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89 Evolution News Articles
for December 2021
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12-29-21 New Scientist's predictions for the big science stories of 2022
HELLO and welcome to the first issue of 2022 – and our predictions of what the year ahead holds. This magazine went to press as the omicron variant of the coronavirus was on the rise. As the pandemic enters its third calendar year, we look at the likely evolution of further variants and the need for yet more boosters in the next 12 months. Thankfully, news is cheerier elsewhere. The mRNA technology used in the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna coronavirus vaccines has gone from experimental to essential in record time, and researchers are investigating whether it can be used to treat everything from cystic fibrosis to heart disease, with human trials potentially beginning in 2022. Sticking with medicine, a row about an Alzheimer’s drug approved in the US in 2021 is set to rumble on, as it isn’t clear whether the medicine is tackling the right target. We also have some really big science projects to look forward to. The Large Hadron Collider has spent the pandemic in a coincidental lockdown, but comes out of a three-year upgrade ready to push forward the frontiers of theoretical physics. Speaking of frontiers, if all goes to plan, a veritable fleet of spacecraft are headed to the moon, with around a dozen probe launches planned. The European and Russian space agencies are also partnering on a mission to look for life on Mars. One of the big stories from 2021 (besides the pandemic, of course) was the COP26 climate summit, held in November in Glasgow, UK. This April, there is a sequel of sorts: the COP15 biodiversity summit in Kunming, China, which was originally due to take place in 2020, but has been repeatedly postponed due to, well, you guessed it. Assuming the meeting goes ahead, it is a chance for world leaders to align biodiversity and climate goals, pledging to preserve fragile ecosystems. Finally, there are the long shots. Progress on both quantum computers and electrical supergrids is expected to gather pace in 2022, with some even talking up the prospect of a quantum device that can actually perform useful tasks. It is unlikely, but then who knows? As the past few years have shown, predicting the future is a mug’s game.

12-29-21 2022 preview: mRNA tech behind covid-19 vaccines could get new uses
2022 could be the year when we find out whether mRNA vaccine technology can be used for a lot more than just making vaccines. The hope is that it can also get our bodies to produce drugs that are otherwise very expensive to make, opening the door to treating a vast number of conditions. mRNAs are essentially genetically coded recipes that tell cells in our body how to make proteins, the large molecules that form most of the machinery of life. In the case of mRNA vaccines, the mRNAs code for viral proteins that provoke an immune response. When the coronavirus pandemic began, mRNA vaccines were still an experimental technology. There had been only a few small trials and no vaccines had ever been approved. Now, hundreds of millions of people have received the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna mRNA vaccines, and these have been found to be very safe and effective. When the coronavirus pandemic began, mRNA vaccines were still an experimental technology. There had been only a few small trials and no vaccines had ever been approved. Now, hundreds of millions of people have received the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna mRNA vaccines, and these have been found to be very safe and effective. This success has given a big boost to efforts to develop other mRNA vaccines for everything from cancers to herpes. But mRNAs can code for just about any protein, so the same basic technology might also allow us to develop all kinds of treatments. For instance, cystic fibrosis is often caused by the lack of a protein called CFTR in lung cells. Moderna and another company called Vertex are developing a potential treatment, codenamed VXc-522, that consists of mRNAs coding for the CFTR protein. The idea is to deliver them by inhalation. VXc-522 is currently undergoing safety testing and could enter human trials soon if that goes well.

12-29-21 Why do we have five digits on each hand, and not some other number?
Several years ago, I watched a documentary about the fossil of an early amphibian, once encased in a stone nodule. When it was discovered, in Victorian times, five toes were uncovered on each foot, then the excavation stopped. However, some stone was still left around the feet. A couple of years before the documentary was recorded, curiosity led to further excavation. This was rewarded by the discovery of extra toes. There were in fact eight on each foot. As well as a salutary lesson on not letting expectations prevent the completion of your research, this early amphibian proved that not all early land dwellers conformed to the five-digit rule. There was initial evolutionary experimentation; but only the five-toed amphibians were successful enough to pass on their genes. Limbs evolved from fish fins, and the first primitive digits appeared in fish-like, four-limbed animals in the Devonian period, 420 to 360 million years ago. These creatures were the ancestors of amphibians and ultimately reptiles, birds and mammals, and they exhibited variety in the number of digits, often having more than five. The fossil record suggests that as these digits evolved accompanying bones and joints allowing more sophisticated use, their number reduced to no more than five. Subsequent evolution never increased this number. In fact, many later animals have reduced the number still further when five weren’t needed. For example, the dinosaur branch known as theropods ended up with three fingers on each arm, or even two in the case of tyrannosaurs, while their probable descendants the birds mostly have four toes, and some just three or even two in the case of the ostrich. Horses’ hooves are the result of just one toe developing to support the animals’ weight while galloping, with the other toes withering away. In humans and our ape relatives, one finger evolved into the opposing thumb, which allowed us to better grasp things.

12-31-21 Two years of covid-19: What we’ve learned during the pandemic so far
It's now been two years since Chinese authorities first informed the World Health Organization about an unknown virus in Wuhan. How has our understanding of the virus changed since then and where does that leave us? On 31 December 2019, Chinese authorities informed the World Health Organization (WHO) about a cluster of “viral pneumonia” cases of unknown cause in the city of Wuhan. Two years later, the coronavirus now known as SARS-CoV-2 has resulted in at least 5.3 million deaths. As the world awaits the full impact of the new variant omicron, New Scientist looks back at the phenomenal scientific endeavour across the pandemic, and at how much we now know about the virus and how to fight it. In March 2021, a group tasked by the WHO to investigate covid-19’s origins concluded that SARS-CoV-2 is most likely to be an animal virus that moved into humans through contact with an animal host, either at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, a live animal market in Wuhan, or at another step in the trade of wildlife. The WHO group hedged its bets because the first person reported to have become ill with covid-19 on 8 December 2019 had no link with the market. A more recent analysis, however, suggests that this individual actually developed symptoms on 16 December, and only visited a hospital on 8 December for dental problems. This means the earliest known case may indeed have had ties to the market: a seafood vendor who became sick on 11 December. A third of the 168 people later identified as having had the virus in December 2019 had connections to the market. The mounting evidence for a market origin weakens the case for a lab leak, a premise that couldn’t be ruled out by an investigation commissioned by US president Joe Biden in 2021. Since these investigations, coronaviruses that are the closest match yet found to SARS-CoV-2 have been discovered in bats in Laos, says Marion Koopmans at Erasmus University Medical Centre in the Netherlands, who was part of the WHO’s investigation team. Certain features of these wild viruses were the same as those that some researchers claimed could only have arisen during “gain of function” tests in a lab, in which an organism is genetically altered to enhance certain characteristics.

12-31-21 Dinosaur footprints in Penarth date back 200 million years
Dinosaur footprints found on a beach in south Wales are actually a "trackway" of footprints dating back more than 200 million years, researchers have found. The imprints in Penarth, in the Vale of Glamorgan, were reported to researchers in 2020, sparking a wide-ranging study into their origins. It is believed the footprints are from an early ancestor of the giant diplodocus, and date back to the Triassic period. The footprints have been scanned using state-of-the-art 3D imaging technology but will be left in place until they are eroded by the sea. The study into the footprints was conducted by a group of palaeontologist from Cardiff University, National Museum Wales, Natural History Museum, Liverpool John Moores University and the University of Lyon.

12-29-21 2022 preview: Expect a row over controversial Alzheimer's drug
EXPECT to see debate over a new medicine to treat Alzheimer’s disease, called aducanumab, continue into 2022. Approved in the US last June, it is the first drug designed to treat a possible cause of this form of dementia, rather than the symptoms. Aducanumab targets beta-amyloid, a protein that makes up plaques in the brain often seen in people with Alzheimer’s disease. But the drug has its critics as well as its cheerleaders. It hasn’t so far been proven to reduce memory loss and confusion, the chief symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Other commonly used medicines slightly alleviate these symptoms, but they don’t work for everyone and their effects wear off. The US drug regulatory body, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), approved aducanumab for use to combat early Alzheimer’s on the basis that it reduces the extent of amyloid plaques. These have long been seen as a “biomarker” of Alzheimer’s – in other words, a biological indicator of disease progression or severity. Other medicines have been approved on the basis of biomarkers – for instance, levels of “bad cholesterol” are seen as a biomarker for heart disease. But for Alzheimer’s, it is still being debated if plaques are a valid biomarker. There is growing concern that they may not be a cause but something more like a side effect of the disease process. Targeting the plaques is “reasonably likely to have a clinical effect”, says Susan Kohlhaas at Alzheimer’s Research UK. “But that’s still to be tested.” When the FDA approved aducanumab, it went against the recommendations of its scientific advisory panel, which it usually follows – none of the 11 members considered it ready for approval and three members resigned in protest. The agency’s acting commissioner has since asked for an investigation to take place into the approval process. The drug’s maker, Biogen, told New Scientist: “The approval of aducanumab by the FDA came after an extensive development, clinical testing and regulatory review process, supported by data of more than 3000 patients who participated in our trials.”

12-29-21 2022 preview: What will the coronavirus do next?
WE HAVE been watching evolution in action as one coronavirus variant after anotherwsp_rte_replace_marker emerges and triggers further waves of infections around the world. There is every reason to think this will continue during 2022 – and there is no guarantee that future variants will be any less dangerous. For the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, survival is all about infecting as many people as possible. Variants that are better at spreading will outcompete other variants. A key part of this is transmissibility. When the original virus began spreading, every infected person infected two or three others on average. Delta infects six or seven. Omicron seems to be even more contagious. It isn’t yet fully understood how the virus is becoming more infectious. But with delta, it might be because it is better at replicating itself, meaning infected people shed more of the virus. Infecting people is no longer as easy as it used to be, however. Most people in the world now have some degree of immunity because of past infection or vaccination. So variants such as omicron are evolving to evade this immunity, typically through changes in the outer spike protein, the main target of our antibodies. There is a limit to how much more infectious the virus can become, but there may be no limit to its ability to evade our immune response. As happens with human flu viruses, we may see the continual emergence of new variants that evade immunity enough to cause wave after wave of infections. It is possible that, over time, different viral lineages will persist and diverge, rather than successive variants wiping out all others and sweeping to dominance. This could require different vaccines to be combined into a single dose, as is done with the flu vaccine. It is often claimed that new viruses will evolve to cause milder symptoms. But because SARS-CoV-2 is most infectious just before symptoms appear, there is little selective pressure for it to do this. Smallpox was highly lethal and might have become worse over time. Flu still exacts a high annual death toll. Another concern is that the virus might be circulating in several other animals, generating new variants that could jump back into people.

12-29-21 2022 preview: mRNA tech behind covid-19 vaccines could get new uses
2022 could be the year when we find out whether mRNA vaccine technology can be used for a lot more than just making vaccines. The hope is that it can also get our bodies to produce drugs that are otherwise very expensive to make, opening the door to treating a vast number of conditions. mRNAs are essentially genetically coded recipes that tell cells in our body how to make proteins, the large molecules that form most of the machinery of life. In the case of mRNA vaccines, the mRNAs code for viral proteins that provoke an immune response. When the coronavirus pandemic began, mRNA vaccines were still an experimental technology. There had been only a few small trials and no vaccines had ever been approved. Now, hundreds of millions of people have received the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna mRNA vaccines, and these have been found to be very safe and effective. This success has given a big boost to efforts to develop other mRNA vaccines for everything from cancers to herpes. But mRNAs can code for just about any protein, so the same basic technology might also allow us to develop all kinds of treatments. For instance, cystic fibrosis is often caused by the lack of a protein called CFTR in lung cells. Moderna and another company called Vertex are developing a potential treatment, codenamed VXc-522, that consists of mRNAs coding for the CFTR protein. The idea is to deliver them by inhalation. VXc-522 is currently undergoing safety testing and could enter human trials soon if that goes well. Moderna is also working with drug firm AstraZeneca on another mRNA therapy, this time to get cells to make a protein called vascular endothelial growth factor. VEGF stimulates the growth of blood vessels, so this treatment, codenamed AZD8601, could be used for everything from wounds that won’t heal to heart disease. At a conference last November, the companies announced that AZD8601 had proved safe in an initial trial involving injecting it directly into damaged heart muscles during surgery. Larger trials designed to test efficacy can now get under way.

12-29-21 How shifting your expectations about food can help you lose weight
The go-to advice for effective dieting is to choose food that is marketed as healthy and is low in calories, carbs and fat – but the way we think about such meals might actually cause us to gain weight. IF YOU are craving a satisfying dish but trying to be careful about your weight, few things are more dispiriting than reading the “healthy” options on a food menu. Words like “light”, “wholesome”, “skinnylicious”, “sensible”, “mild” – the adjectives that often accompany low-fat, low-carb options – hardly prepare you for a pleasurable meal. One obvious consequence is that it makes the foods seem less desirable, so you may be more tempted by indulgent choices: the “rich”, “flavourful”, “delicious” dishes. But the influence of these words can stretch far beyond our immediate decision-making. The way we think about food can powerfully influence our satiety long after we have finished eating, and thanks to the mind-body connection, it can even shape our hormonal responses and the meal’s passage through the gut. As a result, our expectations around food can determine whether we will experience greater hunger pangs afterwards and find it harder to resist snacking later in the day. And this is all down to the sense of deprivation created by the way the food was described, irrespective of the number of calories actually consumed. No wonder dieting is often so agonising: our culture has led us to associate healthy eating with greater hunger, and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fortunately, as I describe in my book The Expectation Effect, there are many ways to change our food mindsets, and they all centre on the idea that pleasure is an essential ingredient for any weight-loss regime. As paradoxical as it may seem, cultivating an indulgent attitude to food may be the best way to control your waistline. It was a man called Henry Molaison who provided some of the first clues to the ways our mind can influence our appetite. In the early 1950s, Molaison underwent experimental brain surgery to treat epilepsy, but the operation caused irretrievable damage to his hippocampus. As a result, he could no longer form new memories, leading him to live in the “permanent present tense”, in the words of the neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin. Observations of Molaison’s behaviour helped to revolutionise our understanding of memory. They revealed, for example, that we can learn skills unconsciously without being able to recall the lessons themselves.

12-29-21 How shifting your expectations about food can help you lose weight
The go-to advice for effective dieting is to choose food that is marketed as healthy and is low in calories, carbs and fat – but the way we think about such meals might actually cause us to gain weight. IF YOU are craving a satisfying dish but trying to be careful about your weight, few things are more dispiriting than reading the “healthy” options on a food menu. Words like “light”, “wholesome”, “skinnylicious”, “sensible”, “mild” – the adjectives that often accompany low-fat, low-carb options – hardly prepare you for a pleasurable meal. One obvious consequence is that it makes the foods seem less desirable, so you may be more tempted by indulgent choices: the “rich”, “flavourful”, “delicious” dishes. But the influence of these words can stretch far beyond our immediate decision-making. The way we think about food can powerfully influence our satiety long after we have finished eating, and thanks to the mind-body connection, it can even shape our hormonal responses and the meal’s passage through the gut. As a result, our expectations around food can determine whether we will experience greater hunger pangs afterwards and find it harder to resist snacking later in the day. And this is all down to the sense of deprivation created by the way the food was described, irrespective of the number of calories actually consumed. No wonder dieting is often so agonising: our culture has led us to associate healthy eating with greater hunger, and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fortunately, as I describe in my book The Expectation Effect, there are many ways to change our food mindsets, and they all centre on the idea that pleasure is an essential ingredient for any weight-loss regime. As paradoxical as it may seem, cultivating an indulgent attitude to food may be the best way to control your waistline. It was a man called Henry Molaison who provided some of the first clues to the ways our mind can influence our appetite. In the early 1950s, Molaison underwent experimental brain surgery to treat epilepsy, but the operation caused irretrievable damage to his hippocampus. As a result, he could no longer form new memories, leading him to live in the “permanent present tense”, in the words of the neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin. Observations of Molaison’s behaviour helped to revolutionise our understanding of memory. They revealed, for example, that we can learn skills unconsciously without being able to recall the lessons themselves.

12-28-21 The mummy of Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep I has been digitally unwrapped
Amenhotep I ruled Egypt from around 1525 to 1504 BC and his pristine mummy has never been unwrapped, but CT scans have now allowed us to peer inside. One of the last remaining unwrapped royal Egyptian mummies has been scanned in detail for the first time. Amenhotep I, who ruled Egypt from around 1525 to 1504 BC in an era known as the New Kingdom, was found in 1881 by a French Egyptologist. But the king’s mummy was left untouched due to a highly preserved wrapping and ornate face mask. It has remained sealed in its sarcophagus ever since. Now, Sahar Saleem and Zahi Hawass at the University of Cairo in Egypt have “digitally unwrapped” Amenhotep I’s mummy with computed tomography (CT), using hundreds of high resolution X-ray slices to map out the ancient king’s skeleton and soft tissue. “Royal mummies of the New Kingdom were the most well-preserved ancient bodies ever found, so these mummies are considered a time capsule,” says Saleem. “They can tell us about what the ancient kings and queens looked like, their health, ancient diseases, mummification techniques and manufacturing methods of funerary objects.” Amenhotep I’s mummy has been examined using simple X-ray scans in the past, but the detailed CT scan reveals several new facts: his bone structure indicates that he was 35 years old and 168.5 centimetres tall when he died. The study also seems to answer a long-standing mystery: previous scans had revealed that Amenhotep I had been embalmed by Egyptian priests for a second time 300 years after he was first entombed, after graverobbers apparently plundered his coffin. Saleem had theorised that the priests used this occasion to pilfer precious jewels placed on the body and in the bandages for themselves before re-embalming him. But the plentiful jewellery revealed in the scan reveals that the priests “lovingly” re-embalmed Amenhotep I, according to Saleem. It was because the priests’ handiwork was so impressive and the mummy’s appearance was so pristine more than 3000 years later that 19th century archaeologists were convinced to leave him permanently unwrapped.

12-28-21 Egyptian pharaoh's mummy digitally unwrapped for first time
The mummified body of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh has been studied for the first time in millennia after being digitally "unwrapped". The mummy of Amenhotep I, who ruled from 1525 to 1504 BC, was found at a site in Deir el-Bahari 140 years ago. But archaeologists have refrained from opening it in order to preserve the exquisite face mask and bandages. Computed tomography (CT) scans have now revealed previously unknown information about the pharaoh and his burial. Dr Sahar Saleem, professor of radiology at Cairo University and lead author of the study published in the journal Frontiers in Medicine, said they showed Amenhotep I was about 35 years old when he died. "He was approximately 169cm (5ft 6in) tall, circumcised, and had good teeth. Within his wrappings, he wore 30 amulets and a unique golden girdle with gold beads," she told PA Media. "Amenhotep I seems to have physically resembled his father: he had a narrow chin, a small narrow nose, curly hair, and mildly protruding upper teeth." However, Dr Saleem said they did not observe any wounds or disfigurement due to disease that would allow them to give a cause of death. The researchers were able to gain insights about the mummification and burial of Amenhotep, who was the second king of the 18th Dynasty, including that he was the first pharaoh to have his forearms folded across his chest and that, unusually, his brain was not removed. They also concluded that his mummy was "lovingly repaired" by priests of the 21st Dynasty, which ruled about four centuries after this death. The scans showed that the mummy suffered from multiple post-mortem injuries that were likely to have been inflicted by grave robbers. They also showed that the priests fixed the detached head and neck to the body with a resin-treated linen band, covered a defect in the abdominal wall with a band and placed two amulets beneath, and wrapped the detached left arm to the body.

12-24-21 World's oldest family tree created using DNA
Scientists have compiled the world's oldest family tree from human bones interred at a 5,700-year-old tomb in the Cotswolds, UK. Analysis of DNA from the tomb's occupants revealed the people buried there were from five continuous generations of one extended family. Most of those found in the tomb were descended from four women who all had children with the same man. The right to use the site was based on descent from one man. But people were buried in different parts of the tomb based on the first-generation matriarch they were descended from. This suggests that the first-generation women held a socially significant place in the memories of this community. The Neolithic tomb, or "cairn", at Hazleton North in Gloucestershire has two L-shaped chambers, one facing north and the other south. Co-author Prof David Reich, from Harvard Medical School in Boston, US, who led the generation of ancient DNA from the remains, explained: "Two of the women, all of their children are in the south chamber - and their kids up to the fifth generation. "And then the other two women, their kids are primarily in the north chamber - although some of them switch to the south chamber later in the use life of the tomb - probably reflecting the collapse of the north passage which meant it wasn't possible to bury there anymore." Dr Chris Fowler of Newcastle University, UK, the first author and lead archaeologist in the study, said: "This is of wider importance because it suggests that the architectural layout of other Neolithic tombs might tell us about how kinship operated at those tombs." The tomb dates to an important period just after farming was introduced to Britain by people whose ancestors had - several thousand years earlier - spread through Europe from Anatolia (modern Turkey) and the Aegean. The work will help researchers understand family dynamics among these Stone Age people and learn more about their culture. "Hopefully this will be the first of many such studies," said Prof Reich. "It really makes vivid the lives of these people... who lived in this place a very long time ago." There are also indications that "stepsons" were adopted into the family, the researchers say - males whose mother was buried in the tomb but not their biological father, and whose mother had also had children with a male related to the original founder.

12-24-21 Florian Solzbacher interview: Mind-reading implant may soon go on sale
The president of Blackrock Neurotech says the company’s brain-computer interface, designed for people who are paralysed, could be available in 2022 if regulators approve it. A brain implant that lets people who are unable to speak because of paralysis communicate by thought could go on sale for the first time in 2022. The technology, known as a brain-computer interface, involves a small electrode that is put permanently into the brain to detect neural signals, allowing people to control a computer. It has seen success in research studies, including in recognising people’s wishes to move a computer cursor and imagining writing letters by hand. There are still question marks over the technology, because electrodes put in the brain tend to get slowly covered with immune cells called microglia, which makes a device less sensitive. But in November, biotech firm Blackrock Neurotech said it plans to put such a device on sale in the US in 2022 – if it is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. How many people have had this type of implant in a research setting so far? Right now, we’re at about 34 or so worldwide, and about 31 of those are ours. How do we know they are safe? Could they cause infections, for instance? The safety of patients is always paramount. Any percutaneous [inserted through the skin] implant such as a wire or connector creates a potential site of infection that needs to be carefully managed with regular cleaning protocols and check-ups. The experience of the past 10 years of working with human patients has, however, shown that this can be very well managed. We do have a wireless version of the implant in preparation that is currently going through testing. Why the focus on asking people to imagine handwriting? Traditionally, people had a sort of keyboard, and then you would imagine where a cursor went. You needed to click every character. That is doable, and if you don’t have anything else, it is valuable. But if I now take a piece of paper and handwrite, I’m definitely faster.

12-24-21 UK has begun using drugs for covid-19 cases before they become severe
Treatments like sotrovimab, molnupiravir and Paxlovid could lead to a new strategy in 2022: tackling covid-19 soon after infection to prevent severe symptoms from developing. People in the UK who are at higher risk for covid-19 can now help trial the first antiviral pill for this infection that can be taken at home, while those who are classed as extremely vulnerable can get antibody infusions as soon as they test positive. “These are potentially game-changing drugs,” says Philip Evans at the UK National Institute for Health Research. So how will the new treatments be delivered and how effective are they? When the pandemic began, doctors had no treatments for covid-19 other than general supportive care, such as giving people oxygen. Then, certain drug treatments became available, but they have mostly focused on tackling severe symptoms and have had to be given in hospital settings. Throughout 2021, though, new treatments were developed that are intended for use when a person first becomes infected and symptoms are still mild. The hope is that by giving such medicines as soon as possible after a positive test, people are less likely to get sick enough to need a hospital stay. In the UK, people who are most vulnerable to covid-19 should by now have received letters containing a PCR test and advice that if they develop symptoms, they should take the test and call a special clinic to discuss treatment. This includes people with cancer, people with Down’s syndrome or those with very weak immune systems. About 70 hospital clinics called Covid Medicines Delivery Units have been set up around the UK to help these groups. The main treatment on offer is an intravenous therapy called sotrovimab, an artificial antibody designed to block the coronavirus. A different antibody mixture called Ronapreve had originally been planned for use, but early lab tests suggest this is less effective against the omicron variant, while sotrovimab maintains enough efficacy to be useful.

12-24-21 The year of coronavirus variants: How evolution tormented us in 2021
A year ago, many were hoping the pandemic would soon be over – but then came alpha, delta and omicron. What a year it has been. In December 2020, the first vaccination campaigns were just getting under way in high-income countries, leading many to hope that life would soon get back to normal. Now a growing number of countries are reimposing restrictions as cases soar to the highest levels since the pandemic began. The reason for this is, in a word, evolution. The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has been spreading largely unchecked through most of the 7 billion people on this planet, giving it countless opportunities to evolve. The virus has been changing right from the beginning. All but one of the variants that caused us the most grief during 2021 actually appeared in 2020. They were waiting in the wings months before the vaccines began to roll out. The first of these was beta, which gradually evolved in the Eastern Cape in South Africa in the second half of 2020. Beta could dodge prior immunity to some extent, and it caused a second wave of cases in the region that peaked in January 2021. Beta spread worldwide but didn’t cause major waves in most other countries, probably because other variants had got there first. In December 2020, the UK sounded the alarm about alpha, first spotted in Kent in September 2020. It had a bunch of new mutations, and was highly transmissible. We still don’t know how it originated but it may have evolved over months in an immunocompromised person. During the first few months of 2021, alpha caused a big wave of cases in Europe and North America and much of the rest of the world. The main exception was South America, which was instead grappling with gamma, a variant that is thought to have evolved in Brazil in late 2020.

12-24-21 Why the UK’s booster campaign mustn’t forget the vaccine hesitant
With booster jabs forming the backbone of the UK’s omicron efforts, it’s more important than ever to reach out to pregnant women and people from ethnic minority groups who may be more likely to have concerns over vaccination. The UK is one of the least vaccine hesitant countries in the world, with close to 90 per cent of over-12s in the UK having received at least one coronavirus vaccine jab. But with the country relying heavily on a booster campaign in its efforts to fight the omicron variant, it is more important than ever to reach out to communities where concerns over vaccination are more common, such as pregnant women and some ethnic groups. Studies suggest that people from ethnic minority groups are more likely to be vaccine hesitant due to historical racism and a lack of trust in the government and medical establishment. About 95 per cent of white over-50s in the UK had received two doses of a coronavirus vaccine by the end of November, compared with just 65 per cent of people in the UK aged over-50 who are of Black Caribbean descent. When it comes to the booster roll out, the latest UK information collated from GP records up to 15 December suggest that 93 per cent of white over-80s who were due to get a booster had received one. This figure is 75 per cent for Black over-80s and 79 per cent for South Asian over-80s. Winston Morgan at the University of East London says that communication around the booster campaign needs to be clearer. “Rolling out a huge booster without explaining the difference between the initial vaccination and a booster will cause confusion in many,” he says. “It will reinforce a lot of fears.” Morgan says a similar lack of nuance slowed down the roll out of the first jab. “The original campaign didn’t really assume that there’d be a large number of people who didn’t take the vaccine,” he says. “It wasn’t very sophisticated.”

12-23-21 Prehistoric ichthyosaurs evolved rapidly to be as big as whales
A newly discovered fossil shows that within just 3 million years of their first appearance on Earth, ichthyosaurs had evolved into 17-metre-long giants. Fossil remains of one of the ocean’s earliest giants have been unearthed in Nevada. Named Cymbospondylus youngorum, this ichthyosaur had a 2-metre-long skull and may have stretched around 17 metres in length. Lars Schmitz at the W.M. Keck Science Department in California, a member of the team that analysed the remains, describes it as a “jaw-dropping” find. Ichthyosaurs were marine reptiles that lived between about 249 million and 90 million years ago and had a body shape reminiscent of modern whales and dolphins. Some grew large, and C. youngorum was comparable in size to a modern sperm whale. It was discovered in roughly 246 million-year-old rocks, so it is only about 3 million years younger than the first ichthyosaurs, which evolved from land-based ancestors. This indicates that ichthyosaurs ballooned in size astonishingly quickly once they took to the seas. Neil Kelley at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, who wasn’t involved in the study, notes that fragments of such early giants have been found before, but says it’s “very exciting” to finally see more complete remains. Read more: Extraordinary fossil shows ancient marine reptile swallowing huge prey While many whale species have reached giant sizes in today’s seas, their evolutionary route was long. The earliest whales evolved about 56 million years ago and it took another 50 million years for some species to become enormous. C. youngorum shows that ichthyosaurs did the same in a fraction of the time, which underscores different evolutionary pathways for these superficially similar animals.

12-22-21 Bronze Age migration may have brought Celtic languages to Britain
Analysis of ancient DNA reveals a mass migration of people from what is now France to England and Wales between 1000 and 875 BC. The largest analysis of ancient DNA to date has revealed a mass migration of people from what is now France into England and Wales during the late Bronze Age, which may have spread Celtic languages to Britain. Two large migrations of people into Britain were previously known, the first taking place around 6000 years ago. The ancestry of these people came mostly from a group known to archaeogeneticists as Early European Farmers, with around 20 per cent from another group called Western European Hunter-Gatherers. This migration led to the replacement of most of the existing local hunter-gatherer ancestry. Around 4500 years ago, at the start of the Bronze Age, there was a second migration that consisted of descendents of livestock farmers from the Pontic-Caspian steppe – grassland that spans from present-day Bulgaria to Kazakhstan. Ancestry from this group eventually formed at least 90 per cent of the genetic make-up in Scotland, England and Wales. People living in England and Wales today have more ancestry from Early European Farmers than people in the early Bronze Age did, suggesting a third migration from Europe may have occurred more recently. Ian Armit at the University of York in the UK and his colleagues sequenced the genomes of nearly 800 individuals from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age whose remains were found at archaeological sites in Britain and in western and central Europe. They looked at the proportion of Early European Farmer ancestry in these ancient people over time. The team found evidence of a third mass migration into Britain from France that took place between 1000 BC and 875 BC, during which Early European Farmer ancestry increased from around 30 per cent to roughly 36 per cent on average in southern Britain by the late Bronze Age. In the Iron Age, this stabilised at nearly half of the ancestry in populations of England and Wales.

12-23-21 Ancient mass migration transformed Britons' DNA
Scientists have uncovered evidence for a large-scale, prehistoric migration into Britain that may be linked to the spread of Celtic languages. The mass-movement of people originated in continental Europe and occurred between 1,400 BC and 870 BC. The discovery helps to explain the genetic make-up of many present-day people in Britain. Around half the ancestry of later populations in England and Wales comes from these migrants. It's unclear what caused the influx of people during the Middle to Late Bronze Age, but the migrants introduced new ritual practices to Britain. The results, published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature, are based on DNA extracted from 793 ancient skeletons. The study reveals that a gene allowing some people to digest raw milk increased rapidly in Britain during the Iron Age - 1,000 years before the same thing happened elsewhere in Northern Europe. It's an extraordinary example of natural selection for a genetic trait, and the reasons for its spread remain a mystery. The researchers identified four skeletons at the archaeological sites of Cliffs End Farm and Margetts Pit in Kent that were either first-generation migrants from continental Europe, or their descendants. It's evidence for pioneer settlement of the region from the continent, starting as far back as 1,400BC. At first, said Dr Thomas Booth, from the Francis Crick Institute in London, people with the new, continental ancestry "appear almost exclusively in Kent... but we don't really see them anywhere else and we don't see a change in the overall ancestry of Britain. But the new DNA signature soon spreads: "From around 1,000BC, suddenly that ancestry seems to disperse all the way through southern Britain, particularly," he explained, adding: "There's no particular genetic change in Scotland, but everywhere in England and Wales, this ancestry has an effect."

12-22-21 Perfectly preserved dinosaur embryo found in China
Scientists have announced the discovery of a perfectly preserved dinosaur embryo that was preparing to hatch from its egg, just like a chicken. The embryo was discovered in Ganzhou in southern China and researchers estimate it is at least 66 million years old. It is believed to be a toothless theropod dinosaur, or oviraptorosaur, and has been named Baby Yingliang. Researcher Dr Fion Waisum Ma said it is "the best dinosaur embryo ever found in history". The discovery has also given researchers a greater understanding of the link between dinosaurs and modern birds. The fossil shows the embryo was in a curled position known as "tucking", which is a behaviour seen in birds shortly before they hatch. "This indicates that such behaviour in modern birds first evolved and originated among their dinosaur ancestors," Dr Ma told the AFP news agency. Oviraptorosaurs, which means "egg thief lizards," were feathered dinosaurs that lived in what is now Asia and North America during the Late Cretaceous period - between 100 million to 66 million years ago. Paleontologist Prof Steve Brusatte who was also part of the research team, tweeted that it was "one of the most stunning dinosaur fossils" he had ever seen, and that the embryo was on the brink of hatching. Baby Yingliang measures 10.6in (27cm) long from head to tail, and rests inside a 6.7 inch-long egg at the Yingliang Stone Nature History Museum in China. The egg was first uncovered in 2000, but put into storage for 10 years. It was only when construction work began on the museum and old fossils were being sorted through that researchers turned their attention to the egg, which they suspected was holding an embryo inside. advanced scanning techniques to create an image of its full skeleton.

12-21-21 Fossilised dinosaur embryo found exquisitely preserved inside egg
A 70 million-year-old oviraptorosaur egg that had been forgotten in a Chinese museum storeroom contains the most well-preserved dinosaur embryo ever discovered. A fossilised dinosaur embryo discovered in southern China may be the most well-preserved ever uncovered. The dinosaur egg containing the embryo had languished for more than a decade in a storeroom in Yingliang Stone Natural History Museum in Nan’an, China, until 2015, when a staff member noticed bones sticking out of the shell and wondered if it may contain an unhatched dinosaur. “The museum realised it must be an important specimen, so they contacted us to look at the egg,” says Waisum Ma at the University of Birmingham in the UK. “We were surprised to see this embryo beautifully preserved inside.” The unhatched dinosaur’s 24-centimetre-long skeleton is curled inside the egg, with its head tucked tightly into its body. The egg is 17 centimetres long and 8 centimetres wide. Features of the skeleton suggest it is an oviraptorid – a two-legged dinosaur that had a bird-like head and feathers. The egg appears to be 72 to 66 million years old. It was probably buried rapidly in sand or mud to allow its remarkable preservation, says Ma. “It is very rare to find dinosaur embryos, especially ones that are intact,” she says. The embryos of modern birds also adopt a tucked posture to protect themselves for hatching. This suggests the posture first evolved in dinosaurs, not in modern birds as was previously thought, says Ma. “We’ve never had embryos well-preserved enough to see this before,” she says. Little is known about the egg’s origins, except that it was found in Shahe Industrial Park in Ganzhou City in southern China and donated to the museum in 2000. “We’re not sure how it was first discovered but we guess it was something related to construction work,” says Ma.

12-21-21 European wine grapes have their genetic roots in western Asia
We used to think that European wine grapes were cultivated locally, independently of grape domestication in western Asia, but grape genetics suggests otherwise. Grapes used to make common European wines may have originated from grapevines that were first domesticated in the South Caucasus region of western Asia. As these domesticated grapes dispersed westwards during the Greek and Roman times, they interbred with local European wild populations, which helped the wine grapes adapt to different European climates. The origins of grapes (Vitis vinifera) that are used in Europe and elsewhere to produce wines such as Merlot, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have long been debated. It has been proposed that European wine grapes arose from the cultivation of wild European populations (V. vinifera subspecies sylvestris), independently of the original domestication of grapes in western Asia around 7000 years ago. But a genetic analysis carried out by Gabriele Di Gaspero at the Institute of Applied Genomics in Udine, Italy, and his colleagues suggests that European wine grapes actually originated from domesticated grapes (V. vinifera subspecies sativa) that were initially grown for consumption as fresh fruit in western Asia. The team sequenced the genomes of 204 wild and cultivated grape varieties – to cover the range of genetic diversity in cultivated grapes – and compared how similar their genetic sequences were to one another. This revealed that as western Asian table grapes spread westwards across the Mediterranean and further inland into Europe, they interbred with wild European grape populations that grew nearby. “The wild plants grew close to vineyards and interbred – this was unintentional. But the results of the breeding created adaptive traits that were likely selected by humans intentionally,” says Di Gaspero. “By bringing together this genetic evidence and existing historical evidence, the introductions in southern Europe and inland likely occurred in Greek and Roman times, although we don’t know more specific dates.”

12-21-21 Fossil of the largest millipede that ever lived found on English beach
Arthropleura was the largest millipede ever to live, and palaeontologists have just found the fossilised remains of the longest specimen yet on a beach in northern England. The remains of a 326-million-year-old giant millipede, known as Arthropleura, have been found on a beach in Northumberland in the UK. With a length of more than 2.5 metres, Arthropleura is the largest arthropod – invertebrates with jointed legs, such as scorpions and crabs – ever to have existed on Earth. The new specimen appears to be the biggest found to date. In January 2018, Neil Davies at the University of Cambridge and his colleagues stumbled across the fossil by chance on Howick Beach in Northumberland during a geological tour of England and Wales. “We saw that there was a very large piece of sandstone cliff that had fallen off and it had split down the middle as it fell,” says Davies. “We had a quick peak inside the crack that had formed and saw that there was a really large fossil inside there.” After extracting the remains, they determined that the fossil was a segment from the rear of Arthropleura. This section was around 76 centimetres long and 36 centimetres wide. The team then calculated that the creature must originally have been 2.63 metres long and 55 centimetres wide. “We can estimate they are the largest arthropod to have ever walked on Earth,” says Davies. It was potentially even bigger than the largest eurypterid, or sea scorpion, which lived around the same time as Arthropleura. The environment in which the fossil was found was different to what the researchers had expected. “It comes from a sandy delta environment, rather than a coal forest that [Arthropleura] is often illustrated as living in,” says Davies. They also dated the fossil to the early Carboniferous period, making it much older than the only other two Arthropleura fossils yet found, which were discovered in Germany a century ago.

12-21-21 A 1,306-legged millipede is the first to live up to its name
Millipedes are no longer a lie. Millipedes, as we’ve known them, have been a lie. The Latin name for the arthropods implies an impressive set of 1,000 feet. Yet no millipede with more than 750 legs has ever been found, until now. The first millipede that lives up to its name uses its 1,306 little legs to tunnel through soil deep beneath the semi-arid scrubland of Western Australia, researchers report December 16 in Scientific Reports. Dubbed Eumillipes persephone, it’s the leggiest creature ever known to crawl Earth. Researchers nabbed the specimen and seven other curiously long, threadlike millipedes by dropping cups baited with leaf litter into drill holes used for mineral prospecting that were up to 60 meters deep. Eventually, the creatures were sent to entomologist Paul Marek at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg for a closer look. The pale, cream-colored millipedes lack eyes, and massive antennae protrude from their drill bit–shaped heads — all signs of a subterranean lifestyle, Marek says. While inspecting a 95-millimeter-long female under a microscope, Marek realized he beheld something special. “I was like, Oh my god this has more than 1,000 legs,” he says. With 1,306 tiny feet in total, the specimen has nearly double that of the previous record-holder (SN: 6/7/06). “It’s pretty astounding.” The researchers suspect E. persephone’s elongate, leg-packed body helps the creature maneuver through soil in up to eight different directions at once, like a tangled strand of mobile pasta. “We suspect it feeds on fungi,” Marek says, but the types of fungi living in these deep, dark habitats are unknown. While E. persephone still holds many secrets, Marek is sure of one thing: “Textbooks are going to have to be changed,” he says. Paragraphs on millipedes will no longer require the caveat that technically, the name is a misnomer. “We finally have a real millipede.”

12-21-21 Largest-ever millipede fossil found on Northumberland beach
Scientists say they have discovered the largest-ever fossil of a giant millipede on a beach in Northumberland, totally by chance. The millipede, known as Arthropleura, is thought to have been more than 2.5m (8ft) long. It would have weighed about 50kg (eight stone). The fossil segment was first spotted in 2018 when a large block of sandstone fell on to a beach at Howick Bay. It will be displayed in Cambridge's Sedgwick Museum next year. "It was a complete fluke of a discovery," said Dr Neil Davies, from Cambridge's Department of Earth Sciences, who has been analysing the 75cm-long fossil. "The way the boulder had fallen, it had cracked open and perfectly exposed the fossil, which one of our former PhD students happened to spot when walking by," Dr Davies said. When the giant millipede lived, 326 million years ago, the north-east of England had a much more tropical climate than today. This specimen was found in what researchers believe was an old river channel. It may well not actually be the fossil of a dead creature, but an exoskeleton that was shed as the massive millipede grew. "Finding these giant millipede fossils is rare, because once they died, their bodies tend to disarticulate, so it's likely that the fossil is a moulted carapace that the animal shed as it grew," said Mr Davies. "We have not yet found a fossilised head, so it's difficult to know everything about them." One thing that can be said with certainty is, that in common with almost all millipedes, it did not have 1,000 legs - the researchers believe it had at least 32, but it may have been up to 64. This fossil is just the third Arthropleura to be discovered, and is far older and larger than the two previous specimens which were both found in Germany. The researchers believe that to get to such a large size, Arthropleura must have had a high-nutrient diet. That could have meant it supplementing a diet of nuts and seeds with small creatures and amphibians. The fossil is due to go on public display in Cambridge in the new year. A paper analysing the discovery has been published in the Journal of the Geological Society.

12-21-21 2021 in review: When a brain blob in a dish grew a pair of ‘eyes’
Incredible advances in growing living tissue in the lab took another amazing turn in August when a blob of brain cells grew eye-like structures There was a leap forward in understanding brain development in August, when lumps of neural tissue in a dish were coaxed into sprouting rudimentary eyes. The structures, developed from stem cells, are called optic cups and responded to light. They formed similar tissues to those in real eyes – including a lens and retina – and developed nerves that sent signals to the rest of the neural blob (Cell Stem Cell, doi.org/grx8). The work may one day lead to new treatments for blindness. But the team involved, at the Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf in Germany, first needs to manage to keep the “eyes” alive long-term.

12-20-21 Higher US welfare benefits seem to protect children's brains
The size of a child’s hippocampus can be limited by stress, and US state welfare schemes that give families $500 a month or more are linked to a reduction in this association. Higher payments from US welfare schemes can reduce the impact that living in a low-income household has on the size of a crucial region of a child’s brain. David Weissman at Harvard University in Massachusetts, and his colleagues analysed images of the brains of more than 11,000 children aged 9 and 10 in the US, looking specifically at the size of each child’s hippocampus. “The hippocampus is a brain region involved in learning and memory,” says Weissman. Its development is believed to be impaired by excess stress, which can be caused by growing up in poverty, he says. “Prior studies show that kids with small hippocampal volumes are more likely to develop internalising problems [such as anxiety and social withdrawal] and develop depression,” he says. The children came from 17 states, and while they aren’t wholly representative of the US population they are “pretty close”, according to Weissman. The data set is slightly skewed towards more urban areas because the imaging can only be done in places that have available neuroimaging equipment and related expertise. Weissman and his team looked at whether a state had expanded Medicaid, a federally subsidised healthcare scheme, in 2017. That year, states had to choose whether to begin covering a portion of the services that were previously fully covered by the federal government. Just over 7500 of the children involved lived in states that expanded Medicaid. Then the researchers analysed the average amount of welfare benefits people in each state received under various anti-poverty schemes. The higher this total, the more generous they considered the state’s benefits system. “It’s a rough estimate, but it works,” says Weissman.

12-20-21 Covid-19 news: Moderna booster stimulates antibodies against omicron
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. Moderna booster jab leads to 37-fold increase in levels of antibodies against the omicron variant A booster dose of Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine appears to increase neutralising antibodies against the coronavirus, the company announced on Monday. A 50mg dose of the booster – the dose authorised for use in the UK and US – was found to stimulate a 37-fold increase in antibodies against omicron. A 100mg dose of the booster saw an 83-fold increase in antibodies. The 37-fold increase “should provide some good level of protection as we go into the holiday season”, Paul Burton, Moderna’s chief medical officer, told the Washington Post. The findings are based on antibody levels measured in the blood of 20 people 29 days after receiving a third dose of the vaccine. Moderna announced the results in a press release – the study has not yet been published or peer reviewed. Independent SAGE, an independent group of scientists in the UK, has released guidance on how to safely plan holiday gatherings. The group recommends making a list of the people you would like to see, in order of priority, before noting how vulnerable and in need of support they are. The scientists also suggest having frank discussions with friends and family members about how to limit the spread of coronavirus before meeting up. Stay at home if you have any cold symptoms, stay away from others with symptoms, and take a lateral flow test immediately before meeting others in well-ventilated spaces, the group advises. Christmas travel could lead to a greater spread of the omicron variant, which is already “raging through the world”, Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told NBC News on Sunday. People who need to travel “just need to be prudent”, Fauci said. “If you’re vaccinated and you’re boosted and you take care when you go into congregate settings like airports… make sure you continually wear your masks – you should be okay.” Close to 73 per cent of the US population has received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). So far, almost 30 per cent have had a booster shot. People in Sri Lanka will be required to show proof of covid-19 vaccination before entering public spaces from 1 January. Over 14,000 deaths have been attributed to covid-19 on the island nation since the pandemic began.

12-17-21 Human brain cells in a dish learn to play Pong faster than an AI/span 
Hundreds of thousands of brain cells in a dish are being taught to play Pong by responding to pulses of electricity – and can improve their performance more quickly than an AI can. Living brain cells in a dish can learn to play the video game Pong when they are placed in what researchers describe as a “virtual game world”. “We think it’s fair to call them cyborg brains,” says Brett Kagan, chief scientific officer of Cortical Labs, who leads the research. Many teams around the world have been studying networks of neurons in dishes, often growing them into brain-like organoids. But this is the first time that mini-brains have been found to perform goal-directed tasks, says Kagan. The “DishBrains” being created by Kagan and his colleagues each consist of between about 800,000 and 1 million living brain cells – roughly equivalent to a cockroach brain, says Kagan. Some contain mouse cells taken from embryonic brains while others contain human brain cells derived from stem cells. The cells are grown on top of microelectrode arrays that can both stimulate the cells and read their activity. To simulate a simplified version of Pong with no opponent, the firing of electrodes on the left or right of one array tell the mini-brain – the paddle – whether the ball is to its left or right. The frequency of the signals indicates closeness. Specific patterns of activity across the neurons are interpreted as the paddle moving left or right. The computer responds to this activity, and the feedback via the electrodes allows the mini-brains to learn how to control the paddle. “We often refer to them as living in the Matrix,” says Kagan. “When they are in the game, they believe they are the paddle.” The mini-brains are nowhere near as good at Pong as people or even the AIs created by companies such as DeepMind. But they do learn faster than AIs, says Kagan. It takes computer-based AIs at least 5000 rallies to get to the same point that the living systems reach after just 10 or 15 rallies.

12-17-21 How reliable are covid-19 lateral flow tests for detecting omicron?
The rise of the omicron coronavirus variant has put an increased focus on regular testing, but are rapid lateral flow tests the right tool for the job? With the omicron variant of the coronavirus on the rise, regular testing has become even more important, particularly as people decide whether to socialise during the Christmas period. Here’s everything you need to know about testing. What is the difference between a lateral flow test and a PCR test? Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests were the first available for spotting the coronavirus. They work by detecting the virus’s genetic material, and are very accurate. Then came rapid tests, also called lateral flow tests (LFTs). Unlike PCR tests, these detect proteins from the virus, which are present when someone is infectious. Although both begin with someone taking a swab from their nose or throat, most PCR tests have to be sent to a laboratory, while rapid LFTs can be completed by the user at home and give results in minutes. Are LFTs less good than PCRs? Rapid tests aren’t as good as PCR tests at detecting the coronavirus because PCR tests involve a step where the genetic material is multiplied over and over again, so they can detect tiny starting amounts. LFTs have no multiplying stage, so may miss infections where virus levels are low. Can we quantify the difference? Various studies have put the sensitivity of LFTs – in other words, their ability to detect the virus if it is there – at about 40 to 60 per cent. That sounds unhelpfully low, but it is an unfair measure as it compares LFTs to PCR tests, which are arguably too sensitive, says Irene Petersen at University College London. In the weeks following an infection, the cells of the nose and throat can retain fragments of virus genetic material that aren’t infectious, but that can be amplified by the PCR process, leading to a positive result. Taking this into account, a study in Liverpool that gave a sensitivity of 40 per cent for LFTs suggests their accuracy is really more than 80 per cent, according to modelling work by Petersen’s team.

12-17-21 How did the omicron coronavirus variant evolve to be so dangerous?
Omicron has become a global threat to public health thanks to a particularly dangerous set of mutations, but where did it come from? We do not know for sure where or how the omicron variant of the coronavirus acquired such an extensive and dangerous set of mutations before beginning to spread like wildfire around the world, and we may never know. It most likely evolved in a single immunocompromised individual, possibly an HIV-positive person living somewhere in southern Africa who was not receiving effective treatment, but there is no direct evidence for this. How did we discover the omicron variant? Researchers in South Africa noticed a small increase in cases in Gauteng province and decided to sequence more samples. They found a variant with a lot of worrying mutations and alerted the world on 25 November. Researchers elsewhere noticed this variant around the same time from sequences uploaded to public databases. What’s different about it? Omicron has around 50 mutations compared to the original virus discovered in Wuhan, China, with 30 in the outer spike protein alone. That matters because the spike protein is the target of our antibodies. The extensive changes in omicron’s spike protein greatly reduce the effectiveness of the antibodies people have from vaccination or from infection with other variants. How did it acquire so many mutations? There are two main hypotheses. The first is that it evolved in a person with a compromised immune system. Normally all viruses are killed when our immune response kicks in fully but if a person’s immune system is weak some viruses can keep replicating in their bodies and evolve over several months to become much better at evading antibodies. Is there any evidence this is what happened? There is no direct evidence but this process of accumulating mutations has been observed happening in an individual with HIV who was not responding to treatment. The researchers who discovered omicron have called for efforts to tackle HIV to be stepped up.

12-17-21 A CDC panel recommends mRNA COVID-19 vaccines over J&J’s, citing fewer risks
Pfizer’s and Moderna's vaccines are more effective and cause fewer serious side effects, new data show. An advisory committee for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention voted unanimously December 16 to recommend mRNA COVID-19 vaccines over Johnson & Johnson’s shot. When there is a choice, people seeking a COVID-19 shot should be told that the mRNA vaccines, made by Moderna and by Pfizer and its German partner BioNtech, are safer and more effective and are the preferred option. But people who have allergies to ingredients in the mRNA vaccines and those who want the single-dose vaccine can still opt to get J&J’s vaccine. The benefits of that shot, authorized for those 18 and older, still outweigh the risks. And as a single-shot vaccine, it’s been a crucial tool for getting vaccines to people who are incarcerated or transitory, such as the homeless. The recommendation followed new data indicating that a blood-clotting side effect of J&J’s shot, while rare, affects more than just young women. Of the 14.1 million people in the United States who got the J&J jab from March 2 through August 31, 54 developed a blood-clotting condition known as thrombosis with thrombocytopenia, or TTS (SN: 4/23/21). Nine have died, including one person vaccinated after August 31. Blood clots following the vaccine are suspected in two other deaths as well. The blood clotting problem is most common in women 30 to 49 years old, with about 10 cases and 2 deaths per million doses given. But men ages 40 to 49, and women 18 to 29 and 50 to 64 also develop about 4 to 5 cases for every million doses of the vaccine. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration had previously changed its guidance to say that anyone with a prior history of this kind of blood clot should not get the J&J shot.

12-17-21 COVID-19 testing is complicated right now. Here are answers to 6 big questions
What you need to know before taking an at-home test or getting tested by a doctor. A friend texted me recently because her daughter’s class had a coronavirus outbreak and my friend had some questions about COVID-19 testing. Testing has been on lots of other people’s minds and in the news lately, too. President Joe Biden announced recently that insurance providers must reimburse people for at-home coronavirus tests, and millions of tests will be available for people who don’t have insurance. Some people are making testing part of their routines before holiday gatherings. Yet COVID-19 tests aren’t easy to come by everywhere. Consumers have complained that their pharmacies are sold out and that testing centers in some places have long lines. And even if you can get your hands on a test, many folks — like my friend — have questions. In particular, she wanted to know if her daughter’s recent vaccine shot would interfere with the results of her home test. Here are some answers to that and other queries. What do COVID-19 tests measure?There are two major categories of diagnostic tests you might encounter: antigen tests and nucleic acid amplification tests, better known as PCR tests. Both can determine whether you have a current infection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. You can find a list of tests available in stores or at testing sites in the United States here. (Antibody tests aren’t diagnostic tests: They can detect evidence of past infections, but not current cases.) The PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test determines whether there is viral RNA in the swab or saliva sample being tested. Those tests are the ones you would encounter most often at the doctor’s office or other testing centers, and some at-home tests allow people to swab themselves and mail the samples to a lab for PCR testing. Those tests work by first converting any of the virus’s RNA in the sample into DNA. If any of the viral genetic material is present, then multiple rounds of copying short pieces of certain viral genes should produce a signal. That would be a positive test result. Many of the at-home kits are antigen tests, which probe for certain viral proteins. Most of the rapid antigen tests look for the coronavirus’s nucleocapsid, or N protein. That protein helps package the viral RNA.

12-17-21 These are the viruses that mRNA vaccines may take on next
Clinical trials are in the works for shots against influenza, HIV and more. Tiny molecules came up big in 2021. By year’s end, COVID-19 vaccines based on snippets of mRNA, or messenger RNA, proved to be safe and incredibly effective at preventing the worst outcomes of the disease. mRNA vaccines tell our cells how to make a mimic of a viral protein, in this case the spike protein that the coronavirus uses to break into cells (SN Online: 12/16/21). The vaccine-generated protein then teaches the immune system what the real threat looks like should it later encounter that threat. For decades, efforts to develop mRNA-based vaccines to fight infectious diseases like rabies have been on a slow and meandering road (SN Online: 6/29/21). But the urgency of the pandemic breathed new life into these attempts. The promise of mRNA technology now takes us well past this pandemic’s horizon. “We’re right at the beginning of a really exciting time,” says Anna Blakney, a bioengineer who studies RNA technology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The dreams are big: Fighting all sorts of infections. Attacking cancer cells. Restoring specific proteins to treat genetic diseases, such as cystic fibrosis. It’s a really amazing technology that’s been proven over the past year,” Blakney says. But it won’t be a panacea, she cautions. “It works really well for some things. It’s unknown how well it will work for other things.” Those answers might come soon. Here’s a look at four research efforts that have been aided by the swift momentum for mRNA vaccines that COVID-19 generated. Influenza: Our current flu vaccines aren’t so hot. In a given year, flu shots are between 40 percent and 60 percent effective at preventing the disease. mRNA might do better. Pfizer has begun enrolling about 600 people ages 65 to 85 to find out how mRNA vaccines stack up against traditional flu shots. Moderna has already dosed participants in its own trial of such a flu vaccine, slated to include 180 adults in the United States.

12-16-21 Languages could go extinct at a rate of one per month this century
As people around the world travel more and receive more formal education, languages are predicted to vanish at an alarming rate. Denser road networks, higher levels of education and even climate change are just a few of the factors that could lead to the loss of more than 20 per cent of the world’s 7000 languages by the end of the century – equivalent to one language vanishing per month. Based on a new model similar to those used for predicting species loss, a team of biologists, mathematicians and linguists led by Lindell Bromham at Australian National University in Canberra has determined that, without effective conservation, language loss will increase five-fold by 2100. “This is a frightening statistic,” says Bromham, adding that her team’s estimates are “conservative”. “Every time a language is lost, we lose so much,” she says. “We lose a rich source of cultural information; we lose a unique and beautiful expression of human creativity.” Current language loss estimates vary considerably, with some predicting that up to 90 per cent of languages might no longer be spoken at the start of the next century. Bromham, an evolutionary biologist, and her colleagues suspected that by borrowing modelling techniques from studies on biodiversity loss, they might be able to capture a more statistically sound view of language diversity loss. They analysed 6511 languages that are still spoken or have ceased to be spoken – known as “sleeping” languages. They compared the languages’ endangerment status – based on which generations continue to learn and speak the language – with 51 variables related to the likes of legal recognition of the language, demographics, education policies, environmental features and socioeconomic indicators. They found that having other languages nearby isn’t a risk factor for language loss. In fact, says Bromham, many communities become multilingual when in proximity to other languages.

12-16-21 People occupied the Faroe Islands 300 years earlier than we thought
People arrived on the Faroe Islands – a North Atlantic archipelago between Iceland, Norway and the British Isles – earlier than we thought, predating the arrival of Norse Vikings by about 300 years. The earliest direct evidence of human settlement on the Faroe Islands dates back to the arrival of the Vikings in around AD 800. But charred barley grains and cereal grain pollen on the islands dating back to around AD 500 indirectly hint that farming must have existed on the islands pre-Viking. Now, William D’Andrea at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York and his colleagues have found conclusive evidence that people lived on the Faroe Islands at least three centuries before the Vikings. The researchers collected sediment from the bottom of Lake Eiði on Eysturoy, the second largest of the Faroe Islands. Analysis of the sediment revealed traces of sheep DNA, which they dated to between AD 470 and 610. They also found evidence of faecal matter from livestock in the sediment, dated to around AD 550. “The only way sheep could get to the Faroes is that if people brought them,” says D’Andrea. In addition, they discovered an increase in the amount of DNA of grass-like plants in the sediment dating back to a similar period. This indicates that plant communities were changing in response to the grazing pressure of the livestock, says D’Andrea. “These pieces of evidence together are really definitive – the Faroe Islands were occupied centuries earlier than the earliest dated Norse archaeological sites,” he says.The researchers speculate that these early settlers may have come from the British Isles. This is because the maternal lineage of modern Faroese people is largely from the British Isles, according to DNA analysis of the population from a previous study. It is also unclear if the Norse had the sailing technology to reach the islands as early as AD 500. But we can’t say for sure who the first settlers were, says D’Andrea.

12-16-21 T. rex had more powerful jaws than its theropod dinosaur ancestors
Theropod dinosaurs, including carnivores like T. rex and herbivores like Therizinosaurus, evolved deeper and stronger jaws over the course of the dinosaur age. No matter whether they ate meat or plants, theropod dinosaur species had one thing in common. Over time, they evolved thicker jaws for bigger bites, a new analysis concludes. Theropods were a very diverse group of dinosaurs. They were descended from a carnivorous ancestor, but not all lineages stayed that way. Some eventually evolved into charismatic apex predators like tyrannosaurs and velociraptors, while others took different paths and became omnivores or herbivores. “Because of these drastic dietary changes, I was interested in how their feeding mechanics changed with their diets,” says Fion Waisum Ma at the University of Birmingham, UK. Ma and her colleagues used computer simulations of more than 40 theropod jawbones representing most known major groups. Through techniques very similar to those an engineer might use to estimate the strength of a bridge from its structure, Ma unearthed a general trend of jaw strengthening in theropods over time. Early theropods like Guanlong, a 4-metre-long ancestor to the tyrannosaurs that lived about 160 million years ago, were carnivores with straight, slender jaws that experienced a lot of stress when clamping down on prey. As time progressed, later dinosaurs like Velociraptor and T. rex evolved deeper and wider jaws that gave them a stronger bite. This was true regardless of the dinosaur’s size. It was also true no matter what the dinosaurs ate. All theropods generally trended towards deeper, more robust jaws with more powerful bites. This doesn’t mean their jaws evolved to be the same. Herbivores like therizinosaurs and oviraptorosaurs sported jaws that angled slightly downwards, while the jaws of their meat-eating relatives curved upwards. According to Ma and her colleagues, the downturned jawbone was an acquired feature that helped herbivorous theropods protect the jaw from damage by dissipating stress.

12-16-21 Why the coronavirus’s delta variant dominated 2021
Delta’s unique constellation of mutations explains why it has wreaked so much havoc. 2021 was a year of coronavirus variants. Alpha and beta kicked off the year, and several worrisome variants later, omicron is closing it out. How omicron may come to define the pandemic’s future remains uncertain. But even as omicron comes on strong, one variant, which rose to global dominance midyear in a way variants like alpha and beta never did, continues to largely define the pandemic right now: delta. Things had actually seemed to be looking up in some parts of the world in the late spring and early summer of 2021, a year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic. In the United States, for instance, millions of people were vaccinated, cases of the disease were falling, and people were beginning to socialize and resume normal activities. But then delta hit hard. First spotted in India in October 2020, this variant of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, quickly swept around the world, supplanting other versions of the virus in 2021 (SN: 7/2/21). Delta overwhelmed health care systems, tore through unvaccinated populations and showed that even the vaccinated were vulnerable, causing some breakthrough cases. It soon became clear why delta wreaks so much havoc. People infected with delta make more of the virus and spread it for longer than people infected with other variants, researchers reported in Clinical Infectious Diseases in August. As a result, delta infections are more contagious. Consider two scenarios in a community where no one has immunity to the coronavirus: A person infected with an earlier version of the virus — the one first identified in Wuhan, China, that set off the pandemic — might spread it to two or three others. But a person infected with delta may transmit it to five or six people.

12-16-21 British or Irish reached remote islands before Vikings
People from Britain or Ireland may have reached the remote Faroe Islands before the Vikings, according to new evidence. Historically, the North Atlantic archipelago was part of the Viking world and its inhabitants speak a language derived from Old Norse. Now, evidence has emerged that people reached the island by 500 AD - some 350 years before Scandinavians arrived. This early settlement pre-dates the adoption of long-distance sailing technology by the Vikings. Researchers found fragments of sheep DNA and chemical residues of sheep faeces in lake sediments on the Faroese island of Eysturoy. These were assigned an age using scientific dating techniques. Livestock could only have reached the remote archipelago if they were taken there by humans on boats. "You see the sheep DNA and the biomarkers start all at once. It's like an off-on switch," said Dr William D'Andrea, from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York. The scientists say these new results provide "unequivocal" evidence of a human presence before the Vikings arrived in the 9th Century AD. Furthermore, several indirect lines of evidence suggest an earlier occupation of the Faroes by Celtic-speaking people from Britain, Ireland or both. Dr D'Andrea told BBC News: "We still really don't know who the people were and why they chose to go to the Faroe Islands. But there are lots of pieces of information that lead us to believe it is very likely there was a population of people from the British Isles." These other clues include ancient, but undated, Celtic grave markers that dot the islands, Celtic place-names, historical accounts and DNA evidence from people living on the island today. According to Medieval texts, the early Irish navigator St Brendan set out across the Atlantic with comrades from 512 to 530, and supposedly found a land dubbed the Isle of the Blessed. Later, in 825 AD, the Irish monk Dicuil wrote that some northern islands had been settled by hermits for at least 100 years.

12-16-21 Neanderthals may have cleared a European forest with fire or tools
When Neanderthals lived at a site called Neumark-Nord in Germany, the region had far fewer trees than surrounding areas, suggesting they may have cleared the forest on purpose. Neanderthals may have reshaped part of the European landscape 125,000 years ago, clearing trees to create a more open environment in which to live. It is the oldest evidence of a hominin having landscape-level effects. The indications come from an archaeological site called Neumark-Nord in Germany. About 130,000 years ago, great ice sheets retreated, making Neumark-Nord liveable until the ice advanced again 115,000 years ago. During that 15,000-year warm spell, Neanderthals moved into the area, perhaps attracted by a series of lakes in the region. Neanderthals lived throughout Europe for hundreds of thousands of years, so it seems likely that they had impacts on the environment, says Katharine MacDonald at Leiden University in the Netherlands. “We knew that they were effective hunters, so they were clearly occupying a niche where they could compete with the other carnivores around quite effectively.” MacDonald and her colleagues compiled data from the warm period on the different plant species preserved at the site, as well as charcoal deposits left by fires. Compared with neighbouring sites where Neanderthals didn’t live, the team found a decrease in the tree cover. While neighbouring areas were densely forested, Neumark-Nord “would have been a lot more light and open, and probably more varied as well”, says MacDonald. Modern humans have altered landscapes in similar ways, but the evidence is largely limited to the past 50,000 years. “It’s the first case where it’s been shown for Neanderthals,” says MacDonald. It isn’t clear how this happened. There is a peak in charcoal around when Neanderthals arrived, so “it’s really tempting to imagine that that might have been Neanderthals burning the vegetation”, says MacDonald. But she says the dates can’t be resolved precisely enough, so it could be that a natural wildfire opened up the vegetation and Neanderthals arrived in the aftermath.

12-16-21 Neandertals were the first hominids to turn forest into grassland 125,000 years ago
Neandertals’ campfires, hunting and other activities altered the land over a 2,000-year span. Neandertals took Stone Age landscaping to a previously unrecognized level. Around 125,000 years ago, these close human relatives transformed a largely forested area bordering two central European lakes into a relatively open landscape, say archaeologist Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University in the Netherlands, and his colleagues. Analyses of pollen, charcoal, animal fossils and other material previously unearthed at two ancient lake basins in Germany provide the oldest known evidence of hominids reshaping their environments, the scientists report December 15 in Science Advances. The excavated areas are located within a site called Neumark-Nord. Neandertals’ daily activities there, apparently ongoing throughout the year, had a big environmental impact, the researchers suspect. Those pursuits, which occurred over a span of about 2,000 years, included setting campfires, butchering game, collecting wood, making tools and constructing shelters, they say. “We might be dealing with larger and less mobile groups of [Neandertals] than commonly acknowledged,” Roebroeks says, thanks in part to warming temperatures after around 150,000 years ago that cleared ice sheets from resource-rich locations such as Neumark-Nord. His team can’t say whether Neandertals set fires to clear large tracts of land at Neumark-Nord, a practice that has been observed among some modern hunter-gatherers. The geological remnants of many small campfires may look much like those of a small number of large fires, Roebroeks says. Finds at Neumark-Nord play into an ongoing debate about when humans began to have a dominating influence on the natural world. Some scientists regard this period as a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene (SN: 4/1/13). It’s unclear when the Anthropocene began and whether its roots extend back to the Stone Age.

12-15-21 2021 in review: AI firm DeepMind solves human protein structures
In July, DeepMind announced that its AlphaFold model had worked out how most of the proteins in our bodies fold. Pushmeet Kohli tells New Scientist that there is more to come. IT TOOK decades for scientists to unlock the structure of just 17 per cent of the proteins in the human body. But UK-based AI company DeepMind raised the bar to 98.5 per cent in July when it announced that its AlphaFold model could quickly and reliably calculate the way proteins fold. This could lead to targeted drugs that bind to specific parts of molecules. We caught up with Pushmeet Kohli at DeepMind to see how work is progressing with mapping almost every one of the more than 100 million known proteins that have been sequenced from across the tree of life. Were you surprised at the success of AlphaFold, considering that figuring out protein folding previously required vast supercomputers? We went in with the thesis that machine learning and AI had a role to play. But a lot of the team were uncertain as to whether this problem was solvable. It came as a very pleasant surprise. You plan to release many more protein structures. Why not leave the problem with scientists who now have access to AlphaFold? We open-sourced the model and the code so anyone on the planet can find the structure of any protein that they want. We’re already seeing universities and labs across the world using our code. But the reason we’re expanding the database release is because there’s a lot of time and investment involved, and you don’t want different people finding the structure of the same protein again and again, right? It will be very useful if we actually just do it once and for all, for everyone. Which are you working on first? We’ve received feedback from the community as to which organisms and which types of proteins we should prioritise next. So we’re working along that road map, eventually moving into what we have committed to, which is releasing the structure of the entire protein universe.

12-15-21 The secret life of cheese: How marvellous microbes create its flavour
We have been making cheese for millennia, but researchers are only now getting to grips with how bacteria, fungi and viruses combine to create its characteristic flavours and textures. WHEN it comes to finding new and exotic species, there is no need to travel to the rainforest or trawl the deep ocean. Just open your fridge. The cheeses in there contain a wealth of surprises, if you look closely enough. Although cheese production began at least 7000 years ago, we are only just beginning to understand what is really going on in this complex ecosystem that we delight in devouring. “Cheese is a fascinating ecological niche,” says Paul Cotter, a microbiologist at food and agricultural research body Teagasc who is based in Cork, Ireland. New work on the cheese microbiome is revealing a riot behind the rind, with complex interactions between a diverse array of bacteria, moulds and yeasts helping to create characteristic flavours and textures. “There are a lot of microbes that we’re eating every day on some of our favourite cheeses, and we know incredibly little about what they’re doing to drive the flavour of those cheeses,” says Benjamin Wolfe at Tufts University in Massachusetts. Understanding this better will not only help control the flavours of existing cheeses, but also help us develop tasty new ones. Here’s a tour of some of the surprises hidden in your cheeseboard. Cheeses are dominated by bacteria that digest the main sugar in milk, lactose, and turn it into an acid. But they are also home to a menagerie of other microbes that develop as cheese matures, and exactly how many organisms cheese contains is only just being revealed. Studies using gene-sequencing technologies keep finding new bacteria, some previously unknown to science. A 2020 analysis of four different Cheddars, for example, found they were home to 159 different strains, only 16 of which were common to all. One surprise has been how many bacteria found in cheese originate from the oceans. “We find them again and again,” says Wolfe. “We have no idea really what they’re doing to affect the flavour of cheese and we don’t know how exactly they’re getting to the cheese.” The presumption is that they catch a ride in the brine the cheese is washed in. One particularly exotic salt-loving marine bacteria found in cheeses is Halomonas. “Some are more extreme in terms of the levels of salt they can cope with” says Cotter. “They’re more typical of the Dead Sea.” The challenge now is to figure out how these microbes contribute to the array of compounds that create cheeses’ flavours.

12-15-21 How the shimmering secrets of iridescence could keep us cool
YOU dip a plastic wand into a mixture of water and washing up liquid and raise it to your lips. With a gentle blow, you unleash a stream of bubbles that bob about in the air, winking a swirling rainbow of colours back at you as they reflect the light. This is the beauty of iridescence. You can also see it on the wings of birds and the shells of beetles. It is a completely different way of creating colour than the pigments and dyes we typically load onto brushes and into printers, one that is more subtle and adaptable. Now, we are starting to get a deeper understanding of iridescence. We are learning that animals make use of it in surprisingly varied ways, and it seems we could soon join them in harnessing this phenomenon to pull a few tricks of our own. Most of us think we know the basics of how colour works. A ray of white light, composed of many different wavelengths or colours, strikes an object. Some of the wavelengths are absorbed by pigment molecules and the remaining ones are bounced back and seen as a particular colour. All this is true – but it isn’t quite the full story. Colour can also be produced by surfaces that reflect, or scatter, different wavelengths of light back in slightly different directions. This is what happens when we look at the surface of a bubble or a bird’s wing and see that characteristic iridescent shimmer. If you move your eyes, the colour of the surface seems to shift and dance. The reflections are caused by tiny structures – bumps, hairs, ridges – on the surface that are somewhere around a billionth of a metre across. We have known of iridescent structures in nature for a long time. Robert Hooke identified them in peacock feathers in the 1600s. Since then we have discovered that iridescence is responsible for the hues of many other living things. That includes insects, like jewel beetles, and parts of plants, like the marble berry, which looks just like a deep blue marble. There is even a mole with an iridescent coat.

12-15-21 The real reasons we laugh and what different types of laughter mean
“WHILE there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour.” So wrote Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol. He was in London in the 1840s, but these words ring true in any time or place. Laughter is one of humanity’s few universal traits. Even in the time of covid-19, many people have found that a good chuckle has helped them cope with the stresses, uncertainties and interminable lockdowns. t is surprising, then, that psychologists and neuroscientists were once reluctant to devote serious attention to laughter, with many believing expressions of mirth to be less important than those of unhappiness or despair. “Psychology still has a lot of catching up to do to balance out what is known about negative emotions with positive ones,” says Gina Mireault at Northern Vermont University. This has been science’s loss because recent results reveal that there is far more to laughter than you might think. Beyond the obvious connection with humour, it offers some truly profound insights into the nature of our relationships and the state of our health. The study of infant giggles may even help us understand how we develop our sense of self and the ability to read the minds of others. What’s more, laughter turns out to be surprisingly common in other species. Non-human animals aren’t known for their sharp wits, but many do engage in play, often producing characteristic sounds to signal that their behaviour is friendly rather than aggressive. According to a review by Sasha Winkler and Gregory Bryant at the University of California, Los Angeles, published this year, scientists have documented these “play vocalisations” in 65 species. Most are mammals, but a handful of bird species are also known to signal their harmless intentions in this way. Kea parrots, for example, warble gently as they tussle on the ground or chase each other through the air.

12-15-21 Did monkeys really sail the oceans on floating rafts of vegetation?
The mystery of how some species colonised new continents is as old as the theory of evolution itself. Now, with fresh clues surfacing, the rafting hypothesis might finally sink or swim. IN DECEMBER 2016, Uwe Fritz at the Museum of Zoology in Dresden, Germany, was doing fieldwork in Colombia when something incredible crossed his path. While chugging across a vast expanse of wetland, he passed an enormous floating island complete with tall trees and a resident colony of howler monkeys. “Have you ever seen a howler monkey?” says Fritz. “They’re huge! But the trees were large enough so the monkeys can permanently live in them. They do not swim.” All told, the island covered an area about the size of two Olympic swimming pools. Fritz later told a collaborator, Jason Ali at the University of Hong Kong. Ali’s jaw hit the floor. “For me, it was just a random observation,” says Fritz. “But he is the floating island guy. He has worked on them for years, but never seen one.” Ali is one of the leading advocates of one of the most controversial ideas in evolutionary biology: that the presence of certain species in certain places can only be explained by long-distance maritime voyages. The hypothesis, essentially, is that animals were carried across the ocean on rafts of vegetation and started afresh on the other side. The sheer unlikeliness – some would say preposterousness – of this idea has always been an obstacle to its acceptance, and the arguments for and against the rafting hypothesis have sloshed back and forth for 160-odd years. But now, with floating islands in Colombia and fresh clues from the sea floor, both sides are claiming to have evidence that could finally see the idea sink or swim. The rafting hypothesis is as old as the theory of evolution itself. In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin pointed out that the flora and fauna of the Galapagos Islands were clearly related to those of South America, while Cape Verde’s were distinctly African (Darwin visited Cape Verde’s main island Santiago in January 1832). His point was to discredit the belief that each species was a unique, divine creation, but he inadvertently launched the idea that the inhabitants of distant islands must have somehow blown in from the mainland.

12-15-21 How sleep may boost creativity
Insights may come during the liminal time between awake and asleep, a study suggests. The twilight time between fully awake and sound asleep may be packed with creative potential. People who recently drifted off into a light sleep later had problem-solving power, scientists report December 8 in Science Advances. The results help demystify the fleeting early moments of sleep and may even point out ways to boost creativity. Prolific inventor and catnapper Thomas Edison was rumored to chase those twilight moments. He was said to fall asleep in a chair holding two steel ball bearings over metal pans. As he drifted off, the balls would fall. The ensuing clatter would wake him, and he could rescue his inventive ideas before they were lost to the depths of sleep. Delphine Oudiette, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Paris Brain Institute, and colleagues took inspiration from Edison’s method of cultivating creativity. She and her colleagues brought 103 healthy people to their lab to solve a tricky number problem. The volunteers were asked to convert a string of numbers into a shorter sequence, following two simple rules. What the volunteers weren’t told was that there was an easy trick: The second number in the sequence would always be the correct final number, too. Once discovered, this cheat code dramatically cut the solving time. After doing 60 of these trials on a computer, the volunteers earned a 20-minute break in a quiet, dark room. Reclined and holding an equivalent of Edison’s “alarm clock” (a light drinking bottle in one dangling hand), participants were asked to close their eyes and rest or sleep if they desired. All the while, electrodes monitored their brain waves. About half of the participants stayed awake. Twenty-four fell asleep and stayed in the shallow, fleeting stage of sleep called N1. Fourteen people progressed to a deeper stage of sleep called N2.

12-15-21 Football matches in top European leagues are becoming more predictable
Computer predictions for the outcome of European football matches over a 26-year period become more accurate in recent years Football matches have become more predictable over time, according to an analysis of 87,816 matches across 11 European leagues. The study covers the results of matches between 1993 and 2019, including 10,044 each from England’s Premier League and Spain’s La Liga, as well as leading divisions in Belgium, Greece, Scotland and Turkey, among others. A computer model that was given data from the matches tried to predict whether the home or away team would win by looking at the performance of the teams in previous matches in the league. The model didn’t count any drawn matches, which excluded between a quarter and a third of the total matches from the analysis. “Our model isn’t the most accurate,” says Taha Yasseri at University College Dublin in Ireland. “I’m sure there are better models, but it’s very simple and you can go back 26 years and do the exercise as if you were doing the prediction 26 years ago.” The average AUC score – which measures how well the computer model performed – was around 0.75, meaning that the model correctly predicted the match result 75 per cent of the time. Seven of the 11 leagues that were studied saw an increase in predictability over time. Richer leagues, such as the Premier League and La Liga, had higher AUC scores than worse-funded ones, like Belgium’s First Division A. The study found a correlation between predictability and inequality, in terms of the distribution of points between teams at the end of the season – that is, match results are predicted correctly more often in leagues where the points are spread more unequally. The researchers suggest that football is becoming more predictable because inequality between the richest and poorest teams has grown, as prize money and other revenues have increased and successful clubs can spend more on players.

12-14-21 The usual way to spray medicine up your nose may not be the best
Close one nostril, stick nozzle up the other, squeeze. The usual way to spray medicine into the nose is the obvious one, but it may not be the most effective, says Saikat Basu at South Dakota State University. That’s according to his computer model of how aerosols enter the nose and reach the nasopharynx, the chamber at the beginning of the throat where the two airways in the nose come together. This is often the target for drugs preventing infections of the airway. Instead, says Basu, pointing the nozzle towards your face, keeping it almost horizontal as you insert it into the nostril and slightly angled towards your cheek, may be the best approach. To study what happens to an aerosol on its way to the nasopharynx, Basu obtained three-dimensional scans of noses and incorporated them in a computer model that simulates the airflow inside. He found that spraying horizontally increases the number of aerosol droplets that land in the nasopharynx by at least a factor of 100. He presented the work at a meeting of the American Physical Society in November. Basu’s explanation is that by spraying horizontally, the droplets escape the strong airflow of the person inhaling during or after administering the spray, which would otherwise rush the droplets past the nasopharynx into the throat and lungs. “If you’re targeting the upper airway sites, the airflow is not the best medium to transport the drugs,” he says. He plans to validate his conclusions in physical models of noses and then in people. Such experiments might also lead to improvements in the design of nasal spray pumps, for instance by finding the optimal droplet size. “Basu’s approach appears to provide a simple, low-cost solution to dramatically increase initial drug targeting to the nasopharyngeal region,” says Worth Longest at Virginia Commonwealth University. Until experiments on actual noses confirm his numbers, Basu won’t give anyone the advice to disregard the instructions that come with nose sprays. “I don’t have that authority – but in my personal life, I do try to apply the sprays in this direction,” he says.

12-14-21 A bacteria-virus arms race could lead to a new way to treat shigellosis
As shigellosis-causing microbes evolve to escape a phage, the bacteria may become less deadly. When some bacteria manage to escape being killed by a virus, the microbes end up hamstringing themselves. And that could be useful in the fight to treat infections. The bacterium Shigella flexneri — one cause of the infectious disease shigellosis — can spread within cells that line the gut by propelling itself through the cells’ barriers. That causes tissue damage that can lead to symptoms like bloody diarrhea. But when S. flexneri in lab dishes evolved to elude a type of bacteria-killing virus, the bacteria couldn’t spread cell to cell anymore, making it less virulent, researchers report November 17 in Applied and Environmental Microbiology. The research is a hopeful sign for what’s known as phage therapy (SN: 11/20/02). With antibiotic-resistant microbes on the rise, some researchers see viruses that infect and kill only bacteria, known as bacteriophages or just phages, as a potential option to treat antibiotic-resistant infections (SN: 11/13/19). With phage therapy, infected people are given doses of a particular phage, which kill off the problematic bacteria. The problem, though, is that over time those bacteria can evolve to be resistant against the phage, too. “We’re kind of expecting phage therapy to fail, in a sense,” says Paul Turner, an evolutionary biologist and virologist at Yale University. “Bacteria are very good at evolving resistance to phages.” But that doesn’t mean the bacteria emerge unscathed. Some phages attack and enter bacteria by latching onto bacterial proteins crucial for a microbe’s function. If phage therapy treatments relied on such a virus, that could push the bacteria to evolve in such a way that not only helps them escape the virus but also impairs their abilities and makes them less deadly. People infected with these altered bacteria might have less severe symptoms or may not show symptoms at all.

12-13-21 2021 research reinforced that mating across groups drove human evolution
Fossils and DNA point to mixing and mingling among Homo groups across vast areas. Evidence that cross-continental Stone Age networking events powered human evolution ramped up in 2021. A long-standing argument that Homo sapiens originated in East Africa before moving elsewhere and replacing Eurasian Homo species such as Neandertals has come under increasing fire over the last decade. Research this year supported an alternative scenario in which H. sapiens evolved across vast geographic expanses, first within Africa and later outside it. The process would have worked as follows: Many Homo groups lived during a period known as the Middle Pleistocene, about 789,000 to 130,000 years ago, and were too closely related to have been distinct species. These groups would have occasionally mated with each other while traveling through Africa, Asia and Europe. A variety of skeletal variations on a human theme emerged among far-flung communities. Human anatomy and DNA today include remnants of that complex networking legacy, proponents of this scenario say. It’s not clear precisely how often or when during this period groups may have mixed and mingled. But in this framework, no clear genetic or physical dividing line separated Middle Pleistocene folks usually classed as H. sapiens from Neandertals, Denisovans and other ancient Homo populations. “Middle Pleistocene Homo groups were humans,” says paleoanthropologist John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “Today’s humans are a remix of those ancient ancestors.” New fossil evidence in line with that idea came from Israel. Braincase pieces and a lower jaw containing a molar tooth unearthed at a site called Nesher Ramla date to between about 140,000 and 120,000 years ago. These finds’ features suggest that a previously unknown Eurasian Homo population lived at the site (SN Online: 6/24/21), a team led by paleoanthropologist Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University reported. The fossils were found with stone tools that look like those fashioned around the same time by Middle Easterners typically classified as H. sapiens, suggesting that the two groups culturally mingled and possibly mated.

12-10-21 Babies bond better with strangers when they can smell their mother
Maternal body odour signals to babies that they can safely build relationships with other adults, a trait that may have evolved so that mothers can share the load of child rearing. Babies are more socially receptive to unfamiliar women when they can smell their mother’s natural body odour, suggesting that maternal scent functions as a safety signal. Previous research has found that mothers’ unique smell signatures allow their babies to recognise them and have a soothing effect when they are in pain. Yaara Endevelt-Shapira at The Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, and her colleagues wondered if signals in maternal odour also change the way that infants respond to strangers. They asked 62 mothers to wear cotton T-shirts for two consecutive nights and avoid using deodorant or other scented products, so that their natural smell would rub off onto the clothing. Their babies – aged 7 months on average – were then strapped into chairs and introduced to an unfamiliar woman who was about the same age as their mother, lived in the same area and was a mother herself. When the babies had their mother’s T-shirt under their nose, they were more likely to smile, laugh and gaze at the stranger than if they were sniffing an identical unworn T-shirt. Electroencephalography (EEG) devices fitted to both participants’ heads showed that the babies’ electrical brainwaves were also more likely to synchronise with the stranger’s when they could smell their mother’s T-shirt. The same kind of brainwave synchronisation is found between babies and their mothers when they gaze at each other and is thought to be a sign of feeling mutual connection. The findings suggest that “maternal body odours can assist infants in transitioning to social groups, exploring new environments and communicating with unfamiliar partners”, says Endevelt-Shapira.

12-10-21 Hormone replacement therapy doesn't increase risk of dying early
A study of 300,000 people shows that HRT for menopause symptoms doesn't increase the risk of early death, helping to overturn outdated fears about its safety. A large UK study has provided reassurance that taking hormone replacement therapy to relieve menopausal symptoms doesn’t increase the risk of dying early, and may even be slightly protective. Hormone replacement therapy, or HRT, is used to relieve hot flushes, vaginal dryness, mood changes, sleep issues and other symptoms that many women experience as they approach menopause due to declining levels of the hormone oestrogen. HRT works by replacing oestrogen, which can be administered using various methods, including patches, pills and gels. Unless an individual has had a hysterectomy, the hormone progesterone must be taken alongside oestrogen – known as combined HRT – because it protects the lining of the uterus. “Hormone therapy makes a huge difference,” says Sonia Davison at the Jean Hailes for Women’s Health Medical Centre in Australia, and past president of the Australasian Menopause Society. “Women [who are prescribed it] walk back into my room and say, ‘I feel like me, I can function, I can cope, I can sleep’.” In 2002, the popularity of HRT plummeted after it was reported that a study by the US Women’s Health Initiative had linked it with heart disease, stroke and breast cancer. But these reports were misleading because the study was done in older women – mostly over 60 – who had already gone through menopause. They were trialling HRT to see if it improved heart health, not to fix menopause symptoms. A large body of research now shows that HRT doesn’t increase the risk of heart disease in women under 60 who take it to relieve menopause symptoms, and may even reduce the risk. It has also been shown to be protective against bone fractures.

12-10-21 Will New Zealand's smoking ban plan work if it ignores vaping?
Outlawing the sale of cigarettes to anyone born after 2013 and mandating low-nicotine cigarettes for others will help New Zealand reach its smoke-free vision, but vaping will still be an issue. New Zealanders born after 2013 will never legally be allowed to buy cigarettes as part of proposed government legislation to drive smoking rates towards zero. Experts believe it will effectively deter young people from taking up smoking but are concerned they will adopt vaping instead. The legislation, which will be introduced to the New Zealand parliament in mid-2022, also seeks to encourage existing smokers to quit by reducing the allowed nicotine content in cigarettes to make them less addictive, limiting the shops that can sell them, and scaling up addiction support services. “Preventing people from starting to smoke and helping those who smoke to quit means we are covering both ends of the spectrum,” said Ayesha Verrall, New Zealand’s associate minister of health, when announcing the plan on 9 December. The government wants to reduce the proportion of New Zealanders who smoke from 11 per cent to less than 5 per cent by 2025. Simon Chapman at the University of Sydney in Australia says the proposed measures are a good idea but will need to be properly enforced to work. “We know that children have always worked out through whisper networks that, ‘Oh that shop down there will sell cigarettes to you’,” he says. One solution may be to introduce electronic smart cards that cigarette buyers must tap at shops to prove they were born before 2013, says Chapman. Police could check shopkeepers’ cigarette stocks against how many smart cards had been tapped in their store to make sure they weren’t illegally selling any on the side to underage customers. This system would also alert authorities to adults buying large quantities of cigarettes to illegally sell on to underage people.

12-10-21 For 50 years, CT scans have saved lives, revealed beauty and more
The technology gave doctors and scientists a new way to peer at the inner world beneath skin. One grainy, gray-scale image of a brain changed science and medicine forever. Half a century ago, the first CT image of a patient lifted the veil of invisibility that cloaks the interior of the human body, providing scientists a window on our innards unlike any before. Today, doctors in the United States alone order more than 80 million scans per year. X-ray computed tomography, or CT, is frequently the quickest way of getting a handle on what’s causing a mysterious woe. CT scans can ferret out heart disease, tumors, blood clots, fractures, internal bleeding and more. The technique can give surgeons a heads-up about what they will encounter inside a patient, and guide treatment for cancer and other diseases. “It answers so many questions quickly. That’s why it’s used,” says medical physicist Cynthia McCollough of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. A CT scan involves thousands of X-ray measurements taken from multiple angles. Here’s how it works: A source of X-rays rotates around the body, sending a beam of radiation through bone, blood and tissue, while rotating detectors measure the beam that makes it through. Different materials in the body absorb X-rays differently. The calcium in bone vigorously sops up X-rays, for example, while soft tissues absorb less. So when the data collected by the detectors are stitched together by a computer, it can form a cross-sectional view of what’s inside based on where X-rays are absorbed more or less. Moving the table holding the patient so that the X-ray beam and detectors slide along the body enables 3-D reconstructions of organs and other parts. Over the years, scientists have continually improved the technology, making it faster and higher resolution, and cutting the amount of radiation that patients receive. These improved CT scans have painted ever more detailed landscapes of the human body. It’s hard not to marvel at the beauty of the inner world that the scans bring to the surface.

12-9-21 We failed to prevent omicron – can we stop future variants evolving?
We are witnessing the scenario that many people feared unfold before our eyes. The new omicron variant can largely evade prior immunity and is spreading with alarming rapidity. And the really bad news is that there is every reason to think more dangerous variants will emerge in the future. So is there anything we can do to prevent this, or at least to slow the process? “There is absolutely something that can be done,” says Aris Katzourakis at the University of Oxford. What needs doing depends on how variants arise, and there are several potential pathways. The first is that the coronavirus can gradually acquire mutations as it spreads from one person to another. This is how the beta and delta variants formed. In this case, we need to do all we can to keep transmission as low as possible. For starters, that means vaccinating as many people as possible – perhaps with updated vaccines. “Will fully vaccinating everyone reduce the chance of new variants?” says Katzourakis. “I would say almost certainly yes.” Other measures such as mask mandates and better ventilation in buildings will be required, too. Unfortunately, all this might not prevent variants such as alpha and omicron forming. Both seemed to appear out of nowhere with a whole bunch of mutations. It is possible they evolved undetected in a region without genetic surveillance capabilities, but it is more likely that each evolved over a period of months in an immunocompromised individual. If that is the case for the omicron variant, that would undercut the suggestion made by many – including the head of the World Health Organization – that it arose because of the failure to distribute vaccines fairly. “It’s uncertain whether vaccination would have prevented this,” says Deepti Gurdasani at Queen Mary University of London. “I think global equity is vitally important. But I don’t think there’s necessarily a causal link.”

12-9-21 Some dinosaurs could run at 45 kilometres per hour as they chased prey
About 100 million years ago, a pair of 5-metre-long predatory dinosaurs – possibly spinosaurs or carcharodontosaurs – ran at speeds of up to 45 kilometres per hour as they chased down prey in what is now northern Spain. About 100 million years ago in what is now northern Spain, two bipedal dinosaurs reached running speeds of up to 45 kilometres per hour, making them among the fastest known dinosaurs. The conclusion comes from an analysis of fossil footprint tracks. A few three-toed dinosaur footprints were discovered at the site in La Rioja some 35 years ago. Now, further excavations at the site have revealed more prints. In total, there are five footprints forming one short trail, and a second trail of seven footprints. The trails were made by two medium-sized dinosaurs, each about 2 metres tall and 4 to 5 metres long, that may have belonged to either the spinosaur or carcharodontosaur family of predatory theropods. Angélica Torices at the University of La Rioja and her colleagues analysed the footprints, in particular the distance between consecutive footprints made by the same leg, or the stride length. They then plugged the information into equations previously shown to describe the relationship between stride length and speed across a range of vertebrates, including running humans. This revealed that the dinosaurs were among the fastest we know. The first track was made by a dinosaur that gradually accelerated to speeds of 37 kilometres per hour, while the second reptile was moving at up to 45 kilometres per hour with abrupt changes in speed, suggesting it switched directions as it ran. The fastest dinosaurs, most of which belonged to a group of ostrich-like animals called the ornithomimids, are thought to have reached top speeds of about 48 kilometres per hour. Such findings are rare, as most fossilised dinosaur footprints are made by walking, rather than running, dinosaurs.

12-8-21 Steven Pinker interview: Why humans aren't as irrational as they seem
To explain the paradox of a smart species that embraces fake news, conspiracy theories and paranormal woo, we need to rethink rationality, says psychologist Steven Pinker. HUMANITY faces some huge challenges, from the coronavirus pandemic and climate change to fundamentalism, inequality, racism and war. Now, more than ever, we need to think clearly to come up with solutions. But instead, conspiracy theories abound, fake news is in vogue and belief in the is as strong as ever. It seems that we are suffering from a collective failure of rationality. Steven Pinker doesn’t buy into this disheartening conclusion. In his new book, Rationality: What it is, why it seems scarce, why it matters, the Harvard University psychologist challenges the orthodoxy that sees Homo sapiens as a species stuck in the past, with an ancient brain fuelled by biases, fallacies and illusions, incapable of understanding the complexities of the modern world. History, he argues, refutes that. After all, humans have built civilisations, discovered the laws of nature, vanquished diseases and identified the building blocks of rationality itself. Ours isn’t an innately irrational species, says Pinker. However, we don’t embrace our rational side as much as we might. With more insight into the human mind, we can learn to change that – and master an underused resource that will help us tackle the challenges of the 21st century and beyond. New Scientist: What do you mean by rationality? Steven Pinker: I define it as the use of knowledge to attain goals. There is not one single tool of rationality – it depends what you’re after. If you’re seeking to derive new true statements from existing ones, then logic is your tool. If you want to assess your degree of belief in a hypothesis based on evidence, then Bayesian reasoning. If you want to figure out what’s the rational thing to do when the outcome depends on what other rational people do, game theory.

12-8-21 We’ll never understand the universe while we’re drowning in admin
THE best bits of being a particle cosmologist are the moments where I feel the mathematical pieces of an idea click into place. When I understand an equation or successfully solve one, I have the same experience I had over 30 years ago when I was learning my times tables. It is a unique kind of elation. I realise that a lot of people have never had this experience. I write this column especially for those of you who were discouraged because I know that whether or not you love most people are interested in the universe beyond their everyday lives. We are by nature a curious species. Curiosity remains important for a scientist, but it has to be paired with persistence to become competent at what we do. The universe is complex and exceedingly difficult to understand. At some point, even for the quickest among us, the solutions we seek are far from obvious. Stephen Hawking never resolved the question of what happens at the centre of a black hole. His description of this problem in an Errol Morris documentary is what inspired me as a child to commit my life to particle physics and cosmology. I have been lucky to be able to spend my time thinking about these questions and get paid for it. Unfortunately, too little of my day job involves thinking about these questions. Or at least that is how I feel in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic and the aftermath of academia being transformed by cuts in public funding for higher education. On the day I turned this column in, I spent 3 hours figuring out how to activate a type of online survey called a student evaluation of teaching (SET). Colleagues will know that the intensity with which I went at this is particularly ironic, given the extensive literature showing that SETs are fraught with bias, with women of colour like me on the losing end.

12-8-21 Interrupting sleep after a few minutes can boost creativity
A technique for interrupting the first stage of sleep helps people solve a maths problem – the same approach was used by Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali. Where does creativity come from? According to people such as the US inventor Thomas Edison, our inventiveness surges during an unusual state of mind as we drift into sleep. New support for this idea comes from a study that finds people gain insight into a tricky maths problem if they are allowed to enter the initial stages of sleep, then woken up. When people fall asleep they may spend a few minutes in a state called hypnagogia or “N1”, often characterised by vivid dreams – although usually people progress into deep sleep and forget the dreams when they wake. When facing difficult problems, Edison used to harness this state by making himself wake up before he could fall more deeply asleep. He did this by holding a steel ball in each hand as he drifted off. As he lost consciousness and dropped the balls, the noise would jerk him awake. Others such as the Spanish artist Salvador Dali have also used their creative insights from this half-asleep state. Delphine Oudiette at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Paris has long been interested in her own experiences of hypnagogia, so she tested the link with creativity objectively by getting people to tackle a maths problem. They were given eight-digit number sequences and had to manipulate them in a certain way by applying two rules, until they reached a final answer. They weren’t told that a simple shortcut would also give the right answer every time. Oudiette’s team asked 103 people to carry out the maths task, then they were given a 20-minute break where they were encouraged to nod off by lying back in a reclining chair in a darkened room with their eyes closed. The 16 per cent of participants who cracked the shortcut before the sleep stage of the study were excluded.

12-8-21 Paying people to return to the gym is best way to incentivise exercise
A study of different incentives found that paying people a few cents for gym visits, with a little extra if they returned after skipping a workout, was the most effective. It is hard to persuade people to get more exercise – unless you pay them. A large trial of multiple incentive programmes for gym goers found that few had any lasting effects, but payments equivalent to just a few cents were the most effective nudge for people to keep active. Taking regular exercise seems to lower people’s risk of a range of conditions, from high blood pressure to cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Most guidelines recommend we do at least 150 minutes of moderate-level activities each week, such as brisk walking, as well as strength exercises such as lifting weights. Katherine Milkman at the University of Pennsylvania and her colleagues looked at more than 60,000 members of a US gym chain called 24 Hour Fitness – the firm wasn’t involved in and didn’t fund the work, but provided anonymised data. The team tested 54 different month-long motivational schemes, such as reminder text messages, getting people to make pledges and rewarding people with audiobooks or small payments in the form of points that could be exchanged for Amazon vouchers. Nearly half the schemes increased weekly gym visits over the course of the month, by between 9 and 27 per cent. But only four had an effect that continued after the nudges finished. “You lose most of the benefits when you stop offering the programme – which suggests you should keep programmes going,” says Milkman. The most effective intervention involved offering people points that could be redeemed with Amazon; this was equivalent to 22 cents for every workout attended, plus 9 cents if someone returned to the gym after one missed workout. Schemes that paid people for going to the gym without skipping a session proved less effective once the programme had finished.

12-8-21 Lessons from the covid-19 pandemic could help us reduce cyberbullying
CYBERBULLYING was already a problem before the covid-19 pandemic hit. In Australia, for example, one in five young people reported in 2017 that they had been socially excluded, threatened or abused online, and the same proportion said they had participated in cyberbullying themselves. Then lockdowns and work-from-home orders came into force, meaning even more time was spent online. Yet when it comes to cyberbullying, the pandemic has had a different effect than you might expect. Although we have been online more, some studies show that cyberbullying has decreased. The reasons behind this could tell us how to better tackle this problem once we emerge from the pandemic. Unlike in-person bullying, cyberbullying can occur 24/7 and has a stronger association with suicidal ideation. We know that teenagers already spend a lot of time online, and that is increasing. A survey of people aged 10 to 18 in 11 European countries during the 2020 spring lockdowns found that nearly half of them felt they were experiencing “online overuse”. They were online for 6.5 hours per weekday on average, and around half of that time was related to school. In 2018, the comparable number was 2.7 hours per day. Previously, more time online had been linked with an increased chance of participating in cyberbullying. Studies have also shown that stress and anxiety have increased during the pandemic, both of which can drive increases in anger and cyberbullying. Yet this phenomenon has actually decreased during the pandemic. One study looked at school cyberbullying in the US using Google search data. Trends in the search term “cyberbullying” have previously matched up with actual survey data about it. This study found that searches for both “cyberbullying” and “bullying” dropped by 30 to 40 per cent relative to historical norms after US schools adopted remote learning.

12-8-21 Maria Van Kerkhove interview: What we know about omicron so far
Exclusive: The World Health Organization’s technical lead on covid-19 says we will know how effective our vaccines are against omicron by Christmas. Since it was first detected by scientists in South Africa, the omicron variant of the SARS-CoV2 coronavirus has spread across the world at alarming speed, prompting many countries to introduce new restrictions and forcing people to reconsider plans for large gatherings. As it is so new, many details about how it compares to other variants are not yet clear. Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s technical lead on covid-19, spoke to New Scientist about what we know so far, how she is approaching the festive season and how 2022 might pan out.What can you tell us about the transmissibility of omicron? We’ll have an answer on how transmissible it is in days rather than weeks. We don’t have an answer yet on whether it outcompetes delta. We are seeing increased growth of the variant in many countries where delta has diminished, but we need to see how it co-circulates with delta in other areas. What do we know about the severity of disease caused by omicron? We are getting a clearer picture here. Many patients have presented with mild disease and if you compare it to other waves, omicron seems to be more mild. We will get more data on that soon. But it doesn’t mean it’s only mild – we have seen the full spectrum of severity with the variant, and people will die from it. Saying “it’s only mild” is very dangerous. If it is more transmissible than delta, there will be more cases, more hospitalisations, and more deaths. How effective are our vaccines against omicron? There are lots of studies on mutations in other variants that are also present in omicron, and some show reduced vaccine efficacy in terms of prevention against severe disease and death, but it doesn’t mean vaccines won’t work. Our current vaccines are incredibly potent against severe disease and death. We will get some answers on the variant’s impact on vaccines before Christmas. One thing we need from South Africa in particular is data on severity by vaccination status, so we can get a better understanding of what happens if you are infected by omicron while vaccinated.

12-7-21 Investigation fails to replicate most cancer biology lab findings
The reliability of early-stage cancer biology research is called into question by an investigation that concludes more than half of experimental results can’t be replicated by independent scientists. An eight-year-long investigation into the reliability of preclinical cancer biology research has found that fewer than half of the results published in 23 highly cited papers could be successfully reproduced. Tim Errington, director of research at the Center for Open Science in Virginia – which conducted the investigation – says the original plan was to reproduce 193 experiments from 53 papers. But, as explained in one of two studies the team publishes today, this was reduced to 50 experiments from 23 papers. “Just trying to understand what was done and reported in the papers in order to do it again was really hard. We couldn’t get access to the information,” he says. In total, the 50 experiments included 112 potentially replicable binary “success or failure” outcomes. However, as detailed in the second study published today, Errington and his colleagues could replicate the effects of only 51 of these – or 46 per cent. The experiments were all in-vitro or animal-based preclinical cancer biology studies, and didn’t include genomic or proteomic experiments. They were from papers published between 2010 and 2012 and were selected because they were all “high-impact” studies that had been read and heavily cited by other researchers. The results are “a bit eye-opening”, says Errington. The investigation’s findings do, however, align with those of earlier reports published by the big pharmaceutical companies Bayer and Amgen. C. Glenn Begley, who recently co-founded US biotech Parthenon Therapeutics, was a senior cancer biologist at Amgen and an author of its report, which was published in 2012.

12-7-21 A massive 8-year effort finds that much cancer research can’t be replicated
Unreliable preclinical studies could impede drug development later on. After eight years, a project that tried to reproduce the results of key cancer biology studies has finally concluded. And its findings suggest that like research in the social sciences, cancer research has a replication problem. Researchers with the Reproducibility Project: Cancer Biology aimed to replicate 193 experiments from 53 top cancer papers published from 2010 to 2012. But only a quarter of those experiments were able to be reproduced, the team reports in two papers published December 7 in eLife. The researchers couldn’t complete the majority of experiments because the team couldn’t gather enough information from the original papers or their authors about methods used, or obtain the necessary materials needed to attempt replication. What’s more, of the 50 experiments from 23 papers that were reproduced, effect sizes were, on average, 85 percent lower than those reported in the original experiments. Effect sizes indicate how big the effect found in a study is. For example, two studies might find that a certain chemical kills cancer cells, but the chemical kills 30 percent of cells in one experiment and 80 percent of cells in a different experiment. The first experiment has less than half the effect size seen in the second one. The team also measured if a replication was successful using five criteria. Four focused on effect sizes, and the fifth looked at whether both the original and replicated experiments had similarly positive or negative results, and if both sets of results were statistically significant. The researchers were able to apply those criteria to 112 tested effects from the experiments they could reproduce. Ultimately, just 46 percent, or 51, met more criteria than they failed, the researchers report. “The report tells us a lot about the culture and realities of the way cancer biology works, and it’s not a flattering picture at all,” says Jonathan Kimmelman, a bioethicist at McGill University in Montreal. He coauthored a commentary on the project exploring the ethical aspects of the findings.

12-7-21 Covid-19 news: Schizophrenia may raise risk of death from covid
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. Some mental health conditions are associated with a higher risk of death from covid-19. People who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia at some point in their life may be five times more likely to die from covid-19 than those who haven’t been diagnosed with a certain mental health condition. Researchers at the University of Manchester analysed data from more than 1900 people living in the UK who have had a diagnosis of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or depression. They were all participants in the UK Biobank, a database that holds the medical and genetic information of half a million people. The researchers compared data from these people to that from more than 400,000 people in the UK Biobank who had no recorded history of these conditions. They found that, compared with those with no history of a mental health diagnosis, those with schizophrenia were five times as likely to have died from covid-19 by the end of February 2021. Those with a history of bipolar disorder were 3.76 times more likely to have died, and those with a history of depression were twice as likely. However, the UK Biobank is not representative of the UK population. Most of the participants are over the age of 65 and about 95 per cent of the total sample is white. All international arrivals to the UK will, from today, have to show a negative lateral flow or PCR test to enter the country. The new rules came into force at 4am today and have been brought in to tackle the spread of the omicron variant. The test must have been taken within 48 hours of departure time. All private employees who go to work in New York City will need to have been vaccinated against covid-19 by 27 December. The plans were unveiled yesterday by the city’s mayor Bill de Blasio. The rules will apply to about 184,000 businesses. It follows the city’s vaccine mandate for municipal workers which came into force in November. The mayor described it as a pre-emptive strike against the omicron variant. “We cannot let covid back in the door again,” de Blasio said in a press conference. There will be exemptions for people with medical or religious reasons.

12-7-21 Dinosaur-era swamp ecosystem preserved in amber
Rocks that formed in a swamp in what is now Spain 110 million years ago contain both dinosaur bones and amber rich in invertebrate fossils. An impressive trove of fossil-filled amber has come to light at a 110-million-year-old site that has already yielded dinosaur bones in Ariño, north-eastern Spain. The amber contains an unusually diverse range of insect, plant and vertebrate fossils and provides a rare insight into the life that inhabited what would have been a coastal freshwater swamp during the Cretaceous period. “Having two different yet complementary windows of preservation from a given fossil [site] – the bonebed and the amber at Ariño – is exceptional,” says Sergio Álvarez-Parra at the University of Barcelona. Álvarez-Parra and his colleagues spent a week excavating at an outcrop within the Santa Maria coal mine, in a sloped geological layer called AR-1, which is a few metres wide. The team uncovered a remarkable variety of fossils within pieces of so-called aerial amber – formed when resin drops from tree branches or trunks onto the forest floor below. Finds included mites, crickets, flying insects, a caterpillar, three types of wasp, a feather fragment, spiderwebs and preserved faeces. Earlier excavations at the AR-1 site had uncovered over 10,000 dinosaur and vertebrate fossils, but only one amber-preserved fossil containing three mammalian hairs had been identified. The team found the aerial amber in two locations, each around a few metres wide, which lay roughly 15 metres away from piles of dinosaur and vertebrate bones. until the surfaces are polished,” says Álvarez-Parra. “When unearthed, amber is covered by an opaque crust, so the interior is not visible until the surfaces are polished,” says Álvarez-Parra. “After months [searching for the fossils] in the laboratory, the results were astonishing. The Ariño amber contained an unusually high abundance of [organisms], some of them outstandingly well-preserved,” says Álvarez-Parra.

12-6-21 Older people who get cataracts removed have lower dementia risk
People who have cataracts can reduce their risk of developing dementia by about 30 per cent by undergoing surgery to restore their sight, although it’s not clear why. Older people who have cataract surgery to improve their eyesight are less likely to develop dementia afterwards. The effect could be because people who lose their eyesight typically spend more time at home, and so get less mental stimulation – or it could be down to a strange effect that cataracts have on the colours that reach the retina at the back of the eye. Cataracts, which involve the lens of the eye becoming more cloudy with age, are one of the most common causes of vision loss in older people. They can be fixed by surgically removing the lens to replace it with a plastic one. Sight loss was already known to be a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Cecilia Lee at the University of Washington in Seattle wondered whether cataract surgery would have a noticeable correlation with dementia incidence. She and her team took advantage of an ongoing US study that began in the 1990s and that aims to identify risk factors for dementia. They looked at the health records of about 3000 participants who were 65 or older and had either cataracts or glaucoma, another eye condition that is treated with surgery. This was used as a comparison. Over the next eight years, those who had their cataracts removed had, on average, 71 per cent of the chance of developing dementia as those who had cataracts that went untreated. As it wasn’t a randomised trial, the study couldn’t prove that cataract surgery protected against dementia – another possible explanation, for instance, is that people are more likely to be recommended surgery if they are healthier to start with. But there was no significant difference in dementia rates between people with glaucoma who did or didn’t have surgery, suggesting that cataract surgery was indeed protective.

12-6-21 Grape seed chemical allows mice to live longer by killing aged cells
A chemical derived from grape seeds selectively destroys worn-out cells in mice, allowing them to live 9 per cent longer than their untreated counterparts. A chemical isolated from grape seed extract prolongs the lifespans of old mice by 9 per cent by clearing out their old, worn-out cells. The treatment also seems to make the mice physically fitter and reduces the size of tumours when used alongside chemotherapy to treat cancer. The finding strengthens the case for future anti-ageing therapies that target senescent cells – aged cells that lose their ability to replicate and instead churn out substances that cause inflammation. Senescent cells increase in number as we get older, and have been linked to various age-related conditions, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis. To find a substance that might destroy these cells, Qixia Xu at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai and colleagues screened a library of chemicals linked to ageing for their effects against senescent cells. The team’s search turned up a chemical found in grape seeds called procyanidin C1 (PCC1). producing inflammatory substances. At high concentrations, the chemical killed the cells, while leaving younger cells intact. To test its effectiveness in living animals, the team injected 171 mice that were 2 years old – equivalent to around 70 in human years – with either PCC1 or a control solution twice a week for the rest of the animals’ lives. On average, PCC1 increased the lifespan of mice by 9 per cent. The chemical also appears to improve the physical fitness of younger mice. Animals under the age of 2 years were injected with either a control solution or PCC1 every two weeks for four months, after which they underwent a range of physical tests. Mice that received the treatment had a significantly faster maximum walking speed, stronger grip strength and better endurance when running on a treadmill, compared with mice that had been given the control solution. Chemotherapy is known to accelerate the ageing of cells within tumours. To find out if PCC1 could kill these aged tumour cells, boosting the impact of chemotherapy, the team trialled the chemical alongside mitoxantrone, a drug used to treat breast cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and acute myeloblastic leukaemia, among other cancers.

12-4-21 Tiny living machines called xenobots can create copies of themselves
Blobs of frog cells exhibit surprising and complex behavior. Tiny “living machines” made of frog cells can replicate themselves, making copies that can then go on to do the same. This newly described form of renewal offers insights into how to design biological machines that are self-perpetuating. “This is an incredibly exciting breakthrough,” for the field of biologically based robotics, says Kirstin Petersen, an electrical and computer engineer at Cornell University who studies groups of robots. Robots that can copy themselves are an important step toward systems that don’t need humans to operate, she says. Earlier this year, researchers described the behaviors of the lab-made living robots, called xenobots (SN: 3/31/21). Plucked out of frogs’ growing bodies, small clumps of skin stem cells from frog embryos knitted themselves into small spheres and began to move. Cellular extensions called cilia served as motors that powered the xenobots as they cruised around their lab dishes. That cruising can have a bigger purpose, the researchers now report in the Dec. 7 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As the xenobots bumble about, they can gather loose frog cells into spheres, which then coalesce into xenobots themselves. This type of movement-created reproduction, called kinematic self-replication by the researchers, appears to be new for living cells. Usually, reproducing organisms contribute some parental material to their offspring, says study coauthor Douglas Blackiston of Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and Harvard University. Sexual reproduction, for instance, requires parental sperm and egg cells to get started. Other types of reproduction involve cells splitting or budding off from a parent. “Here, this is different,” Blackiston says. These xenobots are “finding loose parts, sort of like robotics parts in the environment, and cobbling them together.” Those collections then grow into “a second generation of xenobots that can move around like their parents,” Blackiston says

12-3-21 Night-shift workers who eat only in the day may cut diabetes risk
People who work overnight are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, but the risk may be reduced by eating only between 7am and 7pm. People who work night shifts may be able to avoid the resulting harm to their blood sugar control by eating only in the daytime. A small trial in people who simulated a night-working pattern by staying awake all night found that those who ate only between 7am and 7pm had normal blood sugar regulation after a single test meal. In this regimen, people woke up during the day to eat, but abstained from food during night-shift hours. But those who ate some meals at night, as is common in people who work night shifts, had worse blood sugar control. The body tries to keep blood sugar within a certain range, as high blood sugar damages blood vessels, but if levels gets too low, cells go short of energy. Poor blood sugar control can progress to type 2 diabetes, which usually needs managing with diet and medications and can lead to heart disease. Previous work has found that night-shift workers are more prone to poor blood sugar control and type 2 diabetes. So Frank Scheer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, and his colleagues wondered if they could counteract the effects on blood sugar by keeping eating patterns more aligned with people’s normal “body clock”. They asked 19 volunteers to eat a carefully measured test meal for breakfast, after which their blood sugar levels were measured. Then, the participants gradually shifted their waking patterns so that after three days, they were in a fully reversed pattern, sleeping in the daytime. The next day, the group was split in two. About half had some meals in the daytime and some at night, which is how many night-shift workers behave. They then had the same test meal for their 7pm “breakfast”; their blood sugar levels rose by 19 per cent more than they did after the same test was carried out at the start of the experiment.

12-3-21 Multigenerational households a factor in covid-19 ethnic disparities
People in the UK of Bangladeshi or Pakistani heritage are more likely to live in households that include schoolchildren and people aged 70 or older - a factor that may explain why people from these backgrounds were more likely to die from covid-19 during the country's second wave. People of Bangladeshi and Pakistani heritage in the UK were more likely to become infected with the coronavirus and die from covid-19 during the country’s second wave, in part because they are more likely to live in multigenerational households. The findings suggest that infections caught in schools may have a disproportionate impact on some ethnic minority groups. The new data, published today in a UK government report on ethnic health inequalities during the pandemic, suggests that people of Bangladeshi heritage in England and Wales over the age of 65 were three times more likely to have caught the coronavirus between 12 September 2020 and 31 March 2021 than white people in the same age group. People of Pakistani heritage over the age of 65 were 2.5 times more likely to be infected than white over-65s in this period. People of Bangladeshi and Pakistani heritage in England and Wales, of all ages, died from covid-19 at a 5 times and 4.1 times higher rate, respectively, than white people during the second wave. “When looking at the second wave, there’s a clear gradient in which ethnic groups were worst affected with what percentage of those groups live in multigenerational households,” says the report’s lead author Raghib Ali. “With Bangladeshis the worst off, then Pakistanis, then Indians and then Black Africans.” A multigenerational household is defined as one that contains at least one person aged 19 or under, at least one between the ages of 20 and 69, and at least one who is 70 or older. About 56 per cent of households of Bangladeshi heritage in the UK are multigenerational, whereas only about 1.5 per cent of white households are. Around 35 per cent of households of Pakistani heritage are multigenerational.

12-3-21 Can psychedelics meet their potential for treating mental health disorders?
Drugs that offer profound shifts in consciousness still face many hurdles. Kanu Caplash was lying on a futon in a medical center in Connecticut, wearing an eye mask and listening to music. But his mind was far away, tunneling down through layer upon layer of his experiences. As part of a study of MDMA, a psychedelic drug also known as molly or ecstasy, Caplash was on an inner journey to try to ease his symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. On this particular trip, Caplash, now 22, returned to the locked bathroom door of his childhood home. As a kid, he used to lock himself in to escape the yelling adults outside. But now, he was both outside the locked door, knocking, and inside, as his younger, frightened self. He started talking to his younger self. “I open the door, and my big version picks up my younger version of myself, and literally carries me out,” he says. “I carried myself out of there and drove away.” That self-rescue brought Caplash peace. “I got out of there. I’m alive. It’s all right. I’m OK.” For years, Caplash had experienced flashbacks, nightmares and insomnia from childhood trauma. He thought constantly about killing himself, he says. His experiences while on MDMA changed his perspective. “I still have the memory, but that anger and pain is not there anymore.” Caplash’s transcendent experiences, spurred by three therapy sessions on MDMA, happened in 2018 as part of a research project on PTSD. Along with a handful of other studies, that research suggests that when coupled with psychotherapy, mind-altering drugs bring some people immediate, powerful and durable relief. Those studies, and the intense media coverage they received, have helped launch psychedelic medicine into the public conversation in the United States, England and elsewhere. Academic groups devoted to studying psychedelics have sprung up at Johns Hopkins, Yale, New York University Langone Health, the University of California, San Francisco and other research institutions. Private investors have ponied up millions of dollars for research on psychedelic drugs. The state of Oregon has started the process of legalizing therapeutic psilocybin, the key chemical in hallucinogenic mushrooms; lawmakers in other states and cities are considering the same move.

12-3-21 Merck’s COVID-19 pill may soon be here. How well will it work?
New data have revealed uncertainty about the drug’s efficacy and who should use it. Hopes for an easy pill that could combat COVID-19 before people land in the hospital have dimmed a bit. New data about an antiviral pill made by Merck with its partner Ridgeback Pharmaceuticals show it’s not as stellar as first believed. And the drug has drawbacks that could outweigh its potential to fight the coronavirus and keep people out of the hospital. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is now weighing whether to grant emergency use authorization for the drug, called molnupiravir, after the agency’s advisory panel narrowly voted to recommend it on November 30. The drug was authorized for use in the United Kingdom on November 4. If the FDA follows suit, it could wind up being just a stopgap: Some advisers already have urged the agency to be ready to withdraw that authorization as soon as something better comes along. Finding an early treatment hasn’t been easy, so many experts initially hailed the development of molnupiravir as a potential game changer for the pandemic: A pill that could be given to people early in the infection might help keep health care systems from being overwhelmed, and spare people at high risk from the most severe complications (SN: 7/27/21). In a clinical trial, the drug showed early signs of preventing hospitalization and death from COVID-19 in people at high risk of severe disease (SN: 10/1/21). In fact, the results were so promising — a 48 percent reduction in the relative risk of hospitalization or death — that the trial was stopped so that the drug might potentially reach the public earlier. But on November 26, Merck announced in a news release that when all the available data from the trial was in, the reduction in relative risk fell to 30 percent against hospitalization and death compared with a placebo. The shift stemmed from an unexplained decrease in severe disease among people in the placebo group in the last part of the trial.

12-3-21 Omicron coronavirus variant: Your questions answered
There is growing international concern about the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant. How long do the symptoms last for? Any advice for people who are immunosuppressed? How many people has the new variant killed? Is Omicron more harmful to children than other variants? BBC World News’s Yalda Hakim put questions from BBC World News viewers to Dr Rupali Limaye from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Dr Peter Drobac, global health expert at the University of Oxford to find out more.

12-3-21 Ancient Egyptian elites used a thick beer porridge in their ceremonies
Centuries before the pharaohs emerged in Egypt, the local elites used a thick porridge-like beer in their ceremonies. The elite members of early Egyptian society – before the emergence of the pharaohs – probably drank beer, which they transported around in six-litre jars. Jiajing Wang at Dartmouth University in New Hampshire and her colleagues analysed fragments of pottery found at Hierakonpolis, an archaeological site in southern Egypt. The fragments date back to between 3800 and 3600 BC, about 600 years before Egypt was united into one state under Narmer, the first pharaoh. The fragments were found in an area that served as both an ancient brewery and a cemetery. The researchers believe that the brewery and cemetery were used exclusively by the richest in pre-Pharaonic society. The archaeologists who first excavated the fragments assumed that they came from jars used to carry beer, but the idea hadn’t been tested until now. Wang and her colleagues used microfossil residue analysis to study the organic remains on the fragments. “We analysed starch granules, phytoliths [silica from plants], yeast cells and beer stone crystals,” says Wang. “They cannot be observed by [the naked] eye.” The researchers found beer residues in fragments from 10 six-litre jars, which they believe were used predominantly to carry the alcoholic drink. Their analysis suggests that the beer was made from wheat, barley and grass. Plant silica that they found in the residue also suggests that the beer mash was filtered to remove cereal husks. “The beer was probably like a thick porridge,” says Wang. “Very different from the IPAs we drink today.” She says it also probably had a low alcohol content. The complexity of the beer recipe suggests that the alcohol was made for elites. “But we don’t really know for sure at this stage,” says Wang. However, as similar jars were found in the nearby cemetery for upper-class people, the team speculates that the jars were used to hold beer from the brewery for use in elite rituals and ceremonies.

12-2-21 Rare mutation in Old Order Amish people linked to lower heart disease
A genetic mutation may cause lower levels of cholesterol and a blood clotting protein associated with heart disease, and the hope is to design drugs that have the same effect. A rare genetic mutation first identified in Old Order Amish people has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease by around 35 per cent. The hope is that it will be possible to develop treatments that have the same impact, says May Montasser at the University of Maryland. “The effect is really strong.” In populations founded by a small number of people, such as the Old Order Amish, a group of Christian communities found primarily in the US, genetic mutations that are rare in the general population can be much more common simply by chance. Studying these groups can reveal what, if anything, these mutations do. When Montasser and her team studied 7000 Old Order Amish people, they found that a mutation in a gene called B4GALT1 was associated with lower levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. “That’s the bad cholesterol,” says Montasser. It was also associated with lower levels of fibrinogen, which helps blood clot. High levels of fibrinogen appear to increase the risk of heart disease. The mutation was present in 6 per cent of the people studied but is extremely rare in other populations. The researchers then looked at large databases, such as the UK Biobank, and found that this gene variant is associated with a substantially reduced risk of coronary heart disease. To confirm that the mutation is the cause of the lower LDL and fibrinogen levels, they also induced similar mutations in mice. Put together, the evidence is robust, says Montasser. So far, there is no sign of any downside to this gene variant, she says. People with the mutation appear perfectly healthy. It might turn out to be an entirely beneficial gene variant that hasn’t become common because its benefits manifest only late in life.

12-2-21 What we know and don’t know about the omicron coronavirus variant
Guesses about the new variant abound, but only time will tell if it can compete with delta. Another coronavirus variant has emerged, and with it comes a new wave of uncertainty and unanswered questions. Days after the news broke, we remain in an information vacuum, and in a prognostication whirlwind with even vaccine makers contradicting each other. Finding answers like whether vaccines can thwart new variants takes time. To quickly recap, late last week, researchers in South Africa and Botswana raised the alarm that they had detected a coronavirus variant with myriad mutations, many of which are in the part of the virus that helps it enter and infect cells. The World Health Organization quickly gave this highly mutated variant its own Greek letter — omicron — officially signifying it as a variant of concern. “Omicron’s very emergence is another reminder that although many of us might think we are done with COVID-19, it is not done with us,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a special session of the World Health Assembly on November 29. Omicron’s detection sparked a flurry of controversial travel bans to and from South Africa and surrounding countries, angering African leaders. Yet these quick decisions are based more on disquiet than data. Here’s what we know, and what we don’t know. The list of things we do know about omicron is short. We know South Africa has had a big spike in COVID-19 cases — going from an average of less than 300 cases per day in early November to more than 2,000 by the end of the month. Researchers are in the midst of testing what share of those infections might be due to omicron. We know the variant has turned up in other places like Israel, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and Australia. On December 1, the first case in the United States popped up in California, in a vaccinated person who had recently returned from South Africa.

12-2-21 50 years ago, a 6-year-old boy became the first known rabies survivor
Excerpt from the December 4, 1971 issue of Science News. The painful and always fatal virus disease rabies may at last be licked — not with the traditional series of rabies vaccine shots that sometimes ward off the disease after a person has been bitten by a rabid animal, but by the timely use of relatively simple medical techniques.… As a result [a 6-year-old boy] is the world’s only known survivor of rabies. Though the boy was vaccinated, the shots — which have improved since the 1970s — didn’t prevent disease. Medical techniques used to treat him, including inserting a tube to help him breathe, giving seizure medication and draining fluid buildup on the brain, proved that rabies patients can survive. Yet the disease is still almost always fatal once people show symptoms. In 2004, a 15-year-old girl became the first known unvaccinated rabies survivor (SN: 1/29/05, p. 77). Doctors treated her using the M­ilwaukee Protocol. This controversial method puts patients in a coma to protect the brain while the immune system mounts defenses. But even with that treatment, most patients still die.

12-2-21 Humans have been relatively short for thousands of years
Until around 150 years ago, humans were relatively short – but our recent growth spurt may have more to do with social factors than dietary ones. For most of our history, humans have been short, a study has found. Until around 150 years ago, few people grew taller than 170 centimetres – not even the most privileged individuals, who had ready access to food. This discovery adds to growing evidence that stunting – being unusually short – isn’t a wholly reliable indicator of malnutrition. Instead of being a sign of a good diet, growing taller may instead reflect competition for dominance in some societies. Christiane Scheffler at the University of Potsdam and paediatrician Michael Hermanussen in Altenhof, both in Germany, have spent several years studying the height of people from a wide range of populations. In their latest paper, they combined an existing data set of more than 6000 prehistoric human skeletons with multiple studies of more recent historical populations from Europe and the US. They also included their own data on 1666 modern Indonesian schoolchildren. In the prehistoric populations, the maximum height for men was 165 to 170 cm, while women topped out at 160 cm. Today, by comparison, men in England have an average height of around 175 cm, while for women it is about 162 cm. The average heights of both men and women are several centimetres higher in Germany. The team found that similar patterns to the prehistoric heights held in the historical populations. Even a group of upper-class German boys from the late 1800s were all significantly shorter than modern children, so much so that over half of them would be considered stunted by modern standards. But there is significant variation between modern countries. The Indonesian schoolchildren in the study were shorter than similarly aged children from the US, despite being well-nourished.

12-2-21 Ancient footprints suggest a mysterious hominid lived alongside Lucy’s kind
The 3.66-million-year-old tracks from East Africa are unique, comparisons show. An individual from an enigmatic hominid species strode across a field of wet, volcanic ash in what is now East Africa around 3.66 million years ago, leaving behind a handful of footprints. Those five ancient impressions, largely ignored since their partial excavation at Tanzania’s Laetoli site in 1976, show hallmarks of upright walking by a hominid, a new study finds. Researchers had previously considered them hard to classify, possibly produced by a young bear that took a few steps while standing. Nearby Laetoli footprints unearthed in 1978 looked more clearly like those of hominids and have been attributed to Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis (SN: 12/16/16). But the shape and positioning of the newly identified hominid footprints differ enough from A. afarensis to qualify as marks of a separate Australopithecus species, an international team reports December 1 in Nature. “Different [hominid] species walked across this East African landscape at about the same time, each moving in different ways,” says paleoanthropologist Ellison McNutt of Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine in Athens. The species identity of the Laetoli printmaker is unknown. Fossil jaws dating back more than 3 million years unearthed in East Africa may come from a species dubbed A. deyiremeda that lived near Lucy’s crowd (SN: 5/27/15). But no foot fossils were found with the jaws to compare with the Laetoli finds. The 3.4-million-year-old foot fossils from an East African hominid that had grasping toes and no arch and the unusual fossil feet of 4.4-million-year-old Ardipithecus ramidus aren’t a match either (SN: 3/28/12; SN: 2/24/21). So neither of those hominids could have made the five Laetoli prints, says McNutt, who started the new investigation as a Dartmouth College graduate student supervised by paleoanthropologist Jeremy DeSilva.

12-2-21 This dinosaur had a weapon shaped like an Aztec war club on its tail
A new ankylosaur species found in Chile may be an early version of the armored creatures A newly discovered species of ankylosaur had a bizarre club on its tail unlike that of any known dinosaur. With its flat surface and sharp blades along the sides, this unique structure at the back end of Stegouros elengassen, a species of ankylosaur that lived between 72 million and 75 million years ago, strongly resembles an Aztec war club called a macuahuitl, say paleontologist Sergio Soto-Acuña and colleagues. The tail’s shape may indicate an early evolutionary split in the ankylosaur lineage, the researchers report online December 1 in Nature. Soto-Acuña, of the Universidad de Chile in Santiago, and his team identified the new species based on a nearly complete skeleton discovered in the dry Patagonian region of Chile. With its slender limbs and unusually short tail, S. elengassen already looked markedly different from other ankylosaurs in many ways. But its cranium pegged the creature as a type of early ankylosaur, the team found. Ankylosaurs were the heavily armored tanks of the dinosaur world, their bodies and heads shielded by rugged plates of bone. Different species also sported a variety of other anatomical weapons, from shin-shattering clubbed tails to spiky skulls (SN: 6/12/17; SN: 7/19/18). But S. elengassen’s strange tail is unique among these weapons. Few ankylosaur species have been dug up in the Southern Hemisphere. Those that are known, including S. elengassen, may be some of the most primitive species of the group — and may even represent a separate branch of the armored dinosaurs. That branch possibly split from other ankylosaurs, including the lineage that includes the genus Ankylosaurus, early in their evolutionary history, during the mid-Jurassic Period around 167 million years ago, the researchers suggest.

12-1-21 Fossil footprints hint at mystery hominin with unusual walking style
A set of 3.7-million-year-old footprints were initially thought to have been left by a bear walking upright, but have now been reinterpreted as the prints of an unidentified hominin that walked a little bit like a modern catwalk fashion model. Ancient footprints that were originally thought to have been made by a bear walking on two legs were actually made by an extinct human species. The discovery means there are now three known sets of hominin footprints from the same locale in Tanzania. It isn’t clear which hominin species made the prints. The authors of the new study say they don’t match the other sets of footprints at Laetoli, a site in Tanzania, so were probably made by a different species. If this is true, it would mean that two hominin species coexisted in the same region at the same time. “Not only are they not a bear, they are hominin and they are not the same hominin as those that made [the other footprints],” says Ellison McNutt at Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine in Athens. The footprints were discovered in 1976 by Peter Jones and Philip Leakey. Excavating at Laetoli, they found five prints in a place they dubbed site A. The tracks had been left in soft volcanic ash that subsequently hardened into rock. The pair’s colleague Mary Leakey suggested that the prints had been left by a hominin. However, later studies suggested that they were actually made by a bear walking on its hind legs. As a result, site A fell into obscurity. Meanwhile, more footprints were found at Laetoli in a location a few kilometres away, labelled site G, and these were definitely made by hominins. The trail stretches 24 metres and includes prints (one of which is pictured above) from three individuals walking together. Both sets of footprints are 3.66 million years old and are thought to have been made by Australopithecus afarensis, the species to which the famous Lucy fossil belonged.

12-1-21 New species of armoured dinosaur had a tail shaped like a fern frond
Stegouros elengassen, unearthed in Chile, had a strange flattened tail that looked like a fern frond – a feature never seen before in an ankylosaur dinosaur. A new species of ankylosaur found in Chile had a unique tail unseen in any other member of this dinosaur family. The discovery sheds light on the mysterious origins of ankylosaurs in the southern hemisphere. Ankylosaurs were quadrupedal, herbivorous dinosaurs that roamed Earth throughout the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. They were covered in bony deposits on their skin called osteoderms, which provided protection, much like a turtle’s shell. Ankylosaurs from the northern portion of what used to be the supercontinent Pangaea have been widely studied. However, those from southern Pangaea have been much harder to come by and are poorly understood. Alexander Vargas at the University of Chile in Santiago and his colleagues have reported the discovery of a new ankylosaur, whose almost-complete skeleton was found in the Río de Las Chinas valley in southern Chile. They called the new species Stegouros elengassen. The team found that the skeleton had a mix of traits from known ankylosaurs and from stegosaurs, a related group of four-legged plant-eating dinosaurs. In fact, the pelvis of S. elengassen was almost identical to that of a stegosaur, but the jawbones that carried its upper tooth row were clearly ankylosaurian. The skeleton also had a flat, weapon-like tail, with seven pairs of broad, laterally facing blades, making the tail end look like the frond of a fern. This is unlike anything seen in other ankylosaurs, which typically had large, club-shaped tails. The dinosaur also appeared to be less armoured and more slender-limbed than other ankylosaurs. “This is our first good look at a South American armoured dinosaur, and it is not like any armoured dinosaur you’ve ever seen before.” says Vargas. “It has a tail weapon that is a new category – all we knew [before] was tail spikes and tail clubs, now we have this weird frond-like thing.”

12-1-21 How to hack your stress and turn it into a positive force in your life
Too much stress hurts mind and body, but the stress response exists for good evolutionary reasons. Recognising that is the first step to turning its negative effects around. Many of us have felt more than a little stressed over the past couple of years. For me, exhibit A is my teeth. A recent trip to the dentist confirmed that months of pandemic-induced jaw-clenching, product of the usual deadline stress amplified by the demands of two young children, had left four of them broken. Crumbling teeth are small fry. Last year, the American Psychological Association found that two-thirds of people in the US reported feeling more stressed in the pandemic, and predicted “a mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come”. Increased risk of diabetes, depression and cardiovascular disease and more are all associated with high stress levels. It’s enough to make you feel stressed just thinking about it. Perhaps we just need to think about stress differently, though. That, at least, is the startling conclusion of researchers studying the mind-body connection. There are natural benefits to being stressed, they say, and if we change our “stress mindset”, we might be able to turn things around and make stress a positive influence on our lives. Fortunately, there are some simple hacks that will allow us to do this, and they bring with them the promise of better physical health, clearer thinking, increased mental toughness and greater productivity. There is no denying that too much stress can harm both body and mind. It has been linked to all six of the main causes of death in the West: cancer, heart disease, liver disease, accidents, lung disease and suicide. It can weaken the immune system, leaving us more prone to infection and reducing the effectiveness of vaccines, and can mess with our guts, triggering disease-inducing inflammation. It can hamper cognitive performance, reduce productivity and increase the risk of mental-health problems including depression, while compelling us to make unhealthy life choices such as smoking and eating foods we know we shouldn’t. Small wonder that the World Health Organization has described stress as the “epidemic of the twenty-first century”.

12-1-21 Stones smashed by horses can be mistaken for ancient human tools
Horses kick and stamp on rocks to keep their hooves in good shape, and archaeologists have now realised this can result in a collection of sharp stones that look like the work of an ancient human toolmaker Some stone tools attributed to prehistoric humans may in fact have been made by horses, according to researchers in Spain. They aren’t claiming that horses make tools deliberately, but as an accidental by-product of trimming their hooves on rocks. The discovery means that archaeologists will have to be more careful about declaring objects to be ancient human-created artefacts. Stone tools are common in the archaeological record from about 2.6 million years ago onwards, usually consisting of small heaps of sharp-edged flakes and the cores they were chipped off. Until recently, archaeologists thought they could reliably distinguish human-made flakes and cores from naturally broken stones by tell-tale fracture patterns. But now they aren’t so sure. In 2016, researchers at the University of Oxford discovered that capuchin monkeys can generate stone flakes that are indistinguishable from human ones. The monkeys aren’t deliberately making tools, but are thought to break rocks open to obtain a nutrient, possibly silicon, that they lick off the freshly exposed surface. The resulting accumulation of discarded stone flakes and source rocks can look exactly like a human tool factory. Now the “unintentional toolmaker” club has been joined by horses and their relatives, collectively called equids. According to Santiago David Domínguez-Solera and his colleagues at the University of Alcalá’s Institute of Evolution in Africa (IDEA) in Madrid, equid hooves grow rapidly and need to be trimmed, which the animals do by kicking and stamping on rocks. This can produce fractured pieces that also look exactly like toolmaking debris.

12-1-21 Scientists claim big advance in using DNA to store data
Scientists say they have made a dramatic step forward in efforts to store information as molecules of DNA. The magnetic hard drives we currently use to store computer data can take up lots of space and also have to be replaced as they age. Using life's preferred storage medium to back up our precious data would allow vast amounts of information to be archived in tiny molecules. The data would also last thousands of years, according to scientists. A team in Atlanta, US, has now developed a chip that they say could improve on existing forms of DNA storage by a factor of 100. "The density of features on our new chip is [approximately] 100x higher than current commercial devices," Nicholas Guise, senior research scientist at Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), told BBC News. "So once we add all the control electronics - which is what we're doing over the next year of the program - we expect something like a 100x improvement over existing technology for DNA data storage." The technology works by growing unique strands of DNA one building block at a time. These building blocks are known as bases - four distinct chemical units that make up the DNA molecule. The bases, sometimes known as DNA letters, can then be used to encode information, in a way that's analogous to the strings of ones and zeroes (binary code) that carry data in traditional computing. There are different potential ways to store this information in DNA - for example, a zero in binary code could be represented by the bases adenine or cytosine and the one represented by guanine or thymine. Alternatively, a one and zero could be mapped to just two of the four bases. It's all part of a project between GTRI and other partners that's called SMASH (Scalable Molecular Archival Software and Hardware). It has been said that, if formatted in DNA, every movie ever made could fit inside a volume smaller than a sugar cube. Given how compact and reliable it is, it's not surprising there is now broad interest in DNA as the next medium for archiving data that needs to be kept indefinitely.

12-1-21 Ancient giant orangutans evolved smaller bodies surprisingly slowly
The now-extinct animals were still considerably larger than their modern kin. Giant orangutans that once dwelled in mainland Southeast Asian forests belonged to a single species that gradually shrank in size over nearly 2 million years, a study suggests. Today, orangutans are found only on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. But their ancient, super-size kin roamed forests in what’s now southern China and northern Vietnam. Fragmentary Asian fossils of uncertain age have long indicated that these massive, now-extinct orangutans shrank over time. And biological anthropologist Terry Harrison of New York University suspected — based on a small number of fossils from widely different time periods — that the apes rapidly evolved from a larger-bodied species to a different, smaller-bodied species roughly 400,000 years ago as the climate cooled. But an analysis of 600 ancient orangutan teeth unearthed in 10 caves in southern China supports a different evolutionary scenario, Harrison and colleagues report in the December Journal of Human Evolution. From around 2 million to 111,000 years ago, the shapes of the teeth remained largely the same, suggesting all were from a single orangutan species. But tooth sizes progressively declined. Using tooth measurements, Harrison, paleoanthropologist Yingqi Zhang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and colleagues estimate that the ancient orangutans’ average body mass started out around 96 kilograms, close to double that of orangutans today. By around 111,000 years ago, the ancient apes’ average body mass was almost 80 kilograms, which still exceeded that of modern orangutans by nearly 25 kilograms. Fossils of other ancient Asian animals, including rhinos and monkeys, also show declines in body size over the same period. Cooler, drier conditions that reduced available food starting around 400,000 years ago may have spurred a trend toward smaller bodies, Harrison says.


89 Evolution News Articles
for December 2021

Evolution News Articles for November 2021