1-31-20 Coronavirus cases surge in China and abroad
Fears were growing this week that the new SARS-like coronavirus could spiral into a global pandemic, as the number of cases continued to multiply inside China and abroad despite Beijing’s unprecedented efforts to contain the disease. More than 6,000 cases of the respiratory virus—thought to have emerged from a live-animal market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan—have been confirmed so far in China, but experts believe the actual number is far higher. At least 133 people have died from the disease, which can be transmitted from person to person and has surfaced in 19 countries, including the U.S., Germany, Japan, and Australia. To stem the spread, Beijing has implemented the largest quarantine in human history, putting more than 50 million people across 17 cities on lockdown and shuttering public transport systems and schools. Streets and stores in Wuhan, home to 11 million people, are deserted. “It’s just a ghost town now,” said John McGory, an American teacher in the city. At least five coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the U.S.; all of the patients had recently visited Wuhan. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the virus currently poses a low risk to the American public, but it advised Americans to avoid all nonessential travel to China. American Airlines and United Airlines cut their number of flights to China, and the White House said it was considering banning all direct flights to the country. “The whole world needs to be on alert,” said Dr. Mike Ryan of the World Health Organization. While China wrestles with the virus, the U.S. must “do more than wait and hope,” said The Washington Post. “A crash effort to develop an effective vaccine” is the first order of business. Second, we need to improve diagnostics. A test result currently takes four or five days; if infections spike, “the result could be delay, chaos, and uncertainty.” Hospitals should plot infection-control measures and stockpile protective gear for workers. The investment in all this will be high, “but less than the damages if preparedness is ignored.”
1-31-20 Alarm on antibiotics
The World Health Organization has sounded the alarm on drug-resistant infections, warning of the dearth of research into new antibiotics. Around 700,000 people die each year because medicines that once cured their conditions no longer work; the United Nations estimates that superbugs could kill 10 million people a year by 2050. Yet a new WHO report noted that most of the 60 new antimicrobial drugs in development are merely variations of existing products, and that very few target the most dangerous drug-resistant infections. “We urgently need research and development,” co-author Sarah Paulin tells The New York Times. “We still have a window of opportunity, but we need to ensure there is investment now so we don’t run out of options for future generations.” One issue is that antibiotics aren’t very profitable—unlike drugs for long-term health issues, they’re typically taken for only a week or two at a time. Several small U.S. drug companies have gone bankrupt in recent months, in part because of their failure to make money from new antibiotics.
1-31-20 Hope for a universal cancer treatment
In a potential breakthrough for cancer research, British scientists say they have found a class of immune cells that could one day be used as a “one size fits all” therapy for most cancers. T-cell immunotherapies—in which immune cells are harvested from the patient, genetically modified to search and destroy a cancer, grown in vast quantities in a lab, and then returned to the patient’s bloodstream—are at the cutting edge of cancer treatment. They have proved highly effective against some cancers, yet so far have had no success against solid tumors, which make up the majority of cancers. But while examining human blood for immune cells that could fight bacteria, researchers at Cardiff University came across a T-cell with a new type of receptor—proteins that let immune cells “see” at a chemical level. Tests revealed that this T-cell can identify and kill cancers of the lung, skin, blood, colon, breast, bone, prostate, ovaries, kidney, and cervix. To create a treatment, T-cells harvested from a patient would be reprogrammed to make the receptor. While the therapy has shown promise in lab tests on mice with human cancers, many more safety checks are needed before human trials can begin. But researchers say this could be a significant moment in the fight against cancer. “There’s a chance here to treat every patient,” lead author Andrew Sewell tells BBC.com. “Previously nobody believed this could be possible.”
1-31-20 Our falling body temperature
In 1851, German doctor Carl Reinhold August Wunderlich took the temperatures of some 25,000 people and concluded that the average human body temperature was 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. That number remains the benchmark for scientists and doctors, although recent studies have concluded that it’s a little high, perhaps because of flaws in Wunderlich’s research. Now a new analysis of temperature readings taken over the past 157 years has determined that the German was right, but that our bodies have since steadily cooled down. Stanford University researchers examined three medical databases stretching from 1860 to 2017, containing more than 677,000 readings collected from 189,338 Americans. They found that average temperatures decreased by about 0.05 degrees per decade, and that a normal body temperature today is about 97.5 degrees. Senior author Julie Parsonnet tells New Scientist the most likely explanation for this heat drop is a population-wide reduction in inflammation. People today have fewer infections, thanks to vaccines and antibiotics, so their immune systems are less active. “Microbiologically,” she says, “we’re very different people than we were.”
1-31-20 Concrete comes alive
Researchers have created a living, self-replicating form of concrete, reports SmithsonianMag.com. The team from University of Colorado, Boulder tweaked the traditional concrete mix of sand, cement, and water, instead combining sand with gelatin, liquid nutrients, and cyanobacteria, microbes that use sunlight to make their own food. Using molds, the researchers created arches, cubes, and shoebox-size bricks, all of which started out green—because of the bacteria’s photosynthetic properties—then turned brown as the concrete dried. A 2-inch cube of the living material is strong enough for a person to stand on, although it is still weak compared with traditional concrete. But the material has a big advantage over the traditional gray stuff: it can grow. When the researchers split a brick in two and placed each half in a mold with some additional sand and nutrients, within seven days they had two bricks instead of one. The Department of Defense is interested in these living building materials, which could aid construction in remote environments. “Out in the desert,” says lead author Wil Srubar, “you don’t want to have to truck in lots of materials.”
1-31-20 Ancient well may be the world's oldest wooden architectural structure
A handful of oak-lined water wells built by Europe’s first farmers have earned the title of the world’s oldest surviving wooden architecture. Now, one of the earliest of the oak structures has been precision dated using the tree rings in the wood, and it provides evidence that Europe’s first farmers may also have been keen on recycling. Trees in temperate latitudes generally gain a ring of new growth each year – wider ones in good growing seasons, thinner ones in bad. They are visible in cross-sections of the tree and leave a barcode-like pattern of growth through time. By matching up distinct sections of that pattern on ancient wood samples from a given region, it is possible to create a tree ring record that goes further and further back in time. In some regions, the timeline stretches back thousands of years. A team led by Michal Rybnícek at the Mendel University in Brno, Czech Republic, used this method to date the oak wood lining a prehistoric well discovered in 2018 near the Czech town of Ostrov. Doing so confirmed that the structure – a large wooden crate 2.5 metres wide and 1.8 metres tall – was probably built 7275 years ago This is when the trees that provided the crate’s walls were felled, and it means that the well is the oldest wooden structure dated using tree rings. Surprisingly, at least one of the four vertical corner posts that give the structure its strength came from a tree that was felled more than a decade earlier. Rybnícek suspects this is because the early farmers recycled wood. They probably took oak posts from an earlier structure and repurposed them when they decided to dig the well and line it with wood. Those farmers may have had good reason to dig wells: some evidence suggests Europe experienced severe drought and floods at the time. “Wells are useful both in times of drought and flood, particularly if flood waters are stagnant,” says Penny Bickle at the University of York in the UK.
1-31-20 WHO declares coronavirus outbreak a global public health emergency
The virus that began in China has now been reported in 18 other countries and caused 170 deaths . The outbreak of a novel coronavirus that began in China is now a global public health emergency, the World Health Organization said January 30, as the death toll rose to 170. Eight cases of human-to-human transmission have been reported in four countries outside of China, including the United States. Another 14 countries have also reported cases within their borders, WHO officials said in a telephone news conference. Declaring a public health emergency of international concern, or PHEIC for short, gives the WHO more clout in recommending how countries should respond to the virus threat. China, where most of the nearly 8,000 cases have been reported, has locked down cities that are home to at least 50 million people and is setting up special health facilities to treat the infected in Wuhan, where the outbreak began in December (SN:1/28/20). “We don’t know what kind of damage this virus could do if the virus spread throughout a country with a weaker health system” than China’s, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. (Webmaster's comment: Or to a country with a ingnorant anti-vaccine movement like the United States!) “For all these reasons, I’m declaring a public health emergency of international concern over the global outbreak of novel coronavirus.” U.S. health officials on January 30 reported the first instance of person-to-person transmission in the country, bringing the total number of cases to six. An Illinois woman diagnosed with the virus after returning from Wuhan has spread the virus to her husband, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Both patients are in their 60s.
1-31-20 Coronavirus: US advises against all travel to China
The US government has advised against all travel to China due to the threat posed by the coronavirus outbreak, raising its alert to the highest level. The state department's "do not travel" warning, issued for extremely dangerous cases, was announced after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a global emergency. Those in China were urged to "consider departing using commercial means". At least 213 people have died in China, with almost 10,000 cases of the virus. There have been 98 cases in 18 other countries, according to the WHO, but no deaths. Most international cases are in people who had been to the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began. In its updated advisory, the state department said it had "requested that all non-essential US government personnel defer travel to China". Last week, it ordered all non-emergency personnel and their family members to leave Wuhan. This alert is the highest of the four-level warning system. The previous advisory had told people only to "reconsider" travel to China. Earlier on Thursday, health officials in Chicago reported the first case of human-to-human transmission of the virus in the United States. The discovery marked the second report of the virus in Illinois and the sixth confirmed case in the US. The new patient, a 60-year-old male, apparently contracted the virus from his spouse, a Chicago woman who carried the infection back from Wuhan, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The man had "some underlying medical conditions" but was in good condition, officials said. His wife, who had been caring for her father in Wuhan earlier this month, was also stable but remained in isolation at a local hospital. Officials were also monitoring 165 patients across the US for possible infections but CDC director Dr Robert Redfield cautioned the public to remain calm. "Our assessment remains that the immediate risk to the American public is low," he said.
1-31-20 Coronavirus: Worldwide cases overtake 2003 Sars outbreak
The number of coronavirus cases worldwide has surpassed that of the Sars epidemic, which spread to more than two dozen countries in 2003. There were around 8,100 cases of Sars - severe acute respiratory syndrome - reported during the eight-month outbreak. But nearly 10,000 people have been infected with the new coronavirus, most in China, since it emerged in December. More than 100 cases have been reported outside China, in 22 countries. The number of deaths so far stands at 213 - all in China. In total, 774 people were killed by Sars. On Thursday, the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency over the new outbreak. Most international cases are in people who have been to the Chinese city of Wuhan in Hubei province, where the virus originated. But Germany, Japan, Vietnam, the United States, Thailand and South Korea have reported cases of patients being infected by people who had travelled to China. Sars was a type of coronavirus that first emerged in China's Guangdong province in November 2002. By the time the outbreak ended the following July, it had spread to more than two dozen countries. The new coronavirus emerged only last month. So far, it has spread to fewer countries and - while more people have been infected globally - it has resulted in fewer deaths. On Wednesday, the number of confirmed cases within China surpassed the Sars epidemic. Sars was also estimated to have cost the global economy more than $30bn (£22bn). But economists have said the new coronavirus could have an even bigger impact on the world economy. It has forced global companies including tech giants, car makers and retailers to shut down temporarily in China. China was also criticised by the UN's global health body for concealing the scale of the original Sars outbreak. It has been praised for responding to the latest virus with tough measures, including effectively quarantining millions of residents in cities.
1-31-20 First cases of new coronavirus confirmed in the UK as disease spreads
The first cases of the new coronavirus have been confirmed in the UK. Two members of the same family have tested positive for the infection in England. The confirmation came as more than 80 Britons on an evacuation flight from Wuhan, the Chinese city at the centre of the outbreak, were due to land in the UK. The Department of Health declined to say where in England the patients are from, but it is understood that they aren’t in the Wirral area, where a special facility has been set up to quarantine those returning from Wuhan. “The patients are receiving specialist NHS care, and we are using tried and tested infection control procedures to prevent further spread of the virus,” said the chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty, in a statement. “The NHS is extremely well-prepared and used to managing infections and we are already working rapidly to identify any contacts the patients had, to prevent further spread,” he said. “We have been preparing for UK cases of novel coronavirus and we have robust infection control measures in place to respond immediately.”
1-31-20 Coronavirus: Why are we catching more diseases from animals?
The world is grappling with the new coronavirus, which has spread from China to at least 16 other countries, including the UK. Outbreaks of new infectious diseases are typically seen as a "one off". But the new virus - thought to have stemmed from wildlife - highlights our risk from animal-borne disease. This is likely to be more of a problem in future as climate change and globalisation alter the way animals and humans interact. In the past 50 years, a host of infectious diseases have spread rapidly after making the evolutionary jump from animals to humans. The HIV/Aids crisis of the 1980s originated from great apes, the 2004-07 avian flu pandemic came from birds, and pigs gave us the swine flu pandemic in 2009. More recently, it was discovered severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) came from bats, via civets, while bats also gave us Ebola. Humans have always caught diseases from animals. In fact, most new infectious diseases come from wildlife. But environmental change is speeding up this process, while increased city living and international travel mean when these diseases emerge, they can spread more quickly. Most animals carry a range of pathogens - bacteria and viruses that can cause disease. The pathogen's evolutionary survival depends on infecting new hosts - and jumping to other species is one way to do this. The new host's immune systems try to kill off pathogens, meaning the two are locked in an eternal evolutionary game of trying to find new ways to vanquish each other. For example, about 10% of infected people died during the 2003 Sars epidemic, compared with under 0.1% for a "typical" flu epidemic. Environmental and climate change are removing and altering animals' habitat, changing how they live, where they live and who eats whom. The way humans live has also changed - 55% of the global population now live in cities, up from 35% 50 years ago.
1-31-20 50 years ago, scientists debated the necessity of a smallpox vaccine
Smallpox killed up to 500 million people before it was declared globally eradicated in 1980. Efforts to weaponize the smallpox virus have led scientists to rethink vaccination strategies to keep people safe. In the early 1950s, when smallpox was declared officially to have been wiped out in the United States, specialists in infectious diseases began to argue whether the risks of [smallpox] vaccination finally outweighed the benefits…. Today, many specialists hold that vaccination against smallpox is no longer justified in this country. Routine smallpox vaccinations in the United States ended by 1972 and globally by 1980, when the disease was declared eradicated. But the world isn’t totally safe from smallpox. Russian and U.S. labs keep samples of the disease-causing virus for research, and weaponized versions may exist. In 2003, the U.S. government pushed to restart vaccinations for health workers and first responders as a precaution against potential bioterrorist attacks. That effort failed, partly because people feared the possibility of health complications from the vaccine. But U.S. officials have stockpiled smallpox vaccines, along with the first smallpox treatment, which was approved for use in 2018 (SN: 5/26/18, p. 10).
1-31-20 Why concerns of a teenage vaping epidemic may be overblown
“How Juul hooked a generation on nicotine” was a New York Times headline from 2018 on the new addiction apparently sweeping the youth of the US. It wasn’t the only media outlet to cover the rise in e-cigarettes, as a US government survey from that year showed that vaping among teenagers was on the rise. But the full figures from this survey have now been newly analysed and they suggest that the original coverage didn’t give the whole picture – in some ways, the results could even be seen as good news for teenagers’ health. E-cigarettes are meant to be a safer way for people to inhale nicotine without taking in the multiple harmful substances produced by smoking tobacco, like tar and carbon monoxide. There have always been worries that, as well as helping smokers quit, they might lure in non-smokers. But in the past few years, concerns have spiralled in the US over small vaping devices branded Juul that deliver a high hit of nicotine, with a choice of flavours. Juul’s purported appeal to teens was highlighted by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when it released the 2018 figures. The study was based on its yearly survey of more than 20,000 middle and high-school students and triggered a rash of alarming headlines. At the time, Juul said it didn’t want young people using its products and stopped selling some of its flavours through retail stores. It has since withdrawn all non-tobacco or menthol flavours from the market. But an independent analysis of the full set of those figures, published this week, is more nuanced than those initial headlines. While 14 per cent of the teens surveyed had indeed vaped in the past 30 days, only 4 per cent of the total were regular e-cigarette users, defined as having done so on 20 days or more over that period. Less frequent use suggests “curiosity and experimentation”, says author David Abrams at New York University School of Global Public Health.
1-31-20 Seminal fluid, not just sperm, can influence offspring's survival
Baby fish grow up differently depending on the liquid their father’s sperm swam in. The finding shows that fathers can influence their offspring through chemicals in the semen, as well as through the sperm themselves. “There is something in the seminal plasma, maybe some non-genetic factor, that is modifying the offspring,” says Jukka Kekäläinen of the University of Eastern Finland in Joensuu. Among sexually reproducing species, males produce sex cells called sperm that are carried in a liquid called semen. The sperm merge with eggs produced by females, which then develop into embryos. Kekäläinen and his colleagues studied a freshwater species called European whitefish (Coregonus lavaretus). Females lay eggs, onto which the males release sperm. Because fertilisation takes place in open water, the team was able to separate the effects of sperm and semen. They collected semen from 10 males and modified it: some samples had the liquid removed, while others were mixed with liquid from other males, and some were unchanged. The team then used the samples to fertilise the eggs of five females, in all possible combinations, and tracked the offspring’s progress. They found that the embryos hatched significantly earlier if a male’s sperm was mixed with seminal liquid from another male. What’s more, those offspring were able to swim against a current for longer. In contrast, removing the seminal liquid entirely made the embryos less likely to survive. The results show that seminal fluid plays a crucial role. “It’s not just a medium for the sperm,” says Kekäläinen. “It can have important effects on the next generation.” The finding fits an emerging body of evidence for the importance of semen, says Kristin Hook of the University of Maryland in College Park. “We know in other animal systems, there are components of the ejaculate that are under immense selective pressures to be different and varied,” she says. “In flies, males have components of their ejaculate that allow them to control the females’ interest in re-mating.”
1-30-20 WHO declares coronavirus outbreak an international health emergency
The new coronavirus represents a public health emergency of international concern, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared. “The main reason for this declaration is not because of what is happening in China, but because of what is happening in other countries,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters following a 5-hour meeting of an emergency committee. The announcement comes as China confirms that 7711 people have transmitted the virus in the country, and 170 people have died. An additional 12,167 suspected cases are being investigated, and 81,917 of people are being kept under medical supervision, according to China’s national health commission. As the WHO reached its decision, 18 other countries had also confirmed cases of the virus. Most of the people affected seem to have brought the virus from China, but seven cases have resulted from human-to-human transmission outside the country. Cases have been confirmed in Thailand, Japan, Singapore, Australia, Taiwan, Malaysia, France, the US, Germany, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, Vietnam, Cambodia, Finland, India, Nepal, Philippines and Sri Lanka. None of the affected individuals in these countries have died, but one case is considered severe. “Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems, and which are ill-prepared to deal with it,” said Ghebreyesus. Devi Sridhar at the University of Edinburgh, UK, shares the concern. “I think this decision was long overdue,” she said in a statement. Sridhar hopes that the declaration will accelerate the development of treatments and a vaccine. The WHO warned that new cases could crop up anywhere in the world, and warned other countries to be vigilant, to prepare to identify and isolate those who are infected and report all information back to the organisation.
1-30-20 New coronavirus: How soon will a treatment be ready and will it work?
So far, around a quarter of people infected during the outbreak of a new coronavirus have developed severe respiratory infections, and about 3 per cent have died. With the numbers still climbing alarmingly fast, many groups are already rushing to try to find treatments for the virus. A vaccine that stops people being infected by the new coronavirus would obviously be better than any treatment, but that is some way off. “A vaccine would take at least a year, if not more,” says virologist Jonathan Ball at the University of Nottingham, UK. The good news is that a few existing drugs might help to save lives in the meantime. And new treatments could be developed in as little as six months. There are two ways of treating viral infections. One is to find small molecules that stop viruses replicating by interfering with viral proteins. Antivirals are usually simple to manufacture, and can be taken in pill form, both big advantages. But 99 per cent of potential small-molecule drugs fail, says Ball. So developing new antivirals from scratch could take years. The second way is to use the same weapons that our bodies use: antibodies. Antibodies are large proteins that bind to viruses and trigger their destruction. When people are infected with a new virus, it can take two weeks for the body to produce enough antibodies to fight it off. Injecting people with antibodies made by cells growing in a vat can keep viruses in check until a person’s immune response kicks in fully. Antibodies are less likely to cause side effects than small-molecule drugs, because they bind more specifically to viruses whereas small-molecule drugs tend to stick to lots of other things as well. This means we should be able to find safe and effective antibodies against the 2019 coronavirus very quickly – the problem will be mass-producing them fast enough.
1-30-20 Coronavirus: What it does to the body
Fighting the new coronavirus has been a battle against the unknown for doctors. How does it attack the body? What are the full range of symptoms? Who is more likely to be seriously ill or die? How do you treat it? Now, an account by medics on the front line of this epidemic, at the Jinyintan Hospital, in Wuhan, is starting to provide answers. A detailed analysis of the first 99 patients treated there has been published in the Lancet medical journal. All of the 99 patients taken to the hospital had pneumonia - their lungs were inflamed and the tiny sacs where oxygen moves from the air to the blood were filling with water. The first two patients to die were seemingly healthy, although they were long-term smokers and that would have weakened their lungs. The first, a 61-year-old man, had severe pneumonia when he arrived at hospital. He was in acute respiratory distress, meaning his lungs were unable to provide enough oxygen to his organs to keep his body alive. Despite being put on a ventilator, his lungs failed and his heart stopped beating. He died 11 days after he was admitted. The second patient, a 69-year-old man, also had acute respiratory distress syndrome. He was attached to an artificial lung or ECMO (extra-corporeal membrane oxygenation) machine but this wasn't enough. He died of severe pneumonia and septic shock when his blood pressure collapsed. This does not mean the death rate of the disease is 11%, though, as some of those still in hospital may yet die and many others have such mild symptoms they do not end up in hospital. Live animals sold at the Huanan seafood market are thought to be the source of the infection, called 2019-nCoV. And 49 out of the 99 patients had a direct connection to the market. Most of the 99 patients were middle-aged, with an average age of 56 - and 67 of them were men. However, more recent figures suggest a more even gender split. The China Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 1.2 men were infected for every 1.0 women.
1-30-20 Daylight saving time linked to an increase in traffic accidents
The risk of fatal car crashes goes up in the week after the shift to summer time, or daylight saving time, each spring. In the US alone, researchers predict that about 29 deadly accidents in the week after the transition could be prevented each year. “The best option, not only for traffic accident risk, but also health and well-being in general, would be to get rid of daylight saving time transitions altogether,” says Céline Vetter at the University of Colorado Boulder. Vetter and her team analysed reports of fatal accidents over 22 years, from 1996 to 2017, across the US states that observe daylight saving time – which is all of them apart from Arizona and Hawaii. They compared the number of fatal traffic accidents for each week of the year with those in the week following a daylight saving time clock change, adjusting for other factors such as traffic volume, changes in car safety over the years and seasonal variation. They found that the risk of fatal vehicle accidents increases by approximately 6 per cent in the week following the transition. The clock change happens on a Sunday, with the biggest effects in the following week. There were, on average, an additional 5.7 fatal accidents per day from Monday to Friday after a daylight saving time transition – or 28.5 more fatal accidents during the whole working week. Sudden time changes disrupt our internal body clocks, leading to sleep deprivation that affects alertness, well-being and mood, says Vetter. Beyond the first week after the transition, the number of accidents returned to levels seen before the change, suggesting that people’s body clocks have adjusted by this point. Till Roenneberg at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany, who wasn’t involved in the study, says the results are “excellent evidence” for the short-term effects of the switch to daylight saving time.
1-30-20 Vegetarians may have a lower risk of urinary tract infections
Eating a vegetarian diet has been linked with a lower risk of having a urinary tract infection. But there are caveats to the study that mean the results are still unclear. The infections are usually caused by bacteria from faeces entering the urinary tract. Chicken and pork are a major reservoir of Escherichia coli, a bacteria that commonly causes UTIs. So Chin-Lon Lin at Tzu Chi University in Taiwan and his colleagues looked at whether vegetarians would have a lower risk of UTIs than people who eat meat. “We know vegetarians have a different flora in the gut. We tried to see if the infection [rate] of the urinary tract of the vegetarians was statistically significantly lower than the meat eaters. And we prove that it is,” says Lin. The study looked at 9724 people in Taiwan over 10 years and found that vegetarians were 16 per cent less likely to have a UTI than their meat-eating counterparts. But when the researchers analysed the diets of men and women separately, they found the protective effect of a vegetarian diet was present in women but not in men. UTIs are more common in women because of the shorter length of the female urinary tract. Lin says vegetarians may have a lower risk of UTIs because they have a lower risk of exposure to E.coli. It is also possible that the high fibre content in their diet helps vegetarians to avoid constipation and so reduces the risk of E.coli growing in their gut, he says. The research shows diet is a “very significant element” in preventing UTIs, says Lin, though he adds the group in the study may not reflect the general population. For example, the study participants were all Buddhists based in Taiwan, who were required to quit alcohol and smoking. About a third of the participants gave up meat to protect the environment and animals.
1-30-20 Neanderthals never lived in Africa, but their genes got there anyway
People of European and African ancestry have got more Neanderthal DNA in their genomes than previously thought. This is the finding of a study that identifies, for the first time, the Neanderthal genes present in modern day people of African ancestry, and indicates that this “ghost” DNA spread through Africa via migrations of modern humans back from Europe. “What’s surprising about our results is the magnitude of the Neanderthal signal that we see in all of the African populations we’ve looked at. There’s more Neanderthal ancestry in Africa than we thought,” says Joshua Akey at Princeton University, who led the study. Neanderthals arose about 430,000 years ago, living in Europe and central Asia until their demise some 40,000 years ago. Thanks to genetic studies, we know that modern humans interbred with Neanderthals after they left Africa, leaving traces in each other’s DNA. Previous research showed that approximately 1.5 per cent of the DNA of people of European ancestry originated from these sexual encounters, and that people of east Asian ancestry had about 20 per cent more Neanderthal DNA than this, possibly due to more interbreeding. The genomes of people of African ancestry, however, showed little or no evidence of this genetic transfer – which makes sense, because Neanderthals never inhabited Africa. But these Neanderthal genes were identified in people of European ancestry by comparing their genomes to people of African ancestry, on the assumption they were a Neanderthal-free baseline. To find out if this assumption was correct, Akey and his colleagues devised a new method for detecting archaic ancestry in DNA. Using data from the 1000 Genomes Project to look at the genomes of people of African ancestry in Africa today and elsewhere in the world, it revealed unexpectedly high Neanderthal signatures of 0.3 per cent in people of African ancestry, compared with less than 0.02 per cent shown in previous studies. Some of these genes play a role in the immune system and sensitivity to ultraviolet light.
1-30-20 Your most pressing questions about the new coronavirus, answered
Scientists are racing to unravel the mysteries of a new coronavirus that has infected thousands and sparked global concern — triggering many questions from researchers and the public alike. In this rapidly evolving epidemic, many unknowns remain. Here’s what we know so far about the new virus, called 2019 novel coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV. We will update these answers as more information becomes available.
- What is 2019-nCoV? Coronaviruses are one of a variety of viruses that typically cause colds. But three members of the viral family have caused deadly outbreaks.
- When did the outbreak start? Chinese officials notified the World Health Organization of a pneumonia-like disease with an unknown cause in 44 patients on December 31, 2019.
- Where did the virus come from? Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they originate in animals and sometimes leap to humans.
- What are the symptoms of a 2019-nCoV infection? An infection can cause fever, cough and difficulty breathing, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- How infectious is the virus? Researchers don’t yet know for sure. But since 2019-nCoV has never infected humans before last year, it’s likely that everyone is vulnerable to infection with this virus.
- How does it spread? Although initial Chinese officials initially reported little evidence of human-to-human transmission, it is, in fact, how it’s now spreading (SN: 1/10/20).
- How far has it spread? Most of the thousands of people with confirmed diagnoses of the new virus are in China. But several other countries — 17 as of January 29 — have also confirmed isolated cases of the disease, many of whom had just returned from a trip to China.
1-30-20 Coronavirus: Death toll rises as virus spreads to every Chinese region
The death toll from the coronavirus outbreak has risen to 170, and a confirmed case in Tibet means it has reached every region in mainland China. Chinese health authorities said there were 7,711 confirmed cases in the country as of 29 January. Infections have also spread to at least 15 other countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) will meet on Thursday to again consider whether the virus constitutes a global health emergency. "In the last few days the progress of the virus, especially in some countries, especially human-to-human transmission, worries us," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Wednesday. He named Germany, Vietnam and Japan, where there have been cases of people catching the virus from others who have been to China. "Although the numbers outside China are still relatively small, they hold the potential for a much larger outbreak," the WHO chief said. More people have now been infected in China than during the Sars outbreak in the early 2000s, but the death toll remains far lower. Sars, also a coronavirus, caused acute respiratory illness. Researchers are racing to develop a vaccine to protect people from the virus. One lab in California has plans for a potential vaccine to enter human trials by June or July. Voluntary evacuations of hundreds of foreign nationals from Wuhan are under way to help people who want to leave the closed-off city and return to their countries. The UK, Australia, South Korea, Singapore and New Zealand are expected to quarantine all evacuees for two weeks to monitor them for symptoms and avoid any contagion. (Webmaster's comment: The United States needs to do the same!) Australia plans to quarantine its evacuees on Christmas Island, 2,000km (1,200 miles) from the mainland in a detention centre that has been used to house asylum seekers. Singapore is setting up a quarantine facility on Pulau Ubin, an island north-east of the city-state's mainland.
1-30-20 Coronavirus: The US laboratory developing a vaccine
Scientists in the US have told the BBC they could have a vaccine for the new coronavirus ready for use in China- before the end of the year. The pharmaceutical company Inovio is one of a number of research facilities urgently trying to develop a vaccine, as cases in China continue to soar.
1-30-20 Pill with tiny needle for painless injections passes first human trial
A pill that could replace conventional injections has passed its first tests in people with flying colours, according to the company developing it. “It’s completely pain-free,” says Mir Imran, the head of Rani Therapeutics of San Jose, California. “Not a single subject felt anything.” He says the results provide hope for millions of people – such as those with diabetes – who want an alternative to painful injections. It is estimated that one in 10 people have a fear of needles. The RaniPill, as it is called, looks like a larger version of a normal pill. When swallowed, it passes through the stomach untouched. The outer covering only dissolves in the less acidic environment of the intestine. When this happens, a tiny balloon inflates and pushes a small needle into the muscular wall of the intestine that injects the drug the pill is carrying. The balloon then deflates and the remains of the pill are excreted. The intestine has no receptors for sharp pain and heals very quickly. In a trial in Australia, 52 people were given RaniPills containing octreotide, a drug used to treat certain cancers and growth disorders. They felt no pain or discomfort, and the pill was as effective at delivering the drug as conventional injections. At present, octreotide is given as a large injection into the buttocks once a month. “Patients describe it as amazingly painful,” Imran says. Many drugs, such as insulin, are destroyed in the gut if swallowed, so they have to be injected directly. But people who hate needles often delay or skip injections, and can develop serious complications as a result. Having a painless alternative to injections should reduce the risk of this as well as making people’s lives more pleasant.
1-30-20 Stem cell clinics’ much-hyped treatments lack scientific support
Patients are getting injections to relieve knee pain and more, with too little research on safety and effectiveness. Joanna had just turned 62 when she noticed that she couldn’t stand very long before her right leg would hurt. She thought it was from an old injury, when her dog had slammed into her thigh. When the ache moved to her wrist, she went to a doctor who said she might be getting arthritis. The pain quickly intensified. “It just happened so rapidly, and I couldn’t figure out why,” says Joanna, who lives in a Houston suburb. Her doctors chalked it up to wear and tear. “ ‘You’re getting older,’ ” she remembers them telling her. This was in early 2018. Then she got an e-mail with a link to a video about stem cells and the conditions they could cure, including arthritis. “I started watching it and then I just turned it off for a while because I thought, ‘I’m afraid I’m going to get my hopes up too high,’” says Joanna, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her medical privacy. She started seeing full-page ads for stem cell seminars in the newspaper. She attended one at a local hotel, and the presenter announced that thousands of patients had benefited from stem cell injections. It was natural, the woman said. No one had ever been harmed. The idea that the treatment wasn’t a drug reassured Joanna.She made an appointment for the next day. “It sounded too good to be true, but I was desperate,” she says. She received injections into her back, neck and shoulder of stem cells from donated umbilical cord blood followed by an IV of the product the next day. The cost was $30,000, siphoned from her husband’s pension. She knew she was taking a risk, but she felt hopeful. Two days later, her face began to burn and itch. Then her feet. She had pain in places that had never hurt before, like the joints of her fingers. Her hair started falling out, and she descended into a deep depression. “I’m totally miserable,” she says, months later. “I’m just agonizing in pain…. Now I don’t see any hope.”
1-30-20 The Lighthouse: How extreme isolation transforms the body and mind
What happens to the mind when you’re confined to a life of solitude? Robert Eggers offers his interpretation in his latest film, The Lighthouse, a psychological horror shot in haunting black and white. Set in the late 19th century, it follows elderly lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake (played by Willem Dafoe) and his assistant Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) as they spend a month tending to a lighthouse on an isolated island. Things get weird almost as soon as the two men arrive ashore. New recruit Winslow finds a mermaid figurine, inciting visions of a beautiful humanoid creature washed up on the shore, equal parts erotic and disturbing. He sees Wake naked in the lantern tower of the lighthouse and has distressing dreams. Psychologist Sarita Robinson at the University of Central Lancashire, UK, says that hallucinations are common when people are in isolation, usually occurring if there is also sensory deprivation, such as being in a dark room. In an experiment conducted at McGill University in the 1950s, volunteers who spent days alone in tiny rooms began to hallucinate after a matter of hours, becoming so distressed that the research was terminated early. “Humans are social creatures – we crave the company of others,” says Robinson. “We know that social isolation is really damaging for both mental and physical health.” As the film unfurls, it is clear that having only the brash and authoritative Wake for company is taking its toll on Winslow. “It’s bad luck to kill a seabird!” Wake bellows at him over dinner as he slaps him across the head. Winslow is shocked and more than a little peeved. Soon after, as Winslow’s time on the island nears its end, the wind changes direction. The ferry meant for Winslow never comes and a raging storm breaks out. The two men start to lose their grip on reality with Winslow becoming increasingly infatuated with the lantern tower, which Wake has forbidden him to enter. All the while, they drink themselves into oblivion.
1-30-20 Jersey 'drowned landscape' could yield Ice Age insights
Archaeologists are planning an ambitious survey of part of the seabed off Jersey where Neanderthals once lived. The site is part-exposed during spring low tide, giving the team a four-hour window to dig while the sea is out. Stone tools and mammoth remains have been recovered from the Violet Bank over the years. Neanderthals are known to have inhabited what is now Jersey for hundreds of thousands of years. The Violet Bank is a type of coastal zone known as an intertidal reef. It's underwater at high tide but some 10 sq km of seabed is exposed during the low spring tide. In May, the team will spend a week living at an offshore fort built in the 18th Century and then digging on the seabed for three to four hours before the area is inundated. The project's leader Dr Matt Pope, from UCL's Institute of Archaeology, said: "The Violet Bank is a starkly beautiful and scientifically important landscape. "We know there is a record of Neanderthal archaeology, extinct fauna such as mammoth and more recent prehistoric monuments out there waiting to be discovered and documented." The effort aims to discover records of early human behaviour, insights into the ancient environment and could shed light on past climate change. It will seek to understand how people used this landscape before the sea covered it around 6,000 years ago. Dr Pope said: "This will be the first formal work our team has undertaken on the bank. We've undertaken brief excursions into this landscape before... now we get to base ourselves within it for a short period of time." He said the area had been brought to the team's attention by work carried out by Société Jersiaise, Jersey's learned society. Their members had previously documented a mammoth tooth and flint artefacts from the site. Matt Pope explained: "Currently we only have small number of artefacts from the Violet Bank most of which have been collected by Jersey islanders with an good eye for stone artefacts. In terms of condition and technology they match Middle Palaeolithic artefacts from other Jersey sites.
1-29-20 Fast action will be key to containing new coronavirus from China
As the new virus that emerged in China spreads rapidly around the world, the reaction of national and international health agencies will be key to stopping it. A DEADLY new virus is spreading rapidly around the world. In a matter of weeks, we have seen almost 3000 people infected across at least 12 countries, and more than 80 deaths. But epidemiologists are warning that it has the potential to spread further and claim more lives. We know the airborne virus can spread between people, and Chinese researchers studying it have warned that it seems to be able to spread before symptoms show. That might explain why it is spreading so much faster than SARS did back in 2003 (see “New coronavirus may be much more contagious than initially thought”). As New Scientist went to press, reports of the first possible cases of person-to-person transmission outside China were beginning to emerge. If SARS, MERS, Ebola or swine flu have taught us anything, it is that we need to be prepared. The reaction of national and international health agencies is key. The controversial decision by the World Health Organization to hold off on declaring a public health emergency of international concern is one it may come to regret – the agency is still facing criticism for its delayed response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In the meantime, China is due some credit. The country has swiftly responded to the outbreak. Local health agencies reported the first suspicious cases back when there were only a handful of them, and the world has been updated on a daily basis since. The food market at the centre of the outbreak was shut and disinfected as soon as it was identified as a possible source. Chinese researchers not only sequenced the genome of the new virus in a matter of days, they also immediately shared their results with the international community. As a result, diagnostic kits exist in multiple countries. China’s lockdown of several cities is unprecedented, and certainly isn’t foolproof: it is impossible to fully stop the movement of people. But it is a big step in stemming the virus’s spread.
1-29-20 The mysterious microbes shifting humanity's place in the tree of life
Puzzling, slow-living microbes named after Loki, the trickster of Norse mythology, are helping solve one of evolution's biggest mysteries: the origin of complex life. EVEN the gods struggled to cope with Loki, the trickster of Norse mythology. So it may have been foolhardy to beckon the notorious schemer into the world of modern science – but that’s what a team of researchers did in 2008. They had struggled to find a group of hydrothermal chimneys at the bottom of the Norwegian Sea because the heat signature seemed to keep shifting. When they finally tracked down the rocky spires, they thought it would be apt to name them Loki’s Castle in reference to Loki’s ability to confound those around him by shape-shifting. The castle’s smallest residents soon began stirring up trouble too. Strange microbes living there (inevitably dubbed the Lokis) are shedding light on one of evolution’s biggest mysteries: the origin of complex life. What is more, they have reignited an argument about the shape of the tree of life, one of biology’s most fundamental ways of describing the rise of life on Earth, with implications for all of us. The discovery of the Lokis may leave humanity lumped together with a group of weird single-celled organisms called archaea, dramatically redefining our species. Textbooks will tell you that shortly after biological cells appeared on Earth more than 3.5 billion years ago, there was a parting of the ways that sent life down three distinct branches. One led to bacteria – single-celled organisms only visible through a microscope. A second led to similarly simple but biologically distinct microbes called archaea. The final branch led to complex organisms called eukaryotes, a group that includes humans, trees and fungi. These differ from their simpler cousins at the cellular level, containing intricate internal structures. Long before the Lokis were found, doubts about this picture of life had emerged. They began with the discovery of an entirely new type of archaea, first identified in an Italian sulphur hot spring in the 1980s. These organisms are called the Crenarchaeota, also known as eocytes, but seemed to share cellular features with eukaryotes, which was odd. Until then, the two had been considered distinct.
1-29-20 What you experience may not exist. Inside the strange truth of reality
What our senses allow us to experience may not reflect what actually exists. It may be a creation of our own consciousness, or a computer simulation designed by superintelligent beings. I don’t know about you, but I feel that I have a perfectly good perception of reality. Inside my head is a vivid depiction of the world around me, replete with sounds, smells, colour and objects. So it is rather unsettling to discover this might all be a fabrication. Some researchers even contend that the live-stream movie in my head bears no resemblance whatsoever to reality. In some senses, it is obvious that subjective experience isn’t the whole story. Humans, unlike bees, don’t normally see ultraviolet light; we can’t sense Earth’s magnetic field, unlike turtles, worms and wolves; are deaf to high and low pitch noises that other animals can hear; and have a relatively weak sense of smell. On top of this, our brain presents us with only a snapshot. If our senses took in every detail, we would be overwhelmed. Did you notice the last time you blinked, or that fleshy protuberance called your nose that is always in your peripheral vision? No, because your brain edits them out. “A lot of what our senses are doing is something like data compression: simplifying, in order to be able to function,” says Mazviita Chirimuuta at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. In fact, most of what you “see” is an illusion. Our eyes aren’t all-seeing, but capture fleeting glimpses of the outside world between rapid movements called saccades. During these, we are effectively blind because the brain doesn’t process the information that comes in when they happen. If you doubt this, stare into your own eyes in a mirror, then rapidly flick your gaze from one side to the other and back again. Did you see your eyes move? This is only the start of it. The brain, after all, is sealed in darkness and silence within the solid casing of the skull. It has no direct access to the outside world, and so relies on the information that reaches it via a few electrical cables from our sensory organs. Our eyes pick up information about wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, our ears detect vibrations of air particles and our noses and mouths detect volatile molecules that we experience as smells and flavours. Through complex processes we only partly understand, the brain integrates these independent inputs into a unified conscious awareness.
1-29-20 Can the coronavirus outbreak be contained?
Scientists are racing to answer questions about 2019-nCoV that might help control its spread. Since a new coronavirus outbreak began in December, Chinese officials have placed millions of people under quarantine, and international airports are screening travelers for signs of the illness in an effort to control its spread. But as scientists learn more about the new virus, which causes pneumonia, it’s unclear how effective these strategies will be at halting the epidemic. Cases of the virus, for now called 2019 novel coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV, have rapidly increased since the outbreak was first announced. There are 4,587 confirmed cases of the disease in 16 countries, including 16 health care workers, as of January 28. At least 106 people, all in China, have died. U.S. officials are monitoring 110 people across 26 states for signs of infection, such as fever, cough and shortness of breath, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced January 27 in a news conference. Those being monitored include people who recently traveled to Wuhan — the city at the center of the outbreak — and others they had direct contact with. So far, five people in the United States have tested positive for the new virus; 32 have tested negative. In response to the spiking case numbers, more than 50 million people in China are currently under lockdown, likely the largest quarantine in modern history. Although quarantine and isolation were effective strategies to end the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, outbreak, it’s unclear whether similar methods will be as effective for the new virus. Researchers are now scrambling to answer unknown questions about 2019-nCoV that might help control efforts, such as figuring out when people are contagious and how much the virus is changing as it passes from person to person.
1-29-20 New coronavirus looks set to cause a pandemic – how do we control it?
The new coronavirus may be about to go global. Speaking at a press conference earlier this week, Gabriel Leung at the University of Hong Kong said that without “substantial, draconian measures limiting population mobility” – even greater than the unprecedented transportation shutdown that China has already imposed – epidemics outside China “may become inevitable”. It could be too late. Leung and other epidemiologists calculate that there are far more cases in China than doctors have diagnosed, and by next week there may be 200,000. Computer models suggest that, as with flu, Ebola and SARS, travel restrictions may have little impact. One epidemiologist, however, thinks there may be hope in the variable way the virus is thought to spread, based on its close relatives SARS and MERS. Officially confirmed cases of the virus climbed to 5974 cases today, in 31 of China’s 33 provinces, up from 291 in three provinces a week ago. But that is likely to be a massive underestimate. Several research groups have used computer modelling to calculate a factor called the R0, the average number of people who catch the virus from each infected person, at between two and four. Data from clusters of cases also makes it possible to calculate the “generation” time that it takes an infected person to start transmitting the virus at eight days. But plugging those numbers into standard epidemic models reveals that something doesn’t fit, says David Fisman at the University of Toronto in Canada. “Cases, R0 or generation time have to be wrong,” he says. He thinks case numbers are too low, because it took doctors time to learn to diagnose the disease. He suspects that the explosive rise in cases of recent days is mostly due to improved case finding and diagnosis. Moreover, people with milder symptoms who don’t go to hospital and get tested may still add to the epidemic by transmitting the virus.
1-29-20 Coronavirus: Australia plans island quarantine as foreigners leave Wuhan
Hundreds of foreign nationals are being evacuated from Wuhan, the centre of China's coronavirus outbreak, as more deaths and cases are confirmed. Australia plans to quarantine its evacuees on Christmas island 2,000km (1,200 miles) from the mainland. Japan, the US and the EU are also repatriating their citizens. British Airways has suspended all flights to and from mainland China, as the UK's Foreign Office warned against "all but essential travel" there. Several other airlines have taken similar measures. United Airlines and Cathay Pacific are restricting flights, while Lion Air - one of the region's biggest airlines - is stopping flights to China from Saturday. Cathay Pacific has also suspended inflight trolley services, changed some aspects of its meal offer, and stopped giving out hot towels, pillows, blankets and magazines in an effort to prevent the virus spreading. China's national women's football team is being quarantined in Australia after arriving there to play in an Olympic qualifying tournament, Australian media report. Thirty-two players and staff will stay in isolation in a hotel in Brisbane as a precaution until 5 February, officials said. The team, which passed through Wuhan last week, had been due to play Thailand on 3 February. In another development, the furniture retailer Ikea said it was temporarily shutting half its 30 stores in China "in response to the Chinese government's call for efficient control of the spread of the disease". An expert from the Chinese National Health Commission (NHC) said it could take 10 more days for the outbreak to peak. The number of deaths from the virus has risen to 132 in China. Like the similar Sars and influenza viruses, the new coronavirus is a particular risk for elderly people and those with pre-existing illnesses.
1-29-20 Human genes have been added to pigs to create skin for transplants
The race to create pigs with organs that are suitable for transplanting into people is hotting up. At least three teams have added human genes to pigs to try to prevent donor organs from being rejected by a recipient’s immune system. The research could solve two problems. The first is a shortage of human donor organs. The second is that people who get transplants need to take medicines for the rest of their lives to suppress their immune system and avoid the new organ being rejected. Different research teams are trying to tackle this by adding human genes to pigs, in an effort to make their organs suitable for humans, and potentially less likely to be rejected by the recipient’s immune system too. Lijin Zou at the First Affiliated Hospital of Nanchang University in China and his colleagues have created pigs into which they added eight human genes that reduce the chance of a donor organ being rejected, and removed three key pig genes that trigger organ rejection. for up to 25 days without the monkeys needing any immune system suppressing drugs. “So far, it is the best result, at least from the English literature,” says Zou. His team is preparing to start human trials of the pig skin as a temporary cover for extensive burns. These are usually covered with skin from dead human donors while new skin grows. Zou says he would “expect even better” results in humans. Interest in this approach has surged in the past decade as advances such as CRISPR gene editing have made it feasible to make extensive changes to the genomes of animals. In December, Luhan Yang at biotech firms Qihan Bio in China and eGenesis in the US reported that her team had created pigs with nine added human genes and dozens of deleted pig genes.
1-29-20 AI is being used to select embryos for women undergoing IVF
Artificial intelligence is being used in IVF to select embryos with the highest chance of resulting in a successful pregnancy. The AI algorithm, called Ivy, analyses time-lapse videos of embryos as they are incubated after being fertilised, and identifies which ones have the highest likelihood of successful development. It was developed by Harrison.ai, a tech firm in Sydney, and has been used for several thousand women undergoing IVF in Australia. Women who undergo IVF using Ivy are informed about the algorithm and consent to its use. Ivy was trained on more than 10,000 videos of embryos growing inside an incubator for five days, in combination with data about which embryos resulted in pregnancy. The model is more accurate than trained specialists at predicting the likelihood that an embryo will go on to develop a fetal heartbeat at or beyond seven weeks’ gestation. In a study of its predictive ability, Ivy scored 0.93 on a measure known as AUC, where a score of 1 indicates a model with predictions that are 100 per cent correct. In comparison, trained human embryologists have previously scored an AUC of around 0.74. “The results look very promising,” says Iman Hajirasouliha at Cornell University in New York. He and colleagues have developed a similar AI, Stork, based on videos of 12,000 embryos on day five post-fertilisation. What these AIs are identifying in the videos as a marker of success isn’t entirely clear. “Ultimately it’s still a bit of a black box,” says Aengus Tran, CEO of Harrison.ai. “We could speculate that it must have learned very similar features to what embryologists are looking at,” says Tran. These might include the shape of cells, how symmetrically they divide, and how long it takes to go from two to eight cells.
1-28-20 Animal DNA is full of viral invaders and now we've caught them at it
Some mice have sequences in their genome from a virus that infected their fathers. We know that events like this must have happened many times in the ancient past, but this is the first time it has been observed in action. And it involved a virus that we thought couldn’t do this. The finding means that even more of the DNA of animals derives from viruses than we thought, says Eiichi Hondo at Nagoya University in Japan. It also suggests that viral pandemics can alter the characteristics of animals by changing their genes, he says. “We believe that future pandemics of viral diseases could alter mammalian morphology or functions very quickly in their descendants,” say Hondo. The researchers studied the encephalomyocarditis virus (EMCV), which circulates in rodents but can infect a wide range of animals, including humans. They first showed that EMCV can integrate into the genome of testes cells of mice growing in a dish. Next, Hondo and his colleagues infected male mice with EMCV, then allowed those that survived to mate. They found signs of viral genetic sequences in the earlobes of the offspring, but not in those of the fathers. They are now sequencing the whole genome of the offspring to find out which viral sequences became integrated and where. Viral genes passing down to offspring in the genome in this way was thought to happen only every few hundred thousand years. But this isn’t the only reason the team’s findings are surprising. The EMCV virus shouldn’t readily integrate into the genome at all, says John Coffin at Tufts University School of Medicine in Massachusetts. This is because animal genomes consist of DNA, so only sequences that are also made of DNA can be added to it. However, the genomes of many viruses are made of RNA.
1-28-20 Psilocybin may help cancer patients with depression and anxiety for years
A study hints that a hallucinogen could reshape how people cope with hard diagnoses. After taking a compound found in magic mushrooms, people with cancer had less anxiety and depression, even years later, a new study suggests. The evidence isn’t strong enough yet to pin these lasting improvements on the hallucinatory episode itself, as opposed to other life changes. But the findings leave open the possibility that the compound, called psilocybin, may be able to profoundly reshape how people handle distress and fear (SN: 9/26/06). Research published in 2016 suggested that a dose of psilocybin in combination with therapy could quickly ease anxiety and depression in people with cancer. But scientists wanted to know whether these effects lasted. Surveys conducted about three and 4½ years after the psilocybin dose showed that a majority of the 15 people still had fewer signs of anxiety and depression compared with before they took the compound, the team reports January 28 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. (By the second follow-up, about a third of the participants still had active cancer; the rest were in partial or complete remission.) All the participants said they had “moderate,” “strong” or “extreme” positive changes in their behavior that they attribute to their experience, which many described as one of the most personally meaningful events of their lives. Everyone in the initial study, which took place at New York University, received psilocybin, though at slightly different times to allow comparisons of its immediate effects. Without comparing these people’s long-term shifts with the experiences of people who didn’t receive psilocybin, it’s impossible to tease out its effect. Still, these psilocybin experiences hint that the hallucinogen could be useful in helping people cope with hard diagnoses. The treatment “helped me to move on with my life and not focus on the possibility of cancer recurring,” one participant told researchers.
1-28-20 No really, stop micromanaging your kids
Why over-parenting is bad, and how to stop yourself from doing it. Do you constantly interfere during your kid's play dates? Send them upstairs to get changed because their clothes don't match? Hover over them while they're doing homework? Put that red pen back in your purse, because micromanaging your kids is likely to do more harm than good. Micromanaging — or over-parenting — can come in many forms. Aside from the play dates, the clothing choices, and the obsessive homework supervision, signs that parents are micromanaging their kids include getting into power struggles over friend choices, questioning other adults in their kids' lives (like teachers or coaches), and planning actions around activities that are years in the future, like what college their child will get into, says Michigan-based therapist Carrie Krawiec, LMFT. But however it presents itself, micromanaging can give children the impression that parents don't have confidence in them, and this can lead to problems. "If they feel they can't do things in the right way, they may defer to you, which interferes with their ability to develop self-belief," Krawiec says. "Conversely, they could grow to question your intensity and not seek your feedback even when it's safe or healthy to do so. If they perceive you as being critical, they could look for encouragement in other (unhealthy) places, like delinquent peers." Kids who are micromanaged could also grow used to an unearned level of success, which may lead to a poor work ethic, entitled behavior, or difficulty dealing with setbacks and failures. So far, so doom and gloom. But don't beat yourself up if some of this rings a bell. "Everyone deals with things in different ways," says New-York based therapist Dana Carretta-Stein. "Parents who micromanage their kids sometimes struggle with a sense of control. Micromanaging can be a sign of anxiety in the parent — a therapist can help get to the root of what's causing the micromanaging."
1-28-20 A Siberian cave contains clues about two epic Neandertal treks
Stone tools and DNA found in the cave reveal two eastward journeys across Asia. Neandertals were epic wanderers. These ancient hominids took a 3,000- to 4,000-kilometer hike from Eastern Europe to the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia around 60,000 years ago, a new study concludes. The evidence is in their handiwork, scientists say, though it’s unclear how long the journey took or if it involved several geographically dispersed Neandertal groups passing technical knowledge along the route. Neandertals at sites in what’s now Crimea and the northern Caucasus, just north of the Black Sea in Eastern Europe, and others who occupied Chagyrskaya Cave in southern Siberia crafted comparable stone tools between around 59,000 and 49,000 years ago, researchers report January 27 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Neandertals were intrepid explorers in their own right,” says Richard Roberts, a geochronologist at the University of Wollongong in Australia. Eastern European and southwestern Asian Neandertals probably hunted wild horses and bison across grasslands and foothills, Roberts, archaeologist Kseniya Kolobova of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk and their colleagues say. Cold, dry conditions pushed at least some of those Neandertals eastward along with migrating herds of prey roughly 60,000 years ago, they suggest. That wasn’t the first such journey for our extinct evolutionary relatives. European Neandertals already had migrated into southern Siberia more than 100,000 years ago. But the Neandertals who reached Siberia’s Denisova Cave (SN: 1/30/19) — about 100 kilometers east of Chagyrskaya Cave — made a different type of stone tools, suggesting these Neandertals were part of a separate migration to the region, the researchers say.
1-27-20 NHS may use people's phone data to predict mental health issues
An algorithm to predict which people may experience a mental health crisis has been trialled in the UK and found effective enough for routine use. A version that would track people’s mobile phone calls, messages and location in a bid to improve accuracy is now being considered. Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust worked with Alpha, a division of Spanish telecoms firm Telefonica, which owns O2, to see if there was any benefit in automatically flagging the people thought most at risk of experiencing a mental health crisis to NHS staff. The results of the Predictive Analytics project, released under freedom of information rules, suggest there is. The project ran between November 2018 and May 2019. Alpha developed a machine-learning algorithm fed with historical patient data to predict who could face an imminent crisis. Once a fortnight, staff on four community mental health teams in Birmingham were presented with what the system calculated were the 25 people most at risk of a crisis within the next 28 days. In some cases, healthcare professionals followed up with individuals by phone or face to face. Overall, the clinicians found the tool useful in about 64 per cent of the cases that were flagged. An evaluation of the project concluded the tool “could become a part of routine clinical care”. That positive verdict could help the NHS trust and Alpha proceed with a mooted second phase of the research, where people’s mobile network data would also be accessed in a bid to improve the algorithm. The team is examining whether this information could reduce the number of false positives, although exactly how this would help is unclear. It would involve Alpha having access to “call/message records and location details”, according to minutes of a board meeting of Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust held last October.
1-27-20 New coronavirus may be much more contagious than initially thought
A deadly new coronavirus has now reached at least 13 countries. As of Monday 27 January, there are 2794 confirmed cases of the virus, while tens of thousands of people are being kept under medical supervision around the world. Eighty-one people have died with the virus, according to latest reports. More deaths are predicted to follow. The virus can spread before symptoms show, China’s health minister Ma Xiaowei said on Sunday, which means it will be more difficult to limit transmission between people. There are confirmed cases of the virus across Asia, and in the US, Australia and Europe. So far, all cases outside China seem to be in people who have travelled from Hubei province, where the outbreak began, or the surrounding area. But we are likely to find out if the virus will start spreading in these countries in the coming days and weeks. Confirmed cases have been reported in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, the US, Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, France, South Korea, Vietnam, Canada and Nepal. All of the recorded deaths have so far been in Hubei province. The scale of the outbreak will depend on how quickly and easily the virus is passed between people. Using data collected up to 18 January, it appears that, on average, each person infected with the virus passes it to between 1.5 and 3.5 other people, according to an analysis by Natsuko Imai and her colleagues at Imperial College London. Using similar estimates, Robin Thompson at the University of Oxford predicts there is a one-in-three chance that a person who brings the virus to the UK will pass it on to others in the country. That estimate is based on data collected from the beginning of the outbreak. Thompson hopes that, as countries step up measures to control the spread of the virus, the chances of this happening will become less likely.
1-27-20 Chinese diasporas stockpile surgical masks, fret over infection
Hours after the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in the US, surgical masks began selling out at the pharmacies in Seattle, where a resident recently returned from China had fallen ill. Now, reports have emerged of runs on pharmacies in New York and stockpiles being collected in Los Angeles. In Washington DC, masks have been sold out since the weekend, as the number of confirmed cases in the US rose to five. "I immediately ordered a box of masks online after I heard of the first US case," said Tina Liu, a Chinese student at the University of Washington, not far from Seattle in Washington state. Since 8 December 2019, when the first cases of the mysterious coronaviru "It's hard not to worry, as you're based overseas and can't do much about it," said Rui Zhong, a Chinese-American living in Maryland with family in Wuhan, where millions of residents are under quarantine.s lung illness were reported in Wuhan, China, more than 500 residents there have been infected. Billions of people are on edge - but not just in China. As cases are reported in the US and a handful in other countries outside of China, the anxiety coronavirus has sparked among Chinese overseas is palpable. The outbreak of the most serious epidemic in Asia since 2003 has brought unwelcome memories of the Sars emergency, as well as new anxieties in the age of social media and increased global travel. Since the Sars outbreak of 2003, China has undergone a massive transformation. Nearly 150 million Chinese travelled abroad in 2018, compared to 20.2 million in 2003. Some 360,000 Chinese students study in the US and travel between the two countries frequently. Hundreds of millions of Chinese have gained access to social media, which did not exist during the Sars outbreak. From thousands of miles away, members of the Chinese diaspora are worrying for their families from afar, or fretting over getting sick themselves.
1-27-20 Can an N95 face mask protect you from catching the new coronavirus?
Face masks are reportedly selling out in cities across Asia as concerns over the spread of a deadly new coronavirus grow. China’s National Health Commission has deployed masks to healthcare workers responding to the outbreak, and millions of masks have been sent to residents of Wuhan, according to reports. But will these masks stop people from catching the virus? We know the coronavirus is airborne, and that it can be transmitted between people. Researchers believe that the virus may have made the jump from animals to people via the inhalation of airborne particles in a seafood market that sold live wild animals. So it makes sense to cover your nose and mouth. There are two main types of face masks that are being used to do that. One is a standard surgical mask – the kind worn by surgeons during operations. These masks are designed to block liquid droplets, and might lower the chance of catching the virus from another person. But these masks don’t offer full protection against airborne viruses. For a start, they don’t fully seal off the nose and mouth – particles can still get in. And very small particles can simply pass through the material of the mask. These masks also leave the wearer’s eyes exposed – and there’s a chance the virus can infect that way. “They might help, but it’s not clear they give you total protection,” says Mark Woolhouse at the University of Edinburgh, UK. The World Health Organization recommends that all healthcare workers treating people with the virus wear these surgical masks, along with gloves, goggles and gowns. Surgical masks are thought to be more effective in a clinical setting because they are accompanied by other protective equipment and stringent hygiene practices. The masks are also frequently replaced – surgical masks are not designed to be used more than once.
1-27-20 A skull suggests humans have been getting piercings for 12,000 years
A human that lived over 12,000 years ago in east Africa probably had facial piercings, making this the oldest known example of a facial piercing in Africa, and the second oldest in the world. The finding suggests humans have been wearing facial piercings in Africa since deep in prehistory. “We’re potentially opening a window into the life of this individual,” says John Willman at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. Piercings and other body modifications “are often associated with social maturation, things like puberty and rites of passage”, he says. The fossil is that of a young adult male, known as Olduvai Hominid 1, or OH1. It was discovered in 1913 in Olduvai gorge in Tanzania, one of the most famous hominin fossil sites. “It’s technically the first hominin fossil discovered in Olduvai gorge,” says Willman. However, despite being fairly complete, OH1 hadn’t been studied much until recently when newer methods became available. In 1993, researchers noted unusual wear on OH1’s teeth, which they thought was due to chewing tough plant material. “I took one look at it and said ‘no’,” says Willman. He has studied the skeletons of First Peoples from Canada, who often wore facial piercings that left distinctive marks on their teeth, and says the marks on OH1’s teeth are “a dead ringer for that sort of thing”. Willman and his colleagues re-examined and measured OH1’s teeth and jawbone. They found that the incisor teeth were worn at the front. “It looks almost like somebody took the front end off these teeth with an ice cream scoop,” he says. Towards the back of the mouth, the premolars and molars were also worn. “All the curvature you can feel when you run your tongue over your cheek teeth is virtually gone,” says Willman. The team believes these wear patterns mean OH1 had three facial piercings: a “labret” through his lower lip, and one in each cheek. Because they haven’t been preserved, we don’t know what they were made of or what they looked like.
1-27-20 A squid fossil offers a rare record of pterosaur feeding behavior
A tooth embedded in a squid fossil tells a story of a battle at sea with the flying reptile. A fossil of a squid with a pterosaur tooth embedded in it offers extraordinary evidence of a 150-million-year-old battle at sea. While many pterosaur fossils containing fish scales and bones in their stomachs have revealed that some of these flying reptiles included fish in their diet, the new find from Germany is the first proof that pterosaurs also hunted squid. The fossil was excavated in 2012 in the Solnhofen Limestone, near Eichstätt in Bavaria, where many Jurassic Period fossils of pterosaurs, small dinosaurs and the earliest known bird, Archaeopteryx, have been found. The region’s environment at the time was something like the Bahamas today, with low-lying islands dotting shallow tropical seas. The embedded tooth fits the right size and shape for the pterosaur Rhamphorhynchus, paleontologists report online January 27 in Scientific Reports. They argue that the tooth was left by a pterosaur that swooped to the ocean surface to snap up the 30-centimeter-long squid from the extinct Plesioteuthis genus, but was unsuccessful, possibly because the squid was too large or too far down in the water column for the predator to manage. “The Plesioteuthis squid wrestled it off and escaped, breaking at least one tooth off the pterosaur, which became lodged in [the squid’s] mantle,” says Jordan Bestwick, a paleontologist at the University of Leicester in England. “This fossil is important in helping us understand the dietary range of Rhamphorhynchus, and tells us about its hunting behavior.” The fossil itself is unique, according to pteros
1-26-20 China coronavirus 'spreads before symptoms show'
A new coronavirus that has spread to almost 2,000 people is infectious in its incubation period - before symptoms show - making it harder to contain, Chinese officials say. Some 56 people have died from the virus. Health minister Ma Xiaowei told reporters the ability of the virus to spread appeared to be strengthening. Several Chinese cities have imposed significant travel restrictions. Wuhan in Hubei, the source of the outbreak, is in effective lockdown. The infections were at a "crucial stage of containment", Ma Xiaowei said. Officials announced that the sale of all wildlife in China would be banned from Sunday. The virus is thought to have originated in animals, but no cause has been officially identified. In humans, the incubation period - during which a person has the disease, but no symptoms yet - ranges from between one and 14 days, officials believe. Without symptoms, a person may not know they have the infection, but still be able to spread it. This is a significant development in our understanding of the virus and the lengths China will have to go to stop it. People with Sars (the last deadly coronavirus outbreak to hit China) and Ebola are contagious only when symptoms appear. Such outbreaks are relatively easy to stop - identify and isolate people who are sick and monitor anyone they came into contact with. Flu, however, is the most famous example of a virus that you spread before you even know you're ill. We are not at the stage where people are saying this could be a global pandemic like swine flu. But stopping such "symptomless spreaders" will make the job of the Chinese authorities much harder. There are still crucial questions - how infectious are people during the incubation period and did any of the patients outside China spread the disease in those countries before becoming sick? And why did China's National Health Commission say the transmission ability of this virus is getting stronger?
1-26-20 China coronavirus: Road blocks and ghost towns
Authorities in China are intensifying travel restrictions in an attempt to limit the spread of the deadly new coronavirus. The BBC's Stephen McDonell and his team travelled into Hubei province, where the outbreak originated. (Webmaster's comment: They should not be allowed to travel out of where they went.)
1-26-20 How one woman became the exception to her family’s Alzheimer’s history
Their story may point to new ways to stop the memory-robbing disease. A cruel twist of genetic fate brought Alzheimer’s disease to a sprawling Colombian family. But thanks to a second twist, one member of the clan, a woman, managed to evade the symptoms for decades. Her escape may hold the key to halting, or even preventing, Alzheimer’s. The inherited version of Alzheimer’s disease erodes people’s memories early, starting around age 40. In this family and others, a mutation in a gene called presenilin 1 eventually leaves its carriers profoundly confused and unable to care for themselves. Locals around the Colombian city of Medellín have a name for the condition: la bobera, or “the foolishness.” The woman in the afflicted family who somehow fended off the disease carried the same mutation that usually guarantees dementia. And her brain was filled with plaques formed by a sticky protein called amyloid. Many scientists view that accumulation as one of the earliest signs of the disease. Yet she stayed sharp until her 70s. Researchers were stumped, until they discovered that the woman also carried another, extremely rare genetic mutation that seemed to be protecting her from the effects of the first one. This second mutation, in a different Alzheimer’s-related gene called APOE, seemed to slow the disease down by decades, says Joseph Arboleda-Velasquez, a cell biologist at Harvard Medical School. “There was this idea of inevitability,” he says. But the woman’s circumstances bring “a different perspective” — one in which amyloid buildup no longer guarantees problems. Arboleda-Velasquez and colleagues reported the details of the woman’s exceptional case November 4 in Nature Medicine, omitting the woman’s name and precise age to protect her privacy.
1-25-20 Coronavirus: How can China build a hospital so quickly?
The Chinese city of Wuhan is set to build a hospital in six days in order to treat patients suspected of contracting the coronavirus. There are currently 830 confirmed cases in China, 41 (5%) of whom have died. The outbreak began in Wuhan, home to around 11 million people. Hospitals in the city have been flooded with concerned residents and pharmacies are running out of medicine. According to state media, the new hospital will contain about 1,000 beds. Video footage posted online by Chinese state media shows diggers already at the site, which has an area of 25,000 square metres (269,000 square feet). It is based on a similar hospital set up in Beijing to help tackle the Sars virus in 2003. "It's basically a quarantined hospital where they send people with infectious diseases so it has the safety and protective gear in place," said Joan Kaufman, lecturer in global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School. "China has a record of getting things done fast even for monumental projects like this," says Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. He points out that the hospital in Beijing in 2003 was built in seven days so the construction team is probably attempting to beat that record. Just like the hospital in Beijing, the Wuhan centre will be made out of prefabricated buildings. "This authoritarian country relies on this top down mobilisation approach. They can overcome bureaucratic nature and financial constraints and are able to mobilise all of the resources." Mr Huang said that engineers would be brought in from across the country in order to complete construction in time. "The engineering work is what China is good at. They have records of building skyscrapers at speed. This is very hard for westerners to imagine. It can be done," he added. In terms of medical supplies, Wuhan can either take supplies from other hospitals or can easily order them from factories. On Friday, the Global Times confirmed 150 medical personnel from the People's Liberation Army had arrived in Wuhan. However it did not confirm if they would be working in the new hospital once it has been built.
1-25-20 China coronavirus spread is accelerating, Xi Jinping warns
The spread of a deadly new virus is accelerating, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned, after holding a special government meeting on the Lunar New Year public holiday. The country is facing a "grave situation" Mr Xi told senior officials, according to state television. The coronavirus has killed at least 41 people and infected almost 1,300 since its discovery in the city of Wuhan. Travel restrictions have already hit several affected cities. And from Sunday, private vehicles will be banned from central districts of Wuhan, the source of the outbreak. A second emergency hospital is to be built there within weeks to handle 1,300 new patients, and will be finished in half a month, state newspaper the People's Daily said. It is the second such rapid construction project: work on another 1,000-bed hospital has already begun. Specialist military medical teams have also been flown into Hubei province, where Wuhan is located. The urgency reflects concern both within China and elsewhere about the virus which first appeared in December. Lunar New Year celebrations for the year of the rat, which began on Saturday, have been cancelled in many Chinese cities. Across mainland China, travellers are having their temperatures checked for signs of fever, and train stations have been shut in several cities. In Hong Kong, the highest level of emergency has been declared and school holidays extended. Several other nations are each dealing with a handful of cases, with patients being treated in isolation. A coronavirus is a family of viruses which include the common cold. But this virus has never been seen before, so it's been called 2019-nCov, for "novel coronavirus". New viruses can become common in humans after jumping across the species barrier from animals. The Sars [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome] outbreak of 2003 started in bats and transferred to the civet cat which passed it on to humans.
1-25-20 How the new coronavirus stacks up against SARS and MERS
For the third time since around 2003, a coronavirus has jumped from animals to people. Coronaviruses, one of a variety of viruses that cause colds, have been making people cough and sneeze seemingly forever. But occasionally, a new version infects people and causes serious illness and deaths. That is happening now with the coronavirus that has killed at least 26 people and sickened at least 900 since it emerged in central China in December. The World Health Organization is monitoring the virus’s spread to see whether it will turn into a global public health emergency (SN: 1/23/20). Among the ill are two people in the United States who contracted the virus during travels in China. A Chicago woman in her 60s is the second U.S. case of the new coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed January 24 in a news conference. Officials are currently monitoring 63 people across 22 states for signs of the pneumonia-like disease, including fever, cough and other respiratory symptoms. Of those people, 11 have tested negative for the virus. Two, including the newest case and another patient in Seattle, tested positive, the CDC reported (SN: 1/21/20). France reported two cases on January 24 as well, the first in Europe. Much still remains unknown about the new coronavirus (SN: 1/10/20), which for now is being called 2019 novel coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV. Lessons learned from previous coronavirus outbreaks, including severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, may help health officials head off some of the more serious consequences from this virus outbreak. Coronaviruses are round and surrounded by a halo of spiky proteins, giving them a resemblance to a crown or the sun’s wispy corona.
1-25-20 No, snakes probably aren’t the source of that new coronavirus in China
New research pinpoints the reptiles, but virus researchers aren’t convinced. An outbreak of a pneumonia-like virus in China has scientists puzzling over the disease’s origins and searching for animals that may have spread it to humans. A new study points to snakes as the culprit, but other researchers are skeptical. It’s unlikely the virus jumped from a reptile to a human, says Edward Holmes, a virologist at the University of Sydney. “I can’t categorically say it’s never happened,” he says. “But the [animal] reservoirs for human viruses are mainly mammals and maybe birds.” Animals are often the source of human disease outbreaks. Many recent and ongoing epidemics are zoonotic, getting their start in animals, such as the 2014–2016 Ebola outbreak in Africa and Zika virus that hit the Americas in 2016. (Scientists suspect bats are behind Ebola’s jump from animals to people (SN: 12/31/14); Zika is from nonhuman primates (SN: 2/8/17).) Knowing what animals carry the virus behind the new disease outbreak can help people protect themselves from exposure. The current outbreak in China is caused by a coronavirus, a group of viruses behind diseases such as the common cold, as well as the more deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS (SN: 1/23/20). For the new coronavirus — currently called 2019-nCoV — scientists don’t yet know how humans contracted the disease. But a new study published January 22 in the Journal of Medical Virology suggests snakes might be the source. Wei Ji, a microbiologist at Peking University Health Science Center School of Basic Medical Sciences in Beijing, and his colleagues analyzed codons used by 2019-nCoV. Codons, which are trios of DNA or RNA that dictate amino acids in a protein, tend to be similar between a virus and the animal it infects. The team compared 2019-nCoV’s codons with those in potential animal reservoirs, including humans, chickens, bats, hedgehogs, pangolins and two snake species.
1-25-20 Levels of certain proteins in the blood may act as concussion biomarkers
After suffering the brain injury, college athletes had elevated levels of three proteins. A concussion diagnosis depends upon a careful assessment of symptoms. Now the largest study to date of sports-related concussion points to a potential medical assist when evaluating a college athlete for this injury. Certain proteins in the blood are elevated after a concussion, researchers report online January 24 in JAMA Network Open. That discovery may one day help with distinguishing athletes who have suffered this brain injury from those who haven’t. Researchers took blood samples pre- and post-injury from 264 college athletes who had concussions while playing football, rugby and other contact sports from 2015 to mid-2018. Blood levels for three proteins were higher than they were before the injury occurred, the researchers found. Each of the three proteins can serve as a sign that damage has occurred to a different type of brain cell, says Michael McCrea, a neuropsychologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Glial fibrillary acidic protein is released in response to injury to glial cells, which provide support to nerve cells in the brain. Ubiquitin C-terminal hydrolase-L1 signals that nerve cells have been injured, and tau is a sign of damage to axons, which transmit nerve impulses. These proteins have been evaluated in past research as potential makers of more severe traumatic brain injury. McCrea’s team also measured these proteins in 138 athletes who played contact sports but were not concussed, and in 102 athletes who did not have the injury and played noncontact sports. The protein levels for these two groups remained steady throughout the study. If there had been large variability in the protein levels in non-concussed athletes, McCrea says, that would have undermined the association between the proteins and concussion.
1-25-20 Dinosaur tracks seem to show giant sauropod wading on two front legs
Sauropod dinosaurs were immense and needed four strong pillar-like legs to support their bodies, which makes a discovery in Texas all the more bizarre. Fossil footprints found in 2007 that belonged to huge sauropods show they apparently walked on just their two forelimbs. This is not the first time we have encountered forefoot-only sauropod footprints, but they are rare, says James Farlow at Purdue University Fort Wayne in Indiana. He and his colleagues analysed 60 footprints seemingly left by bipedal sauropods in a limestone quarry near Austin, Texas, in rocks roughly 110 million years old. We know that three types of sauropods lived there at the time: Sauroposeidon, Astrophocaudia and Cedarosaurus. In theory, one of these could be the trackmaker. Some of the footprints are as much as 70 centimetres wide. It’s difficult to judge a dinosaur’s size from just its footprints, but estimates suggest they weighed anywhere between 15 and 78 tonnes, and they may have been 25 metres or more in length. It’s inconceivable that a beast of this size and weight could walk on two legs, says Farlow. The most obvious explanation, he says, is that the dinosaurs had a centre of mass that lay closer to the front than the rear of their body. Walking over relatively firm ground, it’s possible their forefeet would leave an impression in the surface while their hindfeet didn’t. But there are plenty of typical “four-foot” sauropod trackways in Texas, and in all of them the hindfeet leave impressions as deep or deeper than the forefeet, he says. There’s also a strangely wide separation between the line of left and right prints, as if the sauropod was splaying its legs outwards. It’s possible that the “bipedal” tracks were left by sauropods wading through shoulder-deep water, using their front legs to punt along the bottom, says Farlow.
1-24-20 Virus goes global
A new respiratory illness that has killed at least 17 people in China and sickened hundreds more is spreading rapidly at home and abroad just as China’s busiest travel season gets underway. The disease, which broke out in the city of Wuhan, is a coronavirus, like SARS, and likely came from animals but is now being transmitted from person to person. At least 15 health-care workers have contracted the illness, which can cause pneumonia. China’s Lunar New Year holidays began this week, and some 400 million people are expected to crowd airports and pack into buses and trains to visit relatives; no one is being allowed in or out of Wuhan. Cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed in Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. A Washington state resident who fell ill after returning from Wuhan last week has been placed in isolation at a hospital north of Seattle. He is faring well, and authorities are tracing people with whom he might have been in contact. China has a history of covering up epidemics—notably in 2003, when it underreported deaths from SARS and falsely claimed that the virus was under control. SARS killed nearly 800 people. This time, authorities are promising to be transparent and honest with the World Health Organization. A government agency said anyone who concealed new cases would “be nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity.”
1-24-20 Mismatch in the flu shot
An unusual strain of flu that can hit children especially hard is circulating in the U.S., and this season’s influenza vaccine isn’t well suited to fighting it, reports The Washington Post. Each spring, health officials decide which strains of the virus vaccine makers should target for the following flu season—a process that’s essentially educated guesswork. But the flu strain that’s now predominant is atypical: It’s an influenza B virus, which normally arrives in the spring after an influenza A strain has circulated. Influenza B isn’t as dangerous as influenza A to people ages 65 and over, who account for most flu hospitalizations. But it is far more likely to cause complications in children and young adults. So far this season, 32 children have died of the flu. That’s more than in any year since records began in 2004, except for the 2009–10 swine flu pandemic. Thousands of kids have also been hospitalized. Lynnette Brammer, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says children should still have the flu shot, because it “offers some protection” against influenza B. It is also a good match for H1N1, the influenza A strain that is doing the rounds.
1-24-20 Vaping panic will lead to more smoking
“It’s too late to unring the panic bell,” said Anthony Fisher, but America’s panic over vaping is the result of “mass ignorance.” The FDA’s pending ban on the sale of flavored vape cartridges will do nothing to prevent the lung illnesses caused by bootleg vapes. The CDC recently confirmed that the lung epidemic was “almost entirely confined” to users of bootleg THC cartridges laced with vitamin E acetate, not cartridges made by Juul or other companies. A second panic involved vapes with fruit and candy flavors, which critics say lured teens into becoming addicted to the nicotine in vaping fluid. Concerns about nicotine addiction are valid: A recent study found that 25 percent of high school seniors are vaping. But that statistic must be put into context. In 1996, 26.6 percent of 12th-graders smoked cigarettes daily; by 2018, just 3.6 percent smoked. That “is a remarkable public health victory.” For many teens and for millions of adults, vaping is an effective “smoking cessation tool”—less dangerous than cigarettes, which kill 500,000 Americans a year. Banning vape flavors will backfire, driving millions of teenagers and adults back into the arms of Big Tobacco.
1-24-20 Liver transplant breakthrough
A team of Swiss scientists has developed a new machine that can keep donated human livers alive for a week, a breakthrough that could save thousands of lives each year. Some 13,000 people in the U.S. are currently waiting for a liver transplant, a backlog that is partly caused by the organ’s short life span outside the body, reports NewScientist.com. Livers can generally be kept on ice for only about 12 to 18 hours before they die. The new machine expands the organ’s viability by mimicking many of the body’s functions: It pumps blood through the liver, introduces nutrients and hormones, and regulates oxygen levels and blood pressure. It even moves rhythmically to replicate breathing. “The idea is that we trick the liver and let it believe it is still in the body,” says study co-author Pierre-Alain Clavien, from University Hospital Zurich. Initially developed with pig livers, the machine has been tested on 10 human livers that were stored on ice but too damaged for transplantation. Six recovered full function within a week and showed a decrease in injury and inflammation levels. The developers are now planning to transplant organs preserved by the machine, to assess whether the process affects liver function.
1-24-20 Rise of the living robots
In a development that’s hopefully not as terrifying as it sounds, scientists have created the world’s first living robots. Researchers created these millimeter-wide “xenobots” by scraping living stem cells from frog embryos and leaving them to incubate. The resulting skin and heart cells were then reshaped and combined into “body forms” designed by a supercomputer to complete certain tasks—walking, for example, or swimming. The pulsing heart cells serve as a miniature engine that powers xenobots until their energy reserves run out—after about 10 days at present. Because they are made from biological matter, the bots’ skin cell bodies naturally heal when damaged. “These are entirely new life-forms,” study co-leader Michael Levin, from Tufts University, tells The Guardian (U.K.). “They are living, programmable organisms.” The researchers have already created xenobots that can work together in groups, and they hope the tiny creatures can one day be programmed to do tasks such as cleaning up microplastic pollution or removing plaque from artery walls.
1-24-20 White House brings burgers and fries back to school
The Trump administration announced last week that it would roll back former first lady Michelle Obama’s signature initiative: school lunch nutritional standards. The reversal, which came on her 56th birthday, affects nearly 30 million students at 99,000 schools. Federal rules will now let schools serve half a cup of fruit and vegetables for breakfast instead of a full cup, replacing the calories with pastries and granola bars. At lunch, schools can now serve pizza and burgers as à la carte items and satisfy the daily vegetable requirement with French fries—a change requested by the potato lobby. Last year, the USDA reported that schools had improved the nutritional value of cafeteria food after cutting back on sodium, starch, and trans fats.
1-24-20 Second US coronavirus patient is examined by robot
A second person in the US has been diagnosed with the coronavirus, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has announced. The patient is reportedly a woman in her 60s who had returned home to Chicago from Wuhan in China - where the outbreak began - on 13 January. The woman is in isolation in hospital and is stable, state officials say. Globally, there are more than 800 confirmed cases of the virus, which has killed 26 people in China. The patient felt symptoms after she returned home and was admitted to hospital "where infection control measures were taken to reduce the risk of transmission to other individuals," the CDC said in a press release. Health officials in Chicago are "investigating locations where this patient went after returning to Illinois and are identifying any close contacts who were possibly exposed". The first case of the infection was detected on 21 January in Washington state in a man who had recently returned from Wuhan. On Thursday, Washington state officials said they were monitoring 43 people who were deemed "close contacts" of the patient for any signs of symptoms. Close contacts are deemed to be anyone who was within 6ft (2m) of the patient. The patient - a man in his 30s - is to have only limited contact with hospital staff, and is being examined by a robot, doctors say. The robot has the ability to check the patient's vital signs and has video-cameras build into it. It is manipulated by medical staff inside the isolated chamber of the hospital's pathogen unit. So far the 16 doctors and nurses that interacted with the man at the Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, have showed no sign of illness, said Dr George Diaz, section chief of infectious diseases at the hospital. There are 63 patients in 22 states being investigated for signs of the rare respiratory illness, the CDC told reporters in a conference call on Friday. US officials warn that there are no vaccines for the coronavirus, which is thought to have begun in animals before being transferred to humans, and there is no specific treatment plan.
1-24-20 What are the symptoms of the new coronavirus and how deadly is it?
At the end of 2019, health authorities in China alerted the world to a potentially new virus that had caused pneumonia in a handful of people in Wuhan since mid-December. The number of cases has since exploded, with more than 600 cases confirmed as of 23 January. The virus has been confirmed to be a new coronavirus, in the same family as SARS and MERS. Coronaviruses are common, and typically cause mild respiratory symptoms such as a cough or runny nose. Some are more dangerous. SARS, which infected more than 8000 people, was responsible for 774 deaths during an outbreak that began in 2003. MERS, which was first identified in 2012, is even more deadly – around 34 per cent of people infected with the virus die. People who have been diagnosed with the virus tend to have a fever and cough, and some have difficulty breathing. The symptoms appear to set in at some point between two days and two weeks after the person has been exposed to the virus, according to health authorities. Health authorities in China have sequenced the genome of the virus and have shared this information, allowing groups around the world to be able to test for the virus. There are no specific antiviral treatments for the infection, so those with the virus are treated for their symptoms. The World Health Organization told journalists this week that the agency is still working to pin down the source of the virus. But many of the first confirmed cases were in people who had visited a food market in Wuhan. The market, which sells live farmed and wild animals, has since been closed and disinfected. The same genetic analysis suggests that the virus may have developed the ability to jump from snakes to people thanks to a mutation in a gene for a protein. If the virus was secreted in the animals’ faeces, this could have become aerosolised and breathed in, some researchers speculate.
1-24-20 WHO says China’s coronavirus outbreak isn’t a global emergency yet
The Chinese government has locked down several large cities to stop the virus from spreading further. The outbreak of a novel coronavirus in China has not yet risen to the level of a global public health emergency, the World Health Organization said January 23 — even as the death toll and number of people sickened rose steeply from just days ago. Since the virus emerged in December in the central Chinese city of Wuhan (SN: 1/10/20), it has killed at least 17 people out of 557 confirmed cases in China and at least six other countries, WHO said. That’s already double the number of cases reported by Chinese officials just two days earlier, though the jump may be a result of more robust monitoring. Still, China has responded by putting several cities under lockdown in hopes of containing the virus. “Make no mistake, this is an emergency in China,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a news conference. “But it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one.” So far, there is no evidence for human-to-human transmission outside of China, though “that doesn’t mean that it won’t happen,” Ghebreyesus said. About a quarter of patients develop severe pneumonia-like symptoms, though most of the 17 deaths occurred in patients with preexisting health conditions, he said. Declaring a “public health emergency of international concern,” or PHEIC for short, would give the WHO director-general more leeway in recommending responses to the threat, including suggesting travel or trade restrictions. Those recommendations aren’t legally binding, but the declaration can encourage greater cooperation among governments and public health officials. The global health watchdog introduced the PHEIC designation after the 2002/2003 SARS outbreak that killed 774. Since then, only five emergencies have been declared: the 2009 influenza pandemic, the 2013–2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, a 2014 outbreak of polio, a 2016 outbreak of Zika (SN: 2/1/16) and the ongoing Ebola outbreak in Congo (SN: 7/17/19).
1-24-20 China coronavirus: Lunar New Year subdued as outbreak spreads
China is marking the Lunar New Year, one of the most important dates in its calendar, while concerns grow about the coronavirus outbreak. As millions go home for the holidays, travel restrictions have been expanded to 13 cities - home to more than 36 million people - in Hubei province, the centre of the outbreak. There are currently 830 confirmed cases in China, 26 of whom have died. Wuhan, where the outbreak began, is rapidly building a new hospital. The city - home to around 11 million people - is struggling to cope with the increasing number of patients. State-owned news outlet Changjiang Daily said the 1,000-bed hospital could be ready by 3 February. A total of 35 diggers and 10 bulldozers are currently working on the site. The project will "solve the shortage of existing medical resources" and would be "built fast [and] not cost much... because it will be prefabricated buildings", the outlet said. Videos have been circulating on social media, reportedly taken by Wuhan residents, showing long queues at local hospitals. Travel restrictions vary from city to city. Wuhan is effectively on lockdown: all bus, metro and ferry services have been suspended, and all outbound planes and trains cancelled. Residents have been advised not to leave, and roadblocks have been reported. Ezhou, a smaller city in Hubei, shut its railway station. The city of Enshi has suspended all bus services. City officials in the capital, Beijing, and Shanghai have asked residents who return from affected areas to stay at home for 14 days to prevent the spread of the virus, local media report. Authorities have also shut major tourist sites including the Forbidden City in Beijing and a section of the Great Wall, and cancelled major public events in other parts of the country. Shanghai's Disney Resort is temporarily closing, as are McDonald's restaurants in five cities.
1-24-20 China coronavirus: The lessons learned from the Sars outbreak
In March 2003 it became clear a mysterious and previously unknown disease was starting to spread around the world. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) went on to infect more than 8,000 people and kill almost 800. Many of those it infected, including doctors, went from having flu-like symptoms to severe pneumonia within days. The virus spread to 26 countries and China was criticised by the UN's global health body for concealing the scale of the outbreak. Now, 17 years later, the spread of a new deadly coronavirus is reviving memories of Sars and putting global scrutiny back on to the Chinese government. China has responded with tough measures, including effectively quarantining millions of residents in cities. But has its response gone far enough? And what lessons did it learn from the deadly Sars outbreak in 2003? Sars posed a huge challenge to China both as a public health crisis and a political one. The World Health Organization (WHO) was first alerted to reports of severe and unusual cases of pneumonia in the country's south in February 2003. Local officials said more than 300 people had become sick. Despite initial openness, other local government officials appeared to play down the risk or suggest the mystery threat was contained. Analysts who studied the Chinese response said the issue soon disappeared from the spotlight. Investigations later showed the first infections appeared in Guangdong Province in November 2002, but it took months for the scale of China's Sars crisis to be exposed. Physician Jiang Yanyong alerted the international media in April that the Chinese government was drastically understating the Sars threat. Advice was circulated to hospitals and the director of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) even issued an unprecedented apology over the spread. "Our medical departments and mass media suffered from poor co-ordination," Li Liming told a news conference. Combating Sars was complicated because of uncertainties about how it was spreading. The WHO issued its first global alert on 12 March 2003 after a patient hospitalised in Hanoi, Vietnam led to handfuls of medical staff becoming sick. Hong Kong's Department of Health also confirmed outbreaks of respiratory illness among its hospital workers.
1-24-20 Coronavirus: What are viruses? And how do they spread?
Concerns are growing that the recently-detected coronavirus may spread around the world. The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine's Dr Rosalind Eggo explains how that can happen.
1-24-20 A 3-D printed vocal tract lets an ancient mummy speak from beyond the grave
The replica reveals what the ancient Egyptian’s voice might have sounded like. A replica of a 3,000-year-old mummy’s vocal tract has revealed how that mummy might sound if he rose from the dead. Using CT scans of the mummified Egyptian priest Nesyamun (SN: 8/18/14), researchers mapped the exact shape of the mummy’s vocal tract — which governs the unique sound of a person’s voice. When connected to an artificial voice box, a 3-D printed mold of the mummy’s vocal tract produces a sound somewhere between the vowels in “bed” and “bad,” researchers report January 23 in Scientific Reports. “We are confident that the sound we are hearing is the sound that belongs to this vocal tract … because we’ve done this in the past for [living] humans” and gotten good matches between real and synthetic voices, says David Howard, an electronic engineer at Royal Holloway, University of London in Egham. But Nesyamun’s undead utterance doesn’t quite mimic his original voice, because the mummy’s tongue, which affects the shape of the vocal tract, is dried up and flattened out. Rather, “we’ve created the sound that he would make if he was to speak as he currently lies in his sarcophagus,” Howard says. The plastic mold of the priest’s vocal tract cannot say full words, but using a computer simulation of the vocal tract with a jaw and tongue that move, “we could make him speak,” Howard says. Using inscriptions in the mummy’s tomb and other ancient religious texts, the researchers may someday render vocal recordings of Nesyamun’s own prayers and the daily liturgy that he would have performed in his duties as a priest. Enabling Nesyamun to speak from beyond the grave could create more immersive museum exhibitions and provide insights into ancient architecture. “It’s quite clear that various parts of the Karnak Temple [where Nesyamun worked] were built in ancient times to have a certain acoustic quality” for chants and hymns, says study coauthor Joann Fletcher, an Egyptologist at the University of York in England. Taking Nesyamun’s voice “back into the place where he was using his voice does help us better interpret that environment.”
1-23-20 First suspected cases of the Wuhan coronavirus in the UK
Three people are being tested for a coronavirus in Edinburgh, and a fourth possible case is thought to be in Glasgow. If these are confirmed, they may become the first known UK cases of the novel coronavirus that has recently emerged in Wuhan, China. The virus can cause fever, difficulty breathing and pneumonia. So far, there have been nearly 600 reported cases of infection and 17 deaths. Most cases have occurred in China, but cases have also been reported in other countries, including Japan and the US. The four people in the UK with suspected infections are thought to all be Chinese nationals. One is a student at the University of Edinburgh. “The situation will be pretty similar in pretty much all UK cities with a large number of Chinese students,” says Jürgen Haas, head of infection medicine at the University of Edinburgh. “It’s not too surprising. My suspicion is that there will probably be many more cases in many other cities in the UK.” In a statement to the UK Parliament today, health minister Matt Hancock said there is an “increased likelihood” of UK cases of the new virus, but that the risk to the public is low. He said the UK’s chief medical adviser has concluded that the country is prepared and well-equipped to deal with any cases that may arise. Hancock added that only essential travel to Wuhan is advised. “Since yesterday, Public Health England officials have been carrying out monitoring of direct flights from Wuhan city and all passengers on direct flights from China will receive information on what to do if they fall ill,” he said.
1-23-20 Antibiotic resistance genes can be passed around by bacteria in dust
Germophobes look away now. Genes that make bacteria resistant to antibiotics have been found in dust in buildings in a form that could be passed to disease-causing microbes. The finding suggests that people in households where people frequently take antibiotics could be at higher risk of getting infected with antibiotic resistant “superbugs” – although it isn’t known if this is actually happening. Antibiotic resistance is seen as one of the biggest global threats to public health, as growing numbers of dangerous bacteria have evolved the ability to withstand antibiotic treatment. To try to slow the spread of resistance, we are supposed to limit our use of antibiotics, for example by not taking them for coughs or colds, which are usually caused by viruses. However, it is unclear how useful it is for individuals to take such steps when resistant bacteria are common in the environment, such as in hospitals and perhaps our homes and workplaces too. Previously, resistant bacteria have been found in dust – but it is unclear how dangerous this is, as most bacteria that can survive the dry conditions of dust are harmless to people. Erica Hartmann at Northwestern University in Illinois and her colleagues wondered whether the antibiotic resistance genes in the bacteria in dust could get passed to more dangerous microbes. Bacteria often share genes with each other by swapping small sections of DNA called plasmids. The researchers looked at dust samples from 43 public buildings. Over a quarter of the resistance genes they found were on plasmids or other transferrable forms of DNA. It raises the possibility that if a home were contaminated with a bacterium such as the food poisoning microbe Salmonella, the microorganism could become more dangerous, says Hartmann. “It’s possible that something that would make you sick could pick up an antibiotic resistance gene.”
1-23-20 Can wearing masks stop the spread of viruses?
One of the abiding images of any virus outbreak is people in surgical masks. Using them to prevent infection is popular in many countries around the world, most notably China during the current coronavirus outbreak where they are also worn to protect against high pollution levels. Virologists are sceptical about their effectiveness against airborne viruses. But there is some evidence to suggest the masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions. Surgical masks were first introduced into hospitals in the late 18th Century but they did not make the transition into public use until the Spanish flu outbreak in 1919 that went on to kill over 50 million people. Dr David Carrington, of St George's, University of London, told BBC News "routine surgical masks for the public are not an effective protection against viruses or bacteria carried in the air", which was how "most viruses" were transmitted, because they were too loose, had no air filter and left the eyes exposed. But they could help lower the risk of contracting a virus through the "splash" from a sneeze or a cough and provide some protection against hand-to-mouth transmissions. A 2016 study from New South Wales suggested people touched their faces about 23 times an hour. Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, said: "In one well controlled study in a hospital setting, the face mask was as good at preventing influenza infection as a purpose-made respirator." Respirators, which tend to feature a specialised air filter, are specifically designed to protect against potentially hazardous airborne particles. "However, when you move to studies looking at their effectiveness in the general population, the data is less compelling - it's quite a challenge to keep a mask on for prolonged periods of time," Prof Ball added. Dr Connor Bamford, of the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine, at Queen's University Belfast, said "implementing simple hygiene measures" was vastly more effective. "Covering your mouth while sneezing, washing your hands, and not putting your hands to your mouth before washing them, could help limit the risk of catching any respiratory virus," he said.
1-23-20 Snake cells grown in the lab produce venom we could use as medicine
Snake glands have for the first time been grown in the lab as tiny balls of cells called organoids that become filled with venom. It might mean the end of “milking” snakes for their venom by hand to produce treatments for bites. As well as becoming a new source of venom for the makers of snakebite antidotes, the clumps of cells, just 1 millimetre across, could also be used for turning the biochemicals in snake venom into medicines, because they have powerful effects on the body, says Hans Clevers of Utrecht University in the Netherlands. His team created the venom organoids by taking tiny clumps of gland tissue either from snake embryos inside eggs or in one case from a pet snake that had to be put down due to illness. Antivenom is currently made by keeping snakes in captivity and extracting their venom. This is injected in low doses into horses, which make antibodies that can be taken from their blood. “This is not a 21st- century drug, this is a 19th-century drug,” says Clevers. Being able to make venom in the lab would cut out the snake farming part of the process. It is labour intensive, so only a few kinds of snakes are kept in this way, but there are an estimated 600 species that are venomous, meaning we don’t have antidotes for many snake bites. In the longer term, antibodies to lab-produced venom could be made by immune cells grown in a dish, avoiding all use of animals. The snake gland organoids could also be a source of new medicines. Several existing drugs are based on compounds found in snake venom, such as a major class of drugs that lower blood pressure, based on a toxin made by the Brazilian pit viper. Any one species’ venom typically has more than 20 compounds that have biological effects. They may work by affecting the heart, the nervous system or paralysing muscles, for instance. “We plan to build a large biobank of different species’ venom glands for bioprospecting,” says Clevers.
1-23-20 Listen to the groaning voice of a 3000-year-old Egyptian mummy
Thanks to modern imaging and 3D printing, we now know what an ancient Egyptian mummy sounded like. David Howard at Royal Holloway, University of London, and his colleagues have reconstructed the vocal tract of Nesyamun, a priest who lived more than 3000 years ago during the reign of pharaoh Ramses XI. They have used the reconstruction to reproduce a sound that falls between the English vowel sounds in “bed” and “bad”, and resembles a brief groan. The mummy, held at Leeds City Museum, is one of the best preserved in the UK, says Howard. The team used CT scans to image the mummy’s vocal tract, measuring the position of the airway, bone and soft tissue structures. The vocal tract – which in humans consists of the laryngeal cavity, the pharynx, and the oral and nasal cavities – was then digitally recreated. Finally, the resulting model was 3D printed and used with an electronic larynx that generates sound. The mummy is preserved in a reclining position, with the head tilted back. “What we’ve ended up with is the sound of his vocal tract as it is set in his coffin,” says Howard. “It isn’t necessarily an articulation position he would have used in speech.” The mummy’s tongue had lost some of its muscle bulk over millennia, and the soft palate was absent, which may also affect the accuracy of the reproduction. “Why it’s missing, we don’t know – it’s possible it was part of the interment process,” says Howard. Nesyamun worked as a scribe and priest in Thebes, and his ritual duties involved spoken and sung elements. Inscriptions on his coffin include an epithet that translates to “true of voice”. It may be possible to generate a variety of speech sounds by changing the shape of the recreated vocal tract, says Howard.
1-23-20 China coronavirus: Lockdown measures rise across Hubei province
Lockdown measures are increasing across China's Hubei province to try to control the spread of a new virus that has left 17 people dead. Wuhan, Hubei's capital of 11 million people where the virus first emerged, has no trains or planes in or out. At least four other provincial cities are seeing clampdowns on transport. There are more than 500 confirmed cases of the virus, which has spread abroad, with Singapore, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam the latest affected. The new strain of coronavirus is believed to have originated at a market in Wuhan. One resident of the city said the atmosphere there felt like "the end of the world". The lockdowns come as millions of Chinese people travel across the country for the Lunar New Year holiday. Wuhan's public transport lockdown came into force as of 10:00 local time (02:00 GMT), leaving normally busy train stations and airports empty. One Wuhan resident said on social media site Weibo that people were on the "verge of tears" when they heard about the closures. Health authorities are reported to have made wearing a mask mandatory in the city. They are advising people to avoid crowds and public gatherings. Demand for rubber gloves and surgical masks has soared. Taobao, the Chinese online retail giant, has warned sellers not to profit from the outbreak by raising prices. The capital, Beijing, announced it had cancelled all major Chinese New Year celebrations. All the fatalities so far have been in Hubei province. Most of the 17 victims were elderly and suffered from other chronic diseases including Parkinson's disease and diabetes. The virus is now spreading at an alarming rate. The hospitals have been flooding with thousands of patients, who wait hours to see a doctor - you can imagine their panic. Normally Wuhan is a great place to live and we are proud of our work - specialists here have developed a guide for coronavirus diagnosis and treatment.
1-23-20 Traumatic experiences boost the effect of depression-linked genes
Experiencing trauma or having certain genetic variants can both put you at risk of depression. But nature and nurture can also interact: traumatic events appear to amplify the effect of genetic risk factors, according to research involving 73,000 people. People who have depression tend to have a similar level of genetic risk for the condition, regardless of their environment or experiences. But traumatic experiences appear to somehow amplify the impact of these genes, says Gerome Breen at King’s College London, who led the study. Historically, people have debated whether depression results from genetic factors or experiences. More recently, we have come to understand that both nature and nurture contribute to the condition. “What we didn’t really know was how much genes and environment interacted,” says Breen. His team’s findings suggest that genes and environment “interact greater than the sum of their parts”, says Breen. “They seem to have an interaction that is multiplicative between them.” These results change the way we understand depression, says Heather Whalley at the University of Edinburgh. “We are starting to understand that there might be different paths to depression that might respond to different interventions and treatments,” she says. Breen and his colleagues analysed data from just over 73,000 people in the UK that have had their genomes sequenced and who have responded to detailed questionnaires about their mental health and exposure to traumatic events and experiences. These included sexual or physical violence, being in an accident and interpersonal traumas, such as feeling unloved as a child. The researchers used the survey responses to categorise volunteers in terms of whether they had depression or not, and whether they had experienced trauma or not. Separately, they worked out the volunteers’ genetic risk of developing depression using a previously published polygenic risk score – a measure that summarises the predicted total impact of all a person’s genetic variants linked to depression.
1-23-20 Stress turns hair gray by triggering the body’s fight-or-flight response
Fur of stressed mice goes prematurely white when the number of pigment-producing cells plummets. It turns out stress does turn hair gray, and now researchers know how. Stress triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response, which in turn causes pigment-producing cells that give hair its color to go into a frenzy and dwindle in number, researchers report online January 22 in Nature. As these pigment cells disappear, so does the color. Gray hair has been linked to stress for centuries — think of U.S. presidents before and after holding office. But scientists didn’t understand how stress makes hair go gray. “It was satisfying to question a popular assumption … [and] to identify the mechanisms that now open up new areas of work,” says Ya-Chieh Hsu, a stem cell biologist at Harvard University. Hsu and her colleagues stressed mice by injecting them with a compound closely related to capsaicin, the active ingredient in chili peppers. Within five days, the rodents’ hair turned white. After eliminating the immune system and the stress hormone cortisol as causes of the color change, the team discovered that part of the animals’ nervous system was depleting pigment cells from hair. In hair follicles, cells called melanocyte stem cells color hair by converting into pigment-producing cells. The body can’t replenish the stem cells, so as these cells are used up, color vanishes. Sensory stress triggered a mouse’s sympathetic nervous system — which controls the body’s fight-or-flight response to stress — to release the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, the team found. That compound overactivates the reservoir of stem cells, setting off a flurry of conversion into pigment-producing cells. That, in turn, rapidly uses up the stem cells supply.
1-23-20 Mount Vesuvius may have suffocated, not vaporized, some victims
People who took refuge in stone boathouses died a slower death when the volcano erupted. When Mount Vesuvius erupted nearly 2,000 years ago, the blast may not have instantly killed some fleeing residents of Herculaneum, a seaside outpost near Pompeii. Instead, they more slowly baked and suffocated to death in stone boathouses used as shelter, researchers say. Previous evidence had suggested that everyone fleeing the volcano’s most legendary eruption in A.D. 79 were instantly vaporized as a wave of volcanic gases, heat and ash swept through the town (SN: 4/11/01). But a new analysis of skeletons found in the boathouses challenges this idea and suggests a slower, grislier death. Researchers examined the bone structure and collagen levels — a protein important for skin and bone health — of ribs taken from 152 individuals uncovered in the boathouses. The team found more collagen than expected if Vesuvius’ victims had vaporized in the heat. Their rib bone structure also suggests escapees were exposed to lower temperatures than those caught in the open, where the air sizzled as hot as 480° Celsius, according to some previous estimates. The stone hideout and victims’ body masses might have provided protection from the most extreme temperatures, researchers report January 23 in Antiquity. These findings depict a horrifying scenario where Herculaneum residents hid for protection only to bake and suffocate on a surge of toxic volcanic gas in their sanctuary, says study author Tim Thompson, a biological anthropologist at Teesside University in Middlesbrough, England. Most of the victims in the boathouses were women and children. Men were found on a nearby beach, where they may have dragged out boats to escape the fiery inferno.
1-23-20 Mount Vesuvius eruption: Extreme heat 'turned man's brain to glass'
Extreme heat from the Mount Vesuvius eruption in Italy was so immense it turned one victim's brain into glass, a study has suggested. The volcano erupted in 79 AD, killing thousands and destroying Roman settlements near modern-day Naples. The town of Herculaneum was buried by volcanic matter, entombing some of its residents. A team of researchers has been studying the remains of one victim, unearthed at the town in the 1960s. A study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Thursday, said fragments of a glassy, black material were extracted from the victim's skull. Researchers behind the study believe the black material is the vitrified remains of the man's brain. Vitrification, the study says, is the process by which material is burned at a high heat and cooled rapidly, turning it into glass or a glaze. "The preservation of ancient brain remains is an extremely rare find," said Dr Pier Paola Petrone, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Naples Federico II and lead author of the study. "This is the first ever discovery of ancient human brain remains vitrified by heat." The victim, believed to be a man in his mid-20s, was "found lying on a wooden bed, buried by volcanic ash" at Herculaneum. He was probably killed instantly by the eruption, Dr Petrone said. Analysis of charred wood found near the body showed a maximum temperature of 520C was reached. This suggests "extreme radiant heat was able to ignite body fat and vaporise soft tissues", before a "rapid drop in temperature", the report says. "The detection of glassy material from the victim's head, of proteins expressed in human brain, and of fatty acids found in human hair indicates the thermally induced preservation of vitrified human brain tissue," the study says. The glassy material was not found in other locations at the archaeological site.
1-23-20 Ancient kids’ DNA reveals new insights into how Africa was populated
Four youngsters from the west-central region aren’t closely related to modern Bantu speakers. Four ancient youngsters, one pair from around 8,000 years ago and another from about 3,000 years ago, have opened a window on humankind’s far older, far-flung African origins. Analyses of the west-central African children’s DNA indicate that at least three major human lineages —ancestral to either today’s central African hunter-gatherers, southern African hunter-gatherers or all other present-day people — genetically diverged from each other in rapid succession between roughly 250,000 and 200,000 years ago. A fourth, previously unknown human population also emerged in that time span and left a small genetic mark on modern western and eastern Africans, a team led by evolutionary geneticists Mark Lipson and David Reich, both of Harvard Medical School, reports online January 22 in Nature. That human line possessed a small amount of DNA from hominid populations that had originated before the rise of the human species, possibly Neandertals. “This quadruple radiation [of human lineages] had not been identified before from DNA,” Reich says. That genetic evidence from the long-dead kids fits a scenario in which different Homo sapiens populations emerged in different parts of Africa as early as around 300,000 years ago, followed by a mixing and mingling of populations across the continent (SN: 9/28/17). A previous genetic study, led by evolutionary geneticist Pontus Skoglund of the Francis Crick Institute in London, identified a human population originating more than 200,000 years ago that was ancestral to later rainforest hunter-gatherer groups in western and central sub-Saharan Africa. The new study provides further evidence for that ancestral line: Ancient children in the new study carried a minority of ancestry from those ancient forerunners of rainforest groups.
1-22-20 Scientists discover 'why stress turns hair white'
Scientists say they may have discovered why stress makes hair turn white, and a potential way of stopping it happening without reaching for the dye. In experiments on mice, stem cells that control skin and hair colour became damaged after intense stress. In a chance finding, dark-furred mice turned completely white within weeks. The US and Brazilian researchers said this avenue was worth exploring further to develop a drug that prevents hair colour loss from ageing. Men and women can go grey any time from their mid-30s, with the timing of parental hair colour change giving most of the clues on when. Although it's mostly down to the natural ageing process and genes, stress can also play a role. But scientists were not clear exactly how stress affected the hairs on our heads. Researchers behind the study, published in Nature, from the Universities of Sao Paulo and Harvard, believed the effects were linked to melanocyte stem cells, which produce melanin and are responsible for hair and skin colour. And while carrying out experiments on mice, they stumbled across evidence this was the case. "We now know for sure that stress is responsible for this specific change to your skin and hair, and how it works," says Prof Ya-Cieh Hsu, research author from Harvard University. Pain in mice triggered the release of adrenaline and cortisol, making their hearts beat faster and blood pressure rise, affecting the nervous system and causing acute stress. This process then sped up the depletion of stem cells that produced melanin in hair follicles. "I expected stress was bad for the body," said Prof Hsu. "But the detrimental impact of stress that we discovered was beyond what I imagined. "After just a few days, all of the pigment-regenerating stem cells were lost. "Once they're gone, you can't regenerate pigment any more - the damage is permanent."
1-22-20 Wuhan coronavirus may have been transmitted to people from snakes
A new coronavirus that has claimed 17 lives in Wuhan, China, may have been transmitted to people from snakes, according to a genetic analysis. The snakes may have caught the virus from bats in the food market in which both animals were sold. As of 22 January, there are 555 confirmed cases of the infection, which can cause fever, difficulty breathing and pneumonia. To contain the virus, Wuhan has effectively been placed under quarantine, with public transport being temporarily closed, according to reports. While 444 of the cases have been reported in Wuhan, others have also been confirmed in the surrounding regions of China, with 26 in Guangdong province, 14 in Beijing and 9 in Shanghai. Internationally, confirmed cases have been reported in Thailand, Japan, South Korea and the US. Hundreds more are suspected, and attempts to diagnose these cases are under way. The source of the infection is suspected to be a food market in Wuhan that was visited by several of those first infected with the virus. The market is known to sell live wild and farmed animals, including marmots, birds, rabbits, bats and snakes. To find out if the virus might have come from one of these animals, Wei Ji and colleagues at Peking University in China compared the genomes of five samples of the new virus with 217 similar viruses collected from a range of species. Their analysis suggests that the new virus looks similar to those found in bats, but is most like viruses seen in snakes, genetically speaking. “Results derived from our sequence analysis suggest for the first time that snake is the most likely wildlife animal reservoir,” they wrote. “We are excited about this new speculation,” says Haitao Guo at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, who reviewed the study. “We need more experimental evidence, but it gives us a clue,” he says.
1-22-20 Severed nerves repaired in monkeys thanks to tubes of growth protein
Nerves damaged by injury can regrow with the help of a polymer tube filled with a growth-promoting protein. This new technique could help nerve fibres regenerate across wide gaps, limiting the loss of sensation or movement. An injury can crush a nerve or severe it entirely. If the crushing is severe – where both the nerve fibres and their protective layer called the myelin sheath are damaged – surgeons may have to remove that part of the nerve, leaving a gap between the two ends. Currently, empty tubes can be used to guide regrowth to connect the ends of small severed nerves. Each nerve end is surgically stitched to the tube to guide them towards each other as the nerve fibres regenerate and reconnect. But this approach doesn’t work for gaps longer than 3 centimetres. It is like driving a car through a long tunnel without the headlights on, says Kacey Marra at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. “You’ll eventually stop and turn around, and that’s pretty much what your nerves do – if they don’t have any guidance at the end of that tunnel, if it’s too far away and too ‘dark’, they won’t grow,” she says. To get around this problem, Marra and her colleagues used a protein called GDNF that stimulates nerve cell growth. This is like switching the headlights back on, she says. GDNF encourages cells to build up the myelin sheath around nerve fibres, which is essential for transmitting electrical impulses along a nerve. The team tested how well the tube containing GDNF worked in an experiment involving 12 rhesus macaques. Each monkey had 5 centimetres of their median nerve – the main nerve in the forearm controlling hand movements – surgically removed, so they could no longer grip a sugar pellet they had been trained to retrieve.
1-22-20 Skin cream applied to mosquito bites stops viruses infecting mice
An immune-boosting skin cream can protect mice from infection by several viruses that are transferred through mosquito bites. If approved for human use, this could help prevent the spread of mosquito-borne viruses, such as Zika, dengue and chikungunya, which infect hundreds of millions of people each year. The cream, which contains the drug imiquimod, is already licensed for the treatment of genital warts and a skin condition called actinic keratosis, but hasn’t yet been tested in humans for use on mosquito bites. It works by rapidly activating local immune responses in the skin, which then prevent the virus from spreading to the rest of the body. Clive McKimmie at the University of Leeds in the UK and his team injected mice at mosquito bite sites with Semliki Forest virus, a mosquito-borne virus that has caused outbreaks in Africa. In a test, seven out of 11 mice whose mosquito bites were treated with the skin cream survived infection. Another 11 mice didn’t receive the cream, and none of them survived the infection. The skin cream also limited the spread of chikungunya virus and another mosquito-borne virus called Bunyamwera orthobunyavirus in mice bitten by mosquitoes, suggesting the treatment could work against many viruses spread by these insects. “It was a big surprise that simply applying a cream could have such a dramatic effect,” says McKimmie. He and his team found that applying the cream up to five hours after a bite protected the mice from getting sick. “Those really early hours and days in the skin before the virus spreads to other parts of the body are really crucial and can have a really big impact on the course of disease and on how severe the disease ends up being,” says Kevin Maringer at the University of Surrey in the UK, who wasn’t involved with the work.
1-22-20 The claim that our food is becoming less nutritious is overblown
Claims that our food is becoming less nutritious are often bandied about, but the truth is far more complicated, says James Wong YOU could be forgiven for thinking we are living in the midst of a nutritional apocalypse. “You’d have to eat 10 tomatoes today to get the same level of nutrients as one in the 1950s,” declared an activist on the radio recently. On Twitter, there was more of the same: “One would have to eat eight oranges today to derive the same amount of vitamin A our grandparents would have gotten from one.” And at a farming conference, a speaker proclaimed that modern farming means that fruit and vegetables have been “drained of their nutrients”, showing falls of “up to 50 per cent over 50 years”. But what evidence are these claims based on? I thought I’d better take a closer look. Perhaps the most commonly cited study used to support this narrative is a 2004 paper in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. It analyses nutritional data for 43 garden crops in the US from 1950 and 1999. But scan the results and a rather different picture emerges to the popular idea that modern food is lacking. Instead of showing a nutritional collapse across the board, the research found only about half of the 13 nutrients checked showed a statistically reliable decline, while others remained unchanged. For those nutrients that were found to have declined, the falls reported across all 43 crops ranged from a modest 6 per cent for protein to a 38 per cent drop for riboflavin, which is a B vitamin. What about the 90 per cent reduction in the overall nutrient levels in tomatoes I had heard? Well, no such figure appears to exist in this study. The single largest fall in the study, which was in an individual tomato crop, appears to be a 54 per cent drop in calcium, however most other vitamins and minerals stayed pretty stable. What about the “eight oranges” claim for vitamin A? Oranges weren’t even part of the study, so it is unclear exactly where that statistic originated.
1-22-20 The epic ocean journey that took Stone Age people to Australia
Some 65,000 years ago, early humans washed up on the lost continent of Sahul, which contained Australia. Now clues hint it was no accident but rather the first great maritime expedition. FOOTPRINTS in the sand marked the beginning of the end of an epic journey. They were left fleetingly on a mangrove-fringed beach in south-eastern Asia some 65,000 years ago, when a group of humans lashed together a bamboo raft in the hope that it would carry them over the horizon. They eventually washed up on the shores of Sahul, a lost continent made up of Australia, New Guinea, Tasmania and a lot of what is now seabed. This was the final destination of the out-of-Africa dispersal that had already peopled much of southern Eurasia. But it wasn’t just another stepping stone. Sahul was far offshore, requiring a voyage of many days across a chain of islands separated by deep, open sea, sometimes with little sight of land. Exactly how these ancient people did it remains a mystery. The waters around the island groups they would have navigated are treacherous, and it has long been assumed that early humans didn’t have the necessary tools, mental or maritime. “It’s the equivalent of sending a spaceship to the moon,” says Michael Westaway at the University of Queensland in Australia. “There’s nothing comparable in human evolution at that time.” Until recently, scholars tended to think that the crossing was accidental. But new evidence suggests more strongly than ever that it was planned, perhaps involving thousands of people, many rafts and great seafaring skill. If we get a better idea of the likely route taken, it will allow archaeologists to take their own leap of faith and seek fresh clues to find out how it was done, perhaps solving one of the great puzzles of the human conquest of the world.
1-22-20 DNA from ancient skeletons reveals a lost branch of modern humans
DNA evidence from four ancient skeletons uncovered in western Cameroon has revealed a long-lost mystery branch of early modern humans, suggesting we may need to rethink our species’ family tree. The skeletons all belonged to children who were buried at a rock shelter at a site called Shum Laka. Two of the skeletons are 8000 years old, and the other two are about 3000 years old. Despite living 5000 years apart, genetic analysis by David Reich at Harvard Medical School and his colleagues suggests that they were from the same population of modern humans. The team was interested in the skeletons because linguistic studies have suggested that the Bantu languages, which are spoken today by around 30 per cent of people in Africa, originated in this region. However, the genetic signature of these remains look nothing like those of the people known to have spread the Bantu languages across the continent. By comparing the Shum Laka people’s genetic signatures with those in databanks of modern African populations, the team found that a third of the children’s DNA was similar to that of Central African hunter-gatherers – but the rest is a mystery (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-1929-1). “Two-thirds of their ancestry is related to a modern human lineage that we’ve never seen before. That’s exciting,” says Reich. Previous genetic studies have suggested that the very earliest modern humans split into three branches between 250,000 and 200,000 years ago. These were the southern African hunter-gatherers, the Central African hunter-gatherers and a lineage that leads to most other modern humans including most East and West Africans. But the bulk of the Shum Laka skeletons’ genetic make-up doesn’t match any of these three groups. This suggests there was a fourth branch early on in our species’ history.
1-22-20 The oldest fungi fossils have been identified in a Belgian museum
The oldest confirmed fungi fossils have been identified in a Belgian museum, providing vital evidence for how life on Earth evolved. The fossils are between 715 and 810 million years old, making them more than 250 million years older than the previous confirmed record holder. Steeve Bonneville at the Free University of Brussels says the fossils had been languishing in Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa for decades without anyone analysing them, having been originally discovered in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Bonneville and his colleagues were initially unsure if the fossils, which are trapped between pieces of rock, were fungal or bacterial. The fossils are dark and characterised by networks of filaments. The key to determining their fungal origins was to find out if these networks are made of chitin, a polymer present in the cell walls of all fungi and not present in bacteria. By looking at various sections of the rock using electron and fluorescence microscopy to identify the presence of chitin, the researchers were able to show beyond reasonable doubt that these fossils are fungal. The discovery backs up prevailing theories about the origins of life on Earth. “We know that the carbon cycle changes globally around 500 and 800 million years ago and fungi were always suspected to be partners of the first plants to colonise Earth,” says Bonneville, but previously confirmed fungi fossils were too young to support this theory. Jonathan Leake at the University of Sheffield, UK, says he believes that older fungi fossils have been discovered but they haven’t yet been chemically confirmed to be fungi. “The study puts a firmer confirmatory date on the early origins of fungi before 750 million years old,” he says.
1-22-20 A radical idea suggests mental health conditions have a single cause
The discovery of a link between anxiety, depression, OCD and more is set to revolutionise how we think about these conditions – and offer new treatments. LIFE can be tough. All of us have experienced nagging worries, anxiety, sadness, low mood and paranoid thoughts. Most of the time this is short-lived. But when it persists or worsens, our lives can quickly unravel. Mental health conditions, including everything from depression and phobias to anorexia and schizophrenia, are shockingly common. In the UK, one in four people experience them each year, so it is likely that you, or someone you know, has sought help from a professional. That process usually begins with a diagnosis – a mental health professional evaluates your symptoms and determines which of the hundreds of conditions listed in psychiatry’s classification bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, best fits. Then you start on a treatment tailored to your condition. It seems an obvious approach, but is it the right one? “For millennia, we’ve put all these psychiatric conditions in separate corners,” says neuroscientist Anke Hammerschlag at Vrije University Amsterdam, the Netherlands. “But maybe that’s not how it works biologically.” There is growing and compelling evidence that she is correct. Instead of being separate conditions, many mental health problems appear to share an underlying cause, something researchers now call the “p factor”. This realisation could radically change how we diagnose and treat mental health conditions, putting more focus on symptoms instead of labels and offering more general treatments. It also explains puzzling patterns in the occurrence of these conditions in individuals and families. Rethinking mental health this way could be revolutionary: “I don’t think there are such things as [discrete] mental disorders,” says behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin at King’s College London. “They’re just fictions we create because of the medical model.”
1-22-20 Food allergies may be on the rise because babies start solids too late
Giving babies potentially allergenic foods early on may reduce the risk of allergies – but many parents don't as that conflicts with advice to breastfeed until six months. WHEN you have a child with food allergies, the fear of a severe reaction is always there, says Emma Amoscato. “It’s not just mealtimes, it’s going to nursery, family events, soft play. It’s not something you can ever take a day off from.” She is frustrated that some children, such as hers, could perhaps have avoided developing their allergies at all. A growing body of evidence, including findings that emerged last month, suggests that the earlier babies eat foods like peanuts and eggs, the less likely they are to develop allergies to them. But in some countries, such as the UK, weaning babies onto solid food early runs counter to official advice to avoid giving infants any solid food until they are 6 months old. Parents face conflicting information from allergy specialists and the healthcare staff they see most often such as family doctors and midwives. “You don’t know who to trust,” says Amoscato, who is author of Living with Allergies: Practical tips for all the family. The stakes are high, as was highlighted last year by two UK cases in the headlines in which teenagers died from allergic reactions, both caused by meals from a shop or restaurant they thought were safe. Food allergies are now common. In the UK, for instance, 7 per cent of children now have one, and the number of hospital admissions for severe allergic reactions has risen six-fold in the past 20 years. Changes in how babies are fed can’t be the only explanation, because other allergies such as hay fever and asthma are also on the rise. One idea is a modern take on the hygiene hypothesis, and suggests that this may be because modern life prevents us from encountering many friendly and important microbes during our childhood.
1-22-20 Some people are exceptionally good at recognising voices
Super voice recognisers, people with extraordinary abilities to remember and recognise human voices, are out there. And they could potentially transform counter-terrorism and surveillance operations, some suggest. People with an exceptional knack for recognising faces, known as super-recognisers, seized the zeitgeist more than 10 years ago, when it was discovered that about 2 per cent of the population had such an ability. London’s Metropolitan Police Service later created a specialised unit of officers with this skill, some of whom helped to identify suspects caught on CCTV during the 2011 London riots. Ryan Jenkins at the University of Greenwich in London wanted to find out whether these people also had superior abilities to recognise and match voices. To do this, he put 529 super face recognisers through a series of voice-recognition tests. One of the tests consists of 80 pairs of audio clips of someone voicing a different syllable. Participants must decide if the audio clips belong to the same person or not. Another test looked at whether people could recognise celebrity voices, and another was included to ensure that the ability was specific to human voices, and not to other types of sounds like the ringing of a bell. Jenkins found that super face recognisers were more likely to have super voice recognition abilities than the average person, but only 22 participants – just over 4 per cent – met the criteria for super voice recognition. They scored in the top 15 per cent of results for at least two tests. However, Jenkins notes that the tests he uses in the experiment are “primarily designed to test phonagnosia [an inability to recognise voices] which is the complete other end of the spectrum”. To accurately tell who a super voice recogniser is, more extensive tests need to be developed, he says.
1-22-20 Neanderthals may have climbed an active volcano soon after it erupted
A set of preserved footprints suggests that ancient humans often went scrambling on the steep slopes of an active volcano, even in the aftermath of a major eruption. The volcano may have been an important site for them. The identity of the hominins isn’t certain, but they may have been Neanderthals. The footprints can be found on the Roccamonfina volcano in southern Italy, which has been extinct for 50,000 years. Local people called them “devil’s trails”, because only a supernatural being could walk such a dangerous path. However, in 2003, archaeologists led by Paolo Mietto of the University of Padua in Italy described the footprints. They were preserved in volcanic ash, which erupted 385,000 to 325,000 years ago. That is probably before our species existed. At the time, 56 footprints were known, in three tracks. Later studies found more. The team has now found another 14 footprints, bringing the total to 81. At least five individuals made them. The first 67 footprints found all belonged to people heading downhill, but some of the new ones face uphill. This suggests the hominins walked up the volcano soon after a violent eruption produced a pyroclastic flow: a lethal cloud of hot dust and gas. They were probably regular visitors, says team member Adolfo Panarello of the University of Cassino and Southern Lazio in Italy. In line with this, the hominins weren’t running, but walking at a relaxed speed. “There was always this question of whether humans were running away from the volcano,” says Isabelle De Groote at Ghent University in Belgium. “There is at least one person that seems to be coming back.” De Groote has studied the Happisburgh footprints in the UK: the oldest hominin footprints outside Africa. She says the Roccamonfina footprints stand out because they were all made by adults. “They must have been leaving the children behind and doing activities away from wherever they were living,” she says.
1-22-20 Earth's oldest asteroid impact 'may have ended ice age'
Scientists have identified the world's oldest asteroid crater in Australia, adding it may explain how the planet was lifted from an ice age. The asteroid hit Yarrabubba in Western Australia about 2.2 billion years ago - making the crater about half the age of Earth, researchers say. Their conclusion was reached by testing minerals found in rocks at the site. The scientists say the find is exciting because it could account for a warming event during that era. The Curtin University research was published in the journal Nature Communications on Wednesday. The crater was discovered in the dry outback in 1979, but geologists had not previously tested how old it was. Due to billions of years of erosion, the crater is not visible to the eye. Scientists mapped scars in the area's magnetic field to determine its 70km (43 miles) diameter. "The landscape is actually very flat because it's so old, but the rocks there are distinctive," researcher Prof Chris Kirkland told the BBC. To determine when the asteroid hit Earth, the team examined tiny zircon and monazite crystals in the rocks. They were "shocked" in the strike and now can be read like "tree rings", Prof Kirkland said. These crystals hold tiny amounts of uranium. Because uranium decays into lead at a consistent pace, the researchers were able to calculate how much time had passed. It is at least 200 million years older than the next most ancient impact structure - the Vredefort Dome in South Africa. "We were interested in the area because the Western Australian landscape is very old but we didn't expected [the crater] to be as old as this," Prof Kirkland said. "It's absolutely possible that there's an older crater out there just waiting to be discovered, but the difficulty is in finding the crust before it erodes and you lose that early Earth history".
1-22-20 A 2.2-billion-year-old crater is Earth’s oldest recorded meteorite impact
The newly dated Yarrabubba crater is found in Western Australia. A 70-kilometer-wide crater in Western Australia has officially earned the title of Earth’s oldest known recorded impact. Yarrabubba crater is a spry 2.2 billion years old, plus or minus 5 million years, researchers report January 21 in Nature Communications. Moving tectonic plates along with erosion have wiped away much of the evidence for many craters older than 2 billion years, leaving a gap in our understanding of how long-ago meteorite impacts may have affected the planet’s life and atmosphere (SN: 12/18/18). Scientists have uncovered ancient impact material older than 2.4 billion years from sites elsewhere in Western Australia and South Africa, but no corresponding craters. Yarrabubba, located on one of Earth’s oldest patches of crust called Yilgarn craton, adds more than 200 million years to the impact record. The previous record-holder was Vredefort crater in South Africa. Scientists had estimated Yarrabubba to be between 2.6 billion and 1.2 billion years old, based on previous research dating rocks around the impact site. In the new study, researchers pinpointed the crater’s age by dating microstructures in crystallized rock that formed when the impact occurred. Dating Earth’s oldest crater was not the only exciting finding, says study coauthor Timmons Erickson, a geologist at NASA’s Astromaterials Research & Exploration Science Division in Houston. The crater’s age puts the impact at the end of an ancient glacial period. A computer simulation suggests that a Yarrabubba-sized impact would have released up to 200 trillion kilograms of water vapor into the atmosphere, which the researchers say could have warmed the planet and melted ice sheets.
1-22-20 Coronavirus: Chinese officials advise against travel to Wuhan
Chinese authorities have urged people to stop travelling in and out of Wuhan, the city at the centre of a new virus outbreak that has killed nine people. Those living in the city of 8.9 million people have also been told to avoid crowds and minimise public gatherings. The new virus has spread from Wuhan to several Chinese provinces, as well as the US, Thailand and South Korea. There are 440 confirmed cases, with the origin a seafood market that "conducted illegal transactions of wild animals". Meanwhile, in Geneva, the World Health Organization's emergency committee is meeting to assess the global risks posed by the virus and decide if it should be declared an international public health emergency - as happened with swine flu and Ebola. Such a declaration, if made, could see advice issued on travel or trade restrictions. Earlier this week, China confirmed that human-to-human transmission of the virus had taken place. The virus, known also as 2019-nCoV, is understood to be a new strain of coronavirus that has not previously been identified in humans. The Sars virus that killed nearly 800 people globally in the early 2000s was also a coronavirus. Signs of infection with the new virus include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. The first US case was confirmed on Tuesday. President Donald Trump said the situation was "totally under control" and that he trusted the information being provided by Chinese authorities. Mr Li said there was evidence that the disease was "mainly transmitted through the respiratory tract". In general, coughs and sneezes are a highly effective way for viruses to spread. But China has still not been able to confirm the exact source of the virus. "Though the transmission route of the virus is yet to be fully understood, there is a possibility of virus mutation and a risk of further spread of the epidemic," said Mr Li.
1-22-20 The first U.S. case of a new coronavirus has been confirmed
Chinese officials say the coronavirus can spread from person to person, raising global risks. A man in Seattle has been confirmed as the first U.S. case of a novel coronavirus that emerged in central China, where it has killed six people and sickened hundreds more in recent weeks, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Officials are also ramping up health screenings at U.S. airports, after Chinese public health officials said January 20 that the virus can spread from person to person — a factor that raises concerns of an international epidemic emerging. It’s still unclear how easily the virus spreads between humans. The World Health Organization said it would convene an emergency committee on January 22 in Geneva to decide whether to declare a global health emergency. “The confirmation that human-to-human spread with this virus is occurring in Asia certainly raises our level of concern,” said Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, during a telephone news conference on January 21. However, the agency believes the risk “to the American public at large remains low at this time.” The Seattle patient in his 30s was diagnosed after seeing a doctor for respiratory symptoms, Messonnier said. The man had returned last week from Wuhan, and is no longer “clinically ill,” she said. The first people reported to have the pneumonia-like illness became sick in December, after visiting a wild animal market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. Officials soon confirmed that the outbreak was caused by a novel coronavirus (SN: 1/10/20) — the same family of viruses that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. On January 20, China’s lead scientist monitoring the outbreak, Dr. Zhong Nanshan, gave a statement on Chinese state television confirming that at least two patients who had never been to Wuhan had been infected by family members who recently had traveled to the city. At least 15 health care workers are also among at least 278 cases reported by China.
1-21-20 New China virus: US announces first case
The United States has confirmed the first case of the new coronavirus on its territory. The Centers for Disease Control said the virus, which originated in China, had been diagnosed in a US resident who arrived in Seattle from China. The virus, which spread from the Chinese city of Wuhan, has infected almost 300 people, and six have died. North Korea has temporarily closed its borders to foreign tourists in response to the threat, a tour operator says. The patient diagnosed in the US - reported to be a man in his 30s - returned from Wuhan on 15 January, the CDC said. "The patient sought care at a medical facility in the state of Washington, where the patient was treated for the illness," it added in a statement. "Based on the patient's travel history and symptoms, healthcare professionals suspected this new coronavirus." Laboratory testing of a clinical specimen confirmed the diagnosis on 20 January, the CDC statement continued. The announcement that North Korea was barring entry to foreign tourists came from Young Pioneer Tours, which is based in China and specialises in travel to North Korea. The company said in a statement that North Korea was implementing a temporary ban as a precaution. "Further details are yet to be confirmed by our travel partners in North Korea and we will continue to make all future announcements on our website," Young Pioneer Tours said. Another tour group that travels to North Korea, Koryo Tours, also tweeted about "possible limits to tourist entry". Some experts have previously warned that international sanctions on North Korea had hit the country's healthcare system, by restricting the delivery of aid and medical equipment. Last November, US doctor Kee B Park wrote in USA Today: "I have seen how the North Korean doctors have adapted to scarcity. For example, they reuse intravenous catheters, scalpels, gauze and gloves by meticulously cleaning and re-sterilising them - until they become unusable."
1-21-20 Sixth person dies as Wuhan coronavirus spreads between people
Six people are now reported to have died after being infected with a new virus spreading in China. The virus, which is of the same family as SARS and MERS, can be transmitted between people, the country’s health ministry has confirmed. The two latest reported deaths from the virus were that of a 66-year-old man and a 48-year-old woman in Wuhan, according to the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission. Sixty new cases were reported in the region on 20 January. Among them, fifteen healthcare workers have been diagnosed, according to China Daily. Zhong Nanshan, head of the Chinese national health commission team investigating the outbreak, confirmed that two cases of infection in China’s Guangdong province had been caused by human-to-human transmission. “It is now clear that there is person-to-person transmission, which is a worrying development,” says Rosalind Eggo at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “We’ve got to wait and see how sustained that transmission is.” The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission has confirmed 258 people have been infected in Wuhan. Currently, 227 patients are still being treated in the hospital. Cases have also been confirmed in Guangdong province, Beijing and Shanghai, as well as Japan, Thailand, South Korea and Taiwan. In those countries, a handful of cases have been confirmed, either in people from Wuhan or people who visited the city. The World Health Organization’s director-general will hold an emergency committee meeting on Wednesday to determine whether the outbreak represents a public health emergency of international concern, and issue recommendations on how to manage it. “This is a critical point in the outbreak,” says Eggo. “Although there are more signs that this outbreak is serious, we still don’t know exactly what is going on.” Over the next week or so, we will find out how easily the virus can be passed from one person to another and whether the infection is spreading in countries outside China, says Eggo.
1-21-20 Cell injections may restore fertility lost through cancer treatment
It may be possible to rejuvenate ovaries after chemotherapy without the need for surgery, after the fertility of female mice was successfully restored following injections of donor cells. The approach involves injecting either stored or donated follicles – the cells in ovaries that contain and eventually release egg cells – into the ovaries. The technique is “able to rejuvenate the potential of the ovary using donated follicles” and could “prolong the fertility of women”, says Michael Dahan at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who wasn’t involved in the work. Some cancer treatments can affect the supply of eggs, and may make it more difficult to conceive after treatment. People undergoing these treatments may have pieces of their ovary removed and frozen beforehand, in order to preserve their fertility. These tissues can then be surgically reimplanted if someone wants to get pregnant. Over 130 babies have been born following this type of procedure. But the approach is still new, and some doctors worry about the risk of reimplanting cancer cells. “If a woman has ovarian cancer or leukaemia, you wouldn’t want to put that tissue back in,” says Kyle Orwig at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. “The worst thing you can do is give cancer back to a survivor.” Orwig and his colleagues have developed a different approach. Instead of implanting ovary tissue, the team only implants the follicles. This should avoid implanting any cancer cells, says Orwig. To test the approach, the team gave four female mice varying doses of two chemotherapy drugs that Orwig says cause infertility in humans. The team then collected follicles from donor mice who hadn’t undergone chemotherapy and injected them into the ovaries of the female mice that had. Two of the four mice later gave birth to pups, some of which had features of the donor, rather than those of their parents. This led the team to be sure that it had been the injection of follicles that had resulted in pups with the same features.
1-21-20 Electrified artificial skin can feel exactly where it is touched
Electrified artificial skin made of strange orange jelly can tell when you are touching it and can heal itself. It could someday be used in prosthetics or to cover robots so that they can sense their surroundings. Many different types of “e-skin” devices have been made that can be bent, stretched or attached to a person’s skin to generate power or detect their heart rate, for example. But these devices tend to be limited because they can usually only be made in flat sheets and only attach to flat surfaces, says Kyeongwoon Chung at the Korea Institute of Materials Science in South Korea. Chung and his colleagues made an e-skin that can be 3D printed into any shape. They made rings, pyramids and a sort of cap that can fit over a finger, and Chung says that it would be possible to make a face mask out of it. The e-skin is made out of an orange, jelly-like substance composed mainly of water and acrylic acid. The gel contains both positively charged and negatively charged particles, so when it is cut or ripped those particles attract one another and it heals itself. It can also detect if you touch it, even very lightly. When a weak electric field is applied to the e-skin using a pair of wires, a touch from a finger or any other object that conducts electricity makes current flow through the gel. The difference in the intensity of that current at each of the wires makes it simple to calculate the exact point on the e-skin that is being touched. This sort of e-skin could be used on robots to help them sense environments, says Zhenan Bao at Stanford University in California. Chung says it might have even more far-reaching applications in medical sensing, where it could potentially be used as a coating on prosthetic limbs.
1-21-20 New China virus: Warning against cover-up as number of cases jumps
China's top leaders have warned lower-level officials not to cover up the spread of a new coronavirus that has now infected nearly 300 people. Anyone who concealed new cases would "be nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity", the political body responsible for law and order said. The warning came as state media said six people had now died from the virus, which causes a type of pneumonia. It's been confirmed the virus can pass from person to person. The World Health Organization (WHO) will on Wednesday consider declaring an international public health emergency over the virus - as it did with swine flu and Ebola. Such a declaration, if made, will be seen as an urgent call for a co-ordinated international response. China's National Health Commission on Monday confirmed for the first time that the infection could be transmitted from human-to-human. It said two people in Guangdong province had been infected in this way. In a separate statement, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said at least 15 medical workers in Wuhan have also been infected with the virus, with one in a critical condition. The workers presumably became infected with the virus due to contact with patients. All of them are being kept in isolation while being treated. A total of 291 cases have now been reported across major cities in China, including Beijing and Shanghai. However most patients are in Wuhan, the central city of 11 million at the heart of the outbreak. The disease was first identified there late last year and the outbreak is believed to be linked to a seafood market that also sells live animals. A handful of cases have also been identified abroad: two in Thailand, one in Japan, one in South Korea and one in Taiwan. Those infected had recently returned from Wuhan.
1-21-20 How bacteria create flower art
Physical interactions between different types of microbes form delicate floral patterns. When sticky bacteria meet roaming bacteria in a petri dish, friction between the two can cause flower patterns to blossom. Escherichia coli bacteria growing on a Jello-like substance called agar tend to stick to the surface, and colonies of the microbes don’t spread very far. But colonies of Acinetobacter baylyi expand in rapidly growing circles as the bacteria crawl on hairlike pili over the agar’s surface. Neither type of microbe is very exciting to look at on its own, says Lev Tsimring, a theoretical physicist at the University of California, San Diego. But “when we mixed them together, we saw these absolutely mind-blowing structures growing.” Physical interactions between the two types of bacteria create floral patterns, he and colleagues found. Mobile A. baylyi “pushes E. coli in front it, sort of like a snowplow,” Tsimring says. But sticky E. coli dig in their heels, holding back a wave of A. baylyi like an elastic band wrapped around a balloon, he says. In some places where there are fewer E. coli forming a barrier, the more agile bacteria break through, painting petals as they shove their reluctant neighbors forward. Those breakthroughs tend to happen at fairly regular intervals, creating relatively symmetrical blossoms. The petal shape that forms depends on how fast A. baylyi bacteria move, how well E. coli is stuck to the surface and the proportions of each type of bacteria at the colony edges. (E. coli must outnumber A. baylyi or the speedy bacteria will blow right past their more sedentary partners.) Tsimring’s team described the math behind the blooms January 14 in eLife. Such equations have been used to explain how reactions between chemicals might produce Turing patterns — regular, repeating patterns found in nature, such as spots or stripes on animals’ coats (SN: 12/21/15). The new research shows that, in addition to chemicals, scientists should consider how mechanical forces help shape patterns too, Tsimring says.
1-20-20 CRISPR-edited chickens made resistant to a common virus
CRISPR genome editing has been used to make chickens resistant to a common virus. The approach could boost egg and meat production worldwide while improving welfare. The altered chickens showed no signs of disease even when exposed to high doses of the avian leukosis virus (ALV). The virus is a problem for poultry farmers around the world, says Jiri Hejnar at the Czech Academy of Sciences. Infected birds become ill, emaciated and depressed, and often develop tumours. The virus gets into cells by binding to a protein called chicken NHE-1 (chNHE-1). Hejnar’s team has previously shown that deleting three DNA letters from the chNHE-1 gene that makes this protein prevents ALV from infecting chicken cells. The challenge was to make this change in entire animals rather than just in a few cells. No strains of chickens naturally have this mutation, so it can’t be done by breeding alone. But genetically modifying chickens is more difficult than modifying other animals such as pigs. The conventional method is to extract so-called primordial germ cells, alter them outside the body and then add the modified cells to embryos inside freshly laid eggs. This approach was used to create CRISPR chickens in 2016, but the success rate is extremely low. In 2017, Hejnar developed a better method: using altered germ cells to restore semen production in sterilised cockerels. His team then went on to create a cockerel with sperm that have the precise deletion in the chNHE-1 gene. By crossing its offspring, they have produced a flock of white leghorn chickens that have this deletion in both copies of the gene. A company called Biopharm is now in discussion with poultry producers in Vietnam and China about introducing this change into commercial breeds. “It’s quite simple to do,” says Hejnar.
1-20-20 New China virus: Cases triple as infection spreads to Beijing and Shanghai
The number of people infected with a new virus in China tripled over the weekend, with the outbreak spreading from Wuhan to other major cities. There are now more than 200 cases, mostly in Wuhan, though the respiratory illness has also been detected in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. Three people have died. Japan, Thailand and South Korea have reported cases. The sharp rise comes as millions of Chinese prepare to travel for the Lunar New Year holidays. Health officials have identified the infection, which first appeared in Wuhan in December, as a strain of coronavirus. They say it has led to an outbreak of viral pneumonia, but much about it remains unknown. Although the outbreak is believed to have originated from a market, officials and scientists are yet to determine exactly how it has been spreading. The outbreak has revived memories of the Sars virus - also a coronavirus - that killed 774 people in the early 2000s across dozens of countries, mostly in Asia. Analysis of the genetic code of the new virus shows it is more closely related to Sars than any other human coronavirus. Experts in the UK told the BBC the number of people infected could still be far greater than official figures suggest, with estimates closer to 1,700. Authorities in Wuhan, a central Chinese city of 11 million that has been at the heart of the outbreak, on Monday said 136 new cases had been confirmed over the weekend, with a third person dying of the virus. There had previously been only 62 confirmed cases in the city. As of late Sunday, officials said 170 people in Wuhan were still being treated in hospital, including nine in critical condition. Beijing also confirmed its first cases, with five people infected. Shanghai confirmed its first case on Monday - a 56-year-old woman who came from Wuhan.
1-20-20 Human impact on nature 'dates back millions of years'
The impact of humans on nature has been far greater and longer-lasting than we could ever imagine, according to scientists. Early human ancestors living millions of years ago may have triggered extinctions, even before our species evolved, a study suggests. A decline in large mammals seen in Eastern Africa may have been due to early humans, researchers propose. Extinction rates started to increase from around four million years ago. This coincides with the period when ancient human populations were living in the area, as judged by fossil evidence. "We are now negatively impacting the world and the species that live in it more than ever before. But this does not mean that we used to live in true harmony with nature in the past," said study researcher, Dr Søren Faurby of the University of Gothenburg. "We are extremely successful in monopolising resources today, and our results show that this may have also been the case with our ancestors." The researchers looked at extinction rates of large and small carnivores and how this correlated with environmental changes such as rainfall and temperature. They also looked at changes in the brain size of human ancestors such as Australopithecus and Ardipithecus. They found that extinction rates in large carnivores correlated with increased brain size of human ancestors and with vegetation changes, but not with precipitation or temperature changes. They found the best explanation for carnivore extinction in East Africa was that these animals were in direct competition for food with our ancestors. They think human ancestors may have stolen freshly-killed prey from the likes of sabre-toothed cats, depriving them of food. "Our results suggest that substantial anthropogenic influence on biodiversity started millions of years earlier than currently assumed," the researchers reported in the journal Ecology Letters.
1-19-20 New coronavirus 'preventable and controllable', China says
The new Chinese virus which has already spread abroad "is still preventable and controllable", China says. Its National Health Commission warned, however, that close monitoring was needed given the source, transmission and mutation methods were unknown. Two people are known to have died from the respiratory illness which appeared in Wuhan city in December. In its first statement since the outbreak, the body promised to step up monitoring during the Lunar new year. Millions of Chinese travel to their families for the holiday - also known as the Spring Festival - beginning next week. There have been more than 60 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, but UK experts estimate a figure nearer 1,700. Singapore and Hong Kong have been screening air passengers from Wuhan, and US authorities have announced similar measures at three major airports in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. While the outbreak is centred on the central Chinese city of Wuhan, there have been two cases in Thailand and one in Japan. Chinese officials say there have been no cases of the virus spreading from one person to another. Instead, they say, the virus has crossed the species barrier and come from infected animals at a seafood and wildlife market in Wuhan. The WHO's China office said the analysis was helpful and would help officials plan the response to the outbreak. "Much remains to be understood about the new coronavirus," it said. "Not enough is known to draw definitive conclusions about how it is transmitted, the clinical features of the disease, the extent to which it has spread, or its source, which remains unknown." At the mild end they cause the common cold, but severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) is a coronavirus that killed 774 of the 8,098 people infected in an outbreak that started in China in 2002.
1-19-20 The push to boost the global nursing workforce
To take on the health challenges of the coming decade, countries must invest more in nursing. Around the world, nursing is often a thankless, yet vital profession. But in the world of health and medicine, 2020 is the year of the nurse and midwife. The World Health Organization designation signifies a concerted push to boost the global nursing workforce in the face of growing health care shortages and ambitious efforts to reach a United Nations goal of universal health coverage around the world by 2030. "It's a year to make people aware of the actual work that nurses do, to increase the profile and to get them into leadership positions," said Annette Kennedy, president of the International Council of Nurses and a former director of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organization. Nurses and midwives currently make up slightly more than half of the entire health care workforce worldwide, but WHO estimates that shortages could hit nearly 9 million by 2030. Aging populations and a surge in chronic diseases like diabetes are also creating new stressors on health care. Meanwhile, nurses continue to play a critical role in maternal and child health and disease prevention. "Yes we can celebrate, yes we can recognize, but what actions will be taken?" said James Campbell, director of the WHO's health workforce department. Campbell said to take on the health challenges of the coming decade, countries must invest more in nursing, whether that be increasing training opportunities and graduate slots or expanding the ways that nurses can actually practice. The field of nursing has "changed dramatically," since its inception nearly two centuries ago when Florence Nightingale set up the world's first nursing school in London in 1860, said Kennedy. Nightingale pushed for better sanitation in hospitals amid the Crimean war, demonstrating that more soldiers died of post-battle infections than on the battlefield itself. She also oversaw day-to-day operations.
1-18-20 New Chinese virus 'will have infected hundreds'
The number of people already infected by the mystery virus emerging in China is far greater than official figures suggest, scientists have told the BBC. There have been nearly 50 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, but UK experts estimate a figure nearer 1,700. Two people are known to have died from the respiratory illness, which appeared in Wuhan city in December. "I am substantially more concerned than I was a week ago," disease outbreak scientist Prof Neil Ferguson, said. The work was conducted by the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London, which advises bodies including the UK government and the World Health Organization (WHO). Singapore and Hong Kong have been screening air passengers from Wuhan, and US authorities announced similar measures starting on Friday at three major airports in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. The crucial clue to the scale of the problem lies in the cases being detected in other countries. While the outbreak is centred on the central Chinese city of Wuhan, there have been two cases in Thailand and one in Japan. "That caused me to worry," said Prof Ferguson. He added: "For Wuhan to have exported three cases to other countries would imply there would have to be many more cases than have been reported." It is impossible to get the precise number, but outbreak modelling, which is based on the virus, the local population and flight data, can give an idea. Wuhan International Airport serves a population of 19 million people, but only 3,400 a day travel internationally. The detailed calculations, which have been posted online ahead of publication in a scientific journal, came up with a figure of 1,700 cases. Prof Ferguson said it was "too early to be alarmist" but he was "substantially more concerned" than a week ago. Chinese officials say there have been no cases of the virus spreading from one person to another. Instead they say the virus has crossed the species barrier and come from infected animals at a seafood and wildlife market in Wuhan.
1-18-20 Exploding cancer cells can cause serious side effects in CAR-T cell therapies
Blocking a protein makes cells shrink instead, causing fewer problems. Techniques to genetically modify patient immune cells have revolutionized the fight against hard-to-treat cancers. But they can come with dangerous side effects. Now, researchers have found one reason why. A particularly messy form of cell death sparks severe inflammation in patients receiving CAR-T cell immunotherapy for blood cancers, researchers report January 17 in Science Immunology. This treatment, approved for certain patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (SN: 12/13/17), unleashes immune cells in a patient’s bloodstream, tweaked to produce artificial proteins called chimeric antigen receptors, or CAR. The proteins prime T cells to recognize cancer cells so that the immune cells can hunt down and kill the rogue cells. Normally as cells die, they shrink and break apart — a highly controlled process whose debris is easily vacuumed up by the body’s natural defenses. During CAR-T cell treatment, however, targeted cancer cells can swell and rupture in a manner typically associated with infection, Bo Huang, an immunologist at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing, and colleagues found. This explosive cell death, or pyroptosis, causes dead cells to expel their contents. That, in turn, prompts the immune system to produce cytokine chemicals that trigger inflammation. Cytokine release syndrome, one of the most common side effects for CAR-T cell therapy patients (SN: 6/27/18), can cause high fever, rapid heartbeat and multi-organ failure. Although most people survive, some require intensive care. Until now, scientists didn’t know what triggered the syndrome. Pinpointing the root cause could help researchers find ways to stop the onslaught of inflammation, Huang says.
1-18-20 Hairy cells in the nose called brush cells may be involved in causing allergies
In mice, these cells trigger inflammation when exposed to mold and dust. Some hairy cells in the nose may trigger sneezing and allergies to dust mites, mold and other substances, new work with mice suggests. When exposed to allergens, these “brush cells” make chemicals that lead to inflammation, researchers report January 17 in Science Immunology. Only immune cells previously were thought to make such inflammatory chemicals — fatty compounds known as lipids. The findings may provide new clues about how people develop allergies. Brush cells are shaped like teardrops topped by tufts of hairlike projections. In people, mice and other animals, these cells are also found in the linings of the trachea and the intestines, where they are known as tuft cells (SN: 4/13/18). However, brush cells are far more common in the nose than in other tissues, and may help the body identify when pathogens or noxious chemicals have been inhaled, says Lora Bankova, an allergist and immunologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Bankova and her colleagues discovered that, when exposed to certain molds or dust mite proteins, brush cells in mice’s noses churn out inflammation-producing lipids, called cysteinyl leukotrienes. The cells also made the lipids when encountering ATP, a chemical used by cells for energy that also signals when nearby cells are damaged, as in an infection. Mice exposed to allergens or ATP developed swelling of their nasal tissues. But mice that lacked brush cells suffered much less inflammation. Such inflammation may lead to allergies in some cases. The researchers haven’t yet confirmed that brush cells in human noses respond to allergens in the same way as these cells do in mice.
1-17-20 A special kind of nose cell may trigger allergic reactions
Mice have tens of thousands of chemical sensing nose cells that can cause an allergic reaction. Researchers say this discovery could help us understand how the immune system reacts to inhaled allergens and why some people with allergies lose their sense of smell. We know that in humans and mice, breathing in allergens such as house dust mite droppings or mould can cause inflammation in the nose. This triggers a further allergic response driven by immune cells, but we don’t fully understand the process. To try to learn more, a team at Harvard University isolated cells from the noses of mice and sorted them into different types according to their shape, size and the specific proteins they displayed on their surface. By doing this, they identified chemical sensing cells that react to allergens in the air soon after they are inhaled. These cells start releasing molecules that cause inflammation in the nose even before immune cells are delivered to the nose in the bloodstream. The chemical sensing cells in the nose release “boatloads” of inflammatory molecules, says Lora Bankova, who led the work. These are the same molecules that drive allergic conditions like asthma, and are usually only produced by immune cells. Cells similar to those in the nose have been found in the lower airway and the gut in mice and humans, but they were thought to be extremely rare. Bankova says she was surprised to discover there are 20,000 to 30,000 of these nose cells in mice. There are equivalent chemical sensing cells in the human nose, says Bankova, but we don’t know if they have a similar function. The cells are also surprising because they are mostly found in the part of the nose involved in smell, says Bankova, which hadn’t previously been thought to play a role in allergic responses. This might explain why some people with chronic allergies lose their sense of smell, says Bankova. “It might be because there is so much inflammation in that area that we hadn’t previously recognised,” she says. As well as detecting allergens, these cells may also be able to sense invading microbes such as the common cold virus, says Bankova.
1-17-20 Is whole milk healthier?
Children who drink whole milk rather than low-fat milk are less likely to be overweight or obese, reports The New York Times. Canadian researchers examined 14 studies involving 20,897 children that compared kids who drank whole milk, with 3.25 percent fat, to those given milk containing less than 2 percent fat. They concluded that the children who drank whole milk had a 39 percent lower risk of being overweight or obese that their peers who drank lower-fat milk. Moreover, the kids’ risk of obesity gradually declined as their whole milk consumption increased. The authors suggest several possible explanations. Milk with more fat might make kids feel fuller and cause them to consume fewer calories from other foods. It’s also possible that parents with skinny children give them whole milk in order to beef them up. “All of the studies we examined were observational studies, meaning that we cannot be sure if whole milk caused the lower risk” of being overweight or obese, said lead author Jonathon Maguire, from St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. He says further clinical trials are needed.
1-17-20 Running to reverse aging
Training for and running a marathon for the first time could reverse some of the effects of aging, according to a new British study. Researchers examined 138 novice runners, ages 21 to 69, six months before their first marathon and within three weeks of completing the race. They found that over that period the runners experienced marked reductions in artery stiffness and high blood pressure, both of which are contributors to heart attacks and strokes. Those changes, researchers said, are equivalent to a four-year reduction in vascular age. The greatest benefits were seen among older, slower male runners. The participants weren’t exercise junkies—they were running for a maximum of two hours a week before beginning their marathon training, which for the most part involved only three runs a week. On average, they completed the 26.2-mile race about 30 minutes slower than the typical runner. Lead researcher Charlotte Manisty, from University College London, tells CNN.com that the findings show “it is possible to reverse the consequences of aging on our blood vessels with real-world exercise in just six months.”
1-17-20 Drop in deaths from cancer
The number of people dying from cancer in the U.S. fell 2.2 percent in 2017—the largest single-year drop ever reported. Since 1991, the overall cancer death rate has dropped by 29 percent, which translates to 2.9 million fewer deaths. Researchers credit the progress to fewer people smoking, new immunotherapy treatments, and “targeted” therapies that halt the action of molecules involved in cancer growth.
1-17-20 Being happy
86% of Americans report they are either “very happy” or “fairly happy,” but that’s down from 91% in 2008, and the lowest percentage polled over the past seven decades. 77% of nonwhites and 79% of those with a high school education or less report being happy.
1-17-20 The middle-aged
The middle-aged, with new data indicating that 47.2 is the precise age at which the average person hits the low point of the lifelong “happiness curve.” Tom, 47.19, told Slate.com that “suddenly, the ticking of the clock grows that much louder. Also, hemorrhoids.”
1-17-20 Ancient ‘Amazons’ unearthed in Russia
The Amazons were portrayed in ancient Greek myth as man-hating horseback warriors who chopped off their breasts to improve their archery, and were long dismissed by modern scholars as fantasies dreamed up by an overexcited male imagination. But the discovery in western Russia of a tomb containing four women and a stash of weapons suggests the legend of the Amazons was rooted in reality. The women—who range in age from early teens to late 40s—were buried some 2,500 years ago alongside arrowheads, spears, and horse-riding gear. They were members of a nomadic people called the Scythians, who roamed the Eurasian steppe from around 800 B.C. to 200 B.C. and likely had contact with ancient Greeks in the Black Sea region. While other tombs containing Scythian women and weapons have been unearthed in recent years, this is the first time that multiple generations of women have been found together. One 30-something woman was buried with her legs in a horse-riding position and with two spears at her side. The eldest woman had an iron knife and a rare forked arrowhead, and was wearing an elaborate golden headdress, an indication of status. The findings suggest that Scythian girls were trained early, just like boys, to ride horses and shoot bows and arrows—essential survival skills “on the harsh steppes,” Adrienne Mayor, a classicist and author of The Amazons, tells The Washington Post. “It confirms that these women really were warriors throughout their lives.”
1-17-20 Chinese Chang’e 4 engineer explains how to garden on the moon
China’s Chang’e 4 lunar lander captivated global attention when a cotton seed on board became the first plant ever to germinate on another world – and now the engineer behind this moon garden has revealed just how it was done. Cotton, arabidopsis, potato and rape seeds, as well as yeast and fruit fly eggs, were all inside a 2.6-kilogram mini biosphere when Chang’e 4 landed on the far side of the moon in January 2019. Months of uncertainty and planning led to the successful mission, says Xie Gengxin at Chongqing University, the experiment’s chief designer. The idea to send a biosphere to the moon was selected from 257 suggestions submitted by Chinese students in 2016. Rice and arabidopsis have been grown on China’s Tiangong-2 space lab and plants have been cultivated on the International Space Station, but those experiments were conducted in low Earth orbit, at an altitude of about 400 kilometres. The cosmic radiation on the moon – 380,000 kilometres from Earth – makes it a more challenging environment. Given limited space on the lander, the experiment had to be small and light, says Xie. The cylindrical capsule his team designed was 19.8 centimetres high with a diameter of 17.3 cm. It had a rectangular seedbed inside, measuring 800 cubic centimetres. A pipe built into the top allowed sunlight to reach the plants, and the whole chamber was kept at Earth atmospheric pressure. A replicais currently on display in the Design Museum’s Moving to Mars exhibition in London. The real chamber was powered on just under 13 hours after Chang’e 4 landed, at 11.19 pm on 3 January. The first order of business was remotely watering the seeds with a measured spritz of 18 millilitres of water. The team had to consider in advance a number of things that could go wrong during the mission, such as the possibility the water might not be released or released too early, or the pipe that let in sunlight getting blocked by moon dust, in addition to camera or data transmission failures.
1-17-20 Benzodiazepine prescriptions reach ‘disturbing’ levels in the US
Benzodiazepine drugs are prescribed at about 66 million doctor appointments a year in the US, according to a report by the US National Center for Health Statistics. This means that for every 100 adults that visit an office-based doctor over the course of a year, 27 visits will result in a prescription for a benzodiazepine. The figures, based on surveys conducted between 2014 and 2016, are “discouraging and disappointing”, says Lois Platt at Rush University in Chicago. “The statistics we have are disturbing, and everyone should be concerned about bringing them down,” she says. Benzodiazepine drugs are sedatives that tend to be prescribed for sleep disorders and anxiety. The drugs are addictive – people can become dependent on them in a matter of days, and withdrawal symptoms make it hard to quit. Overdoses can be fatal. A third of the recorded benzodiazepine prescriptions issued in the US were given alongside a prescription for an opioid painkiller. This is especially concerning, because it is easy to fatally overdose when taking the drugs together, says Rebecca McDonald at King’s College London. “Benzodiazepine deaths have gone up substantially over the past two decades in the US, increasing from just over 1,000 annual deaths in 1999 to over 11,000 deaths in 2017,” says McDonald. “Almost all cases also involved opioids.” In the US, most benzodiazepine prescriptions are made for people chronic disorders, according to the report. “At most of the [doctor] visits, benzodiazepines or opioids were continued prescriptions,” says Loredana Santo at the National Center for Health Statistics, who led the research. “Our finding suggests that most patients prescribed these medications might be long-term users of these drugs.”
1-17-20 Volcanic gas bursts probably didn’t kill off the dinosaurs
A new timeline exonerates the Deccan Traps eruptions in a mass extinction 66 million years ago. Massive gas bursts emitted by volcanoes about 66 million years ago probably couldn’t have caused a mass extinction event that spelled doom for all nonbird dinosaurs, new research suggests. Data on ancient temperatures, combined with simulations of the shifting carbon cycle in the ocean, lend support to the hypothesis that a giant asteroid impact — not toxic gases emitted by Deccan Traps eruption — was primarily responsible for the die-off, researchers report January 17 in Science. About three-quarters of Earth’s plant and animal species were killed off during the extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous Period. Sediment deposits linked to the giant asteroid impact, which struck Chicxulub in what now Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, form a layer known as the “KPg” boundary. This boundary marks the transition from the Cretaceous to the Paleogene Period, and implicates the asteroid strike in the extinction event (SN: 1/25/17). But the Deccan Traps eruptions, which spewed as much as 500,000 cubic kilometers of lava across much of what’s now western India, also occurred within a million years of the extinction. Sussing out the true killer has been challenging, because the precise timing of the Deccan Traps eruptions has been uncertain. Scientists previously have focused on dating the rocks — either zircon crystals embedded within ash layers between flows of lava (SN: 12/11/14), or outcrops of the lava itself (SN: 2/21/19). Those efforts have resulted in a range of different dates for the eruptions, some before and some after the extinction. Furthermore, the real dino killer wouldn’t have been the lava — it would have been the volcanic gases: carbon dioxide heating the planet or sulfur dioxide acidifying the oceans. “It’s the outgassing that’s important, but it’s really hard to pin that down,” says Pincelli Hull, a paleoceanographer at Yale University.
1-17-20 Dinosaur extinction: 'Asteroid strike was real culprit'
Was it the asteroid or colossal volcanism that initiated the demise of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago? This has been a bit of a "to and fro" argument of late, but now a group of scientists has weighed in with what they claim is the definitive answer. "It was the asteroid 'wot dun it'!" Prof Paul Wilson told the BBC. His team's analysis of ocean sediments shows that huge volcanoes that erupted in India did not change the climate enough to drive the extinction. Volcanoes can spew enormous volumes of gases into the atmosphere that can both cool and warm the planet. And the Deccan Traps, as the volcanic terrain in India is known, certainly had massive scale - hundreds of thousands of cubic km of molten rock were erupted onto the land surface over thousands of years. But the new research from Southampton University's Prof Wilson, and colleagues from elsewhere in Europe and the US, indicates there is a mismatch in both the effect and timing of the volcanism's influence. The group drilled into the North Atlantic seafloor to retrieve its ancient muds. "The deep ocean sediments are packed full of these microscopic marine organisms called Foraminifera," Prof Wilson explained. "You get about a thousand of them in a teaspoon of sediment. And we can use their shells to figure out the chemistry of the ocean and its temperature, so we can study in great detail the environmental changes that are occurring in the run-up to the extinction event. "And what we discovered is that the only way in which we can get our (climate) model simulations to match the observed temperature changes is to have the volcanic emissions of harmful gases done and dusted a couple of hundred thousand years before the impact event. "We find the impact event is exactly contemporaneous with the extinction."
1-16-20 AI suggests Earth has had fewer mass extinctions than we thought
The best record yet of how biodiversity changed in the distant past has been created with the help of machine learning and a supercomputer. Among other things, it confirms that one of the five great mass extinctions didn’t really happen. It was thought the oceans turned toxic around 375 million years ago, near the end of the Devonian period, wiping out many marine species including almost all trilobites. But the latest study shows no evidence of a sudden catastrophic change like the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. Instead, there was a gradual decline over an immensely long time – around 50 million years. “The late Devonian mass extinction isn’t there,” says Doug Erwin at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. “There’s a long decrease in diversity during the Devonian, as some people have suggested previously.” Fossils are used to date rocks. Because most species are only around for a few million years, if fossils of one species are present in rocks from different places, those rocks must be roughly the same age. Roughly really does mean roughly, though. Previous studies of how biodiversity has changed over time have only been able to divide the past into huge chunks around ten million years long. Now Shuzhong Shen at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology in China and his colleagues including Erwin have produced a dramatically improved record in which each chunk is just 26,000 years long. They did this by taking a statistical approach developed around a decade ago and using it to analyse 100,000 records of 11,000 marine species whose fossils have been found in China and Europe. This approach is so computationally intense it would take dozens of years to do this on a normal computer. Instead, the team developed special machine-learning procedures and ran them on the Tianhe-2 supercomputer. The record covers 300 million years overall, from the start of the Cambrian period 540 million years ago until just after the start of the Triassic period 240 million years ago.
1-16-20 Ancient shark used its teeth like the blade of a power tool
About 310 million years ago some sharks had saws for jaws – and now we know how one of those sharks, called Edestus, fed. The “saw blade” in its lower jaw glided backwards and forwards like the blade on some modern power tools, allowing the shark to cut through soft prey like fish. We know that Edestus was a very odd shark that grew to the size of a modern great white. It had what look a lot like two saw blades in its mouth – one in the upper and one in the lower jaw. The two blades, which could each be 40 centimetres long but just 3 cm wide, seem to have locked together when the shark closed its mouth, a bit like the blades on a pair of serrated scissors. But exactly how the two blades worked together to cut through flesh has been unclear. While Edestus’s saw blade teeth were likely to have contained hard layers of calcium phosphate that meant it fossilised well, the rest of the shark’s skeleton usually didn’t because it was made of cartilage rather than bone. Now, Leif Tapanila at Idaho State University and his colleagues have solved the mystery by examining a 310-million-year-old fossil that, unusually, included the crushed remains of a near-complete Edestus skull. “[It’s] the most complete skull known for the animal,” says Tapanila. A careful analysis shows that it had a distinctive hinge between the lower jaw and the rest of its skull. This allowed the lower jaw – and its saw blade – to slide back and forth relative to the upper blade, which stayed fixed in place. Tapanila says the lower jaw worked a bit like the blade on a jigsaw power tool. “It pulled backwards during the bite. This raked the upper and lower teeth past the food, slicing and splitting it in half.” Strange though Edestus was, some of its relatives were even odder. A few years ago, Tapanila and his colleagues analysed a related extinct shark called Helicoprion that had just one toothed saw blade in its lower jaw that grew into a spiral. This made it look like it had a circular saw blade mounted vertically in its mouth. Tapanila’s team showed that when Helicoprion snapped its jaws shut, the teeth on the blade rotated, which would have helped pull soft flesh snagged on the teeth towards the shark’s throat for easy swallowing.
1-16-20 Anxiety is different for kids
Here's what parents should watch for, and how to help. You know how to do CPR and have a fully stocked first aid kit. At home and in the car. But it's not enough. Today's parents need to know how to deal with their kids' mental health as well as their fevers and grazed knees. According to statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health, around a third of adolescents have an anxiety disorder, which can come in various guises (including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and separation anxiety disorder) and is characterized by excessive anxiety and related behavioral disturbances. In the midst of what's arguably one of the biggest public health challenges of all time, we're all more aware of the prevalence of anxiety and other mental health issues, more clued-up about how mental illness can present itself, and what we can do to help both ourselves and others. But there's an important qualifier when talking about kids with anxiety: They don't display it in the same way adults do. "Typically, when a child is anxious, you'll see a change in their behavior," says New York-based therapist Dana Carretta-Stein, M.S., LMHC, LPC. That child could be the 8-year-old who throws the epic sort of tantrums you'd expect from a toddler. Or the 10-year-old who's snappy and irritable every single day, for no apparent reason. Or the 12-year old who gets a stomach ache every morning before school, without fail. It manifests itself in a range of ways, Carretta-Stein says. "While every child is different, some kids may become more aggressive (which is the fight in the fight/flight response), whereas other children may become very shy (the flight response)," she explains. Kids with anxiety may be clingy or tearful, reluctant to go to school, take part in activities, or be separated from their parent, says Michigan-based therapist Carrie Krawiec, LMFT. They may have persistent headaches or stomach aches, or display obsessive-compulsive or rigid behaviors, like being in distress when something isn't a certain way or checking something over and over.
1-16-20 Swapping breakfast for brunch on weekends may lead to weight gain
Eating meals later on weekends than during the week may cause weight gain by messing with the body’s metabolic rhythms. We already know that shift workers and people with disrupted sleep patterns are prone to weight gain. This is probably because they are more likely to eat meals at night when our bodies aren’t used to processing food, which seems to lead to the storage of extra fat. Maria Fernanda Zerón-Rugerio and Maria Izquierdo-Pulido at the University of Barcelona in Spain and their colleagues wondered if smaller disruptions to normal eating schedules – like eating meals later on weekends – might have similar effects. “It’s common to sleep in on weekends, so we end up having breakfast later and then lunch and dinner tend to be a bit delayed too,” says Zerón-Rugerio. “We call this eating jet lag.” The team surveyed more than 1100 university students in Spain and Mexico to find out what time they normally ate breakfast, lunch and dinner on weekdays and weekends. Almost two-thirds had an hour or more of eating jet lag on weekends, meaning the midpoint between their first and last meal was at least an hour later on weekends than on weekdays. Breakfast was the most delayed meal, tending to become brunch. The greater the students’ eating jet lag, the more likely they were to be overweight. Those who reported more than 3.5 hours of eating jet lag on weekends had body mass indexes (BMIs) that were 1.3 units higher on average than those with no eating jet lag. This wasn’t related to the quality of their diet, how long they slept or how much they exercised. This suggests that eating at the same time every day may help people lose stubborn excess weight, says Zerón-Rugerio. Dropping 1.3 BMI units is equivalent to someone who is 170 centimetres tall and weighs 90 kilograms losing 4 kilograms.
1-16-20 A new drug lowers levels of a protein related to ‘bad’ cholesterol
The treatment may reduce risk of heart attack and stroke. Routine blood tests in the not-too-distant future may feature a new line item: lipoprotein(a). High levels of this fat- and cholesterol-carrying protein increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, research suggests. But there has been little anyone can do about it. How much lipoprotein(a) a person produces is largely locked in by genetics, and the level remains relatively steady throughout life. That’s in contrast to “bad” LDL — low-density lipoprotein — cholesterol, which changes depending on diet and exercise. Because lipoprotein(a) is genetically determined, “these people who have high levels have had it since birth, and so they can get heart disease earlier,” says Erin Michos, a preventive cardiologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who was not involved with the clinical trial. Now, a therapy that specifically targets lipoprotein(a) levels is on the horizon. In a clinical trial, the drug, which blocks the body’s ability to make the protein, reduced people’s levels of lipoprotein(a) by as much as 80 percent, researchers report in the Jan. 16 New England Journal of Medicine. The trial also found the drug to be safe. Another clinical trial is now underway to determine whether drastically lowering levels of lipoprotein(a) in people who already have cardiovascular disease lessens their risk of heart attack and stroke (SN: 3/15/19). Lipoprotein(a) is made up of a particle of LDL plus a protein called apolipoprotein(a). The relationship between LDL cholesterol and cardiovascular disease risk is well-established: When there is too much LDL cholesterol in the blood, it can get into the walls of arteries, stoking an inflammatory immune response that leads to thickened walls and narrowed arteries (SN: 5/3/17).
1-16-20 Uploading your brain will leave you exposed to software glitches
Think a digital version of your mind will allow you to live forever? It might, but it will also open you up to software manipulation and server problems, says Annalee Newitz. BACK in the 20th century, “the future” meant flying cars and food pills. Now, the future is all about brain uploads. The idea is that, one day, we will be able to convert all our memories and thoughts into hyper-advanced software programs. Once the human brain can run on a computer – or maybe even on a giant robot – we will evade death forever. Sounds cooler than a flying car, right? Wrong. If they ever exist, uploads will be hell. Fantasies about uploaded brains are nothing new. William Gibson wrote about them some 35 years ago in his cyberpunk classic Neuromancer, in which people could upload themselves into cyberspace; and almost a century ago, back in 1923, E. V. Odle published a novel called The Clockwork Man, about how the people of tomorrow would live inside a virtual world of clockwork technology. In recent decades, however, scientists and philosophers have also started to take a serious interest in the idea of digital versions of brains. Massive research undertakings like the Human Brain Project aim to “simulate” the human brain in software. And Anders Sandberg at the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and his colleagues explore how future societies should deal ethically with uploaded minds. There are plenty of medical applications for a brain simulation. Doctors could use it to model diseases or to test therapies. Neurologists could probe it to understand how thought emerges from cellular activity. This isn’t what people like Google’s director of engineering Ray Kurzweil want, though. As he has said in multiple places, he is looking for upload tech that will make him immortal.
1-16-20 Neandertals dove and harvested clamshells for tools near Italy’s shores
Stone Age human relatives shed their reputation as one-trick mammoth hunters. Often typecast as spear-wielding mammoth killers, some Neandertals were beachcombers and surf divers, researchers say. At Moscerini Cave, located on Italy’s western coast, Neandertals collected clamshells on the beach and retrieved others from the Mediterranean Sea, say archaeologist Paola Villa of the University of Colorado Boulder Museum of Natural History and her colleagues. Our close, now extinct evolutionary relatives waded or dove into shallow waters to collect shells that they sharpened into scraping or cutting tools, the researchers report January 15 in PLOS ONE. Of 167 clamshells with sharpened edges that previously were excavated in the cave, 40 displayed shiny, smooth surfaces characteristic of living clams taken from the seafloor, Villa’s team says. The remaining shells featured dull, worn surfaces, indicating that these finds had washed up on the beach and were gradually ground down before Neandertals used them as tools. Earlier dating of animal teeth unearthed near sharpened clam shells in Moscerini Cave suggested that Neandertals lived there roughly 100,000 years ago, at a time when Homo sapiens did not inhabit the region. Consistent with the possibility that Neandertals plunged perhaps a few meters deep into Mediterranean waters to find submerged clams, another team has concluded that bony growths in the ear canals of as many as 13 of 23 European and southwest Asian Neandertal skulls look like “swimmer’s ear,” a condition in people today caused by frequent exposure to cold water and cold, moist air. Ancient humans often lived by lakes, rivers and oceans (SN: 7/29/11). Several European excavations have pointed to seaside occupations by Neandertals (SN: 9/22/08).
1-15-20 Neanderthals 'dived in the ocean' for shellfish
New data suggests that our evolutionary cousins the Neanderthals may have been diving under the ocean for clams. It adds to mounting evidence that the old picture of these ancient people as brutish and unimaginative is wrong. Until now, there had been little clear evidence that Neanderthals were swimmers. But a team of researchers who analysed shells from a cave in Italy said that some must have been gathered from the seafloor by Neanderthals. The findings have been published in the journal Plos One. The Neanderthals living at Grotta dei Moscerini in the Latium region around 90,000 years ago were shaping the clam shells into sharp tools. Paolo Villa, from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and colleagues, analysed 171 such tools, which all came from a local species of mollusc called the smooth clam (Callista chione). The tools were excavated by archaeologists at the end of the 1940s. Clam shells that wash up on beaches can be distinguished from those that are still live when they're gathered. The beached specimens were opaque, sanded down through being knocked against pebbles on the shore, perforated by other marine organisms and encrusted with barnacles. Most of the specimens at Grotta dei Moscerini fit the criteria of shells that were collected on a beach. But one quarter of them had a shiny smooth exterior, showing no signs of such wear and tear. This suggested they were collected from the seafloor while the clams were alive. Today, Callista chione is most often fished by dredging, using small boats, or gathered by scuba divers in waters off the Adriatic coast that are more than 10m in depth. In the northern part of the Adriatic, however, there are some sand banks where Callista clams can be collected at depths of between half a metre to one metre. In this case, the clams could be caught just by wading.
1-15-20 Trypophobia: Why a fear of holes is real – and may be on the rise
Some people have a visceral fear-like reaction to the holes in sponges, Swiss cheese or seed pods. Known as trypophobia, this response is increasingly common but isn’t what it seems. When Amanda was 12, her mother took her to the doctor because she was scared by the sight of Swiss cheese. Seeded bread made her sweaty and anxious. And Amanda would cry out when she saw pictures of empty honeycomb. One day, she fled in terror from the family bathroom while it was being repaired after spotting its exposed and perforated concrete walls. The only previous clue to her discomfort had come from her fussy eating. Ever since Amanda was a toddler, she had refused to eat certain types of bread or drink raspberry juice because she hated the feel of the textures in her mouth. But by the time she saw the doctor, Amanda couldn’t even look at the seeds in a strawberry without anguish. A psychiatrist said that Amanda (not her real name) had trypophobia. There isn’t much in the medical textbooks about this condition, but you can find lots of information online about how it is a fear of holes. You can follow links to pictures of sponges and the perforated heads of flowers that claim to test and diagnose you. But like much information on the web, descriptions of the condition are misleading. Trypophobia isn’t really down to holes. Or fear. It might not even be a phobia, because new research suggests it is triggered by disgust. Less fear and more loathing. Reliable figures are hard to come by, but some researchers believe we will see an uptick in cases. “It’s something that will become more pervasive and we could be forced to treat it in a more serious way given the changes in our environment,” says Stella Lourenco, a psychologist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
1-15-20 Forget exercise and diet fads – this is the secret of a healthy life
New Scientist columnist Graham Lawton has just written a scientific guide to healthy diet, sleep and exercise – and says the evidence for what works is crystal clear. ON 3 JANUARY, I broke a New Year’s resolution. I tried to stay strong but I cracked. I responded to the Twitter trolls. An extract of my new book This Book Could Save Your Life – a round-up of the science of personal health, based largely on articles in New Scientist – had just appeared in The Times and had been picked up by Apple News. I was about to do a BBC interview, and I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. The tweets burst my bubble. One sneered at me for “just trotting out mainstream nutrition advice”. Another described the book as “crap”. It hadn’t even been published at that point. Hey-ho. Foolishly, I took the bait. My Twitter antagonists seemed to be devotees of the decidedly non-mainstream nutritional advice that saturated fat is good for you. They didn’t like the fact that I said it almost certainly isn’t. Don’t get me wrong. If people want to eat lots of saturated fat, that is their choice. I wrote a book about an evidence-based approach to personal health, but I’m not in the business of telling people what they should do with it. My goal was simply to say: “this is what the science says – use it how you will”. Devotees of alternative diets aside, it turns out that there is a huge appetite for such an approach. Many of us are confused and overwhelmed by the health messages we read, watch and hear every day, some of which appear Most health coverage is based on wishful thinking or is little more than advertising. Promises of quick fixes and the claims of cynical marketeers and self-appointed gurus quickly drown out solid, dependable and – let’s face it – dull mainstream views.
1-15-20 Strange spider-shaped microorganisms could be our distant ancestors
All complex life may be descended from one group of single-celled organisms, whose modern descendants live in mud. These microbes have unusual abilities that would have enabled them to form more intricate cells – and ultimately animals and plants. The microorganisms are called Asgard archaea, after the mythological home of the Norse gods. For the first time, scientists have isolated one and grown it in the laboratory. New Scientist first reported the achievement in August 2019, and the results have now been published. The first Asgard archaea were described in 2015, after their DNA was found in sediments on the Atlantic seabed. Biologists immediately recognised that they could help explain one of the most important steps in evolutionary history: the origin of eukaryotes. The oldest living things are bacteria and archaea. They are all single-celled, with simple internal structures. In contrast, eukaryotes have larger, more intricate cells. All multicellular organisms, from mosses to humans, are eukaryotes. The question is how eukaryotes evolved. The Asgard microbes are crucial because, while they are archaea, they carry many genes that were only previously found in eukaryotes. This implies that they are our closest non-eukaryotic relatives – and that, billions of years ago, eukaryotes evolved from an Asgard archaean. It turns out that Asgard archaea are common. All are named for Norse gods, for example the Heimdallarchaeota group, for a guardian with the ability to see the future. Most recently, a November study identified Gerdarchaeota, named for the Norse goddess of fertile soils, in coastal sediments (bioRxiv, DOI: 10.1101/858530). Furthermore, the link between Asgard archaea and eukaryotes looks increasingly solid. In December, Tom Williams at the University of Bristol, UK, and his colleagues analysed more than 3000 gene families in archaea and eukaryotes. They confirmed that Asgard archaea are the closest known relatives of eukaryotes, and that Heimdallarchaeota is the closest of all (Nature Ecology & Evolution, DOI: 10.1038/s41559-019-1040-x).
1-15-20 DeepMind found an AI learning technique also works in human brains
Developments in artificial intelligence often draw inspiration from how humans think, but now AI has turned the tables to teach us about how brains learn. Will Dabney at tech firm DeepMind in London and his colleagues have found that a recent development in machine learning called distributional reinforcement learning also provides a new explanation for how the reward pathways in the brain work. These pathways govern our response to pleasurable events and are mediated by neurons that release the brain chemical dopamine. “Dopamine in the brain is a type of surprise signal,” says Dabney. “When things turn out better than expected, more dopamine gets released.” It was previously thought that these dopamine neurons all responded identically. “Kind of like a choir but where everyone’s singing the exact same note,” says Dabney. But the team found that individual dopamine neurons actually seem to vary – each is tuned to a different level of optimism or pessimism. “They all end up signalling at different levels of surprise,” says Dabney. “More like a choir all singing different notes, harmonising together.” The finding drew inspiration from a process known as distributional reinforcement learning, which is one of the techniques AI has used to master games such as Go and Starcraft II. At its simplest, reinforcement learning is the idea that a reward reinforces the behaviour that led to its acquisition. It requires an understanding about how a current action leads to a future reward. For example, a dog may learn the command “sit” because it is rewarded with a treat when it does so. Previously, models of reinforcement learning in both AI and neuroscience focused on learning to predict an “average” future reward. “But this doesn’t reflect reality as we experience it,” says Dabney.
1-15-20 Living 'concrete' made from bacteria used to create replicating bricks
A type of living concrete made from bacteria could one day help to reduce the environmental impact of the construction industry. Wil Srubar at the University of Colorado Boulder and his colleagues have used a type of bacteria, Synechococcus, to create building blocks in a variety of shapes. The team combined the bacteria with gelatin, sand and nutrients in a liquid mixture, then placed this in a mould. With heat and sunlight, the bacteria produced calcium carbonate crystals around the sand particles, in a process similar to how seashells form in the ocean. When cooled, the gelatin solidified the mixture into a gel form. The team then dehydrated the gel to toughen it, with the entire process taking several hours. The team liken their living material to concrete, which is a mixture of gravel and sand and cement combined with water. But its mechanical properties are more similar to mortar, a weaker material usually made with cement and sand and found between the bricks of buildings, says Srubar. It isn’t yet as strong as regular bricks. An advantage of using bacteria to create the concrete is that if they aren’t dehydrated entirely, they continue to grow. One brick can be split to create two bricks with some additional sand and nutrient solution. The team showed that one brick could yield up to eight in total after several divisions. “If you use biology and species of bacteria that grow at exponential rates, you could theoretically move from a linear manufacturing approach to an exponential manufacturing approach,” says Srubar. The process has the potential to make energy intensive concrete production more environmentally friendly because of its reliance on photosynthesis. “Concrete is the second-most consumed material on earth after water,” says Srubar.
1-15-20 What it’s like to trip on psilocybin for a scientific research study
My sense of self has always felt like a robust, unshakeable part of my existence, so it came as something of a shock to have it temporarily obliterated. The agent responsible for this unusual experience was psilocybin, a chemical found in magic mushrooms. I have often reported on research into the possible use of psilocybin and other psychoactive compounds to treat depression, so was curious to volunteer for a study assessing the safety of psilocybin in people with no known mental health conditions. Psilocybin has been known to science since 1959 and is the subject of several ongoing mental health trials, but there have been relatively few controlled studies of the substance’s safety – an essential step before any potential treatment could be approved for medical use. A study by King’s College London and Compass pathways, a firm developing a psilocybin therapy for depression, sought to rectify this. I signed up to be one of 89 participants, each of whom was randomly assigned either a placebo or 25 milligrams or 10 milligrams of psilocybin. On the days before and after taking the drug or placebo, we would each have our physical and mental health checked, and our emotional wellbeing and cognitive functioning tested. On the big day, I was taken into a room at King’s College Hospital. Fake candles and an aromatiser helped make it feel a bit cosier, but it was unmistakably still a hospital room. I swallowed five capsules, lay down on a bed, put on an eye mask and headphones, and went into my own thoughts. As the headphones played the kind of music you might expect on a relaxation playlist, I started to see purple patches in my vision. But then I remembered the classic ping pong ball experiment: if you place two halves of a table tennis ball over your eyelids, you can hallucinate without any drugs.
1-15-20 Contaminated banknote images reveal how money gets caked in bacteria
HOW many lives does a banknote touch? Factor in bacteria and the answer is a mind-boggling number. The vibrant notes opposite are part of a touring exhibition by artist Ken Rinaldo that exposes the microbes on your money. In this art, the symbolic exchange of organisms from one nation to another is realised in beautiful, blooming colour. To create it, Rinaldo used international banknotes, including Chinese yuan and US dollars, euros and British pounds and Colombian pesos and more US dollars. The paired notes were mounted on agar plates to encourage the myriad bacteria and other microbes they carry to grow and spread. Currencies have long been a means of colonisation. So, too, have microbes. When Europeans began to settle in the Americas, for example, their diseases killed up to 90 per cent of the indigenous population. Influenced by endosymbiotic theory – the idea that larger, more complex eukaryotic cells evolved through the symbiosis of simpler prokaryotic cells, including bacteria – Rinaldo calls these microbes “the original colonisers”. But he also shows how their transfer can represent the fight for a more open world. Unlike many human travellers, microbes don’t need visas: immune to our borders, they pass freely from note to note. Already featured in galleries worldwide, Borderless Bacteria/Colonialist Cash will next stop at the Art Laboratory Berlin, Germany, from 26 January.
1-15-20 Contaminated banknote images reveal how money gets caked in bacteria
HOW many lives does a banknote touch? Factor in bacteria and the answer is a mind-boggling number. The vibrant notes opposite are part of a touring exhibition by artist Ken Rinaldo that exposes the microbes on your money. In this art, the symbolic exchange of organisms from one nation to another is realised in beautiful, blooming colour. To create it, Rinaldo used international banknotes, including Chinese yuan and US dollars, euros and British pounds and Colombian pesos and more US dollars. The paired notes were mounted on agar plates to encourage the myriad bacteria and other microbes they carry to grow and spread. Currencies have long been a means of colonisation. So, too, have microbes. When Europeans began to settle in the Americas, for example, their diseases killed up to 90 per cent of the indigenous population. Influenced by endosymbiotic theory – the idea that larger, more complex eukaryotic cells evolved through the symbiosis of simpler prokaryotic cells, including bacteria – Rinaldo calls these microbes “the original colonisers”. But he also shows how their transfer can represent the fight for a more open world. Unlike many human travellers, microbes don’t need visas: immune to our borders, they pass freely from note to note. Already featured in galleries worldwide, Borderless Bacteria/Colonialist Cash will next stop at the Art Laboratory Berlin, Germany, from 26 January.
1-14-20 Your microbiome reveals more about your health than your genes do
The microbes that live inside you hint more than your genes do about your likelihood of having health conditions ranging from asthma to cancer and schizophrenia, according to a new analysis. The finding suggests that monitoring the ecosystems of bacteria, viruses, protozoa and fungi that live inside us could help diagnose or even prevent some conditions. “That’s going to change medicine,” says Braden Tierney at Harvard Medical School, who worked on the analysis. However, it also raises privacy issues, because information about this microbiome is currently less tightly regulated than genomic data. “If our results are true, that microbiome data – which is not private – could be telling you a lot more about an individual than even their genetic data,” says Alex Kostic at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, who also worked on the study. “We need to rethink data privacy in the age of the microbiome.” Tierney, Kostic and their colleagues analysed 70 previous studies that had linked complex conditions to genetic variants or to various aspects of the microbiome, such as the microbe species present. They focused on conditions that may be influenced by both genetic and environmental factors, including schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, high blood pressure, asthma and obesity. For 19 out of the 20 conditions that the team looked at, the microbiome was a better indicator than genetics of whether a person was likely to have a condition. The exception was type 1 diabetes (bioRxiv, doi.org/dh92). This is the first study to demonstrate that the microbiome is a good indicator of conditions that may be shaped by our environments. This makes sense, because the balance of organisms in our microbiomes is influenced by a range of factors, including our age, diet, exercise regimes and the medications we take.
1-14-20 Fewer in U.S. Continue to See Vaccines as Important
Widespread public support for childhood vaccines creates a wall preventing contagious diseases like measles and polio from spreading in the U.S., but a breach in that wall appeared in 2015 and it has not been repaired. A recent Gallup survey finds 84% of Americans saying it is extremely or very important that parents vaccinate their children. That matches Gallup's prior reading in 2015 but is down from 94% in 2001.
- 84% in U.S. say vaccinating children is important, down from 94% in 2001
- 86% say vaccines are not more dangerous than the diseases they prevent
- 45% of Americans say vaccines do not cause autism in children
1-14-20 Microbes slowed by one drug can rapidly develop resistance to another
The finding could lead to better ways to prescribe drug cocktails to knock out infections. Infectious bacteria that are down but not quite dead yet may be more dangerous than previously thought. Even as one antibiotic causes the bacteria to go dormant, the microbes may more easily develop resistance to another drug, according to new research. Deadly Staphylococcus aureus bacteria that could tolerate one type of antibiotic developed resistance to a second antibiotic nearly three times faster than fully susceptible bacteria did, researchers report in the Jan. 10 Science. The findings could suggest why drug cocktails used to knock out infections quickly sometimes fail, and may eventually lead to changes in the way antibiotics are prescribed in certain situations. “Tolerance is not as well-known or as well-publicized [as resistance], but [this] work shows it is extremely important,” says Allison Lopatkin, a computational biologist at Barnard College in New York City, who was not involved in the study. “It is very much happening, and we need to pay closer attention to it.” Antibiotic-tolerant bacteria stop growing in the presence of antibiotics, entering a sort of dormant state that helps the microbes weather the drugs’ assault for longer than usual. “They’re just putting their heads down,” says Nathalie Balaban, a biophysicist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Tolerant microbes aren’t capable of overcoming or counteracting antibiotics in the way that resistant organisms do. The microbes eventually die if exposure to the antibiotic continues at a killing dose, and if resistance doesn’t pop up. Such tolerant bacteria may be the source of lingering or recurring infections and especially affect people with weakened immune systems or those with medical implants, such as joint replacements. Doctors may try giving drug cocktails to turn the tide of this sort of infection, particularly for hard-to-kill tuberculosis (SN: 8/16/19).
1-14-20 Wuhan pneumonia outbreak: First case reported outside China
A tourist in Thailand has become the first person outside China diagnosed with a new, pneumonia-like virus that has already infected dozens of people. The woman was quarantined after landing in Bangkok from Wuhan, eastern China, where the outbreak began in December. One person has died and 41 cases of the virus have been recorded so far. It has been identified as a coronavirus, which can cause illnesses ranging from common colds to potentially deadly Sars. Sars - severe acute respiratory syndrome - killed more than 700 people around the world during an outbreak in 2002-3, after originating in China. In total, it infected more than 8,000 people in 26 countries. China has been free of Sars since May 2004. According to the country's official Xinhua News Agency, the female passenger arrived in Thailand on 8 January, where she was hospitalised. No other passengers were infected, it said, adding that the traveller was now ready to return to Wuhan. Separately on Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) said for the first time that there appeared to have been limited person-to-person transmission of the virus, according to Reuters news agency. "From the information that we have it is possible that there is limited human-to-human transmission," Maria Van Kerkhove, acting head of WHO's emerging diseases unit, told reporters in Geneva. She added that the organisation is preparing for the possibility of a wider outbreak: "It is still early days, we don't have a clear clinical picture." Many earlier cases of the virus had reportedly been linked to a fish market in Wuhan. The new case in Thailand comes just ahead of a major travel period in China, as hundreds of millions of people prepare to travel for Chinese New Year later this month. On 9 January, Singapore's airport said it would begin temperature screening travellers from Wuhan. Hong Kong health officials also said they would also implement checks on passengers, and that they had stepped up the disinfection of trains and aeroplanes, AFP news agency reported.
1-13-20 Machine seems to repair human livers and keep them alive for a week
Donated human livers can be kept alive for seven days in a new machine. The device also appears to improve the quality of the livers, say the researchers behind the work. They hope their device will allow more people to get transplants. Human livers are in high demand. An adult in the UK who needs a donated liver must wait 135 days on average for one to become available, and around 17,000 people in the US are waiting for a liver. Part of the problem is the short lifespan of livers outside the body. Standard protocols can keep the organs healthy for around 12 hours, although last year a team cooled livers to -4°C to keep them alive for a day and a half. Pierre-Alain Clavien at the University of Zurich in Switzerland and his colleagues have gone a step further, using a machine to keep human livers alive for seven days. In that time, the organs not only survive, but seem to become healthier, with a decline in the levels of compounds linked to injury and inflammation. The machine provides oxygen and nutrients to the livers, and maintains a pressure similar to that found inside the body. It also clears cell waste products like carbon dioxide. Clavien and his colleagues developed the device over the past four years using pig livers. In the latest experiment, the team used 10 human livers that were too damaged to be transplanted. Six of the livers survived in the device. These livers appeared to be functioning, say the team. The cells continued to perform basic functions such as maintaining basic energy metabolism and making proteins.However, the organs shrank over the course of the week. By the end of the seven days, the six surviving organs were only about a quarter of their original size. But the authors say this is a sign of reduced swelling.
1-13-20 Secrets of '1,000-year-old trees' unlocked
Scientists have discovered the secret of how the ginkgo tree can live for more than 1,000 years. A study found the tree makes protective chemicals that fend off diseases and drought. And, unlike many other plants, its genes are not programmed to trigger inexorable decline when its youth is over. The ginkgo can be found in parks and gardens across the world, but is on the brink of extinction in the wild. "The secret is maintaining a really healthy defence system and being a species that does not have a pre-determined senescence (ageing) programme," said Richard Dixon of the University of North Texas, Denton. "As ginkgo trees age, they show no evidence of weakening their ability to defend themselves from stresses." Researchers in the US and China studied ginkgo trees aged 15 to 667, extracting tree-rings and analysing cells, bark, leaves and seeds. They found both young and old trees produce protective chemicals to fight off stresses caused by pathogens or drought. These include anti-oxidants, antimicrobials and plant hormones that protect against drought and other environmental stressors. Genetic studies showed that genes related to ageing didn't automatically switch on at a certain point in time as in other plants, such as grasses and annuals. Thus, while a tree that has lived for centuries might appear dilapidated due to frost damage or lightning strikes, all the processes needed for healthy growth are still functioning. Dr Dixon suspects the picture will be similar in other long-lived trees, such as the giant redwood, which has wood "packed with antimicrobial chemicals". "Hopefully our study will encourage others to dig deeper into what appear to be the important features for longevity in ginkgo and other long-lived trees," he said.Commenting on the study, Mark Gush, head of horticultural and environmental science at the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society), said the oldest living tree in the world - a Bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) - is estimated to be more than 4,800 years old.
1-13-20 A smart jumpsuit could track development in at-risk babies
A smart jumpsuit for babies can monitor their movement, and may be able to spot any potential mobility issues, allowing early intervention during this critical time window for development. Sampsa Vanhatalo at the Helsinki Children’s Hospital in Finland and his colleagues fitted 22 babies ranging in age from about 4 months old to 8 months old with high-tech jumpsuits. The jumpsuits were equipped with four motion sensors that collected acceleration and position data that was relayed to a nearby phone. The infants were also recorded on video, which was later analysed by three human researchers who logged the babies’ movements. An algorithm developed by the team could identify the babies’ posture and movement from the jumpsuit data. It matched the observations from the videos 90 per cent of the time for posture and 60 per cent of the time from the video. Vanhatalo says his team has recently launched a follow-up experiment that is exploring whether the jumpsuit can spot movement delays in a group of 50 infants, half of whom didn’t receive enough oxygen around their time of birth because of complications, which can increase the risk of developing movement issues. If the technology succeeds, it could help flag which infants might benefit from early intervention, which includes positioning toys to encourage a child to use a weaker arm. There are several risk factors that can lead to babies developing movement issues. These include being born prematurely, a lack of oxygen around the time of birth and neonatal strokes. However, only a small fraction of children who have experiences these events have movement issues.
1-13-20 Analysis of CRISPR baby documents reveals more ethical violations
The seven couples involved in the CRISPR babies experiment in China were misinformed about what it involved, were pressured to take part and faced severe financial penalties if they withdrew after getting IVF, according to a damning analysis of the consent process. The project would have been unethical even if the aim wasn’t to create the first ever gene-edited children, says bioethicist David Shaw at the University of Basel in Switzerland, who carried out the analysis. “It’s just wrong in terms of research ethics,” he says. In November 2018, biophysicist He Jiankui stunned the world when he revealed that two CRISPR-edited children had been born in China to one woman, with another woman pregnant with a gene-edited fetus. From the start, it was clear there were numerous ethical concerns about what had been done. For instance, tests of the edited embryos revealed several problems, but the team implanted them anyway. He’s justification for the trial was to make the children resistant to HIV, but it is likely to have failed to achieve this. Last month, He was sentenced to three years in jail for forging ethical review materials, violating research regulations and causing harm to society. However, the brief announcement by the Chinese state news agency Xinhua gave few details. Meanwhile, Shaw has analysed the consent forms and related documents, which were available for a time in 2018 on the team’s website complete with English translations. “Ethically, things are even worse than they initially appeared,” he writes in his paper. The consent form given to participants began by saying the project was an AIDS vaccine trial, and only later described its real aim, and then in a misleading, jargon-filled way. For instance, it said the babies would be “naturally immunized” against HIV.
1-12-20 Taking the beef out of burgers
Sales are booming for alternative meats. Are plant-based burgers just a fad? Sales are booming for alternative meats. Are plant-based burgers just a fad? Here's everything you need to know:
- Why are meatless burgers so popular? Food scientists believe they've achieved a kind of alchemy, making plants look and taste like meat. Global sales suggest they've largely succeeded. All-plant burgers, nuggets, meatballs, and sausage patties exploded in popularity last year, driven by California-based Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.
- What's their secret? "Meat analogues" such as tofu go back 2,000 years, but these are not your father's frozen veggie burgers. The new faux burgers are engineered to imitate the way ground meat sizzles on the grill, bleeds in the middle, and crumbles in your mouth
- What else are they made of? The new burgers vary in composition, but are largely made of plant proteins — usually soy, but sometimes pea, bean, or wheat — and plant fats. These ingredients are cooked in big pressure cookers, which use low heat and compression to replicate the fibrous texture of meat.
- Is that healthier than meat? Yes and no. Consuming meat is believed to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancer, and humans can develop unsafe resistance to antibiotics by eating animals fed those drugs.
- Is the meat industry alarmed? Stanford University biochemist Patrick Brown, who founded Impossible Foods/';, says it should be. "We plan to take a double-digit portion of the beef market within five years," he said, "and then we can push that industry, which is fragile and has low margins, into a death spiral."
- The environmental impact of livestock: Environmentalists estimate that eating 4 pounds of beef contributes as much to global warming as flying from New York to London, and the average American eats more than that each month.
1-11-20 What we know — and don’t know — about a new virus causing pneumonia in China
There’s little evidence so far of person-to-person transmission, but experts urge vigilance. A mysterious outbreak of pneumonia in central China has preliminarily been pegged to a new coronavirus, but the World Health Organization says there’s no need to panic. Chinese officials have reported little evidence so far of human-to-human transmission, the WHO says, making an epidemic less likely. Coronaviruses can cause a wide variety of illnesses, from a common cold to the more severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. A global outbreak of SARS that began in China in 2003 killed 774 people and infected thousands more (SN: 3/26/03). A different coronavirus sparked another deadly outbreak in 2012, with the illness called Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, killing more than 800 people (SN: 7/8/16). Both of those outbreaks began with the virus jumping from animals to humans, and accelerated by spreading among people. In December, reports emerged of mysterious pneumonia cases in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, with 59 cases confirmed as of January 5. Some patients were vendors at a seafood market selling chicken, bats and other wild animals, raising suspicions of another zoonotic disease. Early tests ruled out viruses associated with SARS, MERS, influenza and other known pathogens. But the culprit was indeed a coronavirus, one that scientists hadn’t seen before. Chinese investigators identified the new coronavirus from genetic material obtained from one patient, the WHO said in a statement on January 9. Here’s what we know — and what we don’t know — about the new virus. “We don’t know a whole lot at this point,” says Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore. “It seems to be a novel coronavirus that can produce viral pneumonia, which was severe in some cases.”
1-11-20 Mummified skin suggests duck-billed dinosaurs were grey like elephants
A mummified dinosaur has skin so well preserved that the remains of blood vessels and pigment can be seen, and analysis of the pigment suggests that the animal had dark grey skin. However, it is possible that the dinosaur’s skin contained other pigments that haven’t been preserved. While paintings of dinosaurs often show them with brightly coloured skin, we actually know very little about their true colours. Most dinosaurs are only known from bones and teeth, and in the few cases where their skin has been preserved, it has rarely been possible to detect pigment molecules. We know more about the colour of early birds because feathers are more frequently conserved. Matteo Fabbri and Jasmina Wiemann at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and their colleagues studied a mummified hadrosaur, or duck-billed dinosaur, which had preserved skin on its flank. When they examined thin slices of the skin, they discovered globules that look like preserved cells and fragments of blood vessels. The skin was unusually thin for such a large animal, and surprisingly similar to that of birds – even though hadrosaurs weren’t that closely related to them. Wiemann, an expert on fossilised molecules who previously found that some dinosaurs laid blue eggs, chemically analysed the material. She found that some original molecules were preserved, in degraded form. “Until now, we saw skin from a morphological perspective, but now we know these kinds of fossils also contain molecular information,” says Fabbri. Crucially, the skin contained small granules containing eumelanin: a pigment that creates a dark grey colour. If eumelanin was the only pigment the hadrosaur possessed, it would have had grey skin like that of a rhinoceros or elephant.
1-10-20 Health scare of the week Hair dye and breast cancer
Women who use permanent hair dye and chemical hair straighteners have a higher risk of developing breast cancer, according to a new study by the National Institutes of Health. After examining medical data and lifestyle surveys from 46,709 women ages 35 to 74, researchers found that white women who had used permanent hair dye in the previous year were 7 percent more likely to get breast cancer in the eight-year follow-up period. For black women, the increased risk was 45 percent. Use of chemical hair straighteners was linked to an 18 percent higher breast cancer risk in both black and white women. Researchers don’t know which of the 5,000 chemicals found in hair products might be of concern, or why there is such a racial disparity. It could be that products designed for black women contain more of the cancer-causing chemicals, or that differences in hair texture affect the amounts of dye that are applied. Still, the risk from these products is relatively low—scientists typically worry only when environmental exposures increase cancer risk by 100 percent or more. “These risks are potentially important,” co-author Alexandra White tells The New York Times, “but we know that a lot of different factors contribute to a woman’s risk of breast cancer.”
1-10-20 23andMe has sold the rights to develop a drug based on its users’ DNA
DNA testing company 23andMe has sold the rights to a new drug that it has developed using its customers’ data. It is the first time the company has signed a deal to license a drug it developed. The deal for the drug, which is being investigated as a potential treatment for inflammatory diseases, is with Spanish pharmaceutical company Almirall. “This is a seminal moment for 23andMe,” Emily Drabant Conley, 23AndMe’s vice-president of business development told Bloomberg. “We’ve now gone from database to discovery to developing a drug.” The drug is likely to be the first of many the company licenses, says Tim Frayling, a molecular geneticist at the University of Exeter, UK. As 23andMe’s genetic database grows – it has doubled in the last couple of years – it will become more likely to yield medically useful information, he says. 23andMe has sold in excess of 10 million DNA testing kits. More than 80 per cent of their customers have agreed to their data being used by the company for research and by scientists trying to understand the causes of diseases and how best to treat them. 23andMe has already formed partnerships with several academic groups. In 2018, the company entered into a four-year collaboration with pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline. It has also been trying to identify potential new treatments since launching its 23andMe Therapeutics division in 2015. “In general, I think it’s really good that human genetic information is useful for drug discovery,” says Frayling. But he questions whether it is fair for the company to financially profit from genetic data that its customers volunteered for medical research. 23andMe’s terms of service state that by signing up for testing: “You specifically understand that you will not receive compensation for any research or commercial products that include or result from your genetic information or self-reported information.”
1-10-20 A face from ancient gum
Scientists have re-created the face of an ancient hunter-gatherer using DNA extracted from a piece of “chewing gum” that was spat out some 5,600 years ago. The lump of chewed birch tar was found at a site in southern Denmark, alongside pieces of wood and wild animal bones. Made by heating birch tree bark, the tar has been employed as an adhesive for hundreds of thousands of years. Neolithic humans used the sticky substance to glue arrowheads to arrow shafts and repair stone tools. Many pieces of tar found at archaeological sites contain tooth marks, suggesting the gum—which has antiseptic properties—was also used to treat tooth pain. From the Danish sample, researchers were able to re-create the entire genomic sequence of the chewer: a woman who had dark skin, dark hair, and blue eyes. It is the first time that scientists have extracted an entire human genome from anything other than human bones. “There are periods where we don’t have any bones, but birch pitch survives very well,” study co-author Theis Jensen tells The Guardian (U.K.). “It’s very intimate. You get so much information.”
1-10-20 We can't use genetics to predict how well children will do at school
Genetic testing cannot tell teachers anything useful about an individual pupil’s educational attainment, as some are claiming. That is the conclusion of a study that looked at how well so-called polygenic scores for education predict a person’s educational achievements, based on a long-term study of thousands of people in the UK. “Some people with a very low genetic score are very high performers at age 16. Some are even in the top 3 per cent,” says Tim Morris at the University of Bristol, UK. “You just cannot make an accurate prediction for any one child.” And while Morris expects the accuracy of polygenic scores for educational attainment to improve, he doesn’t think they will ever be good enough to predict how well an individual will do. Even relatively simple traits such as height are influenced by thousands of genetic variants, each of which may only have a tiny effect. Polygenic scores sum up all these small effects to try to work out the overall impact of all the variants in one person’s genome. It is claimed that polygenic scores can be used to make all kinds of useful predictions, such as how likely a person is to develop various diseases. One company is offering embryo screening based on polygenic disease risk scores. Some researchers – notably Robert Plomin of King’s College London – think that schools should start using polygenic scores for educational attainment. In most cases we don’t know why particular gene variants are linked to academic achievement, but the scores may reflect traits such as persistence as well as intelligence. “There’s so much we can do with this,” says Plomin. For instance, he says children could be tested before they start school to identify and help those who are likely to struggle academically.
1-10-20 Humans are cooling down so average body temperature is no longer 37°C
Everybody knows that the average human body temperature is 37°C – but everybody is wrong. It turns out that the bodies of people in the US have been cooling since the 1860s. Physicians who have studied body temperature have known for decades that 37°C was too high, says Julie Parsonnet at Stanford University in California. “But they’ve always thought that it was just measurement error in the past, not because temperature had actually dropped.” To find out what really happened, Parsonnet and her team combined three data sets. The first covered 23,710 Union Army veterans from the American Civil War, whose temperatures were measured between 1860 and 1940. “It took me a long time to find a database back to the 19th century that had temperature in it,” says Parsonnet. The other data sets spanned 1971 to 1975 and 2007 to 2017. In total, the team analysed 677,423 temperature measurements. On average, American body temperature has declined by 0.03°C per decade. Men born in the early 19th century had body temperatures 0.59°C higher than men today. The data for women doesn’t go as far back, but their body temperature has dropped 0.32°C since the 1890s. That means average body temperature today is about 36.6°C, not 37°C as widely thought. Parsonnet offers two pieces of evidence that the fall is real and not simply the result of older thermometers being unreliable. First, the cooling trend is visible within the more modern data sets, in which the thermometers used were presumably more reliable. “The decline we saw from the 1860s to 1960s, we see the same decline from the 1960s to today,” says Parsonnet. “I don’t think there’s much difference in the thermometers between the 1960s and today.” Second, older people were found to have higher body temperatures than younger people measured in the same year, regardless of when that year was. You would expect to see further differences in data if the thermometers were less accurate.
1-10-20 Homo erectus arrived in Indonesia 300,000 years later than previously thought
Homo erectus reached the Indonesian island of Java some 300,000 years later than many researchers have assumed, a new study finds. Analyzing volcanic material from sediment that had yielded H. erectus fossils at Java’s Sangiran site shows that the extinct, humanlike hominids likely arrived on the island around 1.3 million years ago, scientists report in the Jan. 10 Science. More than 100 H. erectus fossils have been found at Sangiran since 1936, many by local residents. For around the last 20 years, many researchers have accepted Sangiran sediment dates — based on analyses of the rate of decay of radioactive argon in volcanic rocks — that put H. erectus on the island from about 1.7 million until 1 million years ago. Others have disputed that timeline, saying the best evidence points to an H. erectus presence at Sangiran from between 1.3 million and 1.1 million years ago until roughly 600,000 years ago. The new study supports that younger timeline. Researchers, led by paleoanthropologist Shuji Matsu’ura of the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tsukuba City, Japan, analyzed volcanic mineral grains, or zircons, from above, below and within sediment layers where H. erectus fossils had been found. One approach gauged the time since zircons had crystallized, and the other estimated the time since a volcanic eruption deposited zircons at Sangiran. Using two dating techniques not tried before on volcanic material in Sangiran sediment makes the new study “a vast improvement” on efforts to gauge when H. erectus arrived there, says geochronologist Kira Westaway of Macquarie University in Sydney, who was not involved in the study. The earliest Sangiran H. erectus fossils likely date to around 1.3 million years ago, the researchers say. But uncertainties about the original positions of those specimens suggest that some might date to as early as 1.5 million years ago, still later than what some scientists had previously argued. Consistent with that possibility, an H. erectus braincase previously found at another site in Java may date to as early as 1.49 million years ago.
1-9-20 Ancient humans were weirdly slow to cross from mainland Asia to Java
Ancient humans took hundreds of thousands of years to make the journey from mainland Eurasia to Indonesia, according to a new dating study, perhaps reaching Java half a million years later than we previously thought. Homo erectus was one of the first species in our genus, Homo, and is thought to be our direct ancestor. The oldest fossils are about 2 million years old. While the species may have evolved in Africa, it is the oldest hominin known to have roamed beyond Africa. H. erectus migrated across Asia within no more than a couple of hundred thousand years – remarkably fast given that hominins apparently failed to migrate so far over millions of years of earlier evolution. Fossils show it was in Georgia by 1.8 million years ago, in China before 1.6 million years ago and in Indonesia perhaps 1.7 or 1.8 million years ago. However, this Indonesia date has been questioned in the past with some arguing H. erectus reached the islands of South-East Asia no earlier than 1.3 million years ago. To settle the debate, Shuji Matsu’ura of the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tsukuba City, Japan, and his colleagues re-examined the site of Sangiran on the island of Java, which has yielded over 100 hominin fossils. The team took a closer look at the sediment layers in which the remains were found. Crucially, there were layers of volcanic ash within the pile of sediments. The team used two methods to date the volcanic material, constraining the ages of the surrounding sediments. “A best estimate for the first hominin colonisation into the Sangiran area is 1.3 million years ago,” says Matsu’ura, with an upper limit of 1.5 million years. It is unclear why it took H. erectus so long to reach Indonesia, although if the species lacked seafaring skills that might go some way towards explaining the delay.
1-9-20 A sudden Eureka moment can trick you into believing something false
Science is littered with stories of “Eureka!” or “Aha!” moments – the sudden realisation of a great truth. But it turns out that these flashes of inspiration may sometimes lead us astray. Ruben Laukkonen at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and his colleagues asked 300 people to look at a series of statements and decide, on a 12-point scale, how certain they felt about whether the statement was true or not. The team split the participants into three equal groups, giving each a slightly different version of the task. The first group had to solve an anagram to reveal one of the words in each statement. For example, “There are more than 100,000 craters on the nomo” (moon) or “ithlium (lithium) is the lightest of all metals”. The idea was to engineer a Eureka moment amongst participants, and people reported experiencing such a breakthrough 39 per cent of the time. The second group were presented plain statements, without an anagram, and the final group were presented the statements but with the a word withheld for 15 seconds, roughly the amount of time it took for the others to solve the anagram. Participants who had a Eureka moment after solving an anagram rated the statements 7 per cent higher on the 12-point truth scale, regardless of whether the statement was actually true or not. “When you consider that this was driven by something as trivial as an anagram, the effect of a genuine Aha! moment on truth judgements is likely to be much stronger,” says Laukonnen. He speculates that it might underlie some of the effectiveness of fake news. “A well-crafted narrative sprinkled with fake evidence could set the reader up to experience an Aha! moment,” says Laukonnen. “The Aha! moment may be true in the context of the article, but false because the content of the article itself is false.”
1-9-20 The psychology behind the placebo effect just got stranger
We know that placebo drugs – often sugar pills with no medical benefit – can relieve symptoms, even if those taking them are told that they aren’t taking medicine. To work we had thought the person taking the placebo had to understand why it can be effective. But it may be possible to get the benefits of placebos without such detailed explanations. One reason doctors rarely use such placebos in practice is that they require too much explanation. But Tobias Schneider at the University of Basel in Switzerland and his colleagues found that may not always be the case. They used electric shocks to create acute pain in 32 healthy men between the ages of 18 and 37. Half the men were given placebos intravenously during the electric shocks, while the other half only received the electric shocks. Of those given a placebo, half were given a very thorough explanation of how they produce a biological effect while the other half were just given leaflets about the placebo with a short description of how it works. On average, all the men given a placebo rated their pain as 21 per cent lower than those not given one. The level of education about the placebo had no effect on participants’ pain ratings. These results suggest extensive education may not be required when using placebos, says Schneider. He says placebos cannot replace pain relieving drugs but argues that they might be able to prolong their effects or reduce their dosage, lessening side effects such as nausea, vomiting or difficulty breathing. Felicity Bishop at the University of Southampton, UK, says the results suggest there is a potential role for such placebos clinically, but adds that “more evidence is needed as to the effectiveness, safety and acceptability – to patients and doctors – of such practices.”
1-9-20 Illusion involving fake poo and rubber hand tested on people with OCD
A bizarre illusion where fake faeces is put on a rubber hand has been tested on people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – and may one day become a new treatment. Therapies based on this illusion, designed to help those affected get more comfortable with encountering germs, could be less upsetting than existing forms of therapy where people have to see their real hands getting dirty, says Baland Jalal at the University of Cambridge. The original illusion, which was discovered about 20 years ago, involves someone putting one of their hands out of sight, such as under a table, and seeing a fake hand in its place. If someone else strokes both the fake and real hand at the same time, most people start feeling that the fake hand is their own. Psychologists often employ this technique to study how we feel ownership of our bodies, which helps generate our sense of self. But in what may be its most unusual application to date, it has been used to incite feelings of disgust with fake faeces. Jalal and his team used this version of the test on people with obsessive compulsive feelings about hygiene. People with OCD obsess over certain fears and carry out repetitive rituals to feel safe, such as washing their hands again and again. They are usually treated with exposure therapy, helping them encounter their fears without the repetitive actions, so they gradually learn that nothing bad happens. But some find this too distressing and a quarter won’t start the therapy. This is where the fake faeces comes in. The substance was made from foods such as chocolate, peanut butter and flour, but smelled bad thanks to a spray of joke-shop faeces odour. “It smells pretty real,” says Jalal. In an exploratory study, the team asked 29 people with OCD to go through the illusion set-up and then dabbed fake faeces on the rubber hand, while touching their real hand out-of-sight with a damp towel. Although people knew the faeces wasn’t real, they reported feeling contaminated and disgusted. “The patients were terrified of this stuff,” says Jalal.
1-9-20 Global progress in combating child malnutrition masks problem spots
Only 28 of 105 low- to mid-income countries are set to meet WHO’s 2025 hunger-reduction targets. The percentage of children with serious malnutrition decreased around the world from 2000 to 2017, a new study finds. But the problem stayed flat or even worsened in some countries, including swaths of Nigeria, Congo, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Guatemala. And trouble spots remained in even relatively well-off countries such as China and Peru, researchers report January 8 in Nature. “There are areas that have been left behind,” says Damaris Kinyoki, a public health expert at the University of Washington in Seattle. The results were especially disappointing for middle-income countries, she says. “We expected them to have better progress.” Prolonged childhood malnutrition is associated with lifelong cognitive and physical impairments, or even death. It’s difficult to directly measure so researchers use a proxy measurement called childhood growth failure, defined as insufficient height and weight for children under age 5. Typically, growth failure rates are assessed at the state or national level, but that broad geographic scale can obscure more localized health disparities. So municipal leaders can struggle to develop targeted programs for their communities. Now, building on their earlier research in Africa, Kinyoki and her colleagues zoomed in individually on almost 3.7 million five-kilometer-square “pixels” across 105 low- and middle-income countries — an area encompassing 99 percent of all children suffering from malnutrition. The team then estimated annual childhood growth failure rates in each pixel from 2000 to 2017 using information from household surveys representing 4.6 million children. All surveys documented children’s age, weight, height and gender, which the researchers used to calculate the three components of growth failure: stunting (short stature for age), wasting (low weight for height) and underweight (low weight for age). While stunting arises from chronic malnutrition, wasting arises from acute events, such as drought, famine or conflict, and is often lethal.
1-9-20 Mysterious illness outbreak in China seems to be caused by a new virus
The virus behind a mysterious pneumonia spreading in China has been identified by Chinese authorities, according to a statement by the World Health Organization. Tests run on 15 of those who are unwell suggest that they are all infected with a new coronavirus, in the same family as SARS and MERS. So far, the virus has left at least 59 people unwell in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, with symptoms ranging from fever to difficulty breathing. All have received medical treatment in isolation, according to Chinese authorities. Some have since been discharged. Possible cases have been identified outside China. A woman in South Korea, who visited Wuhan in December, has similar symptoms, and is currently undergoing tests to find out if she has the same virus. Thirty-eight people have been admitted to hospitals in Hong Kong with similar symptoms, although 21 of them have since been discharged, according to media reports. Earlier in the week, a suspected case identified in Singapore was found to be unrelated to the cases in Wuhan. Coronaviruses can cause typical cold symptoms, such as runny nose, sore throat and fever. Most only cause mild illnesses, but some are more dangerous. Ten per cent of known infections of SARS, for example, were fatal. And MERS, which has spread in the Middle East since 2012, has a fatality rate of 34 per cent. The new virus in China does cause severe illness in some people, according to Chinese authorities: seven of the 59 infected individuals are critically ill. But there are no reported deaths from the infection. Unlike SARS and MERS, the virus doesn’t seem to spread easily between people, but scientists don’t know enough about the virus to be sure. Some of the people who have become ill worked at a seafood market in Wuhan, which also sold chickens, bats and other wild mammals – suggesting that the virus may have been spread to people from one of these animals. “The general public should avoid this type of market, and avoid eating wild animals,” says Leo Poon at Hong Kong University.
1-9-20 Ancient Romans may have used Chinese medicine to treat coeliac disease
Almost 2000 years ago a young Roman woman living with coeliac disease was struggling to stay healthy – so she may have turned to traditional Chinese medicine in the hope of relief. Chemical residues found in her dental plaque suggest she took ginseng and turmeric, possibly to relieve intestinal problems. As both plants are native to south and east Asia, the find hints at an ancient trade in medicinal plants. The woman’s skeleton was unearthed in 2008 at a site in Cosa, Tuscany. She was about 20 years old when she died, and was buried with gold jewellery suggesting a wealthy background – but she had signs of malnutrition and bone loss. When researchers examined her DNA about a decade ago, they found that she carried versions of immune system genes associated with a high risk of developing coeliac disease, an autoimmune disorder in which people experience symptoms such as abdominal pain when they eat gluten-rich foods. Coeliac disease can result in bone loss. This woman is one of the earliest known cases of the disease. Now, a team led by Angelo Gismondi and Antonella Canini at the Tor Vergata University of Rome, Italy, have examined the plaque that built up on her teeth, which can trap food particles and chemical residues. The team identified tiny starch particles as coming from wheat or a closely related plant, which suggests the woman consumed gluten-rich foods that would have triggered autoimmune attacks. Chemical analysis of the plaque revealed organic molecules that the researchers say are typical markers of local herbal remedies, including mint and valerian – both recommended by Greek and Roman medics of the time as a treatment for stomach ache. More surprisingly, the researchers also found chemical traces that they say are typical markers of turmeric and ginseng. It is unlikely that either plant grew in Italy at the time, but both have traditionally been used as medicines in south and east Asia to treat conditions including digestive problems.
1-8-20 One bad night’s sleep may increase Alzheimer’s protein in your body
Just one sleepless night raises levels of a protein linked to Alzheimer’s disease in the blood of young men. The finding suggests that laying down good sleep habits at an early age may help to ward off the condition. People with Alzheimer’s disease have clumps of two sticky proteins – beta-amyloid and tau – in their brains. Previous research has found that one night of sleep deprivation increases beta-amyloid levels in people’s brains, but less is known about the effect on tau. Jonathan Cedernaes at Uppsala University in Sweden and his colleagues invited 15 healthy young men with an average age of 22 to a sleep clinic. They measured tau levels in the men’s blood once after they had a full night’s sleep and again after a night of no sleep. After the sleepless night, the men had an average 17 per cent increase in tau levels in their blood, compared with a 2 per cent increase after a good night’s sleep. It is only a small study, and we don’t know if the same thing would be seen in women. But the finding adds to growing evidence that people with disrupted or irregular sleep patterns are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease decades down the track, says Cedernaes. “We believe this at least provides an indication that even young individuals should take care of their sleep,” he says. More research is needed to confirm that sleep deprivation increases tau in the brain, since levels in the blood aren’t necessarily indicative of those in the brain, says Cedernaes. Higher blood levels of tau after sleep deprivation could be a sign that the brain is clearing out the protein rather than accumulating it, he says. If tau does indeed accumulate in the brains of young people after sleep deprivation, clinical trials should test whether optimising sleep helps to slow or prevent this build-up, and in turn lowers their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, says Cedernaes.
1-8-20 Why walking your way to better health isn't all about step counting
Changing your footwear could be kind to your knees, a different gait could lift your mood, but the real secret of successful walking is even simpler. Bipedalism is such a precarious way to get about that few species have settled on it. Yet, despite the absurdity of moving while trying to balance on two tiny platforms, we rarely give our steps a second thought. Perhaps we should. Although we all walk more or less the same way, there is enough variation between individuals to easily tell people apart. Such differences could even be used as a biometric password. Some quirks of gait can be problematic though. Small variations in leg swing can mean your heel hits the floor with enough force to damage the knee cartilage. Cases of knee osteoarthritis have doubled in the past 50 years, which some people say is too fast to be explained by longer lifespan or even rising obesity. In that period, though, shoes have become more supportive, which may encourage a more forceful stride. Walking barefoot, or in flat and flexible, minimalist shoes, reduces the stress on your knees. High heels, unsurprisingly, do the opposite. The way you walk can also affect your outlook. In experiments, people manipulated into walking with an “upbeat” gait remembered more positive words from a list, whereas those who walked with a “sad” gait remembered more negative words. Nearly anyone holding a smartphone is likely to walk with their gaze towards the floor. This not only slows you down, but risks neck strain and possible injury. If you want to improve your walking technique, the internet is awash with guides. However, biomechanics researcher Richard Jones at the University of Salford, UK, says there is little evidence that changing your gait reduces your future risk of injury. “Gait is variable and that is fine unless there are symptoms,” he says.
1-8-20 Discover how to sit to dodge the dangers of inactivity
Inactivity is the new smoking and is linked to heart disease and cancer, but we can learn from kids and modern hunter-gatherers to make sitting less dangerous. When it comes to sitting properly, we all know the drill – even if we don’t follow it to the letter. No slouching or crossed legs, buttocks touching the back of the chair and feet on the ground. But even if you are doing it right, sitting for long periods is shockingly bad for you. It has been described as the new smoking, linked to heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. There is no doubt we should all try to do less of it. But perhaps we could also do it better. Chances are you view sitting as synonymous with chairs. This is a peculiarly Western perspective. A classic survey, published in 1953, described 100 different sitting postures adopted by 480 cultures around the world. Among the most common were sitting cross-legged, kneeling and the deep squat, with feet flat on the ground and buttocks resting on or just above it. Even in Western cultures, these are preferred sitting positions among young children. But Westerners tend to enforce chair use from an early age, strapping toddlers into buggies and insisting children sit on seats in school. One big problem with this passion for chairs is that they make sitting so, well, sedentary. Consider the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer people in Tanzania. They spend around 9 hours a day sitting. However, they squat and sit on the ground in various positions, and activity monitors reveal that this entails significant levels of muscle activity. The supportive nature of chairs, with their high backs and armrests, remove this effort – perhaps the reason that people love them. Another problem with chairs is the toll they take on the spine. When standing, our backs naturally have an S-shaped curve. However, when sitting, many people curve their spine into a C shape, compressing the disks between their vertebrae and putting them at risk of back injuries.
1-8-20 Relaxing relieves stress. Here’s the best way to do it
We all need to chill out to reduce our stress levels but does watching TV count? What about running? And what’s the best form of micro-relaxation? After a long day at work, I commute home, put the kids to bed, eat dinner and do the washing up. Finally, at about 9 pm, I sit down with my wife and switch on that most glorious of domestic appliances, the television. It pains me to admit it, but I have been looking forward to this for hours. All of us deserve some time to relax. It makes us feel happy and is the natural antidote to fatigue. There is also mounting evidence that continuously high levels of stress lead to chronic inflammation, which is terrible for our physical and mental health. But is watching the box the best I can do? At least I can console myself that I am not alone. When journalist Claudia Hammond and Gemma Lewis at University College London asked 18,000 people from 134 countries what they do to relax, watching television was among the top 10 activities. And, as Hammond says in her book The Art of Rest, while some see it as “mindless”, it is often a shared activity and so arguably less mindless than solitary forms of relaxation. The survey also found that 68 per cent of people wanted more rest. I feel likewise and wonder whether that is partly because my second favourite relaxation activity might not actually be helping. Running might not be restful for my body, but it clears my mind like nothing else. I ask clinical psychiatrist Patricia Gerbarg at New York Medical College whether that counts. She suggests that I think about relaxation in terms of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Both are involved in unconscious actions, but the sympathetic nervous system ramps up the fight-or-flight response, generating damaging particles called free radicals. The parasympathetic system kicks in when you relax, giving your body a chance to recover.
1-8-20 Eating more slowly and dining with others can boost your health
From the mealtimes you keep and the speed at which you eat to your choice of dining companions, how you eat has a big impact on your health and waistline. We are constantly bombarded by advice on what to eat. But what about how to eat? It turns out that this, too, can have a big impact on your waistline and your well-being. Take mealtimes. Many of us eat our largest meal in the evening. It is worth rethinking this habit. Our bodies are more sensitive to insulin in the morning, meaning the postprandial spike in glucose falls faster after an early meal than after one late in the day. As a consequence, front-loading your daily food consumption is likely to reduce your risk of developing diabetes. It is good for gut health and digestion too. “Gastric emptying and overall gut motility are faster and many enzymes, peptides and bile acids are higher in the morning,” says Leonie Ruddick-Collins at the University of Aberdeen, UK. You will also benefit from regular mealtimes. Eating helps regulate the genes that control your body clock, and the processes coordinated by it become disrupted if you change the times at which you eat. If weight loss is your aim, you can benefit even more from this by confining your meals to a shorter window. Simply by delaying breakfast for 90 minutes and having dinner 90 minutes earlier, people lost twice as much body fat over 10 weeks as those who kept to their usual mealtimes. How fast you eat matters too. Chewing each mouthful 100 times may be overdoing it, but you do eat less if you eat slowly, probably because it takes about 20 minutes for hormones released in response to eating to kick in and make you feel full. Fast eaters also tend to have higher levels of triglycerides in their blood, a key marker of metabolic syndrome. It isn’t clear why. Nevertheless, Indira Paz-Graniel at Rovira i Virgili University in Spain, who led the research, has some tips for guzzlers. She suggests that you focus on your food: sit down and avoid distractions such as television, computer and mobile phones. Eat foods high in fibre that require more chewing. And serve meals that need cutting up, putting your knife and fork down after each mouthful.
1-8-20 We tested the squatty potty to find the best toilet posep
Is toilet squatting really better than just sitting, or are the supposed benefits of a squatty potty just the fantasy of a rainbow-pooping unicorn? For the past few weeks, I have been defecating differently. All my life, when I needed to relieve myself I sat upright on the toilet, feet flat on the floor. Now, I rest my feet on a plastic stool, elevating my knees. The stool is called a Squatty Potty and it is becoming increasingly popular, partly thanks to a about viral video featuring a unicorn that poops rainbow-coloured ice cream. But is squatting really better or is this all just marketing hype? Certainly, sitting upright to void isn’t natural. For most of our species’ history, people squatted, bending their knees and sticking out their bottoms. About two-thirds of people still do this. Of course, “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean “better”. However, medical professionals are starting to implicate conventional toilet use in many abdominal disorders including constipation, bloating and possibly haemorrhoids. And a recent review of sitting upright to defecate even concluded that it was time to “put this unfortunate experiment to an end”. The argument for squatting is all about angles. Most of the time, a muscle called the puborectalis pulls your rectum into a sharp angle, trapping faeces inside. When you defecate, the muscle relaxes and the rectum straightens out, allowing the contents to flow. However, if you sit upright the rectum can’t properly straighten. Squatting eliminates this kink, so should make things easier. A handful of studies have addressed the sit-or-squat dilemma. One found that squatting allowed people to empty their bowels faster and with less straining. Another showed that the rectum really was straighter when people squatted. And a third employed stopwatches to time bowel movements with and without a footstool. On average, they took just 56 seconds while squatting – half the sitting rate.
1-8-20 The zombie world of viruses could hold the key to evolution itself
Notorious for making us sick, viruses are weird, undead organisms – but new insights are revealing they may have created life's glorious complexity in the first place. IMAGINE an alien creature floating in space. It doesn’t grow, communicate or move at all under its own steam. Without a home it is inert. We know very little about it, except that it will start reproducing when it enters the atmosphere of a planet that suits it. Is it living? Is it dangerous? This may not sound like a plausible being, but it pretty much describes viruses, which are little more than bits of genetic material able to replicate only when inside a host. Viruses may seem alien, but they are the most abundant and, arguably, the most important organisms on Earth. They are found just about everywhere, from oceans and forests to the people around you and, of course, in and on you as well. This world of strange, quasi-living things has been dubbed the virosphere, and it is a mysterious one – we know less about viruses than any other life form. But that is changing rapidly. People generally view viruses as synonymous with infection, and there is no doubt they cause some of the most dangerous diseases, including smallpox, AIDS, Ebola and flu. Yet viruses are so much more than indiscriminate killing machines. Our ability to inspect the genetic material they are made of has improved exponentially and, in the past five years, the number of species identified has increased 20 fold. What’s more, it is becoming increasingly clear that these bizarre and diverse organisms play a key role in evolution and may well have been crucial for the origins of life. For sheer abundance, no other group of organisms matches viruses. One study estimates the population of viruses in the oceans alone is as high as 1030. Another puts the total virus population on Earth an order of magnitude higher than that, at 1031, or over a million times more than the estimated number of stars in the universe. According to research published last year, each day some 800 million viruses attached to dust particles fall onto every square metre of Earth’s surface – and we know almost nothing about most of them.XI
1-8-20 AI matches humans at diagnosing brain cancer from tumour biopsy images
An artificial intelligence can now diagnose some cancers from brain tumour biopsy images with the same level of accuracy as humans. The AI analyses high-resolution images of tumours produced using a method called stimulated Raman histology (SRH). Todd Hollon at the University of Michigan and his colleagues generated more than 2 million SRH images of brain tumours from 415 people with known diagnoses. Each image showed a small region of an excised tumour and was labelled with which type of brain tumour it was out of the 10 most common types. The team fed them all to the AI so it could learn from the images to identify tissue features linked to these specific types of cancer. The images had either come from biopsies that remove a small sample of a suspected tumour for analysis or from surgeries to remove tumours. Particularly aggressive tumours can be removed entirely, but this rarely works for brain cancer because the tumours are often integrated into the brain itself. Hollon’s team then put the AI to the test in a clinical trial in which images of tumours from 278 patients with neurological symptoms were randomly assigned to either the AI or to human pathologists to diagnose. The AI’s diagnoses – which take about 15 seconds – were accurate 94.6 per cent of the time, compared with the human accuracy of 93.9 per cent. Accuracy was checked by comparing the visual diagnoses with one involving more lengthy tests in the lab. This AI could eventually mean humans could be taken out of the loop when analysing images of tumours for cancer, says Bilal Mateen at King’s College Hospital. “I’m very optimistic [it] could make a huge difference.”
1-8-20 How to breathe your way to better memory and sleep
More than half of us breathe the wrong way, missing out on many benefits from better health to altered consciousness. Here's how to do it right. IT MAY be the most natural thing in the world, but breathing is surprisingly easy to get wrong – and that matters more than you might think. Most of the time, the right way to breathe is through your nose. The pointy thing stuck to your face is exquisitely designed to trap dust and other foreign bodies in its hairs and snot. Beyond your visible nose lies the nasal cavity, a cavernous space the size of a gaping mouth. This is lined with folded membranes designed to warm or cool the air to body temperature, add moisture and trap pathogens in yet more mucus. Your sinuses – air-filled spaces that connect to the nasal cavity – swirl the air around more and add nitric oxide, which kills bacteria and viruses and relaxes the blood vessels in the respiratory tract, allowing more oxygen to pass into the blood. The upshot of all this is that nose breathing adds 50 per cent more air resistance than breathing through the mouth. That gives your heart and lungs a workout and increases the vacuum in your lungs, which allows you to draw in up to 20 per cent more oxygen than breathing by mouth. As if that wasn’t enough, nasal breathing boosts brain function too. Young mouth-breathing rats were slower to complete a maze than nose breathers and, when they reached adulthood, they had fewer neurons in the hippocampus, a part of the brain important for learning and memory. http://dx.doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3360-17.2018 Studies in people reveal that we also do better on memory tests when we breathe through our noses. The explanation is that the nasal cavity has a direct line to the emotional and memory processing centres of the brain, via sensory neurons that connect to the brain’s olfactory bulb. As well as carrying messages about scent, these neurons sense air moving in and out of the nasal cavity and lock brainwaves to the same rhythm. Synchronised brainwaves then spread beyond the scent-processing brain areas into regions responsible for memory, emotion and cognition.
1-8-20 Electric scooter injuries rose 222 percent in 4 years in the U.S.
Hospital admissions from accidents related to e-scooters grew from 2014 to 2018. Electric scooters are clogging up big city sidewalks and jamming up hospital rooms, too. Using U.S. emergency room reports of e-scooter injuries, scientists estimate there were 19 injuries per 100,000 people in 2018, compared with just 6 injuries per 100,000 in 2014. That’s a 222 percent jump in four years, scientists report January 8 in JAMA Surgery. The spike comes as companies increasingly offer rental scooters as easy, fast and cheap alternatives to cars. Because the researchers relied on U.S. hospital records, they don’t know the reasons for the crashes; alcohol, speed or reckless driving could all have been at play. Information about helmets wasn’t available either, but other studies of e-scooter riders suggest that the protective gear isn’t common. Adults aged 18 to 34 accounted for about a third of the estimated 14,651 e-scooter injuries in 2018. That same year, these young adults also sustained 44 percent of the 1,374 e-scooter injuries that warranted admission to a hospital. The rise in these injuries mirrors the rise of e-scooters in recent years. In 2018, there were more than 85,000 electric scooters for rent in about 100 U.S. cities, the National Association of City Transportation Officials estimates.
1-8-20 Food 'made from air' could compete with soya
Finnish scientists producing a protein "from thin air" say it will compete with soya on price within the decade. The protein is produced from soil bacteria fed on hydrogen split from water by electricity. The researchers say if the electricity comes from solar and wind power, the food can be grown with near-zero greenhouse gas emissions. If their dreams are realised, it could help the world tackle many of the problems associated with farming. When I visited Solar Foods' pilot plant on the outskirts of Helsinki last year the researchers were raising funds for expansion. Now they say they have attracted 5.5m euros of investment, and they predict – depending on the price of electricity – that their costs will roughly match those for soya production by the end of the decade - perhaps even by 2025. I ate a few grains of the precious protein flour - called Solein - and tasted nothing, which is what the scientists have planned. They want it to be a neutral additive to all sorts of foods. It could mimic palm oil by reinforcing pies, ice cream, biscuits, pasta, noodles, sauces or bread. The inventors say it can be used as a medium for growing cultured meat or fish. It could also nourish cattle to save them eating soya raised on rainforest land. Even if things go according to plan – which, of course, they may not – it will be many years before the protein production is scaled up to meet global demand. But this is one of many projects looking towards a future of synthesised food. The firm’s CEO is Pasi Vainikka, who studied at Cranfield University in the UK and is now adjunct professor at Lappeenranta University. He told me the ideas behind the technology were originally developed for the space industry in the 1960s. He admits his demonstrator plant is running some months behind time but says it will be ready by 2022. A full investment decision will come in 2023, and if all goes according to plan, the first factory will appear in 2025. He said: “We are doing pretty well so far. Once we scale the factory from the first one by adding reactors (to ferment protein) and take into account the amazing improvements in other clean technologies like wind and solar power, we think we can compete with soya possibly as early as 2025.”
1-7-20 Healthy babies exposed to Zika in the womb may suffer developmental delays
A small group of toddlers in Colombia missed milestones for movement and social interaction. Babies from Colombia who were born healthy after being exposed to the Zika virus in the womb showed signs of neurodevelopmental delays by 18 months of age, a small study finds. The work supports long-term follow-up of babies whose mothers had the viral infection during pregnancy, the researchers say. As a group, the 70 babies exposed to Zika didn’t hit certain developmental milestones for movement and social interaction around the times expected for healthy, nonexposed babies of the same age, researchers report January 6 in JAMA Pediatrics. Overall, the children lagged in mobility skills such as rolling over or sitting up, and in play skills like peekaboo and searching for an object that has dropped out of sight, says Sarah Mulkey, a fetal neonatal neurologist at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. Within the group, some children developed as expected, some showed obvious development delays, and some showed more subtle delays that caregivers might not have noticed. Because there was variability between individuals, “looking at a population enables one to see overall trends,” says neurologist Ken Tyler of the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora, who was not involved in the research. “We need to aggressively follow all children whose mothers were exposed to Zika during pregnancy to understand the nature of their neurological delays.” Mulkey and her team, including researchers in Colombia, assessed babies born between August 1, 2016, and November 30, 2017 — during and after the Zika epidemic that gripped Brazil, Colombia and other countries in the Americas (SN: 10/30/17). About five to 10 percent of babies born to Zika-exposed mothers in the United States and U.S. territories had severe birth defects, including an abnormally small head and brain damage. But the large majority weren’t born with these defects.
1-7-20 Doctors scramble to identify mysterious illness emerging in China
At least 59 people in China have become ill with a mysterious pneumonia – seven of whom are in a serious condition, according to a local health commission. Chinese authorities still don’t know what has caused the outbreak, but have ruled out SARS, MERS and bird flu. “It seems that a new virus or bacteria might be the cause of the disease,” says Shenglan Tang at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “That is worrying somehow.” The cases, reported to have occurred in Wuhan City, Hubei Province of China, are currently being investigated by Chinese health authorities. So far, there is no evidence that the infection can spread between people, according to the authorities. But it is too soon to definitively say that the infection won’t spread this way, says Tang. No deaths have been recorded so far, but that doesn’t mean the infection isn’t dangerous, says Rosalind Eggo at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “It’s hard to know how severe a disease is, especially a new infection, because you only see the cases that are severe enough to be detected,” she says. “So we can’t say yet what the fatality rate is.” Several of those affected worked in a local market known for seafood. The market was closed on 1 January, according to a report by the Wuhan Evening News. The Wuhan Municipal Health Committee says it will “carry out environmental sanitation and further hygiene investigations”. All of the affected individuals became ill between 12 and 29 of December. The symptoms include fever, and some of those affected have difficulty breathing. Currently, all are receiving medical treatment in isolation, and the people they have had contact with are being evaluated, according to a report by the Wuhan Municipal Health Committee. That committee is also investigating the cause of the infections. As of 5 January, it had ruled out influenza, bird flu, adenovirus (which can cause colds, pneumonia and conjunctivitis), MERS and SARS, which was responsible for 774 deaths in 2003.
1-6-20 The immune cells inside tumours hint at a new way to treat cancers
Sometimes our immune systems can destroy cancer. Now more light has been shed on how this happens with the discovery of tiny clumps of immune tissue that form within tumours. The structures, dubbed immune outposts, seem to improve people’s chances of surviving cancer – and may be turned into a new treatment if they can be encouraged to form artificially. We have long known that the immune system responds to cancer. Some existing medicines work by boosting this response, but they only lead to a cure in a minority of people. Haydn Kissick at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, and his colleagues looked at tumours removed from about 150 people with cancers of the kidney, bladder or prostate. The proportion of T-cells – the immune cells that fight tumours – within the growths ranged from 0.002 per cent to over 20 per cent of the total number of cells. The T-cells weren’t randomly distributed within the tumour, but were clustered in the outposts, which were about a tenth of a millimetre across and sited near tiny blood vessels going into the tumours. As well as the fully developed T-cells, the outposts contained immature T-cells called stem-like cells, which can multiply to produce a constant supply of new immune cells. “They keep pumping out the soldiers,” says Kissick. “You need these things because T-cells are continually dying.” The outposts also contained a second kind of immune cell that picks up and displays cancer molecules on its surface, highlighting them to T-cells as something that needs to be attacked. “These [outposts] are acting like a lymph node but at the site where the fight is taking place,” says Kissick. “It’s like a ground zero.” Lymph nodes, small, bean-shaped nodules in places such as the neck and armpits, are where immune cells learn to fight anything harmful such as bacteria – or cancer cells – by recognising molecules on their surface.
1-5-20 China pneumonia: Sars ruled out as dozens fall ill in Wuhan
A mysterious viral pneumonia that has infected dozens in central China is not Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars), health chiefs have said. They also discounted bird flu and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, and said investigations were continuing. A total of 59 cases have been reported in the city of Wuhan, seven of which are considered critical. The outbreak prompted Singapore and Hong Kong to bring in screening processes for travellers from the city. An epidemic of the potentially deadly, flu-like Sars virus killed more than 700 people around the world in 2002-03, after originating in China. In a statement posted on its website late on Sunday, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said 163 people who had had contact with those infected had been placed under medical observation. It said efforts were continuing to identify the virus and its source. The commission said previously that there had been no human-to-human transmission of the illness. It added that a number of those infected worked at a seafood market in the city, leading authorities to sanitise the area. Singapore and Hong Kong have both set up systems to check travellers arriving from Wuhan for possible fever. Hong Kong has admitted 16 travellers with pneumonia-like symptoms to hospital, the South China Morning Post reported, but none have so far been found to have the unidentified strain. Singapore has had one suspicious case, it added. The World Health Organization (WHO) has said it is aware of the outbreak and is in contact with the Chinese government. "There are many potential causes of viral pneumonia, many of which are more common than severe acute respiratory syndrome coronovirus," a spokesman said last week. "WHO is closely monitoring this event and will share more details as we have them."
1-3-20 A molecule in your skin may explain why some cosmetics cause rashes
A protein in our skin may explain why cosmetic products cause rashes – and also potentially provides clues to prevent such reactions. Annemieke de Jong at Columbia University, New York, and her colleagues wanted to work out why allergens in perfumes, toothpaste and skin creams can trigger an immune response. Through a series of tests, they discovered that many of the allergens activated T-cells of the immune system by interacting with a molecule in skin called CD1a. “The allergens… reversibly bury themselves within the CD1a lipid molecules,” says de Jong. This then activates T-cells which in turn cause an allergic reaction. But the reversible nature of the binding suggests allergic reactions could be stopped. “If you could find a way to outcompete these allergens binding to CD1a, there would be no allergic reaction,” says de Jong. She also adds that it might be possible to find a way to stop T-cell activation in the first place. Though the research was performed in a dish, de Jong says that an obvious next step is to look for a similar response in human skin. Sara Brown at the University of Dundee in the UK says if these findings translate to clinical use, “it would be a great help to many patients whose skin allergies can currently only be prevented by avoiding what they have become allergic to or using steroids to dampen down the immune response”.
1-3-20 Debate over signs of early life inspires dueling teams to go to Greenland — together
3-D images of the site could help other researchers study it from afar. Deep in the heart of Greenland, in an area recently laid bare by melting ice, lies a controversy: A rocky outcrop that some scientists say contains the oldest known signs of life on Earth. Others disagree. So a handful of scientists recently headed to the site to study it together. It’s not easy to identify biological traces within rocks that have been churned and chewed by tectonic pressure and heat over billions of years. But figuring out how best to identify such traces on Earth could help scientists spot those signs on other worlds, such as Mars. The Greenland outcrop, which dates to between 3.7 billion and 3.8 billion years ago, contains strange squiggles just a few centimeters tall. One team of scientists has suggested the wavy pattern was shaped by microbes living in ancient shallow pools (SN: 8/31/16). The microbes shifted sediments until they formed thinly layered structures called stromatolites, geologist Allen Nutman of the University of Wollongong in Australia and colleagues reported in Nature in 2016. Other scientists have rebutted that idea, based on geologic and chemical evidence from samples of the Greenland outcrop (SN: 10/17/18). Astrobiologist Abigail Allwood of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., who led another study published in Nature in 2018, says that visiting the site herself in 2016 and getting a fuller, 3-D picture of the pattern within the entire outcrop was key to her conclusion. With the two camps at an impasse, Allwood says she had an idea: What if a handful of scientists, including members of both teams, studied the outcrop together and compared notes? So in August, Allwood, Nutman and about 10 more geologists, astrobiologists and other specialists helicoptered in to the remote site.
1-2-20 Pumping cold water inside the body could help after heart attacks
Doctors often cool down people who have had a cardiac arrest or stroke to reduce brain damage, usually with water-filled blankets. But doing this with a device that circulates cold water through a tube down the throat to the stomach may have some advantages. In a pilot study testing the device in people who had a cardiac arrest, doctors felt it was more convenient than blankets and patients reached the target temperature within about two hours. While the study didn’t directly compare the new approach with blankets, two hours is relatively fast, says Marvin Wayne at St Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, Washington state. It has been known for some time that cooling people down a few degrees can help after cardiac arrest or stroke. It was thought that cooling to 32°C was necessary, then in 2013 a trial showed it was just as beneficial to keep people at 36°C. Although this is only about 1 degree below normal body temperature, people who have had brain injuries sometimes have a fever, so the cooling avoids this overheating. You have to cool to achieve normal body temperature, says John Andrzejowski at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals in the UK, who wasn’t involved in the study. The internal cooling device, made by US firm Attune Medical, was used on 52 people in the new study, aiming for 32°C or 36°C depending on their doctor’s preference. In 30 people the target temperature was reached using the device alone; in the rest, their doctors felt they needed to add blankets as they weren’t cooling fast enough. But if the new approach helps doctors avoid blankets at least sometimes, that is an advantage, says Wayne. “Blankets get in the way and cover people up – a patient becomes somewhat invisible.” Andrzejowski says a larger randomised trial is needed to check the device doesn’t damage the lining of the oesophagus on its way down to the stomach. “If it does work and it’s not too expensive it sounds promising.”
1-3-20 China pneumonia outbreak: Mystery virus probed in Wuhan
Chinese authorities have launched an investigation into a mysterious viral pneumonia which has infected dozens of people in the central city of Wuhan. A total of 44 cases have been confirmed so far, 11 of which are considered "severe", officials said on Friday. The outbreak has prompted Singapore and Hong Kong to bring in screening processes for travellers from the city. It comes amid online fears the virus could be linked to Sars, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. The potentially deadly, flu-like Sars virus killed more than 700 people around the world in 2002-03, after originating in China. There has been speculation on social media about a possible connection to the highly contagious disease. Wuhan police said eight people had been punished for "publishing or forwarding false information on the internet without verification". The Wuhan health commission said on Friday it was investigating the cause of the outbreak. In a statement on its website, it said it had already ruled out a number of infection sources - including influenza, avian influenza and common respiratory diseases - but did not mention Sars. There has also been no human-to-human transmission, the statement added. However, a number of those infected worked at a seafood market in the city, leading authorities to clean the area. A spokesman for the World Health Organization (WHO) said it was aware of the outbreak and was in contact with the Chinese government. "There are many potential causes of viral pneumonia, many of which are more common than severe acute respiratory syndrome coronovirus," the spokesman added. "WHO is closely monitoring this event and will share more details as we have them. "
1-2-20 Earliest roasted root vegetables found in 170,000-year-old cave dirt
Charred fragments found in 170,000-year-old ashes in a cave in southern Africa are the earliest roasted root vegetables yet found. The finding suggest the real “paleo diet” included lots of roasted vegetables rich in carbohydrates, similar to modern potatoes. “I think people were eating a very balanced diet, a combination of carbohydrates and proteins,” says team leader Lyn Wadley of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. In 2016, her team found dozens of bits of charcoal in an ash layer in the Border cave in South Africa. This ash layer is what is left from the fires of early people. By studying the charred remains of hundreds of modern plants under a microscope over the following years, the team were finally able to identify the charcoal fragments as being the rhizomes – subterranean stems – of a plant from the genus Hypoxis. Seeds of root vegetables and other plants have found at an 800,000-year-old site in Israel where early humans lived, but Wadley’s find is the earliest clear evidence of roasting. The rhizomes of Hypoxis plants can be as rich in carbohydrates as potatoes, although they taste more like a yam, says Wadley. They are still eaten today, though they have become rare due to overexploitation. The abundance of the rhizome fragments suggests that roasted root vegetables were a common part of the diet, contrary to the popular notion that early humans ate a lot of meat. Most versions of the paleo diet, which is supposedly based on what our ancestors’ ate, advise people to avoid potatoes as well as grains. “I’m afraid the paleo diet is really a misnomer,” says Wadley. Our ideas about what early people ate may be skewed by the fact that plant remains are less likely to survive than butchered animal bones – and that researchers seldom look for them. “Many archaeologists are not interested in botanical remains,” says Wadley.
1-2-20 Injecting a TB vaccine into the blood, not the skin, boosts its effectiveness
The BCG vaccine is notoriously bad at preventing the most common form of tuberculosis. Delivering a high dose of a vaccine against tuberculosis intravenously, instead of under the skin, greatly improves the drug’s ability to protect against the deadly disease, a new study finds. Changing the typical dose and method of administration of the bacille Calmette-Guérin, or BCG, vaccine prevented TB in 90 percent of rhesus monkeys, researchers report online January 1 in Nature. Most “astonishing” is that six of the 10 monkeys who received the IV vaccine never even developed an initial infection when exposed to TB, says Joel Ernst, an immunologist who specializes in TB at the University of California, San Francisco. Preventing infection, not just disease — called sterilizing immunity — is extremely rare with any TB vaccine, says Ernst, who was not involved in the study. Thwarting that infection means that no bacteria can reactivate to cause a latent or active TB infection. The BCG vaccine has been around for nearly a century and is the only currently licensed TB vaccine. More than 150 countries, but not the United States, regularly use BCG to protect infants against some forms of TB. But the vaccine often fails to prevent the most common type of tuberculosis infection, in the lungs, in adolescents or adults. Globally, TB infected 10 million people in 2018. It kills about 1.5 million a year, making it the most lethal infectious disease. Up to 13 million people in the United States have latent TB infection, which induces an immune response but hasn’t progressed to active tuberculosis. An experimental TB vaccine that could help protect people with the latent infection from developing active TB is in the works (SN: 9/25/18).
1-1-20 Delivering tuberculosis vaccine directly to veins may boost protection
Delivering the only vaccine against tuberculosis via veins rather than into the skin can dramatically increase its potency and could be a “game changer” in eradicating the disease. Tuberculosis (TB) is the world’s leading cause of death from infection, killing 1.5 million people each year. But the BCG vaccine, which has been around for 80 years and is given at birth or early in life, isn’t very effective against TB infections via the lung as people age. Robert Seder at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Maryland and his colleagues found this could be because of the way the vaccine is delivered. The standard approach is to inject it into the skin. But it turns out to be far more effective when it is delivered directly to a vein. Nine out of 10 monkeys that had the vaccine intravenously were protected from the disease when exposed to it six months later. Just two out of 10 monkeys that received the vaccine into the skin were protected. Monkeys given the vaccine via veins also showed much higher levels of T-cells in the lungs, a key part of the immune system’s protection against TB. The reason for the difference seems to be that giving the BCG vaccine in the skin generates T-cells locally there, and only some of these circulate to the lungs where they can combat a TB infection. The intravenous route sees the vaccine go into lymph nodes around the body, and also into the spleen and the lungs, where it generates T-cells at the site of infection. Tests in humans could be around 18 months off, says Seder. There are still issues to iron out – for instance, it might be hard to organise a mass inoculation programme that delivers a vaccine directly to the vein. There are safety considerations too. “It’s potentially a game changer if we show we can administer it safely,” says Seder.
1-1-20 The global failure to push PrEP is hindering the fight against HIV
The UN set a target of 3 million people on the HIV prevention drug PrEP by 2020 – but lingering prejudice and sheer ignorance of its existence mean we're nowhere near. IN 2016, the UN issued its “Political Declaration on Ending AIDS“, aiming to rid the world of the HIV epidemic by 2030. One target for 2020 was to reduce new HIV infections to fewer than 500,000 by, among other things, reaching 3 million at-risk people with pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) by this year. But this target is set to be missed by a country mile, hindering the global fight. PrEP is a pill containing two chemicals, tenofovir and emtricitabine, that kills HIV before it can infect a person. It can be taken either daily, or at specific times prior to sex, and has been shown to help protect many groups particularly at risk of transmission, including sex workers, intravenous drug users and men who have sex with men. PrEP is both highly effective and works where the use of condoms and other prevention methods may not, for example in cases of sexual assault or needle sharing. It also empowers women, particularly important in sub-Saharan Africa where over half of new adult infections are among women, rising to two-thirds of new infections in young people. Yet PrEP uptake remains underwhelming. In 2018, only 380,000 people were on the medication worldwide. Half of them were in the US, and very few in areas with high HIV prevalence, for example in eastern and southern Africa. “It’s very patchy,” says Rosalind Coleman, a PrEP consultant with the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). Although every person who regularly takes PrEP helps stem the spread of the virus, “it’s nowhere near enough if we want PrEP to have an impact on the HIV epidemic”, she says.
1-1-20 Why dogs could hold the secret to longer, healthier human lives
Our best shot at understanding and even reversing human ageing will come not from studying ourselves, but from 10,000 of our canine companions. IN THE next few weeks, scientists in the US will begin a remarkable medical experiment. They are seeking 100,000 applicants from all walks of life – young, old, rich, poor, urban, rural, fat, thin, black, white, brown. They will winnow them down to 10,000 and then spend years studying every aspect of their health, including why some of them age better and whether drugs might extend their lives. During the trial, the subjects will be taken out for walks and have their faeces collected in bags. They will have their tummies tickled, fetch sticks, chase balls, sniff one another’s butts and urinate against lampposts. Not because those are part of the experiment, but because the subjects are pet dogs. The Dog Aging Project, based at the University of Washington in Seattle, has been years in the making but is finally off the leash. First and foremost, it will tell us a lot about the ageing process in dogs, says project leader Daniel Promislow. But the real goal is to understand more about how we ourselves age, and how we might slow it down or even reverse it. It seems our best shot at defeating human ageing will come from studying not ourselves, but 10,000 of our best friends. The idea of using animals as proxies to study our own ills is nothing new. The edifice of modern human medicine is largely built on animal experiments, particularly mice altered to get human diseases, which can be used to test treatments. But useful as these are, they can only get us so far. Lab mice aren’t humans, and the gulf between them and us is almost always too wide, with most experimental drugs falling by the wayside. Experiments on monkeys and chimps can bridge the gap, but are ethically unacceptable.
1-1-20 For the love of dog: How our canine companions evolved for affection
It's not just the food, your dog really does love you - and researcher Clive Wynne has done the studies to prove it. CLIVE WYNNE has long been fascinated by other creatures’ minds. He studied the behaviour of pigeons, rats and marsupials, but came to realise that he was more interested in how people and other species interact with each other. So he shifted his focus to dogs, the animal we have the longest and most intimate relationship with. At that time, the idea was emerging that what makes dogs unique is their ability to read human gestures. It began with a simple experiment: a piece of food is hidden under one of two cups, but the dog doesn’t know which. A human then points at the cup with the food and the dog follows their gesture to it. Simple enough, right? Yet experiments showed that other species, even chimps, couldn’t do it. Dogs, it seemed, were geniuses at social cognition. Yet as Wynne dug into this idea, it started to fall apart. Instead, he began to think that what set dogs apart was something much more woolly: love. As his new book Dog is Love details, finding rigorous ways to test this idea wasn’t simple. When we went to Wolf Park [a research facility in Indiana that houses wolves socialised to humans] in 2007, we were flabbergasted by what we found. We did these simple pointing tests, tests of social cognition, and the wolves were every bit as good at it as dogs. We realised that wolves hand-raised by people show sensitivity to what people are doing. The same has been found with bats raised by people, as well as horses, goats and dolphins. Geneticist Bridgett vonHoldt [at Princeton University] looked through the dog genome and found areas that showed evidence of recent rapid evolution, which is to say impacts of domestication. There was one particular section of a dog chromosome where, in humans, the genes are implicated in Williams-Beuren syndrome. This syndrome has many impacts but one is exceptional gregariousness. From DNA samples taken from dogs and wolves, it turned out that three of the genes involved in Williams syndrome are correlated with this difference in the behaviour of dogs and wolves.
1-1-20 AI system is better than human doctors at predicting breast cancer
An artificial intelligence system is better at predicting breast cancer than radiologists, according to a UK-US study led by Google Health. The team behind the technology hopes it can be widely deployed to improve cancer care. Catching cancer early improves the chances of treatment succeeding. That is why many countries routinely screen women for signs of breast cancer using an X-ray scan called a mammogram. In the UK, women aged between 50 and 71 are invited for a scan every three years. The American Cancer Society recommends annual scans for women aged between 45 and 54, and suggests that women aged 55 and over have a scan every one or two years. But such programmes are far from perfect. Radiologists can miss signs of cancer in some women, while others may be prescribed harsh chemical and surgical treatments for lesions that might never have caused cancer. Over a 10-year period, half of women in the US who have a mammogram will have a false positive result. In 2014, one large Canadian study found that women given annual breast scans were no more likely to survive breast cancer in the long run. In an attempt to improve diagnoses, Shravya Shetty at Google Health and her colleagues trained an AI system on 91,000 mammograms taken from women in the UK and US. In each case, women were followed for two or three years to confirm whether or not they developed breast cancer. The team then tested their AI system on 28,000 other mammograms. When compared with radiologists’ opinions, the AI system delivered 5.7 per cent fewer false positive results in the US sample and 1.2 per cent fewer false positives in the UK sample. Those figures may sound small, but given that 65 per cent of women aged 40 and over in the US have had a mammogram in the past two years, they represent huge numbers of women.
1-1-20 A computer made from DNA can compute the square root of 900
A computer made from strands of DNA in a test tube can calculate the square root of numbers up to 900. Chunlei Guo at the University of Rochester in New York state and colleagues developed a computer that uses 32 strands of DNA to store and process information. It can calculate the square root of square numbers 1, 4, 9, 16, 25 and so on up to 900. The DNA computer uses a process known as hybridisation, which occurs when two strands of DNA attach together to form double-stranded DNA. To start, the team encodes a number onto the DNA using a combination of ten building blocks. Each combination represents a different number up to 900, and is attached to a fluorescence marker. The team then controls hybridisation in such a way that it changes the overall fluorescent signal so that it corresponds to the square root of the original number. The number can then be deduced from the colour. The DNA computer could help to develop more complex computing circuits, says Guo. “DNA computing is still in its infancy, but holds great promise for solving problems that are too difficult or even impossible to handle by current silicon-based computers,” he says. Guo believes DNA computers may one day replace traditional computers for complex computations.
1-1-20 Tiny T. rex fossils aren't a new species - they are just teenagers
Sometimes the simplest explanation is the right one. Two controversial dinosaur skeletons have been held up as evidence that Tyrannosaurus rex shared its environment with a second, tiny species of tyrannosaur. Now, a detailed study of the fossilised leg bones suggests the diminutive dinos are really just teenage T. rexes. The two skeletons, one nearly complete, were discovered in the early 2000s in rocks known as the Hell Creek Formation, which spans Montana, Wyoming and North and South Dakota. The formation also yielded some of the first T. rex bones, early in the 20th century. The more complete specimen is nicknamed Jane, and the other is nicknamed Petey. Along with one other small skull found in 1942, they have been used to argue for a new type of dinosaur called Nanotyrannus, which was like a T. rex but smaller. As researchers performed more detailed analysis of the specimens, it seemed more and more likely that the small predators were simply young T. rexes, but there was still some disagreement. The newest analysis by Holly Woodward at Oklahoma State University and her colleagues may be the final nail in the coffin of Nanotyrannus. All modern vertebrates have a period every year where bone growth briefly pauses. We don’t know exactly why this happens, but it leaves a circle in every bone that shows when the growth stopped, Woodward says. “We can just count the rings like with a tree to find the dinosaur’s age.” Woodward and her team counted the rings in Jane and Petey’s femurs and tibias. They found that Jane was probably around 13 years old and Petey about 15 when they died. Other fossils such as Sue, one of the largest and most complete T. rex skeletons we’ve found, have shown that T. rexes lived to around 30, so that makes Jane and Petey adolescents. Because they are so young, there is no need to invoke a whole new species to explain their small size.
1-1-20 Could relatives of measles virus jump from animals to us? Some European countries, including the UK, lost their measles-free status and many developing countries, especially parts of Africa, Asia and Oceania are seeing frequent outbreaks. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is experiencing a protracted outbreak of over a quarter of a million cases and more than 5,000 deaths, mainly in children under-five. And the reason for this measles upturn? Declining uptake of measles vaccination. You need to immunise over 90% of a population to protect it from measles outbreaks. In DRC immunisation rates are less than 60%. And there's a potential hidden danger of poor vaccine coverage. Measles belongs to a group of highly related viruses called morbilliviruses, which can be found in various mammals, and these are adept at jumping from one host species to another. The common ancestor of measles virus is thought to have been a virus circulating in cattle which, according to Louise Cosby, emeritus, honorary professor at the Wellcome Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine, "probably jumped into humans when cattle were domesticated thousands of years ago". "There are also historical records which suggest that canine distemper virus - or CDV - might have arisen from human measles in the Americas, following one or more human-to-dog spill-overs during extensive measles outbreaks in indigenous people, who were exposed to the virus for the first time when they came into contact with European explorers," she explained. A cross-species spill-over is the transmission of a pathogen from one vertebrate species to another. As CDV has spread around the world, there are many examples of it hopping into other species including seals, cats and even monkeys - often with devastating effects. In the 1980s, this virus wiped out the last wild population of black-footed ferrets and is even putting some endangered big cat species in peril. To be able to flit from one species to another, a virus often has to adapt in order to use the new host cell machinery. We call these potential host-blocks to virus infection the species barrier. The first barrier a virus must overcome is cell attachment and entry. According to Dr Dalan Bailey, a virologist based at the Pirbright Institute, what makes morbilliviruses so adept at cross-species transmission is that the proteins it commandeers to do this are very similar across different mammalian species, so the species barrier is low. And this could pose a potential future risk to human health. "We've definitely got evidence that non-human morbilliviruses can easily adapt to enter human cells, and we're confident that it can replicate in them too," Dr Bailey said. It takes just two simple mutations in one of CDV's surface proteins to allow it to infect human cells.
1-1-20 How big data can answer fundamental questions about human health
Britain is profiling the genes, health, and lifestyles of its citizens and handing the results to scientists across the world. Fly into Britain's Manchester Airport these days and you might spot a new landmark amid the urban sprawl on the ground below. Two huge white cylinders stand sentinel: the only outward sign of a massive biomedical project that promises a revolution in science and health care. And like all revolutions, this one is born in blood. The cylinders pump liquid nitrogen into a facility called the U.K. Biobank. Inside the walls of this anonymous-looking industrial unit, scientists hold the bodily fluids of half a million Britons in state-of-the-art, robot-managed freezers. Research does not come more open-access than this. Blood biochemistry, genetic analysis, images of brains, hearts, and other organs — all the internal secrets of volunteers — are combined with intimate personal confessions about lifestyle, such as how many sexual partners someone's had, how much alcohol they drink, and if they routinely drive faster than the motorway speed limit. The results of that largesse are flowing. In a given month, dozens of scientific studies can appear based on U.K. Biobank data. They range from the curious — how many cups of coffee can safely be consumed in a single day — to the fundamental, such as the discovery that specific gene variants are associated with disease or healthy life expectancy. And in an area of research where size is crucial, such studies count their volunteers not by the hundred or the thousand, but by the hundred thousand. More than a century after Ernest Rutherford's Manchester lab showed the world how to unlock the secrets inside the atom, the city is showcasing how Big Data can answer fundamental questions about human health. "The U.K. Biobank is the gold standard right now," says Josh Denny, a researcher in biomedical informatics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. "Worldwide it's the benchmark of an open-access large database with rich information and genetics." Denny published an article on this subject — using clinical data to get the most out of genomic research — for the Annual Review of Biomedical Data Science in 2018. "What we do when we bring health care and genetics data together is to get at the outcomes that are important to us," he says.