96 Evolution News Articles
for February 2017
Click on the links below to get the full story from its source
2-28-17 BPA-free water bottles may contain another harmful chemical
BPA-free water bottles may contain another harmful chemical
A compound called BPA is being phased out of plastic packaging due to fears it may disrupt our hormones – but a replacement for it may be just as harmful. Talk about unintended consequences. A compound called BPA is being phased out of plastic packaging due to fears it may disrupt our hormones – but a replacement for it may be just as harmful. BPA, or bisphenol A, is often found in disposable water bottles and babies’ milk bottles and cups. Small amounts can dissolve into the food and drink inside these containers. This is a concern because a host of studies have shown that BPA can mimic the actions of oestrogen, binding to the same receptor in the body. Oestrogen is normally involved in breast development, regulating periods and maintaining pregnancies. Animals exposed to BPA develop abnormal reproductive systems, but it is unclear if people are exposed to high enough doses to be affected. Due to public pressure – and bans in a few countries – many manufacturers have started replacing BPA. One substitute, fluorene-9-bisphenol, or BHPF, is already widely used in a variety of materials. But Jianying Hu of Peking University in Beijing and her team have found that BHPF also binds to the body’s oestrogen receptors. Unlike BPA, it does this without stimulating them, instead blocking their normal activity. In tests on female mice, BHPF caused the animals to have smaller wombs and smaller pups than controls, and in some cases miscarriages. If BHPF binds to the same receptor in humans, it has the potential to cause fertility problems. “That’s pretty scary,” says Frederick vom Saal of the University of Missouri.
2-28-17 DNA may offer rapid road to Zika vaccine
DNA may offer rapid road to Zika vaccine
Multiple tests searching for way to thwart devastating virus. A Zika vaccine that’s made of DNA could be a safe and fast way to protect people from the virus, which can cause birth defects. Last August, scientists injected a potential vaccine for Zika virus into a human being — just 3½ months after they had decided exactly what molecular recipe to use. In the world of vaccine development, 3½ months from design to injection is “warp speed,” says vaccine researcher Nelson Michael of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Md. Clinical trials can take years and epidemics can burn out before vaccines make it to doctors’ shelves. Even vaccine creation is typically sluggish. But in this case, the vaccine is a bit of DNA, which means scientists can get moving fast. Unlike some traditional methods, DNA vaccines don’t use dead or weakened viruses. Instead, they rely on a snippet of genetic material. This “naked” DNA carries, for example, the blueprints for Zika proteins. It’s just a long sequence of DNA blocks.
2-27-17 Bacteria genes offer new strategy for sterilizing mosquitoes
Bacteria genes offer new strategy for sterilizing mosquitoes
Genetic engineering could deplete populations of disease-carrying insects. Wolbachia bacteria (red) effectively sterilize a male mosquito by infecting the insect’s testes, shown at 100 times magnification. Now, researchers have identified genes that may be responsible for the sterility. A pair of bacterial genes may enable genetic engineering strategies for curbing populations of virus-transmitting mosquitoes. Bacteria that make the insects effectively sterile have been used to reduce mosquito populations. Now, two research teams have identified genes in those bacteria that may be responsible for the sterility, the groups report online February 27 in Nature and Nature Microbiology.
2-27-17 Why we are so bad at spotting if our kids are overweight
Why we are so bad at spotting if our kids are overweight
At least 80 per cent of parents of overweight children think their kids are a healthy weight, and the reasons for this blind spot are complex. Overweight? You probably haven’t noticed. Repeated studies have shown that overweight and obese people often don’t consider themselves to be so. Now, a report from NHS digital shows parents of overweight children often wrongly think their children are a healthy weight too. So where does this blind spot come from? The report, which examines the body weight of children in England in 2015, reveals that 91 per cent of mothers and 80 per cent of fathers of overweight children thought their kids were a healthy weight. For obese children, 48 per cent of mothers and 43 per cent of fathers said their children were around the right weight. The results support an earlier analysis of 60,000 children that found over half of parents of overweight or obese children fail to recognise a problem. So why do we find it so hard to judge our children’s weight? The problem could stem from parents comparing their children with other children who are overweight. Research shows that obesity tends to cluster in social networks, and individuals in overweight friendship groups tend to gain more weight over time, the effect increasing with the strength of social ties.
2-26-17 Could women have babies in space?
Could women have babies in space?
you want to launch into space as an astronaut with NASA, you can't have a cardiovascular disorder, you can't have had LASIK surgery in the past year, and you definitely can't be pregnant. That's because for all we know about the bizarre things that happen to the human body in space — the way eyeballs get slightly flattened, the loss of bone density, and redistribution of body fluids, the fact that astronauts develop callouses on the tops of their feet while the soles of their feet become baby-smooth — we still don't really know what would happen to a human life in utero. And NASA isn't quite ready to find out, which is why the agency's medical standards for spaceflight specifically disqualify pregnant women from flight duty, as well as a number of training exercises. Every female astronaut is given a pregnancy test in the 10 days preceding a mission launch, and in 2001, the International Space Station even started stocking DIY pregnancy tests for any astronaut who might suspect she had become pregnant in space. Obviously this isn't a scenario that NASA has had to deal with yet, but it bends reality just slightly toward what may soon be possible — which is why some researchers have already started looking into how human pregnancy would be impacted by factors like zero gravity, cosmic radiation, atmospheric pressure, or if space is too hostile to support new human life at all. Alberts says it's hard to predict how closely those results would correlate to people — like all animal studies, it only provides an educated guess — but it does give reason to be wary of sending astronauts off to start space colonies. (Webmaster's comment: We did not evolve to make babies in low gravity or for them to to develop normally in low gravity. We evolved in one earth gravity and anything much different will cause severe problems.)
2-24-17 Having a cigarette may make your body crave coffee too
Having a cigarette may make your body crave coffee too
People who smoke may metabolise caffeine differently to non-smokers, leaving them needing to drink more to get the same hit from their coffee. Fancy a coffee after that cigarette? Smoking makes you drink more caffeinated drinks, possibly by changing your metabolism so that you break down caffeine quicker, pushing you to drink more to get the same hit. That’s according to Marcus Munafò at the University of Bristol, UK, and his colleagues who have looked into the smoking and drinking habits of about 250,000 people. It’s impossible to do a randomised controlled trial (the most rigorous kind of scientific trial) when it comes to smoking, because it would be unethical to ask a randomly selected group of people to smoke. The next best thing is to study huge biobanks of health data. These biobanks contain information about people’s genes, diets and lifestyles. To explore the relationship between smoking and caffeine, Munafo and his colleagues analysed data from biobanks in the UK, Norway and Denmark. They were particularly interested in people who had inherited a variant of a gene that has already been shown to increase cigarette smoking.
2-24-17 Firstborns are smartest
Firstborns are smartest
Here’s one to fuel sibling rivalries: New research suggests the order in which brothers and sisters are born may influence their relative intelligence. Researchers at the Universities of Edinburgh and Sydney analyzed data on roughly 5,000 American children, who were followed from pregnancy until age 14. They found that firstborns consistently outperformed their younger siblings on IQ tests—including for reading, matching letters, and picture vocabulary—and that the disparities began just 12 months after birth. The team speculates that this advantage may be traced back to the extra attention doting parents give to their first child. “First-time parents tend to want to do everything right and generally have a greater awareness of their interactions with and investments in the firstborn,” the study’s co-author, Jee-Yeon Lehmann, tells Today.com. With each additional child that parents have, Lehmann explains, they tend to have less time and energy to devote to activities they perceive as nonessential, such as reading, arts and crafts, and playing musical instruments. Another factor could be that first-time mothers are less likely to drink, smoke, or take part in other risky behaviors during pregnancy.
2-24-17 Snowstorms and heart attacks
Snowstorms and heart attacks
Big snowstorms may increase a man’s risk for a fatal heart attack, reports Reuters.com. Canadian researchers examined records on about 130,000 hospital admissions in Quebec during the winters between 1981 and 2014, and compared them with weather reports over the same period. They found that men were up to 16 percent more likely to have a heart attack—and as much as 34 percent more likely to die from one—after a big snowstorm. The longer the storm and the more snow that fell, the greater their risk. Since there wasn’t a similar uptick for women, the researchers speculate that the connection is probably linked to shoveling out snow. “It may be that men shovel more than women, particularly after heavy snowfalls,” says study author Nathalie Auger, from the University of Montreal. “It is also possible that men put more effort into shoveling and have a tendency to overdo it.” Frigid temperatures combined with the physical exertion required for shoveling can be dangerous, the study warns—particularly for those who are out of shape or who have pre-existing heart conditions.
2-24-17 Diet key to weight loss
Diet key to weight loss
Exercise has many proven health benefits, but those who dutifully log miles on the treadmill in the hopes of shedding stubborn pounds may want to reconsider their approach to weight loss. In a new study, researchers at Loyola University in Chicago found that healthy eating habits appear to be more important than exercise for long-term weight control, reports LiveScience.com. The team analyzed the physical activity and weight fluctuations of roughly 2,000 adults from the U.S., Ghana, Jamaica, South Africa, and the Seychelles. In each of the five countries, many of those who did 2½ hours of moderate weekly exercise actually put on more pounds over two years than their more sedentary peers. The most likely explanation for this? Exercise tends to boost appetite, meaning active people eat more than they otherwise would. The findings suggest that physical activity alone is “not enough to prevent weight gain,” says lead author Lara Dugas. “What we really need to look at is what people are eating.”
2-24-17 The superbug-fighting weed
The superbug-fighting weed
An invasive shrub known as the Brazilian peppertree could be a new weapon in the fight against antibiotic-resistant superbugs, reports WashingtonPost.com. A relative of poison ivy indigenous to South America, the Brazilian peppertree is the scourge of homeowners across the southern U.S., Florida in particular. But traditional healers in the Amazon have been using its bright red berries to treat skin infections for centuries, and researchers from the University of Iowa and Emory University believe the plant may contain a substance that effectively neutralizes methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). The team infected mice with the bacteria and treated some of them with Brazilian peppertree extract. While the untreated mice developed skin lesions, those who were given the plant compound did not. “It essentially disarms the MRSA bacteria, preventing it from excreting the toxins it uses as weapons to damage tissues,” explains Cassandra Quave, an ethnobotanist at Emory. “The body’s normal immune system then stands a better chance of healing a wound.” The findings could lead to new ways of controlling antibiotic resistance and treating MRSA infections, which claimed 11,000 lives in the U.S. in 2011.
2-23-17 Extinct Neanderthals still control expression of human genes
Extinct Neanderthals still control expression of human genes
Early humans may have outcompeted Neanderthals, but their influence lives on in DNA some of us inherited after the two interbred. Neanderthals are still affecting what illnesses some people develop, how tall they are and how their immune systems work, despite being extinct for 40,000 years. This is thanks to the Neanderthal DNA those of non-African descent inherited from ancestors who mated with our cousins some 50,000 years ago. A study has now revealed how this genetic legacy is still controlling how some people’s genes work, with possible consequences for their health. Tellingly, the Neanderthal influence has waned fastest in parts of the body that evolved most rapidly around that time, especially the brain. It suggests that once our direct human ancestors had evolved the equipment for sophisticated language and problem-solving, mating with Neanderthals – and the DNA that came with it – rapidly fell out of fashion. But Neanderthal control of human genes endures, some of it positive and some negative. Evidence comes from an in-depth analysis of DNA from 214 people in the US, focusing on individuals of European ancestry. By comparing their modern DNA with that from Neanderthals – whose genome was sequenced in 2008 – a team led by Joshua Akey at the University of Washington in Seattle was able to identify which Neanderthal gene fragments had survived and were still active in 52 different types of human tissue. The team found that some people had one human and one Neanderthal copy of the same gene. When comparing these genes, Akey and his colleagues found that a quarter showed differences in activity between the modern and Neanderthal versions of the same gene. More importantly, the researchers could tell which variant had the upper hand.
2-23-17 Human genes often best Neandertal ones in brain, testes
Human genes often best Neandertal ones in brain, testes
Researchers measured activity in people who have one version of each gene. Human versions of some genes are more active in certain parts of the brain than Neandertal versions. Side and back views of a brain show that activity levels of the Neandertal version of a gene called NTRK2 are lower in the cerebellum (blue area in lower back) than in other regions. Humans and Neandertals are still in an evolutionary contest, a new study suggests. Geneticist Joshua Akey of the University of Washington in Seattle and colleagues examined gene activity of more than 700 genes in which at least one person carried a human and a Neandertal version of the gene. Human versions of some genes are more active than Neandertal versions, especially in the brain and testes, the researchers report February 23 in Cell. In other tissues, some Neandertal versions of genes were more active than their human counterparts. In the brain, human versions were favored over Neandertal variants in the cerebellum and basal ganglia. That finding may help explain why Neandertals had proportionally smaller cerebellums than humans do. Neandertal versions of genes in the testes, including some needed for sperm function, were also less active than human varieties. That finding is consistent with earlier studies that suggested male human-Neandertal hybrids may have been infertile, Akey says.
2-23-17 You should be eating 10 pieces of fruit or veg every day, not 5
You should be eating 10 pieces of fruit or veg every day, not 5
A review of 95 studies suggests we should be eating 10 portions of fruit and veg a day to reduce our chances of dying from a heart attack or cancer. Pass the fruit bowl. Five a day just doesn’t cut it anymore – we should be eating 10 portions of fruit or vegetables a day to reduce our chances of dying from a heart attack or cancer. That’s according to a review of 95 previous studies of the relationship between diet and health. “Five a day is good, but more is even better,” says Dagfinn Aune of Imperial College London. We have long known that people who eat more fruit and vegetables tend to live longer. Official advice in the UK is to eat five portions of fruit and veg a day. A portion is about 80 grams, equivalent to an apple, two tangerines or three heaped tablespoons of peas. But targets are higher in some other countries, such as the US, where it is eight to ten a day. Other research has suggested benefits from eating seven portions a day, although this wasn’t an upper limit.
2-23-17 Bacteria’s amyloids display surprising structure
Bacteria’s amyloids display surprising structure
Protein clumps in S. aureus differ from those in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s. Proteins from Staphylococcus aureus bacteria make amyloid-like clumps that are toxic to human cells. Clusters of a toxic bacterial protein have a surprising structure, differing from similar clumps associated with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s in humans, scientists report in the Feb. 24 Science. These clusters, called amyloids, are defined in part by their structure: straight regions of protein chains called beta strands, folded accordion-style into flat beta sheets, which then stack up to form a fiber. That definition might now need to be broadened. “All the amyloids that have been structurally looked at so far have certain characteristics,” says Matthew Chapman, a biologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who wasn’t part of the work. “This is the odd amyloid out right now.” In the human brain, misfolded proteins can form amyloids that trigger neurodegenerative diseases. But amyloids aren’t always a sign of something gone wrong — some bacteria make amyloids to help defend their turf.
2-23-17 A preschooler’s bubbly personality may rub off on friends
A preschooler’s bubbly personality may rub off on friends
Happiness may be contagious among preschoolers, a new study suggests. A preschool classroom is an ecosystem unlike any other. Scents of glue and snack time waft through the air. Bright, clunky art papers the walls. Fun-sized furniture makes visiting adults feel like awkward giants. In the name of science, a team of psychologists spent an entire year inside two such rooms, meticulously documenting changes in preschoolers’ personalities. By the end of the year, the team had found that kids were sharing a lot more than runny noses with their friends. Preschoolers’ sunny dispositions may actually be contagious. Over the course of a school year, kids who hung out with happy, smiley friends took on more of these traits themselves, the observant scientists found. The results suggest that young children’s personalities rub off on their pals. Psychologist Jennifer Watling Neal of Michigan State University in East Lansing and colleagues suspected that both inborn temperament and environment help shape kids’ outlooks. “We know that it’s probably a little bit of nature and a little bit of nurture,” Neal says.
2-22-17 Desert people evolve to drink water poisoned with deadly arsenic
Desert people evolve to drink water poisoned with deadly arsenic
People living in the Atacama desert of Chile evolved specific gene mutations over the past 7000 years that make them better at detoxifying the heavy metal. PEOPLE in a south American desert have evolved to detoxify potentially deadly arsenic that laces their water supply. For settlers in the Quebrada Camarones region of Chile’s Atacama desert some 7000 years ago, water posed more than a bit of a problem. They were living in the world’s driest non-polar desert, and several of their most readily available water sources, such as rivers and wells, had high levels of arsenic, which can cause a variety of health problems. The arsenic contamination here exceeds 1 microgram per litre: the highest levels in the Americas, and over 100 times the World Health Organization’s safe limits. There are virtually no alternative water sources, and yet, somehow, people have survived in the area. Could it be that arsenic’s negative effects on human health, such as inducing miscarriages, acted as a natural selection pressure that made this population evolve adaptations to it? A new study suggests this is indeed so.
2-22-17 Questions remain about the benefits of taking testosterone
Questions remain about the benefits of taking testosterone
Five new studies say hormone replacement is a mixed bag for aging men. As men age, testosterone levels in the blood tend to drop. Replacing the hormone through testosterone treatments brings an assortment of benefits and potential problems. As a treatment for the ailments of aging, testosterone’s benefits are hit or miss. For men with low testosterone, the hormone therapy is helpful for some health problems, but not so much for others, researchers report in five papers published February 21 in JAMA and JAMA Internal Medicine. Testosterone therapy was good for the bones, but didn’t help memory. It remedied anemia and was linked to a lower risk of heart attack and stroke. But treatment also upped the amount of plaque in the arteries, an early indicator of heart attack risk, researchers report. “It’s a very confusing area,” says Caleb Alexander, a prescription drug researcher at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who was not involved with the work. “Testosterone very well may help men feel more energized,” he says. “But the real question is: At what cost?”
2-22-17 Instead of starving a cancer, researchers go after its defenses
Instead of starving a cancer, researchers go after its defenses
Oxygen deprivation can propel tumor growth and spread. Cancer cells surround a blood vessel in a mouse tumor. Cells on the tumor’s edge are dying, starved of oxygen. But treatments to starve tumors have come up short. Like many living things, a cancer cell cannot survive without oxygen. When young and tiny, a malignancy nestles inside a bed of blood vessels that keep it fed. As the mass grows, however, its demand for oxygen outpaces supply. Pockets within the tumor become deprived and send emergency signals for new vessel growth, a process called angiogenesis. In the 1990s, a popular cancer-fighting theory proposed interfering with angiogenesis to starve tumors to death. One magazine writer in 2000 called the strategy “the most important single insight about cancer of the past 50 years.” It made such intuitive sense.
2-22-17 HIV vaccine therapy lets five people control virus without drugs
HIV vaccine therapy lets five people control virus without drugs
The therapy gives the immune system the tools to flush out HIV, meaning daily drugs can be ditched – one man has been free of them for seven months. FIVE people with HIV are currently free of detectable virus – and daily drugs – thanks to a new vaccine-based therapy. Although it is early days, one participant has been drug-free for seven months. Most people with HIV need to take antiretroviral drugs (ART) each day to stop the virus from replicating and causing damage to their immune system. These have to be taken over a lifetime because the virus can hide away in tissues such as lymphoid and gut cells; if ART is stopped, the virus quickly re-emerges from these cells. Although effective, ART is expensive, time-consuming and can cause nasty side effects. Three years ago, Beatriz Mothe of the IrsiCaixa AIDS Research Institute in Barcelona, Spain, and her colleagues started a trial in which 24 people recently diagnosed with HIV were given two vaccines developed by Tomas Hanke and his colleagues at the University of Oxford. They were also given ART, then monitored to see whether the vaccines induced a strong immune response.
2-22-17 Skulls reveals that ancient Americans didn’t mix with neighbours
Skulls reveals that ancient Americans didn’t mix with neighbours
Skull shape tells us that some early inhabitants of the Americas kept to themselves, and that South America saw at least two distinct waves of colonisation. It’s a real head-scratcher. The shapes of human skulls from a narrow strip in Mexico reveal that first arrivals to the Americas may have kept to themselves, even when there were no geographical barriers that would have prevented them mixing. Genetic studies have begun to unravel the complex story of the earliest American settlers, but archaeological studies can provide important details too – particularly the careful study of human skull shape. This is influenced by someone’s genetic history: when two populations become isolated from each other and can no longer interbreed, they each begin to develop unique genetic signatures – and skull shapes. Mark Hubbe and Brianne Herrera at the Ohio State University in Columbus and their colleagues took detailed measurements from a series of 800 to 500-year-old skulls unearthed in three regions of Mexico. They then looked at equivalent measurements from skulls found at a number of sites across North and South America, East Asia and Australasia and analysed how skull shape varied with location. Skulls from two of the Mexican regions – Sonora and Tlanepantla – clustered together in the shape analysis. But skulls from the third region, Michoacán, were different. The variation was on a scale normally seen between two populations that have been separated for millennia, often because they have settled in regions that are thousands of kilometres apart. Yet the distance between Michoacán and Tlanepantla is under 300 kilometres.
2-22-17 Female fish mate 200 times but save eggs for the perfect male
Female fish mate 200 times but save eggs for the perfect male
Lampreys engage in prolonged sex sessions where the females pretend to mate with 10 or more males – all the while waiting for "the one". FAKE it ’til you make it. Female lampreys mate hundreds of times but secretly withhold their eggs until they are sure their suitor is worthy. During the mating season, male and female Siberian brook lampreys (Lethenteron kessleri) meet for orgies in specially built nests in the streams where they live. Individual female fish appear to mate up to 200 times, with 10 or more different males. Until now, the benefit of these marathons for female lampreys has been unclear, because they require lots of energy. Now Itsuro Koizumi at Hokkaido University in Japan and colleagues have found that in most sexual encounters, the female brook lampreys do not release eggs. The would-be fathers appear not to notice when their female partners trick them by withholding their eggs, Koizumi says, as they still release clouds of sperm into the water. Female lampreys were more likely to engage in sham mating when grouped with lots of males, hinting that they were pickier when they had more choice. This fits in with the idea that sham mating allows the females to select the father of their offspring.
2-22-17 Buttercups focus light to heat their flowers and attract insects
Buttercups focus light to heat their flowers and attract insects
A special layer of cells inside the petals makes them act together like a parabolic reflector, focusing visible and infrared light on the flower centre. BUTTERCUPS have a trick for warming their flowers that may be unique to this group of plants. Inside each flower petal, special cells create two layers of air that deflect the light reaching them sideways. This makes the petals act together like a parabolic reflector, focusing visible and infrared light on the flower centre. “The flowers act as heat concentrators,” says Doekele Stavenga of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, whose team discovered the trick (Journal of the Royal Society Interface, DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2016.0933). Warming the pollen-producing stamens has previously been shown to boost their growth and the chance of fertilisation, he says. Insect pollinators prefer warmer flowers, for instance, perhaps because it allows them to keep their own temperature up. Buttercups get their bright colour from yellow pigments in the petals’ surface layer. But the petals’ shiny gloss is due to the double layer of air just beneath the surface. This reflectivity is what turns people’s chins yellow when they hold a flower underneath. Some other plants also warm their flowers. A few burn food like warm-blooded animals, and one rhubarb species has translucent leaves that act like a greenhouse.
2-21-17 Exercise reduces death from breast cancer relapse by 40 per cent
Exercise reduces death from breast cancer relapse by 40 per cent
A quarter of women with breast cancer will die from cancer spreading around the body – exercise is the most important lifestyle factor in preventing this. For women who have recovered from breast cancer, exercise appears to be the most important lifestyle choice to reduce the risk of death from a relapse. Around a quarter of all women with breast cancer will eventually die when the cancer spreads to other parts of the body. But living more healthily can reduce the risk of this happening. To find out what lifestyle changes might have the greatest benefit, Ellen Warner and Julie Hamer of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, Canada, analysed 67 studies that examined factors such as diet, exercise and weight, and their effect on the health of women who had been successfully treated for breast cancer. They conclude that physical activity can reduce the chance of death from a breast cancer relapse by up to 40 per cent. “Exercise had the most consistent and greatest [impact] on the relative risk of breast cancer death,” says Warner. The ideal amount is 150 minutes of moderate physical activity spread over a week, she says.
2-21-17 The science of why we experience false memories
The science of why we experience false memories
Would you trust a memory that felt as real as all your other memories, and if other people confirmed that they remembered it too? What if the memory turned out to be false? This scenario was named the "Mandela effect" by the self-described "paranormal consultant" Fiona Broome after she discovered that other people shared her (false) memory of the South African civil rights leader Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the 1980s. Is a shared false memory really due to a so-called "glitch in the matrix," or is there some other explanation for what's happening? Broome attributes the disparity to the many-worlds or "multiverse" interpretation of quantum mechanics. When not directly observed, electrons and other subatomic particles diffract like waves, only to behave like particles when a measurement is made. Essentially, it's as if these particles exist in multiple places simultaneously until directly observed. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger explained this strange concept with the "Schrödinger's cat" thought experiment in 1935. If a cat were placed in a box with a radioactive-decay-detector rigged to break a flask of poison when activated, a decaying particle existing as a wave would yield two simultaneous macroscale realities — one where the cat is alive and one where the cat is dead. Although, upon observation, one could see that the cat is either dead or alive, some quantum physicists such as the late Hugh Everett III — who first proposed the many-worlds interpretation in 1957 — have speculated that both realities exist … but in separate, parallel universes.
2-21-17 Power may have passed via women in ancient Chaco Canyon society
Power may have passed via women in ancient Chaco Canyon society
Mitochondrial DNA from skeletons in elite burial room shows familial relationship spanning three centuries. Recovered DNA suggests that nine people buried in a huge structure called Pueblo Bonito (shown), located in northwestern New Mexico, belonged to a maternal dynasty that lasted for 330 years during the heyday of ancient Chaco society. A maternal dynasty ruled one of the earliest and most mysterious civilizations in the Americas, centered in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, for more than three centuries, researchers say. DNA extracted from the bones of individuals buried inside a massive Chaco stone pueblo or great house, along with new radiocarbon dates for interred bones, indicate that royal status ran through a particular maternal lineage from 800 to 1130, say Penn State archaeologist Douglas Kennett and colleagues. Chaco society flourished in what’s now the U.S. Southwest during that stretch (SN Online: 3/17/11). Recovered DNA provides the first direct evidence that Chaco civilization started out with stratified social classes in a system that had surprising staying power, the scientists conclude February 21 in Nature Communications.
2-21-17 Howler monkeys may owe their color vision to leaf hue
Howler monkeys may owe their color vision to leaf hue
Distinguishing red from green makes healthier leaves stand out. Being able to tell red and green apart helps howler monkeys like this one pick out younger, more nutritious leaves, research suggests. A taste for reddish young leaves might have pushed howler monkeys toward full-spectrum color vision. The ability to tell red from green could have helped howlers pick out the more nutritious, younger leaves, researchers reported February 19 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That’s a skill their insect-eating close relatives probably didn’t need.
2-20-17 Putting cancer patients in hibernation could help tackle tumours
Putting cancer patients in hibernation could help tackle tumours
Tumour growth would slow right down or cease while healthy cells in the body become more resistant to radiation. Cancer could be tackled more effectively by putting patients into a torpor state similar to that of a hibernating bear. Tumour growth would slow right down or cease while healthy cells in the body become more resistant to radiation, says physicist Marco Durante, from the Trento Institute in Italy. The radical idea follows years of research on hibernating animals, and anecdotal reports of people who have been plunged into deep freeze and survived. During hibernation, a form of cold temperature deep sleep, body functions such as heart and respiration rate, metabolism and oxygen uptake all slow down. At the molecular level, too, gene activity and protein synthesis are reduced to a crawling pace. All these effects could have big implications for cancer treatment, said Durante at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston on February 19th. “If you can do it, you can take (advanced) cancers that are fourth stage,” he said. “Around 50 per cent of cancer patients have advanced cancer, so it is a large number. We all have known someone affected this way. And there is nothing that we can do with them. They have multiple metastasis (spreading tumours) in the body. “You cannot treat all the metastasis – you cannot use surgery to everywhere to remove the cancer or do radiation in all the affected parts of the body or you will kill the patients trying to destroy the cancer,” he said. “But if you could put the patient into synthetic torpor you could stop the cancer growing. It gives you more time.”
2-20-17 'Meditating mice' reveal secrets of mindfulness training
'Meditating mice' reveal secrets of mindfulness training
Mice are less on edge if their brainwaves are coaxed to resemble those patterns that meditation boosts in humans. Can a mouse be mindful? Researchers believe they have created the world’s first mouse model of meditation by using light to trigger brain activity similar to what meditation induces. The mice involved appeared less anxious, too. Human experiments show that meditation reduces anxiety, lowers levels of stress hormones and improves attention and cognition. In one study of the effects of two to four weeks of meditation training, Michael Posner of the University of Oregon and colleagues discovered changes in the white matter in volunteers’ brains, related to the efficiency of communication between different brain regions. The changes, picked up in scans, were particularly noticeable between the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and other areas. Since the ACC regulates activity in the amygdala, a region that controls fearful responses, Posner’s team concluded that the changes in white matter could be responsible for meditation’s effects on anxiety. The mystery was how meditation could alter the white matter in this way. Posner’s team figured that it was related to changes in theta brainwaves, measured using electrodes on the scalp. Meditation increases theta wave activity, even when people are no longer meditating.
2-19-17 New imaging technique catches DNA ‘blinking’ on
New imaging technique catches DNA ‘blinking’ on
Method avoids need for fluorescent dyes to see cellular molecules. When stimulated with light, DNA “blinks” on, making cellular structures visible without the need for fluorescent dyes. A new imaging technique takes advantage of DNA’s natural ability to “blink” in response to stimulating light. The new approach will allow unprecedented views of genetic material and other cellular players. It’s the first method to resolve features smaller than 10 nanometers, biomedical engineer Vadim Backman said February 17 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. DNA and proteins don’t naturally give off light, conventional wisdom holds, so scientists have developed fluorescent dyes to attach to such molecules to make them visible in the darkness of a cell (SN: 6/5/13, p. 20). But Backman and Hao Zhang, both of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., discovered that when DNA is tickled with particular wavelengths of light, it “blinks” on, momentarily shining brighter than it would with the most powerful fluorescent tags. Backman and Zhang designed a setup that excites cells with light and then collects the spectra of the emitted light, allowing them to discern different kinds of biomolecules.
2-19-17 Enzymes aid rice plants’ arsenic defenses
Enzymes aid rice plants’ arsenic defenses
Converting one form of toxic element to another limits health dangers. Rice plants can convert arsenic to a different form in their roots to push the toxic element back into the soil. Rooted in place, plants can’t run away from arsenic-tainted soil — but they’re far from helpless. Scientists have identified enzymes that help rice plant roots tame arsenic, converting it into a form that can be pushed back into the soil. That leaves less of the toxic element to spread into the plants’ grains, where it can pose a health risk to humans, researchers reported February 17 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Once arsenic worms its way into rice plant roots and gets into the vascular system, “it’s transported into the leaves and the grain,” David Salt, a biologist at the University of Nottingham in England who conducted the recent research, said during a news conference. Inside the plant, arsenic “can accumulate to levels where it can potentially be toxic if it accumulates over long times.” Since arsenic occurs naturally in soil, understanding the genetic basis for plants’ natural defense mechanisms might help researchers engineer plants that take in less arsenic, said Mary Lou Guerinot, a biologist at Dartmouth College.
2-18-17 Microbes survived inside giant cave crystals for up to 50,000 years
Microbes survived inside giant cave crystals for up to 50,000 years
Extremophiles hint at possible resilience of life beyond Earth. Samples from fluid pockets in crystals inside Mexico's Naica mine in Chihuahua revealed life-forms that may have been trapped in the minerals for up to 50,000 years. Microbes found stowed inside giant crystals in caves in Chihuahua, Mexico, may have survived there for tens of thousands of years. The microorganisms, which appear to be vastly different from nearly all life-forms found on Earth, offer a good indication of how resilient life can be in extremely harsh environments, including those found on other planets. “These organisms are so extraordinary,” astrobiologist Penelope Boston said February 17 during a news conference at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. They are not close to any known genus scientists have been able to identify, said Boston, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute in Moffett Field, Calif. Their closest relatives live in caves halfway around the world or in volcanic soils or thrive on compounds such as toluene.
2-18-17 Naica's crystal caves hold long-dormant life
Naica's crystal caves hold long-dormant life
It is a remarkable discovery in an amazing place. Scientists have extracted long-dormant microbes from inside the famous giant crystals of the Naica mountain caves in Mexico - and revived them. The organisms were likely to have been encased in the striking shafts of gypsum at least 10,000 years ago, and possibly up to 50,000 years ago. It is another demonstration of the ability of life to adapt and cope in the most hostile of environments. "Other people have made longer-term claims for the antiquity of organisms that were still alive, but in this case these organisms are all very extraordinary - they are not very closely related to anything in the known genetic databases," said Dr Penelope Boston. The new director of Nasa's Astrobiology Institute in Moffett Field, California, described her findings here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
2-17-17 You are what you eat: Old food shortens lifespan in animals
You are what you eat: Old food shortens lifespan in animals
Mice, flies and yeast fed on food from old organisms had a shorter lifespan than animals fed on young organisms, perhaps because of faster accumulation of cellular damage. You are what you eat – so does eating old food make you old? It sounds far-fetched, but experiments on mice, flies and yeast suggest that it might. The fundamental causes of ageing aren’t well understood. A leading idea is that throughout life, our bodies accumulate cellular damage. That might include oxidative damage to cells caused by by-products of aerobic respiration, and DNA damage – or a combination of those and other types. Vadim Gladyshev at Harvard University wondered whether organisms might also be able to acquire cellular damage from their food. Food is broken down and used as the building blocks for many cellular processes, so eating older organisms – which have more molecular damage themselves – might cause an animal to age faster than one that eats younger organisms with less molecular damage. To test the theory, Gladyshev and his team grew yeast fed on culture media made from old or young yeast and fed fruit flies food made from old or young flies. They also studied mice fed meat from old or young deer. The animals were fed their particular diet from early adulthood for the rest of their lives. The old diet shortened lifespan by 18 per cent in yeast and 13 per cent in flies. In the mice, the old diet shortened lifespan by 13 per cent in female mice, but there was no significant effect among males.
2-17-17 Common fungus may raise asthma risk
Common fungus may raise asthma risk
Infants exposed to Pichia yeast more likely to develop breathing disorder. The fungus Pichia, a type of yeast, is linked to kids’ likelihood of developing asthma, new research shows. A fungus among us may tip the body toward developing asthma. There’s mounting evidence that early exposure to microbes can protect against allergies and asthma (SN Online: 7/20/16). But “lo and behold, some fungi seem to put kids at risk for asthma,” microbiologist Brett Finlay said February 17 at a news conference during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Infants whose guts harbored a particular kind of fungus — a yeast called Pichia — were more likely to develop asthma than babies whose guts didn’t have the fungus, Finlay reported. Studies in mice and people suggest that exposure to some fungi can both trigger and exacerbate asthma, but this is the first work linking asthma to a fungus in the gut microbiome of infants.
2-17-17 Naica's crystal caves hold long-dormant life
Naica's crystal caves hold long-dormant life
Scientists have extracted long-dormant microbes from inside the famous giant crystals of the Naica mountain caves in Mexico - and revived them. The organisms were likely to have been encased in the striking shafts of gypsum at least 10,000 years ago, and possibly up to 50,000 years ago. It is another demonstration of the ability of life to adapt and cope in the most hostile of environments. "Other people have made longer-term claims for the antiquity of organisms that were still alive, but in this case these organisms are all very extraordinary - they are not very closely related to anything in the known genetic databases," said Dr Penelope Boston. The new director of Nasa's Astrobiology Institute in Moffett Field, California, described her findings here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
2-16-17 Dwarf planet Ceres hosts home-grown organic material
Dwarf planet Ceres hosts home-grown organic material
The first evidence of organic material on Ceres opens the door to the possibility that other asteroids harbour precursors to primitive life. Ceres is doing some home-brewing in the asteroid belt. Organic material has been found on the dwarf planet located between Mars and Jupiter – and it was produced in-house. Using the Dawn space probe, which has been orbiting Ceres since early 2015, planetary scientists found pockets of carbon-based organic compounds on the surface of the space rock. The identity of the tar-like minerals can’t be pinned down precisely, but their mineral fingerprints match the make-up of kerite or asphaltite. The constituents and concentrations of these organic materials suggest that it’s unlikely they came to Ceres from another planetary body. First, they wouldn’t have survived the heat of an impact on the surface of Ceres. And if they had hitched a ride on another stellar object, they would be widely dispersed, rather than concentrated in pockets. That means they must have come from Ceres itself. “Anything else, you would expect it to be more widespread,” says Michael Küppers at the European Space Agency. Chris Russell at the University of California, Los Angeles, leads NASA’s Dawn science team and says this finding, along with recent discoveries of water ice and bright spots of mineral deposits on Ceres, points to a more complex picture of the dwarf planet than we once assumed. “It’s not just an accumulation of rock, but in fact, it’s been doing things,” he says. What it’s doing on the inside is not entirely clear yet, but the organic material on the surface indicates that there are processes within Ceres regulated by heat and water.
2-16-17 Ceres harbors homegrown organic compounds
Ceres harbors homegrown organic compounds
Data hint dwarf planet may have had habitable environment. Organic matter has been detected on Ceres, shown, suggesting the dwarf planet hosts the building blocks of life. Dwarf planet Ceres contains the necessary ingredients for life, new data suggest. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has detected organic compounds on Ceres — the first concrete proof of organics on an object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. This material probably originated on the dwarf planet itself, the researchers report in the Feb. 17 Science. The discovery of organic compounds, the building blocks of life, adds to the growing body of evidence that Ceres may have once had a habitable environment. “We’ve come to recognize that Ceres has a lot of characteristics that are intriguing for those looking at how life starts,” says Andy Rivkin, a planetary astronomer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., who was not involved in the study.
2-15-17 Autism detectable in brain long before symptoms appear
Autism detectable in brain long before symptoms appear
Brain scans can detect autism long before any symptoms start to emerge, say scientists. The earliest that children tend to be diagnosed at present is at the age of two, although it is often later. The study, published in the journal Nature, showed the origins of autism are much earlier than that - in the first year of life. The findings could lead to an early test and even therapies that work while the brain is more malleable. One in every 100 people has autism, which affects behaviour and particularly social interaction.
2-15-17 How you can control what happens in your dreams
How you can control what happens in your dreams
Lucid dreaming, in which you remain aware and can steer your dreams, is easier than you might think. The simplest method to boost your chance of lucid dreaming is to perform “reality checks” during the day. As often as possible, stop to observe your environment and body, and ask yourself: “Is this a dream?” As this becomes a habit, it will be incorporated into your dreams. One night you will find yourself asking, “Is this a dream?” and realise, in fact, it is. A more direct way is through the “Wake-Back-To-Bed” technique, which is exactly what it sounds like. Ideally, you should set an alarm about 2 hours before you normally wake up, which will put you at a phase in the sleep cycle when REM sleep is longer and more intense. When the alarm goes off, sit up and stay awake for about 20 minutes. During this time it can help to think or write about the most recent dream you remember, noting anything that could have clued you in to the fact you were dreaming. When you go back to sleep, you should soon enter a dream, and your recently awake and intent mind is likely to follow. Finally, you can complement these effortful techniques with technology. While there are many apps and sleep masks that are supposed to induce lucid dreams via audio and visual signals, most of them simply run on a timer and send signals randomly while you sleep, so aren’t that effective. The most promising are two new devices, the Aurora Dreamband and the iBand+. Both are small headbands that use actual EEG, among other biosensors, to detect when you are in REM sleep and to trigger LED signals at this time to “wake” you up within your dream. What’s more, both are paired with an app that tracks your sleep patterns and an alarm designed to wake you at the best point in the sleep cycle.
2-15-17 Two new drug therapies might cure every form of tuberculosis
Two new drug therapies might cure every form of tuberculosis
In small trials across Africa, the therapies cured people with even the most drug-resistant forms of TB, and more quickly than current treatments. Tuberculosis, the world’s leading infectious killer, may have finally met its match. Two new drug therapies may be able to cure all forms of tuberculosis – even the ones most difficult to treat. “We will have something to offer every single patient,” says Mel Spigelman, president of the TB Alliance, the organisation coordinating trials of the two treatments. “We are on the brink of turning TB around.” It presently takes six months of drug treatment to cure ordinary TB, and two years to cure people whose infections are resistant to drugs. People may need to take up to 20 tablets a day, plus injections. Together, the new treatments, called BPaMZ and BPaL, could make treating TB much simpler and more effective. BPaMZ involves taking four drugs once a day. Trials carried out in 240 people across 10 countries in Africa suggest that it cures almost all cases of ordinary TB in four months, and most people with drug-resistant TB in about six months. In the majority of cases, the TB bacterium had disappeared from sputum within two months. “The alliance has never before seen such rapid action against TB bacteria,” says Spigelman. Meanwhile, BPaL, a therapy that involves taking three drugs once a day, has so far cured 40 of 69 patients with “extremely-drug-resistant TB” – the most difficult form to treat. What’s more, it achieved this within six months. The 29 remaining participants in this trial are still to be assessed. The TB Alliance says that BPaMZ has the potential to treat 99 per cent of people who catch TB each year, while BPaL could treat the remainder.
2-15-17 Gastric bypass controls diabetes long term better than other methods
Gastric bypass controls diabetes long term better than other methods
Bariatric surgery checks the disease more so than other weight-loss measures. Gastric bypass surgery reduces the size of the stomach and shortens the digestive path for food. While performed for weight loss, the procedure may also bring long-term remission of diabetes. People who undergo gastric bypass surgery are more likely to experience a remission of their diabetes than patients who receive a gastric sleeve or intensive management of diet and exercise, according to a new study. Bypass surgery had already shown better results for diabetes than other weight-loss methods in the short term, but the new research followed patients for five years. “We knew that surgery had a powerful effect on diabetes,” says Philip Schauer of the Bariatric & Metabolic Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. “What this study says is that the effect of surgery is durable.” The results were published online February 15 in the New England Journal of Medicine. (Webmaster's comment: Save the rich, kill the bees!)
2-15-17 Birth may not be a major microbe delivery event for babies
Birth may not be a major microbe delivery event for babies
Study finds no big differences in microbiomes of babies born vaginally or by C-section. Whether a baby is born vaginally or by C-section may not be a major determinant for babies’ microbiomes, a new study suggests. Babies are born germy, and that’s a good thing. Our microbiomes — the microbes that live on and in us — are gaining cred as tiny but powerful keepers of our health. As microbes gain scientific stature, some scientists are trying to answer questions about how and when those germs first show up on babies. Birth itself may be an important microbe-delivery event, some researchers suspect. A trip through the birth canal can coat a baby with bacteria from his mother. A C-section, some evidence suggests, might introduce different bacteria, at least right after birth. That difference forms the basis of the practice of vaginal seeding, which involves wiping vaginal fluids onto a baby born by C-section to introduce microbes the baby would have encountered in a vaginal birth.
2-15-17 Football headers 'linked to brain damage'
Football headers 'linked to brain damage'
Repeated headers during a footballer's professional career may be linked to long-term brain damage, according to tentative evidence from UK scientists. The research follows anecdotal reports that players who head balls may be more prone to developing dementia later in life. The Football Association says it will look at this area more closely. Experts said recreational players were unlikely to incur problems. (Webmaster's comment: It just makes good sense. Banging your head against something repeatively is not a good idea!)
2-14-17 See how long Zika lasts in semen and other bodily fluids
See how long Zika lasts in semen and other bodily fluids
Zika virus RNA lingers in bodily fluids for different lengths of time. In a new study, most people cleared the virus from the blood within 54 days. Traces of Zika virus typically linger in semen no longer than three months after symptoms show up, a new study on the virus’ staying power in bodily fluids reveals. Medical epidemiologist Gabriela Paz-Bailey of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and colleagues analyzed the bodily fluids — including blood, urine and saliva — of 150 people infected with Zika. In 95 percent of participants, Zika RNA was no longer detectable in urine after 39 days, and in blood after 54 days, researchers report February 14 in the New England Journal of Medicine. (People infected with dengue virus, in contrast, typically clear virus from the blood within 10 days, the authors note.) Although the CDC recommends that men exposed to Zika wait at least six months before having sex without condoms, researchers found that, for most men in the study, Zika RNA disappeared from semen by 81 days. Few people had traces of RNA in the saliva or in vaginal secretions. Most Zika infections transmitted sexually have been from men to women, but scientists have reported at least one female-to-male case.
2-14-17 Human gene editing therapies are OK in certain cases, panel advises
Human gene editing therapies are OK in certain cases, panel advises
Expert group recommends long-term tracking, other restrictions for germline tinkering. Gene therapy can cure a genetic disease called severe combined immunodeficiency, or “bubble boy,” disease. Using new gene editing techniques like CRISPR/Cas9 to treat genetic diseases is fine under certain conditions, but it should not be used to enhance people, a panel of experts says. Human gene editing to prevent genetic diseases from being passed to future generations may be permissible under certain conditions, a panel of experts says. Altering DNA in germline cells — embryos, eggs, and sperm, or cells that give rise to them — may be used to cure genetic diseases for future generations, provided it is done only to correct disease or disability, not to enhance people’s health or abilities, a report issued February 14 by the National Academies of Sciences and Medicine recommends. The decision contradicts earlier recommendations by organizers of a global summit on human gene editing, who concluded that gene editing with molecular scissors such as CRISPR/Cas9 should not be used to produce babies (SN: 12/26/15, p. 12). Heritable gene editing is not yet ready to be done in people, says Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin Madison Law School who cochaired the panel. “We are not trying to greenlight heritable germline editing. We’re trying to find that limited set of circumstances where its use is justified by a compelling need and its application is limited to that compelling need,” says Charo. “We’re giving it a yellow light.”
2-14-17 Human genome editing shouldn’t be used for enhancement – yet
Human genome editing shouldn’t be used for enhancement – yet
Gene editing can already treat human diseases, but while editing the germline and enhancing human traits might be acceptable one day, we’re not there yet, says report. While gene editing is already saving lives, for now, the technique shouldn’t be used to edit embryos or create changes that will be passed on through the generations. So say the authors of a new report on editing the human genome. However, such germline editing could be permitted in the future, if properly regulated and with public approval, concludes the report. It was compiled by the Committee on Human Genome Editing, a group of 22 researchers, lawyers and ethicists. Gene therapy isn’t new, but the development of the CRISPR Cas-9 technique has made it much easier to change a genome. The technique enables researchers to specifically target a region of DNA and add or remove genes – both a useful tool for research, and a technique that can treat diseases in people. But gene editing treatments are not without some risk. There’s a chance, for instance, that a therapy will have “off-target effects”, changing other genes. The risks will depend on the disorder and the treatment, and regulators must weigh up the risks against treatment benefits on a case-by-case basis, the authors say. (Webmaster's comment: The rest of the world will move on and reap the benefits leaving Americans in the biological dark ages.)
2-14-17 Fossil shows that ancient reptile gave live birth
Fossil shows that ancient reptile gave live birth
Archosauromorph ditched eggs, unlike bird, crocodile cousins. With a long-necked body not suited to walking, an ancient marine reptile Dinocephalosaurus may have evolved to give live birth in the ocean rather than lay eggs on land, a new study suggests. A prehistoric marine reptile may have given birth to its young alive. A fossil from South China may be the first evidence of live birth in the animal group Archosauromorpha, scientists report February 14 in Nature Communications. Today Archosauromorpha is represented by birds and crocodiles — which both lay eggs. Whether this fossil really is the first evidence of live birth in Archosauromorpha depends on how another group of semiaquatic animals is classified, says Michael Caldwell, a vertebrate paleontologist with the University of Alberta in Canada. Placement of Choristodera, a now-extinct group that included a freshwater reptile that gave live birth, remains murky, with some researchers putting them with Archosauromorpha and others with a group that includes snakes and lizards. “Our discovery is the first of live birth in reptiles with undoubted archosauromorph affinity,” says Jun Liu, a paleontologist at Hefei University of Technology in China.
2-14-17 First live birth evidence in dinosaur relative
First live birth evidence in dinosaur relative
Scientists have uncovered the first evidence of live births in the group of animals that includes dinosaurs, crocodiles and birds. All examples of this group, known as the Archosauromorpha, lay eggs. This led some scientists to wonder whether there was something in their biology that prevented live births. But examination of the fossil remains of a very long-necked, 245 million-year-old marine reptile from China revealed it was carrying an embryo. Jun Liu, first author of the new study in Nature Communications, told BBC News that the animal would have measured between three and four metres long, with a neck that was about 1.7m long. The embryo may have been around half a metre long and is positioned inside the rib cage of the adult Dinocephalosaurus fossil, which was discovered in 2008 in Luoping County, Yunnan Province in southern China. Researchers had to consider whether the smaller animal might have been part of the adult's last meal. But it's facing forward, whereas swallowed prey generally face backwards because predators consume the animal head first to help it go down the throat.
2-13-17 Metabolic switch may bring on chronic fatigue syndrome
Metabolic switch may bring on chronic fatigue syndrome
CFS, also known as ME, may be caused by the body switching from fully breaking down carbohydrates to using other energy sources, bringing on pain and exhaustion. It’s as if a switch has been flicked. Evidence is mounting that chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is caused by the body swapping to less efficient ways of generating energy. Also known as ME or myalgic encephalomyelitis, CFS affects some 250,000 people in the UK. The main symptom is persistent physical and mental exhaustion that doesn’t improve with sleep or rest. It often begins after a mild infection, but its causes are unknown. Some have argued that CFS is a psychological condition, and that it is best treated through strategies like cognitive behavioural therapy. But several lines of investigation are now suggesting that the profound and painful lack of energy seen in the condition could in many cases be due to people losing their ability to burn carbohydrate sugars in the normal way to generate cellular energy. Instead, the cells of people with CFS stop making as much energy from sugar as usual, and start relying more on lower-yielding fuels, such as amino acids and fats. This kind of metabolic switch produces lactate, which can cause pain when it accumulates in muscles. Together, this would explain both the shortness of energy, and why even mild exercise can be exhausting and painful.
2-10-17 Stinky armpits? Bacteria from a less smelly person can fix them
Stinky armpits? Bacteria from a less smelly person can fix them
Bacteria in your armpits are to blame for body odour, and some people have it particularly bad. But bacteria from a more fragrant relative can help. Got BO? Blame the bacteria living in your armpits. In some people, bacteria cause body odour that no deodorant can disguise. But replacing them with underarm bacteria from a less smelly person can solve the problem, for a month or two at least. Our bodies are crawling with bacteria that have evolved with us and can affect our health. Disrupting the bacteria in our gut, for example has been linked to all kinds of intestinal, immune and brain disorders. The skin has its own microbiome too, and it varies by region – there can even be a difference between the bacterial ecosystem of your left and right armpits. The bacteria that live there probably have a role in producing the volatile compounds that give sweat its smell, says Chris Callewaert at the University of California, San Diego. A few years ago, Callewaert met a pair of identical twins – one of whom had particularly bad body odour. Callewaert suspected that the collection of bacteria living in the twins’ armpits might be responsible for their different personal scents. To find out, he swapped out the stinky twin’s armpit bacteria with that taken from his twin brother.
2-10-17 Rapid Ebola test to detect early infection in the works
Rapid Ebola test to detect early infection in the works
Paired antibodies could target small bits of virus in blood sample. Researchers are designing antibody pairs that can help detect the Ebola virus sooner. Diagnosing Ebola earlier is becoming almost as easy as taking a home pregnancy test. Scientists are developing antibodies for a test that can sniff out the deadly virus more quickly and efficiently than current tests, researchers reported February 6 at the American Society for Microbiology Biothreats meeting. Detecting Ebola’s genetic material in patients’ blood samples now takes a full day and requires access to a specialized laboratory. Simpler and speedier tests are available. They use antibodies — specialized proteins that latch onto and flag virus particles — and work somewhat like a pregnancy test. Within 10 or 15 minutes of dabbing a blood sample onto a piece of paper, a colored line confirms the presence of the virus. But currently these tests don’t give accurate results until the patient has been sick for a while, said immunologist Haley DeMers of the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine.
2-10-17 New beetle species bites army ant’s butt and hitches a ride
New beetle species bites army ant’s butt and hitches a ride
The beetle uses its mandibles to latch on to an army ant’s rear, where it blends in while moving to a new nest together with the ants. Moving around the rainforest floor can be tough if you’re tiny. But a newly discovered species of beetle has an ingenious method of getting around with little effort: it bites on to an army ant’s butt and hitches a ride. Nymphister kronaueri uses its mandibles to do this when its hosts are on the move to a new nest, attaching between the ant’s thorax and abdomen. This emerged after Christoph von Beeren at the Technical University of Darmstadt in Germany and Daniel Kronauer at the Rockefeller University in New York noticed that an ant they were observing in a collection vial looked as though it had two abdomens. “When Daniel shook the vial, the beetle detached and expanded its legs and antennae. That is the moment we realised we had discovered something new here,” says von Beeren. Army ants frequently move to new colonies, so the beetle would be left searching for a new host colony almost every night if it didn’t have some way to keep up, he says.
2-10-17 Cold plasma puts the chill on norovirus
Cold plasma puts the chill on norovirus
Blast of ionized gas can kill pathogen lurking on fresh food. A virus perhaps best known for wreaking havoc on the guts of cruise ship passengers has met its match in cold plasma. Researchers are developing a device that uses this fourth state of matter to sterilize contaminated fruits and vegetables. A nasty stomach virus that can linger on fruits and veggies may have met its match in cold plasma. In experiments, the ionized gas, created by filtering room-temperature air through an electric field, virtually eliminated norovirus from lettuce, researchers reported February 7 at the American Society for Microbiology Biothreats meeting. Norovirus is the leading cause of foodborne illness in the United States, infecting more than 20 million people every year. Sterilizing food with heat is one way to kill the virus, but that approach doesn’t work for fresh produce. Cold plasma could be a way to sterilize fruits and vegetables without damaging them, said Hamada Aboubakr, a food microbiologist at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul.
2-10-17 Ricin poisoning may one day be treatable with new antidote
Ricin poisoning may one day be treatable with new antidote
Blend of antibodies could neutralize toxic effects, tests in mice show. The potent toxin ricin is found in castor beans. No antidote exists for ricin poisoning, but a new antibody treatment that’s effective in mice could potentially help. It has been used by an assassin wielding a poisoned umbrella and sent in a suspicious letter to a president. Ricin, the potent toxin and bioterrorism agent, has no antidote and can cause death within days. But a cocktail of antibodies could one day offer victims at least a slim window for treatment. A new study presented February 7 at the American Society for Microbiology’s Biothreats meeting reveals a ricin antidote that, in mice, works even days after exposure to the toxin. Another presented study offers a potential explanation for how such an antidote might work.
2-10-17 ‘Locked-in’ communication
Scientists in Germany have used a brain-reading device to communicate with paralyzed patients who are unable to move, speak, or even blink. The research involved four people who are completely “locked-in” due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the degenerative disease known as ALS; they are being fed through tubes and kept alive by ventilators, a choice they made before they lost the ability to speak. Researchers at the University of Tübingen fitted the patients with a computer-connected cap that detects blood flow patterns in the brain, then asked them to think “yes” or “no” in response to a series of basic factual questions. As they “answered,” the computer was able to distinguish between the two responses. “This is the first time we’ve been able to establish reliable communication with these patients,” Niels Birbaumer, who led the research, tells The Guardian (U.K.). “I think that is important for them and their families.” All four subjects said they were “happy” with life; one revealed that she’d always wanted to go to New York, and her family is now making plans for a visit. Not all the questions went down well, however: When one patient was asked by his 26-year-old daughter whether she should marry her boyfriend, he repeatedly replied “no.”
2-10-17 Space flight alters DNA
Space flight alters DNA
Scott Kelly’s historic 340-day mission aboard the International Space Station had an unexpected effect on his DNA, reports CNN.com. In the year since his return, NASA has been investigating how the astronaut’s time beyond Earth’s protective magnetic field affected his mind and body, using his twin brother, Mark, a retired astronaut, as a point of comparison. In a surprising discovery, preliminary results from the Twins Study have suggested that Kelly’s telomeres—caps at the ends of chromosomes that help protect DNA from damage—grew longer during the mission. Telomeres typically get shorter as people age, a process that can be accelerated by poor diet, stress, and lack of exercise. Scientists aren’t sure why Kelly’s telomeres lengthened but speculate that his enhanced exercise regimen and reduced caloric intake may have played a part. The Twins Study also found that Kelly’s cognitive speed and accuracy slowed, but only slightly—a boost to NASA’s hopes for a crewed mission to Mars. John Charles, the space agency’s chief scientist, says the results are “reassuring,” as they suggest “a year in space is not significantly more stressful than six months.”
2-9-17 Primitive plants survive almost two years in outer space
Primitive plants survive almost two years in outer space
Searing temperatures, radiation and lack of air didn't kill algae kept outside the International Space Station – so maybe life from space could colonise worlds. Primitive plants are the latest forms of Earth life to show they can survive in the harshness of space, and for many months. Cold-loving algae from the Arctic Circle have joined the space-travelling club, alongside bacteria, lichens and even simple animals called tardigrades. Preliminary studies of the algae after their return to Earth from the International Space Station lend some weight to the “panspermia” theory, that comets and meteorites could potentially deliver life to otherwise sterile planets. The results also provide insights into the potential for human colonies on distant planets to grow crops brought from Earth. The algae were of the Sphaerocystis species, codenamed CCCryo 101-99, and were returned to Earth in June last year after spending 530 days on a panel outside the ISS. While space-borne, they withstood the vacuum, temperatures ranging from -20 °C at night to 47.2 °C during the day, plus perpetual ultraviolet radiation of a strength that would destroy most life on Earth if not filtered out by the atmosphere. “I’m sure that plants of many kinds have been on the ISS before, but on the inside, not the outside,” says Thomas Leya of the Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology in Potsdam, Germany, who organised the algae experiment. “As far as I know, this is the first report of plants exposed on the surface of the space station.”
2-9-17 Malaria molecule makes blood extra-alluring to mosquitoes
Malaria molecule makes blood extra-alluring to mosquitoes
Mix releases gases, chemicals that prompt insects to gorge on infectious meal. The Plasmodium falciparum malaria parasite produces a molecule that makes infected blood more attractive to Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes. Malaria parasites seduce mosquitoes on the sly. Plasmodium falciparum parasites produce a molecule that makes parasite-infected blood more attractive to malaria-transmitting mosquitoes, researchers report online February 9 in Science. The insects slurp up this enticing meal, helping the parasite spread to new hosts. “It’s a really intriguing glimpse into how Plasmodium might have evolved to enhance its probability of transmission,” says Conor McMeniman, a mosquito researcher at Johns Hopkins University who wasn’t part of the study.
2-9-17 Horse evolution bucks evolutionary theory
Horse evolution bucks evolutionary theory
Speciation events not accompanied by big changes in teeth and body size. As ancient horses rapidly diversified into new species, drastic changes in body size didn’t occur, despite the diversity found in the fossil record, a new analysis shows. A cautionary tale in evolutionary theory is coming straight from the horse’s mouth. When ancient horses diversified into new species, those bursts of evolution weren’t accompanied by drastic changes to horse teeth, as scientists have long thought. A new evolutionary tree of horses reveals three periods when several new species emerged, scientists report in the Feb. 10 Science. The researchers found that changes in teeth morphology and body size didn’t change very much during these periods of rapid speciation. “This knocks traditional notions that rapid diversification of new species comes with morphological diversification as well,” says paleontologist Bruce MacFadden of the University of Florida in Gainesville. “This is a very sophisticated and important paper.”
2-9-17 Dual magma plumes fueled volcanic eruptions during final days of dinosaurs
Dual magma plumes fueled volcanic eruptions during final days of dinosaurs
Dual magma plumes contributed to mega-sized volcanism around the time of the dinosaur die-off 66 million years ago, a new study suggests. The remnants of this volcanic activity, known as the Deccan Traps, are in what is now India. Not one but two rising plumes of magma from deep within the Earth fueled the titanic volcanic eruptions that marked the final days of the dinosaurs, new research suggests. The Deccan eruptions in what is now India, some scientists argue, helped wipe out most animal and plant species around 66 million years ago, including all nonbirdlike dinosaurs. The geologic source of that volcanism has been unclear. Geodynamicists Petar Glišovic and Alessandro Forte of the University of Quebec in Montreal hit rewind on a 3-D digital mock-up of Earth’s current internal structure. That simulation revealed that two magma sources contributed to the Deccan volcanic eruptions, the researchers report in the Feb. 10 Science. Magma from the plumes fed those eruptions for a 10-million-year window that peaked strongly around 68 million years ago, the researchers write, roughly the same time as the extinction event.
2-8-17 Antibiotics might kill gut bacteria that protect newborn lungs
Antibiotics might kill gut bacteria that protect newborn lungs
A study in mice has found that gut bacteria send signals that protect young lungs from pneumonia, prompting concern over antibiotic use in Caesarean sections. Exposure to antibiotics in the womb could permanently weaken the immune system and make lung disease more likely, research in mice suggests. A study led by Hitesh Deshmukh, at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Centre, Ohio, suggests that antibiotics can harm infant mice by killing important gut bacteria. The team identified chemicals released by bacteria that tell a new pair of lungs when to build immune cells, how many to make, and when to use them. Temporarily disrupting gut bacteria was enough to make young mice more likely to contract pneumonia and die. In the US and UK, antibiotics are given to women before undergoing a Caesarean section, to protect against infection with Streptococcus bacteria. But these drugs are indiscriminate, and act against a wide range of bacteria, both good and bad. “It is time to begin pushing back on practices that were established decades ago, when our level of understanding was different,” says Deshmukh. “To prevent infection in one infant, we are exposing 200 infants to the unwanted effects of antibiotics.” Excess antibiotic use early in life may help explain why some people with no obvious genetic risk factors develop asthma or other lung disease later in life, suggests Deshmukh.
2-8-17 Injection could permanently lower cholesterol by changing DNA
Injection could permanently lower cholesterol by changing DNA
Some people have mutations that greatly lower their cholesterol. Tests in mice suggest gene editing could give the rest of us the same protection. A SINGLE injection could one day lower your cholesterol levels for the rest of your life. People born with natural mutations that disable a specific gene have a lower risk of heart disease, with no apparent side effects. Now a one-off injection has successfully disabled this same gene in animal tests for the first time. This potential treatment would involve permanently altering the DNA inside some of the cells of a person’s body, so doctors will have to be sure it is safe before trying it in people. But the benefits could be enormous. In theory, it could help millions live longer and healthier lives. The results of the animal study were described by Lorenz Mayr, of pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca, at a genomics meeting in London on 1 February. Mayr, who leads the company’s research into a DNA editing technique called CRISPR, wouldn’t say whether AstraZeneca plans to pursue this approach, but he was clearly excited as he presented the findings. “The idea would be to do it as a one-off,” he later told New Scientist. “It should be permanent.” Heart attacks and strokes kill a quarter of people living in rich nations, and having high levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol in the blood greatly increases the risk. For this reason, millions of people now take statins to lower their LDL cholesterol levels. While statins undoubtedly extend the lives of many people, some experience side effects such as muscle pain (see “Cholesterol war: Does a pill a day keep heart attacks away?“), leading drug companies to look for alternative treatments.
2-8-17 Zika virus ‘spillback’ into primates raises risk of future human outbreaks
Zika virus ‘spillback’ into primates raises risk of future human outbreaks
Human strain of the virus found in South American monkeys. Zika virus circulating among people in Brazil had been found to also infect pet capuchin monkeys (Sapajus libidinosus, shown) and wild marmosets (Callithrix jacchus). Other primates may also be at risk of contracting the virus. Scientists worry the animals could serve as a Zika reservoir for future outbreaks. Scientists usually worry that animal diseases could spill over into humans. But “spillback” of Zika virus into monkeys in South America could be just as dangerous. In areas where Zika infections are prevalent among humans and mosquitoes are abundant, the virus may be transmitted to wild primates, disease ecologist Barbara Han said February 6 at the American Society for Microbiology Biothreats meeting. If the disease gets established in monkeys or other wild primates, the animals may serve as reservoirs for future human outbreaks. That could make it nearly impossible to get rid of the virus, said Han, of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y.
2-8-17 How hydras know where to regrow their heads
How hydras know where to regrow their heads
A new study suggests that stretchy skeletal structures play a crucial role in helping hydras regrow their heads in the right place. Hydras, petite pond polyps known for their seemingly eternal youth, exemplify the art of bouncing back. The animals’ cellular scaffolding, or cytoskeleton, can regrow from a slice of tissue that’s just 5 percent of its full body size. Researchers thought that molecular signals told cells where and how to rebuild, but new evidence suggests there are other forces at play. Physicist Anton Livshits and colleagues at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology genetically engineered Hydra vulgaris specimens so stretchy protein fibers called actins, which form the cytoskeleton, lit up under a microscope. Then, they sliced and diced to look for mechanical patterns in the regeneration process. Beheaded hydras appear to inherit skeletal patterns from their past adult forms, the researchers found. Actin fibers in pieces of hydra exert mechanical force that lines up new cells and guides the growth of the animal’s head and tentacles. Manipulating the alignment of actin fibers results in hydras with multiple heads. Both mechanical and molecular forces may mold hydras in regeneration, the team reports February 7 in Cell Reports.
2-7-17 Long-lasting mental health isn’t normal
Long-lasting mental health isn’t normal
Most people have at least one bout of depression, anxiety or other disorder, study suggests. The vast majority of people experience at least a temporary mental disorder by age 38, a long-term study finds. A small percentage stays mentally healthy and often, but not always, reports enhanced well-being. A small, poorly understood segment of the population stays mentally healthy from age 11 to 38, a new study of New Zealanders finds. Everyone else encounters either temporary or long-lasting mental disorders. Only 171 of 988 participants, or 17 percent, experienced no anxiety disorders, depression or other mental ailments from late childhood to middle age, researchers report in the February Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Of the rest, half experienced a transient mental disorder, typically just a single bout of depression, anxiety or substance abuse by middle age.
2-7-17 Weekend warriors put up a fight against death
Weekend warriors put up a fight against death
Cramming all your exercise into one or two bouts per week still reaps health benefits. For people 40 an older, getting some exercise is linked to a reduced risk of early death compared with getting no exercise at all. Any exercise—even the weekend warrior approach, cramming it all into Saturday and Sunday—is better than none. Compared with inactive adults, those who got the recommended amount of weekly exercise, or even substantially less, had about a one-third lower risk of death during the study period, researchers report online January 9 in JAMA Internal Medicine. Gary O’Donovan at the University of Leicester in England and colleagues analyzed data from 63,591 people ages 40 and older, surveyed between 1994 and 2012 as part of the Health Survey for England and the Scottish Health Survey. Adults should be getting 150 minutes of moderate activity (such as walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (such as jogging) spread out across the week, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
2-7-17 A diet of corn turns wild hamsters into cannibals
A diet of corn turns wild hamsters into cannibals
European hamsters that live in farm fields may not be getting a well-balanced diet, and that could cause problems. In the lab, hamsters fed a corn-based diet ate their young alive. The first sign that something was wrong was that the female hamsters were really active in their cages. These were European hamsters, a species that is endangered in France and thought to be on the decline in the rest of their Eurasian range. But in a lab at the University of Strasbourg in France, the hamsters were oddly aggressive, and they didn’t give birth in their nests. Mathilde Tissier, a conservation biologist at the University of Strasbourg, remembers seeing the newly born pups alone, spread around in the cages, while their mothers ran about. Then, the mother hamsters would take their pups and put them in the piles of corn they had stored in the cage, Tissier says, and eat their babies alive.
2-6-17 Injection could permanently lower cholesterol by changing DNA
Injection could permanently lower cholesterol by changing DNA
Some people have mutations that greatly lower their cholesterol. Tests in mice suggest gene editing could give the rest of us the same protection. A one-off injection could one day lower your cholesterol levels for the rest of your life. People born with natural mutations that disable a specific gene have a lower risk of heart disease, with no apparent side effects. Now a single injection has successfully disabled this same gene in animal tests for the first time. This potential treatment would involve permanently altering the DNA inside some of the cells of a person’s body, so doctors will have to be sure it is safe before trying it in people. But the benefits could be enormous. In theory, it could help millions live longer and healthier lives. The results of the animal study were described by Lorenz Mayr, of pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca, at a genomics meeting in London on 1 February. Mayr, who leads the company’s research into a DNA editing technique called CRISPR, wouldn’t say whether AstraZeneca plans to pursue this approach, but he was clearly excited as he presented the findings.“The idea would be to do it as a one-off,” he later told New Scientist. “It should be permanent.” Heart attacks and strokes kill a quarter of people living in rich nations, and high levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol in the blood greatly increases the risk. For this reason, millions of people now take statins to lower their LDL cholesterol levels. While statins undoubtedly extend the lives of many people, some experience side effects such as muscle pain, leading drug companies to look for alternative treatments.
2-6-17 Blood test could catch pancreatic cancer before it’s too late
Blood test could catch pancreatic cancer before it’s too late
Pancreatic cancer is known as the “silent killer” because it is usually too advanced by the time it is discovered. An early blood test could change that. A new blood test that detects pancreatic cancer in its early stages may reduce the deadliness of the disease. Pancreatic cancer is known as the “silent killer” because it is usually too advanced to treat by the time symptoms arise. Only 5 per cent of people diagnosed with it are still alive five years later, compared with 90 per cent of those diagnosed with breast cancer. The only way to treat pancreatic cancer is to completely remove it before it spreads. But because the pancreas is deep inside the body and difficult to image or biopsy, detecting problems early is hard. “The best screening tool we have at the moment is ultrasound, but it’s not great,” says Lorraine Chantrill at the Kinghorn Cancer Centre in Sydney, Australia, who wasn’t involved in the work. Now, Tony Hu at Arizona State University in Tempe and his colleagues have developed a blood test that could spot pancreatic cancer before it spreads. In a pilot study of 59 people with the disease, the test picked up early-stage pancreatic cancer in more than 90 per cent of cases. The study also involved 48 healthy people and 48 people with pancreatitis, an inflammatory condition that can be difficult to distinguish from pancreatic cancer using existing methods like ultrasound. The test, however, could tell the difference.
2-6-17 Flies are spreading antibiotic resistance from farms to people
Flies are spreading antibiotic resistance from farms to people
Bacteria can now resist our most crucial antibiotics. Some of this resistance likely evolved in farms in China, and is already more common than we thought. It is now the year of the chicken in China – in more ways than we knew. The first systematic study of bacterial resistance to last-resort antibiotics on farms and hospitals in China has revealed far more resistance than standard tests had previously suggested, especially on chicken farms and meat. Worse, the study reveals for the first time that the genes that give bacteria their resistance are being spread by flies. Antibiotics of last resort constitute our final weapons against bacterial infections that have resisted all other drugs. Carbapenems are often used as such drugs, but bacteria with genes for resisting carbapenems are spreading. When carbapenems fail, one of the few options left is the antibiotic colistin, but in 2015, colistin resistance was discovered in China. The genes for both types of resistance can spread between different types of bacteria. The colistin resistance gene, mrc-1, has now been found in 25 countries, on four continents. It was first detected in China, though it is not known if it evolved there. It could well have, however: unlike in western countries, in China colistin is not used as an antibiotic in people, but 8000 tonnes of the drug is given to animals as a growth promoter every year, mainly to pigs and chickens. In April, this practice will be banned in China, and colistin will begin to be used to treat people instead. But it may be too late.
2-6-17 Little jet-setters get jet lag too
Little jet-setters get jet lag too
Help young children fight jet lag with a few simple steps. Help young children adjust to a new time zone by giving their bodies lots of cues, such as sunlight. Sleep is at the top of the list of conversation starters among parents with young children. With our recent cross-country move west, my family added a twist on sleep deprivation: jet-lagged children. To get some clarity on this new horror, I called developmental social scientist A.J. Schwichtenberg of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. Two main processes control sleep, Schwichtenberg explained. The first is the constant buildup of sleepiness, a pressure to sleep called homeostatic drive. Like adults, children reach a certain point and need to crash. “The longer they’re awake, the more likely it is they’ll want to go to sleep,” Schwichtenberg says. But unlike adults, children reach their limits sooner. That’s why most kids need to nap.
2-6-17 Vicious microbial warfare helps bacteria evolve cooperation
Vicious microbial warfare helps bacteria evolve cooperation
Bacteria that are more violent towards strangers also seem to share more with similar neighbours, a system that may explain how cooperation first evolved. Cooperation comes more easily when you throw violent death into the mix. This principle seems to be behind how cooperation evolved in bacteria, and it might apply to plants and animals as well. To digest food, build biofilms and perform other necessities of life, many bacteria have to secrete enzymes and other chemicals into the environment. Nearby cells can then reap the benefits, too. But what stops nearby cells from cheating by secreting nothing while benefiting from their neighbours’ efforts, and thereby jeopardising the cooperative status quo? Will Ratcliff, an evolutionary biologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, and his colleagues have now found that a bacterial weapon called the type VI secretory system (T6SS) might help stabilise cooperation. The T6SS is essentially a toxin-tipped syringe or a speargun. “The syringe is widespread, but there are lots of different toxins that can be loaded onto the tip,” says Ratcliff. And because each toxin comes with its own antitoxin, all bacteria who carry a given T6SS toxin are resistant to its effects, while those with different toxins are vulnerable.
2-6-17 Carnivorous plants repurpose stress genes to digest their prey
Carnivorous plants repurpose stress genes to digest their prey
Different families of pitcher plants use the same genetic tactic to make enzymes to fill their bucket shaped leaves and digest the unlucky insects that fall in. It’s a plant-eat-insect world for pitcher plants. These carnivorous plants have bucket-shaped leaves that hold a pool of fluid to drown and digest unwitting insects that fall in. Now genetic sequencing of three families of pitcher plants – found in the Americas, tropical Asia and Australia – shows that each plant adapted to its own nutrient-poor habitat using very similar tactics. “It’s so counterintuitive that a plant would munch on an animal, as opposed to vice versa,” says Victor Albert of the State University of New York at Buffalo, who led the team that sequenced the plant’s genome. “In order to be a pitcher plant, you need to trap liquid and attract insects, have them fall in and not let them get out, and secrete enzymes that will do the prey digestion for you.” To find out where carnivorous tendencies in plants come from on a genetic level, Albert and his team analysed proteins found in the plants’ digestive fluid. They found a similar genetic tactic used across the globe. Each plant repurposed the stress response proteins that are usually produced near cell walls to signal damage from herbivores or the environment.
2-6-17 Oxygen flooded Earth’s atmosphere earlier than thought
Oxygen flooded Earth’s atmosphere earlier than thought
Volcanism and global glaciation coincided to the gas’s rise. The rise of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, known as the Great Oxidation Event, began around 100 million years earlier than previously thought, new research suggests. The oxygen’s presence left a mark in the geologic record, such as this 2.1-billion-year-old banded iron formation. The breath of oxygen that enabled the emergence of complex life kicked off around 100 million years earlier than previously thought, new dating suggests. Previous studies pegged the first appearance of relatively abundant oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere, known as the Great Oxidation Event, or GOE, at a little over 2.3 billion years ago. New dating of ancient volcanic outpourings, however, suggests that oxygen levels began a wobbly upsurge between 2.460 billion and 2.426 billion years ago, researchers report the week of February 6 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
2-3-17 Drug stops nasty chemotherapy side effects in mice with cancer
Drug stops nasty chemotherapy side effects in mice with cancer
Fatigue, nausea and organ damage – the side effects of chemo are often awful. But they may be preventable using a drug that destroys harmful, worn-out cells. Pain, nausea and utter exhaustion are just a few of the horrendous side effects most people experience when undergoing chemotherapy to treat cancer. Evidence is building that these effects are caused by a type of cell, and researchers have used a drug that targets these to stop side effects in mice. When older cells naturally stop dividing, they become “senescent”. These kinds of cells also pump out a slew of chemicals that cause inflammation, which can damage surrounding tissue. Senescent cells have been linked to a growing list of age-related diseases, including Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis and heart failure. Marco Demaria at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands wondered if senescence might be responsible for the long list of side effects associated with chemotherapy. “Most people have fatigue, and most of the time this becomes chronic,” he says. “Some people have muscle weakness, nausea, dizziness, problems with their bones or heart damage for example.” Such side effects can occur for months after treatment has finished. To explore the effects of senescent cells, Demaria and his colleagues genetically engineered mice so these cells would fluoresce. They then gave the mice cancer, and one of four common chemotherapy drugs: doxorubicin, cisplatin, paclitaxel and temozolomide.
2-3-17 Rare ‘baby dragons’ discovered in five new caves thanks to DNA
Rare ‘baby dragons’ discovered in five new caves thanks to DNA
DNA dissolved in cave water is helping us track the whereabouts of vulnerable olm salamanders, which promises to boost conservation efforts. It was like identifying a criminal from a bit of DNA left at a crime scene. No murder mystery was solved, but researchers have found rare blind cave salamanders in five caves they were not previously thought to live in, thanks to the DNA the animals shed in water. This extends the known range of the vulnerable salamanders and raises hopes for their long-term monitoring and conservation. The olms (Proteus anguinus), or baby dragons as locals call them, spend their entire life in the underground waters of the Dinaric Alps running from Slovenia through Croatia and several other Balkan countries. DNA from bits of skin that they have shed or their feces gets dissolved into their watery habitat and can be washed out of the cave. This is good news for biologists studying cave life, because most of the 7000 or so caves in Croatia are inaccessible to humans. “Before you would only see these elusive animals if they were washed out of their home after heavy raining, or if you would actually go cave-diving,” says Judit Vörös of the Hungarian Natural History Museum who led the study. “But now we can tell just from some cave water if they are there or not.”
2-2-17 World’s most endangered marine mammal has 30 individuals left
World’s most endangered marine mammal has 30 individuals left
The vaquita porpoise lives in the Gulf of California, Mexico, where illegal fishing with gill nets has slashed the population by a total of 90 per cent in the past five years. The world’s smallest porpoise is in dire straits. Only 30 individuals of the vaquita porpoise are left on the planet. The population of vaquitas has dramatically dwindled since 2011. Between 2015 and 2016, almost half the remaining vaquitas died, and over the past five years, their numbers have decreased by a total of 90 per cent. Vaquitas live exclusively in a small area in the Gulf of California, Mexico, where illegal fishing with gill nets is the main cause of their demise. Gill nets are commonly used by fishermen targeting the totoaba, another endangered species sought after in Asia for the supposed medicinal properties of its swim bladder. “They’re essentially taking out two endangered species in one fell swoop,” says Kate O’Connell, a marine wildlife consultant at the Animal Welfare Institute. “We know what the problem is: it’s gill nets. We’ve known for 30 years that gill nets kill vaquita and we have done nothing, and I find that heartbreaking.”
2-5-17 ‘Cannibalism’ chronicles grisly science of eating your own
‘Cannibalism’ chronicles grisly science of eating your own
Zoologist ranges far and wide to explore topic with high ‘ick factor’. In a new book about cannibalism, a zoologist argues that female black widow spiders (Latrodectus mactans shown) don’t deserve their bad rap. They don’t eat their mates as frequently as once though. Until recently, researchers thought cannibalism took place only among a few species in the animal kingdom and only under extraordinary circumstances. But as zoologist Bill Schutt chronicles in Cannibalism, plenty of creatures inhabit their own version of a dog-eat-dog world. Over the last few decades, scientists have observed cannibalism—defined by Schutt as eating all or part of another individual of the same species— among all major groups of vertebrates. The practice seems to be even more prevalent, and less discriminating, among invertebrates such as mollusks, insects and spiders, whose eggs, larvae and young are often produced in profusion and are therefore readily available, not to mention nutritious.
2-4-17 Artist’s amnesia could help unlock mysteries of memory
Artist’s amnesia could help unlock mysteries of memory
New book looks at what case study could reveal about the brain. Despite having amnesia, artist Lonni Sue Johnson can still create art, including illustrated word searches. Researchers are studying Johnson to learn more about how the brain forms and stores memories. Generations of gurus have exhorted, “Live in the moment!” For Lonni Sue Johnson, that’s all she can do. In 2007, viral encephalitis destroyed Johnson’s hippocampus. Without that crucial brain structure, Johnson lost most of her memories of the past and can’t form new ones. She literally lives in the present. In The Perpetual Now, science journalist Michael Lemonick describes Johnson’s world and tells the story of her life before her illness, in which she was an illustrator (she produced many New Yorker covers), private pilot and accomplished amateur violist. Johnson can’t remember biographical details of her own life, recall anything about history or remember anything new. But remarkably, she can converse expertly about making art and she creates elaborately illustrated word-search puzzles. She still plays viola with expertise and expression and, though she will never remember that she has seen it before, she can even learn new music.
2-4-17 How to stay calm under pressure
How to stay calm under pressure
'd all like to know how to stay calm under pressure. Sure, I could pull a bunch of research studies on it and just summarize those for you. But that always leaves the lingering question: "But does this stuff work in the real world?" So who really knows about being cool as a cucumber under the most intense pressure imaginable? I'd read that when top bomb disposal experts approach a device designed to kill them, their heart rate actually goes down. Folks, I think we have a winner... So I called a Navy EOD Team Leader. Navy EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) isn't like your average police department's bomb disposal unit. These guys defuse torpedoes — while underwater. They disable biological weapons, chemical weapons... even nuclear weapons. For security purposes our friend requested to remain anonymous. He's been deployed in both Iraq and Afghanistan and faced some things that are — quite literally — the stuff of nightmares. Repeatedly. So what can you and I learn from him? How do you stay chill, keep your focus and make tough decisions when facing the most intense pressure imaginable?
- Avoid 'the rabbit hole' and do a threat assessment
- Emphasize the positive and focus on what you can control
- He was underwater, unable to move his hands or feet, and was next to an explosive device. But he didn't see it as an emergency.
- The secret to calm and focus is knowing the next step
- Just consider those racing thoughts in your head and ask yourself, 'Are they helpful?' And then make a decision.
2-3-17 DNA points to millennia of stability in East Asian hunter-fisher population
DNA points to millennia of stability in East Asian hunter-fisher population
7,700-year-old remains show lack of influx from other groups. This 7,700-year-old skull of a hunter-gatherer from East Asia belonged to a group of people who are genetically similar to groups living in the area today. In a remote corner of eastern Russia, where long winters bring temperatures that rarely flicker above freezing, the genetic legacy of ancient hunter-gatherers endures. DNA from the 7,700-year-old remains of two women is surprisingly similar to that of people living in that area today, researchers report February 1 in Science Advances. That finding suggests that at least some people in East Asia haven’t changed much over the last 8,000 years or so — a time when other parts of the world saw waves of migrants settle in.
2-3-17 Pinhead-sized sea creature was a bag with a mouth
Pinhead-sized sea creature was a bag with a mouth
Anus may have been absent in odd new fossils from 540 million years ago. New fossils show tiny creatures with accordion mouths (one shown) that lived 540 million years ago. The animals are the earliest known deuterostomes, a category so big it includes everything from humans to starfish. A roughly 540-million-year-old creature that may have once skimmed shorelines was a real oddball. Dozens of peculiar, roundish fossils discovered in what is now South China represent the earliest known deuterostomes, a gigantic category of creatures that includes everything from humans to sea cucumbers. No bigger than a pinhead, the fossils have wrinkly, baglike bodies and gaping mouths that are pleated around the edges like an accordion, researchers report January 30 in Nature. Unlike most other deuterostomes, the animals don’t seem to have an anus. Instead, the ancient oddities, named Saccorhytus coronarius, may have leaked waste (and other bodily fluids like mucus and sex cells) out of tiny holes lining their sides. These holes may have later evolved into gill slits.
2-3-17 CRISPR used in cows to help fight tuberculosis
CRISPR used in cows to help fight tuberculosis
The CRISPR/Cas 9 system could give dairy cows a protein that helps fight off bovine tuberculosis. Mooooove over CRISPR chickens, pigs and goats. Everyone’s favorite DNA-editing tool is another step closer to transforming the barnyard. Researchers at China’s Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University devised a CRISPR/Cas 9 technique to give cloned dairy cows a leg up against the bacteria behind bovine tuberculosis (Mycobacterium bovis). Last year, another group used TALENs, an older gene-editing technology, to create two cows without horns, but this is the first time CRISPR has been reported to insert a gene in cattle.
2-3-17 BBQ linked to breast cancer
BBQ linked to breast cancer
Women are more likely to die from breast cancer if they eat a lot of grilled, smoked, and barbecued meats, new research suggests. The study also found women who reported greater intake of these foods have a 23 percent greater risk of death from any cause. “There are many carcinogens found in grilled or smoked meats,” author Humberto Parada tells The Washington Post, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons [PAH], which are formed when meat—particularly fatty meat—is subjected to very high heat. Researchers monitored 1,500 women with breast cancer for nearly two decades, and found that those who routinely ate large amounts of grilled, smoked, and barbecued meats were 31 percent more likely to die during the study period. Women who included substantial amounts of poultry and fish in their diet, however, were 45 percent less likely to die over the same period than those who didn’t eat these lean proteins.
2-3-17 Cow carved in stone paints picture of Europe’s early human culture
Cow carved in stone paints picture of Europe’s early human culture
Symbolic dots, style link 38,000-year-old engraving to other famous cave art finds. A 38,000-year-old engraved stone, depicting an aurochs, or wild cow, covered with dots, was unearthed at a French rock-shelter. Symbolic elements of Europe’s earliest human culture appear in the engraving, its discoverers say. Drawings of the find and of the aurochs separated from the dots show the scene more clearly. This stone engraving of an aurochs, or wild cow, found in a French rock-shelter in 2012, provides glimpses of an ancient human culture’s spread across Central and Western Europe, researchers say. Rows of dots partly cover the aurochs. A circular depression cut into the center of the animal’s body may have caused the limestone to split in two, says Stone Age art specialist Raphaëlle Bourrillon of the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès in France. Radiocarbon dating of animal bones unearthed near the discovery at Abri Blanchard rock-shelter put the engraving’s age at roughly 38,000 years, Bourrillon and colleagues report online January 24 in Quaternary International.
2-3-17 A giant prehistoric otter
A giant prehistoric otter
Otters are such playful little creatures, they’re often featured in children’s books—but their prehistoric ancestors were somewhat more intimidating. Paleontologists have discovered that a wolf-sized otter with a powerful jaw lived in the swampy waters of southwestern China some 6.2 million years ago. A specimen’s smashed skull, jaw, and teeth were found along with several limb bones in the soft sediment of the Shuitangba coal mine in Yunnan province. After CT scans digitally restored the skull’s shape, the researchers calculated this ancient otter was about twice as big as its largest modern cousins, stretching six feet long and weighing about 110 pounds. The remains also revealed the prehistoric creature had badger-like teeth, suggesting it’s a previously unknown species. “It has the skull of an otter but shares many dental similarities with badgers, which is why we called it melilutra”—Latin for “badger otter”—researcher Xiaoming Wang tells Smithsonian.com. It’s unclear why this ancient badger-otter grew so large, but it’s likely the mollusk eater needed its crushing jaws to crack tough shells.
2-2-17 Powerful Zika vaccine protects mice and monkeys from the virus
Powerful Zika vaccine protects mice and monkeys from the virus
Unlike other candidates, a new potential Zika vaccine is so effective that one shot gives enough protection – a key advance, given the virus is here to stay. A new vaccine against Zika virus gives mice and monkeys immunity in tests. The vaccine is based on the inactivated virus, and just one low dose is needed. “The critical difference between ours and everybody else’s is that it’s not a live virus. That makes it much safer and much easier to produce,” says Drew Weissman at the University of Pennsylvania, a member of the team that developed it. One year after being declared an international health emergency, the Zika virus is still a threat, with the World Health Organization reporting cases in 70 countries and territories in the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Western Pacific so far. The virus can cause babies to be born with brain damage and abnormally small heads, called microcephaly. There are dozens of vaccines in the pipeline, but all the other candidates require two immunisation shots, says Weissman. This can be harder to administer, and missing the second dose reduces the level of protection. Weissman’s vaccine is also more potent, giving rhesus macaques immunity to Zika virus at one-twentieth of the dose needed for other vaccines.
2-2-17 Why the sound of noisy eating fills some people with rage
Why the sound of noisy eating fills some people with rage
People with misophonia find sounds like rustling paper or clacking keyboards deeply distressing. Now scans have revealed differences in how their brains work. Imagine feeling angry or upset whenever you hear a certain everyday sound. It’s a condition called misophonia, and we know little about its causes. Now there’s evidence that misophonics show distinctive brain activity whenever they hear their trigger sounds, a finding that could help devise coping strategies and treatments. Olana Tansley-Hancock knows misophonia’s symptoms only too well. From the age of about 7 or 8, she experienced feelings of rage and discomfort whenever she heard the sound of other people eating. By adolescence, she was eating many of her meals alone. As time wore on, many more sounds would trigger her misophonia. Rustling papers and tapping toes on train journeys constantly forced her to change seats and carriages. Clacking keyboards in the office meant she was always making excuses to leave the room. Finally, she went to a doctor for help. “I got laughed at,” she says. “People who suffer from misophonia often have to make adjustments to their lives, just to function,” says Miren Edelstein at the University of California, San Diego. “Misophonia seems so odd that it’s difficult to appreciate how disabling it can be,” says her colleague, V. S. Ramachandran.
2-2-17 If chewing sounds irk you, blame your brain
If chewing sounds irk you, blame your brain
Misophonia marked by excess activity in structure involved in emotion. Scientists found structural and functional differences in the brains of people who find the noise of other people eating, drinking or breathing to be exceptionally annoying. The sound of someone slurping coffee or crunching an apple can be mildly annoying — but it leaves some people seething. These people aren’t imagining their distress, new research suggests. Anger and anxiety in response to everyday sounds of eating, drinking and breathing come from increased activity in parts of the brain that process and regulate emotions, scientists report February 2 in Current Biology. People with this condition, called misophonia, are often dismissed as just overly sensitive, says Jennifer Jo Brout, a clinical psychologist not involved with the study. “This really confirms that it’s neurologically based,” says Brout, founder of the Sensory Processing and Emotion Regulation Program at Duke University Medical Center.
2-2-17 Iron Age secrets exhumed from riches-filled crypt
Iron Age secrets exhumed from riches-filled crypt
Treasures point to trade links between Central Europe, Mediterranean cultures. Five gold spheres and a gold pinhead, each shown from two angles, were found on the skeleton of a woman buried near an early Iron Age hill fort in Germany. These and other items in the grave show connections to Mediterranean societies, probably via trade. Discoveries in a richly appointed 2,600-year-old burial chamber point to surprisingly close ties between Central Europe’s earliest cities and Mediterranean societies. Dated to 583 B.C., this grave also helps pin down when people inhabited what may have been the first city north of the Alps. An array of fine jewelry, luxury goods and even a rare piece of horse armor found in the grave indicates that “there were craftsmen working in the early Celtic centers north of the Alps who learned their crafts south of the Alps,” says archaeologist Dirk Krausse of the Archaeological State Office of Baden-Württemberg, Germany.
2-2-17 E-cigarette smoking linked to heart disease risk
E-cigarette smoking linked to heart disease risk
High adrenaline levels, oxidative stress seen in comparison with nonsmokers. E-cigarette use may increase risk for heart disease by increasing adrenaline levels in the heart, a new study suggests. Electronic cigarettes may increase the risk of heart disease, researchers at UCLA report. The team found that two risk factors for heart disease were elevated in 16 e-cigarette users compared with 18 nonsmokers. “The pattern was spot-on” for what has been seen in heart attack patients and those with heart disease and diabetes, says cardiologist Holly Middlekauff, a coauthor of the study published online February 1 in JAMA Cardiology. But because the study only looked at a small number of people, the results are not definitive — just two or three patients can skew results, John Ambrose, a cardiologist with the University of California, San Francisco cautions. Plus, he says, some of the e-cigarette users in the study used to smoke tobacco, which may have influenced the data. Even so, Ambrose called the study interesting, noting that “the medical community just doesn’t have enough information” to figure out if e-cigarettes are dangerous.
2-1-17 Spotless mind: Manipulating the brain to rewrite memories
Spotless mind: Manipulating the brain to rewrite memories
Our memories are more malleable than we thought – providing new perspectives to treat maladies from trauma to Alzheimer’s. LOUISE had been haunted by his face for 30 years. Racked with anxiety, she could barely sleep. When she did, horrific memories of being raped, aged 12, by her doctor spilled into nightmares. Then, after a single, experimental treatment, the haunting stopped. Louise is one of an increasing number of people who have been helped by techniques that seem to free individuals from the torments of a traumatic memory. Those who have been raped are not the only ones to benefit. Soldiers haunted by visions of war and survivors of terror attacks and natural disasters are being helped by pills, electric shocks, even video games. And as we continue to learn about how our brains form and maintain memories, far more might be possible. The focus until now has been on removing a memory’s emotional sting, but we might also excise entire memories at will, or even recover ones wiped out by Alzheimer’s disease. “We can break into the time machine and really reverse-engineer it, hijack it or jump-start it,” says Steve Ramirez at Harvard University. “We can really try to fix memories.”
2-1-17 How birds of a feather evolved together
How birds of a feather evolved together
Citizen scientists have deduced how birds acquired a vast array of beaks over millions of years of evolution. Bird enthusiasts joined forces with experts to investigate the beak shapes of birds from eagles to pelicans. The study found there was a burst of evolution of different beak shapes early in the history of birds, soon after other dinosaurs died out. The great diversity of beaks has long fascinated scientists, including the naturalist Charles Darwin. While visiting the Galapagos Islands, Darwin discovered several species of finches that varied from island to island, which helped him to develop his theory of natural selection. Birds have become one of the most successful groups of living things on Earth since the extinction of their dinosaur ancestors 66 million years ago. "This project has given us key insight into how evolutionary processes play out over millions of years - with major bursts of evolution as new groups emerge, and more fine-scale changes thereafter," said lead researcher Gavin Thomas from the University of Sheffield. "With the efforts of our volunteers from across the world, the study has given us a unique new data set for the study of bird ecology and evolution."
2-1-17 Clinic claims it has used stem cells to treat Down’s syndrome
Clinic claims it has used stem cells to treat Down’s syndrome
A clinic in India says it has used stem cells to treat Down’s syndrome in up to 14 people, but the announcement has alarmed independent researchers. A CLINIC claims it has used stem cells to treat Down’s syndrome in up to 14 people. “As far as we know, it’s the first time that stem cells have been used to treat Down’s syndrome,” says Jyoti Titus, manager at Nutech Mediworld clinic in New Delhi, India. The announcement has set alarm bells ringing. It’s not clear to independent stem cell or Down’s experts how stem cells – which can form many types of tissue – might treat Down’s, a genetic disorder caused by having an extra chromosome. “The use of these cells does not make biological sense and may place the babies at considerable risk of side effects,”says John Rasko of the International Society for Cellular Therapy. Clinically proven stem cell therapies are only just starting to become available. The first off-the-shelf stem cell treatment to gain regulatory approval was launched in Japan last year, and prevents transplanted organs from attacking their recipients. A number of research teams are putting other experimental stem cell therapies through stringent clinical trials. But hundreds of clinics worldwide already offer stem cell treatments unvetted by regulatory authorities. A patent held by the clinic’s medical director, Geeta Shroff, from 2007 suggests that the cells offered by Nutech Mediworld could be helpful for over 70 types of conditions, from Down’s syndrome to Alzheimer’s disease, and even vegetative states.
2-1-17 'Tuberculosis-resistant' cattle developed in China
'Tuberculosis-resistant' cattle developed in China
Scientists in China say they have produced cloned cattle with increased resistance to bovine tuberculosis. Twenty calves were born, of which 11 survived for more than three months. Bovine TB is a risk to cattle in many countries, including parts of the UK, Africa and Asia. Researchers in China used a genome editing tool to change the genetic code of cattle. They say the technology could have widespread uses in agriculture. A team from the College of Veterinary Medicine, Northwest A&F University in Shaanxi, China, altered a gene involved in fighting infection. "The resulting transgenic cattle exhibited increased resistance to M. bovis (bovine TB) infection," they said. "Our study provides an avenue to develop the CRISPR/Cas9 system for agricultural applications." Scientists in China have previously inserted a mouse gene into cattle in an attempt to boost protection against TB.
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