release and pages of an as-yet unpublished scientific paper that have circulated on social media, the man first became unwell in Hong Kong in March. His symptoms were mild and included a fever, sore throat and cough. A test confirmed that he had covid-19 on 26 March. In August, the man travelled from Spain to Hong Kong via the UK. On arrival in Hong Kong on 15 August, he again tested positive for the coronavirus, despite not having any symptoms. On both occasions, viral samples taken from the man were sequenced to study the virus’s genome. A comparison of the two samples revealed that they appear to be from different lineages – although both are derived from a recent common ancestor, they have several genetic differences. “We could have expected this, given what we know about the way immunity wanes,” says Stephen Griffin at the University of Leeds, UK. The work comes from a reputable research group, and the genetic differences and time lag between the two virus infections suggest they really were separate, he says. “I’d be surprised if this was an error, but you can’t be absolutely certain until the data has been properly scrutinised.” Researchers don’t yet know how common reinfection might be – if immunity lasts for months, we would only expect to see reinfection cases some time after the start of the pandemic. It is also unclear whether the man or any people who become reinfected are infectious to others. “If people can be infected again, but they have no symptoms and they don’t infect anyone else, that doesn’t really matter,” says Houldcroft.
8-24-20 Covid-19 news: Researchers find first case of coronavirus reinfection
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Researchers say they have detected the first case of coronavirus reinfection. Researchers at the University of Hong Kong say they have documented the first case of a person being reinfected with the coronavirus. The team analysed virus samples taken from a man when he first tested positive for the coronavirus in late March, and again when he tested positive for a second time in mid-August. They discovered several differences in the sequences of the virus from the first and second infections, suggesting the man had been infected with two separate strains of the virus, rather than one long-lasting infection. Their findings have been accepted for publication in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal. What will the discovery mean for the dozens of vaccine candidates being developed to protect people against the coronavirus? It may indicate that being infected with the virus doesn’t necessarily protect people against future infections, said David Strain at the University of Exeter in a statement. “Vaccinations work by simulating infection to the body, thereby allowing the body to develop antibodies. If antibodies don’t provide lasting protection, we will need to revert to a strategy of viral near-elimination in order to return to a more normal life,” says Strain. But Brendan Wren at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said it is important to take these results into context: “This is a very rare example of reinfection and it should not negate the global drive to develop covid-19 vaccines.” The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Sunday issued emergency use authorisation for convalescent plasma as a treatment for severe covid-19. This is drawn from people who have recovered from infection with the coronavirus and contains antibodies to fight the virus. In a statement the FDA said that “the known and potential benefits of the [treatment] outweigh the known and potential risks.” More than 70,000 people in the US have received convalescent plasma as a treatment for covid-19 since March, through a programme run by the Mayo Clinic. FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn said studies have found a 35 per cent improvement in survival for covid-19 patients given the plasma. The worldwide death toll has passed 809,000. The number of confirmed cases is more than 23.4 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.
8-24-20 Ancient teenager buried with head poking out of strange Spanish grave
AN UNUSUAL 3700-year-old grave unearthed in Spain shows how little we know about some ancient burial practices. At the Humanejos site, 20 kilometres south of Madrid, there are about 100 ancient tombs. None is quite as strange as grave 31. Inside the 1.2-metre-deep grave, the body of a 15-year-old youth was placed, sitting upright. He was then partially buried, leaving his head and shoulders exposed to the elements. Eventually, the body decayed and the youth’s upper body collapsed – at which point more dirt was added to the grave to seal his remains. It is a strange sequence of events, but it is the only obvious way to explain the arrangement of bones in the grave, according to Ana Herrero-Corral at the Complutense University of Madrid and her colleagues. They found all of the bones of the boy’s lower skeleton preserved in their correct anatomical position – in a seated pose – suggesting that this part of his body was held in place by earth as the body decayed. But the bones of the boy’s upper skeleton, including his skull, were scattered in a jumbled mess, indicating that this part of his body wasn’t buried as it decomposed. Nothing about the grave is typical. It is very rare to find ancient inhabitants of Spain, or anywhere else, buried in a seated pose, write the researchers. They say that it is even more unusual in the Spanish archaeological record to find evidence of “exposure” rituals where the body, or parts of it, were deliberately left unburied, although there are places in the world where this is done today. It is difficult to interpret such an unusual burial. It is possible, write the archaeologists, that the boy received special treatment because he was a high-status individual. Arguing against that idea is the isotopic evidence in his bones, which suggests he ate a poorer diet than other members of his community.
8-24-20 New treatments aim to treat COVID-19 early, before it gets serious
Some promising treatments may block the coronavirus from entering cells or from multiplying. The sooner, the better is an adage that’s especially true when treating viral infections. Usually, drugs that tamp down a virus are given within the first couple of days of symptoms. But with the coronavirus, the only two drugs known to help — an antiviral called remdesivir, and steroids such as dexamethasone — are given only to people hospitalized with the disease. Those drugs may keep seriously ill people from dying and help them recover faster, but it would be far better to keep people from getting so sick in the first place, scientists say. To that end, they’re testing a number of drugs that could be taken as soon as someone tests positive. Of course, scientists are also frantically working to get vaccines ready for the general public (SN: 7/10/20). Many have passed initial safety testing and entered the final phase of clinical trials to probe how well they protect against the virus (SN: 7/21/20). A Russian-made vaccine may roll out to the public there even before scientists know whether it works (SN: 8/11/20). But even with the pedal-to-the-metal speed at which vaccine developers are working, it still may take months to years for vaccines to be readily available to everyone. “We can’t count on that, so we need another tool in our toolkit,” says Lisa Danzig, a vaccine developer and the medical advisor for the COVID-19 Early Treatment Fund. The fund was established by businessman and philanthropist Steve Kirsch to pay for outpatient clinical trials, with the goal of reducing hospitalization and death by 75 percent. Researchers have identified and are testing a variety of existing drugs that might be repurposed to fight the coronavirus early in infections. None have been proven yet, and much of the federal and private funding for clinical trials has gone for treating the severely ill. So Kirsch’s fund has stepped in to fill that gap, for instance paying for a trial of hydroxychloroquine as a possible preventative for people who had been exposed to the coronavirus. That study found no benefit to taking the drug (SN: 6/4/20).
8-24-20 Israeli youths unearth 1,100-year-old gold coins from Abbasid era
Youths volunteering at an archaeological dig in central Israel have found 425 gold coins that had lain buried in a clay jar for 1,100 years. Most of the money dates back to the early Islamic period, when the region was part of the Abbasid caliphate. The coins weigh 845g (30oz) and would have been worth a huge sum when they were buried - enough to buy a luxurious home in one of the caliphate's cities. Who owned the cache, and why they never returned to collect it, is a mystery. "The person who buried this treasure 1,100 years ago must have expected to retrieve it, and even secured the vessel with a nail so that it would not move," the directors of the excavation, Liat Nadav-Ziv and Elie Haddad of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in a statement. They added: "Finding gold coins, certainly in such a considerable quantity, is extremely rare. We almost never find them in archaeological excavations, given that gold has always been extremely valuable, melted down and reused from generation to generation." The youth who discovered the hoard, Oz Cohen, said: "It was amazing. I dug in the ground and when I excavated the soil, saw what looked like very thin leaves. When I looked again I saw these were gold coins." Robert Kool, a coin expert, said the cache consisted of full gold dinars but also 270 small gold cuttings - pieces of dinars cut to serve as "small change". He added that one of the cuttings was a fragment of a gold solidus of the Byzantine Emperor Theophilos minted in Constantinople, which was rare material evidence of the continuous connections between the two rival empires during this period.
8-23-20 Seeking a better test for Alzheimer's
Advancements are changing the way researchers think of the disease. They may soon change the way patients are treated as well. y the time a person starts exhibiting the memory problems and other symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, a catastrophic cascade of cellular events has been playing out inside their brain for years or even decades. Misfolded proteins and fragments of protein have been ever so slowly clumping together, forming microscopic plaques and tangles that interfere with the function of neurons. Eventually, these brain cells die and this neurodegeneration takes its toll on memory and cognition. The slow-burning fuse of Alzheimer's creates a terrible predicament for doctors, patients, and the scientists seeking therapies: Once symptoms appear, so much damage has already been done that it may be impossible to fix it. This might explain why clinical trials of drugs intended to slow or reverse the cellular damage caused by Alzheimer's disease have so far yielded one demoralizing failure after another. (Several drugs have been approved to treat the symptoms, but none target the underlying cause.) Many researchers now believe that those clinical trials may have failed because the drugs were given too late. Some of the same drugs — or new ones — might have a better chance if administered earlier. It's a hypothesis with logical appeal, but it's unproven. And it depends on detecting signs of Alzheimer's in people who aren't yet experiencing symptoms. In recent years, scientists have developed several methods for doing just that. The best-established biological markers are based on brain scans and tests of cerebrospinal fluid. More recently, researchers have made breakthroughs in their decades-long pursuit of a simple blood test for Alzheimer's proteins. Biomarker tests have clarified how the disease progresses, and some are now widely used in Alzheimer's clinical trials, though not yet commonplace in clinical practice. "There's evidence that biomarkers start to show changes 20 years before onset of dementia," says Andrew Saykin, director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at the Indiana University School of Medicine. That presents a huge window for early intervention. "It's very tough to reverse neurodegeneration once it's happened, but if we could prevent it from happening there's really an opportunity to have a major impact on the disease," Saykin says. Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia, affecting an estimated 5.8 million Americans. Memory problems are often the first sign, but confusion and other cognitive difficulties appear later, along with changes in mood, behavior, and personality. To make a diagnosis, doctors typically interview the patient and a family member, and conduct cognitive assessments. A definitive diagnosis, however, can come only after death, by examining slices of brain tissue under a microscope. The pathological signature of Alzheimer's has two components: plaques, which are clumps of a protein fragment called beta-amyloid, found in the spaces between cells, and tangles, twisted strands of a protein called tau that form inside cells. Scientists don't understand how amyloid and tau cause neurodegeneration, but most believe these compounds are key links in the disease mechanism. (A minority of researchers, however, argue that more investigation of alternative mechanisms is needed.) Pathology studies, mouse experiments, and other research have long implicated amyloid as a culprit in Alzheimer's. But there was no way to see amyloid buildup in the living brain until 2002, when researchers developed a compound that incorporates a radioactive isotope of carbon (carbon-11) and binds to amyloid, making it visible on a positron emission tomography (PET) brain scan.
8-21-20 Man sees half of every face like it's melting due to rare brain lesion
A man with a rare brain lesion may help increase our understanding of how we process faces. To him, the right half of every face looks as if it is melting. This could suggest that each brain hemisphere typically processes one half of the face. The man, known as A.D., noticed three years ago that the faces he saw on TV were distorted, saying that they looked as if they were melting. He then discovered that when he looked in the mirror, his own face was also affected. In each case it was only the right half of a person’s face that was distorted. “Everything on the right side is longer, tighter and fallen,” he told researchers. Doctors then found that A.D. has a lesion in the fibres connecting the brain’s two hemispheres. By looking at the different experiences of people with brain lesions and those without, scientists can make an educated guess as to how that part of the brain is involved in typical neural processing. “I’m not saying our brains are all the same, but we do share a universal architecture,” says Jorge Almeida at Coimbra University in Portugal. The researchers showed A.D. pictures of 20 faces and 20 other objects, like a car and a bell. They found that distortions only occurred when he looked at faces. They also found that regardless of the angle or depth the faces were presented in, A.D. only ever saw the right half of the person’s face as if it was melting. This was true even when the faces were presented upside down. These results suggest two new key aspects of typical face processing, says Brad Duchaine at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, who worked on the study with Almeida. “We already knew that faces were processed differently to other objects, but now we know that we automatically fit new faces into a template, so that we can compare it to other faces stored in our memories,” he says. This would explain why A.D. always saw the same part of the face as distorted.
8-21-20 How likely are you to be infected by the coronavirus on a flight?
Is it safe to fly with the coronavirus still circulating? That depends partly on where you are. But while hard evidence is scarce, it appears the risk of being infected with covid-19 during a flight is relatively low. “Overall, planes are probably safer than poorly ventilated pubs, where similar densities of people do not wear masks and talk a lot and loudly,” says Julian Tang at the University of Leicester in the UK. It is of course safest not to travel, especially if you are vulnerable. And if you have symptoms that might be coronavirus, you definitely must not travel. Walking, cycling or travelling in your own vehicle minimises the risk of coming into contact with people who might be infected. If you do need to use public transport, the risk depends firstly on the odds of an infected person being on the same bus, train or plane, and then of them passing the virus on to you. Travelling in South Korea, for instance, where just 1 in about 225,000 people test positive every day, is inherently far safer than travelling in the US, where 1 in 6500 people test positive every day. In the UK, 1 in 60,000 people are confirmed positive daily. If you do end up on a plane near someone who is infected, how likely are you to be infected? We just don’t know for sure because there is little to go on besides what we know about how viruses spread in general, and a few case studies on the spread of the coronavirus. One case study, for instance, describes a 5-hour flight from Singapore to China on 23 January, where 11 of the 325 people on board were infected by one man. Passengers were screened before boarding, but the man developed a fever during the flight and was not wearing a mask. It is not clear how transmission occurred. However, when an infected couple flew from China to Canada on 22 January, none of the other 350 passengers on the 15-hour flight were infected. Masks were worn.
8-21-20 Cancer tumour microbiome may predict a person's chances of survival
The microbes that surround and infiltrate cancer tumours may help predict how a person’s disease progresses and which drugs they are most likely to respond to. A better understanding of this “tumour microbiome” may also lead to new cancer treatments. Cancer tumours are laced with bacteria and viruses. These can be found inside the cells, between them and in the space surrounding them. Until a few years ago, researchers assumed these microbes had ended up in tumours as a result of handling cells in the lab and were merely a sign that the samples had been contaminated, says Eytan Ruppin at the US National Cancer Institute in Maryland. More recently, researchers have come to learn that these microbes, said to form a tumour’s microbiome, may play a role in how a cancer forms, develops and spreads. Research on gut bacteria has shown, for example, that microbes seem to interact with a person’s immune system and can influence how metabolism works. Could microbes influence cancer in the same way? Earlier this year, Rob Knight at the University of California San Diego and his colleagues assessed the presence of microbes in around 18,000 tumour samples, taken from more than 10,000 people with 33 different types of cancer. The team found that the presence of certain types of microbes was associated with specific cancer types. Based on the presence of bacteria alone, the researchers were able to predict the type of cancer a person had. Ruppin wondered whether the presence of microbes might also predict how well people with cancer respond to treatment and how likely they are to survive the disease. To find out, he and his colleagues turned to some of the same data used by Knight’s team. The researchers developed a model that was fed data about the participants’ cancer type, as well as the length of time before the person’s cancer progressed and how many years they lived after their diagnosis. By training their algorithm on this data, they were able to use the presence of bacteria to predict survival.
8-21-20 X-rays reveal what ancient animal mummies keep under wraps
A new method of 3-D scanning mummified animals reveals species IDs and causes of death. Egyptian animal mummies can look like little more than bundles of cloth. Now high-tech X-rays have unveiled the mysterious life histories of three of these mummies — a cat, a bird and a snake. While 2-D X-rays of each specimen existed, little information existed beyond generic animal labels. So Richard Johnston, an engineer at Swansea University in Wales, and his colleagues used a microCT scanner to see what lies beneath the wraps of animal mummies at the university’s Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. The bone scans of three of those specimens provided such detail that researchers could identify the cat as a domestic kitten (Felis catus), the bird as a Eurasian kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) and the snake as an Egyptian cobra (Naja haje), the team reports August 20 in Scientific Reports. Cause of death was clear in two of the cases: The kitten was strangled, and the snake had its neck broken. The snake also suffered from kidney damage, possibly a result of water deprivation near the end of its life. Like many of Egypt’s mummified animals, these three may have served as offerings to Egyptian gods (SN: 1/6/14). Focusing on sections instead of just scanning the whole mummy at once allowed the team to get increased detail and create models of the mummified remains that could be 3-D printed and investigated through virtual reality. “With VR, I can effectively make the cat skull as big as my house and wander around it,” Johnston says. That’s how the team found the kitten’s unerupted molars, a clue that the animal was under five months old. That novel approach to microCT scanning mummies definitely has potential, says Lidija McKnight, an archaeologist at the University of Manchester in England who was not affiliated with the study. “These advanced techniques are extremely powerful tools to improve our understanding of this ancient practice.”
8-21-20 This ichthyosaur died after devouring a creature nearly as long as itself
The feat surprised scientists who expected the marine reptile to gulp prey like fish and squid. For its last meal, an ancient marine reptile called an ichthyosaur may have bitten off more than it could chew. The dolphinlike creature was nearly 5 meters long, about the length of a canoe. And its belly contained the remains of a lizardlike reptile called a thalattosaur that was almost as long: 4 meters. This is the longest known prey of a marine reptile from the dinosaur age, and may be the oldest direct evidence of a marine reptile eating an animal larger than a human, researchers report August 20 in iScience. In fact, this particular thalattosaur may have been such a big meal that the ichthyosaur died after stomaching it. The ichthyosaur’s blunt teeth suggest it should have favored small, soft prey like cephalopods (SN: 10/3/17). “Now we have really solid evidence saying these [blunt] teeth can be used to eat something big,” says Ryosuke Motani, a paleobiologist at the University of California, Davis. “That means the other species with similar teeth we discounted before … may be megapredators too.” Motani and colleagues examined the nearly complete skeleton of an adult ichthyosaur that was unearthed in southwestern China in 2010. The reptile, from the genus Guizhouichthyosaurus, lived during the Triassic Period about 240 million years ago. Upon closer inspection of a big lump of bones in the creature’s belly, Motani’s team discovered that the last thing the ichthyosaur ate was the body of a thalattosaur, sans head and tail. The thalattosaur remains show little evidence of being degraded by stomach acid, suggesting the ichthyosaur died shortly after its enormous meal. These fossils provide “pretty good evidence that the bigger animal ate the smaller one,” says vertebrate paleontologist Steve Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh, who was not involved in the study. “If this really is the case, it’s quite stunning,” because the predator was not much larger than its prey — at least in terms of length. The ichthyosaur is thought to have been roughly seven times more massive than the whip-thin thalattosaur.
8-20-20 Ancient Egypt: Mummified animals 'digitally unwrapped' in 3D scans
Three mummified animals from ancient Egypt have been digitally unwrapped and dissected by researchers using high-resolution 3D scans. The snake, bird and cat, from the Egypt Centre's collection at Swansea University, are at least 2,000 years old. Ancient texts suggest they were offerings to the souls of the departed, but little was known of their fate. Researchers said the details revealed by the scans were "extraordinary". Using micro CT scanners, which generate 3D images with 100 times the resolution of medical CT scans, the animals' remains were analysed in previously unseen detail, giving an insight into how they were killed and the ritual behind it. And the seven-year project, a collaboration between the Egypt Centre and Swansea's College of Engineering, came about by chance. Richard Johnston, professor of material science, said: "The project started purely because the engineering department used to be right opposite the Egypt Centre, and over coffee I mentioned our X-ray scanner might reveal what's hidden inside their animal mummies, and so we took it from there. "Up until then we'd been using the technology to scan jet engine parts, composites, or insects, but what we found when we started looking at the mummified animals was extraordinary." Dr Carolyn Graves-Brown, of the Egypt Centre, said the collaboration between engineers, archaeologists, biologists, and Egyptologists showed "the value of researchers from different subjects working together". The findings are in keeping with what the Egypt Centre already believed about the ritual mummification of animals. The ancient Egyptians mummified animals as well as humans, including cats, ibis, hawks, snakes, crocodiles and dogs. Sometimes they were buried with their owner, or as a food supply for the afterlife, but the most common animal mummies were offerings, bought by visitors to temples to present to the gods. They were bred or captured by keepers and then killed and embalmed by temple priests; it is believed that as many as 70 million animal mummies were created in this way.
8-20-20 Extraordinary fossil shows ancient marine reptile swallowing huge prey
Don’t bite off more than you can chew, goes the saying. But one ancient ichthyosaur did just that. The 5-metre-long marine reptile has the body of a 4-metre-long animal in its stomach – but apparently injured its neck in the process of consuming the massive meal and died soon afterwards. The prey is the largest found in the stomach region of a fossil. “It’s the biggest ever,” says Ryosuke Motani at the University of California, Davis. Ichthyosaurs, which resemble dolphins, thrived from around 250 to 90 million years ago. The shape of their teeth suggests that some of the larger specimens were top predators that tackled big prey, but there is little direct evidence of what they ate. In 2010, a team including Motani found a large ichthyosaur fossil in a quarry in south-western China, identified as belonging to the genus Guizhouichthyosaurus. It took another two years to remove the fossil and prepare it – which revealed a surprise. “There was something in its stomach that was protruding,” says Motani. The researchers continued excavating the site – which has been turned into a museum – as they tried to identify the prey. Seven years on, they have finally published their conclusions. The ichythyosaur, which lived during the Middle Triassic, took on another marine reptile called a thalattosaur. This lizard-shaped animal was nearly as long as the ichythysaur, but much skinnier, says Motani. Its mass was probably just a sixth or an eighth that of the ichthyosaur. At the time of the discovery, this thalattosaur was an unknown species. Since then, another individual has been found on the same site and the species named Xinpusaurus xingyiensis. The ichthyosaur bit off the head and tail of the thalattosaur, probably by shaking it. It then swallowed the decapitated, tailless body whole. “It’s a big chunk,” says Motani.
8-20-20 Ancient sculptures hint at universal facial expressions across cultures
Researchers take a novel approach to interpreting expressions of emotion. Grimaces, scowls and doting gazes of ancient human sculptures indicate that there are universal facial expressions that signal the same emotions across cultures, researchers argue. Faces depicted in sculptures crafted between 3,500 and 600 years ago in Mexico and Central America convey five varieties of emotion to Westerners today, say computational neuroscientist Alan Cowen and psychologist Dacher Keltner, both of the University of California, Berkeley. Present-day folks, and likely members of ancient American societies as well, anticipate that each of these emotional expressions occurs in particular social situations, the scientists report August 19 in Science Advances. As participants in the new study predicted just by looking at the faces of sculpted individuals, pain expressions characterized sculptures of people being tortured, expressions combining determination and strain accompanied heavy lifting, angry faces occurred in combat, elated expressions appeared in people being held or embraced and sad faces typified individuals in defeat. That link between ancient and modern groups “provides strong support for universality and genetic origins of these [particular] emotion expressions,” says psychologist Jessica Tracy of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Cowen and Keltner regard their findings as a preliminary glimpse of how people who lived long ago, and who had no exposure to any modern culture, expressed certain emotions with their faces as Westerners now do. Researchers have argued for decades about whether certain facial expressions have evolved to express specific emotions, such as happiness, anger and disgust, regardless of one’s culture. Previous comparisons of facial expressions across different modern societies have been complicated by the fact that people everywhere, including hunter-gatherers, have to some extent encountered Westerners and been influenced by their cultural practices. By looking deep into the past, the new study gets around that problem, the researchers say.
8-20-20 'Mummified' plants give glimpse of Earth's future
Fossil leaves from the remains of a 23 million-year-old forest suggest some plants may adapt to grow more quickly as CO2 levels rise, a study says. Scientists recovered the very well-preserved leaves from an ancient lake on New Zealand's South Island. They have enabled the scientists to link for the first time the high temperatures of the period with high levels of atmospheric CO2. The results have been published in the journal Climate of the Past. In their scientific paper, the team shows that some plants were able to harvest carbon dioxide more efficiently for photosynthesis - the biological process that harnesses light from the Sun to produce food for the plant. They say their findings may hold clues for how the dynamics of plant life could shift as current CO2 levels rise to meet those of the distant past. The team drilled 100m down to near the bottom of the now-dry lake bed, located in the crater of a long-extinct volcano. The crater is about a kilometre across. Here, biological material has been fossilised, including the remains of plants, algae, spiders, beetle, flies, fungi and other living things from a warm period known as the early Miocene Epoch. Average global temperatures are thought to have been between 3C and 7C higher than today, and ice largely disappeared from the poles. There is debate among scientists about levels of CO2 in the period, which is one reason this study is so interesting. "The amazing thing is that these leaves are basically mummified, so we have their original chemical compositions, and can see all their fine features under a microscope," said lead author Tammo Reichgelt, from the University of Connecticut in Storrs, US. He says they are preserved so perfectly that microscopic veins and stomata - the pores which allow leaves to take in air and release water during photosynthesis - are visible. The scientists analysed the different chemical forms of carbon - or carbon isotopes - within leaves from a half-dozen tree species found at various levels in the deposit.
8-19-20 We now have the technology to develop vaccines that spread themselves
Prevention is better than cure, so we should start using genetic techniques to stop dangerous animal diseases jumping to humans, say Scott Nuismer and James Bull A FAMOUS quote often attributed to Benjamin Franklin is “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. The world is now discovering the cost of its pound of cure for covid-19. But what would an ounce of prevention look like? For infectious diseases that originate in wild animals, like covid-19, SARS, MERS and Ebola, one solution is to prevent the transmission to humans in the first place. To achieve this, an important first step is to change our behaviour to reduce contact with the wildlife species that harbour such diseases. A complementary approach is to target the infectious agents that carry these diseases by reducing their prevalence or eliminating them within wildlife populations. Although this isn’t a new idea, advances in technology mean we may have a better chance of it succeeding than ever before. The classic example of this is rabies: we vaccinate dogs and many wild carnivores to suppress rabies in those populations and so reduce our own risk of catching it. Although these vaccination campaigns have virtually eliminated human rabies in the US and Europe, the disease still kills more than 55,000 people annually across Africa and Asia, where the cost of wildlife vaccination projects is a barrier to maintaining a sufficient level of immunity. Using wildlife vaccination to target other dangerous pathogens that circulate within bats and rodents – such as Ebola, Marburg, SARS and Lassa viruses – faces similar obstacles, which is compounded by the rapid population turnover and large population sizes of these animals. A possible solution is to create vaccines that spread themselves through an animal population.
8-19-20 We are in the midst of rewriting our understanding of Neanderthals
Kindred by Rebecca Wragg Sykes explains how modern techniques are helping us to better understand Neanderthals, as well as where we fit in to the family tree. HOW we began to unpick our species’ ancient past in the late 19th century is an astounding story, but not always a pretty one. As well as attaining tremendous insights into the age of Earth and how life evolved, scholars also entertained astonishingly bad ideas about superiority. Some of these continue today. Why do we assume that Neanderthals, who flourished for 400,000 years, were somehow inferior to Homo sapiens or less fit to survive? In Kindred, a history of our understanding of Neanderthals, Rebecca Wragg Sykes separates perfectly valid and reasonable questions – for example, “why aren’t Neanderthals around any more?” – from the thinking that casts our ancient relatives as “dullard losers on a withered branch of the family tree”. As an archaeologist with a special interest in the cognitive aspects of stone tool technologies, Wragg Sykes paints a fascinating picture of a field transformed almost beyond recognition over the past 30 years. Artefacts at well-preserved sites are no longer merely dug and brushed: they are scanned. High-powered optical microscopes pick out slice and chop marks, electron beams trace the cross-sections of scratches at the nano-scale and rapid collagen identification techniques can determine an animal from even tiny bone fragments. The risk with any new tool is that, in our excitement, we over-interpret the results it throws up. For example, while Neanderthals may have performed some funerary activity, they may not have thrown flowers on their loved ones’ graves as we once thought. Other stories continue to accumulate a weight of circumstantial evidence. We have known for a few years that some Neanderthals tanned leather; now it seems they may also have spun thread.
8-19-20 Cancer cells can pick up fatty coatings to spread further in the body
Cancer cells that travel through lymphatic fluid – which flushes infection-fighting cells through the body and helps remove cellular debris – may be more likely to seed distant growths because they pick up “coats” made of monounsaturated fatty acids that help protect them from damage, allowing them to survive long enough to form new tumours. “Many people have been studying circulating cancer cells in the blood, but almost nobody has been studying cancer cells as they migrate through lymphatics,” says Sean Morrison at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. The reason, he explains, is pretty simple: blood samples are much easier to obtain than lymphatic ones. It usually takes years for tumours to spread to distant sites in the body, or metastasise, mainly because most of the cells die while they’re migrating through the blood. In previous work, Morrison and his team suggested that oxidative stress, a process by which free oxygen radicals can damage fatty cell membranes, was killing off most of these cells. But it wasn’t clear why some are able to survive this. To find out, Morrison and his team injected dyed human melanoma cells into the veins or lymph nodes of 520 mice and then traced how those cells moved through the body. They found that more cancer cells survived in the lymph than in the blood, and that they were more likely to seed distant tumours. Those in the blood were more likely to have undergone high levels of oxidative stress and died. Then, the team isolated cancer cells from the blood and the lymph nodes to better understand why the two behaved differently. Within the membranes of the cancer cells in lymph nodes, the researchers found higher levels of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid. Their cellular counterparts in the blood that skipped the stop in the lymph nodes had membranes made up mainly of polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are more prone to damage from oxidative stress.
8-19-20 Prone to motion sickness? Your sex, diet and shoe size may be to blame
We are finally solving the mystery of why motion can make us queasy – just in time to help us deal with nausea-inducing VR headsets, driverless cars and space tourism. IT STARTS behind your eyes, a niggling ache that heads down towards your stomach where it tumbles and turns before building towards a climax of vomit. Bleurgh! Motion sickness. This has been a human affliction pretty much since we began travelling on anything but two legs. Most of us have experienced it, and it is likely to become even more prevalent when we all become passengers as driverless cars roll out, space tourism takes off and virtual reality headsets take over, both in the gaming industry and, increasingly, for virtual meetings. Even before covid-19, environmentally conscious businesses had started adopting VR technology to bring international clients together. Motion sickness is clearly related to the movement of our body and head, but why this results in nausea has been a long-standing mystery. Now, however, evidence from brain imaging and genetics is helping scientists get to the bottom of it – as well as suggesting new ways to solve the problem. It turns out that there is far more to motion sickness than you might think. Your genes, gender and diet all have an influence. It might even come down to your foot size. The word nausea derives from the Greek for “ship”. But motion sickness goes way beyond the odd queasy sailor. Seasickness has had a big impact on history, influencing the outcome of several military conflicts, from the battle of the Red Cliffs, which marked the end of the Han dynasty in ancient China to the defeat of the Spanish Armada by the English in 1588. And, of course, motion sickness isn’t confined to the high seas. There are reports of ancient Greeks and Chinese feeling nauseous while being carried aloft in Sedan chairs or travelling by horse and buggy. Their solutions included fasting, drinking the urine of young boys and hiding earth from the kitchen hearth in their hair. Today, there are more ways to induce motion sickness than ever. One in three of us easily succumb, another third will experience it in rough seas or on a roller-coaster. Nobody is completely immune. We aren’t the only species affected, either: cats, dogs, even a variety of birds and fish feel it. In fact, the only animals that don’t are those without a vestibular system.
8-19-20 Millions of missing female births predicted in India in next decade
An estimated 6.8 million fewer female births could be recorded in India between 2017 and 2030 than would be expected without practices such as sex-selective abortion. India’s sex ratio at birth – the ratio of male to female births – has been imbalanced since the 1970s, largely driven by a rise in families choosing to abort female fetuses with the goal of having sons instead. Fengqing Chao at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia, and her colleagues wanted to investigate what the impact on India’s population might be if this trend continues. Chao and her team modelled the sex ratio at birth in 29 Indian states and territories, which encompass more than 98 per cent of the country’s population. They looked at birth data as well as national survey data on people’s preferences to have a son or daughter. The model predicted that there would be 6.8 million missing female births across India between 2017 and 2030, compared with what would be expected without practices such as sex-selective abortion. The prediction started with 2017 as this is the year after the most recent birth data. India’s missing female births over the next 10 years could have a significant impact on the global sex ratio, since the UN predicts that India will overtake China to become the world’s most populous country in that time period. The researchers found that a preference towards having sons was strongest in the north of India, with their model projecting that the highest deficits in female births would occur in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Identifying regions with the strongest predicted biases in sex ratio at birth could help minimise the future abortion of female fetuses, for instance by enabling more precise targeting of policies or campaigns aimed at prevention, says Chao.
8-19-20 Earliest art in the British Isles discovered on Jersey
Fragments of stone engraved with abstract designs are the earliest known art in the British Isles, researchers say.They were made by hunter-gatherers who lived between 23,000 and 14,000 years ago on what is now Jersey. The designs were scratched into small ornamental tablets known as plaquettes; similar examples have been found in France, Spain and Portugal. The 10 plaquettes were unearthed at Les Varines, Jersey, between 2014 and 2018. Since the discoveries in the south-east of the island, scientists from London's Natural History Museum, the University of Newcastle and University of York have been analysing the prehistoric markings. The researchers, who have published their findings in the journal Plos One, now believe they represent the earliest evidence of artistic expression in the British Isles. The plaquettes were made by the Magdalenians, a hunter-gatherer culture thought to have expanded out of Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal) and southern France after the peak of the last Ice Age. The designs consist of straight lines more or less in parallel and longer, curved incisions. The two types of mark were probably produced by the same tools, in short succession - perhaps by the same engraver. Co-author Dr Silvia Bello, from the Natural History Museum, said: "Many of the lines, including the curved, concentric designs, appear to have been made through layered or repeated incisions, suggesting that it is unlikely that they resulted from the stones being used for a functional purpose. She told BBC News that most were "of abstract nature (simple intersecting lines), however, some fragments seem to depict zoomorphic representations (horses, mammoths, a bovid and possibly a human face)". "On all the fragments, these potential representations appear imprecise and simplified in comparisons to other Magdalenian examples, supporting either the hypothesis these are chance arrangements amongst a system of representations, or that they were the product of inexperienced engravers," she explained. The Magdalenian era saw a flourishing of early art, from cave paintings and drawings to the decoration of tools and weapons to engraving on stones and bones.
8-19-20 Secret to dinosaurs’ huge size may be in unusually lightweight bones
Dinosaurs could count the largest animals to ever walk the Earth among their scaly and feathery ranks. According to a new study, the very nature of their bones may have allowed them to attain stupendous sizes. The largest dinosaurs of all time, such as the long-necked herbivore Argentinosaurus, were more than 30 metres in length and weighed more than 50 tonnes. They were far larger than any land-dwelling mammal. Other giants included the Tyrannosaurus rex, a 12-metre, 8-tonne carnivore that far surpassed the largest polar bear. Laying eggs instead of carrying live young allowed dinosaurs to avoid some biological constraints that determine mammalian size. Yet a study by Seth Donahue at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and his colleagues proposes that differences between mammal and dinosaur bone tissue also had a role to play. The analysis focuses on trabecular bone, a type of spongy-looking material often found at the ends of bones like the femur. “Trabecular bone is an exceptional, lightweight structural material,” says Donahue. Until now, no one had studied the properties of this bone tissue in dinosaurs. The focus on trabecular bone makes the new study unique, says Sandra Shefelbine at Northeastern University in Massachusetts, who wasn’t involved in the work. By combining detailed scans of bone tissue with an engineering technique called finite element analysis, the researchers detected that trabecular bone in dinosaurs is organised differently than in mammals, so as to be less dense without sacrificing strength. “I think the findings do have implications for understanding how dinosaurs were able to support gigantic body sizes not seen in animals today,” says Donahue. The analysis suggests that it may be useful to look to dinosaur bone for inspiration when designing things that require lightweight strength, such as a bridge or space shuttle.
8-19-20 Coronavirus smell loss 'different from cold and flu'
The loss of smell that can accompany coronavirus is unique and different from that experienced by someone with a bad cold or flu, say European researchers who have studied the experiences of patients. When Covid-19 patients have smell loss it tends to be sudden and severe. And they usually don't have a blocked, stuffy or runny nose - most people with coronavirus can still breathe freely. Another thing that sets them apart is their "true" loss of taste. It's not that their taste is somewhat impaired because their sense of smell is out of action, say the researchers in the journal Rhinology. Coronavirus patients with loss of taste really cannot tell the difference between bitter or sweet. Experts suspect this is because the pandemic virus affects the nerve cells directly involved with smell and taste sensation. The main symptoms of coronavirus are: 1. high temperature, 2. high temperature, 3. new, continuous cough. Anyone with these symptoms should self-isolate and arrange to have a swab test to check if they have the virus. Members of their household should isolate too to prevent possible spread. Lead investigator Prof Carl Philpott, from the University of East Anglia, carried out smell and taste tests on 30 volunteers: 10 with Covid-19, 10 with bad colds and 10 healthy people with no cold or flu symptoms. Smell loss was much more profound in the Covid-19 patents. They were less able to identify smells, and they were not able to discern bitter or sweet tastes at all. Prof Philpott, who works with the charity Fifth Sense, which was set up to help with people with smell and taste disorders, said: "There really do appear to be distinguishing features that set the coronavirus apart from other respiratory viruses. "This is very exciting because it means that smell and taste tests could be used to discriminate between Covid-19 patients and people with a regular cold or flu." He said people could do their own smell and taste tests at home using products like coffee, garlic, oranges or lemons and sugar.
8-19-20 Has herd immunity really been achieved in some places?
THE idea of herd immunity has had a bumpy ride as the coronavirus pandemic has played out. It was initially touted in some countries as a viable strategy for dealing with the spread of covid-19, before being dismissed. Today, some headlines celebrate the fact that many places might have achieved herd immunity including Britain and pockets of London, New York and Mumbai. But others warn that millions will die before we get there. The true picture is far messier, partly because scientists don’t even agree on what herd immunity is, let alone how it might be achieved. So how will we know when populations are protected against the coronavirus? While the definition of herd immunity depends on who you ask, let’s assume that it refers to a situation in which enough of a population is immune to a pathogen that it no longer spreads throughout a community. Those who might be susceptible to it are indirectly protected thanks to the immune responses of others. These immune responses might have developed after a person was infected with a pathogen or after being vaccinated against it. Our experience of other viruses show how herd immunity can develop. Seasonal viruses like the common cold often sweep through a population until enough people have encountered them and built up a protective immune response for them to stop spreading. Widespread use of the MMR vaccine led to herd immunity for measles in some countries. But herd immunity doesn’t necessarily last. Viruses can evolve and change. And if vaccination rates drop, viruses can make a comeback. When it comes to the coronavirus, there are even more challenges. For a start, we don’t know what proportion of a population would need to be immune to generate herd immunity. This figure is typically estimated using the basic reproduction number – or R number – of a virus, which represents how many other people a person who has the virus will go on to infect.
8-18-20 Covid-19: How can we travel abroad safely during the pandemic?
IN THE past few weeks, many holiday plans have been dashed after some parts of Europe, including the UK, reintroduced travel restrictions. Even UK transport secretary Grant Shapps had to cut short his holiday to Spain and follow it with two weeks’ home quarantine. It is a stark change from June, when the UK government was encouraging people to holiday abroad to boost the travel industry. Since then, many countries have seen an increase in coronavirus cases, making going abroad more of a gamble. So what are the different options for managing the current risks from international travel, and which countries have got it right? When the pandemic began, the World Health Organization initially discouraged travel bans, saying that they would worsen economic damage without slowing the virus’s spread. But some countries that adopted strict border controls, like New Zealand and Taiwan, have been among the most successful at controlling the coronavirus. These countries haven’t stopped foreign trade, only leisure travel, with business travellers now meeting online. “To the extent we were worried we were going to crash the world’s economy if we restricted travel, it doesn’t appear to have happened,” says David Hunter at the University of Oxford. However, foreign tourism is a large chunk of the economy in many places, so some foreign travel has restarted through “corridors”, where countries with a similar prevalence of coronavirus allow free movement between them. Corridors are in place between the UK and countries including Italy and Germany. But this arrangement leaves little certainty, because coronavirus rates change. For instance, the UK last week took France, Malta and the Netherlands off its list of travel corridor countries. “In the time between when people book a trip and when they come back, the circumstances may change,” says Hunter.
8-17-20 Simple technique could help find microplastics inside the human body
A new method could help detect microplastics in human tissues and organs, allowing researchers to investigate the impact that environmental plastic pollution has on our health. Last year, Rolf Halden at Arizona State University and his colleagues discovered molecules from commonly used plastics, such as bisphenol A, in human liver and fat tissue samples. They have now investigated whether larger, microplastic particles might be detectable if they made their way into human tissues. The researchers took 47 human tissue samples from lungs, liver, spleen and kidneys, spiked them with various different microplastics and digested the mix with chemicals. They then tested whether they could detect and quantify microplastic fragments in the samples using established spectroscopic methods. They found that it was possible to identify dozens of types of plastic components, including polycarbonate, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polyethylene – in addition to bisphenol A. “We are literally surrounded by plastic throughout our daily lives. We are now positioned to better define plastic pollution in the human body,” says Halden. “Whether, where and to what extent plastic fragments accumulate in different human tissues and organs is the focus of still ongoing research.” Halden and his colleagues have also developed an online tool to enable researchers to standardise their measurements of microplastics in human tissues by converting information on plastic particle count into units of mass and surface area. Their research was presented at the American Chemical Society Fall 2020 virtual meeting today. “There is currently no ideal analytical method to quantify microplastic particles in human tissues,” says Dick Vethaak at the Deltares research centre in the Netherlands.
8-15-20 Star Carr: North Yorkshire's archaeological 'Tardis' 10 years on
The archaeologist who helped lead the dig that found Britain's oldest house said the site was still giving up its secrets 10 years on. Star Carr hit the headlines in 2010 when a circular Stone Age structure found was dated to about 8,500 BC. Archaeologist Nicky Milner said working on the site was akin to time-travel. "It's as close as you can get to being in a Tardis. It was an absolute dream, it took up 15 years of my life," Dr Milner said. Ray Mears, bushcraft expert and TV presenter, was one of those who helped unlock the purpose of wood found at the site. Star Carr is a Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age, site near Scarborough in North Yorkshire dating to almost 11,000 years ago. The earliest British examples of jewellery, carpentry and a hunting bow were found there. Dr Milner, the site's co-director, was born within a few miles of the site but did not realise its significance until she later studied archaeology at university. "I want to bring the site alive for everyone, I want to imagine what its inhabitants were like," she said. Dr Milner, head of archaeology at York University, said it was an "amazing" day a decade ago when the world's media visited but said "things that are that old are not very visual". "So it becomes more about the stories you can tell from what we are digging," she said. Other finds at Star Carr have included headdresses made from red deer skulls, thought to be used in rituals. Excavation would only be a small part of an archaeologist's work, with years of analysis to follow, said Dr Milner. However, in the case of a "very, very rare" pendant marked with line, she said it was "the earliest artwork found but we will never know what the lines mean". With Mears's help one piece of wood was recognised as Britain's oldest complete bow.
8-15-20 'Precision nutrition': Are hyper-individualized diets the future of eating?
Genes, microbes, and other factors govern how each person's body processes nutrients. Understanding the connections could help optimize diets — and health. For many years, researchers and clinicians assumed that nutrition was a one-size-fits-all affair. Everybody needs the same nutrients from their food, they thought, and a vitamin pill or two could help dispense with any deficiencies. But now scientists are learning that our genes and environment, along with the microbes that dwell in us and other factors, alter our individual abilities to make and process nutrients. These differences mean that two given people can respond to identical diets in different ways, contributing to varied health outcomes and patterns of disease. Until recently, scientists didn't fully appreciate that individual metabolic differences can have a big impact on how diet affects the risk for chronic diseases, says Steven Zeisel, director of the Nutrition Research Institute at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The new knowledge is resolving long-standing mysteries about human health and paving the way toward a world of "precision nutrition," Zeisel writes in a recent article in the Annual Review of Food Science and Technology. Although the findings are unlikely to lead all the way to hyper-individualized dietary recommendations, they could help to tailor nutrition to subsets of people depending on their genetics or other factors: Zeisel's company, SNP Therapeutics, is working on a test for the genetic patterns of 20-odd variants that can identify individuals at risk of fatty liver disease, for example. Knowable Magazine spoke with Zeisel about our developing understanding of precision nutrition. Why has nutrition lagged behind other research areas in medicine? Nutrition studies have always had a problem with variability in experimental results. For instance, when infants were given the fatty acid DHA [docosahexaenoic acid], some had an improvement in their cognitive performance and others didn't. Because some showed improvements, it was added to infant formula. But we didn't understand why they were responding differently, so scientists continued to debate why we did this if only 15 percent of children improved and 85 percent showed no response. The confusion came from an expectation that everybody was essentially the same. People didn't realize that there were predictable sources of variation that could separate those who responded to something from those who did not. For DHA, it turned out that if the mother had a difference in her genes that made her slow to produce DHA, then her baby needed extra DHA and responded when given it. That gene difference occurs in about 15 percent of women — and, it turns out, it's their babies that get better when given DHA. How are researchers starting to make sense of this variability? Studying differences in human genetics is one way. We conducted a series of studies that found a good deal of variation in the amounts of choline [an essential nutrient] that people required: Men and postmenopausal women got sick when deprived of it, but only half of young women became sick. We found that some women can make choline because the hormone estrogen turns on the gene to make choline. Other women have a difference in this gene that makes it unresponsive to estrogen. Men and postmenopausal women need to get the nutrient another way — by eating it — because they have minimal amounts of estrogen. If I had initially done the choline study and chosen only young women participants, I would have found that half needed choline, half didn't, and had a lot of noise in my data. Now that we can explain it, it makes sense. What seemed to be noisy data can be better described using a precision nutrition approach.
8-14-20 Fast food consumption is on the rise among US children and adolescents
More than a third of children in the US eat fast food on any given day, according to survey results compiled by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Fast food continues to be a big part of the American diet,” says Cheryl Fryar at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, who led the work. Fryar and her colleagues have been tracking the fast-food intake of young people in the US since 2003. The team uses data collected as part of a large national study that has involved interviewing and assessing the health of a nationally representative group of around 5000 individuals on a yearly basis. As part of that study, volunteers undergo face-to-face interviews to describe their eating habits, or those of their young children. Snacks or meals described as “restaurant fast food” or “pizza” were classified as fast food. Using data collected between 2015 and 2018, Fryar and her colleagues found that, on average, young people aged between 2 and 19 got around 14 per cent of their daily calories from fast food. Only 11 per cent of young people obtained less than 25 per cent of their daily calories from such meals, while around 1 in 9 children get more than 45 per cent of their daily calories this way. The figures represent an increase on previous years. Data collected between 2009 and 2010 suggest that, back then, children obtained just under 11 per cent of their daily calories from fast food. Fryar doesn’t know why fast food is becoming a more significant feature of young people’s diets. “It’s an interesting trend,” she says. The consumption of fast food could have lasting impacts on children’s health. Past research suggests that children who eat more fast food have more fat and sugar in their diets, and are more likely to drink calorific sugary drinks. They are also more likely to put on body fat, putting them at greater risk of obesity in adulthood.
8-14-20 Mindfulness and meditation can worsen depression and anxiety
Mindfulness and other types of meditation are usually seen as simple stress-relievers – but they can sometimes leave people worse off. About one in 12 people who try meditation experience an unwanted negative effect, usually a worsening in depression or anxiety, or even the onset of these conditions for the first time, according to the first systematic review of the evidence. “For most people it works fine but it has undoubtedly been overhyped and it’s not universally benevolent,” says Miguel Farias at Coventry University in the UK, one of the researchers behind the work. There are many types of meditation, but one of the most popular is mindfulness, in which people pay attention to the present moment, focusing on either their own thoughts and feelings or external sensations. It is recommended by several National Health Service bodies in the UK as a way of reducing depression relapses in people who have experienced the condition several times. Enthusiasm for meditation may partly stem from a growing awareness of the side effects of antidepressant medicines and the difficulties some people report in stopping taking them. There have been some reports of people experiencing worse mental health after starting meditation but it is unclear how often this happens. Farias’s team combed through medical journals and found 55 relevant studies. Once the researchers had excluded those that had deliberately set out to find negative effects, they worked out the prevalence of people who experienced harms within each study and then calculated the average, adjusted for the study size, a common method in this kind of analysis. They found that about 8 per cent people who try meditation experience an unwanted effect. “People have experienced anything from an increase in anxiety up to panic attacks,” says Farias. They also found instances of psychosis or thoughts of suicide. The figure of 8 per cent may be an underestimate, as many studies of meditation record only serious negative effects or don’t record them at all, says Farias.
8-14-20 Why do we miss the rituals put on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic?
These traditions bind us to our groups and can help calm us. For over a thousand years, the various prayers of the Catholic Holy Mass remained largely unaltered. Starting in the 1960s, though, the Catholic Church began implementing changes to make the Mass more modern. One such change occurred on November 27, 2011, when the church attempted to unify the world’s English-speaking Catholics by having them all use the same wording. The changes were slight; for instance, instead of responding to the priest’s “The Lord be with you” with “And also with you,” the response became: “And with your spirit.” The seemingly small modification sparked an uproar so fierce that some leaders warned of a “ritual whiplash.” The new wording has stayed intact, but that outsize reaction did not surprise ritual scholars. “The ritual reflects the sacred values of the group,” says Juliana Schroeder, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “Those [ritual actions] are nonnegotiable.” But in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, people are being forced to renegotiate rituals large and small. Cruelly, a pandemic that has taken more than half a million lives worldwide has disrupted cherished funeral and grieving rituals. Even when rituals can be tweaked to fit the moment, such as virtual religious services or car parades in place of graduation ceremonies, the experiences don’t carry the same emotional heft as the real thing. That’s because the immutability of rituals — their fixed and often repetitive nature — is core to their definition, Schroeder and others say. So too is the symbolic meaning people attach to behaviors; doing the ritual “right” can matter more than the outcome. Why do such behaviors even exist? Anthropologists, psychologists and neuroscientists have all weighed in, so much so that the theories used to explain the purpose of rituals feel as myriad as the forms rituals have taken the world over.
8-14-20 Newly discovered cells in mice can sense four of the five tastes
By pulling taste cells out of the bud, scientists found a set that can taste broadly. Taste buds can turn food from mere fuel into a memorable meal. Now researchers have discovered a set of supersensing cells in the taste buds of mice that can detect four of the five flavors that the buds recognize. Bitter, sweet, sour and umami — these cells can catch them all. That’s a surprise because it’s commonly thought that taste cells are very specific, detecting just one or two flavors. Some known taste cells respond to only one compound, for instance, detecting sweet sucralose or bitter caffeine. But the new results suggest that a far more complicated process is at work. When neurophysiologist Debarghya Dutta Banik and colleagues turned off the sensing abilities of more specific taste cells in mice, the researchers were startled to find other cells responding to flavors. Pulling those cells out of the rodents’ taste buds and giving them a taste of several compounds revealed a group of cells that can sense multiple chemicals across different taste classes, the team reports August 13 in PLOS Genetics. “We never expected that any population of [taste] cells would respond to so many different compounds,” says Dutta Banik, of the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. But taste cells don’t respond to flavors in insolation; the brain and the tongue work together as tastemakers (SN: 11/24/15). So the scientists monitored the brain to see if it received bitter, sweet or umami signals when mice lacked a key protein needed for these broadly tasting cells to relay information. Those observations revealed that without the protein, the brain didn’t get the flavor messages, which was also shown when mice slurped bitter solutions as though they were water even though the rodents hate bitter tastes, says Dutta Banik, who did the work at the University at Buffalo in New York.
8-14-20 Plant protein responds to radio waves by making seedlings grow faster
A dose of radio waves seems to encourage plant seedlings to grow slightly faster, a find that, if confirmed, could have applications from farming to medicine. Margaret Ahmad at Sorbonne University in Paris, France, and her colleagues exposed thale cress seedlings (Arabidopsis thaliana) to weak pulses of radio frequency (RF) radiation at 7 megahertz, a frequency normally used by amateur radio operators. The team found that this altered the activity of a type of light sensor in the plants called a cryptochrome. The expression of several genes regulated by the cryptochrome also changed, and the seedlings grew slightly faster. This is the first time anyone has found a biological receptor sensitive to radio waves, says Ahmad. “What we showed is that we can manipulate the ‘chemistry’ of the cryptochrome receptor in living plants by a remote radio frequency signal.” Cryptochromes are proteins found across biology in insects, birds and mammals, including humans. They have a wide range of functions, from regulating plant growth rates and biological clocks to helping birds navigate. They are thought to sense weak magnetic fields in many species, through a quantum mechanism in which the field alters the rate at which the protein is activated by light. Ahmad, who discovered cryptochromes in the 1980s, wondered if these receptors might also be sensitive to radio waves. Extremely weak RF radiation is known to disrupt magnetosensing in birds, insects and rodents, but the mechanism is unknown. The team predicted that if the quantum cryptochrome theory is correct, RF radiation should also interfere with the sensor, blocking the effect of Earth’s magnetic field. This is indeed what they found, with the seedlings responding in the same way as a control group placed in a null magnetic field. The result strengthens the idea that human-made electromagnetic noise, or “electrosmog”, can have biological effects. The signals used by Ahmad’s team were about 10 times higher than the radiation emitted by radio transmissions or electrical appliances in a home. But she points out that the behaviour of birds and insects can be affected by far lower intensities.
8-14-20 Rare plant may prevent the first lithium quarry in the US from opening
An Australian mining firm wants to turn a Nevada valley into a quarry for lithium and boron – key elements for green technologies – but a rare plant may stand in its way. Researchers say that biodiversity and clean energy should not be in opposition. The company, Ioneer, says the quarry in Rhyolite Ridge valley would be the first US quarry of its kind, able to supply lithium for 400,000 electric car batteries a year and boron to power wind turbines. But soil containing these elements is also the perfect environment for Tiehm’s buckwheat (Eriogonum tiehmii), a plant that looks like a pile of leaves. When it blooms, it could be the dandelion’s fuzzy cousin. There are only about 40,000 specimens of the buckwheat, and its namesake, Arnold Tiehm at the University of Nevada, Reno, says its closest relative is more than 80 kilometres away. Most of the buckwheat’s natural home lies in the area mapped to be dug up for the quarry. “That puts the buckwheat on a one-way path to extinction,” says Patrick Donnelly at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) in Nevada. Ioneer will remove 65 per cent of the buckwheat’s population if the first planned quarry goes ahead, the company confirmed to New Scientist. Although rare, the buckwheat isn’t yet considered endangered, but that may change. Following a petition by the CBD, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced in July that the plant is both valuable enough and under sufficient threat to warrant a year-long review to decide whether to list the plant under the US Endangered Species Act. The listing would spell the end for the quarry as currently planned. Most lithium is mined in South American or Australian deserts. Ioneer is one of a few companies looking to begin US production. “The choice is to rely solely on other countries around the world, including those with repressive regimes, poverty, water shortages and poor environmental compliance, or to develop domestic supply under the highest possible standards,” says Bernard Rowe of Ioneer USA Corporation, Ioneer’s US subsidiary.
8-14-20 Climate change, not hunters, may have killed off woolly rhinos
Ancient DNA indicates the creatures’ numbers stayed mostly constant long after people showed up. Rather than getting wiped out by Ice Age hunters, woolly rhinos charged to extinction in Siberia around 14,000 years ago when the climate turned warm and wet, a study of ancient DNA suggests. Numbers of breeding woolly rhinos stayed relatively constant for tens of thousands of years until at least about 18,500 years ago, more than 13,000 years after people first reached northeastern Siberia, scientists report online August 13 in Current Biology. Yet only a few thousand years later, woolly rhinos died out, probably because temperatures had risen enough to reshape arctic habitats. These findings build on a previous argument, based on dated fossils, that woolly rhino populations across northern Eurasia began to decline between 40,000 and 35,000 years ago, with surviving animals moving progressively eastward and dying out in northeastern Siberia around 14,000 years ago. Reasons for initial population losses are unclear, though there’s little evidence that human hunters killed substantial numbers of woolly rhinos, the researchers say. Instead, a shift to warm, rainy conditions, which occurred between roughly 14,600 and 12,800 years ago, “likely played a large role in the rapid decline of this cold-adapted species,” says study coauthor Edana Lord, an evolutionary geneticist at the Centre for Palaeogenetics in Stockholm. During that climate shift, open expanses featuring vegetation that woolly rhinos (Coelodonta antiquitatis) liked to eat were replaced by forests and shrub-dominated tundra. Hunters could have added to woolly rhinos’ woes, but the main extinction distinction goes to climate change, Lord contends. Researchers have argued for decades about whether climate change or human hunting had a larger effect on worldwide extinctions of large animals such as woolly rhinos and mammoths as the Pleistocene Ice Age approached its end around 11,700 years ago (SN: 11/13/18).
8-14-20 Earliest known beds are 227,000-year-old piles of grass and ash
. People living in the Border cave in southern Africa slept on grass bedding 227,000 years ago – by far the oldest discovery of its kind. “That’s quite close to the origin of our species,” says Lyn Wadley at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her team has been excavating Border cave in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, which was inhabited on and off during prehistory. The peoples who lived there left many layers of deposits that have been preserved by the very dry conditions. Wadley’s team has found grass bedding in many of these layers, made from several species including Panicum maximum, which still grows outside the cave. The oldest layers containing the bedding are between 227,000 and 183,000 years old. This grass bedding was often on top of ash layers. In some places these ashes are of burned grasses, suggesting people burned their old, pest-infested bedding and placed new bedding on top. In other places, the ashes are of burned wood, suggesting ashes from wood fires were spread out and grass placed on top. This means people were deliberately putting grass bedding on ashes to deter crawling insects, says Wadley. The team also found burned bits of camphor wood – camphor is still used as an insect repellent today. “Maybe it was burned for the smoke it creates that would repel flying insects,” says Wadley. She has no doubt that the grasses were used for bedding. They are found only towards the sheltered rear of the cave, and often near to fireplaces. In fact, sometimes the edges of the bedding are singed. Shards of rock mixed in with some bedding suggest people sat on the bedding as they made stone tools. There are even bits of ochre powder in the bedding that might have rubbed off people’s skin as they slept. However, there is ochre in the roof of the cave, so the team cannot be sure it didn’t fall from the roof. Before this discovery, the oldest-known bedding was 77,000 years old. Wadley found it at Sibudu cave, also in KwaZulu-Natal.
8-14-20 The oldest known grass beds from 200,000 years ago included insect repellents
The ancient bed remnants include fossilized grass, bug-repelling ash and aromatic leaves. People living in southern Africa around 200,000 years ago not only slept on grass bedding but occasionally burned it, apparently to keep from going buggy. Remnants of the oldest known grass bedding, discovered in South Africa’s Border Cave, lay on the ashes of previously burned bedding, say archaeologist Lyn Wadley of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and her colleagues. Ash spread beneath bound bunches of grass may have been used to repel crawling, biting insects, which cannot easily move through fine powder, the researchers report in the Aug. 14 Science. Wadley’s team also found bits of burned wood in the bedding containing fragments of camphor leaves, an aromatic plant that can be used as a bug repellent. Prior to this new find, the oldest plant bedding — mainly consisting of sedge leaves, ash and aromatic plants likely used to keep insects away — dated to around 77,000 years ago at South Africa’s Sibudu rock-shelter. At Border Cave, chemical and microscopic analyses of excavated sediment showed that a series of beds had been assembled from grasses, such as Guinea grass and red grass. Guinea grass currently grows at Border Cave’s entrance. Bedding past its prime was likely burned in small fire pits, the researchers suspect. Remains of fire pits were found not far from Border Cave’s former grass beds. Humans in southern Africa intentionally lit fires by around 1 million years ago (SN: 4/2/12). But Border Cave provides the first evidence that ancient grass bedding was burned on purpose. Small, sharpened stones were also found among grass and ash remains, suggesting that people occasionally sat on cave bedding while making stone tools.
8-13-20 Trilobites living 429 million years ago had eyes like modern insects
An animal that lived 429 million years ago had compound eyes almost identical to those of modern insects like bees and dragonflies. The finding implies that the compound eye evolved very early in the history of animals. “I am quite sure that its roots lie far back in the Precambrian somewhere,” says Brigitte Schoenemann at the University of Cologne in Germany. The Cambrian period, when many of the major animal groups appeared, began about 540 million years ago. With Euan Clarkson at the University of Edinburgh in the UK, Schoenemann re-examined a fossil of a 1.2-centimetre-long animal called Aulacopleura koninckii. It was a trilobite: a marine animal a bit like a woodlouse, related to insects and shrimp. Trilobites dominated the oceans for 300 million years, beginning about 520 million years ago. The last ones died out 252 million years ago. Studying trilobites offers clues to the origins of related groups like insects and crustaceans. Schoenemann and Clarkson found that one A. koninckii specimen still had its left eye. It was a compound eye like those of modern insects, which contains many tiny receptors called ommatidia, each with light-sensitive cells and a lens to focus light. Each ommatidium contributes a single “pixel” to create a mosaic-like image. The internal structures of its ommatidia were almost identical to those of modern insects. The only difference was that they weren’t quite as densely packed into the eye, probably reducing the amount of detail the animal could see. But to all intents and purposes, it was a modern compound eye, says Schoenemann. The oldest known compound eye with preserved internal structures belonged to another trilobite, which lived in the early Cambrian over 500 million years ago. Schoenemann’s team described it in 2017. That eye was more primitive though. “There were no distinct lenses,” says Schoenemann. The ommatidia were topped with “a kind of translucent window, without any capacity of focusing”. Also, the eye only had about 100 ommatidia. It isn’t clear how long compound eyes existed before the Cambrian trilobite, says Schoenemann. Such eyes may have appeared only once, in the earliest ancestors of insects and trilobites.
8-13-20 Is Sweden's coronavirus strategy a cautionary tale or a success story?
Sweden was one of the few European countries not to impose a compulsory lockdown. Its unusual strategy for tackling the coronavirus outbreak has been both hailed as a success and condemned as a failure. So which is it? Those who regard the strategy as a success claim it reduced the economic impact, but it isn’t clear that it did. What is clear is that so far Sweden has had a more protracted outbreak with far more deaths per capita than its neighbours. While it is sometimes implied that Sweden didn’t have a lockdown, it did. It was just largely voluntary, with only a few legal measures such as a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people. “Voluntary restrictions work as well as legal ones,” says the architect of Sweden’s strategy, chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell. This appears to be true, in Sweden at least. The measures did work nearly as well in getting people to change their behaviour. Adam Sheridan at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, for instance, has used data from a bank to compare spending patterns up to April in Sweden and Denmark. Denmark introduced a compulsory lockdown on 11 March, one of the first in Europe. Sheridan found that spending – an indicator of behaviour as well as economic activity – fell by nearly as much in Sweden as in Denmark: 25 compared with 29 per cent. Similarly, data from the Citymapper phone app, which helps people plan their travel routes, suggests that travel in Stockholm fell to 40 per cent of the normal level. “That’s a substantial reduction,” says Martin McKee at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, whose team did the analysis. However, there were even bigger falls in other major European cities during compulsory lockdowns, to 20 per cent on average. So there was a substantial voluntary lockdown in Sweden – yet it wasn’t nearly as effective in reducing the spread of the coronavirus as the compulsory lockdowns in neighbouring Denmark and Norway. Cases and deaths rose faster in Sweden and have been slower to decline.
8-13-20 4 reasons you shouldn’t trash your neck gaiter based on the new mask study
The study was meant to figure out how to evaluate masks, not compare their effectiveness. Don’t throw out your neck gaiters just yet. A new study has spurred numerous headlines declaring that neck gaiters may be worse than wearing no mask at all for controlling the spread of COVID-19. But the actual study, published August 7 in Science Advances, isn’t that conclusive, nor was it designed to be. “The headline that neck gaiters can be worse is totally inaccurate,” says Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of California, San Francisco. Publicity like this is worrisome because “it can turn people off of mask wearing, which we know can protect both the individual wearing the mask and those around them,” she says. Here are four reasons why you shouldn’t use this study to decide which mask to wear:
- The study tested how to test masks, not which masks are best. Masks have emerged as a crucial, science-backed tool for slowing the spread of COVID-19 (SN: 6/26/20). Since most people don’t have a personal stockpile of surgical masks, many have gotten creative, fashioning masks from T-shirts, bandanas or neck gaiters.
- Testing one wearer is not enough. In general, a sample size of one is an anecdote, not data. To actually evaluate whether a mask is effective, researchers would need to test the mask on a variety of wearers.
- Testing just for talking probably isn’t enough. Talking is just one way to produce droplets, and it may not be relevant to all situations. For instance, neck gaiters are especially popular among runners.
- Droplet number doesn’t necessarily equate to risk of transmission. The whole point of testing the effectiveness of different masks is to understand how each limits transmission of viral particles, and thus risk of spreading infection. “The best way to do that would be to take the coronavirus and expose individuals to it wearing different types of masks,” says Gandhi, the infectious diseases specialist.
8-13-20 Magnetic levitation can be used to separate the living from the dead
A form of magnetic levitation can separate living and dead cells without altering or damaging them in any way. The process could be used for everything from drug discovery to tissue engineering. Cells normally sink to the bottom of the fluid they are grown in. Gozde Durmus at Stanford University in California and her colleagues have developed a way of “levitating” them using magnetism. “Everything on Earth is magnetic,” says Durmus. Her team puts cells in a fluid containing ions of the rare earth metal gadolinium, which is weakly magnetic, or paramagnetic. This form of gadolinium is non-toxic, and is injected into people to improve contrast in MRI images. The fluid is then put inside a glass tube with cheap simple magnets above and below it. The end result is an upward magnetic force on the cells that opposes gravity, so they float in the tube at a level that depends on their density. “It’s pretty simple to do,” says Durmus, who first described on the technique in 2015 and has since been working on various applications. “Anybody can make these devices.” In her latest study, Durmus has shown that this method can be used to separate living and dead cells, because the density of cells increases after death. There are various ways of doing this already, such as spinning cells in a centrifuge, but these existing processes damage fragile cells. Levitation is much gentler, says Durmus, and also allows researchers to observe the process as it happens, because dying cells start sinking straight away. “We can pretty much watch cell death in real time,” she says. The technique could have all sorts of applications in medicine. For instance, we could add drugs and watch to see what levels are toxic to healthy cells, or required to kill cancerous cells. It also works with bacteria, says Durmus, so could help antibiotic development.
8-12-20 Everything you need to know about Russia's coronavirus vaccine claims
Russian president Vladimir Putin announced yesterday that the country has approved a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes covid-19. Putin said that the vaccine is safe and effective. Russia apparently plans to start mass vaccinations in October. However, the announcement has caused global concern. Immunologists say there is no way to be sure that the vaccine is safe, let alone effective, and that Russia seems to be cutting corners. The vaccine has been dubbed “Sputnik V”, in reference to the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, which was launched by the USSR in 1957 – a sign that the Russian government plans to trumpet it as a matter of national pride. It has been developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow, part of Russia’s Ministry of Health. The vaccine would be administered in two shots, 21 days apart. Both shots contain modified adenoviruses, which would ordinarily cause a common cold. Both have been given the gene for the spike protein from the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. This protein allows the virus to enter human cells. In theory, this should prime the immune system for an encounter with the actual coronavirus. Known as a viral vector, this is a fairly standard approach to a vaccine, and other groups are pursuing similar methods. New vaccines must normally pass three tests before they can be used widely. A phase I trial involves a small number of volunteers, and is intended to determine a safe dose. Phase II requires more people, because it tests whether the vaccine triggers an immune response, and also looks more carefully for side effects. Then a large phase III trial is used to find out whether the vaccine actually protects against infection. This isn’t just a formality: a vaccine might trigger an immune response in phase II, but this may not be enough to confer real immunity in phase III. The Russian researchers have preregistered phase I and phase II trials, and according to one website for the vaccine, these trials were completed in early August. It claims that there were no adverse effects, and that the vaccine triggered the desired immune response. But no detailed results have been released. It also claims that a phase III trial will commence today in a number of countries including Brazil, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In other words, the vaccine hasn’t been through the full gamut of tests. Without the data from phase I and II, we don’t know how safe it is. And without phase III, we don’t know if it works. “We actually have no idea if it is safe and effective at all,” writes epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz in The Guardian.
8-12-20 Nations buying up covid-19 vaccine doses endanger pandemic efforts
During the flu pandemic of 2009, high-income nations were criticised for hoarding vaccine doses. Will “vaccine nationalism” raise its ugly head again? Some world leaders seem to have learned the lessons of 2009, says Gavin Yamey at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “There is clearly enormous political will that when vaccines are developed, rich countries don’t monopolise them,” he says. “We’ve heard world leaders like Emmanuel Macron saying that vaccines should be a ‘global public good’. That is significant because underlying it is a realisation, at the very highest levels, that without global herd immunity it’s going to be very difficult to bring this pandemic to an end.” The World Health Organization (WHO) covid-19 vaccine prioritisation plan emphasises the need for “equitable and fair global allocation”, and a global coalition called COVAX is working to ensure that this happens. Countries that sign up then pool resources so that if one vaccine succeeds, all can have it. It is effectively an insurance policy, says Yamey. At the time of writing, 170 countries with a combined population of 4.5 billion have expressed an intention to sign up, including the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Ireland. The poorest 92 of these countries will get a vaccine for free. Meanwhile, the teams behind the UK’s leading vaccine candidates at the University of Oxford and Imperial College London have pledged to make their vaccines available on a not-for-profit basis. But the nationalist drumbeat is growing. Neither the US nor China has yet publicly declared an interest in COVAX. And several countries have signed deals with firms to buy disproportionate amounts of vaccine. “It is already obvious that countries that have contributed significantly to the funding of the research will want to have the first pick at the crop,” says Beate Kampmann, director of the Vaccine Centre at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. For example, the UK government has secured a deal for 100 million doses of the Oxford vaccine, which is 5 per cent of the projected world supply for a country with less than 1 per cent of the global population.
8-12-20 David Spiegelhalter: How to be a coronavirus statistics sleuth
During the covid-19 pandemic we've been bombarded with stats – making it more important than ever to understand what the numbers can and can't tell us. THERE IS a quote from Nate Silver about statistics which I think is very nice: “The numbers have no way of speaking for themselves. We speak for them, we imbue them with meaning.” You can’t just collect some data and it’ll tell you the answer. There is an art to trying to extract information, knowledge and understanding from data, and even in choosing what data to collect. It’s something we’ve all been dealing with over the past few months with covid-19: can we believe these numbers? What do they mean? Now if this were a live audience, I’d be asking how many people have done stats courses. If people put their hand up, I’d ask how many people actually enjoyed them, and most of the hands would go down. That makes me upset. I love statistics, I think it’s great. But it has tended to be taught in the past as a series of formulae and tests and regression and things like that. My book The Art of Statistics takes a very different approach. It spends a lot of time on problem solving, on things like: what are you trying to do? Is this data suitable for what you’re trying to answer? What can we conclude from it? It’s amazing how far you can get without ever doing any fancy statistical methods or using probability theory or the sample distribution of the sample mean and all this sort of stuff we all had to endure – and which I’ve always taught, of course. The key is what is called the “data cycle”. You don’t start off with data, you start off with a problem. You plan how are you going to try to answer it. Is there any data, and what might we collect? Then you collect data and wrangle it and manage it and clean it up. Only then do you come to the analysis. That’s normally the only thing that is taught in stats courses, but it’s only a small part of the whole cycle. It’s followed by the communication, drawing the appropriate conclusions, putting the message out. And there always you have to start again. Because as we’re going to see again and again, how you do an analysis just leads to more questions.
8-12-20 The surprising ways little social interactions affect your health
Greeting neighbours or gossiping with a colleague can boost your health and well-being, but coronavirus lockdowns are putting that in jeopardy. Here’s how to stay connected. AT THE beginning of the UK lockdown, I woke each morning with a feeling of impending doom. I was scared about covid-19, of course, but also worried about isolation. How would I cope without seeing friends and family? How could I perform my job as a journalist if I couldn’t meet people? These weren’t baseless fears. In recent decades, a raft of research has shown that individuals with richer social worlds tend to have better mental well-being and lower stress, and to perform better at work. Missing out on our interactions with friends, colleagues and even shopkeepers can have a surprisingly powerful impact on our health. WhatsApp conversations and Zoom “parties” have helped me to maintain a sense of connection, but these tools can’t replace aspects of interaction – like social touches and impromptu chats by the water cooler – that can boost mood and strengthen relationships. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella suggested as much in a recent interview with The New York Times. Although he felt the shift to digital interactions was going relatively smoothly, he wondered if we were burning through the “social capital” built up over years. He suspected that social bonds might start to evaporate. “What I miss is when you walk into a physical meeting, you are talking to the person that is next to you, you’re able to connect with them for the two minutes before and after,” he said. As many of us continue to work remotely, the long-term effects of social distancing could be serious. What can science tell us about social capital and its resilience? And how can we mitigate any ill effects? First, some definitions. When people like Nadella talk about social capital, they are describing “the various connections that an individual might have that provide them with some kind of resource”, says Vanessa Parks at the University of Mississippi. For sociologists and psychologists, this can include emotional support, important information learned through the grapevine or practical help, such as a lift to the hospital or cooperation at work. Having high social capital isn’t just a matter of being popular and well-liked, though. As well as having a dense web of connections that includes close friends and more distant acquaintances, people with more social capital tend to be more engaged in building their community.
8-12-20 Stone Age people were cremating their dead about 9000 years ago
Stone Age people were cremating their dead in fire pits about 9000 years ago, in what is now Israel. The development of cremation may have been linked to a shift in their religious beliefs, away from worship of ancestors. For tens of thousands of years, people tended to bury their dead, says Fanny Bocquentin at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris. There is also evidence that Neanderthals buried their dead about 70,000 years ago. Cremation, in which the body is intentionally burned, is a relatively recent invention. Bocquentin and her colleagues have excavated a Stone Age village called Beisamoun in Israel. It was occupied between at least 7200 and 6400 BC. During the dig, they discovered a U-shaped pit, 80 centimetres across and 60 centimetres deep. The sides of the pit had been plastered with wet mud, similar to that used elsewhere in the village to make mud bricks. In the middle of the pit, the team found a large quantity of ash, which contained 355 fragments of charred human bone. The bones all seem to belong to one individual: a young adult, whose sex couldn’t be determined. The remains have been dated to between 7030 and 6700 BC. It isn’t clear how the person died. There was a projectile point embedded in the left shoulder blade, indicating the person had been injured, but this had healed. “It was a clean wound, no infection,” says Bocquentin. The ash was the remains of wood that had been stacked into a pyre and burned. It isn’t clear if the body was on top of the pyre, inside it or under it. Previous burial practices were occasionally elaborate. In some instances, people would bury a body, then they would return, dig it up and remove the skull – which they reburied in a new pit with other skulls. Sometimes they plastered the skull with lime plaster or mud, creating a new face. “It’s long funeral practices in several steps,” says Bocquentin. “You are taking care of the dead for a long period of time.” In the Stone Age village of Çatalhöyük in Turkey, bodies were buried under the floors of houses. This all indicates a reverence for ancestors and a desire to be close to them, says Bocquentin. Cremation is much faster, says Bocquentin. “You don’t wait even for the decay process.”
8-12-20 Here’s what we know about Russia’s unverified coronavirus vaccine
Despite incomplete testing, Sputnik-V may be the first COVID-19 vaccine for the general public. Russia has launched a new Sputnik — this time, a vaccine to combat the coronavirus. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in a televised cabinet meeting August 11 that the country is ready to roll out the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine to the general public. Teachers and doctors may be among the first inoculated. Dubbed Sputnik-V, after the first artificial satellite, the vaccine has been tested in only a small number of people. The announcement came even though no published information is available about the vaccine’s safety and efficacy, and scientists have yet to complete the final phase of clinical testing to determine whether it works. Nonetheless the vaccine has been submitted to the health ministry for registration, comparable to applying for approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It “works quite effectively. It forms a stable immunity,” Putin declared. Researchers around the world have been racing to create a vaccine (SN: 7/10/20), but none have been thoroughly vetted yet. Russia has tried various tactics to get in front of the competition, with hackers in the country reportedly trying to steal vaccine data from the United States, Great Britain and Canada. Being the first to approve a vaccine may be a matter of national pride, but the declaration of victory may be premature, some vaccine researchers say. Usually, vaccines go through three phases of clinical tests. The first two phases test the vaccine in small numbers of people for safety and may collect data on whether people make antibodies or have other responses to the vaccine. The third phase tests the vaccine in thousands of people to determine whether it lowers the infection rate. That third phase of testing has not even started for the Russian vaccine.
8-12-20 Coronavirus: Russia calls international concern over vaccine 'groundless'
Russia has dismissed mounting international concern over the safety of its locally developed Covid-19 vaccine as "absolutely groundless". On Tuesday, it said a vaccine had been given regulatory approval after less than two months of testing on humans. But experts were quick to raise concerns about the speed of Russia's work, and a growing list of countries have expressed scepticism. Scientists in Germany, France, Spain and the US have all urged caution. "It seems our foreign colleagues are sensing the specific competitive advantages of the Russian drug and are trying to express opinions that... are absolutely groundless," Russia's Health Minister Mikhail Murashko told the Interfax news agency on Wednesday. He added that the vaccine would be available soon. "The first packages of the medical vaccine... will be received within the next two weeks, primarily for doctors," Mr Murashko said. Russian officials have said they plan to start mass vaccination in October. The announcement on Tuesday was made by President Vladimir Putin, who said the vaccine had passed all the required checks and his daughter had already been given it. But the World Health Organization (WHO) said it was in talks with Russian authorities about undertaking a review of the vaccine, which has been named Sputnik-V. It is not among the organisation's list of six vaccines that have reached phase three clinical trials, which involve more widespread testing in humans. The progress Russia says it has made on a coronavirus vaccine has been met with scepticism by health officials and media outlets in the US and Europe. On Wednesday, Germany's health minister expressed concern that it had not been properly tested. "It can be dangerous to start vaccinating millions... of people too early because it could pretty much kill the acceptance of vaccination if it goes wrong," Jens Spahn told local media. "Based on everything we know... this has not been sufficiently tested," he added. "It's not about being first somehow - it's about having a safe vaccine."
8-12-20 If we ever make a covid-19 vaccine who should be first to get it?
If we ever make a covid-19 vaccine who should be first to get it? IT IS August 2021, and the moment the world has been waiting for has finally arrived. After many false dawns, a vaccine against covid-19 has passed all the tests and is ready to be rolled out. t has been an arduous journey, but at last vaccine manufacturers around the world are cranking out thousands of doses a day. The end of the pandemic is on the horizon. But this isn’t the end. It isn’t even the beginning of the end. There are more than 7.5 billion people in need of vaccination but perhaps only a billion doses available in the first six months of production. Who gets one? Everyone agrees that front-line healthcare workers must be first in the queue. But who should be next? What is the best way to attain herd immunity? Will people accept the vaccine? And is it possible to stop rich countries from hoarding the supplies? The answers to these questions depend largely on decisions being made now, in 2020, long before a successful vaccine has been developed. Of course, that day may never arrive. But let us assume that it does. What happens next? Even if a vaccine works, there is no one-size-fits-all vaccination regime. The two newest vaccines to be developed give a flavour of the problem facing epidemiologists. These are the Ebola vaccine Ervebo, approved in November 2019, and a dengue fever vaccine Dengvaxia, approved in 2015. Consider Ervebo. Before covid-19 stalled its roll-out there was enough time to devise and test containment strategies. These show that the most effective approach is ring vaccination. That means tracking down confirmed cases and vaccinating all of their contacts and all of their contacts’ contacts, thus throwing a ring of immunity around the virus. For Dengvaxia, however, the most effective strategy depends on local circumstances. When the virus is rampant, mass vaccination offers the most protection to the largest number of people. But where transmission rates are lower, it is better to selectively vaccinate adults who have already had the virus. This is because a second bout is more dangerous than the first one due to the way the immune system ratchets up. That also means that vaccinating infants, who are unlikely to have had the virus, can backfire because the vaccine acts like a first bout.
8-12-20 Europe's earliest bone tools found in Britain
Archaeologists say they've identified the earliest known bone tools in the European archaeological record. The implements come from the renowned Boxgrove site in West Sussex, which was excavated in the 1980s and 90s. The bone tools came from a horse that humans butchered at the site for its meat. Flakes of stone in piles around the animal suggest at least eight individuals were making large flint knives for the job. Researchers also found evidence that other people were present nearby - perhaps younger or older members of a community - shedding light on the social structure of our ancient relatives. There's nothing quite like Boxgrove elsewhere in Britain: during excavations, archaeologists uncovered hundreds of stone tools, along with animal bones, that dated to 500,000 years ago. They were made by the species Homo heidelbergensis, a possible ancestor for modern humans and Neanderthals. Researchers found a shin bone belonging to one of them - it's the oldest human bone known from Britain. Project lead, Dr Matthew Pope, from UCL's Institute of Archaeology, said: "This was an exceptionally rare opportunity to examine a site pretty much as it had been left behind by an extinct population, after they had gathered to totally process the carcass of a dead horse on the edge of a coastal marshland. "Incredibly, we've been able to get as close as we can to witnessing the minute-by-minute movement and behaviours of a single apparently tight-knit group of early humans: a community of people, young and old, working together in a co-operative and highly social way." The researchers were able to reconstruct the precise type of stone tool that had been made from the chippings left at the site. However, the humans must have taken the tools with them - as they had not been recovered. At the inter-tidal marshland, which was on what would have been Britain's southern coastline, there was a nearby cliff that was starting to degrade, producing good rocks for knapping - the process of creating stone tools. Silt from the sea had also built up here, created an area of grassland. "Grassland means herbivores and herbivores mean food," explained Dr Pope.
8-12-20 New dinosaur related to T. rex discovered on Isle of Wight
A new species of dinosaur has been discovered on the Isle of Wight. Palaeontologists at the University of Southampton believe four bones found at Shanklin last year belong to a new species of theropod dinosaur. It lived in the Cretaceous period, 115 million years ago, and is estimated to have been up to 4m (13ft) long. It has been named Vectaerovenator inopinatus and belongs to the group of dinosaurs that includes Tyrannosaurus rex and modern-day birds. The name refers to the large air spaces found in some of the bones - from the neck, back and tail of the creature - which is one of the traits that helped the scientists identify its theropod origins. These air sacs, also seen in modern birds, were extensions of the lung, and it is likely they "helped fuel an efficient breathing system while also making the skeleton lighter", the University of Southampton said. The fossils were found in three separate discoveries in 2019 and handed in to the nearby Dinosaur Isle Museum at Sandown, where they are being displayed. Robin Ward, a regular fossil hunter from Stratford-upon-Avon, was visiting the Isle of Wight with his family when they made their discovery. "The joy of finding the bones we discovered was absolutely fantastic," he said. James Lockyer, from Spalding, Lincolnshire, was also visiting the island when he found another of the bones. "It looked different from marine reptile vertebrae I have come across in the past," he said. "I was searching a spot at Shanklin and had been told, and read, that I wouldn't find much there. "However, I always make sure I search the areas others do not, and on this occasion it paid off." Paul Farrell, from Ryde, added: "I was walking along the beach, kicking stones and came across what looked like a bone from a dinosaur. "I was really shocked to find out it could be a new species."
8-11-20 Coronavirus: Putin says vaccine has been approved for use
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said a locally developed vaccine for Covid-19 has been given regulatory approval after less than two months of testing on humans. Mr Putin said the vaccine had passed all the required checks, adding that his daughter had already been given it. Officials have said they plan to start mass vaccination in October. Experts have raised concerns about the speed of Russia's work, suggesting that researchers might be cutting corners. Amid fears that safety could have been compromised, the World Health Organization (WHO) urged Russia last week to follow international guidelines for producing a vaccine against Covid-19. On Tuesday, the WHO said it had been in talks with Russian authorities about undertaking a review of the vaccine, which has been named Sputnik-V. Currently, the Russian vaccine is not among the WHO's list of six vaccines that have reached phase three clinical trials, which involve more widespread testing in humans. More than 100 vaccines around the world are in early development, with some of those being tested on people in clinical trials. Despite rapid progress, most experts think any vaccine would not become widely available until mid-2021. Calling it a world first, President Putin said the vaccine, developed by Moscow's Gamaleya Institute, offered "sustainable immunity" against the coronavirus. He said he knew the vaccine was "quite effective", without giving further details, and stressed that it had passed "all needed checks". Mr Putin also said the vaccine had been given to one of his daughters, who was feeling fine despite a brief temperature increase. "I think in this sense she took part in the experiment," Mr Putin said. "After the first injection her temperature was 38 degrees, the next day 37.5, and that was it. After the second injection her temperature went up slightly, then back to normal." He did not specify which of his two daughters had received the vaccine.
8-11-20 How two coronavirus drugs for cats might help humans fight COVID-19
Preliminary studies suggest treatments meant for felines may hold promise. In the rush to find drugs against COVID-19, researchers are exploring myriad possibilities, even drugs used to save feline lives. Cats can contract an almost always fatal disease that’s caused by a coronavirus that infects only felines. Now preliminary research suggests that two experimental drugs that can cure that disease in cats, called feline infectious peritonitis, might help treat people infected with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus behind the pandemic. In lab experiments, one of the drugs, called GC376, disables a key enzyme that some coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2, use to replicate. The other, called GS-441524, is an antiviral cousin of remdesivir, the first drug found to speed people’s recovery from SARS-CoV-2 in clinical trials (SN: 4/29/20). “Both drugs have been highly effective in curing cats with feline infectious peritonitis, and usually without any other form of treatment,” says Niels Pedersen, a veterinarian who studies the feline coronavirus at the University of California, Davis. Neither drug, however, has yet been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in cats, much less humans. While most animals with feline infectious peritonitis don’t show symptoms, some cats can develop severe illness if the virus mutates to infect a specific type of immune cell. When that happens, the coronavirus spreads throughout the cat’s body, sparking a deadly inflammatory reaction that can cause paralysis or fluid to accumulate in the lungs. In that way, the cat coronavirus is similar to SARS-CoV-2. Both severe COVID-19 in people and feline infectious peritonitis cases are driven by a dysfunctional inflammatory immune response, says Julie Levy, a veterinarian at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
8-11-20 We don't know how accurate the UK's new rapid coronavirus tests are
Two 90-minute tests for the coronavirus will be rolled out by the UK government in the coming weeks – and while both are promising, neither has publicly available data to support its use. Other independently verified rapid tests have been developed, say scientists who have been assessing the field. Last week, the UK government announced that the two tests will, between them, provide more than 6 million coronavirus assessments to individuals at care homes and National Health Service hospitals across the UK. But while the companies behind both tests say they have validated their accuracy, the details haven’t been published. “I’d never heard of these two tests,” says Jon Deeks at the University of Birmingham, UK, who has been comparing the evidence behind a range of rapid tests to diagnose covid-19. One of the tests was developed by DnaNudge, a company that already offers diet-based shopping advice for customers who share their DNA. The coronavirus test is based on a nasal swab, which is inserted into a disposable palm-sized cartridge. Up to 12 cartridges are then inserted into a machine the size of a shoebox, where a chemical reaction converts the virus’s RNA to DNA and makes multiple copies. Chemicals designed to seek out sequences from the coronavirus signal whether its is present. “We developed the cartridge a few years ago… for the retail environment,” says Chris Toumazou, co-founder and CEO of DnaNudge. It was “very simple” to adapt the test for the coronavirus, he says. The second test, developed by Oxford Nanopore Technologies, requires a lab or dedicated clean room for processing samples and feeding them into a machine the size of a desktop computer. A single machine can process 15,000 samples per day, says Zoe McDougall, a spokesperson at the firm.
8-11-20 Vaccine for major common cold virus could be ready for use by 2024
A vaccine that protects against one of the main common cold viruses has been shown to be safe and effective in a clinical trial and could be available by 2024. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is so contagious that more than 90 per cent of people have experienced their first infection by the age of 2. It usually causes cold symptoms but can lead to severe illness in young children and older people. Globally, around 60,000 children under the age of 5 and 14,000 people over the age of 65 die each year after contracting the virus. Developing vaccines against RSV and other respiratory viruses has been challenging because the respiratory tract, which includes the nostrils and throat, is a surface exposed to the external rather than internal environment, says Kirsten Spann at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia, who wasn’t involved in the clinical trial. “It’s harder for antiviral antibodies in the blood to reach viruses in the respiratory tract, or even know they are there, because there is some physical separation,” she says. This also explains why we can get RSV and other cold viruses over and over again, says Spann. In recent years, however, there has been rapid progress in finding new ways to boost immunity against respiratory viruses. Several RSV vaccines are being tested in clinical trials, including one made by German company Bavarian Nordic. Its vaccine is designed to build immunity against RSV by exposing the body to five small fragments of the virus. In a clinical trial involving 420 adults aged 55 and older, a single injection of the vaccine in the upper arm tripled the levels of RSV-fighting antibodies inside the nose and caused no serious side effects. This immune response lasted for six months – enough to cover a winter cold season – and was restored with a booster shot at 12 months.
8-11-20 How COVID-19 threatens global progress in fight against other communicable diseases
A modeling study projected a big impact of COVID-19 on diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria in low- and middle-income countries. Dr. Joy Shu'aibu, program director of Sightsavers in Nigeria, a group focused on eliminating some serious, neglected tropical diseases, has seen her work stalled since March as a result of the coronavirus. It's worrisome on many different levels, she says — and on the ground, it's made it hard to get much-needed medications to people with diseases such as lymphatic filariasis, which causes massive swelling and trachoma and can lead to blindness. "There are lots of medications, and on account of COVID-19, some of those medications are about to expire," Shu'aibu said. "It's kind of a difficult situation we find ourselves in." Shu'aibu says her work hit pause in March in response to safety guidelines issued by the World Health Organization in response to concerns that outreach efforts by groups like hers could further the spread of COVID-19. As a result, groups are limiting their work to case management and vector control to curtail transmission. Although the pandemic shows no signs of letting up anytime soon, with cases surging and most of the world still susceptible, concerns are mounting over the singular focus on COVID-19; it could set back years of progress in efforts to stem the spread of other, long-standing communicable diseases. "I'm afraid that if we do not find a balance between meeting the needs of people with neglected, tropical diseases in a safe way, we may lose the gains that we have made," Shu-aibu said. COVID-19 on diseases like HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria in low- and middle-income countries. "It's important for countries not just to focus on the imminent crisis," said Britta Jewell, researcher and co-author of the modeling study at Imperial College London. Jewell's group estimates that COVID-19's adverse impact could mean deaths from HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria increase by as much as 10 percent, 20 percent, or 36 percent, respectively, over the next five years, compared to if there were no pandemic. "If countries choose to focus completely on the COVID-19 epidemic and neglect maintaining essential prevention and treatment services for HIV, TB, and malaria, we could see deaths that are on the same order of magnitude of those that would be caused by COVID-19 itself," Jewell said.
8-11-20 Menopausal woman gives birth after blood plasma injection in ovaries
A woman experiencing menopause has given birth after receiving a blood treatment injected into her ovaries. Three perimenopausal women – those beginning to transition into menopause – have also had babies following the treatment, according to a small pilot study. Known as platelet-rich plasma, the technique is being developed as a potential fertility treatment by Konstantinos Pantos and his colleagues at the Genesis Athens fertility clinic in Greece. Around 60 millilitres of blood is taken from the arm and spun in a centrifuge to remove red and white blood cells. The remaining plasma contains platelets, cell fragments that help blood clot and appear to play a role in the regeneration of tissues. This platelet-rich plasma, or PRP, is then injected into both ovaries. Pantos and his colleagues have been offering PRP as a paid service for the past five years. “We have treated several hundred women,” says Pantos. Some want to get pregnant or reduce menopause symptoms, while others want to restore hormone levels to feel younger. As part of a pilot trial, the team tested the effects of PRP in 30 perimenopausal women and 30 menopausal women between 2017 and 2019. The perimenopausal women were all aged 40 or over and had irregular periods, high levels of hormones that are elevated in menopause or both. The menopausal volunteers were aged between 45 and 55, hadn’t had a period for at least a year and also had high hormone levels. None of the women had to pay. Within three months of receiving PRP, 80 per cent of the perimenopausal women showed improvements in hormone levels and had their periods fall into a regular cycle. Four of the women became pregnant within this three-month window, and three went on to have babies.
8-11-20 A new Galileo biography draws parallels to today’s science denialism
Galileo and the Science Deniers delivers a fresh assessment of the life of a scientific legend. In basketball, legends are often known by first name alone: LeBron, Kobe, Michael. Same with entertainers: Madonna, Cher, Beyoncé. But lists of scientific legends almost always include surnames, never just Isaac or Albert or Charles. Among the titans of modern scientific lore, only one is generally referred to exclusively by a first name: Galileo. The man had a last name: Galilei. But fewer people know his surname than know he was one of the primary founders of modern science. Galileo merged mathematics with natural philosophy and quantitative experimental methodology to provide a foundation for understanding nature on nature’s terms, rather than Aristotle’s. Galileo’s life has been well-documented. Dozens of biographies have been written about him since the first by Vincenzo Viviani, published in 1717 (but composed before Thomas Salusbury’s English language Galileo biography of 1664). As recently as 2010, two major scholarly biographies (by David Wootton and John Heilbron) analyzed Galileo’s life and science in great depth. But with the lives of legends, there is always a license to produce yet another interpretation. In Galileo and the Science Deniers, astrophysicist Mario Livio has invoked that license to tell Galileo’s story once more, this time with a particular concern for Galileo’s relevance to science today (and the impediments to its acceptance). “In a world of governmental antiscience attitudes with science deniers at key positions,” Livio writes, “Galileo’s tale serves … as a potent reminder of the importance of freedom of thought.” Livio also set out to produce a biography more accessible to a general reader than the typical scholarly tomes. And he succeeded. His commentaries comparing Galileo’s time to today’s are weaved into an engagingly composed and pleasantly readable account.
8-10-20 Fatal cardiac arrests could be hiding opioid overdose deaths in the US
Sudden deaths are often assumed to be caused by a failing heart. But about 17 per cent of deaths assumed to be caused by cardiac arrest may actually have resulted from drug overdose, according to a study in San Francisco. Many of the deaths were linked to the use of opioid drugs. “It indicates that the ‘dark number’ of opioid overdoses may be a lot higher than what we assumed,” says Rebecca McDonald at King’s College London, who wasn’t involved in the research. Between 2011 and 2017, Zian Tseng at the University of California, San Francisco, and his colleagues performed autopsies on 767 people who had died suddenly in the city. All of the individuals were presumed by emergency medical staff to have died from cardiac arrest, which occurs when the heart stops beating properly, and blood is unable to effectively pump around the body. Such cases wouldn’t normally undergo an autopsy, but post-mortem toxicology tests revealed that 17 per cent of these individuals actually died from a drug overdose. This was despite the fact that “paramedics had called these cardiac arrests and the [medical examiner] had discovered no evidence of drugs at the scene, and had no suspicion of drug overdose”, says Tseng. Most of these people were found to have been taking a cocktail of drugs, but the most commonly found drugs were opioids. Just over two-thirds of those found to have died from drug overdose appear to have been taking opioids – and almost half of those individuals had been taking those drugs on prescription. Opioid drugs – which include codeine, morphine and fentanyl – are typically prescribed to treat pain, but it is easy to become dependent on them. People that do develop dependence are at risk of seeking out higher doses and illicit opioids, including heroin. Opioids were involved in 46,802 overdose deaths in the US in 2018, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But this figure may be an underestimate, say Tseng and his colleagues.
8-10-20 Eardrum implants made from pig guts could fix chronic glue ear
A patch of tissue from a pig’s guts could treat severe cases of glue ear, a condition that develops when the middle part of the ear fills with a sticky, gluey fluid, often as the result of infection. It is common in children, but can also affect adults. Although glue ear can be very painful and cause temporary hearing loss, most cases heal on their own within a few months. Yet in around 1 per cent of cases, pus that forms inside the middle ear pushes against the eardrum until it bursts. Surgeons currently take a slither of skin from behind a patient’s ear to repair this damage, which can be painful. In rarer cases, they can use tissue harvested from cadavers, which carries a small risk of infection. Chin-Kuo Chen at Chang Gung Memorial Hospital in Taoyuan, Taiwan, and his colleagues treated 72 adult patients with chronic glue ear using pig tissue. The patches measure 2-by-1.5 centimetres and are made from the animals’ small intestine mucosa – a thin layer of tissue deep inside the gut. “The advantages are that there is a limitless supply of pig tissue and it seems to give better cosmetic results,” says Chen. All but four of the implants were successful and fully healed within three months, the team says. Even in the four that failed to heal completely, the size of the eardrum perforation was significantly reduced. “It could possibly be in routine use one day,” says Chen. Pig tissue is already used in other areas of medicine, such as replacement valves for damaged human hearts, but can be unacceptable to some people on religious grounds. The use of pig tissue in drugs or implants was unacceptable to leaders of Hindu, Sikh and Muslim faiths who responded to a 2013 survey by researchers at the University of Copenhagen, unless in emergencies and only then if alternatives weren’t available. The Christian, Jewish and Buddhist leaders contacted said they accepted their use.
8-10-20 New guidance on brain death could ease debate over when life ends
This clarity may help identify when the brain has stopped working, completely and irrevocably. When your brain stops working — completely and irreversibly — you’re dead. But drawing the line between life and brain death isn’t always easy. A new report attempts to clarify that distinction, perhaps helping to ease the anguish of family members with a loved one whose brain has died but whose heart still beats. Brain death has been a recognized concept in medicine for decades. But there’s a lot of variation in how people define it, says Gene Sung, a neurocritical care physician at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “Showing that there is some worldwide consensus, understanding and agreement at this time will hopefully help minimize misunderstanding of what brain death is,” Sung says. As part of the World Brain Death Project, Sung and his colleagues convened doctors from professional societies around the world to forge a consensus on how to identify brain death. This group, including experts in critical care, neurology and neurosurgery, reviewed the existing research on brain death (which was slim) and used their clinical expertise to write the recommendations, published August 3 in JAMA. In addition to the main guidelines, the final product included 17 supplements that address legal and religious aspects, provide checklists and flowcharts, and even trace the history of relevant medical advances. “Basically, we wrote a book,” Sung says. The minimum requirement for determining brain death is “a good, thorough clinical examination,” Sung says. Before the exam even occurs, doctors ought to verify that a person has experienced a neurological injury or condition that could cause brain death. Next, clinicians should look for other explanations, conditions that could mimic brain death but are actually reversible. Cooling the body, a procedure for treating heart attacks, can cause brain function to temporarily disappear, the report points out. So can certain drugs, alcohol and other toxins.
8-10-20 Detectorist 'shaking with happiness' after Bronze Age find
A metal detectorist was left "shaking with happiness" after discovering a hoard of Bronze Age artefacts in the Scottish Borders. A complete horse harness and sword was uncovered by Mariusz Stepien at the site near Peebles in June. Experts said the discovery was of "national significance". The soil had preserved the leather and wood, allowing experts to trace the straps that connected the rings and buckles. This allowed the experts to see for the first time how Bronze Age horse harnesses were assembled. Mr Stepien was searching the field with friends when he found a bronze object buried half a metre underground. He said: "I thought 'I've never seen anything like this before' and felt from the very beginning that this might be something spectacular and I've just discovered a big part of Scottish history. "I was over the moon, actually shaking with happiness." Mr Stepien and his friends camped in the field as archaeologists spent 22 days investigating the site. He said: "Every day there were new objects coming out which changed the context of the find, every day we learned something new. "I'm so pleased that the earth revealed to me something that was hidden for more than 3,000 years. I still can't believe it happened." Archaeologists found a sword still in its scabbard, decorated straps, buckles, rings, ornaments and chariot wheel axle caps. There is also evidence of a decorative "rattle pendant" that would have hung from the harness, the first to be found in Scotland, and only the third in the UK. Emily Freeman, head of the Crown Office's Treasure Trove Unit, said it was "a nationally-significant find." She said: "So few Bronze Age hoards have been excavated in Scotland, it was an amazing opportunity for us to not only recover bronze artefacts, but organic material as well. "There is still a lot of work to be done to assess the artefacts and understand why they were deposited." The beginning of the Bronze Age in Britain can be put at about 2,000 BC.
8-9-20 The trouble with medicating mental illness
Psychotropic drugs have severely narrowed how we treat psychiatric disorders — to the detriment of patients and society as a whole. The standard of care for the severely mentally ill in the United States has drastically changed since the 1950s, when more than half a million patients resided in enormous state hospitals. As pharmaceutical firms developed new antipsychotic medications, national policy shifted such that most of the old hospitals have now closed. Today, the majority of U.S. patients, even those with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar syndrome, and major depression, receive only short-term, in-patient medical treatment to quell symptoms before being sent home. The old asylums were the scenes of some well-publicized abuses and poor conditions. Yet their closures and the parallel embrace of medications did not solve the issue of how to best care for people. The current mental health system leaves many mentally ill patients no better off, says Joel Braslow, a historian and psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles. In some cases, the situation has grown worse. In the 2019 Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, Braslow and UCLA colleague Stephen Marder argue that our current "age of psychopharmacology" has shrunk society's sense of responsibility toward the mentally ill. Whereas most psychiatrists once viewed mental illness as a complex interaction between a patient's biology and social context, Braslow and Marder contend, it is now often seen more narrowly as merely symptoms to be medicated. Braslow blames this shift for what he calls our society's "total failure" in caring for its most vulnerable members: Roughly 140,000 seriously mentally ill people are now homeless on city streets, while 350,000 others are serving time in prisons and jails, where their illnesses get little treatment. Knowable Magazine spoke with Braslow about the history of this transformation and what it would take to better serve the multitudes of people living with psychiatric problems.
- Why do you call this the "age of psychopharmacology"? I think about it in two different but interrelated ways. First, it underlines our growing reliance on drugs to treat disorders of the mind. Today, one in six Americans takes a psychoactive drug.
- What accounts for this shift? Psychoactive drugs have been used since the 19th century, but they were generally regarded as little more than sedatives — referred to as "chemical straitjackets." The chance discovery of the major classes of psychotropic drugs in the 1950s changed the status of psychopharmacology.
- You write that this change was also influenced by politics? For nearly 150 years, state governments believed that society and physicians had a moral responsibility to provide care for all those afflicted with mental illness. But beginning in the late 1960s and 1970s, the welfare state came under increasing attack with the belief that individuals needed to take individual responsibility for themselves.
- Given that we're relying more on medications, how well do they actually work? That's a difficult question to answer. Take schizophrenia, for example. We don't have a good understanding of the causes of what are likely multiple different kinds of schizophrenia, but there's a growing belief that antipsychotic drugs can do little for the fundamental symptoms of apathy, social withdrawal, and cognitive deficits.
- How have the patients fared with these changes? Despite good intentions, advances in neuroscience and an increasingly large number of psychotropic drugs, those afflicted with serious mental illness have not done well. Overall, outcomes such as mortality and social function have worsened for the vast majority with serious mental illness.
- And a lot of those homeless people end up in jail. Today there are about 5,000 seriously mentally ill people in the Los Angeles County jail. I have a hard time going to the jail myself — it's such a horrible place. Many of the sickest patients refuse medications, often exacerbating their psychotic symptoms.
- So how should society respond? Do we need to go back to the asylums of the past? I think we need to learn from the positive aspects of asylum care. Rather than either reestablishing the asylums or intensifying the alienation and neglect of the last 50 years, we need to come up with new, evidence-based ways of caring for those with serious mental illness.
8-9-20 Better playground design could help kids get more exercise
Designs that encourage imaginative play and keep kids off the sidelines make a difference. The playground at Lake County Intermediate School in Leadville, Colo., was in desperate need of a makeover. The schoolyard didn’t offer much — just a few swings, some rusty climbing equipment, a cracked basketball court and a play area of dirt and gravel. In the spring of 2014, the community replaced the run-down equipment, installing a spider web–like climbing net, twisting slides and colorful swings. A new basketball court went in, along with a grassy play area and walking paths. Kids got access to balls, Hula-Hoops and other loose equipment. The overhaul did more than improve how the playground looked; it turbocharged the kids’ recess activity. When researchers observed the playground that November, they found that the share of children participating in vigorous physical activity had tripled. And the changes appeared to last — a year after the overhaul, the students were still more active than they’d been before, the researchers reported in 2018 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. “A lot of things, when they’re new and shiny, lead to increased physical activity, but it’s not always sustained,” says Elena Kuo, a senior evaluation and learning consultant at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle, who coauthored the study. “That’s why it’s a pretty exciting finding.” Being physically active has many benefits for kids: It reduces obesity risk and improves overall physical and mental health, fosters social and emotional development and boosts academic performance. The World Health Organization recommends that schoolchildren get 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity every day. Most kids fall far short of that goal. Globally, 81 percent of 11- to 17-year-olds fail to hit that threshold, according to an analysis reported in January in the Lancet.
8-7-20 One in Three Americans Would Not Get COVID-19 Vaccine
But many Americans appear reluctant to be vaccinated, even if a vaccine were FDA-approved and available to them at no cost. Asked if they would get such a COVID-19 vaccine, 65% say they would, but 35% would not. (Webmaster's comment: Those that don't vaccinate will deserve what they get!) The coronavirus' toll on the lives of people around the world continues to grow, with over 18 million confirmed cases and more than 700,000 deaths, including upwards of 150,000 of those in the United States. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently testified before Congress that he continues to be confident that a coronavirus vaccine will be ready by early 2021. With more indications that a vaccine could be close, the next question for health professionals, policymakers and political leaders will be Americans' willingness to be vaccinated once a vaccine is ready.
- 35% of Americans would not get free, FDA-approved vaccine if ready today
- Republicans less inclined than Democrats to be vaccinated
- Four in 10 non-White Americans would not get vaccine
8-7-20 Rogue immune system reactions hint at an early treatment for COVID-19
Giving drugs called interferons early in the disease may help prevent later immune overreactions. In severe cases of COVID-19, a person’s immune system throws everything it has at the coronavirus, but some of the weapons it lobs end up hurting the patient instead of fighting the virus. Now researchers have new clues for getting the immune system back on target, before the disease becomes severe. One of the most comprehensive looks to date at the immune system of COVID-19 patients pinpoints where things go awry. The findings suggest that bolstering the body’s first line of defense against the virus using drugs known as interferons may help prevent severe illness. In a study of 113 patients admitted to Yale New Haven Hospital from May 18 to May 27, researchers monitored immune system chemicals and cells in two groups: severely ill COVID-19 patients who needed intensive care and moderately ill patients who were hospitalized but didn’t end up in the ICU. For comparison, the team also looked at healthy health-care workers. This study characterized the nuances of the immune response and “characterizes the inflammation at its nittiest, grittiest level,” says Michal Tal, an immunologist at Stanford University who was not involved in the study. Moderately ill patients had an initial spurt of immune chemicals that fight viruses and fungi, then those levels gradually went back to normal, Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University, and colleagues found.But in the severely ill patients, levels of those chemicals remained high, the researchers report July 27 in Nature. In addition, allergy-producing antibodies and immune chemicals and cells usually dedicated to expelling parasitic worms got enlisted against the virus. As in other studies, the severely ill patients also had low levels of T cells, immune cells involved in recognizing and killing viruses.
8-7-20 Obesity may cause cancer simply because larger organs have more cells
CT scans of 750 individuals show that people who are obese have larger organs and thus more cells. This could explain why people who are obese have a higher risk of many kinds of cancers. “While obesity is a complex disease that may affect cancer risk in several other ways, the increase in the size of an organ, and in the number of its cells, must increase the risk of cancer in that organ,” states the team, which is led by Cristian Tomasetti at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Others say the idea is plausible, but far from proven. Obesity is one of the biggest risk factors for cancer after smoking. Around a fifth of all cancer cases worldwide are due to obesity, according to some estimates. Numerous different mechanisms are being explored, but why obesity increases the risk of certain cancer types, such as those of the kidney, remains unclear. What we do know is that cancers are caused by mutations that disable the mechanisms that control cell growth. In theory, then, the more cells in any particular organ, the greater the risk of some of those cells becoming cancerous. Tomasetti and his colleagues used CT scans to measure the volume of the kidneys, pancreas and liver in 750 people. The team found that for every 5-point increase in body mass index (BMI), the volumes of kidneys, liver, and pancreas increase by 11 per cent. People with a BMI of around 50 have organs that are between 50 and 100 per cent larger than people with a healthy BMI. “The effect is very large and unexpected, with severely obese patients having organs that can be double than normal in volume,” the study states. Only a very small fraction of these increases are due to an increase in the volume or number of fat cells in these organs, the study says, meaning the increases are mainly due to larger numbers of normal cells.
8-6-20 Coronavirus: How does a Covid-19 pandemic come to an end?
The pandemic officially started when the World Health Organization declared it in March 2020, but how will it come to an end? There are several scenarios which could lead to the pandemic being declared over. BBC Africa's Saidata Sesay explains how this could happen.
8-6-20 How tuataras live so long and can withstand cool weather
Scientists have finally deciphered the rare reptiles’ genome, or genetic instruction book. Tuataras may look like your average lizard, but they’re not. The reptiles are the last survivors of an ancient group of reptiles that flourished when dinosaurs roamed the world. Native to New Zealand, tuataras possess a range of remarkable abilities, including a century-long life span, relative imperviousness to many infectious diseases and peak physical activity at shockingly low temperatures for a reptile. Now, scientists are figuring out how, thanks to the first-ever deciphering, or sequencing, of the tuatara’s genetic instruction book. The research reveals insights into not only the creature’s evolutionary relationship with other living reptiles but also tuataras’ longevity and their ability to withstand cool weather, researchers report August 5 in Nature. Technically, tuataras (Sphenodon punctatus) are rhynchocephalians, an order of reptiles that were once widespread during the Mesozoic Era, 66 million to 252 million years ago. But their diversity waned over millions of years, leaving tuataras as the last of their line (SN: 10/13/03). The reptiles have long been of scientific interest because of their unclear evolutionary relationship with other reptiles, as they share traits with lizards and turtles as well as birds. Tuataras were once found throughout New Zealand, but now survive in the wild mainly on offshore islands and are considered a vulnerable species. The reptiles have suffered from habitat loss and invasive species such as rats, and are especially imperiled by a warming climate (SN: 7/3/08). This peril — combined with the tuatara’s cherished status as a taonga, or special treasure, to the Indigenous Maori people — led researchers to prioritize compiling the reptile’s genome, or genetic instruction book.
8-6-20 Fruit flies have special neurons that sense the wind to aid navigation
Specific neurons in fruit flies fire according to wind direction, helping them form a neural map of their surroundings. Algorithms inspired by this may be able to help robots to better navigate their environment. DTatsuo Okubo at Harvard Medical School, US, and his colleagues wanted to determine how wind direction was characterised by a fruit fly’s brain. While it is well known that wind direction affects the behaviour of insects, no one had yet developed a map of the neurons involved in this phenomenon for any animal. The researchers were initially only looking for neurons which corresponded to antennae. “We then found these beautiful ring-shaped neurons that were next to neurons that affect the head direction,” says Okubo. The team recorded the firing rate of these ring neurons in a live fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster), as they changed the wind direction of its surroundings. The experiments were done in the dark to remove the impact of any visual stimuli. They found that different wind-sensitive neurons had different preferences for wind direction, firing more if the wind blew from their preferred direction. This led to a fluctuating firing pattern in the overall population of neurons which corresponded to wind direction. Moreover, when these neurons were silenced, the fly’s head direction cells responded as if there was no wind at all, suggesting that wind information has a direct influence in the direction a fruit fly faces. It is unclear whether humans also have such neurons. “Humans can definitely use wind for long range navigation like pathfinding, but exactly how they sense it or how that feeds into a navigational circuit – it’s still an open question,” says Okubo. He also says these findings could give the one day be used to give robots an additional method of navigation. “It could lead to a more robust navigation when visual cues are not available,” says Okubo.
8-5-20 The real reasons miscarriage exists – and why it's so misunderstood
New research reveals that miscarriage serves a critical role in human evolution – and in some instances, may even be associated with optimal fertility. WHEN I saw the positive result on my at-home pregnancy test, my mind raced ahead. I imagined how it would feel to hold my child for the first time, what we would call them. I thought of the bedtime stories we would read, pictured family camping holidays at the beach. I never imagined that, just weeks later, while dancing at a friend’s wedding, a sharp twisting pain would signal that the pregnancy was over. Like many women who have a miscarriage, I worried I had done something to trigger the loss. Had I exercised too hard? Slept too little? Around the world, studies show that many women experience shame and guilt after losing a pregnancy. One US survey found that 40 per cent of women who had a miscarriage believed it was because of something they did wrong. Though there is no evidence covid-19 increases miscarriage risk, the pandemic only exacerbates these worries. Society can add to the problem. In some countries, the culture of blame is so widespread that losing a pregnancy can land a woman in jail. When I looked into the latest research, what I discovered not only challenged ideas that women are somehow responsible for their miscarriages, or experience them because something is wrong, but suggested that, surprisingly, they are usually associated with optimal maternal health. With advances in fertility medicine, we are finally starting to understand what happens in a miscarriage. This progress may offer solace when pregnancies don’t work out and help women struggling to become pregnant. It could even shed light on the role of miscarriage in our evolution. Until a few decades ago, even medical professionals had little understanding of how often miscarriages occur. The first hint came in 1975, when The Lancet ran a paper titled, “Where have all the conceptions gone?” The authors calculated how many babies you would expect to be born annually to married women in their 20s in England and Wales, and found the true figure was a staggering 78 per cent lower. They proposed the radical idea that most pregnancies are naturally terminated before women know they are pregnant, and that miscarriage is our “principal method of quality control”, but had no way of proving it.
8-5-20 Forget about blame with miscarriage: its function is entirely natural
FOR more than a century, medical researchers have known that miscarriage is rarely preventable and is instead usually due to chromosomal abnormalities in an embryo. In recent decades, it has also become clear that miscarriage is very common: as many as one in five known pregnancies ends this way. That figure goes up as we get ever better at detecting pregnancy from its very first stages. It is now estimated that, among women in their early 20s, half of pregnancies end in miscarriage. This proportion rises with age. No small effort has been made by medical organisations and advocacy groups to raise awareness and improve education around early pregnancy, but the notion that miscarriage is rare – or is somehow the woman’s fault – still widely persists. Not only do surveys consistently show that many women blame themselves for a pregnancy loss, but some societies heap blame upon them as well. That only exacerbates the intense grief and trauma that women and their partners can feel after a pregnancy loss. However, conveying to women – let alone society more broadly – how misplaced this notion of blame truly is hasn’t been easy, or straightforward. That is partly because, until recently, studying the very earliest stages of pregnancy, to better understand what is happening down at the molecular level, was physically complicated and ethically fraught. Now, thanks to advances in fertility medicine, we are getting a more detailed understanding of how a developing embryo sends and responds to signals from the lining of the uterus, as well as learning more about the intensive vetting process that each embryo must go through (see “The real reasons miscarriage exists – and why it’s so misunderstood”). These insights reveal that miscarriage has actually served a fundamental role in our evolution – and even indicate that, surprisingly, women who experience multiple miscarriages may actually have optimal maternal fitness. This revolution in our understanding of miscarriage has implications for the options available not only for those people trying to conceive, but also those coping with a loss.
8-5-20 A radical new theory rewrites the story of how life on Earth began
It has long been thought that the ingredients for life came together slowly, bit by bit. Now there is evidence it all happened at once in a chemical big bang. WHEN Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago, it was a sterile ball of rock, slammed by meteorites and carpeted with erupting volcanoes. Within a billion years, it had become inhabited by microorganisms. Today, life covers every centimetre of the planet, from the highest mountains to the deepest sea. Yet, every other planet in the solar system seems lifeless. What happened on our young planet? How did its barren rocks, sands and chemicals give rise to life? Many ideas have been proposed to explain how it began. Most are based on the assumption that cells are too complex to have formed all at once, so life must have started with just one component that survived and somehow created the others around it. When put into practice in the lab, however, these ideas don’t produce anything particularly lifelike. It is, some researchers are starting to realise, like trying to build a car by making a chassis and hoping wheels and an engine will spontaneously appear. The alternative – that life emerged fully formed – seems even more unlikely. Yet perhaps astoundingly, two lines of evidence are converging to suggest that this is exactly what happened. It turns out that all the key molecules of life can form from the same simple carbon-based chemistry. What’s more, they easily combine to make startlingly lifelike “protocells”. As well as explaining how life began, this “everything-first” idea of life’s origins also has implications for where it got started – and the most likely locations for extraterrestrial life, too. The problem with understanding the origin of life is that we don’t know what the first life was like. The oldest accepted fossils are 3.5 billion years old, but they don’t help much. They are found in ancient rock formations in Western Australia known as stromatolites and are single-celled microorganisms like modern bacteria. These are relatively complex: even the simplest modern bacteria have more than 100 genes. The first organisms must have been simpler. Viruses have fewer genes, but can reproduce only by infecting cells and taking them over, so can’t have come first.
8-5-20 Covid-19 news: UK border rules ‘accelerated’ pandemic, say MPs
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. UK should have introduced tighter border controls early in the pandemic, say MPs. Linda Bauld, a public health researcher at the University of Edinburgh, UK says that “a key public health measure to contain the spread of infectious diseases is travel restrictions,” adding that measures at the border are essential and some countries, such as Vietnam and Singapore, implemented these very early on. The UK, in contrast, “acted too late,” says Bauld. The city of Aberdeen in Scotland has been put under a local lockdown in response to a coronavirus outbreak linked to a pub. Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon today confirmed that 54 cases have been linked to the new cluster. All pubs, bars and restaurants in Aberdeen will be required to close from 5 pm today. Australia today recorded its highest number of daily new cases since the start of the pandemic, with 739 new cases confirmed by officials, 725 of which were in the state of Victoria. 12 of the country’s new cases were recorded in New South Wales, which has introduced new quarantine rules for residents returning from Victoria. Authorities in North Korea have quarantined more than 3635 primary and secondary contacts of a man with suspected coronavirus, according to a World Health Organization official, although his test results were inconclusive. Most people in the UK said they would cancel a holiday if they were required to wear a mask in public on the trip or to quarantine on their return, according to a YouGov survey. The survey found that 65 per cent of respondents said they would cancel their trip if masks were mandatory at all times and 70 per cent said they would cancel if they had to quarantine when they got back to the UK.
8-5-20 What Hiroshima teaches us about coronavirus and the future of humanity
The nuclear bomb told us we are the greatest threat to our own survival – and the covid-19 pandemic shows the lessons still to learn, say Anders Sandberg and Thomas Moynihan. ON 6 AUGUST 1945, a nuclear bomb was dropped on the Japanese port city of Hiroshima. Three days later, Nagasaki suffered the same fate. Three-quarters of a century on, the full human toll is still unclear. In Hiroshima alone, some 75,000 souls were obliterated instantly, with many more deaths in the following months and years. These are the only times nuclear weapons have been used in war; debates about the rights and wrongs continue. As we remember those who died, we might also usefully cast a wider view: on what the bombings meant for humanity, for our relationship with technology and for our perception of what we now call existential risks, those that threaten to irrecoverably damage our potential or extinguish us as a species. Doing so can inform our response to dangers we are confronted with today. Whether it is the covid-19 pandemic, climate change or the emergence of new technologies such as artificial general intelligence, we are faced with threats that are, in their own way, just as great as the nuclear bomb – but also subtly different. Hiroshima was the start of a long, continuing learning process of understanding them. Humans have probably talked about the end of the world for as long as we have talked. It is a common part of mythology, giving a sense of structure to history: there was a beginning, we live in the middle and there will be an end. But existential risks were, by and large, not practical matters, except to a few millenarian cults. With the development of science came various realisations. The past was far, far vaster than we knew. There had been a time before humanity. Humanity was a species among others – and species could go extinct. Cosmic disasters, from asteroid impacts to supernovae, were real. Eventually, the universe’s energy might run out, dooming it to heat death.
8-5-20 Nutrition memes forget that there is no such thing as a 'healthy food'
Shareable online graphics give easy to understand breakdowns of the nutritional content of food, but they may be misleading, says James Wong. LET’S face it, nutritional data isn’t the most fascinating, so it can be really helpful when food writers delve through the dry tables of stats to translate them into easy-to-understand messages. One of the most popular formats are eye-catching memes based on simple two food comparisons. These appear on my social media timelines at least half a dozen times a week. Are they accurate? “Do you really need meat to get protein?” asks one image that recently crossed my social media feed. It shows two forks, one holding a piece of lean steak and the other an equal-sized piece of broccoli. In accompanying text, beef was listed as containing a meagre 6.4 grams of protein per 100 calories, compared with broccoli’s whopping 11.1 grams. Food data tables usually measure nutrient levels per serving or per 100 grams, not per calorie. This matters because broccoli is far lower in calories than steak. By using this metric, the meme is actually comparing the nutritional content of more than three servings of broccoli (285 grams) with less than a third of the typical serving of steak (55 grams). Not exactly the fork-by-fork comparison it suggests. According to the US Department of Agriculture, even per 100 calories, steak has more than twice the protein of broccoli, containing more than 15 grams of protein versus just less than 7 grams. So does the stat in the meme stand up? It is hard to tell on social media alone as it references an online article that is no longer functioning. However, there may be a simple explanation. While the image shows a steak vs broccoli comparison, the text refers to beef in general. Different cuts of beef have different fat-to-protein ratios and therefore different protein values. Also, as fat has about twice the calories of protein, picking fattier cuts distorts the “per 100 calorie” metric to give you even lower protein values. Bottom line? The meme is at best misleading, at worst based on questionable stats.
8-5-20 Deep-sea microbes survive on less energy than we thought possible
Deep-sea microbes can survive on less energy than previously thought necessary for any living thing, potentially changing the definition of life as we know it. “[This] broadens the range of environments we might consider plausible to search for life,” says James Bradley at Queen Mary University of London. Bradley and his colleagues used data from sediment samples collected from beneath the sea floor to determine the rate of energy use by the microorganisms that live there. Using a model that considered various aspects of the habitat, including the rate at which organic carbon is degraded, the availability of oxygen and the number of microorganisms present, Bradley and his team calculated the rate of energy use per microbial cell. They found that this value was 100 times lower than that previously thought to be the limit for life. A few cells survived on less than a zeptowatt of power, or 10^-21 watts. Scientists have previously estimated the lower energy limit for life by growing microorganisms in the laboratory and then starving them of nutrients to determine the limit for survival. But Bradley says that while these experiments provide important insights, they don’t fully represent the range of natural environments that microorganisms inhabit in the real world, including the unique environment beneath the sea floor. Because of their extremely low rate of energy consumption, the microbes – mainly bacteria and archaea – can survive buried for millions of years. “[This shows] that you need less energy to sustain life over long time scales and that increases the possibility of places which we can go to search for life on other planets,” says Bradley. There may once have been abundant liquid water on the surface of Mars. If there was life there at the time, then these new findings raise the possibility that there could be remnants of that life subsisting, waiting for the environment to become habitable again, says Bradley.
8-5-20 How to hug people in a coronavirus-stricken world
Hugging has benefits for our health that might make it worth doing despite coronavirus risks – here’s how to reduce the chance you’ll pass on the virus. IF THE pandemic has left you craving a cuddle, you aren’t alone. Some 60 per cent of people in the US reported feeling touch-deprived during the first month of lockdown, suggests a new study, even though only a fifth of those surveyed lived alone. Tiffany Field at the University of Miami in Florida and her colleagues surveyed 260 adults and found that those reporting touch deprivation scored higher on scales measuring anxiety, depression, fatigue, sleep issues and post-traumatic stress. Touch deprivation was more common in people living alone, but also affected those living with family or friends. “Only 33 per cent of people said they were touching their partner a lot, and as many as 37 per cent said they weren’t touching them at all,” says Field (Medical Research Archives, in press). A separate study of more than 1000 US adults found that those who frequently hugged, kissed or met up with friends and family in lockdown were 26 per cent less likely to report symptoms of depression and 28 per cent less likely to report loneliness, regardless of whether they were married or cohabiting. Regular video chats didn’t show the same benefits (medRxiv, doi.org/d5hf). “We saw stronger mental health benefits from types of contact that involved touch, which aligns well with the benefits we know come from close touching, like decreased heart rate, higher levels of oxytocin and lower levels of cortisol,” says Molly Rosenberg at the Indiana School of Public Health in Bloomington, who led the work. Given these benefits, is a quick hug out of the question? Rosenberg stresses the importance of limiting contact with non-household members to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and most governments continue to advise people to maintain a distance of at least 1 metre from others.
8-4-20 WHO urges caution over Russian vaccine claims
Russia has said it wants to hold a mass vaccination campaign by mid-October. WHO says only six vaccines are officially on final phase testing - and Russia's is not one. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warns the world faces a "general catastrophe" due to school closures caused by the pandemic. India reports 803 deaths and more than 50,000 new cases, the highest total in any country on Monday. The US - which has the highest total cases and deaths in the world - has recorded 47,576 new cases and 469 deaths in the last day, the CDC said. Australia is imposing strict on-the-spot fines of $5,000 (£2,725) for people who ignore orders to self-isolate. Current testing and tracing may not Tens of millions of people in the Philippines are back in lockdown after warnings of a surge. There are now more than 18m confirmed cases across the world, and 693,000 deaths
8-4-20 Skeletons reveal wealth gap in Europe began to open 6600 years ago
A wealth gap may have existed far earlier than we thought, providing insight into the lives of some of Europe’s earliest farmers. Chelsea Budd at Umeå University in Sweden and her colleagues analysed the 6600-year-old grave sites of the Oslonki community in Poland, to try to determine whether wealth inequality existed in these ancient societies. The team first found that a quarter of the population was buried with expensive copper beads, pendants and headbands. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that these people were richer during their lifetimes. “The items could simply have been a performance by the surviving family members,” says Budd. “It could be used to mitigate the processes surrounding death or even to promote their own social status.” Budd and her colleagues therefore analysed the carbon and nitrogen isotopes in bones from the graves, which can give an insight into the quality of diet during life. “The human skeleton is an independent archive,” says Budd. “It can’t be influenced.” The team examined the bones of 30 people who lived within 200 years of each other, looking at 29 adults – aged between 18 and 45 – and one child. About 80 per cent of the bones found in the area belonged to cattle, and the group analysed those too. Those buried with copper had a distinctive balance of carbon isotope ratios in their bones. The researchers found that this unusual balance was also seen in a subset of cattle bones found in the area, which suggests that the people buried with copper ate meat from these animals. Budd’s team speculate that the cattle in question may have grazed on productive, brightly lit open pastures, because plants growing in such pastures would have similarly enriched carbon isotope values. This isotopic balance isn’t seen in plants that grow in less productive tree-shaded pastures. This suggests people buried with copper had access to lands and livestock that their counterparts didn’t.
8-4-20 First poison arrows may have been fired 70,000 years ago in Africa
Hunter-gatherers in Africa may have been using poison-tipped arrows for over 70,000 years, according to a new analysis of ancient arrowheads. This would be the oldest known use of poison arrows in the world, says Marlize Lombard of the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. In southern Africa, Kalahari San people have used poison-tipped arrows to hunt for thousands of years. They often obtain poisons from the intestines of the larvae of Diamphidia leaf beetles. But it is not clear when this practice started. “Direct evidence of truly ancient poisoned arrow use in the Old World is sparse,” says Lombard. In China and Egypt, poison arrows have been used for 2500 years, she says, while in India the practice dates back at least 1000 years. They are also mentioned in Homer’s epic poem Odyssey, composed sometime before 700 BC. Most of the accepted archaeological evidence comes from the last 8000 years. However, there have been hints that southern African peoples invented poison arrows long before. In April, Lombard’s team published a study of a 60,000-year-old bone point. They concluded it was an arrowhead and was coated in a sticky liquid: this may have been poisonous, but they could not establish this with confidence. To help identify ancient poisoned arrowheads, Lombard has compiled data from 128 known examples, all collected from southern Africa within the last 150 years. She measured the cross-section area of the tip of each arrowhead, which gives an indication of how sharp it is. She found that poison-tipped arrowheads are distinctive: they are sharp enough to cut, but not sharp enough to go deep, because they only need to get in far enough for the poison to enter the bloodstream. Lombard then compiled data from 306 similar bone points from archaeological digs, dated from the last 40,000 years. Many had the same tip cross-sectional area as the modern poisoned arrowheads, suggesting they were used the same way.
8-4-20 Beautiful shell carving was part of Incan offering to Lake Titicaca
This 500-year-old stone box of Inca offerings was found by divers in the Bolivian half of Lake Titicaca. It contains a miniature llama made from mollusc shell and a cylindrical gold foil thought to be a tiny version of an Incan bracelet. Christophe Delaere at Free University of Brussels in Belgium and his colleagues think the box and its contents were part of a human sacrifice offering to the lake, as similar pairings of objects have been found in areas associated with Incan sacrifices. “This discovery extends the concept of ‘sacrality’ to the entire lake,” says Delaere. The Incas ruled large parts of South America from the early 13th century until the Spanish invaded in the late 1500s. Underwater offerings were mentioned in books by Spanish colonisers, but no intact artefacts have been found until now.
8-4-20 A submerged Inca offering hints at Lake Titicaca’s sacred role
Similar stone boxes have also been found at human sacrifice sites in the Andes. A stone box fished out of Lake Titicaca contains tiny items that add an intriguing twist to what’s known about the Inca empire’s religious practices and supernatural beliefs about the massive lake. Divers exploring an underwater portion of the lake’s K’akaya reef found a ritual offering deposited by the Inca, say archaeologists Christophe Delaere of the University of Oxford and José Capriles of Penn State. The carved stone container holds a miniature llama or alpaca carved from a spiny oyster shell and a gold sheet rolled into a cylinder about the length of a paperclip, the scientists report in the August Antiquity. The meaning of these objects to the Inca are unclear. The location of the K’akaya offering indicates that Inca people regarded all of Lake Titicaca, which straddles the border between Bolivia and Peru, as sacred, not just its fabled Island of the Sun, the researchers say. Spanish documents described the Inca, who had no writing system (SN: 6/11/19), as believing that their ancestors had originated on the Island of the Sun, about 30 kilometers south of K’akaya Island. Inca rulers, whose empire lasted from 1400 to 1532, built a ceremonial center there. And until now, it’s the only place on Lake Titicaca where similar submerged stone boxes bearing figurines and gold sheets have been found. Of at least 28 stone boxes found there since 1977, many had been looted; only four had partially preserved or intact contents. Stone boxes containing figurines and gold items have also been uncovered at sites of Inca child sacrifices in the Andes. A connection may have existed between human sacrificial ceremonies that were intended to appease Inca deities and events held at Lake Titicaca, including the submerging of ritual offerings, the researchers suggest.
8-4-20 Termite intruders evolved cowardice to squat in another species’ nest
Some termite species have figured out how to enjoy the shelter of the immense, complex nests that the insects build without contributing to their construction. They avoid the full wrath of their builder hosts by being extremely easy-going. Animals that live in the dwellings of another species without affecting them are known as inquilines. Inquiline termites (Inquilinitermes microcerus) are unique among termites in being unable to make their own nests. Instead, they inhabit the labyrinthine hallways built by another termite, Constrictotermes cyphergaster. Until now, it has been unclear how the two parties kept peaceful in such tight quarters, because termites are typically very aggressive towards outsiders. Helder Hugo at the University of Konstanz in Germany and his colleagues collected C. cyphergaster nests in the Brazilian Cerrado and brought them into the laboratory. They then placed host and tenant termites in either open or more constricted miniature arenas and used video to track and record the ways in which the two species reacted to each other. Right from the start, the inquiline termites moved around less than their hosts and interacted little with them, even in the more confined arena. “Many times,” says Hugo, “when two unrelated colonies are put together in a single confined space – such as an experimental arena – the outcome is warfare with losses from both sides.” But that didn’t happen here. Despite attacks from host termites, the tenant termites were acquiescent. Hosts would bite or spray the inquilines with acrid chemicals, but their targets never responded in kind, opting to flee. Some ignored the hosts completely. “We did not expect that they would never retaliate,” says Hugo, noting that the inquilines are capable of protecting their own colony with snapping jaws.
8-3-20 Covid-19 news: New DNA and swab tests give results in 90 minutes
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. New 90 minute coronavirus and flu tests to be rolled out in the UK next week.New 90 minute DNA and swab tests for coronavirus, flu and other respiratory viruses will be available in hospitals and care homes in the UK from next week, the government announced today. The government says both tests can detect the coronavirus and other respiratory viruses in just 90 minutes, faster than current tests, a third of which take more than 24 hours to process. “The fact these tests can detect flu as well as covid-19 will be hugely beneficial as we head into winter,” said UK health minister Matt Hancock. The government has secured access to 5.8 million DNA-based tests and 5000 DNA testing machines from UK-based company DNA Nudge, as well as 450,000 swab tests from another UK company, Oxford Nanopore. Currently, there isn’t any publicly available data on the accuracy of the new tests. But John Bell at the University of Oxford, who has been advising the government on testing, told the BBC that the new tests had the same sensitivity as existing laboratory-based tests. DNA Nudge claims their test has an accuracy of 98 per cent. The US has entered a new phase of its coronavirus epidemic, with infections “extraordinarily widespread” in both rural and urban areas, according to the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, Deborah Birx. She said southern and western states have become hotspots for the virus and encouraged people to follow health recommendations, including wearing face coverings and practicing social distancing. The coronavirus pandemic is likely to be “lengthy” and “response fatigue” is a risk, according to an emergency committee advising the World Health Organization. During a meeting on Friday, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the committee: “The pandemic is a once-in-a-century health crisis, the effects of which will be felt for decades to come.”
8-3-20 Economic benefits of vaccination programmes vastly outweigh costs
The costs of vaccination programmes are vastly outweighed by the economic benefits of reducing illness, disability and premature death, a modelling study has found. “We hope these numbers can allow vaccines to be seen as investments rather than expenses,” says Bryan Patenaude at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who led the study. Patenaude and his team generated estimates for the economic cost of illnesses, disability and premature death that would otherwise occur without vaccination programmes in 94 low and middle-income countries, and compared these with the overall cost of implementing the programmes. They focused on vaccination programmes targeting 10 infectious diseases, including measles, yellow fever and hepatitis B. Using a model that considered treatment costs as well as lost wages and productivity due to illness, the researchers found that the money saved through the vaccination programmes will be approximately $682 billion for the period from 2011 to 2020. This is about 26 times the total cost of the programmes during this time. The researchers estimate that a further $829 billion will be saved from the vaccination programmes from 2021 to 2030, which is about 20 times their total predicted cost over this period. “We wanted to convert the benefits [into money] so you can compare them with other types of investments a country or organisation might be making – like in education or transport or other things,” says Patenaude. The researchers validated their findings using another model, which estimates the value of a saved life using data on people’s willingness to spend money to reduce their risk of death. Using this model, they found that the estimated value of lives saved by the vaccination programmes will be about 51 times their cost from 2011 to 2020 and 52 times their cost from 2021 to 2030.
8-3-20 Heavy drinking drove hundreds of thousands of Americans to early graves
From 2011 to 2015, excessive drinking ended lives 29 years sooner, on average, than expected. Heavy drinking is robbing Americans of decades of life. From 2011 to 2015, an average of 93,296 deaths annually could be tied to excessive alcohol use, or 255 deaths per day. Excessive drinking brought death early, typically 29 years sooner than would have been expected. All told, the United States saw 2.7 million years of potential life lost each year, researchers report in the July 31 Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report. The researchers used a program developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that estimates annual deaths and years of potential life lost due to an individual’s own or another’s excessive drinking. The tool takes into account whether the cause of death is fully attributable to alcohol, such as alcoholic liver cirrhosis, or whether excessive drinking can partially contribute to a condition, such as breast cancer. Annually, about 51,000 of the deaths were from chronic conditions. The rest were sudden demises such as poisonings that involved another substance along with alcohol or alcohol-related car crashes. The CDC defines excessive alcohol use as binging — drinking five or more drinks at a time for men, four or more for women — or drinking heavily over the course of the week. Men qualify at 15 or more drinks per week; for women, it’s eight or more. The numbers of deaths and years of life extinguished due to excessive drinking have gone up since the last report. That assessment covered 2006 to 2010 and reported close to 88,000 deaths and 2.5 million lost years annually. Recommendations from the Community Preventive Services Task Force, made up of public health and prevention experts, to stem excessive drinking include raising taxes on alcohol and regulating the number of places that sell alcoholic beverages (SN: 8/9/17). (Webmaster's comment: These are very stupid people. We need to remove them from the gene pool as soon as possible so let them self-destruct!)
8-3-20 US entering 'different' phase of coronavirus outbreak
One of President Trump's top medical advisers has warned that the US is entering a new phase in its fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Deborah Birx told CNN the disease was "extraordinarily widespread" across the country and a greater threat than when the outbreak first began. She said it was now affecting rural areas as well as big cities. She said rural communities were not immune and should wear masks and practice social distancing. The US has recorded more cases and deaths than any other country. According to a tally by Johns Hopkins University, more than 4.6 million infections and at least 154,834 deaths have been confirmed in America. Worldwide, nearly 18 million cases and at least 687,072 deaths have been reported. "To everybody who lives in a rural area, you are not immune or protected from this virus," said Dr Birx, a leading member of the White House's coronavirus task force. "This epidemic right now is different and it's more widespread and it's both rural and urban." She also shared her concerns about people taking holidays in hot spots, citing what she had seen while visiting 14 states during the last three weeks. "As I travelled around the country, I saw all of America moving," Dr Birx said. "If you have chosen to go on vacation into a hot spot, you really need to come back and protect those with co-morbidities and assume you're infected." America's outbreak has gained pace over the summer, particularly in southern and western states. In another development, US House Speaker and leading Democrat Nancy Pelosi attacked Dr Birx, linking her to "disinformation" spread by President Trump. Dr Birx responded that she always based her decisions on scientific data.
8-3-20 Coronavirus: Sewage testing for Covid-19 begins in England
Sewage testing is being conducted across England in a bid to develop wastewater-based Covid-19 surveillance. Scientists discovered early in the pandemic that infected people "shed" the virus in their faeces. Further research concluded that wastewater sampling could provide a signal of a coronavirus outbreak up to a week earlier than medical testing. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says this has begun at 44 wastewater treatment sites. A Defra spokesperson said the government was working with scientists, water companies and the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They would "monitor for fragments of coronavirus genetic material". Environment Secretary George Eustice said: "The aim of this new research is to give us a head start on where new outbreaks are likely to occur. "Sampling is being carried out to further test the effectiveness of this new science. Research remains at an early stage and we are still refining our methods." Dr Andrew Singer from the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology is one of the lead scientists on a UK project to develop a standardised test to "count" the amount of genetic material from the coronavirus in a wastewater sample. He told BBC News: "We would like to have confidence in saying that when we have an increase in virus numbers in the sewage from week to week, there are higher number of coronavirus cases. "That means we will be able to look for trends.... to see if the release from lockdown maintains infection levels or are things moving in the wrong direction." Prof Davey Jones from Bangor University has been working with sewage treatment companies for five months - monitoring wastewater in some communities in Wales. "All the evidence suggests that we can potentially see a signal in wastewater before we see a spike in infections in the community," he told BBC News. Scientists are continuing to fine-tune and reproduce a test before it can be rolled out as part of a Covid-19 alert system. Dr Singer pointed out that this wastewater epidemiology is a very "messy science"; by its nature, wastewater contains a lot of contaminants and samples vary widely, which makes it tricky to develop a one-size-fits all standard, accurate test.
8-3-20 Some spiders may spin poisonous webs laced with neurotoxins
Droplets on the silk strands contain proteins that subdue prey, a study suggests. Orb weaver spiders are known for their big, beautiful webs. Now, researchers suggest that these webs do more than just glue a spider’s meal in place — they may also swiftly paralyze their catch. Biochemical ecologist Mario Palma has long suspected that the webs of orb weavers — common garden spiders that build wheel-shaped webs — contain neurotoxins. “My colleagues told me, ‘You are nuts,’” says Palma, of São Paulo State University’s Institute of Biosciences in Rio Claro, Brazil. No one had found such toxins, and webs’ stickiness seemed more than sufficient for the purpose of ensnaring prey. The idea first came to him about 25 years ago, when Palma lived near a rice plantation where orb weavers were common. He says he often saw fresh prey, like bees or flies, in the spiders’ webs, and over time, noticed the hapless animals weren’t just glued — they convulsed and stuck out their tongues, as if they’d been poisoned. If he pulled the insects free, they struggled to walk or hold up their bodies, even if the web’s owner hadn’t injected venom. Palma had worked with neurotoxins for many years, and these odd behaviors immediately struck him as the effects of such toxins. Now, thanks in large part to the work of his Ph.D. student Franciele Esteves, Palma thinks he has found those prey-paralyzing toxins. The pair and their colleagues analyzed the active genes and proteins in the silk glands of banana spiders (Trichonephila clavipes) — a kind of orb weaver — and found proteins resembling known neurotoxins. The neurotoxins may make the webs paralytic traps, the team reports online June 15 in the Journal of Proteome Research. The prey-catching webs of other species probably have similar neurotoxins, Palma says.
8-2-20 Coronavirus doctor's diary: How gardening could help in the fight against obesity
Being overweight puts you at greater risk of serious illness or death from Covid-19, experts say - and now new anti-obesity strategies have been launched around the UK. In Bradford, community schemes to promote healthy lifestyles offers a novel approach to the problem. Dr John Wright of the city's Royal Infirmary explains why radical thinking is necessary. Our complete concentration on Covid-19 has concealed another global pandemic that has been more insidious but much more harmful: obesity. Early in the pandemic, we spotted common patterns in our sickest Covid-19 patients - they were more likely to have diabetes and heart disease and, in particular, to be obese. As the novel coronavirus makes a temporary retreat in the UK, obesity has become a focus of attention not just for the NHS but also the prime minister as he role-models weight loss for the nation. The Covid-19 treatments that we are discovering through our research trials are making important, though small, improvements in survival. However, prevention is far better than cure, and if we are going to protect our citizens then we need to not only strengthen our public health prevention measures to stop transmission in the short term, but also reduce their risk from harm from infection by tackling obesity in the longer term. Prof John Wright, a doctor and epidemiologist, is head of the Bradford Institute for Health Research, and a veteran of cholera, HIV and Ebola epidemics in sub-Saharan Africa. He is writing this diary for BBC News and recording from the hospital wards for BBC Radio. At the hospital, we have been tracking the lives of 16,000 children from birth as part of the Born in Bradford project to understand how the complex interplay between our genes, lifestyles and environment affects our later risk of physical and mental ill health. It is like a huge Child of Our Time study, but with the best scientists from across the world working together to unravel the clues. The project has shown that our risk of obesity starts very early in life and is particularly high for children of South Asian heritage. The trail of breadcrumbs as to why South Asians have twice to four times the risk of diabetes and heart disease leads back to birth. As these Bradford children grow up, they face very different futures if they live in Ilkley, one of the richest places in the country, or Manningham, one of the poorest. If they are growing up in inner-city Manningham then they will be surrounded by food swamps of fast-food outlets, and food deserts of healthy options. Poor-quality houses lack proper kitchens to prepare healthy meals. The roads are too busy and dangerous to cycle or even walk to school. Lack of parks and gardens hinder active play. Junk food advertising infects young minds and poor-quality food is all that some families can afford.
8-2-20 Hydroxychloroquine can’t stop COVID-19. It’s time to move on, scientists say
An abundance of scientific data shows that the drug isn’t an effective COVID-19 treatment. As a frontline doctor working with COVID-19 patients at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, Neil Schluger had horrific days. “I would come into the ward in the morning to make rounds and say to the intern, ‘How did we do last night?’ And the intern said, ‘Well, I had 10 COVID admissions, and three of them have already died.’ It was like nothing I’ve experienced in 35 years of being a physician,” Schluger says. When he first heard about hydroxychloroquine, he hoped it would work for his patients. He and colleagues prescribed the antimalarial drug for 811 of the 1,446 patients hospitalized at the medical center from March 7 to April 8. But the drug didn’t seem to help, Schluger and colleagues reported May 17 in the New England Journal of Medicine. As a result, “we stopped giving hydroxychloroquine sometime in April,” he says. And yet the numbers of cases and deaths from COVID-19 in New York City have continued to fall. “If we’d taken away a lifesaving drug, you wouldn’t expect that to happen,” he says. Instead, Schluger, now a pulmonary critical care doctor and clinical epidemiologist at New York Medical College and Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, credits old-fashioned public health measures — mask-wearing, staying home, and social distancing — for New York’s success against the virus. Hydroxychloroquine has been tested more than any other potential COVID-19 drug but has repeatedly fallen short of expectations. Although study after study has demonstrated no benefit of hydroxychloroquine for treating people with serious coronavirus infections, some people, including President Donald Trump, still insist the drug has merit. A viral video released July 27 that made the misleading assertion that hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment for COVID-19 spread like wildfire online.
8-2-20 Earth to birds: Take the next left
Every fall, the bar-tailed godwit takes to wing and flies nonstop from Alaska to New Zealand — a journey of 7,000-plus miles. Countless other birds head off too, bound for warmer spots before returning in the spring. How they do it without getting lost remains mysterious to this day. Scientists are convinced birds must be using some type of biologically based magnetic compass, but they have yet to figure out how such a system would work. Now the field is heating up, and the latest research is pointing away from one long-standing theory and bolstering some intriguing alternatives. Clues have been piling up for decades. Back in the 1960s, researchers discovered that European robins can somehow sense Earth's magnetic field. In the decades since, scientists learned that robins and a variety of other bird species use the field, which is created by movement of iron in Earth's core, as a navigational aid. The birds combine this guide with information deduced from the sun, the stars, and geographical landmarks to complete their voyages. But a vexing question that remains is what sort of biological receptor birds use to detect the magnetic field. "Key experiments by a group in Germany definitively showed that a magnetic sense exists. Now, more than 50 years later, we still don't really understand how it works," says neuroscientist David Keays of the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna. Today, researchers are focusing on three possible ways that a magnetic sense could work. One idea involves a form of iron with magnetic properties, called magnetite, acting as a sort of compass within cells that rotates to align with the magnetic field. Another contender, known as the radical-pair mechanism, hinges on a chemical reaction in a bird's eye that is influenced by Earth's magnetic field. A third hypothesis suggests that as a bird moves through Earth's magnetic field, small currents are generated in the creature's inner ear. In all three of these scenarios, signals are produced and passed on to the bird's brain to be processed and translated into directions. Here's a look at each of them. 1. The magnetite idea has been studied the longest. Though it is biologically possible — certain kinds of swimming bacteria use the iron mineral to orient themselves — evidence in higher animals remains elusive, with scattered reports that are not always reproducible. 2. The weight of evidence gathered by scientists tilts toward another idea known as the radical-pair hypothesis, Hore says. Mouritsen also favors this idea, which is based on a protein in birds' eyes called cryptochrome. 3. Keays is testing a long-forgotten hypothesis, first proposed in 1882, that as a bird flies through Earth's magnetic field, tiny electric currents are generated in its ear. This would happen through electromagnetic induction, akin to how a magnet that moves through a coiled wire creates an electric current in the wire.
8-1-20 Coronavirus outbreak at a Georgia overnight camp infected over 200 kids and staff
Nearly half of children younger than 10 contracted the virus. A coronavirus outbreak at an overnight summer camp in Georgia suggests that children of any age are susceptible to the virus and might have a key role in spreading it. At least 260 out of 597 attendees and staff members tested positive for the coronavirus, including campers younger than 10, researchers report in the July 31 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Younger children had the highest attack rates, or the total number of new cases per a specific group. Just over half of kids ages 6 to 10 tested positive. “This investigation adds to the body of evidence demonstrating that children of all ages are susceptible to [coronavirus] infection and, contrary to early reports, might play an important role in transmission,” the researchers write. Most infected people didn’t have symptoms, which may have helped the virus spread undetected. At the camp, a teenage staff member developed symptoms on June 22 — a day after campers arrived — and left the next day. On June 24, that teen’s coronavirus test result came back positive, and officials began sending attendees home. The camp was officially closed on June 27. Overall, 44 percent of people at the camp were infected with the virus, most of whom were campers. Kids’ ages ranged from 6 to 19 years old. Not everyone at the camp had test results available for analysis. Since some people were not tested or their test results were not reported, the number of people infected might have been underestimated, the researchers write. Camp officials had required anyone at the camp to provide proof of a negative coronavirus test conducted within 12 days of arriving. Campers also participated in activities like singing in clusters — made up of kids staying in the same cabin. Although all trainees and staff were required to wear cloth masks, campers were not. Staff also did not keep windows and doors open to ensure buildings were well-ventilated.
8-1-20 Dr Fauci grilled on virus spread during protests
"You're putting words into my mouth," the top US infectious disease expert said as he was grilled on Capitol Hill. Dr Fauci clashed with congressman Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, over whether the government should limit protests when many Americans have also been told not to go to church or gyms. (Webmaster's comment: Every statement Dr. Fasci makes is an equivocation! He refuses to say yes or no all the time! He'll never take a stand!)
8-1-20 Human sperm don’t swim the way that anyone had thought
Rolling and lopsided tail flicks keep the cells moving in a straight line. Sperm have long fooled scientists. Instead of swimming straight by twirling their tails like propellers, human sperm flick their tails lopsidedly and roll to balance out the off-center strokes. Over 300 years ago, microscopy pioneer Antonie van Leeuwenhoek described sperm tails swaying in a symmetric pattern, like “that of a snake or an eel.” The prevailing view that sperm tails move in a balanced way, however, doesn’t capture what actually happens in three dimensions, researchers report July 31 in Science Advances. High-speed 3-D microscopy of human sperm swimming freely in the lab revealed that the cells corkscrew as they move, consistent with previous studies. The sperm almost seemed to be drilling into the surrounding fluid, says Hermes Gadêlha, a mathematician at the University of Bristol in England. Using automated tracking of swimming sperm and mathematical analyses of position data, Gadêlha and colleagues broke sperm tail movement down into two components. Surprisingly, one was a wiggle to only one side of the cell. It’s like someone swimming using just one side of the body, Gadêlha says. By itself, such a lopsided stroke would lead to swimming in circles. But a second component of tail movement causes the sperm to rotate, balancing out the lopsided strokes. From above, the sperm tail looks like it is beating symmetrically, as has been described historically. But a more complex, 3-D movement keeps the sperm swimming straight ahead. The new 3-D measurements are a big step forward in understanding sperm movement, says Allan Pacey, a male fertility specialist at the University of Sheffield in England. Additional investigation is needed, though, to know if sperm move the same way in the female reproductive tract, where they must contend with fluid movement and narrow passages to reach the egg (SN: 2/13/19). Such research may inform diagnosis and treatment of human infertility, Pacey says.