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Hand Evolution by Megan Godtland

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2019 Science Stats

139 Evolution News Articles
for October 2019
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Nature cares only that you reproduce and raise the kids.
After you've done that, get out of the way.

10-31-19 Measles has a devastating and long-term effect on your immune system
Measles is known to make children vulnerable to other infections. Now two major studies of Dutch Orthodox Protestants, who reject vaccination, have discovered why: it massively damages the immune system, making measles even more lethal than we realised. That is bad news, as measles cases worldwide rise to levels not seen since 2006, increasing tenfold in Africa and doubling in Europe. They have reached the highest numbers in years in the US and England. There were 7 million cases worldwide in 2017, but figures expected to be published this December show that numbers rose “substantially” in 2018, says Katrina Kretsinger of the World Health Organization. “All cases are because people who should have been vaccinated were not,” she says, because of weak health systems, poor public information and anti-vaccine sentiment. After measles vaccination was introduced in the 1960s, cases fell dramatically. Mysteriously, wherever that happened, deaths from completely unrelated infections also dropped. In 2015, Michael Mina, now at Harvard University, found that children who have had measles are so much more likely to catch other diseases that such post-measles infections may account for half of all infectious disease deaths in children living in areas where measles circulates. Around 100,000 children died of measles in 2017. Mina suspects that two or three times that number who had measles will later die of other infections they would not have caught if they hadn’t had measles. Now we know why. As we are exposed to pathogens as children, we accumulate specialised immune cells, each of which has learned to make antibodies to attack one particular bit of a pathogen. The measles virus kills these cells, but the impact of this wasn’t known.

10-31-19 Measles makes body 'forget' how to fight infection
Measles has a devastating impact on the body's immune system that could make it harder to fight infections for years, a pair of studies show. The virus can cause "immune amnesia" - meaning the body forgets how to fight bugs it once knew how to beat. Measles also resets the immune system to a "baby-like" state, compromising its ability to devise ways of tackling new infections. Experts said the findings showed the importance of vaccination. Measles is a virus that initially causes a runny nose, sneezing and fever. A few days later it leads to a blotchy rash that starts off on the face and spreads across the body. Most people will recover, but measles can cause life-long disability. It can be deadly, especially if it causes pneumonia in the lungs or encephalitis (swelling in the brain). It is estimated that 110,000 people die from measles each year around the world. The findings were based on detailed analysis of unvaccinated children in an Orthodox Protestant community in the Netherlands. Blood samples were taken from the children, and then again two months after a measles outbreak in 2013. Research groups in the United States, UK and Netherlands were analysing the samples to assess the impact of measles on the immune system. The focus was on antibodies - the tiny proteins that stick to foreign invaders - and the white blood cells that make them. The immune system has a memory of the hostile invaders it has fought off before. Part of this memory is kept in memory B-cells, which are a type of immune cell that has specialised in producing just one type of antibody. But the measles virus can infect and destroy these cells, causing "immune amnesia". Researchers at Harvard Medical School looked at blood samples from 77 children. They used a tool, called VirScan, that is like a fancy fishing rod that can catch thousands of different types of antibodies. It allowed the team to build up an incredibly detailed picture of the children's immune system before and after a measles infection.

10-31-19 A type of brainwave may help clean your brain while you sleep
As you sleep, slow waves of electrical activity in your brain seem to help rinse away harmful waste products that could otherwise damage your brain cells. The process may play a role in preventing neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. “Sleep is really important for clearing toxic metabolic waste products from the brain,” says Laura Lewis at Boston University, Massachusetts. Sleep deprivation is associated with a build-up in the brain of clumps of protein, such as beta-amyloid, which is implicated in Alzheimer’s disease, she says. Brainwaves are made by large networks of brain cells firing together in rhythm. Much about their function is unclear, but we know they are slower during deep sleep, and faster when we are awake. To see if brainwaves play a role in cleaning the brain, Lewis and her team used EEG caps to measure electrical activity in the brains of 13 people while they napped inside MRI scanners. At the same time, the researchers also measured blood oxygen levels in their brains and the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, a watery liquid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. They found that, during sleep, large waves of cerebrospinal fluid flow into and out of the brain every 20 seconds, a process thought to remove waste. The inward flow was preceded by patterns of slow waves of electrical activity, called delta waves. These brainwaves are also known to play a role in consolidating memories while we sleep. The researchers found that the waves coincided with blood flowing out of the brain, which they say helps balance the total volume of fluid around the brain. People with neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s have fewer and weaker slow brainwaves, says Lewis. “So we might expect that there are also fewer and smaller waves of cerebrospinal fluid in those disorders, and that might have an impact on how waste products are cleared.”

10-31-19 Genetic studies have missed important gene variants in African people
More than a quarter of the genetic variation found among people in 25 Ugandan villages has never previously been recorded, because most human genetics studies focus on people of European descent. This oversight could have a significant impact on global human health, as the variants included genes associated with cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. Human genetics studies have suffered from a lack of diversity and more research on people from different parts of the world is needed, says Deepti Gurdasani at Queen Mary University of London, who led the work in Uganda. “European ancestry populations make up 16 per cent of the global population, but approximately 80 per cent of participants in genetic studies,” says Alicia Martin at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “This means populations of all other ancestry groups are vastly underrepresented.” Gurdasani and her colleagues analysed DNA from more than 6000 people in a rural community in south-west Uganda. The researchers found that 29 per cent of the gene variants they discovered weren’t present in one of the largest existing databases of human genome sequences. Although some data sets do include people of African descent, such as African-Americans, Gurdasani says this isn’t enough. The ancestors of modern African-Americans came from specific parts of Africa and so this isn’t sufficient to capture all of the genetic diversity that exists within the African continent, she says. Because all humans originated in Africa, groups that later migrated elsewhere took only a fraction of genetic diversity with them. “Two individuals within an African population will be much more different than two individuals within a European population,” says Gurdasani. The higher level of genetic diversity within Africa gives researchers the opportunity to investigate whether particular gene variants are associated with particular diseases.

10-31-19 The unsurprising decline of childhood literacy in America
I cannot remember a time when I read a newspaper article informing me that children were getting better at anything. If all the hellish stories are to be believed, young people, not only in this country but throughout the post-industrialized Western world, are miserable: anxious, frightened, isolated, confused. So it was no surprise to learn that American children are not learning how to read either. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, average reading test scores are declining among American eighth graders, in large part because the very worst readers are performing worse than ever. What can we do about it? Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats running for president have a predictable answer: spend billions of dollars on some initiative, the details of which I would rather undergo the voluntary removal of my gallbladder than familiarize myself with. Meanwhile Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, says that we cannot simply throw money at the problem. This seems to me undeniable. It may well be the case that not all American children learned to read decades ago, but those who did were actual readers. They could sit down with Washington's "Farewell Address" or a story by Hawthorne without their eyes glazing over. And they acquired these skills with far less money spent, no nonsense about innovative curriculum, or, perhaps most important, without "technology in the classroom" (the great mantra of the '90s and early 2000s). As I write this, millions of them in their 60s and 70s are browsing the stacks at their public libraries, those bizarre institutions that so few young people even associate with books, looking for the new John Grisham. I cannot for the life of me understand why we cannot admit that spending hundreds of hours in front of televisions and mobile phones and tablets and even occasionally computers — those archaic typing machines employed by us oldsters — is very obviously detrimental to the process of learning to read. Reading a book requires one to concentrate on a single task for an extended period of time — a minimum of half an hour or so during which one does not ask oneself whether a little heart or a yellow star is appearing next to some words in a box next to some other words. It is a centripetal rather than a centrifugal process, one that requires us to look down and inward, not outside. If we want to help young people become better readers, one of the best things we can do for them is to keep their wonderful young imaginations free from the tyranny of the screen, to which commerce will subject them later on when they are forced to earn their livings.

10-31-19 Europe’s first brain stimulation device for depression launched in UK
Europe’s first medically-approved brain stimulation device to treat depression is now available for people to use at home. The non-invasive device, which uses small jolts of electricity to manipulate activity in the front of the brain, is used in conjunction with a virtual therapist on your phone. Zapping brain tissue in this way using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) has been shown to improve symptoms of depression in several trials. Now, researchers at Flow Neuroscience have incorporated the technology into a headset, which the company sells for £399. tDCS uses a weak current to change the electrical potential of neurons, making them more – or less – likely to fire. Flow’s headset directs this stimulation at a brain area just behind the forehead called the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in personality, decision-making and regulating emotion. People with depression often have lower activity in the left side of this area, and higher activity on the right. The headset aims to rebalance this activity.Users wear the device for 30 minutes, 18 times over six weeks. They also have access to virtual therapy using an app, which guides them to eat better, sleep better, do more exercise and meditate. Users can “top up” their treatment twice a week. Previous research on tDCS and depression has had mixed results. However, two recent trials showed that it had similar effects to antidepressants in reducing symptoms of depression, but with fewer side effects. Side effects of antidepressants can include anxiety, fatigue, weight gain and nausea, whereas the most common possible downsides of tDCS are temporary redness underneath the electrodes worn on the scalp and a mild headache.

10-31-19 American whiskeys leave unique ‘webs’ when evaporated
Different types of bourbon leave behind signature weblike designs. Step aside, whiskey connoisseurs. Scientists have a new way to discern quality among bourbons. An analysis of residues from evaporated bourbons reveals that different types of American whiskey leave behind unique weblike patterns. Such signature evaporation marks, described online October 24 in Physical Review Fluids, could help identify counterfeit liquors or test new techniques to speed up whiskey aging. Researchers at the University of Louisville in Kentucky discovered these “whiskey webs” by evaporating bourbon droplets diluted with different amounts of water and examining the dregs under a microscope. Bourbons with alcohol concentrations of at least 35 percent left uniform residue films previously seen in experiments on Scotch whisky, while bourbons with alcohol concentrations of about 10 percent left markings similar to coffee rings. To the researchers’ surprise, almost every American whiskey diluted to around 20 percent alcohol left behind a unique, weblike microstructure. Fluid dynamics researcher Stuart Williams and colleagues suspect that compounds that leach into the whiskey while it ages in charred oak barrels create these webs. “A lot of [those compounds] do not like water,” he says, so diluting the bourbon forces those particles to flee toward the surface and form a skin over the droplet. As liquid evaporates away, that film contracts and buckles to create a network of wrinkles. “We think each brand leaves a different pattern because each [surface film] has a different chemical composition,” Williams says. “They’re all going to bend and fold in different ways.” These webs probably don’t form in high-proof bourbon with little water because the compounds don’t migrate toward the droplet surface, he explains. And in extremely dilute droplets, there aren’t enough compounds to coat the surface.

10-31-19 Bronze Age monument discovered in Forest of Dean
A previously unknown Bronze Age monument has been discovered hidden in woodland in the Forest of Dean following an airborne laser scan. The ritual monument, known as a ring cairn, dates back to about 2,000 BC. It consists of a circular bank with several small limestone standing stones on top. Archaeologist Jon Hoyle, who found it, said it was the only site of its kind known about in Gloucestershire, and was a "very significant" discovery. It was identified following a LiDAR (light detection and ranging) survey of the Forest of Dean. The technique used laser beams fired from an aeroplane to create a 3D record of the land surface, effectively removing the trees from the landscape. Mr Hoyle said when he studied the data, he spotted an "extremely circular" feature, which he thought initially might be a World War Two gun emplacement. After visiting the site, at a secret location near the village of Tidenham, he realised it was much older, dating to between 2,500 BC and 1,500 BC. "It was very exciting. I was expecting to find quite a lot of new sites with the LiDAR, but nothing as interesting as this." The ring cairn is about 25m (80ft) in diameter and made up of a 5m-wide (16ft) rubble bank, with at least 10 white limestone standing stones, each no more than 1m (3ft) high, standing on top. Mr Hoyle said ring cairns were "common in upland areas, in places like Derbyshire, Northumberland and Wales" but this was the only known one in Gloucestershire. "Nobody knows precisely what they were used for. Some have been found in association with burials, and often there appear to be residues of charcoal in places like this, suggesting rituals that involved fire," he added. The discovery is featured in a new book by Mr Hoyle - Hidden Landscapes of the Forest of Dean.

10-30-19 Experimental cancer drug that targets gene mutation can shrink tumours
An experimental drug can shrink tumours caused by a genetic mutation responsible for many cancers, opening the door to greater personalised treatment of the disease. Up to one in four human cancers have a mutation in the KRAS gene, which is responsible for a protein that controls cell growth. These mutations can cause normal cells to grow out of control, leading to cancer. “Patients with KRAS mutant tumours generally have a poorer prognosis and have lacked effective treatments,” says Jude Canon of the biopharmaceutical company Amgen. Yet finding a way to target this protein has remained elusive since its discovery over 30 years ago. Canon and his colleagues made a breakthrough when they found a groove on the surface of the KRAS protein with one of the common mutations – the G12C mutation. This allowed them to develop a drug that selectively binds to the mutant protein and stops it working. The G12C mutation is found in around 13 per cent of lung adenocarcinomas, a type of non-small-cell lung cancer, 3 per cent of colorectal cancers and 2 per cent of other solid tumours. When the researchers tested the drug, called AMG 510, they found that eight out of 10 mice became cancer free with a high dose. The team also studied the effects of the drug on four people with non-small-cell lung carcinoma. After six weeks, one person on a 180 milligram dose had their tumour shrink by 34 per cent, and another taking a 360 milligram dose saw their tumour shrink by 67 per cent. The cancer didn’t increase or decrease in the other two people, who both took 180 milligram doses. Canon and his colleagues also found that AMG 510 appears to prime the immune system against the cancer. After the drug had removed tumours from mice, the team tried to inject new tumour cells. But their bodies wouldn’t grow the tumour cells, suggesting the immune system had adapted.

10-30-19 Sorry, having sex won't start labour – but rubbing your nipples might
Sex got you into this – can it get you out? Many heavily pregnant women turn to a number of methods in an attempt to start labour, including having sex. The bad news is that it doesn’t work. Almost half of pregnant women take it upon themselves to hasten labour. The most common thing to try is a long walk, followed by having sex, ingesting spicy food and nipple stimulation. There is good reason to assume that sex might get things going: sperm contains prostaglandins – chemicals that doctors use to induce labour. Orgasms are also associated with uterus contractions, and nipple stimulation is thought to increase oxytocin, a key hormone involved in the onset of labour. But results from trials have been mixed: one study suggested that sex reduces the need for an induction, while others have found it has no effect. Another study showed that women who had sex at term were actually less likely to go into spontaneous labour before their scheduled induction. The only independent review of the subject included just 28 women and did’nt draw any conclusions. To get a more definitive answer, Luigi Carbone at the University of Naples Federico II, Italy, and his colleagues analysed all relevant randomised, controlled trials published before June 2019. Only three were high enough quality to include in their final analysis. Overall, the trials included about 1500 healthy women having a single baby. Two of the trials asked women at term to have sex as many times as possible, while those in the control group were neither encouraged nor discouraged to have sex. Women in the third trial were asked to have sex at least two times a week after term, or to abstain completely. The results showed that having sex made no difference to whether the women went into spontaneous labour or ended up with an artificial induction. On the other hand, the analysis showed no detrimental effect of having sex at term. One limitation of all three studies is that they involved self-reporting, so no one checked up on whether the women had sex or not.

10-30-19 Ötzi the Iceman's last journey revealed by moss found in his stomach
Dozens of moss species buried alongside Ötzi the Iceman bolster the theory that his last journey was through a gorge, possibly on the run from someone. The 5300-year-old mummified body was first found by mountaineers in the Alps on the border of Italy and Austria in 1991. His demise was a gruesome one: it is thought he bled to death after being shot in the left shoulder with an arrow. The iceman was so well-preserved that scientists have not only been able to study his clothes and gear, but also the contents of his stomach and intestines. James Dickson at the University of Glasgow in Scotland and his colleagues analysed the thousands of fragments of mosses and liverworts buried alongside or inside Ötzi to understand his final days. The plants were from at least 75 different species, only 23 of which live in that precise area today. One of the most intriguing discoveries was finding a species of bog moss, Sphagnum affine, in Ötzi’s colon. This moss is typically found in wetlands and probably came from the bottom of the Vinschgau valley in South Tyrol, Italy. Some researchers believe this was Ötzi’s home as an adult. The moss had long been used for staunching wounds because of its mild antiseptic properties. It may have been to treat the deep wound he received to his right palm possibly 48 hours or less before his death, says Dickson. Dickson was also surprised to find fragments of the moss Neckera complanata in his intestines. “This is a low-altitude moss of the woodlands,” he says. “Here he is at 3,200 metres above sea level – which is way above the treeline. These mosses couldn’t possibly have grown there.” This suggests Ötzi travelled from the forests below, possibly at 1200 metres but maybe as low as 600 metres above sea level, and went northward up the gorge. “It seems puzzling that he took the most stressful track through a gorge, but considering scenarios that he was on the run, a gorge provided most opportunities to hide,” Dickson and his colleagues wrote.

10-30-19 Psychological studies that rely on Amazon workers may be wrong
People seem to be answering research survey questions randomly on Amazon’s crowdsourcing website. The findings could mean that many academic studies are wrong. Michael Chmielewski at Southern Methodist University in Texas and Sarah Kucker at Oklahoma State University recently revisited data they had collected on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) platform, a virtual labour marketplace where people are paid to perform short tasks. MTurk is often used to gather survey responses for social science research. Since 2015, Chmielewski and Kucker had used MTurk to collect data on how a child’s language skills developed depending on their parents’ personalities. When New Scientist published an article in 2018 claiming automated bots were targeting the site and ruining academic studies, the pair revisited their data and found inconsistencies. But rather than bots ruining their data, it seems humans racing through possible survey answers and not reading the questions were causing the problems. By performing a statistical analysis on their results, the team found that the responses just weren’t right. “The conclusions were just massively wrong,” says Chmielewski. “Well-established links between neuroticism and depression weren’t there. We were seeing links in the wrong directions. Things that should have been negatively related were now positively related.” Chmielewski believes that the low quality of results is down to participants rushing through the answers and not reading them. “You need to be much more careful using MTurk now than people were before,” he says. After screening for inconsistent answers, the pair removed 60 per cent of survey responses in one portion of their study and 38 per cent in another.

10-29-19 Experimental tuberculosis vaccine could save millions of lives
An experimental tuberculosis (TB) vaccine is partially effective at preventing a dormant infection from progressing to active disease. If the results hold up in larger trials, the treatment could save millions of lives. TB is one of the top 10 causes of death worldwide, claiming 1.5 million lives in 2018. The BCG vaccine is used to prevent the disease in children, but there is no effective vaccine for adults. About a quarter of the world’s population has latent TB, which means they are infected with the bacteria but it is lying dormant. They don’t experience symptoms and can’t transmit the disease. About 5 to 10 per cent of people with latent infection go on to develop active disease. The new vaccine, known as M72/AS01E, has been developed by pharmaceutical firms GlaxoSmithKline and Aeras. The trial involved in 3575 adults in Kenya, South Africa and Zambia with latent tuberculosis infection, half of whom were given two doses of the vaccine and the other half of whom had a placebo.After three years, there were half as many cases of active disease in the vaccine group as the placebo group. An efficacy of 50 per cent is low compared with most established vaccines, but given the prevalence of TB and the shortage of other preventative treatments, such a vaccine could have a big effect on the number of cases. Larger trials will be needed to better assess the efficacy of the vaccine before it can be licensed for use, but these results are seen as very promising. “This is the first vaccine that has ever shown protection in previously infected individuals and so offers the potential for protection of vast numbers of people in endemic countries,” says Barry Bloom at Harvard School of Public Health, who wasn’t involved in the study.

10-29-19 Newly discovered brain cells help us recall where we last saw objects
A new kind of navigational neuron has been discovered in the mammalian brain, and it fundamentally changes our understanding of how we relate to objects in our vicinity. We already knew how mammals, including humans, locate themselves within an environment thanks to the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of place cells and grid cells. These cells are said to form the brain’s inner GPS system. The newly discovered “vector trace cells” add another layer of complexity to this system because their activity depends more on the objects in the environment rather than the environment itself. The vector trace cells become active when we see an object. They help us judge how far that object is from us and also its relative distance to other objects we can see. But vector trace cells are active even when the object they have been tracking is no longer visible or has been removed by someone else, and they can remain in this active state for hours. In other words, these cells – assuming they are present in the human brain – may help us remember where we last saw an object. Steven Poulter and his colleagues at the University of Durham, UK, working with researchers at University College London, found the new neurons accidentally. The team was working on an experiment that involved putting obstacles (wine bottles, in this case) in the path of rats, while monitoring activity in the rodents’ brains, particularly in a region of the hippocampus called the subiculum. “One particular evening, I took away a couple of the bottles and I looked at the neuronal response – but it stayed the same,” says Poulter. He initially assumed there was an error in the software, but he soon realised that some types of cells were consistently firing as if the wine bottles were still there.

10-29-19 Can video games help reduce symptoms of mental health conditions?
Could people with mental health conditions one day use video games to help manage their symptoms? It is a question that Tameem Antoniades, creative director of UK games developer Ninja Theory, and Paul Fletcher, a psychiatrist at the University of Cambridge, aim to answer as part of The Insight Project. The pair previously collaborated on Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, a video game that has won accolades for its portrayal of the experience of psychosis. As they developed the game, they wondered whether video games could also be used to measure and modify people’s mental distress, and have now begun prototyping games based on biometric signals. “Instead of using a game controller, we are using your physiology,” says Antoniades. For example, the pair have created a sailing game that reads your pulse. As your heart rate increase, the in-game sea becomes more stormy, slowing down your progress. “People compete on how quickly they can slow their heart rate,” says Antoniades. The idea of games that respond to physiological signals is nothing new, but they have never had much commercial success in the past – for instance, Nintendo cancelled its plans for a pulse monitoring accessory for the Wii console because it didn’t work reliably. Fletcher says The Insight Project will be taking a more scientific approach. Rather than just reading a player’s pulse as a single number, he wants to study the waveform in detail. “People talk about your basic heart rate as being the key signal that determines your state of arousal or anxiety, but actually there is a whole lot more to the heart beat signal than that,” he says. Cataloguing these biometric signals will allow the team to build games that respond to how the player is feeling, says Antoniades, and perhaps even act as a form of therapy.

10-29-19 Just thinking about bright objects changes the size of your pupils
The eyes could be the windows to the mind, if not the soul. It turns out that simply thinking about a bright light is enough to change the size of our pupils, even if there isn’t anything real for our eyes to react to. Our pupils get bigger, or dilate, in dark conditions in order to let more light into our eyes. The reverse happens in bright conditions, which cause our pupils to contract. A team led by Nahid Zokaei at the University of Oxford, UK looked at whether thinking about brightness could alter people’s pupils. In a series of experiments, the team repeatedly showed 22 healthy men and women dark or light patches, each associated with a specific sound. After two seconds the patches disappeared, and the participants had to picture the correct patch in their mind when they heard the corresponding sound. The team found that people’s pupils dilated when thinking of the dark patch and contracted when they pictured the light one – the same results that could be expected from physically looking at the objects. This seemingly small action could allow us to anticipate a change in brightness before it happens, says Sebastiaan Mathôt at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, who carried out a similar study also confirming this finding. For example, our pupils might constrict just before we think about turning on the light in a dark room to prepare us for the resulting glare.

10-29-19 Narcissists 'horrible people but happy'
Narcissists might have "grandiose" delusions about their own importance and an absence of "shame" - but psychologists say they are also likely to be happier than most people. An ongoing study of narcissism by researchers at Queen's University Belfast has found such people might infuriate others but are less likely to be stressed or depressed. Psychologist Dr Kostas Papageorgiou says negative responses to narcissism can overlook the positive benefits to the narcissists themselves. The researchers have been trying to understand why narcissism appears to be "on the rise in modern societies" - in politics, social media and celebrity culture - if it is also seen as being "socially toxic". They define narcissists as being likely to "engage in risky behaviour, hold an unrealistic superior view of themselves, are over-confident, show little empathy for others, and have little shame or guilt". With such negative qualities, the researchers wanted to know why narcissism seemed to be so visible and often rewarded rather than penalised. Narcissism is one of the "dark traits" identified by psychologists, alongside psychopathy, Machiavellianism and sadism. But Dr Papageorgiou's research with 700 adults suggests even though it might be bad for society, it seems to be beneficial for individual narcissists. They might have trampled over others and left a trail of emotional damage around them - but narcissists also seem to be insulated against feeling bad about themselves. They have lower levels of stress and are less likely to see life as stressful - with their self-confidence and heightened sense of self-importance appearing to be "protective" qualities. This follows the Belfast team's previous work, which indicated narcissists were more likely to succeed in work and in their social lives - with a "mental toughness" that helped them overcome rejection or disappointment.

10-29-19 Great Orme copper mine 'traded widely in Bronze Age'
North Wales was Britain's main source of copper for about 200 years during the Bronze Age, new research has found. Scientists analysed metal from the Great Orme, Conwy, and found it was made into tools and weapons, and traded across what is today's Europe. Historians once thought the Orme's copper mine - now a museum - had been a small-scale operation. Experts now believe there was a bonanza from 1600-1400 BC, with artefacts found in Sweden, France and Germany. The research, by scientists from the University of Liverpool, involved sampling copper ore from the old mine and a nearby smelting site. It allowed experts like Dr Alan Williams, the geoarchaeologist who co-wrote the study published in the journal Antiquity, to create a "fingerprint" of the metal based on chemical impurities and isotopic properties. "Remarkably, this metal is also found in bronze artefacts across Europe stretching from Brittany to the Baltic," he said. Geological estimates suggest "several hundred tonnes of copper metal were produced, enough to produce thousands of bronze tools or weapons every year, equivalent to at least half a million objects in the 200-year bonanza period". "This very extensive distribution suggests a large-scale mining operation [in Bronze Age terms], with a full-time mining community," he said. Today, the copper mine is open to tourists after being uncovered in 1987 during landscaping on the Great Orme, itself a popular attraction. It is now regarded as one of the largest prehistoric copper mines in the world.

10-29-19 Origin of modern humans 'traced to Botswana'
Scientists have pinpointed the homeland of all humans alive today to a region south of the Zambezi River. The area is now dominated by salt pans, but was once home to an enormous lake, which may have been our ancestral heartland 200,000 years ago. Our ancestors settled for 70,000 years, until the local climate changed, researchers have proposed. They began to move on as fertile green corridors opened up, paving the way for future migrations out of Africa. "It has been clear for some time that anatomically modern humans appeared in Africa roughly 200,000 years ago," said Prof Vanessa Hayes, a geneticist at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Australia. "What has been long debated is the exact location of this emergence and subsequent dispersal of our earliest ancestors." Prof Hayes' conclusions have drawn scepticism from other researchers in the field, however. The area in question is south of the Zambezi basin, in northern Botswana. The researchers think our ancestors settled near Africa's huge lake system, known as Lake Makgadikgadi, which is now an area of sprawling salt flats. "It's an extremely large area, it would have been very wet, it would have been very lush," said Prof Hayes. "And it would have actually provided a suitable habitat for modern humans and wildlife to have lived." After staying there for 70,000 years, people began to move on. Shifts in rainfall across the region led to three waves of migration 130,000 and 110,000 years ago, driven by corridors of green fertile land opening up. The first migrants ventured north-east, followed by a second wave of migrants who travelled south-west and a third population remained in the homeland until today. This scenario is based on tracing back the human family tree using hundreds of samples of mitochondrial DNA (the scrap of DNA that passes down the maternal line from mother to child) from living Africans. By combining genetics with geology and climate computer model simulations, researchers were able to paint a picture of what the African continent might have been like 200,000 years ago.

10-28-19 Have we found the African origin of all humanity? It's complicated
A study claiming to have identified our species’ ancestral homeland in southern Africa has provoked deep scepticism. The research uses genetic evidence to pinpoint the Okavango Delta in Botswana as the origin of our human species. However, other researchers say the methods used to reach this conclusion are flawed. The study is the latest attempt to resolve a long-standing question. While there is overwhelming evidence that our species evolved in Africa, it is unclear where. Eastern and southern Africa have yielded the most fossils, so both have been claimed as our homeland. However, fossils are known from elsewhere in Africa, so recently many anthropologists have concluded that there were interbreeding populations all over Africa, and no single homeland. The new study disputes this.Vanessa Hayes of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, Australia, and her colleagues gathered more than 1200 DNA samples from people in southern African. The samples were all mitochondrial DNA, which people only inherit from their mothers. The team used this to create a family tree showing when ancient populations split. They concluded that the oldest lineage emerged about 200,000 years ago, which they interpret as the origin of our species. The team found little evidence of mixing between groups, so they concluded that populations have probably not moved much since they were established. Based on where the oldest variants are found today, they argue that our species’ homeland was a vast wetland called Makgadikgadi-Okavango in Botswana. This wetland doesn’t exist anymore, but there is clear evidence it once did. The region is now a vast salt pan, created when Lake Makgadikgadi dried up. This huge lake existed from 2 million years ago until about 10,000 years ago.

10-28-19 Humans’ maternal ancestors may have arisen 200,000 years ago in southern Africa
But new DNA findings don’t offer a complete picture of how and when Homo sapiens emerged. Humankind’s maternal roots extend back about 200,000 years to what was then a lush region of southern Africa, a study suggests. But these results highlight how much remains unknown about human origins. Examining variations in a type of maternally inherited DNA, scientists concluded that the founding maternal line of Homo sapiens arose in what’s now northern Botswana. Then around 130,000 years ago, some members of that group migrated in two waves to East Africa via a vegetated corridor created by increased rainfall, the researchers report. Until then, that corridor was arid and sparsely vegetated. Those East African migrants may have eventually given rise to early herding and farming groups there. A second population pulse out of the maternal homeland moved southwest, all the way to the southern tip of Africa, by around 110,000 years ago, while some members stayed behind, geneticist Vanessa Hayes and colleagues report online October 28 in Nature. As in the previous migration, climate data indicate that wetter conditions created a green pathway for people to traverse. Southern migrants became specialists in hunting and gathering along the coast, the scientists speculate.“Everyone alive today goes back genetically to one maternal starting point in southern Africa,” said Hayes, of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, in an Oct. 24 news conference. Geologic and archeological evidence suggest that the homeland was characterized by vast, ancient wetlands that allowed humans to thrive there for about 70,000 years. But the question of how, when and where H. sapiens originated remains far from settled.

10-28-19 Bird eggs laid in cold climates are darker, which may keep eggs warm
A global survey of bird egg color reveals a simple trend: the colder the climate, the darker the egg. Bird eggs come in a dizzying array of colors. But from a global perspective, that diversity follows a simple pattern — the colder the climate, the darker the egg, new research shows. Darker eggs absorb more heat than lighter ones, which could help developing chicks stay warm while their parents forage for food, according to the study published online October 28 in Nature Ecology and Evolution. Biologists have long tried to suss out the selective forces that shape and color a specific species’ eggs. Those forces include keeping eggs hidden from predators, protecting them from bacteria, signaling egg quality and maintaining egg warmth. “All of these hypotheses have some level of [evidential] support,” says Phillip Wisocki, who worked on the research while studying biology at Long Island University Post in Brookville, New York. But scientists weren’t sure whether any of these factors were important in determining egg diversity globally. “If your focus is too narrow, you can miss a lot of what’s going on,” says Wisocki’s adviser, biologist Daniel Hanley. Using museum collections of bird eggs, Hanley, Wisocki and their colleagues compiled data on eggs from 634 bird species from 36 of the 40 living orders of birds. They then analyzed the data against a global map, and found that the brightness and color of eggshells closely correlated with temperature, even after correcting for color similarities between closely related species. Birds in “the far north, which tends to be colder, had darker, browner eggs,” Hanley says. Eggs became lighter and slightly bluer for birds living closer to the equator, though egg colors were generally more variable in the tropics.

10-28-19 There is little evidence that cannabis helps mental health problems
A major study has found little evidence that cannabis helps with depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions, despite growing claims that the drug is a useful treatment. There is an urgent need for new and better mental health treatments. Cannabis has emerged as a potential option now that several countries have relaxed their laws against it. Compounds like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), which are found in cannabis and are two of a group of chemicals known as cannabinoids, are sometimes touted as a cure-all. Yet the scientific basis for their mental health benefits has been unclear. To find out more, Wayne Hall at the University of Queensland, Australia, and his colleagues evaluated all the published and unpublished research between 1980 and 2018 on the use of cannabinoids to treat depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and psychosis. They also included studies on the use of cannabinoids to treat symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Tourette syndrome. Of the 83 studies, which included a total of 3000 participants, only 40 were randomised controlled trials, the gold standard for medical evidence. Hall and his colleagues found “very low-quality” evidence that pharmaceutical THC led to small improvements in anxiety symptoms among patients with other conditions, primarily chronic non-cancer pain and multiple sclerosis. This could be because the drug helped with symptoms of those medical conditions, says Hall. They found little evidence that medicinal cannabinoids helped to treat either the overall disorders or their individual symptoms. In one study of 24 people, THC actually made symptoms of psychosis worse.“The popular media has been remarkably uncritical of the claims made for medical cannabis by the cannabis companies producing and marketing it,” says Hall. But the findings suggest that without high-quality evidence, treating mental disorders with cannabis isn’t justifiable.

10-28-19 Dating questions challenge whether Neandertals drew Spanish cave art
The dating method may have overestimated ages of the rock drawings by thousands of years. Ancient European cave paintings recently attributed to Neandertals have ignited an ongoing controversy over the actual age of those designs and, as a result, who made them. The latest volley in this debate, published October 21 in the Journal of Human Evolution, contends that rock art in three Spanish caves that had been dated to at least roughly 65,000 years ago may actually be tens of thousands of years younger. If so, then Stone Age humans could have created the painted symbols and hand outlines (SN: 2/22/18). Neandertals died out by around 40,000 years ago (SN: 6/26/19). An international group of 44 researchers, led by archaeologist Randall White of New York University, concludes that the controversial age estimates, derived from uranium-thorium dating, must be independently confirmed by other dating techniques. Those approaches include radiocarbon dating and thermoluminescence dating, which estimates the time since sediment was last exposed to sunlight. Until that occurs, “there is still no convincing archaeological evidence that Neandertals created [southwestern European] cave art,” the scientists contend. “This is probably the first time 44 cave art researchers have agreed on anything,” White says. The team that dated the Spanish paintings, led by geochronologist Dirk Hoffmann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, stands by its original analysis and will submit a response to the latest critique of its findings to the Journal of Human Evolution. Critics of the age estimates had suggested previously that Hoffmann and his team had mistakenly dated cave deposits unrelated to the Spanish rock art, resulting in excessive age estimates.

10-27-19 The philosophy of wonder
Environmentalist Rachel Carson reminds us to look up, go outside, and really see what lies beyond ourselves. In 1957, the world watched in wonder as the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, into outer space. Despite Cold War anxieties, The New York Times admitted that space exploration "represented a step toward escape from man's imprisonment to Earth and its thin envelope of atmosphere." Technology, it seemed, possessed the astonishing potential to liberate humanity from terrestrial life. But not all assessments of Sputnik were so celebratory. In The Human Condition, the political theorist Hannah Arendt reflected on the Times' strange statement, writing that "nobody in the history of mankind has ever conceived of the Earth as a prison for men's bodies." Such rhetoric betrayed an acute sense of alienation. Misplaced wonder at our own scientific and technological prowess, she worried, would isolate humanity from the realities of the world we share, not just with one another, but with all living creatures. Arendt's disquiet stemmed from the postwar context in which she lived: The United States economy was booming, and, for many Americans, the much-celebrated cycle of expansion and construction, of extraction and consumption, appeared infinite. Millions of Americans had bought into the glittering promise of limitless prosperity. While technologies such as plastic wrap and Velcro, microwave ovens and nonstick cookware might seem mundane today, they were unimaginably novel at the time, and pushed people further into a manmade world. While Arendt was concerned that humans would become self-absorbed and isolated, stupefied by the synthetic, and prone to totalitarian tricksters, others fretted that nature (for a large portion of the population, at least) was no longer a place to discover transcendence but had instead become merely a resource to be exploited. At mid-century, we were in the process of trading Walden Pond for Walmart.

10-26-19 The flu vaccine: Everything you need to know
How is it made? How often does it work? And what new research is being done to improve it? Getting a flu shot is a seasonal rite. But why do you need one every year — and why doesn't it always work? Here's everything you need to know:

  1. How does the vaccine work? The flu vaccine contains inactive or weakened versions of three or four different strains of the influenza virus. Most people receive the vaccine via injection, but there is also a nasal spray available.
  2. Do most people get vaccinated? No. Although the U.S. has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, only 45 percent of adults and 63 percent of children get flu shots each year.
  3. How effective is it? The vaccine's effectiveness varies dramatically depending on how well it matches the viruses circulating in a given season. In good years, the vaccine protects 50 to 70 percent of the people receiving it.
  4. What makes flu so tricky? The flu virus is constantly mutating, rendering the body's antibodies against previous flu infections obsolete. Influenza is less stable than other viruses, such as chicken pox, because its main genetic material is RNA.
  5. How are vaccines made? The process hasn't changed much since the first flu vaccines were given to American soldiers in 1945. Over 90 percent of flu vaccines are incubated in fertilized chicken eggs, because the virus grows extremely well in them.
  6. Are improvements possible? In theory, yes. President Trump issued an executive order in September directing the Department of Health and Human Services to create a flu vaccine task force to modernize seasonal vaccine production.
  7. A universal flu vaccine: The holy grail of flu research is a universal vaccine that would provide lasting protection against all forms of the virus, but it remains elusive.

10-25-19 Fast food chemicals
Scientists have found another reason to avoid fast food, reports NationalGeographic?.com: the chemicals in its packaging. PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are water- and grease-resistant chemicals that are used in burger wrappers, pizza boxes, and other containers. PFAS, which are also used to prevent stains in carpets and upholstery, are known as forever chemicals because they can take decades to break down. In a new study, researchers looked at PFAS levels in blood samples from more than 10,000 people. The scientists found five commonly used types of PFAS in 70 percent of the samples and noted that participants who had eaten fast food in the 24 hours before the blood test had noticeably higher levels of PFAS than those who hadn’t. Several studies have linked the chemicals to health issues such as cancer, thyroid problems, hormonal changes, and weight gain, but it remains unclear exactly what level of PFAS is bad for the body. Still, says study author Laurel Schaider from the Silent Spring Institute, given what’s already known, “it makes sense for people to try to reduce their exposure.”

10-25-19 Slow walker, slow mind
People in their 40s who walk slowly are more likely to have slower brains, new research suggests. Doctors have long used walking speed as a marker for cognitive capacity in older people, because gait is linked to the central nervous system. But this is the first study to suggest that the same analysis might work for younger folk, reports BBC.com. The data came from a long-term study that followed some 900 New Zealanders from their birth in the 1970s to their 45th birthday, testing their walking speed and examining their physical health and brain function. The slower walkers tended to display signs of accelerated aging in their lungs, teeth, and immune systems, as the researchers had expected. But to their surprise, MRI scans also found that the brains of the slow walkers looked notably older than the others. To add insult to injury, strangers who were asked to assess the age of the participants from photos of their faces said the slow walkers looked older. Lead author Terrie Moffitt, from Duke University, says the results show that “a slow walk is a problem sign decades before old age.”

10-25-19 Steroid shots can hurt joints
A common therapy used to treat joint pain may often do more harm than good, reports NBCNews.com. Corticosteroid shots are routinely used to reduce pain and inflammation from osteoarthritis, a chronic condition that affects more than 30 million Americans. But a new study suggests that the injections could actually accelerate the progression of osteoarthritis, potentially hastening the need for joint replacement surgery. Researchers at Boston University reviewed previous studies on the shots and also looked at data on 459 Boston Medical Center patients who had received one to three corticosteroid injections in the hip or knee in 2018. They found that 8 percent of the patients had developed complications—including cartilage loss, stress fractures, bone deterioration, and even the collapse of the joint—in the two to 15 months after the shots. It’s unclear why corticosteroids may have an adverse effect on joints, but there is some evidence that they can be toxic to cartilage. “We’ve been telling patients that even if these injections don’t relieve your pain, they’re not going to hurt you,” says study leader Ali Guermazi. “Now we suspect that this is not necessarily the case.”

10-25-19 Hawaii
Hawaii, where the rates of gonorrhea and syphilis have risen to the highest levels in 30 years, partly because of dating apps. “More partners, more chances to get infections,” said a health official.

10-25-19 Pharma: Settlement in bellwether opioid case
Three major drug distributors and an opioid manufacturer reached a $260 million settlement hours before the start of a landmark federal trial this week, said Jan Hoffman in The New York Times. McKesson, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen agreed to pay $215 million to Ohio’s Cuyahoga and Summit Counties to settle a lawsuit that alleged the “companies had delivered highly suspicious quantities of opioids without reporting them to authorities.” Teva, an Israel-based drug manufacturer, agreed to pay $20 million and “donate $25 million worth of addiction-treatment drugs.” Walgreens, the remaining defendant, declined to settle and will face a separate trial.

10-25-19 Blood proteins reveal your age – and could lead to anti-ageing therapy
Could something in your blood be controlling how you age? The proteins in blood seem to undergo three waves of changes as we age, and can be used to determine a person’s biological age from a blood sample. Blood proteins associated with youth could help us understand why young blood seems to rejuvenate older animals, and could hint at treatments for ageing, say Benoit Lehallier at Stanford University in California and his colleagues. The first hints that something in blood might have rejuvenating properties came from experiments that involved stitching old and young mice together so that they shared a circulatory system. The gruesome set-up seemed to benefit the older animals, while the health of the younger animals deteriorated. Since then, other studies have found that blood plasma transfusions from young animals seem to improve multiple aspects of health of old animals. Blood from human teenagers boosts the birth of new brain cells and improves cognition in old mice. Teams are trialling “young blood” for age-related disorders like Alzheimer’s, and, for $8000, transfusions of plasma from young donors can be bought at a clinic in California. To find out what happens to our blood as we age, Lehallier and his colleagues looked at proteins in blood plasma samples taken from more than 4300 people aged between 18 and 95. The team measured the levels of almost 3000 proteins in each sample. Lehallier’s team found that the levels of almost 1400 of these proteins seem to change significantly as we age. In particular, there are three waves of changes – at about ages 34, 60 and 78. The changes at 60 are likely to represent the fact that it is around then that most age-related diseases make themselves known, and these can influence blood proteins, says Lorna Harries at the University of Exeter, UK.

10-25-19 Quarrying stone for Easter Island statues made soil more fertile for farming
Huge carved figures were partially buried at the site for ceremonial purposes, researchers say. Easter Island’s Polynesian society cultivated crops in soil made especially fertile by the quarrying of rock for massive, humanlike statues, a new study suggests. Soil analyses indicate that weathering of volcanic sediment created by quarrying enriched the slopes of Easter Island’s major rock quarry with phosphorus and other elements crucial for farming. Microscopic plant remains suggest that food grown in the enriched soil included sweet potatoes, bananas, taro, paper mulberry fruit and probably bottle gourd, say anthropological archaeologist Sarah Sherwood and colleagues. Starting in roughly 1400, Easter Islanders farmed in this way, even as soil quality deteriorated in many parts of the island, also known as Rapa Nui, due to deforestation and possibly drought, the team reports in the November Journal of Archaeological Science. The island’s Polynesian society, which got started from around 900 to 1100, is famous for two reasons: for having erected large statues known as moai that were sculpted out of volcanic rock, and for collapsing in the late 1600s after supposedly overusing the land. But previous research has questioned that narrative of societal disintegration. The new study is “one more piece of evidence against the traditional story of Easter Island’s self-inflicted environmental demise,” says Sherwood, of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. Radiocarbon dating of burned wood and plant fragments found in sediment layers and on two of 21 partially buried statues on the quarry’s slopes identified two main phases of farming at the quarry. During the first phase, visits probably started between 1495 and 1585 and lasted until roughly 1675 to 1710, shortly before Europeans first arrived on the island in 1722. During that time, one of the statues — which has been more intensively studied than the other — was raised, the scientists say.

10-25-19 Bias in a common health care algorithm disproportionately hurts black patients
Simple tweaks to the machine-learning program could eliminate the disparity, researchers say. A widely used algorithm that helps hospitals identify high-risk patients who could benefit most from access to special health care programs is racially biased, a study finds. Eliminating racial bias in that algorithm could more than double the percentage of black patients automatically eligible for specialized programs aimed at reducing complications from chronic health problems, such as diabetes, anemia and high blood pressure, researchers report in the Oct. 25 Science. This research “shows how once you crack open the algorithm and understand the sources of bias and the mechanisms through which it’s working, you can correct for it,” says Stanford University bioethicist David Magnus, who wasn’t involved in the study. To identify which patients should receive extra care, health care systems in the last decade have come to rely on machine-learning algorithms, which study past examples and identify patterns to learn how to a complete task. The top 10 health care algorithms on the market — including Impact Pro, the one analyzed in the study — use patients’ past medical costs to predict future costs. Predicted costs are used as a proxy for health care needs, but spending may not be the most accurate metric. Research shows that even when black patients are as sick as or sicker than white patients, they spend less on health care, including doctor visits and prescription drugs. That disparity exists for many reasons, the researchers say, including unequal access to medical services and a historical distrust among black people of health care providers. That distrust stems in part from events such as the Tuskegee experiment (SN: 3/1/75), in which hundreds of black men with syphilis were denied treatment for decades.

10-25-19 Remarkable fossils capture mammals’ recovery after the dino-killing asteroid
Survivors grew from the size of a rat to that of a wolf within 700,000 years of the impact. Understanding how life rebounded after an asteroid strike 66 million years ago, which wiped out up to 75 percent of Earth’s species and ended the dinosaurs’ reign, has been hard. Fossils from the immediate aftermath are exceedingly rare (SN: 4/2/19). Now, though, a fossil-rich deposit in Colorado’s Denver Basin is offering paleontologists a window into how mammals, plants and reptiles recovered and flourished following the impact. The find has allowed the scientists to piece together a detailed timeline of how mammals quickly diversified and grew in size once nonavian dinosaurs were out of the way. Within 700,000 years after the impact, for instance, some mammals had grown to be 100 times as heavy as the original survivors, researchers report online October 24 in Science. “This is one of those discoveries all paleontologists dream of,” says Steve Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh who was not involved in the research. “With a snap of a finger, mammals took over from the dinosaurs. More than 150 million years of dinosaur dominance was ended, just like that, and our ancestors took over.” The Corral Bluffs site in the Denver Basin is the only known locality in the world to have numerous fossils of animals and plants representing a whole series of time slices in the 1 million years following the Cretaceous–Paleogene, or K–Pg, extinction. Over the last three years, a team led by researchers at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science has uncovered more than 7,000 fossils there. These include 233 kinds of plants and 16 species of mammals — among which are the earliest known mammals to reach relatively large sizes as they evolved and filled ecological roles previously occupied by dinosaurs (SN: 1/25/17).

10-24-19 A common antibiotic seems to have a strange effect on our memories
An antibiotic used to treat chest infections and sexually transmitted infections has been trialled as a potential treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. It didn’t work, but the results suggest we may need to rethink our understanding of how memories are formed. The drug, doxycycline, has previously been used to prevent memories being formed in the first place. Dominik Bach at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, and his colleagues theorised that the recall of a previously formed memory could be similarly weakened by doxycycline, as both processes are thought to use similar signalling pathways and proteins in the brain. The team asked 78 men and women to look at a series of triangles coloured either orange, turquoise or violet. Two of the colours came with a nasty surprise – a painful electric shock administered 50 per cent of the time – and these were chosen at random for each person. One week later, half the group took a dose of doxycycline, while the other took a placebo. Both groups were asked to sit at a computer for a few hours and told they could do whatever they wanted to kill time. At one point, a previously painful triangle popped up on the screen for 4 seconds. This was to reactivate the memory of the electric shock associated with the triangle. One week after that, the team repeated the first experiment, but without the electric shocks. Instead, every triangle was paired with a loud sound. If the person was expecting an electric shock in response to a particular colour, they would be more startled by the loud noise, as they were also expecting to feel pain. Bach expected that those who had ingested doxycycline would be less startled compared with those who had taken the placebo, as the drug would have affected their recall of the first experiment. But this didn’t happen, suggesting that memory formation and recall don’t share similar signalling pathways after all.

10-24-19 A biased algorithm is delaying healthcare for black people in the US
Black people in the US may be missing out on healthcare because a widely used algorithm is racially biased. The proportion of black people referred for extra care would more than double if the bias were removed, according to new research. Algorithms are fast becoming a key part of healthcare. Such technologies are used to screen somewhere between 100 and 200 million people in the US, says Ziad Obermeyer at the University of California, Berkeley. One example is an algorithm that is used to predict the future health of individuals based on their past health records. Once the algorithm is fed data about a person’s diagnoses, prescriptions and procedures, it spits out a number that predicts the cost of the person’s future healthcare. Hospitals, healthcare systems and some health insurance providers use this score to identify people who are likely to need more care in the future. Those who have the highest predicted costs can be referred for extra medical care to help prevent them getting sicker, says Obermeyer. Obermeyer and his colleagues wanted to find out more about how the algorithm worked. “Along the way, we noticed that there was this fairly stark difference in the risk scores that black and white patients had at the same level of health,” he says. The team found that black people assigned the same score as white people went on to have worse health outcomes. “You can think of it as healthier white patients being put ahead in line of sicker black patients when it comes to allocating enrolment into this programme,” says Obermeyer.When the team ran a simulation that eliminated the bias, the proportion of people referred for extra treatment who were black increased from 17.7 per cent to 46.5 per cent. It is difficult to estimate how many black people are missing out on healthcare as a result, says Obermeyer, because he doesn’t know how many health organisations use the algorithm in this way.

10-24-19 Extraordinary fossils show how mammals rose from the dinosaurs’ ashes
The discovery of thousands of exquisitely preserved plant and animal fossils in Colorado gives an unprecedented look at life after the asteroid crash that wiped out the dinosaurs. We know that an asteroid slammed into what is now Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula about 66 million years ago, killing three-quarters of living organisms, including all dinosaurs except for birds. But the first million-year period after this mass extinction has a notoriously poor fossil record, says Tyler Lyson at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. “I’ve spent 15 years looking for fossils in this interval and have only found a handful of scrappy mammal jaws,” he says. That changed when Lyson and his colleagues stopped looking for naked bones and started searching for concretions – types of rocks that can form around organic materials, including bone. This turned up a treasure trove of new discoveries in the Corral Bluffs region of Colorado. “We were finding whole skulls, and in some cases skeletons, of mammals, crocodiles, turtles, and then right next to them we were finding plants,” says Lyson. The researchers found nearly 1000 vertebrate fossils and over 6000 plant fossils inside the concretions they collected. Dating the rocks allowed them to come up with a detailed chronology of life’s recovery following the asteroid collision. In the aftermath of the extinction, the most common plants were ferns, and the surviving mammals only weighed half a kilogram. These included Mesodma, a mammal that resembled a rodent, and early relatives of hoofed animals. But within 100,000 years, mammals had rebounded to almost the same size as they were before the asteroid collision, which was up to 8 kilograms, and the forests had become dominated by palm trees. Within 300,000 years, the diversity of plants in the forests began to recover and mammals grew to up to 25 kilograms. At the 700,000-year mark, mammals reached up to 50 kilograms in size. They included a plant-eating, rodent-resembling mammal, Taeniolabis taoensis, and a relative of modern hoofed animals, Eoconodon coryphaeus. This growth spurt coincided with the appearance of the first legume – which Lyson calls the “protein bar moment” – since it probably provided the calories needed to drive this rapid growth.

10-24-19 Genetic privacy attack could reveal DNA secrets from genealogy sites
Attackers could reveal most of the genetic information for millions of people whose DNA is held on genetic genealogy databases by exploiting how the websites work. Michael Edge and Graham Coop at the University of California, Davis, have described three different methods by which DNA data could be compromised. They have serious concerns about the genetic privacy for the more than 5 million users of genetic genealogy services including MyHeritage, GEDmatch, FamilyTreeDNA, LivingDNA and DNA.Land. These database sites allow people who have had their DNA tested by companies such as 23andMe to upload their genetic data to help them find family members. If portions of their DNA have a strong match with others on the website, they can see a name or email address to contact them. By manipulating this process, it could be used to reveal most of the genetic data of most people, say Edge and Coop. “It depends on the method and on the database, but is potentially quite a lot of [genetic] information,” says Edge. However, the genetic genealogy firms that spoke to New Scientist reject the suggestion that genetic privacy is at risk. Edge and Coop warned the companies of vulnerabilities and suggested fixes 90 days before publishing a paper this week on three methods that attackers could use. While they tested the techniques on 872 publicly available genomes, they didn’t use them on any of the databases. One attack involved uploading many real genetic data sets and monitoring for partial matches with short stretches of people’s genomes in the database. a genuine segment targeting a match for specific genetic variants linked to greater risk of certain conditions, such as Alzheimer’s.

10-24-19 Blood transfer from active mice gives lazy ones benefits of exercise
The benefits of exercise can be shared by blood transfer, according to research in mice. Sedentary mice given an injection of plasma from active mice experience more brain cell growth and less inflammation. And a protein that seems to be behind some of the effects could potentially be developed into an “exercise mimetic”. Exercise is good for your body and brain – we know it can reduce inflammation, lower the risk of various diseases and improve our ability to think and learn. Zurine De Miguel at Stanford University in California and her colleagues wondered if exercise might exert these benefits through factors in the blood. To find out, the team compared mice that were able to exercise with a running wheel with a separate group of mice that weren’t able to exercise. After 28 days, the mice that were free to exercise had more new brain cells than the sedentary mice. The team then took blood plasma from the mice that had exercised and injected it into a group of sedentary mice. Another group of sedentary mice were injected with plasma from equally sedentary mice. An injection of “runner plasma” seemed to confer some of the benefits of exercise to the sedentary mice. These mice had significant increases in the number of new brain cells, for example. They also performed better in tests of learning and memory than mice that were given “control plasma” from other sedentary mice. Something in runner plasma appears to change the way genes work. The team found 1974 genes that were affected in the mice depending on which blood plasma they were given. This appears to alter the level of proteins in a way that reduces inflammation in the body and brain.

10-23-19 Beating cancer: How viruses are being used to infect and kill tumours
We’ve long known that viruses can target cancers in our bodies. Now, thanks to gene editing, we’re using them as tumour search and destroy agents – and getting our immune systems to join the fight too. TEN years ago, Randy Russell found out that a small mole on his shin was skin cancer. He got it removed, but then he found another, and more after that. Each time he had the tumour cut out. “After 10 or 11 surgeries, I got aggravated because it was beginning to bankrupt the family and it wasn’t working,” he says. Ultimately, he was told it was the end of the road. “They said, ‘You’ve got maybe six, seven months to live. Just go home and die.'” Then, as Russell was leaving the hospital to return to his home in Rock Spring, Georgia, one of the doctors shouted down the hall after him: “Try Vanderbilt!” A few weeks later, Russell was having an experimental drug injected into his tumours at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in nearby Nashville, Tennessee. Each time he went back, the tumours were half the size. “It was just amazing,” he says. “Finally, the doctors said, ‘Look, there’s nothing more we can do for you. It’s just gone.'” That experimental drug, called T-VEC, was actually a live virus that researchers had tinkered with to make sure it was safe for Russell’s healthy cells, but deadly to his cancer. It is the first ever virus to be approved for treating cancers, and many more are now being tested. These anticancer viruses could give us a powerful new way to kill tumours, not only because they target tumour cells directly, but because they spur our immune systems to do so too. That could make them particularly potent when combined with other immune therapies already transforming cancer treatment.

10-23-19 Mice fed a high salt diet lose the ability to perform simple tasks
Eating too much salt may lead to cognitive impairment, and now scientists may know why. It kicks off an immune response that causes the build-up of a protein that stops brain cells from working properly. Scientists have long known that a high-salt diet increases the risk of stroke. It was first thought that salt led to high blood pressure, which damaged the brain, but recent research shows that too much salt can cause problems even among those with normal blood pressure. Costantino Iadecola at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York and his colleagues wanted to find out why salt itself appears to be harmful to the brain. To do so, they fed mice a diet containing between eight and 16 times the normal amount of salt, then had them perform cognitive tests. After two months on this diet, the mice were unable to recognise new objects they were presented with and were much slower at finding their way out of a maze than those on a normal diet. Initially the team believed that excess salt was reaching the brain and causing damage there. However, an analysis of brain tissue suggested something else was going on. In the brain tissue, the team found a build-up of tau, a protein linked to Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers think they know why the tau began accumulating. They found that the high-salt diet also increased the number of immune system T-cells in the gut. These cells produce small chemical messengers that travels to blood vessels in the brain, where they reduce the production of nitric oxide. Lower levels of nitric oxide in the brain led to reduced blood flow and also increased the activity of an enzyme in brain cells called CDK5. It is this enzyme that prompts the build-up of tau proteins.

10-23-19 Gut microbes help mice overcome their fears by changing brain activity
Mice with a disrupted gut microbiota may be unable to shake off fearful memories – a finding that suggests our gut bacteria may play an important role in the way we learn. Over the past decade, there has been increasing interest in the role bacteria play in keeping us healthy, especially those living in our gut, mouth and on our skin. Emerging research has linked disruption of these bacterial communities to problems in the immune system and even changes in behaviour. However, it has been unclear exactly how gut bacteria might bring about behavioural changes. To investigate, David Artis at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York and his colleagues studied the effect antibiotics have on the way mice learn and respond to fearful situations. They trained mice to fear a sound by delivering a small shock to their paws every time they heard it. Afterwards, the mice would freeze in fear when they heard the tone. Over the past decade, there has been increasing interest in the role bacteria play in keeping us healthy, especially those living in our gut, mouth and on our skin. Emerging research has linked disruption of these bacterial communities to problems in the immune system and even changes in behaviour. However, it has been unclear exactly how gut bacteria might bring about behavioural changes. To investigate, David Artis at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York and his colleagues studied the effect antibiotics have on the way mice learn and respond to fearful situations. They trained mice to fear a sound by delivering a small shock to their paws every time they heard it. Afterwards, the mice would freeze in fear when they heard the tone.

10-23-19 Vaccines have helped us eradicate another strain of wild polio viruso
Humanity has destroyed another enemy. On 24 October, the World Health Organization (WHO) is expected to announce that wild poliovirus type 3 has been eradicated. The last case of wild poliovirus type 2 was detected in India in 1999. That leaves only wild poliovirus type 1, which is present in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But opposition to vaccines in the countries has led to 88 cases so far this year, after only 33 in 2018. So while the disappearance of wild poliovirus type 3 is a welcome triumph, the WHO is still calling polio a Public Health Emergency of International Concern – and that emergency is now reaching a crunch point. “We face a very hard twelve months,” says Michel Zaffran, director of polio eradication at the WHO. That isn’t only due to problems in Pakistan. As New Scientist revealed in 2000, the weakened, live virus in oral polio vaccines can persist and revert to the disease-causing form. The type 2 vaccine virus replicates rapidly in people, provoking strong immunity, which helped wipe out wild type 2 polio while the other two types hung on. revert to being able to cause paralysis. Since 2017, such reverted vaccined-derived viruses have caused more cases of paralysis than actual wild poliovirus. To help solve the problem, the entire world switched to a live vaccine with only types 1 and 3 in 2016. Immunity to those strains leapt, leading to this week’s victory over type 3. Children born since then, however, can transmit outbreaks of vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2, as they haven’t had the live type 2 vaccine. As time goes on and more children are born, those outbreaks get more risky, says Oliver Rosenbauer at the WHO.There have been more outbreaks in 2019 than predicted by the WHO in 2016: there are currently outbreaks in 12 African nations, including countries such as Zambia with low levels of immunity, and two worrying outbreaks in China and the Philippines.

10-23-19 Genome sequencing guides people with metastatic cancer to best therapy
In the largest study of its kind, researchers have sequenced the genomes of tumours from more than 2000 people with various metastatic cancers. They discovered genetic markers that could be used to steer those with late-stage, metastatic cancer towards approved or experimental therapies. “Patients die from metastatic cancers,” says Edwin Cuppen at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. But he and his colleagues found a potential treatment option for 62 per cent of people who participated in the study, based on the genetic profile of their metastatic tumours. In half of the cases, this was an approved anti-cancer drug. In the other half, it was a drug that was undergoing clinical testing. Metastatic cancers, which arise when cells from a primary tumour spread to other parts of the body, cause 90 per cent of all cancer deaths. This is the first such study to look at metastatic cancers, rather than primary tumours only, on this scale. Of all those who were predicted to benefit from an approved drug, the drug was “off-label” for 42 per cent of them, meaning that it hadn’t been approved for treatment of their particular type of cancer. “We were able to set up a study programme to start giving these [off-label] drugs to patients,” says Cuppen. The first results of that study were published in September and revealed that 34 per cent of patients who had an off-label treatment benefited from it. “We definitely need to encourage hospitals to have clinical trials so that patients with cancer can have access to new drugs,” says Lynn Quek at the University of Oxford.

10-23-19 Benzodiazepines and z-drugs are prescribed more in poorer areas
Benzodiazepines and z-drugs are more commonly prescribed in areas with socio-economic deprivation, according to a study of GP practices in England. More than 14 million prescriptions of the drugs, commonly prescribed for insomnia, anxiety and alcohol withdrawal, were made in 2017. The total amount of prescribed drugs is equivalent to 2.3 billion milligrams of diazepam (sometimes sold under the trade name Valium). This is equivalent to about 700 doses for each person given a prescription, based on a typical starting dose for anxiety. That’s what Saran Shantikumar at the University of Warwick, UK, and his colleagues found when they looked at publicly available data collected by the National Health Service. Previous research has found that opioid drugs are more commonly prescribed in deprived areas. Shantikumar wondered if the same was true of benzodiazepines and z-drugs, which some people become dependent on and buy illegaly. Shantikumar’s study didn’t include private prescriptions, so it is likely that the total number of prescriptions is even higher. The team can’t tell from the study data if the socio-economic status of an individual is linked to their taking of benzodiazepines. It may be that the disorders for which the drugs are prescribed are more common in deprived areas, says Shantikumar. It is also possible that people in deprived areas are more likely to become long-term users of the medicines because they don’t get the treatment they need once they become dependent on the drugs, he says. “I feel that the health service as a whole probably has insufficient capacity to deal with people with addictions,” says Shantikumar. “It may be that people in more deprived areas simply don’t have access to drug-dependency services.”

10-23-19 Taking blood pressure drugs at night may make them more effective
Medication for high blood pressure is more effective when taken at bedtime than the following morning. Knowing the best time to take such drugs is important, as lowering your blood pressure reduces the chances of conditions such as heart attacks and stroke by 45 per cent. Ramón Hermida at the University of Vigo in Spain and colleagues randomly split 19,000 men and women with high blood pressure into two groups. The team asked half of the people to take their medication before they went to bed and the other half to take it when they woke up. Each individual recorded their sleep patterns and had follow-up visits to take their blood pressure and check for any side effects. They were monitored for six years on average. The team found that those who took their dose at bedtime had lower blood pressure during sleep than those who took it the morning after. These reduced levels were linked to a lower risk of heart conditions – the total number of heart conditions in the bedtime group was 43 per cent less than the morning group. Previous research has shown that blood pressure during sleep is a good indicator of potential heart conditions – high blood pressure at night signals a problem, regardless of whether it was normal during the day. Taking the medication before sleeping – when blood pressure is naturally lower – might boost its effects by tapping into people’s natural body clock. This could explain why participants who took their medication at bedtime saw a continued fall in their sleeping blood pressure over the course of the trial, even accounting for factors that usually increase chances of becoming ill, such as old age and diabetes. This group also experienced a drop in their risk for heart conditions – about 45 per cent lower than those taking their medication in the morning.

10-23-19 Prozac proves no better than a placebo in treating kids with autism
Drugs called SSRIs didn’t ease obsessive-compulsive symptoms in children with the disorder. Prozac, a commonly prescribed medication for kids and teens with autism, is no more effective than a placebo at treating obsessive-compulsive behaviors, a small study finds. The results of the randomized clinical trial, published October 22 in JAMA, cast further doubt on the widespread practice of prescribing a class of antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, to treat children with autism who have these behaviors, says pediatric neurologist Ann Neumeyer. “We really don’t have any good medications that have yet been studied in children with autism for these behaviors,” says Neumeyer, the medical director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Lurie Center for Autism in Lexington, who wasn’t involved in the study. “That’s a problem.” Autism spectrum disorders encompass a diversity of symptoms, but common among them are obsessive-compulsive behaviors (SN: 10/16/18). Individuals with autism can become hyperfocused on specific ideas or objects and can engage in ritualistic “tics,” such as rocking or hand-waving. For many individuals, these symptoms interfere with everyday functioning. SSRI antidepressants account for a quarter to a third of all prescriptions to children and teens with autism, according to pediatrician Dinah Reddihough at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia. “Despite their widespread use, there is no evidence of effectiveness of SSRIs for autism spectrum disorders in children,” she says. A 2013 review backs Reddihough up. It analyzed nine clinical trials involving 320 participants and found that SSRIs provided no therapeutic benefit for children and adolescents with autism, though the authors called for larger studies to investigate the question better.

10-23-19 Choline: The forgotten vital nutrient we’re not getting enough of
Standard nutritional advice to cut down on meat and dairy may be stopping us getting enough of an essential nutrient named choline. Should we be worried? WHETHER we follow it or not, most of us know the standard advice for eating healthily. Not too much red meat, fill up on whole grains for fibre, eat oily fish for the omega-3 oils, and have plenty of fruit and veg for the vitamins and minerals. But there is another essential nutrient that most of us have never heard of – and that standard advice may be stopping us getting enough of it. The substance is called choline and Emma Derbyshire at Nutrition Insight, a consultancy in Surrey, UK, recently argued in the journal BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health that a lack of it might be an emerging public health crisis. It is still unclear exactly how much choline we need. But because eggs and red meat are some of the best sources of choline, the trend for eating fewer animal products could mean we are missing out on a vital nutrient without knowing it. Even those of us who eat meat might not be getting enough. In the past, most vitamins were discovered because people who were malnourished got a characteristic disease that was cured when they ate certain foods. Sailors deprived of fresh fruit got scurvy because they lacked vitamin C, for example. Choline’s history is less straightforward. It was first isolated from bile in 1862 and was later found to play many roles in the human body. It makes up cell membranes, and is important in the liver’s fat metabolism. It also helps make a nerve signalling molecule called acetylcholine, found in the brain and muscles. It was thought, though, that the human body could make its own choline. It produces plenty of other biochemicals, and there was no known choline deficiency disease.

10-23-19 Algae inside blood vessels could act as oxygen factories
An unconventional way to get O2 to nerve cells might one day aid stroke patients. It’s a strange mash-up, but it works: Algae living inside tadpoles’ blood vessels can pump out oxygen for nearby oxygen-starved nerve cells. Using algae as local oxygen factories in the brain might one day lead to therapies for strokes or other damage from too little oxygen, researchers from Ludwig-Maximilians University Munich said October 21 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. “In the beginning, it sounds really funny,” says neurobiologist Suzan Özugur. “But it works, so why not? I think it has great potential.” Even more futuristic possibilities include using algae in the veins of astronauts on long-haul space missions, says neurobiologist Hans Straka. Straka, Özugur and their colleagues had been bubbling oxygen into severed tadpole heads to keep nerve cells active. But in talks with botanists, Straka got the idea to use algae instead. “I wouldn’t call it crazy, but unconventional, let’s say.” The researchers injected either green algae (Chlamydomonas reinhardtii) or cyanobacteria (Synechocystis) into tadpoles’ blood vessels, creating an eerie greenish animal. Both algae species make oxygen in response to light shining through the tadpoles’ translucent bodies. When the researchers depleted the oxygen in the liquid surrounding a disembodied tadpole head, eye nerves fell silent and stopped firing signals. But a few minutes after a flash of algae-activating light, the nerves started firing signals again, the researchers found.

10-23-19 Light from outside the brain can turn on nerve cells in monkey brains
An extra-sensitive molecule made nerve cells respond to dim light. Light pulses from outside a monkey’s brain can activate nerve cells deep within. This external control, described October 20 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, might someday help scientists treat brain diseases such as epilepsy. Controlling nerve cell behavior with light, a method called optogenetics, often requires thin optical fibers to be implanted in the brain (SN: 1/15/10). That invasion can cause infections, inflammation and tissue damage, says study coauthor Diego Mendoza-Halliday of MIT. He and his colleagues created a new light-responsive molecule, called SOUL, that detects extra dim light. After injecting SOUL into macaque monkeys’ brains, researchers shined blue light through a hole in the skull. SOUL-containing nerve cells, which were as deep as 5.8 millimeters in the brain, became active. A dose of orange light stopped this activity. SOUL can’t sense light coming through the macaques’ skulls. But in mice, the system works through the skull, the researchers reported. LEDs implanted just under people’s skulls might one day be used to treat brain diseases. Such a system might be able to temporarily turn off nerve cells that are about to cause an epileptic seizure, for instance. “This is basically scooping out a piece of brain and then putting it back in a few seconds later,” when the risk of a seizure has dropped, Mendoza-Halliday says.

10-22-19 Alzheimer’s may scramble metabolism’s connection to sleep
Mice with signs of the disease respond abnormally to blood sugar changes. Wide swings in blood sugar can mess with sleep. Food’s relationship with sleep gets even more muddled when signs of Alzheimer’s disease are present, a study of mice suggests. The results, presented in a news briefing October 20 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, show that Alzheimer’s disease is not confined to the brain. “Your head is attached to your body,” says neuroscientist Shannon Macauley of Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C. Metabolism, sleep and brain health “don’t happen in isolation,” she says. Along with Caitlin Carroll, also of Wake Forest, Macauley and coauthors rigged up a way to simultaneously measure how much sugar the brain consumes, the rate of nerve cell activity and how much time mice spend asleep. Injections of glucose into the blood led to changes in the brain: a burst of metabolism, a bump in nerve cell activity and more time spent awake. “It’s like giving a kid a lollipop,” Macauley says. “They’re going to run around in a circle.” But a dip in blood sugar, caused by insulin injections, also led to more nerve cell action and more wakefulness. “You can have it go up high or go down low, and it was just really bad either way,” Macauley says. Researchers did similar analyses in mice genetically engineered to have one of two key signs of Alzheimer’s. Some of these mice had clumps of amyloid-beta protein between nerve cells, while others had tangles of a protein called tau inside nerve cells. Both groups of mice had abnormal reactions to high or low blood sugar. But those reactions depended on whether amyloid-beta or tau was in their brains. In mice with amyloid plaques, higher blood sugar led to a slight rise in brain metabolism, but not nearly as much as in a normal mouse. In mice with lots of tau, however, high blood sugar didn’t increase brain metabolism. In both cases, nerve cell activity no longer had big responses to blood sugar.

10-21-19 Doctors could team up with AI to spot dangerous brain bleeds faster
An AI that can spot a brain haemorrhage on an X-ray scan could help diagnose strokes, head injuries and ruptured blood vessels. The software was able to identify signs of bleeding in the head with similar accuracy to radiologists. While computers won’t be replacing doctors any time soon, one area where they are making progress is in identifying signs of disease from images. Software can recognise moles that are likely to be cancerous from photographs, as well as eye damage caused by diabetes from pictures of the back of the eye, with near-human levels of ability. Now Esther Yuh at the University of California, San Francisco, and her colleagues have developed a program that can interpret CT scans of heads. These involve multiple X-rays taken to create detailed images.If someone goes to hospital with symptoms suggesting brain damage, such as confusion or dizziness, they may have a CT scan of their head. But it can be hard for doctors to identify a tiny area of bleeding from the black and white images, says Yuh. Her team first trained the software, called PatchFCN, on nearly 4400 head CT scans where the diagnosis was known. When they tested it on a new set of 200 randomly selected images, the AI performed similarly to four radiologists. Yuh says the software could initially be used alongside doctors to speed up their work, but images would still need checking by a human. “No one’s just going to let it rip yet. We need to validate it in actual clinical practice to show it helps improve performance,” she says.

10-21-19 CRISPR upgrade could make genome editing better and safer
The CRISPR genome-editing technique revolutionising biology just got a major upgrade. A new variant, called prime editing, should be even better at correcting disease-causing mutations. This approach, devised by Andrew Anzalone at the Broad Institute in Massachusetts makes it possible to add or delete short DNA sequences, or change one DNA letter to another, with fewer unwanted side effects. The technique gets closer to the ideal form of genome editing, which would work like the “find and replace” command in a writing app. Use of CRISPR has grown rapidly since it was devised in 2012 because it made the “find” part far cheaper and easier. CRISPR exploits a protein called Cas9, which hooks up with a piece of guide RNA and seeks out matching DNA sequences in a cell’s genome. Because it is easy to make custom RNAs, Cas9 can be programmed to find any desired sequence. The “replace” part is more problematic. Cas9 is usually used only to introduce mutations that can disable a gene, by cutting the cell’s DNA. If an extra piece of DNA is added at the same time, it sometimes gets spliced into the cut site, but this typically works in less than one in 10 cells. That is why many biologists are trying to improve CRISPR. Anzalone and his colleagues have altered the Cas9 protein and fused it with another to make it work in a different way. DNA’s double-stranded structure helps cells repair some forms of damage: because the two strands are complementary, the cell can sometimes fix an error in one by referencing the other. But Cas9 cuts both strands, meaning the cell usually makes mistakes during repairs, introducing mutations that can disable a gene. Anzalone’s hybrid protein is programmed with an extra segment added to the guide RNA, which adds a single strand of DNA to the target site. The protein then cuts the opposite strand, prompting the cell to repair the DNA using the added strand as the template.

10-21-19 Prime editing: DNA tool could correct 89% of genetic defects
A new way of editing the code of life could correct 89% of the errors in DNA that cause disease, say US scientists. The technology, called prime editing, has been described as a "genetic word processor" able to accurately re-write the genetic code. It has been used to correct damaging mutations in the lab, including those that cause sickle cell anaemia. The team at the Broad Institute say it is "very versatile and precise", but stress the research is only starting. Prime editing is the latest advance in the field of gene editing, which is developing at an incredible pace. Our DNA is the instruction manual for building and running our bodies. It is in nearly every one of our cells. Being able to tweak DNA through gene editing is already transforming scientific research, promising to revolutionise medicine and asking deep moral and ethical questions after the creation of babies who were gene-edited to have protection from HIV. Much of the excitement has centred on a technology called Crispr-Cas9, which was developed just seven years ago. It scans DNA for the right spot and then, like a microscopic pair of scissors, cuts it in two. This creates the opportunity to edit the DNA. However, the edits are not always perfect and the cuts can end up in the wrong place. Both issues are a problem for using the technology in medicine. The promise of prime editing is precision. The study, in the journal Nature, used prime editing to accurately insert or delete sections of DNA; as well as correct typos in a single "letter" out of the three billion that make up the human genetic code. One of the researchers, Dr David Liu, said: "You can think of prime editors to be like word processors, capable of searching for target DNA sequences and precisely replacing them. "Prime editors offer more targeting flexibility and greater editing precision."

10-21-19 Neanderthal 'glue' points to complex thinking
Traces of ancient "glue" on a stone tool from 50,000 years ago points to complex thinking by Neanderthals, experts say. The glue was made from birch tar in a process that required forward planning and involved several different steps. It adds to mounting evidence that we have underestimated the capabilities of our evolutionary cousins. Only a handful of Neanderthal tools bear signs of adhesive, but experts say the process could have been widespread. The tool, found in the Netherlands, has spent the last 50,000 years under the North Sea. This may have helped preserve the tar adhesive. Co-author Marcel Niekus, from the Stichting STONE/Foundation for Stone Age Research in Groningen, said the simple stone flake was probably used either for cutting plant fibres or for scraping animal skins. While birch tar may have been used by Neanderthals to attach stone tools to wooden handles in some cases, this particular tool probably had a grip made only of tar. Dr Niekus said there was no imprint from a wood or bone shaft in the tar. It would have enabled the user to apply more pressure to the stone flake without cutting their hands - turning the edge into a precision cutting tool. The tool was made by Neanderthal groups living at the icy limits of their range, say the authors of the study. At the time, this area would have been part of Doggerland, a landmass that is now subsumed under the North Sea. These small hunting groups would have inhabited icy tundra, with relatively few trees. "They had to really plan ahead, because the process needs at least 40kg of wood. In steppe tundra conditions that's not easy to collect, because you only have dwarf birch trees," Dr Niekus told BBC News. "They also had to invest time and energy in building the fire and extracting the tar."

10-20-19 How 'neurolaw' will transform the criminal justice system
Can we trust science to lead us to the truth?. On March 30, 1981, 25-year-old John W. Hinckley Jr. shot President Ronald Reagan and three other people. The following year, he went on trial for his crimes. Defense attorneys argued that Hinckley was insane, and they pointed to a trove of evidence to back their claim. Their client had a history of behavioral problems. He was obsessed with the actress Jodie Foster, and devised a plan to assassinate a president to impress her. He hounded Jimmy Carter. Then he targeted Reagan. In a controversial courtroom twist, Hinckley's defense team also introduced scientific evidence: a computerized axial tomography (CAT) scan that suggested their client had a "shrunken," or atrophied, brain. Initially, the judge didn't want to allow it. The scan didn't prove that Hinckley had schizophrenia, experts said — but this sort of brain atrophy was more common among schizophrenics than among the general population. It helped convince the jury to find Hinckley not responsible by reason of insanity. Nearly 40 years later, the neuroscience that influenced Hinckley's trial has advanced by leaps and bounds — particularly because of improvements in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and the invention of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which lets scientists look at blood flows and oxygenation in the brain without hurting it. Today neuroscientists can see what happens in the brain when a subject recognizes a loved one, experiences failure, or feels pain. Despite this explosion in neuroscience knowledge, and notwithstanding Hinckley's successful defense, "neurolaw" hasn't had a tremendous impact on the courts — yet. But it is coming. Attorneys working civil cases introduce brain imaging ever more routinely to argue that a client has or has not been injured. Criminal attorneys, too, sometimes argue that a brain condition mitigates a client's responsibility. Lawyers and judges are participating in continuing education programs to learn about brain anatomy and what MRIs and EEGs and all those other brain tests actually show. Most of these lawyers and judges want to know such things as whether brain imaging could establish a defendant's mental age, supply more dependable lie-detection tests or reveal conclusively when someone is experiencing pain and when they are malingering (which would help resolve personal injury cases). Neuroscience researchers aren't there yet, but they are working hard to unearth correlations that might help — looking to see which parts of the brain engage in a host of situations. Progress has been incremental but steady. Though neuroscience in the courts remains rare, "We're seeing way more of it in the courts than we used to," says Judge Morris B. Hoffman, of Colorado's 2nd Judicial District Court. "And I think that's going to continue." (Webmaster's comment: I've said it before and I'll say it again. They had the same chances as everyone else! You choose who you want to be!)

10-20-19 Man’s body brews its own beer after yeast take over his gut microbiome
A man in the US has started producing beer in his gut after it accidentally became colonised by high levels of brewer’s yeast. The normally healthy 46-year-old began to experience mental fogginess, dizziness and memory loss in 2011 and had to give up his job. He saw multiple doctors, but they couldn’t work out what was wrong. A psychiatrist prescribed him antidepressants in 2014, but this didn’t help. A few months later, the man was pulled over and arrested for erratic driving. His blood alcohol reading was 200 milligrams per 100 millilitres, about the level that would be expected if he had consumed 20 standard alcoholic drinks. He maintained that he hadn’t had anything alcoholic to drink, but the police didn’t believe him. On another occasion, the man was hospitalised after falling and hitting his head. Doctors detected a large amount of alcohol in his system, but also didn’t believe him when he said he hadn’t been drinking. Baffled, the man saw a gastroenterologist, who discovered high levels of a fungus called Saccharomyces cerevisiae in his stool. This fungus is also known as brewer’s yeast, because it is used by beer-makers to convert carbohydrates in grains into alcohol. Subsequent tests showed that a similar conversion process was happening in the man’s gut. Every time he ate carbohydrates, his blood alcohol level shot up, sometimes to as high as 400 milligrams per 100 millilitres. In 2017, the man attended a specialist clinic at Richmond University Medical Center in New York, where he was diagnosed with auto-brewery syndrome. This is a rare condition that occurs when certain gut microbes become overgrown and convert carbohydrates to alcohol. The man’s auto-brewery syndrome was probably triggered by a prolonged course of antibiotics that he took in early 2011 for a thumb injury, says Fahad Malik, one of the doctors at the Richmond University Medical Center who made the diagnosis.

10-20-19 Thirty mummies in wooden coffins found in Egypt
Thirty wooden coffins of men women and children, thought to belong to the families of high priests, have been found in Luxor, Egypt. The well-preserved burials are around 3,000 years old and will be shown in the Grand Egyptian Museum.

10-19-19 Bacterial infections in pregnancy may make schizophrenia more likely
Children of mothers who had bacterial infections during pregnancy are more likely to develop mental health conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. We already knew that exposure to viruses in the womb increases a child’s risk of developing schizophrenia, but the effects of bacterial infections have been less clear. Younga Lee at Brown University in Rhode Island and her colleagues studied 15,000 US adults whose mothers had regular health checks during pregnancy in the 1950s and 60s. They found that those whose mothers had urinary tract infections, bacterial vaginosis, pneumonia or other bacterial infections during pregnancy were 1.8 times more likely to one day experience psychotic conditions – mental health conditions that can involve hallucinations or delusions – than those whose mothers had not had these infections. The risk was higher for males and more severe infections. Men whose mothers had severe infections like sepsis during pregnancy were five times as likely to develop a condition like schizophrenia. It isn’t clear why males seem to be more susceptible, but some evidence suggests that the placentas of female fetuses are better at buffering against environmental pressures than those of male fetuses, says Lee. The findings are consistent with some studies in animals that have found that when pregnant females are infected with bacteria, pieces of the bacterial cell walls can cross the placenta and enter the brain of a fetus, causing structural abnormalities.However, while bacterial infections are common during pregnancy, affecting about one in four pregnant women, conditions involving psychosis are rare, affecting less than 1 in 100 people. Prenatal bacterial infections probably only cause such conditions when there is an underlying genetic susceptibility, says Lee.

10-18-19 Pharma: Opioid deal could hit $18 billion
The country’s three biggest drug distributors this week offered to pay $18 billion to settle thousands of opioid lawsuits, said Sara Randazzo in The Wall Street Journal, just ahead of a landmark federal trial set to begin next week. McKesson, AmerisourceBergen, and Cardinal Health would collectively pay the sum over 18 years for what plaintiffs allege was a failure “to implement adequate systems to halt suspicious drug orders as the opioid epidemic came into focus.” The companies are under pressure to make a deal capping their liability in the litigation; such an agreement would make them the first companies “to achieve a broad resolution of the opioid lawsuits outside of bankruptcy.” Six defendants remain in what’s been “described as the most complex litigation ever,” said Lenny Bernstein in The Washington Post. The case opening next week involves two Ohio counties hit hard by the opioid crisis, and its resolution may well set the template for the thousands of other opioid suits. The litigation has already taken down Purdue Pharma, “the company most widely blamed for fueling the epidemic” of painkiller addiction; Purdue has filed for bankruptcy. Judge Dan Polster has pushed hard for a comprehensive mass settlement, which “would speed aid to the people and communities in need.” (Webmaster's comment: Send all the Pharma executives to prison. That's what they deserve!)

10-18-19 STDs on the rise
The total number of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis cases in the U.S. has risen for the fifth consecutive year, hitting an all-time high.. Cases of primary and secondary syphilis—the most infectious stages—increased 14 percent year over year, to more than 35,000; gonorrhea cases rose 5 percent to more than 580,000; and chlamydia increased 3 percent, to more than 1.7 million. “Not that long ago, gonorrhea rates were at historic lows, syphilis was close to elimination, and we were able to point to advances in STD prevention,” says Gail Bolan from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “That progress has since unraveled.” Health officials say more people are being screened for STDs, which means that more cases are being logged. But they also say fewer people are using condoms, particularly among high-risk populations such as sexually active high schoolers and men who have sex with men. One especially worrying trend, reports CNN.com, is the rise in congenital syphilis. That debilitating and deadly infection occurs when the disease passes from a pregnant mother to her fetus through the placenta. More than 1,300 infants were born with congenital syphilis last year; 94 of them died.

10-18-19 These tiny aquatic animals secrete a compound that may help fight snail fever
A molecule made by rotifers prevents parasitic worm larvae from causing infections in mice. Tiny aquatic invertebrates, once a nuisance to scientists studying snail fever, may actually hold the key to fighting the spread of the tropical disease. Snail fever, or schistosomiasis, is caused by several species of freshwater parasitic worms that penetrate human skin to enter the bloodstream. The parasites must first infect aquatic snails before developing into larvae, the life cycle stage that can infect people. For decades, scientists studied the parasites as they infested snails, and grew frustrated when specimens were contaminated by microscopic invertebrates called rotifers. Somehow, the presence of rotifers paralyzed the larvae, preventing them from infecting other organisms. Now, scientists have identified a molecule secreted by rotifers that causes the paralysis. Larvae of Schistosoma mansoni worms, a type of schistosome or blood fluke, became paralyzed within 30 seconds of being submerged in water containing the molecule in tiny quantities. Paralyzed larvae in rotifer-contaminated water also could not infect mice whose tails were placed in the same water for half an hour, the team reports October 17 in PLOS Biology. The researchers “have taken what was considered kind of a nuisance for people who work with schistosomes … and used it to come up with a really novel, interesting finding,” says Robert Greenberg, a parasitologist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine who was not involved in the work.

10-18-19 Acrobatic choanoflagellates could help explain how multicellularity evolved
A new single-celled species forms groups of multiple individuals that change shape. There’s not much to a choanoflagellate. But a new species of these single-celled organisms, animals’ closest evolutionary relatives (SN: 7/29/15), could provide crucial clues to a fundamental question in biology: How did solitary cells band together long ago to form multicellular coalitions capable of moving, hunting and hiding? Most choanoflagellates live simple, solitary lives. So when cell biologist Nicole King, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the University of California, Berkeley and her colleagues discovered hundreds of these organisms locked together in a sample taken from a splash pool along the coast of the Caribbean island of Curaçao, they were surprised. The cells formed a concave sheet, with their tail-like flagella extending from the cupped side. What happened next stunned the scientists. In unison, the organisms making up the sheet inverted into a ball-like shape, tiny flagella flailing outward like tiny oars, allowing the organisms to swim much more swiftly. Accordingly, the team dubbed the new species Choanoeca flexa. “It was this crazy behavior unlike anything we’d ever heard of in choanoflagellates,” King says, “We just had to figure out how they pulled it off.” This collective behavior emerges from the simple actions of cells responding to changes in light, King and her colleagues report in the Oct. 18 Science. The researchers suggest that the new species could offer clues to how a key step in animal evolution happened. “Plus, it’s just a really cool phenomenon,” King says.

10-17-19 Long strand of DNA from Neanderthals found in people from Melanesia
Many people have DNA inside them that they inherited from extinct hominins like the Neanderthals – and now we know that in some cases it’s not just tiny snippets but long stretches. Genetic analysis of human DNA over the past decade has revealed that ancient humans must have interbred many times with other hominins such as Neanderthals. The result is that DNA from these extinct groups can be found in many human populations today. In particular, everyone whose primary ancestry was outside Africa carries some Neanderthal DNA, while many people from Asia – especially South East Asia – have DNA from the mysterious Denisovans. Some of this DNA may have been advantageous for modern humans. However, these studies were limited to small pieces of DNA. “Most people have focused on looking at single nucleotide changes,” says Evan Eichler at the University of Washington in Seattle. This means just one ‘letter’ of a gene has been changed. Now Eichler and his team have gone further. “This is one of the first papers that looks at bigger events like deletions and duplications of sequence,” he says. These larger changes to the genes will have had more important effects on human biology. Eichler’s team looked at the DNA of people from Melanesia, as the levels of Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA are highest in these populations. They found evidence of much larger chunks of archaic DNA in their genomes. The team found two large pieces of DNA that came from ancient hominins. One is on chromosome 16 and comes from Denisovans. It contains two duplicated sections. The other is on chromosome 8 and comes from Neanderthals. It includes both a deletion and a duplication.

10-17-19 Early mouse fetuses generated without sperm or eggs for first time
For the first time, artificial embryos made without sperm or eggs have started to form live fetuses after being implanted in female mice. However, the embryos had some malformations and we are still a long way from being able to make human babies this way. The artificial mouse embryos were made from scratch using special stem cells called extended pluripotent stem cells. These have the ability to generate all three cell types found in early embryos. Jun Wu at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and his colleagues coaxed the stem cells to turn into the three embryo cell types and self-assemble into embryo-like structures by soaking them in nutrients and growth stimulants. “They essentially did the job on their own – you could see the cells that would become the placental tissue moving to the outside while others that would form the fetus moved to the inside,” he says. The team then transferred the artificial embryos to the uteruses of female mice, where 7 per cent successfully implanted. A week later, the implanted embryos were surgically removed by caesarean section. Microscopic examination showed they had started to form early fetal structures, albeit with major malformations. “The tissue structure and organisation were not as good as in normal embryos,” says Wu. This experiment is the first time artificial embryos have started to develop into fetal tissue in a uterus. Other groups have made artificial mouse embryos from stem cells but they haven’t successfully implanted or have only been able to form placental cells but not the other cell types once implanted. The challenge now will be to fine-tune the artificial mouse embryos so they can develop into perfectly formed fetuses, says Wu. This may involve growing them in a mix of nutrients and growth stimulants that more closely matches the environment that embryos are normally exposed to inside the body, he says.

10-17-19 Organoids offer clues to how brains are made in humans and chimpanzees
Brainlike clumps of cells reveal similarities and differences among primate brain development. Brainlike blobs made from chimpanzee cells mature faster than those grown from human cells. That finding, described October 16 in Nature along with other clues to human brain development, is one of the latest insights from studies of cerebral organoids — three-dimensional clumps of cells that can mimic aspects of early brain growth (SN: 2/20/18). The new study “draws interesting parallels, but also highlights important differences” in the way that the brains of humans and chimpanzees develop, says Paola Arlotta, a neurobiologist at Harvard University who was not involved in the study. While “it’s still early days in the organoid world,” the results represent an important step toward understanding the particulars of the human brain, she says. To make cerebral organoids from chimpanzees, researchers use cells in blood left over from veterinarians’ routine blood draws. In the vials were white blood cells that could be reprogrammed into stem cells, which themselves were then coaxed into blobs of brain cells. “From that, we get something that really looks a lot like the early brain,” says Gray Camp, a stem cell biologist at the Institute of Molecular and Clinical Ophthalmology Basel in Switzerland. There were no obvious differences in appearance between the chimpanzee organoids and the human organoids, Camp says. But a close look at how genes behaved in the two organoids — and how that behavior changed over time — turned up a big difference in pacing. Chimpanzee organoids seemed to grow up faster than their human counterparts. At the same point in time, chimpanzee nerve cells, or neurons, were more mature than human neurons, possessing a profile of gene behavior that’s known to come with cellular age, the researchers found. That lag was “striking,” Camp says. Compared with other species, human brains are known for taking a long time to grow up, maturing through early life well past adolescence — a sluggish pace captured by the organoids.

10-17-19 Archaeologists are racing to find a lost city before it's ransacked
Thousands of clay tablets have been rescued from smugglers over the past few years, all bearing witness to a lost Sumerian city that was home to a mysterious ancient cult. The tablets show that looters must have discovered the site, and archaeologists now are racing to find it before it is completely ransacked. Iri-Sagrig was a flourishing city that reached its zenith about 4000 years ago. “It was the capital of a major province of the Neo-Sumerian state,” says Manuel Molina at the Spanish National Research Council in Madrid, who has spent much of his life searching for it. The city is also historically important. It was on a trade route to Iran, so received important envoys from across the region, and was frequently visited by Sumerian kings. One set of tablets recovered from smugglers tells the story of a woman from Iri-sagrig called Ninsaga, who managed her own large estate. This changed historians’ views of the role of Sumerian women in society. The city is also thought to have been the centre of a cult that worshipped the Sumerian mother goddess Ninhursag. If the city was discovered, it could reveal a wealth of information about how these ancient people lived, and the beliefs they held about their mother goddess, says Eckart Frahm at Yale University. “Perhaps even some new mythological texts related to her would be discovered.” Iri-sagrig was probably abandoned during a period of social collapse along with many other Sumerian cities. As result, southern Iraq is dotted with ruin-mounds, known as tells, where ancient towns once stood. Iri-Sagrig could be any of them. Over the past few years, many more tablets that seem to have come from Iri-Sagrig have turned up. In 2013, David Owen at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, published details of 1200 clay tablets bearing cuneiform writing that had been confiscated from smugglers, most of them originating in Iri-Sagrig. In 2018, US billionaire Steve Green was fined $3 million for illegally importing hundreds of stolen Iri-Sagrig tablets. In August, the British Museum returned to Iraq another set of 156 cuneiform tablets that had been confiscated from smugglers at London’s Heathrow airport.

10-17-19 Big dinosaurs kept cool thanks to blood vessel clusters in their heads
The giant animals evolved different strategies for cooling their blood and avoiding heatstroke. Massive dinosaurs came in many different forms, but they all had the same problem: Staying cool. Now, fossilized traces of blood vessels in the skulls of big-bodied dinosaurs reveal how different dinos avoided heatstroke. Long-necked sauropods may have panted to stay cool, for example, while heavily armored ankylosaurs relied on elaborate nasal passages. Chemical analyses of fossil sauropod teeth previously suggested that, despite their massive bodies, the animals maintained body temperatures similar to those of modern mammals (SN: 6/23/11). One possible explanation for this was thermoregulation, in which blood vessels radiate excess heat, often with the help of evaporative cooling in moist parts of the body, such as the nose and mouth. To assess how giant dinosaurs might have used thermoregulation, two vertebrate paleontologists from the Ohio Center for Ecology and Evolutionary Studies in Athens mapped blood vessel networks within fossil dinosaur skulls and skulls from dinosaurs’ modern relatives, birds and reptiles. The researchers traced the networks in the bones using computed tomography scanning that combines X-rays into 3-D images. Along with data and observations from the modern relatives, those images let the scientists map blood vessel patterns in the ancient animals. Dinosaurs from Diplodocus to Tyrannosaurus rex each evolved their own ways to beat the heat, the team reports October 16 in The Anatomical Record. Ankylosaurs had thick clusters of blood vessels, representing cooling regions, primarily in their noses. Sauropods had blood vessels clusters in their giant nostrils and mouths, suggesting they used panting to stay cool. And fierce, large theropods like T. rex and Allosaurus may have used their sinuses. An extra air cavity connected to their jaw muscles was also rich in blood vessels, the team found. Opening and closing their jaws would have pumped air in and out of the sinus like a bellows.

10-16-19 Humans evolved to think faster by slowing down brain development
How did humans get to be so much cleverer than other apes? One counter-intuitive idea is that it was made possible by a slowdown of our brain growth during fetal development. The suggestion comes from a relatively new approach of growing embryonic-like stem cells in a dish and coaxing them to turn into nervous system cells until they form pea-sized three-dimensional clumps known as organoids. These “mini brains” seem to replicate real neuron behaviour more closely than when brain cells are grown in a flat layer. They have nothing like the complexity needed for thought or consciousness, but do develop into different kinds of brain tissue and display patterns of electrical activity that have some similarities with real brains. Human brains are certainly bigger than those of our nearest primate relatives, but there are surprisingly few differences in structure. So it is unclear what gives rise to the huge differences in our mental abilities. Gray Camp at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and his colleagues used stem cells from humans, chimpanzees and macaque monkeys to make mini brains for each species. After four months, a key difference was that nerve cells in the chimp and monkey organoids were more mature. Identifying such differences may be a step towards explaining why humans are more intelligent – although the team doesn’t speculate on exactly how their findings might relate to this puzzle. Until now “it wasn’t possible to compare human and chimp organ development”, says Camp. The organoids, some made from stem cells that can be generated directly from adult cells, offer a way of making that comparison. Camp and his team also delved into another long-standing puzzle: why there are so few differences between the protein-coding genes of humans and the other apes, considering the huge disparity in our intellects.

10-16-19 Human 'mini-brains' slow at developing among primates
New research shows that human "mini-brains" develop more slowly than those of other primates. "Mini-brains" are miniature collections of cells that allow scientists to study how the brain develops. A Swiss team has grown artificial human, chimp and macaque versions in their lab from stem cells. In a study published in Nature journal, the team produced an "atlas" of the genes involved in each stage of the three types of brain development. They say the work will help them to answer the basic question of what makes us human. Stem cells are the body's master cells, which can then grow into more specialised tissues. The recent emergence of the technology to grow brain tissue from stem cells has enabled researchers to directly compare brain development in different primates. The "mini-brains" are grown for four months and are about the size of a pea. Known formally as "cerebral organoids", they are simple structures consisting of different types of brain cells and are not capable of any functions. The researchers noted that the three types of brain developed at the same speed to begin with, but once the cells began to specialise into different types of neurons, the macaque's developed the fastest, followed by the chimpanzee, with the human brain being the slowest. Co-author Prof Barbara Treutlein of Basel University, Switzerland, said the slow development might be required to develop the larger and more complex human brain. "It seems that we take more time to develop our brains but the end state that we reach is more complex. Maybe it takes this additional time to get the greater number of connections between neurons and reach the higher cognitive functions we have. But we don't really know yet why this might be the case," she told BBC News. All cells develop by following instructions contained in DNA. But the genetic information of humans and chimps has comparatively few differences yet their brains are very different. Prof Treutlein believes that the resolution of this this apparent dichotomy is that the timing and sequence of how brain-building instructions are read from the genes are different. To assess this, her team took thousands of snapshots of what the genes were doing at each stage of brain development of the three types of mini-brains.

10-16-19 Damping down brain cell activity may help us to live longer
People who live longer have a reduced level of neural activity – involved in everything from twitching to moving your arms and thinking – compared with those who have shorter lives. A protein known to protect the ageing brain from dementia appears to be responsible for the difference, a discovery that might pave the way for drugs to increase lifespan. Bruce Yankner at Harvard University and his colleagues wanted to understand how gene expression in the brain – the way genes are turned on or off – affects lifespan in humans. They studied brain tissue from hundreds of cognitively healthy humans who had died between the ages of 60 and 100. When they compared the samples from those who died before the age of 80 with those who were at least 85 when they died, the team found that those who lived the longest had fewer genes related to neural excitation switched on. To find out if this might be a factor in lifespan, Yankner and his colleagues then used drugs to suppress neural excitation in nematode worms. The more they suppressed neural excitation, the longer the worms lived on average. Worms genetically engineered to have a gene that suppresses neural activity also lived longer. The relationship went both ways, says Yankner. “Reducing excitatory activity in the worm increases lifespan, whereas increasing excitation reduces it.” The level of neural activity in mammals is regulated by a protein known as REST. Mice bred without this gene had much higher rates of neural activity in the brain compared with normal mice. “This protein suppresses neural genes in humans, mice and worms,” says Yankner. “Mice that lack the REST gene in the brain show elevated neural activity as they age.” The protein has previously been shown to protect the brain from dementia and other disorders. In this study, Yankner and his colleagues found that that levels of REST in the nuclei of brain cells of people who lived to age 100 were significantly higher than those who died younger.

10-16-19 Mother’s attention may shape baby’s hormone system and temperament
Playing with a baby may help shape their hormone system for future social interactions. Babies who are touched and talked to seem to develop more receptors for oxytocin during the first 18 months of life, according to a study of 101 babies and their mothers. Oxytocin is often referred to as the “love hormone” or “cuddle chemical” because it is thought to play a role in forming relationships, in humans and other animals. Kathleen Krol at the University of Virginia wondered how a person’s oxytocin system develops in the months after birth. Her team began by recruiting 101 mothers and their babies. When the babies were 5 months old, the team observed how each mother interacted with her baby when the two of them were left alone for 5 minutes with toys and a book. This interaction was then scored based on how close the mother was to the baby, how she responded to the baby’s distress, and the amount of eye contact, among other things. The session was repeated when the babies were 18 months old. At each session, the team obtained DNA from saliva from the mothers and babies. They specifically looked at a gene that codes for the receptor for oxytocin. The team measured epigenetic modifications to this gene, which control how the gene works. These often work by small molecules that attach to DNA. The presence of a methyl group on the gene – known as methylation – suggests that the gene is “switched off”, for example. Between the two play sessions, the mothers’ levels of methylation at the oxytocin receptor gene remained constant. But the levels changed for babies – those that had experienced more involved play with their mothers had a decrease in methylation, while those that received less attention had an increase in methylation. This suggests that babies given more involved play have more oxytocin receptors, says Krol. These babies also appeared to have a different temperament, and were less likely to seem frustrated or overly sensitive to intense lights, sounds and textures.

10-16-19 A second mutation that makes people need less sleep has been found
A genetic mutation that allows people to feel fully rested with fewer than six hours sleep a night has been identified by studying a family who get by on less than average. It is the second such finding in recent months. Ying-Hui Fu at the University of California, San Francisco, and her colleagues have been seeking out and studying families in which some people seem to need less sleep than normal. They have been looking for the gene variants that might be responsible, and genetically engineering these variants into mice to confirm their effect. Her team has found several mutations make people need less sleep. In August, Fu’s team reported that a mutation in a gene called ADRB1 allows 12 members of a family to sleep as little as 4.5 hours per night without feeling tired. This gene codes for a receptor protein common in a brain region called the dorsal pons, known to regulate sleep. Now the team has found a mutation in a gene called NPSR1 in another family in which some people report feeling fully rested after much less sleep than average. Of the two members of this family whose sleep habits they studied, one averaged 5.5 hours a night and the other just 4.3 hours. NPSR1 codes for a protein receptor in the brain known to be involved in arousal and sleep behaviour. When the team engineered the mutation into mice, they slept less without any obvious effect on health or memory. Another variation in NPSR1 has previously been linked to people requiring 20 minutes less sleep than average, based on studies of tens of thousands of people. On average, people need 8 hours sleep a night. In most people, sleeping less than 6 hours a night results in a marked decline in cognitive abilities within days. Over long periods, sleep deprivation can contribute to many disorders, including obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and depression.

10-16-19 Trump is getting worse
“THE only certainty is that nothing is certain”, wrote Pliny the Elder with classical authority in his Natural History. Later, more waggish sources added death and taxes to the list, but the passage of time has done little to diminish the original sentiment. Indeed, modern life seems to have elevated gnawing insecurity to an art form. Whether it is awaiting a diagnosis or the result of an interview, trying to get pregnant or completing on a house sale, few of us haven’t felt that sense of limbo: of a fate in the balance, determined by forces outside our control. The UK has even been experimenting with making it a form of national psychosis with its failure to decide on its future relationship with the European Union. Good, then, that psychologists are beginning to gain insights into the effects of a state of limbo on our mental well-being, and how to combat them. It seems that our ability to contend with uncertainty in our lives has got worse in recent decades. Our “intolerance of uncertainty” falls somewhere on a sliding scale, with those who are least able to cope at highest risk of developing anxiety disorders. Those insights give us new ways to protect ourselves: old but good ones, such as mindfulness and distraction techniques, and also new ones, such as identifying the subconscious safety behaviours we use against uncertainty, which probably make things worse. The good news is that the research shows that going through periods of huge uncertainty, like Brexit, might actually make people more resilient to the smaller things. That is supported by the recent UN-backed World Happiness Report, which claims that the people of the UK are actually getting happier. None of which should encourage us to seek out limbo when our fate lies in our hands. Paralysing concern about our planet’s uncertain future has recently gained a name: eco-anxiety. Protest movements such as Extinction Rebellion are at least countering this resigned apathy (see “The agony of not knowing: How to cope with the world’s uncertainty”). Certain uncertainties are best met with action.

10-16-19 In the age of fake news and manipulation, you are the new battlefield
With states, political parties and individuals jockeying for ever-greater influence online, you and your clicks are now the front line in the information war. AT FIRST glance, you might think you were in the office of a technology start-up. People peer at computers and talk about influencers, reach and hashtags. Like their peers in Silicon Valley, these men and women know how the internet can be used to change hearts and minds. But this is a world away from the primary-colour campuses of the tech giants. These offices lie behind barbed wire, and everyone is wearing the green patterned camouflage of the British Army. The 77th Brigade is the British Army’s unit for what it calls “information manoeuvre” and what everyone else calls information warfare: using print and online media to change the behaviour of hostile parties and prevent them causing problems at home. When I visited, just over two years ago, everything was in motion. Flooring was being laid, units installed. Desks formed neat lines in offices still covered in plastic, tape and sawdust. Even then, there was a sense that they were already too late. Today, they face new kinds of conflict that are breaking out online, leading to mass deception, protests and even deaths. Our information flow is being invaded. Attention is being hacked. The hostile manipulation of information has even been blamed for rigging elections, the Brexit vote and paving the road for Donald Trump. Whether real or imagined, the fear of such activity is changing our world. Amid all the intrigue and shadows, you have become the front line. Your opinions, your values, what you hold to be true, even the way you feel, are all under siege. And it isn’t clear what anyone can do to stop it. A powerful illustration of that fragility came on 7 March 2019, when Facebook made an announcement. Among the billions of accounts, groups and pages that inhabit its site and its subsidiary, Instagram, it had identified a network of 137 engaged in what it termed “inauthentic” activity targeting the UK. Yet to the 180,000 people who followed all or part of this network, it would have seemed utterly unremarkable. Tedious even.

10-16-19 The agony of not knowing: How to cope with the world's uncertainty
Living in limbo can be excruciating, whether it's waiting for a pregnancy test, the next Brexit blow or wondering what's making your partner late. Fortunately there are ways to build resilience. TWO minutes, 58 seconds. Two minutes, 59 seconds. Three minutes. One blue line or two? Our lives are full of moments where we hold our breath, waiting, our future in the balance. Whether it is three minutes for a pregnancy test, three months for an exam result or three years to find out what will happen with Brexit, time spent waiting for the news that could change everything can be filled with excitement and hope, or fear and anxiety. Now though, we are starting to understand how our capacity for coping with such uncertainty varies, and the toll that not coping well can take on our physical and mental health. With that comes the revelation that our ability to tolerate periods living in limbo has actually decreased over the past few decades. That has profound implications for many aspects of our lives – from the medical advice we are given and choices we make about it to how we cope with times of personal struggle, political upheaval and even longer-term existential threats like climate change. Thankfully there are ways to identify how tolerant we each are to spells of uncertainty that invade our lives, and methods we can use to manage and build resilience to them. It may be true that nothing in life is certain, but we can all learn how to traverse life’s limbos better and emerge from them relatively unscathed.Limbo is, of course, the first circle of hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy. It is a place where people have no hope yet live in longing. It is described as a gloomy, dimly lit wood – dark, deep and foggy. What are first mistaken for cries of anguish are in fact sighs of sadness.

10-16-19 A precision drug for prostate cancer may slow the disease’s spread
Olaparib could be used to treat men with certain genetic mutations. A drug used to treat breast and ovarian cancers tied to certain genetic mutations may help combat some of the most severe cases of prostate cancer. Researchers tested the drug, called olaparib, in a randomized clinical trial of nearly 400 men with advanced prostate cancer and a mutation in one of several genes involved in repairing damaged DNA, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2. These genetic defects raise the risk of certain cancers, including breast and ovarian (SN: 4/7/15). Up to 30 percent of men with the hardest-to-treat prostate cancers also have mutations in this type of gene. In the Phase III clinical trial, designed to compare the new treatment with current standard treatment, the men were split into two groups based on their genetic mutations. The 245 men in one group had mutations in some of the genes most commonly associated with breast and ovarian cancer (BRCA1, BRCA2 and ATM), while the 142 men in the other group had other mutations in DNA-repair genes. About two-thirds of men in each group took olaparib. Overall in men given olaparib, the disease progressed more slowly compared with those on standard treatment drugs that deprive cancer cells of the male hormone testosterone. After a year, about 22 percent of men taking olaparib had no signs that their cancer was progressing, compared with 13.5 percent of men on the standard treatments, the researchers reported September 30 in Barcelona at the European Society of Medical Oncology meeting. The difference was greater in the group with the BRCA1, BRCA2 and ATM mutations: 28 percent had no signs their cancer was progressing compared with 9.4 percent receiving standard treatment. Alterations in the BRCA genes are often associated with responding to drugs that work similarly to olaparib, says Maha Hussain, an oncologist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago who presented the findings at the oncology meeting.

10-16-19 Egypt archaeologists find 20 ancient coffins near Luxor
Archaeologists have found more than 20 ancient wooden coffins near the Egyptian city of Luxor, the country's antiquities ministry says. The coffins, whose brightly-coloured decorations are still visible, were uncovered at the Theban necropolis of Asasif, on the River Nile's west bank. They were in two layers, with the ones on top across those below. The ministry described the discovery as "one of the largest and most important" in recent years. More details will be released at a news conference on Saturday. Most of the tombs at Asasif, which is close to the Valley of the Kings, are from the Late Period (664-332BC) of ancient Egypt. However, there are also tombs from the earlier 18th Dynasty (1550-1292BC), which was the first of the New Kingdom and included the famous pharaohs Ahmose, Hatshepsut, Thutmose III, Amenhotep III, Akhenaton and Tutankhamun. Last week, the antiquities ministry announced that archaeologists had discovered an ancient "industrial area" in Luxor's West Valley. The area included "houses for storage and the cleaning of funerary furniture, with many potteries dated to the 18th Dynasty", it said.

10-15-19 Ancient jungle capital of the Khmer Empire mapped for the first time
An ancient city, hidden in the jungles of Cambodia for hundreds of years, has been revealed by aerial mapping. Mahendraparvata is thought to have been the first capital city of the Khmer Empire, which dominated much of South-East Asia from the 9th to the 15th centuries. Cambodians have always lived in the Phnom Kulen area where the remains of the city are, but archaeologists couldn’t map it due to dense forest. In the late 20th century, the forest was occupied by the Khmer Rouge regime and its army, and even today it contains many landmines left over from conflicts. So in 2012, Damian Evans of the French Institute of Asian Studies in Paris and his colleagues mapped the region by scanning it with lasers from aeroplanes, a technique called LIDAR. The result was “a snapshot of this urban complex”. However, the picture of Mahendraparvata was incomplete, so they returned in 2015 to scan a larger area, and investigate as much as possible on the ground. The result is “a very full and detailed interpretation of that city”, Evans says. Mahendraparvata was built on a plateau in a mountainous region called Phnom Kulen. The city spanned 40 to 50 square kilometres. Evans’s team found it was laid out in a grid, with raised embankments running roughly north-south and east-west. Within each square of the grid, there are traces of buildings, including temples and palaces. “It shows a degree of centralised control and planning,” says Evans. Other Khmer cities from the time grew organically. “What you’re seeing at Mahendraparvata is something else. It speaks of a grand vision and a fairly elaborate plan.” This fits with other historical sources. Inscriptions identify the first ruler of the Khmer Empire as Jayavarman II, who in AD 802 announced that he was a universal monarch and began unifying previously independent principalities. As far as we can tell, says Evans, “this king is the beginning of the Khmer Empire and this is his capital”.

10-14-19 Lee Berger: We have made another major discovery about early humans
Humanity’s ancient family tree is set to be shaken up by fossil skeletons found embedded in rock at a site near Johannesburg, South Africa, could be another long lost human cousin. “We have another major hominin discovery,” said Lee Berger at New Scientist Live on Saturday. In the past decade, Berger at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and his team has discovered not one but two new species of human ancestor. In 2010, Berger made the headlines when he (or rather, his then 9-year-old son) discovered the remains of a new species of human in the hills north of Johannesburg. This was Australopithecus sediba, which lived around 2 million years ago and appears to be our closest ape-like ancestor. Then, in 2013, Berger hit the fossil jackpot again, with the remarkable discovery of thousands of bones deep inside the Rising Star cave system also near Johannesburg. These turned out to belong to a new species of tiny, small-brained hominin called Homo naledi. This fossil hominin is transforming our understanding of human evolution, not least because H. naledi lived very recently, around 250,000 years ago, and has a strange mix of modern and archaic features. But Berger is on a roll. The new fossil hominin remains he has discovered are located near the Rising Star caves, but the bones haven’t yet been excavated due to the challenging nature of their location. “It’s a difficult site,” said Berger, as the fossils are embedded in very hard rock. So could this be another new species? “I don’t know. We haven’t got them out of the rock yet,” said Berger. “All I have is a glimpse of several individuals and that they are not very tiny.” The large size of the jaw and teeth means that the skeletons don’t belong to the diminutive H. naledi, and they are not A. sebida either, he said.

10-13-19 Cannabis extract may work as a treatment for cannabis addiction
For people who are addicted to cannabis, one treatment option may be, paradoxically, to take pills containing an extract of cannabis. The first test of the idea has found that people taking capsules of this extract, known as cannabidiol or CBD, nearly halved the amount of cannabis they smoked, according to results presented at New Scientist Live this week. Cannabis is usually seen as a soft drug, but some users – about 1 in 10 by one estimate – become addicted, getting withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety and insomnia when they try to stop. The number of people seeking treatment because they can’t quit smoking cannabis has been rising in the past decade, linked with a use of the more potent form known as skunk, said Val Curran of University College London at the event. The two main psychoactive substances in cannabis are CBD and THC, the compound responsible for the high. While THC tends to increase anxiety, CBD makes people calmer. “CBD gets rid of the toxic effects of THC,” said Curran. Her team has been running a trial, where people undertook a four-week course of CBD to alleviate withdrawal symptoms to help them quit smoking cannabis. It involved 82 people classed as severely addicted, who were given one of three different doses of CBD or placebo capsules, as well as psychological support. The lowest dose didn’t work. The middle dose of 400 milligrams worked best, said Curran. After six months it halved the amount of cannabis people used compared with placebo, as shown by tests for THC in their urine. And the highest dose of 800 milligrams was slightly less effective than the middle one. The 400 milligram dose also more than doubled the number of days when people had no THC in their urine. “That’s really remarkable,” said Curran.

10-12-19 Nearly 1,300 injuries and 29 deaths in the U.S. have been tied to vaping
U.S. vaping cases keep rising as health officials search for answers. Alaska is now the only U.S. state that hasn’t reported vaping-related lung injuries. Nearly 1,300 people have been sickened and 29 have died, including a 17-year-old from New York, the youngest death yet. Even as the toll climbs, it may still take months before the underlying causes of lung injuries, predominantly affecting many young and otherwise healthy people, becomes clear, health officials said during a news conference on October 11. “I can’t stress enough the seriousness of these lung injuries,” said Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. “We are not seeing a meaningful drop-off in new cases.” Along with the 49 states, cases have also been reported in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The total number of cases — 1,299 as of October 8 — rose from 1,080 the previous week. The majority still involve vaping products containing tetrahydrocannabinol — the psychoactive ingredient known as THC in marijuana. About three-fourths of the 573 patients for whom information was available reported using THC in their vapes three months prior to falling ill. About a third used only THC products, while others also used nicotine-containing products. About 13 percent exclusively vaped nicotine. Rather than just one chemical or exposure, “I think there will be multiple causes and potentially more than one root cause” behind the injuries, Schuchat said, adding she remained confident public health officials would find answers. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has collected more than 725 products from patients and has begun analyzing around 300, 79 containing nicotine and 225 containing THC. The dietary supplement vitamin E acetate, which may be toxic when inhaled (SN: 9/6/19), has been found in close to half of the THC products, said Mitch Zeller, director of FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products. The testing process is hampered by the fact that some of the products contain no liquid to analyze or very little, putting “an extreme limit on the number and types of tests that we’re able to perform,” he said.Description

10-12-19 Your heartbeat may shape how likely you are to have a car crash
Drivers may be more likely to crash if an obstacle appears at the same time as a heartbeat. To investigate how the beat of our hearts influences our reaction times, Sarah Garfinkel at the University of Sussex, UK, and her colleagues designed a virtual reality driving game. While participants were driving, obstacles would appear in the road, either in time with a heartbeat or between beats. When objects coincided with heartbeats, drivers’ reaction times were slower and they were more likely to crash. Garfinkel presented the results at New Scientist Live in London on Thursday, where she discussed the possible effect of systoles – the squeezing of the heart ventricles that occurs in the middle of a heartbeat – on driving. “If you’re driving and you’re in a highly aroused state and your heart is beating strong and fast, you will have more cardiac systoles, and that is going to impair your reaction time and ability to avoid objects,” she said. The research adds to a series of studies showing that systoles have an inhibitory effect on the brain’s ability to process stimuli. For example, painful stimuli are perceived as less painful if they coincide with a heartbeat. Garfinkel previously found an effect on memory, too. If participants are shown words either in time with heartbeats or between beats, they are more likely to forget words that appeared on a beat when tested later. These effects are thought to be mediated by baroreceptors, blood pressure sensors located in the major arteries. These receptors fire in bursts every time the heart contracts, but as well as helping to regulate blood pressure, they appear to have an inhibitory effect on certain cognitive functions.

10-11-19 New vaping-sickness theory
Toxic chemical fumes might be responsible for the surge in vaping-related lung injuries across the U.S., a new Mayo Clinic study has found. More than 1,000 e-cigarette users have been hospitalized in recent months and at least 18 have died. Many of those sickened used bootleg vaping liquids containing THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Tests have shown that some black market producers diluted expensive THC oil with vitamin E acetate. That led health experts to suspect that this greasy substance was causing the e-cigarette illnesses, by coating the lungs after being inhaled and triggering an inflammatory response. But when Mayo Clinic researchers examined lung biopsies from 17 people who got sick after vaping—about two-thirds of whom had used THC cartridges—they found no signs of oil accumulation. Instead, the tissue had damage consistent with a “chemical burn injury,” pathologist Brandon Larsen told The New York Times, similar to that seen in people exposed to airborne poisons like mustard gas. It’s still not clear what harmful substance is causing the injuries, or whether the toxin is in the vaping fluid or materials used to make the vaping device.

10-11-19 Rocking out behind the wheel
Listening to pumping rock music while cruising down the highway might make driving more enjoyable, but it also raises your risk of crashing, reports The Sunday Times (U.K.). Researchers in China recruited 20 volunteers and put them in a simulator that mimics the experience of driving down a six-lane freeway. Each participant took three drives: one while listening to a fast rock track with a tempo of at least 120 beats per minute; one with gentler music of around 80 bpm, and one with no music at all. When the uptempo rock played, the test subjects increased their speed, driving 5 to 10 mph faster than when listening to slow music or nothing at all. They also crossed lanes 140 times on average—twice as many times as those listening to slower tunes, suggesting they were more likely to crash. Lead researcher Qiang Zeng says the extra brain power that it takes to process fast rock riffs might distract drivers by increasing their “mental workload.” The scientists put the Green Day song “American Idiot,” which has a bpm of 189, at the top of their most dangerous driving music list; Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” was ranked least dangerous.

10-11-19 Is red meat back on the menu?
An international team of researchers has concluded that cutting back on red and processed meat consumption has no significant health benefits—a controversial finding that contradicts decades of studies and has sparked furious responses from nutritional scientists. Groups such as the American Heart Association and the World Cancer Research Fund have recommended for years that people eat less beef, lamb, pork, and processed meats (such as bologna) because of evidence linking them to heart disease, stroke, cancer, and other illnesses. But after evaluating more than 130 studies covering some 4 million participants, the international panel of researchers said there was only weak, low-quality evidence linking red meat consumption with disease and early death. “For the majority of people, but not everyone, continuing their red and processed meat consumption is the right approach,” lead author Bradley Johnston, an epidemiologist at Dalhousie University in Canada, tells Time.com. But many nutritional scientists claim that the team’s research method was deeply flawed. They note that the new study relied primarily on randomized, controlled studies—which are commonly used in drug trials—rather than on the observational studies that make up the bulk of nutrition research. Those studies are conducted by tracking the eating habits and health outcomes of people over many years. The new research, says cardiologist Elizabeth Klodas, “just adds to the confusion for patients. The conclusions are not the conclusions of the medical community.”

10-11-19 The obesity epidemic
A public health emergency is shortening our lives and supersizing our health-care costs.

  1. What’s making us fat? Simple: eating too much and exercising too little. Despite constant debate over which dietary villain to blame—fat, carbs, sodium, sugar—obesity is primarily a problem of calorie intake. The average adult is eating about 300 more calories per day than in the 1970s.
  2. Who’s most at risk? Children, and it’s getting worse. “Addressing childhood obesity is like playing whack-a-mole,” said Harvard nutritionist Erica Kenney. Kids are spending more and more time indoors looking at screens, where they’re bombarded with advertisements for unhealthy foods.
  3. What’s wrong with weight gain? Having a high BMI doesn’t necessarily mean a person is unhealthy. Still, the correlations are strong: As obesity surged over the past three decades, U.S. diabetes rates tripled, and now more than 100 million adults have diabetes or pre-diabetes.
  4. How does it affect health-care costs? Obesity adds between $147 billion and $210 billion to annual U.S. health-care expenses, increasing an average adult’s medical costs by 42 percent—an estimated $200,000 over a lifetime. This burden hits low-income households hardest, creating a vicious cycle of poverty leading to poor dietary habits leading to costly weight-related illness
  5. What else can be done? Dieting is a $66 billion industry, but studies show the vast majority of dieters quickly gain back the weight they lose—and sometimes more. Broader lifestyle interventions are required.
  6. The pain of fat shaming: The comedian Bill Maher enraged many of his liberal fans last month when he said, “Fat shaming doesn’t need to end—it needs to make a comeback.” He argued that as Americans grow more and more obese, we’re letting them off the hook in the name of politically correct “body positivity.”

10-11-19 Ancient baby bottles
Prehistoric parents used clay sippy cups to feed their infants animal milk, according to a new study—and that practice may have helped fuel a population boom. Archaeologists have unearthed small clay vessels with teat-like spouts from Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Age sites across Europe. Many of the vessels have been found in infant graves, and some are shaped like animals. Using a technique called organic residue analysis, a team from the University of Bristol in England has now examined molecules collected from inside three 3,000-year-old vessels from Bavaria. The researchers concluded that the sippy cups contain remnants of milk from cattle, sheep, or goats—first domesticated in the Neolithic era—and were likely used to wean children. The discovery may help explain why human populations boomed in the Neolithic era, says bioarchaeologist Siân Halcrow, who wasn’t involved in the study. Breastfeeding women tend to have a period of infertility. But once women could swap breast milk for animal milk, she tells NPR.org, “they could actually have more babies during their lifetime.”

10-11-19 Ancient European households combined the rich and poor
A new study challenges traditional views of ancient social stratification. Families working the land in ancient Europe also cultivated social inequality. A social pecking order consisting of “haves” and “have-nots” living in the same household appeared among Bronze Age farmers by around 4,000 years ago, a study suggests. Ancient DNA, objects placed in graves and chemical analyses of teeth indicate that each farming household in southern Germany’s Lech Valley included wealthy individuals related biologically through paternal lines; a biologically unrelated, high-status woman from outside the area; and local, biologically unrelated folks of little means. Foreign women probably married into male-run households that passed on wealth and status to descendants, say evolutionary geneticist Alissa Mittnik of Harvard Medical School and colleagues. Poor, low-status members of those households may have been servants, slaves or menial laborers, the researchers suggest online October 10 in Science. Researchers have long assumed that central Europe’s Bronze Age (SN: 11/15/17), which ran from about 4,200 to 2,800 years ago, witnessed rapid social change that prompted a split between wealthy, well-connected households and poor, struggling ones, says archaeologist and study coauthor Philipp Stockhammer. “We were absolutely surprised to find that social inequality was a phenomenon within households rather than between households,” says Stockhammer, of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. Members of these social units identified with their households regardless of their biological roots or economic standing, the researchers suspect. Lech Valley farmers did not live in villages. Instead, a small group of houses and other structures, comprising a household, was usually situated near a cemetery. Households managed individual tracts of land located within a 20-kilometer-long stretch of fertile soil.

10-11-19 Life may have begun with simple genes made out of urine
When the first life emerged on Earth, it may have had a helping hand from an unexpected source: urea, a chemical found in urine. The urea may have been a vital building block, used to make the first simple genes. Life on Earth began at least 3.5 billion years ago. Nobody knows exactly how, but it is likely that simple chemicals gradually became more complex until they could assemble into crude living cells. One of the most crucial steps must have been the formation of the first genes. Today, most organisms store their genes on DNA. However, many scientists believe that the first organisms used a similar molecule called RNA, which can do things that DNA can’t, and that life began with an “RNA world”. The problem with the RNA world idea is that RNA is a complex molecule. It is a chain of smaller molecules called nucleosides and phosphates. As a result, it has been difficult to explain how it could have formed naturally, so some biochemists suspect that a simpler molecule must have come first. “Then comes the question, what could the precursor to RNA be?” says Thomas Carell at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany. “We argue let’s start with just two molecules, formaldehyde and urea.” Both are simple and are likely to have existed on primordial Earth. Carell’s team has now used them to make a simple version of RNA. Previous experiments have shown that formaldehyde can be converted into sugars, including ribose – a key component of RNA – so Carell’s team focused on urea. The team knew that simply heating urea causes individual urea molecules to link up into pairs and triplets. So it mixed these urea-based molecules with ribose and water and heated them to 95 °C until the mixture dried out, then added more water. This simulated a volcanic pond drying out in the sun, then filling up again.

10-10-19 Depression may reduce the amount of white matter in the brain
Your brain looks different if you have depression. But many of the differences seem to be caused by depression, rather than precede it. When neuroscientists compare the brains of people with and without depression, there are common dissimilarities. For example, people with depression tend to have a smaller hippocampus, a brain region important in forming memories. But it has been difficult to work out whether such differences cause the symptoms of depression or whether they result from the disorder, says Heather Whalley at the University of Edinburgh, UK. “We don’t know which causes which.” To answer the question, Whalley and her colleagues turned to two huge genetic databases. Consumer genetic testing company 23andMe holds information on the DNA and depressive symptoms of tens of thousands of individuals, and the UK Biobank collects DNA, lifestyle and behaviour questionnaires and brain scans from thousands more.Whalley and her colleagues used this data, as well as already-published research, to create what is known as a polygenic risk score (PRS) for depression. A PRS assigns weight to various genetic factors that are thought to contribute to the risk of a condition. They made sure their PRS worked by testing it in a separate sample of 11,214 people. The team then assessed the brain scans and behaviour records of those individuals with a PRS that put them at a genetic risk of depression. They found that people with higher genetic risk scores tended to have less white matter in their brains, and that it didn’t seem to be functioning as well. Whalley and her colleagues then used a statistical analysis to work out whether these white matter differences were causing the depression or resulting from it. The analysis takes into account brain structure and depression symptoms, and looks at how closely each are related to genetic factors. Genes are present from birth, so if genetic factors are more closely linked to symptoms, for example, that suggests that the symptoms were present before the brain structure differences.

10-10-19 You probably score worse than monkeys on questions about the world
New Scientist readers are more knowledgeable than the general public and experts on some issues, but still score worse than monkeys on some questions. “To score worse than monkeys requires misconceptions,” Ola Rosling, author of Factfulness, told New Scientist Live on Thursday. Most people are not only ignorant about some basic facts about the world, they don’t even realise that they are ignorant, he said. For example, globally around 88 per cent of children are now vaccinated against at least one disease, but most people think the figure is much lower. Given a choice between 20, 50 or 80 per cent, only around 15 per cent of people in countries such as the US and UK get the answer right in Rosling’s surveys. At a recent world health summit, only 27 per cent of attendees got it right. Nobel laureates and medical scientists would be outsmarted by monkeys randomly picking answers, he said. “Is IQ correlated with factual knowledge? Not in the fields we have tested so far,” said Rosling. In an online survey, 46 per cent of New Scientist readers got the answer right to the vaccination question – better than the experts. “In any other test, it would be seen as a huge failure,” he said.On climate, New Scientist readers excelled. Asked what climate experts believe will happen to global temperatures over the next 100 years – warmer, same or cooler – 99 per cent opted for the right answer. In other surveys, the proportion getting this right ranges from 94 per cent in Hungary to just 76 per cent in Japan. In the US, 81 per cent get in right, and in the UK 87 per cent. New Scientist readers also did relatively well when asked if the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has halved, remained the same or doubled. In most countries, less than 10 per cent of people pick the right answer (it has halved). But 53 per cent of New Scientist readers got it right. Among the audience at the New Scientist Live talk, 81 per cent got it right.

10-10-19 Wealthy families in prehistoric Europe may have had live-in slaves
Ancient DNA reveals that wealthy families in prehistoric Germany once lived with poorer people they weren’t related to, suggesting that live-in slavery or servitude started about 1300 years earlier than once thought. Archaeologists believed that inequality in the Early Bronze Age, from around 2200 BC, usually took the form of a small number of powerful elites living in communities of mostly peasants. This upper class was possibly made up of wealthy farmers or princely leaders and their families, but it is difficult to understand their social structure through archaeological objects alone. That is why Alissa Mittnik at Harvard University and her colleagues analysed ancient DNA from 104 ancient individuals. They also examined items collected from the cemeteries where these people were buried, which are in small farmsteads in what is now southern Germany’s Lech river valley. The families in each cemetery were buried with rich adornments, including elaborate headdresses and jewellery for the women and weapons such as daggers and axes for the men. This indicated they were of high status and are likely to have owned and run the farms, says Mittnik. Adolescents and young adults were also buried with these adornments, indicating that the wealth was inherited from the parents, rather than being accumulated in life. These families were buried together, with some graves housing four or more generations of the same family. Two other distinct groups of people were buried in these farmstead cemeteries. One group was made up of people thought to be poor because they were unadorned and who were unrelated to the core family. They may have been slaves, indentured servants, paid servants or farmhands. “We know of similar household compositions in historical times such as ancient Rome [and Greece],” says Mittnik.

10-10-19 50 years ago, an Antarctic fossil pointed to Gondwanaland’s existence
Fossils unearthed since indicate the southern continents were once linked in a giant landmass. A search for further fossil evidence that Antarctica was once joined to other continents will be conducted.… A 17-man group will seek fossils of ancient land vertebrates similar to those found on continents now separated from Antarctica by up to 2,000 miles of ocean. That same year, 1969, scientists found fossil evidence of the supercontinent Gondwana. Reptile bones found in Antarctica included a 200-million-year-old hippolike creature called Lystrosaurus (SN: 12/13/69, p. 549). The animal lived on the continental mash-up of South America, Africa, India, Australia and Antarctica that existed from around 600 million to 180 million years ago. Another Antarctic expedition, in 1970, found a 200-million-year-old skeleton of a cynodont reptile, which resembled remains found in South America and India (SN: 12/5/70, p. 428). The fossils and other geologic evidence all but confirmed Gondwana’s existence (SN: 1/16/71, p. 49). Scientists later figured out how this continental jigsaw puzzle fit together (SN: 6/11/77, p. 372).

10-10-19 Cold-blooded mammals roamed Earth for tens of millions of years
Our mammal ancestors were cold-blooded for tens of millions of years after their first appearance. In this respect, the early mammals remained similar to the cold-blooded reptiles from which they evolved. The finding comes from an analysis of fossils of two early mammal species, which suggests the animals lived relatively long lives and had slow metabolisms – both reptile-like traits. Mammals are animals that have hair and make milk. The first mammals evolved during the dinosaur era. The oldest known mammal-like animals, like Tikitherium, lived about 230 million years ago in the Triassic period. By the middle of the next period, the Jurassic, true mammals were common. However, one of the most crucial features of modern mammals leaves no obvious traces in the fossil record, so we don’t know when it evolved. All mammals are warm-blooded or “endothermic”, meaning they can maintain a constant internal temperature. In contrast, cold-blooded animals like lizards cannot, and must sit in the sun to warm up or hide in the shade to cool down. To find out when warm-bloodedness evolved, Elis Newham at the University of Bristol in the UK and his colleagues studied two animals from 200 million years ago in the Early Jurassic, Morganucodon and Kuehneotherium. Both were mammaliaforms, meaning they may not have been true mammals: some view them as close relatives with mammal-like traits. Morganucodon (pictured above) looked like a shrew or mouse, while Kuehneotherium is only known from teeth and bone fragments. Newham’s team studied the roots of the animals’ teeth. The roots had a hard coating called cementum, as ours do. New layers were added as the animal aged, so counting the layers gave an estimate of its age – a bit like counting tree rings.

10-10-19 Israel cave bones: Early humans 'conserved food to eat later'
Scientists in Israel say they have found evidence that early humans deliberately stored bones from animals to eat the fatty marrow later. It is the earliest evidence that humans living between 200,000 and 420,000 years ago had the foresight to anticipate future needs, they say. Early humans had not previously been thought capable of such dietary planning. Researchers analysed bone specimens at Qesem cave near Tel Aviv. They identified cut marks on most of the bone surfaces - consistent with preservation and delayed consumption. The researchers suggest the marks came about because the early humans had to make greater effort to remove skin which had dried on bones which had been kept longer. The cut marks were found on 78% of the more than 80,000 animal bone specimens analysed. "Bone marrow constitutes a significant source of nutrition and as such was long featured in the prehistoric diet," said Ran Barkai from Tel Aviv University in Israel. "Until now, evidence has pointed to immediate consumption of marrow following the procurement and removal of soft tissues." Early humans in the area frequently hunted fallow deer. They brought the limbs and skulls of their prey to the cave while the rest of the carcass had the meat and fat removed where it had been killed, Professor Jordi Rosell of Spain's Universitat Rovira i Virgili said. "We found that the deer leg bones, specifically the metapodials, exhibited unique chopping marks on the shafts, which are not characteristic of the marks left from stripping fresh skin to fracture the bone and extract the marrow," he said. The researchers simulated conditions in the cave to determine that bone marrow would have remained nutritious for up to nine weeks after the animal had been killed.

10-9-19 Ancient humans planned ahead and stored bones to eat the marrow later
Ancient humans had the foresight to store bones from animals so they could eat the fatty marrow later. This is the first evidence that these populations delayed eating food and indicates they could plan ahead. “This is a game changer for our modern conceptions about our ancestors because it is believed that early hominids were not capable of or not accustomed to delayed consumption,” says Ran Barkai at Tel Aviv University in Israel. Barkai and his colleagues analysed over 80,000 animal bone specimens from Qesem cave in Israel to determine precisely how ancient humans accessed the bone marrow. Humans lived in this area during the Middle Pleistocene, around 200,000 to 400,000 years ago. The team identified characteristic cut marks on 78 per cent of the bone surfaces, consistent with bone preservation and delayed consumption. These marks result from the increased effort required to remove dried skin from bones that had been preserved. The researchers also tested how bone marrow degrades over time to determine whether it would have remained nutritionally beneficial to eat. They exposed 79 bones from the limbs of red deer to natural outdoor conditions, as well as a simulated indoor environment meant to reproduce conditions in the area they were found. Then they experimented with removing the skin and flesh from these bones at various times during nine weeks of storage. The number of short incisions and marks left behind increased when this removal was done after four or more weeks, leaving a similar pattern to those seen on the bones from the cave. The team found that the skin-covered bones could withstand nine weeks of exposure during autumn without losing a significant amount of nutritional value, but the fat within them degraded after the third week in spring and indoor conditions.

10-9-19 Want to regrow organs and defy cancer? Just copy these awesome animals
Creatures with incredible superpowers including the ability to survive being frozen and suffocated and resist ageing could revolutionise medicine, space travel and even war. IT HAS been holding its breath for months. Locked under an airless seal of ice, the extraordinary animal waits. At last, the warmth of spring brings relief. Claws twitch, a brain rouses and a beak pushes through the lake’s thawing slush to take a lungful of air. Incredibly, the western painted turtle is none the worse for having endured the kind of oxygen starvation that would normally kill a human in minutes. At more than 100 days, the turtle holds the record among four-legged animals for surviving without oxygen. It is by no means the only creature to boast jaw-dropping talents. The constellation of powers found across the animal kingdom seems fantastical: the ability to almost completely regenerate innards, to dodge ageing or cancer, to slumber immobile for months without bone or muscle wasting, to slow biological time or even enter a state of suspended animation that can withstand all manner of trials, from freezing to bombardment with gamma rays. Almost as implausible-sounding is the idea that humans might be able to borrow some of these abilities. Yet the discovery that these powers are underpinned by genes and biological processes we too possess makes this a distinct possibility. Some potential applications – such as putting people into a sort of hibernation for space travel – remain distant goals. But others – including keeping transplant organs fresh without cooling and developing new tactics to tackle cancer and ageing – seem feasible. In fact, the US has launched a research project to exploit animal powers that could help injured soldiers on the battlefield (see “Stop the clock”). “This is going to be mind-blowing,” says Rochelle Buffenstein at Calico, a biotechnology company in California backed by Google that aims to combat ageing.

10-9-19 Mini organs grown from tumour cells can help us choose the best chemo
Miniature organoids grown from a person’s cancer cells could help to predict whether or not they will respond to some types of chemotherapy. With improvement, the organoids could help further personalise cancer treatment, say the researchers behind the work. At the moment, it is difficult to know whether a chemotherapy will work for an individual – while the drugs are often lifesaving, in some cases they can trigger horrendous side effects without having any benefit. To better predict if a treatment will work or not, teams around the world have been working to develop personalised organoids – using clumps of cells biopsied from a person’s tumour. The idea is that the organoid can serve as a laboratory model for the person with cancer, and that drugs that kill cells in the organoid are more likely to effectively treat their tumour. Emile Voest at the Netherlands Cancer Institute and his colleagues tested this theory by attempting to grow organoids from 67 biopsies taken from 61 people with colorectal cancer. The organoids take three weeks to grow. Due to difficulties in obtaining cancer cells, contamination issues and problems with evaluating individuals’ response to treatment, the team were only able to test 35 organoids. The team first gave a subset of the organoids a drug called irinotecan for six days. They found that the drug seemed to work similarly in the organoids and in the individuals the cells were taken from. Tests on the organoids correctly predicted how eight out of 10 people responded to treatment. But the organoids failed to predict how well a combination treatment of irinotecan and a drug called oxaliplatin worked. This might be because they are too simplistic a model. A person’s immune system plays an important role in how they respond to drugs, and the organoids don’t have one, say the study authors.

10-9-19 Chronic Lyme disease may be a misdiagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome
Most people who think they have a long-lasting form of Lyme disease, triggered by a tick bite, may really have chronic fatigue syndrome, a panel of UK infectious disease experts said today. Some people who mistakenly believe they have Lyme disease are endangering their health by taking long courses of antibiotics, leading to other infections such as sepsis, the doctors warned. Lyme disease is a potentially serious infection that first came to attention in the 1970s, after an outbreak of cases in New England. It is caused by bacteria, passed on by bites from ticks, and often triggers a circular red rash initially. Untreated Lyme disease can lead to a range of health problems, including joint pain, and heart damage. But if diagnosed in time, the infection can be quashed with a short course of antibiotics. However, some people who have persistent symptoms believe they have a long-term infection, known as chronic Lyme disease, which needs treating with long courses of antibiotics or other alternative therapies such as supplements. This idea has spread from the US to the UK and some other countries. Matt Dryden of Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust said at a press conference that there was a large overlap between the symptoms usually ascribed to chronic Lyme and those of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) – such as fatigue, pain and memory problems. “Most have CFS,” said Dryden. “What clinches it for me is that there’s a great group of these patients in Australia where [Lyme disease bacteria] have never been detected.” CFS, also sometimes known as myalgic encephalomyelitis, is itself a controversial condition: some think it involves immune system problems, perhaps triggered by an infection, while others believe psychological factors may contribute.

10-9-19 Your body's hidden language: How smell reveals more than you ever knew
We can sniff out fear, find solace in the smell of a loved one, breathe in the scent of happiness. How we're deciphering the subliminal signals of human scent I AM standing in a bright and airy converted barn in the English countryside sniffing vials of pure armpit odour. The contents of these five tiny bottles are so pungent they actually knock me back. I’m getting top notes of cheeses – stinky as they come – lots of sulphurous onion and a hit of ammonia. The least offensive has a citrusy undertone. The bottles are provided by Camille Ferdenzi of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Lyon, whose work includes recruiting volunteers to sniff sweaty T-shirts. Clearly, studying human smells isn’t for the squeamish. Our bodily scents provide a channel of communication that evolved to help us survive and thrive, and in recent years Ferdenzi and others have revealed this language to be far richer than we realised. We have now discovered that each person’s scent is unique – not even identical twins smell exactly alike. Each of us also has a one-of-a-kind nose for smells. What’s more, we have learned that scents wafting from our bodies and wisping into our nostrils help us to forge family bonds and draw us to partners, divert us from danger, illness and aggression, and even allow us to sniff other people’s happiness. Yet throughout history and across cultures, people have scrubbed, perfumed and deodorised to disguise their natural smells – perhaps never more than today. “Every day, we control our olfactory image,” says Ferdenzi. If these smells are such a powerful form of communication, our aversion to them is puzzling. And recent evidence suggests we are getting less stinky and losing the ability to detect certain scents. What the smell is going on?

10-9-19 Takeaway food packaging may be source of synthetic chemicals in blood
People who eat home-cooked meals have lower levels of potentially harmful chemicals in their blood. Tools used to package and prepare restaurant and takeaway meals may be to blame. PFAS, short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a widely used group of chemicals that are resistant to heat and don’t easily degrade. Because of this, they are used in non-stick cookware, stain-resistant or water-resistant fabrics, and firefighting foams. They are now also found in soils, waterways and animals, and studies of US adults and children have found these synthetic chemicals in the bloodstreams of 97 to 100 per cent of the population. Diet is thought to be a key factor in how they end up in the body, prompting Laurel Schaider at the Silent Spring Institute in Massachusetts to investigate the effect of eating habits on PFAS levels in blood. Schaider and her colleagues analysed data from more than 10,000 participants in the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2003 to 2014. Participants provided blood samples, as well as detailed information on where their food came from in the past 24 hours, week, month and year. PFAS were detected in three out of every four samples taken over the course of the study. Concentrations were lower in people who ate more meals at home, and higher among those who ate out or ate more fast food. For every 1000 kilocalories of food eaten from non-restaurant sources each day, the concentration of PFAS dropped by up to five per cent. The levels of PFAS were up to five per cent higher for every 100 kilocalories of microwave popcorn eaten daily. The chemicals from the grease-proof packaging had probably leached into the food, says Schaider. It is unclear what the long-term effects of PFAS exposure are because the survey only asks about recent dietary habits, and some of these chemicals can stay in the body for years.

10-8-19 Tea and banana plants have been genetically modified by bacteria
ABOUT one in 20 flowering plants are naturally transgenic, carrying bacterial DNA within their genomes. The added genes can make them produce unusual chemicals, and the species they have been found in include tea, bananas and peanuts. Other plants that carry bacterial genes include sweet potatoes, yams, American cranberries, Surinam cherries and the hops used to flavour beer. What effect the added genes have on the plants that contain them is still far from clear. “We are only at the start of this,” says Léon Otten at the Institute of Molecular Biology of Plants in Strasbourg, France. The culprit is a microbe called Agrobacterium that infects plants. When this bacterium gets inside a plant cell, it inserts a “cassette” of DNA containing hundreds of genes into the genome of the cell. These genes include ones that encode hormones that make plants grow tumour-like lumps called crown galls and enzymes that make chemicals the bacteria feed on. Agrobacterium is the main tool used to create the genetically engineered crops grown globally. Biologists swap out the microbe’s cassette of genes for whatever DNA they want the bacterium to splice in for them. “Agrobacterium is nature’s own genetic engineer,” Mary-Dell Chilton, once wrote. In 1980, she was the first to use it to modify plants. In the wild, though, it was thought that the genes added by Agrobacterium hardly ever got passed on to the next generation. For this to happen, an infected cell has to grow into an entire new plant, says Otten. That plant then has to flower and produce offspring, and those offspring have to thrive despite harbouring alien genes meant to hijack them. Until now, the only known examples of Agrobacterium DNA persisting in a plant genome were in tobacco and the sweet potato. Otten and Tatiana Matveeva of St Petersburg State University in Russia have now found dozens more by analysing the genomes of hundreds of plants.

10-8-19 Genome-edited bull passes hornless gene to calves
Researchers have used genome editing to generate hornless cattle, which then pass on the trait to their offspring. The absence of the horns means they cannot use them to injure other animals - or, indeed, humans. Dehorning - along with "disbudding", which removes the horn buds at an early age - is an unpleasant process with implications for animal welfare. Hornless cattle are easier to transport and need less space at a feeding trough. The scientists from the University of California, Davis, along with one colleague from the University of Mansoura, Egypt, have published their findings in the journal Nature Biotechnology. "We've demonstrated that healthy hornless calves with only the intended edit can be produced, and we provided data to help inform the process for evaluating genome-edited animals," said co-author Alison Van Eenennaam, from the UC Davis department of animal science. Dr Van Eenennaam said genome-editing offered a pain-free genetic alternative to removing the horns physically. In 2016, scientists reported that two male dairy bulls had been born with a hornless mutation that had been introduced into their DNA sequence using genome editing. The mutation is dominant, which - in this case - means that all the calves end up with the hornless trait. The latest work was carried out to determine whether the genome edit had been faithfully passed on to one of the bulls' offspring - and to look for any unexpected changes. The researchers sequenced the genomes (the full complements of DNA stored in the nuclei of animal cells) of the calves and their parents for analysis. This showed unequivocally that the genome-edited traits had been passed on to the calves.

10-7-19 Nepal is reeling from an unprecedented dengue outbreak
Climate change may be making the Himalayan nation hospitable to disease-carrying mosquitoes. When mosquito season brought past dengue outbreaks to regions across the Asian tropics, Nepal hardly had to worry. The high-altitude Himalayan country was typically too chilly for the disease-carrying insects to live. But with climate change opening new paths for the viral disease, Nepal is now reeling from an unprecedented outbreak. At least 9,000 people — from 65 of Nepal’s 77 districts — have been diagnosed with dengue since August, including six patients who have died, according to government health data. “We have never had an outbreak like this before,” says Dr. Basu Dev Pandey, director of the Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Diseases Hospital in the nation’s capital, Kathmandu. With dozens of people lined up for blood testing on September 26 at the nearby fever clinic, set up this year to handle the outbreak, Pandey continues: “People are afraid.” Dengue is carried by the Aedes aegypti and A. albopictus mosquitoes, and has long been associated with warmer, low-lying tropical climates where the insects thrive. But for years, researchers have warned that dengue and other mosquito-borne illnesses would spread into new regions, as climate change brings warmer temperatures and alters rainfall patterns so that cooler regions become more hospitable for mosquitoes (SN: 9/15/11). Nepal is proving to be a real-world example of this change. The country had its first-ever dengue outbreak in 2006, but only a handful of people were affected that year from lowland districts along the southern border with India. “Climate change has created the conditions for the transmission of dengue at higher elevations,” says Meghnath Dhimal, chief research officer at the Nepal Health Research Council.

10-7-19 The key to a long life may be genes that protect against stress
Grey whales are one of the longest-lived mammals in existence. The secret to their long lives? A resilience to stress, according to the first genetic sequencing of the animals. The genes for stress resistance are also shared by other long-lived animals, like naked mole rats, which can outlive mice by 25 years, give or take, and humans. It is this stress resistance that protects most long-lived animals from cancer, says Dmitri Toren, now at the Romanian Academy in Bucharest. Toren and his colleagues are investigating ageing and why some animals are able to live long lives. The team decided to study the grey whale because it can live into its 70s, and is considered to be the eighth longest-lived mammal. In order to study cells taken from grey whales, a colleague of Toren’s travelled to Chukotka, an autonomous area of Russia, where annual whale hunts are regulated by the International Whaling Commission. “It was challenging to get a biopsy,” says Toren. “He had to fly there and wait for half a year.” Once the team had liver and kidney tissue from two grey whales, the researchers looked at the genes that were switched on in each sample. They sorted expressed genes into categories based on their functions, and focused on those that had previously been linked to ageing. These included proteins that affect how well the body can get rid of faulty proteins and maintain and repair DNA, as well as others involved in the workings of the immune system. Toren and his colleagues then compared the levels of gene expression to that of two other long-lived whales – the bowhead and minke whale – as well as the relatively short-lived mouse, the cow and the relatively long-lived human and naked mole rat. All of the animals were young adults.

10-7-19 Nobel prize for medicine goes to discovery of how cells sense oxygen
The Nobel prize in physiology or medicine has been jointly awarded to William Kaelin of Harvard University, Peter Ratcliffe of Oxford University and Gregg Semenza of Johns Hopkins University, for their discovery of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability. Between them, the three discovered the molecular switch that controls how our cells respond to varying levels of oxygen in the surroundings. This not only helps explain how the body responds to change, but has implications for treating a range of disorders, from anaemia to heart attack and cancer. Cells need oxygen to survive, but they don’t have a steady supply – levels vary at different altitudes, but also during exercise. Oxygen supply is also disrupted when the blood supply is cut off in diseases like cancer and stroke. To understand how cells respond to these variations, Gregg Semenza studied the gene for erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that produces more red blood cells when oxygen levels are running low. Semenza found that the increase in EPO was due to a specific region of the gene. He identified two proteins that essentially control how the gene works. One of these was found to respond to oxygen levels – it is present when levels are low, but disappears when there is plenty of oxygen around. Ratcliffe and Kaelins identified another protein, called VHL, that is responsible for destroying that protein when oxygen levels are high. Together, the work of the three prizewinners reveals a molecular switch for responding to oxygen levels. Since then, at least 300 genes have been found to be regulated by the original protein identified by Semenza. These genes have important roles in health – some control how new blood vessels are formed, and others influence how cells break down glucose, for example. The genes are known to be important in the development of embryos and the functioning of the immune system.

10-7-19 Discovery of how cells sense oxygen wins the 2019 medicine Nobel
Manipulating this molecular switch is being explored for cancer treatment. A trio of scientists — two Americans and one from England — have won the 2019 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine for their work on how cells sense and respond to oxygen. Gregg Semenza of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, William Kaelin of Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and Peter Ratcliffe of the Francis Crick Institute in London made discoveries relating to the HIF system, proteins that fine-tune cells’ response to oxygen. Like candles or furnaces, cells need oxygen to function correctly. If oxygen isn’t regulated properly, cells could die, Nobel committee member Randall Johnson said during the announcement of the prize by the Nobel Assembly of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm on October 7. The work has implications for nearly every aspect of physiology from metabolism to exercise, immunity, embryo development and the response to lack of oxygen at high altitudes. The HIF system plays a role in anemia, cancer, heart attack, stroke and other disorders. The three researchers will split the prize of 9 million Swedish kronor, or more than $900,000. The discoveries were made in the 1990s, but it often takes decades before the Nobel Assembly awards the prize as it waits for “the year when the full impact of the discovery has become evident,” according to the late Ralf Pettersson, a former chairman of the Nobel selection committee at the Karolinska Institute. “It’s very clear that we now understand this fundamental biological switch,” said Johnson. “It seems like a complete and clear story.”

10-7-19 How cells sense oxygen wins Nobel prize
Three scientists who discovered how cells sense and adapt to oxygen levels have won the 2019 Nobel Prize. Sir Peter Ratcliffe, of the University of Oxford and Francis Crick Institute, William Kaelin, of Harvard, and Gregg Semenza, of Johns Hopkins University share the physiology or medicine prize. Their work is leading to new treatments for anaemia and even cancer. The role of oxygen-sensing is also being investigated in diseases from heart failure to chronic lung disease. The Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, said: "The fundamental importance of oxygen has been understood for centuries but how cells adapt to changes in levels of oxygen has long been unknown." Oxygen levels vary in the body, particularly: during exercise, at high altitude, after a wound disrupts the blood supply.And when they drop, cells rapidly have to adapt their metabolism. The oxygen-sensing ability of the body has a role in the immune system and the earliest stages of development inside the womb. It can trigger the production of red blood cells or the construction of blood vessels. So, drugs that mimic it may be an effective treatment for anaemia. Tumours, meanwhile, can hijack this process to selfishly create new blood vessels and grow. So, drugs that reverse it may help halt cancer. "The work of these three scientists and their teams has paved the way to a greater understanding of these common, life-threatening conditions and new strategies to treat them," Dr Andrew Murray, from the University of Cambridge, said. "Congratulations to the three new Nobel Laureates. This is richly deserved."

10-7-19 Ancient 'New York': 5,000-year-old city discovered in Israel
The remains of a 5,000-year-old cityhave been discovered in Israel - the largest and oldest such find in the region. The city was home to 6,000 people and included planned roads, neighbourhoods, a ritual temple and fortifications. An even earlier settlement, believed to be 7,000 years old, was discovered beneath the city. Israeli archaeologists said the discovery was the most significant in the region from that era. "This is the Early Bronze Age New York of our region; a cosmopolitan and planned city where thousands of inhabitants lived," the excavation directors said in a statement. "There is no doubt that this site dramatically changes what we know about the character of the period and the beginning of urbanization in Israel," the statement added. Known as En Esur, the site spans 650 dunams (161 acres), about double the size of previous similar findings. The design of the city included designated residential and public areas, streets and alleys, the Israel Antiquities Authority said. About four million fragments were found at the site, including rare figurines of humans and animals, pieces of pottery and various tools, some of which came from Egypt. Burnt animal bones found on the site provided evidence of sacrificial offerings. Inhabitants of the city - who were likely drawn to the area by two fresh water springs, fertile land and proximity to trade routes - made their living from agriculture, trading with different regions and cultures. Archeologists had been excavating the site for more than two and a half years, with 5,000 teenagers and volunteers participating. The settlement was discovered during excavations preceding the construction of a new road.

10-5-19 Anti-evolution drug may help treat resistant breast cancers
Many cancer treatments work very well in the beginning only to fail later as tumours evolve resistance. But a new generation of therapies are being developed to prevent this. One, called BOS172722, has been shown in animal studies to restore the effectiveness of paclitaxel, the main chemotherapy used to treat so-called triple-negative breast cancer. “It’s the deadliest breast cancer,” says team leader Spiros Linardopoulos at The Institute of Cancer Research in the UK, who has just published a study describing the approach. The future of cancer treatment: Paula Martin-Gonzalez at New Scientist Live A human trial is already underway. If it proves effective, the trial could be expanded to include lung and ovarian cancers, Linardopoulos says. Like other chemotherapies, paclitaxel works by hurting fast-dividing cells. It interferes with the process of cell division, resulting in chromosomal abnormalities that often kill cells. But the cells that do survive can end up becoming resistant, meaning the drug no longer works. “Resistance is pure Darwinian evolution,” says Linardopoulos. So like many cancer researchers, he has been trying to find new drugs, or new ways of using drugs, that prevent resistance. BOS172722 also interferes with cell division but in a different way. It binds to and blocks a protein called MPS1 that plays a key role in division. The combination of the two drugs together causes such severe chromosomal abnormalities that none of the cancer cells survive. And if no cells survive, there can be no resistance. There are some side effects, and the initial aim of the trial is to establish the maximum safe dose. But at the moment there is no effective treatment option when paclitaxel fails.

10-5-19 The U.S. narrowly eked out a measles win, keeping elimination status
International travelers may still import the virus, but a nearly yearlong outbreak is over Just in the nick of time, a nearly yearlong measles outbreak that threatened to strip the United States of a major public health achievement decades in the making has ended. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on October 4 that the United States has maintained its measles elimination status, first gained in 2000. “We are very pleased that the measles outbreak has ended in New York and that measles is still considered eliminated in the United States,” said U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in a statement. “But this past year’s outbreak was an alarming reminder about the dangers of vaccine hesitancy and misinformation.” Had the New York state outbreak not been resolved by October 2, the United States would have lost its status as a country that has eliminated measles, primarily putting those not vaccinated at risk from homegrown measles cases. It would have also raised concerns for other countries working to eliminate measles, says Walter Orenstein, a vaccinologist at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. “If we can’t do it, how can they?” Measles this year has already reestablished itself in several countries where it had previously been eliminated, including the United Kingdom. If there are no endemic cases for at least a year, measles is considered eliminated. That means the virus is not continually spreading within an area. But cases can still occur when international travelers get sick abroad and bring measles back. “Increased global measles activity and existence of undervaccinated communities place the United States at continual risk for measles cases and outbreaks,” researchers warn in a CDC report on measles cases in 2019 published online October 4 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

10-5-19 The false promise of the lie detector
A new generation of high-tech tests is giving authorities undue faith in their power to detect deception. We've seen this before, and it usually hasn't ended well. We learn to lie as children, between the ages of 2 and 5. By adulthood, we are prolific. We lie to our employers, to our partners, and most of all, one study has found, to our mothers. The average person hears up to 200 lies a day, according to research by Jerry Jellison, a psychologist at the University of Southern California. The majority of the lies we tell are "white," the inconsequential niceties — "I love your dress!" — that grease the wheels of human interaction. But most people tell one or two "big" lies a day, says Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire. We lie to promote ourselves, to protect ourselves, and to hurt or avoid hurting others. The mystery is how we keep getting away with it. Our bodies expose us in every way. Hearts race, sweat drips, and micro-expressions leak from small muscles in the face. We stutter, stall, and make Freudian slips. "No mortal can keep a secret," wrote the psychoanalyst in 1905. "If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips. Betrayal oozes out of him at every pore." Even so, we are hopeless at spotting deception. On average, across 206 scientific studies, people can separate truth from lies just 54 percent of the time — only marginally better than tossing a coin. Some people stiffen and freeze when put on the spot; others become more animated. Liars can spin yarns packed with color and detail, and truth-tellers can seem vague and evasive. Humans have been trying to overcome this problem for millennia. The search for a perfect lie detector has involved torture, trials by ordeal, and, in ancient India, an encounter with a donkey in a dark room. In 1730, the English writer Daniel Defoe suggested taking the pulse of suspected pickpockets. "Guilt carries fear always about with it," he wrote. "There is a tremor in the blood of a thief." More recently, lie detection has largely been equated with the juddering styluses of the polygraph machine. But none of these methods has yielded a reliable way to separate fiction from fact.

10-5-19 Oldest ever illustrated book is a guide to Ancient Egyptian underworld
The Book of Two Ways, a guide to the Ancient Egyptian underworld, is perhaps the first illustrated book in history – and now archaeologists have found remains of the oldest known copy. The discovery comes at a time when researchers are rethinking the meaning of the archaic text and its enigmatic images. About a century ago, Egyptologists began finding strange annotated drawings inside 4000-year-old wooden coffins buried in a necropolis called Dayr al-Barsha¯. Among the drawings was a panel on which there were two long, meandering lines (pictured above) that seemed to be described as roads in the surrounding hieroglyphic text. Elsewhere, the text appeared to offer instructions for travelling through the underworld towards the resting place of the god Osiris – a journey that, if successful, would secure a happy afterlife. This suggested to researchers that the illustrations were a map of the underworld, with the meandering lines representing two paths the dead could take on their travels. For this reason, they dubbed the document the Book of Two Ways. Only a few dozen copies of the book survive today. Now, one more has been added by Gina Criscenzo-Laycock at the University of Liverpool, UK, and Hanne Creylman and Harco Willems at the KU Leuven in Belgium. In 2012, they led a team that excavated a burial shaft at Dayr al-Barsha¯ that previous generations of archaeologists had ignored because it had clearly been plundered in the past. However, the researchers realised that the very bottom of the tomb had escaped the attention of the grave robbers, and here they found the remains of a coffin. The wooden boards were covered in hieroglyphs. “To my amazement it was a Book of Two Ways,” says Willems.

10-4-19 Insurance: Out-of-pocket costs spiral out of control
Rising premiums and deductibles are pushing employer-based health insurance out of reach for more workers, said Reed Abelson in The New York Times. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that “the average premium paid by the employer and the employee for a family plan now tops $20,000 a year, with the worker contributing about $6,000.” Employers are the main source of health insurance in the United States, with employer plans covering about 153 million people. But premiums for such plans have risen about twice as fast as wages since 2009, leaving many Americans with increasingly difficult decisions. Jessie McCormick, a 27-year-old with a heart condition, calculated that she couldn’t afford the $1,200 a month in out-of-pocket expenses for her company’s health plan and deductibles. Instead, she quit her job to enroll in Medicaid. Many businesses have opted to increase deductibles instead of premiums, and “deductibles now account for more than half of workers’ out-of-pocket expenses,” said Darla Mercado in CNBC.com, up from 26 percent in 2008. The average deductible for a single worker with a high-deductible plan last year was $2,349. Indeed, those high-deductible plans have tripled in number over the past decade, said Noam Levey in the Los Angeles Times. They were pitched as a way to give patients “skin in the game,” liberating them to comparison shop for lower prices and “forcing hospitals, doctors, and drugmakers to control cost.” But the shift was not the panacea that was promised. Many Americans prefer to trust their physicians for health-care decisions, and even if they do shop around, it’s common to find wildly inaccurate price estimates. “Hospitals, doctors, and other medical providers rely on approximately 10,000 individual billing codes to charge for services,” meaning consumers would have to price each separately. One woman’s itemized surgical bill revealed 23 individual charges—$65.23 for Lidocaine, $413 for oxygen—with the sum amounting to more than $5,900. Her insurance company’s website had originally said the cost would be $900. Things have gotten so bad that “after years of pushing health-care costs onto workers, some employers are pressing pause,” said John Tozzi in Bloomberg.com. Delta Airlines, for example, “froze employees’ contributions to premiums for two years.” Some larger employers have reversed direction on high-deductible plans. In a survey of big companies, the share that say they plan to offer them as the only option dropped from 39 percent in 2018 to 25 percent. But many businesses feel stuck because “aggressive moves to tackle underlying medical costs, such as by cutting high-cost hospitals out of their networks,” have proved even less popular with employees than raising premiums.

10-4-19 DEA allowed flood of painkillers
The Drug Enforcement Agency allowed a massive increase in the production of narcotic painkillers despite frightening rates of opioid overdoses, the Justice Department inspector general reported this week. Overdose deaths increased by an average of 8 percent a year from 1999 to 2013 and by a startling 71 percent per year from 2013 to 2017. Yet the DEA—which sets quotas for painkiller production in the U.S.—authorized a 400 percent increase for oxycodone between 2002 and 2013, and didn’t begin cutting back until 2017. Drug companies, in turn, pointed to the lenient DEA limits to justify the torrent of pills. The department watchdog also said the DEA neglected the screening of doctors who handled narcotics, asking them to self-report information such as past criminal activity.

10-4-19 United States medically underserved
Nearly 80 percent of rural America is “medically underserved,” according to the federal government. In Texas alone, 159 of the state’s 254 counties don’t have a general surgeon, 121 counties have no medical specialists, and 35 have no doctors at all.

10-4-19 The state of the American diet
Americans’ diets are slowly improving, but we’re still scarfing too much junk, according to a new report card on the nation’s eating habits. Researchers examined the diets of nearly 44,000 adults from 1999 to 2016 and observed some positive trends. Over the study period, the typical American went from getting 52.5 percent of daily calories from carbohydrates to 50.5 percent. Added sugars fell from 16.4 percent to 14.4 percent of daily calories, possibly because we’re drinking fewer sugary sodas. But the American diet is still heavy on foods that can fuel heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and other ailments. Low-quality carbs, such as sugar and white bread, and starchy vegetables make up 42 percent of daily calories. We get 12 percent of our daily calories from saturated fats—the recommended limit is 10 percent—because of our high consumption of red and processed meats. “We have a long way to go to meet dietary recommendations,” study author Shilpa Bhupathiraju, from Harvard Medical School, tells Reuters?.com. “This includes increasing intakes of whole grains, whole fruit, nonstarchy vegetables, nuts, and legumes.”

10-4-19 A lost continent in the Mediterranean
Geologists have discovered the location of a long-lost continent, the remnants of which can still be seen throughout the Mediterranean today. The continent of Greater Adria formed some 240 million years ago when a Greenland-size chunk of continental crust broke off from North Africa. That new continent was mostly covered by shallow seas and was short lived—about 100 million to 130 million years ago, tectonic shifts caused it to slide beneath Southern Europe. Most of Greater Adria disappeared into the Earth’s mantle, but its top layers of sedimentary rock were scraped off, creating Italy’s Apennine Mountains, parts of the Alps, Turkey’s Taurus range, and mountains in the Balkans and Greece. The only remaining intact piece of the lost continent is a strip of land running from Turin, in northern Italy, to the heel of Italy’s boot in the south—a strip that geologists had already named Adria. Scientists had known for some time that another continent must have existed in the Mediterranean, because of the region’s tangled geology. Researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands untangled that history with advanced software that reconstructs the movement of tectonic plates, reports CNN.com. Using geological data from more than 30 countries, they were able to piece together what the continent looked like and how it had moved away from Africa. “Forget Atlantis,” says lead author Douwe van Hinsbergen. “Without realizing it, vast numbers of tourists spend their holiday each year on the lost continent of Greater Adria.”

10-4-19 Dueling brain waves during sleep may decide whether rats remember or forget
Oscillations are key to information being solidified while a rat sleeps. A sleeping rat may look peaceful. But inside its furry, still head, a war is raging. Two types of brain waves battle over whether the rat will remember new information, or forget it, researchers report October 3 in Cell. Details of this previously hidden clash may ultimately help explain how some memories get etched into the sleeping brain, while others are scrubbed clean. By distinguishing between these dueling brain waves, the new study helps reconcile some seemingly contradictory ideas, including how memories can be strengthened (SN: 6/5/14) and weakened during the same stage of sleep (SN: 6/23/11). “It will help unite the field of sleep and learning, because everyone gets to be right,” says neuroscientist Gina Poe of the University of California, Los Angeles, who wasn’t involved in the study. Researchers led by neuroscientist and neurologist Karunesh Ganguly of the University of California, San Francisco, have been teaching rats to control a mechanical water spout with nothing but their neural activity. The team soon realized that the rats’ success with these brain-computer interfaces depended heavily on something that came after the training: sleep. To study how the new learning was strengthened during snoozing, Ganguly and his team monitored the brains of sleeping rats after they practiced moving the spout. The scientists focused on brain waves that wash over the motor cortex, the part of the brain that was controlling the external water spout, during non-REM sleep. That stage of sleep usually makes up more than half of an adult human’s night.

10-4-19 Why just being in the habitable zone doesn’t make exoplanets livable
Debate over what makes a planet habitable highlights the trickiness in searching for alien life. Few science questions have more universal appeal than “Are we alone in the universe?” The search for alien life has captured human imaginations for thousands of years. And almost 25 years after the first discovery of a planet orbiting a star that’s not the sun, astronomers are closer than ever to finding out. “Most people, if not everybody, at some point in their life wonders if there’s life on other planets,” says Harvard University astronomer David Charbonneau. “We could actually answer it … we know what kind of telescope we’d have to go and build” to find out. That endeavor may not be so straightforward, though, thanks to a long-simmering debate about how to identify the planets most likely to host life. The debate came to a boil on September 11, when astronomers announced the discovery of water vapor in the atmosphere of nearby exoplanet K2 18b (SN: 9/11/19). The planet’s appeal comes from its position in its star’s “habitable zone” — often defined as the region where temperatures may be just right for liquid water, thought to be crucial for life. K2 18b may even have rain clouds, astronomers reported. That doesn’t mean you should pack your umbrella and go. “Just because a planet is in the habitable zone, doesn’t mean it’s habitable,” says Jessie Christiansen, an astrophysicist at Caltech and NASA Exoplanet Science Institute. “If you queried 100 astronomers, 99 of them would say this planet isn’t habitable.” In fact, of the 192 or so exoplanets known to spend most of their orbits in their stars’ habitable zones, all but 24 are probably inhospitable gas giants like Jupiter. And even if a rocky planet sits in the habitable zone, like Mars, that doesn’t guarantee anything can live there. Scientists consider the Red Planet to have debatable chances of hosting life (SN: 1/10/18).

10-4-19 Paralysed man moves in mind-reading exoskeleton
A man has been able to move all four of his paralysed limbs with a mind-controlled exoskeleton suit, French researchers report. Thibault, 30, said taking his first steps in the suit felt like being the "first man on the Moon". His movements, particularly walking, are far from perfect and the robo-suit is being used only in the lab. But researchers say the approach could one day improve patients' quality of life. Thibault had surgery to place two implants on the surface of the brain, covering the parts of the brain that control movement. Sixty-four electrodes on each implant read the brain activity and beam the instructions to a nearby computer. Sophisticated computer software reads the brainwaves and turns them into instructions for controlling the exoskeleton. Thibault has to be strapped into the exoskeleton. And he can control each of the arms, manoeuvring them in three-dimensional space. Thibault, who does not want his surname revealed, was an optician before he fell 15m in an incident at a night club four years ago. The injury to his spinal cord left him paralysed and he spent the next two years in hospital. But in 2017, he took part in the exoskeleton trial with Clinatec and the University of Grenoble. Initially he practised using the brain implants to control a virtual character, or avatar, in a computer game, then he moved on to walking in the suit. "It was like [being the] first man on the Moon. I didn't walk for two years. I forgot what it is to stand, I forgot I was taller than a lot of people in the room," he said. It took a lot longer to learn how to control the arms. "It was very difficult because it is a combination of multiple muscles and movements. This is the most impressive thing I do with the exoskeleton."

10-3-19 A mind-controlled exoskeleton helped a man with paralysis walk again
A paralysed man has been able to walk again using an exoskeleton suit he controls with his mind. Although it doesn’t yet let him walk independently – the suit is suspended from an overhead harness to stop him from falling – the advance represents the first steps down the road to this goal. “This is really groundbreaking,” says Ravi Vaidyanathan of Imperial College London, who wasn’t involved in the work. The implanted brain sensors also let the man, who broke his neck in a fall four years ago, move the arms and hands of the exoskeleton. Several groups are working on ways to let people with spinal cord injuries regain control over their bodies by reading their thoughts. So far, the most common approach has been to insert ultrathin electrodes into the brain.But this entails having wires entering the skull, which could let in an infection. The electrodes also gradually stop working so well over the following months as they get covered with cells that form a kind of scar tissue. To get round these problems, Alim Louis Benabid at the University of Grenoble Alpes in France and his colleagues instead put electrodes on top of the brain, resting on its tough outer membrane. “If there’s any kind of infection, it will stay outside,” says Benabid. The researchers started by asking the man, a former optician known as Thibault, to have several brain scans so they could map which areas become active when he thinks about walking or moving his arms. Then they replaced two 5-centimetre discs of skull, one on either side of his head, with the brain sensors, which have electrodes on their underside. Thibault practised using the sensors, first by trying to move an avatar shaped like the exoskeleton on a computer. Then he was strapped into the suit and he learned to make it start walking forwards, while supported from overhead.

10-3-19 Men with breast cancer have lower survival rates than women
Males receive less treatment and are often excluded from clinical trials. When doctors and scientists come to his table at national cancer meetings, Michael Singer says he feels a bit like a caged specimen. “They look at me with that bewildered look, ‘oh, so this is what a male breast cancer patient looks like,’ ” quips the retired 59-year-old from the Bronx, N.Y. With many diseases, women receive procedures and drugs that were largely tested in men. Breast cancer has the opposite problem: Men make up less than 1 percent of breast cancer cases and often receive treatment based on data collected in women. What’s more, breast cancer in men has been rising. Diagnoses have gone from 0.85 per 100,000 men in the United States in 1975 to 1.21 per 100,000 in 2016. This year, an estimated 2,670 U.S. males will develop the disease. And a new analysis confirms what smaller studies have suggested: Men with breast cancer fare worse than their female counterparts. The study, published September 19 in JAMA Oncology, is the largest of its kind. It analyzed registry data on 1,816,733 U.S. patients — including 16,025 men — who were diagnosed with breast cancer from January 2004 to December 2014. At three and five years after diagnosis, as well as at the end of the study period, men had lower survival rates than women. The disparity remained “even after we adjusted for known contributing factors including clinical predictors, socioeconomic status and access to care,” says Xiao-Ou Shu, an epidemiologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville who led the research. To Laura Esserman, a breast oncologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who wasn’t involved with the study, “the most striking thing is that there was a difference in treatment.” Case in point: Although 84.5 percent of the male breast cancer patients were “hormone-receptor positive” — meaning their tumors grow in response to estrogen or progesterone — only 57.9 percent of those men received standard-of-care endocrine therapy — drugs that stop hormones from helping breast cancer cells grow. By comparison, only 75.8 percent of female breast cancer patients were hormone-receptor positive, yet 70.2 percent of them got endocrine therapy.

10-3-19 Common sense can predict if a psychology study will ever be replicated
Social science and experimental psychology are still shaking from the “replication crisis”, an embarrassing decade which revealed that the results of many classic studies couldn’t be reproduced when the experiments were repeated. Now research adds to this embarrassment by suggesting a simple solution to the problem – common sense. There have been many eye-catching, high-profile studies that haven’t been replicated, and we now know that eating from small plates doesn’t really make you eat less, and that children who can resist marshmallows don’t reliably become successful adults. To understand how “obvious” it might have been that studies like these may not stand up to further testing, Alexandra Sarafoglu at the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and her colleagues recruited 233 laypeople. About half of them were first-year psychology students, but none were experts in the field. After reading a quick explanation of what replicating an experiment means, participants were shown 27 short descriptions of well-known findings from social science and psychology. Of these, 14 had recently been replicated successfully, including a 2008 study that found that students think they are more likely to be questioned in class if they arrive unprepared. The other 13 studies failed to replicate, such as a 2013 study which suggested that people are better at recognising emotions after reading a passage of literary fiction. likely to validate its findings. When shown just the description, participants guessed correctly 58 per cent of the time. When they were also shown a simple statistical measure of the strength of the study’s evidence, this rose to 67 per cent.These individual predictions are better than you would expect by chance but pooling them all was even better. When most of the group confidently guessed the same, their prediction was almost always right. Among the 10 most confident predictions that a study would not replicate and the 10 most confident that it would, the group was wrong just twice.

10-3-19 Gene editing can make fruit flies into ‘monarch flies’
Only three molecular changes are needed for fruit flies to digest milkweed toxins. Gene-edited fruit flies have gained some of monarch butterflies’ superpowers — specifically, the ability to digest milkweed toxins and become poisonous to predators. Making just three genetic changes turned regular fruit flies into “monarch flies,” able to withstand plant toxins and store the chemicals as the flies transformed from maggots to adults, researchers report October 2 in Nature. Researchers previously had suspected that three amino acid changes in a protein called the sodium pump alpha subunit, or ATPalpha, were involved in making butterflies insensitive to chemicals known as cardiac glycosides, which are found in milkweed and some other plants. The sodium pump is part of a cellular system that moves charged sodium and potassium atoms in and out of cells. But it still was possible that the changes were just coincidental. So evolutionary biologist Noah Whiteman of the University of California, Berkeley and colleagues used the gene editor CRISPR/Cas9 to alter the sodium pumps of fruit flies and retrace the evolutionary steps that resulted eventually in monarchs becoming resistant to the chemicals. Monarchs store some of the chemicals in their bodies, making them poisonous and unpalatable to predators. Changing amino acids one at time, the researchers discovered that all three are needed to produce fruit flies that, from the egg stage through adulthood, can survive exposure to the chemicals. Milkweed tolerance has its price, though. Monarch flies became temporarily paralyzed when the vial they were contained in was banged on a table, an indication that the flies’ nervous systems were less able to handle to stress. That cost may be worth it for monarch butterflies because the benefit of being noxious to predators is so much more valuable, Whiteman says.

10-3-19 Implanting false memories in a bird's brain changes its tune
Young zebra finches have had memories implanted in their brains that change the length of the notes they sing. The process involved manipulating a region of the brain that birds use to learn their song. The zebra finch song consists of a series of short notes, or syllables. Zebra finches normally learn their song by memorising the song of their father, then slowly learning to copy it. Todd Roberts at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and his colleagues are working on understanding how memories are encoded in the brain – particularly memories that guide the development of speech and social skills. Previous work had shown that a region of the brain in birds called HVC is important for learning songs, and disrupting its activity interferes with the ability to learn songs. This area receives input from another area called NIf, and neurons in this structure fire at the beginning and end of syllables. That suggested these neurons have a role in coding the length of syllables. To investigate further, Roberts’s team used a technique called optogenetics to manipulate neural activity at the connections, or synapses, between NIf and HVC neurons. This involves inserting genes into neurons that allow them to be controlled by light, then using small fibreoptic cables to shine light onto the selected brain area. Roberts’s team performed the experiments on young male zebra finches that had never been exposed to singing adults but were starting to develop their own song. The group then analysed differences in the final tune about 30 days later. When the team used short pulses of light, the birds produced songs with short syllables. With long pulses of light, the birds produced songs with long syllables. “We identified a pathway in the brain that if we activate, it can implant false memories for the duration of the syllables, without the bird having experience with another bird,” says Roberts.

10-3-19 Uncovering secrets of mystery civilization in Saudi Arabia
A team of researchers is carrying out the first in-depth archaeological survey of part of Saudi Arabia, in a bid to shed light on a mysterious civilisation that once lived there. The Nabataean culture left behind sophisticated stone monuments, but many sites remain unexplored. The rock-strewn deserts of Al Ula in Saudi Arabia are known for their pitch-black skies, which allow stargazers to easily study celestial bodies without the problem of light pollution. But the region is becoming even more attractive for archaeologists. A long-lost culture known as the Nabataean civilisation inhabited the area starting from around 100 BC and persisted for some 200 years. While the Nabataeans ruled their empire from the stunning city of Petra in Jordan, they made Hegra (the modern Mada'in Saleh) in Al Ula their second capital. Now, archaeologists are planning to carry out the first in-depth survey of a chunk of land here that's roughly the size of Belgium. The large international team of more than 60 experts has started work on an initial, two-year project to survey the core area of 3,300 sq km in north-western Saudi Arabia. This is the first time such a large area of more or less scientifically uncharted territory has been systematically investigated. Excavations have been carried out in and around Mada'in Saleh and other recognised Nabataean sites for some time by a group of Saudi archaeologists including Abdulrahman Alsuhaibani, a lecturer at the King Saud University in Riyadh. "I have focused on the earlier Dedanite and Lihyanite civilisations," he explains. "Now that the Royal Commission for Al Ula is involved there will be greater scope for deeper understanding of how early societies evolved." The involvement of the Royal Commission ensures that cutting-edge technology is at the disposal of archaeologists experienced in the field.

10-2-19 App can detect signs of eye diseases in kids by scanning your photos
Camera flashes often can make people’s pupils look red in photos. More rarely, flashes can make them appear white – which is usually just a trick of the light but can be a sign of disease, including an eye cancer most common in young children. Since 2014, a free app that uses artificial intelligence to scan people’s photos for instances of so-called white eye has been available for iOS or Android devices. That app, called the White Eye Detector, has now been tested on 50,000 photos of 20 children with confirmed eye diseases and 20 with normal eyes. The results suggest the affected children could have been diagnosed more than a year earlier on average with the help of the app, even though it spots only one out of every three photos with white eye. White eye can be a sign of several diseases including cataracts, blood vessel abnormalities and cancers called retinoblastomas. Earlier diagnosis of retinoblastomas can prevent sight loss and the need for treatments such as chemotherapy. However, the app can’t distinguish between white eye due to eye disease and the white eye that occasionally occurs in normal eyes. That means most cases of white eye detected by the app will turn out to be nothing to worry about. “That’s the nature of the beast,” says the app’s creator, Bryan Shaw. He says parents who spot white eye in flash photos – known as leukocoria – already get it checked, as recommended. The idea is just to make this happen sooner. Shaw’s own son Noah was diagnosed with a retinoblastoma when just 3 months old, and lost an eye as a result. When Shaw looked back at the family photos, he saw white eye first appeared in photos taken when Noah was just 12 days old. So Shaw, a chemist at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, created the app with the help of computer science colleagues Ryan Henning and Greg Hamerly and advice from the doctors who treated Noah. “A personal tragedy drove this,” says Shaw.

10-2-19 Experimental drug that targets liver fat may help prevent diabetes
An experimental drug has reversed the build-up of fat in the liver and lowered blood levels of fatty substances including cholesterol in non-human primates. The build-up of fat in the liver, known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, affects 1 in 3 people and can lead to type 2 diabetes as well as heart and kidney disease. “This is getting at what I believe to be the root cause of diabetes,” says Gerald Shulman at the Yale School of Medicine, whose team is developing the drug. Called CRMP, it works by making the liver waste energy so it uses more than normal. The energy that powers cells is produced by structures called mitochondria. As protons flow out of mitochondria, they drive molecular turbines that produce an energy-rich chemical called ATP. CRMP lets protons flow out of mitochondria without generating ATP. It is a bit like opening a bypass gate on a hydroelectric dam, letting water flow out without generating power. However, that lost energy ends up as waste heat. A drug called dinitrophenol that was used for weight loss from the 1930s worked via the same mechanism. Its use was discontinued after many people suffered ill effects or died when they overheated. The deaths continue to this day as some people, such as bodybuilders, still self-medicate with dinitrophenol. CRMP, however, affects mainly liver cells rather than the entire body. “That’s very important for safety,” says Shulman.Tests in small numbers of cynomolgus and rhesus macaques suggest it is safe and effective at reversing fat build-up in the liver. The animals didn’t lose weight overall. “That’s the whole idea,” says Shulman. “This is not meant to be a weight loss drug.”

10-2-19 Bowel cancer screening in younger groups may do more harm than good
Bowel cancer screening should only be recommended for people at high risk due to their age, family history or other factors, according to new guidelines.Tests for this cancer have been introduced in most Western countries, usually starting at around the age of 50. Doctors can look at the bowel with a camera on the end of a thin, flexible tube or people can send off a small stool sample so it can be checked for traces of blood. But a review of the evidence suggests that, in most cases, the benefits are small and uncertain and that screenings aren’t worth possible harms arising from anxiety, false positives and bowel perforations. Screening is worth these possible downsides only in those whose risk of getting bowel cancer in the next 15 years is 3 per cent or more, say Lise Helsingen of Oslo University Hospital in Norway and her colleagues. The team doesn’t give a firm age cut-off. Instead, it says that doctors should calculate people’s risk using software that uses their age along with other factors such as sex, family history and whether they smoke or drink – but age is the most important element. “The 3 per cent threshold represents the cumulative risk above which the balance of benefits and harms tilts in favour of screening,” said Philippe Autier at the International Prevention Research Institute in Lyon, France, in an accompanying editorial. Concerns have also been raised about other cancer screening programmes after their introduction, such as the PSA blood test for prostate tumours and mammograms for breast cancer. The fear is that these programs may do more harm than good by finding tiny tumours that wouldn’t have carried on growing.

10-2-19 Scare stories of mutant GM mosquitoes aren’t true, but have some truth
Tales of hybrid super-mosquitoes produced by a GM trial in Brazil are way off the mark – but our careless ways do create mutants that harm us, says Michael Le Page. DEADLY ‘super mosquitoes that are even tougher’ accidentally created by scientists after bungled experiment,” shouted The Sun in the UK. “Plan to kill off mosquitoes backfires, spawning mutant hybrid insects,” screamed the New York Post in the US. These headlines appeared last month, in response to a critical study of a trial carried out in Brazil from 2013 to 2015. It released millions of genetically modified male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which transmit serious diseases such as dengue, yellow fever, Zika and chikungunya. The mosquitoes carried an added gene meant to kill their offspring and thus wipe out wild mosquitoes. The shocking headlines aren’t true, but do contain an element of truth. We have created mutant mosquitoes, but not because of any genetic engineering mishap. That story begins in West African forests a few thousand years ago. There, female A. aegypti xdrank the blood of many species. Over time, these mosquitoes evolved a separate subspecies that fed on humans. In the 15th century, slave ships carried them to the Americas. From there, they reached every tropical region, allowing diseases like yellow fever to spread to these places too. Now, these mosquitoes are developing resistance to the pesticides we rely on to control them. Such is the backdrop for the Brazil trial, led by a company called Oxitec. It is true that the “lethal” gene fails to kill up to 5 per cent of the offspring of released males and wild females. Oxitec says regulators in Brazil knew this before the trial got the go-ahead. It is also true that the males derive from Cuba and Mexico, so the survival of a small percentage of their offspring creates a mix of three closely related strains of the same A. aegypti subspecies. Yet calling these hybrids is a stretch, and there is no reason to think they pose a greater threat, as some have claimed.

10-2-19 Dog behaviors like aggression and fearfulness are linked to breed genetics
A study looking at 101 breeds finds strong ties between certain behaviors and genes. Your dog’s ability to learn new tricks may be less a product of your extensive training than their underlying genetics. Among 101 dog breeds, scientists found that certain behavioral traits such as trainability or aggression were more likely to be shared by genetically similar breeds. While past studies have looked into the genetic underpinnings of dog behaviors for certain breeds, this research — published October 1 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B — is the first to investigate a wide swath of breed diversity and find a strong genetic signal. “Anecdotally, everyone knows that different dogs have different behavioral traits,” says Noah Snyder-Mackler, a geneticist at the University of Washington in Seattle. “But we didn’t know how much or why.” Humans and dogs have lived together for at least 15,000 years (SN: 7/6/17). But only within the last 300 years or so have breeders produced varieties such as Chihuahuas and Great Danes. So, Snyder-Mackler and his colleagues considered how 101 dog breeds behave while searching for genetic similarities among breeds sharing certain personality traits. Data came from two dog genotype databases and from C-BARQ, a survey that asks owners to rank their pure-bred dog’s propensity for certain behaviors, like chasing or aggressiveness toward strangers. As a result, the study didn’t have genetic and behavioral data from the same canine individuals, which could help highlight rare genetic variants that may be nonetheless important to diversity in behaviors. (Webmaster's comment: Just like in the human male.)

10-2-19 Human embryos have extra hand muscles found in lizards but not most adults
New microscope images reveal the lost tissue. Human embryos are more muscle-bound than adult humans, new microscope images cataloging early development show. For instance, at seven weeks of gestation, embryonic hands have about 30 muscles. Adults have about 19. Many of the muscles are lost, and some fuse with others, adopting the adult arrangement by 13 weeks of gestation, researchers report October 1 in Development. Muscles in the feet, legs, trunk, arms and head also appear and disappear during development, researchers discovered after analyzing detailed 3-D images of human embryos and fetuses up to 13 weeks of gestation. These appearing and disappearing, or atavistic, muscles are remnants of evolution, says biologist Rui Diogo of Howard University in Washington, D.C. Such atavistic muscles are built as a base from which to start paring down to the final set of muscles that people are born with, he says. “Losing and specializing, that’s what happens in human evolution.” Other animals have kept some of those muscles. Adult chimpanzees and human embryos have epitrochleoanconeus muscles in their forearms, but most adult humans don’t. Human’s mammalian ancestors also lost dorsometacarpales muscles from the back of the hand about 250 million years ago as mammals and reptiles split on the evolutionary tree. Lizards still have those muscles, and they appear in human embryos, but then are lost or fuse with other muscles during development and aren’t found in most adults. Sometimes, people retain some of the usually lost muscles, resulting in harmless anatomical variations. For example, about 13 percent of people in one study had epitrochleoanconeus muscles in their forearms.

10-2-19 Rare eastern equine encephalitis has killed 9 people in the U.S. in 2019
31 of the 103 mosquito-borne brain infections in the past decade have occurred in 2019. The worst outbreak of eastern equine encephalitis since U.S. health officials began monitoring the mosquito-borne disease 15 years ago is prompting aerial bug spraying and dire warnings to avoid the biting insects well into fall. As of October 1, 31 cases — including nine deaths — have been reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Known as EEE or Triple-E for short, the incurable brain infection is still relatively rare — there have been only 103 reported infections in the United States in the past decade. Only five percent of people bitten by an infected mosquito will develop the disease. But about a third of EEE patients die, and many who survive experience permanent neurological problems. Science News spoke with several researchers about how the virus spreads, and possible factors that might be contributing to the recent surge in cases. “We don’t know some of the basic details about these [mosquito-transmitted] diseases, unfortunately,” says pathobiologist Stephen Higgs, director of the Biosecurity Research Institute at Kansas State University in Manhattan. “The ideal is to anticipate outbreaks, which is very, very difficult. But we need to be prepared for an outbreak when it comes.” When an infected mosquito bites a person, the insect spits a solution of substances that help prevent blood from clotting, making it easier to suck blood. “That’s why you might have that little red bump — because it’s spitting into you,” Higgs says. “If there are viruses in those salivary glands as it’s spitting, it will also spit virus into you.”

10-2-19 Tsunamis linked to spread of deadly fungal disease
A major earthquake in Alaska in 1964 triggered tsunamis that washed ashore a deadly tropical fungus, scientists say. Researchers believe it then evolved to survive in the coasts and forest of the Pacific Northwest. More than 300 people have been infected with the pneumonia-like cryptococcosis since the first case was discovered in the region in 1999, about 10% fatally. If true the theory, published in the journal mBio, has implications for other areas hit by tsunamis. Cryptococcus gattii is a fungal pathogen that mainly appears in the warmer regions of the world such as Australia, Papua New Guinea and in parts of Europe, Africa and South America, namely Brazil. Researchers have theorised that it has moved around the world via the ballast water used by ships. The scientists say the molecular age of the fungus that's been found off the coasts of British Columbia and Washington state coincides with the start of shipping from South American ports, which boomed after the opening of the Panama canal in 1914. However, greater curiosity about the fungus was aroused when the first infections in humans were detected in the area in 1999. The researchers were puzzled as to how they became ill, as the normal route of infection is by breathing in spores that allow the pathogen to settle in the lungs. In this new study, two scientists outline a novel idea as to how the deadly fungus managed to become widely dispersed in the forests that are close to the shore all along the Pacific Northwest region. They argue that the 9.2 magnitude Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964 played a key role. One of the largest recorded earthquakes in the Northern Hemisphere, the quake off southeastern Alaska generated tsunamis along the region's coastline, including Vancouver Island, as well as in Washington and Oregon.

10-1-19 Just three days in hospital can change the bacteria in your gut
A trip to hospital can play havoc with your gut bacteria. People treated for several days at an intensive care hospital had their stomachs quickly colonised by harmful pathogens, tests show. Healthier gut microbes were pushed out – a shift that may have long-term effects after a patient is discharged. Heavy use of broad-spectrum antibiotics, feeding people through a tube and using a ventilator to help them breathe could all contribute to the effect, say the team who carried out the study. “It’s quite disconcerting,” says Mark Pallen, a microbial genomics researcher at the Quadram Institute, UK, who led the research. “I was surprised. I mean, I suspected that something like this was going on, but I was quite taken aback at the scale of the changes.” To assess the impact of intensive care treatment on the gut microbiome, the team tracked 24 patients admitted for trauma, heart attacks, cancer and other emergencies to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, UK, over a ten-month period. Many of the patients, who were aged 25 to 85 years, were unconscious or sedated. After getting permission from family members, the scientists took stool samples from the patients. Using a technique called shotgun metagenomics, they extracted and sequenced DNA from the samples to identify which microbes were present — and how that changed over the course of their treatment. Two-thirds of the patients showed a marked reduction in microbial diversity at some stage during their stay. The biggest changes were associated with intravenous use of the antibiotic meropenem. The gut is normally home to a very rich and versatile set of micro-organisms, says Pallen. “Whereas in these patients, we are seeing all that diversity collapsing down to domination of the gut microbiota by a single organism occurring at a very high abundance.”

10-1-19 Personalized diets may be the future of nutrition. But the science isn’t all there yet
People can react very differently to the same foods, research shows. Microbiologist Lora Hooper wishes she had a good answer when her mother asks, “What should I eat?” Hooper could rely on a familiar refrain. Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and limit meat and fat intake. Try to eat foods low on the glycemic index, a measure of how high a particular food is likely to send a person’s blood sugar after eating it. Nutrition recommendations have focused on properties of food, debating whether focusing on calorie counts, carbohydrates, fats or proteins might be more important. But more studies are showing that people’s bodies can react very differently to the same foods, and standardized nutrition advice doesn’t fit everybody. Even identical twins can have varying responses to identical foods, new research finds, suggesting that the variety can’t be explained by genes alone. With genetics being put on the back burner, researchers are searching for other explanations for why a diet one person swears by may cause another to gain weight. One big player may be the friendly bacteria and other microbes in people’s guts. “Your microbiota really determines how many calories you take up from your food,” says Hooper, of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Without a better understanding of how gut microbes will react, she says, “I don’t think I can read the number of calories in my food off a box.” So instead of focusing on the food, people like Hooper’s mother may have to look within to their own gut microbes or other personal qualities to find the diet that works best for them, an approach known as personalized nutrition. But tailoring food regimens to individuals isn’t likely be a piece of cake, either.

139 Evolution News Articles
for October 2019

Evolution News Articles for September 2019