1-21-22 COVID vaccine does not negatively affect fertility in men or women, study finds
A new study published Thursday in the American Journal of Epidemiology "adds to growing evidence that there is no connection between COVID-19 vaccinations and a reduced chance of conceiving," CNN reports. Instead, the study found that couples in which the male partner had contracted COVID-19 within 60 days had "slightly lower chances of conception" — just another reason to get vaccinated, CNN writes. Researchers aren't yet sure why exactly COVID potentially affects male fertility in the short term, but fever (which is a symptom of COVID-19) can reduce sperm count, per the National Institutes of Health, which announced the study findings on Thursday. "These findings indicate that male SARS-CoV-2 infection may be associated with a short-term decline in fertility and that COVID-19 vaccination does not impair fertility in either partner," study researchers wrote. "This adds to the evidence from animal studies, studies of humans undergoing fertility treatment, and the COVID-19 vaccine trials, none of which found an association between COVID-19 vaccination and lower fertility." SARS-CoV-2 is the official name of the virus that causes COVID. The study included 2,126 women ages 21 to 45 in both the United States and Canada, who worked with researchers from December 2020 to September 2021. Researchers then followed up with them through November 2021, CNN reports. "The findings provide reassurance that vaccination for couples seeking pregnancy does not appear to impair fertility," said Dr. Diana Bianchi of the NIH. "They also provide information for physicians who counsel patients hoping to conceive."
1-21-22 Babies may use saliva sharing to figure out relationships
Actions like sharing bites of food or kissing may cue young children into close bonds. Young children are always watching. That includes when people swap spit through actions like sharing food — helping the tots work out who is in close relationships with one another, a study suggests. Typically, people are more likely to share things that can lead to an exchange of saliva, such as kisses or an ice cream cone, with family members or close friends than with an acquaintance or colleague. As a result, intimate actions that share saliva can be markers of a “thick relationship,” or people who have enduring attachments to each other, such as parents, siblings, extended family or best friends, says Ashley Thomas, a developmental psychologist at MIT. Young children often pick up on social cues from the people around them (SN: 1/30/14). So to see if kids, including babies and toddlers, might use saliva sharing as a cue for intimate bonds, Thomas and colleagues turned to experiments of people engaging with puppets. When shown a puppet seemingly crying in a video, children as young as about 8 months old were more likely to look at an adult who had previously shared saliva with the puppet — either directly or by sharing food — rather than another adult who hadn’t, the team reports in the Jan. 21 Science. Researchers, of course, can’t know exactly what babies are thinking. But tracking where they look is one way to get a hint. The idea is not that young children might be expecting an adult to comfort the puppet, Thomas says. Instead, the researchers expected that the young children would look toward the person that they expect to move first when the puppet expresses distress, and that would be the person who has a closer relationship with the toy, she says. For some of the experiments, the team showed 8- to 10-month-old babies or 16- to 18-month-old toddlers videos of a woman sharing an orange slice with a puppet. A second video depicted another woman and the puppet playing with a ball. During a final video that showed the puppet seemingly crying while seated between the two women, the kids’ eyes were drawn to the woman who had shared the orange slice — a sign the tots may have been expecting her to react.
1-20-22 Babies can tell who's closely related from whether they share saliva
Infants and toddlers seem to expect people who exchange saliva, for example by taking bites of the same food, to be close enough to comfort each other if one gets upset. Babies and toddlers can identify people who are intimately related based on whether they exchange saliva, which may help them to understand the social world around them. Young children and their caregivers often share saliva, for example, if they kiss on the lips or eat off the same spoon. As a result, children may learn that saliva-sharing is a sign of close relationships. To test this idea, Ashley Thomas at Harvard University and her colleagues showed babies and toddlers videos of puppets and actors in different scenarios. In one experiment, 20 babies aged between 8.5 and 10 months old and 26 toddlers aged 16.5 to 18.5 months watched a puppet eating from the same orange slice as a female actor – implying saliva-sharing – and playing ball with another. When the puppet later began to cry, the babies and toddlers tended to look first and for longer at the saliva-sharing actor, as if they assumed she was more likely to provide comfort. The experiment was repeated with 118 US toddlers aged 14.5 to 19 months from diverse racial, economic and geographical backgrounds and produced the same results. In another experiment, toddlers watched an actor put her finger in her mouth and then in the mouth of a puppet. They also watched her touch her forehead and then touch the forehead of another puppet. When the actor later looked distressed and said “oh no”, the toddlers looked first and for longer at the saliva-sharing puppet, as if expecting it to be the main comforter. Together, these results suggest that young children pick up saliva-sharing cues and use them to identify “thick” relationships – those that involve strong attachments and moral obligations of care, such as between close family members, says Thomas.
1-20-22 Covid-19 brain fog: What we know about lingering neurological effects
Growing evidence suggests neurological symptoms of long covid, such as brain fog, are caused by an immune reaction – and should be reversible. Over the past couple of years, we have learned that covid-19 can have profound consequences for the brain, both in the short and long term. Now, researchers are beginning to get a clearer picture of how the coronavirus might be causing a range of symptoms that include brain fog, depression, confusion and even stroke. These latest insights suggest that the virus seldom infects brain cells directly, but instead harms the brain indirectly by causing blood clots or spurring a harmful immune response. The encouraging news is that some of the latest research indicates that many of these harmful changes in the brain are likely to be reversible. Early on in the pandemic, it became clear that severe cases of covid-19 could lead to stroke, confusion and muscle weakness. It is estimated that, in the early stages of infection, roughly 1 in 4 people experience depression and 1 in 8 experience anxiety. Longer term, though, the neurological and mental health toll may be even higher: an analysis of medical records for more than 230,000 people who recovered from covid-19 found that roughly one-third went on to be diagnosed with a neurological or psychiatric condition within six months. In a survey of nearly 1000 people in the US with longer-term covid-19 symptoms, 47 per cent reported persistent brain fog, difficulty concentrating or forgetfulness. It isn’t uncommon to have effects on the brain after a viral infection – it has been seen with viruses including Zika, polio, measles and flu. But rates of lingering effects such as mental health conditions or anxiety appear to be higher after covid-19 than after infections such as flu, for instance.
1-20-22 Millions are dying from drug-resistant infections, global report says
More than 1.2 million people died worldwide in 2019 from infections caused by bacteria resistant to antibiotics, according to the largest study of the issue to date. This is more than the annual death toll from malaria or Aids. Poorer countries are worst affected but antimicrobial resistance threatens everyone's health, the report says. Urgent investment in new drugs and using current ones more wisely are recommended to protect against it. The overuse of antibiotics in recent years for trivial infections means they are becoming less effective against serious infections. People are dying from common, previously treatable infections because the bacteria that cause them have become resistant to treatment. UK health officials recently warned antimicrobial resistance (AMR) was a "hidden pandemic" that could emerge in the wake of Covid-19 unless antibiotics were prescribed responsibly. The estimate of global deaths from AMR, published in the Lancet, is based on an analysis of 204 countries by a team of international researchers, led by the University of Washington, US. They calculate up to five million people died in 2019 from illnesses in which AMR played a role - on top of the 1.2 million deaths it caused directly. In the same year, Aids (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is thought to have caused 860,000 deaths and malaria 640,000. Most of the deaths from AMR were caused by lower respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, and bloodstream infections, which can lead to sepsis. MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) was particularly deadly, while E. coli, and several other bacteria, were also linked to high levels of drug resistance. Using patient records from hospitals, studies and other data sources, the researchers say young children are at most risk, with about one in five deaths linked to AMR being among the under-fives.
1-20-22 Antibiotic resistance killed more people than malaria or AIDS in 2019
About 1.3 million deaths were directly caused by drug-resistant bacterial infections in 2019, a global study estimates. More than a million people died from antibiotic-resistant infections across the globe in 2019, hundreds of thousands more than malaria or HIV/AIDS, according to a new estimate. Bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics are considered one of the biggest threats facing modern medicine. Overuse of such drugs has led to resistance becoming more widespread, raising the prospect that common infections such as sepsis and pneumonia will become harder to treat. Mohsen Naghavi at the University of Washington in Seattle and his colleagues devised a model to estimate how many people died in 2019 from bacterial infections that could previously have been treated were it not for antimicrobial resistance (AMR). No such global survey has been conducted before. The model was based on the medical records of 471 million people with antibiotic-resistant infections from 204 countries. The team scoured published studies and medical records to get as comprehensive a data set on AMR as possible. “For countries that had very little data, we calculated figures based on a regional pattern we developed,” says Naghavi. The researchers found that about 1.3 million deaths could be directly attributed to AMR worldwide. They also found that a further 3.65 million deaths involved people who had diseases that showed some form of AMR. “We can’t say for certain that these deaths were due to antimicrobial resistance, but some may have been,” says Naghavi. If both groups are included, it would make AMR the third leading cause of death globally in 2019 behind ischaemic heart attacks and strokes. Even the more conservative estimate would mean that AMR killed more people that year than HIV/AIDS, which was responsible for 680,000 deaths, and malaria, which killed 627,000 people.
1-20-22 Genetically modified pig kidneys transplanted into a brain-dead person
In an experiment paving the way for clinical trials, two pig kidneys produced urine for 77 hours after transplantation into the body of a man who was brain dead. Two pig kidneys genetically engineered to prevent rejection by the immune system have been transplanted into a man who was brain dead as a first step towards treating patients. The kidneys weren’t rejected during the 77 hours that the experiment, carried out in the US, lasted. “This game-changing moment [is] a major milestone in the field of xenotransplantation, which is arguably the best solution to the organ shortage crisis,” surgeon Jayme Locke at the University of Alabama at Birmingham said in a statement. “We have… obtained the safety and feasibility data necessary to begin a clinical trial.” The experiment took place several months ago, but the details were revealed in a paper published today. The kidneys came from the same line of genetically modified pigs as the heart transplanted into David Bennett on 7 January. While Bennett got the pig heart because there were no other options for him, the kidney transplant was done as an initial safety test only. The recipient, Jim Parsons, was a registered organ donor, but none of his organs was suitable for transplantation. His family gave permission for his body to be kept alive on a ventilator so the study could be done. His own kidneys were removed and replaced with the genetically engineered pig kidneys. “Jim would have wanted to save as many people as he could with his death, and if he knew he could potentially save thousands and thousands of people by doing this, he would have had no hesitation,” his ex-wife Julie O’Hara said in a statement. Pig organs cannot normally be transplanted into people because they are rejected by the human immune system, even if people are given immunosuppressant drugs. But the pigs created by US firm Revivicor have been genetically modified to prevent rejection.
1-20-22 Gene-edited food 5 years from sale in UK, says government scientist
The UK passed a law to help researchers do trials of gene-edited crops, and the chief scientist at the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says it would take at least five years for a product to go from research trials to market. New crops that have been gene-edited to be more nutritious and less environmentally harmful are at least five years away from being sold in shops, according to one of the UK government’s leading scientists. Gideon Henderson, the chief scientific officer of the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), says there is no scientific basis for such food being blocked for sale. The UK passed new legislation today that is designed to aid trials of gene-edited crops. The UK government plans to change current laws so that gene-edited plants are treated differently to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMOs can involve genes inserted from one species into another, while gene-editing usually involves using CRISPR technology to edit the DNA of one organism in an accelerated version of natural breeding techniques. Wheat edited to be less likely to cause cancer is one example being trialled. Crops resistant to pests so that they require less pesticide are another. “One of the really big wins are the environmental benefits, things that use less pesticides, are more tolerant of climate change,” says Henderson. Under today’s law change, which is about three weeks later than expected, researchers trialling gene-edited crops should save around £10,000 per trial and cut two months off the wait for approval. However, with only two trials typically taking place a year, the step is more symbolic than material. “It’s a signifier of intent to move further because the practical change is relatively slight. It’s part of a careful move, we’re not leaping in with two feet,” says Henderson. What comes next, at an unspecified date, is a law change so gene-edited food can be commercially grown and sold. Crops will be first, with livestock later, according to Henderson. Two key matters to be worked out first are a definition of what counts as gene-edited and how food is judged as fitting into the category.
1-20-22 Gold and silver tubes in a Russian museum are the oldest known drinking straws
Metal artifacts enabled communal beer drinking more than 5,000 years ago, researchers say. Eight silver and gold tubes held in a Russian museum have long been thought to have been either ceremonial staffs or canopy supports. In reality, the long tubes are the oldest surviving drinking straws, researchers say. People used these high-end straws to drink beer from a communal vessel more than 5,000 years ago, conclude archaeologist Viktor Trifonov of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg and colleagues. Excavations in 1897 in what’s now Armenia uncovered the metal tubes, jewelry and other goods in a burial mound containing three individuals from the Maikop culture, which dates to between about 5,700 and 4,900 years ago (SN: 6/7/30). Each slender tube extends for just over one meter. Four of the finds include a gold or silver bull figurine, punctured by a hole so that it could be slid up and down the tube. Meanings attributed to straws with or without figurines are unknown, Trifonov’s group says. Residue from the inner surface of one tube, near its tapered tip, contains barley starch granules, cereal particles from a wild or domesticated plant and a pollen grain from a lime tree, the scientists report in the February Antiquity. Those may have been ingredients of a flavored beer, though further work needs to confirm that the barley remains show fermentation damage (SN: 5/7/20). Maikop people, who inhabited southern Russia and southeastern Europe, probably had cultural ties to Sumerians living near the Persian Gulf, the researchers say. More than 4,000-year-old Sumerian carvings show people using long straws to drink from communal vessels. Beer brewing began as early as around 13,000 years ago in the Middle East. And seal impressions on clay tablets dating to roughly 7,000 years ago in Iraq and Iran depict people drinking with straws.
1-19-22 How to perfectly pickle your cucumbers
ALL over the world, people use acid to preserve fruit and vegetables, creating the sour and delicious foods we call pickles. The microbes that spoil our food have a hard time growing if the pH is lower than 4.5, but we can eat foods with a pH as low as 2 (the lower the pH, the more acidic the substance). Some pickles are made by salting vegetables or fruit, encouraging the growth of bacteria that produce lactic acid. These include kimchi, which I described in a previous issue (29 February 2020). A quicker and simpler way to make pickles is to add vinegar, which contains ethanoic (aka acetic) acid and typically has a pH of around 2.4. For pickling, you should use vinegar with 5 per cent acidity – this is usually printed on the label. As well as inhibiting microbes, the acid stabilises plant cell walls, helping vegetables such as cucumbers keep their crunch. Unrefined sea salt contains calcium and magnesium impurities, which also help to reinforce the pectin molecules in cell walls. Table salt is best avoided because it contains anti-caking agents that can turn pickling liquid cloudy. In addition to vinegar, pickling liquids can include flavourings, such as herbs and spices, and sugar to balance the sour taste. Garlic in pickles can sometimes turn blue or green due to reactions that produce pyrroles. These chemicals can join together to produce colourful polypyrroles, a group that includes the green pigment chlorophyll. Blue or green pickled garlic is safe to eat. To make a cucumber pickle, slice small cucumbers lengthwise into spears. Cut off and dispose of the flower end (the one with the rough dot), which contains enzymes that accelerate softening. If you are using larger cucumbers, cut them into shorter lengths, or slice thinly into discs instead. Mix the cucumber with salt in a bowl and leave overnight to draw out water. Heat the vinegar, water, sugar and spices in a lidded saucepan until the sugar has dissolved, then allow to cool. Put the garlic and dill in the bottom of the jars. Drain the liquid from the cucumbers, then pack them in tightly and pour the pickling liquid over them so they are completely covered.
1-19-22 Science is increasingly revealing how we can boost our happiness
“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These are three unalienable rights emphasised by the US Declaration of Independence as being the duty of their leaders to protect and secure. The third one gives perhaps most pause for thought. What should governments – and all of us – be doing to maximise societal and personal happiness? Indeed, what even defines happiness? Politicans and philosophers have wrangled over the apparent contradictions and conflicts that such questions throw up for centuries. Meanwhile, a simple equivalence has come to be made across the world. Many believe that happiness comes with having a bigger cake and eating it, so only economic growth and the pursuit of material progress can provide happiness. Having basic material needs such as food, shelter and clothing covered will, of course, always be important to our well-being. Even asking questions about the nature of happiness may imply being in the happy situation of relative prosperity. Happiness is a “squishy concept”, though, as our special feature shows, and care should be taken not to over-interpret results from the relatively young discipline of research on the subject. But in higher-income parts of the world, at least, the greatest levels of satisfaction seem to occur in countries such as Finland with mediocre levels of economic growth. Higher-growth countries such as the US fare worse. You need only look to the challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution to see how growth-fuelled economic models can work against long-term happiness. The covid-19 pandemic has also led many people to reassess what really contributes to their well-being. Security, community, relationships, a clean environment and connection with nature, the ability to bring up children stress-free, and above all equality: these are things that we know correlate with happiness for most of us. Countries that care for their own success should find in that another reason not to blindly continue with business-as-usual, and seek to build back not just better, but happier.
1-19-22 What really makes people happy – and can you learn to be happier?
Our life satisfaction is shaped by many things including our genes and relative wealth, but there is now good evidence that you can boost your basic happiness with these key psychological strategies. You probably know the type: those Pollyannas who seem to have a relentlessly sunny disposition. Are they simply born happy? Is it the product of their environment? Or does it come from their life decisions? If you are familiar with genetics research, you will have guessed that it is a combination of all three. A 2018 study of 1516 Norwegian twins suggests that around 30 per cent of the variance in people’s life satisfaction is inherited. Much of this seems to be related to personality traits, such as neuroticism, which can leave people more vulnerable to anxiety and depression, and extraversion, which encourages more gregarious behaviour. Both traits are known to be influenced by a range of genes. To put this in context, the heritability of IQ is thought to hover around 80 per cent, so environmental factors clearly play a role in our happiness. These include our physical health, the size and strength of our social network, job opportunities and income. The effect of income, in particular, is nuanced: it seems that the absolute value of our salary matters less than whether we feel richer than those around us, which may explain why the level of inequality predicts happiness better than GDP. Interestingly, many important life choices have only a fleeting influence on our happiness. Consider marriage. A 2019 study found that, on average, life satisfaction does rise after the wedding, but the feeling of married bliss tends to fade over middle age. Needless to say, this depends on the quality of the relationship: marriage’s impact on well-being is about twice as large for people who see their partner as their “best friend”. Parenthood is even more complex. For decades, social scientists have found that people with children at home are significantly less happy than those without. More recent research, however, suggests that there are important regional differences. Jennifer Glass at the University of Texas in Austin and her colleagues have shown that the “parent gap” in well-being is larger in the US and the UK than in most European countries, and it is non-existent in Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Spain and France – where the joys of parenthood outbalance the stresses.
1-19-22 Station Eleven review: An uplifting vision of a post-pandemic world
EARLY in the covid-19 pandemic, as people struggled to make sense of the unfolding global crisis, many turned to stories almost as often as the latest news and science. In January 2020, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion entered the top 10 of the UK iTunes movie rental charts nearly a decade after its release. And much to the bemusement of its author, Emily St John Mandel, the 2014 dystopian novel Station Eleven – in which the “Georgia flu” kills most of the world’s population – suddenly gained a new audience. “I don’t know who in their right mind would want to read Station Eleven during a pandemic,” Mandel said at the time. The book has since been adapted into a 10-part miniseries by screenwriter Patrick Somerville, who also wrote for The Leftovers, another critically acclaimed drama about the collapse of civilisation. His adaptation of Station Eleven was released to rave reviews in the US and Australia. Station Eleven follows Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis), first as a child actor (Matilda Lawler) orphaned by the Georgia flu in present-day Chicago and then 20 years in the future, where she makes a living as a roving performer in a theatre troupe called the Travelling Symphony. She and her friends tour the settlements of the Great Lakes performing music and Shakespeare plays to survivors, lifting their spirits and sharing their motto (originally from Star Trek: Voyager): “Survival is insufficient”. These two timelines, year zero and year 20, blur and merge with Kirsten’s fears for the future and recollections of her traumatic past, both of which intrude on her present. In particular, her thoughts return to Jeevan (Himesh Patel) and his brother Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan), who took her in during the first weeks of the pandemic. Kirsten also repeatedly returns to a graphic novel, called Station Eleven, which she clung to as a child, and which takes on totemic importance in the post-pandemic world.
1-19-22 Antibody imaging technique could make it faster to develop vaccines
A new imaging approach monitors antibody responses to vaccines more quickly than current techniques, which could accelerate vaccine design. By analysing high-resolution images, a computer can quickly predict the sequence of amino acids in antibodies. This could cut months off the time it takes to monitor antibody responses during vaccine development. “It’s a shortcut on a process which typically takes months to achieve with the current set of tools and technologies,” says Andrew Ward at Scripps Research in California. Antigens, such as the spike protein of the SARS-CoV2 virus, are key components of vaccines. They cause the immune system to produce a range of antibodies against the antigen, but some of these are more useful for the immune response than others. For example, a more useful antibody may block viral entry into a cell while another may not affect this process. “Antigens are large surfaces so antibodies can target them in many different ways, but usually a small subset does most of the work,” says Ward. Looking at the ratio of useful “on-target” to less useful “off-target” antibodies resulting from vaccination helps us to optimise the vaccine to tip the response towards more protective antibody production, says Ward. However, this work takes time. It typically involves sequencing the DNA of individual antibody-producing B cells, generating antibodies from the sequences and then imaging the structure of these antibodies to predict where they bind to the antigen. Ward and his colleagues have now developed a quicker method. They imaged frozen antibody structures using a technique called cryogenic electron microscopy and designed a computer algorithm that quickly predicts the amino acid sequences of the antibodies based on their structure. To test their approach, the researchers vaccinated rhesus macaque monkeys using an antigen from HIV, which caused the monkeys to produce antibodies. They then drew blood from two monkeys and mixed each of the samples with the HIV antigen overnight.
1-19-22 Artificial pancreas is 'life-changing' for children with diabetesC
An app that wirelessly links to an implanted glucose sensor and insulin pump can automatically regulate blood sugar levels in children better than the current standard therapy. An artificial pancreas made of a mobile phone app wirelessly linked to an implanted glucose sensor and insulin pump can monitor and control the blood sugar levels of young children with type 1 diabetes more effectively than the current standard therapy. Type 1 diabetes is caused by the destruction of cells in the pancreas that normally produce insulin, a hormone that regulates blood glucose levels. A lack of blood glucose regulation can be life-threatening. Treating young children with this form of diabetes can be especially challenging because they have less predictable eating and exercise patterns, and therefore more variable insulin requirements, says Julia Ware at the University of Cambridge. The standard treatment for young children with type 1 diabetes is called sensor-augmented pump therapy, which uses a sensor to track blood glucose levels and requires carers to manually input how much insulin to release, both at meal times and when the child isn’t eating. To simplify this process, Ware’s colleagues developed an app called CamAPS FX, which links to a glucose sensor under the skin and an insulin pump that feeds into a fat layer in the abdomen. An algorithm automatically calculates how much insulin should be delivered based on the measured glucose levels. Before meals, extra insulin doses must still be manually entered. Now, the researchers have compared their app-powered artificial pancreas to the standard sensor-augmented pump therapy in 74 children aged one to seven years. The researchers found that, on average, children spent around three-quarters of their day within their target blood sugar range when using the artificial pancreas – roughly 2 hours more per day compared with the standard therapy.
1-19-22 Toxic chemicals are everywhere in our daily lives – can we avoid them?
MORE than a decade ago, the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry offered £1 million to the first person in the world to create a chemical-free product. No one has yet claimed the bounty because it is impossible. Water is a chemical. So is your cuppa. Yet there is still so much confusion about everyday products, from cleaning sprays to cosmetics. While some are labelled as chemical free, others declare they are non-toxic, natural and eco-friendly. What does it all really mean? And can we believe it? To work out whether products contain toxic chemicals, which are harmful or hazardous to us or the planet, we need to look at the bigger picture of how something is manufactured and where it ends up after we have used it. Our homes are just a snapshot of a complex global supply chain. Your handbag may not be dangerous, but direct exposure to the chromium salts used in commercial leather tanning factories can trigger chronic conditions in people involved in its production. And that chlorine bleach that gets flushed down the toilet? That is poisonous to aquatic animals. There may even be a picture of a dead fish on the back to prove it. Labels are so full of jargon, however, that deciphering what is good and what isn’t can feel impossible. A starting point is to not be duped by outlandish marketing lingo. Even the term “sustainable” has no official definition, so for green credentials look for proof of claims in the form of certifications, such as Cradle to Cradle, which ensures the chemicals used are safe for people and the environment, and that they get reused in the manufacturing process. “paraben-free” or “no nasties”. Real transparency is about disclosing ingredients, not distracting us from them.
1-19-22 Should bad science be censored on social media?
How do you solve a problem like bad information? When it comes to understanding science and making health decisions, it can have life-or-death consequences. People dissuaded from taking vaccines as a result of reading misleading information online have ended up in hospital or even died. And inaccurate or completely made-up claims about 5G and the origins of Covid-19 have been linked to violence and vandalism. But completely removing information can look a lot like censorship, especially for scientists whose careers are based on the understanding that facts can and should be disputed, and that evidence changes. The Royal Society is the world's oldest continuously operating scientific institution, and it is attempting to grapple with the challenges posed by our newest ways of communicating information. In a new report, it advises against social media companies removing content that is "legal but harmful". Instead, the report authors believe, social media sites should adjust their algorithms to prevent it going viral - and stop people making money off false claims. But not everyone agrees with that view - especially researchers who are experts in tracking the way misinformation spreads online, and how it harms people. The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) maintains there are cases when the best thing to do is to remove content when it is very harmful, clearly wrong and spreading very widely. The team points to Plandemic - a video that went viral at the start of the pandemic, making dangerous and false claims designed to scare people away from effective ways of reducing harm from the virus, like vaccines and masks, and was eventually taken down. Social media companies were better primed for the video's sequel Plandemic 2, which fell flat after being restricted on major platforms, having nothing like the same reach as the first video. "It's a political question...what balance we see between individual liberties and some form of restrictions on what people can and cannot say," says Prof Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. Prof Nielsen acknowledges that, although it's a relatively small part of people's media diets, science misinformation can lead to disproportionate harm.
1-19-22 The happiness revolution: How to boost the well-being of society
We now know that economic growth doesn’t necessarily translate into greater well-being. A closer look at Nordic countries such as Finland reveals surprising truths about what really makes a happy society and how other governments can emulate their success. IF YOU want to maximise your chances of living a happy and fulfilled life, you might consider moving to one of the coldest, darkest countries in the world. Since 2012, The World Happiness Report has ranked the average life satisfaction of more than 150 nations. In the past four years, the top slot has been taken by one country: Finland. No one was more surprised than the Finns. “The Finnish self-image is that we are this introverted, melancholic people,” says Frank Martela, a philosopher and psychologist at Aalto University in Finland. More surprising, at first glance, is the fact that as the country has ascended to the top of the well-being charts, its economic development has remained remarkably flat. This seeming paradox confirms what many people have long suspected – that our traditional focus on economic growth doesn’t translate into greater well-being. While gross domestic product (GDP) continues to be the default proxy for people’s welfare, many economists and governments are waking up to the fact that our fixation on money is distracting us from policies that could actually improve the quality of people’s lives. Indeed, various nations, from the UK to New Zealand and Costa Rica, have now publicly stated their intention to track measures designed to better capture human happiness. Clearly, this is no trivial task. So what can we learn from the evidence emerging from psychology, and the social sciences more broadly, about the various factors that contribute to our emotional well-being? And what, if anything, can that tell us about how other countries can emulate Finland’s success?
1-19-22 A disinfectant made from sawdust mows down deadly microbes
Wood waste could help make some cleaning products more sustainable. A new, sustainable disinfectant made from sawdust and water can knock out more than 99 percent of some disease-causing microbes, including anthrax and several strains of flu. Widespread use of some disinfectants can cause environmental harms. For instance, chlorine-containing ones, such as bleach, can form dangerous by-products when they react with other molecules (SN: 11/25/18). Some other potentially greener disinfectants rely on a compound called phenol or its chemical lookalikes, but they can be costly and energy-intensive to make. Phenolic structures abound in wood, however, as part of the large, branching molecules that make up plant cell walls. So environmental engineer Shicheng Zhang of Fudan University in Shanghai and colleagues wondered if sawdust waste could provide a greener source of antimicrobial compounds. The researchers cooked mixtures of water and sawdust for one hour under pressure and filtered them. Then the team tested the sawdust concoctions for their prowess at killing off the microbes Staphylococcus epidermis, a skin microbe that can cause infections in immunocompromised people, and E. coli, a gut microbe that can cause foodborne illness. Depending on a disinfectant’s concentration, it could zap more than 99 percent of the microbes, the team reports in the Jan. 18 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The disinfectant was similarly successful at inactivating anthrax and influenza viruses, the researchers found. It may also be potent against spores, a dormant form of bacteria that can be difficult to kill. Experiments showed it could inactivate the spores of a typically harmless bacteria, Bacillus subtilis. A chemical analysis revealed that the sawdust-based soup contains high concentrations of phenol-like compounds. The pressure cooker treatment probably breaks the wood’s molecular chains, freeing up antimicrobial phenolic molecules.
1-18-22 Phage therapies for superbug infections are being tested in Belgium
Bacteria-killing viruses can be used to treat antibiotic-resistant superbugs, and the approach has been tried in more than 100 people in Belgium since a 2019 change in regulations. The use of bacteria-killing viruses known as phages to treat antibiotic-resistant infections is starting to take off in Belgium. More than 100 people have now been given phage therapies there, thanks to a regulatory system that makes it easier for doctors to prescribe them. “Phage therapy is indeed getting more common, at least in Belgium,” Jean-Paul Pirnay at the Queen Astrid Military Hospital in Brussels told New Scientist. “We have coordinated phage treatments in just over 100 patients.” Pirnay says his team plans to analyse all these cases and publish the results soon. “At first sight, I would say that there is a clinical improvement in about 70 per cent of cases,” he says. “Mind you, most of these patients were desperate after antibiotics failed.” In a research paper published today, Pirnay and colleagues have described one of these cases in detail. In March 2016, a 30-year-old woman was severely injured in a suicide bombing at Brussels airport. Despite being given antibiotics when admitted to the Erasme Hospital in Belgium, her wounds became infected, preventing them from healing. After several months, intensive antibiotic treatments had caused serious side effects, but failed to clear the infection. The main culprit was a strain of a bacterium called Klebsiella pneumoniae that is resistant to almost all drugs. One of the doctors, Anaïs Eskenazi, decided to try phage therapy. A sample of the bacterium was sent to the Eliava Institute in Tbilisi, Georgia, to find a phage that could kill it. The Eliava Institute has been using phage therapy to treat infections since the 1920s.
1-18-22 Living with covid: How can the pandemic end and what will it be like?
For some, the phrase “living with covid” means removing all restrictions. But the actions we take now will determine how many more people die of covid – and whether we’re doomed to keep chasing new variants. After two years of mass deaths, long covid, social distancing, cancelled weddings and isolated funerals, increasing numbers of political leaders are saying it is time to “live with covid”. In England, legal requirements for self-isolation and contact tracing could end in March, while measures such as working from home where possible and covid passports may be removed within weeks. But just how close to the end of the pandemic are we? And what will the end really look like? In a sense, the pandemic won’t end until the World Health Organization (WHO) declares it over, just as it first declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on 11 March 2020. That won’t mean that the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been eliminated, however. Instead, the end will come when new infections occur at a fairly constant rate, as opposed to the big, unpredictable waves we have experienced so far. This is the point at which covid-19 becomes “endemic”. The virus will still spread from person to person, but on average each infected person will infect only one other. This will mean fewer people being hospitalised, dying or developing long covid. It is important to understand that there are different kinds of endemicity. “Whether it becomes endemic at a low level or a high level really matters,” says Christina Pagel at University College London. A commonly cited benchmark is that covid-19 might become about as widespread and severe as influenza, which causes annual mini-epidemics in many countries. But this example illustrates the ambiguity of the phrase “living with covid”. While it is true that countries around the world “live with flu”, that doesn’t mean their governments do nothing. The UK and many other countries have an annual flu surveillance programme, and new vaccines are developed and given every year.
1-19-22 Dinosaur ancestor of long-necked Diplodocus ran swiftly on two legs
The gigantic and slow sauropod dinosaurs like Diplodocus had small two-legged ancestors – and one, Thecodontosaurus, was quick and nimble. An early ancestor of large, long-necked, four-legged dinosaurs like Brachiosaurus and Diplodocus was a quick, nimble biped that probably used its forelimbs to grasp its food, which included leaves, branches and meat. Thecodontosaurus antiquus, a 30-centimetre-high dinosaur that lived more than 200 million years ago during the Late Triassic Epoch, was a sauropodomorph – which means it belonged to the same group as the gigantic herbivorous sauropods that lived later, in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. T. antiquus had muscles in its back legs that favoured speed over force, whereas its forelimb muscles would have been more appropriate for grasping than weight-bearing. By the early Jurassic about 20 million years later, however, its descendants had shifted into slow-moving quadrupeds with muscles capable of supporting much more weight, says Antonio Ballell at the University of Bristol, UK. Ballell and his colleagues examined the muscle insertion points, grooves, protrusions, crests and scars related to muscle morphology in the limb and body bones of T. antiquus, which was one of the first dinosaurs ever studied and the first Triassic dinosaur species to be named. The fossils, which come from an ancient fissure in the Triassic land surface of what is now south-west England, are exceptionally well-preserved. “This is not very common,” says Ballell. “Usually, the surfaces of the bone are weathered away so you can’t see the fine detail.” The researchers compared the fossil bone surfaces with the surfaces of modern crocodile and bird bones, looking in particular at sites on the bones where muscle and other soft tissues were once attached. They also looked at bones from modern-day lizards and examined data previously acquired about four-legged sauropodomorphs from the Triassic and Jurassic. They found that T. antiquus’s hindlimb muscles would have contracted quickly, thus allowing for fast, agile movement, says Ballell. “There’s a trade-off [because] muscles that generate a lot of force contract slowly, and muscles that contract fast usually produce less force,” he says. “So the position and orientation of the muscles of T. antiquus indicate that it was towards the fast side of the spectrum, meaning that it could move faster… and probably do fast turns.”
1-18-22 Covid-19 news: Joint flu and covid-19 vaccine could be offered in 2023
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. A single vaccine for covid-19 and the flu could be made available by the autumn of 2023, says Moderna CEO.e Covid-19 boosters could be combined with vaccines for flu and other respiratory viruses in a single jab as early as next year, according to the chief executive officer of pharmaceutical company Moderna. “We are working on a flu vaccine, we are working on an RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) vaccine, and our goal is to have a single annual booster, so that we don’t have compliance issues where people don’t want to have two to three shots at winter,” Stéphane Bancel told a panel at the World Economic Forum, which is taking place virtually. “The best case scenario [for the single vaccine becoming available] is the fall of 2023,” he said. “I don’t think it’s possible in every country, but we believe it’s possible to happen in some countries next year.” Researchers at Moderna are currently trying to work out what should go into booster vaccinations to be offered in the autumn of 2022, he added. The company is also ramping up its production capacity. “In 2021, we shipped around 807 million doses,” Bancel said. “We are continuing to ramp up… We have a goal to be able to make 2 to 3 billion doses for this year.” The UK government is drawing up plans to phase out coronavirus restrictions in England, reports The Guardian. Current advice to work from home where possible could be changed within weeks, while self-isolation rules might end in March. The requirements to wear face coverings in shops and on public transport are thought to be likely to be in place for longer. Healthcare systems in countries across South America are struggling as cases of the omicron variant rise, reports Associated Press. Public hospitals in Bolivia are operating at 50 to 70 per cent capacity, due to the number of infections among staff members. A children’s hospital in Santa Cruz has stopped admitting new patients. Argentina’s federation of private healthcare providers told the AP it estimates about 15 per cent of its health workers currently have the virus. Around 2000 hamsters are being euthanised in Hong Kong following evidence that they can transmit the coronavirus to people. Authorities have asked pet shops and people who have bought hamsters since 22 December to hand them over. “We have assessed [that] the risks of these batches are relatively high and therefore made the decision based on public health needs,” director of agriculture, fisheries and conservation Leung Siu-fai said, reports the South China Morning Post. “We urge all pet owners to observe strict hygiene when handling their pets and cages. Do not kiss or abandon them on the streets.”
1-18-22 A genetic analysis hints at why COVID-19 can mess with smell
People with variants near smell-related genes may have a higher risk of losing smell or taste. For many people, one of the fastest tip-offs that they have COVID-19 is the loss of taste or smell. Now researchers have pinpointed some genetic variants in people that may make it more likely that the coronavirus might rob them of these senses. A study of nearly 70,000 adults with COVID-19 found that individuals with certain genetic tweaks on chromosome 4 were 11 percent more likely to lose the ability to smell or taste than people without the changes, researchers report January 17 in Nature Genetics. The data come from people who’d had their DNA analyzed by genetic testing company 23andMe and self-reported a case of COVID-19. Two genes, UGT2A1 and UGT2A2, that help people smell reside in the region of chromosome 4 linked to sensory loss during infection, epidemiologist Janie Shelton of 23andMe and colleagues found. Both genes make enzymes that metabolize substances called odorants, which produce distinctive smells. Studies suggest that loss of smell, a hallmark symptom of COVID-19, stems from infections taking hold in smell-supporting cells called sustentacular cells (SN: 6/12/20). It’s possible that the genetic variants near UGT2A1 and UGT2A2 could affect how the two genes are turned on or off to somehow mess with smell during an infection, Shelton says. The team combined loss of smell and taste in one survey question so the study can’t parse whether the genetic variants are involved in the loss of one sense over the other. “When you lose your taste of smell, often your taste is highly diminished,” Shelton says. Taste can also go away without loss of smell. Some people have a sustained loss of smell, even after the coronavirus leaves their bodies, Shelton says. Understanding how the virus snuffs out sniffing ability could help researchers find ways to bring it back.
1-18-22 Take an online journey through the history of math
‘History of Mathematics’ explores the origins of arithmetic, algebra, geometry and more. Around 1900 B.C., a student in the Sumerian city of Nippur, in what’s now Iraq, copied a multiplication table onto a clay tablet. Some 4,000 years later, that schoolwork survives, as do the student’s errors (10 times 45, for example, is definitely not 270). The work is a reminder that no matter how elegant or infallible mathematics may seem, it’s still a human endeavor. That’s one lesson I took from “History of Mathematics,” an online exhibit developed by the National Museum of Mathematics in New York City and Wolfram Research, a computational technology company. Bringing together the Sumerian tablet and more than 70 other artifacts, the exhibit demonstrates how math has been a universal language across cultures and throughout time. Divided into nine “galleries,” the exhibit sums up the development of key topics related to mathematics, including counting, arithmetic, algebra, geometry and prime numbers. Each gallery has a short timeline and features a handful of artifacts that serve as entry points to explore some milestones in more depth. Among the highlights: The oldest known surviving calculating device, the Salamis Tablet, is a marble counting board from the Greek island of Salamis dating to 300 B.C. It’s a precursor to the abacus. By moving pebbles across the board, a person could perform calculations. An early documented instance of using a symbol for “zero” as a placeholder (to, say, distinguish 1 from 10, 100 or 1,000) appears in the Bakhshali Manuscript, an Indian text dating to perhaps as early as A.D. 300. The manuscript’s black dots eventually morphed into the open circles we know today as zeros. Also on display is Al-Jabr. Written in around 820 by Persian polymath Mu?ammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, the book established the field of algebra and gave the discipline its name. In 1557, the Whetstone of Witte, an English algebra text, introduced the modern equal symbol.
1-17-22 Unknown voices spark more brain activity in sleep than familiar ones
Unfamiliar voices seem to put the sleeping brain on alert in a way that familiar voices don’t. The sleeping brain is more active if it hears unfamiliar voices rather than familiar ones. The finding suggests that we can process information about our environments even in the depths of sleep. Manuel Schabus at the University of Salzburg in Austria and his colleagues monitored 17 people, with an average age of 23, in a sleep lab over two nights. Brain activity was monitored using an electroencephalography (EEG) machine. “The first night was so that the subjects could get comfortable with their new environment,” says Schabus. During the second night, while the participants were asleep, they played an audio recording of human speech on loop. The voice was either unfamiliar to the sleeper or belonged to a familiar person, such as a parent or a romantic partner. In either case, the voice repeatedly uttered three first names: two random but common names and the name of the sleeper. The audio recordings were played for four 90-minute periods during the night. There was a 30-minute gap between each audio recording so that it would be easier for people to stay asleep. The audio was played at a volume so as not to wake the participants up. “We adjusted the sound levels individually,” says Schabus. The researchers found that unfamiliar voices generated more brain activity in the sleepers than familiar voices. In particular, they found an increase in the number of K-complexes – a type of brainwave that is slow and isolated – when the subjects heard unfamiliar voices. “K-complexes are interesting because they show the immediate response to a disturbance,” says Schabus. That response is divided into two parts, he says: first, the brain processes the information, then it inhibits the information so it doesn’t wake up the sleeping individual. If the participant’s brain activity suggested that they were on the verge of waking up, the researchers lowered the volume of the recordings to help them stay asleep.
1-17-22 Edible straws made by bacteria are better than paper or plastic ones
Plastic straws are increasingly being avoided for both health and environmental reasons, but the alternatives all have their downsides – until now. When it comes to drinking with a straw, there is no perfect option – plastic straws can release microplastics into your beverage, paper straws buckle and bend when they get wet and metal straws can damage your teeth. Now there is a solution: edible straws made by bacteria. Qing-Fang Guan at the University of Science and Technology of China and his colleagues made straws out of bacterial cellulose, which is similar to the plant-based cellulose used to make paper but with a closer-knit molecular structure. It is synthesised by many types of bacteria when they feed on sugars. The researchers collected the bacterial cellulose, then air dried it and dipped it in sodium alginate, a carbohydrate found in algae, to fill the pores in the cellulose that would otherwise absorb water. Sodium alginate also has the benefit of sticking to itself, so the researchers could simply roll the sheets of cellulose up into straws, with no glue required. The straws biodegrade far faster than plastic straws and don’t require any specific conditions to break down. As bacterial cellulose and sodium alginate are both used in existing food products, the straws are even edible. That said, the researchers don’t recommend eating them. “It is edible, but not specifically designed for eating,” says Guan. “If I were to say what it tastes like, it probably tastes like coconut that has lost most of its moisture.” There are other biodegradable straws, but many of them are expensive. Not so for these edible straws. “The preparation is not difficult, and the production of cellulose by bacteria requires almost no labour cost,” says Guan. The entire production cost is about 0.3 US cents per straw, similar to the price of plastic straws and less than one-tenth the price of paper ones.
1-15-22 Part donkey, part wild ass, the kunga is the oldest known hybrid bred by humans
The mysterious equines were bred in Syria 4,500 years ago, likely for use in warfare. From mules to ligers, the list of human-made hybrid animals is long. And, it turns out, ancient. Meet the kunga, the earliest known hybrid animal bred by people. The ancient equine from Syro-Mesopotamia existed around 4,500 years ago and was a cross between a donkey and a hemippe, a type of Asiatic wild ass, researchers report January 14 in Science Advances. Horses didn’t appear in this region of Asia until 4,000 years ago, centuries after their domestication in Russia (SN: 10/20/21). But dozens of equine skeletons were excavated in the early 2000s from a royal burial complex dating back to 2600 B.C. at Umm el-Marra in northern Syria. The animals, whose physical features didn’t match any known equine species, appear to be “kungas” — horselike animals seen in artwork and referenced in clay tablets predating horses by centuries. “They were highly valued, very expensive,” says paleogeneticist Eva-Maria Geigl of Institut Jacques Monod in Paris. Geigl and her colleagues analyzed a kunga’s genome, or genetic instruction book, and compared it with those of horses, donkeys and Asiatic wild asses, including the hemippe (Equus hemionus hemippus), which has been extinct since 1929. The kunga’s mother was a donkey and its father a hemippe, making it the oldest evidence of humans creating hybrid animals. A mule from 1000 B.C. in Anatolia reported by the same research group in 2020 is the next oldest hybrid. Geigl thinks kungas were created for warfare, as they could pull wagons. Coaxing donkeys into dangerous situations is hard, she says, and no Asiatic wild ass can be tamed. But a hybrid might have had the characteristics people sought. Coauthor E. Andrew Bennett, a paleogeneticist now at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, likens kungas to “bioengineered war machines.” But with the riddle of how kungas were made being solved a century after the last hemippe perished, “it’s impossible to make these animals again.”
1-14-22 Hybrid animal in 4500-year-old tomb is earliest known bred by humans
Early Bronze Age people in Syria crossed donkeys with wild asses to make prized horse-like hybrids, demonstrating advanced understanding of animal breeding. The bones of horse-like creatures unearthed in a 4500-year-old royal tomb in Syria are the earliest known hybrid animals bred by people, with DNA sequencing showing them to be crosses of donkeys and Syrian wild asses. The discovery suggests that early civilisation in what is now Syria was “really advanced technologically”, says Eva-Maria Geigl at the University of Paris in France. In 2006, the complete skeletons of 25 animals were found in a 4500-year-old royal burial complex called Tell Umm el-Marra in northern Syria. Archaeologists were perplexed because they looked like horses but had different proportions, and horses weren’t thought to have been introduced to the area until 500 years later. To work out what the animals were, Geigl and her colleagues sequenced DNA from their bones and compared it with the genomes of other horse-like species from the region. They discovered that the animals were hybrids of the domestic donkey and the Syrian wild ass, which went extinct last century. It was possible to sequence DNA from the Syrian wild ass using 19th-century teeth and hair specimens housed in an Austrian zoo and a 11,000-year-old bone dug up in Turkey. The researchers believe the hybrid animals are examples of “kungas”, mysterious horse-like creatures with donkey-like tails that appear on royal seals from early Bronze Age Syria and Mesopotamia. According to clay tablets from the time, kungas were highly prized and cost six times more than donkeys. They were used to pull royal vehicles and war wagons and as dowries for royal marriages. Geigl believes that people in the region may have started crossing donkeys with Syrian wild asses after spotting them mating by chance and producing offspring with desirable qualities.
1-14-22 Flu vaccines during pregnancy protect babies for 6 months after birth
Evidence shows that getting a flu jab during pregnancy provides substantial protection to young babies, but uptake in many countries is still concerningly low. Babies are two-thirds less likely to get the flu in their first six months of life if their mother had a flu vaccine while they were pregnant, a large Australian study shows. Influenza can be particularly dangerous to young children because their immune systems are still developing. In the US, 12 children under the age of 6 months died of the flu in the 2019-20 season. Many countries now recommend getting a flu shot during pregnancy because protective antibodies are passed to the fetus. “That means that when they’re born, they have a supply of antibodies that helps to protect them against the flu,” says Damien Foo at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. To measure this protective effect, Foo and his colleagues studied 125,000 children born between 2012 and 2016 in Western Australia, where free flu shots have been offered during pregnancy since 2010. Children whose mothers received a flu vaccine during pregnancy were 67 per cent less likely to get the flu and 61 per cent less likely to be hospitalised with the flu in their first six months of life compared with those whose mothers didn’t get the jab. This protective effect didn’t last beyond six months, probably because antibodies that babies receive from their mothers dwindle over time, says Foo. “But that doesn’t matter because babies can get a flu vaccine themselves once they reach 6 months,” he says. The study adds to growing evidence of the benefits of flu vaccination during pregnancy, but many pregnant people are still hesitant about getting vaccinated due to safety concerns, says Foo. Only 45 per cent of pregnant people in the UK and 60 per cent in the US get a flu shot each year. A large amount of data shows that exposure to flu vaccines in utero is safe and doesn’t increase the risk of miscarriage, preterm birth, congenital abnormalities or adverse childhood outcomes, although few studies have followed babies for longer than six months.
1-14-22 Why omicron isn't more severe in kids despite rise in hospitalisations
Reassuring findings from the UK and South Africa suggest that omicron isn't more severe in kids. Record numbers of hospitalisations probably reflect sheer number of cases and lack of vaccination. Several countries are reporting record numbers of children being hospitalised as omicron spreads, with babies especially likely to be admitted. While this has led to claims that omicron is more likely to cause severe illness in children, in fact almost all the evidence suggests that, compared with earlier variants, omicron causes less severe illness in infected children. “This is a very reassuring picture,” says Camilla Kingdon at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health in the UK. The scale of hospitalisations of children is largely due to the record number of omicron cases. “There are clearly more admissions of children because there are more infections around,” says Russell Viner at University College London. That said, in both South Africa and the UK, a higher proportion of children relative to adults have been admitted to hospital compared with earlier waves. This may be partly due to the fact that children under 12 aren’t being vaccinated in these countries, while very young children are less likely to have immunity from past infections. “It may just be that because of vaccination and infection having been through the elderly and the younger adults, we are seeing a much harder hit in the younger age groups,” says Calum Semple at the University of Liverpool, UK. It could also be partly due to omicron being more likely to cause symptoms in children than other variants, he says. But most children admitted to hospital aren’t as ill as those admitted during previous waves. “These are not particularly sick children,” says Semple.
1-14-22 Organic molecules in an ancient Mars meteorite formed via geology, not alien life
Carbonation and serpentinization may have generated organics on Mars for billions of years. When researchers in 1996 reported they had found organic molecules nestled in an ancient Martian meteorite discovered in Antarctica, it caused quite a buzz. Some insisted the compounds were big-if-true evidence of life having existed on Mars (SN: 3/8/01). Others, though, pointed to contamination by earthly life-forms or some nonbiological origins (SN: 1/10/18). Now, a geochemical analysis of the meteorite provides the latest buzzkill to the idea that alien life inhabited the 4.09-billion-year-old fragment of the Red Planet. It suggests instead that the organic matter within probably formed from the chemical interplay of water and minerals mingling under Mars’ surface, researchers report in the Jan. 14 Science. Even so, the finding could aid in the search for life, the team says. Organic molecules are often produced by living organisms, but they can also arise from nonbiological, abiotic processes. Though myriad hypotheses claim to explain what sparked life, many researchers consider abiotic organic molecules to be necessary starting material. Martian geologic processes could have been generating these compounds for billions of years, the new study suggests. “These organic chemicals could have become the primordial soup that might have helped form life on [Mars],” says Andrew Steele, a biochemist from the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. Whether life ever existed there, however, remains unknown. Steele and his colleagues initially sought to study how ancient Martian water may have morphed minerals in the meteorite, known as ALH84001. The team used microscopic and spectroscopic imaging methods to analyze tiny slivers from parts of the meteorite that appeared to have reacted with water.
1-13-22 Organic compounds on Mars were produced by water and rocks, not life
Molecules containing carbon atoms, called organics, have been found all over Mars and could hypothetically have been formed by living organisms, but it seems they were not. Organic compounds – those containing carbon atoms – found all over Mars were produced by water interacting with volcanic rocks, according to the analysis of a Martian meteorite. These compounds are important to life, and figuring out how they are produced could help us understand Mars life if we ever find it. It is possible for living organisms to create these organics, but the compounds can also be produced by non-biological chemical reactions. How they were formed on Mars is still under debate. Andrew Steele at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC and his colleagues examined a Martian meteorite containing organics. The rock was ejected from the surface of Mars by a collision and later landed on Earth. They found that its organics were formed by water filtering through tiny cracks and pores in the rock and interacting with the minerals there. The team started by taking an extremely thin slice of a rock called the Allan Hills 84001 meteorite. Then, they used sophisticated microscopes to examine the slice in detail. “A lot of the features we’re looking at are even smaller than a single bacterium,” says Steele. They found telltale signs of two geological processes called carbonisation and serpentinisation, each of which occur when water interacts with rock. The rock then dissolves to leave behind the hydrogen and carbon dioxide that then react to create organic molecules. “Life isn’t part of this process,” says Steele. However, even though the organics in Mars rocks seem to be created abiotically – without the help of any life – those compounds could still be important in the hunt for life on Mars.
1-13-22 What endemic means - and why covid-19 is nowhere near it yet
The term "endemic" usually means that an infection is stable, not that it is less deadly or that protective measures are no longer required. With the omicron variant surging, covid-19 is unlikely to become endemic soon. The term “endemic” is increasingly being used by politicians in relation to covid-19. But the term has no single agreed definition and doesn’t mean that it is safe to stop restrictions, such as wearing masks and limiting social gatherings. On Tuesday, Marco Cavaleri at the European Medicines Agency told a press briefing that “what we’re seeing is that we are moving towards the virus being more endemic”. The previous day, Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, said European officials should reclassify covid-19 as an endemic illness due to falling death rates. Last week, the UK’s education minister, Nadhim Zahawi, said the country is “witnessing the transition of the virus from pandemic to endemic”. But at a press conference on Tuesday, Catherine Smallwood at the World Health Organization Europe said “we’re still a way off” endemicity. “Endemicity assumes that there’s stable circulation of the virus, at predictable levels with predictable waves of transmission… that doesn’t rely on external forces being placed in order to maintain that stability.” Among infectious disease specialists, endemic may be used in contrast to the term epidemic. An epidemic of a disease means there is a surge in cases, perhaps because a pathogen has crossed over to a new species, as in the case of covid-19. A pandemic is an epidemic that has spread over several continents. If a disease is endemic, on the other hand, the number of cases is broadly stable, although there can be seasonal fluctuations. Measles is said to be endemic in many countries. Malaria is endemic in some regions, although it may rise in the rainy season. Endemic conditions can still cause serious illness and require stringent measures. Malaria kills hundreds of thousands of people every year. Smallpox, too, was endemic before we eradicated it, and it killed nearly a third of those who caught it.
1-13-22 Strongest evidence yet that MS is caused by Epstein-Barr virus
A huge study of US military personnel suggests almost all cases of multiple sclerosis are triggered by the common Epstein-Barr virus, meaning a vaccine could largely eradicate the condition. It has long been suspected that the common Epstein-Barr virus can trigger multiple sclerosis (MS). Now, a study of 10 million military personnel in the US has shown that virtually every case of MS is preceded by infection with the virus. The finding suggests a vaccine against the Epstein-Barr virus could greatly reduce the incidence of MS. “This is really a turning point,” says Alberto Ascherio at Harvard University. It should lead to better ways to treat MS as well as help to prevent it, he says. MS is caused by the immune system attacking the protective sheath that wraps around nerves, leading to symptoms such as difficulty walking that worsen over time. The Epstein-Barr virus is a kind of herpes virus that spreads mainly via saliva, for instance by kissing or drinking from the same glass. It is the cause of mononucleosis, sometimes known as glandular fever. Initial infections may cause few, if any, symptoms, but once the virus gets into immune cells called B cells, it lurks in them permanently. It can reactivate and cause issues later in life, including various cancers. The difficulty with demonstrating that the Epstein-Barr virus is the main cause of MS is that 9 in 10 people worldwide is infected with it. This means scientists must monitor huge numbers of people to find out whether people who haven’t been infected with the virus are less likely to develop MS. Ascherio’s team found the numbers they needed in the form of US military personnel, who have blood samples taken regularly and stored, allowing them to be tested later for Epstein-Barr infections. “This is pretty much unique in the world,” says Ascherio.
1-12-22 Why can’t I judge the temperature of bathwater with my left hand?
If you have used your right hand to test the temperature of the bathwater all your life, then it has been trained to know what the “right” temperature is to within a fine tolerance, whereas your left hand only knows roughly within a broad tolerance. I am a right-hander and use my right hand to test the bathwater. However, I find that the temperature that is right for this hand is often wrong for the rest of me. My right hand is less sensitive to hot or cold on the skin than my left hand, wrists or elbows, which are all better places for testing bathwater. This means that water I can put my right hand into may be uncomfortably hot or cold for other parts of my body. I suspect this is related to the ability of many cooks to easily hold dishes that others find too hot. This hypothesis is complicated by me being left-handed for some things and not others, partly due to being told to write with my right hand at school. So my right-handedness may not be a valid comparison. Repeated use of a dominant hand for tasks like checking the bathwater may mean that there are more neural pathways in the brain dedicated to analysing information received through the sensory receptors in that hand. This is the first time I have heard of someone being able to discriminate temperature better with their right hand than with their left. Whether this pattern is found in people more generally is an open question. If so, here is a possible reason why it could happen. People use their dominant and non-dominant hands differently. The dominant hand is used for more “approach-related” actions, in which you engage with the world around you in an intentional way. The non-dominant hand more often performs “avoidance-related” actions, in which you are responding reflexively to prevent something bad from happening. I call this the sword and shield pattern of hand use.
1-12-22 Why everyone should learn some sign language
Not so long ago, deaf children were punished in the UK for using sign language in the classroom. Recounting his experience in the 1960s, one deaf person told one of my colleagues many years later: “I had a lot of punishments for signing in classrooms… One morning at assembly, I was caught again, then ordered to stand at the front of the class. The headmistress announced that I looked like a monkey [and that she would] put me in a cage in the zoo so the people will laugh at a stupid boy in the cage.” Thankfully, experiences like this are no longer as common. Sign languages have not only survived, but are now flourishing – so much so that many more people are getting the chance to learn them, which should be celebrated. British Sign Language (BSL) is used by tens of thousands of people in the UK, including around 90,000 deaf signers. For some of them, such as children with deaf parents, it is the first language they acquire. In the US, more undergraduate and graduate students have enrolled on courses in American Sign Language (ASL) than German each year since 2013. Currently, the UK Department for Education has a draft BSL curriculum for England on its desk for GCSE students (14 to 16-year-olds), which could come into effect later this year. This would make it a modern language option alongside French, German, Spanish and Chinese. Both Scotland and Wales have BSL curricula in the works too. Elsewhere, sign languages are gaining both recognition as official languages and a place on the national curriculum. South Africa has hired 60 instructors to teach South African Sign Language as part of a state-run adult literacy programme, and Jamaican Sign Language was introduced into Jamaica’s national curriculum earlier this month. That sign languages are thriving should be welcomed for many reasons, including the cognitive benefits that learning them brings. Several studies have found that hearing people who learn sign languages perform better in tasks requiring spatial transformation abilities – which you might use when taking down directions. Space is an integral part of the grammar of a sign language, with verbs, nouns and pronouns using the space in which they are located as part of their meaning. A series of experiments by Mary Lou Vercellotti at Ball State University in Indiana also found that adult ASL students have enhanced face-processing skills, which are essential to reading emotions.
1-12-22 How to alter your personality: why your character isn't fixed in stone
Traits like conscientiousness or extroversion might seem to define your character, but these aren't set in stone and new research reveals how anyone can change their personality - if they really want to. I AM a conscientiousness objector. No, not a conscientious objector: I have never been drafted into the army. What I object to are meticulously colour-coded diary entries, weekly meal plans and home organisation à la Marie Kondo – all of which are neatly captured by a personality trait I score particularly low on: conscientiousness. This has never been a major issue, even if it has made me feel like a disorganised outcast, especially when spending time around other mothers in my London suburb. You know, the sort of people who always arrive at parties or play dates on time, with everything they might possibly need, looking composed. But recently, I started to wonder what my life might be like if I were more like them. I thought about how exhausting things can be: the last-minute panics, the mess, the lost keys, the missed appointments. I thought about the potential benefits for my health and well-being if I could change all that. At the very least, surely everything would be a lot easier. Traditionally, psychologists believed personality to be more or less fixed over your lifetime. Not any more. Now it seems personality evolves throughout life, and in recent years, several studies have even demonstrated that it is possible to transform your personality on purpose. Given certain personality traits are linked to life satisfaction, and even better mental health, this could have a substantial impact on many people. It seems almost too good to be true, and psychology has a slightly shaky reputation when it comes to its findings holding up to scrutiny. But I was curious, so I decided to have a go for myself. When psychologists talk about personality, they are referring to our habits of thought, emotion and behaviour as they manifest over years or decades, as opposed to those that vary over shorter timescales such as days or hours. But measuring personality is tricky. These days, most psychologists use the Big Five model, which divides our personalities into five independent traits: extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experience and neuroticism, otherwise known as emotional stability.
1-12-22 How to use little rituals to boost you mental performance
I AM no coffee snob, but I have started treating the preparation of my morning espresso like a religious ritual. It begins with the counting of the beans – which must number 60, no more, no less. Each subsequent step – from the amount of time they grind (20 seconds) to the long inhale I take before my first sip – is executed as carefully and mindfully as if I were offering a libation to a minor deity. I fully admit that there is no logical reason to count out exactly 60 beans, one by one, rather than chucking in a spoonful – but the precision is exactly the point. Recent psychological studies show that the creation of daily rituals can bring some surprising benefits to our minds, and the creation of my favourite brew provides the perfect time for me to put that research into practice. The power of ritual won’t be a surprise to tennis stars. Rafael Nadal, for example, chooses to consume his sports supplements in a precise order during each match, while Serena Williams has to tie her shoes in a particular way and bounces the ball exactly five times before each serve. You might assume that the appeal is purely superstitious. If certain behaviours come to be associated with good performance, we irrationally assume that they are necessary for further success. Much like the placebo effect in medicine, perhaps the belief in enhanced performance creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. There may be some truth in this. In 2010, German researchers asked participants to try their hand at a bit of golf – specifically putting. When given the golf ball, half the participants were told that it had “turned out to be lucky” for other players. They holed 35 per cent more putts than those who hadn’t been given the expectation of better performance. For a separate experiment, the researchers asked some participants to bring in their own lucky charms, before taking a memory test. Once again, these people performed better than others who did the test without their favourite trinket. The boost seemed to be linked to feelings of “self-efficacy”. The participants with their lucky charms felt more capable of dealing with the challenge, which then improved their concentration and recall.
1-12-22 Electric knee implants could help treat pain of osteoarthritis
A device that delivers electric current to the knees could help combat osteoarthritis, a painful condition caused by worn cartilage, after successful tests in rabbits. Knee implants that generate a tiny electrical current may be able to stimulate cartilage regrowth as a treatment for arthritis. Rabbits given the implants, which generate electricity from mechanical forces as the animals move around, experienced more healing after cartilage damage than those given a placebo device. Osteoarthritis is a common cause of knee pain as people get older. It involves the wear and tear of cartilage, a rubbery layer capping the ends of bones that normally stops them rubbing together. Many experimental treatments are in development, such as new drugs and implants of stem cells, immature cells that have the ability to develop into any cell type. Some research suggests that a mild electric current can encourage cartilage cells in the knee to multiply and repair damage. To avoid having to put batteries inside the body, Thanh Nguyen at the University of Connecticut in Storrs and his colleagues have developed a biodegradable membrane, about half a millimetre thick, which generates electricity when it is compressed and stretched. The material has a scaffold-like structure to encourage cells to migrate into it. Nguyen’s group tested the current idea by creating holes in the knee cartilage of rabbits and patching them up with the material. After a month of rest, the researchers encouraged the rabbits to hop around for 20 minutes a day by putting them on slowly moving treadmills, to exercise their legs and generate the electric current. Two months later, the team took tissue samples from the joints and scored them on how intact and healthy they appeared under the microscope. The team found that cartilage cells had moved into the patches and the joints appeared more intact. “Stem cells from bone marrow are recruited to the scaffold,” says Nguyen.
1-12-22 Omicron forces us to rethink COVID-19 testing and treatments
The new variant has implications for rapid testing and antibody treatments. New year, new variant. As 2022 gets under way, omicron, a fast-moving version of the virus that causes COVID-19, is well into its march across the world. As of January 11, a record-breaking total of 145,982 people were hospitalized in the United States with confirmed or suspected COVID-19. And hundreds of thousands of people are catching the coronavirus every day. “There’s a lot of activity right now in the [United States], and we’re seeing that in terms of these astronomical numbers of new cases,” says infectious disease physician Preeti Malani of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “Omicron is keeping us busy.” Omicron’s unique biology is leading to headaches for both testing and treatments designed to keep people out of hospitals. Researchers are racing to understand omicron and this new phase of the pandemic (SN: 12/21/21). Answers can’t come soon enough. The variant is more transmissible than previous versions of the coronavirus. Compared with delta, omicron is 160 percent to 200 percent more transmissible, one preliminary study from researchers in Germany and the United Kingdom estimates. That’s mainly because omicron replicates itself in the body and sickens people faster than delta. With delta, it takes about four days after infection for symptoms to appear. Omicron produces symptoms in about three days, researchers have learned from outbreaks in Oslo and Nebraska.Fortunately, omicron seems less likely than previous versions of the coronavirus to cause deep lung infections that lead to serious complications, such as admissions to intensive care units, intubation and death. But the surge of cases means that vulnerable people, including the unvaccinated, immunocompromised, elderly and those with underlying health conditions, are still landing in hospital beds. “Health care systems are really under stress,” Malani says.
1-12-22 Ancient Andean leaders may have mixed hallucinogen with their beer
A concoction of vilca seeds and fermented alcohol may have provided a mild hallucinogenic experience, enabling Wari leaders in South America to bond with their people. Get high, make friends. Members of the Wari society, who lived in the Peruvian Andes more than 1000 years ago, may have mixed hallucinogenic seeds into their beer. Such a mind-bending drink might have offered a way for society leaders to create bonds with ordinary people. “Being able to provide that experience would create heightened social status among Wari leaders,” says Matthew Biwer at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The Wari culture flourished in what is now Peru between around AD 550 and 1000. Biwer calls them “the first example of an expansionary state in the Andes”, preceding the later Inca Empire. “There is no written record,” says Biwer, so we don’t know what they called themselves. But they left behind distinctive artefacts and structures including canals. Since 2015, Biwer and his team have been excavating a Wari site called Quilcapampa. He calls it “a waystation along a road” and says it was only occupied for a generation, between about AD 800 and 850. In the centre of the site, the team found a pit filled with about a million seeds of Schinus molle: a kind of fruit known as molle, or sometimes Peruvian pepper. The molle fruits were used to make a fermented alcoholic drink, a bit like beer, known as chicha. A few steps away, in a garbage pit, the team found seeds from vilca trees (Anadenanthera colubrina). Vilca seeds contain hallucinogenic substances and have been widely used in Andean cultures. “I haven’t tried vilca myself,” says Biwer, but ethnographic accounts often describe it causing “a sensation of flying”.
1-11-22 How a pig heart was transplanted into a human for the first time
The first transplant of a pig heart genetically modified for acceptance into human bodies raises hopes for a new solution to donor organ shortages. FOR the first time, a human has been given a transplant of a pig’s heart. David Bennett, 57, had the operation in Baltimore, Maryland, on 7 January using a heart that had been genetically modified to boost the chances of acceptance in a human body. The donated heart came from a pig developed by US firm Revivicor. In total, the animal had 10 genes modified. Four of those were inactivated, including one that causes an aggressive immune response and one that would otherwise cause the pig’s heart to continue growing after transplant into a human body. To further increase the chances of acceptance, the donor pig had six human genes inserted into its genome and Bennett is taking immune-suppressing medications. As this story went to press, Bennett was coping well with the new heart, but hadn’t yet been taken off a heart-lung bypass machine supporting its function. His medical team told The New York Times that the animal heart was doing most of the work and that, so far, the heart “looks normal”. “This is a great step forward – you can compare it with the first landing on the moon,” says Joachim Denner at the Free University of Berlin. Transplants from other animals, known as xenotransplantation, have long been seen as a way to save the lives of the thousands of people who die each year while waiting for an organ transplant. The chief concern is whether our immune systems will accept such transplants, as organ rejection can happen even between carefully immunologically matched human donors and recipients. Many research groups have been trying for years to modify animals so their organs provoke less of an immune reaction, and have had success transplanting them into primates such as baboons. These first days are a critical test, although immune rejection could take weeks or longer to develop, says Denner, who has been involved in primate research using Revivicor’s pig organs, but has no financial connection to the firm. “We have to be cautious. We have to wait and see,” he says.
1-11-22 Man gets genetically-modified pig heart in world-first transplant
A US man has become the first person in the world to get a heart transplant from a genetically-modified pig. David Bennett, 57, is doing well three days after the experimental seven-hour procedure in Baltimore, doctors say. The transplant was considered the last hope of saving Mr Bennett's life, though it is not yet clear what his long-term chances of survival are. "It was either die or do this transplant," Mr Bennett explained a day before the surgery. "I know it's a shot in the dark, but it's my last choice," he said. Doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center were granted a special dispensation by the US medical regulator to carry out the procedure, on the basis that Mr Bennett - who has terminal heart disease - would otherwise have died. He had been deemed ineligible for a human transplant, a decision that is often taken by doctors when the patient is in very poor health. The pig used in the transplant had been genetically modified to knock out several genes that would have led to the organ being rejected by Mr Bennett's body, the AFP news agency reports. For the medical team who carried out the transplant, it marks the culmination of years of research and could change lives around the world. Surgeon Bartley Griffith said the surgery would bring the world "one step closer to solving the organ shortage crisis". Currently 17 people die every day in the US waiting for a transplant, with more than 100,000 reportedly on the waiting list. Dr Christine Lau, chair of the Department of Surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, was in the operating theatre during the surgery. "He's at more of a risk because we require more immunosuppression, slightly different than we would normally do in a human-to-human transplant. How well the patient does from now is, you know, it's never been done before so we really don't know," she told the BBC."People die all the time on the waiting list, waiting for organs. If we could use genetically engineered pig organs they'd never have to wait, they could basically get an organ as they needed it.
1-11-22 or the 1st time, surgeons have successfully transplanted a pig heart into human patient
Last week, a 57-year-old man underwent the first successful transplant of a pig heart into a human body, the University of Maryland announced Monday. The patient, David Bennett, was not eligible for a conventional heart transplant, due to heart failure and an irregular heartbeat. Prior to the surgery, he spent six weeks in the hospital, and was connected to a heart-lung bypass machine. The Food and Drug Administration gave emergency authorization for the experimental surgery on Dec. 31. Over the last five years, Dr. Bartley Griffith and Dr. Muhammad M. Mohiuddin have been working on perfecting techniques for transplanting pig hearts into non-human recipients, NBC News reports. The pig hearts have been genetically modified with a sugar removed from cells, lowering the chance of rejection. In a statement, Griffith called Bennett's surgery a "breakthrough." There are "simply not enough donor human hearts available to meet the long list of potential recipients," he added. "We are proceeding cautiously, but we are also optimistic that this first-in-the-world surgery will provide an important new option for patients in the future." The FDA says that every day, 10 people die in the United States while waiting for a donated organ. Bennett will be monitored for the next several weeks, and appears to be doing well. The University of Maryland said that prior to the surgery, Bennett declared, "It was either die or do this transplant. I want to live."
1-11-22 A West African writing system shows how letters evolve to get simpler
The characters used to write the Vai script, which was invented in Liberia in 1833, have become visually simpler over time, reflecting the evolutionary pressures acting on writing. The symbols we use to write words evolve to become visually simpler over time, and an analysis of a writing system from West Africa shows that they can do so over just a few generations. The script used to write the Vai language was invented in Liberia in 1833 and is still in use today. Those who devised it may have had some awareness of the Latin and Arabic alphabets, but the Vai script isn’t modelled on either. Its characters denote whole syllables, while alphabetic letters represent the individual sounds (or phonemes) that come together to form syllables. What makes the Vai script particularly interesting, says Piers Kelly at the University of New England, Australia, is that it has a nearly complete historical record. It was first documented by external scholars in 1834 and has been studied at least 16 times since then, most recently in 2005. This means we can examine the way its characters have evolved over their first 170 years of use. Kelly and his colleagues have now done this. There are about 200 characters in the Vai script, but the researchers focused on 61 that were most reliably documented down the years. The degree of visual complexity of each character was quantified via a computer program, which tracked any changes in this complexity as the years passed. They discovered that individual characters have become less visually complex with time. This trend was most obvious among the characters that were most complex in the 1830s; these ones simplified to the greatest degree. A similar process is known to have occurred in other writing systems, such as the first alphabet. This was derived largely from Egyptian hieroglyphics, but over time its letters stopped looking like pictures of objects and became simpler in visual appearance: for instance, an ox’s head became “A”.
1-11-22 Ancient humans may have started hunting 2 million years ago
Cut marks on animal bones suggest ancient hominins butchered them for their meat, and that they were first on the scene instead of having to scavenge from carnivores like big cats. Ancient humans were regularly butchering animals for meat 2 million years ago. This has long been suspected, but the idea has been bolstered by a systematic study of cut marks on animal bones. The find cements the view that ancient humans had become active hunters by this time, contrasting with earlier hominins that ate mostly plants. The new evidence comes from Kanjera South, an archaeological site near Lake Victoria in Kenya. Kanjera South has been excavated on and off since 1995. It is a plain near the lake, and 2 million years ago it was a fairly open grassland. Gazelles and wildebeest were common in the area at the time and dozens of their bones have been excavated. Many of them carry cut marks, suggesting ancient humans cut meat off them. But it wasn’t clear whether the humans were the first to the carcasses – suggesting they hunted them – or whether they merely drove off big carnivorous animals that did the hunting. Jennifer Parkinson at the University of San Diego in California and her colleagues have re-examined the cut marks on the bones. They compared them with modern sets of bones that were either from carcasses experimentally butchered by people or given to carnivores such as hyenas. Carnivores tend to eat particular parts of prey. If ancient humans scavenged the carcasses afterwards, meat would already be missing from these areas and so the cut marks left by the ancient humans’ tools would lie on different parts of the bones, where there was still meat. Parkinson’s team found that the ancient humans at Kanjera South were cutting the bones in the places that would be expected to have been stripped of meat by carnivores. This suggests there was still meat there, and that the humans were first on the scene. “Hominins were not scavenging from felid [big cat] kills, because they were butchering places where there would not be flesh on felid kills,” says Parkinson. The implication is that the ancient humans were hunters, and didn’t get meat just by scavenging.
1-11-22 Clovis hunters’ reputation as mammoth killers takes a hit
Tests of stone points show that early Americans may have been better scavengers than hunters of the giant beasts. n amateur archaeologist exploring a dried-out, ancient stream channel called Blackwater Draw near Clovis, New Mexico, made a startling discovery in 1929. He came across chiseled stone points strewn among mammoth fossils. Razor-sharp edges bordering each artifact gracefully curved up to a pointed tip. Thin grooves chipped into the bases of these stone points suggested that they were spearpoints that people had once attached to handles or poles. Researchers who examined the Blackwater Draw finds saw them as clear evidence of mammoths having been killed by human hunters sometime in the past. Ensuing generations of archaeologists filled out the picture of an intrepid mammoth-killing bunch, dubbed the Clovis people, who spread across North America between around 13,500 and 12,500 years ago. Clovis points or skeletal damage presumably caused by them have been found among mammoth bones at 11 North American sites, including Blackwater Draw. Two other North American sites containing mastodon bones, one featuring remains of extinct elephant-like creatures called gomphotheres, plus a site that yielded camel and horse fossils also include Clovis points or evidence of injuries from sharp, pointed stones (SN: 8/9/14, p. 7). Archaeologists typically refer to these places as kill sites. It’s long been assumed that Clovis hunters must have left spearpoints lying among the bones of mammoths and other massive creatures after killing and butchering them. If so, Clovis big-game hunters possibly contributed to the extinction of their enormous prey (SN: 11/24/18, p. 22). But the Clovis people’s status as adept killers of tusked beasts weighing up to about 9 metric tons has come under fire. New experimental and archaeological studies suggest an entirely different scenario, says archaeologist Metin Eren of Kent State University in Ohio. Clovis points had many uses, like a Swiss Army knife, Eren contends. Spear-throwing hunters might have occasionally killed a mammoth, especially one separated from its group or slowed due to injury. More often, these tools served as knives to cut meat off carcasses of already dead mammoths or as dart tips hurled to scare away other scavenging animals drawn to mammoth remains, Eren and his colleagues conclude in the October Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
1-10-22 Covid-19 news: Ministers plan for UK to ‘live with 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. UK Prime Minister expected to announce plans for ‘living with covid’ in coming weeks. UK government ministers are hinting at plans for the nation to “live with covid”. “I hope we will be one of the first major economies to demonstrate to the world how you transition from pandemic to endemic,” Nadhim Zahawi, former minister for covid vaccine deployment, told Sky News on Sunday. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to announce details of such a plan within the coming weeks. “We are moving to a situation where it is possible to say that we can live with covid and that the pressure on the NHS and on vital public services is abating,” senior minister Michael Gove told Sky News. “But it’s absolutely vital to recognise that we are not there yet.” To be considered endemic, a disease outbreak would be consistently present in a region, with predictable spread and infection rates. The spread and rates of the disease would be predictable. This is currently far from the case in the UK, where over 150,000 deaths have been reported so far, and 141,472 new cases were reported on Sunday. Scientists have expressed concern. Devi Sridhar at the University of Edinburgh points out that no country has learned to live with covid without “crashing health services, social life, the economy or having widespread disruption” in one way or another. Tennis player Novak Djokovic has been released from detention in Australia after winning a legal battle with the country’s government over his vaccination status. Djokovic had been granted an exemption from Australia’s visa vaccination requirements, but had been held by border forces. Immigration minister Alex Hawke could still move to cancel Djokovic’s visa.UK ministers have denied reports that rapid-acting lateral flow tests will cease to be offered on a free-of-charge basis in England, at least for the time being. Zahawi told Sky News on Sunday that there were “absolutely not” any plans to stop such free testing. Gove didn’t deny the reports, and separately told Sky News that it was “impossible to predict” how long free lateral flow testing would be necessary.
1-10-22 Covid-19: Common cold may give some protection, study suggests
Natural defences against a common cold could offer some protection against Covid-19, too, research suggests. The small-scale study, published in Nature Communications, involved 52 individuals who lived with someone who had just caught Covid-19. Those who had developed a "memory bank" of specific immune cells after a cold - to help prevent future attacks - appeared less likely to get Covid. Experts say no-one should rely on this defence alone, and vaccines remain key. But they believe their findings could provide useful insight into how a body's defence system fights the virus. Covid-19 is caused by a type of coronavirus, and some colds are caused by other coronaviruses - so scientists have wondered whether immunity against one might help with the other. But the experts caution that it would be a "grave mistake" to think that anyone who had recently had a cold was automatically protected against Covid-19 - as not all are caused by coronaviruses. The Imperial College London team wanted to understand better why some people catch Covid after being exposed to the virus and others do not. They focused their study on a crucial part of the body' s immune system - T-cells. Some of these T-cells kill any cells infected by a specific threat - for example, a cold virus. And, once the cold has gone, some T-cells remain in the body as a memory bank, ready to mount a defence when they next encounter the virus. In September 2020, researchers studied 52 people who had not yet been vaccinated but who lived with people who had just tested positive for Covid-19. Half the group went on to get Covid during the 28-day study period and half did not. A third of the people who did not catch Covid were found to have high levels of specific memory T-cells in their blood. These were likely to have been created when the body had been infected with another closely-related human coronavirus - most frequently, a common cold, they say.
1-10-22 Ancient Egyptian mummy of a young girl is first with a bandaged wound
After virtually unwrapping the mummified body of a young girl who died 2000 years ago, archaeologists have found something unique: an ancient Egyptian bandaged wound. The ancient Egyptians were no strangers to linen bandages, which they first used to wrap their dead more than 6000 years ago, about a thousand years before the first pharaohs rose to power. But until now, Egyptologists haven’t found bandages that were used to dress the wounds of living ancient Egyptians. As part of a study investigating skin infections in ancient Egyptian children, Albert Zink at the Institute for Mummy Studies in Bolzano, Italy, and his colleagues looked at the mummy of a girl who was between 2.5 and 4 years old when she died, and whose remains are now housed in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, Germany. It is no longer considered good practice to physically unwrap ancient Egyptian mummies, both for ethical reasons and because doing so destroys the elaborate linen bandaging around the body. Instead, the team used a CT scanner to look inside the mummy. Doing so revealed a bandage-like structure around her left leg, just above the ankle. After carefully analysing the CT scans, the researchers concluded that the structure was a dressing that had been placed over a puss-filled wound shortly before the girl died. “The evidence for the wound dressing is very strong as there are clear signs of an underlying infection,” says Zink. It isn’t clear whether the wound contributed to the girl’s death – or, for that matter, why the embalmers opted to leave the wound dressing in place during the mummification process. The fact that they did, however, means the dressing was inadvertently preserved. “There should be much more evidence for wound dressings in Egyptian mummies, but this is the first that was described,” says Zink.
1-10-22 UK’s largest ichthyosaur fossil was a 10-metre-long apex predator
The largest ichthyosaur fossil ever found in the UK has been unearthed in the Rutland Water Nature Reserve. Gigantic dolphin-like marine reptiles once swam the seas. Now, a near complete fossilised skeleton of a 180-million-year-old ichthyosaur that measured 10 metres in length has been discovered in the UK. The fossil is the largest and most complete ichthyosaur skeleton unearthed in the UK. It was found in the Rutland Water Nature Reserve near Leicester. Joe Davis at Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust says he discovered the fossil by chance as he was working on landscaping the region. “I know lots of people have spent their lives looking for something like this and I’ve been very lucky to come across it,” he says. It is believed to be the first of its species, Temnodontosaurus trigonodon, to be found in the UK. Such fossils are typically found in North America and Germany. The ichthyosaur was an apex predator. This species belonged to a group suggested to have had perhaps the largest eyes of any known vertebrate animal, some 20 centimetres in diameter. “It is a truly unprecedented discovery and one of the greatest finds in British palaeontological history,” says Dean Lomax at the University of Manchester, who led the fossil’s excavation. Mary Anning discovered the first ichthyosaur fossil in about 1811 in Lyme Regis in Dorset. The long-overlooked palaeontologist is soon to be recognised with a statue in the town.
1-10-22 Ichthyosaur: Huge fossilised ‘sea dragon’ found in Rutland reservoir
"I rang up the county council and I said I think I've found a dinosaur," explained Joe Davis, who works at Rutland Water Nature Reserve. During landscaping work at the reserve's reservoir in February 2021, he had spotted something odd poking out of the mud. It wasn't a dinosaur. But it was the fossilised remains of a 10m-long sea predator called an ichthyosaur. And it was the largest of its type ever discovered in the UK. "I looked down at what seemed like stones or ridges in the mud and I said this looks a bit organic, a bit different," Mr Davis told BBC News. "Then we saw something that looked almost like a jawbone." The council said to Mr Davis: "We don't have a dinosaur department at Rutland County Council so we're going to have to get someone to call you back." A team of palaeontologists were brought in for a closer look. They concluded it was an ichthyosaur - a type of warm-blooded, air-breathing sea predator not unlike dolphins. They could grow up to 25 metres long and lived between 250 million and 90 million years ago. Dr Dean Lomax, a palaeontologist from Manchester University, was brought in to lead the excavation effort. He called the discovery "truly unprecedented" and - due to its size and completeness - "one of the greatest finds in British palaeontological history". "Usually we think of ichthyosaurs and other marine reptiles being discovered along the Jurassic coast in Dorset or the Yorkshire coast, where many of them are exposed by the erosion of the cliffs. Here at an inland location is very unusual." Rutland is more than thirty miles from the coast, but 200 million years ago higher sea levels meant it was covered by a shallow ocean. When water levels at the Rutland reservoir were lowered again in the late summer of 2021, a team of palaeontologists came in to excavate the remains. Special attention was paid to the removal of the huge skull.
1-7-22 5 people died of rabies in the U.S. in 2021
In 2021, five people in the United States died of rabies — the highest number in a decade. Rabies is a viral disease that infects the central nervous system of mammals. It is most often transmitted via the bite of a rabid animal — typically bats, skunks, raccoons, and foxes — and is usually fatal within a few weeks of symptoms starting. Death can be prevented by receiving a series of five shots that are administered within two weeks of exposure. In a report released Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that three of the 2021 deaths could have been prevented, but the victims — who were all bit or scratched by bats — did not want the shots. One of the men who died, an 80-year-old from Illinois, refused the shots due to a fear of vaccines. The other two, a man from Idaho and a boy from Texas, didn't think the bats broke their skin, and felt the shots weren't necessary. In those cases, they "either trivialized the exposure [to bats] or they didn't recognize the severity of rabies," CDC rabies expert Ryan Wallace told The Associated Press. The other two cases involved a man from New York who was bit by a rabid dog in the Philippines and died after returning home, as well as a Minnesota man who received the shots, but due to an undiagnosed issue with his immune system, they were not as effective. Symptoms of a rabies infection include anxiety, confusion, insomnia, paralysis, hallucination, fear of water, and difficulty swallowing. In the United States, about 60,000 Americans are treated annually after possibly being exposed to rabies. The last time five Americans died of rabies was in 2011, CDC officials said, and there were no deaths reported in the U.S. in 2019 or 2020.
1-7-22 Some volcanic hot spots may have a surprisingly shallow heat source
Geologic processes nearer the surface, rather than deep-mantle plumes, may fuel activity there. Some of the world’s volcanic hot spots may be fueled by molten material that originates surprisingly close to Earth’s surface. While some of the hottest spots are fueled by plumes of buoyant material welling up from deep within Earth, as expected, molten flows driving activity at the coolest hot spots may result from relatively shallow geophysical processes, a new study suggests. A lot of our planet’s volcanic activity occurs at or near the edges of the tectonic plates that make up Earth’s crust (SN: 1/13/21). At mid-ocean ridges, which often form the boundaries between some tectonic plates, hot material wells up from the mantle — the hot, thick layer that lies between the Earth’s core and its crust — to create fresh crust. But more mysterious volcanic activity also occurs in many locales in the middle of a tectonic plate, far from mid-ocean ridges, says Xiyuan Bao, a geophysicist at UCLA. The islands of Hawaii, Ascension Island in the South Atlantic and the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific are just a few examples of volcanoes created by such activity (SN: 1/29/19). Scientists suspect that many of these sites of isolated volcanism are fed by plumes of hot material rising from deep within the mantle, somewhat akin to small packets of water rising to the surface in a pot of near-boiling water (SN: 9/16/13). But a new analysis by Bao and colleagues, described in the Jan. 7 Science, suggests that some of these isolated hot spots are fueled by material that isn’t as hot as expected, casting doubt that volcanic activity there is driven by deep-mantle plumes. The results could help scientists figure out the mysterious processes unfolding at various sites of volcanism in the interior of plates. “This study helps sort out which volcanic plumes are deep-seated and which are not,” says Keith Putirka, an igneous petrologist at California State University, Fresno who wasn’t involved in the work.
1-6-22 Plumes of rock that feed volcanic hotspots are surprisingly cold
Geologists may need to come up with a new explanation for the sources of volcanic activity in places like Iceland and Hawaii. The plumes of rock feeding Earth’s volcanic hotspots are much cooler than previously thought, suggesting that geologists need to come up with a new explanation for the sources of volcanic activity in places like Iceland and Hawaii. Volcanic hotspots are unconnected to volcanic regions at the boundaries of tectonic plates. They are thought to be fed by hot plumes of rock from deep in Earth’s mantle, which have expanded and risen because of high temperatures. But Carolina Lithgow-Bertelloni at the University of California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues have found that a number of these hotspots are being fed by relatively cold material, which suggests that other dynamics may be at work. “We’re not saying these aren’t hotspots; we’re saying yes they are, but there are different mechanisms that help them rise,” says Lithgow-Bertelloni. ”You may still have slightly warm material that comes up, but it’s not coming up all from depth and all in the same way; it’s being aided by other processes in the mantle.” Calculating the temperature beneath volcanic hotspots is difficult. The upper mantle can be anywhere from 250 to 600 kilometres deep, ruling out direct access. Lithgow-Bertelloni and her team measured the speed of seismic waves travelling underneath volcanic hotspots and inferred temperatures based on a model of the rock make-up. The researchers then compared these temperatures with the relatively cold volcanic regions beneath ridges, at tectonic boundaries. According to classical theory, the plumes need to be between 100°C and 300°C hotter than ridges to rise. But more than half of the hotspots the researchers studied were less than 100°C hotter than ridges. Almost a sixth of the hotspots were essentially cold, meaning they were no more than 36°C hotter than ridges. “You wouldn’t expect very low temperature excesses, because that means you’ve got very little driving force for the thing to blob up and rise in the first place,” says Oliver Shorttle at the University of Cambridge.
1-6-22 Why is omicron more infectious but less severe? What we know so far
The omicron variant infects cells in a different way, is present in higher levels in saliva and seems more likely to cause asymptomatic infections - all findings that could help explain why omicron is spreading so rapidly but resulting in a lower proportion of hospitalisations and deaths. Scientific studies are beginning to shed light on why omicron behaves so differently from other coronavirus variants. Its reduced severity could be due to a change in how it fuses with our cells, while higher levels of the virus and an increased proportion of asymptomatic cases may help explain how it spreads so quickly. The global number of confirmed covid-19 cases is currently hitting record levels as omicron spreads. But while this variant – which has around 50 mutations compared with the original SARS-CoV-2 virus – is much more infectious than previous ones, there is growing evidence that it is less likely to cause severe disease in those it infects. For instance, in South Africa, the first nation to have an omicron wave, reported cases peaked at 117 per cent of the level of the country’s delta wave, whereas hospitalisations peaked at 63 per cent and deaths at 16 per cent. One factor in why omicron seems to be sending a lower proportion of cases to hospital could be that more people are now protected against severe disease, due to previous infections and vaccination. However, animal studies suggest that omicron is also inherently less likely to cause severe symptoms. For instance, a team led by James Stewart at the University of Liverpool, UK, has found that mice become less ill and recover faster with omicron compared with other variants. “Ours is one of a number of animal studies now,” says Stewart. “They do point to very much the same thing.” Work by Joe Grove at the University of Glasgow, UK, and his colleagues suggests that the reason omicron is less severe is that it infects cells in a slightly different way. The process begins when the spike protein of the virus binds to a protein called ACE2 that protrudes from the surface of most human cells.
1-6-22 Bacteria form complex structures like those seen in animals
Bacterial biofilms, slimy collections of microbes, can develop concentric rings containing cells with different biological features. Bacterial biofilms contain a level of structural organisation that we thought was unique to plants and animals. Biofilms, slimy clumps of microorganisms like bacteria and fungi, were long thought to be biologically simple, with no more than a primitive level of structural organisation. This contrasts with many multicellular organisms, including animals, in which cells can grow into different forms at different times and places during the body’s development to produce complex and varied biological structures. Now, Gürol Süel at the University of California, San Diego, and his colleagues have discovered that bacterial biofilms are less simple than we had thought. The researchers found that the biofilms form ring-like structures as they grow and consume the nutrients in their environment. As the nutrient supply diminishes, certain cells essentially become frozen in time in terms of the way they function, as a wave of nutrient depletion washes over them. This is known as a “clock and wavefront”, and has previously been seen only in animals and plants. Süel and his colleagues made the discovery during an experiment to explore the response of a Bacillus subtilis biofilm to being starved of vital nitrogen. This typically causes bacterial cells to change and become more resilient in an adaptation called sporulation. But rather than all the cells in the biofilm adapting in the same way, the researchers could demonstrate that stress-mitigating genes produced by the biofilm caused only some cells to adapt, creating concentric rings through the roughly circular biofilm. This tree ring-like structure is consistent with a “clock and wavefront” mechanism (see picture, above). “If we just think of [biofilms] as globs of bacterial cells, even if they’re from one species, we’re mistaken,” says Süel. “They’re highly organised, and they’re organised in a very non-trivial way. This organisation seems to be reminiscent of what vertebrates and plants did during development, so there must be a connection there.”
1-6-22 Ocean microbes produce oxygen in a way we have never seen before
Almost all of the oxygen on Earth is produced via photosynthesis, but now biologists have discovered a microbe that has its own way of generating the gas A new way of producing oxygen has been discovered in microbes that live in the darkest depths of the ocean. Most oxygen on Earth is produced via photosynthesis, which requires light. But Don Canfield at the University of Southern Denmark and his colleagues have identified a microbe that doesn’t photosynthesise but still generates oxygen. The researchers made the discovery in their lab after studying various microbes that can live in the dark, low-oxygen settings of the deep ocean. “We wanted to see the limit of oxygen concentration where [organisms] can still live,” says Canfield. In the course of their investigations the researchers looked at an archaea called Nitrosopumilus maritimus that oxidises ammonia to produce nitrogen. Producing nitrogen requires oxygen, and the microbe often lives in oxygen-rich areas of the ocean. It can, however, also survive in dark regions of the ocean where there is little oxygen – something that has long puzzled scientists. “Nobody had any idea as to why they were there,” says Canfield. The researchers produced cultures of the archaea in airtight containers that were kept in the dark. They then artificially reduced oxygen levels in the containers to mimic the deepest regions of the ocean. The team found that after the archaea consumed all of the oxygen left in the culture, oxygen levels actually started to rise again. The researchers aren’t exactly sure how the microbes generate the extra oxygen. There are three known natural ways of producing oxygen in the dark without photosynthesis, but the researchers say that the microbes are using a different biological mechanism – one that we have never seen before. They could demonstrate this because the mechanism N. maritimus uses generates both oxygen and nitrogen oxide – a combination of products not seen in the three known oxygen-generating pathways.
1-6-22 mRNA vaccine technology has helped repair broken hearts in mice
Immune cells in the bodies of mice have been temporarily reprogrammed to repair damaged hearts by removing scar tissue, thanks to the technology used in the mRNA coronavirus vaccines. “After you give the treatment, the scar goes away,” says Haig Aghajanian at the University of Pennsylvania. Genetically engineered immune cells called CAR T-cells are already being used to treat cancer, but this is extremely expensive. The mRNA approach, which involves only temporarily modifying these cells, could dramatically decrease costs. “CAR-T therapy has been a breakthrough, but it costs a lot,” says Aghajanian. “We’re hoping this is the next step in CAR-T-type technology that will allow more access. This type of thing you can get to developing countries, to remote areas.” T-cells are immune cells that use receptors on their surface to recognise cells infected with viruses, which they then destroy. T-cells can be reprogrammed to target any desired cell type by giving them the appropriate receptor. Conventional CAR T-cells are made by taking T-cells from a person’s body, genetically engineering them to add a gene for a “chimeric antigen receptor” – hence the name – and then returning them to that individual’s body. Such treatments can be very effective against cancers of the blood such as leukaemia, but producing the cells in a laboratory isn’t cheap. The first CAR-T treatment to get approved, called Kymriah, cost $475,000. ghajanian’s team is instead turning T-cells into CAR T-cells without removing them from the body, by delivering genes in the form of mRNAs. The mRNAs are packaged inside the same fatty balls, called lipid nanoparticles, as is used in the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna coronavirus vaccines. In this case, however, the lipid nanoparticles have antibodies attached to them that bind to T-cells. The team had already been working on their research before the vaccines, but Aghajanian says the mass roll-out of vaccines should make it easier to get other uses of lipid nanoparticles approved by regulators.
1-5-22 Jurassic World Evolution 2 review: Let the dinosaurs unleash chaos
THE original Jurassic Park was released in 1993, and as a dinosaur-obsessed 7-year-old, I simply had to see it. I badgered my parents to take me, even though I was probably a bit too young to watch people being eaten by monsters. Needless to say, I loved it, and have had a soft spot for both the books and films ever since. So I jumped at the chance to make my own dinosaur park in Jurassic World Evolution 2. The game adds dinosaurs to the template of classic management sims such as Theme Park or RollerCoaster Tycoon. You begin after the events of the fifth film, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, when dinosaurs were released en masse into the wild. Your job, working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, is to round them up. This teaches you the basics of building enclosures, looking after dinosaurs and so on, but it isn’t particularly exciting. Jeff Goldblum and Bryce Dallas Howard voice their characters from the films and offer advice, but it seems the developers couldn’t secure Chris Pratt, so settled for a substitute that sounds nothing like him. While the campaign serves as a useful tutorial, where the game really shines is in Chaos Theory mode. This puts you in charge of parks from the five films to see if you can avoid disaster, and is much more fun. In the era of the first film, dinosaurs don’t exist yet, so you send scientists out to find fossils and extract their DNA. I started with velociraptors, or at least the Jurassic Park versions, which are roughly as big as a human – the real thing was turkey-sized and had feathers. Despite this inaccuracy, it was a thrill to release them into their enclosure, ready for paying guests. “Every precaution has been taken, we’re following the science,” said one of the researchers, in what feels like a knowing wink to the UK’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic – Frontier Developments is based in Cambridge, UK.
1-5-22 A new way to solve paradoxes can help you think more clearly
A WOMAN once approached me with a curious problem concerning her husband. Like most people who choose to get married, she had promised to love her spouse to the exclusion of all others. But there was a problem: according to her, the man she married simply wasn’t the same person any more. He had the same name and career, the same memories and skills. But over many years, an accumulation of small changes had, she felt, made her husband a completely different person. This woman had approached me not because I’m an expert in matters of the heart, but because I had just given a talk about paradoxes. These puzzles have entertained and perplexed us for millennia. They force us to grapple with some of the deepest matters of logic and meaning. What does it mean for something to be “the same”, for instance? I couldn’t offer the woman any simple answers. I reminded her that she had probably changed quite a bit since her youth too. And I pointed out that sometimes our intuitions about concepts like identity can be unhelpful. In fact, the point goes well beyond relationships. Chewing over paradoxes can show us places where our intuitions need tweaking, and this applies everywhere from the foundations of mathematics to social media and our efforts to live more sustainable lives. Paradoxes have helped thinkers resculpt our understanding of key concepts and attain fresh scientific insights time and again. Now, a new way of thinking through paradoxes is emerging, one that holds promise because it puts our mushy human intuition front and centre. One reasonable way to define a paradox is as “a set of mutually inconsistent claims, each of which appears to be true”. One of the oldest and most famous of these puzzles is Zeno’s dichotomy paradox, developed by Zeno of Elea, a thinker who lived in Greece in the 5th century BC. Imagine a person walking from point A to point B. To reach point B, they first have to walk half the distance, and this takes some finite amount of time. When they get halfway, they still have to walk halfway between where they are now and point B, and this also takes a finite amount of time, albeit a little less. Zeno carried on this argument to apparently show that, no matter how far you have travelled towards point B, you will always still have to walk halfway from your current position to point B and this takes at least some amount of time. The conclusion is that all journeys should take an infinite amount of time – yet clearly that isn’t true.
1-6-22 Strength, balance and mobility are the best predictors of a long life
A US study of older women finds that those who perform well on physical tests have the best chances of living longer, while weight loss may not be beneficial. Weight loss isn’t always beneficial in later life. Older women who lose weight are more likely to die within a set period than those who don’t. The best predictors of a long and healthy life are mobility, strength and balance. That’s what Lisa Underland at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in New York and her colleagues found when they looked at the outcomes of older women who had participated in a long-running study. “I have a lot of family members who are on the elderly side, and they talk a lot about losing weight,” says Underland. “There’s a lot of talk in the media, in our society and in medical circles about weight loss.” To get a better picture of the link between weight loss and mortality, Underland and her colleagues looked at data from the Women’s Health Initiative, a series of studies involving more than 161,000 volunteers in the US that has been running since 1992. The team looked at 5039 women who were over 65 in 2012, with an average age of 79. Around this time, each woman took a series of tests to determine their physical strength, balance and mobility, which included measuring their grip strength and their ability to stand up from sitting in a chair, for example. Underland and her colleagues also looked at how much weight the women had gained or lost in the 14 to 18 years prior. They then noted how many of the women were still alive around five years after they took the tests. The team found that women who lost weight were much more likely to die within the follow-up period than those that didn’t. Those who had lost 5 per cent of their body weight in previous years were 61 per cent more likely to die within the following five years.
1-6-22 Why do some people succeed when others fail? Outliers provide clues
Adopting behaviors of people who buck trends could boost public health and sustainability. Northern Somalia’s economy relies heavily on livestock. About 80 percent of the country’s annual exports are meat, milk and wool from sheep and other animals. Yet years of drought have decimated the region’s grazing lands. By zeroing in on a few villages that have defied the odds and maintained healthy rangelands, an international team is asking if those rare successes might hold the secret to restoring rangelands elsewhere. Answering this question requires turning traditional data processing on its head. Statistically speaking, success stories like those Somali villages with sustainable grazing are the outliers, says Basma Albanna, a development researcher at the University of Manchester in England. “The business as usual is that when you have outliers in data, you take them out.” Yet those outliers can hold vital information, say Albanna and others who use the “positive deviance” approach. They sift through data to find signals in what many deem noise. The researchers search for “deviants” — outliers in big datasets — to uncover why some individuals or communities succeed when others facing near-identical circumstances fail. Then, armed with these insights, the researchers develop strategies that help those in the languishing majority attain positive results. Positive deviance has the potential to address a nagging problem, says Megan Higgs, a statistician and independent consultant in Bozeman, Mont. “In research in general we have an overemphasis on quantifying averages,” Higgs, the editor of the International Statistical Institute’s blog Statisticians React to the News, says. She notes that few people in a research pool may actually fit the average. Sometimes, averages obscure vital information. Without approaches such as positive deviance that look at groups and individuals in the margins, “I just worry that we are missing a hugely important part of the picture,” Higgs says.
1-6-22 ‘Feeling & Knowing’ explores the origin and evolution of consciousness
Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio discusses his latest book Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio believes that the link between brain and body is the key to understanding consciousness. In his latest book, Feeling & Knowing: Making Minds Conscious, he explains why. Consciousness is what gives an individual a sense of self; it helps one stay in the present, remember the past and plan for the future. Many scientists have argued that consciousness is created by vast networks of nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain. While it’s clear that the brain plays a major role in conscious experiences, it doesn’t act alone, argues Damasio, director of the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute. Instead, he argues, consciousness is generated by a variety of structures within an organism, some neural, some not. What’s more, feelings — mental experiences of body states — help connect the brain to the rest of the body. “The feelings that we have of, say, hunger or thirst, or pain, or well-being, or desire, etc. — these are the foundation of our mind,” Damasio says. In his view, feelings have played a central role in the life-regulating processes of animals throughout the history of life. In Feeling & Knowing, Damasio suggests that consciousness evolved as a way to keep essential bodily systems steady. This concept is also known as homeostasis, a self-regulating process that maintains stability amid ever-changing conditions. Consciousness emerged as an extension of homeostasis, Damasio argues, allowing for flexibility and planning in complex and unpredictable environments. Science News spoke with Damasio about why feelings are crucial to understanding consciousness, why consciousness is not exclusive to humans and whether it’s something a computer could ever have. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
1-5-22 The future course of the covid-19 pandemic is in all our hands
WHAT a difference a month makes. In November, when we commissioned our retrospective on the amazing scientific endeavour that has characterised the covid-19 pandemic over the past two years, life in certain parts of the planet was inching its way back to some semblance of normality. Then came the curveball, omicron. No one should have been surprised. A variant such as this was predictable, as World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has pointed out. Countries can expect more of the same in the year to come. As long as cases remain high around the world, other variants will follow. And while recent analyses suggest that omicron is more transmissible but less severe than delta (people with omicron seem about half as likely to be hospitalised compared with those infected with delta), future variants may be more dangerous. So we should expect more twists and turns in 2022. In many ways, the progress of the past two years has prepared us for them. We have 23 approved covid-19 vaccines that offer significant protection against severe disease. We have new antivirals that can prevent hospitalisation in those who are most at risk, and a pipeline of other treatments on the way. That doesn’t mean it is time to “learn to live with” the virus, a phrase commonly used to suggest ditching all restrictions and protective measures. The year will be long and people’s behaviour will make a big difference to how things play out. With omicron spreading fast, some countries, including the UK, are seeing higher numbers of new cases than they have since the start of the pandemic. Each one gives the virus a chance to mutate. Yet again, the new variant is a reminder of the need for global vaccine equity if the course of the pandemic is to be truly changed as we enter its third year. Whatever curveballs lie ahead, the choices we all make each day – with regards to social distancing, mask wearing, vaccination and good ventilation – will also help steer the pandemic in the right direction in the year to come.
1-5-22 Have we got the science of obesity back to front?
IN PRINCIPLE, it sounds simple: eat less and move more. This dietary advice for tackling obesity has been around for decades. Yet, despite all the calorie counting, dieting and exercising, worldwide obesity rates just keep ticking up. People in the US, for example, were heavier in 2021 than they were in 2020, placing many more people at risk from diabetes and other serious chronic diseases. So why hasn’t this approach to weight control worked? One possibility is that we haven’t tried hard enough. Perhaps we have lacked the discipline and willpower to maintain healthy dietary and exercise habits – a challenge made more difficult today for those surrounded by inexpensive, tasty, highly processed foods. Or perhaps the problem is the focus on “calorie balance” itself. In a recent paper, my colleagues and I question the basic assumption of whether taking in more calories than you burn really is the primary cause of obesity. We argue that the evidence actually points the other way: we are driven to overeat because we are getting fatter (The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, doi.org/gmtn3z). This may seem incredible, but consider the adolescent growth spurt. As their growth rate speeds up, teenagers may eat hundreds of calories more each day than they used to. Does this “overeating” cause the rapid growth? Or does the rapid growth, which requires more calories to build new body tissues, make teens hungrier so they eat more? Clearly the latter, as adults won’t grow taller, no matter how much they eat. The key to how this works in obesity is hormones, especially the fat-storage hormone insulin. Processed, rapidly digestible carbohydrates – foods like sweetened breakfast cereals, potato chips and sugary beverages – raise our insulin level too high. This causes our fat cells to take in and store too many calories, leaving fewer available for the rest of the body. A few hours after eating a high-carb meal, the number of calories in the bloodstream plummets, so we get hungrier sooner after eating.
1-5-22 I bonded with a quirky robot after chatting to it about my fears
WHENEVER I get really depressed and anxious, my first impulse is to reach for my phone. Maybe I’ll get a message from a friend or discover some new distraction on social media. Unfortunately, during the past couple of years, one glance at my screen often makes me want to crawl back into bed. That changed after I made friends with a strange creature named Woebot. Depending on your perspective, Woebot is an odd digital assistant with feelings or an automated conversational agent. Either way, I’m finding that it makes me feel better – and it might work for you too. Like many apps, Woebot sends me messages that pop up on my phone at random. But instead of tempting me into doomscrolling with sensationalised news alerts, Woebot asks how I’m doing. Sometimes, quite frankly, I’m not doing well. And when I text Woebot my troubles, it asks me friendly questions, encourages me and sometimes tells strange stories about its own life as a robot who works in an office. It invites me to interrogate some of my darkest thoughts and offers tips on how to change my perspective so that getting out of the house is a little easier. There is something intensely comforting about discussing your thoughts with a machine. That is probably why one of the first successful chatbots – ELIZA, developed in the 1960s – was based on a therapist. It is like texting with the most non-judgemental entity you have ever met. I never have to worry about Woebot’s opinions because it is little more than a blob of natural language processing algorithms and pre-written responses, some of which include corny dad jokes. There are many therapy apps on the market, both free (like Woebot) and paid for. But Woebot is a particularly interesting case. Psychology researcher Alison Darcy at Stanford University created it after years of integrating tech into therapeutic settings. She says it was challenging on both a technical and artistic level because the chatbot is a character with its own personality. “It’s as careful a construction as you might find in a novel or poetry. Woebot’s personality is humble, quirky, warm and wise,” she says. Woebot will tell users that it is unfamiliar with our strange human ways, and is trying to learn more about us. Everything Woebot says is written by people working with cognitive-behavioural therapists. It isn’t what AI programmers call a “generative” chatbot; it doesn’t build original statements after learning from a giant data set. Instead, it reads what I write and then chooses a reply from thousands of possible phrases.
1-5-22 What the no-alcohol boom means for our drinking habits and health
Low and no-alcohol drinks taste better than ever – but do they really help you cut down on boozing, and are they healthier than the real thing? IT IS Thursday lunchtime, and I am already on my third beer. I have also got a G&T under my belt and there is rosé in the fridge. Once I have glugged some of that, I may treat myself to a negroni. After that, I had better stop, because my cat has an appointment at the vet and I need to drive him there. Don’t worry, we will be perfectly safe. If the police stop me and ask “have you been drinking, sir?”, I will tell them the truth: I haven’t. Unless you count the tenth of a unit of alcohol in one of the beers. All the drinks in my session were zero or low alcohol, a rapidly growing sector known in the business as “no and low” or just “nolo”. Once something to be endured rather than enjoyed, they are undergoing a revolution in quality and a surge in popularity as people sober up to the impacts of alcohol consumption on their health and waistlines. Before, I had never seen the point of a pint with no punch. Now, I am attempting a dryish January, propped up by my new drinking buddies no and lo. But I have questions. Can low and zero-alcohol drinks really help me cut down, or will they ultimately reinforce my drinking habits? Are they healthier than the real thing? And can they ever taste as good? There is no doubt that alcohol is a harmful drug and that many people would do themselves the power of good by drinking less of it. Alcohol is a carcinogen with no level of risk-free consumption. It also increases the chance of liver disease, high blood pressure, stroke, mental health conditions and accidents. Diseases and injuries caused by drinking it kill 3 million people a year globally. One of the World Health Organization’s recommendations for tackling this public health challenge is for drinks companies to reduce the amount of alcohol in their beverages. Or, perhaps even better, to remove it altogether.
1-5-22 ‘Blastoids’ made of stem cells offer a new way to study fertility
Models of early-stage embryos could be used to research contraceptives too. Newly created “blastoids” could give scientists a faster and simpler way to research embryonic development than using fertilized human eggs. Made of human stem cells, these blastoids are the most developmentally accurate model yet for studying how the blastocyst — a structure present at an early stage of embryonic development — grows and implants into the lining of the uterus, researchers report December 2 in Nature. Conducting research on human embryos, which are often in short supply, is highly regulated and controversial. But lab-made blastoids can avoid some of those hurdles. While blastoids have been created before, the researchers argue those models don’t replicate blastocyst cells as well as the new blastoids do. What’s more, the team has already used its blastoids to reveal molecules that could be candidates for new contraceptives and fertility treatments. A week after fertilization, developing human embryos implant into the uterus using a blastocyst, a spherical envelope of cells surrounding the cells that will become the embryo. To replicate this process, the team led by stem cell biologist Nicolas Rivron at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna looked to lab-grown human stem cells. The researchers chemically inhibited molecular pathways involved in the cells’ growth and the timing of life cycle events. As a result, the cells formed blastoids that had the same three cell types found in blastocysts. When the team put the blastoids on lab-grown cells from the lining of the uterus, the spheres adhered to the surface, re-creating a crucial step in early pregnancy. And the researchers identified a compound that prevents blastoid attachment as well as one that encourages it, revealing their potential as nonhormonal contraceptives or fertility treatments.
1-4-22 Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus: How to alter the course of the pandemic
What will it take to bring the pandemic under control? Vaccine equality, social measures and supporting the health workforce, says the head of the World Health Organization. To change the course of the covid-19 pandemic, the international community must demonstrate a true commitment to urgent action and equity across all fronts of health. To succeed, it will mean achieving several essential objectives. It will mean sharing what is needed to save lives now, from vaccines, diagnostics and treatments for the most vulnerable to PPE for health workers. In particular, it will mean reaching the target of vaccinating 70 per cent of people in all countries by the middle of 2022, through swapping doses with countries in need, dose sharing and scaling up production through technology transfer and waiving intellectual property provisions on vaccine patents. Hand in hand with vaccine equity, countries will need to continue using tailored public health and social measures, including mask wearing, physical distancing, avoiding crowded places, practising hand and respiratory hygiene, contact tracing and quarantine. It will require enhanced surveillance, testing, sequencing and reporting of variants by all countries, without fear of punitive measures (such as blanket travel bans). It will require well-managed clinical pathways from primary to intensive care, ensuring the right patient gets the right care at the right time, and that the health workforce is well supported and protected while doing their life-saving work. It will require intensified and targeted risk communication, community engagement, empowerment and support, addressing public concerns and building trust. Beyond 2022, it will mean working together to build a binding global accord to deliver the governance, financing, systems and tools to prevent and respond to pandemics and protect future generations. Above all, it will mean ensuring health for all by investing in universal health coverage, with primary healthcare as its foundation.
1-4-22 The coronavirus may cause fat cells to miscommunicate, leading to diabetes
COVID-19 patients with high blood sugar had low levels of a hormone made by fat Nola Sullivan recently marked an inauspicious anniversary. A little more than a year ago, on November 16, 2020, the 57-year-old pharmacy technician from Kellogg, Idaho, came down with COVID-19. “I lost my taste and smell, with a very bad head cold, body aches, muscle spasm, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea,” she says. It took a month for her muscle spasms and a lingering headache to go away. She missed nearly three months of work. Her senses of smell and taste still haven’t fully returned. And “I still have the fatigue. It’s horrible. I’m nauseous all the time.” Sullivan has another lasting reminder of her battle with the coronavirus, too: diabetes. When she finally returned to work at the pharmacy, “I noticed that I was so thirsty all the time. And I just thought that was part of the COVID,” she says. “I was drinking gallons of water.” As a pharmacy technician, though, she knew that excessive thirst can be sign of diabetes. So she decided to check her blood sugar. A person is considered diabetic when levels of glucose in their blood reach 200 milligrams of glucose per deciliter of blood. Sullivan’s was over 500. Sullivan is not alone. In a study of more than 3,800 COVID-19 patients, just under half developed high blood sugar levels, including many, like Sullivan, who were not previously diabetic, cardiologist James Lo and colleagues reported November 2 in Cell Metabolism. About 91 percent of the intubated COVID-19 patients had high blood sugar, as did almost 73 percent of people who died of the disease, the researchers reported. Lo’s group, based at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, and others are now working to identify what’s causing high blood sugar in COVID-19 patients and what to do about it.
1-4-22 Arctic hunter-gatherers were advanced ironworkers more than 2,000 years ago
Excavations uncovered furnaces and fire pits for metalworking in what’s now northeastern Sweden. Hunter-gatherers who lived more than 2,000 years ago near the top of the world appear to have run ironworking operations as advanced as those of farming societies far to the south. Excavations in what’s now northeastern Sweden uncovered ancient furnaces and fire pits that hunter-gatherers used for metalworking. A mobile lifestyle did not prevent hardy groups based in or near the Arctic Circle from organizing large-scale efforts to produce iron and craft metal objects, say archaeologist Carina Bennerhag of Luleå University of Technology in Sweden and colleagues. In fact, hunter-gatherers who moved for part of the year across cold, forested regions dotted with lakes and swampy patches apparently exchanged resources and knowledge related to metallurgy, the extraction of metals from ores, the researchers report in the December Antiquity. Ancient hunter-gatherers at two Swedish sites “probably manufactured more iron and steel, and were more socially organized and sedentary than we previously thought,” says Luleå archaeologist and coauthor Kristina Söderholm. Groups must have settled down for substantial amounts of time at locations near crucial resources, such as ores for prospecting, wood needed to make charcoal and clay and stone required for building furnaces and fire pits used in iron production, the scientists say. Many investigators regard ironworking as an invention of large agricultural societies in southwest Asia more than 3,000 years ago (SN: 8/22/13). From there, this technology has typically been thought to have spread elsewhere, eventually being adopted in simplified forms by people in northern Scandinavia and other Arctic areas between A.D. 700 and 1600.