8-31-21 Covid-19 news: Pupils urged to take tests as they return to school
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Covid-19 surge in Scotland “a cautionary tale” as schools reopen in England. Students are being encouraged to take twice-weekly lateral flow tests to help prevent a surge in covid-19 transmission as the new school year begins across the UK. In England and Wales, rules concerning face masks, social distancing and “bubbles” have been relaxed, although some schools are choosing to keep extra precautions in place. The UK’s education secretary, Gavin Williamson, says it is not just a matter for schools. “Parents too have a responsibility to make sure that their children are tested regularly,” he wrote in a Daily Mail article. Scotland has seen a sharp rise in covid-19 infections with cases having doubled every week since 9 August, when most restrictions were eased. The surge is thought to be partly fuelled by children returning to school more than two weeks ago. On Sunday, 7113 cases were reported in Scotland, the highest daily figure ever. A new variant of the coronavirus known as C.1.2 has now spread to most provinces in South Africa and seven other countries in Africa, Europe, Asia and Oceania. The variant is still occurring at a much lower rate than the delta variant in South Africa, researchers say. Scientists have not yet determined how the variant compares with others and it has not been listed as a variant of interest or concern by the World Health Organization. However, researchers say it contains several mutations that have been linked to increased transmissibility and lower sensitivity to antibodies. A new vaccine developed by South Korean firm SK Bioscience has begun a late-stage clinical trial involving 4000 volunteers worldwide. The vaccine is being combined with an adjuvant – a drug that boosts the immune response – produced by GlaxoSmithKline, and will be compared with AstraZeneca’s vaccine in the trial.
8-30-21 Covid surge 'deeply worrying' in Europe as vaccinations dip - WHO
A spike in coronavirus infections and a slump in vaccination uptake is holding back Europe's effort to curb the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned. The WHO's Europe director, Hans Kluge, said a recent increase in Covid-19 cases and deaths was "deeply worrying". He blamed the more infectious Delta variant, the easing of restrictions and summer travel. Mr Kluge predicted Europe could record another 236,000 deaths by December. The WHO says the region has recorded more than 65 million confirmed cases and 1.3 million deaths since the start of the pandemic. Covid infections across Europe declined in April but started to creep back up again at the end of June. Mr Kluge said of the WHO Europe's 53 member states, 33 had registered an incidence rate greater than 10% in the past two weeks. In the week to 26 August, Russia, France, the UK, Turkey, and Spain recorded the most cases in Europe, according to EU data. Mr Kluge said countries in the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Central Asian republics had seen a particularly steep rise in cases, resulting in an increased burden on hospitals and deaths. In the past week, there had been an 11% increase in the number of deaths in the region, he said. The situation was a worrying one, he added, "particularly in the light of low vaccination uptake in priority populations in a number of countries". High-income European countries have among the highest rates of vaccination in the world. Data gathered by the EU shows that 29 countries in the region have given 75.1% of adults one dose, and 64.9% two. Europe is only second to Asia in terms of the total number of doses administered, according to figures collated by Our World in Data. However, in the past six weeks, vaccination uptake has slowed down, Mr Kluge said. He attributed the slump to "a lack of access to vaccines in some countries and a lack of vaccine acceptance in others". Only 6% of people in lower and lower-middle income countries in Europe are fully vaccinated, and some countries have only managed to vaccinate one in 10 health workers.
8-27-21 Study suggests new approach to fighting malaria reduces severe illness and deaths in kids
Researchers conducting a malaria trial in Burkina Faso and Mali found that when children received both seasonal vaccinations and antimalarial drugs, rather than just one intervention, there was a 70 percent drop in hospitalizations and deaths related to the disease, The Guardian reports. Their study was published Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine. Malaria is a mosquito-borne disease, and in 2019, 94 percent of cases and deaths were reported in Africa. The most vulnerable group is children 5 and under — in 2019, they accounted for 67 percent of malaria deaths worldwide, the World Health Organization said. The trial, led by a team from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, followed 6,000 children between five and 17 months living in Burkina Faso and Mali. The study lasted three years, with the children receiving a malaria vaccine known as RTS,S and four courses of antimalarial medications annually during the time of highest transmission: the rainy season. Researchers found that this combination of a vaccine and antimalarial drugs, compared to just the vaccine, reduced hospitalizations by 70.5 percent and death by 72.9 percent. Daniel Chandramohan, the study's co-lead author, told The Guardian the results of the trial "were much more successful than we had anticipated. Our work has shown a combination approach using a malarial vaccine seasonally — similar to how countries use influenza vaccine — has the potential to save millions of young lives in the African Sahel. Importantly, we didn't observe any new concerning pattern of side effects."
8-27-21 Woman loses ability to feel hungry after stroke damages her brain
A young woman who lost the sensation of hunger after a stroke may help us explain how we regulate food intake, and improve our understanding of one of the most mysterious areas of the brain. The unique case study of what has happened to her might even help us develop new treatments for obesity. The 28-year-old Canadian woman was hospitalised after feeling weak on one side of her body and having trouble speaking. Brain imaging showed that she had experienced a stroke in a brain area called the insular cortex. Soon after having the stroke, the woman noticed a strange aftertaste of iron whenever she ate anything. This resolved after a few weeks, but then she noticed that she never felt hungry any more, even when she hadn’t eaten for a long time. Because she wasn’t hungry, the woman often forgot to eat and lost more than 10 kilograms in weight. “She had no way of knowing when it was time to eat and had to create a meal schedule,” says Benjamin Hébert-Seropian at the University of Quebec in Montreal, Canada, who wrote her case report. The woman could still taste, smell and sense the texture of food, but found she only tended to eat about half as much as usual because she no longer enjoyed eating. Even chocolate, her favourite food, gave her no pleasure. The woman’s hunger finally came back about 15 months after the stroke. Her case adds to emerging clues that the insular cortex – also known as the insula – is involved in the brain circuits that motivate us to eat, says Hébert-Seropian. The insula is one of the least understood parts of the brain because it is tucked deep inside the folds of this organ. It appears to have a diverse set of functions, involved in consciousness, empathy and pain. But there is growing evidence that it also helps to process signals from different parts of the body in order to assess our internal bodily state – for example, whether we are hungry or full, warm or cold, or tired or rested.
8-26-21 Opioid levels in US wastewater spiked during the early pandemic months
Use of some illicit drugs decreased in the US during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, while prescription opioid use skyrocketed, according to an analysis of wastewater. Bikram Subedi and his colleagues at Murray State University in Kentucky analysed wastewater gathered from two communities in western Kentucky and northern Tennessee between March and July 2020. Wastewater is water flushed down toilets and sinks from homes that ends up at a sewage treatment plant. “Wastewater has many different types of biomarkers that tell us a lot of things about what’s going on in our community,” says Subedi. “It’s an almost near-real-time approach.” The samples were analysed for levels of 10 illegal drugs and 19 prescription drugs that are commonly abused. Between March and July 2020, levels of the opioid-based painkiller hydrocodone in the wastewater increased by 72 per cent. By July 2020, 430 milligrams per day per 1000 people was found in the wastewater. By comparison, the levels of methamphetamine found dropped 16 per cent over the same time period, and cocaine levels dropped 42 per cent. Concentration levels of prescription antidepressants increased between 7 and 40 per cent, depending on the drug, while anti-anxiety drugs like temazepam and alprazolam increased by nearly 30 per cent. Subedi hypothesises that the decrease in illicit drugs such as cocaine was caused by a tightening of travel restrictions and economic effects of the pandemic. “People could not get it, and they’re expensive drugs,” he says. “People couldn’t afford it: people lost their jobs.” Likewise, he believes the rise in prescription drugs found in wastewater was enabled by the shift to telemedicine by doctors making it easier to get prescriptions for opioids.
8-26-21 New species of ancient four-legged whale discovered in Egypt
Scientists in Egypt have identified a new species of four-legged whale that lived around 43 million years ago. The fossil of the amphibious Phiomicetus anubis was originally discovered in Egypt's Western Desert. Its skull resembles that of Anubis, the ancient Egyptian jackal-headed god of the dead after which it was named. The ancestors of modern whales developed from deer-like mammals that lived on land over the course of 10 million years. Weighing an estimated 600kg and three metres (10ft) in length, the Phiomicetus anubis had strong jaws to catch prey, according to the study published by the Proceedings of the Royal Society B on Wednesday. The whale was able to walk on land and swim in water. The partial skeleton was found in Egypt's Fayum Depression and analysed by scientists at Mansoura University. Although the area is now desert, it was once covered by sea and is a rich source of fossils. "Phiomicetus anubis is a key new whale species, and a critical discovery for Egyptian and African palaeontology," the study's lead author, Abdullah Gohar, told Reuters news agency. While this is not the first time the fossil of a whale with legs has been found, the Phiomicetus anubis is believed to be the earliest type of semi-aquatic whale to be discovered in Africa. The first whales are thought to have first evolved in South Asia around 50 million years ago. In 2011, a team of palaeontologists in Peru discovered a 43-million-year-old whale fossil with four legs, webbed feet and hooves.
8-26-21 Trial suggests malaria sickness could be cut by 70%
A new approach to protecting young African children from malaria could reduce deaths and illness from the disease by 70%, a study suggests. Giving them vaccines before the worst season in addition to preventative drugs produced "very striking" results, London researchers say. The trial followed 6,000 children aged under 17 months in Burkina Faso and Mali. Most of the 400,000 deaths from malaria each year are in the under-fives. And the mosquito-borne disease is still a major health issue in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. This trial, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, focused on giving very young children a vaccine already in use and anti-malarial drugs at the time of year they are most vulnerable - often the rainy season (from June in Burkina Faso), when mosquitoes multiply. "It worked better than we thought would be the case," said Prof Brian Greenwood, a member of the research team, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), which led the trial. "Hospital admissions were less, deaths were less in both countries - and we really didn't expect to see that." Over three years, the trial found three doses of the vaccine and drugs before the worst malaria season, followed by a booster dose before subsequent rainy seasons, controlled infections much better than vaccines or drugs alone - and, the researchers said, could save millions of young lives in the African Sahel. Scientists say the combined effects of the vaccine and drugs in the trial appear to be surprisingly powerful. The vaccine - called RTS,S and created by GlaxoSmithKline more than 20 years ago - kills parasites that multiply very quickly in the liver, while anti-malarial drugs target parasites in the body's red blood cells. Flu vaccines have been used seasonally, to protect people ahead of winter, for many years - but it has rarely been tried for malaria.The World Health Organization's global malaria programme director, Dr Pedro Alonso, said: "We welcome this innovative use of a malaria vaccine to prevent disease and death in highly seasonal areas in Africa."
8-26-21 Ancient DNA shows the peopling of Southeast Asian islands was surprisingly complex
A 7,300-year-old skeleton had deep East Asian roots and a Denisovan heritage. A young woman who lived on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi as early as around 7,300 years ago had a surprisingly ancient East Asian pedigree, mixed with a dash of Denisovan ancestry, a new study finds. Researchers excavated the woman’s partial skeleton from South Sulawesi’s Leang Panninge cave. An analysis of her DNA shows that she was a descendent of mainly East Asian Homo sapiens who probably reached the tropical outpost at least 50,000 years ago, researchers report August 25 in Nature. Until now, many scientists thought that skilled mariners and farmers called Austronesians first spread East Asian genes through Wallacea, a group of islands between mainland Asia and Australia that includes Sulawesi, Lombok and Flores, around 3,500 years ago. The ancient Sulawesi woman’s DNA “provides the first indication that an Asian ancestry was present in Wallacea long before the Austronesian expansion,” says archaeologist Adam Brumm of Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. Indonesian archaeologists who unearthed the skeleton — and who coauthored the new study with Brumm, population geneticist Selina Carlhoff of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, and other colleagues — nicknamed the young woman, who was 17 or 18 years old when she died, Besse (pronounced BESS-eh). In ethnic communities of South Sulawesi, Besse is an affectionate term for individual girls and women. After arriving on Sulawesi, the woman’s ancestors mated with Denisovans who already inhabited the island, the investigators suspect. Known mainly from ancient DNA samples, Denisovans are a group of mysterious ancient hominids who date to as early as around 300,000 years ago in Siberia and survived on nearby Papua New Guinea until as late as 30,000 to 15,000 years ago (SN: 3/29/19).
8-26-21 This big-headed pterosaur may have preferred walking over flying
A long neck and an oversize noggin mostly grounded one ancient reptile, fossil suggests. In 2013, a police raid at Santos Harbor in Brazil recovered about 30,000 smuggled fossils, including the most intact specimen of a type of big-headed pterosaur ever found. A new analysis of the fossil provides insight into the flying reptile’s foraging style, flight capability and anatomy, researchers report August 25 in PLOS ONE. Identified as Tupandactylus navigans, the fossil is a member of a group of pterosaurs called tapejarids. These pterosaurs are known for their oversize, crested skulls, and hail from the early Cretaceous Period, which lasted from about 145 million to 100 million years ago. Some well-preserved tapejarid fossils have been found in China, but they aren’t as complete as the newly analyzed fossil, and the pterosaur’s anatomy hadn’t been fully described. “This is the first time we have the full skull and the full [body],” says Victor Beccari, a paleontologist at the NOVA School of Science & Technology in Caparica, Portugal. When Beccari’s team received the fossil in 2016, it had already been cut into six blocks. “It’s a shame,” Beccari says, “but we used it to our advantage.” The researchers fit the sliced pieces inside a CT scanner, and then used the scans to produce a 3-D model of the pterosaur’s skeleton that revealed parts still buried inside rock. Previous studies suggested that tapejarids had a short, stout neck to support their large head during flight. But Beccari’s team showed that the neck accounted for over half of the spine’s length, which could have made sustained flight difficult. The fossil’s long hind legs and relatively short arms hint that tapejarids could have been comfortable walking. These observations suggest that T. navigans may have behaved similarly to peacocks, Beccari says. The tapejarid’s crest probably attracted mates, and the pterosaur may have flown to treetops to look for food or escape from predators, he says. “But it spent most of its time walking on the ground.”
8-25-21 Why do humans show their teeth to signal friendship or mirth?
Grinning or baring the teeth is usually a sign of aggression in animals, so at what point did it become advantageous for humans to use this to signal friendship or mirth? Frightened babies expose their teeth; happy babies stretch their lips without extreme tooth exposure. Other primates expose their teeth with open mouth when threatened or with the mouth nearly closed in submission. Psychologists and animal behaviourists have invoked the notion of “primary process” – a sort of primitive signalling. It lacks details like negatives, tenses etc. Thus a dog can’t tell another dog: “I will not bite you.” Instead, it has to initiate biting, and then stop, which in itself signals: “I will not bite.” Similarly, perhaps, a human baring of teeth without a follow-up assault indicates friendship. Perhaps doing this smile-like, with a nearly closed mouth, indicates submission, necessary for friendship. This may be analogous to the handshake, thought to be a voluntary act of submitting to another’s control. The meaning of a smile varies by culture. Many readers of this column might regard a smile as a positive signal, but in some cultures it can be viewed with distrust or suspicion, or as a signal of embarrassment or guilt. Primates flash their impressive canine teeth often and for many reasons we do not. Typically, they do so to show gender, rank, dominance and aggression. But sometimes it is just human-like yawning or mirth. These signals can be seen at great distance and allow groups to display their strength without getting dangerously close. Humans, however, are very different because our canines are small remnants. In contrast to almost all other primates, our teeth and bodies have lower sexual dimorphism too. Human smiles tend to attract unthreatening attention, unlike in apes. Grinning or baring our teeth can still be a sign of aggression, even though we don’t realise it. It is a reaction to anything unexpected (and therefore threatening): “Watch out, I can defend myself by biting you!” As this display makes the threat go away, it gives us a feeling of relief, which may be why laughing makes us feel good. And making another person feel good strengthens friendship.
8-25-21 Injected hydrogel could help regenerate damaged cartilage in joints
A new hydrogel could help improve the treatment of damaged cartilage in knees and other joints. The unique properties of the gel, which provides a scaffold for cartilage cells to grow on, allow it to be implanted via keyhole surgery. “We will start human trials soon,” says Qiuning Lin at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China. The key property of the gel developed by Lin and her colleagues is that it doesn’t set until exposed to ultraviolet light for around 10 seconds and then does so quickly. It also binds strongly to surrounding cartilage and is strong enough to maintain its shape over the months required for new cartilage to grow. Treating cartilage injuries is difficult because the tissue doesn’t heal well, if at all, in adults. It is possible to try to repair cartilage by implanting cartilage cells – usually taken from the person being treated – to regenerate damaged areas. While this has been done since 1987, there are many difficulties. One of the main challenges has been firmly fixing the cells in the damaged area, says Lin. One method is to apply a patch to hold them in place, but this requires open surgery rather than a keyhole operation, meaning it takes people much longer to recover and they cannot put weight on the joint for an extended period. The gel may solve the problem. It can be applied during keyhole surgery and keeps cells in place once set. In tests in pigs, cartilage defects were well-healed six months after the gel, loaded with cartilage cells, was applied. When the gel was applied without these cells, there was little healing. The animal studies involved treating damaged articular cartilage, the cartilage covering the end of bones. However, many knee injuries involve damage to the meniscus, the cartilage that sits in between the bones. Further animal studies would be needed to establish if repairing the meniscus is feasible, says Lin.
8-25-21 MRI has been used to reveal epigenetic changes in brain for first time
A new form of magnetic resonance imaging can reveal where so-called epigenetic changes have occurred in the brain. The technique, which requires a special diet, can image chemical labels added to DNA. Epigenetic MRI, or eMRI as the team call it, has only been tested on piglets so far, but should work in people, too. “We expect eMRI to be readily translated to humans and thus enable many new investigations into the epigenetic basis of brain function, behavior, and disease,” write King Li and Gene Robinson at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and their colleagues. Functional MRI has revealed much about the brain by detecting which parts are active at any one moment. It is now even possible to reconstruct what people are seeing from fMRI scans. Over a longer period, changes in the activity of genes are thought to play an important role in learning and memory. One of the ways gene activity can be changed is by adding labels to DNA that suppress gene activity, with so-called methyl groups being the most common label. Until now, there has been no non-invasive way to study epigenetic changes in the brain. It requires cutting brains into bits or genetically modifying animals. But eMRI simply involves eating a special diet in which all forms of the amino acid methionine – one of the building blocks of proteins – contain the carbon-13 isotope. Normally, only about 1 in 100 carbon atoms is carbon-13. Methionine is the source of the methyl groups added to DNA. So, after being on the diet for a while – the piglets were fed a special milk with substituted amino acids for 10 or 32 days – all the newly added methyl groups in the brain will contain carbon-13, which is detectable by a form of MRI. Those fed for longer periods had more labels detected. The carbon-13 is incorporated into other molecules too, but the team says methyl groups have distinctive properties that enable them to be distinguished.
8-25-21 Endometriosis genetic discovery may lead to new forms of treatment
Endometriosis-like symptoms can be treated in mice by targeting a gene that has been linked to the condition. Endometriosis occurs when tissue from the uterus spreads to other areas like the ovaries and bladder. It affects up to one in 10 women and can cause intense pelvic pain and infertility. The available treatments – which include surgery and injectable hormones – often don’t work and can cause unpleasant side effects. To better understand the condition, Thomas Tapmeier at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and his colleagues studied 100 women with endometriosis who each had several relatives with the condition, hinting at a genetic influence. About a quarter of the women had variations in a gene called NPSR1. Analysis of another 3000 women with endometriosis showed that those with moderate to severe disease were also more likely to have variations in the NPSR1 gene. Other NPSR1 gene variants have been linked with inflammatory conditions like asthma, allergies and arthritis, making it plausible that the gene plays a role in the chronic inflammation associated with endometriosis, says Tapmeier. Following this discovery, the researchers wondered if targeting NPSR1 could help to treat endometriosis. To explore this idea, they gave female mice endometriosis-like symptoms by implanting uterus tissue in other parts of their pelvises. They then treated them with a molecule called SHA 68R, which inhibits the receptor encoded by NPSR1. The mice treated with the inhibitor appeared to have less abdominal pain than untreated mice and had lower levels of inflammation. This hints that targeting NPSR1 may also help women with endometriosis, says Tapmeier. However, the approach may not work for all patients, since not everyone with endometriosis has a variation in the NPSR1 gene, he says. It’s also unclear whether treatment would cause side effects, he says.
8-25-21 Connecting with nature is good, but can apps help us do it better?
Time spent in nature has huge benefits for our mental and physical health, and few of us get enough of it. A range of apps aim to help us do it better – but do they work? I AM not an appy person. Technology generally makes me glum. I was the last person I know to get a smartphone. I shop in real shops, and like to read on thinly sliced tree. I was on social media for all of six months before I found the angst, bile and FOMO outweighed the LOLZ. Call me a stick-in-the-mud. In fact do, because instead of head stuck in screen, I would far rather be out getting my legs dirty somewhere glorious and green. And pardon me if you disagree, but I’m right and you’re wrong. We can leave the debate about whether screen time is of itself good, bad or indifferent for our psyches to another time. We do know that time spent outdoors in natural spaces is phenomenally beneficial, not just for our physical health, but for our mental well-being, too – and that our modern, indoor, sedentary, tech-led lives are increasingly lacking it. Tech itself seems to be trying to ride to the rescue. Countless smartphone apps now aim to increase our appreciation of the great outdoors, from route planners and fitness apps to plant identifiers and birdsong recorders, via any manner of mindfulness widgets. To my mind, that’s like fighting fire with fire. But hey, we like evidence around here. So I fired up my phone, loaded it with apps and headed for the great green yonder to find out whether tech could increase my connection with nature – and through that, perhaps understand a little more about why it’s so darn good for us. “Outdoorsy technophobe – I can certainly relate to that,” says Mathew White, when I explain my project to him. An environmental psychologist at the University of Vienna in Austria, he seeks to tease out the connections between nature exposure and mental well-being in his research. “The effects are relatively small compared to other things that are important for our mental health: our relationships, our employment status, yadda yadda yadda,” he says. “But there’s a consistent positive relationship that we know of through every conceivable type of research.” The benefits come in the form of boosted happiness, social drive, creativity and cognitive function, as well as reduced susceptibility to negative states of mind from anxiety to depression.
8-25-21 We can track antibiotic resistance in wild bears’ tooth plaque
The mouth bacteria of wild bears in Sweden hold a historical record of human antibiotic use and the rise of antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics are used widely in medicine and agriculture, and can leak into the environment via untreated waste water. Wild animals can then encounter contaminated water, soil or food sources, and play a role in the evolution of antibiotic resistance. To track changes in antibiotic resistance over time, Jaelle Brealey, then at Uppsala University in Sweden, and her colleagues sequenced the oral microbiomes of Swedish brown bears, using museum specimens dated from 1842 to 2016. They did this by extracting genetic material from the hardened tooth plaque of each bear. “This is bacteria that we brush off every morning and every evening when we clean our teeth,” says team member Katerina Guschanski, also at Uppsala University, “but bears don’t have oral hygiene.” They found that the presence of antibiotic resistance genes in the bear samples closely mirrored records of human antibiotic use. An initial low level of natural antibiotic resistance nearly doubled after large-scale industrial production of antibiotics began in the 1940s. Brealey says the finding shows how much antibiotics have contaminated the natural world, “to the point where we can see it in a wild animal that isn’t closely associated with humans”. The researchers also found a fall in the prevalence of resistance genes over the past 20 years, coinciding with Sweden implementing policies to mitigate antibiotic resistance. These policies included banning the use of antibiotics as growth promoters for farm animals, regulating the sale of antibiotics and launching awareness campaigns targeting both doctors and the general public. “Human actions do have an impact on the environment, even in quite surprising ways,” says Brealey. “At the same time, good policy can actually somewhat reverse that effect.”
8-24-21 Kidney test adjustment based on ethnicity cut from UK medical guidance
A controversial recommendation to adjust kidney test results based on a person’s ethnicity has been removed from UK medical guidance. Kidney function is routinely assessed using an equation that estimates the rate at which a person’s kidneys filter waste, known as their estimated glomerular filtration rate (eGFR). Until 25 August, guidelines from the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommended applying “a correction factor to GFR values… for people of African-Caribbean or African family origin”. In an updated version of the guidance, this recommendation to adjust eGFR based on ethnicity has been removed. The updated NICE guidance comes as a growing number of doctors and researchers have been questioning the use of race and ethnicity adjustments in medical tests, and highlighting the lack of evidence to support their use and the potential harm they can cause. A recent study led by Rouvick Gama and Kate Bramham at King’s College Hospital in London found that the use of ethnicity adjustment in eGFR equations overestimates actual GFR in Black people by about 25 per cent. This may lead to reduced diagnosis of chronic kidney disease and underestimation of disease severity among Black people in the UK, they concluded. “We welcome and support this change and are encouraging all renal services to work with clinical laboratories and/or electronic clinical system developers to remove the adjustment for Black ethnicity from eGFR creatinine reports,” says Paul Cockwell, president of the UK Kidney Association. “Ethnicity and race are social constructs and do not match genetic categories,” he says. “Adjusting for kidney function based on ethnicity could lead to an overestimation of kidney function and potential inequality in delivery of care.”
8-24-21 It really is difficult to get fit after giving birth, study reveals
Getting back into shape after having a baby is hard, even for women who were fit and strong before becoming pregnant, a new study shows. Pregnancy is known to put stress on many parts of the body, including the heart, lungs, muscles and joints. But little research has been done to assess the long-term effects of pregnancy on people’s fitness. David DeGroot at Martin Army Community Hospital in Fort Benning, Georgia, and his colleagues studied the impact of pregnancy on the fitness of 460 women who became pregnant while in the military. Before they became pregnant, the women had high levels of fitness as a requirement of being active-duty soldiers. They continued modified fitness training during pregnancy and most returned to regular training by 12 weeks after giving birth. Even with this dedicated training, many of the women struggled to regain their fitness. One year after giving birth, only 30 per cent were able to obtain the same score as they had pre-pregnancy in the US Army Physical Fitness Test, which involves sit-ups, push-ups and a timed 2-mile (3.2 kilometre) run. By three years after delivery, 75 per cent matched their pre-pregnancy scores. The soldiers’ sit-up abilities and running times declined the most. “For push-ups, it’s relatively easy to retrain your shoulders and pecs, but sit-ups are harder because your abdominal muscles are really stretched during pregnancy,” says Wendy Brown at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. “It can take a long time – if ever – for them to get back to how they were before.” The women’s running times probably slowed because it takes a while to shed excess pregnancy weight, says Brown. They were carrying 2 extra kilograms on average when weighed six months after giving birth compared with pre-pregnancy.
8-23-21 Everyone maps numbers in space. But why don’t we all use the same directions?
For Westerners, numbers and time run left to right. For some Bolivians, any direction will do. Consider a ruler, a timeline or even weights lined up in a gym. Why are the smaller values, the earlier times and the lighter weights typically on the left and the larger or later values on the right? Since at least the early 1990s, researchers have debated whether these mental number lines, or the tendency to order numerically from left to right, are innate or learned. In more recent years, this debate has broadened from mental number lines to mental magnitude lines: the human tendency to map any abstract idea, such as numbers, time and even facial expressions, in three-dimensional space. Now, an August 11 study in Science Advances, comparing mostly adult Indigenous farmer-foragers in Bolivia to U.S. preschoolers and adults has fallen squarely on the learning or culture side, adding fresh fuel to the debate. For these Bolivians, known as the Tsimane people, “numbers increase in one direction. Time increases in one direction. Size increases in one direction. But any direction will do,” says cognitive scientist Benjamin Pitt of the University of California, Berkeley. In other words, with little formal schooling telling them which way to position numbers in space, the Tsimane people do not care, in theory, if heavier dumbbells sit on the right or the left. More than an esoteric debate, researchers suspect that understanding how humans map abstract ideas in space could provide clues about the development of spatial reasoning. The thinking is that these maps “are a foundation upon which later mathematical and spatial abilities build,” says cognitive scientist Kensy Cooperrider, who recently completed his postdoctoral work at the University of Chicago and is now based in San Diego.
8-23-21 Wuhan lab leak theory: How Fort Detrick became a centre for Chinese conspiracies
A disinformation campaign claiming that the Covid-19 virus originated from an American military base in Maryland has gained popularity in China ahead of the release of a US intelligence report on the virus origins. In May, US president Joe Biden ordered a 90-day probe into whether the Covid-19 virus came from a lab accident or emerged from human contact with an infected animal. Until then, the "Wuhan lab leak" theory had been dismissed by most scientists as a fringe conspiracy theory. But now as the report is due to be released, China has gone on the offensive. In the past few weeks, Chinese sources have been amplifying a baseless claim that Covid-19 was made in the US. Using everything from rap music to fake Facebook posts, experts say the propaganda efforts have been successful at convincing the domestic Chinese audience to cast scepticism on international criticism of the country's role in the Covid-19 pandemic. But, experts say, it has done little to legitimise China to the outside world. Most Americans may have never heard of Fort Detrick, but it is becoming a household name in China. Chinese propagandists have pushed a conspiracy suggesting that the Covid-19 coronavirus was made and leaked from the military installation in Frederick, Maryland, about 80 km (50 miles) north of Washington DC. Once the centre of the US biological weapons programme, it currently houses biomedical labs researching viruses including Ebola and smallpox. Its complicated history has sparked speculation in China. A rap song by the Chinese nationalist group CD Rev suggesting nefarious plots being hatched by the lab was recently endorsed by Zhao Lijian, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman. The rhythms of the song -"How many plots came out of your lab/How many dead bodies hanging a tag/What are you hiding/Open the door to Fort Detrick" - are awkward, but its sentiment "speaks our mind," Mr Zhao wrote in a tweet in August.
8-20-21 ‘Ghost games’ spotlight the psychological effect fans have on referees
With stands empty, European soccer teams playing at home receive more foul calls. When the fans are away, the home team loses its sway, new research suggests. During the 2019–2020 season, European soccer teams played in front of vacant stadium seats due to COVID-19 (SN: 3/13/20). Home teams won less, lost more and tied about the same, compared with the season before the pandemic, researchers report August 19 in Frontiers in Sports and Active Living. What’s more, referees doled out much more foul calls to home teams than before during these crowdless “ghost games.” The findings add to evidence that fans influence home team advantage — the phenomenon where athletes tend to do better on their own turf. “No fans, no home advantage,” says sports psychologist Fabio Richlan of the University of Salzburg in Austria. Richlan and Michael Leitner, a sports psychologist also at the University of Salzburg, compared the outcomes of 645 games for the 2018–2019 season with the outcomes of 641 ghost games for the 2019–2020 season. Countries included in the analysis were Spain, England, Germany, Italy, Russia, Turkey, Austria and Czech Republic. With stands mostly or entirely empty, home team win rate decreased by 8.3 percentage points, from 48.1 percent to 39.8 percent, the researchers found. Meanwhile, loss rate increased by 8.4 percentage points, from 27.6 percent to 36 percent. To examine how fan pressure on referees might have contributed to the discrepancy, the researchers looked at how often referees issued foul calls in the form of yellow cards. With fans absent, foul calls against home teams increased by around 26 percent, while calls against away teams increased by only about 3 percent.“Referees indeed give advantage to the home teams, because of the crowds,” Leitner says. But the findings suggest that referee bias tends to disappear when fans do. While it’s natural for people to change their opinions under pressure from others, Leitner says, hopefully this work can help referees become more aware of their biases. “When you know it, you can train against it.”
8-20-21 How fossilization preserved a 310-million-year-old horseshoe crab’s brain
A newly analyzed specimen is a ‘one-in-a-million’ find, researchers say. Paleontologists can spend years carefully splitting rocks in search of the perfect fossil. But with a 310-million-year-old horseshoe crab brain, nature did the work, breaking the fossil in just the right way to reveal the ancient arthropod’s central nervous system. Of all soft tissues, brains are notoriously difficult to preserve in any form (SN: 10/31/16). Stumbling across such a detailed specimen purely by chance was “a one-in-a-million find, if not rarer,” says evolutionary paleontologist Russell Bicknell of the University of New England in Armidale, Australia. The fossilized brain is remarkably similar to the brains of modern horseshoe crabs, giving clues to the arthropods’ evolution, Bicknell and colleagues report July 26 in Geology. And the brain’s peculiar mode of preservation could point paleontologists toward new places to look for hard-to-find fossils of soft tissues. Horseshoe crabs have a fossil record spanning roughly 445 million years. But having a long fossil record is one thing. For many animals, including the crabs, fossils of their soft tissues are extremely uncommon because the tissues tend to degrade far quicker than fossilization can occur. Finding the delicate fatty structures that form a brain preserved in rock is especially rare. Only about 20 samples of fossilized arthropod neural tissue have been identified to date. The newly described brain — part of a larger fossil of the extinct Euproops danae that Bicknell found at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History — was originally dug up from the Mazon Creek fossil beds roughly an hour southwest of Chicago. That site is one of the only known places in the world that could have saved thebrain’s structure, says paleontologist Victoria McCoy of the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.
8-19-21 Delivering mRNA inside a human protein could help treat many diseases
A way of packaging messenger RNA inside a human protein might make it much easier to deliver mRNA to cells in specific organs. This would allow mRNA to be used to treat a wider range of conditions, from inherited diseases to autoimmune disorders to cancers. Using a human protein shouldn’t provoke an immune response, meaning people can be given repeated doses of the same treatment. “This protein is found in the human bloodstream,” says Feng Zhang at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Massachusetts. “We feel it is not immunogenic,” he says, meaning it wouldn’t trigger the body to reject it. The success of the leading coronavirus vaccines has demonstrated the great potential of the mRNA approach. Instead of making proteins in factories, which is difficult and expensive, this technique is based on delivering genes instead and letting the body do the hard work of making proteins. The mRNAs are copies of genes that don’t get integrated into cells’ genomes and break down after a few days, so their effect is temporary, like a conventional drug. But delivering genes to cells is tricky. One approach, used in the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, is to package them inside the shell of a virus. The trouble is that the immune system targets the viral shell, so individuals can’t be dosed repeatedly. In the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna covid-19 vaccines, mRNA is instead encapsulated in oily droplets called lipid nanoparticles, injected directly into the muscles in your arm. These don’t provoke an immune reaction, but if lipid nanoparticles are injected into the bloodstream, they get mopped up by the liver within half an hour. This is ideal for, say, treating protein deficiencies in the liver, but not for treating brain or heart disorders. Zhang’s method could combine the advantages of both approaches. He and his colleagues have shown that mRNAs can be packaged inside a human protein called PEG10 that forms virus-like particles. PEG10 originally derives from a kind of genetic parasite called a retrotransposon, but the protein was co-opted by mammals early in their evolution and now plays a key role in the development of the placenta.
8-19-21 Modern humans evolved not to swing our hips as much as chimpanzees
Humans have lost their swing. Chimpanzees and other great apes swing their hips when they walk, but modern humans don’t. This means our strides are shorter than those of chimpanzees, even though our legs are proportionally longer. “We’ve always had this idea that evolution has been acting on fossil humans to make strides longer and longer,” says Nathan Thompson at the New York Institute of Technology. But, in fact, “humans right now could make our strides longer, but we don’t.” A defining feature of humans and other hominins is that we are bipedal, walking upright on two legs. This contrasts with chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, which can walk on two legs, but also on four legs by “knuckle-walking”. The transition to habitual bipedality was one of the most crucial steps in our evolutionary past. But it isn’t clear why our ancestors started walking that way. “That’s still the million-dollar question,” says Thompson. One idea is that walking bipedally and having long legs allows us to take bigger strides. “The idea is that humans have these really long strides and that’s part of what makes us a really economical biped,” says Thompson. But studies of humans walking show that human strides are quite short, given our leg length. To find out what is happening, Thompson and his colleagues asked 10 volunteers to walk on treadmills, using motion capture to record their precise movements. They compared this to existing data on chimpanzee gait. Compared with the chimps, the humans rotated their pelvises much less. “We found chimpanzees, when they’re bipedal, they rotate their pelvis like three to four times more than humans do,” says Thompson. That gave them longer strides.Humans are anatomically capable of rotating their pelvises while walking, says Thompson. Race walkers, who must go as fast as possible while always having one foot in contact with the ground, do it a lot. But for some reason, we don’t routinely do it.
8-19-21 Will plastic barriers help control COVID in classrooms and offices? Research says probably not.
As reopening schools and offices weigh their options for protecting students and workers from COVID-19, there's one method in particular they might consider kicking to the curb — plastic barriers, reports The New York Times. Although further research is needed, aerosol experts agree that desk shields are unlikely to help curb the spread of COVID, in some instances perhaps even promoting transmission by changing the air flow in a room, creating "dead zones" of concentrated aerosols, and redirecting the germs to another person, says the Times. "If there are aerosol particles in the classroom air, those shields around students won't protect them," said Richard Corsi, the incoming dean of engineering at the University of California, Davis. "Depending on the air flow conditions in the room, you can get a downdraft into those little spaces that you're now confined in and cause particles to concentrate in your space." Those built-up particles can then float around the "forest of barriers" and spread beyond one individual desk or cubicle, said Linsey Marr, one of the world's leading experts on viral transmission. Shields might prove helpful in specific instances — like halting the big droplets emitted during coughs and sneezes — but not particularly in trapping the "unseen aerosol particles" by which COVID-19 spreads. "The smaller aerosols travel over the screen and become mixed in the room air within about five minutes," said Catherine Noakes, a professor at the University of Leeds in England. "This means if people are interacting for more than a few minutes, they would likely be exposed to the virus regardless of the screen." In lieu of plastic barriers, aerosol scientists suggest schools and workplaces focus on encouraging vaccinations, improving ventilation, adding HEPA air filtering machines when needed, and requiring masks to curb COVID transmission. Read more at The New York Times.
8-19-21 Amazing 3D images show the coronavirus infecting human airway cells
A team in the Netherlands has managed to capture 3D images of human airway cells infected by SARS-CoV-2 using an extraordinary microscopic technique. The images show how the coronavirus alters the structure of the cells it infects, and might help drug development. Researchers at Utrecht University grew cells taken from the noses of healthy volunteers and infected some of the cells with the coronavirus. They then stained the cells with fluorescent dyes that bind to fatty membranes (the blue parts at the start of the video above), proteins (the magenta parts at the start of the video) and the spike protein of the coronavirus (the purple dots appearing from 0:17 onwards). Next, the cells were cut up by enzymes and embedded in a gel. When water is added to the gel, it swells, enlarging the embedded structures. The technique (called expansion microscopy) was developed by other groups, but these researchers improved on it, enabling them to enlarge samples tenfold in each dimension. This means optical microscopes can effectively view structures just 20 nanometres wide – including the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is around 100 nanometres in diameter – whereas normally they can’t properly view objects smaller than 200 nanometres across. The resulting images show that large membrane-bound structures involved in virus formation appear inside infected airway cells. By staining a specific protein, the team identified these structures as so-called multivesicular bodies that have grown abnormally large. They have also been seen in electron microscope images of cells infected by SARS-CoV-2, but their identity wasn’t clear. The surfaces of human airway cells are covered in two kinds of hair-like structures. The larger ones, called cilia, beat to move mucus along the airways and keep them clear of dust. Then there are the smaller microvilli that increase cells’ surface area to help with absorption.
8-19-21 How coronavirus vaccines still help people who already had COVID-19
Past coronavirus infections offer some protection, but vaccines give the immune system a boost. Some people who have been infected with coronavirus have questioned whether they really need vaccines. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people get vaccinated regardless of whether they’ve already had COVID-19. That’s in part because it’s still unclear how long immunity lasts after an infection. Studies have shown that antibodies hang around in the blood for at least eight months after getting sick, but some recovered patients have gotten reinfected (SN: 6/11/21; SN: 8/24/20). COVID-19 jabs give the immune systems of people who were previously infected an extra leg up to fight the coronavirus, including against new, more transmissible variants, other research shows. And because the delta variant, first identified in India, can spread among vaccinated people, that extra layer of protection for recovered patients is probably helpful (SN: 7/30/21). “If you’ve had exposure to COVID before, don’t think you’re immune to variants,” says Benjamin Ollivere, a trauma surgeon who studies COVID-19 at the University of Nottingham in England. “Have your vaccines.” Now, the evidence that even recovered people benefit from the shots is mounting. Based on the latest studies, here’s what experts know about past infections and getting vaccinated. One vaccine dose might be sufficient to protect people who have already had COVID-19, lab-based studies suggest (SN: 3/3/21). One shot for those who recovered from a prior infection boosts virus-attacking antibodies to levels similar to those of vaccinated people who got two doses of an mRNA vaccine, researchers reported August 6 in JAMA. A second dose, however, didn’t further increase antibody levels for previously infected people.
8-18-21 What is the evolutionary reason for superstitious behaviour?
Superstition is rooted in a mismatched correlation between cause and effect. A superstition is an irrational belief that can lead to the performance of various rituals. These can be explained by so-called operant conditioning principles, where a chance occurrence is linked with a positive outcome, which then increases the likelihood of repeating the behaviour. It is said that the psychologist B. F. Skinner discovered many of the functions of this reinforcement by chance when a disruption to the automated food system for pigeons in his lab led to food being dispensed irregularly. When this happened, Skinner found that some of the pigeons developed odd behaviours such as turning around or going into a particular corner, then returning to face the food dispenser expectantly. A coincidental reinforcement had led to the random behaviour becoming a fixed response. These findings were reported in a 1948 paper titled “Superstition” in the pigeon. Humans are even more likely to develop superstitions due to our tendencies to cognitive fallacies such as confirmation bias, where we tend to interpret outcomes in line with our pre-existing beliefs. A lecture I give as part of a psychology applied to sport course explains this situation to students, many of whom are involved in sporting activities and may engage in such behaviours. In any sport, by chance, an action could lead to a point or goal a certain percentage of the time. Activities which, in the past, had been followed by a positive outcome (for example, a goalkeeper touching the goalposts and then making a save) are likely to be repeated – not because they actually have any effect, but simply because of the coincidental reinforcement.
8-18-21 How to help fight the covid-19 litter pandemic
THE covid-19 pandemic has changed the litter we generate. Increased use of personal protective equipment (PPE) has added to a pandemic of plastic pollution, particularly medical face masks. Now, researchers are investigating how this wave of “covid litter” is affecting wildlife – and they need your help. The Covid Litter project is calling on volunteers worldwide to record observations and submit photographs or videos of animals they see interacting with PPE litter –for instance, carrying the litter, playing with it, being trapped in it or using it as nesting material. You can submit your observations at covidlitter.com. As well as photographs or videos, you can share information on the species you observed, the type of PPE litter (face mask or glove) and the nature of the interaction, as well as the date and location. The data will help researchers build a global picture of the impact that PPE litter is having on animals. Auke-Florian Hiemstra at the Naturalis Biodiversity Centre in Leiden and Liselotte Rambonnet at Leiden University, both in the Netherlands, started the Covid Litter project after a volunteer in a weekly clean-up they organise in Leiden discovered a fish trapped inside a glove in the water. That’s when we realised that PPE litter can be dangerous, says Hiemstra. Since then, they have gathered many more examples of animals interacting with PPE litter, including a baby seal rescued by volunteers at the non-profit organisation Ocean Conservation Namibia that was found entangled in a face mask, as well as several observations of birds, such as coots in the Netherlands, using face masks as nesting material and becoming entangled in the straps. “If I were a coot, I would also lay my egg on a face mask, because it’s soft, it’s a little bit like a small bed,” says Hiemstra. “However, when the hatchlings come out of their eggs and the young are walking around, the chances of entanglement are very high.”
8-18-21 Two covid-19 vaccines are 15 per cent less effective against delta
Two doses of either the Pfizer/BioNTech or the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine provide good protection against symptomatic infections by the delta coronavirus variant, but both vaccines are around 15 per cent less effective against delta than against the alpha variant, according to a large study in the UK. The findings also show a waning of protection over time, and imply that vaccinated people who do get infected might be just as infectious as unvaccinated people. The key message is that it is important to get both vaccine doses, says study leader Sarah Walker at the University of Oxford, UK. “Two doses are always better than one.” It has previously been established that vaccines provide less protection against delta than against alpha, but by how much has been greatly debated. Some early estimates were based on very small case numbers and therefore aren’t reliable. The UK study is based on a weekly survey that started in April 2020. Since delta became dominant in the UK, the team has received results from 800,000 PCR tests done on 360,000 individuals. Overall, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine provides 84 per cent protection against symptomatic infections by delta, compared with 97 per cent for alpha, the study found. For the Oxford/AstraZeneca one, it is 71 per cent compared with 87 per cent. Both vaccines are less effective in older age groups against both variants. The findings also show that the effectiveness of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine wanes much faster than that of the Oxford/AstraZeneca one, by around a fifth every month. The team thinks the protection provided by both vaccines will start to become similar after four or five months. That is an extrapolation, Walker cautions, as so far the team only has data going up to 80 days after two doses.
8-18-21 Ventilation can make schools and offices safe from covid-19 – but how?
AS THE nights begin to draw in and schoolchildren across the northern hemisphere start trooping back into the classroom, there are three words that ought to be inscribed on every blackboard: ventilation, ventilation, ventilation. “Ventilation is a critically important control measure for covid-19,” says Cath Noakes, an environmental engineer at the University of Leeds, UK, and a member of the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). Schools are a particular weak link in controlling the spread of the virus, being crowded with largely unvaccinated children who find physical distancing a challenge. But the mantra should also be repeated in all places where people congregate in large numbers: offices, pubs, restaurants, universities, gyms, healthcare facilities, entertainment venues, public toilets, places of worship and public transport. This focus on ventilation has come about because of our evolving understanding of how the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is transmitted. In March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued advice on Twitter stating “FACT: #COVID19 is NOT airborne. The #coronavirus is mainly transmitted through droplets generated when an infected person coughs, sneezes or speaks.” Since then, mounting evidence to the contrary has convinced the WHO to change its position. It now accepts that airborne transmission of the virus is critically important. In March 2021, the WHO issued new guidance on ventilation. “The risk of getting COVID-19 is higher in crowded and inadequately ventilated spaces… These environments are where the virus appears to spread by respiratory droplets or aerosols more efficiently, so taking precautions is even more important,” it said. “We know now that the virus can be transported across a room in very small particles, and it can build up within the room if ventilation is poor,” says Noakes. “And we know that poor ventilation is associated with superspreading.”
8-18-21 Mentally demanding jobs linked with lower dementia risk in later life
People with intellectually stimulating jobs are slightly less likely to develop dementia when they are older – and we may have some new clues about how a person’s lifestyle physically protects their brain. The finding adds support to the idea that people with more active intellectual lives are somehow buffered against dementia through a “cognitive reserve”, but it is still unclear if we can reduce dementia risk by changing our lifestyles. The idea of cognitive reserve stems from findings that people are less likely to develop dementia if they score higher on IQ tests in childhood or if they have active intellectual lives as they age. It has led to advice that people should try to maintain their brain health as they get older through mentally taxing hobbies such as crossword puzzles or “brain training” games, but there is little supporting evidence from randomised trials. Mika Kivimäki at University College London and his colleagues wondered if any effect would be clearer when taking into consideration mental stimulation from people’s jobs, because we tend to spend more time at work than on hobbies. His team analysed existing results from seven studies done in the UK and other countries that looked at over 100,000 people, recording their occupation and whether they developed dementia over the following 17 years, on average. People in mentally stimulating professions had a lower risk of dementia than those with other jobs, although the difference was small. It would translate to dementia being diagnosed 1.7 years later if they had had a mentally taxing job, for people around the age of 80, or 2.5 fewer diagnosed cases per 10,000 “person-years”, a measure that combines the number of people with how many years they were tracked.
8-18-21 We need to fully explore the planet to understand our species' origins
THE tale of human origins continues to throw up surprises. For many years, the generally accepted narrative was that our species emerged on the continent of Africa, before spreading to other continents around 60,000 years ago. It is certainly true that our origins lie primarily in Africa. But in this issue, we explore the crucial role that nearby Arabia played in human evolution. Evidence unearthed in Stone Age Arabia points to a much richer story, in which human populations ebbed and flowed in this region over hundreds of thousands of years as the climate shifted. The remarkable discoveries from Arabia remind us that, when it comes to the study of human evolution, much of the planet is yet to be explored. The systematic study of Arabian prehistory is barely more than a decade old. Many of the researchers who work there were told not to bother because “there was no prehistory in Arabia” and were even laughed at. Those researchers are getting the last laugh. As the feature explains, it turns out there is an enormous amount of prehistory in Arabia: there are dozens of archaeological sites, often with rich collections of artefacts, that date back 500,000 years and perhaps further. Some parts of the world have been thoroughly studied for hominin remains, such as east Africa and western Europe. But there are many more places like Arabia that are seriously underexplored. India is one such location, and even less is known from central Asian nations like Kyrgyzstan. Even in Africa, for so long considered the only cradle of humanity, exploration has been largely focused on the east and south. Those places have yielded spectacular discoveries, but in recent years some anthropologists have begun paying more attention to the previously neglected north and west – sometimes making incredible finds, like the oldest known members of our species that were identified in Morocco in 2017.
8-18-21 Aspirin may help treat aggressive breast cancer
Aspirin may help fight aggressive breast cancer by making hard-to-treat tumours more responsive to anti-cancer drugs, doctors say. A team at the Christie NHS Foundation Trust, in Manchester, are beginning a trial with triple-negative breast-cancer patients. They suspect it is aspirin's anti-inflammatory properties rather than its analgesic effect that gives the boost. Animal studies have already shown encouraging results. There is some evidence aspirin might help prevent certain other cancers and lower the risk of it spreading. But it is too early to recommend people start taking it. More research is needed. About 8,000 women are diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer in the UK each year - a less common but often more aggressive type of breast cancer that disproportionately affects younger women and black women. These tumours lack receptors some other breast cancers have, meaning certain treatments, such as herceptin, will not work. Although, other medicines and treatments can help. In the trial, funded by a research programme run by the charity Breast Cancer Now, some patients will be given aspirin as well as immunotherapy drug avelumab before they receive surgery and chemotherapy treatment. If it is successful, there could be further clinical trials of aspirin and avelumab for incurable secondary triple-negative breast cancer, when cancer cells that started in the breast spread to other parts of the body. Beth Bramall, 44, from Hampshire was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer in 2019. She said: "There's no easy cancer but triple negative is particularly gruelling, with few treatment options and a long and debilitating treatment plan. "It floored me, with side-effects of hair loss, nausea, joint and muscle pain, diarrhoea and constipation, burning palms and feet, migraines, night sweats and fatigue like I've never known before. "I'm blessed that I've had a pathological complete response to treatment. "But it's been the hardest 18 months for me and my family. "And I have over two more years of treatments and scans ahead."
8-18-21 The other cradle of humanity: How Arabia shaped human evolution
New evidence reveals that Arabia was not a mere stopover for ancestral humans leaving Africa, but a lush homeland where they flourished and evolved. THE Rub’ al-Khali is both desert and deserted – a landscape of reddish sand dunes that stretches as far as the eye can see. This hyper-arid region in the south-east of the Arabian peninsula is approximately the size of France. Parts of it often go an entire year without rain. Almost nobody lives there; its name means “empty quarter”. live without air conditioning and other recent technologies. However, the peninsula wasn’t always so parched. A mere 8000 years ago, it was wet enough for there to have been many lakes. The same was true at intervals throughout the past million years, when rivers criss-crossed Arabia, forming green corridors where lush vegetation and wildlife flourished amid the sand dunes. For much of recent geological time, the peninsula was at least partly green. at times in the distant past. That realisation has prompted archaeologists to start looking for evidence of occupation by humans, their ancestors and their extinct relatives. In just a decade, they have found countless sites where these hominins lived, stretching hundreds of thousands of years into the past. Arabia, it seems, wasn’t a mere stopover for hominins as they moved out of Africa into the wider world. It was somewhere they settled for long stretches of time. Indeed, many researchers now think Arabia should be thought of as part of a “greater Africa”, and that the peninsula played an important role in human evolution and expansion across the world. For decades, Africa has been seen as the cradle of humanity. The oldest known hominins arose there around 7 million years ago and stayed on the continent for a long time, evolving into various forms including those that gave us famous fossils such as Ardi and Lucy. While some groups started to wander further afield from about 2 million years ago, Africa remained central to our story. The earliest known remains of our species, Homo sapiens, also known as modern humans, are from Africa. There we emerged around 300,000 years ago, and there we pretty much remained until around 60,000 years ago, when a single out-of-Africa migration carried modern humans all around the world – or so anthropologists thought.
8-17-21 Tiny human brain grown in lab has eye-like structures that 'see' light
Small blobs of human brain grown in a dish have been coaxed into forming rudimentary eyes, which respond to light by sending signals to the rest of the brain tissue. The pairs of eye-like structures create tissues similar to those in real eyes, including a round lens, which normally focuses an image, and a retina, the patch of tissue at the back of the eye that senses light. In a way, the brain tissue is “seeing” light, says Jay Gopalakrishnan at Heinrich Heine University Dusseldorf in Germany. The development is helping his team understand inherited causes of eye disease, and in future may allow us to grow artificial retinas as transplants for people who are blind, says Gopalakrishnan. In the past few years, it has become possible to encourage stem cells – versatile cells similar to those found in embryos – to grow into spherical masses of brain tissue up to three millimetres wide, known as brain organoids. Now the team has managed to get brain organoids to form optic cups, an early stage of eye formation, which normally begins when human embryos are about five weeks old. The researchers did this by adding retinoic acid, a vitamin A derivative involved in eye development in the embryo, 20 days into their development. Two of the structures, each 0.2 millimetres wide, formed in about 65 per cent of 314 brain organoids that the team treated in this way. As well as a primitive lens and retina, other eye tissues seen include the cornea, a clear tissue that covers the front of the eye, and neurons that grew from the optic cup into the rest of the brain tissue. It is unclear how similarly these tissues function to their full-grown counterparts, but when the organoids are exposed to light, electrical signals travel along the neural pathways, suggesting that some kind of visual information is being transmitted. It is significant that most of the brain organoids form a symmetrical pair of optic cups, rather than a random number of them, says Gopalakrishnan. “The stem cells are smart enough they remember what they want to generate.”
8-18-21 New studies hint that the coronavirus may be evolving to become more airborne
The virus appears to spread through the air, but masks reduce the amount of infectious virus. Small aerosol particles spewed while people breathe, talk and sing may contain more coronavirus than larger moisture droplets do. And the coronavirus may be evolving to spread more easily through the air, a new study suggests. But there is also good news: Masks can help. About 85 percent of coronavirus RNA detected in COVID-19 patients’ breath was found in fine aerosol particles less than five micrometers in size, researchers in Singapore report August 6 in Clinical Infectious Diseases. The finding is the latest evidence to suggest that COVID-19 is spread mainly through the air in fine droplets that may stay suspended for hours rather than in larger droplets that quickly fall to the ground and contaminate surfaces. Similar to that result, Donald Milton at the University of Maryland in College Park and colleagues found that people who carried the alpha variant had 18 times as much viral RNA in aerosols than people infected with less-contagious versions of the virus. That study, posted August 13 at medRxiv.org, has not been yet been peer reviewed. It also found that loose-fitting masks could cut the amount of virus-carrying aerosols by nearly half. In one experiment, the Maryland team grew the virus from the air samples in the lab. That could be evidence that may convince some reluctant experts to embrace the idea that the virus spreads mainly through the air. The debate over aerosol transmission has been ongoing since nearly the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, 200 scientists wrote a letter to the World Health Organization asking for the organization to acknowledge aerosol spread of the virus (SN: 7/7/20). In April, the WHO upgraded its information on transmission to include aerosols (SN: 5/18/21). The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had acknowledged aerosols as the most likely source of spread just a few weeks before.
8-17-21 Land-dwelling turtles from the Cretaceous period had extra-tough eggs
Palaeontologists have found the first known example of a fossilised turtle embryo preserved inside an egg, an unusual time capsule from the Late Cretaceous. Fossil turtle eggs are rare finds. Rarer still are fossil turtle embryos, the tiny bones that help experts connect fossil nests with the adult species. “Turtle eggs are usually small, the eggshell is often paper thin, and the embryonic bones are fragile and tiny,” says Darla Zelenitsky at the University of Calgary in Canada, who was an author on the study. The egg from a land-dwelling turtle was found by a farmer in Henan Province, China, who donated it to the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan. Researchers there and at other institutions worked together to take scans of the egg to see the microscopic bones inside. The palaeontologists also took sections of eggshell and imaged them under a scanning electron microscope to get a better look at their layers. The fossil is not only large for a turtle egg, but the shell is exceptionally thick. “The level of preservation is excellent,” says Gerardo Cordero at the University of Tübingen in Germany, who wasn’t involved in the work. What’s truly remarkable is that the petrified egg, pictured below, contains the bones of an ancient turtle embryo, which indicate that the reptile belonged to an extinct group of land-dwelling turtles called Nanhsiungchelyidae. The fossil egg also holds clues to the ancient environment the turtle inhabited around 85 million years ago. The egg’s thickness resembles an ostrich egg’s more than a turtle’s, says Zelenitsky. That hints at a dry environment where turtles would have had to dig deep to find a nearby water source. “The rigid eggshell and spherical shape of the egg is reminiscent of modern-day soft-shelled turtles that lay underground nests near water,” says Cordero.
8-17-21 Artificially stripped-back cell is still able to rapidly evolve
An artificial “minimal cell” that has had all but the most essential genes stripped out can evolve just as fast as a normal cell. The finding shows that organisms can rapidly adapt, even with an unnatural genome that provides little flexibility. “It appears there’s something about life that’s really robust,” says Jay T. Lennon at Indiana University in Bloomington. “We can strip it down to just the bare essentials,” he says, but that doesn’t stop evolution going to work. Lennon and his team studied a bacterium called Mycoplasma mycoides, a parasite that lives in the guts of animals like cows. Because it gets most of its nutrients from its host, M. mycoides has naturally lost a lot of genes. In 2016, researchers led by Craig Venter at the J. Craig Venter Institute in California reported that they had stripped the bacterium’s 901-gene genome back even further, to just 493 genes. The resulting synthetic organism, M. mycoides JCVI-syn3B, has a “minimal genome”, the smallest of any known free-living organism. M. mycoides JCVI-syn3B can grow and divide normally, but Lennon wondered what would happen to it in the long term. Species need to change to survive, but it seemed likely that the minimal cell would have trouble evolving. “Every single gene in its genome is essential,” says Lennon. “The cell has zero degrees of freedom.” As a result, any mutations that arise would be expected to be harmful. Lennon’s team began by establishing that the minimal cell could still mutate. It does so to such a degree that, even given a small population size of just 10 million, every single genetic “letter” would be expected to mutate more than 250 times over 2000 generations. The team then grew M. mycoides JCVI-syn3B in the lab, allowing them to evolve freely for 300 days.
8-17-21 2 massive new dinosaur species discovered in China
Paleontologists digging in northwest China unearthed two giant dinosaur species, the first time scientists have ever reported finding vertebrates in the Turpan-Hami Basin region. The researchers, representing the Chinese Academy of Sciences and National Museum of Brazil, wrote in a study published last week in Scientific Reports that they found fossil fragments of rib cages and spinal vertebrae belonging to two new species, which they've named Silutitan sinensis and Hamititan xinjiangensis. The species are part of the sauropod family, meaning they were herbivores who had long necks and were the largest animals to ever roam the planet. It's estimated that the Silutitan was more than 65 feet long and the Hamititan was more than 55 feet long. The fossils date back 120 to 130 million years ago, during the early Cretaceous period. The team isn't finished exploring the area yet — they think there could be nests with fossilized embryos just below the surface, and will keep digging to see what they can find next.
8-16-21 Humanitarian aid guided by satellite data may harm marginalised groups
Satellite data can help policy-makers quickly identify areas of the world in need of aid and development, but research shows that it can also contain bias against marginalised groups, potentially compromising policy goals. Machine learning systems that scan satellite images for indicators of poverty or disaster damage are becoming a popular tool for assessing humanitarian and development needs. But researchers at the German Aerospace Center in Cologne say little attention is being paid to potential biases built into this data. The group trained a model to predict poverty levels and rates of electricity in Indian villages using satellite images of night-time lights, which are a common measure of development. It made consistent errors for villages with large populations of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes – two officially designated groups in India with a long history of discrimination. The results were presented this week at a virtual conference run by the Association For Computing Machinery. The results suggest that features of the data reflect historical biases, says lead researcher Lukas Kondmann, which could lead to discrimination if used to guide policy. “We’re capturing the patterns we see on the ground, and if these patterns have some sort of bias built into them the satellite is just going to capture and replicate it,” he says. During training the model was fed socioeconomic data, satellite images and coordinates from 386,000 Indian villages. It then used satellite data and coordinates to make predictions about unseen villages. In those with a larger than average number of scheduled tribes poverty levels were overestimated and levels of electricity were underestimated by about 1 per cent on average. For scheduled castes, predictions were out by 0.3 per cent in the opposite direction.
8-16-21 A 1,000-year-old grave may have held a powerful nonbinary person
The remains were previously thought to be a respected woman who might have been a warrior. For decades, a roughly 1,000-year-old grave in southern Finland has been thought to have held a powerful woman who might have been a warrior. But an individual who was biologically male may have actually have been interred there, researchers now say. And there are signs that this person was perhaps a respected individual with a nontraditional gender identity. Discovered in 1968 at a site known as Suontaka, the Finnish grave held a largely decomposed human skeleton. Only two leg-bone fragments were successfully excavated. The grave also included jewelry traditionally associated with women and two swords, including one with a bronze hilt, typically attributed to men. Items in the Suontaka grave date to the latter part of Finland’s early medieval period, between 1050 and 1300. Now, an analysis of a tiny amount of nuclear DNA extracted from a leg-bone fragment suggests that the grave held an individual born with an extra X chromosome, say archaeologist Ulla Moilanen of the University of Turku in Finland and colleagues. Symptoms of this condition in present-day males, known as Klinefelter syndrome, include low testosterone, lack of facial and body hair, enlarged breasts and learning and language-related problems. Effects of this rare condition on growth and appearance range from mild to noticeable. That genetic evidence, combined with the unusual mix of male- and female-related items in the grave, suggests that the grave held an individual who was nonbinary, Moilanen’s group says. Gender identity refers to a person’s concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither. It often, but not always, coincides with a person’s biological sex. Nonbinary individuals have gender identities that are not strictly male or female.
8-14-21 Ancient comb jelly had more complex nerves than its modern relatives
A comb jelly fossil from some 500 million years ago shows a previously unknown species of these ancient sea animals that had a more complex nervous system than their modern descendants. Evolutionary theory doesn’t preclude the possibility of organisms becoming simpler over geological time, but it’s a relatively uncommon phenomenon. Examples are mostly limited to ancient arthropods, sea lilies, and brachiopods – also known as lamp shells. “Comb jellies occupy a much earlier position in the animal tree of life [than arthropods and brachiopods], so it is filling an important gap,” says team member Javier Ortega-Hernández at Harvard University. Comb jellies, or ctenophores – whose see-through bodies scatter light, creating a rainbow effect – have long been seen as potentially the most ancient branch of the animal evolutionary tree still existing today. Sponges may be even more ancient, though, particularly in light of the recent discovery of 890-million-year-old sponge fossils. The latest work offers a unique glimpse into ctenophore evolution. Little was known because their soft, gelatinous bodies don’t fossilise easily. Rarer still is finding preserved organs and nervous systems of these small animals, which are generally no more than a few millimetres to several centimetres in size. Ortega-Hernández and his colleagues at the University of Oxford looked at fossil specimens held at the Natural History Museum of Utah that came from a renowned Cambrian fossil site in Utah’s mountainous desert. Animals there were compressed in a way that immortalised their tissues as black carbon outlines. Among the fossils, the team identified two new species of ctenophore. One of them (Ctenorhabdotus campanelliformis) looked like a tiny upturned bobble-hat and revealed a more complex nervous system than any ctenophore species alive today.
8-13-21 Covid-19: Why the UK needs to forget about herd immunity
Throughout the covid-19 pandemic there has been constant reference to the tantalising phenomenon that signals the end: herd immunity. This is when enough people are immune to a virus that it can’t spread, therefore protecting the whole community, including those who aren’t immune. More than 18 months into the pandemic, and with 59 per cent of the UK having received two doses of a covid-19 vaccine, how far is the country from the herd immunity threshold, and how will we know when it has got there? Let’s get the bad news out of the way: it is unlikely to be soon and may not be attainable at all. The good news is that we may not need herd immunity to live alongside the virus. To appreciate why, first we need to understand herd immunity at its simplest: it is the point at which each person with covid-19 infects less than one other susceptible individual. This causes infections to decrease, with only sporadic cases that don’t spread widely. In theory, you can reach this goal through vaccination or past infection, as both provide some immunity from future infection. In reality, we have only reached herd immunity for other viruses with vaccination. For instance, smallpox was eradicated in 1980, following a global vaccination campaign. A key data point for herd immunity is the basic reproduction number – known as R or R0 – which is the average number of people one person with an infectious disease will infect. At the pandemic’s start, the R0 for coronavirus was 2.5. The R0 has since risen as the virus evolved to become more transmissible. Latest estimates put the delta variant’s R0 between 5 and 9.5, says Willem van Schaik at the University of Birmingham in the UK. “This would put the herd immunity threshold at between 80 and 90 per cent of the population [being vaccinated].”
8-13-21 Do you phub? Ignoring friends for your phone is linked to personality
Though not the most elegant expression, phubbing has become so common that it has made its way into the dictionary alongside other newly relevant social terms like selfie, photobombing and FOMO (fear of missing out). A combination of phone and snubbing, phubbing describes the act of ignoring a companion in favour of engaging with a phone. Now, research by Jennifer Samp at the University of Georgia and Juhyung Sun at the University of Oklahoma shows that whether or not someone regularly participates in phubbing depends on their personality. According to data gathered from 472 people, mainly undergraduate students, at the University of Georgia, those who are the most depressed, socially anxious and neurotic are the most likely to phub. “Phubbers tended to be seeking some sort of reinforcement,” says Samp. “If you’re feeling uncertain about yourself or you’re in a high anxiety mode, you’re often looking for support from a community and that’s where the phone comes in.” Samp says there is also some degree of FOMO involved. If you are turning to a community for support, digital social connections can become even more important than in-person friendships, so you want to stay on top of them.We don’t yet know the long-term repercussions of phubbing, but according to this research and other studies on the subject, it does appear to harm our relationships. Just as phubbing has previously been shown to lower relationship satisfaction among couples, the new study found it did the same with friends. People want to feel like they are being heard in a conversation and when that doesn’t happen, they get less satisfaction from that relationship, says Ty Tashiro, author of The Science of Happily Ever After. He says that asking questions, making eye contact and engaging in a conversation are all what psychologists call “approach motivations”, while “avoidance motivations,” such as phubbing, are oriented towards avoiding potentially uncomfortable in-person social interactions.
8-13-21 How different COVID-19 testing plans can help keep kids safe in school
Multiple strategies, each with benefits and challenges, now exist to support in-person learning Backpack? Check. Notebooks and pencils? Check. Coronavirus test? Check. As fall approaches, many parents and teachers hope to leave Zoom school behind and have kids return to the classroom. But the exceptionally transmissible delta variant threatens to dash these hopes as schools scramble to prepare. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that schools employ a suite of COVID-19 mitigation measures, including social distancing, masking for all students and teachers, improving air filtration and testing students regularly. Testing, in particular, “is a way we can spend money to reduce transmission while maintaining in-person school time,” says Alyssa Bilinski, an infectious disease modeler at Brown University in Providence, R.I. “It’s a flexible tool that can be scaled up or down depending on the on-the-ground situation, and it can both stop transmission and provide real-time, school-specific information that can inform decision making.” While some coronavirus outbreaks did occur in schools during the last school year, transmission was usually equal to or lower than community levels of the virus, especially when schools had mitigation measures in place, the CDC says. Now, as pandemic fatigue calcifies, many school districts are under pressure to remove measures like masking or social distancing or testing, even as the delta variant drives a nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases (SN: 7/27/21). A layered approach that incorporates all of these mitigation measures is best, but with delta, “testing is going to be even more critical” in schools, says Gigi Gronvall, an immunologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore. In a perfect world, all students could be tested each day with a free test that instantly revealed, with 100 percent accuracy, whether they were infected, Gronvall says. But such tests do not exist, and schools have limited budgets and bandwidths to create perfect protocols. Instead, districts will need to weigh trade-offs among different coronavirus tests, and balance frequency and scope of testing to fit schools’ needs. Here’s a look at some of the testing strategies that schools are using and their inherent benefits and challenges.
8-13-21 An Indigenous people in the Philippines have the most Denisovan DNA
Indigenous Ayta Magbukon people get 5 percent of their DNA from the mysterious ancient hominids. Denisovans are an elusive bunch, known mainly from ancient DNA samples and traces of that DNA that the ancient hominids shared when they interbred with Homo sapiens. They left their biggest genetic imprint on people who now live in Southeast Asian islands, nearby Papua New Guinea and Australia. Genetic evidence now shows that a Philippine Negrito ethnic group has inherited the most Denisovan ancestry of all. Indigenous people known as the Ayta Magbukon get around 5 percent of their DNA from Denisovans, a new study finds. This finding fits an evolutionary scenario in which two or more Stone Age Denisovan populations independently reached various Southeast Asian islands, including the Philippines and a landmass that consisted of what’s now Papua New Guinea, Australia and Tasmania. Exact arrival dates are unknown, but nearly 200,000-year-old stone tools found on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi may have been made by Denisovans (SN: 1/13/16). H. sapiens groups that started arriving around 50,000 years ago or more then interbred with resident Denisovans. Evolutionary geneticists Maximilian Larena and Mattias Jakobsson, both at Uppsala University in Sweden, and their team describe the new evidence August 12 in Current Biology. Even as the complexities of ancient interbreeding in Southeast Asia become clearer, Denisovans remain a mysterious crowd. “It’s unclear how the different Denisovan groups on the mainland and on Southeast Asian islands were related [to each other] and how genetically diverse they were,” Jakobsson says. Papua New Guinea highlanders — estimated to carry close to 4 percent Denisovan DNA in the new study — were previously thought to be the modern record holders for Denisovan ancestry. But the Ayta Magbukon display roughly 30 percent to 40 percent more Denisovan ancestry than Papua New Guinea highlanders and Indigenous Australians, Jakobsson says. That calculation accounts for recent mating of East Asians with Philippine Negrito groups, including the Ayta Magbukon, that diluted Denisovan inheritance to varying degrees.
8-13-21 Ancient dog faeces show how our canine friends became omnivores
Dog diets often contain more starch than those of their carnivorous wolf ancestors, and an analysis of fossilised dog faeces helps explain how the animals made the dietary change. Long before their genomes adapted to their plant-rich chow, their gut microbiome gained a starch-digesting profile. Due to their close association with humans, it is thought that dogs’ diets shifted to less meat and more carbohydrates when farming began – an idea that was supported by an archaeological analysis published earlier this year. In Europe, this shift occurred between 8000 and 6000 years ago. However, evidence suggests that dogs’ genes couldn’t produce much amylase – an enzyme that turns starch, a complex carbohydrate, into sugars – until thousands of years later. Now, Simone Rampelli at the University of Bologna in Italy and his colleagues have discovered that gut microbes probably helped dogs digest starch before their genomes had caught up and they possessed more copies of the required amylase gene. Rampelli’s team sequenced the DNA in 13 fossil dog faeces, or coprolites, from the site of a Bronze Age agricultural community in Solarolo, near Bologna. The fossils date from between 3450 and 3600 years ago. The scientists found traces of sheep, wheat and grape DNA in the coprolites, suggesting the dogs were omnivores like modern domestic dogs. But dog DNA in the faeces shows the animals had fewer copies of the amylase gene needed to process this diet than are seen in modern dogs. However, the coprolite analysis also identified 56 microbe species from the ancient dogs’ guts, some of which are common in dogs’ guts today. Importantly, these metabolise starch by producing their own amylase enzymes. The microbe DNA in the coprolites had almost double the amylase signal as that seen in modern dogs’ gut microbiomes. This suggests that when dogs started eating more starchy food, their gut microbes adapted quickly, says Rampelli. The bacteria that were better at breaking down starch would have outcompeted other microbes and therefore proliferated.
8-13-21 Tusk reveals woolly mammoth's massive lifetime mileage
Scientists have analysed the chemistry locked inside the tusk of a woolly mammoth to work out how far it travelled in a lifetime. The research shows that the Ice Age animal travelled a distance equivalent to circling the Earth twice. Woolly mammoths were the hairy cousins of today's elephants, roaming northern latitudes during a prehistoric cold period known as the Pleistocene. The work sheds light on how incredibly mobile these ancient creatures were. "It's not clear-cut if it was a seasonal migrator, but it covered some serious ground," said co-lead author of the study Dr Matthew Wooller, from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "It visited many parts of Alaska at some point during its lifetime, which is pretty amazing when you think about how big that area is." Mammoth tusks were a bit like tree rings, insomuch that they recorded information about the animal's life history. Furthermore, some chemical elements incorporated into the tusks while the animal was alive can serve as pins on a map, broadly showing where the animal went. By combining these two things, researchers worked out the travel history of a male mammoth that lived 17,000 years ago in Alaska. Its remains were found near the northern state's Brooks Range of mountains. "From the moment they're born until the day they die, they've got a diary and it's written in their tusks," said co-author Dr Pat Druckenmiller, director of the University of Alaska Museum of the North. "Mother Nature doesn't usually offer up such convenient and life-long records of an individual's life." Mammoths steadily added new layers to their tusks throughout their lives. When the ivory was split length-wise, these growth bands looked like stacked ice cream cones, offering a chronological record of its existence. The researchers pieced together the animal's journey by studying the different types, or isotopes, of the chemical elements strontium and oxygen contained in the 1.7m-long tusk. These were matched with maps predicting isotope variations across Alaska.
8-12-21 Most cancers of the oesophagus are caused by escaped stomach cells
Most tumours of the oesophagus, the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach, are caused by escaped stomach cells that have become cancerous. e stomach, are caused by escaped stomach cells that have become cancerous. The finding makes it more likely that cancers of the gullet, also known as the oesophagus or food pipe, could be prevented by a screening method that identifies former stomach cells, says Rebecca Fitzgerald at the University of Cambridge. The most common form of oesophagus tumour in the UK and other high-income countries is an adenocarcinoma, found towards the stomach end of the tube. This kind of cancer was known to sometimes begin in a patch of abnormal cells, a condition known as Barrett’s oesophagus or just Barrett’s. But whether this is always the case was unknown, as was the origin of the cells; aside from stomach cells, other suspects included cells lining the oesophagus, cells from glands within the oesophagus and embryonic cells found at the junction between the oesophagus and the stomach. In the new study, Fitzgerald’s team took samples from these and other tissues from 20 deceased organ donors without gullet cancer and compared them with existing studies on 321 samples of oesophageal adenocarcinomas. They compared the cells in several ways, including by genetic sequencing and through the pattern of chemical modifications to their DNA. The team found that all the adenocarcinomas had originally been stomach cells and had gone through a stage of being Barrett’s cells. They could have reached the oesophagus by migration or by spreading through multiplication, or both ways, says Fitzgerald. About 1 in 10 people with Barrett’s eventually develop cancer of the oesophagus, so some have regular check-ups using a camera put down their throat. But most people with Barrett’s are unaware of it. Having prolonged heartburn is a risk factor for Barrett’s, so Fitzgerald’s team has developed a way to take a sample of cells from the oesophagus in people with heartburn. People swallow a small capsule attached to a string; in the stomach the capsule dissolves to release a 3-centimetre sponge, which is pulled back up by a nurse. On the way, the sponge collects cells lining the oesophagus, which can be tested.
8-12-21 Colds and other common respiratory diseases might surge as kids return to school
Respiratory illnesses with symptoms similar to COVID-19’s could be especially disrupting. AAs U.S. schools resume in-person learning this fall, parents and administrators may have to deal with more outbreaks of colds and other seasonal respiratory illnesses than usual. If so, these outbreaks aren’t likely to be especially dangerous for school-age children, but could be problematic for traditionally more vulnerable younger siblings or elderly relatives, experts say. And because the symptoms of these illnesses often mirror those of COVID-19, it could make having kids back in the classroom — and keeping them there — that much more challenging. Respiratory viruses, which cause common colds and the flu, typically circulate in colder months. But last year’s cold-and-flu season was practically nonexistent. Some cold-causing viruses, such as rhinoviruses and enteroviruses, kept spreading, though at reduced levels. Influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, however, were held to historically low levels, an unintended effect of COVID-19 pandemic precautions such as border closings, wearing masks and social distancing (SN: 2/2/21). Other respiratory pathogens that cause cold-like symptoms, such as adenoviruses and parainfluenza viruses, also had very mild seasons last winter, researchers with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report July 23 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. “There’s been a huge, huge change during the COVID pandemic in the circulation of what we think of as the commonplace respiratory viruses and the seasonal respiratory viruses,” says Ellen Foxman, an immunologist at Yale School of Medicine. RSV and flu “have virtually disappeared during the COVID pandemic, almost certainly because of the mitigation measures.”
8-12-21 Ripples in rats’ brains tied to memory may also reduce sugar levels
The results suggest brain cell activity could play a surprising role in the body’s metabolism. Ripples of nerve cell activity that lock in memories may have an unexpected job outside of the brain: Dropping blood sugar levels in the body. Just after a burst of ripples in a rat’s hippocampus, sugar levels elsewhere in the body dipped, new experiments show. The curveball results, published August 11 in Nature, suggest that certain types of brain activity and metabolism are entwined in surprising and mysterious ways. “This paper represents a significant advance in our understanding of how the hippocampus modulates metabolism,” says Elizabeth Gould, a neuroscientist at Princeton University who wasn’t involved in the study. Neural shudders called sharp-wave ripples zig and zag in the brains of people as they learn new things and draw memories back up (SN: 8/19/19). Ripples also feature prominently during deep sleep. Sleeping mammals, birds and even lizards known as Australian dragons have these bursts of electrical activity. Sharp-wave ripples are thought to accompany the neural work of transforming short-term knowledge into long-term memories. Neuroscientist David Tingley wondered whether these signals might also change something outside of the brain. Working with neuroscientist György Buzsáki at New York University Grossman School of Medicine and colleagues, Tingley, now at Harvard University, fitted continuous glucose monitors onto the backs of rats. These devices, used by people with diabetes to keep tabs on sugar levels in the fluid around cells, provide a good proxy for blood sugar levels. The researchers simultaneously measured the rats’ brain waves with electrodes implanted in the hippocampus, a brain structure that plays a key role in memory. super consistent. The magnitude is small but [the dips] are always there.”
8-11-21 Covid-19 vaccines: Everything you need to know about the leading shots
More than half a year into the mission to vaccinate the world against covid-19, we are getting a picture of how well each vaccine is working. We round-up what the latest research says on efficacy at preventing symptoms, hospitalisation, and death, as well as side effects, plus the latest thinking on coronavirus variants and booster shots, for all the leading vaccines: Oxford/AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, Covaxin, Sputnik V, Sinovac, Sinopharm, and CanSino. We also take a look at the vaccines currently in trials that may be used in future, plus what we know so far about vaccination and long covid. A few coronavirus vaccines have fallen by the wayside, but not many. Of a total of 135 candidates, just five have been abandoned. Given that around three-quarters of experimental vaccines usually fail, that might seem very low, but there is still ample time for more to fail. None of the vaccines have secured full regulatory approval in the US or UK yet. Three of the failures involved a technology called replicating viral vector (RVV), which uses a live, replicating virus unrelated to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus to deliver SARS-CoV-2 genes. All produced disappointing results in early trials. None of the 21 approved vaccines are based on this technology, so it is tempting to view it as a failure, but it has succeeded with other diseases and there are eight coronavirus RVV vaccines still in clinical trials. One of the other failures, from Imperial College London, used a novel self-amplifying mRNA technology. Progress simply proved too slow. The other one, a protein subunit vaccine from the University of Queensland, Australia, also tried and failed to push the technology envelope. One of its components was a protein derived from HIV that helped to stabilise the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. But this unexpectedly caused some volunteers to record false positive tests for HIV, which could interfere with legitimate results from such tests.Several further coronavirus vaccines are in late-stage testing. According to McGill University’s vaccine tracker, there are 130 coronavirus vaccines still in clinical trials, 40 of them in phase III. In the UK, those most likely to see the light of day are made by Novavax, Valneva and CureVac. The UK government has options to buy batches of all three, pending approval. Novavax’s shot consists of spike proteins from the SARS-CoV-2 virus embedded in a virus-like nanoparticle. Interim results from phase III trials suggest it is about 90 per cent effective at preventing disease with the original coronavirus strain but less effective with variants (NEJM, doi.org/gk3zvz). Novavax is tweaking the vaccine to deal with them. Valneva’s vaccine is an inactivated virus vaccine, the only one of its kind in development in Europe. It is in a phase III trial in the UK, with results expected in September. CureVac’s jab is an mRNA vaccine, but results from its phase III trials so far have been disappointing, with only 48 per cent efficacy against infection. Other late-stage vaccines worth watching are from the Canadian firm Medicago, which grows vaccines in a relative of the tobacco plant, as well as a viral protein vaccine from pharma giants Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline. Initial results on the latter disappointed and trials were halted, but it has been reformulated and is showing promise in phase III trials.
8-11-21 Psychology has struggled for a century to make sense of the mind
Research has been messy and contentious, but has led to intriguing insights. One of the most infamous psychology experiments ever conducted involved a carefully planned form of child abuse. The study rested on a simple scheme that would never get approved or funded today. In 1920, two researchers reported that they had repeatedly startled an unsuspecting infant, who came to be known as Little Albert, to see if he could be conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs. Psychologist John Watson of Johns Hopkins University and his graduate student Rosalie Rayner viewed their laboratory fearfest as a step toward strengthening a branch of natural science able to predict and control the behavior of people and other animals. At first, the 9-month-old boy, identified as Albert B., sat placidly when the researchers placed a white rat in front of him. In tests two months later, one researcher presented the rodent, and just as the child brought his hand to pet it, the other scientist stood behind Albert and clanged a metal rod with a hammer. Their goal: to see if a child could be conditioned to associate an emotionally neutral white rat with a scary noise, just as Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov had trained dogs to associate the meaningless clicks of a metronome with the joy of being fed. Pavlov’s dogs slobbered at the mere sound of a metronome. Likewise, Little Albert eventually cried and recoiled at the mere sight of a white rat. The boy’s conditioned fear wasn’t confined to rodents. He got upset when presented with other furry things — a rabbit, a dog, a fur coat and a Santa Claus mask with a fuzzy beard. Crucial details of the Little Albert experiment remain unclear or in dispute, such as who the child was, whether he had any neurological conditions and why the boy was removed from the experiment, possibly by his mother, before the researchers could attempt to reverse his learned fears. Also uncertain is whether he experienced any long-term effects of his experience. (Webmasters Comment: This was just plain evil!)
8-11-21 The surprising ways the place where you work affects your performance
Your brain is exquisitely sensitive to your surroundings, tuning into external cues and distractions whether you like it or not. Understanding how this happens could change the way we work. IN THE summer of 2001, Sapna Cheryan was a new graduate interviewing for internships at tech firms in California’s Bay Area. At one company, she recalls, the workspace looked like a computer enthusiast’s basement hang-out, full of action figures and Nerf guns, with a soda-can model of the Golden Gate Bridge. To her, it seemed designed to promote an exclusive conception of the firm’s ideal employee. As a young woman of colour, she felt unwelcome, even alienated. She accepted a place at another company – one with a workspace that was bright and inviting. Five years later, Cheryan’s next move was to Stanford University in California to start a PhD investigating how physical cues in our environment affect how we think and feel. She is among a growing number of psychologists and cognitive scientists whose research challenges the idea that the brain is like a computer. Computers are indifferent to their surroundings: a laptop works the same in a fluorescent-lit office or a leafy park. The same isn’t true of the human brain. In fact, Cheryan and others have found its performance to be exquisitely sensitive to the context in which it operates. This research seems especially relevant right now. During the pandemic, many of us were abruptly forced to work and learn in different surroundings, and the effect of place on cognition came into sharp focus. As some of us return to offices and schools, we have an opportunity to reimagine these spaces in accordance with what researchers have learned. If we seize it, we could be in for some big changes. Inspired by her own experiences, Cheryan’s research focuses on one particular aspect of the physical environment, what psychologists call cues of belonging. These are signals embedded in a space that communicate to occupants that they are welcome there – or not. In one experiment, Cheryan and her colleagues commandeered a space in Stanford University’s computer science building and created what they called a stereotypical classroom and a non-stereotypical classroom. The former was filled with Star Trek and Star Wars posters, books of science-fiction and cans of fizzy drink. The latter featured nature posters, literary novels and bottles of water.
8-11-21 6 answers to parents’ COVID-19 questions as kids return to school
Universal masking in schools could be key to making the 2021–22 school year go smoothly. Last fall, my husband and I managed our children’s first run-of-the-mill cold masquerading as COVID-19 with ease. We took them for the requisite tests and waited for the results. Meanwhile, the kids stayed home from school, using screens to answer math problems or watch educational programming. At least schools in Vermont, where we live, were mostly open, we said. At least the kids were getting some in-person education and social interaction. At least we were getting some uninterrupted work time. Then we got our first “close contact” call from school, informing us that someone who had been near one of our kids had tested positive for COVID-19. We were told to wait seven days after exposure and then get a test or wait 10 days with no test before sending them back to school. Soon came the second call. Then a mystery case of diarrhea. The missed school days started piling up. Our ease became uneasy. Elementary schools in our area remained open, initially for two days and then four, for the entire 2020–2021 school year. Even now, after a chaotic year where each kid missed weeks of in-person school, I remain thankful for the schools’ heroic efforts to maintain some semblance of normal during a very abnormal time. But as schools across the country reopen this fall, our rocky experience serves as an example of what other families could go through. “Large numbers of students are going to be vulnerable to frequent quarantines,” says pediatric infectious diseases specialist Adam Hersh of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. “That is going to be incredibly disruptive.” In some ways, opening schools this year is even more precarious than last fall. The super contagious delta variant has become the dominant coronavirus strain across the United States (SN: 7/30/21). Some medical experts are predicting an uptick of colds and other seasonal respiratory illnesses that have symptoms mirroring those of COVID-19, which could mean even more missed school as kids wait for the all clear. And few states are requiring protective masks, even for unvaccinated students, while several states have even banned school districts from issuing mask mandates.
8-10-21 Guinea confirms West Africa’s first case of deadly Marburg virus
For the first time ever, Marburg virus disease has been confirmed in West Africa. The case was reported by health authorities in Guinea’s southern Gueckedou prefecture, where the country’s latest Ebola outbreak was declared over less than two months ago. Guinea is currently dealing with a third wave of covid-19 cases. Guinea’s health ministry said that on 25 July the patient arrived at a local clinic in the Koundou area of Gueckedou for treatment and a medical investigation team was dispatched to investigate his worsening symptoms, including fever, headache, fatigue, abdominal pain and bleeding gums. He died on 2 August. A field laboratory in Gueckedou collected samples from the deceased patient and Guinea’s national haemorrhagic fever laboratory confirmed he had Marburg virus. The Pasteur Institute in Senegal also confirmed the result. Described by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a highly infectious virus that causes haemorrhagic fever, Marburg belongs to the same family as the Ebola virus. Matshidiso Moeti, regional director for Africa at the WHO, noted that the ability of the country to quickly stem the spread of the disease largely relies on local health authorities and health officials being able to quickly detect the disease. Response to the outbreak is being built on Guinea’s past experience and expertise in managing Ebola, which is transmitted in a similar way, Moeti said. The most recent outbreak of Marburg virus occurred in Uganda in 2017 during which three cases were confirmed. All three patients died. In 2005, the largest documented Marburg outbreak occurred in Angola, with 329 people dying out of a total of 374 cases. While vaccines and some treatment options are now available for Ebola, there are none approved for Marburg aside from supportive care, including rehydration and treatment of specific symptoms.
8-10-21 Snakes evolved venom fangs multiple times from wrinkles in their teeth
Different snake species have independently evolved fangs that allow them to inject venom into other animals, either to attack prey or for defence. Now we know how: they turned small wrinkles inside the base of the fang – an ancient feature inherited by most living snakes – into deep channels to carry venom towards the tip. Alessandro Palci at Flinders University in Australia and his colleagues wanted to explain the origins of venom fangs, which are found in so many species of snake that they must have evolved on several separate occasions. They used high-resolution microCT scans to have a closer look at snake fangs. After examining fangs from 21 snake species and teeth in two lizard species they found a common feature. Inside, the dentine tissue near the base of the tooth or fang was folded into a series of vertical pleats extending towards the tooth tip. The researchers then took tissue samples from one lizard and three snake species to confirm the presence of these so-called plicidentine structures under the microscope. “Before CT scanning there was really no way to look inside snake teeth in a satisfactory way,” says Andrew Durso at Florida Gulf Coast University, who wasn’t involved in the analysis. “They’re very small and very hard and so dissecting one was not really an option, especially if you want to visualise how it looks inside.” Plicidentine is common in extinct reptiles but not as well-known in living animals, only previously reported in a few fish and three lizard species. The team found plicidentine in both venomous and non-venomous snakes. Species that branch off near the base of the snake evolutionary tree – like non-venomous boas and pythons – have relatively small wrinkles. But in the venomous snakes that branched off higher up the tree, the wrinkles are larger – and one wrinkle has developed into a deep channel that carries venom to the fang tip. “The plicidentine is always there but it’s probably a random mutation that causes the infoldings to grow bigger and form a groove,” says Palci.
8-10-21 Marburg virus: Man who died in Guinea found to have disease
Guinea health officials have confirmed West Africa's first case of Marburg, a highly infectious disease in the same family as the virus that causes Ebola. The World Health Organization (WHO) said the virus needed to be "stopped in its tracks". Marburg virus disease is transmitted to people from fruit bats and spreads between humans through the transmission of bodily fluids. Cases are extremely rare with the last major outbreak in Angola in 2005. It is a severe, often fatal illness with symptoms including headache, fever, muscle pains, vomiting blood and bleeding. No treatment yet exists for Marburg but doctors say drinking plenty of water and treating specific symptoms improves a patient's chances of survival. Samples taken from the patient in Guinea, who has since died, were tested in the country's laboratories, and returned a positive result for the Marburg virus. It was identified in Guéckédou last week, the same region where recent Ebola cases were found in an outbreak which is now over. The WHO's Africa director Dr Matshidiso Moeti said the virus had the potential to "spread far and wide". But she praised "the alertness and the quick investigative action by Guinea's health workers". Efforts are now under way to find people who may have been in contact with the man who died. Four high-risk contacts, including a health worker, have been identified, in addition to 146 others who could be at risk, expert Dr Krutika Kuppalli, who has been following the case, told the BBC. The systems in place in Guinea and neighbouring countries to control recent Ebola outbreaks are being taken up again in response to the Marburg virus. In Africa, previous outbreaks and sporadic cases have been reported in Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, South Africa and Uganda, the WHO says. The first ever Marburg outbreak was in Germany in 1967 where seven people died. The virus killed more than 200 people in Angola in 2005, the deadliest outbreak on record according to the global health body.
8-9-21 Schools are reopening. COVID-19 is still here. What does that mean for kids?
A big question remains over how the more contagious delta variant will affect children. As the delta variant of the coronavirus sends case counts surging, millions of U.S. children are heading back to school in person, many for the first time in more than a year. It’s a confluence of events that has some parents, educators and health officials worried. The vast majority of children are unvaccinated, making them one of the populations most vulnerable to the virus. Crowd them together, mix in a more transmissible variant, and it could create a perfect recipe for infection and spreading COVID-19 if extra precautions like wearing masks aren’t taken. Vaccines offer the best protection, but many children can’t yet get COVID-19 shots. While vaccines for children younger than 12 are in testing, it could still be months before they’re available for most children in elementary and middle school (SN: 5/10/21). Their younger siblings will probably have to wait longer. Even once vaccines are in hand for the youngest, it’s unclear how many will get the shots. Most eligible 12-year-olds and teens have yet to get vaccinated. Some people have even questioned whether children need to be vaccinated now, given that their risk of becoming severely ill from COVID-19 is less than that of adults. That is true: Most children who get COVID-19 recover with no lingering effects. But a year and a half into the pandemic, there’s still much that researchers and doctors don’t know about the consequences of the disease for kids. Among the unknowns: How often do kids develop lingering symptoms, or long COVID-19? Why do some healthy children develop serious, run-amok inflammation weeks after recovering from COVID-19? For some kids, that complication comes even more out of the blue: They weren’t even aware they were infected. Now the delta variant is causing yet more uncertainty. Studies primarily involving adults show that it’s making people sicker than earlier versions of the coronavirus (SN: 7/30/21). Will it hit kids harder too?
8-9-21 Tobacco giant Philip Morris raises bid for respiratory drugmaker
Tobacco giant Philip Morris has raised its bid to buy respiratory drugmaker Vectura to more than £1bn. Vectura makes inhaled medicines and devices to treat respiratory illnesses such as asthma, and counts Novartis and GSK among its customers. The Marlboro cigarette maker increased its offer to £1.65 ($2.29) per share after US private equity firm Carlyle offered £958m ($1.3bn) on Friday. Vectura has not yet responded to requests for comment on the new bid. It previously said it was backing Carlyle's offer and withdrawing its recommendation for Philip Morris' earlier bid. The London-listed company said on Friday that it believed it could better positioned under Carlyle's ownership, noting the "reported uncertainties relating to the impact on Vectura's wider stakeholders arising as a result of the possibility of the company being owned by PMI (Philip Morris)". Vectura has also agreed to develop a potential inhaled treatment for Covid-19 with Inspira, a UK-based pharmaceuticals company which focuses on developing therapies for respiratory and infectious diseases. In a statement, Philip Morris said: "The PMI (Philip Morris International) increased offer values the entire issued and to be issued ordinary share capital of Vectura at approximately £1.02bn ($1.41bn)." "PMI intends to operate Vectura as an autonomous business unit that will form the backbone of its inhaled therapeutics business," the tobacco company added. The latest offer represents a premium of 10p per share to the rival offer of £1.55 a share by Carlyle Group. The fresh bid comes after Philip Morris said it could stop selling cigarettes in the UK in 10 years' time as it focuses on alternatives, such as heated tobacco. The firm indicated it would welcome a government ban on cigarettes and said "strong regulation" was needed to "help solve the problem of cigarette smoking once and for all". However, health charity Ash said it was hard to take such claims seriously from the firm responsible for selling over a tenth of cigarettes globally.
8-6-21 Organic blobs built in lab may be small step towards synthetic life
A new way to make simple organic bubbles could provide fresh clues about how biological cells formed spontaneously on early Earth – and help efforts to generate synthetic life. Protocells, the ancient ancestors of life today, may have been little more than simple, spherical compartments, enclosed by membranes and containing water and the molecules of life. But how these compartments – or “vesicles” – came about is a mystery. It is the ultimate “chicken and egg paradox”, says Neal Devaraj at the University of California, San Diego. The membranes found in modern cells self-assemble in water from molecules called lipids. But in all modern life forms, the proteins that generate lipids only work when embedded in a membrane. In other words, you need a membrane to make a membrane. Now, Devaraj’s research group has found a way around this constraint. “We basically just [place] some small molecules and DNA into a solution, and out come vesicles that are protein decorated,” says Devaraj. To perform this trick, the researchers relied on a 20-year-old technology developed to encourage naked DNA, removed from its cell, to still function and generate proteins. The approach involves placing the DNA in a solution with only the basic ingredients needed to translate a genetic code into a protein: 35 or so proteins, a dash of magnesium, a sprinkling of amino acids and other small molecules, plus a few ribosomes – the molecular “machines” inside cells where proteins are synthesised. Devaraj’s group modified this system to generate one protein needed to create synthetic lipids and a second that can bind to the surface of the vesicles. When they add lipid precursors to the solution, vesicles form spontaneously in solution, and the second protein attaches to the outside of the membrane. This is the first time anyone has used this cell-free, DNA translation system to create a synthetic vesicle from scratch.
8-6-21 Why are so many records being broken at the Tokyo Olympics?
THE Tokyo Olympics have brought some of the fastest times ever seen on the track. At an astonishing number of races, athletes are beating personal bests along with national, Olympic and world records. Elaine Thompson-Herah set a new Olympic record in the women’s 100 metres, breaking Florence Griffith Joyner’s record set over 33 years ago. World records were smashed in both the men’s and women’s 400 metres hurdles, by Karsten Warholm and Sydney McLaughlin respectively. In both these events, the silver medallist also ran faster than the previous world record. Is this just an unusually good Olympics for record-breaking races or is something different going on? Part of the answer can be found by looking down at an athlete’s feet. If you look closely, you might spot some new technology known as “super spikes” – and underfoot, there is a high-tech track. Recently, track spikes – shoes that have spikes on the underside to give runners grip – have seen a similar shift in the performance-enhancing technology that previously took over marathon racing shoes. Marathon “super shoes” first emerged in 2017 with Nike’s Vaporfly 4%, which gave athletes average energy savings of 4 per cent compared with competitors not wearing them. By now, almost every brand has a super shoe, and the new technology is being applied to track spikes. Similar to their super shoe counterparts, super spikes combine soft, compliant and resilient foam with a stiff, curved carbon-fibre plate. The exact benefits of super spikes are difficult to quantify, but each component probably plays a role. Traditionally, track spikes have tried to lessen the amount of midsole foam to reduce weight and energy absorption. However, new technology is lightweight and the foam is better at returning energy to the athlete than foams before it, giving back as much as 80 to 90 per cent. In this way, the foam acts as a spring with each step the athlete takes.
8-6-21 What science tells us about reducing coronavirus spread from wind instruments
Performers and researchers collaborate to learn the risks and how to lower them. The last time I played clarinet with my band was on March 10, 2020. It was a typical Tuesday evening rehearsal: About 10 musicians crowded into a small basement room, sipping beers and chatting between tunes. Brass instruments, woodwinds and drums blared, with bass lines audible from the stairwell. Since 2004, the Rude Mechanical Orchestra has practiced in the same space, a couple of blocks from the East River in Brooklyn, N.Y. The room is cramped — chairs and music stands crowd every corner, shelves are crammed with instruments and sheet music. With no windows or AC units, air circulation is minimal. When I walked up the stairs after practice, I had no idea that the space we’d filled with boisterous pop covers and protest tunes would sit quiet for more than a year. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world in March 2020, isolating musicians like me from the art we love. Millions of high school and college musicians were barred from their band rooms, children’s lessons were canceled and professionals lost performance opportunities and income streams. Though restrictions are now easing, we still face questions about how our instruments play into infection risk. Wind instruments — brasses as well as woodwinds like my clarinet — produce sound through human breath. And human breath spreads COVID-19. So how can we perform while keeping ourselves and our audiences safe, during the pandemic and beyond? To find answers, wind musicians, including myself, turned to science. The hazards of live music hit home when news broke of a superspreader event among members of the Skagit Valley Chorale in Washington state. On March 10 — the same day as my band’s final rehearsal — 61 members had gathered to sing. By the time Gov. Jay Inslee instituted a stay-at-home order two weeks later, 52 members of the choir had either tested positive for the new coronavirus or were assumed to have it. Three singers were hospitalized, and two died.
8-5-21 Giant dinosaurs may have fasted like emperor penguins when laying eggs
Titanosaur dinosaurs – thought to have been the largest animals to walk on Earth and which have been found on every continent – might have gone hungry and thirsty when building nests and laying eggs. Léa Leuzinger at the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina and her colleagues studied stable carbon and oxygen isotopes in 71 titanosaur eggshells and a tooth, all unearthed from three fossilised nesting sites in Argentina. The fossils are between 66 million and 100 million years old. Food and water contain carbon and oxygen, but the mix of stable isotopes of each element varies depending on environmental conditions. Given that these isotopes transfer to the tissues of the animal that consumed them, it is possible to use the ratios of them within eggshells or teeth to get a glimpse into the environmental conditions under which these organic tissues formed. The eggshells contained more of a particular oxygen isotope which is associated with higher evaporation rates of water than the tooth. This suggested that the eggs formed while the titanosaurs were living in relatively arid environments in which the dinosaurs ingested less water from drinking and eating. The team compared the results with isotope data from titanosaur eggshell finds from similar mid-latitude regions in other parts of the world and found they all fitted a pattern of forming in drier conditions. “It seems that most titanosaurs needed similar conditions for nesting,” says Leuzinger. It was already thought that titanosaurs lived in herds and ate plants, suggesting they probably had to migrate in order to get enough food to fuel their enormous bodies. If they lingered permanently in arid areas where they laid their eggs, they would quickly munch through the available vegetation. The latest study indicates that titanosaurs, in mid-latitudes at least, possibly went to more arid areas only to reproduce and may have had to fast during nesting, akin to how certain present-day animals, such as emperor penguins, build up fat reserves to survive without eating and drinking during reproductive periods.
8-4-21 Inflamed review: How poverty and injustice make you sick
THE covid-19 pandemic exposed stark inequalities globally, with socially and economically disadvantaged groups facing higher than average risks of becoming seriously ill and dying. “Not all patients were equal,” write Rupa Marya and Raj Patel in their new book, Inflamed. The authors, both academics and activists, write: “[In the US,] Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) were over-represented, their bodies subject to inflammation of all kinds, long before the SARS-CoV-2 virus ever settled into their lungs. Not only lack of access to health care, but systemic social and economic disenfranchisement rendered their bodies most susceptible to Covid when it hit.” Inflammation is the body’s response to infection or damage. Immune cells spring into action and a flurry of chemicals are released to promote repair and recovery – for instance, by destroying invading microbes or healing a wound. Once healing is complete and balance restored, inflammation should subside. But sometimes it persists, transforming the body’s healing mechanism into what the authors describe as “a smoldering fire that creates ongoing harm”. For doctors to truly identify and treat the underlying causes of ill health, the two argue, they must begin by understanding how systemic racism and inequality contribute to this type of persistent, harmful inflammation in people’s bodies. Inflamed delves into a growing body of research examining how inequality drives health disparities. For instance, Black people in the US are more likely to earn less and have more debt compared with white people, contributing to chronic stress. They are also more likely to be exposed to environmental health hazards, such as lead in drinking water, and to live in areas with limited access to affordable, healthy food options, making it difficult to maintain a healthy diet.
8-4-21 Should social media come with a health warning?
PICK up a pack of cigarettes and you will probably see a terrifying picture of cancer lesions with a stern warning about how smoking can kill. For decades in the US, this was called the surgeon general’s warning, and it was a reminder that cigarettes are so bad that the government’s top doctor was against them. Now, the current surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, has recommended that we apply similar warnings to social media misinformation. Speaking in mid-July to CNN, Murthy said that social media networks played a “major role” in circulating misinformation about covid-19. He said that this “harms people’s health” and “costs them their lives”. It sounds like Murthy’s opinions go all the way to the top: US President Joe Biden said that social media is “killing people” who are getting conspiracy-tinged news about the pandemic from their feeds. In response, Facebook has said that it was being made a scapegoat for the White House missing some of its goals. Despite widespread availability of vaccines, only half of people in the US are fully vaccinated. Of the remaining unvaccinated people, many don’t plan to get the shot. A recent study by the Center for Countering Digital Hate found this is partly due to misinformation on social platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The group identified a handful of Facebook influencers called the “disinformation dozen” who peddled tales about the evils of vaccines to millions of people. The result has been a massive pandemic aftershock as the delta variant rips through unvaccinated populations. When you look at the data that way, warning labels on social media start to make sense. It’s an idea that Safiya Umoja Noble, at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of Algorithms of Oppression, has been researching for many years. She has argued that social media platforms should be regulated like the tobacco industry. I asked Noble what she thought about her work finally being floated as policy.
8-4-21 Study of how genes influence menopause may improve fertility treatment
A new way of treating infertility in women has been suggested by a study that investigated the genes controlling the age of menopause. When one of the genes was blocked from having an effect in female mice, the animals responded more strongly to infertility drugs often used to induce the ovaries to release multiple eggs during IVF treatment. Menopause usually happens around the age of 50, with infertility occurring several years beforehand, but there is wide variation, with the process being influenced by the number of eggs left in the ovaries. Girls are born with about a million eggs and by the time women reach menopause, this has fallen to about a thousand. Age at menopause is affected by both the starting number of eggs and the rate at which they die. The new study, undertaken by a large international consortium of researchers, looked at genetic variants that influence the age of menopause. It used existing records of 200,000 women of European descent who have offered their DNA for sequencing and filled in health questionnaires, such as in the UK Biobank project. The researchers found 290 regions of DNA that collectively cause about a third of the genetic variation in the age at which menopause occurs and about 12 per cent of the total variation – as lifestyle factors such as smoking and drinking also have an effect. The researchers also looked at records for nearly 80,000 women of East Asian ancestry and found similar results. Many of the genes identified are known to be linked to processes of DNA repair. Some are active before birth, when a fetus’s eggs are made, while others seem to affect the rate at which eggs die in adulthood, says John Perry at the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine, a member of the research team.
8-4-21 Countries are mixing and matching vaccines to tackle the delta variant
A GROWING number of countries that have been depending on vaccines developed in China are losing faith that these alone can rein in the coronavirus as they face continued surges in infections and the spread of the more transmissible delta variant. On 1 August, Cambodia became the latest nation to approve the use of a different vaccine as a booster shot. It will administer the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine as a third dose to bolster immune protection for those who have already received two doses of the Sinovac or Sinopharm vaccines. In the past month, Bahrain, Indonesia, Thailand, Uruguay and the United Arab Emirates have all begun mixing and matching vaccines in a tactic known as heterologous vaccination in the hope of improving protection and stemming transmission. Although China’s two leading vaccines have gained emergency approval from the World Health Organization, not much phase III trial data has been made public for either. The jabs from Sinopharm and Sinovac Biotech both use inactivated virus particles to provoke an immune response. This is a more traditional approach than the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccines, but has yielded worse results.Studies of the Sinovac vaccine have produced disparate findings. A study of healthcare workers in Brazil found in January that it was just 50 per cent effective at preventing symptomatic cases of covid-19, well below the 94 per cent reported for the Moderna vaccine and 95 per cent for the Pfizer/BioNTech jab. Trials in Indonesia and Turkey, however, found that it was 65 per cent and 91 per cent effective, respectively. The Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines are a lifeline for many countries in Africa, Central and South America, and South-East Asia that have been beaten to supplies of other vaccines by richer nations. Together, the two vaccines are being used in more than 100 countries.
8-4-21 Myocarditis is more common after covid-19 infection than vaccination
HEART inflammation triggered by some covid-19 vaccines has been a concern, especially in younger people, but a preliminary study suggests that in those most affected, it is six times more likely to occur after a coronavirus infection than after vaccination. In the past few months, some cases of this condition, known as myocarditis, have been recorded following the use of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. This has prompted concern particularly in the US and Israel, as these two countries have led the way in vaccinating younger people. The reaction happens most often in men and boys aged under 30 after their second dose, and is usually seen within 10 days, says Alma Iacob at Imperial College London. But many health bodies around the world say the benefits of vaccination still outweigh the risks for most people. Now a study in the US has analysed how often myocarditis occurs following infection with the coronavirus. Researchers analysed the records of healthcare organisations that cover a fifth of the US population. They found that, during the first 12 months of the pandemic, males aged 12 to 17 were most likely to develop myocarditis within three months of catching covid-19, at a rate of about 450 cases per million infections. This compares with 67 cases of myocarditis per million males of the same age following their second dose of a Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccine, according to figures from the US Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. Researchers added together cases after first and second doses to reach a total rate of 77 cases per million in this male age group triggered by vaccination, a sixth that seen after infection. “If you’re focused on heart inflammation, the safer bet is to take the vaccine,” says Mendel Singer at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, who helped carry out the study.
8-4-21 Asking processed food firms to cut calories voluntarily hasn't worked
Encouraging food manufacturers to voluntarily reduce the calories, sugar or salt content of their products doesn’t work. That’s according to an analysis of changes in the nutritional content of food and drinks sold in English supermarkets between 2015 and 2018. Over the years, Public Health England, a government agency, has set voluntary targets for reducing the calories, sugar and salt content of processed foods sold in the country. The voluntary targets were set in the hopes of encouraging manufacturers to change the nutritional content of their products rather than forcing reformulations. Lauren Bandy and her colleagues at the University of Oxford have now assessed the impact of the targets. “We basically found that there wasn’t really much change,” says Bandy. “The only change that we could see was with soft drinks.” The soft drink change may be because sugary drinks have been subject to a UK tax introduced in 2018, she says. The researchers observed a small increase in the number of products classified by the UK government as healthy on the basis of their nutrient profile, from 46 per cent in 2015 to 47 per cent in 2018. There was also an increase in the sale of healthy products, from 44 per cent in 2015 to 51 per cent in 2018. They attributed these increases to the sugar reductions in soft drinks encouraged by the 2018 tax. “We need carrots as well as sticks when seeking to address the UK’s [obesity-generating] food environment,” says Stuart Gillespie at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington DC. “But when it comes to big food, the stick – in the form of a government-mandated tax – is far more effective.” The products the team evaluated were from a number of food and beverage companies and didn’t include supermarket “own” brands.
8-4-21 Babylonians calculated with triangles centuries before Pythagoras
The ancient Babylonians understood key concepts in geometry, including how to make precise right-angled triangles. They used this mathematical know-how to divide up farmland – more than 1000 years before the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, with whom these ideas are associated. “They’re using a theoretical understanding of objects to do practical things,” says Daniel Mansfield at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. “It’s very strange to see these objects almost 4000 years ago.” Babylonia was one of several overlapping ancient societies in Mesopotamia, a region of southwest Asia that was situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Babylonia existed in the period between 2500 and 500 BC, and the First Babylonian Empire controlled a large area between about 1900 and 1600 BC. Mansfield has been studying a broken clay tablet from this period, known as Plimpton 322. It is covered with cuneiform markings that make up a mathematical table listing “Pythagorean triples”. Each triple is the lengths of the three sides of a right-angled triangle, where each side is a whole number. The simplest example is (3, 4, 5); others include (5, 12, 13) and (8, 15, 17). The triangles’ sides are these lengths because they obey Pythagoras’s theorem: the square of the longest side is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. This classic bit of mathematics is named for the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who lived between about 570 and 495 BC – long after the Plimpton 322 tablet was made. “They [the early Babylonians] knew Pythagoras’ theorem,” says Mansfield. “The question is why?” Mansfield thinks he has found the answer. The key clue was a second clay tablet, dubbed Si.427, excavated in Iraq in 1894. Mansfield tracked it down to the Istanbul Archaeology Museums.
8-3-21 A new book reveals stories of ancient life written in North America’s rocks
‘How the Mountains Grew’ steps through time, space, life and land on a geologic journey. Imagine a world where pigeon-sized dragonflies soar above spiders with half-meter-long legs, where 2-meter-long millipedes slither and 20-kilogram scorpions hunt. About 300 million years ago, such surreal creatures thrived; today, rocks hint at how these and other creatures in the deep past lived. These clues allow geologist and writer John Dvorak to vividly re-create ancient landscapes in How the Mountains Grew: A New Geological History of North America. Far from a dusty tome plodding through plate tectonics, the book teems with life as Dvorak establishes inextricable links between geology and biology. Take the oversize dragonflies and millipedes now preserved as fossils. Rocks of a similar age hold evidence of a rise in atmospheric oxygen that helps explain how these animals grew so large. The book zigzags from place to place on a chronological, continental-scale field trip. To avoid dizzying readers, Dvorak revisits certain sites that preserve multiple threads of geologic history. For instance, at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota’s Black Hills, he describes how, about 2 billion years ago, molten rock rose and lodged itself into sedimentary rocks deposited on the seafloor of bygone oceans. Today, presidents’ faces stare out from this now-solidified magma, those ancient oceanic sediments sitting just below the visage of George Washington. The book later returns to glimpse younger seas that came and went, depositing sediments now replete with fossils. All these rocks, Dvorak explains, whisper stories of how this particular mountain grew. Dvorak also ponders Earth’s future, envisioning an ice sheet grinding down Mount Rushmore’s carefully carved profiles more than 100,000 years from now. And he considers humankind’s future, arguing that we must determine how our dependence on fossil fuels — the result of another interplay between biology and geology — will end.
8-3-21 Neanderthal markings in Spain suggest cave art, study says
Red markings on a stalagmite dome in a cave system in southern Spain were created by Neanderthals more than 60,000 years ago, a new study says. The staining was applied by a process of splattering and blowing about 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe, the research suggests. An earlier study attributing the markings to the extinct cousins of modern humans was questioned. Some experts argued the staining in the Cueva de Ardales occurred naturally. But a new study published in the journal PNAS supports the view that the red ochre pigments discovered in three caves in the Iberian Peninsula are a form of Neanderthal cave art. It states that the deposits stand out from other natural materials sampled in the caves because of their unusual colours and textures. The new analysis, which includes more detailed dating, suggests some of the markings are about 65,000 years old. The Palaeolithic artwork, it says, must have been made by Neanderthals, a "sister" species to Homo sapiens, as they were Europe's sole human inhabitants at the time. The research also revealed that the pigment was applied at different times, sometimes more than 10,000 years apart. It suggests generations of Neanderthals returned to the site over time to make symbolic markings. This study will add to mounting evidence that the intellectual capabilities of our evolutionary cousins may have been underestimated, researchers say. The authors of the PNAS study said the markings were not "art" in the narrow sense of the word, but rather the result of "graphic behaviours" intended to create visual symbols. The site in the Cueva de Ardales, located in a mountain range in the Spanish province of Málaga, was discovered in 1821 after a concealed entrance was exposed following an earthquake. In 2014, experts said that an engraving found at a separate cave in Gibraltar provided compelling evidence for Neanderthal art. The geometric pattern identified in Gibraltar, on the southern tip of Europe, was uncovered beneath undisturbed sediments that have also yielded Neanderthal tools.
8-2-21 People living in dense UK cities are more likely to feel lonely
People who live in dense urban areas, particularly those with closely packed apartments, are more likely to experience loneliness and isolation, a large-scale study of UK cities has found. People who live in dense urban areas, particularly those with closely packed apartments, are more likely to experience loneliness and isolation, a large-scale study of UK cities has found. Chris Webster at the University of Hong Kong and his colleagues analysed health data from nearly 406,000 people in 22 UK cities held by the UK Biobank and compared it with detailed data of their environment, such as their proximity to busy roads and green spaces. The team found that people’s self-reported loneliness increased by 2.8 per cent for every additional 1000 housing units within 1 kilometre of their home, while their self-reported social isolation increased by 11.4 per cent. The researchers controlled for factors including age, health and socioeconomic status, finding that the effects were more pronounced in men and retirees. Compared with their counterparts living in the lowest residential densities, men in the highest densities were 23.5 per cent more likely to report loneliness, while retirees in areas with the densest housing were 17.4 per cent more likely to do so. “Our study suggests that loneliness is not only still prevalent in 21st-century cities, but is so endemic that we can detect a regular pattern and measure it,” says Webster. The team also looked at mental health impacts by housing type and found that people living near a higher density of detached housing were less likely to experience loneliness and social isolation. A higher density of apartments, on the other hand, was linked to an increase in these factors, which the researchers suggest could be due to a lack of privacy and control, producing social stress.