12-31-20 Treasure trove of ancient human remains hint at undiscovered species
A treasure trove of ancient human remains discovered in a cave in South Africa could give us a new picture of human evolution – and evidence of a previously undiscovered species. Lee Berger at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and his colleagues call the cave simply UW 105 because it is the 105th site they have identified. It is a short walk from the Rising Star cave, where his team discovered a new species called Homo naledi in 2013. The following year, the group found a fragment of a lower jaw with a single tooth in UW 105. They belonged to a hominin, but at the time the Rising Star excavation was a priority. Then covid-19 happened and gave the team an opportunity to gather remains from UW 105. Berger estimates that his team has found between 100 and 150 pieces of bone there in the past few months, including bits of skull, shoulder blades, teeth and limb bones. He says there are at least four individuals, of which one seems to be an adult and two are juveniles. They aren’t modern humans, nor are they H. naledi or Australopithecus sediba, the other species Berger’s group has discovered. The teeth are too big for that. Berger says the teeth look similar to a molar found in the nearby Gondolin cave thought to belong to Paranthropus robustus, a big-bodied hominin that lived between 1 and 2 million years ago. Its big teeth may have been used for chewing tough plants like grass. Large teeth have been thought of as “primitive”, so this might suggest that the owners of the big teeth in UW 105 belong to an early species, but Berger says estimating age based on shape is “a fool’s errand”. Evolution doesn’t go in straight lines, he says, so sometimes seemingly primitive traits can emerge in recent species. He points to H. naledi, which had a skull only slightly larger than that of a chimpanzee, yet which lived just 250,000 years ago.
12-31-20 Woolly rhino from Ice Age unearthed in Russian Arctic
The remarkably preserved carcass of an Ice Age-era woolly rhino has been unearthed by locals in eastern Siberia, researchers have said. The rhino was revealed by the melting permafrost in the Abyisky region of Yakutia in north-eastern Russia. With most of its internal organs intact, the rhino is among the best-preserved animals ever found in the region. Experts will deliver the rhino to a lab for further studies next month. They are waiting for ice roads to form so they can take the remains to the city of Yakutsk, where scientists will take samples and carry out radiocarbon analyses. The rhino is believed to have lived in the late Pleistocene era, anywhere between 20,000 and 50,000 years ago. Valery Plotnikov, a researcher who examined the remains, told Russian media the rhino was between three and four years old when it died, probably from drowning. She said much of the rhino's soft tissue was still visible, including part of the intestines and genitals. "A small nasal horn has also been preserved - this is a rarity, since it decomposes rather quickly," Ms Plotnikov, a palaeontologist with the Russian Academy of Sciences, was quoted as saying by Yakutia 24 TV. There were traces of wear on the horn, suggesting the rhino "was actively using it for food", she said. The rhino was first discovered in August by a local resident on the bank of the Tirekhtyakh river. This is close to the site where another young woolly rhino was recovered in 2014. That rhino, which researchers named Sasha, was estimated to be 34,000 years old. Recent years have seen major discoveries of the remains of mammoths, woolly rhinos, foal, several puppies and cave-lion cubs in parts of Siberia. In September researchers said they had found the well-preserved carcass of a bear from the Ice Age on the Lyakhovsky Islands in north-eastern Russia. Discoveries of this kind are becoming more frequent as global warming melts the permafrost across vast areas of Russia's extreme north and eastern regions.
12-30-20 The other superbugs: Killer fungi are the threat we need to act on now
We know too well the dangers of pandemic-causing viruses and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but deadly fungal infections that can shrug off our best treatments are on the rise too. IN THE month the first lockdown began in England, the number of people seeking emergency hospital treatment fell by around half. It wasn’t that fewer people needed urgent care, but that many feared catching coronavirus, according to doctors. Those concerns are understandable. While control measures have improved since, in May it was estimated that 5 to 20 per cent of people in English hospitals with covid-19 got it while being treated for something else. The problem of potentially deadly hospital-acquired infections isn’t restricted to the pandemic. Every year, hundreds of millions of people admitted to hospital globally end up with infections that can be more dangerous than their initial condition. The best known causes include methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Clostridium difficile (C. diff), often called superbugs for their ability to shrug off antibiotic treatments. A growing list of conditions, such as pneumonia, tuberculosis sepsis and gonorrhoea, are becoming harder to treat because of antibiotic resistance. As the current pandemic makes painfully clear, bacteria aren’t the only microbes able to adapt at our expense. In the past few years, a new threat has been setting off alarm bells: treatment-resistant fungal infections. There have been outbreaks at hospitals around the world. Worryingly, 90 per cent of infections caused by the main culprit, Candida auris, are now resistant to one of our mainstay antifungal drugs. This resistance is developing at an “unprecedented” pace, according to a recent assessment, which warns that the problem isn’t just spreading in our hospitals, but also in fields, gardens and the very air we breathe. So how big is the problem? And what can be done?
12-30-20 Are there benefits to following a raw food diet?
Eating predominantly uncooked food is a fad that goes back hundreds of years, but not one we need to follow, writes James Wong. DIETARY fads come and go, but perhaps the most enduring of them all is the raw-food movement. It dates back to at least the mid-1800s when US Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham claimed that people would never become ill if they only ate uncooked foods. The idea that cooking degrades the natural nutrition inherent in foods can seem intuitively plausible. But is it true? Perhaps the first curious thing you notice when delving through academic journals that have covered this topic is that, although there has been plenty of research on raw-food diets, especially in recent years, almost all of the content is about cat and dog food. When it comes to human studies, there are really only a few papers to date, often using different designs and measures, making for quite a patchy evidence base. One 2005 study found that followers of predominantly raw-food diets did indeed have lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which are key risk factors for cardiovascular disease. This is unsurprising, given that diets high in fruit and vegetables are linked to better heart health, and the participants were eating a whopping 20 servings a day on average. On the other hand, the same study also discovered that participants were often deficient in vitamin B12, a nutrient found almost exclusively in animal products in nature. Another study in the same year found similarly mixed results. While people on a raw-food diet tended to weigh less and be leaner than the general population, they also tended to have significantly lower bone density in clinically important skeletal regions. Although the authors were keen to point out the small size of their study, they concluded that this low density was probably due to bone loss coinciding with the adoption of the low-calorie, low-protein, raw-food lifestyle.
12-30-20 How to avoid using your devices too much during the pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic has had us glued to our screens, but there are easy ways to reach a better balance, says Becca Caddy IN RECENT years, many of us have made concerted efforts to reduce the amount of time we spend using our devices. A 2019 study found that one in four people had made changes to how they use their tech by deleting apps, reducing notifications and consciously cutting down the time they spend on social networks. Then the coronavirus pandemic happened – and for many, such practices went out the window. In one survey, 46 per cent of people said they had increased their smartphone use throughout 2020. According to another, internet users in the UK spent an average of 4 hours online each day in April 2020 compared with 3.5 hours in September 2019. As expected, as our in-person interactions went down, the time we spent on screens went up. The relationship between tech and mental health is a tricky one and far more nuanced than attention-grabbing headlines might have us believe. However, a growing body of evidence suggests possible links between the amount of time we spend on social media and a negative impact on our well-being. Many apps are designed to grab our attention and not let go for as long as possible. “Like” buttons, bright red notifications and never-ending news feeds all help keep us fixated and employ similar methods to gambling tech. Scrolling to refresh is like pulling down the arm on a slot machine, and because the potential for new “rewards” is unpredictable, we keep pulling just in case.For most people, the answer to this issue isn’t a digital detox: deleting as many apps as you can or cutting yourself off from your devices. Instead, balance is what will help avoid tech overload, and there are numerous ways that we can make that easier for ourselves.
12-30-20 2020’s science superlatives include the oldest, highest and grossest discoveries
The earliest known modern bird and other record-breaking animals are among the highlights. From the biggest merger of black holes to the world’s oldest string — fashioned by Neandertals, no less — discoveries in 2020 set new records that amazed and inspired. Oldest, biggest Maya monument: Underneath a previously unexplored site in Mexico called Aguada Fénix, archaeologists uncovered an enormous raised ceremonial structure (SN: 6/3/20). Built about 3,000 years ago and featuring a 1,400-meter-long rectangular plateau with a platform longer than four American football fields, the discovery shows that the Maya civilization built big from its beginnings. Earliest modern bird: The nearly 67-million-year-old fossilized “Wonderchicken” (also known as Asteriornis maastrichtensis) is the oldest modern bird ever found, meaning that its descendants survived the asteroid impact that wiped out nonavian dinosaurs and led to the birds we see today (SN: 3/18/20). Wonderchicken did indeed look something like a chicken, if it were crossed with a duck and shrunk to the size of a quail. Oldest string: Not only was this scrap of cord handmade more than 40,000 years ago, but the hands that made it belonged to Neandertals, close human relatives who don’t often get props for creativity. The string, made from bark fibers, was found clinging to an ancient tool discovered in France (SN:4/9/20). Record-breaking animals: This year saw several record-breaking animal achievements, from the highest-living mammal — a yellow-rumped leaf-eared mouse found 6,739 meters above sea level in South America (SN: 7/29/20) — to the longest dive by a marine mammal, a nearly four-hour plunge by a Cuvier’s beaked whale (SN: 9/23/20). There was also the coldest bird, the black metaltail hummingbird, which chills to about 3° Celsius (37° Fahrenheit) overnight to conserve energy (SN: 9/8/20).
12-29-20 The big scientific breakthroughs of 2020
From COVID-19 vaccines to tiny living robots. Vaccines at warp speed: Only one breakthrough truly mattered this year: the creation of a COVID-19 shot. The previous record for the fastest vaccine development, for mumps, was four years. But on Dec. 8 — 11 months after research began — a 90-year-old British grandmother became the first person in the world to receive Pfizer's new COVID vaccine outside of a clinical study. Like Moderna's new shot, which was approved in the U.S. last week, the two-dose vaccine is about 95 percent effective and uses an entirely new type of technology. In traditional vaccines, a patient is injected with dead viral material, which triggers the body to produce antibodies. Pfizer's and Moderna's shot use a synthetic version of coronavirus genetic material that leads human cells to produce copies of the virus' outer spike proteins. Those proteins spark an immune defense. Pfizer and Moderna together hope to deliver enough doses for 20 million people by Dec. 31. "The light at the end of the tunnel is getting a little brighter," says infectious-disease expert Dr. William Schaffner. Solving a protein puzzle: An artificial intelligence program appears to have solved one of the biggest mysteries in biology. The "protein-folding problem" is important because most biological processes — such as how insulin controls blood-sugar levels or how antibodies fight coronaviruses — are driven by proteins. How the strings of amino acids that make up a protein twist and fold into a 3D shape determines its function. Trying to establish how proteins get their origami-like structure can take years of lab work. But AlphaFold, an artificial intelligence program developed by the Google-owned DeepMind lab, can do it in a matter of hours with a remarkable level of accuracy. Bioinformatics professor Janet Thornton says protein-folding was "a problem that I was beginning to think would not get solved in my lifetime." Building living 'bots: American scientists have created the world's first living robots. The millimeter-wide "xenobots" were formed by scraping live stem cells from frog embryos and leaving them to incubate. The resulting skin and heart cells were then reshaped and combined into "body forms" designed by a supercomputer to complete certain tasks — walking, for example, or swimming. The pulsing heart cells serve as a miniature engine that powers xenobots until their energy reserves run out — after about 10 days at present. Study co-leader Michael Levin says these "living, programmable organisms" might one day carry out tasks such as removing plaque from artery walls.
12-26-20 Against all odds, 2020 featured some good health news
The year will not be remembered as a good one for human health. But some notable bright spots did shine through. Ebola outbreak ends: The second biggest Ebola outbreak in history is officially over. Beginning in 2018, the virus surged in eastern Congo, infecting 3,470 people and killing about two-thirds of them (SN Online: 6/25/20). The outbreak was declared done in June thanks to an aggressive public health response involving testing, isolating sick people and contact tracing — the same measures that could slow COVID-19’s spread. A vaccine, delivered to more than 300,000 people during the outbreak, and experimental drugs also helped. On October 14, one antibody-based treatment, Inmazeb, became the first Ebola drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (SN Online: 10/15/20). With that approval, U.S. supplies of the drug may become more readily available for Ebola patients. (The drug’s maker, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, is a major donor to the Society for Science & the Public, which publishes Science News.) HIV’s elite controllers: Most people with HIV take antiretroviral drugs to keep the virus in check. But in one rare person, the immune system seems to have wiped out the virus all on its own. Among over 1.5 billion blood cells taken from this once-infected person, not a single working copy of HIV turned up (SN: 9/26/20, p. 6). In another patient, researchers found only one functional copy of HIV in more than a billion blood cells. Learning how these people, part of a select group called elite controllers, fought off HIV may lead to better treatments for others. Peanut allergy protection: In January, the FDA approved the first drug for curbing peanut allergies in children and teens (SN: 2/29/20, p. 16). Called Palforzia, the drug contains peanut proteins and is given in escalating amounts, so the body gradually learns that these proteins aren’t dangerous. The drug doesn’t go as far as eliminating peanut allergies, but it can help people tolerate an accidental peanut encounter.
12-24-20 Coronavirus variants and mutations: the science explained
The discovery of two variants of coronavirus has triggered alarm. Scientists are racing to find out whether these variants are more transmissible or could present challenges for the Covid vaccine. All viruses naturally mutate, and Sars-CoV-2 is no exception, accumulating an estimated one or two changes a month. Mutations are usually a chance event that will have little impact on the properties of a virus, says Dr Lucy van Dorp, an expert in the evolution of pathogens at University College London. "The very vast majority of mutations which we observe in genomes of Sars-CoV-2 are there as passengers," she says. "They don't change the behaviour of the virus, they are just carried along." But every once in a while, a virus strikes lucky by mutating in a way that positively affects its ability to survive and reproduce. "Viruses carrying these mutations can then increase in frequency due to natural selection, given the right epidemiological settings," Dr van Dorp says. There is now a frantic push to work out if this is the case for the variant first detected in the UK (B.1.1.7 or VUI-202012/01), which appears to be spreading unusually fast. A similar but unrelated variant has emerged in South Africa, with a small number of cases now reported in the UK. The fact both have mutations in a gene that encodes the spike protein, which the virus uses to latch on to and enter human cells, is particularly worrisome. The UK variant has 14 mutations that cause a change in protein building blocks (amino acids) and three deletions (missing bits of genetic code). According to the World Health Organization (WHO), some may influence how fast the virus spreads. The deletion may give some clues to how the variant evolved, perhaps in a patient with a weakened immune system who was unable to fight off the virus enabling it to linger in the body for several months, accumulating mutations along the way. "The current thinking is it's evolved so many mutations in the context of a chronic infection," says Prof David Robertson of the University of Glasgow, who is part of the Cog UK (Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium), which has analysed the new variant.
12-23-20 The new U.K. coronavirus variant is concerning. But don’t freak out
There’s no evidence it causes more severe disease or affects vaccines. Coronavirus infections in part of the United Kingdom have rapidly taken center stage in the COVID-19 pandemic after researchers identified a variant of the virus that may be behind a recent spike in cases there. On December 14, U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock first announced that the variant, called B.1.1.7., might be linked to faster spread that officials were seeing among people. In the days since, evidence supporting that hypothesis has emerged, prompting officials to put stricter public health measures in place to curb new infections — including restricting gatherings of people who don’t live in the same household. The early evidence has prompted experts to closely monitor the new variant’s spread, but they say, there’s no cause for alarm as of now. Here are a few things to know about B.1.1.7. Variants of viruses, including the novel coronavirus, are always popping up. As viruses replicate in cells and make error-prone copies of their genetic blueprints, the viruses naturally accumulate mutations (SN: 5/26/20). Some rare mutations do change how a virus behaves, but most don’t. Instead, researchers primarily use variants as “fingerprints” to track disease spread, says Stephen Goldstein, an evolutionary virologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. The U.K. variant does have more changes compared with its closest relative than most other coronavirus variants. “Nothing of what I’ve seen … is the single definitive, killer piece of evidence that this is definitely more transmissible,” says Aris Katzourakis, an evolutionary virologist at the University of Oxford. “But there is so much circumstantial stuff all pointing in that direction.” For example, people who are infected with B.1.1.7 tend to pass the virus on to more people on average and have higher amounts of the coronavirus’s genetic material in the body than people with other variants of the virus, according a Dec. 18 meeting summary from the U.K. New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group. Such evidence is, as Katzourakis says, circumstantial. To know for sure, researchers need additional proof from experiments done in animals or more data from people.
12-23-20 Test caught just 3 per cent of students with covid-19 at UK university
A new kind of coronavirus test that is being widely used to screen people without symptoms had very low levels of accuracy at the University of Birmingham, UK, one of the few places where it was directly compared with a more accurate kind of test in a real-world setting. Among Birmingham students, only 3.2 per cent of those infected with the virus were correctly given a positive result from the lateral flow tests being used there, according to preliminary data from the university. This is much lower than previously reported sensitivity levels for this type of test. The sensitivity was 57 per cent when it was used in a mass-screening pilot in Liverpool, UK, and more than 70 per cent when it was checked in UK government laboratories, according to a spokesperson for the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care. The first kind of assay to be developed for the coronavirus, called a PCR test, is more accurate. PCR tests indicate if the virus’s genes are present and are usually offered to people who have symptoms of covid-19. The tests normally have to be sent to a laboratory for processing and can take a day or two to produce results. Lateral flow tests, also called antigen tests, are a more recent development. They indicate if certain viral proteins are present. Similar in design to home-use pregnancy tests, they can produce results in as little as 15 minutes. Many organisations have begun screening people without coronavirus symptoms to try to stop infections being passed on unknowingly. They often use lateral flow tests because of their rapid results. But concerns have been raised about their lower accuracy, especially around the rate of “false negatives”, when someone is told that no coronavirus can be detected, when actually they are incubating the virus.
12-23-20 Covid-19: The Philippines and its lockdown baby boom
Rovelie Zabala is heavily pregnant with her 10th child. As we talk, the 41-year-old leans at an awkward angle, leveraging all her back strength to hold her ninth child in her arms. "Carl, Jewel, Joyce…" As Rovelie names her children, six-year-old Charlie shoots his mother a look of disapproval. "Sorry, his name is Charlie," says Rovelie, innocently. Rovelie had had seven children before she learnt about family planning, but this latest addition was a surprise conceived during one of the world's strictest lockdowns, which saw soldiers patrolling the streets in armoured personnel carriers, police checkpoints restricting movement and only one family member allowed out to shop for food supplies. The lockdown also meant hundreds of thousands of women have been unable to access birth control, resulting in tales of unplanned pregnancies like Rovelie's being repeated across the country. Indeed, it is estimated an extra 214,000 unplanned babies will be born in the next year, according to projections by the University of the Philippines Population Institute and the United Nations Population Fund. These children will be born into hospitals already overwhelmed by 1.7 million births a year, largely into families struggling to make ends meet. And this is only the start. Because the pandemic isn't the only reason why the Philippines has a population crisis on its hands - a closer look reveals a problem years in the making. The Philippine capital Manila is a city bursting at the seams, with 13 million people wedged between Manila Bay and the Sierra Madre mountain range. On average, more than 70,000 people are squeezed into every square kilometre, according to data from 2015. The crush can be felt everywhere from the city's traffic jams to the jails, where people sleep like sardines in cells that are 300% over capacity. And it is the poor who live in the most overcrowded areas, where some are reduced to eating meat raided from rubbish dumps.
12-22-20 Will pregnant women receive the Covid-19 vaccine? It depends
As the long-awaited coronavirus vaccine begins to roll out, it's already clear that not everyone will have access. For pregnant and breastfeeding women, this access will depend on where they live. Clinical trials for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine did not include either pregnant or lactating women, and the company has said available data is so far "insufficient" to determine any risks to pregnancy posed by the vaccine. In the UK, this absence of data has led regulators to exclude pregnant and breastfeeding women from vaccination programmes. In the US, the decision has been left up to these women themselves. Here's why the two countries are split, and what that means for pregnant women. "There were no data, period," said Dr Ruth Faden, a bioethicist at Johns Hopkins University, who specialises in the rights and health of pregnant women. There is no suggestion that the jab is especially risky for pregnant and lactating women, there just isn't yet enough information to say. Pfizer has said it followed the guidance of the US Food and Drug Administration in leaving out pregnant and breastfeeding women from its clinical trials. These women will not be included in clinical trials until the company completes so-called Dart studies (developmental and reproductive toxicity), often conducted in animals. Experts say this is customary. "In non-pandemic times, if you are talking about a brand new vaccine, most reasonable people who are committed to advancing the interests of pregnant women and their offspring would still say we should not involve pregnant women" in early clinical trials, Dr Faden said. "You can't put them in right from the beginning". In bioethics, pregnant women are described as "a complex population", Dr Faden said. "Nowhere else do you have two entities at one time, both of whom are objects of moral concern."
12-22-20 The science behind virus mutations and why they matter
Since the early days of the pandemic, scientists have been tracking changes in the genetic code of the coronavirus. All viruses naturally mutate, and Sars-CoV-2 is no exception, accumulating an estimated one or two changes a month. Mutations are generally a chance event that will have little impact on the properties of a virus. Most are merely "passengers", says Dr Lucy van Dorp, an expert in the evolution of pathogens at University College London (UCL). "Mutations are in fact rarely a bad thing," she explains. "The very vast majority of mutations which we observe in genomes of Sars-CoV-2 are there as passengers. "They don't change the behaviour of the virus, they are just carried along." But every once in a while, a virus strikes lucky by mutating in a way that positively affects its ability to survive and reproduce. "Viruses carrying these mutations can then increase in frequency due to natural selection, given the right epidemiological settings," Dr van Dorp says. There is now a frantic push to work out if this is the case for the new UK variant (B.1.1.7 or VUI-202012/01), which appears to be spreading unusually fast. Mutations in the gene that encodes the spike protein, which the virus uses to latch on to and enter human cells, are particularly worrisome. Some have been reported before, but not in the same precise number and combination. The variant has 14 mutations that cause a change in protein building blocks (amino acids) and three deletions (missing bits of genetic code). According to the World Health Organization (WHO), some may influence how fast the virus spreads. The deletion may give some clues to how the variant evolved, perhaps in a patient with a weakened immune system who was unable to fight off the virus enabling it to linger in the body for several months, accumulating mutations along the way. "The current thinking is it's evolved so many mutations in the context of a chronic infection," says Prof David Robertson of the University of Glasgow, who is part of the Cog UK (Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium), which has analysed the new variant.
12-22-20 Ancient mummified wolf cub in Canada 'lived 56,000 years ago'
A wolf cub that was found mummified in northern Canada lived at least 56,000 years ago, scientists say. Hidden in permafrost for tens of thousands of years, the female cub was discovered by a gold miner near Dawson city in Yukon territory in 2016. She has since been named Zhur, meaning wolf, by the local Tr'ondek Hwech'in people. Scientists now say the cub, of which the hide, hair and teeth are intact, is "the most complete wolf mummy known". "She's basically 100% intact - all that's missing are her eyes," lead author Professor Julie Meachen, a paleontologist and professor of anatomy at Des Moines University in Iowa, told the EurekAlert! science news website. Using a variety of techniques, the team was able to determine many aspects of the cub's life, from her age and diet to a probable cause of death. The findings, published in the Current Biology journal on Monday, show the cub and her mother had eaten "aquatic resources", including fish such as salmon. By comparing data from the wolf's DNA and an analysis of her tooth enamel, they found she was likely to have lived and died between 56,000 and 57,000 years ago. X-rays of the body, meanwhile, found she was around six to eight weeks old when she died. The study noted that while ancient wolf fossils are relatively common in the Yukon or neighbouring Alaska, mummies of larger mammals are rare. "We think she was in her den and died instantaneously by den collapse," Professor Meachen was quoted as saying. "Our data showed that she didn't starve and was about 7 weeks old when she died, so we feel a bit better knowing the poor little girl didn't suffer for too long."
12-21-20 57,000-year-old mummified wolf pup discovered in Canadian permafrost
A wolf pup thought to have lived about 57,000 years ago and found perfectly preserved in Canadian permafrost has provided researchers with a wealth of information about its life and the ecology of the species. The mummified pup was found in thawing permafrost in Yukon, Canada, by a gold miner in 2016, then handed over to Julie Meachen at Des Moines University, Iowa, and her team for analysis. Freezing temperatures can preserve the organs and tissue of a dead animal, mummifying it. “I’ve never seen such a well-preserved mummy before,” says Meachen. “I was over the moon and so excited when I was asked to work on it.” The fur, organs and bones of the mummy are all well preserved. The researchers found that the pup was female and weighed just under 700 grams. They estimate that she was seven weeks old when she died, the same age most modern wolves become independent from their mothers. The pup has been named her Zhùr, meaning “wolf” in Hän, a local First Nation language. The researchers used DNA analysis and carbon dating to determine that the pup lived around 57,000 years ago, during the Last Glacial Period, a time when polar and mountain ice sheets were extensive across Earth. Meachen says wolves in this period would typically eat musk oxen and caribou, but when the researchers analysed Zhùr’s diet, they found it mostly consisted of fish, particulalyr salmon. This suggests the pup and her mother were hunting in rivers during her short life, a behaviour still seen in modern wolves in that area during the summer months. The team found that Zhùr’s genome has links with an ancient species that is thought to be the common ancestor of all modern grey wolves (Canis lupus). “Wolves from Zhùr’s part of the world seem to have replaced most of the local wolf populations in Eurasia and the Americas,” says Liisa Loog at the University of Cambridge.
12-21-20 People in the Mediterranean ate foods from Asia 3700 years ago
People living in the Mediterranean may have been sampling South Asian and East Asian cuisines up to thousands of years earlier than previously thought. Philipp Stockhammer at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany and his colleagues examined microscopic food remains present in the teeth of 16 individuals from the Levant, a region east of the Mediterranean Sea. The people lived in the 17th and 11th centuries BC in the cities of Megiddo and Tel Erani. The team found that these people – who came from a range of social classes – ate foods from South Asia or East Asia, including sesame, soybean, turmeric and banana. This pushes back the timeline for these foods appearing in this region by centuries or, in soybean’s case, millennia. “We had always thought this early globalisation was limited to precious stones and metals. Now we see that this early globalisation went hand in hand with the globalisation of food,” says Stockhammer. His team determined what foods were eaten by analysing dental calculus, a form of hardened plaque that archeologists usually remove – but don’t examine – from excavated skeletons to clean them. “I hope this will trigger awareness for dental calculus in the future and show how much potential there is. If you clean it up, you basically destroy this unique treasure box that you can open,” says Stockhammer. “There’s still a lot that we don’t know about food histories in Africa, Australia and the Americas as well,” says Andrew Clarke at the University of Nottingham, UK. “So, I think there’s quite exciting opportunities to apply these techniques to other regions.”
12-18-20 Stone Age Europeans used human bones to make arrowheads
Stone Age hunters in northern Europe made the sharp ends of their weapons from a surprising raw material: human bone. The choice may have had a symbolic purpose, such as imbuing the arrows with the skill of a dead expert hunter. Before the arrival of farmers, Europe was inhabited by Stone Age hunter-gatherers. They roamed a landscape very different to today. The planet was deep in a glacial period, so lots of water was locked up in ice sheets at the poles – and sea levels were many metres lower than they are now. As a result, Britain was connected to mainland Europe by a vast expanse called Doggerland, which was finally submerged around 8000 years ago. Archaeologists have collected hundreds of barbed points made of bone, which were deposited on Doggerland and now wash up on the shores of the Netherlands. “We are quite sure they are projectile points,” says Joannes Dekker at Leiden University in the Netherlands. They were either the points of throwing weapons like spears, or of arrows. He suspects they were arrowheads, but says we cannot be sure. Dekker and his colleagues studied nine barbed bone points. Radiocarbon dating revealed that they were between 7300 and 9500 years old. The researchers also extracted preserved protein from the bone, which they used to identify the species. Seven of the points were made from the bones and antlers of red deer. But the remaining two were made of human bones. These weren’t purely ceremonial objects, but practical tools, says Dekker. “They have been resharpened. They show use-wear.” Several cultures have used human bones in similar ways, but it is relatively rare, says Dekker, and always strictly regulated. “You can’t just willy-nilly use [such] a bone.” We cannot know why the Stone Age hunter-gatherers used human bones to make points for their hunting weapons, says Dekker. But in other hunter-gatherer societies, bones are often used to invoke the characteristics of their former owners.
12-17-20 50 years ago, urea showed promise as a sickle-cell treatment
Excerpt from the December 19, 1970 issue of Science News. Intravenous infusions of urea now appear to promise successful treatment of sickle-cell patients.… Urea causes sickled cells to revert to their normal, doughnut shape. Thus far, intravenous infusions of urea have relieved sickle-cell crises in 22 patients tested. Sickle-cell disease causes painful clots that can lead to strokes and damage organs. Bone marrow transplants, which began in the 1980s for sickle-cell patients, are a cure, but finding a donor can be challenging. In 1998, a urea-based compound called hydroxyurea became the first drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat sickle-cell disease. Until then, without a transplant, doctors could only ease symptoms with painkillers and blood transfusions. Hydroxyurea is still used today. Because the compound can be toxic at high doses, scientists have continued searching for better treatments. Clinical trials under way in the United States are using the gene-editing tool CRISPR/Cas9 to edit sickle-cell patients’ DNA in an effort to beat the disease for good (SN: 8/31/19, p. 6).
12-16-20 Does being around plants truly improve your happiness and well-being?
As a botanist, one of my closest-held beliefs is that plants improve the quality of my life, says James Wong. But does science back me up? EVERY month in my column, I look into a claim that is ubiquitous in the media, exploring the often surprisingly shaky foundations behind long-held positions we take for granted. This month, though, I wanted to set myself the challenge of examining the evidence behind one of my own closest held beliefs, to see how hard it can be to be objective. As someone who not only shares his tiny flat with an ever-expanding collection of 500 houseplants, but who also makes a living from writing and presenting about plants, I am perhaps unsurprisingly deeply invested in the idea that being around them improves our mental well-being. However, what does the science actually say about this? Probably the most common paper cited in lifestyle and gardening magazines as evidence for the beneficial effect of houseplants is a study conducted at a Pennsylvania hospital involving people recovering from gall bladder surgery. Researchers found that those in wards with windows onto a green view experienced a 12.5 per cent shorter hospital stay and needed less pain medication compared with those looking out on a brick wall. Perhaps even more intriguingly, the nurses’ notes about the patients’ mental well-being revealed that those with a green view were 80 per cent less likely to show signs of emotional distress. But what most press stories don’t report is that this study was conducted way back in 1984. Examining its design raises other questions. Rather than a gold-standard clinical trial, where relatively large groups of participants are rigorously selected and then meticulously subjected to different interventions, this study was based on simply retrospectively looking at hospital records and involved just 46 patients, spread over a nine-year period, none of whom the researchers ever even met. They are potentially interesting results nonetheless, but hardly something to hang such bold claims on decades later.
12-16-20 The surprising truth about why adults make children believe in Santa
Children are savvier than we thought, so why do so many of them believe in Father Christmas? Answering that question reveals a lot about child psychology, and even more about adults. ROHAN KAPITÁNY was 7 when he started to question the existence of Santa Claus. Every Christmas, like many Australian kids, he had left out an apple and a carrot for the reindeer and a cold beer for the man himself – and every year, he found half-eaten snacks and an empty glass alongside a pile of presents the next day. But Kapitány had started having doubts. With his scepticism growing, he even hatched a plan to check his parents’ ATM receipts. “That was the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning, of my belief in Santa,” he says. Two decades later, Kapitány – now a psychologist at Keele University, UK – is investigating Father Christmas again. This time, he is probing the ways that children tell fact from fiction. He wants to know why some kids are more likely to believe in the supernatural than others, what makes Santa more plausible than other fictional figures and why we lie to our offspring in this way. The answers could have surprising implications for our understanding of young minds, conspiracy theorists and rituals. As fairy-tale figures go, our modern Santa Claus is a rather recent invention. The real Saint Nicholas was born in the 3rd century AD, but it would take around 900 years for him to be recognised as a patron of children and the magical bearer of gifts. Even then, he was often portrayed as a fearsome figure. It was only in the 19th century that he took on the familiar form of a jolly old man sitting in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. Beliefs in Santa are incredibly prevalent among children in many Western countries. One study by Jacqueline Woolley at the University of Texas at Austin (UTA) found that more than 80 per cent of 5-year-olds in the US are convinced of his existence. “The characteristics that he supposedly possesses defy everything that children know to be true about the world,” says Woolley. “People don’t live forever, they don’t have reindeer that fly, they can’t know what you want without speaking to you. Santa Claus violates all of those things, and yet children still believe in him. So you have to wonder what’s going on here.”
12-16-20 The reason we love to gather around the TV lies in Stone Age embers
Watching TV and staring at flickering flames produce similar physiological effects, offering intriguing clues to the enduring power of entertainment – and the origins of sociability. LAST year, it was Frozen. This year, it might be Eight Below. A holiday during the long, cold Michigan winter is a chance for my family to spend some quality time together. And what better way to enjoy our evenings than by watching movies on TV? Some might call this a waste of time. Anthropologist Christopher Lynn begs to differ. He believes there is a good reason why many of us like gathering around the idiot box. Far from being frivolous, it is a legacy of a behaviour that arose to help humans survive the unforgiving Stone Age world. It is tempting to see human evolution through the prism of technological breakthroughs that brought tangible material benefits. When our ancestors learned to make projectile weapons, for instance, they could hunt more effectively and secure more reliable sources of meat. Softer aspects of life, such as the ways we socialise, might seem less important to the success of our species. But Lynn, who is based at the University of Alabama, says we socialise not because we like to, but because we need to. That may seem obvious to anyone who has struggled with isolation during lockdown this year. But Lynn goes further still. He thinks that the pleasure we gain from relaxing around the TV with friends and family might help explain why humanity became so social in the first place. It all began, he says, when our ancestors learned to control fire. We have known for decades that the use of fire transformed life for early humans. It allowed them to cook food, for example, making it easier to digest. But there is another crucial side to fire: its role as a source of light around which people can gather as dusk turns into full-blown night. One of the few researchers to consider the social importance of firelight is anthropologist Polly Wiessner at the University of Utah. For decades, she has been visiting the Ju/’hoansi, hunter-gatherers who live in southern Africa, to study their way of life. A decade ago, she decided to explore the content of more than 150 Ju/’hoansi conversations she had documented – and she made a remarkable discovery.
12-16-20 Scat scans: How lasers are teasing secrets from ancient poo
Coprolites, or fossilised faeces, have always been slippery customers. But now we can use X-rays to see inside them, they are yielding fresh insights into ancient ecosystems. THE powerful X-rays at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, have been used to look inside some highbrow stuff: papyri from ancient Egypt, Neolithic cave art, Roman scrolls buried in the eruption of Vesuvius and artefacts from Henry VIII’s warship Mary Rose. Then, every now and again, Per Ahlberg rocks up with a load of old crap. Ahlberg, a palaeontologist at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, really knows his shit. Or, as palaeontologists call it, coprolites. These lumps of fossilised faeces have been known to science for nearly 200 years, but were long regarded as the arse end of palaeontology. “They’re not the most glamorous of fossils and they were often overlooked,” says Ahlberg. But thanks to Grenoble’s X-rays, they are now enjoying a golden age. Coprolites (from the Greek for “dung stones”) first came to prominence in the 1820s, when amateur palaeontologist Mary Anning and University of Oxford geologist William Buckland realised the nodules they kept finding in Lyme Regis, UK, were fossilised faeces. The discovery sparked a brief bout of “copromania” among amateur fossil hunters. However, professional scientists turned their noses up. In the 1990s, Karen Chin at the University of Colorado, Boulder, revived scientific interest in coprolites with a paper describing a “king-sized” specimen from Canada that she said was probably expelled by a Tyrannosaurus rex. It was 44 centimetres long, 16 centimetres wide, 13 centimetres high and crammed full of pulverised bone that may well have come from a young dinosaur, possibly a triceratops. Since then, coprolites have yielded all kinds of amazing finds, including undigested dinosaur meat, the partial skull of what may be the oldest-known mammal, hair, feathers, insect remains and a lot of intestinal parasites; the early turd catches the worm, after all. In 2009, hominin hair was found in a 200,000-year-old hyena coprolite from South Africa, possibly after it feasted on one of our ancestors. In a way, it isn’t surprising that old crap contains so much treasure. Carnivore faeces are especially ripe for fossilisation because they contain lots of minerals from meat and bone. “They’re full of phosphates and that helps them to mineralise early on. It crystallises and binds the whole thing together,” says Ahlberg. “That protects the contents, including any soft tissue."
12-16-20 Why don’t wildebeest have wheels? Exploring the limits of evolution
Evolution has produced a stupendous diversity of lifeforms, but there are some adaptations it never seems to produce, like flying plants or zebras with guns. Is there is a limit to its creativity? “From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” That was how Charles Darwin described the incredible diversity of life forms generated by evolution. But he never addressed the big question: if evolution is infinitely innovative, why hasn’t it produced animals with wheels? Are there limits to evolution’s creativity that mean some things can never evolve? And if not, why haven’t things like flying plants arisen or anything resembling a semi-automatic rifle? Evolution exists because living things vary: each member of a species is subtly different to every other one. Those that are better suited to their environments are more likely to breed and pass on their genes, and so their favourable traits become more common in the population. Given enough time, this slow process can create wonders like gigantic blue whales, cooperative honeybees and towering sequoias. Evolution has produced animals that live more than 10 kilometres under the sea and bacteria that can handle doses of radiation that would kill a person many times over. Yet some things just don’t seem to turn up. Wheeled animals are a classic example – the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould discussed them in his 1983 book Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes – but there are many others. In a 2015 paper, Geerat Vermeij at the University of California, Davis, identified 32 combinations of traits that evolution has seemingly never produced. For instance, there are no rigid structures like coral reefs in fresh water, no plant-eating snakes and no flying plants.
12-16-20 Why fitness training for worms and flies could make humans healthier
Creepy-crawlies can provide unique insights into how exercise benefits humans – but how do you get a fruit fly to drop and give you 20 or a nematode to run a marathon? RUN run run run run THUD run run run run run THUD. This is the steady beat of the Power Tower as it subjects a cohort of athletes to extreme fitness training. Each round starts with a vertical sprint up a smooth wall, before a jolt from the machine sends them tumbling to the bottom again. Hour after hour, hundreds are put through their paces. And wow, do they get results: stronger hearts, faster climbs, greater endurance and a metabolism wired to resist stress. Not bad for a small fly you would usually find haunting bananas or floating face down in your glass of Shiraz. Fruit flies aren’t the first thing that springs to mind when you think of fitness training, but they are providing a surprising window on the biology of exercise. They aren’t even the strangest invertebrate hitting the gym. That medal goes to a tiny nematode worm called Caenorhabditis elegans whose transparent body allows scientists to see the physical consequences of activity in action. But there’s a problem. You can’t just plonk these creatures in front of a workout video and tell them to feel the burn. So how do you get a fly to drop and give you 20 or a worm to run a marathon? Like any good personal trainer, you understand your client’s motivations and craft your workout accordingly. That’s where the Power Tower comes in – along with laser treadmills, electrified swimming pools and other unusual gym equipment. It isn’t just the invertebrates that benefit either. This fiendish research is generating unique insights into how exercise affects human health and ageing.
12-16-20 Ancient shell beads may have been the first money used in the Americas
PEOPLE living in what is now California may have been the first Americans to invent money, according to a new analysis of shell beads produced 2000 years ago by the Chumash, a Native American community. There is general agreement that money existed in the Americas before Europeans arrived. The Chumash’s beads, fashioned from the shells of purple dwarf olive sea snails (Olivella biplicata), are seen as a classic example of this. “Almost all the scholars who focus on the Chumash have agreed that the shell beads were money,” says Lynn Gamble at the University of California, Santa Barbara. But while previous studies have dated this use to about 800 years ago, she now suspects that Chumash money has a much deeper history. Gamble says there are four features that archaeologists should look for to identify ancient money. Unlike other signifiers of wealth, such as jewellery, currency shouldn’t necessarily be decorative or eye-catching, but it should be labour-intensive to produce. It should also be highly standardised in terms of its physical dimensions. Finally, currency should be widely distributed among the population. Gamble confirmed that a type of Chumash shell bead shaped like a cup that was in use about 800 years ago possessed all of these features, aligning with previous studies. However, she realised that a form of saucer-shaped bead produced about 2000 years ago also had the same characteristics (Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, doi.org/fm4k). For instance, these earlier beads were more standardised than the 800-year-old cup beads, and have been discovered in their hundreds of thousands across California, even though analysis of the beads suggests that most were created in what is now a southern corner of the modern state.
12-16-20 2020 in review: How science scrambled to decipher the coronavirus
A YEAR ago, nobody had even heard of SARS-CoV-2 and the disease it causes, covid-19. Today, they are household names all over the world, thanks in no small part to an unprecedented scientific heave. “Doing research in an outbreak is really challenging,” says Trudie Lang at the University of Oxford. “But it has moved super quickly. It’s been amazing.” In just less than 12 months, scientists and medics have filled many of the urgent knowledge gaps, from basic virology and immunology to how to save lives in hospital. “Research scientists worldwide have generated an astonishing total of pandemic-related biomedical papers,” says John Inglis, executive director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press in New York. According to an ever-expanding database compiled by the US National Institutes of Health, more than 75,000 peer-reviewed research papers on covid-19 and SARS-CoV-2 have been published since January. About 10,000 more preliminary papers have been posted on the bioRxiv and medRxiv preprint servers, both co-founded by Inglis, with more elsewhere. Another database, the Covid-19 Research Project Tracker, lists more than 5000 active covid-19 projects with over $2.2 billion invested in them. The research effort hasn’t just been big, it has also been clever. Much of the science has been guided by a to-do list written by the World Health Organization (WHO) in February. With confirmed cases in 28 countries but a pandemic not yet declared, it convened a panel of hundreds of experts on 11 and 12 February to agree a set of research priorities. The resulting document – published on 12 March, the day after the pandemic was declared – identified the gaps in our knowledge and laid out a road map for filling them. According to Alice Norton, head of the Covid-19 Research Coordination and Learning Initiative, it is an “unprecedented galvanising document for global research collaboration”.
12-16-20 2020 in review: Coronavirus vaccines made in record time
ON 10 January 2020, the first genetic sequence of the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, was published by an international consortium of scientists, and the race for a vaccine began. It wasn’t a moment too soon, as the first death from infection with the virus was reported in Wuhan, China, the next day. Remarkably, it has taken less than a year from this initial discovery to the development of several vaccines that have, in trials, far exceeded all expectations. At the time of going to press, a vaccine developed by US company Pfizer and its partner BioNTech had been approved for emergency use in the UK and roll-out had begun. Canada and the US had also approved it, with roll-out imminent. There is little doubt that approval from other countries – and for other vaccines – will follow. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is the first mRNA vaccine to be approved, a technology that has scope for tackling many diseases beyond covid-19. Elsewhere, Russia has approved its Sputnik V vaccine, albeit from more limited trial results. In China, several vaccines are being administered, though they haven’t completed rigorous trials. A massive challenge lies ahead in getting the vaccine to the billions of people who need it. Many questions remain, not least how long immunity lasts. Even so, to achieve in a year what normally takes a decade or more has been heralded a huge medical success, one that offers a glimpse of the end of the pandemic.
12-16-20 As 2020 ends, vaccines give us a shot at returning to normal life
THIS has been a year that will live long in the memory, mostly for the wrong reasons. More than 70 million people have fallen ill with a virus that we didn’t even know existed this time last year. More than a million and a half have died. Millions more are struggling with the long shadow of the disease. At the same time, daily life for huge numbers of people changed to an extent that few would have thought feasible as we wassailed towards the last festive period. The way many people work, travel, shop, eat, entertain themselves and socialise have all been radically disrupted and re-engineered, at least temporarily. It is easy to forget how quickly this has all happened. Just under a year ago, we ran an online story about a “mysterious pneumonia” circulating in China, which at that point looked like a “small earthquake in Chile, not many dead” type of story. A month later, we were nervously tearing up our plans for the magazine and putting coronavirus on the cover – the first of 15 coronavirus cover stories so far. Was it really such a big story? Would readers care? Yes, and yes. Plenty of people had predicted that a pandemic was coming. Even so, it took a while for it to dawn on the world that this was really it. In part, this was because the coronavirus kept springing surprises. At first, it looked like a standard respiratory virus, but soon revealed its true identity as a stealth operator and attacker of multiple organ systems. The level of asymptomatic spread wasn’t in the textbook, nor were the many different manifestations of the disease. But science stepped up and, after a long 11 months in the trenches, there is light. Vaccines aren’t panaceas, but they are our best – indeed our only – shot at returning to normality. Without a vaccine, we are fated to endure wave after wave of infections and reinfections, and repeated lockdowns. With one, we have a genuine exit strategy. The onus is now on scientists, medics and politicians to fathom out how best to navigate us towards it.
12-15-20 What you need to know about the new variant of coronavirus in the UK
Several European countries have closed their borders to people leaving the UK due to the rapid spread within the UK of a new variant of the coronavirus that might be more transmissible. Meanwhile, South Africa is also reporting the spread of another new variant. Here’s what you need to know. It was first sequenced in the UK in late September, and details were first shared with parliament on 14 December by the UK’s health minister, Matt Hancock. It has 17 mutations that may affect the shape of the virus, including the outer spike protein, according to Nick Loman at the University of Birmingham in the UK, who is part of a team that has been monitoring and sequencing new variants. Many of these mutations have been found before in other viruses, but to have so many in a single virus is unusual. There is no evidence so far that the new coronavirus variant in the UK causes more severe disease, or that it can evade the protection conferred by any of the vaccines. Some lines of evidence suggest that it spreads more readily, but the evidence is not conclusive. A UK expert committee on emerging viral threats said that there is “a substantial increase in transmissibility compared to other variants”. Much the same is true of the other new variant found in South Africa. “No matter how the virus changes, it needs us to be close enough to each other and to have interactions to let it jump between us,” says Emma Hodcroft at the University of Basel in Switzerland. “If we don’t give the virus those opportunities, it simply can’t spread no matter what variant it is.” In other words, standard control measures such as wearing masks and social distancing will still work. The new, tighter “Tier 4” restrictions introduced in some regions of the UK will be effective if people follow the rules. But imposing such restrictions is obviously highly undesirable.
12-14-20 People are spending an extra hour in bed since pandemic started
People worldwide have been waking up an hour later than normal during the coronavirus pandemic. Data collected from 100,000 users of a sleep-tracking app, Sleep as Android, from countries around the globe provides a snapshot of how sleeping patterns have shifted. Users toggle the app on and off as they go to bed and wake up. The data was analysed by Jeff Huang at Brown University, Rhode Island. On the first two Tuesdays of April 2019, around 50 per cent of the app’s users woke up before 7am. On the first two Tuesdays of April 2020, roughly two-thirds woke up after that time. “I’ve often been thinking a lot about sleep data, behaviour data and what it can be signals for in other areas,” says Huang, who has previously published papers based on data collected by the app. The latest findings have yet to be published. “All the countries have some sort of reaction to covid in terms of people waking up quite a bit later,” says Huang. In the US, users woke up around 50 minutes later than during pre-pandemic times – although this has now dropped to around 30 minutes later than normal. In China, the data shows people woke up almost 2 hours later in the early days of the epidemic there. “You can also see that dropping off as people go back into a regular routine, and it goes back up again when the cases become more serious,” Huang says. “I think it’s a reflection of how people change their behaviour because of covid.” Countries that have successfully tackled the spread of the coronavirus, such as New Zealand and Australia, are now almost back to pre-pandemic sleep times. Japan, which saw little change to everyday life, also saw no change in sleep patterns. “What this really looks like to me is people finally getting the opportunity to sleep for as long as they need, which turns out to be roughly 1 hour longer than they got in the pre-covid times,” says Malcolm von Schantz at the University of Surrey, UK. Huang didn’t find a significant change in the time people went to bed, suggesting they were indeed sleeping longer.
12-14-20 Bizarre dinosaur had a mane of fur and rods on its shoulders
A newly identified species of dinosaur had some unusual features, including a long mane of fur down its back and stiff rod-like structures projecting out from its shoulders. The dinosaur lived around 110 million years ago, during the Cretaceous period. Dino Frey at the State Museum of Natural History in Karlsruhe, Germany and his colleagues discovered the species while examining slabs of limestone from north-eastern Brazil. They took high resolution X-ray images of the slabs which revealed the torso of an unknown species of dinosaur, measuring approximately 50 centimetres long. Most peculiarly, the researchers identified two rod-like structures that stuck out from each shoulder. These 15-centimetre rod-like structures are made from keratin, the same protein in our nails and hair. They were probably used to attract potential mates or even intimidate competition, says Frey. These structures have not been seen before on dinosaurs. “Totally weird!” says Michael Benton at University of Bristol, UK who was not involved in the study. “The fossil shows amazing preservation of structures other than the skeleton, including decayed remains of the guts and body organs, as well as the feathers and long rod-like structures.” The team named the dinosaur Ubirajara jubatus, meaning “lord of the spear”, after a name used by the Tupi people indigenous to Brazil. The researchers suspect that the specimen is a young male, given the size of the dinosaur’s spine, but they are unable to confirm this due to the partial fossil. The fossil also showed a well-preserved long, thick mane of fur running down the creature’s back. The impressive mane measured 11 centimetres at its tallest point. “This is the longest mane ever reported in any dinosaur,” says Frey. The researchers think the dinosaur could lower its mane when not on display by muscles at the root of the hairs. This would have allowed the dinosaur to streamline its body for speed, as well as to release or capture heat.
12-13-20 Covid vaccines: Will drug companies make bumper profits?
At the start of the pandemic, we were warned: it takes years to develop a vaccine, so don't expect too much too soon. Now, after only 10 months, the injections have begun and the firms behind the front-runners are household names. As a result, investment analysts are forecasting that at least two of them, American biotech company Moderna and Germany's BioNTech with its partner, US giant Pfizer, would be likely to make billions of dollars next year. But it's not clear how much vaccine makers really are set to cash in beyond that. Thanks to the way these vaccines have been funded and the number of firms joining the race to make them, any opportunity to make big profits could be short-lived. Due to the urgent need for the vaccine, governments and donors, have poured billions of pounds into projects to create and test them. Philanthropic organisations such as the Gates Foundation backed the quest as well as individuals including Alibaba founder Jack Ma and country music star Dolly Parton. In total, governments have provided £6.5bn, according to science data analytics company Airfinity. Not-for-profit organisations have provided nearly £1.5bn. Only £2.6bn has come from companies' own investment, with many of them heavily reliant on outside funding. There's a good reason that big firms didn't rush in to fund vaccine projects. Creating vaccines, especially in the teeth of an acute health emergency, hasn't proved very profitable in the past. The discovery process takes time and is far from certain. Poorer nations need large supplies but can't afford high prices. And vaccines usually need to be administered just once or twice. Medications that are wanted in wealthier countries, especially ones that require daily doses, are bigger money-spinners. Firms that began work on vaccines for other diseases such as Zika and Sars had their fingers burnt. On the other hand, the market for flu' jabs, which is worth several billion dollars a year, suggests that if Covid-19, like flu, is here to stay and requires annual booster jabs, then it could be profitable for the firms that come up with the most effective, and most cost-effective products.
12-11-20 Should you avoid alcohol when getting a coronavirus vaccine?
Drinking alcohol after getting a coronavirus vaccine can significantly blunt the immune response and potentially render the vaccine ineffective, according to a leading Russian scientist. “We strongly recommend refraining from alcohol for three days after each injection,” Alexander Gintsburg, head of the Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow, which is developing the Sputnik V vaccine, told New Scientist. This warning doesn’t just apply to the Sputnik V vaccine, but all covid-19 vaccines and indeed all other vaccines. “This is quite obvious,” he said. Existing scientific literature on alcohol and the immune system shows that excess alcohol is an immunosuppressant so people who drink a lot are more susceptible to infections. “Heavy drinkers have many problems and poor immune function is one of them,” says immunologist Eleanor Riley at the University of Edinburgh, UK. In trials, about 10 per cent of people don’t become immune after receiving the Sputnik V vaccine and the figure is similar for other vaccines. The reasons for this are unknown. Whether alcohol could be a factor hasn’t been investigated. A 2012 study by researchers in Sweden found that low-to-moderate alcohol consumption slightly suppressed the inflammatory response to a vaccine against bacterial pneumonia, but had no impact on the immune response. The researchers defined this level of alcohol consumption as an average intake of less than 30 grams a day, about the same as two double vodkas. Gintsburg said that drinking 300 grams of vodka – about 12 UK measures, which contain a total of about 120 grams of alcohol – suppresses antibody production. But one glass of champagne would be OK, he said. Last week, Anna Popova, the head of the Russian Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing (Rospotrebnadzor), sparked a controversy in Russia when she advised Russians to quit drinking alcohol two weeks before their first vaccine shot and for a further three weeks after the second. There is a three-week gap between injections so that is a total of eight weeks on the wagon.
12-11-20 Doctor's diary: Inside the first covid-19 vaccine clinics
The hospital in Brighton where I work received its first batch of 975 doses of the vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech on Monday and ran its first vaccination clinic on Tuesday. They run daily from 8am to 8pm. The vaccines arrive in 195 vials containing five doses each and must be diluted in saline before being drawn up into five syringes for five patients. The molecule consists of mRNA, which is unstable and breaks down naturally in a short time. This is cased in a lipid layer so that it can enter the muscle cells. The lipid shell is also fragile, and the vaccine can only be moved a handful of times before the molecules break down. Usually, any medication that needs to be split into separate doses will be processed in a pharmacy, but this vaccine is so unstable that if it is drawn up in the pharmacy then by the time it reaches the patient it may be ruined, so all this needs to happen near to the patient, bringing a pharmacy procedure into the clinical area. The drawing up process is laborious. First the vaccine must be “woken up” with 10 very gentle and slow inversions of the vial, and this must be repeated after adding the saline to mix thoroughly but very gently. The made up syringes are placed in a clean tray with all the care of laying a newborn baby in a crib. This process takes about 10 minutes in experienced hands (and seemed to take about 30 minutes in mine). The injection must be given within three hours of drawing it up or be wasted as it will have degraded. National news had reported that two healthcare staff who had received the vaccine on Tuesday had experienced allergic reactions. The immediate result was that all teams administering the vaccine were told to check if any patient had ever had a severe allergic reaction and to not give vaccinations to those who had.
12-11-20 Covid: Trials to test combination of Oxford and Sputnik vaccines
UK and Russian scientists are teaming up to trial a combination of the Oxford-AstraZeneca and Sputnik V vaccines to see if protection against Covid-19 can be improved. Mixing two similar vaccines could lead to a better immune response in people. The trials, to be held in Russia, will involve over-18s, although it's not clear how many people will be involved. Oxford recently published results showing their jab was safe and effective in trials on people. The researchers are still collecting data on the effectiveness of the vaccine in older age groups while waiting for approval from the UK regulator, the MHRA. AstraZeneca said it was exploring combinations of different adenovirus vaccines to find out whether mixing them leads to a better immune response and, therefore, greater protection. The risk is the body becomes immune to the "viral postman" making the second or booster jab less effective. This is one explanation for why Oxford had better results from giving someone a half dose followed by a full one, rather than two normal doses. Other vaccine combinations are also planned in the hope that approaching the challenge from different angles will lead to better results. The British-made Oxford vaccine, developed in partnership with AstraZeneca, and the Russian Sputnik vaccine, developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute in Moscow, are similar because they both contain genetic material from the Sars-CoV-2 spike protein. They work differently to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which has been approved in the UK, Canada, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and recommended for approval by medical experts in the US. Early results from late-stage trials of the Sputnik vaccine have shown promising results. Russia was the first country to register a Covid vaccine for emergency use - in August, despite only having been tested on a few dozen people. It is now being offered to Russians as part of a mass vaccination campaign.
12-10-20 New species are more likely to evolve in areas where few already exist
Biodiversity hotspots like the Amazon rainforest were thought to be the best place for new species to evolve, but it turns out that extreme areas help species to emerge faster. “People think of extreme environments like mountains and deserts as dead ends or not that important for the evolution of species, but that’s not true. They’re kind of the engine of new species,” says Michael Harvey at the University of Texas at El Paso. Harvey and his colleagues put together genetic data of 1287 species of tropical songbirds to determine patterns in their diversity and evolution. From this, the researchers calculated the rates at which species formed in different geographical regions. They found higher rates of speciation in more extreme environments like parts of the central and southern Andes and Patagonia. “This was sort of like the ultimate litmus test of this new idea that people have been starting to talk about. It establishes that this is the new paradigm, that species are forming at lower rates in these tropical places even though they have so many species currently,” says Harvey. The researchers suggest that tropical hotspots are incredibly diverse because a large number of species accumulate in those areas over time rather than many new species forming there. “I think this is perhaps the strongest evidence yet of this pattern that speciation rate is higher where there are fewer species,” says Chris Venditti at the University of Reading, UK. Now researchers have to figure out why, he says. “We want to know what is going on underneath the bonnet here.”
12-10-20 How some ticks protect themselves from deadly bacteria on human skin
Lyme disease-spreading arachnids co-opted an ancient bacterial gene to eliminate microbes. Ticks may have reason to be as wary of us as we are of them. Bacteria that are potentially deadly to the bloodsuckers live on human skin. But a gene from bacteria that ticks incorporated into their genetic code around 40 million years ago helps protect the arachnids from those would-be microbial killers, a new study finds. That gene makes a protein, called Dae2, that black-legged ticks (Ixodes scapularis) can use to fend off microbial threats, researchers report December 10 in Cell. But it’s not an equal opportunity weapon. In a test tube, the protein doesn’t mess with bacteria that don’t bother the ticks, including Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterial cause of Lyme disease. The finding may explain how ticks can get past humans’ defenses to transmit disease through their bite, including Lyme disease, the most common tick-borne disease in North America (SN: 6/23/16). The arachnids’ saliva harbors many bacteria-killing proteins. But few studies have analyzed how such proteins allow ticks to defend themselves from some microbes while retaining species that aren’t dangerous to the ticks, says Albert Mulenga, a vector biologist at Texas A&M University in College Station who was not involved in the study. Such studies could help scientists pinpoint the proteins crucial for tick feeding as well as disease transmission. Researchers may then be able to develop ways to interfere with these proteins, stopping ticks from spreading disease. Bacteria today use their version of Dae2 to attack and kill other bacteria competing for nutrients by targeting and degrading a component of the cell wall. Without that component, rival bacterial cells break down and die. But it was unclear how black-legged ticks use their version of Dae2, which is found in tick saliva and guts.
12-9-20 Gene therapy injected in one eye can travel to the other eye
A gene therapy for a rare form of blindness seems to work well – but the genes injected into one eye have been found to travel to the untreated eye. The discovery has implications for safety, as well as for how the therapy’s effectiveness is measured, because such trials usually compare the treated eye’s vision with that of the untreated eye. The experimental therapy is for a condition called Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, which usually affects young men and leads to progressive sight loss. It is caused by a mutation in one of the genes inside mitochondria, the energy-producing structures inside cells. This kills off cells of the retina, the patch of tissue at the back of the eye that turns light into electrical signals. The gene therapy involves injecting a harmless virus containing the gene into the eye, where it is taken up by retinal cells. These start making the protein encoded by this gene, which passes into their mitochondria and helps preserve their remaining retina. Eye disorders are a popular target for gene therapies, because they can be delivered to just one eye and if they cause deterioration, people would still have their untreated eye. In the latest 37-person trial, nearly two years after treatment, 29 of the participants had at least some vision improvements in both their eyes. Of these, 25 had clinically relevant improvement in their treated eye. The treatment was therefore unsuccessful according to the original criteria, which were to compare vision in the treated eye against that in the untreated eye. The difference in eyesight improvement wasn’t statistically significant. Because the untreated eye may also receive the therapy, future trials may need to compare people given the gene therapy with a group who get placebo injections, says Patrick Yu-Wai-Man at the University of Cambridge.
12-9-20 Why people enjoy alcohol or are teetotal may come down to a hormone
LARS IGUM RASMUSSEN and his mates were going large. Donning their lederhosen, the three middle-aged men headed into Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, the world’s biggest folk and beer festival. There, each proceeded to quaff an average of 7.5 litres of beer a day, for three days. It was a spectacular bender. Getting hammered wasn’t the main aim of the exercise, however: Rasmussen is health correspondent for Danish magazine Politiken and was writing a story exploring the physiological effects of binge drinking. To understand what was happening to him and his friends, he had enlisted the help of metabolic physiologist Filip Knop at the University of Copenhagen. While Rasmussen was interested in finding out what havoc excessive boozing wreaks on the bodies of middle-aged men, Knop had another motive for getting involved. He and his colleague Matt Gillum had been itching to test a new idea about people’s appetite for alcohol – but couldn’t, in good conscience, solicit anyone to partake in a binge of this magnitude. “It would give the ethics officer a heart attack,” says Gillum. Volunteers, however, were a different matter. What Knop and Gillum discovered is helping to build a picture of how our bodies control our boozing habits, from the amount we drink to when we stop. The research is homing in on a hormone that partly explains the huge variation in our social drinking habits: why some people are teetotal or can’t drink much, while others are lushes. It also points to the startling idea that our livers have more say in directing our behaviour than anyone imagined. Of course, people choose to drink alcohol for all sorts of reasons. Delicious and complex flavours is one. Writing about his Oktoberfest experiences, Rasmussen described another: the “reality-dissolving joy of intoxication”, of being 6 litres of beer into a rowdy evening with 5000 fellow revellers. “There are so many ways and motivations to drink alcohol,” says psychiatrist Gunter Schumann at King’s College London. “It could be stress relief, it could be sensation seeking, wanting to be social and whatnot.” What we do know, however, is that drinking behaviour is strongly influenced by genetics. It is the result of many different genes each making a small contribution, says Alexandra Sanchez-Roige, a psychiatrist studying the genetics of substance-use disorders at the University of California, San Diego.
12-9-20 Ancestor of pterosaurs might have been a tree-climbing reptile
We finally have a clearer picture of how pterosaurs – a group of extinct flying reptiles – first evolved. The creatures shared dozens of key traits with a long-extinct group of dinosaur-like reptiles that might have been skilled tree climbers, according to a new analysis. Pterosaurs evolved about 220 million years ago and ruled the skies for around 160 million years, until they went extinct along with the dinosaurs. Yet figuring out which group of reptiles they evolved from has been difficult. “They appear in the fossil record with fully developed wings and all the modifications associated with flight,” says Martín Ezcurra at the Bernardino Rivadavia Argentine Museum of Natural Science in Buenos Aires. That is probably because the ancestors of pterosaurs were small and relatively rare, so they were unlikely to end up as fossils. But once these reptiles took to the air, they thrived and diversified, so were much more likely to fossilise. At the time they evolved, there were no other flying vertebrates to compete with, says Ezcurra. “It was a completely empty ecological niche.” His team has been studying a little-known group called the lagerpetids. These reptiles, which lived from around 237 to 210 million years ago, are related to the ancestors of dinosaurs and may have been bipedal. But recent fossil discoveries and closer looks at some previous finds show that lagerpetids are most closely related to pterosaurs. For instance, pterosaurs and lagerpetids are the only reptiles around at the time with a relatively large floccular fossa – a part of the brain involved in coordinating eye, head and neck movements. The anatomy of their inner ears is also very similar, and resembles that of birds and primates that move in a complex 3D environment and need to accurately sense their position, says Ezcurra. Characteristics like these were thought to have evolved as pterosaurs took to the air, but it is now clear that they must have been present in the common ancestor of lagerpetids and pterosaurs.
12-9-20 Ancient reptile looked like a cross between a dolphin and a shark
A newly identified ancient reptile that looks like a cross between a dolphin and a shark is unusual enough to be classified as part of a new animal group. It lived 150 million years ago and probably dived deep in the sea to capture squid and other slippery prey. The reptile, dubbed Thalassodraco etchesi, had enormous eyes and a large rib cage, suggesting it had great lung capacity and the ability to see in dark ocean depths. It is an ichthyosaur, a group of extinct marine reptiles, but as it is much smaller than other species and has other distinguishing features, researchers have classified it in its own genus. The species was identified from an exceptionally well-preserved fossil found near Kimmeridge Bay in the UK. The name is derived from Thalasso for sea in Greek, draco for dragon in Latin and etchesi in honour of the amateur collector who discovered the fossil in 2009, Steve Etches. “People have been excavating ichthyosaurs in this area for 200 years, but finding a new species – let alone a new genus – is very rare,” says Megan Jacobs at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Jacobs and her colleague David Martill at the University of Portsmouth, UK, took high-resolution photographs of the fossil. Their analysis revealed an unknown, long-mouthed reptile with a shark-like tail and dorsal fin that lived entirely underwater and would come up for air like dolphins do, Jacobs says. Only one side of the fossil’s jaw is visible, and the upper part is better preserved than the lower. From this quarter jaw, the pair counted about 50 small, smooth teeth, suggesting the animal had 200 such teeth, unlike most other late Jurassic ichthyosaurs, which usually had a smaller number of large, robust teeth. The tiny teeth probably acted as “cages” to trap prey such as a squid, says Jacobs.
12-9-20 You are stardust: The long view of when your existence really began
The point when you began depends on the scale you look at and how you define a person – in one sense you’re as old as the universe, in another you’ve hardly begun at all. YOU almost undoubtedly know the date, possibly even the hour, you were born. Whether you are past celebrating rather depends. But reflect on the big picture, and the truth about when you began is too epic, and possibly a little too confusing, to be captured by a terse entry on a birth certificate. That story begins in the deep cosmos. As anyone with a passing interest in Joni Mitchell’s back catalogue knows, we are stardust. It’s a nice line, and it also happens to be true, says Karel Schrijver, an astrophysicist at the Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center in California. Most of your body’s trillions of atoms, from calcium in your bones and carbon in your genes to iron in your blood, were forged by nuclear reactions in ancient stars, either when they were burning or when they ended in fiery supernova explosions. Those atoms were recycled through the births and deaths of more stars until, at some point, they escaped for a while. “Our solar system captured these elements to make Earth and everything on it,” says Schrijver – including you. In that sense, we can’t know exactly when we began: it depends how many generations of stars our atoms cycled through. But each of us is at least 4.6 billion years old, the age of the solar system, and perhaps as ancient as the universe’s first stars, which appeared some 13.7 billion years ago, just 100 million years after the big bang. The hydrogen within you was probably forged in the big bang itself. So much for the physical, atomistic you. But what about you as a living, breathing biological organism? Here your timescale shortens, but the uncertainties hardly disappear. “One thing I can say with absolute certainty is that there is no scientific consensus as to when independent human life begins,” says Scott Gilbert, a developmental biologist at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.
12-9-20 Can you ever know yourself? Whatever the answer, it is worth trying
“KNOW thyself.” The first of three maxims said to have been inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo in Delphi sounds grand. What it actually means has been a matter of debate for millennia, and when it comes to knowing ourselves, modern science has made things deliciously more complex, too. How the physical substance of our bodies creates our sense of being a consistent entity, and what it means to have that sensation, is a long-standing puzzle. Debates about this relationship between matter and mind were meat and drink to the Ancient Greek philosophers, but they didn’t have our conception of a universe whose matter consists of fundamental particles that have been evolving according to rigid mathematical laws since the big bang. They also didn’t have the rapidly expanding knowledge of genetics and cell biology that the past century or so has brought us, or the sophisticated psychological experiments showing that we are all a bundle of delusions and biases that prevent self-knowledge. Such insights give new perspectives on some old philosophical debates about the nature of human free will and whether any sort of afterlife awaits us. They have also sparked new ones. Where do the boundaries of our selves lie if the trillions of alien cells that make up our microbiome are also influencing our moods and emotions? Or how does the complex, ever-changing interplay of genes and environment that makes us who we are alter our ideas of the continuity of our self? We hope you will find much to enjoy and stimulate in our special feature on the greatest mysteries of you, which covers all these and more. It is possible to take introspection too far. Not for nothing were the two other Delphic maxims “nothing to excess” and “surety brings ruin”. But as we reach the end of a unique year of lockdowns that has seen many of us struggling without the company of others, let us delve into the mysteries of ourselves with one of the most productive interpretations of the ancient aphorism in mind: that by better knowing ourselves, we can learn to understand others a little better, too.
12-9-20 Do we have free will or are all our decisions predetermined?
According to the laws of physics, everything we do follows inevitably from what happened before – and yet we’re convinced we can change the world. Can we? WHAT are you doing right now? Reading these words. Why? Presumably because you chose to. Even if you didn’t – if you are encountering them years in the future lining a forgotten box of crockery in the attic, say – you can always choose to look away now. You possess the nebulous quality of human free will. Nebulous because, despite debating it for millennia, philosophers have been unable to pin it down – and although we are pretty convinced we have it, at some level it must be an illusion, rather like our sense of self is (see “Are you always the same person?”). Let’s start with the physics. Whenever you decide something, a certain pattern of neurons fires in your brain to turn your thought into action – moving towards the kitchen to make coffee, perhaps, or formulating an utterance you will come to regret. Ultimately, that is all down to pulses of electrons – fundamental particles that follow the cast-iron laws of physics, under which everything is determined by what happened immediately before. That doesn’t leave much room for free will, apparently. “Physical laws, if they’re deterministic, tell me that everything that I do, everything that happens in the world, including everything that I do, including every decision I ever made, follows logically from the laws of nature [and] the initial conditions of the universe,” says philosopher of physics Jenann Ismael at Columbia University in New York. Since we control neither the laws of nature nor the initial conditions of the universe, we can’t be fully in control of our actions – can we? Not so fast. We should define our terms first, says philosopher Eleanor Knox at King’s College London. “There’s this really strong notion of free will, which is what my students all come into the classroom with,” she says. “To have free will, I must right now be able to behave just with no connection to any contingent plan – so however I like.”
12-9-20 Why it’s the aliens living inside you that create your sense of you
Foreign cells within our bodies help determine our mental states and even contribute to our immune defences – making it tricky to define where you end and the others begin. DELINEATING where a person begins and ends used to be quite simple. While philosophers might have tied themselves in knots trying to define the self, and biologists still struggle to locate its steering mechanism (see “Where is your self?”), what it encompassed, at least, was more clear-cut. Their traditional definition comprises three elements, says Thomas Bosch at the University of Kiel, Germany: the mind, the genome and the immune system. Each of us is a self-contained organism defined by our mind and genes, with the immune system patrolling our borders and discriminating between self and non-self. Me, myself and I. Then we looked more closely, and our relationship status went from “threesome” to “it’s complicated”. For starters, we are chimeras: some parts of us are human, but genetically not “us”. Most, if not all, of us contain a few cells from our mother, our grandmothers and even elder siblings that infiltrated our bodies in the uterus. Women who have carried children host such cells too. “Something like 65 per cent of women, even in their 70s, when autopsies were performed, had cells in their brains that were not theirs,” says David Linden at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. Chimeric cells have been found to contribute to both good and bad health, for example promoting wound healing but also triggering autoimmune disease. A handful of people even turn out to be true chimeras, created from a merger in the uterus of two non-identical, “fraternal” twins. We don’t know how common this is, because few people undergo the genetic tests that reveal it. It could be you…
12-9-20 You are not one person: Why your sense of self must be an illusion
We have a strong sense of continuous, coherent existence – yet from the cells that make our bodies to our defining character traits, we are in a constant state of change. MY MOM sometimes jokes that it is fortunate she didn’t meet my dad when he was in college, because she wouldn’t have liked him. She was (and is) a self-described goody two shoes. Dad not so much, but presumably even less so when keg parties were involved. We know that we change over time. Our bodies grow, then age; we mature and our views shift; our memories sharpen and fade. Yet for most of us, our sense of self is seamless and continuous. You are the same old you, right? Let’s start with the physical. Some of our cells, notably neurons in the brain, are with us from before birth, and can live more than 100 years. “Most of the nerve cells in the brain are actually as old as we are,” says molecular biologist Jonas Frisén at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. But most of our cells aren’t. Some, including certain kinds of white blood cell, live for only days. How quickly our skin cells are replenished changes as we age, but in general it takes about a month. The notion that the liver regenerates every 40 days or so is a myth: our liver cells live 200 to 300 days. On the level of atoms and molecules, meanwhile, we are exchanging material with our environment with abandon. Think of your body like a grassy field, says Frisén. “It’s the same lawn from year to year, but each strand of grass is completely different.” But what about less tangible aspects of you? This, after all, is where it matters to us. Losing a consistent sense of a “narrative self” is at best discombobulating, and at worst devastating when we observe it in ourselves or in our loved ones as a result of injury or neurodegenerative disease. Ultimately, our physical bodies and ever-eroding collection of memories are what we are made of. “It’s all we’ve got,” says psychologist Helge Gillmeister at the University of Essex, UK.
12-9-20 Think your sense of self is located in your brain? Think again
Most of us instinctively think that our sense of self is located in our head – but experiments show that our brains aren’t working alone in creating our sense of self. FOR the Ancient Egyptians, it was the heart. For philosopher René Descartes, it was somewhere entirely separate from the body. According to the Buddhist concept of anatta, it isn’t anywhere, because the thing concerned doesn’t exist. But what does modern science say about where your self – your “soul”, if you like – resides? At first pass, that might not seem a particularly scientific question. Regardless, most of us have an intuitive answer. When, in as-yet unpublished work, Christina Starmans and her colleagues showed people from the US and India pictures of flies circling around a person, and asked which flies they thought were closest, the results were striking: regardless of cultural background, most people pointed to flies near a person’s eyes. “This suggests there is a universal sense of the self being located in the head, near the eyes,” says Starmans, a psychologist at the University of Toronto in Canada. Subjectively at least, the eyes being windows to the soul checks out. “The sense of where in our bodies we are located is informed by our dominant experience of the world,” says Starmans. “Almost all of our input from the world comes in through our head.” What our heads do with these inputs is certainly incredible, and key to our feeling that we are coherent beings. Our brains take a hotchpotch of electrical messages from our sense organs – eyes, ears, nose, skin – and combine them with memories to create a vivid, unified sense of conscious experience that is continuous in time. How exactly this happens is still something of a mystery. But can we be any more specific about where it happens?
12-9-20 Why we’re in tune with our emotions – but suck at judging our smarts
“Know thyself” is a piece of wisdom handed down from the ancients – but a slew of delusions and biases means you might be better off asking someone else. DON QUIXOTE is one of the most celebrated characters in literature. The hero of Miguel de Cervantes’s novel, first published in 1605, decides to act out his knightly aspirations, performing acts of great chivalry and righting wrongs. So he thinks, anyway. Sadly, the gulf between his self-perception and how the world views him is vast – so much so that the word “quixotic” has come to describe delusional behaviour. But here is a troubling thought. What if we are all more quixotic than we allow for? We might think that with our privileged access to our every thought and motivation, we are the best judge of our own character, but what if we aren’t? In recent decades, psychologists have revealed that we are beholden to all sorts of biases and mental blind spots that put a positive spin on our characters. In one study from the 1960s of drivers hospitalised by car accidents, for instance, all judged their driving ability to be better than average. This “illusory superiority” bias has been demonstrated many times since. Indeed, it turns out that the worse we are at a particular task, the less likely we are to recognise our own incompetence – something known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. And we are crashingly unaware of all of this: while we recognise the impact of bias in other people’s judgements, we miss it in our own. It isn’t all bad news though. In a seminal study a decade ago, Simine Vazire at the University of Melbourne, Australia, asked participants to rate themselves on various skills and traits. They were also rated by friends and strangers before undergoing a battery of behavioural tests. She found that we tend to be the best judge of our own emotional state, but when it comes to characteristics such as intelligence and creativity, others who aren’t strangers tend to rate us more accurately.
12-9-20 How nature, nurture and sheer randomness combine to make a unique you
We’re slowly beginning to unpick the complex interplay of genes, environment and experience that make you who you are – and like no one else who ever existed. CHILDREN are generally fascinated by tales of how they came to be. Even young ones can often grasp the mind-boggling implication if the events of the story leading up to their existence had been any different: they wouldn’t be there to hear it. Your you-ness is a precarious thing. Rerun the experiment of you with a different sperm and egg from the same people, and “you” would be as different from your current self, genetically, as siblings are from one another. If the egg were the same, but through some random fluctuation a different sperm won the race, you would also be distinctly different. For a start, depending on whether the sperm bore an X or a Y chromosome, you could have ended up another sex. “That’s a pretty big difference, right there,” says David Linden, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and author of Unique: The new science of human individuality. The potential for being a different you didn’t stop once destiny set your founding sperm and egg on their collision course, either. A lot of what makes you what you are is down to how your brain is connected. But your DNA doesn’t encode a precise wiring diagram: it is more like a rather hand-wavy recipe or set of instructions. Even genetically identical twins don’t end up with the same neuronal network. “A pool of cells in the developing brain might receive instructions that say: ‘About half of you move across the midline of the brain’, ” says Linden. “In one twin, 40 per cent of the cells might cross and in the other twin, 60 per cent.” Then there is mutation. As cells of the developing embryo, and later fetus, multiply and DNA is duplicated, mistakes are made and inherited by the cells’ descendants. These mutations are known to contribute to autism and conditions such as schizophrenia. It is plausible they influence core personality traits too.
12-9-20 As 2020 comes to an end, here’s what we still don’t know about COVID-19
More than 68 million infected with the novel coronavirus and more than 1.5 million dead. 2020 has been a year defined by global sickness and loss. In the face of this extraordinary threat, it’s easy to forget how much we have accomplished. Doctors, nurses and staff in hospitals around the world have learned how to better care for those sick with COVID-19. Researchers have uncovered secrets of a virus that, not so long ago, was wholly unknown. Accelerated efforts to create vaccines succeeded beyond even the most optimistic predictions, with the United Kingdom granting emergency use of a vaccine on December 2 and the United States poised to follow suit before the end of the year. Meanwhile, public health officials have fought to inform the public about how to reduce the risk of infection amid an onslaught of false reports about cures and treatments, and denials about the pandemic’s severity. Millions of people have donned masks and dramatically reshaped their daily lives to help fight the virus. In early January, we had no tests for detecting the virus, no treatments, no vaccines. And though we’re not where we want to be, we’ve made progress on all those fronts. But we still have so much to learn. Here are pressing questions that scientists seek to answer. A person’s age and preexisting medical conditions are risk factors for more severe disease, and men appear to be at higher risk than women (SN: 4/23/20). But scientists don’t have many answers to explain the wide variety of experiences people have with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Many people have no symptoms. Some struggle to breathe, suffer strokes, or progress to organ failure and death. For now, we know that for some people, the symptoms and suffering from COVID-19 can go on for months after the initial infection (SN: 7/2/20). There isn’t an agreed-upon definition for what some call “post-COVID syndrome” or “long COVID,” but symptoms tend to include fatigue, shortness of breath, brain fog and heart abnormalities. And these problems aren’t necessarily tied to a more severe initial illness. There are signs that the immune system can learn how to deal with the virus, bestowing at least temporary immunity. Most people appear to make immune proteins that stop SARS-CoV-2 in its tracks, called neutralizing antibodies, and also T cells that help coordinate the immune response or kill infected cells, says epidemiologist Aubree Gordon of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Those antibodies and T cells can stick around in the body for at least six months, if not longer, studies suggest. “So that’s promising,” Gordon says. Because of crucial advances in 2020, “we know more about the virus and some of the complications it causes and how to prevent and predict and treat those complications,” says Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “I don’t think anyone can say with clarity what the end of the pandemic might look like,” says Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. If a vaccine can confer long-lasting immunity, on the order of years to decades, widespread community transmission around the globe could cease, he says. When the pandemic eventually fizzles out, the coronavirus itself will probably stick around for a while, experts say. How long, however, depends on how well our immune system and available vaccines protect us from reinfection.
12-9-20 Ancient humans may have hibernated to survive brutal glacial winters
Some of the ancient humans living in Europe half a million years ago had a remarkable strategy for dealing with winter: they hibernated. At least, that is the claim being made by two researchers. Others dispute the evidence – but ongoing research suggests that it might be possible to induce a hibernation-like state in modern humans. Sima de los Huesos – the “pit of bones” – lies in northern Spain and is one of the world’s most important sites for studying human evolution. Excavations at the site have led to the discovery of more than 7500 fossils belonging to the skeletons of at least 29 ancient humans, often placed in the species Homo heidelbergensis. The bones – and the fragments of DNA they contain – have been studied in great detail, revealing that the ancient humans were ancestral to the Neanderthals. But earlier studies missed one important point, according to Antonis Bartsiokas at the Democritus University of Thrace in Greece. He says the bones show evidence of a suite of diseases associated with poor availability of vitamin D. Among them are renal osteodystrophy and rickets – which Bartsiokas diagnosed on the basis of unusually thick deposits of bone above the eye sockets rather than from the presence of distinctly bowed leg bones. Bartsiokas says that collectively, the pathologies suggest the ancient humans routinely spent months on end in dark environments where, robbed of access to sunlight, their bodies were unable to generate vitamin D. “At first I was at a loss,” says Bartsiokas. Rickets and vitamin D deficiencies have been described in historical populations, particularly in dense urban centres where accessing sunlight can be a challenge. Never, to his knowledge, have such ancient humans been diagnosed with vitamin D deficiencies. As he dug deeper into the subject, he realised that the same suite of diseases is often seen in animals that hibernate in caves, including bats.
12-8-20 Ancient people may have survived desert droughts by melting ice in lava tubes
Charcoal bands in a New Mexico cave ice core track with five periods of drought over 800 years. During a parched summer almost 2,000 years ago, people living in what is now western New Mexico crawled into the cold, dark belly of a volcanically formed cave to melt the frozen water at its heart. The ice preserved in these naturally cool formations might have helped Ancestral Puebloans in the region persevere through five such drought events over the course of 800 years, a new study suggests. New analysis of charcoal particles from around A.D. 150 provides the earliest dated evidence that Ancestral Puebloans used fire to melt ice trapped deep in lava tubes when liquid water was scarce, researchers reported November 18 in Scientific Reports.The findings are evidence that these ancient people went to remarkable lengths to survive in an often hostile environment. “This study demonstrates the ingenuity of Indigenous people who used the area,” says Barbara Mills, an anthropological archeologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson who was not involved in the study. “It also shows how knowledge about the trails, caves and harvesting practices was passed down over many centuries, even millennia.” Ancestral Puebloans, forerunners of today’s Pueblo peoples and the builders of Mesa Verde’s famous cliff dwellings, survived in the arid southwestern United States for over 10,000 years. A key to that survival was finding creative ways to extract water from an unforgiving environment. In April 2017, a team led by paleoclimatologist Bogdan Onac of the University of South Florida in Tampa traveled to El Malpais National Monument in New Mexico to collect ice cores from the park’s frigid lava tubes in the hopes of extracting ancient climate data. Lava tubes are an empty space left behind by flowing lava, a relic of the area’s volcanically active past. Far removed from their fiery beginnings, the caves retain a constant temperature around 0° Celsius (32° Fahrenheit) that can preserve accumulating ice — and anything trapped inside the ice — for hundreds of years. The cylindrical shape of the tubes causes cooler, denser air to sink toward the ground and push hotter, lighter air up and out.
12-7-20 Ancient rock art reveals life of the Amazon’s earliest inhabitants
An extensive collection of ancient rock art and archaeological remains found deep in the Colombian Amazon offers a rare glimpse into the lives of the earliest people to inhabit the region. The images and remains suggest that people lived in the northern Amazon at the same time as now-extinct mega-mammals. They also show that the ancient humans had a varied diet, indicating that they adapted quickly to their new environment. The as-yet unnamed site in the Serranía La Lindosa, a large, rocky outcrop in southern Colombia, was found by an international team of researchers investigating the Guaviare region. It is the earliest secure evidence of people in the Colombian Amazon, they say. A wealth of Indigenous artwork has been documented across Guaviare, particularly in Chiribiquete National Park. The artwork documented at La Lindosa is new to science, and appears to be unknown even to local people, according to the researchers. It is remarkable in both its detail and its scale, the team says. The collage of images includes geometric patterns, handprints, people and animals. It stretches across approximately 5 kilometres of rock face, and could take decades to fully study. The archaeological team – co-led by Francisco Javier Aceituno at the University of Antioquia, Colombia – was thrilled to find depictions of what appear to be now-extinct megafauna alongside more familiar fish, birds and lizards still alive today. “We knew that megafauna was in the region and went extinct around 10 to 12,000 years before the present,” says José Iriarte at the University of Exeter, UK, and a member of the research team. If people were depicting them in their art, the humans must have been present in the region at least 12,500 years ago, he argues. Iriarte says it is “quite clear” that a palaeolama, an extinct stumpy-legged, long-necked camelid, is depicted. Other drawings have been tentatively identified as giant sloths due to their unique proportions, and mastodons – ancient relatives of elephants – due to their trunks.
12-4-20 50 years ago, scientists caught their first glimpse of amino acids from outer space
Excerpt from the December 5, 1970 issue of Science News. [Researchers] present evidence for the presence of amino acids of possible extraterrestrial origin in a meteorite that fell near Murchison, Victoria, Australia, Sept. 28, 1969.… If over the course of time their finding becomes accepted … it would demonstrate that amino acids, the basic building blocks of proteins, can be and have been formed outside the Earth. Scientists confirmed in 1971 that the Murchison meteorite contained amino acids, primarily glycine, and that those organic compounds likely came from outer space (SN: 3/20/71, p. 195). In the decades since, amino acids and other chemical precursors to life have been uncovered in other fallen space rocks. Recent discoveries include compounds called nucleobases and sugars that are key components of DNA and RNA. The amino acid glycine even has been spotted in outer space in the atmosphere of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Such findings bolster the idea that life could exist elsewhere in the universe.
12-4-20 Amazon rainforest rock art 'depicts giant Ice Age creatures'
Rock art found in the Amazon rainforest carries images of the area's earliest inhabitants living alongside giant Ice Age creatures, researchers say. The paintings are estimated to have been made between 11,800 and 12,600 years ago, towards the end of the last Ice Age. The thousands of paintings were found on three rock shelters on the northern edge of the Colombian Amazon. The excavations took place in 2017 and 2018, but the study is only now being released. The paintings include depictions of what appear to be now-extinct animals, such as the mastodon, a prehistoric relative of the elephant, and giant sloths and Ice Age horses, researchers say. There are also paintings of geometric shapes, human figures, handprints and hunting scenes, as well as animals like snakes and birds. Researchers say the red paintings, made using pigments extracted from scraped ochre, make up one of the largest collections of rock art ever found in South America. The research was carried out by experts from the National University of Colombia, the University of Antioquia and the UK's University of Exeter. "The pictures show how people would have lived amongst giant, now extinct, animals, which they hunted," the University of Exeter's José Iriarte said. His colleague, Mark Robinson, said the images "give a vivid and exciting glimpse" into the lives of the earliest people to live in western Amazonia. "They moved into the region at a time of extreme climate change, which was leading to changes in vegetation and the make-up of the forest. The Amazon was still transforming into the tropical forest we recognise today," he said.
12-4-20 Ancient humans may have deliberately voyaged to Japan’s Ryukyu Islands
Satellite-tracked buoys suggest there’s little chance the remote isles were reached by accident. Long ago, ancient mariners successfully navigated a perilous ocean journey to arrive at Japan’s Ryukyu Islands, a new study suggests. Archaeological sites on six of these isles — part of a 1,200-kilometer-long chain — indicate that migrations to the islands occurred 35,000 to 30,000 years ago, both from the south via Taiwan and from the north via the Japanese island of Kyushu. But whether ancient humans navigated there on purpose or drifted there by accident on the Kuroshio ocean current, one of the world’s largest and strongest currents, is unclear. The answer to that question could shed light on the proficiency of these Stone Age humans as mariners and their mental capabilities overall. Now, satellite-tracked buoys that simulated wayward rafts suggest that there’s little chance that the seafarers reached the isles by accident. Researchers analyzed 138 buoys that were released near or passed by Taiwan and the Philippine island Luzon from 1989 to 2017, deployed as part of the Global Drifter Program to map surface ocean currents worldwide. In findings published online December 3 in Scientific Reports, the team found that only four of the buoys came within 20 kilometers of any of the Ryukyu Islands, and these did so only as a result of typhoons and other adverse weather. It is unlikely that ancient mariners would have set out on an ocean voyage with a major storm on the horizon, say paleoanthropologist Yousuke Kaifu of the University of Tokyo and colleagues. As a result, the new findings indicate that the Kuroshio current would have forced drifters away from rather than toward the Ryukyu Islands, suggesting that anyone who made the crossing did so intentionally instead of accidentally, Kaifu says.
12-4-20 Two stones fuel debate over when America’s first settlers arrived
Microscopic bone residue on rocks possibly used to smash mastodon remains draws new scrutiny. Scientific debate about the most controversial archaeological site in the Americas has entered rocky new territory. In 2017, scientists reported that around 130,000 years ago, an unidentified Homo species used stone tools to break apart a mastodon’s bones near what is now San Diego. If true, that would mean that humans or one of our close evolutionary relatives reached the Americas at least 100,000 years earlier than previously thought, dramatically reshaping scientists’ understanding of when the region was settled (SN: 4/26/17). Critics have questioned whether the unearthed stones were actually used as tools. And other researchers suggested that supposed tool marks on the bones could have been created as the bones were carried by fast-moving streams or caused by construction activity that partially exposed the California site before its excavation in 1992 and 1993. But new analyses bolster the controversial claim, says a team that includes some of the researchers involved in the initial finding. Chemical residue of bones appears on two stones previously found among mastodon remains at the Cerutti Mastodon site, the scientists report in the December Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. The two Cerutti rocks also show signs of having delivered or received hard blows where bone residue accumulated, the team says. The larger stone may have served as a platform on which the bones were smashed open with the smaller stone, possibly to remove marrow for eating or to obtain bone chunks suitable for shaping into tools. “Many repeated blows are likely to have created the concentrations of broken [mastodon] bones” found at the site, says Richard Fullagar, a geoarcheaologist at the University of Wollongong in Australia who was also part of the original research. Hominids — perhaps Neandertals, Denisovans, Homo erectus or Homo sapiens — battered the large creature’s remains on one or possibly several visits to the site, Fullagar contends.
12-3-20 Vaginal bacteria may eat HIV prevention drugs and leave women at risk
Women with a certain mix of bacteria in their vaginas may be at a much greater risk of contracting HIV because the bacteria consume drugs that prevent infection with the virus. Oral pre-exposure prophylactic (PrEP) drugs are 90 per cent effective in preventing HIV infections in men who have sex with men. But the efficacy of PrEP drugs drops to 50 per cent or lower in women, regardless of whether they are taken orally or vaginally – and researchers lack a full explanation for why this is the case. Nichole Klatt at the University of Minnesota and her colleagues suspect part of the reason might be the vaginal microbiome. In many cases, the vaginal microbiome is dominated by Lactobacillus bacteria, which help maintain a protective mucous layer that reduces the risk of inflammation and infection. If Lactobacillus numbers drop, a diverse bacterial community, including species like Gardnerella vaginalis, takes over – and women can be left more susceptible to sexually transmitted infections. Klatt’s team ran a series of studies to see what happens when three HIV prevention drugs are cultured with microbes taken from different vaginal microbiomes, some Lactoballicus-dominated and some more diverse. Two drugs – tenofovir and dapivirine – soon began to disappear from the diverse cultures. After 24 hours, the Lactoballicus-dominated cultures had double the level of the HIV prevention drugs seen in the diverse cultures, says Klatt. Further analysis suggested why. Anaerobic bacteria such as G. vaginalis appear to metabolise – essentially, eat – the drugs. In the real world, they may do this before the drugs can reach the vaginal cells they are supposed to protect. This would help explain why the drugs are less effective in some women, says Klatt.
12-3-20 Brain stimulation device lets monkeys 'see' shapes without using eyes
Two monkeys are able to “see” and recognise letter shapes generated by arrays of electrodes implanted in their visual cortex rather than relying on light hitting their retina. It is the highest resolution achieved with implants in the brain, rather than the retina. “That’s really good news,” says Pieter Roelfsema at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, whose team aims to restore some vision to people who have lost their sight. Many research groups around the world are working on restoring some sight in people who are blind by sending signals from a head-mounted camera to arrays of electrodes that stimulate the appropriate nerve cells. There have been numerous trials in people already, and one 60-electrode device, called the Argus II, was approved for use in the US in 2013. Most implants, including the Argus II, are designed to be placed in the retina of an eye, but this approach won’t work for people whose optic nerve has been damaged, for instance. So some groups like Roelfsema’s are focusing on the visual cortex instead. The visual cortex is a bit like a cinema screen in our heads. Each area on its surface maps to the visual field, so activating an A-shaped pattern of electrodes in contact with the visual cortex will, in principle, make people “see” an A-shaped pattern of dots. However, if electrodes are simply placed on the surface of the visual cortex, a relatively strong current is required to stimulate the nerves below, and it is hard to generate a perception of more than two dots. Roelfsema and colleagues have instead used arrays of needle-like silicon electrodes that are 1.5 millimetres long. These electrodes are pushed into the cortex so that they make better contact with the nerve cells. The team implanted 16 arrays, each with 64 electrodes, across the visual cortex of two rhesus macaques, for a total of 1024 electrodes in each monkey.
12-3-20 Everything you need to know about the Pfizer/BioNTech covid-19 vaccine
UK regulators have authorised a covid-19 vaccine created by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech for emergency use, meaning that vaccine rollout is planned to begin soon. Here, we answer questions about the science of the vaccine, who will get it first, how confident we can be in the authorisation process and the logistics of vaccinating everyone in the UK. How effective is the vaccine? About 95 per cent. The phase 3 trials of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine involved 42,000 people, about half of whom got the experimental vaccine and the rest a placebo. In total, 170 people fell ill with covid-19. Only eight of them were in the vaccine group; 162 had received the placebo. So around 5 per cent of cases were in the vaccine group, which is where the 95 per cent figure comes from. That is a very healthy number: the World Health Organization (WHO) has said it would be happy with 50 per cent. What is in the vaccine? The active ingredient is messenger RNA that carries instructions for making the virus’s spike protein, which it uses to gain entry to cells. The mRNA is synthetic, not extracted from actual viruses. It is delivered in a tiny sphere of inert fatty material called a lipid nanoparticle. The RNA-bearing nanoparticles are suspended in saline solution and injected into muscle tissue in the upper arm. The mRNA is then taken up by specialist immune cells, which follow its instructions to make the spike protein, just as they would do if they had become infected with the actual virus. The spike protein is recognised as foreign by the immune system, which mounts an attack against it. Antibodies, B cells and T cells are activated, according to Ugur Sahin, the chief executive of the small German company BioNTech that co-developed the vaccine with US drug giant Pfizer. An immune memory is also laid down, he says, which means the immune system has learned how to defeat the pathogen and is primed to mount a swift response if it encounters the coronavirus again.
12-3-20 The ‘last mile’ for COVID-19 vaccines could be the biggest challenge yet
The need for cold storage and booster shots are among potential distribution hurdles. A race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine began almost the minute the coronavirus’s genetic makeup was revealed in January. Already, two companies have announced that their vaccines appear safe and about 95 percent effective (SN: 11/18/20, SN: 11/16/20). Government regulators in the United Kingdom granted permission December 2 for emergency use of a vaccine made by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer and its German biotech partner BioNTech. The first doses could be delivered within days of the announcement. Emergency use authorization and even full approval of the vaccines is probably not far off in the United States and other countries. But another race is just beginning. Ultimately, the vaccines won’t truly be successful until enough people have gotten them to stop the spread of the virus and prevent severe disease and death. And that will pose a logistical challenge unlike any other. In normal times, potential vaccines have only a 10 percent chance of making it from Phase II clinical trials — which test safety, dosing and sometimes give hints about effectiveness — to approval within 10 years, researchers reported November 24 in the Annals of Internal Medicine. On average, it takes successful vaccines over four years to go from Phase II trials to full regulatory approval. Even if the COVID-19 vaccines made by Pfizer or by the biotechnology company Moderna are distributed in late December under emergency use provisions — less than a year after clinical trials began — they may not gain full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for months, or even years. Even so, such lickety-split action to get out a vaccine against a previously unknown illness is unparalleled. But though the race to make a COVID-19 vaccine is moving at a world-record pace, it is far from over, says Robin Townley in Washington, D.C., who heads special-projects logistics for A.P. Moller-Maersk, a company that handles supply chain logistics and transportation services for companies around the world.
12-3-20 Stone Age humans chose to voyage to Japanese islands over the horizon
Stone Age humans crossed the sea from Taiwan to the Ryukyu islands of south-west Japan tens of thousands of years ago – and it looks like they did so deliberately, even though the islands are too far away to be reliably visible from Taiwan. Archaeological sites on several of the Ryukyu islands suggest humans had reached the islands by about 30,000 to 35,000 years ago. Yosuke Kaifu at the University of Tokyo and his colleagues suspect the ancient people did so by travelling north-east from Taiwan – a journey that involved ocean crossings of tens to hundreds of kilometres to hop from island to island. The researchers have even repeated some of these ocean crossings themselves using bamboo rafts of the kind that Stone Age humans might have built. But it hadn’t been clear whether the crossing occurred deliberately or by accident. The Kuroshio current, which flows from Luzon in the Philippines past Taiwan and Japan, is one of the strongest ocean currents in the world, and in some parts is 100 kilometres wide. “The speed of the Kuroshio in the east of Taiwan is normally 1 to 2 metres per second,” says Kaifu. To find out if people could have arrived at the islands by drifting on this current, the researchers looked at existing data from 138 satellite-tracked buoys, released into the world’s oceans as part of the Global Drifter Program. The 138 buoys all drifted past Taiwan or Luzon between 1989 and 2017. Kaifu and his colleagues found that only four buoys travelled to within 20 kilometres of any of the Ryukyu islands. In all four cases this occurred as a result of adverse weather conditions, including a typhoon. The finding suggests that the Kuroshio current directs drifters away from, rather than towards, the Ryukyu islands. Because the flow of the current is thought to have stayed the same for the past 100,000 years, it seems likely that Stone Age people reached the Ryukyu islands through deliberate voyaging rather than accidental drifting.
12-2-20 Simon Baron-Cohen: Why autism and invention are intimately related
The prehistoric cognitive revolution that saw an explosion of inventions was driven by a new, pattern-seeking network in the brain – and that’s highly correlated with autism today, says researcher Simon Baron-Cohen. DESCENDING the ladder into Hohle Fels cave, I felt like I was going back through layers of time. At the bottom, Nicholas Conard, archaeologist and director of the nearby museum in Blaubeuren, Germany, pointed to a layer of rock. “Right here is 20,000 years ago,” he said. Then he pointed about a metre lower. “Here, we are at 40,000 years ago.” I was in awe, suddenly aware that I was standing where our early human ancestors lived and breathed so long ago. But it was what they invented that inspired my trip. Hohle Fels is where, in 2008, Conard and his colleagues discovered the earliest known musical instrument, a flute carved from a vulture bone that is thought to be about 40,000 years old. It is the product of what I argue are parallel revolutions in human cognition. In my career studying the human brain through the lens of understanding autism, I have devoted a lot of time to understanding empathy, its role in our evolution and how it still underpins human interaction today. But around the same time that the brain changes arose that enabled us to use empathy, another equally critical set of changes took place: the evolution of a pattern-seeking brain network, what I refer to as the systemising mechanism, that provides the foundation for human invention – including that of musical instruments. The consequences of this dual revolution for humanity were profound. What’s more, my recent research suggests that the pattern-seeking network is more highly tuned in autistic people and may help explain why autistic traits often overlap with an extraordinary capacity for invention.
12-2-20 People experiencing a migraine climbed inside an MRI to find out why
We may be one step closer to knowing what causes a migraine, which could help determine what parts of the brain to target for future treatments. About 15 per cent of people globally are estimated to experience migraines and it affects women three times as much as men, although we don’t know why. Studying migraines has proved difficult because symptoms are sporadic and can last for days, while the MRI machines required to record them are typically in high demand for clinical purposes. It is also hard to convince people to climb into a noisy and disorientating MRI machine when they are nauseous and have a throbbing headache, but Anne Stankewitz at Ludwig Maximilian University Munich, Germany, and her colleagues were able to do just that. “Migraineurs are used to suffering,” said Stankewitz. “They are willing to contribute to research in order to find a better understanding of their disease.” The team signed up 50 people with migraines and told them to ring when they first started getting a headache. When a call came in, the team would check if an MRI machine was free, and if so bring the person in and scan them. The machine records the brain’s blood flow levels, a measure of neural activity. The participant would then come back repeatedly so their brain could be recorded throughout an entire migraine cycle, the period before, during and after a single migraine attack, which can last for days. This scanning took place early in the morning before the machine was needed for clinical use. Recording was ended when the participant rang to say they had started to undergo a second migraine attack. Of the pool of 50 people on retainer, the researchers got complete data for 12 of them, 11 women and one man. The shortest migraine cycle they recorded lasted seven days, while the longest ran for 21 days.
12-2-20 A COVID-19 time capsule captures pandemic moments for future researchers
Social scientists selected photos, charts and even a tweet. Imagine if, at the height of the 1918 flu pandemic, researchers studying how society was changing had captured the moment in a time capsule. What information might social scientists today have gleaned from such an effort? How might that repository inform the global response to the current pandemic? Theoretically such an artifact could be buried somewhere, but for now, researchers are out of luck. When the next pandemic invariably strikes, though, social scientists might find themselves better situated. The nonprofit Social Science Research Council, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., has assembled a collection of images that aims to freeze in time the myriad ways the COVID-19 crisis is transforming societies worldwide. And unlike time capsules of yesteryear, this version will live entirely online. The capsule currently includes an eclectic mix of photographs, charts and even a drawing appearing to depict infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci as a saint. Alondra Nelson, president of the council, says she and colleagues knew by spring that the pandemic was going to trigger massive societal change. Council staff came up with numerous initiatives to help scientists discuss and study those changes, including grants for COVID-19 research. With support from outside sponsors, council staffers also set up an essay forum in which scientists evaluated the pandemic from varying vantage points — from its effect on democracy to what society might look like in the aftertimes. The group also began a crowdsourced “syllabus” covering scholarly and creative writings addressing all things pandemic. But Nelson also wanted to capture the flood of images emerging from such a massive global upheaval. That led to the idea of a visual time capsule. Starting in the spring, the council began asking prominent researchers to select any image that spoke to their understanding of the crisis and then explain the choice in an interview.
12-2-20 Bird beak extra sense evolved more than 70 million years ago
An organ that allows certain birds to detect the movement of hidden prey by plunging their beaks into the ground was also present in early birds 70 million years ago, and probably first appeared in their dinosaur ancestors. Special “remote touch” sensory receptors known as Herbst corpuscles, which are found within densely-packed pits in the beak’s tip, help birds detect the movement of worms in soil or small fish in water – even several centimetres away from the bird’s beak. This effectively gives birds a “sixth sense”, according to Carla du Toit at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and her colleagues. To work out when the sixth sense evolved, du Toit and her colleagues studied the beaks of hundreds of modern and ancient birds, including four species of lithornithids, an extinct group of birds which lived alongside dinosaurs during the Cretaceous period. Lithornithids belong to one of the two major types of birds alive today – the palaeognaths, which include kiwi, ostriches, and emus. The other major group is the neognaths. By examining specimens of modern birds, the researchers identified distinct pitting patterns in the beak associated with Herbst corpuscles, says du Toit. The team then found those same patterns in lithornithid fossil beaks, which suggests that lithornithids had the same sensory abilities and were probe-foraging birds. The discovery makes sense, because Herbst corpuscles are found in both palaeognaths such as kiwis, and in neognaths such as ibises. The two groups separated from one another more than 70 million years ago, which would suggest Herbst corpuscles evolved in the common ancestor of both bird groups. In fact, the sensory structures might have evolved in dinosaurs, says du Toit. A “sixth sense” feature might have helped carnivorous theropods such as Neovenator find prey by probing their snouts into mud or murky water, she says.
12-1-20 Long-lasting shots work better than daily pills to prevent HIV in at-risk women
Women face obstacles when it comes to taking advantage of HIV prevention medicine called PrEP. Worldwide, nearly half of new HIV infections among adults in 2019 occurred in women. Yet a long list of obstacles has kept many women from taking advantage of medicine that can prevent an HIV infection. Recent, promising news about a different HIV prevention regimen could help. A long-acting injection of an HIV drug given once every eight weeks was safe and more effective in preventing infection in women than a daily pill of two HIV drugs, a large clinical trial found. “This is incredibly exciting,” says infectious disease physician Bisola Ojikutu of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who was not involved in the trial. If the injection is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, she says, women will have the option of a discretely administered HIV prevention drug that doesn’t require daily attention. Although women make up a minority of those newly diagnosed with HIV in the United States, their HIV-related death rate, 5.4 per 1,000 people with diagnoses, was higher than that of males (4.5 per 1,000) or transgender women (4.3 per 1,000) in 2017, researchers report November 20 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Women face many barriers when it comes to protecting themselves against an HIV infection. A woman’s HIV risk is tied not only to measures within her control, but also to the amount of HIV transmission in her community, whether she has reliable health care and whether she lives in poverty or experiences intimate partner violence (SN: 11/15/19). But studies have found that women at high risk due to societal factors tend to underestimate their individual risk. Most cisgender women acquire HIV during heterosexual contact; women have twice the risk that men do of contracting HIV during vaginal sex with an infected partner. Condoms are a helpful HIV prevention tool but their use is not fully under a woman’s control. Medicine to prevent an infection in an HIV-negative person at risk, called pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP, was approved in the United States in 2012. Taken consistently, the daily pill form of PrEP can lower the risk of getting HIV during vaginal sex by up to 90 percent, and as much as 99 during anal sex.