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141 Evolution News Articles
for September 2016
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9-30-16 To make female pill bugs, just add bacterial genes
To make female pill bugs, just add bacterial genes
Bits of Wolbachia DNA infiltrate an arthropod’s genetic makeup and change sex determination. Wolbachia bacteria have done some remarkable things to sex in terrestrial crustaceans commonly called pill bugs — even when the actual bacteria are long gone. When sex chromosomes among common pill bugs go bad from disuse, borrowed bacterial DNA comes to the rescue. Certain pill bugs grow up female because of sex chromosomes cobbled together with genes that jumped from the bacteria. Genetic analysis traces this female-maker DNA to Wolbachia bacteria, Richard Cordaux, based at the University of Poitiers with France’s scientific research center CNRS, announced September 29 at the International Congress of Entomology.

9-30-16 First ‘baby dragons’ hatched in captivity reach adolescence
First ‘baby dragons’ hatched in captivity reach adolescence
These pink cave amphibians can live to be 100 years old but only lay eggs once or twice a decade. Now we have a unique view of their development. It was touch and go for a while. But the elusive pink aquatic salamanders that hatched inside Slovenia’s Postojna Cave about four months ago have survived the most difficult stage of their lives, reaching adolescence. “This is the first time that the general public has the opportunity to see and follow the development of a creature that lives a really hidden life, in the darkness,” says team member Sašo Weldt at Postojna Cave in south-western Slovenia. They were once only known from specimens washed out of caves by flooding and legend had it they were baby dragons – the name that stuck. The olm (Proteus anguinus), or baby dragon, can live to be 100 years old and only lays eggs once or twice a decade. Little is known about their development and their small

9-30-16 High-living geckos survive snowy peaks by cuddling up
High-living geckos survive snowy peaks by cuddling up
Living at an altitude of up to 4000 metres above sea level, the Atlas Day gecko has a suite of adaptations to help it cope with the cold. A lizard might seem out of place in a snowy landscape. But although most geckos thrive in tropical climates, the Atlas Day gecko has adapted to life in the mountain tops, where it lives through cold winters. The higher they go, the bigger they grow, as there is less competition for resources. But this might change as global warming makes its habitat more available to other species. Abdellah Bouazza at Cadi Ayyad University in Marrakech, Morocco, and his colleagues have been investigating how the cold-blooded lizard is able to survive the freezing heights. To understand their heat-conservation strategies, Bouazza and his colleagues studied the geckos in their natural environment from March to July, the most critical period for reproduction. Although the lizards stayed sheltered at night in rock fissures, they emerged in the morning to bask in the sun on exposed rocks. “They always seek out warm spots that are sheltered from the wind,” says Bouazza. Since rocks store heat, they can be up to 10°C warmer than the ambient temperature. The team found that staying glued to a rock allowed geckos to warm up: as the temperature of a rock increased, so did a gecko’s body.

9-29-16 Your boobs start to eat themselves after breastfeeding is over
Your boobs start to eat themselves after breastfeeding is over
A molecular switch has been identified that prompts cells inside the breasts to transform from milk secretors to cellular eaters that gobble up dying neighbours. When a woman stops breastfeeding, her breasts go from being full-time, milk-producing factories to regular appendages, in a matter of days. Now a molecular switch has been identified that controls their transformation from milk secretors to cellular eaters that gobble up their dying neighbours. The discovery could provide new insights into what goes wrong in breast cancer. Women’s breasts comprise a network of ducts, covered by a layer of fatty tissue. During pregnancy, hormonal signals cause epithelial cells lining the ducts to proliferate and form ball-like structures called alveoli, which is where milk is made when the baby is born. However, once women stop breastfeeding, these structures self-destruct – a process that involves massive cellular suicide, and the removal of the debris.

9-29-16 Don’t cocoon a kid who has a concussion
Don’t cocoon a kid who has a concussion
By limiting kids’ actions, well-intentioned parents may be slowing recovery. Most parents would overly restrict their child’s activities, a new survey suggests, perhaps delaying recovery. Concussions, particularly those among children playing sports, are on parents’ minds. The fervor over NFL players’ brains and those of other elite athletes has trickled all the way down to mini-kicker soccer teams and peewee football leagues. And parents are right to be worried. Concussions seem to be on the rise. From 1990 to 2014, the rate of concussions in youth soccer players jumped by over 1,000 percent, a recent study estimated. This increase might be driven in part by more inclusive definitions of concussion, a common form of traumatic brain injury that can come with headaches, confusion and memory trouble. More awareness might also drive numbers up; because parents, coaches and referees are more alert to the possibility of a concussion, more kids might be getting the diagnosis. But games may have become more competitive, too, leading to more body clashes that jolt the brain.

9-29-16 Strange reptile fossil puzzles scientists
Strange reptile fossil puzzles scientists
A 200-million-year-old reptile is rewriting the rulebooks on how four-legged animals conquered the world. Newly discovered fossils suggest Drepanosaurus had huge hooked claws to dig insects from bark, much like today's anteaters in the forests of Central and South America. Scientists say the creature defies the convention on how reptiles evolved and flourished.

9-29-16 Insects may have feelings, so do we need more humane fly spray?
Insects may have feelings, so do we need more humane fly spray?
Increasing research suggests insects may possess basic consciousness, in which case we would need to minimise their suffering, says Peter Singer. You might want to think twice the next time you pull out the fly spray. Scientists are increasingly willing to draw parallels between mammals and insects in areas that raise significant ethical questions about how we ought to treat them. This year the pace of such research seems to be picking up. In May, scientists at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, published an article indicating that the main part of the nervous system in insects – the central ganglion – operates in a similar manner to a mammalian midbrain, and might also provide the capacity for the most basic form of consciousness, subjective experience (PNAS, DOI: 10/bq6q). Now a group at Queen Mary University of London have described experiments on bumble bees that appear to show they exhibit “positive emotion-like states” (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf4454). The researchers cite other papers from the past five years indicating an increasing acceptance that invertebrates – which, including the insects, make up 97 per cent of animal species – may show basic forms of emotion.

9-29-16 Don’t worry, bee happy: Bees found to have emotions and moods
Don’t worry, bee happy: Bees found to have emotions and moods
Treats seem to trigger bumblebees’ dopamine pathways, appearing to make them feel happy and take a more upbeat outlook on life. Bumblebees may experience something like happiness after getting a treat that makes them appear more optimistic. We normally think of an emotion as the internal awareness of a feeling, but there’s more to it than that, says Clint Perry at Queen Mary University of London. Physical changes to your body and shifts in your behaviour accompany sensations of happiness or sadness. “Many of these things actually cause the subjective feeling that we have,” says Perry. “Those are all necessary parts of emotion.” Researchers can measure those adjustments in behaviour when they’re studying emotions in animals, he says.

9-29-16 Primitive signs of emotions spotted in sugar-buzzed bumblebees
Primitive signs of emotions spotted in sugar-buzzed bumblebees
After a treat, insects appeared to have rosier outlooks. Bumblebees seem to get a mood boost from sweets, a new study shows. To human observers, bumblebees sipping nectar from flowers appear cheerful. It turns out that the insects may actually enjoy their work. A new study suggests that bees experience a “happy” buzz after receiving a sugary snack, although it’s probably not the same joy that humans experience chomping on a candy bar. Scientists can’t ask bees or other animals how they feel. Instead, researchers must look for signs of positive or negative emotions in an animal’s decision making or behavior, says Clint Perry, a neuroethologist at Queen Mary University of London. In one such study, for example, scientists shook bees vigorously in a machine for 60 seconds — hard enough to annoy, but not hard enough to cause injury — and found that stressed bees made more pessimistic decisions while foraging for food.

9-29-16 Living with adult children protects parents against depression
Living with adult children protects parents against depression
Have your kids boomeranged back home? Don’t worry, their presence could help reduce the risk of depression. Kids moved back home? Financial struggles may have forced many young adults back to their parents’ homes, but there’s a silver lining: parents are less likely to develop depression with their children back under their roof. Until recently, there was a trend towards independent living, but the lack of jobs, low wages and high rents that have followed the 2008 recession are all pushing adults to move back home with their parents. Young adults in the US, for example, are more likely to be living in their parents’ home than with a partner in their own place – the first time this has happened in 130 years. Past research into such living arrangements threw up mixed results. While some studies found that adult children can offer their parents vital support, or vice versa, others have found only negative outcomes, with the health and finances of the parents, in particular, being harmed. Emilie Courtin at the London School of Economics says it is hard to make sense of these results because of the struggle to tease apart which came first: poor health or living together.

9-29-16 Gene linked to autism in people may influence dog sociability
Gene linked to autism in people may influence dog sociability
DNA differences affect beagles’ tendency to seek human help. Beagles that encountered an impossible problem — an immovable lid covering a treat — sometimes sought help from a nearby human stranger. Variations in a gene previously linked to autism in humans may influence the dogs’ people-seeking behavior. Dogs may look to humans for help in solving impossible tasks thanks to some genes previously linked to social disorders in people. Beagles with particular variants in a gene associated with autism were more likely to sidle up to and make physical contact with a human stranger, researchers report September 29 in Scientific Reports. That gene, SEZ6L, is one of five genes in a particular stretch of beagle DNA associated with sociability in the dogs, animal behaviorist Per Jensen and colleagues at Linköping University in Sweden say. Versions of four of those five genes have been linked to human social disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and aggression. “What we figure has been going on here is that there are genetic variants that tend to make dogs more sociable and these variants have been selected during domestication,” Jensen says.

9-28-16 Camera spots your hidden prejudices from your body language
Camera spots your hidden prejudices from your body language
A computer scrutinised people's behaviour for signs of hidden biases and may help psychologists study interactions between people. ARE your hidden biases soon to be revealed? A computer program can unmask them by scrutinising people’s body language for signs of prejudice. Algorithms can already accurately read people’s emotions from their facial expressions or speech patterns. So a team of researchers in Italy wondered if they could be used to uncover people’s hidden racial biases. First, they asked 32 white college students to fill out two questionnaires. One was designed to suss out their explicit biases, while the second, an Implicit Association Test, aimed to uncover their subconscious racial biases. Then, each participated in two filmed conversations: one with a white person, and one with a black person. The pair spent three minutes discussing a neutral subject, then another three on a more sensitive topic, such as immigration. A GoPro camera and a Microsoft Kinect captured their movements, while sensors nearby estimated their heart rate and skin response. An algorithm written by computer scientists at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia searched for correlations between the participants’ questionnaire responses and their non-verbal behaviour during the filmed conversations. For example, it found that those who showed strong hidden racial biases kept a bigger distance between themselves and their black conversational partners. Conversely, those who were comfortable in the conversation seemed to pause more and to use their hands more when they spoke. Then, the computer tested its new-found insights by looking back at the same data and trying to predict who would have scored high or low on the hidden biases test. It was correct 82 per cent of the time. The team presented its results at the International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing in Heidelberg, Germany, last month.

9-28-16 Your brain’s crystal ball helps you understand speech and fear
Your brain’s crystal ball helps you understand speech and fear
Every moment, the brain takes in far more information than it can process on the fly. In order to make sense of it all, the brain constantly makes predictions that it tests by comparing incoming data against stored information. All without us noticing a thing. Simply imagining the future is enough to set the brain in motion. Imaging studies have shown that when people expect a sound abstract or image to appear, the brain generates an anticipatory signal in the sensory cortices. This ability to be one step ahead of the senses has an important role in helping us understand speech. “The brain is continuously predicting the sounds, words and meanings that people are trying to produce or communicate,” says Matt Davis at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK. “We only notice an object once our unconscious has calculated its importance“ Studies have also shown that the brain can use one sense to inform another. When you hear a recording of speech that is so degraded it is nearly unintelligible, the words sound clearer if you have previously read the same words in subtitles. “The sensory parts of the brain are comparing the speech you’ve heard to the speech you predicted,” says Davis.

9-28-16 Don’t think: How your brain works things out all by itself
Don’t think: How your brain works things out all by itself
Wouldn’t it be great if you could leave difficult decisions to your subconscious, secure in the knowledge that it would do a better job than conscious deliberation? Ap Dijksterhuis of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands proposed this counter-intuitive idea 12 years ago. No wonder it was instantly popular. Dijksterhuis had found that volunteers asked to make a complex decision – such as choosing between different apartments based on a baffling array of specifications – made better choices after being distracted from the problem before deciding. He reasoned that this is because unconscious thought can move beyond the limited capacity of working memory, so it can process more information at once. The idea has been influential, but it may be too good to be true. Many subsequent studies have failed to replicate Dijksterhuis’s results. And a recent analysis concluded that there is little reason to think the unconscious is the best tool for making complex decisions. Still, Dijksterhuis remains confident that the effect is real and is an important part of our mental toolkit.

9-28-16 Fast asleep? Your unconscious is still listening
Fast asleep? Your unconscious is still listening
Some people swear that if they want to wake up at 6 am, they just bang their head on the pillow six times before going to sleep. Crazy? Maybe not. A study from 1999 shows that it all comes down to some nifty unconscious processing. For three nights, a team at the University of Lubeck in Germany put 15 volunteers to bed at midnight. The team either told the participants they would wake them at 9 am and did, or told them they would wake them at 9 am, but actually woke them at 6 am, or said they would wake them at 6 am and did. This last group had a measurable rise in the stress hormone adrenocorticotropin from 4.30 am, peaking around 6 am. People woken unexpectedly at 6 am had no such spike. The unconscious mind, the researchers concluded, can not only keep track of time while we sleep but also set a biological alarm to jump-start the waking process. The pillow ritual might help set that alarm.

9-28-16 Ancient bee fossil reveals secrets of human ancestor’s habitat
Ancient bee fossil reveals secrets of human ancestor’s habitat
A fossilised bee’s nest found near a revolutionary early human fossil can tell us more about the habitat the hominin lived in and how it got preserved. The skull of an ape-like Australopithecus found in 1924 and nicknamed the Taung Child revolutionised our view of human origins. It suggested humans evolved in Africa, not Eurasia as previously thought. No other hominin fossils have been found at the site since. But now a fossilised bee’s nest provides an insight into the local habitat in which that early human lived almost 3 million years ago – and hints that more fossils could be waiting to be discovered. It is generally thought that the Taung Child was unearthed in the remains of a small cavern as the rocks containing the skull appear similar to cave-formed limestones. “All other South African hominins come from cave sediments formed within old Precambrian [limestones],” says Philip Hopley at Birkbeck, University of London. These include Australopithecus sediba, discovered in 2008, and the impressive haul of Homo naledi skeletons found in 2013. But in 2013, Hopley and his colleagues suggested an alternative: that the Taung Child was preserved in a 2.8-million-year-old surface soil. A fossilised bee’s nest Hopley and his team found at Taung in 2010 supports the idea. It was built by an ancient relative of the solitary bees that nest on open ground in the present day, say the researchers.

9-28-16 Cave fires and rhino skull used in Neanderthal burial rituals
Cave fires and rhino skull used in Neanderthal burial rituals
The remains of fires encircling the grave of a Neanderthal toddler contain animal horns and a rhino skull that seem to have been placed there in a funerary ritual. BURNING through the darkness, the fires would have lit up the cave around where the young child lay. The remains of a series of small fires discovered within a dolomite hillside 93 kilometres north of Madrid, Spain, could be the first firm evidence that Neanderthals held funerals. The blackened hearths surround a spot where the jaw and six teeth of a Neanderthal toddler were found in the stony sediment. Puzzlingly, within each of these hearths was the horn or antler of a herbivore, apparently carefully placed there. In total, there were 30 horns from aurochs and bison as well as red deer antlers, and a rhino skull nearby. Archaeologists believe the fires may have been lit as some sort of funeral ritual around where the toddler, known as the Lozoya Child, was placed around 38,000 to 42,000 years ago.

9-28-16 Ancient microbe fossils show earliest evidence of shell making
Ancient microbe fossils show earliest evidence of shell making
809-million-year-old eukaryotes turned calcium phosphate into armor. Roughly 809-million-year-old microbe fossils, such as found in Canada, may be the oldest evidence of organisms creating minerals for protection against predators. The shells take many shapes, including a honeycomb pattern. Life on Earth got into the shell game more than 200 million years earlier than previously thought. Fossilized eukaryotes — complex life-forms that include animals and plants — discovered in Canada are decked out in armorlike layers of mineral plates, paleobiologist Phoebe Cohen said September 27 at the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting. At about 809 million years old, the find is the oldest evidence of organisms controlling the formation of minerals, a process called biomineralization.

9-28-16 Have we finally found a cure for migraines?
Have we finally found a cure for migraines?
It often starts with the aura. Zig-zagging lines come into view, everyday light becomes searingly bright, and vision starts to slip. These are signals that a debilitating migraine is on its way. "It's like you're possessed," said Lorie Novak, who has suffered from chronic migraines since childhood. "I almost feel separate from my body, like it's just this painful shell around me that's not me." Novak, now in her 60s, is one of the roughly 35 million Americans who suffer from migraines. There are few effective treatments, and no new drugs have been developed since the early 1990s. But that could soon change. A handful of drug companies are pressing ahead with novel injectable therapies for migraines, chasing a blockbuster market that Wall Street analysts say could reach $8 billion a year in worldwide sales. The new drugs target a bodily protein called CGRP, which plays a role in the dilation of blood vessels in the brain. Scientists haven't nailed down just how the protein affects migraines, but they're sure about two things: CGRP levels rocket up when headaches attack and normalize when they go away.

9-28-16 Materials programmed to shape shift
Materials programmed to shape shift
Scientists have pre-programmed materials to change their shape over time. Previous shape-shifting materials have needed some external trigger to tell them to transform, like light or heat. Now, a US-based team has encoded a sequence of shape transformations into the very substance of a polymer, with each change occurring at a pre-determined time. Details appear in Nature Communications journal. The principles could be applied in implants that deliver medicine from within the human body and the technology could also see use in heavy industry.

9-27-16 Measles has been eliminated in the Americas, WHO says
Measles has been eliminated in the Americas, WHO says
The highly infectious disease, which is marked by flat red spots that can cover the body, has been eliminated from the Americas after decades of wide-spread VACCINATION. A half-century after scientists first introduced a vaccine to combat measles, the disease has been eliminated from a swath of the globe stretching from Canada to Chile — and all the countries in between. The region is the first in the world to have eliminated the viral disease, the Pan American Health Organization and World Health Organization announced September 27. That’s different from eradication, which means an infectious disease has been scrubbed out permanently, worldwide. So far, only smallpox has been eradicated. Though measles outbreaks still crop up occasionally in the Americas (this year 54 people have contracted the disease in the United States), they stem from travelers bringing the virus in from other parts of the world. A home-grown outbreak in the Americas hasn’t occurred since a 2002 outbreak in Venezuela.

9-27-16 Plastic flower blooms thanks to its own internal molecular clock
Plastic flower blooms thanks to its own internal molecular clock
Shape-shifting putty that can morph at a given time without an external trigger may be useful for creating medical implants that transform inside the body. Shape-shifting objects can now have their own version of a biological clock, thanks to a new material that transforms at a given time. Morphing materials are interesting because they allow objects to change shape, and thus function. But they typically need a trigger to start morphing, like a change in light levels, temperature or pH. Now Sergei Sheiko from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his colleagues have created a type of putty with an internal clock that allows it to transform over time. “In certain situations, like inside your body or in space, external triggers are not permissible or are ineffective,” says Sheiko. “You simply want an object to change shape at a given moment.” The team started with a conventional soft polymer then tweaked its molecular structure. A small proportion of links between molecules in a polymer are permanent, allowing the material to act like a spring, snapping back to its original form when stretched and released, like a piece of rubber. But most of the bonds are shape-shifting, breaking and rearranging themselves over time. The rate of shape-shifting can be modified, allowing the researchers to control how the material changes over the course of several hours. (Webmaster's comment: Science is re-creating life one small step at a time.)

9-27-16 Barnacles track whale migration
Barnacles track whale migration
Chemical composition of hitchhikers’ shells might reveal ancient baleen travel routes. The barnacles that latch on to baleen whales, such as this humpback, may offer a record of their hosts’ movements, even millions of years later, new research suggests. Barnacles can tell a whale of a tale. Chemical clues inside barnacles that hitched rides on baleen whales millions of years ago could divulge ancient whale migration routes, new research suggests. Modern baleen whales migrate thousands of kilometers annually between breeding and feeding grounds, but almost nothing is known about how these epic journeys have changed over time. Scientists can glean where an aquatic animal has lived based on its teeth. The mix of oxygen isotopes embedded inside newly formed tooth material depends on the region and local temperature, with more oxygen-18 used near the poles than near the equator. That oxygen provides a timeline of the animal’s travels. Baleen whales don’t have teeth, though. So paleobiologists Larry Taylor and Seth Finnegan, both of the University of California, Berkeley, looked at something else growing on whales: barnacles. Like teeth, barnacle shells take in oxygen as they grow.

9-27-16 Exclusive: World’s first baby born with new “3 parent” technique
Exclusive: World’s first baby born with new “3 parent” technique
Five-month-old Abrahim Hassan is the first baby to be born using a new version of a controversial technique that uses DNA from three people. Five-month-old Abrahim Hassan is the first baby to be born using a new technique that incorporates DNA from three parents, New Scientist can reveal. “This is great news and a huge deal,” says Dusko Ilic at King’s College London, who wasn’t involved in the work. “It’s revolutionary.” The controversial technique, which allows parents with rare genetic mutations to have healthy babies, has only been legally approved in the UK. But the birth of Abrahim, whose Jordanian parents were treated by a US-based team in Mexico, should fast-forward progress around the world, say embryologists. Abrahim’s mother, Ibtisam Shaban, carries genes for Leigh syndrome, a fatal disorder that affects the developing nervous system. Genes for the disease reside in DNA in the mitochondria, which provide energy for our cells and carry just 37 genes that are passed down to us from our mothers. This is separate from the majority of our DNA, which is housed in each cell’s nucleus. Around a quarter of Shaban’s mitochondria have the disease-causing mutation. While she is healthy, Leigh syndrome was responsible for the deaths of her first two children. Shaban and her husband, Mahmoud Hassan, sought out the help of John Zhang and his team at the New Hope Fertility Center in New York City.

9-27-16 Proteins from 'deep time' found in ostrich eggshell
Proteins from 'deep time' found in ostrich eggshell
Scientists have found preserved proteins in 3.8-million-year-old ostrich eggshells from Africa. The researchers say these biological building blocks - bound into the eggshell - could provide genetic information up to 50 times older than any DNA. These proteins, the team said, had been protected because they had been "entrapped" in surface minerals. "The key thing here," said Prof Matthew Collins, from the University of York's department of archaeology, who led the research, "is that these [proteins] have been preserved for 3.8 million years in a very hot environment [of equatorial Africa]. "To date," he added, "DNA analysis from frozen sediments [in the Arctic, for example] has been able to reach back to about 700,000 years ago, but human evolution left most of its traces in Africa and the higher temperature there takes its toll on preservation."

9-27-16 Five wild lionesses grow a mane and start acting like males
Five wild lionesses grow a mane and start acting like males
The unusual characteristics of a few lionesses in Botswana may be down to excess testosterone, making them male-like as well as apparently infertile. Five lionesses in Botswana have grown a mane and are showing male-like behaviours. One is even roaring and mounting other females. Male lions are distinguished by their mane, which they use to attract females, and they roar to protect their territory or call upon members of their pride. Females lack a mane and are not as vocal. But sometimes lionesses grow a mane and even behave a bit like males. However, until now, reports of such maned lionesses have been extremely rare and largely anecdotal. We knew they existed, but little about how they behave. Now, Geoffrey D. Gilfillan at the University of Sussex in Falmer, UK, and colleagues have reported five lionesses sporting a mane at the Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana’s Okavango delta.

9-27-16 Swarm of voracious comb jellies threatens fish off Italian coast
The notorious sea creature shipped around by ballast waters devastated Black Sea fisheries in the 1990s. Now it's found a new home off the coast of Italy. Swarm of voracious comb jellies threatens fish off Italian coast
A voracious warty comb jelly that infamously devastated Black Sea fisheries is now thriving in the coastal areas of the northern Adriatic. The arrival of these invasive animals in the Adriatic was first noted in 2005. But this year huge swarms have been spotted and photographed along the coast of northern Croatia, and the coasts of Slovenia and Italy, as far south as Pesaro. Since July the jellies have literally filled lagoons in northern Italy. “This is the first time that this species has existed in such masses in the Adriatic,” says Valentina Tirelli at the National Institute of Oceanography and Geophysics in Trieste, Italy. “At certain points, population densities were estimated to be up to 500 specimens per square metre,” says Davor Lucic at the Institute for Marine and Coastal Research in Dubrovnik, Croatia. “Estimates were made for the adults only, but we assume that there were significantly higher numbers of juveniles.” Though not dangerous to humans, scientists are alarmed by the new boom in Mnemiopsis leidyi because it has already devastated fish stocks in the Black Sea. It is one of the best-documented alien invaders, arriving in oil tanker ballast water from the American Atlantic in 1982.

9-26-16 Brain-eating amoebas hunt brain chemical before they kill you
Brain-eating amoebas hunt brain chemical before they kill you
A deadly amoeba that can infect swimmers seems to be attracted to a common brain chemical – a discovery that could lead to new treatments. Brain-eating amoebas can enter an unwary swimmer’s brain via their nose, and once that happens, their chances of survival are slim. “They have these food cups on their surface, which are like giant suckers,” says Francine Cabral of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “They’ll just start eating the brain.” Now, researchers have discovered why this deadly amoeba has such an affinity for the brain – a breakthrough that could lead to life-saving drug treatments. The amoeba, Naegleria fowleri (shown in orange in the picture above), tends to lurk in fresh water, although infections can also result from swimming in hot springs or improperly chlorinated pools. Of the 35 reported cases in the US between 2005 and 2014, there were only two survivors. Last month, a 19-year-old woman died after being infected in Maryland. After the amoeba enters the body, it bypasses the nose and related tissues and heads straight to the brain, where the first areas it destroys are the olfactory regions we use to smell, and parts of the frontal lobe, which are crucial for cognition and controlling our behaviour.

9-26-16 Refugee fence and solar plant may wipe out one of rarest mammals
Refugee fence and solar plant may wipe out one of rarest mammals
Hungarian conservationists are laboriously relocating Vojvodina blind mole rats as increased border controls and a new power plant threaten its habitat. Saving a species from extinction can be a back-breaking task. Hungarian conservationists found this out last week when they started to dig out Vojvodina mole rats one by one as part of an effort to relocate them to safety. “This is a very rare species, only around 400 individuals left in the world,” says Sándor Ugró, director of the Kiskunsági National Park in Hungary. “They are actually much rarer than the well-known symbol of conservation the giant panda.” “After the Iberian lynx or the Mediterranean monk seal, they are one of the rarest animals in Europe,” says Gábor Csorba, head of the Hungarian mole-rat protection committee, which advises the government. The species (Nannospalax leucodon montanosyrmiensis) is only known to inhabit Hungary and the province of Vojvodina in northern Serbia. But their populations are now under two-pronged threat.

9-25-16 Sugar industry sought to sugarcoat causes of heart disease
Sugar industry sought to sugarcoat causes of heart disease
Payments revealed to authors of influential 1967 report touting fat and cholesterol as problems. An influential scientific review published in the 1960s, which downplayed the role of sugar in heart disease, was written by researchers who were paid by the sugar industry. Using records unearthed from library storage vaults, researchers recently revealed that the sugar industry paid nutrition experts from Harvard University to downplay studies linking sugar and heart disease. Although the incident happened in the 1960s, it appears to have helped redirect the scientific narrative for decades. The documents — which include correspondence, symposium programs and annual reports — show that the Sugar Research Foundation (as it was named at the time) paid professors who wrote a two-part review in 1967 in the New England Journal of Medicine. That report was highly skeptical of the evidence linking sugar to cardiovascular problems but accepting of the role of fat. The now-deceased professors’ overall conclusion left “no doubt” that reducing the risk of heart disease was a matter of reducing saturated fat and cholesterol, according to researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, who published their report online September 12 in JAMA Internal Medicine. (Webmaster's comment: Industry executives can always find a few scientists who will lie, cheat, and steal right along with them!)

9-25-16 Why thousands of veterans are donating their DNA to science
Why thousands of veterans are donating their DNA to science
The freezer, in fact, is at the heart of one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken to understand our DNA. The Department of Veterans Affairs is gathering blood from 1 million veterans and sequencing their DNA. At the same time, computer scientists are creating a database that combines those genetic sequences with electronic medical records and other information about veterans' health. The ultimate goal of the project, known as the Million Veteran Program, is to uncover clues about disorders ranging from diabetes to post-traumatic stress disorder. Since its launch in 2010, the VA has spent $30 million building and running MVP. Caring for 8.76 million veterans enrolled in the Veterans Health Administration, it has a strong interest in understanding the role that genes play in the diseases they develop. The VA is also uniquely situated to carry out this kind of project, in part because veterans tend to have medical records in the system that stretch back decades. But the research being done as part of the MVP — which has already enrolled more than 420,000 participants — could have implications that reach far beyond the VA.

9-25-16 Nuclear blasts, other human activity signal new epoch, group argues
Nuclear blasts, other human activity signal new epoch, group argues
Controversial proposal would add Anthropocene to geologic time scale. Plastics, radioactive fallout and the prevalence of domestic animals such as chickens — signs of which show up in the sedimentary record — have made the last few decades distinct in the planet’s stratigraphic record, a group of researchers say. Humankind’s bombs, plastics, chickens and more have altered the planet enough to usher in a new chapter in Earth’s geologic history. That’s the majority opinion of a group of 35 experts tasked with evaluating whether the current human-dominated time span, unofficially dubbed the Anthropocene, deserves a formal place in Earth’s geologic timeline alongside the Eocene and the Pliocene. In a controversial move, the Anthropocene Working Group has declared that the Anthropocene warrants being a full-blown epoch (not a lesser age), with its start pegged to the post–World War II economic boom and nuclear weapons tests of the late 1940s and early 1950s. The group made these provisional recommendations August 29 at the International Geological Congress in Cape Town, South Africa. (Webmaster's comment: The Anthropocene age essentially began at the start of the industrial revolution in 1760 with our ever accelerating destruction of the earth's environment and wildlife.)

9-23-16 Monsanto cuts deal to use CRISPR to engineer food
Monsanto cuts deal to use CRISPR to engineer food
A licensing agreement between Monsanto and the Broad Institute will allow the biotech giant to use genome editing to modify plants like corn and tomatoes. Agricultural biotech heavyweight Monsanto has licensed the use of CRISPR-Cas genome-editing technology from the Broad Institute at Harvard University and MIT. Monsanto intends to use CRISPR to make crops like corn and soybeans more fruitful and more resistant to diseases and drought, says Tom Adams, Monsanto’s head of biotechnology. “Getting more productivity out of less acres with less inputs is clearly a critical thing for humanity,” he says. “And gene editing is another tool that can help us accelerate that.” CRISPR allows researchers to remove and replace bits of DNA in a much more targeted way than previous genetic modification techniques. That precision makes genome editing more efficient than traditional plant breeding, Adams says, because you don’t have to go through multiple generations to get the trait you want. “Especially in vegetables, there’s a lot things that people have been doing that are very gene-specific,” like trying to breed tomatoes and peppers that are resistant to viruses and fungi, Adams says. “Genome editing is a perfect tool to start moving those genes around.”

9-23-16 Could sex hormones help addicted women stop taking opioids?
Could sex hormones help addicted women stop taking opioids?
Women get addicted to some drugs more quickly than men, and may get stronger cravings. The sex hormone cycle seems to be involved, which could lead to treatments. Men and women show different patterns of drug abuse, with women becoming addicted to some substances much more quickly. Now a study in rats has found that sex hormones can reduce opioid abuse. From studies of other drugs, such as cocaine and alcohol, we know that women are less likely to use these substances than men, but become addicted faster when they do. “There are a lot of data to indicate that women transition from that initial use to having a substance-use disorder much more rapidly,” says Mark Smith, a psychologist at Davidson College, North Carolina. Once addicted, women also seem to have stronger drug cravings. Tracking drug use throughout women’s menstrual cycles suggests that both these differences could be shaped by hormones – with more intense cravings and greater euphoria at particular times in the cycle, says Smith.

9-23-16 New era of human embryo gene editing begins
New era of human embryo gene editing begins
News report highlights one example, but scientists say many experiments now going on. Researchers in Sweden have begun editing genes in viable early human embryos. Others are probably doing the experiments behind closed doors, scientists say. A Swedish scientist is gene editing healthy human embryos, and he is probably not alone, researchers say. Chinese researchers have twice reported editing genes in human embryos that are unable to develop into a baby (SN Online: 4/6/16; SN Online: 4/23/15). But developmental biologist Fredrik Lanner of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm is the first researcher to publicly acknowledge editing genes in viable human embryos. Other researchers are almost certainly doing similar experiments out of the public eye, scientists say. “My sense is that there are different groups out there doing this kind of work, but they haven’t opened up their labs” to reporters, says stem cell biologist Paul Knoepfler at the University of California, Davis.

9-23-16 Trees defend against hungry deer
Trees defend against hungry deer
Immobile and unintelligent, trees may seem utterly defenseless against deer and other animals that snap their branches and devour their leaves. But don’t be fooled—they know how to fight back. Researchers in Germany found that wild maple and beech trees have evolved complex survival strategies to protect themselves, reports The Washington Post. For example, when their boughs break—say, because of disease or gnawing insects—the trees release chemicals, called jasmonates, that help them recover and also serve as a kind of alarm: If one tree sets off these “wound hormones,” their neighbors do the same. The German team notes that maples and beeches can also recognize specific threats and mount tailored defenses against them. After simulating grazing roe deer by snipping branches and drizzling deer saliva on some leaves, the researchers discovered the trees produce bitter-tasting tannins to make their leaves less appetizing to foragers, and release the hormone salicylic acid, which promotes new growth. “On the other hand, if a leaf or a bud snaps off without a roe deer being involved,” says study author Bettina Ohse, “the tree stimulates neither its production of the salicylic acid signal hormone nor the tannic substances.”

9-23-16 Narrowed plumbing lets flower survive summer cold snaps
Narrowed plumbing lets flower survive summer cold snaps
Tiny pores, skinny pipes prevent ice from reaching alpine heather’s flowers. Scotch heather weathers summer freezes by forming internal ice barriers that block ice crystals from spreading to its flowers. A summertime cold snap can, quite literally, take the bloom off the rose. Not so for Scotch heather — and now scientists know why. Thick cell walls and narrow plumbing in the alpine shrub’s stems stop deadly ice crystals from spreading to its fragile flowers during sudden summer freezes, researchers report September 15 in PLOS ONE. That lets the flowers survive and the plant make seeds even if temperatures dip below freezing. Once ice crystals start to form inside of a plant, they can spread very quickly, says Gilbert Neuner, a botanist at the University of Innsbruck in Austria who led the study. Those sharp crystals can destroy plant cells — and flowers are particularly sensitive. So plants living in cold climes have developed strategies to confine ice damage to less harmful spots.

9-23-16 Bird flu poses threat to penguins - scientists
Bird flu poses threat to penguins - scientists
Scientists are warning of new threats to penguins on Antarctica from diseases spread by migratory birds. A modern strain of bird flu has been found in penguins living on the snowy continent, although it does not seem to be making them ill. Conservationists say penguins need better protection through monitoring for new diseases and safeguarding their breeding and fishing grounds. Bird flu is an infectious disease of poultry and wild birds. Scientists found an unusual strain of bird flu among penguins on Antarctica a few years ago. A second strain has now been discovered, suggesting viruses are reaching the continent more often than previously thought.

9-23-16 Five wild lionesses grow a mane and start acting like males
Five wild lionesses grow a mane and start acting like males
The unusual characteristics of a few lionesses in Botswana may be down to excess testosterone, making them male-like as well as apparently infertile. Five lionesses in Botswana have grown a mane and are showing male-like behaviours. One is even roaring and mounting other females. Male lions are distinguished by their mane, which they use to attract females, and they roar to protect their territory or call upon members of their pride. Females lack a mane and are not as vocal. But sometimes lionesses grow a mane and even behave a bit like males. However, until now, reports of such maned lionesses have been extremely rare and largely anecdotal. We knew they existed, but little about how they behave. Now, Geoffrey D. Gilfillan at the University of Sussex in Falmer, UK, and colleagues have reported five lionesses sporting a mane at the Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana’s Okavango delta.

9-22-16 World war on superbugs can only be won by a UN-led global effort
World war on superbugs can only be won by a UN-led global effort
DAntibiotic resistance is now such a big threat that only a global campaign akin to that on HIV can tackle it, say Dilip Nathwani and Ramanan Laxminarayan. For only the fourth time in its 70-year history, the UN has decided to confront a major health threat. This week, all 193 member states signed up to a coordinated fight against antibiotic-resistant infections. Yesterday’s resolution in New York declared this a global threat of the highest order, calling on member states to act so that coming generations will not slip back into the pre-antibiotic era. As a body that is more usually concerned with global security, relief aid and human rights, the UN rarely enters the health arena. In past years, it has led action on HIV, Ebola and the rising tide of chronic illness. So why do we need the UN to take the reins this time? Finding solutions for antibiotic resistance has primarily fallen on the dedicated efforts of global health professionals toiling in this field for more than a decade. This squadron of colleagues from various disciplines and sectors has built an evidence base on antimicrobial use and resistance, developed and spread best practice, and set programmes in motion to assist poorer countries, in particular, to develop their own national plans.

9-22-16 Body clock gene may help lethal spread of breast cancer
Body clock gene may help lethal spread of breast cancer
Shift work raises the risk of breast cancer, and now a gene associated with the body clock seems to makes its spread more likely in mice. Can the body’s circadian rhythms influence cancer? Shift workers are more prone to cancer, and now a study in mice has found that changes to a gene that regulates the circadian clock seem to increase the likelihood of breast cancer spreading and becoming deadly. The finding could mean that disrupted sleep may worsen a person’s breast cancer prognosis. Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women. Provided it’s diagnosed early, survival rates can be as high as 99 per cent, but this plummets to only 26 per cent if the cancer has spread elsewhere. “In most solid tumours, particularly breast cancer, patients succumb not to the primary tumour, but to metastatic disease,” says Kent Hunter at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. Oestrogen receptor negative (ER-) breast cancer is a particularly difficult type to treat once it has spread, so a better understanding of how it does this is urgently needed. Previous studies hinted that genetics might influence an individual’s risk of a cancer spreading, so to try to identify specific genes involved, Hunter and his team interbred mice predisposed to develop a particularly aggressive form of metastatic breast cancer with those at low risk of metastasis.

9-22-16 Endurance training leaves no memory in muscles
Endurance training leaves no memory in muscles
Genetic study finds no persistent changes in exercisers. Endurance exercises like cycling, running and swimming change muscles for the better, but the body may not remember those changes in the long run. Muscles don’t have long-term memory for exercises like running, biking and swimming, a new study suggests. The old adage that once you’ve been in shape, it’s easier to get fit again could be a myth, at least for endurance athletes, researchers in Sweden report September 22 in PLOS Genetics. “We really challenged the statement that your muscles can remember previous training,” says Maléne Lindholm of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. But even if muscles forget endurance exercise, the researchers say, other parts of the body may remember, and that could make retraining easier for people who’ve been in shape before.

9-22-16 Kuwait lawyers fight world’s first mandatory DNA sampling law
Kuwait lawyers fight world’s first mandatory DNA sampling law
All visitors to Kuwait and all Kuwaitis renewing their passports will soon be required to give DNA samples, prompting lawyers to fight for genetic privacy. Lawyers in Kuwait have issued a legal challenge to the only law in the world forcing citizens and visitors to give samples of their DNA to the government. The Kuwait government has said that the law is needed to combat terrorism. DNA testing is reportedly due to begin within weeks. When the law was passed in July last year, Adel AbdulHadi of the Kuwaiti law firm Adel AbdulHadi & Partners and his colleagues began researching and drafting their challenge to it. Their principle argument is that the law violates privacy and human rights provisions in the country’s own constitution, as well as those enshrined in international treaties to which Kuwait is a signatory. “Compelling every citizen, resident and visitor to submit a DNA sample to the government is similar to forcing house searches without a warrant,” says AdbdulHadi. “The body is more sacred than houses.” He argues that the law means every single person is now considered a suspect until proven innocent

9-22-16 Scientists solve singing fish mystery
Scientists solve singing fish mystery
When California houseboat residents heard their low, submarine hum in the 1980s, they thought it might be coming from noisy sewage pumps, military experiments or even extraterrestrials. But this was the nocturnal hum of the midshipman fish; a courtship call, and the source of a biological secret scientists have now solved. Researchers brought the fish into their lab to work out why they sang at night. The researchers found the singing was controlled by a hormone that helps humans to sleep - melatonin. And looking more closely at how melatonin acts on receptors in different parts of the fish's brain could help explain why it is such a powerful "chemical clock" with a role in the timing of sleep-wake cycles, reproduction and birdsong.

9-21-16 Evolution evolves: Beyond the selfish gene
Evolution evolves: Beyond the selfish gene
For more than 150 years it has been one of science’s most successful theories, but we need to rethink evolution for the 21st century. WHY is life so diverse? And why are living things so exquisitely suited to their environments? To understand these two striking features of the natural world you need look no further than evolution. Darwin’s beautiful idea explains why there are hundreds of thousands of species of beetles and flowering plants, why birds’ feathers are ideal for flight and insulation, and why a desert plant possesses hairy leaves to reduce water loss. The Origin of Species was published in 1859, and time has not eroded Darwin’s insights. Yet all scientific theories must incorporate new ideas and findings, and evolution is no exception. In recent years, our understanding of biology has taken huge strides. Advances in genetics, epigenetics and developmental biology challenge us to think anew about the relationship between genes, organisms and the environment, with implications for the origins of diversity and the direction and speed of evolution. In particular, new findings undermine the idea, encapsulated by the “selfish gene” metaphor, that genes are in the driving seat. Instead, they suggest that organisms play active, constructive roles in their own development and that of their descendants, so that they impose direction on evolution. Some biologists are trying to shoehorn the new knowledge into traditional evolutionary thinking. Others, myself included, believe a more radical approach may be required. We don’t deny the roles of genetic inheritance and natural selection, but think we should look at evolution in a markedly different way. It is time for the theory of evolution to evolve.

9-21-16 Brain has carrot and stick to teach us how to behave
Brain has carrot and stick to teach us how to behave
A hub in our brain might reward us when we do well and punish us when something goes wrong, teaching us strategies for life that help us survive. Illusion of choice: addiction may hijack the part of the brain that helps us make good decisions. You made a choice and it didn’t turn out too well. How will your brain ensure you do better next time? It seems there’s a hub in the brain that doles out rewards and punishments to reinforce vital survival skills. “Imagine you go to a restaurant hoping to have a good dinner,” says Bo Li of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. “If the food exceeds your expectations, you will likely come back again, whereas you will avoid it in future if the food disappoints.” Li’s team has discovered that a part of the brain’s basal ganglia area, called the habenula-projecting globus pallidus (GPh), plays a crucial role in this process. They trained mice to associate specific sound cues either with a reward of a drink of water or a punishment of a puff of air in the face, and then surprised them by switching them around. When mice expecting a drink were instead punished with a puff of air, GPh neurons became particularly active. But when the mice were unexpectedly rewarded, the activity of these neurons was inhibited.

9-21-16 Jeremy Freeman seeks to simplify complex brain science
Jeremy Freeman seeks to simplify complex brain science
New tools distill mountains of data to help scientists understand the brain. eremy Freeman loves clean, simple lines. To see his bent toward aesthetic minimalism, you need look no further than his spare, calm website that slowly shifts colors. In the past, this fixation with style has occasionally veered toward the extreme. In graduate school at New York University, “he decided that capital letters were ugly,” says collaborator Corey Ziemba, a neuroscientist at NYU. “He would create a Freeman brand of everything in lower case.” Not even ruthless mocking could dissuade him, Ziemba says. But this steely aesthetic sense is about more than just good looks. It signifies a precision and clarity in Freeman’s thinking, his colleagues say. “We talk about complexifiers and simplifiers,” Ziemba says. “Jeremy is an extreme simplifier.”

9-21-16 Gene-reading software to cut TB diagnosis from months to minutes
Gene-reading software to cut TB diagnosis from months to minutes
Drug-resistant tuberculosis is on the rise. Software that predicts the specific cocktail of drugs to use in each case will help. A DOCTOR in Mumbai, India, puts a spit sample into a handheld device. It whirs away briefly, then a few minutes later a nearby laptop pings. The doctor checks the results to see exactly what kind of drug-resistant tuberculosis the person has, and the precise combination of drugs needed to treat it. This is the goal of CRyPTIC, a global project run by a team at the University of Oxford. It aims to speed up the diagnosis and treatment of drug-resistant TB, cutting the wait from months to days, or even minutes. The idea is that the software will prescribe the right medication for TB just by looking at its genome. “It’s rapid,” says Sarah Hoosdally at the University of Oxford, who is managing the project. Handheld DNA sequencers will make it even quicker – though it may be a few years before such devices hit clinics around the world. “We’re hoping to extract the DNA directly from the sample,” she says.

9-21-16 Lawrence David’s gut check gets personal
Lawrence David’s gut check gets personal
Studies of the microbiome reveal how bacterial communities change over time. Computational biologist Lawrence David tracked 349 lifestyle measures, in addition to collecting his own saliva and feces. David took Alm’s suggestion a step further by chronicling his own microbiome, collecting his feces every day in “plastic hats that look like something the Flying Nun would wear.” He washed his mouth with a chemical solution and spit into a tube to harvest mouth bacteria, popping all the samples into his refrigerator or freezer until he could get them to the lab. He customized an iPhone diary app so he and Alm, who joined the study, could track 349 different health and lifestyle measures, which included the timing and consistency of bowel movements, sleep quality and duration, blood pressure, weight, vitamin use and mood. They noted, in detail, the foods they ate, symptoms of any illnesses and medications used to treat those illnesses. By the end of the year, David had “10,000 measurements of how two people lived their lives.”

9-21-16 How one scientist's gut microbes changed over a year
How one scientist's gut microbes changed over a year
Daily sampling allowed Lawrence David to track fluctuations in his microbiome. Computational biologist Lawrence David tracked changes in the friendly bacteria in his mouth and intestines by analyzing daily saliva and fecal samples. The data show the ebbs and flows of his microbiome over the course of a year. Where you live and what you eat can rapidly affect the types of friendly bacteria inhabiting your body. To see how the microbes that inhabit the mouth and intestines change over time, Duke University computational biologist Lawrence David zealously chronicled his microbiome for an entire year. David peered closer at the data in a horizon plot (above, bottom graph; colored squares at left indicate the phylum of the bacteria represented in each row). He first determined each type of bacteria’s normal abundance in his gut, then calculated how much they differed from the median abundance. Warmer colors (red, orange, yellow) indicate that bacteria in that group increased in abundance, and cooler colors (blue, green) indicate a decrease in abundance. Living abroad from day 71 to day 122 had a dramatic—but short-lived—effect on David’s microbiome.

9-21-16 The most detailed look yet at how early humans left Africa
The most detailed look yet at how early humans left Africa
Whole-genome studies of nearly 800 people from around the world show that all modern humans from outside Africa are descended from one group of migrants. All non-Africans living today can trace the vast majority of their ancestry to a group of pioneers who left Africa in a single wave, tens of thousands of years ago. We still don’t know the exact timing of that migration, precisely where it began, nor the details of movements and how individual populations developed within Africa. But the discovery of a single exit is a major advance in illuminating the earliest days of humanity’s global sprawl, says Joshua Akey at the University of Washington in Seattle. “The more we understand about this particular event in human history, the more it provides a complete picture of our past,” he says. Modern humans arose in Africa, but where and when our earliest ancestors went next has been fiercely debated. Did they leave that continent in just a single wave, between 40,000 and 80,000 years ago, or in multiple pulses, beginning tens of thousands of years earlier?

9-21-16 Single exodus from Africa gave rise to today’s non-Africans
Single exodus from Africa gave rise to today’s non-Africans
Genetic data point to a date less than 72,000 years ago but climate scientists disagree. A computer simulation of ancient climates predicts that people most likely left Africa about 80,000 to 100,000 years ago. That’s earlier than geneticists estimate by 10,000 years or more. One wave of ancient human migrants out of Africa gave rise to all non-Africans alive today, three separate genetic studies conclude. Those human explorers left Africa about 50,000 to 72,000 years ago, mixed with Neandertals and spread across the world, researchers report online September 21 in Nature. The studies present data from genetically diverse and previously unrepresented populations. Together they offer a detailed picture of deep human history and may settle some long-standing debates, but there is still room to quibble. All non-Africans stem from one major founding population, the studies agree, but earlier human migrations are also recorded in present-day people’s DNA, one study finds. And a fourth study in the same issue of Nature, this one focusing on ancient climate, also makes the case for an earlier exodus.

9-21-16 Aneil Agrawal unites math and mess
Aneil Agrawal unites math and mess
heory and experiments offer data on some of the big problems in biology. At first, evolutionary geneticist Aneil Agrawal had imagined his grown-up life out in the field “living in a David Attenborough show.” But he soon discovered he was a lab animal. Since then, he has remained a fan of the two foods, and his distaste for combining them has turned into enthusiasm strong enough to build a career on. Agrawal, now a 41-year-old evolutionary geneticist at the University of Toronto, both builds mathematical descriptions of biological processes and leads what he describes as “insanely laborious” experiments with fruit flies, duckweed and microscopic aquatic animals called rotifers. Often experimentalists venturing into theory “dabble and do some stuff, but it’s not very good,” says evolutionary biologist Mark Kirkpatrick of the University of Texas at Austin. Agrawal, however, is “one of the few people who’s doing really good theory and really good experimental work.”

9-21-16 Phil Baran finds simple recipes for complex molecules
Phil Baran finds simple recipes for complex molecules
Chemist’s philosophy is to closely mimic how molecules are produced in nature. Chemist Phil Baran draws on artistry and creativity to efficiently synthesize molecules that could improve people’s lives. This is not chemist Phil Baran’s first rodeo: It’s clear that he has done media interviews before. In his Scripps Research Institute office perched above a golf course along the Pacific Ocean in La Jolla, Calif., he is at ease, helpful and patient answering basic questions — why is it important to develop a new way to make a carbon-carbon bond? — as well as opining about how chemists would be better off going after more private research funding, why mentorship is still the best model for science training and his sense that the public (unjustly) thinks of chemistry as a bad word. People take for granted the many products that we rely on every day, he says. At 39, Baran is still young but already experienced and accomplished enough (he has been a tenured professor with his own lab for more than a decade) to be wary of the breathless attention journalists and prizes can bring.

9-21-16 Jessica Cantlon seeks the origins of numerical thinking
Jessica Cantlon seeks the origins of numerical thinking
Brain scans and behavioral tests add up to explain an intriguing evolutionary question. Cantlon’s deliberate nature and whatever-it-takes attitude have served her well. As a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Rochester in New York, she investigates numerical thinking with some of the most unpredictable and often difficult study subjects: nonhuman primates, including orangutans, baboons and rhesus macaques, and — most remarkably — children as young as age 3. Both groups participate in cognitive tests that require them, for example, to track relative quantities as researchers sequentially add items to cups and to distinguish between quantities of assorted dots on touch screens. The kids also go into the functional MRI scanner where, in a feat impressive to parents everywhere, they lie completely still for 20 to 30 minutes so Cantlon and colleagues can get pictures of their brains.

9-21-16 Qian Chen makes matter come alive
Qian Chen makes matter come alive
With a sticky coating and other tricks, materials self-assemble in the lab. Materials scientist Qian Chen explores the boundary between living and nonliving matter by examining and manipulating materials in liquid environments. In a darkened room, bathed in the glow of green light, materials scientist Qian Chen watches gold nanorods dance. They wiggle across a computer screen displaying real-time video from a gigantic microscope — a tall, beige tube about as wide as a telephone pole. Chen has observed these and other minuscule specks of matter swimming, bumping into one another and sometimes organizing into orderly structures, just like molecules in cells do. By pioneering the design of new biologically inspired materials, she’s exploring what it means to be “alive.” Next, Chen wants to get an up-close and personal view of cellular molecules themselves: the nimble, multitasking proteins that work day and night to keep living organisms running.

9-21-16 How baby beluga whales dive deeper and longer than any others
How baby beluga whales dive deeper and longer than any others
Arctic sea ice forces baby belugas to hold their breath longer than other young whales. Special muscle adaptations help the babies survive. Their life amid the sea ice means the young whales do swim wild and free – from an early age, baby belugas must follow their mothers under the sea ice, where air holes are transient and scarce. Now we are learning how baby belugas achieve that: they are born with more mature diving muscles than any other marine mammals studied so far and they develop more rapidly over their first year of life. Shawn Noren at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Robert Suydam from the Wildlife Management Department of Alaska’s North Slope Borough collected muscle samples from 23 female and male beluga whales of various ages and studied the biochemistry of their muscles. They found that belugas are born with much higher stores of myoglobin, an oxygen-binding protein, than other cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), making them better prepared for diving at birth than other species. Myoglobin allows oxygen to be stored and slowly released if an animal needs to hold its breath. The researchers showed that myoglobin in baby beluga whales increased by some 450 per cent between birth and their first birthday, to levels similar to those of fully grown adults. In fact, belugas have adult levels of myoglobin in their muscles by 14 months of age.

9-21-16 Got milk? Roach milk could be a new superfood
Got milk? Roach milk could be a new superfood
DCows, buffalo, goats and sheep provide most of the world’s milk today. But one day, people could be sipping milk from cockroaches, if some scientists get their way. Pacific beetle cockroach moms (molted shell of one of these roaches shown below) feed their developing young a milklike nutrient. Using crystallography on its proteins, chemists have shown that the roach milk is “three times more nutritious than cow’s milk and four times more nutritious than buffalo’s milk,” says biologist Barbara Stay of the University of Iowa in Iowa City. The researchers would like to see cockroach milk turned into a protein supplement to feed hungry people.

9-21-16 Watching films releases 'natural painkiller'
Watching films releases 'natural painkiller'
Watching a tear jerking film helps in social bonding, say researchers. The finding could explain our attraction to dramatic works of fiction - even if they make us cry. Experiments by an Oxford University team suggest tragic films and other dramatic works trigger a rush of feel-good chemicals known as endorphins. This acts as a natural painkiller and helps us bond with the people around us, they report in the Royal Society journal Open Science. The human fascination with story telling was forged in ancient times when we began to live in hunter gatherer communities, said Prof Robin Dunbar, who led the research. Enjoying fiction is a hallmark of human society, but until now scientists have not investigated its evolutionary basis.

9-21-16 Surfing on a turtle’s tail makes swinging crabs monogamous
Surfing on a turtle’s tail makes swinging crabs monogamous
A tiny ocean surfing crab adapts its mating systems to its home, opting for a promiscuous lifestyle on floating debris and a single mate when riding a turtle. Surfing the world’s oceans on the back of a turtle may sound like a life of luxury, but for a small crab it also means restricting itself to a single mate. A species of small oceanic crab, Planes minutus often makes its home on the shells of loggerhead turtles. They tuck themselves into a tiny space above the turtle’s tail and below the shell, just the right size for a pair of crabs – a male and a female living in a simple monogamous relationship. But these crabs will also make their homes on floating debris, where they nestle among stalked barnacles, and often enjoy a more swinging, polyamorous lifestyle.

9-21-16 Vets warn people against buying 'flat-faced' dogs
Vets warn people against buying 'flat-faced' dogs
Vets are warning would-be dog owners to think twice before buying breeds with fashionably "flat-faced" features because of concerns over their welfare. Pugs, bulldogs, French bulldogs and shih-tzus have become sought-after in the UK, despite wide-ranging health problems. Their appeal is attributed to having "squashed" faces and wrinkled noses. The British Veterinary Association said the surge in popularity of these dogs had "increased animal suffering". Sean Wensley, president of the British Veterinary Association (BVA), said: "Prospective owners need to consider that these dogs can suffer from a range of health problems, from eye ulcers to severe breathing difficulties. "We strongly encourage people to choose a healthier breed or a crossbreed instead." Webmaster's comment: The same is true for "flat-faced" cats. You may think they are cute but they suffer all the time. They also are less active and playful and less intelligent.)

9-21-16 Fish recorded singing dawn chorus on reefs just like birds
Fish recorded singing dawn chorus on reefs just like birds
nderwater recordings of vocal fish off the Australian coast reveal an ocean choir composed of at least seven distinct choruses. The ocean might seem like a quiet place, but listen carefully and you might just hear the sounds of the fish choir. Most of this underwater music comes from soloist fish, repeating the same calls over and over. But when the calls of different fish overlap, they form a chorus. Robert McCauley and colleagues at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, recorded vocal fish in the coastal waters off Port Headland in Western Australia over an 18-month period, and identified seven distinct fish choruses, happening at dawn and at dusk.

9-20-16 Activity trackers fall short in weight-loss trial
Activity trackers fall short in weight-loss trial
Carefully counting steps, stairs and sprints might backfire for some people. At the end of a two-year weight-loss trial, people who used activity monitors had lost less weight than people without the device. The results, described in the Sept. 20 JAMA, are the exact opposite of what researchers expected to find. Going into the study, researchers thought that wearable technology would help people, particularly tech-savvy young adults, keep extra weight off. “It turns out that it actually worked against us,” says study coauthor John Jakicic, a weight-management researcher at the University of Pittsburgh.

9-20-16 China’s fancy for ‘aquatic cocaine’ could wipe out rare porpoise
China’s fancy for ‘aquatic cocaine’ could wipe out rare porpoise
Illegal trade in the swim bladder of the totoaba fish fuels fishing practices that may drive the critically endangered vaquita to extinction. There are only around 60 vaquitas left, and it is now up to China whether the world’s smallest porpoise will escape extinction. That’s according to a report by campaign organisation the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). The critically endangered porpoise is only found in the Gulf of California, where it often gets tangled in gill nets targeting the totoaba, a similarly sized fish that is also endangered and whose fishing and international trade are banned. The totoaba’s swim bladders, known as “aquatic cocaine”, are sought for their putative medical effects, and can fetch tens of thousands of dollars in China. This trade still thrives there, despite a fall in prices and the ban, according to an investigation by the EIA.

9-20-16 Should babies be given solids earlier to prevent food allergies?
Should babies be given solids earlier to prevent food allergies?
Many countries advise keeping babies off solid food until 6 months, but the latest evidence suggest that this could be making allergies more likely. Telling people to delay the age they start their babies on solid food might be contributing to the rise in food allergies. Babies used to be given their first solids when they were around 4 months old. Many start showing an interest in the food their family is eating around this time, as well as developing a larger appetite. But since the World Health Organization published a report about a decade ago saying that babies should be exclusively breastfed until 6 months, countries like the UK and US have recommended parents hold off until then. Not all UK parents follow this 6-month rule but healthcare staff and parenting websites all tend to give out this advice. NHS leaflets and websites warn parents that if they start weaning earlier than 6 months they must avoid potentially allergenic foods, like peanuts and eggs.

9-20-16 Survival secret of 'earth's hardiest animal' revealed
Survival secret of 'earth's hardiest animal' revealed
Researchers have discovered a genetic survival secret of Earth's "hardiest animal". A gene that scientists identified in these strange, aquatic creatures - called tardigrades - helps them survive boiling, freezing and radiation. In future, it could be used to protect human cells, the researchers say. It was already known that tardigrades, also known as water bears, were able to survive by shrivelling up into desiccated balls. But the University of Tokyo-led team found a protein that protects its DNA - wrapping around it like a blanket.

9-20-16 World's hardiest animal has evolved radiation shield for its DNA
World's hardiest animal has evolved radiation shield for its DNA
Tough ‘water bears’ defy intense radiation by apparently wrapping their genetic material in a bizarre protein that can also protect human cells. They are the toughest known animals on Earth and now the secret to one of their superpowers – resistance to radiation – is out. Tardigrades, also known as water bears or moss piglets, are tiny, eight-legged creatures that live in small bodies of water in habitats such as moss across the planet and are renowned for their extreme survival skills. They can survive in the vacuum of outer space, withstand temperatures ranging from close to absolute zero to nearly 100°C, cope with pressures six times greater than those at the bottom of the deepest ocean and survive dehydration and being frozen for years on end.

9-19-16 Brain’s physical structure may help guide its wiring
Brain’s physical structure may help guide its wiring
Stiffness, softness determine if nerve cells’ axons take straight or meandering path. In growing brains, billions of nerve cells must make trillions of precise connections. As they snake through the brain, nerve cell tendrils called axons use the brain’s stiffness to guide them on their challenging journey, a study of frog nerve cells suggests. The results, described online September 19 in Nature Neuroscience, show that along with chemical guidance signals, the brain’s physical properties help shape its connections. That insight may be key to understanding how nerve cells wire the brain, says study coauthor Kristian Franze. “I strongly believe that it’s not enough to look at chemistry,” says Franze, a mechanobiologist at the University of Cambridge. “We need to look at environmental factors, too.”

9-19-16 Grand project to unify global efforts to understand the brain
TGrand project to unify global efforts to understand the brain
A New York neuroscience summit aims to coordinate big money brain projects around the world, but will delegates agree on the field's top priorities? Neuroscientists are meeting in New York today to agree on a global mission to understand the workings of the human brain and how to fix it when something goes wrong. The lofty aim of the Coordinating Global Brain Projects meeting is to unify worldwide efforts to study the brain, in the same way that international collaborations have spurred on astronomy, physics and genetics. “Neuroscience is coming of age, and it’s now ready for big science,” says Rafael Yuste at Columbia University in New York, who organised today’s meeting with Cori Bargmann at Rockefeller University, also in New York. “This is the first real meeting with all the players in the same room together,” says Yuste. Among those invited are representatives from charities, private companies and national brain research initiatives. The Global Brain Initiative they want to develop will decide which projects and goals to prioritise, as well as how they should be funded.

9-19-16 To study Galápagos cormorants, a geneticist gets creative
To study Galápagos cormorants, a geneticist gets creative
Scientist calls on community to get DNA samples from bird species. Unlike short-winged Galápagos cormorants, double-crested cormorants and all other species have a wingspan meant for flying. Galápagos cormorants are the only flightless cormorant species. Their wings are too small to lift their heavy bodies. To trace the genetic changes responsible for the birds’ shrunken wings, Alejandro Burga needed DNA from the grounded bird and from a few related species. For the UCLA evolutionary geneticist, getting the right DNA was a yearlong effort. After Galápagos cormorants (Phalacrocorax harrisi) split off from other cormorants, their wings shrunk to 19 centimeters long and their bodies grew to 3.6 kilograms, not a flying-friendly combination. Burga suspected he would have difficulty getting permission to collect DNA from the endangered birds. So he e-mailed “anybody who had ever published anything on cormorants” in the last 20 years, he says.

9-18-16 World's oldest fishhooks found in Japanese island cave
World's oldest fishhooks found in Japanese island cave
Archaeologists have found the world's oldest fishhooks in a cave on the Japanese island of Okinawa. The pair, dating from about 23,000 years ago, were carved from sea snail shells and found with other ancient relics, according to a paper. It is thought humans inhabited the island from at least 30,000 years ago, surviving despite scarce resources. The findings suggest a wider use of advanced maritime technology in that era than previously thought. Modern humans first moved to offshore islands some 50,000 years ago.

9-16-16 Blind people use brain’s visual cortex to help do maths
Blind people use brain’s visual cortex to help do maths
People who have been blind since birth use the same parts of the brain as everyone else to do arithmetic, but may get an extra boost from their visual cortex. While a leading theory suggests our visual experiences are linked to our understanding of numbers, a study of people who have been blind from birth suggests the opposite. The link between vision and number processing is strong. Sighted people can estimate the number of people in a crowd just by looking, for instance, while children who can mentally rotate an object and correctly imagine how it might look from a different angle often develop better mathematical skills. “It’s actually hard to think of a situation when you might process numbers through any modality other than vision,” says Shipra Kanjlia at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. But blind people can do maths too. To understand how they might compensate for their lack of visual experience, Kanjlia and her colleagues asked 36 volunteers – 17 of whom had been blind at birth – to do simple mental arithmetic inside an fMRI scanner. To level the playing field, the sighted participants wore blindfolds.

9-16-16 Painting claimed to be among Australia’s oldest known rock art
Painting claimed to be among Australia’s oldest known rock art
Wasps’ nest dating technique suggests minimum age of 16,000 years. Researchers say they have dated this ambiguous figure, painted on a cave ceiling in northwestern Australia, to at least 16,000 years ago. If that estimate holds up, it supports the idea that some of the continent’s earliest human inhabitants created rock art. Inside a large cave in northwestern Australia’s remote Kimberley region, someone painted an elongated, yamlike shape on a ceiling at least 16,000 years ago, new research suggests. That long-ago creation in the unnamed cavern adds fuel to the argument that rock art in Australia goes back even earlier to the continent’s first inhabitants, researchers contend.

9-16-16 ‘Starchy’: A new primary taste?
‘Starchy’: A new primary taste?
Scientists long believed that humans could register only four primary tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Seven years ago, they added a fifth: umami (savory). But a new study suggests there may be a sixth: the “starchy” taste of complex carbohydrates such as bread and pasta, which might partly explain why people crave carbs. Researchers from Oregon State University found that volunteers who were given liquid solutions containing complex carbohydrates could detect a starchy taste. “Asians would say it was rice-like, while Caucasians described it as bread-like or pasta-like,” lead researcher Juyun Lim tells New Scientist. “It’s like eating flour.”

9-16-16 Snub-nosed monkeys are so inbred they may struggle to survive
Snub-nosed monkeys are so inbred they may struggle to survive
Southeast Asia's Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys are in bigger trouble than we thought, with low genetic diversity among the largest wild population. With a global population below 250, things have been looking bleak for the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey. But the creatures might be in even more trouble than we thought. One section of mitochondrial DNA seems to be identical in all members of the largest known population – a sign of inbreeding that can leave a species vulnerable to extinction. “As far as we know, no other primate species is reported to have zero mitochondrial variability,” says Andie Ang at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Tonkins are showing the lowest thus far.” It is difficult to source genetic information from such a rare species. Ang and her colleagues got their Tonkin DNA samples from faeces collected in the Khau Ca forest of Ha Giang province, Vietnam. The forest is home to the largest wild population of Tonkins – about 130 individuals. Because Ang and her colleagues had 250 faecal samples, they are reasonably confident that most of the monkeys are represented.

9-16-16 Dinosaur's camouflage pattern revealed
Dinosaur's camouflage pattern revealed
Scientists have recreated the colour patterns of a dinosaur, revealing a camouflage used by animals today. A study of a well-preserved Chinese Psittacosaurus fossil shows it had a light underside and was darker on top - an arrangement called counter-shading. This suggests the species lived in an environment with diffuse light, such as a forest. As part of their research, the scientists teamed up with an artist to produce a 3-D model of the creature. The findings by an international team of researchers have been published in Current Biology journal.

9-16-16 The real-life ‘Nessie’
The real-life ‘Nessie’
Forget the fabled Loch Ness Monster: Paleontologists in Scotland have just unveiled the fossilized skeleton of a real-life underwater predator, which stalked the oceans 170 million years ago. Dubbed the Storr Lochs Monster, the dolphin-like ichthyosaur was the size of a small boat and had a long, pointed head filled with hundreds of cone-shaped teeth that it used to feed on fish and squid. It lived alongside the dinosaurs in the Middle Jurassic period, a time that saw the emergence of some of the first mammals and birds, but which has yielded very few fossils.

9-16-16 Rattlesnakes silently shook their tails
Rattlesnakes silently shook their tails
Which came first, the rattle or the shake? A study of some 50 species of venomous and non-venomous snakes suggests the behaviour existed long before the tool. Shake, rattle and strike. It is possibly one of the most terrifying sounds in the animal kingdom, but how the rattlesnake evolved its chilling warning signal is a mystery. Now a study suggests the rattle evolved long after the tail-shaking behaviour. The evolution of the rattle has baffled scientists because, unlike other complex physical traits like eyes or feathers, it has no obvious precursor or intermediate stage. “There is no half-rattle,” says David Pfennig at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. One theory is that ancestral snakes shook their tails to warn off predators, and the noise-making rattle – which is made of a series of hollow, modified keratin scales – evolved later as a more effective signal that took advantage of the pre-existing behaviour. This may be why many rattle-less snakes also shake their tails.

9-15-16 Rattlesnakes have reduced their repertoire of venoms
Rattlesnakes have reduced their repertoire of venoms
Reptiles’ common ancestor possessed greater variety of toxic protein. The venom of the western diamondback rattlesnake (shown here) isn’t neurotoxic — but its ancestor’s was. A loss of genes 4 million to 7 million years ago narrowed the range of toxins this and some other rattlers can use to kill prey. Modern rattlesnakes have pared down their weaponry stockpile from their ancestor’s massive arsenal. Today’s rattlers have irreversibly lost entire toxin-producing genes over the course of evolution, narrowing the range of toxins in their venom, scientists report September 15 in Current Biology. “After going through all the work of evolving powerful toxins, over time, some snakes have dispensed with them,” says study coauthor Sean B. Carroll, an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute who is at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. These modern rattlesnakes produce smaller sets of toxins that might be more specialized to their prey.

9-15-16 Building blocks of memories seen in brains for the first time
Building blocks of memories seen in brains for the first time
Observations of hundreds of neurons in mice suggest that we may divide our memories of where we’ve been into small chunks of experience. At last, we’ve seen what might be the primary building blocks of memories lighting up in the brains of mice. We have cells in our brains – and so do rodents – that keep track of our location and the distances we’ve travelled. These neurons are also known to fire in sequence when a rat is resting, as if the animal is mentally retracing its path – a process that probably helps memories form, says Rosa Cossart at the Institut de Neurobiologie de la Méditerranée in Marseille, France. But without a way of mapping the activity of a large number of these individual neurons, the pattern that these replaying neurons form in the brain has been unclear. Researchers have suspected for decades that the cells might fire together in small groups, but nobody could really look at them, says Cossart.

9-15-16 Frog-hunting bats have ‘cocktail party effect’ workaround
Frog-hunting bats have ‘cocktail party effect’ workaround
In noisy environment, hunters shift from listening for croaks to using echolocation. A fringe-lipped bat, which hunts frogs by listening for their nighttime calls, has ways of compensating when unnatural human noises get in the way. An experiment with fake frogs shows how certain bats adjust their hunting technique to compensate for unnatural noises. Humankind is loud, and research already suggests that birds alter their singing in urban noise. Now tests show that bats listening for the frogs they hunt switch from mostly quiet eavesdropping to pinging echolocating when artificial sounds mask the frog calls. That way, the bats can detect the motion of the frogs’ vocal sac poofing out with each call, researchers report in the Sept. 16 Science.

9-15-16 How mindfulness makes your brain happy
How mindfulness makes your brain happy
Everybody is talking about mindfulness, but nobody seems to be able to explain clearly what the heck it really is. Ask people and you'll hear, "Umm, be in the moment and SOMETHING SOMETHING SOMETHING, uh, meditation." But is it merely the latest fad? Actually, no. And there isn't some looming deathmatch between mindfulness and neuroscience, between East and West. They're actually on the same page. Research shows mindfulness works. It can help you be happier and help you reduce stress. But nobody's ever explained it to you in a way that makes sense or doesn't sound corny. Let's fix that. We'll look at how neuroscience and mindfulness line up, get real answers as to why our brains so often get anxious, sad, or angry and learn the research-backed way to be happier — and stay that way. Your left brain is a liar. My grandmother didn't like the word "liar." She felt it was too harsh. She used to say people were "telling stories." And that's what the left side of your brain does. Constantly. The right side of your brain sees things pretty concretely. But that guy to his left is always weaving tales to try and make sense of the information coming in. That's his job.

9-15-16 What you eat when you’re sick may determine if you’ll get better
What you eat when you’re sick may determine if you’ll get better
Glucose and ketogenic diets affect immune responses in mice in different ways, preventing nerve damage or seizures – a finding that may save lives. Crave chicken soup when you have a cold? There may be a good reason for that. Research in mice has found that changing eating habits could be crucial for surviving the body’s own immune responses to different types of infection. Ruslan Medzhitov at Yale University and his team have found that giving mice with flu glucose saved their lives, but it killed those that were infected with bacteria. Amazingly, this effect worked in the absence of the actual pathogens – glucose had the same effect on mice injected only with inflammation-triggering molecules either from bacteria or viruses. Inflammation is a general activation of the immune system that occurs when an invader is detected. It causes most disease symptoms, and can damage and even kill the host it is trying to save. Researchers increasingly believe that surviving an infection is as much about tolerating your own immune response as it is about killing the invaders. Mice seem to survive their own immune responses thanks to feeding strategies. Like sick humans, all the infected mice initially lost their appetites, but the mice with flu quickly resumed eating. This could be because bacteria and viruses trigger different inflammatory responses, and feeding is helpful for surviving the viral response, but harmful when fighting off bacteria.

9-15-16 Maybe you don’t need to burp your baby
Maybe you don’t need to burp your baby
Post-meal pats on the back may be instinct for parents, but it’s not necessarily helpful to babies. As satisfying as it is to coax burps out of babies, the practice isn’t backed by science. I found burping my babies to be highly satisfying. A little jiggle, a little pat, and suddenly, a big, funny jolt of air comes flying out of a tiny, floppy baby. There’s lots of burping methods — the over-the-shoulder jiggle, the propped-up-on-the-lap pat, even the face-down-on-the-knees position — and they all lead to this amusing outcome. I will not weigh in on burping methodology here. Instead, I am going to back up a step further. At the risk of losing all credibility with grandmas, I am prepared to argue that you might not need to burp your baby at all. Despite the immense joy and amusement burping brings, there’s scant scientific evidence that burping after meals actually does anything helpful for babies.

9-15-16 Prostate cancer treatment 'not always needed'
Prostate cancer treatment 'not always needed'
Just keeping an eye on prostate cancer results in the same 10-year survival rate as treating it, a study suggests. The UK researchers warned too many men were having procedures that damaged their sex life and caused incontinence. A trial of 1,643 men with small prostate cancers resulted in the same 99% survival rate after a decade for those who had had surgery, radiotherapy or simply monitored the tumour. Experts said the results were "extremely reassuring" for men. "It's a global problem that patients are over-treated," Prof Freddie Hamdy from the University of Oxford, told the BBC. "It's understandable, if a 55-year-old man is told they have cancer, and they have a family, they don't want to take any risks."

9-14-16 How PTSD recovery led me to look closer at genetic link
How PTSD recovery led me to look closer at genetic link
PTSD is often triggered by sexual violence. After it happened to her, Karestan Koenen set out to research the condition – and how it differs in men and women. After experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder after being raped, Karestan Koenen made it her career to study the condition. Now at Harvard University, Koenen is leading the largest ever genetic study of PTSD, by sifting through the genomes of tens of thousands of people (see Why women are more at risk of PTSD – and how to prevent it”). She tells New Scientist how her experiences shaped her career. I would have associated it with men who served in the military – the stereotype of a Vietnam veteran who has experienced really horrible combat, and comes back and has nightmares about it. Yes. People know that PTSD is related to trauma, and that people can have flashbacks and nightmares. But they tend to think it is associated with combat. A lot of popular images of PTSD come from war movies, and people tend to associate being a soldier with being a man. They are less aware that most PTSD is related to things that happen to civilians – things like rape, sexual assault and violence, which can affect women more than men. It’s a problem in the sense that women or men who have PTSD from non-combat experiences might not recognise what they have as PTSD, and because of that, may not end up getting help. And if you saw it in a loved one, you may not understand what was going on with them. When people come to understand that what they have is PTSD, it can take away a lot of shame and stigma surrounding their feelings. They’re not “going crazy” – it’s a consequence of a bad experience. (Webmaster's comment: In America we have an epidemic of rape, sexual assault and violence against women and children by violent men!)

9-14-16 Color vision strategy defies textbook picture
Color vision strategy defies textbook picture
Cone cells fill in hues on black-and-white image, new study suggests. Color vision may work a bit like filling in colors in a black-and-white coloring book, new research suggests. Color vision may actually work like a colorized version of a black-and-white movie, a new study suggests. Cone cells, which sense red, green or blue light, detect white more often than colors, researchers report September 14 in Science Advances. The textbook-rewriting discovery could change scientists’ thinking about how color vision works.

9-14-16 'Super agers' offer clue to keeping a sharp memory
'Super agers' offer clue to keeping a sharp memory
Memory loss is not an inevitable part of ageing, say US scientists who are studying a unique group of adults in their 60s and 70s with minds as sharp as people in their 20s. These "super agers" performed just as well on memory tests as "youngsters" a third of their age, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found. Brain scans appeared to reveal why. Regions involved with learning and retaining new information showed no sign of typical age-related shrinkage. What's more, memory test scores correlated with brain size - those who performed best in the tests also had greater thickness in the key brain regions the researchers measured on MRI scans. The study authors say their work, outlined in the Journal of Neuroscience, could ultimately help with understanding the processes that lead to dementia and if there are ways to avoid them.

9-14-16 Nature loss linked to farming intensity
Nature loss linked to farming intensity
More than 50 conservation groups say the "policy-driven" intensification of farming is a significant driver of nature loss in the UK. The State of Nature report assessed 8,000 UK species and found that one in 10 are threatened with extinction. More than half of farmland birds (56%) including the turtle dove and corn bunting are in danger of extinction. The National Farmers Union said the report ignored progress made by farmers on conservation in the last 25 years. Mark Eaton is the lead author of the paper. He said: "We now know that farming practices over recent decades have had the single largest impact on the UK's wildlife. "The great majority of that impact has been negative. This isn't deliberate, it is a by-product of changes in farming to make it more efficient."

9-14-16 More than half of UK species in decline – some may soon vanish
More than half of UK species in decline – some may soon vanish
A new report paints a gloomy picture and blames intensive farming and climate change for an ongoing devastation of wildlife across the UK. More than half of UK species have suffered declines in recent years and 15 per cent are at risk of vanishing, a report has warned. Intensive agriculture’s “overwhelmingly negative” impact on nature has helped drive the declines, while climate change, loss of habitat and urban sprawl are also having an effect, the second State of Nature report said. The study, which pools knowledge from 53 wildlife organisations, shows that 56 per cent of almost 4000 studied land and freshwater species suffered declines in numbers or areas where they are found between 1970 and 2013. There is little evidence to suggest the rate of loss is slowing down and som 1,200 species are at risk of disappearing from the UK, the report said.

9-13-16 Kauai’s native forest birds are headed toward extinction
Kauai’s native forest birds are headed toward extinction
The iiwi is one of six species of forest birds, all honeycreepers, that are endemic to the island of Kauai — and disappearing fast. Hawaiian honeycreepers are a marvel of evolution. Millions of years ago, some finches arrived on the Hawaiian Islands and began to diversify. As the Pacific Plate moved over the Hawaiian hotspot and new islands formed and others shriveled away, these colorful songbirds evolved into more than 50 species that differed so much in what they ate, where they lived and how they looked that it took scientists quite a while to figure out that they were all related. More than half of those species are now gone. “Many extinctions took place when the islands were first settled by Polynesian people,” notes Helen James, who, as curator of birds at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, has studied the birds’ evolutionary history. Then Westerners arrived and bird populations started to disappear more quickly due to a combination of threats, including habitat loss, introduction of invasive species and the arrival of diseases such as avian malaria.

9-13-16 Sandboxes keep chicken parasites at bay
Sandboxes keep chicken parasites at bay
Hens bathe in a dust-filled box. Sand and dust from fossilized algae keep mite populations manageable on the birds. For chickens, a dip in the sandbox is good hygiene. Cage-free flocks that “bathe” by flapping around in diatomaceous earth (a fine dust of fossilized algae) and sand prevent serious mite infections, researchers report September 14 in the Journal of Economic Entomology. Major infections of more than 100 mites per bird make hens lay 2 to 4 percent fewer eggs on average. So access to boxes filled with dust, which look like tiny sandboxes, makes sense for birds’ health and for farmers’ wallets. Dust baths damage mites’ waxy outer coating and kill the pests by drying them out. Scientists already knew dust can help manage mites in badly infested birds but weren’t sure if it could also be preventative.

9-13-16 Here’s why “two-dad” babies aren’t yet a biological reality
Here’s why “two-dad” babies aren’t yet a biological reality
Healthy mice have been made using sperm and non-egg cells for the first time, but the technique is unlikely to work using cells derived from a man’s skin. Healthy mice have been created using sperm and cells that aren’t quite eggs for the first time. New Scientist questions whether this really brings us any closer to making babies with two biological fathers. Toro Suzuki at the University of Bath, UK and his team combined sperm with non-egg cells to produce 30 mouse pups that then went on to have healthy offspring themselves. But there are a few caveats. To do this, they created 104 embryos, only 30 of which survived. And they didn’t use just any old cell – they generated special types of cell by exposing eggs to a certain chemical.

9-12-16 Placenta’s alarm clock signals when it’s time for birth to begin
Placenta’s alarm clock signals when it’s time for birth to begin
Slowing the timer, or speeding it up, could provide a way to avoid potentially dangerous premature and late births, which cause millions of deaths globally. The moment when pregnancy ends and giving birth begins appears to be controlled by the set of membranes surrounding the fetus, which act like a clock. Drugs that slow down or speed up the clock could help ensure more babies are born close to the standard 40 weeks, giving more infants a fighting chance at life. Every year, about 15 million babies around the world are born prematurely, before 37 weeks of gestation. The underdeveloped organs of these babies put them at risk of a range of disorders, and a million die before their first birthday. Premature births account for 8 per cent of infant deaths in the UK and 11 per cent in the US, making it the single biggest cause of infant mortality. On the other hand, an overly long pregnancy comes with its own risks. Deliveries after 42 weeks are more likely to be stillbirths – probably because the placenta doesn’t survive long enough to support the developing fetus at that point. “Timing is extremely important,” says Ramkumar Menon of the University of Texas in Galveston. Menon and his colleagues are working on a way to ensure babies are born at the right moment, by understanding how normal, full-term births take place. Some theories have already been put forward. Levels of a hormone called CRH increase closer to the time of birth. This hormone controls others, such as oestrogen and progesterone, which also play important roles in birth: they trigger contractions and widen the cervix.

9-12-16 Human sperm grown in a lab for the first time, claims study
Human sperm grown in a lab for the first time, claims study
Human sperm has been made in the lab for the first time – maybe. A French team made the claim in a peer-reviewed study, but rival groups remain sceptical. Is this the first lab-grown human sperm? A French team claiming the achievement has moved a stage closer to convincing sceptics by having the work published in a peer-reviewed journal. But some researchers say the evidence offered still falls short of what’s required to make such a large and historic claim. Through a 20-year project, the French researchers say they have made human and rat sperm, starting with testicular cells called spermatogonia. Japanese researchers made mouse sperm in 2011, as did Chinese researchers earlier this year, but the French team is the first to claim the step of making human spermatozoa. “It’s the final 20 per cent of the process,” says Philippe Durand of Kallistem, the company in Lyon pursuing the project. Last year, Kallistem earned a patent for the technique, but this failed to convince sceptics. Now, the work on rat and human sperm has been published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Biology of Reproduction.

9-12-16 Kuwait's mass DNA database is a huge attack on genetic privacy
Kuwait's mass DNA database is a huge attack on genetic privacy
The Gulf State will soon be the first nation to force all residents and visitors to hand over DNA, risking its reputation and more, warns geneticist Olaf RieB. Compulsory DNA testing of all citizens and visitors sounds like an Orwellian nightmare, but this is the new reality in a wealthy Gulf State. Kuwait has become the first country to order blanket genetic sampling – a worry on so many fronts. What happens if the DNA database is hacked? And even if the current government can keep the database secure, what might happen in the event of a regime change? The Kuwaiti government says DNA testing, reportedly due to begin within weeks, is needed to combat terrorism, and introduced the measure in the wake of a bombing that killed 27 people there last year. While the need to have a swab taken may discourage attackers from entering the country, we should not forget that a lot of terrorism these days is home-grown. And who ever heard of a suicide bomber being dissuaded because they might be identified after blowing themselves up?

9-12-16 Pterosaurs weren’t all super-sized in the Late Cretaceous
Pterosaurs weren’t all super-sized in the Late Cretaceous
Some of the flying reptiles were smaller than a bald eagle. Some 77 million years ago, little pterosaurs shared the sky with gigantic ones, based on new fossils of a small-bodied flying reptile found in British Columbia. Pterosaurs didn’t have to be gargantuan to survive in the Late Cretaceous. Fragmentary fossils of a roughly 77-million-year-old pterosaur found in British Columbia suggest it had a wingspan of just 1.5 meters, about a quarter that of a bald eagle. The ancient flier is the smallest pterosaur discovered during this time period — by a lot, report paleontologist Elizabeth Martin-Silverstone of the University of Southampton in England and colleagues August 30 in Royal Society Open Science. Dozens of larger pterosaurs, some with wings spanning more than 10 meters (nearly the length of a school bus), have been unearthed. But until now, scientists had found only two small-scale versions, with wingspans 2.5 to 3 meters long, from the period stretching from 66 million to 100 million years ago.

9-10-16 Six science-backed tips for living longer
Six science-backed tips for living longer
So is health just a matter of biology? Nope. Research shows living well is more than marathons and what you put in your mouth. So let's learn the health-boosting stuff that nobody talks about.

  1. Get your act together: It keeps you healthy. Bonus: it also keeps you out of jail.
  2. Relationships are essential. (Humans are optional.): Got someone you can call at 4 a.m.? Or someone with four legs?
  3. Work somewhere that treats you fairly: If you think 30 minutes on the treadmill makes up for 40 hours of misery, think again.
  4. Don't be a jerk: Ignore Billy Joel.
  5. Too little stress can be as bad as too much: Retirement is brain death followed by death-death.
  6. Forgive others. And yourself: If there are typos in this post, I forgive me.

9-10-16 Sleep 'prioritises memories we care about'
Sleep 'prioritises memories we care about'
A study has found that during sleep, the experiences you care about are more likely to enter your long-term memory. Eighty non-Welsh speaking participants were taught Welsh words before either a period of wake or sleep. Those who slept showed an increased ability to learn the words, and the effect was greatest in those who placed personal value on the language. This suggests that memories perceived as important undergo preferential treatment by the brain during sleep. While it has long been established that sleep helps the consolidation of memories, this is the first study to show that the effect is influenced by how much you care about the memory.

9-9-16 The scientific proof that laughing is really good for you
The scientific proof that laughing is really good for you
You don't laugh enough. Yes, humor can improve your life. Not too surprising, you say? Here's the problem: You treat humor like a nice thing that happens, oh, whenever. But scientific research is showing giggles, guffaws, and jokes are far too important to be left to chance. We're gonna learn the best ways to use humor to make you happier, healthier, more successful at work and even to improve your relationships. First, let's learn the neuroscience of why we laugh. Why are funny things funny? What's going on in your brain that makes you giggle so hard you snort? What is humor? Humor is your brain rewarding you for finding errors and inconsistencies in your thinking. Your brain needs to encourage you to update your incorrect ideas about the world and, like giving a dog a treat, it rewards you with a burst of pleasure. Instead of a biscuit, you get a shot of dopamine.

9-9-16 Fear of vaccine safety is higher in Europe than in the US
Fear of vaccine safety is higher in Europe than in the US
A survey across 67 countries has found that Europe is the world’s most sceptical region when it comes to vaccines, especially people in France. Europe is the world’s most vaccine-sceptic region. That’s according to a study that has surveyed 66,000 people living in 67 countries about their views on the importance and safety of vaccines. People in France showed the least confidence – 41 per cent of those surveyed said they disagreed that vaccines are safe. The global average was 12 per cent. France was followed by Bosnia and Herzegovina, where 36 per cent doubted the safety of vaccines. Russia and Mongolia came next, with 28 per cent and 27 per cent, respectively. Greece, Japan and the Ukraine all recorded a 25 per cent lack of confidence. In the US, 14 per cent of the 1,000 people surveyed disagreed that vaccines are safe, while 86 per cent agree they are important.

9-9-16 World’s first ‘nanofish’ could be used as guided drug missiles
World’s first ‘nanofish’ could be used as guided drug missiles
Inspired by the swimming style of real fish, the nanofish is 100 times smaller than a grain of sand, and could be used to carry drugs to specific sites in the body. Engineers have created metallic nanofish that are inspired by the swimming style of real fish, and could be used to carry drugs to specific sites of the body. The nanofish are 100 times smaller than grains of sand, and are constructed from gold and nickel segments linked by silver hinges. The two outer gold segments act as the head and tail fin, while the two inner nickel segments form the body. Each segment is around 800 nanometres long, a nanometre being one billionth of a metre. When an oscillating magnetic field is applied, the magnetic nickel parts move from side to side. This swings the head and the tail, creating an undulating motion that pushes the nanofish forward (see video). Speed and direction can be controlled by altering the strength and orientation of the magnetic field.

9-9-16 Lucy’s fatal fall
Lucy’s fatal fall
Anthropologists have learned a great deal from Lucy, the fossilized 3.2 million–year-old hominid discovered in Ethiopia in 1974. Now they think they know how the 3-foot-tall, bipedal female kicked the bucket: by falling out of a tree. It was previously assumed that the many breaks and fractures in Lucy’s bones were the natural result of the fossilization process. But after taking high-resolution CT scans of the bones, researchers saw evidence of greenstick fractures, which typically only affect living bone. When they then created a 3-D model of Lucy’s shattered humerus and showed it to 10 orthopedic surgeons, nine of them concluded she had suffered a compound fracture, most likely from putting out her hand to break a fall. Scientists calculated that the force needed to produce the breaks and fractures was consistent with a 45-foot drop; since the bones show no signs of healing, they deduced the injuries must have been fatal. Though some paleontologists dispute the findings, arguing that most fossils have similar levels of bone damage, the study’s lead author, John Kappelman, insists the evidence is compelling. “I have taught this fossil since I was a grad student in the 1980s,” Kappelman tells NationalGeographic.com. “I knew these fractures were there—I just never thought to ask what had caused them.”

9-8-16 Scientists watch as bacteria evolve antibiotic resistance
Scientists watch as bacteria evolve antibiotic resistance
Growth patterns reveal E. coli’s path to becoming superbugs. A petri dish more than a meter long helped scientists visualize the evolution of antibiotic resistance in E. coli bacteria. Bacteria placed on the outer edges had to adapt to higher and higher levels of antibiotics as they moved toward the center of the plate. For bacteria, practice makes perfect: Adjusting to ever higher levels of antibiotics preps them to morph into super resistant strains, and scientists can now watch it happen. A new device — a huge petri dish coated with different concentrations of antibiotics — makes this normally hidden process visible, microbiologist Michael Baym and colleagues report in the Sept. 9 Science. The setup gives a step-by-step picture of how garden-variety microbes become antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

9-8-16 Brain training can alter opinions of faces
Brain training can alter opinions of faces
Neurofeedback technique nudges people to shift neutral judgments to like or dislike. Brain training method changed people’s judgments of faces and may hold promise for reducing harmful fears. By sneakily influencing brain activity, scientists changed people’s opinions of faces. This covert neural sculpting relied on a sophisticated brain training technique in which people learn to direct their thoughts in specific ways. The results, published September 8 in PLOS Biology, support the idea that neurofeedback methods could help reveal how the brain’s behavior gives rise to perceptions and emotions. What’s more, the technique may ultimately prove useful for easing traumatic memories and treating disorders such as depression. The research is still at an early stage, says neurofeedback researcher Michelle Hampson of Yale University, but, she notes, “I think it has great promise.”

9-8-16 Giraffe genetic secret: Four species of tallest mammal identified
Giraffe genetic secret: Four species of tallest mammal identified
It is a famous, gentle giant of the African savannah, but the giraffe's genetics have just revealed that there is not one species, but four. Giraffes have previously been recognised to be a single species divided into several sub-species. But this latest study of their DNA suggests that four groups of giraffes have not cross-bred and exchanged genetic material for millions of years. This is a clear indication that they have evolved into distinct species.

9-8-16 The science of how touch makes us happier
The science of how touch makes us happier
You drastically underestimate the power of touch. Actually, I'm wrong… The research says we're really big on touching — our phones, that is. People touch their phones 85 times a day. But how many times a day do you touch someone else? Probably not nearly as often. That's kinda messed up, don't ya think? You need to touch people more. It will improve your life. Sound like Hallmark-Card-bumper-sticker-hippie-nonsense? Wrong. What happens when babies are deprived of touch? It can screw them up for life. As David Linden, professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University writes, "Touch is not optional for human development." But you're not a baby, right? Doesn't matter. Linden says touch is still vital. Saying that touch helps with relationships might seem obvious but the research shows touch improves nearly every area of your life. For instance: Want to know the secret to success they don't teach in any MBA program?

9-8-16 Genetic surgery is closer to reality
Genetic surgery is closer to reality
The development of gene-editing tools like TALENs and CRISPR/Cas9 may soon make ‘genetic surgery’ a reality. Genetic surgery is far away for humans — Optimism concerning application of genetic experiments to improve mankind is unwarranted now, a Canadian pediatrician told the Third International Congress of Human Genetics meeting in Chicago…. Although striking and sometimes controversial experiments in genetic surgery have in fact been performed in multicellular systems, he explained, public demand seems likely to outstrip scientific resources for the treatment of many forms of genetic disease. — Science News, September 24, 1966. Things are looking up for “genetic surgery.” Gene therapy has been around since the 1980s, but researchers have recently developed more precise gene-editing tools, including one that sent a child’s leukemia into remission in 2015. Scientists are most excited about a molecular scalpel known as CRISPR/Cas9 that cuts and manipulates DNA (SN: 9/3/16, p. 22). Researchers are optimistic about the tool’s potential to treat several diseases, but it may be a while before CRISPR is widely used.

9-8-16 White killer whales were legend – now they are everywhere
White killer whales were legend – now they are everywhere
White orcas are so rare, there was once only one. Now they are being spotted more frequently – and the reason is not good news. Six years ago, on 11th August 2010, whale researchers working in the western North Pacific encountered something very unusual: a white male killer whale, or orca. Two days later the white whale, nicknamed Iceberg, reappeared in a large group of orcas – a group that included a second white whale. In fact, over the past few years the researchers have encountered no fewer than five – and perhaps as many as eight – white orcas in the western North Pacific. They are virtually unheard of elsewhere in the world’s oceans. Their unusual abundance in this one particular region could be worrying evidence of inbreeding. “What we are seeing is strange. It’s a very high rate of occurrence,” says Erich Hoyt at Whale and Dolphin Conservation in Bridport, UK, who co-directs the Far East Russia Orca Project. Hoyt and his colleagues estimate there are several thousand orcas in the region, which could mean as many as one in 1000 individuals is born white. “All the other areas where orcas are studied intensively have zero or one or two [white whales] historically,” he says. Hoyt and his colleagues have not yet managed to take genetic samples from any of the white whales, so the exact reason for their unusual colour is not clear. One possibility, though, is that the whales are albinos – a condition that is often more common when mammal populations are inbred.

9-8-16 Fossils hint at India’s crucial role in primate evolution
Fossils hint at India’s crucial role in primate evolution
Limb bones may reveal what common ancestor looked like. Fossils of extinct primates that lived in India nearly 55 million years ago come from tiny creatures that were about the size of a gray mouse lemur. Remarkably preserved bones of rat-sized creatures excavated in an Indian coal mine may come from close relatives of the first primatelike animals, researchers say. A set of 25 arm, leg, ankle and foot fossils, dating to roughly 54.5 million years ago, raises India’s profile as a possible hotbed of early primate evolution, say evolutionary biologist Rachel Dunn of Des Moines University in Iowa and her colleagues. Bones from Vastan coal mine in Gujarat, India’s westernmost state, indicate that these tiny tree-dwellers resembled the first primates from as early as 65 million years ago, the scientists report in the October Journal of Human Evolution.

9-8-16 DNA confirms cause of 1665 London's Great Plague
DNA confirms cause of 1665 London's Great Plague
DNA testing has for the first time confirmed the identity of the bacteria behind London's Great Plague. The plague of 1665-1666 was the last major outbreak of bubonic plague in Britain, killing nearly a quarter of London's population. It's taken a year to confirm initial findings from a suspected Great Plague burial pit during excavation work on the Crossrail site at Liverpool Street. About 3,500 burials have been uncovered during excavation of the site. Testing in Germany confirmed the presence of DNA from the Yersinia pestis bacterium - the agent that causes bubonic plague - rather than another pathogen. Some authors have previously questioned the identity of pathogens behind historical outbreaks attributed to plague.

9-8-16 World’s loneliest snail lives in Hawaii but can’t get a date
World’s loneliest snail lives in Hawaii but can’t get a date
Only a single individual of a Hawaiian snail species is known, and most of archipelago's 50 other remaining snail species may go extinct soon. Just one individual of the species is known to exist. He or she – for snails are hermaphrodites – is 9 years old, has borne no offspring so far and lives quietly in the conservation lab of the University of Hawaii. The sole specimen of Achatinella apexfulva, a grey-white tree snail once abundant on the island of Oahu, is a sad symbol of biological freefall on Hawaii – sometimes dubbed the extinction capital of the world. A new study shows that most species of forest birds native to the island of Kauai, have crossed the tipping point, with multiple extinctions predicted in forthcoming decades. Some 750 species of terrestrial snail used to flourish in Hawaii, many of them with colourful ringed shells around 2 centimetres long. About 50 species, all listed as endangered, are left. “All are rapidly plunging to extinction. They will be gone in five to 10 years,” says Melissa Price at the University of Hawaii.

9-8-16 Smartphone study on weather and pain reveals early data
Smartphone study on weather and pain reveals early data
A study looking at how the weather affects chronic pain has released some early, surprising results. People across three UK cities reported less time in severe pain as the weather warmed up from February to April - but pain then increased again in June. Researchers are collecting the data via a smartphone app and hope to shed scientific light on the idea that we can "feel the weather in our bones". They presented a project update at the British Science Festival in Swansea. Eventually, the "Cloudy with a Chance of Pain" project will match up individual responses with local weather patterns, based on GPS data from the participants' phones. Because the app also asks people about their mood, this more detailed analysis will also reveal whether the weather has an affect beyond simply making people happier.

9-7-16 Primate labs give us an edge, says China’s brain project chief
Primate labs give us an edge, says China’s brain project chief
China’s new brain project is uniquely placed to deliver breakthroughs in neuroscience and artificial intelligence. It’s a huge undertaking, one of China’s top scientific priorities. It’s a 15-year project that the National People’s Congress approved in March. The project has three components, or “one body, two wings” as we say. The body is fundamental research into the neural basis of cognitive function. We’ll be using a wide variety of techniques, from profiling gene expression in neurons to brain imaging. The wings are applied science. One will focus on conditions such as depression and addiction, as well as neurodegenerative diseases of old age, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. In an ageing population – life expectancy in Shanghai is 82 and rising – it’s becoming urgent to resist the onset of degenerative diseases. We will also look at autism. This comes from the information technology and artificial intelligence community. They want to initiate projects that are inspired by the brain. There are two aspects to it. One is to use brain-machine interfaces to develop medical applications, such as neuroprosthetics. The idea is to use brain signals to control machines, to help people with serious injuries. Then there is the information technology part. Even though we don’t know how the brain works, there are many features about it that you can incorporate into artificial neural networks or AI systems to improve them. Those researching AI need brain-inspired computational methods, “neuromorphic” chips – microchips inspired by brain architecture – and devices that take lessons from the brain.

9-7-16 Your distinctive hairprint can identify you even when DNA fails
Your distinctive hairprint can identify you even when DNA fails
Analysing the proteins in hairs at a crime scene or an archaeological site could provide an alternative way to identify people when DNA sequencing doesn’t work. Analysing the proteins in hair could provide a new way to identify people when DNA sequencing fails. DNA profiling is often used to identify criminals or archaeological remains, but has its problems. While DNA can last for hundreds of thousands of years under some conditions, it breaks down quickly when exposed to water, light or heat. In 2009, this prompted the US National Research Council to issue a call for highly reliable forensic identification tests that can be used when DNA isn’t up to the job. Glendon Parker at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and his team have turned to hair, which we shed from our bodies and remains relatively well preserved over time. Hairs are made of proteins that are pieced together using genetic instructions in our DNA. When mutations occur in these genes, it can lead to slight changes in the sequence of amino acid molecules that make up these proteins. To use such changes to identify different people, the team have developed a technique for breaking down a hair’s proteins and separating out the resulting chunks to analyse their sequences. Comparing these results to a database of hair proteins can identify places where unexpected amino acids have been inserted.

9-7-16 Doing exercise may counteract some of alcohol’s deadly effects
Doing exercise may counteract some of alcohol’s deadly effects
Moderate weekly exercise seems to curb some of the effects of drinking, which is linked to heart disease, stroke and at least seven types of cancer. Regular exercise seems to cancel out some of the risk of death that is linked to alcohol. High alcohol intake is associated with fatal heart disease, stroke, and at least seven types of cancer. An analysis of people over the age of 40 has found that people who do the recommended amount of physical activity a week – 150 minutes of aerobic exercising – but drink more than the UK weekly recommended limit are less likely to die than people who drink the same amount but exercise less. “Our results provide an additional argument for the role of [physical activity] as a means to promote the health of the population, even in the presence of other less healthy behaviours,” say the team, led by Emmanuel Stamatakis at the University of Sydney, Australia. Since the study was initiated, the weekly recommended limit has been lowered from 35 units per week for women and 49 units for men down to only 14 units for both sexes.

9-7-16 Fish escapes from marine farms raise concerns about wildlife
Fish escapes from marine farms raise concerns about wildlife
Scientists worry that the runaways could harm native species. Farmed sea bass and other fish frequently escape from sea cages out into the ocean. Researchers worry that escapees, like this sea bass found off the coast of Tenerife in the Canary Islands, could threaten wild ecosystems. On the dock in Buenaventura, Colombia, the fisherman needed help identifying his catch. “I don’t have any clue what this is,” he said, holding a roughly 50-centimeter-long, grayish-brown fish. Gustavo Castellanos-Galindo, a fish ecologist, recalls the conversation from last October. “I said, ‘Well, this is a cobia, and it shouldn’t be here.’ ” The juvenile cobia had probably escaped from a farm off the coast of Ecuador that began operating earlier in 2015, Castellanos-Galindo and colleagues at the World Wildlife Fund in Cali, Colombia, reported in March in BioInvasions Records. Intruders had probably cut a net cage, perhaps intending to catch and sell the fish. Roughly 1,500 cobia fled, according to the aquaculture company Ocean Farm in Manta, Ecuador, which runs the farm. Cobia are fast-swimming predators that can migrate long distances and grow to about 2 meters long. The species is not native to the eastern Pacific, but since the escape, the fugitives have been spotted from Panama to Peru.

9-7-16 Get inside the collective mind of a genius superorganism
Get inside the collective mind of a genius superorganism
The amazing bridges and scaffolds that ants build using their own bodies can teach us a thing or two about robotics, engineering and cooperation. BARRO Colorado Island is tiny and sits in the middle of the Panama Canal. Here, below the forest dome, a diminutive predator scuttles over dead leaves and along narrow branches. Nearly blind, this Eciton army ant follows a trail of chemical signals laid down by her sisters. She pushes forward, relentlessly, in search of prey. Whatever she finds, she’ll bring back to the nest to share with her colony. But then she stops. The ground has dropped away in front of her. There is no scent trail, just empty space. Other members of the colony that were following begin to climb over her. Now, instead of walking in a line, they grip hold of one another using hooks on their feet, adding body after body to build an impromptu bridge. More and more join in, until they traverse the gap. And there they remain until the entire foraging party, numbering hundreds, has crossed. Then, as suddenly as it came into being, the bridge disperses, and the ants continue on their way. How do these creatures achieve such an impressive feat of coordination with very limited brainpower and no overview of the situation? That’s the question a group of researchers working on Barro Colorado Island set out to answer. Their efforts have revealed how ants use simple cues to organise themselves into complex living structures. It’s a wonder of nature, and it could offer insights for engineers, mathematicians and robot designers. What’s more, it might even shed some light on our own interactions.

9-7-16 Preteen tetrapods identified by bone scans
Preteen tetrapods identified by bone scans
Improved technique suggests large four-limbed Acanthostega were still juveniles. Water-dwelling Acanthostega may have been hanging out in schools of youngsters 360 million years ago. Better bone scanning of fossils offers a glimpse of preteen life some 360 million years ago. Improved radiation scanning techniques reveal accumulating growth zones in chunks of four fossil upper forelimb bones from salamander-shaped beasts called Acanthostega, scientists report online September 7 in Nature. Vertebrate bones typically show annual growth zones diminishing in size around the time of sexual maturity. But there’s no sign of that slowdown in these four individuals from East Greenland’s mass burial of Acanthostega, says study coauthor Sophie Sanchez of Uppsala University in Sweden. They were still juveniles.

9-7-16 Bacteria lurking in blood could be culprit in countless diseases
Bacteria lurking in blood could be culprit in countless diseases
By triggering inflammation, bacteria could be to blame for the clots and plaques linked to stroke, Alzheimer's disease, arthritis and many other conditions. Could microbes be to blame for a host of diseases we thought they had nothing to do with? Researchers have found that bacteria in the blood of healthy people may help trigger strokes and heart attacks, and perhaps also contribute to conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and arthritis. All of these disorders involve inflammation – a general activation of the immune system that normally serves to fight infection, but that can get out of control and cause damage. These conditions are also all linked to overactive blood clotting, excessive levels of iron in the blood, and sheets of abnormally folded proteins. No one knows why these traits are linked to so many diseases, but finding out could help us stop them. To see if bacteria could be playing a role in all this, Douglas Kell at the University of Manchester, UK, and Resia Pretorius, at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, have been looking at their ability to disrupt clotting. Blood has always been considered free from microbes, because bacteria don’t grow when it is put in a culture dish. But recent DNA sequencing methods reveal that each millilitre of blood in fact contains around 1000 bacterial cells. These bacteria are usually dormant. But they can be revived when iron becomes available in the blood, and begin secreting lipopolysaccharides (LPS) – molecules on their cell walls that are recognised by the immune system and stimulate inflammation.

9-7-16 Microbial matter comes out of the dark
Microbial matter comes out of the dark
Scientists identify bacteria that defy rules of biochemistry. Most microbes have stayed hidden from scientists, but new technologies are revealing unknown species of bacteria, some of which may hold medicinal promise. Few people today could recite the scientific accomplishments of 19th century physician Julius Petri. But almost everybody has heard of his dish. For more than a century, microbiologists have studied bacteria by isolating, growing and observing them in a petri dish. That palm-sized plate has revealed the microbial universe — but only a fraction, the easy stuff, the scientific equivalent of looking for keys under the lamppost. But in the light — that is, the greenhouse-like conditions of a laboratory — most bacteria won’t grow. By one estimate, a staggering 99 percent of all microbial species on Earth have yet to be discovered, remaining in the shadows. They’re known as “microbial dark matter,” a reference to astronomers’ description of the vast invisible matter in space that makes up most of the mass in the cosmos.

9-6-16 Blood samples from 9-year-olds can predict bipolar symptoms
Blood samples from 9-year-olds can predict bipolar symptoms
High inflammation levels at the age of 9 is closely linked to a higher risk of manic symptoms in adulthood, suggesting new targets for treating mood disorders. High levels of inflammation as a child may predict a higher risk of manic behaviour in later life, a finding that could lead to new ways of treating conditions like bipolar disorder. Hypomania involves spells of hyperactivity and is often a symptom of mood disorders, including bipolar disorder, seasonal affective disorder and some kinds of psychosis. People experiencing hypomania may take more risks, feel more confident and become impatient with others. After spells like this, they may “crash”, needing to sleep for long periods and sometimes remembering little about the previous few days. Earlier studies suggested a link between inflammation and mood disorders, prompting Joseph Hayes at University College London and his team to see if inflammation as a child might lead to mental health problems later. Analysing data from more than 1700 people, his team identified a significant link between high levels of a chemical involved in inflammation at age 9, and experiencing aspects of hypomania at age 22.

9-6-16 Dwarf lemurs don’t agree on sleep
Dwarf lemurs don’t agree on sleep
Fat-tailed species dozes during hibernation, but latest tests find different twist in relatives. Fat-tailed dwarf lemurs can sleep while they hibernate, but two related species first rouse themselves and then get shut-eye. Contrary to many adorable children’s stories, hibernation is so not sleeping. And most animals can’t do both at the same time. So what’s with Madagascar’s dwarf lemurs? The fat-tailed dwarf lemur slows its metabolism into true hibernation, and stays there even when brain monitoring shows it’s also sleeping. But two lemur cousins, scientists have just learned, don’t multitask. Like other animals, they have to rev their metabolisms out of hibernation if they want a nap. Hibernating animals, in the strictest sense, stop regulating body temperature, says Peter Klopfer, cofounder of the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, N.C. “They become totally cold-blooded, like snakes.” By this definition, bears don’t hibernate; they downregulate, dropping their body temperatures only modestly, even when winter den temperatures sink lower. And real hibernation lasts months, disqualifying short-termers such as subtropical hummingbirds. The darting fliers cease temperature regulation and go truly torpid at night. “You can pick them out of the trees,” Klopfer says.

9-6-16 California’s goby is actually two different fish
California’s goby is actually two different fish
Southern version gets its own name. California's southern tidewater goby has several physical and genetic differences that distinguish it from the northern tidewater goby. Both are endangered. It’s official: The southern tidewater goby is a thing. And it’s chubbier and nubbier than its northern cousin. Endangered tidewater gobies live in California’s seaside lagoons. Ranging roughly the entire length of the state, the fish used to be considered one species. But a new study confirms that gobies living in Northern and Southern California are physically different, and now the southern swimmer has its own name: Eucyclogobius kristinae. The northern goby, E. newberryi, is sleeker and longer than its southern counterpart. The southern fish has more girth and more nubby sensory organs exposed atop its head, researchers report July 27 in PLOS ONE.

9-6-16 Pollution particles 'get into brain'
Pollution particles 'get into brain'
Tiny particles of pollution have been discovered inside samples of brain tissue, according to new research. Suspected of toxicity, the particles of iron oxide could conceivably contribute to diseases like Alzheimer's - though evidence for this is lacking. The finding - described as "dreadfully shocking" by the researchers - raises a host of new questions about the health risks of air pollution. Many studies have focused on the impact of dirty air on the lungs and heart. Now this new research provides the first evidence that minute particles of what is called magnetite, which can be derived from pollution, can find their way into the brain. Earlier this year the World Health Organisation warned that air pollution was leading to as many as three million premature deaths every year.

9-5-16 Air pollution is sending tiny magnetic particles into your brain
Air pollution is sending tiny magnetic particles into your brain
Iron nanoparticles in our brains may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease and we finally know where they come from – air pollution from traffic fumes. Traffic fumes go to your head. Tiny specks of metal in exhaust gases seem to fly up our noses and travel into our brains, where they may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. Iron nanoparticles were already known to be present in the brain – but they were thought to come from the iron naturally found in our bodies, derived from food. Now a closer look at their structure suggests the particles mostly come from air pollution sources, like traffic fumes and coal burning. The findings are a smoking gun, says Barbara Maher of Lancaster University in the UK. Iron is present harmlessly in our bodies in different forms, as it is part of many biological molecules. But the form known as magnetite, or iron oxide, which is highly reactive and magnetic, has been implicated in Alzheimer’s disease.

9-5-16 Top tips to avoid getting metal pollution in your brain
Top tips to avoid getting metal pollution in your brain
After discovering potentially harmful metal particles in our brains seem to come from traffic fumes, a researcher has changed how she travels to avoid them. Barbara Maher at Lancaster University in the UK has found that tiny particles of iron oxide in our brains probably come from the traffic fumes we breathe. These magnetic particles have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, and are thought to generate reactive compounds that can kill nerve cells. We have known for some time that there are magnetite particles in our brains, but until now, it was thought that they came from natural sources. Maher’s team found that the particles are mostly round in shape – a structure that suggests they form when fuel is burned, and may then get into the nerves in our noses when we breathe fumes in. “Because magnetite is known to be so toxic to the brain, it makes you see the atmosphere you’re breathing in in a different light,” says Maher. She has now made changes to her lifestyle to avoid breathing in too many nanoparticles. “These findings are sufficiently alarming for me to alter my behaviour,” she says. “If I’m walking in a really busy street, I walk as far from the kerbside as I can. The concentration of particulate matter drops even across the pavement’s width.”

9-5-16 Planet smash-up 'brought carbon to Earth'
Planet smash-up 'brought carbon to Earth'
Much of Earth's life-giving carbon could have been delivered in a planetary collision about 4.4 billion years ago, a theory suggests. Carbon is the key ingredient for all life on our planet. But how Earth acquired its "volatile elements" - which have low boiling points - such as carbon and sulphur remains a subject of some debate. A team now argues that a collision between Earth and an embryonic planet like Mercury could provide the answer. The team suggests Earth merged with a Mercury-like protoplanet. Details of the work appear in the journal Nature Geoscience.

9-5-16 Ants trapped in nuclear bunker are developing their own society
Ants trapped in nuclear bunker are developing their own society
With new recruits that keep raining in from up above, this unique society has no queen, and the ants work in pitch darkness with no obvious access to food. Wood ants (Formica polyctena) typically build a cosy mound nest on the forest floor. They seek out the sugary secretions of aphids living on trees and supplement their diet with insects. Now, scientists have uncovered a population of wood ants that has sustained for years without food and light inside a bunker where temperatures are constantly low. The ant population was discovered in 2013 by a group of volunteers counting bats overwintering in the bunker, which is part of an abandoned Soviet nuclear base near Templewo in western Poland. Later, Wojciech Czechowski at the Museum and Institute of Zoology in Warsaw, Poland, and his colleagues, entered the bunker to study the ants more closely. They noticed that the wood ants had built a nest on the terracotta floor of the bunker – right below a ventilation pipe. Looking up through the five-metre-long pipe, they realised where the bunker ants come from. A 60-centimetre-high wood ant nest sits on the forest floor directly on top of the ventilation pipe outlet. But because the metal cap over the ventilation pipe has rusted, ants can fall through from time to time. It’s a one-way journey for any ant that falls into the bunker. They can scale its 2.3-metre-high walls but Czechowski and his colleagues realised that – for some reason – the ants never walk across the bunker ceiling and so are unable to reach the ventilation pipe to make it back home.

9-5-16 Antidepressant makes bones weaker by slowing down new growth
Antidepressant makes bones weaker by slowing down new growth
Some antidepressants have been linked to an increased risk of bone fractures. It now seems that fluoxetine – the compound in Prozac – depletes bones over time. Antidepressants may be bad for your bones. People who take some selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) have been found to have a higher risk of fractures, but it wasn’t clear whether this was due to the drug or their depression. “It’s a puzzling question,” says Patricia Ducy at Columbia University, New York. But her team have now found that giving mice fluoxetine – the active ingredient in Prozac – for six weeks causes them to lose bone mass. The team identified a two-stage process by measuring bones, blood and gene activity. During the first three weeks, bones grew stronger as the fluoxetine impaired osteoclasts, cells that usually deplete bone tissue. But by six weeks, the higher levels of serotonin prompted by the drug disrupted the ability of the hypothalamus region of the brain to promote bone growth. “We see bone gain, but it’s not long-lasting, and is rapidly overwhelmed by the negative effects,” says Ducy.

9-5-16 Skye's Storr Lochs Monster fossil unveiled in Edinburgh
Skye's Storr Lochs Monster fossil unveiled in Edinburgh
The fossilised skeleton of a 170 million-year-old Jurassic predator discovered on the Isle of Skye has been unveiled in Edinburgh. Named the Storr Lochs Monster, the fossil of the sea-living reptile was found in 1966. Fifty years on from the find, scientists from the University of Edinburgh and National Museums Scotland are preparing a detailed study of it. It has been identified as being from a family of animals called ichthyosaurs. The fossilised skeleton will be analysed by palaeontologists. The ancient reptiles grew to about 4m (13ft) in length and had long, pointed heads filled with hundreds of cone-shaped teeth, which they used to feed on fish and squid. The Storr Lochs Monster is the most complete skeleton of a sea-living reptile from the "Age of Dinosaurs" that has ever been found in Scotland, the researchers said. Skye is one of the few places in the world where fossils from the Middle Jurassic Period can be found. The period saw the appearance of some of the first mammals, birds and reptiles such as snakes.

9-5-16 Cognitive scientist puts profanity in its place
Cognitive scientist puts profanity in its place
Swearing provides insights into human thought, language. A cognitive scientist’s new book examines the nature of profanity and the implications of obscene words for understanding human brains and minds. What the F by Benjamin K. Bergen. Few of the expletives discussed in cognitive scientist Benjamin Bergen’s new book can be spelled out in this review. But Bergen argues, in a bluntly engaging way, that the largely secret science of swearing reveals much about who we are.

9-2-16 Stonefly lays eggs or has live births depending on the season
Stonefly lays eggs or has live births depending on the season
Warmer temperatures in the autumn may help the insect embryos develop faster, leading to live births. An autumn birthday means one of these rare aquatic insects was born live; but a spring birthday bash means it probably hatched from an egg. The insect, a species of stonefly called Capnia lacustra, is one of 10 invertebrate species found only on the bed of Lake Tahoe – which lies on the border between California and Nevada. And it is one of a kind among stoneflies. Most species in this group live in streams or rivers as juveniles, before emerging into the air as winged adults to mate and lay eggs. C. lacustra has a different strategy: it’s the only known species of stonefly that spends its entire life under water, never developing wings. Two other types of stonefly that live in Russia’s Lake Baikal also remain wingless – but even they crawl to shore and leave the water to lay their eggs, says Annie Caires at the University of Nevada, Reno. “There are so many amazing organisms at the bottom of these deep lakes,” she says.

9-2-16 People born underweight do less exercise throughout their lives
People born underweight do less exercise throughout their lives
Babies who weigh less than 2.5 kilograms at birth are less likely to do well at school sports, and do less regular exercise when they become adults. Being born a lighter weight than average affects you for the rest of your life. A study tracking almost 3000 people since birth has found that underweight babies are more likely to shun sport at school and exercise as adults. Low birth weight has long been linked with obesity and heart disease in later life, but the reasons for this are unclear. Now Ahmed Elhakeem of University College London and his team have found that being born underweight is associated with lower physical activity throughout a person’s life. “This is important, because regular physical activity in leisure time provides many health benefits,” says Elhakeem. “Our findings suggest that those with low birth weight might need extra support to exercise and realise these benefits.”

9-2-16 There is now a sixth taste – and it explains why we love carbs
There is now a sixth taste – and it explains why we love carbs
Sweet, salty, bitter, sour, umami – and “starchy”? It seems we can sense bread-like flavours associated with complex carbohydrates as a taste in their own right. As any weight-watcher knows, carb cravings can be hard to resist. Now there’s evidence that carbohydrate-rich foods may elicit a unique taste too, suggesting that “starchy” could be a flavour in its own right. It has long been thought that our tongues register a small number of primary tastes: salty, sweet, sour and bitter. Umami – the savoury taste often associated with monosodium glutamate – was added to this list seven years ago, but there’s been no change since then. However, this list misses a major component of our diets, says Juyun Lim at Oregon State University in Corvallis. “Every culture has a major source of complex carbohydrate. The idea that we can’t taste what we’re eating doesn’t make sense,” she says.

9-2-16 Superfast evolution could save Tasmanian devils from extinction
Superfast evolution could save Tasmanian devils from extinction
Just a few years ago, the iconic marsupial looked to be on the fast road to extinction – but rapid evolution might rescue it. No time to muck around. Extreme evolutionary pressures seem to have caused Tasmanian devils to develop resistance to a deadly cancer in just a few generations. Devil facial tumour disease is a transmissible cancer that was first observed in Tasmanian devils in 1996. They usually contract the disease by biting a tumour on an infected animal. Initially, the fatality rate was reportedly almost 100 per cent. This high mortality rate has seen the total devil population decline by 80 per cent – and locally the figure can touch 95 per cent. This led to fears of rapid extinction, but some devil populations seem to be doing better than disease models would predict.

9-2-16 Nanobots could swarm like bats to hunt out brain tumours
Nanobots could swarm like bats to hunt out brain tumours
Simulations suggest that bat signals could be used to direct nanobots through the brain in search of neuron damage and signs of cancer. Investigating the deepest regions of a person’s brain is no easy task. Tiny robots crawling through it could help. It’s a tantalising idea, but one problem is how to direct such nanobots on their travels. One way to do this would be to program them to search like bats hunting for prey, says a team who have created a computer simulation of this, and hope to trial their method in people in a couple of years. Engineers around the world are working on various designs of nanobot, particularly ones that could release medicines inside the body. Panagiotis Katrakazas at the National Technical University of Athens, Greece, is more interested using them to detect brain damage, which can occur deep in the brain and be difficult to see in brain scans. “The idea would be to inject nanobots to pinpoint the exact location of damage, which could then be targeted with medicine or surgery,” Katrakazas says. His team are working to develop nanobots that crawl along neurons, pinching them to see if they are healthy or not – healthy ones respond with an electrical signal, but damaged ones do not, he says.

9-1-16 Laser made from human blood could help hunt down tumours
Laser made from human blood could help hunt down tumours
A special dye used in medical imaging cannot emit laser light by itself, but it will if it binds to proteins found in blood. That warm glow inside could be more than a metaphor. Researchers are working on a laser made out of blood that would emit infrared light, allowing doctors to hunt down tumours. The word “laser” conjures up images of complex electronics, but lasers can actually be made from a variety of materials, including living cells and jelly. To build a laser, all you need is an initial source of light, a material that amplifies it, and a reflective cavity. Xudong Fan at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and his colleagues are using a dye called indocyanine green (ICG) for their blood laser. It’s fluorescent in near-infrared light and is already injected into the bloodstream for use in medical imaging. Fan says turning it into a laser will make it glow much brighter.

9-1-16 Bacterial weaponry that causes stillbirth revealed
Bacterial weaponry that causes stillbirth revealed
Strep B emits tiny balloons containing toxic proteins. Toxic balloons bud from Strep B. A new study in pregnant mice shows these fluid-filled sacs can cause inflammation, premature delivery and stillbirth. In pregnant women, a normally benign bacterium emits tiny toxic balloons that can cause premature labor and stillbirth, a new study finds. Called Group B Streptococcus, the bacterium lives in the vaginas of 20 to 30 percent of pregnant women worldwide. Strep B doesn’t cause problems in the lower genital tract. But in pregnant mice, Strep B secretes protein-filled balloons that can travel up into the uterus. Those balloons cause inflammation and weaken the amniotic sac, researchers from India report September 1 in PLOS Pathogens.

9-1-16 Superagers with amazing memories have shrink-resistant brains
Superagers with amazing memories have shrink-resistant brains
A small number of people over the age of 80 retain a good memory, which seems to be linked to their brains shrinking much less as they age. As we get older we get wiser, or so they say. But most other functions go downhill, particularly memory. However, some “superagers” retain a good memory as they age, and scans now reveal that their brains shrink less than average. To qualify as a superager, someone must be over the age of 80 but perform as well as 55-year-olds in memory tests. When asked to recall a list of 15 words 15 minutes after hearing them, the average 80-year-old remembers about five, while superagers remember around nine. Emily Rogalski and her colleagues at Northwestern University in Chicago are now trying to figure out how this small subset of elderly people manages to maintain mental agility. By screening more than a thousand people who thought they had an exceptional memory, the team has identified and recruited 62 superagers to study. One man was so thrilled to find out that he is a superager that he now wears a “superager” cape his friend made him.

9-1-16 Where will we find the first telltale signs of the Anthropocene?
Where will we find the first telltale signs of the Anthropocene?
The Anthropocene is the proposed geological period dominated by human influence on the environment. Now the task is to find one spot that bears its hallmarks. Dateline, January 1950. Isaac Asimov publishes Pebble in the Sky, his first science-fiction novel. George Orwell dies. And Earth enters a brand new epoch – according to some geologists. Now the idea of the Anthropocene – the period in which human activity profoundly shapes the environment – has taken an important step closer to general acceptance. A working group of scientists has been mulling over the subject for seven years. This week 30 of its 35 members recommended adding the Anthropocene to our standard geological timescale. The ultimate decision rests with the International Commission on Stratigraphy. If the ICS does accept the recommendation, the real work will begin. Somewhere near the top of the to-do list is one burning question: where in the world gives us the best view of the dawn of the Anthropocene?

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