3-31-21 Does AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine cause blood clots in younger people?
On Monday, Canada joined several European countries in suspending use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine in younger age groups – in Canada that means under-55s. The next day, some parts of Germany decided to do the same in people under 60. The decision follows a study out this week suggesting that a few cases of blood clots in this age group arising shortly after vaccination do seem to be caused by the jab. Should people be worried? What are the safety fears over the Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine? There have been a small number of blood clot events recorded after people have taken the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine across Europe, most occurring in middle-aged adults. This caused several countries to suspend the use of the vaccine in all age groups earlier this month. A review by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) said the vaccine was safe to use, and vaccine roll-out resumed in most countries. But France, Sweden, Finland and Iceland have restricted its use to people over a certain age, ranging from 55 and over to 70 and over, depending on the country. Why, if it was deemed safe? In March, the EMA’s safety committee reviewed data on the vaccine. Overall, the number of blood clotting events reported after vaccination, both in studies before licensing and in reports after roll-out of vaccination campaigns, was lower than you might expect to find in an unvaccinated general population. So the committee concluded that the vaccine isn’t linked with a raised risk of blood clots overall. However, the EMA found that, in younger people, the vaccine may be associated with very rare cases of blood clots coupled with low levels of platelets, including a rare type of clot in vessels draining blood from the brain, called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST).
3-31-21 Everything you need to know about covid-19 vaccines for children
Covid-19 vaccines are being trialled in children, with early results from Pfizer showing remarkable efficacy and tolerability. But whether any are approved for use this year may depend on how the virus behaves, say experts. Last week, The Daily Telegraph reported that children in the UK will start getting vaccinated for covid-19 as early as August. When contacted by New Scientist, a spokesperson for the UK Department of Health and Social Care said that no decisions have been made on whether children should be offered vaccinations. “While clinical trials are under way to test the efficacy and safety of covid-19 vaccines in children and young adults, these trials have not concluded yet,” they said. “We will be guided by the advice of our experts on these issues, including the Independent Joint Committee on Vaccines and Immunisation (JCVI).” “I think it is very unlikely that the JCVI will have enough information from the clinical trials of current vaccines to recommend immunising teenagers or children in the summer this year,” says Saul Faust, professor of paediatric immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Southampton, UK. “The only situation that could change this would be the rapid spread of a new, more dangerous mutation. But with the current timetable for ending lockdown and the success of the adult immunisation programme, this is not something I expect to happen.” Trials of covid-19 vaccines in children are needed in order to work out the appropriate dose, as well as to ensure they are safe and have no unexpected side effects. Older children tend to be vaccinated in trials first, followed by younger children. “The dose we give adults is likely to be OK in teenagers, but if too many minor side effects, like fever or arm pain, occur then we can lower the dose as we go down to younger – and therefore smaller – children,” says Faust.
3-31-21 Pandemics drive medical advances – and covid-19 is no exception
IN COUNTRIES where vaccinations against covid-19 are progressing well, this phase of the pandemic feels a bit like the part of a long-haul flight where the captain has switched on the seatbelt signs and ears are starting to pop. Everyone is impatient to land but there is a way to go yet. The descent will be turbulent, there is still a possibility of disaster and even once we are on the ground, there are many obstacles to negotiate before the journey is over. Even so, thoughts inevitably turn to what lies beyond the airport. The pandemic has been – still is – a health disaster, but there are many reasons to believe that we will find silver linings. Historically, pandemics have led to progress in science and medicine. The 1918 flu, for example, catalysed discoveries in virology and vaccinology. The ongoing HIV pandemic brought breakthroughs in these too, plus in antiviral drugs. What dividends can we expect from covid-19? Vaccinology has made jaw-dropping progress. Before the pandemic, vaccine development invariably took years. This time it took just months to create multiple vaccines, many using brand-new technologies. There is real belief that vaccines will now get even better. We may even be able to develop universal vaccines to protect us against any emerging virus. A related area where huge strides have been taken is immunology. More has already been learned about the human body’s response to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus than we know about the viruses that have been with us for decades. Other areas of medicine have been on a steep learning curve too, which will pay off as we confront future health threats. Excellent as all this is, however, we mustn’t regard such medical leaps forward as an excuse to return to business as usual, secure in the knowledge that we are tooled up to defeat the next pandemic. One mantra of the past year has been “build back better”. When this is all over, we are going to need a whole new aeroplane, not just a better first aid kit.
3-31-21 As coronavirus variants evolve, how much more dangerous can they get?
THE devastating impact of the new coronavirus variants is becoming clear. The more transmissible B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the UK is causing a surge of infections and deaths around the world. Is this just the beginning? Could even nastier variants evolve? When considering future variants, there are three main properties to worry about: transmissibility, evasion of immunity to past infection or vaccines, and lethality. Of these, transmissibility is the most important. The new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, is far less lethal than the Ebola virus, but it has killed far more people because it is much better at spreading. We still don’t understand why the B.1.1.7 variant is at least 50 per cent more transmissible than other variants, says Joe Grove at University College London. But his work suggests that the spike proteins on its surface are a bit better than those of other variants at getting into human cells. The bad news is that he has found that the spike protein of a coronavirus isolated from pangolins is around 100 times better at getting into human cells, suggesting there is plenty of scope for SARS-CoV-2 to evolve to become even more transmissible. “Until recently, SARS-CoV-2 was not living in humans,” he says. “Now it is undergoing optimisation for humans and there is no reason to assume it is going to stop here.” But Grove stresses that we can’t be sure the spike protein changes are behind the higher transmissibility, not least because he didn’t use live viruses in his experiments as he wanted to avoid any risk of escape. Then there is immune evasion. Our immune system protects us in two main ways. It produces T-cells that detect and destroy infected cells before the virus can replicate, and antibodies that bind to the virus to stop it infecting cells.
3-31-21 How Mary Wortley Montagu's smallpox fight paved the way for vaccines
Mary Wortley Montagu championed the use of inoculation against smallpox, but her pioneering work is often overlooked, says Jo Willett. WITH the world’s attention on vaccines, now feels like a good moment to sing the praises of an often forgotten contributor to their development. Three hundred years ago this month, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu got her daughter inoculated against smallpox with a technique that was unfamiliar to people in Britain at the time – making her child the first person in the West to be protected in this way. Without Montagu’s willingness to adopt a practice she had learned from other cultures, the introduction of vaccines around 80 years later would never have taken place. Montagu was an aristocrat with no formal scientific training. She first witnessed inoculation when she accompanied her husband to Turkey in 1717, where he had been appointed as the British ambassador. News had already reached the Royal Society in England that people in Turkey used a process called inoculation against smallpox and that the disease was far less serious there than in the West as a result, but it wasn’t taken seriously. Inoculation had started in eastern regions of Asia, probably in China, as early as the 10th century AD. Montagu observed how older women in Turkey were sent to take a tiny amount of pus from a person with smallpox. They then used needles to make cuts on people’s wrists and ankles and added the pus to their bloodstream. This typically resulted in a very mild case of smallpox and people gained immunity from future infection in the process. Like other visitors to the country, Montagu took steps to ensure that her son was inoculated during her time in Constantinople. This worked well, but she knew that trying it in England would be far more controversial. Inoculation performed by unlicensed amateurs would threaten doctors’ professional standing and potentially rob them of valuable income. Clerics also disputed the practice, as they saw it as interfering with nature.
3-31-21 Amplifying our ancient immune system could help fight future pandemics
We once thought that only our more modern, adaptive immune system had memory. Now a breakthrough in understanding our other, more primitive, immune defences could change how we fight disease. FOR immunologists, the covid-19 pandemic has been a steep learning curve. “We’ve learned much more about the host immune response to SARS-CoV-2 in a matter of a few months than we have about many, many other viruses that we’ve dealt with for decades,” says Bali Pulendran at Stanford University in California. At every turn, the virus has confounded expectations, from why it leaves some people unscathed but kills others in days to the “cytokine storms” that wrack the bodies of those who become seriously ill. And then there was the nail-biting wait to see if vaccines were possible. But one discovery above all will have immunologists rewriting their textbooks. This concerns a long-neglected backwater of the immune system called innate immunity. Once seen as a rather prosaic and primitive bit of human biology, it now turns out to play a pivotal, and often decisive, role in the body’s reaction to SARS-CoV-2 and the vaccines against the virus. And not just that: a better appreciation of it is also being touted as our best bet for seeing off the next pandemic. Being vertebrates, we are the proud owners of two immune systems (see “Meet your immune system”). One is the “adaptive” system, a smart and highly effective special force that develops and deploys precision weapons against invaders. This is the now-familiar arsenal of antibodies and T-cells that have been such a focus of interest during the pandemic. It is often what people mean when they talk about “the” immune system. But it is only half of the story. The other half is the innate immune system, which is much less sophisticated. It consists of a set of fast-acting, all-purpose defences that bludgeon invaders indiscriminately, providing covering fire while the special forces get their boots on. One of its weapons is inflammation, which is a general purpose response to pathogens, injury and stress.
3-31-21 Steven Laureys interview: How meditation can help coronavirus anxiety
HAVING spent his career exploring disorders of consciousness, Steven Laureys has started working with meditators to show the positive impact meditation can have on the brain. Helen Thomson: What’s going on in our brains during the pandemic, and how can meditation help? Steven Laureys: People have lost their jobs, they’re experiencing burnout, they’re thinking, “What impact is this having on my kids?” That kind of thinking can turn into catastrophising, which has a big impact on our mental health. People are also thinking about the past year, what they’ve lost. Our internal survival mechanism is in overdrive. The area responsible for all this anxiety, “the internal awareness network”, continues to be active even in some comatose patients, a bit like the humming of a fridge. During the pandemic, we’ve mostly heard from virologists – we haven’t talked enough about our mental health. Dealing with covid isn’t just about dealing with a virus, there’s so much more. moment, so it’s a timely exercise in regard to helping us cope with covid. What makes you think it can help? Meditation is not a surrogate for medical care. Always go to your doctor first. But in my hospital, we have people who have chronic pain, anxiety and depression– all these things have been made worse by covid – and we offer them meditation alongside drugs. When I prescribe meditation, my patients say, “I wish I hadn’t started this only after I had my tension headache, insomnia, burnout, I wish I’d known about it earlier”. So perhaps we need to think about using meditation for prevention rather than as a treatment for these conditions. You say that meditation retunes the brain. What do you mean? When someone runs, they build their leg muscles; when someone swims, they build their biceps. It’s the same with meditation, but you’re exercising your brain. When we scan the brains of long-time meditators, we see increased grey matter volume in the cingulate cortex, which is important for attention, and increases in the hippocampus, important for memory. There are changes in the insular cortex, vital for internal sensations, and the left prefrontal cortex, which helps us with emotional control.
3-31-21 Handheld camera that can see radioactivity could help cancer surgeons
Cancer surgeons may be able to find sites in the body where tumour cells have spread to by using a new kind of portable camera that detects gamma radiation as well as visible light. At the moment, gamma imaging is generally done using machines the size of a small room, which cannot be moved into an operating theatre. When cancer cells escape from a primary tumour, they often take up residence in the nearest lymph nodes; these are a network of several hundred glands distributed around the body, each about the size of a baked bean. When people have surgery to remove cancer, doctors often need to also remove the nearest lymph nodes to see if they contain tumour cells. If they are free of such cells, the person may be able to avoid further surgery or aggressive cancer treatment. But lymph nodes can be hard to find, so doctors often inject a slightly radioactive dye that releases gamma radiation near the site of the cancer. The dye drains from the tissue into the nearest lymph nodes. During the operation, the way surgeons currently locate the lymph nodes giving off gamma radiation is to use a wand-like probe that gives a visual or sound readout like a metal detector – but that cannot form images. That makes it hard to locate the right lymph nodes in a complex area like the neck that is packed with crucial nerves and blood vessels, says Sarah Bugby at Loughborough University in the UK. “It could be be beeping and you take out one lymph node but it could be another lymph node behind it that was giving the signal.” Bugby’s team has developed a handheld device containing two gamma detectors that work like pinhole cameras slightly offset from each other, to create a three-dimensional image of the radiation source. This is overlayed on an ordinary optical image to help surgeons pinpoint the radiation source within the body. It is being commercialised by UK firm Serac Life Sciences.
3-31-21 Living robots made from frog skin cells can sense their environment
A microscopic, living robot that can heal and power itself has been created out of frog skin cells. Xenobots, named after the frog species Xenopus laevis that the cells come from, were first described last year. Now the team behind the robots has improved their design and demonstrated new capabilities. To create the spherical xenobots, Michael Levin at Tufts University in Massachusetts and his colleagues extracted tissue from 24-hour-old frog embryos which formed into spheroid structures after minimal physical manipulation. Where the previous version relied on the contraction of heart muscle cells to move them forward by pushing off surfaces, these new xenobots swim around faster, being self-propelled by hair-like structures on their surface. They also live between three and seven days longer than their predecessors, which only lasted about seven days, and have the ability to sense their environment to some extent, turning red when exposed to blue light. “The fundamental finding here is that when you liberate skin cells from their normal context, and you give them a chance to reimagine their multicellularity, they can build other things than what they normally build,” says Levin. “To me, one of the most exciting things here is plasticity. This idea that even normal cells, not genetically modified, with a normal frog genome, are in fact capable of building something completely different.” The xenobots, which are between a quarter and half a millimetre in size, operate in robot swarms, meaning that a group of individual xenobots can work together to complete a task. Because they are created from cells, the xenobots eventually break apart and are totally biodegradable, says team member Douglas Blackiston, also at Tufts University. He therefore hopes that they can be used for biomedical and environmental applications.
3-31-21 Not so vanilla: The mission to spice up our favourite flavour
There are more than 100 species of vanilla orchid, but we rely on just three in our food. By tapping into this wider array, researchers are not only finding variations tasting of marshmallow or caramel, but may also help avert a crisis facing the crop. ONE evening last September, I sat blindfolded in my kitchen, about to have my taste buds tickled by something I had long taken for granted. I was sniffing and sipping my way through three vanilla extracts, each drawn from a different species of vanilla orchid. In the tests, I picked out the extract from Vanilla planifolia no problem. As the most common vanilla, I knew it well from every batch of cookie dough I had ever made. The extract from Vanilla pompona, sometimes enjoyed in Central and South America, was subtler. The one from Vanilla tahitensis, popular in French pastries, was sweeter. The extracts were sent to me by Alan Chambers, a plant breeder with big plans for the spice. Just as he had promised, there was more variety in vanilla than I realised. If his project comes to fruition, there will be far more still to enjoy – and his efforts could help save the crop from crisis. Only a fraction of the vanilla we consume is natural; the vast majority is artificial. But this is changing, a shift largely driven by major food manufacturers abandoning the synthetic stuff in their US products in 2015, causing demand to suddenly outstrip supply. What’s more, the crop is highly vulnerable to disease. That is due to a lack of genetic diversity. There are more than 100 species of vanilla orchid, yet we consume only a handful. Chambers plans to make vanilla less, well, vanilla, by tapping into the plant’s gene pool to breed new varieties and introduce wildly different flavours, as well as more resilient plants. But this won’t be straightforward.
3-31-21 Football teams still get home advantage while stadiums are empty
Football teams appear to retain an advantage over opponents when playing at home despite there being no fans in the stadium – puzzling those who thought the home crowd helped player performance. In European football leagues, historical analysis of games shows the home team wins around 50 per cent of matches, with the chance of a draw or home defeat both standing at around 25 per cent. The home advantage has been theorised to be caused by the roar from the crowd geeing up the home players – and possibly intimidating the referee in a way that encourages them to give decisions advantageous to the home team. The closure of sports stadiums to fans during the coronavirus pandemic gave Daniel Memmert and his colleagues at the German Sport University Cologne the chance to test these ideas. They looked at data from 40,000 men’s football matches before and after the banning of fans from sports events, including more than 1000 held behind closed doors across Europe. The researchers found that the referee’s bias towards the home team disappeared in the games played during lockdown, with fewer yellow and red cards given to away teams than in games played in front of fans. But the proportion of away teams winning matches played without fans increased just 7 percentage points across Europe, which Memmert says falls below the level of statistical significance. “We think territorial behaviour could be one factor for the home advantage,” says Memmert, comparing it to children being more dominant and outgoing in their own homes, and more reserved when visiting a friend’s house. There were differences by country. In the English Premier League, the likelihood of home teams winning, losing or drawing barely changed, while in the German Bundesliga, home teams were 15 percentage points more likely to lose during the pandemic.
3-31-21 People living 100,000 years ago spent time collecting crystals
A cache of beautiful crystals collected 105,000 years ago in South Africa is shedding new light on the emergence of complex behaviours in our species. A team led by Jayne Wilkins at Griffith University, Australia, discovered 22 distinctively shaped white calcite crystals at a site in the Kalahari desert called Ga-Mohana Hill North Rockshelter. “They are little rhomboids, really visually striking,” says Wilkins. These geometric crystals didn’t originate at the site and haven’t been modified, so seem to have been deliberately collected and brought to the rock shelter for ornamental purposes. “They don’t seem to have been used for everyday tasks,” she says. The collection of beautiful items seems like a normal thing for humans to do today, but this so-called symbolic behaviour only emerged around 100,000 years ago. “Collecting these kinds of pretty objects for non-utilitarian reasons could have its roots in symbolism and arts and culture,” says Wilkins. Also found at the site were 42 fragments of burnt ostrich egg shell. The large egg shells may have been used by humans to store and transport water – offering more evidence of human innovation. These discoveries in the Kalahari, 600 kilometres from the sea, are challenging the prevailing assumption that the emergence of complex behaviours like symbolism and technological innovation emerged at the coast, where humans had access to seafood containing nutrients thought to support brain growth. Until now, the earliest evidence of symbolic behaviour was found at sites close to the sea, such as 100,000-year-old engraved ochre from Blombos cave and 60,000-year-old decorated ostrich egg shells from the Diepkloof rock shelter, both on the South African coast. “In the Kalahari, which is really far from the coast, we are seeing the same kinds of behaviours, at the same time,” says Wilkins.
3-31-21 Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines may block infection as well as disease
Studies suggest fully vaccinated people pose a low risk for transmitting the coronavirus. Vaccines against COVID-19 are about 90 percent effective at blocking coronavirus infections, real-world studies of health care workers, firefighters, police, teachers and other essential workers suggest. Even after just one dose of the mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna, the vaccines reduced the chance of getting infected with SARS-CoV-2, researchers report March 29 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. “We clearly showed in our study that if you were at least 14 days out from your first shot, you had 80 percent protection” from infection, says Jeff Burgess, associate dean for research at the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona in Tucson. The study is part of a growing body of evidence suggesting that the vaccines not only reduce the risk of getting seriously ill with COVID-19, but can prevent catching the virus in the first place. “If you can’t get infected, you can’t infect anyone else, which means the vaccines can reduce transmission as well as the disease,” says Marm Kilpatrick, an infectious diseases researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who was not involved in the study. That is welcome news coming on the heels of data indicating that cases, hospitalizations and deaths are on the rise again in the United States as states lift mask mandates and open businesses at full capacity. “Right now I’m scared,” Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said during a White House briefing on March 29, noting “the recurring feeling I have of impending doom.” She urged people to “hang on a little longer” and continue to wear masks, social distance and get vaccinated to head off a potential fourth surge of the disease. “We have so much to look forward to. So much promise and potential of where we are and so much reason for hope,” she said.
3-31-21 Ancient Britons extracted salt from seawater more than 5500 years ago
Stone Age Britons extracted salt from seawater using industrial-style processes more than 5500 years ago. The discovery means people in Great Britain were producing salt thousands of years earlier than thought, before the Bronze Age. The technology may have been brought by migrants arriving from mainland Europe. “It changes how we think about Neolithic society,” says Stephen Sherlock, an independent archaeologist based in Redcar, UK. In mainland Europe, there is evidence of salt production from the heating of salty water as early as 6050 BC during the Neolithic: the last period of the Stone Age, before the invention of bronze. However, in Britain the earliest known evidence was from Brean Down in Somerset, where Bronze Age people were making salt around 1400 BC. Sherlock has been excavating for many years at Street House, near the town of Loftus in north-east England. The site was occupied from the Neolithic, about 5700 years ago, into the later Bronze Age and the Iron Age that followed, and as recently as the 7th century AD in the Anglo-Saxon period of English history. Geophysics revealed a buried structure about 200 metres from a Neolithic house, so Sherlock began digging. “It was sealed by about a metre of clay,” says Sherlock. Beneath that was a distinctive pit measuring 2.8 metres by 2 metres, with a narrow trench leading into it. Three areas of the pit had been intensely burned, leaving charcoal deposits: Sherlock argues these were hearths. A hazelnut shell in the charcoal layer was radiocarbon dated to between 3766 and 3647 BC. Similar structures are known from Iron Age deposits in Britain and are generally interpreted as “salterns” used for extracting salt from seawater. The water was placed in large ceramic pots, supported by stones over hot flames. The heat evaporated the water, leaving salt crystals. Sherlock found shards of pottery of a low quality characteristic of salt production.
3-31-21 Skull of dinosaur called 'one who causes fear' found in Patagonia
Scientists in southern Argentina have found the skull of a large meat-eating dinosaur named "one who causes fear" in the local Mapuche language. The horned Llukalkan aliocranianus was around 5 metres (16 feet) long and roamed South America 85 million years ago. Researchers found remains nearby of another carnivorous dinosaur, something they said was highly unusual. The findings from Patagonia were published on Tuesday. Like the Tyrannosaurus rex, the Llukalkan dinosaur was two-legged with very short arms, but was medium-sized compared to the giant T. rex. It also had short horns and tiny fingers. It was estimated to weigh between one and five tonnes, slightly lighter than an adult African elephant. It was probably a fearsome predator, with a large skull and a strong bite, according to the research published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. The findings suggest it had better hearing than other dinosaurs in the abelisaurids family which likely made it a better hunter, Federico Gianechini, a palaeontologist at the National University of San Luis Argentina told Reuters news agency. It lived on earth during the Cretaceous period, the last era before dinosaurs were wiped out. Close to Llukalkhan's skull, scientist found the fossilised remains of a slightly larger meat-eating dinosaur called Viavenator exxoni. Mr Gianechini said it is very unusual to find two abelisaurids living close together at the same time. "Llukalkan was a little smaller than Viavenator, although, if they lived together, they surely shared the same ecological niche and fed on the same prey, so they would have competed with each other and - why not - even eaten each other," he told Reuters. A series of important dinosaur discoveries have been made in Argentina in recent decades. In 2014 the remains of a dinosaur that weighed around the same as 14 elephants were found - it was thought to be the biggest ever discovered.
3-30-21 Covid-19 vaccine passports: Everything you need to know
The UK government is reportedly considering vaccine passports as a way of bringing people back to offices and factories. Some countries are already using them, while others weigh up the risks and benefits. Where will we use them, who will need them and why are they so controversial? What is a covid-19 vaccine passport? There is no set definition. According to the UK Department of Health and Social Care, it involves using testing or vaccination data to confirm in different settings that people have a lower risk of transmitting covid-19 to others. This then allows the bearer to travel or enter certain venues or, potentially, professions. The UK government is currently calling it “covid status certification”. What will they look like? Several ideas have been touted, most of which involve digital or paper evidence of vaccination or immunity through prior infection. These may take the form of apps, QR codes, paper permits or paper certification. Is anyone using them already? In January, Saudi Arabia became one of the first countries to create a vaccine passport for covid-19, which works using an app, developed by the country’s ministry of health. In February, Israel rolled out a green pass in the form of a QR code that people can present as proof of vaccination, which some Israeli businesses and places of worship ask for as a condition of entry. The pass is valid for six months and is effective the week after receiving the second dose of a vaccine. People who have recovered from covid-19 can also use the pass, which is valid until 30 June. Estonia is also working with the World Health Organization on its own digital vaccine certificate. One of the biggest schemes will be the European Commission’s digital green certificate, which is being developed to allow people to travel between the European Union’s 27 member states. The proposed certificate will provide proof that a person has been vaccinated against covid-19, received a negative test result or recovered from the disease. They will be issued either in digital form or on paper. Both will have a QR code that contains key information as well as a digital signature for authentication.
3-29-21 Artificial life made in lab can grow and divide like natural bacteria
SYNTHETIC cells made by combining components of Mycoplasma bacteria with a chemically synthesised genome can grow and divide into cells of uniform shape and size, just like most natural bacterial cells. In 2016, researchers led by Craig Venter at the J. Craig Venter Institute in San Diego, California, announced that they had created synthetic “minimal” cells. The genome in each cell contained just 473 key genes thought to be essential for life. The cells were named JCVI-syn3.0 after the institute and they were able to grow and divide on agar to produce clusters of cells called colonies. But on closer inspection of the dividing cells, Elizabeth Strychalski at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology and her colleagues noticed that they weren’t splitting uniformly and evenly to produce identical daughter cells as most natural bacteria do. Instead, they were producing daughter cells of bizarre shapes and sizes. “[The creators of JCVI-syn3.0] had thrown out all the parts of the genome that they thought were not essential for growth,” says Strychalski. But their definition of what was necessary for growth turned out to be what was needed to make beautiful colonies growing on an agar plate, she says, rather than what was needed to produce cells that divide in a uniform and lifelike way. By reintroducing various genes into these synthetic bacterial cells and then monitoring how the additions affected cell growth under a microscope, Strychalski and her team were able to pinpoint seven additional genes required to make the cells divide uniformly. When the researchers added these seven genes to JCVI-syn3.0 to produce a new synthetic cell, they found that this was enough to restore normal, uniform cell division and growth.
3-29-21 People living in the Atacama desert once traded exotic parrots
An oasis in Chile’s Atacama desert may have once served as a hub for the trade of live parrots from across the Andes. An analysis of the remains of whole birds and feathers found at an archaeological site in Pica, Chile, and other sites in the Atacama desert has revealed that llama caravanners transported live birds more than 500 kilometres in some cases. This occurred between AD 1100 and 1450, after the fall of the Tiwanaku, an Andean civilisation that held power for centuries, and before the rise of the Inca. “That required a deep knowledge of the ecology of the birds in their home territories, their home ranges and being able to sustain them on these long journeys,” says Jose Capriles at Pennsylvania State University. Capriles and his team had known that sites in the Atacama contained goods transported from other regions. Caprile’s mother, Eliana Flores Bedregal, an ornithologist with the National Museum of Natural History in La Paz, Boliva, who was also part of the team, quickly identified the species of several Amazon parrots in remains from Atacama sites now found in several museums. She identified species such as the southern mealy Amazon and scarlet macaws as well as their native ranges. The researchers then analysed the feathers, and in some cases the remains of whole birds, found at the sites, including some buried with caravanners at a cemetery at an oasis in Pica. A study of carbon and nitrogen isotopes in the remains revealed that the birds lived for some time in the Atacama desert. The isotopes revealed that they had been fed on maize that was likely to have been cultivated with the guano of seabirds transported from the coast – food that wouldn’t have existed in their native ranges. They were probably kept not only as pets that represented an exotic status symbol, but as potential money makers, says Capriles, “kind of like the hen that produces golden eggs”.
3-29-21 Parents in Western countries report the highest levels of burnout
A survey comparing 42 countries links parental exhaustion to a country’s level of individualism. The ongoing pandemic has hammered parents. For many, work shifted to home. Schools closed or went partially remote in many places. Grandparents at high risk of getting severely ill with COVID-19 isolated. That left many parents operating with minimal social support. Now, a new study of 17,409 parents from 42 countries measuring parental burnout shows that this exhaustion was high even in the Before Times — particularly in Western countries. The culprit? A country’s level of individualism, or emphasis on independence. Parenting in individualist countries is often an intensely solitary pursuit. Parents living in countries with a culture of collectivism, meanwhile, can rely on extended family and friends, even acquaintances, to share in child rearing. “I had the intuition that individualism would contribute to parental burnout,” says psychologist Isabelle Roskam of the University of Louvain in Belgium. But Roskam, whose findings appear in the March 18 Affective Science, was surprised to find that no other social factor she measured, such as a parent’s workload or time spent with children, was linked to parental burnout. Parental burnout can take an enormous toll on families, Roskam says. Parents may withdraw or lash out and children suffer the consequences. Surveyed parents answered demographic questions, such as the number and ages of children in the household, hours a day spent with children, number of adult women or men caregivers in the house and working status. They also completed an established 23-question parental burnout assessment, where they described the frequency of feelings, such as: “I feel completely run down by my role as a parent” and “I do not enjoy being with my children.” The scale ranged from zero for never to six for daily. Parents were identified as burned-out if their total survey score, computed by simply adding up the responses, was equal to or greater than 92.
3-29-21 An ancient rattlesnake lived in the jaw of a dead mastodon
Some 15,000 years ago, a dusky rattlesnake stretched out and spent its last living moments inside the jawbone of a giant mastodon. Now researchers are using the remains of this and a few other reptiles found around the fossilised mastodon, discovered in central Mexico, to gain an idea of what the climate looked like in the region near the end of the Pleistocene. Jose Alberto Cruz at the Meritorious Autonomous University of Puebla in Mexico says the mastodon bones were found in 2019 by villagers who were building a house in the state of Puebla. He and his colleagues were surprised to discover the well-preserved fossil of an 80-centimetre dusky rattlesnake (Crotalus triseriatus) inside the jaw bone of the American mastodon (Mammut americanum). Since these mastodons were herbivores, Alberto Cruz says it is unlikely the giant elephant-like animal ate the snake. Instead, the reptile was probably using the jawbone of a dead mastodon for shelter when a mudslide led to an untimely end. He and his colleagues say that reptile fossils from the Pleistocene are rarely found in Latin America – this is the first dusky rattlesnake found in Mexico. Remains of a brown snake, several anole lizards and an alligator lizard were found in the same sediment layer as the mastodon. Many of these species are still around today, so the authors compared what we know about the climate in their preferred habitats with other research on palaeoclimate to estimate the rough age of the fossils. Previous research has suggested that the climate in the past was colder and more humid, says Alberto Cruz. Understanding the range of temperatures these reptiles can survive could help uspredict how they might adapt to ongoing climate change. Today, some of the reptiles found near the mastodon remains aren’t found near the area where these fossils were found.
3-27-21 Ivermectin: South African medics using unproven worm drug to treat Covid-19
The drug Ivermectin, which has been touted by some as an effective coronavirus treatment even though it is clinically unproven, is at the centre of a legal battle in South Africa as some medics want it licensed for human use, as Pumza Fihlani reports. Many South Africans are desperate for something that could ease the impact of a predicted third wave of coronavirus infections. With a vaccination programme that has not yet covered all the most vulnerable, there are concerns that the continent's worst-hit country could suffer more as the temperature cools down with the approaching winter. More than 52,000 people have died with coronavirus and though new infections are now low, they are not disappearing. It is in this context that Ivermectin - a drug that is used to treat parasitic worms - has gained a lot of attention. Some doctors have been prescribing it to patients with coronavirus, saying that they have seen anecdotal evidence that it can alleviate some of the worst effects of Covid-19. However, South Africa's medical regulator, the drug's manufacturer and some of the country's most eminent scientists have all warned against using it to treat coronavirus. It has now become popular on the black market - millions of tablets have been intercepted in South Africa since the beginning of the year with the illicit network extending as far as China and India. Before the link to coronavirus was made, 10 Ivermectin pills would cost about $4 (£2.90) - the price has now increased 15-fold for the same packet. But the use of Ivermectin for coronavirus treatment has divided opinion in the country. The pill is currently not licensed for human use by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra), it is only registered to treat parasites in animals. Despite this, some doctors began using the drug at the peak of South Africa's first wave in July last year.
3-25-21 Plant gene has naturally crossed into insects – and helps them feed
One species of whitefly, an aphid-like insect, has incorporated a portion of plant DNA into its genome that protects it from leaf toxins. It seems to be the first known example of so-called horizontal gene transfer between a plant and insect in which the transferred genetic material performs a useful function. While sequencing the genome of the silverleaf whitefly (Bemisia tabaci), Ted Turlings at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland and his colleagues discovered a gene known as BtPMaT1, which is found in plants but never previously seen in insects. This gene may have an important function in plants. The plants generate toxins to defend themselves from attack by animals. The team suspects that the BtPMaT1 gene may help plants store these toxins in a harmless form so the plants don’t poison themselves. Similarly, the gene may help the whitefly avoid being poisoned when it eats the plant. Turlings says the gene transfer event occurred between 35 million and 80 million years ago, when the sweet potato whitefly and other whitefly species that lack the gene split from a common ancestor. The gene transfer event may have involved viruses that cause disease in plants and are transmitted via the whiteflies. Some DNA from a plant may have been taken up by a virus, transmitted to the whiteflies and then subsequently assimilated into the insects’ genomes. “[Some] viruses basically incorporate their own genome into the cells of their hosts,” says Turlings. The research suggests that the extent to which horizontal gene transfer occurs in nature is probably underestimated, says Caitlin Byrt at the Australian National University in Canberra. “What this shows is that where there’s a really strong pressure for survival on an organism, it can actually borrow genetic information that helps it do that from other organisms,” says Byrt.
3-25-21 British legal deeds were once written on sheepskin to prevent fraud
Sheepskin was the most commonly used parchment for legal deeds over the past five centuries in Great Britain, even though it is quite fragile. This is most likely because fraud can be more easily detected on it than on vellum. Sean Doherty at the University of Exeter in the UK and his colleagues analysed 645 pages from 477 legal deeds concerning property in England, Scotland and Wales dating from 1499 to 1969. They first cut a 2-square-millimetre sample of parchment from the edge of the documents. “We made sure to be well away from the text, any stamps and wax seals,” says Doherty. The team then chemically treated the animal skin to isolate the protein collagen, which is made up of a mix of sub-units called peptides. “Each animal has a different set of peptides that make up collagen – it is species variable,” says Doherty. This let the researchers work out what type of parchment each deed was written on. They found that 622 of the 645 pages were made from sheepskin, which was a surprise, as previous research suggested these types of documents were made with a variety of animal skin – most commonly vellum, which is made from calfskin. “We expected to see a wide range of animals, but they pretty much all turned out to be from sheep,” he says. Doherty and his team suspect that sheepskin was used for important deeds because it is difficult to alter without being noticed due to its high fat content. When animal skin is first processed, it is submerged into an alkaline solution of chalk. This draws out the fat and removes any hair, leaving behind the dermis layer of the skin which is then stretched into parchment. Sheepskin is between 30 to 50 per cent fat, compared to just 2 to 3 per cent in cattle and 3 to 10 per cent in goats. The removal of the fat causes sheepskin parchment to be very fragile. “The layers will detach because it has all these holes in it where the fat once was,” says Doherty.
3-25-21 How using sheepskin for legal papers may have prevented fraud
Processing out the fat created a writing surface easily marred by scratched-out words. Fraudulent efforts to tweak legal documents in Great Britain may have been thwarted by the very parchment those documents were written on, a new study suggests. Previous studies have shown that property deeds were written on a range of animal skins, such as goat, calf and sheep. But it turns out sheepskin was the parchment of choice, researchers report March 24 in Heritage Science. An analysis of proteins extracted from 645 samples from 477 British legal documents dating from the 16th to the 20th century shows that 622, or 96.4 percent, contained sheepskin. That popularity may be tied to low cost compared with other parchments, like vellum made from calfskin, as well as sheepskin’s fraud-busting powers. To make parchment out of animal skin, the skins are submerged in lime, a white powdery caustic soda, which removes the fat. Sheepskin has more fat — accounting for 30 to 50 percent of its weight — than other animal skins. (Cattle skin, for instance, is 2 to 3 percent fat.) So its removal leaves bigger gaps between the skin’s other layers. Scraping ink from this parchment can detach these loose layers, marring the surface and revealing changes to it. “We know so little about these documents, despite the fact that there are millions worldwide,” says study coauthor Sean Doherty, an archaeologist at the University of Exeter in England. Studies like these, Doherty says, “are transforming libraries into biomolecular archives,” which are allowing researchers to better understand animals, craft and trade over the past millennia. Several 12th and 17th century documents describe sheepskin as useful in detecting changes to an original document, such as tampering with a property owner’s name. The new study adds to evidence that sheepskin helped to prevent fraudsters from pulling the wool over English officials’ eyes.
3-24-21 Does local honey really work as a hay fever cure?
Eating local honey is often recommended as a treatment for hay fever. Does it have any effect? James Wong investigates. IT IS that time of year again. The days are brighter, daffodils start popping up around my neighbourhood, the dawn chorus of birdsong finally returns each morning and my social media starts filling up with anxious questions about whether local honey can treat hay fever. Now, I realise this is a little self-interested, but here is my attempt to get to the bottom of the best evidence we have to date, once and for all. Or at least until more studies come in. With approximately 20 per cent of people in the UK affected by an allergic response to airborne pollen, it is perhaps unsurprising that many are turning to an everyday food that contains small amounts of pollen, but doesn’t trigger the allergy, as a plausible-sounding remedy. Being great-tasting, widely available and relatively inexpensive, honey would indeed be an excellent vehicle to administer non-triggering doses of pollen. This is supposed to work as a form of immunotherapy to prime our bodies to deal with the summer onslaught. When you consider the potential side effects of the antihistamines used in conventional medication, you can definitely see the allure. But what does the evidence actually say? Despite the frequency with which local honey’s therapeutic effect is claimed, there seem to only be three scientific studies that have systematically investigated it. Sadly none of them, arguably, in a particularly robust way. The most recent one is a 2013 study carried out in West Malaysia. This found that after consuming a multifloral honey produced by a tropical bee species deep in the rainforest for four weeks, people showed an improvement in symptoms for allergic rhinitis, which continued to the end of the eight-week study and beyond. PDFs of the report are often sent to me by people from the UK and US as “proof” that local honey is indeed a cure for hay fever.
3-24-21 In Ghana, covid-19 feels like just another familiar health threat
Understanding how covid-19 has been perceived in West African nations like Ghana is crucial to tackling it, says Ama de-Graft Aikins. IN A comedy sketch that recently went viral on Ghanaian social media, Coronavirus arrives late to a meeting. “What’s up, fellow deadly diseases,” Coronavirus says, as Malaria, Cholera and AIDS jump up from their seats and rush for their face masks. The sketch illustrates how some people in Ghana are making sense of the pandemic. While covid-19 is new and unique, for some it feels like just another on a list of long-standing and omnipresent threats to public health. Social psychologists often use the term “familiar alien threats” to describe situations that people actively distance themselves from in their minds because they represent disruption or danger. But these threats still change the way we think, feel and behave. In 1918, the Spanish flu came to colonial Ghana through European travellers. It quickly spread across the country, killing an estimated 100,000 people in six months. This was preceded by a plague pandemic, and was followed by epidemics of smallpox, yellow fever and sleeping sickness. Ghana and other West African countries have since had serial public health crises, including HIV and AIDS, Ebola virus disease and swine flu, and the silent epidemic of chronic diseases, such as diabetes. Social responses to covid-19 are being shaped by this deep collective knowledge of sickness, debility and death. In March 2020, covid-19 arrived in Ghana’s capital Accra via Asian and European countries where it was endemic. Because early hospital admissions and deaths were linked to international air travel, many Ghanaians distanced themselves from the domestic threat by describing covid-19 as a disease of a privileged urban class. As infections spread and preventive measures were imposed, public understanding and practices developed in ways that mimicked responses to previous public health threats.
3-24-21 Bronze Age miners had cooked meals delivered to their workplace
People working on mining sites in the Eastern Alps during the Bronze Age had cooked, bread-based meals delivered to them during the day. Andreas Heiss at the Austrian Academy of Sciences and his colleagues studied cooked food remains, including refined cereals and finely ground grains, obtained from Prigglitz-Gasteil in the Eastern Alps, a copper mine that was active between 1100 and 900 BC, during the Late Bronze Age. These types of cereal-based food require preparation to make them edible, including separating grains from husks and then cooking them, but the team found no signs of this kind of work being done at the mine. There was also no evidence of harvesting nearby, suggesting the food must have come from elsewhere. “All the early stages from processing were entirely missing and this is usually a good indicator for a consumer habit that people did not produce themselves, but they received stuff that was already pre-processed,” says Heiss. Since wet ingredients like milk weren’t preserved, the researchers can’t say exactly which dishes the miners were being served, but they were likely to be bread based. Previous research has shown that these miners had pork delivered to them, but the new findings suggest that plant-based foods were a major part of their diet too. Lara González Carretero at the Museum of London Archaeology says this isn’t surprising. “It would be very time-consuming and there would be clear logistical issues for them to be able to cook their own meals in such a work setting.”
3-24-21 Mistrust fuels covid-19 vaccine doubts in Colombia's Indigenous groups
As Covid-19 vaccines begin to arrive in the Andean highlands in Colombia, Maria Pito, a leader of the Nasa people, is reluctant to receive one. “As a nurse, I will be required by the clinic where I work to be vaccinated but if I had the choice, I would not take it and would continue to rely on traditional medicine,” she says. “I and many others don’t trust this untransparent government.” Her distrust echoes the feeling of many Indigenous people in the region, even though they belong to one of the demographics most vulnerable to covid-19. Many are choosing to use traditional medicines and well-established isolation tactics to prevent the spread of coronavirus. “The situation with these new vaccines is complicated, and we have very little information about them,” says Marcelino Noé, a Tikuna leader from the Caña Brava Indigenous community near Tarapaca, Colombia. “We must protect our elders, but we prefer to trust our traditional medicines.” This approach, which has been supported for decades by intercultural organisations, may not be enough in this situation. There are several reasons why Indigenous people in the region may be particularly vulnerable to covid-19. Though there is great diversity between groups, many share the characteristics of a community-based way of life. They may also lack access to basic health services, clean water, food security or electricity. In the Amazon, illegal miners, loggers and smugglers have become emboldened since Indigenous communities went into isolation early last year, posing a risk that they will bring covid-19 with them. Colombia has almost 2 million Indigenous people. It is a prime example of the obstacles facing vaccine roll-outs in Indigenous communities in South America. The Colombian Amazon is an area of notable concern, especially along the border with Brazil. Colombia’s Amazonas department has registered one death from covid-19 per every 434 inhabitants, the highest rate in the country. Estimates suggest that Indigenous people living in rural parts of the Colombian Amazon are 2.5 times more likely to die from covid-19 than the general population.
3-24-21 Bees have higher brain cell density than birds – but ants don’t
Many bees have a brain cell density greater than that of small birds – but most ant brains contain a far lower density of neurons. The difference may be down to the insects’ lifestyles: because bees fly, they may need more brain cells than ants do in order to process visual information. Scientists have already compared the size and weight of various insects’ brains, which contain independent specialised regions to process visual information, sounds, smells and even memories. But brain size, whether in insects or vertebrate animals like birds and mammals, doesn’t always give a realistic idea of brain power. This is because some animals – especially flying ones like birds that would be weighed down by a large and heavy brain – have many neurons compacted into a smaller space, making the cell density higher. Rebekah Keating Godfrey at the University of Arizona and her colleagues studied insect brains using a recently developed technique for counting brain cells. They removed the brains of 450 insects belonging to 32 different species, including bees, wasps, ants and a species of fly. Each brain was ground up and soaked in a solution that frees the nucleus of each brain cell. Then the researchers added a dye that makes those nuclei fluoresce, allowing them to count the number of nuclei in a small sample under a special “epifluorescence” microscope using ultraviolet light. From that number, they could estimate the number of neurons in the animal’s entire brain. The researchers found that some of the bees – in particular, the metallic green sweat bee (in the genus Augochlorella) – had very high numbers of neurons for their brain sizes: about 2 million per milligram. This is higher even than those seen in the neuron-rich cerebellums of many birds: the goldcrest (Regulus regulus), for example, has 490,000 cells per milligram./p>
3-24-21 Mini-brains show why human brains grow larger than those of other apes
Miniature brains of humans, gorillas and chimpanzees developed in the lab have shown how our brains grow much larger than those of other apes. At birth, our brains have around three times as many neurons as those of newborn chimpanzees and gorillas, despite having similar gestation periods. To understand why, Madeline Lancaster and her colleagues at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, grew miniature brain organoids to mimic early brain development in humans, gorillas and chimpanzees. First, they collected adult cells from the three species and genetically reprogrammed them to resemble cells found in an early embryo – these are called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. “You sort of trick them into thinking they’re embryonic again,” says Lancaster. The team then grew brain organoids using these iPS cells. Similar to actual brains, the human miniature brains grew larger than the organoids of gorillas and chimpanzees as early as two days in. By five weeks, the human brain organoids were around twice as large as the other ape brain organoids, measuring around four millimetres across, says Lancaster. “This early stage of development is usually very inaccessible,” says Lancaster. “It’s a kind of black box in human biology.” We know very little about it in gorillas and chimpanzees too. “Apes are an endangered species, so ethically, we wouldn’t want to do experiments at this stage. We usually don’t even know the gorilla is pregnant this early on.” The researchers then analysed genes in the brain organoids and found differences in the expression of a gene called ZEB2, with the gorilla and chimpanzee brain organoids turning it on earlier than the human organoids. The ZEB2 gene controls cell shape and motility. “Essentially, when this gene is switched on, the cells are less ‘sticky’ and can leave and go elsewhere,” says Lancaster. By delaying the gene’s activation, early human brain cells are able to stick together and multiply for longer before specialising into mature nerve cells, she says.
3-24-21 Large extinct Australian kangaroo spent half its life in trees
A large, extinct kangaroo that lived 40,000 years ago spent half its time living in trees – a relatively unusual adaptation for a heavy marsupial. In 2002, Natalie Warburton at Murdoch University in Perth and Gavin Prideaux at Flinders University in Adelaide, both in Australia, excavated the remains of two kangaroos, a male and female, at the Thylacoleo caves of Nullarbor Plain, in south-western Australia. The kangaroos belong to a species that went extinct about 40,000 years ago – one of many large-bodied animals that were wiped out at the time. This species of kangaroo was first described in 1989 but, at the time, skulls and teeth were the only fossils available for study. The remains were used to name the species: Wallabia kitcheneri. Warburton and Prideaux excavated two nearly complete skeletons. They have now studied them to gain a better understanding of how the kangaroo lived and moved around. “These fossils have unusually long fingers and toes with long, curved claws, in comparison to other kangaroos and wallabies,” says Warburton. From features of the bones, the researchers could also determine that the kangaroos had powerful arm muscles to raise and hold up their body weight, and a longer, more mobile neck than other kangaroos. “[The neck] would be useful for reaching out the head in different directions for browsing on leaves,” says Warburton. The researchers suspect the kangaroo was semi-arboreal, meaning it spent half of its time on land and half in the trees. A handful of small-bodied kangaroo species alive today are also adapted for life in trees, but individuals of the ancient species may have weighed at least 50 kilograms, much heavier than modern tree-dwelling kangaroos. “When climbing, [the extinct kangaroo] moved something like a cross between a koala and a very large-bodied primate, not swinging under branches though, but with a big heavy tail and head like a kangaroo,” says Warburton.
3-23-21 Coronavirus: How the common cold can boot out Covid
The virus that causes the common cold can effectively boot the Covid virus out of the body's cells, say researchers. Some viruses are known to compete in order to be the one that causes an infection. And University of Glasgow scientists say it appears cold-causing rhinovirus trumps coronavirus. The benefits might be short-lived but rhinovirus is so widespread, they add, it could still help to suppress Covid. Think of the cells in your nose, throat and lungs as being like a row of houses. Once a virus gets inside, it can either hold the door open to let in other viruses, or it can nail the door shut and keep its new home to itself. Influenza is one of the most selfish viruses around, and nearly always infects alone. Others, such as adenoviruses, seem to be more up for a houseshare. There has been much speculationwsp_rte_replace_marker about how the virus that causes Covid, known as Sars-CoV-2, would fit into the mysterious world of "virus-virus interactions". The challenge for scientists is that a year of social distancing has slowed the spread of all viruses and made it much harder to study. The team at the Centre for Virus Research in Glasgow used a replica of the lining of our airways, made out of the same types of cells, and infected it with Sars-CoV-2 and rhinovirus, which is one of the most widespread infections in people, and a cause of the common cold. If rhinovirus and Sars-CoV-2 were released at the same time, only rhinovirus is successful. If rhinovirus had a 24-hour head start then Sars-CoV-2 does not get a look in. And even when Sars-CoV-2 had 24-hours to get started, rhinovirus boots it out. "Sars-CoV-2 never takes off, it is heavily inhibited by rhinovirus," Dr Pablo Murcia told BBC News. He added: "This is absolutely exciting because if you have a high prevalence of rhinovirus, it could stop new Sars-CoV-2 infections." Similar effects have been seen before. A large rhinovirus outbreak may have delayed the 2009 swine flu pandemic in parts of Europe.
3-23-21 Here’s what makes 4 promising COVID-19 vaccines unique — and potentially useful
New approaches range from a vaccine in a pill to ones that can be kept at room temperature. Barely a year after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, 11 vaccines worldwide have been granted emergency use authorization or given full approval. Millions of shots are going into arms every day: As of March 19, 410 million people around the world have gotten the jabs. As mind-boggling as that is, it still falls far short of the need. Those 11 vaccines “will not be enough to fulfill the global need in the short term,” says Esther Krofah, executive director of FasterCures, part of the Milken Institute think tank in Washington, D.C. Of the more than 7 billion people on Earth, only about 1.2 percent of the world’s population is now fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. “We need as many vaccines over the finish line as can get through the scientific process,” she says. Help may be on the way. Another 251 COVID-19 vaccines are at some stage of development with 60 far enough along to be tested in people, says Carly Gasca, senior associate at FasterCures. Some vaccines are close to the finish line. For example, one made by Novavax of Gaithersburg, Md., may soon request emergency use authorization in the United States and other countries. But vaccines in the pipeline can fail at any stage. Already at least four vaccine candidates have been abandoned, including two from pharmaceutical giant Merck that failed to generate immune responses as strong as those from natural infections. That company is now helping produce Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine (SN: 2/27/21). Among the hurdles: The already-in-use vaccines have set a high bar. For instance, mRNA vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer have proven to have about 94 to 95 percent efficacy in clinical trials and in real-world situations and may protect against infection and disease after just one shot (SN: 2/26/21). And finding people willing to participate in gold-standard clinical trials in which they might get a placebo instead of a vaccine could be tough, especially in countries where other authorized vaccines are available.
3-23-21 Pandemic’s damage to UK education and mental health will last a decade
Major changes are needed to reverse the profound social, educational and economic damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic, concludes a landmark review. The review by the British Academy, published on the anniversary of the UK’s first lockdown, predicts that the pandemic will cause a decade-long shadow amidst declining public trust, worsening mental health and widening social inequalities. Bringing together more than 500 pieces of evidence, the review identified nine key areas of social impact that need investment to mitigate the damage caused by the virus. “The impact of covid-19 is not coming to an end. The social, economic and cultural impacts of the pandemic will cast a long shadow,” said Molly Morgan Jones of the British Academy at a press conference on Monday. The review found that the UK’s successful covid-19 vaccine roll-out has failed to restore trust in the government, leaving high levels of distrust that experts warn will undermine efforts to change public behaviour. Distrust in the UK government climbed last December and until early March has hovered at 61 per cent, with trust at 21 per cent, the review found. The numbers mark a sharp reversal from the early stages of the pandemic: in May 2020 slightly more people trusted than distrusted the government. “Distrust in national government remains relatively high. I don’t think the roll-out is being attributed to government competence, it’s being attributed to the [National Health Service] and local delivery systems,” says Dominic Abrams at the University of Kent, UK. Distrust is a major challenge because it “undermines the ability to mobilise public behaviour for wider social and health benefits”, according to the review, which was commissioned by Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser.
3-22-21 Embryos reverse ageing to become younger than when they first formed
We now know how a developing embryo reverses signs of ageing and appears younger than the fertilised egg from which it arose. The finding suggests that embryos are able to rejuvenate, which could lead to ways of reversing age-related diseases. One of life’s great mysteries is how aged parents produce youthful offspring. Our cells show signs of age as a result of the accumulation of damage wrought by the environment and the body’s metabolism, and yet the eggs and sperm our bodies make combine to produce a baby biologically younger than its parents. This has led biologists to suggest that the germline, the cells that give rise to eggs and sperm and which carry genes down successive generations, are immune to ageing. But recent research shows that not only does the germline age, but that ageing starts even as embryos develop in the uterus, much sooner than we thought. “Then the question is, if ageing begins earlier, when does it actually begin?” says Vadim Gladyshev at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Age-related damage manifests as changes to patterns of chemical marks, known as methylation, on the DNA in cells’ genomes. These “epigenetic clocks” correlate reliably with chronological age and can be used to track ageing in cells and tissues. Gladyshev and his colleagues looked at these epigenetic changes in cells and tissues from the start of mouse development. The team found that this measure of ageing began to decrease when the early embryo formed into a hollow ball called a blastocyst and reached its lowest point after it had implanted in the uterus. It then increased again as development progressed. The team also looked at data on human embryos, and found signs of a similar pattern at work, although ethical restrictions on growing human embryos beyond 14 days in the lab means the team was unable to study every stage of development.
3-23-21 Microbe somehow survives without the proteins for replicating its DNA
AT FIRST sight, it shouldn’t be alive: a single-celled organism that lacks most of the molecular equipment needed to copy DNA. Duplicating DNA is fundamental to reproduction, so DNA replication systems were thought to be present in all non-parasitic species with complex cells. But it seems they aren’t. “I was astonished,” says Dayana Salas-Leiva at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. The microbe, Carpediemonas membranifera, must have a mechanism for copying its DNA that is unknown to science. C. membranifera is a single-celled organism, but it is a eukaryote, so its cell is large and complex like those of animals and plants. It lives in low-oxygen sediments. As part of a general study of the microbe’s biology, Salas-Leiva and her colleagues sequenced its genome. They were baffled to find several genes missing, including some that code for the proteins that start DNA replication. Until now, all free-living eukaryotes that have been sequenced have had these. The researchers wondered if they had failed to sequence the genome thoroughly enough, so they spent a year redoing the work. “To this day, I cannot get those genes,” says Salas-Leiva. “They sequenced the genome of this organism really well and really deeply,” says Vladimír Hampl at Charles University in the Czech Republic. “I believe it.” C. membranifera does have polymerases, the enzymes that copy one strand of DNA to make a new one. But the cell must also “decide” which sections of DNA need copying. This is done by six proteins that form the origin recognition complex (ORC), plus another protein called Cdc6. All are missing in C. membranifera. “It’s such a textbook thing, that eukaryotes have ORC,” says Michelle Hawkins at the University of York, UK. “To find something that doesn’t have it, that’s cool.”
3-22-21 New drugs that block a brain chemical are game changers for some migraine sufferers
Options to prevent and treat the severe headaches are becoming available. Hayley Gudgin of Sammamish, Wash., got her first migraine in 1991 when she was a 19-year-old nursing student. “I was convinced I was having a brain hemorrhage,” she says. “There was no way anything could be that painful and not be really serious.” She retreated to her bed and woke up feeling better the next day. But it wasn’t long until another migraine hit. And another. Taking a pill that combines caffeine with the pain relievers acetaminophen and codeine made life manageable until she got pregnant and had to stop taking her medication. After her son was born, the migraines came back. She started taking the drugs again, but they didn’t work and actually made her attacks worse. By the time Gudgin gave birth to her second son in 1997, she was having about 15 attacks a month. Her symptoms worsened over time and included severe pain, nausea, sensitivity to light, swollen hands, difficulty speaking, vomiting and diarrhea so intense she often wound up dehydrated in the emergency room. “It hit me [that] I had to do something when I was vomiting in the toilet, and my 3-year-old came and pulled my hair back,” she says. “It was no way to live — and not just because of the pain. You go to sleep every night not knowing how you’re going to wake up. You make plans knowing you might have to cancel them.” A headache specialist prescribed several preventive medicines, but each caused side effects for Gudgin, including weight gain and kidney stones. Then, in 2018, Gudgin read about a new type of treatment for frequent migraine sufferers. Her neurologist agreed it was worth a try. After much wrangling with her insurance company — the drug is costly, and she had to prove that two other drugs had failed to help her — she got approval to take it.
3-21-21 The challenges of antiviral treatments
Antibiotics abound, but virus-fighting drugs are harder to come by, and COVID-19 amply shows how much we need them. Fortunately, scientists are getting better at making and finding them. hysician Claudette Poole doesn't take long to rattle off a list of antiviral medications she prescribes to her patients. "There really aren't very many," says Poole, a pediatric infectious disease physician at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. And for people with COVID-19, there's just one approved for use: remdesivir, which doesn't seem to save lives, but speeds recovery in those who do get well. Clearly, more antivirals would be nice to have — so why don't we have them? Inventing them, it turns out, is not so easy. Viruses rely on human cell machinery to copy themselves, so antiviral designers face a challenge: how to stop the virus without damaging the inner workings of healthy cells too. While scientists have found several solutions to the problem, the antiviral pharmacopeia still lags behind the plethora of antibiotics available to treat bacterial infections. But as researchers build up their knowledge of viral life cycles, antivirals may be poised to catch up. Scientists are also planning for future pandemics, in the hopes of having a better selection of antivirals to try the next time around. Here's where antivirals stand today, and how the list might be growing. How do antivirals work? An antiviral drug can block any of the steps a virus uses to copy itself. To do its dirty work, a virus must attach to a host cell, sneak inside and trick that cell into copying viral genes and crafting viral proteins; after that, the newly made viruses must escape to infect new targets. At each step, viral genes or proteins need to interact with various host molecules, and each of these interactions offers an opportunity for antiviral drugs. The drugs often mimic those host molecules and act as decoys to interfere with the viral life cycle and reduce its spread. A common approach is to interfere with the copying of viral genes into DNA or RNA to form new viral genomes. Viruses frequently have their own versions of proteins, called polymerases, for this task. The polymerases add building blocks called nucleotides, one by one, to the new genome as it's being built. For example, the drug acyclovir, used to treat herpes, goes after this genome-copying step. To the virus's polymerase, the medicine looks like just another building block — but it's not. Once the decoy gets into the growing strand, it prevents the addition of any more nucleotides. For the virus, it's game over. Another drug, oseltamivir (Tamiflu) for influenza, acts at the stage of viral exit from the infected cell. The virus uses a key protein called neuraminidase to dissolve its way out, but oseltamivir sticks to the neuraminidase and stops it from working. Why are there so few antivirals? The number of antivirals is paltry compared with the list of bacteria-fighting antibiotics. That's due to several factors. For one, antibiotics were first out of the starting gate, notes Erik De Clercq, an emeritus professor of biomedicine at KU Leuven in Belgium. The first, penicillin, was discovered in 1928 and first used in a patient in 1940. In contrast, the first antiviral, idoxuridine, was developed as an anticancer agent in 1959, was reported to block viruses in 1961, and approved in 1963 to treat herpes infections of the eye. Plus, viruses are much trickier targets than bacteria, says Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease physician at the University of California, San Francisco. Bacteria are whole living cells with all the metabolic pathways they need for survival, so they offer plenty of targets for attack. They also have unique features such as cell walls that aren't found in human cells. That means antibiotics can interfere with cell walls, or other bacteria-specific parts and processes, to kill the pathogens without harming our own cells. And because microbes evolved antibiotics to battle each other, there is a diverse array of the compounds out in nature.
3-19-21 An ancient shark’s weird fins helped it glide like a manta ray
Spanning nearly 2 meters, the fins’ length rivals the wingspan of bald eagles. Thirty million years before manta rays began gracefully gliding through ocean waters, a shark with fantastically elongated fins gave such underwater flight a go, researchers report in the March 19 Science. A quarry worker unearthed the fossil of the strange shark, now dubbed Aquilolamna milarcae, in 2012 from a rock layer in northeastern Mexico dating to about 93 million years ago. The shark’s most distinctive feature is the long curving fins that swoop out from its sides. Spanning nearly 2 meters from tip to tip, the fins’ length rivals the wingspan of bald eagles. Nicknamed eagle shark by researchers, A. milarcae may have used the fins to stabilize itself or propel itself in a manta ray–like fashion. The eagle shark’s broad, rounded head, long jaws and small teeth hint that it may have been a filter feeder, sucking in floating plankton from seawater. Its torpedo-shaped body and high tail fin suggest the shark was an active swimmer, although not a particularly fast one, say vertebrate paleontologist Romain Vullo of the University of Rennes in France and colleagues. A. milarcae may have been a member of a highly diverse group of sharks that includes extinct megalodons as well as modern great whites and filter-feeding basking sharks (SN: 8/2/18). Although that group once dominated the seas, many of its members became extinct after an asteroid struck Earth about 66 million years ago.
3-18-21 Bizarre 'manta shark' slowly cruised the oceans 93 million years ago
The discovery of a fossil in a Mexican quarry has revealed that a bizarre shark with manta ray-like wings slowly cruised the oceans more than 90 million years ago. Named Aquilolamna milarcae, the shark was unique in being wider than it was long, with a wingspan of 1.9 metres and a body length of about 1.6 metres. Romain Vullo at the University of Rennes in France, who helped describe the species, says the shark’s distinct body shape and wide mouth suggests it hoovered up plankton. “As this shark probably fed on plankton, it didn’t need to go fast. Like modern manta rays, relatively slow swimming was enough to eat plankton,” says Vullo. But unlike manta rays, which use their pectoral fins for propulsion, the shark probably used them more like a stabiliser, relying on the fin at its rear to propel it along. As the only known specimen, it is unclear whether the fossil belonged to a juvenile or mature shark. However, Vullo suspects it was probably an adult and the species was probably a medium-sized shark, growing to 3 metres long at most. Its teeth were probably very small. Vullo and his colleagues compared the fossil with 26 modern shark species and, based on the shape of its vertebrae and the skeleton of its tail fin, assigned it to the order Lamniformes, which includes great white sharks. Found in 2012 in the Vallecillo limestone quarry in Nuevo León, north-eastern Mexico, the shark lived 93 million years ago in the Late Cretaceous epoch, 30 million years before manta and devil rays. Vullo suspects that the species was wiped out in the global mass extinction event that happened 66 million years ago, which killed off most dinosaurs and three quarters of life on the planet. While the shape of Aquilolamna milarcae is exceptional – “really weird, strange”, says Vullo – the time it lived was known as an incredibly diverse period for sharks, judging from fossil shark teeth. “On evolution, it tells us that sharks occupied some ecological niches that today are restricted to other groups, such as rays,” says Vullo.
3-18-21 Giant armoured dinosaur may have dug in the ground for food and water
New skeletal remains excavated in Mongolia of an ankylosaurid, an armoured herbivore that lived sometime between 84 and 72 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period, suggests that the dinosaur was adapted to digging. Yuong-Nam Lee at Seoul National University in South Korea and his colleagues collected the ankylosaurid remains – belonging to an individual that was more than 6 metres long – from the Gobi desert in Mongolia. Ankylosaurids were bulky quadrupeds with short and powerful limbs. They had an armoured body with wedge-shaped bony protrusions in their skin known as osteoderms, as well as a tail club. “Articulated body skeletons of armoured dinosaurs are quite rare,” says Lee. To date, only four individuals with fairly complete body skeletons have been discovered. “For this reason, little is known about these magnificent animals,” says Lee. “The nearly complete skeleton that we have studied provides valuable information about their evolution and behaviour.” The bones of the ankylosaurid show that it had heavily built forelimbs and forefeet suited for digging. The fusion of several vertebrae and ribs may have helped keep the dinosaur’s trunk rigid, stabilising the body while it dug using its forelimbs. “These armoured dinosaurs, especially the Asian species, lived in arid to semiarid environments. They may have been able to dig out roots for food, and dig wells to reach subsurface water as modern African elephants do today,” says Lee. Digging dinosaurs are relatively rare, although some small dinosaurs are known to have dug burrows. The ankylosaurid specimen was excavated in 2008, as part of 700 vertebrate fossils the team collected over a five-year field trip. “Because of limited human resources, it takes a lot of time and effort to identify, classify and study these specimens,” says Lee.
3-18-21 We still don’t know for sure where the coronavirus came from. Here’s why
Genetic material from viruses and evidence of past infection offer clues, but questions remain. More than a year after the novel coronavirus had spread to all corners of the globe, officially becoming a pandemic, we still don’t know where it came from (SN: 3/11/20). Many researchers agree the virus most likely came from nature, probably harbored in bats. Even so, conspiracy theories claiming that the virus came from a lab arose shortly after the first genetic blueprint for SARS-CoV-2 was unveiled in January 2020. Using that very genetic blueprint, multiple studies have refuted the lab-borne hypothesis and continue to point to bats as the original source of the virus. But even after more than a year of sleuthing, many questions remain. It’s unclear where those bats lived. Nor do researchers know whether another animal was responsible for helping the virus jump from bats to people. Answering these questions could take years. Viruses often take labyrinthian journeys as they hop from host to host, so tracing their origins is time-consuming. And with myriad versions of coronaviruses circulating in bats, finding the ones that gave rise to SARS-CoV-2 will require both luck and skill. Still, identifying the source of SARS-CoV-2 is important, says virologist Chee Wan Tan of the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore. Knowing the virus’s origin could help researchers figure out ways to keep an eye out for similar viruses and, hopefully, prevent future outbreaks. Two types of clues are crucial for tracing a virus back to its source: viral genetic material and evidence of past infections. Genetic material, such as viral DNA or RNA, is the more revealing of the two. As a virus spreads among hosts, it mutates in unique ways (SN: 5/26/20). By tracking the changes that viruses accumulate, scientists can infer how a virus spread from host to host, from animal to human. The more virus blueprints from people and animals that researchers have, the clearer the picture becomes — like how knowing all of a person’s grandparents helps trace ancestry.
3-18-21 Ebola may persist in the body for years before sparking new outbreaks
A new Ebola virus outbreak in Guinea appears to have been sparked by a person who was first infected during the country’s previous epidemic 5 years ago, suggesting persistent infections in survivors could be a source of future outbreaks. Recent preliminary analyses of viral genome sequences by N’Faly Magassouba at the Gamal Abdel Nasser University of Conakry in Guinea and his colleagues, along with other research teams, revealed that the virus responsible for the current outbreak in Guinea hardly differs from the strain that caused the previous epidemic, indicating the virus may have lain dormant in a survivor of the 2016 outbreak. “This is very surprising and very shocking,” says César Muñoz-Fontela at the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine, who was in Guinea during the previous Ebola virus epidemic. “It’s like a relapse.” There were 28,646 reported cases during the 2013-2016 Ebola virus epidemic in west Africa and 11,323 reported deaths. These new findings indicate that some of the people who survived could still harbour the virus all these years later and potentially pass it on to others, sparking further outbreaks. “What does that mean for [Ebola virus disease] survivors?” says Magassouba. He fears the new findings will worsen existing stigmatisation of survivors within their communities. Researchers already knew that Ebola could persist in the body for long periods of time, but 5 years is unprecedented, says Muñoz-Fontela. In 2016, a resurgence of the 2013-2016 epidemic in Guinea was traced back to a survivor who shed the virus in their semen for at least 531 days after first becoming infected, and transmitted the infection to their partner. It is possible that the virus behind the current outbreak in Guinea may have persisted in a person’s body before being transmitted, in a similar way, says Muñoz-Fontela.
3-17-21 Human skin cells altered to mimic early stage of embryo development
Living structures that model early human embryonic development have been generated entirely from cells in the skin. The models mean it should be possible to study infertility, early miscarriage and early embryonic development without the controversial use of real human embryos – although the models may raise ethical issues of their own. Previously, the only means of studying the early development of human embryos was via blastocysts obtained from IVF procedures. Blastocysts are a ball-like early stage of embryonic development that is formed five days after fertilisation occurs and can go on to form embryos. But their use in science is controversial because of their potential to grow into a living human individual. Now, by reprogramming fibroblasts, connective tissue cells taken from skin samples, Jose Polo at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and his colleagues have created human blastocyst-like structures. “This is the first time in humans where we’re making an embryonic structure without any egg,” says Jason Limnios at Bond University in Gold Coast, Australia, who wasn’t involved in the research. “That’s a big deal.” The structures, which the team have called iBlastoids, could be used to model the first two weeks of embryonic development. The iBlastoids are structurally and genetically very similar to real human blastocysts, but aren’t identical. For example, the iBlastoids lack a zona pellucida, a membrane that surrounds a blastocyst before it implants in the uterus. “That’s something that we will never be able to model,” says Polo. “Right now, you can’t implant this into a woman and get her pregnant,” says Limnios. “It won’t grow into a fetus or a baby because it’s missing some of the most important structural parts.”
3-17-21 Think yourself younger: Psychological tricks that can help slow ageing
How old you feel matters for how long you will live. Here's how you can reduce your psychological age. “AGE is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” This nugget of wisdom, often attributed to Mark Twain, has been turned into many an inspirational internet meme over the years. As a 51-year-old who is starting to feel the gathering momentum of the inevitable slide, it strikes me as little more than a platitude that makes people feel better about getting old. But according to a growing body of research, there is more to it than that. Subjective age – how old we feel – has a very real impact on health and longevity. People who feel younger than their years often actually are, in terms of how long they have left to live. The question of what controls our subjective age, and whether we can change it, has always been tricky to address scientifically. Now, research is revealing some surprising answers. The good news is that many of the factors that help determine how old we feel are things that we can control to add years to our lives –and life to our years. We have known for a while now that simply counting the number of years someone has been alive isn’t necessarily the most accurate way of gauging longevity. Biological “ageing clocks” measure various markers in the body to see how far along the physical ageing process we are (see “Old bones?“). But we also know that physical ageing is not the be-all and end-all. Gerontologists recognise that just as we can make generalisations about the ways that physical ageing affects our bodies – a 60-year-old will almost certainly show more signs of physical decline than a 30-year-old – there are some predictable psychological changes that come with age, too.In the late 1990s, Laura Carstensen, a gerontologist at Stanford University in California, measured how human psychology typically changes as we age. Her work has shown that young people, for whom time seems unlimited, are motivated to pursue knowledge about the physical and social world – to explore and make new connections. As a result, they tend to be more enthusiastic, outward-looking and sociable than their parents and grandparents, but also more superficial, impulsive and emotionally fragile.
3-17-21 Your leg muscles automatically act to stop you falling when you trip
Miss a step when walking down the stairs and your legs will attempt to recover your balance after the unexpected fall – but how? The key to remaining upright seems to be in the way our calf and foot muscles are activated. “One of the things we know about human locomotion is our ability to stay on our feet, upright, is pretty remarkable, but we don’t understand a lot about how we achieve this,” says Taylor Dick at the University of Queensland in Australia. To find out more, she and her colleagues conducted an experiment that involved attempting to make people fall over. The researchers had 10 people jump in place on top of platforms that were sitting on a device measuring the forces exerted by each foot individually. They then removed the platforms without warning. As participants tried to retain their balance, the researchers used electromyography and ultrasound sensors on their legs to track muscle activity and changes in muscle length. They determined that experiencing an unexpected drop automatically increases the timing between when our muscles first activate and when they reach their shortest length. This in turn enables the foot muscles to absorb and dissipate energy more effectively, allowing us to recover from the drop. The team also found that while opposing muscles normally contract in turn when walking, both groups of muscles contract at the same time during an unexpected drop. In cases where you aren’t able to successfully recover and end up falling, she says it may be because a different strategy is used, one that relies on signals travelling from your leg muscles to your brain and then back to your leg muscles. This may take more time than it does to travel the distance to the new “lower” ground. Dick hopes that this research can inform the design of lower limb assistive devices, such as prostheses and exoskeletons, that can help people navigate staircases and move over uneven terrain.
3-17-21 50 years ago, researchers treated chronic pain with electricity
Excerpt from the March 20, 1971, issue of Science News. Chronic pain can be treated surgically by severing nerves or by destroying a small part of the brain that perceives pain, but these methods are destructive. Doctors … are now treating selected cases of chronic pain … by using electrical impulses [on the spinal cord] to fool the brain. In 1971, the idea to treat chronic pain by sending electrical impulses to the spinal cord was not brand-new. Researchers tested the first implantable device in patients in the United States in 1967. Such implants gained momentum as a pain treatment in the 1970s, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the technique in 1989. Technological advances in the decades since have led to more effective and precise devices. One stimulator interacts with cells in the spinal cord to adjust the amount of electricity based on a patient’s needs, researchers reported in 2020. But spinal cord stimulation can do more than relieve pain: Sending impulses to specific nerve cells at precise times has been shown to help people paralyzed by severe injuries walk again (SN: 11/24/18, p. 6).
3-17-21 Two new books investigate why it’s so hard to define life
What Is Life? and Life’s Edge explore what it means to be alive. If everything in the world had to be divided into two bins — one for living things and one for nonliving — the task might seem easy. Trees, bacteria and humans are alive; rocks, smartphones and rainfall are not. But in some cases, the distinction is murky. Where might the coronavirus responsible for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic belong? Viruses have their own genetic material and can evolve. But without a host cell to infect, a virus can’t make more copies of itself. And a virus doesn’t eat food for energy, instead stealing energy from its host. So is a virus a form of life? What makes something alive? Two new books tackle that last question. What Is Life? by geneticist Paul Nurse and Life’s Edge by science journalist Carl Zimmer explore how scientists have come to understand life and probe some of the entities that push its limits. “Asking biologists about what it means for something to be alive makes for an awkward conversation,” Zimmer writes. While scientists have spent centuries contemplating the question, there is still no universally accepted definition. In What Is Life? Nurse guides readers through five big scientific ideas that he argues help define living things: cells, genes, evolution, life as chemistry and life as information. He also examines how studying these aspects of life has helped us take better care of human life, such as developing heart surgery or genetically modified crops that make food more widely available. As might be expected for someone who won a Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 2001 for discovering how cells control growth and division (SN: 10/10/01), Nurse’s ideas are rooted in the nuances of life as seen within a cell. Alongside personal accounts of the discoveries that inspired and guided his own career, Nurse chronicles how researchers initially revealed the cell, “biology’s atom,” and uncovered that strings of genetic molecules hold the instructions to make cells work.
3-17-21 Phosphorus for Earth’s earliest life may have been forged by lightning
Long thought to have been delivered by meteorites, the element is crucial for DNA and RNA. One key ingredient for life thought to be delivered to Earth by meteorites may have been homemade after all. The phosphorus that went into building the first DNA and RNA molecules is thought to have come from a mineral called schreibersite, which is typically found in meteorites (SN: 9/7/04). But a new analysis of minerals forged by a lightning strike hints that lightning may have produced enough schreibersite on early Earth to help kickstart life, researchers report online March 16 in Nature Communications. That means “emergence of life is not necessarily connected to meteorite impacts,” says Sandra Piazolo, a geologist at the University of Leeds in England. A weather-fueled source for phosphorus could broaden the window of opportunity for life as we know it to arise on Earthlike planets throughout the universe. Piazolo and colleagues analyzed a hunk of glassy material called fulgurite, which formed when lightning zapped the ground in Illinois in 2016 (SN: 2/14/07). By firing lasers, X-rays and electrons at the fulgurite and observing how those beams interacted with the material, the researchers were able to probe its composition. They discovered that the fulgurite was studded with tiny kernels of schreibersite, which collectively made up about 100 grams — or about 0.4 percent — of the lightning-made material. Using those observations, along with estimates of weather conditions on early Earth, Piazolo’s team calculated the amount of schreibersite that lightning strikes could have created billions of years ago. The team even accounted for factors such as early Earth’s carbon dioxide–rich atmosphere, which could have fueled more thunderstorms.
3-16-21 No indication AstraZeneca vaccine causes blood clots, says regulator
A number of European nations, including Germany, France, Italy and Sweden, have suspended use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine over blood clot concerns. The World Health Organization and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) have both emphasised that there is currently no evidence linking the vaccine to blood clots and recommend that countries continue using it. Emer Cooke, director of the EMA, reiterated in an online press conference today that the agency remains firmly convinced that the benefits of the vaccine outweigh any risks. Both organisations are performing a thorough analysis of all the available data and the EMA will be making a statement with its conclusions on Thursday 18 March. Among 17 million people who have received the vaccine in the EU and the UK, 15 cases of deep-vein thrombosis (DVT) and 22 cases of pulmonary embolism have been reported as of 8 March, AstraZeneca said in a statement on 14 March. DVT is a blood clot in a vein, which has the potential to travel to the lungs, causing a blockage, or what is known as a pulmonary embolism. “Many thousands of people develop blood clots annually in the EU for different reasons,” the EMA said in a statement. The number of blood clotting incidents in vaccinated people “seems not to be higher than that seen in the general population”. In Germany, the Paul Ehrlich Institute, which advises the government on covid-19, said it had recommended the temporary suspension of the vaccine following a “noticeable increase” in cases of cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST), a blood clot in a major brain vessel, soon after vaccinations. Germany’s health minister, Jens Spahn, said at a press conference on 15 March that there had been seven reported cases that may be related to CVST out of 1.6 million vaccinations in Germany. Estimates of how many incidences of CVST you might expect in the general population over a year vary from two to five cases per million people to more than 15 cases per million, depending on the study.iu
3-16-21 Miniature human tear glands grown in a lab cry real tears just like us
Miniature organoids that function like human tear glands have been grown in the lab – and they can produce tears. In the future, the organoids could be transplanted into people and used to treat dry eye diseases. Tear glands, located near the inner corner of each eye, lubricate the eyes by producing a protein-rich fluid. This liquid also helps remove dust and bacteria to keep the eye clean and healthy. However, some people can’t produce enough of this. Now, Hans Clevers and his team at the Hubrecht Institute in Utrecht, the Netherlands, may have found a way to help these people. They created miniature organoids by taking cell samples from healthy tear gland tissue. Adult stem cells were isolated from these and treated with a cocktail of proteins, called growth factors, to help them grow into tear glands. “Adult stem cells are already specialised and they know what to make – we just have to encourage them with growth factors,” says Clevers. “This happens within a matter of two or three days: you see small cystic structures appearing that grow into the organoids.” The tear gland organoids measure just 0.2 millimetres across and could be grown and multiplied in the lab for up to a year to generate many more organoids. Next, the team wanted to see if the tear gland organoids could produce tears. Our tear glands typically produce tears in three distinct contexts. They are generated for lubrication to keep our eyes constantly wet; after physical contact to reduce the risk of eye damage; and when we are emotional, triggered by hormone signals from the brain. The researchers treated their organoids with a hormone called noradrenaline – the same brain hormone that makes us cry when we are emotional. Within half an hour, the organoids began to swell and fill with fluid – the same liquid that makes up our emotional tears, says Clevers. “You could argue that the tears we show mirror those driven by brain signals,” says Clevers. “When we took the noradrenaline out, they slowly reabsorb the tears and keep on growing, but we occasionally see them burst if they build up too much pressure.”
3-16-21 Mass graves in France belonged to opposing soldiers in medieval war
Remains buried in two mass graves in the same cemetery in France have been identified as medieval soldiers belonging to opposing armies. Rozenn Colleter at the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research and her colleagues have identified the skeletons as belonging to soldiers who fought in the Siege of Rennes in 1491. The skeletons were found buried in a cemetery outside the Jacobin Convent in Rennes. The researchers identified the skeletons by combining historical information with archaeological techniques, including genetic analysis. They found that each skeleton was male and older than 15, with traumatic injuries including unhealed wounds to the skulls and upper limbs. This pointed to a burial of soldiers. Radiocarbon dating placed the graves somewhere between the middle of the 15th century and the end of the 16th century. The team believes they contain opposing soldiers from the Siege of Rennes, a major event in the French-Breton war, which was triggered by a succession dispute. The war ended with several treaties, and the Breton duchess Anne of Brittany married King Charles VIII of France in 1491, a crucial step towards the formation of the modern state of France. “It’s a really nice use of the archaeological techniques to shine a light on a historic event,” says Rachel Wood at the Australian National University in Canberra, who wasn’t involved in the study. Using stable isotope analysis of teeth and bones, the researchers were able to determine where the soldiers probably spent their childhood and last years of life. Carbon and nitrogen isotopes shed clues on people’s diet, such as whether they were eating marine or terrestrial foods, says Wood, while strontium isotopes indicate the underlying geology of a region. Oxygen isotopes can reveal the type of water people drank, which differs depending on precipitation levels. And one kind of sulphur isotope varies with distance inland. “The ocean has got a particular sulphur isotope concentration, and so if you’re by the coast, there’s kind of a sea spray effect,” says Wood.
3-16-21 A deadly fungus behind hospital outbreaks was found in nature for the first time
The discovery could spur search expeditions for the yeast in more places. A deadly fungus that seemed to spring up out of nowhere in hospitals has been found in nature for the first time. Researchers isolated the yeast Candida auris from two sites on the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. The discovery suggests that C. auris was an environmental fungus before it was identified as a human pathogen, researchers report online March 16 in mBio. It was a real puzzle as to where C. auris came from when it began appearing in patients and clinics, says Christina Cuomo, who studies fungal pathogen evolution at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and was not involved in the study. “It’s the first clue as to where else it might be.” C. auris emerged as a human pathogen on three continents in the early 2010s. The yeast has since been named a public health threat for its ability to cause dangerous, sometimes fatal infections that are resistant to many antifungal drugs (SN: 11/13/19). C. auris spreads between patients — usually those already seriously ill — in hospitals and other health care facilities, causing infections of the bloodstream, gut or other organs. There have been more than 1,600 cases reported in the United States as of January 19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The fact that C. auris can thrive inside the human body is unusual. Most fungi aren’t able to grow in that toasty, 37° Celsius milieu. That has spurred a hypothesis that C. auris gained the ability to infect people after becoming accustomed to warmer temperatures in the environment as a result of climate change (SN: 6/26/19). A possible location for the fungus: wetlands, which are very sensitive to the effects of warming.
3-15-21 Fingerprint ridges carry nerve endings that make us hypersensitive
Our fingertips have an extraordinarily high sensitivity to touch – and now it looks like that sensitivity might be largely confined to the ridges of our fingerprints. “They really help us get very detailed information about what we touch,” says Ewa Jarocka at Umeå University in Sweden. Scientists have suspected that our circular, winding fingerprints might have evolved to improve our ability to grip objects by creating better friction, says Jarocka. But she says others have suggested they might contribute to our “very refined sense of touch”. Because current models can’t explain the high levels of sensitivity people have shown in past scientific studies, Jarocka and her colleagues decided to investigate. They asked six men and six women between the ages of 20 and 30 to lie comfortably in a dentist chair while their fingers were held in place. The researchers then ran a card covered in tiny, flat-tipped cones, each less than half a millimetre high, over their fingertips at different speeds and in different directions. Meanwhile, they recorded electrical activity of a single nerve cell using tungsten electrodes inserted into a main nerve in each participant’s upper arm. The results allowed the researchers to map out exactly where on the fingertips the information that was sent to the nerve was collected. These sensitivity hotspots turned out to be very small, each only about 0.4 millimetres wide. What’s more, these hotspots followed specific patterns on the fingertips – the same ones as the fingerprint ridges. Regardless of how the researchers moved the dotted card over a finger, its hotspot map stayed the same, suggesting the sensitivity zones were “anchored in the very stable structure” of the ridges themselves, says Jarocka.
3-15-21 Early humans may have turned to small game after wiping out big beasts
Our ancestors’ diets changed dramatically over the course of the past 2.5 million years, and one research team thinks that profoundly affected our evolution. According to a team including Miki Ben-Dor and Ran Barkai at Tel Aviv University in Israel, hominin diets were once so dominated by meat from massive animals that the hunters caused some of those species to go extinct. This, in turn, forced our ancestors to develop more sophisticated hunting techniques to bring down smaller, more elusive prey, leading to greater intelligence and the evolution of modern humans. “The key idea is that just one ecological driver drove all of human evolution,” says Ben-Dor. “The one driver is the decline in prey size.” The team has drawn on an impressive range of evidence, says Sherry Nelson at the University of New Mexico. “But I wasn’t convinced”, she says, arguing that too often the researchers cited a paper in support of their hypothesis without considering alternative hypotheses. Modern humans (Homo sapiens) have been around for about 300,000 years. We evolved from earlier members of the Homo genus, like Homo erectus, which are thought to have arisen from the more ape-like Australopithecus hominins. The earliest known Homo remains are 2.8 million years old. Ben-Dor and his colleagues compiled evidence on what past hominins ate. This included traces of foods preserved on teeth, animal bones with cut marks suggesting butchery and chemical analyses of preserved hominin protein. They concluded that Australopithecus ate mostly plants. However, early Homo species ate more meat, with H. erectus – the first species known to have expanded beyond Africa – consuming the most meat of all. When our species first appeared, meat was still a large dietary component, but within the past 50,000 years, we began eating less.
3-15-21 Psychedelic therapy could 'reset' depressed brain
A powerful hallucinogenic drug known for its part in shamanic rituals is being trialled as a potential cure for depression for the first time. Participants will be given the drug DMT, followed by talking therapy. It is hoped this could offer an alternative for the significant number of people who don't respond to conventional pills for depression. Psychedelic-assisted therapy might offer longer-term relief from symptoms, some researchers believe. A growing body of evidence indicates other psychedelic drugs, particularly alongside talking therapy, are safe and can be effective for treating a range of mental illnesses. This will be the first time DMT is given to people with moderate to severe depression in a clinical trial. Carol Routledge, the chief scientific officer of Small Pharma, the company running the trial said: "We believe the impact will be almost immediate, and longer lasting than conventional antidepressants. The drug is known as the "spirit molecule" because of the way it alters the human consciousness and produces hallucinations that have been likened to a near-death experience. It is also the active ingredient in ayahuasca, a traditional Amazonian plant medicine used to bring spiritual enlightenment. Researchers believe the drug might help loosen the brain's fixed pathways, which can then be "reset" with talking therapy afterwards. Ms Routledge likened the drug to "shaking a snow globe" - throwing entrenched negative thought patterns up in the air which the therapy allows to be resettled into a more functional form. But this hypothesis still needs to be proven. The team is consulting Imperial College London, which runs the pioneering Centre for Psychedelic Research. As part of the study, they hope to investigate whether the drug can be administered as a one-off or as part of a course. Subjects will be followed up for at least six months to see how long the effects of the treatment last.
3-15-21 An ancient hippo-sized reptile may have been surprisingly agile
Anteosaurus’ skull suggests it was speedier than other beasts alive at the same time. Some 260 million years ago, before the rise of dinosaurs, bone-crushing anteosaurs reigned as land’s largest predators. A new analysis of an anteosaur skull suggests that these hefty reptiles may have been relatively speedy. “This contradicts what we knew about anteosaurs before,” says Ashley Kruger, a paleontologist at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm. Based on the reptiles’ size, which was around that of today’s hippos or rhinos, researchers had pegged the Permian Period predators as sluggish beasts that waited to ambush prey. The skull of an Anteosaurus magnificus appears to tell a different story. Relying on CT scans of fossil skull segments excavated in South Africa, Kruger and his team digitally reconstructed the long, bumpy noggin of a juvenile A. magnificus. They found that the animal’s inner ears — bony tubes that help with balance — dwarfed those of its peer predators. The shape of these bones also suggests that anteosaursmay have benefited from a rather large brain region used to coordinate motion while surveilling prey, the researchers report February 18 in Acta Palaeontologica Polonica. The team compared A. magnificus’ skull with that of its head-butting, herbivorous relation Moschognathus whaitsi. While M. whaitsi’s skull slopes downward, A. magnificus appears to have held its head more level, allowing it to more easily scan the environment. All of these findings suggest that Anteosaurus was an agile hunter, Kruger says, with the ability to move quickly and track its prey. These are reasonable conclusions, but “it’s not the smoking gun” that anteosaurs were fleet-footed, says Z. Jack Tseng, a paleontologist at the University of California, Berkeley who was not involved with the work. The study draws on analyses of the inner ears of modern mammals, distant relatives of the group of reptiles that includes anteosaurs. But even in today’s beasts, scientists don’t know exactly how inner ears influence different types of motion. Additional information from the rest of the skeleton would help us better understand how anteosaurs may have moved, he says.
3-14-21 Covid-19: Ireland suspends use of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine
The use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has been suspended in the Republic of Ireland. The National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) recommended the move following reports of serious blood clotting events in adults in Norway. In a tweet, the Irish Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said it was a "precautionary step". The World Health Organisation has said there was no link between the jab and an increased risk of developing a clot. The UK's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency said it was aware of the suspension in Ireland and was "closely reviewing reports". "But given the large number of doses administered, and the frequency at which blood clots can occur naturally, the evidence available does not suggest the vaccine is the cause," a spokesperson said. On Friday, the World Health Organisation said countries should not stop using the vaccine over fears it causes blood clots as there is no indication this is true. More than 110,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine have been administered in Ireland, which is about 20% of all doses given to date. Earlier on Sunday, Ireland's Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn said new information was received from the Norwegian Medicines Agency on Saturday night. "It has not been concluded that there is any link between the Covid-19 vaccine AstraZeneca and these cases," he said. "However, acting on the precautionary principle, and pending receipt of further information, the National Immunisation Advisory Committee has recommended the temporary deferral of the Covid-19 vaccine AstraZeneca vaccination programme in Ireland." In a statement to RTÉ, AstraZeneca said that an analysis of safety data covering more than 17 million doses of the vaccine administered has shown no evidence of an increased risk of the conditions concerned, and that no trends or patterns were observed in clinical trials.
3-13-21 How perceptions of diversity vary by race and political views
Black, Latino and Asian people tend to see U.S. neighborhoods as more diverse when their group is in the majority. In the wake of the past year’s Black Lives Matter protests, achieving “diversity” across domains has become a pressing societal concern. But “diversity” means different things to different people, sociologist Janet Xu of Princeton University and colleagues report March 12 in Science Advances. That means devising ways to turn talk of diversity into action — for instance, diversifying a workforce or a neighborhood — can be subjective. “Americans almost always talk about diversity in this positive but very, very ambiguous light,” Xu says. “So people can agree that diversity is good without agreeing on what diversity actually looks like.” Xi and colleagues focused on racial diversity. The team tested what that looks like to different groups of people by showing them hypothetical neighborhoods, each with different racial and ethnic makeups. The team surveyed 1,803 U.S. adults split almost evenly among four groups — white, Black, Latino and Asian. All the neighborhoods had one dominant group, making up 50 to 90 percent of residents, one midsize group and one minority group making up just 2 percent. Participants ranked eight hypothetical neighborhoods presented in pairs on perceived diversity, using a seven-point scale, with 1 being the least diverse and 7 being the most. In general, regardless of their race, participants ranked neighborhoods where the dominant group made up only half the population as more diverse than ones in which it made up 90 percent. However, compared with white participants, Latino, Black and Asian participants rated neighborhoods about a third of a point more diverse when their own group was in the majority. White people, meanwhile, ranked neighborhoods as equally diverse regardless of which group dominated. That finding could help explain why, as recent research suggests, underrepresented minorities often feel out of place even in purportedly diverse settings, Xu says.
3-13-21 The latest Ebola outbreak may have started with someone infected years ago
Rather than jumping from animals, the virus may have laid low in a person, then spread. The ongoing Ebola outbreak in Guinea was most likely sparked by someone infected during the outbreak seven years ago, a new study shows. Viruses from both outbreaks are almost genetically identical, hinting that the virus did not jump from an animal to people, as scientists expected, but that it had lurked hidden in a human body for years. “With this news, I was really, really shocked,” says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist with Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Potential cases of Ebola began emerging in the West African nation in late January, and Guinean health officials declared an outbreak on February 13 after three people tested positive for the virus. The region hadn’t seen an outbreak since the one in 2013–2016, which claimed over 11,000 lives. A separate, unrelated outbreak in the Congo was declared on February 7. As of March 6, 29 cases and 13 deaths had been reported in both countries, according to Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. A genetic analysis found that four viruses from people infected in the Guinea outbreak were the close relatives of viruses that had infected people in 2014, according to a trio of preliminary reports posted March 12 at virological.org. Only about a dozen mutations separate these new cases from the 2014 cases. That’s far fewer than the more than 100 mutations scientists expect would accumulate over that period if there were sustained transmission of the virus. The lack of mutations suggests that the newest outbreak did not get its start when a bat virus jumped into humans and began spreading. Rather, the most recent cases appear to be a resurgence of the same strain that caused the 2013–2016 Ebola outbreak, carried by someone who was infected back then.
3-13-21 Scientists unlock mysteries of world's oldest 'computer'
A 2,000-year-old device often referred to as the world's oldest "computer" has been recreated by scientists trying to understand how it worked. The Antikythera Mechanism has baffled experts since it was found on a Roman-era shipwreck in Greece in 1901. The hand-powered Ancient Greek device is thought to have been used to predict eclipses and other astronomical events. But only a third of the device survived, leaving researchers pondering how it worked and what it looked like. The back of the mechanism was solved by earlier studies, but the nature of its complex gearing system at the front has remained a mystery. Scientists from University College London (UCL) believe they have finally cracked the puzzle using 3D computer modelling. They have recreated the entire front panel, and now hope to build a full-scale replica of the Antikythera using modern materials. On Friday, a paper published in Scientific Reports revealed a new display of the gearing system that showed its fine details and complex parts. "The Sun, Moon and planets are displayed in an impressive tour de force of ancient Greek brilliance," the paper's lead author, Professor Tony Freeth, said. "Ours is the first model that conforms to all the physical evidence and matches the descriptions in the scientific inscriptions engraved on the mechanism itself," he added. The mechanism has been described as an astronomical calculator as well as the world's first analogue computer. It is made of bronze and includes dozens of gears. The back cover features a description of the cosmos display, which shows the motion of the five planets that were known at the time the device was built. But only 82 fragments - amounting to around a third of the device - survived, This meant scientists have had to piece together the full picture using X-Ray data and an Ancient Greek mathematical method.
3-12-21 The number of twins in the world is the highest it has ever been
More twins are being born now than ever before – mainly because of the rising use of IVF and more people starting their families later in life. The rate of twin births may now be at its peak, though, due to fertility clinics refining their techniques. The global rate of twin births has risen by a third since the 1980s, from 9 per 1000 births to 12 per 1000. Christiaan Monden at the University of Oxford and his colleagues generated the figures by gathering existing data from 165 countries from 1980 to 2015. Twins are also more likely to survive now, thanks to medical advances. “The rates are higher than they have been for 50 years,” says Monden. “This is likely to be an all-time high.” Most of the increase has been in fraternal or non-identical twins, who develop from separate eggs and sperm. The rate of identical twins, caused by an embryo splitting in two in the first few days after fertilisation, has stayed about the same. Growing use of fertility treatments is probably the biggest factor behind the rise in twin births in high and middle-income countries, says Monden. Women may take hormones to stimulate egg production, which can lead to them releasing two eggs at once. Also, IVF clinics may transfer two, three or more embryos into a uterus simultaneously, to boost the chances that at least one survives. This can lead to pregnancies of twins, triplets or even higher numbers of babies. Because babies in such pregnancies have greater health risks, such as being born prematurely and underweight, many guidelines from regulators, such as in the UK, now say fertility clinics should aim to transfer only one embryo in each attempted pregnancy cycle. This could mean the rate of twin births will now start to drop. Other factors contributing to the rise in twin births over the past three decades include women having children later in life in high and middle-income countries. Older women are more likely to release two eggs at the same time.
3-12-21 Some COVID-19 survivors face another foe: PTSD
About a third of very ill patients developed post-traumatic stress disorder in a small study. The sickest of COVID-19 patients struggle to breathe. Facing a disease new to science, they’re isolated from their loved ones and treated by doctors and nurses in hazmat suits. Now, a small study in Italy finds that nearly a third of people who were very ill with COVID-19 developed post-traumatic stress disorder after acute infection. Psychiatrist Delfina Janiri of Agostino Gemelli University Policlinic in Rome and colleagues assessed the mental health of 381 severely ill COVID-19 patients an average of 100 days after symptoms first appeared. About 30 percent, or 115 people, were diagnosed with PTSD, the team reports February 18 in JAMA Psychiatry. Depression and anxiety also turned up in these patients, though not as frequently. PTSD was more common among women, people who had a history of psychiatric disorders, and people who experienced delirium or agitation while very sick with COVID-19. The rate of PTSD is comparable to that of survivors of other coronavirus infections such as Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), as well as natural disasters, the researchers say. About 30 percent of New Orleans residents who survived Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and its aftermath developed PTSD. Lingering effect: In a small study in Rome, about 30 percent of patients who had recovered from severe COVID-19 went on to develop PTSD. The rate is comparable to that of survivors of the coronavirus infections MERS and SARS, as well as survivors of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
3-12-21 The COVID-19 pandemic is now a year old. What have scientists learned?
A lack of preparation has been costly, but the pace of research offers promise for Year 2. One year ago, the World Health Organization declared that the novel coronavirus outbreak was a pandemic (SN: 3/11/20). Little did we know the uncertainty, anxiety, frustration and loss that was in store. It’s been a year that’s felt never-ending. It’s tested us all. It’s cost millions of lives, even as we’ve made remarkably rapid strides in understanding this new foe and finding ways to fight it. Now, as more and more people get vaccinated against COVID-19, there’s hope that the end of the pandemic is in sight. We asked five scientists who are among the many who have jumped in to tackle the coronavirus what has surprised them about the past year and what they’ve learned that could help us all as we enter the second year of the pandemic. Their answers have been edited for brevity and clarity. Rajesh Gandhi, an infectious diseases physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston: What really hits home is that we were not prepared, despite concerns that have been raised for many years that this was coming. We had to essentially prepare and implement our response to the pandemic during the pandemic, as opposed to before. Damir Huremovic, a psychiatrist with Northwell Health in Manhasset, N.Y.: We constantly keep doing the wrong things; we can’t get our act together. That is probably because of some of the features of this virus. It’s sitting on the border of very dangerous and not so dangerous. It’s playing tricks on our abilities to approximate risk. Maimuna Majumder, a computational epidemiologist at Boston’s Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical who uses data from search trends, social media and local news to simulate the trajectory of outbreaks: There’s still plenty left to unearth about COVID-19, but I think it’s fair to say that the speed of the research done to date – with the goal of saving lives in mind – has been record-breaking.
3-12-21 A tour of ‘Four Lost Cities’ reveals modern ties to ancient people
Annalee Newitz’s book explores what drives humans toward an urban life — and what might send us away. It’s a familiar trope in movies and books: A bright-eyed protagonist moves to the big city in search of fame and fortune. Amid the bustle and lights, all hopes and dreams come true. But why do we cling to this cliché? In Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age, author Annalee Newitz explores ancient settlements to find out why people flock to big cities — and why they leave. The book is divided into four enjoyable, snack-sized sections, one for each city. Each section is accompanied by a handy map, drawn by artist Jason Thompson with engaging, cartoon-style flair. Rather than dry history, Newitz makes a special effort to highlight the oddities and innovations that made these cities unique. Take Çatalhöyük, the oldest city they feature, which thrived from 7500 to 5700 B.C. in what is now Turkey. This ancient city persisted for nearly 2,000 years despite lacking things that we might consider necessary to a city, such as roads, dedicated public spaces or shopping areas. Newitz’s also explores Pompeii (700 B.C to A.D. 79 in modern-day Italy). When paired with Çatalhöyük, it offers insights into how humans developed the distinction between public and private spaces and activities — ideas that would not have made sense before humans began living in large settled groups. The section on Cahokia (A.D. 1050 to 1350) — located in what is now Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis — offers an unexpected reason for a city’s emergence. Many people link cities with capitalism and trade. Cahokia’s 30-meter-tall pyramids, 20-hectare plazas and a population (at the time) bigger than Paris suggest that spiritual revival can also build a major metropolis. Cahokia and Angkor, which reached its peak from A.D. 800 to 1431 in what is now Cambodia, also show how cities can form when power gets concentrated in a few influential people. Through touring such diverse cities, Newitz shows that the move to urban life isn’t just a setup for a hero of a story. It’s a common setup for many ancient cultures.
3-12-21 Ancient 'computer' may have used bejewelled rings to model the cosmos
The 2000-year-old Antikythera mechanism, often described as the world’s first computer, was a sophisticated bronze device that modelled the cosmos. Researchers have assumed it featured pointers moving around a dial like the hands on a clock, but a new study suggests that the celestial bodies were shown using a series of bejewelled, rotating rings. The machine dates to the first century BC and was discovered in a shipwreck near the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901. Scientists have spent more than a century decoding its battered remains, which include inscriptions, measuring scales and more than 30 bronze gearwheels. Modern reconstructions based on detailed X-ray images of the surviving pieces show it was a box around 30 centimetres high, operated by turning a handle on the side. On the back were two spiral dials, showing a calendar – including the timing of the Olympics – and dates of predicted lunar and solar eclipses. Much of the front part of the mechanism is missing, but researchers agree that a large circular dial displayed the motions of celestial bodies through the sky. Complex trains of gearwheels calculated the back-and-forth motion of the planets, as well as the variable speed of the sun and moon. Inscriptions deciphered in 2016 revealed that Venus and Saturn were represented by mathematical cycles not previously known from ancient Greek astronomy. For example, the Greeks are known to have described the back-and-forth motions of Venus using an 8-year cycle, or a more accurate 1151-year cycle, but the inscriptions on the Antikythera mechanism describe a 462-year cycle. Tony Freeth at University College London and his colleagues suggest that the Greeks could have deduced this from the known cycles using a step-by-step arithmetic method originally described by the philosopher Parmenides in the 5th century BC. They used the same method to derive similar cycles for the other planets, for which the inscriptions are missing, and constructed a new gearing scheme that they claim fits all the available physical evidence, including a previously unexplained 63-tooth gearwheel and the surviving inscriptions.
3-11-21 Tattoos reveal secrets of man whose flayed skin was nailed to a board
The unique flayed skin of an anonymous man has revealed unexpected details about his life. Analysis of the tattoos on his body reveals he was French, a seafarer, loved a woman named Flourine and may have died in prison. The gruesome artefact is currently held in a private collection in London. It consists of most of the skin of the man’s torso and limbs, which was nailed to a wooden board. Somebody then added horse hair stuffing between the skin and the board in order to produce a 3D-like appearance somewhat reminiscent of a complete body. The skin’s current curator has tended to refer to the skin as Monsieur Bonheur, because the word “Bonheur” (meaning “happiness” in French) is tattooed above the man’s groin. Curious about the skin’s history, the curator contacted Martin Smith at Bournemouth University, UK, and asked him to investigate. “As far as we are aware, the skin is unique in Europe,” says Smith. Before the study, little was known about its origin or date, except that it was acquired in France and that some of the tattoos included French text, he says. But other tattoos were too difficult to discern with the naked eye. Using a spectroscopic technique, Smith and his colleagues dated the wooden board to around 1861. They studied the skin under different coloured lights and filters developed for forensic investigations, as well as under infrared light. This revealed the details of around 60 tattoos. The words “Vive la Flotte” (“Long live the fleet”) and an anchor appear to identify the man as a seafarer, says Smith, while a portrait might represent Flourine, a woman mentioned twice, including in the line “Flourine Je T’aime” (“Flourine I love you”). One tattoo shows a uniformed man chained to a pillar inscribed with the year 1883 and a bird holding the word “Liberté” (“freedom”).
3-11-21 Archaea microbes fold, twist and contort their DNA in extreme ways
The maneuvers could help these single-celled organisms get easy access to their genes. Single-celled archaea microbes pack their DNA into flexible coils that expand and stretch much like a Slinky does. This kind of molecular gymnastics had never been seen before in other organisms and may represent a way for archaea to get easy access to their genetic material, researchers report March 2 in eLife. Some of the observed structures “really look like you take a Slinky and force it open, like a book,” says Karolin Luger, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the University of Colorado Boulder. “You would think that this would really contort the DNA in an awful shape, but it actually flows very naturally.” Similar to the cassette tapes she grew up listening to, DNA stores information in a very thin and fragile filament of nucleic acids, says Luger. But unlike the tapes, which often tangled and tore, rendering them useless, the genetic material can be read, split into two like a zipper and replicated without tangles and breaks –– all while remaining confined in an incredibly small compartment. In 2017, Luger and her colleagues discovered that archaea — microbes that resemble bacteria under the microscope but are quite distinct — can spool their DNA around small proteins called histones (SN: 8/10/17). This process is strikingly similar to how plants, animals and fungi bend and fold their own genomes into compact, disk-shaped units known as nucleosomes. But nobody knew what these structures looked like in archaea, or how the microbes gained access to their spooled DNA. Using computer simulations and electron microscopy experiments on the genetic material of Methanothermus fervidus, a heat-loving archaeal species, the researchers found the Slinky-like shapes opened and closed in a clamshell motion.
3-11-21 A Bronze Age queen was buried wearing a priceless silver crown
A Bronze Age society in what is now Spain may have been ruled by women, at least some of the time. Archaeologists have found the bones of a woman buried with a silver diadem – or crown – and other riches under the remains of a building that seems to have been used for political meetings. The woman lived in a society that has been dubbed El Argar – the name of the first archaeological site preserving evidence of the culture, which was excavated in the 1880s by engineer-turned-archaeologist Luis Siret and his brother Henri. The Argaric culture, which dominated what is now south-east Spain between around 2200 and 1550 BC, became famous following the Sirets’s discovery. But the Spanish civil war (1936 – 1939) and ensuing military dictatorship saw research grind to a halt for many decades, says Roberto Risch at the Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain. Risch and his colleagues have been excavating an Argaric site called La Almoloya for several years. The ancient building they found there seems to have had some kind of governmental purpose, perhaps serving as a palace or a form of parliament. “It’s a building with a hall where 50 to 55 people could be sitting listening to each other, or to someone explaining something,” says Risch. There is no evidence of food and no clear-cut religious artefacts, so it doesn’t look like a home or a temple. Buried in a very large, ovoid jar under the floor of the hall, the team found the bodies of a woman and a man. Both had a multitude of funerary goods, suggesting they were eminent in Argaric society, says co-author Cristina Rihuete Herrada, also at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. DNA analysis shows they weren’t related, but they may have been married: both were immediate relatives of a baby girl buried under a nearby building, who may have been their daughter. Most of the funerary items, including the most spectacular ones, were found on the woman. She was wearing a silver diadem on her head, two silver earplug piercings and two silver bracelets. As a result, the team believes she was the ruler.
3-11-21 Riches in a Bronze Age grave suggest it holds a queen
The find points to a female ruler in Spain 3,700 years ago, bucking the idea only men ruled. A lavish Bronze Age burial found in southeastern Spain may hold a queen’s remains, researchers say. This unexpected discovery bolsters suspicions that women wielded political power in that region’s El Argar society, which lasted from around 4,220 to 3,570 years ago. Researchers have typically assumed that men ran Bronze Age societies (SN: 10/10/19). In 2014, a team led by archaeologist Vicente Lull of the Autonomous University of Barcelona discovered the skeletons of a man and a woman in a large jar underneath what appears to be a royal structure at a site called La Almoloya. Radiocarbon dating indicates that both individuals died about 3,700 years ago. Most of the 29 valuables in the grave lay on or next to the woman, Lull’s group reports in the April Antiquity. A semicircular silver headband, or diadem, with a disk that would have rested on the forehead or the bridge of the nose, was found on the woman’s skull. Excavations at other El Argar sites in the 19th and 20th centuries yielded several females buried with diadems. Functions of the buildings under which those graves were located are unknown. But diadems signified power and social prominence, the researchers contend. At La Almoloya, the woman and man were buried beneath a room where up to around 50 people could have conducted royal and political business. Other parts of what was likely a palace contained living quarters and spaces for activities such as grinding grain. If the La Almoloya woman was a queen, the researchers can’t say if she was a ceremonial leader or made actual rulings, either on her own or with a royal council.
3-11-21 A year ago, we asked 6 questions about COVID-19. Here’s how the answers evolved
Revisit the first topics we wrote about in our Coronavirus Update newsletter. One year ago, Science News published the first of our Coronavirus Update newsletters. The goal was to provide readers with a quick glimpse into the latest research and news on the novel coronavirus amidst an ever-rising tide of questions and fears. We are now revisiting the topics we tackled in that first March 10, 2020 newsletter. What have we learned since? One thing is clear: Even as scientists across the globe have collaborated to find answers, many questions remain. See what we reported a year ago and how the science has evolved.
3-10-21 Covid-19: The story of a pandemic
A timeline of the coronavirus pandemic, from the first cases in China in December 2019 to 300 million vaccine doses delivered (and counting). A year ago this week, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared covid-19 a pandemic. Since the first case of infection with this new coronavirus was reported in China in December 2019, SARS-CoV-2, as we now know it to be called, has killed over 2.5 million people and infected at least 116 million. Beginning as an unexplained, pneumonia-like illness, first detected in China’s Wuhan province, it has since spread to almost every country, bringing life across most of the world to a near-standstill for the last year. World leaders became ill, entire countries were locked down to prevent the spread of infection and international travel ceased. As most governments struggled to contain the virus, scientists were rushing to identify and find treatments that worked against covid-19. As infections surged worldwide, new, highly transmissible variants of the virus were identified and are circulating ever further. With many vaccines now approved, over 300 million doses have been administered, and over 65 million people are now fully vaccinated. But this represents less than 1 per cent of the world’s population, and while the vaccine offers a glimmer of hope for a return to normal, there is still a long way to go. As countries, including the UK, are preparing to lift restrictions, we look back at a year that changed the world forever.
3-10-21 Food allergies could soon become a thing of the past – here's why
Allergic reactions to foods are a growing, potentially life-threatening problem. The good news is we can turn this around, says Kari Nadeau. FOOD allergies have been on the rise. In the US, it is now estimated that over 10 per cent of the adult population has an allergy to peanuts, shellfish, dairy or another food. In the UK, the past three decades have seen hospital admissions for food allergies rise fivefold. Thankfully, we are building up the armoury needed to reverse this trend so that, one day, such potentially deadly reactions become a thing of the past. The most common types of food allergies are triggered by antibodies that we make called immunoglobulin E or IgE. These antibodies were discovered in the mid-1960s and kick-started an era of allergy research still going strong today. The early findings have spawned thousands of studies that paint an intricate picture of how allergies work, suggesting ways in which we can prevent and treat them. When someone has a food allergy, IgE is involved in triggering a response when the immune system comes into contact with that food. Essentially, the body sees that part of your meal as an enemy, releasing histamine and other inflammatory chemicals in an attempt to deal with it. This causes symptoms ranging from itchiness and sneezes to wheezing and anaphylactic shock. The result can be anything from a mild inconvenience to death. We have yet to get to the bottom of why the body sometimes sees harmless substances in this way, but we now know much more about stopping this process from happening in the first place. The old saying “prevention is better than the cure” holds true for food allergies. My colleagues and I use the so-called six Ds as a guide to preventative measures during childhood: diet, dirt, dogs, dry skin, detergents and vitamin D. Studies have found that people have a lower risk of developing an allergy when, as youngsters, they eat a diverse diet and do so often, have healthy vitamin D levels, live in a home with a dog, avoid dry skin and are exposed to dirt, allowing them to develop a good microbiome. The use of harsh detergents has also been associated with an increase in IgE.
3-10-21 Cold-water swimming: What are the real risks and health benefits?
Social media is awash with people claiming that regular cold dips have transformed their health and well-being. We investigate whether it is actually good for you. “IT’S like pressing Control-Alt-Delete on a computer,” says Cath Pendleton. “When I’m in the water, I’m so focused on my body, my brain switches off. It’s just me and the swim.” Pendleton, an ice swimmer based in Merthyr Tydfil, UK, is hardier than most. In 2020, five years after discovering she didn’t mind swimming in very cold water, she became the first person to swim a mile inside the Antarctic circle. Part of her training involved sitting in a freezer in her shed. She is far from alone in her enthusiasm for cold water, however. Thanks to media reports of the mental health benefits of a chilly dip and pool closures due to covid-19, soaring numbers are now taking to rivers, lakes and the sea – once the preserves of a handful of seriously tough year-round swimmers. An estimated 7.5 million people swim outdoors in the UK alone, with an increasing number swimming through the winter. Global figures are hard to come by, but the International Winter Swimming Association has seen a boom in registered winter swimmers around the world, even in China, Russia and Finland, where water temperatures can drop below 0°C. But is there anything more to it than the joy of being in nature, combined with the perverse euphoria of defying the cold? According to the latest research, the answer is maybe. Recent studies have begun to turn up evidence that cold-water immersion may alleviate stress and depression and help tackle autoimmune disorders. It might even tap into a hibernation mechanism shared by all mammals to protect the brain, potentially offering new treatments for dementia. The idea that cold water can shock the body back to health isn’t new. In Victorian Britain, the great and the good flocked to the spa town of Malvern to take the “water cure”, a treatment that involved being wrapped in cold, wet sheets and taking regular cold showers and baths. Nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale credited it with restoring her health after the Crimean war. Charles Darwin believed it cured him of fatigue and stomach pains. “I feel certain that the Water Cure is no quackery,” he wrote at the time.
3-10-21 DNA reveals ancient Croatian massacre was an indiscriminate killing
The remains of a group of people who died 6200 years ago in a massacre in Croatia have been genetically analysed to reveal their ages, sex and ancestry. Mario Novak at the Institute for Anthropological Research in Zagreb, Croatia, and his colleagues retrieved DNA from 38 of 41 individuals found in a mass grave in Potocani, Croatia. The other three remains didn’t contain enough genetic material to sequence. The DNA, taken from a section of the skull which protects the inner ear called the petrous bone, along with an analysis of the skeletons helped the team learn more about those killed. “There are at least 41 individuals of both sexes and almost all age groups – the youngest is about 2 years old and the oldest is about 50,” says Novak. Radiocarbon dating of each individual and layers of the mass grave indicated that they were killed and buried in 4200 BC. The researchers found the grave contained 21 males and 20 females, and that half of them were under 17 years old at time of death. They saw evidence of head injuries on 13 of the skulls, with some individuals having up to four such injuries. These were probably caused by blunt weapons. “We assume that these people were probably kneeling or lying down and were struck from behind,” says Novak. “All these injuries were lethal because they don’t show any signs of healing, so their death must have been instantaneous.” Their research also revealed that just 11 of the genetically analysed individuals were linked by family ties. All 38 individuals had a similar ancestry, with 91 per cent of their DNA coming from Anatolian Neolithic people and 9 per cent coming from Western European hunter-gatherers. “This massacre was not orientated to a very specific part of the community or of a particular family,” says Novak. The people in this group were killed indiscriminately as there were members of both sexes, all age groups and several families – as opposed to other examples of massacres in prehistoric communities in the Copper Age. “Everyone was killed without exception,” he says.
3-10-21 An experimental toothpaste aims to treat peanut allergy
Tests are starting on a product that could help make immune therapy part. Someday it may be possible for people to tackle their food allergies simply by brushing their teeth. A New York City–based company has launched a trial to start testing this concept in a small group of peanut-allergy sufferers. The idea is to expose users to small doses of an allergen daily, in order to build and maintain tolerance to it. Tying this treatment to a daily routine should help allergy sufferers keep up with regular treatment, say researchers at Intrommune Therapeutics, which developed the toothpaste. The product may also do a better job than existing therapies at delivering the active ingredients in those treatments to immune cells throughout the mouth, they say. About 32 million Americans have food allergies. One existing treatment, oral immunotherapy, also exposes patients to small amounts of their allergen through daily doses swallowed as food. However, the treatment can trigger allergic reactions, and the hard-earned tolerance often wanes without continued maintenance dosing. A gentler treatment, known as sublingual immunotherapy — which instead delivers smaller doses through under-the-tongue liquid drops — offers decent protection while causing fewer side effects (SN: 9/4/19). And it may be especially effective with allergies that are caught early. The mouth drops produce even stronger, more durable benefits in toddlers than in older children, researchers reported February 27 at a virtual meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Still, it can be hard for patients to keep up with this daily therapy. Plus, the immune cells thought to be the best target are actually densest inside the cheeks and elsewhere in the mouth — not just under the tongue.
3-10-21 Dr Wu Lien-teh: Face mask pioneer who helped defeat a plague epidemic
Today’s Google doodle celebrates Wu Lien-teh, an epidemiologist who pioneered the use of face masks to control an epidemic over a century before the advent of covid-19. Born in Penang, Malaysia, on this day in 1879 and educated in the UK, Wu was recruited to work on a deadly disease outbreak in northeastern China in December 1910. The first people to be affected were marmot trappers and fur traders, part of a flourishing trade in marmot pelts in the region. From a postmortem examination – the first performed in China – Wu succeeded in isolating and culturing the bacterium responsible for the disease, identifying it as Yersinia pestis, which was known from with earlier bubonic plague epidemics. Wu understood that the disease could be spread by respiratory droplets, and was not just caught from rats or fleas as many believed at the time. Wu produced a mask made from cotton and gauze, with extra layers of cloth and more secure ties to improve on previous designs. He encouraged medical staff and others to wear it to protect themselves, the first time widespread mask use had been part of an epidemic control strategy. It was met with some resistance, however: a French colleague died of the plague after refusing to wear a mask. Wu advised authorities to impose restrictions on movement, including stopping trains, to limit the spread of the disease, and instruct sick people to self-isolate. He also persuaded officials to sanction the cremation of dead bodies, which was not normally accepted in China. The last case of the disease was recorded in March 1911. It came to be known as the Manchurian plague, and it killed an estimated 60,000 people. Wu chaired an international conference on the plague that year, helping disseminate knowledge about how to respond to outbreaks. The epidemic helped to convince China’s leaders of the need for a modern public health service, and Wu help establish it in numerous roles before returning to Malaysia in 1937.
3-10-21 Giving vaccine to older people first could help the coronavirus evolve
THE vaccine strategy most nations are following – of vaccinating the most vulnerable first rather than those who are likeliest to spread the coronavirus – may be the best way to save lives in the short term. But it is also the strategy with the greatest risk of driving the evolution of variants that can escape vaccine protection, according to a model developed by Julia Gog at the University of Cambridge. “What is the absolutely worst strategy? You vaccinate all of the vulnerable and none of the ‘mixers’,” Gog said in an online presentation in February. Gog isn’t calling for a change in vaccine strategy. But her finding reinforces the importance of keeping case numbers down as vaccines are rolled out. “We’ve got to get prevalence down, otherwise we’re [creating] a real risk of producing an escape variant,” she told New Scientist. “What you can’t do is get halfway through vaccination and allow cases to rise. That would be devastating.” In countries with few or no cases, by contrast, the virus will have far fewer chances to evolve, so the order of vaccination doesn’t matter as far as variant evolution is concerned. Gog’s simple model is one of the first to evaluate the effect of vaccine strategies while also considering the risk of variants arising. In it, the entire population is divided into vulnerable people with a higher chance of becoming severely ill and “mixers” who are more likely to spread the virus. The likelihood of escape variants appearing is assumed to depend on the number of vaccinated people who become infected, because every time this happens there is a small risk of such variants evolving. Although the model is simple, Gog thinks the general conclusion that vaccinating the vulnerable first maximises so-called vaccine escape pressure is correct. “It’s bonkers to keep buying your worst enemy lottery tickets and then being surprised if they win the lottery,” she said.
3-10-21 Should you get a test to measure antibodies after a covid-19 vaccine?
IN JANUARY, I gratefully received my first dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine. But not everyone experiences an immune response to a shot. If mine has kicked in, I should have enough antibodies to protect me from covid-19. So it was worrying when I received results from an immunity test that suggested I had a low level of antibodies. Am I immune or not? There are three quantitative antibody tests, or “immunity trackers”, coming onto the market that are designed to tell me. The tests identify neutralising antibodies, which block the virus from attaching to and entering cells in the body. Unlike older antibody tests, which simply detect whether antibodies are present or not, the new tests can tell the level of antibodies in the blood. My test was developed by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche and I bought it through a non-profit organisation called Testing For All, for £49. It takes two to three weeks for a vaccine to take effect so I took the test three weeks after my first dose. My antibody level came back as 15.20 units per millilitre (U/mL). An article sent to me with my results explained that a positive test was any antibody level greater than 0.8 U/mL and a typical result 21 days after a second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was 1000 to 2000 U/mL based on a limited data set (similar information for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine I had wasn’t available). This left me feeling like I had a fairly low response. I asked James Monico, co-founder of Testing For All – which aims to provide affordable testing to anyone who wants it – what he thought my result meant for my protection against covid-19. He said that in an evaluation performed on 255 samples, the antibody level created by natural infection appeared to be between 1 and 1000 U/mL, so my result was low and that I should consider talking to my GP about it. “It’s the individual’s right to take their healthcare into their own hands,” he says. “A low antibody response means you are more likely to get reinfected and pass it onto someone else.”
3-9-21 People who have had covid-19 may only need one dose of vaccine
One dose of a coronavirus vaccine may be all that is needed for people who have already been infected with covid-19. A small study suggests that in people receiving the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, the body’s response to natural infection with the coronavirus seems to act like a first dose of the vaccine. Before the new findings emerged, France had already announced that people there who have been previously infected need only one shot of any two-dose vaccine regimen, the only country to have this policy. The first three vaccines against the coronavirus to have been approved after full publication of large-scale trials – made by Pfizer/BioNTech, Oxford/AstraZeneca and Moderna – all require two doses given several weeks apart to give the strongest immune response. A single-dose vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson has also been approved in the US and South Africa. All the vaccines work by mimicking the body’s immune response to a natural infection, usually gauged by measuring the amount of antibodies to a pathogen in the person’s blood. The second shot causes even higher levels of antibodies to be produced. Mark Mulligan at New York University and his colleagues tracked antibody levels in 32 people who were given both doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, and one person who had both doses of the Moderna shot. About half of them had previously been ill with covid-19. By about two weeks after receiving the first dose, people who had recovered from covid-19 made levels of antibodies that were similar to or higher than those of people who had never been infected – after they had received both doses. This was also the case for their “neutralising antibodies”, ones that are highly effective at defending the body from the virus.
3-9-21 Indian stone tool may be earliest evidence of humans outside Africa
ANCESTRAL humans may have left Africa half a million years earlier than generally thought, according to archaeologists who claim to have found a primitive stone tool from 2.6 million years ago in northern India. If early humans really were there then, it would mean they migrated out of Africa remarkably early. The oldest evidence of the Homo lineage is from 2.8 million years ago at Ledi-Geraru in Ethiopia. This means these hominins would have had to expand their range rapidly to reach India. The claim is being treated with caution by other archaeologists, who say the stone is so simple that it could have got its shape without human involvement, and that its age is uncertain. Since 2003, Anne Dambricourt Malassé at the Institute of Human Palaeontology in Paris, France, and her colleagues have been excavating sites near the village of Masol in north-west India, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Silts and sediments from what was once a river and marsh are preserved there. In 2016, the team described simple stone tools and a handful of bones with marks on them, which the group argued were made by humans using the tools. Such finds are fairly common, but the team claimed they were very old: 2.6 million years old, based on the estimated age of the sediments. Other archaeologists were dubious, because the remains had been found lying on the land surface rather than buried in a layer of sediment, making it hard to judge their age. But that same year, team member Mukesh Singh at the Society for Archaeological and Anthropological Research in Chandigarh, India, spotted a stone within one of the datable bands of silt at the site. He thought it might be a stone tool. The following year, the team excavated it, and now think that it is a tool called a chopper. An ancient individual removed flakes from one side of the stone, leaving an irregular cutting edge, says the team.
3-9-21 Finds in a Spanish cave inspire an artistic take on warm-weather Neandertals
Paleoartist Gabriela Amorós Seller draws on recent findings to depict ancient Iberian life. Here’s a scene guaranteed to melt the popular stereotype of Ice Age Neandertals as spear-wielding mammoth hunters confined to Eurasia’s frigid inner core. New illustrations show what’s currently known about the environment inhabited periodically by Neandertals in Iberia, or what’s now Spain and Portugal, from at least 350,000 years ago to nearly 100,000 years ago. Paleoartist Gabriela Amorós Seller of the University of Murcia in Spain, used colored pencils to illustrate an idyllic view of a Neandertal man and child lounging on flat ground downslope from Bolomor Cave, near the Mediterranean coast of what’s now eastern Spain. Excavations in the cave have produced evidence of the trees, plants and animals shown in the drawing, presented in the March 15 Quaternary Science Reviews. Amorós Seller also illustrated Bolomor Cave’s Neandertal-era entrance and surrounding greenery. She and her colleagues regard these scientifically informed drawings as more than simply appealing to the eye. Art that shows the basic makeup of an ancient environment can inspire scientists to ask new questions. For instance, her group now wants to explore how ancient Iberian plants grew in the wild and what they looked like before being modified over the past few thousand years by farming practices. Bolomor Cave Neandertals probably ate fruit, nuts and seeds of plants that once grew in the area, says coauthor José Carrión, an evolutionary biologist and botanist at the University of Murcia. Those plants included hazel shrubs, one of which appears just behind the Neandertal male, who is munching on a hazelnut. Strawberry trees, Mediterranean hackberry, myrtle shrubs, carob trees and chestnut trees — all shown in the drawings — were also available, he says.
3-5-21 COVID-19 has exacerbated a troubling U.S. health trend: premature deaths
The pandemic played into already rising death rates from obesity, drugs, alcohol and suicide. There is no good time for a pandemic, but COVID-19 hit the United States as a public health crisis was well under way. The novel coronavirus has exacerbated already rising death rates among Americans in the prime of their lives, a new report concludes. Especially hard-hit are racial minorities and people of all races with low incomes and a high school education or less. The report, released March 2 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, provides the most comprehensive look at premature deaths in the United States to date. A picture is emerging of how the interplay of known and often preventable risk factors, including rising rates of opioid overdoses and obesity, is contributing to declining U.S. life expectancy (SN: 12/21/17). Since the 1990s, drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, suicides and obesity-related conditions have resulted in the deaths of nearly 6.7 million U.S. adults ages 25 to 64, a 12-member committee finds. Mortality rates from those causes tended to accelerate in the 2010s. Aftershocks of the sharp economic recession in 2008 may have contributed to that development, the report suggests. “This is a public health crisis that isn’t getting better, and in some ways is getting worse,” Kathleen Mullan Harris, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and chair of the committee, said during a March 2 webinar to discuss the report. The report shows that declining life expectancy among racial minorities and working-class white people before the pandemic “set the stage for the challenges we saw during COVID-19,” says epidemiologist Sandro Galea, dean of Boston University School of Public Health. Galea assisted in the peer review of the committee’s analysis.
3-5-21 Most pro athletes who got COVID-19 didn’t develop heart inflammation
In a study of 789 athletes from major league sports, only five showed signs of damage. Most professional athletes who got COVID-19 didn’t suffer heart damage from it, a new study suggests. Researchers screened 789 players who had tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 infections for signs of myocarditis or pericarditis — inflammation of the heart or its surrounding sac. Only five of those athletes (0.6 percent) had evidence of the inflammatory heart conditions and were restricted from play for at least three months to give their hearts time to heal, researchers report March 4 in JAMA Cardiology. Those results contrast with findings from previous studies of college athletes, which suggested that as many as 15 percent of young athletes may have developed the potentially deadly heart conditions after a coronavirus infection (SN: 9/11/20). Particularly for asymptomatically infected players, “we’re not seeing a lot of cardiac injury as it relates to COVID,” says study coauthor Jonathan Kim, chief of sports cardiology at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. None of the 329 players who were asymptomatic or had very mild symptoms showed signs of heart damage. The five athletes who were held back from play had moderate symptoms of COVID-19, such as dry cough, loss of smell and taste and fatigue. Previous research has shown that myocarditis is a condition that plagues people who have had more serious cases of coronavirus disease. That suggests it is important to consider the severity of COVID-19 symptoms when deciding whether to screen both athletes and non-athletes for heart inflammation, Kim says. All of the student athletes in the earlier study had their hearts examined with magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, regardless of whether the athletes were asymptomatic or had COVID-19 symptoms. The researchers also conducted other tests to identify signs of inflammation. Besides the heart images, most of the college athletes had no other indication of heart inflammation, says Meagan Wasfy, a sports cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston who was not involved in either study. Because the other test results didn’t consistently match the MRI results, “we don’t know the clinical import of those findings.” People’s hearts, especially athletes’ hearts haven’t been widely screened with MRIs to know what’s normal and what is a true indication of heart damage from viral illnesses, she says.
3-5-21 How will zero-covid countries safely reopen their borders?
As the UK approaches a year of lockdowns and social restrictions, there are areas of the world where life is approaching normality. Competent governance and strict border policies mean residents in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Vietnam are currently enjoying relaxed restrictions and little to no community transmission of SARS-CoV-2. The elimination of the coronavirus has been hard-earned. So as vaccine rollouts progress and plans are made for international travel to resume, how will countries with zero or very few covid-19 cases safely reopen their borders? In the short-term, it is unlikely that countries pursuing an elimination approach would be willing to settle for anything less, says Michael Baker at the University of Otago in New Zealand, who devised New Zealand’s elimination strategy. Which makes reopening of borders a tricky proposition. Vietnam, which has a two-week quarantine in place and has seen only 35 covid-19 deaths throughout the pandemic, is unlikely to open its borders anytime soon, says Guy Thwaites at Oxford University’s Clinical Research Unit in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. “The government has zero tolerance for the infection at the moment, and they’ve shown that they can maintain that position,” says Thwaites. The Vietnamese public is largely supportive of the border closures, even despite the heavy blow to the country’s tourism industry, he says. “They look at other countries’ experiences and are not envious of what is happening elsewhere in the world.” “Countries that have eliminated covid-19 will not be able to safely reopen their borders until they have achieved herd immunity through vaccination,” says Zoe Hyde at the University of Western Australia. In Australia, vaccination was expected to be completed by October, but the rollout has been slower than expected.
3-4-21 Coronavirus vaccines may reduce or eliminate symptoms of long covid
Some people with long covid, in which individuals have long-lasting symptoms after a covid-19 infection, are reporting improvements in their health after being vaccinated against the coronavirus. The reports are based on anecdotes and a small, informal survey rather than a scientific study, but the trend might offer clues to what causes the persistent symptoms. For most people, covid-19 is a mild or flu-like illness. However, some people are still ill many months after the infection. Although it is normal for people to take a long time to recover after being seriously ill with a lung infection or after being in intensive care, some of those with long covid had only mild initial symptoms or didn’t even notice their infection. It is unknown what causes the ill health to persist for so long. Symptoms can include fatigue, muscle pains and difficulties concentrating, among many others. Some people with long covid have expressed fears in patient support groups that getting the vaccine will worsen their symptoms, says Gez Medinger, a film-maker who began a YouTube channel about long covid after developing it himself. “People are very anxious about it,” says Medinger. But some individuals have reported online that they have improved after getting the vaccine. So Medinger carried out a survey last month using Facebook groups, which included 473 people with long covid who had received a first dose of vaccine. Most felt “moderately unwell” for the first two days after having the jab, and after two weeks, about half were back to feeling just the same as they did before the vaccine. Some took a significant turn for the worse, with 4 per cent saying they had had a relapse of symptoms. Another 14 per cent said they felt slightly worse than before the vaccine. But 32 per cent said they either felt better or were completely recovered from the illness.
3-4-21 Effects of Finnish evacuation during second world war visible in DNA
The second world war left a major mark on the genetic composition of Finland, researchers have found, though the work may not have included minority ethnic groups. Matti Pirinen at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and his colleagues looked at the genomes of around 18,500 people to study how the genetic composition of 10 populations across 12 geographic regions covering most of Finland changed between 1923 and 1987. “We can really see with an accuracy of one year how the genetic structure has changed in Finland during the last century,” says Pirinen. The team found that urbanisation has caused some changes in the genetics of people in Finland. But the biggest impact, increasing the number of regions each individual could trace their ancestry to, came after the forced movement of people from Finnish Karelia to the rest of the country in 1940, following a peace treaty with the Soviet Union during the second world war. The researchers chose the genomes of 2741 individuals who were born and whose parents were born within the 12 regions to form the basis of the 10 populations they studied. This definition could skew the results, says Eran Elhaik at Lund University in Sweden. “Identifying people who lived closely next to each other as the most homogeneous people raises the question of how these people became so homogeneous,” says Elhaik. “These are likely farmers who have married each other for a very long time. What makes them represent the ancestors of Finns better than any other people in Finland?” The researchers say that their populations probably don’t cover all relevant sources of genetic ancestry, such as minority ethnic groups, because it is likely that only a small number of individuals from these groups were included in the study. Individual data was pseudonymised, meaning it isn’t possible to know for sure, say the researchers, and they note that the study shouldn’t be used to define who is Finnish, in a social, legal or cultural sense.
3-4-21 People of European descent evolved resistance to TB over 10,000 years
Ancient DNA reveals that people of European ancestry have lost a gene variant linked to tuberculosis (TB) susceptibility over centuries. TB is one of the world’s deadliest diseases and is caused by the Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacterium. People whose DNA contains two copies of a genetic variant called P1104A are more likely to develop symptoms of TB after being infected with the bacterium. To trace the frequency of P1104A over time, Gaspard Kerner at the Pasteur Institute in France and his team analysed modern human DNA from around the world and compared it with more than 1000 samples of ancient DNA from Europeans from the past 10,000 years. They found that the variant first appeared in DNA in low numbers around 8500 years ago in western Eurasia. Using simulations and demographic models to date the origins and movements of this variant, the team predicted it may have originated in the same region around 30,000 years ago, long before the existence of TB in Europe. “It may have appeared randomly, like when animals have mutations in their genome,” says Kerner. It then spread across central Europe 5000 years ago, and reached its highest frequency 3000 years ago, with around 10 per cent of the population carrying P1104A. Kerner says it was able to spread without affecting an individual’s susceptibility to TB during that time as many people would only have had one copy of the variant. The frequency of the variant drastically decreased 2000 years ago, around the time modern TB bacteria became common. This may be because it was under strong negative selection from TB, Kerner says, as increasing migration made people more likely to inherit two copies of the variant and therefore become more susceptible to TB. “Individuals carrying this mutation may have died faster than other individuals,” he says. The spread of TB during this time may have been aided by migration increasing populations and bringing new bacteria and diseases to Europe.
3-4-21 DNA databases are too white, so genetics doesn’t help everyone. How do we fix that?
DNA databases need diversity for genetic research to help all people. It’s been two decades since the Human Genome Project first unveiled a rough draft of our genetic instruction book. The promise of that medical moon shot was that doctors would soon be able to look at an individual’s DNA and prescribe the right medicines for that person’s illness or even prevent certain diseases. That promise, known as precision medicine, has yet to be fulfilled in any widespread way. True, researchers are getting clues about some genetic variants linked to certain conditions and some that affect how drugs work in the body. But many of those advances have benefited just one group: people whose ancestral roots stem from Europe. In other words, white people. Instead of a truly human genome that represents everyone, “what we have is essentially a European genome,” says Constance Hilliard, an evolutionary historian at the University of North Texas in Denton. “That data doesn’t work for anybody apart from people of European ancestry.” She’s talking about more than the Human Genome Project’s reference genome. That database is just one of many that researchers are using to develop precision medicine strategies. Often those genetic databases draw on data mainly from white participants. But race isn’t the issue. The problem is that collectively, those data add up to a catalog of genetic variants that don’t represent the full range of human genetic diversity. When people of African, Asian, Native American or Pacific Island ancestry get a DNA test to determine if they inherited a variant that may cause cancer or if a particular drug will work for them, they’re often left with more questions than answers. The results often reveal “variants of uncertain significance,” leaving doctors with too little useful information. This happens less often for people of European descent. That disparity could change if genetics included a more diverse group of participants, researchers agree (SN: 9/17/16, p. 8).
3-4-21 Three visions of the future, inspired by neuroscience’s past and present
The most exciting parts of neuroscience are yet to come. Here’s what we imagine. A century ago, science’s understanding of the brain was primitive, like astronomy before telescopes. Certain brain injuries were known to cause specific problems, like loss of speech or vision, but those findings offered a fuzzy view. Anatomists had identified nerve cells, or neurons, as key components of the brain and nervous system. But nobody knew how these cells collectively manage the brain’s sophisticated control of behavior, memory or emotions. And nobody knew how neurons communicate, or the intricacies of their connections. For that matter, the research field known as neuroscience — the science of the nervous system — did not exist, becoming known as such only in the 1960s. Over the last 100 years, brain scientists have built their telescopes. Powerful tools for peering inward have revealed cellular constellations. It’s likely that over 100 different kinds of brain cells communicate with dozens of distinct chemicals. A single neuron, scientists have discovered, can connect to tens of thousands of other cells. Yet neuroscience, though no longer in its infancy, is far from mature. Today, making sense of the brain’s vexing complexity is harder than ever. Advanced technologies and expanded computing capacity churn out torrents of information. “We have vastly more data … than we ever had before, period,” says Christof Koch, a neuroscientist at the Allen Institute in Seattle. Yet we still don’t have a satisfying explanation of how the brain operates. We may never understand brains in the way we understand rainbows, or black holes, or DNA. Deeper revelations may come from studying the vast arrays of neural connections that move information from one part of the brain to another. Using the latest brain mapping technologies, scientists have begun drawing detailed maps of those neural highways, compiling a comprehensive atlas of the brain’s communication systems, known as the connectome.
3-4-21 Updated coronavirus vaccines can be fast-tracked like flu jabs
New Covid vaccines to fight variants like the one from Brazil can be fast-tracked through the approval system, says the UK's regulator the MHRA. Current vaccines may not work as well against some variants and scientists are working on updating them now. But manufacturers will not need to seek brand new approval or do lengthy clinical studies. However they will need proof that the shots trigger protective antibodies in the blood. The aim is to shorten the process, where possible, so that vaccine approval could happen in weeks and months, not years. A similar fast-track method is already used for annual flu vaccines which regularly need updating to keep up with a virus that is constantly changing by mutating. The MHRA has issued guidance, along with authorities in Australia, Canada, Singapore and Switzerland, on what checks and measures would be necessary. The coalition of regulators - the ACCESS Consortium - insist no corners will be cut, with safety paramount. Data from existing coronavirus vaccine trials and ongoing studies on real world use in the millions of people currently getting immunised could be used to support any decision by regulators. Existing Covid vaccines already in use - such as the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and the Pfizer-BioNTech one - were developed at incredible speed. The process took around 10 months, instead of a decade in normal times. Making small and relatively simple tweaks to these vaccines to make them a better match for new variants should happen even more quickly. Current vaccines were designed around earlier versions of coronavirus, but scientists believe they should still offer some protection against the new variants being seen now. In the UK, public health officials are investigating six cases of the Covid variant first identified in Brazil and are using testing to see if it has spread to more people.
3-4-21 People who have had COVID-19 might need only one shot of a coronavirus vaccine
Their antibody levels were 500 times higher than in people vaccinated but never infected. People who have already had COVID-19 — even if they didn’t show symptoms — may be able to get away with just a single dose of a two-dose coronavirus vaccine, a study of health care workers suggests. Researchers tested for antibodies in the blood of 59 health care workers who got vaccinated with either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. Some of the volunteers had COVID-19 eight to nine months before vaccination. “Their bodies remembered it, no problem,” and reacted very quickly to the vaccine, says Mohammad Sajadi, an infectious disease doctor at the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. After the first vaccine dose, antibody levels quickly shot up in people who previously had COVID-19 either with or without symptoms to more than 500 times the levels seen in people who were never infected. Those results, published March 1 in JAMA, suggest that people who have had COVID-19 could get one shot or be moved to the end of the line for vaccinations. An estimated 9 percent of people in the United States have had confirmed cases of COVID-19. Limiting those people to one dose of vaccine could free up 4 to 5 percent of vaccine doses, Sajadi says. “Immunologically it makes sense,” he says. “With the ongoing pandemic and vaccine shortages, it makes sense, too. The cost of inaction is just too great” not to spare vaccine doses where possible.
3-3-21 The hidden rules that determine which friendships matter to us
Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has found that our friendships are governed by secret rules, based on everything from your sex to your sleep schedule. Our unique social fingerprints help determine who we are drawn to, which friendships last and why some friends are ultimately replaceable. FACEBOOK users used to have a lot more friends. The social networking site pursues a commercial strategy of trying to persuade people to “friend” as many others as possible. However, sometime around 2007, users began to question who all these people they had befriended were. Then, someone pointed out that we can only manage around 150 relationships at any time. A flurry of “friend” culling followed and, since then, the number 150 has been known as “Dunbar’s number”. Thank you Facebook! Modern technology may have brought me notoriety, but Dunbar’s number is rooted in evolutionary biology. Although humans are a highly social species, juggling relationships isn’t easy and, like other primates, the size of our social network is constrained by brain size. Two decades ago, my research revealed that this means we cannot meaningfully engage with more than about 150 others. No matter how gregarious you are, that is your limit. In this, we are all alike. However, more recent research on friendship has uncovered some fascinating individual differences. My colleagues and I have made eye-opening discoveries about how much time people spend cultivating various members of their social networks, how friendships form and dissolve and what we are looking for in our friends. What has really surprised us is that each person has a unique “social fingerprint” – an idiosyncratic way in which they allocate their social effort. This pattern is quite impervious to who is in your friendship circle at any given time. It does, however, reveal quite a lot about your own identity – and could even be influencing how well you are coping with social restrictions during the covid-19 pandemic.
3-3-21 Benefits of microdosing psychedelic drugs may be due to placebo effect
Claims that microdoses of psychedelic drugs like LSD or the active ingredient of magic mushrooms bring mental benefits may be due to the placebo effect. Microdosing is a term for when people regularly take small amounts of drugs such as LSD. Users say it doesn’t get them high, but makes them more creative, sharper or improves their mental health in some way. They may take 10 to 20 per cent of a normal dose, a few times a week. Some trials suggest larger doses of psychedelics can help relieve anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. But microdoses have been tested only in small, placebo-controlled trials, with mixed results. The placebo effect is when people gain physical or mental benefits from medical treatments due to the power of expectation. Because it is hard to get permission for research where people are given illegal drugs, Balázs Szigeti at Imperial College London and his colleagues came up with an unusual trial design. They used internet forums to contact people who were already frequently microdosing at home using LSD, the magic mushroom compound psilocybin or similar drugs, usually bought online. The researchers didn’t analyse the difference in effects based on the drugs participants were using. Participants were sent empty medical capsules in the post that they could open to insert a small piece of drug-impregnated paper. When reclosed, the loaded pills looked the same as empty ones. The 191 volunteers put the drug into some of their capsules, then put them in batches into envelopes printed with QR codes and shuffled the envelopes so they no longer knew which contained the drugs. A third of the participants took only the drug microdoses for four weeks, one third got placebo capsules and another third got half and half. The volunteers shouldn’t have been able to tell from the envelopes what they were taking, but the researchers could find out, by analysing the QR codes at the end of the trial.
3-3-21 How our abuse of nature makes pandemics like covid-19 more likely
From habitat degradation to squalid animal treatment, our part in allowing “zoonotic” diseases like covid-19 to leap into humans is becoming ever clearer. RELEASED from quarantine in a hotel in Wuhan, China, this January, Peter Daszak made for the wildlife market linked to the first cases of a mystery pneumonia in the closing days of 2019. Back then, the Huanan seafood market was a jostling scrum of stalls selling not just seafood, but all manner of domestic and exotic wild animals, the living cheek by jowl with the dead. It is now an empty shell, closed since the first cluster of cases of what morphed into the covid-19 pandemic. Daszak, a zoologist, visited earlier this year as a member of the World Health Organization-backed team sent to investigate the origins of the virus causing that illness, SARS-CoV-2, and assess what role the now-infamous market might have played. No one yet knows, and hypotheses will take years to test. But it is clear that the Huanan outbreak was just a symptom of a sickness, not a cause of it. For two decades, evidence has been building of the link between how we encroach on, degrade and exploit the natural world and the risk of “zoonoses” – animal diseases that spill over into humans. Some of those links are still fuzzy, and there are competing views on how important each is. “It’s big and complex, and there are quite a lot of unknowns,” says Christian Walzer at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York. But we know enough to say one thing: if we don’t act on what we have already learned, the costs to human health and wealth of pandemics such as covid-19 will just keep on recurring. That certainty comes not least because we do now know that a lot of candidate diseases are out there.”The last 15 years has seen a real explosion in the understanding of how many potential pathogens there are,” says Walzer. A UN biodiversity panel report last year estimated that there are 1.7 million undiscovered viruses in animals. Not all will acquire the traits they need to infect us (see “How diseases jump to humans”). But about five new infectious diseases in people are identified every year, and 70 per cent of emerging diseases are caused by microbes of animal origin.
3-3-21 Repeated coronavirus lockdowns are taking a severe toll on children
SCHOOLS have been closed in England for about two months amid a national lockdown, and I have lost count of the number of times my daughter has cried. She is normally cheerful, but throughout this time, she has dissolved into tears most days. She misses her friends and finds Zoom lessons stressful. In England, schools will reopen next week, but that isn’t the case everywhere: in some US states, such as California, schools have been closed for almost a full year. At the start of this pandemic, many parents had a sense of solidarity, even adventure. Now many of us are grumpy and tired, and feel close to burnout. What effect has all this had on our kids? “We need to consider children in all of this, and we’re just not,” says Tamsin Ford at the University of Cambridge. England and Scotland joined Wales and Northern Ireland in the latest UK lockdown on 5 January, with schools in England closing after many children had gone back for one day. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has since announced that schools in England will reopen for all pupils on 8 March. The rest of the UK will have a staggered return to school, depending on age. But schools in some US states look set to remain closed for the foreseeable future and they are currently fully closed in 26 countries. So far, there is little data on how the closures are affecting children. But there is a lot of information about the impact the first lockdown had. On 11 January, Ford and her colleagues published a study of the mental health of 3570 children in England aged from 5 to 16, who have been tracked over several years as part of an even longer-term study. They assessed the children on their emotions, behaviour and relationships, and used that to estimate how many would be classed as having a mental health problem if they were seen by a clinician. The researchers found that the incidence of probable mental health problems rose from 10.8 per cent in 2017 to 16 per cent in July 2020. Many children experienced disrupted sleep and loneliness in July, and they were more likely to have a problem if a parent was in psychological distress. Similar trends have been seen in other countries.
3-3-21 Coronavirus variant names are too confusing - there is a better way
The names given to new coronavirus variants and bacteria can be difficult to use or understand. Using a pre-generated list of names would be better, says Mark Pallen. SOME names for microbes, like Salmonella, trip off the tongue. Others, like Myxococcus llanfairpwllgwyngyll-gogerychwyrndrobwllllantysilio-gogogochensis, aren’t so easy to say. Labels for coronavirus variants fall somewhere between these two extremes, with code names like 20I/501Y.V1, B.1.429 or CAL.20C that allow coronavirus researchers to talk to peers, but leave the rest of us tongue-tied. As a result, most people find it easier to use geographical names, like the South African variant or the Kent variant, which may not be accurate and unfairly places blame on the people in those locations. Can we do better? For naming living things, we tend to use a system created in the 18th century by Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, which gives each species a two-word Latin name. Examples include the name Homo sapiens for humans and Escherichia coli for a common gut bacterium. Use of a dead language nicely brings neutrality and gravitas to the process. But, despite the millions of bacterial species out there, so far only around 20,000 have been given Latin names. This deficit is getting worse thanks to the boom in DNA sequencing, which has revealed thousands of new species in the human gut alone. Faced with the flood of new species, most microbiologists don’t have the time to come up with well-formed Latin names. Instead, they use alphanumerical placeholders such as UBA6965 or sp000063525 that are just as bad as coronavirus code names in terms of usability. So, how are we to cope with the need for new names, whether for bacteria or viruses? Perhaps we can learn from the way storms are named. Authorities agree on a set of arbitrary forenames each year, like Francis, which are dished out in alphabetical order for each new storm.
3-3-21 The hidden rules that determine which friendships matter to us
Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has found that our friendships are governed by secret rules, based on everything from your sex to your sleep schedule. Our unique social fingerprints help determine who we are drawn to, which friendships last and why some friends are ultimately replaceable. FACEBOOK users used to have a lot more friends. The social networking site pursues a commercial strategy of trying to persuade people to “friend” as many others as possible. However, sometime around 2007, users began to question who all these people they had befriended were. Then, someone pointed out that we can only manage around 150 relationships at any time. A flurry of “friend” culling followed and, since then, the number 150 has been known as “Dunbar’s number”. Thank you Facebook! Modern technology may have brought me notoriety, but Dunbar’s number is rooted in evolutionary biology. Although humans are a highly social species, juggling relationships isn’t easy and, like other primates, the size of our social network is constrained by brain size. Two decades ago, my research revealed that this means we cannot meaningfully engage with more than about 150 others. No matter how gregarious you are, that is your limit. In this, we are all alike. However, more recent research on friendship has uncovered some fascinating individual differences. My colleagues and I have made eye-opening discoveries about how much time people spend cultivating various members of their social networks, how friendships form and dissolve and what we are looking for in our friends. What has really surprised us is that each person has a unique “social fingerprint” – an idiosyncratic way in which they allocate their social effort. This pattern is quite impervious to who is in your friendship circle at any given time. It does, however, reveal quite a lot about your own identity – and could even be influencing how well you are coping with social restrictions during the covid-19 pandemic.
3-3-21 Guinea is swiftly vaccinating people to contain latest Ebola outbreak
On 14 February, the government of Guinea declared an Ebola outbreak after three people tested positive in Gouécké, a rural community. As of 2 March, 17 cases have been reported (13 confirmed and four probable) with seven deaths. Guinea’s ministry of health and public hygiene has acted swiftly to set up three nearby vaccination sites, each with the capacity to inoculate 100 people daily – the first time an Ebola vaccine has been deployed in the country. As of 28 February, 1002 people had been vaccinated in Guinea, including 66 high-risk people who had been in contact with suspect cases. “In the coming days, we will be able to vaccinate more people in order to contain this pandemic properly,” says Bachir Kanté, an official at the health ministry. The Ebola virus is more deadly than the coronavirus, but spreads less quickly, providing West Africa with a grace period to control its spread, says Christian Happi at the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases in Ede, Nigeria. “Our collective, quick action is crucial to averting an uncontrolled spread of Ebola,” says Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Africa. Guinea’s last Ebola outbreak, which started in 2014, spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone. By the time it was finally brought under control, it had become the deadliest Ebola outbreak since the virus was first detected in 1976, with about 28,000 cases and 11,000 deaths. The latest Ebola outbreak in Guinea is close to its borders with Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, so neighbouring countries are increasing their preparedness to contain the spread of the outbreak. The Guinean outbreak is happening at the same time as an outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The DRC held about 8000 vaccine doses for emergency use after its last outbreak in 2020, and has already begun to deploy them.
3-3-21 Why many in Russia are reluctant to have Sputnik vaccine
When officials in Sputnik village announced recently that they would be offering Russia's Sputnik V vaccine at the local clinic, just 28 pensioners signed up for a Covid jab. Interest abroad in the Russian vaccine has skyrocketed since data published in the Lancet medical journal showed it to be 91.6% effective against coronavirus, up there with the world's best. That endorsement was a political success, as well as a scientific one, for a prestige project loudly trumpeted by Moscow and openly doubted by many in the West. But while countries from Latin America to Europe are now ordering batches of Sputnik, the rollout in Russia itself has been slow, as people prove deeply reluctant to be injected. "Everyone scared me that it would hurt, but I didn't feel a thing!" an old-aged pensioner exclaimed, tugging his jumper on after a Sputnik jab in Sputnik village. Behind him, a nurse leaned in to shout in another pensioner's ear that he should stay off alcohol for a while after his injection. A couple of hours' drive from Moscow, Sputnik village has a cattle farm, a few identical apartment blocks and no indication at all why it was named after a triumph of the Soviet space race. The cosmic link to the vaccine is clearer. "The Sputnik satellite [in 1957] was a breakthrough and this vaccine is one too!" village official Galina Bordadymova laughed, fur-coated but gloveless in the bitterly cold street. "We planned for 25 people to come but we got 28, so we're pleased," she insisted, dismissing the suggestion that interest was worryingly low in a population of over 1,000, given the high risk of Covid-19. Her team had called around older residents, prioritising those most vulnerable to the virus. "Anyone who wanted the vaccine could get it," Ms Bordadymova said. Western commentators were initially dismissive, even scornful, of Sputnik V as officials made bold claims on what was then scant evidence. Data from Phase III trials has since shown the vaccine to be effective, with side-effects similar to jabs made in Europe and the US, and interest abroad has surged. "Even our critics have run out of arguments," Kirill Dmitriev said last month, the head of the RDIF state investment fund that's backing Sputnik.
3-2-21 Lab-grown meat now mimics muscle fibres like those found in steak
Artificial steak is a step closer. Researchers have created a small sample of cultured meat that mimics real muscle, which is key to creating large pieces of meat with a realistic structure, rather than just mince. Many researchers are working to develop lab-grown meat, partly to reduce the environmental impact of meat production, and partly because of ethical concerns about the treatment of livestock. While some substitutes use plant-based materials to mimic meat, others aim to grow animal cells in culture to create true artificial meat. So far, this kind of artificial meat doesn’t match the structure of the real thing. It is missing the complex layers of muscle, fat and sinew. The result is mince that can be used to make burgers, like the one famously cooked at a press conference in 2013. Now, researchers are attempting to make something that mimics a steak or chop. A team led by Shoji Takeuchi at the University of Tokyo in Japan has found a new way to grow cow muscle cells in culture. The cells arrange themselves into long strands, resembling real muscle fibres. “We have developed steak meat with highly aligned muscle fibres that are arranged in one direction,” says Takeuchi. When the cultured cells were stimulated with electricity, the strands contracted, mimicking the way muscle fibres contract. That suggests the texture will be similar to that of beef, hopefully meaning people will be more willing to eat it. The next step will be to grow larger chunks. The pieces produced so far weigh a few grams, and Takeuchi wants to get that up to 100g. “We will also introduce other tissues such as fat and blood vessels to make the meat more realistic,” he says. Nobody has tried eating the new cultured meat. “We are in the process of consulting with the university’s ethics committee in order to eat and evaluate the products,” says Takeuchi. The lab is collaborating with Nissin Foods, a Japanese company that makes instant ramen, to bring the cultured meat to market.
3-2-21 ‘Little Foot’ hominin was either ill or very hungry in her childhood
A famous member of an extinct human group went through hard times early in her life. The fossil, known as Little Foot, has telltale signs in her teeth that suggest she was either deprived of food or seriously ill during her childhood. Analysis of the fossil also revealed blood vessels in the skull, which could help us better understand the evolution of human brains. Little Foot lived about 3.67 million years ago in what is now South Africa. She was an ape-like hominin with a much smaller brain than modern humans. She belonged to the genus Australopithecus, but there is disagreement about her exact species. Little Foot was old when she died, and her remains were found with those of a baboon, suggesting she died in a fight. To find out more details of Little Foot’s biology, Amélie Beaudet at the University of Cambridge and her colleagues scanned the fossil’s skull using the X-ray synchrotron at the Diamond Light Source in the UK. This allowed them to see details as small as 3 micrometres, compared with 100 micrometres in a CT scanner. “In the teeth, we can see some defects, like lines or grooves,” says Beaudet. “It means at some point the enamel could not form properly.” This must have happened during childhood when Little Foot’s body was still developing. There are several possible explanations, says Beaudet. One is that Little Foot’s environment changed, perhaps because the climate shifted, and, as a result, she found herself short of food. “We know that the environment was not always stable,” says Beaudet. But it is also possible that Little Foot was ill, perhaps due to an infection. “We cannot say it was because of a food shortage, or because she was sick, or something else,” says Beaudet. The team was also able to see tiny blood vessels in the bones of the skull and lower jaw. Beaudet says it was a “big surprise” that the fossil was preserved well enough to see such details.
3-2-21 Human origins: 'Little Foot' fossil's big journey out of Africa
A priceless fossil was briefly brought to a UK research centre in complete secrecy two years ago, in an operation that had more than a touch of the spy novel about it. The specimen was transported across South Africa with an armed guard, treated like an incognito VIP on an international flight, and then whisked slickly to the Diamond X-ray Light Source just south of Oxford. It was at the British research facility that scientists were able to see some microscopic details in the ancient remains that could help unravel key clues to the origins of modern humans. Details of the operation have been made public only now, as the first results from the X-ray investigations have been shared with the wider research community. "It was immensely nerve-wracking," palaeoanthropologist Dominic Stratford recalls of the cloak-and-dagger mission, the first time any part of a prehistoric individual has been allowed out of South Africa. Not only are the remains beyond value, after three million or more years embedded in sediments in the floor of a South African cave, they are immensely fragile. What Prof Stratford had transported was the skull of "Little Foot", the most complete Australopithecine fossil ever recovered. And given the Australopithecines' position on the evolutionary road to modern humans, this makes Little Foot extra special. Accompanying Prof Stratford and the skull was Ronald Clarke, the Witwatersrand University professor who led Little Foot's more-than-20-year excavation from the Sterkfontein Caves just outside Johannesburg. Also in the party was Dr Amélie Beaudet, keen to use Diamond's powerful X-rays to peer inside the delicate object while doing no damage. "With the X-rays, we found we could see tiny structures like the vasculature system, where there had been blood vessels inside Little Foot's bones, which normally would require physically slicing up a specimen," she told BBC News. Prof Ian Tattersall, curator emeritus of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, is bowled over by the details revealed in the first scholarly paper to come out of the Diamond study. "It is wonderful to have confirmation that micromorphology at this resolution can be recovered from a hominid this old," he said.
3-2-21 Predatory octopuses were drilling into clamshells at least 75 million years ago
Tiny holes in ancient clams push the known date of this behavior back millions of years. Tiny holes in three fossil clams reveal that by 75 million years ago, ancient octopuses were deviously drilling into their prey. The find pushes evidence of this behavior back 25 million years, scientists report February 22 in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. The clams, Nymphalucina occidentalis, once lived in what is now South Dakota, where an inland sea divided western and eastern North America. While examining the shells, now at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, paleontologists Adiël Klompmaker of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and AMNH’s Neil Landman spotted telltale oval-shaped holes. Each hole was between 0.5 and 1 millimeters in diameter, thinner than a strand of spaghetti. A modern octopus uses a sharp ribbon of teeth called a radula on its tongue to drill a hole into thick-shelled prey — useful for when the shell is too tough for the octopus to pop apart with its suckers. The octopus then injects venom into the hole, paralyzing the prey and dissolving it a bit, which makes for easier eating. Octopus-drilled holes were previously found in shells dating to 50 million years ago, but the new find suggests this drilling habit evolved a quarter million years earlier in their history. Such drill holes augment the scant fossil record of octopus evolution. The soft bodies of the clever, eight-armed Einsteins don’t lend themselves well to fossilization, tending instead to decay away (SN: 8/12/15). What fossils do exist — a handful of specimens dating to about 95 million years ago — suggest little change in the basic body plan from ancient to modern octopuses. The find also puts the evolution of octopus drilling squarely within the Mesozoic Marine Revolution, an escalation in the ancient arms race between ocean predators and prey (SN: 6/15/17). During the Mesozoic Era, which spanned 251 million to 66 million years ago, predators lurking near the seafloor became adept at crushing or boring holes into the shells of their prey.
3-1-21 Conversations go on too long because people are too polite to end them
Conversations often end later than people would like – and sometimes too early – because people mask how they really feel about the ongoing dialogue, according to a study in the US. This leaves all partners in a conversation unsure of whether to stop talking. “People feel like it’s a social rupture to say: ‘I’m ready to go’, or to say: ‘I want to keep going although I feel like you don’t want to keep going’,” says Adam M. Mastroianni at Harvard University. “Because of that, we’re pretty skilled at not broadcasting that information.” Mastroianni remembers attending a black-tie event and wondering how many people at the party were engaged in conversations that they really wanted to end. So, he and his colleagues later surveyed more than 800 people – 367 women and 439 men, three-quarters of whom were white – randomly recruited from a crowdsourcing marketplace website. Participants responded to questions about recent conversations they had had with a friend or family member, including how they felt about the conversation’s length and how it ended. The researchers also recruited more than 250 students and non-students pooled from volunteers available for studies in the Harvard University psychology department. The group, slightly under half of whom were white, included 157 women, 92 men, and three people of unspecified gender. These people participated in one-on-one conversations with another participant, who they didn’t already know, in the laboratory. Mastroianni’s team recorded each conversation and asked the two participants to talk about anything they liked for at least a minute. When the conversation had ended, both study participants could leave the room, where they were each – separately – quizzed about the conversation. If the conversation lasted 45 minutes, someone stepped into the room to end it. The conversations rarely ended when people wanted them to – whether it was one participant or both participants who wanted to stop, says Mastroianni. In fact, on average, the length of the conversations were off by about 50 per cent compared with how long people would have liked them to last.
3-1-21 Neanderthal ears were tuned to hear speech just like modern humans
Virtual reconstructions of Neanderthal ears show that our extinct cousins had the same physical capacity for hearing as modern humans, and by inference could also make the same sounds we can – although whether they actually spoke a language is still unknown. “We don’t know if they had a language, but at least they had all the anatomical parts needed to have the kind of speech that we have,” says Mercedes Conde-Valverde at the University of Alcalá in Spain. “It’s not that they had the same language, not English, not Spanish, nothing like this. But if we could hear them, we would recognise that they were humans.” Conde-Valverde and her colleagues used medical imaging software to create virtual reconstructions of Neanderthal external and middle ear cavities, based on CT scans of their skulls. With these models, they could determine the range of sounds that Neanderthals could hear, and thus probably produce as speech. This technique has previously been used to study speech and hearing in other ancient humans and chimps. The team also did the same for a group of fossils known as the Sima de los Huesos hominins that are thought to be the immediate ancestors of Neanderthals. The results showed that, unlike these ancestors, Neanderthals had the same capacity for hearing as modern humans. Neanderthal hearing was optimised towards production of consonants that often appear in modern human languages, such as “s”, “k”, “t” and “th”, in the same way our hearing is, says Conde-Valverde. While we don’t know if this means they had the mental capacity for language development, Conde-Valverde says that recent archaeological evidence, including stone tool use, jewellery making and art hint towards complex behaviour in Neanderthals that could indicate language ability.
3-1-21 Most life on Earth will be killed by lack of oxygen in a billion years
One billion years from now, Earth’s atmosphere will contain very little oxygen, making it uninhabitable for complex aerobic life. Today, oxygen makes up around 21 per cent of Earth’s atmosphere. Its oxygen-rich nature is ideal for large and complex organisms, like humans, that require the gas to survive. But early in Earth’s history, oxygen levels were much lower – and they are likely to be low again in the distant future. Kazumi Ozaki at Toho University in Funabashi, Japan, and Chris Reinhard at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta modelled Earth’s climatic, biological and geological systems to predict how atmospheric conditions on Earth will change. The researchers say that Earth’s atmosphere will maintain high levels of oxygen for the next billion years before dramatically returning to low levels reminiscent of those that existed prior to what is known as the Great Oxidation Event of about 2.4 billion years ago. “We find that the Earth’s oxygenated atmosphere will not be a permanent feature,” says Ozaki. One central reason for the shift is that, as our sun ages, it will become hotter and release more energy. The researchers calculate that this will lead to a decrease in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as CO2 absorbs heat and then breaks down. Ozaki and Reinhard estimate that in a billion years, carbon dioxide levels will become so low that photosynthesising organisms – including plants – will be unable to survive and produce oxygen. The mass extinction of these photosynthetic organisms will be the primary cause of the huge reduction in oxygen. “The drop in oxygen is very, very extreme – we’re talking around a million times less oxygen than there is today,” says Reinhard. The researchers also estimate there will be a coinciding increase in methane to levels as high as 10,000 times the amount in the atmosphere today.
3-1-21 A music therapist seeks to tap into long-lost memories
Music can change emotions in people with dementia, even if they don’t remember hearing it. The upbeat song Sweet Caroline often prompts listeners to sing and dance. But when music therapist Alaine Reschke-Hernández played the song for an older person, the song evoked a sad memory and tears. That patient’s surprising reaction highlights how music, and the memories that come with it, can influence emotions, even years later. Strategically using music can improve well-being, particularly for older people, says Reschke-Hernández, of the University of Kentucky in Lexington. “Music is so connected and integrated with so many different elements of our life,” she says. From joyful celebrations to solemn ceremonies, music is part of meaningful events throughout life and becomes strongly associated with memory. In her own practice, Reschke-Hernández has seen the benefits of music therapy. But she wanted to see how far those benefits might go. She partnered with neuroscientists to find out if tapping into music-associated memories could positively influence the emotions of people with dementia. Because memories are so personal, music that evokes happiness in some may not do so in others. For this reason, the researchers asked participants — including 19 healthy older adults and 20 people with Alzheimer’s disease — to choose songs that evoked either sadness or happiness. After listening to the self-selected music, participants rated how they felt and stated whether they remembered listening to music. Both positive and negative emotions lingered for up to 20 minutes in both healthy adults and in participants with Alzheimer’s disease, whether they remembered listening to music or not, the team reported in November in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
3-1-21 ‘Gory Details’ dives into the morbid, the taboo — and our minds
In her first book, Erika Engelhaupt discusses eating insects for the first time, cannibalism and more. We tend to turn away, physically or metaphorically, from things we find unsavory: leggy insects, bodily fluids, conversations about death. But just because something is disgusting, morbid or taboo shouldn’t keep us from learning about it — and could even be a cue that we should, posits science journalist Erika Engelhaupt. In Gory Details, Engelhaupt takes on a range of such topics, everything from which mammals are most likely to murder members of their own species and the spotty history of research on female genitalia to how fecal transplants work and the psychology of why we find clowns creepy. She often uses science, history or both to break down what gives a particular topic its taboo or ick status. How else are you going to stop chills from running up your spine while reading about a woman who pulled 14 tiny worms out of her eye other than by learning the story of parasitic survival that landed them there? Regular Science News readers might recognize Engelhaupt’s name: She was an editor at the magazine from 2009 to 2014. While here, Gory Details was born as a blog and later moved to National Geographic. The book includes updated and expanded versions of some blog posts, as well as plenty of new material. Science News caught up with Engelhaupt to talk about the book. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity. Yes. At some point, people are expected to grow up and not be interested in gross things anymore, and I reject that. I think actually we all are interested in a wide variety of gross things. It’s a matter of how you frame it. We may love watching murder mysteries and true crime and CSI-type shows. We don’t necessarily think of ourselves as being morbid because of it. But when it comes to things like biology, anatomy and subjects that are taboo involving sex or death, we hold ourselves to a different standard. I want people to read this book and walk away feeling like, you know what? It’s OK to be curious about things that we have considered off-limits for polite conversation.
3-1-21 An ancient dog fossil helps trace humans’ path into the Americas
A roughly 10,000-year-old bone found in southern Alaska is among the Americas’ oldest dog fossils. An ancient bone from a dog, discovered in a cave in southeast Alaska, hints at when and how humans entered the Americas at the end of the Ice Age. The bone, just the fragment of a femur, comes from a dog that lived about 10,150 years ago, based on radiocarbon dating. That makes this dog fossil one of the oldest, or possibly the oldest, found in the Americas, researchers report in the Feb. 24 Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Analysis of DNA from the bone, roughly the same age as three other dogs dating to around the same time period previously found buried in the Midwest (SN: 4/16/18), suggests that the dog belonged to a lineage of dogs that split from Siberian dogs around 16,700 years ago. The timing of that split suggests that the dog’s ancestors, probably following along with humans, had left Asia by around that time. “Dogs’ movement and domestication is obviously very, very closely associated with humans. So the interesting thing is, if you’re following dogs’ movement, it can tell you something about humans as well,” says Charlotte Lindqvist, an evolutionary biologist at the University at Buffalo in New York. The new finding also adds to an ongoing debate about what route humans took after arriving in North America via a land bridge in Alaska. One long-held idea is that these first colonizers traveled inland through an ice-free corridor (SN: 8/8/18). But around 16,700 years ago, that corridor would have been covered in ice. Thus, the existence of this ancient dog supports an alternative idea — that these colonizers hugged the Pacific coast as they moved south, possibly traveling by boat. The bit of bone, smaller than a dime, was originally thought to be from a bear. But when Lindqvist and colleagues analyzed DNA from the bone, it turned out to be canine. Comparing the DNA with that from wolves, ancient dogs and modern dog breeds allowed the team to estimate when the dog last shared an ancestor with dogs from Siberia.