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2019 Science Stats

116 Evolution News Articles
for December 2016
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12-30-16 Ants craft tiny sponges to dip into honey and carry it home
Ants craft tiny sponges to dip into honey and carry it home
Ants may be smarter than we give them credit for. Tool use is seen as something brainy primates and birds do, but even the humble ant can choose the right tool for the job. István Maák at the University of Szeged in Hungary and his team offered two species of funnel ants liquids containing water and honey along with a range of tools that might help them carry this food to their nests. The ants experimented with the tools and chose those that were easiest to handle and could soak up plenty of liquid, such as bits of sponge or paper, despite them not being found in the insects’ natural environment. This suggests that ants can take into account the properties of both the tool and the liquid they are transporting. It also indicates they can learn to use new tools – even without big brains. Some ant species are known to use tools, such as mud or sand grains, to collect and transport liquid to their nests. But this is the first time they are shown to select the most suitable ones, says team member Patrizia d’Ettorre from the University of Paris-North, France. (Webmaster's comment: So much for tool use being unique to man, birds, chimps, or other higher animals. It obviously goes across the spectrum of living creatures.)

12-30-16 How we evolved from drunken monkeys to boozy humans
How we evolved from drunken monkeys to boozy humans
Drinking and producing alcohol are among the most universal of human behaviors. On the face of it, there is no obvious connection between today's casual (or excessive) drinking of alcohol, and the natural ecology of monkeys, apes, and other primates living in tropical forests. So why do we have such an instinct for drink? Could the most commonly used of all psychoactive substances occur in natural environments, and could our ancestors really have been exposed to alcohol on a regular basis? The "drunken monkey" hypothesis proposes that alcohol, and primarily the ethanol molecule, is routinely consumed by all animals that eat fruits and nectar. As first worked out by Louis Pasteur in the 19th century, fermentation is a natural process deriving from the metabolic action of yeasts on sugar molecules. The molecules produce alcohol to kill off their bacterial competitors, and the booze accumulates at low concentrations within fruits and nectar. It also wafts into the environment, producing a downwind vapor trail that reliably indicates the presence of fruits and sugars. Any animal that can sense and follow this odor upwind will come to the source of ethanol and, of course, the sugars within the fruit. In tropical forests, ripe fruit occurs patchily, so any ability to find it over long distances is beneficial.

12-29-16 Why Americans are dying younger
Why Americans are dying younger
out a year ago, the husband-and-wife team of Anne Case and Angus Deaton published some alarming numbers: Unlike citizens of just about every other wealthy, advanced country, and most other American subgroups, middle-aged white Americans have not seen reductions in their mortality between 1999 and 2013, and had by many metrics been getting sicker and sicker. It was a shocking finding that garnered numerous headlines, the sort of thing that just isn't supposed to happen in a rich, developed country, let alone the richest developed country. And it lent credence to what some public-health researchers and other societal observers had been saying for a while: The United States likes to view itself as a singular force of prosperity and opportunity, but by many public-health metrics — including infant mortality and preventable deaths and a variety of others — it doesn't look like a top-tier world power. Recently, the National Center for Health Statistics released a report that should further puncture the myth of American superiority when it comes to health outcomes — and which should set alarm bells loudly clanging for anyone worried about how the country treats its most vulnerable residents. The report found that life expectancy in the United States dropped from 78.9 in 2014 to 78.8 in 2015, the first drop in life expectancy since 1993. (For men, the decline was from 76.5 to 76.3; for women, from 81.3 to 81.2.)

12-29-16 Invasive parakeets muscle in on native bird’s nests in Israel
Invasive parakeets muscle in on native bird’s nests in Israel
There just aren’t enough palm tree homes to go around. Invasive ring-necked parakeets have prompted a rapid decline in Israel’s native hoopoe population, probably because of their aggressive takeover of nesting cavities in palm trees. Reuven Yosef at Ben Gurion University, Israel, and colleagues followed densities of hoopoes in four palmeries in rural areas over a period of 10 years. In the two that were invaded by parakeets in 2000 and 2006, the team found a significant decline in hoopoe population density. By contrast, in the two palmeries without parakeets the hoopoe density remained unchanged. These invasive parakeets usually nest in existing tree cavities. But in Israel they were observed digging new cavities, which suggests there is a lack of nesting sites. Parakeets start breeding earlier in the season than hoopoes do, and may use up all nesting sites before hoopoes can get to them, the team says.

12-27-16 There are more than 1 million viruses that we know absolutely nothing about
There are more than 1 million viruses that we know absolutely nothing about
One by one, the viruses have slipped from their hiding places in nature to threaten global populations — SARS, MERS, Zika. In each case, scientists have scrambled to identify the viruses and to develop vaccines or drugs to stop their spread. After each crisis, the assessment has been the same: Countermeasures were not ready in time to help in the containment effort. "Always too late," said Jonna Mazet, a scientist at the University of California, Davis, who is keen to break the bugs' winning streak. "We need to think about something different." Mazet is a key player in an ambitious endeavor called the Global Virome Project, which has proposed cataloguing nearly all of the unknown viruses lurking in nature around the world. In a nutshell, Mazet and other experts want to search out mystery threats before they find us. The idea has been around for a while and is supported by individual scientists and organizations including the U.S. Agency for International Development, the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, HealthMap, ProMED, and the epidemic risk firm Metabiota.

12-26-16 Ash tree genome sequenced for first time
Ash tree genome sequenced for first time
The genome of the common ash (Fraxinus excelsior) has been sequenced for the first time - an important step in the battle against ash dieback disease. Researchers, writing in Nature, found UK ash trees seemed to have more tolerance than Danish trees, which were devastated by the fungal pathogen. The disease reached the UK's wider environment in October 2012. However, the scientists warned that the species faced another serious threat - the emerald ash borer insect. "We sequenced an ash genome for the first time and... compared it to other plant genomes and we found that a quarter of the genes were unique," explained co-author Richard Buggs from the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at the Queen Mary University of London. "This really underlined why we needed to do the project, because there is so much of the ash that seems to be unique to the [species]."

12-23-16 Baby starfish whip up whirlpools to snag a meal
Baby starfish whip up whirlpools to snag a meal
Swirling whirlpools are created by a starfish larva, shown in this time-lapse image. These vortices provide the larva with a conveyor belt of food, sucking in algae. Small beads suspended in water create trails showing fluid flow. A baby starfish scoops up snacks by spinning miniature whirlpools. These vortices catch tasty algae and draw them close so the larva can slurp them up, scientists from Stanford University report December 19 in Nature Physics. Before starfish take on their familiar shape, they freely swim ocean waters as millimeter-sized larvae. To swim around on the hunt for food, the larvae paddle the water with hairlike appendages called cilia. But, the scientists found, starfish larvae also adjust the orientation of these cilia to fine-tune their food-grabbing vortices.

12-23-16 Some young dinosaurs shed teeth, say experts
Some young dinosaurs shed teeth, say experts
Some dinosaurs lost their teeth as they grew up, according to fossil evidence. The hatchlings ate meat with their teeth, then used beaks to peck at plants as adults, say scientists. The discovery is a surprise and has not been seen in any other reptile. Limusaurus inextricabilis lived in China around 150 million years ago. The first fossilised remains of the animal were discovered about a decade ago. "Initially, we believed that we found two different ceratosaurian dinosaurs from the Wucaiwan area, one toothed and the other toothless, and we even started to describe them separately," said Shuo Wang of Capital Normal University in Beijing, China, who led the research. The palaeontologists then realised that the dinosaurs looked remarkably similar, except for the presence of teeth. They found that the dinosaur lost its teeth over time, making it the first known reptile to do this. (Webmaster's comment: DINOSAURS WERE NOT REPTILES. Why would anyone expect them to have the same characteristics as reptiles.)

12-22-16 Ancient enzymes adapted to a cooler Earth to keep life’s chemical reactions going
Ancient enzymes adapted to a cooler Earth to keep life’s chemical reactions going
Re-creating 3-billion-year genetic history of adenylate kinase reveals evolutionary path. Scientists reconstructed three billion years of genetic history for the adenylate kinase enzyme (shown here bound to another molecule) to see how ancient enzymes might have adapted to a cooler Earth. Like lifelong Floridians dropped into a Wisconsin winter, enzymes accustomed to warmth don’t always fare well in colder climes. But ancient heat-loving enzymes forced to adapt to a cooling Earth managed to swap out parts to keep chemical reactions going, scientists report online December 22 in Science. By reconstructing enzymes as they might have looked billions of years ago, the research “helps to explain the natural evolutionary history of life on this planet,” says Yousif Shamoo, a biochemist at Rice University in Houston who wasn’t part of the study. And the findings question the idea that enzymes must sacrifice their stability to become more active.

12-22-16 Ebola vaccine proves effective, final trial results show
Ebola vaccine proves effective, final trial results show
An Ebola vaccine tested in West Africa is stored at –80° C in a canister that researchers can take out into the field. More than 5,000 people in Guinea received the vaccine in a trial to gauge its efficacy. An experimental Ebola vaccine has triumphed in West Africa. Of 5,837 people in Guinea who received a single shot of the vaccine, rVSV-ZEBOV, in the shoulder, none became infected with the virus 10 to 84 days after vaccination. That’s “100% protection,” researchers report December 22 in the Lancet. World Health Organization researcher Ana Maria Henao-Restrepo and colleagues tested a “ring vaccination” approach, by immediately vaccinating family members and other contacts of people infected with Ebola. This strategy seemed to staunch the virus’s spread. Among 4,507 people never vaccinated or who got a delayed vaccine, 23 contracted Ebola. The findings echo preliminary results reported in 2015, and offer a promising line of defense for future outbreaks. But scientists still do not know how long-lasting the vaccine’s protection would be.

12-21-16 Motherhood might actually improve memory
Motherhood might actually improve memory
Pregnancy and parenthood can reshape mothers’ brains. Those changes might be a good thing, some research suggests. You may have read the news this week that pregnancy shrinks a mother’s brain. As a mom-to-be’s midsection balloons, areas of her cerebral cortex wither, scientists reported online December 19 in Nature Neuroscience. Yes, that sounds bad. But don’t fret. As I learned in reporting that story, a smaller brain can be more efficient and specialized. In fact, post-pregnancy brains could be considered evolutionary works of art, perfectly sculpted to better respond to their babies. The researchers found that the brain regions most changed during pregnancy are the ones that fire up when mothers see pictures of their babies. Pregnancy (and possibly childbirth) may make these neural networks sleeker and stronger, helping moms to tune in to their infants.

12-21-16 New blood tests can detect prions
New blood tests can detect prions
Screening could prevent spread of infectious proteins through transfusions. A technique called protein misfolding cyclic amplification can be used to test blood for infectious, disease-causing proteins called prions. The test takes advantage of prions' ability to convert a normal brain protein into the prion form. A new blood test can detect even tiny amounts of infectious proteins called prions, two new studies show. Incurable prion diseases, such as mad cow disease (BSE) in cattle and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) in people, result from a normal brain protein called PrP twisting into a disease-causing “prion” shape that kills nerve cells in the brain. As many as 30,000 people in the United Kingdom may be carriers of prions that cause vCJD, presumably picked up by eating BSE-tainted beef. Health officials worry infected people could unwittingly pass prions to others through blood transfusions. Four such cases have already been recorded. But until now, there has been no way to screen blood for the infectious proteins.

12-21-16 Force-detecting protein senses when lungs fill with air
Force-detecting protein senses when lungs fill with air
Mouse study reveals mechanical sensor that helps regulate breathing. Nerve endings in the lungs send signals — triggered by force-detecting proteins — to the brain and spinal cord that help regulate breathing. When mice lack these proteins in particular clusters of nerves, the mice either die within 24 hours of birth or have breathing problems as adults. Scientists investigating what keeps lungs from overinflating can quit holding their breath. Experiments in mice have identified a protein that senses when the lungs are full of air. This protein helps regulate breathing in adult mice and gets breathing going in newborn mice, researchers report online December 21 in Nature. If the protein plays a similar role in people — and a few studies suggest that it does — exploring its activity could help explain disorders such as sleep apnea or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

12-20-16 Brain's party noise filter revealed by recordings
Brain's party noise filter revealed by recordings
Direct recordings have revealed what is happening in our brains as we make sense of speech in a noisy room. Focusing on one conversation in a loud, distracting environment is called "the cocktail party effect". It is a common festive phenomenon and of interest to researchers seeking to improve speech recognition technology. Neuroscientists recorded from people's brains during a test that recreated the moment when unintelligible speech suddenly makes sense. A team measured people's brain activity as the words of a previously unintelligible sentence suddenly became clear when a subject was told the meaning of the "garbled speech".

12-20-16 For some salamanders, finding a mate is a marathon
For some salamanders, finding a mate is a marathon
Treadmill, genetic tests show amphibians travel several kilometers to reproduce. A small-mouthed salamander can travel up to 14 kilometers to reproduce, unlike its clonally reproducing kin. When looking for love, some small-mouthed salamanders can really go the distance. These intrepid amphibians (Ambystoma texanum) will risk death and dehydration to travel almost nine kilometers on average and as far as 14 to find a mate, researchers report December 20 in Functional Ecology. But all-female populations of a closely related group of salamanders that reproduce by cloning can’t go nearly as far. Scientists tested the amphibians’ endurance on tiny treadmills. Then the team analyzed genetic differences between salamanders in patches of Ohio wetlands to see how far the amphibians might roam in the wild. Unisexual salamanders could only go a quarter of the treadmill distance that the small-mouthed salamanders could. And in the wild, they only dispersed about half as far from the pools where they were born.

12-20-16 Baby turtles leave behind fleeting oases on beach dune deserts
Baby turtles leave behind fleeting oases on beach dune deserts
Organic nutrients from turtle eggs form a seasonal feast for tiny life forms living in the deserts of tropical sandy dunes. Baby turtles that fail to make it to the sea help fuel life on otherwise deserted sandy beaches in the tropics. The remains of turtle eggs that have been attacked by predators lead to a short pulse of life in what are normally deserts, boosting the abundance of small invertebrates fourfold, a study has found. These bursts peak seven days after the broken eggs become available and are all but gone in just 20 days. “This discovery affirms the role of sandy beaches as unique ecosystems,” says Ronel Nel at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa, whose team studied the Maputaland beaches in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, in Kwa-Zulu-Natal. “They are not deserts, as many seem to think.” Traditionally, we think of beaches being important to the fate of turtles, but these findings highlight the importance of turtles to beaches, she says. Her team sampled sand in naturally predated nests and set up experiments to track changes in microscopic life, known as meiofauna, as compared with control sites nearby that didn’t have broken eggs. The boost in meiofauna was especially pronounced in the abundance of nematode worms. Their densities increased from a single worm to 10,000 worms per cubic centimetre in just 10 days. Other creatures that benefited included mites, springtails and insect larvae.

12-20-16 Prostate cancer laser treatment 'truly transformative'
Prostate cancer laser treatment 'truly transformative'
Surgeons have described a new treatment for early stage prostate cancer as "truly transformative". to eliminate tumours, but without causing severe side effects. Trials on 413 men - published in The Lancet Oncology - showed nearly half of them had no remaining trace of cancer. Lifelong impotence and incontinence are often the price of treating prostate cancer with surgery or radiotherapy. Up to nine-in-10 patients develop erectile problems and up to a fifth struggle to control their bladders. That is why many men with an early stage tumour choose to "wait and see" and have treatment only when it starts growing aggressively. "This changes everything," said Prof Mark Emberton, who tested the technique at University College London.

12-19-16 Becoming a mother may change the brain to read baby’s mind
Becoming a mother may change the brain to read baby’s mind
Scans before and after pregnancy have revealed structural changes in areas of the brain important for empathy - changes not seen in new dads. New mums experience many changes – including dramatic ones in the brain, as scans taken before and after pregnancy have revealed. Elseline Hoekzema at Leiden University in the Netherlands and her team compared brain scans of 25 first-time mothers with those of first-time fathers, plus childless men and women. After having a baby, the mums showed shrinking in some areas of the brain, changes not seen in any of the other groups. Most of the affected areas were in regions of the cerebral cortex that are particularly important for understanding others’ intentions and emotions. These same areas became active in MRI scans when mothers viewed pictures of their own babies, but not when shown photos of other people’s babies, suggesting these regions are specifically involved in mother-infant bonding. In individuals, the scale of the changes in brain areas related to empathy also tallied with how well the mothers said they had bonded with their babies.

12-19-16 Pregnancy linked to long-term changes in mom’s brain
Pregnancy linked to long-term changes in mom’s brain
Loss of gray matter may aid in caring for baby. After pregnancy, women had less gray matter volume in regions of the brain, a change thought to reflect neural refinement. Many of these brain areas were active when mothers saw pictures of their babies. Pregnancy changes nearly everything about an expectant mother’s life. That includes her brain. Pregnancy selectively shrinks gray matter to make a mom’s brain more responsive to her baby, and those changes last for years, scientists report online December 19 in Nature Neuroscience. “This study, coupled with others, suggests that a women’s reproductive history can have long-lasting, possibly permanent changes to her brain health,” says neuroscientist Liisa Galea of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who was not involved in the study.

12-19-16 Prehistoric porridge? First pots for plant cooking found
Prehistoric porridge? First pots for plant cooking found
Prehistoric people may have cooked wild grains and plants in pots as early as 10,000 years ago, according to new evidence. Scientists say the food was "a kind of porridge", acting as the staple diet when there was no meat from hunting. The pottery fragments were found at two sites in the Libyan Sahara, which was then green and fertile. The ability to prepare plants and grains in pots would have been a big advance at the time. Dr Julie Dunne, of the University of Bristol, said: "This is the first direct evidence of plant processing globally, and, remarkably, shows that these early North African hunter-gatherers consumed many different types of plants, including grains/seeds, leafy plants and aquatic plants."

12-16-16 Promising cancer treatment
Promising cancer treatment
The main problem with chemotherapy and other traditional forms of cancer treatment is that they destroy healthy cells as well as tumors. But a new type of immunotherapy, known as adoptive T-cell therapy, could be a potential game changer. The process involves extracting disease-fighting T-cells from patients, genetically modifying them to enhance their cancer-fighting abilities, and reintroducing them back into the patient’s body. In an early study, more than 90 percent of the terminally ill blood cancer patients given the treatment went into remission. While results haven’t yet been peer-reviewed, project leader Stanley Riddell describes them as “unprecedented in medicine.”

12-16-16 Children are a great idea for up to 12 months
Children are a great idea for up to 12 months
Parental bliss, after Paris School of Economics researchers found that having children provided only a temporary boost to a person’s overall happiness. “Children are a great idea,” one researcher noted, “for up to 12 months.”

12-16-16 Some of the things they said were good for us...
Some of the things they said were good for us...
Sex may keep older people mentally sharp. In a British study of men and women ages 50 to 89, the sexually active participants scored higher in memory tests and other cognitive measures than those who got busy less often. Physical intimacy increases levels of dopamine and oxytocin in the brain; researchers speculate that these “feel-good” hormones could improve neural connections, helping to ward off age-related mental decline. “What we need to clarify now,” says study leader Hayley Wright, “is whether engaging in sexual activity leads to better cognitive function, or whether people who have higher cognitive functioning are those who tend to remain sexually active.”

12-16-16 The dangerous health consequences of pessimism
The dangerous health consequences of pessimism
As if being a stodgy pessimist already isn't bad enough for your social life, now it turns out that it may even be bad for your heart too. In a recent issue of BMC Public Health, a team of Finnish researchers sifted through data from a well-preserved, long-running study of middle-and senior-aged Finns and came across an intuitive but rarely shown pattern: Those who considered themselves more pessimistic were more likely to die of heart disease years down the road, but only if they were men. All in all, the team estimated that the most pessimistic men — defined as having scored in the top quarter percentile of a test that measured pessimism at the study's start — were twice as likely to die of heart disease than the least pessimistic, after accounting for other known risk factors. Interestingly enough, though, the pessimism effect didn't extend to women, and there wasn't a similar effect for optimism; particularly hopeful people weren’t any more or less likely to die of heart woes than anyone else.

12-16-16 Some of the things we were told to avoid
Some of the things we were told to avoid
Insomnia may be caused by reduced integrity in nerve cells that connect different parts of the brain, a Chinese study found. Scans of insomniacs’ brains showed that abnormalities in the so-called white matter were most significant in regions involved with sleep and alertness, as well as learning, memory, and emotion. It isn’t yet clear whether these weaker neural connections are the cause of the insomnia or the result of chronic sleep deprivation, but radiologist Max Wintermark says the study takes us “a step closer to a potential treatment.”

12-16-16 Cells snack on nanowires
Cells snack on nanowires
Phagocytosis draws in silicon strands, opening possible route to bioelectronics. A membrane tendril stretches from a human cell to wrap around a silicon nanowire — the start of phagocytosis, scanning electron microscopy images suggest. Human cells can snack on silicon. Cells grown in the lab devour nano-sized wires of silicon through an engulfing process known as phagocytosis, scientists report December 16 in Science Advances. Silicon-infused cells could merge electronics with biology, says John Zimmerman, a biophysicist now at Harvard University. “It’s still very early days,” he adds, but “the idea is to get traditional electronic devices working inside of cells.” Such hybrid devices could one day help control cellular behavior, or even replace electronics used for deep brain stimulation, he says.

12-16-16 New footprint finds suggest range of body sizes for Lucy’s species
New footprint finds suggest range of body sizes for Lucy’s species
Sign of tallest known Australopithecus afarensis individual unearthed in Tanzania. Footprints of the largest known Australopithecus afarensis, dating to nearly 3.7 million years ago, have been found in hardened volcanic ash at Tanzania’s Laetoli site. Famous footprints of nearly 3.7-million-year-old hominids, found in 1976 at Tanzania’s Laetoli site, now have sizable new neighbors. While excavating small pits in 2015 to evaluate the impact of a proposed field museum at Laetoli, researchers uncovered comparably ancient hominid footprints about 150 meters from the original discoveries. The new finds reveal a vast range of body sizes for ancient members of the human evolutionary family, reports an international team led by archaeologists Fidelis Masao and Elgidius Ichumbaki, both of the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

12-16-16 Cannibalistic deep-sea crabs groom each other like chimpanzees
Cannibalistic deep-sea crabs groom each other like chimpanzees
Crabs that live near hydrothermal vents 3,500 metres deep have been seen eating - as well as - cleaning each other. Even cannibals can be caring. Crabs that live near hydrothermal vents 3,500 metres deep have been seen eating each other. But they also seem to clean each other at other times, presumably eating bacteria off each other’s shells. New footage shows a crab grooming another crab. “He was literally grooming this smaller shell, just in the same way that you would see chimpanzees for instance picking bugs off of the hair of a mate,” says Amanda Bates, a marine biologist at the University of Southampton. The behaviour was captured by a robotic submarine launched from the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s research vessel Falkor, which is exploring hydrothermal vent sites in the Mariana region of the Pacific.

12-15-16 Proteins that reprogram cells can turn back mice’s aging clock
Proteins that reprogram cells can turn back mice’s aging clock
Treatment increased life spans of prematurely aging rodents. Partially reprogramming cells in the body may reverse some signs of aging. Four proteins that can transform adult cells into embryonic-like ones can also turn back the aging clock, a new study in mice suggests. Partial reprogramming of cells within prematurely aging mice’s bodies extended the rodents’ average life span from 18 weeks to 24 weeks, researchers report December 15 in Cell. Normal mice saw benefits, too: Muscles and pancreas cells healed better in middle-aged mice that got rejuvenation treatments than in mice that did not. The experiment could be evidence that epigenetic marks — chemical tags on DNA and proteins that change with age, experience, disease and environmental exposures — are a driving factor of aging. Some marks accumulate with age while others are lost.

12-15-16 50 years ago, alcohol use was linked to several gene variants
50 years ago, alcohol use was linked to several gene variants
Genes affect how much alcohol people drink, but researchers haven’t yet found all of them. There may be hundreds. Whether one drinks at all, how much and how often are partly due to heredity, [according to a Finnish study of 902 male twins].… A genetic element in alcoholism “seems highly plausible,” [researchers] said.… Surprisingly, genes also have much to do with creating an abstainer. Lack of control — which should resemble alcoholism — is no single gene, but a group of traits. — Science News, December 24, 1966. UPDATE: As the Finnish researchers predicted, how much or how little someone drinks may be influenced by many genes. A study of rats published August 4 in PLOS Genetics linked variants of 930 genes to a preference for drinking alcohol (SN: 9/3/16, p. 8). Many of the variants may alter how genes are regulated, rather than changing the genes themselves. Researchers still need to verify whether the same genes are involved in drinking behavior in humans.

12-15-16 New marine life found in deep sea vents
New marine life found in deep sea vents
Six new animal species have been identified at deep-sea vents beneath the Indian Ocean. The remote area is home to life not seen elsewhere in the world's oceans, yet has been earmarked for future mineral exploration. Hydrothermal vents form at locations where seawater meets magma. They are surrounded by a large number of organisms that are new to science. The latest finds include worms, snails and a crab.UK researchers explored an area of the Southwest Indian Ridge, which bisects the ocean between Africa and Antarctica, in 2011. Scientists at Southampton University revealed they had found many new creatures using a remote-operated underwater robot.

12-14-16 Comb jelly videos are rewriting the history of your anus
Comb jelly videos are rewriting the history of your anus
The digested remains of a fish came out somewhere unexpected, prompting biologists to rethink their understanding of our bums. COMB jellies are wondrous, magical creatures. Their translucent, spherical bodies are lined with iridescent cilia, which they use to motor around the ocean deep and suck in vast quantities of zooplankton. They are some of the most primitive animals on the planet, closely descended from the common ancestors of all animal life. The surprising thing is that they have an anus. Two, even. Together, these tiny holes are rewriting our understanding of how anuses ever came to be. This is as yet a short story: for all its essential functions, the anus is a very understudied organ. We do know there are only a few basic ways that animals defecate. Humans and plenty of other creatures have a through-gut, which starts at the mouth and ends at the sphincter. This cheek-to-cheek nutrient highway runs relatively straight through the body, and is generally de rigueur for creatures that have a front and back, right and left sides, and an upside down. For animals that lack this bilateral symmetry – sponges, stinging jellyfish, anemones – the digestive system is more like a cul-de-sac, a fitting turn of phrase for what is essentially a bag into which food flows, gets digested and then must be expelled before more can be consumed.

12-14-16 Antibiotic resistance will hit a terrible tipping point in 2017
Antibiotic resistance will hit a terrible tipping point in 2017
Soon more antibiotics will be consumed by animals than by people – causing the resistance of bacteria to antibiotics to accelerate. A major menace looms over us. In 2017, many more people could begin dying from common bacterial infections. As resistance to antibiotics booms, diseases from gonorrhoea to urinary tract infections are becoming untreatable – a situation that looks set to get worse as the world reaches a new tipping point next year. “We are about to reach the point where more antibiotics will be consumed by farm animals worldwide than by humans,” says Mark Woolhouse, at the University of Edinburgh, UK. This will mean more resistant bacteria, which could be a big threat. The livestock industry has long played down any risk to human health caused by using antibiotics in farming, but the danger is now accepted, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

12-14-16 Gene editing starts to save lives as human trials get under way
Gene editing starts to save lives as human trials get under way
At least one life has already been saved by gene editing, and by the end of 2017 it might be dozens. In 2015, a little girl called Layla was treated with gene-edited immune cells that eliminated all signs of the leukaemia that was killing her. Layla’s treatment was a one-off, but by the end of 2017, the technique could have saved dozens of lives. Gene editing involves altering or disabling existing genes, which used to be extremely difficult. It took many years to develop the gene-editing tool that saved Layla (pictured), but thanks to a revolutionary method known as CRISPR, this can now be done in just weeks. In fact, CRISPR works so well that the first human trial involving the method has already begun. In China, it is being used to disable a gene called PD-1 in immune cells taken from individuals with cancer. The edited cells are then injected back into each person’s body. PD-1 codes for an “off switch” on the surface of immune cells, and many cancers evolve the ability to thwart immune attacks by flipping the PD-1 switch to “off”. On the edited immune cells there is no switch for cancer cells to flip. (Webmaster's comment: As usual now China leads the way. American religions stand opposed.)

12-14-16 Antibacterial products may help bacteria beat antibiotics
Antibacterial products may help bacteria beat antibiotics
The antibacterial agent triclosan is often present in anything from cleaning products to toys, but tests suggest it can help MRSA survive antibiotics. IF FIGHTING bacteria one way is good, two ways would be even better, you’d think. But not always: an antibacterial widely used in soaps and cleaning products actually helps microbes like MRSA beat powerful antibiotics. The substance in question is triclosan. It is not an antibiotic but a different type of compound that, rather than killing bacteria, stops them from growing instead. Triclosan is so widespread that there are concerns that this may encourage bacteria to evolve resistance to it, posing a problem for hospitals that use antibacterials to prevent infections spreading. These concerns have helped prompt the US Food and Drug Administration to ban the use of triclosan in consumer hand soaps, and the FDA is pondering further restrictions. Now there’s reason to worry over even more serious effects. To see whether antibacterials can affect the performance of antibiotics, Petra Levin and Corey Westfall, at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, exposed Escherichia coli to common antibiotics and triclosan, and measured their survival over 20 hours. When the bacteria were exposed to the antibiotics streptomycin or ciprofloxacin, plus triclosan, they were 10,000 times more likely to survive than those that weren’t also given triclosan. Further tests found that triclosan protects the MRSA superbug against vancomycin, a crucial antibiotic often used as a last resort in MRSA infections (bioRxiv, DOI: 10.1101/090829).

12-14-16 Tree of life: How figs built the world and will help save it
Tree of life: How figs built the world and will help save it
From clothing Adam and Eve to linking the Maasai with heaven, the fig tree appears in countless origin myths. Discover the source of its exceptional powers.THEIR leaves clothed Adam and Eve; their roots were used by the Maasai people’s god to shuttle the first cattle from heaven to Earth; and according to an Indonesian story, two gods carved the first couple from their wood. The presence of fig trees in numerous origin myths is down to more than coincidence. They have shaped our world since long before the dawn of humanity, and have fed us and our imaginations for millennia. Now, as the world warms and forests fall, these extraordinary trees could help us to restore life to deforested landscapes. It’s all because fig trees cut a curious deal with tiny wasps back when dinosaurs still roamed. Thanks to this, they sustain far more biodiversity than other trees. Today, there are more than 750 species of Ficus, each of which relies on its own wasp species to pollinate its flowers. In turn, the wasps can only breed inside the figs of their partner tree. Genetic studies suggest that this remarkable codependency is at least 80 million years old. It begins with a tiny female fig wasp. Barely 2 millimetres long, she crawls out of a hole in the fig she was born inside, and takes flight for the first time carrying pollen and hundreds of fertilised eggs. She seeks a fig on another tree of the same species. The nearest one could be tens of kilometres away, yet the insect has less than 48 hours to complete her mission.

12-14-16 Were Aboriginal Australians the first astronomers?
Were Aboriginal Australians the first astronomers?
The ability of Aboriginal Australian peoples to navigate by the night sky suggests they have been stargazing from before Stonehenge or the Pyramids. On a good night, I can name about 20 stars. Bill Yidumduma Harney can name roughly 3000. I am originally from Hertfordshire, UK, and studied astronomy at university in Cambridge and Manchester. Bill grew up in a remote Aboriginal community in northern Australia, and learned his astronomy in the bush. Bill and I have become good mates. For several years we appeared together in a stage show, The First Astronomers, which toured arts festivals in Australia. Bill can certainly tell a good story about the night sky. For thousands of years, he and his ancestors have built an impressive body of knowledge. It is knowledge that, without any written language, has passed from generation to generation through rote learning. The word “astronomy” implies a quest to understand the heavens: to measure heavenly bodies and use them for practical purposes such as navigation or timekeeping. Bill and other Indigenous Australians certainly do that today, but how long has astronomy been part of their cultures? The lack of written records means answers are hard to come by – but a growing body of evidence suggests it is a very long time indeed. Can they claim to have been the first astronomers?

12-14-16 Medieval wax seals are giving up fresh historical secrets
Medieval wax seals are giving up fresh historical secrets
Hair and fingerprints in the seals used to authenticate documents are yielding fascinating insights into the life and times of those who made them. Imagine a murder case in which the investigators decide to discount all scientific evidence. Fingerprints, palm prints, hair – all are packed away in crates and consigned to the basement while the detectives get on interrogating suspects and witnesses. It’s an implausible scenario in any modern criminal investigation, but in one venerable domain it is often the norm: history. Historians put great effort into poring over documents and artefacts to reconstruct past events, but less obvious, surrounding details can be overlooked. Take the wax seals used to authenticate official documents in medieval Europe. Fingerprints left on these seals may survive for centuries, and studying them can yield fascinating insights into the life and times of those who made them. Thanks to a series of projects, some of those seals are now giving up their secrets. The idea of looking at seals in this way dates back to 2005, when French historian Michel Pastoureau estimated that European archives contained between two and four million medieval seals, with roughly one in five bearing a fingerprint. He urged his colleagues to mine this rich seam of information. “Seals are so interesting because they are personal items at a time when personal items were very few,” says historian Elizabeth New of Aberystwyth University, UK. “The seal was your credit card, passport and signature all rolled into one.”

12-14-16 Cave glow-worms vomit long sticky urine threads to catch prey
Cave glow-worms vomit long sticky urine threads to catch prey
The beautiful glow of their long fishing lines hides a deadly glue, most likely originating from the pee of these New Zealand insects. Water and wee. That’s what New Zealand glow-worms use to build sticky traps to ensnare their prey. Arachnocampa luminosa lives in wet caves, spending about nine months as a larva, before growing wings and turning into a fungus gnat that survives for just a few days, during which time it mates. In the larval form, the glow-worm builds a mucous tube up to 40 centimetres long along the cave ceiling. It then shuttles back and forth along the tube, spewing dozens of long silk threads from its mouth that it leaves dangling from the tube. Each thread is up to half a metre long and beaded with sticky, mucous-like droplets. These droplets trap flying insects attracted to the blue-green light emitted by the tail of the larva. Once the insect is stuck, the larva uses its mouth to haul up the fishing line and swallow the prey.

12-14-16 Genome clues help explain the strange life of seahorses
Genome clues help explain the strange life of seahorses
A seahorse’s (Hippocampus comes) genetic instruction book, or genome, contains an estimated 23,458 genes that give clues to the animal’s features and history. A seahorse’s genetic instruction book is giving biologists a few insights into the creature’s odd physical features and rare parenting style. Researchers decoded a male tiger tail seahorse’s (Hippocampus comes) genome and compared it to the genomes of other seahorses and ray-finned fishes. The analysis revealed a bevy of missing genes and other genetic elements responsible for enamel and fin formation. The absence of these genes may explain their tubelike snouts, small toothless mouths, armored bodies and flexible square tails, the team reports online December 14 in Nature. Although H. comes may be short a few genes, the seahorse has a surplus of other genes important for male pregnancy — a trait unique to seahorses, sea dragons and pipefish. These genetic differences suggest the tiger tail seahorse has evolved more quickly than its relatives, the researchers conclude.

12-14-16 End of species extinctions is in sight as we bring animals back
End of species extinctions is in sight as we bring animals back
Novel cell technologies could bring endangered animals back from the brink – and maybe even revive long gone species like the passenger pigeon. Unleash the long-gone beasts. We won’t see a woolly mammoth in 2017, but a host of schemes to bring animals back from the brink of extinction will kick in next year. Genetic and stem cell technologies are on the cusp of letting us clone even infertile endangered animals when intact DNA is available. And some extinct species could be brought back by tweaking the genome of a living close relative. It should also be possible to engineer lost traits into a population. One initiative involves the northern white rhino, which is now down to three infertile individuals living in Kenya. This year, a plan was announced to use stem cell technologies, frozen specimens and assisted reproduction to make new rhinos. Similarly, genetic rescue could help the black-footed ferret (pictured), one of the most endangered mammals in North America, to make a comeback. The first in vitro experiments are set to begin in 2017, and will tackle inbreeding and disease resistance, because a type of plague and an untreatable virus are in danger of wiping out the animals. (Webmaster's comment: You can bring back the creature, BUT NOT THE SOCIAL SYSTEM IT LIVED IN.)

12-14-16 Year in review: How humans populated the globe
Year in review: How humans populated the globe
Genetic studies offer new insights into the ancient exodus out of Africa. Recent genetic analyses suggest that natives of Papua New Guinea descend from people who left their Africa homeland some 72,000 years ago. No paper or digital trails document ancient humans’ journey out of Africa to points around the globe. Fortunately, those intrepid travelers left a DNA trail. Genetic studies released in 2016 put a new molecular spin on humans’ long-ago migrations. These investigations also underscore the long trek ahead for scientists trying to reconstruct Stone Age road trips. “I’m beginning to suspect that the ancient out-of-Africa process was complex, involving several migrations and subsequent extinctions,” says evolutionary geneticist Carles Lalueza-Fox of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona. Untangling those comings, goings and dead ends increasingly looks like a collaborative job for related lines of evolutionary research — comparisons of DNA differences across populations of present-day people, DNA samples retrieved from the bones of ancient hominids, archaeological evidence, fossil finds and studies of ancient climates. It’s still hard to say when the clouds will part and a clear picture of humankind’s journey out of Africa will appear. Consider four papers published in October that featured intriguing and sometimes contradictory results.

12-14-16 Fossil footprints tell story of human origins
Fossil footprints tell story of human origins
The footprints may have been made by a male walking with smaller females and juveniles. Footprints made by early humans millions of years ago have been uncovered in Tanzania close to where similar tracks were found in the 1970s. The impressions were made when some of our distant relatives walked together across wet volcanic ash. Their makers, most likely Australopithecus afarensis, appear to have had a wide range of body sizes. Scientists say this gives clues to how this ancient species of human lived. Australopithecus afarensis is one of the longest-lived and best-known early human species. The fossil of "Lucy", a young adult female who lived in Ethiopia 3.2 million years ago, is perhaps the most famous individual. The newly discovered footprints may have been made by a male walking with smaller females. "This novel evidence, taken as a whole with the previous findings, portrays several early hominins moving as a group through the landscape following a volcanic eruption and subsequent rainfall. But there is more," said lead researcher Prof Giorgio Manzi, director of the archaeological project in Tanzania. "The footprints of one of the new individuals are astonishingly larger than anyone else's in the group, suggesting that he was a large male member of the species. "In fact, the 165cm stature indicated by his footprints makes him the largest Australopithecus specimen identified to date."

12-14-16 Oldest early human footprints suggest males had several ‘wives’
Oldest early human footprints suggest males had several ‘wives’
New fossil footprints in Tanzania have spawned a theory that australopiths like Lucy may lived in family groups with a single male and several females. Three has become five. Laetoli in northern Tanzania is the site of iconic ancient footprints, capturing the moment – 3.66 million years ago – when three members of Lucy’s species (Australopithecus afarensis) strode out across the landscape. Now something quite unexpected has come to light: the footprints of two other individuals. “Our discovery left us without words,” says Marco Cherin at the University of Perugia, Italy. The find looks set to transform our understanding of the Laetoli site and the social dynamics of australopiths, as well as their style of walking. The original Laetoli footprints were discovered in 1976. Nothing quite like them had ever been found before. They remain by far the oldest hominin footprints we know, fortuitously preserved because a group of australopiths walked across damp volcanic ash during the brief window of time before it turned from soft powder into hard rock. “Geologists say this hardening process must have occurred in just a few hours,” says Cherin.

12-14-16 The fight against infectious diseases is still an uphill battle
The fight against infectious diseases is still an uphill battle
Pathogens are exploiting new conditions to emerge in new places. Urban living, industrial farming techniques and climate change are fueling infectious diseases, experts say. It was barely more than half a century ago that the Nobel Prize–winning virologist Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet mused about the demise of contagions. “To write about infectious disease,” he wrote in 1962, “is almost to write of something that has passed into history.” If only. In the past several decades, over 300 infectious pathogens have either newly emerged or emerged in new places, causing a steady drumbeat of outbreaks and global pandemic scares. Over the course of 2016, their exploits reached a crescendo. Just as the unprecedented outbreak of Ebola in West Africa was collapsing in early 2016, the World Health Organization declared Zika virus, newly erupted in the Americas, an international public health emergency. What would balloon into the largest outbreak of yellow fever in Angola in 30 years had just begun. A few months later, scientists reported the just-discovered “superbug” mcr-1 gene in microbes collected from humans and pigs in the United States (SN Online: 5/27/16). The gene allows bacteria to resist the last-ditch antibiotic colistin, bringing us one step closer to a looming era of untreatable infections that would transform the practice of medicine. Its arrival presaged yet another unprecedented event: the convening of the United Nations General Assembly to consider the global problem of antibiotic-resistant bugs. It was only the fourth time over its 70-plus-year history that the assembly had been compelled to consider a health challenge. It’s “huge,” says University of Toronto epidemiologist David Fisman.

12-14-16 Year in review: Zika virus devastates Brazil and spreads fear across Americas
Year in review: Zika virus devastates Brazil and spreads fear across Americas
The virus, little-known until this year, led to an upsurge in birth defects in Brazil. A young woman holds her daughter, born with microcephaly, outside their home in Recife, Brazil. Researchers this year linked the upsurge in microcephaly cases in Brazil to the mosquito-borne Zika virus. A Brazilian mother cradles her baby girl under a bruised purple sky. The baby’s face is scrunched up, mouth open wide — like any other crying child. But her head is smaller than normal, as if her skull has collapsed above her eyebrows. A week earlier, not far away, a doctor wrapped a measuring tape around the forehead of a 1-month-old boy, held in the arms of his grandmother. This baby too has a shrunken head, a birth defect whose name — microcephaly — has now become seared into the public consciousness. These images and many more told a harrowing story that case reports alone couldn’t convey: A little-known mosquito-borne virus called Zika appeared to be taking a terrible toll on women and babies, and their families. The world got a gut-wrenching view of microcephaly in 2016, along with a mountain of evidence convincing scientists that Zika bears much of the blame for the dramatic increase in cases.

12-14-16 Year in review: Alzheimer’s drug may clarify disease’s origins
Year in review: Alzheimer’s drug may clarify disease’s origins
Treatment shows early promise in sweeping away amyloid brain plaques. A new Alzheimer’s drug shows early promise in clearing amyloid-beta plaques from the brain. A quarter century after scientists proposed an idea that profoundly influenced the arc of Alzheimer’s research, they might finally find out whether they are correct. A new antibody drug called aducanumab appears to sweep the brain clean of sticky amyloid-beta protein. The drug may or may not become a breakthrough Alzheimer’s treatment — it’s too soon to say — but either way it will probably answer a key question: Have researchers been aiming at the right target? According to the proposal, called the amyloid hypothesis, Alzheimer’s disease, estimated to affect more than 5 million people in the United States alone, is caused by abnormal buildup of A-beta protein in the brain. The buildup chokes vital brain areas and destroys nerve cells. Despite amassing much support in recent decades, the proposal hasn’t managed to shake off its detractors. Aducanumab offers a seemingly reliable and safe way to lower A-beta levels and thus test the amyloid hypothesis. Over the course of a year, aducanumab entered the brains of people with early Alzheimer’s disease and cleared out the A-beta, scientists reported in September in Nature (SN: 10/1/16, p. 6). The trial was small — only 165 people. Yet in these people’s brains, amyloid-beta clearly declined. The higher the dose, the more A-beta cleanup.

12-14-16 Year in review: ‘Three-parent baby’ technique raises hope and concern
Year in review: ‘Three-parent baby’ technique raises hope and concern
Safety and ethical questions surround controversial mitochondrial replacement therapy. A boy born in April has DNA from mom and dad, as well as mitochondria from a female donor. To make "three-parent" embryos, the chromosome-containing spindle is removed from a woman's egg and inserted into a donor egg. A “three-parent baby” was born in April, the world’s first reported birth from a controversial technique designed to prevent mitochondrial diseases from passing from mother to child. “As far as we can tell, the baby is normal and free of disease,” says Andrew R. La Barbera, chief scientific officer of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. “This demonstrates that, in point of fact, the procedure works.” The baby boy carries DNA not only from his mother and father but also from an egg donor, raising both safety and ethical concerns. In particular, people worry that alterations of the genetic makeup of future generations won’t stop with preventing diseases but could lead to genetically enhanced “designer babies.”

12-14-16 Year in review: ‘Minimal genome’ makes its debut
Year in review: ‘Minimal genome’ makes its debut
Synthetic cell may reveal what is necessary for life. Named syn3.0, engineered bacteria developed at the J. Craig Venter Institute can survive and function with just 473 genes. One of biology’s biggest achievements of 2016 was intentionally as small as possible: building a bacterium with only 473 genes. That pint-size genetic blueprint, the smallest for any known free-living cell, is a milestone in a decades-long effort to create an organism containing just the bare essentials necessary to exist and reproduce. Such “minimal genome” cells might eventually serve as templates for lab-made organisms that pump out medicines, make innovative chemicals for industry and agriculture, or churn out other molecules not yet imagined. The project also identified genes crucial for the microbe’s survival yet largely unfamiliar to science, highlighting major gaps in researchers’ grasp of life’s playbook. The newly engineered bacterium was praised as a technical triumph. In 2010, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute in La Jolla, Calif., had stitched together a copy of the entire genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides and popped it into the cell of another bacterium whose genome had been removed. But that “synthetic cell,” dubbed JCVI-syn1.0, contained a full copy of an existing genome. With more than 1 million chemical building blocks of DNA, including 901 genes, it was far from minimal.

12-14-16 First evidence that wild mammals benefit from bigger brains
First evidence that wild mammals benefit from bigger brains
A study of red deer on a Scottish island reveals some of the first evidence in wild mammals of a clear link between brain size and evolutionary fitness. We pride ourselves on our big brains, but when it comes to figuring out whether people or other animals with particularly big brains do better than others, the evidence has been lacking. Now, for the first time, a study in red deer is showing that bigger brained mammals tend to be more successful in the wild, and that brain size is a heritable trait that they can pass on to their offspring. Corina Logan from the University of Cambridge and her team have looked at the skulls of 1314 red deer (Cervus elaphus) from the Isle of Rum. The complete life histories of the deer are well known thanks to the Isle of Rum Red Deer Project, which has been collecting data on the island for more than 40 years, spanning seven deer generations. “This kind of study has not been conducted before because it requires long-term data from a large number of individuals,” says Logan.

12-13-16 Fossil microbes show how some life bounced back after dino-killing impact
Fossil microbes show how some life bounced back after dino-killing impact
Within geologic blink of eye, hardy plankton were swimming in toxic waters above site. Rock samples collected from the Chicxulub crater during a drilling project in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year suggest that microbes returned to the site within hundreds of years of the dino-killing impact. The first post-apocalypse tenants of ground zero of the dinosaur extinction didn’t waste much time moving in. Drilling into the crater left by the dino-devastating Chicxulub impact in Mexico, researchers uncovered the fossilized remains of pioneering microbes. These “disaster species” colonized the harsh waters above the crater within hundreds of years of the impact, the researchers reported December 12 at a news conference at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting. The finding helps illuminate how life bounces back following cataclysmic events. “This was a hostile, stressful environment for these organisms,” said Oleg Abramov, a planetary scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz., who was not involved with the work. “It’s interesting that life came back so quickly to the site of the impact.” The impact itself was one of the worst calamities in the history of life on Earth, releasing around 2 million times as much energy as the largest nuclear bomb ever detonated. It helped wipe out three-quarters of animal and plant species worldwide.

12-13-16 Number of teens who report doing drugs falls in 2016
Number of teens who report doing drugs falls in 2016
U.S. survey finds reductions in vaping, opioid use. Fewer adolescents reported using substances such as alcohol and heroin in 2016 than in previous years, a survey revealed. Fewer teenagers in the United States used drugs in 2016 than in previous decades. The positive news comes from an annual survey of almost 45,500 U.S. students in grades eight, 10 and 12. “There’s a lot of good news here,” says pediatrician Sharon Levy of Boston Children’s Hospital. Public health messages from pediatricians, educators and others seem to be sinking in, she says. “I think that’s fabulous. Substance use is one of the most important — yet modifiable — behavioral health issues of adolescents.” Adolescents’ use of many of the substances, including alcohol and cigarettes, hit an all-time low since the survey, known as the Monitoring the Future study, began collecting data 42 years ago. Heroin, methamphetamines, inhalants and stimulants also hit lows this year. E-cigarettes have been particularly concerning as more adolescents gave the new devices a try, reaching a high in 2015 (SN: 5/28/16, p. 4). For the first time, the number of students who vape is declining, the survey found. In 2015, 16.3 percent of 12th-graders reported vaping in the last 30 days. In 2016, that fell to 12.5. Similar declines were evident among eighth- and 10th-graders.

12-13-16 The groundbreaking new research that could eliminate allergies for good
The groundbreaking new research that could eliminate allergies for good
Scientists are working on next-generation therapies that could stop allergies in their tracks. Allergy treatments haven't advanced much in decades, even as hundreds of millions around the world suffer from wheezing, itches, and rashes — and in severe cases, risk death — from exposure to allergens ranging from eggs to pollen to dog dander. But hope may be on the way. Scientists who study the immune system are beginning to understand the root cause of allergies — and are starting to work on next-generation therapies that could stop allergies in their tracks, rather than simply treating symptoms. Private investors and corporations are pouring money into the field. Sean Parker, the internet mogul of Napster fame, donated $24 million to set up an allergy research center at Stanford University. Nestlé recently invested $145 million in a startup aimed at tackling peanut allergy. And the Broad Institute of Cambridge, Mass., recently launched a new initiative to unravel the basic biology of food allergy. The potential market is huge: It's estimated that 50 million Americans have allergies. As many as 10 percent of children suffer from hay fever, nearly 12 percent have skin allergies, and 5 percent have food allergies, most commonly peanuts, dairy, and shellfish, according to the 2014 National Health Interview Survey. "I foresee that a lot of allergy therapies will become more and more specific and targeted, and more customizable to the individual patient," said Andrew Long, the lead investigational drug pharmacist at Stanford's Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy & Asthma Research.

12-13-16 Viruses may have evolved to hit men hard but go easy on women
Viruses may have evolved to hit men hard but go easy on women
Many infections give men worse symptoms. Mathematical models suggest this could be because women can pass infections on to others in several extra ways. Is man-flu a quirk of viral evolution? Some viruses might cause weaker symptoms in women than in men because it makes them more likely to spread. Many infections cause more severe illness in men than women. Men infected with tuberculosis are 1.5 times more likely to die than women; men infected with human papillomavirus are five times more likely to develop cancer than women; and men infected with Epstein-Barr virus are at least twice as likely to develop Hodgkin’s lymphoma as women. Many think this pattern is because of differences between the sexes’ immune systems. But another explanation is that women are more valuable hosts. Women can pass infections to their children during pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding, so there’s an evolutionary pressure on viruses to be less harmful to them, say Francisco Úbeda and Vincent Jansen at Royal Holloway University of London. In order for a virus to infect others, it needs to produce more copies of itself in the body. Making their host ill is an unavoidable consequence of this. “That’s not something a pathogen particularly sets out to do because it’s shooting itself in the foot, should it have one,” says Jansen. The researchers used mathematical modelling to show that, for pathogens that affect both sexes, natural selection in theory should favour those that cause less illness in women – as long as they can be transmitted from mother to child.

12-13-16 The problem with the 'nature vs. nurture' debate
The problem with the 'nature vs. nurture' debate
When we say "it's genetic," we're suggesting that "it" — a disease, a physical trait, or someone's IQ — is something innate that can't be changed. We think of genetics as a fixed part of ourselves that is distinct from the more malleable influences that shape who we are, such as our culture, our lifestyle choices, and our physical environment. The sharp distinction we draw between the genetic factors we can't control and the social and environmental ones that we can, strongly influences how we see ourselves. It also sets the terms of debate for many contentious social issues: Is our intelligence fixed? Can we change our sexuality or are we just born with it? How much does our health depend on the choices we make? But by splitting biological and social aspects into separate categories and resigning ourselves to the inevitability of one of them, we're mis-framing these questions. It is true that we can't change our DNA (at least not yet). The real story, however, is about how our genes and our environment interact, which is something that geneticists have long known, but which rarely makes it into public discussions about genetics. It's important to get this story straight, because modern genetic studies are becoming part of the discussion of not just diseases like cancer, but also social issues like income, education, and even political beliefs. We're bound to misinterpret these studies if we fail to recognize how thoroughly our genes and our physical and social environment are tied up together. Two recent genetic studies illustrate the very conditional role that our genes often play. In one study, researchers looked at how smoking, alcohol consumption, and genetics alter one's risk for colon cancer. Analyzing two large study cohorts of about 20,000 subjects each, half of whom had colon cancer, the researchers first found what other studies have reported — that smoking and heavy drinking generally increase your risk of developing colon cancer, period. They also found, as some other studies have reported, that light to moderate drinkers have a slightly lower risk of colon cancer, relative to those who never drink.

12-12-16 Brain tests predict children's futures
Brain tests predict children's futures
Brain tests at the age of three appear to predict a child's future chance of success in life, say researchers. Low cognitive test scores for skills like language indicate less developed brains, possibly caused by too little stimulation in early life, they say. These youngsters are more likely to become criminals, dependent on welfare or chronically ill unless they are given support later on, they add. Their study in New Zealand appears in the journal, Nature Human Behaviour. The US researchers from Duke University say the findings highlight the importance of early life experiences and interventions to support vulnerable youngsters. Although the study followed people in New Zealand, the investigators believe that the results could apply to other countries. They followed the lives of more than 1,000 children. Those who had low test scores for language, behavioural, movement and cognitive skills at three years old went on to account for more than 80% of crimes, required 78% of prescriptions and received 66% of social welfare payments in adulthood. It is known that disadvantaged people use a greater share of services. While many of the children in the study who were behind in brain development came from disadvantaged backgrounds, poverty was not the only link with poor futures. When the researchers took out children below the poverty line in a separate analysis they found that a similar proportion of middle class children who scored low in tests when they were three also went on to experience difficulties when they were older.

12-12-16 Can we really predict who will cost society the most money?
Can we really predict who will cost society the most money?
A study suggests that family income and mental and physical abilities at the age of 3 can predict who will go on to commit a crime and have bad health. We can predict which children will grow up to commit the most crime, claim the most welfare and have the worst health; all we need to knowing is a child’s mental and physical abilities at the age of 3, plus their family’s income. So says a study that tracked the lives of nearly 1000 people. But can it really be true?

  • What kind of mental and physical abilities did the researchers look at?
  • Are the effects on adult outcomes the result of nature or nurture?
  • Does this mean they think being fat is comparable with being a criminal?
  • How new are these findings – didn’t we already know some of this?
  • Why does that idea sound familiar?
  • What can governments do?

12-13-16 Nickel clue to 'dinosaur killer' asteroid
Nickel clue to 'dinosaur killer' asteroid
Scientists say they have a clue that may enable them to find traces of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs in the very crater it made on impact. This pointer takes the form of a nickel signature in the rocks of the crater that is now buried under ocean sediments in the Gulf of Mexico. An international team has just drilled into the 200km-wide depression. It hopes the investigation can help explain why the event 66 million years ago was so catastrophic. Seventy-five percent of all life, not just the dinosaurs, went extinct. The UK-US led team gave an update on its research here at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. The group is currently running all manner of lab tests on the hundreds of metres of core pulled up from under the Gulf in April and May. One tantalising revelation is that the scientists observe a big nickel spike in the sediments immediately above what has become known as Chicxulub Crater. This is an important marker that could lead on to the discovery of asteroid material itself.

12-12-16 Could eating nuts be the secret to a longer life?
Could eating nuts be the secret to a longer life?
Some compelling new research suggests the answer is yes. ep aside, the incredible edible egg! There's another food that could deserve a catchy marketing campaign — at least according to recent research published in BMC Medicine. Scientists from Imperial College London, Harvard University, and other institutions sifted through the available evidence looking at the connection between various causes of death and people's daily intake of nuts. Reviewing 29 different studies that collectively involved around 800,000 participants, they found higher nut consumption consistently was linked to lower rates of death, particularly from heart and respiratory disease as well as cancer. All told, the risk of death was 19 percent lower among people with high nut intake relative to those with low nut intake. Worldwide, they estimated that at least 4.4 million deaths in 2013 were linked to eating less than 20 grams a day of nuts. For comparison's sake, a handful of nuts is generally around 28 grams or 1 ounce. Nutrition science can often be a tricky thing to navigate, since it's often very hard to show a clear cause-and-effect chain between eating a single food and a person's health and clearly there may be other factors coming into play that explain the link between high nut consumption and health. The authors did not look at the reasons behind the correlation between nut intake and health, but the general consensus has long stood behind nuts as a good guy snack, even if they are bit high in calories. As they point out, nuts are a fine source of fiber, magnesium and the healthier polyunsaturated fats, to say nothing of other nutrients and antioxidants suspected of reducing cancer risk.

12-11-16 Penicillin allergy? Think again.
Penicillin allergy? Think again.
Failure to test for reaction to drug leaves most people mislabeled. Red bumps in childhood can be mistakenly identified as a penicillin allergy. In later years, clinicians don’t verify the diagnosis, with potential consequences for both the individual and society. Rashes are the temporary tattoos of childhood. The prickly, red bumps can blossom across the skin for a host of reasons: an ear infection, a virus or even an allergic reaction to a penicillin antibiotic. What’s hard to tell, though, is whether the penicillin or the illness itself triggers the rash. To be safe, doctors label some children as allergic to penicillin, but a skin test to verify the diagnosis rarely happens. “These kids march into adulthood with a penicillin allergy label that’s never really addressed,” says Allison Ramsey, an allergist at Rochester Regional Health in New York. About 10 percent of U.S. adults and children believe they have a penicillin allergy, the most commonly reported drug allergy. But 90 percent of people who think they’re allergic to penicillin actually aren’t, according to a 2010 report in Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. There is a “massive problem with the overreporting of penicillin allergy,” Ramsey says.

12-9-16 Cells avoiding suicide may play role in spread of cancer
Cells avoiding suicide may play role in spread of cancer
New studies probe mechanisms of death-defying anastasis. Mostly dead is still partly alive, even for cells on the brink of suicide, new research suggests. Near-death experiences may play a role in embryo development and help cancer cells that survive chemotherapy spread throughout the body, Denise Montell, a cell biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, reported December 6 at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology. Montell described a recently discovered process called anastasis that saves cells in the midst of committing a type of cellular suicide known as apoptosis. She and others are only beginning to unravel how the process works. Preliminary results indicate that cells simultaneously kill themselves and hold on to a lifeline in case conditions improve, she said.

12-9-16 Monkeys should be able to talk just like us – so why don’t they?
Monkeys should be able to talk just like us – so why don’t they?
There’s nothing anatomical stopping monkeys from making human-like sounds we could understand finds a new study, which suggests they lack the brains for it. Ooh, ooh, ooh, ee, ee, ee! Shouting monkeys may have more sophisticated vocal abilities than we give them credit for. It seems that the anatomy of their vocal tract is theoretically capable of producing the five basic vowel sounds on which most human languages are based – and these could be used to form intelligible sentences. The results add to a growing body of evidence that some monkeys and apes can mimic or generate rudimentary sounds needed for speech-like communication. “No one can say now that there’s a vocal anatomy problem with monkey speech,” says Asif Ghazanfar at Princeton University, and co-leader of the study team. “They have a speech-ready vocal anatomy, but not a speech-ready brain. Now we need to find out why the human but not the monkey brain can produce language.”

12-9-16 Baby turtles survive deep freeze
Baby turtles survive deep freeze
Amazingly, they thaw in spring. Watch the moment when Sir David Attenborough and BBC filmmakers filmed the extraordinary emergence of baby turtles.

12-9-16 Dinosaur tail preserved in amber, with feathers
Dinosaur tail preserved in amber, with feathers
99-million-year-old fossil provides 3-D details. The feathered dinosaur tail is preserved in a 99-million-year-old lump of amber. Similarly stuck are several ants, a beetle and bits of foliage. In a golden chunk of 99-million-year-old amber, paleontologists have spotted something extraordinary: a tiny dinosaur tail with pristinely preserved feathers. At a shade under 37 millimeters, about the length of a matchstick, the tail curves through the amber, eight full sections of vertebrae with mummified skin shrink-wrapped to bone. A full-bodied bush of long filaments sprouts along the tail’s length, researchers report December 8 in Current Biology. It’s “an astonishing fossil,” writes study coauthor Lida Xing of the China University of Geosciences in Beijing and colleagues. Researchers have found Cretaceous feathers trapped in amber before, but the new find is the first with clearly identifiable bits of dinosaur included. The tail bones of the new fossil gave Xing’s team a clue to the dinosaur’s identity. It may have been a young coelurosaur that looked something like a miniature Tyrannosaurus rex.

12-9-16 Fish rapidly adapt to pollution thousands of times lethal levels
Fish rapidly adapt to pollution thousands of times lethal levels
Genome sequencing reveals how killifish evolved to thrive in extremely polluted estuaries in the US in well under 60 years. It’s evolution in action seen in unprecedented detail. Genome sequencing of hundreds of killifish in the eastern US has reveal­­ed dozens of the evolutionary changes that allow them to survive in extremely polluted waters that would normally kill such fish. “They can survive thousands of times the usual lethal levels,” says team member Andrew Whitehead at the University of California, Davis. Another striking thing is that they managed to evolve this extraordinary ability in just half a century or so, since the estuaries they live in started getting polluted. Although many people think evolution is a slow process, it can in fact happen extremely fast. There are thousands of examples of evolution in action, from the famous peppered moths that turned black to camouflage themselves on soot-covered trees to the ever-growing numbers of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In most cases of contemporary evolution, the genetic changes involved have never been identified. The mutation that turned the first few peppered moths black in about 1819 was identified only earlier this year, for instance. With DNA sequencing getting ever cheaper, biologists in the US have now been able to sequence the genomes of nearly 400 individual Atlantic killifish (Fundulus heteroclitus), a small fish also known as the mummichog that lives in estuaries along the east coast. They compared the genomes of killifish in four highly polluted areas with those from four unspoilt sites.

12-9-16 Posture could explain why women get more VR sickness than men
Posture could explain why women get more VR sickness than men
Women are more susceptible to nausea when using virtual reality, but working out why means understanding what causes motion sickness in general. Is virtual reality sexist? Women experience more motion sickness than men while using VR, and researchers have suggested a novel theory for the discrepancy: differences in posture. But not everyone agrees. “Women are more susceptible than men to motion sickness in general,” says Thomas Stoffregen at the University of Minnesota. “We wanted to know whether that was also the case with VR headsets.” Stoffregen and his team ran experiments in which 36 people – half of them men, half of them women – played two VR games using the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift headset. A game in which players had to push a marble around a maze only made a few people feel nauseous. But a game that involved taking a virtual stroll around a haunted house triggered feelings of sickness in 14 out of 18 women and only six out of 18 men. Why were women more susceptible? Stoffregen’s answer is grounded in his broader ideas on motion sickness. He thinks that it is linked to “postural sway” – the subtle movements our bodies make when standing or sitting still. People who sway more, he says, will be more susceptible to feeling nauseous.

12-9-16 Epigenetic marks may help assess toxic exposure risk — someday
Epigenetic marks may help assess toxic exposure risk — someday
More work needed to understand what chemical tags on DNA, proteins mean. Things people come in contact with every day, such as pesticides, chemicals in water, hormone-mimicking chemicals in cash register receipts, smoke and air pollution, can change chemical tags on DNA and proteins. What those changes mean and how useful they are for determining health risks aren’t yet clear. Nearly everything people do, eat or come into contact with can change them in little ways — sometimes with big consequences. Exposure to some chemicals can damage DNA, leading to cancer and other problems. Other molecular changes—chemical tags added to DNA or to proteins called histones — may affect health without injuring DNA. There are more than 100 varieties of these chemical tags, collectively known as epigenetic marks. While they may help humans and other organisms respond to their environments, the tags can also alter development and body functions in unhelpful, even harmful, ways. Yet people who make decisions about safe levels of exposure to chemicals, heavy metals and other environmental factors generally aren’t including epigenetic alterations in their deliberations.

12-9-16 History of smallpox called into question
History of smallpox called into question
The idea that smallpox is a very ancient human disease has been called into question. Scientists say the deadly pathogen appears to have been around for hundreds rather than thousands of years. Viral DNA from the mummified remains of a child living during the 17th Century - at the time of an epidemic - casts doubt on historical records. Smallpox was thought to date back millennia. However, past descriptions have been based on physical signs, such as a pustular rash, which can be confused with other diseases. ''We managed to sequence the complete genome of the virus that causes smallpox, that's called variola virus,'' Dr Edward Holmes of the University of Sydney told BBC News. ''It's the oldest human virus ever sequenced.''

12-8-16 Oldest traces of smallpox virus found in child mummy
Oldest traces of smallpox virus found in child mummy
Variola DNA in 17th century remains is more direct evidence than earlier mummies’ pockmarks. A mummy was found in a crypt in Lithuania, along with a child mummy that held genetic remnants of variola virus, which causes the pustular rash disease, smallpox. A child mummy buried in a church crypt in Lithuania could hold the oldest genetic evidence of smallpox. Traces of the disease-causing variola virus linger in the mummy, which dates to about 1654, evolutionary geneticist Ana Duggan and colleagues report December 8 in Current Biology. Previously, a team of researchers had reported variola DNA in a roughly 300-year-old Siberian mummy.

12-8-16 Antibacterial products may help bacteria beat antibiotics
Antibacterial products may help bacteria beat antibiotics
The antibacterial agent triclosan is often present in anything from cleaning products to toys, but tests suggest it can help MRSA survive antibiotic. You’d think that if fighting bacteria one way is good, two ways would be even better. But not always: an antibacterial widely used in soaps and cleaning products actually helps microbes like MRSA beat our most powerful antibiotics. The antibacterial in question is triclosan. It is not an antibiotic but a different type of compound that, rather than killing bacteria, stops them from growing instead. Triclosan is so common that it is even found in some cosmetics and toys, prompting concerns that its overuse may encourage bacteria to evolve resistance to it. This could be a problem for some hospitals, which may use antibacterial cleaning products to prevent the spread of infections and superbugs. These concerns have helped prompt the US Food and Drug Administration to ban the use of triclosan in consumer hand soaps, and the FDA is considering further restrictions. However, others still argue that triclosan’s use is beneficial. But now there’s reason to worry that using too much triclosan could have even more serious effects. To see whether antibacterials can help bacteria resist antibiotics, Petra Levin and Corey Westfall, microbiologists at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, exposed Escherichia coli to common antibiotics and triclosan, and measured their survival over 20 hours. When streptomycin and ciprofloxacin were the antibiotics used, bacteria exposed to them as well as triclosan were 10,000 times more likely to survive than those that weren’t also given triclosan.

12-8-16 Health official calls on neuroscience to fight mental illness
Health official calls on neuroscience to fight mental illness
New clues to autism, schizophrenia emerge from studies of synapses. Branches called dendrites extending from a nerve cell receive messages from other neurons at tiny protrusions called dendritic spines. A faulty protein in the spines may be related to a wide range of mental disorders. Society’s record for protecting public health has been pretty good in the developed world, not so much in developing countries. That disparity has long been recognized. But there’s another disparity in society’s approach to public health — the divide between attention to traditional diseases and the resources devoted to mental disorders. “When it comes to mental health, all countries are developing countries,” says Shekhar Saxena, director of the World Health Organization’s department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse. Despite a breadth of scope and depth of impact exceeding that of many more highly publicized diseases, mental illness has long been regarded as a second-class medical concern. And modern medicine’s success at diagnosing, treating and curing many other diseases has not been duplicated for major mental disorders.

12-8-16 Brain cell transplant helps fearful mice overcome anxiety
Brain cell transplant helps fearful mice overcome anxiety
Post-traumatic stress disorder and related disorders are difficult to beat, because our fears can resurface. Could a transplant of young brain cells help? How can you stop old anxieties from resurfacing? An injection of new neurons may help, a study in mice suggests. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and other fear-related disorders are difficult to treat, and many people who seem to get better later relapse. A similar phenomenon occurs in rodents. Adult mice can be conditioned to fear a sound by giving them an electric shock every time they hear it. Playing the sound repeatedly without the shock gradually wipes out the fear – a process known as extinction training. However, the fear often returns spontaneously if the mouse hears the sound later on. Baby mice, on the other hand, do not seem to relapse as much. Yong-Chun Yu at Fudan University in China and his colleagues wanted to know if they could treat fearful adult mice with brain cells from mouse embryos. The transplants did not prevent the mice developing new fears, nor help them overcome existing ones – at least not by themselves. But coupled with extinction training, the embryonic cells did help wipe out existing fears and prevent the mice relapsing.

12-8-16 Early RNA may have used isolation strategy to defeat useless mutants
Early RNA may have used isolation strategy to defeat useless mutants
Aerosol droplets might have allowed life’s first information molecules to outlive faster replicators. Cooking up Earth’s first life probably required many “pots.” Spatial segregation into different pools or separate droplets might have helped the first self-replicating molecules survive. Later, protocells like those shown here provided more stable compartmentalization. Long before modern cells were around to house genetic material, tiny water droplets might have protected the first self-replicating molecules from parasitic mutants. New experimental evidence shows that such temporary compartments can help RNA molecules resist takeover by shorter, faster-replicating mutants, researchers report in the Dec. 9 Science. “We have a lot of theoretical papers that sort of hint at how parasites could have been fought off, but here we have a lab-based study that shows a potential mechanism,” says Niles Lehman, a chemist at Portland State University in Oregon who wasn’t part of the study. A crucial step in the emergence of life on Earth was the appearance of molecules that could copy themselves. Many scientists believe the first self-replicating molecules might have been rudimentary versions of today’s RNA, which carries instructions to make proteins. But as that RNA replicated, mutations would inevitably sneak in. And mutations that shortened the molecule (even at the expense of its function) would have a selective advantage.

12-8-16 T. rex cousin’s 99-million-year old tail feathers found in amber
T. rex cousin’s 99-million-year old tail feathers found in amber
The small amber piece containing the valuable find was on sale as a curiosity or item of jewellery in a market in Burma. A piece of feathered dinosaur tail has been found trapped in amber and perfectly preserved for almost 100 million years. Despite the yawning gulf of time, individual feather fronds can easily be identified. The specimen has even retained signs of its original colour and traces of blood. Scientists believe the tail belonged to a small juvenile cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex that lived in Asia 99 million years ago. The 3.6 centimetre lump of amber, which is hardened tree resin, was discovered in a market in Myitkyina, Burma, last year where it had been offered for sale as a curiosity or item of jewellery. The fossil within it, described as “astonishing” by researchers, was originally mistaken for plant material. Microscopic examination and CT (computed tomography) X-ray scans confirmed that the tail had come from a flightless dinosaur and not an early species of bird.

12-8-16 We could soon see the first human eye transplant
We could soon see the first human eye transplant
Scientists have strived for successful eye transplants for centuries. Early attempts read like the diary of Mary Shelley: implanting a dog's eye into a rat's groin, transplanting a rat's eye onto the neck of another rat, plucking the eye of a sheep from one socket and placing it into the other. But never has a whole-eye transplant been successfully done in a living person. The eye's complex web of muscles, blood vessels, and nerves — connected directly to the brain — has doomed past experiments to failure. Now a team of Pittsburgh transplant surgeons aims to turn that tide, and they're hopeful they can do so in just the next decade, using donor eyes to restore sight in people who have suffered traumatic eye injuries. "I'm hopeful that in 10 years we will be doing eye transplants in humans," said Dr. Kia Washington, plastic surgeon at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and head of the research team. "There are people who are very skeptical, obviously, for obvious reasons. It is kind of a moonshot." And it's a moonshot that's of special interest to the Department of Defense, which is the main funder of the project. Traumatic eye injuries are the fourth most common combat wound for American soldiers. Counting both soldiers and civilians, nearly one million Americans are living with impaired vision due to eye injury. With donor eyes, Washington and her colleagues believe, many could one day see again.

12-8-16 Longer ‘penis’ drives evolution of bigger brains in female fish
Longer ‘penis’ drives evolution of bigger brains in female fish
Experiments that grew mosquito fish with longer sperm-delivery organs led to females with larger brains – possibly to better avoid male harassment. Size matters. Bigger genitals mean more mating success for male mosquito fish, a relative of the guppy. But the development of longer male organs prompts females to evolve bigger brains to help them escape overeager mates. Mating among mosquito fish is far from romantic. The male makes no effort to court partners, instead sneaking up and attempting to copulate by force up to a thousand times a day. It uses a modified anal fin, the gonopodium, to deliver sperm into the female. In this sort of mating system, the relationship between males and females can resemble that between predators and prey, which commonly involve an evolutionary arms race where adaptations on one side are closely matched by changes on the other. For example, big-brained predators tend to prey on big-brained prey, as the two try to outsmart each other. Séverine Buechel and colleagues at Stockholm University in Sweden wondered if a similar arms race was going on between male and female mosquito fish. Do females evolve bigger brains to defend against sneaky males, and do males evolve bigger brains in response? To test this, the team looked at what happened to brain size when males were bred to have longer gonopodia. Male mosquito fish have long gonopodia compared with related species in which coercion is not the dominant mating strategy, and males with longer gonopodia tend to be more successful at mating. The researchers found that breeding more well-endowed males led to bigger-brained females. But there was no arms race: male brains didn’t get bigger at the same time.

12-8-16 DNA clue to how humans evolved big brains
DNA clue to how humans evolved big brains
Humans may in part owe their big brains to a DNA "typo" in their genetic code, research suggests. The mutation was also present in our evolutionary "cousins" - the Neanderthals and Denisovans. However, it is not found in humans' closest living relatives, the chimpanzees. As early humans evolved, they developed larger and more complex brains, which can process and store a lot of information. Last year, scientists pinpointed a human gene that they think was behind the expansion of a key brain region known as the neocortex. They believe the gene arose about five or six million years ago, after the human line had split off from chimpanzees. Now, researchers have found a tiny DNA change - a point mutation - that appears to have changed the function of the gene, sparking the process of expansion of the neocortex. It may have paved the way for the brain's expansion by dramatically boosting the number of brain cells found in this region. (Webmaster's comment: Correction: We did not split off from chimpanzees! Both humans and chimpanzees split off separately from the hominins.)

The human brain:

  • Average weight of adult chimpanzee brain: 384g (0.85lb)
  • Average weight of modern human brain: 1,352g (2.98lb)
  • The modern human brain can store, collect and process lots of information, and deliver output, in split seconds; it can also solve problems and create abstract ideas and images
  • However, a big brain uses up lots of energy and makes childbirth more difficult

12-8-16 Why crested penguins lay mismatched eggs
Why crested penguins lay mismatched eggs
Extreme penguin egg favoritism could be quirk of migration. When macaroni penguins convene at a breeding site, females lay some of the most size-mismatched eggs known among birds. In crested penguin families, moms heavily favor offspring No. 2 from the start, and a new analysis proposes why. The six or seven species of crested (Eudyptes) penguins practice the most extreme egg favoritism known among birds, says Glenn Crossin of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. Females that lay two eggs produce a runty first egg weighing 18 to 57 percent less than the second, with some of the greatest mismatches among erect-crested and macaroni penguins. Some Eudyptes species don’t even incubate the first egg; royal penguins occasionally push it out of the nest entirely.

12-8-16 'Beautiful' dinosaur tail found preserved in amber
'Beautiful' dinosaur tail found preserved in amber
The tail of a feathered dinosaur has been found perfectly preserved in amber from Myanmar. The stunning discovery helps put flesh on the bones of these extinct creatures, opening a new window on the biology of a group that dominated Earth for more than 160 million years. Examination of the specimen suggests the tail was chestnut brown on top and white on its underside.

12-7-16 Light therapy could break down Alzheimer’s brain deposits
Light therapy could break down Alzheimer’s brain deposits
An hour a day of light therapy has been found to boost gamma brainwaves and break down brain deposits in mice with Alzheimer's-like symptoms. Could the answer to fighting Alzheimer’s disease be as simple as a flickering light? An hour a day of light therapy has been found to break down Alzheimer’s-like brain deposits in mice. That’s a long way from it working in people, but because it seems a safe therapy, it could move quickly into human trials. “This is really intriguing because it’s such an unexpected and brand new method for tackling the disease,” says Jon Brown of the University of Exeter, UK, who was not involved in the work. Ed Boyden at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his team exposed mice to a light flickering at 40 hertz. This triggered brain cells to oscillate together, creating gamma waves – a type of brain activity that is often weaker in people with Alzheimer’s. After they had been exposed to the light for an hour a day for a week, the rodents’ brains contained fewer beta-amyloid plaques, which are hallmarks of the disease. The light seemed to boost the activity of cells that clear amyloid, and cut amyloid production.

12-7-16 Brain waves show promise against Alzheimer’s protein in mice
Brain waves show promise against Alzheimer’s protein in mice
Flickering light induces nerve cells to trigger immune response to amyloid-beta. Compared with a mouse that received random brain stimulation, a mouse stimulated to produce more gamma waves had less amyloid-beta in its hippocampus. Flickering light kicks off brain waves that clean a protein related to Alzheimer’s disease out of mice’s brains, a new study shows. The results, described online December 7 in Nature, suggest a fundamentally new approach to counteracting Alzheimer’s. Many potential therapies involve drugs that target amyloid-beta, the sticky protein that accumulates in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. In contrast, the new method used on mice causes certain nerve cells to fire at a specific rhythm, generating brain waves that researchers believe may clear A-beta.

12-7-16 Having an extra chromosome has a surprising effect on cancer
Having an extra chromosome has a surprising effect on cancer
Smaller tumors, less cancer-driving proteins seen with trisomic cells. An extra chromosome can help suppress the effects of cancer mutations, new research suggests. The findings may help explain why people with Down syndrome, who have an extra copy of chromosome 21 in their cells, have low cancer rates. Having an extra chromosome may suppress cancer, as long as things don’t get stressful, a new study suggests. The finding may help scientists unravel a paradox: Cells with extra chromosomes grow slower than cells with the usual two copies of each chromosome, but cancer cells, which grow quickly, often have additional chromosomes. Researchers have thought that perhaps extra chromosomes and cancer-causing mutations team up to produce tumors. Jason Sheltzer, a cell biologist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, and colleagues examined the effect of having an extra chromosome in mouse cells that also have cancer-promoting mutations. Cells with an extra copy of a chromosome — known as trisomic cells — grew slower in lab dishes and formed smaller tumors in mice than cells with cancer mutations but no extra chromosomes. Even when trisomic cells carry cancer-associated genes on the extra chromosome, the cells make less than usual of the cancer-driving proteins produced from those genes, Sheltzer reported December 5 at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology.

12-7-16 Why a mountain goat is a better climber than you
Why a mountain goat is a better climber than you
Mountain goats can climb cliffs that are inaccessible to most other creatures. They accomplish that feat with the help of big muscles in their neck and shoulders. The mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus) might be the world’s best climber, able to scale near-vertical cliffs with an ease rivaled only by the world’s best human rock climbers — who have the advantage of safety equipment and opposable thumbs. Just how the goats manage such climbs has been somewhat of a mystery. Researchers suspected that the big muscles in the animals’ neck and shoulders and their low center of mass play a role, but no one had studied this, in part because of the difficulty of doing research in the goats’ home territory — remote mountainous regions of the United States and Canada.

12-7-16 Super-you: Use your better instincts to crush your inner bigot
Super-you: Use your better instincts to crush your inner bigot
We are wired to be prejudiced and a bit racist - but our instinct for collaboration can trump our worst instincts.

12-7-16 Super-you: Discover the physics genius inside your brain
Super-you: Discover the physics genius inside your brain
Without even realising, you perform fiendishly complex real-time calculations and predict the future like no other species can.

12-7-16 Super-you: You have a superstitious mind – to protect you
Super-you: You have a superstitious mind – to protect you
Think you’re an atheist? Heaven forfend! Your default is to believe in the supernatural, and there is no manual override.

12-7-16 Super-you: The mutant powers you get from outsider genes
Super-you: The mutant powers you get from outsider genes
Genes from other species, and cells from your relatives, live inside your body – and they hint at how we can improve ourselves.

12-7-16 Super-you: We’re all reading each other’s minds, all the time
Super-you: We’re all reading each other’s minds, all the time
Your power to predict what other people think is the secret sauce of culture and social connections. And there's scope for us all to improve.

12-7-16 Super-you: Your body is a nation of trillions
Super-you: Your body is a nation of trillions
Think you’re only human? Legions of creatures inhabit the cracks, contours and crevices of your body — and they all contribute to who you are.

12-7-16 Super-you: How to harness your inner braggart
Super-you: How to harness your inner braggart
Think you’re saner, smarter and better-looking than the average? Well so does everyone else. Recognising our delusions is the first step to doing better.

12-7-16 Super-you: You are the greatest runner on Earth
Super-you: You are the greatest runner on Earth
Other species might be better at speed or distance, but no species can run faster, further under all conditions than humans can. And yes, that’s you too.

12-7-16 Super-you: Train your brain to beat the inbuilt fear factory
Super-you: Train your brain to beat the inbuilt fear factory
Evolution has given us an inbuilt fear factory. But by engaging a different way of thinking we can stop panicking and weigh up the real risks.

12-7-16 Super-you: Fine-tune your life by making goals into habits
Super-you: Fine-tune your life by making goals into habits
It’s your environment and the people around you that truly control how you act – but there are easy ways you can take back control.

12-7-16 Why do men keep dying sooner than women?
Why do men keep dying sooner than women?
Human life expectancy has doubled in the last few centuries, as medical advances have let more kids reach adulthood and more adults live to a ripe old age. But even as people live longer overall, a recent study finds that there remains a gap of three or four years between male and female life expectancy. And that gender gap has barely changed at all, even as we now enjoy life expectancies our ancestors could scarcely imagine. We don't know why women live longer than men but the overwhelming evidence is that they do. An international team of researchers found that all demographic data for humans past and present, dating back to hunter-gatherer populations in both Africa and South America, show precisely the same gap between men and women. The same also holds true for several monkey and ape species, and that fact suggests the cause is tied up in millions of years of evolution. "If we know that men in the 21st century can live way longer than women in the 18th century, why haven't they caught up to women?" Duke University biologist and study co-author Susan Alberts told Vocativ. "If we could figure out why there is a difference, we could intervene potentially to mitigate. But we don't know. It's a puzzle."

  • One is that men are more likely to take risks that could lead to early deaths. For instance, men smoke and drink considerably more than women — although that gap appears to be decreasing.
  • Another hypothesis, according to Alberts, is that females have more effective immune systems — either because higher testosterone in males potentially suppress male immunity or as a byproduct of evolution's emphasis on the female reproductive role.
  • Another hypothesis, according to Alberts, is that females have more effective immune systems — either because higher testosterone in males potentially suppress male immunity or as a byproduct of evolution's emphasis on the female reproductive role.

12-7-16 Fake news shapes our opinions even when we know it’s not true
Fake news shapes our opinions even when we know it’s not true
You might think you’re immune to post-fact politics and fake news, but you’re more susceptible than you think – especially if you hear something more than once. Fake it till you make it. That old adage has never been so poignant in a year that has seen a surge in fake news. The rise in stories describing events that never happened, often involving fake people in fake places, has led Facebook and Google promising to tackle them. But are we really so gullible? According to several studies, the answer is yes: even the most obvious fake news starts to become believable if it’s shared enough times. In the months running up to the US election there was a surge in fake news. According to an analysis by Craig Silverman, a journalist, during this time the top 20 fake stories in circulation overtook the top 20 stories from 19 mainstream publishers. Paul Horner, a prolific publisher of fake news, has said he believes Donald Trump was elected because of him. “My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time… His followers don’t fact-check anything – they’ll post everything, believe anything,” he told the Washington Post. Silverman previously tracked rumours circulating online in 2014 and found that shares and social interactions around fake news articles dwarfed those of the articles that debunked them. According to Silverman, fake news stories are engineered to appeal to people’s hopes and fears, and aren’t constrained by reality, which gives them the edge in creating shareable content. (Webmaster's comment: People who believe fake news are very ignorant and very dangerous people because they act on those lies.)

12-7-16 Skull casket holding human bones reveals weird burial rituals
Skull casket holding human bones reveals weird burial rituals
The first Brazilians seem to have been surprisingly sophisticated in how they buried their dead some 9600 years ago. Death was a complicated business in prehistoric Brazil. Cadavers were meticulously dismembered and put on public display. Some parts seem to have been cooked and eaten, and then the bones were carefully tidied up and buried. On at least one occasion, a skullcap became a convenient storage container for cooked and defleshed bones. These intricate rituals offer a unique glimpse into the belief system of an ancient hunter-gatherer people, according to the international team of archaeologists investigating the burials – but other researchers caution about reading too much into the curious finds. The hunter-gatherers who lived in central South America 10,000 or so years ago have traditionally been seen as simple people who were reluctant to embrace novelty. But André Strauss at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, takes a different view. He and his colleagues have excavated burials at Lapa do Santo in east-central Brazil. They have found evidence that burial practices changed dramatically not once, but twice in just 2000 years.

12-6-16 Virtual reality raises real risk of motion sickness
Virtual reality raises real risk of motion sickness
Women more likely to feel nausea than men using gaming headset. Playing a virtual reality game using a headset could give you motion sickness, particularly if you are a woman, a study using the Oculus Rift concluded. With virtual reality finally hitting the consumer market this year, VR headsets are bound to make their way onto a lot of holiday shopping lists. But new research suggests these gifts could also give some of their recipients motion sickness — especially if they’re women. In a test of people playing one virtual reality game using an Oculus Rift headset, more than half felt sick within 15 minutes, a team of scientists at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis reports online December 3 in Experimental Brain Research. Among women, nearly four out of five felt sick.

12-6-16 How to master your intuition
How to master your intuition
You're really good at what you do and you've been doing it a long time. You've got a hunch about this big problem you're facing… Should you trust it? All those smarty-pants books (and smarty-pants blogs, for that matter) are telling you to be rational. Use this or that fancy logical system. Or a framework developed by the really smart professor at the prestigious University of Wherever. But your Spidey-Sense is tingling. There's a disturbance in The Force. This hunch just feels right… Should you trust your intuition? Or when should you trust your intuition? (And, um, what is intuition anyway?) Gary Klein decided to study the subject. And not just in some sterile lab with a bunch of 19-year-olds for subjects. For 30 years he's looked at intuition as it was used in real-life difficult situations by everyone from firefighters to chess masters.

12-6-16 Database provides a rare peek at a human embryo’s first weeks
Database provides a rare peek at a human embryo’s first weeks
At 9.5 weeks of pregnancy, a human embryo is almost 16 millimeters long — about the size of a 1-cent euro coin. A new 3-D tool lets users check out the embryo’s skin, cardiovascular system and skeleton individually, or combined with all the organs. When I first found out my daughter existed, she was about half the size of a mini chocolate chip. I was six weeks pregnant; she was four weeks into development. (The pregnancy timer officially begins two weeks before conception.) Already, the structures that would become her eyes had formed rudimentary orbs and the four tiny chambers of her heart were taking shape. At this stage of development, the embryo’s heart is huge, like a dumpling squeezed inside the torso. You can see this early human heart and what happens before and after it develops with a new tool, the 3-D Atlas of Human Embryology, published November 25 in Science. The atlas chronicles the very first stages of human development — when growth is literally exponential and an embryo is building bodily systems that will be in place for a lifetime.

12-6-16 Cell distress chemicals help embryos quickly heal
Cell distress chemicals help embryos quickly heal
In fruit flies, protein ring cinches wound shut without leaving a scar. Chemically reactive molecules called reactive oxygen species spur embryo cells to assemble a drawstring-like apparatus to close wounds, fruit fly research suggests. Fruit fly embryos use a molecular distress signal to call for wound healing. Those signals — hyperreactive chemicals known as reactive oxygen species — cause embryos to assemble drawstring-like structures called purse strings that rapidly cinch wounds shut, healing without leaving a scar. Assembling purse strings is a newfound wound-healing role for reactive oxygen species, cell biologist Miranda Hunter of the University of Toronto reported December 4 at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology. Previous research has suggested that dead and dying cells spill reactive oxygen species and trigger immune cells to move into the wound to mop up the mess.

12-6-16 Caesarean births 'affecting human evolution'
Caesarean births 'affecting human evolution'
The regular use of Caesarean sections is having an impact on human evolution, say scientists. More mothers now need surgery to deliver a baby due to their narrow pelvis size, according to a study. Researchers estimate cases where the baby cannot fit down the birth canal have increased from 30 in 1,000 in the 1960s to 36 in 1,000 births today. Historically, these genes would not have been passed from mother to child as both would have died in labour. Researchers in Austria say the trend is likely to continue, but not to the extent that non-surgical births will become obsolete. Dr Philipp Mitteroecker, of the department of theoretical biology at the University of Vienna, said there was a long standing question in the understanding of human evolution. "Why is the rate of birth problems, in particular what we call fetopelvic disproportion - basically that the baby doesn't fit through the maternal birth canal - why is this rate so high?" he said. "Without modern medical intervention such problems often were lethal and this is, from an evolutionary perspective, selection. "Women with a very narrow pelvis would not have survived birth 100 years ago. They do now and pass on their genes encoding for a narrow pelvis to their daughters."

12-5-16 Are caesareans really making us evolve to have bigger babies?
Are caesareans really making us evolve to have bigger babies?
C-sections mean that babies whose heads are too big or whose mothers’ pelvises are too narrow, are able to survive – a fact that might be changing our species. Caesarean sections that help difficult births – such as when a baby cannot fit through its mother’s pelvis – are affecting human evolution, according to a new study. But do the claims stack up? Some babies are too big to fit through their mother’s pelvis and would once have died in childbirth, sometimes killing their mums too. It may be down to the “obstetrical dilemma”. Bigger babies are more likely to survive childhood; yet there are also pressures to keep women’s pelvises narrow, not just because it might aid upright walking, but also because it reduces premature births. Like most features of human anatomy, size at birth and pelvis width are highly variable, with their distribution in the population following bell-shaped curves. The same goes for the ease of a baby’s “fit” through the pelvis. With evolutionary pressures forcing the fit to be as tight as possible, there is always going to be some fraction of babies – on one side of the curve’s tail – that can’t squeeze through. Thanks to C-sections, these babies no longer die, so this fraction should be rising – by up to 20 per cent since the procedure was introduced, according to Philipp Mitteroecker of the University of Vienna, Austria.

12-5-16 Sherlock Holmes shows memories have a common fingerprint
Sherlock Holmes shows memories have a common fingerprint
People remember and recount scenes from a TV show using the same patterns of brain activity, suggesting an evolutionary mechanism for acquiring knowledge. You might think your memories are unique, but a study involving a Sherlock Holmes drama suggests the opposite. When people describe the episode, their brain activity patterns are almost exactly the same as each other’s, for each scene. And there’s also evidence that, when a person tells someone else about it, they implant that same activity into their brain as well. That’s the implication of a groundbreaking experiment which, for the first time, has revealed that when we record and recount a shared experience, we use practically the same brain activity as each other, rather than everyone remembering and recalling events in random, individual ways. “We feel our memories are unique, but we see now that there’s a lot in common between us in how we see and remember the world, even at the level of brain activity patterns,” says Janice Chen at Princeton University.

12-5-16 Ancient leftovers show the real Paleo diet was a veggie feast
Ancient leftovers show the real Paleo diet was a veggie feast
Early humans seem to have eaten a wide variety of vegetables and nuts, alongside delicacies such as elephant brain and fish. Today’s Paleo diet cookbooks might be missing a few pages. Archaeological excavations at a Stone Age site in Israel have revealed the first direct evidence of the sort of plants that our distant human ancestors ate with their meat and fish. Their tastes were more adventurous than we might expect, with roasted acorns and sedges both on the menu. Archaeologists tend to emphasise the role of meat in ancient human diets, largely because the butchered bones of wild animals are so likely to be preserved at dig sites. Edible plants may have been overlooked simply because their remains don’t survive so well. The Gesher Benot Ya’aqov site in northern Israel provides some of our first direct evidence of what plants early humans ate. The site was occupied 780,000 years ago, probably by Homo erectus or a very closely related species. Deep in history, waterlogging helped preserve evidence of its inhabitants’ diets – plants as well as meat. It turns out the ancient humans had extraordinarily broad tastes. They collected no fewer than 55 different kind of plant – harvesting their nuts, fruits, seeds and underground stems or eating them as vegetables. Such broad tastes were probably essential, she says – they gave early humans a good chance of finding palatable food all year round. “It gives one a substantial element of security when particular sources become rare or absent.”

12-5-16 Scottish fossils tell story of first life on land
Scottish fossils tell story of first life on land
Fossils of what may be the earliest four-legged backboned animals to walk on land have been discovered in Scotland. The lizard-like creatures lived about 355 million years ago, when the ancestors of modern reptiles, birds and mammals emerged from swamps. The discovery plugs a 15 million-year gap in the fossil record. There are five complete fossils and many more fragments of bones that have yet to be classified. Some resemble lizards or newts, while others are larger, with almost crocodile-like proportions. "We're lifting the lid on a key part of the evolutionary story of life on land," said Prof Jennifer Clack of the University of Cambridge. "What happened then affects everything that happens subsequently - so it affects the fact that we are here and which other animals live with us today."

12-5-16 First spider superdads discovered
First spider superdads discovered
Males give up solitary life to protect egg sacs, spiderlings — often as single parent. The small Manogea males buck the trend among spiderkind, giving up their solitary ways to stay near their offspring and fight off attackers. The first normally solitary spider to win Dad of the Year sets up housekeeping in a web above his offspring and often ends up as their sole defender and single parent. Moms handle most parental care known in spiders, says Rafael Rios Moura at the Federal University of Uberlândia in Brazil. But either or both parents care for egg sacs and spiderlings in the small Manogea porracea species he and colleagues studied in a eucalyptus plantation. The dad builds a dome-shaped web above the mom’s web, and either parent will fight hungry invaders looking for baby-spider lunch. In webs with no parents, only about four spiderlings survived per egg sac. But with dad, mom or both on duty, survival more than doubled, the researchers report in the January 2017 Animal Behaviour.

12-4-16 The truth about willpower
The truth about willpower
Not so long ago, my post-work routine looked like this: After a particularly grueling day, I'd sit on the couch and veg for hours, doing my version of "Netflix and chill," which meant keeping company with a cold pint of ice cream. I knew the ice cream, and the sitting, were probably a bad idea, but I told myself this was my well-deserved "reward" for working so hard. Psychological researchers have a name for this phenomenon: It's called "ego depletion." The theory is that willpower is connected to a limited reserve of mental energy, and once you run out of that energy, you're more likely to lose self-control. This theory would seem to perfectly explain my after-work indulgences. But new studies suggest that we've been thinking about willpower all wrong, and that the theory of ego depletion isn't true. Even worse, holding on to the idea that willpower is a limited resource can actually be bad for you, making you more likely to lose control and act against your better judgment.

12-2-16 Pessimism linked to heart disease
Pessimism linked to heart disease
Pessimists tend to expect the worst and never see the silver lining in bad news. New research suggests that this gloom and doom could increase their risk of death from heart disease. Finnish researchers followed 2,267 middle-aged and older men and women for 11 years and evaluated their outlook on life. Over the course of the study, the researchers found, those who scored highest on the pessimism scale were more than twice as likely to have died of heart disease as those who ranked lowest. “Your personality traits can make physical health worse,” the study’s lead author, Dr. Mikko Pankalainen, tells The New York Times. “If you’re pessimistic and have some health issues, then it’s even more important to take care of your physical health.” It’s not known why this association exists, but researchers suggest pessimism may increase inflammation and other factors that negatively affect heart health, while also making people less proactive in pursuing healthy habits.

12-2-16 Bees of the sea: Tiny crustaceans pollinate underwater plants
Bees of the sea: Tiny crustaceans pollinate underwater plants
Seagrass pollen doesn’t just ride the tides - the grains of at least one species hitchhike on undersea invertebrates. Seagrass pollen swirls around on currents and tides, but it turns out that the grains can also hitch a ride on tiny marine creatures. Underwater invertebrates can ferry pollen between flowers, in the same way that bees and other animals pollinate plants on land. Seagrasses provide food and a habitat for everything from microscopic crustaceans to manatees, and stabilise coasts by anchoring sediment with their roots. They can propagate by cloning, or by sexual reproduction through the transfer of pollen from male to female flowers. Until recently, scientists thought that their pollen was conveyed from bloom to bloom by water alone, without the help of pollinators, says Brigitta van Tussenbroek at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s marine science institute in Puerto Morelos. So van Tussenbroek and her colleagues were surprised when underwater video footage of a turtle-grass bed revealed hundreds of invertebrates, mostly small crustaceans, visiting flowers. “We saw all of these animals coming in, and then we saw some of them carrying pollen,” says van Tussenbroek.

12-2-16 Microbes carve tiny rock homes for their barnacle chefs
Microbes carve tiny rock homes for their barnacle chefs
It's a first: barnacles provide food for the bacteria, which in turn dig out shelters for the barnacles, creating curious tear shapes on Australian rocks. It’s a weeping rock. Sandstone blocks near the Lakes Entrance holiday resort on the coast of Victoria, south-east Australia, are covered with barnacles that look like they are spilling tears. How did those so called “Tears of the Virgin”, get there? It seems that the unique geological formation is a product of equally unique biology: the first known symbiotic relationship between crustaceans and bacteria. “It is important because it shows how organisms slowly modify their environment – even if the environment seems ‘as solid as rock’,” says John Buckeridge at RMIT University in Melbourne, Victoria. “What is cute here is the relationship between the barnacle and the cyanobacteria that allows this to happen.”

12-2-16 Parkinson's disease 'may start in gut'
Parkinson's disease 'may start in gut'
Scientists in California say they have transformed understanding of Parkinson's disease. Their animal experiments, published in the journal Cell, suggest the brain disorder may be caused by bacteria living in the gut. The findings could eventually lead to new ways of treating the disease, such as drugs to kill gut bugs or probiotics. Experts said the results opened an "exciting new avenue of study". In Parkinson's disease the brain is progressively damaged, leading to patients experiencing a tremor and difficulty moving. Researchers used mice genetically programmed to develop Parkinson's as they produced very high levels of the protein alpha-synuclein, which is associated with damage in the brains of Parkinson's patients. But only those animals with bacteria in their stomachs developed symptoms. Sterile mice remained healthy. Further tests showed transplanting bacteria from Parkinson's patients to mice led to more symptoms than bacteria taken from healthy people.

12-1-16 Gut microbe mix may spark Parkinson’s
Gut microbe mix may spark Parkinson’s
In mice, brain inflammation, motor problems linked to intestinal bacteria. Intestinal microbes send signals that set off the disease’s characteristic brain inflammation and motor problems in mice, researchers report December 1 in Cell. Doctors might someday be able to treat Parkinson’s by fixing this bacterial imbalance. “It’s quite an exciting piece of work,” says John Cryan, a neuroscientist at University College Cork in Ireland who wasn’t involved in the study. “The relationship between the brain and gut for Parkinson’s has been bubbling up for many years.” The new research, he says, “brings the microbiome really into the forefront for the first time.”

12-1-16 How European contact devastated native people's genomes
How European contact devastated native people's genomes
While he immune systems of indigenous peoples were ill-equipped to deal with European diseases, this is only half the story. The arrival of Europeans had devastating consequences for the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas, killing anywhere from 50 to 100 million people. The story of European diseases like smallpox wiping out native populations is a familiar one, but now new research offers the most direct evidence yet of the destruction. The effects were felt down to the genetic level. The Metlakatla First Nation and Lax Kw'alaams, two indigenous communities in British Columbia, partnered with researchers from the University of Illinois and Penn State University to look at genomic evidence spanning thousands of years. The project compared DNA samples from people alive today with those of ancestral remains dating back as many as 6,000 years, including some samples that came from immediately before and after European contact. Metlakatla oral tradition and archaeological evidence agree that people have lived in coastal British Columbia for millennia but suffered massive depopulation when Europeans arrived. Genomic analysis now provides perhaps the most direct evidence possible to confirm that account. "It shows another way to corroborate what we've been saying all along," study co-author and Metlakatla liaison Barbara Petzelt told Vocativ. "With European contact, epidemics such as smallpox went through and devastated local populations, the Metlakatla ancestors."

12-1-16 World’s highest plants discovered growing 6km above sea level
World’s highest plants discovered growing 6km above sea level
Coin-sized pioneers are the highest vascular plants ever found, living at more than 6100 metres above sea level on India’s dizzying Himalayan peaks. Vascular plants have set a new record: they have been found growing at a height of 6150 metres above sea level. Six species of cushion plants have been discovered clinging to a gravelly south-west-facing patch no bigger than a football pitch on Mount Shukule II in the Ladakh region of India. This sets a record for vascular plants, whereas algae and mosses can grow even higher because they are more tolerant to drought and frost. A team led by Jiri Dolezal, of the Institute of Botany at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Pruhonice, endured nausea and extreme fatigue studying how plants respond to warming in a location five days’ journey away from the nearest road.

12-1-16 Magic mushroom drug helps people with cancer face death
Magic mushroom drug helps people with cancer face death
A single dose of the psychedelic drug psilocybin can relieve feelings of depression and anxiety in people with cancer and increase their quality of life. Can a psychedelic trip change the way people with life-threatening cancer face death? Results from two clinical trials suggest so. Researchers have shown that a single dose of psilocybin – the active ingredient in magic mushrooms – combined with psychotherapy reduces depression and anxiety and increases feelings of wellbeing in people with cancer. What’s more, for most, these effects appeared to last for more than six months. Psilocybin, along with other psychedelic drugs like LSD, was banned in the late 1960s. But an increased understanding of the drug’s physiological mechanisms has sparked a revival of research into its potential therapeutic benefits. Several small trials have shown its promise as a treatment for alcoholism, opiate addiction, depression and anxiety. People with cancer often develop chronic symptoms of depression and anxiety, and antidepressants appear to be of little help. Some small studies have suggested that psilocybin could be an alternative.

12-1-16 Enzyme forges carbon-silicon bonds with a little human help
Enzyme forges carbon-silicon bonds with a little human help
Selective breeding produces biological ability to link resistant atoms. Is silicon-based life out there in the universe? The jury is still out — but with a little help from humans, life on Earth might be able to sprinkle a little silicon in with its carbon. Carbon and silicon don’t play nice in nature — they link up only in human-made products like paint and pharmaceuticals. But after just three generations of selective breeding, an enzyme can bring the two atoms together, scientists report November 25 in Science. It’s the first time biological tools have bonded carbon to silicon, perhaps opening a way to let living organisms build proteins and other molecules containing silicon. “What excites me is the demonstration of how rapidly biological systems can innovate,” says study coauthor Frances Arnold, a chemical engineer at Caltech. “They can create new chemistry, new catalytic capabilities out of what’s already there.”

116 Evolution News Articles
for December 2016

Evolution News Articles for November 2016