74 Evolution News Articles
for May 2018
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5-20-18 The godfather of sexist pseudoscience
How gender essentialism infiltrated science in the 19th century. In the summer of 1881, Frenchman Gustave Le Bon entered the forbidding Tatras Mountains of southern Poland. A bearded man of 40, Le Bon was a Parisian polymath with an appetite for science, anthropology, and psychology. His mission in Poland was to locate and study the society of Podhaleans living in the Tatras. Using the portable cephalometer he invented years prior, Le Bon hoped to record the skull measurements of these curly blonde-haired, blue-eyed mountain people. Convinced of the relationship between race and intellect, Le Bon suspected that only a superior breed could thrive in the inhospitable Tatras — a race that must have evolved beyond their Polish peasant neighbors. How else could they have built a society on terrain so dangerous that even Russian generals avoided sending troops through the peaks? With his contraption of steel rulers and pressurized screws, Le Bon measured the cranial dimensions of 50 Podhalean men. According to his calculations, their heads were larger than both Polish peasants and Jews. The only population Le Bon determined had more brain mass than the Podhaleans were "elite Parisians," among which Le Bon happened to count himself. Today craniometry is considered pseudoscience. In 19th-century France, however, the measurement of skulls was seen as "so meticulous and apparently irrefutable," that it "won high esteem as the jewel of 19th century science," explains Stephen Jay Gould in his 1980 essay "Women's Brains." As a result, Le Bon earned a reputation as the "father of modern social science." Gould describes Le Bon as a disciple of Paul Broca, the "unquestioned leader" of craniometry, and writes that Le Bon differentiated himself as the "chief misogynist" of Broca's school. While many craniometrists strived to prove the inferiority of non-white races, Le Bon took pride in using his work to denigrate women and dismiss the burgeoning movement for gender-equal education in France.
5-18-18 How to have lucid dreams
Take charge! Tibetan Buddhism, the group of tantric techniques known as milam aim to reveal the illusory nature of waking life by having practitioners perform yoga in their dreams. It's a ritualized version of one of the most mysterious faculties of the human mind: to know that we're dreaming even while asleep, a state known as lucid dreaming. Lucidity (awareness of the dream) is different to control (having power over the parameters of the experience, which can include summoning up objects and people, attaining superpowers and traveling to fantastic worlds). But the two are closely linked, and many ancient spiritual traditions teach that dreams can yield to us with time and practice. How? As a researcher in psychology, I've approached this question scientifically. Despite the long history of lucid dreaming in human societies, it wasn't until 1975 that researchers came up with an ingenious way to verify the phenomenon empirically. The first step was the insight that the muscles of the eyes are not paralyzed during sleep, unlike the rest of the body. Inspired by the work of Celia Green, the British hypnotherapist Keith Hearne reasoned that this should allow lucid dreamers to communicate with the outside world. He had an experienced dreamer spend several nights in a sleep lab, and instructed him to flick his eyes left to right with pre-arranged signs when he finally entered a lucid dream. The volunteer succeeded, and Hearne was able to record the movements — which corresponded with the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) phase of sleep. Many later studies have since replicated these findings. In the study I published with colleagues at the University of Adelaide, the best technique turned out to be something called Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams (MILD), originally developed in the 1970s by the American psychophysiologist Stephen LaBerge. It involves the following steps:
- Set an alarm for five hours after you go to bed.
- When the alarm sounds, try to remember a dream from just before you woke up. If you can't, just recall any dream you had recently.
- Lie in a comfortable position with the lights off and repeat the phrase: "Next time I'm dreaming, I will remember I'm dreaming." Do this silently in your mind. You need to put real meaning into the words and focus on your intention to remember.
- Every time you repeat the phrase at step three, imagine yourself back in the dream you recalled at step two, and visualize yourself remembering that you are dreaming.
- Repeat steps three and four until you either fall asleep or are sure that your intention to remember is set. This should be the last thing in your mind before falling asleep. If you find yourself repeatedly coming back to your intention to remember that you're dreaming, that's a good sign it's firm in your mind.
5-18-18 An AI can now tell how malnourished a child is just from a photo
A company in Kenya has devised a system that uses artificial intelligence to detect a child’s level of malnutrition from a photo, without bulky equipment or examinations. Five children die of malnutrition every minute. Such deaths are preventable, but one of the hurdles to stopping them is accurately identifying those in need. Normally, making the necessary measurements requires bulky equipment and trained specialists. Soon that could all be replaced by a mobile phone. The idea comes from Kenya-based non-profit Kimetrica. They’ve been working on a system that uses artificial intelligence to detect a child’s level of malnutrition from a single photo. The system is called MERON – Method for Extremely Rapid Observation of Nutritional status – which they presented on 15 and 16 May at the AI for Good Global Summit in Geneva. To prove the concept, Kimetrica first developed a prototype for adults. Using a dataset from the University of North Carolina Wilmington consisting of 60,000 photos of faces along with the person’s height and weight, they trained an AI to assess someone’s body mass index and weight category – underweight, normal, overweight, or obese – from their picture alone. Overall, the prototype had an accuracy of 78 per cent, which was enough to convince UNICEF that the project had legs. UNICEF then helped fund a project at Kimetrica to focus on detecting malnutrition in children under the age of 5 in Kenya. But no dataset of Kenyan children along with their weight and height exists. So, at the beginning of this year the team piggybacked on other ongoing health surveys in the country to gather 4,000 new images to train their system.
5-18-18 What we know about the Ebola outbreak, and the vaccine that might help
The first reported case in a big city has health officials worried. Ebola has reemerged. The virus has killed at least 25 people since early April in an ongoing outbreak in Congo. And on May 18, the World Health Organization declared a “high” public health risk in Congo, as well as a “high risk” of the disease spreading to neighboring countries, but stopped short of declaring a global public health emergency. Most of the 43 confirmed and suspected cases reported as of May 18 have been in a rural area called Bikoro, within the same northwest Congolese province struck by the virus in 2014. (A separate, unrelated outbreak in West Africa at the same time made headlines as the deadliest in history). And in May 2017, eight cases were reported in the nearby province of Bas Uélé. But this year is different — for a couple of reasons. As of May 18, four cases have been confirmed in Mbandaka, a riverside city of at least 1.2 million people, raising the risk of the disease spreading. Health officials are also trying out an experimental vaccine this year in hopes of containing the outbreak. “We’ve seen what Ebola can do, but we know what needs to be done,” says WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic. Here’s what we know so far: Details are spotty. A report by the International Red Cross identifies the first suspected case as a policeman in a Bikoro village called Ikoko Impenge. Another 11 family members later fell ill after the policeman’s funeral, and seven of those relatives have also since died. (Because the bodies of Ebola victims remain contagious after death, funerary rituals can be a source of transmission.)
5-18-18 Can a repeat of disastrous Ebola epidemic be averted this time?
The latest outbreak of the deadly virus has spread to a city of a million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But hopes are high disaster can be avoided. EBOLA is the stuff of nightmares. The disease spreads easily and causes bleeding from every orifice; it kills half of those it touches. Four years ago Ebola began a rampage that claimed over 11,000 lives in West Africa and alarmed the world. Health officials were slow to take the threat seriously. Now it’s back. This week Ebola ominously reached a city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Second time around, have we learned the lessons to avert a repeat crisis? Bats are the Ebola virus’s natural host, but it regularly crosses over into chimpanzees and monkeys. That way it can jump to humans who hunt these animals, usually for bushmeat. The virus is very infectious and can be passed on by just a trace of bodily fluids getting into someone’s eyes or mouth. In many parts of Africa, washing of the dead and preparation for burial take place at home, allowing exponential spread. There have been several previous outbreaks, generally affecting remote villages, but the disastrous one that began in 2014 took hold in large urban areas, mainly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Afterwards there was a consensus that the authorities missed chances to stamp it out early. Part of the problem lay in governments playing things down for fear of deterring tourism and foreign investment. Guinea, where the outbreak started, was worried about an exodus of expats working in its mining industry.
5-18-18 Growing resistance to antifungal drugs 'a global issue'
Scientists are warning that levels of resistance to treatments for fungal infections are growing, which could lead to more outbreaks of disease. Intensive-care and transplant patients and those with cancer are most at risk because their immune systems cannot fight off the infections. Writing in Science, researchers said new treatments were urgently needed. Fungal infections had some of the highest mortality rates of infectious diseases, an expert said. An international team, led by researchers from Imperial College London and the University of Exeter, found a huge increase in resistance to antifungal drugs worldwide over the past 30-40 years.Prof Matthew Fisher, professor of epidemiology at Imperial College London, said this was probably down to farmers spraying their affected crops with the same drugs used to treat fungal infections in patients. The "unintentional by-product of this 'dual use' of drugs in the field and the clinic" was that drugs were no longer working in patients who were unwell, he said. "There are fungi in the air all the time, in every lung-full of air we breathe," Prof Fisher said. "Bodies with a fully functioning immune system do an amazing job of curing the infection - but it can become an invasive fungal infection in others and [this] needs a drug." He said the number of people at risk from fungal infections was rising rapidly as a result of increased numbers: people with HIV, the elderly, patients in hospital. The review said improvements were needed in how existing drugs were used, as well as an increased focus on the discovery of new treatments, in order to avoid a "global collapse" in the fight against fungal infections.
5-18-18 To regulate fecal transplants, FDA has to first answer a serious question: What is poop?
When severe, chronic diarrhea strikes, sometimes the only cure is … more feces. It might seem bizarre, but a transplant of healthy human stool and its bacterial ecosystem can mean freedom from a painful, life-threatening illness. The transplants — called fecal microbiota transplants, or FMTs — are becoming more and more popular. So popular that the stool bank OpenBiome has supplied more than 30,000 stool samples to clinicians and scientists since 2012. Right now, though, the government isn’t quite sure how to regulate fecal transplants. That uncertainty comes from what seems like a simple question: What is poop? Is it a drug? Is it a bodily tissue? Is it a little of both? Then, is the transplant itself a procedure? That’s a whole other regulatory category. Out of concern that regulations would cut out desperate patients or send companies running to more profitable enterprises, FMTs aren’t actually regulated at all. That leads to the potential for unscreened and potentially dangerous fecal samples to flood the market. A group of doctors and scientists from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore have tried to cut through the confusion with a three-track policy plan that would help keep poop transplants clean (as clean as fecal matter gets, anyway), while still allowing patients to get transplants when they need them. The scientists also hope to encourage companies to develop potentially lucrative products for future FMTs — including options that are almost feces-free.
5-18-18 The CDC advises: Don’t swallow the water in a hotel swimming pool
Parasites and bacteria cause most of the swimming-related disease outbreaks. It’s vacation season — time for swimming pools, hot tubs and waterparks. But you might want to think twice before getting wet, says a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From 2000 to 2014, public health officials from 46 states and Puerto Rico reported 493 outbreaks associated with treated recreational water, resulting in more than 27,000 illnesses and eight deaths, according to a report in the May 18 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Hotel pools and hot tubs were the setting for about a third (32 percent) of the outbreaks, followed by public parks (23 percent), club/recreational facilities (14 percent) and water parks (11 percent). Most of the infections were from three organisms that can survive chlorine and other commonly used disinfectants: Cryptosporidium, a parasite that can cause gastrointestinal problems, Pseudomonas, a bacteria that causes swimmer’s ear, and Legionella, a bacteria that causes a pneumonia-like illness. So, what to do? The CDC recommends a few steps before diving in: Don’t swallow pool water. Don’t let children with diarrhea in the water. And use test strips to measure levels of pH, bromine and chlorine in the water. The cleaner the water, the safer to swim.
5-17-18 Your blood type might make you more likely to get traveler’s diarrhea
A diarrhea-causing strain of E. coli gloms onto molecules found on type A blood cells. E. coli has a type and it isn’t pretty. The bacterium is more likely to cause severe diarrhea in people with type A blood. An illness-causing strain of E. coli secretes a protein that gloms onto the sugar molecules that decorate type A blood cells, but not type B or O cells. These sugar molecules also decorate cells lining the intestines of people with type A blood and appear to provide a handle for the bacterium to latch onto before injecting its diarrhea-causing toxins, researchers report May 17 in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. There were hints that blood type was linked to the severity of E. coli infection. But a clear connection was lacking until now, says a team led by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Collaborators at Johns Hopkins University gave 106 healthy volunteers water laced with a strain of E. coli isolated from a person in Bangladesh with severe diarrhea. Within five days, 81 percent of the type A or AB volunteers developed moderate to severe diarrhea compared with roughly half the people with blood types O or B. (Everyone received antibiotics to clear the bacterium).
5-17-18 Settling the egg debate
You can safely eat a dozen eggs a week—or possibly more—without increasing your risk of heart disease, according to new research. Like butter and red meat, eggs are high in dietary cholesterol, and for decades many physicians advised patients to cut back on such foods to keep their heart healthy. To test the health effect of eggs, researchers at the University of Sydney put 128 people with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes—a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease—on two different diets for a year. One group ate 12 eggs a week and the other ate two eggs or fewer a week. At the end of the study, the researchers found no adverse changes in cardiovascular risk factors in either group, including in blood pressure, weight, and cholesterol and blood-sugar levels, MedicalDaily.com reports. “Our research indicates people do not need to hold back from eating eggs,” study author Nick Fuller says, “if this is part of a healthy diet.”
5-17-18 Ancient Chinese farmers sowed literal seeds of change in Southeast Asia
DNA analysis of 4,000-year-old skeletons suggests migrants helped spread farming and languages. People who moved out of southern China cultivated big changes across ancient Southeast Asia, a new analysis of ancient human DNA finds. Chinese rice and millet farmers spread south into a region stretching from Vietnam to Myanmar. There, they mated with local hunter-gatherers in two main pulses, first around 4,000 years ago, and again two millennia later, says a team led by Harvard Medical School geneticist Mark Lipson. Those population movements brought agriculture to the region and triggered the spread of Austroasiatic languages that are still spoken in parts of South and Southeast Asia, the scientists conclude online May 17 in Science. Over the past 20 years, accumulating archaeological evidence has pointed to the emergence of rice farming in Southeast Asia between 4,500 and 4,000 years ago, accompanied by tools and pottery showing links to southern China. Austroasiatic languages now found from Vietnam to India contain words for rice and agriculture, suggesting that ancient arrivals from southern China spoke an Austroasiatic tongue. Questions have remained, though, about where Austroasiatic languages originated and whether knowledge about farming practices, rather than farmers themselves, spread from China into Southeast Asia.
5-17-18 Aha! What happens in your brain when you have a lightbulb moment
We now know what happens in your brain when inspiration strikes. The insight may lead to new brain stimulation techniques that put you in problem-solving mode. Eureka! We’ve had the closest look yet at what happens in the brain when you experience a burst of genius. The insight may lead to ways to artificially push the brain into problem-solving mode. To better understand strikes of inspiration, Christian Windischberger at the Medical University of Vienna, Austria, and his colleagues used a type of fMRI to scan 29 people’s brains as they solved problems that were designed to elicit a eureka moment. These included puzzles that involved discovering that one particular word links three others, for example. When a participant felt an “aha” moment occur – such as figuring out the right word – they pressed a button to let the team know. The scanner was sensitive enough to detect small changes in activity when this happened, including in deep structures in the midbrain that are involved in releasing the mood-boosting hormone dopamine. “We found that neural activity in [these areas] is highest during aha moments, lower when our participants found a solution without having this special aha experience, and lowest when they were informed that they were not able to solve our riddle in time,” says co-author Martin Tik. Dopamine makes us feel good and is involved in the brain’s reward systems, which helps explain why eureka moments feel so pleasing.
5-16-18 How tech bugs could be killing thousands in our hospitals
From falsely calculated drug doses to data-entry error, the true toll of medical IT glitches is only just becoming apparent – but there are obvious fixes. IT ALL started with a sticky note. Harold Thimbleby was visiting one of his students in hospital when, amid the flowers, grapes and cards, he noticed an infusion pump in the corner, a device used to feed fluids and drugs into a patient’s blood vessels. On the pump was a note that read “don’t press these buttons” – an awkward warning suggesting hospital staff might be having trouble using it as intended. Technology is everywhere in healthcare, and it is a potential source of bugs as deadly as any virus that might stalk a hospital corridor. That much was driven home in the UK earlier this month, when health secretary Jeremy Hunt announced to Parliament that a computer glitch meant an estimated 450,000 women who should have been invited to breast cancer screening appointments since 2009 had not been. “Tragically, there are likely to be some people in this group who would have been alive today if the failure had not happened,” Hunt said. Until now, Thimbleby, a computer scientist at Swansea University, UK, has been something of a lone voice with his warnings about the dangers of misused technology in healthcare. But if his analysis is right, it is a problem that goes far beyond just cancer screening, and it could be putting thousands of lives at risk every year in UK hospitals alone. That’s the bad news. The good news is that by taking a thorough look at hospital technology and drawing lessons from other industries where safety is critical, we have a chance to squash these bugs for good.
5-16-18 Lizards keep evolving toxic green blood and we don’t know why
All the green-blooded lizards in the world live in New Guinea, but it turns out the trait has evolved there independently at least four times. A few lizards have a strange secret: they have lime-green blood pumping through their arteries. This green blood makes their muscles, bones, tongues and the insides of their mouths green. And it seems this bright green blood is so advantageous, it has evolved at least four times. Quite what the advantage might be is unclear, because the green colour is due to high levels of a toxin called biliverdin. “The lizards should be dead,” says Christopher Austin at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, who has studied them for decades. Since green blood is so unusual and found only in a few species of lizards living on the island of New Guinea, it was assumed it evolved just once. All the living green-blooded lizards were thought to derive from just one ancestral species. But no. Austin’s team has now analysed the DNA of two new species they have just discovered, as well as the five species already known. To their surprise, the results show that green blood evolved independently on at least four separate occasions. What’s more, this analysis missed out a further two species, which the team has found but not yet described. Although all the green-blooded species have been assigned to a single genus, Prasinohaema, there were signs that they are not that closely related. Some species lay eggs while others give birth to live young, Austin says, and they are found everywhere from lowland forest to 3000-metre mountains.
5-16-18 Green blood in lizards probably evolved four times
Studying the bizarre color might someday offer insights into human jaundice. Green blood is weird enough. But now the first genealogical tree tracing green blood in New Guinea’s Prasinohaema lizards is suggesting something even odder. These skinks have been lumped into one genus just because of blood color, says biologist Christopher Austin of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Yet they don’t all turn out to be close relatives. Green blood looks as if it arose four separate times in the island’s lizards, he and colleagues propose May 16 in Science Advances. These lizards do have crimson red blood cells, but that color is overwhelmed by extreme buildups of a green pigment called biliverdin at levels that could kill other animals. Biliverdin forms as the oxygen-carrying hemoglobin molecules break down in dead red blood cells. In humans, biliverdin is converted into the bile that, in excess, causes yellow jaundice. An excess of the biliverdin itself can cause green jaundice. In one case study, levels reaching nearly 50 micromoles of biliverdin per liter of blood were deadly in humans. Yet Austin has found lizards thriving with 714 to 1,020 micromoles per liter (SN: 8/20/16, p. 4).
5-16-18 Push to rid poorer nations of harmful trans fat is long overdue
The World Health Organization has rightly agreed to demand all countries remove artery-clogging trans fat from food, says Geoffrey Webb. The World Health Organization has made a very welcome announcement: it aims to end the consumption of industrially produced trans fat globally by 2023. It estimates that up to 500,000 deaths are caused annually by eating this artificial fat, often as a result of heart disease. Trans fat is a type of unsaturated fat mainly produced by the hydrogenation of vegetable oil. The resulting solid fat has been used to make foods such as margarine and vegetable shortening. Small amounts of trans fat occur naturally in meat from ruminants like cattle and sheep, as well as in dairy products like butter, cheese and cream, but it is the artificially generated kind that the WHO is targeting. Unsaturated fat is normally the healthy option but trans fat is worse than saturated fat at raising the level of “bad cholesterol” (LDL) in blood. It also lowers the “good cholesterol” (HDL) and may have other adverse effects, such as triggering inflammation. The intake of trans fat increased from the 1950s as consumers were persuaded to replace saturated spreading and cooking fats like butter and lard partly with “healthier” hydrogenated margarine and vegetable shortening as part of efforts to lower blood cholesterol levels.
5-16-18 The woman who laughs uncontrollably when others get tickled
A woman has a type of synaesthesia that makes her experience huge seizures of uncontrollable laughter whenever she sees someone else getting tickled. A woman with a type of synaesthesia experiences huge bouts of laughter when she sees other people being tickled. Researchers studying the phenomenon say her condition hints at how we all feel empathy. Known as “TC”, this woman has mirror-touch synaesthesia, a condition that makes people feel sensations on their own body when they watch other people touching things. This is caused by mirror neurons in the brain, which act in the same way whether we watch someone else being touched, or are touched ourselves. Normally, when we watch other people being touched, veto signals from elsewhere in the body help us to distinguish between the self and other. But these veto signals are weaker in people with mirror-touch synaesthesia, giving the brain a blurred sense of self. To investigate how this relates to tickling, Vilayanur Ramachandran and Claudia Sellers at the University of California, San Diego, set up several tasks for TC, such as spontaneously tickling her, getting her to watch others being tickled, and seeing how much she laughed at funny situations. They found that TC didn’t generally laugh any more than a non-synaesthete. However, when watching someone else being tickled under an armpit, TC burst out laughing and tried to make it stop by placing her hand under her own armpit – which seemed to help. When TC watched a video of herself being tickled, it “lead to an apocalyptic seizure of uncontrollable laughter,” says Sellers – as though she was getting a double dose of tickling.
5-16-18 Dinosaur parenting: How the 'chickens from hell' nested
How do you sit on your nest of eggs when you weigh over 1,500kg? Carefully - according to a new study from an international team of researchers in Asia and North America. Dinosaur parenting has been difficult to study, due to the relatively small number of fossils, but the incubating behaviour of oviraptorosaurs has now been outlined for the first time. Scientists believe the largest of these dinosaurs arranged their eggs around a central gap in the nest. This bore the parent's weight, while allowing them to potentially provide body heat or protection to their developing young, without crushing the delicate eggs. The feathered ancient relatives of modern birds, oviraptorosaurs lived in the Late Cretaceous period, at least 67 million years ago. Their bony crests and long, lizard-like tails led one species, Anzu wyliei, to be dubbed the "chicken from hell." "It's a really interesting group of dinosaurs," study co-author Darla Zelenitsky from the University of Calgary told BBC News. "Most of them were of small size so probably 100kg or less. They're very bird-like; they have a very parrot-like skull. While they are relatively rare, there are a number of interesting specimens." The group looked at the shape and size of over 40 different nests, mostly originating in China and Mongolia, in order to determine incubating behaviour. They found that clutch diameter ranged from 35cm in smaller species to 330cm in the largest, Macroelongatoolithus. The central gap in the nest appeared to increase with increasing species size. This adaptation is not seen in birds.
5-15-18 Here’s how hefty dinosaurs sat on their eggs without crushing them
Sitting in the center of a ring of eggs kept dinos’ weight off — and warmth near — the eggs. Brooding birds from chickadees to ostriches sit squarely on their eggs. But scientists thought some of the heftier dinosaur ancestors of birds might not be able to do that without crushing the clutches. Now, a new study finds that certain dinos with a little extra junk in the trunk also had a clever brooding strategy: They sat within an open space at the center of a ring of eggs, rather than right smack on top of them. The researchers studied about three dozen fossilized egg clutches belonging to different species of oviraptorosaurs, a group of feathered meat-eating dinosaurs. Clutches laid by larger oviraptorosaur species also had the largest openings at the center, a team led by paleontologist Kohei Tanaka of Nagoya University Museum in Japan reports May 16 in Biology Letters. Although it’s not possible to determine the exact species of oviraptorosaur from the eggs alone, the researchers divided the eggs into three classifications based on size. The smallest eggs, at less than 170 millimeters long, were assigned to the group Elongatoolithus, which likely included species with body masses ranging from a few tens of kilograms up to 100 or 200 kilograms — similar to today’s ostriches and emus. Medium-sized eggs were assigned to the group Macroolithus and the largest eggs, more than 240 millimeters long, to the group Macroelongatoolithus. The dinos that laid the biggest eggs may have had body masses as high as about 2,000 kilograms.
5-15-18 A new synthetic molecule may solve a paradox about life’s origin
Many scientists suspect life began with a molecule called RNA, but there has long been a big problem with this idea. Now there is a solution. Life probably began with a molecule, or set of molecules, that could make copies of themselves. Now we have taken a big step towards creating such molecules ourselves. Over the last four decades, biologists have made lots of progress towards creating self-replicating molecules in the lab. However, their efforts have been thwarted by an apparent paradox. Now Philipp Holliger and his colleagues at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK say they have found the answer. There are many reasons to think that the first self-replicating molecule was made of RNA, which still plays a big part in living cells today. RNA can store information in its sequence, just like DNA. It can also fold into complex shapes and act as an enzyme, driving important chemical reactions. Inspired by this idea, many groups have been creating RNA enzymes that can make copies of other RNA molecules. The problem is that these RNA enzymes can only copy RNA molecules that have not folded into complex shapes, says Holliger. “The moment the RNA molecule folds, the enzyme gets stuck.” Therein lies the paradox. RNA can only act as an enzyme if it folds itself, but RNA enzymes cannot replicate a folded RNA – so it seems no RNA enzyme can replicate itself. Holliger’s solution is to change the building blocks the RNA enzyme uses when building a new RNA.
5-15-18 Cause of polycystic ovary syndrome discovered at last
Polycystic ovary syndrome, which affects one in five women, seems to be caused by a hormonal imbalance. An IVF drug may fix this, and will be trialled soon. The most common cause of female infertility – polycystic ovary syndrome – may be caused by a hormonal imbalance before birth. The finding has led to a cure in mice, and a drug trial is set to begin in women later this year. Polycystic ovary syndrome affects up to one in five women worldwide, three-quarters of whom struggle to fall pregnant. The condition is typically characterised by high levels of testosterone, ovarian cysts, irregular menstrual cycles, and problems regulating sugar, but the causes have long been a mystery. “It’s by far the most common hormonal condition affecting women of reproductive age but it hasn’t received a lot of attention,” says Robert Norman at the University of Adelaide in Australia. Treatments are available for helping affected women get pregnant, but their success rates are typically less than 30 per cent across five menstrual cycles. Now, Paolo Giacobini at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research and his colleagues have found that the syndrome may be triggered before birth by excess exposure in the womb to a hormone called anti-Müllerian hormone.
5-15-18 We may finally be able to beat the common cold with a new drug
An experimental drug stops common cold viruses from building their protective outer armour, preventing them from replicating and spreading. At last, an experimental drug has shown promise in beating common cold viruses, raising hopes of an effective treatment against rhinoviruses and other pathogens. When tested on human cells in a dish, the drug was found to block several strains of cold virus from replicating, without having any effect on the cells. The drug works by suppressing a human enzyme that cold viruses use to construct their capsids – the armoured outer shell of a virus. Without this protein shield, a virus’s genetic material is exposed and vulnerable. There are hundreds of variants of the rhinovirus, so attempts to develop vaccines against the common cold have so far failed. Most current cold treatments do no more than alleviate symptoms such as a runny nose, sore throat, and fever. But all strains of rhinovirus use the same enzyme to make copies of themselves, suggesting that this drug may be able to treat them all. However, many more tests of the drug are required first, not only to establish that it works in the human body, but also that it isn’t toxic. “A drug like this could be extremely beneficial if given early in infection, and we are working on making a version that could be inhaled, so that it gets to the lungs quickly,” says Ed Tate, at Imperial College London.
5-15-18 Kids are selective imitators, not extreme copycats
New research challenges the idea that young children blindly copy everything adults do to complete a task, including irrelevant actions. It all depends on whether kids see one or, more realistically, several adults perform the same task. Psychologists generally regard preschoolers as supreme copycats. Those little bundles of energy will imitate whatever an adult does to remove a prize from a box, including irrelevant and just plain silly stuff. If an experimenter pats a container twice before lifting a latch to open it, so will most kids who watched the demonstration. There’s an official scientific name for mega-mimicry of this sort: overimitation. Maybe copying everything helps youngsters learn rituals and other cultural quirks. Maybe kids imitate to excess so that an adult who appears to possess special knowledge will like them. Or maybe overimitation is overrated. In realistic learning situations — where children can gauge whether a majority of adults are patting a box or otherwise going off course before getting down to business — copycat fever cools off dramatically. That’s the conclusion of a team led by psychologist Cara Evans of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. “The term ‘overimitation’ misleadingly suggests that children mindlessly and inefficiently copy irrelevant actions,” Evans says. “Instead, children imitate adults in highly flexible, selective and adaptive ways.”
5-14-18 With a little convincing, rats can detect tuberculosis
Rodents that excel at detecting landmines could make a difference in a widespread disease. What do land mines and tuberculosis have in common? Both kill people in developing countries — and both can be sniffed out by rodents that grow up to 3 feet, head to tail. Since 2000, the international nonprofit APOPO has partnered with Tanzania’s Sokoine University of Agriculture to train African giant pouched rats (Cricetomys ansorgei) to pick up the scent of TNT in land mines. By 2016, the animals had located almost 20,000 land mines in Africa and Southeast Asia. To help more people, Georgies Mgode, a zoonotic disease scientist at Sokoine, and colleagues began training the rats to recognize tuberculosis, an infectious disease that killed about 1.6 million people in 2016. The most common diagnostic tool — inspection of patients’ sputum under a microscope — can miss infections more than half the time. More accurate technologies are costly or still in testing (SN Online: 2/28/18). “Every disease, anything organic, has a smell,” says Mgode. Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes TB, emits 13 volatile chemicals that set it apart from other microbes, he and colleagues reported in 2012. Training a rat to be a TB sniffer, recognizing those smells in phlegm, takes about nine months.
5-14-18 RNA injected from one sea slug into another may transfer memories
The controversial finding suggests that RNA molecules help set up future recollections. Sluggish memories might be captured via RNA. The molecule, when taken from one sea slug and injected into another, appeared to transfer a rudimentary memory between the two, a new study suggests. Most neuroscientists believe long-term memories are stored by strengthening connections between nerve cells in the brain (SN: 2/3/18, p. 22). But these results, reported May 14 in eNeuro, buoy a competing argument: that some types of RNA molecules, and not linkages between nerve cells, are key to long-term memory storage. “It’s a very controversial idea,” admits study coauthor David Glanzman, a neuroscientist at UCLA. When poked or prodded, some sea slugs (Aplysia californica) will reflexively pull their siphon, a water-filtering appendage, into their bodies. Using electric shocks, Glanzman and his colleagues sensitized sea slugs to have a longer-lasting siphon-withdrawal response — a very basic form of memory. The team extracted RNA from those slugs and injected it into slugs that hadn’t been sensitized. These critters then showed the same long-lasting response to touch as their shocked companions.
5-14-18 'Memory transplant' achieved in snails
Memory transfer has been at the heart of science fiction for decades, but it's becoming more like science fact. A team successfully transplanted memories by transferring a form of genetic information called RNA from one snail into another. The snails were trained to develop a defensive reaction. When the RNA was inserted into snails that had not undergone this process, they behaved just as if they had been sensitised. The research, published in the journal eNeuro, could provide new clues in the search for the physical basis of memory. RNA stands for ribonucleic acid; it's a large molecule involved in various essential roles within biological organisms - including the assembly of proteins and the way that genes are expressed more generally. The scientists gave mild electric shocks to the tails of a species of marine snail called Aplysia californica. snails contract in order to protect themselves from harm - became more pronounced. When the researchers subsequently tapped the snails, they found those that had been given the shocks displayed a defensive contraction lasting about 50 seconds, while those that had not received the shocks contracted for only about one second. The shocked snails had been "sensitised" to the stimulus. Scientists extracted RNA from the nervous systems of the snails that received the shocks and injected it into a small number of marine snails that had not been sensitised in this way. The non-sensitised snails injected with the RNA from the shocked animals behaved as if they had themselves received the tail shocks, displaying a defensive contraction of about 40 seconds. They saw a similar effect when they did the same thing to sensory nerve cells being studied in petri dishes. Prof David Glanzman, one of the authors, from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), said the result was "as though we transferred the memory".
5-11-18 The window for learning a language may stay open surprisingly long
Study suggests people are skilled at picking up grammar in a new tongue up to age 17 or 18. Language learning isn’t kid stuff anymore. In fact, it never was, a provocative new study concludes. A crucial period for learning the rules and structure of a language lasts up to around age 17 or 18, say psychologist Joshua Hartshorne of MIT and colleagues. Previous research had suggested that grammar-learning ability flourished in early childhood before hitting a dead end around age 5. If that were true, people who move to another country and try to learn a second language after the first few years of life should have a hard time achieving the fluency of native speakers. But that’s not so, Hartshorne’s team reports online May 2 in Cognition. In an online sample of unprecedented size, people who started learning English as a second language in an English-speaking country by age 10 to 12 ultimately mastered the new tongue as well as folks who had learned English and another language simultaneously from birth, the researchers say. Both groups, however, fell somewhat short of the grammatical fluency displayed by English-only speakers. After ages 10 to 12, new-to-English learners reached lower levels of fluency than those who started learning English at younger ages because time ran out when their grammar-absorbing ability plummeted starting around age 17. In another surprise, modest amounts of English learning among native and second-language speakers continued until around age 30, the investigators found, although most learning happened in the first 10 to 20 years of life.
5-11-18 Measles cases in England are up 65 per cent on last year
There have been 440 confirmed cases of measles in England so far this year. These cases are linked to ongoing outbreaks in Europe, according to Public Health England. There have been 440 confirmed cases of measles in England so far this year. These cases are linked to “ongoing large outbreaks in Europe”, according to government agency Public Health England. These cases were all confirmed by laboratory tests, occurring between 1 January and 9 May. This is a 65 per cent increase on the same period in 2017, which saw 267 confirmed cases in England. Of this year’s cases, 164 have been in London, 78 in the West Midlands, and 37 in West Yorkshire. There are currently large measles outbreaks underway in Italy and Romania. “We’d encourage people to ensure they are up to date with their MMR vaccine before travelling to countries with ongoing measles outbreaks,” says Mary Ramsay, of Public Health England.
5-11-18 Trolley problem tested in real life for first time with mice
Would you kill someone to save five others? The first lab enactment of this classic thought experiment raises issues for how we programme self-driving cars. Would you kill someone if it would save the lives of five others? This classic thought experiment is known as the trolley problem, and is taking on growing importance as we train self-driving cars to take to the road. But the first real-life enactment of the problem in a lab – using mice – suggests we may have been approaching it wrong. The trolley problem involves imagining that a runaway rail car is going to hit and kill five people – unless you pull a lever, diverting the car onto a different track, where it would only wipe out one. Rerouting the car would logically cause the least harm, but some people struggle with the hypothetical guilt of hurting someone through their direct actions and say they wouldn’t be able to pull the lever. Dries Bostyn of Ghent University in Belgium and his colleagues wanted to know if people would show this reluctance in a real-life version of the test. To do this, they used mice as the victims instead of people, and recruited about 200 volunteers. Each person entered a room and was told that a very painful but non-lethal electric shock was about to be applied to a cage of five mice in front of them. But if the person pressed a button, the shock would be diverted to a second cage, containing just one mouse.Happily, no mice were harmed during the study. A 20-second timer counted down while participants had to make up their minds – but at the end, there was no shock.
5-11-18 Stem cells may reveal how Neanderthal DNA works in modern humans
Many of us carry DNA inherited from Neanderthals, but we can’t be sure how it affects us. Stem cells with Neanderthal DNA could tell us. We could soon find out how the Neanderthal DNA many of us carry actually affects us. It turns out that stem cells, which have been hyped as a way to treat incurable diseases, can also be used to examine what Neanderthal genes do. Since 2010 evidence has been growing that many living people carry tiny amounts of Neanderthal DNA in their cells. It’s been suggested that this Neanderthal DNA has all sorts of effects, from our immune systems to skin colour. But it’s hard to be sure what it’s really doing. Now Gray Camp and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany say they have found a way to study how Neanderthal DNA works in living humans in unprecedented detail. The key tool will be stem cells, which unlike most cells are able to change their shape and function. Developing embryos use stem cells to create their tissues and organs, from neurons to muscle cells. Biologists have long dreamed of using stem cells to heal damaged or destroyed organs. Camp focused on a particular type of stem cell, called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. These are made by reprogramming adult cells, and can then be transformed into any kind of cell and even simple tissues. iPS cells have already been used to treat disease. The team found that sections of Neanderthal DNA are common in the iPS cells now being generated in labs across the world. That means we could discover why some chunks of Neanderthal DNA seem to be beneficial to living humans.
5-10-18 Diet linked to arthritis
Having a bad diet may increase your chances of developing osteoarthritis. Scientists have long thought the condition was tied to obesity and excessive stress placed on the joints, reports MedicalDaily.com. But in a new study, a team from the University of Rochester Medical Center found that a high-fat Western diet caused mice not only to gain weight but also to develop systemic inflammation and an imbalance in their gut microbiome: Their colons had high levels of harmful bacteria and hardly any beneficial “probiotic” bacteria. When the researchers tore cartilage in the rodents’ knees to trigger osteoarthritis, the disease progressed more rapidly in the obese mice. When they then treated these mice with a probiotic to restore their gut microbiome, the rodents had less inflammation and their joint health improved. Study author Eric Schott says his team’s findings “set the stage to develop therapies that target the microbiome and actually treat the disease.”
5-10-18 Concussion tied to Parkinson’s
Just one mild concussion could increase the risk for Parkinson’s disease by 56 percent, a new study suggests. Researchers examined the health records of 325,870 veterans, ages 31 to 65. None had Parkinson’s at the start of the study; after 12 years, only 1,462 had been diagnosed with the incurable neurological disorder. But of those, 65 percent had previously suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI). After accounting for age and other factors, the researchers concluded that veterans who’d had a TBI had a 71 percent increased risk of Parkinson’s, and that those who suffered moderate to severe injuries had an 83 percent higher risk. Those with a history of brain trauma were also diagnosed with Parkinson’s on average two years earlier than those who never had a head injury. “This is the highest level of evidence so far to establish that this association is a real one and something to be taken seriously,” researcher Raquel Gardner tells ABCNews.com. The researchers speculate that injured brain cells may trigger the buildup of a protein called alpha-synuclein, a hallmark of Parkinson’s.
5-10-18 When hominins straightened up
At what point did early humans switch from ape-like shuffling to walking upright? Scientists have long puzzled over that question—and new research suggests it was much earlier than previously thought. Evolutionary anthropologists at the University of Arizona examined footprints discovered in Laetoli, Tanzania, that were made by human ancestors about 3.6 million years ago. Analysis showed that the heel and toe impressions of the ancient footprints closely matched those made by modern humans walking upright, rather than bent over. That suggests early human ancestors lost their ape-like shuffle and adopted a straight-legged gait long before big-brained members of the Homo genus emerged about 2.5 million years ago. “While there may have been some nuanced differences,” study author David Raichlen tells ScienceDaily.com, “these hominins probably looked like us when they walked.” Moving in a crouched position requires more energy than walking with a vertical torso and long stride. Scientists believe our early ancestors adjusted their gait because the changing climate forced them to cover greater distances to find food.
5-10-18 Napoleon Complex: Are smaller men really more aggressive?
A study investigating short-man syndrome suggests that smaller men may behave more aggressively than others, providing there are no likely repercussions. Do smaller men act more aggressively to make up for their lack of height? The idea, known as the Napoleon Complex or short-man syndrome, is widely believed but has little supporting evidence. Now a new study has lent the premise some weight, finding that smaller men did sometimes respond more aggressively when playing a money-sharing game. When shorter men act out, it is sometimes blamed on them trying to compensate for their height. They may have good reason to be defensive – taller men are more likely to win elections, and have better-paying careers. But the belief could be down to one of our many cognitive biases. Perhaps we are more likely to notice when smaller people start arguments, and forget when taller people do so. Or shorter men may get into more fights because they are picked on more. While working at Vrije University in the Netherlands, Jill Knapen and her team put the idea to the test by getting 42 men to take part in a simple money-sharing task called the Dictator Game, often used in psychology research. Participants were introduced to their opponent and had about ten seconds to size each other up. Then they went into separate cubicles, where they were given a small sum of money – eighteen chips representing ten cent coins. Each person had to decide how much to keep and how much to leave for their partner, in a one-off task. The team found that shorter men kept more of the spoils for themselves – which could be seen as a relatively aggressive act.
5-10-18 Eating all your meals before 3pm could be good for your health
Eating all of your daily meals by mid-afternoon has been found to lower appetite and cut blood pressure, and may make you less likely to develop diabetes. Not eating carbs after 6pm is a common diet tip, but here’s a new idea. A small study of overweight men suggests that not eating anything at all after 3pm reduces appetite, cuts blood pressure, and may prevent diabetes. Time-restricted eating has been found to stabilise blood sugar levels and reduce diabetes risk in mice, but rigorous studies in people have been lacking. To address this, Courtney Peterson at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and her colleagues tested a diet in 8 overweight men who were all on the threshold of developing type 2 diabetes. For five weeks, the volunteers ate identical breakfasts, lunches and dinners under supervision. Half were assigned to eat all three meals within a 6-hour period ending no later than 3pm, while the other four ate theirs within a more normal 12-hour timeframe. After five weeks, the groups swapped for a further five weeks. The team found that limiting food to a 6-hour window led to a big increase in sensitivity to the hormone insulin – a sign of improved sugar control. The time-restricted diet also reduced overall appetite and cut blood pressure by an average of 10 mmHg – about the same amount usually achieved by taking blood pressure medication. These effects were not due to weight loss, since all participants were fed enough calories to maintain their weight. Instead, eating earlier in the day may have aligned better with their natural circadian rhythms. “We’ve evolved to be active during the day, so it makes sense for our metabolism to rev up at the beginning of the day and rev down at night to be as efficient as possible,” says Peterson.
5-10-18 Eye scanner can tell if you’ve mastered a foreign language
By monitoring unconscious eye movements while reading, an algorithm can predict the proficiency of someone learning English as a second language. Your eyes might give away how well those French lessons are really going. By monitoring the unconscious eye movements of someone as they read, an algorithm is able to work out how proficient they are. The technology could one day help create more personalised online learning tools. Current language tests have several drawbacks. Students may receive training to pass a specific exam, for example, which may not reflect their overall knowledge of the language. Instead, Yevgeni Berzak from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his colleagues were keen to see if tiny eye movements could be an alternate way of evaluating language ability. Using an eye tracker mounted on a desktop, the team tried to determine the competency of 145 English language students by recording their eye movements while reading a series of standalone sentences. The length of time each person would fix their gaze on different words and transition to the next word were measured, for example. Their results were compared to 37 native speakers who performed the same exercise. The gaze of the learners and native speakers were compared and an algorithm then estimated the learners’ language proficiency score based on their eye data alone. The estimate was checked against their previous results on two standardised language tests. The team found that there was a pretty good correlation between eye movements and reading proficiency.
5-10-18 Hun migrations 'linked to deadly Justinian Plague'
Scientists say one of the deadliest plagues in history may be linked to the migration westward of the Hun peoples. The Justinian Plague, which struck in 541 AD, may have killed as many as 25 million. Now, scientists say the outbreak probably originated in Asia, not Egypt as contemporary and more recent chroniclers had thought. The finding comes from analysis of DNA found in 137 human skeletons unearthed on the Eurasian steppe. The steppe region covers a vast area, spanning some 8,000km from Hungary to north-eastern China. The large sample of individuals covers a date range of 2,500 BC - 1,500 AD. Writing in the journal Nature, Eske Willerslev, Peter de Barros Damgaard and others describe how they sequenced genomes from these individuals and, in two of them, recovered DNA from a strain of plague related to the one responsible for the Justinian Plague. A separate paper in the same edition of the journal describes the discovery of hepatitis B strains in ancient people from the Steppe. The plague pandemic is named after Justinian I, who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire (also known as the Byzantine Empire) at the time of the initial outbreak. Indeed, it is said that Justinian himself caught the disease, but recovered. The outbreak in Constantinople (which is now Istanbul in Turkey) was thought to have been carried to the city by rats on grain ships arriving from Egypt. While the plague was present in north-east Africa, the new research makes an origin in Central and Eastern Asia more likely. The researchers say the plague probably moved westward with the migration of tribes who would become known to Roman chroniclers as the Huns.
5-9-18 Doing Dry January lowers cancer-promoting proteins in your blood
Stopping drinking for just one month is enough to dramatically lower the levels of hormone-like chemicals in your blood that help cancer to develop and spread. Giving up alcohol for a month really does have a dramatic effect on health, lowering blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes risk. The first ever extensive study of the health benefits of abstemious periods like “Dry January” also discovered that alcohol is linked to cancer-related proteins in the blood, and taking time off from drinking can drastically reduce their levels. The finding could help explain why alcohol is linked to at least seven types of cancer. The study involved 141 moderate-to-heavy drinkers, who on average drank more than double the UK recommended limit, consuming around 30 units a week – about 3 bottles of wine, or more than 14 pints of beer. Of these people, 94 completely gave up drinking for a month, while the remainder continued to drink as usual. A team at the Royal Free Hospital in London then analysed blood samples taken at the start and end of the month from each of the participants. While the people who continued drinking showed no particular changes over the course of the month, big improvements were seen in the abstainers, confirming those reported in an earlier, smaller study of 14 New Scientist staff in 2013. Most striking was the non-drinkers’ drop in insulin resistance. When insulin becomes less effective at making the body remove sugar from the bloodstream, a person risks developing type 2 diabetes. But after a month of abstaining from alcohol, participants saw their insulin resistance decrease by an average of 26 per cent.
5-9-18 The flexible therapy that helps beat workplace stress
We need to change the way we think about work and how it influences our lives, says chartered psychologist Rob Archer. WHEN colleagues take time off for illness, most of us assume they have a cold, flu or a stomach bug, perhaps. Few realise that 49 per cent of all working days lost in the UK in 2016-17 were caused by work-related stress, depression or anxiety. Stress is an insidious problem. Short-term stress, such as working to an imminent deadline, can be beneficial. But if the pressure never goes away, it risks leading to chronic stress, which can bring on significant mental health issues. This, in turn, creates further stress on the employee and their colleagues and families. There are also consequences for physical health: studies have shown that long-term stress leads to a compromised immune system, contributing to debilitating headaches, digestive disorders and cardiovascular disease. Very few firms know how to improve this dire situation; in fact, many are unwittingly making things worse. The good news is, we are starting to get a handle on how to beat stress and – even better – prevent it from becoming a problem in the first place. One of the most important protective factors is a resource known as psychological flexibility. Studies have shown that it has profound effects on mental health and workplace performance, helping people do their jobs more effectively while improving health and well-being. “Psychological flexibility allows people to become more resilient in their responses to high work demands,” says Rob Archer, a chartered psychologist who works with a number of companies and sports professionalsto promote health and well-being while improving individual and team performance.
5-9-18 Deluded drivers: The startling discovery that changed psychology
A 1960s survey of drivers hospitalised after accidents found that they still rated their skills as exceptional – and we all have similar blind spots. IN 1965, a pair of psychologists from the University of Washington handed a questionnaire to 50 carefully selected motorists in the Seattle area. It focused on driving skills, but Caroline Preston and Stanley Harris weren’t trying to find out how good the drivers were. They already had a pretty clear handle on that. They wanted to know how good the drivers thought they were. The questionnaire was straightforward. It asked the drivers to rate their abilities from 0 to 9, with 0 being “very poor” and 9 being “expert”. Preston and Harris probably expected the drivers to rank themselves nearer to zero than to 9. To their surprise, they found the exact opposite. Given who these drivers were, that was very, very odd. Back in the 1960s, traffic fatalities were a growing problem in the US. Around 36,000 people died in 1960, 39,000 in 1962 and 46,000 in 1964. Road crashes were the leading cause of death in children and young adults – and were costing a fortune. A good deal of research into their causes was being done, mainly on vehicle design and traffic engineering. But a few researchers were becoming interested in the psychology and behaviour of drivers. That is what attracted Preston to the problem. She may have been seeking to discover some psychological trait that could be used to reduce the accident rate, but instead she inadvertently began a revolution in our understanding of the human mind that continues to unfold more than half a century later.
5-9-18 Self-repairing organs could save your life in a heartbeat
Our cells are more malleable than we thought – and by transforming them inside the body, we can mend broken hearts or even degenerating brains from within. WHAT becomes of the broken-hearted? In cardiac medicine, the answer is usually brutally straightforward: they die. Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide and there is often precious little we can do about it. Pacemakers bring some relief and transplants work, but there are nowhere near enough donated hearts to go around. And unlike skin and liver cells, heart muscle cells can’t remake themselves. Once they get damaged or die, they are gone forever. Lab-grown stem cells, once the great hope for mending hearts, have disappointed. But over the past few years, cell biologists have been quietly exploring an alternative approach. Rather than growing cells in a dish and transplanting them, they want to switch their identities inside the body, so that we can heal ourselves from within. That might sound rather fanciful. But cells are proving more malleable than we ever imagined, and now plans are being drawn up for the first human clinical trials to see if we can repair damaged hearts this way. If we can perfect the tricks needed to safely switch cell identity in situ – and it is a big if – we should be able to repair tissues ravaged by all sorts of conditions, from diabetes to dementia. For a long time after biologists worked out how a featureless cluster of identical cells can become the rich diversity of parts that comprise a body, they generally assumed that adult cells were stuck with their fates. Once embryonic stem cells, capable of becoming any tissue type, had differentiated into skin cells, heart muscle cells, neurons or whatever, there seemed to be no turning back.
5-9-18 AI is now better than humans at spotting signs of cardiac arrest
A system designed by Copenhagen-based artificial intelligence company Corti is more accurate and faster at detecting signs of a cardiac arrest over the phone than dispatchers. Time to start hoping a robot takes that emergency call. When it comes to spotting signs of cardiac arrest, artificial intelligence is beating humans. New Scientist first covered Copenhagen-based artificial intelligence company Corti earlier this year. Its AI was being trialled in Denmark to listen in on emergency calls in real-time. It searches for patterns of communication, including features like tone of voice and breathing sounds. Now we know how well the system works. According to a study of 161,650 emergency calls using Corti’s system, it is more accurate and faster at detecting signs of a cardiac arrest over the phone than dispatchers. The AI correctly detected 93 per cent of cardiac arrests compared to the dispatchers’ detection rate of 73 per cent. It took only 48 seconds on average to detect the condition, compared to dispatchers who took 80 seconds. “Every second counts when recognising cardiac arrest and we know that reducing downtime increases chance of spontaneous circulation, morbidity post arrest and survival, so studies into improving out-of-hospital cardiac arrest outcomes can only be a positive thing,” says Natalie Cookson, an emergency medical trainee doctor, working in London. However, she adds the study focusses on improving time to recognition of cardiac arrest and delivery of resuscitation, which may only improve factors such as hypoxia and cardiac output. Other complications associated with cardiac arrest are not addressed in the study, she says, so “further studies will be needed to evaluate actual patient outcomes”.
5-9-18 AI can predict your personality just by how your eyes move
YOU may think you are pretty hard to read, but artificial intelligence can predict your personality just from subtle, unconscious eye movements. Psychologists have suspected that personality influences how we visually take in the world. Curious people tend to look around more and open-minded people gaze longer at abstract images, for example. Now, Tobias Loetscher at the University of South Australia and his colleagues have used machine learning to study the relationship between eye movements and personality more closely. They asked 42 students to wear eye-tracking smart glasses while they walked around campus and visited a shop. The students also filled out a questionnaire that rated them on the “big five” personality traits: neuroticism, extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness. The team’s machine-learning algorithm found that certain patterns of eye movement were more common in people with particular personalities. For example, neurotic people tended to blink faster, while open-minded people had bigger side-to-side eye movements and conscientious people had greater fluctuations in their pupil size (Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, doi.org/gdb8rj). Future research may tie these patterns to brain chemistry, says Olivia Carter at the University of Melbourne. Brain chemicals such as dopamine and noradrenaline are known to affect personality as well as blink frequency and pupil dilation, she says. At this stage, the algorithm only has modest predictive power, being just 7 to 15 per cent better than random chance at predicting neuroticism, extroversion, conscientiousness and agreeableness, and no better at predicting openness.
5-9-18 This AI uses the same kind of brain wiring as mammals to navigate
The system’s reliance on virtual grid cells could teach us about our own sense of direction. An artificial intelligence that navigates its environment much like mammals do could help solve a mystery about our own internal GPS. Equipped with virtual versions of specialized brain nerve cells called grid cells, the AI could easily solve and plan new routes through virtual mazes. That performance, described online May 9 in Nature, suggests the grid cells in animal brains play a critical role in path planning. “This is a big step forward” in understanding our own navigational neural circuitry, says Ingmar Kanitscheider, a computational neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Austin not involved in the work. The discovery that rats track their location with the help of grid cells, which project an imaginary hexagonal lattice onto an animal’s surroundings, earned a Norwegian research team the 2014 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine (SN Online: 10/6/14). Neuroscientists suspected these cells, which have also been found in humans, might help not only give mammals an internal coordinate system, but also plan direct paths between points (SN Online: 8/5/13).
5-9-18 DeepMind AI developed navigation neurons to solve a maze like us
Humans have neurons called “grid cells” that help us find our way as we navigate our surroundings. DeepMind's AI has developed something similar as it learned to navigate a maze. Artificial intelligence is winning the rat race. Google-owned DeepMind has built an artificial intelligence that is better at navigating a maze than humans. After it was trained with data on how rodents search for food, it mimicked the processes that allow mammals to get between destinations in the most efficient way. Humans and other mammals have neurons called “grid cells” that help us find our way as we navigate our surroundings. They’re a sort of map, like a tiled floor where a certain tile lights up each time you step on it. The neurons are arranged in a tile pattern in the brain, and they fire as you move to calculate where you are and how to get from one location to another. A team of researchers at DeepMind and University College London have created an AI that has learned to do the same thing. It was trained to navigate a virtual square environment by seeing the trajectories of foraging rodents. When the researchers inspected how the AI was navigating the environment, they found a grid-like pattern that would function in a similar way to how grid-cells work. “The grid cells we found were startlingly like the ones you see in a mammalian brain,” says Caswell Barry at University College London. “It’s just as similar to a human grid cell as one you might record from a rat.” When the researchers placed obstacles in the environment or opened and closed doors, the AI could determine the fastest route to its destination, even if it had never travelled that route before. It was even better at finding shortcuts than a professional gamer moving around a digital representation of the square room.
5-9-18 Hope for herpes vaccine after it wipes out virus in monkeys
Animal trials have proved successful in preventing and treating genital herpes in guinea pigs and monkeys, giving hope that the vaccine will move into human trials within the year. We may be a step closer to getting rid of genital herpes. Two vaccines are about to progress to clinical trials after proving to be safe and effective in guinea pigs and monkeys. Genital herpes is a sexually-transmitted infection that affects more than one in six people aged 14 to 49 in the US. It is usually caused by a strain of the herpes simplex virus, called HSV-2, which burrows into the skin and produces painful sores. The virus then permanently lodges in nerve cells and causes periodic flare-ups. Previous efforts to develop a herpes vaccine have failed. One of the most promising contenders – a vaccine called GEN-003 – was abandoned in September after underperforming in clinical trials. Part of the problem is that preclinical research is usually done in mice, which are not good models for human herpes, says Konstantin Kousoulas at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. That is why his team has tested a new vaccine using guinea pig and monkey models. The vaccine is an engineered version of herpes simplex virus that helps train the immune system to fight the real thing. The part that normally allows the virus to enter nerve cells has been removed so that it cannot permanently lodge in the body. A recent guinea pig study found that the vaccine provided complete protection against genital herpes. None of the nine vaccinated animals developed symptoms of the disease after they were exposed to a highly-infectious strain of herpes simplex virus.
5-9-18 Waterwheel: Ten times faster than a Venus flytrap
Scientists have characterised the movement of the Venus flytrap's aquatic cousin in detail for the first time. The carnivorous Aldrovanda vesiculosa, also known as the waterwheel plant, snaps its "trap" shut ten times faster than the flytrap. As it is quite rare in the wild, the plant's mechanism has not previously been studied in great detail. It is thought that the waterwheel and the flytrap may share a common ancestor. However there is no fossil evidence for what this ancestor might have looked like. "This is one of the main questions in the carnivorous plant community," says Dr Simon Poppinga, an author on the study. "Snap traps evolved only once in plants. There are two different mechanisms. Which one was first?" The study, led by Anna Westermeier and Renate Sachse at the University of Freiburg, found that the waterwheel doesn't use quite the same method as the flytrap. Using a camera recording at 1000fps, researchers triggered the traps using an electrical stimulus. "It's very, very small and it's very, very fast, and this puts you basically to the limits of optical resolution," Westermeier told BBC News. They realised that the plant's traps are in a constant state of "pre-stress" - tensed to snap shut much like a bear trap - and when triggered by prey they quickly release and close. The team noted that the action of the traps is due to a combination of hydraulics and the release of this pre-stress. At just 2-4mm, the traps are about a tenth the size of a Venus flytrap's, but they close in a remarkable 0.02 to 0.1 seconds.
5-9-18 There is no secret burial chamber in Tutankhamun’s tomb
It was hoped apparent chambers in Tutankhamun’s tomb might be the burial place of Queen Nefertiti, the wife of his father. But radar shows there’s probably nothing there. A SECOND burial chamber isn’t hiding in the tomb of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun after all. Three years ago, Egyptologists noticed faint lines on the north and west walls of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber, pictured below, that suggested there might be a room concealed behind it. Other studies found temperature anomalies in the walls, which seemed to mark hidden doorways. Some archaeologists hoped this apparent chamber might be the burial place of Queen Nefertiti, a wife of Tutankhamun’s father. Now, three teams have used different frequencies of ground-penetrating radar to search the pharaoh’s burial chamber and found no secret rooms, passages or doorways. They presented their research on 6 May at the fourth International Tutankhamun Conference in Cairo, Egypt. When the teams combined their data, they concluded that there were no empty spaces beyond the pharaoh’s tomb for at least 4 metres.
5-7-18 The secret to a good night's sleep
I'll bet you're not getting enough sleep. Honestly, I'm kind of cheating — it's a pretty safe bet. Two-thirds of adults throughout all developed nations fail to obtain the recommended eight hours of nightly sleep. Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer. Insufficient sleep is a key lifestyle factor determining whether or not you will develop Alzheimer's disease. Inadequate sleep — even moderate reductions for just one week — disrupts blood sugar levels so profoundly that you would be classified as pre-diabetic. Short sleeping increases the likelihood of your coronary arteries becoming blocked and brittle, setting you on a path toward cardiovascular disease, stroke, and congestive heart failure. Fitting Charlotte Brontë's prophetic wisdom that "a ruffled mind makes a restless pillow," sleep disruption further contributes to all major psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety, and suicidality. When participants were asked about their subjective sense of how impaired they were, they consistently underestimated their degree of performance disability. After being awake for 19 hours, people who were sleep-deprived were as cognitively impaired as those who were legally drunk. After 16 hours of being awake, the brain begins to fail. Humans need more than seven hours of sleep each night to maintain cognitive performance. After 10 days of just seven hours of sleep, the brain is as dysfunctional as it would be after going without sleep for 24 hours. When we compared the effectiveness of learning between the two groups, the result was clear: There was a 40 percent deficit in the ability of the sleep-deprived group to cram new facts into the brain (i.e., to make new memories), relative to the group that obtained a full night of sleep.
5-6-18 Creative people are 90 per cent more likely to get schizophrenia
A study of the entire population of Sweden has found that people who do artistic subjects at university are more likely to have schizophrenia and depression. Artistic talent may really be linked to a higher likelihood of experiencing mental health conditions, according to a study of people students in Sweden. The Greek philosopher Plato noted that creative types often seemed to possess “divine madness” – a stereotype later applied to Vincent Van Gogh, Salvador Dalí and Edvard Munch. However, good studies on the subject have been lacking. Now James MacCabe at Kings College London and his colleagues have pored over the health and education records of the entire population of Sweden, focusing on the mental health of people who had done subjects like art, music or drama at university. They found that those who had studied an artistic subject were 90 per cent more likely to be hospitalised for schizophrenia, compared with the general population. Such people were also 62 per cent more likely to be admitted for bipolar disorder, and 39 per cent more likely to be admitted for depression. These hospitalisations usually occurred after university, most commonly in people’s mid-30s. Those with law degrees did not have the same elevated risks, suggesting psychiatric conditions are not simply linked to university education, says MacCabe.
5-5-18 Ketamine ingredient improves severe depression in large trial
A trial of a nasal spray containing an ingredient of the drug ketamine has had positive but modest results in people with severe depression. The drug ketamine may have moved a step closer to routine use as an antidepressant. Positive – if modest – results from a large trial of an intranasal spray based on ketamine were announced by pharmaceutical giant Janssen today. The firm is developing the treatment for people with severe depression who aren’t helped by existing medication or who are suicidal. If everything goes to plan, the medicine could be available next year in the US and Europe. Ketamine has long been used as an anaesthetic in people and animals. Some people also take it as a recreational drug, with similar effects to LSD and magic mushrooms. It makes people hallucinate and light-headed, although too much can send them into a “k-hole” – where they can’t talk or move. When depressed people are given a low-dose infusion of ketamine, after the euphoria wears off, some report immediate changes in their mood, and lifting of suicidal thoughts. In contrast, existing antidepressants usually take several weeks to kick in. Animal studies suggest ketamine triggers the release of a chemical called BDNF, which tells brain cells to sprout new connections. Other studies have suggested this may be how physical exercise helps ward off depression.
5-4-18 An enzyme involved in cancer and aging gets a close-up
Understanding what telomerase looks like could guide therapies for cancer, other illnesses. Like a genetic handyman, an elusive enzyme deep inside certain cells repairs the tips of chromosomes, which fray as cells divide. It’s prized by rapidly dividing cells – like stem cells and tumor cells – and by scientists on the hunt for cancer and other disease therapies. Now researchers have the best picture yet of this enzyme, called telomerase. Using cryo-electron microscopy, structural biologist Kelly Nguyen and her colleagues describe the structure of telomerase at a resolution of 0.7 to 0.8 nanometers, three times better than the last attempt. This close-up reveals how the enzyme’s proteins and RNA are put together, potentially offering insight into ways to fight cancer and understand genetic diseases caused by faulty versions of the enzyme, the researchers report online April 25 in Nature. The discovery of telomerase in 1984 earned a team of biologists the 2009 Nobel Prize in medicine (SN: 10/24/09, p.14). Since then, scientists have pieced together connections between the enzyme’s activity and cancer, aging and inherited disorders. But the development of therapies has suffered from the lack of a detailed snapshot of the enzyme.
5-4-18 50 years ago, starving tumors of oxygen proposed as weapon in cancer fight
Excerpt from the May 4, 1968 issue of Science News. Starve the tumor, not the cell. Animal experiments demonstrate for the first time that transplanted tumors release a chemical into the host’s bloodstream that causes the host to produce blood vessels to supply the tumor.… If such a factor can be identified in human cancers … it might be possible to prevent the vascularization of tumors. Since tumors above a certain small size require a blood supply to live, they might by this method be starved to death. — Science News, May 4, 1968. By the 1990s, starving tumors had become a focus of cancer research. Several drugs available today limit a tumor’s blood supply. But the approach can actually drive some cancer cells to proliferate, researchers have found. For those cancers, scientists have proposed treatments that open up tumors’ gnarled blood vessels, letting more oxygen through. Boosting oxygen may thwart some cancer cell defenses and promote blood flow — allowing chemotherapy drugs and immune cells deeper access to tumors (SN: 3/4/17, p. 24).
5-3-18 Night owls may live shorter lives
People who habitually stay up late are more likely to die early, a new study has found, perhaps because their internal body clock is out of sync with a society that favors early risers. Researchers tracked about 430,000 adults between 38 and 73 years old for 6.5 years. They found that night owls had a 10 percent greater risk of early death than those who prefer to wake up early, Vox.com reports. Those who burned the midnight oil were more likely to have chronic health issues, such as diabetes, neurological disorders, and respiratory disease. One possible reason, says study author Kristen Knutson, is that the pressure to conform to other people’s work and social schedules leaves late risers anxious, sleep deprived, and feeling as if they live in a perpetual state of jet lag. “There’s a problem for the night owl who’s trying to live in the morning-lark world,” Knutson says.
5-3-18 Moderate drinking isn’t healthy after all
Conventional wisdom says that moderate drinking is good for you. But a major new study found that having even just one drink each day could shorten people’s lives. A team of 120 scientists analyzed data from multiple studies, involving nearly 600,000 people from 19 different countries, and found that the more people drink, the shorter their life span, CNN.com reports. People who have an average of seven to 14 alcoholic drinks each week can expect to die about six months sooner, while those who have two to three drinks per day could be shaving up to two years off their lives. Drinking alcohol, researchers say, is associated with a slew of cardiovascular problems, including stroke, aortic aneurysm, severe high blood pressure, heart failure, and an increased risk for breast cancer and cancers of the digestive system. These findings contradict federal guidelines, which assert that men can safely drink up to two alcoholic drinks per day and women can have up to one drink daily. The benefits from drinking, which previous research has indicated may help boost “good” HDL cholesterol levels, are outweighed by the damage it does, says study leader Dr. Angela Wood of Cambridge University. “If you already drink alcohol,” she says, “drinking less may help you live longer.”
5-3-18 Your bones contain crystals shap
A blurry brown picture is the most detailed 3D image of bone ever produced. The model gives unique insight into the crystals inside our bones. A blurry brown picture is the most detailed 3D image of bone ever produced. It may look fuzzy, but the model developed from electron microscope images gives unique insight into the remarkable properties of bone. Bone is mostly made of mineral crystals and the protein collagen. While the structure of collagen is well understood, how the minerals in bone – made of hydroxyapatite – are organised is less clear. Roland Kröger of the University of York and colleagues at Imperial College London used electron microscopes to obtain cross-section images at many different angles, and layered the images to construct detailed 3D pictures of human thighbones. The 3D images revealed that, at the nanoscale level, the crystals are a slightly curved finger-shape. These cluster together to form a hand-like pattern, and these themselves are pressed on top of each other in stacks. Viewed at a higher level, these stacks are twisted. In fact, each level of the mineral architecture features twisting, helical shapes. It was already known that collagen – itself a helical protein – forms twisted fibres in bone. Just as the twisted fibres in a rope give it strength, these helical structures must contribute to the mechanical properties of bone, says Kröger.
5-3-18 People adapted to the cold and got more migraines as a result
A gene variant that helps humans cope with colder climates also seems to have put people living in northerly regions at a higher risk of migraine. Some people have adapted to live in cold polar climates, but at a price. The same gene variant that helps us cope with cold also seems to increase our risk of migraine. Aida Andrés at University College London, UK, Felix Key at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and their colleagues studied the gene for a protein called TRPM8, which is known to activate in cold temperatures. The gene for the protein comes in two flavours. An older variant, which we share with chimpanzees, is common in people living in Africa. But a newer variant is more common in people living in northern countries, particularly in Europe. The team screened databases of genetic data taken from people across the world, to see how common each gene variant was in Europe, Africa and South East Asia. “We found a correlation between frequency [of the gene] and latitude,” says Key. For example, the new variant of the gene is found in around 88 per cent of Finnish people, but only 5 per cent of Nigerians. Computer simulations suggest that the newer variant evolved in Africa, before people began to migrate to other continents. “It’s really cool,” says Mark Shriver at Penn State University in University Park. “This is probably the first time [the adaptation of] a sensory gene has been tied to environment.” The TRPM8 gene has also been linked to migraine. The older variant is thought to protect against the disorder, while the newer variant increases the risk. This may help explain why migraine is more commonly reported in northern countries. “We know the prevalence of migraine is lower in African Americans,” says Key.
5-3-18 Adapting to life in the north may have been a real headache
A genetic analysis by latitude reveals variation in a cold-sensing protein linked to migraines. In Finland, 88 percent of people have a genetic variation that increases their risk for migraines. But in people of Nigerian descent, that number drops to 5 percent. Coincidence? Maybe. But a new study suggests that, thousands of years ago, that particular genetic mutation increased in frequency in northern populations because it somehow made people better suited to handle cold temperatures. That change may have had the unfortunate consequence of raising the prevalence of these severe headaches in certain populations, researchers report May 3 in PLOS Genetics. The mutation is in a stretch of DNA that controls the behavior of TRPM8, a protein that responds to cold sensation. People with the older version of this DNA snippet seems less susceptible to migraines than people with the mutated version, previous studies have shown. Using a global database of human genetic information, evolutionary geneticist Aida Andres and her colleagues showed a correlation between the frequency of the mutation in a given population and that population’s latitude. It’s rare in Africa, for example, but fairly common across Europe.
5-3-18 First US death due to romaine lettuce as E. coli outbreak widens
The contaminated romaine lettuce that has spread illness across 25 states is now responsible for one death, and the source of the E. coli outbreak is still unknown. After weeks of illnesses being reported across 25 US states, a person in California has died due to an outbreak of Escherichia coli bacteria linked to romaine lettuce. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has now reported 121 cases of infection in people age 1 to 88. This strain of bacteria causes diarrhea, vomiting and severe stomach cramps, and can lead to kidney failure, which has been reported in 14 of the 52 people who have been hospitalised during the outbreak. Health officials have tied the food poisoning to lettuce grown in the Yuma, Arizona region, which supplies the US with most of its romaine in the winter months. A farm there was the source of whole heads of lettuce sold to an Alaskan prison where eight inmates became ill after eating it. But that doesn’t account for the rest of the outbreak. Peter Cassell at the US Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety division says the agency is investigating the source of the illnesses in the other states. “We are working to identify multiple distribution channels that can explain the entirety of the nation-wide outbreak, and are tracing back from multiple groupings of ill people located in diverse geographic areas,” he says. Cassell says the Arizona Department of Agriculture confirmed that romaine lettuce is no longer being produced and distributed from the Yuma growing region. “However, due to the 21-day shelf life, we cannot be certain that romaine lettuce from this region is no longer in the supply chain,” he says.
5-3-18 Mistletoe’s cells are broken at a fundamental level
All complex organisms rely on tiny nodules called mitochondria to supply their cells with energy – but mistletoe’s mitochondria don’t work and yet it survives. A nondescript plant has overturned one of the bedrock assumptions of biology. Unlike every other animal and plant ever studied, its cells do not have the equipment to make energy. It is not clear how it survives. All animals, plants and fungi are “eukaryotes”: they are made up of cells that are much more complex than those of bacteria. All eukaryotic cells contain tiny sausage-shaped objects called mitochondria, which are their energy source. Mitochondria are almost entirely essential for eukaryotes. Some single-celled eukaryotes, such as certain yeasts, have few or no mitochondria. But multicellular eukaryotes – all plants and animals, including us – rely on their mitochondria absolutely. So researchers were shocked to discover that the mitochondria of mistletoe (Viscum album) are virtually disabled. Two teams independently found the same thing. The key thing mitochondria do is make large quantities of a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This carries lots of energy, which other parts of the cell can use to keep working. Mitochondria make ATP using a chain of five large enzymes. But mistletoe has completely lost the first one – called Complex I – as well as the genes that make it. “It’s not been believed that any multicellular organism can live without Complex I,” says Hans-Peter Braun of Leibniz University in Hannover, Germany. The other four enzymes were still there. But they were in short supply compared with a control plant called thale cress.
5-3-18 Ancestral remains 'people not objects'
Anthropology needs to take a more humanising approach to its examination of ancestral remains. This is the recommendation of a North American collective of scientists. Currently, some palaeogenomic (ancient DNA) research is conducted using human remains that are held in museum collections. In certain cases, these are the disinterred ancestors of Indigenous peoples, removed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. "The reason," explains lead author Dr Jessica Bardill, "that we're able... to seek out genetic information from a range of remains from ancestors, whether they be cultural objects or skeletal remains... is because of collection practices that happened over a century ago." "There are thousands [of these remains] held in collections around the world. More likely tens of thousands," added the Concordia University researcher. The relationship between scientists and Indigenous peoples has, the authors say, previously been damaged by disputes such as the 20-year legal battle over the remains of the Ancient One (Kennewick Man), which were uncovered on the banks of the Columbia river. "To minimise harms in the future, we recommend that ancestral remains be regarded not as 'artefacts' but as human relatives who deserve respect in research," the group writes.
5-2-18 The first smallpox treatment is one step closer to FDA approval
The drug prevents the variola virus from infecting other cells. As bioterrorism fears grow, the first treatment for smallpox is nearing approval. Called tecovirimat, the drug stops the variola virus, which causes smallpox, from sending out copies of itself and infecting other cells. “If the virus gets ahead of your immune system, you get sick,” says Dennis Hruby, the chief scientific officer of pharmaceutical company SIGA Technologies, which took part in developing the drug. “If you can slow the virus down, your immune system will get ahead.” An advisory committee to the U.S. Federal Drug Administration unanimously recommended approval of tecovirimat, or TPOXX, on May 1. The FDA is expected to make its decision this summer. Unchecked, smallpox kills about 30 percent of people infected and leaves survivors with disfiguring pox scars. Between 300 million and 500 million people died of smallpox in the 20th century before health officials declared the disease eradicated in 1980 after a worldwide vaccination campaign. For research purposes, samples of the virus remain in two locations — one in the United States, the other in Russia. (Webmaster's comment: Nonsense! The United States and Russia are keeping the virus because they might want to use it as biological blackmail or in an attack against some country they don't agree with!)
5-2-18 Brexit and Trump votes screwed with our heart rates for months
A study of nearly 12,000 people wearing health monitoring devices shows how people’s biological rhythms fall out of sync after big political events. Endured sleepless nights in the aftermath of the Brexit vote? You weren’t the only one. A study of 11,600 wearers of Nokia Health monitoring devices shows the changes in our biorhythms during and after monumental political moments, including the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote. Stress can cause sleepless nights and increase heart rates, but little was known about how this links to big societal changes. “We wanted to add in the quantitative data,” says Daniele Quercia of Nokia Bell Labs. Quercia and his colleagues analysed data from users who wear health monitoring devices, such as smart watches, in San Francisco and London between April 2016 and April 2017. They found that an entire populations’ sleeping habits, heart rates and distance walked can swing out of sync after big societal events. The proportion of people whose data moved out of sync with the general population’s norm increased by 30 per cent after the election of Donald Trump, while heart rates rose from 66 beats per minute in San Francisco before his election to 70 beats per minute on election day. Four months later, heart rates had still not returned back to their pre-voting baseline. In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, around one in eight users saw their sleep, movement and heart rate shunted away from the average, with overall sleep time dropping 10 per cent. The changes were different in form, and were more significant, than those observed around events such as Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
5-2-18 Ancient humans in Philippines may have given rise to ‘hobbits’
A butchered rhino found on the island of Luzon shows early humans were living in the Philippines 709,000 years ago, which may explain the origins of the diminutive Homo floresiensis. About 709,000 years ago, a group of ancient humans used stone tools to butcher a dead rhino on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. The find means our hominin cousins reached the Philippines much earlier than we previously knew. The discovery may also throw new light on the origins of the mysterious “hobbits”: tiny hominins that once inhabited the Indonesian island of Flores. Researchers have long wondered whether Luzon was colonised by an ancient species of human deep in antiquity. In 2010, researchers working on the island announced they had found a 67,000-year-old foot bone. The bone may have belonged to a member of our species, but its unusual shape hinted that it belonged to an earlier form of human. Now Thomas Ingicco at the French National Museum of Natural History in Paris and his colleagues may have settled the debate. During excavations on Luzon, they found a near-complete skeleton of an extinct Philippine rhinoceros. Some of the bones are covered in cut marks. What’s more, the team found more than 50 stone artefacts that could have been used to dismember the carcass. The rhino cannot have been butchered by modern humans. Most researchers believe our species, Homo sapiens, emerged in Africa within the last 500,000 years – long after the 709,000-year-old rhino was killed.
5-2-18 Butchered rhino bones place hominids in the Philippines 700,000 years ago
The earliest known evidence had been a 66,700-year-old human toe bone. Stone tools strewn among rhinoceros bones indicate that hominids had reached the Philippines by around 709,000 years ago, scientists report online May 2 in Nature. Stone Age Homo species who crossed the ocean from mainland Asia to the Philippines — possibly aboard uprooted trees or some kind of watercraft — may also have moved to islands farther south, the team proposes. Evidence of ancient hominids has been found on some Indonesian islands, including individuals’ fossil remains on Flores (SN: 7/9/16, p. 6) and ancient stone tools on Sulawesi (SN: 2/6/16, p. 7). But researchers hadn’t found old enough evidence of hominids in the Philippines to suggest such a journey — until now. At an excavation site in the landlocked northern region of Kalinga in the Philippines, more than 400 animal bones have been discovered, including much of a rhino skeleton, and 57 stone artifacts. Cuts and pounding marks on 13 of the rhino bones resulted from meat and marrow removal, say bioarchaeologist Thomas Ingicco of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and colleagues. Other fossils came from brown deer, monitor lizards, freshwater turtles and extinct, elephant-like creatures called stegodons. Measures of the decay and accumulation of radioactive elements in Kalinga sediment and an excavated rhino tooth suggest the fossils are roughly 709,000 years old, give or take about 68,000 years.
5-2-18 This ancient fowl bit like a dinosaur and pecked like a bird
New fossil leads to the most detailed 3-D reconstruction of Ichthyornis dispar’s skull. A bird that lived alongside dinosaurs may have preened its feathers like modern birds — despite a full mouth of teeth that also let it chomp like a dino. A new 3-D reconstruction of the skull of Ichthyornis dispar, which lived during the Late Cretaceous epoch between 87 million and 82 million years ago, reveals that the ancient fowl had a small, primitive beak and a mobile upper jaw. That mobility allowed the bird to use its beak with precision to groom itself and grab objects, similar to how modern birds employ their beaks, researchers report in the May 3 Nature. But I. dispar also retained some features from its nonavian dinosaur ancestors, including strong jaw muscles in addition to the teeth. “I. dispar holds a special place because it was for the longest time one of the only known toothed birds,” says Lawrence Witmer, a vertebrate paleontologist at Ohio University in Athens, who was not involved in the new study. By providing the first in-depth look at the bird’s skull, the study provides important new details on the transition from the skin-covered, toothy jaws of dinosaurs into the keratin-covered, toothless beaks of modern birds, Witmer says. Indeed, I. dispar is a paleontology textbook staple. About 150 years ago, paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh described a ternlike water bird that had a wingspan of about 60 centimeters. The fossil revealed that the extinct bird shared some traits with nonavian dinosaurs, such as a full mouth of teeth. However, its wings and breastbone strongly resembled those of modern birds, suggesting the bird could fly.
5-2-18 How birds got their beaks - new fossil evidence
Scientists have pieced together the skull of a strange ancient bird, revealing a primitive beak lined with teeth. The "transitional" bird sheds light on a pivotal point in the pathway from dinosaurs to modern birds. Ichthyornis dispar lived in North America about 86 million years ago. The seagull-sized bird had a beak and a brain much like modern birds, but the sharp teeth and powerful jaws of dinosaurs like Velociraptor. "It shows us what the first bird beak looked like," said Bhart-Anjan Bhullar of Yale University, a study researcher. "It's a real mosaic of features, a transitional form." It has long been known that birds evolved from dinosaurs in what was a slow gradual process, involving feathers, wings and beaks. Evidence for feathers has shown up in the fossil record, but it has proved very difficult to study the anatomy of the tiny delicate skulls of ancient birds. The researchers combined fossil evidence from the complete skull and two previously overlooked cranial fossils with the latest CT scanning techniques to build an advanced 3D model of the skull of the primitive bird. As study researcher Daniel Field, from the University of Bath, put it, most skull fossils are "squashed flat during the fossilisation process". He said the "extraordinary new specimen", which was discovered only recently, reveals similar brain proportions to that of a modern bird, while other parts of the skull more closely resemble those of predatory dinosaurs.
5-2-18 Identity crisis: When is a dinosaur not a dinosaur?
As though extinction weren't enough, dinosaurs have also had to deal with doubts over their very existence, and the legitimacy of some of our favourite species. HARRY SEELEY looked like your typical Victorian gentleman: neatly trimmed beard, sharp side parting, smart suit. But he was a killer. In 1887, he destroyed the dinosaurs. The London intelligentsia were abuzz with excitement over the weird and wonderful ancient giants, but Seeley was having none of it. He looked at the fossil bones and reached a radical conclusion: technically, he said, there was no such thing as a dinosaur. Seeley was eventually – mostly – overruled. But a study published last year is casting a fresh shadow over the awe-inspiring beasts of prehistoric Earth. It suggests we have completely misunderstood why they ruled the continents for tens of millions of years – and even what creatures qualify to be part of the dino-club in the first place. The tale began in the early 1840s, a couple of kilometres east of London’s British Museum, when a leading scientific celebrity walked into a private collection on Aldersgate Street. Unlike many gentlemen scholars of the time, Richard Owen rose to the pinnacle of British science from the humblest of roots. His circle of friends included the royal family and Charles Dickens. Yet, for the most part, history remembers him in a different light. “It is astonishing with what an intense feeling of hatred Owen is regarded by the majority of his contemporaries,” wrote biologist Thomas Huxley, whose intellectual fights with Owen gripped a nation. Owen is said to have been arrogant, spiteful and ruthlessly vengeful. He gained a reputation for stealing ideas and even specimens from his peers and, according to Julian Hume, who works at the Natural History Museum in London, was quite prepared to resort to blackmail to get his way.
5-2-18 Mediterranean diet delays Alzheimer’s for three extra years
Filling your diet with plants, fish and oil and limiting your intake of processed food may slow the build-up of amyloid plaque, delaying the onslaught of Alzheimer's. Following a Mediterranean diet can help delay Alzheimer’s disease – and perhaps even prevent it altogether, brain imaging suggests. Population studies have found that people who eat a Mediterranean diet – mostly plants, fish and olive oil and limited red meat, sugar and processed food – tend to be less prone to Alzheimer’s disease. To understand why, Lisa Mosconi at Weill Cornell Medical College and her colleagues scanned the brains of 70 healthy adults aged 30 to 60, half of whom had been following a Mediterranean diet for at least five years. The Mediterranean diet group had 15 per cent less beta-amyloid – the sticky protein that gradually turns into the plaques found in people with Alzheimer’s disease. Their brain cells also metabolised glucose faster – a sign of healthier activity. When the researchers scanned the volunteers’ brains again three years later, they found that those on a Mediterranean diet had slower build-up of beta-amyloid and slower decline in brain metabolism. From these rates of change, they calculated that the diet should provide at least 3.5 years of extra protection against Alzheimer’s disease. However, this is probably an underestimate, says Ralph Martins at Edith Cowen University, in Joondalup, Australia. The study followed relatively young people for only three years, meaning it may not have been able to capture the full benefits. His research group is about to publish the results of a bigger, longer brain imaging study in older people that found even more positive effects.
5-1-18 Synthetic opioids involved in more deaths than prescription opioids
Deadly, illicit drugs are hard to track. As opioid-related deaths rise in the United States, so has the role of synthetic opioids — primarily illicit fentanyl, mixed into heroin or made into counterfeit pills (SN Online: 3/29/18). In 2016, synthetics surged past prescription opioids and were involved in 19,413 deaths, compared with 17,087 deaths involving prescription opioids, researchers report May 1 in JAMA. The study is based on data from the National Vital Statistic System’s record of all U.S. deaths. “Synthetic opioids are much deadlier than prescription opioids,” says emergency physician Leana Wen, Health Commissioner of Baltimore, who was not involved in the study. Fentanyl, for example, is about 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. The illicit origins of many synthetic opioids make the public health response more difficult, she says. “We can track prescriptions; it’s much harder to track illegally trafficked drugs.” Synthetic opioids were involved in 14 percent of all opioid-related deaths in 2010, but then shot up to be part of 46 percent of those deaths in 2016.
5-1-18 Smart people literally have bigger brain cells than the rest
For the first time, IQ has been linked to neuron size and performance. The breakthrough could lead to new ways to enhance human intelligence. What makes some people smarter than others? It could come down to your individual brain cells – the bigger and faster your neurons, the higher your IQ. If confirmed, the finding could lead to new ways to enhance human intelligence. Most intelligence research to date has identified brain regions involved in certain skills, or pinpointed hundreds of genes that each play a tiny role in determining IQ. To go a step further, Natalia Goriounova at the Free University Amsterdam in the Netherlands and her colleagues studied 35 people who needed surgery for brain tumours or severe epilepsy. Each took an IQ test just before the operation. Then, while they were under the knife, small samples of healthy brain tissue were removed and kept alive for testing. The samples all came from the temporal lobe. This brain area helps us make sense of what we see, recognise language and form memories, all of which factor into intelligence. Examining this tissue revealed that brain cells are significantly bigger in people with high IQ scores than those with lower scores. The bigger cells also have more dendrites – the projections that connect to other neurons – and the dendrites are longer, suggesting that these neurons may be capable of receiving and processing more information.
5-1-18 Critical window for learning a language
There is a critical cut-off age for learning a language fluently, according to research. If you want to have native-like knowledge of English grammar, for example, you should ideally start before age 10, say the researchers. People remain highly skilled learners until 17 or 18, when ability tails off. The findings, in the journal Cognition, come from an online grammar test taken by nearly 670,000 people of different ages and nationalities. The grammar quiz was posted on Facebook to get enough people to take part. Questions tested if participants could determine whether a sentence written in English, such as: "Yesterday John wanted to won the race," was grammatically correct. Users were asked their age and how long they had been learning English, and in what setting - had they moved to an English-speaking country, for example? About 246,000 of the people who took the test had grown up speaking only English, while the rest were bi- or multilingual. The most common native languages (excluding English) were Finnish, Turkish, German, Russian and Hungarian. Most of the people who completed the quiz were in their 20s and 30s. The youngest age was about 10 and the oldest late 70s. When the researchers analysed the data using a computer model, the best explanation for the findings was that grammar-learning was strongest in childhood, persists into teenage years and then drops at adulthood. Learning a language is often said to be easy for children and to get more difficult as we age. But late learners can still become proficient, if not seamlessly fluent, say the researchers.
5-1-18 How a backyard pendulum saw sliced into a Bronze Age mystery
Researcher’s swinging blade offers glimpse into how ancient Mycenaeans built palaces. Nicholas Blackwell and his father went to a hardware store about three years ago seeking parts for a mystery device from the past. They carefully selected wood and other materials to assemble a stonecutting pendulum that, if Blackwell is right, resembles contraptions once used to build majestic Bronze Age palaces. With no ancient drawings or blueprints of the tool for guidance, the two men relied on their combined knowledge of archaeology and construction. Blackwell, an archaeologist at Indiana University Bloomington, had the necessary Bronze Age background. His father, George, brought construction cred to the project. Blackwell grew up watching George, a plumber who owned his own business, fix and build stuff around the house. By high school, the younger Blackwell worked summers helping his dad install heating systems and plumbing at construction sites. The menial tasks Nicholas took on, such as measuring and cutting pipes, were not his idea of fun. But that earlier work paid off as the two put together their version of a Bronze Age pendulum saw — a stonecutting tool from around 3,300 years ago that has long intrigued researchers. Power drills, ratchets and other tools that George regularly used around the house made the project, built in George’s Virginia backyard, possible.
5-1-18 Genetic secrets of the rose revealed
Take time to smell the roses, the saying goes, and, according to scientists, the fragrant flowers could smell even sweeter in the future. For the first time researchers have deciphered the full genetic "book" of this most prized of plants. The secret history of the rose reveals surprises - it is more closely related to the strawberry than we thought. And in the long term the work could lead to roses with new scents and colours, says an international team. The new genome map, which took eight years to complete, reveals genes involved in scent production, colour and the longevity of flowers, said Mohammed Bendahmane of ENS de Lyon, in Lyon, France, who led the research. "You have here a book of the history of the rose," he told BBC News. "A book that helps us understand the rose, its history and its journey through evolution and domestication." The study, by a team of more than 40 scientists from France, Germany, China and the UK, gives a better understanding of why roses have such a wide range of colours and scents. The genetic information will help breeders develop new varieties that last longer in the vase or are more resistant to plant pests. It also sheds light on the Rosaceae family, which contains fruits such as apples, pears and strawberries, as well as ornamentals such as the rose. "The rose and the strawberry are very close species," said Dr Bendahmane.
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