2-28-21 Pompeii: Archaeologists unveil ceremonial chariot discovery
Archaeologists in Italy have unveiled a ceremonial chariot they discovered near the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. The four-wheeled carriage was found near a stable where three horses were uncovered back in 2018. Experts believe it was likely used in festivities and parades, with the find described as "exceptional" and "in an excellent state of preservation". Pompeii, engulfed by a volcanic eruption from Mount Vesuvius in AD79, is an archaeological treasure trove. The volcanic eruption buried the city in a thick layer of ash, preserving many of its residents and buildings. The chariot was found in a double-level portico connected to stables at an ancient villa at Civita Giuliana, north of the walls of the ancient city. A statement by the park described the ceremonial chariot as having "iron components, beautiful bronze and tin decorations" as well as ropes and floral decoration discovered "almost intact". Archaeologists say efforts to safely free the chariot took weeks after it first emerged during an excavation effort on 7 January. They said the fragility of the materials involved made their effort particularly complex, with special techniques, including plaster moulding, used to uncover it without damage. The operation was carried out in collaboration with a local prosecutor's office amid criminal efforts to loot items of cultural heritage from the site using means such as illegal tunnels. Officials described the carriage as without parallel among other finds in Italy. "This is an extraordinary discovery that advances our understanding of the ancient world," Massimo Osanna, the director of the site, said in a press release. He said some of the ornate decorations on the chariot allude to it being used for community festivities, possibly including wedding ceremonies.
2-27-21 A new way of looking at concussions
Emerging research suggests that even mild hits to the head may damage the tiny lymphatic vessels that clear toxic chemicals and cellular debris from the brain. n a crisp September day, Zoe Aldrich walked onto a rugby pitch on a college campus in upstate New York. With her teammates surrounding her, she got ready for the kickoff and the pitch became a blur of colored jerseys. A teammate passed Aldrich the ball and she started running, but an opposing player tackled her to the ground. Players collided above her, competing for the ball. As Aldrich tried to crawl out from under them, one of her teammates accidentally kicked her in the head. "I never lost consciousness," she says, "but I didn't feel well." Trainers diagnosed her with a concussion, and for the next year and a half, Aldrich suffered from a feeling of fogginess, like her brain wasn't working correctly. People told her she would feel better in two weeks, then four, then six. Eventually, she says, "I had to give up on this notion that I had to wait a certain number of weeks and then things would go back to normal." Each year in the United States, there are around 3.8 million concussions, and sports- and recreation-related activities are responsible for a significant number of them. Most patients experience symptoms similar to Aldrich's — headaches, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, and memory loss. There is no single test to diagnose a concussion; instead, doctors examine balance, coordination, ability to pay attention, and memory. If the symptoms are severe, they'll also conduct brain scans to check for swelling or bleeding. For around 80 percent of patients, symptoms go away within two weeks. But others, like Aldrich, experience symptoms for months or even years. A history of multiple concussions may increase the risk of more serious problems later in life, including Alzheimer's disease and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a neurodegenerative disorder with dementia-like symptoms. Although it's clear that concussions damage the brain, exactly how they do so is still largely a mystery — especially when it comes to long-term problems. An intriguing new clue focuses on tiny tubes sandwiched between the meninges, a set of membranes that surrounds and protects the brain and spinal cord. These tubes, called meningeal lymphatic vessels, help to clear cellular and molecular waste from the brain. A mouse study published in September in the journal Nature Communications reported that after minor blows to the head, the brain swells and pins these vessels up against the skull. Like putting a kink in a hose, this diminishes their ability to drain properly. This damaged drainage system, the researchers speculate, may be what leads to more severe and longer-lasting symptoms. "We know that most of the time, a concussion is a limited process; most people recover and don't have long-term effects," says Ann McKee, a neuropathologist who directs Boston University's CTE Center and was not involved in the study. But in autopsies of people who had suffered from CTE during their life, McKee has found scarring in the meninges. "The idea that meningeal lymphatic channels may contribute to inflammation and persistent symptoms, I think, is a very interesting idea — it makes a lot of sense to me."
2-26-21 What you eat is influenced by the food choices of people you dine with
Who you choose to eat with influences what you decide to eat, according to a study of 38 million food purchases at a university campus over eight years. Kristina Gligoric at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and her colleagues tracked purchases made on campus using smart cards. The team tracked the eating habits of 39,000 anonymised students and staff from 2010 to 2018. On average, people’s purchases were tracked for 578 days and they visited shops, cafes, restaurants and vending machines 188 times. Of the 39,000 users, 830 people were identified as “matched pairs” of strangers after their purchases were monitored for a year and found to be similar. Their food purchases then deviated as they respectively began to eat with different friends. “In order to really isolate the effect of others on our choices, we need millions of purchases and tens of thousands of individuals to be able to find really comparable people,” says Gligoric. She thinks of the people in matched pairs as “doppelgangers whose history is the same, but one by chance happens to start eating with someone who is a healthy eating partner, and someone starts eating with an unhealthy eating partner”. Their purchases were then monitored to see how they changed before and after they began eating socially, measured by calculating when and where purchases were made, and ensuring they were close enough to be in the same queue as others. The researchers discovered that people pick similar items to the person they are eating with. If a new friend eats pizza, the tracked person is more likely to eat pizza. In comparison to the other person in their matched pair, people whose eating companions ate more unhealthy foods were more likely to buy one extra soft drink and 0.5 additional pizzas in the six months after they buddy up. The same happened with healthier food: people who made friends with healthy eaters bought on average an extra 5.71 healthy items and 1.13 fewer unhealthy options over six months.
2-26-21 COVID-19 vaccines may be ready for teens this summer
Testing is under way for children, with results expected for adolescents first. Encouraging news about COVID-19 vaccines keeps coming. No unusual safety issues arose during the first month of vaccination, when 13.8 million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were administered in the United States, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported February 19. The vaccines also appear to slow the spread of the coronavirus (SN: 2/12/21). But the available data on COVID-19 vaccines — as well as access to them — centers almost entirely on adults. Most children aren’t yet authorized to receive the shots. An exception is 16- and 17-year-olds; last year, Pfizer expanded its adult trial to these older teens. They were included in Pfizer’s emergency use authorization in the United States, although few have actually been vaccinated, as the group isn’t prioritized to get the shots yet. The World Health Organization also recommended emergency use of this vaccine for 16- and 17-year-olds. The work to fill in the data gap on kids and COVID-19 vaccines is now gaining steam. Pfizer is testing their vaccine in adolescents as young as age 12. Moderna is currently recruiting for a clinical trial for 12- to 17-year-olds. And on February 12, AstraZeneca announced the start of a trial for their jab in children ages 6 to 17. As to when a COVID-19 vaccine might get the OK for use in adolescents in the United States, “I’d be optimistic for summer,” says infectious disease physician Emily Erbelding, who directs the Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Rockville, Md. It would most likely be Pfizer’s vaccine, as the company is the farthest along with testing in adolescents. Younger children will wait longer for a COVID-19 vaccine, with most trials not yet under way for those under 12 years old.
2-26-21 Can a COVID-19 vaccine’s second dose be delayed? It’s complicated
New data show high efficacy levels after a first dose, but it’s unclear how long that lasts. Within a couple weeks after a first vaccine dose, people are well protected against severe COVID-19, new data suggest. With demand for shots far outpacing supply, that’s sparked a debate among scientists and policy makers: Is it OK to hold off giving the second dose? Delaying the dose could make way for more people to get their first shots and stem the coronavirus’s spread, proponents say. Opponents say there’s not enough data to show if that one-shot protection is long-lasting enough. And they worry that changing timing now could confuse people, undermine trust and lead to more widespread hesitancy to get the vaccine. Here’s a closer look at the issues involved. In clinical trials, the second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was given 21 days after the first. Moderna’s second shot followed the first jab after 28 days. Both vaccines were about 94 percent to 95 percent effective after two doses (SN: 12/18/20). AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford spaced doses of their vaccine four to 12 weeks apart in four separate trials. That vaccine’s efficacy ranged from 62 percent to about 90 percent depending on dosing schedules and amounts (SN: 11/23/20). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave emergency authorization for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to be given on the same schedule tested in the trials. (The AstraZeneca vaccine is not approved for use yet in the United States.) The United Kingdom took a different approach, deciding in late December to delay giving booster shots of coronavirus vaccines for 12 weeks after the initial dose. The goal: to stretch vaccine supplies to cover as many people as possible. The decision drew criticism. After all, scientists said, that timing had never been tested for efficacy against the coronavirus.
2-25-21 We've finally figured out why there were no medium-sized dinosaurs
Giant, carnivorous dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus rex really did dominate Earth. The predacious habits of these animals were so vast, in fact, that they muscled out the competition from smaller predatory species. In a study of 43 dinosaur communities spanning 136 million years of prehistory, Katlin Schroeder at the University of New Mexico and her colleagues found that carnivorous dinosaur species estimated to have had an adult body weight of between 100 and 1000 kilograms were rare to non-existent in many dinosaur communities. This contrasts with the way carnivorous species of different sizes carve out niches in today’s ecosystems. In places like the Serengeti in East Africa, carnivorous species form a continuous size gradient of small to large – from the tiny bat-eared fox to mid-sized African wild dogs to burly lions – without the break seen among predatory dinosaurs. The explanation, Schroder and her colleagues propose, is that the juveniles of giant species – or “megatheropods” – like Allosaurus and Gorgosaurus acted almost like different species, choosing different prey to the adults and so outcompeting mid-sized carnivorous species. “The implication is that we’re not missing medium-sized dinosaurs from the fossil record because they didn’t fossilise well or haven’t been collected, but that competition from juvenile megatheropods pushed them out of the ecosystem,” says Schroeder. “I absolutely do agree with their premises, as I find the same basic pattern myself,” says Thomas Holtz at the University of Maryland. Holtz and others have pointed out that juvenile tyrannosaurs, for example, were much slenderer than adults and probably had different preferences for prey, only turning into bone-crushers after a teenage growth spurt.
2-25-21 Why insulting people's intelligence is incompatible with open debate
We too often turn to insulting people’s brain power – and that closes off our ability to understand others, argues Melanie Challenger. BELITTLING the minds of others is commonplace. Stupid! Brainless! Imbecile! Dozy! Just scroll through the comments on pretty much any contentious article and you will find criticism by mental slander. Social media is littered with words like “unthinking” and “idiot”, especially when people are confronted with views with which they disagree. Indeed, Twitter is a lightning rod of prejudices about minds. Former US president Donald Trump was perhaps the kingpin here, before Twitter banned him. Not only did he routinely boast of his own mental prowess – “sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest” – but he persistently used mental slurs to silence critics: “dummy!”. Yet we can all be guilty of mental slander. Right-wing supporters frequently call those on the left “libtards”. Meanwhile, according to the Oxford English Dictionary’s New Monitor Corpus, conservative voters in the US are often derided as “nutjobs”. Mental slurs are a fast and simple trick to silence an unwanted voice and to lower trust in evidence we resist. A growing body of research is allowing us to understand where this prejudice comes from. Humans are group-living animals. Probing and judging other minds is a part of how we coordinate with each other, cooperate and make and break alliances. By the age of 5, children make assumptions about people’s mental states, such as understanding that someone can be mistaken in their beliefs. Particular parts of the brain are implicated: the medial prefrontal cortex, the temporal poles and the posterior superior temporal sulcus. These work in concert to enable us to detect and make judgements about minds – both our own and those of others.
2-25-21 Ardi may have been more chimplike than initially thought — or not
Hand and foot remains suggest the ancient hominid was a tree climber, but some disagree. One of the earliest known hominids, a 4.4-million-year-old partial skeleton of a female dubbed Ardi, had hands suited for climbing trees and swinging from branches, a new investigation suggests. These results, based on statistical comparisons of hand bones from fossil hominids and present-day primates, stoke an ongoing debate not only about how Ardi moved (SN: 2/22/19) but also what the last common ancestor of humans and chimps looked like (SN: 12/31/09). “The last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees was more similar to chimps than to any other living primate,” says paleoanthropologist Thomas Prang of Texas A&M University in College Station. That ancestor, who lived roughly 7 million years ago, had hands designed much like those of tree-adept, knuckle-walking chimps and bonobos, he and his colleagues say. That hand design was retained by early hominids such as Ardi’s East African species, Ardipithecus ramidus, the team reports February 24 in Science Advances. Hand fossils showing a more humanlike design and grip first appeared in a later hominid, Australopithecus afarensis, Prang’s group reports. That fossil species, best known for Lucy’s partial skeleton, inhabited East Africa from around 3.9 million to 3 million years ago. Not until after Lucy’s kind had died out did bonobos diverge into a species apart from chimps, between 1.6 million and 2 million years ago (SN: 10/27/16). That makes the older chimp lineage a closer relative of early hominids. Still, Prang cautions, chimps have evolved over the past several million years and don’t represent “living fossils” that can be used as stand-ins for the ancient ancestor of humans and chimps. To assess which species possessed especially similar hands, Prang’s team analyzed the sizes and dimensions of four fossils from Ardi’s hands. The researchers then compared those measurements with comparable ones from other fossil hominids and from living primates.
2-24-21 Earliest human ancestors may have swung on branches like chimps
Our distant ancestors may have swung from branches and knuckle-walked like a chimpanzee – challenging recent thinking that the earliest hominins did neither. That is the conclusion of an analysis of 4.4-million-year-old Ardipithecus ramidus, thought to be one of the earliest known hominins. In popular thinking, humans are often imagined to have evolved from a chimpanzee-like ape, but many researchers now challenge this idea – particularly in light of fossil evidence from A. ramidus that was published in 2009. One well-preserved individual – nicknamed Ardi – had bones that suggested it typically walked along branches like a monkey rather than swinging below them like a chimp. This hinted that our last common ancestor with chimps also walked along branches, and that chimps evolved to swing and knuckle-walk after they branched off from hominins. Thomas C. Prang at Texas A&M University and his colleagues disagree with this conclusion. They have taken the measurements of Ardi’s hands reported in 2009 and compared them with 416 measurements from hands across 53 species of living primates, including chimpanzees, bonobos and humans. “The analysis of this hand, one of the earliest hands in the human fossil record, suggests that it is chimpanzee-like, implying that both humans and chimps evolved from an ancestor that was chimp-like,” says Prang. They found that Ardi’s metacarpals and phalanges – the bones of the fingers and palms – were similar in size to those of living apes, with relatively large joint and knuckle dimensions. These adaptations are present in existing primates that move around forests by swinging below branches and may have helped the hominin to grasp onto branches, and even knuckle-walk. “Ardi also has elongated, more curved finger bones, and we see this increased elongation and curvature in animals that habitually hang from branches,” says Prang.
2-24-21 First universal coronavirus vaccine will start human trials this year
THE coronavirus sweeping around the world isn’t the first to make the leap into humans and it won’t be the last. Vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 were developed in record time and are performing well. But now we urgently need a different kind of vaccine, say scientists: one that will protect us against other coronaviruses, even those we haven’t met yet. It is a daunting challenge, yet work has already begun on creating such a universal vaccine, with the first human trials of potential candidates planned to start later this year. In the past 20 years, humanity has endured three outbreaks of disease caused by novel coronaviruses: SARS, MERS and now covid-19. The first two are very deadly – up to 35 per cent of people who catch MERS, and 10 per cent of those with SARS, die – but they aren’t very transmissible. Covid-19 is highly transmissible, but not as deadly: so far, up to about 1 per cent of people who have caught it have died. With a number of other coronaviruses out there poised to make the leap from animals into humans, there will almost certainly be a fourth. And as Wayne Koff, CEO of global consortium the Human Vaccines Project, points out, if the next coronavirus is as transmissible as SARS-CoV-2 and as deadly as the viruses that cause SARS or MERS, “within a year we could have 100 million dead”. The solution to this threat is obvious, says Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). “We would like to develop a universal coronavirus vaccine for all coronaviruses,” he said at an online meeting run by the New York Academy of Sciences this month. This is easier said than done. A universal coronavirus vaccine would need to identify a region of the virus that is so integral to its survival that it is conserved across all coronaviruses, and doesn’t change as viruses mutate.
2-24-21 Children are getting long covid and being left with lasting problems
A SERIOUS picture is emerging about the long-term health effects of covid-19 in some children, with UK politicians calling the lack of acknowledgment of the problem a “national scandal”. Children seem to be fairly well-protected from the most severe symptoms of covid-19. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the majority of children don’t develop symptoms when infected with the coronavirus, or their symptoms are very mild. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that a large number of children with symptomatic and asymptomatic covid-19 are experiencing long-term effects, many months after the initial infection. Symptoms of long covid were first thought to include fatigue, muscle and joint pain, headache, insomnia, respiratory problems and heart palpitations. Now, support groups and researchers say there may be up to 100 other symptoms, including gastrointestinal problems, nausea, dizziness, seizures, hallucinations and testicular pain. Most long covid research is based on adults. There is less information about under-18s, in part because it takes longer to get ethical approval to study children, says Natalie Lambert at Indiana University School of Medicine. A recent study found that 13.3 per cent of adults with symptomatic covid-19 have symptoms lasting more than 28 days (medRxiv, doi.org/ghgdsv). Long-lasting symptoms were more likely to occur with increasing age and BMI, and were more likely in women than men, although it isn’t clear why. Experiencing more than five symptoms in the first week post-infection was associated with a greater likelihood of having symptoms further down the line. Evidence from the first study of long covid in children suggests that more than half of children aged between 6 and 16 years old who contract the virus have at least one symptom lasting more than 120 days, with 42.6 per cent impaired by these symptoms during daily activities. These interim results are based on periodic assessments of 129 children in Italy who were diagnosed with covid-19 between March and November 2020 at the Gemelli University Hospital in Rome (medRxiv, doi.org/fv9t).
2-24-21 Is MSG bad for you or is mass aversion to it just a cultural oddity?
Monosodium glutamate is eaten without problems in many countries, yet in the West there is a strange cultural aversion to it. James Wong investigates what’s going on. DURING my master’s degree, I lived high up in the mountains of rural Ecuador, studying the practices of traditional Andean medicine. I was fascinated by beliefs of culturally specific syndromes, like susto, thought to be caused by spiritual attack, resulting in insomnia, depression and anorexia, or mal de ojo, in which a stare from another person can cause severe fever, diarrhoea and even death in children. What always stood out when I asked about the basis of these ideas was that the explanations seemed far-fetched to me but common sense to them. That is the thing about culture: to the people enveloped in it, even beliefs that defy explanation can seem like unquestionable reality. Ours is, unsurprisingly, no exception. To illustrate this, let’s look at the evidence supporting what is arguably one of the West’s culturally specific syndromes: “Chinese restaurant syndrome”. Coined in the US in the 1960s, it describes a constellation of symptoms such as numbness, palpitations and nausea that are thought to occur after consuming the food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG), often associated with East Asian restaurants. This belief is so pervasive that it has been propagated in bestselling books, espoused on blogs and has even led many restaurants to advertise food as “MSG free” to avoid a backlash. So what could be behind this worrying reaction? Well, as I found when talking to Andean communities, the exact explanation for beliefs can vary dramatically depending on who you ask. Some cite the fact that MSG doesn’t exist in nature, others its synthetic means of production, or even its “unpronounceable” scientific name. Still others cite the fact that scientific trials clearly prove its toxicity. However, perhaps surprisingly, when we look at the evidence, none of these “facts” is really a fact.
2-24-21 The rise and fall of the mysterious culture that invented civilisation
Proto-cities built from 6200 years ago in eastern Europe upend our ideas about when civilisation began and why people made the move from rural to urban living. AROUND 6200 years ago, farmers living on the eastern fringes of Europe, in what is now Ukraine, did something inexplicable. They left their neolithic villages and moved into a sparsely inhabited area of forest and steppe. There, in an area roughly the size of Belgium between the modern cities of Kiev and Odessa, they congregated at new settlements up to 20 times the size of their old ones. This enigmatic culture, known as the Cucuteni-Trypillia, predates the earliest known cities in Mesopotamia, a civilisation that spanned part of the Middle East, and in China. It persisted for 800 years, but then, as mysteriously as it had begun, this experiment in civilisation failed. The inhabitants left the lightest of footprints in the landscape, and no human remains have been found. “Not a pinkie, not a tooth,” says palaeogeneticist Alexey Nikitin at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. This puzzling lack of evidence has fuelled a lively debate about what Nikitin calls the “Dark Ages” of European prehistory. “You talk to five Trypillian archaeologists, you get five different opinions,” he says. But the data gap hasn’t stifled interest – quite the opposite. Several projects in recent years have tried to make sense of the Trypillian proto-cities. Despite big disagreements, what is emerging is a picture of an early and unique attempt at urbanisation. It may be the key to understanding how modern Europe emerged from the Stone Age – and even throw new light on the emergence of human civilisation in general.Uruk and Tell Brak, which arose in Mesopotamia early in the 4th millennium BC, are usually considered the world’s first cities. Their excavated remains point to an increased density of habitation and a novel, hierarchical social structure – two features that are considered integral to the definition of a city. The idea is that as human populations grew, strangers had to come together in a shared space and get along. “I think that was the real psychological threshold of urbanism,” says Monica Smith at the University of California, Los Angeles, an anthropologist and author of Cities: The first 6,000 years. But the Trypillian megasites don’t meet either of those criteria, so how should we make sense of them?
2-24-21 Diplodocus-like fossil in Uzbekistan hints Asia was a dinosaur hub
A Diplodocus-like dinosaur is the first of its kind to be found in Asia, suggesting the landmass could have helped dinosaurs reach other regions and that this group was more widely distributed across the planet than previously thought. Hans-Dieter Sues at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and his colleague Alexander Averianov at the Russian Academy of Sciences described the dinosaur from a fossil found in Uzbekistan. They named the dinosaur Dzharatitanis kingi after the Dzharakuduk region in which it was found, as well as in honour of deceased colleague Christopher King, who had contributed to the work. The pair say it is a sauropod, the group of dinosaurs that includes Diplodocus, and more specifically a rebbachisaurid, meaning it lacks a certain ridge on its vertebrae seen in other sauropods. Rebbachisaurids had previously only been found in North Africa, parts of Europe and America. Like other sauropods, Dzharatitanis would have had a long, slender neck and relatively small head with a very long tail. Since the pair only had the animal’s vertebrae to examine, it is impossible to tell the age at which it died and difficult to estimate how big it could have grown, but Sues believes it might have reached between 15 and 20 metres. It would have lived about 90 million years ago during the Cretaceous period. “We find new dinosaurs all the time, but this particular dinosaur represents a group that we’ve not found any evidence for in central Asia before,” says Paul Barrett at the Natural History Museum in London. “So, it gives some new insight into how widely distributed this particular dinosaur group was.” “We’re still trying to put together how animals got distributed during the Cretaceous period because Europe at the time was basically a series of large and small islands and then you have this sort of huge land mass of Asia in the east and that landmass was connected to North America,” says Sues. Asia may have been a central hub for dinosaurs to move all over the planet, he says.
2-24-21 Metabolism myths: 7 things we get wrong about diet and exercise
Despite what you might have heard, your body is not a simple calorie-burning engine you can tweak at will to keep trim and stay healthy. Here are seven metabolic misconceptions you need to know. THE universe of good reasons for putting a live guinea pig in an insulated metal pot is small. I can think of only one: in France, in the winter of 1782, the chemist Antoine Lavoisier and his polymath friend Pierre-Simon Laplace placed their unwitting subject into a double-walled metal chamber, the world’s first calorimeter, and sealed the lid. They had packed snow into the space between the walls, and by comparing the rate at which the guinea pig’s body heat melted the snow to the rate of carbon dioxide it exhaled, they discovered metabolism – the “fire of life” that drives our very existence. At last, science had a physical measure of the life force that enables us to grow, reproduce and move. Physiologists like myself have been counting calories ever since. Today, a widespread obsession with fitness and body weight has led to a new era of calorie counting. Diet books and magazine workouts promise a kind of shiny metabolic nirvana of calories burned, villainous foods avoided, waistlines melted and health and vitality restored. The reasons they fail – and they almost always do – are as varied as the schemes themselves, but the common theme is a fundamental misunderstanding of metabolism. Yes, diet and exercise are critically important for our health, but they don’t work in the ways we are usually taught. Our bodies aren’t simple calorie-burning engines that we can easily manipulate to keep us looking trim and feeling good. They are complex and dynamic metabolic systems meticulously shaped by evolution for survival and reproduction. My own metabolic research has taken me and my colleagues across the globe, measuring calories burned by hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, East Coast urbanites in the US, horticulturalists in the Amazon and ultramarathon runners pounding across North America. We have also explored the expenditures of our closest living relatives – chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans – taking the tools of metabolic science out of the lab and across the tree of life.
2-24-21 Redefining ‘flesh-colored’ bandages makes medicine more inclusive
Popularizing brown bandages would help normalize dark skin, a medical student argues. When Linda Oyesiku was a child, she skinned her knee on her school’s playground. The school nurse cleaned her up and covered the wound with a peach-tinted bandage. On Oyesiku’s dark skin, the bandage stuck out, so Oyesiku colored it with a brown marker. Years later, Oyesiku, now a medical student at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, needed to conceal a wound on her face after undergoing surgery. Well aware that the surgeon’s office was unlikely to have a supply of brown bandages on hand, she came prepared with her own box. Those episodes left her wondering, though: Why were such bandages not more widely available? The ubiquity of peach or “flesh” colored bandages provides a stark reminder that medicine remains centered on white patients, says Oyesiku, who calls for brown bandages to become mainstream. Brown bandages would symbolize that patients of color no longer represent “deviations from the norm,” she writes in an October commentary in Pediatric Dermatology. Peach-tinted bandages, invented by pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson in the 1920s, have been the standard-bearer for a century. Normalizing peach as the default flesh color has had knock-on effects: The nicotine and birth control adhesive patches that have since appeared on the market are also tinted peach, Oyesiku reports. Over the last several decades, smaller companies have introduced bandages for multiple skin tones, but those remain harder to come by than peach-tinted ones. The issue goes deeper than a bandage, Oyesiku says. Treating whiteness as the default in medicine contributes to Black and other minority groups’ distrust of medical professionals (SN: 4/10/20) and has led to biases in machine learning programs that U.S. hospitals use to prioritize patient care (SN: 10/24/19).
2-24-21 Whales and dolphins can resist cancer and their DNA reveals why
Whales, dolphins and porpoises are much better at fighting cancer than we are, and now we might be closer to understanding why cetaceans can do this. Generally speaking, cetaceans are the most long-lived mammals, with some whale species reaching their 200th birthday. Why this should be possible is a mystery given that their size means their bodies contain far more cells than the human body does. “If you have more cells, that means that the risk that one of those cells… becomes cancerous increases,” says Daniela Tejada-Martinez at the Austral University of Chile. “So, if you are big or live longer, you have thousands and millions of cells that could become harmful.” Instead, cetaceans have much lower rates of cancer than most other mammals, including humans. This situation is known as Peto’s paradox. “There’s a joke that whales should be born with cancer and not even able to exist because they’re just too big,” says Vincent Lynch at the University at Buffalo, New York. He says there is a “super trivial” explanation for how whales can exist. “They just evolved better cancer protection mechanisms,” he says. But we still need to learn more about why and how they did this. Now, Tejada-Martinez and her colleagues have studied the evolution of 1077 tumour suppressor genes (TSGs). In all, they compared the evolution of the genes in 15 mammalian species, including seven cetacean species. Genes regulating DNA damage, tumour spread and the immune system were positively selected among the cetaceans. The team also found that cetaceans gained and lost TSGs at a rate 2.4 times higher than in other mammals. “It’s not like we’re gonna be taking whale genes and putting them into humans and making humans cancer resistant,” says Lynch. “But if you can find the genes that play a role in tumour suppression in other animals, and if you could figure out what they’re doing, maybe you can make a drug that mimics that for human treatment.”
2-24-21 Earliest American dog hints pets accompanied first people in Americas
Dogs were domesticated at least 27,000 years ago, and they have been tagging along with humans ever since. Now, we may have the strongest evidence yet that early dogs even accompanied the first Americans as they moved along the Pacific coast. Charlotte Lindqvist and her colleagues at the University at Buffalo in New York extracted DNA from the oldest known dog remains found in the Americas, and found the genetic signature is consistent with the idea that dogs first arrived in the region between 17,000 and 16,000 years ago – which is also roughly in line with the currently accepted time for the arrival of the first Americans. The small bone – a piece of the dome-like head of a thighbone – measures 1 centimetre in diameter and was originally found in the late 1990s in Lawyer’s cave, a site in south-east Alaska. About 15 years ago it was carbon dated to a little more than 10,000 years old, although at the time the small bone fragment was assumed to have come from a bear. Only when Lindqvist and her colleagues studied DNA from the specimen did they realise it belonged to a dog, which makes it the earliest evidence of dogs found so far in the Americas. The team isolated mitochondrial DNA from the bone to understand the dog’s genetic history. “The mitochondrial DNA gives us a history of the dog’s mother because it contains maternally inherited DNA,” says Lindqvist. The DNA sequence showed that the ancient Alaskan dog was closely related to the lineage of domestic dogs that were living in the Americas before European contact and colonisation. In detail, the exact lineage the Alaskan dog belonged to branched off from these “precontact dogs” about 14,500 years ago. The genetic data also showed that the Alaskan dog’s lineage branched off from dogs living in Siberia roughly 16,700 years ago. “This dog belonged to a descent of very early dogs that moved into the New World soon after the ice age around 17,000 years ago,” says Lindqvist.
2-24-21 Climate change helped some dinosaurs migrate to Greenland
A drop in CO2 levels helped massive plant eaters trek from South America to Greenland. A drop in carbon dioxide levels may have helped sauropodomorphs, early relatives of the largest animal to ever walk the earth, migrate thousands of kilometers north past once-forbidding deserts around 214 million years ago. Scientists pinpointed the timing of the dinosaurs’ journey from South America to Greenland by correlating rock layers with sauropodomorph fossils to changes in Earth’s magnetic field. Using that timeline, the team found that the creatures’ northward push coincides with a dramatic decrease in CO2, which may have removed climate-related barriers, the team reports February 15 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The sauropodomorphs were a group of long-necked, plant-eating dinosaurs that included massive sauropods such as Seismosaurus as well as their smaller ancestors (SN: 11/17/20). About 230 million years ago, sauropodomorphs lived mainly in what is now northern Argentina and southern Brazil. But at some point, these early dinosaurs picked up and moved as far north as Greenland. Exactly when they could have made that journey has been a puzzle, though. “In principle, you could’ve walked from where they were to the other hemisphere, which was something like 10,000 kilometers away,” says Dennis Kent, a geologist at Columbia University. Back then, Greenland and the Americas were smooshed together into the supercontinent Pangea. There were no oceans blocking the way, and mountains were easy to get around, he says. If the dinosaurs had walked at the slow pace of one to two kilometers per day, it would have taken them approximately 20 years to reach Greenland. But during much of the Late Triassic Epoch, which spans 233 million to 215 million years ago, Earth’s carbon dioxide levels were incredibly high — as much as 4,000 parts per million. (In comparison, CO2 levels currently are about 415 parts per million.) Climate simulations have suggested that level of CO2 would have created hyper-arid deserts and severe climate fluctuations, which could have acted as a barrier to the giant beasts. With vast deserts stretching north and south of the equator, Kent says, there would have been few plants available for the herbivores to survive the journey north for much of that time period.
2-23-21 Mutation test can quickly reveal which coronavirus variant you have
A rapid test that detects coronavirus variants with dangerous mutations could be used to tell people which variant of the virus they are carrying. The test could also dramatically improve surveillance efforts around the world, boosting the chances of containing new variants before they spread widely. The new method of detection, developed by Stephanie Oerum at Novozymes in Denmark and colleagues, requires only a small tweak to the PCR tests already widely used around the world to detect the coronavirus. It will be made available on a non-profit basis. The test can reveal if the virus infecting someone has one or more of the key mutations that characterise variants of concern. “When you give them the result, you could say, ‘yes, you are positive for coronavirus and you carry a problematic variant’,” says Astrid Iversen at the University of Oxford, who is collaborating with Novozymes. The hope is that these people will then take extra care to avoid infecting others, and can also be prioritised by track and trace officials. “This is something that is badly needed,” says Iversen. “For track and trace, as soon as you know a person is positive you need to know if they carry a problematic variant, to stop that variant spreading in the community.” At present, the only reliable way to detect variants is to sequence the entire 30,000-letter-long genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is expensive and slow. It takes around a week in the UK, according to Nick Loman at the University of Birmingham, who is part of the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium doing the sequencing. “A week is both incredibly impressive and too long,” he said during a press briefing on 9 February. The UK has been sequencing more samples than any other country, and recently increased its efforts even further. But it is still sequencing just 15 per cent of positive tests, meaning it may be missing most cases. Most other countries do far less sequencing, and therefore know little about which variants are circulating.
2-23-21 How 5 universities tried to handle COVID-19 on campus
Fall semester was the start of a big experiment. One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we know the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads easily through large indoor gatherings and communal living spaces. A person can become infected, spread the virus to friends, family, teachers or coworkers, and then start exhibiting symptoms several days later — or never show any signs of infection. With these kinds of risks, a college campus seems like one of the more dangerous places to spend time. In fact, U.S. counties with large colleges or universities that offered in-person instruction last fall saw a 56 percent rise in COVID-19 cases in the three weeks after classes began compared with the three weeks before. Counties with large schools that offered only remote learning saw a drop in cases of almost 18 percent, researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on January 8 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Universities that opened their campuses in August and September faced an uncharted, months-long experiment in infection control. They had no manual, no surefire way to keep students and staff from getting sick. Science News took a look at five universities that opened in the fall. Each school cobbled together some type of testing at various frequencies coupled with uneven rules about wearing masks and public gatherings. For testing, all five schools used polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests, which are the gold standard for diagnosing COVID-19. Results can take days, however, when demand for tests is high (SN Online: 8/31/20). One school also used a test called loop-mediated isothermal amplification, or LAMP, which, like PCR, measures viral DNA to identify infections. LAMP is less sensitive than PCR, but results come in much more quickly since there’s no need to send samples to a laboratory. Antigen tests, which detect proteins from the virus and also give rapid results, helped one school move students quickly into quarantine, even though those tests have a higher rate of false-negative results. One school additionally set up wastewater sampling at dorms to pick up early signs of outbreaks.
2-23-21 Australia: Oldest rock art is 17,300-year-old kangaroo
Australian scientists have discovered the country's oldest known rock art - a 17,300-year-old painting of a kangaroo. The artwork measuring 2m (6.5ft) was painted in red ochre on the ceiling of a rock shelter. It was found in Western Australia's Kimberley region, known for its Aboriginal rock paintings. Its age was determined by radiocarbon-dating ancient mud wasp nests. The findings were published on Tuesday in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. Researcher Damien Finch, who pioneered the mud wasp dating technique, said it was rare to find mud wasp nests both on top and underneath a single artwork. But the team was able to sample both types to establish the artwork's minimum and maximum ages. "We radiocarbon dated three wasp nests underlying the painting and three nests built over it to determine, confidently, that the painting is between 17,500 and 17,100 years old; most likely 17,300 years old," said Dr Finch, a geochronologist from the University of Melbourne. Scientists say this estimation makes the artwork the oldest known intact painting in Australia. The study's co-author Dr Sven Ouzman, from the University of Western Australia, added there could be a link between the kangaroo painting and the ancient art from other regions. "This iconic kangaroo image is visually similar to rock paintings from islands in South East Asia dated to more than 40,000 years ago, suggesting a cultural link - and hinting at still older rock art in Australia," he said. Earlier this year, researchers found the world's oldest animal cave painting, a 45,000-year-old life-sized depiction of a pig, on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. In South Africa, a hashtag-like doodle created 73,000 years ago is believed to be the oldest known drawing. Cissy Gore-Birch, chair of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, noted the significance of the kangaroo rock art discovery for Aboriginal people and Australians. "It's important that Indigenous knowledge and stories are not lost and continue to be shared for generations to come," she said.
2-22-21 Australia's oldest known rock art is a 17,000-year-old kangaroo
A life size kangaroo painted in red ochre around 17,300 years ago is Australia’s oldest known rock art. This indicates that the earliest style of rock art in Australia focused on animals, similar to the early cave art found in Indonesia and Europe. Thousands of rock art sites are found all over Australia, with the Kimberley region of Western Australia containing a particularly rich record. But dating the images is challenging as the minerals and organic material needed to determine when the art was created are hard to find. Stylistically, Australian rock art has been categorised into five different phases, with the oldest thought to be the so-called naturalistic phase depicting mainly animals and sometimes plants such as yams. But with no firm dates, no one knew for sure. Now, Damien Finch at the University of Melbourne and his colleagues have dated the images in eight rock shelters in Balanggarra Country, which lies in the north-eastern Kimberley region. Finch and his colleagues worked with the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, which represents the Traditional Owners of the land, and members of the Corporation reviewed their research paper. They dated the images by measuring the radiocarbon signal from ancient wasp nests that lie beneath and on top of the artwork. They discovered that a kangaroo image (pictured above) on the ceiling of a rock shelter containing thousands of ancient mud wasp nests was painted between 17,500 and 17,100 years ago. “This is an amazing site, with wonderful paintings all over the place,” says Finch. And, crucially for the dating, “wasps have been building nests at this site pretty much consistently for 20,000 years“, he says. This kangaroo painting is around 2 metres long, with details of its fur depicted within an outline of its shape. “The dating of this oldest known painting in an Australian rock shelter holds a great deal of significance for Aboriginal people and Australians and is an important part of Australia’s history,” said Cissy Gore-Birch, Chair of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, in a media statement.
2-22-21 First real world covid-19 vaccine studies show 'spectacular' results
Finally, some good news. The first real-world studies on the effectiveness of two coronavirus vaccines have shown they are performing “spectacularly well”. In the first of two results announced today, one dose of vaccine cut hospitalisations due to covid-19 in Scotland by more than 85 per cent. The research, led by five Scottish universities and Public Health Scotland, involved 99 per cent of Scotland’s 5.4 million people, 1.1 million of whom received a vaccine between 8 December and 15 February. By the fifth week after receiving their first dose, those who received the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab had reduced their risk of hospitalisation by 94 per cent, and those who received the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine by 85 per cent. Aziz Sheikh at the University of Edinburgh says this is probably the first national report of its kind. “We are very, very impressed with both these vaccines,” says Sheikh. “Both are working spectacularly well.” Among people over 80, who are most at risk from covid-19, hospitalisation was reduced by 81 per cent when results from both vaccines were combined. There isn’t enough data yet to separate out the effects of the two different vaccines in this age group. The results also showed that the jabs offer some protection seven days after vaccination, and this increases over time. Peak protection appeared in the sixth week, though at this point the data becomes unreliable because few people had been vaccinated for longer than this when the analysis was carried out. A second study from Public Health England (PHE) showed that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine prevented 70 per cent of asymptomatic and symptomatic infections in people under 65 after one dose. The protection appeared to take effect around 14 days after vaccination. The study included 23,500 health workers in England, 89 per cent of whom were vaccinated. All participants were routinely tested for SARS-CoV-2 between 7 December and 5 February. “This is the first time this [type of study] has been done in a systematic way for the Pfzier/BioNTech vaccine,” said Susan Hopkins of PHE at a press briefing on 22 February.
2-22-21 Face masks needed in the UK until 2022, says poll of disease experts
Mandatory wearing of face masks in shops and on public transport will probably stay in place in the UK until at least 2022, predict a majority of infectious disease experts polled by New Scientist. Expectations are similar for UK government guidance on physical distancing, with most anticipating that 2 metre or “1 metre-plus” measures will remain until 2022 or later. Opinion is split on whether the UK government will hit its vaccination roll-out targets. The views come ahead of prime minister Boris Johnson announcing a road map out of lockdown today. They were gathered in an exercise by New Scientist that contacted around 200 leading UK epidemiologists, modellers, virologists and public health researchers to see when they think life will return to something resembling normality. A total of 52 responded from more than 15 universities and organisations, providing an anecdotal snapshot of expectations for the future. Among the respondents, 23 thought guidance on face masks would stay in place until 2022, with 12 people saying 2023 or later. But even when the guidance does change, people may opt to stick with face masks, says Mark Jit at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). “It will stop being legally mandated at some point, but I think there will be a permanent culture change for people to wear face masks in public, especially when they have respiratory symptoms. We already saw that happen in Asia following SARS,” he says. On physical distancing guidelines, the majority of experts polled expected them to stay in place until 2022, with five people predicting that they will stay until 2023. One respondent thought that the guidance would always be necessary. “We may see different rules in different regions,” says Martin Michaelis at the University of Kent, UK, who is comparing genomes of the new coronavirus with those of the coronavirus that triggered the 2003 SARS outbreak. “This will not be a linear process: distancing measures may have to be repeatedly and temporally reintroduced for the foreseeable future.”
2-19-21 Why hasn’t India had a second wave of the coronavirus?
India is emerging from the worst of its coronavirus epidemic, with no sign of a second wave in sight. The country with the second largest population in the world has been slowly easing lockdown restrictions since May 2020, but is recording fewer than 100 daily covid-19 deaths on average. This is in contrast to the peak in September, when there were 10 times that number. Since the first case of covid-19 was reported in the country on 30 January 2020, India has recorded more than 10 million coronavirus infections. But the pandemic is slowing down in India, hitting a low of just 8635 new covid-19 cases reported on 2 February, as opposed to the staggering 97,894 new cases reported on 16 September 2020, amidst the peak. In contrast to many other nations, including the UK, India has only seen one distinct wave of covid-19 infections. One potential explanation, fuelled by the latest results from an antibody survey in Delhi by researchers at Maulana Azad Medical College, is that enough people now have immunity for the virus’s spread to be quelled, known as herd immunity. The random survey tested 28,840 people in Delhi and found that 56 per cent of samples contained antibodies against the coronavirus. The figure reached 62 per cent in one district. This is considerably higher than the first such survey in Delhi last July, which detected antibodies against the coronavirus in just 23 per cent of samples. However, the snapshot from Delhi is unlikely to be representative of the country as a whole. A national survey by the Indian Council of Medical Research showed that just 21.5 per cent of adults in India have antibodies against the coronavirus, according to a newspaper report from 4 February, notably lower than the level of so-called seropositivity seen in Delhi. The survey tested 28,589 adults across 21 states between 17 December and 8 January.
2-19-21 How Norway is offering drug-free treatment to people with psychosis
Most people with psychosis take powerful drugs to keep delusions and hallucinations at bay - but the side-effects can be severe. In Norway, a radical approach is now on offer via the national health system for patients who want to live drug-free. Malin was 21 when her life began to unravel. She had struggled with severe depression and low self-esteem since she was a teenager. Then a voice inside her head started telling her she was fat and worthless - and that she should kill herself. "He became very angry. He kind of isolated me because he got a lot of power. Eventually I also starting seeing things, like tentacles coming out of the walls," she says. Malin left her small home town near the fjords of northern Norway and went off to university. But it wasn't long before she had a complete breakdown that left her unable to get out of bed. Her family came to pick her up and soon she was committed to a psychiatric unit where she stayed for a year. It was the first of several long stays in psychiatric hospital wards where powerful anti-psychotic medication was the only treatment on offer. "I was so full of drugs, my mind was just a blur. I just sat there passively watching my life go by with no connection to my emotions or feelings. "And it's kind of been the same thing over and over. I've sought help and what they can give me is medication. And nothing really got any better. "It's quite devastating. You just really want to get well. And people tell you that now this is your life, you should be content. And I cannot be content with this life." Malin's experience with psychiatric medication isn't unusual. Although many people with psychosis find anti-psychotic drugs enable them to live a normal life, it is thought around 20% of patients do not respond well. The side effects can be life-changing - extreme fatigue, weight gain, increased cholesterol and diabetes.In Norway, concerns about the overall benefit of these drugs are compounded by a long-standing problem with forced treatment, which is more common here than in many other countries according to the limited number of international comparisons that exist.
2-19-21 Foot-and-mouth outbreak's parallels with Covid pandemic
It was a rapidly-spreading virus, with stringent measures taken to contain its transmission. It delayed elections and had a huge economic impact. Sound familiar? On 19 February 2001 a case of foot-and-mouth disease was discovered at an abattoir in Essex. By the time the outbreak was declared over it had spread across the British countryside and more than six million sheep, cattle and pigs had been slaughtered. There had been major disruption nationally and, although the disease did not leap to humans, the overall cost to the UK economy was estimated at £8bn. As with the current coronavirus crisis, there was criticism of the government for not shutting things down quickly enough, and in the early stages complaints of a shortage of equipment and resources. Peter Frost-Pennington was a semi-retired vet who volunteered to help out in the unfolding crisis and was told to report to the operation centre in Carlisle. He said: "I had my own boots, waterproofs and a thermometer, literally, there was nothing in stores. I had to bring my own bucket and brush; my own PPE effectively. "It was only later [the government] opened the chequebook and also brought in the army." He described aspects of his work as "hugely upsetting", having to slaughter animals when normally his job would be to save them. "At one point I worked for 23 hours in a row culling infected animals", he said. "But I just took a deep breath and did my duty, like I'm sure people on the front line are doing now." One incident stood out; an infected farm where the young son had hand-reared a Highland calf which he was hoping would win a prize at a show the following week. "He was trying to hide it in his bedroom," Mr Frost-Pennington said. "So I had to go in there and, as gently as possible, take it away from him. "And then I had to kill it."
2-19-21 Deepest land-dwelling microbes found at bottom of 5km hole in China
There are microbes near the bottom of the third deepest hole in the world. The cells, recovered from rocks almost 5 kilometres below the surface of China, are the deepest cells so far found anywhere on land – and they may push beyond the known heat tolerances of life on Earth. It is widely accepted that life exists at depth. Until now, the deepest known microbes on land were tiny nematode worms found 3.6 kilometres below the surface in a South African gold mine. A team led by Hailiang Dong at the China University of Geosciences and Li Huang at the Chinese Academy of Sciences has now discovered bacterial cells at greater depths. They studied rocks extracted from a 5.1-kilometre-deep borehole in eastern China, made as part of the Chinese Continental Scientific Drilling (CCSD) project. The CCSD hole is the third deepest in the world, after a 9-kilometre-deep borehole in Germany and one in Russia that is 12 kilometres deep. Microscopic analysis confirmed the presence of cells in CCSD rock samples extracted from a depth of 4.85 kilometres. The team also recovered bacterial DNA from rocks at this depth. Dong and Huang say that, to the best of their knowledge, these are the deepest known microbes ever found on land. Demonstrating the cells are living will be a challenge – we know from previous studies that microbes deep below the surface often operate on such a slow timescale that they show few typical signs of life such as movement or reproduction. But there are reasons to suspect the microbes may be alive. Most importantly, they are intact rather than existing as cell fragments, which might hint they are carrying out basic cellular repair. “It is possible that the microbes at 4.85 kilometres might represent a living community at that depth,” Dong and Huang wrote in an email to New Scientist.
2-18-21 People can answer questions about their dreams without waking up
Talking to people while they are asleep can influence their dreams – and in some cases, the dreamer can respond without waking up. Ken Paller at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and his colleagues found that people could answer questions and even solve maths problems while lucid dreaming – a state that typically occurs during rapid eye-movement (REM) sleep when the dreamer is aware of being in a dream, and is sometimes able to control it. “We asked questions where we knew the answer because what we wanted to do is determine whether we were having good communication. We had to know if they were answering correctly,” says Paller. The team asked dreamers yes-no questions relating to their backgrounds and experiences, along with simple maths problems involving addition and subtraction. The dreamers weren’t aware of what questions they would be asked before they went to sleep. The dreamers, who had a range of experience with lucid dreaming, answered the questions correctly 29 times, incorrectly five times, and ambiguously 28 times by twitching their face muscles or moving their eyes. They didn’t respond on 96 occasions. After waking, some dreamers reported that they had heard the questions as if from outside the dream, while others perceived the questions as being part of the dream. One participant who was dreaming about being in a car heard maths problems coming from the radio. “One thing that this method puts forward is that while the dream is happening, we can affect the content of the dream,” says Mark Blagrove at Swansea University, UK. “The next question is, what happens if the sentences are highly personally relevant and emotional?” n the future, Paller hopes that such dream conversations could help improve sleep in people with conditions like depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. “If you’re facing something that makes you anxious, you might want to try it out in a lucid dream and therefore overcome the anxiety that you’re feeling,” he says.
2-18-21 The COVID-19 death toll sent U.S. life expectancy plunging in 2020
Overall U.S. life expectancy declined by a year, the biggest drop since the 1940s. Life expectancy in the United States plunged in the first half of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. A preliminary estimate of overall U.S. life expectancy from birth finds it dropped a full year compared with 2019, from 78.8 to 77.8 years, the National Center for Health Statistics reports online February 18. It’s the largest decline in life expectancy for the United States since the early 1940s. When broken down by race and ethnicity, stark differences in the pandemic’s toll in the United States emerge. Life expectancy for Black people fell by 2.7 years, from 74.7 in 2019 to 72 in 2020. For Hispanic people, the drop was 1.9 years, from 81.8 to 79.9. White people experienced the smallest decline, from 78.8 to 78. As a result, the gap in life expectancy between Black and white populations in the United States grew to six years, a 46 percent increase from 2019, and the largest gap since 1998. “These racial and ethnic disparities reflect persistent structural inequalities that increase both the risk of exposure to the COVID virus and the risk of dying from COVID among those that are infected,” says Noreen Goldman, a demographer at Princeton University. Many Black and Latino Americans have worked in frontline jobs that can’t be done at home and are less likely than white Americans to have access to healthcare (SN: 7/2/20). The new report’s preliminary estimates include deaths only through June. With the year-end surge in COVID-19 casualties, “I think — and fear — that the final estimate for the decline in life expectancy in 2020 will be non-trivially higher,” says Goldman. She and a colleague projected an overall drop in U.S. life expectancy in 2020 of 1.13 years, in a study published online February 2 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but she expects that is an underestimate as well.
2-18-21 Coronavirus: US life expectancy falls by a year amid pandemic
Life expectancy in the US fell by a full year in the first half of 2020, a change experts say was fuelled by the growing coronavirus pandemic. The life expectancy for the entire population dropped to 77.8 years, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control. "This is a huge decline," Dr Robert Anderson, the CDC's Chief of Mortality Statistics, told the Associated Press. But there were even greater changes among ethnic minority groups. Black men suffered the largest decline, with life expectancy dropping by three years between January and June 2020. And Hispanic men saw a fall in life expectancy of 2.4 years during that period. "You have to go back to World War Two, the 1940s, to find a decline like this," Dr Anderson said. It means life expectancy at birth is now 75.1 years for American men - a decline of 1.2 years from 2019. For women, life expectancy is 80.5 years after it fell by almost a year. Deaths from coronavirus were a key factor driving the overall drop in life expectancy, according to the CDC report. More than 490,000 people have died as a result of Covid-19 in the US, the highest death toll in the world. Statistics have also shown how the pandemic is disproportionately affecting black and other minority communities in the US. Black Americans are three times more likely to die from the virus than white Americans. And analysis by the Brookings Institution published last year said: "In every age category, black people are dying from Covid at roughly the same rate as white people more than a decade older". The latest CDC data is based on death certificates processed during the first half of 2020. Given the six month timeframe, the report notes that the estimates "do not reflect the entirety of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020". It also makes clear that the virus affected different areas of the country at different times, with urban communities more likely to have been hit hard during the early months of the year.
2-18-21 Some Neandertal genes in people today may protect against severe COVID-19
Inherited DNA from our ancestors can play varying roles in immune response to disease. Some genetic variants inherited from Neandertals may protect against developing severe COVID-19. A new study looked at a stretch of DNA on chromosome 12 where a haplotype — a cluster of genetic variants that are inherited together — that affects susceptibility to the coronavirus is located. For each copy of the Neandertal haplotype a person inherited, the risk of needing intensive care fell approximately 22 percent, researchers report in the March 2 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The variants may affect the activity or function of genes involved in a biochemical chain reaction that ends with the destruction of viral RNA, including the coronavirus’s. The protective variants are largely absent among people in sub-Saharan Africa, where few people carry genes inherited from Neandertals. About 25 to 30 percent of present-day people of Asian and European ancestry carry the protective variants. Some Black people in the Americas also inherited the protective haplotype, presumably from Asian, European or Native American ancestors. Previously, researchers had found that a different haplotype on chromosome 3 that was inherited from Neandertals increases the risk of severe disease (SN:10/2/20). The results show that genetic inheritance can help or hinder the immune response to disease.
2-18-21 The oldest animal DNA ever recovered reveals mammoths’ evolution
A hybrid of woolly mammoths and a previously unknown species may have roamed North America. The oldest DNA ever recovered from an animal is adding new chapters to mammoth life history, going back more than 1 million years. Genetic material from ancient mammoth molars found in Siberia handily beats the previous record set by 700,000-year-old DNA from a frozen, fossilized horse (SN: 6/26/13). Some mammoth gene snippets suggest that ancient mammoths already had the traits that allowed them to withstand cold temperatures during later ice ages. What’s more, some hairy behemoths that inhabited North America may have been a hybrid mix between the woolly mammoth and a previously unknown mammoth species, researchers report February 17 in Nature. The findings “really highlight the exciting times that we live in,” says Charlotte Lindqvist, an evolutionary biologist at the University at Buffalo in New York who was not involved in the work. “We can get genetic data — we can recover DNA — from such ancient samples that can directly give us windows into the past.” Such data can reveal how extinct animals evolved, adding to the clues that come from physically examining ancient bones. The mammoth DNA was extracted from three molars unearthed in the 1970s from permafrost in northeast Siberia. Though DNA degrades into shorter strings of genetic material over time, making it difficult to handle and piece together, cold permafrost helps to protect genetic information from rapidly falling apart. Theoretical studies had suggested that researchers could perhaps recover DNA that is more than 1 million years old. Still, the recovered DNA is “quite close to the limit of what is possible,” says Love Dalén, an evolutionary geneticist at the Centre for Palaeogenetics in Stockholm.
2-17-21 First million-year-old DNA extracted from Siberian mammoth teeth
For the first time, preserved DNA has been recovered from animal remains over a million years old. The DNA belonged to two mammoths that lived around 1.2 million years ago. The genetic sequences change our understanding of mammoth evolution. They reveal that, at that time, Siberia was home to two distinct groups of these animals. The mammoths of North America were the product of a hybridisation event between these two groups, and obtained half of their DNA from each. “Instead of there being one species [or lineage] of mammoth up in Siberia around 1-2 million years ago, it now looks like there are two,” says Love Dalén at the Centre for Palaeogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden. The first mammoths evolved in Africa about 5 million years ago. “It was originally a tropical species,” says Dalén. But over the next few million years, some mammoths moved out of Africa. A key species was the steppe mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii), which evolved in northern Eurasia about 1.7 million years ago. Later, North America was home to Columbian mammoths (Mammuthus columbi). The famous woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) lived in Eurasia more recently, with the last ones dying out just 4000 years ago. Quite how these species are related, and why they evolved in the ways they did, are tricky questions to answer. Dalén’s colleague Patrícia Pecnerová, now at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, extracted DNA from three mammoth teeth found in north-east Siberia. They were collected in the 1970s by the late Russian palaeontologist Andrei Sher. Two of the teeth, from Krestovka and Adycha, look like they belonged to steppe mammoths and are respectively 1.1-1.2 and 1-1.2 million years old. The third, from Chukochya, seems to be a woolly mammoth and is 500-800,000 years old.
2-17-21 Do telomere length tests really reveal your biological age?
Curiosity about how well our bodies are ageing has fuelled an industry around telomere length tests, but the much touted “biological clock” in our DNA isn’t what we thought. WHEN David Nurse turned 30, he wanted to find out how his biological age compared with his chronological one. A life coach with the US National Baseball Association, he hoped that the ultra-healthy lifestyle he advocates to players had kept his own body young and healthy, too. So he took a test to assess the length of his telomeres. It revealed his biological age to be 28 years. That was in 2017. Two years later, he took another test. “I was down to 25, so that was great,” he says. If you google “telomeres”, you are likely to find them described as an ageing clock. They are segments of DNA at the ends of each chromosome that become shorter every time a cell divides. If this shortening happens slowly, it suggests that your body is wearing well. Say you are a 60-year-old with telomeres as long as those of an average 50-year-old, your mortality risk is equivalent to that of someone 10 years younger – or so the story goes. Increasing numbers of people want this information, and many companies offer tests like the one Nurse took, together with various pills claimed to lengthen your telomeres and, in turn, your lifespan. If only it were that simple. We are now discovering that telomeres are an unreliable ageing clock, which raises questions about the validity of ageing tests based on them. The links between telomere length and lifestyle choices also aren’t as straightforward as we once thought. In fact, long telomeres can even be bad news. Nevertheless, there are some surprising ways we can look after our telomeres. At first glance, telomere-mania seems grounded in science. In 1982, Elizabeth Blackburn at the University of California, Berkeley, and Jack Szostak at Harvard Medical School cracked the riddle of how chromosomes remain intact when cells divide: they have repeating units of DNA at their ends that stop them from unravelling. The pair called these “telomeres”. Later, they discovered that each time a cell divides, its telomeres become shorter, like the ticking of a biological clock. Meanwhile, Blackburn and Carol Greider at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York identified an enzyme, telomerase, that promotes the construction of telomere DNA.
2-17-21 Oldest evidence of malted barley shows ancient Scandinavians made beer
Ancient malted barley grains have revealed that Danes were probably using this to brew beer and raising their drinking horns at least two millennia ago. The oldest known beers in the world trace back to the beginning of agriculture in the Middle East. In Scandinavia, the oldest evidence of this drink is based on residue in a bark bucket from roughly 1370 BC which was found in the grave of a Bronze Age teenager known as the Egtved Girl. But chemical analysis shows that this beer was probably made of wheat rather than barley, and no evidence of malted grains were found there. When barley is malted – a good indication of whether it was used for brewing beer – enzymes damage the grain, which retains microscopic hollows much like a block of Swiss cheese. Peter Steen Henriksen at the National Museum of Denmark and his colleagues used a scanning electron microscope to examine grains found in archaeological deposits. “Now we’ve got a tool that we can use on older grains, all the way back to the earliest agriculture in Denmark,” says Henriksen. He and his colleagues examined grains found in a number of archaeological deposits Henriksen had collected and stored. Some were found in Østerbølle, Denmark, in pots from a house that burned down, allowing the researchers to date it to roughly the 1st century AD. In these grains the team found the hallmark hollows that are evidence of malting. The grains appeared to come from two batches, one maybe a few days older than the other based on the different length of sprouts found in each pot. They also found evidence of malted barley dating to the Viking Age from AD 800 to 1050 from another location. The Østerbølle grains are the earliest evidence yet discovered of malted barley in Scandinavia, though Henriksen notes that they expect to find much older evidence once they apply this technique to older grains they have found.
2-17-21 What do the new coronavirus variants mean for a return to normality?
WHEN the first trial results for covid-19 vaccines were announced back in November, it seemed that the end of the coronavirus pandemic was in sight. But then came news of first one dangerous new virus variant and then another. So where does that leave us? Will new variants scupper efforts to get life back to normal? No one can say for sure what will happen next, of course. But many researchers are optimistic that in countries that get hold of enough vaccine, life could mostly return to normal in around a year or less. And in the long run, rather than us facing a never-ending battle with increasingly dangerous new variants, the expectation is still for covid-19 to turn into a mild disease. “If it becomes endemic and mild in the way our studies predict, it really wouldn’t be any worse than the common cold,” says Jennie Lavine at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. “I’m not saying we know that’s going to happen but even with what’s going on now that’s not an unreasonable prediction for the longer-term future.” What happens over the next few months depends on the answers to two questions, says A. Marm Kilpatrick at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Firstly, even if vaccines or a previous infection don’t prevent infection with a new variant, will they prevent severe disease? And secondly, can a country vaccinate a large enough proportion of its population? “If the answer to both these questions is yes, then I think a much more normal life is possible in [around six months’ time],” says Kilpatrick. Most countries aren’t going to get hold of enough vaccine any time soon, says Kilpatrick. “So ‘normal’ life won’t be possible except through infection, which would likely be terrible for many countries.”
2-16-21 Exclusive: Two variants have merged into heavily mutated coronavirus
The UK and California variants of coronavirus appear to have combined into a heavily mutated hybrid, sparking concern that we may be entering a new phase of the covid-19 pandemic. Two variants of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes covid-19 have combined their genomes to form a heavily mutated hybrid version of the virus. The “recombination” event was discovered in a virus sample in California, provoking warnings that we may be poised to enter a new phase of the pandemic. The hybrid virus is the result of recombination of the highly transmissible B.1.1.7 variant discovered in the UK and the B.1.429 variant that originated in California and which may be responsible for a recent wave of cases in Los Angeles because it carries a mutation making it resistant to some antibodies. The recombinant was discovered by Bette Korber at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, who told a meeting organised by the New York Academy of Sciences on 2 February that she had seen “pretty clear” evidence of it in her database of US viral genomes. If confirmed, the recombinant would be the first to be detected in this pandemic. In December and January, two research groups independently reported that they hadn’t seen any evidence of recombination, even though it has long been expected as it is common in coronaviruses. Unlike regular mutation, where changes accumulate one at a time, which is how variants such as B.1.1.7 arose, recombination can bring together multiple mutations in one go. Most of the time, these don’t confer any advantage to the virus, but occasionally they do. Recombination can be of major evolutionary importance, according to François Balloux at University College London. It is considered by many to be how SARS-CoV-2 originated.
2-16-21 Insect brains will teach us how to make truly intelligent robots
We need a revolution in artificial intelligence and learning from insects will help us achieve it, says James Marshall. WHERE are all the intelligent robots? Despite huge recent strides in artificial intelligence, autonomous robots answering our every beck and call are still a long way off. To make that leap, we are going to need a revolution in AI – and I believe insects will be at the heart of it. Big ideas in AI seem to come in waves. The first was the notion that creating an intelligent machine involves writing down enough rules for it to follow. Many people believed in this approach in the 1950s and 1960s, but its limitations soon became apparent because any situation that can’t easily be broken down into basic rules is out of reach. Making a machine that can play chess works, for example, but making one to recognise what is in an image doesn’t. The second wave came in the 2000s when a technique called deep learning really took off. Instead of following rules to complete specific tasks, these systems follow rules for learning how to do the tasks themselves. This approach dates back to the 1980s, but it was only when huge amounts of computing power and data became available that it really began to work. Such systems mimic the visual cortex in primates, and so do a good job of simulating human perception, like recognising images. This wave has made digital assistants, like Amazon’s Alexa, possible. But intelligence is more than a visual cortex. Second-wave algorithms can become good at one task, but then completely fail at a different, yet similar one. Any decent robot should be able to use and adapt what it already knows to tackle things it has never come across before. The third wave… well that’s yet to be settled, but I think it will be by learning from nature that we will get the last piece of the puzzle.
2-16-21 Modified genes can distort wild cotton’s interactions with insects
In Mexico, acquired herbicide resistance and insecticide genes can disrupt cotton’s ecosystem. Cotton plants native to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula may all look the same — unkempt and untamed bushes with flowers that shift from pale yellow to violet as pollinators visit them. But genes that have escaped from genetically modified cotton crops have made some of these native plants fundamentally different, changing their biology and the way they interact with insects. One type of escaped gene makes wild cotton exude less nectar. With no means to attract defensive ants that protect it from plant eaters, the cotton is devoured. Another escaped gene makes the wild cotton produce excess nectar, enticing a lot of ants that might keep other insects, including pollinators, at bay, researchers report on January 21 in Scientific Reports. “These are profoundly interesting effects,” says Norman Ellstrand, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Riverside. “It’s the first case that really suggests that a whole ecosystem can be disrupted” after transgenes enter a wild population. The results challenge one long-held view that when genes from genetically modified crops escape into the wild, they have only a neutral effect on wild plants or pass on their benefits to weeds, says Alicia Mastretta Yanes, a plant molecular ecologist at the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity in Mexico City. The findings confirm that unexpected outcomes of this genetic transfer, some of which “were never imagined, or at least were not assumed as possible,” do happen sometimes, she says. Scientists have previously tried to explain what happens after DNA from genetically modified crops ends up in their wild relatives (SN: 1/29/16). But the majority of studies have been done under carefully controlled conditions, and very few have tested the consequences, if any, of these gene transfers on natural ecosystems.
2-16-21 A body burned inside a hut 20,000 years ago signaled shifting views of death
Linking the dead with human-built structures may have brought the dead and living closer. Middle Eastern hunter-gatherers changed their relationship with the dead nearly 20,000 years ago. Clues to that spiritual shift come from the discovery of an ancient woman’s fiery burial in a hut at a seasonal campsite. Burials of people in houses or other structures, as well as cremations, are thought to have originated in Neolithic-period farming villages in and around the Middle East no earlier than about 10,000 years ago. But those treatments of the dead appear to have had roots in long-standing practices of hunter-gatherers, says a team led by archaeologists Lisa Maher of the University of California, Berkeley and Danielle Macdonald of the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. The new find suggests that people started to associate the dead with particular structures at a time when groups of hunter-gatherers were camping for part of each year at a hunting and trading site in eastern Jordan. A budding desire to link the dead with human-built structures possibly reflected a belief that by doing so the dead would remain close to the living, the scientists report in the March Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. Excavations at the ancient site, now called Kharaneh IV, in 2016 revealed a woman’s partial, charred skeleton on the floor of a hut that had been lit on fire. Her body had been placed on its side with knees flexed. Analyses of charring patterns on her bones and burned sediment surrounding her remains suggest the woman’s body was placed inside the hut just before the brushwood structure was intentionally burned. Charcoal- and ash-rich sediment borders where the hut once stood, a sign that the fire was confined to the structure. The hut’s walls apparently fell inward after being set ablaze.
2-15-21 Double masks: Should we use them?
There’s a lot of choice about which type of face covering to wear – and in some countries the advice is changing as we learn more about how the virus spreads. In certain countries a specific type of mask is required in public areas. The BBC's Science Editor David Shukman explains the differences between cloth masks, surgical masks and N95 masks - and looks at whether we should double mask.
2-15-21 In the social distancing era, boredom may pose a public health threat
Recent studies offer clues to why some people find it difficult to follow social distancing guidelines. In recent months, journalists and public health experts have bandied about the term “pandemic fatigue.” Though not clearly defined, the general gist is that people have grown tired of the pandemic and keeping apart for almost a year and running. That fatigue can manifest as feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, frustration, anger and boredom. Seeing boredom on that list worries those who study the phenomenon. “Usually boredom tells you that you should do something else,” says sports psychologist Wanja Wolff of the University of Konstanz in Germany. “In the context of a pandemic … that might not be the best thing.” Recently, those fears have received more traction. Two similar yet independent studies, one by Wolff and colleagues and another by a U.S.-Canadian research team, found that people who frequently feel bored are more likely than others to flout social distancing guidelines. Those boredom-prone individuals also appear to be at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus. Boredom, these studies suggest, may well constitute a real, yet underappreciated, public health threat. Across the Western humanities, boredom has typically been depicted as an individual failing. The 19th century German pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer defined boredom as the sensation of the emptiness of existence. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called it a “leprosy of the soul.” But researchers studying boredom say it merits a more neutral reading. That feeling of having nothing to do — what Russian author Leo Tolstoy called “the desire for desires” — serves as a signal, a call to the body to shift gears, goes the current thinking. “Boredom is a sign that you’re not meaningfully engaged in the world,” says social psychologist Erin Westgate of the University of Florida in Gainesville. Researchers, including Westgate, have identified two paths to boredom: a loss of focus or a loss of meaning.
2-15-21 High-altitude birds evolved thicker 'jackets'
A study of 250 species of Himalayan songbirds has revealed how their feathers evolved for higher altitudes. The birds in colder, more elevated environments had feathers with more fluffy down - providing them with thicker "jackets". The insight reveals how feathers provide the tiniest birds with such efficient protection from extreme cold. It also provides clues about which species are most at risk from climate change, the scientists say. The study, in the journal Ecography, was inspired by a tiny bird lead researcher Dr Sahas Barve saw during an icy day of fieldwork in the Himalayas, in 2014. "It was -10C," said the researcher from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, in Washington DC. "And there was this little bird, a goldcrest, which weighs about the same as a teaspoon of sugar. "It was just zipping around catching bugs." Dr Barve's fingers went numb as he tried to take notes. But he remembers being "blown away by the little goldcrest". "To survive, this bird has to keep its heart at about 40C," he said. "So it has to maintain a difference of 50C in that little space. "I was like, 'OK, I really need to understand how feathers work.'" Fortunately, Dr Barve's home institution has one of the largest bird collections in the world. Examining the feathers of nearly 2,000 individual birds, in microscopic detail, he noticed a pattern linked their structure to their habitat. Each feather has an outer part and a hidden downy portion. And Dr Barve's measurements revealed those living at higher elevations had more of the lower fluffy down. "They had fluffier jackets," he said. Smaller birds, which lose heat faster, also tend to have longer feathers in proportion to their body size, revealing the little goldcrest's secret. Dr Carla Dove, who runs the museum's Feather Identification Lab and contributed to the study, said she was excited to use the Smithsonian's collections in a new way. "Having them all in one place, as opposed to having to go to the Himalayas and study these birds in the wild, obviously makes a big difference," she said.
2-15-21 Life found beneath Antarctic ice sheet 'shouldn't be there
The inadvertent discovery of sea life on a boulder beneath an Antarctic ice shelf challenges our understanding of how organisms can live in environments far from sunlight, according to a team of biologists. James Smith and Paul Anker at the British Antarctic Survey drilled through the 900-metre-thick Filchner-Ronne ice shelf and dropped a camera down the hole in search of mud on the seabed. To their surprise, it revealed a boulder ringed by animals. Footage appears to show 16 sponges, accompanied by 22 unidentified animals that could include barnacles. It is the first time that immobile life like these creatures has been found beneath an Antarctic ice sheet. “There’s all sorts of reasons they shouldn’t be there,” says Huw Griffiths at the British Antarctic Survey, who analysed the footage. He thinks the animals, which are probably filter feeders, survive on nutrients carried in the -2°C water. The conundrum is that they are so far from obvious nutrient sources, given that the boulder is located 260 kilometres from the open water at the front of the Filchner-Ronne ice shelf where photosynthetic organisms can survive. What’s more, the sponges’ food is probably travelling from even further afield, says Griffiths. Given what we know about the ocean currents in the area, the nearest up-current source of sunlight appears to be 600 kilometres away. It isn’t yet clear whether the rock-hugging animals are new to science, how long they live – some Antarctic glass sponges are more than 10,000 years old – or how often they feed, be it once a year, a decade or a century. But there are signs that the life on this single boulder isn’t a one-off: filming also captured a single sponge on another rock nearby. The find is significant because it suggests life in Antarctica’s harshest environments is more adaptable and more diverse than thought.
2-14-21 Covid: UK scientist defends WHO fact-finding mission to Wuhan
A member of the World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of Covid-19 has defended the credibility of its work amid mounting criticism. Prof John Watson told the BBC that the trip to Wuhan, China - where the virus was first detected - was only a start and more research would be needed. The US, UK and members of the team have complained of insufficient access given to the mission by the authorities. China has insisted it was transparent. The international team of experts concluded their trip to the city of Wuhan earlier this week without any definitive answers on what caused the outbreak. Wuhan was the first place in the world where the virus was detected, in late 2019. Since then, more than 108 million cases and 2.3 million deaths have been reported worldwide. The WHO mission began in January, following months of negotiations with Beijing, and was closely-monitored by the Chinese authorities. Speaking on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, Prof Watson sought to allay doubts about the mission, saying the trip was "the beginning of a process... that was going to take months or years to complete". He said that while Chinese authorities had not given the team all of the data about the early cases in Wuhan, they had seen a "great deal" of information. His comments came amid growing criticism over the level of data scientists were able to access. Fellow mission member Dominic Dwyer told several news outlets that Chinese authorities declined to give the team raw data on early Covid-19 cases. "They showed us a couple of examples, but that's not the same as doing all of them, which is standard epidemiological investigation," he told the Wall Street Journal. "So then, you know, the interpretation of that data becomes more limited from our point of view, although the other side might see it as being quite good." The US has urged China to make data available from the earliest stages of the outbreak, saying it has "deep concerns" about the WHO report. And British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab said he shared concerns about the level of access given to the team.
2-14-21 Guinea records first Ebola deaths since 2016
At least three people have died of Ebola in Guinea, with five others testing positive for the virus, health officials say. They fell ill with diarrhoea, vomiting and bleeding after attending a burial. Between 2013 and 2016 more than 11,000 people died in the West Africa Ebola epidemic, which began in Guinea. But in response to that epidemic several vaccines were developed, which have since been used to fight outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ebola infects humans through close contact with infected animals, including chimpanzees, fruit bats and forest antelope. It then spreads between humans by direct contact with infected blood, bodily fluids or organs, or indirectly through contact with contaminated environments. Community funerals, where people help wash the body of the person who has died, can be a key way of spreading Ebola in the earlier stages of an outbreak. The bodies of victims are particularly toxic. The incubation period can last from two days to three weeks. Dr Sakoba Keita, head of Guinea's national health agency, said more tests were being done to confirm the situation in the south-eastern region near the city of Nzérékoré, and health workers were working to trace and isolate cases. The World Health Organization's Africa director, Matshidiso Moeti, tweeted that the global health agency was "ramping up readiness and response efforts" given the potential resurgence of Ebola in Guinea. An Ebola vaccine was first trialled over four months in 2015 in Guinea - started by the Public Health Agency of Canada and then developed by US pharmaceutical company Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD). One hundred patients were identified and then close contacts were either vaccinated immediately, or three weeks later. In the 2,014 close contacts who were vaccinated immediately there were no subsequent cases of Ebola.
2-12-21 Did the coronavirus really come from frozen food, as the WHO suggests?
Did the virus that caused a worldwide pandemic make the jump to humans via frozen food? That was one hypothesis put forward on 9 February by a joint World Health Organization and Chinese investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2. Frozen animals were found on sale at Huanan market in Wuhan, China, the place where the virus was initially detected, the team behind the work said. In a press conference, Peter Ben Embarek, the head of the investigation, said: “We know the virus can survive in conditions that are found in these cold, frozen environments, but we don’t really understand if the virus can transmit to humans.” The idea that the coronavirus was carried inside or on the surface of frozen food, which has been advanced by Chinese state media, could place the source of the virus beyond China, from an animal imported from another country. Yet it is far from clear whether the virus could survive in an infectious form via frozen food. “I would say it’s extremely, extremely unlikely the virus would have spread through that type of route,” says Lawrence Young at the University of Warwick, UK, who specialises in human virology. The reason why, according to Young, is that SARS-CoV-2 is an enveloped virus, meaning it is covered with a fatty, lipid membrane that it uses to infect human cells. This membrane is very vulnerable to cycles of freezing and thawing, as can happen during the transit and sale of frozen food. Stripped of this envelope, such viruses cannot infect people. A review by Jie Han and Zue Zhang at Xi’an Jiaotong University and their colleagues of evidence on spreading the coronavirus via food concluded that “major knowledge gaps exist” on the role that frozen food plays. “Data are lacking on the long-term survival of SARS-CoV-2 under freezing temperatures (-10°C to -20°C) that are frequently encountered on the storage and transport of frozen foods,” the team wrote.
2-12-21 Stonehenge was built with bits of an older Welsh Stone Age monument
The origins of Stonehenge have long been a mystery. Now new discoveries show that the iconic monument may have started as a stone circle in Wales that was then dismantled and rebuilt 280 kilometres away at its current location on Salisbury plain. This is the conclusion of a team of archaeologists who uncovered the remains of what appears to be Britain’s third-largest stone circle, in the Preseli hills of west Wales. Stonehenge was built in several different phases between about 3000 and 2000 BC, starting with a large circular ditch and bank together with a circle of 2-metre-high bluestones just inside. Later, these bluestones were moved, and bigger structures made from boulders known as sarsens were built. In 2015, a team led by Mike Parker Pearson at University College London revealed that the bluestones were extracted from quarries in the Preseli hills, some 280 kilometres away in west Wales. The team then looked for evidence of stone monuments close to these quarries, as the Neolithic people who extracted Stonehenge’s bluestones might have constructed stone circles here too. The archaeologists excavated at a site called Waun Mawn, which had four large stones seemingly placed in an arc. They uncovered evidence of a further six holes that each originally held a stone, indicating that there had once been a stone circle with a large diameter at the site. “The arc did continue – that was a really important moment,” says Parker Pearson. Extrapolating from these positions, the team estimates that the completed circle probably had 30 to 50 stones, though arranged more haphazardly than the original bluestone circle at Stonehenge. A number of strands of evidence suggest that stones from Waun Mawn formed part of the original stone circle at Stonehenge. Dating studies showed that the Waun Mawn stone circle was created between 3600 and 3200 BC, a few hundred years before the first stages of construction at Stonehenge, and the types of stone at the two sites match.
2-12-21 Stonehenge may have had roots in a Welsh stone circle
Population movements may explain how certain stones at the iconic site came from far away. At an ancient site situated among the hills of western Wales, researchers suspect they have uncovered the remnants of a stone circle that contained initial building blocks of Stonehenge. Excavations of the site are in the early stages, but the stone circle was probably dismantled between 5,400 and 5,200 years ago, say University College London archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson and his colleagues. That’s roughly a few hundred years or less before work began at Stonehenge. People at the newly excavated site then perhaps moved about 280 kilometers to southern England, carrying with them stones that were used in the first phase of building the iconic monument (SN: 9/6/12), the investigators propose in the February Antiquity. Others, though, caution that more excavation needs to be done before clinching the case. The stone circle was found at site called Waun Mawn, which lies in the Preseli region of Wales. The site is near quarries previously identified as sources of smaller Stonehenge stones, known as bluestones. If Parker Pearson’s team is right, then ancient population movements out of Wales explain why bluestones at Stonehenge came from far away. Other Stonehenge stones, such as the iconic, massive boulders known as sarsen stones, came from local sources. In line with a migration scenario, large stone monuments and other signs of human activity in western Wales largely disappeared between around 5,000 to 4,000 years ago. “Maybe most of the people [in the Preseli region] migrated, taking their stones — their ancestral identities — with them,” Parker Pearson says. Earlier analyses of chemical elements in cremated human remains at Stonehenge indicated that a substantial number of those individuals had come from western Wales (SN: 8/2/18).
2-12-21 Stonehenge: Did the stone circle originally stand in Wales?
One of Britain's biggest and oldest stone circles has been found in Wales - and could be the original building blocks of Stonehenge. Archaeologists uncovered the remains of the Waun Mawn site in Pembrokeshire's Preseli Hills. They believe the stones could have been dismantled and rebuilt 150 miles (240 km) away on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire. The discovery was made during filming for BBC Two's Stonehenge: The Lost Circle Revealed. The Welsh circle, believed to be the third biggest in Britain, has a diameter of 360ft (110m), the same as the ditch that encloses Stonehenge, and both are aligned on the midsummer solstice sunrise. Several of the monoliths at the World Heritage Site are of the same rock type as those that still remain at the Welsh site. And one of the bluestones at Stonehenge has an unusual cross-section which matches one of the holes left at Waun Mawn, suggesting the monolith began its life as part of the stone circle in the Preseli Hills before being moved. It is already known that the smaller bluestones that were first used to build Stonehenge were transported from 150 miles (240 km) away in modern-day Pembrokeshire. But the new discovery suggests the bluestones from Waun Mawn could have been moved as the ancient people of the Preseli region migrated, even taking their monuments with them, as a sign of their ancestral identity. They would then have been re-erected at Stonehenge. Archaeologists said this could explain why the bluestones, thought to be the first monoliths erected at Stonehenge, were brought from so far away, while most circles are constructed within a short distance of their quarries. The archaeological investigations as part of the Stones of Stonehenge research project, led by Professor Mike Parker Pearson of University College London, previously excavated two bluestone quarries in the Preseli Hills. Their discovery that the bluestones had been extracted before the first stage of Stonehenge was built in 3000 BC prompted the team to re-investigate the nearby Waun Mawn stones to see if it was the site of a stone circle supplied by the quarry and later moved.
2-12-21 We can see evidence of the ancient Snowball Earth in bacterial DNA
Signs of a global catastrophe that occurred around 680 million years ago, known as Snowball Earth, have been found in the DNA of living bacteria in the oceans. Their genomes show that they nearly died out around this time, says Haiwei Luo at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Their population size became hugely decreased,” says Luo. Today, tiny photosynthetic bacteria called Prochlorococcus are incredibly abundant in the surface waters of oceans. A litre of seawater can contain more than 100 million of them. When Luo and colleagues studied the genomes of these bacteria, they found that at some point in the distant past the most common types of Prochlorococcus had acquired many harmful mutations and lost hundreds of genes altogether. This shows they went through what’s called a population bottleneck. When a population shrinks to low numbers, natural selection is much weaker and harmful mutations can accumulate. The researchers published these findings in 2017 but were left puzzling over what caused this bottleneck. The ancestors of Prochlorococcus evolved around 2 billion years ago, and they have long been abundant and widespread. Only a global catastrophe could explain such a bottleneck. Luo has now worked out that this bottleneck occurred approximately 680 million years ago with the help of a so-called molecular clock, which is based on the idea that on average genomes mutate at a constant rate. The team estimated what that rate might be based partly on the ages of fossils found by other teams, whose appearance suggests they are the ancestors of cyanobacteria such as Prochlorococcus. That means the bottleneck occurred during a period of super ice ages when the planet got so cold that even the seas around the equator mostly froze over – hence the term Snowball Earth. This would have been a disaster for Prochlorococcus. “This explains very well the genetic evidence,” says Luo.
2-11-21 Mini brains genetically altered with CRISPR to be Neanderthal-like
Miniature brains grown in the lab are helping to reveal how modern humans survived when other hominins died out. Neanderthals and Denisovans are some of our closest relatives. They lived alongside us about 50,000 years ago when modern humans migrated from Africa towards Europe, but they went extinct shortly after we came into contact with them. This might be because modern humans outcompeted and outsmarted them, but it may have just been bad luck. Alysson Muotri at the University of California, San Diego, and his colleagues wanted to know more about how our brains differed from these other hominins and whether this could affect survival. The team compared the genomes of modern humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans and found a total of 61 genes that differed. One gene, neuro-oncological ventral antigen 1 (NOVA1), particularly caught their eye. The gene is specifically active during brain development and influences the developing nervous system. The team found that the modern human NOVA1 gene differed from the Neanderthal and Denisovan version by a single base pair To find out more, the team grew their own ancient human-like brains. They used CRISPR genome editing to change the modern NOVA1 gene in human stem cells to mimic the Neanderthal and Denisovan version, then prompted the cells to develop into a Neanderthal or Denisovan-like brain organoid – a small, simplified version of the organ consisting of clusters of brain cells in a dish. They did the same with standard human stem cells. As they matured, the ancient human organoids were smaller in diameter, had a more wrinkled cell surface and their cells multiplied more slowly than the modern human ones. “They are quite distinct from modern humans, suggesting that single base alteration can change brain development,” says Muotri.
2-11-21 Can privacy coexist with technology that reads and changes brain activity?
Ethicists, scientists and our readers consider the ethics of brain technology. Gertrude the pig rooted around a straw-filled pen, oblivious to the cameras and onlookers — and the 1,024 electrodes eavesdropping on her brain signals. Each time the pig’s snout found a treat in a researcher’s hand, a musical jingle sounded, indicating activity in her snout-controlling nerve cells. Those beeps were part of the big reveal on August 28 by Elon Musk’s company Neuralink. “In a lot of ways, it’s kind of like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires,” said Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, of the new technology. Neuroscientists have been recording nerve cell activity from animals for decades. But the ambitions of Musk and others to link humans with computers are shocking in their reach. Future-minded entrepreneurs and researchers aim to listen in on our brains and perhaps even reshape thinking. Imagine being able to beckon our Teslas with our minds, Jedi-style. Some scientists called Gertrude’s introduction a slick publicity stunt, full of unachievable promises. But Musk has surprised people before. “You can’t argue with a guy who built his own electric car and sent it to orbit around Mars,” says Christof Koch, a neuroscientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. Whether Neuralink will eventually merge brains and Teslas is beside the point. Musk isn’t the only dreamer chasing neurotechnology. Advances are coming quickly and span a variety of approaches, including external headsets that may be able to distinguish between hunger and boredom; implanted electrodes that translate intentions to speak into real words; and bracelets that use nerve impulses for typing without a keyboard. Today, paralyzed people are already testing brain-computer interfaces, a technology that connects brains to the digital world (SN: 11/16/13, p. 22). With brain signals alone, users have been able to shop online, communicate and even use a prosthetic arm to sip from a cup (SN: 6/16/12, p. 5). The ability to hear neural chatter, understand it and perhaps even modify it could change and improve people’s lives in ways that go well beyond medical treatments. But these abilities also raise questions about who gets access to our brains and for what purposes.
2-11-21 Ancient hunter-gatherer seashell resonates after 17,000 years
Archaeologists have managed to get near-perfect notes out of a musical instrument that's more than 17,000 years old. It's a conch shell that was found in a hunter-gatherer cave in southern France. The artefact is the oldest known wind instrument of its type. To date, only bone flutes can claim a deeper heritage. The discovery is reported in the journal Science Advances. Its significance lies in the dot-like markings inside the shell. These match the artwork on the walls of the Marsoulas cave in the Pyrenees where the artefact was unearthed in 1931. "This establishes a strong link between the music played with the conch and the images, the representations, on the walls," explained Gilles Tosello from the University of Toulouse. "To our knowledge this is the first time we can put in evidence a relationship between music and cave art in European pre-history." The shell measures 31cm in its longest dimension, and 18cm at its widest. It was once home to a living organism, of course; most likely a species of cold-water Atlantic sea snail called Charonia lampas. The shell must have been a prized object because the coastline where it was presumably picked up or traded is more than 200km away. When the 1930s excavators at Marsoulas first looked at the shell, they thought it nothing more than a ceremonial drinking cup. But the analysis by a team led from the French National Centre for Scientific Research has turned that interpretation on its head. The scientists have identified the deliberate modifications that would have enhanced the shell's ability to make sound. These include the hole excised at one end that would have permitted the insertion of some kind of mouthpiece, and cuts at the other end that would have made it easier to insert a hand to modulate the sound - in the same way a French horn player might insert their hand into the bell of the instrument to alter the pitch. The team asked a professional musician to blow into the conch, and to their delight he was able to generate notes close to C, C-sharp and D. "The intensity produced is amazing, approximately 100 decibels at one metre. And the sound is very directed in the axis of the aperture of the shell," said Philippe Walter from Sorbonne University.
2-11-21 Humans made a horn out of a conch shell about 18,000 years ago
Fitted with a modern mouthpiece, it plays the notes C, C sharp and D. Ancient Europeans made a horn out of a large seashell and blew musical notes out of it roughly 18,000 years ago, a new study suggests. While it’s not known how ancient people used the shell horn, conch shells in historical and modern cultures have served as musical instruments, calling or signaling devices and sacred or magical objects, researchers say. People played the marine horn inside Marsoulas cave, located in the French Pyrenees, say archaeologist Carole Fritz, of the University of Toulouse in France, and her colleagues. Wall paintings inside that cave depict humans, animals and geometric forms. Discoverers of the conch shell at the cave’s entrance in 1931 thought it had been used as a shared drinking container. But microscopic and imaging examinations indicate that someone cut off the shell’s narrow end to create a small opening, the scientists report February 10 in Science Advances. A cylindrical mouthpiece, possibly a hollow bird bone, was inserted in the hole, they suspect. Brownish traces of a resin or wax around the artificial opening may have come from a glue for the mouthpiece. Images of the shell’s interior revealed two holes that had been chipped into spiral layers just beneath the opening, likely to hold the mouthpiece in place. By using a metal mouthpiece and blowing into the shell’s artificial opening, a musicologist and horn player enlisted by the researchers produced sounds close to the musical notes C, C sharp and D. Red pigment marks shaped like human fingerprints dot the inside of the shell, near its wide opening where someone trimmed the edge. If the shell horn was used as a musical instrument, it’s certainly not the oldest. That honor goes to bone and ivory flutes that Europeans made as early as around 40,000 years ago (SN: 6/24/09).
2-10-21 Listen to the oldest known conch shell horn from 18,000 years ago
A conch shell found in a cave used by the Magdalenian people of the late Upper Palaeolithic was originally thought to be a cup, but a new analysis suggests they used it as a kind of horn. That would make it the earliest known conch shell horn. Gilles Tosello at the University of Toulouse in France and his colleagues were investigating objects and cave art found in Marsoulas cave in the Pyrenees mountains. They revisited a conch shell that was discovered in 1931. The shell is 31 centimetres long and 18 centimetres wide and once belonged to a large sea snail of the species Charonia lampas that probably lived on the coast of what is now France or Spain. It has a small, narrow hole drilled into the point of the shell called the apex, and is decorated with fingerprint-shaped ochre red markings. “We are pretty sure that this shell was transformed by human action, on the contrary to what was first published in the 1930s,” said Tosello at a press conference on 9 February. Its original discoverers suspected the conch shell was a ceremonial drinking cup. Tosello’s team came to a different conclusion after examining the inside of the shell with CT scanning and a tiny medical camera. “The broken part of the apex is very narrow, and the hole inside is perfectly round with a regular edge,” he said. The hole in the apex was probably drilled to make way for some kind of mouthpiece, such as a small hollow bone to blow into, to protect the lips of the musician. To test the hypothesis that this was used as an instrument, the team enlisted the help of a horn player to see if they could play the conch shell – the horn player produced three notes close to C, D and C sharp. Along with the decorative ochre markings – which match paintings found on the walls of the original cave – there are smears of a brown, organic residue around the conch shell. Although there isn’t enough to determine what the residue is, it was probably used as a sort of glue to fix the mouthpiece into the shell, says Tosello.
2-10-21 Covid-19 news: Four new covid-19 symptoms identified in study
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Chills, loss of appetite, headache and muscle ache linked to covid-19 in new study. New symptoms have been linked to covid-19 in certain age groups, including chills, loss of appetite, headache and muscle ache, in Imperial College London’s REACT study. The four new symptoms were identified by researchers through random swab testing and questioning of more than a million people in England, conducted between June 2020 and January 2021. The researchers found an association between testing positive for the coronavirus and reporting any of these new symptoms or other symptoms previously linked to covid-19, such as a persistent cough, fever or a loss or change in sense of taste or smell. The more symptoms people had, the more likely they were to test positive, although there was some variation in symptoms across different age groups. Chills were linked with infection across all age groups, whereas headaches were reported mainly in children aged 5-17, appetite loss in adults over 18 and muscle aches in those aged 18-54. Infected 5-17 year olds were also less likely to report experiencing fever, persistent cough and appetite loss, in comparison with adults. People in the UK are going to have to “get used to the idea of vaccinating and revaccinating in the autumn as we face these new variants”, UK prime minister Boris Johnson told parliament on 10 February. Several vaccine manufacturers have confirmed that they are already working on new versions of their covid-19 vaccines to make sure they remain effective. The UK government recently announced a partnership with manufacturer CureVac to rapidly manufacture new vaccines in response to new coronavirus variants if needed. “We believe that they may help us to develop vaccines that can respond at scale to new variants of the virus,” said Johnson. England’s deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam said he doesn’t think the B.1351 coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa “is going to be a dominant issue in the next few months”. Speaking on BBC News, Van-Tam said 90 per cent of cases in the UK at the moment are caused by the B.1.1.7 variant, first detected in Kent. South Africa is considering selling or exchanging its doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine, according to the country’s health minister. Plans to start administering the jabs were put on hold this week after a small, preliminary study indicated it may not protect against mild or moderate covid-19 caused by the B.1.351 variant.
2-10-21 Next coronavirus vaccines may be sprays, pills or printed on demand
THE race to develop vaccines against covid-19 got off to a flyer, but with dangerous new virus variants, stark inequalities in access to vaccines and few vaccination options for children, the world still needs all hands on deck. Last week, a virtual meeting run by the New York Academy of Sciences called The Quest for a COVID-19 Vaccine showcased the most promising new candidates. So far, all approved covid-19 vaccines have been injectable. Another option is a nasal spray, says Robert Coleman, CEO of biotech company Codagenix, in Farmingdale, New York. Codagenix’s technology uses a live, but weakened, version of the coronavirus that causes covid-19 to provoke an immune response. This approach makes the company the black sheep of the vaccine community, admits Coleman. “They are the most efficacious form of vaccine, they are single dose, they provide broad and robust immunity, but most people consider them to have safety risks.” The reason? Conventionally, such vaccines are produced by a trial-and-error process in which the virus is grown in animal cells until it acquires enough mutations to make it harmless to humans. Viruses in such vaccines can occasionally revert back to the dangerous type and start circulating among people, setting off new waves of disease. However, Codagenix synthesises its coronavirus genome from scratch, and introduces genetic changes that weaken the virus. The enfeebled virus can replicate sluggishly and stimulate the immune response, but doesn’t cause disease. The team believes that the genome is so heavily modified – it has 283 mutations compared with the original virus – that there is no risk of it reverting back to being dangerous. “We call it death by a thousand cuts,” says Coleman. One advantage of this approach is that the immune system encounters the entire virus, so mounts a broad response, potentially allowing it to be more effective against variants, although this is yet to be tested. The vaccine is administered in a single dose dripped into the nose. It is currently in phase I trials (see “Trial phases explained“). The vaccine will also be tested on children, says Coleman.
2-10-21 Coronavirus: Bat scientists find new evidence
Scientists say coronaviruses related to Sars-CoV-2 may be circulating in bats across many parts of Asia. They have discovered a virus that is a close match to the virus that causes Covid-19 in bats at a wildlife sanctuary in eastern Thailand. And they predict that similar coronaviruses may be present in bats across many Asian nations and regions. The discovery extends the area in which related viruses have been found to a distance of 4,800km (2,983 miles). And it gives clues to how Covid-19 might have emerged. The researchers said sampling was limited, but they were confident that coronaviruses "with a high degree of genetic relatedness to Sars-CoV-2 are widely present in bats across many nations and regions in Asia". The area includes Japan, China and Thailand, the researchers said in a report published in Nature Communications. Past studies have suggested that Sars-CoV-2 emerged in an animal, most likely a bat, before spreading to humans. The precise origins of the virus are unknown and have been investigated by a team commissioned by the World Health Organization (WHO). In the latest research, a team lead by Lin-Fa Wang of the University of Singapore detected a close relative of Sars-CoV-2 in horseshoe bats kept in an artificial cave at a wildlife sanctuary in Thailand. The virus, named RacCS203, is a close match to the genetic code of Sars-CoV-2 (with 91.5% similarity in their genomes). It is also closely related to another coronavirus - called RmYN02 - which is found in bats in Yunnan, China (with 93.6% similarity to the genome of Sars-CoV-2). "We need to do more surveillance in animals," said Prof Wang. "In order to find the true origin, the surveillance work needs to go beyond the border of China." One big concern is the ability of coronaviruses to move between different mammals, for example cats, dogs and minks. By moving between species, the virus can mutate and evolve into a new pathogen, which could explain how Covid-19 emerged. Dr Thiravat Hemachudha of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand, was part of the team of international researchers. The viruses found in bats in Thailand and China act as "a perfect template that can recombine with others and eventually evolve as new emerging pathogen(s), Covid-19 virus as one", he said.
2-9-21 Covid-19 news: ‘Extremely unlikely’ virus came from lab, says WHO team
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. WHO team in China is investigating theory that coronavirus was spread through frozen food. The World Health Organization (WHO) mission in Wuhan, China has ruled out the possibility that the coronavirus originated in a laboratory, but the team is investigating whether the virus came from frozen food, possibly from outside China. The investigation team leader Peter Ben Embarek said the virus seems to have originated in bats, as originally thought, but it was probably transmitted to humans via an unknown intermediate species, possibly a dead or frozen animal food product. Embarek said it is “extremely unlikely” that the virus escaped from a lab. The WHO mission arrived in China in January and spent four weeks researching the origin of the coronavirus with site visits to the Huanan seafood market, originally suspected as the source of the virus, as well as the laboratories at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which was also being investigated as a potential source. It announced its initial findings at a press briefing in Wuhan on 9 February. People arriving in England who are required to quarantine in hotels will be charged a fee of £1750 to cover the cost of their stay, transport and coronavirus tests, UK health minister Matt Hancock announced. People who fail to quarantine face fines of up to £10,000, while those who lie on their passenger locator forms about visiting any of 33 “red list” countries face up to 10 years in jail. Hancock said similar measures are being looked at for the devolved nations. “People who flout these rules are putting us all at risk,” he told parliament on Tuesday. He also confirmed that an enhanced testing regime for all arrivals would start on 15 February, from which point all arrivals will be required to get tested for the coronavirus on the second and eighth days of their 10-day quarantine period. The NHS covid-19 app has told 1.7 million people in England and Wales to self-isolate since its launch in September. A preliminary analysis by researchers at the University of Oxford and the Alan Turing Institute indicates 594,000 coronavirus cases have been prevented by the app. The app has had about 21.7 million downloads, although internal data suggests about 16.5 million people are currently actively using its contact-tracing tool, according to the BBC.
2-9-21 How can you tell if a coronavirus vaccine has given you immunity?
To tackle the covid-19 pandemic, we need the most effective vaccines we can get. But even the best vaccines don’t work in everyone. How do you know if yours has worked? All of the vaccines in use against the coronavirus can cause side effects, including a sore arm, fever, chills, headache and nausea, usually in the first two days after a jab. These are more common after a second dose, and in people who have already been naturally infected with the coronavirus, according to data from the Covid Symptom Study on nearly 36,000 people in the UK who had the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. While side effects show your immune system is reacting to the virus, the absence of such signs doesn’t mean the jab has failed to work. Even with the second dose, only half of people in the UK study had a sore arm and one in five had a broader effect like fever. “People should not be worried if they don’t have a reaction,” says Deborah Dunn-Walters, chair of the British Society for Immunology’s covid-19 task force. No matter what, it is crucial not to behave as if you are immune to the virus after a vaccine, says Paul Morgan at Cardiff University in the UK. It takes two to three weeks for a vaccine to start taking effect. Even after three weeks, vaccines won’t stop all infections, only reduce their severity and number in the population. It still isn’t clear why some people catch the coronavirus after being vaccinated (see “No vaccine response”). But there is a way to know if a vaccine has had an effect on your immune system. Some antibody tests that are used to detect natural coronavirus infections can also be used to detect antibodies made in response to vaccines three weeks after a shot. Most tests look for antibodies that recognise the virus’s outer spike protein, which the virus uses to latch on to cells in the body, so they can identify people who have had a natural infection or a vaccine. Indeed, they can’t distinguish between them. But some identify antibodies recognising a molecule called the nucleocapsid protein, which isn’t contained in the vaccines, so wouldn’t detect the immune response in vaccine recipients.
2-9-21 Coronavirus: Bat virus hunters find new evidence
Scientists say coronaviruses related to Sars-CoV-2 may be circulating in bats across many parts of Asia. A virus that is a close match to the Sars-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19, has been discovered in bats at a wildlife sanctuary in eastern Thailand. The researchers predict that related coronaviruses may be present in bats across many Asian nations and regions. Their discovery extends the area in which related viruses have been found to a distance of 4,800km (2,983 miles). The study is reported in Nature Communications. Writing in the journal, the researchers said the sampling site (Thailand only) and sampling size was limited, but they were confident that coronaviruses "with a high degree of genetic relatedness to Sars-CoV-2 are widely present in bats across many nations and regions in Asia". Past studies have suggested that Sars-CoV-2 emerged in an animal, most likely a bat, before spreading to humans. The precise origins of the virus are unknown and have been investigated by a team commissioned by the World Health Organization (WHO). In the latest research, a team lead by Lin-Fa Wang of the University of Singapore detected a close relative of Sars-CoV-2 in horseshoe bats kept in an artificial cave at a wildlife sanctuary in Thailand. The isolated virus, named RacCS203, is a close match to the genetic code of SARS-CoV-2 (exhibiting 91.5% similarity in their genomes). It is also closely related to another coronavirus - called RmYN02 - which is found in bats in Yunnan, China and which shows 93.6% similarity to the genome of Sars-CoV-2. The researchers, from Thailand, Singapore, China, Australia and the US, looked at antibodies in the bats and in a trafficked pangolin in southern Thailand. They say the antibodies were able to neutralise the pandemic virus, which is further evidence that SARS-CoV-2-related coronaviruses are circulating in Southeast Asia.
2-9-21 Ancient caterpillar had armoured spikes to protect it from early birds
An early caterpillar that lived alongside the dinosaurs had sharp spines along its back to defend against predators. It is the first example of an armoured caterpillar so early in evolutionary history. The find suggests that caterpillars – the larval form of lepidopteran insects (known commonly as butterflies and moths) – were already diversifying at an early stage of their existence. Butterflies and moths originated during the dinosaur era, but until now we had found very few winged adults and just four fossil caterpillars from that time. This is an unfortunate lack of data given that lepidopterans spend most of their lives as caterpillars, says Joachim Haug of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany. Haug says all of the dinosaur-era caterpillars were “normal”, consisting of a “wormy thing with some feet on it and that’s it”. He bought a fossil caterpillar, preserved in amber from Myanmar, on eBay. The amber it comes from is 100 million years old, putting it in the Cretaceous period. With his wife Carolin Haug, also at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Haug has now described the caterpillar. Its trunk had 12 segments, each of which had at least three pairs of spines on the upper side. The spines probably defended the caterpillar against hungry predators, says Haug. Birds – a group of specialised feathered dinosaurs – had evolved by this time so may well have been the main threat, just as they are for modern caterpillars. “There’s quite a diversity of birds already in the Cretaceous,” he says. The spiny fossil indicates that caterpillars were already evolving a range of forms in the Cretaceous, says Haug. However, they do not seem to have been very numerous. Instead, the ecosystem was dominated by another group of insects called lacewings. But after the mass extinction event 66 million years ago that wiped out all the non-bird dinosaurs, lacewings declined, and butterflies and moths expanded.
2-9-21 Fossil mimics may be more common in ancient rocks than actual fossils
Abiotic objects that resemble microbes are much hardier than their biological brethren. When it comes to finding fossils of very ancient microbial life — whether on Earth or on other worlds, such as Mars — the odds are just not in our favor. Actual microbial life-forms are much less likely to become safely fossilized in rocks compared with nonbiological structures that happen to mimic their shapes, new research finds. The finding suggests that Earth’s earliest rocks may contain abundant tiny fakers — minuscule objects masquerading as fossilized evidence of early life — researchers report online January 28 in Geology. The finding is “at the very least a cautionary tale,” says study author Julie Cosmidis, a geomicrobiologist at the University of Oxford. Tiny, often enigmatic structures found in some of Earth’s oldest rocks, dating back to more than 2.5 billion years, can offer tantalizing hints of the planet’s earliest life. And the hunt for ever-more-ancient signs of life on Earth has sparked intense debate — in part because the farther back in time you go, the harder it is to interpret tiny squiggles, filaments and spheres in the rock (SN: 1/3/20). One reason is that the movements of Earth’s tectonic plates over time can squeeze and cook the rocks, deforming and chemically altering tiny fossils, perhaps beyond recognition. But an even more pernicious and contentious problem is that such tiny filaments or spheres may not be biological in origin at all. Increasingly, scientists have found that nonbiological chemical processes can create similar shapes, suggesting the possibility of “false positives” in the biological record. One such discovery led to the new study, Cosmidis says. A few years ago, she and others were trying to grow bacteria and make them produce sulfur. “We were mixing sulfides with organic matter, and we started forming these objects,” she says. “We thought they were formed by the bacteria, because they looked so biological. But then we realized they were forming in laboratory tubes that happened to have no bacteria in them at all.”
2-8-21 2700-year-old face cream was made from animal fat and cave ‘milk’
Some Chinese noblemen were using cosmetic face cream 2700 years ago. Archaeologists have found an ornate bronze jar containing the remains of a face cream, which was made from a mixture of animal fat and a rare substance called moonmilk that is found in caves. The discovery is the earliest evidence of a Chinese man using cosmetics, although there is older evidence of Chinese women doing so. In 2017 and 2018, Yimin Yang at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and his colleagues excavated a site called Liujiawa in northern China. It dates from the Spring and Autumn period (771 to 476 BC) of Chinese history, centuries before the country was first unified by the Qin dynasty. During this period, Liujiawa was the capital city of a small state called Rui. In the tomb of a nobleman, who was buried with funerary bronze weapons, the researchers found a beautiful bronze jar. Inside were lumps of a soft, yellow-white material. They immediately suspected that this was cosmetic cream. Later chemical analyses confirmed this and revealed two main ingredients. The first was animal fat, which came from a ruminant animal that had been fed lots of grass-like plants. Co-author Bin Han, also at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, says this probably came from cattle raised in pens. The second ingredient was a form of watery calcium carbonate called moonmilk. It is a soft, white, creamy substance that forms inside certain caves. The cream would have made the man’s face white, says Yang. The use of moonmilk may have been influenced by the early Taoist School, a group of thinkers who were fascinated by caves and believed that some cave minerals had magical properties. Yet the use of cosmetics may have simultaneously been a way for aristocrats to stand out.
2-7-21 The dash to adapt smartwatches to help detect COVID infections
Wearable devices already collect vital signs like heart rate and skin temperature. New algorithms can use them to catch illness early — leading to urgent efforts to help battle the pandemic.. ive years ago, on a flight to Norway, Stanford University biologist Michael Snyder noticed that his body wasn't behaving as it should. According to the multiple fitness trackers he happened to be wearing at the time, his heart rate was unusually high and his pulse ox — a measure of blood oxygen level — was unusually low. "When I landed, they never came back to normal," he says. "So I knew something was up." Snyder could guess what that something was: Two weeks earlier, he'd helped his brother install a fence in rural Massachusetts — tick country. Sure enough, soon after landing in Norway, he developed a fever consistent with Lyme disease. A Norwegian doctor gave him antibiotics to fight the infection until he returned home, when a test confirmed the diagnosis. "And the first clues were actually from my smartwatch and pulse ox," Snyder says. "Pretty cool." Snyder was wearing the devices as part of an ongoing study, started in 2010, in which his lab is tracking wearable and other data from about a hundred people, including him. (As we speak, he flashes his wrists, brandishing no fewer than four smartwatches.) "At the time we started, most people weren't really even using them for health purposes," he says — just to monitor daily activity. "We realized, gosh, these are pretty good 24-7 monitors of your physiology." He wondered what one could learn from all those data. Maybe a lot. In a review of Snyder's personal smartwatch data over the two years before his Lyme disease experience, his team found evidence for three viral infections that had already been confirmed by testing — including one that was asymptomatic. "So every time I was ill, we could pick it up with high heart rate and skin temperature — prior to symptom onset," he says. The researchers began to design algorithms to identify deviations from baseline vitals in anyone, with the goal of combining genetic, wearable, and other data to predict metabolic disorders, estimate cardiovascular risk and make other health assessments remotely. Thus began a research path — now joined by labs around the world — that could enable smartwatches to detect when people are infected with COVID-19 before they're tested, or even before they feel sick. In recent years, Snyder and a number of other research groups have used wearable devices to monitor heart health and detect infectious disease. Now, many have hope that the gadgets can be leveraged in the battle to stop the spread of COVID-19. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has infected more than 100 million people and killed more than 2 million. Accelerating its spread, people carrying the virus can transmit it to others without knowing they're infected. Massive rapid testing could curtail such transmission by alerting people to the infection, but most people don't get tested every day, and there wouldn't be sufficient resources to do so anyway. Finding ways to quickly identify those most likely to test positive could save lives. As Snyder suggests, the appeal of using smartwatches, fitness trackers, and other such gadgets for this purpose is that they can monitor (depending on the device) heart rate, breathing rate, sleep, temperature, blood pressure, and activity levels — and that tens of millions of Americans are already wearing them. "We see a potential to help" with COVID-19, says Giorgio Quer, the director of artificial intelligence at Scripps Research Translational Institute and one of the leaders of DETECT, one of the largest efforts so far to test this idea.
2-6-21 How coronavirus variants may drive reinfection and shape vaccination efforts
New variants could bring more reinfections, but fewer cases of severe COVID-19. Vaccine rollout in the United States has been undeniably slow. And while we wait, worrisome new coronavirus variants are emerging, heightening the urgency to control the pandemic. Some variants, including ones first identified in Brazil, South Africa and the United Kingdom, have mutations that help the coronavirus evade parts of the immune system, raising the specter that some people might face a second round of COVID-19. All of this can make it feel like the pandemic has come full circle and that we are back where we started. But even in the face of potential reinfections, the world has a tool at its disposal that didn’t exist a year ago: effective vaccines. Shots from Pfizer and Moderna have been authorized in the United States since December 2020. Vaccines developed by Novavax and Johnson & Johnson recently announced promising results (SN: 1/28/21; SN: 1/29/21). On February 4, Johnson & Johnson became the third company to apply for emergency use authorization in the United States for its COVID-19 vaccine. And preliminary data from AstraZeneca suggest that a single dose of its vaccine may lower the number of people who test positive for the coronavirus virus by 67 percent, possibly reducing the spread of the virus in the community, researchers reported February 1 in Preprints with the Lancet. Curbing transmission is the holy grail of vaccine effectiveness: That would give the coronavirus fewer chances to acquire potentially dangerous mutations (SN: 1/27/21). That, in turn, could finally bring the end of the pandemic into view. In the meantime, researchers are grappling with understanding the threat the known mutations pose. Even if someone has antibodies to the coronavirus — through a natural infection or a vaccine — some mutations can stymie the antibodies’ ability to latch onto the virus and prevent it from infecting cells. Though antibodies make up only one part of the immune system’s arsenal to eliminate viruses from the body, the variants’ ability to dodge the immune proteins could put people who have already recovered from a bout of COVID-19 at risk of getting infected again.
2-5-21 Nearly half a million U.S. children missed out on lead tests in early 2020
Exposure to the toxic metal can cause long-term health problems for children. Close to a half million U.S. children didn’t get tested for lead in the first half of 2020. Nearly 10,000 of those children may have elevated levels of the toxic metal in their blood, researchers estimate. The study is another troubling indicator of the preventive medical care that children as well as adults in the United States haven’t received since the start of the pandemic. Children haven’t been coming in for pediatric appointments, missing lead testing as well as routine vaccinations. Of adults who needed care from March — when widespread shutdowns to curb the spread of COVID-19 began — to mid-July of 2020, 58 percent reported forgoing scheduled preventive visits. Screening mammogram visits fell after March 2020 compared with previous years. The health risks to children with elevated lead levels are severe and include damage to the brain, developmental delays and learning and behavioral problems such as inattention, hyperactivity and aggression. Researchers poured over data from 34 state and local health departments, assessing blood level testing among children under age 6. From January through May 2020, 480,172 fewer children were tested, a 34 percent drop, compared with that time period in 2019, researchers report February 5 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The number of children tested dropped sharply starting in March, the data show. Overall, those missed tests left an estimated 9,603 children with elevated blood lead levels unidentified. Those children “continue to be exposed,” says Maitreyi Mazumdar, a pediatric neurologist at Boston Children’s Hospital who was not involved in the study. There is no safe level of lead. A benchmark level of 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood or greater is a signal to take action. Lead screenings are the starting point to finding children at high risk and removing the source of their lead exposure.
2-5-21 Some mouse sperm try to sabotage rivals in race to fertilise the egg
Sperm have one goal – to reach the egg and fertilise it – and it seems that some mouse sperm cells carrying a certain genetic mutation may boost their chances of doing so by sabotaging their rivals. Bernhard Herrmann at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin, Germany, and his colleagues analysed sperm samples from mice. They found that sperm from some mice, carrying a genetic variant called the t haplotype, move faster and swim in straight lines. Other sperm without this variant from the same mice swim less productively, often moving slower and in circles. Previous research has shown that mice with two copies the t haplotype genetic variant are more likely to be infertile, but this new study suggests that males with one copy of the genetic variant produce these t haplotype sperm cells that are more motile than those without. This t haplotype genetic variant is a “selfish” genetic element, because it can increase its likelihood of being passed on to offspring to higher than the usual odds of 50 per cent, and now Hermann and his team have figured out how these sperm gain their advantage. The sperm cells carrying one t haplotype variant produce certain molecules that are able to disturb other sperm cells. The gene variants make it difficult for the rival sperm cells to interact with their environment, blocking various cell signalling molecules that normally provide the sperm with a sense of direction. Although the t haplotype sperm cells were more motile as a result of this competitive edge, the researchers did not test their ability to fertilise an egg. The team also found a link between sperm success and an important protein in the body called RAC1, which plays a role in general cell movement and directs the sperm cell towards the egg. The levels of RAC1 in the body have to be just right – too high or too low and the sperm cells won’t move straight.
2-4-21 Our study of gambling and its harms shows it's time to intervene
Gambling has changed a lot in recent years. Mobile apps give people unlimited access to the global betting market at the touch of a button from anywhere in the world. As the number of gamblers has increased, so too have bookmakers’ profit margins and the amount of problem gambling. Yet we still can’t say for sure how gambling and financial troubles are linked. In the UK, the number of active online gambling accounts has risen from around 16 million in 2008 to 30 million in 2019. The Gambling Commission, an industry regulator for England, Scotland and Wales, estimates up to 300,000 people may be problem gamblers – gambling in a way that is disruptive or damaging to their lives. A similar pattern has been seen in other countries. As a result, there is some pushback. The Gambling Commission is reviewing current legislation, has announced new restrictions on how online bookmakers can operate and there is talk of banning gambling advertising from sports shirts, reminiscent of when tobacco firms faced a similar outlawing. But there is still much that we don’t know about the impacts of gambling. As interviewing gamblers is time consuming and costly, much of the existing research relies on surveys of the most extreme gamblers. This is problematic for several reasons. Extreme gamblers are hard to reach and are likely to misremember or distort their gambling habits. Another issue is the assumption that the problems associated with gambling affect just a small proportion of the most extreme gamblers, whereas gambling researchers believe that lower levels of gambling may be harmful too. Understanding the societal impact of gambling requires large-scale, objective data into the harms of gambling that, until recently, has been lacking. In our recent study, we looked at anonymised data from a UK bank of around 6.5 million people – of whom 40 per cent gambled – to see what financial, social and health outcomes disproportionately affect those who gamble over a period of 7 years. While not quite representative of the UK population, this is the fullest picture yet of gambling and its associated harms.
2-4-21 Famous brain sketches come to life again as embroideries
Volunteers re-create iconic drawings by Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal. In the late 1800s, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, a Spanish brain scientist, spent long hours in his attic drawing elaborate cells. His careful, solitary work helped reveal individual cells of the brain that together create wider networks. For those insights, Cajal received a Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine in 1906. Now, a group of embroiderers has traced those iconic cell images with thread, paying tribute to the pioneering drawings that helped us see the brain clearly. The Cajal Embroidery Project was launched in March of 2020 by scientists at the University of Edinburgh. Over a hundred volunteers — scientists, artists and embroiderers — sewed panels that will ultimately be stitched into a tapestry, a project described in the December Lancet Neurology. Catherine Abbott, a neuroscientist at the University of Edinburgh, had the idea while talking with her colleague Jane Haley, who was planning an exhibit of Cajal’s drawings. These meticulous drawings re-created nerve cells, or neurons, and other types of brain cells, including support cells called astrocytes. “I said, off the cuff, ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely to embroider some of them?’” The project had just begun when the COVID-19 pandemic upended the world. But stitching at home amid the shutdowns was a soothing activity, says Katie Askew, a neuroimmunologist at the University of Edinburgh. “Having something that can occupy your hands so you’re not scrolling through your phone looking at the news is great,” she says. Askew chose to re-create a type of neuron known as a Purkinje cell from a human cerebellum, a structure at the back and bottom of the brain that helps coordinate movement. Purkinje cells collect signals with lush thickets of tendrils, before sending along their own quieting signals. Cajal’s particular specimen nearly filled Askew’s fabric panel. “They are amazing cells,” she says. Spending months staring at a single cell has led her to spot similar branches in trees, she says.
2-4-21 An ancient Egyptian mummy was wrapped in an unusual mud shell
The technique may have been used to repair damage or mimic royal burial customs. An unusual mud-wrapped mummy is leading archaeologists to rethink how nonroyal Egyptians preserved their dead. CT scans of an Egyptian mummy from around 1200 B.C. reveal that the body is sheathed in a mud shell between its layers of linen wrappings. Ancient Egyptians may have used this preservation technique, never before seen in Egyptian archaeology, to repair damage to the mummified body and mimic royal burial customs, researchers report February 3 in PLOS ONE. While the mummy’s legs are caked with mud about 2.5 centimeters thick, the mud over its face is spread as thin as 1.5 millimeters. Chemical analyses of mud flakes from around the head indicate that the mud layer is covered in a white, possibly limestone-based pigment, topped with a red mineral paint. Leg fractures and other damage to the mummy’s body hint that the mud wrap may have been used to restore the body after it was desecrated, potentially by tomb robbers. Repairing the body would have ensured that the deceased could continue existing in the afterlife. The mud shell may also have been a poor man’s version of the expensive resin coatings seen on royal mummies of this era, the researchers suggest (SN: 8/18/14). “Status in Egyptian society was in large part measured by proximity to the king,” says Karin Sowada, an archaeologist at Macquarie University in Sydney. So imitating royal funerary practices may have been a display of social status. The identity and social standing of the mud-wrapped individual remains a mystery. Analyzing other nonroyal mummies from ancient Egypt may reveal how common mud shells were, who used them and why.
2-4-21 Greeks domesticated grapes about 4000 years ago to improve wine-making
The Greeks domesticated grapevines around 4000 years ago, according to a comparison of ancient seeds discovered in archaeological excavations. We know that people began making wine by fermenting wild-picked grapes before the fruit was domesticated – in Greece, some of the earliest evidence of wine-making, in the form of grape residues in pottery, dates back to at least 4300 BC – but now researchers have found that by around 2000 BC, people in central Greece had already begun to develop a finer taste for wine. “This means that people knew better how to select grapevines. They knew which grapes could make good wine,” says Clemence Pagnoux at the French School of Athens, Greece. Pagnoux and her colleagues gathered more than 2000 preserved grape seeds from different sites around Greece, with the oldest dating to roughly 5500 BC. They took detailed pictures of the seeds and compared their shapes. A tell-tale sign of domestication is when seeds from a certain place and time become more uniform, indicating that growers have begun to select specific grapes and propagate them. The researchers found this occurred in central Greece between 2100 and 1700 BC. These dates fall solidly in the middle Bronze Age, when the Greeks were trading in wine and olive oil. It makes sense that grape growers would become more interested in stabilising their product and focusing on quality. More varieties of domesticated seeds began to appear by 1500 BC, Pagnoux says, during the late Bronze Age. “I think grapevines became widely cultivated during this period and they selected a lot of new varieties,” she says. The findings suggest that central Greece has some of the earliest evidence of grape domestication, but Pagnoux is careful to note that seeds in many other ancient wine-making regions in the Middle East haven’t yet been analysed in this way and could reveal older dates. As trade between Greece and the Middle East flourished at this time, the domesticated seeds found in central Greece may even have been imported, she says.
2-3-21 Playing smartphone games could help researchers understand the brain
You can help researchers studying the brain and mental health conditions by playing games on the Brain Explorer app, finds Layal Liverpool. OUR brains hold the key to understanding how mental health conditions first develop. All of us possess traits related to psychiatric conditions to some extent. That’s why researchers are looking to you and me – and the population at large – to help them better understand the origins of common mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Last year, the World Health Organization described mental health as one of the most neglected areas of public health, even though, globally, close to a billion people live with a mental health condition. To gather more data on how our brains work and how common mental health conditions arise, Tobias Hauser at University College London and his colleagues launched the Brain Explorer citizen science project. All you have to do to participate is download the Brain Explorer app on your smartphone and start playing games, interspersed with brief questionnaires. My favourite is Treasure Hunt, in which, as a space miner, you must search for rare, buried treasure on different planets. The game gives you a chance to investigate what type of treasure is the most abundant on each planet, and indirectly tests how decisive you are by looking at the way you gather information. In an earlier study, Hauser and his team found that adolescents with OCD tended to gather more information on average than those without. He hopes to study how this extends to the wider population with anonymised data from Brain Explorer. This may be helpful for informing treatments too. “In our lab, we’ve used this kind of task previously in the context of drug studies,” says Hauser. He and his team found that people given a drug that blocks a brain chemical called noradrenaline became more impulsive and tended to gather less information before making decisions.
2-3-21 Covid-19 news: Oxford jab for new variants could be ready in 7 months
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Covid-19 vaccine against new variants could be deployed rapidly, says Oxford vaccine researcher. A version of the covid-19 vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca that can tackle the new, highly transmissible coronavirus variants could be ready to deploy in about 7 months in the UK, according to a researcher on the Oxford vaccine team. “The actual work on designing a new vaccine is very, very quick because it’s essentially just switching out the genetic sequence for the spike protein,” Andrew Pollard at the University of Oxford told the BBC. “And then there’s manufacturing to do and then a small scale study. So all of that can be completed in a very short period of time, and the autumn is really the timing for having new vaccines available for use,” he said. Pollard said work is already underway to update the vaccine and increase its efficacy against recently identified coronavirus mutations, such as those in the variants first sequenced in the UK and South Africa. A mobile coronavirus testing unit has been set up in the town of Southport in England to test residents for the coronavirus and identify if they have the variant first identified in South Africa. Firefighters and council staff are also delivering 10,000 home testing kits to people living in the area. Denmark announced plans to introduce a digital “Corona-Pass”, which would allow Danish citizens to prove they have been vaccinated against covid-19 for the purposes of business and leisure travel, according to the country’s finance ministry. Israel will start expanding its covid-19 vaccination programme to everyone over the age of 16, according to its health ministry.
2-3-21 Inside the race to tweak covid-19 vaccines and stay ahead of mutations
IT IS looking likely that covid-19 vaccines will have to be updated in the coming months to remain effective against new variants of the coronavirus. Several vaccine manufacturers have confirmed that they are already working on new versions of their vaccines to make sure they remain effective. But what does updating the vaccines involve and how long will it take? At least two vaccines are less effective against the B.1.351 variant of coronavirus that was first identified in South Africa. Interim results from UK trials of a vaccine developed by the US firm Novavax show that it was almost 90 per effective at preventing symptomatic infections in people in the UK (see “Next-generation vaccines that are nearing approval“), but just 60 per cent effective in South Africa. “That will largely be a reflection of the South African variant,” says Paul Heath at St George’s, University of London, a lead researcher on the Novavax trial. But 60 per cent is still really good, he says. “This is still an effective vaccine with the South African variant.” Results from trials of the one-dose vaccine from Johnson & Johnson show a smaller difference. This was 72 per cent effective at preventing moderate or severe covid-19 in the US, 66 per cent effective in Latin America and 57 per cent in South Africa. However, it was still 100 per cent effective at preventing hospitalisations and deaths, starting 28 days after vaccination, in all these areas. As the P.1 variant first seen in Brazil has similar mutations, the vaccines are likely to be less effective against this version too. The Novavax results do show slightly less efficacy against the variant first identified in the UK, called B.1.1.7, with just 85 per cent efficacy compared with 95 per cent efficacy against older variants. However, Heath doesn’t think this is significant. “The vaccine efficacy is pretty much the same,” he says. “This is also really good news.”
2-3-21 Coronavirus vaccine: What should you do if pregnant or breastfeeding?
AS GLOBAL vaccination against covid-19 ramps up, women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or trying to conceive have been left uncertain as to whether they should join in. Advice has been slow to develop, and is often contradictory. Initially, the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation said people shouldn’t get a coronavirus vaccination if they were pregnant or planning to conceive in the next three months. But the committee now says pregnant women who are likely to be exposed to the coronavirus because they work in healthcare, for instance, may wish to consider getting vaccinated after discussing it with a healthcare professional. It also says there is no need to delay conception or avoid breastfeeding. The World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have similar advice. Israel, in contrast, has placed pregnant women on its priority list for vaccination, after several pregnant women were hospitalised with covid-19. Israel’s health ministry advises those who are pregnant to wait until their second trimester to get a vaccine unless they have other risk factors. “This would seem a reasonable approach if vaccination during pregnancy is indicated,” says Adam Balen at Leeds Fertility in the UK. “The very early developing embryo is undergoing dramatic changes even before a pregnancy test is positive.” It isn’t clear how pregnancy affects covid-19 risk. There is no evidence that pregnant women are more likely to get severely ill, but they are classed as being at moderate risk because they can get more sick from viruses like flu, according to National Health Service advice in England. It may be possible for pregnant women to pass the coronavirus to a baby before it is born, but when this has happened, the baby has recovered. There is no evidence that the coronavirus causes miscarriage or affects a fetus’s development.
2-3-21 Pandemic burnout: Do you have it and what can you do about it?
As the coronavirus crisis goes on, an increasing number of us are feeling worn out and unable to cope. Here’s how you can tell if this is burnout, and what you can do to protect yourself. “I AM not just busy, I am being overwhelmed by an onslaught of requests like yours…” There is a certain irony to the email I have just received: the pioneer of burnout research is feeling utterly swamped by work. Christina Maslach, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, spearheaded the study of burnout back in the 1970s and has been working on ways to tackle the problem ever since. Her expertise was already highly sought after even before the coronavirus pandemic. Now she can barely move under the weight of her inbox. It is hardly surprising. In the year since the word lockdown became ubiquitous, it seems as if almost everyone has hit the wall at least once. But amid the emotional roller coaster of work stress, homeschooling, social isolation and the not inconsiderable fact that there is still a pandemic raging outside, how can you tell when you have reached the end of your tether? When does feeling understandably stressed in difficult times turn into an irretrievable case of burnout? And what can you do to protect yourself? Thankfully, five decades of research means we have a fairly good idea of what burnout is and what causes it. According to Maslach’s Burnout Inventory, an assessment tool she co-developed, burnout arises when three factors coincide: an overwhelming feeling of emotional exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment and a feeling of lack of accomplishment. For those experiencing burnout, these criteria might manifest in feelings like being exhausted even after plenty of sleep, being emotionally distant from loved ones or no longer caring about jobs that need doing.
2-3-21 Vaccine nationalism will leave everyone more at risk of coronavirus
The fastest way to end the covid-19 crisis is for countries to put the interests of the world ahead of their own, says Seth Berkley. IMAGINE if, when a pandemic swept across the globe, scientists responded quickly to develop effective vaccines only for a small number of wealthy countries to buy up almost the entire global supply, leaving virtually none for the rest of the world. That is precisely what happened in 2009 with the H1N1 flu pandemic. We must not allow it to happen again with covid-19. In some ways we got lucky with H1N1: the virus became less virulent over time and vaccine supplies eventually increased enough to be included in the seasonal flu shot, enabling more people to get access. The jury is still out on whether something similar will happen with the coronavirus, but, either way, a return to normality will continue to elude us until people in all countries are protected. Thankfully, we now have several vaccines, so to end this crisis there must be rapid, fair and equitable access to them, particularly for those people living in the world’s poorest countries, which are most in danger of missing out. This is the goal of the global vaccine coalition COVAX. Along with my colleagues at Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the World Health Organization, we are working hard to make sure that covid-19 vaccines don’t just end up going to the highest bidder. With 190 governments and economies involved, representing 90 per cent of the global population, we are now on the cusp of beginning vaccination. This month, the first of more than 2 billion doses will start to be rolled out to high-risk individuals in 92 lower-income countries. For people in these countries to get new vaccines within a matter of weeks of those in the wealthiest nations is simply unprecedented. However, challenges still remain.
2-3-21 Life in the pandemic is exhausting, but there is hope for calmer times
ARE you suffering from burnout? Almost a year since the coronavirus pandemic was officially declared, the answer to that question for many will be an exhausted, “Well, duh!” Yet as we report in our cover story, while we may intuitively think we know what burnout feels like, it is actually a slippery concept. Originally used to describe people overwhelmed by work pressures, it is now understood to be something that can happen to anyone under pressure, even if it has nothing to do with work. And although burnout isn’t a clearly defined medical condition, we still need to take it seriously. Burnout is intricately connected to other mental health problems, and, critically, its effects, which include feelings of detachment, cynicism and unshakeable exhaustion, make it very hard for an individual to take action. Hopefully our report will help, because for many of us, there is still a way to go in this pandemic before we can come up for air. Of course, one of the key problems we face, even as more vaccines appear, is that the coronavirus is evolving. Since we last covered this story in depth just two weeks ago, the situation has changed. We now have strong evidence that certain coronavirus variants seem to partially evade some of our most promising vaccines. Vaccine companies are already developing solutions to this problem, but even if it is arguably simple to tweak a vaccine, it is yet another time-consuming hurdle for a vaccine roll-out programme that has yet to reach many. There is a glimmer of good news in all this. It seems that many of the vaccines we have at our disposal do go some way towards blocking people from catching and spreading the coronavirus. Even a partial blocking of transmission will help prevent the virus from mutating further once many people have been vaccinated. It should also help protect those, such as pregnant women, who may not be vaccinated. In addition, it makes herd immunity more likely, and with that a path out of the current situation – and all the burnout that comes with it.
2-3-21 How to be an expert: What does it really take to master your trade?
We are relying on specialist knowledge to guide us through the coronavirus pandemic – so it is more important than ever to grasp what expertise is and where it comes from, says Roger Kneebone, author of a new book on the subject. IF ROGER KNEEBONE is an expert, he has spread his expertise widely. Trained as a medical doctor, he spent many years working as a trauma surgeon in the township of Soweto in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the height of apartheid, before returning to the UK to become a general practitioner in rural Wiltshire. Now in his third career as a professor of surgical education at Imperial College London, he has been at the forefront of many innovations aimed at widening the scope of influences that students are exposed to. These include setting up a Centre for Performance Science with the neighbouring Royal College of Music and helping to devise the Chemical Kitchen project, which exposes chemistry undergraduates to lab skills through the “non-threatening” parallel of cooking. Kneebone has also tried his hand at many extracurricular activities, from flying light aeroplanes and learning to juggle to building harpsichords – with varying degrees of success, he freely admits. He recently wrote a book, Expert: Understanding the path to mastery. Drawing on the experiences of people from musicians to magicians and tailors to taxidermists – and some scientific and medical experts for good measure – it examines the ubiquitous, but understudied, process of becoming an expert. Roger Kneebone: I finished writing the book just before the UK’s March covid-19 lockdown began. But now more than ever we need to think about how we make use of the most valuable aspect of expertise – the wisdom based on experience that allows people to give sensible guidance about what to do and what not to do. My motivations in writing the book were to ask what does “being an expert” mean and where does that expertise come from?
2-3-21 Pandemic burnout: Do you have it and what can you do about it?
As the coronavirus crisis goes on, an increasing number of us are feeling worn out and unable to cope. Here’s how you can tell if this is burnout, and what you can do to protect yourself. “I AM not just busy, I am being overwhelmed by an onslaught of requests like yours…” There is a certain irony to the email I have just received: the pioneer of burnout research is feeling utterly swamped by work. Christina Maslach, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, spearheaded the study of burnout back in the 1970s and has been working on ways to tackle the problem ever since. Her expertise was already highly sought after even before the coronavirus pandemic. Now she can barely move under the weight of her inbox. It is hardly surprising. In the year since the word lockdown became ubiquitous, it seems as if almost everyone has hit the wall at least once. But amid the emotional roller coaster of work stress, homeschooling, social isolation and the not inconsiderable fact that there is still a pandemic raging outside, how can you tell when you have reached the end of your tether? When does feeling understandably stressed in difficult times turn into an irretrievable case of burnout? And what can you do to protect yourself? Thankfully, five decades of research means we have a fairly good idea of what burnout is and what causes it. According to Maslach’s Burnout Inventory, an assessment tool she co-developed, burnout arises when three factors coincide: an overwhelming feeling of emotional exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment and a feeling of lack of accomplishment. For those experiencing burnout, these criteria might manifest in feelings like being exhausted even after plenty of sleep, being emotionally distant from loved ones or no longer caring about jobs that need doing.
2-3-21 Top 10 science anniversaries to celebrate in 2021
The discovery of DNA, invention of Maxwell’s demon and birth of Dolly the Sheep make the list. Centuries from now, 2021 will be celebrated as an anniversary year most noted for getting rid of 2020. It will be less remembered as a year featuring a diverse roster of scientific anniversaries, ranging from the 1300th birthday of a prolific writer to the 25th birthday of a celebrity sheep. Nevertheless, before too much of 2021 passes by, it’s time to name the Top 10 anniversaries worthy of celebration this year — some obscure, some fairly famous, and one that had an unfair advantage helping to make it No. 1.
- Elizabeth Blackwell, 200th birthday
- Jabir Ibn Hayyan, 1,300th birthday
- Rosalyn Yalow, 100th birthday
- Wilhelm von Waldeyer-Hartz, centennial of death
- Dolly the Sheep, 25th birthday
- Ernest Rutherford, 150th birthday
- DNA discovery published, 150th anniversary
- Maxwell’s demon, 150th birthday
- Hermann von Helmholtz, 200th birthday
- Founding of Science Service, centennial
2-2-21 America's parents are not okay
The brutal truth of pandemic parenting in America. The pandemic has revealed many uncomfortable truths about life in the United States, but the revelation that has hit me the hardest is that no one — not employers, not Congress — cares nearly enough about supporting America's parents. I remember the moment early last year when we realized our lives were about to get very, very hard. "We're going to have to take him out of daycare," my wife Sheerine told me. Sitting on the couch, my 1-year-old, Anoush, on my lap, I couldn't quite process what she was saying. It was March 10, 2020, the day before the NBA canceled its season. The three of us had all been sick with the flu for a week. We were struggling to care for our son and looked forward to sending him back to the home daycare facility where he was enrolled. I distinctly remember laughing when my wife made this statement. How would we work, and pay the mortgage, without daycare? What are you even talking about? Sheerine is co-director of a small non-profit, and I was in the middle of a particularly brutal semester of teaching. Our pre-pandemic lives were a chaotic operation, navigating the endless little illnesses from daycare, balancing our desire to provide a rich, caring environment for our son with our professional obligations and aspirations. Racing to catch the last train out of downtown, stumbling up the steps to daycare at the last minute, collapsing in exhaustion at the end of every day. We are marooned nearly 1,000 miles from our immediate families. Between the two of us, we've had maybe seven nights off from parenting in our son's 30 months on Earth. My wife, of course, was right that day, though none of us knew how long of a trial we were in for. Even before the pandemic, I was blown away by the lack of support for parents in this country. You'll either be forking over a third or more of your salary for childcare, or someone in your household (usually moms, quelle surprise) will be hitting pause on career aspirations indefinitely. We pay nearly $500 a month for employer-sponsored health insurance for our family, yet it cost us $10,000 out of pocket just to bring a perfectly healthy, complication-free child into the world. There is no paid paternity leave where I teach. When my son was born, I was sending work emails from the hospital. Despite spending months discussing my difficult situation, the student evaluations of my first semester post-fatherhood were heartlessly brutal and prompted awkward discussions with supervisors during an annual performance review. No one cared that I had a new baby, and by then I knew not to expect them to. As a parent in America, you learn pretty early on that you're completely on your own. The early months of the pandemic were almost unimaginably difficult for our young family. Sheerine and I split the childcare duties by dividing weekdays in half. I covered the six or so hours from wake-up to naptime and Sheerine closed out the evening. Initially, Anoush was a mess in the face of such dramatic change. As much as we tried to be present with him, the pressure of working through it full time combined with the constant worry — about our parents getting the virus, or about getting sick or dying ourselves and leaving our son alone — was often too much. We had a plan for what would happen if we both got COVID at the same time, another for who would raise our son if we died. What we did not really have was much of a plan for staying sane. The stress and exhaustion was immense. Our brains were mush. There were a lot of tears, and many long, sleepless nights of despair.
2-2-21 Human placentas are full of mutated cells dumped by the embryo
THE human placenta is riddled with cancer-like patterns of mutations. But the discovery is better news than it might appear: it is helping scientists open a new window on the mysterious world of early human development.In some ways, the placenta is a forgotten organ. It begins to form shortly after fertilisation from the embryo’s cells and then helps to support the future fetus as it develops before it is discarded at birth. But it is difficult to study how embryos “decide” which cells are destined for the placenta and which for the fetus. “So far, we’ve been blind to the first split,” says Tim Coorens at the Wellcome Sanger Institute near Cambridge, UK. Coorens and his colleagues, including his PhD supervisor Sam Behjati, decided to retrace the lineages of cells in full-term placentas to see where they came from. Their approach relies on the fact that cells naturally accumulate mutations in their DNA and then pass these on when they divide. By comparing patterns of mutations between samples, it is possible to trace cells’ family trees back in time. The team studied 42 human placentas, taking several small biopsies from each and sequencing the whole genomes of the cells within them. A key discovery was just how mutated placental tissue can be. Some body cells, such as certain cells lining the colon, are known to have a naturally high rate of mutation, but the placental cells had about five times as many mutations to a single DNA “letter” as even these cells. The placental tissue also had large numbers of changes involving the addition or loss of chunks of DNA – a form of mutation that is vanishingly rare in most human tissues, but common in certain childhood cancers. Why such a vital organ should be so cavalier about its genome remains unclear. Its disposability might provide a clue: as it only “lives” for nine months, it doesn’t need to invest precious resources into repairing itself, says Coorens.
2-2-21 African nations lead the world in offering PrEP HIV prevention drug
Nearly 1 million people are now taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a pill that can slash the risk of HIV infections. While early use of the drug was mostly limited to Western nations, the number of users in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has now drastically increased, accounting for more than half of the world’s PrEP users. Kate Segal at AVAC, a New York-based non-profit focused on global HIV prevention, presented the latest data on PrEP use at the virtual HIV Research for Prevention Conference on 26 January. She said there had been a major expansion of PrEP users in 2020, with a rise of more than 300,000 from the previous year. In SSA, expanded access saw the number of new users jump from 4154 in 2016 to more than 517,000 in 2020, representing 56 per cent of the global total. Out of the 10 countries with the highest number of PrEP users, seven are in SSA. South Africa has surpassed 100,000 users, while Kenya has about 83,000 as of December 2020, followed closely by Zambia and Uganda. Segal attributed the trend to investments from the US President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief, a major funder of HIV programmes across SSA, along with commitments by many governments in the region to offer wide access to PrEP. “In South Africa and Kenya, credit policies [to fund access] and guidelines were adopted, ambitious targets were set and sufficient resources were allocated by national governments to meet them,” Segal told New Scientist. She says that SSA countries have ensured the drugs are available to the general population, as well as for groups at high risk of HIV, such as men who have sex with men, sex workers and transgender people. This contrasts with the approach in countries such as the UK, which has long resisted providing general access to PrEP.
2-2-21 COVID-19 precautions may be reducing cases of flu and other respiratory infections
Once restrictions are lifted, there could be a deadly rebound in respiratory infections. Heading into the dead of winter, doctors and scientists have noticed something odd: Missing cases of non-COVID-19 respiratory illnesses, specifically flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. “We’re seeing very low numbers of both of these infections, even now, while we’re in the peak season,” says Rachel Baker, an epidemiologist at Princeton University. “We really should be seeing cases go up.” Instead, positive flu tests reported in December are a little less than one one-hundredth of all of those tallied in December 2019, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. RSV’s drop in reported cases — to one two-hundredth of those a year earlier — is even bigger. This dramatic dip is probably due to COVID-19 precautions. The same handwashing and social distancing that can prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can prevent the spread of other viruses and pathogens. But that could mean trouble ahead. A lack of cases ironically leads to a growing population susceptible to infection, so future outbreaks could be larger and more unpredictable. In a typical year in the United States, RSV hospitalizes an estimated 58,000 children under age 5 and more than 177,000 older adults. “Most people recover in a week or two,” says Benjamin Silk, an epidemiologist at the CDC. “But RSV infections can be serious, especially for infants, older adults and people with certain chronic medical conditions.” Worldwide, 3.4 million children under 5 years old are hospitalized with RSV each year, accounting for about 5 percent of deaths in this age group. Highly contagious, RSV is transmitted through respiratory droplets, which can remain infectious for more than six hours on hard surfaces. Prevention is rooted in strict hand hygiene — using hand sanitizer or washing with soap and water.
2-2-21 Ancient mummies with golden tongues unearthed in Egypt
Archaeologists have unearthed 2,000-year-old mummies with golden tongues placed inside their mouths in northern Egypt, the antiquities ministry says. An Egyptian-Dominican team working at Alexandria's Taposiris Magna temple discovered 16 burials in rock-cut tombs popular in the Greek and Roman eras. Inside were poorly-preserved mummies. It is thought the dead were given gold foil amulets shaped like tongues so that they could speak before the court of the god Osiris in the afterlife. Ancient Egyptians believed that Osiris was lord of the underworld and judge of the dead. The god was also pictured in gilded decorations on the cartonnage - a material made of layers of plaster, linen and glue - that was partially encasing one of the mummies, lead archaeologist Kathleen Martinez of the University of Santo Domingo was cited by the antiquities ministry as saying. The gilded decorations on the cartonnage around a second mummy's head depicted a crown, horns and a cobra snake, she added. On the chest, the decorations depicted a necklace from which hung the head of a falcon - the symbol of the god Horus. Khaled Abo El Hamd, director general of the antiquities authority in Alexandria, said the archaeological mission at Taposiris Magna had also discovered the funeral mask of a woman, eight golden flakes of a golden wreath, and eight marble masks dating back to the Greek and Roman eras. The antiquities ministry said a number of coins bearing the name and portrait of Queen Cleopatra VII had previously been found inside the temple. Cleopatra VII was the last queen of the Greek-speaking Ptolemaic dynasty, ruling Egypt from 51-30 BC. After her death, Egypt fell under Roman domination.
2-2-21 This ancient sea reptile had a slicing bite like no other
The mosasaur’s unusual cutting teeth may have been used to take on prey much larger than itself. Shortly before a mass extinction ended the Age of Dinosaurs, a reptilian, barracuda-like carnivore with a mouth like a box cutter patrolled the warm seas that once covered swaths of what is now North Africa. A recently described fossil of the ocean-dwelling beast reveals that its bite was unlike that of any of its relatives, in the water or onshore. The animal was a mosasaur, an extinct, marine reptile related to snakes and monitor lizards. Mosasaurs commonly had piercing, conical teeth for gripping slippery prey or flat, crushing teeth for smashing hard-shelled animals. But this new variety had short, serrated, squarish blades, packed tightly in series to form a knife’s cutting edge. This mouth of razors is unique among mosasaurs, and even within the entirety of the tetrapod lineage, mostly landlubbing vertebrates that include amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. The discovery, described January 16 in Cretaceous Research, suggests that mosasaurs were evolving experimental physical traits and lifestyles right up until their abrupt extinction 66 million years ago. Phosphate miners in Morocco found the curious fossil: a chunk of upper jaw studded with teeth. The jaw came from a mosasaur living at the very end of the Cretaceous Period. Many mosasaurs were massive predators, some stretching longer than a school bus. But this fossil belonged to an animal just over a meter long, Nick Longrich, a paleontologist at the University of Bath in England, and his colleagues determined. Longrich says the animal’s small size is interesting, but that’s not what caught his eye. “Those teeth are just unlike anything I’ve seen in a lizard before,” Longrich says. The team named the mosasaur Xenodens calminechari — Xenodens means “strange tooth;” calminechari is Arabic for “like a saw.”
2-1-21 Diabetes during pregnancy is tied to heart trouble later in life
The link remained even for women whose blood sugar levels returned to normal. Diabetes brought on by pregnancy might set a woman up for heart trouble later on, even if her blood sugar levels snap back to normal. That finding, from a large, long-term study, suggests that doctors should pay careful attention to the hearts of people who previously had gestational diabetes. The results, published online February 1 in Circulation, come from data collected by the CARDIA Study, a project designed to track heart health in young adults in the United States. Starting in 1985, CARDIA enrolled equal numbers of Black and white people, ages 18 to 30, from four cities. Following these people for 25 years, researchers looked for coronary artery calcification, or CAC, a hardening of blood vessels that can signal future heart disease. More than a thousand participants gave birth during the study. Of these women, 139 had gestational diabetes, an often-temporary condition in which blood sugar levels spike. About a quarter of women who had this pregnancy complication — 34 women — went on to have CAC, even when post-pregnancy blood sugar levels normalized, researchers report. A smaller proportion of women who hadn’t had gestational diabetes — 149 of 994, or about 15 percent — went on to have CAC. The study doesn’t indicate whether some aspect of gestational diabetes causes CAC, only that the two are linked. But it’s possible that changes in blood vessels that can accompany gestational diabetes may play a role in heart health later, the researchers say. Although the link between gestational diabetes and future CAC is disheartening, “the majority of women with gestational diabetes do not develop coronary artery calcification,” says Khadijah Breathett, a cardiologist at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson who was not involved with the study. Still, the results highlight the importance of keeping blood sugar under control, she says.
2-1-21 The antidepressant fluvoxamine could keep mild COVID-19 from worsening
A real-world study and data from animal and cell studies confirm earlier clinical trial results. The antidepressant fluvoxamine could prevent people from getting seriously ill with COVID-19, curbing hospitalizations, new data show. The results come from real-world use of the drug to treat workers at the Golden Gate Fields horse racing track in Berkeley, Calif. Of those who opted to take fluvoxamine, none got sicker, and within two weeks, their symptoms cleared. In comparison, 12.5 percent of those who turned down the drug wound up hospitalized. Two got so sick they were put on a ventilator to assist with breathing, and one died, researchers report February 1 in Open Forum Infectious Diseases. The data need verification from ongoing larger clinical trials. However, some experts say that the new findings, along with cell, animal and human observational data, suggest that a two-week course of fluvoxamine, which costs about $10 and is already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, could be considered for patients at high risk of suffering severe COVID-19 symptoms. Racetrack physician David Seftel and David Boulware, an infectious disease physician-scientist at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis, led the real-world test of fluvoxamine after hundreds of workers became infected with the virus around Thanksgiving. Earlier that month, Seftel had heard about fluvoxamine during a presentation by tech entrepreneur Steve Kirsch, whose COVID-19 Early Treatment Fund supports research on existing drugs that could be repurposed to treat coronavirus infections. Kirsch shared results from a fund-supported randomized trial in which none of 80 newly diagnosed COVID-19 patients assigned to a two-week course of fluvoxamine became seriously ill. By comparison, six of 72 patients, or 8.3 percent, who took placebo tablets worsened and needed hospitalization, researchers reported in November in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
2-1-21 Ancient Jersey teeth find hints at Neanderthal mixing
Prehistoric teeth unearthed at a site in Jersey reveal signs of interbreeding between Neanderthals and our own species, scientists say. UK experts re-studied 13 teeth found between 1910 and 1911 at La Cotte de St Brelade in the island's south-west. They were long regarded as being typical Neanderthal specimens, but the reassessment also uncovered features characteristic of modern human teeth. The teeth may represent some of the last known Neanderthal remains. As such, they might even yield clues to what caused the disappearance of our close evolutionary cousins. The Neanderthals evolved around 400,000 years ago and inhabited a large area from western Europe to Siberia. They were typically shorter and stockier than modern humans, with a thick ridge of bone overhanging the eyes. They finally disappeared around 40,000 years ago, just as anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens), a newly arrived species from Africa, was settling in Europe. However, the two types of human may have overlapped for at least 5,000 years. The teeth were discovered on a small granite ledge at the cave site. They were previously thought to belong to a single Neanderthal individual. However, the new research found they were from at least two adults. The researchers used computed tomography (CT) scans of the teeth to study them at a level of detail that wasn't available to researchers in the past. While all the specimens have some Neanderthal characteristics, some aspects of their shape are more typical of teeth from modern humans. This suggests these were traits that were prevalent in their population. Research leader Prof Chris Stringer, from London's Natural History Museum, said: "Given that modern humans overlapped with Neanderthals in some parts of Europe after 45,000 years ago, the unusual features of these La Cotte individuals suggest that they could have had a dual Neanderthal-modern human ancestry."