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42 Evolution News Articles
for May 2021
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5-14-21 Early signs of Parkinson’s disease could be spotted in the nose
Signs of Parkinson’s disease could be detected in the nose years before people develop more obvious symptoms of the condition. The finding could lead to the development of a nasal swab test for the disorder, similar to ones used for coronavirus testing, and may shed light on its causes, says Werner Poewe at the Medical University of Innsbruck in Austria. Parkinson’s disease is a condition involving tremors and difficulties in moving that usually starts in later life. It is caused by the death of brain cells that make a signalling molecule called dopamine. These cells die because of the build-up of a faulty version of a protein called synuclein. When some molecules of synuclein become wrongly folded, this spreads to others, like a row of dominoes toppling. In the past few years there has been growing evidence that, in some cases, synuclein starts becoming misfolded in the gut and this spreads up to the brain through long nerve fibres. But a nasal origin has also been suspected, because many people with Parkinson’s disease have a reduced sense of smell, which often begins years before their movement problems. Poewe’s team looked for misfolded synuclein in the noses of 63 people who had another early sign of Parkinson’s, a sleep disorder where people start acting out their dreams, which is caused by the loss of the usual brain mechanism that keeps us motionless during sleep. The researchers took samples of the cells at the top of people’s nasal cavities with a swab. They found that 44 per cent of people with the sleep disorder had misfolded synuclein in their noses. This compared with 46 per cent in another group of 41 people with confirmed Parkinson’s disease and 10 per cent of 59 people of a similar age who didn’t have the condition. Those who tested positive in this latter group could also be in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, says Poewe.

5-14-21 Pigs can breathe oxygen via their rectum, so humans probably can too
Piping an oxygen-rich liquid through the anus could be a life-saver. A new treatment for failing lungs that involves such a process has been successfully tested in pigs. People with low blood oxygen levels may be treated in intensive care by being put on a ventilator, which blows air into their lungs. But this usually requires sedation and can injure delicate lung tissue. “It can be really damaging,” says Takanori Takebe at the Tokyo Medical and Dental University. Takebe wondered if people could absorb oxygen through their intestines, which happens in some freshwater fish. In mammals, the rectum is lined with a thin membrane that allows absorption of certain compounds into the bloodstream, and doctors already exploit this by giving some medicines as suppositories. Takebe’s team tested the idea on pigs by giving them enemas of a type of fluid called a perfluorocarbon, which can hold high levels of oxygen. Such fluids have been investigated as a way of breathing liquid, and are already used to help protect the lungs of premature babies, so are likely to be non-toxic when used in this novel way, says Takebe. The researchers anaesthetised four pigs and put them on a ventilator that gave them a lower breathing rate than normal, so their blood oxygen levels fell. When they gave two of the pigs enemas of the oxygenated fluid, replaced once an hour, their blood oxygen levels rose significantly after each infusion. The same effect happened when the fluid was delivered by a tube surgically inserted into the rectums of the other two pigs. If there is a similar-sized effect in people, it would be enough to provide a medical benefit, says Takebe. He thinks the approach could be especially useful in low-income countries that have fewer intensive care facilities. “Ventilators are super-expensive and need a number of medical staff to manage,” he says. “This is just a simple enema.”

5-14-21 Depression and inflammation appear to be linked – but it's unclear why
People with depression have higher levels of inflammation in their bodies than those without, but it is unclear whether this is due to genes that indicate a predisposition for depression, or because depression can lead to behaviours that trigger inflammation. Cathryn Lewis at King’s College London and her colleagues used data from the UK Biobank, which holds medical and genetic information on half a million people, to investigate this link. They compared 26,894 people who had been diagnosed with major depressive disorder to 59,001 people with no previous history of depression. The team analysed blood samples, genetic data and responses to physical and mental health questionnaires, and found that the people who had been diagnosed with depression had higher levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) in their blood, a marker for inflammation in the body. This was true even for some participants who were not actively depressed when their blood samples were taken, though not all. On average, people in the depressed group had CRP levels of 2.4 milligrams per litre compared with 2.1 mg/L in the non-depressed group, while 21.2 per cent of people with depression had CRP levels greater than 3 mg/L, compared with 16.8 per cent of in the non-depressed group. “There are many people with higher levels of inflammation who have not been diagnosed with depression, but there’s clearly an association there,” says Lewis. The team also looked at body mass index (BMI), smoking, alcohol consumption, and other lifestyle habits and found that these factors only partially contributed to increased inflammation, suggesting another factor, possibly genetic, at work. Identifying such a link is difficult because there are many genetic influences on depression. “We’ve made great progress in identifying the genetic component of depression and many other disorders,” says Lewis. “We’re not just looking at a single gene or a single genetic variant, but we’re looking at hundreds or thousands of genetic variants across the genome.”

5-13-21 58-million-year-old footprints show when mammals began paddling in sea
An extensive set of fossilised footprints shows that prehistoric large mammals were gathering by the sea millions of years earlier than we thought. Anton Wroblewski at the University of Utah and Bonnie Gulas-Wroblewski at the Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute photographed and examined the footprint site, which Wroblewski first stumbled upon in 2019 while mapping rocks that formed on an ancient coastline that now lies in Wyoming. Plant fossils in the layers above where the tracks were found indicate that the footprints are about 58 million years old, making them the earliest direct evidence of mammals using marine environments. For instance, the earliest evidence of marine-dwelling whales comes from rocks that formed 9.4 million years later. Fossilised mammal footprints that date back to 58 million years ago or earlier are very rare: the new discovery is just the fourth site worldwide where they have been found, and the first in which the prints have been found near a former coastline. “The other track sites have a few dozen footprints. This one actually has thousands of footprints, so it provides really important insight into how these animals were moving, what they were doing,” says Wroblewski. The pair recorded footprints in four layers of sediment that each represents a different time when the tracks were made in the environment. At the time the area was a coastal delta. “We don’t know how much time is represented by these layers, but it’s almost certainly thousands to tens of thousands of years,” says Wroblewski. “So, these four layers of rock tell us that these animals didn’t just come into the marine environment once. They did it many, many times over tens of thousands of years. And that’s why we think this was a habit of theirs – this is something they were doing regularly.”

5-13-21 Brain implants turn imagined handwriting into text on a screen
A person paralyzed from the neck down communicated using the brain-to-text technology. Electrodes in a paralyzed man’s brain turned his imagined handwriting into words typed on a screen. The translation from brain to text may ultimately point to ways to help people with disabilities like paralysis communicate using just their thoughts. A 65-year-old man had two grids of tiny electrodes implanted on the surface of his brain. The electrodes read electrical activity in the part of the brain that controls hand and finger movements. Although the man was paralyzed from the neck down, he imagined writing letters softly with his hand. With an algorithm, researchers then figured out the neural patterns that went with each imagined letter and transformed those patterns into text on a screen. From his brain activity alone, the participant produced 90 characters, or 15 words, per minute, Krishna Shenoy, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Stanford University, and colleagues report May 12 in Nature. That’s about as fast as the average typing rate of people around the participant’s age on smartphones. The thought-to-text system worked even long after the injury. “The big surprise is that even years and years after spinal cord injury, where you haven’t been able to use your hands or fingers, we can still listen in on that electrical activity. It’s still very active,” Shenoy says. Thought-powered communication is still in its early stages (SN: 4/24/19). Research with more volunteers is needed, but “there’s little doubt that this will work again in other people,” says Shenoy. The researchers plan to test the system with a person who has lost both the ability to move and speak.

5-12-21 AI lets man with paralysis type by just thinking about handwriting
An artificial neural network can interpret signals from the brain of a person who is imagining that they are writing with a pen, and convert them into text. The device converts words accurately at 90 characters per minute, more than twice the previous record for typing with a head- or eye-tracking system. These trackers allow people to move a mouse cursor and slowly type messages, but Jaimie Henderson at Stanford University in California says they are all-consuming for the operator. “If you’re using eye tracking to work with a computer then your eyes are tied to whatever you’re doing,” he says. “You can’t look up or look around or do something else. Having that additional input channel could be really important.” To solve this problem, he and his colleagues implanted two small arrays of sensors just under the surface of the brain of a 65-year-old man who has a spinal cord injury that left him paralysed below the neck since 2007. Each sensor array was able to detect signals from around 100 neurons – a fraction of the estimated 100 billion neurons in the human brain. As the man imagined writing letters and words on a piece of paper, the signals were fed to an artificial neural network. Team member Krishna Shenoy, also at Stanford University, says that the sensors don’t target exact neurons because many thousands or millions may be involved in hand movement, but with the two arrays monitoring around 200 neurons there are enough clues within the data for the artificial neural network to build up a reliable interpreter of brain signals. Often a neural network is trained with several thousand pieces of example data, which in this case would be a recording of a brain signal while writing a certain letter. That works fine when large data sets already exist or are provided by automated systems, but in this case generating an archive that large wasn’t practical because the man would have had to think about writing thousands of letters. Instead, the team took examples of signals from the man’s brain while writing certain letters and generated additional copies with random noise added to build a synthetic data set.

5-12-21 David Eagleman interview: How our brains could create whole new senses
Neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to remodel itself, enables us to interpret all kinds of sensations. We can use that to create new ways to perceive the world, says neuroscientist David Eagleman. WOULD you like to be hooked up to a device that lets you detect magnetic fields like a bird? How about sensing infrared light like a snake? Perhaps a feed of real-time stock market data into your mind is more your sort of thing. According to David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University in California, it will soon be possible to make all this a reality. He has already created technologies along these lines, including a wristwatch-like device called Buzz that translates sound into patterns of vibration on the skin. Interpreting those vibrations effectively gives deaf people who use it a new kind of hearing. The inspiration for these ideas grew out of Eagleman’s study of neuroplasticity, the brain’s incredible ability to reforge itself in response to new experiences. In his latest book, Livewired: The inside story of the ever-changing brain, he examines just how the brain pulls off such wholesale changes and explores the extent to which we can harness this ability to learn new tricks. Eagleman says neuroscientists still have a lot to learn about how the brain changes. Much of the focus has been on synapses, the connections between brain cells called neurons. But there are deeper and more mysterious ways in which the brain is changing all the time, he says, and we are guilty of overlooking them. As we learn more about the brain and begin to enhance it with new technology, we might gain some intriguing new abilities. David Eagleman: When you learn that my name is David Eagleman there are physical changes in the structure of your brain. That’s what lets you remember who I am. We often say the brain has plasticity, meaning it can be moulded like plastic. But I feel the term plasticity isn’t big enough to capture the way that the whole system is moving. Instead, I use the term “livewired” to represent that you have billions of neurons reconfiguring their circuitry every second. The connections between them are changing their strength and unplugging and re-plugging in elsewhere.

5-12-21 Covid-19 booster shots: Will we need them and how would they work?
AS THE UK and some other wealthy countries edge towards a fully vaccinated adult population, a new question is being asked: will people need booster vaccines against covid-19? The answer depends on three unknowns: how quickly immunity fades, whether current vaccines protect against existing and future coronavirus variants, and whether booster shots actually work. There are also issues of vaccine nationalism and equity to consider (see “Boost or bust?”). Booster vaccines are routinely used for some infectious diseases, either to top up immunity or to update it for new virus variants. Tetanus boosters, for example, are recommended every 10 years to renew waning immunity, and annual flu shots are designed to protect against that season’s variants. Israel is ahead of the curve. The country has already vaccinated more than 80 per cent of over-16s and announced last month that it would run a booster campaign in October. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised address that Israel had secured 16 million extra doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines to immunise its under-16s and boost everybody else. Other countries whose immunisation programmes are progressing well are more circumspect. The UK is on course to have offered a first vaccine dose to its adult population by the end of July, and is now weighing up an autumn booster campaign. “We haven’t made any decisions on this yet,” says Anthony Harnden at the University of Oxford, deputy chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which advises UK health departments. The UK has ordered a further 60 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in preparation for a possible booster campaign but “we can’t make the decision until we’ve seen all the evidence”, says Harnden. It is possible that the JCVI will recommend a booster for the vulnerable groups that were first in line for a vaccine in the UK, he says. The JCVI will announce its decision as soon as it is made.

5-12-21 Premature ageing of the immune system may be one cause of long covid
PEOPLE who survive severe covid-19 appear to end up with a prematurely-aged immune system and other persistent immunological problems, which may be the underlying cause of long covid. The immune response to acute covid-19 is now well understood, but the longer-term effects are only just coming to light. The preliminary results from three studies looking into these long-term effects were reported last month at a virtual conference hosted by the UK Coronavirus Immunology Consortium and the British Society for Immunology. Together they suggest that the immune system gets a nasty hangover from the virus, but that it may be reversible. In one study, Niharika Duggal at the University of Birmingham, UK, and her colleagues studied the immune systems of 46 people who had been hospitalised with severe covid-19. Three months after discharge, a significant number showed signs of premature immunosenescence: an age-related decline in the ability to mount an immune response. “We have seen a number of different features of accelerated immune ageing,” says Duggal. This included a loss of naive B- and T-cells, which are immature immune cells that have yet to be called into action against a pathogen. Duggal says they also saw another sign of immune ageing: accumulation of memory B- and T-cells, which remain in circulation after an infection, ready to respond to reinfection. Additionally, there was also an excess of senescent T-cells, which can secrete damaging chemicals, driving inflammation that may underlie many age-related diseases. The subjects were aged between 30 and 68. Their immune systems were compared with a similar group who hadn’t had covid-19. Immunosenescence usually starts around age 60, but the survivors under 60 showed signs of it, says Duggal. This fits with what we already know about premature immune ageing. Earlier studies have shown that traumatic injuries and chronic diseases can age the immune system prematurely. This is the first study to suggest that a viral infection can do so too.

5-12-21 Isotope study hints ancient Greeks used foreign fighters in key battle
The ancient Greeks relied on help from non-Greek mercenaries when it came to fighting their enemies, suggests an analysis of bodies in 2500-year-old mass graves. The western Mediterranean witnessed several conflicts between about 2600 and 2300 years ago as a number of Greek-led city-states – including Syracuse on the island of Sicily – fought against the Carthaginians, whose base of power lay in what is now Tunisia. The Sicilian wars were documented by contemporary writers, including Herodotus in his book The Histories. But given that Herodotus was Greek, it is possible that his accounts of the conflicts may have been biased to paint the Greek fighters in a favourable light. In particular, Herodotus suggests that in 480 BC, during the first Battle of Himera, local soldiers received aid from other Greek allies and successfully defeated the Carthaginians. But during a second battle in 409 BC, the local soldiers went unaided and the city of Himera fell to the Carthaginians. Following the recent discovery of eight mass graves associated with the Battles of Himera, it is now possible to explore whether Herodotus’s account was faithful or not. Katherine Reinberger at the University of Georgia and her colleagues analysed strontium and oxygen isotopes from the tooth enamel of 62 individuals from the mass graves, which can reveal whether someone was born and raised locally or not. The team’s analysis revealed that some historical claims could be validated – there were two battles, about two thirds of the Himeran forces in the first conflict weren’t local while only a quarter in the second battle weren’t from there, and Greek soldiers from outside of the city did fight alongside local Himerans. But the contemporary accounts weren’t entirely accurate: the isotope evidence suggests that many of the non-local soldiers weren’t actually Greek, but came from across the Mediterranean.

5-12-21 s the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, we answer 7 lingering vaccine questions
With vaccine supply outstripping demand, those yet to get a jab may still be seeking answers. It’s now open season for COVID-19 vaccines across the United States. After months of having to scramble to find a shot, the tables have turned and most people who want one can get one. Everyone 16 years and older is eligible for a vaccine, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on May 10 extended emergency use authorization for Pfizer’s jab to those aged 12 to 15 years old (SN: 5/10/21). So far, nearly 60 percent of adults 18 years and older — or around 150 million people — have gotten at least one dose as of May 10. President Joe Biden has set a goal of 70 percent of adults, or around 180 million, getting at least one dose by July 4, and 160 million adults being fully vaccinated — at least two weeks beyond their last shot — by that date. But with supply beginning to outstrip demand in many parts of the country, that goal could be difficult to reach. Local officials already are launching innovative ways to reach people who are hesitant to get the shot, from going door-to-door to address people’s concerns to promising a free beer or baseball game ticket with each jab. How many people get the shots will influence when life in the United States might approach something resembling a pre-pandemic normal. Computer simulations showed that if up to 75 percent of eligible people are on track to get vaccinated by September, there could be a sharp drop in cases of COVID-19 even earlier, by July, researchers report May 5 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. That decline may happen even as health officials loosen some public health guidelines, the simulations showed. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already revised mask-wearing recommendations for people who are fully vaccinated. And on May 9, Anthony Fauci, Biden’s top medical adviser for the pandemic, suggested during an interview on ABC’s “This Week” that as vaccinations rise and daily new cases drop, requirements for wearing masks indoors could ease. “We are not out of the woods yet,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a news conference on May 5. “But we could be very close.”

5-12-21 Small bribes may help people build healthy handwashing habits
An experiment sheds light on how to deliberately transform behaviors into ingrained routines. Good habits are hard to adopt. But a little bribery can go a long way. That’s the finding from an experiment in India that used rewards to get villagers hooked on routine handwashing. While tying rewards to desired behaviors has long been a staple of habit formation, handwashing has proven difficult to stick. The rewards worked. “If you bribe kids, handwashing rates shoot up,” says developmental economist Reshmaan Hussam of Harvard Business School. And even just making handwashing a pleasant, easy activity improved health: Children in households with thoughtfully designed soap dispensers experienced fewer illnesses than children in households without those tools, Hussam and colleagues report in a paper to appear in American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. Significantly, good habits lingered even after researchers stopped giving out rewards. “The fact that they found persistence suggests to me that participants did form habits,” says Jen Labrecque, a social psychologist at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater who was not involved with the research. The study involved 2,943 households in 105 villages in the state of West Bengal between August 2015 and March 2017. All participants had access to soap and water. Nearly 80 percent said they knew soap killed germs, but initially only 14 percent reported using soap before eating. To objectively assess habits, Hussam’s team devised a way to monitor handwashing in the absence of observers — whose presence typically makes people behave better. In collaboration with the MIT Media Lab, the team built a soap dispenser with a hidden sensor that recorded whenever somebody used it. They then educated families on how to build good handwashing habits, such as establishing a trigger (dinner time) and a routine (handwashing right before meals). They also made the handwashing experience as simple and enjoyable as possible, such as by using scented soap and mounting the sensors where children could easily reach them. Researchers visited households every two weeks to collect data on children’s health and refill the dispensers.

5-12-21 Cerne Abbas Giant may have been carved into hill over 1000 years ago
A mysterious chalk carving of a huge, naked man on an English hillside was made in the 10th century, according to the first attempt to archaeologically date the giant. The finding is unexpected because the earliest mentions of the Cerne Abbas Giant are from just over 300 years ago, suggesting it was forgotten for centuries. Historians and archaeologists had many ideas about when the giant was constructed, says team member Mike Allen, an independent geoarchaeologist at Allen Environmental Archaeology in Codford, UK. “Everyone was wrong.” The giant is carved into a hillside overlooking the village of Cerne Abbas in southern England. It is a figure of a man with a large, erect penis, holding a club. It was made by digging trenches into the hillside, then filling them with white chalk. The earliest known reference to the giant is from 1694, from the records of the church in Cerne Abbas. The giant is absent from earlier records, notably a 1617 survey of the area by John Norden, who was famously thorough. Historians have argued for decades over when the giant was created and what it represents. Some believe it was made in the 1600s, in line with the historical records, while others think it dates to Roman times. Allen is part of a team that carried out excavations on the giant in 2020, with the support of its owner, the National Trust. The researchers dug in the soles of both its feet and the crooks of its elbows. The team looked for grains of quartz in the chalk and in the soil next to the trenches. A method called optically stimulated luminescence dating could then be used to determine when the quartz was last exposed to sunlight. Using the technique, the researchers dated the oldest chalk to between AD 650 and 1310. The giant was probably created sometime between these dates, with the year AD 980 falling in the middle of that window. In theory, the giant might be older, because the chalking has been replaced several times. But the soil data suggests not. The oldest date for the soil is AD 700 to 1100. “[The giant] cannot be older than that,” says Allen.

5-11-21 Vesuvius ancient eruption rescuer identified at Herculaneum, says expert
Archaeologists in Italy believe they have identified the body of a rescuer killed in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius almost 2,000 years ago. The skeleton, originally thought to be an ordinary soldier, was among some 300 found at Herculaneum in the 1980s. It is now thought he may have been a senior officer in the rescue mission launched by historian and naval commander Pliny the Elder. Herculaneum and the nearby city of Pompeii were engulfed by the eruption. Buildings and bodies were encased in a flow of molten lava, mud and gas that fell on Herculaneum in AD79 at a speed of at least 80km/h (50 mph). The man's remains were found face-down in the sand at the site to the north of Pompeii around 40 years ago. Skeleton no 26, as it is known, is believed to have belonged to man aged between 40 and 45 and in good health, who was thrown to the ground by the force of the eruption. A boat was found nearby and it is now thought that the 300 other skeletons found massed on the beach were close to being rescued. Francesco Sirano, the director of the archaeological site at Herculaneum, said the items discovered with the skeleton no. 26 suggest he may have played a more important role than originally thought. "He may be an officer of the fleet that took part in the rescue mission launched by Pliny the Elder to help the people in the towns and villas nestled on this part of the Bay of Naples," Mr Sirano told Ansa news agency. Twelve silver and two gold denarii coins were found in the man's possession - the equivalent of a month's salary for members of the elite Praetorian Guard, according to Mr Sirano. His highly decorated gold and silver belt and a sword with an ivory handle indicate he was no ordinary soldier, while his bag contained tools likely to have been used by a faber navalis - one of the Guard's naval engineers specialised in carpentry.

5-11-21 Vaccine hesitancy is nothing new. Here’s the damage it’s done over centuries
Pockets of people have railed against vaccines for ages. As vaccines to protect people from COVID-19 started becoming available in late 2020, the rhetoric of anti-vaccine groups intensified. Efforts to keep vaccines out of arms reinforce misinformation about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines and spread disinformation — deliberately misleading people for political, ideological or other reasons. Vaccines have been met with suspicion and hostility for as long as they have existed. Current opposition to COVID-19 vaccines is just the latest chapter in this long story. The primary driver of vaccine hesitancy throughout history has not been money, selfishness or ignorance. “Vaccine hesitancy has less to do with misunderstanding the science and more to do with general mistrust of scientific institutions and government,” says Maya Goldenberg, a philosophy expert at the University of Guelph, Ontario, who studies the phenomenon. Historically, people harmed or oppressed by such institutions are the ones most likely to resist vaccines, adds Agnes Arnold-Forster, a medical historian at the University of Bristol in England. A range of recurring and intersecting themes have fueled hesitancy globally and historically. These include anxiety about unnatural substances in the body, vaccines as government surveillance or weapons, and personal liberty violations. Other concerns relate to parental autonomy, faith-based objections, and worries about infertility, disability or disease. For example, some people oppose vaccines that were grown in cell culture lines that began from aborted fetal cells, or they mistakenly believe vaccines contain fetal cells. One of today’s false beliefs — that COVID-19 vaccines contain a microchip — represents anxiety about both vaccine ingredients and vaccines as a surveillance tool.

5-11-21 CIA's hunt for Osama bin Laden fuelled vaccine hesitancy in Pakistan
The CIA’s efforts to capture Osama bin Laden via a fake vaccination drive in Pakistan led to a rise in vaccine hesitancy in the years after the scheme was revealed. In 2011, it was reported that the CIA had organised a fake vaccination drive in Abbottabad, Pakistan, reportedly administering hepatitis B vaccines to babies, while obtaining DNA samples to compare with that of bin Laden’s sister, who died in the US the year before. The CIA was attempting to find a child who was related to bin Laden, in an effort to pin down his whereabouts. These reports led to uproar in Pakistan and a number of anti-vaccine campaigns were started by Islamic extremist parties. Monica Martinez-Bravo at the Centre for Monetary and Financial Studies in Madrid, Spain, and her colleague Andreas Stegmann at the University of Warwick, UK, have investigated the effect this had on vaccine uptake. They collected data from the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement survey on 18,795 children born between January 2010 and July 2012 across 115 districts of the country. The records showed whether a newborn had received their diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP), polio, and measles vaccines. The pair then compared these records to the political stance of each district as measured by the 2008 Pakistani general election, the most recent one before the reports on the fake vaccination drive. They found a 23 per cent decline in DTP vaccination rates in districts with more support for Islamic extremism, along with a 28 per cent and 39 per cent decline for polio and measles, compared with districts with lower levels of such electoral support. “Parents in those districts are probably more exposed to the anti-vaccine propaganda campaigns advertised by the extremist parties,” says Martinez-Bravo. The pair also found a greater decrease in vaccination rates among girls compared with boys, on average 3 percentage points larger. This is most likely to be due to a rumour spread by the Pakistani Taliban that vaccines were made to sterilise young girls, she says.

5-10-21 Will waiving patents for covid-19 vaccines boost global supplies?
“These extraordinary times and circumstances… call for extraordinary measures,” tweeted US trade representative Katherine Tai, as she surprised the world by throwing the country’s backing behind a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights for covid-19 vaccines. The announcement on 5 May turbo-charged an idea pushed by India, South Africa and many campaigners: that lifting the IP protections on covid-19 vaccines would boost supplies by allowing the vaccines to be made in greater numbers, in more countries. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general at the World Health Organization (WHO), called the US backing a “monumental moment in the fight against #COVID-19”. The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said last week that the bloc is ready to discuss the proposal of vaccine patent waivers to see if it could improve production and distribution. It is far from guaranteed that a waiver will win the unanimous approval needed at the World Trade Organization (WTO) – which oversees IP – but there has already been strong opposition to the US move. “IP rights weren’t the practical problem to scaling up global vaccine production and waiving them isn’t a simple solution to what is a wicked problem,” said the UK Bioindustry Association in a statement. The trade body’s members include Pfizer and AstraZeneca. Luciana Borio, former chief scientist at the US Food and Drug Administration, tweeted: “Sadly, this action won’t help get more vaccines available to the world.” The response from companies reluctant to waive their IP should come as little surprise. A WHO-backed plan to scale up vaccine supplies, the Covid-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP), was launched a year ago. Companies were encouraged to waive IP protections on more than just core products, such as the ingredients that help to deliver the vaccine into cells, as well as collaborate to give other firms the know-how to produce vaccines or treatments. It was roundly snubbed by covid-19 vaccine manufacturers.

5-9-21 How India’s COVID-19 crisis became the worst in the world
New variants and relaxed public health measures likely fueled the country’s surge. Mohanish Ellitam watched helplessly as his 49-year-old mother’s oxygen levels dipped dangerously and she gasped for air. “I could see her stomach rising and falling,” Ellitam said. “I was so scared.” Watching his mother’s health deteriorate, Ellitam knew he couldn’t wait any longer. But in Shevgaon, a small town in the state of Maharashtra, health care facilities were limited and already overwhelmed with people suffering from COVID-19. He frantically called friends, family and almost everyone on his contact list with connections to the region’s hospitals. After nearly 100 calls, on April 12 Ellitam finally found a spot at Surabhi Hospital in Ahmednagar, nearly 60 kilometers from his hometown. But there was no room for relief just yet. His father, 53, also started growing tired and breathless. While his father stayed isolated in a hotel room opposite the hospital, Ellitam lived out of his car parked nearby, and the frustrating search for another hospital bed began. “I was in a helpless state,” he said. “I felt alone. I broke into tears many times.” This is what it’s like to be in the hardest-hit state in the country now hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic. Although Ellitam’s father secured a bed in Surabhi Hospital a day later, scenes like this — and far worse — are playing out hundreds of thousands of times every day across India. As its second wave of COVID-19 sweeps through, India recorded more than 400,000 daily new cases on May 6 — the largest single-day spike in the world — and its highest daily death toll of 4,187, a day later. Those numbers are predicted to soar even higher in the coming days. Dire SOS pleas from doctors, patients and their loved ones in need of hospital beds, oxygen and medication have flooded social media platforms. In Pune, one of the worst-hit cities in India, the wailing sirens of ambulances have become a macabre feature of the city’s soundscape. In many parts of the country, family members are shedding tears of despair outside of hospitals as they beg for medical attention for their dying kin.

5-9-21 Mucormycosis: The 'black fungus' maiming Covid patients in India
On Saturday morning, Dr Akshay Nair, a Mumbai-based eye surgeon, was waiting to operate on a 25-year-old woman who had recovered from a bout of Covid-19 three weeks ago. Inside the surgery, an ear, nose and throat specialist was already at work on the patient, a diabetic. He had inserted a tube in her nose and was removing tissues infected with mucormycosis, a rare but dangerous fungal infection. This aggressive infection affects the nose, eye and sometimes the brain. After his colleague finished, Dr Nair would carry out a three hour procedure to remove the patient's eye. "I will be removing her eye to save her life. That's how this disease works," Dr Nair told me. Even as a deadly second wave of Covid-19 ravages India, doctors are now reporting a rash of cases involving a rare infection - also called the "black fungus" - among recovering and recovered Covid-19 patients. Mucormycosis is a very rare infection. It is caused by exposure to mucor mould which is commonly found in soil, plants, manure, and decaying fruits and vegetables. "It is ubiquitous and found in soil and air and even in the nose and mucus of healthy people," says Dr Nair. It affects the sinuses, the brain and the lungs and can be life-threatening in diabetic or severely immunocompromised individuals, such as cancer patients or people with HIV/AIDS. Doctor believe mucormycosis, which has an overall mortality rate of 50%, may be being triggered by the use of steroids, a life-saving treatment for severe and critically ill Covid-19 patients. Steroids reduce inflammation in the lungs for Covid-19 and appear to help stop some of the damage that can happen when the body's immune system goes into overdrive to fight off coronavirus. But they also reduce immunity and push up blood sugar levels in both diabetics and non-diabetic Covid-19 patients. It's thought that this drop in immunity could be triggering these cases of mucormycosis.

5-9-21 The puzzle of play
The purpose of play — for children, monkeys, rats, or meerkats — has proved surprisingly hard to pin down. Anyone who has ever chucked a tennis ball in the general vicinity of a border collie knows that some animals take play very seriously. The intense stare, the tremble of anticipation, the apparent joy with every bounce, all in pursuit of inedible prey that tastes like the backyard. Dogs are far from the only animals that devote considerable time and energy to play. Juvenile wasps wrestle with hive mates, otters toss rocks between their paws, and human children around the world go to great lengths to avoid make-believe lava on the living room floor. When a dog chases a ball or a child adjudicates relationship disputes in doll-land, something important and meaningful is clearly happening in their minds, says Laura Schulz, a cognitive scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "Play has a lot of peculiar and fascinating properties," she says. "It's totally fundamental to learning and human intelligence." Scientists take play seriously, too. For decades, psychologists, evolutionary biologists, and animal behaviorists, among others, have labored to understand the playful mind. They have given toys to octopuses, set up wrestling matches for rats, trained cameras on wild monkeys in the jungle and on semi-domesticated children on the playground. Their biggest question: What do these creatures get out of playtime? Clarifying the motivations and benefits of play could tell us much about behavior and cognitive development in people and other animals, Schulz says. Answering this question, however, has proved surprisingly difficult. Some of the most obvious explanations haven't held up to scientific scrutiny. One hypothesis, for instance, is that play helps animals learn important skills. But experiments haven't borne this out. A 2020 study of Asian small-clawed otters living in zoos and wildlife centers found that the most dedicated rock jugglers weren't any better than their non-juggling friends at solving food puzzles that tested their dexterity, like extracting treats jammed inside a tennis ball or under a screw-top lid. Researchers were surprised, but the otters were following a long-standing tradition of animals that don't seem to learn much through play. Previous studies had found that kittens that grow up surrounded by cat toys aren't especially successful hunters as adults, and playful juvenile meerkats aren't any better as adults at managing territorial disputes. As Schulz and a colleague write in the Annual Review of Developmental Psychology, even human children, arguably the most playful creatures in the world, don't seem to reap any definitive long-term emotional or developmental benefits from pretend play, an elaborate and well-studied form of human play. Whether studies look at creativity, intelligence, or emotional control, the benefits of play remain elusive. "You can't say that kids who play more are smarter or that kids who engage in more pretend play do better," Schulz says. "None of that is true." Play is actually somewhat rare in the animal world — you're unlikely to run across a playful rattlesnake, a recreating eagle, or a whimsical bullfrog — which only deepens the mystery of why it exists at all, says Sergio Pellis, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, and coauthor of a 2010 book, The Playful Brain. Evolution normally encourages behaviors that help a species survive and propagate. It doesn't favor fun for fun's sake. Play "isn't like eating or sex," Pellis says. "We have to explain why it shows up in some lineages but not others."

5-8-21 People who live past 105 years old have genes that stop DNA damage
People who reach a very old age may have their genes to thank. Genetic variants that help to prevent DNA mutations and repair any that do occur have been found in supercentenarians and semi-supercentenarians – people who reach the ages of 110 and 105, respectively. “DNA repair mechanisms are extremely efficient in these people,” says Claudio Franceschi at the University of Bologna in Italy. “It is one of the most important basic mechanisms for extending lifespan.” Damage to DNA happens throughout our lives. It has many causes, including sunlight and natural radiation, as well as harmful compounds called free radicals generated by normal cell metabolism. Centenerians’ genes have long been studied by researchers of healthy ageing, but the work by Franceschi’s team is the first to sequence all the genes, or the whole genome, of such a large group of people. They sequenced the DNA of five supercentenarians and 76 semi-supercentenarians from Italy, comparing them with 36 younger people from the same region, who had an average age of 68. The team found five genetic variants were more common in the extremely old people, which changed the expression of three genes. These variants were also more common in a group of 333 centenarians, whose genes had been analysed in a previous study. Previous work suggests the variants should collectively reduce the number of mutations accumulating in cells by combatting free radicals, coordinating the cell’s response to DNA damage and encouraging damaged cells to die. Franceschi’s team found their semi-supercentenarians indeed had fewer mutations that had occurred in their lifetime in six out of seven key genes analysed. If DNA damage goes unrepaired, cells can turn cancerous, and can also contribute to other conditions that shorten lifespans, such as heart disease and brain conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, says Mette Sørensen at the University of Southern Denmark, who was not involved in the work. “The findings are very much in line with the classic way to think about ageing-related diseases.”

5-8-21 Mild zaps to the brain can boost a pain-relieving placebo effect
Targeted noninvasive brain stimulation could improve pain treatment. Placebos can make us feel better. Mild electric zaps to the brain can make that effect even stronger, scientists report online May 3 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The finding raises the possibility of enhancing the power of expectations to improve treatments. This is the first study to boost placebo and blunt pain-inducing nocebo effects by altering brain activity, says Jian Kong, a pain researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital in Charlestown. The placebo effect arises when someone feels better after taking an inactive substance, like a sugar pill, because they expect the substance to help. The nocebo effect is the placebo’s evil twin: A person feels worse after taking an inactive substance that they expect to have unpleasant effects. To play with people’s expectations, Kong’s team primed 81 participants for painful heat. The heat was delivered by a thermal stimulator to the forearm while participants lay in a functional MRI scanner. Each person received three creams, each to a different spot on their arms. One cream, participants were told, was a numbing lidocaine cream, one was a regular cream and one was a pain-increasing capsaicin cream. But in fact, all the creams were the same inert lotion, dyed different colors. Participants reported lower pain intensity from the heat on the “lidocaine” patch of skin, an expected placebo effect. People also reported higher pain intensity on the “capsaicin” skin, an expected nocebo effect. Before testing the placebo and nocebo effects, researchers had delivered electric currents to some participants’ brains with a method called transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS. During these tDCS sessions, two electrodes attached to the scalp delivered weak electric current to the brain to change the behavior of brain cells.

5-7-21 Ancient hominins may have needed midwives to help deliver babies
It isn’t just modern humans that have found giving birth painful and dangerous. Growing evidence suggests birth was difficult for our hominin relatives millions of years ago. As a result, earlier hominins like Australopithecus may have needed help to deliver their babies. Birth is strikingly dangerous for modern humans (Homo sapiens) compared with other primates. Globally, for every 100,000 births in 2017, 211 mothers died. In the worst-affected countries, such as Sierra Leone, the maternal mortality rate is more than five times that. Many nations have much lower rates, but that is largely due to better medical intervention, including caesarean sections – which weren’t available for most of our species’ existence. The same isn’t true for other primates like monkeys and apes, our closest living relatives. “You’re not seeing these types of complications that you see in humans,” says Nicole Webb at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. The long-standing explanation for the difficulty of human births is that it is caused by a combination of our large brains and the fact we walk upright on two legs. According to anthropologist Sherwood Washburn, writing in 1960, upright walking meant evolution favoured a narrower pelvis, but also a wider pelvic canal to accommodate the baby’s head – creating what he dubbed the “obstetrical dilemma”. Despite challenges and modifications to the idea, for many anthropologists, it still largely holds true. “In my view, the obstetrical dilemma hypothesis as Washburn framed it is still the most reasonable,” says Martin Haeusler at the University of Zurich. It was generally thought that the obstetrical dilemma was unique to humans, or at least to the Homo genus, but new evidence suggests birth difficulties go back much further.

5-7-21 T. rex’s incredible biting force came from its stiff lower jaw
A small bone in the mandible helped brace an otherwise flexible joint. The fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex could generate tremendous bone-crushing bite forces thanks to a stiff lower jaw. That stiffness stemmed from a boomerang-shaped bit of bone that braced what would have been an otherwise flexible jawbone, a new analysis suggests. Unlike mammals, reptiles and their close kin have a joint dubbed the intramandibular joint within their lower jawbone, or mandible. New computer simulations show that with a bone spanning the IMJ, T. Rex could have generated bite forces of more than 6 metric tons, or about the weight of a large male African elephant, researchers reported April 27 at the virtual annual meeting of the American Association of Anatomy. In today’s lizards, snakes and birds, the IMJ is bound by ligaments, making it relatively flexible, says study author John Fortner, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Missouri in Columbia. That flexibility helps the animals maintain a better grip on struggling prey and also allows the mandible to flex wider to accommodate larger morsels, he notes. But in turtles and crocodiles, for example, evolution has driven the IMJ to be rather tight and inflexible, enabling strong bite forces. Until now, most researchers have presumed that dinosaurs had lower jaws with a flexible IMJ, but there’s a big flaw with that premise, Fortner notes. A flexible jaw wouldn’t have enabled bone-crushing bite forces, but fossil evidence — including coprolites, or fossil poop, filled with partially digested bone shards — strongly suggests that T. rex could indeed chomp down with such forces (SN: 10/22/18). “There’s every reason to believe that T. rex could bite really hard, kinda off the charts,” says Lawrence Witmer, a vertebrate paleontologist at Ohio University in Athens who wasn’t involved in the study. “It’d be nice to know how they could carry off these bite forces.”

5-6-21 Brain's movement control centre may have had key role in our evolution
The key to human evolution may have been at the back of our minds all along – literally. Some of the biggest biochemical differences between human brains and those of other primates are found in the cerebellum, a region at the rear of the brain that has often been overlooked in evolutionary studies. The finding adds to growing evidence that changes to the cerebellum have been crucial for the origin of the human mind. All backboned animals have a cerebellum, which is involved in controlling movement. “It’s not really associated with much that’s uniquely human,” says Elaine Guevara at Duke University in North Carolina. Instead, neuroscientists seeking to explain the evolution of our brains have tended to focus on the cortex, the thick outer layer of the forebrain – especially the prefrontal cortex, which underpins our ability to consciously decide what to do. In recent years, some neuroscientists have argued that the cerebellum has changed more than thought during human evolution, and that these changes may have been crucial. Guevara and her colleagues studied the cerebellum and prefrontal cortex at the molecular level. They took brain samples from humans, chimpanzees and monkeys called rhesus macaques, and extracted DNA from both brain regions. The team looked to see which parts of the DNA had small molecules called methyl groups attached. Methylation is an example of a so-called epigenetic influence on our genes. Patterns of methylation reflect which genes have been active and inactive during an animal’s life, and they vary between body parts and between species. Guevara’s team found that the pattern of methylation in human DNA was different to that in chimps and macaques. Crucially, the difference between species was greater in the cerebellum than in the prefrontal cortex, suggesting there had been more changes there during our evolution.

5-6-21 Owl-like dinosaurs had remarkably good hearing and night vision
A tiny bird-like dinosaur with long legs and muscular, clawed arms was quite the night owl. Shuvuuia deserti lived around 75 to 81 million years ago and not only had remarkable hearing, but also well-honed night vision – much better than that of other dinosaurs and most modern birds. This odd creature was first discovered in the mid-1990s, but a new analysis of its inner ear bones shows that it may have been a nocturnal hunter, like modern owls. Jonah Choiniere at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and his colleagues analysed 3D scans of S. deserti’s inner ear and found that it had a very large lagena, a structure responsible for hearing. The larger the lagena relative to the skull, the more sensitively an animal can hear – and this one was bigger than researchers had ever seen in a dinosaur. “When we stumbled onto this structure, it just immediately prompted all these questions,” said Choiniere. He and his team compared the dinosaur’s inner ear with those of more than 100 species of modern birds. They found that the only bird with a lagena even approaching the same size as S. deserti‘s was the barn owl (Tyto alba), a nocturnal hunter with extraordinary hearing and night vision. If S. deserti has such sensitive hearing, they wondered, how well could it see? The researchers then examined 3D scans of skull fossils of S. deserti, including an eye structure called the scleral ring, which gives clues as to how well an animal can see at night. It turned out that the animal seems to have had fantastic night vision. Most birds and dinosaurs have ears and eyes adapted for daytime foraging. Because the common ancestor of birds and lizards was also active in the day, nocturnal traits evolved independently within these lineages. Now, S. deserti seems to indicate that nocturnal traits may have evolved independently in non-bird dinosaurs too.

5-6-21 How to detect, resist and counter the flood of fake news
Although most people are concerned about misinformation, few know how to spot a deceitful post. rom lies about election fraud to QAnon conspiracy theories and anti-vaccine falsehoods, misinformation is racing through our democracy. And it is dangerous. Awash in bad information, people have swallowed hydroxychloroquine hoping the drug will protect them against COVID-19 — even with no evidence that it helps (SN Online: 8/2/20). Others refuse to wear masks, contrary to the best public health advice available. In January, protestors disrupted a mass vaccination site in Los Angeles, blocking life-saving shots for hundreds of people. “COVID has opened everyone’s eyes to the dangers of health misinformation,” says cognitive scientist Briony Swire-Thompson of Northeastern University in Boston. The pandemic has made clear that bad information can kill. And scientists are struggling to stem the tide of misinformation that threatens to drown society. The sheer volume of fake news, flooding across social media with little fact-checking to dam it, is taking an enormous toll on trust in basic institutions. In a December poll of 1,115 U.S. adults, by NPR and the research firm Ipsos, 83 percent said they were concerned about the spread of false information. Yet fewer than half were able to identify as false a QAnon conspiracy theory about pedophilic Satan worshippers trying to control politics and the media. Scientists have been learning more about why and how people fall for bad information — and what we can do about it. Certain characteristics of social media posts help misinformation spread, new findings show. Other research suggests bad claims can be counteracted by giving accurate information to consumers at just the right time, or by subtly but effectively nudging people to pay attention to the accuracy of what they’re looking at. Such techniques involve small behavior changes that could add up to a significant bulwark against the onslaught of fake news.

5-6-21 Some viruses thwart bacterial defenses with a unique genetic alphabet
DNA has four building blocks: A, C, T and G. But some bacteriophages swap A for Z. Some bacteria-killing viruses spell out their genetic instructions in a different DNA alphabet. More than 40 years ago, scientists in Russia reported that a type of bacteriophage called cyanophage S-2L replaces the DNA building block adenine, commonly known as A, with 2-aminoadenine, designated Z. But no one knew how the phage went from A to Z, or why. After decades of wondering, two independent groups of scientists have discovered how the viruses make and build Z into their genetic instructions, and one reason they do it, the teams report in three studies in the April 30 Science. The findings have implications for the origins of life on Earth, the search for life on other planets and multiple potential applications in biomedicine, synthetic biology, material sciences and computing, says Farren Isaacs, a molecular and synthetic biologist at Yale University who coauthored a commentary in the same issue of Science. “It’s a really fundamental discovery.” In the 1990s, Philippe Marlière, a xenobiologist then at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, was “looking for examples divergent from life as we know it,” when he came across the 1977 Russian study describing the cyanophage with the unusual DNA. After getting a sample of the virus, Marlière and colleagues deciphered the phage’s complete set of genetic instructions, or genome. In the virus’s genome, the researchers found instructions for building an enzyme, called PurZ, that could carry out the first step in making Z — also known as diaminopurine. The Pasteur Institute filed a patent on the enzyme in Marlière’s name in 2003. With the enzyme in hand, “it became crystal clear how Z was made, but we didn’t [do] any experiments to prove that we were right,” says Marlière, now president of the European Syndicate of Synthetic Scientists and Industrialists in Berlin. The project was halted for a variety of reasons.

5-6-21 Older children in the year group are more popular than younger peers
Older teenagers tend, on average, to be more popular than their younger peers in the same class. Danelien van Aalst at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and her colleagues have investigated how relative age affects popularity among 14 to 15-year-olds in the Netherlands, Sweden and England. They collected survey data from 13,251 students from the three countries, who were quizzed between October 2010 and April 2011. Each teenager was asked to identify five of the most popular students in their class. The researchers then compared the popularity of each child to their age relative to that of their peers. They discovered a correlation: the older the student was, the more likely they were to be considered popular. “A child enters school before or after a certain cut-off date and that determines how old or young you are relative to your year group,” says van Aalst. “We found that if you’re born right after the cut-off date [making you one of the oldest members of your class], you’re going to be popular.” They found that the same effect also applied at the year-group level. Here, it was the children who were oldest relative to all of their peers in the year group – rather than just those in their particular class – that were the most popular. All three countries showed roughly the same pattern. However, at the year-group scale, it was most pronounced in England. At the classroom level, it was in the Netherlands that the pattern was strongest. This is partly because the country has a system of grade retention – when students don’t meet their academic requirements, their teachers will hold them back a year, which means they then become the oldest in their class and often the most popular. This relative age effect has been shown in other areas. “Relative age has earlier been demonstrated to affect school performance – relatively older children do better in school,” says Herman van de Werfhorst at the University of Amsterdam, who wasn’t involved in the study.

5-6-21 Worrying about bad jet lag could actually make your jet lag worse
Worrying about jet lag could actually make your jet lag worse, so try to relax on your next long-haul flight. Eva Winnebeck at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany, and her colleagues have looked at potential psychological causes of jet leg – the temporary condition following a long flight in which someone feels out of sync with the new time-zone. They may struggle to sleep, feel tired and have trouble concentrating. “In biology when we think about a topic we often think about what we can measure – like a molecule or something,” Winnebeck says. “But a psychologist would think about the world very differently…what you think about a disease can have a huge impact on it.” The team asked 90 people to keep a sleep diary for a week before and after taking a long-haul flight in 2018. Before the flight they were also asked whether they expected to get jet lag and how bad they thought it would be. After the flight they were asked to detail what their jet lag was like every day for a week using a questionnaire which quantified their symptoms on a 60-point scale. The researchers also took into account whether the participants were travelling east or west and how many time-zones they were planning to cross – six, on average. The team found that average jet lag lasted for around four days, but also that it was less common than people thought it would be. More than 75 per cent of the participants said they expected to get jet lag, but only 54 per cent actually did. The direction of travel and the number of time-zones crossed had no statistical effect on the extent of someone’s jet lag. “People are so variable,” Winnebeck says. “Length of travel could affect someone really badly but have no effect on someone else.”

5-5-21 Remains of a 3-year-old child are the oldest known burial in Africa
The oldest known burial in Africa is of a 3-year-old child who died around 78,000 years ago. The discovery sheds light on how people in the region cared for their dead at that time. In 2017, archaeologists uncovered the top of a bundle of bones in a cave in Kenya called Panga ya Saidi. The remains were so fragile that a block of sediment around the bones was extracted intact and sent to the National Research Centre on Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Spain, where a painstaking forensic investigation took place. “We didn’t know until a year later what was really going on in there,” says María Martinón-Torres at CENIEH. “Unexpectedly, that sediment block was holding the body of a child.” The researchers named the child Mtoto, which means “child” in Swahili, and estimate that they lived around 78,300 years ago, making this the oldest deliberate burial found in Africa. “It was a child and someone gave it a farewell,” says Martinón-Torres. Analysis of the sediment surrounding the remains revealed that the child had been placed in a deliberately excavated pit and covered with sediment from the cave floor. They had been placed on their side with their legs drawn up to their chest. As the body decayed, most of Mtoto’s bones stayed in position with the exception of a few key ones. The collarbone and top two ribs were displaced in a way typical of a body tightly bound in a shroud. And Mtoto’s head had the characteristic tilt of a corpse whose head was placed on a cushion. This points to a deliberate burial, something that is often difficult to prove from archaeological remains. “From these little pieces of bone that were preserved, the work that we have done has allowed us to reconstruct the human behaviour surrounding the moment the body was put in the pit,” says Francesco d’Errico at the University of Bordeaux, France.

5-5-21 How to boost your self-awareness and make better decisions
Having good metacognition - the ability to think about our own thoughts - is key to success in many aspects of life. Fortunately, there are things we can all do to get to know ourselves better. AS YOUR eyes skip across the words on this page, it is likely that you are not only reading, but also thinking about yourself reading. Are the words clear? Can you concentrate? Do you have time to read this article now or are you feeling rushed? Psychologists have a term for this kind of awareness of our own minds: metacognition – literally, the ability to think about our own thinking. Being able to turn our thoughts on ourselves is a defining feature of being human. But we often overlook the power it has in shaping our lives, both for good and ill. The importance of good self-awareness can seem less obvious than, say, the ability to make mathematical calculations, or remember facts. Instead, for most of us, metacognition is like the conductor of an orchestra, occasionally intervening to nudge the players in the right (or wrong) direction. Now, research from my lab and others is pulling back the veil on self-awareness, giving us a new-found respect for the power of the reflective mind. We have found ways to measure it, and can even watch it in action using brain scanners. What we have discovered is already suggesting a rethink in our understanding of conditions like dementia, but it has implications for us all. Boosting self-awareness can improve our decisions, open our eyes to fake news and help us think clearly under pressure. Just as a good conductor can make the difference between a routine rehearsal and a world-class performance, the subtle influence of metacognition can make the difference between failure and success in many aspects of life. We rely on metacognition in all sorts of situations. When revising for an exam, for instance, you might reflect on how well you know the material, or whether you need to brush up on certain topics – metacognition about your memory. Or, on a visit to the opticians, you might be asked whether your vision is better or worse with a new pair of glasses – metacognition about your perception. More broadly, we can attempt to see ourselves through the eyes of others by taking a sort of third-person view of our personalities, skills and abilities.

5-5-21 King Henry VIII’s warship the Mary Rose carried crew from North Africa
When the Tudor warship the Mary Rose sank off the south coast of England in 1545, it may have taken an international crew with it. An analysis of the remains of eight mariners from the vessel suggests that some may have come from as far away as North Africa. The Mary Rose served King Henry VIII for 34 years, before sinking during the Battle of the Solent against France. The ship, including the remains of its drowned crew, was raised from the seafloor in 1982 near the Isle of Wight in one of the most complex salvage projects in history. Jessica Scorrer at Cardiff University, UK, and her colleagues have examined the ancestral origins and diets of eight of the ship’s crew members. Previous analyses of these remains predicted their professions according to the belongings they were found with. They were identified as a cook, carpenter, officer, gentleman, purser, young mariner and two archers. The researchers took around 20 milligrams of enamel from each crew member’s teeth and analysed the chemical isotopes it contained. “All the isotope elements in your food and drink get deposited in your bones and your teeth during early childhood,” says Scorrer. What’s more, the balance of isotopes in food and drink can vary from region to region, so by analysing the unique chemical fingerprint of isotopes in a given tooth sample, the researchers could infer the region in which an individual had spent their childhood. Their analysis suggests that three of the crew may have originated from warmer, more southerly climates than those seen in Britain – perhaps somewhere on the southern European coast, Iberia or North Africa. The enamel of the remaining five crew members had isotope values consistent with a childhood most likely spent in western Britain. However, one of the five brought up in western Britain had cranial characteristics typical of someone with African ancestry.

5-5-21 Mary Rose crew was ethnically diverse, study finds
The crew of King Henry VIII's warship the Mary Rose was more ethnically diverse than previously thought, research has suggested. A study used the latest scientific techniques to offer clues about the ancestry, childhood origins and diets of its crewmembers. It suggests at least three of them may have come from southern European coasts, Iberia and North Africa. The ship sank in 1545 and is an exhibit at Portsmouth's Mary Rose Museum. The research by Cardiff University, along with the Mary Rose Trust and the British Geological Survey, has been published in the Royal Society Open Science journal. First author Jessica Scorrer said: "Our findings point to the important contributions that individuals of diverse backgrounds and origins made to the English navy during this period. "This adds to the ever-growing body of evidence for diversity in geographic origins, ancestry and lived experiences in Tudor England." The Mary Rose served Henry VIII for 34 years, and the vast majority of its crew perished when it sank during the Battle of the Solent. In 1982 the wreck and 19,000 artefacts were recovered. The remains or partial remains of 179 crewmembers have also been found. Researchers used a technique called multi-isotope analysis on the teeth of eight of the best preserved skeletons to help deduce where they spent their early years and what they ate. A university statement said: "Chemical tracers from the food and water they consumed in childhood, which provide evidence for geographical location, remain within the teeth. "This has allowed the team to explore the sources of their diets." Dr Richard Madgwick, from the university's School of History, Archaeology and Religion, said: "By combining the latest scientific methods with insights from artefacts recovered from the ship, we have been able to reconstruct the biographies of eight people from the Tudor period in much more detail than is usually possible. "This has shown their diverse origins and provided the first direct evidence for mariners of African ancestry in the navy of Henry VIII."

5-5-21 Ancient child grave was Africa's earliest funeral
A glimpse of human grief, at the loss of a child 78,000 years ago, has been revealed in the discovery of the oldest burial site in Africa. The Middle Stone Age grave - of a three-year-old child - was found in a cave in Kenya. In a paper in the journal Nature, the researchers who studied the fragile, ancient remains described how its head appeared to have been laid on a pillow. Scientists have named the child Mtoto, meaning "the kid" in Swahili. The international team of archaeologists carefully cast the entire grave in plaster in order to preserve the arrangement of surviving bone fragments. This enabled them to transport the body safely to a laboratory for detailed study. "It was like excavating a shadow," said Prof María Martinón-Torres, director of Spain's National Research Center on Human Evolution. "[When we moved the cast], we didn't know we were carrying a child in our arms," she told the BBC's Inside Science programme. The researchers were able to study the teeth to confirm that this was the tiny body of a human child - between two and three years old. Scans revealed that the body had been laid in a fetal position. And the bones had moved in a way that suggested it had been wrapped tightly when buried, with its head was originally resting on something like a cushion of leaves, which subsequently decomposed. "We think the child was wrapped in a shroud made of leaves or animal skins - like he was placed in his last sleep," explained Prof Martinón-Torres. "There is such a delicacy and intention that really expresses feelings from the group towards this child." Further examination of the size and shape of the bone fragments led the researchers to conclude that Mtoto was most likely a boy. "He was buried in the cave - where the people lived," Prof Martinón-Torres said. "All this behaviour meant something - maybe grief, maybe not letting him go." Africa is considered the cradle of human modernity, but amid all the evidence of early tool use and community living, scientists say that burials were an important missing piece of the human evolutionary story there.

5-4-21 Fossil shows a shark eating a proto-squid as it ate a crustacean
It’s a fish-eat-belemnite-eat-crustacean world. A pair of remarkably preserved fossils appear to record the aftermath of a dramatic confrontation in the prehistoric ocean, when one predator was in the middle of a meal only to be targeted by a bigger one. “The fossil is amazing by itself” because of its state of preservation, says Christian Klug at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. But the remains tell a story that sheds light on who was eating who millions of years ago. Klug and his team studied the fossils of two marine organisms from the dinosaur era, which were roughly 174 to 183 million years old. The remains were found in 1970 by a fossil collector called Dieter Weber in a quarry near Holzmaden in Germany. They have since been bought by the State Museum of Natural History Stuttgart. One of the animals is a belemnite (Passaloteuthis laevigata), a cephalopod related to modern squids and octopuses. Belemnites had a bony guard on their tail ends, which are the most commonly preserved bits. This belemnite had its bony guard, but it also had fragments of soft tissue and parts of the arms. Tangled up with the arms was a second fossil: a crustacean related to modern crayfish and shrimp from the genus Proeryon. Crustaceans shed their skin when they grow, and modern cephalopods like to eat the moulted skin. “They actually follow some crayfish so they can eat the moults,” says Klug. He says the belemnite was probably doing the same thing. But the incompleteness of the belemnite, despite the overall superb preservation, suggests it didn’t complete its meal. Klug says a larger predator seems to have targeted it and eaten most of the soft body parts, discarding the bony guard. It isn’t clear what ate the belemnite, but Klug suspects a shark called Hybodus hauffianus, which is known to have eaten belemnites. One specimen has at least 93 belemnite guards in its stomach, which may have killed it in a truly spectacular case of indigestion.

5-4-21 Meet three moderators fighting disinformation on Reddit’s largest coronavirus forum
Volunteers share their experiences correcting online misinformation during a pandemic. Combating misinformation online is an ongoing challenge for big tech, and it’s especially difficult when it’s on a discussion board with millions of people during a pandemic. One such place is the r/Coronavirus community on the website Reddit. In January 2020, it had around 1,000 members. That number spiked to 1.5 million by March of 2020, partly due to Reddit highlighting it on their homepage over any of the other related subreddits. Today, the page has 2.4 million users, with around 10,000 new comments a day. The forum has become a one-stop shop for up-to-date coronavirus information, offering up pandemic news, locations of vaccination sites and how to sign up for clinical trials. The community has also hosted Q&A discussions with the likes of Bill Gates and Tom Frieden, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as top researchers. Even Reddit CEO Steve Huffman reached out to the volunteers who moderate the forum to tell them that he starts his day by reading it and to thank them for their work. But the work these moderators do isn’t easy, as the forum is also a breeding ground for misinformation. They work tirelessly to make sure the information on the subreddit is reliable, taking time away from their jobs as doctors, researchers and students. Science News spoke to three of these moderators about what it’s like to combat misinformation online during a pandemic. Head moderator Patrick Doherty is a biotech research scientist; Jennifer Cole is a biological anthropologist at Royal Holloway University of London, who studies online communities related to health and became an infodemic manager, after receiving training from a World Health Organization initiative to fight misinformation; and Rohan — who requested not to use his full name due to the daily harassment he receives on Reddit — is a M.D./Ph.D. student in molecular biology.

5-4-21 Viking remains lost for more than a century rediscovered in a museum
The remains of a Viking have been rediscovered after being missing for more than a century. They were safely stored in a museum the whole time, but had been mislabelled. The individual had been buried with expensive grave goods, suggesting they were an elite person or even royalty. They also seem to have been wearing long trousers with elaborate decorations. The story of the Viking’s remains begins in 1868, near the village of Mammen in Denmark. A landowner named Laust Pedersen Skomager enlisted local farmers to help him remove the topsoil from a mound on his estate. They found it concealed a wooden Viking burial chamber, now called Bjerringhøj. The farmers dug up the contents and shared them out, so when academics arrived on the scene soon after, they had first to recover the remains from their new owners. A re-excavation of the site in 1986 determined that the burial took place in 970 or 971 AD, during the Viking age, but recovered few new artefacts. When the researchers looked for the original remains in the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, they couldn’t find them, and a search of archives at the University of Copenhagen in 2009 didn’t uncover them either. However, since 2018, Ulla Mannering at the National Museum of Denmark and her colleagues have been studying Viking-era textiles. As part of this research, they examined the remains from another burial site called Slotsbjergby that were being held at a museum. One museum box held human bones along with textiles – yet the descriptions of Slotsbjergby made no mention of bones being found with associated textiles. “I was puzzled about it,” says Mannering. It slowly dawned on the researchers that the bones might be the missing ones from Bjerringhøj. “We were all wow with this idea,” says Mannering. She says the team knew this could be controversial, so several analyses were required to verify the finding.

5-4-21 2,500 years ago, the philosopher Anaxagoras brought science’s spirit to Athens
The philosopher Anaxagoras introduced "the scientific spirit" to Athens 2,500 years ago, planting the seeds of a philosophical tradition that led to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It doesn’t appear that anybody has noticed yet, but 2021 marks a rather important anniversary in the history of science and western civilization. It was 2,500 years ago this year that a philosopher named Anaxagoras arrived in Athens, Greece. Nobody held any celebrations at the time, either. But it was nonetheless an important historical and intellectual landmark. Before Anaxagoras, ancient Greek science (or to be less anachronistic, natural philosophy) hadn’t actually been practiced much in Greece itself. Natural philosophy originated early in the sixth century B.C. at the Greek settlement Miletus in Ionia, the western coast of modern-day Turkey. A second branch of primordial Greek science soon took root in southern Italy after one Ionian, a math fan named Pythagoras, moved there. Anaxagoras, born in the Ionian town of Clazomenae, was the first natural philosopher to reside in Athens and promote the Ionian philosophical outlook there. As the science historian George Sarton wrote, Anaxagoras “introduced the scientific spirit into Athens.” Soon after, Athens became the western world’s center of philosophical inquiry, as the triumvirate of Socrates, Plato and then Aristotle established philosophy as an essential component of civilized intellectual discourse. To be honest, there is some doubt about the exact date of Anaxagoras’ move to Athens. But the biographer of philosophers Diogenes Laertius wrote that Anaxagoras began to do philosophy in Athens at the age of 20, and says he was 20 years old when the Persian king Xerxes attacked Greece — and that was 480 B.C., 2,500 years ago. (You might think that 2021 would make that 2,501 years ago, but only if you forgot that there was no year 0, so you have to subtract one year from the calculation.)

5-3-21 The book ‘Viral BS’ offers a cure for medical myths and fake health news
Physician and author Seema Yasmin fights misinformation with a dose of storytelling. How does misinformation spread? What causes medical myths and pseudoscience to rapidly infect and fester in society? Seema Yasmin, an epidemiologist and author of a new book, Viral BS, has a diagnosis: the pervasive, persuasive power of storytelling. And, as Yasmin notes, “The more fantastical, the better.” Take the anecdote that opens the book: A woman in Texas demands an Ebola vaccine for her daughter as a deadly outbreak rages a continent away in Africa in 2014. When the pediatrician tells her there is no Ebola vaccine and that her daughter faces a much greater risk from the flu, for which he can give her a vaccine, the mother storms out: “Flu vaccine?! I don’t believe in those things!” Stories — like those this Texas woman may have heard, or maybe told herself — help us find order in a world bursting with uncertainty. But when these stories don’t reflect reality, a public malady of tenacious and preposterous medical myths can take hold, Yasmin explains. Her book sets out to treat this malady with a dose of the virus itself: Storytelling and anecdotes that move beyond dry facts and figures to reveal pseudoscience’s sticking power. Yasmin sets up her credentials in the book’s opener — physician, director of the Stanford Health Communication Initiative, former epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — to build trust among readers. But, true to form, it’s her anecdotes of pseudoscience in her own upbringing that linger. Her India-born grandmother told her that the moon landing was a fake; as a child Yasmin would pray to the “unwalked upon moon” for clarity and vision. Yasmin and her cousins once secretly listened to Michael Jackson songs for signs of Satan worship — which an older cousin claimed were there. “Raised on conspiracy theories,” she writes, “I understand why a patient might refuse medications, say chemtrails are poison, or shun vaccines, even as I bristle at the public health implications of these beliefs and behaviors.”

5-2-21 Handprints discovered in ancient Mayan cave
Dozens of handprints found in a cave in Mexico are believed to be part of an ancient Mayan ritual. Archaeologist Sergio Grosjean says the work is likely to be associated with a coming-of-age ritual and the colours of the handprints have meaning. The prints, mostly made by children could date back more than 1,200 years.

5-1-21 Why genetic sequencing is key to tracking COVID
The U.S. effort to analyze viral genomes, slow to start, is picking up speed. In a typical year, the surveillance team at the University of Washington's clinical virology lab runs about 50,000 tests to identify viruses. Since the first COVID-19 case hit Seattle, where the lab is based, it has done about 2 million. "Forty years of testing, in one year," says its assistant director, Alex Greninger. That lab is also one of many — spread across state, private, and university facilities — that's reading the viral genomes of positive test samples to see if there are any worrisome changes in the virus. The importance of that search became more obvious in December, with the reporting of the first "variant of concern," B.1.1.7, out of the United Kingdom. It has mutations that let it spread more easily than the original SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. The rise of that variant, plus B.1.351 from South Africa and P.1 from Brazil, were among factors leading to a renewed focus on surveillance by sequencing — that is, cataloging the order of chemical subunits of the virus's genetic material. The Biden administration has pledged almost $200 million to boost the sequencing effort, and Congress approved a $1.75 billion infusion for a program of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that includes sequencing. Sequencing in the U.S. has been stymied by decentralized health providers and payers, a slow rise in testing and underfunding. The situation is improving, and the CDC and its partners are now reporting well over the agency's initial goal of 7,000 sequences per week. However, that's still far fewer than 5 percent of new cases, which some experts see as a good benchmark for genomic surveillance. Reading the SARS-CoV-2 genome is a key part of surveillance (which also includes testing, tracking cases, and contact tracing). Once a genetic sample from someone's nose or throat is confirmed to be COVID-19-positive, scientists take that sample — a DNA copy of the virus's RNA-based genome — and sequence all of it. They chop the genetic material into bits and use machines to read the sequence of genetic letters (the chemical bases known for short as A, C, T, and G) contained in those bits. They can figure out the whole viral genome from the overlapping pieces. The purpose of sequencing depends, in part, on the progress of the outbreak, says Steve Schaffner, a computational biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University. "In the very beginning, you need to know what it is that's infecting people," says Schaffner, who coauthored a summary of genome analysis during viral outbreaks for the Annual Review of Virology. For SARS-CoV-2, the sequences first obtained in China were quickly used to begin vaccine design. As the disease spread, scientists used differences in the sequences to build a sort of family tree for the virus, figuring out how it traveled from person to person and place to place. That has important implications for public health measures, says Schaffner. If a virus is spreading only locally, for example, then closing the borders won't do much good. Or if a disease tends to "superspread" from one person to many, as COVID-19 does, then contact tracing should focus on finding the first person to instigate a cluster of cases. Now, as the pandemic moves into its later stages (we hope) and the virus evolves, "all the focus is on these variants," says Schaffner.


42 Evolution News Articles
for May 2021

Evolution News Articles for April 2021