2-29-20 The growing viral threat
Infectious disease experts warn that it's inevitable that a virus will jump from animals to humans and kill tens of millions. Here's everything you need to know:
- Why are experts worried? Picture a new viral disease like the Wuhan coronavirus, now called COVID-19, that passes easily from person to person and spreads rapidly around the globe. But unlike COVID-19, which kills perhaps 2 or 3 percent of its victims, this virus kills 20 percent of those infected.
- Where would such a virus come from? The most likely scenario is a pathogen that jumps from animals to humans and can spread through the air. The outbreak of COVID-19 was traced to a live-animal market in Wuhan, China, where a bat virus appears to have added some genetic material from a soldierfish.
- Why is this more of a problem now? Human population growth. People are encroaching on previously wild areas where unknown viruses and bacteria lurk in animals; those who become infected carry the pathogens back to densely packed cities, where disease is easily spread.
- Are we prepared for a major pandemic? Not at all. A report released last October by the Global Health Security Index found glaring gaps in readiness; out of 195 countries surveyed, not one was judged fully prepared to handle a major event.
- What needs to be done? Experts say the U.S. and other countries need to spend vastly more money on pandemic preparedness. We need to develop better diagnostic tools, stockpile drugs and vaccines, and fund research into new treatments and vaccine technologies.
- It's happened many times before: Epidemics have been a fact of life since the first human settlements. As humans built cities and trade routes, the capacity for pandemics grew, and history is marred by many devastating outbreaks. The earliest on record dates to 430 B.C.
2-29-20 Coronavirus: Unexplained West Coast cases raise fears in US
Officials on the US West Coast have reported three unexplained coronavirus cases, raising concerns the virus could be spreading within the community. The patients - in California, Oregon and Washington State - have no known connection to a badly hit country. A total of 59 coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the US, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Meanwhile South Korea, which has the highest number of cases outside China, mobilised the army on Saturday. Soldiers are disinfecting large parts of Daegu, the south-eastern city that has been at the centre of the country's coronavirus outbreak. South Korea on Saturday reported a sharp rise in the number of cases of the Covid-19 disease. It now stands at 3,150. The respiratory illness has killed 17 people in the country so far. On Friday health officials in California's Santa Clara County said an older woman with chronic health conditions had been diagnosed with Covid-19. Officials say she is not known to have travelled to a country badly affected by the virus or been in contact with a person who had. "This new case indicates that there is evidence of community transmission but the extent is still not clear," said Dr Sara Cody, director of the Santa Clara County Public Health Department. Oregon health officials said a school employee in Clackamas County had tested positive for the virus. In Washington State, authorities said another case concerned a high school student in Snohomish County. Neither had any contact with a known case nor any history of travel to an affected region. These bring the total of unexplained cases in the country to four, after another such case was reported in California on Tuesday. The Democratic Party has criticised President Donald Trump's response to the outbreak, arguing that he has contradicted his own health officials and tried to downplay the severity of the virus.
2-28-20 Covid-19: Turning into a pandemic
“We are at a turning point,” said Julia Belluz in Vox.com. Efforts to stop the spread of the new coronavirus, or Covid-19, haven’t worked—and a pandemic is likely. Despite the travel bans, the masks, and the millions on lockdown, the flu-like virus has spread to 37 countries, infecting at least 80,000 and killing over 2,600. Italy, Iran, Japan, and South Korea are all battling serious outbreaks. Evidence is mounting that the virus can be passed on by people without symptoms and is “spreading like a wildfire” in contained environments. Fears sent stocks plummeting Monday and Tuesday. Nancy Messonnier of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases said an outbreak in the U.S. was inevitable and warned the public: “This might be bad.” Trying to stop this virus is “like trying to stop the wind,” said Michael Osterholm and Mark Olshaker in The New York Times. It spreads fairly easily through the air, via droplets from sneezes or coughs, and through contact with infected people and surfaces. That means our focus needs to shift from containment to preparing for the reality that “what happened in Wuhan will likely play out elsewhere.” The U.S. needs to make sure health-care workers and hospitals are prepared and well-equipped. “Facing the hard facts” will require the government to be honest and direct. In other words, we need the exact opposite of President Trump’s blithe reassurances, said Russell Brandom in TheVerge.com. In a bid to calm the markets, he falsely claimed that we’re “very close” to a vaccine. Our know-nothing president has “minimized the threat and spread bizarre lies.” “The next few months are likely to test all of us,” said David Fickling in Bloomberg.com. On a personal level, we need to follow some basic practices: hand washing, keeping hands from faces, limiting contact with busy surfaces like elevator buttons, and keeping basic supplies and essential medications on hand. “Don’t panic,” said Jon Evans in TechCrunch.com. Keep in mind that the mortality rate may be far lower than the “headline 2 percent,” due to undiagnosed cases among those with mild or no symptoms. For a period of time, schools may be closed, and you may be working from home. “But it will be very far from the end of the world.”
2-28-20 UN biodiversity summit could move from China due to coronavirus
A major United Nations biodiversity summit set for October could be moved from China because of the coronavirus outbreak, New Scientist has been told. The Convention on Biological Diversity “COP15” conference was due to be held in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, to negotiate targets to stop the loss of animals and plants globally. China’s role as host has been hailed as a chance for the country to showcase some of the solutions to biodiversity loss, such as tree-planting. But the landmark meeting will “almost certainly” be moved to another country because of concerns over the virus’s spread, according to a senior official with knowledge of the matter. The summit will not be cancelled or postponed, they said. Montreal, home to the CBD secretariat, or Bonn, where the UN has a large convention centre, are the two main candidates for a new location, the source said. They added that no other country has stepped forward yet to offer to host, as Spain did for Chile with the UN climate talks last year, after civil unrest in Santiago. A CBD spokesperson said: “The plans are to hold the meeting in Kunming.” The CBD has been monitoring the impact of coronavirus on the biodiversity summit. With coronavirus cases reported in Kunming, a meeting this week of a CBD working group had already been moved from the Chinese city to Rome. While this week’s talks in Rome have been described as constructive, reports say they have also seen tensions emerge over the issue of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, UN jargon for the fact that poorer countries will need more support to stem biodiversity loss than richer ones. The discussions in Rome are designed to make progress on the first draft text to be agreed in October, where it is hoped governments will agree new biodiversity goals beyond 2020.
2-28-20 Promiscuity and cancer
People who have had more sexual partners appear to have a higher risk of developing cancer—especially women. Some sexually transmitted infections are linked to cancer, so researchers had expected to find an association between the disease and an individual’s number of partners. But they were surprised by the starkness of the gender divide, reports USNews.com. The study involved 5,722 men and women, with an average age of 64. The women who had had 10 or more lovers were 91 percent more likely to have had cancer than those who said they had either one or zero. Among men, the risk among those with the most partners was 64 percent higher than those with the least. Women with higher numbers of past partners did tend to drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes more frequently—habits that elevate cancer risk. Still, study coauthor Lee Smith says the gender divide is “interesting” and suggests it may be because “the link between certain STIs and cancer is stronger in women, such as HPV and cervical cancer, compared to HPV and penile cancer.”
2-28-20 Jellyfish with ‘grenades’
If you’re scared of jellyfish, you’ll definitely want to avoid Cassiopea xamachana, a species found in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the warmer parts of the Western Atlantic. Scientists have discovered that these so-called upside-down jellyfish emit tiny balls of mucus-surrounded cells that swim around stinging anything in their path. Lead author Cheryl Ames, from Tohoku University in Japan, says these “self-propelled microscopic grenades” are designed to stun and kill small fish and other prey; once the target is neutralized, the jellyfish sucks it in by pulsating. “It’s a real evolutionary novelty,” Ames tells New Scientist. She and her team put brine shrimp into a tank with the jellyfish. The jellies released their stinging proxies, named cassiosomes, which killed the brine shrimp in under a minute. Cassiosomes can survive outside their hosts for up to 10 days in the lab, likely because the algae within them generates energy through photosynthesis. The discovery explains why divers have reported feeling “stinging water” in the vicinity of upside-down jellyfish.
2-28-20 The ‘ghost’ DNA that complicates our evolutionary story
Scientists say they have found evidence of a “ghost population” of ancient humans whose existence was previously unknown—further complicating the picture of how modern humans evolved. Unusually, evidence of these mysterious ancestors doesn’t come from bones or ancient DNA but from the genes of modern West Africans, reports NPR.org. Our own species, Homo sapiens, lived alongside other groups of hominins such as Neanderthals and Denisovans for thousands of years and sometimes mated with them. The legacy of those relations can be found in modern humans: Most people outside Africa have about 2 percent Neanderthal DNA. But this new “ghost” DNA, signs of which researchers found in hundreds of people in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, isn’t associated with any known species. The researchers believe that the mystery population split some 1 million years ago from the lineage that led to modern humans, and that the Homo sapiens ancestors of West Africans bred with the ghost species about 50,000 years ago. That’s roughly the same time that Neanderthals were breeding with humans in Europe and Asia. Scientists are unsure what happened to the ghost population, and why no fossil records have been discovered. Lead author Sriram Sankararaman, from the University of California at Los Angeles, says more ghost populations might be discovered in coming years. “It’s almost certainly the case,” he said, “that the story is incredibly complex and complicated.”
2-28-20 A sedan-size turtle
Paleontologists have unearthed the remnants of a colossal turtle that patrolled northern South America some 10 million years ago. The Stupendemys geographicus grew up to 13 feet long and weighed 1.25 tons, and inhabited a giant wetland that once covered the region. These creatures were built for battle, reports Reuters.com. Fossils dug up in Colombia’s Tatacoa Desert and Venezuela’s Urumaco region—including a 9½-foot-long shell, the biggest ever found—show that males had front-facing horns on their shells that they may have used to tussle with other males over mates. Some Stupendemys fossils have bite marks and punctured bones, evidence of skirmishes with giant crocodilians. The enormous turtle’s diet “was diverse, including small animals—fish, caimans, snakes—as well as mollusks and vegetation,” said lead researcher Edwin Cadena, from the Universidad del Rosario in Colombia. The turtles died out about 5 million years ago, after the formation of the Andes dried out their watery habitat.
2-28-20 The viral test
Viruses, strictly speaking, are not alive. They are tiny sets of genes bundled within protein shells, with one singular function — to replicate. Lacking cells or other common features of living organisms, viruses are parasitic zombies. They infect living cells, hijack the genetic machinery, and mass-produce replicas of themselves. (A single sneeze can release 100,000 viruses into the air.) The common cold is a virus, and so are influenza, measles, HIV, and Ebola. The new coronavirus, Covid-19, has joined the list of humanity's viral scourges, after apparently jumping species from its original host, bats. It has sickened more than 80,000 people and, infectious-disease experts say, it's coming to America. One way or another, it will affect all of our lives. As Covid-19 relentlessly advances, there is much scientists and doctors do not yet understand. Infection produces widely varying responses. Some people have no symptoms, but can still transmit the virus to others. A majority suffer only mild respiratory distress. Others become severely sick, with flu-like aches and high fever and pneumonia. Deaths occur when the infections trigger an out-of-control immune response, creating a "cytokine storm" that inflames and shuts down the lungs. Scientists estimate a mortality rate of 2 to 3 percent. If there are major outbreaks in the U.S., authorities may discourage people from congregating in crowds, and may temporarily shut schools and curtail travel. The economy could take a significant hit. Covid-19 may even have an unpredictable impact on the presidential race. Americans tend to overreact to such disruptions; protected by our oceans and relative affluence, we expect to be exempt from problems affecting places like China and Italy. Now we face a mindless invader thousands of times smaller than a grain of sand — one that knows no national boundaries. Covid-19 will test our strength, our social cohesion, and our leaders.
2-28-20 An ancient magma ocean may have once driven Earth’s magnetic field
Molten silicate might solve a long-standing magnetic mystery. Billions of years ago, Earth’s magnetic field may have gotten a jump-start from a turbulent magma ocean swirling around the planet’s core. Our planet has generated its own magnetism for almost its entire history (SN: 1/28/19). But it’s never been clear how Earth created this magnetic field during the planet’s Archean Eon — an early geologic period roughly 2.5 billion to 4 billion years ago. Now, computer simulations suggest that a deep layer of molten rock-forming minerals known as silicates might have been the culprit. “There’s a few billion years of Earth’s history where it’s difficult to explain what was driving the magnetic field,” says Joseph O’Rourke, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University in Tempe who was not involved with this study. This new result, he says, is a “vital piece of the puzzle.” Today, Earth’s magnetism is likely generated in the planet’s outer core, a layer of liquid iron and nickel. Heat escaping from the solid inner core drives flows of fluid that create circulating electric currents in the outer core, turning Earth’s innards into a gigantic electromagnet. The outer core, however, is a fairly recent addition, appearing roughly a billion or so years ago, and ancient rocks preserve evidence of a planetwide magnetic field much earlier than that. So, some other mechanism must have been at work during Earth’s formative years. One candidate for Earth’s first go at a magnetic field is a sea of liquid rock hypothesized to once have surrounded the young planet’s nascent core. To see if this ocean of molten silicates is a viable option, Lars Stixrude, a geophysicist at UCLA, and colleagues developed computer simulations to estimate the electrical properties of silicates at extreme temperatures and pressures.
2-27-20 How I went from selling MDMA to researching the science of its effects
Christopher Medina-Kirchner used to be a drug dealer. Now he is a researcher looking at their effects, and says society's views on drugs and addiction need updating. I study the effects of recreational drugs on humans. Our goal is to contribute to the limited empirical database on their effects. I went to prison as a teenager for selling MDMA [ecstasy]. After my sentence, I decided that I would redeem myself by studying the drug I sold. A study in which people were given up to three MDMA doses in 24 hours. We know that in the real world people tend to take multiple doses on this timescale. I’m happy to report that we observed no cardiotoxicity or other worrying findings. I wanted to be a professional boxer. If we are talking about high school then definitely not. I dropped out after three semesters. However, I did well on the science portion of the GED [the US high-school-level test for over 16s]. My felony has made it very hard to find jobs and housing while pursuing higher education. In my view, a 2012 study led by Carl Hart changed the game. It showed that studies finding cognitive problems associated with methamphetamine use are beset by statistical errors and bias. It seems like scientists are more careful in how they talk about drugs now. The “attractive alternative” studies, also led by Hart. They brought crack cocaine users into a lab and offered them $5 cash or a hit of pure, pharmaceutical-grade crack worth more than $5. Five dollars was enough to stop them taking the drug half of the time. When the reward was raised to $20, the participants barely took the offered drug. They almost always chose the money. A shift away from the brain disease model of addiction. There is virtually no scientific evidence to support this view. Go to school and do well. Otherwise you’ll have to learn what you missed in your own time.
2-27-20 We process a song's lyric and melody on different sides of the brain
Speech and music are highly complex forms of communication that are mostly unique to humans. How our brains distinguish both at once when they are blended together in songs has been a mystery – until now. Previous research has studied speech and sounds, but not music. Philippe Albouy at McGill University in Canada and his colleagues created 100 unique a cappella songs by crossing 10 sentences in French or English with 10 original melodies. They played the songs to 27 French speakers and 22 English speakers, manipulating different elements of the songs to understand how the participants perceived the words and melodies. They tested two languages to see if the results would be the same for both. The researchers found that the ability to recognise lyrics is heavily reliant on a song’s timing patterns. Speech contains multiple syllables per second, making its time structure more important than that of melodies, which tend to be more fluid. When the team distorted time elements in the songs, the participants could still identify the melodies but could no longer understand the lyrics. In contrast, our capacity to recognise melodies seems to depend more on their frequency patterns. When the researchers distorted the frequencies of the songs, the participants could still understand the words but could no longer identify the melodies. Next, the experiments were repeated while the participants’ brains were scanned using functional MRI. This revealed that the left half of their brains detected the timing information that allowed word recognition, while their right halves detected the frequency information required to identify melodies. The findings are consistent with previous observations that suggest damage to the brain’s left hemisphere is more likely to affect speech abilities, while damage to the right is more likely to impair musical abilities.
2-27-20 The persistent myth of sex addiction
Either we're all sex addicts or nobody is. According to every online test I've taken, I'm a sex addict. And if you took the quizzes, you probably would be too, at least if you answered honestly to questions like "Do you often find yourself preoccupied with sexual thoughts?" "Do you ever feel bad about your sexual behavior?" and "Have you used the internet to make romantic or erotic connections with people online?"Even if you answered "no" to all these questions, you're still not off the hook. If you watch porn, you might be a sex addict; If you "often require the use of a vibrator... to enhance the sexual experience" you might be a sex addict; if you spend some of your time "ruminating about past sexual encounters," you might be a sex addict. By these standards, nearly all human beings are sex addicts, as a recent study found that 73 percent of women and 85 percent of men had looked at internet porn in the past six months; other studies found that about half of American men and women have used vibrators. Perhaps that is right: sex is one of our strongest drives, and according to one study, the median number of times people think about sex is 10-19 times a day. But pathologizing all of humanity for expressing normal human sexuality is ridiculous in the least and dangerous at the worst. The fact that most people would be considered sex addicts is positive for only one group of people: those employed by the multimillion-dollar sex addiction industry. Sex addiction treatment forces people into a kind of re-education program, which tries to convince them that perfectly normal consensual sexual behavior is the sign of a serious problem. Some of them are run by Christian pastors, others by licensed professional counselors. In-patient facilities are often located in picturesque areas, like palatial Arizona desert retreats, complete with poolside ping-pong and equine therapy (how nuzzling a horse cures sex addiction is never explained). These programs tell supposed sex addicts that they can reprogram themselves through behavioral modifications to become ideal sexual citizens: monogamous, non-porn-using people who rarely masturbate or fantasize about anyone other than their main partners. Some even take it further and force people to abandon healthy activities like masturbation for 30 days.
2-27-20 Gut bacteria may be responsible for bowel disorders including cancers
Evidence is mounting that some bowel cancers are caused by bacteria. They seem to trigger a distinct type of mutation in our DNA, which can be seen in up to one in 10 cases of colon cancer. “It’s the first bacteria ever shown to change DNA and be carcinogenic,” says Hans Clevers of the Hubrecht Institute in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Colon cancers are usually seen as stemming from random genetic mutations, with smoking and an unhealthy diet raising our risk. But more recently, suspicions have grown about certain gut bacteria, including a strain of E. coli that produces a substance that can damage the DNA of people. This strain, called E. coli pks+, is more common in the faeces of people who have had colon cancer, but it is unclear if it directly causes the tumours or just grows better in the guts of people who had already developed cancer. To investigate, Clevers’ team injected the bacteria into human gut cells growing in tiny clumps known as organoids over five months. They found it triggers distinct patterns of DNA damage: of the four “letters” of the DNA code, the mutations happen at a particular two-letter combination. The group then looked at two previous studies where the genes of nearly 6000 tumours, mostly from the colon, had been sequenced. Between 5 and 10 per cent of people with colon cancer had this same pattern of mutations, but it wasn’t there in the other types of tumour. “We feel that’s very strong evidence that these bacteria are indeed the cause of the cancers in those patients,” says Clevers. “I won’t say this is the clincher, but this takes a very strong step forward,” says Cynthia Sears of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Maryland. If the results are confirmed, people could get rid of the cancer-causing bacteria by taking antibiotics, and then take probiotic capsules with the safe E. coli strain to stop the dangerous one from returning, says Clevers.
2-27-20 Evolving an arch across the foot’s width helped hominids walk upright
Knowing how human feet evolved could help experts design better prosthetics or treat flat feet. The arch running across the width of the human foot might be a big part of the reason that people can walk and run upright, a new study suggests. People have a prominent arch along the insides of their feet from ball to heel — a structure that helps make feet stiff to withstand forces on the foot caused by walking and running. But there’s another, less obvious arch. Bones in the middle of the foot, called metatarsals, are arranged in a curve across the foot’s width. This bend, called the transverse tarsal arch, stiffens the foot lengthwise and may have evolved more than 3.4 million years ago, a step toward ancient hominids gaining the ability to walk and run on two feet unlike other primates, researchers report February 26 in Nature. Scientists knew that the arch on the inside of the foot, called the longitudinal arch, makes the foot more rigid, thanks to the arch’s shape and elastic tissues stretching beneath it like a bow and string. How much the bend across the metatarsals helps make feet more firm was unknown. The role that the transverse tarsal arch plays in foot stiffness is like what happens when a piece of paper is somewhat curled. “Hold [a dollar bill] with your fingers at one end of its length, and it flops down,” says Madhusudhan Venkadesan, a mechanical engineer at Yale University. “But press down with your thumb to slightly curl it along the width, and the bill will stiffen and become straighter.” Knowing how human feet evolved to walk and run could help experts design better prosthetics or treat people with flat feet. Most prosthetic feet, for instance, are designed for walking. Those who want to run need something different — a stiff prosthetic shaped like a blade.
2-27-20 Weird worm is earliest known animal to evolve away body parts
A peculiar worm-like animal from 518 million years ago is the oldest animal known to have lost body parts it no longer needed. Just as modern cave-dwelling organisms evolve reduced eyes, the ancient animal evolved to lose its back legs. “This is the earliest example in the fossil record of an organism undergoing secondary loss, losing body parts it no longer needed,” says Richard Howard of the University of Exeter in the UK. Facivermis yunnanicus is a worm-like creature from the Cambrian period, when the first complex animals evolved in the seas. It was a few centimetres long and had five pairs of spiny legs on its front half, while its rear end was swollen. It has been hard to determine exactly what kind of animal F. yunnanicus was. “People have said it’s all kinds of things over the years,” says Howard. He and his colleagues re-examined known specimens and studied new ones, which all come from a collection of fossils from China known as the Chengjiang biota. The team discovered that some fossils were accompanied by a tube, which F. yunnanicus evidently made and then lived inside. This implies that it was a filter-feeder, similar to some modern tubeworms – it would have anchored its tube to a surface, and caught passing fragments of food with its front limbs. Its closest relatives all had long and feathery appendages for catching food, but they still had rear legs, which they used to anchor themselves in place. “Facivermis took that to an extreme, where it’s just lost its back legs altogether and built a tube to live in,” says Howard. “It’s a specialised member of an already specialised group.” The analysis also changes our ideas on F. yunnanicus’s place in the evolutionary story. Some of the most primitive animals were essentially worms. Early on, some of these worms split into two groups. One group, the Cycloneuralia, remained limbless: they gave rise to some modern worms like nematodes. The other, the Lobopodians, evolved legs. They gave rise to three leggy groups: the arthropods, which include insects and spiders, velvet worms, and tardigrades or “water bears”.
2-26-20 Thousands of Denisovan tools reveal their Stone Age technologies
Excavations at the Denisova cave in Siberia have uncovered almost 80,000 stone artefacts that extinct humans left over a 150,000-year period. Collectively, they seem to show how technology developed by Denisovans evolved through the Stone Age, culminating with the production of spectacular bracelets, beads and tiaras about 50,000 years ago. Denisova cave lies in a river valley within the Altai Mountains, a few hundred kilometres from the Russian border with Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China. Ancient human remains in the cave are extremely rare, but artefacts are not. “There are lots of stone artefacts at Denisova cave, as well as many implements made of bone and antler in the upper levels,” says Richard Roberts at the University of Wollongong in Australia. About 4300 specimens have been found in the cave entrance, 14,000 in the cave’s main chamber, and 60,000 in the east chamber. Maxim Kozlikin at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow and his colleagues have now studied 37,000 of those east chamber tools to get a sense of technological evolution at the site. The oldest specimens are in dirt layers more than 200,000 years old, according to a technique called optical dating. The artefacts show that the cave’s inhabitants used the so-called “Levallois technique” to make tools. This relatively sophisticated technique was popular across Africa and Eurasia at the time, and involves carefully chipping at a stone to remove large flat flakes with sharp edges that could be used as tools. By about 150,000 years ago, the people using Denisova cave were shifting away from producing flakes. They began using the Levallois technique to produce narrow, parallel-sided stone blades, some about 3 centimetres wide and 10 centimetres long. This marks a move towards tools that could be used with more precision – as scrapers for woodworking, for instance, or as chisels for working and engraving stone.
2-26-20 Coronavirus is a pandemic in all but name as the infection goes global
With outbreaks of covid-19 hitting Italy, Iran and South Korea, the World Health Organization's reluctance to label the spread of the virus a pandemic seems odd. WILL the coronavirus outbreak become a pandemic? It is increasingly looking like it won’t – but only in name. At a press briefing on 25 February, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Ghebreyesus, expressed a reluctance to use the term until the covid-19 disease spreads more widely and causes more harm, in order, it seems, to prevent fear or panic. In fact, it looks like the WHO is no longer using any particular official criteria to trigger the use of the word pandemic, although it says it is still prepared to use the term when it sees fit. The decision seems like an odd one: to many infectious disease experts, the virus – which now has significant outbreaks in South Korea, Iran and Italy (Covid-19: Our chance to contain the coronavirus may already be over) – has already reached pandemic levels. Regardless of what we call it, we appear to be entering a new phase of the global outbreak. Efforts to restrict the covid-19 virus to China have failed, and in some countries the focus will have to turn towards mitigation rather than containment, as they try to slow the spread of the infection to stop hospitals all being overwhelmed at once. This means that the scenario in which the virus eventually spreads worldwide, and most of us encounter it is looking more likely. If this happens, the virus will ultimately become like flu – a widely circulating infection that most of us will eventually acquire some immunity to. But before then the human cost will be high, especially among the over 60s and people with some pre-existing medical conditions. Flu can already be deadly for these groups, but at least we have some previous immunity to flu strains, and vaccines are available each flu season for the most vulnerable among us.
2-26-20 Ancient viruses buried in our DNA may reawaken and cause illness
Stress or infection may prompt viruses hidden in our genome to stagger back to life, contributing to some cases of multiple sclerosis, diabetes and schizophrenia. STRANGE fevers and unusual infections are common among the people with HIV who come to Avindra Nath’s clinic for treatment. But when one young man showed up in 2005 struggling to move his arms and legs, Nath was baffled. Although the man had been diagnosed with HIV a few years earlier, his new symptoms matched those of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as motor neuron disease. In an attempt to get his HIV under control, Nath convinced him to start taking antiretroviral drugs. Much to everyone’s surprise, his ALS symptoms improved too. ALS is caused by progressive deterioration and death of the nerve cells that control voluntary movement. What triggers this destruction is unclear, but recovery is rare. Puzzled, Nath, who ran an immunology clinic at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, began searching the medical literature. There he found other people with HIV and ALS whose ALS symptoms improved with antiretrovirals – drugs that stop viruses replicating. Could this neurological condition be triggered by a dormant virus hiding in our DNA, brought back to life by HIV? This question doesn’t only hover over ALS. Increasingly, we are waking up to the possibility that conditions including multiple sclerosis (MS), schizophrenia and even type 1 diabetes may in some cases be triggered by ancient viruses buried in our genomes. Under certain circumstances, they revive and start producing mutated versions of themselves, triggering the immune system to attack and destroy neighbouring tissues. “It’s a wild new theory of disease,” says Cedric Feschotte, a molecular biologist at Cornell University in New York. And already it is pointing the way to new treatments.
2-26-20 People who get lost in the wild follow strangely predictable pathsc
Lose your bearings in an unfamiliar landscape and fear shreds your navigational brain. But studies are now revealing the common mistakes lost people make, helping rescue teams to find them before it’s too late. ABOUT 30 years ago, Ed Cornell, a psychologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, took a call from the police officer leading a search for a 9-year-old boy. The boy had gone missing from a campsite some days earlier, and his footprints suggested he had headed in the direction of a swamp a few kilometres away. The officer had one question: how far do lost 9-year-olds tend to travel? Cornell and his colleague Donald Heth had been studying wayfinding behaviour for several years, so they were the obvious people to ask. But when they started pondering it, they realised how little they knew – how little anyone knew – about lost children: how they behaved, the routes they took, the landmarks they used, how far they went. Cornell and Heth quickly reviewed relevant studies and told the officer as much as they could. “His response shamed us,” they wrote afterwards. “‘Well, that’s not much. Don’t worry, doc, we may get a psychic out here today.'” The way people behave when they are lost has always been a mystery, and searches were for a long time essentially random. But over the past decades, Cornell and other experts have dissected the available data in an attempt to understand how adults and children behave when they lose their way. Their aim has been to bring science to bear on searches, combining behavioural studies, statistics and probability theory to increase the chances of finding people before it is too late. Although they have discovered that lost people behave in extraordinary and irrational ways, they have also found that such individuals share certain habits that might help others to find them.
2-26-20 Covid-19: Why won't the WHO officially declare a coronavirus pandemic?
Prepare for a pandemic, says the World Health Organization, as the global spread of covid-19 soars by the hour. It’s not a matter of if, but when, say US health officials. Yet so far the WHO refuses to actually call covid-19 a pandemic. Why? The answer may lie with what kicks into gear when we deploy the P-word. Countries have pandemic plans that are launched when one is declared, but these plans may not be appropriate for combating covid-19 – and the WHO doesn’t want countries to lurch in the wrong direction. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the covid-19 virus already meets two of its three criteria for a pandemic: it spreads between people, and it kills. The third is that it has to spread worldwide. The virus is now in 38 countries – and counting – on nearly all continents, and those are just the ones we know about. How much more worldwide does it need to be? Epidemic experts say there are no global criteria. There used to be for flu pandemics, but the WHO abandoned them when it was criticised after declaring a flu pandemic in 2009 that triggered expensive countermeasures in some countries, which some deemed unnecessary. That bruising could be one reason the WHO seems anxious to avoid the P-word now. But there is a more important one. There are two kinds of response to a growing pandemic. The first is containment: as cases appear, you can isolate each person then trace and quarantine their contacts. That worked for SARS and the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak. The second is mitigation. If containment only slows the virus, eventually you get “community spread”: people are infected without knowing how they were exposed, so you can’t quarantine all contacts. All you can do is slow the epidemic so it won’t peak massively and quickly, overloading health facilities. You close schools, cancel mass gatherings – or as China did, and Italy is now doing, shut down whole cities when they have community spread.
2-26-20 Coronavirus: Five countries, five responses
The new coronavirus is continuing to spread to new countries, with the World Health Organization saying there are now more new cases outside China than inside its borders. Several European countries have announced their first coronavirus cases, all apparently linked to the growing outbreak in Italy. Measures employed to slow the spread of the virus range from large-scale quarantine in China to cancelled football matches in Italy.
2-26-20 We have only just figured out how human feet work
An analysis of human feet and fossils has given new clues to how our feet got their stiffness, enabling us to walk and run upright.The arches in the human foot are key to this stiffness. Other primates have flatter, more flexible feet that can bend much more than ours. Humans have two distinct arches in the middle of the foot: the medial longitudinal arch (MLA) that runs from the ball of the foot to the heel, and the transverse tarsal arch (TTA) near the ball of the foot, that runs from one side of the foot to the other. The TTA was thought to be more involved in supporting the foot, while the MLA’s main role was believed to be making the foot stiff. But Madhusudhan Venkadesan at Yale University and his colleagues looked at the TTA and found that it is much more involved in stiffness than previously thought. By studying two feet from human body donors, they found that cutting the tissues that run along the TTA decreased the stiffness of one foot by 44 per cent and the other by 54 per cent. This is a bigger drop than the 23 per cent difference in stiffness when they cut the MLA. “It was not a surprise that the TTA played a role, but what certainly took us by surprise is how much of a role,” says Venkadesan. The finding sheds light on how ancient humans might have walked upright despite having flat feet that lacked a distinct MLA. From looking at fossils of Homo naledi, which could walk on two legs, the researchers found that it had a human-like foot but a flat MLA. But its TTA was similar to that in modern humans, possibly compensating for this. The finding is a game changer, says Daniel Lieberman at Harvard University. “It helps explain why and how people with flat feet are able to walk just fine, and how our ancestors were able to walk for millions of years before the longitudinal arch evolved.”
2-26-20 Thousands of Denisovan tools reveal their Stone Age technologies
Excavations at the Denisova cave in Siberia have uncovered almost 80,000 stone artefacts that extinct humans left over a 150,000-year period. Collectively, they seem to show how technology developed by Denisovans evolved through the Stone Age, culminating with the production of spectacular bracelets, beads and tiaras about 50,000 years ago. Denisova cave lies in a river valley within the Altai Mountains, a few hundred kilometres from the Russian border with Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China. Ancient human remains in the cave are extremely rare, but artefacts are not. “There are lots of stone artefacts at Denisova cave, as well as many implements made of bone and antler in the upper levels,” says Richard Roberts at the University of Wollongong in Australia. About 4300 specimens have been found in the cave entrance, 14,000 in the cave’s main chamber, and 60,000 in the east chamber. Maxim Kozlikin at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow and his colleagues have now studied 37,000 of those east chamber tools to get a sense of technological evolution at the site. The oldest specimens are in dirt layers more than 200,000 years old, according to a technique called optical dating. The artefacts show that the cave’s inhabitants used the so-called “Levallois technique” to make tools. This relatively sophisticated technique was popular across Africa and Eurasia at the time, and involves carefully chipping at a stone to remove large flat flakes with sharp edges that could be used as tools. By about 150,000 years ago, the people using Denisova cave were shifting away from producing flakes. They began using the Levallois technique to produce narrow, parallel-sided stone blades, some about 3 centimetres wide and 10 centimetres long. This marks a move towards tools that could be used with more precision – as scrapers for woodworking, for instance, or as chisels for working and engraving stone.
2-25-20 Exclusive: Brain scans used to read minds of intensive care patientsj
When a person sustains a severe brain injury that leaves them unable to communicate, their families and doctors often have to make life-or-death decisions about their care for them. Now brain scanners are being tested in intensive care to see if mind-reading can enable some patients to have their say, New Scientist can reveal. At the moment, doctors ask the families of people who have a poor prognosis and cannot communicate if they think their relative would want to continue life-sustaining treatments such as being on a ventilator. “Life would be so much easier if you could just ask the person,” says Adrian Owen at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. Owen’s team previously developed a brain-scanning approach for a much smaller group of people – those in states between consciousness and being in a coma, for example those in a vegetative state. Such people show few signs of awareness and have to be fed through a tube. Owen found that some of these people can direct their thoughts in response to instructions, which can be picked up on brain scans. If someone is asked to imagine playing tennis, for instance, the part of their brain involved in movement lights up in the scan. This has let his and other teams ask those who are able to respond in this way yes/no questions, which can give people a say over their living conditions. About a fifth of people the technique is tried on can respond. Owen is now using the same technique on people who are in intensive care in the first few days after sustaining a severe brain injury. In such circumstances, just over a quarter of people end up having their treatment withdrawn due to a poor prognosis. For example, in some cases doctors may predict that if the person survives, they would be paralysed and unable to speak. “A decision will typically be made in the first 10 days about whether to go on or pull the plug,” says Owen.
2-25-20 South Asian toolmaking withstood the biggest volcanic blast in 2 million years
People crafted sharp-edged flakes as usual after a colossal eruption around 74,000 years ago. Stone tools found in central India suggest that ancient South Asians stayed the course after a massive explosion of Indonesia’s Toba volcano around 74,000 years ago, researchers say. While the volcanic eruption was Earth’s largest in the last 2 million years, scientists have disagreed about how much it affected human populations as well as the global climate. Studying the tools, excavated at the Dhaba site in India’s Middle Son River Valley, the researchers found that the style of toolmaking stayed largely unchanged from roughly 80,000 to 48,000 years ago. That means toolmakers were striking sharp-edged flakes from prepared chunks of rock both before and after Toba erupted, report archaeologist Chris Clarkson of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, and his colleagues. The finding, published February 25 in Nature Communications, adds to skepticism about claims that Toba’s ashy outburst triggered a planetary chill that nearly wiped out humankind (SN: 5/13/13). Instead, the researchers say, people must have maintained their way of life in the area, despite the likelihood that ash from the volcanic blast temporarily blocked out the sun. Ash layers from the Toba eruption have been unearthed about 700 meters east of Dhaba. In dating the tools, the researchers estimated when sediment layers containing the objects had last been exposed to sunlight. The oldest stone tools at Dhaba resemble artifacts that originated in Africa as early as 400,000 years ago (SN: 1/31/18) as well as stone tools found in Australia (SN: 7/19/17) that date to about 65,000 years ago. To explain those similarities, the investigators suggest that some Homo sapiens left Africa by 100,000 years ago and moved eastward through South Asia and on to Australia, bringing with them an ancient toolmaking tradition. No fossils of H. sapiens or any other hominid have been found at Dhaba.
2-25-20 Coronavirus: The race to find the source in wildlife
The race is on to find out how the deadly coronavirus jumped from animals to humans. Helen Briggs looks at how scientists are trying to trace the source of the outbreak. Somewhere in China, a bat flits across the sky, leaving a trace of coronavirus in its droppings, which fall to the forest floor. A wild animal, possibly a pangolin snuffling for insects among the leaves, picks up the infection from the excrement. The novel virus circulates in wildlife. Eventually an infected animal is captured, and a person somehow catches the disease, then passes it on to workers at a wildlife market. A global outbreak is born. Scientists are attempting to prove the truth of this scenario as they work to find wild animals harbouring the virus. Finding the sequence of events is "a bit of a detective story", says Prof Andrew Cunningham of Zoological Society London (ZSL). A range of wild animal species could be the host, he says, in particular bats, which harbour a large number of different coronaviruses. So how much do we know about the "spillover event", as it's known in the trade? When scientists cracked the code of the new virus, taken from the body of a patient, bats in China were implicated. The mammals gather in large colonies, fly long distances and are present on every continent. They rarely get sick themselves, but have the opportunity to spread pathogens far and wide. According to Prof Kate Jones of University College London, there is some evidence bats have adapted to the energetic demands of flight and are better at repairing DNA damage. "This might enable them to cope with a higher burden of viruses before getting sick - but this is just an idea at present." There's no doubt that the behaviour of bats allows viruses to thrive. "When you consider the very way that they live, then they are going to have a large array of viruses," says Prof Jonathan Ball from the University of Nottingham. "And because they're mammals there's a possibility that some of them can infect humans either directly or through an intermediate host species."
2-25-20 A distant cousin of jellyfish may survive without working mitochondria
The parasite is the first known multicellular eukaryote lacking this hallmark of complex life. In the pinkish muscle of some Pacific salmon lives a distant cousin of jellyfish that thrives without working mitochondria, the energy-producing part of cells thought to be a cornerstone of animal life, a study suggests. About 2 billion years ago, the ancestor of all eukaryotes — the large group of organisms with complex cells that includes everything from maple trees to manatees — engulfed a bacterium, striking up a mutually beneficial relationship (SN: 2/14/20). Eventually, this bacterium evolved into mitochondria, the cellular machine that converts food and oxygen into energy, a process called aerobic respiration. Mitochondria retain many of the instructions for aerobic respiration in their own genome, separate from an organism’s DNA housed in a cell’s nucleus. While a few single-celled eukaryotes have adapted to low-oxygen environments by ditching their mitochondrial genomes, rendering their mitochondria useless, scientists had assumed that more complex animals couldn’t get by without them. But a parasitic cnidarian can, researchers report February 24 in PNAS. This cnidarian — a group of animals that includes jellyfish and coral polyps — may challenge biologists basic assumptions about what animals can do. Dorothée Huchon, an evolutionary biologist at Tel Aviv University in Israel, and colleagues analyzed the genomes of members of a large and peculiar group of microscopic, parasitic cnidarians called Myxozoa, and found that one species’s mitochondrial genome was missing. Microscopy revealed mitochondria-like structures within Henneguya salminicola, though the researchers doubt they are capable of aerobic respiration.
2-24-20 Woman urinates alcohol without drinking due to yeast in her bladder
A woman who urinates alcohol without having consumed any is the first person to be diagnosed with “urinary auto-brewery syndrome”. The condition is caused by yeast in the bladder, which ferments the sugar in urine to produce alcohol. The 61-year-old, who has requested anonymity, has diabetes and liver cirrhosis, and was recommended a liver transplant. But repeated tests found alcohol in her urine. Even though the woman denied drinking any alcohol, she was taken off the waiting list for a donor organ, and was instead referred for treatment for alcohol abuse, says Kenichi Tamama at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Presbyterian Hospital in Pennsylvania, where the woman later moved. Doctors there again found alcohol in her urine, but further tests revealed that there was no alcohol in her blood. Stumped, the doctors asked Tamama, a pathologist at the hospital, to investigate. As Tamama conducted some basic tests, he found that the woman’s urine contained yeast. “That’s not unusual,” he says. But because the woman’s poorly controlled diabetes meant that she had a lot of sugar in her urine, Tamama wondered if the yeast might be fermenting this sugar to produce alcohol. To find out, he separated portions of urine that contained lots of yeast and portions with barely any yeast in them. He also added a compound that blocks fermentation to some of the batches, before leaving them all in the lab overnight. “Even before the incubation, we noticed the alcohol smell of the specimen,” says Tamama. “The next day, the smell had intensified.” In the urine with high amounts of yeast, the alcohol level had increased from 40 to 800 milligrams per decilitre. Considering that the test used by the hospital detects alcohol at concentrations of 20 mg/dL, that is an extreme amount, says Tamama.
2-24-20 Animal that doesn't need oxygen to survive discovered
Breathing oxygen is seen as a fundamental characteristic of multicellular animals, but we have found at least one that can’t do it. “It has lost the ability to breathe oxygen,” says Dorothee Huchon at Tel Aviv University in Israel. It remains a mystery how this animal, a parasite that infects salmon, gets the energy it needs without oxygen, she says, but it probably steals it from its host. All plants and animals were thought to use oxygen to generate a fuel called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which powers cellular processes. The generation of ATP from oxygen takes places in structures called mitochondria. Each mitochondrion has its own tiny genome that is separate from the main genome in the cell nucleus. But when Huchon and her colleagues sequenced the DNA of Henneguya salminicola, which is related to jellyfish, they thought they had made a mistake because they found no mitochondrial DNA at all. Further studies confirmed the finding. When the team stained H. salminicola with a blue fluorescent dye that binds to DNA, no DNA was visible in cells outside the nucleus. By contrast, when they stained a closely related parasite, blue dots corresponding to mitochondrial genomes were visible outside the nucleus. So while the cells of H. salminicola have structures that look like mitochondria, they can’t make the enzymes needed to use oxygen to produce ATP. “These are not true mitochondria,” says Huchon. This means H. salminicola is a multicellular animal that can survive entirely without oxygen. “There are plenty that can go for extended periods without, but nothing that can get through the whole life cycle,” says Nick Lane of University College London. At least, nothing confirmed. In 2010, Roberto Danovaro at the Polytechnic University of Marche in Italy reported that a group of tiny animals called loriciferans that live in sediments in the deep sea had no visible mitochondria when viewed under a microscope, and must rely on other energy sources such as hydrogen sulphide instead.
2-24-20 Billion-year-old fossil seaweeds could be ancestors of all land plants
Billion-year-old fossil seaweeds found in China could be the ancestors of all land plants. The tiny seaweeds have branching structures and disc-shaped features to fix them to rocks, making them the oldest complex plants yet discovered. “The first time I saw these fossils I was very excited because I knew it could be something very important,” says Qing Tang of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Tang and his colleagues went to Liaoning, China, to collect samples from the 1-billion-year-old Nanfen formation because they knew this ancient rock is well-preserved and might contain fossils of early complex cells. However, Tang only saw the fossil seaweeds for the first time when he examined the rocks closely back in the laboratory. These ancient organisms – named Proterocladus antiquus – would have grown on rocks in shallow seas. They appear to have had specialised cells for reproduction and for forming spore-like cells that would have remained dormant when conditions got tough and regrown later. The fossils are up to 3 millimetres in length, so the living plants would have been visible to the naked eye. They are very similar to some present-day green seaweeds. Some biologists think green seaweeds first evolved in freshwater environments such as lakes and rivers, colonising the seas only relatively late in the history of life. But Tang’s discovery provides strong support for the rival idea that green seaweeds evolved in the oceans very early, and gave rise to the plants that evolved to live on land starting around 450 million years ago. The evolution of plants began long before all this – around 2.3 billion years ago with the rise of simple cells capable of using the green pigment chlorophyll for photosynthesis. These cyanobacteria transformed the atmosphere of Earth by releasing oxygen.
2-24-20 Coronavirus: Rapid spread raises fears of global pandemic
Fears are growing that the coronavirus outbreak could reach pandemic scale as more cases emerge around the world. Most infections are in China but other nations like South Korea, Italy and Iran are battling the virus, which causes respiratory disease Covid-19. A pandemic is when an infectious disease spreads easily from person to person in many parts of the world. Worldwide stock markets saw sharp falls because of concerns about the economic impact of the virus. China said it would postpone the annual meeting of the National People's Congress next month, to "continue the efforts" against the coronavirus. The body, which approves decisions made by the Communist Party, has met every year since 1978. About 77,000 people in China, where the virus emerged last year, have been infected and nearly 2,600 have died. More than 1,200 cases have been confirmed in about 30 other countries and there have been more than 20 deaths. Italy reported three more deaths on Monday, raising the total there to six. The proportion of infected people who die from Covid-19 appears to be between 1% and 2%, although the World Health Organization (WHO) cautions that the mortality rate is not known yet. On Monday Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain reported their first cases, all involving people who had come from Iran. Officials in Bahrain said the patient infected there was a school bus driver, and several schools had been closed as a result. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned on Friday that the window of opportunity to contain the virus was "narrowing". Paul Hunter, professor of health protection at the University of East Anglia in the UK, echoed his fears, saying the spike in cases outside China was "extremely concerning". "The tipping point after which [we lose] our ability to prevent a global pandemic seems a lot closer after the past 24 hours," he said on Monday.
2-24-20 Covid-19: Our chance to contain the coronavirus may already be over
The global spread of covid-19 seems to have exploded in recent days, with outbreaks revealed in Iran and Italy and a massive increase in cases in South Korea. Tedros Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, has warned that such cases “show that the window of opportunity we have for containing this virus is narrowing”. In fact, it may already have shut. On 21 February, epidemiologists warned that we are failing to detect two-thirds of infected people travelling globally, “potentially resulting in multiple chains of as-yet undetected human-to-human transmission outside mainland China”. Some of those chains have now been detected, and, ominously, many cases can’t be traced to their source. Iran has reported 28 cases, but this appears to be a large underestimate because two people who have just flown from Iran to Canada and Lebanon have been found to be infected. Unless people who exit Iran by air are massively more likely to be infected than those who don’t, Gergely Röst of the University of Szeged, Hungary, says it would take 1600 to 2400 cases in Iran to produce two infected travellers – more than any official count so far in a country other than China. This is especially worrying, says Andy Tatem of Southampton University, UK, as broader travel records show Iran has “strong connections to countries, such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, which have weaker health systems”, meaning they might not detect or contain the virus. Christl Donnelly and her colleagues at Imperial College London have worked out how many infections countries have detected per passenger flight from China. While some countries, such as Singapore, have detected most of the infected travellers epidemiologists calculate they should be getting from China, many haven’t. Donnelly’s team found that, on average, countries are detecting only a third of expected cases. “We have decided not to comment on other countries individually,” says Donelly, although the WHO has been informed.
2-24-20 We now know how much our genes influence the risk of contracting HIV
You might think a person’s risk of catching HIV is solely governed by behavioural choices, such as using condoms, and whether someone is exposed to the virus. But genetics also play a role and may account for up to 42 per cent of the variation in people’s likelihood of acquiring this infection. The genes involved seem to work at least in part by affecting our immune system. These findings could help us develop new treatments or vaccines against HIV, says Timothy Powell at King’s College London. Powell’s team were interested in the fact that millions of people are exposed to HIV every year but don’t catch it. For instance, only about a third of babies develop the infection after being born to HIV-positive mothers who aren’t taking drug treatment for the virus. In 2013, another team looked at the DNA of about 6000 people with HIV and 7000 similar people without the virus to see if there were any relevant genetic variations between the two groups. This team identified only one gene, which encodes a protein we already knew about, called CCR5. This is present on the surface of immune cells and HIV attaches to it in order to enter these cells. A small percentage of Caucasian people lack this protein and seem to be virtually immune to catching HIV. Now Powell’s team have reanalysed the data from this 2013 study using more powerful statistical techniques, and have found there are many other genetic variants that play a role. When the team then looked at data from a separate large study of people’s health and genes, they found that high genetic risk of infection with HIV was linked to having lower blood levels of a molecule called CCL17, which is involved in signalling between immune cells. If the findings are confirmed, this suggests that vaccine developers could focus on people with low CCL17 when developing their products, says Powell.
2-19-20 Cultured meat needs a lot more government backing – for all our sakes
Lab-grown meat could change the world for the better, but relying on the free market to develop it is a recipe for disaster. Governments must step up AS PEOPLE get richer, they tend to eat more meat. Global meat consumption has roughly doubled over the past 30 years and is forecast to double again over the next 30. Satisfying demand without trashing the environment and crashing the climate will be a challenge. According to the World Economic Forum, doing so through conventional agriculture will be impossible. Another type of agriculture is on the way that could fill stomachs without killing the planet – or anything, for that matter. Cellular agriculture, or cultured meat, is almost oven-ready. The first commercial products could be plated up next year. The starter will be seafood: shrimp, crab, lobster, salmon and tuna. But the technology is basically the same and cultured shrimp should pave the way for burgers and nuggets. Consumer squeamishness may still be a problem and some claims about cultured meat’s reduced environmental impact may be overblown (see “Lab-grown meat will be on your plate soon. It won’t be what you expect”. However, it could be a game-changer, shrinking livestock farming’s footprint, stemming the tide of antibiotic resistance, improving animal welfare and solving looming food security issues. Even lab-made shrimp would be an improvement, as aquaculture has its own sustainability problems. So why are governments paying cultured meat so little attention? While they continue to pour money into university research on conventional agriculture, only around $150 million has been invested in developing cultured meat up to now, all from the private sector or philanthropy. That is chicken feed for a technology that could change the world for the better.
2-23-20 The human cost of recycled cotton
The fashion world wants a more sustainable, environmentally-friendly way to make cotton clothes — or an alternative. But almost no one understands the social costs. Because it's cheap and easy to manufacture, polyester has become today's dominant textile. But polyester, which is essentially made of oil, causes a host of problems. While the material does provide a use for all those recycled plastic water bottles, washing any synthetic fabric — whether it's made of raw petroleum or recycled plastics — sloughs off microscopic fibers. Those microfibers end up in water supplies and never biodegrade. Viscose and other wood-pulp fabrics do biodegrade, but making them has traditionally required a host of toxic chemicals. (This is why, in 2013, the FTC came down on brands claiming their bamboo rayon was eco-friendly. It's not.) Meanwhile, despite its higher costs, cotton has always remained everyone's favorite. For thousands of years, some form of the cotton bush has been cultivated in every tropical region, from Africa to the Far East and Central America. In his treatise, Empire of Cotton, Harvard historian Sven Beckert asserts that more than even sugar, cotton almost single handedly supported and financed Britain's colonialism and America's slavery, and ushered in the world's most brutal era of industrialization. Today, the agro-industrial complex that has grown up around cotton has been dogged with everything from human rights abuses to its own environmental harms. Just the farming of cotton depletes increasingly scarce water supplies and spreads pesticide residue. The half-dried-up Aral Sea has been a public relations nightmare for the industry. So have child labor and farmer suicides in India. Forced Uighur labor in China is just the latest cotton indignity. Not surprisingly, fashion brands would rather not deal with cotton's PR problems, or its fluctuating costs; thus, the rise of polyester and rayon. Now comes a company like re:newcell with a more efficient way to recycle cotton clothing. But its process is still dependent on cotton. So everyone's still searching for the innovation that all the fashion brands desperately need: a soft, high-performing, non-polluting material that can truly replace cotton.
2-22-20 Coronavirus: South Korea confirms huge rise in cases
South Korea says the number of new coronavirus cases in the country has more than doubled in one day. Officials said on Saturday that 229 new cases had been confirmed since Friday, raising the total to 433. Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said the outbreak had entered "a serious new phase". Many of the new cases are linked to a hospital and to a religious group near the south-eastern city of Daegu, authorities have said. Two patients in South Korea have died so far and there are fears the number will rise. Daegu and nearby Cheongdo - where the hospital is situated - have been declared "special care zones" and the streets of Daegu are reported to be largely abandoned. South Korea has now reported the largest number of confirmed infections outside China - 76,288 cases including 2,345 deaths - and the outbreak on the Diamond Princess cruise ship off the coast of Japan which has seen more than 600 cases. The latest developments came as Chinese health authorities reported a decrease in the rate of deaths and new cases of the coronavirus on Saturday. The head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has expressed concern at the number of new cases with no clear link to China or other confirmed cases. He said the greatest concern now was countries with weaker health systems, particularly in Africa. Outside China, more than 1,200 cases of the virus have been confirmed in 26 countries and there have been at least eight deaths, the WHO says. The new virus, which originated last year in Hubei province in China, causes a respiratory disease called Covid-19. Medical officials first announced 142 new cases on Saturday and then hours later increased the number by 87. In a statement, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said that of the 229 new cases, 95 were related to Daenam Hospital in Cheongdo. There are now 114 confirmed cases at the hospital - nine staff and 102 patients - it added.
2-22-20 To tackle the new coronavirus, scientists are accelerating the vaccine process
Researchers are turning to nontraditional approaches to create vaccines and therapeutics. As a mystery illness started spreading in China in late December, researchers at Inovio Pharmaceuticals were keeping a close eye on what was happening, even before anyone knew the cause was a coronavirus. The company, based in San Diego, is no stranger to the viruses. After MERS, which is caused by a different coronavirus, emerged in 2012, Inovio was one of the first to develop a still-experimental vaccine for the disease. In the new outbreak, as soon as Chinese researchers posted the genetic makeup of the virus, dubbed SARS-CoV-2, the company’s scientists sprang into action. “We’d all hoped that there would be enough overlap that our previously developed MERS vaccine would be helpful in this case,” says Kate Broderick, Inovio’s senior vice president for research and development. Like MERS and SARS, the new virus is a coronavirus that uses RNA as its genetic material. But in-depth analysis revealed that the two coronaviruses are too different for a vaccine against MERS, also known as Middle East respiratory syndrome, to take down the new virus. So the company’s researchers set about designing a new vaccine. That design relies on a relatively new approach to vaccine creation, one that the researchers used to develop the MERS vaccine. Traditional vaccines are composed of weakened or killed forms of viruses or parts of viruses, including purified proteins. When injected into a person, the immune system recognizes the virus as an invader and produces antibodies to stave off future invasions. But growing enough debilitated viruses or purifying enough proteins to make vaccine doses for millions of people can take months or even years.
2-22-20 Is the polyglot brain different? MIT researchers are trying to find out.
Ev Fedorenko is conducting a study seeking to dispel myths and establish a basic understanding of how the polyglot brain works. There are more theories than facts about polyglots. Because internet lists of polyglots identify mainly men, there's the belief that the male brain is more predisposed to multilingualism. Others believe that polyglots are disproportionately gay and/or left-handed. These unfounded theories infuriate Ev Fedorenko, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Her lab is conducting a study seeking to dispel them and establish a basic understanding of how the polyglot brain works. Recently, a polyglot named Susanna Zaraysky submitted to a two-hour session of tests inside an fMRI machine. Zaraysky speaks nine languages, most of them the usual suspects — French, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian — but also Ladino, the version of Spanish spoken by Jews who were expelled from Spain in the 15th century. As far as the researchers are aware, this is the first modern-day study of the polyglot brain. Zaraysky is the study's 23rd participant, and she's different from many other polyglots. She learns mainly through conversation and singing. She says many of the male polyglots she knows approach new languages differently. "You give them a grammar book, and they just absorb it," Zaraysky said. "I would be bored out of my mind if I had to do that." This is part of the problem in studying polyglots. Is the brain functioning the same way for textbook learners as it is for someone like Zaraysky, who learns through conversation and singing songs? Scientists have been trying to figure that out for nearly a century. Language writer Michael Erard has traced that history in his book, Babel No More. Erard spoke with German neuroscientists who studied the preserved brain of Emil Krebs, a German diplomat who died in 1930. Krebs claimed to speak 68 languages.
2-22-20 Romulus mystery: Experts divided on 'tomb of Rome's founding father'
A sarcophagus discovered in the remains of an ancient temple in Rome is causing a stir among historians who cannot agree if it belongs to the Italian city's legendary founder, Romulus. The stone tomb, along with circular altar, dates from the 6th Century BC. According to legend, Romulus founded the city on Palatine Hill in 753 BC after killing his twin brother Remus. But experts are divided over whether the empty tomb can be linked to Romulus - or if the brothers even existed. The discovery was unveiled by Italian archaeologists at the Roman Forum on Friday. Historians said that while the find in the heart of the city was significant, it represented a symbolic rather than a real grave. They argue that even if Romulus had existed, there would be no body in the tomb because - depending on your sources - he was either raised to heaven as the Roman god Quirinus, or was torn to pieces by senators envious of his power. "This is not the tomb of Romulus, but is a place of memory where the cult of Romulus was celebrated, a cenotaph," Alfonsina Russo, director of Rome's Colosseum Archaeological Park, said. Archaeologist Patrizia Fortini said that while it was wise to exercise caution, the idea that the tomb may be linked to Romulus was "a suggestion based on ancient sources". "[Stories] speak of the presence of the tomb of Romulus in this area of the Roman Forum," she told AFP news agency. Fabled characters Romulus and Remus were said to have been the twin sons of the god Mars and priestess Rhea Silvia. According to myth, the brothers were nursed by a she-wolf. Romulus is said to have set out an area around Palatine Hill to mark the city's boundary. One element of the Romulus and Remus story has Remus defying his brother by leaping over the settlement's boundary walls - an act that cost him his life.
2-21-20 Scientists discover powerful antibiotic using AI
In a world first, scientists have discovered a new type of antibiotic using artificial intelligence (AI). It has been heralded by experts as a major breakthrough in the fight against the growing problem of drug resistance. A powerful algorithm was used to analyse more than one hundred million chemical compounds in a matter of days. The newly discovered compound was able to kill 35 types of potentially deadly bacteria, said researchers. Antibiotic-resistant infections have risen in recent years - up 9% in England between 2017 and 2018, to nearly 61,000. If antibiotics are taken inappropriately, harmful bacteria living inside the body can become resistant to them, which means the medicines may not work when really needed. The World Health Organization (WHO) has called the phenomenon "one of the biggest threats to global health security and development today". "In terms of antibiotic discovery, this is absolutely a first," said Regina Barzilay, a senior researcher on the project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The discovery was made using an algorithm inspired by the architecture of the human brain. Scientists trained it to analyse the structure of 2,500 drugs and other compounds to find those with the most anti-bacterial qualities that could kill E. coli. They then selected around 100 candidates for physical testing before discovering halicin. "I think this is one of the more powerful antibiotics that has been discovered to date," said James Collins, a bioengineer on the team at MIT. "We wanted to develop a platform that would allow us to harness the power of artificial intelligence to usher in a new age of antibiotic drug discovery." Dr Peter Bannister, chairman of the Institution of Engineering and Technology healthcare panel, said the method used was already "well established" within medical research.
2-21-20 Detecting cancer early
Scientists may have found a way to detect cancer up to 35 years before current diagnosis, reports The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). As people get older, their cells divide in a way that introduces errors into their DNA. Most of these genetic mutations are harmless, but some trigger the uncontrollable cell growth that leads to tumors. If scientists can pinpoint which mutations are potentially cancerous—and figure out how to test for them—they could recommend at an early stage lifestyle changes or treatment that might prevent the disease. For the new study, researchers examined 47 million genetic changes in more than 2,500 tumors, covering 38 cancer types. By looking at the mutation rates over time, they were able to identify the exact moment when the genetic code changed in a way that signaled cancer was on the way. They found that ovarian cancer can be seen up to 35 years before it would normally be diagnosed, and cancers of the kidney, bladder, pancreas, and skin 20 years before diagnosis. “One day it may be possible to detect these mutations, say for example, with a blood test,” said Clemency Jolly, a researcher at the Francis Crick Institute in London. “These tests sound a bit like science fiction at the moment, [but] may become possible in 10 to 20 years’ time.”
2-21-20 CRISPR safety switch can make cells self-destruct if they go rogue
A genetic tweak can make cells self-destruct in the presence of CRISPR and could be used to shut down cell therapies if they go rogue. CRISPR gene editing can be used to efficiently and easily introduce changes to the DNA of living cells. It is a useful technique, but it would be handy to be able to make some cells CRISPR-resistant. For example, there is interest in storing information in DNA inside cells, and rendering some of these uneditable by CRISPR could enable us to make “read-only” reference copies. Cells that self-destruct in response to CRISPR could also be a useful brake for CRISPR-based gene drives – a technique that can rapidly spread detrimental mutations through a population, for example, to control or destroy a pest organism. Gene drives could be useful, but there are fears that the uncontrolled spread of genetic mutations could have harmful consequences. Making some organisms self-destruct when they encounter CRISPR could help control the spread of gene drives in the wild, says George Church at Harvard University. To make human cells CRISPR-proof, Church and his colleagues have exploited a genetic parasite that makes up around 17 per cent of our genome. Called LINE-1, this is a stretch of DNA that does nothing but make copies of itself. Our DNA contains tens of thousands of copies of it. Standard CRISPR gene editing involves a protein called Cas9, which is given a guide RNA to find a specific DNA target sequence and then cuts the DNA at that site. Cells can repair a few DNA cuts, but if hundreds or thousands are made at the same time, their repair systems are overwhelmed and the cells self-destruct. By engineering human cells in a dish to produce a guide RNA that targets LINE-1 DNA sequences, the team have made cells that die within days if anyone tries to edit them using the Cas9 protein.
2-21-20 Too much vitamin B12
People who absorb too much vitamin B12 may have a higher risk of dying early, reports The New York Times. Crucial for nerve and blood cell health, the nutrient is found in meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. Many vegans and others who don’t get enough of the vitamin through their diet top up their B12 levels with supplements. To explore whether the nutrient has any harmful effects, researchers in the Netherlands examined B12 levels in some 5,500 healthy men and women for an average of eight years. None of the participants was taking supplements. After controlling for factors such as age, sex, and various diseases, the researchers discovered that premature death rates among people with the highest B12 levels were almost double the rates of those with the lowest. The study’s authors, who note that the findings don’t prove cause and effect, say they’re not sure why high levels of B12 might affect death rates in this way. Senior author Stephan Bakker, from University Medical Center Groningen, says it “might change the gut microbiota in ways that could be harmful—no one really knows.”
2-21-20 I don’t care about the herd
Idaho is seeing an influx of “vaccine refugees” from California, which now requires virtually all schoolchildren to be immunized. Idaho lets parents exempt their children from vaccinations purely on the basis of “personal belief.” One refugee, Lou Munilla, told Idaho lawmakers he moved to the state because “I don’t care about the herd, I care about my family.”
2-21-20 T. rex’s new relative
Paleontologists in Canada have identified a new species of tyrannosaur—the oldest member of the family discovered yet in North America. Thanatotheristes degrootorum lived during the Cretaceous Period some 79 million years ago. It predates the most famous of the tyrannosaurs, the T. rex, by about 13 million years. The bipedal Thanatotheristes (Greek for “Reaper of Death”) would have cut an intimidating figure: It stood about 8 feet tall and had a long, deep snout, ridges on its skull, and razor-sharp teeth nearly 3 inches long. From nose to tail it stretched some 26 feet. The tyrannosaur’s fossils were discovered by a Canadian couple hiking beside the Bow River in southern Alberta in 2010. Paleontologists studied these skull fragments—including jawbones, teeth, and a partial cheekbone—and determined they belonged to an entirely new species. “There are very few species of tyrannosaurids, relatively speaking,” co-author Darla Zelenitsky, from the University of Calgary, tells TheGuardian.com. “Because of the nature of the food chain, these large apex predators were rare compared with herbivorous, or plant-eating, dinosaurs.”
2-21-20 How much will Medicare-for-all save Americans? A lot.
It's primary season, and most political coverage has been obsessed with who is going to win and take on Donald Trump in November. Policy issues which got wide discussion in 2019, like the merits of Medicare-for-all, have been pushed off the front burner of the news stove (though it did get some typically superficial discussion in the most recent Democratic debate). But academic research in that area has not stopped. And over the past few months, several studies have examined one of the key questions on Medicare-for-all: namely, would it save American society money? The unanimous answer is yes. Putting everyone on a world-class universal Medicare program — with no premiums, no deductibles, no co-insurance, and almost no co-pays, paid for with taxes — would leave most of us with more money in our pockets. And other research demonstrates that there would probably not be a giant increase in health care use if it is passed. To be fair, a few commentators have been keeping the discussion going. John Oliver, for instance, provided a quite good breakdown of Medicare-for-all in his show Last Week Tonight: Overall, it's a great piece. However Oliver is far too wishy-washy on the cost question. He notes that some studies have found enormous savings, and even the libertarian Mercatus Center found a small cost improvement. However he notes that some studies predict higher spending, especially one from the Urban Institute which found dramatically higher spending, and concludes it's impossible to say what might happen on costs. "No one can possibly know for sure," he says. "There are just too many variables involved." But this simply isn't so. To start with, as Matt Bruenig explains at the People's Policy Project, the Urban Institute study has major problems. Most importantly, they did not actually study the Medicare-for-all bill sponsored by Bernie Sanders. Instead they substituted their own plan in which reimbursement rates are assumed to be 15 percent higher than in the Sanders plan. That's why their cost estimate is so high, but it simply has nothing to do with what the actual bill in question might do if implemented. Furthermore, they seriously underestimate the potential administrative cost savings for hospitals (relying on a fact sheet from a lobbyist group), and simply assume "utilization," or use of medical services, will dramatically increase (more on this later).
2-21-20 U.S. drug deaths dipped in 2018, but cocaine and meth overdoses rose
The rise of stimulants is the latest drug trend, but not the last. The stories that Judith Feinberg hears from people with substance use disorder are riddled with loss: of jobs, opportunity, security, dignity. “People really are struggling to see that they have a viable future,” Feinberg says. “Then you take a drug … and you don’t care until you need the drug again.” For years, that drug was very likely an opioid. But Feinberg, a physician at West Virginia University School of Medicine in Morgantown who studies infectious diseases and injection drug use, recently has seen shifts in the addictive substances used. And it’s occurring not just in West Virginia — which has the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the nation, at 51.5 deaths per 100,000 people — but across the country, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported January 30. Fueled by a plentiful supply, people have increasingly been turning to such stimulants as cocaine and methamphetamine — so much so that the rates of overdose deaths for those drugs each surpassed that of prescription opioids in 2018. There’s a small bit of hope: After two decades of rising numbers, around 3,000 fewer people overall died of a drug overdose in 2018 than in 2017. But with 67,367 deaths, 2018 ranks as the second-worst year for drug overdoses in U.S. history. It’s too soon to say whether the nudge downward is a blip or the start of a meaningful drop. In part, that may depend upon whether the rise in stimulant use over much of the last decade continues. In 2018, the rate of overdose deaths involving cocaine was 4.5 per 100,000, more than triple what it was in 2012; for methamphetamine and similar drugs, the rate jumped from 0.8 to 3.9 per 100,000 during that period. Each now surpasses the death rate from prescription opioids, and cocaine’s rate is just shy of heroin’s.
2-21-20 The truth about tweens and screens
How much can we really blame social media for mental health problems in kids?. We're in the middle of a mental health crisis, and it's hitting the younger generation hard. First, the stats: Worldwide, 10 to 20 percent of children and adolescents experience mental disorders. Depression is one of the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents, and suicide is the third leading cause of death in 15- to 19-year-olds. Mental illness is complex, with many potential biological, psychological, and environmental factors. In an ideal world, we'd be able to point to one thing — like screen time or social media use — and say, "that's the problem, right there." We don't live in an ideal world, but that's pretty much what's been happening, particularly when it comes to adolescent mental health. A 2011 paper published by the American Academy of Pediatrics warned doctors about "Facebook depression" (defined as "depression that develops when preteens and teens spend a great deal of time on social media sites, such as Facebook, and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression"), and it basically snowballed from there. However, not all research supports this hypothesis. One recent study by two psychology professors, Candice L. Odgers from the University of California, Irvine, and Michaeline R. Jensen from the University of North Carolina, Greensborough, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, analyzed about 40 studies examining the link between social media use and anxiety and depression during adolescence. Their verdict? The link is small and inconsistent. Diana Graber, the author of Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationshipwith Technology, agrees that it's not accurate or fair to blame technology for a rise in teenage depression and anxiety. She points out that there are numerous other factors that could be contributing to adolescent angst: climate change, school gun violence, and college acceptance rates, for starters. "It's possible that the devices young people are constantly connected to are delivering a steady stream of information about these depressing topics, but that's hardly a reason to blame the messenger," Graber says. "Those same devices can offer solace too."
2-21-20 The earliest known hominid interbreeding occurred 700,000 years ago
Neandertal-Denisovan ancestors migrating to Eurasia heralded hookups with a resident Homo group. Ancestors of Neandertals and Denisovans left Africa for Eurasia around 700,000 years ago and then interbred with a Homo population that had exited Africa long before, according to a new genetic study. The finding reveals the oldest known case of interbreeding among members of the genus that includes people today, Homo sapiens. Evidence of genetic exchanges between distinct hominid populations roughly 400,000 years before H. sapiens evolved highlights a role for interbreeding in Homo evolution long before ancient people occasionally mated with Neandertals and Denisovans. The scenario begins with an early Homo species making its way into Eurasia roughly 1.9 million years ago, in what was probably the first Homo migration out of Africa, scientists report February 20 in Science Advances. Those now-extinct travelers may have been members of Homo erectus, a species that includes Eurasian fossils dating to about 1.8 million years ago (SN: 10/17/13), or Homo antecessor, a controversial species designation based on 1.2-million- to 1.1-million-year-old fossils found in Spain (SN: 3/26/08). Or they could have been part of another Homo population unknown from any fossils. Then ancestors of Neandertals and Denisovans trekked out of Africa about 700,000 years ago, say the researchers, led by anthropologist and population geneticist Alan Rogers of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. That timing would also have allowed for the evolution of Neandertals or their direct ancestors in what’s now northern Spain around 430,000 years ago (SN: 3/14/16). Some previous research had suggested that Neandertals originated roughly 300,000 years ago, raising questions about the evolutionary identity of older, Neandertal-like fossils in Spain.
2-20-20 We don't know how covid-19 spread on the Diamond Princess cruise ship
Two people in their 80s who were quarantined on the British-owned cruise ship Diamond Princess have died of covid-19 in hospital in Japan. Meanwhile, nearly 3000 people are disembarking from the ship, after being quarantined aboard in Yokohama since 3 February following a passenger testing positive for the disease. All are free to go after testing negative for the new coronavirus, although Japan has asked its nationals to stay home and monitor their health for two weeks. British, US and other passengers flown home by their governments this week will spend another two weeks in quarantine to make sure they are clear. Similarly, the US and South Korea are refusing entry to passengers making their own way home for two weeks. The people disembarking don’t include the 634 who tested positive for the virus during quarantine and were taken to hospital, including, last week, the two people who have now died. Epidemiologists suspect the virus spread during quarantine, which, given the history of viruses on cruise ships, may not be surprising. The 2666 passengers and 1045 crew of the Diamond Princess were confined to the ship on 3 February, after an 80-year-old man who disembarked on 25 January tested positive for the virus. From 5 February, passengers were confined to their rooms, except for brief excursions – in masks – on deck. The idea was to keep people apart for 14 days, long enough for even slow-incubating infections to show symptoms. During that time, the Japanese health ministry conducted 3011 tests on people with symptoms or who were at greater risk. The average incubation time of the virus is five days, so the number of people falling ill because of exposure before quarantine should have peaked by 10 February. There were some early cases, suggesting a surge of exposure just before passengers were confined to their rooms.
2-20-20 Earliest known cave-dwelling animal is a 99-million-year-old cockroach
A cockroach preserved in amber is the earliest cave-dwelling animal identified from the dinosaur era. All other known cave-dwellers have lived much more recently. The specimen was found in amber in the Hukawng Valley in Myanmar. The rocks where it was discovered are 99 million years old – they were laid down halfway through the Cretaceous period, when the last dinosaurs lived. This new Cretaceous cockroach has been dubbed Mulleriblattina bowangi by a team led by Peter Vršanský at the Slovak Academy of Sciences in Bratislava, Slovakia. He has previously discovered extraordinary modern cockroaches. “It’s clearly a cave inhabitant,” says Vršanský. It is a pale white colour, having lost its pigments, and its eyes and wings are drastically reduced compared with other cockroaches. It also has unusually long antennae, which presumably helped it navigate in the dark. Finally, its legs have none of the sensitive spines that normally help a cockroach feel its surroundings. “All cockroaches have spines because it’s passive protection against predators,” he says. “These don’t have these spines, because in caves there is no threat.” It is strange that a cave-dwelling organism became trapped in amber, which comes from tree sap. The most likely explanation is that it wandered close to the cave entrance, and trees were growing nearby, says Vršanský. No other cave-dwelling animal, of any kind, can be confidently attributed to the dinosaur era or earlier, he says. M. bowangi belongs to a cockroach family called Nocticolidae. Many modern members live in caves. However, it seems the modern cave dwellers aren’t directly descended from the Cretaceous cave dweller. Vršanský’s team has reconstructed the family tree of Nocticolidae and thus its history. “This group originated about 127 million years ago,” he says. At that time, all the continents were connected in a supercontinent called Pangaea. However, Pangaea soon broke up, so groups of Nocticolidae species became isolated on separate continents.
2-19-20 Lab-grown meat will be on your plate soon. It won't be what you expect
Forget fake steaks, the first cultured meat we're likely to eat will be shrimp. How will it compare to the real thing? Will it be better for the environment? And will people eat it? UNTIL four years ago, stem-cell biologist Sandhya Sriram had never eaten seafood. Then she visited a shrimp farm in Vietnam and realised she had to give it a go – which was odd, given what she saw there. The conditions were “disgusting”, she says. The shrimp appeared to be growing in sewage, and were drenched in antibiotics and bleach to clean them before consumption. “These are things that should never be associated with food. That was my motivation.” Sriram went home to Singapore, quit her lab job and started a company called Shiok Meats. With co-founder Ka Yi Ling, she set about discovering how to grow shrimp muscle tissue from stem cells – in other words, how to create shrimp meat without actual shrimp. Shiok is now close to doing something that has been talked about for decades but never realised: putting lab-grown meat onto people’s plates. Sriram says her company is on course to launch its cultured shrimp meat next year, an ambitious goal that would put Shiok at the forefront of a food revolution that could be a game changer for humanity. It is also the first step towards an alternative to an industry that has done terrible damage to the environment, poses an existential threat to human health and causes untold suffering to billions of animals every year. It is too soon to declare that the age of cultured meat has arrived, but as commercialisation nears, difficult questions are being asked and there are many unknowns. Will regulators approve it? Will consumers eat it? Is it safe? And is it as environmentally benign as proponents claim?
2-19-20 The 'ancestral diet' doesn't make sense and relies on lazy stereotypes
Eating like your ancestors did 5000 years ago is a fad on the rise. James Wong wonders if following the "ancestral diet" means he should eat pangolins or live a life of abject poverty FOOD fads come and go. One minute, kale smoothies are the elixir to everything that ails you, the next it is ultra-low-carb lard and offal. But what if the real solution was far more traditional? Meet the latest trend: the “ancestral diet”. Proponents of the diet say research shows that people have genetic adaptations – such as lactose tolerance – to what would have been their traditional diets. Therefore, a personalised diet, based on what our families ate in centuries past, could be the secret to good health. All modern health conditions, they say, can be attributed to the mismatch between our current diets and our genes. For example, it is claimed that Asia has gone from one of the lowest rates of chronic disease to the highest in just one generation, due to increasingly Westernised diets. So the recipe for a long and healthy life is simple: we just need to look at historical cookbooks for what our genetic ancestors ate 500 years ago. Definitions vary, but the general idea is that Europeans should eat a wheat-based diet with plenty of dairy, whereas Asians should have a rice-based diet, rich in vegetables and tiny amounts of protein like fish sauce. As an ethnobotanist, I am fascinated by traditional diets, but I must admit I would find this advice hard to follow. Being half-Bornean and half-Welsh, my ancestral diet is rather harder to pinpoint. Following this advice would mean a diet that blends, I guess, rice and wheat as a primary energy source, with probably an awful lot of millet and sago palm.
2-19-20 Ancient humans in the Sahara ate fish before the lakes dried up
The Sahara desert was once home to several species of fish, including tilapia and catfish, which were hunted by animals and humans alike. The fossil record shows that the fish populations dwindled as a changing climate dried up the lakes and swamps they inhabited, which may have forced the people and animals who relied on them to change their diets. Between 2003 and 2006, Savino di Lernia at Sapienza University of Rome and his colleagues analysed fossils from a rock shelter called Takarkori in south-western Libya. Until about 5500 years ago, the 140-square-metre cave was close to a large pond, making it ideal for ancient human occupation. Di Lernia and his team examined fossils dating from 10,200 to 4650 years ago, which were well-preserved in the shelter and arid conditions of the cave. “During this period, the central Sahara was much more humid than it is today. It was a savannah-like environment and it supported large animals like elephants, hippos and rhinos,” he says. Because of this, di Lernia expected to find a lot of fish bones at the site. Nevertheless, he says he was surprised at how many they found. In fossils between 10,200 and 8000 years old, around 90 per cent of the animal material they found belonged to fish, including catfish and tilapia. Cut marks on the bones suggest that they were human food refuse. This number fell dramatically when they analysed animal remains from between 5900 and 4650 years ago. At that point, fish bones only made up about 48 per cent of the remains. Much of the rest of the bones belonged to mammals such as sheep, goats and cattle. The fossil record also suggested that the Saharan environment began to dry out around 7400 years ago. An increasing proportion of the tilapia fossils that formed around that time came from a hardy species – Coptodon zillii – which can withstand harsher conditions. At the same time, there was a decrease in the proportion of bones from Oreochromis niloticus, a species less suited to such conditions.
2-19-20 Cretaceous insect discovered with extremely weird antennae
An insect locked in Cretaceous-era amber has bizarrely wide and long antennae that may have been used to confuse predators or help disguise these insects as they foraged on branches. “This may be a new type for insect antennae,” says Bao-Jie Du at Nankai University in China. She says she got a shock when she first examined the 99-million-year-old specimen in 2018. Amber collected in northern Myanmar contains a beautifully preserved juvenile Magnusantenna wuae, an insect from the Coreidae family, also known as leaf-footed bugs or squash bugs. This nymph’s antennae are more exaggerated than those of all other species in the Coreidae family. Du had never seen anything quite like it. The far-out feelers are about as long as the insect’s body and adorned with flap-like structures that fan out to more than four times wider than the bug’s head. The antennal flaps look a little like large fish scales or young leaves. The big question is why they evolved. Du and her colleagues suggest that they might have been used for displays during mating behaviour or perhaps as false targets so that a predator would miss the true body of the insect in an attack. They also argue that the antennae would have been extra sensitive, given their large surface area. “It’s lovely,” says Max Barclay at the Natural History Museum in London. “It’s an extreme version of something we’re familiar with.” However, he says a sexual function is unlikely since the antennae already seem to be well-developed in the juvenile insect. “I think it’s a leaf-mimic,” he says. With no sign of bright pigment on the antennae, Barclay suggests they may have allowed the insect to disguise itself as a twig with tiny leaves while it sucked the sap out of a branch. Predators would presumably miss it and move on.
2-19-20 China is using mass surveillance tech to fight new coronavirus spread
IN A bid to contain the country’s coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese government has teamed up with tech firms to monitor citizens and track confirmed cases of infection with the covid-19 virus. On 16 February, Alipay – the world’s largest mobile payments platform – announced that a colour-coded QR phone app to monitor individuals in China would be available within a week. The app assigns individuals a QR code with a red, yellow or green status based on their travel history and self-reported health. Anyone flagged as red is instructed to remain quarantined for 14 days, and people flagged as yellow for seven days. Authorities can scan an individual’s QR code to log their movements. QR codes are also being deployed at travel checkpoints, including hanging from drones at highway tollbooths. Drivers are required to scan them before their cars are allowed to enter cities, a process that can track the location of people by their Chinese resident identity card number. On 13 February, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology jointly launched a service with three state-run telecommunications firms – China Telecom, China Unicom and China Mobile – that allows users to request their location data from the previous 14 days by text message. Other technologies tap into the Chinese government’s vast collection of citizens’ data to screen for coronavirus carriers. The Close Contact Detector mobile app, developed by the state-owned China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), pulls data from national health, aviation and transport authorities. Purchasing train and plane tickets in China requires ID, and the state-owned China Rail has a database of all trips taken since 2000. Once a user registers with their name, ID card number and phone number, the app flags whether in the previous fortnight the user has lived, worked or travelled with a person confirmed or suspected to have the coronavirus. The system flags people who have sat within three rows of each other on a plane or in the same air-conditioned train compartment. In the first two days after it was introduced, the app was used 100 million times and detected more than 70,000 close contacts who could have coronavirus, according to the CETC.
2-19-20 How to keep a cool head: Secrets of people who never get stressed out
Studies of the world's most unflappable people point to ways we can all better manage stress – and are even inspiring the first stress vaccine. YOU know that person. The one who uses a delayed train as an excuse to get stuck into a good book. The one who can make a joke 10 seconds after breaking their ankle. The one who loves giving presentations and never falters under pressure. They seem to float through life unfazed by the stress that can overwhelm the rest of us. What’s their secret? Are they blessed with stress-resistant genes? Did their upbringing make them exceptionally resilient? Have they learned specific ways of coping with life’s challenges? Or do they just know how to avoid stress altogether? To answer these questions, researchers have been examining how humans and animals react and adapt to adversity, identifying those who are particularly resilient to stress and teasing apart the factors that contribute to this ability. It is a journey that has taken them from orphanages in Romania and interrogation chambers in North Carolina to fire stations in Indianapolis and humour classes in Austria. This work is helping the military recruit candidates for high-stress jobs. It has also led to the first human trial of a “stress vaccine”, with the potential to inoculate us against its devastating effects, from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to depression. But there is a bigger pay-off to understanding the secret of stress-free living. Knowing why some people handle stress better than others, and the things we might all do to improve our resilience, won’t just help all of us manage life’s daily struggles better, it might also teach us how to use stress to our advantage. One thing is for certain: whether you are running late for an interview or coping with a personal loss, stress is unavoidable. In 2018, the largest known study of mental-health-statistics-stress stress levels in the UK showed that three-quarters of people had been so stressed in the past year that they had felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. It can be so damaging to our well-being that one in three of these people had been left feeling suicidal, and one in six had self-harmed.
2-19-20 Ancient ‘megasites’ may reshape the history of the first cities
Some early urban areas may have been spread out and socially egalitarian. Nebelivka, a Ukrainian village of about 700 people, sits amid rolling hills and grassy fields. Here at the edge of Eastern Europe, empty space stretches to the horizon. It wasn’t always so. Beneath the surface of Nebelivka’s surrounding landscape and at nearby archaeological sites, roughly 6,000-year-old remnants of what were possibly some of the world’s first cities are emerging from obscurity. These low-density, spread-out archaeological sites are known as megasites, a term that underscores both their immense size and mysterious origins. Now, some scientists are arguing the settlements represent a distinct form of ancient urban life that has gone largely unrecognized. Megasites were cities like no others that have ever existed, says archaeologist John Chapman of Durham University in England. For decades, researchers have regarded roughly 6,000-year-old Mesopotamian sites, in what’s now Iraq, Iran and Syria, as the world’s first cities. Those metropolises arose after agriculture made it possible to feed large numbers of people in year-round settlements. Mesopotamian cities featured centralized governments, bureaucratic agencies that tracked and taxed farm production, and tens of thousands of city dwellers packed into neighborhoods connected by dusty streets. Social inequality was central to Mesopotamia’s urban ascent, with a hierarchy of social classes that included rulers, bureaucrats, priests, farmers and slaves. Over the last decade, however, researchers have increasingly questioned whether the only pathway to urban life ran through Mesopotamian cities. Chapman, along with Durham colleague Marco Nebbia and independent, Durham-based scholar Bisserka Gaydarska, is part of a movement that views low-density, spread-out settlements in several parts of the world as alternative form of early city life.
2-18-20 Why coronavirus superspreaders may mean we avoid a deadly pandemic
For yet another week, covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, has remained poised just short of becoming a pandemic. As case counts stabilise in China, and don’t take off elsewhere, the big question is: will it happen? “Every scenario is still on the table,” said Tedros Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization (WHO), in Geneva, Switzerland, this week. To be pandemic, covid-19 has to spread generally in a population outside China, not just in limited clusters triggered by a known case, as has happened so far. “We are not seeing that,” Mike Ryan, head of the WHO emergencies programme, said on Monday. In China, cases outside Hubei province, whose capital Wuhan is the epidemic epicentre, have stopped rising. Apart from a jump last week as China redefined some 15,000 unconfirmed cases as covid-19, the number of new cases reported daily seems to be falling. “Hubei peaked around 6 February, and daily case numbers are dropping,” says David Fisman at the University of Toronto, Canada. He says this is unlikely to be due to cases not being reported, as the fall was predictable based on trends seen in January. On 15 February, France confirmed Europe’s first covid-19 death, an 80-year-old Chinese tourist hospitalised in Paris a month ago. The day before, the first case of the virus in Africa was reported in Egypt. But cases outside China are infecting fewer other people than expected, given the rate of spread in China. Using epidemic models, Justin Lessler at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland says this fits a situation in which only 10 per cent of cases are responsible for 80 per cent of transmission – in other words, most cases are caused by superspreaders. Other researchers have found similar results. We know that many mild cases have gone undetected, and that case numbers should be higher. However, if most of these people don’t infect others, this would explain why the number of new detectable cases is now falling.
2-18-20 Coronavirus: Largest study suggests elderly and sick are most at risk
Health officials in China have published the first details of more than 44,000 cases of Covid-19, in the biggest study since the outbreak began. Data from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDC) finds that more than 80% of the cases have been mild, with the sick and elderly most at risk. The research also points to the high risk to medical staff. A hospital director in the city of Wuhan died from the virus on Tuesday. Liu Zhiming, 51, was the director of the Wuchang Hospital in Wuhan - one of the leading hospitals in the virus epicentre. He is one of the most senior health officials to die so far. Hubei, whose capital is Wuhan, is the worst affected province in the country. The report by the CCDC shows the province's death rate is 2.9% compared with 0.4% in the rest of the country. The findings put the overall death rate of the Covid-19 virus at 2.3%. China's latest official figures released on Tuesday put the overall death toll at 1,868 and 72,436 infections. Officials reported 98 new deaths and 1,886 new cases in the past day, with 93 of those deaths and 1,807 infections in Hubei province - the epicentre of the outbreak. More than 12,000 people have recovered, according to Chinese authorities. The paper by the CCDC, released on Monday and published in the Chinese Journal of Epidemiology, looked at more than 44,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in China as of 11 February. While the results largely confirm previous descriptions of the virus and patterns of infection, the study includes a detailed breakdown of the 44,672 confirmed cases across all of China. It finds that 80.9% of infections are classified as mild, 13.8% as severe and only 4.7% as critical. The number of deaths among those infected, known as the fatality rate, remains low but rises among those over 80 years old. Looking at the sex ratio, men are more likely to die (2.8%) than women (1.7%). The study also identifies which existing illnesses put patients at risk. It puts cardiovascular disease at number one, followed by diabetes, chronic respiratory disease and hypertension.
2-18-20 50,000-year-old remains suggest Neanderthals buried their dead
Neanderthals really did bury their dead. Archaeologists in Iraq have discovered a new Neanderthal skeleton that appears to have been deliberately buried around 50,000 years ago. “We are quite confident,” says Emma Pomeroy at the University of Cambridge. The first evidence that Neanderthals buried their dead emerged after archaeologist Ralph Solecki excavated Shanidar cave in northern Iraq in the 1950s and 1960s. The cave eventually yielded the remains of 10 Neanderthals, including one dubbed Shanidar 4, which was found with clumps of pollen – suggesting the body had been deliberately placed in a grave and flowers scattered on it. The finding was one of several lines of evidence that has led to a reassessment of Neanderthals as highly intelligent and not the shambling brutes of earlier portrayals. However, the “flower burial” suggestion has been controversial. “There are burrowing rodents that use the cave and they sometimes take flowers into their burrows,” says Pomeroy. Some of the workmen helping with the dig also carried flowers. “Enough doubt was cast that people became quite sceptical.” In 2014, excavations at the cave restarted – under tight security because of the threat from ISIS in the region. The aim was to study the sediments in which the Neanderthals were found, to clarify what had happened. However, to the team’s surprise they found a new set of remains: the upper half of a Neanderthal, the bones still in their anatomical positions. Pomeroy’s team found multiple lines of evidence that the Neanderthal was deliberately buried, including that fact that the sediment layer around the body is visibly different to the layer below. “The one containing the bones is much darker,” says Pomeroy. What’s more, the sediment below the body shows signs of having been disturbed by digging. “If you imagine you’re digging into soil or sediment to dig a grave or a little hole, that causes some compression of the soil, underneath that you’re taking out, because you’re pushing down,” says Pomeroy. The team found that the layer immediately under the body is compressed, but the deeper layers aren’t. “That’s quite good evidence that something was dug out and that’s what the body’s been put in.”
2-18-20 New cave fossils have revived the debate over Neandertal burials
Part of an adult Neandertal’s skeleton was found in a manner that suggests intentional burial. The excavation of an adult Neandertal’s partial upper-body skeleton in Iraqi Kurdistan has revived a decades-long debate over whether Neandertals intentionally buried their dead. Analyses of the fossils, unearthed from the region’s Shanidar Cave, and the surrounding sediment indicate the individual was placed at the bottom of a shallow depression that someone had dug, scientists report in the February Antiquity. The discovery follows excavations in Shanidar from 1951 to 1960 that yielded fossils from 10 other Neandertals, including a partial skeleton known as the “flower burial” for the ancient clumps of pollen that surrounded the remains. The late archaeologist Ralph Solecki, who led those earlier digs, concluded that the pollen showed that Shanidar Neandertals had buried their dead and scattered flowers over bodies in funeral rituals. Burying the dead — a behavior typically associated only with Homo sapiens — implies compassion for group members, care and mourning for the dead, and perhaps spirituality and belief in an afterlife. If Solecki was right, Neandertals could have engaged in various symbolic acts, such as creating cave paintings, also usually attributed only to H. sapiens (SN: 10/28/19). Solecki’s critics have suggested, however, that Neandertals sleeping in Shanidar Cave could have died from exposure or injuries caused by falling rocks before natural processes covered their bodies with dirt and plants (SN: 12/11/01). To complicate matters, Solecki’s discoveries occurred before professional standards were developed for carefully excavating fossils and studying how site sediments formed. The newly excavated Neandertal, dubbed Shanidar Z, lay next to the flower burial and in a manner that strengthens the argument for Solecki’s theory that the cave contains one or more Stone Age graves, the researchers hold.
2-18-20 Neanderthal 'skeleton' is first found in a decade
Researchers have described the first "articulated" remains of a Neanderthal to be discovered in a decade. An articulated skeleton is one where the bones are still arranged in their original positions. The new specimen was uncovered at Shanidar Cave in Iraq and consists of the upper torso and crushed skull of a middle-aged to older adult. Excavations at Shanidar in the 1950s and 60s unearthed partial remains of 10 Neanderthal men, women and children. During these earlier excavations, archaeologists found that some of the burials were clustered together, with clumps of pollen surrounding one of the skeletons. The researcher who led those original investigations, Ralph Solecki from Columbia University in New York, claimed it was evidence that Neanderthals had buried their dead with flowers. This "flower burial" captured the imagination of the public and kicked off a decades-long controversy. The flowers interpretation suggested our evolutionary relatives were capable of cultural sophistication, challenging the view - prevalent at the time - that Neanderthals were unintelligent and animalistic. Before the most recent specimen uncovered in Iraq, the last articulated Neanderthal remains were unearthed at Sima de las Palomas in 2006-7 and at Cova Forada in 2010. Both sites are located in south-east Spain. But Dr Emma Pomeroy, from the University of Cambridge, said the new skeleton - dubbed Shanidar Z - is more substantial and more completely articulated than those previous finds. Dr Pomeroy is the lead author of a paper in Antiquity journal describing the find and was part of the excavation team working at the cave in Iraqi Kurdistan. "So much research on how Neanderthals treated their dead has to involve returning to finds from 60 or even a hundred years ago, when archaeological techniques were more limited, and that only ever gets you so far," said Dr Pomeroy. "To have primary evidence of such quality from this famous Neanderthal site will allow us to use modern technologies to explore everything from ancient DNA to long-held questions about Neanderthal ways of death, and whether they were similar to our own."
2-17-20 Coronavirus: Japan cruise ship's US passengers home for further quarantine
Two planes carrying hundreds of US citizens from a coronavirus-hit cruise ship in Japan have arrived in the US. One plane landed at a US Air Force base in California and the other in Texas. Passengers will be isolated at military facilities for 14 days. There were about 400 Americans on board the Diamond Princess. The ship, with some 3,700 passengers and crew, has been in quarantine since 3 February. Meanwhile, China reported 2,048 new cases on Monday. Of those new cases, 1,933 were from Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak. More than 70,500 people across China have been infected by the virus. In Hubei alone, the official number of cases stands at 58,182, with 1,692 deaths. Most new cases and deaths have been reported in Wuhan, Hubei's largest city. In other developments: 1. In Japan, a public gathering to celebrate the birthday of new Emperor Naruhito later this week has been cancelled, due to concerns over the spread of the virus. 2. Also in Japan, organisers of the Tokyo marathon due to take place on 1 March have cancelled the amateur part of the race, affecting some 38,000 runners, after cases of the virus were confirmed in Tokyo. Only elite runners will be allowed to take part. 3. In China, the National People's Congress standing committee said it would meet next week to discuss a delay of this year's Congress - the Communist Party's most important annual gathering - because of the outbreak. 4. At the weekend, an American woman tested positive for the virus in Malaysia after leaving a cruise ship docked off the coast of Cambodia. There are fears for other passengers on the cruise, who are now dispersed around the world. 5. A Russian woman who was ordered to go back to a quarantine facility by a St Petersburg court has returned to hospital. Last week, Alla Ilyina escaped from the facility after testing negative three times for the virus, but was told to remain quarantined for two weeks.
2-17-20 How do body parts grow to their right sizes?
Some cells seem to know what to do. Others apparently take their cues from outside. But really, 'We don't get it.' Living things just seem to know how big to grow — and how big to grow their sundry parts. A human liver maintains itself at just the right volume to do its job. A fruit fly's wings, on opposite sides of its body, somehow wind up the same size as each other, correctly scaled to sustain flight. In everyday life, we expect body parts to be in proportion, because they usually are. "You notice if somebody comes up in front of you and one leg is way bigger than the other," says Ben Stanger, a gastroenterologist and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine, who has studied organ growth. But as much as we take this basic aspect of life on Earth for granted, scientists don't fully understand it. How do body parts know when to start and stop growing? In some cases, cells seem to follow an intrinsic program carried out by the activity of their genes. At other times, cells appear to react to a cacophony of messages they receive from other cells and their environment, turning growth on and off as needed. A lot of times, they seem to do a little of both. And when they're cancer cells, the whole business has gone awry. "We don't get it," says Stanger, author of a 2015 article in the Annual Review of Physiology that described mechanisms that control liver growth. Scientists have been trying to "get it" for a long time. In the 1930s, Yale zoologists Victor Twitty and Joseph Schwind conducted experiments in salamanders, cross-transplanting limb buds from a smaller species, Ambystoma punctatum, with those of a larger but closely related species, Ambystoma tigrinium. In some experiments, the researchers found that taking a limb bud from the small salamander and grafting it onto the larger salamander resulted in an animal with three large limbs and one small one (and vice versa). This suggests that "the information for size was embedded in that group of cells very early on and didn't care what was happening in the animal," Stanger says. But Twitty and Schwind found in other experiments that nutrition — an external regulator — also affected limb size. "It's nature and it's nurture," Stanger says. "In biology, it's never either/or."
2-17-20 Living brain tissue experiments raise new kinds of ethical questions
An ethicist describes the quandaries raised by working with tissue involved in our awareness. Live bits of brain look like any other piece of meat — pinkish, solid chunks of neural tissue. But unlike other kinds of tissue or organs donated for research, they hold the memories, thoughts and feelings of a person. “It is identified with who we are,” Karen Rommelfanger, a neuroethicist at Emory University in Atlanta, said February 13 in a news conference at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That uniqueness raises a whole new set of ethical quandaries when it comes to experimenting with living brain tissue, she explained. Such donations are crucial to emerging research aimed at teasing out answers to what makes us human. For instance, researchers at the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Brain Science conduct experiments on live brain tissue to get clues about how the cells in the human brain operate (SN: 8/7/19). These precious samples, normally discarded as medical waste, are donated by patients undergoing brain surgery and raced to the lab while the nerve cells are still viable. Other experiments rely on systems that are less sophisticated than a human brain, such as brain tissue from other animals and organoids. These clumps of neural tissue, grown from human stem cells, are still a long way from mimicking the complexities of the human brain (SN: 10/24/19). But with major advances, these systems might one day be capable of much more advanced behavior, which might ultimately lead to awareness, a conundrum that raises ethical issues. To avoid just that kind of issue in animal studies, scientists studying cellular activity in dead pig brains raised the remote possibility of the rejuvenated brain tissue having a sliver of awareness (SN: 4/17/19). So widespread neural activity in these pig brains were preemptively blocked, and researchers watched for any signs of consciousness. Protocols were in place to stop the experiment if those signals were observed.
2-17-20 Linking sense of touch to facial movement inches robots toward ‘feeling’ pain
If robots can experience pain themselves, they might understand human pain better, too. A robot with a sense of touch may one day “feel” pain, both its own physical pain and empathy for the pain of its human companions. Such touchy-feely robots are still far off, but advances in robotic touch-sensing are bringing that possibility closer to reality. Sensors embedded in soft, artificial skin that can detect both a gentle touch and a painful thump have been hooked up to a robot that can then signal emotions, Minoru Asada reported February 15 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This artificial “pain nervous system,” as Asada calls it, may be a small building block for a machine that could ultimately experience pain (in a robotic sort of way). Such a feeling might also allow a robot to “empathize” with a human companion’s suffering. Asada, an engineer at Osaka University in Japan, and his colleagues have designed touch sensors that reliably pick up a range of touches. In a robot system named Affetto, an unsettlingly realistic-looking child’s head, these touch and pain signals can be converted to emotional facial expressions (SN: 7/2/19). A touch-sensitive, soft material, as opposed to a rigid metal surface, allows richer interactions between machine and world, says neuroscientist Kingson Man of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Artificial skin “allows the possibility of engagement in versatile and truly intelligent ways.” Such a system, Asada says, might ultimately lead to robots that can recognize the pain of others, a valuable skill for robots designed to help care for elderly people, for instance. But there is an important distinction between a robot that responds in a predictable way to a painful thump and a robot that’s capable of approximating an internal feeling, says Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist also at the University of Southern California. In a recent article, he and Man argue that such an artificial sense of feeling might arise if robots were programmed to experience something akin to a mental state such as pain (SN: 11/10/19).
2-15-20 Coronavirus: First death confirmed in Europe
A Chinese tourist has died in France after contracting the new coronavirus - the first fatality from the disease outside Asia. The victim was an 80-year-old man from China's Hubei province, according to French Health Minister Agnès Buzyn. He arrived in France on 16 January and was placed in quarantine in hospital in Paris on 25 January, she said. Only three deaths had previously been reported outside mainland China - in Hong Kong, the Philippines and Japan. However, 1,523 people have died from the virus within China, mostly in Hubei where it first emerged. These include 143 deaths newly reported on Saturday by the country's national health commission. A further 2,641 people have been newly confirmed as infected, bringing China's total cases to 66,492. All countries should be prepared for the arrival of the virus, the head of the World Health Organization said on Saturday. In late January, France became the first European country to confirm cases of the virus. It has had 11 confirmed cases of the disease, officially called Covid-19. Six people remain in hospital. The deceased man had been in a critical condition in the Bichat hospital in northern Paris, the health minister said. He died of a lung infection due to the coronavirus. The man's 50-year-old daughter is among the six in hospital with the virus, but she is recovering, Ms Buzyn said. The other five are British nationals who caught the virus at a chalet in the ski resort of Contamines-Montjoie. Outside mainland China, there have been more than 500 cases in 26 countries. Earlier, the US said it was sending a plane to Japan to evacuate Americans stuck on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which is being held in quarantine in a Japanese port. Some 400 US citizens are reported to be on the vessel, according to Japan's NHK broadcaster. Those with symptoms are expected to be treated in Japan. Out of 3,700 people on board, 218 have tested positive for the virus. Australia also said it was considering removing its citizens from the ship.
2-15-20 Very few infants seem to be getting sick with the new coronavirus
Scientists aren’t sure why kids seem to be more protected. As the outbreak of a new coronavirus continues, infants appear to be largely spared. A new study that tallied cases of infants hospitalized with the virus in China from December 8 to February 6 found only nine. The children, aged 1 to 11 months old, had fevers, cough or other mild respiratory symptoms. None developed severe complications from the disease, now known as COVID-19, Zhi-Jiang Zhang of Wuhan University and colleagues report online February 14 in JAMA. The results could mean that babies are less susceptible to the virus or may just have a lower risk of being exposed, the researchers note. It’s also possible that babies who do become sick have such a mild case that they aren’t seen by a doctor. All of the infants identified had at least one infected family member and became sick after their relatives fell ill. More than 63,000 people have been reported infected in mainland China as of February 14, a large increase from most previous estimates that appears due to changes in how China is identifying cases of the disease. Another study on COVID-19 and babies, published online February 12 in the Lancet, found no evidence that mothers in late pregnancy who had a cesarean section could transmit the virus to their babies before or during birth. The mothers were admitted to Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University from January 20 to 31. Samples of amniotic fluid taken from six pregnant women who developed COVID-19 pneumonia and had C-sections were negative for the virus, as were throat swabs from the newborns. Umbilical cord blood and the mother’s breast milk also tested negative, Yuanzhen Zhang of Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University and colleagues report.
2-15-20 AI can predict which criminals may break laws again better than humans
Computer algorithms perform better than people in more realistic scenarios. Computer algorithms can outperform people at predicting which criminals will get arrested again, a new study finds. Risk-assessment algorithms that forecast future crimes often help judges and parole boards decide who stays behind bars (SN: 9/6/17). But these systems have come under fire for exhibiting racial biases (SN: 3/8/17), and some research has given reason to doubt that algorithms are any better at predicting arrests than humans are. One 2018 study that pitted human volunteers against the risk-assessment tool COMPAS found that people predicted criminal reoffence about as well as the software (SN: 2/20/18). The new set of experiments confirms that humans predict repeat offenders about as well as algorithms when the people are given immediate feedback on the accuracy of their predications and when they are shown limited information about each criminal. But people are worse than computers when individuals don’t get feedback, or if they are shown more detailed criminal profiles. In reality, judges and parole boards don’t get instant feedback either, and they usually have a lot of information to work with in making their decisions. So the study’s findings suggest that, under realistic prediction conditions, algorithms outmatch people at forecasting recidivism, researchers report online February 14 in Science Advances. Computational social scientist Sharad Goel of Stanford University and colleagues started by mimicking the setup of the 2018 study. Online volunteers read short descriptions of 50 criminals — including features like sex, age and number of past arrests — and guessed whether each person was likely to be arrested for another crime within two years. After each round, volunteers were told whether they guessed correctly. As seen in 2018, people rivaled COMPAS’s performance: accurate about 65 percent of the time.
2-15-20 75-million-year old eggshells suggest most dinosaurs were warm-blooded
An analysis of fossil eggshells may have settled a long-running debate about dinosaurs, suggesting that all species were warm-blooded. This also means the ancestors of dinosaurs must have been warm-blooded too, says Robin Dawson at Yale University, who led the research. It is now mostly agreed that the feathered dinosaurs called theropods that gave rise to birds were warm-blooded, but there is still a debate about whether other groups of dinosaurs were too. Until recently, we had only indirect methods of working out the body temperature of ancient animals, so there was no way to be sure. There is a way to work out the temperature at which organic matter forms inside bodies based on carbon and oxygen isotopes. This technique can be applied to eggshells to reveal the body temperature of the mother when the shells formed. In 2015, researchers applied this method to the eggshell of a theropod and a sauropod – a long-necked dinosaur – and found both were warm-blooded. Now Dawson’s team has applied this method to three more fossil eggshells. One belonged to a theropod called Troodon formosus, and another to a duck-billed dinosaur called Maiasaura peeblesorum. The researchers are confident the third eggshell belonged to a sauropod known as a dwarf titanosaur, although the dinosaur hasn’t yet been definitively identified. The team’s analysis suggests the duck-billed dinosaur had a body temperature of 44°C, the troodon had a temperature up to 38°C and the dwarf titanosaur 36°C – all warmer than the environments they lived in. Crucially, duck-billed dinosaurs belonged to a different group of dinosaurs from theropods and sauropods, which are more closely related to each other. This group includes animals such as triceratops and stegosaurs. It is much less likely that warm-bloodedness evolved independently in each of these three major types of dinosaur, says Dawson, which implies all dinosaur groups would have shared this trait, pointing to an ancestral origin. “If these three major groups had the capacity to use their metabolism to raise body temperature, that is something that stands for them all,” she says.
2-15-20 Tiny 2-billion-year-old fossil blobs may be the oldest complex cells
Fossils of single cells have been found in 2-billion-year-old rocks in China. The microfossils may be the oldest examples of complex eukaryotic cells in the fossil record – in which case they may be our distant ancestors. Leiming Yin at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology in China and his colleagues found the fossils in a set of rocks called the Hutuo Group in the Wutai mountains in northern China. Previous studies have shown that the rocks were laid down between 2.15 and 1.95 billion years ago. The team collected samples of slate from the ancient rocks and used acid to dissolve the excess rock, revealing the microfossils. In total the researchers found eight kinds of microfossil: four were bacteria, two couldn’t be identified and two appear to be eukaryotes. Eukaryotic cells are larger and more internally complex than those of other microorganisms like bacteria. The origin of eukaryotes is a milestone in evolutionary history because, while the first eukaryotes were all single-celled, they ultimately gave rise to all multicellular organisms – including fungi, plants and animals. One microfossil the researchers found appears to belong to a known genus of eukaryotes called Dictyosphaera. There were also six specimens of a new genus that the team has dubbed Dongyesphaera. Both are roughly spherical cells with multi-layered outer walls and visible spines – all of which the team says suggests they are eukaryotes, not bacteria. Experts contacted by New Scientist gave the fossils a cautious welcome. It is “plausible” that they are eukaryotes, says Malgorzata Moczydlowska-Vidal at Uppsala University in Sweden. “I could go for them being eukaryotic,” says Anette Högström at the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø.
2-14-20 Controversial psychology tests are often still used in US courts
A third of the psychological tests used in US court proceedings aren’t generally accepted by experts in the field, a study has found. “A clinician has the freedom to use whatever tool they want and it’s the wild west out there,” says Tess Neal at Arizona State University. Neal’s team looked at the validity of psychological assessments commonly used in US courts. Assessments were used in a range of circumstances, from parental custody cases to the determination of a person’s sanity or their suitability for a death sentence. In a custody case, for instance, a psychologist might be asked to assess whether a parent is responsible enough to care for their child. Neal’s team first looked at the huge range of psychological tests currently used in courts, according to 22 previous surveys of forensic mental health professionals. “There’s way more variety out there than we realised,” says Neal. The researchers found that 60 per cent of the tests used in US courts hadn’t received generally favourable reviews of their scientific validity in widely accepted textbooks such as the Mental Measurements Yearbook. And 33 per cent weren’t broadly accepted by psychology experts, according to nine previously published reviews of the field. The most problematic tests are usually those that are too subjective, says Neal. For instance, the second most common assessment used according to previous surveys was the Rorschach inkblot test, in which people are asked what images they see in abstract patterns. This has been widely criticised for letting clinicians interpret responses based on their own impressions of a person. “There are questions about its scientific underpinnings,” says Neal. Another problematic personality test asks people to complete sentences where only the first few words are given, which again is thought to be too subjective.
2-14-20 Virus rips through ship
The number of people infected with the new coronavirus on a cruise ship in the port city of Yokohama more than doubled this week to at least 175—meaning the ship now hosts the highest number of cases outside China. The 3,700 people on board the Diamond Princess are mostly confined to their rooms; those who test positive are evacuated for treatment. Passengers are allowed out a few minutes a day to breathe fresh air on deck, where they must remain masked and stay at least 6 feet away from others. Some experts said that Japan’s decision to quarantine the entire ship put healthy passengers at higher risk of catching the respiratory illness. “This is almost like a shooting gallery for the virus,” said Amesh Adalja of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “It doesn’t make sense and is almost cruel.”
2-14-20 Babies are more likely to be conceived in autumn but we don’t know why
Babies are most likely to be conceived in late autumn and least likely to be conceived in spring, according to a large study in North America and Denmark. Births tend to spike at certain times of the year, but this may reflect seasonal variation in when women try to get pregnant rather than when they are most likely to conceive, says Amelia Wesselink at Boston University. To find out when couples have the best chance of conceiving, Wesselink and her colleagues studied almost 6000 women in the US and Canada and more than 8500 women in Denmark who were trying to get pregnant without using fertility treatment. They were surveyed every eight weeks to find out if they had conceived and answered a questionnaire about their lifestyle. The researchers first looked at when the women started trying to get pregnant. They found that early autumn, particularly September, was the most popular time. This may reflect a preference for a baby to be born earlier in the summer, when it may be easier to take time off work, or to avoid being pregnant during the hot later summer months, says Wesselink. The researchers then looked at when women were most likely to actually become pregnant. They adjusted the results to account for seasonal variations in pregnancy attempts and other factors that may differ across the year, such as how frequently couples had sex, their body mass index, physical activity and stress levels. The chance of conceiving in a given menstrual cycle was 16 per cent higher for North American women and 8 per cent higher for Danish women in late November and early December when compared with late May and early June, when their chances of conceiving were lowest. Why fertility seems to vary in this way is still a mystery, says Wesselink. She and her colleagues now plan to investigate whether seasonal fluctuations in temperature, humidity or air pollution explain changes in women’s fertility across the year. They are also interested in whether women’s fertility follows similar seasonal trends in the southern hemisphere.
2-14-20 Smoking damage heals
It’s never too late to stop smoking—and your lungs may even make a partial recovery. That’s the surprising conclusion of a new study, which found that quitting cigarettes can spark a healing process even in people who puffed a pack a day for 40 years. The chemicals in tobacco smoke corrupt the DNA in lung cells, gradually turning them from healthy to cancerous. Researchers at University College London examined lung biopsies taken from 16 people—including current smokers, ex-smokers, and people who’d never smoked—and found that nine out of 10 lung cells in current smokers had up to 10,000 more genetic mutations than in nonsmokers. Study co-author Kate Gowers calls these genetic alterations “mini time bombs, waiting for the next hit that causes them to progress to cancer.” But a tiny proportion of lung cells remains unaffected, and when a person stops smoking, these cells grow and replace the damaged cells around them. In ex-smokers, up to 40 percent of their cells looked like those of people who’d never smoked. Why these cells remain unscathed—and how many cells they can replenish—is unclear, reports BBC.com. The researchers say answering those questions could help them improve the repair process.
2-14-20 Meat is bad for you, again
Four months after a major study concluded that people shouldn’t worry about the health risks of eating red and processed meat, a group of prominent researchers is pushing back on that controversial finding, reports The New York Times In a new study that analyzed data on 30,000 people over an average of three decades, the researchers found that those who ate the most red meat, processed meat, and poultry had a small but significant increase in their risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Those who ate two or more servings a week saw their risk increase by 4 to 7 percent. “Even though it seems to be a small amount of risk,” said senior author Norrina Allen, from the Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, “any excess risk for something as major as heart disease and mortality is worth considering.” Critics of last year’s study complained that it assessed the evidence using a tool designed for clinical drug trials rather than dietary studies; the lead author also came under fire for taking money from a food industry group.
2-14-20 Psychologists rank reasons why newly-wed heterosexual couples argue
Psychologists say they have produced the first rigorous analysis of why newly-wed heterosexual couples argue. Topping the list is that people feel their partner pays them inadequate attention or affection. The other main sources of disagreement are based around sex, money, control, jealousy and housework. The psychologists have turned the results into a standardised list of questions they say could help couples and therapists get to the bottom of constant rows. “Understanding the main reasons for disagreement in relationships, and what men and women perceive as disagreement, can help couples mitigate arguments by anticipating conflict,” says Guilherme Lopes, a psychologist at Oakland University, Michigan, who led the study. His team first asked university students to nominate hundreds of topics they thought married couples might argue about. The suggestions ranged from the very serious, including abortion, to the stereotypical and trivial, such as which TV programmes to watch. The team removed the suggestions they thought were irrelevant or redundant and then ran a list of the remaining 83 possibilities past 107 heterosexual couples from the local area who had married in the past year. For each topic, both partners were asked to grade how much they thought they rowed about it with their spouse. The team then took the most popular answers and grouped them by theme into six principal reasons for conflict, rejecting those ideas that couples said rarely prompted disagreement. Perhaps not surprisingly, given they had been married less than a year, couples said they didn’t argue about dating other people. Neither did they disagree about what side of the bed to sleep on. More common arguments focused on disputes such as who should pay for something, whose friends the couple sees more often, frequency of sex and who does more work. The psychologists took the most important 30 – grouped into those six principal themes – and now present them as a Reasons for Disagreement in Romantic Relationships Scale, which they say can help explain conflict between partners.
2-14-20 Human brain parts left over from surgery boosts research
US researchers are developing a better understanding of the human brain by studying tissue left over from surgery. They say that their research is more likely to lead to new treatments than studies based on mouse and rat models. Dr Ed Lein, who leads the initiative at the Allen Institute has set up a scheme with local doctors to study left over tissue just hours after surgery. He gave details at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Seattle. "It is a little bit crazy that we have such a huge field where we are trying to solve brain diseases and there is very little understanding of the human brain itself," said Dr Lein. "The field as a whole is largely assuming that the human brain is similar to those of animal models without ever testing that view. "But the mouse brain is a thousand times smaller, and any time people look, they find significant differences." Dr Lein and his colleagues at the Allen Institute in Seattle set up the scheme with local neurosurgeons to study brain tissue just hours after surgery - with the consent of the patient. It functions as if it is still inside the brain for up to 48 hours after it has been removed. So Dr Lein and his colleagues have to drop everything and often have to work through the night once they hear that brain tissue has become available. "What we are finding is that there are many more types of cells in the human brain than in animal models. Their electrical properties and their anatomy can be significantly different between mouse and human," he said. And it is for this reason that efforts to come up with treatments for brain diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's have been "relatively fruitless", according to Dr Lein. He says that patients, undergoing invasive brain surgery for disorders such as epilepsy, have been enthusiastic about signing up to the scheme.
2-14-20 Microbiologists took 12 years to grow a microbe tied to complex life’s origins
Scientists are hopeful that an archaean may help answer how multicellular life evolved. Cramped in a small submarine 2,500 meters below the Pacific’s surface in 2006, microbiologist Hiroyuki Imachi scanned the ocean floor for signs of microbial life. As the sub drifted over the bottom of Japan’s Nankai Trough — a hotbed of understudied microbes living off methane bubbling up from tectonic faults — Imachi spotted a nest of small clams against a whitish microbial mat, suggestive of an active methane seep below. The submersible’s robotic arm plunged a 25-centimeter tube into the blackish-gray sediment to retrieve a core of muck. It would take another 12 years of lab work for Imachi and colleagues to isolate a prize they hadn’t even set out to find — a single-celled microbe from an ancient lineage of Archaea, a domain of life superficially similar to bacteria. That find could help biologists reconstruct one of life’s greatest leaps toward complexity, from simple bacteria-like organisms to more complicated eukaryotes, the enormous group of chromosome-carrying creatures that includes humans, platypuses, fungi and many others. “Patience is very important in doing successful science,” says Imachi, of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology in Yokosuka. He and his colleagues published their findings in the Jan. 23 Nature, to enthusiastic acclaim from fellow microbiologists. “I’m very lucky.” Many scientists think an unusual meal kicked off the evolution of more complicated cells about 2 billion years ago. An ancient archaean, the theory goes, gobbled up a bacterium that, instead of being dinner, sparked a symbiotic relationship in a process called endosymbiosis (SN: 6/8/74). Eventually, the bacterium evolved into mitochondria, the energy-producing cellular structures that fueled the rise of complex life.
2-14-20 Coronavirus’s genetic fingerprints are used to rapidly map its spread
Widespread data sharing has revealed a clearer picture of the virus’s movements. Unprecedented data sharing and breakneck genetic sleuthing are charting the new coronavirus’s travels around the globe. By cataloging tiny genetic tweaks to the virus, called 2019 novel coronavirus or 2019-nCoV, computational biologist Trevor Bedford at Fred Hutch, a cancer research center in Seattle, and his colleagues show the virus is spreading around Wuhan, China, and kicking off much smaller chains of transmission elsewhere. That mapping was presented February 13 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement in Science and is being constantly updated by a wide collaboration of scientists at www.nextstrain.org. Charting these genetic lineages will help scientists piece together what this virus might be capable of, and whether interventions are helping slow its spread, Bedford said (SN: 1/28/20). Since the virus’s debut, scientists from around the world have been furiously exchanging data, including genetic details of viruses that have infected people. By February 12, the genetic makeup of over 100 virus samples had been shared by research groups around the world. Comparing those genomes allowed Bedford and colleagues to piece together a viral family tree. “We can chart this out on the map, then, because we know that this genome is connected to this genome by these mutations,” he said. “And we can learn about these transmission links.” Researchers have found identifying mutations in the virus as it has moved around the globe — and none that suggests the virus is getting more virulent, Bedford said. For a spreading virus, mutations are expected. Viruses typically have “a very error-prone form of replication,” Bedford said. For instance, seasonal flu mutations occur once every 10 days and “we don’t worry about that suddenly becoming extra severe.”
2-13-20 Coronavirus: Why Singapore is so vulnerable to coronavirus spread
Several international cases of the coronavirus from the UK to South Korea can be traced back to Singapore and some countries are now advising against travel to the international hub. But while Singapore has been commended for its management of the crisis, the tiny city-state faces unique challenges. Changi airport in Singapore is one of the most interconnected hubs in the world. In fact, there's a flight taking off and arriving every 80 seconds here, making it more connected than JFK and San Francisco in the US and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. But the scenes there these days are very different. Dozens of thermal scanners dot the terminals, automatically taking the temperature of passengers as they enter and exit Singapore. Travellers are checked for fever, cold and cough symptoms - airport staff on the lookout for any sign of the coronavirus. The country's open borders and interconnectedness as well as its pro-active approach to testing means it has reported one of the highest tallies outside mainland China - 50. "We are vulnerable, but we have to do everything that we can to contain that spread of the virus," says Lawrence Wong, co-chair of Singapore's task force on the coronavirus. But when a virus comes to Singapore it won't just affect this city. It can and has spread through Singapore to other countries around the world. This became painfully obvious when one meeting held in a luxury hotel in mid-January spawned several coronavirus cases around the world. More than 100 people attended the sales conference, including some from China. About a week after that meeting, stories of confirmed coronavirus cases began popping up all over the world - from South Korea to Malaysia, the UK and even Spain. The first Malaysian to catch the virus was a 41-year-old man who had attended the conference along with colleagues from China. Subsequently, his sister and mother-in-law caught it from him.
2-13-20 Coronavirus infections spike to 15,000 new Chinese cases in a day
China has reported a massive increase in the number of its citizens infected by the new coronavirus, after officials there changed how cases were defined. The numbers now include people who are less seriously ill. After a week of cases appearing to level out in China, where the outbreak began, the number shot up on Wednesday, with 15,152 people diagnosed with the virus causing the newly named disease, covid-19. A total of 254 people in China died on Wednesday from the coronavirus. The World Health Organization had warned earlier this week that it was “way too early” to say which direction the epidemic would go after the statistics suggest infections might be slowing. David Heymann at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told New Scientist the sudden spike yesterday was a result of Chinese authorities changing the definition of coronavirus cases. “They’ve changed their case definition to include people who are less ill,” he says. “It’s good because we’ll now better understand the full spectrum of disease in China, we’ll understand how many are having less serious disease, and this will also have an impact when they are doing the ratio of deaths to cases. [Until] now we have a skewed idea of deaths.” The change in the ratio of cases to deaths would appear to suggest the virus is less deadly than previously thought, though it is too early to tell, says Heymann. China has made the change in response to requests from the WHO, in order to get a better idea of what is going on, says Heymann. The move is a positive one, he says. “It will help in deciding which strategies are working and which might not be working.”
2-13-20 Coronavirus: Sharp increase in deaths and cases in Hubei
Some 242 deaths from the new coronavirus were recorded in the Chinese province of Hubei on Wednesday, the deadliest day of the outbreak. There was also a huge increase in the number of cases, with 14,840 people diagnosed with Covid-19. Hubei has started using a broader definition to diagnose people, which accounts for most of the rise in cases. China sacked two top officials in Hubei province hours after the new figures were revealed. Until Wednesday's increases, the number of people with the virus in Hubei, where the outbreak emerged, was stabilising. But the new cases and deaths in the province have pushed the national death toll above 1,350 with almost 60,000 infections in total. Meanwhile Japan has announced its first coronavirus death - a woman in her 80s who lived in Kanagawa, south-west of Tokyo. It is the third death outside mainland China, following one each in the Philippines and Hong Kong. The woman's diagnosis was confirmed after her death and she had no obvious link to China's Hubei province, Japanese media reported. The World Health Organization (WHO) says it is seeking "further clarity" from China about the changes to how cases of the virus are being confirmed. China has been accused of suppressing the full extent of the outbreak in the past, says the BBC's Nick Beake in Hong Kong. David Heymann, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: "What has happened in China is that they have changed the definition of what the disease really is - now they are taking people who have lesser symptoms. "The deaths are quite worrisome, there is an increased number of deaths reported, but if you look overall at the total number of deaths and the total number of cases, the fatality ratio is about the same as it has been - but it is still high, as high as the death rate in influenza."
2-13-20 Coronavirus: Will someone develop a vaccine?
While the world worries about the spread of the deadly coronavirus, now known as Covid-19, one would expect the major pharmaceutical firms to make millions, even billions, by rushing to develop a vaccine. But in reality, this is not the case. While the global vaccine market is expected to grow to $60bn (£46bn) this year, big profits are not guaranteed. ''Successfully developing a preventive vaccine or treatment for a public health crisis is difficult. It typically takes a lot of time and money," says US-based Brad Loncar, a biotechnology investor and chief executive of Loncar Investments. "There is typically little money in it for companies that do successfully develop something, not the billions that some investors mistakenly expect." The global vaccines industry is dominated by big players such as Pfizer, Merck, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Sanofi, and Johnson & Johnson. Worldwide sales of vaccines totalled $54bn last year, and have almost doubled since 2014, according to data analysts Statista. Driving this growth is the increase of infectious diseases like influenza, swine flu, hepatitis and Ebola. "One would think that the industry has the reserves to jump at this challenge. But none of the four top vaccine companies has shown significant interest," says Dr Ellen 't Hoen, director at medicines law and policy at University Medical Center Groningen in Amsterdam. Outside of the big firms, there are a handful of smaller pharma companies pushing to find a vaccine for the deadly Covid-19 outbreak, which has already claimed more than 1,000 lives. Gilead, a US biotech business that makes anti-HIV drugs, has announced it will trial its drug Remdesivir. Meanwhile Kaletra, a combination of two anti-HIV drugs from pharma group AbbVie is being trialled on patients in China. Both trials are based on existing medicines. "A large company like Gilead or AbbVie will be able to use an existing medicine against this as a therapeutic treatment, but it's unlikely to be much of a needle mover from a stock market perspective for a large company like that," adds Mr Loncar.
2-13-20 We'll soon know if covid-19 can be treated with HIV and Ebola drugs
The results of two clinical trials testing whether HIV and Ebola drugs are effective at treating the symptoms of covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, will be known soon, says the World Health Organization. Marie-Paule Kieny from the WHO told a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland, on 12 February that doctors in China have given a combination of two HIV drugs – lopinavir and ritonavir – to “quite a number” of people with covid-19. The results of the trial will be known within “a few days or a few weeks”, she said. Doctors in China will also start testing a drug called remdesivir, which was originally developed to treat the Ebola virus, in people with covid-19 very soon, Kieny told the press conference. The drug was tested without much success with Ebola, but may be more effective against covid-19, she said. “But we will have to wait for a few weeks to know whether this gives any positive signal,” she added. In addition, four vaccines are being developed to try to prevent people getting the disease in the first place, Soumya Swaminathan from the WHO told the press conference. “It’s likely that there will be one or two that will go into human trials in about three to four months from now,” she said. “However, it would take at least 12 to 18 months for a vaccine to become available for wider use.” The press conference followed a global research forum held in Geneva on 11 and 12 February that brought together scientists, public health agencies and health ministries from around the world to discuss the research that needs to be done to tackle the covid-19 outbreak. Researchers from Wuhan, where the outbreak began, attended via video link due to the restrictions on their travel.
2-13-20 Coronavirus: How maths is helping to answer crucial covid-19 questions
Back in mid-January, the current coronavirus outbreak was merely an unusual cluster of pneumonia cases. At least, that is what the tally of 41 confirmed infections in the Chinese city of Wuhan suggested. But then cases started appearing in other countries: first one in Thailand, then one in Japan, then another in Thailand, all among people who had travelled from Wuhan There were some flights to these places from Wuhan, but for three cases to have already appeared internationally, there must have been a lot more infections in the city that hadn’t been picked up. When researchers used flight data to estimate how many unreported cases there must have been to generate these patterns, it suggested the total in Wuhan was more likely to be in the thousands than the dozens. During an outbreak, we rarely see the full picture at first, and this is where mathematics is essential. As well as the question of how many cases there really are, we also need to know how severe the disease really is: if someone is diagnosed with the new coronavirus, what is the chance it will prove fatal? As of 11 February, there had been 395 cases confirmed outside China and one death (which may be the most accurate picture of the outbreak). At first glance, it seems the chance of death must therefore be 1/395 or 0.3 per cent. However, this calculation makes a crucial error. There is generally a delay of a couple of weeks between someone falling ill and dying or getting better, so we can’t include recent cases in the analysis, because we don’t yet know what will happen to them. If we adjust for this delay – and instead focus on the cases that occurred long enough ago to know what happened to them – we instead end up with a fatality risk of around 1 per cent. We saw a similar data illusion occur during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014: early reports put the chance of death much lower than it should have been, causing unnecessary speculation about why it seemed unusually low.
2-13-20 Bats’ immune defenses may be why their viruses can be so deadly to people
A virus originally from bats may be behind an ongoing outbreak of a new coronavirus. When it comes to viruses, ones from bats are weirdly deadly — at least to humans. The mammals can carry many viruses with the potential to cause serious diseases in people, including rabies, Ebola, Nipah, severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and others. Bats rarely get sick from those viruses. Why these pathogens tend to be so dangerous when they infect other animals has been a mystery. Previous work suggests that a bat’s immune system is especially adapted to tolerate viruses, thanks in part to its ability to limit inflammation. Now a study using cells grown in a lab hints that to counter a bat’s immune defenses, these viruses have gotten good at spreading rapidly from cell to cell. That means that when they get into animals without a similarly strong immune system, the viruses are particularly adept at causing serious damage, researchers report February 3 in eLife. The study is “an important piece of the puzzle in understanding why viruses [from bats] may be emerging and impacting people and other animals,” says Kevin Olival, a disease ecologist with EcoHealth Alliance in New York City, who wasn’t involved in the research. “There’s a lot we can learn from bats about their immune system and take some of that information to think about our own health and developing our own therapeutics” against viruses, he says. Scientists have pinpointed bats as potential sources of several viral outbreaks in humans. Insect-eating bats may have been the source of the 2014–16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa (SN: 12/31/14). Egyptian fruit bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus) harbor Marburg virus, a hemorrhagic virus related to Ebola. Other bat species are reservoirs of SARS-like coronaviruses, possibly including one that sparked an ongoing outbreak in China (SN: 1/24/20).
2-13-20 Some West Africans may have genes from an ancient ‘ghost’ hominid
The passed-down DNA helps with functions including tumor suppression and hormone regulation. An ancient, humanlike population still undiscovered in fossils left a genetic legacy in present-day West Africans, a new study suggests. These extinct relatives of Homo sapiens passed genes to African ancestors of modern Yoruba and Mende people starting around 24,000 years ago or later, say UCLA geneticists Arun Durvasula and Sriram Sankararaman. Surviving DNA of those ancient hominids is different enough from that of Neandertals and Denisovans to suggest an entirely different hominid was the source. Yoruba and Mende groups’ genomes contain from 2 to 19 percent of genetic material from this mysterious “ghost population,” the scientists report February 12 in Science Advances. Some DNA segments passed down from the mysterious Homo species influence survival-enhancing functions, including tumor suppression and hormone regulation. Those genes likely spread rapidly among modern West Africans, the investigators suspect. DNA from Han Chinese in Beijing as well as Utah residents with northern and western European ancestry also showed signs of ancestry from the ancient ghost population, Durvasula and Sankararaman found. But DNA from those two groups was not studied as closely as that from the Yoruba and Mende people. The report adds to recent evidence that interbreeding of ancient people with various Homo species played a bigger role in the evolution of modern Africans than has generally been assumed. For instance, after leaving Africa around 60,000 to 80,000 years ago, H. sapiens groups interbred with European Neandertals before taking Neandertal DNA back to Africa starting around 20,000 years ago, another team has concluded (SN: 1/30/20). That study found that Neandertal DNA accounts for, on average, about 0.5 percent of individual Africans’ genomes, far more than reported in earlier studies. Most present-day people outside Africa carry about three times as much Neandertal DNA as Africans do.
2-13-20 Car-sized turtle fossils unearthed
Fossils of a turtle the size of a car have been unearthed in what is now northern South America. The turtle - Stupendemys geographicus - is believed to have roamed the region between 13 and 7 million years ago. The fossils were found in Colombia's Tatacoa Desert and Venezuela's Urumaco region. The first Stupendemys fossils were discovered in the 1970s but many mysteries have remained about the 4-metre long animal. It was about the size and weight of a saloon car and inhabited a huge wetland across northern South America before the Amazon and Orinoco rivers were formed. The male had forward pointing horns either side of its shell. Deep scars found in the fossils indicate that the horns were probably used like lances to fight rivals. Researchers say they've found a 3-metre long shell and a lower jaw bone which has given them more clues about its diet. They think the giant turtle lived at the bottom of lakes and rivers alongside giant crocodile eating a diverse diet of small animals, vegetation, fruit and seeds. Stupendemys's large size was crucial in defending itself from other large predators. One of the Stupendemys fossils was found with a giant crocodile tooth embedded in it.
2-12-20 Your decision-making ability is a superpower physics can't explain
In a universe that unthinkingly follows the rules, human agency is an anomaly. Can physics ever make sense of our power to change the physical world at will? I’VE been thinking about getting a puppy. You know, for a bit of companionship, something to motivate on grey days when spirit and flesh are weak. I even went to a stray dogs’ home, because that seemed the right thing to do. There was a lovely one there, with beautiful, mischievous eyes. She reminded me of a mutt we had when I was a kid, called Whiskey. I bottled it in the end, though. Did I really have the time to give her the love and attention she deserved? Whims, memories, hopes, judgements, morals, qualms – all coming together to influence decisions. It is hard enough for us to understand how we reach them. For fundamental physicists, it is a complete mystery. That is because our decision-making ability is a not-so-secret superpower to alter the physical world, changing its evolution apparently at will – something no physical law yet devised can explain. “We act, we decide, we initiate actions,” says Carlo Rovelli at Aix-Marseille University in France. “How can we insert this agency into the general picture of nature?” Rovelli and others have undertaken to find out. Their journey has led them into the depths of the human mind and its relationship with physical reality, throwing up surprising and profound connections: to the mysteries of entropy and flowing time, to reality and consciousness, and to the nature of physical law itself. Get to grips with what underlies our everyday acts, and we could be on the way to a deeper, all-inclusive understanding of both the cosmos and our place in it.
2-12-20 When a smile is not a smile – what our facial expressions really mean
Smiling and other facial expressions aren't displays of feelings that transcend cultures but turn out to be full of hidden meaning. EVERYBODY knows a genuine smile when they see one. The corners of the mouth turn up, of course, but the expression is all in the eyes. Those wrinkly crow’s feet around the edges are what distinguish this from an inauthentic or social smile. They are what make it a sure-fire sign that someone is happy. Right? Well, maybe not. And the same goes for all the other facial expressions of emotion. It may sound heretical, but psychologists are starting to question whether these really do reveal our emotions – or whether they might serve a more nefarious purpose. The orthodox view holds that there is a group of basic emotions – at least six, but perhaps many more – that all humans display on their faces in fundamentally the same way. This means that other people can reliably read your emotional state from your face. It is an appealing idea that has influenced everything from educational practices and behavioural-learning programmes for children with autism to emotion-detecting software algorithms. But now it is being challenged. Some dissenters believe that facial “expressions” aren’t reliable guides to our emotions at all, but tools that we use to manipulate others. If this is correct, the implications for our social interactions are enormous. The idea that patterns of facial muscular movements express and indicate our emotions has a long history. It was popularised by influential 17th-century French artist Charles Le Brun, a court painter to Louis XIV, who prescribed the facial configurations.
2-12-20 Can a blood pressure drug help ease the painful memory of an ex?
A Montreal researcher says he has found a way to take the emotional sting out a bad breakup by "editing" memories using therapy and a beta blocker. Dr Alain Brunet has spent over 15 years studying post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), working with combat veterans, people who have experienced terror attacks and crime victims. Much of his research has centred on the development of what he calls "reconsolidation therapy", an innovative approach that can help remove emotional pain from a traumatic memory. At the heart of his work is a humble pharmaceutical - propranolol - a beta blocker long used to treat common physical ailments like hypertension and migraines, but which research now suggests has a wider application. The reconsolidation method involves taking propranolol about an hour before a therapy session where the patient is asked to write a detailed account of their trauma and then read it aloud. "Often when you recall memory, if there's something new to learn, this memory will unlock and you can update it, and it will be saved again," the Canadian clinical psychologist tells the BBC. That process of reconsolidation creates a window of opportunity to target the highly emotional portion of that memory. "We're using this enhanced understanding on how memories are formed and how they are unlocked and updated and saved again - we're essentially using this recent knowledge coming out of neuroscience to treat patients," says Dr Brunet. His work has often been compared to the science fiction film Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, where an estranged couple have their memories of each other erased, though Dr Brunet notes memories aren't gone after reconsolidation therapy, they just stop hurting. Memories, their neutral, factual elements, are saved in the brain's hippocampus. But the emotional tone of the memory is saved in its amygdala.
2-12-20 The smuggled Mongolian dinosaur fossil that seemed too good to be true
When a bizarre fossil appeared for sale in Europe, it looked so odd it had to be fake. But a high-tech investigation introduced us to Halzkaraptor escullei – part velociraptor, part penguin. DESOLATE and beautiful, southern Mongolia’s Gobi desert is a vast, treeless expanse, with few permanent settlements and even fewer paved roads. It was here, amid the crumbling outcrops of a fossil site known as Ukhaa Tolgod, that the poachers struck. The thieves would have worked methodically, digging out a half-metre-long block of soft red sandstone containing the whitish bones of a small dinosaur. They probably doused the skeleton with superglue, a crude substitute for the substances that palaeontologists use to harden and protect fossilised bone. Then they probably wrapped the block in hessian and plaster, loaded it into a four-wheel-drive truck, and drove away, leaving smashed pieces of bone and bottles of superglue strewn across the desert. They had something valuable, that much the poachers knew. What they couldn’t have guessed was that it would turn out to such be a sensational dinosaur discovery. Nor could they have known the epic journey this fossil would take around the world, passing through the hands of criminals, dealers, and scientists – only to end up right back where it began, in Mongolia, a decade later. One reason the country is such a hotbed for fossil poaching is that unlike most places, it has great tracts of exposed Cretaceous rock in areas devoid of vegetation. Dinosaur bones are abundant here, and relatively easy to find. It is impossible to say exactly how many have been smuggled out of the country since the trade began in the 1990s.
2-12-20 Coronavirus: How well prepared are countries for a covid-19 pandemic?
No country is fully prepared for a coronavirus pandemic, according to a public health expert. But some countries will be better placed to handle an outbreak than others. THE new coronavirus is now spreading in several countries. As New Scientist went to press, eight cases of infection had been confirmed in the UK, including a man who went home to Brighton from a conference in Singapore via a ski resort in France. Four other people on the ski trip were diagnosed as infected after returning to the UK, including a doctor. The medical centre where the doctor works has now been shut. A further five people at the ski resort were diagnosed while still in France, and one other case was confirmed on return to Spain. So is the rest of the world ready for the coronavirus? The short answer is no. “I am utterly convinced that no country is fully prepared,” says Jennifer Nuzzo at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Maryland. Serious disease outbreaks pose three threats. There is the direct impact in terms of illness and deaths. Then there are people with other illnesses who are disadvantaged because health services are overwhelmed. For instance, regular vaccinations ceased during recent Ebola outbreaks in West Africa, leading to children dying of other diseases. Finally, there is the economic impact of travel bans and people not working. Nuzzo is one of the authors of the Global Health Security Index, which scores countries out of 100 based on their ability to cope with these threats. The average score in 2019 was just 40. China scored 48. The US, UK, the Netherlands, Australia and Canada top the ranking, with scores ranging from 84 to 75, but they too will struggle if the coronavirus becomes a pandemic and spreads globally, even if it isn’t especially deadly, says Nuzzo. For now, the aim is to stop the coronavirus from spreading. The strategy is to identify people who are infected, quarantine them and trace their contacts in case any are infected too.
2-12-20 Will the covid-19 coronavirus outbreak die out in the summer’s heat?
Will the covid-19 outbreak caused by the new coronavirus fade as the northern hemisphere warms up? This has been suggested by some researchers and repeated by some political leaders including US president Donald Trump, but we simply do not know if this is the case. “We absolutely don’t know that,” says Trudie Lang at the University of Oxford. “I keep asking virologist colleagues this and nobody knows.” “So when you hear people say the weather will warm up and it will just disappear, it’s a very unhelpful generalisation,” she says. This is essentially what Trump claimed on 10 February. “The heat, generally speaking, kills this kind of virus,” he told a meeting. “A lot of people think that goes away in April as the heat comes in.” Trump is not the only politician to make this sort of claim. The UK’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, told ITV reporter Tom Clarke last week the hope was to slow the spread of the virus so it gets here in spring and summer when coronaviruses, of which the new virus is just a specific example, are less transmissible. It’s thought the virus can survive for up to four days on surfaces. Some researchers, including Paul Hunter at the University of East Anglia, do think the new coronavirus will not remain infectious for so long in warmer conditions. “One extreme scenario is that it will burn itself out sometime in the summer,” says Hunter. “The other extreme scenario is that it will reduce in the summer but it will come back again in the winter and become what we call endemic, in that it will spread pretty much everywhere.” However, if it is less infectious in warmer conditions, there will also be a greater chance of it spreading in the southern hemisphere as conditions cool. David Heymann at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who led the global response to the SARS outbreak in 2003, points out that the MERS coronavirus has spread in Saudi Arabia in August, when it is very hot. “These viruses can certainly spread during high temperature seasons,” he says.
2-12-20 We discovered a coronavirus similar to the covid-19 virus 7 years ago
THE Covid-19 coronavirus is similar to one detected in bats in China in 2013. But a failure to act on the warnings of those who studied it means we missed an opportunity to protect human health. While some are now saying the Covid-19 virus passed to humans from pangolins, it is likely that pangolins are merely victims of the infection, like us. “From the virology evidence available to date, the virus is almost certainly from a species of bat,” says Andrew Cunningham of the Zoological Society of London.
2-12-20 Teen born without left half of her brain is leading a normal life
A TEENAGER who was born without the entire left hemisphere of her brain has above-average reading skills – despite missing the part of the brain that is typically specialised for language – New Scientist can exclusively reveal.
2-11-20 How bad is the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak likely to get?
The World Health Organization has now named the new coronavirus disease: Covid-19. If the virus isn’t halted, it could infect 60 per cent of the world’s population and kill one in 100 of those infected – around 50 million people – Gabriel Leung, at the University of Hong Kong, told The Guardian on 11 February. But no one knows if it really will, because we don’t know whether the virus can be contained, how deadly it is and how many people have it. The number of confirmed cases globally reached 42,000 on Tuesday, but the rise in cases has been slowing since 6 February. This suggests China’s decision to limit people’s movements in the most affected province, Hubei, is working and that containment may be effective. That isn’t certain, however. The decline may also reflect overwhelmed hospitals or testing labs. Studies continue to estimate that there are far more cases in China than those reported. What’s more, tests of people repatriated from China hint there are many mild and asymptomatic cases, who may be able to spread the virus but aren’t necessarily being tested or quarantined. Even if mild cases are being tested, they may not have been making it into official figures. Diagnostic guidelines issued last week in China say people without symptoms who test positive for the virus as part of efforts to trace contacts of known cases should only be counted as confirmed cases if they start showing symptoms. The WHO said on Tuesday this would change. As for death rates, these are hard to calculate early in an epidemic, when the outcome of most cases is still unknown, says Neil Ferguson at Imperial College London. Using models based on the rate of rise of deaths, Ferguson and his colleagues have calculated that some 18 per cent of people confirmed to have the virus in the Chinese city of Wuhan die. This is similar to earlier estimates.
2-11-20 Coronavirus officially named Covid-19, says WHO
The World Health Organization says the official name for the new coronavirus will be Covid-2019. "We now have a name for the disease and it's Covid-19," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva. It comes after the death toll from the virus passed 1,000. Tens of thousands of people have been infected. The word coronavirus refers to the group of viruses it belongs to, rather than the latest strain. Researchers have been calling for an official name to avoid confusion and stigmatisation. "We had to find a name that did not refer to a geographical location, an animal, an individual or group of people, and which is also pronounceable and related to the disease," the WHO chief said. "Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatising. It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus outbreaks" There are now more than 42,200 confirmed cases across China. The number of deaths has overtaken that of the Sars epidemic in 2003. On Monday, some 103 died in Hubei province alone, a daily record, and the national death toll is now 1,016. But the number of new infections nationally was down almost 20% from the day before, from 3,062 to 2,478.
2-11-20 Could the new coronavirus really kill 50 million people worldwide?
. If the spread of the new coronavirus is not halted, it could infect 60 per cent of the world’s population and kill 1 in 100 of those infected – around 50 million people. This is what Gabriel Leung, chair of public health medicine at Hong Kong University, told the Guardian newspaper on 11 February. Is he right? The short answer is that no one knows, because there are many things we still do not know about the virus. First, can we stop it spreading globally? So far, there have been over 40,000 cases in China, and 24 other countries have reported around 300 cases. The virus is spreading much more readily than other coronaviruses that have jumped from animals into people. Halting its spread requires identifying and isolating those who are infected. This could be especially difficult because some people might be infectious even when they have only mild symptoms. And while the average time from people being infected to showing symptoms is around 3 days, it might sometimes be as long as 24 days – longer than the two-week quarantine period currently recommended. China is taking drastic measures to contain the virus, but it is not clear if they are working. There has been a fall in the number of new cases reported per day, but this could be due to hospitals being overwhelmed. It also seems China is now not counting people who test positive for the virus but do not show symptoms. There is a good chance that wealthy countries could contain the trickle of cases currently being detected. The worry is that the virus is already spreading widely in countries that lack the resources to detect it. The head of the World Health Organization has warned that we may only be seeing “the tip of the iceberg”. If so, the chances of preventing a global pandemic are low. That brings us to the next question: how many people will be infected if the virus goes global? It has been estimated that 24 per cent of the world’s population was infected by the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic, despite older people having pre-existing immunity because they had been exposed to similar viruses.
2-11-20 Tyrannosaurus species named 'Reaper of Death' found in Canada
A new species of tyrannosaur that stalked North America around 80 million years ago has been discovered by scientists in Canada. The dinosaur lived in the late Cretaceous Period, making it the oldest known tyrannosaur from North America. Another species of tyrannosaur, a Daspletosaurus, was found in Canada in 1970, a study says. Researchers say the new discovery has given them insights into the evolution of tyrannosaurs. Standing roughly 8ft (2.4m) tall, the predator would have cut an intimidating figure. Like its tyrannosaur relatives, the carnivorous dinosaur had a long, deep snout, bumps on its skull and large steak-knife-like teeth measuring more than 7cm (2.7in) long. The predator's name - Thanatotheristes degrootorum - translates to "Reaper of Death" from the Greek. "We chose a name that embodies what this tyrannosaur was as the only known large apex predator of its time in Canada, the reaper of death," said Darla Zelenitsky, a palaeobiology professor who co-authored the study. "The nickname has come to be Thanatos." Fragments of Thanatos's fossilised skull were found by John De Groot, a farmer and palaeontology enthusiast. He stumbled across the fossils in 2010 while hiking near Hays, a hamlet in southern Alberta. "The jawbone was an absolutely stunning find," said Mr De Groot. "We knew it was special because you could clearly see the fossilised teeth." Tyrannosaurs, or "tyrant lizards", were the dominant predators on land for millions of years before the extinction of dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. By the late Cretaceous Period, around 80 million years ago, North American tyrannosaurs had become enormous beasts. But the fossil records before this period are patchy. It is hoped that this new study will help palaeontologists fill gaps in their knowledge. "There are very few species of tyrannosaurids, relatively speaking," said Prof Zelenitsky of Canada's University of Calgary. "Because of the nature of the food chain these large apex predators were rare compared to herbivorous or plant-eating dinosaurs."
2-10-20 Coronavirus super-spreaders: Why are they important?
Super-spreading, where individual patients pass on an infection to large numbers of people, is a feature of nearly every outbreak. It is not their fault but can have a significant impact on how diseases spread. There are reports of super-spreading during the new coronavirus outbreak, which has centred on Wuhan, in China. Briton Steve Walsh, who had been in Singapore, has been linked to four cases in the UK, five in France and possibly one in Majorca. It is a bit of a vague term, with no strict scientific definition. But it is when a patient infects significantly more people than usual. On average, each person infected with the new coronavirus is passing it on to between two and three other people. But this is only an average; some people will pass it on to nobody while others pass their infection on to far more. Massive - and they can have a huge effect on an outbreak. In 2015, a super-spreading event led to 82 people being infected from a single hospital patient with Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), a coronavirus distantly related to the current virus And in the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, the vast majority of cases (61%) came from just a tiny handful of patients (3%). "There were more than 100 new chains of transmission from just one funeral in June 2014," Dr Nathalie MacDermott, from King's College London, says. Some just come into contact with far more people - either because of their job or where they live - and that means they can spread more of the disease, whether or not they themselves have symptoms. "Kids are good at that - that's why closing schools can be a good measure," Dr John Edmunds, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says. "Commercial sex workers were very important in spreading HIV," Prof Mark Woolhouse, from the University of Edinburgh, says . Others are "super-shedders", who release unusually large amounts of virus (or other bug) from their bodies, so anybody coming into contact with them is more likely to become infected. Hospitals treating severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) became a major centre of super-spreading because the sickest patients were also the most infectious and they came into contact with lots of healthcare workers.
2-10-20 African nations step up efforts to prevent spread of coronavirus
There are signs that the rise in cases of the 2019 novel coronavirus may be slowing this week, suggesting that the unprecedented measures to limit people’s movements in the most affected areas of China may be working. But as people start to pick up the infection in countries other than China, the fear now is that it could explode somewhere less able to contain it.
2-10-20 Brain activity can help predict who'll benefit from an antidepressant
An AI can predict from people’s brainwaves whether an antidepressant is likely to help them. The technique may offer a new approach to prescribing medicines for mental illnesses. Antidepressants don’t always work, and we aren’t sure why. “We have a central problem in psychiatry because we characterise diseases by their end point, such as what behaviours they cause,” says Amit Etkin at Stanford University in California. “You tell me you’re depressed, and I don’t know any more than that. I don’t really know what’s going on in the brain and we prescribe medication on very little information.” Etkin wanted to find out if a machine-learning algorithm could predict from the brain activity of people diagnosed with depression who was most likely to respond to treatment with the antidepressant sertraline. The drug is typically effective in only a third of the people who take it. He and his team gathered electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings showing the brainwaves of 228 people aged between 18 and 65 with depression. These individuals had previously tried antidepressants, but weren’t on such drugs at the start of the study. Roughly half the participants were given sertraline, while the rest got a placebo. The researchers then monitored the participants’ mood over eight weeks, measuring any changes using a depression rating scale. By comparing the EEG recordings of those who responded well to the drug with those who didn’t, the machine-learning algorithm was able to identify a specific pattern of brain activity linked with a higher likelihood of finding sertraline helpful. The team then tested the algorithm on a different group of 279 people. Although only 41 per cent of overall participants responded well to sertraline, 76 per cent of those the algorithm predicted would benefit did so.
2-10-20 Food residues offer a taste of pottery’s diverse origins in East Asia
Some hunter-gathers used pots to cook fish, while others served up animals such as sheep. Pottery making may not have emerged in one Big Bang–like event. Instead, it was more like a cluster of ceramic eruptions among ancient East Asian hunter-gatherer groups as the last Ice Age waned, a new study suggests. East Asian hunter-gatherer populations living about 700 kilometers apart made and used cooking pots in contrasting ways between around 16,200 and 10,200 years ago, says a team led by Shinya Shoda, an archaeologist currently based at the University of York in England. Each of those groups probably invented its own distinctive pottery-making techniques, the scientists suspect. “Our results indicate that there was greater variability in the development and use of early pottery than has been appreciated,” Shoda says. Pieces of ceramic cooking pots from one group preserved chemical markers of fish, including salmon, Shoda’s group reports in the Feb. 1 Quaternary Science Reviews. Early pottery making by those hunter-gatherers accompanied seasonal harvests of migrating fish, the researchers say. Fatty acids extracted from remnants of a second group’s pots came from hoofed animals such as sheep or goats. Those vessels were used to render grease from animals’ bones, the team suggests. Each group appears to have had its own pottery-making style. Members of the Osipovka culture, who lived along the Lower Amur River in what’s now the Russian Far East, crafted cone-shaped vessels with flat bottoms and thick walls. Clay paste was mixed with gravel and other material. Inside and sometimes outside surfaces of pots were scraped with tools like combs. At sites of the Gromatukha culture, situated on the banks of the Amur River and its tributaries northwest of Osipovka sites, researchers found slightly curved pots that rested on either flat or round bases. Clay was typically mixed with grass, especially in the oldest pots. Cord marks and zigzag patterns cover many vessels.
2-10-20 Coronavirus claims 97 lives in one day - but number of infections stabilises
The number of people killed by the new coronavirus rose by 97 on Sunday, the highest number of casualties in a day. The total number of deaths in China is now 908 - but the number of newly-infected people per day has stabilised. Across China, 40,171 people are infected while 187,518 are under medical observation. Meanwhile, 60 more people have tested positive on a cruise ship quarantined in Japan - meaning 130 out of 3,700 passengers have caught the virus. The Diamond Princess ship is on a two-week quarantine off Yokohama, after a passenger - who earlier disembarked in Hong Kong - tested positive. The infected passengers are taken off board and treated in nearby hospitals. The new cases mean around a third of all coronavirus patients outside of China were on the Diamond Princess. According to Chinese data, 3,281 patients have been cured and discharged from hospital. On Monday, millions of people returned to work after the Lunar New Year break, which was extended from 31 January to curb the spread of the virus. But precautionary measures remain in place, including the staggering of working hours, and the selective reopening of workplaces. Chinese president Xi Jinping visited a local hospital in Beijing that offers treatment to coronavirus patients. He also took part in a video chat with medical workers in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak. Images from state media show Mr Xi wearing a mask and having his temperature checked. The president has largely stayed away from public view during the outbreak. "We must have confidence that we will eventually win this battle against the epidemic," he told staff at Ditan hospital in Beijing. Over the weekend, the number of coronavirus deaths overtook that of the Sars epidemic in 2003 which also originated in China and killed 774 people worldwide.
2-9-20 Coronavirus: Thousands on cruise ship allowed to disembark after tests
Thousands of people stuck on a cruise ship in Hong Kong for five days have been allowed to disembark after tests for coronavirus came back negative. Some 3,600 passengers and crew on the World Dream ship were quarantined amid fears some staff could have contracted the virus on a previous voyage. Another cruise ship where dozens of cases have been confirmed remains in quarantine off Japan. The outbreak has killed 813 people, all but two in mainland China. The coronavirus has now killed more people than Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome). In 2003, that epidemic killed 774 people in more than two dozen countries. In the Chinese province of Hubei alone, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, the death toll is now put at 780 by regional health officials. More than 34,800 people have been infected worldwide, the vast majority in China. The World Dream was put in quarantine on Wednesday after it emerged that three passengers who had sailed on a previous voyage were later found to have contracted the virus. Chief port health officer Leng Yiu-Hong said all crew members - some 1,800 people - had tested negative for coronavirus, and that everyone would be allowed to disembark without the need to self-quarantine after leaving. On Sunday, Hong Kong's health minister said 468 people had been ordered to stay at home, in hotel rooms or government-run centres, one day after officials implemented a mandatory two-week quarantine period for anyone arriving from mainland China. In mainland China, millions of people were preparing to return to work after an extended Lunar New Year break, imposed in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus. However, a high number of companies and businesses will remain closed and many people are expected to work from home. In Hebei province, which surrounds the capital Beijing, state media reported schools would remain shut until at least 1 March, while many parts of Hubei province remain on lockdown. Other areas are under severe travel and gathering restrictions.
2-9-20 Reconnecting with the sun
With every bite eaten and breath taken, we incorporate sunlight into the fabric of our bodies. Visiting Ireland on the winter solstice brought to life the human-sun connection. he sky is powder blue, and the sun magnificent, as I stride through glittering grass and fallen sycamore seeds to Dowth, a Neolithic passage tomb in County Meath. Unlike its more famous neighbor, Newgrange, there are no tour buses here, no glitzy visitor's center, and — apart from today — no public access; only a wooden stile and a small sign on the verge of an Irish country road. The mound of the large burial chamber rises from the earth like a pregnant belly. At its base, I instinctively turn left, walking clockwise — sunwise — around it, until I come to a large boulder bearing ancient markings. The seven suns etched into its surface are just as a child would draw them, with rays radiating from a central circle. Pecked out with a hammer and stone chisel some 5,200 years ago, they're a clue to the phenomenon that occurs here on this, the shortest day of the year. Our ancestors revered the sun as a creator and destroyer of life. Their senses told them that when the sun is absent, everyone and everything suffers. They tracked its movements, noticing how it rises a little further along the horizon each day, until the solstices, when it pauses (the word solstice comes from "sun standstill"), then tracks back in the opposite direction. The winter solstice was particularly significant. To mark this crucial turning point, when the sun appeared to be at its weakest, people held feasts and created monuments, which they aligned with the rising or setting midwinter sun, perhaps in the hope that things would get better: that the barrenness of winter wasn't forever. Today, we've largely lost this connection. Electric lighting and central heating buffer us against the changing seasons, and enable us to work and socialize around the clock, even during the long nights of winter. Where our ancestors spent most of their days outside, we live approximately 90 percent of our lives indoors.
2-8-20 Lyme disease cases may rise 92 per cent in US due to climate change
Climate change could spur a 92 per cent increase in new cases of Lyme disease in the US by the end of the century, even if the world manages to limit warming to the commitments of the Paris climate deal. The number of people in the US being infected has been steadily rising in recent years, and there is no human vaccine for the disease, which can lead to lifelong health problems if not treated early. So far, the evidence for climate change’s influence on the ticks that infect humans with Lyme disease has been unclear. Now, Erin Mordecai at Stanford University in California and her colleagues have looked at past temperature and rainfall in the US to estimate their impact on Lyme disease cases in the US between 2000 and 2017. The team controlled for other possible drivers, including changes in forest cover and public awareness of tick-borne disease, as measured by online interest through Google Trends. The results were used to model what could happen in the future, and suggested that even if temperature rises are held to 1.8°C, below the 2°C goal of Paris, annual Lyme disease cases will jump by an extra 34,183 by 2100, a 92 per cent increase on levels seen in the last decade. Numbers are expected to significantly climb much earlier – 27,630 extra cases are expected by 2050. “These results indicate that substantial future increases in US Lyme disease burden are likely,” the team writes. Worryingly, the team says the results are likely to be conservative because they assume no human population growth. When that is factored in, the number of extra future cases nearly doubles. Richard Ostfeld at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York, says the study largely backs up earlier research suggesting that climate change will make Lyme disease incidence worse in the US. “The methods seem credible, and the effort to control for non-climatic variables – such as public awareness, land use change – is laudable,” he says.
2-8-20 Coronavirus: Hong Kong imposes quarantine rules on mainland Chinese
Hong Kong has begun a mandatory two-week quarantine for anyone arriving from mainland China, in a fresh effort to contain the deadly new coronavirus. Visitors must isolate themselves in hotel rooms or government-run centres. Residents must stay inside their homes. Anyone caught flouting the new rules faces a fine and a prison sentence. Meanwhile, 722 deaths were recorded in mainland China, including one American. A Japanese man also died with symptoms consistent with the virus. The 60-year-old US citizen, the first confirmed non-Chinese victim of the illness, died on Thursday at Jinyintan Hospital in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, according to a US embassy spokesman in Beijing, who did not give details. Separately, the Japanese foreign ministry said a man in his 60s died, also in Wuhan, from what was suspected to be a case of coronavirus. However, it said it could not confirm the diagnosis, and that Chinese officials said the cause of death was viral pneumonia. The city is opening its second makeshift hospital since the outbreak began. Leishenshan hospital was built in two weeks and will be able to accommodate 1,500 patients. The number of confirmed cases in mainland China stands at 34,546. Outside China, 270 cases have been confirmed in 25 countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), with two fatalities - one in Hong Kong and another in the Philippines. On Saturday, France confirmed five new cases in its Haute-Savoie region, including a nine-year-old boy and bringing the total of infected in the country to 11. French Health Minister Agnès Buzyn said all of the five new cases were British nationals staying in the same chalet, which had also housed a Briton who had been in Singapore. Their condition is not said to be serious. A further six people who stayed at the chalet are under observation. Two schools - one the nine-year-old boy has been attending, along with another school where he has French classes - have been closed as a precaution.
2-8-20 Cases of the new coronavirus hint at the disease’s severity, symptoms and spread
Most cases are mild but older patients with health problems can face severe complications. As the novel coronavirus continues to spread in China and around the world, experts are getting a better handle on the severity of the disease, how it progresses in patients and just how easily it can spread in enclosed places, such as hospitals. As of February 7, the virus has killed 637 people and infected 31,211 more in China, according to the World Health Organization. An additional death, and 270 more cases, have been reported in 24 other countries. More detailed data on about 17,000 cases show that 82 percent are mild, 15 percent are severe and 3 percent are critical, the WHO reported in a news conference February 7. Overall, the WHO says less than 2 percent of patients who have fallen ill with 2019-nCoV have died, most often from multi-organ failure in older people and those with underlying health conditions. For instance, of 138 patients infected with coronavirus and admitted to Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University in January, 26 percent ended up needing treatment in the intensive care unit, researchers report February 7 in JAMA. Those patients were older and had other health conditions, such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. They suffered complications from the coronavirus pneumonia, including shock and acute respiratory distress syndrome, a condition in which fluid builds up in the lungs, leading to severe shortness of breath. These cases are part of the largest study yet of people hospitalized with the novel coronavirus, and provide a more detailed look at the symptoms and severity of the disease. The new study suggests that the virus spread quickly at the hospital. Of the 138 patients tracked at Zhonghan, 57, or 41 percent, appear to have been infected at the hospital. They include 40 health care workers and 17 patients already admitted for other conditions.
2-7-20 Coronavirus: Should you be afraid?
You’ve seen “the breathless headlines,” said Shannon Palus in Slate.com, reading like the previews from “a pandemic movie.” The Wuhan coronavirus that became an epidemic in China last month is sowing panic around the globe, with more than 20,000 confirmed cases, 425 dead, and experts increasingly convinced its spread can’t be contained. (See Business and International.) But for Americans, “it’s not as scary as it sounds.” There have been only 11 confirmed cases here, which means the current odds of getting it are near zero. And even if you were to somehow contract the virus, symptoms for most people are not life-threatening—a fever, respiratory congestion, and a cough. “Treatment means riding out the symptoms as you would with a common cold.” If you want to fret about illness, worry about the flu, said Marc Siegel in the Los Angeles Times. You’re “a million times more likely to encounter” the influenza virus over the next few months. This season, the flu is believed to have infected more than 19 million Americans, hospitalized as many as 310,000, and killed more than 10,000. Compared with that, the coronavirus risk is “trivial,” said Rex Nutting at MarketWatch.com. And yet we’re so complacent about the flu that many “won’t take even the simplest precautions.” Only 45 percent of adults get the flu vaccine, which is cheap and widely available. There’s no vaccine for the new virus, but the same basic rules apply for preventing infection for any respiratory virus: “Wash your hands often; don’t put your fingers in your eyes, nose, or mouth; and stay away from people who are coughing.” So why, then, are people panicking? asked David Ropeik in The Washington Post. “When it comes to risk, we are not always as wise as we think we are.” From Ebola to the Zika virus, we “instinctively worry more about new risks than familiar ones,” especially risks we don’t fully understand. Fear can create its own problems, said Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times. It can lead to the spread of “rumor, exaggeration, and wild misinformation,” as well as scapegoating. It’s already begun, with an online explosion of “racist memes blaming Chinese people and Chinese culture for the virus.” Yes, the new virus is scary. “How we respond to it may be worse.”
2-7-20 China: Is it doing enough to control the coronavirus?
To stem the new coronavirus epidemic, the Chinese government has “established a strong defense network against the invisible enemy,” said the Global Times (China) in an editorial. The respiratory illness has killed more than 420 people in China and infected some 20,000 others so far, but thanks to the nation’s extraordinary efforts, “the speed of the virus’ spread seems to have stabilized.” In the central Chinese city of Wuhan—the disease’s epicenter—thousands of construction workers labored around the clock to build a 1,000-bed hospital in just 10 days. Some 1,400 military medics are now treating patients there. Wuhan and its 11 million residents have been placed under a strict quarantine, and most other cities have taken action to bar nonresidents from entering. Chinese people are sensibly avoiding restaurants and other gathering places to avoid infection, and all citizens’ health and travel records are being “made known to their neighbors or colleagues.” This disaster has demonstrated “China’s astonishing mobilization ability and solidarity.” Online rumors are complicating the fight, said Alice Wu in the South China Morning Post. “Panic shopping and hoarding” has spread across the country as people crowd into stores to stock up on food and face masks, despite authorities’ admonitions to stay home. Abroad, racism against anyone who looks Chinese is on the rise. In Sri Lanka, Singaporean tourists were banned from a popular hiking spot; in Indonesia, locals marched on a hotel and demanded that Chinese guests leave; in Canada, parents urged that schoolchildren from China be quarantined. The fear is understandable, said Andrio Adiwibowo in The Jakarta Post (Indonesia), because it “may be too late” to stop a global pandemic. Within China, the number of infected people is still on the rise, while “outside China, a new case has been confirmed almost every day in 14 countries.” All we can do is bolster our own defenses “against not only the coronavirus but also other viruses that may strike in the future.”
2-7-20 Cruise ship quarantined
A cruise ship carrying 2,666 guests and 1,045 crew members has been placed under a two-week quarantine in Yokohama harbor after a Hong Kong man who disembarked from the vessel tested positive for the new coronavirus. Passengers aboard the Diamond Princess have been confined to their rooms, and hundreds of people who may have had contact with the sick man are being screened for the respiratory illness. At least 10 people have tested positive so far, including one American. Meals are being delivered by staff wearing masks and goggles. Princess Cruises has waived Wi-Fi fees, so passengers are streaming movies and uploading videos to Facebook. “What my bar bill is going to be, goodness only knows,” said British passenger David Abel.
2-7-20 Doing their bit
Bill and Melinda Gates, who announced they were donating $100 million to help in the detection and treatment of the Wuhan coronavirus and accelerate the development of a vaccine.
2-7-20 Second heart attacks
People who survive a heart attack are more likely to suffer a second one if they have a paunch, new research suggests. It’s been known for years that having extra fat around your waist, even if you’re skinny elsewhere, raises your risk for a heart attack. But this is the first study to show that having a pot belly also makes subsequent attacks more likely, reports USNews.com. Researchers in Sweden tracked more than 22,000 heart attack survivors for four years; during that time almost 8 percent of the subjects suffered a second heart attack or stroke. After accounting for factors such as smoking and diabetes, the researchers concluded that patients who were abdominally obese—a waist size of 37.6 inches or above for men, 32 inches or more for women—were at greater risk. The link was clearer in men, possibly because men have more visceral fat, which sits around the organs and can turn into artery-clogging cholesterol. Lead author Hanieh Mohammadi said that maintaining a healthy waist circumference is important “regardless of how many drugs you may be taking or how healthy your blood tests are.”
2-7-20 Menopause blood test
Scientists say they have created a blood test that can predict when a woman will experience menopause up to two years in advance. Women are born with a lifetime’s supply of eggs that gradually diminishes with age; menopause occurs when that supply runs out. Current hormone tests allow doctors to predict menstruation end dates within a four-year window, which is not clinically useful. A more accurate test would enable women to make better-informed health decisions, such as whether or not to have a hysterectomy to stop painful periods. Researchers at the University of Colorado have now found that by measuring levels of anti-Müllerian hormone (AMH), a chemical made by ovaries, they can pinpoint that date with far greater precision. After analyzing the blood tests of 1,537 women, the team discovered that participants over age 47 whose AMH levels were below a certain cut-off point had a 67 percent chance of having their last period within the next year, and an 82 percent chance of having it in the next two. “Establishing a way to measure time to the final menstrual period,” lead author Nanette Santoro tells ScienceDaily.com, “has long been the holy grail of menopause research.”
2-7-20 Going gray from stress
It turns out there may be truth in the old adage that stress can turn your hair gray. A team at Harvard University has found that in mice, stressful events can deactivate the stem cells responsible for producing hair color. Located at the base of each follicle, these melanocyte stem cells differentiate and generate pigment-producing cells. When the mice were injected with a compound that raised their stress hormone levels, the differentiation process accelerated, exhausting the stem cells and leaving hairs that were transparent—gray, in other words. The researchers believe the sympathetic nervous system, which activates our “fight or flight” reaction in response to danger, is key to this process. It releases the chemical norepinephrine in stressful situations, raising our heartbeat and sharpening mental focus. But high levels of the chemical can send the stem cells into overdrive. In petri dish tests, noradrenaline caused human melanocyte stem cells to proliferate, suggesting stress could affect human hair in the same way. “If we can know more about how our tissues and stem cells change under stress,” lead author Ya-Chieh Hsu tells The New York Times, “we can eventually create treatments that can halt or reverse its detrimental impact.
2-7-20 The world’s oldest asteroid impact
Researchers say they have identified the world’s oldest asteroid crater: a 43-mile-wide scar in Western Australia’s outback that was created more than 2 billion years ago. This massive impact may have brought an end to the ice age known as Snowball Earth, when most of the world was covered with ice sheets up to 3 miles thick. The Yarrabubba impact structure is barely recognizable as a crater, because wind, rain, glaciation, and plate tectonics have scraped several miles off our planet’s surface over millions of millennia. To test the site’s age, geochronologists used electricity to splinter sample rocks into sand-size grains, and then looked for traces of zircon and monazite. Those tough minerals can survive for billions of years and, importantly, contain uranium and thorium—radioactive elements that can be used to measure age. Researchers determined that the Yarrabubba strike took place 2.229 billion years ago, some 200 million years before the next-oldest known impact, which created the Vredefort Dome in South Africa. They also calculated that when the asteroid hit Earth’s icy surface, the collision would have sent more than 100 billion tons of water vapor into the upper atmosphere—enough to trigger a period of global warming. “After the impact, glacial deposits are absent in the rock record for 400 million years,” co-author Nicholas Timms, from Australia’s Curtin University, tells CNN.com. This suggests the “impact may have influenced global climate.”
2-7-20 Brain cells called microglia eat away mice’s memories
A new study offers clues on how we forget. Immune cells in the brain chew up memories, a new study in mice shows. The finding, published in the Feb. 7 Science, points to a completely new way that the brain forgets, says neuroscientist Paul Frankland of the Hospital for Sick Children Research Institute in Toronto, who wasn’t involved in the study. That may sound like a bad thing, but forgetting is just as important as remembering. “The world constantly changes,” Frankland says, and getting rid of unimportant memories — such as a breakfast menu from two months ago — allows the brain to collect newer, more useful information. Exactly how the brain stores memories is still debated, but many scientists suspect that connections between large groups of nerve cells are important (SN: 1/24/18). Forgetting likely involves destroying or changing these large webs of precise connections, called synapses, other lines of research have suggested. The new result shows that microglia, immune cells that can clear debris from the brain, “do exactly that,” Frankland says. Microglia are master brain gardeners that trim extra synapses away early in life, says Yan Gu, a neuroscientist at Zhejiang University School of Medicine in Hangzhou, China. Because synapses have a big role in memory storage, “we started to wonder whether microglia may induce forgetting by eliminating synapses,” Gu says. Gu’s team first gave mice an unpleasant memory: mild foot shocks, delivered in a particular cage. Five days after the shocks, the mice would still freeze in fear when they were placed in the cage. But 35 days later, they had begun to forget and froze less often in the room. Next, the researchers used a drug to get rid of microglial cells in some mice’s brains. Mice with fewer microglia froze more in the cage than mice with normal numbers of microglia, indicating that those rodents held on to the scary memory. The same was true of mice with microglia that, thanks to a drug, were unable to gobble up synapses. Those mice also seemed to hold on to the memory, the researchers found.
2-7-20 CRISPR-edited immune cells for fighting cancer passed a safety test
The edited T cells caused no serious side effects in the trial’s 3 participants. Immune cells edited with CRISPR/Cas9 to fight cancer seem to be safe and long-lasting, a small safety test of the cells in three cancer patients at the University of Pennsylvania shows. All three had cancers that could not be controlled by other therapies. While the gene-edited immune cells didn’t cure their cancer, the cells stayed in the body up to nine months and didn’t cause any serious side effects, researchers report February 6 in Science. The result is an important milestone in the gene editor’s journey toward being used clinically (SN: 12/16/19). But the Phase I clinical trial — which measures safety, not effectiveness — also saw some errors made during editing, one concern with the technology (SN: 3/5/19). CRISPR/Cas9 is a two-part molecular tool for cutting DNA. One part, a snippet of genetic material called a guide RNA, leads the DNA-cutting enzyme Cas9 to specific spots in DNA where researchers want to make a change. In this case, the team altered three genes in immune cells called T cells. The edits were aimed toward making the T cells more efficient than usual in killing cancer cells. Most (93.5 percent to 100 percent) of the cuts were right on target, but the gene editor made some cuts the researchers didn’t intend. These “off-target” cuts plus deletions and rearrangements of some DNA were found in a few edited cells. For instance, the sloppiest guide RNA caused 7,778 on-target edits and only 38 off-target edits. In seven of these off-target instances, the unwanted edits landed in the CLIC2 gene. Those edits are probably not dangerous as that gene is not active in T cells anyway, the authors say. Scientists worry that editing mistakes, deletions and rearrangements may inactivate genes that restrict cell growth or create cancer-promoting mutations. But edited T cells containing off-target edits in the study didn’t appear to grow abnormally.
2-6-20 CRISPR cancer trial finds that gene-edited immune cells are safe
CRISPR gene-edited immune cells have been injected into three people with advanced cancer without any serious side effects, the first trial of its kind in the US. It is also the first CRISPR cancer trial in the world to publish its findings, and the encouraging results will pave the way for many more trials. “It’s an important milestone,” says Waseem Qasim at the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health in the UK, who is carrying out a similar trial there. The US trial was intended only to assess safety. The three participants had tumours that hadn’t responded to other treatments, and were given only one dose of gene-edited cells. “Is it safe and feasible?” says team member Edward Stadtmauer at the University of Pennsylvania. “I think that’s what we demonstrated.” Many cancers involving blood cells are now treated by removing immune cells from individuals, adding a gene that makes them target cancer cells and putting them back in the body. But this treatment doesn’t work for everyone, says Stadtmauer. And in some, it works at first but they later relapse. The hope is that using gene editing to delete genes in addition to adding the targeting gene will make this approach even more effective. For instance, immune cells have a safety switch, called PD-1, that other cells can flip to say “don’t hurt me”. Many cancers exploit this to avoid immune attacks. In this trial, the team removed immune cells from three people who had tumours with the same protein on their surface. A virus was used to add a gene to make the immune cells target this protein. Next, three genes, including PD-1, were deleted using CRISPR. After six weeks, the cells were put back in the individuals, where they survived for at least 9 months. There were two big safety concerns. Firstly, CRISPR can cause unintended changes to genomes that could turn cells cancerous. Deleting three genes means cutting around each one in three spots in the genome, for instance, and the wrong ends can be joined up. This did happen in some cells, but there was no sign of any turning cancerous.
2-6-20 We’ve found more than 2500 new viruses and some are unlike any we know
More than 2500 new viruses have been found by scanning DNA recovered from human and animal cells. The method that was used promises to identify countless more viruses. There are untold numbers of species of virus, but only about 9000 have been characterised well enough for their genomes to be included in the definitive Reference Sequence data base, built by a branch of the US National Institutes of Health. A team led by Chris Buck at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, had previously scanned samples of human and animal tissue for viral DNA. At the time, the researchers were looking for new papillomaviruses and polyomaviruses, some of which cause cancer. Unlike many other viruses, these have genomes made of circular DNA. “I think we’re getting close to knowing all the human-infecting species in those families,” says Buck. But in the process, he says the team “pulled up a giant amount of other stuff that was not papillomavirus or polyomavirus”. This extra genetic data wasn’t studied further until graduate student Michael Tisza joined the lab. He devised a set of computer programs that could sort through it and identify new virus species. “We’ve provided a user-friendly way to sift through these junk piles,” says Buck. The analysis of the additional circular DNA data revealed 2514 new viruses. While many belong to existing families of viruses, 609 don’t resemble any known viruses. Some of the new viruses are highly unusual. One belonged to a group called CRESS viruses, but was far bigger than any known CRESS virus. It turned out to have three copies of a gene used to make an outer shell that encapsulates the entire virus particle. The whole particle, shell and all, is called a virion. “It seems like, by duplicating this gene a few times, the virus was able to make a bigger virion to accommodate more DNA,” says Buck.
2-6-20 Coronavirus: Why I chose to stay in Wuhan rather than return to the UK
As the number of coronavirus cases in China soars, international governments have chartered flights out of Wuhan for foreign nationals. The UK has urged all its citizens in China to leave. New Scientist spoke with a British man who has chosen to remain in Wuhan, which has been under lockdown since 23 January. He works in logistics for construction companies in China and wishes only to be identified as Charlie out of privacy concerns. Charlie has lived in Wuhan for six years. His partner is Chinese, so might not be able to join him on a flight to the UK if he were to leave. Businesses are still mostly closed throughout the entire city. One of the major problems right now is the lack of transport: cars, metro, buses. It is quite a large city to get around. From my perspective, the Chinese government is handling the situation extremely well. This could have easily turned into something a lot more nasty in terms of civil unrest. I think most people are quite happy to wait it out so long as they can still get fresh food and feel like they’re not in danger. I go out pretty much every day. I can do my work from my apartment so that’s not too much of a problem. It’s more just not wanting to stay indoors all day, every day. There aren’t really too many places to go. I usually try to get some exercise, so I’ll take a push bike out, just around empty streets. And then depending on which supermarkets have either fresh stock or not too many people, as reported by friends or the businesses themselves, I’ll go and visit them and see what they’ve got. Within reason, I’m free to move about the city. Last week was probably the worst. There was nothing fresh in any of the supermarkets. That’s not so bad now, but there’s a definite lack of fresh meat. Vegetables and fruits: that depends on the supermarket. Some of them have quite a good selection. They might raise the prices tenfold, but things like apples and cabbages are usually OK.
2-6-20 Weighted blankets are the new parenting trend. Do they work?
Is there any science behind claims that weighted blankets can help anxious kids?. hen Pamela Hunter's young daughter Ransom was diagnosed with a neurological condition called sensory processing disorder, Hunter noticed that Ransom was often calmed when draped in a homemade woven blanket. "I tested it out on her and immediately we saw her body relax," Hunter says. In the years since, Hunter launched Sheltered Co., a Los Angeles company that sells hand-woven, large, slightly heavy blankets made from sustainable materials. So-called weighted blankets are having a moment, as doctors and celebrities sing the praises of these hefty textiles. Some claim weighted blankets can help people with autism, sensory difficulties, restless legs, insomnia, anxiety, depression, and other ailments. But what exactly do they do? And are they safe for kids? The theory around weighted blankets is that they can help treat anxiety by relaxing the nervous system. "It's hypothesized that the deep pressure and more consistent sensory input provided by these weighted items reduces the level of arousal and stress which our body physiologically has," explains Dr. Amna Husain, pediatrician and founder of Pure Direct Pediatrics. It sounds complicated, but essentially, the soothing effects of a weighted blanket are similar to those you might feel upon receiving a hug when you're upset or anxious. Pediatric occupational therapist Natasha Bravo likens weighted blankets to baby swaddles. "When a baby is swaddled, they are experiencing evenly distributed pressure around the entire contour of their body which is calming and grounding," she says of the cocoon-like experience weighted blankets can provide. "Gentle consistent pressure can also impact breathing patterns into more deep and slower breaths."
2-6-20 Some people have extremely sweaty palms - but spraying Botox may help
A possible new method of treating excessive sweating involves blasting the palms of the hands and armpits with liquid Botox at high pressure, avoiding painful injections. A small study of this experimental technique found it improved sweating from the palms and armpits, but we need larger studies to confirm it works. Severe sweating affects about 5 per cent of people. The problem often hampers relationships and work performance due to feelings of embarrassment, not wanting to shake hands or socialise, difficulty holding objects, and the need to change clothes regularly, says Samantha Eisman at Sinclair Dermatology, a skin clinic in Melbourne, Australia. Conventional treatments include surgery, medication and prescription antiperspirants, but they often don’t work or have unwanted side effects. For example, surgery to stop sweating from the palms and armpits can lead to sweating from other areas of the body instead. An increasingly popular alternative is injections of botulinum toxin – sold under the trade name Botox – to block the nerves that are responsible for sweating. This works well for many people but can be extremely painful – even when anaesthetic is used – because needles have to be repeatedly inserted at 1-centimetre intervals across the sensitive palms and armpits. To overcome this drawback, Hyoung Moon Kim at Maylin skin clinic in South Korea and his colleagues have invented a needle-free alternative that shoots liquid Botox into the skin with a high-pressure jet nozzle. They tested the device on 20 people with severe palm or armpit sweating, or both, and found that the nozzle successfully delivered Botox into their skin. One month later, the participants said that their sweating had mostly disappeared from their palms and armpits, which was confirmed by chemical tests of their skin.
2-6-20 People who grow up outside of cities have a better sense of direction
Growing up outside a city may give you a better sense of direction, according to an analysis of data from the mobile video game Sea Hero Quest. The game was designed in association with Alzheimer’s Research UK to help study the mental processes involved in spatial navigation. Antoine Coutrot at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, and his colleagues analysed game data for more than 440,000 people aged 19 to 70 from 38 countries. The data was collected while people played a level where they had to memorise a map of the sea and then use their virtual boat to navigate to various checkpoints as quickly as possible. However, the researchers did not measure how fast players finished the task. Correcting for video-game ability, they instead measured the trajectory of each participant’s path. The more erratic one’s trajectory to and from the checkpoints, the worse the researchers defined that player’s navigational skill. Previous studies done by the group have found a strong correlation between this measure and a participant’s real-life navigation abilities. The team also asked players their age, gender, level of education and where they grew up. Coutrot found that in every country, those who grew up in cities scored worse at navigation than their country’s other inhabitants. This effect was true for all genders, ages and levels of education. The effect was larger in some countries than others. For example, the difference in navigation ability between city-dwellers and country-dwellers was six times worse in America, than Romania. The researchers hypothesised that one of the reasons for these differences may partly be due to how the countries’ respective cities are organised. Using open source data, the team looked at the organisation of street networks in the ten most populous cities in each country, analysing how grid-like each country’s cities are on average.
2-6-20 Wasp nests provide the key to dating 12,000-year-old Aboriginal rock art
The technique involved dating mud wasp nest remnants found both beneath and on top of the paint. Fanciful human figures adorning rock shelters in western Australia’s Kimberley region have often been assumed to date back 17,000 years or more. In a stinging rebuke of that idea, a new study suggests that most of these figures were painted much more recently — around 12,700 to 11,500 years ago. Ages of rock art in Southeast Asia (SN: 11/7/18), Australia and elsewhere are notoriously difficult to establish (SN: 10/28/19). Geoscientist Damien Finch of the University of Melbourne in Australia and his colleagues radiocarbon dated small, hardened pieces of 24 mud wasp nests positioned partly beneath or partly on top of 21 Gwion-style rock paintings, thus providing maximum and minimum age estimates. The dated paintings came from 14 Aboriginal rock art sites. Gwion art depicts elaborately garbed human figures and objects such as boomerangs and spears. Most radiocarbon dates from the mud wasp nests indicate the Gwion figures were painted around 12,000 years ago, at least 5,000 years later than typically thought, the scientists report February 5 in Science Advances. Radiocarbon evidence from a nest partly overlying one of the paintings, however, suggests it was, in fact, created about 17,000 years ago or more, they say. A 1997 study estimated that another Gwion painting was done at least 16,400 years ago, based on a different way of estimating a mud wasp nest’s age. That investigation dated the time since quartz particles in a mud wasp nest overlying a Gwion figure were last exposed to sunlight. But some rock art researchers disagree about whether that age estimate was accurate. Radiocarbon dating of mud wasp nest remains needs to be combined with other rock art dating approaches, including the method from the 1997 study, to evaluate additional Gwion paintings, says archaeologist June Ross of the University of New England in Armidale, Australia. Once securely dated, Gwion art will provide insights into ancient Aboriginal cultural practices and social life, predicts Ross, who did not participate in the new study.
2-6-20 Mud wasps used to date Australia's aboriginal rock art
When the veteran telecoms engineer Damien Finch went on a three-week bush walk in Australia's Kimberley region, he became enthralled with its rock art. On his return home, he tried to find out more about these enigmatic aboriginal paintings and engravings. "I couldn't believe how little was known about them; we didn't even know how old they were," Damien said. "It seemed disrespectful that scientists hadn't studied this stuff more; it was downplaying the importance of the culture," he told BBC News. Now, 10 years on and in his 60s, Damien is putting that right. He's approaching the end of his doctoral research on the topic, and in this week's Science Advances journal, has published his own efforts to age the Kimberley's so-called Gwion figures. These feature finely painted human forms, often in elaborate ceremonial dress and carrying spears and boomerangs. It was thought they were painted some 16,000 years ago, but the University of Melbourne investigator has been able to show the likely age is nearer in time - at about 12,000 years ago. Dating rock art is really hard. Aboriginal artists use iron oxide pigments (ochre) which contain no organic material and are therefore resistant to any radiocarbon analysis. Damien has got around this by studying instead the scraps of organic matter stuck on top of and underneath the paintings. And for this, he's working with wasps. In particular, the ones that build nests out of mud. There's a wide group of these. Some will enclose their prey - such as a paralysed spider or caterpillar - inside an earthen box. Before sealing the lid, the wasps lay an egg on the unfortunate victim. The developing larva then consumes the immobile spider or caterpillar, eventually digging its way out of the nest as an adult to carry on the cycle. From Damien's point of view, when the female wasp gathers her mud supplies she inevitably picks up fragments of charcoal from the Kimberley's fire-prone landscape. And this charcoal can be radiocarbon dated.
2-6-20 An ancient skeleton from an underwater Mexican cave sheds light on early Americans
Bones from a woman who died around age 30 appear close to 10,000 years old. Nearly 10,000 years ago, the body of a young woman ended up in a dry cave in southern Mexico. Her bones, discovered by divers in the now-submerged cave, are revealing clues to a short, hard life as well as the history of the first Americans. Traditionally, scientists thought just one group of humans crossed a land bridge connecting Asia to North America around 12,000 years ago. But sinkhole caves in the Yucatán Peninsula have yielded nine other skeletons, including a teenage girl linked to modern native Americans (SN: 5/15/14), that suggest humans had already reached that far south by roughly 12,000 years ago. Explorers mapping a Yucatán cave called Chan Hol found this new female skeleton, dubbed Chan Hol 3, in 2016. Salty cave water degrades collagen in bones, stymieing usual radiocarbon dating methods. But low levels of uranium and thorium in calcite mineral deposits from stalactites that dripped onto Chan Hol 3’s fingers pegged her skeleton to at least 9,900 years old, researchers report February 5 in PLOS ONE. Tooth cavities indicate she lived on a high-sugar diet until she died around age 30. While it’s unclear what killed her, over the years, she sustained three skull injuries — all show healing — and suffered from a bacterial infection. Comparing Chan Hol 3’s skull to those from Mexico in the same time period revealed two distinct patterns: round skulls with low foreheads in the Yucatán, like Chan Hol 3’s, and longer skulls in Central Mexico. That suggests two human groups — probably with different looks and cultures — coexisted in Mexico around 12,000 to 8,000 years ago, say geoarchaeologist Silvia Gonzalez of the Liverpool John Moores University in England and her colleagues.
2-5-20 Coronavirus: Why infections from animals are such a deadly problem
The Wuhan coronavirus is the latest example of an infection that jumped from animals into humans – and when infections do this, they can be particularly deadly. THE new coronavirus is the latest example of a disease that jumped from animals into humans. When infections do this they can be deadly – and 2019-nCoV is no exception. Nearly all viruses and bacteria that infect other organisms are completely harmless to people. But a tiny proportion can infect us and cause so-called zoonotic diseases, which come from animals rather than other people. Such diseases are a massive problem. They make around 2.5 billion people ill every year and kill 2.7 million, according to a 2012 estimate. Not all zoonotic diseases cause serious illnesses, but the Ebola virus, for example, currently kills most of those it infects. One reason zoonotic viruses can be this deadly is that we lack pre-existing immunity to them. Another is that these viruses aren’t adapted to humans. Viruses that normally circulate among people can evolve to become less lethal, as this helps them spread. “They don’t want you to drop dead within a day because you won’t pass it to anyone else,” says Chris Coleman at the University of Nottingham, UK. To get infected, people need to come into contact with the animal the virus usually infects. This is most likely with domesticated animals. Camels carry the MERS coronavirus that causes sporadic human cases, for instance. Many viruses that jump into people, like MERS, seldom spread from person to person. They can still infect thousands, though: rabies is mostly passed on by dog bites, but kills 60,000 people a year. Others, such as Ebola, can spread from person to person, but aren’t very good at it and so cause relatively small outbreaks. The 2019 coronavirus, by contrast, appears quite good at spreading from person to person. While we don’t know how deadly it is yet, Coleman says “it’s not the most deadly coronavirus we’ve ever had”.
2-5-20 Overactive immune cells in babies may lead to childhood asthma
The way a young child’s immune system works seems to influence whether they will go on to develop temporary or persistent asthma. The finding could help identify more targeted treatments for different types of asthma, say researchers. By the time a child is 18 months old, they have already been exposed to a lot of bacteria, viruses and fungi. This starts to shape a child’s immune system for later life. To find out if such experiences might also predict a child’s risk of developing asthma, Susanne Brix at the Technical University of Denmark and her colleagues followed a group of infants in Denmark for the first six years of their lives. The team looked at how immune cells work in toddlers, and whether this is linked to the children’s risk of developing asthma by the time they were six. “Asthma is pretty prevalent in the Nordic European countries,” says Brix. “We have a prevalence of around 20 per cent in early childhood.” Brix and her colleagues first took blood samples from 541 children aged 18 months. Each sample was then exposed to a range of compounds – such as fragments of viruses or components of vaccines – to see how immune cells in the blood would respond. The responses of a particular type of immune cell seem to be linked to a child’s later risk of asthma, says Brix. This cell type, called a T helper cell, responds to potentially harmful pathogens by releasing a range of proteins. Two specific proteins seem to be linked to whether a child will go on to develop asthma. Those whose immune cells produce more of these proteins are significantly more likely to have asthma when they are six years old, says Brix. Her team also found differences in the immune response between girls and boys. The immune cells in blood samples taken from boys responded more strongly to bacteria and fungi, while girls seem to mount stronger responses to viruses.
2-5-20 Same-sex attraction isn't an evolutionary paradox - here's why
Our explanations for how same-sex attraction evolved are wrong – it's the spectrum of sexuality that is important. HOW did human same-sex attraction come to be? At first glance it seems to be an evolutionary paradox. For a trait to evolve, it has to be passed on to children to whom it confers some sort of advantage. But as gay sex, of itself, cannot yield offspring, we should expect same-sex attraction to go extinct. Evolutionary biologists have long struggled with this paradox, but my colleagues and I believe that if you come to the puzzle from a different angle, the apparent contradiction disappears. The trick is to recognise the complexity of human sexual activity and sexuality. Firstly, same-sex attraction only looks like a paradox if we consider human populations to be made up of two distinct groups: people who are exclusively gay and people who are exclusively straight. But human sexuality isn’t like this. Every study since the pioneering work of Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues in the 1940s and 50s has backed up the idea that sexuality varies continuously from a majority of people who identify as exclusively straight to a minority of people who identify as exclusively gay. In the middle are a range of people, including those who identify as bisexual, mostly straight or mostly gay. Acknowledging this spectrum radically changes the evolutionary question. It means that we should be asking how variation in sexuality evolved, not just how same-sex attraction has evolved. Secondly, the majority of sex, be it gay or straight, isn’t for reproduction. For humans and our chimpanzee and bonobo relatives, sex has a range of social functions that include play, social bonding, affiliation and even barter, conflict resolution, dominance and appeasement. Thinking about the evolution of sex has to consider these social functions as well.
2-5-20 The flawed experiment that destroyed the world's faith in psychiatry
Fifty years ago, psychiatrist David Rosenhan went undercover in a psychiatric hospital to expose its dark side. But his shocking findings aren't what they seem. ON 6 February 1969, David Lurie told a psychiatrist at Haverford State Hospital in Pennsylvania that he had been hearing voices. “Hollow”, “empty” and “thud”, they said. The voices were the only symptom experienced by the otherwise healthy 39-year-old copywriter. After an in-depth interview, in which Lurie was asked about his family life and two children, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and hospitalised. Yet all was not as it seemed. David Lurie didn’t exist. This was, in fact, an alias for psychologist David Rosenhan of Stanford University in California, who went undercover with seven other “pretenders” to test whether psychiatric staff could distinguish sanity from insanity. Published in 1973, his study contributed to an erosion of public faith in psychiatry, a mistrust memorably portrayed in the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest starring Jack Nicholson. Rosenhan’s work held up for scrutiny the often harmful nature of psychiatric hospitals and galvanised a growing movement to shut the large ones and replace them with smaller, community-based mental health centres. In its wake, “psychiatrists looked like unreliable and antiquated quacks unfit to join in the research revolution”, says psychiatrist Allen Frances, formerly at Duke University School of Medicine in North Carolina. Rosenhan’s paper was “one of the most influential pieces of social science published in the 20th century”, says sociologist and historian Andrew Scull at the University of California, San Diego. But it wasn’t all it seemed. After spending six years investigating Rosenhan and his famous work, I believe he may have carried out a second deception, the effects of which are still being felt in psychiatry today.
2-5-20 Extinct date palms grown from 2000-year-old seeds found near JerusalemI
Seven date palm trees have been grown from 2000-year-old seeds that were found in the Judean desert near Jerusalem. The seeds – the oldest ever germinated – were among hundreds discovered in caves and in an ancient palace built by King Herod the Great in the 1st century BC. Sarah Sallon at the Louis L Borick Natural Medicine Research Center in Jerusalem and her colleagues previously grew a single date palm tree (Phoenix dactylifera) from one of the seeds. The team has now managed to grow a further six. The ancient seeds were prepared by soaking them in water, adding hormones that encourage germination and rooting, then planting them in soil in a quarantined area. The team used radiocarbon dating to reveal the seven seeds were all around 2000 years old. Genetic analysis showed that several of them came from female date palms that were pollinated by male palms from different areas. This hints that the ancient Judean people who lived in the area at the time and cultivated the trees used sophisticated plant breeding techniques. Historical accounts of the dates that grew from the palms in this region describe their large size, sweetness and medicinal properties. The Roman scribe Pliny the Elder, for example, wrote that their “outstanding property is the unctuous juice which they exude and an extremely sweet sort of wine-flavour like that of honey”. Unlike Egyptian dates, they could be stored for a long time, meaning they could be exported throughout the Roman Empire. Sallon and her colleagues found that the seeds of ancient Judean dates are larger than modern varieties, which is often indicative of bigger fruit. They now hope to recreate the ancient fruit by pollinating females with males. Judea’s date palm crops started to die out after the region’s wars with Rome in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. Sallon believes the hot, dry conditions of the Judean desert probably helped to preserve the leftover seeds for so long.
2-5-20 Coronavirus: Hong Kong to quarantine visitors from mainland China
Hong Kong is to impose a mandatory 14-day quarantine on all visitors from mainland China as it battles to prevent the spread of a coronavirus outbreak. The policy comes into effect on Saturday but officials refused to close the border entirely, as demanded by medical staff who have gone on strike. Hong Kong, which has 21 confirmed cases and one fatality, suffered 300 deaths in the Sars outbreak in 2002-03. There are 24,300 confirmed coronavirus cases and 490 deaths on the mainland. Those figures included an additional 4,000 cases and 65 deaths on Tuesday. The virus has spread overseas, with some 25 nations confirming cases, although there have so far been only two deaths. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the outbreak a global health emergency. More than two dozen airlines have suspended or are restricting flights to China. Meanwhile, at least 10 people on board a cruise ship docked in the Japanese port of Yokohama have tested positive for the virus. The coronavirus causes severe acute respiratory infection and symptoms usually start with a fever, followed by a dry cough. Most people infected are likely to fully recover - just as they would from a flu. Chief Executive Carrie Lam said anyone arriving from the mainland, including foreigners, would be quarantined for 14 days from Saturday, although she did not say how this would be imposed. It is unclear where the quarantines would take place or whether Hong Kong residents could spend the time at home. Tens of thousands of people arrived from the mainland on Tuesday. Ms Lam has not moved to close the border entirely, although thousands of medical staff on Wednesday entered the third day of their strike over the issue and have threatened to escalate their action. Hong Kong will, however, close the Ocean and Kai Tak cruise terminals.
2-5-20 What life is like in Wuhan during the coronavirus lockdown
The streets of Wuhan in Hubei province are eerily quiet. The city of 11 million people, the centre of the coronavirus outbreak, has been locked down since 23 January, with all public transport, flights and trains suspended. “You pretty much don’t see anybody outside,” says a man who lives in Wuhan and asked to be identified only as Alex. Private vehicles are banned in the downtown area. Highways are shut so residents aren’t able to leave the city. The only places full of people are pharmacies, where queues await those trying to buy face masks, gloves and alcohol disinfectant. Despite concerns about potential food shortages, large supermarkets remain open and well stocked. Some stores won’t allow customers in without a body temperature scan. Following the outbreak, the Lunar New Year holiday – which was supposed to end on 30 January – has been extended across China. In Hubei, businesses will be shut until at least 13 February. Alex doesn’t know when he will return to work. “Every day we’re at home, closely following the news,” he says. The first few days of isolation were boring, he says, and now supplies of items like face masks are running short. Alex considers himself lucky because none of his relatives have been infected to date. But friends and colleagues have been. It has been estimated that at least 75,000 people in Wuhan have been infected with the 2019-nCoV virus. Thousands of medical staff from across China have been sent to Wuhan. A nurse from Anhui province, who didn’t want to be identified, says the 200-bed hospital in Wuhan where she is working is at capacity. Staff are supposed to work 4-hour shifts, but they often last 6 to 8 hours, she says. She adds that protective suits and sterilisation equipment were in extremely short supply until 1 February, when more donations arrived.
2-5-20 Will the coronavirus become a pandemic - and what happens if it does?
The Wuhan coronavirus has exploded in China. There are three likely scenarios for what will happen next – and the bad news is that a pandemic looks difficult to avoid. WITH more than 17,000 confirmed cases – and probably far more undiagnosed – the 2019-nCoV coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan, China, seems poised to go global. As New Scientist went to press, the epidemic was still centred on the province of Hubei, but the virus had travelled to 23 countries, and further epidemics seemed possible. Genetic analysis suggests that the virus isn’t changing much in humans, becoming neither more nor less harmful. So where is the outbreak likely to go from here? There are three options, says Eric Toner at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. One, viruses new to humans that don’t adapt quickly can simply peter out after they have spread to several successive people, as another coronavirus from animals, MERS, seems to. But the rocketing number of cases in China mean 2019-nCoV shows no sign of doing this. Two, we could block transmission of the virus enough for it to die out. One way would be with drugs or vaccines (see “New coronavirus: How soon will a treatment be ready and will it work?”), but it may take a year to develop anything effective. Or we could quarantine infected people and block the virus. That worked for the related SARS virus in 2003, but early signs suggest that it might not be so easy this time. “Options one and two seem unlikely,” says Toner. Instead, the virus may simply spread, like flu does, until most people have been exposed to it and either died or recovered and become immune. Then it may burn out for lack of hosts, or become a disease that mostly affects children who haven’t yet encountered it. Last year, Toner led a pandemic management exercise in Baltimore, in which industry and health leaders discussed options as a computer model of a pandemic involving a fictional coronavirus played out. After 18 months, the spread of the virus started to slow down, as people either died or became immune. However, by then, the fictional virus had killed 65 million people.
2-5-20 The FDA has approved the first drug to treat peanut allergies
A new drug called Palforzia could help curb dangerous allergic reactions in kids. A safety net may soon be available to kids with peanut allergies. On January 31, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first drug aimed at peanut allergies in the United States. The drug, called Palforzia, won’t allow allergic children to chomp PB&J’s, but it may reduce the dangers of unintentional exposure. A regimen of Palforzia carefully metes out escalating doses of purified peanut powder before arriving at a daily maintenance dose. The method was designed to gradually teach the immune system that peanuts aren’t a threat. By the end of a recent clinical trial, about two-thirds of 372 children and teenagers could tolerate the amount of peanut protein in approximately two peanuts (SN: 11/18/18). The same was true for only 4 percent of participants who didn’t receive the peanut protein regimen. (In tests on a small number of adults, the drug didn’t seem to help much.) The drug, made by biopharmaceutical company Aimmune Therapeutics based in Brisbane, Calif., could help severely allergic kids tolerate accidental peanut contact in their daily lives, preventing a serious reaction, or even death. But Palforzia can bring side effects, including anaphylaxis. Some doses are meant to be taken under medical supervision. An estimated 1 million children in the United States have peanut allergies, a number that seems to be increasing. Doctors hope that number will fall with recent advice that encourages parents to feed most babies peanut protein early, between 4 and 6 months of age (SN: 1/13/17).
2-5-20 Injecting nanoparticles in the blood curbed brain swelling in mice
After a head injury, the tiny particles diverted inflammation-causing cells from the brain. Injecting a swarm of nanoparticles into the blood of someone who has suffered a brain injury may one day help to limit the damage — if experimental results in mice can be translated to humans. In mice, these nanoparticles seemed to reduce dangerous swelling by distracting immune cells from rushing to an injured brain. The results, described online January 10 in the Annals of Neurology, hint that the inflammation-fighting nanoparticles might someday make powerful medicine, says John Kessler, a neurologist at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago. “All the data we have now suggest that they’re going to be safe, and they’re likely to work” for people, Kessler says. “But we don’t know that yet.” After an injury, tissue often swells as immune cells flock to the damage. Swelling of the brain can be dangerous because the brain is contained within the skull and “there’s no place to go,” Kessler says. The resulting pressure can be deadly. But nanoparticles might serve as an immune-cell distraction, the results in mice suggest. Two to three hours after a head injury, mice received injections of tiny biodegradable particles made of an FDA-approved polymer — the same sort that’s used in some dissolving sutures. Instead of rushing toward the brain, a certain type of immune cell called monocytes began turning their sights on these invaders. These monocytes engulfed the nanoparticles, and the cells and their cargo got packed off to the spleen for elimination, the researchers found. Because these nanoparticles are quickly taken out of circulation, the researchers injected the mice again one and two days later, in an effort to ease inflammation that might crop back up in the days after the injury.
2-4-20 Privacy of hundreds of thousands of genetic volunteers may be at risk
The privacy of people who add their DNA to research databases may be vulnerable to hackers, who could exploit the information published in genome studies to identify an individual’s genetic code. Genetics researchers are inadvertently publishing information that can theoretically be pieced together to identify someone’s DNA held in a research or commercial database, say Daphne Ezer at the Alan Turing Institute in London and her colleagues. Her team simulated how attackers could identify a person’s genetic code, and used this method to find a single dog’s genetic material in a DNA database. Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) identify genes that are associated with personal traits or disease. Researchers use large databases containing the DNA of hundreds of thousands of people to conduct these studies and detect subtle DNA differences between participants. Ezer’s team showed how, under some circumstances, a hacker could use the information about an individual’s traits published in GWAS to recover that person’s genetic information – known as a reconstruction attack. “You might even be able to identify an individual with just two studies performed on the same database, if a small number of people are included in one study but not another,” says Ezer. This could happen if, for example, some participants skip a survey question or join one study later than the other, which Ezer’s team describe as a “potentially common” scenario. In these cases, attackers can use algorithms to predict the genetic details of an individual in one of the studies by combining information from both. The team showed this is possible by finding the genetic information of a single dog in the Cornell Dog Genome database.
2-5-20 Who invented the alphabet? The untold story of a linguistic revolution
One of civilisation’s most revolutionary inventions was long thought to be the brainchild of ancient Egyptian scribes. But its true creators may have been far less glamorous. AMENEMHAT III is one of Egypt’s lesser-known pharaohs. He made pyramids, but not on the scale of Khufu’s at Giza. He commissioned many artworks, but none that survive match the opulence of Tutankhamun’s gold mask. He mounted military expeditions, but not with the success of Thutmose III, who built a vast empire. Still, Amenemhat has one claim to fame. Under his rule, a technology emerged that is more impressive, valuable and pervasive than any of these legacies: the alphabet. The alphabet was a revolutionary way of recording information. But it is more than just a writing system. In a recent book, Philippa Steele and Philip Boyes at the University of Cambridge describe it as an “icon of culture“. Today it is so central to education in most countries that children can often recite it long before they have learned to read or write. Beyond the familiar ABC, a variety of alphabets are used to write in many languages, from Russian to Arabic. But all trace back to one common ancestor. The story of that first alphabet has long been a mystery, but over the past 25 years we have made enormous progress towards pinpointing when and where it was invented. Most astonishing, the consensus today is that the alphabet didn’t emerge from a state-sponsored initiative as was long believed. Instead, its originators were probably far removed from the ancient world’s elites. Paradoxically, they may even have been illiterate. “No trained Egyptian scribe would write in the way these geniuses wrote,” says Orly Goldwasser at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. “He would be ashamed to do so.”
2-4-20 Coronavirus outbreak not yet pandemic, World Health Organization says
The deadly coronavirus outbreak that has spread from China does not yet constitute a "pandemic", the World Health Organization (WHO) has said. A pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new disease, according to the WHO. At least 427 people have died with more than 20,000 confirmed cases around the world, most of them in China. More than two dozen nations have reported cases but, so far, no confirmations have been made across Africa or Latin America. On Tuesday, three more Asian countries - Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand - confirmed infections among citizens who had not travelled to China. Officials say 425 people have died in China and one in Hong Kong. One death has also been confirmed in the Philippines. The new coronavirus causes severe acute respiratory infection and symptoms usually start with a fever, followed by a dry cough. On Monday, China's top leadership admitted "shortcomings and deficiencies" in the country's response to the outbreak, which is believed to have originated in Wuhan, Hubei province. The rare admission came from the Politburo Standing Committee, which called for an improvement in China's emergency management system and ordered a "severe" crackdown on illegal wildlife markets, where the virus is thought to have emerged. Sylvie Briand, head of WHO's Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness division, acknowledged that there was rapid spread of transmission in Hubei but said the situation "currently" was not a pandemic. She praised how Chinese authorities had responded to the outbreak, voicing hopes that the world could "get rid of this virus". She also stressed the importance of tackling unfounded rumours. "When you deal with an epidemic, you rapidly see that in addition to the epidemic of diseases, we often have an epidemic of information. And this is what we call 'infodemic'," she said. "And so we have realised over time that this infodemic could be really an obstacle for good response and hamper effective implementation of counter-measures."
2-4-20 SARS and the new coronavirus target the same cellular lock to infect cells
Lab studies are revealing more details about the novel pathogen. The number of 2019 novel coronavirus cases — more than 17,000 as of February 3 — has already eclipsed the roughly 8,000 cases reported for the 2003 SARS coronavirus outbreak. But scientists are still finding similarities between the two viruses. Analyses of living cells show that the new virus, called 2019-nCoV, uses the same cellular lock to get into cells as SARS, researchers report February 3 in Nature. Previous reports that the new virus relies on that lock — known as angiotensin-converting enzyme II, or ACE2 — to enter and infect cells were based on comparisons between the genetic blueprints of 2019-nCoV and the virus responsible for SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. The new finding, however, provides direct evidence from living cells that 2019-nCoV attaches to ACE2 to gain access, essentially picking the cellular lock with a spiky protein on the virus’s surface. Zheng-Li Shi, a virologist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, and her colleagues analyzed samples of the new virus from seven patients who had been admitted to a hospital in late December. The researchers isolated the virus from one patient and used it to infect cells grown in a laboratory. When cells had the ACE2 protein on their surface, the virus was able to break into them. The virus could use ACE2 proteins from humans to get into cells, as well as human cells with ACE2 proteins from Chinese horseshoe bats, civets and pigs. Researchers now know that people infected with 2019-nCoV can transmit the virus to others even when not showing symptoms (SN: 1/31/20). This is common for viruses such as influenza, which bind to sialic acid — a molecule often found in the upper airway. But ACE2 can be found deeper in the lungs, so it’s unclear how those without symptoms are spreading the virus.
2-4-20 The Chinese doctor who tried to warn others about coronavirus
In early January, authorities in the Chinese city of Wuhan were trying to keep news of a new coronavirus under wraps. When one doctor tried to warn fellow medics about the outbreak, police paid him a visit and told him to stop. A month later he has been hailed as a hero, after he posted his story from a hospital bed. "Hello everyone, this is Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital," the post begins. It's a stunning insight into the botched response by local authorities in Wuhan in the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak. Dr Li was working at the centre of the outbreak in December when he noticed seven cases of a virus that he thought looked like Sars - the virus that led to a global epidemic in 2003. The cases were thought to come from the Huanan Seafood market in Wuhan and the patients were in quarantine in his hospital. On 30 December he sent a message to fellow doctors in a chat group warning them about the outbreak and advising they wear protective clothing to avoid infection. What Dr Li didn't know then was that the disease that had been discovered was an entirely new coronavirus. Four days later he was summoned to the Public Security Bureau where he was told him to sign a letter. In the letter he was accused of "making false comments" that had "severely disturbed the social order". "We solemnly warn you: If you keep being stubborn, with such impertinence, and continue this illegal activity, you will be brought to justice - is that understood?" Underneath in Dr Li's handwriting is written: "Yes, I do." He was one of eight people who police said were being investigated for "spreading rumours". At the end of January, Dr Li published a copy of the letter on Weibo and explained what had happened. In the meantime, local authorities had apologised to him but that apology came too late.
2-4-20 Coronavirus: China wildlife trade ban 'should be permanent'
Campaigners have urged China to apply a permanent ban on the wildlife trade following the coronavirus outbreak. Markets selling live animals are considered a potential source of diseases that are new to humans. There has been speculation just such a market in Wuhan could have been the starting point for the outbreak. China put a temporary ban on the trade in wildlife as one measure to control the spread of coronavirus, but conservationists say it's not enough. They argue that, in addition to protecting human health, a permanent ban would be a vital step in the effort to end the illegal trading of wildlife. Campaigners say that China's demand for wildlife products, which find uses in traditional medicine, or as exotic foods, is driving a global trade in endangered species. More than 70% of emerging infections in humans are estimated to have come from animals, particularly wild animals. Experts with the World Health Organization (WHO) say there's a high likelihood the new coronavirus came from bats. But it might have made the jump to a currently unknown animal group before humans could be infected. The viruses behind Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) are also thought to have originated in bats. But they are thought to have circulated in civet cats and camels, respectively, before being transmitted to humans. "We are coming into contact with species of wildlife and their habitats that we were not with before," Dr Ben Embarek, with the department of nutrition and food safety at the WHO told the BBC. "We are suddenly exposing ourselves to totally new viruses we have never been in contact with in the past. "Therefore, we have a number of new diseases linked to new contacts between humans and previously unknown viruses, bacteria and parasites." A recent analysis of the nearly 32,000 known land-based vertebrate species showed that around 20% of them are bought and sold on the global wildlife market - either legally or illegally.
2-4-20 An experimental HIV vaccine failed a key trial in South Africa
The vaccine did not reduce the risk of being infected with the virus that causes AIDS A vaccine designed to prevent human immunodeficiency virus infection has proven no better than a placebo during a trial in South Africa. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md., announced the results on February 3, citing an analysis by an independent review board. The news is disappointing, but also increases scientists’ resolve to develop an effective vaccine, says Barton Haynes, director of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, N.C., who was not involved in the clinical trial. The Phase III trial included more than 5,400 sexually active men and women, ages 18 to 35. Trial participants were given six injections of vaccine or placebo over 18 months. An interim analysis in January found that the risk of becoming infected with HIV — the virus that causes AIDS — was the same whether a participant received the vaccine or the placebo: 129 new infections occurred among the vaccinated group of 2,694, while 123 people were infected from the placebo group of 2,689. All HIV-positive participants were referred for medical treatment. The vaccine was made up of two separate components: a vaccine based on a canarypox — a harmless poxvirus that can enter a variety of cells — that carried HIV genes, and another vaccine based on an HIV surface protein and designed to boost the immune response. The vaccine regimen had been tested in more than 16,000 participants in a Phase III clinical trial in Thailand, and reduced HIV infection by 31 percent in the vaccinated group compared with the placebo group. The trial in Thailand was a test of how well the vaccine worked in a population with low to moderate risk of HIV infection. In contrast, the trial in South Africa focused on a population at high risk for infection: In 2018, one in five adults ages 15 to 49 in the country was living with HIV. The vaccine also may have failed in the new trial in part because “the virus was more diverse in Africa than in Thailand,” Haynes says.
2-4-20 Yarn grown from human skin cells could be knitted into your body
Yarn grown from human skin cells could be used to make implantable “human textiles” for tissue grafts or organ repair. “We can sew pouches, create tubes, valves and perforated membranes,” says Nicholas L’Heureux, who led the work at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Bordeaux. “With the yarn, any textile approach is feasible: knitting, braiding, weaving, even crocheting.” Synthetic materials used for stitches and scaffolds for growing tissue grafts can often trigger an immune response, causing inflammation that can complicate healing. Surgeons can use dissolvable materials to reduce this risk, but these aren’t great for complex tissue reconstruction if they fail prematurely. The human yarn avoids that by remaining undetected by the immune system. It builds on previous work by L’Heureux’s team that used human skin fibroblast cells to produce sheets of material that could be rolled into tubes to make artificial blood vessels. To spin the yarn, the team cut such sheets into ribbons and twisted them to form threads. These were then intertwined to create yarns of different mechanical strengths that could be dried and spooled until required. To show its potential, the researchers seeded individual threads with different blood vessel cells and braided them together. They also used the yarn as a stitch to close a wound on a rat that healed after 14 days. Another experiment used a custom-made loom to weave a strong and implantable textile tube. When grafted into a sheep’s artery, it showed no leaks and kept blood flowing normally. “With a textile approach, once you’re done assembling, it’s ready to wear,” says L’Heureux.
2-3-20 Economic impact of coronavirus outbreak likely to eclipse SARS crisis
The economic shockwaves of the Wuhan coronavirus look likely to eclipse the 2003 SARS crisis, as shares in China fell dramatically and analysts downgraded their forecasts for the country’s growth. The Shanghai Composite index fell by 8 per cent today, the largest daily drop for more than four years, despite the Chinese central bank saying yesterday it would inject $174 billion worth of liquidity into markets. As the number of infections in China climbed to more than 14,000, UK-based analysts Oxford Economics today cut its 2020 forecast for the Chinese economy from 6 per cent to 5.4 per cent. The group expects global GDP growth this year will be hit by 0.25 percentage points. By comparison, the SARS outbreak cost about 0.15 per cent of global GDP. Ben May at Oxford Economics says while there is much uncertainty over the eventual impact of the coronavirus, it will likely be worse than SARS, because China’s share of global trade has grown since 2003 and the immediate response by Chinese authorities has been stronger. “There’s been much more lockdowns on people and restrictions on business than with SARS,” he says. While emergency flights evacuating Japanese, US and European citizens from China have dominated news bulletins in the past week, one big impact will be on demand for jet fuel. Many domestic and international flights have already stopped. The price of the global benchmark for crude oil, Brent, has fallen to just below $60 a barrel, cancelling out the gains it made after the US killed a top Iranian general last month. The coronavirus is likely to have a much bigger effect on aviation than the SARS outbreak in 2003, because there are so many more Chinese taking to the skies. In 2003 there were 86 million annual Chinese air passengers; today there are more than 600 million. Oil analyst Wood Mackenzie said it expects the virus will lower global oil demand by more than 100,000 barrels a day on average in 2020. Global demand is around 102 million barrels a day. The group said it anticipates a “severe and one-off impact to China’s demand for jet fuel”.
2-3-20 Stone Age replica raft almost ready to repeat epic prehistoric voyage
Would you sail across 460 kilometres of shark-infested waters on this bamboo raft, with no support vessel and only Stone Age technology to hand (and a satellite phone for emergencies)? A crew of eight from the First Mariners experimental archaeology project is preparing to do just that, setting sail from Rote Island in Indonesia and heading across the Timor Sea for the north coast of Western Australia. The aim is to replicate an epic crossing that humans must have made 65,000 years ago to reach the lost continent of Sahul – what is now Australia, New Guinea and a lot of submerged seabed. The team built the raft using only tools and materials that would have been available in the middle Stone Age, and will have to survive the two-week voyage on tubers, coconuts and green bananas, plus fish and rainwater they catch on the way. The raft will be powered by a rudimentary sail made from the giant leaf of the lontar palm (Borassus flabellifer). Steering may prove difficult, but the crew hope that the north-westerly monsoon will blow them straight across the sea. Expedition leader Bob Hobman says the weather forecast is looking good and they are on target to leave on Sunday. “Almost ready,” he told New Scientist. “Leaf sail to come and we can leave. But you can imagine the tension building at the moment.”
2-2-20 Coronavirus: First death outside China reported in Philippines
A man has died of the coronavirus in the Philippines, the first confirmed fatality outside China. The patient was a 44-year-old Chinese man from Wuhan, in Hubei province, where the virus was first detected. He appeared to have been infected before arriving in the Philippines, the World Health Organization (WHO) said. More than 300 people have died in the outbreak so far, the vast majority from Hubei. More than 14,000 people have been infected. The US, Australia and an increasing number of other countries have barred the arrival of foreigners from China and are requiring their own citizens to be quarantined. The number of coronavirus cases worldwide has overtaken that of the similar Sars epidemic, which spread to more than two dozen countries in 2003. But the mortality rate of the new virus is much lower, suggesting it is not as deadly. The man travelled to the Philippines from Wuhan, via Hong Kong, with a 38-year-old Chinese woman who also tested positive last week, the Philippines Department of Health said. Officials said he was admitted to a hospital in the capital, Manila, where he developed severe pneumonia. The man is thought to have had other pre-existing health conditions. Rabindra Abeyasinghe, the WHO representative to the Philippines, urged people to remain calm: "This is the first reported death outside China. However, we need to take into mind that this is not a locally acquired case. This patient came from the epicentre of this outbreak." According to local news outlet Rappler, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said the patient was "stable and showed signs of improvement", but his condition deteriorated rapidly over 24 hours. "We are currently working with the Chinese embassy to ensure the dignified management of the remains according to national and international standards to contain the disease," Mr Duque said, adding that the man would be cremated.
2-2-20 Coronavirus:10 days of hospital building in 60 seconds
Time-lapse footage taken from above shows the construction of Huoshenshan hospital in Wuhan city, which has been built to deal with coronavirus patients. According to Chinese authorities, construction began on 24 January, with the hospital due to open on 3 February. Around 300 people have died from the virus so far, with around 14,000 currently affected.
2-1-20 Peanut allergy drug approved by the US FDA
The US has approved its first treatment for peanut allergies in children. The drug AR101, or Palforzia, uses oral immunotherapy, with children given tiny but increasing amounts of peanut protein over a six-month period under medical supervision. After that, users must continue to take a daily dose to be able to tolerate accidental exposure. The treatment is not a cure and makers warn that the risk of a potentially fatal anaphylactic reaction remains. And patients must continue to avoid peanuts in their diet. Peanuts are the most common food allergen in the US, with an increase in the number of those affected by food allergies across the West in recent decades. While trials to desensitise patients with peanut allergies have previously taken place in the US and elsewhere, the drug is the first to be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The drug has not yet been authorised for use in the UK. Palforzia, which has been approved for use in patients aged between four and 17, comes in the form of a powder which is sprinkled on food. Last year, scientists at King's College London said that oral immunotherapy offered "protection but not a cure" for peanut allergies, with treatment only effective while patients continued taking small amounts of the allergen.
2-1-20 The first case of coronavirus being spread by a person with no symptoms has been found
As the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak continues to spread in China, researchers have found that people carrying the virus but not showing symptoms may be able to infect others. If infected people can spread 2019-nCoV while asymptomatic, it could be harder to trace contacts and contain the epidemic, which is already a global health emergency (SN: 1/30/20). An unnamed Shanghai woman passed the virus to business colleagues in Germany before she showed signs of the illness, doctors report January 30 in the New England Journal of Medicine. The woman had attended a business meeting at the headquarters of the auto supplier Webasto in Stockdorf on January 20 and flew back to China on January 22. She became ill with mild symptoms on the flight back to China and tested positive for the virus. Meanwhile, one of her German colleagues fell ill on January 24 with a fever, sore throat, chills and muscle aches. His illness was brief, and he returned to work on January 27, the same day that the woman informed the company she carried the virus. Nasal swabs and sputum, or phlegm, samples from the man contained high levels of the novel coronavirus even though his symptoms had passed. Three other employees of the company also tested positive for the virus. Tracing their contacts, doctors conclude that the first man and another person caught the virus from their Chinese colleague. What’s also concerning is that the first man apparently passed the virus to the other two coworkers, who both had contact with him before he developed symptoms. All cases of the illness have been mild. These cases suggest that people shed the virus before they show symptoms and after recovery from the illness, say Camilla Rothe, a tropical medicine and infectious disease specialist at the University Hospital of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, and her colleagues.
2-1-20 Coronavirus: US and Australia close borders to Chinese arrivals
Countries around the world have closed their borders to arrivals from China, as officials work to control the rapid spread of the coronavirus. The US and Australia said they would deny entry to all foreign visitors who had recently been in China, where the virus first emerged in December. Earlier, countries including Russia, Japan, Pakistan and Italy announced similar travel restrictions. But global health officials have advised against such measures. "Travel restrictions can cause more harm than good by hindering info-sharing, medical supply chains and harming economies," the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday. The WHO recommends introducing screening at official border crossings. It has warned that closing borders could accelerate the spread of the virus, with travellers entering countries unofficially. China has criticised the wave of travel restrictions, accusing foreign governments of ignoring official advice. "Just as the WHO recommended against travel restrictions, the US rushed in the opposite direction," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said. "[It is] certainly not a gesture of goodwill." The death toll from the new virus, which is officially called 2019-nCov, now stands at 259. All the deaths occurred within China and the majority were in Hubei province, where the virus originated. Almost 12,000 cases have been confirmed and a small proportion of those - around 100 - have been identified outside China. The UK, US, Russia and Germany have all confirmed cases in recent days. Meanwhile authorities in Hubei extended the Lunar New Year holiday until 13 February and announced marriage registrations would be suspended to discourage public gatherings. China started celebrating the holiday on 24 January, and Chinese officials had already extended the break in an attempt to postpone travel by large numbers of people as they return to work. The number of coronavirus cases worldwide has overtaken that of the similar Sars epidemic, which spread to more than two dozen countries in 2003. But the mortality rate of the new virus is much lower than that of Sars, which has led officials to believe it is not as deadly.
2-1-20 Scientists question White House measures to limit spread of coronavirus
The risk of contracting the virus in the United States is still low As U.S. officials declared the new coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency — imposing measures such as temporary quarantines for people possibly exposed to the virus, and barring entry of foreign nationals who have recently visited China — some experts questioned whether the approach would be effective. A steep rise in the number of cases in recent days, as well as lingering unknowns about the new virus, called 2019 novel coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV, including its severity and transmissibility, prompted officials to take the actions, said Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md. at a White House news briefing announcing the measures on January 31. “It was not clear whether an asymptomatic person could transmit it while they were asymptomatic. Now we know from a recent report from Germany that is absolutely the case,” he said. Two coworkers at a car parts supplier in Germany passed the virus to others before developing symptoms, doctors report January 30 in the New England Journal of Medicine (SN: 1/31/20). Spread of the virus from people with no symptoms puts a strain on efforts to contain the virus by identifying infected people and tracing their contacts, Fauci said. The risk of contracting the coronavirus in the United States is low. Still, the new measures are “not likely to keep us safe,” says Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. While the vast majority of the 9,836 cases confirmed as of January 31 are in China, the virus has spread to 21 more countries, and potentially others where mild cases have likely gone undetected, Nuzzo says, especially since the virus can spread asymptomatically. Airport and other screenings have focused on people with symptoms. “That means we don’t have a clear idea of where the virus is and where it is not.”