55 Evolution News Articles
for December 2017
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12-14-17 Five science-backed tips for getting more sleep
Tossing and turning? Always tired? Here, some tips from the latest research. er have trouble getting to sleep? Or staying asleep? Or you get plenty of shut-eye but you're not refreshed? Everyone wants to get better sleep. But sleep trouble is incredibly common. And feeling tired the next day isn't the half of it. By not getting enough sleep you're reducing your IQ.
- Avoid smartphones and devices at night. But they're great when you're dealing with jet lag.
- A good nightly routine is key. No alcohol before bed, think positive thoughts, and play the alphabet game.
- Naps are awesome. Just keep them under 30 minutes. Drink a cup of coffee before you lay down.
- Sleeping in two chunks is natural. Get up and do something for a little while and then go back to bed.
- Remember the "90 minute rule." Think about when you need to be up and count back in increments of 90 minutes so you wake up sharp.
12-14-17 An abundance of toys can curb kids’ creativity and focus
. The holiday onslaught is upon us. For some families with children, the crush of holiday gifts — while wonderful and thoughtful in many ways — can become nearly unmanageable, cluttering both rooms and minds. This year, I’m striving for simplicity as I pick a few key presents for my girls. I will probably fail. But it’s a good goal, and one that has some new science to back it. Toddlers play longer and more creatively with toys when there are fewer toys around, researchers report November 27 in Infant Behavior and Development. Researchers led by occupational therapist Alexia Metz at the University of Toledo in Ohio were curious about whether the number of toys would affect how the children played, including how many toys they played with and how long they spent with each toy. The researchers also wondered about children’s creativity, such as the ability to imagine a bucket as a drum or a hat. In the experiment, 36 children ages 18 to 30 months visited a laboratory playroom twice while cameras caught how they played. On one visit, the room held four toys. On the other visit, the room held 16 toys. When in the playroom with 16 toys, children played with more toys and spent less time with each one over a 15-minute session, the researchers found. When the same kids were in a room with four toys, they stuck with each toy longer, exploring other toys less over the 15 minutes. What’s more, the quality of the children’s play seemed to be better when fewer toys were available. The researchers noted more creative uses of the toys when only four were present versus 16.
12-14-17 In a tally of nerve cells in the outer wrinkles of the brain, a dog wins
Comparing neuron numbers across species could provide clues to animals’ smarts. If more nerve cells mean more smarts, then dogs beat cats, paws down, a new study on carnivores shows. That harsh reality may shock some friends of felines, but scientists say the real surprises are inside the brains of less popular carnivores. Raccoon brains are packed with nerve cells, for instance, while brown bear brains are sorely lacking. By comparing the numbers of nerve cells, or neurons, among eight species of carnivores (ferret, banded mongoose, raccoon, cat, dog, hyena, lion and brown bear), researchers now have a better understanding of how different-sized brains are built. This neural accounting, described in an upcoming Frontiers in Neuroanatomy paper, may ultimately help reveal how brain features relate to intelligence. For now, the multispecies tally raises more questions than it answers, says zoologist Sarah Benson-Amram of the University of Wyoming in Laramie. “It shows us that there’s a lot more out there that we need to study to really be able to understand the evolution of brain size and how it relates to cognition,” she says. Neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel of Vanderbilt University in Nashville and colleagues gathered brains from the different species of carnivores. For each animal, the researchers whipped up batches of “brain soup,” tissue dissolved in a detergent. Using a molecule that attaches selectively to neurons in this slurry, researchers could count the number of neurons in each bit of brain real estate.
12-14-17 A family in Italy doesn’t feel pain because of a gene mutation
Six members of the same family have a reduced sensitivity to pain, meaning they don’t notice when they break bones. Now the gene responsible has been identified. An Italian family that is barely able to sense pain has had the genetic root of their shared disorder uncovered. Understanding this gene may lead to new painkiller drugs. The affected family members include a 78-year-old woman, her two middle-aged daughters, and their three children. All of them fail to sense pain in the way most of us do, and don’t notice when they are being injured. When they were assessed, the family members were found to have bone fractures in their arms and legs that they hadn’t realised were there. “Sometimes they feel pain in the initial break but it goes away very quickly,” says James Cox, of University College London. “For example, Letizia broke her shoulder while skiing, but then kept skiing for the rest of the day and drove home. She didn’t get it checked out until the next day.” To find the cause of their lack of pain sensitivity, Cox and his colleagues performed a series of tests on the family members. The team found that all six individuals had normal numbers of nerves in their skin, but that they all had a mutation in a gene called ZFHX2. When the team deleted this gene entirely in mice, they found that the animals were not as good at sensing when painful pressure was applied to their tails, but they were hypersensitive to heat sensations. This suggests the gene may play a role in controlling whether stimuli are painful or not.
12-13-17 Effortless thinking: Thoughtlessly thoughtless
Why are the ideas that come most effortlessly to us often misguided, asks Graham Lawton. “We all have a tendency to think that the world must conform to our prejudices. The opposite view involves some effort of thought, and most people would die sooner than think – in fact they do so” THESE words are still as true today as when Bertrand Russell wrote them in 1925. You might even argue that our predilection for fake news, conspiracy theories and common sense politics suggests we are less inclined to think than ever. Our mental lassitude is particularly shocking given that we pride ourselves on being Homo sapiens, the thinking ape. How did it come to this? The truth is, we are simply doing what people have always done. The human brain has been honed by millions of years of evolution – and it is extraordinary. However, thinking is costly in terms of time and energy, so our ancestors evolved a whole range of cognitive shortcuts. These helped them survive and thrive in a hazardous world. The problem is that the modern milieu is very different. As a result, the ideas and ways of thinking that come to us most effortlessly can get us into a lot of trouble.
12-13-17 Effortless thinking: Why life is more than a zero-sum game
Them-or-us fears about limited resources, fuel supplies and immigrants damage society – but do the true calculations and the result can be altogether better. Children often bicker over who got the most cake or pop. But even as adults, we are acutely sensitive to the fair allocation of resources. Say there are 500 places at a local school, dished out according to who lives closest. Just before term starts, a large immigrant family is moved into a council house near the school and takes five of the places. No matter how liberal you are, it is hard not to think “Not fair!” Plenty of evidence suggests that immigrants contribute more to an economy than they take out. Yet the intuitive belief that they are extracting an unfair share of resources is hard to shake. Blame it on our zero-sum bias. In a classic zero-sum situation, resources are finite and your loss is my gain. Many situations in life follow this pattern – but not all. Unfortunately, this subtlety tends to pass us by. At best, seeing competition where none exists can blind us to opportunity. At worst, it has very unpleasant consequences. Zero-sum thinking was an evolutionary adaptation to a time when we lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers, says neuroscientist Dan Meegan at the University of Guelph in Canada. Under those circumstances, resources such as food and mates were finite and often scarce, so more for one person meant less for another. Today, however, things are different.
12-13-17 Effortless thinking: Beware the voice of your inner child
The wind is alive, heat flows and the sun moves across the sky – childish intuitions shape our world, and can skew views on things like climate change. Children, it is often said, are like little scientists. What looks like play is actually experimentation. They formulate hypotheses, test them, analyse the results and revise their world view accordingly. That may be true, but if kids are like scientists, they are rubbish ones. By the time they enter school, they have filled their heads with utter nonsense about how the world works. The job of education – especially science education – is to unlearn these “folk theories” and replace them with evidence-based ones. For most people, it doesn’t work, and even for those who go on to become scientists, it is only partially successful. No wonder the world is so full of nonsense. Folk theories – also known as naive theories – have been documented across all domains of science. In biology, for example, young children often conflate life with movement, seeing the sun and wind as alive, but trees and mushrooms as not. They also see purpose everywhere: birds are “for” flying, rocks are for animals to scratch themselves on and rain falls so flowers can drink. In physics, children conclude that heat is a substance that flows from one place to another, that the sun moves across the sky, and so on. For most everyday purposes, these ideas are serviceable. Nevertheless, they aren’t true.
12-13-17 Effortless thinking: Why stereotyping is an evolutionary trap
Survival in the jungle dictates judging everything on first impressions – but life in the urban jungle demands a subtler set of rules. We are born to judge others by how they look: our brains come hardwired with a specific face-processing area, and even shortly after birth, babies would rather look at a human face than anything else. Within their first year, they become more discerning, and are more likely to crawl towards friendly looking faces than those who look a bit shifty. By the time we reach adulthood, we are snap-judgement specialists, jumping to conclusions about a person’s character and status after seeing their face for just a tenth of a second. And we shun considered assessments of others in favour of simple shortcuts – for example, we judge a baby-faced individual as more trustworthy, and associate a chiselled jaw with dominance. Unfair, it may be, but it makes good evolutionary sense. Ours is an ultra-social species, so being able to quickly assess whether someone is friend or foe and whether they have the power to help or hurt us is important survival information. But there is a problem. As psychologist Alexander Todorov of Princeton University points out, more often than not, our first impressions are wrong. It’s not clear why, but he suggests that poor feedback and the fact that we meet many more strangers than our prehistoric ancestors would have, both play a part.
12-13-17 Effortless thinking: We’re all suckers for a celebrity
What makes Her Maj majestic? Or gives someone the X factor? The answer lies in our nomadic past, and it is leading us badly astray today. If you ever meet the queen of England, there are certain rules you are advised to follow. Do not speak until spoken to. Bow your head, or curtsey. Address her first as “your majesty”, then “ma’am”, but “your majesty” again upon leaving. Don’t make the mistake of calling her “your royal highness” – that is for other members of the royal family, pleb! And don’t expect her to thank you for the £40 million plus she gets every year from the public purse, or for paying to have her house done up. Apply some rational thought and this is all very puzzling. What has the queen done to deserve such treatment? What makes her “majestic”? Why is her family “higher” than yours? If humans were a wild species of primate, you would conclude that the queen must be the dominant female. But dominance has to be earned and kept, often by physical aggression and threats, and is always up for negotiation. Nobody defers to the queen out of fear that she will beat them up if they don’t, and nobody is secretly plotting a leadership challenge. Human societies do have dominant individuals, but what the queen possesses is something quite different: prestige. And we are suckers for it.
12-13-17 Effortless thinking: Why we’re all born to be status quo fans
There are no right answers in the world of politics – but whether we’re drunk or just pressed for time, the less we think, the further to the right our answers lean. If you’ve ever talked politics in the pub near closing time, chances are it wasn’t an especially enlightened or right-on discussion. When researchers in the US loitered outside a bar in New England and asked customers about their political views, they found that the drunker the punter, the more right wing their leanings. That wasn’t because right-wing people drink more, or get pissed more easily. Wherever people stood on the political spectrum when sober, alcohol shifted their views to the right. Why might that be? The researchers, led by Scott Eidelmanat the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, point out that alcohol strips away complex reasoning to reveal the default state of the mind. And that is why they were chatting to drunks: they were using drunkenness to test the hypothesis that low-effort, automatic thought promotes political conservatism. The team also found that they could push people to the right by distracting them, putting them under time pressure or simply telling them not to think too hard. Participants who were asked to deliberate more deeply, in contrast, shifted their political thinking to the left. Similar effects have been seen with the three core components of conservative ideology: preference for the status quo, acceptance of hierarchy and belief in personal responsibility. All three, the researchers say, come naturally to the human mind. We think that way without trying, without even noticing. More liberal views, in contrast, require effortful deliberation.
12-13-17 Effortless thinking: Adapting our need to feel part of the gang
Tribalism is a very human trait not just on the football field. But what can fuel discrimination is a force we can harness for good. Desmond Morris was 45 when he went to his first ever football match – a club game in Malta, where he lived at the time. He had no interest in football, but had been pestered into it by his young son. For the elder Morris, it was an awesome experience. Fighting between rival fans caused the match to be abandoned before half-time. Most people would have been put off for life, but Morris – the author of the bestselling books Manwatching and The Naked Ape – was captivated. What had caused people to behave so passionately over something as meaningless as a football game? On his return to England in 1977, Morris became a director of Oxford United FC so he could closely observe the culture of football – the players, directors and, above all, the fans. Four years later, he published his conclusions in The Soccer Tribe, which argued that football is essentially tribal. Each club is a tribe, with territory, elders, doctors, heroes, foot soldiers, modes of dress, allies and mortal enemies. Morris saw this as a modern expression of a deep-rooted evolutionary instinct. For thousands of years, our ancestors lived in small nomadic bands of mostly related individuals in frequent conflict – and occasional alliance – with neighbours over scarce resources. Tribes made up of individuals prepared to fight for a common good had a competitive edge over those that weren’t, so tribalism was selected for by evolution. We are one species, but we instinctively and effortlessly identify with smaller groups.
12-13-17 Effortless thinking: The god-shaped hole in your brain
Is that rustle in the dark a predator, or just the wind? It pays to think something causes everything – a survival trait that makes us all hard-wired to believe. If God designed the human brain, he (or she) did a lousy job. Dogged by glitches and biases, requiring routine shutdown for maintenance for 8 hours a day, and highly susceptible to serious malfunction, a product recall would seem to be in order. But in one respect at least, God played a blinder: our brains are almost perfectly designed to believe in him/her. Almost everybody who has ever lived has believed in some kind of deity. Even in today’s enlightened and materialistic times, atheism remains a minority pursuit requiring hard intellectual graft. Even committed atheists easily fall prey to supernatural ideas. Religious belief, in contrast, appears to be intuitive. Cognitive scientists talk about us being born with a “god-shaped hole” in our heads. As a result, when children encounter religious claims, they instinctively find them plausible and attractive, and the hole is rapidly filled by the details of whatever religious culture they happen to be born into. When told that there is an invisible entity that watches over them, intervenes in their lives and passes moral judgement on them, most unthinkingly accept it. Ditto the idea that the same entity is directing events and that everything that happens, happens for a reason.
12-13-17 Effortless thinking: It pays to resist revenge’s sweet taste
When people get their just deserts, it lights up our brain’s pleasure centres. But sweeter still is learning to combine this with our natural taste for forgiving. It is, according to popular wisdom, a dish best served cold. However you like yours, there’s no denying that revenge is tasty. We get a hunger for it, and feel satisfied once we’ve had our fill. You can see why if you look at what’s going on in your head. Brain scanning reveals the neural pathway of the revenge process, according to criminologist Manuel Eisner of the University of Cambridge. The initial humiliation fires up the brain’s emotional centres, the amygdalae and hypothalamus. They inform the anterior insular cortex, which evaluates whether you have been treated unfairly. If so, the prefrontal cortex steps in to plan and execute retaliation. Finally, the brain’s pleasure centre, the nucleus accumbens, swings into action to judge whether the revenge is satisfactory. Revenge appears to be a universal human trait. A study of 10 hunter-gatherer groups found that all of them had a culture of vengeance. The list of wrongs that need to be avenged is also common across all societies. It includes homicide, physical injury, theft, sexual aggression, adultery and reputational damage to oneself, loved ones or members of your tribe. The concept of “an eye for an eye” also runs deep, with punishment usually being roughly proportional to the crime.
12-13-17 We’re homing in on the pathways that shape sexual orientation
WE’RE homing in on the pathways that shape sexual orientation – in men, at least. The latest findings reveal genes and antibodies that seem to be part of the complex biology behind homosexuality. Studies of sexuality have largely tended to focus on men, and for decades there has been evidence that sexual orientation is partly heritable in men. Genetic variations in regions of the X chromosome and chromosome 8 were linked to homosexuality in the mid-1990s, but no specific genes had been found. There was also no explanation for why men are more likely to be gay if they have older brothers, known as the “fraternal birth order effect”. Now, for the first time, two genes that may influence how sexual orientation develops have been identified, while another team’s work may explain the fraternal birth order effect. Alan Sanders at NorthShore University, Illinois, and his colleagues compared DNA from 1077 gay and 1231 straight men. Scanning the men’s entire genomes, the team spotted two genes whose variants seem to be linked to sexual orientation (Nature Scientific Reports, doi.org/cg94). One of the genes sits on chromosome 13. Other research has found that this gene, called SLITRK6, is active in the hypothalamus brain region a few days before male mice fetuses are born. “This is thought to be a crucial time for sexual differentiation in this part of the brain,” says neuroscientist Simon LeVay, who in 1991 discovered that hypothalamus size differs between straight and gay men. The other gene, TSHR, is on chromosome 14 and helps control thyroid function. TSHR function is known to be disrupted in a genetic thyroid condition called Grave’s disease, and this disorder is more common in gay men.
12-13-17 Children are becoming problem gamblers due to a legal loophole
A report from the UK Gambling Commission reveals that children are being lured into gambling through “skin bets” in online games. Huge numbers of children are gambling online, the UK Gambling Commission reports. Around 25,000 children aged between 11 and 16 meet the definition of a problem gambler, according to a psychological questionnaire. And around 370,000 children in England, Scotland and Wales – 12 per cent of the total – have gambled in the past week. The most common forms of gambling that children participate in take place in the physical realm, involving fruit machines, scratch cards or just making wagers with friends. Now, however, a type of online gambling called “skin betting” is also taking off, and a regulatory blind spot means children are able to easily take part. Skins are cosmetic items found in some video games, which can be traded on third-party websites for cash. Some sites also let players gamble their skins to receive a more valuable one. In some cases, this gambling is built directly into the game. For example, during a shoot-’em-up players might have a chance to gamble one of their weapons by spinning a virtual fruit. Skins can normally be earned by just playing the game, but there is often also the option to pay with real money for more cracks at winning them. Nearly half of all children in the UK are aware of skin betting and 11 per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds have placed a skin bet. (Webmaster's comment: Addict them early. Then you can milk them for life!)
12-13-17 TB, or not TB? At last, a urine test can diagnose it quickly
For the first time, a urine test has been developed that reliably detects tuberculosis – a valuable weapon in the fight against an infection that kills millions. A urine test for tuberculosis could make it much easier to identify the disease and treat it before it kills. There were more than 10 million new TB infections in 2016, and the condition killed 1.7 million people. In around 40 per cent of cases, the infection isn’t identified until symptoms become obvious. TB is currently diagnosed using a skin test, or by culturing bacteria from a person’s sputum. But both these methods take days to give results, and can only be performed by trained microbiologists. Now Alessandra Luchini, of George Mason University in Virginia, and her team have developed a urine test for TB that gives results in 12 hours. The test detects a certain sugar that coats the surface of TB bacteria, which usually ends up in infected people’s urine in low concentrations. The test uses tiny molecular cages embedded with a special dye that can catch and trap these sugar molecules. This makes the test capable of detecting the sugar at low concentrations, making it the technique as much as 1000 times more accurate as previous methods for detecting TB in urine. When the team tested their technique, they correctly identified 48 people with TB. Luchini now wants to make the test easier to use, and test it on thousands more people. If all goes well, it could be available within three years, she says.
12-13-17 Restarting dead people’s hearts lets doctors reuse their organs
With a growing shortage of organ donors, doctors are now considering restarting dead people's hearts or even taking organs from patients who are technically alive. ORGAN transplants may seem almost routine procedures nowadays, but they remain mired in anxieties and ethical challenges. The number of people needing a new organ vastly outweighs the supply, because less than 1 per cent of all deaths take place in a manner that makes organ donation medically possible. That’s why some doctors are now seeking ways to allow more dying patients become donors, even challenging long-held ethical principles about the boundary between life and death. Others say the methods being explored go too far, and could jeopardise organ donation all together. After all, most transplants happen only when a family, in the middle of what is often a sudden and untimely bereavement, consent to their loved one’s body being treated in ways that could be seen as unnatural and brutal. Is it ethical to push such families further, if it could save lives? “What we are doing is terribly important. But people are worried that families will get upset,” says Stephen Large of Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, UK. For most of human history, life ended when the heart stopped beating. That still applies to the majority of deaths, but as intensive care progressed in the mid-20th century, a new definition evolved: brain death. It applies to just a few people who end up in a strange twilight zone, often after a head injury or lack of oxygen. Their heart still beats; but their injuries have caused catastrophic and irreversible brain damage. They effectively have no brain function, which can be confirmed with some simple tests.
12-13-17 This is the oldest fossil of a plesiosaur from the dinosaur era
A nearly complete skeleton of an early long-necked plesiosaur has been found in a clay pit in Germany, and reveals they survived a mass extinction. The long-necked marine reptiles known as plesiosaurs are one of the icons of the dinosaur age. But all the fossil skeletons found so far come from the Jurassic period. Now we’ve found a nearly complete fossil from the earlier Triassic period. It is the oldest plesiosaur ever found. The fossil shows that, as predicted, plesiosaurs evolved in the late Triassic and survived the mass extinction that ushered in the Jurassic era 200 million years ago. All other marine reptiles, apart from the dolphin-like ichthyosaurs, died out. The 2-metre-long fossil is thought to be a juvenile. It was found in 2013 in a clay pit in Germany and acquired by a private collector, who notified authorities. Now Martin Sander of the University in Bonn and colleagues have published a full description of the find. There is no doubt that the fossil is a plesiosaur, says Sander. It has all the group’s key traits. Crucially, the team confirmed that it dates to the Triassic period. “We went to the pit and convinced ourselves that we are looking at the Triassic,” Sander says. The great diversity of plesiosaurs found in the early Jurassic suggests at least six lineages survived the end-Triassic extinction. But until now only a few bone fragments, tentatively identified as plesiosaur remains, have been found. “Very early in the Jurassic there are lots and lots of plesiosaurs, as if they appeared from nowhere. So everyone was expecting to find a plesiosaur from the Triassic,” says Roger Benson of the University of Oxford. “But until you actually find it you can’t know what it’s going to look like.”
12-13-17 Sea reptile fossil gives clues to life in ancient oceans
A new fossil is shedding light on the murky past of the sea reptiles that swam at the time of the dinosaurs. With tiny heads on long necks and four pointed flippers, plesiosaurs have been likened to Scotland's mythical Loch Ness monster. The German discovery proves that these sea creatures were alive more than 200 million years ago during the Triassic. The fossilised bones give clues to how the animal survived a mass extinction that wiped out most living things. ''We now have the proof that this extremely successful group of marine reptiles already existed during Triassic times,'' said paleontologist Martin Sander of the University of Bonn, who examined the fossil with colleague, Tanja Wintrich. ''This had been suspected for over 150 years, but it took a surprisingly long time for the hard evidence to emerge.'' The plesiosaur has been named Rhaeticosaurus mertensi. Growth marks in its bones suggest the sea creature was a juvenile, grew very quickly and was warm-blooded. By being warm-blooded, plesiosaurs were able to roam the open seas in late Triassic times. ''Warm-bloodedness probably was the key to both their long reign and their survival of a major crisis in the history of life, the extinction events at the end of the Triassic,'' said Prof Sander. Plesiosaurs were not as hard hit by the extinction as shallow water and coastal animals. Their fossils have been found all over the world in Cretaceous and Jurassic rocks.
12-13-17 CRISPR gene editing moved into humans in 2017
Debates about when and how to use the tool in humans take on new urgency Scientists reported selectively altering genes in viable human embryos for the first time this year. For nearly five years, researchers have been wielding the molecular scissors known as CRISPR/Cas9 to make precise changes in animals’ DNA. But its use in human embryos has more profound implications, researchers and ethicists say. “We can now literally change our own species,” says Mildred Solomon, a bioethicist and president of the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute in Garrison, N.Y. CRISPR/Cas9 is a bacterial immune system (SN: 4/15/17, p. 22) turned into a powerful gene-editing tool. First described in 2012, the editor consists of a DNA-cutting enzyme called Cas9 and a short piece of RNA that guides the enzyme to a specific spot that scientists want to edit. Once the editing machinery reaches its destination, Cas9 cleaves the DNA. Cells can repair the break by gluing the cut ends back together, or by pasting in another piece of DNA. Scientists have developed variations of the editor that make other changes to DNA without cutting, including one version described in October that performs a previously impossible conversion of one DNA base into another.p>
12-13-17 Approval of gene therapies for two blood cancers led to an ‘explosion of interest’ in 2017
CAR-T cell therapy treats patients for whom other therapies haven’t worked. This year, gene therapy finally became a clinical reality. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved two personalized treatments that engineer a patient’s own immune system to hunt down and kill cancer cells. The treatments, the first gene therapies ever approved by the FDA, work in people with certain blood cancers, even patients whose cancers haven’t responded to other treatments. Called CAR-T cell immunotherapy (for chimeric antigen receptor T cell), one is for kids and young adults with B cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL, approved in August (SN Online: 8/30/17). The other is for adults with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, approved in October. Other CAR-T cell therapies are in testing, including a treatment for multiple myeloma. “It’s a completely different way of treating cancer,” says pediatric oncologist Stephan Grupp, who directs the Cancer Immunotherapy Program at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Grupp spearheaded the clinical trials of the newly approved ALL therapy, called Kymriah. Researchers are developing many different versions of CAR-T cell therapies, but the basic premise is the same: Doctors remove a patient’s T cells (immune system cells that attack invaders) from a blood sample and genetically modify them to produce artificial proteins on their surfaces. Those proteins, called chimeric antigen receptors, recognize the cancer cells in the patient’s body. After the modified T cells make many copies of themselves in the lab, they’re unleashed in the patient’s bloodstream to find and kill cancer cells.
12-13-17 The story of humans’ origins got a revision in 2017
Homo sapiens’ emergence pushed back to around 300,000 years ago. Human origins are notoriously tough to pin down. Fossil and genetic studies in 2017 suggested a reason why: No clear starting time or location ever existed for our species. The first biological stirrings of humankind occurred at a time of evolutionary experimentation in the human genus, Homo. Homo sapiens’ signature skeletal features emerged piece by piece in different African communities starting around 300,000 years ago, researchers proposed. In this scenario, high, rounded braincases, chins, small teeth and faces, and other hallmarks of human anatomy eventually appeared as an integrated package 200,000 to 100,000 years ago. This picture of gradual change contrasts with what scientists have often presumed, that H. sapiens emerged relatively quickly during the latter time period. Fossils clearly qualifying as human date to no more than about 200,000 years ago and are confined to East Africa. But the discoveries reported this year — including fossils from northwestern Africa — point to an earlier evolutionary phase when the human skeletal portrait was incomplete. Like one of Picasso’s fragmented Cubist portraits, Homo fossils from 300,000 years ago give a vague, provocative impression that someone with a humanlike form is present but not in focus. “Speciation is a process, not an event,” says paleoanthropologist Bernard Wood of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “When fossil skulls of, say, Neandertals and Homo sapiens look convincingly different, we’re seeing the end of the speciation process.”
12-13-17 Brains of former football players showed how common traumatic brain injuries might be
Signs of degenerative brain disease are also found in former high school and college athletes. There have been hints for years that playing football might come at a cost. But a study this year dealt one of the hardest hits yet to the sport, detailing the extensive damage in football players’ brains, and not just those who played professionally. In a large collection of former NFL players’ postmortem brains, nearly every sample showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a disorder diagnosed after death that’s associated with memory loss, emotional outbursts, depression and dementia. Damaging clumps of the protein tau were present in 110 of 111 brains, researchers reported in JAMA (SN: 8/19/17, p. 15). Those startling numbers captured the attention of both the football-loving public and some previously skeptical researchers, says study coauthor Jesse Mez, a behavioral neurologist at Boston University. “This paper did a lot to bring them around.” And that increased awareness and acceptance has already pushed the research further. “The number of brain donors who have donated since the JAMA paper came out has been astronomical,” Mez says. As the largest and most comprehensive CTE dataset yet, the results described in JAMA are a necessary step on the path to finding ways to treat or prevent CTE, and not just for professional athletes.
12-13-17 Zika cases are down, but researchers prepare for the virus’s return
Plenty of questions remain about transmission and vaccine development. One of the top stories of 2016 quietly exited much of the public’s consciousness in 2017. But it’s still a hot topic among scientists and for good reasons. After Zika emerged in the Western Hemisphere, it shook the Americas, as reports of infections and devastating birth defects swept through Brazil and Colombia, eventually reaching the United States. In a welcome turn, the number of Zika cases in the hemisphere this year dropped dramatically in the hardest-hit areas. But few scientists are naïve enough to think we’ve seen the last of Zika. “The clock is ticking for when we will see another outbreak,” says Andrew Haddow, a medical entomologist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md. Researchers’ to-do list for tackling this once-unfamiliar virus is daunting. But progress has been made, especially in learning more about Zika’s biology and interactions with its hosts, and in developing a safe and effective vaccine. In 2017, the epidemic lost steam because many areas have probably developed herd immunity to the virus (SN: 11/11/17, p. 12). Zika infected a large number of people, who are now presumably immune, and those exposed provide indirect protection to people who haven’t yet encountered Zika. If the mosquito-borne virus can’t find enough people to infect, it can’t easily spread.
12-12-17 Not all of a cell’s protein-making machines do the same job
Some ribosomes specialize and may even play a role in embryonic development, early work suggests. Protein-manufacturing factories within cells are picky about which widgets they construct, new research suggests. These ribosomes may not build all kinds of proteins, instead opting to craft only specialty products. Some of that specialization may influence the course of embryo development, developmental biologist and geneticist Maria Barna of Stanford University School of Medicine and colleagues discovered. Barna reported the findings December 5 at the joint meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology and European Molecular Biology Organization. Ribosomes, which are themselves made up of many proteins and RNAs, read genetic instructions copied from DNA into messenger RNAs. The ribosomes then translate those instructions into other proteins that build cells and carry out cellular functions. A typical mammalian cell may carry 10 million ribosomes. “The textbook view of ribosomes is that they are all the same,” Barna said. Even many cell biologists have paid little attention to the structures, viewing them as “backstage players in controlling the genetic code.”
12-12-17 Mini brains may wrinkle and fold just like ours
Growing organoids on glass provides a window into the push and pull of brain cells. Flat brains growing on microscope slides may have revealed a new wrinkle in the story of how the brain folds. Cells inside the brains contract, while cells on the outside grow and push outward, researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, discovered from working with the lab-grown brains, or organoids. This push and pull results in folds in the organoids similar to those found in full-size brains. Orly Reiner reported the results December 5 at the joint meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology and the European Molecular Biology Organization. Reiner and her colleagues sandwiched human brain stem cells between a glass microscope slide and a porous membrane. The apparatus allowed the cells access to nutrients and oxygen while giving the researchers a peek at how the organoids grew. The cells formed layered sheets that closed up at the edges, making the organoids resemble pita bread, Reiner said. Wrinkles began to form in the outer layers of the organoids about six days after the mini brains started growing. These brain organoids may help explain why people with lissencephaly — a rare brain malformation in which the ridges and folds are missing — have smooth brains. The researchers used the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing system to make a mutation in the LIS1 gene. People with lissencephaly often have mutations in that gene. Cells carrying the mutation didn’t contract or move normally, the team found.
12-11-17 Huntington’s breakthrough may stop disease
The defect that causes the neurodegenerative disease Huntington's has been corrected in patients for the first time, the BBC has learned. An experimental drug, injected into spinal fluid, safely lowered levels of toxic proteins in the brain. The research team, at University College London, say there is now hope the deadly disease can be stopped. Experts say it could be the biggest breakthrough in neurodegenerative diseases for 50 years. Huntington's is one of the most devastating diseases. Some patients described it as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and motor neurone disease rolled into one. Peter Allen, 51, is in the early stages of Huntington's and took part in the trial: "You end up in almost a vegetative state, it's a horrible end." Huntington's blights families. Peter has seen his mum Stephanie, uncle Keith and grandmother Olive die from it. Tests show his sister Sandy and brother Frank will develop the disease. The three siblings have eight children - all young adults, each of whom has a 50-50 chance of developing the disease. The unstoppable death of brain cells in Huntington's leaves patients in permanent decline, affecting their movement, behaviour, memory and ability to think clearly. Peter, from Essex, told me: "It's so difficult to have that degenerative thing in you. "You know the last day was better than the next one's going to be."
12-11-17 We may know why younger brothers are more likely to be gay
An immune response in some pregnant women’s bodies may explain the “fraternal birth order effect” – that men are more likely to be gay the more older brothers they have. The more older brothers a boy has, the more likely he is to be gay when he grows up – an effect called the “fraternal birth order effect”. Now it seems that increasing levels of antibodies in a mother’s immune system could play a role. Anthony Bogaert at Brock University, Canada, and his team think that some women who are pregnant with boys develop antibodies that target a protein made by the Y chromosome. Our immune systems make antibodies to recognise foreign molecules, which have the potential to be from dangerous bacteria. But pregnant women sometimes also produce antibodies against fetal molecules – for example, if their fetus has a different blood group. Bogaert’s team wondered if maternal antibodies might play a role in shaping sexual orientation. The team collected blood from 142 women, and screened it for antibodies to a particular brain protein that is only made in males. They thought this would be a good candidate, because it plays an important role in how neurons communicate with each other, and because it is produced on the surface of brain cells, making it relatively easy for antibodies to find and detect it. They found that the mothers of gay sons with older brothers had the highest levels of antibodies against this protein, followed by the mothers of gay sons with no older brothers. Women who had straight sons had less of these antibodies, while women with no sons had the least.
12-11-17 Fasting may boost brainpower by giving neurons more energy
Some people who fast regularly, like those following the 5:2 diet, feel mentally sharper. Now evidence in mice may explain how fasting boosts brainpower. Could regular fasting make you smarter? People following regimes like the popular 5:2 diet usually do so for weight loss, but some who try it says it makes them mentally sharper too. If this is true, experiments in mice may have explained why. In these animals, fasting has been found to cause changes in the brain that likely give neurons more energy, and enable them to grow more connections. Mark Mattson of the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Maryland and his team looked at 40 mice, which were given regimes in which they either ate nothing every other day, or ate normally – but consumed the same total calories – as the fasting mice. The team found that fasting was linked to a 50 per cent increase in a brain chemical called BDNF. Previous studies have shown that such an increase is likely to boost the number of mitochondria – which provide a cell’s energy – inside neurons by 20 per cent. BDNF also promotes the growth of new connections – or synapses – between brain cells, which helps in learning and memory, says Mattson. The finding makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, as animals that are hungry would need more intellectual resources to find food, says Mattson. “If human ancestors hadn’t been able to find food, they had better be able to function at a high level to chase down some prey.”
12-11-17 Irish DNA map reveals history's imprint
Scientists have unveiled a detailed genetic map of Ireland, revealing subtle DNA differences that may reflect historic events. In their sample of the Irish population, the researchers identified 10 genetic groupings - clusters - that roughly mirror ancient boundaries. The results also suggest the Vikings had a greater impact on the Irish gene pool than previously supposed. The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports. A team of Irish, British and American researchers analysed data from 194 Irish individuals with four generations of ancestry tied to specific regions on the island. This allowed the scientists to work out the population structure that existed prior to the increased movement of people in recent decades. Co-author Dr Gianpiero Cavalleri, from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, told BBC News that the differences between the different Irish groups were "really subtle". He told BBC News: "We're only picking them up now because, first of all, the data sets are getting really big." The other reason, he said, was because of "really clever analytical approaches to pick out these very slight differences that generate the clusters".
12-11-17 This ancient marsupial lion had an early version of ‘bolt-cutter’ teeth
Extinct species was a fearsome predator in Australia’s hot, humid forests. A skull and other fossils from northeastern Australia belong to a new species in the extinct family of marsupial lions. This newly named species, Wakaleo schouteni, was a predator about the size of a border collie, says vertebrate paleontologist Anna Gillespie of the University of New South Wales in Sydney. At least 18 million years ago (and perhaps as early as 23 million years ago), it roamed what were then hot, humid forests. Its sturdy forelimbs suggest it could chase possums, lizards and other small prey up into trees. Gillespie expects W. shouteni — the 10th species named in its family — carried its young in a pouch as kangaroos, koalas and other marsupials do. Actual lions evolved on a different fork in the mammal genealogical tree, but Australia’s marsupial lions got their feline nickname from the size and slicing teeth of the first species named, in 1859. Thylacoleo carnifex was about as big as a lion. And its formidable teeth could cut flesh. But unlike other pointy-toothed predators, marsupial lions evolved a horizontal cutting edge. A bottom tooth stretched back along the jawline on each side, its slicer edge as long as four regular teeth. An upper tooth extended too, giving this marsupial lion a bite like a “bolt cutter,” Gillespie says.
12-10-17 Scientists say alone time may be linked to creativity
You may be eagerly anticipating spending time with friends and family over the holidays. But you may also be dreading the obligation to do so, preferring to be alone. New research suggests that, as long as it isn't driven by fear, there's nothing inherently wrong with that impulse. In fact, it may stimulate a much-valued ability: creativity. When it comes to social withdrawal, "motivation matters," said University of Buffalo psychologist Julie Bowker. In the journal Personality and Individual Differences, she and two colleagues distinguish between three such catalysts, and discover they produce quite different results. The study featured 295 undergraduates at a large public university in the United States. Participants filled out a survey that allowed them to delineate specific reasons for avoiding social gatherings: shyness ("Sometimes I turn down chances to hang out with others because I feel too shy"), avoidance ("I try to avoid spending time with other people"), and unsociability ("I don't have a strong preference for being alone or with others"). People whose answers reflected shyness or avoidance scored low on creativity, and high on both types of aggression, an attitude presumably reflecting loneliness or frustration. But the opposite was true of unsociability. People who displayed that trait were less likely to engage in aggressive behavior, and more likely to report that they were creatively engaged. "Anxiety-free time spent in solitude may allow for, and foster, creative thinking and work," the researchers note. Rather than viewing unsociability "as a relatively benign form of withdrawal," this research suggests it "may be better characterized as a potentially beneficial form of withdrawal." (Webmaster's comment: When pumped up on a social media adrenaline high it's hard to imagine any person having creative thoughts!)
12-9-17 What makes the human mind so special?
It might not be self-awareness, as many have thought for years. Everyone knows what it feels like to have consciousness: It's that self-evident sense of personal awareness, which gives us a feeling of ownership and control over the thoughts, emotions, and experiences that we have every day. Most experts think that consciousness can be divided into two parts: The experience of consciousness (or personal awareness), and the contents of consciousness, which include things such as thoughts, beliefs, sensations, perceptions, intentions, memories, and emotions. It's easy to assume that these contents of consciousness are somehow chosen, caused, or controlled by our personal awareness — after all, thoughts don't exist until until we think them. But in a recent research paper in Frontiers of Psychology, we argue that this is a mistake. We suggest that our personal awareness does not create, cause, or choose our beliefs, feelings, or perceptions. Instead, the contents of consciousness are generated "behind the scenes" by fast, efficient, non-conscious systems in our brains. All this happens without any interference from our personal awareness, which sits passively in the passenger seat while these processes occur. Put simply, we don't consciously choose our thoughts or our feelings — we become aware of them. If this sounds strange, consider how effortlessly we regain consciousness each morning after losing it the night before; how thoughts and emotions — welcome or otherwise — arrive already formed in our minds; how the colors and shapes we see are constructed into meaningful objects or memorable faces without any effort or input from our conscious mind.
12-8-17 Food delivery robots are teaching themselves how to cross roads
Until now, delivery robots have always needed humans to help them when things get tricky. Now machine learning has helped them work out how to manage without us. Ding dong! That’ll be the robot with my pizza. Such a scenario probably seems a bit far-fetched but, in the US and UK, delivery firms like JustEat and DoorDash are already experimenting using small robots to deliver groceries and meals. Currently these systems need human chaperones to monitor the robot’s progress, jumping in if it gets into trouble. But now Kiwi, a company based at the University of California, Berkeley, is using machine learning to teach its delivery robots how to cross the road safely, without any human intervention. It could be an important step in making these robots more autonomous, something that is vital if they are ever going to be delivering our dinners at scale. Such a system could also help delivery firms with the tricky ‘last mile’ problem of logistics – the fact that getting parcels to your door is the most expensive bit of the delivery process. Kiwi launched in April this year and lets students order food from campus restaurants via an app, to be delivered by its small fleet of robots. The robots use a mixture of camera sensors, lasers and an in-built map of the campus to find their way between restaurants and student addresses. (Webmaster's comment: The beginning of autonomous machine evolution?)
12-8-17 When tumors fuse with blood vessels, clumps of breast cancer cells can spread
Tests with fake vessels suggest this is an early step in metastasis. If you want to beat them, join them. Some breast cancer tumors may follow that strategy to spread through the body. Breast cancer tumors can fuse with blood vessel cells, allowing clumps of cancer cells to break away from the main tumor and ride the bloodstream to other locations in the body, suggests preliminary research. Cell biologist Vanesa Silvestri of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine presented the early work December 4 at the American Society for Cell Biology/European Molecular Biology Organization meeting. Previous research has shown that cancer cells traveling in clusters have a better chance of spreading than loners do (SN: 1/10/15, p. 9). But how clusters of cells get into the bloodstream in the first place has been a mystery, in part because scientists couldn’t easily see inside tumors to find out. So Silvestri and colleagues devised a see-through synthetic version of a blood vessel. The vessel ran through a transparent gel studded with tiny breast cancer tumors. A camera attached to a microscope allowed the researchers to record the tumors invading the artificial blood vessel. Sometimes the tumors pinched the blood vessel, eventually sealing it off. But in at least one case, a small tumor merged with the cells lining the faux blood vessel. Then tiny clumps of cancer cells broke away from the tumor and floated away in the fluid flowing through the capillary. More work is needed to confirm that the same process happens in the body, Silvestri said.
12-7-17 Why you need to touch your keys to believe they're in your bag
You know they're there, you just need to feel them in your hand. As virtual reality headsets hit the market, they bring with them the echoes of Macbeth's words: The world they immerse you in might look or even sound right, but can't be touched or grasped. Seeing a dagger on the table before you, you might try to reach for it, but as your arm simply goes through the air, you are left with the ghostly feeling that things are not so real. Impalpable objects are not convincing, and integrating touch into new technologies is the next frontier. But why, to Macbeth and to us, does touch matter so much? What does it bring, that vision doesn't? Missing a whole family of sensations can be disturbing — yet the absence of tactile experiences seems to have more damaging consequences than the absence of other experiences, for instance olfactory ones. Contrary to the proverbial expression that "seeing is believing," it is touch that secures our epistemic grip on reality. Everyday situations show that touch is the "fact-checking" sense. Salesmen know it well: If a client hesitates to buy a product, handing it over for her to touch is likely to seal the deal. We all like to feel our wallets in our bags, even when we just put them there. Despite numerous signs asking visitors not to touch the artworks on display, guards need to regularly stop people from reaching out and touching fragile statues and canvasses. But what does touch bring if vision already tells you everything you need to know? A long-standing response in philosophy agrees that touch is more objective than the other senses. For instance, when Samuel Johnson wanted to demonstrate the absurdity of Bishop Berkeley's idea that material objects do not exist, he kicked his foot against a large stone, and triumphantly asserted: "I refute it thus." Pointing at the colored shape was not sufficient, but Johnson assumed that touch would be unquestionable. The resistance of solid objects through touch is meant to provide us with the experience that there are things out there, independent of us and our will.
12-7-17 Marriage wards off dementia
People who are married are less likely to develop dementia than those who are single and living alone, new research has found. Researchers in London and France analyzed 15 studies involving more than 800,000 people in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. After taking other possible risk factors into account, they found that those who never married had a 42 percent higher risk for dementia than those who were living with a spouse or partner. Those who had been widowed had a 20 percent higher risk. Why? The protective effect of marriage “is linked to various lifestyle factors that are known to accompany marriage,” lead author Andrew Sommerlad tells CNN?.com. These factor include “living a generally healthier lifestyle and having more social stimulation as a result of living with a spouse or partner.” Previously, studies have found that husbands and wives also enjoy better heart health than those who have never married.
12-7-17 Mouthwash linked to diabetes
More than 200 million Americans routinely swig and swish mouthwash to prevent tooth decay and bad breath. But new research suggests this seemingly healthy habit could increase risk for type 2 diabetes, particularly for those already at high risk for the disease. A three-year study involving 945 middle-aged, overweight adults found that using mouthwash at least twice a day was associated with a 55 percent higher risk for diabetes or the precursor to the condition, known as prediabetes. The study’s authors aren’t sure why, but they theorize that antibacterial agents added to mouthwashes, such as chlorhexidine and triclosan, may do more harm than good. These ingredients destroy the harmful bacteria responsible for gum disease and cavities. But they also wipe out “friendly” bacteria that are essential for the production of nitric oxide, a compound that helps regulate insulin, which in turn keeps blood sugar levels in check. “Mouthwash is often advertised for killing germs,” lead author Kaumudi Joshipura, from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, tells Today.com. “Killing most or all oral bacteria is not necessarily a good thing.”
12-7-17 CRISPR/Cas9 can reverse multiple diseases in mice
New use for the genetic tool turns genes on instead of snipping them. A new twist on gene editing makes the CRISPR/Cas9 molecular scissors act as a highlighter for the genetic instruction book. Such highlighting helps turn on specific genes. Using the new tool, researchers treated mouse versions of type 1 diabetes, kidney injury and Duchenne muscular dystrophy, the team reports December 7 in Cell. The new method may make some types of gene therapy easier and could be a boon for researchers hoping to control gene activity in animals, scientists say. CRISPR/Cas9 is a two-part molecular scissors. A short, guide RNA leads the DNA-cutting enzyme Cas9 to specific places in the genetic instructions that scientists want to slice. Snipping DNA is the first step to making or fixing mutations. But researchers quickly realized the editing system could be even more versatile. In the roughly five years since CRISPR/Cas9 was first wielded, researchers have modified the tool to make a variety of changes to DNA (SN: 9/3/16, p. 22). Many of those modifications involve breaking the Cas9 scissors so they cannot cut DNA anymore. Strapping other molecules to this “dead Cas9” allows scientists to alter genes or change the genes’ activities. Gene-activating CRISPR/Cas9, known as CRISPRa, could be used to turn on dormant genes for treating a variety of diseases. For instance, doctors might be able to turn on alternate copies of genes to compensate for missing proteins or to reinvigorate genes that grow sluggish with age. So far, researchers have mostly turned on genes with CRISPRa in cells growing in lab dishes, says Charles Gersbach, a biomedical engineer at Duke University not involved in the new study.
12-7-17 Researchers find 'oldest ever eye' in fossil
An "exceptional" 530-million-year-old fossil contains what could be the oldest eye ever discovered, according to scientists. The remains of the extinct sea creature include an early form of the eye seen in many of today's animals, including crabs, bees and dragonflies. Scientists made the find while looking at the well-preserved trilobite fossil. These ancestors of spiders and crabs lived in seas during the Palaeozoic era, between 541-251 million years ago. They found the ancient creature had a primitive form of compound eye, an optical organ that consists of arrays of tiny visual cells, called ommatidia, similar to those of present-day bees. The team, which included a researcher from Edinburgh University, said their findings suggested that compound eyes had changed little over 500 million years. Prof Euan Clarkson, of Edinburgh University's school of geosciences, said: "This exceptional fossil shows us how early animals saw the world around them hundreds of millions of years ago. "Remarkably, it also reveals that the structure and function of compound eyes has barely changed in half a billion years."
12-6-17 A closer look at '3.67m-year-old' skeleton
It took 20 years to excavate, clean and put together Little Foot, whose skeleton was found in caves north of Johannesburg. Its exact age is debated, but South African scientists say the remains are 3.67 million years old. This would mean Little Foot was alive about 500,000 years before Lucy, the famous skeleton of an ancient human relative found in Ethiopia.
12-7-17 Daughters of older mums are more likely to never have children
An analysis of thousands of women has found that the older your mother was when you were born, the more likely you are to be childless – but we don’t know why. The older your mother was when you were born, the less likely you are to have children – but we don’t know why. An analysis of thousands of women has found that daughters of older mums are more likely to be childless – an effect that can’t be fully explained by social factors like wealth or education. So far, there’s been mixed evidence over whether parental age at first birth is linked to lower fertility in children. There does seem to be a trend that women who are wealthier and more educated are more likely to give birth later in life – and wealth tends to be passed down the generations for multiple reasons. But Olga Basso, of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, is interested in whether there might also be biological factors that make the children of older parents less likely to have children of their own. Her team analysed data from over 43,000 women in the US who were born between 1930 and 1964. More than 19 per cent of women born to mothers aged 30 or over went on to be childless. That compares with about 15 per cent in women whose mothers had been aged 20 to 24 at the time of their birth and less than 13 per cent of those born to teenage mothers. Women who had a post-graduate degree were the most likely never to have any children, followed by women who had never married, and women who were lesbian. Analysis of the figures revealed, however, that having higher levels of education or never marrying could not fully account for the levels of childlessness in women born to older mums. Even among women who held a postgraduate degree, those born to older mothers were more likely to be childless.
12-7-17 What do the new ‘gay genes’ tell us about sexual orientation?
Two gene variants have been found to be more common in gay men. New Scientist looks at what this tells us about the way biology shapes our sexuality. Two gene variants have been found to be more common in gay men, adding to mounting evidence that sexual orientation is at least partly biologically determined. How does this change what we already knew?
- Didn’t we already know there were “gay genes”?
- What’s new about the latest study?
- What genes did they find and what do they do?
- What is the other gene?
- Are all men who have the “gay” variants of these genes gay?
- What about women who are gay? Are there “lesbian genes”?
- Why should we care about the genetics of being gay?
12-6-17 Night exercises: The intense workout we all do in our sleep
You never really sleep like a log. Instead we all twitch, talk and even walk around as our dreaming brains rehearse our waking movements. IT WAS the wreckage of yet another TV that finally convinced one man to seek help. Psychologist Antonio Zadra remembers the patient well. “When we asked what brought him in, he said, ‘Well, that’s the third TV set that I threw at an intruder who isn’t there. It’s getting damn expensive.'” Zadra, who studies sleepwalking at the University of Montreal, is interested in why anyone would do things like this in their sleep. And it turns out that the answer is important to all of us. You might think that when you close your eyes and drift off, your body basically shuts down, and dreams then play out in your head. Due to the inhibition of muscle movement, or muscle atonia, that normally occurs during dreaming sleep, most of us don’t act out our dreams or have one-sided conversations. Just 1 per cent of people sleepwalk regularly. But three-quarters of us will talk in our sleep and a third of us will sleepwalk at some point. And we all occasionally shift position or mumble. Now we are learning that even the seemingly subtle twitches and murmurs we make actually have a surprisingly important impact. Work by Zadra and others is revealing that our bodies play a far more active role in what happens during sleep than people generally think – and not just for sleepwalkers or people chucking appliances at the wall. Their findings suggest that movements in our dreaming minds, or sleeping bodies, serve a far more fundamental purpose, one that shapes how we move and talk in our waking lives.
12-6-17 This new dinosaur species was one odd duck
Unlike other theropods, its mix of birdlike body parts suggests it took to water like, well, a duck. It may have walked like a duck and swum like a penguin, but a flipper-limbed creature discovered in what is now Mongolia was no bird. The strange new species is the first known nonavian dinosaur that could both run and swim, researchers say. To compensate for a long swanlike neck, probably used for dipping underwater for fish, this dino’s center of mass shifted toward its hips, allowing it to stand erect, similar to short-tailed waterfowl like ducks, scientists report December 6 in Nature. Along with the flipperlike limbs, those adaptations suggest the animal, dubbed Halszkaraptor escuilliei, probably spent much of its time in the water, say vertebrate paleontologist Andrea Cau of the Geological and Palaeontological Museum in Bologna, Italy, and his colleagues. To study H. escuilliei in 3-D, and while still partially embedded in rock, the researchers used synchrotron radiation scanning. Zapping the fossil with high-energy X-rays illuminates structures in fine detail without causing damage. H. escuilliei lived in the Late Cretaceous around 75 million to 71 million years ago and belonged to maniraptora, a diverse line of theropods that include both nonavian dinosaurs and birds. Although many theropods, such as the tyrannosaurs, were primarily meat eaters, H. escuilliei’s jaw, nose and number of teeth suggest it preferred fish.
12-5-17 Staring into a baby’s eyes puts her brain waves and yours in sync
Gazing into each other’s eyes makes baby and adult brain waves sync up, a new study finds. When you lock eyes with a baby, it’s hard to look away. For one thing, babies are fun to look at. They’re so tiny and cute and interesting. For another, babies love to stare back. I remember my babies staring at me so hard, with their eyebrows raised and unblinking eyes wide open. They would have killed in a staring contest. This mutual adoration of staring may be for a good reason. When a baby and an adult make eye contact, their brain waves fall in sync, too, a new study finds. And those shared patterns of brain activity may actually pave the way for better communication between baby and adult: Babies make more sweet, little sounds when their eyes are locked onto an adult who is looking back. The scientists report the results online November 28 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Psychologist Victoria Leong of the University of Cambridge and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and colleagues invited infants into the lab for two experiments. In the first, the team outfitted 17 8-month-old babies with EEG caps, headwear covered with electrodes that measure the collective behavior of nerve cells across the brain. The infants watched a video in which an experimenter, also outfitted in an EEG cap, sung a nursery rhyme while looking either straight ahead at the baby, at the baby but with her head turned at a 20-degree angle, or away from the baby and with her head turned at a 20-degree angle. When the researcher looked at the baby (either facing the baby or with her head slightly turned), the babies’ brains responded, showing activity patterns that started to closely resemble those of the researcher.
12-6-17 A boy is missing the vision bit of his brain but can still see
A seven-year-old boy whose brain doesn’t have a visual processing centre has baffled doctors. Despite missing this brain area, he is still able to see. An Australian boy missing the visual processing centre of his brain has baffled doctors by seeming to have near-normal sight. The 7-year-old, known as “BI”, lost his primary visual cortex shortly after he was born due to a rare metabolic disorder called medium-chain acyl-Co-A dehydrogenase deficiency. Normally, the primary visual cortex is crucial for sight because it processes electrical signals relayed from the eyes. People with damage to this area are said to have “cortical blindness”. However, BI has remarkably well-preserved vision, says Iñaki-Carril Mundiñano at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. “You wouldn’t think he is blind,” he says. “He navigates his way around without any problems and plays soccer and video games,” he says. In a series of tests run by Mundiñano and his colleagues, BI scored perfectly when asked to name objects, identify colours, and discriminate between different people’s faces displayed on a screen. He could also identify whether a face was happy, fearful or neutral, and reach out and grasp different-sized blocks placed in front of him. The only major flaw in BI’s vision was strong short-sightedness. He was only able to read the top letter on an eye chart when standing 3 metres away or closer. People with damaged visual cortices have previously been found to sometimes have a degree of unconscious visual awareness, known as “blindsight”. For example, some are able to navigate around an obstacle course even though they don’t consciously feel like they can see.
12-6-17 Little Foot skeleton unveiled in South Africa
One of the oldest and most complete skeletons of humankind's ancestors has been unveiled in South Africa. A team spent more than 20 years excavating, cleaning and putting together the skeleton of Little Foot. Its exact age is debated, but South African scientists say the remains are 3.67 million years old. This would mean Little Foot was alive around 500,000 years before Lucy, the famous skeleton of an ancient human relative found in Ethiopia. Both Little Foot and Lucy belong to the same genus - Australopithecus - but they are different species. Scientists believe this shows humankind's ancestors were spread across a far wider area of Africa than had previously thought. It also suggests there was a diverse number of species. Little Foot was discovered in the Sterkfontein caves, north-west of South Africa's main city Johannesburg, by Professor Ron Clarke. It is thought that she was a young girl who fell down a shaft of one of the caves. "It might be small, but it might be very important. Because that's how it started, with one little bone. And it helps us to understand our origins," Prof Clarke said.
12-5-17 Lizards re-evolved eggs after thousands of years of live births
It’s an evolutionary U-turn: a group of egg-laying lizards evolved from live-bearing ancestors, which are in turn descended from even older egg-layers. Which came first, the lizard or the egg? In the case of at least one lizard, we have an answer: the live-bearing lizard came first and only later evolved the ability to lay eggs. It’s a rare example of a species re-evolving a complex trait that had been lost. The common lizard is just that. It is found across a broad swathe of Eurasia, from Ireland in the west to Japan in the east. Its name Zootoca vivipara means “live-bearing” in both Greek and Latin, and as you might expect it gives birth to its young. But there are exceptions. Two small populations on the edge of the common lizard’s range lay eggs. One of these subspecies is found around the border between Spain and France, and the other in the southern Alps. Biologists had assumed these subspecies were the last remnants of an egg-laying ancestral population from which the live-bearers evolved – something that seems to have happened over 100 times in reptiles. But when they started doing simple genetic tests around a decade ago, the data didn’t fit this simple story. One explanation for the genetic results was that live-bearing evolved at least twice. Another was that egg-laying re-evolved in one population, but this was dismissed by many as unlikely. “There is not really any consensus,” says Kathryn Elmer of the University of Edinburgh, UK. So her team collected 76 lizards from around Europe and carried out more detailed genetic studies, looking at over 200,000 sites in the genome. They used this data to build a detailed family tree of common lizards.
12-4-17 Want to be the boss? How to signal your leadership potential
We all assess if a person is leadership material without realising it. By changing your body language, and talking in the right way, you may boost your chances. We can tell who’s likely to become a leader before we’re even aware of it, assessing a person’s behaviour and body language without realising that we’re doing it. When a group of people who don’t know each other meet for the first time, leaders and followers naturally emerge – it helps us solve many social challenges. We use a variety of signals, such as charismatic behaviour and vocal cues, to infer leadership qualities. But Fabiola Gerpott at Vrije University Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and her team wondered whether such signals might also trigger more automatic changes in who we pay attention to. To investigate, they videotaped meetings of real project teams who had never previously met over a period of seven weeks. At the end of this period, independent mentors rated each team member on whether they had emerged as a leader or follower. The team then edited the videos into 42 brief, soundless clips, and showed them to 18 new people. As they watched the videos, the team measured where each person was looking, and for how long. They found that the volunteers looked more often at people who went on to become leaders within the group, and they looked at them for a longer time on average too. “This is not something we would be consciously aware of,” says Gerpott. She says it might be a mechanism that was evolutionarily useful. “In the past it might have been very helpful to recognise very quickly who was the person you should follow.”
Behave like a natural-born leader
- Use lots of active gestures, like talking with your hands
- Have positive body language, facing yourself towards other group members
- Use speech and facial expressions to show that you are listening and open to interacting
- Don’t worry about smiling – it doesn’t seem to make a difference
- Don’t yawn, frown, or stare blankly when others are talking
- Talk a lot towards the beginning of meetings
- As the discussion develops, don’t focus on the problems – be the one to suggest solutions
12-3-17 Human voices are more than just sound
Why we describe people's voices as sharp, deep, or cold. To make sense of human voices, we rely on senses beyond hearing. The songs of Taylor Swift can be sweet and soft. Lady Gaga's singing feels dark. Johnny Cash's voice was low and rough. That's because voice is not just sound: It can be seen and heard, but also tasted and touched. The sound we hear in voice creates "multisensory images" — drawing in perceptions from many senses, not just one. The phenomenon of multisensory perception can help us to understand why we assign metaphorical properties of softness, roughness, or depth to voice. Think of a politician whose voice is flat. Flatness is a multisensory concept because it is both tactile and visual. We can recognize flat surfaces by either touching or seeing them. These sensory impressions inform us about the acoustic characteristics of voice, implying that it does not have variation in tone. Notably, flatness can also convey lack of sympathy and emotion on the part of the speaker. Softness is another common way to present the auditory perception of sound. Like flatness, it can describe not only the sound quality but also the speaker's emotional state. And what about sharpness, a descriptor that might relate to both tactile and visual experience? Calling a voice sharp could be a metaphor for an aggressive, nasty speaker — or a means of describing acoustic, vocal sounds. Multisensory images allow us to identify and deal with things that can harm or benefit us. A falling mortar shell, a jumping tiger, or a skidding car are not just auditory or visual images: They are perceived as multisensory images and can be conceived of as potential life threats. In cognitive psychology, it is generally recognized that, as Vanessa Harrar of the University of Oxford puts it, "integrating information from individual senses increases the chance of survival by reducing the variability in the incoming signals, thus allowing us to respond more rapidly." In fact, notes Harrar, when the components of the multisensory signals are simultaneous, our reaction time is fastest of all.
12-2-17 The other Dodo: Extinct bird that used its wings as clubs
The extinct Dodo had a little-known relative on another island. This fascinating bird ultimately suffered the same fate as its iconic cousin, but we can reconstruct some of its biology thanks to the writings of a French explorer who studied it during his travels of the Indian Ocean. In the middle of the 18th century, at around the time the US was signing the declaration of independence, a large flightless bird quietly became extinct on an island in the Indian Ocean. Today this bird is all but forgotten. Early explorers to the tiny island of Rodrigues in the Indian Ocean described a "Dodo" living on the forested island. Males were grey-brown, and females sandy, both having strong legs and a long, proud necks... but despite outward similarities to the iconic Mauritian bird, this wasn't in fact a Dodo, but the Rodrigues solitaire. If you look up Rodrigues in satellite images, you can see a huge ring of submerged land around the central island, over 50% of the original dry land is thought to have been lost under the waves due to sea level rise and the island subsiding into the bedrock. That was the stage for the evolution of the huge bird, over millions of years. It's likely this shrinking habitat caused an increase in competition for food and territory between individuals of the species, and perhaps as a result of this, the solitaire evolved a club-like bone growth on the end of each wing. It used this against other solitaires in territorial boxing matches. These would have been quite a sight, as the males stood almost a metre tall and weighed 28kg while the females were sandy coloured and were half that size.
12-1-17 New 3-D printed materials harness the power of bacteria
Items made with ‘living ink’ could make medical supplies or clean contaminated water. A new type of 3-D printing ink has a special ingredient: live bacteria. Materials made with this “living ink” could help clean up environmental pollution, harvest energy via photosynthesis or help make medical supplies, researchers report online December 1 in Science Advances. This study “shows for the first time that 3-D printed bacteria can make useful materials,” says Anne Meyer, a biologist at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands who wasn’t involved in the work. The newly concocted printing ink is a polymer mix called a hydrogel that is blended with bacteria and a broth of nutrients that helps bacterial cells grow and reproduce. Eventually, the bacteria use up all of this built-in sustenance, says study coauthor Manuel Schaffner, a material scientist at ETH Zurich. But the ink is porous, so dipping a 3-D printed structure in more broth can reload it with nutrients, he says. Schaffner and colleagues printed a grid embedded with a breed of bacteria called Pseudomonas putida, which eats the hazardous chemical phenol. When the researchers placed this lattice in phenol-contaminated water, the bacteria completely purified the water in just a few days.
12-1-17 A shipwreck has been found from the time of Alexander the Great
Of three wrecked ships found near Cyprus, one dates from around 330 BC and hints at a vast trading network that spanned the Mediterranean. Archaeologists have used drones and an old cold war spy boat to identify three shipwrecks on the Mediterranean seabed. One contains artefacts dating back over 2000 years, hinting at a vast network of trade during the rise of ancient Greek city states like Athens. “If our dates are correct, this is just as Alexander the Great is beginning his conquest,” says team leader Ben Ballard at the Ocean Exploration Trust (OET), whose father Robert discovered the wreck of the Titanic. In 2010 and 2012, Ben Ballard and his colleagues explored the Eratosthenes seamount, an underwater plateau south of Cyprus, on expeditions supported by the OET. They scanned the seamount using the OET’s Nautilus vessel, which was originally a spy boat built by East Germany in the 1970s, plus other technology such as underwater drones. In 2010, the team found two shipwrecks and 70 artefacts. When they returned in 2012, they discovered a third shipwreck and 149 artefacts. They have now described their finds. The Eratosthenes seamount is an ideal preservation site, because it is 600 to 800 metres down. That is deep enough for it not to be disturbed by deep-sea trawlers while remaining much more accessible than most of the Mediterranean, which averages 2100 to 2600 metres deep. It’s also far from the coast, so artefacts have not been buried by sediment run-off.
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55 Evolution News Articles
for December 2017
Evolution News Articles for November 2017