6-30-21 The 7 primes of life: Why each decade comes with its own superpowers
You might think we peak in our 20s or 30s before enduring a slow decline, but each era of our lives brings new strengths – even old age. Here's how to make the most of them. WHETHER on page, stage or screen, the story of human health and happiness is often presented as an inevitable arc between birth and death. William Shakespeare captured this best with his “seven ages of man” speech. We enter the world “mewling and puking” as an infant, pass through the awkwardness of childhood and adolescence into our physical and mental prime, before a slow decline. Until recently, science appeared to confirm this view. For many abilities, we seemed to reach our peak well before midlife. But it is now becoming clear that this picture is far too simplistic. Childhood and adolescence may offer the most rapid periods of development, but our brains can change in positive ways throughout life, with some important cognitive skills continuing to improve into our 50s, 60s and 70s. “The whole idea that the brain is fully mature at age 25 is a joke,” says Daniel Romer, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Nor does our fitness simply rise, peak and fall in a curve. While 20-somethings may win a sprint, performance in many other sports can reach a high later in life. That’s not to mention factors like emotional well-being and mental discipline, which rise and fall in unexpected patterns. And despite nostalgia for the joys of youth, for most of us, our happiest days are actually yet to come. By learning to recognise these patterns, we can find better ways to nurture our growth and embrace the opportunities available at each stage of life. So what, based on science, are the seven ages of you? And how can you make the most of them? 1. CHILDHOOD The era for original thinking and imagination, 2. ADOLESCENCE The peak of curiosity and risk taking, which reaps rewards in later life, 3. TWENTIES The fast years, but are they really the happiest? 4. THIRTIES When superpowers of endurance make up for any loss of speed, 5. FORTIES A peak time for emotional intelligence and ability to focus, 6. FIFTIES AND SIXTIES Reaping the rewards of your crystallised intelligence, 7. SEVENTY-PLUS A peak time for wise reasoning and making the best decisions.
6-30-21 Engineered immunity: Redesigning antibodies to better fight disease
Antibodies are a vital weapon in our immune system's arsenal. Now we can redesign them like never before to boost our ability to fight cancer and viruses like HIV, says immunologist Daniel M. Davis. THE wonders of the world tend to be quite conspicuous. You can hardly miss the Grand Canyon, say, or the Great Pyramid of Giza. You could, however, be forgiven for overlooking the great wonders of human biology. It is easy to take the brain or DNA for granted. And yet over the past year or so, living through the coronavirus pandemic, we have all come to better appreciate the marvel that is our immune system, a vast and diverse array of cells and molecules that defend us against viruses and other invaders. One molecule in particular has taken centre stage: the antibody. These Y-shaped proteins, which we produce in response to infection, are a vital part of our defences. They are also the basis of many of the most important medicines. But we haven’t exhausted their potential yet – far from it. Typically, we have used antibodies in medicine pretty much as they come in nature, even if we select and mass-produce the versions we need. Now we can do much more. By manipulating genes in the cells that produce antibodies, or splicing together fragments of the proteins themselves, we can re-engineer their structures to create bespoke immune molecules. In my lab at the University of Manchester, UK, we use super-resolution microscopes to see how the immune system works on a molecular scale. We are just one of thousands of labs doing such work, which is fuelling a new age of antibody engineering. With researchers currently producing all kinds of tailor-made antibodies – from those that lure cancer cells to their doom to those that can actually infiltrate cells – we are on the cusp of a revolution in our capacity to fight disease.
6-30-21 Malaria vaccine that combines parasite with treatment shows promise
A new kind of malaria vaccine involves injecting people with the malaria parasite, then a few days later giving them a medicine that kills the pathogens. The approach has shown promising results in an early-stage trial. Malaria, an infectious disease spread by mosquitoes, is one of the world’s biggest public health problems. It is particularly deadly for young children in Africa. There is already a vaccine available, called Mosquirix, which works by injecting people with a molecule found on the surface of the parasite. But its efficacy wanes over time, falling to about 5 per cent after seven years. Some groups are working on an improved Mosquirix-like vaccine, which produced positive results in April. But Patrick Duffy at the US National Institutes of Health and his colleagues wondered about an alternative approach: injecting people with the whole parasite, then quickly giving a malaria medicine to stop them becoming ill. They tried two different antimalarial drugs and different doses of the parasite in a small “human challenge” study, in which people are vaccinated then three months later deliberately exposed to the malaria parasite to see if they develop the illness. When the antimalarial pyrimethamine and a high vaccine dose of parasite was used, seven out of eight people were protected against getting sick, if the same strain of parasite was used in the vaccine as for the challenge. If a different strain was used – a tougher test – seven out of nine people were protected. Another antimalarial drug called chloroquine protected six out of six people against a different-strain challenge. These high efficacy figures don’t necessarily mean this approach would work better than Mosquirix in real life. “But it’s a level of protection that hasn’t been seen before [in challenge trials],” says Duffy.
6-30-21 Ancient beetle species discovered in 230-million-year-old reptile dung
There is a new way to learn about ancient insects with the discovery that we can find fossilised beetles inside prehistoric animal droppings. Martin Qvarnström at Uppsala University in Sweden and his colleagues made the discovery by scanning 230-million-year-old fossilised droppings – or coprolites – using a technique called synchrotron microtomography. “It works a bit like a CT scanner in the hospital, but with a much stronger energy, so we’re able to see small density contrasts within fossils,” says Qvarnström. “It’s like [the coprolites] are doing a part of the fieldwork for us by collecting the insects.” A large number of beetle fragments along with a few nearly whole beetles were preserved three-dimensionally in the coprolites. The beetles – the first to be described from ancient dung – belong to a new species, which the researchers have named Triamyxa coprolithica. It was probably semiaquatic and had a convex body shape, says Qvarnström. “Boat shaped almost. Very small and cute.” “To get fossilised remains of this quality, researchers have relied in the past on finding them in amber (fossilised tree resin),” says Jesus Lozano-Fernandez at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona, Spain. “The novelty here is the possibility of looking at what is inside of the opaque fossilised poo.” The earliest amber deposits formed about 140 million years ago early in the Cretaceous period, meaning we can’t rely on amber to learn about beetle evolution before that. These coprolites allow us to learn about this and ecological relationships in an earlier period called the Triassic. The droppings containing T. coprolithica probably came from Silesaurus opolensis, a reptilian dinosaur relative which ate these beetles in large numbers.
6-30-21 Brain changes from covid-19 may impact consciousness and cognition
NUMEROUS studies show that covid-19 often affects the brain, having a profound influence on people’s consciousness, cognition and behaviour – and possibly even their risk of dementia later in life. “Mercifully, those affected are a minority of those infected,” says Benedict Michael at the University of Liverpool in the UK, “but those affected are severely affected.” In addition, given the number of people who have been infected by the coronavirus, the impact of cognitive complications may be large and could have substantial effects on health systems. How often does covid-19 affect the brain? Very often. Paul Harrison at the University of Oxford and his colleagues analysed the records of 236,000 people with covid-19. In the six months after infection, 34 per cent were diagnosed with a neurological or psychiatric condition. For 13 per cent, this was their first such diagnosis. Most people with covid-19 never get tested or seek care, so the 34 per cent figure doesn’t apply to everyone infected. Nevertheless, the findings still suggest that a large number of people globally have been or will be affected. What neurological complications can occur? In a study of 267 people who were hospitalised by covid-19 in the UK, Michael and his colleagues found that bleeding and clots in the brain were the most common brain complications, affecting around half of the people in the study. Other complications included delirium, brain inflammation, peripheral nerve damage, psychosis, depression and anxiety. Milder neurological effects included headaches and the loss of smell or taste. Who is most at risk of neurological problems? There is a link between disease severity and the severity of cognitive issues, says Michael, but his team has identified some 800 people in the UK for whom the severity of brain complications is disproportionate to the severity of their covid-19. His team is studying whether they have gene variants that predispose them to getting severe brain complications.
6-30-21 5,000-year-old man was 'oldest plague victim'
Scientists have identified a new contender for "patient zero" in the plague that caused the Black Death. A man who died more than 5,000 years ago in Latvia was infected with the earliest-known strain of the disease, according to new evidence. The plague swept through Europe in the 1300s, wiping out as much as half of the population. Later waves continued to strike regularly over several centuries, causing millions of deaths. "Up to now this is the oldest-identified plague victim we have," Dr Ben Krause-Kyora of the University of Kiel in Germany said of the 5,300-year-old remains. The man was buried with three others at a Neolithic burial site in Latvia by the side of the River Salac, which flows into the Baltic Sea. The researchers sequenced DNA from the bones and teeth of all four individuals, and tested them for bacteria and viruses. They were surprised to find one hunter-gatherer - a man in his twenties - was infected with an ancient strain of plague, caused by the bacterium, Yersinia pestis. "He most likely was bitten by a rodent, got the primary infection of Yersinia pestis and died a couple of days [later] - maybe a week later - from the septic shock," said Dr Krause-Kyora. The researchers suggest the ancient strain emerged about 7,000 years ago, when agriculture was starting to appear in central Europe. They think the bacterium may have leaped sporadically from animals to humans without causing large outbreaks. Over time, it became adapted to infecting humans, eventually evolving into the form known as bubonic plague, that is spread by fleas and raged through medieval Europe, causing millions of deaths. The idea that early strains of plague were slow to spread challenges many theories about the development of human civilisation in Europe and Asia. And it casts doubt on the hypothesis that the disease caused large population declines in Western Europe at the end of the Neolithic Age.
6-30-21 Ancient human bones reveal the oldest known strain of the plague
DNA analysis shows it emerged 7,100 years ago and was less virulent than the Black Death strain. The oldest known strain of the plague-causing bacteria Yersinia pestis has been found lurking in the bones and teeth of a man buried thousands of years ago in what is now Latvia. Genetic analysis suggests the Y. pestis strain that infected the man emerged around 7,100 years ago, researchers report online June 29 in Cell Reports. It usurps the previous record-holder, found in a 5,000-year-old Scandinavian mass grave associated with a possible plague epidemic (SN: 12/6/18). The Latvia man’s bones are also about 5,000 years old, but DNA comparison suggests he contracted a less virulent strain that emerged 1,000 years earlier in Y. pestis history than that found at the Scandinavian site. Bacterial DNA also suggest that the ancient plague victim didn’t develop pustules or infect his family. And the strain lacked the gene for swift flea-to-human transmission, which evolved perhaps 3,800 years ago and drove later bubonic plague epidemics, says Ben Krause-Kyora, an archaeologist and biochemist at Kiel University in Germany. It’s likely this early plague strain passed to humans through isolated encounters, such as from rodent bites, Krause-Kyora and colleagues conclude. The man was carefully buried, and the team didn’t find mass graves or Y. pestis infection in other individuals’ DNA, suggesting people in the area weren’t facing an epidemic (SN: 1/6/21). Without antibiotics, the man probably succumbed to his infection. Although this Y. pestis is the oldest strain ever found, it ultimately went extinct, being replaced by other, more virulent versions — a common fate in the evolutionary history of both bacteria and viruses. Later Y. pestis strains may have been more contagious, but isolated encounters like this one may help scientists understand the plague’s early history. “Maybe it’s really single events in the beginning, then more and more severe, before it became really dramatic in medieval times,” Krause-Kyora says.
6-30-21 New fossil finds show we are far from understanding how humans evolved
LAST week saw the announcement of not one but two groups of ancient humans, both new to science, and there is no reason to think the discoveries will stop any time soon. In Israel, a team of researchers discovered bones from a member of a population that apparently lived in the area between 420,000 and 120,000 years ago. These hominins, which the team calls Nesher Ramla Homo, looked a bit like the Neanderthals, and the team claims that members of the new-found group were the Neanderthals’ ancestors. Not everyone agrees, however, and other interpretations have already been put forward. Meanwhile, in China, a huge skull from an individual being labelled the Dragon Man has been analysed. The hominin may belong to the mysterious group known as the Denisovans, or, as some of its discoverers claim, it might be a new species called Homo longi. It is all thoroughly complex, rather uncertain and a little confusing. The past few years have seen many developments that have complicated the story of human evolution, and the latest discoveries only add to the intricacy of our story. For millions of years, it seems the world was populated by a great diversity of human and human-like groups. These groups sometimes interbred, blurring our ideas about what constitutes a species. It is to the credit of the Israeli team that it has refrained from giving the Nesher Ramla Homo a species name. With only a handful of bones to go on, not enough even to determine the individual’s sex, giving it such a title would surely be premature. The population it came from appears to be a distinct group, but for now that is all we can say. If we are being consistent, the same is true for the Dragon Man. Furthermore, we should be wary of any attempt to impose a simple narrative onto human evolution. Our data set is plainly still incomplete and can be reasonably interpreted in many ways. The worst thing we can do is to become wedded to our ideas about how to make sense of it, because they may well be blown out of the water by the next big find.
6-29-21 Earliest known bubonic plague strain found in 5000-year-old skull
The bacterium behind the Black Death, which wrought devastation in medieval times, has been found in the skull of a man who lived 5000 years ago in what is now Latvia, making it the earliest known plague strain. Analysis of ancient DNA in the hunter-gatherer’s skull suggests that the strain of Yersinia pestis, which causes the bubonic plague, was less transmissible and harmful than later versions, say Ben Krause-Kyora at Kiel University, Germany, and his colleagues. The lack of the bacteria in three other people buried next to the man, dubbed RV 2039, is one hint of a less deadly disease, says Krause-Kyora. The apparent lower virulence leads the team to suggest that the plague wasn’t to blame for the decline of European people between 5000 and 6000 years ago, as claimed by a 2018 paper looking at Swedish farmers’ genomes. “There’s an ongoing discussion as whether Y. pestis played a big role in the Neolithic decline,” says Krause-Kyora. “Our hypothesis is really contradicting the one before. It was maybe a more chronic, more omnipresent infection. It caused, for sure, some deaths, but it’s maybe not as severe as it became in the Middle Ages.” Nonetheless, the high abundance of the bacteria found in the skull of the man, who was probably aged between 20 and 30 when he died, implies he succumbed to the plague, says Krause-Kyora. The man may have been bitten by a rodent such as a beaver, which are known to carry Y. pestis. Remains of the animals have been found at the same site by the river Salaca in Latvia. The evidence points to the plague spreading from animal to human at the time, rather than human to human, says Krause-Kyora. The bacteria hadn’t yet gained the genetic mutation that enables fleas to carry it, and which allowed it to infect and kill so many people centuries later.
6-29-21 Covid-19 boosters work well but we don't need them yet
Booster shots of the Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine work well, but as yet there is no evidence that we will actually need them, according to new data from the team who developed it. The Oxford University researchers gave a third dose of vaccine to 90 double-jabbed volunteers aged between 18 and 55 who had received their second dose on average 30 weeks earlier. The shot raised antibody levels above where they were 4 weeks after the second dose and also boosted T-cells. These form a central part of our immune system, hunting down and killing host cells infected with the virus. “It is very encouraging, if we were to need it,” says Theresa Lambe of the University of Oxford. However, at this point there is no evidence of vaccine-induced immunity waning enough to warrant a booster campaign. Even after a single dose, says Lamb, antibody levels remain high for at least a year and T-cell responses are “relatively strong” at 6 months. “[Immunity] does decay but it’s still there… it’s not falling off a cliff,” she says. Immunity would be expected to persist even more strongly after two doses, she says, but that data is not yet available. Immune memory should provide long-term protection. “At the moment we don’t know whether boosters are needed,” says Andrew Pollard, also at Oxford. “It is something where we need to keep looking at the data and make decisions as the months go by about whether that protection we have is lost.” The study is about preparedness, not policy, he says. The vaccine used in the study was the original, but the team is also testing a booster vaccine tweaked to be more effective against the beta variant, which is showing some signs of escaping vaccine-induced immunity. That trial started last week. The delta variant does not seem to be evading the vaccines and tweaking to deal with it is low on the list of priorities, says Pollard./p>
6-29-21 Dinosaurs may have already been going extinct before the asteroid hit
There is new evidence that the diversity of non-avian dinosaur species may have been declining 10 million years before they vanished when a large asteroid hit Earth 66 million years ago. Palaeontologists have been debating whether this was the case for decades. Many believe that the diversity of non-avian dinosaur species was still high prior to their extinction. Some researchers even suspect that the dinosaurs were still diversifying at the time. “The alternative scenario is that dinosaur diversity was not that high and was instead lower just before the asteroid impact than millions of years before,” says Fabien Condamine at the Institute of Evolutionary Science of Montpellier in France. “Here, the meteorite is seen as a coup de grâce for dinosaurs, which would have been declining.” Condamine and his colleagues analysed data related to 1600 dinosaur fossils and used the information to model diversity trends. They found a pattern of declining dinosaur diversity toward the end of the Cretaceous period, supporting the idea that dinosaurs were more diverse several million years before their extinction than they were just prior to the extinction event. The team also suggests that global cooling at the end of the Cretaceous and a decline of herbivorous dinosaurs – which would have been the cornerstone holding these ecosystems together – would have eventually led to a cascade effect triggering extinctions even if the asteroid hadn’t struck. However, on the other side of the debate, Alfio Alessandro Chiarenza at the University of Vigo in Spain still isn’t convinced. He and others believe that the extinctions were sudden and wouldn’t have happened without the asteroid impact. “This kind of information cannot really be shown with these sort of methods because ultimately it is the underlying data that really matter. And the fossil record is really incomplete,” says Chiarenza. He points out that we don’t have fossils from 60 per cent of North America, because late Cretaceous rocks aren’t preserved in many places. “We don’t know what’s going on in Africa, we don’t know the diversity in most of Europe. In Asia, we don’t have the right rocks that precede the extinction.”
6-26-21 How COVID-19 vaccines were made so quickly without cutting corners
The spread of the virus and the public’s attention to science helped to shorten the timeline. Six months after the first COVID-19 shots started going into arms in the United States, the pace of vaccination has slowed. That’s prompted White House officials to scale back their goal of getting at least one dose to 70 percent of all U.S. adults by July 4; they’re now aiming for 70 percent of those 27 and older. Even so, more than 1 in 5 Americans say they won’t get vaccinated, according to a recent poll by the American Psychiatric Association. Among the reasons that often pop up are worries that the vaccines were developed too fast: Normally, drug research takes years or even decades from idea to reality. The first vaccines to combat COVID-19 were developed, tested and given emergency use authorization in 11 months. Driven by a global urgency and underpinned by decades of prior work on vaccine technology, vaccine developers found a way to chop not just days or months, but years off the timeline (SN: 2/21/20). What was jettisoned was not the science, or the safety tests, but rather the wait time baked into the development process — waiting for results and waiting for regulatory approvals (SN: 7/10/20). By comparing the new vaccines with earlier drugs that have used the same tech under more traditional research timelines, it is possible to calculate approximately how much time got chopped off the development process once shots were ready to go into arms: roughly four years. Here’s how. To back up a bit first, designing the vaccines began far earlier than the jabs-in-arms stage. It began with deciphering the exact genetic makeup of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 (SN: 12/11/20). By early January 2020, that genetic blueprint was in hand and the first vaccines to test were ready just a few weeks later.
6-29-21 New form of liver dialysis could help people with failed organ recover
People with liver failure may in future be able to recover by being hooked up to dialysis equipment to clean their blood of toxins. The idea is akin to kidney dialysis, when people with kidney failure regularly go to a clinic or hospital to have their blood cleaned of the waste products normally removed by the kidneys. The liver performs more complex functions, which until now couldn’t be mimicked. But a new technique has shown promise in a small clinical trial where it boosted the recovery process from liver failure. Liver failure can be triggered by infections, drug overdoses or a worsening of long-term conditions such as cirrhosis, scarring of the liver that can be caused by drinking too much alcohol. One of the liver’s main functions is to remove harmful compounds from the blood that come from food and drink or are made when the body processes food. In severe liver failure, there is a build-up of toxins, which can lead to damage to other organs and death. If the liver’s detoxifying role could be temporarily replaced by dialysis, it would help people to recover because livers can naturally regenerate, says Banwari Agarwal at the Royal Free Hospital in London. In people with permanent liver damage, dialysis could keep them alive until they get a transplant. Many toxins from food and drink are transported in the blood while bound to albumin, a protein made by the liver. Initial attempts to replace the liver’s function have involved simple forms of dialysis, where the blood is passed through a filter containing clean albumin, unbound to toxins. The idea is that toxins pass from the albumin in the blood to the clean albumin. This treatment is on offer in certain hospitals around the world, but some trials have failed to show it does any good and the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has concluded there isn’t much good evidence to support it.
6-26-21 Embryos appear to reverse their biological clock early in development
In mice, a ‘rejuvenation event’ wipes out genetic signs of aging days after fertilization. As people age, so do all of our cells, which accumulate damage over time. But why our offspring don’t inherit those changes — effectively aging a child even before birth — has been a mystery. “When you are born, you don’t inherit your parents’ age,” says Yukiko Yamashita, a developmental biologist at MIT who studies the immortality of germline cells such as eggs or sperm. “For some reason, you are at zero.” Experts once thought that germline cells might be ageless — somehow protected from the passage of time (SN: 3/10/04). But studies have shown signs of aging in eggs and sperm, dispelling that idea. So researchers have hypothesized that germline cells might instead reset their age after conception, reversing any damage. In a new study, scientists describe evidence that supports that rejuvenation hypothesis. Both mouse and human germline cells appear to reset their biological age in the early stages of an embryo’s development. A rejuvenation period that takes place after an embryo has attached to the uterus sets the growing embryo at its youngest biological age, dubbed “ground zero,” researchers report June 25 in Science Advances. Understanding how germline cells reverse aging could help researchers develop treatments for age-related diseases, such as arthritis or Parkinson’s, says Vittorio Sebastiano, a developmental biologist at Stanford University School of Medicine who was not involved in the work. In such diseases, certain cells might become dysfunctional due to damage. Resetting the age of those cells could prevent them from causing problems. It’s possible that this rejuvenation period “can be leveraged and hijacked somehow to basically try to promote similar processes of rejuvenation in normal cells,” Sebastiano says.
6-26-21 ‘Dragon Man’ skull may help oust Neandertals as our closest ancient relative
The fossil may represent a new Homo species that lived more than 146,000 years ago. A fossil skull nicknamed “Dragon Man” has surfaced in China under mysterious circumstances, with big news for Neandertals. Dragon Man belonged to a previously unrecognized Stone Age species that replaces Neandertals as the closest known relatives of people today, researchers say. A nearly complete male skull now housed in the Geoscience Museum of Hebei GEO University in Shijiazhuang, China, represents a species dubbed Homo longi by Hebei GEO paleoanthropologist Xijun Ni and his colleagues. The scientists describe the skull, which dates to at least 146,000 years ago, and analyze its position in Homo evolution in three papers published June 25 in The Innovation. Qiang Ji, a paleontologist also at Hebei GEO, received the skull in 2018 from a farmer who said the fossil had been dug up by a coworker of his grandfather’s in 1933. During bridge construction over a river in Harbin, China, the worker allegedly scooped the skull out of river sediment. Whether or not that story is true, this fossil could help answer questions about a poorly understood period of human evolution. “The Harbin cranium presents a combination of features setting it apart from other Homo species,” Ji says. The name H. longi derives from a Chinese term for the province where it was found, which translates as “dragon river.” That term inspired the nickname Dragon Man. As in H. sapiens, the Harbin skull held a large brain situated atop a relatively short face and small cheek bones. But traits such as a long, low braincase, thick brow ridges, large molars and almost square eye sockets recall several extinct Homo populations or species, including Neandertals and H. heidelbergensis (SN: 4/1/20). Those species date to a key period of Homo evolution called the Middle Pleistocene, which ran from about 789,000 to 130,000 years ago.
6-26-21 Scientists hail stunning 'Dragon Man' discovery
Chinese researchers have unveiled an ancient skull that could belong to a completely new species of human. The team has claimed it is our closest evolutionary relative among known species of ancient human, such as Neanderthals and Homo erectus. Nicknamed "Dragon Man", the specimen represents a human group that lived in East Asia at least 146,000 years ago. It was found at Harbin, north-east China, in 1933, but only came to the attention of scientists more recently. An analysis of the skull has been published in the journal The Innovation. One of the UK's leading experts in human evolution, Prof Chris Stringer from London's Natural History Museum, was a member of the research team. "In terms of fossils in the last million years, this is one of the most important yet discovered," he told BBC News. "What you have here is a separate branch of humanity that is not on its way to becoming Homo sapiens (our species), but represents a long-separate lineage which evolved in the region for several hundred thousand years and eventually went extinct." The researchers say the discovery has the potential to rewrite the story of human evolution. Their analysis suggests that it is more closely related to Homo sapiens than it is to Neanderthals. They have assigned the specimen to a new species: Homo longi, from the Chinese word "long", meaning dragon. "We found our long-lost sister lineage," said Xijun Ni, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Hebei GEO University in Shijiazhuang. He told BBC News: "I said 'oh my gosh!' I could not believe that it was so well preserved, you can see all the details. It is a really amazing find!" The skull is huge compared with the average skulls belonging to other human species, including our own. Its brain was comparable in size to those from our species. Dragon Man had large, almost square eye sockets, thick brow ridges, a wide mouth, and oversized teeth. Prof Qiang Ji, from Hebei GEO University, says it is one of the most complete early human skull fossils ever discovered.
6-25-21 'Dragon man' claimed as new species of ancient human but doubts remain
A large fossil skull discovered in China may belong to one of our mysterious long-lost relatives, the Denisovans, potentially offering us our first glimpse of a Denisovan face. It has, however, been placed in a new human species – Homo longi – a name that derives from a Chinese term meaning “dragon”, and that means the early hominin may become known informally as “dragon man”. Other researchers say the discovery is important and exciting, but think the decision to add a new species to our family tree is premature. The Harbin cranium was discovered in mysterious circumstances in Harbin City in the Heilongjiang province of China in the 1930s. The man who unearthed it reportedly hid it in a well, only revealing its location on his deathbed. It was recovered in 2018 and has now been analysed for the first time. “It’s a really amazing discovery. It is one of the most complete crania I have ever seen,” says Xijun Ni at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who was part of the team that studied the fossil. It is also the largest known Homo skull ever found. “This is the biggest human skull I’ve seen – and I’ve seen a few,” says Chris Stringer at the Natural History Museum, London, who was also a member of the team. The researchers estimate that the skull belonged to a man who was about 50 years old when he died, between 146,000 and 296,000 years ago. Its features are a mix of those seen in archaic and modern humans. It has thick brow ridges, for example, yet “the face looks so much like a bigger version of a modern human face”, says Stringer. Its brain size was similar to ours too. “It’s got such an interesting combination of features,” says Stringer. “The morphology shows that this is definitely a distinct lineage in eastern Asia. It’s not Neanderthal and it’s not Homo sapiens, it’s something quite distinctive,” says Stringer.
6-25-21 How do covid-19 vaccines affect your periods? Here's what we know
In February, Kate Clancy at the University of Illinois in the US, tweeted that she had got her period early and was bleeding heavily following her first dose of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine, and asked if others had a similar experience. Such was the response online that just 21 minutes later she had decided to set up a research survey to study the issue. Answers from that study will be forthcoming, but preliminary data from the UK shows Clancy is not alone in noticing changes in menstruation patterns after a covid-19 vac. Up to May 17, nearly 4000 reports of altered periods linked to covid-19 vaccination were made to the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). People reported delayed or heavier periods and unexpected bleeding. Which vaccines have been linked to period changes? In total, 2734 reports mentioned the AstraZeneca vaccine, 1158 were related to the Pfizer vaccine and 66 were linked to the Moderna vaccine, according to data seen by The Sunday Times. However, the MHRA says that the current evidence “does not suggest an increased risk of either menstrual disorders or unexpected vaginal bleeding following the vaccines.” What could be causing heavier periods? It could be part of the body’s normal immune response to vaccines. Obstetrician–gynaecologist Jen Gunter has suggested that immunisation could potentially lead to menstrual disturbance by causing inflammation of the endometrium – the uterine lining which is shed during a period. But she also suggests the link could be indirect or, even, not exist. Is it just coincidence? Given these are new vaccines, we should be open-minded about potential side effects, says Pat O’Brien at the UK Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists. “Having said that, many women at some point during their lives will go through a time where their periods become a bit unusual… and of course, many, many women are having a vaccine. It could be just chance, or it could be cause and effect, but we just don’t know at the moment.”
6-25-21 Inflatable implant injected into the spine could relieve chronic pain
A tiny, inflatable implant that can be injected into the spinal column could provide long-term relief from chronic pain. It works by emitting electrical charges that signal the brain to stop perceiving the pain. Spinal cord stimulation to control chronic pain in the body, arms or legs isn’t new, but its effectiveness has been hampered by practicality issues, says Damiano Barone at the University of Cambridge. In order for such devices to work well, they must have up to 32 electrodes that snuggle up to the spinal cord. That requires a relatively large implant, measuring about 12 millimetres wide, which requires complex surgery under general anaesthesia. It also carries risks, like spinal cord damage, and involves removal of part of the spinal column – factors that might outweigh the benefits of such an implant. Now, Barone and his colleagues have developed an inflatable device that would only necessitate minimal surgery under local anaesthesia. It is made of ultra-thin plastic and pure gold sheets, rolling up to a thickness of less than 2 millimetres– so small, it can fit inside a moderately-sized needle. It is designed to be injected into the epidural space – a region around the spinal cord that is targeted by anaesthesiologists for people in labour –then unroll and fill out when pumped up with a few millilitres of air, like a tiny camping mattress. It could be powered by an implanted battery and charged via induction, like wireless charging of a smartphone. The researchers tested their device using a water balloon to serve as an artificial epidural space. Then Barone, a neurosurgeon, practised injecting the device through a needle into the lower back of six human cadavers. It was easy to implant and rolled out fully, fitting itself over the spinal cord. The team estimates that the risks would be similar to those associated with epidural pain relief for people in labour, approximately a 1 in 100,000 risk of complications like a blood clot.
6-25-21 New type of ancient human discovered in Israel
Researchers working in Israel have identified a previously unknown type of ancient human that lived alongside our species more than 100,000 years ago. They believe the remains uncovered near the city of Ramla represent one of the "last survivors" of a very ancient human group. The finds consist of a partial skull and jaw from an individual who lived between 140,000 and 120,000 years ago. Details have been published in the journal Science. The team members think the individual descended from an earlier species that may have spread out of the region hundreds of thousands of years ago and given rise to Neanderthals in Europe and their equivalents in Asia. The scientists have named the newly discovered lineage the "Nesher Ramla Homo type". Dr Hila May of Tel Aviv University said the discovery reshaped the story of human evolution, particularly our picture of how the Neanderthals emerged. The general picture of Neanderthal evolution had in the past been linked closely with Europe. "It all started in Israel. We suggest that a local group was the source population," she told BBC News. "During interglacial periods, waves of humans, the Nesher Ramla people, migrated from the Middle East to Europe." The team thinks that early members of the Nesher Ramla Homo group were already present in the Near East some 400,000 years ago. The researchers have noticed resemblances between the new finds and ancient "pre-Neanderthal" groups in Europe. "This is the first time we could connect the dots between different specimens found in the Levant" said Dr Rachel Sarig, also from Tel Aviv University. "There are several human fossils from the caves of Qesem, Zuttiyeh and Tabun that date back to that time that we could not attribute to any specific known group of humans. But comparing their shapes to those of the newly uncovered specimen from Nesher Ramla justify their inclusion within the [new human] group." Dr May suggests that these humans were the ancestors of Neanderthals.
6-25-21 How a gecko named Mr. Frosty could help shed new light on skin cancer
The signature color and skin tumors of ‘Lemon Frost’ geckos come from the same genetic mutation. A gecko named Mr. Frosty and his kin have helped scientists uncover the genetic glitch that gives these lizards their standout color — and their high risk for skin tumors. The geckos are a variety of leopard gecko (Eublepharis macularius) called Lemon Frost, which sports stark white skin that not only highlights its yellow coloring, but also tends to develop tumors. A new study pegs these Lemon Frost traits to a single gene that has also been implicated in the skin cancer melanoma in people (SN: 3/1/19). These results suggest that Lemon Frost geckos could be used to investigate new treatments for skin cancer, researchers report online June 24 in PLOS Genetics. “It was extremely exciting that they could link the Lemon Frost characteristics to a specific region of the genome,” says Ylenia Chiari, an evolutionary biologist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who wasn’t involved in the work. “Studying a gecko is not only about the gecko’s health or about understanding basic biology, but could also provide key information to further research on other organisms, including humans.” Over the last few decades, reptile breeders have produced a wide variety of leopard geckos, ranging from vibrant orange to black or spotted to striped. “It’s just amazing that one particular species can display such a variety of different colors and patterns,” says Longhua Guo, a geneticist at UCLA. Curious about the genetics underlying this rainbow of reptiles, Guo first visited a gecko breeding facility in California in 2017. “It has shelves and shelves of cages, and you can hear crickets everywhere, because they feed these geckos crickets,” says Guo, who was immediately charmed by the colorful creatures. “They are very gentle and docile. You can hold them on your hand, and they just look at you with their big googly eyes, and their mouth always looks like they have on a big smile.”
6-25-21 Israeli fossil finds reveal a new hominid group, Nesher Ramla Homo
A previously unknown Stone Age population further complicates the human family tree. Excavations in an Israeli sinkhole have unveiled a previously unknown Stone Age hominid group that contributed to the evolution of the human genus, Homo. Inhabitants of a site called Nesher Ramla, who lived about 140,000 to 120,000 years ago, join Neandertals and Denisovans as a third Eurasian Homo population that culturally mingled with and possibly interbred with ancient Homo sapiens, researchers say. Hominid fossils previously excavated at three Israeli caves, which date to as early as around 420,000 years ago, probably also belong to the ancient population represented by the Nesher Ramla finds, says an international team led by paleoanthropologist Israel Hershkovitz. The researchers don’t assign a species name to what they call Nesher Ramla Homo. Genetic and cultural mixing of Eurasian Homo groups during the Middle Pleistocene period — which ran from about 789,000 to 130,000 years ago — occurred too frequently to enable the evolution of a distinct species in this case, the team says. Two studies in the June 25 Science, one led by Hershkovitz, of Tel Aviv University, and the other led by archaeologist Yossi Zaidner of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, describe the new finds.The fossils further complicate the human family tree, which has grown more complex in recent years with additions such as H. naledi from South Africa and the proposed H. luzonensis from the Philippines (SN: 9/10/15; SN: 4/10/19). “Nesher Ramla Homo was one of the last survivors of an ancient group of [hominids] that contributed to the evolution of European Neandertals and East Asian Homo populations,” Hershkovitz says.Work at Nesher Ramla uncovered five pieces of a braincase and a nearly complete lower jaw containing a molar tooth. These fossils in some ways resemble Neandertals and in others recall certain fossils often classified as Homo heidelbergensis, a pre-Neandertal species thought to have occupied parts of Africa, Europe and possibly East Asia starting around 700,000 years ago (SN: 5/15/19).
6-25-21 New type of ancient human discovered in Israel
Researchers working in Israel have identified a previously unknown type of ancient human that lived alongside our species more than 100,000 years ago. They believe the remains uncovered near the city of Ramla represent one of the "last survivors" of a very ancient human group. The finds consist of a partial skull and jaw from an individual who lived between 140,000 and 120,000 years ago. Details have been published in the journal Science. The team members think the individual descended from an earlier species that may have spread out of the region hundreds of thousands of years ago and given rise to Neanderthals in Europe and their equivalents in Asia. The scientists have named the newly discovered lineage the "Nesher Ramla Homo type". Dr Hila May of Tel Aviv University said the discovery reshaped the story of human evolution, particularly our picture of how the Neanderthals emerged. The general picture of Neanderthal evolution had in the past been linked closely with Europe. "It all started in Israel. We suggest that a local group was the source population," she told BBC News. "During interglacial periods, waves of humans, the Nesher Ramla people, migrated from the Middle East to Europe." The team thinks that early members of the Nesher Ramla Homo group were already present in the Near East some 400,000 years ago. The researchers have noticed resemblances between the new finds and ancient "pre-Neanderthal" groups in Europe. "This is the first time we could connect the dots between different specimens found in the Levant" said Dr Rachel Sarig, also from Tel Aviv University. "There are several human fossils from the caves of Qesem, Zuttiyeh and Tabun that date back to that time that we could not attribute to any specific known group of humans. But comparing their shapes to those of the newly uncovered specimen from Nesher Ramla justify their inclusion within the [new human] group." Dr May suggests that these humans were the ancestors of Neanderthals.
6-25-21 For some dinosaurs, the Arctic may have been a great place to raise a family
Fossil baby teeth and bones hint that some dinosaurs reared their young near the North Pole. Dinosaurs didn’t just summer in the high Arctic; they may have lived there year-round, new fossil evidence suggests. Hundreds of bones and teeth found along the Colville River in northern Alaska belonged to dinosaur hatchlings, researchers say. The remains, which fell from outcroppings of the Prince Creek Formation, represent seven dinosaur families including tyrannosaurs, duck-billed hadrosaurs and horned and frilled ceratopsids. “These are the northernmost [non-avian] dinosaurs that we know of,” says paleontologist Patrick Druckenmiller of the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks. And now it’s clear they’re not just migrating into polar latitudes, he says. “They’re actually nesting and laying and incubating eggs … practically at the North Pole.” Some of these dinosaurs incubated their eggs for up to six months, previous evidence suggests (SN: 1/23/17). That would have left little time for any dinos nesting in the Arctic to migrate south before winter set in, Druckenmiller and colleagues report online June 24 in Current Biology. And any offspring would have struggled to make the long journey. The Arctic was slightly warmer during the dinos’ lifetime than it is today. Between around 80 million and 60 million years ago, the region had an average annual temperature of about 6° Celsius — similar to that of modern-day Ottawa — fossilized plants from the Prince Creek Formation indicate. Still, overwintering dinosaurs would have endured months of darkness, cold temperatures and even snowfall, Druckenmiller says. They may have fought the cold with insulating feathers or some degree of warm-bloodedness (SN: 4/4/12); SN: 6/13/14), and the herbivores may have hibernated or eaten rotten vegetation when fresh food diminished in the dark months, Druckenmiller speculates. Finding these baby dino fossils unearthed more questions than answers, he admits. “We’ve opened a whole can of worms.”
6-24-21 Dinosaurs lived in the Arctic around 70 million years ago
We have been discovering dinosaur fossils in the Arctic for 70 years. However, most palaeontologists assumed that these came from dinosaurs that ventured north during summers and migrated south to avoid the harsh winters. Now, the discovery of infant dinosaur fossils suggests that some species might have thrived year-round in the frigid tundra. “We knew dinosaurs had been there, but we didn’t know if they could deal with the cold or even the darkness of winter,” says Patrick Druckenmiller at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. Although migration has long been assumed as the answer to this question, it has its problems. “In order to migrate from our field site [to below the Arctic circle], you’re looking at a minimum 3000-kilometre round trip on foot,” says Druckenmiller. He and his colleagues found an assemblage of hundreds of bones and teeth of between 1 and 2 millimetres long at a site in the Prince Creek Formation in northern Alaska. This included the remains of seven species of dinosaur that had either died within the egg or soon after hatching, suggesting that the dinosaurs weren’t visitors but year-round residents able to weather the dark night of the Arctic winter. The species were from eight families, including Ornithopoda, Hadrosauridae, Tyrannosauridae and Deinonychosauria. “There’s good evidence that these dinosaurs had incubation periods of over five months,” says Druckenmiller. He argues that if they laid their eggs in spring when most vegetation appears, their eggs would hatch with winter on the horizon. Migration at that time is something a newborn is unlikely to survive. The Prince Creek fossil site is the furthest north that dinosaurs have been confirmed to have lived. Accessing the site today involves landing a small aeroplane on a gravel bar along the creek and then assembling rafts to float through a series of sheer cliffs held together by permafrost. It is a frozen tundra now, but the climate was very different 70 million years ago. Petrified logs at the site suggest the area was at least partially forested then. “It’s all the more amazing that, thanks to plate tectonics, Alaska was actually 10 degrees farther north than it is today,” says Druckenmiller.
6-24-21 Newly identified ancestor of Neanderthals complicates the human story
A previously unknown group of ancient humans lived in what is now Israel for hundreds of thousands of years. They lived alongside modern humans for some of that time, and the two groups may have interacted and learned skills from each other. The newly discovered people were the ancestors of the Neanderthals, who later roamed Europe and western Asia, argues the team behind the work. If that is true, Neanderthals originated in western Asia, not in Europe as many researchers have previously suspected. The hominin remains were found at Nesher Ramla in Israel, in a quarry operated by a cement factory. Following its identification, the archaeological site within the quarry was briefly protected to allow excavations to proceed in 2010 and 2011, after which it was quarried. “The site itself is gone,” says Israel Hershkovitz at Tel Aviv University in Israel, a member of the team. Nesher Ramla was once a shallow depression in the landscape that gradually filled with sediment. “It was used by hominins for quite a long time, and it’s very rich in terms of archaeological material and very well preserved,” says Yossi Zaidner at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a member of the research team. The team found parts of the roof of a hominin skull and a near-complete jawbone. “We believe it’s of the same individual,” says Hila May, also at Tel Aviv University, another author of the work. It isn’t clear if they were male or female, because the most telltale bones are missing. “But we can say it’s a young adult based on the teeth,” says Rachel Sarig, a member of the team, also at Tel Aviv University. The sediments in which the bones were found are between 140,000 and 120,000 years old. Our species had emerged in Africa by this time, and made some forays outside: Homo sapiens specimens from 210,000 years ago have been found in Greece, and a seemingly more sustained population existed in the Israel region from at least 177,000 years ago. But H. sapiens wasn’t the only hominin: Europe and western Asia were home to the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis), while eastern Asia was home to a related group called the Denisovans.
6-24-21 Early dementia more likely to impact Black and Hispanic people in US
Black and Hispanic people in the US show symptoms of dementia that may be associated with Alzheimer’s disease earlier than their white counterparts. Sangeeta Gupta at Delaware State University analysed responses to a national survey in the US in which 179,852 people aged 45 and older self-reported symptoms including memory loss and confusion. These are early signs that someone could go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease. She found that Black and Hispanic people were more likely to report early symptoms of cognitive decline between the ages of 45 and 54, while white people were more likely to be over 65. This group of Black and Hispanic people was more likely to have less education, have lower annual household incomes and a lack of access to health care. Less than half of these individuals had discussed their symptoms with a health care provider. “Given the association of Alzheimer’s disease with dependence and disability for a long duration, the earlier the detection, the sooner people and their families can receive information regarding better management,” says Gupta. Adverse social circumstances along with chronic conditions, such as diabetes, seem to increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias among ethnic minority individuals while reducing their quality of life, says Gupta. Compared with the white cohort, those ethnic minority individuals with symptoms of cognitive decline reported that their symptoms were more likely to interfere with work, household chores and social activities. “Racial and ethnic minority populations continue to be underrepresented in health-related fields from all angles,” says Marcia Gómez at the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities in the US. “To address health disparities and truly level the field for all populations in society, more effort is needed to research and address how to be more responsive to these issues.”
6-24-21 The benefits of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines outweigh the risk of rare heart inflammation
A CDC group analyzed 636 reported post-vaccination cases of myocarditis. U.S. health officials will add a warning that the mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 could possibly cause rare cases of heart inflammation. The largest-yet review of cases found a higher-than-expected incidence of the side effect, particularly in teen and young adult males. But the risk of the easily treatable heart issue is low and outweighed by the benefits of vaccination, Sara Oliver of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said June 23 after a presentation of the risks and protections offered by the mRNA vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech. For instance, the data show that for every million second doses of vaccine given to boys ages 12 to 17, about 56 to 69 cases of heart inflammation are expected to arise. That makes them the group most at risk of the side effect. But the shots could shield the boys from 5,700 cases of COVID-19 and its complications, including 215 hospitalizations, 71 intensive care admissions and two deaths. Girls in that age group have a much lower risk — 8 to 10 instances per 1 million second doses — but vaccination could avert 8,500 cases of COVID-19, 183 hospitalizations, 38 ICU admissions and one death. Vaccination may also prevent long-term symptoms, and a hyper-inflammatory condition called MIS-C, which strikes an estimated 1 of every 3,200 children infected with SARS-CoV-2 (SN: 5/12/20). The decision to add a warning came after the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices discussed cases of two kinds of heart inflammation among young people shortly after they got vaccinated: myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle, and pericarditis, inflammation of the lining of the heart. The possible side effects were first noticed in Israel, but other countries, including the United States, have found cases of the heart problems, too.
6-24-21 How relocating musicians can reduce COVID-19 risk at concerts
Based on a study’s recommendations, the Utah Symphony rearranged where musicians sit. When the Utah Symphony performed this spring, its arrangements struck a new note. The percussion instruments, harp and piano had moved from the back of the stage to nearer the center. Trumpets, flutes and other woodwind and brass instruments relocated from the center to the fringes, closest to the onstage air vents. Along with opening as many doors and windows as possible, that setup can greatly reduce musicians’ risk of exposure to airborne diseases such as COVID-19, researchers report June 23 in Science Advances. Simulations of air dynamics in a concert hall show that these changes can reduce the accumulation of potentially infectious airborne particles by about 100 times — lowering concentrations from around 0.01–1 particle per liter of air across most of the stage to under 0.001 particles per liter. As performers return to stages, some activities pose unique challenges. Like singing, playing certain instruments can spew droplets from a musician’s breath (SN: 4/17/20). Potentially virus-laden droplets can linger in the air, spreading disease (SN: 5/18/21). While string players and percussionists may wear masks to reduce virus spread, brass and woodwind musicians are “manufacturers of respiratory droplets,” says Tony Saad, a chemical engineer at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Saad’s team relied on air flow modeling — based on past measurements of potentially infectious particles emitted by typical orchestra instruments — to determine how air moves across a stage and which adjustments would best protect an ensemble. But how do those changes make the music sound to an audience? Not unfamiliar, says coauthor James Sutherland, also a chemical engineer at the University of Utah. The change is more jarring for the conductor and musicians onstage.
6-23-21 Long covid: We have ignored post-viral syndromes for too long
IN JUNE last year, we first reported in detail on the “strange and debilitating” coronavirus symptoms that were crippling some people’s health for months after infection. Long covid, as we now know it, is indeed strange and mysterious in many ways, as we report on page 10. But it isn’t surprising. Post-viral syndromes, which often involve extreme, lasting fatigue and other symptoms, are common after many infections. About 1 in 10 people infected with SARS-CoV-2 seem to get lasting symptoms, a similar proportion to those infected with Epstein-Barr virus, one of the most common human viruses. The SARS virus, another coronavirus, left as many as 30 per cent of survivors meeting diagnostic criteria for chronic fatigue syndrome, also known as CFS/ME, four years later. Based on this knowledge, some doctors, scientists, and people who are already living with CFS/ME, have been warning of a tsunami of long-term debilitating symptoms at the hands of the new coronavirus since early in the pandemic. Sadly, governments and health systems have taken too long to pay attention. England now has 83 long covid clinics, which are indispensable for some patients, but there is a notable absence in the rest of the UK (see “Inside the UK’s first long covid clinic: ‘It was life-changing”). Clinics are unable to cope with the number of cases and waiting lists run long. This is especially problematic because early action – such as resting rather than taking on too much physical activity – could expedite recovery. Also notable is the absence of public health campaigns on long covid, to reach those who don’t know what is wrong with them or what to do about it. For now, there are no treatments, in part because we are decades behind where we could be due to a lack of interest and investment in researching post-viral syndromes and CFS/ME. This must change, and we now need a similar effort for treatments of long covid and other post-viral syndromes that we have seen in the race for a vaccine. In the meantime, people with long covid symptoms must be taken seriously, and given the financial and social support they need to allow them to get better.
6-23-21 Turning orchestras inside out could lower risk of spreading covid-19
What’s the answer to orchestras returning safely in an age of covid-19? Seating people who play instruments with the highest aerosol output in the right place and getting the air flow right, according to a US team that modelled how concert halls could minimise players’ risk of infection. “The performing arts have been hit really bad,” says one of the team, Tony Saad at the University of Utah. In the US alone, the fine and performing arts sector has lost an estimated $42.5 billion in sales. Globally, professional and community orchestras are still struggling to resume during the pandemic, due to challenges over social distancing and concerns over aerosols from wind instruments and singing. Simply having all players uniformly seated 2 metres apart isn’t the answer, the team found after working with Abravanel Hall and the Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City, Utah. “You could be 2 feet from someone and be perfectly safe, or 25 feet away and in a bad way,” says James Sutherland, also at the University of Utah. Sutherland and his colleagues took existing data on the volume and speed of aerosols emitted by different wind instruments as well as observations of the ventilation systems at the two venues to build a fluid dynamics model simulating how players’ emissions move around when an orchestra performs. Each venue was divided into millions of cells in the simulation of between 5 and 10 cubic centimetres in size. The results show that having doors open to remove aerosols is crucial. The other key way to minimise risk is a seating plan placing the instruments with the highest and fastest aerosol release – trumpets, oboes and clarinets – at the back of the stage, near the return vents in the venues’ ventilation systems. “It’s all about the air flow. That’s critical,” says Saad.
6-23-21 Inside the UK’s first long covid clinic: ‘It was life-changing’
BEFORE the pandemic, Ellen would usually be found working as a nurse, taking her children to school or riding her horse. Now, as one of the estimated 1.1 million people in the UK living with long covid, she is beset with debilitating headaches, the latest in a string of symptoms she has experienced since developing the condition in March last year. “It’s been a long, long road,” says Ellen, speaking to New Scientist during a visit to the UK’s first long covid clinic, at University College London Hospitals. Established by Melissa Heightman, a doctor at UCLH, it is now one of 83 such clinics across England (there are no clinics elsewhere in the UK) offering patients help from multidisciplinary teams. For Ellen (who didn’t want to give her surname), the clinic has been a lifeline. “I just couldn’t do anything,” she says. Since contracting the coronavirus in 2020, Ellen has experienced severe fatigue that at times confines her to bed and leaves her having to crawl to the bathroom. While some symptoms have got better, several have got progressively worse. “It’s quite an up and down illness,” she says. “I’ve never been so unwell.” Ellen is one of at least 120 people who will attend a long covid clinic here this week. Most visits involve blood tests and a couple of 30-minute sessions, one with a doctor and one with a therapist to discuss ways to manage symptoms. The clinic’s expertise ranges from respiratory medicine and cardiology to psychotherapy, physiotherapy and more. Toby Hillman, consultant long covid physician at the clinic, says the current focus is on empowering people and helping them manage their symptoms. “There is no magic cure for long covid at the moment,” he says. Ellen says that when she came to the clinic with so many widespread and hard-to-understand symptoms, she felt great relief in the fact that “they just totally understood”.
6-23-21 Covid-19 news: Lasting symptoms common in young adults, study finds
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Small study finds persistent symptoms after mild covid-19 infection in more than half of young adults. More than half of people aged 16 to 30 who had mild covid-19 were still experiencing symptoms 6 months later, a small study in Bergen, Norway has found. Bjørn Blomberg at the University of Bergen and colleagues followed up with a group of 312 people who had covid-19 during the first wave of Norway’s epidemic, including 247 people who isolated at home during their illness and 65 people who were hospitalised. They found that after 6 months, 61 per cent of all people had persistent symptoms, commonly referred to as “long covid”. Of the 61 people included in the study who were aged 16 to 30 and who had self-isolated at home during their illness, 52 per cent had persistent symptoms after 6 months. The study is published in the journal Nature Medicine. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) is calling for accelerated covid-19 vaccination in Europe as cases of the delta variant of coronavirus continue to rise. Modelling by the ECDC suggests that the delta variant could account for 90 per cent of all coronaviruses circulating in the European Union by the end of August. According to its most recent figures, 33.9 per cent of adults in the EU/EEA are fully vaccinated and 57.1 per cent have received at least one dose of a covid-19 vaccine. “Unfortunately, preliminary data shows that it [the delta variant] can also infect individuals that have received only one dose of the currently available vaccines,” said ECDC director, Andrea Ammon in a statement on 23 June. A study led by researchers at the University of Oxford will trial a drug commonly used to treat parasitic infections in people with covid-19, to investigate whether it reduces the risk of hospitalisation. The Principle study will compare people given the drug, called ivermectin, to those receiving usual care. The Australian government announced it plans to stop using the Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine by October, suggesting it will have sufficient supplies of other vaccines to meet its target of vaccinating the population by the end of the year.
6-23-21 Vouchers for kidney donors help family members get a transplant
A voucher scheme that rewards kidney donors in the US for their altruism by letting someone they know get a kidney in future seems to be working. Since it began in 2014, 250 people have donated a kidney under the scheme and six people in need of a kidney have used their voucher for a transplant. Most transplanted organs are taken from people who die, but many more people need an organ than there are organs available, as only a small fraction of people die in a way that permits donation. Some people who need a kidney can receive one from a living relative or friend, as most people can live with just one kidney. But the would-be donor may not be a suitable genetic match. Clinicians have set up exchange schemes for genetically matched pairs or chains, where one donor gives their kidney to the relative of another donor, but these rely on everyone donating at around roughly the same time. Often, someone might want to help a younger family member with kidney disease by donating, but by the time their family member needs the replacement organ, the donor would be too old. To solve that issue, Jeffrey Veale at the University of California, Los Angeles, began a scheme in 2014 that would allow such donors to donate to strangers and in return get a “family voucher”, which could be later used by named younger relative when they needed it. The vouchers are printed in physical form but cannot be transferred or sold. In 2019, the scheme was broadened so that the donor can name up to five recipients for the voucher and they don’t need to have kidney disease. That is to target people who are considering giving a kidney to a stranger but are put off by the possibility that a family member may later need a kidney, says Veale. “They can donate a kidney now and leave it as an inheritance that their family can utilise if needed in the future.”i
6-23-21 The gender pain gap has gone on for too long – it's time we closed it
IN 1807, a 77-year-old woman from Liverpool, UK, known as J. S, died after years of pain in her uterus. She had consulted several physicians, but none could explain the cause. A postmortem revealed extensive damage in her pelvic and abdominal organs. But the last physician she saw, John Rutter, wasn’t convinced that any of the findings in the report were severe enough to account for the degree of pain she had complained of. He concluded that her agony was exacerbated by her “nervousness”. J. S was given a posthumous diagnosis of hysteralgia, a term for uterine pain chosen for its associations with hysteria, that infamous historical label for inexplicable illness in women – particularly those who dared to speak up about their pain. J. S’s pain wasn’t taken seriously throughout her life because she was a woman. Today, many women and people assigned female at birth still have their reports of pain invalidated, discredited and minimised, especially when compared with those of men. This form of bias is called the gender pain gap, and it is rooted in stereotypes about pain that have been ingrained into medical discourse about female bodies and illnesses over centuries. Research into the gap and the biases that support it is far more recent. An increasing number of studies have shown how bias against women’s expressions of pain negatively affect diagnosis and treatment of their health conditions. A 2018 study analysing journal papers on sex, gender and pain published in the UK, US and Europe since 2001 revealed that terms like sensitive, malingering, complaining and, indeed, hysterical are applied more frequently to pain reports from women. When women’s physical pain is dismissed as exaggerated and imaginary, or misdiagnosed as psychological, their health and lives are measurably affected. Women in US emergency departments reportedly wait, on average, 16 minutes longer than men to receive medication after first reporting abdominal pain, and they are 7 per cent less likely to receive that treatment in the first place. UK studies show that misinterpretations of female pain as anxiety contribute to women being around 50 per cent more likely to be misdiagnosed after a heart attack. A 2020 survey of people with endometriosis, which takes an average of seven to nine years to be diagnosed, found that associations of gynaecological pain with mental ill-health contributed to delayed and missed diagnoses in 50 per cent of cases.
6-23-21 The surprising, ancient origins of TB, humanity's most deadly disease
New developments in a 10,000-year-old cold case have upended our ideas about how and when tuberculosis began infecting humans – and offered hope for a better vaccine. THIS was the coldest of cold cases. The remains of 83 people had lain under the earthen floor of a house in Dja’de el’Mughara, northern Syria, for thousands of years. Who put them there was no mystery: people living in the region during the Stone Age often buried their dead beneath their homes. But the cause of death – for some at least – was totally unexpected. When archaeologists carefully examined the bones, they discovered signs that five of these individuals had tuberculosis. They are the oldest confirmed cases that we know of. The discovery is significant. Finding evidence of TB in people who died some 10,000 years ago challenges a long-held idea about the origins of this, the most deadly infectious disease to afflict humanity. It is a key piece in the puzzle that researchers are trying to put together to reveal where and how TB started to sicken humans and how it spread around the world. That isn’t just academic. We need this information to find new ways to fight TB, which currently kills at least 1.7 million people every year. By looking closely at the Dja’de el’Mughara remains, and other very cold cases, we might finally be able to stop this indiscriminate killer. Tuberculosis is caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which generally infects the respiratory system and spreads from person to person via airborne droplets. From the 17th century until the 19th century, it caused 20 per cent of all deaths in the Western world. German microbiologist Robert Koch won a Nobel prize for his discovery of the pathogen in 1882. A vaccine – BCG – was invented a century ago, and is widely used. The disease has been treated with antibiotics and other drugs since the second world war. But BCG is ineffective in large parts of the world and drug resistance is rife. As a result, TB currently infects around a quarter of the world’s population, especially people living in sub-Saharan Africa, South-East Asia and eastern Europe. Only around 1 in 10 infections end in disease, but given the number of people who have the bacterium, that still means a huge impact on global health.
6-23-21 Long covid: Do I have it, how long will it last and can we treat it?
Long covid: Do I have it, how long will it last and can we treat it? MORE than a million people in the UK are living with long covid, according to the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS). And while global figures vary, it is thought that about 14 per cent of people who catch covid-19 end up with lasting symptoms – which is some 25 million people worldwide. This could be a big underestimate, though, because less than 10 per cent of infections are thought to be detected, so the true figure could be nearer 250 million. What is clear is that even after the pandemic is brought under control, millions of people will be left with lingering symptoms that prevent them from working and enjoying life. Here is what we know so far. While there is no universally agreed definition, long covid is often taken to include anyone with medical symptoms persisting for several weeks after an infection with the coronavirus. However, the term is being used quite widely. “It’s actually an umbrella term for a whole constellation of different problems,” says David Oliver, a doctor based in Reading, UK, who has been working with covid-19 patients throughout the pandemic. “There is so much variation in what people are considering long covid to be,” says Nisreen Alwan at the University of Southampton, UK, who has had long covid. According to a report published in March by the UK’s National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), of which Oliver was an author, people with long covid can be divided into four groups: those experiencing the after-effects of ventilation in intensive care; those with organ damage caused by the virus; those with post-viral fatigue syndrome; and a miscellaneous group that the authors call those with long-term covid syndrome. The first two groups are relatively familiar to doctors. People who are put on a ventilator for some time experience muscle wasting. After leaving intensive care, they can need months of rehabilitation, during which they gradually raise their exercise capacity.
6-23-21 How COVID-19 created a perfect storm for a deadly fungal infection in India
More than 31,000 cases of mucormycosis have been reported as of June 11. As India reels from a devastating second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new horror is plaguing people there. Some COVID-19 patients “go home only to come back to the hospital with a damaged nose, swollen cheeks and so on,” says SP Kalantri, a physician at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences in Sevagram, a small town in the state of Maharashtra. The cases aren’t unique to Kalantri’s hospital. Medical facilities across the country are seeing a surge in people who have recovered from COVID-19 and are now being preyed upon by a rare fungal infection called mucormycosis. The fungus can invade the nasal cavity and the sinuses and, in some cases, even reach the brain, turning the affected areas black. Colloquially dubbed black fungus, an infection can maim patients, and kills up to half of those who contract it, researchers reported June 4 in Emerging Infectious Diseases. Since April, mucormycosis infections have skyrocketed across India; more than 28,000 cases had been officially reported as of June 7. Of those, 86 percent were COVID-19 patients. Local media reports in India now estimate that as of June 11, cases had reached more than 31,000. At St. John’s Medical College Hospital in Bangalore, “in the pre-COVID period, we had approximately 30 patients per year” with the infection, says Sanjiv Lewin, chief of medical services. But in a recent two-week period, “we had a sudden surge of 63 patients.” People with COVID-19, especially those that end up in an intensive care unit, already are vulnerable to secondary infections. Other countries have reported a smattering of post–COVID-19 fungal infections, including Oman, which on June 15 reported its first mucormycosis infections in COVID-19 patients. “There have been some cases reported in the United States, but they have been very few,” says Stuart Levitz, an attending physician at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center in Worcester. However, no country matches the sheer number of black fungus cases being reported in India right now.
6-23-21 Harmful viruses and even friendly bacteria may cause premature ageing
Getting old is an inescapable fact of life, like wet British summers. But age may not be entirely due to processes in our body cells. Instead, our bodies may age in part because of the actions of microorganisms like bacteria, which interfere with our biology. “Are we older than we could be due to interactions with other species?” asks Eric Bapteste at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, France. He and his colleagues have reviewed information from published studies relating to ageing and argue that this is likely, because organisms that live on or in the bodies of animals – including humans – have incentives to interfere with the ageing process. He calls these organisms “age distorters”. Treatments that target these processes might help older people fight off infections, including covid-19. Ageing runs far deeper than wrinkled skin and greying hair. As we get older, our bodies gradually work less well. For instance, our brains struggle to learn new things as we age, and at the cellular level, our DNA becomes less stable. Ageing doesn’t seem to be simply a matter of inevitable wear and tear: to some extent, it is preprogrammed into our biology. There are several ideas about why this happens. For example, mutations that are only harmful later in life, after an organism has reproduced, might not be strongly selected against by evolution. Alternatively, some organisms may prioritise reproducing over living longer. All of this may be true, says Bapteste, but we should also consider the role of other organisms. “No organism lives alone and all organisms are in interaction with others,” he says. Viruses in our bodies are particularly likely to interfere with ageing, argues Bapteste. They must invade our cells to reproduce, which requires them to counteract the cells’ defensive mechanisms – and doing so can affect our ageing process because the genes that code for those mechanisms are often involved in ageing. “There is a mechanical overlap between defence mechanisms and ageing genes,” says Bapteste. “That makes it pretty obvious that viruses will interfere with those genes.”
6-22-21 Psoriasis drug could be used to help people stop drinking alcohol
A medicine for the flaky skin condition psoriasis could be used to treat alcohol dependence. People with alcohol use disorders (AUD) who took the drug significantly cut their alcohol intake, a small trial has found. AUD are generally treated using various forms of therapy and group counselling sessions such as those in Alcoholics Anonymous’s Twelve Steps programme. However, people often relapse. Recent studies have shown that people are more likely to drink too much if they have genetic variants causing higher levels of an enzyme called phosphodiesterase 4 (PDE4). Angela Ozburn at Oregon Health & Science University and her colleagues wondered if a psoriasis treatment called apremilast, which blocks this enzyme, could help reduce alcohol cravings. First, the team tested the drug in mice that had been bred to like and overconsume alcohol, and found that it lowered how much the rodents drank. Apremilast also had this effect when administered directly into part of the animals’ brains called the nucleus accumbens. In people, this brain region is thought to play a role in many kinds of addictions. Previous research has shown that a few people with severe alcoholism have been able to stop drinking after electrodes were implanted into their brains to electrically stimulate this area. Next, Ozburn’s team carried out a trial of apremilast involving 51 people with AUD. They had been drinking heavily for about 12 years and weren’t seeking treatment. People took a tablet twice a day of either the drug or a placebo. After 11 days, those who got the drug cut their daily drinking from an average of five standard alcoholic drinks – each of which contains around 14 grams of alcohol – to just over two. People in the placebo group reduced their intake by about half a drink. This was a large effect, says Ozburn. “We see a lot of harm reduction, even though we don’t see complete abstinence.”
6-22-21 Drinking coffee or decaf may help avoid chronic liver disease
People who drink coffee regularly have a reduced risk of developing chronic liver disease. The type of coffee doesn’t matter because caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee both seem to offer the same benefits. Oliver Kennedy at the University of Southampton in the UK and his colleagues analysed data from 384,818 coffee drinkers and 109,767 people who didn’t drink any coffee. These individuals were monitored over a median period of 10.7 years for conditions of the liver including chronic liver disease, chronic liver disease or steatosis (fatty liver disease), and death from chronic liver disease – of which there were 3600, 5439, and 301 cases, respectively. “Overall, coffee seems to be beneficial for most health outcomes. This is not just for chronic liver disease but also for other diseases, such as chronic kidney disease and some cancers,” says Kennedy. “Nobody knows exactly which compounds are responsible for the potential protective effect against chronic liver disease. However, our findings that all types of coffee are protective indicates that a combination of compounds may be at work.” The individuals who drank coffee consumed an average of two cups of decaffeinated, instant or ground coffee each day. They had a 21 per cent lower risk of developing chronic liver disease and a 20 per cent lower risk of developing chronic liver disease or steatosis than their non-coffee drinking counterparts. They were also 49 per cent less likely to die from chronic liver disease. “I think it’s necessary to establish how many cups of coffee is necessary to drink per day,” says Ludovico Abenavoli at the Magna Græcia University of Catanzaro in Italy. Rather than looking to real life populations, clinical trials could provide such answers, he says.
6-22-21 Study: Drinking coffee cuts risk of liver problems
Coffee drinkers, fill up that mug. A new study published on Monday in the journal BMC Public Health found that drinking up to three or four cups of coffee — caffeinated or decaffeinated — a day cuts the risk of developing and dying from chronic liver diseases, CNN reports. For the study, researchers followed 494,585 participants for nearly 12 years. They determined that coffee drinkers were 21 percent less likely to develop chronic liver disease, 20 percent less likely to develop chronic or fatty liver disease, and 49 percent less likely to die from chronic liver disease than those who do not drink coffee. The researchers found that the most benefit came from drinking ground (as opposed to instant) caffeinated or decaf coffee. Most coffee studies are based on 8-ounce cups of black coffee, CNN cautions. "Coffee is widely accessible, and the benefits we see from our study may mean it could offer a potential preventative treatment for chronic liver disease," study author Dr. Oliver Kennedy of Britain's University of Southampton said in a statement. "This would be especially valuable in countries with lower income and worse access to health care and where the burden of chronic liver disease is highest." The American Liver Foundation says that over the last two decades, the number of people diagnosed with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease has more than doubled, and the American Cancer Society found that between 1980 and 2021, the rate of liver cancer more than tripled with death rates doubled.
6-22-21 Selfish genes fight each other with DNA-destroying CRISPR systems
Bacteria host bits of DNA that can replicate and spread to other bacteria. Now, researchers have discovered that these “selfish genes” wage war on their rivals using DNA-destroying CRISPR systems. CRISPR has become famous as a way of editing genes, but in bacteria, CRISPR systems often act as an immune system, targeting and dismantling the DNA of invading viruses. Rafael Pinilla-Redondo at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and his colleagues have shown that some of the self-replicating bits of DNA in bacteria encode their own CRISPR systems, and that most of these target other, similar bits of DNA. The main genome of simple cells such as bacteria usually consists of a large circle of DNA containing thousands of genes. In addition, many bacteria harbour smaller circles of DNA called plasmids, which may contain only a few dozen genes. Plasmids can replicate separately from the main genome, so there can be many copies in a single cell. They are one type of what are known as mobile genetic elements, and they actively spread to other bacteria – including to other species. “They are independent or semi-independent genetic entities,” says Pinilla-Redondo. Plasmids often carry genes for traits that benefit their host cells, and thus themselves, such as antibiotic resistance. But they can also be parasitic, exploiting a host cell’s resources for their own benefit. Some plasmids also contain the CRISPR systems encoded in the main genomes of bacteria. Pinilla-Redondo and his colleagues have now done the first comprehensive study of the CRISPR systems encoded by plasmids, looking at more than 17,000 plasmid sequences available in databases. The team found that 3 per cent of these plasmids encode CRISPR systems, a relatively large proportion. But the big surprise was that rather than protecting against viruses, most of these CRISPR systems targeted other plasmids.
6-22-21 How farmers and scientists are engineering your food
"Flavour is a re-emerging trend, without a doubt," says Franco Fubini, founder of fruit and vegetable supplier Natoora. You might be surprised that flavour ever went out of fashion. But finding truly tasty fruit and vegetable varieties can be difficult, largely due to the requirements of supermarkets, he says. "They started demanding that varieties have a longer shelf life, so for example in the case of a tomato, it has a thicker skin, so the skins don't split more easily; a tomato that perhaps ripens faster, that can absorb more water. "So over time you breed your varieties for attributes other than flavour. The flavour attribute starts falling in importance, and as nature has it, if you breed for other traits you breed out flavour." Mr Fubini's company specialises in seasonal produce selected for flavour, and sells its produce to restaurants and high-end shops around the world. "Some of this rebirth comes from restaurants because chefs have quite a lot of influence," he says. "That and travel have both spurred on this rebirth of flavour, this search for flavour." Breeders and researchers are leading this search, using sophisticated techniques to produce fruit and vegetables that have all the flavour of traditional varieties - while still keeping the supermarkets happy. Prof Harry Klee of Florida University's horticultural sciences department is working to understand the chemical and genetic make-up of fruit and vegetable flavours - focusing on the tomato. "The tomato has been a long-term model system for fruit development. It has a short generation time, great genetic resources and [is] the most economically important fruit crop worldwide. "It was only the second plant species to get a complete genome sequence - a huge help in studying the genetics of an organism." Plant flavour is a complex phenomenon. In the case of a tomato, it stems from the interaction of sugars, acids and over a dozen volatile compounds derived from amino acids, fatty acids and carotenoids.
6-19-21 Troubled US teens left traumatised by tough love camps
As one of the most famous faces of the 2000s, people think they know the story of Paris Hilton. So, when the 40-year-old released a YouTube documentary about her life last year, many were shocked to learn about her decades-long struggle with trauma. Hilton tearfully recounted how she was woken up by strangers in her bedroom in the middle of the night as a teenager and forcibly taken across the country. She said her unanswered cries for help repeatedly play out in nightmares which make it difficult to sleep. Her story, though shocking, is not unique. Hilton is one of thousands of American children sent every year by their parents into a private network of "tough love" residential programmes and schools marketed at reforming their behaviour. No-one knows how many for sure, because nobody is keeping track. "My parents got me kidnapped and dropped off in the middle of the mountains," 21-year-old Daniel says in a TikTok video watched more than a million times. As a teenager, Daniel suffered anxiety and depression. He was 15 and had recently come out as gay when he self-harmed so severely that he required hospital care. It was in hospital that he was shaken awake in the middle of the night by two men. They told him the process could be easy or hard - depending on how much he resisted. With little fight left in him, Daniel went with the pair. But when he asked a stranger if he could use a telephone to call his parents on a brief stop for food, he says the escorts threatened him with handcuffs. Daniel was sent to a wilderness programme in Utah where he spent 77 days living outdoors, hiking miles a day on rations. He vividly remembers feeling cold, hungry and dirty for weeks on end and witnessing others attempt to run away and try to take their own lives. Like many others sent to wilderness programmes, he was then enrolled directly into a long-term facility - this time in Montana - where he would spend another 15 months.
6-18-21 Little evidence linking depression and long working hours, says WHO
Working excessive hours has long been thought to increase the risk of depression – but after conducting the largest ever review of research into this area, researchers say there is a surprising lack of evidence in support of the link. An analysis by the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Labour Organization (ILO) is now challenging previous research findings and general public opinion that working long hours can be a trigger for depression. The systematic review and meta-analysis drew from 22 studies with more than 100,000 participants (all predating the coronavirus pandemic), which had all found a link between working long hours and the onset of depression. The team concluded that these studies fell short of establishing overwork as a trigger. By contrast, another recent review by the WHO and ILO found strong evidence for a link between working 55-plus hours a week, and the risk of ischaemic heart disease or stroke. Frank Pega at the WHO says the same association couldn’t be found for the effect of long hours on depression, reflecting “major limitations” of the existing research. “Despite being relatively large in size, we found that this body of evidence still provides only inadequate evidence for harmfulness,” says Pega. “In other words, it is still not clear whether working long hours triggers depression or not.” Future studies could be improved with more robust, longer-term data collection and epidemiological analysis, including of at-risk populations, so as to better establish causation. Natural experiments looking at changes in working hours for occupations where long hours are standard, could also be promising, he says. The problems of work-related stress, depression and anxiety need addressing. For example, a recent UK labour force survey found that 18 million workdays were lost in 2019 as a result, and the coronavirus pandemic is likely to have exacerbated the issue.
6-18-21 Extinct Sicilian elephant lost 8000 kilograms as it evolved and shrank
An extinct species of dwarf elephant from Sicily halved in height and shrank by almost 85 per cent in body mass over a period of just 350,000 years after evolving from one of the largest land mammals that ever lived, researchers have found. Palaeoloxodon mnaidriensis, which became extinct around 19,000 years ago, lost more than 8000 kilograms in weight and almost 2 metres in height after diverging from the much larger straight-tusked elephant Palaeoloxodon antiquus, which was almost 4 metres tall and weighed 10,000 kilograms. An international team of researchers analysed molecular evidence from the remains of a dwarf elephant unearthed in Puntali cave in Sicily, Italy, to calculate the dwarfing rate of the species. The specimen is thought to be between 50,000 and 175,000 years old. The researchers examined a piece of petrous bone – part of the skull that holds the inner ear – which is known to preserve DNA better than other parts of the skeleton. They found that the dwarf elephant reduced in weight and height by up to 200 kilograms and 4 centimetres per generation, over a maximum period of about 352,000 years. To put this in context, the researchers say the size reduction of P. mnaidriensis is comparable to modern humans shrinking to approximately the size of a rhesus monkey. “The magnitude of dwarfing resulting from this rapid evolutionary process is truly striking, resulting in a loss of body mass of almost 85 per cent in one of the largest ever terrestrial mammals,” says team member Axel Barlow at Nottingham Trent University, UK. “As the descendants of giants, the extinct dwarf elephants are among the most intriguing examples of evolution on islands,” he says. P. antiquus lived on the European mainland between 40,000 and 800,000 years ago and is thought to have colonised Sicily some time between 70,000 and 200,000 years ago.
6-18-21 How one medical team is bringing COVID-19 vaccines to hard-to-reach Hispanic communities
Unidos Contra COVID totes shots, empathy and facts to Philadelphia’s Spanish-speaking residents. PHILADELPHIA — In a makeshift tent behind a soccer goal and close enough to a taco stand that the smell of grilling barbacoa and carnitas drifts over, Melissa Pluguez cheerfully asks a man, in Spanish, if he’s right- or left-handed. The man, wearing jeans and a red T-shirt with white letters that spell Abercrombie, answers right, and confesses he’s a bit afraid of needles. Even so, he’s been eager to get a COVID-19 vaccine, Pluguez translates, but hasn’t felt comfortable going to vaccination sites around Philadelphia. But when he heard about this vaccination event — staffed by local, Spanish-speaking medical professionals and held at his church congregation’s regular Sunday gathering — he felt ready. Pluguez is a nurse practitioner for critical care at Cooper University Health Care in Camden, N.J., and co-medical director of Unidos Contra COVID, the small group that organized this vaccine outreach event. She tells the man that the fear is worse than the needle, and he nods and looks away as she injects the Pfizer vaccine into his left arm. Afterward, he smiles, and the two bump elbows before the man leaves to pick up his vaccination card. There’s no free beer in sight, nor is anyone getting complimentary tickets to Phillies baseball games. Instead, roughly 300 people are clustered around soccer fields that border the church parking lot. The main event is a tournament, where professional-looking players in uniform square off as spectators cheer. On adjacent fields, children kick balls around or chase each other through the lines of people waiting to buy tacos or mango slices stuffed into plastic cups. Couples dance to upbeat music emanating from loudspeakers set up near Unidos Contra COVID’s tent. Inside, behind dark mesh netting partitions set up for privacy amid all that action, vaccines are being delivered into arm after arm.
6-18-21 Controlling nerve cells with light opened new ways to study the brain
A method called optogenetics offers insights into memory, perception and addiction. Some big scientific discoveries aren’t actually discovered. They are borrowed. That’s what happened when scientists enlisted proteins from an unlikely lender: green algae. Cells of the algal species Chlamydomonas reinhardtii are decorated with proteins that can sense light. That ability, first noticed in 2002, quickly caught the attention of brain scientists. A light-sensing protein promised the power to control neurons — the brain’s nerve cells — by providing a way to turn them on and off, in exactly the right place and time. Nerve cells genetically engineered to produce the algal proteins become light-controlled puppets. A flash of light could induce a quiet neuron to fire off signals or force an active neuron to fall silent. “This molecule is the light sensor that we needed,” says vision neuroscientist Zhuo-Hua Pan, who had been searching for a way to control vision cells in mice’s retinas. The method enabled by these loaner proteins is now called optogenetics, for its combination of light (opto) and genes. In less than two decades, optogenetics has led to big insights into how memories are stored, what creates perceptions and what goes wrong in the brain during depression and addiction. Using light to drive the activity of certain nerve cells, scientists have toyed with mouse hallucinations: Mice have seen lines that aren’t there and have remembered a room they had never been inside. Scientists have used optogenetics to make mice fight, mate and eat, and even given blind mice sight. In a big first, optogenetics recently restored aspects of a blind man’s vision. An early clue to the potential of optogenetics came around 1 a.m. on August 4, 2004. Neuroscientist Ed Boyden was in a lab at Stanford, checking on a dish of neurons that possessed a gene for one of the algal light sensors, called channelrhodopsin-2. Boyden was going to flash blue light on the cells and see if they fired signals. To his amazement, the very first cell he checked responded to the light with a burst of action, Boyden wrote in a 2011 account. The possibilities raised by that little spark of activity, described in a 2005 technical report by Boyden, Karl Deisseroth of Stanford University and colleagues, quickly became realities.
6-18-21 A 1000-year-old Indian temple had an early form of air conditioning
An Indian religious settlement built 1000 years ago had an early form of air conditioning created using natural resources and strategic design. The settlement contained Jain temples and dormitories, and was part of a small village called Artipura in what is now the southern state Karnataka in India, a region frequently affected by droughts both now and in the past. The predominant feature of the settlement was a large granite-skirted natural reservoir storing rainwater, around which temples and dormitories were strategically built. The entire settlement was situated on a hillock, where winds blew because of the elevation. Satyajit Ghosh at the Vellore Institute of Technology in India and his colleagues used satellite data to analyse wind patterns in the region and found that they blew from south-west to north-east, meaning they would have gusted over the reservoir before reaching the temple and dormitories. The team used satellite images of the settlement along with an AI based on a watershed algorithm to determine the boundaries and the depth of the ancient reservoir. They found that as the air moved over the reservoir, it would have increased evaporation, which can help reduce heat. These winds would also have cooled as they blew over the reservoir, creating an air conditioning effect. Temples at the site were made with granite and brick, and dormitories with limestone and brick; both types of walls had engineered air gaps. The researchers analysed the ancient bricks and found that although they were denser than modern ones, their use in this arrangement with air gaps reduced heat transmission. “The settlers planned their living according to what nature offered them,” says Ghosh. “A large body of water, staggered buildings oriented towards the water resource and use of indigenous building [materials] with ample ventilation decreased the heat load.”
6-18-21 Giant rhino fossils in China show new species was 'taller than giraffe'
A new species of the ancient giant rhino - among the largest mammals to walk on land - has been discovered in north-western China, researchers say. The Paraceratherium linxiaense, which lived some 26.5 million years ago, weighed 21 tonnes - the equivalent of four large African elephants. The hornless creature's head could also reach 23ft (7m) to graze treetops, making it taller than a giraffe. The new findings were concluded from fossils discovered in Gansu Province In a study published in Communications Biology journal on Thursday, scientists said that analysis of the fossils - found near the Wangjiachuan village in 2015 - pointed to an entirely new species that was different to other known giant rhinos. A completely preserved skull and jawbone, for example, indicated that the animal had featured a slender skull, as well as a prehensile nose trunk similar to that of the modern tapir, according to the study led by Dr Deng Tao of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing. The team of scientists also found that the new species was closely related to giant rhinos that once lived in Pakistan, which suggested that it had travelled across Central Asia. If it had roamed freely between north-west China and the Indian-Pakistani subcontinent, it would suggest that the Tibetan Plateau would have likely had some low-lying areas at the time. "Tropical conditions allowed the giant rhino to return northward to Central Asia, implying that the Tibetan region was still not uplifted as a high-elevation plateau," said Prof Deng in a news release.
6-17-21 Giant rhino unearthed in China was one of largest mammals ever to live
A new species of ancient giant rhino has been discovered in north-western China. Giant rhinos, also known as indricotheres, may be the largest mammals ever to walk on land – and the new species, named Paraceratherium linxiaense, was one of the largest of its kind, only marginally smaller than Dzungariotherium orgosense, which is generally considered to be the largest of all indricotheres. Tao Deng at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and his colleagues described P. linxiaense from a completely preserved skull and jawbone found in 26.5-million-year-old deposits in the Linxia Basin of Gansu Province, China, where they had been looking for mammal fossils since the 1980s. As with other indricotheres, P. linxiaense would have had a long neck to go with its slender skull and two cone-shaped upper first incisors. It is likely to have lived in areas of open woodland and eaten leaves high up in the trees like modern giraffes do. “The giant rhino has no horn and it looks like a horse more than a rhino,” says Deng. “Its head can reach a height of 7 metres to browse leaves of treetops.” The team estimates that P. linxiaense would have weighed about 21 tonnes, equivalent to the weight of four large African elephants. “These animals would have been bigger than any land mammal that’s alive today,” says Luke Holbrook at Rowan University in New Jersey. “The only thing that might be bigger than them are the biggest mammoths.” Since we can’t weigh these animals and have to rely on approximations from their fossils, we can’t know their actual body size. Indricotheres are thought to have lived mostly in Asia, from Mongolia to Pakistan, but a few remains have been found in eastern Europe.
6-17-21 Europeans used to open their relatives’ graves to recover heirlooms
In the Early Middle Ages, many European people reopened their relatives’ graves to recover family heirlooms. The practice had previously been interpreted as grave robbing, but closer examination has revealed patterns in the objects that were taken. Alison Klevnäs at Stockholm University in Sweden and her colleagues compiled data from dozens of cemeteries dotted across Europe, from Britain and France in the west to Transylvania in the east. All of the graves dated from between AD 500 and 800. Many of the graves had been reopened and objects removed, as evidenced by leftover traces such as metal flakes from a sword, but the most valuable items were not consistently taken. For example, at one site in Kent, brooches were removed from the corpse’s clothing, but silver gilt pendants and a necklace with glass beads were left behind. “They’re absolutely not trying to maximise profit from each reopening,” says Klevnäs. Instead, it seems the items removed were ones that had been passed down through generations, such as swords and brooches. Items that were personal to the individual, such as knives, were left in the graves – this is consistent with historical attitudes to such items. “They go back into those from living memory, so it’s something about connection to the relatively recent dead,” says Klevnäs. A small fraction of the graves show evidence of being disturbed for a more sinister reason. “There are a few graves spread over the whole area where it looks like people are doing things to the bodies that suggest they are afraid of the undead,” says Klevnäs. “For example they turned the skulls around and prop it into place with stones backwards, or they might cut off feet.” But these graves account for less than 1 per cent of the total, she says. The idea that corpses would be buried and then left entirely undisturbed is far from universal, says Klevnäs. Late Stone Age graves were designed to enable people to revisit the bodies. “We know there are these extended mortuary customs,” says Klevnäs. Today, many cultures have customs or festivals in which people interact with relatives’ remains.
6-17-21 Insight into early embryos could explain why some pregnancies fail
Scientists have identified key molecular events in the earliest stages of human embryo development that could help shed light on why many pregnancies fail. These events occur in the second week of gestation – between seven and 14 days after fertilisation – in one of the most critical processes of development. During this period, the embryo acquires a head end and a tail end, the first step in the formation of the overall body pattern in humans. Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz at the University of Cambridge and her team have found that this process is initiated by a group of cells outside the embryo, in a tissue known as the hypoblast. They say that the findings could help us understand more about why early pregnancy loss occurs. “Our goal has always been to enable insights to very early human embryo development in a dish, to understand how our lives start,” says Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz. “By combining our new technology with advanced sequencing methods, we have delved deeper into the key changes that take place at this incredible stage of human development, when so many pregnancies unfortunately fail.” At present, very little is known about the development of the human embryo once it implants in the uterus, due to ethical restrictions on the use of human embryos in research. In 2016, Zernicka-Goetz and her team developed a technique to culture human embryos outside the body, allowing them to be studied up to day 14 of development, in line with UK ethical guidance. As part of the new study, the team collaborated with colleagues at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the UK to find out what happens at the molecular level during this early stage of human embryo development. They found that the hypoblast sends a message to the embryo that kick-starts the development of the head-to-tail body axis, where one end becomes committed to developing into the head end, and the other the tail.
6-17-21 Risk of covid-19 infection plummets 21 days after a vaccination
The chance of getting covid-19 after being vaccinated drops sharply 21 days following a first dose, new analysis suggests. People who become infected post-vaccination are also less likely to have symptoms than those who test positive for the virus and have not been jabbed. The findings, released by the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS), are based on a sample of adults who had received a coronavirus vaccine up to 31 May. They suggest the risk of infection initially increases following a first dose, peaking at around 16 days. There is then a strong decrease in risk up to around one month after the first dose, and the risk then declines slowly but steadily. Rates of infection post-vaccination are likely to be very low, however. Out of a sample of 297,493 people vaccinated, 0.5 per cent were subsequently found to have a new infection of covid-19. Among those who received the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, 0.8 per cent later became infected, compared with 0.3 per cent of those who received the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. From a sample of 210,918 adults who had received both doses of vaccine, just 0.1 per cent were subsequently found to have a new infection. Possible explanations for infection shortly after getting the vaccine include someone catching covid-19 before they had received a jab, or exposure to covid-19 at a vaccination centre, the ONS said. The analysis comes as separate figures suggest cases of covid-19 are rising exponentially across England, driven by younger and mostly unvaccinated age groups. Data from nearly 110,000 swab tests carried out across England between 20 May and 7 June suggest covid-19 infections are doubling every 11 days, with the highest prevalence in north-west England and one in 670 people infected.
6-16-21 We must all learn more about the algorithms that shape our daily lives
IT IS hard to go a single day without hearing about the two huge crises that humanity is grappling with right now, the covid-19 pandemic and the climate emergency. In both cases, science and technology have been crucial in identifying the problems and their possible solutions. Those two issues might seem like quite enough to be going on with, but we shouldn’t take our eyes off another troublesome area in which the role of science is vital: the rise of algorithms. We might hear less about them, but algorithms are just as hard to avoid as talk of the pandemic. Constantly operating in the background of our digital lives, they do a huge variety of jobs, suggesting what we should read, watch and buy online. They are also increasingly used to help us make tricky decisions offline. The trouble with this is that the workings of algorithms, especially those based on artificial intelligence, are often impossible to fully understand. We outsource all kinds of decisions to computers, yet can’t easily see how these were made. One instance came last year, when Ofqual, the regulator of exams in England, had tough decisions to make about assigning grades to pupils who had their exams cancelled due to the pandemic. It decided to ask teachers for their assessments of pupils’ performances and then moderate these using an algorithm. The hope was to avoid wild grade inflation. The result, however, was that many students ended up with drastically worse results than they had expected, with – initially, at least – little explanation. Maybe it is time to admit that we need a healthier relationship with algorithms, one where we understand the basics of how they work. A good first step would be to get to know a few of the algorithms that really matter in our daily lives, which is why we decided to do just that.
6-16-21 The essential guide to the algorithms that run your lifU
From shaping what we read and buy to diagnosing illness, algorithms play a key role in every aspect of our lives. Here’s what you need to know about the most important ones. IT IS almost impossible to go a day without interacting with an algorithm. They help direct the whole of our online experience, recommending what we should buy, read, watch and listen to. Some 74 per cent of adults in the US use Facebook at least once a day – and what they see is decided entirely by an algorithm. Offline, they are increasingly used to help us make tricky decisions, screening job applications, moderating exam results and even directing which crimes police investigators focus on. As they have become ubiquitous, algorithms have generated a mixture of hype and concern. On the one hand, we are regularly told that they can be opaque and biased. On the other, we hear that they can be incredibly handy, pulling off tasks that humans can struggle with, from optimising complex trade logistics to spotting the earliest signs of disease in medical scans. So what’s the truth about algorithms? It helps to understand that the word can mean quite different things (see “What is an algorithm?“). It also helps to get to know some of the algorithms that shape our lives – so that’s what we’ll do over the next few pages. Few algorithms wield as much power as those under the bonnet of Facebook. The social media giant’s algorithms control which updates its 2.8 billion monthly users see from which friends and what headlines they read on their news feed. When we speak of the “Facebook algorithm”, we’e actually referring to dozens of pieces of software that are based on a range of technologies and are constantly being tweaked. This software analyses what the firm calls the “inventory”: the collection of posts from those people, pages or groups that a user follows. It then uses neural networks, a form of artificial intelligence, to score those posts on various factors. As far back as 2014, Facebook employees reported that the news feed was taking 100,000 factors into account. Eventually, it combines these scores into a single ranking for each post. This is used to curate what a user sees.
6-16-21 You can catch covid-19 twice, but the second bout is likely to be mild
BACK in August 2020, a worrying report came in from Reno, Nevada. A 25-year-old man who had recovered from covid-19 in April had fallen ill with it again, and this time his symptoms were worse. He had tested negative for the virus in between bouts, so had been infected twice. Other reports of reinfection were also circulating at the time, raising fears that infections don’t lead to long-lasting immunity. Nine months on, however, those fears have receded. Not only is vaccination proving highly effective, a number of large studies in Europe and the US have now shown that while reinfection is possible, it is rare and usually produces mild disease at worst. One such study was carried out over four months in 100 care homes for older people in England. Between June and November 2020, Maria Krutikov at University College London and her colleagues took blood samples from 682 residents and 1429 staff and tested them for antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. Over the next four months, all the subjects were regularly screened for infection using PCR tests. Initial blood tests found that 634 of the total 2111 people were antibody positive, meaning they had already been infected. Only 14 of them subsequently had a positive PCR test – a reinfection rate of just over 2 per cent. In comparison, 204 of the 1477 (14 per cent) people whose blood test came back antibody negative subsequently caught the virus. Data from residents and staff who had been vaccinated more than 12 days before their samples were taken were excluded from the analysis (The Lancet Healthy Longevity, doi.org/gkc8dr). Eleven of the 12 reinfected people for whom symptoms were recorded had symptoms such as a cough or fever, but none required hospitalisation. The researchers warn that the numbers are quite small, so it is hard to draw firm conclusions, but it seems that previous infection reduces the risk of reinfection by about 70 per cent. This is in line with another study of healthcare workers in England, also carried out between June and November 2020.
6-16-21 We are witnessing an accelerated shift in how people view food
IN OUR information-saturated digital age, where we can pick and choose our own narrative about how the world works, I have often wondered if this has an impact on the rate of cultural change. As an ethnobotanist trained to study our cultural attitude towards plants and their uses, I have been witnessing with total fascination what seems to be a rapid shift in how plants are viewed in received nutritional wisdom. I wonder if this may be a sign of things to come. I first noticed the trend about 15 years ago with the emergence of the “paleo” diet movement. This largely repackaged ideas from the ultra-low carbohydrate diets that came before it, but underpinned them with a “return to nature” narrative. According to the paleo school of thought, in order to be truly healthy, we need to eat as our hunter-gatherer ancestors did, ditching as many carbohydrates as possible. This meant a diet based predominantly on meat, with a few low-carbohydrate vegetables like leaves, stems and flowers. Pretty much all fruit, however, was off limits due to its sugar content. Many questionable justifications have been used to support this. For instance, in our deep Palaeolithic past, fruit was available, but highly seasonal. So, the argument went that, while consuming restricted amounts in a short window in the summer was fine, today’s hyperabundance and year-round availability was the root cause of chronic diseases. It might be easy to dismiss these ideas as only belonging to a particularly devoted set of niche dieters. However, such thinking quickly started popping up in different guises in the mainstream and even, albeit in a diluted form, as government health advice in some places. What is interesting about the paleo diet idea to a botanist is that it assumes all early humans lived in the world’s temperate zones where fruit is seasonal, as (perhaps unsurprisingly) do the creators of these diets. It is almost like humans aren’t a species that evolved in the tropics at all. This Western-centric focus is often extended to the idea that you should specifically avoid “tropical” fruits as they are higher in sugar.
6-16-21 Calories on food packets are wrong – it's time to change that
A CALORIE is a calorie, so they say. It shouldn’t matter whether it comes from steak, a carrot or a doughnut. Except that it does. And those calorie counts on food packets? Well, they aren’t much to be trusted either. A food calorie is defined as the amount of energy it takes to raise the temperature of 1 litre of water by 1°C at sea level. Somewhat confusingly, this is 1000 times larger than a heat calorie, so is technically called a Calorie, with a big “c”, to make the distinction. In other words, a Calorie is a kilocalorie, or kcal for short. Much of what we know about food calories comes from work in the late 1880s by Wilbur Atwater at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, who spent his career trying to figure out what proportion of different foods humans could digest. To measure the calories in food, Atwater set up an experiment using a “bomb calorimeter”– a highly pressurised sealed container that is filled with pure oxygen for burning food to a crisp. The heat given off during this is used to calculate the food’s calorie content, which is also known as its heat of combustion. Humans, however, aren’t bomb calorimeters. The acidic cauldron of the stomach aside, digestion is a time-consuming, but actually relatively benign, series of chemical reactions. Thus, we are only able to extract a proportion of the calories in any given food. In Atwater’s experiment, he fed various foods to human volunteers and measured the heat of combustion of the resulting faeces (reflect on this the next time you want to complain about your job). By calculating the difference in the heat of combustion between the food and the faeces, he approximated the calories that were absorbed by his volunteers. In 1900, after a whole lot of burnt poop, Atwater presented his calculations to the world: we absorb 9 kcal per gram of fat, 4 kcal per gram of carbohydrates and 4 kcal per gram of protein. More than 120 years on, these “Atwater factors” are still the basis for how calorie counts on all food packaging are derived.
6-16-21 Rising BMI and diabetes have stalled the decline of heart disease
Efforts to reduce the number of heart attacks and strokes are being stalled by weight gain and increasing diabetes prevalence, analysis of Scottish health data suggests. Between 1990 and 2014, the rate of heart attacks and strokes plummeted, driven by decreases in blood pressure, cholesterol levels and smoking rates, the research found. But progress in further reducing cardiovascular disease has been hampered by increasing body mass index (BMI) and diabetes prevalence over the same period. Heart disease and strokes are the two leading causes of death globally. The number of heart attacks in Scotland fell from 1069 per 100,000 people in 1990 to 276 per 100,000 people in 2014. Ischaemic strokes, which are caused by a blood clot in the brain, fell from 608 per 100,000 people to 188 per 100,000 people over the same period. The study found that 74 per cent of this fall in heart attacks and 68 per cent of the reduction in strokes could be accounted for by changes in risk factor prevalence. However, average BMI increased from 27.2 to 28.1 and the prevalence of diabetes more than doubled, from 4 per cent to 9 per cent of the population. This was estimated to have led to a 20 per cent rise in heart attacks and a 15 per cent increase in ischaemic strokes attributable to these two risk factors. The increased diabetes prevalence contributed to nearly as many heart attacks as the number prevented by the decline in smoking, the researchers estimate. But while the team could be confident that changes in risk factors had an impact on the incidence of heart attacks and strokes, they viewed each risk factor in isolation in their analysis, which means that their estimated impact is likely to be exaggerated. Researchers say the picture is similar across the UK, with data suggesting that the number of people who are obese and the number of people with diabetes has increased over the past couple of decades.
6-16-21 3200-year-old shrine in Turkey may be an ancient view of the cosmos
A shrine built more than 3000 years ago in what is now Turkey may be a symbolic representation of the cosmos, according to a new interpretation. It has now been suggested that the elite of the Hittite society, an empire that dominated what is now Turkey between 1700 and 1100 BC until it was destroyed, created the Yazilikaya shrine to embody their ideas about how the universe was organised. Yazilikaya contains many images in rock relief, and the researchers behind the new interpretation argue that these have symbolic meanings relating to the underworld, earth and sky, as well as to cycles of nature like the seasons. “There are many connotations with the names of the deities and the arrangements and groups, and so in retrospect it’s pretty easy to figure it out,” says Eberhard Zangger, president of Luwian Studies, an international non-profit foundation. “But we worked on it for seven years.” “They may be onto something,” says Ian Rutherford at the University of Reading in the UK. “I’m not convinced of all the details, but very interested in the whole thing.” Yazilikaya is an open-air shrine and was one of the most important sites of the Hittite Empire. The remains of the Hittite capital ?attuša can be found near the modern village of Bogazkale in central Turkey. Yazilikaya is within walking distance of the ancient capital. At Yazilikaya, the Hittites carved and modified natural rock outcrops to create two roofless spaces, decorated with rock relief images of their deities. They used the site for centuries; its present form dates from about 1230 BC. It isn’t clear why the Hittites built Yazilikaya or what they used it for. Many ideas have been proposed – for instance, that one of the spaces was used in new year ceremonies, and that the other was a mausoleum for a Hittite king.
6-16-21 A California tech millionaire is weeks away from selling helmets that can read your mind
"Over the next few weeks, a company called Kernel will begin sending dozens of customers across the U.S. a $50,000 helmet that can, crudely speaking, read their mind," Ashlee Vance writes at Bloomberg Businessweek. The company's founder, Bryan Johnson, spent more than five years and $55 million of his own fortune — Johnson started the electronic payment system Braintree and bought Venmo before selling both to Ebay for $800 million — to develop his helmets. Johnson hopes they will be inexpensive enough by 2030 that regular people can buy them, like smartwatches and other wearable tech, but the first batch will go to research institutions like Harvard Medical School, the University of Texas, and Cybin Inc, a startup developing mental health treatments based on psychedelics. Christof Koch, the chief scientist at Seattle's Allen Institute for Brain Science calls Kernel's helmets "revolutionary," Vance writes, and Johnson plans to prove him right. Kernel has created two helmets, the Flux and the Flow, that use an array of sensors and lasers to study a brain's electromagnetic activity and blood oxygenation levels, respectively. The idea was to shrink the giant brain-scanning devices in hospitals down to wearable size, and researchers are excited to measure the brain's activity as subjects move about and perform tasks. They hope to study brain aging, Alzheimer's, concussions, strokes, "and the mechanics behind previously metaphysical experiences such as meditation and psychedelic trips," Vance writes. Johnson is thinking even bigger. "To make progress on all the fronts that we need to as a society, we have to bring the brain online," Johnson says. "We are the first generation in the history of Homo sapiens who could look out over our lifetimes and imagine evolving into an entirely novel form of conscious existence," he adds. "The things I am doing can create a bridge for humans to use where our technology will become part of our self." Read more about the Kernel helmets and their unusual progenitor at Bloomberg Businessweek.
6-16-21 The biggest flaw in human decision-making – and how to fix it
Behavioural scientists Daniel Kahneman and Olivier Sibony explain why “noise” in professional judgements harms everything from criminal justice to medical treatments. IF YOU have ever jumped to the wrong conclusion, made a terrible mistake thanks to your inbuilt biases or been subtly nudged back to your senses, then you are (a) human and (b) already on personal terms with the work of Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony and Cass Sunstein. Thanks to their academic and popular writing, the world is now very familiar with what are collectively called “cognitive biases” – systematic errors in human thinking – and ways to correct them. Sunstein co-wrote the highly influential book Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness with Richard Thaler, while Kahneman popularised the work that won him the Nobel prize in economics in 2002 with his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Sibony is the author of You’re About to Make a Terrible Mistake: How biases distort decision-making and what you can do to fight them. You may think that, in no small part thanks to their efforts, the swamp of human fallibility has been well and truly drained by now. But that would be yet another mistake. Kahneman, Sibony and Sunstein say there is an even more important source of warped decision-making. The three have banded together in a behavioural science supergroup to draw attention to what they call “noise” – persistent inconsistencies in professional judgements that lead to bad outcomes in all walks of life. Kahneman and Sibony spoke to New Scientist about the group’s new book Noise: A flaw in human judgment (Little, Brown Spark in the UK; William Collins in the US). Sunstein was due to join the conversation, but was called away at the last minute by his new boss, US president Joe Biden.
6-16-21 Many cosmetics contain hidden, potentially dangerous ‘forever chemicals’
Scientists found signs of long-lasting PFAS compounds in about half of tested makeup products. A new chemical analysis has revealed an ugly truth about beauty products: Many may contain highly persistent, potentially harmful “forever chemicals” called PFAS. PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, include thousands of chemicals that are so sturdy they can linger in the body for years and the environment for centuries. The health effects of only a few PFAS are well known, but those compounds have been linked to high cholesterol, thyroid diseases and other problems. “There is no known good PFAS,” says chemist and physicist Graham Peaslee of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. In the first large screening of cosmetics for PFAS in the United States and Canada, Peaslee and colleagues found that 52 percent of over 200 tested products had high fluorine concentrations, suggesting the presence of PFAS, the researchers report online June 15 in Environmental Science & Technology Letters. The potential health risks of PFAS in makeup are not yet clear, Peaslee says. But besides people ingesting or absorbing PFAS when wearing makeup, cosmetics washed down the drain could get into drinking water (SN: 11/25/18). Peaslee’s team measured the amount of fluorine, a key component of PFAS, in 231 cosmetics. Sixty-three percent of foundations, 55 percent of lip products and 82 percent of waterproof mascara contained high levels of fluorine — at least 0.384 micrograms of fluorine per square centimeter of product spread on a piece of paper. Long-lasting or waterproof products were especially likely to contain lots of fluorine. That makes sense, since PFAS are water-resistant. Twenty-nine products further tested for specific PFAS all contained at least four of these chemicals, but only one product listed PFAS among its ingredients. In addition to posing their own potential health risks, these compounds can break down in the body into other PFAS, such as perfluorooctanoic acid, which has been linked to cancers and low birth weights (SN: 6/4/19).
6-16-21 Antiviral drug shown to save lives of covid-19 patients in hospital
People who get seriously ill from covid-19 could be offered a new lifeline with the first antiviral drug shown to save lives in patients admitted to hospital, researchers have said. The drug, a combination of two antibodies developed by Regeneron, reduced the risk of death when given to people with severe covid-19 who hadn’t mounted a natural antibody response of their own. The chances of these patients needing to be put on a ventilator were also reduced, as was the duration of their hospital stay. In the Recovery trial between 18 September 2020 and 22 May 2021, 9785 patients admitted to hospital with covid-19 in the UK were randomly allocated to receive the usual care plus the antibody combination treatment, or usual care alone. Of these, about one-third were seronegative, meaning they had no natural antibody response of their own, and half were seropositive, meaning they had already developed natural antibodies against the virus. For one-sixth of those involved in the study, their antibody status was unknown. Among patients who received usual care alone, mortality within 28 days of being admitted to the trial was 30 per cent in those without an antibody response, compared with 15 per cent in those who were seropositive at the start of the study. For patients who had no antibody response, the treatment reduced the chance of them dying within 28 days by a fifth, compared with usual care alone. For every 100 such patients treated with the antibody combination, there would be six fewer deaths, researchers say. “This is in some ways a first,” said Martin Landray at the University of Oxford, joint chief investigator of the study. “This is an antiviral treatment that is used later on – because these patients are severe, they’ve gone into hospital – and has a demonstrated clear impact on survival, and on those other outcomes.
6-16-21 Moral judgments about an activity’s COVID-19 risk can lead people astray
People see activities they condone as less risky for catching coronavirus, even if they’re not. What do you think was riskier during the pre-vaccine days of the pandemic: having your lonely parents over for dinner or going to a beach filled with dozens of strangers? Or how about going to the doctor for a prescription refill versus playing baseball at a nearby park? When it comes to catching COVID-19, outdoor activities, in general, are safer than indoor activities (SN: 8/15/20). But if you chose the beach or baseball as riskier, you are not alone. Two new studies show that people consider activities that they think are immoral or unreasonable as riskier — even when they’re not. “Our moral judgments change our factual judgments about the world,” says philosopher of science Cailin O’Connor of the University of California, Irvine. Accounting for moral and other biases in public health messaging is vital to combatting the spread of infectious disease, she says. It’s well-established that people rely on emotions and beliefs to make decisions (SN: 5/14/20). These mental shortcuts, or heuristics, tend to take precedence during periods of uncertainty, as the right decision can be far from clear. O’Connor became interested in studying the link between bias and risk perception after pictures of Floridians flocking to the beach caused an outcry in spring of 2020. “Why was the beach such a target of public judgment?” O’Connor wondered. She and colleagues devised hypothetical scenarios in which people were exposed to the same risk of infection with the coronavirus but had various reasons for violating social distancing guidelines. For instance, a character named Joe gets trapped in an elevator with five neighbors for 25 minutes. In one scenario, Joe is a cocaine user going out to pay his dealer, while in another he is going to help an elderly neighbor fix her broken air conditioner on a hot day.
6-14-21 How the next generation of mRNA vaccines could help tackle cancer
Exciting developments in mRNA vaccines, treatments for long covid and the safe use of artificial intelligence are just some of the topics you can learn about at New Scientist’s one-day event exploring the future of healthcare. At the start of last year, few people had heard of messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. Now, Pfizer is on track to produce 3 billion doses of its mRNA covid-19 vaccine in 2021, and plans to make enough to treat the world’s entire 7.7 billion population by the end of 2022. Scientists are already working on the next generation of vaccines which take advantage of this new technology. At New Scientist’s Future of Healthcare online event on Saturday 26 June, immunologist Anna Blakney will reveal how self-amplifying RNA (saRNA) vaccines will attack the new variants and slash the cost per dose, how influenza and yellow fever vaccines will get the mRNA makeover, and how promising RNA-personalised cancer vaccines could train your immune system to attack cancerous cells. Blakney’s talk is just one of 15 fascinating talks at the Future of Healthcare online event. As you’d expect, covid-19 features prominently, with public health specialist Nisreen Alwan of the University of Southampton explaining how long covid is “the pandemic after the pandemic”, and England’s chief scientific officer Sue Hill touching on how the UK has undertaken almost 50 per cent of the genomic sequencing of covid-19 worldwide. Scientists at the Wellcome Sanger Institute will demonstrate what it takes to sequence tens of thousands of covid-19 samples, and Tara Donnelly, chief digital officer of the technology arm of the NHS, will reveal how the NHS’s response to the pandemic has been driven by new digital tools. Globally the number of people living with dementia will increase from 50 million in 2018 to 152 million in 2050, according to the World Health Organization. The syndrome has a devastating impact on the economy as well as on families. Alzheimer’s Research UK says delaying the onset of dementia by five years would save £21.2 billion each year by 2050. Early diagnosis is crucial. Consultant neurologist Dennis Chan of University College will explain how existing memory and pen-and-paper tests to diagnose dementia are hopelessly outdated. His research group is exploring whether virtual reality, machine learning and wearable technologies can diagnose the onset of the neurological diseases causing dementia, decades before problematic symptoms appear.
6-15-21 Science with Sam: What is awe?
Being awestruck can bring a host of benefits from lowering stress to boosting creativity. But what exactly is awe, and how do we get more of it in our lives? Being awestruck can bring a host of benefits from lowering stress and boosting creativity to making us nicer people. But what exactly is awe, and how do we get more of it in our lives? Whether it’s looking at the night sky, listening to a breathtaking piece of music, or watching mind-blowing science videos on YouTube, it’s easier than you think to feel awe every day. Want to be more awesome? Like and subscribe to our channel for more mind-blowing science videos. Being awestruck can bring a host of benefits from boosting creativity to lowering stress, to making us nicer people. But what exactly is awe? And how do we get more of it in our lives? You don’t have to go into space to feel the power of awe. Have you ever been stopped in your tracks by a stunning view, or gobsmacked by the vastness of the world around us? Psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt define awe as the feeling we get when we’re confronted with something vast, that transcends our frame of reference and that we struggle to understand. It’s an emotion that combines amazement with an edge of fear, and it can dissolve our very sense of self. Throughout history, powerful leaders have exploited awe to exert control, using grand buildings, monuments and stories to make their subjects feel inconsequential. Think about the pyramids of Egypt, the Inca Temples of Peru, or even Trump Tower. And although awe has often been linked to spiritual or religious experiences, atheists can feel it too. If you stand in front of a dinosaur skeleton, a cathedral, or an amazing natural view or artwork, you’re quite likely to experience something like Jim Lovell did when he looked at Earth from above. By expanding our attention to see a big picture, awe can make us feel very small. Literally.
6-15-21 Dogs that detect seizures may be sniffing out the scent of human fear
Dogs that can predict when their owners are going to have an epileptic seizure may be recognising the “smell of fear”. A small study suggests that a compound in sweat recognised by seizure alert dogs may be the same as one released when people watch scary movies, in this case Stephen King’s It. Some animals communicate by releasing hormones that can be smelled, called pheromones, including ones that warn of danger, but it is unclear if human pheromones exist. Some small studies have hinted that we may change our behaviours based on the scent of others – for instance, dental students perform significantly worse when treating mannequins wearing T-shirts from people who were stressed compared with those from people who were calm. Edward Maa, a neurologist at Denver Health Medical Center in Colorado, came across the idea of fear pheromones because of his work with a charity that trains dogs for people with epilepsy, called Canine Assistants. The dogs are trained to press a speed-dial button on a phone if their owner has a seizure while at home. But many also learn to recognise if their owner is going to have a seizure up to an hour in advance. It is thought that dogs may be able to predict a seizure by smelling a change in the person’s sweat, triggered by brain changes that eventually develop into a seizure. In the new study, Maa and his colleagues used four assistance dogs that had been taught to touch the trainer’s left hand if they smell a scent indicating an imminent seizure, and their right hand if that scent is absent. The animals were given 90 pads to sniff containing a variety of sweat samples. These included sweat taken while people watched the film It, exercise sweat and samples taken from someone with epilepsy during a seizure and when seizures were absent.
6-15-21 An ancient creature thought to be a teeny dinosaur turns out to be a lizard
Weird, hummingbird-sized O. khaungraae has puzzled scientists since its discovery. A tiny creature caught in amber 99 million years ago isn’t the smallest dinosaur ever found. It is actually a lizard — albeit a really bizarre one, researchers report June 14 in Current Biology. Over the last year, scientists have puzzled over the nature of the strange, hummingbird-sized Oculudentavis khaungraae, a fossil found in amber deposits in northwestern Myanmar. The fossil consists of only a birdlike, rounded skull with a slender tapering snout and a large number of teeth in its mouth, along with a lizardlike eye socket, deep and conical. The birdlike features led one team of scientists to identify the fossil as a miniature dinosaur — the smallest ever found (SN: 3/11/20). But other scientists weren’t so sure. Another analysis of O. khaungraae’s strange assemblage of features suggested it looked rather more like a weird lizard. Now, a third team of scientists reports the discovery of a second amber fossil that so closely resembles O. khangraae as to belong to the same genus. And the new specimen, dubbed O. naga, includes parts of the lower body that clearly reveal the members of genus Oculudentavis to be lizards, say paleontologist Arnau Bolet of the Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont in Barcelona and colleagues. The researchers used CT scans to examine both specimens. Oculudentavis’ lizardlike features include scales, teeth attached to its jawbone directly rather than in sockets (as dinosaur teeth were) and a particular skull bone unique to squamates, or scaled reptiles. Still, the creatures were markedly different from all other known lizards in their unusual combination of features, such as the rounded skulls and long tapering snouts, the researchers say — probably representing a previously unknown group of lizards.
6-14-21 Delta variant doubles risk of covid-19 hospitalisations, study shows
The lifting of the final covid-19 restrictions in England, scheduled for 21 June, has been delayed by four weeks to head off the risk of a new wave of covid-19 caused by the delta variant. The postponement will buy time to vaccinate more people. According to the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), computer models of lifting restrictions project a “large resurgence” in cases and hospital admissions, which could be “considerably” larger than previous waves. After falling for months, the number of new cases of covid-19 is rising again in all four nations of the UK. Scotland is worst affected, with England second. The rise is fuelled by the delta variant, which is believed to be about 60 per cent more transmissible than the previously dominant alpha variant (formerly known as B.1.1.7) and is now the cause of almost 90 per cent of new cases in the UK. The good news, according to Jim McMenamin, Public Health Scotland’s national covid-19 incident director, is that vaccines are still very effective. Figures from Public Health England show that double vaccination is 80.8 per cent effective against symptomatic disease caused by the delta variant, but single vaccination is much less effective, only providing 33.2 per cent protection. Equivalent figures for the alpha variant are 88.4 per cent and 50.2 per cent. “We need to get these second doses out there,” says McMenamin. The data set doesn’t distinguish between the different vaccines. As of 12 June, only 45 per cent of the population of England was fully vaccinated and a further 17 per cent had had their first shot. That leaves 38 per cent totally unvaccinated. Other findings from Scotland suggest that for unvaccinated people, the delta variant approximately doubles the risk of hospitalisation compared with the alpha variant. However, it isn’t yet known what effect the delta variant is having on deaths. “We just don’t have enough information on that yet,” says Chris Robertson at the University of Strathclyde, UK, part of the Public Health Scotland team that analysed data from 99 per cent of the country’s population of 5.4 million. About 1.9 million of them are unvaccinated.
6-14-21 The Delta variant is producing different COVID-19 symptoms than usual, researchers say
The COVID-19 strain fueling infections across the U.K. is linked to a different set of symptoms, including headache, sore throat, and runny nose, BBC reported on Monday. The Delta variant, which was first found in India, now accounts for 90 percent of U.K. cases. Professor Tim Spector, leader of the Zoe COVID Symptom Study, said top symptoms since the start of May are "not the same as they were" previously. Instead of the traditional cough, fever, and loss of taste and smell, infected individuals are now complaining of headache, sore throat, and runny nose, with fever and cough coming in fourth and fifth, respectively. Loss of smell doesn't even make the top 10, The Guardian writes. Spector added that the Delta variant seems to be working "slightly differently," and that possible COVID-19 infection could feel "just like a bad cold or some funny 'off' feeling." As the new strain is reportedly more contagious and more likely to lead to hospitalizations, Spector urged the two-thirds of the U.K. still vulnerable to symptomatic infection — likely younger adults waiting for vaccines — to stay home and get tested should they feel sick, per the Guardian. The Delta variant now accounts for about 10 percent of cases in the U.S., The New York Times reports. The good news, however, is that data suggests "if you've been fully vaccinated, you remain protected, that the vaccines hold up." Read more at The New York Times and The Guardian.
6-14-21 Headache and runny nose linked to Delta variant
A headache, sore throat and runny nose are now the most commonly reported symptoms linked to Covid infection in the UK, researchers say. Prof Tim Spector, who runs the Zoe Covid Symptom study, says catching the Delta variant can feel "more like a bad cold" for younger people. But although they may not feel very ill, they could be contagious and put others at risk. Anyone who thinks they may have Covid should take a test. The classic Covid symptoms people should look out for, the NHS says, are: cough, fever, loss of smell or taste. But Prof Spector says these are now less common, based on the data the Zoe team has been receiving from thousands of people who have logged their symptoms on an app. "Since the start of May, we have been looking at the top symptoms in the app users - and they are not the same as they were," he says. The change appears linked to the rise in the Delta variant, first identified in India and now accounting for 90% of Covid cases in the UK. Fever remains quite common but loss of smell no longer appears in the top 10 symptoms, Prof Spector says. "This variant seems to be working slightly differently," he says. "People might think they've just got some sort of seasonal cold and they still go out to parties and they might spread around to six other people. "We think this is fuelling a lot of the problem. "The message here is that if you are young, you are going to get milder symptoms anyway. "It might just feel like a bad cold or some funny 'off' feeling - but do stay at home and do get a test." Similarly, the Imperial College London React study of more than a million people in England - when the Alpha or UK variant was dominant - found a wide range of additional symptoms linked to Covid. Chills, loss of appetite, headache and muscle aches were together most strongly linked with being infected, alongside classic symptoms.
6-11-21 Awake review: What would happen if nobody could sleep?
In the dystopian sci-fi movie Awake, everyone on Earth suddenly loses the ability to sleep, plunging the world into hysteria. As scientists race to find a cure, ex-soldier Jill Adams (Gina Rodriguez) discovers that her young daughter Matilda (Ariana Greenblatt) might just possess the means to save mankind. Awake’s compelling premise is enough to make the opening of the film enjoyable. Director Mark Raso slowly cranks up the tension – there are some unsettling set pieces, and the film doesn’t waste time trying to explain the phenomenon. Instead, the slow reveal of information does enough to keep you hooked. Unfortunately, though, Awake soon goes off the rails. Raso is constantly trying to create the same mindset of those who are unable to sleep in the viewers, but it just makes things increasingly confusing. It also doesn’t help that, by only following Jill’s relationship with Matilda and her son Noah (Lucius Hoyos), Awake is too contained. We learn very little about what’s going on across the world, so when symptoms suddenly escalate and humanity descends into anarchy, it has very little impact. But what would actually happen if you suddenly couldn’t sleep? Alastair McLean at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, who specialises in sleep deprivation, says its biggest impact is on interpersonal interactions, as people quickly become quite irritable. “In terms of performance, one of the most obvious things that happens are microsleeps,” says McLean, in which people fall asleep for up to 30 seconds and can’t remember what happened. “They can occur after 24 hours.” There is also cognitive slowing, which sees people taking longer to make decisions, and cognitive rigidity, in which individuals can only think about things in one fixed way. Loss of motivation, paranoia, memory and balance issues, mood changes and visual problems can also occur, while some people experience hallucinations and even speech difficulties.
6-11-21 Here’s what you should know about COVID-19 vaccine booster shots
Researchers are working on questions of immunity and how to deal with viral variants. Roughly six months ago, on December 11, the Food and Drug Administration authorized the first COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use in the United States. What followed was a push to get that shot, developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, to those at high risk (SN: 12/1/20). Moderna’s jab wasn’t far behind, securing emergency use authorization just a week after Pfizer’s (SN: 12/17/20; SN: 12/11/20). And then in February 2021, there were three COVID-19 vaccines when the FDA authorized Johnson & Johnson’s shot (SN: 2/27/21). Now, around 40 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. Just over half of residents have gotten at least one dose. Meanwhile, U.S. cases of COVID-19 and deaths have plunged to their lowest levels since March 2020. Amid the ongoing effort to vaccinate people, two big questions loom: Will immune protection against the coronavirus be long-lived? Or will people soon need booster shots? Right now, “no one knows” if boosters will be necessary, says Kirsten Lyke, a vaccinologist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. But researchers are working on figuring that out. Here’s what we know so far about coronavirus immunity and potential booster shots. Whether people need COVID-19 booster shots or not largely hinges on how long the body’s immune response protects against getting severely ill. So far, this protection lasts at least six months and possibly much longer, researchers say. Much of what scientists know right now about long-term immunity comes from what they have gleaned from people infected with the coronavirus. And it appears that immune memory to the virus largely follows the rules, at least for most people, says Ali Ellebedy, an immunologist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
6-11-21 Many female animals are evolving to look more attractive to mates
Sexual selection, a mechanism of evolution that can drive the appearance of bright feathers and elaborate horns, is often assumed to operate largely among males. But a fresh analysis of the data suggests it is more widespread among females than many researchers expected. It was Charles Darwin who originally suggested that sexual selection is at work in animals. He emphasised that males often compete against other males for females to mate with – which he argued could help explain why, for instance, some male birds have developed brightly coloured plumage even though this makes them a more obvious target for predators. More recently, biologists have begun to realise that sexual selection operates widely among females too – although Tim Janicke at the Centre for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology in France and his colleagues say it is still assumed to be a rare peculiarity. Now, Janicke and his colleagues have collected evidence of female-orientated sexual selection in 72 species across the animal kingdom from scientific literature published between 2015 to 2020. They say the analysis suggests that competition for mates occurs frequently in females and should be considered the norm rather than a rarity. The researchers used statistical analysis to measure the strength of sexual selection in females across those 72 species. They found that females, just as is widely assumed for males, typically benefit from having more than one mating partner. “We believe that our view of how we see sex differences in general, and also sexual selection in particular, is still very biased towards males,” says Janicke. The analysis shows evidence of female sexual selection in a broad range of animals. “We have [sexual selection] in nearly all vertebrate groups, like fish, amphibians, birds and reptiles, but then also invertebrates, like snails and flatworms,” says Janicke.
6-10-21 Your ears give off alcohol and a test can reveal how much you've drunk
Forget blowing into a breathalyser – a new drink-driving test could involve putting on a pair of ear defenders. Koji Toma at Tokyo Medical and Dental University in Japan and his colleagues have created a device that captures alcohol given off by the skin of a person’s ears. It can measure the amount of alcohol in their blood and whether they are over a legal limit. Breathalyser tests for alcohol used by many police forces require blowing steadily into a device for several seconds, and some people can’t manage this, or claim they can’t. A skin-based test solved both issues. “They can’t cheat through their skin,” says Toma. Toma and his team had previously investigated measuring blood alcohol using the skin of the palm, but they wondered if the ears would be better, as they have a large surface area, the skin is thin and has few sweat glands, too many of which make the results too variable. “If the signal is not stable we can’t estimate the concentration properly,” says Toma. The researchers modified a pair of ear defenders so a stream of air could be blown into and out of them. Three men wore the device over their ears for 140 minutes while they had an alcoholic drink, and also took regular breathalyser tests. The air leaving the device was sent to an ethanol vapour sensor. The team found that the earmuff readings showed a similar rise and fall in alcohol levels as the breathalyser, but with a 13-minute delay. If someone wore the device for a one-off reading, such as if they were suspected of drink-driving, they would need to have the ear defenders on for 30 seconds, says Toma. Long hair would need to be pushed out of the way. The team is now developing the idea for other medical uses where a continuous read-out of blood levels of biochemicals would be helpful, such as measuring a compound called acetone, which indicates how much fat is burned during exercise.
6-10-21 Cells cram DNA into the nucleus in two distinct ways
Some chromosomes look like crumpled balls while others resemble flat sheets of paper, heat maps show. There are only so many ways to cram DNA into a cell’s nucleus, a study suggests. A cell’s complete genetic blueprint, or genome, is densely packed into chromosomes, condensing meters of DNA into a minuscule cellular vessel only micrometers wide (SN: 8/24/15). But how chromosomes fold to fit inside the nuclei of diverse species is unclear. There appear to be two methods to stuff all of that DNA in, researchers report in the May 28 Science. Cells can even flip-flop which arrangement they have by inactivating a molecule called condensin II, the team found. If chromosomes were pieces of paper, some, like those of humans, would look like a crumpled ball inside the nucleus, says Claire Hoencamp, a molecular biologist at the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam (SN: 10/8/09). Others, like those of fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster), resemble flat sheets of stacked paper. In the new study, Hoencamp and colleagues created heat maps that analyzed how chromosomes in the nuclei of 24 animal, plant and fungal species interacted inside their respective cells. The maps show the average number of connections among chromosomes in a cell’s nucleus — revealing how the genetic molecules fold — “on the scale from white to red,” says Olga Dudchenko, a genomicist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “The more red, the more interactions. The less red, the less interactions.” Throughout evolutionary history, organisms across the tree of life have switched among different packing methods, the researchers found. “We worked with a zoo of species, and [at first] it looked like a zoo of patterns of genome folding,” Dudchenko says. “Some maps would look like a checkerboard pattern. Other ones would look like a mattress with weird x’s.” Over time, it became clear that many of the same chromosome folding features were popping up again and again in different species.
6-10-21 'Miraculous' mosquito hack cuts dengue by 77%
Dengue fever cases have been cut by 77% in a "groundbreaking" trial that manipulates the mosquitoes that spread it, say scientists. They used mosquitoes infected with "miraculous" bacteria that reduce the insect's ability to spread dengue. The trial took place in Yogyakarta city, Indonesia, and is being expanded in the hope of eradicating the virus. The World Mosquito Programme team says it could be a solution to a virus that has gone around the world. Few people had heard of dengue 50 years ago, but it has been a relentless slow-burning pandemic and cases have increased dramatically. In 1970, only nine countries had faced severe dengue outbreaks, now there are up to 400 million infections a year. Dengue is commonly known as "break-bone fever" because it causes severe pain in muscles and bones and explosive outbreaks can overwhelm hospitals. The trial used mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia bacteria. One of the researchers, Dr Katie Anders, describes them as "naturally miraculous". Wolbachia doesn't harm the mosquito, but it camps out in the same parts of its body that the dengue virus needs to get into. The bacteria compete for resources and make it much harder for dengue virus to replicate, so the mosquito is less likely to cause an infection when it bites again. The trial used five million mosquito eggs infected with Wolbachia. Eggs were placed in buckets of water in the city every two weeks and the process of building up an infected population of mosquitoes took nine months. Yogyakarta was split into 24 zones and the mosquitoes were released only in half of them. The results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed a 77% reduction in cases and an 86% reduction in people needing hospital care when the insects were released. "It's very exciting, it's better than we could have hoped for to be honest," Dr Anders told the BBC.
6-10-21 New clues suggest people reached the Americas around 30,000 years ago
Ancient bones from a Mexican rock-shelter point to humans arriving earlier than often assumed. Humans may have inhabited what’s now southern Mexico surprisingly early, between 33,448 and 28,279 years ago, researchers say. If so, those people arrived more than 10,000 years before folks often tagged as the first Americans (SN: 7/11/18). Other preliminary evidence puts humans in central Mexico as early as around 33,000 years ago (SN: 7/22/20). The latest evidence comes from animal bones that biological anthropologist and archaeologist Andrew Somerville and two Mexican colleagues found stored in a Mexico City lab. The bones had been excavated in the 1960s at a rock-shelter called Coxcatlan Cave. Radiocarbon analyses of six rabbit bones from the site’s deepest sediment yielded unexpectedly old ages, the researchers report online May 19 in Latin American Antiquity. That sediment also contained chipped and sharp-edged stones regarded as tools by the site’s lead excavator. Higher sediment layers yielded clearer examples of stone tools and other remnants of human activity dating to nearly 9,900 years ago. Somerville, of Iowa State University in Ames, initially suspected that rabbit bones from the deepest sediment were perhaps around 12,000 years old. But analyses revealed they were much older, hinting humans were living in the cave roughly 30,000 years ago. Somerville will next determine whether other animal bones from the ancient sediment display butchery marks, breaks where marrow was removed or burned patches from cooking. He also wants to locate and study possible stone tools from that same sediment that may be stored in the same lab. Based on additional radiocarbon dates and comparisons with stone-tool finds from other Mexican sites, Somerville suspects that a separate occupation of Coxcatlan Cave occurred between 13,500 and 9,900 years ago. Regional food and water sources may have dwindled when the last Ice Age peaked between 26,000 and 19,000 years ago, causing the earliest settlers to leave and delaying further occupations until conditions improved, Somerville speculates.
6-10-21 Robotic chemist may be able to recreate Earth’s primordial soup
Recreating the mix of compounds and experimental conditions that interacted over billions of years to create life on Earth is impossible in the lab. But an autonomous robot can shorten the time it takes to test each possible mixture, which could help reveal the precise combination that let proteins, DNA and enzymes emerge from the prebiotic soup on early Earth. Lee Cronin at the University of Glasgow, UK, and his colleagues built a robotic chemist that can mix simple molecules together, watch them react, analyse the result and then decide what to add to the reaction. Over several weeks, this robot can start to recreate a prebiotic soup scenario with almost no input from human chemists, he says. “We wanted to remove the bias from the experiments and cover as much chemical space as possible to look for the spark of life,” says Cronin. The set-up includes a tangle of tubes connecting 18 flasks of different starting materials to a central reaction vessel containing a range of clean, dry minerals such as quartz, ulexite and pyrite. The starting materials are all small molecules with no biological or catalytic function, including simple acids, organics, reducing agents and some inorganic molecules like copper sulphate. The robot chooses two or three of these reagents to suck into the reaction vessel, where the mixture is stirred and heated for an hour, then allowed to settle. It analyses the sample, and a portion is taken away for storage and human analysis later. A small amount of the brew is left as a seed mixture, and the robot then adds a fresh batch of reagents, and the process repeats. The team ran the robot for up to 150 of these cycles over many days. The robot’s decisions on whether to let a reaction continue or to introduce a molecule into the brew are based on readings from a mass spectrometer, which reveals the size of the different molecules within the mixture.
6-9-21 Laughing gas has shown potential as a treatment for depression
Nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, has shown promise as a treatment for depression. When people inhaled a low dose as part of a small study, their depression improved over the next two weeks. It has long been known that nitrous oxide can give a short boost to mood as well as relieving pain – hence its original name of laughing gas – but the effect is thought to wear off quickly. Nitrous oxide is one of the most common anaesthetics, used by hospitals, dental surgeries and paramedics, as well as being available illegally in small capsules for recreational use. The gas seems to chiefly affect the brain by blocking molecules on nerve cells called N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors. This is the same thing targeted by the stronger anaesthetic ketamine, which also relieves depression; a similar chemical to ketamine has recently been approved as a new intranasal spray treatment. It isn’t known how NMDA receptors change mood. But as the antidepressant effects of ketamine started to emerge, Peter Nagele, then an anaesthetist at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, Missouri, wondered if nitrous oxide had similar potential. In 2014, he and his colleagues found that one hour’s inhalation of nitrous oxide reduced symptoms for up to a day in people with depression who hadn’t improved after trying standard antidepressant medicines, but the study didn’t record whether the effect lasted any longer. Prolonged nitrous oxide use can can lead to nausea and headaches. So, in the latest study, Nagele’s team looked at 24 people with treatment-resistant depression and gave them half-dose nitrous oxide, a full dose or a placebo mixture of air and oxygen. They were given one treatment a month for three months. After two weeks, depression symptoms for those with the half-dose treatment had reduced by an average of five points on a commonly used depression rating scale, compared with those who had the placebo, which is a significant benefit. After the full-dose treatment, depression symptoms reduced a little more, although the difference was so small that it could have arisen by chance. The half-dose group also had a much lower incidence of side effects, such as nausea, headaches and light-headedness.
6-9-21 Removing junk food from our diets will be no easy task
ALMOST every month, a new piece of research emerges linking diets high in processed “junk” foods with obesity and poor health. It isn’t yet clear if the relationship is causal, and if so, what the mechanisms behind it may be. But insights are starting to emerge from trials that compare diets that are based on either ultra-processed foods or wholefoods, yet are carefully matched for nutrients in all other ways. The links need investigating as a matter of urgency. If these processed foods really do carry intrinsic health risks, it could mean that official advice about healthy eating has been aiming at the wrong target for decades. In almost all high-income countries, nutrition guidelines say the key to healthy eating is avoiding too much fat, salt and sugar. While many types of processed food contain significant amounts of these frowned-on ingredients, not all do, and there are wholefoods that are also high in some of them. Red meat and some dairy products come with their share of fat, for instance. It is still unclear if it is better to switch to “healthier” low-fat versions of processed foods, or to cook from scratch, whatever the ingredients. Equally murky is what actions governments should be taking. Some campaigners are now calling for higher taxes on factory-made foods. That would be controversial, however, because these foods constitute up to 60 per cent of people’s diets in countries such as the UK and US. Additionally, any price hikes are likely to hit lower-income households hardest, many of which consume more of such products because processed foods can be cheaper than making meals from their original ingredients, and the cost difference is even greater if you take into account the time taken to cook from scratch. Rather than taxation, a non-punitive approach may be for schools to give higher priority to teaching pupils how to make quick and simple home-cooked meals. This approach would take many years to bear fruit, but the encroachment of processed food into Western cuisine took place over decades. It isn’t going to be reversed overnight.
6-9-21 Solving mysteries of reproduction helped make parenthood possible for millions
A variety of assisted reproductive technologies have become almost routine. In the beginning, no one really understood how babies were made. Thinkers puzzled for millennia about how life arose from one generation to the next. But not until the 17th century did scientists start to seriously study the question. At that time, the theory of preformation held that minuscule humans already existed, fully formed, in either the mother’s menstrual blood or the father’s semen, depending on whether you were an “ovist” or a “spermist.” Little changed until two late-19th century scientists, Oskar Hertwig from Germany and Hermann Fol from France, independently conducted experiments on sea urchins, proving conclusively that creating new offspring takes one egg and one sperm. Despite the early confusion, the ancients were sure about one thing: Reproduction is far from a sure bet. Today, an estimated 15 percent of couples worldwide are unable to conceive a child naturally, leading to feelings of sorrow, loss and a profound sense of inadequacy for many. A century ago, science didn’t have much to offer these couples. The only fertility intervention widely available in 1921 was artificial insemination by donor sperm, which was morally and legally fraught. In the first half of the 20th century, the practice was often considered a form of adultery; as recently as 1963, an Illinois court ruled that a baby conceived this way, even with the husband’s consent, was illegitimate. In 1978, everything changed. The birth of Louise Brown, the world’s first “test tube baby,” proved that infertile couples had another option: in vitro fertilization. The technique involved removing a mature egg from the mother, mixing it in a lab dish with the father’s sperm, and letting the fertilized egg, called a zygote, grow for a couple of days. The zygote was then returned to the mother’s uterus, where it could implant and grow in an otherwise normal pregnancy.
6-9-21 Anu Ramaswami interview: How to shape the cities of the future
YOU have probably seen the annual rankings of the world’s cities by “liveability” or “quality of life”. It is intriguing to discover which come out top – and which bottom. After all, most of us have skin in this game: more than half of people around the world live in urban environments, and that number is growing. But you may also have wondered what “quality of life” really means. Which qualities? Whose life? These same questions occupy Anu Ramaswami. Trained initially as a chemical engineer, she is now a professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the M. S. Chadha Center for Global India at Princeton University, New Jersey. Her research focuses on what we can do to improve the urban environment, and she works closely with US cities as well as with the United Nations and national governments. It is fiendishly difficult to compare cities, she says – or even, for that matter, to define them. Ramaswami wants to persuade people that cities aren’t concrete jungles that stop abruptly at their official limits, but complex, dynamic systems that extend much further and, like living organisms, have their own metabolism. Only by thinking of them in this way can we start to make them more liveable, she says. Anu Ramaswami: Many people point to cities as villains. I prefer a more nuanced narrative that says cities offer an opportunity for innovation. This typically generates more wealth and, to some extent, more well-being, but also inequality, which has its own implications for well-being. More than 90 per cent of the world’s GDP arises from urban activities, but its distribution is very uneven. Cities have other drawbacks too, such as higher crime and air pollution. So the question shouldn’t be: is urbanisation good? It should be: since urbanisation is inevitable, can we urbanise in a more resource-efficient way? And how do we measure both resource efficiency and urban well-being?
6-9-21 Some early land-dwelling amphibians evolved back into aquatic species
One of the greatest transitions in evolutionary history was the emergence of tetrapods, or four-legged vertebrates, onto land. By about 340 million years ago, fins had become fingers and limbs, shoulder and hip joints had changed to bear weight, and an array of amphibious creatures had begun to live along the water’s edge. But an analysis of some early tetrapods now suggests that not long after they made a home on land, some species became adapted to life in the water all over again. Aja Mia Carter at the University of Pennsylvania and her colleagues focused on a group of early amphibians called temnospondyls, roughly salamander-like tetrapods that spun off a great diversity of species between 295 and 330 million years ago. Rather than looking at the limbs of these animals, though, Carter and her team analysed the backbone anatomy of over a dozen temnospondyl species. They also used a previously published evolutionary tree to understand how these species were interrelated, and searched the scientific literature for information on the likely lifestyles of each – in particular whether it was either more aquatic or terrestrial. Temnospondyls, the researchers found, most likely evolved from a land-dwelling ancestor. Surprisingly, from there, some species changed course and became adapted to life in water all over again in an evolutionary reversal. The analysis also revealed that relatively stiff backbones weren’t an adaptation to life on land. Researchers have typically assumed that early land animals evolved a stiffer spine to help support their bodies, but it was actually the water-dwelling temnospondyls that had a more rigid spine.“I was stunned to see that between individual vertebrae, aquatic species were stiffer than terrestrial species,” says Carter. In other words, a stiffened spine wasn’t essential for these early amphibians to walk on land.
6-9-21 What really makes junk food bad for us? Here’s what the science says
CUT down on fatty food. No, sugar. Aim for a Mediterranean diet. And remember to eat more plants… The variability of healthy eating advice has become a cliché in itself. Yet despite all the contradictions, there is one thing that many agree on: we should avoid junk food. Until recently though, no one could give you a decent reason why. Gastronomic snobbery aside, science lacked an agreed definition of what junk food actually is, and that has made it difficult to know whether we should be avoiding it and, if so, why. It has long been assumed that processed junk foods are bad because they tend to contain too much fat, salt and sugar. Recent studies, though, suggest that other mechanisms could be at work to make these foods harmful to our health. Getting to grips with what these are could help us not only make healthier choices, but also persuade the food industry to come up with healthier ways of giving us what we like to eat. One thing’s for sure: we certainly do like it. Factory-made food makes up between 50 and 60 per cent of the average person’s calorie intake in the UK, and around 60 per cent in the US. But while junk food has a bad name among many food lovers, dietary health research and the public health advice that stems from it have so far concentrated either on individual food groups, like meat and dairy products, or the relative amounts of the three macronutrients – proteins, fats and carbohydrates – that we consume. In most countries, nutrition guidelines advise people to base their diet on starchy carbohydrates like bread and pasta, while eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, limiting meat and dairy to avoid too much fat and swerving salt and sugar where possible. Although factory-made foods tend to be high in the frowned-on ingredients of fat, salt and sugar, few national guidelines explicitly advise people to avoid processed foods and instead cook meals from scratch.
6-9-21 Should we start testing drugs and vaccines in people who are pregnant?
IT IS generally accepted that the best way to confirm that a new drug or therapeutic is both safe and actually works is to test it in clinical trials, administering it to a wide range of people in an attempt to discover any unexpected effects. But there is one group we don’t usually test: pregnant people, meaning pregnant women, pregnant trans men and anyone outside those categories who is pregnant. Until recently, there was near unanimous agreement that exposing a fetus to a drug under study is unethical, leading to holes in what we know about the safety and use of medications in pregnancy. Now, in a seismic shift spurred on by the coronavirus pandemic, medical ethicists have said that the continued exclusion of people who are pregnant or lactating in biomedical research is wrong, given the heightened risks of severe infection and disease that many of them face. For example, data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that one-quarter of women aged 15 to 49 who were hospitalised with covid-19 between 1 March and 22 August 2020 were pregnant. Only 5 per cent of US women in this age group are pregnant at any one time, suggesting a much higher rate of hospitalisation due to covid-19. As the US vaccination roll-out began last year, the CDC created a smartphone app to monitor recipients for any health problems. Pregnant people who received a covid-19 vaccination within the 30 days before their last menstrual period or during pregnancy could report any post-vaccination side effects. Laura Riley at Cornell University, New York, says these well-intentioned efforts don’t make up for not collecting this data during the initial vaccine trials. “According to the [CDC], 100,000 pregnant women have been vaccinated against the coronavirus,” says Riley. “Those women made the decision that the risk of the vaccine was less than the risk of getting and doing very poorly from covid, which is a clear possibility.”
6-9-21 A deep look at a speck of human brain reveals never-before-seen quirks
Extra-strong connections, whorled tendrils and symmetrical cells hint at deep brain mysteries. A new view of the human brain shows its cellular residents in all their wild and weird glory. The map, drawn from a tiny piece of a woman’s brain, charts the varied shapes of 50,000 cells and 130 million connections between them. This intricate map, named H01 for “human sample 1,” represents a milestone in scientists’ quest to provide evermore detailed descriptions of a brain (SN: 2/7/14). “It’s absolutely beautiful,” says neuroscientist Clay Reid at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. “In the best possible way, it’s the beginning of something very exciting.” Scientists at Harvard University, Google and elsewhere prepared and analyzed the brain tissue sample. Smaller than a sesame seed, the bit of brain was about a millionth of an entire brain’s volume. It came from the cortex — the brain’s outer layer responsible for complex thought — of a 45-year-old woman undergoing surgery for epilepsy. After it was removed, the brain sample was quickly preserved and stained with heavy metals that revealed cellular structures. The sample was then sliced into more than 5,000 wafer-thin pieces and imaged with powerful electron microscopes. Computational programs stitched the resulting images back together and artificial intelligence programs helped scientists analyze them. A short description of the resulting view was published as a preprint May 30 to bioRxiv.org. The full dataset is freely available online. For now, researchers are just beginning to see what’s there. “We have really just dipped our toe into this dataset,” says study coauthor Jeff Lichtman, a developmental neurobiologist at Harvard University. Lichtman compares the brain map to Google Earth: “There are gems in there to find, but no one can say they’ve looked at the whole thing.”
6-8-21 FDA approved a new Alzheimer’s drug despite controversy over whether it works
The drug, aducanumab, promises to slow progression of the disease. But some call it false hope. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a controversial Alzheimer’s treatment, the first that promises to slow the disease’s destruction in the brain, not just improve symptoms. The drug, aducanumab, is also the first new Alzheimer’s treatment approved since 2003. It doesn’t cure or reverse Alzheimer’s disease, which affects more than 6 million people in the United States and is projected to affect nearly 13 million people by 2050. The drug’s path to approval hasn’t been smooth. In 2019, aducanumab was nearly scrapped after it appeared unlikely to succeed in two large clinical trials. But after reanalyzing more data that came in later, the drug’s developer, Biogen, which is based in Cambridge, Mass., saw signs that indicated the drug might work after all, and decided to pursue FDA approval (SN: 12/5/19). Still, today’s decision concerns some doctors and scientists who see the FDA’s move as premature because they aren’t convinced that the drug, also known as Aduhelm, actually works. Approving a drug that’s not effective would set Alzheimer’s research back and offer patients false hope, those experts argue. “This is a great day for Biogen and its shareholders, but a bleak day for the field of Alzheimer’s research,” says Michael Greicius, a neurologist at Stanford University. Pushing forward on the “illusion of progress,” he says, “will come at a cost to genuine progress in finding an effective treatment for this devastating disease.” Others disagree that the evidence is slim, and are elated about having a new tool to fight a disease that has eluded an effective treatment for so long. “We have been waiting decades for this,” says neuroscientist Maria Carrillo, chief science officer at the Alzheimer’s Association in Chicago. A drug that delays decline due to Alzheimer’s promises patients and their families time “to sustain independence, to hold onto memories longer, to be with families longer,” she says. “That’s important.”
6-8-21 US approves first new Alzheimer's drug in 20 years
The first new treatment for Alzheimer's disease for nearly 20 years has been approved by regulators in the United States, paving the way for its use in the UK. Aducanumab targets the underlying cause of Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia, rather than its symptoms. Charities have welcomed the news of a new therapy for the condition. But scientists are divided over its potential impact because of uncertainty over the trial results. At least 100,000 people in the UK with a mild form of the disease could be suitable for the drug if it were to be approved by the UK regulator. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said there was "substantial evidence that aducanumab reduces amyloid beta plaques in the brain" and that this "is reasonably likely to predict important benefits to patients". In March 2019, late-stage international trials of aducanumab, involving about 3,000 patients, were halted when analysis showed the drug, given as a monthly infusion, was not better at slowing the deterioration of memory and thinking problems than a dummy drug. But later that year, the US manufacturer Biogen analysed more data and concluded the drug did work, as long as it was given in higher doses. The company also said it significantly slowed cognitive decline. Aducanumab targets amyloid, a protein that forms abnormal clumps in the brains of people with Alzheimer's that can damage cells and trigger dementia, including: memory and thinking problems, communication issues, confusion. Aldo Ceresa, who took part in the trial, first noticed problems differentiating between left and right 10 years ago. After his diagnosis, the 68-year-old, who is originally from Glasgow and now lives in Oxfordshire, close to his family, had to give up his job as a surgeon. Mr Ceresa took aducanumab for two years before the trial was halted - and then had to wait almost as long for another trial, at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, in London, to begin.
6-8-21 The FDA just approved a first-of-its-kind Alzheimer's treatment. But is it effective?
Despite questions surrounding its efficacy, the Food and Drug Administration on Monday approved a groundbreaking new medication that attacks the underlying Alzheimer's disease process rather than treating just its symptoms, writes The New York Times. It is the first drug of its kind, and the first new Alzheimer's treatment in 18 years. Aducanumab, the drug developed by biotech company Biogen and Japanese pharmaceutical company Eisai, reduces levels of amyloid, an Alzheimer's biomarker and protein that "clumps into plaques" in a patient's brain, the Times writes. However, experts and doctors remain divided over whether this will have a substantial-enough effect to warrant approval, particularly as amyloid protein reduction may help only patients early in their disease progression, Time reports. On top of that concern, clinical trials also saw instances of brain swelling or bleeding, leading others to wonder if the risks outweigh the benefits, writes the Times. Critics cite two conflicting aducanumab clinical trials in explaining their hesitation — one study showed positive cognitive effects, and the other reportedly showed none at all. Biogen later claimed its "initial read of the data was incomplete," Time writes, and the FDA will now require the manufacturer to conduct another, post-approval trial to verify its claims. The infusion-based treatment will still be available to patients in the meantime, per the Times. Even with outstanding questions about aducanumab's "modest" clinical effect, supporters view the drug's approval as a win in the fight against an incredibly debilitating disease, says Time. "What we are trying to do is to delay the disabling phases of the disease and preserve quality of life," said Dr. Stephen Salloway, one of the principal investigators for the aducanumab trials, "Although the data has issues, this drug offers some chance of doing that."
6-8-21 US consumers spend less on sweets and dessert when shopping online
Consumers in the US spend more money when grocery shopping online, but spend less on sweets and desserts than when they shop in store. In recent years, online grocery shopping has grown massively. Since the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic, the amount that consumers spend through online shopping has more than doubled in the US. Laura Zatz at Harvard University and her colleagues have investigated how people’s habits change when they are spending in store versus shopping online. They recruited 137 participants from two supermarkets of the same chain in the US state of Maine. Each participant was the key shopper for their household, and they also had experience shopping both online and in-store. The researchers studied each participant for a total of 44 non-consecutive weeks and tracked what items they purchased between 2015 to 2017. They collected data from a total of 5573 transactions, 1062 of which were made online and 4511 in store. “We found differences in both the quantity of foods that people purchased and the types of foods that people purchase when they’re shopping online versus in store,” says Zatz. People spent more money on sweets and desserts when shopping in store, spending on average $2.50 more per transaction. However, there was no difference in spending on sugary drinks or salty snacks, such as crisps. “They purchase more items [when shopping online], both in terms of overall number of items but also a greater variety of unique items,” says Zatz. On average, participants spend 44 per cent more per transaction when shopping online than in store. It seems that in-store shopping entices shoppers to unhealthier food choices. “When you are in store, you are exposed to all sorts of stimuli that could encourage you to buy unhealthy impulse-sensitive food groups when you might not have otherwise planned to,” says Zatz. Unhealthy food choices are often displayed in supermarkets at the end of aisles and at checkouts to encourage unplanned purchases.
6-8-21 Scientists say new dinosaur species is largest found in Australia
Scientists in Australia have classified a new species of dinosaur, discovered in 2007, as the largest ever found on the continent. The Australotitan cooperensis or "the southern titan", is among the 15 largest dinosaurs found worldwide. Experts said the titanosaur would have been up to 6.5m (21ft) tall and 30m long, or "as long as a basketball court". Its skeleton was first discovered on a farm in south-west Queensland. Palaeontologists had worked over the past decade to identify the dinosaur - distinguishing it from other known species by comparing scans of its bones to those of other sauropods. Sauropods were plant-eating dinosaurs known for their size. They had small heads, very long necks, long tails and thick, pillar-like legs. These dinosaurs roamed the continent during the Cretaceous Period, about 92-96 million years ago. The team of researchers had nicknamed the dinosaur Cooper while working on it, after the nearby Cooper Creek where it was found. The identifying process had been a lengthy one due to the remote location of the bones and their size and delicate condition. But many of the remains were found intact, said researchers from the Queensland Museum and the Eromanga Natural History Museum. The team found the Australotitan was closely related to three other sauropod species - the Wintonotitan, Diamantinasaurus and Savannasaurus. "It looks like Australia's largest dinosaurs were all part of one big happy family," said Dr Scott Hocknull, one of the lead researchers. The bones were first found in 2007 on a family farm near Eromanga , which was owned by two of the dinosaur researchers, Robyn and Stuart Mackenzie. "It's amazing to think from the first bones discovered by our son, the first digs with the Queensland Museum, through to the development of a not-for-profit museum that runs annual dinosaur digs, all have helped us to get to this point, it's a real privilege," Stuart Mackenzie said.
6-7-21 Goats were first domesticated in western Iran 10,000 years ago
Goats were domesticated as early as 10,000 years ago in the area around the Zagros mountains in what is now western Iran. The finding suggests goats were one of the first animals to be domesticated, with only dogs unambiguously preceding them. “By 10,000 years ago, we have this lining up of archaeological and genetic data that seems to suggest that we have the first population of managed goats,” says Kevin Daly at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland. Goats are known to have been domesticated in western Asia or eastern Europe. Archaeological evidence suggested this was underway by 8000 BC. At some sites, male goats were being selectively killed at a young age, suggesting they were being kept in pens rather than hunted in the wild. At Asikli Höyük in what is now Turkey, goat urine left chemical traces in the soil where the animals were kept. Daly and his colleagues examined goat fossils preserved from two sites in the Zagros mountains: Ganj Dareh and Tepe Abdul Hosein, which have been excavated on and off for decades. They were inhabited between about 8200 and 7600 BC. The researchers obtained DNA from preserved goat parts from both sites: 14 nuclear genomes, as well as 32 mitochondrial genomes that were only inherited from the animals’ mothers. Daly and his team found that the goats formed two distinct groups – one was closely related to modern domestic goats, the other to modern wild goats. This means domestication had proceeded beyond the goats simply being kept. “The process of genetic domestication had already begun,” says Daly. Meanwhile, the wild-type goats were probably hunted. “This is the earliest genetic evidence of goat domestication,” says Daly. “It’s looking more and more like domestication of goat was probably primarily in or near the Zagros region.”
6-7-21 People who travel abroad can unknowingly spread antibiotic resistance
People in the Netherlands who travel abroad are unknowingly contributing to the rise of antibiotic resistance by picking up gut bacteria containing drug-resistance genes while overseas then returning home. The same is probably true of travellers elsewhere who visit countries with a high prevalence of resistant bacteria. John Penders at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and his colleagues took faecal swabs of 190 Dutch travellers before and after trips to countries in South-East Asia, South Asia, North Africa and eastern Africa, and analysed the bacteria in the samples. The team found that these travellers came back with gut microbiomes containing bacteria with many more and varied genes for antibiotic resistance than when they left. “We know that antimicrobial resistance is a global problem, but we also know that certain countries have a much higher prevalence than other countries,” says Penders. Johan Bengtsson-Palme at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden conducted a similar, but smaller, study six years ago. “My impression then was that there are a few resistance genes that are very widely circulating,” he says. “This study shows that this problem is broader than that. There’s an entire arsenal of different resistance that you pick up during travel.” The presence of these resistance genes doesn’t pose a direct threat to travellers as long as they are healthy. It only becomes a problem if they get an infection that becomes difficult to treat, or if they come into contact with critically ill people and spread the resistant genes. “The longer the microbiome stays in that state, where they have acquired extra resistance genes, the more opportunity it has to spread,” says Bram van Bunnik at the University of Edinburgh, UK.
6-7-21 Food that boosts gut microbes could be a new way to help malnourished kids
Malnourished children fed the new food did better than those who got traditional supplements. In the densely populated slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh, children survive on rice cooked with curry powder and cheap cookies and chips, packaged in appealing, colorful wrappers. These protein-poor foods provide scarce nutrients for growing bodies. Add in poor sanitation from multiple generations of a family often living in a single room and no access to health care, and these hardships are etched in these children’s malnourished bodies. “This is what life is like in these places,” says Tahmeed Ahmed, who heads the International Centre for Diarrheal Disease Research, Bangladesh. Dhaka is far from unique. According to UNICEF, more than 1 in 5 children under age 5, or 149.2 million, are coping with undernutrition — a form of malnutrition most common in low- and middle-income countries (SN: 1/8/20). Undernutrition leaves children stunted, or short for their age, and wasted, underweight for their height. And it can be deadly: Globally, 5.2 million children under age 5 died in 2019; 45 percent of those deaths are linked to nutrition-related issues, according to the World Health Organization. The COVID-19 pandemic was expected to make things worse, disrupting nutrition programs and families’ ability to find and afford food, researchers reported in May 2020 in the Lancet Global Health. It’s still too early to know the toll the pandemic has had on child malnutrition. But “we are not yet out of the woods in many countries,” says Denish Moorthy, a senior technical advisor on global nutrition initiatives for John Snow Inc., a Boston-based public health management consulting and research organization. Yet in Dhaka, there is a glimmer of hope. Children fed a new kind of food supplement, aimed at not only nourishing them but restoring helpful bacteria in their guts, gained more weight on average than children fed traditional high-caloric supplements, Ahmed and his colleagues reported in a preliminary study April 7 in the New England Journal of Medicine. In six months, the researchers hope to have results that determine whether those gains persist.
6-7-21 Google has mapped a piece of human brain in the most detail ever
Google has helped create the most detailed map yet of the connections within the human brain. It reveals a staggering amount of detail, including patterns of connections between neurons, as well as what may be a new kind of neuron. The brain map, which is freely available online, includes 50,000 cells, all rendered in three dimensions. They are joined together by hundreds of millions of spidery tendrils, forming 130 million connections called synapses. The data set measures 1.4 petabytes, roughly 700 times the storage capacity of an average modern computer. The data set is so large that the researchers haven’t studied it in detail, says Viren Jain at Google Research in Mountain View, California. He compares it to the human genome, which is still being explored 20 years after the first drafts were published. It is the first time we have seen the real structure of such a large piece of the human brain, says Catherine Dulac at Harvard University, who wasn’t involved in the work. “There’s something just a little emotional about it.” This mammoth undertaking began when a team lead by Jeff Lichtman, also at Harvard University, obtained a tiny piece of brain from a 45-year-old woman with drug-resistant epilepsy. She underwent surgery to remove the left hippocampus, the source of her seizures, from her brain. To do this, the surgeons had to remove some healthy brain tissue that overlaid the hippocampus. Lichtman and his team immediately immersed the sample in preservatives, then stained it with heavy metals like osmium, so the outer membranes of every cell were visible under an electron microscope. Then they embedded it in resin to toughen it. Finally, they cut it into slices around 30 nanometres thick, or about one-thousandth the width of a human hair, and used an electron microscope to image every slice.
6-6-21 Study: Lynparza can reduce relapse, death in some breast cancer patients
In a study published last week in The New England Journal of Medicine, British drugmaker AstraZeneca said that in a late-stage trial, its drug Lynparza reduced the risk of relapse and death in breast cancer patients with certain gene mutations. Lynparza was developed with Merck, and works to inhibit PARP, a protein that repairs DNA damage to cells — including those that are cancerous. It can be given as a maintenance therapy or an active treatment after chemotherapy. The study found that compared to a placebo, Lynparza reduced the combined risk of recurrence of breast cancer or death from any cause by 42 percent, Reuters reports. Globally, breast cancer is now the most common form of the disease, the World Health Organization said in February, accounting for almost 12 percent of new cases every year.
6-5-21 After 40 years of AIDS, here’s why we still don’t have an HIV vaccine
The complex biology of HIV makes the virus a tough target to tackle. Forty years ago, researchers described the mysterious cases of five gay men who had fallen ill with a pneumonia caused by the bacteria Pneumocystis carinii. Two of the five men had already died. That type of pneumonia usually affects only individuals who are severely immunocompromised, researchers wrote in the June 5, 1981 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Scientists would soon discover that a disease that would come to be known as AIDS was devastating the men’s immune systems. Three years later, scientists pinned the blame for AIDS on a virus dubbed HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus. Margaret Heckler, the then-U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, said in an April 1984 news conference that a vaccine to build protection against the virus would be ready to test within two years, holding out promise that protection was on its way. We’re still waiting. Meanwhile, the HIV pandemic, which probably got its start in Congo in the 1920s, has led to devastating loss. More than 75 million people have been infected around the world as of the end of 2019. Approximately 32.7 million people have died. That toll would undoubtedly be much higher if it weren’t for advances in antiviral treatments that can prevent infected people from dying from HIV and from transmitting the virus to others (SN: 3/4/20; SN: 11/15/19). To date, only three people have beaten an HIV infection (SN: 8/26/20). For most, it lasts a lifetime. That long-lasting infection is just one reason why no vaccine against HIV exists yet. It’s also a tricky virus to pin down, with many variants and an uncanny ability to evade the immune system. And money is an issue too. The lack of an effective HIV vaccine stands in stark contrast to COVID-19 vaccines that took less than a year to develop (SN: 11/9/20). For COVID-19 vaccine development, “the money poured in, which was the right thing to do,” says Susan Zolla-Pazner, an immunologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. Funding for HIV vaccine research comes in five-year installments, making it difficult to allocate the money in an efficient way to get a vaccine off the ground. Still, that funding stream has allowed for advances in HIV research, which partly enabled the rapid success of multiple COVID-19 vaccines.
6-4-21 How do you travel abroad safely during the covid-19 pandemic?
As vaccination numbers continue to climb, rich countries are beginning to journey back towards normality. That is also true of travel itself. On 1 June, seven EU countries set out on the long road back to freedom of movement, allowing unimpeded travel between them as long as arrivals can prove they are either immune to SARS-CoV-2 or uninfected. Many other countries are also inching back to business as usual. But the world of travel is still a long way from its destination. So how do we get back to where we started? And if you plan to travel abroad over the coming months, what do you need to know? The risks of returning to international travel as it was done before covid-19 are obvious: as people move about, so does the SARS-CoV-2 virus, hastening the spread of dangerous variants and potentially reigniting the pandemic in places where it was under control. For this reason, international travel has been severely restricted for more than a year. But governments around the world are now confronting the tough task of reopening their borders. “We can take measures to allow people to enter countries,” says Jeffrey Lazarus at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health in Spain. “But countries have varying degrees of seriousness about how they approach controlling their borders.” The trick, he says, is to be like Denmark, not like Spain. Lazarus travels frequently between the two because he lives and works in Spain but has strong ties to Denmark after a stint at the World Health Organization’s regional office in Copenhagen. To get into Denmark from Spain, he has to show two negative tests, one done no more than 48 hours before arrival and the other done in the airport before going through passport control. A positive test would mean an immediate return to Spain, but two negatives allow him to enter the country. He then has to self-quarantine for 10 days, though on day four can do a PCR test and get out of quarantine if negative. The test is available for free, paid for by the Danish government.
6-4-21 Long covid has lasted over a year for 376,000 people in the UK
An estimated 1 million people in private households in the UK say they had long covid in the four weeks to 2 May, according to the latest survey from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Of these people, an estimated 869,000 first had covid-19 – or suspected they had covid-19 – at least 12 weeks earlier, while 376,000 first had the virus or suspected they had it at least a year ago. Long covid was estimated to be adversely affecting the day-to-day activities of 650,000 people, with 192,000 reporting that their ability to undertake such activities was limited a lot. Long covid, also known as post-covid syndrome, is used to describe ill effects that continue for weeks or months after a coronavirus infection. Common symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain or tightness, problems with memory and concentration, insomnia, dizziness, joint pain, depression and anxiety, tinnitus and diarrhoea. The previous figures, covering the four weeks to 6 March 2021, suggested that 70,000 people in private households in the UK had experienced symptoms of long covid for at least 12 months. The new figure of 376,000 is markedly higher because it takes in people infected during the peak of the first wave. The prevalence of self-reported long covid was greatest in people aged 35 to 69, females, those living in the most deprived areas, those working in health or social care, and those with another activity limiting health condition or disability, the ONS found. Fatigue (weakness or tiredness) was the most common symptom, affecting 547,000 out of 1 million people, followed by shortness of breath (405,000), muscle ache (313,000) and difficulty concentrating (285,000). Scientists are still unsure why some people experience such long-lasting illness, but some studies suggest the virus may cause premature ageing of the immune system, and this may be a cause of long covid.
6-4-21 Global plan aims to make vaccines for future pandemics within 100 days
The UK government and life science industry leaders have pledged to work towards a plan that could see vaccines ready in just 100 days in the event of a new pandemic. Meeting the ambitious goal would involve new therapeutics, diagnostics and vaccines against potential future diseases being part-developed before a fresh outbreak began, the UK’s Department of Health said. It would require continued collaboration between companies, academic and medical researchers, regulators and global health bodies, the department added. The UK government acknowledged that cutting the time to deliver vaccines from a little more than 300 days – the period in which this feat was achieved in 2020 – to just 100 days in any future pandemic situation would take such work to “the next level”. Chief executives and representatives of firms including AstraZeneca, Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline gave their support to the so-called 100 Days Mission set out by the Pandemic Preparedness Partnership, after discussions at the G7 Health Ministers’ Meeting this week. Lord Bethell, minister of innovation at the UK Department of Health, and the UK government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance held sessions between industry and experts to discuss how challenges around new diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines could be overcome. “The first 100 days in a pandemic are crucial to changing the course of a disease,” said Vallance. “In those three months, diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines are key weapons.” “Given the extent of the social, economic and health impacts caused by covid-19, the 100 Days Mission is rightly ambitious and sets a goal for us to which we can all aspire,” he said. “Safe and highly effective vaccines have been delivered in record time, which is an incredible achievement, with life-saving jabs produced at scale and now being delivered to countries globally,” said UK health secretary Matt Hancock. “We are going to build on that with the 100 Days Mission. We are only going to get out of this global pandemic if the whole world is able to get out.”
6-4-21 Many people with covid-19 have neurological or psychiatric symptoms
Neurological and psychiatric symptoms such as anosmia and depression are common among people with covid-19 and may be just as likely in people with mild cases, new research suggests. Evidence from 215 studies of people with covid-19 indicates a wide range of ways in which the condition can affect mental health and the brain. The studies, from 30 countries, involved a total of 105,638 people with acute symptoms of covid-19 – the initial illness, rather than the longer-term impacts seen in long covid – including data up to July 2020. “We had expected that neurological and psychiatric symptoms would be more common in severe covid-19 cases, but instead we found that some symptoms appeared to be more common in mild cases,” said Jonathan Rogers at University College London, the lead author of the study. “It appears that covid-19 affecting mental health and the brain is the norm, rather than the exception.” The most common neurological and psychiatric symptoms were anosmia – loss of smell – reported by 43 per cent of people with the illness, weakness (40 per cent), fatigue (38 per cent), loss of taste (37 per cent), muscle pain (25 per cent), depression (23 per cent), headache (21 per cent) and anxiety (16 per cent). Major neurological conditions occurred more rarely, such as ischaemic stroke seen in 1.9 per cent of cases in the data set, haemorrhagic stroke (0.4 per cent) and seizure (0.06 per cent). People with severe covid-19 were overrepresented in the data set, as most of the studies focused on those admitted to hospital, and even the studies of people outside hospitals included few with very mild or no symptoms. However, the study found that among people with symptomatic acute covid-19 who weren’t admitted to hospital, neurological symptoms were still common.
6-4-21 China's COVID-19 vaccines don't appear to be effective at preventing outbreaks in the real world
The World Health Organization recently granted emergency use approval to China's Sinopharm and Sinovac COVID-19 vaccines, but the countries that have put the Chinese-made vaccines in the arms of their residents are reporting mixed results, at best. "In the Seychelles, Chile, and Uruguay, all of whom have used Sinopharm or ... Sinovac in their mass vaccination efforts, cases have surged even as doses were given out," The Washington Post reports. And in Bahrain, one of the first countries to embrace the Sinopharm shot, The Wall Street Journal adds, "daily COVID-19 deaths have leapt to 12 per million people in recent weeks — an outbreak nearly five times more lethal than India's — prompting the island nation's government to shut down shopping malls and restaurants in an effort to limit the spread." Dr. Waleed Khalifa al Manea, Bahrain's undersecretary of health, told the Journal that the recent upsurge in cases "came mainly from family gatherings — we had Ramadan, which is a very social event in Bahrain," but he also said the country is urging older people and those with chronic illness to get a six-month booster shot with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Bahrain and the neighboring United Arab Emirates started offering booster shots in late May "after studies showed that some of those vaccinated had not developed sufficient antibodies," the Post reports. "In Dubai, the most populous of the seven members of the UAE, the emirate's health authorities have also quietly begun revaccinating with Pfizer-BioNTech those residents who had been fully inoculated with Sinopharm," the Journal reports. "Despite the concern about Sinopharm's effectiveness, experts say the vaccine still works as intended in most cases and that it could play a significant role in shortages of vaccine doses around the world," the Post reports. The WHO says it has a low level of confidence in the vaccine's effectiveness in older people, due to a lack of data. A peer-reviewed study published May 26 found the Sinopharm vaccine was 78 percent effective against symptomatic illness, but the trial participants were mostly healthy young men, the Journal reports. "In a separate, unpublished, real-world study of Sinopharm in Serbia, 29 percent of 150 participants were found to have zero antibodies against the virus three months after they received the first of two shots of the vaccine. The average age of the people who participated in the Serbian study was higher than 65."
6-4-21 How science museums reinvented themselves to survive the pandemic
During lockdown, institutions untethered their programs from their buildings with some creative results. On January 30, 2020, Science Gallery Dublin assembled a small group of experts to discuss a strange new disease that had recently emerged in China. Four panelists talked about the origins of the new coronavirus, whether it might be airborne and the prospects for a vaccine. While they agreed that it was important to take the virus seriously, the speakers urged the audience not to panic. There had been no known cases in Ireland. The prospect of a local outbreak seemed remote. “And that was the last live event we held in the gallery,” says Aisling Murray, the gallery’s head of programming. That very day, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern.” Six weeks later, with cases on the rise all over the globe, Science Gallery Dublin shut its doors. It was a moment of reckoning. “What does Science Gallery mean when we don’t have a space?” Murray recalls wondering. “How do we continue to engage our audience?” As the COVID-19 pandemic began to spiral out of control in March 2020, science museums around the world were forced to abruptly close. In a matter of days, ticket revenue vanished. “It was an existential crisis,” says Christofer Nelson, president and CEO of the Association of Science and Technology Centers, or ASTC, in Washington, D.C. “The fundamental business, operational, staffing, community service model of these organizations just went away overnight. And the question was ‘What do we do next?’ ” The weeks and months that followed were excruciatingly difficult for science museums, which lost more than $600 million in revenue in just the first six months of the pandemic, the ASTC estimates. Many museums and science centers were forced to adopt deep cost-cutting measures; some laid off more than half of their employees.
6-4-21 Something mysteriously wiped out about 90 percent of sharks 19 million years ago
No obvious climate shift can explain the newly discovered die-off. About 19 million years ago, something terrible happened to sharks. Fossils gleaned from sediments in the Pacific Ocean reveal a previously unknown and dramatic shark extinction event, during which populations of the predators abruptly dropped by up to 90 percent, researchers report in the June 4 Science. And scientists don’t know what might have caused the die-off. “It’s a great mystery,” says Elizabeth Sibert, a paleobiologist and oceanographer at Yale University. “Sharks have been around for 400 million years. They’ve been through hell and back. And yet this event wiped out [up to] 90 percent of them.” Sharks suffered losses of 30 to 40 percent in the aftermath of the asteroid strike that killed off all nonbird dinosaurs 66 million years ago (SN: 8/2/18). But after that, sharks enjoyed about 45 million years of peaceful ocean dominance, sailing through even large climate disruptions such as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum — an episode about 56 million years ago marked by a sudden spike in global carbon dioxide and soaring temperatures — without much trouble (SN: 5/7/15). Now, clues found in the fine red clay sediments beneath two vast regions of Pacific add a new, surprising chapter to sharks’ story. Sibert and Leah Rubin, then an undergraduate student at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, sifted through fish teeth and shark scales buried in sediment cores collected during previous research expeditions to the North and South Pacific oceans. “The project came out of a desire to better understand the natural background variability of these fossils,” Sibert says. Sharks’ bodies are made of mostly cartilage, which doesn’t tend to fossilize. But their skin is covered in tiny scales, or dermal denticles, each about the width of a human hair follicle. These scales make for an excellent record of past shark abundance: Like shark teeth, the scales are made of the mineral bioapatite, which is readily preserved in sediments. “And we will find several hundred more denticles compared to a tooth,” Sibert says.
6-3-21 Sharks were almost wiped out in an extinction 19 million years ago
Sharks living in the open ocean seem to have experienced a previously unknown mass extinction about 19 million years ago. The event may have wiped out nearly 90 per cent of sharks at the time. Many sharks are currently threatened with extinction as a result of human activities, including overfishing, plastic pollution and illegal shark finning. What makes this situation more striking is that sharks have existed for at least 420 million years and have been considered resilient to large mass extinctions, several of which have happened during that time. Elizabeth Sibert at Yale University – who conducted the study while at Harvard University – and Leah Rubin at State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry say they have now found the first evidence of a mass extinction of the “pelagic” sharks that live in the open oceans. They isolated microfossils of shark scales, called ichthyolith denticles, from samples of mud taken from the sea floor in both the North and South Pacific Ocean. The mud samples come from the upper 15 metres of the seafloor, and were deposited over the past 40 million years. Sibert and Rubin counted and characterised a total of 1263 fossilised denticles. They say the sediment samples reveal a sudden drop in the abundance and diversity of shark scales around 19 million years ago, during an epoch known as the Miocene. “There seems to have been a major extinction event in the early Miocene, which knocked out about 90 per cent of sharks in the open ocean,” says Sibert. This is more than twice the level of extinction that sharks experienced during the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction 66 million years ago, which wiped out the dinosaurs. Sibert says the extinction occurred relatively abruptly, geologically speaking, over a span of 100,000 years.
6-3-21 University students with morning lectures tend to have lower grades
University students tend to get lower grades if their classes and lectures begin early in the morning. Attending classes and sleeping well are both associated with increased engagement and performance at university – but a course with lectures scheduled early in the morning might compromise students’ ability to do both. To investigate, Joshua Gooley at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore and his colleagues analysed the grades of 27,281 undergraduates enrolled at the National University of Singapore. The students were attending classes between 2018 and 2020, but before the covid-19 pandemic. On average, those with more days of morning classes had a lower overall grade than those with more afternoon classes. “We made sure that the students we selected had the same course workload, in terms of course credits,” says Gooley. The students with no morning classes at all had a higher overall grade, on average, than all other groups. The researchers also found that attendance was much lower at early morning classes – for students with lectures starting at 8 am it was 15 per cent lower than at classes at 10 am or later. They investigated attendance using Wi-Fi connection data associated with 24,678 students – which included some of the initial 27,281 students. If a student was connected to a Wi-Fi router near to their lecture hall, the team assumed that person was in attendance. Students knew this information was being collected, and it was anonymised before inclusion in the study. “Based on each student’s course timetable, we already knew the location of their classes,” says Gooley. “We just determined which Wi-Fi routers correspond to which lecture halls.” To understand why students weren’t attending morning classes, the researchers gave 181 of them a sensor to wear for six weeks that can measure sleep cycles and activity. “In nearly a third of instances for 8 o’clock classes, students didn’t wake up in time to reach their class,” says Gooley. Conversely, they rarely slept past the start of classes that began at noon or later.
6-3-21 After vaccinating 95 percent of adults, a Brazilian city is returning to normal
COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths dipped following mass vaccination of adults in Serrana. In Serrana, Brazil, schools are reopening and plans are under way for a large open-air concert. Health care workers suddenly have time for sit-down meals rather than rushing to grab street food during a spare free moment. These scenes approaching normalcy stand in stark contrast to what’s happening across the rest of the country, where hospitals are jam-packed, businesses are largely closed and 2,000 people are dying each day from COVID-19. Serrana, a city of 45,600 in the state of São Paulo, can begin to make these plans because an experiment called Projeto S, which vaccinated nearly all adults, appears to be drastically reducing COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths there. Symptomatic cases have dropped 80 percent, with hospital admissions down 86 percent, down from a peak of around 600 cases per 100,000 people in early March, Projeto S leaders announced at a news conference on May 31. By two weeks after the second shot, only two fully vaccinated people landed in the hospital with COVID-19. The incidence of COVID-19–related deaths per 100,000 inhabitants also dropped 95 percent in the city, the team leaders said, although the raw data behind the numbers has yet to be released. In April, the city recorded only six COVID-19 deaths, according to the Health Secretariat of Serrana. The project, in which over 95 percent of the city’s adults were given the Chinese-made CoronaVac vaccine, is a real-time experiment to measure the effectiveness the vaccine, including how well it protects against coronavirus variants (SN 5/5/21). In clinical trials, the CoronaVac vaccine had an efficacy of just over 50 percent, raising concerns of how well it would work in the real world.
6-3-21 50 years ago, scientists predicted steady U.S. population growth
Excerpt from the June 5, 1971 issue of Science News. 1971: The United States’ population is growing at a rate of one percent a year, and even with lower fertility rates this trend will probably continue. If the fertility rate dropped to 2.1 children per woman, the population of the country would level off in the year 2037 at 267 million. But, this would require an unlikely 50 percent decrease in the birth rate. Update: Those projections, based on 1970 census data, recently veered off course. As of April 2020, about 331.5 million people lived in the United States, according to census data. But from July 2019 to July 2020, the population grew by just 0.35 percent — the lowest annual growth rate in over a century. For most of the last 50 years, the population grew by about 1 percent per year, thanks in large part to immigration. While the fertility rate dropped below 2.1 children per woman after 1971 and the birth rate declined by 29 percent from 1970 to 2014, the foreign-born population quadrupled from just under 10 million people to over 40 million. Over the last several years, though, immigration has slowed and life expectancy has decreased (SN: 12/21/17). In 2020, the fertility rate dropped to a record low of 1.64 children per woman and the birth rate — at 56 births per 1,000 women — became the lowest on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
6-2-21 People who are blind navigate better after echolocation training
People who are blind are able to better complete various practical and navigation tasks with the help of echolocation, new research suggests. Echolocation occurs when an animal emits a sound that bounces off objects in the environment, returning echoes that provide information about the surrounding space. While the technique is well known in whales and bats, some people who are blind use click-based echolocation to judge spaces and improve their navigation skills. Lore Thaler at Durham University in the UK and colleagues looked into the factors that determine how people learn this skill. Over the course of a 10-week training programme, the team investigated how level of vision and age affect the learning of click-based echolocation, and how learning this skill affects the daily life of people who are blind. Blind and sighted participants aged between 21 and 79 took part in 20 two-to-three-hour training sessions over the study period. Blind participants also took part in a three-month follow-up survey assessing the effects of the training on their daily life. The researchers found that people who are blind and those who are sighted improved considerably on all measures, and in some cases performed comparably with expert echolocators at the end of the training. In the follow-up survey, all participants who were blind reported improved mobility, and 83 per cent reported better independence and well-being. The results are published in the journal PLoS One. The results suggest the ability to learn click-based echolocation isn’t strongly limited by age or level of vision, the researchers say, and this has positive implications for the rehabilitation of people with vision loss or in the early stages of progressive vision loss. “I cannot think of any other work with blind participants that has had such enthusiastic feedback,” said Thaler.
6-2-21 Drunk review: Could alcohol-induced creativity be key to civilisation?
SOME years ago, when author Edward Slingerland gave a talk at a Google campus, his hosts ushered him into an impressive room. This is where coders pop in for liquid inspiration when they run into a creative wall, they told him. It wasn’t a place to get drunk alone. In his engrossing book, Drunk, Slingerland writes that such spaces, which allow for both face-to-face communication and easy access to alcohol, can act as incubators for collective creativity. The boost that alcohol provides to individual creativity, he emphasises, is enhanced when people get drunk in groups. For millennia, people have used alcohol and other mind-altering substances to get high. Some archaeologists even suggest that the first farmers were driven by a desire for beer, not bread. If intoxicants were merely hijacking pleasure centres in the brain by triggering the release of “reward” chemicals, or if they were once adaptive but are vices now, then evolution would have put the kibosh on our taste for these chemicals, says the author. So, what is going on? Slingerland, a philosopher at the University of British Columbia in Canada, has a novel thesis, arguing that by causing humans “to become, at least temporarily, more creative, cultural, and communal… intoxicants provided the spark that allowed us to form truly large-scale groups”. In short, without them, civilisation might not have been possible. This may seem an audacious claim, but Slingerland draws on history, anthropology, cognitive science, social psychology, genetics and literature, including alcohol-fuelled classical poetry, for evidence. He is an entertaining writer, synthesising a wide array of studies to make a convincing case. Without a science-based understanding of intoxicants, we cannot decide what role they can and should play, he stresses. In small doses, alcohol can make us happy and sociable. But still, consuming any amount of intoxicant can seem stupid, he concedes, because the chemical targets the prefrontal cortex. This late-maturing brain region is the seat of abstract reasoning, which also governs our behaviour and ability to remain on task. Research suggests small children are very creative because their prefrontal cortex is barely developed.
6-2-21 China reports 1st human case of H10N3 bird flu strain
China confirmed on Tuesday its first human case of the H10N3 bird flu strain, after a 41-year-old man in the eastern province of Jiangsu was diagnosed with an infection. Health officials said the strain is not as severe as others and the risk of a large-scale outbreak is low, Reuters reports. The man went to the hospital after coming down with a fever and other symptoms, and on May 28 it was confirmed that he had the H10N3 virus. Health officials did not say how the man became infected, but did share that he is in stable condition and about to leave the hospital. People close to the man have been under medical observation, and none have come down with the virus. H10N3 is "not a very common virus," Filip Claes of the Food and Agriculture Organization's Emergency Center for Transboundary Animal Diseases told Reuters. From 1978 to 2018, roughly 160 isolates of the virus were reported, primarily in waterfowl and wild birds in Asia and some areas of North America. There have been no detected cases in chickens.
6-2-21 Vaccinating people in developing countries costs far less than doing nothing
Shots for half those adults will cost $9.3 billion, the Rockefeller Foundation reports. As the United States and other nations celebrate what looks like the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic — with a quarter to half their populations vaccinated — many less well-off countries are lagging far behind. Some have vaccinated less than 1 percent of their populations, leaving them vulnerable to emerging coronavirus variants and at risk for future surges. Now a new analysis puts a price tag on what it would cost those countries to catch up. Getting shots to half the adult population of the world’s lowest-income countries in 2021 will cost $9.3 billion, the Rockefeller Foundation, a global charitable foundation based in New York City, reports June 1. That estimate includes 92 nations (representing about 3.8 billion people) that are eligible for vaccine access through Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, a public–private global health partnership based in Geneva. With that money, the Alliance could purchase 1.8 billion vaccine doses. If COVID-19 vaccine doses had been distributed equitably to every nation, these doses “would have been enough to cover all health workers and older people” by now, World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a May 24 assembly of the organization’s member states. The fallout of failing to vaccinate people in countries with fewer resources will come with a high cost not only for human life — there have been more than 3.5 million COVID-19 deaths so far — but also the global bottom line (SN: 2/26/21; SN: 5/9/21). The word’s economy stands to lose more than $9 trillion if lower-income countries aren’t able to access vaccines, the International Chamber of Commerce estimates.
6-2-21 The mindfulness revolution: A clear-headed look at the evidence
Mindfulness is hailed as a treatment for a vast array of problems and the apps are now hugely popular. But do the claims about its benefits stack up? New Scientist investigates. THERE is nothing wrong with thinking. It is what makes us human. Our ability to remember the past and imagine the future has made us the most successful species on the planet. But can we take it too far? Scientists and self-help gurus alike argue that spending too much time ruminating on our worries can make us stressed and miserable, while blinding us to the joys of what is happening right now. The cure, we are told, is to be more mindful. The practice of mindfulness – paying attention to our experience in a non-judgemental, accepting way – promises to help us escape the tyranny of our thoughts, boosting our mood, performance and health along the way. At this point, there can’t be many people on the planet who haven’t tried mindfulness at least once. Secular versions of the practice were first developed from Buddhist roots in the 1970s, paving the way for scientific studies into its effects on the mind. Since it burst into the mainstream in the 1990s, high-profile research papers and media reports have claimed dramatic changes in brain structure and function, and benefits ranging from sharper attention to boosted mood, memory and a younger-looking brain. Mindfulness is now prescribed by doctors, taught in schools, provided by employers and is readily available to download on our smartphones. It is no longer a fringe topic, but part of daily life. “Now, everyone’s got the app,” says a neuroscientist at Stanford University in California. In recent years, though, some researchers have begun to urge caution, warning that the benefits of the practice have been hyped and potential harms ignored. It is also unclear whether apps, the way most people now access this practice, work the same way as formal training. So, what is the truth about mindfulness? Does it really work, and if so, what can it do?
6-2-21 Why it's so important we believe people about their mental health
When Meghan Markle said she thought of ending her life during her time living with the royal family in the UK, people online said: No, actually, you didn’t feel like that. When British MP Nadia Whittome said she was taking time off because she had PTSD, again people said no, she’s just stressed, stress is normal. And when tennis player Naomi Osaka said recently she would stop giving press conferences because of the impact they have on her mental health, people decided for themselves what that phrase meant, and concluded she was being unfair, unreasonable and overdramatic. It is relevant that these three public figures are women of colour, and therefore especially likely to be scrutinised. But it is also indicative of a deeply problematic trend in the way mental health is being discussed in the public domain. Mental distress is largely invisible. You can’t see symptoms of most mental health conditions, things like depression and social anxiety (both of which Osaka has experienced). And when the person talking about their difficulties is famous or successful, it is easy to be sceptical. It is easy to think: well, they look fine. This disbelief happens when it comes to celebrities but also for regular joes too. For example, undergraduate students today commonly talk about their mental health problems, and I think the suspicion of some academics is obvious. Students can’t all be that unwell, the logic goes, so none of them are. Part of the problem, ironically, is exactly how much we are talking about this. Spearheaded by charity campaigns like Time To Change, there has been a huge drive to talk more openly about all and any mental health problems. This, paired with vagueness around the right terminology to use, means people are more confused than ever about what mental distress does and doesn’t “count”, and what we should do about it.
6-1-21 Here’s what we know about the risks of serious side effects from COVID-19 vaccines
Risks of rare allergic reactions, blood clots and maybe heart problems don’t outweigh benefits. Many people have experienced sore arms and feeling wiped out for a couple of days after getting a COVID-19 vaccine. Some get fevers, chills and headaches. Those familiar side effects have become widely accepted as the price of protection against the too-often-deadly coronavirus. But it’s the rare, more serious side effects that have grabbed the headlines — and given some people pause about whether to get vaccinated or get the shots for their children. Such side effects include rare allergic reactions to an ingredient in the mRNA vaccines (SN: 1/6/21) and rare blood clots in young women associated with Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine (SN: 4/23/21). Now, a group that monitors vaccine safety for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating whether there is a link between Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine and a few mild cases of heart inflammation, called myocarditis, in adolescents and young adults. So far, cases of myocarditis have not risen above the number normally expected in young people, and no one actually knows whether the vaccine triggers the heart inflammation or not. “We are seeing these potential side effects because we are looking for them, and that’s a perfect example of how our safety system is supposed to work,” says Alexandra Yonts, a pediatric infectious disease doctor at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. “We’re being very aggressive and proactive, and that’s good.” Here’s what is known, the experts say: The risk of serious side effects from vaccination remains far smaller than its benefits. The vaccines are highly effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death, even against variants (SN: 5/11/21). The vaccines may also help block infection and transmission of the coronavirus (SN: 3/30/21).
6-1-21 Coronavirus: WHO announces Greek alphabet naming scheme for variants
THE World Health Organization (WHO) has announced a naming system for variants of the coronavirus that uses letters of the Greek alphabet. Under the new naming scheme, the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the UK, commonly referred to as the Kent variant, is labelled “alpha”, the B.1.351 variant identified in South Africa is “beta”, the P.1 variant which first originated in Brazil is “gamma” and the B.1.617.2 variant first detected in India is “delta”. These Greek letter labels will only be given to “variants of concern” and “variants of interest” as defined by the WHO. Researchers had been calling for an alternative naming system for coronavirus variants for some time, arguing that the scientific names are challenging to pronounce, leading many people to refer to the variants by geographical names such as “the Indian variant”. This “unfairly places blame on the people in those locations”, says Mark Pallen at the Quadram Institute in Norwich, UK, who recently developed an automated system to generate Latin and Greek-based names for new bacterial species. Writing in New Scientist in March, Pallen suggested that an approach similar to that used for naming storms might be useful for generating neutral and more memorable names for coronavirus variants. The established systems for naming and tracking genetic lineages of the coronavirus will remain in use by scientists and in scientific research, as these “convey important scientific information”, the WHO said in a press release on 31 May. But the new Greek alphabet-based labels will “help with public discussion”, tweeted Maria Van Kerkhove, covid-19 technical lead for the WHO. Avoiding referring to coronavirus variants by geographical names could also encourage countries to detect and report variants rapidly, which is crucial for managing their spread. “No country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting variants,” said Kerkhove. “Globally, we need robust surveillance for variants.”