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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.