11-30-18 Around the world, reported measles cases jumped 31 percent in 2017
Political unrest and refusal to vaccinate is driving the disease’s surge, health experts say. From 2016 to 2017, the number of reported cases in the region jumped 6,358 percent, to 775, largely fueled by an ongoing outbreak in Venezuela that has since infected thousands more. Along with a spike in measles in Europe, the Venezuela outbreak contributed to a 31 percent worldwide increase in reports of the highly contagious disease in 2017, according to researchers from the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Both the Americas and the European regions have the resources to stop measles, and it’s not happening,” says William Moss, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who was not involved with the report. The apparent jump comes after years of steady progress toward reducing the spread of the disease. Even taking the recent rise into account, reported measles cases from 2000 to 2017 have dropped 80 percent worldwide — from 853,479 to 173,330 — as have estimated deaths from the disease, researchers say in the Nov. 30 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Measles vaccination prevented an estimated 21.1 million deaths over that time, the report says, though it continues to be a leading cause of vaccine-preventable infant deaths globally. “Global efforts to eliminate measles continue to make progress,” says Rebecca Martin, director of CDC’s Center for Global Health in Atlanta. “Despite these gains, multiple regions have experienced large measles outbreaks in 2017, primarily due to low vaccination coverage nationally or in geographic pockets, illustrating how fragile gains in disease elimination can be.”
11-30-18 Almost everything we know about social media and health could be wrong
Most studies into the effects of social media use and screen time are badly flawed. This is because researchers use surveys to find out people’s technology use, but how much we think we spend glued to our devices and how much we actually use them are almost completely unrelated. Researchers have used self-reported surveys to justify claims like increasing smartphone use is causing teenage suicide and a drop in sexual activity. But now a study from David Ellis at Lancaster University and his colleagues is casting doubt on these findings. The team looked at 10 widely used surveys for measuring screen time use, such as the “Mobile Phone Problem Use Scale” and the “Smartphone Addiction Scale”. These surveys ask users how often they use their phones or how problematic they consider their use. They then compared 280 people’s responses to those surveys to objective data from an app, Apple Screen Time, which measures how much people use their phones: how many minutes, how often they pick it up, and how many notifications they received. It found that the objective data and the self-reported data were only very tangentially related. On one statistical measure of how well the self-reported data and the objective data correlated, the surveys scores ranged from weak to modest. The best test scored 0.4 and the worst scored 0.13, where 1 is complete correlation. Overall, this means that knowing how much someone thinks they use their phone tells you very little about how much they actually do. This doesn’t mean that self-reported data – which almost all smartphone research is based on – is completely useless, says Ellis. But it does mean that grand, sweeping claims about the effects our phones and social media are having on mental health and behaviour are probably not grounded in good evidence, he says.
11-30-18 Stone Age people conquered the Tibetan Plateau’s thin air
Stone tools at least 30,000 years old suggest people settled high altitudes earlier than thought. People settled down high up — really high up — as early as around 40,000 years ago. That’s when humans first inhabited East Asia’s Tibetan Plateau, about 4,600 meters above sea level, scientists say. Until now, evidence of humans colonizing this high-altitude region extended no further back than around 8,000 years ago (SN: 2/4/17, p. 8). Some researchers have argued that the first permanent settlers arrived perhaps 12,000 to 13,000 years ago. Archaeologist Xiaoling Zhang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and her colleagues excavated a much older site than that, called Nwya Devu, on the Tibetan Plateau. Three sediment layers contained a total of 3,683 stone artifacts made from local, high-quality rock, the researchers report in the Nov. 30 Science. Based on estimates of the time since each soil layer had been buried, people occupied the site from about 40,000 to 30,000 years ago, then from roughly 25,000 to 18,000 years ago, and finally from around 13,000 to 4,000 years ago. Zhang’s group suspects people used the site as a workshop where they made a variety of stone tools, including long, rectangular blades that could be used for cutting or scraping. Ecological conditions on the Tibetan Plateau during the late Stone Age would have enabled seasonal visits by people who could have hunted prey such as gazelles and yaks, the researchers say. Humans that reached Nwya Devu starting more than 30,000 years ago may have inherited a gene variant for coping with high-altitude oxygen deprivation via interbreeding with Stone Age relatives of Neandertals and humans called Denisovans (SN: 8/9/14, p. 8).
11-30-18 Ebola outbreak in DR Congo now second worst in history
The UN's global health body says the Ebola outbreak in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo is now the second-biggest ever recorded. A total of 426 cases of the virus have now been reported in and around the town of Beni, taking the outbreak past that recorded in Uganda in 2000. Beni is in the middle of a conflict zone and operations have been affected by rebel attacks. Almost 200 people have died in this outbreak of Ebola. But it is still much smaller than the epidemic in West Africa between 2013 and 2016 which killed 11,310 people. This is the second Ebola outbreak in DR Congo this year. The previous outbreak, in the west of the country, killed 33 people, according to the government. "[We] will continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Congolese health ministry to do whatever it takes to bring the outbreak to an end," the World Health Organization's Deputy Director-General for Emergency Preparedness and Response has said in a tweet. The current outbreak in eastern DR Congo began in July and is the 10th to hit the country since 1976. Health workers hope that the first multi-drug Ebola treatment trial, announced by DR Congo's health ministry on Monday, will help to contain this and future outbreaks. Explaining the World Health Organization-backed initiative, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said a "randomised control trial" in DR Congo was a "giant step" that would "bring clarity about what works best, and save many lives in years to come".
11-30-18 Stone Age people may have ritually cut off their own fingers
Stone Age Europeans may have deliberately amputated their fingers during religious ceremonies. The controversial idea could explain why so many of the prehistoric images of hands on cave walls are missing fingers. “Finger amputation was a reasonably common behaviour in many regions in the recent past,” says Mark Collard of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. “The available data seem to fit reasonably well with the hypothesis that some Upper Palaeolithic people engaged in finger amputation for the purposes of religious sacrifice.” Images of hands, whether handprints or hand stencils, are some of the most common forms of cave art. They are found on several continents. Two French caves called Gargas and Cosquer are known for their unusual hand images. Gargas has 231 hand images and 114 have at least one finger segment missing, while Cosquer has 49 hand images, 28 of which are missing finger segments. “In both cases it’s a fairly high percentage,” says Collard. There are isolated examples elsewhere. Nobody knows why. One suggestion is that the people’s hands were intact and the pictures represent a simple counting system, just as we show “three” by folding two fingers. Alternatively, Ian Gilligan at the University of Sydney, Australia has suggested that people lost fingers to frostbite. Collard and his colleagues wondered if instead people might have removed the fingers on purpose. To find out if this was plausible, they examined studies of recent human societies to see how many practised finger amputation. They found 121 societies that did it.
11-30-18 Designer babies
A rogue Chinese scientist drew international condemnation this week after he claimed to have created the world’s first genetically altered babies, tweaking the embryos to make them resistant to HIV. Dr. He Jiankui said the two baby girls, born last month, were “normal and healthy” and would be monitored for the next 18 years. He said eight couples, each an HIV-positive man and HIV-negative woman, had volunteered for the experiment. Editing human genes is frowned on in China and most of the world, and 122 Chinese scientists signed a letter condemning the experiment. The Chinese government promised to investigate He, a researcher at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen. American bioengineer Michael Deem, He’s former adviser at Rice University, is being investigated by his school for possible involvement.
11-30-18 New peanut allergy treatment
A lifesaving treatment for children with peanut allergies could be approved for public use as early as next year, after a massive immunotherapy study yielded encouraging results. Researchers in the U.S. and Europe gave 550 children ages 4 to 17 incrementally increasing doses of peanut protein over a period of six months, and then a “maintenance” dose for another six months. Half the kids received the treatment; half took a placebo. After the study period, two-thirds of those given the peanut protein were able to eat two whole peanuts without any ill effects, compared with just 4 percent of those given the placebo. The researchers emphasize that the immunotherapy treatment isn’t a cure; allergy sufferers would likely have to continue to take peanut protein in the long term, possibly for life. Still, the impact would be huge. “Before Emily took part we were uncomfortable being more than 20 minutes away from a hospital,” Sophie Pratt, the mother of a 6-year-old trial participant, tells The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). “The study has completely changed our lives.”
11-30-18 Standing-desk myths
Standing desks have become increasingly popular in recent years, as screen-tied office workers seek to reduce the time they spend sitting down. But a growing body of research suggests that the health concerns about sitting at work and the benefits of standing desks have been largely exaggerated, reports The New York Times. Several studies have found a link between prolonged periods of sitting and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. But when the authors of a 2015 paper dug a little deeper, they found that sitting for long periods in certain situations—such as at work—didn’t have the same effect. Their conclusion: Sitting itself wasn’t the problem; it was likely just indicative of other risk factors. Unemployed people, for example, are more likely to spend large amounts of time sitting around at home and also have a higher risk of premature death. As for standing desks, their supposed benefits may be overblown. David Rempel, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, says there is “no scientific evidence” that standing desks improve cardiovascular health. Alternating standing and sitting “may be useful for some people with low back or neck pain,” he says—but workers shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking that standing is a form of exercise.
11-30-18 Do Western lifestyles raise blood pressure?
The scientific consensus that blood pressure rises naturally with age has been upended by a new study of remote tribal groups in the Venezuelan rain forest, which found that hypertension could be a result of a Western lifestyle. Researchers contacted two groups in the depths of the Amazon, reports ScienceDaily.com. The first, the Yanomami, have almost no contact with the Western world: They are hunter-gatherers who eat a lot of fruit and fiber and little fat or salt. The second tribe, the Yekwana, have greater exposure to the Western world through their contact with missionaries, doctors, and miners, and eat more processed food and salt. Researchers took the blood pressure of dozens of members of both tribes, ages 1 to 60. In the Yekwana, blood pressure increased with age, albeit at a lower rate than in the U.S. and other Western societies. But in the isolated Yanomami tribe, blood pressure levels were roughly the same for all ages. The researchers note that their study was small and included only 11 Yekwana members over age 40, and didn’t reveal exactly which lifestyle and diet differences might be behind the disparity. But lead author Noel Mueller, from Johns Hopkins University, says the findings are significant. “The idea that blood pressure rises with age as part of a natural phenomenon,” he says, “is increasingly being dispelled.”
11-29-18 Prehistoric whales used to simply suck their food out of the ocean
A prehistoric whale might force a rethink on the evolution of the marine giants. It suggests that the baleen whales lost their teeth long before they gained the filters they use to collect tiny plankton from the water – which means the ancient whales must have had an unusual way of feeding. Whales were once all toothed predators. Around 36 million years ago, a group of them evolved to lose their teeth. We don’t know what drove that evolutionary trend, but it ultimately gave rise to today’s filter-feeding whales, including blue whales and humpback whales, that use baleen bristles in their mouths to remove tiny prey from the water. Scientists haven’t been able to precisely reconstruct what happened during whales’ transition from teeth-bearing to filter-feeding – but they had assumed that the filter-feeding system emerged before the whales lost all their teeth. Now, Carlos Peredo at George Mason University in Virginia and his colleagues have examined a 33-million-year-old whale fossil found in Oregon that suggests an alternative. The whale’s skull shows it had neither teeth nor baleen. Using CT scans, the team found the extinct whale (Maiabalae nanesbittae) had no alveoli – teeth sockets. It also had a different mouth structure than baleen-bearing whales, meaning it had no ability to filter-feed either. “[The whale] represents a surprising intermediate stage between modern filter-feeding whales and their toothed ancestors,” Peredo says. “Our study makes it very unlikely that teeth and baleen existed at the same time in the same animals.” Peredo suggests baleen might have appeared 23 million years ago, about 10 million years after whales lost their teeth.
11-29-18 Extinct ‘Denisovan’ people may have lived on Earth’s highest plateau
Humans arrived on the Tibetan Plateau tens of thousands of years earlier than we thought. This raises the possibility that the first humans to cope with the harsh conditions there were not modern humans, but the ancient Denisovans. The Tibetan Plateau is a tough environment. The average annual temperature is close to 0 °C, and on average it’s 4000 metres above sea level so the air is difficult to breathe. Most researchers assumed that humans didn’t move onto the Tibetan Plateau until just 12,000 years ago – and only occupied it permanently about 3600 years ago. An archaeological site called Nwya Devu suggests otherwise. The site, which is on the Tibetan Plateau 4600 metres above sea level, has yielded thousands of stone tools, albeit few organic remains. By using technology that establishes how many years have passed since the soil burying the tools was last exposed, archaeologists estimate that the oldest tools are between 40,000 and 30,000 years old. That means humans first occupied the Tibetan Plateau much earlier than we thought. An extraordinary theory might explain how humans adapted to life so high above sea level. Most Tibetans carry an unusual stretch of DNA in their genomes, which they seem to have gained when modern humans bred with an ancient group of humans called the Denisovans. The Denisovan DNA seems to help Tibetans cope with the limited oxygen supply at altitude. A 2014 study suggested the Denisovan DNA became more common in the ancestors of today’s Tibetans between about 40,000 and 30,000 years ago, again hinting that modern humans were on the Tibetan Plateau by 30,000 years ago.
11-29-18 Zaps to a certain spot in the brain may ease depression
The lateral orbitofrontal cortex, just behind the eyes, seems to be key. Precisely placed zaps to the brain swiftly improved the moods of people with signs of depression. The results, achieved with implanted electrodes, bring scientists closer to understanding the nature of depression — and point to ways to treat it. Neurologist Vikram Rao and neuroscientist Kristin Sellers, both of the University of California, San Francisco, and their colleagues studied 25 people who were undergoing treatment for epilepsy that involved electrodes implanted at various spots in the brain. At the beginning of the experiment, published online November 29 in Current Biology, the researchers asked patients to take extensive mood tests, which showed some of these people had signs of mild to severe depression. Then the team began to stimulate different areas of the brain with the implanted electrodes. Shortly after the stimulation began, the scientists asked people to report their current mood, both verbally and on a tablet app. Many of the targeted brain spots didn’t seem to have any effect on people’s mood. But when researchers stimulated a brain region that lies just behind the eyes, called the lateral orbitofrontal cortex, people reported feeling better. Only the patients who started out with moderate or severe depression scores saw this improvement; people who felt pretty good already didn’t have mood changes. Mood relies on many parts of the brain working together. Because the lateral orbitofrontal cortex has widespread connections in the brain, the region may be especially poised to ease depression. The study focused on mood during only the brain stimulation. The team plans to test whether the stimulation can have effects that last longer.
11-29-18 Stone-tool makers reached North Africa and Arabia surprisingly early
Ancient Homo species left primitive cutting implements far beyond East Africa. Ancient stone-tool makers spread into largely unstudied parts of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula surprisingly early, two new studies find. Discoveries in Algeria and Saudi Arabia underscore how toolmaking traditions enabled Stone Age Homo groups to travel long distances and adapt to different environments, researchers say. Hominids used simple cutting and chopping implements to remove meat from animal carcasses in North Africa around 2.4 million years ago, archaeologist Mohamed Sahnouni and colleagues report online November 29 in Science. That’s roughly 200,000 years after the first known appearance of such tools in East Africa. Early members of the human genus, Homo, either continued to make these tools after moving from East Africa or independently created similar tools in East and North Africa, the scientists conclude. Earlier excavations at two other Algerian sites, also conducted by Sahnouni’s team, had uncovered stone tools and evidence of animal butchery dating back no more than 1.8 million years. No hominid fossils have been found at any of the North African locations. But the discovery of stone tools strewn among butchered animal remains at Algeria’s Ain Boucherit site adds to evidence that Homo evolution didn’t just occur in East Africa (SN: 12/23/17, p. 24). “Our ancestors ventured into all corners of Africa,” says Sahnouni, of the National Research Center for Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain.
11-29-18 ‘Scientists are now very sure that the babies really were gene-edited’
This week, news broke of the birth of the first two babies to have had their genes altered as embryos, a genetic change they could pass on to their own children. The use of the powerful gene-editing tool CRISPR was widely thought to not yet be ready for use in human embryos for safety reasons. The technique was used to edit a gene so that children may be resistant to some strains of HIV. The scientist, He Jiankui, has now presented his work at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong. CRISPR expert Helen O’Neill, of University College London, was there. It’s very surreal. Most of us landed on Monday and turned our phones on to a complete barrage of emails saying “Have you seen the news?” Jiankui He didn’t show up at the conference until today, [Wednesday, when he was due to talk]. There was so much press this morning you could barely hear him. He was ushered in and then ushered away at the end. He came in very very humbled, like a scolded child. I think he’s possibly afraid that he’s going to face charges. In some countries you could go to jail for this. At the moment Chinese law says you can’t do it but there’s no penalty. I don’t know whether he’s going to be made an example of. Among the scientific community we’re very sure. He gave quite an impressive presentation on quite extensive and thorough research that he had done both in animal and human embryos. The initial shock meant people went “Surely not – he has to prove it.” But I never had any doubt. It was afterwards in the question session that the juicy things came out that people wanted to know. Bit by bit you were getting more information that was more shocking. The fact that he had partly funded it himself. Almost incidentally, when he was asked about any other pregnancies, he said “Er…yeeees there is.” Robin [Lovell-Badge, who was chairing the talk] clarified that it was a very early pregnancy.
11-29-18 'Gene-edited babies': China halts work of He Jiankui
China has halted the work of the scientist who claims to have created the world's first genetically edited babies, and says it will investigate. He Jiankui caused outrage earlier this week when he told a genome summit he had altered the genes of twin baby girls so they could not contract HIV. His statement has not been confirmed, but if true breaks tight rules around the use of gene editing in humans. Prof He's university said it was unaware of his experiment. The Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen said earlier in the week he had been on unpaid leave since February, and it would be investigating the claims. On Thursday, China's science ministry said it had "demanded that the relevant organisation suspend the scientific activities of relevant personnel". The National Health Commission has already said Prof He's work "seriously violates China's laws, regulations and ethical standards" and would investigate the claims. Prof He announced that he had altered the DNA of embryos - twin girls known as Lula and Nana - to prevent them from contracting HIV. Speaking to the Human Genome Editing Summit at the University of Hong Kong, he said the girls were "born normal and healthy" and they would be monitored over the next 18 years. He said he had funded the experiment himself and confirmed his university had not been aware of it. Prof He also explained that eight couples - comprised of HIV-positive fathers and HIV-negative mothers - had signed up voluntarily for the experiment. One couple dropped out, but there was "another potential pregnancy" of a gene-edited embryo in its early stages. He said his study had been submitted to a scientific journal for review, though he did not name the journal. He was also evasive about other details, including the names of "some experts" he said had reviewed his work and offered feedback.
11-29-18 Kids born in August are diagnosed with ADHD more than kids born in September
A study compares kids in states with September 1 cutoff for kindergarten. Children who turn 5 just before starting kindergarten are much more likely to be diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder than their oldest classmates. The finding bolsters concerns that the common neurodevelopmental disorder may be overdiagnosed. “We think ... it’s the relative age and the relative immaturity of the August-born children in any given class that increases the likelihood that they’re diagnosed as having ADHD,” says Anupam Jena, a physician and economist at Harvard Medical School. Jena and his colleagues analyzed insurance claims data for more than 407,000 children born from 2007 through 2009. In states that require kids be 5 years old by September 1 to begin kindergarten, children born in August were 34 percent more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than those born nearly a year earlier in September — just after the cutoff date. For August kids, 85.1 per 10,000 children were diagnosed with ADHD, compared with 63.6 per 10,000 for the September kids, the researchers report in the Nov. 29 New England Journal of Medicine. People with ADHD typically have symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsiveness that are severe or frequent enough to interfere with their daily lives. In 2011, 11 percent of U.S. children aged 4 to 17 were reported to have an ADHD diagnosis, a rate higher than most other countries. Differences between states also suggest overdiagnosis, says Jena, “unless there’s something so different about kids across different states.” For example, while nearly 19 percent of 4- to 17-year-olds reportedly were diagnosed in Kentucky, the rate was about 12 percent in neighboring West Virginia.
11-28-18 CRISPR babies: new details on the experiment that shocked the world
On Monday, the world was stunned by an Associated Press story claiming that the first gene-edited babies had been born in China. On Wednesday, the scientist responsible revealed far more details during a talk at a gene-editing summit in Hong Kong, including that there is another pregnancy. There hasn’t yet been any independent verification that two gene-edited girls really have been born. But the technical details revealed by He Jiankui today may have been enough to convince many of the scientists in attendance. However, questions still remain over the ethics and safety of the experiment. The stated aim of the project was to make individuals immune to HIV by disabling the gene for a protein called CCR5, which is exploited by the virus. However, disabling this gene does not provide complete protection against HIV and the broader consequences of knocking out this gene – which is involved in immune function – are unclear. The team began by using the CRISPR gene editing method to disable CCR5 in mice and monkeys, He said, and found no health or behavioural issues. But one of the organisers of the summit, Robin Lovell-Badge of the Francis Crick Institute in London, pointed out that immune genes affect the entire body, and that a different mouse study found that deleting CCR5 improved their cognitive abilities. “Have you inadvertently caused an enhancement?” Lovell-Badge asked He after the talk. The mouse study needed verification, He replied. “I am against using genome editing for enhancement.”
11-28-18 The researcher who created CRISPR twins defends his work but fails to quell controversy
Chinese scientist Jiankui He publicly explains his research. A Chinese researcher who helped create the world’s first gene-edited babies publicly disclosed details of the work for the first time to an international audience of scientists and ethicists, and revealed that another gene-edited baby is due next year. Lulu and Nana, twin girls whose DNA was edited with CRISPR/Cas9 to disable the CCR5 gene involved in HIV infections, may soon be joined by another child, Jiankui He said on November 28. Another woman participating in a gene-editing trial to make children resistant to HIV infection is in the early stages of pregnancy, He noted in a presentation at the second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, held in Hong Kong. He performed the experiments largely in secret — not even the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, where He worked until taking an unpaid leave in February was aware of the study. He apologized that information about his work “leaked unexpectedly,” a puzzling claim because He had granted interviews to the Associated Press and had recorded several online videos. A manuscript describing the work is under review at a scientific journal, He said. In the presentation, He claimed that his experiments to disable the CCR5 gene might help susceptible children, especially in the developing world, avoid HIV infection. “I truly believe this is not only just for this case, but for millions of children that need this protection since an HIV vaccine is not available … I feel proud.”
11-28-18 Miniature placentas grown in lab give positive pregnancy test result
Tiny human placentas grown in a dish are so close to the real thing that they can fool a pregnancy test into giving a positive result. The aim isn’t to develop a full-sized placenta, but to study why some pregnancies go wrong. Most cells used in lab studies form a flat layer when grown in a dish. This unnatural environment means they don’t behave as they would when surrounded by other cells in the body. In the past few years, we have found the right cues to coax cells of several tissue types into forming complex 3D structures, creating miniature organs known as organoids. Ashley Moffett at the University of Cambridge and her team looked at the hormones and other signalling molecules released by the placenta and uterus, and worked out by trial and error which ones are needed to grow placental organoids in the lab. The group took samples of human placentas from early abortions and broke the tissue apart. When they added the cells to clumps of a gel-like substance to help support a 3D structure, they could grow mini placentas just half a millimetre wide. The lack of a blood supply limited further growth. The organoids produced various placental proteins and formed into finger-like projections characteristic of the placenta’s microstructure. The team also did tests to confirm that the cells were fetal in origin – as happens in pregnancy – not maternal. After several days, the organoids were making a range of hormones, including one detected by pregnancy tests, human chorionic gonadotrophin. A test kit placed in their dish showed a “pregnant” result. Moffett says further work will help us understand why some pregnancies lead to stillbirths, small babies and pre-eclampsia – a dangerous rise in blood pressure in a pregnant woman.
11-28-18 Gene therapy eases Parkinson’s symptoms by rewiring parts of the brain
A gene therapy treatment for Parkinson’s disease appears to relieve symptoms by rewiring the brain circuits involved in movement. People with Parkinson’s disease have tremors and muscle stiffness that are caused by overstimulation of a brain area called the subthalamic nucleus, which is responsible for coordinating the brain’s motor regions. In a trial published in 2011, researchers at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in New York found that a gene therapy designed to turn down the activity of the subthalamic nucleus improved motor control for people with Parkinson’s. Though the treatment reduced Parkinson’s symptoms for at least a year, it was unclear how. To find out, the researchers have since used PET scans to compare the brains of 15 people who received the gene therapy with 20 who received a placebo. One year after treatment, the people in the gene therapy group were found to have new brain connections that weren’t seen in the placebo group. Shutting down the disease-causing pathways between the subthalamic nucleus and the brain’s motor regions appeared to encourage alternative pathways to develop instead, says David Eidelberg at the Feinstein Institute, who led the study. These alternative pathways are not found in healthy people. This suggests that gene therapy lets people with Parkinson’s form novel, compensatory brain circuits for controlling movement, says Eidelberg. “We call it adaptive rewiring.” Another treatment for Parkinson’s disease – called deep brain stimulation – involves sticking electrodes into the subthalamic nucleus and suppressing its activity using electrical pulses. However, Eidelberg and his colleagues found that this did not lead to the same adaptive rewiring.
11-28-18 A patch studded with tiny needles may help heart attack survivors recover
The bandage exudes proteins and other molecules that promote muscle cell growth. A new type of implantable bandage could help mend broken hearts. Each bandage is a thin film that oozes a cocktail of molecules to heal tissue damaged during a heart attack. In experiments with rats and pigs, these patches helped minimize scarring and preserve the heart’s ability to pump blood, researchers report online November 28 in Science Advances. Such devices could someday curb heart attack survivors’ risk of heart failure. The base of each heart-healing film is a polymer sheet studded with tiny needles — similar to other microneedle patches that deliver vaccines but designed to stick to a patient’s heart rather than her skin (SN: 8/5/17, p. 8). The surface of the polymer opposite the array of microneedles is coated in a gel containing cardiac stromal cells. These cells secrete molecules, such as proteins and tiny pieces of genetic material known as microRNAs, that support the growth of heart muscle cells. “We’re treating [the patch cells] as little pharmacies,” says study coauthor Ke Cheng, a biological engineer at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. When a patch is attached to the heart, the microneedles funnel curative molecules from the cardiac stromal cells directly into the damaged tissue. In rats, Cheng’s team tested how well the microneedle patches promoted healthy tissue growth and mitigated scarring. Three weeks after researchers induced rats to have heart attacks, the animals with microneedle patches had roughly 40 percent healthy tissue in the regions of their hearts affected by the heart attack, whereas as untreated rats had only about 10 percent.
11-28-18 The truth about supplements: do they work and should you take them?
Fish oils, multivitamins and other supplements are a huge industry, but the latest research indicates they are often of little use. Here's what you need to know. FOR some people, they are an insurance policy against a less-than-perfect diet. Others take them because they can’t – or won’t – eat certain foods. Whatever the reasons, popping vitamin and mineral supplements can feel like a virtuous shortcut to a healthy life. But in recent months, serious doubts have been raised over whether they are actually any good for us. Take omega-3. For many people, these golden capsules are a way to get the essential fatty acids we are told our bodies need without having to consume oily fish. Yet recent studies indicate that – unlike eating fish – taking omega-3 or fish oil supplements does nothing to reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke or early death. It is a similar story for other nutritional supplements, including multivitamins: the results from a slew of studies on their impact on our health has been underwhelming. In some cases, taking high doses of certain nutrients may even be harmful. We are also waking up to the importance of the interactions between the different foods we eat and how these influence the uptake of the nutrients they contain. It turns out it’s not what we eat, it’s how we eat it. So are supplements just a waste of money? And if not, which are the ones we should be taking – and how? It is only in the past century that we have begun to identify and recognise the importance of the various health-sustaining nutrients found in our food.
11-28-18 Unearthed! The missing Native American city on the Great Plains
Following an enigmatic map and the footsteps of an ill-fated conquistador, archaeologists may have unearthed one of the biggest pre-Columbian settlements in the US. IN JUNE 1601, Juan de Oñate, conquistador and governor of the fledgling colony of New Mexico, marched eastwards in search of Quivira, a fabled land of gold thought to lie near an undiscovered coast. He found no treasure and no ocean. But according to Spanish records, Oñate’s expedition did turn up an intriguing discovery – one whose true significance is only just coming to light. In testimonies given on their return, Oñate’s soldiers described their journey across what are now the US states of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. They spoke of “grasses so high that in many places they hid a horse”, Apache horse riders hunting vast herds of “monstrous” bison, and friendly encounters with a tribe they called the Escanxaques. Then the Spanish recounted how they were led to a settlement of people they called the Rayados so large that it would have taken two days to walk across it. They called it Etzanoa and reckoned it was home to some 20,000 people. Scholars have long been sceptical about Etzanoa. Conquistadors were notorious for embroidering their tales to impress the Spanish authorities, and many believe that the people of the Great Plains lived in small, scattered settlements – not sprawling proto-cities. Now, fresh translations of the soldiers’ testimonies have led one archaeologist to claim he has found Etzanoa. If true, and if it really was as extensive as Oñate reported, it wouldn’t only shake up our picture of how the people of the Great Plains lived before Europeans arrived. It would also remind us that the remains of large and socially complex settlements can hide in plain sight.
11-28-18 He Jiankui defends 'world's first gene-edited babies'
A Chinese scientist who claims to have created the world's first genetically edited babies has defended his work. Speaking at a genome summit in Hong Kong, He Jiankui said he was "proud" of altering the genes of twin girls so they cannot contract HIV. His work, which he announced earlier this week, has not been verified. Many scientists have condemned his announcement. Such gene-editing work is banned in most countries, including China. Prof He's university - the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen - said it was unaware of the research project and would launch an investigation. It said Mr He had been on unpaid leave since February. Prof He confirmed the university was not aware, adding he had funded the experiment by himself. Prof He announced earlier this week that he had altered the DNA of embryos - twin girls - to prevent them from contracting HIV. On Wednesday, Prof He spoke at the Human Genome Editing Summit at the University of Hong Kong for the first time about his work since the uproar. He revealed that the twin girls - known as "Lulu" and "Nana" - were "born normal and healthy", adding that there were plans to monitor the twins over the next 18 years. He explained that eight couples - comprised of HIV-positive fathers and HIV-negative mothers - had signed up voluntarily for the experiment; one couple later dropped out. Prof He also said that the study had been submitted to a scientific journal for review, though he did not name the journal. He also said that "another potential pregnancy" of a gene-edited embryo was in its early stages. But he apologised that his research "was leaked unexpectedly", and added: "The clinical trial was paused due to the current situation." (Webmaster's comment: A brave new world thanks to a brave CHINESE scientist!)
11-28-18 CRISPR scientist says another woman is pregnant with an edited embryo
He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who claims to have created the world’s first genetically-edited babies, says another may be on the way. Speaking at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing at the University of Hong Kong today, He said that “there is another potential pregnancy”, but that it is still at an early stage. The Associated Press news agency revealed on Monday that He claims to have edited a number of human embryos using the gene-editing technique CRISPR to make them resistant to HIV. Two were then implanted into a woman’s womb, and she allegedly gave birth to the resulting twin girls this month. He told the packed audience that he was “proud” of his achievement. He said that the father of the girls – who is HIV positive – had lost hope for life before enrolling in the trial. “[Now the father is] saying ‘I will work hard, earn money and take care of these two daughters’,” He said. After his talk, He was questioned by summit delegates about why he had conducted the trial in secret without consulting his global peers or authorities in China. He responded that he had run the idea for the trial past at least four experts, including one professor from the US and one from China, but did not name them. He also said that the university where he works – the Southern University of Science and Technology – was unaware that he had used the research money allocated to him to fund his HIV CRISPR trial. He is currently on unpaid leave at the university. Speaking at the summit after He, David Baltimore from the California Institute of Technology said: “I think there has been a failure of self-regulation by the scientific community because of a lack of transparency.”
11-27-18 Chinese scientists raise ethical questions with first gene-edited babies
Researchers used CRISPR/Cas9 to alter a gene involved in HIV entry into cells. A Chinese scientist’s surprise announcement on the eve of an international human gene-editing summit that he has already created the world’s first gene-edited babies has led to swift condemnation. Jiankui He is expected to discuss his work November 28 in Hong Kong at the second International Summit on Human Genome Editing. But in an interview with the Associated Press, and in a video posted November 25, He announced that twin girls with an edited gene that reduces the risk of contracting HIV “came crying into this world as healthy as any other babies a few weeks ago.” That announcement sparked outrage from many researchers and ethicists who say implanting edited embryos to create babies is premature and exposes the children to unnecessary health risks. Opponents also fear the creation of “designer babies,” children edited to enhance their intelligence, athleticism or other traits. He, on unpaid leave from the Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen since February, objects to the term designer baby. “Call them ‘gene surgery babies’ if one must or better yet ordinary people who have had surgery to save their life or prevent a disease,” He and colleagues wrote in a perspective published online November 26 in the CRISPR Journal. But in the video, He said that he realizes his work will be controversial, and he’s willing to take the criticism. Some families need the technology to have healthy children, He said, adding that enhancing intelligence or changing hair or eye color are “not things loving parents do” and should be banned.
11-27-18 Can lab-grown human brains think?
Scientists are growing miniature brains that produce human-like brain waves. What could go wrong? t has been 200 years since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was published, and while scientists still haven't figured out how to create a walking, talking complex life in a lab, they may be getting closer. A growing number of researchers are mastering the creation of organoids: simplified, miniature versions of real human organs. These structures aren't being harvested to make Frankenstein's monster. Instead, they're helping develop new drugs, and they are forcing the medical establishment to seriously consider the ethics of lab-grown life. Developing pharmaceuticals is typically an expensive and risky process. Roughly 90 percent of drugs that make it to human trials are never submitted to the FDA for approval because they're found to be unsafe or ineffective. Most estimates place the cost of developing a new drug at somewhere around $3 billion. Organoids, which are grown from human stem cells, may be able to remove some of the guesswork in patient trials. "Researchers have gotten really good at curing diseases in mice, but unfortunately animal studies don't really translate to human bodies," says Kevin Costa, chief scientific officer at Novoheart, a stem cell biotechnology firm known for creating heart organoids. "There are differences in how cardiac muscle cells behave in rodents versus primates and humans. Consequently, one of the main reasons that drugs fail in clinical trials is because of cardiotoxicity, problems related to heart function." Novoheart's miniature beating hearts can be designed to reflect healthy heart function, or they can reproduce the genetic abnormalities of a patient who originally donated their cells. These heart models can then be used by pharmaceutical companies in preclinical testing to determine the safety and efficacy of a potential treatment. While the organoids aren't nearly as complex as a full-sized heart, the idea is to utilize human-specific models when forecasting drug effects.
11-27-18 Cactus spine shapes determine how they stab victims
Tests in hunks of meat revealed that some spines simply poke, while others hitch a ride. Scientists have unraveled some of the mechanical mysteries behind the pokes and prods of cacti. Like porcupine quills, the barbed spines of some cactus species easily puncture their prey but are difficult to remove. Smooth spines, however, puncture flesh easily and are removed just as readily, researchers report in the Nov. 21 Proceedings of the Royal Society B. That variation is probably reflective of plants’ different ecological needs, says study coauthor Philip Anderson, an evolutionary biomechanist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The team tested the spine strength of six different cactus species by thrusting the spines into different substances, from synthetic polymers to butcher meats. The researchers measured the force and pressure it took to poke into the substances, and the difficulty in removing the spiky structures. Spines of Opuntia polyacantha and Cylindropuntia fulgida, for instance, are covered in microscopic barbs that make the spines easy to insert but difficult to remove from a pork shoulder and skinless chicken breast, becoming tangled in the fibrous tissues during experiments. Barbed C. fulgida spines can get so deeply embedded that, as their target pulls away, it tears off chunks of cactus that can be dropped to grow again at other locations.
11-27-18 The first human farmers continued to forage a wide diet from nature
It is a familiar tale: when humans started farming, their lifestyles changed radically and forever. People stopped foraging, and had a narrower, nutritionally poorer diet. But new evidence suggests we may need to rethink this story. Farming arose in many places, but the “Fertile Crescent”, an area that today includes parts of Egypt, Iraq and other countries, was one of the first. Many archaeologists assume that there was a big shift in what people there ate when they became farmers 12,000 years ago. For thousands of years, they had gathered and eaten a wide range of plants, whereas the early farmers mostly grew and ate flax, barley, chickpeas and einkorn. This assumption hadn’t been rigorously tested, say Michael Wallace and Glynis Jones at the University of Sheffield, UK. So they examined archaeological evidence from 75 sites across the Fertile Crescent, all between about 7000 and 14,000 years old. Sifting through this for clues to ancient diets, the team found that hunter-gatherers who lived in the area before farming may have eaten a narrower diet than we assumed. At sites occupied by these pre-farmers, only 13 plant types – including winter wild oats, sea clubrush and plants from the cabbage family – were present in high enough amounts to suggest that they were definitely collected for food. What’s more, five of these 13 – and dozens of other wild plants – still appear to have been eaten by farmers 8000 years ago, long after the farming revolution. This study shows that agricultural communities continued to eat wild plants, says Amaia Arranz Otaegui at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Earlier this year, her team discovered that some of the last hunter-gatherer communities in the Fertile Crescent baked bread, a foodstuff once assumed to have been invented by farmers. Together, these findings suggest the switch from hunter-gatherer to farmer wasn’t as drastic as we thought.
11-27-18 'Siberian unicorn' walked Earth with humans
A giant rhino that may have been the origin of the unicorn myth survived until at least 39,000 years ago - much longer than previously thought. Known as the Siberian unicorn, the animal had a long horn on its nose, and roamed the grasslands of Eurasia. New evidence shows the hefty beast may have eventually died out because it was such a picky eater. Scientists say knowing more about the animal's extinction could help save the remaining rhinos on the planet. Rhinos are in particular danger of extinction because they are very picky about their habitat, said Prof Adrian Lister of the Natural History Museum, London, who led the study. "Any change in their environment is a danger for them," he told BBC News. "And, of course, what we've also learned from the fossil record is that once a species is gone, that's it, it's gone for good." Weighing in at a mighty four tonnes, with an extraordinary single horn on its head, the "Siberian unicorn", shared the earth with early modern humans up until at least 39,000 years ago. The rhino, Elasmotherium sibericum, was thought to have become extinct between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago. By radiocarbon-dating a total of 23 specimens, researchers found the Ice Age giant in fact survived in Eastern Europe and Central Asia until at least 39,000 years ago. They also isolated DNA from the ancient rhino for the first time, showing it split from the modern group of rhinos about 40 million years ago. The extinction of the Siberian unicorn marks the end point of an entire group of rhinos.
11-26-18 Some rare fathers pass on an extra kind of DNA to their children
The energy-producing structures found in every one of our cells are usually inherited solely from our mother. But doctors in the US have now identified more than a dozen individuals in three different families who have inherited mitochondria from both parents. It appears that these individuals are very rare exceptions to the usual rule, likely because these families harbour mutations that disrupt the mechanism that normally prevents a father’s mitochondria being passed to his children. Mitochondria produce the energy cells need to function and every human cell, including sperm and eggs, contains lots of them. But though a father’s mitochondria do enter the egg, in humans they have a chemical tag that marks them for destruction, so usually all mitochondria come from the mother. However, in 2002 it was found that the cells of one man contained a mixture of mitochondria from his father and mother. But with no other cases being reported since, some have questioned whether the 2002 finding was correct. Now a team at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in the US say they have “unequivocal” evidence after identifying 17 such people with paternal inheritance. The first individual was identified because he was suffering from fatigue and muscle pain, which was suspected to be caused by mitochondrial mutations. It turns out he inherited mitochondria from both parents, and a new mutation has arisen in the paternal mitochondria.
11-26-18 Misuse of pregabalin painkiller has risen 900 per cent in Australia
Australia is the latest country to report an alarming rise in the misuse of the nerve pain drug pregabalin. Pregabalin is a non-opioid drug that reduces pain through its actions on calcium channels in the brain. It was originally developed as an epilepsy drug but is now approved for treating nerve pain – the prickling, tingling sensation that can accompany conditions like diabetes and multiple sclerosis. In some countries, it is also approved for treating anxiety and fibromyalgia. Anecdotal evidence suggests that doctors are also increasingly prescribing pregabalin for other types of pain, due to growing concerns about the harms of opioid pain drugs like oxycodone and codeine, says Shalini Arunogiri at Monash University in Australia. This is reflected by increasing prescribing rates, she says. Pregabalin is now the thirteenth best-selling drug in the US, and dispensing rates have more than doubled in Australia and more than tripled in the UK in recent years. However, pregabalin is shaping up to be just as problematic as opioids, says Arunogiri. Her research shows that, since 2012, ambulance call-outs in the state of Victoria to people who have misused the drug have increased from 0.28 cases per 100,000 people to 3.32 cases per 100,000 people – a pattern which reflects increasing misuse in other parts of Australia. Some recreational drug users have reported taking large doses of pregabalin for euphoric and sedative effects, says Arunogiri. Her study found that half the people who received paramedic treatment for pregabalin misuse had a history of drug or alcohol misuse, depression, self-harm, or suicidal thoughts.
11-26-18 Fentanyl in cocaine: The deadly truth of new drugs cocktail
The US government has warned that a surge in cocaine deaths is being exacerbated by the presence of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 80-100 times stronger than morphine. Correspondent Nick Bryant and cameraman Darren Conway report from Illinois on a worrying new trend in America’s opioid crisis. (Webmaster's comment: Getting high is even more American than apple pie!)
11-26-18 World’s first gene-edited babies announced by a scientist in China
A woman in China has given birth to two genetically edited baby girls, according to the Associated Press news agency. The aim of the experiment was to create children who are immune to HIV, but it hasn’t yet been independently reviewed or verified. The experiment has been widely condemned as unethical, even by those who are in favour of using gene editing in eggs, sperm or embryos to prevent diseases in children if it can be done safely. “If true, this experiment exposes healthy normal children to risks of gene editing for no real necessary benefit,” says ethicist Julian Savulescu at the University of Oxford. “There are many effective ways to prevent HIV in healthy individuals.” “There is no pressing need for this – it’s totally inappropriate,” says Greg Neely at the University of Sydney, Australia. HIV enters and infects cells by binding to a protein on the surface called CCR5. The team in China, led by He Jiankui of Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen, says it has used the CRISPR gene editing technique to try to disable the gene for CCR5. One aspect of the experiment that has come under criticism is that we don’t yet know if it is safe to delete both copies of the CCR5 gene – which is involved in immunity – in every cell of the body. “We don’t know what the full effects will be,” says Neely. Seven pairs of men and women reportedly took part in the experiment. All of the men were HIV-positive, and, according to the Associated Press, each couple was offered free IVF treatment in exchange for participating in what was described on ethical consent forms as an “AIDS vaccine development programme”. The team behind the work says the couples were fully informed about the experiment.
11-26-18 China baby gene editing claim 'dubious'
Significant doubts have emerged about claims from a Chinese scientist that he has helped make the world's first genetically edited babies. Prof He Jiankui says the twin girls, born a few weeks ago, had their DNA altered as embryos to prevent them from contracting HIV. His claims, filmed by Associated Press, are unverified and have sparked outrage from other scientists, who have called the idea monstrous. Such work is banned in most countries. Gene editing could potentially help avoid heritable diseases by deleting or changing troublesome coding in embryos. But experts worry meddling with the genome of an embryo could cause harm not only to the individual but also future generations that inherit these same changes. And many countries, including the UK, have laws that prevent the use of genome editing in embryos for assisted reproduction in humans. Scientists can do gene editing research on discarded IVF embryos, as long as they are destroyed immediately afterwards and not used to make a baby. But Prof He, who was educated at Stanford in the US and works from a lab in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, says he used gene-editing tools to make two twin baby girls, known as "Lulu" and "Nana". In a video, he claims to have eliminated a gene called CCR5 to make the girls resistant to HIV should they ever come into contact with the virus. He says his work is about creating children who would not suffer from diseases, rather than making designer babies with bespoke eye colour or a high IQ. "I understand my work will be controversial - but I believe families need this technology and I'm willing to take the criticism for them," he says in the video. However, several organisations, including a hospital, linked to the claim have denied any involvement. The Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen said it had been unaware of the research project and will now launch an investigation. And other scientists say if the reports are true, Prof He has gone too far, experimenting on healthy embryos without justification.
11-26-18 Breakdown of brain’s autopilot mode may explain Parkinson’s disease
People with Parkinson’s disease are less likely to make certain kinds of mistakes – those that happen when we are “on autopilot”. The surprising finding helps support a new theory about the condition’s root causes in the brain. Parkinson’s disease is a progressive condition causing slowness, difficulties in moving and tremors. It involves the death of brain cells, especially those that make the signalling molecule dopamine. In 2010, Peter Redgrave at the University of Sheffield, UK, and colleagues proposed that many of the core symptoms are caused by loss of automatic movements, which are actions we can perform without thinking about them. Whenever we first carry out a movement it is under our conscious control, but after many repetitions, we start to be able to do it unthinkingly. Many everyday physical actions, from walking to reaching and grasping for objects, are at least partly automatic. Recent work has shown that some of the first brain cells to die in Parkinson’s are those that give automatic control. According to Redgrave, loss of these cells could explain why people with the condition are less facially expressive and start walking in a jerky or shuffling way – because they are having to think about every step. “Tying shoelaces is a nightmare for them because you do it so automatically,” he says. Testing the theory isn’t easy. It might seem possible to look at whether people with Parkinson’s are worse at learning to automate new actions – but they’d be expected to do worse on physical tests anyway because of their condition.
11-24-18 The incredible benefits of learning a foreign language
This is why learning another language should be a requirement at every level of education. In the 1960s, in our public schools in California along the border with Mexico, Spanish language-learning was a requirement, beginning in sixth grade. I couldn't wait to get to sixth grade to start learning Spanish. Our school was more than 50 percent Mexican-Americans, and I was keen to understand them as they switched back and forth from fluent English to fluent Spanish (or, as they called it, "Mexican"). As I began to learn it, my friends asked if I spoke Spanish at home. No, just in school. I was invited to join a Mexican rock 'n' roll band based in Tijuana, and we performed at Mexican dances and on Mexican television, where I sang lead on "La Bamba" and other songs. My aunt used to say I looked like a bastard brother among the other members of the group. I loved it. I had two identities, Dan the American and Daniel the Chicano (or so my friends would tell me — "You're an honorary Mexican, cabrón!") Learning Spanish changed my life. It taught me more about English, and it gave me friendships and connections and respect I never could have otherwise received. Just as learning Portuguese, Pirahã, and smatterings of other Amazonian languages continued to transform me during my entire life. Now, after spending most of my adult life in higher education, researching languages, cultures, and cognition, I have become more convinced than ever that nothing teaches us about the world and how to think more effectively better than learning new languages. That is why I advocate for fluency in foreign languages. But for this to happen, language-learning needs to make a comeback as a requirement of both primary and secondary education in the United States. Learning another language benefits each learner in at least three ways — pragmatically, neurologically, and culturally.
11-23-18 MS symptoms improved by treatment that attacks glandular fever virus
Training the immune system to fight the virus responsible for glandular fever – also known as infectious mononucleosis or “mono” – leads to improvements in multiple sclerosis symptoms, a small clinical trial has concluded. The Epstein-Barr virus has long been suspected as a possible cause of MS, after researchers noticed that people with a past history of glandular fever were more likely to develop the neurodegenerative condition. Multiple studies have now confirmed that almost every MS patient carries the virus and that non-carriers almost never develop the disease. After most glandular fever episodes, the virus lies dormant in a group of immune cells called B cells without causing any further problems, says Rajiv Khanna at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Australia. But growing evidence suggests that problems with some people’s immune systems allow the virus-infected B cells to invade their brain and spine, he says. These infected immune cells may then go rogue, attacking the protective coating around the nerves, leading to the hallmark damage seen in MS, says Khanna. In support of this idea, his team has previously found elevated levels of Epstein-Barr virus in the brains of people with MS. Based on these clues, Khanna and his colleagues wondered if they could help people with MS by encouraging their immune systems to control the Epstein-Barr virus. The hope was that doing so would improve the people’s symptoms, which commonly include fatigue and problems with vision, balance and muscle control.
11-22-18 Sick ants stay clear of their co-workers to stop disease spreading
Do you wish your coughing, sneezing colleagues would stay away from the office? Unlike some humans, ants seem to understand the importance of avoiding others when they are infected. When foraging ants are exposed to a fungal pathogen, they reduce their contact with workers inside the nest. Nathalie Stroeymeyt at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, and colleagues studied colonies of Lasius niger ants using an automated ant-tracking system. Workers in these colonies are split into nurses, which work inside the nest caring for the brood, and foragers, which collect food outside the nest. Foragers are most likely to pick up infections, but they interact less with other ants, and come into contact with those inside the nest infrequently. The researchers exposed some of the foragers to spores of Metarhizium brunneum fungus. The spores attach to an ant’s cuticle and after a day or two, the fungus gets inside the ant and kills it. Within one day of exposure to the pathogen — before ants became sick — the separation between work groups was reinforced. Exposed foragers changed their behaviour, spending even more time outside the nest and decreasing their contact with other workers. Foragers that were not exposed to the pathogen also took steps to isolate themselves, and nurses moved the brood deeper inside the nest. It’s not clear how the ants recognise the infection, but they may be able to detect the spores on other ants as well as on their own bodies.
11-22-18 Humans 'off the hook' for African mammal extinction
New research has disputed a longstanding view that early humans helped wipe out many of the large mammals that once roamed Africa. Today, Africa broadly has five species of massive, plant-eating mammal; but millions of years ago there were many more types of giant herbivore. Why so many types vanished is not known, but many experts have blamed our tool-using, meat-eating ancestors. Now, researchers say the mammal decline began long before humans appeared. Writing in the journal Science, Tyler Faith, from the Natural History Museum of Utah, and colleagues argue that long-term environmental change drove the extinctions. This mainly took the form of an expansion of grasslands, in response to falling atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels. "Despite decades of literature asserting that early hominins (human relatives) impacted ancient African faunas, there have been few attempts to actually test this scenario or to explore alternatives," said Dr Faith. A transition from eating mainly vegetables and fruit to predominantly eating meat may have driven the evolution of humans' big brains. This transition occurred in concert with the development of stone tools, which would have allowed our ancestors to butcher the carcasses of animals; either as scavengers or hunters. To investigate whether humans played a role, the researchers compiled a seven-million-year record of herbivore extinctions in eastern Africa. They focused on the very largest species, the so-called "megaherbivores" which weigh more than 2,000lbs (907kg). Today, only elephants, hippos, giraffes and white and black rhinos fall into this category. But the three-million-year-old human relative "Lucy" (Australopithecus afarensis) shared her East African habitat with three species of giraffe, two species of rhino, a hippo and four elephant-like species.
11-22-18 Ancient hippo-like reptile was a giant to rival the dinosaurs
Dinosaurs were not the only giants to walk the earth in the Triassic. Fossils of a giant reptile more closely related to mammals than dinosaurs have been found in Poland. The creature was 5 metres long, 3 metres tall and weighed 9 tonnes. That makes it similar in size to an African elephant. In appearance, though, it was more like a bent-legged hippo, with a beak and two tusks. During the Permian period, about 300 to 250 million years ago, the largest herbivores on the planet were mammal-like reptiles called synapsids. Some grew up to 3 metres in length and weighed up to 2 tonnes. But their reign was ended by the Great Dying, after which dinosaurs came to dominate the planet. A few synapsids survived into Triassic but they were small creatures typically less than half a metre long. It was thought dinosaurs were the only animals to evolve into giants during the Triassic. But around 208 million years ago, towards the end of the Triassic, at least one synapsid evolved into a giant, called Lisowicia bojani after the site where it was found. “We have bones of several individuals,” says Grzegorz Niedzwiedzki at Uppsala University in Sweden. The first fossils were found in 2005, and more have been uncovered since. Niedzwiedzki’s team has now formally described the findings. The bones of Lisowicia were found in river deposits alongside those of giant amphibians, dinosaurs and other animals, so there is no doubt that they lived alongside dinosaurs. Their size may have helped protect them from large predators, but why Lisowicia was the only one of its kind to grow so large remains a mystery. “It is difficult to determine what was so unique in this group,” says Niedzwiedzki.
11-22-18 This huge plant-eater thrived in the age of dinosaurs — but wasn’t one of them
The dicynodont from the Late Triassic was surprisingly hefty, rivaling a modern-day elephant in size. A new species of hulking ancient herbivore would have overshadowed its relatives. Fossils found in Poland belong to a new species that roamed during the Late Triassic, a period some 237 million to 201 million years ago, researchers report November 22 in Science. But unlike most of the enormous animals who lived during that time period, this new creature isn’t a dinosaur — it’s a dicynodont. Dicynodonts are a group of ancient four-legged animals that are related to mammals’ ancestors. They’re a diverse group, but the new species is far larger than any other dicynodont found to date. The elephant-sized creature was more than 4.5 meters long and probably weighed about 9 tons, the researchers estimate. Related animals didn’t become that big again until the Eocene, 150 million years later. “We think it’s one of the most unexpected fossil discoveries from the Triassic of Europe,” says study coauthor Grzegorz Niedzwiedzki, a paleontologist at Uppsala University in Sweden. “Who would have ever thought that there is a fossil record of such a giant, elephant-sized mammal cousin in this part of the world?” He and his team first described some of the bones in 2008; now they’ve made the new species — Lisowicia bojani — official. The creature had upright forelimbs like today’s rhinoceroses and hippos, instead of the splayed front limbs seen on other Triassic dicynodonts, which were similar to the forelimbs of present-day lizards. That posture would have helped it support its massive bodyweight.
11-21-18 The risks of high blood pressure
Adults below age 40 who have high blood pressure are more likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease later in life, a new study has found. Researchers recruited 4,851 Americans, with an average age of 36, took their blood pressure, and tracked them over a period averaging 19 years. Compared with those who had normal blood pressure (120/80 or lower), those with systolic readings between 121 and 129 were 67 percent more likely to have issues. That figure rose to 75 percent for those with overall readings in the 130–139/80–89 range, and 350 percent for those measured above 140/90. The research is among the first to look at the issue under new guidelines, introduced in 2017, that lowered the clinical definition of high blood pressure. “Although this is an observational study,” lead author Yuichiro Yano, from Duke University, tells ScienceDaily.com, “it demonstrates that the new blood pressure guidelines are helpful in identifying those who might be at risk for cardiovascular events.”
11-21-18 Does fish oil help?
A major government-funded study has concluded that taking vitamin D or omega-3 supplements does not significantly lower the incidence of cancer or heart disease, though some people do seem to benefit. Researchers recruited 25,000 Americans, all over 50 and with no history of cancer or of heart attack, stroke, or other forms of heart disease. The participants were each given a daily regimen: vitamin D, omega-3, or a placebo. After five years, there was only a tiny, statistically insignificant difference in heart disease and cancer rates between those taking the supplements and those on placebos, reports The New York Times. Study leader JoAnn Manson of Brigham and Women’s Hospital says, however, that the trial did suggest the supplements have benefits in limited circumstances. Taking omega-3 reduced the risk for heart attack 28 percent among people who didn’t regularly eat fish. People taking vitamin D supplements were 25 percent less likely to die from cancer, possibly because the supplement slows the growth of tumors. But further research is needed to explain those findings. “The data have to be very strong before you go out and recommend to everyone in the world to take supplements,” says Manson. “We’re certainly not doing that.” Eating fish and a healthy diet, she says, are more effective. (Webmaster's comment: And a very commen side effect is very severe diarrhea!)
11-21-18 Not shaving
Not shaving, after a new survey of 8,500 heterosexual women found that heavily stubbled men are the most attractive to potential mates, followed by men with full beards, the lightly stubbled, and, in last place, clean-shaven men.
11-21-18 In romance, kids follow moms
If you want to know whether a prospective spouse is likely to stick around, look at his or her mother. A new study has found that people whose moms have married multiple times or lived with several partners are more likely to do the same themselves, reports TheAtlantic.com. In fact, the more partners kids witness their mothers living with, the more sexual partners they are likely to have themselves. Researchers, who based their conclusions on survey data involving 7,000 Americans over a period of 24 years, theorize that genes for personality traits play a major role in the correlation between a mother’s number of partners and her child’s. “It could be that mothers who have more partners don’t have great relationship skills, or don’t deal with conflict well, or have mental-health problems,” says lead author Claire Kamp Dush of Ohio State University. “Whatever the exact mechanisms, they may pass these characteristics on to their children, making their children’s relationships less stable.”
11-21-18 Why elephants are losing their tusks
In response to the ivory poaching that’s decimating their populations, female elephants are evolving to lose their tusks, reports National Geographic. During the 1977–92 civil war in Mozambique, poachers killed about 90 percent of the elephants in Gorongosa National Park. Today, only about 200 adult females remain—and of those born since the end of the war, 32 percent are tuskless. Usually, only about 4 percent of female African elephants have no tusks. But since tuskless elephants are more likely to survive in an era of heavy poaching, they’re growing in numbers and passing on their genes to tuskless offspring. Among males, tusklessness is extremely rare, but there is evidence that male tusk size is shrinking in response to the ivory trade. In the wake of mass poaching in Kenya during the late 1970s and early 1980s, tusk size in Kenya fell by a fifth in males and a third in females. Elephants that lack tusks—which are essentially overgrown teeth typically used to fell trees, dig holes for water, and do other everyday activities—appear to be adapting and surviving. But they are likely doing so by traveling more to find recoverable food, or by piggybacking off the hard work done by their tusked peers. So it’s unknown how this evolutionary change will affect elephant populations over time, says behavorial ecologist Ryan Long. “[The] consequences of such dramatic changes in elephant populations are only just beginning to be explored.”
11-21-18 37 trillion pieces of you: The plan to map the entire human body
The workings of the myriad cells that make us are a huge mystery. A vast new project is changing that – and bringing sweeping insights into how we live and die. IT IS one of biology’s dirty little secrets: we don’t really know what we are made of. The human genome may have been decoded back in 2003, but we still can’t list all the types of cells in our bodies. Everything we do, from moving to thinking, digesting food to sleeping, depends on a vast array of different cells: disc-like red blood cells, spindly nerve cells, stretched-out cells that make our muscles, the list goes on. These specialised units come together to form our tissues and organs, and make us the complex organisms we are. And yet so many of them remain mysterious. Now, for the first time, we are set to make a comprehensive inventory – an aim every bit as ambitious as the Human Genome Project that decoded our DNA. The Human Cell Atlas project plans to identify and locate every type of cell we possess, and so revolutionise our understanding of the body in the same way that the first atlases transformed our view of the world. The first results are already showing how this can help us find our way around healthy bodies, not to mention finding routes to new treatments for conditions like cancer that occur when cells turn bad. “Knowing cells is knowing life,” says Aviv Regev of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “If you do not know which cells are there, and understand how they operate, you can’t really say you understand biology.” Easier said than done. For more than 150 years, researchers have categorised cells by all manner of methods: their size and shape, their location in the body, the way they react to dyes and, most recently, by the proteins they produce. Look in a textbook today and it will probably divide the body’s 37 trillion-odd cells into about 300 types.
11-21-18 Diabetes can be diagnosed by simply shining a light on your skin
Shining a light onto the skin could become a new test to see if people are in the earliest stages of diabetes and heart disease. The approach may offer a way of screening people for these health conditions that’s quicker and easier than current methods that include blood tests, and assessing risk factors such as people’s weight and family history. The method works because glucose in blood and other bodily fluids can randomly stick to many different protein molecules in skin and other tissues. “It’s like glue,” says Bruce Wolffenbuttel of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. These “glycated” proteins, known as advanced glycation end products, or AGEs, make for stiffer tissues, including blood vessel walls, which contributes to high blood pressure. The accumulation of AGEs in our tissues happens naturally as we age but is accelerated in people with diabetes, or those who are in the earliest stages of the condition but haven’t yet been diagnosed. AGE levels can be measured within skin, because they reflect fluorescent light differently to non-glycated proteins. A small handheld device called an AGE reader has been developed by a Dutch firm called Diagnoptics; it shines a fluorescent light onto the skin and detects what bounces back.
11-21-18 Brain implants let paralyzed people use tablets to send texts and stream music
Devices that monitor neural activity may help immobilized people resume their digital lives. Devices that eavesdrop on neural activity can help paralyzed people command computer tablets to stream music, text friends, check the weather or surf the internet. Three people with paralysis below the neck were able to navigate off-the-shelf computer tablets using an electrode array system called BrainGate2. The results, published November 21 in PLOS One, are the latest to show that neural signals can be harnessed to directly allow movement (SN: 6/16/12, p. 5). The two men and one woman had electrode grids implanted over part of the motor cortex, an area of the brain that helps control movement. The brain implants picked up neural activity indicating that the participants were thinking about moving a cursor. Those patterns were then sent to a virtual mouse that was wirelessly paired to the tablet. Using nothing more than their intentions to move a cursor, the three participants performed seven common digital tasks, including web browsing and sending e-mail. One participant looked up orchid care, ordered groceries online and played a digital piano. “The tablet became second nature to me, very intuitive,” she told the researchers when asked about her experience, according to the study.
11-21-18 Smarty plants: They can learn, adapt and remember without brains
We’re barking up the wrong tree if we think plants have no higher sentience, says researcher Monica Gagliano – they just don’t show it like we do. MONICA GAGLIANO was diving on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef one day in 2008 when she had an epiphany. She was carrying out ecological experiments on reef fish that required her to kill them afterwards to harvest tissue samples. The fish had been swimming in and out of her hands for weeks. But that day they seemed to be hiding – almost as if they knew. It was the moment at which Gagliano decided not only never to kill another animal for scientific purposes, but also to devote her research time to the sentience of other life forms. That led her to plants. Since no models existed for studying their behaviour, she applied her existing knowledge. “I looked at them as if they were my animals,” says Gagliano, who is due to take up a post at the University of Sydney this year. The approach has revealed that plants have a surprising range of abilities – and Gagliano is convinced she will discover more. The main reason we don’t appreciate them is that they operate at a different pace. It isn’t just a slower pace. Some plants are too fast for us, like the ones that explode to fire out their seeds. Plants also have a different way of manoeuvring in the environment. Animals move from A to B, but plants grow from A to B. They need to detect as much as possible beforehand to avoid growing in the wrong place, so they have very fine-tuned senses. The more we have looked, the more we have realised that they have a suite of behaviours. One that might come as a surprise is their acoustic abilities. Plenty of organisms have mechanoreceptors that respond to mechanical forces, and we now know plants have one that can pick up vibrations. Some can even “hear” the vibrations of a caterpillar munching their leaves and strike back by emitting repellent chemicals. My idea was to take something that plants might consider a threat and see whether they could learn not to bother about it. Mimosa was a good plant to use because it quickly folds up its leaves when it feels threatened. I created a set-up that allowed me to drop a mimosa from about 15 centimetres high. It sounds terrible! But it actually wasn’t. I put it in a pot and it would slide down a bar onto some foam. The first couple of times, the plant was like, “What’s happening?” It closed up its leaves. Usually with animals we need to do lots of repetitions before they learn what’s going on. So I was quite surprised that some of my plants started reopening their leaves after two to six drops. Plant biologists told me that I’m using the wrong words. But “learning” is exactly what I mean. Whether it is an animal, a plant or bacteria, if it ticks the boxes that we agree define learning, then that is what it is doing.
11-21-18 'Asking about suicide doesn’t cause suicide'
Every year, nearly 45,000 people in America kill themselves. That is more than twice the number that die in homicides, and the numbers are increasing. There is one group in particular causing this spike - white, middle aged men. India Rakusen visits Montana, where suicide rates are double the national average, to meet a family learning to cope with their loss, at a summer camp with a difference.
11-20-18 Don’t spank your kids. Do time-outs and positive talk instead, pediatricians say
For many reasons, spanking isn’t a good way to discipline kids, pediatricians say. Sometime around 9 p.m., before the second leg of a cross-country flight, my just-turned-4-year-old decided she had had enough. She let out a scream and went full noodle right at the end of a moving walkway in Chicago Midway. I had the baby in a carrier and a death grip on my older daughter’s hand, so it was up to my husband to scoop up our enraged, sweaty middle child and keep hold of her and all our bags as we made our way to the gate. The poor kid had been traveling all day. Offers of treats were no longer effective. Neither were our warnings. She was exhausted, pushed well beyond her capabilities to self-regulate at that point in our journey. Though I knew this, I was still mad. Sometimes you just have to white-knuckle through these extreme parenting moments of high stress and little to do about it. But when things calm down, these wild outbursts almost always make me think hard about discipline, and what might work better next time. Discipline is in the news this month, with the November 5 release of updated guidelines on spanking from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Corporal punishment such as hitting and spanking shouldn’t ever be used to discipline kids, the pediatricians’ group writes. Nor should any method that causes shame or humiliation, including verbal abuse. Parents ought to use other tactics, such as positive reinforcement and time-outs, instead. Some of the tips mentioned in the new guidelines include reinforcing good behavior, such as telling a child, “I love it when you brush your teeth the first time I ask.”
11-20-18 Searching for Antarctica’s penguins, lost meteorites, and oldest ice
AS THE nights get longer in the northern hemisphere, scientists are heading to Antarctica in their thousands. Their quarry includes meteorites, penguins and revealing ice cores. Only about 1000 people overwinter in Antarctica, and the population is set to quintuple for the next six months as scientists make the most of the continent’s summer research season, which runs from November until April. Constant daylight, sub-zero temperatures and brutal winds await. But that isn’t enough to put the travellers off. “We are well kitted out, and we stay in pyramid tents, which are surprisingly cosy,” says Katherine Joy from the University of Manchester, UK, who is heading south with colleague Geoffrey Evatt in search of buried meteorites. Antarctica is a particularly good place to collect these rocks – not only are they easy to spot there, but the ice acts as a conveyor belt that deposits them in hotspots. Meteorites from the frozen continent make up about two-thirds of the 35,000 space rocks collected so far, giving valuable information about the solar system. But very few iron-based meteorites have been found in this Antarctic bounty. These are made from the cores of destroyed small planets, so hold vital clues about how planets formed in the early solar system. Evatt and Joy think these meteorites are missing because they get trapped below the ice surface. In January, Evatt will be heading to the British Antarctic Survey field station, Sky-Blu, at the southern end of the Antarctic Peninsula, to test equipment – in essence, a metal detector and a chainsaw – for finding and extracting buried meteorites.
11-20-18 An exploding meteor may have wiped out ancient Dead Sea communities
Archaeologists at a site in what's now Jordan have found evidence of a cosmic calamity. A superheated blast from the skies obliterated cities and farming settlements north of the Dead Sea around 3,700 years ago, preliminary findings suggest. Radiocarbon dating and unearthed minerals that instantly crystallized at high temperatures indicate that a massive airburst caused by a meteor that exploded in the atmosphere instantaneously destroyed civilization in a 25-kilometer-wide circular plain called Middle Ghor, said archaeologist Phillip Silvia. The event also pushed a bubbling brine of Dead Sea salts over once-fertile farm land, Silvia and his colleagues suspect. People did not return to the region for 600 to 700 years, said Silvia, of Trinity Southwest University in Albuquerque. He reported these findings at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research on November 17. Excavations at five large Middle Ghor sites, in what’s now Jordan, indicate that all were continuously occupied for at least 2,500 years until a sudden, collective collapse toward the end of the Bronze Age. Ground surveys have located 120 additional, smaller settlements in the region that the researchers suspect were also exposed to extreme, collapse-inducing heat and wind. An estimated 40,000 to 65,000 people inhabited Middle Ghor when the cosmic calamity hit, Silvia said. (Webmaster's comment: Probably the source of the Biblical Sodom and Gomorrah story.)
11-19-18 Anti-vaccine community behind North Carolina chickenpox outbreak
A North Carolina school with a large anti-vaccine community is at the heart of the state's largest chickenpox outbreak in decades, officials say. On Friday 36 students at Asheville Waldorf School were diagnosed with the disease, the Asheville Citizen-Times newspaper reported. The school has one of the state's highest rates of religious exemption, allowing students to skip vaccination. US health officials say vaccinating is far safer than getting chickenpox. "This is the biggest chickenpox outbreak state health officials are aware of since the vaccine became available," a North Carolina Department of Health spokesman told the BBC in an emailed statement. Out of the Waldorf School's 152 students, 110 have not received the vaccine for the varicella virus, known to most as chickenpox, the Citizen-Times found. And 67.9% of the school's kindergarten students had religious immunisation exemptions on file in the 2017-2018 school year, according to state data. The primary school is fully co-operating with local health officials and is compliant with all North Carolina laws, a spokesperson for the school told the BBC. "We find that our parents are highly motivated to choose exactly what they want for their children. We, as a school, do not discriminate based on a child's medical history or medical condition." Buncombe County, home to the city of Asheville, with a population of over 250,000, has the highest rate of religious-based immunisation exemptions in the state. Local health officials are closely monitoring the situation, according to the county's health department. "We want to be clear: vaccination is the best protection from chickenpox," County Medical Director Dr Jennifer Mullendore said in a statement. "When we see high numbers of unimmunised children and adults, we know that an illness like chickenpox can spread easily throughout the community- into our playgrounds, grocery stores, and sports teams." North Carolina law requires certain immunisations, including chickenpox, measles and mumps for kindergarteners, but the state allows for medical and religious exemptions. (Webmaster's comment: THIS IS WHAT YOU GET WHEN RELIGIOUS IGNORANCE DECIDES. SICK CHILDREN.)
11-19-18 Silencing a gene may prevent deadly pre-eclampsia in pregnancy
High blood pressure in pregnancy, one of the leading risks to women and babies, could be stopped in its tracks by turning off genes in the placenta. The technique, known as RNA silencing, has worked in a small trial in monkeys, bringing their blood pressure down to normal. The condition, called pre-eclampsia, affects up to 10 per cent of pregnancies. Affected women can suffer kidney and liver damage, seizures and strokes. When it gets severe the only treatment is to deliver the baby, no matter how early in the pregnancy, so women face choosing between their own health and their baby’s. “It’s very scary,” says Melissa Moore of the University of Massachusetts, who is developing the treatment and has had the condition herself. Pre-eclampsia occurs when, for some reason, the placenta isn’t effective enough. To compensate, it releases proteins into a woman’s blood to raise her blood pressure, boosting the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to the fetus. But these proteins can push the woman’s blood pressure to dangerously high levels. Progress in developing treatments has been slow, partly because pharmaceutical firms are nervous about the risk of causing birth defects. A new approach that targets gene activity may be less likely to cause unexpected side-effects because it’s a highly specific treatment. The technique destroys short-strands of DNA-like molecules that are the blueprints for making proteins – called RNA. For pre-eclampsia, it targets the blueprint for one particular placenta protein, called FLT.
11-19-18 Gut bacteria may guard against diabetes that comes with aging
Old mice lose one type of friendly microbe, triggering a hallmark of the disease. Losing one variety of gut bacteria may lead to type 2 diabetes as people age. Old mice have less Akkermansia muciniphila bacteria than young mice do, researchers report November 14 in Science Translational Medicine. That loss triggers inflammation, which eventually leads cells to ignore signals from the hormone insulin. Such disregard for insulin’s message to take in glucose is known as insulin resistance and is a hallmark of type 2 diabetes. Researchers have suspected that bacteria and other microbes in the gut are involved in aging, but how the microbes influence the process hasn’t been clear. Monica Bodogai of the U.S. National Institute on Aging in Baltimore and colleagues examined what happens to mice’s gut bacteria as the rodents age. The mice lose A. muciniphila, also called Akk, and other friendly microbes that help break down dietary fiber into short-chain fatty acids, such as butyrate and acetate. Those fatty acids signal bacteria and human cells to perform certain functions. Losing Akk led to less butyrate production, Bodogai’s team found. In turn, loss of butyrate triggered a chain reaction of immune cell dysfunction that ended with mice’s cells ignoring the insulin.
11-19-18 A Bronze Age tomb in Israel reveals the earliest known use of vanilla
Jugs that date to about 3,600 years ago hold traces of the aromatic substance. Three jugs placed as offerings in a roughly 3,600-year-old tomb in Israel have revealed a sweet surprise — evidence of the oldest known use of vanilla. Until now, vanilla was thought to have originated in Mexico, perhaps 1,000 years ago or more. But jugs from the Bronze Age site of Megiddo contain remnants of two major chemical compounds in natural vanilla extract, vanillin and 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde, said archaeologist Vanessa Linares of Tel Aviv University in Israel. Chemical analyses also uncovered residues of plant oils, including a component of olive oil, in the three jugs. “Bronze Age people at Megiddo may have used vanillin-infused oils as additives for foods and medicines, for ritual purposes or possibly even in the embalming of the dead,” Linares said. She described these findings at the annual meeting of American Schools of Oriental Research on November 16. Vanillin comes from beans in vanilla orchids. About 110 species of these flowers are found in tropical areas around the world. The chemical profile of the vanillin in the Megiddo jugs best matches present-day orchid species in East Africa, India and Indonesia, Linares said.
11-19-18 Complex stone tools in China may re-write our species’ ancient history
A haul of ancient stone tools has plugged a big gap in China’s archaeological record, challenging our understanding of how our species spread around the world. Our hominin predecessors began making stone tools more than 3 million years ago. As time went on, these tools became more complex. About 300,000 years ago, a new style of tool made using “Levallois” techniques began to appear in Africa and western Eurasia. Rather than chipping flakes off a stone to create a tool, Levallois techniques work on the stone so it is the flakes themselves that become the tools. This enables several tools to be made from a single stone. Until recently, it seemed that the Levallois revolution didn’t spread east to places like China until much later – about 40,000 years ago – but that idea is now being questioned. Bo Li at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and his colleagues have just confirmed that Levallois-style stone tools recovered from Guanyindong cave in south China are between 160,000 and 170,000 years old. The discovery follows a related announcement at the start of the year. Researchers found Levallois stone tools – some of which were 385,000 years old – at a site called Attirampakkam in India. Clearly, hominins in central and east Eurasia began making Levallois tools much earlier than we thought. But who were these ancient toolmakers?
11-19-18 Termites in Brazil have covered an area the size of Britain in mounds
In the dry forests of northeastern Brazil, an area of 230,000 square kilometres – larger than Great Britain – is covered in 200 million regularly spaced mounds, each about 2.5 metres tall. These mounds, known to locals as murundus, are the waste earth dug out by termites to create a vast network of underground tunnels, and some of them are up to 4000 years old. The termites have excavated over 10 cubic kilometres of earth to build the tunnels and mounds, making this the biggest engineering project by any animal besides humans, according to Stephen Martin from the University of Salford, UK. Despite the enormous area covered by the mounds, they have hardly been studied until now. Martin came across them while researching honeybees in the Brazilian state of Bahia. “I looked on Google Earth and realised they’re everywhere in this area, but I could find nothing about them online,” he says. The mounds are very conspicuous in areas where the forest has been cleared, but most of them are covered by caatinga forests, which consist of small, thorny trees that shed their leaves seasonally. These leaves are the only food for the termites, but they only fall once a year at most, and disappear quickly. This sporadic food supply is the reason for the vast network of tunnels and the resulting mounds. “It’s like if all the supermarkets were open for one day a year — the person with the fastest car would get the most food,” says Martin. “You need a network of roads to get to the supermarket as quickly as you can because you’re in open competition with other colonies.” Conservative estimates of the ages of the mounds they studied range from 690 to 3820 years old.
11-18-18 Small doses of peanut protein can turn allergies around
Most kids in a clinical trial could tolerate the equivalent of two large nuts after a year. Carefully calibrated doses of peanut protein can turn extreme allergies around. At the end of a year of slowly increasing exposure, most children who started off severely allergic could eat the equivalent of two peanuts. That reversal, reported November 18 in the New England Journal of Medicine, “will be considered life-transforming for many families with a peanut allergy,” says pediatric allergist Michael Perkin of St. George’s, University of London, who wrote an accompanying editorial in the same issue of NEJM. The findings were also presented on the same day at the annual meeting of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology in Seattle. Peanut exposure came in the form of a drug called AR101, described in the study as a “peanut-derived investigational biologic oral immunotherapy drug,” or, as Perkin puts it, “peanut flour in a capsule.” Unlike a sack of peanut flour, AR101 is carefully meted out, such that the smallest doses used in the study contained precisely 0.5 milligrams of peanut protein — the equivalent of about one six-hundredth of a large peanut. In the clinical trial, 372 children ages 4 to 17 years began taking the lowest dose of AR101. The doses increased in peanut protein every two weeks until the kids topped out at 300 milligrams, which is about that of a single peanut.
11-16-18 FDA restricts the sale of some flavored e-cigarettes as teen use soars
The number of high schoolers who vape rose 78 percent from 2017 to 2018. In an attempt to curtail an alarming rise in teenage vaping, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced restrictions on the sale of certain flavored e-cigarettes that appeal to young people on November 15. The agency also said it would seek to ban menthol cigarettes, long a goal of public health advocates, as well as flavored cigars. The flavor restrictions coincide with the release of new data showing that e-cigarette use by high school students shot up 78 percent from 2017 to 2018. The data, part of the National Youth Tobacco Survey, were reported November 16 in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. “If the policy changes that we have outlined don’t reverse this epidemic, and if the manufacturers don’t do their part to help advance this cause, I’ll explore additional actions,” FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement. Gottlieb said that only stores that restrict access to the products to customers 18 years or older will be able to sell certain e-cigarette flavors, such as mango or crème brûlée. There will also be limits on online sales, but there are no restrictions on the flavors menthol, mint or tobacco. Vaping has risen dramatically among teenagers over the last year. Among high school students surveyed, 20.8 percent said they had used e-cigarettes at least once in the last 30 days in 2018, compared with 11.7 percent in 2017 — an increase of 78 percent.
11-16-18 Cellphones and cancer
A decade-long study has concluded that radiation from cellphones may cause cancer in rats—but there is still no evidence that it has the same effect on humans. Scientists with the government-funded National Toxicology Program tested 3,000 rats and mice, which were exposed for nine hours a day to radio-frequency radiation similar to that used in 2G and 3G cellphones. They found that 2 to 3 percent of male rats exposed to the radio waves developed a deadly form of brain cancer; none of the control group, which received no radiation, developed the tumors. The researchers also found that 5 to 7 percent of male rats exposed to the highest level of radiation developed heart tumors. There was no link for female rats—a not uncommon disparity in cancer patterns. The team emphasized that the rats were exposed to far more radiation than even heavy phone users would be, and that the new 4G phones deliver much less radio-frequency radiation to the user. “The incidence of brain tumors in human beings has been flat for the last 40 years,” Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, tells USA Today. “That is the absolute most important scientific fact.”
11-16-18 Don’t rely on ‘good genes’ for long life
If you think you’ll live a long life because your grandma made it to a grand old age, think again. A major new study suggests that genetics has only a small effect on longevity, reports CNN.com. Researchers analyzed anonymized data from more than 439 million people—including their birth years, death years, and family connections—from the genealogy site Ancestry.com. Initially, the results appeared to match the findings of previous studies. For siblings and first cousins, longevity heritability—how much of the differences in life spans can be explained by genetic variations—ranged from 15 to 30 percent. The data also showed that spouses often had similar life spans, possibly because couples share nongenetic factors such as diet and lifestyle. More surprisingly, siblings-in-law and first-cousins-in-law had similar life spans, despite being neither blood relatives nor housemates. Researchers believe this correlation is a result of “assortative mating.” Income, for example, can influence life span. So if people from families of similar income and social status marry each other, they would have similar longevity. When researchers factored assortative mating into their calculations, they found genes were responsible for no more than 7 percent of longevity. “Although there is a genetic component” to longevity, says co-author Cathy Ball, chief scientific officer at Ancestry, “this study shows that there is a major impact from many other forces in your life.”
11-16-18 Spotting Alzheimer’s with AI
Artificial intelligence could be used to identify Alzheimer’s disease up to six years earlier than a patient would typically be diagnosed, a new study suggests. Researchers trained a self-learning computer to recognize signs of the neurodegenerative disease in brain scans that are too subtle for a human to see, using more than 2,100 positron emission tomography scans from some 1,000 patients. The so-called deep-learning algorithm was then given a set of 40 brain scans it hadn’t studied before—it proved 100 percent accurate at detecting Alzheimer’s an average of more than six years prior to a patient’s final diagnosis. Co-author Jae Ho Sohn, from the University of California at San Francisco, cautioned that it was a small study, but said the results were promising nonetheless. “If we diagnose Alzheimer’s disease when all the symptoms have manifested, the brain volume loss is so significant that it’s too late to intervene,” he tells ScienceDaily.com. “If we can detect it earlier, that’s an opportunity for investigators to potentially find better ways to slow down or even halt the disease process.”
11-16-18 A Bronze Age game called 58 holes was found chiseled into stone in Azerbaijan
An ancient diversion traveled fast from the Near East to Eurasia, an archaeological find hints. A dotted pattern pecked into stone at a remote Eurasian rock-shelter represents a Bronze Age game that was thought to have existed at that time only in Mesopotamia, Egypt and other Near Eastern regions. The game is known as 58 holes, or Hounds and Jackals. Archaeologist Walter Crist of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City described his surprising discovery of a roughly 4,000-year-old example of 58 holes in present-day Azerbaijan on November 15 at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research. Azerbaijan sits between the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian Sea, some 1,000 to 2,000 kilometers from the Near East. “Bronze Age herders in that region must have had contacts with the Near Eastern world,” Crist said. “Ancient games often passed across cultures and acted as a social lubricant.” While conducting an internet search of publications about 58 holes, Crist saw what looked like an example of the game’s layout in a photograph from a rock-shelter published in an online magazine called Azerbaijan International. He contacted a colleague in the Eurasian nation who helped to arrange a site visit in April 2018. Once there, Crist found that the site shown in the magazine had been bulldozed for a housing development. But a scientific official in Azerbaijan told him of another rock-shelter with the same dot pattern. Crist, who has studied early Near Eastern versions of 58 holes, recognized the two-person game when he reached that site.
11-16-18 Walking backwards can boost your short-term memory
To go back in time, it might help to go backwards in space. Volunteers in a study did better in a memory test if they walked backwards before taking it – or if they simply imagined moving backwards. Aleksandar Aksentijevic at the University of Roehampton, UK, and colleagues asked 114 volunteers to watch a video in which a woman has her bag stolen by a passer-by. Ten minutes after watching the video, some of the participants were told to walk forwards or backwards 10 metres, while those in a control group stood in one place. Then they were asked 20 questions about the events in the video. The backward-walking group got two more answers correct on average than the forward-walkers and the non-walkers – a small improvement, but one that was statistically significant. A similar effect was found in five variations of the experiment. One of them involved a similar procedure, but tested how many words the volunteers could remember from a list. In others, participants simply imagined moving forwards or backwards, or watched a video filmed on a train, which created the impression of moving forwards or backwards. We are all used to thinking about time as a space that we move through, and using the language of spatial movement to talk about time. This study and others hint that the connection between time and space is more than a convenient analogy – it is intrinsic to the way the past is conceptualised in our minds
11-15-18 Catching up on sleep at weekends may aggravate period pain
Sleeping in on weekends may cause period pain by disrupting normal reproductive cycles, a study in female university students suggests. We already know that female shift-workers are more prone to irregular menstrual cycles, difficulties falling pregnant and miscarriages, possibly because their irregular schedules affect the circadian rhythms that control their hormone cycles. Yoko Komada at Meiji Pharmaceutical University in Japan and her colleagues wondered if social jetlag – a pattern of sleeping in on weekends to make up for early starts during the week – may have similar effects. To find out, they surveyed 150 female Japanese university students about their sleep habits and menstrual patterns. The students were defined as having social jetlag if the midpoint of their sleep was an hour or more later on their days off than on their university days. Those with social jetlag reported significantly more pain, bloating and behavioural changes during their periods. Moreover, the greater the social jet lag they had, the worse their symptoms were. These adverse health effects could not be explained by late-night drinking or smoking at the end of the university week, since almost none of the students drank alcohol and none smoked. Getting up later on days off may throw out the body’s circadian rhythms, which are reset daily by light exposure upon waking, says Jonathan Cedernaes at Uppsala University in Sweden. “In either social jet lag or shift work, you mistime when your body is expecting to sleep and be exposed to light,” he says.
11-15-18 Lyme and other tickborne diseases are on the rise in the U.S. Here’s what that means.
An infectious disease physician answers questions about the increase in cases. There’s no sign that ticks are backing down. A record high of 59,349 cases of tickborne diseases were reported in 2017 in the United States. That’s a 22 percent increase in cases — or roughly 11,000 more — than were reported in 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on November 14. Lyme disease accounted for most of the reported diseases, with nearly 43,000 cases in 2017, up from over 36,000 in 2016. There were increases in all six tick-related illnesses reported, though, including Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Because underreporting is common, experts expect the actual number of cases is higher than what the data show. “The United States is not fully prepared to control these threats,” the agency said in statement. The Tick-Borne Disease Working Group, set up by Congress in 2016 to address the threats that ticks pose, also released its first report on November 14, with input from public health officials, scientists, patients and clinicians. Science News discussed the findings with the working group’s chairman, infectious disease physician John Aucott, who is also the director of the Lyme Disease Research Center at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
11-15-18 Mini ‘solar panels’ help yeast shine at churning out drug ingredients
Covering microbes with light-harvesting semiconductors boosted shikimic acid production. Bionic microbes outfitted with tiny semiconductor components can generate useful chemicals more efficiently than normal cells. Microorganisms like fungi are commonly used in biomanufacturing to convert simple carbon-based molecules, such as sugar, into a wide range of chemical ingredients for pharmaceuticals and other products. But much of a microbe’s carbon intake typically gets used to power the creature itself, cutting the amount available to form desired chemicals. In the new setup, described in the Nov. 16 Science, microbial cells are coated in semiconductor nanoparticles that absorb and transfer energy from sunlight to the cell, similar to the way rooftop solar panels supply energy to a house. That process allows the cell to funnel carbon it would normally use as a fuel toward its chemical output instead. Chemical and biological engineer Neel Joshi of Harvard University and colleagues tested this scheme using baker’s yeast cells covered in nanoparticles made of the semiconductor indium phosphide. Baker’s yeast consumes the sugar glucose to produce shikimic acid, which is used to make the flu medication Tamiflu. In lab experiments, cyborg microbes equipped with nanoparticles produced about three times as much shikimic acid as normal baker’s yeast fed the same amount of glucose.
11-15-18 Is the sex recession only for straight people?
When a trend makes the cover of The Atlantic, you know it's really arrived. That's surely the case with the "sex recession," the term Kate Julian coined in a blockbuster article to describe a phenomenon that social scientists have been tracking and puzzling over for years now. Americans — and not just Americans — are having less sex than they used to. A lot less sex. They're starting later and engaging with less frequency, with fewer people over a lifetime, and with less satisfaction. We may seem to the casual observer to be a sex-obsessed society, but it appears that impression is as accurate as someone's Instagram feed. And while there's some data to cheer about — a decline in teen pregnancy is surely a positive development, for example, as is the dramatic decline in new HIV infections — the overall picture is a depressing one, given how strongly correlated a positive sex life is with personal well-being. What is the explanation for this sustained decline? Cultural conservatives will predictably indict the continuing echoes of the now-50-years-old sexual revolution that cheapened intimacy and disrupted the purportedly natural order of family-formation. Feminists need only gesture at any given week's headlines to bring their own indictment of violent male entitlement as the root cause. In both cases, the blame falls on changes in the culture. The narrative satisfactions of such cultural explanations are obvious, which is why I'm instinctively inclined to look first for material explanations. And there are plenty on offer. Perhaps environmental pollutants are to blame for a drop in libido as they are plausibly to blame for a global drop in sperm count? Or perhaps it's the opposite, and the removal of lead from gasoline explains the drop in teen pregnancy as well as it explains the drop in teen criminality? Economic explanations are also ready to hand. Partly as a consequence of the Great Recession, a whole cohort of young adults have lived with their parents at much higher rates and for much longer into their 20s (and even 30s) than previous generations. It's hard to build a stable relationship under such conditions. Meanwhile, those fortunate enough to have good-paying jobs increasingly feel married to them, leaving little time to explore the depths of human companionship. Then there's technology, changing our habits and thereby our minds and brains. Are ubiquitous screens making us more distractible and depriving us of high-quality sleep? Has pornography-facilitated masturbation acted like a drug, blunting our drive to seek fulfilling erotic relationships? Is the sex recession a side effect of our widely-attested plague of anxiety and depression, or of the libido-dampening drugs prescribed to treat those conditions?
11-15-18 Exclusive: A new test can predict IVF embryos’ risk of having a low IQ
A new genetic test that enables people having IVF to screen out embryos likely to have a low IQ or high disease risk could soon become available in the US. THE prospect of creating intelligent designer babies has been the subject of ethical debate for decades, but we have lacked the ability to actually do it. That may now change, thanks to a new method of testing an embryo’s genes that could soon be available in some IVF clinics in the US, New Scientist can reveal. The firm Genomic Prediction says it has developed genetic screening tests that can assess complex traits, such as the risk of some diseases and low intelligence, in IVF embryos. The tests haven’t been used yet, but the firm began talks last month with several IVF clinics to provide them to customers. For intelligence, Genomic Prediction says that it will only offer the option of screening out embryos deemed likely to have “mental disability”. However, the same approach could in future be used to identify embryos with genes that make them more likely to have a high IQ. “I think people are going to demand that. If we don’t do it, some other company will,” says the firm’s co-founder Stephen Hsu. For many years, it has been possible to do simpler genetic tests on embryos as part of IVF. For example, parents at risk of having a child with cystic fibrosis have the option to undergo IVF and select an embryo that doesn’t carry the gene behind the condition. It is also possible to screen for several other conditions caused by a single gene, as well as those caused by chromosomal abnormalities, such as Down’s syndrome. However, most medical conditions are influenced by hundreds of genes, which has made it impossible to screen out embryos with a high risk of heart disease, for example, or select embryos with a low likelihood of experiencing depression. This is true for traits like intelligence too.
11-15-18 New techniques may soon make designer babies a reality – are we ready?
IT IS hard to think of an area of science more controversial than the genetics of intelligence. Now it is about to get exponentially more contentious. For a long time, DNA testing couldn’t tell us anything useful about someone’s IQ or any other traits affected by multiple genes, such as diabetes or cancer risk. But new “polygenic” techniques for analysing many genetic regions at once have begun to make this possible. This week, we report on the first company offering fertility clinics a test for screening IVF embryos for disease risk and low intelligence (see “Exclusive: A new test can predict IVF embryos’ risk of having a low IQ”). With this news, it is unlikely to be long before some clinic, somewhere, starts using a similar approach to offer prospective parents the ability to pick out embryos that look most genetically promising for a high IQ. As if this isn’t controversial enough, it may only be the beginning. As our understanding of traits governed by multiple genes grows, it may also become possible to screen for embryos that are more or less likely to have a range of other features, be it sexuality, autism or susceptibility to depression. We already live in a world where wealthy individuals are willing to cross borders to pay for procedures at the sharpest edge of fertility research. The first baby created using a particular three-parent technique was born two years ago to Jordanian parents helped by US scientists working in Mexico, for example. While many prospective parents won’t want to genetically fine-tune their children this way, the idea of a near-designer baby will undoubtedly appeal to some. The desire to maximise a future child’s intelligence, mental health or physical attractiveness could be enough to prompt couples with no fertility problems to seek IVF, just to have this opportunity.
11-15-18 Life may have begun with cells made wholly from simple proteins
Did life begin in a world of proteins? It’s a minority view among origin-of-life researchers but it just got a boost. Researchers have built model cells out of nothing but simple proteins, and those cells can host some of the crucial processes of life. The small compartments within living cells are normally made from lipids, but in 2014, Stefan Schiller of the Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg in Germany and his colleagues made them using proteins instead. “So we asked the question if these ‘organelles’ also represent a plausible prebiotic protocell model,” he says. Proteins are built from long chains of amino acids. Schiller’s team made simple chains just five amino acids long. There are hundreds of naturally occurring amino acids, but the researchers used only seven kinds in their experiment to keep the approach simple and more likely to have occurred spontaneously on early Earth. The chains readily clumped together into spherical containers, which the team describe as “protocells”. This happened in pure water and in water with substances dissolved in it or mixed with alcohol. The protocells survived temperatures up to 100 °C, as well as being mixed with strong acids and alkalis. That implies they could endure “conditions imagined to be present on the early Earth”, says Schiller. The young planet was bombarded with meteorites and may have had a lot of active volcanoes. The team has also found that the protocells have a number of life-like properties. They can house large molecules over periods of weeks, just as living cells must play host to DNA and other substances. This included phospholipids, which most modern cells are made of. They also found that two protocells can fuse together to form one.
11-15-18 Prefer tea or coffee? It may be down to your genes for bitter tastes
Whether you prefer drinking tea or coffee may come down to your genes.Tea and coffee contain bitter components that contribute to their pleasant taste. Both drinks contain bitter-tasting caffeine, while coffee contains another bitter molecule called quinine, which is also found in tonic water. Previous research has found that people taste bitter flavours like caffeine, quinine and an artificial substance called propylthiouracil differently according to the types of taste receptor genes they have. To find out if this variation influences preference for tea or coffee, Daniel Hwang at the University of Queensland in Australia and his colleagues studied the relationship between taste receptor genes and tea and coffee consumption in over 430,000 men and women aged 37 to 73 in the UK. The participants with gene variants that made them taste caffeine more strongly were 20 per cent more likely than the average person to be heavy coffee drinkers, meaning they drank more than 4 cups per day. At the same time, these caffeine “super-tasters” were less likely to drink tea, says Hwang. This may be because people who are better at detecting caffeine are more prone to becoming addicted to its stimulant effects, and coffee contains more caffeine than tea. “But future studies are needed to investigate this,” says Hwang. In contrast, participants with gene variants that made them more sensitive to the tastes of quinine and propylthiouracil were 4 and 9 per cent more likely than the average person to be heavy tea drinkers respectively, meaning they drank more than 5 cups per day. They were also less likely to drink coffee.
11-15-18 Coffee or tea? Your preference may be written in your DNA
Genetic variants may confer sensitivity to the flavor of caffeine or other bitter chemicals. Whether people prefer coffee or tea may boil down to a matter of taste genetics. People with a version of a gene that increases sensitivity to the bitter flavor of caffeine tend to be coffee drinkers, researchers report online November 15 in Scientific Reports. Tea drinkers tended to be less sensitive to caffeine’s bitter taste, but have versions of genes that increase sensitivity to the bitterness of other chemicals, the researchers found. It’s long been thought that people avoid eating bitter foods because bitterness is an indicator of poison, says John Hayes, a taste researcher at Penn State who was not involved in the study. The coffee and tea findings help challenge that “overly simplistic ‘bitter is always bad, let’s avoid it’” view, he says. In the new study, researchers examined DNA variants of genes involved in detecting the bitter taste of the chemicals, caffeine, quinine — that bitter taste in tonic water — and propylthiouracil (PROP), a synthetic chemical not naturally found in food or drink. Other bitter components naturally in coffee and tea may trigger the same taste responses as quinine and PROP do, Hayes says. Researchers in Australia, the United States and England examined DNA from more than 400,000 participants in the UK Biobank, a repository of genetic data for medical research. Participants also reported other information about their health and lifestyle, including how much tea or coffee they drink each day.
11-14-18 We’ve got thinking all wrong. This is how your mind really works
From unconscious biases to advertising, the idea we can think fast or slow is influential, but it may be mistaken. Here’s how to think better. A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? If you instantly guessed 10 cents, you’re in smart company: more than half of students at Harvard University and MIT jumped to the same conclusion. But you’d be wrong – the answer is actually 5 cents. For years, this puzzle has been held up as the perfect example of the way we think being ruled by two types of mental processes: fast and intuitive, versus slow and analytical. If you arrived at the wrong answer before you had time to really ponder the problem, you might blame it on intuitive thinking leading you to make a snap judgement before slower, rational thinking had kicked in. This idea that our thoughts can be split into two distinctive camps has become so popular it now influences many areas of everyday life. Marketeers try to tap into our automatic impulses with emotive adverts and special offers, while governments attempt to appeal to our deliberative sides, by doing things like putting calorie counts on menus. These “nudges” are often based on the assumption that fast, intuitive thinking is likely to get you into trouble, so we need to cultivate the slower kind. The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the World Bank have both issued reports urging decision-makers to use the slower type of thinking to avoid the expensive, or deadly, mistakes of the other form. But a more complex picture of our mental processes is beginning to emerge. Categorising all our thoughts as one of these two types might in fact be leading us astray on all sorts of policies and practices. Armed with a new understanding of how we make decisions, we could all benefit.
11-14-18 We’ve discovered a whole new defence system against germs in our noses
IT’S been right inside our noses all along. When cells in the nose sense potential invaders, they release tiny sacs that fight them off and prime other cells to resist an onslaught. “We have demonstrated in a live patient that the immune system goes and attacks pathogens before they get into the body,” says Benjamin Bleier, a sinus surgeon at the teaching hospital Massachusetts Eye and Ear. “It is the only example of this I know of.” The nose is a crucial frontier: every breath we take may contain dangerous bacteria. So the cells lining the nasal cavity secrete a mucus that traps tiny particles. Hairs on the surface of these cells, called cilia, beat to move the mucus along. What’s surprising, says Bleier, is that instead of being swept forwards so it can be rapidly expelled, the mucus is swept backwards towards the throat. “You swallow it, and then the gut deals with it from there.” Bleier’s team and other researchers have recently found that, as well as secreting mucus, the cells of the nasal cavity release billions of tiny sacs called exosomes. Once in the mucus, these sacs can go on to fuse with other cells, delivering cargo such as proteins or RNA. This made Bleier and his colleagues suspect that exosomes are part of a previously unknown defence system. Now, after studying tissue in the lab and people undergoing nasal surgery, the researchers have strong evidence for this idea. They found that when cells at the front of the nose are exposed to a potentially dangerous bacterium, the number of exosomes released into the mucus doubles within 5 minutes. Their experiments suggest that exosomes can kill pathogens directly, although we don’t yet know how (Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, doi.org/cwzw). “They are as powerful at killing bacteria as an antibiotic,” Bleier says.
11-14-18 The Galapagos of the Indian Ocean: Voyage to a forgotten paradise
Celebrated for their biodiversity, the islands of Socotra could unlock secrets of humans' journey out of Africa – but war and weather hamper the journey there. I HADN’T thought a scientific expedition would involve cockroaches or pirates, and certainly not both. And yet there we were, our team of four, sailing through a part of the Indian Ocean synonymous with Somali piracy, aboard a wooden cargo ship filled with a population of many thousands of grudging insects. We shared our sweaty cabin with a crew of 12 Gujarati sailors. In between watching for other vessels and clambering among the bags of cement on deck, our three days at sea were punctuated only by visits to the ship’s “toilets”: two wooden boxes strapped to the outside of the hull. Glamorous it wasn’t, but none of us would have wished to be anywhere else. We were on our way to the Socotra archipelago. Largely unknown in the wider world, this group of islands is a UNESCO World Heritage Site on account of its rich endemic flora and fauna. More than a third of its 800-plus plant species are unique to Socotra, whose westernmost island is just 100 kilometres from Somalia and the Horn of Africa. Some 400 kilometres to the north is Yemen, to which the territory belongs. With both countries torn apart by civil war, getting there isn’t easy. But that’s no reason not to try. Our team’s leader was archaeologist Ella Al-Shamahi of University College London. She was in search of secrets about our ancestors’ migration out of Africa that might lie in caves on the archipelago’s main island, also called Socotra. I’m an author and film-maker, and my job was to digitally map the major thoroughfares and tracks that cross the island. The archipelago has been prized for its unique resources for at least two millennia, and it is said to have supplied much of the ancient world with frankincense and aloes used in perfumes and medicines. But the volume of scientific work done there is a mere fraction of what has been possible in the few comparable places on Earth. It had seemed like increased political stability in Yemen in the 1990s would improve things, but now the geopolitics of the region looks to be closing the door once more. Add in the increasingly extreme and frequent cyclones that hit its shores, and Socotra’s future as a refuge of natural and cultural heritage is far from assured.
11-14-18 Skull damage suggests Neandertals led no more violent lives than humans
Some 200 skulls show similar rates of damage between humans and our evolutionary cousins. Neandertals are shaking off their reputation as head bangers. Our close evolutionary cousins experienced plenty of head injuries, but no more so than late Stone Age humans did, a study suggests. Rates of fractures and other bone damage in a large sample of Neandertal and ancient Homo sapiens skulls roughly match rates previously reported for human foragers and farmers who have lived within the past 10,000 years, concludes a team led by paleoanthropologist Katerina Harvati of the University of Tübingen in Germany. Males suffered the bulk of harmful head knocks, whether they were Neandertals or ancient humans, the scientists report online November 14 in Nature. “Our results suggest that Neandertal lifestyles were not more dangerous than those of early modern Europeans,” Harvati says. Until recently, researchers depicted Neandertals, who inhabited Europe and Asia between around 400,000 and 40,000 years ago, as especially prone to head injuries. Serious damage to small numbers of Neandertal skulls fueled a view that these hominids led dangerous lives. Proposed causes of Neandertal noggin wounds have included fighting, attacks by cave bears and other carnivores and close-range hunting of large prey animals.
11-14-18 A massive crater hides beneath Greenland’s ice
Whether the impact is related to a period of cooling called the Younger Dryas is unknown. There’s something big lurking beneath Greenland’s ice. Using airborne ice-penetrating radar, scientists have discovered a 31-kilometer-wide crater — larger than the city of Paris — buried under as much as 930 meters of ice in northwest Greenland. The meteorite that slammed into Earth and formed the pit would have been about 1.5 kilometers across, researchers say. That’s large enough to have caused significant environmental damage across the Northern Hemisphere, a team led by glaciologist Kurt Kjær of the University of Copenhagen reports November 14 in Science Advances. Although the crater has not been dated, data from glacial debris as well as ice-flow simulations suggest that the impact may have happened during the Pleistocene Epoch, between 2.6 million and 11,700 thousand years ago. The discovery could breathe new life into a controversial hypothesis that suggests that an impact about 13,000 years ago triggered a mysterious 1,000-year cold snap known as the Younger Dryas (SN: 7/7/18, p. 18). Members of the research team first spotted a curiously rounded shape at the edge of Hiawatha Glacier in northwest Greenland in 2015, during a scan of the region by NASA’s Operation IceBridge. The mission uses airborne radar to map the thickness of ice at Earth’s poles. The researchers immediately suspected that the rounded shape represented the edge of a crater, Kjær says.
11-14-18 Greenland ice sheet hides huge 'impact crater'
What looks to be a large impact crater has been identified beneath the Greenland ice sheet. The 31km-wide depression came to light when scientists examined radar images of the island's bedrock. Investigations suggest the feature was probably dug out by a 1.5km-wide iron asteroid sometime between about 12,000 and three million years ago. But without drilling through nearly 1km of ice to sample the bed directly, scientists can't be more specific. "We will endeavour to do this; it would certainly be the best way to get the 'dead fish on the table' (acknowledge the issue, rather than leaving it), so to speak," Prof Kurt Kjær, from the Danish Museum of Natural History, told BBC News. If confirmed, the crater would be the first of any size that has been observed under one of Earth's continental ice sheets. The discovery is reported in the journal Science Advances. The putative impact crater is located right on the northwest margin of the Greenland Ice Sheet, underneath what is known as Hiawatha Glacier. Additional high-resolution radar imagery gathered by Prof Kjær's team clearly shows a circular structure that is elevated at its rim and at its centre - both classic traits. But because the depression is covered by up to 980m of ice, the scientists have so far had to rely on indirect studies. Meltwaters running out from under Hiawatha Glacier into the Nares Strait carry sediments from the depression. In these sediments are quartz grains which have been subjected to enormous shock pressures, of the type that would be experienced in an impact. Other river sediments have revealed unusual ratios in the concentrations of different metals. "The profile we saw was an enrichment of rhodium, a depletion of platinum, and an enrichment of palladium," explained team-member Dr Iain McDonald, from Cardiff University, UK.
11-14-18 There is no fundamental difference between male and female brains
A lasting desire to find differences in how male and female brains work serves to affirm gender stereotypes, not explain them, says Dean Burnett. A study claiming to show “very clear” differences between the brains of men and women was widely reported this week, as such studies invariably are. Yet a close look at the details shows that if any differences exist they are anything but clear. Despite the large sample size – half a million people – there is much to find fault with the study, from the simple data collection method (a list of 10 agree/disagree questions completed online) to the application of questionable theories and assumptions. These include the empathising-systemising brain theory (the idea that all brains tend towards either empathy or analysis on a binary scale) and the “extreme male” theory of autism, which suggests that typical autistic traits are actually inherently male traits, taken to extremes of expression. The study, published in PNAS, is just the latest – and certainly won’t be the last – in a long line of findings that are trumpeted in the media as “proving” that male and female brains are inherently different. The actual evidence falls way short of such claims. Distinctions do exist. Men and women have genetic differences due to the sex chromosomes, are regulated by different hormones during development, and have distinct anatomical differences. All of this is reflected in the structure of the brain. But whether these have any direct and significant impacts on the functioning of the mature adult brain is a lot harder to determine. There are just too many other factors and variables that can affect how we use our brains, which cannot be screened out by modern research methods, no matter how rigorous.
11-14-18 Modern lifestyles shaped our evolution only a few thousand years ago
ARE humans still evolving? Because evolution usually takes many generations, it is hard to tell. But two new genetic studies reveal DNA changes that took hold within the last few thousand years, suggesting that modern lifestyles have recently shaped our evolution – and are probably still doing so. “During a short time, human genomes have changed a lot,” says Irina Morozova of the University of Zurich in Switzerland. “We think these changes are driven by human civilisation.” Both studies looked for evidence of evolution favouring some DNA sequences over others, a process called selection. Morozova and her colleagues compared the genomes of 150 Europeans from between 5500 and 3000 years ago with those of 305 modern Europeans descended from them. This allowed the team to identify various processes that evolution has acted on in Europeans within the past 6000 years (Molecular Biology and Evolution, doi.org/gfjj53). The team found changes over time in the way that the body metabolises carbohydrates. Morozova suggests these happened when societies began farming, prompting a switch from a meat-heavy, hunter-gatherer diet to a starchier, more sugary one. She thinks human metabolism is still evolving, and may keep doing so for millennia. “It’s not like we’re completely adapted to this.” There was evidence of evolutionary changes in several aspects of the immune system, too. It’s not clear what these changes do, but they could have been a response to exposure to new diseases some 6000 years ago, when people began living in more crowded conditions and spending more time with livestock. But two processes stood out as showing very few evolutionary changes over the same period of time. These are how egg cells form, and long-term potentiation, a process in the brain that aids learning by strengthening the connections of commonly used neural pathways. It looks as if both have been protected from changing, says Morozova.
11-14-18 Sound-absorbent wings and fur help some moths evade bats
Checkered scales on wings and furry bellies let the insects avoid detection. Some moths aren’t so easy for bats to detect. The cabbage tree emperor moth has wings with tiny scales that absorb sound waves sent out by bats searching for food. That absorption reduces the echoes that bounce back to bats, allowing Bunaea alcinoe to avoid being so noticeable to the nocturnal predators, researchers report online November 12 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “They have this stealth coating on their body surfaces which absorbs the sound,” says study coauthor Marc Holderied, a bioacoustician at the University of Bristol in England. “We now understand the mechanism behind it.” Bats sense their surroundings using echolocation, sending out sound waves that bounce off objects and return as echoes picked up by the bats’ supersensitive ears (SN: 9/30/17, p. 22). These moths, without ears that might alert them to an approaching predator, have instead developed scales of a size, shape and thickness suited to absorbing ultrasonic sound frequencies used by bats, the researchers found. The team shot ultrasonic sound waves at a single, microscopic scale and observed it transferring sound wave energy into movement. The scientists then simulated the process with a 3-D computer model that showed the scale absorbing up to 50 percent of the energy from sound waves. What’s more, it isn’t just wings that help such earless moths evade bats. Other moths in the same family as B. alcinoe also have sound-absorbing fur, the same researchers report online October 18 in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.
11-14-18 Ancient Greek city Tenea found by archaeologists
Archaeologists in Greece believe they have found the lost city of Tenea, thought to have been founded by captives of the legendary Trojan War. They said they had discovered the remains of a housing settlement, jewellery, coins and several burial sites in the southern Peloponnese area. Until now, archaeologists had a rough idea of where the city might have been located but had no tangible proof. The items date from 4th Century BC to Roman times. Excavation work around the modern-day village of Chiliomodi began in 2013, and "proof of the existence" of Tenea emerged in work carried out in September and early October this year, officials said. Carefully-constructed walls as well as clay, stone and marble floors were uncovered. Around 200 rare coins, including one designed to pay for the journey to an afterlife, were also found. Seven graves - including one containing the remains of a woman and child - were unearthed, adorned with vases and jewellery. Lead archaeologist Elena Korka told the Associated Press that the discoveries suggested the citizens of Tenea had been "remarkably affluent". She said the city would have been located on a key trade route between the main cities of Corinth and Argos in the northern Peloponnese. "(The city) had distinctive pottery shapes with eastern influences, maintained contacts with both east and west... and had its own thinking, which, to the extent that it could, shaped its own policies," she told the AP. Little is known about Tenea, but legend has it that it was founded by Trojans who had been captured by King Agamemnon of Mycenae during his war with Troy in the 12th or 13th Century BC. The city is thought to have flourished during the Roman era but may have been abandoned by the 4th Century AD.
11-13-18 U.S. cases of a polio-like illness rise, but there are few clues to its cause
The CDC has confirmed 90 cases of acute flaccid myelitis out of 252 suspected cases. The cause of a rare polio-like disease continues to elude public health officials even as the number of U.S. cases grows. Confirmed cases of acute flaccid myelitis cases have risen to 90 in 27 states, out of a possible 252 under investigation, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced November 13. That’s up from 62 confirmed cases out of 127 suspected just a month ago (SN Online: 10/16/18). There were a record 149 cases in 2016. “I understand parents want answers,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases in Atlanta, said at a news conference. The agency continues to investigate the disease, which causes weakness in one or more limbs and primarily affects children. But “right now the science doesn’t give us an answer,” she said. A deep dive into 80 of the confirmed cases offered some details about the course of AFM. In most, fever or respiratory symptoms like coughing and congestion, or both, preceded limb weakness by three to 10 days. Most cases involved weakness in an upper limb, researchers report online November 13 in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Only two samples of cerebrospinal fluid — the clear fluid that bathes the brain and spinal cord — tested positive for a pathogen, each for a different enterovirus. Since 2014, when the first big outbreak of AFM occurred, most AFM spinal fluid samples haven’t produced a culprit, Messonnier said. The body may clear the pathogen or it hides in tissues, she said, or the body’s own immune response to a pathogen may lead to spinal cord damage.
11-13-18 How mammoths competed with other animals and lost
Human hunters helped wipe out mammoths, mastodons and gomphotheres. The Gray Fossil Site, a sinkhole in northeastern Tennessee, is full of prehistoric treasures. Between 7 million and 4.5 million years ago, rhinoceroses, saber-toothed cats and other creatures, even red pandas, perished here by the edge of a pond. But that bounty of fossils pales next to the site’s biggest find: a mastodon’s skeleton, nearly 5 million years old, preserved in exquisite detail all the way down to its ankle bones. “It is just fantastic,” says Chris Widga, a paleontologist at East Tennessee State University in nearby Johnson City. The ancient elephant relative became known as Ernie because it was enormous, calculated soon after its 2015 discovery to have weighed 16 tons in life. The name came from musician Tennessee Ernie Ford, known for the coal-mining song “Sixteen Tons.” Since then the researchers have revised the mastodon’s weight down to 10.5 tons, says Widga, but the name stuck. Ernie is still the biggest mastodon ever found in North America. He would have dwarfed today’s large African elephants, which average up to six tons. Excavators are working to dig up the rest of Ernie’s bones before this winter, with an eye to reassemble the ancient beast, the researchers reported in October in Albuquerque at a meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Ernie is a jaw-dropping example of the ancient elephants that once roamed Earth. Scientists have found the remains of mastodons and their relatives, the mammoths, throughout the Northern Hemisphere — from huge tusks buried in the Alaskan permafrost to mummified baby mammoths in Siberia (SN Online: 7/14/14).
11-12-18 Diabetes Rates Rise in 18 States in Past Decade
The percentage of adults diagnosed with diabetes at some point in their lives has risen in 18 U.S. states in less than a decade, according to a comparison of Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index data from 2016-2017 versus 2008-2009 data. Diabetes rates did not decline in any states over the same period. Among the 18 states with reported increases in their diabetes rates, five experienced increases of at least two percentage points: West Virginia, Louisiana, Hawaii, Rhode Island and South Carolina. The remaining states with statistically significant increases are Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas. Nationwide, the diabetes rate rose to 11.5% in 2016-2017, up 0.7 percentage points compared with the 10.8% measured in 2008-2009 and representing a net increase of about 1.7 million U.S. adults who report having been diagnosed with the disease over that time.
- No states have experienced declines in their diabetes rates since '08-'09
- Obesity has climbed in 34 states over same period while declining in none
- Rising diabetes linked to rising obesity among states
11-12-18 An extinct monkey evolved to live like a sloth in the Caribbean
About 11 million years ago, monkeys somehow crossed the sea from South America to the island of Jamaica in the Caribbean. There they evolved into a new species that was unlike any other known monkey. It’s a striking example of how living on an island can transform a species. The details have been revealed by preserved DNA. The first remains of Xenothrix mcgregori were discovered in Long Mile Cave, Jamaica in 1920. The few bones found reveal a highly unusual monkey, with relatively few teeth and leg bones similar to those of a rodent. “What they suggest is a very slow-moving, perhaps even sloth-like lifestyle, which is perhaps not unexpected in an animal living on an island with few predators other than large birds,” says Ross MacPhee of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Some extinct Madagascan lemurs also evolved a similar slow-moving lifestyle. Ever since it was described in 1952, X. mcgregori has been an enigma. It was related to South American monkeys, but it was unclear which group it belonged to or when its ancestors reached Jamaica. Several suggestions had been made based on the bones, but the monkey was so unusual it was impossible to be sure. “It’s been all over the place,” says MacPhee. To clear up the mystery, MacPhee and his colleagues obtained DNA from two preserved X. mcgregori bones. They recovered the entire mitochondrial genome – which animals only inherit from their mothers – and seven chunks of the nuclear genome. The team compared these samples of DNA with the equivalent sequences from 15 different groups of South American primate. They found that X. mcgregori belonged to a group called the titi monkeys. These monkeys live in forests, eat fruit and do not have prehensile tails.
11-12-18 Mystery monkey: history of unique Xenothrix fossil revealed
A mysterious extinct monkey from Jamaica that is unlike any other in the fossil record has South American roots, according to new evidence. DNA extracted from fossilised bones suggests the monkey first colonised the island 11 million years ago. It had no predators there and it evolved strange features not seen in living monkeys today. But the animal went extinct a few hundred years ago, likely due to hunting and habitat loss. Scientists say the discovery highlights how vulnerable unique island animals are to extinction. "It was a really weird animal indeed," Prof Samuel Turvey from international conservation charity, Zoological Society of London (ZSL), told BBC News. "Possibly with legs like a rodent; body maybe like a slow loris. Because it's so weird no-one's been able to agree what it was related to." The researchers extracted ancient DNA from the fossilised cave bones of the Jamaican monkey, Xenothrix mcgregori. DNA evidence shows it was a type of titi monkey with some unusual morphological features, not a wholly distinct branch of evolution. "Evolution can act in unexpected ways in island environments, producing miniature elephants, gigantic birds, and sloth-like primates," said Dr Ross MacPhee of the American Museum of Natural History. Titi monkeys are small tree-dwelling animals found across tropical South America, with long soft red, brown, grey or black fur. They are active during the day, and very vocal, with an elaborate system of communication. Xenothrix's ancestors likely reached Jamaica from South America after being stranded on natural rafts of vegetation that were washed out of the mouths of rivers.
11-12-18 Earliest known animal might have inflated its body like a balloon
Have we misunderstood the first known animal? Dickinsonia, a weird organism from half a billion years ago, may have inflated its body to feed. The strategy is not seen in animals today, which raises questions about whether Dickinsonia really belongs in the animal kingdom after all. Dickinsonia is one of a bunch of enigmatic organisms called the Ediacarans that lived a few tens of millions of years before familiar animals like sponges began forming fossils. The Ediacarans have sometimes been interpreted as a failed evolutionary experiment, unlike anything alive today. But recently palaeontologists have become more confident that they were animals, with Dickinsonia singled out in particular as a candidate for the earliest known animal we have a fossil of. But if Dickinsonia was an animal, it may have been a very odd one, according to Nicole Law and Scott McKenzie at Mercyhurst University, Pennsylvania. Dickinsonia fossils look a bit like round flat ribbed blobs, some are about a metre in length but all no more than a few millimetres thick. Law and McKenzie have studied unusual radial scratch lines in the rock fringing one of the fossils and say they suggest that the organism was larger in life and then shrank after it died, leaving scratch lines in the sand beneath its body as it shrivelled up. “About 21 per cent of the total fossil area is taken up by this fringe,” says Law. She thinks that whilst alive Dickinsonia was longer, wider and taller than our fossils suggest. Its body was inflated like a balloon, and most fossils show it in a smaller and thinner deflated state.
11-12-18 We’ve discovered a whole new defence system against germs in our noses
It’s been right behind our noses all along but we’ve only just discovered it. When the cells inside your nose sense danger, they release billions of tiny sacs filled with bacteria-killing weapons into the mucus lining. These sacs not only kill bacteria directly, they also warn other cells of the danger and even help arm them against the invaders. This defence system has never been identified before. “We have demonstrated in a live patient that the immune system reaches outside of the body, and actually goes and attacks pathogens before they get into the body,” says Benjamin Bleier, a sinus surgeon at the teaching hospital Massachusetts Eye and Ear. “It is the only example of this I know of.” The nose is a crucial frontier. Every breath we take may contain dangerous bacteria. So the cells lining our nasal cavity secrete a mucus that traps tiny particles. Hairs on the surface of these cells, called cilia, beat back and forth to move the mucus along. What’s surprising, says Bleier, is that instead of being swept forwards into the nose so it could be rapidly expelled from the body, the mucus is swept backwards towards the throat. “You swallow it and then the gut deals with it from there,” says Bleier. Bleier’s team and other researchers have recently found that, as well as secreting mucus, the cells of the nasal cavity also release billions of tiny sacs called exosomes. After being released into the mucus, these sacs can go on to fuse with other cells, delivering cargo such as proteins or RNA.
11-11-18 DR Congo Ebola outbreak 'worst' in country's history
The latest outbreak of the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo is the worst in the country's history, the health ministry says. Almost 200 people have died since August, officials say, with more than 300 confirmed or probable cases. A vaccination programme has so far inoculated about 25,000 people. Congo has suffered long years of instability and efforts to relieve the disease have been hampered by attacks on medical workers. "At this point, 319 cases and 198 deaths have been registered," health minister Oly Ilunga said. "In view of these figures, my thoughts and my prayers go to the hundreds of families grieving, to the hundreds of orphans and the families which have been wiped out." About half the victims were from Beni, a city of 800,000 in the North Kivu region, the national health authority said. The current outbreak is the tenth Congo has suffered and the worst since Congo's first epidemic in 1976, so early in the disease's history it had yet to be named. The outbreak in 1976 of what was then an unknown disease in a remote part of Congo sparked terror, but was brought under control by experts quickly identifying the virus' nature and using quarantines. Ebola is spread via small amounts of bodily fluid and infection often proves fatal. Early symptoms are flu-like, followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, a rash and internal and external bleeding. (Webmaster's comment: There are 7.7 Billion people. The largest food source for bacteria and viruses in the whole world.)
11-10-18 A potent fish oil drug may protect high-risk patients against heart attacks
People on statins but still at risk for heart attack and stroke saw a benefit. Cholesterol-lowering drugs may one day gain a sidekick in the battle against heart disease. Taking a potent drug derived from fish oil along with a statin lowers the risk of heart attack and stroke in some high-risk people, researchers report. A clinical trial called REDUCE-IT tested the approach in more than 8,000 participants who either had cardiovascular disease or were at high risk for it. These people were already on statins to lower their cholesterol, and also had high levels of fats called triglycerides in their blood. Elevated triglycerides can increase one’s risk of heart attack and stroke. People took either a two-gram pill of a highly purified omega-3 fatty acid — the oil found in fatty fish — twice daily or a placebo, and were followed up to six years. Of the omega-3 group, 17.2 percent had a fatal or nonfatal heart attack or stroke, compared with 22 percent in the placebo group. Overall, the omega-3 drug, called Vascepa, reduced the risk of heart attack or stroke by 25 percent, researchers announced November 10 at the American Heart Association’s annual scientific sessions in Chicago and in a study published online the same day in the New England Journal of Medicine. The results are “strikingly positive,” says cardiologist Carl Orringer of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine who was not involved in the study. For people taking statins and working to combat high levels of triglycerides with healthy diet and exercise, the new drug appears to provide additional benefit, he says.
11-10-18 Vitamin D supplements don’t prevent heart disease or cancer
In the largest clinical trial yet, taking a supplement or a placebo made little difference. Taking a vitamin D supplement does not reduce the risk of having a potentially fatal heart attack or stroke or for getting an invasive cancer, according to highly anticipated results of a large clinical trial. The VITAL trial found no significant difference in cancer or heart health risk between people taking 2,000 international units, or IU, of vitamin D a day and those who took a placebo, researchers reported November 10 at the American Heart Association’s annual scientific sessions. The results dim the luster of a vitamin once hailed as a drug that could strengthen bones and prevent conditions from obesity and diabetes to heart and autoimmune diseases. “What this does show is that the general population does not need to be taking vitamin D for cardiovascular health or cancer health,” says Erin Michos, a preventive cardiologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who was not involved in the study. “This is the most definitive trial to date on this issue.” Researchers have known for a long time that people with low levels of vitamin D in their blood are at higher risk for heart attacks, strokes, heart failure and an irregular heartbeat known as atrial fibrillation. But VITAL, a Phase III clinical trial, is the largest randomized trial to specifically test whether boosting levels of the vitamin can prevent cardiovascular disease.
11-9-18 Phthalates and language delays
Prenatal exposure to a type of chemical found in floor tiles, food packaging, shampoos, and cosmetics could cause language delays in young children, new research suggests. Scientists have long been concerned that phthalates, which make plastics more flexible and long-lasting, can affect the development of children’s brains. The new study—a collaboration between teams in Sweden and the U.S.—looked specifically at their impact on early speech development, reports The Philadelphia Inquirer. Researchers tested urine samples from about 1,365 pregnant women, all in their first trimester, for phthalates. When the women’s children were between 30 and 37 months old, the researchers asked the mothers how many words their offspring used. They found that the children of women who had higher phthalate levels during pregnancy were more likely to suffer from a language delay, knowing fewer than 50 words. One of the study’s authors, Shanna Swan from the Icahn School of Medicine in New York, advises pregnant women to try to reduce their exposure to phthalates by using scent-free personal-care products and phthalate-free nail polish. But she acknowledges that the chemicals are “hard to avoid,” because they are “hidden in many household products, like vinyl floor covering and upholstery.”
11-9-18 In My Father’s House: A New View of How Crime Runs in the Family
Every town seems to have a family like the Bogles—and maybe that should tell us something, said Alice Lloyd in The Weekly Standard. In Fox Butterfield’s perversely pleasurable new book about the sources of criminal behavior, a Texas-born con artist named Elvie Bogle and her sons and grandsons provide “almost abusively vivid” evidence that certain families breed lawbreakers. Butterfield eventually identified 60 convicts in the Bogle family tree, and he gained the confidence of enough of them to be able to share their favorite tales about swindles, robberies, car thefts, and kidnappings—even a heist of salmon from a fish hatchery. The Bogles aren’t simply colorful outliers, though. Butterfield cites studies indicating that 5 percent of all families account for perhaps half of all crimes, and 10 percent for two-thirds. But identifying a cycle of criminality is one thing; “the questions get thicker when it comes to how to stop it,” said Eric Spitznagel in the New York Post. Should criminals have their children taken away, as has been done in Italy? Or what about simply providing incentives to released prisoners to encourage them to move away from home and attempt fresh starts elsewhere? Though Butterfield doesn’t have all the answers, “he has found a seam in an uncrackable problem,” said Philip Martin in the Little Rock, Ark., Democrat-Gazette. And he ends with “a note of uplift”: the story of a granddaughter of Rooster’s who, thanks in part to parents who shielded her from contact with her extended family, became not long ago the first Bogle to earn a college degree.
11-9-18 The perils of gloomy weather
Cold, cloudy, and gray weather doesn’t just make people miserable—it can also increase their risk of suffering a heart attack. Researchers looked at weather records and the medical data of 274,000 patients in Sweden between 1998 and 2013, reports The Guardian (U.K.), and found an increased incidence of heart attacks during periods with lower air temperature and air pressure, higher wind velocity, and fewer sunshine hours. The most pronounced link was with temperature; heart attack rates increased noticeably when the mercury dropped below 37 to 39 degrees Fahrenheit. The scientists suggested several possible factors: arteries narrowing because of the cold, people exercising less and eating more unhealthy foods on gloomy days, and the seasonal spread of infections. “We are very interested in the triggers of heart attacks,” says study leader David Erlinge, from Lund University. “If you know those triggers, you may be able to protect yourself.”
11-9-18 Ebola warning
An outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in war-torn Congo has become so serious that health officials might not be able to contain it, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned this week. Since the hemorrhagic disease was first identified in 1976, health workers have successfully contained all outbreaks—most of them in remote areas—before they could spread too widely. The current outbreak in Congo’s North Kivu province is entering its fourth month, with some 300 cases, including 186 deaths. It could soon become endemic in the province, home to 6 million people, making it easier for the deadly virus to spread through travel and trade, the CDC said. North Kivu is an active war zone, complicating the work of Ebola response teams.
11-9-18 Taking your coffee black
Taking your coffee black, after a new study found that people who shun milk and sugar in their java are more likely to be psychopaths. Researchers found a “robust relation between increased enjoyment of bitter foods and heightened sadistic proclivities.”
Vegetarians, who report lower self-respect and derive less pleasure from life than omnivores, a new study found. The primary problem, said researcher Dr. John Nezlek, is that “vegetarians may be excluded from social events or made to feel odd or different.”
11-9-18 Ancient DNA suggests people settled South America in at least 3 waves
New genetic analyses are filling in the picture of who the earliest Americans were. DNA from a 9,000-year-old baby tooth from Alaska, the oldest natural mummy in North America and remains of ancient Brazilians is helping researchers trace the steps of ancient people as they settled the Americas. Two new studies give a more detailed and complicated picture of the peopling of the Americas than ever before presented. People from North America moved into South America in at least three migration waves, researchers report online November 8 in Cell. The first migrants, who reached South America by at least 11,000 years ago, were genetically related to a 12,600-year-old toddler from Montana known as Anzick-1 (SN: 3/22/14, p. 6). The child’s skeleton was found with artifacts from the Clovis people, who researchers used to think were the first people in the Americas, although that idea has fallen out of favor. Scientists also previously thought these were the only ancient migrants to South America. But DNA analysis of samples from 49 ancient people suggests a second wave of settlers replaced the Clovis group in South America about 9,000 years ago. And a third group related to ancient people from California’s Channel Islands spread over the Central Andes about 4,200 years ago, geneticist Nathan Nakatsuka of Harvard University and colleagues found. People who settled the Americas were also much more genetically diverse than previously thought. At least one group of ancient Brazilians shared DNA with modern indigenous Australians, a different group of researchers reports online November 8 in Science.
11-9-18 Sabre-toothed cats shared their food with injured pride members
Fearsome sabre-toothed cats may have had a tender side. The prehistoric predators risked damaging their powerful jaws and teeth during hunts, but a study of their fossils suggests injured individuals could then rely on their peers for food. Urban Los Angeles is home to the tar pits at Rancho La Brea. For most of the last 40,000 years, sticky tar has trapped and preserved animals wandering across this landscape, providing a window into the animals of the Pleistocene period. What’s really special about these tar pits, says Larisa DeSantis at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, is that it particularly preserved top predators. Because apex predators tend to be few in number, fossils of animals that top the food chain are usually very rare. But the tar pits acted almost like fly paper for predators: they were attracted by the distress calls of trapped herbivores and then got caught themselves. So many sabre-toothed cat (Smilodon) fossils have been pulled from the tar that DeSantis and her colleague, Christopher Shaw at the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries in Los Angeles, have been able to begin to understand how these animals lived. The two researchers compared 21 Smilodon skulls that showed sign of jaw injuries with 135 skulls that looked uninjured. They found that the pattern of pits and scratches on teeth in the uninjured jaws looks like that seen on the teeth of living lions. The pattern on injured jaws was more like that seen on the teeth of living cheetahs. That tells us something about the prehistoric cats’ diets, says DeSantis. “Lions are generalised feeders, they eat flesh and bone,” she says. “But cheetahs tend to avoid bone.”
11-8-18 Indigenous peoples in the Amazon and Australia share some ancestry
The genomes of 15 ancient Americans, including six that are more than 10,000 years old, have been sequenced. The results reveal how people first spread through the Americas – and also throw up a major mystery. The big picture is clear. Around 25,000 years ago during the last ice age, the ancestors of modern native Americans moved across the Beringian land bridge into what is now Alaska. They remained there for millennia because the way south was blocked by ice. Once a path opened up, groups of hunter-gatherers moved south very quickly. “Once they are south of the ice, they are meeting with these amazing conditions, with lots of resources and no competition,” says Víctor Moreno-Mayar of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, a member of the large international team that did the work. Southern native Americans split from northern ones around 16,000 years ago, the results suggest, and reached South America not long afterwards. The genomes reveal many more details about this process. For instance, it appears some previously unknown group split away from northern native Americans at some point and then moved into South America around 8000 years ago, long after the initial migration. But the study also adds to a big mystery: some groups in the Amazon are somewhat more closely related to the Australasians of Australia and Papua New Guinea than other native Americans are. The genomes show this “Australasian signal” is more than 10,000 years old. So where did it come from?
11-8-18 How a life-threatening allergic reaction can happen so fast
In mice, specialized cells monitor for allergens and pass intel to response-triggering immune cells. Within minutes of biting into peanut-tainted food, people with a peanut allergy may find their pulse quickening, blood pressure plummeting and throat closing up. They’re experiencing a rapid and sometimes fatal allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. New research in mice explains how even a small amount of an allergen can quickly trigger such a strong, full-body reaction. The culprit is a type of cell that probes the bloodstream for allergens and then broadcasts the invaders’ presence to anaphylaxis-inducing immune cells, researchers report in the Nov. 9 Science. When these immune cells, called mast cells, detect an allergen that they’re sensitized to, they flood the body with inflammatory proteins that set off an allergic reaction. But how mast cells, which line the space surrounding blood vessels, are so efficient at detecting allergens floating along in the blood has been a long-standing question, says Stephen Galli, an immunologist at Stanford University who wasn’t involved in the research. In the case of a snakebite, fangs can pierce blood vessels and make it easy for venom, which also activates mast cells, to reach the cells. But with a food allergy, the vessels are usually intact. In the study, researchers systematically lowered the levels of different types of immune cells in mice to see how the animals’ response to egg allergens changed.
11-8-18 The cause of half of all developmental disorders is a genetic mystery
“If we have more children, will they also have the disorder?” That’s the question parents ask after discovering their child has a developmental disorder – and it looks as though providing an answer is going to be even more complex than we thought. About 1 in 100 children are born with unexplained deformities of the body, learning or behavioural difficulties – including autism – and other health problems such as heart disorders. The causes are thought to be genetic even though neither parent is affected. How can this be? Last year, the Deciphering Developmental Disorders project, based at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the UK, reported that nearly half of the developmental disorders in 4000 children in Europe were due to a new mutation occurring in the sperm or eggs of one parent. As for the rest, the leading idea was that they were due to rare recessive mutations – mutations that only have an effect if both copies of a gene have the mutation. But in a study of 6000 children in Europe with developmental disorders, the project has now shown that only 4 per cent of developmental disorders are due to recessive mutations in the protein-coding parts of genes. In other words, around half the cases remain unexplained. “That was a surprise,” says team member Hilary Martin. The most likely explanation, she thinks, is that the effect of many rare genetic variants depends on what other variants an individual inherits. A parent might carry a mutation without any ill-effects, but when combined with gene variants from the other parent the same mutation could have very serious effects.
11-8-18 The number of calories you burn while resting depends on the time of day
The body’s resting metabolism is governed by circadian rhythms. Timing is everything. Even how many calories a person burns while at rest depends on the hour. People burn about 129 more calories when resting in the afternoon and evening than in the early morning. But morning is better for burning carbohydrates, while fats are more likely to be burned in the evening, researchers report November 8 in Current Biology. The findings add to evidence that when people eat and sleep may be as important as what they eat for maintaining proper health (SN: 10/31/15, p. 10). Calories burned at rest fuel breathing, circulation and brain activity, while also helping to maintain body temperature. Researchers previously had conflicting evidence about whether a resting body burns calories at a fairly constant rate, or one that rises and falls in a daily — or circadian — rhythm. The study shows that a body’s resting metabolism is governed by circadian clocks, neuroscientist Jeanne Duffy of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and colleagues report. The study followed seven people kept in windowless rooms for three weeks, without any clues to the time of day. Each night, the seven went to bed four hours later than the previous night. That’s the equivalent of traveling around the world and crossing all time zones within a week. The schedule change allowed the researchers to study the natural body rhythms of each subject without outside influences.
11-8-18 Ancient tribes of Scotland learned to write after contact with Romans
Scottish fisherman pulled up a rare catch near Aberdeen earlier this year: a large stone etched with geometric markings. It was a Pictish symbol stone, with a meaning and age as enigmatic as the people who made it. Now it seems that the Picts began carving their symbols much earlier than we had thought, possibly influenced by the Romans – which bolsters the idea that the symbols are remnants of an ancient writing system. The Picts were a coalition of tribal kingdoms inhabiting the far north of what is now Scotland, between about 1700 and 1100 years ago. Their first mention in the written record is from the Roman writer Eumenius, who coined the name Picti – literally “painted people” – in AD 297, likely referring to their tattoos. But while the Romans wrote about the Picts, as far as we know the Picts themselves left no surviving written records. One thing they did leave, though, is about 200 stone slabs adorned with symbols of varying complexity. There are carved bulls, eagles and fish, as well as abstract and intricate geometric patterns. Among the symbols are around 30 that appear often, almost always in pairs. Because the stone slabs were found in locations that seem to have been important to the Picts, these paired symbols are thought to be some sort of naming system for Pictish families. There is no agreement on their precise meaning – but there is a growing consensus that the symbols are actually some sort of non-alphabetic script, similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs. Dating the carvings could help unravel their meaning, but doing so is not easy – carving a stone leaves no convenient organic marker for carbon dating.
11-7-18 Blood test can spot DNA from eight different types of cancer
A simple blood test can detect eight different types of cancer. It does this by detecting the various sizes of tumour DNA fragments that flow through the body. At the moment, most cancer screening tools are limited to specific areas of the body – for example, mammograms for spotting breast cancer and faecal tests for detecting bowel cancer. Whole-body MRI and CT scans can identify tumours throughout the body, but only once they have grown large enough to see. As a result, many research groups are working on developing blood tests that can detect multiple different cancer types while they are still in early, treatable stages. A popular approach is to genetically sequence blood to see if it contains any tell-tale tumour DNA markers. But this is like looking for needles in a haystack because of the large volume of non-cancerous DNA that also circulates in the blood. Now, Florent Mouliere at Cambridge University and his colleagues have devised a different approach that doesn’t require time-consuming genetic sequencing and is potentially more accurate. By looking for characteristic tumour DNA fragment sizes in blood samples, the researchers were able to detect 94 per cent of breast, bowel, ovary, skin, and bile duct cancers in 68 cancer patients, with a false positive rate of 2.5 per cent, i.e., the rate at which it identified a cancer that wasn’t really there. They were also able to identify 65 per cent of pancreas, kidney, and brain cancers in another 57 patients.
11-7-18 World’s first figurative art is of an unknown animal in Borneo
At first glance you might miss it. But a faint drawing of an unknown animal on a cave wall in a remote Borneo jungle is the oldest known figurative art. The painting was made at least 40,000 years ago, predating famous depictions of animals found on European caves and shaking up our understanding of the origins of art – a key innovation in human history. The limestone caves of the remote East Kalimantan province of Borneo are adorned with thousands of images in three distinct styles: reddish-orange hand stencils and paintings of animals, purple hand stencils with intricate designs as well as human figures, and complex black depictions of humans, boats and geometric patterns. But the dates when these painting were created were a mystery. “The art was discovered in the 1990s. We wanted to find out exactly how old it was,” says Maxime Aubert of Griffiths University in Queensland, Australia. So he and his colleagues analysed the calcite layers covering the paintings. This crystalline material is deposited by dripping water and analysis of the uranium it contains gives a date for when the art beneath was created. On a panel of depicting large reddish-orange wild-cattle, the researchers discovered that a faint animal had been drawn between 40,000 and 52,000 years ago. This makes it the oldest known figurative art and builds on the 2014 discovery of a hand stencil dating back at least 35,700 years on the neighbouring Indonesian island of Sulawesi. “It was quite amazing,” says Aubert. The ability to depict real-life objects seems to have developed tens of thousands of years after humans first started to draw. The oldest drawing in the world is a 73,000 year-old crosshatch found in a South African cave. In Europe, the oldest art is also an abstract symbol of red lines and a hand stencil, made by Neanderthals around 65,000 years ago. But these abstract designs are simpler than representational art, which makes the Borneo discovery particularly significant. “Figurative art is a more complex thing to do,” says Aubert.
11-7-18 Marijuana may change the decision-making part of teen brains
A new rat study hints at damage during adolescence. Marijuana use during teenage years may change the brain in key decision-making areas, a study in rats suggests. “Adolescence is a dangerous time to be insulting the brain, particularly with drugs of abuse,” study coauthor Eliza Jacobs-Brichford said November 7 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. Jacobs-Brichford and colleagues gave adolescent male and female rats a marijuana-like compound. Afterward, the researchers found changes in parts of the brain involved in making decisions. Normally, many of the nerve cells there are surrounded by rigid structures called perineuronal nets, sturdy webs that help stabilize connections between nerve cells. But in male rats that had been exposed to the marijuana-like compound in adolescence, fewer of these nerve cells, which help put the brakes on other cells’ activity, were covered by nets. Drug exposure didn’t seem to affect the nets in female rats. “Males look more susceptible to these drugs,” said Jacobs-Brichford, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
11-7-18 There’s a dark side to self-control. Here’s why you should loosen up
Willpower is the secret of success – or so we've been told. But too much can be bad for the body and mind. The trick is to know when to give in to temptation. THE Cookie Monster in Sesame Street isn’t known for his self-restraint, but in 2013 the swivel-eyed biscuit fiend experienced a remarkable transformation. Over a series of episodes, he learned to curb his cravings and avoid eating every cookie he saw in an attempt to gain entry to the Cookie Connoisseurs Club. “Me want it (but me wait)” is how Cookie Monster described his dilemma in a catchy musical number. Parents of young viewers may have sensed this storyline had a purpose. It was an attempt to tap into the latest research on self-control, which has been linked to many aspects of success in life. Some argue that it is as important as IQ. Besides inspiring various educational initiatives – including the 44th season of Sesame Street – these finding have spawned numerous media articles and self-help books. “We are surrounded by messages that more self-control is better and that there basically could not be enough self-control,” says Liad Uziel at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. But is it time to question some of these assumptions? Uziel believes so. He and others have discovered that self-control is a double-edged sword. There is no doubt it has benefits, but too much of it can leave you open to exploitation and undermine both your physical and mental well-being. This presents something of a dilemma for the latest educational reforms – and indeed for anyone on the road to self-improvement. Fortunately, the findings also hold lessons for us all about when to wield our rod of iron and when it might be better to cut ourselves some slack.
11-7-18 Your gut is full of neurons and they are replaced every 2 weeks
THE neurons that make up the “brain” in your gut are almost entirely replaced every two weeks, a study in mice suggests. What’s more, an imbalance in the gut’s ability to repopulate itself with new neurons and clear out the dead ones could lead to Parkinson’s disease. Subhash Kulkarni at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and his colleagues found that neurons in the gut lining of mice are constantly dying at a high rate. These cells are part of the enteric nervous system, the body’s “second brain”. A mouse loses nearly a third of its gut neurons every seven days. But the dead neurons don’t build up, so something must be clearing out the debris. In both the large and small intestine, Kulkarni’s team found neurons being engulfed by macrophages, a kind of immune cell that eats bacteria and viruses. Kulkarni and his team realised that the gut must produce new cells to replace the neurons that have died and been removed. They discovered that the gut has stem cells that proliferate extremely quickly. After two weeks, 88 per cent of the neurons situated between the two layers of muscles in the mouse small intestine were newly formed. In other words, there is a large amount of cellular turnover, but the number of neurons remains the same, says Kulkarni. He presented the study this week at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in San Diego. Recent studies have found that the build-up of a protein called alpha-synuclein in the gut may stifle nerve signals in the brains of people with Parkinson’s, a degenerative disease marked by tremors and stiffness (see “We can tell whether pandas are mating successfully by their bleats”). Kulkarni suspects that alpha-synuclein build-up is a consequence of neuron turnover.
11-7-18 A new drug may boost dwindling treatment options for gonorrhea
In a clinical trial, zoliflodacin was effective against the sexually transmitted disease. Gonorrhea is a wily foe. But doctors may soon have another drug to fight the sexually transmitted infection that’s become resistant to nearly every antibiotic thrown its way. In clinical trials, a new antibiotic was effective at stopping the bacteria that causes the disease. A single oral dose of the drug, called zoliflodacin, cured 96 percent of people who had gonorrhea infections in the urinary and genital organs, researchers report in the Nov. 8 New England Journal of Medicine. In comparison, 100 percent of patients given ceftriaxone — the remaining antibiotic that’s effective against the disease in the United States — were successfully treated. Caused by Neisseria gonorrhoeae, gonorrhea can be passed from an infected person to a sexual partner or from an infected mother to her baby at birth. The consequences of the infection are especially severe for women, who can develop pelvic inflammatory disease and become infertile (SN: 6/10/00, p. 376), and for babies, who can lose their sight. The United States had more than half a million new gonorrhea cases reported in 2017, up about 75 percent from the historical low point in 2009. Worldwide, an estimated 78 million new gonorrhea infections occur each year. In the United States, doctors treat an infection with a combination of ceftriaxone and another antibiotic called azithromycin. But bacterial strains resistant to ceftriaxone have cropped up in other countries, raising concerns of untreatable gonorrhea.
11-7-18 Like Europe, Borneo hosted Stone Age cave artists
Animal figures and hand stencils are as old and complex as rock art found in Spain. Discoveries on the island of Borneo illustrate that cave art emerged in Southeast Asia as early as in Western Europe, and with comparable complexity, researchers say. A limestone cave in eastern Borneo features a reddish-orange painting of a horned animal, possibly a type of wild cattle that may have been found on the island at the time. The painting dates to at least 40,000 years ago, concludes a team led by archaeologist Maxime Aubert of Griffith University in Southport, Australia. This creature represents the oldest known example of a painted figure anywhere in the world, the scientists report online November 7 in Nature. The same cave walls contain two hand outlines framed in reddish orange pigment that were made at least 37,200 years ago and a similar hand stencil with a maximum age of 51,800 years. Three nearby caves display instances of a second rock art style that appeared around 20,000 years ago, the investigators say. Examples include purple-hued, humanlike figures and hand stencils, some decorated with lines or dots. Painted lines link some hand stencils to others.
11-7-18 'Oldest animal painting' discovered in Borneo
The earliest known painting of an animal has been identified in a cave on the island of Borneo. The artwork, which is at least 40,000 years old, is thought to be the oldest example of figurative painting - where real objects are depicted rather than abstract shapes. The researchers aren't certain what animal it represents, but their hunch is that it's a banteng, a type of wild cow that lives in the area today. The work appears in Nature journal. The painting was found in a system of caves in the remote and rugged mountains of East Kalimantan, an Indonesian province on Borneo. The caves contain thousands of other prehistoric paintings, drawings and other imagery, including hand stencils, animals, abstract signs and symbols."This is a very large area with many paintings and many caves - it's a major archaeological discovery," said Prof Francesco d'Errico, an authority on prehistoric art from the University of Bordeaux, France, who was not involved in the latest research. Co-author Maxime Aubert, from Griffith University in Australia, commented: "The oldest cave art image we dated is a large painting of an unidentified animal, probably a species of wild cattle still found in the jungles of Borneo - this has a minimum age of around 40,000 years and is now the earliest known figurative artwork." The animal appears to have a spear shaft stuck in its flank and is one of a series of similar red-orange coloured paintings, which were made with iron-oxide pigment. These paintings, which include other depictions of animals along with hand stencils, appear to represent the oldest phase of art in the cave. The animals, said Dr Aubert, are "painted in the same style with a large body and small legs".
11-7-18 Neanderthals may have breathed deeply and breastfed infants for years
WE KNOW a lot about Neanderthals, but gaps in our understanding remain. Now insights have been shed on how they fed their infants, and it has also been revealed how the ancient humans got enough oxygen to power their bulkier bodies. Tanya Smith at Griffith University in Australia and her colleagues examined a pair of 250,000-year-old teeth from France. This revealed that Neanderthal children were exclusively breastfed for nine months, and fully weaned at around 2.5 years of age (Science Advances, doi.org/cwmz). The first tooth, which probably formed soon after birth, had high levels of barium – a sign of milk ingestion – in layers from before 9 months of age, and moderate barium levels up to about 2.5 years of age. The second tooth, which was likely to have formed at around the age of 3, had no elevated barium. The findings suggest that Neanderthals had similar weaning patterns to modern humans in hunter-gatherer communities. In a separate study, Asier Gómez-Olivencia at the University of the Basque Country in Spain and his colleagues analysed a 60,000-year-old adult, male Neanderthal specimen. They generated a 3D reconstruction of the ribcage, finding that it was the same size as ours. This is a surprise because Neanderthals had stockier bodies than us, suggesting they needed more oxygen, so probably had larger lungs. But the 3D reconstruction reveals that the Neanderthal ribcage was instead a slightly different shape, with a wider bottom (Nature Communications, doi.org/cwmx). Gómez-Olivencia and his colleagues think this could mean Neanderthals had a larger diaphragm, the sheet of muscle that contracts when we breathe. This may have enabled them to inhale more strongly, taking in more air with each breath.
11-6-18 More than 60 prescription drugs are getting into river foodchains
Over 60 common pharmaceuticals have been found in river-dwelling wildlife in Australia, highlighting the need for better wastewater treatment strategies. When we take a drug, a portion sometimes passes through us intact and goes down the toilet. But as most medications are not removed during sewage treatment, they often end up in waterways. To find out if pharmaceutical waste then finds its way into aquatic creatures, Erinn Richmond at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia and her colleagues sampled flies, beetles, spiders and other insects from six waterways in the greater Melbourne region. The sites varied from a treated sewage run-off stream to a river in a national park. The researchers detected 69 medications in the insects, including antidepressants, painkillers, antibiotics, and blood pressure-lowering agents. The highest levels were found in insects near wastewater plants, but low levels were also detected in those from more pristine areas. River-borne pharmaceuticals most likely accumulate in flies and beetles while they are underwater larvae, then transfer to spiders that feed on them after they emerge as adults, says Richmond. Other predators like fish, platypuses, birds, bats and frogs may also become cross-contaminated, she says. (Webmaster's comment: And with 7.7 billion people dumping these pharmaceuticals into our water supply this problem is HUGE!)
11-6-18 Gene therapy injection into spinal cord halts ALS in adult mice
A new delivery method could take us a step closer to a gene therapy for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a neurodegenerative disorder in which nerve cells progressively stop working throughout the spinal cord and the brain. Animal studies have already suggested that ALS can be prevented by replacing the mutated genes that cause some forms of the condition with normal versions. But delivering genes to nerve cells in the spine is a challenge. The new method involves injecting corrected genes beneath the tissues that protect the spinal cord. The technique has been shown to correct 89 per cent of genes associated with an inherited form of ALS. Ten per cent of ALS patients have an inherited version of the disease, and 20 per cent of those people have a mutation in a gene called SOD1 that causes their ALS. There is currently no effective treatment for this familial form of ALS or the more common sporadic ALS, both of which have a median survival of 3 to 5 years after the onset of symptoms. Martin Marsala and Mariana Bravo Hernandez at the University of California San Diego and their colleagues inserted a compound that silences the SOD1 gene into a virus. They then injected the virus into adult mice with an inherited ALS-like condition just above their spinal cords. “We’re injecting it beneath the membranes that protect the spinal cord, so there’s no barrier. That’s what allows us to impact all the neurons inside the spinal cord,” says Bravo Hernandez.
11-6-18 Hormone helps regrow frog legs and may one day lead to a human therapy
Could we one day regrow amputated limbs? We have taken a small step down this road with partial regeneration of the hind legs of frogs. Several kinds of animals can regenerate damaged body parts to some extent, including flatworms, fish and some amphibians. With just a few exceptions mammals seem to have lost this ability in their evolutionary past but there’s hope it could be reawakened with the right chemical nudges. A species of African frog has relatively weak limb regenerating powers. If they lose a leg they normally regrow a thin spike of rubbery cartilage. But now Michael Levin at Tufts University, Massachusetts, and his colleagues have coaxed the animals into re-growing a wider, paddle-like structure complete with bones, nerves and blood vessels – although it lacked a foot. The team achieved their results with progesterone, which is best known as a female sex hormone, but which also plays a role in wound repair. It was delivered with a bioreactor, a small box containing progesterone-loaded gel that was sewn over the wound straight after amputation.
11-6-18 Loneliness is bad for brains
Solitary confinement shrinks nerve cells in mice, study finds. Mice yanked out of their community and held in solitary isolation show signs of brain damage. After a month of being alone, the mice had smaller nerve cells in certain parts of the brain. Other brain changes followed, scientists reported at a news briefing November 4 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. It’s not known whether similar damage happens in the brains of isolated humans. If so, the results have implications for the health of people who spend much of their time alone, including the estimated tens of thousands of inmates in solitary confinement in the United States and elderly people in institutionalized care facilities. The new results, along with other recent brain studies, clearly show that for social species, isolation is damaging, says neurobiologist Huda Akil of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “There is no question that this is changing the basic architecture of the brain,” Akil says.
11-6-18 A lack of sleep can induce anxiety
Brain activity is altered in people spending the night awake. A sleepless night can leave the brain spinning with anxiety the next day. In healthy adults, overnight sleep deprivation triggered anxiety the next morning, along with altered brain activity patterns, scientists reported November 4 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. People with anxiety disorders often have trouble sleeping. The new results uncover the reverse effect — that poor sleep can induce anxiety. The study shows that “this is a two-way interaction,” says Clifford Saper, a sleep researcher at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston who wasn’t involved in the study. “The sleep loss makes the anxiety worse, which in turn makes it harder to sleep.” Sleep researchers Eti Ben Simon and Matthew Walker, both of the University of California, Berkeley, studied the anxiety levels of 18 healthy people. Following either a night of sleep or a night of staying awake, these people took anxiety tests the next morning. After sleep deprivation, anxiety levels in these healthy people were 30 percent higher than when they had slept. On average, the anxiety scores reached levels seen in people with anxiety disorders, Ben Simon said November 5 in a news briefing.
11-6-18 ‘End of the Megafauna’ examines why so many giant Ice Age animals went extinct
New book's colorful illustrations also offer perspective of just how large these creatures were. Today’s land animals are a bunch of runts compared with creatures from the not-too-distant past. Beasts as big as elephants, gorillas and bears were once much more common around the world. Then, seemingly suddenly, hundreds of big species, including the woolly mammoth, the giant ground sloth and a lizard weighing as much as half a ton, disappeared. In End of the Megafauna, paleomammalogist Ross MacPhee makes one thing clear: The science on what caused the extinctions of these megafauna — animals larger than 44 kilograms, or about 100 pounds — is far from settled. MacPhee dissects the evidence behind two main ideas: that as humans moved into new parts of the world over the last 50,000 years, people hunted the critters into oblivion, or that changes in climate left the animals too vulnerable to survive. As MacPhee shows, neither scenario matches all of the available data. Throughout, Peter Schouten’s illustrations, reminiscent of paintings that enliven natural history museums, bring the behemoths back to life. At times, MacPhee slips in too many technical terms. But overall, he offers readers an informative, up-to-date overview of a fascinating period in Earth’s history.
11-5-18 A mashup of yeast and E. coli shows how mitochondria might have evolved
Forcing the two organisms to cooperate hints at origins of cells’ energy factories. Yeast intentionally stuffed with bacteria may teach scientists something about the origins of cells’ powerhouses. Cellular power-generating organelles, called mitochondria, are thought to have once been bacteria captured by archaea, single-celled microbes that are one of the earliest forms of life. Now, almost all eukaryotic cells (cells with a nucleus) contain mitochondria. At first, the bacteria may have lived inside archaea as endosymbionts, independent organisms that cooperate with their hosts. Over time, mitochondria lost many of their genes and eventually became an integral part of the cell. This scenario has support from genetics. But “if you really want to prove something’s true,” says chemical biologist Peter Schultz, researchers should be able to make something similar in the lab. So Schultz, of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and his colleagues created a hybrid cell by fusing two popular lab organisms — the baker’s yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae and a common gut bacteria called E. coli. “It’s a pioneering approach,” says evolutionary biologist Antonio Lazcano of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City, who was not involved in the experiments. No one has made such a hybrid organism before. But the work, described October 29 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests it may not be so hard to make a free-living organism into an endosymbiont, he says.
11-4-18 Malaysia is ground zero for the next malaria menace
Deforestation brings monkeys and humans close enough to share an age-old disease. Vinita Surukan knew the mosquitoes were trouble. They attacked her in swarms, biting through her clothes as she worked to collect rubber tree sap near her village in Sabah, the northern state of Malaysia. The 30-year-old woman described the situation as nearly unbearable. But she needed the job. There were few alternatives in her village surrounded by fragments of forest reserves and larger swaths of farms, oil palm plantations and rubber tree estates. So she endured until a week of high fever and vomiting forced her to stop. The night of July 23, Surukan was trying to sleep off her fever when the clinic she visited earlier in the day called with results: Her blood was teeming with malaria parasites, about a million in each drop. Her family rushed her to the town hospital where she received intravenous antimalarial drugs before being transferred to a city hospital equipped to treat severe malaria. The drugs cleared most of the parasites, and the lucky woman was smiling by morning. Malaria has terrorized humans for millennia, its fevers carved into our earliest writing on ancient Sumerian clay tablets from Mesopotamia. In 2016, four species of human malaria parasites, which are spread by mosquito from person to person, infected more than 210 million people worldwide, killing almost 450,000. The deadliest species, Plasmodium falciparum, causes most of the infections.
11-3-18 Why men think eating meat makes them manly
How the pressures of masculinity can affect men's diet. We like to think that, as rational humans, we make choices based on objective standards. But behavioral psychology repeatedly demonstrates otherwise. When it comes to race, gender, and class — and even height and hair color — research shows that we make value judgments based on arbitrary assessments. Not surprisingly, the same holds true when it comes to food. A recent study, led by University of Southampton researchers Emma Roe and Paul Hurley, explored the intersection of masculinity and meat eating. Focusing on three groups of men — "'green'-minded men, exercising men, and men who receive emergency food aid" — it found that, according to Roe, while "many men are interested in eating less meat," they have a hard time doing so without "social permission." This was true for all categories. The authors frame this finding in environmental terms. With animal agriculture accounting for 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and with 83 percent of agricultural land dedicated to raising and feeding livestock, they conclude that unraveling "this strong cultural association between men and meat" may be critical to the prospects of global sustainability. Not everyone is buying the men and meat connection. Baylen Linnekin, author of Biting the Hand that Feeds Us, questions what he calls a "masculinity and meat consumption trope." Highlighting studies that seem designed more to generate headlines than advance our knowledge of food choice (including a study that connects veganism to "white masculinity"), Linnekin, who questions Roe and Hurley's methodology, notes that, "I don't know too many eaters who need an attaboy before they feel comfortable exercising their dietary choices openly." He concludes with a simple directive: "Eat whatever the hell you want." Carol Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, has a different take on the study. "Yes," she writes in an email exchange, "this study reminds us that masculinity is always being constructed by cues from other men. There is homosocial bonding in sharing expectations about what men eat." But she finds it ironic that "meat — supposedly symbolic of strength and virility — is being eaten because men are too afraid to change in front of other men." She hopes to see follow studies look into "how quickly meat eaters become defensive and the attacks they make on vegans" in the first place. Another paper, published in the journal Appetite, examines the compelling link among not only meat and gender, but class status as well. Part of the research the team behind is conducted involved offering participants a "beast burger" presented as either meat-based or vegetarian. The highest demand for the meat option came "from those who rated themselves lower in socioeconomic status." Meat, to the extent that it's associated with power, becomes "substitutable for the status they lack."
11-2-18 Neandertal teeth reveal the earliest known signs of lead exposure
Chemical analyses provide more clues about the environments our ancient relatives lived in. Traces of lead found in the molars of two young Neandertals found in southeast France provide the earliest recorded evidence of lead exposure in hominids. Like tiny time capsules, chemical signatures in the 250,000-year-old chompers chronicle specific times — mostly during the winter months — when the two individuals were exposed to the element as children, researchers report online October 31 in Science Advances. “There are clocks inside our mouths,” says Tanya Smith, a human evolutionary biologist at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. By analyzing fossilized teeth, “you get this incredible insight into what [life] was like in the past.” The finding was part of a study that tracked nursing habits of the species and seasonal changes in the environment. Tooth enamel grows in layers, trapping chemicals contained in the water and food that animals, including humans, consume. Neandertal teeth were no different in this regard. Both tooth samples revealed layers with elevated lead levels at multiple points throughout the youngsters’ first years of life. Chemical analysis of thin slices of tooth from one Neandertal, for instance, revealed the first signs of lead exposure starting at about 2.5 months of age, increasing at 9 months and spiking just after turning 2 years old.
11-2-18 Eating less protein may help curb gut bacteria’s growth
The microbes are limited by low nitrogen levels, a study in mice and other mammals suggests. Humans and other animals may have a way to control the growth of gut microbes: Eat less protein. That’s because protein contains nitrogen. And, it turns out, the amount of nitrogen in the diet of mice governed the growth of bacteria in the animals’ large intestine, researchers report October 29 in Nature Microbiology. The finding may help researchers learn how to manipulate the types and amounts of people’s gut bacteria, which can contribute to health and disease. Researchers know that something must limit bacterial growth. “If not, we’d be a few feet deep in E. coli in a couple of days,” says Thomas Schmidt, a microbiologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor not involved in the study. But so far, scientists have had limited success controlling which microbes inhabit the colon. That may be because researchers were looking at the wrong nutrients, Schmidt says. Most, including Schmidt, have usually considered carbon — found in fiber, starch and sugars, for example — to be the most important nutrient microbes eat, he says. The new study suggests that other nutrients such as nitrogen may be as important, or even more important, for controlling bacterial growth.
11-1-18 Fossils hint hominids migrated through a ‘green’ Arabia 300,000 years ago
Ancient animal bones and stone tools are a rare find from the now-harsh environment. Although now characterized by inhospitable deserts, the Arabian Peninsula was a green hot spot for migrating members of the human genus, Homo, at least 300,000 years ago, scientists say. Stone tools found among fossils of antelopes, elephants and other animals at Saudi Arabia’s Ti’s al Ghadah site date to between 300,000 and 500,000 years ago, archaeologist Patrick Roberts and his colleagues say. At that time, the site was located in a grassy, vegetated region that enjoyed regular rains, the researchers report online October 29 in Nature Ecology & Evolution. The new finds support the idea that the Arabian Peninsula had a climate friendly to either Homo sapiens or another Homo species that journeyed out of Africa a few hundred thousand years ago, say Roberts, of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, and his team. Homo sapiens originated in Africa roughly 300,000 years ago. Traditionally, scientists have estimated that human migrations out of Africa began about 60,000 years ago. But recent finds on the Arabian Peninsula, including a human finger fossil from at least 86,000 years ago, have indicated that these dispersals began much earlier (SN: 5/12/18, p. 12).
11-1-18 DNA project to decode 'all complex life' on Earth
A mission to sequence the genome of every known animal, plant, fungus and protozoan - a group of single-celled organisms - is underway. The Earth BioGenome Project (EBP) has been described as a "moonshot for biology". A key aim is to use the information in efforts to conserve threatened species. Scientists say clues about how species adapt to environmental change could be hidden in their DNA code. As part of the project, the Wellcome Sanger Institute, which played a major part in the human genome project, has committed to sequencing the genomes of all 66,000 UK species. Dr Jim Smith, director of science at the Wellcome Trust described the mission as timely, adding that it was "incumbent upon human beings to raise awareness of biodiversity". The aim is to create an entirely new inventory of life on Planet Earth by reading the genetic code of every organism belonging to a vast group known as eukaryotes - essentially, species made up of multiple cells with their DNA bound inside a nucleus. As Prof Harris Lewin from University of California, Davis, who is chair of the project pointed out, "only about 3,300 of the 1.5 million known species have had their genomes sequenced". "The gaps in our knowledge are a lot bigger than what we know," he told BBC News. "So we're not even filling in the pieces of the puzzle; most of the puzzle is empty." The main ambitions of the project are threefold: 1. Fundamental science: The genomes will be an inventory of knowledge about the biology of life on the planet. 2. Conservation: To protect endangered species from threats like climate change, scientists want to understand the genetic code that underlies their adaptations to their environment. 3. Human welfare: Pinpointing the code for "useful traits" could reveal, for example, medicinal properties embedded in an organism's DNA or ways to protect vital crop species from drought and disease.
11-1-18 Health risks increase for babies born to fathers aged 45 or over
Babies whose fathers are 45 years old or over are more likely to be less healthy at birth, according to a study of more than 40 million deliveries. On average children of older fathers were born 20.2 grams lighter, and had a 14 per cent greater risk of low birth weight than infants born to fathers aged 25 to 34. Babies with fathers aged 45 or older also had a 14 per cent higher chance of being admitted to a neonatal intensive care unit, and were 14 per cent more likely to be premature than those born to younger fathers. The figures come from an analysis by researchers at Stanford University in California of 40 million live births that took place in the US between 2007 and 2016. They report the relative risk rather than the absolute risk, meaning it is still only a small number of births that require neonatal intensive care units, for example. The team says the study was important because it offered rare insight into the impact a father’s age can have on a child, where women have for years been encouraged not to put off having babies due to concerns over health and medical complications. They added that while the absolute risks of being an older father remain low, the findings “emphasise the importance” of including data on men when investigating the public health implications of rising parental age.
11-1-18 Virtual reality therapy has real-life benefits for some mental disorders
Cheap, user-friendly hardware could help VR therapy go mainstream. Edwin adjusted his headset and gripped the game controller in both hands. He swallowed hard. The man had good reason to be nervous. He was about to enter a virtual environment tailor-made to get his heart pumping way more than any action-packed video game: a coffee shop full of people. Determined to overcome his persistent fear that other people want to hurt him, Edwin had enrolled in a study of a new virtual reality therapy. The research aimed to help people with paranoia become more comfortable in public places. In this program, described in March in the Lancet Psychiatry, Edwin could visit a store or board a crowded bus. Virtual strangers can be scary, just like real people. Edwin, who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, often found simple errands like grocery shopping overwhelming and exhausting. But facing simulated crowds came with perks. At a nearby computer sat clinical psychologist Roos Pot-Kolder of VU University Amsterdam. She could customize the number of avatars and set their friendliness levels in each scene. That way, Edwin could progress at his own pace. During one session, Pot-Kolder coached Edwin to challenge his own paranoid assumptions. If he saw an angry-looking avatar, she asked, “What could be other reasons for looking mad, besides wanting to hurt you?” Edwin offered: The person could be tired or having personal problems. After three months of VR treatment, public outings were easier, said Edwin, who asked that his last name not be used. “I felt more freedom, more relaxed.” He even performed a poem for 500 people at a talent show, which he “would not have dared” before.
11-1-18 Why air travel makes deadly disease pandemics less likely
It’s what keeps microbiologists awake at night: when the next deadly disease breaks out, modern air travel means it will be halfway round the world before we even notice. Or does it? Mass air travel might instead mean some bad outbreaks are less likely to happen, according to an analysis that turns accepted thinking about pandemics on its head. The idea that the world is overdue for an outbreak of a fatal infectious disease – aka “the Big One” – is so widely accepted it has become a sci-fi plot staple, and the target of intense preparedness efforts by governments. The deadliest epidemic in history, the 1918 Spanish flu, killed over 50 million people in a couple of years. But new diseases don’t spring up from nowhere – they evolve from related strains of viruses or bacteria, point out Robin Thompson of the University of Oxford and colleagues. The new microbe may differ from the old by only a few genetic mutations. That means people previously exposed to the first strain – thanks to air travel – may have some degree of immune resistance to the new deadly strain. So they’d be less likely to catch it, or if they do, to die from it. “It’s like a natural vaccination,” says Thompson. In other words, the continual spreading of germs around the world makes it all the harder for a microbe to evolve in isolation long enough that when it finally breaks out, it wreaks destruction. “We may have been thinking about air travel all wrong,” says Thompson. The team carried out mathematical modelling of factors that affect the spread of a theoretical new and highly virulent microbe in a world with mega-cities and mass air travel. They found that a crucial variable governing the number of cases is the degree of cross-immunity between the pandemic strain and its closest relative.