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Hand Evolution by Megan Godtland

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2019 Science Stats

106 Evolution News Articles
for March 2022
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Nature cares only that you reproduce and raise the kids.
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3-31-22 Scientists finish sequencing a complete human genome
For the first time, scientists have sequenced a complete human genome, a landmark feat that will help researchers better understand how DNA is different from person to person and the role genetics play in disease. The research was published Thursday in the journal Science. In 2003, the Human Genome Project announced it had sequenced 92 percent of the human genome, and over the last two decades, a team of nearly 100 scientists has worked to fully reveal the remaining 8 percent. "Having this complete information will allow us to better understand how we form as an individual organism and how we vary not just between other humans but other species," research leder Evan Eichler of the University of Washington told CNN. The newly uncovered genes are highly complex. Because the DNA regions have multiple repetitions, it was difficult to string the DNA together in the right order using previous sequencing techniques, CNN says. In the last 10 years, two new DNA sequencing technologies were developed that allowed researchers to sequence up to 1 million DNA letters at once, with some mistakes, and 20,000 letters with 99.9 percent accuracy. Eichler said the researchers found that "these genes are are incredibly important for adaptation. They contain immune response genes that help us to adapt and survive infections and plagues and viruses. They contain genes that are ... very important in terms of predicting drug response." Read more at CNN.

3-31-22 Should I worry about 'deltacron' and other covid-19 recombinants?
Recombination, essentially the viral version of sex, occurs when a single cell is simultaneously infected with two related viruses, whose genetic material could mix as they replicate. The recombinant “deltacron” variant of the coronavirus has left many people unsure about the future of the pandemic, amid fears it could combine the delta variant’s virulence with omicron’s transmissibility. Recombination, which is essentially the viral version of sex, occurs when a single cell is simultaneously infected with two related viruses, whose genetic material could mix as they replicate. Dozens of potential recombinant SARS-CoV-2 variants have been identified in recent weeks. So, why are these emerging and how worried should we be? Recombination can occur when a viral genome is arranged in several segments, like that of a flu virus. When new flu viruses are assembled, they may take on some segments from one variant and other segments from a second variant if it is present. In contrast, the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is composed of a single strand of RNA. Recombinants form when the enzyme that copies the RNA releases one strand during the replication process, grabs another strand and resumes copying, in a process called template switching. This can lead to major genetic mistakes, resulting in viruses that can’t replicate. It can also generate recombinant viruses with an advantageous mix of mutations, such as those that improve transmissibility. In animals, recombination has played a pivotal role in the evolution of the many coronavirus strains. In humans, SARS-CoV-2 probably began recombining very early in the pandemic. When existing variants differ by just a few mutations, it can be unclear whether a new variant with a mix of those mutations arose via recombination or if the mutations were independently acquired. Recombination is also difficult for sequencing laboratories to detect. Extra work is needed to rule out co-infections and sample contamination.

3-31-22 Genetic test for mutation that leads to antibiotic-induced deafness
A genetic test gives results in half an hour to show if a person may become deaf in response to certain antibiotics, so can be used for babies with suspected sepsis who need treatment fast. Occasionally, children go deaf as a result of antibiotic treatment. Now a rapid genetic test has been launched to identify those who are vulnerable to such ear damage, so that alternative antibiotics can be given. The test delivers a result in 26 minutes, meaning it can be done quickly enough to guide what to do for babies with suspected sepsis, who need treatment as fast as possible. About one in 500 people have a genetic mutation that means that the antibiotic gentamicin kills cells inside their ear. This is thought to cause about 14,000 people worldwide to go permanently deaf each year. Despite the rare effect, gentamicin is the recommended treatment for sepsis – a life-threatening overreaction of the immune system to infection – because it is effective against the bacteria most likely to be the cause. People known to have the mutation can be treated with different antibiotics called cephalosporins, which kill a broader range of bacteria. Because of this, cephalosporins are more prone to triggering antibiotic resistance, so aren’t as commonly prescribed. To check for the genetic mutation, most hospitals currently use PCR-based tests, which can take days to return results. Guidance for treating babies with suspected sepsis in hospitals in England says antibiotics should be started within 1 hour of doctors recognising that treatment is needed. The new assay, which Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust hospitals will start using routinely from next week, is faster because it uses a different genetic testing technique, called RT-LAMP. Made by UK firm Genedrive, the test was used in two UK hospitals. Of 526 babies who needed treatment for suspected sepsis, the test failed to produce a result in 17 per cent of cases, but it identified three babies with the mutation that put them at risk of deafness, who all received the alternative antibiotic, according to a recently published trial. “We have got three people that will go through life with their hearing intact that would have been deaf if they had not had this [test], says David Budd at Genedrive.

3-31-22 Mammals grew big after dinosaurs died but their brains stayed small
After the extinction of the dinosaurs, mammals took over and had room to evolve larger bodies, but their brains remained small to begin with. In the wake of the mass extinction 66 million years ago that wiped out all of the dinosaurs apart from the birds, mammals underwent an evolutionary explosion. The small species that survived the consequences of the asteroid-triggered “end-Cretaceous” event diversified and began to evolve into new niches, filling forests that sprung up from the ashes of the Cretaceous world. Now, palaeontologists have learned that during this formative time, beasts evolved bigger bodies millions of years before their brain size caught up. “There are so many mysteries surrounding the mammals who survived the end-Cretaceous extinction,” says Ornella Bertrand at the University of Edinburgh, UK, including how mammals began to evolve proportionally larger and more complex brains. To find out more, Bertrand and colleagues looked at CT scans of mammal skulls from before and after the end-Cretaceous extinction. Some of these are new discoveries from places like the Colorado Basin in the US, which embody mammal evolution in the million years after the likes of Triceratops went extinct. It was already known that the body size of mammals alive immediately following the event increased. Mammals at the time of the extinction were no bigger than a badger – which tend to be under a metre in length – while some of those 10 million years later were the size of a black bear. But the researchers discovered that the brain size of the mammals stayed about the same even as their bodies grew larger. “Mammals needed the opportunity to increase their body size first,” says Bertrand. It wasn’t until about 56 million years ago, during a time called the Eocene, that the palaeontologists detected sweeping changes in mammal brains. “During this time,” says Bertrand, “the part of the brain that increases the most is the neocortex where the integration of complex senses such as vision, hearing, motor control and memory occurs.”

3-31-22 New images reveal details of two bacteria’s molecular syringes
The up-close views could help with the design of nanodevices that target specific bacteria. Some bacteria carry tiny syringes filled with chemicals that may thin out competitors or incapacitate predators. Now, researchers have gotten up-close views of these syringes, technically known as contractile injection systems, from a type of cyanobacteria and a marine bacterium. Figuring out how key parts of the molecular syringes work may help scientists devise their own nanomachines. Artificial injection machines could direct antibiotics against troublesome bacteria while leaving friendly microbes untouched. Genes encoding pieces of the injection machinery are found in many bacterial species. But, “just by looking at the genes, it’s quite hard to predict how these contractile injection systems work,” says Gregor Weiss, a cellular structural biologist at ETH Zurich. So Weiss and colleagues examined bacterial syringes using cryo-electron microscopy, in which cells are flash frozen to capture cellular structures as they typically look in nature (SN: 6/22/17). Previously, researchers have found syringes anchored in some bacteria’s outer membranes, where the bacteria can shoot their payload into cells they bump into. Other species’ injectors squirt their contents into the environment. But in a type of cyanobacteria called Anabaena, the syringes are in an unusual place, nestled in the membrane of the internal structure where the bacteria carry out photosynthesis, Weiss and colleagues report in the March Nature Microbiology. Buried inside the cells, “it’s hard to imagine how [the syringes] could get out and interact with the target organism,” Weiss says. Anabaena may use its syringes against itself to trigger programmed cell death when the cyanobacteria come under stress. In the team’s experiments, ultraviolet light or high salt levels in water triggered some syringes to dump their payload. That led to the death of some Anabaena cells in the long chains that the cyanobacteria grow in, forming hollow “ghost cells.”

3-31-22 North America’s oldest skull surgery dates to at least 3,000 years ago
Bone regrowth suggests a man survived having a hole scraped out of his forehead. A man with a hole in his forehead, who was interred in what’s now northwest Alabama between around 3,000 and 5,000 years ago, represents North America’s oldest known case of skull surgery. Damage around the man’s oval skull opening indicates that someone scraped out that piece of bone, probably to reduce brain swelling caused by a violent attack or a serious fall, said bioarchaeologist Diana Simpson of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Either scenario could explain fractures and other injuries above the man’s left eye and to his left arm, leg and collarbone. Bone regrowth on the edges of the skull opening indicates that the man lived for up to one year after surgery, Simpson estimated. She presented her analysis of the man’s remains on March 28 at a virtual session of the annual meeting of the American Association of Biological Anthropologists. Skull surgery occurred as early as 13,000 years ago in North Africa (SN: 8/17/11). Until now, the oldest evidence of this practice in North America dated to no more than roughly 1,000 years ago. In his prime, the new record holder likely served as a ritual practitioner or shaman. His grave included items like those found in shamans’ graves at nearby North American hunter-gatherer sites dating to between about 3,000 and 5,000 years ago. Ritual objects buried with him included sharpened bone pins and modified deer and turkey bones that may have been tattooing tools (SN: 5/25/21). Investigators excavated the man’s grave and 162 others at the Little Bear Creek Site, a seashell covered burial mound, in the 1940s. Simpson studied the man’s museum-held skeleton and grave items in 2018, shortly before the discoveries were returned to local Native American communities for reburial.

3-31-22 Assam: 'Mysterious' giant stone jars found in India
Researchers have uncovered giant "mysterious" jars in India that may have been used for ancient human burial practices. The 65 sandstone jars were found scattered over four sites in the north-eastern state of Assam. They vary in shape and size. Some of the jars are tall and cylindrical, while the others are partly or fully buried in the ground. Similar stone vessels have previously been found in Laos and Indonesia. The details of the discovery - which involved researchers from three universities in India and Australia - were published in the Journal of Asian Archaeology journal this week. The research was led by Tilok Thakuria from North-Eastern Hill University and Uttam Bathari from Gauhati University. "We still don't know who made the giant jars or where they lived. It's all a bit of a mystery", said Nicholas Skopal, a researcher at the Australian National University who was part of the research team. Although it is still not clear what the giant jars were used for, the researchers believe they were "likely associated with mortuary practices". "There are stories from the Naga people (an ethnic group in north-eastern India) of finding the Assam jars filled with cremated remains, beads and other material artefacts," Mr Skopal said. Dr Thakuria told the BBC that "presently the jars are empty", and they were once possibly covered with lids. "The next step in this project is to excavate and extensively document features of these jars," Dr Thakuria said. Similar sites were discovered in Assam and neighbouring Meghalaya state in the past, researchers said. Some 10 sites containing more than 700 jars have been uncovered in Assam so far, Dr Thakuria said. They believe these jars date back to before 400 BC. The researchers said they had searched a very limited area in Assam and that there "are likely to be a lot more [such sites] out there. We just don't yet know where they are".

3-30-22 How do we decide what counts as trauma – and have we got it all wrong?
What qualifies as trauma has become a hotly debated issue, with implications for treating people who experience PTSD – and the way we respond to things like the pandemic and police killings. GIVING birth. A car accident. Racial abuse. Many of us feel we have experienced things we would describe as traumatic. Look no further than the past few years. Beyond the sickness and deaths wrought by covid-19, many psychologists warned that the pandemic was a mental health crisis in the making, with cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) predicted to soar. Consult the medical textbooks, however, and you find that such experiences don’t generally qualify as trauma. People who suddenly lost a loved one to covid-19, and those working in hospitals and care homes might meet the criteria. But relentless news updates about a mysterious deadly disease, job loss, social isolation and living under lockdown – none of these fits the bill. “People called the pandemic traumatic, and it’s not,” says George Bonanno at Columbia University in New York. In our propensity to view things as traumatic, we may also be overplaying the impact, Bonanno argues. His research has shown that, given time, most of us will recover even from the most horrifying experiences. In light of this, says Bonanno, the word “trauma” has lost all meaning. But others believe the strict medical definition should be expanded to cover a wider set of human experiences. This explosive debate – reignited by the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, and continuing at a time when war is high on the news agenda – has big implications. Ultimately, our understanding of what trauma is, and which experiences qualify, determines whether people are being unnecessarily diagnosed and treated for PTSD, or are living with the symptoms unable to get the treatment they need.

3-30-22 A new place for consciousness in our understanding of the universe
To make sense of mysteries like quantum mechanics and the passage of time, theorists are trying to reformulate physics to include subjective experience as a physical constituent of the world. A WALK in the woods. Every shade of green. A fleck of rain. The sensations and thoughts bound in every moment of experience feel central to our existence. But physics, which aims to describe the universe and everything in it, says nothing about your inner world. Our descriptions of the wavelengths of light as they reflect off leaves capture something – but not what it is like to be deep in the woods. It can seem as if there is an insurmountable gap between our subjective experience of the world and our attempts to objectively describe it. And yet our brains are made of matter – so, you might think, the states of mind they generate must be explicable in terms of states of matter. The question is: how? And if we can’t explain consciousness in physical terms, how do we find a place for it in an all-embracing view of the universe? “There is no question in science more difficult and confusing,” says Lee Smolin, a theoretical physicist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada. It is also one that he and others are addressing with renewed vigour, convinced that we will never make sense of the universe’s mysteries – things like how reality emerges from the fog of the quantum world and what the passage of time truly signifies – unless we reimagine the relationship between matter and mind. Their ideas amount to an audacious attempt to describe the universe from the inside out, rather than the other way around, and they might just force us to abandon long-cherished assumptions about what everything is ultimately made of. Modern physics was founded on the separation of mind and matter. That goes back to Galileo Galilei, whose big idea, some four centuries ago, was to boil the world down to the interactions of moving objects that could be described by mathematical laws. Our senses, meanwhile, lived in the human soul – distinct, though still important. “Galileo said ‘don’t worry about consciousness for the moment, just focus on what you can capture in mathematics’,” says Philip Goff, a philosopher at Durham University, UK.

3-30-22 Where you grew up influences how well you navigate the world
People who grew up in cities are better at navigating grid-like environments full of straight routes, while those raised in more rural settings are best at navigating routes that meander. People are better at navigating environments that are similar to those in which they grew up. Hugo Spiers at University College London and his colleagues have previously used a mobile video game called Sea Hero Quest to explore our sense of direction. Their earlier work found that people who grew up outside cities have a better sense of direction than those who spent their childhood in cities. During the game, players must memorise a map before navigating a virtual world in a boat to find checkpoints as quickly as possible. The researchers can then measure a person’s sense of direction by tracking how efficiently they do this. The game has been shown to predict our ability to orientate ourselves in the real world and was originally designed to track the loss of this skill in Alzheimer’s disease. Now, the researchers have analysed data from nearly 10,000 people aged 19 to 70 who played all 75 levels of the game, finding that those who grew up in cities aren’t worse at navigation in all contexts. Instead, these people come out on top when having to find their way around environments with a grid-like structure of straight routes that reflects the geography of many cities. People who grew up in areas outside cities are better at navigating environments with more wiggly routes. The team reached these conclusions even after controlling for the age, sex, video gaming skill and educational level of volunteers. “When we look closer, grid-like cities aren’t bad for navigation skills,” says Spiers. “In game levels with environments that have more grid-like layouts, those people [who grew up in cities with a similar grid-like structure] are actually doing slightly better than those who grew up in rural areas.”

3-30-22 Zero-covid strategies are being ditched, but they were the best option
Several countries are now abandoning their goal of reducing the coronavirus's spread as much as possible, but the evidence shows this was the best route to have taken, says Michael Marshall. IT HAS been two years since the World Health Organization declared covid-19 a pandemic, and governments are still changing tack. One of the biggest shifts has been the abandonment of the “zero covid” strategy by countries like New Zealand and Vietnam, which are opening up and allowing the virus to spread. As a result, it is tempting to think the approach was a mistake and that the strategy of nations like the UK has won out. But that is nonsense. Countries that followed the zero-covid playbook have done better on every measure, from death rates to economic growth. If more nations had implemented this approach, humanity would be in a better place. When the next pandemic emerges, governments should consider trying to eliminate it using zero-covid methods. There is no single definition of a zero-covid strategy, but it generally means reducing the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus as much as possible. This typically entails a rapid lockdown once the virus is detected in the community, followed by reopening once cases have fallen, combined with a robust system for testing, tracing chains of infection and supporting those who need to self-isolate. The most obvious benefit is that far fewer people die. As of 18 March, New Zealand had seen 151 confirmed deaths from covid-19, or 0.003 per cent of its population – even though the virus repeatedly snuck into the country. In contrast, more than 164,000 people are confirmed to have died in the UK, which is 0.24 per cent of the population. Zero-covid policies also cause less economic harm. When the virus is barely present, people feel confident going out, so the economy can reopen more fully. There is an economic cost to the initial lockdown, but many nations that allowed the virus to spread have also had lockdowns to save their health systems and so paid the same costs – and their lockdowns were often longer. A 2021 study found there was greater economic growth in zero-covid countries than in those that let the virus spread. The one big downside is that maintaining border controls hurt trade and tourism. But overall, zero-covid nations did better economically.

3-30-22 Fate of buried Java Man revealed in unseen notes from Homo erectus dig
One of the first excavations to find extinct human remains took place on Java in the 1890s, and the original documentation reveals details about the mudflow that encased the fossils there. The first large excavation of ancient human remains in Indonesia, in the 1890s, were done with great care – according to an analysis of unpublished documents from the dig. The original excavations revealed that Homo erectus on Java lived in a lush valley alongside a range of large animals, including antelope and elephants. Researchers including Paul C. H. Albers at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands have analysed the records, and they say the animals in the fossil bed may all have perished in a single cataclysm, probably a volcanic eruption. Later, a volcanic mudslide swept all their bones down the valley to a single site. Homo erectus was one of the first members of the Homo genus, to which our species, Homo sapiens, belongs, and the first known to have lived outside Africa. It was first described by Eugène Dubois, a Dutch researcher who, in the late 19th century, travelled to what is now Indonesia in search of fossils of the “missing link” between apes and humans. Between 1891 and 1893, at a site called Trinil on the banks of the Solo river on Java, Dubois’s team excavated the first recognised remains of what he called Pithecanthropus erectus – now known as H. erectus. The initial report was based on three pieces: a molar tooth, a skullcap and a femur or thigh bone. The discovery helped kick-start the study of human evolution, but many researchers have long been sceptical about the femur. “It looks too much like Homo sapiens,” says Albers. This has led to suggestions that it is actually a modern human bone that had sunk deep into the soil. Albers and his colleagues have gone back over the original Trinil documents, most of which were never published. They include letters between Dubois and his site staff, letters from Dubois to the Indies government (as it was then called) and notes Dubois scribbled on unpublished photographs.

3-30-22 Myocarditis and covid-19 vaccines: How rare is it and who is at risk?
With the mRNA covid-19 vaccines being delivered to growing numbers of young people, researchers are looking again at the rare risk of heart inflammation. As the UK offers a covid-19 vaccine to children aged 5 to 11, and officials consider the benefits of a fourth jab for adults, we still have an uncertain picture about the risks to the heart. High-income countries are mainly administering the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines to their citizens. Based on mRNA, these contain a strand of genetic material that instructs cells to make the SARS-CoV-2 virus’s spike protein, prompting an immune response that protects against severe disease. These mRNA vaccines are effective, but in rare cases they have been linked to heart muscle inflammation, known as myocarditis. Myocarditis often causes chest pain and breathlessness, which usually resolve without treatment. In severe cases, however, it can trigger heart damage. Inflammation signals that the immune system’s activity is raised, but how myocarditis specifically comes about is unclear. “Arguably, it isn’t a single disease,” says Tevfik Ismail, a cardiologist at King’s College London, who has advised the UK Health Security Agency on the issue, but spoke to New Scientist in a personal capacity. Myocarditis is also linked to other vaccines, medicines and to covid-19 itself, but regardless of cause, it is more common in males and younger people. In December 2021, work led by a team at the University of Oxford looked at the prevalence of myocarditis after a covid-19 vaccine in more than 42 million people aged 13 or over in England. Males under 40 were most at risk. There were an additional 12 myocarditis events per 1 million males in the 28 days after a second Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, as well as an additional 13 events after a third jab. Among this group, myocarditis was more common after the vaccines than it was after covid-19 itself, which caused an additional seven myocarditis cases. This contradicts an August 2021 US study, in which myocarditis after covid-19 was six times more likely than it was post-vaccination. Unfortunately, varying myocarditis definitions make it difficult to compare country-to-country data, says Ismail.

3-30-22 Health Check newsletter: Six lessons from the covid-19 pandemic
From paying more heed to early warning systems to being prepared to change our minds as the evidence evolves, there are several things we should do differently in the next pandemic, argues Clare Wilson. On 23 March, it was two years since the UK went into its first covid-19 lockdown. Although some countries had been battling the virus for some time by then, for the UK, shuttering shops and sending people home from work was an unwelcome landmark. I thought it would be interesting to consider, with the benefit of hindsight, some of the lessons learned that could help in tackling the next pandemic. After all, while omicron is milder than previous variants, it is quite possible that in the next few months or perhaps years, we will meet a fiercer version of the coronavirus, requiring new restrictions. Or a new pandemic could arise from a different kind of pathogen, such as a novel flu strain. Rather than the mistakes made by politicians – of which there were plenty – I’m more interested in lessons for scientists and public health doctors. The job of working out what we should do differently next time round isn’t easy, not least because scientists disagree among themselves on many of these issues. You may also disagree with my reasoning – but for what it’s worth, here’s my take on lessons for the next pandemic. This relates to the most contentious question of all. Some think all nations should have pursued a zero-covid strategy, suppressing the spread of the virus as much as possible and ideally stamping it out, as places such as Australia, Iceland and South Korea have done for much of the past two years. The other camp says efforts to stop the virus often did more harm than good and we should have “let it rip” from the start. The UK arguably followed a middle way for most of the past two years, but in January switched to the let-it-rip approach, allowing the virus to spread more or less unhindered – as our news story last week describes here. Lately, other countries have been following suit – even Australia and Iceland.

3-29-22 Ancient Britons rapidly evolved to cope with lack of sunlight
The DNA of people who lived in Great Britain thousands of years ago has markers of natural selection at work – and the driving force seems to have been a shortage of vitamin D. Natural selection was at work on Bronze Age Britons, ancient DNA reveals. Within the past 4500 years, evolution has acted on genes involved in the production of vitamin D – which people living in Britain are sometimes short of due to a lack of sunlight for much of the year. The genetic changes have had knock-on effects on other traits, from the ability of people to digest milk to their skin colour. One of the ways evolutionary change can happen is through natural selection: genetic variants that are beneficial become more common in the population because individuals that carry them are more likely to reproduce. In recent years, geneticists have collected DNA from the remains of thousands of people who lived in Britain over the millennia, so it is possible to see natural selection by looking for genetic variants becoming more or less common. “In some cases, the change is so dramatic that you can rule out this happening by chance, and that’s when we would posit that selection is driving this,” says Jonathan Terhorst at the University of Michigan. Terhorst has developed a new method of analysing ancient DNA for signs of natural selection. Unlike previous techniques, it doesn’t assume that selection is equally intense throughout the study period, as that is unrealistic. “The novelty here is that we can really localise selection to within a few thousand years, and say ‘this is what’s being selected’,” says Iain Mathieson at the University of Pennsylvania, who has worked with Terhorst to apply the technique to ancient Britons. The new approach impresses Claire-Elise Fischer, who is at the University of York in the UK. “It’s really amazing,” she says. “We’re all going to use the method.”

3-29-22 Grainy ice cream is unpleasant. Plant-based nanocrystals might help
The stabilizers could prevent large ice crystals from forming and causing a coarse texture. You can never have too much ice cream, but you can have too much ice in your ice cream. Adding plant-based nanocrystals to the frozen treat could help solve that problem, researchers reported March 20 at the American Chemical Society spring meeting in San Diego. Ice cream contains tiny ice crystals that grow bigger when natural temperature fluctuations in the freezer cause them to melt and recrystallize. Stabilizers in ice cream — typically guar gum or locust bean gum — help inhibit crystal growth, but don’t completely stop it. And once ice crystals hit 50 micrometers in diameter, ice cream takes on an unpleasant, coarse, grainy texture. Cellulose nanocrystals, or CNCs, which are derived from wood pulp, have properties similar to the gums, says Tao Wu, a food scientist at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. They also share similarities with antifreeze proteins, produced by some animals to help them survive subzero temperatures. Antifreeze proteins work by binding to the surface of ice crystals, inhibiting growth more effectively than gums — but they are also extremely expensive. CNCs might work similarly to antifreeze proteins but at a fraction of the cost, Wu and his colleagues thought. An experiment with a sucrose solution — a simplified ice cream proxy — and CNCs showed that after 24 hours, the ice crystals completely stopped growing. A week later, the ice crystals remained at 25 micrometers, well beneath the threshold of ice crystal crunchiness. In a similar experiment with guar gum, ice crystals grew to 50 micrometers in just three days. “That by itself suggests that nanocrystals are a lot more potent than the gums,” says Richard Hartel, a food engineer at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, who was not involved in the research. If CNCs do function the same way as antifreeze proteins, they’re a promising alternative to current stabilizers, he says. But that still needs to be proven. Until that happens, you continue to have a good excuse to eat your ice cream quickly: You wouldn’t want large ice crystals to form, after all.

3-28-22 Malawi is battling southeast Africa's 1st polio outbreak in 30 years, 'and yes, you should care'
Health officials in Malawi diagnosed polio last month in a 3-year-old girl who is now paralyzed, in the first wild polio case in southeastern Africa in 30 years. "And yes, you should care," Joanne Kenen writes in Monday's Politico Nightly newsletter. Malawi's small outbreak is an important reminder that "diseases that we scarcely think about and no longer fear, like polio or measles, can and do re-emerge." Polio, an incurable virus that can kill or paralyze unvaccinated children, was declared eradicated in Africa in 2020, and Malawi's outbreak was genetically traced back to Pakistan, one of two countries, along with Afghanistan, where wild polio had not been eliminated. "The rule of thumb is that if Malawi has diagnosed one child with paralysis, another 200 have been infected, somewhere, with less severe or asymptomatic polio cases," Kenen says, and how and when the virus got from Pakistan "to Malawi and who it affected along the way are not yet known." UNICEF last week started a huge vaccination drive to inoculate 20 million children against polio in Malawi and three neighboring countries. "The Malawi case should underscore two things to a U.S. audience," Kenen writes, citing public health experts in and out of government. First, the COVID-19 pandemic "interfered with many ordinary — and necessary — primary and preventive health services at home and abroad. That includes routine childhood immunizations, like the polio vaccine." And second, she adds: "Vaccination." "Vaccine hesitancy did not begin with the coronavirus," but "fear of vaccines has intensified and become more politicized during the pandemic," and "even before the pandemic, groups of conservative lawmakers in a few states attempted to weaken vaccination requirements for kids to attend school," Kenen reports. "Precisely because vaccines have been so successful in eliminating these childhood diseases, people have forgotten how dangerous those illnesses can be. ... That amnesia, that complacency, is a public health risk." Read more about polio and vaccinations at Politico.

3-28-22 Chronic pain in Black people in US may be linked to gene expression
Stress-linked changes in the activity of genes may be why Black people in the US often have worse chronic pain than white people. Black people in the US have worse chronic pain than white people due in part to gene expression. Chronic stress has previously been linked to racial discrimination, and can lead to changes in gene expression. Edwin Aroke at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and his colleagues collected blood samples from 98 people – half were Black and half were non-Hispanic white, and they had an average age of 45. Half the group had chronic lower back pain, while the rest were pain-free. Everyone with chronic pain was asked to report how bad their pain was and how much it affected their daily lives. Black participants had higher scores on both counts than their white counterparts. The researchers wanted to see if they could find biological markers that would explain this. They analysed the participants’ blood samples using genetic sequencing that identifies which sections of DNA have small molecules called methyl groups attached. This methylation can happen for a variety of reasons, including ageing and chronic stress. Methyl groups may change the activity of DNA, but they don’t change its sequence. Previous studies have shown that methylation may be linked to poorer health outcomes. In this study, there were 110 signalling pathways with significantly more methylated genes in Black people with chronic pain than in Black participants who were pain-free. These pathways have been tied to chronic pain. There were 31 pathways with more methylated genes in white people with chronic pain than in white participants without such pain. “The study begins to validate the fact that chronic stress experienced by Black people is causing actual harm,” says Aroke. The team didn’t quantify experiences of racism by the participants, but the findings imply that institutional racism may play a role, he says.

3-28-22 First ever gene therapy gel corrects rare genetic skin condition
People with recessive dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa, a genetic condition that causes widespread skin blistering, have been successfully treated by inserting new collagen genes into their skin. A rare genetic skin condition has been corrected for the first time using a gene therapy that is applied to the skin. About 1 in 800,000 children in the US are born with a severe condition called recessive dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa that makes their skin extremely fragile and prone to tearing and blistering. “It is very painful,” says Vincenzo Mascoli, 22, who travelled from Italy to the US to have the gene therapy. He had open wounds all over his body, including one covering his entire back that had been there since he was 2 years old. “Sometimes I also get blisters in my eyes and have to keep my eyes closed, and sometimes I get blisters in my throat that make it difficult to eat – I can only have liquid food then,” he says. Mascoli and other people with the condition have fragile skin because they have a faulty version of a collagen gene called COL7A1. That means their skin can’t produce the collagen proteins needed to give it structure and strength. Peter Marinkovich at Stanford University in California and his colleagues developed a way to insert normal COL7A1 genes into the skin of such individuals so they can start producing collagen properly. They did this by engineering herpes simplex virus to deliver COL7A1 genes into skin cells. This virus is normally known as the cause of cold sores, but it was modified so it couldn’t replicate or cause disease. “All it does is go into the cell and deliver the gene,” says Marinkovich. The gene therapy was then incorporated into a gel so it could be applied to the skin. It was tested in a late-stage clinical trial in the US involving 31 children and adults with recessive dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa, including Mascoli.

3-28-22 Armless fossil sheds light on how animals like snakes lost their limbs
A tiny snake-like animal that lived about 308 million years ago had evolved to lose its forelimbs. Less than 100 million years after vertebrates first grew legs, some of their descendants had evolved to lose them again, fossils reveal. The discovery shows that land vertebrates first began to evolve a snake-like form at least 308 million years ago. Arjan Mann at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC and his colleagues found two fossils of an ancient animal, both of which came from rocks in Illinois that are well-known among palaeontologists for preserving the remains of ancient land animals in fine detail. The animal has been dubbed Nagini mazonense, representing a new genus and species, and it belongs to a group called the molgophids. It may have grown to be about 10 centimetres long, and had a snake-like body with no forelimbs. It also lacked the bony structures that support the attachment of forelimbs to the body, known as the pectoral girdle. However, N. mazonense did have a pair of small but fully formed back legs, with four toes on each foot. Along with the nearly complete skeletons, which are around 308 million years old, there were also impressions of soft tissue, revealing that N. mazonense had a round snout and a long body with about 85 vertebrae and ribs. There were no signs of soft tissue in the area where forelimbs might be expected, says Mann. “They’re relying on body-based locomotion like sidewinding and not really relying on limb-propelled locomotion anymore,” says Mann. It is a fascinating discovery, says Rolf Zeller at the University of Basel in Switzerland. “Snake embryos, such as pythons, still form hindlimb buds that disappear during development,” he says. “The discovery of an ancient snake-like fossil lacking forelimbs but retaining hindlimbs is a fantastic find, because it reveals the existence of transitional forms before complete limb loss during evolution.”

3-28-22 Some of the earliest complex animals were fossilised in a river delta
The Cambrian animals preserved at the Chengjiang fossil site in China lived in a shallow sea close to a river delta – a changeable environment that might have driven rapid evolution. Some of the first complex animals lived in a shallow sea near the mouth of a river delta about 518 million years ago. The changeable environment, which was prone to violent floods, may have helped drive the evolution of early animals, including some of the first worms and animals with hard shells. The Cambrian period, from 541 to 485 million years ago, saw a great flowering of animal life, dubbed the Cambrian explosion. A number of major animal groups originated at this time, including many that still exist today. Some of the best Cambrian fossils come from the Chengjiang biota, a set of fossil-bearing rocks in China that are around 518 million years old. It was first recognised in 1984 by Hou Xian-guang, now at Yunnan University in Kunming, China, and has been studied ever since. Most of this research has focused on the animals themselves, says Xiaoya Ma at the University of Exeter in Penryn, UK. “We have very limited understanding in terms of why the animals are there,” she says. Ma and her colleagues, including Hou, have now analysed a core taken from the rocks that include the Chengjiang layer. By studying the exact kinds of sediments that make up the rocks, they say they have identified the environment in which the Chengjiang organisms lived. They concluded that it was a shallow sea, close to the mouth of a delta. This was unexpected, because the animals are beautifully preserved, which often indicates that they lived in the deep sea and were buried in oxygen-free sediments where they couldn’t decay. However, Ma says the presence of the delta explains the preservation. Deltas are prone to violent floods, which sweep sediment out to sea – so, from time to time, the Chengjiang organisms would have found themselves sliding away in a washed-out delta. The delta sediments would have buried them, preserving them exquisitely.

3-25-22 Burst of ultrasound waves can break up kidney stones in 10 minutes
Delivering low-amplitude, high-frequency ultrasound waves could fragment a kidney stone more quickly than existing high-amplitude, low-frequency treatments. Bursts of ultrasound waves could break up kidney stones within 10 minutes, potentially offering a faster and less painful way to pass stones in the urine without surgery. Kidney stones are crystals that form when waste products in the blood collect in the kidneys. Some people pass these without any discomfort, however stones can cause considerable abdominal pain if they get stuck in the kidneys or the ureter, the small tube that connects the kidneys to the bladder. Relatively small kidney stones are often treated via shock wave lithotripsy (SWL), which involves delivering high-amplitude, low-frequency ultrasound waves to a stone for up to an hour, usually while the person is under sedation. This fragments the stone so it can be more easily passed in the urine. Larger stones may require surgery. Jonathan Harper at the University of Washington in Seattle and his colleagues have developed a less painful treatment that also uses ultrasound waves, but at a lower amplitude and higher frequency, dubbed burst wave lithotripsy (BWL). In its first human study, 19 people with 25 kidney stones between them underwent BWL for up to 10 minutes. About 90 per cent of the stones’ volume fragmented, from up to 12 millimetres to less than 2 millimetres. In SWL, about 60 per cent of stones are generally fragmented to less than 4 millimetres. A 4-millimetre fragment can usually be excreted, but more painfully than with smaller stones. “Burst wave lithotripsy has the potential to be administered in awake patients without anaesthesia,” says Harper. Team member Michael Bailey, also at the University of Washington, previously used ultrasound waves to move stones closer to the kidneys’ exit, which he hopes to combine with BWL.

3-25-22 How I’ll decide when it’s time to ditch my mask
Recent mask guidelines are designed for communities not individuals. For weeks, I have been watching coronavirus cases drop across the United States. At the same time, cases were heading skyward in many places in Europe, Asia and Oceania. Those surges may have peaked in some places and seem to be on a downward trajectory again, according to Our World in Data. Much of the rise in cases has been attributed to the omicron variant’s more transmissible sibling BA.2 clawing its way to prominence. But many public health officials have pointed out that the surges coincide with relaxing of COVID-19 mitigation measures. People around the world are shedding their masks and gathering in public. Immunity from vaccines and prior infections have helped limit deaths in wealthier countries, but the omicron siblings are very good at evading immune defenses, leading to breakthrough infections and reinfections. Even so, at the end of February, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted new guidelines for masking, more than doubling the number of cases needed per 100,000 people before officials recommended a return to the face coverings (SN: 3/3/22). Not everyone has ditched their masks. I have observed some regional trends. The majority of people I see at my grocery store and other places in my community in Maryland are still wearing masks. But on road trips to the Midwest and back, even during the height of the omicron surge, most of the faces I saw in public were bare. Meanwhile, I was wearing my N95 mask even when I was the only person doing so. I reasoned that I was protecting myself from infection as best I could. I was also protecting my loved ones and other people around me from me should I have unwittingly contracted the virus. But I will tell you a secret. I don’t really like wearing masks. They can be hot and uncomfortable. They leave lines on my face. And sometimes masks make it hard to breathe. At the same time, I know that wearing a good quality, well-fitting mask greatly reduces the chance of testing positive for the coronavirus (SN: 2/12/21). In one study, N95 or KN95 masks reduced the chance of testing positive by 83 percent, researchers reported in the February 11 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. And school districts with mask mandates had about a quarter of the number of in-school infections as districts where masks weren’t required (SN: 3/15/22).

3-24-22 Some past Science News coverage was racist and sexist. We’re deeply sorry
We shared and endorsed ideas that were unscientific and morally wrong. In late 2019, with the 100th birthday of Science News a few years off, our team considered how we might celebrate. We realized that inviting the world to explore the more than 80,000 original reports of advances in science, medicine and technology in our archive was an obvious choice. Newspaper magnate Edward W. Scripps and zoologist William E. Ritter founded Science Service, the original name of the news organization, to provide accurate, engaging news of science to the public. “The success of democratic government as well as the prosperity of the individual may be said to depend upon the ability of the people to distinguish between real science and fake,” wrote our founding editor Edwin Slosson in 1921. But Science Service didn’t always live up to those ideals. As we planned for our centennial, we knew that alongside stories chronicling great feats of science there would be articles that we now find horrifying. Through much of its early history, this organization widely shared, and in some cases endorsed, ideas that were racist, sexist, xenophobic and otherwise prejudiced, as well as supposedly “scientific” justifications for immoral and unethical behavior. We are deeply sorry. Other publications, universities and nonprofit organizations have recently reckoned with their pasts. Our own efforts to grapple with previous coverage turned up specific examples of racism, sexism and prejudice against members of the LGBTQ community and others in reporting from the 1920s through the 1960s. Though the examples discussed below will be hurtful to some readers, we believe doing better in the future requires an honest and transparent examination of our past. Our most egregious failing was our supportive coverage of eugenics, a field of study and associated practices born from the false belief that humankind could be improved if only the people judged to have the most desirable traits were allowed to reproduce. Francis Galton, a British polymath who coined the term in the late 1800s, wrote that eugenics would “give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had.”

3-24-22 Spinosaurus’ dense bones fuel debate over whether some dinosaurs could swim
A new study suggests yes, but it won't be the last word. A fierce group of predatory dinosaurs may have done much of their hunting in the water. An analysis of the bone density of several sharp-toothed spinosaurs suggests that several members of this dino group were predominantly aquatic, researchers report March 23 in Nature. That finding is the latest salvo in an ongoing challenge to the prevailing view that all dinosaurs were land-based animals that left the realms of water and air to marine reptiles such as Mosasaurus and flying reptiles such as Pteranodon. But, other researchers say, it still doesn’t prove that Spinosaurus and its kin actually swam. Back in 2014, Nizar Ibrahim, a vertebrate paleontologist now at the University of Portsmouth in England, and colleagues pieced together the fossil of a 15-meter-long Spinosaurus from what’s now Morocco. The dinosaur’s odd collection of features — a massive sail-like structure on its back, short and muscular legs, nostrils set well back from its snout and needlelike teeth seemingly designed for snagging fish — suggested to the researchers that the predator might have been a swimmer (SN: 9/11/14). In particular, it had very dense leg bones, a feature of some aquatic creatures like manatees that need the bones for ballast to stay submerged. In the new study, Ibrahim and his team returned to that question of bone density to assess whether it’s a reliable proxy for how much time a creature spends in the water. The team assembled “a massive dataset” of femur and dorsal rib bone densities from “an incredible menagerie of extinct and living animals, reaching out to museum curators all around the world,” Ibrahim says. That menagerie includes spinosaurs like showy, sail-backed Spinosaurus as well as its equally sharp-toothed cousins Baryonyx and Suchomimus. It also includes other groups of dinosaurs, extinct marine reptiles, pterosaurs, birds, modern crocodiles and marine mammals.

3-24-22 Dinosaurs: Jurassic giants emerge from Wyoming badlands
Two giant sauropods offer a first glimpse of treasures likely to emerge from one of the world's most productive fossil sites. The long-necked, long-tailed beasts are stars of the new Dinosphere show at The Children's Museum of Indianapolis. Just over three years ago, they were encased in rock in Wyoming quarries. "I'm utterly gobsmacked at how quickly this project has gone," said British palaeontologist Phil Manning. The University of Manchester professor is a scientist-in-residence at the US museum, and led the excavation works on a section of ranch land they call the "Jurassic Mile". As the name suggests, this one-square-mile of ground in the Big Horn basin contains deposits from the Jurassic Period in Earth history. The sauropods that have just gone on display are likely just a foretaste of what's expected to become one of the most productive fossil sites in the world. The Children's Museum has staged its new dino stars together, but in very different poses. One is in the more classic on-all-fours posture; the other - which may surprise people - is seen rearing up on its hind legs. "There've been multiple studies that have looked at the rearing of sauropod dinosaurs," explained Prof Manning. "These animals would have done it probably either as a defence posture or to reach higher branches for higher browsing. It's quite logical. These animals had a centre of mass closer to the pelvis, so rearing up must have been possible. After all, how else could they mate?" When the BBC was given exclusive access to the Jurassic Mile dig in 2019, it wasn't clear what type of sauropods were being unearthed. The analysis is still ongoing, but they're almost certainly Diplodocid species that are new to science. UK audiences would be very familiar with this sauropod grouping because a cast of Diplodocus carnegii stood at the entrance of London's Natural History museum for many years. D. carnegii also came from Wyoming. Indeed, the state is where the Diplodocus genus was first identified by Othniel Charles Marsh.

3-23-22 Academics discover we find boring people boring and don’t like them
A scintillating piece of research into the traits we associate with boring people, plus Feedback’s take on whether there are more doors or wheels in the world, and an asteroid half the size of a giraffe. Are we boring you? As we leaf listlessly through the paper “Boring People: Stereotype characteristics, interpersonal attributions, and social reactions” from Wijnand van Tilburg at the University of Essex, UK, and his colleagues, we feel the answer is probably “no”. Although we will make a fair stab at it. To get the oldest and best one out of the way first, the paper isn’t about civil engineers. Boredom, we read, is often conceptualised as “the adverse experience of wanting but being unable to pursue satisfactory activity” – or, alternatively, being stuck at a party with someone who is doing their own conveyancing. In a series of experiments – involving asking people in the UK what professions, hobbies and personality traits they associate with boring people, using those answers to invent very boring, middlingly boring and sparklingly unboring people, and asking other people how boring they would find those people – the researchers find that, in the main, we find boring people boring, don’t like them and go out of our way to avoid them. This is capital-s Science. We are especially intrigued by some of the occupations (busboy, graveyard watcher) and hobbies (sleeping, ant study, even “going to gales”) that entered the mix, which confirm our suspicion that you shouldn’t ask the Great British Public anything, or possibly everything. Sad to say, the most boring professions are data analysis, accounting and tax/insurance, suggesting numeracy is considered an evil, if a necessary one. But what do we see here? Near the top of the chart of most unboring occupations are science and journalism.

3-23-22 Why everyone needs to give their pelvic floor a workout
A vital part of our bodies is often ignored by exercise regimes. But we can all benefit from taking better care of our pelvic floors - here's how. I AM playing a video game on my phone, making a bird climb and dive to avoid hazards and collect points. It is pretty simple and unremarkable except for one thing: I am using my vagina as a game controller. The device I am using, which looks like a sex toy and wirelessly talks to my phone via Bluetooth, is designed to encourage users to exercise something that is usually ignored: the pelvic floor. Hidden away at the base of our abdomen, this hammock of muscles, nerves and tissues supports internal organs including the bladder and bowel. It is a critical part of our anatomy, yet most people only start paying attention to it when it becomes too weak – and they experience incontinence – or too tight. Such problems are often thought of as a “female thing”, but everyone has a pelvic floor, with weakness also linked to erectile dysfunction. Recently, there has been a renaissance in our understanding of what the pelvic floor is made of and how it can go wrong. Exercise programmes promise healing, and an ever-increasing array of digital devices, like the one connected to my phone, advertise strength training for these elusive muscles. But many people aren’t getting their diagnoses or treatments right. The best known way to improve control of the pelvic floor muscles is squeezing exercises known as Kegels, but these aren’t suitable for everyone and won’t fix everything. Some people who would benefit from Kegels are activating the wrong muscles or not working the right ones hard enough. It’s time to get to know your pelvic floor better. The pelvic floor is made up of layers of muscle fibres, which together are roughly the size and shape of two cupped hands, surrounding the urethral openings. This bowl-like structure, which is typically about 10 centimetres wide and 1 centimetre thick, must be strong enough to support the organs above but flexible enough to allow sexual function and the opening of the bowel and urethra, plus childbirth.

3-23-22 Pancreatic cancer treated in mice by loading tumour cells with tetanus
A new type of therapy aims to exploit immunity gained from childhood tetanus vaccinations to make the immune system attack hard-to-treat pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic tumours have been drastically shrunk in mice using a creative new strategy that allows the immune system to find and kill the cancer cells. The same approach may help to treat this notoriously deadly disease in people. At the moment, most people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer only survive for a matter of months. This is because the cancer often spreads widely before symptoms arise and we lack effective treatments. Many other cancers can be treated using immunotherapies that boost the natural cancer-fighting abilities of the immune system. However, these don’t usually work for pancreatic cancer because it lacks the mutations that allow the immune system to detect it easily. Making matters worse, pancreatic tumours tend to be surrounded by cells that suppress immune activity. Claudia Gravekamp at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and her colleagues wanted to make it easier for the immune system to detect and destroy pancreatic cancer. To do this, they developed an approach that uses listeria bacteria, which are naturally attracted to tumours, to selectively deliver an inactivated form of tetanus toxin to pancreatic cancer. Because most of us are vaccinated against tetanus in childhood, our immune systems can detect it for the rest of our lives. This means pancreatic cancer cells that have been loaded up with tetanus should become visible to the immune system and therefore vulnerable to attack. To test this, the researchers gave tetanus vaccines to young mice that were engineered to develop pancreatic cancer when they got older. When the mice developed advanced pancreatic cancer, tetanus-containing listeria bacteria were injected into their abdomens.

3-23-22 Drugs seem to help regenerate mouse lungs damaged by cigarette smoke
Two clinically available drugs have shown promise in restoring the regenerative capacity of mouse lung cells, suggesting they could be used to treat chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Two clinically available drugs may help regenerate mouse lungs that have been damaged by cigarette smoke. The preliminary findings suggest the drugs could eventually be used to reverse lung damage in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which currently has no cure. COPD is the third leading cause of death worldwide after heart disease and stroke, and can result from smoking, air pollution or genetics. It involves an excessive immune response that irreversibly damages the lungs, leading to shortness of breath, chest tightness and elevated mucus levels in them. “The problem with COPD at the moment is that we do not have a way of preventing the progression of disease and the decline in lung function. We only have ways to treat symptoms, for example, using anti-inflammatory drugs or inhaled bronchodilators [which relax lung muscles and widen the airways],” says Reinoud Gosens at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. COPD damages so-called epithelial progenitor cells that normally regenerate the lining of the lungs, meaning they cannot repair themselves. Previous efforts at treating this have mainly focused on invasive cellular therapies such as stem cell implants, which provide a source of progenitor cells. A drug-based treatment could be easier to use on a larger scale, either alone or in combination with other therapies. To identify one, Gosens and his colleagues analysed data previously collected from the lung tissue of people with COPD and mice exposed to cigarette smoke, as well as data from healthy people and mice, to find out which genes were more or less active in diseased lung tissues compared with healthy controls. This allowed them to identify two proteins in epithelial progenitor cells that contributed to the disease and could be targeted using two existing drugs: iloprost, which is used to treat high blood pressure in lung arteries, and misoprostol, used to heal stomach ulcers.

3-22-22 Another global wave of covid-19 is beginning before the last one ended
Global cases of covid-19 are climbing sharply again, and China in particular faces a potential disaster if it fails to contain its biggest outbreak since 2020. Some think the covid-19 pandemic is over – but it most certainly isn’t. On the contrary, around the world, the number of confirmed cases is rising rapidly again. The most concerning situation is in China, where many older people still have no immune protection of any kind and which is currently battling a major outbreak. So why are cases on the rise again, how bad will it be and what could happen next? The omicron variant that first started spreading in November 2021 caused by far the biggest wave of the pandemic to date. Globally, reported covid-19 cases peaked towards the end of January this year, and they were falling nearly as fast as they shot up. But now they have begun to rise sharply again, up by 8 per cent in the week ending 13 March according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Because many countries are doing less testing than they did at the peak of the omicron wave, the actual increase could be even bigger than this, said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a briefing on 16 March. Deaths are still declining globally, but they are expected to rise again too; deaths usually lag cases by around three weeks. The situation isn’t the same everywhere. In some nations that had big omicron waves, the number of reported cases is still falling. Notably, that includes South Africa, the first country to have an omicron wave. The number of tests being done in South Africa has fallen sharply, from around 70,000 per day during early December to just 20,000 in early March. But the proportion of positive tests has fallen from 37 per cent to 7 per cent over this period, which indicates that case numbers really are falling.

3-23-22 Moderna says new data provides 'good news for parents of children under 6'
Is Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine finally on the way for kids under six? The company said Wednesday its coronavirus vaccine generated a strong immune response in children between six months and six years old, NBC News reports. The vaccine was given to kids at a lower dose than is given to adults. The data comes from a trial that consisted of about 6,900 children, and Moderna said the vaccine generated a "robust neutralizing antibody response" both in kids between six months and under two years old and kids between two and six years old. The "majority of adverse events were mild or moderate," the company also said. "We believe these latest results from the KidCOVE study are good news for parents of children under 6 years of age," Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said. "We now have clinical data on the performance of our vaccine from infants six months of age through older adults. Given the need for a vaccine against COVID-19 in infants and young children we are working with the U.S. FDA and regulators globally to submit these data as soon as possible." The vaccine was about 43.7 percent effective against the Omicron variant in children between six months and two years old and 37.5 percent effective in kids between two and five years old. Moderna now plans to seek emergency use authorization for the vaccine in kids under six from the FDA. NBC medical correspondent John Torres said on the Today show this FDA approval will be a "huge game-changer," and he speculated it could happen within the next month or so. "That's going to let us get back to more normal lives," Torres added.

3-23-22 How language evolved: A new idea suggests it’s all just a game
Our mastery of language presents many mysteries, not least where grammar comes from and how children learn to speak so effortlessly. Now researchers argue that it all makes sense if you think of language as a game of charades. IN THE early afternoon of 16 January 1769, HMS Endeavour dropped anchor in the Bay of Good Success on Tierra del Fuego. When Captain James Cook and his crew came ashore, they were met by a group of Indigenous people, probably Haush hunter-gatherers. Two of Cook’s party advanced. Soon, two of the Haush also stepped forward, displayed small sticks and threw them aside. Cook’s men interpreted this as an indication of peaceful intentions. They were right: the groups were soon exchanging gifts and sharing food. With no common language and inhabiting utterly different worlds, they could nonetheless communicate through a high-stakes game of cross-cultural charades. Most of us have faced our own communication challenges, perhaps resorting to pointing and gesturing when abroad. And yet in daily life, we rarely give language a second thought – never mind its many perplexing mysteries. How can noises convey meaning? Where do the complex layers of linguistic patterns come from? How come children learn language so easily, whereas chimpanzees can scarcely learn it at all? We believe these questions have remained unanswered because scientists have been looking at language all wrong. A growing body of research undermines prevailing ideas that humans possess an innate language ability somehow wired into our brains, encoding grammatical rules. In our new book, The Language Game, we argue that language isn’t about rules at all. As Cook’s encounter illustrates, it is about improvisation, freedom and the desire to be understood, constrained only by our imaginations. This radical idea helps to explain those long-standing mysteries about language – as well as how language evolved and why it makes humans special. For generations, scientists have sought to understand how the rules of language derive from biology. The founding figure in modern linguistics, Noam Chomsky, has long argued that language is governed by a “universal grammar” somehow built into our genes and brains, with specific grammars of individual languages as variations on this universal blueprint. More recently, psychologist Steven Pinker at Harvard University proposed that humans have an evolved language instinct, created by natural selection.

3-23-22 Male contraceptive pill is safe and effective in tests in mice
A daily pill drastically reduced sperm counts in mice with no side effects, but many male contraceptives have previously failed in human trials. A non-hormonal male contraceptive pill is 99 per cent effective at preventing pregnancy in mice with no observed side effects. Human trials are being planned, but some researchers warn that safety concerns could yet prevent the drug from reaching the market. Despite many attempts at making an effective and safe male contraceptive, no treatment has passed human clinical trials. Most have been based on hormones, but non-hormonal contraceptives tend to have fewer side effects, says Md Abdullah al Noman at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. “Safety is very important for birth control pills because people are not taking it for a disease, so they are less tolerant of side effects,” says Noman. He and his colleagues gave male mice a daily dose of a molecule called YCT529 over a four-week period, and found that their sperm count plummeted. Between four and six weeks after the mice stopped receiving the treatment, they could reproduce normally again with no observable side effects. “When we went to even 100 times higher dose than the effective dose, the compound didn’t show any toxicity,” says Noman, who presented the results today at the American Chemical Society Spring 2022 conference in San Diego, California. The team tested more than 100 molecules to identify a drug candidate that targets a protein called retinoic acid receptor alpha (RAR-a). Inhibiting this protein blocks the effects of retinoic acid, a derivative of vitamin A that plays an important role in cell development and sperm formation. Previous research has shown that mice that were genetically edited so they lacked the RAR-a gene experienced no side effects apart from the inability to produce sperm. Noman and his colleagues have now licensed their drug to a private company, YourChoice Therapeutics, which is aiming to carry out human trials in the US later this year.

3-23-22 How gene therapy overcame high-profile failures
A dark period didn’t derail scientists determined to help patients. Gene therapy pioneer Richard Jude Samulski remembers when he avoided the words “gene therapy.” In the mid-2000s, he told people he worked on “biological nanoparticles,” even attempting to trademark the term. “We felt that was the disguise we were going to have to wear to go forward,” recalls Samulski, a professor of pharmacology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The death of a teenager in a gene therapy clinical trial in 1999 and cases of leukemia in a trial soon after almost extinguished the field, which seeks to treat diseases at their roots by replacing or counteracting a malfunctioning gene. There were federal investigations, funding cuts and a lot of negative media attention. Yet a handful of researchers never stopped working, sometimes out of doggedness and sometimes because they couldn’t say no to desperate parents. “Everybody adapted to do what it took to keep going,” Samulski says. The gene therapy story has a happy ending. Today, the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine lists nine available gene therapies worldwide that have been approved by internationally recognized regulatory agencies, as well as more than 200 in advanced clinical trials. The field attracts billions of dollars in funding each year. But its tumultuous past reminds us that the course of medical innovation rarely runs smooth. It all began more than half a century ago, with the discovery of molecular knives and a virus lurking in monkey cells. In the 1960s, researchers identified proteins in bacteria that work like chemical knives to cut DNA into fragments. These “restriction enzymes” raised the amazing possibility that scientists could take DNA apart and put it back together. Then, in the 1970s, a virus called SV40, isolated from monkeys’ kidney cells, proved to be able to deliver genetic material into target cells. Together, the discoveries suggested that it was possible to use a viral vector like a molecular FedEx truck to deliver new DNA into cells to counteract or replace malfunctioning DNA. Unfortunately, SV40 proved to be too unreliable and risky for medical applications. It tended to insert chunks of DNA in places that could cause cells to become cancerous. So began the multi-decade hunt for new, better vectors.

3-22-22 Another global wave of covid-19 is beginning before the last one ended
Global cases of covid-19 are climbing sharply again, and China in particular faces a potential disaster if it fails to contain its biggest outbreak since 2020. Some think the covid-19 pandemic is over – but it most certainly isn’t. On the contrary, around the world, the number of confirmed cases is rising rapidly again. The most concerning situation is in China, where many older people still have no immune protection of any kind and which is currently battling a major outbreak. So why are cases on the rise again, how bad will it be and what could happen next? The omicron variant that first started spreading in November 2021 caused by far the biggest wave of the pandemic to date. Globally, reported covid-19 cases peaked towards the end of January this year, and they were falling nearly as fast as they shot up. But now they have begun to rise sharply again, up by 8 per cent in the week ending 13 March according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Because many countries are doing less testing than they did at the peak of the omicron wave, the actual increase could be even bigger than this, said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a briefing on 16 March. Deaths are still declining globally, but they are expected to rise again too; deaths usually lag cases by around three weeks. The situation isn’t the same everywhere. In some nations that had big omicron waves, the number of reported cases is still falling. Notably, that includes South Africa, the first country to have an omicron wave. The number of tests being done in South Africa has fallen sharply, from around 70,000 per day during early December to just 20,000 in early March. But the proportion of positive tests has fallen from 37 per cent to 7 per cent over this period, which indicates that case numbers really are falling.

3-23-22 Moderna says new data provides 'good news for parents of children under 6'
Is Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine finally on the way for kids under six? The company said Wednesday its coronavirus vaccine generated a strong immune response in children between six months and six years old, NBC News reports. The vaccine was given to kids at a lower dose than is given to adults. The data comes from a trial that consisted of about 6,900 children, and Moderna said the vaccine generated a "robust neutralizing antibody response" both in kids between six months and under two years old and kids between two and six years old. The "majority of adverse events were mild or moderate," the company also said. "We believe these latest results from the KidCOVE study are good news for parents of children under 6 years of age," Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said. "We now have clinical data on the performance of our vaccine from infants six months of age through older adults. Given the need for a vaccine against COVID-19 in infants and young children we are working with the U.S. FDA and regulators globally to submit these data as soon as possible." The vaccine was about 43.7 percent effective against the Omicron variant in children between six months and two years old and 37.5 percent effective in kids between two and five years old. Moderna now plans to seek emergency use authorization for the vaccine in kids under six from the FDA. NBC medical correspondent John Torres said on the Today show this FDA approval will be a "huge game-changer," and he speculated it could happen within the next month or so. "That's going to let us get back to more normal lives," Torres added.

3-23-22 How language evolved: A new idea suggests it’s all just a game
Our mastery of language presents many mysteries, not least where grammar comes from and how children learn to speak so effortlessly. Now researchers argue that it all makes sense if you think of language as a game of charades. IN THE early afternoon of 16 January 1769, HMS Endeavour dropped anchor in the Bay of Good Success on Tierra del Fuego. When Captain James Cook and his crew came ashore, they were met by a group of Indigenous people, probably Haush hunter-gatherers. Two of Cook’s party advanced. Soon, two of the Haush also stepped forward, displayed small sticks and threw them aside. Cook’s men interpreted this as an indication of peaceful intentions. They were right: the groups were soon exchanging gifts and sharing food. With no common language and inhabiting utterly different worlds, they could nonetheless communicate through a high-stakes game of cross-cultural charades. Most of us have faced our own communication challenges, perhaps resorting to pointing and gesturing when abroad. And yet in daily life, we rarely give language a second thought – never mind its many perplexing mysteries. How can noises convey meaning? Where do the complex layers of linguistic patterns come from? How come children learn language so easily, whereas chimpanzees can scarcely learn it at all? We believe these questions have remained unanswered because scientists have been looking at language all wrong. A growing body of research undermines prevailing ideas that humans possess an innate language ability somehow wired into our brains, encoding grammatical rules. In our new book, The Language Game, we argue that language isn’t about rules at all. As Cook’s encounter illustrates, it is about improvisation, freedom and the desire to be understood, constrained only by our imaginations. This radical idea helps to explain those long-standing mysteries about language – as well as how language evolved and why it makes humans special. For generations, scientists have sought to understand how the rules of language derive from biology. The founding figure in modern linguistics, Noam Chomsky, has long argued that language is governed by a “universal grammar” somehow built into our genes and brains, with specific grammars of individual languages as variations on this universal blueprint. More recently, psychologist Steven Pinker at Harvard University proposed that humans have an evolved language instinct, created by natural selection.

3-23-22 Male contraceptive pill is safe and effective in tests in mice
A daily pill drastically reduced sperm counts in mice with no side effects, but many male contraceptives have previously failed in human trials. A non-hormonal male contraceptive pill is 99 per cent effective at preventing pregnancy in mice with no observed side effects. Human trials are being planned, but some researchers warn that safety concerns could yet prevent the drug from reaching the market. Despite many attempts at making an effective and safe male contraceptive, no treatment has passed human clinical trials. Most have been based on hormones, but non-hormonal contraceptives tend to have fewer side effects, says Md Abdullah al Noman at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. “Safety is very important for birth control pills because people are not taking it for a disease, so they are less tolerant of side effects,” says Noman. He and his colleagues gave male mice a daily dose of a molecule called YCT529 over a four-week period, and found that their sperm count plummeted. Between four and six weeks after the mice stopped receiving the treatment, they could reproduce normally again with no observable side effects. “When we went to even 100 times higher dose than the effective dose, the compound didn’t show any toxicity,” says Noman, who presented the results today at the American Chemical Society Spring 2022 conference in San Diego, California. The team tested more than 100 molecules to identify a drug candidate that targets a protein called retinoic acid receptor alpha (RAR-a). Inhibiting this protein blocks the effects of retinoic acid, a derivative of vitamin A that plays an important role in cell development and sperm formation. Previous research has shown that mice that were genetically edited so they lacked the RAR-a gene experienced no side effects apart from the inability to produce sperm. Noman and his colleagues have now licensed their drug to a private company, YourChoice Therapeutics, which is aiming to carry out human trials in the US later this year.

3-23-22 How gene therapy overcame high-profile failures
A dark period didn’t derail scientists determined to help patients. Gene therapy pioneer Richard Jude Samulski remembers when he avoided the words “gene therapy.” In the mid-2000s, he told people he worked on “biological nanoparticles,” even attempting to trademark the term. “We felt that was the disguise we were going to have to wear to go forward,” recalls Samulski, a professor of pharmacology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The death of a teenager in a gene therapy clinical trial in 1999 and cases of leukemia in a trial soon after almost extinguished the field, which seeks to treat diseases at their roots by replacing or counteracting a malfunctioning gene. There were federal investigations, funding cuts and a lot of negative media attention. Yet a handful of researchers never stopped working, sometimes out of doggedness and sometimes because they couldn’t say no to desperate parents. “Everybody adapted to do what it took to keep going,” Samulski says. The gene therapy story has a happy ending. Today, the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine lists nine available gene therapies worldwide that have been approved by internationally recognized regulatory agencies, as well as more than 200 in advanced clinical trials. The field attracts billions of dollars in funding each year. But its tumultuous past reminds us that the course of medical innovation rarely runs smooth. It all began more than half a century ago, with the discovery of molecular knives and a virus lurking in monkey cells. In the 1960s, researchers identified proteins in bacteria that work like chemical knives to cut DNA into fragments. These “restriction enzymes” raised the amazing possibility that scientists could take DNA apart and put it back together. Then, in the 1970s, a virus called SV40, isolated from monkeys’ kidney cells, proved to be able to deliver genetic material into target cells. Together, the discoveries suggested that it was possible to use a viral vector like a molecular FedEx truck to deliver new DNA into cells to counteract or replace malfunctioning DNA. Unfortunately, SV40 proved to be too unreliable and risky for medical applications. It tended to insert chunks of DNA in places that could cause cells to become cancerous. So began the multi-decade hunt for new, better vectors.

3-22-22 Covid-19 news: Infection linked to higher risk of developing diabetes
A regular round-up of the latest coronavirus news, plus insight, features and interviews from New Scientist about the covid-19 pandemic. Covid-19 linked to a 46 per cent increased risk of type 2 diabetes. People who have had covid-19 within the past year may be more at risk of developing type 2 diabetes for the first time or being prescribed medication to manage their blood sugar levels. Ziyad Al-Aly at the VA Saint Louis Health Care System in the US and his colleagues reviewed the medical records of 181,280 individuals who tested positive for covid-19 between March 2020 and September 2021, using data from the US Department of Veterans Affairs. The team compared the number of new diabetes cases among these veterans with that of more than 8 million people who had no evidence of a covid-19 infection. None of the participants had diabetes at the start of the study. Covid-19 was linked to a 46 per cent higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes or requiring blood-sugar-lowering medication, even among people with a mild or asymptomatic covid-19 infection. Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body cannot make enough insulin or the hormone that is produced does not work properly. SARS-CoV-2 virus may inflame insulin-producing cells, decreasing their efficiency, Al-Aly told The Washington Post. The link between covid-19 and type 2 diabetes was observed among all the participant groups, regardless of their sex, ethnicity or age, said Al-Aly. Pregnancy complications may be up to three times more likely among individuals who have tested positive for covid-19. Researchers analysed the medical records of 43,886 pregnant individuals in northern California between March 2020 and March 2021. Some pregnancy complications such as a preterm birth, clots and sepsis were up to three times more common among people who had a known covid-19 infection. “The most important thing people can do to protect themselves and their baby is to get vaccinated,” co-author Mara Greenberg at The Permanente Medical Group said in a statement. The number of people with covid-19 in Scottish hospitals has reached a record high, with 2128 cases on 20 March, surpassing the previous peak of 2053 in January. This comes after Scotland recently lifted many of its covid-19 restrictions. Not everyone with SARS-CoV-2 in hospital is necessarily admitted for covid-19. Chinese officials have locked down 9 million people who live in the northeast city Shenyang amid the country’s current omicron wave. China reported 8024 cases yesterday.

3-20-22 Microscopic worms on a chip could be trained to sniff out cancer
Nematode worms can distinguish between the molecules released by healthy and cancerous cells, and could one day be used in a cancer-detection system. Move over Fido. The next animal to help people by sniffing out cancer could be a microscopic worm. Nematodes, also known as roundworms, are attracted to a compound released by lung cancer cells. When put into a small device, the nematodes (Caenorhabditis elegans) wriggle towards cancerous cells in preference to non-cancerous ones, early-stage work shows. The approach has promise for being turned into a diagnostic test for lung cancer that could potentially use urine or saliva samples from people, says Nari Jang at Myongji University in South Korea. Other researchers are trying to train dogs to detect cancer, but nematodes also have a good sense of smell, which is important for them to sniff out their food, usually bacteria or fungi. Previous research has shown they are attracted to urine from people with various kinds of cancer. Cancer cells are biochemically different to non-cancerous cells in many ways. A compound called 2-ethyl-1-hexanol, which has a floral scent, seems to be what attracts the nematodes. “We guess that the odours are similar to the scents from their favourite foods,” Jang said in a statement. Jang’s team has created a test kit comprising a small chip containing some of the 1-millimetre-long nematodes within a central chamber, connected to two wells at opposite ends from the chamber. The chip is placed on an agar plate, and a drop of liquid taken from a dish containing cancer cells is placed next to one well, with liquid from non-cancerous cells placed next to the other. In tests, more nematodes moved towards the cancer cell liquid over the course of an hour. The tests showed that the nematode-containing device has an accuracy rate of about 70 per cent at detecting the presence of cancer cells. This isn’t high enough to be used as a medical test, but the accuracy is likely to improve if the nematodes are trained to respond to the floral scent, said Jang.

3-18-22 Poor sleep has huge costs for the workplace. But that isn't why we should care.
A few years back, I went to the federal courthouse in Philadelphia to cover a cop corruption trial for a local magazine. It was an important day — a key witness who had worked with the accused officers was giving testimony. I took my place in press row among other journalists, got settled in……and then I promptly fell asleep. Dead away. Missed a lot of the testimony. At the next recess, a security officer in the courtroom told me I shouldn't be there if I couldn't stay awake. The problem? I couldn't. I'd been having sleeping problems for several years by that point, and I was increasingly having trouble disguising it at work. It was one thing to drift off and doze for a few minutes in the privacy of my office. It was another thing entirely to do it in a crowded courtroom, among my colleagues from all the city's top news outlets. It was one of the most humiliating days of my career. It turns out that I am far from alone in having my job disrupted by such issues. Gallup reported on Friday that poor sleep has a huge impact in the workplace: An estimated 7 percent of workers don't get the rest they need — which means they miss work more often, and that employers lose an estimated $44 billion a year in productivity. Those poor sleepers also tend to change jobs more often, the polling service said. The professional consequences of all this are important, no doubt: I shifted away from full-time work to freelancing in part so I'd have the freedom to sneak off and take a nap when I needed. (When you work from home, nobody can see you nod off.) But it's distressing to see the issue framed mostly as a dollars-and-cents matter when it's so much more. People afflicted with sleep issues have higher rates of obesity, high blood pressure, and depression. I got all of it. Living with bad sleep makes it difficult to enjoy relationships and engage the world in normal ways: For years, I couldn't sit through a movie, read a book, or have dinner with friends without nodding off. I was miserable. I went to a sleep clinic on the night of the Iowa presidential caucuses in 2020. They discovered the obvious — I had apnea — and something unwelcome: A CPAP machine didn't really help. Then the pandemic happened. I stopped eating so much fried restaurant food and mostly gave up coffee, fell asleep on the couch a few nights doomscrolling — but in a position that seems to have propped open my airways. One day, a few months into lockdown, I had a realization: I'd been sleeping through the night. And spending my days feeling awake and energetic. It felt like a miracle. It still does. Can other people duplicate my results? I have no idea. What I do know is that these days, my weight is down. My blood pressure's a little more resistant to getting better, but I feel more alive than I have in years. Mostly, I feel rested. I'm a better, more engaged worker as a result — but more importantly, I'm a better, more engaged husband and father. And I'm convinced, more than ever, that sleep isn't just the key to a productive workplace. It's necessary to have a good life.

3-18-22 What do we mean by ‘COVID-19 changes your brain’?
A study linked SARS-CoV-2 infections with smaller brain regions, but the implications are unclear. Like all writers, I spend large chunks of my time looking for words. When it comes to the ultracomplicated and mysterious brain, I need words that capture nuance and uncertainties. The right words confront and address hard questions about exactly what new scientific findings mean, and just as importantly, why they matter. The search for the right words is on my mind because of recent research on COVID-19 and the brain. As part of a large brain-scanning study, researchers found that infections of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, were linked with less gray matter, tissue that’s packed with the bodies of brain cells. The results, published March 7 in Nature, prompted headlines about COVID-19 causing brain damage and shrinkage. That coverage, in turn, prompted alarmed posts on social media, including mentions of early-onset dementia and brain rotting. As someone who has reported on brain research for more than a decade, I can say those alarming words are not the ones that I would choose here. The study is one of the first to look at structural changes in the brain before and after a SARS-CoV-2 infection. And the study is meticulous. It was done by an expert group of brain imaging researchers who have been doing this sort of research for a very long time. As part of the UK Biobank project, 785 participants underwent two MRI scans. Between those scans, 401 people had COVID-19 and 384 people did not. By comparing the before and after scans, researchers could spot changes in the people who had COVID-19 and compare those changes with people who didn’t get the infection. After a bout of COVID-19, people had, on average, less gray matter in parts of the brain that help handle the sense of smell. That’s an interesting finding, especially given the virus’s ability to steal people’s sense of smell, and one that’s definitely worth a whole lot more research (SN: 1/17/22). But it’s also not surprising, given what we know about the brain’s propensity to change.

3-18-22 What made the last century’s great innovations possible?
Transforming how people live requires more than scientific discovery. In the early decades of the 20th century, a slew of technologies began altering daily life with seemingly unprecedented speed and breadth. Suddenly, consumers could enjoy affordable automobiles. Long-distance telephone service connected New York with San Francisco. Electric power and radio broadcasts came into homes. New methods for making synthetic fertilizer portended a revolution in agriculture. And on the horizon, airplanes promised a radical transformation in travel and commerce. As the technology historian Thomas P. Hughes noted: “The remarkably prolific inventors of the late nineteenth century, such as [Thomas] Edison, persuaded us that we were involved in a second creation of the world.” By the 1920s, this world — more functional, more sophisticated and increasingly more comfortable — had come into being. Public figures like Edison or, say, Henry Ford were often described as inventors. But a different word, one that caught on around the 1950s, seemed more apt in describing the technological ideas making way for modern life: innovation. While its origins go back some 500 years (at first it was used to describe a new legal and then religious idea), the word’s popularization was a post–World War II phenomenon. The elevation of the term likely owes a debt to the Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter, according to the late science historian Benoît Godin. In his academic writings, Schumpeter argued that vibrant economies were driven by innovators whose work replaced existing products or processes. “Innovation is the market introduction of a technical or organizational novelty, not just its invention,” Schumpeter wrote in 1911. An invention like Fritz Haber’s process for making synthetic fertilizer, developed in 1909, was a dramatic step forward, for example. Yet what changed global agriculture was a broad industrial effort to transform that invention into an innovation — that is, to replace a popular technology with something better and cheaper on a national or global scale.

3-17-22 Bionic eye that mimics how pupils respond to light may improve vision
A thin material sent nerve-like signals to an alloy fibre in an artificial eye model, causing the eye's pupil to dilate and contract in response to varying light levels, which could one day help treat certain visual impairments. The creation of a bionic eye that mimics the widening and shrinking of the pupil may bring us one step closer towards helping people with certain visual impairments. Light enters the eye via the pupil, before travelling to the retina at the back of the eyeball. The retina then converts the light stimuli into nerve impulses, which are sent to the brain for processing via the optic nerve. The so-called pupillary light reflex compensates for changes in light levels by adjusting the pupil’s size, allowing people to see in high resolution, while protecting the retina from bright light. This process can be impaired in people with an injury to their optic nerve or oculomotor nerve, which regulates eye muscle movement, resulting in double vision, light sensitivity or difficulty focusing on nearby objects. Xu Wentao at Nankai University in China and his colleagues have now developed a material that mimics the pupillary light reflex in an artificial eye model. If humans ever want to use bionic eyes, this reflex has to be recreated, says Xu. The material is based on the mineral perovskite, which is known to act as an artificial synapse. A synapse is the gap between two neurons through which nerve signals are transmitted, allowing the cells to communicate. In a laboratory experiment, Xu’s team added the 625-nanometre-thick material and an alloy fibre to an artificial eye. When exposed to light, the material sent neural-like signals to the fibre, which then controlled the dilation and contraction of the eye’s pupil. “It works in all light conditions,” says Xu. The next step is to develop an artificial eye that perceives colour, says Xu. “Human eyes can recognise millions of colours and decode them at high resolution,” he says. “We plan to integrate this function in our artificial eye in the future.”

3-17-22 This fabric can hear your heartbeat
Threads containing piezoelectric materials create electrical signals from sounds. Someday our clothing may eavesdrop on the soundtrack of our lives, capturing the noises around and inside us. A new fiber acts as a microphone — picking up speech, rustling leaves and chirping birds — and turns those acoustic signals into electrical ones. Woven into a fabric, the material can even hear handclaps and faint sounds, such as its wearer’s heartbeat, researchers report March 16 in Nature. Such fabrics could provide a comfortable, nonintrusive — even fashionable — way to monitor body functions or aid with hearing. Acoustic fabrics have existed for perhaps hundreds of years, but they’re used to dampen sound, says Wei Yan, a materials scientist at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Fabric as a microphone is “totally a different concept,” says Yan, who worked on the fabric while at MIT. Yan and his colleagues were inspired by the human eardrum. Sound waves cause vibrations in the eardrum, which are converted to electrical signals by the cochlea. “It turns out that this eardrum is made of fibers,” says Yoel Fink, a materials scientist at MIT. In the eardrum’s inner layers, collagen fibers radiate from the center, while others form concentric rings. The crisscrossing fibers play a role in hearing and look similar to the fabrics people weave, Fink says. Analogous to what’s happening in an eardrum, sound vibrates fabric at the nanoscale. In the new fabric, cotton fibers and others of a somewhat stiff material called Twaron efficiently convert incoming sound to vibrations. Woven together with these threads is a single fiber that contains a blend of piezoelectric materials, which produce a voltage when pressed or bent (SN: 8/22/17). The buckling and bending of the piezoelectric-containing fiber create electrical signals that can be sent through a tiny circuit board to a device that reads and records the voltage.

3-17-22 A gene therapy for hemophilia boosts levels of a crucial clotting protein
It’s not yet clear how long the effects of the one-time treatment for the blood disorder last. A gene-based therapy is potentially a step closer to becoming a one-time treatment for men with hemophilia. The life-threatening genetic disorder hinders the body’s ability to form blood clots. In hemophilia A, the most common type, the gene responsible for a blood clotting protein called factor VIII has errors, leading the body to produce an insufficient amount of the protein. A new study describes how 132 men with a severe form of the disease who received one infusion of the gene therapy fared. A year later, 88 percent of them had factor VIII levels high enough to have either a mild form or no disease, researchers report March 16 in the New England Journal of Medicine. Hemophilia A is an inherited disorder. The gene that provides instructions for making factor VIII is found on the X chromosome, so the condition more typically affects males than females. In the United States, there are 12 hemophilia A cases per 100,000 males. The severity of hemophilia is classified by the amount of factor VIII that the body manages to produce. People with mild disease, who have 5 to 40 percent of typical factor VIII levels, are most likely to have excessive bleeding only after injury or surgery. Moderate hemophilia, with levels 1 to 5 percent of the usual amount, can also include bleeding that occurs spontaneously, without a clear cause. People with severe hemophilia have next to no factor VIII and, without treatment, face frequent, spur-of-the-moment bleeding internally that can damage their joints or brain. But thanks to the treatment options available, hemophilia patients “now have a normal life expectancy and are encouraged to live normal lives,” says director of the Washington Center for Bleeding Disorders and hematologist Rebecca Kruse-Jarres of the University of Washington in Seattle, who was not involved in the gene therapy study.

3-17-22 Ancient seafarers built the Mediterranean’s largest known sacred pool
A big pool on a tiny island helped Phoenicians track the stars and their gods. On a tiny island off Sicily’s west coast, a huge pool long ago displayed the star-studded reflections of the gods. Scientists have long thought that an ancient rectangular basin, on the island of Motya, served as an artificial inner harbor, or perhaps a dry dock, for Phoenician mariners roughly 2,550 years ago. Instead, the water-filled structure is the largest known sacred pool from the ancient Mediterranean world, says archaeologist Lorenzo Nigro of Sapienza University of Rome. Phoenicians, who adopted cultural influences from many Mediterranean societies on their sea travels, put the pool at the center of a religious compound in a port city also dubbed Motya, Nigro reports in the April Antiquity. The pool and three nearby temples were aligned with the positions of specific stars and constellations on key days of the year, such as the summer and winter solstices, Nigro found. Each of those celestial bodies was associated with a particular Phoenician god. At night, the reflecting surface of the pool, which was slightly longer and wider than an Olympic-sized swimming pool, was used to make astronomical observations by marking stars’ positions with poles, Nigro suspects. Discoveries of a navigation instrument’s pointer in one temple and the worn statue of an Egyptian god associated with astronomy found in a corner of the pool support that possibility. It was an archaeologist who explored Motya around a century ago who first described the large pool as a harbor that connected to the sea by a channel. A similar harbor had previously been discovered at Carthage, a Phoenician city on North Africa’s coast. But excavations and radiocarbon dating conducted at Motya since 2002 by Nigro, working with the Superintendence of Trapani in Sicily and the G. Whitaker Foundation in Palermo, have overturned that view.

3-16-22 Why does sticking my tongue out seem to help me concentrate?
It isn’t so much that sticking your tongue out helps you to concentrate, rather it is something that most people naturally do when engaging in fine manual motor actions, such as threading a needle. We think this behaviour has a long evolutionary history. When humans became bipedal, around 4 million years ago, our hands became busy with competing activities like manipulating tools and communication gestures. We also think that the modern human language system originated from a visually based gestural communication system incorporating the hands, face and posture. These competing hand actions created problems if we wanted to simultaneously communicate and act, for example when teaching someone to make or use a tool. This may have created a pressure for our communication system to move from gestures to another signalling channel: the voice. Neuroscientific evidence backs this up, showing that our hand behaviour for tool use engages the same brain regions used in speech. Behavioural evidence also shows that these two motor systems are closely linked and that the mouth mirrors hand action when engaging in fine motor movements. Experiments show that when people are asked to pick up large objects and then smaller ones, their mouth will open and close in proportion to the grip size they are using with their fingers. Most children stick out their tongues when making fine motor hand actions. Adults probably still make these tongue actions too, but social pressures teach us to keep our mouths closed so our tongues aren’t visibly hanging out.7

3-16-22 Learning to live with covid-19 means covering up coughs and sneezes
As covid-19 restrictions end in many countries, we have a moral duty to cover our mouths and nose when we sneeze and avoid socialising when we feel ill, says Jonathan Goodman. A FEW weeks ago, my partner and I went out for dinner at a local restaurant. Shortly after we arrived, a couple sat down at the table next to us, and it quickly became apparent that they were both sick. One sneezed and coughed more or less continuously over the following hour; the other kept sniffling, and – in what felt like a personal assault on my sensibilities – dropped a used tissue on the floor. Personal hygiene is linked with a wide array of reactions. Most people are now taught at school that you should cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze – preferably with your elbow, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is, however, enormous variation in whether people actually follow this guidance. Research carried out in 2009 in New Zealand showed that, during an influenza outbreak, more than a quarter of people didn’t cover their mouth or nose at all when coughing or sneezing. In contrast, there is little variation in how people react when encountering a used nappy abandoned in a public place. The bacteria that travel in human waste and the airborne particles released by coughing and sneezing – as we all know only too well from covid-19 – are both linked to disease transmission. Yet only with the nappy do we tend to be disgusted. With the coughs and sneezes, there are socially prescribed rules, which many of us don’t follow. Now, as some countries across the world lighten or eliminate covid-19 restrictions, it falls on the public to consciously redefine the social norms around the transmission of infectious diseases. Coughing and sneezing in public can kill, just as exposing people to human waste can. We should, therefore, react with similar disapprobation.

3-16-22 People who are blind may use the brain’s visual cortex for movement
The brain’s visual cortex may be reorganised to control movement in people who cannot see. The visual cortex, the part of the brain that receives information from the eyes, has been known to respond to sound or touch in people who are blind. Researchers have now shown it may be unwittingly repurposed to process movement. “After the loss of vision, the visual cortex loses its primary purpose,” says Tsuyoshi Ikegami at the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology in Japan. “It’s a waste of brain resources… so it’s an essential characteristic of our brain that it allows the visual cortex to be reorganised for different purposes.” Ikegami and his colleagues set out to uncover if this reorganisation also involves motor control. This is ordinarily regulated by the motor cortex in the brain’s frontal lobe. The team studied 24 people, with an average age of 27, half of whom were blind. All the participants were blindfolded while having transcranial magnetic stimulation applied to the part of the brain where the visual cortex is located. TMS is a non-invasive form of stimulation that uses changing magnetic fields to send an electric current to the brain, altering its activity. The participants were asked to move their feet up and down while TMS was applied. Being blindfolded ensured that any difference in the participants’ movement wasn’t due to some of them being able to see their feet. Applying TMS was found to slightly disrupt the movement of those participants who were blind, but not those with sight. This suggests the visual cortex had been reorganised in the people who were blind, with this part of the brain now being involved in foot movements, says Ikegami. The team didn’t test how other body movements may be affected by TMS.

3-16-22 Brain scanning studies are usually too small to find reliable results
Most studies that have used MRI machines to find links between the brain’s structure or function and complex mental traits had an average of 23 participants, but thousands are needed to find reliable results. Brain scanning studies that use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines are often said to show links between the brain’s structure or patterns of activity and complex traits such as depression, autism and certain aspects of personality. But for years, there have been suspicions that some of the headline-grabbing results aren’t trustworthy. Now, that has been confirmed. Almost all such research so far has had too few participants to find reliable results, according to a study by Scott Marek at Washington University in St Louis and his colleagues. His group found that such studies need to look at the brains of thousands of people; they usually include an average of about 23 individuals. Marek and his team analysed results from three of the largest ongoing neuroimaging studies to date, including the UK Biobank study, which had scanned nearly 36,000 participants at the time. They looked at links between brain structure or functioning and two relatively well-studied traits: cognitive ability and, in children, scores on a checklist for “psychopathology”, a combination of several behavioural measures. By doing multiple analyses with varying numbers of people, they showed that when small sample sizes were used, they could find apparent correlations between these traits and the brain’s structure or function. But analyses of larger groups showed that these effects were either exaggerated or completely spurious. In some cases, different small samples could reach opposite conclusions, simply because people’s brains are so variable that random chance can sway the results one way or another.

3-16-22 AI analyses drug users’ trip reports to better understand psychedelics
A pattern recognition algorithm scoured 6850 accounts of people’s experiences with 27 drugs to learn more about how they alter consciousness. Artificial intelligence has been used to analyse thousands of written reports of personal experiences with psychoactive drugs to gain a better understanding of their subjective effects and how they work in the brain. Psychedelic drugs such as LSD, ketamine and psilocybin – the active compound in magic mushrooms – are being investigated as treatments for a range of conditions, including depression, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder. The experiences they induce, which may be important for their therapeutic effects, are highly variable, and can include visual and auditory hallucinations, an altered sense of self and a distorted perception of time. Danilo Bzdok at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and his colleagues used a pattern-recognition algorithm to scour 6850 accounts of experiences submitted on the website Erowid, involving 27 different drugs. They linked words used in the accounts for each drug, such as “euphoria”, “nausea” or “visuals”, with any of 40 receptors in the brain that the drug is known to interact with, and mapped drug effects onto areas of the brain where these receptors are most active. The researchers, who weren’t available for interview, hope their work will help identify drugs that may induce particular subjective effects, and provide a framework for developing new treatments based on psychedelic drugs in the future. Daniel Barron at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who wasn’t involved in this study, says that while this tool isn’t yet ready for clinical use, it shows promise. “The core idea is that if you can determine that a given drug and brain function have a predictable relationship, this paves the way to understanding whether that change and therefore that drug is clinically useful,” he says.

3-16-22 Non-pilots think they can land a plane after watching a YouTube video
A psychological study shows that people can be overconfident in their ability to perform tasks for which they have no formal training. People can be so confident about their competence even if they lack relevant skills for a task – including landing a commercial aircraft – that they could put themselves and others in serious danger. “People think, ‘Well, if it really mattered, like in an emergency, I could land the plane’,” says Maryanne Garry at the University of Waikato in New Zealand. “But… that requires skills that most people just don’t have.” Garry and her colleagues enlisted 780 volunteers for their psychological study. Half of the participants were asked to watch an approximately 4-minute-long silent YouTube video showing two commercial pilots landing a plane in a mountainous area. The researchers then gave each participant a hypothetical scenario: Imagine you are on a small commuter plane. Due to an emergency, the pilot is incapacitated and you are the only person left to land the plane. They then asked the participants how confident they would feel – on a percentage scale – about responding to the situation. They found that people who had watched the video were up to 30 per cent more confident in their ability to land a plane without dying, compared with the confidence ratings of those who hadn’t watched the video. But even people who hadn’t watched the video gave themselves an average confidence score of 29 per cent for their ability to land the plane without dying, says Garry. Some participants who watched the video were asked prior to doing so how confident they were that they could land the plane as well as any trained pilot. After watching the video, their self-confidence rose: they were up to 38 per cent more confident that they could perform as well as any trained pilot. In general, men were significantly more confident in their abilities than women, she adds.

3-16-22 Family tree of extinct apes reveals our early evolutionary history
A new family tree of apes that lived in the Miocene between 23 and 5.3 million years ago reveals which are our close relatives and which are only distant cousins. A huge study of fossil apes clarifies which extinct species are most closely related to humans. But it can’t resolve one of the most controversial questions in human evolution: whether the last common ancestor we shared with living African apes like chimpanzees lived in Africa or Eurasia. Primatologist Kelsey Pugh at the American Museum of Natural History in New York looked at apes that lived during the Miocene epoch, between 23 and 5.3 million years ago. She focused on those from the middle and late Miocene that have been proposed to be closely related to humans and living apes. “Miocene apes are amazingly diverse in their [physical forms], with combinations of features we don’t find in any living primate,” says Tracy Kivell at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK, who wasn’t involved in the study. For each of 30 Miocene apes, Pugh measured 274 characteristics, from the sizes of their braincases to the shapes of their teeth. Pugh also looked at the genus Homo – which includes our species Homo sapiens – and Australopithecus, a genus of human-like apes that lived in Africa between about 4 and 2 million years ago. She also included other living apes including gibbons, gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans. She used this data to estimate which species were most closely related to which. The result is the first family tree of the Miocene apes to be published in two decades. “It’s superb,” says Jay Kelley at Arizona State University in Tempe. “It’s incredibly thorough, extremely well documented.” The family tree groups the apes according to how closely they are related to us. The most distant relatives were the oldest Miocene apes, all of which lived in Africa, like the 18-million-year-old Ekembo from what is now Kenya. But by 16 million years ago, some apes were living outside Africa, in both Europe and Asia. The first group to break away includes the ancestors of modern gibbons, which today live in Asia.

3-16-22 A new reference human genome could reflect our species’ true diversity
The current reference human genome is based on a handful of people but the new Pangenome project will incorporate DNA from hundreds of people all around the world. The human genome is being sequenced again – but better. A new project to read DNA from a large number of people has launched, with the aim of sequencing the “pangenome”, a version of the genome that reflects the full genetic diversity of our species. The human genome, the set of DNA that every person carries in their cells, was first read or “sequenced” between 1990 and 2001. However, this first genome was incomplete because many chunks couldn’t be reconstructed. Geneticists have improved it since, with the last major update released in 2017, but large gaps remained. In 2021, the Telomere-to-Telomere (T2T) consortium reported that it had sequenced a genome from end to end, with almost no gaps. However, it employed a shortcut of sorts to do so. Normal human cells are diploid, which means they carry two copies of the genome, which can differ significantly from one another. In contrast, the cells the T2T team used had two virtually identical copies. This made it easier to reconstruct the precise sequence, but it also meant the T2T genome couldn’t reveal how DNA varies within a person. The members of the Human Pangenome Reference Consortium want to go one better than the T2T consortium by sequencing full diploid genomes. As a first step, they focused on one person’s diploid genome to find the best way to sequence it. They asked 14 different research groups around the world to sequence it as best they could, and received 23 attempts. They then evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of each attempt, before devising an optimised method that combined the best of all of them. The result was a high-quality diploid genome sequence with very few gaps.

3-15-22 Genetically engineered cheese bacteria may help chronic wounds to heal
Lactococcus lactis bacteria have been engineered to produce skin-healing proteins and could be useful for treating diabetic ulcers. Cheese-making bacteria have been engineered to produce skin repair proteins that promote rapid healing when applied to wounds in mice. A clinical trial is now under way to see if they can help to heal chronic wounds that can develop in people with diabetes. About a quarter of people with diabetes end up with open wounds called ulcers that don’t heal because of poor circulation and other complications. In severe cases, the affected body part – usually a foot – must be amputated. Jere Kurkipuro at Aurealis Therapeutics, a company in Finland, and his colleagues wondered if wound healing could be improved by administering proteins that are involved in skin repair. Instead of injecting these into wounds, their idea was to genetically engineer bacteria that could continuously produce the proteins once applied to damaged tissue. They used Lactococcus lactis bacteria, which are used in cheesemaking and considered highly unlikely to trigger unwanted health effects in people. The researchers genetically engineered the bacteria so they would produce three skin-healing proteins: fibroblast growth factor-2, interleukin-4 and colony stimulating factor-1. As a test, the team applied these bacteria to 1-centimetre-wide wounds on mice that mimicked diabetic ulcers. After a week of daily applications, the wounds were almost fully closed. In contrast, wounds treated with an inactive substance barely closed at all. Analysis under a microscope showed that the engineered bacteria accelerated wound healing by recruiting immune cells, promoting blood vessel growth and boosting the activity of cells called fibroblasts that form connective tissue.

3-15-22 School mask mandates in the U.S. reduced coronavirus transmission
Mandatory masking lowered transmission of the delta variant by 72 percent. The verdict is, once again, in: Masking in schools is effective. During the COVID-19 pandemic’s delta variant wave, schools that required masking had approximately one-fourth the rates of in-school coronavirus transmission than schools with optional or partial masking policies, researchers report online March 9 in Pediatrics. While the findings reinforce past research on masking efficacy, this is the first study to focus on secondary transmissions, or transmissions that happen at school, says study coauthor Danny Benjamin, an epidemiologist at Duke University. The team found that schools play a small role in terms of transmission in a community, accounting for less than 10 percent of total cases in the study. But masks are what help keep that number low. To conduct a wide-reaching study, the researchers reached out to every kindergarten through 12th grade public school district in the United States — more than 13,800 of them — to track their case numbers and origins from July to December 2021. The 61 districts that answered the call consisted of more than 1 million students and nearly 160,000 staff across nine states. Now that vaccines are available for kids ages 5 to 11, the researchers are collecting more data from schools. Masking has continued to work during the omicron variant surge, but even short intervals of mask removal, such as at lunchtime, result in much higher transmission than during the delta wave, Benjamin says. As state mask mandates lift, the onus for mask requirements in schools falls to the school districts. To help school administrators decide if and when students need to mask, Benjamin and colleagues developed the Masking and Mitigation Considerations Calculator. The tool allows administrators to input their community COVID-19 rates and determine how masking decisions in schools will affect case numbers.

3-15-22 Health Check newsletter: Parallels between vaping and covid-19 debatesWhen health issues become polarised it's often hard to know where the truth lies, regardless of new evidence
When health issues become polarised it's often hard to know where the truth lies, regardless of new evidence. Last week, one of my stories was on whether vaping is helpful or harmful in reducing smoking rates. It was based on research looking at whether vaping encourages teenagers to start smoking cigarettes. The study found that, contrary to fears, vaping probably doesn’t act as a gateway to smoking. In England, as vaping rates among teens have jumped up, tobacco smoking hasn’t followed the same trend. While teens who vape are more likely to end up as smokers, this is probably because those who try out vaping are the same people who would have ended up smoking, regardless. It could be because these are the teens innately drawn to experimentation and rule-breaking, or perhaps they are copying family members who also vape or smoke. When covering new research, the usual approach at New Scientist and other respected news sources is to show the paper to other scientists to get their take on it and, if we have space, to include a comment from them in the story. We try to find people who are experts in the field but weren’t involved in the research, so they will be impartial. But vaping is one of those topics where I usually have a good idea of what my chosen expert will have to say about any new study. Opinions on e-cigarettes have become so polarised that most researchers and public health doctors either say they are wonderful because they help people quit smoking or terrible because they just get people stuck on a different nicotine habit. As vaping took off, around 2013, it had no significant effect on the prevalence of smoking.

3-15-22 A new saber-toothed mammal was among the first hypercarnivores
A 42-million-year-old jawbone has a gap to fit daggerlike upper teeth. Nearly 42 million years ago, a fearsome bobcat-sized creature prowled the forests of what is now San Diego. Unlike most animals at the time, it was a hypercarnivore, built to eat meat and almost only meat. Meet Diegoaelurus vanvalkenburghae — a newly identified species of the mysterious and now-extinct Machaeroidine family, thought to be the first mammals with saberlike fangs and sharp slicing teeth. Until now, only about a dozen other Machaeroidine fossils have been described, most from Wyoming but a few from Asia. Paleontologists identified this new predator, described March 15 in PeerJ, thanks to a 71-millimeter-long lower jawbone with teeth that was originally found in a San Diego County fossil bed. The fossil gives away that the creature had long saberlike canine teeth because the bony chin is downturned, to protect the fangs, and there is a gap in the lower teeth to fit them, says Ashley Poust, a paleontologist at the San Diego Natural History Museum. The canines themselves weren’t recovered. “Those big fangs were either used to bite into the throat of the prey or were used to rip and tear the flesh,” Poust says. “This fossil, in particular, helps us understand what the whole food web would’ve looked like.… Now we know that there might have been this crazy saber-toothed animal stalking primates in the branches or maybe stalking the tapirs in the leaves below.” Today’s hypercarnivores range from massive polar bears and fierce tigers to your cuddly (or not) housecat. But that lifestyle was uncommon for predators of the Eocene Epoch, which ended around 34 million years ago, and there aren’t a lot of these carnivores known from that time. So D. vanvalkenburghae provides an early glimpse into how animals independently evolved the ability to slice flesh with ease (SN: 5/31/19). Such daggerlike fangs have turned up in a wide range of ancient animals from anchovies to the much more recent saber-toothed cats such as Smilodon, which appeared on Earth millions of years after D. vanvalkenburghae went extinct (SN: 5/18/20; SN: 3/24/19).

3-14-22 Even a low level of light at night may disrupt your blood sugar
Leaving even a dim light on while you sleep may disrupt blood sugar control, a small study in humans suggests. Keeping the TV or a bedside light on overnight could slightly disturb your sleep – enough to disrupt the way our bodies normally keep our blood sugar within a healthy range. In a small trial, even one night spent sleeping in a room with a light on was enough to give participants slightly worse blood sugar control the next morning. Previous population studies have found that people who sleep with a light on or the TV on in their bedrooms are more likely to be overweight or have type 2 diabetes. But such research can’t say if it is the light that causes the poor health. Now, the study by Phyllis Zee at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago and her colleagues supports the idea that the connection is causal, and gives clues about the possible mechanism. Her team investigated the link by asking 20 healthy volunteers to spend two nights in their sleep lab. On the first night, all participants slept in a very dark room. On the second, half slept with a lighting level of 100 lux, equivalent to keeping a TV or bedside light on or having a bright street light shining through thin curtains. On both mornings, Zee’s team investigated all the volunteers’ blood sugar control using two common tests involving insulin, the main hormone involved in regulating glucose levels. One measure combined glucose and insulin levels after waking up, and the other involved giving people a dose of glucose and measuring their insulin response. People who slept in the dimly lit room on their second night had slightly worse blood sugar control than on their first night, when the room was nearly dark. “They thought they slept well, but your brain knows that the lights are on,” says Zee. People who had two nights under dark conditions had little difference in their blood sugar control.

3-11-22 Iceland targets herd immunity with controversial covid-19 strategy
Many countries have scaled back their coronavirus restrictions, but Iceland is going further with a plan to let infections spread. Like some other countries, Iceland has scrapped its remaining covid-19 restrictions. Unlike other nations, however, its health ministry coupled this move with a startling announcement: the country will start aiming for herd immunity. “Widespread societal resistance to covid-19 is the main route out of the epidemic,” the government said in a statement on 23 February. “To achieve this, as many people as possible need to be infected with the virus as the vaccines are not enough, even though they provide good protection against serious illness.” On 25 February, Iceland lifted all its remaining restrictions, allowing an unlimited number of people to gather indoors and fully opening its border. England and Northern Ireland also recently dropped coronavirus laws, such as those related to mask wearing and self-isolation, with Wales and Scotland set to follow this month. To say people need to get infected, however, is going a step further. Iceland has been a world leader in its pandemic response, with a “zero covid” approach. This has contributed to it having one of the world’s lowest covid-19 death rates. On 23 March 2020, when the UK went into lockdown, Iceland recorded no covid-19 deaths among its population of 366,000, compared with 103 in the UK and 217 in the US. Death counts are flawed, with countries varying in their testing strategies and definitions of a covid-19 fatality. Nevertheless, Iceland has recorded just 77 covid-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic. This compares with more than 163,000 recorded deaths among the UK’s population of 67 million and close to 1 million deaths among the US’s 329 million population.

3-11-22 50 years ago, oxygen was touted as a potential memory loss treatment
Excerpt from the March 18, 1972 issue of Science News. In spite of the age-old yearning for the Fountain of Youth, there is a marked lack of research toward retaining vitality in later years. Nonetheless … [researchers] have found they can reverse transient memory loss — or senility — in older patients by giving them periodic oxygen treatments in a hyperbaric chamber. Studies still only hint that exposing patients to 100 percent oxygen at high pressures might give cognitive abilities a boost (SN: 10/12/85, p. 236). For instance, people with persistent symptoms after mild head trauma who underwent hyperbaric oxygen treatment outperformed untreated individuals on memory tests at least two months after the treatments, researchers reported in 2020. Exposure to high amounts of oxygen also has been shown to improve short-term memory in people who have had strokes and those with Alzheimer’s disease. The treatments seem to work by dampening inflammation in the brain. The jury is still out on whether the method has a lasting effect on memory.

3-10-22 Vaping probably isn’t a gateway to smoking
Trends in cigarette and e-cigarette use among 16 to 24-year-olds in England suggest that vaping doesn’t encourage more young people to start smoking. Young people who try vaping are more likely to later start smoking – but a new analysis of trends in nicotine use in England suggests that the so-called gateway theory of vaping isn’t the explanation. The real reason for the link could be that teens who start vaping are the same ones who are likely to try smoking, regardless of whether they ever have an e-cigarette. Vaping is much less harmful for people’s health than smoking, causing about 95 per cent less damage, according to an estimate by Public Health England. UK smokers are advised to switch to e-cigarettes to help them quit, but health bodies in some other countries, such as the US and Australia, take a dimmer view of vaping. A key argument against making it easy to buy e-cigarettes is that young people who start vaping will get addicted to nicotine, and so will end up switching to traditional cigarettes for the faster nicotine hit. Several studies have shown that teenagers who try vaping are more likely to end up smoking. But these studies merely observe smoking rates in individuals who have vaped and those who haven’t. Such observational research can’t show that the first factor causes the second, only that the two things correlate. “It could be the case that there’s a common vulnerability that explains this association. That could be, for instance, because there’s some genetic predisposition to try different things or there’s environmental pressures to try things,” says Lion Shahab at University College London. Instead of looking at whether individuals were likely to start smoking, Shahab’s team looked at how the rate of smoking among 16 to 24-year-olds in England has changed over the past 11 years, as vaping caught on. If there really was a gateway effect, then, as vaping rates changed, those for smoking also should have in a related pattern. In fact, while vaping in this age group jumped to about 5 per cent in 2013 and has hovered around there since, rates of regular smoking have fallen from about 30 per cent in 2013 to 25 per cent in 2018, the last year of the study. The analysis can’t rule out, however, that vaping has a very small gateway effect, says Shahab.

3-10-22 We may now know why young blood can have rejuvenating effects
Packages of RNA and proteins that bud off from cells have reversed some signs of ageing in mice, and they may account for the rejuvenating effects of young blood. The rejuvenating effect of young blood could be largely due to little packages of RNA and proteins that bud off from some cells and travel via the blood to other cells. When researchers injected these cell buds into old mice, it reversed several signs of ageing, including boosting muscle strength and hair growth and improving coordination and endurance. “What we saw was that the physical performance of the animals was better,” says Consuelo Borrás at the University of Valencia in Spain. Several animal studies over the past decade have shown that transfusions of young blood can have rejuvenating effects, and there are signs it might work in people, too. Borrás thinks that these cell buds, called extracellular vesicles, are largely responsible. “I don’t know if all the effect is due to the extracellular vesicles, but I’m sure that extracellular vesicles are important,” she says. “Yes, I think that is possible,” says Tony Wyss-Coray at Stanford University, whose team first demonstrated the effect of young blood in 2012 in experiments that involved linking the blood supplies of young and old mice. Wyss-Coray’s team has not looked at extracellular vesicles. However, last year a separate study by Fabrisia Ambrosio at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, found that they can help muscles regenerate in mice. “Our work does indeed suggest that extracellular vesicles may play a role in the beneficial effect of young blood on aged skeletal muscle regenerative capacity,” says Ambrosio. Her team has not looked at other tissues yet, she says. Extracellular vesicles are tiny bags of chemicals released by cells in the bodies of animals. Some form when the membrane of a cell pinches in and tiny parts of the cell bud off.

3-10-22 Timbuktu manuscripts: Mali's ancient documents captured online
A virtual gallery to showcase Mali's cultural history has been launched, featuring tens of thousands of Timbuktu's ancient manuscripts. The manuscripts were smuggled to safety from Timbuktu after Islamist militant groups took control of the city in northern Mali in 2012. They contain centuries of African knowledge and scholarship on topics ranging from maths to astrology. "Central to the heritage of Mali, they represent the long legacy of written knowledge and academic excellence in Africa," said Dr Abdel Kader Haidara, a librarian known for smuggling the manuscripts out of Timbuktu, who was also involved in the project. The collection, called Mali Magic, also captures Malian culture beyond the manuscripts. It was put together by Google, along with local and international partners. It features a picture of the dance of the Dogon ethnic group. It also showcases art, such as that of award-winning Abdoulaye Konaté, and an image of builders plastering the Great Mosque of Djenné, a Unesco world heritage site about 500km (310 miles) south of Timbuktu. The ancient documents were originally written in medieval Arabic but have now been translated to English, French, Spanish and modern Arabic to make them more accessible, which Google Program Manager and Digital Archaeologist Chance Coughenour told the BBC was a first. "Making a digital record and copy of the manuscripts is very important and for the first time we're bringing the fruits of our labour after so many years," he said. For centuries Timbuktu was a cultural hub on the African continent, as well as an Islamic centre of learning. The city's mosques played a critical role in the spread of Islam throughout West Africa in the 15th and 16th Centuries, according to Unesco. Over the last seven years Mali's traditional leaders, historians and digital archaeologists have been hard at work to make sure that the ancient manuscripts, some dating back to the 11th Century, containing the country's rich history are preserved by digitising them.

3-10-22 Ancient Homo sapiens took a talent for cultural creativity from Africa to Asia
Stone Age hominids got culturally inventive starting nearly 100,000 years ago. Creativity runs deep in human evolution. Stone Age people steered their cultures through some inventive twists and turns as far-flung groups of Homo sapiens independently learned to cope with harsh African environments and unfamiliar Asian settings, two new reports suggest. Southern African hunter-gatherers who inhabited an arid, inland landscape between around 92,000 and 80,000 years ago survived thanks to techniques and behaviors that they formulated on their own. Those ancient innovations owed nothing to seaside communities known to have influenced how many southern African groups made stone tools starting several thousand years later, say archaeologist Alex Mackay of the University of Wollongong in Australia and his colleagues. And in what is now northern China, H. sapiens who reached the region by around 40,000 years ago also concocted novel tools and were the first in that region to grind up pigments for decorative or symbolic purposes, say archaeologist Fa-Gang Wang of the Hebei Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology in China and colleagues. Together, the studies suggest Stone Age culture was more innovative than previously thought. Previous studies in Africa suggested that distinctive toolmaking methods at coastal sites spread across much of the southern part of the continent from at least around 72,000 years ago until roughly 59,000 years ago (SN: 10/30/08). But human innovations represented by finds at a rock-shelter about 44 kilometers from southern Africa’s Atlantic coast, called Varsche Rivier 003 (or VR003), challenge a popular idea that developments in toolmaking and other cultural behaviors originated only in seaside, resource-rich locales where neighboring human groups could have regularly shared information, Mackay and colleagues report February 28 in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

3-10-22 The mysterious Hiawatha crater in Greenland is 58 million years old
The impact that carved the crater is too old to have caused the Younger Dryas cold snap. The powerful impact that created a mysterious crater at the northwestern edge of Greenland’s ice sheet happened about 58 million years ago, researchers report March 9 in Science Advances. That timing, confirmed by two separate dating methods, means that the asteroid or comet or meteorite that carved the depression struck long before the Younger Dryas cold snap about 13,000 years ago. Some researchers have suggested the cold spell was caused by such an impact. Scientists spotted the crater in 2015 during a scan by NASA’s Operation IceBridge, which used airborne radar to measure the ice sheet’s thickness. Those and other data revealed that the crater, dubbed Hiawatha, is a round depression that spans 31 kilometers and is buried beneath a kilometer of ice (SN: 11/14/18). The next step was to determine how old the Hiawatha crater might be. Though the depression itself is unreachable, meltwater at the ice’s base had ported out pebbles and other sediments bearing telltale signs of alteration by an impact, including sand from partially melted rocks and pebbles containing intensely deformed, or “shocked,” zircon crystals. Geochemist Gavin Kenny of the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm and colleagues dated these alterations using two methods based on the radioactive decay of isotopes, or different forms of elements. For the zircons, the team measured the decay of uranium to lead, and in the sand, the researchers compared the abundances of radioactive argon isotopes with stable ones. Both methods suggest that the impact occurred about 57.99 million years ago. That makes the crater far too old to be the smoking gun long sought by proponents of the controversial Younger Dryas impact hypothesis (SN: 6/26/18). The timing also isn’t quite right to link it to a warm period called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, which began around 56 million years ago (SN: 9/28/16). For now, the researchers say, what impact this space punch may have had on Earth’s global climate remains a mystery.

3-9-22 In the cold, why does our body require warm covers but not our face?
Firstly, don’t forget that your head does have some insulation: it often has hair (though mine doesn’t) and about half of it is lying on a pillow and so is insulated by it. Secondly, the air temperature near your head won’t be as cold as the rest of the room because the microclimate immediately around your head will be warmed by heat lost from your head, heat escaping from under the covers and by your exhaled breath, which is warmed in the lungs to about 33°C. Then there is physiology. Your sensation of “thermal comfort” is primarily driven by skin temperature (actually by cold receptors just under the surface of the skin). This, in turn, depends, in large part, on blood flow to the skin. In a cool environment, regions such as the hands and feet reduce their blood flow, or vasoconstrict, to very low levels. In contrast, the blood flow to the head doesn’t decrease by anywhere near as much, so, as the temperature of the rest of the skin falls, that of the head remains higher. This is why you can lose plenty of heat via your head in the cold and should wear a hat. There are also differences in the impact of different body regions on the overall sensation of cold and thermal comfort. The temperature of the hands and feet dominate your overall perception of how cold you are. This is why many people can’t fall asleep until their feet warm up in bed. We know, too, that in a cooling environment, the temperature of the lower back and chest determines the loss of thermal comfort, and during mild exposure to cold, local warming of the chest and abdomen, rather than the face, produces a strong sensation of comfort. Finally, remember that the face is adapted to being exposed to the elements. So, it is a good idea to keep the extremities and torso warm in bed, then you can leave the head above the covers. The tip of your nose may get cold, but it won’t stop you sleeping, and it is good to breathe fresh air!

3-9-22 The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey review: An emotive exploration of memory
Samuel L. Jackson’s streaming debut is touching, yet somewhat lacking in mystery and suspense. “I GOT to set things right,” says Ptolemy Grey, Samuel L. Jackson’s latest screen incarnation. He talks into a tape recorder while loading a bullet intended for the man banging on his apartment door. “That motherfucker got to pay for what he’s done.” The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey‘s opening scene could have been lifted from a belated Pulp Fiction spin-off, revisiting Jackson’s foul-mouthed, fast-food-obsessed, gun-toting hitman Jules Winnfield nearly three decades on. Then the action flashes back to just two months earlier. Now we see Ptolemy as a dishevelled, confused 93-year-old living on tinned sausages and beans in a cockroach-infested flat. Regular visits from his kindly great-nephew Reggie (Omar Benson Miller) are his only respite. This six-part drama, adapted by Walter Mosley from his 2010 novel of the same name, begins by painting a heartbreakingly convincing picture of a man with his mundane daily routines are interspersed with visions of his beloved late wife and often horrifying flashbacks from his childhood in the Deep South. The story takes a turn for the fantastical when Ptolemy discovers he is eligible for a new drug trial that will restore his memories in crystal-clear detail. The catch is that it is a temporary fix and will worsen his condition in the long run. Despite this obvious drawback, Ptolemy jumps at the chance to sign up, having discovered that what he thought was a birthday party was actually Reggie’s funeral. He needs his mind back to find out who is responsible for Reggie’s death. It is an intriguing set-up, but one that Mosley fails to capitalise on. Ptolemy’s amateur sleuthing isn’t engaging, and the culprit is eventually revealed so casually that it barely registers. A gripping whodunnit this isn’t, perhaps surprisingly considering that Mosley built his reputation on his novels about the hard-boiled detective Easy Rawlins.

3-9-22 The Parrot in the Mirror review: Why humans evolved to be like birds
From our long lives to our social skills and even language, zoologist Antone Martinho-Truswell argues that we are more like birds than we think. EVOLUTION has created a living world of jaw-dropping diversity. It has also generated what seem like astonishing coincidences. The pangolins of Africa and armadillos of South America, for instance, look like close cousins. In fact, each is more closely related to humans than to each other. Their similarity arises because they independently evolved near-identical strategies to cope with the same kind of environmental challenges. This is just one example of what is known as convergent evolution, but there are many others, and not all of them are so easy to spot. Take humans and birds: few readers will be immediately won over by Sydney-based zoologist Antone Martinho-Truswell’s claims that we are “like a strangely featherless bird”, and that we have more in common with birds than with our mammalian cousins. By the time I finished The Parrot in the Mirror, though, I found that idea both compelling and reasonable. Martinho-Truswell explores the traits shared by humans and birds, from our unusual longevity to our advanced social skills, from our parenting styles to our intelligence and even the use of language. These, he argues, are all examples of convergent evolution. Briefly, his argument goes like this: once birds could fly, they could elude almost all predators. Since they were now less likely to be eaten in any given year, they could live longer and produce more offspring. With longevity came the opportunity and the need to develop increased intelligence. It is an advantage for long-living animals to be smart because it helps them to survive long enough to raise their young to adulthood. What’s more, because longer development requires a bigger egg and a bigger yolk sac, and because an egg can only get so big if its mother is to fly, most birds hatch out very immature, helpless young. Chicks require enormous amounts of care, often provided by pair-bonded parents, and sometimes supplemented by a larger community. This favours the evolution of complex social behaviour and communication.

3-9-22 The dentist that wants to calm patients with cuddles from dogs
Feedback can think of few more unnerving fates than coming round from one of our regular fainting fits at the dentist’s in a pool not just of our own drool, but canine saliva too. Yet, “Dental patients at a practice in Green Bay, Wisconsin, can cuddle with a cockapoo named Charlie. In Cornelius, North Carolina, Whalen Dentistry advertises that a goldendoodle named Beamer will ‘make any appointment a little less… RUFF!'”, we read on Kaiser Health News. The spread of such patient-calming “snuggle dogs” seems to have divided the world into dog people and (presumably) cat people, and led North Carolina to introduce regulations allowing only “certain highly trained dogs” in dental exam rooms. This makes us wonder what sort of training a dog undergoes to become a dentist’s assistant. Still, we see that a pilot study from researchers at the Autonomous University of Nuevo Le?n in Mexico in 2019 recorded lower blood pressure spikes among a small sample of anxious dental patients when a dog (English shepherd, schnauzer, border collie or Labrador retriever) was placed on a clean towel over their legs, so there is some solid science behind it. That is more than can be said for fish. Proving there really is research for every occasion, we encounter a 2021 paper from researchers at the University of Zurich in Switzerland detailing a clinical trial looking at the effect of fish in a dental waiting room on patient stress levels. None, as it turns out. Still, slapping with a wet fish could be a good way to revive those who do pass out. And has no one really thought to try out dental cats? We can’t tell you how excited we are that next week at SXSW Dolly Parton is launching an audience-centric Web3 experience to be livestreamed on the blockchain. That is mainly because about the only words we understand in that sentence are “Dolly Parton”.

3-9-22 Make mistakes on purpose – it can dramatically boost your performance
"Deliberate erring" offers a surprising but effective way to enhance your memory and improve how you perform in many unexpected areas of life, says David Robson. A man of genius makes no mistakes,” James Joyce wrote 100 years ago. “His errors are volitional and portals to discovery.” Most people with good sense would accept that we can and should learn from accidental failures. It would be impossible to progress in anything, after all, without taking the odd misstep, and by understanding how we tripped up, we can avoid stumbling in the future. Few would advocate making intentional mistakes, however. Yet a pair of fascinating new studies have shown that this may be the best way to learn new information. Consciously blundering, even when you know better, can promote deeper understanding and better recall, so you are better able to apply your knowledge later on. The phenomenon is known as the derring effect – derived from “deliberate erring” – and when applied astutely, it may bring benefits in many unexpected areas of life. The discovery joins a small but growing body of literature on the ways that enforced failure can be a fast track to later success. In the late 2000s, for example, a group of researchers in the US asked participants to learn a series of facts from Oliver Sacks’s book An Anthropologist on Mars. Some of the participants were given a full 10 minutes to read the text; others had to spend the first couple of minutes taking a “pretest” on the knowledge to be learned, before they read the text.As you would expect, their answers on the pretest were mostly wrong. But the initial errors had somehow primed the participants to remember the correct answers during their subsequent study, boosting their recall on the final test by about a third, compared with those who hadn’t taken the pretest.

3-9-22 Sorry Darwin, but it turns out promiscuity benefits females too
I ONCE stole a lion’s girlfriend. At the time, I was in the Masai Mara in Kenya experimenting with audio playback as a means of deciphering lion communication. This involved blasting a recording of a male lion’s roar into another’s territory and waiting for a response. Three lions – one female and two males – raced over to our Land Rover to investigate. The males quickly got bored when they failed to find anything that resembled a rival. The female, however, pinned the vehicle to the spot, legs akimbo, for over 2 hours. She was in oestrus and, in addition to mating with her consorts, she also wanted to mate with us. Not that this was anything special for the lioness: fertile females are known to mate 100 times with multiple males in a matter of days. I was shocked and quietly thrilled to discover her licentious nature. At university, I was taught that males, with their endless supply of sperm, are wired for promiscuity, whereas females, with their limited number of eggs, must be choosy and chaste. Didn’t the lioness understand this “universal law”? My research since has exposed how sexist bias has been baked into evolutionary biology and warped our understanding of the female animal. We should remember that great scientists, even geniuses like Charles Darwin, are also people of their time. Darwin’s second great theoretical masterpiece – The Descent of Man, his book containing his theory of sexual selection – cast females in the role of the Victorian housewife: coy, submissive and invariant. This theory of passivity was given an empirical lifeline in the 1940s by a British geneticist called Angus Bateman, whose legendary fruit fly mating experiment “proved” that females have little to gain from multiple mating, whereas males do. Bateman’s paradigm seared these deterministic sexual archetypes into evolutionary lore and crowned males as the dominant drivers of change.

3-9-22 Middle-age spread isn't down to metabolism, but we know how to beat it
It's a myth that extra belly fat in middle age is due to a slowing metabolism – and now we know what really causes the dreaded spread we can also fix it. FEW of life’s milestones are as unappealing and unceremonious as arrival in middle age. Our skin becomes noticeably looser, grey hairs more numerous and, of course, our clothes typically start to feel a bit tighter – especially around the waist. The last of these is known as middle-aged spread, the commonly accepted idea that we start to pack on the pounds around the abdomen as we get older. This excess weight is said to be easy to put on and harder to shift than when we were younger, the thinking being that our once-perky metabolism gets sluggish with age. We can no longer get away with as much, and our efforts to ditch the belly with diet or exercise become a losing battle. So far, so miserable. But then, last July, a study of over 6000 people around the world blew the idea out of the water. It showed that metabolism stays remarkably stable as we age, at least until our 60s. “The amount of calories you burn per day from age 20 to 60 remains about the same,” says Herman Pontzer at Duke University in North Carolina. “We’ve shown that you have much less control over metabolism than we thought.” The idea that your metabolism is just as active as you approach your 60s as it was in your 20s should be welcome news for anyone nearing middle age – usually defined as the period from 45 to 65 years of age – and facing the dreaded spread. But it leaves a burning question: if metabolism isn’t to blame, then what is? And what can be done? Middle-aged spread is more than just folklore. Studies consistently show an insidious uptick in body weight at this time of life, with most of us putting on the best part of a kilogram each year. For instance, one estimate of weight gain in people in the US put that figure at between 0.5 and 1 kg per year between the ages of 21 and 55. A different study showed that women gain on average 0.7 kg per year between the ages of 40 and 60, regardless of their initial body size, race or ethnicity.

3-9-22 Electric field keeps kidney cells powered up while organs are on ice
Organs soon run out of energy while they are between donor and recipient, but an electric field could keep them running and improve survival. Electricity can help keep biological tissues functioning while stored in ice, a finding that could help boost the number of successful kidney transplants. The approach seems effective in mice given transplants and in human kidneys stored for 24 hours – although it hasn’t yet been tried on organs put inside people. It could be used on other transplanted organs and even tissues inside the body with low blood supply, says Ruisheng Liu at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “There are lots of possibilities.” Kidney transplants can be life-saving, but some kidneys don’t function well after the surgery because they are damaged from lack of oxygen during transport. Low oxygen stops kidney cells making enough of a compound called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which normally powers a molecular pump on their surface that keeps sodium levels low and potassium levels high inside cells. The shutdown causes the cells to swell and damages many of their enzymes and other biochemicals. But the molecular pumps are sensitive to electrical fields, and Liu’s group has found that putting electrodes on the surface of the kidney and applying an oscillating field can restart many of the cells’ pumps. To test the approach, the researchers gave 10 mice a kidney transplant and stored the organs in cold saline before each was implanted. Seven of the mice that were given the electrical treatment had more than 50 per cent better kidney function than those that didn’t, as judged by a commonly used blood test. They also tested the approach in five pairs of human kidneys that had been donated but weren’t in a good enough condition to use. One of each pair had four electrodes placed on it while they were stored on ice for 24 hours. Afterwards, the cells of the treated kidneys had less damage when viewed under a microscope. Damage to transplanted kidneys from lack of oxygen is a big problem and contributes to immune rejection, says Kristin Veighey at the University of Southampton in the UK. “If you make [kidneys] last longer, then less people will return to the wait list.”

3-9-22 Hugging a pillow that mimics breathing could reduce anxiety
Prototype pillow contains an inflatable chamber that connects to an external pump and motor, enabling it to expand and deflate like human lungs. A huggable pillow that mimics breathing has reduced anxiety as effectively as guided meditation for people who were about to take a mathematics test. Interactive tactile devices, such as Paro the cuddly seal robot, have previously been linked to reduced anxiety, potentially providing near-immediate relief without medication. To better understand the potential of these devices, Alice Haynes, now at Saarland University in Saarbrücken, Germany, and her colleagues developed a pillow prototype that expands and deflates like human lungs. The team got a group of 129 volunteers to complete a questionnaire that measured their anxiety level before and after they were told they would need to complete a maths test. Next, 45 of the volunteers hugged the prototype pillow across their chest and torso for just over 8 minutes, while 40 of the participants listened to a guided meditation and the remaining 44 volunteers sat and did nothing, acting as the experiment’s control group. The volunteers’ anxiety was then measured again. Hugging the pillow was found to reduce pre-test anxiety by the same amount as the meditation, while the control group’s anxiety increased ahead of the test. “I think ultimately, it’s just nice to give people with anxiety a choice of different ways to support themselves,” says Haynes. “A benefit of the cushion is that we haven’t had to give anyone guidance on using it – it seems to be very intuitive. It’s familiar and you don’t have to use an app or be on your phone or any of your devices.” The pillow, which is 36 centimetres long, contains an inflatable chamber that connects to an external pump and motor. Most of the volunteers adapted their breathing to match the pillow’s expansion, according to Haynes. “Slow breathing practices in general activate the part of the nervous system which is associated with rest and digest,” she says.

3-9-22 Recurring UTIs may be prevented with an antiseptic drug
A daily dose of an antiseptic drug reduced recurring urinary tract infections as effectively as antibiotics. An antiseptic drug that inhibits the growth of bacteria in urine may be as effective as antibiotics in the prevention of recurring urinary tract infections (UTIs). “Over 50 per cent of women will suffer from a urinary tract infection in their lifetimes,” says Chris Harding at The Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. Up to a third of these women experience recurrent infections, he says, defined as at least three UTI episodes a year. UK guidelines recommend a daily low-dose antibiotic as a preventative therapy for recurrent UTIs. However, long-term use of these drugs raises the risk of antibiotic resistance. Unlike antibiotics, which kill bacteria or prevent them from spreading, methenamine hippurate inhibits the growth of certain bacteria in urine. The antiseptic has shown promise for UTI prevention, but the evidence is inconclusive. To learn more, Harding and his colleagues studied 205 women who had on average six UTIs a year. Every day for 12 months, 102 of the participants took an antibiotic, while the remaining 103 were given a methenamine hippurate pill. Over the year, those in the antibiotic group had on average 0.89 UTI episodes, compared with 1.38 episodes among those taking methenamine hippurate. “There was basically no difference in outcomes between the two methods,” says Harding. “If we want to reduce the use of antibiotics to combat antimicrobial resistance, then trials like this provide clinicians and patients a credible non-antibiotic option for prevention.” However, the long-term safety of methenamine hippurate is unclear. Four of the participants who took it daily were admitted to hospital as a result of a UTI, and six of the same group reported a fever during an infection. Overall, 34 people in the antibiotic group and and 35 in the antiseptic group had side effects, most of which were mild.

3-9-22 Middle-age spread isn't down to metabolism, but we know how to beat it
It's a myth that extra belly fat in middle age is due to a slowing metabolism – and now we know what really causes the dreaded spread we can also fix it. FEW of life’s milestones are as unappealing and unceremonious as arrival in middle age. Our skin becomes noticeably looser, grey hairs more numerous and, of course, our clothes typically start to feel a bit tighter – especially around the waist. The last of these is known as middle-aged spread, the commonly accepted idea that we start to pack on the pounds around the abdomen as we get older. This excess weight is said to be easy to put on and harder to shift than when we were younger, the thinking being that our once-perky metabolism gets sluggish with age. We can no longer get away with as much, and our efforts to ditch the belly with diet or exercise become a losing battle. So far, so miserable. But then, last July, a study of over 6000 people around the world blew the idea out of the water. It showed that metabolism stays remarkably stable as we age, at least until our 60s. “The amount of calories you burn per day from age 20 to 60 remains about the same,” says Herman Pontzer at Duke University in North Carolina. “We’ve shown that you have much less control over metabolism than we thought.” The idea that your metabolism is just as active as you approach your 60s as it was in your 20s should be welcome news for anyone nearing middle age – usually defined as the period from 45 to 65 years of age – and facing the dreaded spread. But it leaves a burning question: if metabolism isn’t to blame, then what is? And what can be done? Middle-aged spread is more than just folklore. Studies consistently show an insidious uptick in body weight at this time of life, with most of us putting on the best part of a kilogram each year. For instance, one estimate of weight gain in people in the US put that figure at between 0.5 and 1 kg per year between the ages of 21 and 55. A different study showed that women gain on average 0.7 kg per year between the ages of 40 and 60, regardless of their initial body size, race or ethnicity.

3-9-22 A 6-metre-long crocodile relative lived in China during the Bronze Age
A large species of gharial, an animal closely related to crocodiles, roamed China 3000 years ago, but was probably driven extinct by humans. An unknown crocodile-like animal probably lived in China until just a few hundred years ago. The creature may have been more than 6 metres long and its discovery helps make sense of the evolution of crocodiles and their relatives. Chinese researchers discovered the animal’s bones in the 1960s and 1970s, but they were misidentified as a living species and ignored, says Masaya Iijima at Clemson University in South Carolina. Iijima and his colleagues have now studied four of the specimens, which include skulls and other parts of the body. The creature was a gharial, an animal closely related to crocodiles and alligators, but with a much thinner snout. Today, there are only two gharial species: one from India and neighbouring countries, and one from Malaysia and Indonesia. All the specimens of the new extinct gharial come from south-east China. The team named it Hanyusuchus sinensis, after a Chinese politician and poet called Han Yu (AD 768-824). Confronted with crocodiles that were attacking humans and livestock, Han Yu issued a proclamation instructing the animals to leave or be killed. Three of the specimens have been carbon-dated. They lived around 3000 years ago during the Chinese Bronze Age. However, historical accounts of dangerous gharial-like animals are known from as recently as 500 years ago, so Iijima thinks Chinese gharials survived “until at least 300 years ago”. One of the skulls has 17 chop marks on it, suggesting people cut it up using heavy bronze weapons. Humans probably drove the Chinese gharial to extinction, says Minoru Yoneda at the University of Tokyo, who also worked on the study. “It’s not easy to say that direct attack by humans is the main cause of extinction,” he says, because rice farming probably cut into its habitat, but either way humans are probably responsible.

3-9-22 Scientists are arguing over the identity of a fossilized 10-armed creature
The animal may be the oldest octopus ancestor — or not An ancient cephalopod fossil may be about to rewrite octopus history, but it depends on who you ask. At the very least, it’s offering up a lesson in how hard it is to classify some fossils. Because their soft bodies decay easily, it’s rare to find well-preserved fossils of cephalopods, a group that includes octopus, squid and cuttlefish. The relatively slim pickings of fossils have made establishing the animals’ family tree a headache for paleontologists. Enter Syllipsimopodi bideni, an approximately 330-million-year-old fossil with exquisitely preserved suckers and 10 arms. The specimen was donated to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto in 1988 after its discovery in Montana’s Bear Gulch Limestone, a treasure trove for soft-bodied fossils. A closer look suggests that the fossil is a type of cephalopod called a vampyropod, researchers from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City report March 8 in Nature Communications. If true, that would make this newly designated species the oldest ancestor of octopuses by about 80 million years. This would suggest that some ancient octopus features evolved much more quickly than previously thought. “This is overturning about 100 years of science in cephalopod evolution,” says invertebrate paleontologist Christopher Whalen. But not everyone is convinced. The classification hinges on the fossil having a gladius, a hard internal body part shaped like a Roman sword of the same name. The gladius can be identified by slender growth lines along the fossil’s edge, as well as a rib running down the center of the fossil. But where Whalen and paleontologist Neil Landman see a gladius, others see something else. “That’s not the gladius, I’m sorry,” says Christian Klug, a cephalopod paleontologist at the University of Zurich. He argues that the slender lines are actually evidence of a flattened phragmocone, the series of chambers found in the shells of early cephalopods. And if there’s no gladius, as Klug suggests, the fossil would not be a vampyropod after all.

3-8-22 Your organs may be ageing at different rates
The organs in your body aren't necessarily the same biological age, and tracking their individual ageing trajectories could help predict your risk of developing specific diseases. An analysis of hundreds of biological features strengthens the evidence that some organs and body systems can age faster than others. Tracking the biological age of different parts of the body could help doctors predict the onset of disease more accurately. We already knew that the condition of cells in the body can be interpreted to give someone a biological age that is older or younger than their age measured in years. In other words, cell condition – which varies depending on genetic and lifestyle factors – determines the pace of the ageing process. Now, work by Brian Kennedy at the National University of Singapore and his colleagues supports the idea that the various organs and systems in the body – such as the cardiovascular or immune system – can age at different rates within the same individual. “It confirms previous studies that there are diverse ageing rates among organs and systems, and people’s ageing patterns are different,” says Wenyu Zhou at Tempus Labs, a biotechnology company in California. “This further calls for personalised health assessments that holistically consider various ageing processes.” Kennedy’s team collected stool and blood samples from about 480 people aged between 20 and 45 and measured a total of 403 biological features in each individual. The team classified these biomarkers into nine categories to assess the biological age of the kidneys, liver, gut microbiome, cardiovascular system, immune system, metabolic system and sex hormone system. The team also assessed biological age using physical fitness tests and by analysing photographs of participants’ faces. Out of the nine systems and organs assessed, the biological age of an individual’s cardiovascular system correlated the most with the people’s age in years – their “chronological age”. The biological age of the gut microbiome showed the weakest link with chronological age. Meanwhile, the biological age of the liver and sex hormone systems varied the most between individuals. This confirmed that distinct parts of the body have different biological ages.

3-8-22 Why has the omicron coronavirus variant hit Hong Kong so hard?
Covid-19 cases are soaring in Hong Kong, and the government’s focus on testing instead of vaccinating older populations may be the reason deaths are spiking and hospitals are overwhelmed. Covid-19 cases in Hong Kong are spiking as the omicron variant spreads. But unlike some other places, Hong Kong also has a high number of severe cases, overwhelming hospitals so the number of deaths is soaring. Part of the reason is that too few of the older people in Hong Kong are vaccinated. The failure to vaccinate the most vulnerable seems to be a result of trying to please China. Hong Kong continues to pursue a “dynamic zero-covid” strategy that focuses on testing. “As long as Beijing insists on zero covid, Hong Kong will insist on zero covid – even though it makes no sense whatsoever and they know it,” says Steve Tsang at SOAS University of London. Hong Kong has reported nearly half a million cases this year, with most occurring in the last week or so. The total number of deaths has shot up to more than 2000, with scenes at hospitals reminiscent of the early pandemic. “We’ve got people who are not able to get into hospital,” says David Owens, a family doctor in Hong Kong. “This is a public health disaster.” In stark contrast, New Zealand, which also pursued a zero-covid strategy until recently, has so far reported only five deaths during its omicron wave, and 71 covid-19 deaths for the entire pandemic. On 7 March, New Zealand had 13 people with covid-19 in intensive care. The difference is vaccination. In New Zealand, the highest rates of vaccination are among the oldest. Nearly 100 per cent of people aged 80 or over have had at least two doses. The main vaccine being used is the Pfizer/BioNTech one. In Hong Kong, vaccination rates are highest in those under 60. Only 30 per cent of people aged 80 or older are vaccinated. “This is the fundamental driver of our fatality risk,” tweeted Gabriel Leung at Hong Kong University. Plus most of those over 60 had Sinovac Biotech’s CoronaVac vaccine, which is less effective against omicron than the Pfizer/BioNTech one. In younger groups, most had the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

3-8-22 'World-first' heart-thymus transplant success for Easton
US doctors say a young boy called Easton has made medical history by becoming the first person in the world to receive a combined heart and thymus transplant. The pioneering procedure was done to save his life, but could also revolutionise the field of organ transplantation, they hope. The donated thymus tissue should help stop his body rejecting the new heart. Months on from the surgery, tests reveal Easton is progressing well. The thymus tissue is working, meaning his body is building critical immune cells which might ultimately reduce or even eliminate the need for him to take lifelong anti-rejection drugs. One of his doctors, Joseph Turek from Duke University Hospital, said: "We are very excited about it. This concept of tolerance has always been the holy grail in transplantation, and we are now on the doorstep. "This has the potential to change the face of solid organ transplantation in the future." The thymus gland helps the development of T-cells, which fight foreign substances in the body. It teaches these immune cells what is "self" and what isn't, and therefore what can be attacked. Giving Easton cultured thymus tissue from the same donor who gave him a heart, should help his body adopt the new tissues, his doctors believe. Easton was born with a weak heart as well as problems with his immune system. He spent his first seven months in hospital - some of it on life support - and needed numerous heart operations. as well as treatment for recurrent infections that his body was unable to fight on its own. His mother, Kaitlyn Sinnamon, recalls: "It helped some, but it was basically a band aid for us to make it through transplant." His doctors applied to the medical regulatory body, the FDA, to carry out an experimental type of transplant that hadn't been done in combination before, as far as they knew. Since Easton needed a new heart and, independently, a new thymus gland, the FDA granted approval for the procedures that went ahead in August 2021, when Easton was six months old.

3-7-22 Special brain cells may signal when to start new memories
Recordings from electrodes in people’s brains reveal that certain neurons in the hippocampus show a burst of activity to mark the boundary between different events. A newly discovered kind of brain cell involved in memory formation seems to mark the boundary between distinct events as we experience them. The neurons, which have been called boundary cells, fire when new events happen, such as if we see someone walking into a room. The cells were discovered in people with epilepsy who had electrodes put into their brain before surgery, by asking them to watch films showing sequences of events. “It has long been appreciated in psychology that memory is not continuous, that it’s formed in chunks. But this has never been observed at the single neuron level,” says Ueli Rutishauser at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Much about how memories form is still unclear, but several insights have emerged from studying people who need electrodes put into their hippocampi – two curved structures on either side of the brain – because they have epileptic seizures that start in these regions. The hippocampi and surrounding areas of the brain are crucial for making new memories. To work out exactly which part of the brain is malfunctioning, people with epilepsy may stay in hospital for several days with electrodes implanted to record brain activity. Each electrode has eight tiny wires protruding from it, and each wire can distinguish activity from up to five surrounding neurons. In the latest study, Rutishauser’s team asked 19 such people to watch carefully constructed film sequences while the recording took place, listening to about 30 cells per person. About 7 per cent of the neurons were boundary cells, whose firing peaked when new things happened. “They don’t say anything about the memory content, they just say there is a boundary,” says Rutishauser. He speculates that activity in these cells signals that the brain should begin to form a new memory, like starting a new folder.

3-7-22 Leaded petrol may have lowered the IQ of over half the US population
Exposure to leaded petrol as a child has been linked to an average IQ drop of 2.6 points among US adults, increasing to 5.9 points among those born in the mid-to-late 1960s. More than half of people in the US may have a slightly lower IQ as a result of inhaling exhaust gases from vehicles run on leaded petrol when they were children. The harm is thought to be most pronounced among people born in the 1960s and 1970s, when use of this fuel was at its peak. Similar effects have probably occurred in other high-income countries, says Aaron Reuben at Duke University in North Carolina. “Patterns of lead use in gasoline throughout the last century were very similar across developed countries.” Lead began being added to petrol in the 1920s to make car engines run more smoothly. If the substance enters the brain, it can disrupt nerve signalling and, at higher levels, kill brain cells. Young children are particularly susceptible due to the metal disrupting brain development. Using data from a national survey, Reuben and his colleagues analysed the circulating lead levels of over 11,600 children aged 1 to 5 years from blood samples drawn between 1976 and 2016. They also estimated blood lead levels for the period from 1940 to 1975 based on leaded petrol use during that time. This data was then linked to an established formula of how lead exposure influences IQ. Their results suggest half the current US population had elevated lead levels in their blood as children. Across the country, they estimate that lead exposure may have caused an average IQ drop of 2.6 points. People born in the mid-to-late 1960s may have lost an average of 5.9 points. In the 1970s, it was recognised that tiny particles of lead in exhaust fumes could enter people’s bloodstreams and higher environmental levels of the metal were linked with worse school performance in children.

3-7-22 Fossil hints that orcas don’t have a long history of killing whales
A 1.4-million-year-old fossil relative of killer whales had teeth that suggest it ate small fish rather than large marine mammals. A 1.4-million-year-old ancestor of orcas and false killer whales seems to have dined on small fish – which suggests its descendants adapted to hunt larger prey such as other dolphin and whales relatively recently. “This is an extraordinary fossil that helps qualify the origin of the unique diet of killer whales and false killer whales,” says Giovanni Bianucci at the University of Pisa, Italy. “It’s difficult to give a precise date, but these cetaceans seem to have evolved to eat marine mammals less than a million years ago.” Orcas (Orcinus orca) – also known as killer whales – and false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens) are the only living species of cetaceans that feed on other marine mammals. When they evolved to do so is unclear because cetacean fossils are exceptionally rare, says Bianucci. So Bianucci was pleasantly surprised to learn that a private collector had found a skeleton of a Pleistocene-epoch false killer whale on the Greek island of Rhodes, in 2021. The specimen was donated to the Stamatiadis Museum of Mineralogy and Paleontology on the island. Analyses of the specimen revealed that the fossil was new to science, says Bianucci. His team named it Rododelphis stamatiadisi in honour both of Rhodes and of the collector, Polychronis Stamatiadis. The scientists noted that the R. stamatiadisi fossil had a body about 5-metres long, which is similar to modern false killer whale – but it had smaller teeth, says Bianucci. In addition, its teeth lacked the deep grooves seen in killer whale and false killer whale teeth – which are adaptations important for crunching tough mammal bones. This suggests that the species probably hunted smaller prey – more evidence for which comes from the fossilised remains of blue whiting fish (Micromesistius poutassou) found within the ancient dolphin. M. poutassou – which still exists today – is a 30-centimetre-long fish. It was clearly the R. stamatiadisi’s last meal, says Bianucci.

3-7-22 Covid-19 news: Booster protection against omicron may wane in months
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. Booster jabs substantially increased protection against omicron but efficacy starts to fall after two months. The protection given by vaccine booster shots against the omicron variant starts to decline after two months, a study has found. Researchers at the UK Health Security Agency looked at covid-19 infections in the UK between 27 November 2021 and 12 January 2022 – the period in which the omicron variant started to spread widely. The data included over one million people who had been infected with either the delta or omicron variant. The researchers only looked at whether people developed a mild illness and not whether someone was hospitalised or not. They found that a booster dose substantially increased protection against developing mild illness from the omicron variant. Two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine were only 8.8 per cent effective against the omicron variant after 25 or more weeks. But a third booster dose of this vaccine increased protection to 67.2 per cent. However, this then dropped to 45.7 per cent after 10 or more weeks. A Moderna booster, given to those who had received two initial doses of the Pfizer jab, was 73.9 per cent effective against mild illness from the omicron variant after two to four weeks. This then dropped to 64.4 per cent after five to nine weeks. Mainland China logged its highest daily number of symptomatic coronavirus infections in two years yesterday. China reported 214 domestically transmitted cases with confirmed symptoms on Sunday – it is the nation’s highest number of cases recorded in a single day since March 2020. The global recorded death toll from covid-19 has passed six million. The toll, compiled by Johns Hopkins University, stood at 6,000,394 as of Monday midday. This number is likely to be a gross underestimate of how many people have actually died from the virus globally. This is due to poor reporting and testing mechanisms in many parts of the world.

3-7-22 Health Check newsletter: How our minds can affect our bodies
Placebos, nocebos and the startling effect your mindset can have on your health. Last week, I read a fascinating book called The Expectation Effect: How your mindset can transform your life. I should acknowledge here that the author, David Robson, is a friend of mine, but I also wanted to get to grips with it, as I’ll be introducing his talk on the subject at New Scientist Live, which is being held from 12 March in Manchester, UK (tickets available here). I have written previously about the placebo effect, the strange way that people’s health can improve simply because they expect it to do so – for instance, because they have taken dummy versions of pills containing no active ingredients. Doctors often deliberately harness the placebo effect, and medical researchers design randomised trials to take account of it, yet we don’t understand what causes the phenomenon. The Expectation Effect also looks at what is sometimes called the placebo effect’s evil twin: the nocebo effect. This refers to the way people’s expectations can trigger ill health. It can involve quite extreme symptoms – even paralysis and blindness – that are psychological in origin, as I wrote about a few years ago. These psychological conditions can spread between people like a form of social contagion, sometimes called mass hysteria – although this is an unfortunate name because it sounds dismissive. There are reports going back centuries of communities that see outbreaks of symptoms such as fainting or vomiting, often initially blamed on a new infection or toxin. In many such incidents, women and younger people seem more susceptible. For instance, there were outbreaks of skin rashes (a very physical symptom) in some US schools soon after 9/11, with people blaming everything from mouldy library books to bioterrorist attacks. After lengthy investigations by toxicologists, a psychological cause now seems the most likely explanation.

3-4-22 Burst of animal evolution altered chemical make-up of Earth's mantle
The Cambrian explosion 500 million years ago saw a huge variety of animals evolve – and also led to carbon being buried in the seabed and ultimately carried into the planet’s mantle. When animal life exploded in the oceans more than 500 million years ago, it changed the face of the planet. Now it seems the effects of that burst of evolution reached thousands of kilometres into Earth’s heart. “We can link a major event that is happening at the Earth’s surface with a fundamental change in the deep Earth,” says Andrea Giuliani at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. A huge range of animals evolved during the “Cambrian explosion”, which is thought to have begun about 541 million years ago. While some animals probably existed beforehand, the Cambrian explosion saw the emergence of many familiar groups like arthropods – which includes insects and spiders – and animals with backbones. Giuliani and his colleagues now say they have evidence this evolutionary blossoming had effects thousands of kilometres inside Earth. The team studied rocks called kimberlites, which are carried to the surface from deep inside the planet. “If we look at kimberlites, we can potentially get a more pristine signal of the deep Earth than using other magmas [molten rocks that have since cooled],” says Giuliani. They analysed 144 kimberlites and related rocks from 60 locations worldwide. In each kimberlite, the team looked at the mix of different types, or isotopes, of carbon. The two most common forms are carbon-12 and carbon-13, with living organisms generally absorbing the former.Giuilani’s team found that carbon-12 levels rose in kimberlites younger than 250 million years, probably due to huge amounts of organic matter being buried in sea-floor sediments during the Cambrian explosion.

3-3-22 Fat levels in blood predict risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease
Measuring the levels of 184 fat molecules in the blood could improve how we assess people’s risk of developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The levels of 184 fat molecules in the blood can help to predict those at highest risk of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, years before symptoms appear. Doctors currently assess the risk of these conditions by measuring people’s body mass index, blood pressure, levels of cholesterol and blood sugar. Certain genetic profiles have also been linked to disease risk. “We show how [measuring blood fat concentrations] can expand our toolkit for early detection of individuals at high risk of developing diabetes and cardiovascular diseases,” Chris Lauber at Lipotype GmbH, a biotech company in Germany, said in a press release. Lauber and his colleagues analysed data on around 4000 people who took part in a previous study that ran from 1991 to 2015 in Sweden. Their blood samples were analysed with a mass spectrometer to measure the levels of 184 fats – also known as lipids. The team used this information to first train computer models to make links between either type 2 diabetes or cardiovascular disease and the lipid concentrations in two-thirds of people at the start of the original study. They used the models to calculate disease risk scores from lipid levels in the remaining third of people who weren’t included in the training data set. They found that the 10 per cent of people predicted by the new approach to be at highest risk of type 2 diabetes had a 168 per cent higher rate of the disease, compared with the average rate across the study group. Meanwhile, the 10 per cent of people predicted to be at highest risk of cardiovascular disease had an 84 per cent higher rate of this illness compared with the average rate across all the participants. The analysis revealed that predicting disease risk based on fat profiles was more accurate than using genetic data, and using them in combination slightly improved the results compared with using the lipid profile alone.

3-4-22 Some E. coli set off viral grenades inside nearby bacteria
A toxin called colibactin awakens dormant viruses embedded in bacterial DNA. Some bacteria can trigger unexploded viral grenades in neighboring bacteria’s DNA. Certain Escherichia coli bacteria, including some that live in human intestines, make a chemical called colibactin. That chemical awakens dormant viruses inside nearby bacteria, sometimes leading to their destruction, researchers report February 23 in Nature. This type of biological warfare among bacteria hasn’t been described before. “It’s an interesting strategy, and it’s also a dangerous strategy,” says Heather Hendrickson, an evolutionary microbiologist at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, who was not involved in the work. Colibactin producers must creep up on their bacterial enemies and trigger the unexploded ordinance hiding in the enemies’ DNA. Those grenades are prophages — bacteria-infecting viruses that have inserted themselves into their hosts’ DNA, where they hide out harmless and dormant until something triggers their awakening. That something, in this case, is DNA damage caused by colibactin. When colibactin dings DNA, a bacterial repair system called the SOS response kicks in, chemical biologist Emily Balskus and colleagues found. “What many phages have done is to tap into that response,” says Balskus, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Harvard University. “It’s a signal for them to move out of this dormant lifestyle and awaken to kill their host and move on to find a new host,” she says. Once phages wake up, they replicate and burst out of the host cell, destroying it. But once these viral grenades go off, they can infect other bacteria, potentially exposing the attacking bacteria and other close-by microbes to biological shrapnel. Humans might also get caught in the cross fire. Researchers already knew that colibactin can cause damage to human DNA that may lead to colon cancer. But why the bacteria would use the chemical against people wasn’t known.

3-4-22 Easter Islanders relied on freshwater springs under the sea to survive
Surveys of Easter Island show that ancient settlements and the sites of the island’s famous giant statues are situated close to freshwater springs that are only accessible at low tide. Undersea springs may have been crucial for the survival of the Rapa Nui people who built the massive stone statues for which Rapa Nui – also known as Easter Island – is famous. Their ancient settlements and the platforms on which the monolithic statues were placed were all located on the coast close to such springs, surveys by Robert DiNapoli at Binghamton University in New York and colleagues have shown. These sources of fresh water were critically important, allowing Rapa Nui communities to survive long droughts, DiNapoli said during a virtual talk at the Ocean Sciences Meeting 2022. “The environment is really marginal.” Easter Island gets a lot of rainfall on average, but it’s unpredictable and there are often droughts. The only sources of fresh water are three small lakes, but these are far from settlements and dry up during long dry periods. This had led some researchers to suspect that places along the shore where groundwater flows out into the sea were vital to the island’s inhabitants. These springs are a result of rainwater sinking through the porous rock and forming a freshwater layer on top of saltier, denser water below. During low tide, some of this fresh water flows out of the rocks into the sea in places. “I have tried drinking the water,” DiNapoli told New Scientist. “In some locations it is quite fresh, whereas in others it is quite brackish.” There is already evidence that these springs were used by the Rapa Nui people whose Polynesian ancestors settled on the island around AD 1150. From the time the island was first discovered by Europeans in 1722, there are many historical accounts of locals drinking “seawater”, with the visitors apparently not realising the water was almost certainly fresh.

3-3-22 Health Check newsletter: A U-turn in Caesarean policy
The removal of Caesarean section targets for hospitals in England is a welcome reversal in how we manage pregnancy and birth. With all the attention paid to England’s shift in direction on covid-19 last week, you may have missed a change in a different area of healthcare: childbirth services. Hospitals in England have been told to rip up targets for keeping their rates of Caesarean sections under 20 per cent of all births. It might sound like something that’s only of interest to hospital bureaucrats, but in fact it’s a major reversal in a long-running battle over how we should manage pregnancy and birth. On one side are those who argue that birth has become “over-medicalised”. Pregnancy isn’t a disease, it’s a natural physiological state and is best managed by letting women give birth with as little interference as possible, say the natural birth advocates. They claim doctors use too many interventions, often for their own convenience, and encourage people to give birth with as little medical help as possible. On the other side are campaigners who say that approach is unsafe. The ultimate birth intervention is to have the baby through a C-section rather than the vagina. C-sections were initially done only as a last resort. As they became safer, they were done more and more, both during labour if the baby got stuck or beforehand if the mother had certain health conditions that made a safe birth less likely (called elective C-sections). The total rate of C-sections, either within births at a hospital or those for a whole country, has come to be seen as a significant measure of how “over-medicalised” childbirth has become. In the UK, hospitals were encouraged to keep their rates down, and a maximum rate of 20 per cent was advised by the Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists. (The current UK rate is about 30 per cent.) The most glaring danger of such a target is that if you try to limit access to a medical intervention designed to save lives, then you risk lives being lost. And that is what started to happen. In the past decade, UK maternity services have been beset by several safety scandals over hospitals pushing for natural births so much that babies or labouring women died, as I wrote about in 2016.

3-3-22 Physical fitness linked to lower risk of developing dementia
A study of over 650,000 US veterans found that those who scored highest on a treadmill test had less risk of dementia in 8.8 years of follow-up. Being physically fit lowers your risk of developing dementia, according to one of the largest studies to test this idea so far. Edward Zamrini at George Washington University in Washington DC and his colleagues studied the link between cardiovascular fitness and dementia in over 650,000 people who had previously served in the US military. Several studies have already found that the fitter you are, the less likely you are to develop dementia, but Zamrini says these studies had small sample sizes and didn’t follow up their participants for long enough. “Our study is different,” he says. “The cohort is large, free of dementia symptoms at baseline and has a long follow-up.” The participants in this study had an average age of 61 when it started and they were followed up for an average of 8.8 years. In this time, 44,105 of them were diagnosed with dementia. They were split into five equal-sized groups according to their performance in a treadmill test at the start of the study, which measures how much oxygen is used during exercise. The team found that a person in the least-fit group would reduce their risk of developing dementia by 13 per cent if they moved into the second-least-fit group. If they joined the fittest group, their risk of developing dementia dropped by 33 per cent. Most people in the study were male, but a statistical test on the results from the 36,000 female participants showed no difference between the sexes. However, the results may have been affected by the participants being veterans. People in this group are more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury, which can exacerbate dementia symptoms.

3-3-22 Fecal transplant pills helped some peanut allergy sufferers in a small trial
A one-time, 36-pill treatment helped some allergic adults safely eat a few peanuts. Pills loaded with bacteria from other people’s poop might help adults who are highly allergic to peanuts safely eat the nuts in small amounts. In a small clinical trial, a one-day treatment of the pills helped some people with the allergy consume one or more peanuts. The results, presented February 26 at the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology annual meeting in Phoenix, are a first step toward seeing whether the approach, called fecal microbiota transplant, could extend to people allergic to foods other than peanuts. In the United States alone, about 32 million people have food allergies. The trial evolved out of past research suggesting that gut microbes help shape the immune system to protect against food allergies. In a 2019 study, Rima Rachid, an allergist-immunologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, and her colleagues found that certain bacteria were enriched in the stool of babies without food allergies compared with babies who had food allergies. When transferred into allergy-prone mice, these bacteria — the single species Subdoligranulum variabile and a set of Clostridia species — prevented allergic responses. The treatment, a type of bacteriotherapy, activated a subset of immune cells called regulatory T cells, which protect the mice from having allergic reactions. In people, fecal transplants — which take feces from healthy people and transplant it into ill individuals, usually by colonoscopy — have become a standard treatment for recurrent Clostridium difficile infections (SN: 5/18/18; SN: 2/25/22). But it wasn’t until research showed that fecal material could achieve comparable success when delivered as oral capsules that Rachid’s team started thinking about doing a trial in people with peanut allergies.

3-2-22 Lose yourself: How transcendent experiences can boost your well-being
A growing body of evidence suggests that doing things that make your sense of self fall away can make people happier, less stressed and even kinder to others. Here's our short guide to achieving this state. A FEW years ago, psychiatrist Roland Griffiths published the results of some intriguing work with people facing imminent death. His team wanted to see if it was possible to reduce anxiety and depression in people diagnosed with terminal cancer by inducing an intense self-transcendent experience, in which a person’s sense of self temporarily falls away. Fifty-one people received two doses of the psychedelic psilocybin, previously shown experimentally by Griffiths and others to reliably induce what they call “mystical-type” experiences. Five weeks after the first dose, 63 per cent of them had a clinically significant reduction in depression symptoms and 51 per cent saw a reduction in anxiety symptoms. Five months later, many still had fewer symptoms. Frederick Barrett, part of Griffiths’s team at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, says it isn’t clear that the therapeutic effect was entirely down to the transcendent experience. But “a lot of people believe that is the case”, he adds, “and I’m one of them”. If he is right, it is a striking example of how self-transcendent experiences, though temporary, can provide a lasting boost to well-being. And they don’t have to be the intense experiences induced by psychedelics. Just staring in awe at magnificent trees or concentrating intensely on a challenging task also seem to have the capacity to make you happier, less stressed and kinder to others. Now, some researchers are developing brain stimulation techniques that could induce self-transcendence, or at least accelerate the positive effects of mindfulness and meditation. So, should we all be seeking to lose ourselves more often? And if so, what is the best way to do it?

3-2-22 Automated chemistry: The machines that can discover new drugs
Making new molecules to treat disease has relied upon the painstaking art of synthetic chemistry, but now we're developing robots that could do it all for us. Perhaps the most storied aspect of modern chemistry is total synthesis. This is the craft of taking simple molecules and stitching them together to make some complex molecule. It is the way many drugs have been discovered and it is seen almost as an art form. Synthetic chemists spend hours in the lab, mixing, stirring and purifying. These days, though, chemists are beginning to think that the legwork could be automated, allowing us to quickly make large libraries of new molecules and test their properties. To this end, Andy Cooper at the University of Liverpool, UK, and his team have built a robot chemist. So far, they have used it to make molecules that could act as catalysts to speed up the production of hydrogen from water using sunlight. The robot then tests the performance of each potential catalyst. But it could be used to make and screen all kinds of chemicals. Tech multinational IBM is also experimenting with automation. Its RoboRXN kits use a machine-learning algorithm to help design the synthesis of molecules, working from a training database of 3 million chemical reactions. Alessandra Toniato at IBM’s research centre in Zurich, Switzerland, says the approach could be helpful for people who want to make new molecules but lack the equipment. “It can be used by students, maybe, to mean they have access to chemistry that they might not have in university,” she says. Lee Cronin at the University of Glasgow, UK, has the more ambitious plan of automating chemistry to the point where anyone can do it. The vision is for a sort of 3D printer for molecules. One way in which this could be useful would be to produce medicines in the aftermath of disasters, before supplies can be sent in.

3-2-22 The rise of the molecular machines set to make new wonder materials
Machines made of atoms are being used to sew together new materials molecule by molecule, which could open the floodgates to all manner of innovation. Simple molecular machines have existed for about two decades. Early examples include molecular wheels that could move along an axle, creating a piston-like mechanism. Three pioneers of this work – Fraser Stoddart at Northwestern University in Illinois, Ben Feringa at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and Jean-Pierre Sauvage at the University of Strasbourg, France – were recognised with a Nobel prize in 2016. More useful machines are now being made and tested. A few years ago, James Tour at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and his colleagues created a molecular machine that could drill through cell membranes. This allows it to open holes through which drugs could be delivered. Such devices can be built on to create even more sophisticated machines. The potential is huge: after all, living things use biomolecular machines to do many useful jobs. Ribosomes, for example, are biomolecular machines that assemble proteins. They add molecules called amino acids together in specific sequences to create a vast array of amazing materials, from the keratin in fingernails to the disease-busting antibodies of our immune systems. David Leigh at the University of Manchester, UK, has long been working on a synthetic version of the ribosome. His designs tend to be based on a ring-shaped molecule equipped with an “arm” that moves along a linear molecular track, picking up pieces along the way and joining them together. Last year, Leigh and his team linked two of these machines together so they could build a peptide with 10 amino acids, in a specific sequence. For the moment, Leigh’s machines can’t go beyond what nature can do. But that could change. Ribosomes only build with about 20 amino acids, but a synthetic ribosome could be designed to work with a far wider range of molecules. “We can use the whole of the periodic table,” says Leigh. “I think molecular machines are going to change how we do everything in terms of material design.”

3-2-22 Long-necked dinosaurs had a gait unlike any living animal
Sauropods, a group that includes diplodocus, were assumed to walk like elephants, but a new way to analyse footprints shows their gait was most similar to a hippopotamus. Giant long-necked dinosaurs walked with a gait that was different from that of any living animal, according to a new method for learning an animal’s stride pattern from its footprints. Unlike elephants, which take two steps on one side, then two steps on the other, sauropods had a diagonal gait, with each step of a front leg closely followed by the hind leg on the opposite side. This would have allowed the 50-plus-tonne animals to keep their wide frames in balance, says Jens Lallensack at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK. “Everybody always assumed that sauropods walked like modern elephants, but they didn’t, and we think that’s because the sauropods were just so much broader,” he says. Lallensack and Peter Falkingham, also at Liverpool John Moores University, suspected that previous studies looking at footprints alone weren’t telling the full story. So they developed a new method of footprint analysis that scrutinises variations in tracks from one stride to the next, giving critical information about footfall timing, says Lallensack. The pair tested their method on the tracks of modern four-legged animals, including three dogs, two horses, a camel, an elephant, a red fox and a raccoon. Finding the method to be reliable, they then analysed fossilised Lower Cretaceous footprints of sauropods from three sites in what is now Arkansas, where the tracks run in a straight line across distances ranging from 47 to 93 metres. The sauropod tracks didn’t match any of the modern animals they analysed, says Lallensack. Instead, they showed a gait that somewhat resembled a horse’s trot, but instead of landing at the same time, the front foot touches down just before the hind foot on the opposite side. “The sauropods were actually doing the opposite of the elephants,” says Lallensack.

3-2-22 Stonehenge may have been a giant calendar and now we know how it works
The sarsen stones of the Stonehenge monument could have been designed as a calendar to track a solar year, with each of the stones in the large sarsen circle representing a day within a month. Stonehenge has long been thought to be an ancient calendar due to its alignment with the summer and winter solstices, but exactly how the calendar system worked was a mystery. Now a new analysis shows that it could have functioned like the solar calendar used in ancient Egypt, based on a year of 365.25 days, with each of the stones of the large sarsen circle representing a day within a month. “It’s a perpetual calendar that recalibrates every winter solstice sunset,” says Tim Darvill of Bournemouth University, UK, who carried out the analysis. This would have enabled the ancient people who lived near the monument in what is now Wiltshire, UK, to keep track of days and months of the year. The key to unlocking this calendar system came from the discovery in 2020 that most of the sarsen stones were quarried from the same location 25 kilometres away, and were placed at Stonehenge at around the same time. “All except two of the sarsens at Stonehenge come from that single source, so the message to me was that they’ve got a unity to them,” says Darvill. This indicates that they were intended for a common purpose. To find out what, he looked for clues in the numbers. The sarsens were arranged in three different formations at Stonehenge around 2500 BC: 30 formed the large stone circle that dominates the monument, 4 “station stones” were placed in a rectangular formation outside this circle, and the rest were constructed into 5 trilithons – consisting of two vertical stones with a third stone laid horizontally across the top like a lintel – located inside the stone circle. “30, 5 and 4 are interesting numbers in a calendrical kind of sense,” says Darvill. “Those 30 uprights around the main sarsen ring at Stonehenge would fit very nicely as days of the month,” he says. “Multiply that by 12 and you get 360, add on another 5 from the central trilithons you get 365.” To adjust the calendar to match a solar year, the addition of one extra leap day every four years is needed, and Darvill thinks that the four station stones may have been used to keep track of this. In this system, the summer and winter solstice would be framed every year by the same pair of stones.

3-2-22 Dinosaur that broke its wrist may have fallen while mating
A dinosaur bone unearthed in eastern Russia shows evidence of an injury the plant eater sustained when it fell awkwardly. A four-legged duck-billed dinosaur that lived 68 million years ago – in what is now eastern Russia – probably broke its wrist after falling from an upright position during mating or while reaching for leaves. “It was standing on its heels for maybe eating, mating, perhaps just [passing] time, when it fell,” says Filippo Bertozzo at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. Bertozzo and his colleagues used a form of X-ray imaging to make the discovery, by analysing a dinosaur lower foreleg bone – the ulna – that was uncovered in Blagoveshchensk in south-east Russia. “This bone is usually very slender, smooth and regular,” says Bertozzo, but in this particular case, the bone had a huge swelling at its wrist end. “I was wondering, what did that to this poor animal?” Through inspection of the curvature of the bone and shape of the elbow, the team confirmed that the bone belonged to a herbivorous hadrosaur (Amurosaurus riabinini), which would have lived in herds of dozens to hundreds of individuals. The animal was a subadult and around 5 metres long and 2 metres high. By analysing a digital reconstruction of the bone, and comparing its structure to ulnas belonging to uninjured A. riabinini individuals from the same fossil site, the team revealed that the dinosaur probably fell from an upright position, which caused a diagonal fracture at the end of the ulna. This led to overgrowth of the bone during the healing process. “The fracture is completely surrounded by this structure that is protecting the bone during the healing process,” says Bertozzo. Based on the extent of healing in the bone, the dinosaur probably limped around for at least four months before its death. “We can know for sure that the injury didn’t immediately kill the dinosaur because, clearly, when you die, your body cannot heal,” says Bertozzo.

3-1-22 How omicron’s mutations make it the most infectious coronavirus variant yet
A unique anatomy may have fueled omicron’s dominance. In November, a new coronavirus variant took the world by storm. Omicron has since caused an unprecedented wave of infections, striking about 90 million people in just 10 weeks. That’s more COVID-19 cases than were recorded in all of 2020. Omicron also left scientists scratching their heads. It’s riddled with mutations, which might normally doom a virus. Early experiments showed that omicron wasn’t nearly as good as the previous coronavirus variant champ, delta, at melding with a cell’s membrane — crucial for infecting that cell — or at replicating in lung cells. Yet here it was, sweeping delta virtually off the map in just weeks in some places (SN: 2/10/22). Omicron even managed to infect people who already had immunity to the virus from vaccines or previous cases of COVID-19. How, researchers wondered, was omicron doing it? “It’s a very interesting variant,” says virologist Shan-Lu Liu, who codirects the Viruses and Emerging Pathogens Program at The Ohio State University in Columbus. “I call it weird.” Researchers in Botswana and South Africa were the first to unveil omicron’s genetic makeup. Their analysis revealed more than 60 mutations, including 42 changes alone in omicron’s spike protein — the knobby structure on the surface of the virus that initiates a cell break-in and can help evade antibody defenses. Some of those mutations have popped up in previous variants, including alpha and delta. But omicron has never-before-seen tweaks and unique combinations of mutations. Scientists have been scrambling to discover how those changes affect omicron’s ability to infect people and cause disease. Researchers around the world are infecting cells in lab dishes with omicron mimics, putting the virus under the microscope, testing the viral variant in lab animals and examining medical and other records all to discover what makes the variant tick. Here’s what scientists have found so far.

3-1-22 Why kitchen sponges are the perfect home for bacteria
The tools provide the optimal physical environment for microbes to thrive. Ask bacteria where they’d like to live, and they’ll answer: a kitchen sponge, please. Sponges are microbe paradises, capable of housing 54 billion bacteria per cubic centimeter. In addition to being damp, airy and loaded with food scraps, sponges provide an optimal physical environment for bacteria, researchers report February 10 in Nature Chemical Biology. Just like humans, bacteria prefer different levels of interactions with their peers. Some bacteria are more social, while others prefer solitude. Lingchong You, a synthetic biologist at Duke University, and colleagues wondered how separating different types of microbes would affect their community interactions. They found that intermediate levels of separation — similar to that found in a sponge — maximize the diversity of the community. The researchers distributed different strains of E. coli onto plates with anywhere from six to 1,536 wells, which functioned as isolated compartments. After 30 hours, the team examined the number and types of bacterial strains on each plate. Each compartment is like a party to which the bacteria were randomly assigned, You says. With only six compartments, each party probably has a similar mix of characters, and only the social bacteria survive. With 1,536 compartments, each microbe is probably alone, and the social bacteria die. But an intermediate number of compartments maximizes the odds that a microbe attends the party it prefers. An antisocial microbe might die at a party that’s dominated by socializers, but another antisocial microbe might wind up at a chill gathering and survive. Biodiversity is preserved. “In retrospect, it’s very, very intuitive,” You says. “What we have identified is a principle that’s universally applicable for any microbial communities.”

3-1-22 Tyrannosaurus rex may actually be three separate species
After analysing the teeth and thigh bones of 38 T. rex fossils, some researchers propose reclassifying them as three different species, but others are unconvinced. The “tyrant lizard king” – Tyrannosaurus rex – might have belonged to a dynasty. A research team has proposed splitting the famous species into three, with Tyrannosaurus imperator (tyrant lizard emperor) and Tyrannosaurus regina (tyrant lizard queen) taking their places next to T. rex. But the proposal is already proving unpopular with other palaeontologists. T. rex was an apex predator that lived in North America between about 68 and 66 million years ago. The first T. rex fossils were discovered more than a century ago, but for decades very few skeletons were known. More have come to light since the 1990s, says Scott Persons at the College of Charleston, South Carolina, which means it is now possible to assess whether or not the animals fall into a single species. To explore this question, Persons and his colleague Jay Van Raalte worked with independent researcher Gregory Paul. The trio looked at bones from 38 T. rex fossils, focusing in particular on two features: the number of front teeth in the lower jaw and the stoutness of the thigh bones. They discovered variation in both features, which they think justifies splitting the dinosaurs into three distinct species. The oldest animals – which had four distinctly small incisors at the front of the lower jaw and the stout thighs of a heavily built dinosaur – are placed in the new species T. imperator. The trio believe this then evolved into two younger species, both of which had just two small incisors at the front of the lower jaw. One of these younger species had slender thigh bones and was lightly built – it has been named T. regina. The second younger species had stout thighs and was heavily built. This species retains the name T. rex.


106 Evolution News Articles
for March 2022

Evolution News Articles for February 2022