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Science & Technology - January - 2022

The salt deposits provide the first mineral evidence for the presence of liquid water on Mars.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) launched in 2005 has helped scientists determine that Mars had surface water as recently as 2 billion years ago. Previous studies had concluded that water on Mars evaporated about 3 billion years ago and this new find reduces that timeline significantly.

The findings were published last month in AGU Advances. The team made the discovery by studying chloride salt deposits that were left behind as ice water evaporated. The salt deposits also provide the first mineral evidence for the presence of liquid water on Mars.

The team used data from an instrument named Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) on the MRO spacecraft. They also used the Context Camera and High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) color camera onboard the spacecraft to map the extent of chloride salts across Mars’ southern hemisphere.

They write that the salts were found in depressions that were once home to shallow ponds.

“What is amazing is that after more than a decade of providing high-resolution image, stereo, and infrared data, MRO has driven new discoveries about the nature and timing of these river-connected ancient salt ponds,” said corresponding author Bethany L. Ehlmann in a release.

“Part of the value of MRO is that our view of the planet keeps getting more detailed over time,” said Leslie Tamppari, the mission’s deputy project scientist at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The more of the planet we map with our instruments, the better we can understand its history.”

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The nanoantenna works like a two-way radio that can both receive and transmit radio waves.

A team of researchers at the University of Montreal have developed a nanoantenna made of DNA (nucleic acid) and polyethylene glycol (PEG) to study changes in the structure of protein molecules.

These fluorescent nanoantenna offer a distinct advantage over the fluorescent dyes that are ubiquitously used in biotechnology. The latter ‘display a low affinity for proteins’, while these nanoantennae are able to detect even the most minute of changes. The dye in the nanoantenna has an affinity to a specific region of a protein, which is contingent on the structure and chemistry of the protein.

The antenna also performed well when used for examining enzyme kinetics i.e. the speed at which a reaction progresses in the presence of an enzyme. It also remained stable at higher temperatures. The findings were published last month in Nature Methods.

The team explained that the nanoantenna works like a two-way radio that can both receive and transmit radio waves. It receives light in one wavelength, and depending on the protein changes it senses, it transmits light in another colour and this can be detected and studied.

“In addition to helping us understand how natural nanomachines function or malfunction, consequently leading to disease, this new method can also help chemists identify promising new drugs as well as guide nano engineers to develop improved nanomachines,” Dominic Lauzon, co-author of the study, said in a press release.

The nanoantenna was able to pass muster even with respect to protein-protein interactions. “The DNA-based nanoantennas can be synthesised with different lengths and flexibilities to optimize their function,” argues Scott Harroun, the first author of the study.

“One can easily attach a fluorescent molecule to the DNA, and then attach this fluorescent nanoantenna to a biological nanomachine, such as an enzyme.” Alexis Vallée-Bélisle, the corresponding author of the study, added that they are “most excited by is the realisation that many labs around the world, equipped with a conventional spectrofluorometer, could readily employ these nanoantenna[e] to study their favourite protein, such as to identify new drugs or to develop new nanotechnologies”

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It is located relatively close to Earth in cosmic terms, roughly 4,200 light years

Scientists have detected what appears to be an incredibly dense star behaving unlike anything else ever seen – and suspect it might be a type of exotic astrophysical object whose existence has until now been only hypothesised.

The object, spotted using the Murchison Widefield Array telescope in outback Western Australia, unleashed huge bursts of energy roughly three times per hour when viewed from Earth during two months in 2018, the researchers said.

It may be the first known example of what is called an “ultra-long period magnetar,” they said.

This is a variety of a neutron star – the compact collapsed core of a massive star that exploded as a supernova – that is highly magnetised and rotates relatively slowly, as opposed to fast-spinning neutron star objects called pulsars that appear from Earth to be blinking on and off within milliseconds or seconds.

“It’s mind-bogglingly wonderful that the universe is still full of surprises,” said radio astronomer Natasha Hurley-Walker at the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) in Australia, lead author of the study published this week in the journal Nature.

The object may be continuously beaming strong radio waves from its north and south poles. As that beam swept through the line of sight from Earth’s vantage point, it appeared to switch on every 18 minutes and 11 seconds for about 30 to 60 seconds, then off again. That is an effect similar to a lighthouse with a rotating light that seems to blink on and off from the perspective of a stationary observer. It was found in a broader research effort mapping celestial sources of radio waves.

“This is an entirely new kind of source that no one has ever seen before,” Hurley-Walker said. “And while we know the Milky Way must be full of slowly spinning neutron stars, no one expected them to be able to produce bright radio emission like this. It’s a dream come true to find something so totally unexpected and amazing.”

It is located relatively close to Earth in cosmic terms, roughly 4,200 light years – the distance light travels in a year, 5.9 trillion miles (9.5 trillion km) – away.

“It’s incredibly bright when it’s ‘on.’ It’s one of the brightest radio sources in the sky,” said study co-author Tyrone O’Doherty, a Curtin ICRAR node doctoral student who found the object. It fits into a category called “transients” – astrophysical objects that appear to turn on for limited amounts of time. “Slow transients” like a supernova can suddenly appear then disappear a few months later as the stellar explosion dissipates. Pulsars are “fast transients,” rapidly blinking on and off. Transients between these two extremes had remained elusive until now.

Neutron stars including pulsars are among the universe’s densest objects. They are roughly 7.5 miles (12 km) in diameter – akin to the size of a city – but with more mass than our sun. A neutron star with an extreme magnetic field, a magnetar, could potentially power the radio pulsations, the researchers said.

As for why its rotation is so slow, it could be that it is very old and has slowed over time, according to Curtin ICRAR node astrophysicist and study co-author Gemma Anderson. “This is more likely to be the ‘first of its kind’ rather than ‘one of a kind,” Anderson said. It also perhaps could be another type of dead star called a white dwarf or something completely unknown, Hurley-Walker said. The researchers have not detected it since 2018.”We are now monitoring this object using many different radio telescopes in the hope it switches ‘on’ again,” Anderson said.

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The Small-crested Angelshark is the fourth new species of Squatina identified in the Western Atlantic in the last decade.

An international team of researchers has presented the first report of an angel shark from the Central American Caribbean. The team came across the new species while exploring the biodiversity of benthic organisms, or those living on the ocean floor of Central America’s Pacific and Caribbean coasts.

It was named Squatina mapama after the acronym MAPAMA, (Ministerio de Agricultura y Pesca, Alimentación y Medio Ambiente) which is the Spanish governmental organization that operates the research vessel used for the expeditions.

The team suggested the common name Small-crested Angelshark because of its short and narrow line of small scales. It can grow to a maximum of over 40 cm in length. The findings were published in the Journal of the Ocean Science Foundation.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), many angel shark species are endangered. Squatina are flat-bodied sharks and resemble stingrays.

S. mapama looks very similar to another species that lives around the same area named Squatina david. There were only subtle physical differences between the two and genetic analyses helped establish them as a separate species.

The Small-crested Angelshark is the fourth new species of Squatina identified in the Western Atlantic in the last decade.

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Unlike burning fossil fuels or the fission process of existing nuclear power plants, fusion offers the prospect of abundant energy without pollution, radioactive waste or greenhouse gases.

US government scientists said on Wednesday they have taken an important step in the long trek toward making nuclear fusion – the very process that powers stars – a viable energy source for humankind.

Using the world’s largest laser, the researchers coaxed fusion fuel for the first time to heat itself beyond the heat they zapped into it, achieving a phenomenon called a burning plasma that marked a stride toward self-sustaining fusion energy.

The energy produced was modest – about the equivalent of nine nine-volt batteries of the kind that power smoke detectors and other small devices. But the experiments at a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory facility in California represented a milestone in the decades-long quest to harness fusion energy, even as the researchers cautioned that years of more work are needed.

The experiments produced the self-heating of matter in a plasma state through nuclear fusion, which is the combining of atomic nuclei to release energy. Plasma is one of the various states of matter, alongside solid, liquid and gas.

“If you want to make a camp fire, you want to get the fire to hot enough that the wood can keep itself burning,” said Alex Zylstra, an experimental physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory – part of the US Energy Department – and lead author of the research published in the journal Nature.”This is a good analogy for a burning plasma, where the fusion is now starting to become self-sustaining,” Zylstra said.

The scientists directed 192 laser beams toward a small target containing a capsule less than a tenth of an inch (about 2 mm) in diameter filled with fusion fuel consisting of a plasma of deuterium and tritium – two isotopes, or forms, of hydrogen. At very high temperatures, the nucleus of the deuterium and the nucleus of the tritium fuse, a neutron and a positively charged particle called an “alpha particle” – consisting of two protons and two neutrons – emerge, and energy is released.

“Fusion requires that we get the fuel incredibly hot in order for it to burn – like a regular fire, but for fusion we need about a hundred million degrees (Fahrenheit). For decades we’ve been able to cause fusion reactions to occur in experiments by putting a lot of heating into the fuel, but this isn’t good enough to produce net energy from fusion,” Zylstra said. “Now, for the first time, fusion reactions occurring in the fuel provided most of the heating – so fusion is starting to dominate over the heating we did. This is a new regime called a burning plasma,” Zylstra said.

Unlike burning fossil fuels or the fission process of existing nuclear power plants, fusion offers the prospect of abundant energy without pollution, radioactive waste or greenhouse gases. Nuclear fission energy comes from splitting atoms. Fusion energy comes from fusing atoms together, just like inside stars, including our sun.

Private-sector ventures – dozens of companies and institutions – also are pursuing a fusion energy future, with some oil companies even investing.

“Fusion energy is the holy grail of clean limitless energy,” said Annie Kritcher of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, lead designer for the experiments conducted in 2020 and 2021 at the National Ignition Facility and first author of a companion paper published in the journal Nature Physics.

In these experiments, fusion produced about 10 times as much energy as went into heating the fuel, but less than 10 per cent of the total amount of laser energy because the process remains inefficient, Zylstra said. The laser was used for only about 10 billionths of a second in each experiment, with fusion production lasting 100 trillionths of a second, Kritcher added.

Zylstra said he is encouraged by the progress. “Making fusion a reality is an enormously complex technological challenge, and it will require serious investment and innovation to make it practical and economical,” Zylstra said. “I view fusion as a decadal-scale challenge for it to be a viable source of energy.”

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While numerous spacecraft sent to the moon have crashed there, this appears to be the first time that something from Earth not aimed at the moon will end up there.

Written by Kenneth Chang

SpaceX will be getting to the moon a bit more than a month from now, far earlier than expected.

But it is all by accident, and it will cause a bit of a mess.

SpaceX, the rocket company started by Elon Musk, has been selected by NASA to provide the spaceship that will take its astronauts back to the surface of the moon. That is still years away.

Instead, it is the 4-ton upper stage of a SpaceX rocket launched seven years ago that is to crash into the moon March 4, based on recent observations and calculations by amateur astronomers.

Impact is predicted for 7:25 a.m. Eastern time, and while there is still some uncertainty in the exact time and place, the rocket piece is not going to miss the moon, said Bill Gray, developer of Project Pluto, a suite of astronomical software used to calculate the orbits of asteroids and comets.

“It is quite certain it’s going to hit, and it will hit within a few minutes of when it was predicted and probably within a few kilometers,” Gray said.

Since the beginning of the Space Age, various human-made artifacts have headed off into the solar system, not necessarily expected to be seen again. That includes Musk’s Tesla Roadster, which was sent on the first launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket in 2018 to an orbit passing Mars. But sometimes they come back around, like in 2020 when a newly discovered mystery object turned out to be part of a rocket launched in 1966 during NASA’s Surveyor missions to the moon.

Gray has for years followed this particular piece of SpaceX detritus, which helped launch the Deep Space Climate Observatory for the National Oceanic and the Atmospheric Administration on Feb. 11, 2015.

That observatory, also known by the shortened name DSCOVR, was headed to a spot about 1 million miles from Earth where it can provide early warning of potentially destructive eruptions of energetic particles from the sun.

DSCOVR was originally called Triana, an Earth observation mission championed by Al Gore when he was vice president. The spacecraft, derisively called GoreSat, was put into storage for years until it was adapted for use as a solar storm warning system. Today it regularly captures images of the whole of planet Earth from space, the original purpose of Triana, including instances when the moon crosses in front of the planet.

Most of the time, the upper stage of a Falcon 9 rocket is pushed back into Earth’s atmosphere after it has delivered its payload to orbit, a tidy way to avoid cluttering space.

But this upper stage needed all of its propellant to send DSCOVR on its way to its distant destination, and it ended up in a very high, elongated orbit around Earth, passing the orbit of the moon.

That opened the possibility of a collision someday. The motion of the Falcon 9 stage, dead and uncontrolled, is determined primarily by the gravitational pull of the Earth, the moon and the sun and a nudge of pressure from sunlight.

Debris in low-Earth orbit is closely tracked because of the danger to satellites and the International Space Station, but more distant objects like the DSCOVR rocket are mostly forgotten.

“As far as I know, I am the only person tracking these things,” Gray said.

While numerous spacecraft sent to the moon have crashed there, this appears to be the first time that something from Earth not aimed at the moon will end up there.

On Jan. 5, the rocket stage passed less than 6,000 miles from the moon. The moon’s gravity swung it on a course that looked like it might later cross paths with the moon.

Gray put out a request to amateur astronomers to take a look when the object zipped past Earth last week.

One of the people who answered the call was Peter Birtwhistle, a retired information technology professional who lives about 50 miles west of London. On Thursday last week, the domed 16-inch telescope in his garden, grandly named the Great Shefford Observatory, pointed at the part of the sky where the rocket stage zipped past in a few minutes.

“This thing’s moving pretty fast,” Birtwhistle said.

The observations pinned down the trajectory enough to predict an impact. Astronomers will have a chance to take one more look next month before the rocket stage swings out beyond the moon one last time. It should then come in to hit the far side of the moon, out of sight of anyone from Earth.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will not be in a position to see the impact live. But it will later pass over the expected impact site and take photographs of the freshly excavated crater.

Mark Robinson, a professor of earth and space exploration at Arizona State University who serves as the principal investigator for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s camera, said he expected 4 tons of metal, hitting at a speed of some 5,700 mph, would carve out a divot 10 to 20 meters wide, or up to 65 feet in diameter.

That will give scientists a look at what lies below the surface, and unlike meteor strikes, they will know exactly the size and time of the impact.

India’s Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft, also in orbit around the moon, might also be able to photograph the impact site.

Other spacecraft headed toward the moon this year might get a chance to spot the impact site — if they do not also end up making unintended craters.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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Since 2019, hundreds of marsquakes have been detected by NASA’s InSight lander, and two of the largest occurred last year in the Cerberus Fossae region.

Written by Katherine Kornei

If a rock falls on Mars, and no one is there to see it, does it leave a trace? Yes, and it’s a beautiful herringbone-like pattern, new research reveals.

Scientists have now spotted thousands of tracks on the red planet created by tumbling boulders. Delicate chevron-shaped piles of Martian dust and sand frame the tracks, the team showed, and most fade over the course of a few years.

Rockfalls have been spotted elsewhere in the solar system, including on the moon and even a comet. But a big open question is the timing of these processes on other worlds — are they ongoing or did they predominantly occur in the past?

A study of these ephemeral features on Mars, published last month in Geophysical Research Letters, says that such boulder tracks can be used to pinpoint recent seismic activity on the red planet. This new evidence that Mars is a dynamic world runs contrary to the notion that all of the planet’s exciting geology happened much earlier, said Ingrid Daubar, a planetary scientist at Brown University who was not involved in the study.

“For a long time, we thought that Mars was this cold, dead planet,” Daubar said.

To arrive at this finding, Vijayan, a planetary scientist at the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmadabad, India, who uses a single name, and his colleagues pored over thousands of images of Mars’ equatorial region. The imagery was captured from 2006 through 2020 by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera onboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and revealed details as small as 10 inches across.

“We can discriminate individual boulders,” Vijayan said.

The team manually searched for chain-like features — a telltale signature of a rock careening down an incline — on the sloped walls of impact craters. Vijayan and his collaborators spotted more than 4,500 such boulder tracks, the longest of which stretched more than a mile and a half.

Sometimes the tracks change direction and occasionally new tracks suddenly branch off, Vijayan said. Such changing tracks are likely evidence that a boulder disintegrated mid-fall and that its offspring continued bouncing downslope.

Roughly one-third of the tracks the researchers studied were absent in early images, meaning that they must have formed since 2006. The bounce marks of all of these young tracks are framed by a chevron-shaped pile of Martian regolith. That material, which Vijayan and his colleagues nicknamed “boulder fall ejecta,” is kicked out each time a boulder impacts the surface, the researchers propose.

And that boulder fall material is transient: By tracing the same tracks in images obtained at different times, the team found that boulder fall ejecta tends to remain visible for only about four to eight years. The researchers suggest that winds continuously sweeping over the surface of Mars redistribute dust and sand and erase the ejecta.

Because boulder fall ejecta fades so rapidly, seeing it implies that a boulder was dislodged recently, the team suggest. And a common cause of rockfalls, on Earth and elsewhere, is seismic activity.

Vijayan and his collaborators found that roughly 30% of the boulder tracks in their sample with boulder fall ejecta were concentrated in the Cerberus Fossae region of Mars. That’s far more than expected, the researchers say, since this region encompasses only 1% of the study’s area.

“The surrounding craters have lots of boulder falls,” Vijayan said. “A few of them even have multiple falls in the same location.”

That makes sense, said Alfred McEwen, a planetary geologist at the University of Arizona and the principal investigator of HiRISE, not involved in the research. The geography near Cerberus Fossae, namely the Tharsis volcanic region, predisposes the area to seismic activity.

“These giant masses of dense rock loaded up on the surface creates stresses throughout the surrounding crust of Mars,” McEwen said.

Since 2019, hundreds of marsquakes have been detected by NASA’s InSight lander, and two of the largest occurred last year in the Cerberus Fossae region.

In the future, Vijayan and his collaborators plan to extend their analysis to Mars’ polar regions. The HiRISE camera will hopefully oblige, McEwen said, despite the instrument being significantly past its design lifetime.

“HiRISE is still going strong,” McEwen said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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The Australian lungfish is now a threatened species and can no longer be exported from Australian waters so biologists at the Academy say it’s unlikely they’ll get a replacement once Methuselah passes away.

Meet Methuselah, the fish that likes to eat fresh figs, get belly rubs and is believed to be the oldest living aquarium fish in the world.

In the Bible, Methuselah was Noah’s grandfather and was said to have lived to be 969 years old. Methuselah the fish is not quite that ancient, but biologists at the California Academy of Sciences believe it is about 90 years old, with no known living peers.

Methuselah is a 4-foot-long (1.2-metre), 18.1-kilogram Australian lungfish that was brought to the San Francisco museum in 1938 from Australia.

A primitive species with lungs and gills, Australian lungfish are believed to be the evolutionary link between fish and amphibians.

No stranger to publicity, Methuselah’s first appearance in the San Francisco Chronicle was in 1947: “These strange creatures — with green scales looking like fresh artichoke leaves — are known to scientists as a possible ‘missing link’ between terrestrial and aquatic animals.”

Until a few years ago, the oldest Australian lungfish was at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. But that fish, named Granddad, died in 2017 at the age of 95.

“By default, Methuselah is the oldest,” said Allan Jan, senior biologist at the Academy and the fish’s keeper. Methuselah’s caretakers believe the fish is female, although it’s difficult to determine the species’ sex without a risky blood draw. The Academy plans to send a tiny sample of her fin to researchers in Australia, who will try to confirm the sex and figure out the fish’s exact age.

Jan says Methuselah likes getting rubbed on her back and belly and has a “mellow” personality.

“I tell my volunteers, pretend she’s an underwater puppy, very mellow, gentle, but of course if she gets spooked she will have sudden bouts of energy. But for the most part she’s just calm,” Jan said. Methuselah has developed a taste for seasonal figs.

“She’s a little picky and only likes figs when they are fresh and in season. She won’t eat them when they’re frozen,” said Jeanette Peach, spokeswoman for the California Academy of Sciences.

The Academy has two other Australian lungfish that are younger, both believed to be in their 40s or 50s, Jan said.

The Australian lungfish is now a threatened species and can no longer be exported from Australian waters so biologists at the Academy say it’s unlikely they’ll get a replacement once Methuselah passes away.

“We just give her the best possible care we can provide, and hopefully she thrives,” Jan said.

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Despite human encroachments on tropical forests and other wild zones, much of the Greater Mekong is still little explored and each year dozens of new species are found — a glimmer of hope as so many species go extinct.

A monkey with ghostly white circles around its eyes is among 224 new species listed in the World Wildlife Fund’s latest update on the greater Mekong region.

The conservation group’s report, released Wednesday, highlights the need to protect the rich biodiversity and habitats in the region, which includes Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar.

The species listed were found in 2020 but last year’s report was delayed. The monkey is called the Popa langur, for it lives on the steep hillsides of the extinct Mt. Popa volcano in Myanmar. It was the only new mammal. There are also dozens of newly identified reptiles, frogs and newts, fish and 155 plant species, including the only known succulent bamboo species, found in Laos.

The Mekong region is a biodiversity hotspot and home to tigers, Asian elephants, saola — an extremely rare animal also called the Asian unicorn or spindlehorn — and thousands of other species.

Including this latest list, scientists have identified more than 3,000 new species in the region since 1997, the WWF said.

Scientists used measurements and samples from museum collections to compare and identify key differences with features of the newly discovered animals and plants, the report said.

Studying such differences can help determine the range of species and threats to their survival, Thomas Ziegler, a curator at the University of Cologne’s Institute of Zoology, said in introducing the report.

Identifying new species is tricky, though, and sometimes can only be determined using a variety of methods, such as frog calls and genetic data used to distinguish the Cardamom leaf little frog, found high up in the Cardamom mountains in a wildlife refuge.

Some species are found in more than one country, including the bright orange twin slug snake, which consumes slugs.

The Popa langur was identified based on genetic matching of recently gathered bones with specimens from Britain’s Natural History Museum collected more than a century ago, the report said. Two main distinguishing characteristics were the broad white rings around its eyes and its front-pointing whiskers.

The WWF, working with Fauna and Flora International, caught images of the monkeys using camera traps in 2018. FFI reported the discovery late last year.

The monkey is a candidate to be listed as a critically endangered species on the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the report said, since only 200-250 are thought to survive in the wild, in a handful of places.

Underscoring the urgency of such work, more than 38,000 of the 138,000 species the IUCN tracks are threatened with extinction.

A new type of begonia with reddish flowers and a berry-like fruit also was found in the uplands of Myanmar, where illegal mining and logging have become an increasingly dire threat in the country, which is in the midst of political turmoil following a military takeover a year ago.

Despite human encroachments on tropical forests and other wild zones, much of the Greater Mekong is still little explored and each year dozens of new species are found — a glimmer of hope as so many species go extinct.

Not all new species are found deep in jungles. One of the new plant species is a ginger plant called “stink bug” for its pungent odor similar to big beetles Thais use to make a kind of chili dipping paste served with rice, the report said.

It was found in northeastern Thailand, in a plant shop.

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The team used the data from Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS), a multi-frequency radar sounder on board the Mars Express spacecraft.

In 2018, the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft detected some bright radar reflections at the ice-covered south pole of Mars. Scientists suspected that they were looking at liquid water at about 1.4 km under the ice. However, a new study published yesterday states that the reflections may be caused by volcanic rock buried under the ice.

“For water to be sustained this close to the surface, you need both a very salty environment and a strong, locally generated heat source, but that doesn’t match what we know of this region,” said the study’s lead author, Cyril Grima, a planetary scientist at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics in a release. The findings were published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

The team used the data from Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS), a multi-frequency radar sounder on board the Mars Express spacecraft which is still operating today, providing about 15 years of measurements.

The team explains that on Earth too, rocks formed by lava flows reflect radar in a similar way.

Last year, a paper published in the same journal had said that clay minerals might be creating the mysterious signals.

Isaac Smith, a Mars geophysicist at York University, who was not involved in the study added: “I think the beauty of Grima’s finding is that while it knocks down the idea there might be liquid water under the planet’s south pole today, it also gives us really precise places to go look for evidence of ancient lakes and riverbeds and test hypotheses about the wider drying out of Mars’ climate over billions of years.”

Dr Cyril Grima and Dr Isaac Smith are now working on proposed missions to find water on Mars with radar. This will help find future human landing sites and also search for signs of past life.

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When a whale lunges, the oral plug protects the respiratory and digestive tracts from being flooded by the water and the critters that the animal has taken in.

Written by Sam Jones

To capture prey, humpbacks, minkes and other whales use a tactic called lunge feeding. They accelerate — their mouths open to nearly 90 degrees — and engulf a volume of water large enough to fill their entire bodies.

“It’s crazy. Imagine putting an entire human inside your mouth,” said Kelsey Gil, a zoologist studying whale physiology at the University of British Columbia.

As water floods into the whale’s mouth, its throat pouch expands, leaving the whale looking like a bloated tadpole. After about a minute, the throat pouch deflates as most of the water leaves the whale’s mouth, released back into the ocean. Small fish and krill are captured in the whale’s baleen — plates of keratin that hang from the top of the whale’s mouth resembling bristles on a toothbrush — and are swallowed into the whale’s stomach.

Scientists did not know how these whales avoided choking on prey-filled water and flooding their respiratory tracts during a lunge feeding event. Now Gil and colleagues have discovered a large, bulbous structure that they have termed the “oral plug” — a structure never before described in any other animal — that they think makes lunge feeding possible. Their results were published in Current Biology.

Lunge-feeding whales are also called rorqual whales and include two of the largest animals on Earth: the blue and fin whales. Through lunge feeding, rorqual whales ingest thousands of pounds of food every day, a feeding strategy that allows them to maintain their hulking physiques, which can weigh more than 300,000 pounds in the case of blue whales.

To determine how these whales are safely chowing down — and not choking — on their food, Gil and colleagues analyzed deceased fin whales. When opening up the mouth of the first whale, they were confused by what they saw.

“If you look in the mirror at the back of your throat, it’s just a big, empty space,” Gil said. “But when we were looking in the back of this whale’s mouth, there was this space that was just plugged with tissue, and we thought, ‘That doesn’t make sense. That’s where food has to travel through; why is it being blocked off like that?’”

By physically manipulating and dissecting the mass of muscle and tissue — the oral plug — the researchers determined that when the animal is at rest, the plug blocks off the whale’s pharynx, a tube-shaped structure that leads to both the respiratory and digestive tracts, just like in other mammals, including humans. When a whale lunges, the oral plug protects both tracts from being flooded by the water and the critters that the animal has taken in.

For the whale to ingest food, that oral plug needs to move. Again through manipulation and dissection, the researchers figured out that when the animal was ready to swallow its latest meal, the oral plug shifted upward to protect the upper respiratory tract, including the nasal cavities and blowhole. At the same time, the larynx — the structure in the pharynx that guards the entrance to the lungs — closes up and shifts downward, sealing off the lower respiratory tract. In other words, during swallowing, the pharynx only leads to the digestive tract, and the upper and lower airways are protected.

“This fills in a blank that we didn’t even know really existed,” Gil said of the team’s findings.

Ari Friedlaender, who studies whale feeding behaviors at the University of California, Santa Cruz, but was not involved in this research, sees immense value in filling in these anatomical blanks about whales.

“The more we can understand how they developed these means for being able to eat so much and to be so efficient as foragers, the more we understand about what their capacities are and how they function as part of marine ecosystems,” Friedlaender said. “It’s sort of the ultimate evolution of anatomy to be able to do these things that no other animals can do.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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The pulse registered as perturbations in the atmospheric pressure lasting several minutes as it moved over North America, India, Europe and many other places around the globe.

Written by Kevin Hamilton

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption reached an explosive crescendo on January 15, 2022.

Its rapid release of energy powered an ocean tsunami that caused damage as far away as the U.S. West Coast, but it also generated pressure waves in the atmosphere that quickly spread around the world.
The atmospheric wave pattern close to the eruption was quite complicated, but thousands of miles away it appeared as an isolated wave front travelling horizontally at over 650 miles an hour as it spread outward.

NASA’s James Garvin, chief scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center, told NPR the space agency estimated the blast was around 10 megatons of TNT equivalent, about 500 times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, during World Word II. From satellites watching with infrared sensors above, the wave looked like a ripple produced by dropping a stone in a pond.

The pulse registered as perturbations in the atmospheric pressure lasting several minutes as it moved over North America, India, Europe and many other places around the globe. Online, people followed the progress of the pulse in real time as observers posted their barometric observations to social media. The wave propagated around the whole world and back in about 35 hours.

I am a meteorologist who has studied the oscillations of the global atmosphere for almost four decades. The expansion of the wave front from the Tonga eruption was a particularly spectacular example of the phenomenon of global propagation of atmospheric waves, which has been seen after other historic explosive events, including nuclear tests.

This eruption was so powerful it caused the atmosphere to ring like a bell, though at a frequency too low to hear. It’s a phenomenon first theorized over 200 years ago.

Krakatoa, 1883

The first such pressure wave that attracted scientific attention was produced by the great eruption of Mount Krakatoa in Indonesia in 1883.

The Krakatoa wave pulse was detected in barometric observations at locations throughout the world. Communication was slower in those days, of course, but within a few years, scientists had combined the various individual observations and were able to plot on a world map the propagation of the pressure front in the hours and days after the eruption.

The wave front travelled outward from Krakatoa and was observed making at least three complete trips around the globe. The Royal Society of London published a series of maps illustrating the wave front’s propagation in a famous 1888 report on the eruption.

The waves seen after Krakatoa or the recent Tonga eruption are very low-frequency sound waves. The propagation occurs as local pressure changes produce a force on the adjacent air, which then accelerates, causing an expansion or compression with accompanying pressure changes, which in turn forces air farther along the wave’s path.

In our normal experience with higher-frequency sound waves, we expect sound to travel in straight lines, say, from an exploding firework rocket directly to the ear of onlooker on the ground. But these global pressure pulses have the peculiarity of propagating only horizontally, and so bending as they follow the curvature of the Earth.

A theory of waves that hug the Earth

Over 200 years ago, the great French mathematician, physicist and astronomer Pierre-Simon de Laplace predicted such behaviour.

Laplace based his theory on the physical equations governing atmospheric motions on a global scale. He predicted that there should be a class of motions in the atmosphere that propagate rapidly but hug the surface of the Earth. Laplace showed that the forces of gravity and atmospheric buoyancy favor horizontal air motions relative to vertical air motions, and one effect is to allow some atmospheric waves to follow the curvature of the Earth.

For most of the 19th century, this seemed a somewhat abstract idea. But the pressure data after the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa showed in a dramatic way that Laplace was correct and that these Earth-hugging motions can be excited and will propagate over enormous distances.

Understanding of this behaviour is used today to detect faraway nuclear explosions. But the full implications of Laplace’s theory for the background vibration of the global atmosphere have only recently been confirmed.

Ringing like a bell

An eruption that sets the atmosphere ringing like a bell is one manifestation of the phenomenon that Laplace theorized. The same phenomenon is also present as global vibrations of the atmosphere.
These global oscillations, analogous to the sloshing of water back and forth in a bathtub, have only recently been conclusively detected.

The waves can connect the atmosphere rapidly over the whole globe, rather like waves propagating through a musical instrument, such as a violin string, drum skin or metal bell. The atmosphere can and does ‘ring’ at a set of distinct frequencies.

In 2020, my Kyoto University colleague Takatoshi Sakazaki and I were able to use modern observations to confirm implications of Laplace’s theory for the globally coherent vibrations of the atmosphere. Analyzing a newly released dataset of atmospheric pressure every hour for 38 years at sites worldwide, we were able to spot the global patterns and frequencies that Laplace and others who followed him had theorised.

These global atmospheric oscillations are much too low-frequency to hear, but they are excited continuously by all the other motions in the atmosphere, providing a very gentle but persistent ‘background music’ to the more dramatic weather fluctuations in our atmosphere.

— The author is from the University of Hawaii

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While Beijing is expected to allow the planting of GM corn as early as this year, it may soon promote gene-edited crops too.

China has published trial rules for the approval of gene-edited plants, paving the way for faster improvements to crops.

The new guidelines, published by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs late on Monday, come amid a raft of measures aimed at overhauling the country’s seed industry, which is seen as a weak link in efforts to ensure national food security.

Beijing has also recently passed new regulations that set out a clear path for approval for genetically modified (GM)crops. Gene editing is a newer technology that is seen as less risky than GM because it does not involve adding any foreign genes to a plant.

Instead, scientists ‘edit’ or alter genes already in a plant to improve or change its performance, aiming for better yields or increased nutrients. The technology’s precision makes it much faster than conventional breeding or genetic modification, and also lowers the cost. Regulation is also less cumbersome in some countries.

“This really opens the door for plant breeding. It’s an infinite opportunity to improve crops more precisely and much more efficiently,” said Han Gengchen, chairman of seed company Origin Agritech.

The draft rules stipulate that once gene-edited plants have completed pilot trials, a production certificate can be applied for, skipping the lengthy field trials required for the approval of a genetically modified plant.

China’s leadership said in late 2020 that the country needed to use science and technology for an urgent “turnaround” of its seed industry, which has long struggled with overcapacity and little innovation.

While Beijing is expected to allow the planting of GM corn as early as this year, it may soon promote gene-edited crops too.

The country’s research institutes have already published more research on market-oriented gene-edited crops than any other country, according to Rabobank. “Given the strong investment of the Chinese government in genome editing, we expect the release of a relatively open policy in the coming years,” it said in a recent report.

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We’re one step closer to uncovering the mysteries of the universe, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said.

Today, at around 12.30 am, the James Webb Space Telescope fired its thrusters for 297 seconds and completed the final post-launch course correction. This burn helped insert the world’s most powerful space telescope toward its final orbit – L2 or the second Sun-Earth Lagrange point. The telescope will orbit the Sun and will be about one million miles or 1.5 million kilometres away from Earth.

“Webb, welcome home!” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a release. “We’re one step closer to uncovering the mysteries of the universe. And I can’t wait to see Webb’s first new views of the universe this summer!”

What are Lagrange points and L2?

Named after Italian-French mathematician Josephy-Louis Lagrange, these points are certain positions in space where the gravitational forces of two bodies, for example, the Sun and the Earth, produce a region of great attraction and repulsion and maintain an equilibrium. This region can be used by spacecraft to reduce fuel consumption that is needed to remain in a constant position.

L2 is a position directly behind Earth in the line joining the Sun and the Earth. In a series of tweets, NASA explained why L2 was chosen with the number one reason being the shade. “The Sun, Earth (and Moon) are always on one side. At L2, Webb’s sun shield can always face all of these heat and light sources to protect Webb’s optics and instruments, which have to stay super cold to detect faint heat signals in the universe,” NASA Webb tweeted.

It added that the orbit also ensures that Webb will never have the Sun eclipsed by Earth — necessary for Webb’s thermal stability and power generation. L2 is also convenient for maintaining contact with the Mission Operations Center through the Deep Space Network.

The James Webb Space Telescope isn’t the first spacecraft to orbit L2. The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) launched in 2001 and the Herschel Space Observatory launched in 2009 use this orbit.

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Nature protection remains under-funded worldwide, with the UN urging a four-fold increase in annual investment to $536 billion by 2050.

Walking across a swamp, retired fisherman Ilias Shafie and a small group of villagers plant mangrove saplings on Malaysia’s west coast, one tree at a time.

They have put in some 400,000 mangrove trees since a restoration initiative started two decades ago, in what was initially a bid to increase the catch of local fishermen.

Now their work has taken on extra significance as alarm grows over global warming and nature loss, with mangroves regarded as a key weapon in the fight against climate change.

But the surge of international concern has yet to help this community win the global finance required to expand its project, highlighting the barriers often faced by groups on the ground seeking to tap into growing funding flows for nature protection.

“Mangroves are important to us fishermen – we need them because this is the breeding ground of fish,” said Ilias, 70, recalling how dwindling mangrove forests affected his catch and livelihood, which prompted him to launch the initiative.

Mangroves make up less than 1 per cent of tropical forests worldwide but are crucial in the fight against climate change because they are more effective than most other forests at absorbing and storing planet-heating carbon.

Mangrove ecosystems also protect coastal communities from storm surges, reduce flooding and help shore up food security.

Despite their benefits, they are in decline, with the world’s mangrove area decreasing by just over 1 million hectares between 1990 and 2020, although the rate of loss has slowed in recent years, says the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.


In Malaysia, mangroves are often cleared to make way for infrastructure development and farming, while they are also under threat from industrial pollution and over-harvesting – including in northern Penang state, where Ilias lives.

As fish catches dwindled for him and other fishermen in the late 1990s, Ilias mobilised his peers to join him in restoring the fast-vanishing mangrove forests through the Penang Inshore Fishermen Welfare Association (PIFWA), which he leads.

Their small initiative has won recognition – to date about 30 local companies have sponsored their tree-planting as part of corporate social responsibility projects.

PIFWA charges the companies a small fee of 8 ringgit ($2) per tree planted, while participating fishermen are compensated with allowances for their time and labour.

Now, Ilias is hoping to access larger sums of global funding to plant more trees, but he is struggling with challenges – from ways to access available money and scale up the project to other issues like language barriers and a lack of technical expertise.

He cited an example from an international donor that wanted the group to innovate with new ideas and expand the tree-planting project after an initial round of funding.

“We did not have the capacity to deliver other things, like turning this into an eco-tourism site or getting more youths involved,” he said, adding they did not receive further support as a result.

“We are nervous – we are fishermen and we can’t commit to something we’re not confident in delivering,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on a break from planting mangrove saplings.

His frustration shows the practical difficulties of channelling financing to rehabilitate nature where it is needed, even as more countries and donors invest in so-called “nature-based solutions”, from reforestation to wetland expansion.

New pledges

Over the last decade, less than 1 per cent of international climate finance has gone to indigenous and local communities to manage forests that absorb planet-heating carbon emissions and are rich in biodiversity, according to a recent report from green groups.

Nature protection remains under-funded worldwide, with the UN urging a four-fold increase in annual investment to $536 billion by 2050, to tackle the triple threat of climate change, biodiversity and land degradation.

Lately there has been a rise in pledges, including at November’s UN COP26 climate summit, where about $19 billion was promised in public and private funding to protect and restore forests.

This month, a new global fund was launched by the Rights and Resources Initiative and Campaign for Nature to help indigenous and local groups conserving forests and other ecosystems on the ground access international finance more easily.

Environmentalist Meena Raman said making more small grants available to communities and partnering with local non-profits to overcome language and knowledge barriers would channel money to places that have missed out in the past.

“Nature provides them with jobs, and they protect the ecosystem… It’s about sustainable livelihoods and sustaining nature (at the same time),” said Raman, president of Friends of the Earth Malaysia, a conservation group.

Boost for women

Back in Sungai Acheh, a sleepy village with wooden fishing boats along the river, women said they had also gained from the mangrove-planting initiative.

A group of them has learned from mangrove-dwelling communities in Indonesia how to turn some of the tree species into tea, juice and jam, selling the products for 6-8 ringgit each to boost their household income.

“It has not only helped my husband to increase his fishing catch, but I have benefited from it too,” said Siti Hajar Abdul Aziz, 36, a mother of five.

More coastal communities like hers would gain from protecting nature and improving their livelihoods, if they get financial support to champion similar initiatives, she added.

Siti Hajar hopes one day to find ways to expand sales of her mangrove products by selling them in places like supermarkets.

“Before this I was just sitting at home – I have learned so much since I started doing this,” she said.

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The results showed that the thermal conductivity of bridgmanite was about 1.5 times higher than assumed.

Studying a mineral named bridgmanite commonly found between Earth’s core and mantle, researchers have suspected that Earth’s inner heat is dissipating sooner, making it cool faster than expected.

About 4.5 billion years ago, the surface of young Earth was covered by magma and over the years, the planet’s surface has cooled to form the outer crust. However, there’s still enormous thermal energy in Earth’s core and mantle which governs plate tectonics, earthquakes, and volcanism.

The international team measured the radioactive thermal conductivity of bridgmanite in the laboratory. The core-mantle boundary of Earth is rich in bridgmanite.

“Radiative thermal conductivity is one of the fundamental heat conduction mechanisms. Since it is strongly dependent on the colour (opaqueness), we applied optical absorption measurement of the specimen (bridgmanite) under high-pressure and high-temperature conditions corresponding to the Earth’s core-mantle boundary region,” explained lead author Motohiko Murakami from ETH Zürich, Switzerland in an email to The Indian Express.

The results showed that the thermal conductivity of bridgmanite was about 1.5 times higher than assumed. These findings also suggest that other rocky planets may be cooling and becoming inactive faster than expected.

The paper recently published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters adds that this cooling can weaken many tectonic activities.

When asked if this will lead to lesser earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in the future, Dr. Murakami said: “Yes, I believe so. Since all the tectonic activities (earthquakes, volcanism, and plate tectonics) can be ultimately driven by the thermal energy released from the deep Earth’s interior through mantle convection, the dynamics of the Earth’s mantle and the surface tectonic activity should be more or less synchronised.”

However, he adds that it is challenging to track how long it will take for the cooling to happen which will ultimately stop the convection currents in the mantle.

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Callichimaera is also the youngest-known fossil arthropod with both eyes and preserved neural tissue.

Written by Asher Elbein

Modern, adult crabs are not renowned for their swimming ability or their vision. They scuttle across the floors of silent seas, hardly reliant on small eyes as they scavenge or graze.

But 95 million years ago, an unusual crab flitted with unusual grace around the tropical waters of what is now Colombia. The quarter-size species, Callichimaera perplexa, looked a bit like a spider, with flat, oarlike legs and a keeled body. And it had a large set of eyes, too.

In a study published last month in the journal iScience, a group of paleontologists have shown that those eyes gave Callichimaera remarkably sharp vision and a likely lifestyle as a free-swimming predator.

The species was initially discovered in 2005 by Javier Luque, a paleontologist from Colombia and now a research fellow at Harvard University. Then an undergraduate, he was exploring the fossil-rich rocks of Colombia’s Boyacá department, as the country’s provinces are known, when he stumbled upon an outcrop full of finely detailed fossil arthropods.

Luque and his colleagues eventually collected more than 100 specimens, many of them extremely well-preserved. “It’s a huge sample size,” Luque said. “Seldom do you have 100 specimens.”

Seven of the specimens preserved detailed eyes. But these presented a puzzle, Luque said: Living crabs usually have tiny compound eyes, which are at the end of a stalk and covered by a protective orbit. Callichimaera’s compound eyes were large, with no stalk or orbits.

Crabs go through multiple stages of growth, beginning life as tiny, rather shrimplike creatures before settling into their final armored forms. In the last larval stage, the megalopa, young crabs are free-swimming predators that have relatively big eyes. When Luque and his colleagues formally described the fossil in 2019, they therefore thought it might represent a crab in its last larval stage, albeit an unusually large one.

“If you’ve got these huge eyes, you must be using them for something, especially since no other crab has this,” said Kelsey Jenkins, a paleontologist at Yale and a co-author on the paper. “Javier wanted a more in-depth look at this animal, because its anatomy is so weird.”

To figure out how Callichimaera used its eyes, Jenkins and Luque used the abundance of available Callichimaera specimens to put together a growth sequence. They compared this with 14 living species from across the crab family tree. They were surprised to find that — unlike other crab species — Callichimaera retained its large eyes into adulthood.

In fact, their calculations showed that Callichimaera’s compound eyes grew faster than those of the modern crabs the team sampled. At their final size, their eyes took up around 16% of their body, the equivalent of a person walking around with eyes the size of soccer balls.

Animals with compound eyes have an essentially pixelated view of the world, Jenkins said, with each facet of the eye delivering a separate pixel. The higher the pixel count, the sharper the vision. The team’s analysis of Callichimaera’s eyes suggests that it had unusually sharp vision for a crab — closer to efficient, clear-eyed predators like dragonflies and mantis shrimps.

“Whatever this animal was doing, it must have used such big eyes actively,” Luque said. “They’re a huge drag in the water, and they’re vulnerable. So whatever drawbacks that are there for such big eyes, they must have been nothing compared to the advantages.”

When combined with the paddle legs and streamlined body, Luque said, these fast-growing, powerful eyes suggested that adult Callichimaera preyed on smaller creatures. And they did so by maintaining their predatory larval form into adulthood, rather than making the final transformation into the flat and scuttling shape favored by other crabs.

Callichimaera is also the youngest-known fossil arthropod with both eyes and preserved neural tissue. Most arthropods with fossilized brains come from sites that are half a billion years old, where it is rare to get a good look at an animals’ visual processing system. “Usually, you can find elements of the brain, but the eyes are gone, or vice versa. But Callichimaera has both,” Luque said.

The site that produced Callichimaera is likely to have many more secrets to share.

“There’s a huge gap in the fossil record, because we’re not collecting enough fossils or doing much fieldwork in the tropics,” Luque said. “Usually these places are covered in vegetation, and the rocks weather very fast. Finding such exquisite preservation there is opening new avenues to study the fossil record with fresh eyes. No pun intended.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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On January 1, 2022, the Hubble Space Telescope officially passed the one-billion-second mark.

NASA has released an image of the spiral arms of the galaxy NGC 3318 captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. The galaxy lies in the constellation named Vela which is about 115 million light years away from Earth.

Vela is part of a larger constellation known as Argo Navis. It gets its name from the fabled ship Argo from the Greek mythology. The Argo Navis constellation is split into three parts — Carina, Puppis, and Vela.

In the image, you can see the outer edges of the galaxy resembling a ship’s sails.

Last week, the Hubble helped spot a black hole in the Henize 2-10 galaxy which was helping create stars rather than swallowing them. The dwarf galaxy lies 30 million light years away.

On January 1, 2022, the Hubble Space Telescope achieved another milestone – it officially passed the one-billion-second mark.

Deployed on April 25, 1990, Hubble has helped make groundbreaking scientific discoveries and also captured iconic images of space. “We can only imagine what discoveries the next one-billion seconds will bring as new telescopes like the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope and the future Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope build upon Hubble’s discoveries and work together with Hubble to expand our understanding of the universe,” NASA said in a release.

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On January 24, the team is expected to fire Webb’s thrusters to insert the telescope into its orbit around the Sun.

The largest and most powerful space telescope has successfully deployed its golden mirrors and the testing of the individual mirror segments is now complete.

Erin Wolf, Webb program manager at Ball Aerospace, explained how the mirrors were moved and tested. “The motors made over a million revolutions this week…The mirror deployment team incrementally moved all 132 actuators located on the back of the primary mirror segments and secondary mirror…Using six motors that deploy each segment approximately half the length of a paper clip, these actuators clear the mirrors from their launch restraints and give each segment enough space to later be adjusted in other directions,” Wolf said.

He added that the process of telescope alignment will take approximately three months.

On January 24, the team is expected to fire Webb’s thrusters to insert the telescope into its orbit around the Sun. The telescope will be nearly 1 million miles from Earth.

Webb’s scientists and engineers will also answer questions about the latest milestones at 3 pm EST on Monday (1.30 am IST Tuesday). It will be broadcasted live on the NASA Science Live website, NASA’s YouTube channel, Facebook and Twitter pages.

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Darwin's world view was shaped by the culture of his time, and his personal writings make it difficult to mount a particularly robust defence.

Written by Matthew Wills

Sex is an expensive business, biologically speaking. Finding a suitable mate takes time and energy. Offspring are also a huge investment of resources. But sex does offer a rewarding possibility: children who are fitter than their parents thanks to new and “better” combinations of genes. Darwin realised that many animal species therefore carefully select their mates.

There is an innate biological inequality, however. Eggs are relatively few in number — a large and costly investment — while sperm are small and vastly more abundant. And embryos often need further investment in the body or outside. Since the greater investment tends to fall on females, they are often the more selective sex (while males compete to be chosen).

But according to a new paper, published in Science, Charles Darwin’s patriarchal world view led him to dismiss female agency and mate choice in humans.

He also downplayed the role of female variation in other animal species, assuming they were rather uniform, and always made similar decisions. And he thought there was enormous variation among the males who battled for female attention by showing off stunning ranges of skills and beauty. This maintained the focus on the dynamics of male dominance hierarchies, sexual ornamentation and variation as drivers of sexual selection, even if females sometimes did the choosing.

But do Darwin’s ideas on sexual selection hold up today?

Complex choices

When animals choose a partner, their appearance, sound and smell can all be accurate guides to the survival ability of the prospective mate. For example, large antlers in deer are a good indicator of fighting ability, dominance and overall fitness. But many other traits can be chosen because they are otherwise conspicuous and attractive yet may be a poor guide to overall genetic quality, or even misleading.

Females may evolve to choose mates with whom their offspring are less likely to survive, provided there are more such offspring as a trade off. In some species of poecilid fish, for example, male attractiveness is linked to genes that can reduce their survival. Females therefore face a dilemma: mate with a more attractive male and produce some highly attractive but otherwise less vigorous sons, or mate with a less attractive male to maximise the survival of those sons. Which strategy will produce most grandchildren?

Females may therefore select for traits in males that apparently have no other bearing upon their ability to survive. The peacock’s tail is a handicap in most other aspects of its life — an impediment to flight and evading predators — save for the attraction of a female. However, it may also be true that the ability of a male to manage such a burden is itself a marker of overall genetic quality and rigour.

It isn’t always females who choose. In pipefishes, the males invest heavily by carrying the fertilised eggs until they hatch, and it is the females who compete with each other in order to secure the attentions of males.

Optimal mate choice is not the same for all individuals, or at all times in their development. For example, younger satin bowerbirds are frightened by the most vigorous male displays, while older females typically find these most attractive. And many fishes are sequential hermaphrodites, changing sex — and therefore mate choices — as they age.

Research since Darwin therefore reveals that mate choice is a far more complex process than he may have supposed, and is governed by variation in both sexes.

Was Darwin a sexist?

So, is the accusation of sexism levelled at Darwin really valid, and did this cloud his science? There is certainly some evidence that Darwin underestimated the importance of variation, strategy and even promiscuity in most female animals.

For example, Darwin – possibly as a result of a prevailing prudishness – placed little emphasis on mechanisms of sexual selection that operate after mating. Female birds and mammals may choose to mate with multiple males, and their sperm can compete to fertilise one or more eggs within the reproductive tract.

Cats, dogs and other animals can have litters with multiple fathers (the gloriously named “heteropaternal superfecundation” – even though the sound of it is really quite atrocious!).

There is even some suggestion that the human penis — being thicker than our nearest primate relatives — is an adaptation for physically displacing the sperm of competing males. Such earthy speculations were anathema to Darwin’s sensibilities.

Female blue tits often mate with multiple males in order to ensure their protection and support – a somewhat manipulative strategy when paternity for the prospective fathers is uncertain. All this challenges Darwin’s assumption that females are relatively passive and non-strategic.

Where males make a greater investment, they become more active in mate choice. Male (rather than female) poison dart frogs (Dendrobates auratus) protect the young, and therefore attract multiple females who compete to lay eggs for them to fertilise. Many bird species have biparental care, and therefore a richer diversity of mating systems.

Inevitably, Darwin’s world view was shaped by the culture of his time, and his personal writings make it difficult to mount a particularly robust defence. In a letter from 1882, he wrote “I certainly think that women, though generally superior to men to [sic] moral qualities are inferior intellectually; & there seems to me to be a great difficulty from the laws of inheritance — in their becoming the intellectual equals of man”.

He also deliberated over the relative merits of marriage, famously noting: “Home, & someone to take care of house — Charms of music & female chit-chat. — These things good for one’s health.– but terrible loss of time”.

Unsurprisingly there is much that Darwin did not fully understand. Darwin — like Albert Einstein, H.G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe — married his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood. Ironically, he knew nothing of genetics and the mechanisms by which close relatives are more likely to have offspring with certain genetic diseases. Intriguingly, our closest relatives in the tree of life, the chimpanzees, naturally circumvent this problem, since females select mates that are more distantly related to them than the average male in the available pool.

Despite its omissions, however, Darwin’s understanding was radically more advanced than anything that preceded it. When combined with the subsequent understanding of genetics and inheritance, Darwin’s writings are still the bedrock of all modern evolutionary biology.

— The author is from the University of Bath

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The team notes that the service and manufacturing sectors are the worst hit.

A recent study has found that an increase in the number of rainy days leads to a downfall in economic output. The researchers from Germany considered precipitation and temperature records in tandem with historical datasets on economic production from 1554 regions worldwide, spanning the last four decades.

The paper published last week in Nature came up with three key takeaways.

One, negative rainfall shocks, which means less rainfall on a monthly basis causes strong and significant losses. When an economy is already adapted to a certain precipitation profile, a negative deviation towards drought-like conditions can be damaging. Also, while greater annual rainfall does benefit economic growth initially, these benefits decrease with even higher rainfall.

Three, increases in extreme daily rainfall lead to reductions in the growth rate; or, in other words, “increase in both the number and severity of extreme rainfall days within a given year reduce economic productivity.”

The impact, however, is not uniform across regions of the globe. Key industrial regions, such as the US, central Europe, China, Korea and Japan have been worst affected in such a scenario.

Furthermore, poorer countries are the most susceptible, showing a 62 per cent higher sensitivity to total annual rainfall than rich countries. Rich countries, on the other hand, are more vulnerable to changes in the ‘number of wet days,’ showing a 47 per cent higher susceptibility than poorer countries. This is explained by the fact that changes in annual/monthly/daily precipitation do not affect all sectors of the economy either.

The team notes that the service (tertiary) and manufacturing (secondary) sectors are the worst hit, while the agriculture (primary) sector shows little to no response to extreme daily rainfall and the number of wet days.

As rich countries are the least dependent on agriculture, and more on the secondary and tertiary sector, they tend to be more vulnerable to the parameters for daily rainfall.

“Our study reveals that it’s precisely the fingerprint of global warming in daily rainfall which has hefty economic effects that have not yet been accounted for but are highly relevant”, says co-author Anders Levermann, head of the Potsdam Institute’s Complexity Science domain, Germany in a release. “Taking a closer look at short time scales instead of annual averages helps to understand what is going on: it’s the daily rainfall which poses the threat…By destabilising our climate we harm our economies.”

Quantifying the impact of availability and variability of water on the economy has long been under the academic and policy-making scanner.

A 2020 paper recognised “that water scarcity can result in terms-of-trade losses for countries that produce water-intensive goods” and a study on Latin American cities in 2019 showed that water scarcity can “decrease the probability of being employed, hourly wages, hours worked, and labour incomes,” especially for the informal workforce. An earlier 2020 study, also projected that an increase in the global mean surface temperature by 3.5 degrees Celsius by 2100 would reduce the global output by 7 to 14 per cent.

– The author is a freelance science communicator. (mail[at]ritvikc[dot]com)

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According to the surgical team, the pig kidneys started functioning and making urine after about 23 minutes and continued to do so for three days, though one kidney made more urine than the other.

Written by Roni Caryn Rabin

Surgeons at the University of Alabama at Birmingham reported Thursday that they had for the first time successfully transplanted kidneys from a genetically modified pig into the abdomen of a 57-year-old brain-dead man.

The announcement was the latest in a series of remarkable feats in organ transplantation. Earlier this month, surgeons at the University of Maryland transplanted a heart from a genetically modified pig into a 57-year-old patient with heart failure. That patient is still alive and under observation.

In September, surgeons at NYU Langone Health attached a kidney from a genetically modified pig to a brain-dead individual who was being maintained on a ventilator. Although it remained outside the body, the kidney worked normally, making urine and creatinine, a waste product.

The UAB surgery was reported in The American Journal of Transplantation, the first time a pig-to-human organ transplantation has been described in a peer-reviewed medical journal.

According to the surgical team, the pig kidneys started functioning and making urine after about 23 minutes and continued to do so for three days, though one kidney made more urine than the other.

The patients’s own kidneys were removed, and there were no signs indicating rejection of the pig organs.

Dr. Jayme Locke, the lead surgeon, said that the procedure had closely followed all of the steps of a regular human-to-human transplant operation and that critical safety questions had been addressed, laying the groundwork for a small clinical trial with live patients that she hoped to begin by the end of the year.

Many of the previous operations have been unique experiments, not part of ongoing trials.

“Our goal is not to have a one-off, but to advance the field to help our patients,” said Locke, who is director of UAB’s Incompatible Kidney Transplant Program. “What a wonderful day it will be when I can walk into clinic and know I have a kidney for everyone waiting to see me.”

Alabama has one of the highest rates of chronic kidney disease in the nation: 2,348 cases per million residents. Often a result of diabetes or high blood pressure, kidney disease is most common in older adults, but it disproportionately affects people of color, women, and those with less education and lower incomes.

In Alabama, kidney disease rates are unusually high in adults ages 45-64. Kidney patients who do not receive transplants from a compatible donor must undergo dialysis treatments about three times a week for several hours each time.

“Kidney failure is refractory, severe and impactful, and we think it needs a radical solution,” Locke said. She hopes to be able to offer pig kidney transplants to her patients within five years, as long as “we hit every milestone, and there are no setbacks.”

In the paper, she and the other authors thanked the family of the brain-dead individual, James Parsons, for consenting to the research and said they would name this type of study after Parsons, a registered organ donor from Huntsville, Alabama, who sustained his injury during a motorcycle race in September.

More than 500,000 Americans have end-stage kidney disease and depend on dialysis. A transplant is the best treatment for kidney failure, but an acute shortage of donor organs leaves that option out of reach for the vast majority of patients.

More than 90,000 people were on waiting lists for a kidney as of last summer. The wait can be long: Fewer than 25,000 kidney transplants are done in the United States each year, and more than a dozen people on the waiting list die each day.

Researchers have long sought to grow organs in pigs that are suitable for transplantation into humans, and in recent years new technologies like cloning and genetic engineering have brought that vision closer to reality.

Xenotransplantation, the practice of implanting animal organs in humans, has progressed in fits and starts for decades. Over the last few months, however, surgeons in the field have reported a string of new accomplishments.

At NYU Langone in September, surgeons experimented with a kidney removed from a pig that had been genetically altered so that its tissue would not prompt an aggressive human rejection response. The kidney was attached to the patient’s thigh and seemed to work, functioning as a kidney should, making urine and creatinine, a waste product, for 54 hours.

But the most stunning such procedure occurred at University of Maryland Medical Center in early January. The patient, David Bennett Sr., had exhausted all other treatment options and was given a genetically modified pig’s heart.

He was weaned from a heart-lung bypass machine Jan. 11. He is doing well and has not rejected the animal’s organ, said Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, the scientific director of the cardiac xenotransplantation program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

“It’s been 12 days now, and he’s progressing. The heart is beating like a new heart,” Mohiuddin said. “It’s like we put a BMW engine in a 1960s car.”

The heart Bennett received was taken from a pig whose genome had undergone 10 alterations, including the removal of four genes to prevent rejection and to prevent continued growth of the organ.

In addition, six human genes were inserted into the donor pig’s genome to make its organs more tolerable to the human immune system.

The pigs were provided by Revivicor, a subsidiary of United Therapeutics Corp., which helped fund the research and provided grant money supporting the salaries of Dr. Paige Porrett, the first author of the paper describing the kidney transplant and an associate professor of transplantation surgery at UAB, as well as Locke and two other study authors. Four of the other authors on the paper are Revivicor employees.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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The discoveries range from the smallest invertebrates of the oceans to the largest predators that ruled Earth millions of years ago.

Braving coronavirus lockdowns and international travel restrictions, London Natural History Museum researchers helped describe 552 new species in 2021.

The museum said that each new species is a single jigsaw piece that, when added into the larger picture, allows scientists to get a better grasp on how all life on our planet is critical for our own survival.

The discoveries range from the smallest invertebrates of the oceans to the largest predators that ruled Earth millions of years ago.

Dr. Tim Littlewood, the Director of Science at the Museum, notes in a release: “Discovery can be a personal, community or even a global revelation, or just a nudge towards advancing knowledge…It’s a matter of personal and institutional pride that we continue to be at the forefront of recognising and naming new species – especially at a time when we are losing so many.”

Here are five of our favourites (in no particular order):

‘Crocodile-faced’ predators

In September, scientists announced that fossils found on a rocky beach in England revealed two new dinosaur predators that lived about 127 million years ago. One was named Ceratosuchops inferodios, meaning “horned crocodile-faced hell heron.” and the other Riparovenator milnerae, meaning “Milner’s riverbank hunter,” honoring British paleontologist Angela Milner.

Click here to read the detailed report

Giant deep ocean scavenger

Meet Eurythenes atacamensis, a close relative of shrimps, endemic to the Atacama Trench. It measured more than eight centimeters, making it a giant compared to shrimps. Juveniles and adults of the species were found in the trench between 4,974 to 8,081 meters. The study is a reminder that extraordinary life thrives even in the deepest darkest parts of the ocean, under harsh conditions.

A 1000-legged creature

Deep in a mining region of Australia, scientists discovered a blind millipede with 1,306 legs. Named Eumillipes persephone, it measures 95 mm long and 0.95 mm wide.

“In my opinion, this is a stunning animal, a marvel of evolution,” said study co-author Bruno Buzatto in a release. “It represents the most extreme elongation found to date in millipedes, which were the first animals to conquer land.”

Read the full report here

Moth imagined by Darwin

In 1862, Charles Darwin was sent an orchid from Madagascar which had a long nectar tube of 30 centimetres. He wrote in a letter to his friend: “Good heavens, what insect can suck it!” He speculated that only a moth with an extraordinarily long tongue could reach the nectar.

A paper published in September formally identified the moth with a 15 to 28.5 centimetres long tongue and named it Xanthopan praedicta.

Tree named after Leonardo DiCaprio

In 2018, Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio lent his name to a beetle found in Malaysia and now to a tree from Cambodia. Named Uvariopsis dicaprio, the tree is four metres tall, with bright yellow-green.

Endemic to the Ebo forest, the newly discovered tree is already in the ‘critically endangered’ category as its habitat remains unprotected and faces threats from logging, conversion to plantations, and mining.

Click here to read more about the tree

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The reef off Tahiti lies in the "twilight zone" 30 to 120 metres below the surface where there is still enough light for coral to grow and reproduce.

Scientists have discovered a pristine, 3-km long reef of giant rose-shaped corals off the coast of Tahiti, in waters thought to be deep enough to protect it from the bleaching effects of the warming ocean.

The reef, which lies at depths of more than 30 metres, probably took around 25 years to grow. Some of the rose-shaped corals measure more than 2 metres in diameter.

“It was magical to witness giant, beautiful rose corals which stretch for as far as the eye can see. It was like a work of art,” said French photographer Alexis Rosenfeld, who led the team of international divers that made the discovery.

Most of the world’s known coral reefs are in warmer waters at depths of up to 25 metres, UNESCO said. The reef off Tahiti lies in the “twilight zone” 30 to 120 metres below the surface where there is still enough light for coral to grow and reproduce.

Bleaching is a stress response by overheated corals during heat waves during which they lose their colour, with many struggling to survive. Perhaps the most famous – Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, a World Heritage-listed wonder – has suffered severe bleaching to an estimated 80 per cent of its corals since 2016.

The discovery off Tahiti’s shores suggests there may be many more unknown large reefs in our oceans, given that only about 20 per cent of the entire seabed is mapped, according to UNESCO scientists.

“It also raises questions about how coral reefs become more resilient to climate change,” UNESCO’s head of marine policy, Julian Barbiere, told Reuters. More of the ocean floor needed to be mapped to better safeguard marine biodiversity, Barbiere said. “We know more about the surface of the moon or the surface of Mars than the deeper part of the ocean.”

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Even before COVID, men had a lower life expectancy, possibly driven by higher rates of certain chronic conditions, more risk-taking behaviors and more dangerous jobs.

Written by Azeen Ghorayshi

It’s one of the most well-known takeaways of the pandemic: Men die of COVID-19 more often than women do.

Early on, some scientists suspected the reason was primarily biological, and that sex-based treatments for men — like estrogen injections or androgen blockers — could help reduce their risk of dying.

But a new study analyzing sex differences in COVID-19 deaths over time in the United States suggests that the picture is much more complicated.

While men overall died at a higher rate than women, the trends varied widely over time and by state, the study found. That suggests that social factors — like job types, behavioral patterns and underlying health issues — played a big role in the apparent sex differences, researchers said.

“There is no single story to tell about sex disparities during this pandemic, even within the United States,” said Sarah Richardson, director of the GenderSci Lab at Harvard University, which studies how biological sex interacts with cultural influences in society.

Richardson’s team began collecting sex data on COVID cases and deaths early in the pandemic, before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began collecting and sharing this information. Her research group logged on every Monday morning and checked each state’s data, maintaining it on a tracker on the lab’s website. The tracker, which stretches from April 2020 through December 2021, is the only source of sex-based weekly COVID-19 data by state.

That data enabled the researchers to analyze COVID case rates and deaths across all 50 states and Washington, D.C. over a period of 55 weeks.

Nationally, they found no significant differences in case rates between men and women. But the death rates — the number of deaths among men or women divided by the state’s total population of each sex — were often higher among men than women.

Just how much higher depended on the state and the date. In Texas, for example, men died at a notably higher rate in every week the research group analyzed. In New York, men died at a higher rate than women — although the gap was not quite as large as in Texas — during all but three weeks. But in Connecticut, women died more than men in 22 of the weeks analyzed.

“You can have states right next door to each other, like Connecticut and New York, that have a totally different pattern but yet experienced the same wave,” Richardson said.

Cumulatively over 55 weeks, mortality rates were slightly higher for women in two states, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. In nine states, including Connecticut, the rates were roughly equal. And in the rest of the country, death rates were higher for men.

Sex differences in genes, hormones or immune responses are not likely to explain these differences, the researchers said.

“There would be no reason for biology to be that variable across time and space,” said Katharine Lee, a biological anthropologist and engineer at Washington University in St. Louis and an author of the new study.

But social and behavioral factors, the researchers said, could help explain many of these patterns.

For example, men are more likely to have jobs in transportation, factories, meatpacking plants, agriculture and construction — occupations with higher rates of COVID-19 exposure and fatalities. Men are also more likely to be incarcerated and to experience homelessness, increasing their risk of virus exposure.

Women are more likely than men to report hand washing, mask wearing and complying with social distancing restrictions, all of which may lower their risk of contracting the virus. And women are more likely to be vaccinated.

The researchers speculated that states with more public health restrictions might see reduced sex differences. In New York, which saw a significantly higher number of male deaths in the first six weeks of the pandemic, mortality rates evened out once restrictions were put in place. The observed differences in New York could also be partly explained by better data collection, as well as underreporting of deaths in long-term care facilities, where the majority of residents are women.

Richardson’s research group did not have access to age data for each sex, an important factor since older people are more likely to die of COVID and different states have different age distributions. Even before COVID, men had a lower life expectancy, possibly driven by higher rates of certain chronic conditions, more risk-taking behaviors and more dangerous jobs. That “pre-existing mortality gap,” rather than a specific male vulnerability to the virus, could help explain the disparity with COVID, Richardson said.

Still, independent experts said the new findings should not lead researchers to entirely discount the role of biology.

“You can’t attribute observations about things like mortality from a complex disease like COVID and say it’s all biology,” said Sabra Klein, a microbiologist and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Women’s Health, Sex and Gender Research. “But I also don’t think you can say it’s all social and it’s all behavioral, either.”

Using electronic health records from Johns Hopkins hospitals in Maryland and Washington D.C., Klein found that there were higher rates of severe COVID illness and death among men. But biostatistical modeling showed that this disparity could be substantially accounted for by greater inflammatory responses among men, suggesting a biological difference.

And in experiments looking at the effects of COVID in hamsters by sex, which can be useful since they don’t include the social factors present in humans, Klein’s group showed that males fared worse. Other studies have also shown that women produce a stronger immune response than men.

Other experts said that having access to more granular data — on factors like race, income and education level — would enable the researchers to take a more nuanced look at the observed variations in sex differences.

“I think they’re doing a lot with a little,” said Derek Griffith, a public health psychologist and co-director of the Racial Justice Institute at Georgetown University.

“The data sources that document these differences don’t usually have the capacity to help explain them,” he said, pointing to the health effects of stress, financial burdens and discrimination that might underlie racial or gender differences in health outcomes but are difficult to quantify.

Griffith said that racial differences in COVID outcomes were similarly complex. In the earliest stages of the pandemic, scientists speculated that Black people had a lower risk of contracting the virus and possibly had some biological protections, Griffith said. But when the data started to show that Black people in the US had a higher risk of dying of COVID-19 than white people, the pendulum swung the other way, with some scientists speculating about innate genetic differences.

Now, Griffith said, there’s greater recognition of the many socioeconomic factors that influence health disparities. “And yet in both cases, with sex and with race, the knee-jerk assumption is that it must be biological,” he said.

Richardson’s Harvard group is hopeful that other researchers will use its data set to analyze the effects of states’ varying public health policies.

But other data gaps remain: Studies have shown that long COVID, for example, disproportionately affects women, yet the disease isn’t tracked consistently at the state level. And the researchers didn’t have data on transgender or gender-nonconforming COVID patients.

“These are not as rich of data as we would like to have to characterize the full gendered impact of the COVID pandemic,” Richardson said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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Epstein-Barr virus infects nearly everyone in their teen or young adult years, and few go on to develop multiple sclerosis.

Written by Gina Kolata

For decades, researchers have suspected that people infected with an exceedingly common virus, Epstein-Barr, might be more likely to develop multiple sclerosis, a neurological illness that affects 1 million people in the United States. Now, a team of researchers reports what some say is the most compelling evidence yet of a strong link between the two diseases.

The virus infects nearly everyone in their teen or young adult years, and few go on to develop multiple sclerosis. The researchers also note that it is not the only known risk factor for people who develop the illness. But they say their data points to it being the clearest of them all. While it remains to be seen whether the finding will result in treatments or cures for multiple sclerosis, the study may further motivate research into therapies and vaccines for the condition.

In their study, published in Science, the researchers examined data from 10 million people on active duty in the US armed forces over two decades. The strength of their study, said its principal investigator, Dr. Alberto Ascherio, a public health researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, is that they were able to follow people for years and ask whether infections with Epstein-Barr preceded multiple sclerosis.

Among the service members in the study, 801 developed multiple sclerosis, a disabling disease that occurs when the immune system attacks the fatty insulation that protects nerves in the brain and spinal cord. Most who develop the disease are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50. The disease is rare, though — an individual’s chance of getting multiple sclerosis is one-half of 1 per cent.

At the same time, the virus in question, Epstein-Barr, is common, infecting nearly everyone in the population at some point. Although few are aware that they were infected, some develop mononucleosis. The virus remains in the body for life.

Because so few who are infected with the virus get multiple sclerosis, it cannot be the sole cause of the disease. Other risk factors have been identified, including some, like low levels of vitamin D and smoking, that were seen previously by the Harvard group using the same data set. There also are genetic factors — 900 abnormal genes have been identified in patients with multiple sclerosis, said Dr. Anthony J. Reder, a multiple sclerosis expert at the University of Chicago, who was not involved in the new study. Gender also plays a role; most patients are women.

But, Ascherio said, no risk factor stands out like Epstein-Barr infections.

To ask how much the virus increases risk, the investigators studied the small proportion of people who were not infected with the virus early in their service careers but subsequently became infected. They detected infections by the presence of antibodies to the virus.

Among the multiple sclerosis patients, 32 out of 33 got infected with Epstein-Barr before they developed MS.

As a control group for their study, the scientists tracked 90 individuals who were not initially infected with Epstein-Barr and who also did not get multiple sclerosis. Of them, 51 subsequently became infected with Epstein-Barr.

That meant an Epstein-Barr virus infection increased the risk of multiple sclerosis over thirtyfold, Ascherio said.

But Reder cautioned that it could be hard to tease out cause and effect from an epidemiological study. People who develop multiple sclerosis have overactive immune systems that make them develop high levels of antibodies to viral infections. Multiple sclerosis might arise not because of the virus but because of the body’s response to it.

“Multiple sclerosis patients have fewer viral infections than normal,” he said, because their immune systems are so active that they effectively fight off viruses. “Multiple sclerosis patients often say, ‘I never get a cold.’ When I hear that, my ears perk up.”

The drugs used to treat multiple sclerosis suppress the immune system, Reder noted. So far, he added, antiviral drugs have not helped patients with multiple sclerosis.

The Harvard group tried to control for the possibility that the immune system’s response, not the virus itself, increases the risk of multiple sclerosis in those infected with Epstein-Barr. They asked if antibodies to another common virus, cytomegalovirus, also were linked to a greater risk of multiple sclerosis. They were not.

But cytomegalovirus, Reder said, for unknown reasons, seems to protect against multiple sclerosis. So the fact that those infected with it did not have a higher risk of multiple sclerosis might not be surprising.

Others said the study was convincing evidence of cause and effect.

“The way it was done is quite compelling,” said Dr. Michael Davin Kornberg, a multiple sclerosis specialist at Johns Hopkins. “It really is the most convincing data we’ve had for a causal association.”

That leaves the question of what to do now.

Dr. Bruce Cree, a multiple sclerosis researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, noted that it might be difficult to treat multiple sclerosis by going after Epstein-Barr because it can be difficult to find the actual virus in patients. Even though multiple sclerosis is a disease of the brain and spinal cord, he could not find the virus in patients’ spinal fluid.

But patients do seem to harbor cells in their brains that produce antibodies to Epstein-Barr virus. Cree is researching whether he can treat multiple sclerosis patients by eradicating those cells, which are infected with Epstein-Barr.

Dr. Lawrence Steinman, a multiple sclerosis researcher at Stanford, who wrote a perspective accompanying the Harvard group’s paper, said an experimental mRNA vaccine against Epstein-Barr was one of a number of approaches being designed to stop the virus from affecting the brain.

The question now, he said, is, “Can we make multiple sclerosis go away?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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The paper stressed that "humans are the only species able to manipulate the Earth on a grand scale, and they have allowed the current crisis to happen."

Planet Earth has witnessed five mass extinctions in the past, with the last one about 65 million years wiping out the dinosaurs. Many experts have warned in the recent past that a Sixth Mass Extinction crisis is underway, and a new study has now added that Earth could have already lost about 7.5 and 13 per cent of its total species.

“Drastically increased rates of species extinctions and declining abundances of many animal and plant populations are well documented, yet some deny that these phenomena amount to mass extinction,” said Robert Cowie, lead author of the study and research professor at the UH Manoa Pacific Biosciences Research Center in the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) in a release.

“This denial is based on a highly biased assessment of the crisis which focuses on mammals and birds and ignores invertebrates, which of course constitute the great majority of biodiversity,” he added.

The team studied molluscs (land snails and slugs), the second-largest phylum in numbers of known species. According to the IUCN Red List data, molluscs have suffered a higher rate of extinction than birds and mammals. Invertebrates constitute about 95 per cent of known animal species and it is, therefore, essential to include them in the biodiversity extinction estimate, say researchers. However, among the 1.5 million described species of invertebrates, only less than 2 per cent have been fully evaluated and many remain in the ‘Data Deficient’ category.

Extrapolating the results from the molluscs, the team wrote that since 1500 about 1,50,000 to 2,60,000 of all the known species have gone extinct. But according to the IUCN, only 882 species are listed as extinct.

The paper published last week in Biological Reviews stressed that “humans are the only species able to manipulate the Earth on a grand scale, and they have allowed the current crisis to happen.”

The Pulitzer Prize-winning book ‘The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History’ said that this is the first such event to be caused entirely by humans. “We are not just another species evolving in the face of external influences. In contrast, we are the only species that has conscious choice regarding our future and that of Earth’s biodiversity,” said Cowie.

He added that despite the rhetoric about the gravity of the crisis, political will is lacking. “Denying the crisis, accepting it without reacting, or even encouraging it constitutes an abrogation of humanity’s common responsibility and paves the way for Earth to continue on its sad trajectory towards the Sixth Mass Extinction,” said Dr. Cowie.

In an email to The Indian Express, he added: “At present, many species of invertebrates are going extinct even before they have been discovered, collected and described. If this continues, people in the future will not have any knowledge of most of these species, as they will have totally vanished. Therefore, it is important that we expand survey work, especially in remote and difficult to access places, collect representatives of all the species we discover (especially invertebrates and plants). Even if we do not have time to describe and name them quickly, at least deposit them in permanent museum collections, so that in 200, 300, or 500 years our great-great-great grandchildren will be able to know of the spectacular diversity of life that once lived on Earth. This needs political and public support, because it needs a lot of money.”

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ESA is also in the early stages of working on a probe that would fly to an ice moon, such as Saturn’s Enceladus, to recover a sample and bring it back to Earth.

The European Space Agency has narrowed the candidate list for its next generation of astronauts, including dozens who have a physical disability.

The agency announced last year that it had received a record number of 22,589 applications from people hoping to become the continent’s next generation of space travelers.

ESA said Tuesday it has reduced these to fewer than 1,400 — 29 of whom have a physical disability — and hopes to cut the shortlist down to several tens of candidates by the end of the year for the four to six positions on its astronaut training program.

The agency’s director-general, Josef Aschbacher, said the selection process would be accompanied by a feasibility study to determine the implications of choosing candidates with disabilities “but, yes, we are committed at ESA to open space to everyone.”

ESA has for decades relied on its Russian and American counterparts to launch astronauts into space. Currently the agency has several places booked on American commercial launches. But Aschbacher said Europe may finally get its own crewed spacecraft if ESA member states approve the idea at a meeting later this year.

“We are not only talking of launches, we are talking of human exploration,” he said, adding that future missions would seek to send astronauts to the moon “and beyond.”

In the meantime, the agency will continue to develop its robotic capability, including a spacecraft capable of carrying large loads to the Moon that would support joint missions with partners such as NASA.

ESA is also in the early stages of working on a probe that would fly to an ice moon, such as Saturn’s Enceladus, to recover a sample and bring it back to Earth.

“It could be that there’s very simple, primitive life in the water underneath the ice cover,” said Aschbacher.

One challenge is that with current technology, the round-trip could take decades to complete. Time is also a factor in the replacement of one of ESA’s science satellites, Sentinel 1-B, which stopped functioning properly in late December.

Simonetta Cheli, the agency’s director of Earth observation, said the root cause of the malfunction was still being investigated and it was too soon to say whether the successor model, Sentinel 1-C, will need to be modified to avoid suffering a similar fate.

Any delay in replacing Sentinel 1-B could cause problems for scientists who rely on the satellite’s data for their research, including into climate change.

“Of course, we would need to try and look for options to launch the satellite as soon as possible if 1-B terminates its own lifetime,” said Cheli.

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The new information will help us understand how complex life evolved, how it functions, and how biodiversity can be protected.

Written by Jenny Graves

The Earth Biogenome Project, a global consortium that aims to sequence the genomes of all complex life on earth (some 1.8 million described species) in ten years, is ramping up.

The project’s origins, aims and progress are detailed in two multi-authored papers published on Tuesday. Once complete, it will forever change the way biological research is done.

Specifically, researchers will no longer be limited to a few ‘model species’ and will be able to mine the DNA sequence database of any organism that shows interesting characteristics.

This new information will help us understand how complex life evolved, how it functions, and how biodiversity can be protected.

The project was first proposed in 2016, and I was privileged to speak at its launch in London in 2018. It is currently in the process of moving from its startup phase to full-scale production.

The aim of phase one is to sequence one genome from every taxonomic family on earth, some 9,400 of them.

By the end of 2022, one-third of these species should be done. Phase two will see the sequencing of a representative from all 180,000 genera, and phase three will mark the completion of all the species.

The importance of weird species

The grand aim of the Earth Biogenome Project is to sequence the genomes of all 1.8 million described species of complex life on Earth.

This includes all plants, animals, fungi, and single-celled organisms with true nuclei (that is, all eukaryotes).

While model organisms like mice, rock cress, fruit flies and nematodes have been tremendously important in our understanding of gene functions, it’s a huge advantage to be able to study other species that may work a bit differently.

Many important biological principles came from studying obscure organisms. For instance, genes were famously discovered by Gregor Mendel in peas, and the rules that govern them were discovered in red bread mould.

DNA was discovered first in salmon sperm, and our knowledge of some systems that keep it secure came from research on tardigrades.

Chromosomes were first seen in mealworms and sex chromosomes in a beetle (sex chromosome action and evolution has also been explored in fish and platypus). And telomeres, which cap the ends of chromosomes, were discovered in pond scum.

Answering biological questions and protecting biodiversity

Comparing closely and distantly related species provides tremendous power to discover what genes do and how they are regulated.

For instance, in another PNAS paper, coincidentally also published today, my University of Canberra colleagues and I discovered Australian dragon lizards regulate sex by the chromosome neighbourhood of a sex gene, rather than the DNA sequence itself.

Scientists also use species comparisons to trace genes and regulatory systems back to their evolutionary origins, which can reveal astonishing conservation of gene function across nearly a billion years.

For instance, the same genes are involved in retinal development in humans and in fruit fly photoreceptors.

And the BRCA1 gene that is mutated in breast cancer is responsible for repairing DNA breaks in plants and animals.

The genome of animals is also far more conserved than has been supposed. For instance, several colleagues and I recently demonstrated that animal chromosomes are 684 million years old.

It will be exciting, too, to explore the ‘dark matter’ of the genome, and reveal how DNA sequences that don’t encode proteins can still play a role in genome function and evolution.

Another important aim of the Earth Biogenome Project is conservation genomics.

This field uses DNA sequencing to identify threatened species, which includes about 28 per cent of the world’s complex organisms — helping us monitor their genetic health and advise on management.

No longer an impossible task

Until recently, sequencing large genomes took years and many millions of dollars. But there have been tremendous technical advances that now make it possible to sequence and assemble large genomes for a few thousand dollars.

The entire Earth Biogenome Project will cost less in today’s dollars than the human genome project, which was worth about US$3 billion in total.

In the past, researchers would have to identify the order of the four bases chemically on millions of tiny DNA fragments, then paste the entire sequence together again.

Today they can register different bases based on their physical properties, or by binding each of the four bases to a different dye. New sequencing methods can scan long molecules of DNA that are tethered in tiny tubes, or squeezed through tiny holes in a membrane.

Why sequence everything?

But why not save time and money by sequencing just key representative species?

Well, the whole point of the Earth Biogenome Project is to exploit the variation between species to make comparisons, and also to capture remarkable innovations in outliers.

There is also the fear of missing out.

For instance, if we sequence only 69,999 of the 70,000 species of nematode, we might miss the one that could divulge the secrets of how nematodes can cause diseases in animals and plants.

There are currently 44 affiliated institutions in 22 countries working on the Earth Biogenome Project.

There are also 49 affiliated projects, including enormous projects such as the California Conservation Genomics Project, the Bird 10,000 Genomes Project and UK’s Darwin Tree of Life Project, as well as many projects on particular groups such as bats and butterflies.

— The author is from La Trobe University.

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Omicron has replaced the Delta variant, which was considered highly transmissible, in almost every country across the world

The Omicron variant became the dominant variant infecting both vaccinated and the unvaccinated persons in many countries just one month after the World Health Organization designated it a variant of concern on November 26, 2021. Two months since, Omicron has become the dominant variant in every country that is witnessing a new wave. In short, Omicron has replaced the Delta variant, which was considered highly transmissive in almost every country across the world.

One of the defining features of a new variant is the higher transmissibility than the existing variant. If the Delta variant was found to be highly transmissible when compared with the Alpha variant, the Omicron variant has been found to be extremely transmissive when compared with the Delta variant.

Early studies

Earlier studies suggested that the extremely high transmissibility of the Omicron variant was probably due to higher viral load in an infected person. The higher the viral load in a person, the greater are the chances that the infected person can successfully spread it to others. This is because the infected person tends to release larger amounts of the virus. While the Delta variant require a relatively longer period of exposure before a person gets infected, the Omicron variant has been found to spread within a few minutes of exposure.

But the results of a study posted inmedRxiv preprint server (and is yet to be peer-reviewed) has found that the viral load is nearly the same with both variants — Delta and Omicron.

Backed by mutations

With the Omicron variant possessing many mutations that allows it to escape the immune system better even in previously infected or fully vaccinated people, the extremely high rate at which the Omicron variant is spreading might be due to inherent immune escape capabilities rather than the high viral load as it was previously thought.

A team led by researchers from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts, obtained longitudinal, quantitative RT-PCR test results of swabs taken from the nose and throat of over 10,300 players from the National Basketball Association, the organisation responsible for professional basketball in North America. The period of study was restricted between July 5, 2021 and January 10, this year. From the beginning of the pandemic the players and other people associated with the Association have been undergoing regular testing. The league conducts frequent COVID-19 testing of its players and personnel.

The researchers used RT-PCR cycle threshold (Ct) values of less than 30 as a proxy for viral load. The PCR test amplifies the genetic material from coronavirus through multiple cycles. Since the coronavirus has RNA, it is first converted into DNA, and each cycle of amplification doubles the amount of DNA.

If there is just one DNA molecule to start with, the amount of DNA after 30 cycles of amplification will be one billion molecules. If there is more genetic material to begin with then fewer cycles of amplification would be sufficient to detect the DNA.

Surprising results

While the researchers were expecting that people infected with the Omicron variant would show higher viral load, the results were the just opposite. “The peak viral RNA based on Ct values was lower for Omicron infections than for Delta infections,” they write. For Omicron, the Cycle threshold (Ct) was 23.3, while for Delta the cycle threshold was 20.5. “These results suggest that Omicron’s infectiousness may not be explained by higher viral load measured in the nose and mouth by RT-PCR,” they write.

The clearance phase was also shorter for Omicron infections — 5.35 days — while for Delta it was 6.23 days.

Omicron and Delta

Another team led by researchers from the University of Geneva, Switzerland, went a step further to measure the number of infectious virus particles present on the swabs collected from 150 infected people. The results are posted on preprint servermedRxiv, and the paper is yet to be peer-reviewed. They found that breakthrough infections caused by the Delta variant had lower number of virus particles than unvaccinated people with Delta infection. Surprisingly, the number of virus particles in vaccinated individuals with Omicron infection was comparable with individuals with Delta breakthrough infections.

Contrary to the previous notion that people infected with Omicron have higher viral loads than those infected with the Delta variant, the study by the University of Geneva found that vaccinated people infected with Delta or Omicron had nearly similar viral loads.

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Is it possible to regrow a frog’s lost leg?

Researchers have come a step closer to the goal of regenerative medicine by successfully triggering regrowth of a lost leg in a frog using a five-drug cocktail contained in a silk protein gel and kept in place over the stump for a day. That brief treatment sets in motion an 18-month period of regrowth that restores a functional leg. The research was carried out by scientists at Tufts University and Harvard University's Wyss Institute(Science Advances) .

The researchers triggered the regenerative process in African clawed frogs by enclosing the wound in a silicone cap, which they call a BioDome, containing a silk protein gel loaded with the five-drug cocktail.

Each drug fulfilled a different purpose.. The combination and the bioreactor provided a local environment and signals that tipped the scales away from the natural tendency to close off the stump, and toward the regenerative process, according to a press release from Tufts University.

The researchers observed dramatic growth of tissue in many of the treated frogs, re-creating an almost fully functional leg. The new limbs had bone structure extended with features similar to a natural limb's bone structure, a richer complement of internal tissues (including neurons), and several "toes" grew from the end of the limb, although without the support of underlying bone.

The regrown limb moved and responded to stimuli such as a touch from a stiff fibre, and the frogs were able to make use of it for swimming through water, moving much like a normal frog would.

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Researchers used a novel xenon gas scan method to pick up lung abnormalities in coronavirus patients who have not been hospitalised but still experience breathlessness.

Lung abnormalities have been discovered in long COVID patients suffering from breathlessness, according to a study that raises the possibility that coronavirus may cause hidden damage to the lungs that is not detected with routine tests.

Researchers used a novel xenon gas scan method to pick up lung abnormalities in coronavirus patients who have not been hospitalised but still experience breathlessness.

Breathlessness is a symptom in most long COVID patients, but it has been unclear whether this is linked to other factors such as changes in breathing patterns, tiredness, or something more fundamental.

The Explain study, a pilot study involving 36 patients, suggests there is significantly impaired gas transfer in the lungs to the bloodstream in long COVID patients - despite other tests including CT scans coming back normal.

"We knew from our post-hospital COVID study that xenon could detect abnormalities when the CT scan and other lung function tests are normal. What we've found now is that, even though their CT scans are normal, the xenon MRI scans have detected similar abnormalities in patients with long COVID,” said Fergus Gleeson, the study's chief investigator.

"These patients have never been in hospital and did not have an acute severe illness when they had their COVID-19 infection. Some of them have been experiencing their symptoms for a year after contracting COVID-19,” said Gleeson, who is also a professor of radiology at the University of Oxford and consultant radiologist at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

The professor said there were important questions to answer such as how many patients with long COVID will have abnormal scans, the significance of the abnormality that has been detected, the cause of the abnormality, and its longer-term consequences.

“Once we understand the mechanisms driving these symptoms, we will be better placed to develop more effective treatments,” Gleeson said.

The study, which involves teams from Sheffield, Oxford, Cardiff and Manchester, had 36 participants split into three groups. The full study will recruit around 400 participants.

Emily Fraser, Respiratory Consultant who leads the Oxford Post-COVID Assessment Clinic, said these are interesting results and may indicate that the changes observed within the lungs of some patients with long COVID-19 contribute to breathlessness.

“However, these are early findings and further work to understand the clinical significance is key. Extending this study to larger numbers of patients and looking at control groups who have recovered from COVID should help us to answer this question and further our understanding of the mechanisms that drive long Covid,” Fraser said.

Professor Jim Wild, head of imaging and professor at the University of Sheffield, said Xenon MRI was uniquely placed to help understand why breathlessness persists in some patients post COVID-19 infection.

“Xenon follows the pathway of oxygen when it is taken up by the lungs and can tell us where the abnormality lies between the airways, gas exchange membranes and capillaries in the lungs.

“This multicentre study is very exciting, and I really look forward to it helping translate lung MRI methods that we have developed further towards clinical use in the U.K.,” Wild said.

“More than a million people in the U.K. continue to experience symptoms months after having COVID-19, with breathlessness one of the most commonly reported symptoms. This early research is an important example of both the committed effort the U.K. research community is taking to understand this new phenomenon, and the world-leading expertise that community contains,” said Professor Nick Lemoine, Chair of NIHR’s Long Covid funding committee and Medical Director of the NIHR Clinical Research Network.

The study received government funding and is being supported by the National Institute for Health Research’s (NIHR) Oxford Biomedical Research Centre. Its findings, which have not been peer-reviewed, were posted on the bioRxiv pre-print server.

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Cities have changed the way we sleep and eat. And not just humans, but also birds, insects, mammals and reptiles


Just how well do urban lizards sleep at night when compared to their rural cousins? To find out, a team of scientists from the Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES) at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc.), Bengaluru, spent many a night in people’s backyards, empty lots and underdeveloped sites looking for sleeping lizards.

“Poking around in neighbourhoods at night with headlights and fancy camera equipment often drew a lot of attention from people and the police, and the team had to explain what they were doing on several occasions,” said Nitya Mohanty, one of the researchers.

The team was hunting for a species of lizards, Rock Agamas, to study how urbanisation has affected their sleep patterns. They found that urban lizards ‘use sleep sites that mirror the structural, thermal and light properties of natural habitats’. What’s more, city lizards choose sleep sites that resemble that of their rural counterparts in the type of surface and the amount of light and heat received.

The findings were recently published in the peer reviewed journalBehavioural Ecology and Sociobiology . The authors noted that the remarkable flexibility in sleep behaviour displayed by urban lizards is likely to help them cope in a city.

Cities have changed the way we sleep and eat. And not just humans, but also birds, insects, mammals and reptiles.

Urban habitats can hamper an animal’s sleep quality and patterns due to higher temperatures, the presence of artificial structures like walls and buildings built by humans, and artificial light at night.

“What’s interesting is that both rural and urban lizards are dependent on rough, rocky substrates. While scientists have a reasonably good understanding of how animal brains work during sleep, how they sleep in the real world is not well known,” said Maria Thaker, associate professor at CES and senior author of the study. “We know from human literature that certain conditions allow us to sleep better than others, and some disrupt our sleep. But animals live in the real world with all these conditions … and we wanted to understand where and how they sleep in the wild,” she said.

To do this, researchers conducted night forays in rural and urban areas.. The temperatures of both urban and rural sleep sites were found to be similar. Urban sleep sites, however, were nine times more likely to be sheltered and covered as compared to rural sites, and this helped address the light problem in urban areas. This indicates that the lizards try to mitigate urban stressors by being flexible in their sleep site choices, and end up picking sites that resemble their rural sites.

Prof. Thaker highlighted the importance of studying how animals cope with anthropogenic environments: “The world is changing, and it is going to continue to change. So, if we know what it is that [other organisms] require to live here, then we can make some choices of our own to help keep them here.”

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The audacious promises by the best-known billionaire in the electric car industry face major challenges, from technology to regulation.

Tesla's most important products this year and next will not be cars, CEO Elon Musk said on Wednesday, but software that drives them autonomously and a humanoid robot the company expects to help out in the factory.

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The audacious promises by the best-known billionaire in the electric car industry face major challenges, from technology to regulation. Tesla and other auto technology companies have missed their targets for self-driving software for years.

"I love the fact that they're pushing the envelope, but I think they are too aggressive," said Roth Capital Partners analyst Craig Irwin.

Musk has built a career on defying skeptics with working businesses in electric cars and rockets. Some Tesla drivers buy $12,000 self-driving packages in the expectation that full autonomy is around the corner, and 60,000 Tesla drivers are testing the latest self-driving software, a scale that other autonomous vehicle software companies can only dream of.

"I would be shocked if we do not achieve full self-driving safer than human this year. I would be shocked," Musk said,predicting full self-driving would become "the most important source of profitability for Tesla."

"It's nutty good from a financial standpoint," he said,saying robo taxis would boost the utility of a vehicle by five times, as owners can send their cars out to work when not needed.

Also Read | Waymo opens driverless robo-taxi service to the public in Phoenix

Tesla uses cameras and artificial intelligence, avoiding other technologies such radar and lidar that rivals such as Waymo include. That approach has drawn fire.

"You have to be able to not only just see a person, like right in front of you, you have to do so, with 99.999999999% reliability. Even running over someone once is not an acceptable answer," Austin Russell, CEO of lidar maker Luminar, told Reuters.

Philip Koopman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has been working on autonomous vehicle safety, said a big problem is that at scale, unusual cases constantly can crop up.

"Without a human driver to handle safety for novel situations the machine learning hasn't been taught already, it's very difficult to ensure safety in a completely automated vehicle," he said.


Even if the technology works, Tesla would come under more rigorous scrutiny from regulators before deploying fleets of free-roaming robotaxis.U.S. auto safety regulators opened a safety investigation into Tesla's advanced driver assistant system after crashes involving the vehicles and parked emergency vehicles.

Also Read | Tesla’s ‘Full Self-Driving’ under review in U.S.

Federal vehicle safety regulators have issued guidelines to states, but not comprehensive standards governing self-drivingcars.

There are some states whose laws will require approval for a fully autonomous vehicle, Koopman said.

Just a year ago, Musk said during an earnings call he was "highly confident the car will be able to drive itself with reliability in excess of human this year."

Tesla's auto pilot engineer at the time, CJ Moore, last year told the California regulator that Musk's tweet on self-driving technology "does not match engineering reality."

Musk also said engineers are working to launch a humanoid robot next year, called Optimus, that could eventually address global shortages of labor, and in the short term might be able to carry items around a factory.

"For performing dangerous and repetitive tasks, using a humanoid robot is exactly the wrong approach," said Raj Rajkumar, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

Musk, though, says the robot may be more important than acar. "This, I think, has the potential to be more significant than the vehicle business over time," he said.

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The trial will involve 1,420 people aged 18-55.

Pfizer and its partner BioNTech have begun enrolment for a clinical trial to test the safety and immune response of their Omicron-specific COVID-19 vaccine in adults aged up to 55, the companies said in a statement on January 25.

Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla has previously said that the pharmaceutical giant could be ready to file for regulatory approval of the shot by March.

Current COVID-19 vaccines may protect from severe disease caused by Omicron: Study

The company’s head of vaccine research Kathrin Jansen said in a statement that while current data showed that boosters against the original COVID-19 strain continued to protect against severe outcomes with Omicron, the company was acting out of caution.

“We recognise the need to be prepared in the event this protection wanes over time and to potentially help address Omicron and new variants in the future,” she said.

Ugur Sahin, CEO of BioNTech, added that the protection of the original vaccine against mild and moderate COVID-19 appeared to wane rapidly against Omicron.

“This study is part of our science-based approach to develop a variant-based vaccine.”

The trial will involve 1,420 people aged 18-55.

A spokesperson for Pfizer said that it did not include people older than 55 because the goal of the study was to examine the immune response of participants dosed, rather than estimate vaccine efficacy.

The trial is taking place across the United States and South Africa, and the first participant was dosed in North Carolina.

The volunteers are split into three groups.

The first involves people who previously received two doses of the current Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine 90-180 days prior to enrolment, and will receive one or two doses of the Omicron vaccine.

The second will be people who got three doses of the current vaccine 90-180 days prior to the study and will receive either another dose of the original shot or an Omicron-specific vaccine.

The third and final group are people who have never previously received a COVID-19 vaccine, and will receive three doses of the Omicron-specific vaccine.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was the first COVID-19 shot to be authorised in the West, in December 2020.

Because it is based on messenger RNA technology, it is relatively easy to update to reflect the genetic code of new variants.

Several countries have begun to emerge from their latest waves driven by Omicron, the most transmissible strain to date, even though global new cases are still rising.

The coronavirus has killed some 5.6 million people since the outbreak emerged in China in December 2019.

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Public hearing scheduled for January 27 amid concerns over the independence and expertise of the consultant appointed to prepare the report.

The details of the recently released draft environment impact assessment (EIA) report for the mega development project in the Great Nicobar Island have raised serious questions related to submission of incorrect or incomplete information, scientific inaccuracy and failure to follow appropriate procedure. A public hearing to discuss the report has been scheduled for Thursday at Campbell Bay, the administrative headquarters.

The matter is related to the NITI Aayog-piloted ₹72,000-crore integrated project in Great Nicobar that includes construction of a mega port, an airport complex, a township spread over 130 sq. km of pristine forest and a solar and gas-based power plant. Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation Ltd. (ANIIDCO) is the project proponent.

Green panel allows Great Nicobar plan to advance

The pre-feasibility report for the project was prepared in March 2021 by the Gurugram-based consultant AECOM India Pvt. Ltd. A committee of the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) issued terms of reference (ToR) to prepare the EIA report in May 2021.

Concerns raised

Ecologists and researchers have been raising concerns about this project for over a year (NITI Aayog vision for Great Nicobar ignores tribal, ecological concerns ,The Hindu , March 21, 2021), and the recent draft EIA has not been able to allay those fears. Concerns begin with the role of the Hyderabad-based Vimta Labs Ltd. hired for conducting the EIA.

While the ToR for preparing the EIA was finalised only in May 2021, the report itself lists many instances of Vimta staff being in the field and conducting studies as early as December 2020.

How is it possible that Vimta knew the details of the projects and the needs of the EIA months before the contract was awarded and even the project details were finalised? This could have only been through the project proponent or the DPR consultant and appears a violation of the ToR, which had stated that the DPR consultant should be independent of the EIA consultant.

Leatherback nesting sites could be overrun by Andamans project

“The consultants appointed to carry out the draft EIA have only one empanelled expert on ecology and biodiversity in its team — and it is not clear what his area of expertise is. It is also clear that several of the ToRs have not been complied with, as admitted in the draft EIA Report itself,” says Debi Goenka, veteran environmental campaigner and executive trustee of the Conservation Action Trust. He also points out that the rapid assessment study carried out by the Wildlife Institute of India and the baseline survey by the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), both appended as annexures, too were commissioned before the issue of the ToR.

‘Incomplete data’

There are also serious issues of of scientific accuracy and integrity where the data presented is concerned. Large parts of Section 3.9, which is on ecology and biodiversity, have in-text citations but no references. Tables with lists of plants and animals found in the island are incomplete and with no sources provided. The information in other places is internally inconsistent and/or incorrect. The area of the island is mentioned in one place as 1,045 sq. km, while it is 910 sq. km (the current official figure) in another.

The executive summary mentions that the Galathea port area does not record any coral reefs, whereas the ZSI study appended to the EIA, reports a coral reef spread over 116 hectares in Galathea Bay.

NITI Aayog's megacity plan for Little Andaman alarms conservationists

Chapter 3 similarly says 330 species of fauna are recorded in the island, while the same ZSI study puts the number at more than double at 695.

The EIA says in another place no migratory birds have been reported from Great Nicobar, whereas it is well known that these islands are located along two globally significant bird flyways and more than 40 species of migratory birds have been recorded from Great Nicobar

Institutional callousness

The callousness continues in the approach of the statutory authorities. The EIA report was expected to have details of the project proponent’s environment policy such as its standard operating process, procedures for highlighting violation of environmental and forest norms and for ensuring compliance with environmental clearance conditions.

All that the project proponent, ANIIDCO, has said in response is that no such policy exists and that they undertake to comply with all laws of the country related to the environment, forests and coastal regulation zone. A statutorily mandated set of requirements is being given the go-by, raising further questions on the validity of the EIA. Equally illustrative is the undertaking issued by the Directorate of Tribal Welfare, the agency tasked with the primary job of securing the rights of the indigenous people on the islands.

‘Hands off, eyes on the Sentinelese’: M. Sasikumar

It first assures that “the right of the tribal shall be well protected and taken care of” and then goes on to conclude that “whenever any exemption from the existing regulations/policies/law of the land are required to be provided for the execution of the project, this Directorate will seek required exemptions(s) from the competent authority to that effect”.

‘Tick box exercise’

“Can there be bigger evidence that this EIA has been approached less as a document to ask important questions and more as an exercise in merely facilitating clearances and ensuring that the project goes ahead,” asks a senior tribal researcher who did not wish to be named. Environmental lawyer Sreeja Chakraborty says, “It is evident that there are serious procedural lapses, lack of transparency and a lack of any seriousness in this EIA process. The EIA has been reduced to a mere ‘tick box’ exercise and inspires no confidence at all.”

(Pankaj Sekhsaria has been researching issues of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for over two decades. He is also author of five books on the islands)

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The guidance issued by IAEA follows the usage of products exceeding safe radiation levels

Over a year ago, alert press reporters found a device hanging around Congress M.P. Shashi Tharoor’s neck. Was it a GPS device, Translator or a small dictionary? He tweeted that it was “An air purifier (negative ioniser).” Its sellers claim that the device emits two million healthy negative ions per sec from the black brush on its top. These ions may impinge on pollutants, make them negatively charged and get them collected on surfaces of tables, windows, bed etc. Whether it helps to reduce pollution in real life, or not needs scientific validation. Is copious emission of negative ions from it a red flag?

On December 16, 2021, the Authority for Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection (ANVS), Netherland issued a statement identifying ten products such as (Magnetix Magnetic necklace, Magnetix Sport boost bracelet, Smiley Kids bracelet, Athletic necklace among others) as containing more radioactivity than legally permitted. The agency cautioned the public against using “Quantum Pendant,” “anti-5G pendant” or “negative ion” jewellery items or sleep mask. Often, “negative ion products” may contain radioactive substances. The ANVS clarified that their warning does not apply to ionic air purifiers, “as they are known not to contain radioactive materials.” Obviously, Dr Tharoor need not worry over any red flag!

Radioactive products

Sellers of “negative ion” consumer products and “scalar energy products” claim that these products improve the user's health. They may state that they are composed of volcanic ash, minerals etc. These can contain radioactive substances, which emit ionising radiation, which can cause tissue damage and are bad for the user's health.

Popular online platforms have been offering such products, often in the form of pendants, necklaces, bracelets, sleep masks etc. for many years now. Manufacturing and selling products containing radioactive substances is not a justified practice. The ANVS found that the level of radiation in these products is low and the risk of health problems is also low. The agency informed all known vendors of these products in the Netherlands that it has prohibited their sale and that they must stop trading in these products immediately.

Wearing such products for a long period (a year, 24 hours a day) could expose the wearer to a dose of radiation that exceeds the limit for skin exposure prescribed in the Netherlands.

Above dose limit

Malaysian researchers led by H.L. Hassan, Department of Physics, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia found that eight out of the 20 pendants, they evaluated, by using state-of-the-art methods were capable of exposing the wearers to an annual effective dose above the dose limit of one mSv for public (PLOS ONE June 1, 2021). The dose from the most radioactive pendant was 2.8 mSv/year.(When the physical energy absorbed by tissues from x-rays, gamma rays or electrons is one Joule per kg, the biologically effective dose is considered to be one Sv. Since Sv is a huge unit, specialists use milliSv - one thousandth of a Sv - as a unit; skin dose in a chest x-ray exam is about 0.1 mSv).

Undergarment samples

In another IAEA supported project, Hassan and others from Malaysia, the U.K. and Spain found that the undergarment industry in Malaysia and elsewhere advertised that their “negative ion undergarments” contain tourmaline, monazite and zircon, all known to contain uranium and thorium. Among the 13 samples of undergarments they assessed, three were capable of exposing their wearers to annual effective doses above one mSV, the IAEA reference level (Applied Sciences, June 10, 2021).

Realising the safety significance of Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM), IAEA and member countries provided guidance on the matter.

In “Radiation Protection and Safety of radiation Sources: International Basic Safety Standards” (2014), the IAEA considers that the frivolous use of radiation or radioactive substances in toys and personal jewellery or adornments, which result in an increase in activity, is unjustified.

The IAEA also published a specific safety guide titled “Radiation Safety for Consumer Products (2016).” The Atomic Energy (Radiation Protection) Rules, 2004 contains provisions consistent with those of the IAEA.

Be aware of the facts before using consumer products containing radioactive substances or presenting them to anyone!

(K.S. Parthasarathy is a former secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, Email:

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Future studies can use the public database entry for early detection of the pathogen

Researchers from Kerala have identified two new species of fungi from the genusGanoderma that are associated with coconut stem rot. They have also genotyped the two fungi species, namedGanoderma keralense andG. pseudoapplanatum and identified genetic biomarkers. The DNA barcodes have been made publicly available in DNA sequence repositories so that future studies can use it for early detection of the pathogen. The research was published in the journalMycologia.

Basal stem rot

The butt rot or basal stem rot of coconut is known by several names in different parts of India: Ganoderma wilt (Andhra Pradesh),Anaberoga (Karnataka) and Thanjavur wilt (Tamil Nadu), to mention a few.

The infection begins at the roots, but symptoms include discolouration and rotting of stem and leaves. In the later stages, flowering and nut set decreases and finally the coconut palm(Cocos nucifera) dies.

A reddish brown oozing is seen. This oozing has been reported only in India. Once infected, recovery of the plants is not likely. Not surprising then, that this causes a huge loss: By some estimates made in 2017, in India, around 12 million people are said to depend on coconut farming.

Late signs

Another sign of infection is presence of shelf-like “basidiomata,” which are the fruiting or reproductive structures of the fungus, on the tree trunks. “Although microscopic, many fungi… produce macroscopic fruiting structures on the substrates where they grow [for example,Ganoderma ],” says T.K. Arun Kumar of Zamorin’s Guruvayurappan College, Kohikode, who led this research, in an email. He further explains that the basidiomata ofGanoderma bear reproductive propagules (called spores) which are dispersed through wind and sometimes with the help of insects. “That is how the pathogen spreads from one host to the other,” he adds.

Since the fungus is microscopic, it is only detected after the symptoms start manifesting or when the reproductive structures are borne, which can be too late.

Lack of taxonomy

Surprisingly, before this study, the disease was commonly attributed to the genusGanoderma and the specific species involved were not identified correctly. One reason for this could be the lack of studies focusing on taxonomy. “Plant pathologists may be very good at identifying diseases based on disease symptoms, devising strategies to prevent disease occurrence and even in developing disease resistant plants. However, there is a dearth of fungal taxonomists among plant pathologists who are able to identify fungal pathogens with accuracy,” says Dr Arun Kumar.

The two-member team collected the material for their research during the years 2015 to 2019. “There was a large-scale outbreak of the disease in Kozhikode district, Kerala, a few years back and our examination of the collected fungal specimens along with collections [over many years] from plantations throughout Kerala revealed that the identity of pathogenic species was hitherto unrecognised,” says Dr Arun Kumar. This led him and PhD student N. Vinjusha to study the specimens further, first morphologically and then through genome sequencing. The two species seemed to be new to science. “This discovery was based on morphological characters, DNA sequences of the Kerala collections and phylogenetic analyses by comparing DNA of allGanoderma species known worldwide,” says Dr Arun Kumar. The research has revealed the identity of the pathogenic species associated with butt rot. Hence, species-specific disease prevention strategies can now be developed.

As Dr Arun Kumar says: “So far, scientists and farmers had to solely rely on the visible symptoms of the disease [which appear only at a later stage, after complete colonization], but now they can easily detect the presence of the pathogen much earlier by analysing plant extracts which can be easily obtained at any stage of growth.”

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Can insect larvae display jump behaviour?

A team of researchers from North Carolina State University's Plant Disease and Insect Clinic has discovered a jumping behaviour that is entirely new to insect larvae, and there is evidence that it is occurring in a range of species. The previously unrecorded behaviour occurs in the larvae of a species of lined flat bark beetle(Laemophloeus biguttatus) . Specifically, the larvae are able to spring into the air, with each larva curling itself into a loop as it leaps forward.

While there are other insect species that are capable of making prodigious leaps, they rely on something called a “latch-mediated spring actuation mechanism”. This means that they essentially have two parts of their body latch onto each other while the insect exerts force, building up a significant amount of energy. The insect then unlatches the two parts, releasing all of that energy at once, allowing it to spring off the ground.

What makes theL. biguttatus so remarkable is that it makes these leaps without latching two parts of its body together. It uses claws on its legs to grip the ground while it builds up that potential energy — and once those claws release their hold on the ground, that potential energy is converted into kinetic energy, launching it skyward.

To determine howL. biguttatus was able to execute its acrobatics, the researchers filmed the jumps at speeds of up to 60,000 frames per second.

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A recent paper in Science concluded India’s cumulative COVID-19 deaths were six to seven times higher than reported official mortality

In the State-wise data compiled by the Union Government, represented by the Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati in the Supreme Court, it was shown based on media reports that 6,14,211 claims of compensation for deaths due to COVID-19 were filed in 20 States against the reported death toll of 4,29,872 in those States. The numbers were stark for some States. Telangana reported only 3,993 deaths but received 28,969 compensation claims and sanctioned compensation for 15,720 deaths (nearly four times the reported death toll). Gujarat reported only 10,094 deaths but there were 89,633 compensation claims, and 68,370 of them were sanctioned – a multiple of nearly seven times the reported death toll. In contrast, Kerala which reported 49,300 deaths has received 27,274 compensation claims and has processed 23,652 of them.

Reflect undercounting

Now, compensation claims are not a reliable measure of what the actual death toll due to COVID-19 could have been – in States, where there is greater State responsiveness and general public awareness, claims of compensation could be more, and this could be lower in States with limited capacities. Yet, the fact that some States have gone to process a high number of compensation claims, several multiples over and above their reported death tolls suggest that their governments have acknowledged that these tolls reflect an undercounting of the actual death tally.

Excess deaths

This is not surprising. Excess deaths analyses based on deaths registered in the Civil Registration System (CRS) have shown that they have been as high as six times the official death toll for just 11 States and Union Territories (Maharashtra, Punjab, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh) for which such data was available. Studies have found the CRS method to analyse death tolls to be a robust way to measure mortality across States. The more complete the CRS registration in States, “the better the opportunities to understand population health and its determinants,” a paper by Aashish Gupta and others recently found.

A recent peer-reviewed paper inScience by Prabhat Jha and others used a national survey of 1.4 lakh adults and estimated that COVID-19 constituted 29% of deaths from June 2020 to July 2021. This corresponds to 32 lakh deaths, of which 27 lakh occurred in April–July 2021. This number was corroborated with two government data sources – one of which was the CRS and which showed all-cause mortality increased by 27% and 26% respectively, leading them to conclude that “India’s cumulative COVID-19 deaths were six-seven times higher than reported official mortality with COVID and non-COVID deaths peaking similarly”.

There could have been a possible overreporting of deaths in the national survey conducted by CVOTER. The authors went on to address this by reaching out to approximately 57,000 people in 13,500 households, and this showed “similar temporal increases in mortality with COVID and non-COVID deaths peaking similarly”.

Worldwide phenomenon

Is this an Indian phenomenon alone? A recent news feature published inNature journal based on the World Mortality Dataset maintained by researcher Ariel Karlinsky, besides other models, found that across countries the pandemic's true death toll was millions more than the official tolls. For example, the WMD dataset revealed that excess deaths in Russia numbered more than one million by the end of 2021, while only 3,00,000 COVID-19 deaths were recorded in the same period. The WMD dataset does not contain figures for India as excess deaths are available only for “subnational” units (States) and not for the whole country or for countries such as China. But extrapolating from subnational data, it could be shown, as theScience paper did for India, that excess deaths were several multiples over the official death toll and revealed undercounting.

A data story in The Hindu published in September 2021 compared excess deaths for the countries with the highest reported death toll and found that the estimated multiple over the reported toll (using the same method) for India was the highest (5.8 times) and only Chile (5.7 times) came close.

Varied reasons

What explains this substantive undercounting of deaths? In the case of India, the reasons are varied. In States like Kerala which have tallied a high number of deaths after reviewing its COVID-19 mortality reporting over time, initially, some deaths of infected people who died after testing negative or left hospitals and then died were not tallied under COVID-19 deaths. This has since been corrected, and Kerala’s case fatality rate has risen to 0.9 (closer to the national average).

But in others such as Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana, where excess deaths multiples were quite high, the reasons for the undercounting have also got to do with the States seeking to report less of the mortality as COVID-related. There are States such as Uttar Pradesh, for example, where public health systems remain weak and were overwhelmed by the sudden increase in the spurt of infections and mortality during the second wave, in particular. This also contributed to the significant underreporting of COVID-19 deaths. Many cases were not detected through adequate testing in several States. Also, the absence of proper health care institutions resulted in several deaths occurring outside institutional care and were undocumented.

States with a robust CRS (Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala for example) in which deaths are quickly registered after occurrence have tended to show lower excess deaths multiples or have addressed these deaths as COVID-19 related after audits – Maharashtra, for example.

But as the Gujarat example shows, even if undercounting of deaths was done for political expediency, such States have had to acknowledge compensation claims even if they are much higher than the reported COVID-19 tolls for the same reason.

Estimating the actual death toll due to COVID-19 is an important step in acknowledging the challenges faced by public health institutions and the state in India. This should help epidemiologists and public health specialists devise clear steps to take when faced with a pandemic-like situation and also to prepare institutions to respond to it.

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The 690 new genes identified by RefMap lead to a five-fold increase in discovered heritability, a measure that describes how much of the disease is due to a variation in genetic factors

Scientists have developed a new machine learning model for the discovery of genetic risk factors for ailments such as Motor Neurone Disease.

Designed by researchers from the University of Sheffield in the U.K. and the Stanford University School of Medicine in the U.S., the machine learning tool, RefMap, has been used by the team to trace 690 risk genes for motor neurone disease (MND), many of which are new discoveries.

One of the genes highlighted as a new MND gene, called KANK1, has been shown to produce neurotoxicity very similar to that observed in the brains of patients.

Although at an early stage, this is potentially a new target for the design of new drugs, Sheffield University said in a release on January 20.

Dr. Johnathan Cooper-Knock, from the University of Sheffield's Neuroscience Institute, said, "This new tool will help us to understand and profile the genetic basis of MND. Using this model we have already seen a dramatic increase in the number of risk genes for MND, from approximately 15 to 690." "Each new risk gene discovered is a potential target for the development of new treatments for MND and could also pave the way for genetic testing for families to work out their risk of disease." The 690 new genes identified by RefMap lead to a five-fold increase in discovered heritability, a measure that describes how much of the disease is due to a variation in genetic factors.

"RefMap identifies risk genes by integrating genetic and epigenetic data. It is a generic tool and we are applying it to more diseases in the lab," said Sai Zhang, PhD, instructor of genetics at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Michael Snyder, PhD, professor and chair of the department of genetics at the Stanford School of Medicine and also the corresponding author of this work said, "By doing machine learning for genome analysis, we are discovering more hidden genes for human complex diseases such as MND, which will eventually power personalised treatment and intervention."

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"In the latest encounter, China’s Tsinghua Science Satellite came as close as 14.5 m from a piece of debris"

A Chinese satellite had a near collision with one of the many chunks of debris left by the fallout of a recent Russian anti-satellite missile test, state media reported.

Moscow blew up one of its old satellites in November in a missile test that sparked international anger because of the space debris it scattered around the Earth’s orbit.

U.S. officials accused Moscow of carrying out a “dangerous and irresponsible” strike that had created a cloud of debris and forced the International Space Station’s crew to take evasive action.

Russia dismissed those concerns and denied that the space debris posed any danger but a new incident with a Chinese satellite suggests otherwise.

In the latest encounter, China’s Tsinghua Science Satellite came as close as 14.5 m from a piece of debris, the state-runGlobal Times reported on Wednesday.

The “extremely dangerous” event happened on Tuesday, the report added, citing a social media post by Chinese space authorities that has since been removed.

Space debris expert Liu Jing told theGlobal Times that it was rare for debris and spacecraft to be just a dozen metres apart, adding that the probability of collision this time was “very high”.

Last year there were close encounters between the Chinese space station and satellites operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which led to Beijing accusing the U.S. of unsafe conduct in space.

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Travel plans on hold again because of the pandemic? Look up, as astro tourism grows, inspiring star gazers and photographers

In April 2022 the Phyang monastery in Ladakh will welcome stargazers. Monks here suggested promoting the site as an astro hub after visiting Astrostays, a homestay on the banks of Pangong Tso.

The homestay is an initiative of the Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE), which is facilitating solar energy projects in remote Himalayan villages. “The monastery felt that a stargazing experience from the Buddhist cosmology point of view would generate interest. We are working towards setting up an observatory at the monastery by March,” says Sonal Asgotraa, founder of Astrostays.

Astrostays was established in 2019 in Maan village in Ladakh and in a few months, nearly 350 visitors looked through their GoTo Dobsonian telescope to track stars, planets and constellations. Guides are locals who have been trained in astronomy and taught to use the telescope. The revenue generated from the astro tourism facility was pumped back into the community to build solar water heaters.

With international travel getting tougher during the pandemic, more domestic travellers are discovering the joys of astronomy clubs, local campsites and accessible destinations with spectacular night views. Astro tourism enthusiasts plan ahead and travel to experience solar eclipses, meteor showers and other celestial events.

In 2020 and 2021, Chennai-based astronomer and astro-photographer Neeraj Ladia, CEO of Space Arcade, led sessions for astro-photographers and families that wanted to stargaze. They travelled to Yelagiri in groups of 20 to 30.

“The hilly areas away from the city have darker skies that are conducive for stargazing. Between the first and the second waves of COVID-19, we observed people showing interest in these short trips. The open space and small gatherings made it safer,” he points out. He also recommends Kodaikanal and Jawadhu hills for astronomy getaways. “There are a few secluded, darker spots while driving from Chennai to Pondicherry via ECR; these are also good for astro-photography.”

Join the astro party

In India, there are efforts to tap into the growing potential of astro tourism. Plans are afoot to turn Benital village, located around 2,600 metres above sea level in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, into an astro village. The Chamoli district administration and Gurgaon-based startup Starscapes conducted a two-day ‘astro party’ in Benital in December 2021, with about 50 visitors.

An astro park is in the works in Mandu, Madhya Pradesh, and in Jaipur, the State Department of Art and Culture introduced a Night Sky Tourism project after the first wave of COVID-19, to encourage visitors to look up through the telescopes set up at Jawahar Kala Kendra and Jantar Mantar. The Ladakh administration, in association with the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, plans to promote astro tourism in Hanle village.

Meanwhile, Starscapes is expanding its footprint by setting up observatories in Jaipur, Coorg and Udhagamandalam, among other locations. Their journey began from an observatory in Kausani, the hill station in Uttarakhand located 1,890 metres above sea level, which is a hotspot for astro-photographers

Dark, clear skies

Technically speaking, all you need are cloud-free, dark skies without light pollution emerging from the cities.

Astro-photographers lead expeditions for photography enthusiasts, while the locals trained in astronomy do the honours in other cases. Sonal recalls being guided on a late evening trek by locals in Ladakh who knew their way merely by gazing up at the sky: The guides have the knowledge of traditional astronomy. With some training, we realised we could tap into the potential and help them earn additional income.”

Starscapes and Astrostays hope to tie up with hotel chains and eco tourism operators. In the event of overcast skies, there is always the backup plan of showcasing recorded videos or teaching astro-photography. Paul Savio, co-founder and CEO of Starscapes, says the potential of astro tourism in India holds promise: “The rise in disposable income has made people look for new avenues of experiential tourism.”

So far, Starscapes has had more than 40,000 look-ups (people who have purchased tickets and looked through their telescopes).

“This is still a small number for a large population like ours. But there are signs of growth,” says Savio. At stargazing events, stories from science and mythology merge to form narratives like the ones screened at planetariums. Only, the live narrative changes according to the patterns on the sky.

Starscapes is looking to tap into unexplored stargazing locations. “For instance, tourists in Goa can try stargazing in South Goa, where it is possible to view darker skies,” says Savio.

The start-up whets the appetite of new stargazers by organising watch parties in different cities with portable telescopes. Savio adds that stargazing can be driven with the enthusiasm of children and hence tie-ups with schools and universities will also help. In Chamoli and Jaipur, for instance, they hold fun practical sessions where students stargaze and also make pin-hole cameras.

Soak in a meteor shower

In Gujarat, Narendra Gor has been working with the Kutch Amateur Astronomers Club since 1991, and later as part of Stargazing India team. He recalls the enthusiasm when stargazing was included in the itinerary of Rann Utsav in 2008. “Since then, several families that have come for Rann Utsav have enjoyed the astro tourism experience. I’ve met people who travelled all the way from Mumbai and Bengaluru to track meteor showers.” Stargazing India is active also in Maharashtra, Odisha (during the Konark beach festival in winter) and Chhattisgarh.

Ajay Talwar has been a stargazer since the mid 1980s and took to astrophotography in the 1990s. He talks about leading budding photographers on expeditions and singles out experiences in the Himalayas, with its dust-free dark skies. He also suggests visiting the northern states during winters. “In the South, often clear skies are restricted to December and January. In Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Rajasthan, there are many remote locations with no citylight pollution. Indore and Ujjain are also conducive for stargazing since they are on a plateau.”

When the second wave of COVID-19 was on the decline, Gurgaon-based HR professional Sudha Reddy Patnaik and her friend Nupur Chakraborty, a marketing professional, headed to Kausani, not knowing what to expect. The hill station offered a few sightseeing experiences during the day. After dark, they visited the Starscapes observatory only to be disappointed due to the cloud cover. On day two, however, they eagerly peered through the telescopes and were awed by Jupiter and Saturn with its clearly visible rings, as well as the Andromeda galaxy. “The planets and stars moved as we gazed into the telescope,” says Nupur.

The experience whetted her appetite for astro tourism. She rues having visited Ladakh in the past but not being familiar with stargazing possibilities.

Her friend Sudha seconds that and says the next time around, she will take her friends and family along: “At Kausani, we were guided by an astronomy expert from the local community who was very enthusiastic. I never knew stargazing could be so much fun.”

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Future variants may be more infectious and less pathogenic, he says

Omicron is a “deviant” from the COVID-19 pandemic progression script and so it must be postulated that two pandemics are going on side by side, one by the Delta and close relatives and the other by the latest variant of concern, said noted virologist Dr. T. Jacob John.

Speaking to PTI on how the pandemic can now be expected to progress, he pointed out that Omicron is not “fathered, or mothered, by Wuhan-D614G, Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Kappa or Mu and that much is for sure”.

“So in my opinion, this is a variant of unknown proximal parentage... We shall see as the pandemic progresses,” John, a former director of the ICMR’s Centre of Advanced Research in Virology, said.

D614G refers to an amino acid mutation in this protein that has become increasingly common in SARS-CoV-2 viruses from around the world.

“Since Omicron is illegitimate or ‘deviant’ from COVID-19 pandemic progression script, we must think of two pandemics going on side by side -- Delta and close relatives, and Omicron and its variants in future.

“Diseases caused by them are also different. One is Pneumonia-hypoxia-multiorgan damage disease but the other an upper/middle respiratory disease that pushes pre-existing chronic disease or old age beyond the wall,” he said.

Asked if the peak of the third wave has been reached since cases have started plateauing in some places, John said metro cities started first and will finish first.

“All put together is a national epidemic,” he said.

On whether the upcoming COVID-19 variants would be more infectious but less lethal, John said generally new pathogens get adapted to human hosts and in the process tend to become more infectious and less pathogenic, within limits.

“Time frame is long, not one or two years... Remember, Delta came late but was both faster-spreading and more pathogenic,” he said.

Omicron, the highly infectious variant of coronavirus, is driving the third wave of COVID-19 pandemic in India.

The country registered 2,71,202 new coronavirus infections, taking the tally of COVID-19 cases to3,71,22,164, including 7,743 cases of the Omicron variant, according to the Union Health Ministry data on Sunday.

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What vital genetic modifications were done to make the pig heart transplantation possible?

The story so far: On January 7, David Bennett, a 57-year-old from Baltimore, Maryland, U.S. became the first person to receive a heart transplant from a genetically-modified pig. Surgeons at the University of Maryland Medical Center transplanted the porcine heart into Mr. Bennett suffering from terminal heart failure. Since transplantation of a pig heart into a human, called xenotransplantation, is an experimental procedure, doctors had to seek an emergency authorisation from the U.S. FDA (Food and Drug Administration). Approval was granted as Mr. Bennett was facing near-certain death due to his condition and was too ill to qualify for a routine human heart transplantor, an artificial ventricular assist device.

Is David Bennett the first person to be transplanted with a porcine organ?

In late September last year, surgeons at the New York University Langone Health medical centre transplanted a kidney of a genetically modified pig into a brain-dead person. The second such pig kidney experiment at the same university was carried out on November 22, 2021 on a person maintained on a ventilator. The genetic modification was to deceive the human immune system from recognising the kidney as foreign and reject it. Since the recipients were already brain-dead, the purpose of the transplantation was not to save the patient; it was purely an experiment to find out if an organ from a genetically modified pig would be compatible, function normally and not be rejected.

What vital genetic modifications were done to make the pig heart transplantation possible?

Since the human immune system rejects anything that is foreign, whether from another person who is immunologically matched to the recipient or from a different species such as a pig, scientists had to tweak the pig genome to make the organ less likely to be rejected. According to the New Scientist, Revivicor, a U.S.-based company, is raising a small herd of genetically engineered pigs. These pigs have 10 of their genes genetically modified to reduce the possibility of rejection. Of the 10 genes, four were inactivated, including one that causes an aggressive immune response and another that causes the heart to grow after transplantation. In addition, six human genes were inserted into the pig genome to further reduce the risk of rejection. The recipient is also on an experimental drug to suppress the immune system so that the transplanted pig heart is not rejected.

In the early 1990s, it became clear that all human immune reaction were directed at one pig antigen — a sugar molecule present on cell surfaces. Knocking out the gene that produces an enzyme, which in turn, produces the sugar molecule, helps in reducing the risk of an immune reaction leading to rejection. The DNA of pigs also contains many retroviruses that can infect human cells. The presence of such a virus in the transplanted organ raises the risk of infection in human recipients. Dozens of retroviruses have been removed from the organ to make it safer when transplanted.

Unlike the traditional breeding techniques to know both copies of a gene, the advent of genome-editing tools such as CRISPR/Cas9, which allows precise removal of specific genes has made gene modification simpler, fast and accurate. A genetically modified pig cell is fused with a pig ovum that has its DNA removed. The ova that contain only the genetically engineered genome start dividing to become pig foetuses. This is the same technique that was used to clone Dolly, the sheep. The embryos are then implanted into surrogate mothers. The gestation period is just 114 days, unlike in the case of humans. Pigs have been preferred as ideal candidates for xenotransplantation despite their immune system being different from humans for the simple reason that the porcine organs are anatomically similar to those of humans.

What are the reasons for xenotransplantation becoming more acceptable?

Last year, nearly 4,000 people in the U.S. received human donor hearts, but the need is far more. The highest demand is for kidneys. According to the health ministry, around 0.18 million people in India are estimated to suffer from renal failure every year, but only about 6,000 renal transplants are carried out in the country. About 25,000-30,000 liver transplants are needed annually in India but only about 1,500 are being performed. In the case of the heart, 50,000 people suffer from heart failure and are in need of a heart transplant. Yet, only 10-15 heart transplants are carried out in India each year. Harvesting organs from genetically engineered pigs is seen as a viable alternative to meet organs shortage. Besides scientific challenges, there are several ethical challenges to overcome before xenotransplantation of porcine organs become a reality.

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The new chairman is taking over ISRO at a time when the Central government is pushing for sweeping reforms in the space sector

He grew up in an era when, kindling the imagination of an entire nation, the first sounding rockets were smartly lifting off from what was once a nondescript beach in southern Kerala. So it should come as no surprise when S. Somanath, the new chief of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), says his interest in space technology was first piqued as a young student; an interest which would quickly evolve into a lifelong passion.

Armed with a degree in engineering, he joined the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) — the leading unit of ISRO for launch vehicles — in 1985. The eclectic eighties was a happening decade on many counts for fledgling space scientists such as Mr. Somanath. More so because the space agency was right in the middle of one of its biggest undertakings; building the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), an elegant, 44-metre tall rocket that would eventually come to be dubbed the “reliable workhorse” of ISRO.

The young engineer from a small village near Cherthala in Alappuzha district was assigned to the PSLV project, where he quickly honed his skills. It was also at this time when he was first noted by his immediate bosses as “one of the bright boys” who was destined for bigger things. Time, it appears, has proved them right. In 2015, ISRO chose him to head its Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre (LPSC), Valiamala, and in 2018, the VSSC. On Friday, he once again proved his mentors right when he took over as the new Chairman of ISRO. New Delhi had issued orders appointing him as Secretary, Department of Space, and the Chairman, Space Commission, on January 12, Wednesday, for a “combined tenure of three years”.

At 58, Mr. Somanath comes across as a smiling, outspoken man who is quite at ease in a crowd. Younger colleagues at Thumba (VSSC) describe him as someone who is confident about his craft and willing to adapt and innovate. They also draw attention to his aptitude for learning new things, a trademark trait of many of the leading ISRO lights. Senior scientists of the space agency, many of them now retired, say he is “the right person” to lead the agency which is at a crossroads. He is also lauded for his management and diplomatic skills. What is obvious is that Mr. Somanath, who succeeds K. Sivan as Chairman, would have to draw extensively on all these qualities to address the formidable challenges that await the country's space sector, which, poised for reforms on the one hand, also wants to see its pandemic-hit mission schedules back on track.

Born in July 1963 — incidentally the same year the first sounding rocket, an American-made Nike-Apache, made its way into the blue skies from Thumba — Mr. Somanath grew up in Thuravoor, a village near Cherthala. The son of Sreedhara Panicker, a teacher of Hindi, and Thankamma, Mr. Somanath was a bright student, excelling in the science subjects. He obtained his BTech degree in Mechanical Engineering from the TKM College of Engineering, Kollam. After joining the VSSC, he also took his Masters in Aerospace Engineering from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, with specialisation in Dynamics and Control.

Mr. Somanath joined the PSLV team at the VSSC when G. Madhavan Nair, who would go on to become Chairman, ISRO, was the project director. “Developing the PSLV was one of the important projects of ISRO at the time. We had noticed the spark in him even in those days,” recalls Mr. Nair, who led the space agency from 2003 to 2009. Later, as project manager of PSLV, Mr. Somanath handled mechanisms, pyro systems, integration and satellite launch service management.

GSLV project

In 2003, he joined the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk-III (GSLV Mk-III) project, serving as the deputy project director responsible for overall design of the vehicle, mission design, structural design and integration, according to an ISRO profile on him.

From 2010 to 2014, he was project director of GSLV Mk-III. “His contributions in PSLV and GSLV Mk-III were in their overall architecture, propulsion stages design, structural and structural dynamics designs, separation systems, vehicle integration and integration procedures development,” says ISRO. After a stint as deputy director, VSSC, he moved to the LPSC as director in June 2015. He played a key role in the development and qualification of the CE-20 cryogenic engine and the C25 cryogenic upper stage of the GSLV. Mr. Somanath has had a role in all the major missions undertaken by ISRO in recent decades, but which one is the most memorable for him personally? “I would say the LVM3-X/CARE mission,” he said on Saturday. This first, suborbital, experimental flight of the GSLV Mk-III took place at Sriharikota on December 18, 2014. On January 22, 2018, he was back at the VSSC, this time as the director.

Mr. Somanath has taken over as the Chairman, ISRO, at a time when the Central government is pushing for sweeping space sector reforms. From a decades-old, purely government-run affair, the sector is set to see a larger role played by the private sector and start-ups. The prevailing philosophy is that production should be left to the industry, and ISRO should focus on research. With this in mind, NewSpace India Ltd, responsible for enabling Indian industries to take up space-related activities and promote and commercially exploit products and services arising from the space programme, was incorporated in 2019. A year later, the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre was announced as “an independent nodal agency under the Department of Space (DoS) for allowing space activities and usage of DoS-owned facilities by non-government private entities.”

List of priorities

Mr. Somanath has made it clear that space sector reforms and spurring the growth of India’s space economy find top billing in his list of priorities. Forging a lasting and meaningful collaboration between ISRO and the relatively younger private players in India’s space sector is one of the challenges awaiting the new chairman, point out ISRO veterans. On another, equally important front, the space agency would also want to get on with ongoing projects which have been delayed by the outbreak of COVID-19.

The pandemic hit the day-to-day operations of ISRO, forcing critical facilities such as VSSC, LPSC and the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, to adapt to the new normal. Under Mr. Somanath, the VSSC was actively engaged in combating the virus by producing hand sanitisers and developing mechanical ventilator models for COVID-19 care.

In December 2019, speaking to The Hindu ahead of the 50th mission of the PSLV, Mr. Somanath had commented that the first 50 missions had taken 26 years, but the next 50 would not take even half as long. It reflected the bubbling enthusiasm in ISRO circles in the immediate months preceding the pandemic as the space agency was gradually pushing up the frequency of launches. But as he shoulders the task of helming the organisation, the challenge of putting aright a schedule that has skittered off the tracks awaits Mr. Somanath.

One of his top priorities will be the ‘Gaganyaan’, India's ambitious push to put a human crew in space. ISRO hopes that the mission would help lay the robust foundation for a sustainable human space flight programme in the long run. Development of a Reusable Launch Vehicle, the semi-cryogenic engine and the keenly-awaited Chandrayaan-3 and Aditya-L1 missions are some of the projects awaiting his immediate attention.

In September 2019, giving away prizes at a function in Thiruvananthapuram, Mr. Somanath had opined that finding solutions to problems is the essence of engineering. On the occasion, he has also emphasised that for a country like India, the solutions also need to be cost-effective besides being efficient. Mr. Somanath is now at the helm of one organisation which the nation has traditionally looked up to for such solutions.

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On January 15, 1969, theoretical astronomers John Cocke and Mike Disney made a stunning practical discovery by identifying an optical pulsar for the first time. The story of how they discovered it is an enthralling one, made even more incredible by the fact that their conversations during the key moments were actually tape recorded on the night of the discovery. A.S.Ganesh regales you with the story of how Cocke and Disney found an optical pulsar…

Pulsars are celestial objects generally believed to be rapidly rotating neutron stars that emit beams of electromagnetic radiation. Packing a mass that could be more than that of our sun in the space of about a large city, pulsars are spherical and compact. Optical pulsars are a class of pulsars that can be detected in the visible spectrum.

British astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered the first pulsars in 1967. She achieved this while pursuing her Ph.D. and assisting her advisor Antony Hewish, who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974 for this discovery along with another astronomer Martin Ryle, with no mention of Burnell.

The hunt begins…

Burnell’s discovery, however, opened up the floodgates in the field. Within another year, more than 20 pulsars had been discovered. All of these, however, had also been detected by their radio waves and even though many were still sceptical of ever detecting light from a pulsar, the race to find optical pulsars were on.

That race was won by astronomers John Cocke and Mike Disney when they discovered the first optical pulsar on January 15, 1969. Theoretical astronomers with no practical experience before this discovery, the pair was an unlikely candidate to clinch this important discovery.

In fact, Cocke and Disney had bumped into each other only months before their groundbreaking discovery. Staying at the same motel in Tucson, Arizona with their wives, a chance encounter at the swimming pool marked the start of their partnership as they realised that they were both astronomers heading to the Steward Observatory, trying to get experience at the telescope.

Despite being complete novices, they received observing time of a few nights on a small 36” telescope to their amazement. With the news of the discovery of a pulsar that pulsed 30 times a second from the general direction of Crab Nebula coming in, Cocke and Disney decided to do a thorough study of the region by starting to look right in the centre of the Nebula.

Stitch a partnership with Taylor

Looking for optical pulsars, however, is a complicated experiment that required instruments that the pair had no idea about. Ray Weymann, one of the senior astronomers at the observatory, suggested that they reach out to another astronomer Don Taylor, as he already had an ideal piece of equipment.

Disney called Taylor “a bit of an electronic wizard” and the trio decided to work together. The fact that Taylor’s own interest lay with planets and quasars put him in good stead to look for an optical pulsar.

Heading to the remote mountain peak where the observatory was located, the trio, along with Bob McCallister, the night assistant, set up their equipment. Once Taylor had connected the 36” telescope to a Computer of Average Transients or CAT (a device that could produce a smooth, representative curve by averaging many passes of light), the team were ready to find the pulsar’s light.

Doppler effect

As nothing worthwhile came about in the first night of observations, Taylor showed Cocke and Disney how to work the equipment as he decided to head back to the University of Arizona to help his students. The mood was down when nothing came about during the next night as well, as the following two nights that they were left with were expected to be cloudy.

It was during one of those cloudy days that it occurred to Cocke that they had to re-check their calculations. Cocke then told Disney as they were cooking dinner that they hadn’t accounted for the Earth’s movement around the sun. This movement would mean that there would be more pulses when the Earth moves towards the pulsar and fewer when moving away.

By accounting for this Doppler effect, the pair corrected the radio period of the pulse. They were lucky to get a few more nights of observing time as the one who had to come after them opted out for personal reasons. Along with McCallister, the pair returned to the observatory, reset the timing gear to the new period they had worked out and restarted the whole procedure.

CAT-ching a glimpse

Thus, on the night of January 15, 1969, Cocke, Disney, and McCallister witnessed a historic moment when they observed a pulse on the CAT screen. Following their success in observation number 18, they repeated it again and were again successful.

Once the excitement had cooled off a bit, they decided to confirm that the signals weren’t an artifact of the instrumentation. While observation number 20 gave them reason to fear, they decided to move the telescope further in observations 21 and 22 and were happy to see no pulse at all. Observation number 23 was a repeat of 18 and the pulse showed up on the screen once again.

Apart from the fact that they had made a stunning discovery, what was even more incredible was the fact that their entire conversation through that night was recorded on tape as the events unfolded. The excitement of the moment of a great discovery, the palpable fear that it might all be a mistake and not real, are all clearly discernible from the recordings.

When the pair first communicated their success to Taylor, he wasn’t ready to believe them. But on returning the following day and having a go at the equipment himself, Taylor too was convinced that this was the real thing. The team sent a telegram announcing their discovery to the International Astronomical Union and on February 8 the same year, the trio officially announced their findings in a paper titled “Strong light flashes have been detected from the fast pulsar in the Crab Nebula” in the journal Nature.

The discovery of the optical pulsar is a fascinating story about science itself and about those who practise it. While the discovery made Disney believe that they “were incredibly fortunate the first time” they went observing and he saw astronomy, and science in general, as a form of big game hunting; Cocke felt that “you only had to look in the right places and look often enough, and you’d find something”. Whatever their methods and beliefs, their partnership allowed them to succeed where others disbelieved.

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The control arm of the study had 93 participants and the intervention arm had 91 participants, but most of these people were under 55 years

A joint study by Bharat Biotech and ICMR has provided the first evidence of the immune response of a homologous booster six months after the second dose. The randomised control trial was carried out on 184 participants belonging to the phase-2 trial arm that received 6 microgram of the vaccine for both first and second dose.

The booster dose was found to be safe. The most frequent adverse events reported were mild and transient pain and itching at the injection site.

The booster dose was given seven months (215 days) after the second dose. The primary outcome was to measure neutralising antibody titres four weeks after the booster shot.

The results have been posted on a preprint server, medRxiv. Preprints are yet to be peer-reviewed.

The control arm had 93 participants and the intervention arm had 91 participants. However, majority of the 184 participants were younger than 55 years. In the case of the intervention arm, 85 of 91 participants were in the age group 18-55 years, while 82 of 93 participants belonged to the same age group in the control arm. The median age of participants in the intervention arm was 35 years; it was 36 years for the control arm.

Small number

“The study recruited only a very small number of people above 55 years of age — 6.6% in the vaccine arm and 7.5% in the placebo arm. Since the data are not broken up by age, we can't tell how well the booster worked in the most vulnerable age group,” Dr. Shahid Jameel, Director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University, says in an email. “More detailed studies and a longer term follow up are needed.”

From January 10, booters are being administered to those older than 60 years with comorbidities and to health-care and frontline workers. The reason for prioritising people above 60 years for a booster shot is because elderly people are relatively less likely to have developed sufficient antibodies after two doses.

Low representation

With the booster dose study including just half-a-dozen participants over 55 years in each arm, the immune responses following a booster shot in the elderly is still not clearly known. But it was on March 23, 2021, that Bharat Biotech was permitted to conduct a booster dose trial using Covaxin by the Subject Expert Committee. At that time, only those in the phase-2 trial to test vaccine safety and immunogenicity had received the second dose more than six months ago, and hence the permission was granted to conduct the trial on these participants. The phase-2 trial that tested 6 mcg of the vaccine on 190 participants included only 10 individuals who were in the 55-65 years age group.

Increase in antibodies

About three-fourths of the 184 participants still had neutralising antibody titres above baseline value at the end of six months after the second dose. “As expected, the booster dose shows an increase in neutralising antibody titres against the virus. What is even more pleasing is that the boosting effect is observed against all circulating variants (except Omicron, which was not studied),” Dr. Jameel says.

Both the placebo and the intervention arms witnessed an increase in neutralising antibody levels. The increase in antibody levels in the control arm is most likely to be due to natural infection as the booster trial was conducted during the second wave.

The increase in neutralising antibodies in both arms provides proof that repeated exposure to the virus antigen either through infection or vaccination leads to an increase in neutralising antibodies.

Though studies carried outside India have found that infection leads to higher neutralising antibody levels and longer duration of protection against infection compared with vaccination, achieving protection through vaccination is safe and advisable.

Elevated antibodies

Though neutralising antibody levels were found elevated in both control and intervention arms, the level of increase was higher in the intervention arm. For instance, four weeks after the booster shot, the control arm witnessed a fourfold increase in neutralising antibodies while the intervention arm witnessed a 31-fold increase.

“Since even the placebo arm showed about 4-fold rise in titres (attributed to infection) and the same is expected in the vaccine arm, the actual boost by the vaccine is not about 30-fold but 30/4, which is 7.5-fold,” Dr. Jameel says.

The sevenfold increase in neutralising antibodies in the vaccine arm compared to the placebo group following a booster dose becomes clear when the values of the plaque reduction neutralisation test of the two groups are compared. However, the microneutralisation test revealed that the antibody increase in the intervention arm was less than twofold than the control arm.

“In the case of binding antibodies, the difference between the two arms is not statistically significant at the end of four weeks following the booster shot,” says Dr. Chandrakant Lahariya, physician-epidemiologist and public policy and health systems specialist.

As part of another study, the sera samples from individuals who received a booster were tested to assess neutralising capacity against Delta and Omicron variants. While the preprint does not provide any details about neutralising studies against Omicron, a press release sent out by Bharat Biotech on January 12 says the sera samples from individuals who received a booster were found to be “effective in neutralizing Omicron variants on a live virus neutralization assay”.

“More than 90% of all individuals boosted with Covaxin showed neutralizing antibodies,” the release says.

“As the dominant COVID-19 variant throughout the world, Omicron poses a serious public health concern,” Dr. Mehul Suthar from Emory Vaccine Center and who led the laboratory analysis says in the release. “Data from this preliminary analysis show individuals receiving a booster dose of Covaxin have a significant immune response to both the Omicron and Delta variants. These findings suggest that a booster dose has the potential to reduce disease severity and hospitalisations.”

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The elderly are prone to chronic conditions that manifest as itches

There was a young lady from Natchez

whose clothes were always in patches.

When asked why this was, she replied it’s because

wherever I itches, I scratches.

An unpleasant sensation that elicits the desire or the reflex to scratch is how itch has been classically defined. Scratching does help ward off that insect which is troubling you; but pruritus (as itch is called) that persists for longer than six weeks is a pathological state with profound effects on the health, physical and mental, of one in seven persons. Ongoing research has uncovered a wide range of mechanisms underlying what appears to be a single condition.

Chronic itch can be dermatologic - often triggered by the release of histamine, and treated with antihistamine drugs (e.g., Benadryl), neuropathic (related to the nervous system, as in shingles, nerve compression and cerebral hemorrhage), or systemic (as in renal insufficiency) or psychogenic (as in obsessive-compulsive disorders).

Itch in the elderly

The elderly are particularly prone to chronic conditions that manifest as itches. In a South Indian study, (Manickam and colleagues, Journal of The Indian Academy of Geriatrics, 2018; 14:17-25) eczema was seen in 29% of a study group of subjects in the 60+ age group. Another study at the Base hospital of the Delhi Cantonment on the same age group reported that 56% of their subjects complained of pruritus (Indian Dermatology Online Journal, 10(5), 2019). In an analysis of 100 patients complaining of chronic itch. associated causes could be pinpointed in 62, and included diabetes, hypothyroidism, several cancers and Iron deficiency. (Indian Journal of Clinical and Experimental Dermatology, 5: 130, 2019).

Factors that induce itch are called pruritogens. Tissues that are sensitive to itch include the skin, mucus membranes and the cornea of the eye. Some nerve fibres in these tissues (pruriceptors) are stimulated by pruritogens and the resulting signals are carried, via itch-signaling neurons in the spinal cord, to the brain. There are several different receptors and channels that respond to pruritogens. A great degree of redundancy in their roles ensures that no matter what, the itch sensation gets through to your brain.

A common example of chronic itch is atopic dermatitis, an inflammatory condition showing cracked, itchy skin, which is often caused by allergens. As an example, it may be triggered by the house dust mite, barely a third of a millimeter in size, that feeds on the dead scaly skin that you shed all the time. Its faeces contains a protein which is a potent pruritogen. Upon binding to receptors in the skin, it elucidates allergic reactions such as atopic dermatitis, or asthma. These receptors are therapeutic targets, the aim being to block the itch sensation from being transduced to the brain, without hindering other sensations that protect you from harm.

Not the same as pain

The scratch response is a key difference between itch and pain. Sudden, sharp pain causes you to hurriedly retract and thus escape damage; scratching actually draws attention to the cause of the itch. Scratching evokes an inhibition of itch-signaling neurons in the spinal cord. This reduces the quantum of itch sensations that reach the brain. What a relief! But the respite is only short-lived – by scratching, you are inflicting mild pain, and in your brain, pain can momentarily overshadow the itch sensation. Scratching may even trigger reward systems in the brain, making it a pleasurable feeling. But for patients with chronic itch, scratching can be a bane, causing damage to the skin and aggravating the itch.

Phantom itches

People who have lost a hand or leg often find that their ‘phantom limb’ itches profusely. Their brain rewires itself over time and signals from another part of the body now map to the region that earlier received somatosensory inputs from the limb. In a series of deceptively simple experiments, the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran of the University of California, San Diego, showed that people who have recently lost a limb in accidents and often complain of their ‘phantom hand itching like crazy’, could obtain relief by scratching various parts of their face – scratch the upper lip, and the absent index finger feels comforted, and so on.

Novel therapeutic methods try to tackle chronic itch at many different points, from the skin to the central nervous system. UVB light is known to attenuate histamine release from immune cells in the skin, so phototherapy has proved useful. Garments of a silk that is coated with antimicrobial compounds are another strategy to soothe itching skin. Long-term itch leads to functional anomalies in the regions of the brain associated with itch, and non-invasive transcranial direct-current simulation has been shown to offer relief.

(The article has been written jointly with Dr. Sushil Chandani,

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Like Pavlov's dogs, locusts were trained to associate an odour with food

The ability to smell coffee immaterial of the presence of other interfering smells or the environment remains the same in humans. In effect, other smells or different environmental factors do not get in the way of our ability to experience the smell of individual odours. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found the answer as to why this happens by studying locusts (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

Like Pavlov's dogs, locusts were trained to associate an odour with food, their preference being a blade of grass. After going a day without food, a locust was exposed to a puff of odour (a puff of hexanol or isoamyl acetate), then given a blade of grass. In as few as six presentations, the locust learned to open its sensory appendages close to the mouth in expectation of a snack after simply smelling the ‘training odourant’.

The researchers studied which neurons were fired when the locust was exposed to the odour under different conditions, be it the presence of other smells, different environment, or when they were starved or fully fed.

Under different circumstances, they found highly inconsistent patterns of neurons were activated even though the locust appendage close to the mouth opened every time. The neural responses were highly variable with what the locusts were doing, behaviourally.

They turned to machine-learning algorithms to understand how variable neural responses continued to produce consistent or stable behaviour. It turned out that the locust exploited two functional types of neurons: those that are activated when an odourant is present, and those which are silenced when an odourant is present but become activated after the odour presentation ends, says the university press release.

To recognise an odourant's presence, researchers simply needed to add evidence for the odourant being present and subtract evidence against that odour being present. If the result was above a certain threshold, machine learning would predict the locust smelled the odour.

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The study examined the molecular nature of muscle dysfunction in mice, in the absence of vitamin D

Skeletal muscles normally brim with energy, yet they starve in the absence of Vitamin D, says recent research led by Aneeshkumar A. G. of National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi. This research demonstrates that glycogen stored in the skeletal muscles is not converted into a usable form of energy without Vitamin D.

Usually, the glucose absorbed from the food is converted into glycogen and stored in the skeletal muscle. This stored energy reserve is used by muscles to produce energy after the food consumed is digested. However, in the absence of vitamin D, the skeletal muscle is starved of energy, decreasing muscle mass.

Muscle wasting

Vitamin D deficiency is often associated with rickets. In rickets, the bone tissue does not correctly mineralise calcium and phosphorus, leading to softening of bones resulting in skeletal deformities. However, we are becoming aware that vitamin D works more as a hormone than and is involved in a host of biochemical reactions. It is key to maintaining metabolic functions, immune system, bone health and plays a crucial role in depression, mood swings, anxiety and sleep quality.

As part of the normal metabolic process, proteins produced in our body degrade, and in due course, new proteins are made to replace them. Usually, when the protein degradation exceeds protein synthesis, skeletal muscle atrophy or simply a decrease in muscle mass occurs.

"We wanted to find out the molecular nature of muscle dysfunction in the absence of vitamin D. We started with the hypothesis that the root cause is metabolic dysfunction. We used a mouse model which does not have a vitamin D receptor:[VDR] a protein that binds to vitamin D and switches several genes on or off to test our hypotheses," says Dr. Aneeshkumar.

Hungry cells

Typically, the protein synthesis is high when the digestion of the food is taking place and is slower during the post-absorptive state when the digestion is completed. "In order to examine if the protein degradation and subsequent muscle wasting occur primarily during the absorptive or post-absorptive phase, we compared the protein synthesis during both the phases. In control mice, the levels were as expected. Nevertheless, in mice lacking VDR after the weaning stage of growth, the protein synthesis was impaired during the post-absorptive stage," explains Dr. Aneeshkumar, and adds, "without the vitamin D receptor there was a general increase in protein degradation and a decrease in post-absorptive protein synthesis."

Initially, scientists suspected that the absence of VDR is preventing the synthesis of glycogen from the food. "We checked whether the energy deprivation in skeletal muscles is associated with differences in glycogen levels," says Dr. Aneeshkumar. To their surprise, VDR knockout mice had higher glycogen levels than the control ones. "We found that the glycogen synthase, the key enzyme that converts glucose into glycogen, was having a field day without the inhibitory enzymes active". More and more glycogen was being produced and stored in the skeletal muscle.

Nevertheless, the glycogen phosphorylase, an enzyme that converts glycogen to glucose when energy is needed, was significantly lower. "As a result, while muscle continued to make glycogen, none of it could be converted back to glucose resulting in energy deficiency," explains Dr. Aneeshkumar. Even with abundant glycogen present, the skeletal muscle could not extract the energy in the absence of vitamin D.

"From this research, we think we have found the molecular mechanism by which the vitamin D deficiency leads to muscle wasting. Without vitamin D, glycogen storage cannot be utilised for glucose production. When the glycogen storage does not give energy, particularly in a post-absorb state, the skeletal muscle draws more glucose from the blood. This leads to a systemic energy shortage. When there is systemic lack of energy, like during hunger, the protein degradation in muscle is triggered leading to muscle wasting," explains Dr. Aneeshkumar. "Although our study is in mice, we think this mechanism is broadly applicable in humans as well," he said.

(T.V. Venkateswaran is a scientist with Vigyan Prasar and is a science communicator.)

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It ended in the patient’s death and led to the arrest of two doctors

On January 7, doctors at the University of Maryland Medical School in the U.S. made news when they transplanted a genetically modified pig heart into a 57-year-old man.

Few remember now that Dhaniram Baruah, a cardio-thoracic surgeon based in Sonapur near Guwahati, transplanted the organs of a pig into a human body in 1997. However, Dr. Baruah’s xenotransplantation procedure ended badly.

Xenotransplantation is the process of grafting or transplanting organs or tissues between members of different species.

“It is not easy for a human body to accept the organs of a pig. Time will tell whether the human body will accept the organ of a genetically-altered pig,” the 72-year-old doctor, who lost his voice after undergoing throat surgery some time ago, said via S.A. Achrekar, a senior scientist at his research institute in Sonapur.

At an international conference in 1995, Dr. Baruah had said pigs are close to humans in various aspects. He had at the time developed an “electric motor-driven artificial biological heart made of ox pericardium that was implanted in a pig”.

Dr. Baruah said he had carried out 102 animal experiments on xenotransplantation. He transplanted a pig’s heart, lung and kidneys to Purno Saikia, a 32-year-old end-stage organ failure patient, on January 1, 1997. Jonathan Ho, a Hong Kong-based doctor, had assisted him in the transplantation at his research centre.

But Sakia died a week later, triggering an uproar. The two doctors were arrested on January 10 under the Transplantation of Human Organs Act, 1994, booked for culpable homicide and imprisoned for 40 days. Subsequently, the Assam government formed an inquiry committee that found pig heart implants to be unethical and unlawful.

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He played a major role in development of the PSLV and GSLV Mk-III

Eminent rocket scientist S. Somanath has been appointed as the Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Space Secretary.

Dr. Somanath is taking over the reins of ISRO at a critical juncture when sweeping reforms and critical missions are set to define the forward journey of the storied space agency.

Commenting on his priorities, Dr. Somanath told The Hindu that space sector reforms, which involves hand-holding the private sector and start-ups so that they emerge as key partners in the sector’s development, find a top spot on his list.

“We have to hold their hand and support them to come up. The idea is that the space ecosystem should become more vibrant, economically viable and self-sustaining. IN-SPACe is defining a new model, which is also designed to expand our space economy. The ₹16,000-crore space economy that we have in India today should grow to a ₹60,000-crore space economy,” said Dr. Somanath, who has been serving as the Director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) and the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST).

The senior space scientist is also taking over at a time when ISRO has numerous missions and projects — the Gaganyaan human spaceflight mission included — waiting in the wings. Further, the COVID-19 has played havoc with ISRO’s schedules over the past two years, setting another challenge.

Looking back, Dr. Somanath recalls his younger days, when, as a student, he developed a keen passion for space technology. He joined the VSSC in the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) project in 1985, after obtaining his B. Tech in Mechanical Engineering from the TKM College of Engineering, Kollam, and a Masters in Aerospace Engineering from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore with specialisation in Structures, Dynamics and Control.

Dr. Somanath has played a major role in the development of the PSLV and the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk-III (GSLV Mk-III). He joined the GSLV Mk-III project in 2003, and served as Project Director from 2010 to 2014. “Somanath is an expert in the area of system engineering of launch vehicles. His contributions in PSLV and GSLV MkIII were in their overall architecture, propulsion stages design, structural and structural dynamics designs, separation systems, vehicle integration and integration procedures development,” according to ISRO.

Later on, he had a two-and-a-half-year stint as Director, Liquid Systems Propulsion Centre (LPSC), Valiamala, where he contributed to the development of the indigenous cryogenic stages for the GSLV. Dr. Somanath took over as the Director, VSSC, in January 2018.

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Over the years, scientists have turned from primates to pigs, tinkering with their genes.

In a medical first, doctors transplanted a pig heart into a patient in a last-ditch effort to save his life and a Maryland hospital said Monday that he's doing well three days after the highly experimental surgery.

While it’s too soon to know if the operation really will work, it marks a step in the decades-long quest to one day use animal organs for life-saving transplants. Doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center say the transplant showed that a heart from a genetically modified animal can function in the human body without immediate rejection.

The patient, David Bennett, a 57-year-old Maryland handyman, knew there was no guarantee the experiment would work but he was dying, ineligible for a human heart transplant and had no other option, his son told The Associated Press.

“It was either die or do this transplant. I want to live. I know it’s a shot in the dark, but it’s my last choice,” Mr. Bennett said a day before the surgery, according to a statement provided by the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

On Monday, Mr. Bennett was breathing on his own while still connected to a heart-lung machine to help his new heart. The next few weeks will be critical as Mr. Bennett recovers from the surgery and doctors carefully monitor how his heart is faring.

There’s a huge shortage of human organs donated for transplant, driving scientists to try to figure out how to use animal organs instead. Last year, there were just over 3,800 heart transplants in the U.S., a record number, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, which oversees the nation’s transplant system.

"If this works, there will be an endless supply of these organs for patients who are suffering,” said Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, scientific director of the Maryland university's animal-to-human transplant program.

But prior attempts at such transplants — or xenotransplantation — have failed, largely because patients’ bodies rapidly rejected the animal organ. Notably, in 1984, Baby Fae, a dying infant, lived 21 days with a baboon heart.

The difference this time: The Maryland surgeons used a heart from a pig that had undergone gene-editing to remove a sugar in its cells that’s responsible for that hyper-fast organ rejection. Several biotech companies are developing pig organs for human transplant; the one used for Friday's operation came from Revivicor, a subsidiary of United Therapeutics.

“I think you can characterize it as a watershed event,” Dr. David Klassen, UNOS’ chief medical officer, said of the Maryland transplant.

Still, Dr. Klassen cautioned that it’s only a first tentative step into exploring whether this time around, xenotransplantation might finally work.

The Food and Drug Administration, which oversees such experiments, allowed the surgery under what’s called a “compassionate use” emergency authorization, available when a patient with a life-threatening condition has no other options.

It will be crucial to share the data gathered from this transplant before extending it to more patients, said Karen Maschke, a research scholar at the Hastings Center, who is helping develop ethics and policy recommendations for the first clinical trials under a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

“Rushing into animal-to-human transplants without this information would not be advisable,” Ms. Maschke said.

Over the years, scientists have turned from primates to pigs, tinkering with their genes.

Just last September, researchers in New York performed an experiment suggesting these kinds of pigs might offer promise for animal-to-human transplants. Doctors temporarily attached a pig’s kidney to a deceased human body and watched it begin to work.

The Maryland transplant takes their experiment to the next level, said Dr. Robert Montgomery, who led that work at NYU Langone Health.

“This is a truly remarkable breakthrough," he said in a statement. "As a heart transplant recipient, myself with a genetic heart disorder, I am thrilled by this news and the hope it gives to my family and other patients who will eventually be saved by this breakthrough.”

The surgery last Friday took seven hours at the Baltimore hospital. Dr. Bartley Griffith, who performed the surgery, said the patient’s condition — heart failure and an irregular heartbeat — made him ineligible for a human heart transplant or a heart pump.

Dr. Griffith had transplanted pig hearts into about 50 baboons over five years, before offering the option to Bennett.

“We’re learning a lot every day with this gentleman,” Dr. Griffith said. “And so far, we’re happy with our decision to move forward. And he is as well: Big smile on his face today.”

Pig heart valves also have been used successfully for decades in humans, and Mr. Bennett’s son said his father had received one about a decade ago.

As for the heart transplant, “He realizes the magnitude of what was done and he really realizes the importance of it,” David Bennett Jr. said. “He could not live, or he could last a day, or he could last a couple of days. I mean, we’re in the unknown at this point.”

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It was the solar wind that contributed to the most humidity of lunar soil.

China’s Chang’e 5 lunar lander has found the first-ever on-site evidence of water on the surface of the moon, lending new evidence to the dryness of the satellite.

The study published on Saturday in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances revealed that the lunar soil at the landing site contains less than 120 parts-per-million (ppm) water or 120 grams water per ton, and a light, vesicular rock carries 180 ppm, which are much drier than that on Earth.

The presence of water had been confirmed by remote observation but the lander has now detected signs of water in rocks and soil.

A device on-board the lunar lander measured the spectral reflectance of the regolith and the rock and detected water on the spot for the first time.

The water content can be estimated since the water molecule or hydroxyl absorbs at a frequency of about three micrometers, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported, citing researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

It was the solar wind that contributed to the most humidity of lunar soil as it brought hydrogen that makes up the water, the researchers said.

The additional 60 ppm water in the rock may originate from the lunar interior, according to the researchers.

Therefore, the rock is estimated to hail from an older, more humid basaltic unit before being ejected onto the landing site to be picked up by the lunar lander.

The study revealed that the moon had turned drier within a certain period, owing probably to the degassing of its mantle reservoir.

The Chang'e-5 spacecraft landed on one of the youngest mare basalts located at a mid-high latitude on the moon. It measured water on the spot and retrieved samples weighing 1,731 grams.

"The returned samples are a mixture of granules both on the surface and beneath. But an in-situ probe can measure the outermost layer of the lunar surface," Lin Honglei, a researcher with the Institute of Geology and Geophysics under CAS, told Xinhua.

Lin also said that to simulate authentic lunar surface conditions on Earth is challenging, thus making the in-situ measurement so essential.

The results are consistent with a preliminary analysis of the returned Chang'e-5 samples, according to the study.

The findings provide more clues to China's Chang'e-6 and Chang'e-7 missions. The investigations of lunar water reserves come into the limelight as the building of manned lunar stations are in the pipeline in the next decades, the report said.

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Launched on January 7, 1968, the Surveyor 7 was a lunar unmanned lander that successfully landed on the lunar surface on January 10. The last of the original series of Surveyor moon landers of the 1960s. Surveyor 7 was the only spacecraft of the series that landed in the lunar highland region. A.S.Ganesh takes a look at Surveyor 7 – the only purely scientific mission in the series…

With the objective of landing human beings on the moon, NASA worked on various issues through the 1960s. The decade saw spectacular progress being made as we understood our natural satellite better than ever before.

First, the Lunar Orbiter series had flown five successful missions in five attempts, meeting its objective of mapping potential landing sites for the early Apollo missions and in fact mapping almost the entire lunar surface. The Surveyor landing missions, meanwhile, enjoyed four successes (1, 3, 5, and 6) in the first six attempts, providing the Apollo programme with ground-truth data.

Freed up for science

With most of its objectives met, NASA opted to use the last of the Surveyor missions for a purely scientific purpose, targeting a landing site in the lunar highlands – outside of potential landing sites of the early Apollo missions.

Even though the Surveyor missions had initially been planned as a series of seven spacecraft, three more missions had been added in 1963 to take the total to 10. But with the success of other missions, the later Surveyors were cancelled in December 1966.

Officials, however, decided on incorporating some of the science payload planned for these later Surveyors on the remaining approved Surveyor spacecrafts. While Surveyor 3 and 4 carried a remote controlled mechanical arm known as the Soil Mechanics Surface Sampler (SMSS), Surveyor 5 and 6 carried the Alpha Scattering Experiment designed to measure concentrations of various elements on the lunar soil. It was decided that Surveyor 7 alone would carry both these instruments in order to maximise the science return.

Coasts to the moon

Launched on January 7, 1968, the Surveyor 7 had an uneventful coast to the moon. As initial tracking suggested that the Surveyor 7 would miss its intended target on the moon by just 77 km, the spacecraft was commanded from the ground to place it on the desired trajectory. Tracking after this manoeuvre indicated that Surveyor 7 would touchdown just 1.7 km from the point aimed at – a less than 10% chance of coming down on potentially dangerous terrain.

As a result, the second of the planned mid-course corrections on January 9 was cancelled. And as expected, the Surveyor 7 successfully landed on January 10 on the ejecta blanket emanating from the bright Tycho crater, a mere 2.4 km from its target.

Ground controllers fired pyrotechnic charges about 21 hours after landing in order to drop the alpha-scattering instrument on the lunar surface. The controllers used the surface sampler robot arm to force down the alpha-scattering instrument when it failed to move beyond an intermediate position.

Following the alpha-scattering instrument’s first chemical analysis, the sampler was used to pick up the instrument and move it to two additional locations. The scoop on the sampler’s arm was employed to pick up soil, dig up trenches and conduct a number of surface-bearing tests.

Plenty of useful data

Nearly 66 hours of alpha-scattering data were obtained on three samples during the first lunar day and over 36 hours of SMSS operations had been performed. Following the local sunset on January 23, Surveyor 7 completed its planned post-sunset operations before being put into hibernation on January 26, 80 hours after the local sunset.

Communications, which were paused during the hibernation, resumed on February 12 in the hopes of gathering more data during the second lunar day. Even though Surveyor 7 responded immediately to the commands, initial telemetry suggested that the long, cold lunar night had damaged the spacecraft’s battery, limiting the amount of power available.

Despite these problems, Surveyor 7 transmitted 45 images of the lunar surface on the second lunar day, in addition to the 20,993 it had relayed on the first lunar day. The Alpha Scattering Experiment, which had been left at the third sample site at the end of the first lunar day, gathered another 34 hours of useful data on the second lunar day.

Surveyor 7 was finally shut down on February 21, bringing the curtains down on NASA’s highly successful Surveyor series of missions. In addition to providing over 21,000 photos from its missions, Surveyor 7 also served as a target for Earth-based lasers in order to measure the distance between the Earth and the moon more accurately.

The results from the alpha scattering instruments highlighted that the crust of the lunar highlands is poorer in iron than the mare sites that had been analysed by the other Surveyors. The resounding success of Surveyor 7 not only provided scientists with invaluable information about the lunar highlands, but also opened up these sites as well as potential targets for future planned human landings.

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How nerve-end connections known as synapses form is highlighted in this study of Purkinje neurons in the cerebellum of knockout zebrafish

Neurons, or nerve cells, in the brain connect by means of junctions known as synapses through which they transmit signals. Recent work by researchers at the National Centre of Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, has thrown light on what stimulates these synapses to form.

There are two types of synapses – chemical and electrical. In chemical synapses, there is a space of about 20 nanometres between two neurons, and the way they communicate is this: One neuron converts electrical signal into chemical signals and this chemical is released into the synaptic space and the receiving neuron converts the chemical signal back into an electrical signal.

As far as the electrical synapse goes, this is not the way it operates. In these synapses, the two neurons have a physical connection and the conversion of electrical to chemical need not occur, and they communicate directly. Electrical synapses are like a physical wire, communication is faster but they are also fewer in number.

Neuron handshake

It was shown that electrical synapses are formed before chemical synapses, they are like a blueprint in which neurons make a handshake. This results in the making of chemical synapses. Research on organisms such as leeches showed that if you remove electrical synapses, the chemical synapses do not form. However, the mechanism of how it happens in higher organisms such as vertebrates was not known.

Researchers from TIFR-National Centre of Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, have chosen Zebrafish as a model organism to study this process. Zebrafish are transparent and neuron development in larval zebrafish can be observed from day to day by injecting a dye or by engineering the fish to express fluorescent proteins.

Purkinje neurons

The group observed that knocking out a particular protein known as the gap junction delta 2b (gjd2b) in the cerebellum of zebrafish affected levels of an enzyme CaMKII. Levels of CaMKII were seen to increase in the Purkinje neurons in the cerebellum. These neurons and the cerebellum itself control co-ordination of movements in the organism. In humans for example, excess abuse of alcohol leads to damage of these cells, which results in lack of co-ordination in movement.

As Prof. Thirumalai explains, the cerebellum shows an evolutionary continuity in all vertebrates, so, too, the Purkinje neurons. Even though fish and humans diverged from a common ancestor about 500 million years ago, the cerebellum has been evolutionarily conserved. While zebrafish have about 300-400 Purkinje neurons, humans have thousands of these.

Dendrite arbours

“Normally, levels of CaMKII are low in developing (immature) neurons and high in mature neurons, and the increased level actually freezes the development of dendrite arbours,” says Vatsala Thirumalai of NCBS, who led the work published in eLife. Dendrite arbours are branched ends of neurons, given this name because of their tree-like structure. “In the absence of gap junction protein, CaMKII levels prematurely increase, preventing arbours from forming. Thus, chemical synapses do not form.”

The work uses advanced techniques such as time-lapse microscopy and confocal microscopy which allowed the group to observe how the neuronal cells grow in the fish brain day after day. Electron microscopy was used to view slices of the brain to count the number of synapses present.

To make the mutant fish with gjd2b protein knocked out, the group used the genome editing tool TALEN (Transcription Activator-Like Effector Nuclease). “It is possible to do such exciting research using the latest and most advanced tools and techniques in India today. I hope this trend will encourage more students to take up a career in research,” says Prof. Thirumalai.

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Scientists say there would be no oxygen on Earth were it not for sunlight: the key component in photosynthesis. Now researchers from University of Southern Denmark have discovered that oxygen is also produced without sunlight, possibly deep below the ocean surface. Researchers have discovered that some of the invisible microorganisms living in water columns produce oxygen in an unexpected way.

Nitrogen cycle

A few microbes are known to make oxygen without sunlight, but so far they have only been discovered in very limited quantities and in very specific habitats.

But the ocean living microbe Nitrosopumilus maritimus and its cousins, called ammonia oxidising archaea play an important role in the nitrogen cycle. For this, they need oxygen. So it has been a long-standing puzzle why they are also very abundant in waters where there is no oxygen. The researchers found that these micro-organisms make their own oxygen, according to a University of Southern Denmark press release.

Keeps it going

The researchers conducted tests in the lab and found that N. maritimus was using the oxygen present in water but the oxygen levels started increasing again in water. They micro-organisms were able to make oxygen even in a dark environment. Not sufficiently high to influence oxygen levels on Earth, but enough to keep itself going.

N. maritimus couples the oxygen production to the production of gaseous nitrogen. By doing so they remove bioavailable nitrogen from the environment.

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On a few occasions, the national COVID-19 task force has refused to include drugs and vaccines that have been granted an EUA by the regulator

On December 28 last year, Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya tweeted saying that in further strengthening the fight against COVID-19, the Indian drug regulator has granted emergency use approval for the antiviral drug molnupiravir. He also mentioned that molnupiravir will be manufactured by 13 generic drug manufacturers in India.

“Considering the emergency and unmet medical need in COVID-19, the SEC on December 27 recommended for grant of permission to manufacture and market molnupiravir for restricted use under emergency situation in the country for treatment of adult patients with COVID-19,” the drug regulator said in a statement.

A week later, on January 5, at a press conference, the Director-General of ICMR Dr. Balram Bhargava said molnupiravir has major safety concerns and therefore was not included in the national protocol for treatment of coronavirus.

“We have to remember that this drug has major safety concerns. It can cause teratogenicity, mutagenicity... cartilage damage and can also be damaging to muscles. Contraception will have to be done for three months for male and female if this drug is given because the child born could [have problems] due to teratogenic influence… We have concerns about the drug and its use during lactation, in children, soft-tissue injuries, reproductive age group,” he said.

Public health problem

“After the EUA, Indian generics are now aggressively launching the drug, and it is likely to be prescribed widely to patients diagnosed with COVID-19 with mild/moderate disease in the private sector. This may be problematic from a public health point of view, because of concerns regarding the inherent capacity of molnupiravir to cause viral mutations and its risk to induce more viral mutants,” says Ms. Leena Menghaney, South Asia Head of Médecins Sans Frontières’s Access Campaign.

“The drug is already available and pharmaceutical companies are aggressively marketing it. In all likelihood, the drug is abused already,” says Dr. Lancelot Pinto, Consultant Respirologist at P.D. Hinduja National Hospital and Medical Research Centre, Mumbai. “I have been prescribing it in very old people and old people with high risk of progressing to severe disease.”

“Drug companies are aggressively marketing the drug with blatant lies and tall, unsubstantiated claims [such as] reduction of post-COVID-19 anxiety, depression and fatigue but without a word on potential risks,” says Dr. Shriprakash Kalantri, Professor of Medicine at Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences, Sevagram, Maharashtra. “Why do the two highest scientific bodies — the drug regulator and ICMR — take such conflicting positions. This sends a confusing signal to the public and physicians.”

Not the first time

This is not the first time that the national COVID-19 task force has refused to include drugs/vaccines granted an EUA by the regulator.

On August 20, 2021 Zydus Cadila’s COVID-19 vaccine ZyCoV-D was granted an emergency use approval by the Indian regulator. The vaccine was approved for use in adults and children 12 years and above. However, in a letter dated December 28 last year, Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said Covaxin will be the only option for vaccination of children 15-18 years that was set to begin on January 3. He also said Covaxin is the “only vaccine with EUL [emergency use listing] for the age group 15-18”. The same message was conveyed by the guidelines released by the health ministry.

But speaking to CNN News18 on December 27, Dr. R.S. Sharma, CEO of the National Health Authority and Chairperson of the Empowered Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19 (Co-WIN) said both Zydus’s vaccine (ZyCoV-D) and Covaxin will be available for vaccination and children will have an option to choose between the two vaccines depending on availability.

For reasons not known, the health ministry has not only declined to use Zydus vaccine in adolescents but has not even recognised the emergency use approval granted to ZyCoV-D by saying Covaxin is the only vaccine that has an EUL. Incidentally, emergency use listing or EUL is a term used by the WHO and not by Indian authorities or the drug regulator.

In the second case, itolizumab, a monoclonal antibody originally developed by Biocon and sold under the brand name Alzumab to treat psoriasis, was granted an EUA on July 11, 2020 to treat patients with moderate-to-severe COVID-19 disease. The subject expert committee greenlighted the drug the previous day despite the very small size of the study and inconclusive data. But three days after approval, Dr. Bhargava gave the first indication that it might not be included in the national treatment protocol when he said trials have not yet demonstrated that the drug can reduce mortality. On July 27, 2020, it became clear that the drug will not be included in the national treatment protocol.

Absence of data

Strangely, ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine and convalescent plasma therapy were included by ICMR in the recommended treatment guidelines even in the absence of data. Hydroxychloroquine was approved in end-March 2020 primarily for ICMR to carry out studies.

Convalescent plasma was dropped from the guidelines only in mid-May last year. Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine were dropped from the revised clinical guidance for management of adult COVID-19 patients only on September 24 last year. WHO had on March 31, 2021 said there is inconclusive evidence of benefit in the case of ivermectin. “The current evidence on the use of ivermectin to treat COVID-19 patients is inconclusive. Until more data is available, WHO recommends that the drug only be used within clinical trials,” WHO said.

“Even after a year of COVID-19, the ICMR guidelines in May 2021 advised ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine which were well known to have been useless for COVID-19 treatment,” Mr. Murali Neelakantan, Principal Lawyer at Amicus, Mumbai says in an email. “On the other hand, the drug regulator had approved favipiravir and itolizumab to treat COVID-19 but they don’t find place in the ICMR protocol, even though hundreds of crores of rupees worth of these two drugs were being consumed in India. It says something about the Indian drug regulator that favipiravir and itolizumab are not being prescribed for COVID-19 anywhere else in the world.”

Remdesivir and favipiravir were approved by the Indian regulator and included in the treatment guidelines even when supporting data were not available or were inconclusive.

In fact, on November 20, 2020, WHO recommended against the use of remdesivir in hospitalised patients, regardless of disease severity. It said there is “currently no evidence that remdesivir improves survival and other outcomes in these patients.” Yet, the revised clinical guidelines of September last year have retained remdesivir for use in specific circumstances.

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Both Delta and Omicron might co-exist, needing more vaccines in 2022

India is facing an epidemic wave of Omicron disease presenting mostly with sore throat, nasal discharge – without cough or high fever. Pneumonia is uncommon. Blood oxygen level remains normal.

Some senior citizens and those with diseases or therapies that weaken the immune system do get severe disease requiring hospitalisation. Altogether, Omicron disease is a milder version of COVID-19 with Wuhan-D614G or Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta variants.

Mutational changes

All previous variants had few mutational changes of the spike protein, Omicron has many more, particularly in the ‘receptor-binding domain’ (RBD), the ligand that binds to host cell receptor, ACE-2. While earlier variants have 8-9 mutations on the S1 portion, Omicron has 32-37 in different studies. On RBD, Omicron has 15 mutations, while others have only 1 to 3. This many mutations have resulted in several alterations in the virus-host cell interactions. For example, the viral load in saliva is high, allowing high sensitivity in RT-PCR of saliva samples. Much virus is broadcast into air even without cough. Obviously, the need for face masks cannot be overemphasised, to block virus shedding (by the infected) and to prevent inhaling air-borne virus (by others).

Coronaviruses have two cell entry processes – the major one by fusion of virus envelope with the cell membrane and the minor one by fusion with the endosomes within the cytoplasm. Virus multiplication is far more efficient with major than minor process. All previous variants use the major cell entry process.

Omicron uses the second process, as elucidated in laboratory experiments. After receptor-binding the receptor–virus complex is ‘swallowed up’ by the cell through ‘endocytosis’ without affecting the cell membrane. The endocytotic vesicle (invagination of cell membrane) then fuses with subcellular organelle called endosome, a normal process. The virus coat now fuses with endosome membrane, releasing the virus genome into the cytoplasm.

In the first process with cell-surface fusion, all adjacent cells also fuse with the infected cell and form a ‘syncytium’ – giant cell with multiple nuclei. Syncytia are closely associated with disease severity, particularly with lung pathology. In laboratory experiments with Omicron, syncytium formation does not occur. This change presumably leads to less virus production in the body, less invasion of organs and tissues, lower severity and duration of symptoms, decreased need for hospitalisation and low case-fatality ratio – altogether a watered down 2021 version of COVID 2019. Omicron resembles influenza virus infection that remains mostly confined to upper respiratory tract.

Immunity evasion

Omicron has a propensity for immunity evasion. Virus neutralising antibodies induced by infection by all earlier variants or any of the available vaccines are far less effective against Omicron disease. Most monoclonal antibodies that were effective to treat COVID-19 are no longer effective to treat Omicron disease. However, the world over, high degree of protection against severe disease requiring hospitalisation by enhanced antibody levels achieved by a booster dose, is observed. Experience from the U.K. is instructive. Vaccine effectiveness against Omicron disease requiring hospitalisation was 72% during 2-24 weeks after second dose, but only 52% after 25 or more weeks – significantly increasing to 88% two weeks after a booster dose.

Even when antibody fitness to the virus (affinity) is low, the sheer magnitude of antibody level enables antibody-binding to more viruses, thus enhancing functional effectiveness as shown in the U.K. Had India gone on a massive public education on the importance of two doses of vaccine to mitigate the impact of Omicron wave, and also on the value of booster doses to increase protection, we could have had a relatively normal life in India during January–February of 2022 – many scientific meetings and other events scheduled for these months could have proceeded unhindered, instead of getting postponed.

These many changes – genetic, fundamental cell–virus interactions, pathology, virulence, disease characteristics, immunity evasion – set Omicron apart from all other variants. To emphasise its greater deviation than other variants, imagine the term ‘deviant’.

The term deviant indicates the high degree and abruptness (non-continuum) of change – in virology, the terms used to represent substantial genetic differences are: lineage, sub-type or serotype – depending on the degree of deviation. We expect the International Committee of Taxonomy of Viruses will address this question without delay, as we have already alerted the WHO and the International Society of Infectious Diseases.

If we consider Omicron disease sufficiently different from Coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19), perhaps it deserves the name COVID-21. If it is considered a deviant with antigenic shift, rather than drift, as is the case in all variants, the current upsurge of disease overcoming high population immunity can be considered a new pandemic, not simply a wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Influenza pandemic

Analogy with Influenza Type A virus epidemiology is interesting. The 1957 pandemic due to a subtype H2N2 emerged when the H1N1 of 1918 pandemic was still circulating as endemic/seasonal. H2N2 with antigenic shift not only spread globally, but it also displaced H1N1 from circulation – why? Immunity induced by H2N2 was sufficient to prevent H1N1 circulation. In 1968, the next pandemic started with H3N2 subtype; it displaced H2N2, presumably due to cross-immunity. The 2009 pandemic was with a new variant of H1N1, with borrowed genes from swine influenza, and named H1N1pdm09 to distinguish it from the earlier H1N1. Antigenic cross-reactivity with H3N2 was not strong – hence both H3N2 and H1N1pdm09 are in co-circulation globally as endemic/seasonal.

While Delta variant overshadowed all earlier variants that are nowadays infrequently found anywhere, we anticipate that Omicron with antigenic shift and compromised cross-reactivity may not displace Delta. Omicron being more transmissible than Delta, we speculate: (1) In 2022, both Delta and Omicron might co-circulate, and (2) we may need vaccines against all variants of SARS-CoV-2 as well as against Omicron and its future variants, if any.

(T Jacob John and M S Seshadri are former (retired) Professors of Virology and Endocrinology, respectively, at Christian Medical College, Vellore and Dhanya Dharmapalan is a pediatric infectious diseases specialist in Navi Mumbai.)

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Next variant to be more deadly: expert

The reduced severity of Omicron is good news for now, but it is the result of an “evolutionary mistake” as COVID-19 is transmitting very efficiently and there is no reason for it to become milder, indicating that the next variant could be more virulent, a leading Indian-origin scientist from the University of Cambridge has warned.

Ravindra Gupta, Professor of Clinical Microbiology at the Cambridge Institute for Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Diseases (CITIID), led a recent study on the Omicron variant.

While the study showed that the new variant is infecting the cells in the lungs less, the virus itself is not becoming milder. “There is this assumption that viruses become more benign over time but that’s not what’s happening here because those are long-term evolutionary trends,” Prof. Gupta told PTI on Thursday.

“SARS-CoV-2 is transmitting very efficiently so it doesn't have any reason to become milder, especially in the era of vaccination with plenty of susceptible hosts. So I think it’s an evolutionary mistake. It's not something intentional that the virus is trying to do to change its biology,” he said.

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Launched on January 2, 1959, Luna 1 was the first human-made object to escape the grip of the Earth’s gravity. Even though it didn’t meet its primary objective of impact with the moon’s surface, it achieved a lunar flyby before going on to become an artificial planet around the sun. A.S.Ganesh takes a look at the Luna 1 mission, the first of a highly successful space programme…

The Luna programme is one of the most successful programmes in space exploration. It included a series of robotic spacecraft missions that were aimed at the moon by the Soviet Union in the period between 1959 and 1976.

Designed as orbiters or landers, 15 missions were successful in this programme, accomplishing a series of firsts in our foray towards the moon. It all started with Luna 1, which became the first human-made object to reach escape velocity – the speed and direction required to travel beyond the Earth’s gravity.

Renamed later

The probe that we now call Luna 1 was originally referred to, along with its launch vehicle, as Cosmic Rocket by the Soviet Press. It was only in 1963 that it was retroactively renamed as Luna 1.

Luna 1 was a sphere-shaped spacecraft with five antennae extending out of one of its hemispheres. It had no propulsion systems on itself and instrument ports protruded from the surface of the sphere.

The three-stage launch vehicle was launched on January 2, 1959 and the launch vehicle enabled its third stage to accelerate beyond 11.2 km per second – enough to leave the Earth’s gravitational field. Luna 1 separated from its third stage after reaching escape velocity on the same day, thereby becoming the first human-made object to escape the confines of Earth’s gravity.

Gas cloud

On January 3, a large cloud of sodium gas was released by the spacecraft at about 1,30,000 km from the Earth. The glowing orange trail of gas was visible over the Indian Ocean with the brightness of a sixth-magnitude star, meaning it was just visible to the unaided eye under favourable conditions.

As it panned out, bad weather conditions prevented observations of the gas at most sites. It was, however, captured on film in one of the ground stations and was also photographed by astronomers. Even though the “artificial comet” proved to be a poor aid in tracking the mission, it served as an experiment to study the behaviour of gas in space.

A problem with the guidance system of Luna 1 meant that the spacecraft did not follow the planned trajectory. It was later understood that a two-degree error in pointing of a ground-based radio-control antenna during the powered flight of the rocket gave the spacecraft more velocity than was required. As a result, the spacecraft was now set to cross the lunar path before the moon could pull it into its gravitational field.

Achieves lunar flyby

On January 4, 34 hours after the launch, Luna 1 passed about 6,400 km from the moon’s surface. While it failed to meet its primary objective of impacting the lunar surface, its increased velocity meant that it became the first human-made object to go into orbit around the sun. Luna 1 went into orbit around the sun between the orbits of Earth and Mars, thereby becoming the first artificial planet of the solar system.

Even though ground controllers lost contact with Luna 1 approximately 62 hours after launch, the spacecraft had provided considerable data by then. The measurements obtained from the mission provided data on Earth’s radiation belt, showed that the moon had no magnetic field and that a solar wind streamed through interplanetary space. Despite not meeting its objective, the other successes of Luna 1 prompted further missions that eventually made the Luna programme extremely successful.

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Using a computer simulation, the study probes why lower prime doses or elongated prime–booster intervals increase vaccine efficacy

The efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines depends in a complex way on the strength of the prime doses and the time interval between the prime doses and the booster shots. A computer simulation study carried out by researchers at Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru (IISc) attempts to understand how this works. The research is published in the journal Frontiers in Immunology.

Immune response

Earlier observations from the trials of the Oxford–Astra Zeneca vaccine have shown that immune response of people given prime doses and booster doses depended on the strength of the primer and the interval between the prime and boosters in a counter-intuitive way. The efficacy in preventing symptomatic infection was 63.1% when a standard dose containing 5 X 1010 virus particles was administered for both prime and booster. On the other hand, if a low dose prime, consisting of 2.2 X 1010 virus particles, was administered, there was a higher efficacy observed of 80.7%.

Similarly, when the interval between the prime and booster was less than six weeks, an efficacy of 55.1% was seen, which rose to 81.3% at 12 weeks or greater, when standard doses were used for both prime and booster.

Studies are being conducted to study the effect of dose strength and intervals between prime and booster for Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines too.

Understanding how this operates will be useful in determining the delivery of vaccines in circumstances where there is shortage of vaccines. It will also help in optimising the effect of vaccines.

"Why low dose prime or delayed boost improves COVID-19 vaccine efficacies is not well understood, and this hinders optimal vaccine usage which is critical given limited supplies. Our study presents a plausible explanation,” says Narendra Dixit from IISc’s Department of Chemical Engineering who led the work that has been published in Frontiers in Immunology.

With the above observations in mind, researchers from Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, and University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, made a computer simulation to study how the creation and proliferation of B cells happens in the germinal centres of the body’s immune system.

Germinal centre

The role of cellular immunity is not fully understood, but studies suggest that the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines is proportional to the number of neutralising antibodies they elicit. Germinal centres are the places where the cells that produce antibodies are selected for. These are temporary structures that form in lymphoid organs, for periods ranging from a few weeks to several months.

In the germinal centres, B cells are selected based on the ability of their receptors to bind to the antigen presented as immune complexes. In the case of the COVID-19 vaccines, the antigen in question would be the part of the spike protein.

Simulated model

The researchers simulated a model of the germinal centre reaction in the computer and studied the effect of low prime dose and long interval between prime and booster shots given equal prime doses.

The hypotheses they tested were the following: In the case of a smaller prime dose, in the germinal centre, there are fewer available antigens (spike protein attached to immune complexes) for the B cell receptors to bind to, therefore only those B cells that show a higher efficiency in reaching and binding to the antigen would survive and grow. Those B cells that fail to bind would die out. Therefore, this results in the selection of the B cells with higher propensity for antigen-binding. Once a booster is given, these B cells which have a higher affinity for the antigen are multiplied, and therefore the efficacy of the vaccine in preventing symptomatic illness would also be higher.

In the case of equal prime shots and delayed booster what would happen, the researchers hypothesised, was that during the longer interval, because antigen levels go down with time, only those B Cells that had a higher affinity for antigen would survive and the others would have died out and therefore, when the booster was given, it would multiply such B cells having higher affinity.

In their simulations, the researchers saw that this did indeed take place.

Further studies needed

“Our prediction is based on comprehensive computer simulations of the process underlying antibody production in our body in response to vaccination. Future studies may validate the explanation using experiments, paving the way for rational optimisation of vaccine deployment strategies," says Prof. Dixit.

If the predictions are verified by experiments, they can guide the protocols of giving out vaccine shots and booster doses in a more efficient manner, which is crucial now.

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Elephants do cross electric fences using their non-conducting tusks

Time was when forests covered most of the landmasses on the earth. With rising human populations, development and need for connectivity, many of these forests are now just either a big patch bordered by trenches, fences and human settlements, or scattered unconnected pockets.

People visiting forests feel great about being in nature. They capture some memories and photographs, and write blogs about how splendid nature is. What they forget in the due course is the compromise some of the long-ranging animals must have gone through. One such animal that needs a large roaming space and seasonal connectivity to different forests are elephants. Their movements are not just motivated for foraging, but for searching for mates, suitable habitats across seasons and resources.

The boundary marked by us for forests as protected often goes unnoticed by the oblivious wanderers of the wild. Let us take elephants as an example. Amid the escalating interactions between elephants and humans lie our failed attempts of facilitating the movement of these giant animals through one of their abodes to another. From an animal perspective, the trench, wall, or fences can just be a set of hurdles that they attempt to cross to reach their destiny. For a taxon of proven complex cognition, everything around them could just be a conundrum that they seek or ‘learn’ to solve.

Learning elephants

Elephants have been observed using such ‘learned’ skills to either cleverly cross electric fences using their non-conducting tusks or if no tusks, destroying the entire fence by hurling uprooted trees on the wire or pushing down the cemented poles to disconnect the wire. These are some testimonies suggesting how elephants perhaps may be learning to solve the conundrum based on their previous noxious experiences.

In 2015, during the fieldwork in the southern forests of India, some field signs were collected of elephants crossing a trench (of depth around 2.5 to 3 metres, assuming with the rusty skill of estimation), supported by an almost 80-degree tilted retention wall on one side, protecting the proximal village from these behemoth ‘trespassers’. It would baffle any onlooker’s mind, how a group of elephants crossed such a hurdle. Upon cautiously inspecting footprints on the wall – which debossed all the way up and disappeared among the bushes and the trampled grasses on the forest floor, seeking another life, confirmed that elephants walked this trail. Amidst these footprints on the wall, there were some with smaller circumferences suggesting the group also had calves!

Stunned villagers

How have they climbed down and then up? The village stood as stunned as most of the observers were.

Furthermore, scrutiny of the piles of fresh dung at the base of the trench indicated that the presence of millet seeds as remnants excreted by elephants. As per the gut-retention time (the time needed for food swallowed by elephants to pass through their digestive tracts till excretion) of elephants, it was evident that they must have foraged on agricultural crops 30 to 48 hours ago. On their way up, they might have emptied their bowels!

Altered habitats

This is just one opportunistic instance among many anecdotes and videos that we stumble over in social media, where we see elephants ingeniously crossing the electric fences, iron rails and even trenches. Most of these videos leave us with dropped jaw, hinting to us how elephants could alter their behaviours in response to the altered habitats!

Crossing the border is not as painless as it is narrated here. It comes with the challenge of risking their lives. We hear of elephants encountering humans adversely, being electrocuted while crossing the electric fence, dying while crossing the iron rails, falling and dying in the trenches. Each hurdle they cross may psychologically influence their internal states, either preparing them with skills and anticipatory responses to learn to cross or leave them hurt.

Our limited understanding of the purpose and patterns of elephants’ movements blur our desperate trials of fostering coexistence. Elephants’ successful attempts of crossing the boundary just muddle up many who are not just trying to understand the highly intelligent being, but also trying to seek a sustainable solution to retard the accelerating adverse interactions between them and us. Connecting habitats with the corridor devoid of human presence and activities may reduce elephants’ interactions with humans, lower their stress and favour their purpose of movement. Talking of conservation of animals’ with complex cognitive ability, the need is, thus, the connectivity, perhaps not just the border!

(The author is from Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, U.S., and a visiting scientist at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.)

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Are there other sources of ancient DNA besides bone and teeth?

Scientists, for the first time, recovered DNA from cement on hairs taken from mummified remains that date back 1,500–2,000 years. This is possible because skin cells from the scalp become encased in the cement produced by female lice as they attach eggs, known as nits, to the hair.

Analysis of this newly-recovered ancient DNA – which was of better quality than that recovered through other methods – has revealed clues about pre-Columbian human migration patterns within South America (Molecular Biology and Evolution). This method could allow many more unique samples to be studied from human remains where bone and tooth samples are unavailable.

Dr. Alejandra Perotti at the University of Reading, who led the research, said in a release: “Like the fictional story of mosquitoes encased in amber in the film Jurassic Park, carrying the DNA of the dinosaur host, we have shown that our genetic information can be preserved by the sticky substance produced by headlice on our hair.In addition to genetics, lice biology can provide valuable clues about how people lived and died thousands of years ago”

“Demand for DNA samples from ancient human remains has grown in recent years as we seek to understand migration and diversity in ancient human populations. Headlice have accompanied humans throughout their entire existence, so this new method could open the door to a goldmine of information about our ancestors, while preserving unique specimens.”

Until now, ancient DNA has preferably been extracted from dense bone from the skull or from inside teeth. However, skull and teeth remains are not always available. Recovering DNA from the cement delivered by lice is therefore a solution to the problem, especially as nits are commonly found on the hair and clothes of well-preserved and mummified humans.

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There has been just one study each for Covishield and Covaxin to understand vaccine effectiveness despite being granted EUA 12 months ago

On November 22 last year, Dr. Balram Bhargava, Director-General of ICMR, said there is “no scientific evidence so far to support the need for a booster vaccine dose against COVID-19.” He said the primary focus of the government was on giving a second dose of the vaccine to make people fully vaccinated. “Administering the second dose of COVID-19 vaccine to all adult population and ensuring that not only India but the entire world gets vaccinated is the priority of the government for now,” he said. A day earlier, Dr. Samiran Panda, Head of ICMR’s Epidemiology and Communicable Diseases Division said scientific evidence does not support booster doses. “Right now, the scientific evidence from within the country does not underline the need for a booster dose. Public health considerations are on the priority now,” he told the news agency Asian News International.

In mid-December 2021, Dr. Jayaprakash Muliyil, member of NTAGI told The Outlook: “There is no need for a booster dose as the memory cells will produce the specific antibody once the virus comes in contact with a vaccinated or a naturally recovered person.”

Precaution dose

Yet, a “precaution dose” was approved by the government on December 25, 2021. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the decision to begin administering the precaution dose from January 10 onwards for health-care and frontline workers and people older than 60 years with comorbidities. No new studies have come in the public domain to support an additional dose since Dr. Bhargava said on November 22 that no scientific evidence was available to support a booster shot.

Early data from South Africa and the U.K. indicate that the Omicron variant does not cause severe disease or death in fully vaccinated people. But there is a time lag between infection and hospitalisation. The protection offered by vaccines available here against the variant in older people and other vulnerable populations is not known.

Omicron threat?

Whether the decision to approve the precaution dose was based on the emergence of the Omicron variant but in the absence of vaccine effectiveness data is not clear. There was no explanation on why the government revised its earlier stand and decided to provide an additional dose before increasing second dose coverage either. “In fact, the Omicron variant makes a strong case to increase primary vaccination coverage considering the preliminary data from South Africa and the U.K.,” says immunologist Dr. Satyajit Rath formerly with the National Institute of Immunology, Delhi. Across age groups, nearly 90% have received the first dose but only 64% are fully vaccinated, and 21.5% of those older than 60 years are yet to be fully vaccinated, as on December 31, 2021.

There has been just one study each for Covishield and Covaxin to understand vaccine effectiveness (before Omicron emerged) despite the vaccines being granted an emergency use approval 12 months ago and after administering 1.45 billion vaccine doses. The study on Covaxin did not even look at the effectiveness of the vaccine in preventing severe disease and death.

Incidentally, immunocompromised people have not been included like in most of the 126 countries that have approved a booster shot. “A third dose or additional dose for immunocompromised is something on which experts have consensus. [Unlike many countries] in India, where third shot is recommended for sub-group of population only, a separate policy on third shot for immunocompromised is urgently needed,” says Dr. Chandrakant Lahariya, physician-epidemiologist and public policy and health systems specialist.

“But a key question is if an immunocompromised individual has not developed sufficient antibodies after two shots, will a third dose result in increased antibodies? We know that third shot results in increased antibodies in immunocompromised individuals after an mRNA vaccine. However, [as to] whether it is true for other vaccines or not, we don’t have evidence. For this population sub-group, making a choice on the right vaccines is very important,” Dr. Lahariya says.

In a press conference on December 30 last year, Dr. Bhargava, while not providing any scientific reason or evidence for deciding on approving a booster shot to the three categories, did point out to studies that had found evidence of protection offered by natural infection lasting up to nine months. This was to tell why the government has decided to provide the precaution dose nine months after the second dose.

Hybrid immunity

The emphasis was on hybrid immunity (immunity produced by natural infection followed by vaccination) being superior to immunity conferred by infection and full vaccination in infection-naïve people, which was known many months ago, to support the decision to administer the precaution dose nine months after the second dose. Dr. Bhargava cited the 67% seroprevalence in the last sero survey to drive home the point that many people who have been vaccinated would be possessing hybrid immunity. The sero surveys are not truly representative of infection spread in the community, says Dr. Rath. If hybrid immunity in India is high, why provide an additional dose at all, he asks.

“We know that the longer the gap, the better the boosting effect. Since India has made the decision to administer precaution shots, this is the longest gap which could have been considered, especially if the precaution dose has to be administered from January 10 onwards,” says Dr. Lahariya.

Limited use

One of the studies cited by Dr. Bhargava and carried out by researchers from CSIR’s Indian Institute of Chemical Biology, Kolkata looked at cellular immunity among vaccinated and naturally infected people. The researchers found that T cell immunity from natural infection lasted as long as 10 months. But they did not measure the duration of protection offered by T cell immunity in fully vaccinated people who have not been previously infected. There is now overwhelming evidence that natural infection provides better protection than vaccination with two doses. “They [T cell immunity studies] are not robustly quantitative. All they can say is yes, there is some T cell response, which is not surprising and is of limited use,” says Dr. Rath.

Choice of vaccine

All the other Indian studies cited by Dr. Bhargava which looked at the duration of protection had measured only the humoral immunity and neutralising antibodies. But with breakthrough infections being far more common with the Omicron variant than the Delta variant, these studies have little relevance in making policy decisions. Also, the primary objective of COVID-19 vaccination is to prevent severe disease and death and not infection prevention.

For instance, a study undertaken by researchers from ICMR’s National Institute of Epidemiology, Chennai, which Dr. Bhargava mentioned, found the humoral immune response persisting up to seven months in naturally infected people. But the study was carried out in late 2020 before the emergence of the Delta variant and the massive second wave caused by it swept through the country.

The Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya made an assurance on December 3 last year that the government will go by scientific advice to decide on booster doses. But on December 25, when the government approved the additional dose and even now there is no clarity on whether the booster dose will be with the same vaccine that an individual has got for the first two doses or a different one.

“Scientific evidence is that the preferred booster will be a vaccine developed using a different platform,” says Dr. Lahariya. “The Indian government is exploring the feasibility of recently licensed protein-based COVID-19 vaccines available for booster dose. I am of the opinion that in the case of Covishield, the booster should be protein-based vaccines — Covovax (data of its boosting effect is already available) and then Corbevax. The homologous booster would be the best approach for Covaxin, till we have evidence on heterologous boosting for Covaxin.”

But Covovax and Corbevax were granted emergency use approval only on December 28, three days after the government announced a booster dose for select groups. “If the government was waiting for scientific evidence on booster doses, why did it hurry before deciding on whether the booster should be a homologous [same] or heterologous [different] one,” asks a senior scientist who did not want to be named.

No trials for booster

Incidentally, there is no scientific evidence from clinical trials in India on the efficacy of Covishield or Covaxin as booster shots. Permission to conduct the first clinical study in India to understand the performance of a vaccine as a booster was granted only on December 29; Bio E was given permission to conduct the trial using Corbevax as a booster dose. While the Subject Expert Committee denied permission on December 10 to Serum Institute to administer Covishield as booster doses till it submits clinical trial data, Covaxin will be used as a booster dose despite no clinical trial for efficacy being conducted. According to News18, Bharat Biotech had sought permission to conduct a clinical trial to test the efficacy of Covaxin as a booster dose only after the Prime Minister’s announcement on December 25.

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Initial estimates show severity of illness lower, the genomics consortium says.

There is now clear experimental and clinical data supporting very high immune escape potential of Omicron, but initial estimates show the severity of illness being lower than what was seen in previous outbreaks, the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Sequencing Consortium (INSACOG) said in its latest bulletin citing global data.

In India, appropriate public health measures and investigations are being conducted for surveillance of Omicron, INSACOG said while noting that globally there appears to be significantly reduced ability of vaccines or prior infection to protect against symptomatic infection by the Omicron variant.

“While Delta continues to be the most prevalent VOC globally, the Omicron variant has completely displaced it in southern Africa and is on track to become the dominant variant in U.K. and elsewhere,” INSACOG said in its bulletin released on December 29.

Several States report spike in COVID-19 infections

The genomic consortium, citing global data, said there is now clear experimental and clinical data supporting very high immune escape potential of Omicron, which appears to be the major component of its growth advantage over Delta.

“Initial estimates of severity of illness have, however, been lower than seen in previous outbreaks. Whether these initial observations are generalisable to older non-immune subjects is not clear and the threat level is still considered high,” it said.

COVID-19 cases in India start to inch up as Omicron takes over

The INSACOG reports genomic surveillance of SARS CoV-2 across the country through sequencing of samples from sentinel sites and also detailed state-wise district analysis for some States.

India has recorded 781 cases of the Omicron variant of coronavirus across 21 States and UTs so far, out of which 241 people have recovered or migrated, according to the Union Health Ministry data updated on December 29.

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The identification is significant as it challenges previous research that suggested that pangolins moved out of Europe 10 million years ago.

The Oltet river valley in Romania, a treasure trove of fossil deposits, has been studied since the 1960s. And now, the region has given a new species to science.

A fossilised right humerus or arm bone housed at an inventory in Bucharest was studied using new scanning techniques and the results revealed that it was a new species of the Smutsia genus.

“Smutsia has previously been thought to be an African genus, with the oldest specimen from South Africa at 5 million years ago and living species found across Africa,” said lead author Dr. Claire Terhune in a release. “This specimen now demonstrates that Smutsia previously had a far larger biogeographic range.”

It was named Smutsia olteniensis after the Oltet river valley where the specimen was found. The species lived during the Pleistocene epoch about 1.9 and 2.2 million years ago.

“It’s not a fancy fossil. It’s just a single bone, but it is a new species of a kind of a weird animal,” Dr. Terhune said. “This one happens to be the youngest pangolin ever discovered from Europe and the only pangolin fossil from Pleistocene Europe.”

The team adds that this identification is significant as it challenges previous research that suggested that pangolins moved out of Europe during the middle Miocene or 10 million years ago. The previous papers had hypothesised that pangolins moved to tropical and sub-tropical environments due to global cooling trends.

The findings were published last month in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

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Falling ash can smother coral reefs, which in Tonga are the mainstay of a tourism industry that brought in up to $5 million per year before the coronavirus pandemic.

Tonga’s massive underwater volcanic eruption could deliver long-lasting damage to coral reefs, erode coastlines and disrupt fisheries, say scientists studying satellite images and looking to the past to project the future of the remote region.

Acid rain

Since the initial eruption, the volcano has been releasing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide — two gases that create acid rain when they interact with water and oxygen in the atmosphere.

With Tonga’s tropical climate, “there is likely to be acid rain around Tonga for a while to come,” said volcanologist Shane Cronin at the University of Auckland.

Acid rain causes widespread crop damage, and could ruin Tongan staples like taro, corn, bananas and garden vegetables. “Depending on how long the eruptions last, food security could be compromised,” Cronin said.

Satellite imagery shows the plume spreading westward, which means Tonga could be spared some of this acid rain though Fiji could then be in its path.

In a bulletin on Monday, the UN humanitarian affairs office said Fiji was monitoring its air quality, and has advised people to cover their household water tanks and stay indoors in the event of rain.

Fish die-offs

Tonga’s exclusive economic zone of nearly 700,000 marine square kilometres is 1,000 times larger than its land area. And most Tongans get their food — and livelihood — from the ocean.

While scientists have yet to investigate on the ground, “the few pictures that are available seem to show a blanket…of ash” on land, said Marco Brenna, a geologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand.

In the ocean, that ash can be harmful to marine life. Weeks before Saturday’s eruption, Tonga Geological Services had warned that nearby seawater was contaminated with toxic volcanic discharge, and that fishermen should “assume fish in these waters are poisoned or poisonous.” Inevitably, the eruption has made the situation worse. Murky, ash-filled water near the volcano will deprive fish of food and wipe out spawning beds.

Some fish will perish, and survivors will be forced to migrate, scientists said. Further changes in the structure of the sea floor could create new obstacles for fishing vessels. “It will be a while before the same or new fishing grounds will be restored,” Brenna said.

Smothered corals

Falling ash can also smother coral reefs, which in Tonga are the mainstay of a tourism industry that brought in up to $5 million per year before the coronavirus pandemic. Even before the eruption, Tonga’s reefs were threatened by disease outbreaks and the effects of climate change including coral bleaching and increasingly strong cyclones.

Now, “vast areas of the reefs in the immediate impact area at Hunga Tonga are probably buried and smothered by large deposits of volcanic ash,” said Tom Schils, a marine biologist at the University of Guam who has studied volcanic eruptions and corals in the Northern Mariana Islands.

Such eruptions also release more iron into the water, which can boost the growth of blue-green algae and sponges that further degrade reefs.

Reefs may have to start over – a process that could take years, said Brian Zgliczynski, a coral reef ecologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “Species more tolerant of poor water quality will arrive first,” while hard corals and fish would take longer to return, he said.

Eroded coastlines

A loss of coral reefs would also affect Tonga’s ability to cope with rising waters and storm surges. This is a concern for Tonga, where climate change is driving the sea level to rise by about 6 millimeters (0.2 inches) per year — double the global average. In a 2015 report, Tonga valued its natural storm buffers including coral reefs as well as coastal seagrasses and mangroves at some $11 million annually.

With the latest eruption, a Tongan sea level gauge recorded a tsunami wave of 1.19 metres (nearly four feet) before it stopped reporting. Tsunamis are known to cause rapid coastal erosion. And before communication systems went down, videos revealed damage to manmade seawalls. “Coastal defences and reclaimed land could all be strongly impacted by the tsunami waves, leaving the islands more vulnerable,” Cronin said.

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China alone is losing a third of its potential wheat production and nearly a quarter of rice yields as ozone disrupts plant growth.

Fossil fuel emissions aren’t just driving climate change and worsening air quality, they’re also hurting crop yields enough to cause some $63 billion in annual losses in East Asia, scientists say.

With high levels of ozone pollution, China, South Korea and Japan are seeing diminished yields in wheat, rice, and maize, according to a study published Monday in the journal Nature Food.

China alone is losing a third of its potential wheat production and nearly a quarter of rice yields as ozone disrupts plant growth. That has worrying implications beyond the region, with Asia providing the majority of the world’s rice supply.

“East Asia is one of the biggest bread baskets and rice bowls in the world,” said lead author Zhaozhong Feng, an environmental researcher at Nanjing University of Information Science & Technology.

Asia is also a hotspot for ozone, formed when sunlight interacts with greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds that are released by the burning of fossil fuels.

In the stratosphere, a layer of ozone protects the planet from ultraviolet radiation. But closer to Earth’s surface, ozone can harm plants and animals, including humans. Feng and his colleagues used ozone monitoring data to estimate the crop damage as costing roughly $63 billion. Previous research on the topic has used computer simulations to assess the economic impact of ozone pollution on crops.

Ozone “directly damages food security in China for all three crops,” Feng said. This is a concern for China, which is already worried about its declining land quality. The country has to feed a fifth of the world’s population with only 7 per cent of its farmland. As industry, energy and urban expansion have competed for limited land resources, China lost some 6 per cent of its arable land — or 7.5 million hectares – from 2009 to 2019, according to a state land survey published in August last year.

While Beijing has since drawn a “red line” to protect existing agricultural land, experts still anticipate the total to fall further by 2030.“In some parts of the world, ozone pollution is comparable to or even worse for crops than the other big stressors of heat, drought, and pests,” said Katrina Sharps, a spatial data analyst at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

In a 2018 study, she and other researchers estimated global wheat yield losses from ozone pollution totalled $24.2 billion annually between 2010 and 2012. “It’s an under-recognized problem,” Sharps said.

Ozone levels have declined in America and Europe over the last two decades, with the introduction of stricter air quality measures. But the pollutant is increasing in Asia. While the gases that contribute to ozone pollution are largely emitted from cities, the impact is worse in rural areas where ozone forms.

Scientists said the best way to bring down ozone levels is to curb the use of fossil fuels – the same action needed to bring down greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. Without stricter emissions controls in Asia, Sharps said, “things are going to get worse.”

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Of the human senses, smell is perhaps the most elusive yet powerful. In any given moment, it can be a time capsule, jerking us back to a half-forgotten past.

Written by Winston Choi-Schagrin

Chuck McGinley, a chemical engineer, stepped out of his car, eyed the smokestack of an animal processing plant rising above the treetops, and inhaled deeply. At first he smelled nothing except the faint, sweet fragrance of the nearby trees.

Suddenly, the wind picked up. “We have an oh-my-God smell!” McGinley exclaimed.

Immediately one of his colleagues pressed a Nasal Ranger to his nose. The 14-inch-long smell-measuring device, which looks like a cross between a radar gun and a bugle, is one of McGinley’s most significant inventions.

Using terms from one of McGinley’s other standard tools, an odor wheel, a chart akin to an artist’s color wheel that he has been fine-tuning for decades, the team described the stink. “Sour,” one person said. “Decay, with possibly some petroleum,” said another.

Then, as quickly as it had arrived, the smell disappeared. “The wind decided it was going to gift us only a short sniff,” McGinley said. “To tease us.”

Intuitively, humans know to avoid bad smells. Yet for a half-century, McGinley, 76, has returned again and again to society’s stinkiest sites, places very much like this one, in order to measure, describe and demystify smell.

From his unconventional lab in a Minnesota suburb (it actually feels more like a ski lodge), McGinley and his son Mike have established an outsize influence over the measurement and understanding of odor. They have equipped scientists around the world with tools the elder McGinley invented, advised governments on odor regulations and empowered communities near smelly places to find a vocabulary for their complaints and a way to measure what their noses are telling them.

In many ways, the growing demand for McGinley’s services and instruments signals society’s heightened awareness of the power of odor and its potential to make people physically ill or diminish their quality of life. His inventions have taken on a powerful role in a movement to recognize odor as a pollutant, not merely an annoyance, worthy of closer study and perhaps tighter regulation.

“If somebody said, ‘I have an odor problem; where should I go?’ that would be Chuck and Mike McGinley,” said Jacek Koziel, an agricultural engineer who studies odor at Iowa State University. Their methods provide policymakers and researchers with “hard evidence to make the case that odor is real and it affects people’s lives,” he said.

Of the human senses, smell is perhaps the most elusive yet powerful. In any given moment, it can be a time capsule, jerking us back to a half-forgotten past. Or it can linger, triggering feelings that cannot quite be placed or described.

Intuitively, it provides valuable warnings. A whiff of milk can immediately tell you if it is unsafe to drink. A sniff can tell you if your socks are clean. It has even become a diagnostic tool: Losing one’s sense of smell is a possible sign of COVID-19 infection. “Our nose is our early warning that something is not good,” McGinley said.

Although people have confidence in describing what they see and hear and the objects they touch, we are often tripped up by smells. We speak largely in metaphor. A smell is often “like” something else: a rose, a wet dog, a grandmother’s house.

“Most people, when they smell a factory, they say, ‘It’s making me nauseous,’” McGinley said. But they are at a loss to describe precisely why.

Spending even a short time with him, one cannot help but pick up bits of odor-related trivia. Who knew that most of the air we are inhaling at any given moment passes through just one nostril or the other, not both? Or that Oriental lilies could be so divisive: His wife loves the smell; he finds it “ugly.”

Listen carefully, though, and he often addresses debates that transcend his day-to-day work, escaping the realm of science altogether and drifting toward the metaphysical: Is the human aversion to putrid smells nature, nurture or both? How can one measure a perception? And how do you give people the confidence in their noses that they have in their eyes and ears?

What the nose can tell us

A smell is, quite simply, a result of chemicals in the air, and the human nose is far better at detecting them than it often gets credit for. Some of the most recognizable and potent odors, like hydrogen sulfide (think rotten egg), can be sensed at even the tiniest concentrations, like 1 part per billion.

“If you were to map out the distance from New York to Los Angeles, 1 part per billion would account for only a few inches along that route,” Koziel of Iowa State said.

That fact also captures the difficulty of regulating odors. At such vanishingly small concentrations, hydrogen sulfide is unlikely to pose a health risk. Nevertheless, “it’s very disruptive to people,” said Susan Schiffman, a clinical psychologist who has studied odor and taste for a half-century.

Despite having the power to sicken, there are few laws in the United States to regulate odor. It makes up a significant portion of complaints to public agencies, including one-quarter of the complaints to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Yet there is debate over whether a smell can be inherently dangerous.

“It’s one thing to measure emissions, but odor is a sensation. Because it can be experienced so differently by so many people, it puts us in a bind about how we regulate,” said Pamela Dalton, a psychologist who studies odor perception at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “Any industry has the potential for off-site emissions, even a cookie factory,” she added.

However, there is a growing body of medical literature supporting the notion that odor can cause physical health problems. Research shows that people living near malodorous sites can suffer physiological symptoms including headaches, burning eyes and nausea as well as mental health challenges like depression and anxiety.

The decision not to regulate odor at the federal level dates to the 1970s. In a series of surveys, federal agencies found that half of respondents believed odor was a serious problem. But the Environmental Protection Agency ultimately decided that it would leave it to local governments to create odor nuisance laws, akin to noise ordinances.

Today, around a dozen states regulate odor, and various local governments have set up ordinances. But the system is patchy, and it has left disputes to be dealt with in the courts.

Back in 1996, when Minnesota was deciding whether or not to repeal its odor regulations (it did), McGinley was called to testify. “The lawyers are going to love this,” he remembered saying. Not having rules would mean “a lot of lawsuits.”

He was right. In an example from 2018, a North Carolina jury awarded neighbors of Smithfield Foods $473.5 million for “obnoxious, recurrent odors” originating from the company’s industrial hog farms. (In a statement, Smithfield said it had settled this and other similar cases for an undisclosed amount.)

But not everyone has the time or money to sue. And because smelly industries are often clustered in low-income areas, McGinley said, the problems can disproportionately affect minorities or poorer communities.

Alexander Graham Bell on smell

For centuries, measuring smells had a reputation akin to alchemy. In a 1914 commencement speech, inventor Alexander Graham Bell explained the importance of measurement to the advancement of science. Sound and light, he said, could be measured. But not smell.

“If you are ambitious to found a new science, measure a smell,” he said.

Olfactometers, invented more than a century ago, work on the principle that you draw in air through a small hole, then dilute it until a person can no longer smell it. The amount of dilution represented the strength of the odor. Later, the US government developed portable olfactometers, or Scentometers, which were little more than an acrylic box with holes of differing sizes at one end: Holding it like a piccolo, you would cover the holes with your fingers, lifting one at a time to get a reading. But they tended to be awkward to use.

McGinley’s idea for his own devices came during a vacation in Hawaii. He saw the Haleakala volcano and had a breakthrough: The conical shape might work well for a smell-measuring tool. His Nasal Ranger, more intuitive than the acrylic boxes with finger holes, requires little more than taking a big sniff and adjusting a dial until you no longer smell it.

“The Nasal Ranger is quantum leaps better than the original Scentometer,” said Dalton of the Monell Center. Scientists and startups are now working to develop electronic noses capable of measuring and identifying odors just as an actual nose can. But the technology is not there yet.

McGinley came to odor by accident. After college, he got an entry-level job at the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co., now known as 3M, where he had a tiny role in the department responsible for inventing scratch-and-sniff technology. “A very, very, very small part,” McGinley said.

But the experience proved fateful a few years later when he interviewed for a job enforcing dust regulations at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. “When I mentioned the scratch-and-sniff, the interviewer said, ‘The odor position pays more,’” he recalled.

With young children to care for, the bigger paycheck sounded appealing. He was hired to be part of the agency’s new odor inspection team, touring Minnesota’s stinkiest places. “And that’s where I accidentally fell into the business of knowing more than the average person about smell,” he said.

Several years later, on a Sunday morning in June 1975, came another turning point.

From a desperate plea, a career

That morning, McGinley found two farmers at his front door. The couple had driven hours across the state to beg for his help. Smells from a nearby animal processing plant were wreaking havoc on their lives and depriving them of sleep, the couple told him. They suffered headaches and nausea. Their throats were burning. But doctors did not believe them. Nobody believed that a smell could be ruining their lives and livelihood.

“I realized, with that incident, that odors were more than just smell,” McGinley said.

When he and his wife started their air-quality business in the 1980s from their kitchen table, almost all of his clients were sewage treatment plants and other smelly sites. But word spread, and eventually he expanded to his current facility, a former bank building.

The lobby of his laboratory, St. Croix Sensory, features wooden rafters and a big stone fireplace, giving it the ski-lodge vibe. The board game What’s That Smell (“The Party Game That Stinks”) is on one of the side tables, as are copies of books like “Smellosophy: What the Nose Tells the Mind.”

In recent years, Mike McGinley, who is also a chemical engineer, has taken over the lab, expanding into more testing work for food and consumer goods companies, as well as concocting recipes for immersive theater troupes and museums.

For a local theater production, he created 22 smells, including one to mimic an old woman’s apartment (“perfume and old cedar smell”). When a detergent company wanted to test the smell of freshly laundered towels that had previously been mildewed, it could not spend six months waiting for towels to naturally mold. So Mike developed his own mold smell.

This past August, a team of the McGinleys’ assessors, a group of mostly women hired and trained to categorize and describe smells, gathered at the laboratory to conduct a test for a cat litter brand. They worked in a room lined with stainless steel boxes, each with a small hole designed for “nasal masks,” another Chuck McGinley invention. Inside the boxes were different litter formulations, and a control (sand), all freshly deposited with urine and poop that Mike McGinley had sourced from feline-owning friends.

The assessors cycled through the boxes, inhaling deeply and noting characteristics. After several hours, they broke for lunch, then spent the afternoon sniffing hand sanitizers.

“Now I have such a different awareness” of the presence of smells, often unnoticed, that surround all of us, said Erika Schultz, one of the assessors. Sometimes, when opening a package or walking down the aisle of a grocery store, she said, she will note the smell and think back to the odor wheel.

It is precisely this kind of awareness that Chuck McGinley has tried to instill for the past half-century. “We go through our life with the mute button on our nose,” he said. “Turn off that mute button. Listen with your nose.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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Near-Earth objects that come at a distance of below 7.5 million km from Earth are termed as potentially hazardous asteroids

NASA’s Asteroid Watch tweeted that a near-Earth asteroid named 7482 (1994 PC1) will safely fly past our planet today at a distance of 1.2 million miles or 1.9 million kilometres. This is about five times the distance between the Earth and Moon. The asteroid will make another close approach this year on July 3. 7482 (1994 PC1) has a diameter of about 1km and is classified as an Apollo asteroid.

On January 18, three other asteroids will make their closest approach to Earth. Check out the details below.

Name of the asteroidDiameter of the asteroid (in metre)Fly-by distance (in kms)Next close approach
2021 BA22.33.7 millionJanuary 19, 2023
2022 AW48.13.6 millionJuly 10, 2029
2022 AA613.44.6 millionUnknown

Why are these asteroids called Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHA)?

Near-Earth objects that come at a distance of below 0.05 astronomical units or 7.5 million km from Earth are termed as potentially hazardous asteroids. There are over 1,500 PHAs according to the International Astronomical Union.

How to watch the asteroid?

According to the 7482 (1994 PC1) will shine at around magnitude 10. This magnitude is less than the shine of Venus and other stars seen by our naked eyes in the sky. The website adds that a 6-inch or larger backyard telescope can help spot the asteroid, but you also need to make sure there is no light pollution.

Last year NASA launched the world’s first mission to deflect an asteroid. Named DART, it will collide with a small moonlet called Dimorphos between September 26 and October 1. It hopes that the small nudge can change the course of the moonlet.

This month’s near-Earth objects

Name of the asteroidDate of close approach
(2022 AB)January 20
(2022 AE6)January 20
(2022 AX4)January 21
(2018 PN22)January 21
(2017 XC62)January 24
(2021 BZ)January 27
(2022 AN5)January 28
(2022 AG6)January 28


According to NASA, no known asteroid poses a risk of impact with Earth over the next 100 years. “The highest risk of impact for a known asteroid is a 1 in 714 chance of impact by an asteroid designated 2009 FD in 2185,” NASA’s planetary defense website adds.

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Future observations using the recently-launched James Webb Space Telescope could reveal more details about these newly-discovered planets.

Three giant planets are orbiting dangerously close to their stars and will be consumed by their stars, a new study said. The host stars are also nearing the end of their lives, it added.

NASA’s TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) Mission spotted these exoplanets, named TOI-2337b, TOI-4329b and TOI-2669b, that have short-period orbits around giant stars.

The international team of researchers said that TOI-2337b will be consumed by its host star in less than one million years. This is sooner than the time estimated for any other currently known planet.

“These discoveries are crucial to understanding a new frontier in exoplanet studies: how planetary systems evolve over time,” explained lead author Samuel Grunblatt in a release. He added that “these observations offer new windows into planets nearing the end of their lives before their host stars swallow them up.”

The researchers note that these planets could have masses between 0.5 and 1.7 times Jupiter’s mass.

“We expect to find tens to hundreds of these evolved transiting planet systems with TESS, providing new details on how planets interact with each other, inflate, and migrate around stars, including those like our Sun,” said Nick Saunders, a co-author of the study.

The data from TESS was studied using W. M. Keck Observatory’s High-Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES) in Hawai?i and the existence of the exoplanets was confirmed.

“The Keck observations of these planetary systems are critical to understanding their origins, helping reveal the fate of solar systems like our own,” said Astronomer Daniel Huber, who co-authored the study.

The team added that future observations using the recently-launched James Webb Space Telescope could reveal more details about these newly-discovered planets.

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The petals of the Himalayan Buransh flower are consumed in various forms by the local population for its varied health benefits.

Researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Mandi and the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) have identified phytochemicals in the petals of a Himalayan plant that could potentially be used to treat COVID-19 infection.

The research found that phytochemical-rich petals of Rhododendron arboreum found in the Himalayan region, locally called “Buransh” show antiviral activity and fight against the virus.

The findings of the research team have been recently published in the journal Biomolecular Structure and Dynamics.

According to the team, two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers are trying to understand the nature of the virus and discovering new ways to prevent the infection.

“While vaccination is one route to providing the body with the fighting power against the virus, there is a worldwide search for non-vaccine medicines that can prevent viral invasion of the human body. These medicines use chemicals that either bind to the receptors in our body cells and prevent the virus from entering them or act on the virus itself and prevent its replication inside our bodies, ” said Shyam Kumar Masakapalli, Associate Professor, IIT Mandi’s School of Basic Science.

“Among the different types of therapeutic agents being studied, phytochemicals (chemicals derived from plants) are considered particularly promising because of their synergistic activity and natural source with fewer toxicity issues. We are hunting for promising molecules from the Himalayan flora using multi-disciplinary approaches,” Kumar said.

The petals of the Himalayan Buransh flower are consumed in various forms by the local population for its varied health benefits.

“The team scientifically tested the extracts containing various phytochemicals in it, with particular focus on antiviral activity. The researchers extracted the phytochemicals from the Buransh petals and performed biochemical assays and computational simulation studies to understand its antiviral properties,” Masakapalli said.

Ranjan Nanda, Translational Health Group, International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, said, “We have profiled and investigated the phytochemicals of Rhododendron arboreum petals sourced from Himalayan flora and have found it to be a promising candidate against the Covid virus”.

Hot water extracts from these petals were found to be rich in quinic acid and its derivatives. Molecular dynamics studies showed that these phytochemicals have two kinds of effects against the virus.

“The researchers also showed through experimental assays that non-toxic doses of the petal extracts can inhibit Covid infection in Vero E6 cells (cells derived from kidney of an African green monkey that are commonly used to study infectivity of virus and bacteria), without any adverse effects on the cells themselves,” he said.

According to the team, the findings support the urgent need for further scientific studies aimed at finding specific bioactive drug candidates from R. arboreum, in vivo and clinical trials against COVID-19.

The research team also plans to carry out additional studies to understand the precise mechanism of inhibition of COVID-19 replication by specific phytochemicals from Buransh petals.

Sujatha Sunil, Vector Borne Disease Group, ICGEB, said, “A combination of the phytochemical profiling, computer simulations and in vitro anti-viral assays showed that the extracts from the Buransh petals inhibited the replication of the COVID-19 virus in a dose-dependent manner.”

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The impact of past seed disperser declines has been greatest in areas including North America, Europe and the southern part of South America.

Written by Evan Fricke, Alejandro Ordonez, Jens-Christian Svenning and Haldre Rogers

Picture a mature, broad-branched tree like an oak, maple or fig. How does it reproduce so that its offspring don’t grow up in its shadow, fighting for light?

The answer is seed dispersal. Plants have evolved many strategies for spreading their seeds away from the parent plant. Some produce seedlings that float on the wind. Others have fruits that actually explode, ejecting their seeds.

And more than half of all plants rely on wildlife to disperse their seeds. This typically happens when animals eat fruits from plants or carry away their nuts, then excrete or drop the seeds somewhere else. In tropical rainforests, animals disperse the seeds of up to 90 per cent of tree species.

Today the Earth is losing species at a rapid rate, potentially representing the sixth mass extinction in its history. In a newly published study, we examine what this loss means for seed dispersal, focusing on birds and mammals that disperse fleshy-fruited plants.

We assessed how seed dispersers help plants shift their geographic ranges to reach habitats newly suitable for growth — a crucial mechanism for surviving climate change. If not enough seeds disperse to track the environmental conditions like temperature and precipitation that plants require, the plants could be stuck in settings where they will struggle to survive. This could lead to losses of plant species, along with the valuable products and services they provide, ranging from food to carbon storage.

A new era for plant movement

Animals have been dispersing seeds for millions of years, but the relationships between plants and their seed dispersers have changed dramatically in our modern era.

Berries in California are no longer eaten by grizzly bears, which disappeared from the state a century ago. On the island of Madagascar, seeds no longer travel in the bellies of gorilla-sized lemurs, which went extinct there about 2,300 years ago. In France, seeds don’t catch a ride on the fur of lions or between the toes of rhinos that once lived there, as shown in prehistoric cave paintings. When animals disperse seeds today, their movement is often hampered by roads, farms or built-up areas.

For most animal-dispersed plants — especially those with large seeds, which require large animals like tapirs, elephants and hornbills to spread them — these changes mean a big reduction in seed dispersal, and a great slowdown of plant movement.

Research by our team and work by many colleagues have uncovered the negative ecological consequences that occur when seed dispersers disappear. Now researchers are assessing how seed dispersal decline is affecting plants’ responses to climate change.

Quantifying what’s been lost

Only a small fraction of the thousands of seed disperser species and tens of thousands of animal-dispersed plant species have been studied directly. Many seed disperser species are extinct or so rare that they can’t be studied at all.

To overcome this challenge, we pulled together data from published studies showing which bird and mammal seed dispersers eat which fruits, how far they spread the seeds, and how their digestive systems’ effects on the seeds help or hinder germination. These three steps together describe what’s required for successful seed dispersal: A seed must be removed from the mother plant, travel some distance away from it and survive to become a seedling.

Next, we used machine learning to generate predictions for seed dispersal, based on the traits of each species. For example, data on a medium-sized thrush in North America could help us model how a medium-sized thrush species from Asia dispersed seeds, even if the Asian species wasn’t studied directly.

Using our trained model, we could estimate seed dispersal by every bird and mammal species ? even rare or extinct species for which there isn’t any species-specific data on the seed dispersal process.

The last step was to compare current seed dispersal to what would be happening if extinctions and species range contractions hadn’t happened. For fleshy-fruited plants, we estimate that because of bird and mammal losses, 60 per cent fewer seeds are being dispersed far enough worldwide to keep pace with climate change by shifting locations. Further, we estimate that if currently endangered seed disperser species such as bonobos, savanna elephants and helmeted hornbills became extinct, global seed dispersal would decline by an additional 15 per cent.

The impact of past seed disperser declines has been greatest in areas including North America, Europe and the southern part of South America. Future losses of endangered species would have their most severe impacts in areas including Southeast Asia and Madagascar.

With fewer seed dispersers present, fewer seeds will be moved far enough to enable plants to adapt to climate change by shifting their ranges.

Using our trained model, we could estimate seed dispersal by every bird and mammal species — even rare or extinct species for which there isn’t any species-specific data on the seed dispersal process.

The last step was to compare current seed dispersal to what would be happening if extinctions and species range contractions hadn’t happened. For fleshy-fruited plants, we estimate that because of bird and mammal losses, 60 per cent fewer seeds are being dispersed far enough worldwide to keep pace with climate change by shifting locations. Further, we estimate that if currently endangered seed disperser species such as bonobos, savanna elephants and helmeted hornbills became extinct, global seed dispersal would decline by an additional 15 per cent.

The impact of past seed disperser declines has been greatest in areas including North America, Europe and the southern part of South America. Future losses of endangered species would have their most severe impacts in areas including Southeast Asia and Madagascar.

With fewer seed dispersers present, fewer seeds will be moved far enough to enable plants to adapt to climate change by shifting their ranges.

Seed dispersers also promote biodiversity by helping to ensure that a large number of plant species can survive and thrive. Ecosystems that contain many plant species with diverse genetic makeups are better equipped to handle uncertain futures, and to sustain the ecosystem functions that humans rely on, such as storing carbon, producing food and timber, filtering water and controlling floods and erosion.

There are ways to increase seed dispersal. Making sure patches of similar habitats are connected helps species move among them. Restoring populations of important seed dispersers, ranging from toucans to bears to elephants, will also help. And global models of seed dispersal like ours can help scientists and land managers think about seed dispersers as a nature-based solution for addressing climate change.

— Evan Fricke is from Rice University, Alejandro Ordonez & Jens-Christian Svenning from Aarhus University and Haldre Rogers from Iowa State University.

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The discovery of the nests raises even more questions. How often are the nests built, and are they reused? Do the fish die after the eggs hatch?

Written by Sabrina Imbler

As soon as the remotely operated camera glimpsed the bottom of the Weddell Sea, more than 1,000 feet below the icy ceiling at the surface, Lilian Boehringer, a student researcher at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, saw the icefish nests. The sandy craters dimpled the seafloor, each the size of a hula hoop and less than a foot apart. Each crater held a single, stolid icefish, dark pectoral fins outspread like bat wings over a clutch of eggs.

Aptly named icefishes thrive in waters just above freezing with enormous hearts and blood that runs clear as vodka. Their blood is transparent because they lack red blood cells and hemoglobin to transport oxygen throughout the body. Icefishes’ loss of hemoglobin genes was less an evolutionary adaptation than a happy accident, one that has allowed them to absorb the oxygen-rich Antarctic waters through their skin.

The sighting occurred in February 2021 in the camera room aboard a research ship, the Polarstern, which had come to the Weddell Sea to study other things, not icefish. It was 3 a.m. near Antarctica, meaning the sun was out but most of the ship was asleep. To Boehringer’s surprise, the camera kept transmitting pictures as it moved with the ship, revealing an uninterrupted horizon of icefish nests every 20 seconds.

“It just didn’t stop,” Boehringer said. “They were everywhere.”

Half an hour later, Autun Purser, a deep-sea biologist at the same institute, joined Boehringer. On the camera feed, there remained nothing but nests.

“We were like, is this ever going to end?” Purser said. “How come no one has ever seen this before?”

The nests persisted for the entire four-hour dive, with 16,160 recorded on camera. After two more dives by the camera, the scientists estimated the colony of Neopagetopsis ionah icefish stretched across 92 square miles of the serene Antarctic sea, totaling 60 million active nests. The researchers described the site — the largest fish breeding colony ever discovered — in a paper published Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

“Holy cow,” said C.-H. Christina Cheng, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, who was not involved with the research. “This is really unprecedented,” she said. “It is crazy dense. It is a major discovery.”

The paper provides “evidence of a complex and so far undescribed benthic ecosystem in the Weddell Sea,” said Mario La Mesa, a biologist at the Institute of Polar Sciences in Bologna, Italy, who was not involved with the research.

“I would not be surprised to find other massive colonies of breeding fishes elsewhere,” said La Mesa, who last year described the same Antarctic icefish species’ nest-guarding behavior from sites near the newly discovered colony.

Each of the newly discovered nests held, on average, 1,735 large, yolky eggs — low fecundity for a fish. An unprotected clutch would prove an easy snack for predators like starfish, polychaete worms and sea spiders, Cheng said. So the males stand sentry to ensure their offspring are not devoured, at least not before they have the chance to hatch, and may clean the nests with their elongated lower jaw, according to Manuel Novillo, a researcher at the Bernardino Rivadavia Museum of Natural Science in Argentina, who was not involved with the research.

About three-quarters of the colony’s nests were guarded by a single fish. The others had eggs but no fish, a fish carcass furred white with bacteria or nothing at all. Near the edges of the colony, many unused or abandoned nests cradled several icefish carcasses, many with starfishes and octopuses feasting on their eyes and soft parts.

“If you die in the fish nest area, you rot there,” Purser said. “But if you die at the edges, then it seems to be everyone grabs you and starts eating you there.”

The researchers observed that the colony occupied an unusually warm patch of deep water, with temperatures up to about 35 degrees Fahrenheit — practically toasty compared to other Antarctic waters.

Although the discovery of the nests contributes to scientists’ understanding of the icefish life cycle, it raises even more questions. How often are the nests built, and are they reused? Do the fish die after the eggs hatch? Or, perhaps the most obvious: “Why there?” Cheng asked.

The authors have no sure answers, only speculations. Maybe the warm deep currents guide the fish to the grounds. Maybe there is a bounty of zooplankton for the fry to devour. Or maybe it’s something else.

But there must be something special about the location of the active colony. Around 31 miles west, the researchers found a patch of seafloor similarly littered with nests: all empty. These nests were abandoned, overtaken by sponges and corals — long-living creatures that take years to grow, Purser said.

Waters above the icefishes’ expansive settlement also host hungry, foraging Weddell seals. When the researchers collected satellite tracking data from seals during the expedition and analyzed it with historical data, they found, unsurprisingly, that the seals dive primarily to the icefish nests. “They’re having a nice dinner,” Purser said.

Before the end of the cruise, the researchers deployed a camera that will photograph the site twice daily for two years, hopefully revealing even more about the life cycle of the icefish. Novillo said he is looking forward to seeing what the camera captures. “It might constitute the first field observation of courtship behavior and/or nest preparation,” he wrote in an email.

New insights into how icefish reproduce and contribute to polar food webs could help manage and conserve populations. The authors argue the new paper provides enough evidence to protect the Weddell Sea under the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.

“The seafloor is not just barren and boring,” Purser said. “Such huge discoveries are still there to be made, even today in the 21st century.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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Close to 5,000 planets beyond our solar system, or exoplanets, have been identified, compared to only two such moons, called exomoons.

For only the second time, astronomers have detected what appears to be a moon orbiting a planet in another solar system. Just like the first time, this one has traits suggesting that such moons may differ greatly from those populating our solar system.

Data obtained by NASA’s Kepler space telescope before it was retired in 2018 indicated the presence of a moon 2.6 times the diameter of Earth orbiting a Jupiter-sized gas giant about 5,700 light-years away from our solar system in the direction of the Cygnus and Lyra constellations, scientists said on Thursday.

A light-year is the distance light travels in a year, 5.9 trillion miles (9.5 trillion km).This moon’s diameter would make it larger than any of the roughly 220 ones known to be orbiting planets in our solar system and more than nine times the diameter of Earth’s moon.

“We don’t know the mass or indeed composition. It could be a rocky core with a light fluffy envelope or a thick atmosphere all the way down to some high-density core,” said Columbia University astronomy professor David Kipping, lead author of the research published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Our solar system’s moons all are rocky or icy objects. Close to 5,000 planets beyond our solar system, or exoplanets, have been identified, compared to only two such moons, called exomoons. That is not because moons are thought to be any scarcer in other solar systems but because planets tend to be larger and therefore easier to find, the researchers said.

The first exomoon candidate, described in 2018 by the same lead researchers and still awaiting confirmation, is even larger – roughly the size of our solar system’s planet Neptune. It is located approximately 8,000 light-years from Earth. Its apparent gaseous composition is unlike any of our solar system’s moons.

“Exomoons are terra incognita,” Kipping said, using a Latin term meaning unknown land. “We know next to nothing about their prevalence, properties or origins. Moons may be frequent abodes for life in the cosmos and may affect the habitability of the planet their orbit. We’ve learned so much about exoplanets in the last few decades, but exomoons represent an outstanding challenge in modern astronomy,” Kipping added.

The researchers employed the “transit method” often used to detect exoplanets. They observed a dip in the brightness of the sun-like star around which the moon’s planet orbits when the planet and then the exomoon passed in front of it. The Kepler telescope obtained data on two such transits.

“This is yet another tantalizing exomoon finding, suggesting again that large moons may be present in other planetary systems and that we can potentially detect them,” said astronomer and study co-author Alex Teachey of the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy & Astrophysics (ASIAA) in Taiwan.

The researchers scanned 70 cold, giant gas exoplanets on wide orbits around their host stars, knowing that two such planets in our own solar system – Jupiter and Saturn – are orbited by numerous moons. They found evidence for the one new exomoon, whose size, they said, would earn it the description of being a “mini-Neptune.”

“We will want to see follow-up observations to confirm its presence,” Teachey said. “Even so, the present study goes a long way towards ruling out alternative explanations for the observed signals, leveraging more than a decade of experience in the exomoon search and pulling out all the stops. Some skepticism among the (astronomy) community is inevitable and important, but I think the paper lays out a convincing, thorough case.”

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The fossil record at the three cave sites examined in the archipelago dates to ~14690 to 11000 years before present.

Archaeological investigations at the Haida Gwaii archipelago, off British Columbia’s north coast, have shed new light on the interactions between early human settlements and the post-glacial environment in the region.

Around 15000 years ago, the Hecate Strait, that now connects the archipelago to the mainland, was a ‘wide, grassy plain.’ Since much of the old coastline is now submerged, the team of Canadian archaeologists targeted karst (limestone) caves for their investigations.

These caves housed a lot of animals that are no longer present in the region and provided ample food resources for humans. The fossil record at the three cave sites examined in the archipelago dates to ~14690 to 11000 years before present.

The findings now confirm human occupation at Haida Gwaii to at least 12600 years ago. Dates were obtained by radiocarbon dating bone and charcoal samples across the target sites.

Three caves were subject to archaeological investigations in the entire cave complex. One cave, named K1 in Moresby Island, yielded bones of the black and brown bears, caribou, deer, and a few remains of fishbone, mouse, songbird. Examinations of bone taphonomy revealed a considerable amount of carnivore impact, like tooth puncture, gouge marks, spiral fractures and crushing.

Researchers also recovered remains of spear points from K1 cave, but ‘the absence of butchering tools or waste flakes suggests these artifacts may have been brought in by wounded bears that pulled them out in the safety of their den, or eventually died in this deep passage with the points still in their bodies.’

Faunal remains recovered in cave Gaadu Din 1 are largely similar, with the addition of the domestic dog. “Using DNA analysis and radiocarbon dating, the team determined the dog that lived 13,100 years ago — the oldest evidence of domestic dogs ever reported in the Americas. What’s more, dogs are “a proxy for the presence of humans,” one of the authors Quentin Mackie told Hakai Magazine.

Bones in this cave too bear similar marks of carnivore action, and authors maintain that ‘the cave was used by large carnivores (e.g., brown bear) for predation on other bears’ or other animals. Archaeological features here were slightly different: stone knives do indicate some butchering activity. The entrance of the cave also consists of a hearth feature that establishes human use.

The third cave – Gaadu Din 2 – was poor in bone finds, but was relatively abundant in stone tools, which ‘reveals the cave was intermittently used by people as a hunting camp or refuge’ 12000 to 10000 years ago.

The authors note that the presence of the brown bear indicates the survival of the species after the last glacial period in refugia specific to the region. The study adds the Haida Gwaii-Hecate Strait sector along with Beringia could have been an ecological niche for this particular brown bear clade as well as humans.

While historical records say that deer were introduced to the island by missionaries at the beginning of the twentieth century, a very thin separation between the mainland and the island around 13.5 kya that enabled deer movement might explain the evidence of deer bones found in the archaeological context. A colder and wetter period between 12900-11700 years ago might have led to the extirpation of the deer, for the species disappears from the archaeological record around this time.

These palaeoecological investigations highlight that the flora and fauna of the area were much different back in the day and that people with coastal adaptations had begun colonising the region by 13500 years ago. Equally importantly, the study highlights the potential cave sites offer for archaeological discoveries in the region.

– The author is a freelance science communicator. (mail[at]ritvikc[dot]com)

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The company plans six launches this year, including two for the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force that will originate from Cornwall in southwestern England.

A Virgin Orbit rocket released from a jet flying off the California coast carried seven small satellites into space on Thursday as the company kicked off a year in which it plans to ramp up the pace of launches, including two originating from Britain.

Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747 took off from Mojave Air & Space Port in the Southern California desert, flew out over the Pacific Ocean and dropped the LauncherOne rocket from its left wing.

The 70-foot-long (21.3-meter) booster ignited at an altitude of about 35,000 feet (10,668 metres) and hurtled skyward. The company later confirmed that all of the satellites were successfully deployed into the proper orbit.

“Another fantastic day for the Virgin Orbit team, and a big step forward for our customers,” the company tweeted.

The payload included satellites for the US Defense Department, the Polish company SatRevolution and the international company Spire Global.

It was Virgin Orbit’s third launch carrying satellites for customers. Two previous launches carried multiple satellites into orbit in January and June 2021. The company’s first launch, a demonstration flight, failed in May 2020.

Virgin Orbit, founded in 2017 by British billionaire Richard Branson, went public last month. The company is targeting the market for launching small satellites. It touts the mobility of its air-launch system compared to the limitations of fixed launch sites.

“The tremendous thing about using a 747 is we can put them into any orbit from anywhere in the world,” Branson said from the British Virgin Islands during the company’s launch webcast.

“There’s only I think a couple of handfuls of countries in the world that have the capability of sending satellites to space from their own countries and now 480 countries can use Virgin Orbit,” he said. “You just need to ring us up.”

>The company plans six launches this year, including two for the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force that will originate from Cornwall in southwestern England. RAF test pilot Mathew “Stanny” Stannard flew the 747 from the main pilot seat on Thursday.

“This is going to be just a banner year for us,” Chief Operating Officer Tony Gingiss said in a preflight briefing this week.

Gingiss said there has been continuous improvement flight-over-flight.

“I think we’re seeing not only the kind of rigor we expect but just really getting highly confident in our processes,” he said.

Thursday’s mission was dubbed “Above the Clouds,” a title taken from a track on hip hop duo Gang Starr’s album “Moment of Truth,” which was released by Virgin Records in 1998.

Branson noted during his interview that his family got COVID-19 over Christmas.

“Fortunately we were vaccinated and boosted and therefore none of us got it badly,” he said.

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The new findings conform with the most recent scientific models of human evolution placing the emergence of Homo sapiens sometime between 350,000 to 200,000 years ago

Volcanic ash left over from a huge ancient eruption has helped scientists determine that important early Homo sapiens fossils found in Ethiopia in 1967 are older than previously believed, providing fresh insight into the dawn of our species.

Researchers said on Wednesday they used the geochemical fingerprints of a thick layer of ash found above the sediments containing the fossils to ascertain that it resulted from an eruption that spewed volcanic fallout over a wide swathe of Ethiopia roughly 233,000 years ago.

Because the fossils were located beneath this ash, they predated the eruption, the researchers said, although by how many years remains unclear. It previously was believed the fossils were no more than about 200,000 years old.

The fossils, called Omo I, were discovered in southwestern Ethiopia in a region called the Omo Kibish geological formation during an expedition led by the late paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey. They include a rather complete cranial vault and lower jaw, some vertebrae and parts of the arms and legs.

Scientists have sought greater clarity about the timing of our species’ origins in Africa. The new findings conform with the most recent scientific models of human evolution placing the emergence of Homo sapiens sometime between 350,000 to 200,000 years ago, said University of Cambridge volcanologist Celine Vidal, lead author of the study published in the journal Nature.

Research published in 2017 showed that bones and teeth discovered at a site called Jebel Irhoud in Morocco were more than 300,000 years old, representing the earliest fossils attributed to Homo sapiens. Some scientists have questioned whether those fossils genuinely belong to our species.

The Jebel Irhoud remains “do not possess some of the key morphological features that define our species. They particularly lack a tall and globular cranial vault and a chin on the lower jaw, which can be observed on Omo I,” said paleoanthropologist Aurelien Mounier of the French research agency CNRS and Musee de l’Homme in Paris, a co-author of the new study.

“Omo I is the oldest Homo sapiens with unequivocal modern human traits,” University of Cambridge volcanologist and study co-author Clive Oppenheimer added. The volcanic ash layer defied previous efforts to calculate its age because its grains were too fine for scientific dating methods. The researchers determined the ash’s geochemical composition and compared that with other volcanic remnants in the region. They found it matched a light and porous volcanic rock called pumice created during the eruption of Shala volcano about 370 km away. They then were able to date the pumice to determine when the eruption happened.

“I think what is important is to bear in mind is that the study of human evolution is always in motion: boundaries and timelines change as our understanding improves,” Vidal said. “But these fossils show just how resilient humans are: that we survived, thrived and migrated in an area that was so prone to natural disasters.”

While the study resolved the minimum age of the fossils, their maximum age remains a mystery. There also is an ash layer below the sediment containing the fossils that has not yet been dated. This date would set the maximum age of the fossils.

“It’s probably no coincidence that our earliest ancestors lived in such a geologically active rift valley – it collected rainfall in lakes, providing fresh water and attracting animals, and served as a natural migration corridor stretching thousands of kilometers,” Vidal said. “The volcanoes provided fantastic materials to make stone tools, and from time to time we had to develop our cognitive skills when large eruptions transformed the landscape.”

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Many of her colleagues thought that her work deserved a Nobel Prize, and she was twice nominated.

Written by Katharine Q. Seelye

Dr. Beatrice Mintz, a cancer researcher whose many groundbreaking discoveries included the crucial finding that certain cancerous cells could be tamed by contact with normal neighboring cells, without the use of harsh treatments like chemotherapy and radiation, died January 3 at her home in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. She was 100.

The cause was heart failure after a long battle with dementia, said Bob Spallone, her executor and a colleague at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, where Dr. Mintz was on staff for more than 60 years.

Mintz was an embryologist whose work spanned a number of disciplines, and her pioneering contributions have proved essential in helping researchers unravel some of the complexities of how cancer operates.

“She made foundational discoveries and revolutionized many tools and techniques of molecular biology that paved the way for tremendous progress in our understanding of cancer,” Margaret Foti, chief executive of the American Association for Cancer Research, said in a statement.

Mintz’s experiments drew attention as early as 1964, shortly after she joined the Institute for Cancer Research, now part of Fox Chase.

Among her early notable achievements was her work in 1968 in which she bred “multi-mice,” that is, mice with two fathers and two mothers. She took cells from a pair of white mice and cells from a pair of dark mice and implanted them in a surrogate mother mouse. The offspring came out striped — a clear expression of genetic characteristics that would enable scientists to study genes in a way that had not been possible before.

In another important experiment, she introduced foreign DNA into mouse embryos. This “transgenic” technology enabled scientists to create genetically tailored mice, an invaluable tool that helped transform biomedical research.

“That simple experiment was the granddaddy of every mouse cancer model that we have,” Dr. Jonathan Chernoff, director of the Fox Chase Cancer Center, said in an interview.

Perhaps her most far-reaching finding was her demonstration in 1968 that certain deadly cancer cells could be inserted into mouse embryos and, to everyone’s astonishment, a normal mouse would develop. It was not that the neighboring cells killed the cancer cells; rather, they somehow instructed the cancer cells to revert to a benign state and then contributed to making a normal mouse.

“This was revolutionary,” Chernoff said. “The implications were that tumors were not always autonomous, that they were in constant dialogue with the cells around them, and they responded to their environment,” which could either make the cancer worse or keep it in check.

This suggested that the neighboring tissue could help tame tumor cells more gently than radiation or chemotherapy. Drugs designed to mimic these normalizing effects are now part of many cancer therapy regimens.

An elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, Mintz won numerous prestigious prizes and awards. They included the National Medal of Honor for Basic Research by the American Cancer Society, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association for Cancer Research and the first March of Dimes Prize in developmental biology, which she shared with Ralph L. Brinster, in 1996.

Many of her colleagues thought that her work deserved a Nobel Prize, and she was twice nominated. John R. Durant, the former president of Fox Chase, told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1986 that she probably would have won “if she had been a better politician.”

Mintz was notorious for having a demanding personality and for setting exacting standards that few others could meet.

At one point she was thinking about contributing to an endowed chair in her name that would be reserved for a female scientist, she told Chernoff, but then added that she couldn’t think of anyone who would qualify.

“She was a throwback to an earlier type of independent solo artist,” Chernoff said. “She did everything herself, built her own equipment, injected microscopic mouse eggs herself, and she personally looked after all her mice, which was probably for the better because she would notice key details that might otherwise have escaped detection.”

On the rare occasion when she would take on assistants or postdoctoral fellows, she would show them a map of the neighborhood, draw a one-mile-wide circle with her lab in the center and instruct them to live within the circle; they had to be readily available.

Despite a reputation for prickliness, she could also be generous. When a colleague brought his 7-year-old daughter to work one day, Mintz took the girl aside and talked to her for two hours about how she became a scientist, which was almost by accident.

Beatrice Mintz was born on Jan. 24, 1921, in the Bronx, the youngest of four children. Her parents, Samuel and Janie (Stein) Mintz, had migrated first to London and then to New York from the small town of Mikulintsy, which was part of Austrian Galicia and is now part of Ukraine. In New York, her father worked for a time in the garment industry as a presser, ironing clothes.

Beatrice, known as Bea, skipped some grades in school and went to Hunter College, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year. She was planning to study art history but then took a biology course, liked her teacher and became so intrigued with the subject that she majored in it. She graduated magna cum laude in 1941. She studied for a year at New York University, then did her graduate work at the University of Iowa, where she earned her master’s degree in 1944 and a doctorate in 1946.

Her first job was as an instructor in the department of biological sciences at the University of Chicago from 1946 to 1960. During that time, she studied in France on a Fulbright fellowship. But she preferred doing basic research to teaching and in 1960 transferred to Fox Chase, where she remained on the faculty until her death. She also served as an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

She had no immediate survivors. Spallone, her executor, said in an interview that she left her estate to research organizations.

Mintz remained an art enthusiast. While in France, she bought several signed Picasso prints and hung them in her homes (she had two apartments, one close to her lab). She also wrote poetry, mostly about mice, but felt the poems were not good enough for public consumption, so she kept them in a desk drawer.

She had one of her first “multi-mice” stuffed by a taxidermist, as a kind of trophy. But the taxidermist had put it in a stalking pose that she felt was unnatural. It also went into a desk drawer.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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What is a planet and why can’t Pluto be one? And does the debate have anything to do with an American discovering Pluto? All your questions answered.

Written by Aniket Sule

Recently, an article appeared in the research journal Icarus, trying to find a new reason to attack the definition of planets and argue for the promotion of Pluto again. The researchers also note that several satellites, including our Moon, can be upgraded to planetary status.

To understand this confusion, let me rewind first and introduce the context.

I was a young PhD student when I attended the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU-GA) at Prague in 2006. I had no clue that I would have a ringside seat to a historical decision. In this assembly, a committee appointed by the IAU presented a draft definition of the word “planet”, reclassifying Pluto as a ‘dwarf planet’, and all hell broke loose.

So what is a planet?

About 3,000 years back, Babylonians realised that some of the brightest dots in the night sky don’t remain attached to a given star pattern (i.e. constellation) but move along a narrow circular band. The Sun and the Moon also move in the same band. Thus, these seven moving bodies (i.e. Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) were called planetai (meaning wandering objects) by ancient Greeks. Over the next 2000 years, all civilisations tracked motions of these seven ‘planets’.

With discoveries of Galileo, Copernichus and Kepler, it became clear that the Sun is in fact a star and is (almost) at the centre of what we now call as the solar system. Hence, the Sun was removed from the list and the Earth (which was going around the Sun like other planets) was added to the list.

Subsequently, two more giant planets, Uranus (1781) and Neptune (1846) were discovered. Between 1800-1840, four small bodies were also discovered to lie between Mars and Jupiter. All these were dubbed as planets.

After 1840, it was shown that there are too many small bodies between Mars and Jupiter’s orbit that are orbiting the Sun. They were relabelled as ‘minor planets’ / ‘asteroids’, and the four original bodies from the asteroid belt, including Ceres, lost their ‘planet’ status.

For the next 80 odd years, the settled number of planets in the solar system was eight.

Enter Pluto!

In 1930, we discovered another body which was beyond Neptune’s orbit. This was the first ‘planet’ discovered in the era of mass media (newspapers, radio) and also the first planet discovered by an American astronomer.

It caught the imagination of the general public. With a lot of fanfare, it was named Pluto. All the TV and radio shows, including Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, the classic astronomy books we grew up reading, even the American space probes Pioneer 10 and 11’s iconic golden plates show this picture of the solar system with nine planets.

The trouble for Pluto started brewing in the 1990s as we started discovering more bodies with orbits overlapping that of Pluto’s. Was the Asteroid belt story repeating itself? Was there another belt of minor bodies beyond Neptune (as predicted by Kuiper)?

In 2003, American astronomer Mike Brown and his colleagues discovered a body (now known as Eris), which was decidedly bigger than Pluto and we could no longer duck several questions

*How many planets are exactly out there?
*Should we say nine, including Pluto?
*But then what about Eris? Should we say 10?
*But who is to guarantee that there is no number 11 or 12, or even number 20 within the same belt?
*Should we dethrone Pluto as Ceres was dethroned 150 years back and go back to eight planets?
*Should this be an arbitrary / case-by-case decision or can there be an objective way to define a planet?

IAU appointed a committee of astronomers, headed by American astrophysicist and historian of science Owen Gingerich, to find answers to these questions. This committee submitted its recommendations to the general assembly in Prague that I mentioned earlier.

As per their recommendations, any body “going around any star, spherical in shape and not itself a star” should be called a planet. This would have kept Pluto as a planet, upgraded Ceres back to the planet status and added Eris and Charon to the list of planets.

About 70 per cent of the astronomers attending the general assembly strongly disagreed with almost each piece of this definition.

Some pointed out that there are likely to be planetary sized spherical bodies lurking in the galaxy which are not orbiting any star. Some argued that we don’t understand the physics of planetary sizes well enough, while some argued that this definition meant that the list of planets in the solar system would keep increasing each year, eventually even crossing 100.

Some even alleged that the committee had pre-decided that the only ‘planet’ discovered by an American (i.e. Pluto) must remain a planet and only considered definitions which satisfied that mandate.

So what is the acceptable definition of a planet?

Realising a widespread disapproval for the proposed definition, IAU appealed to the astronomers present to hold discussions within themselves and come up with an acceptable definition.

In these discussions, it was agreed that instead of a universal definition of planet, one should only focus on planets in our solar system. That way, one could keep aside controversial issues such as planetoids without stars and an upper limit on the size of a planet. It was also agreed that Kuiper belt objects, including Pluto, Charon and Eris, should be treated in the same way as the Ceres and other asteroid belt objects were treated.

With these principles in mind, the following definition of the word ‘planet’ was proposed.
A planet is a body in our solar system that
(a) Orbits around the Sun without orbiting any other planetary body
(b) Is of a spherical shape
(c) Would have cleared its orbit

The bodies which satisfy the first two criteria but not the third one were dubbed as ‘dwarf planets’. This definition ensures that the number of dwarf planets may keep increasing but the number of planets is unlikely to increase drastically.

Obviously, several American astronomers have been unhappy about this demotion of Pluto. Owen Gingerich kept bringing up this ‘unfair’ treatment of Pluto in several public talks and articles for a number of years.

One year before this general assembly, NASA had launched ‘New Horizons’ mission to flyby Pluto in 2015. The New Horizons team, including the Principle Investigator of the mission Alan Stern, was dismayed by the new definition. Alan Stern is one of the authors of the new paper that wants Pluto back as a planet.

In hindsight, how would we look at the debate that happened in 2006 and the compromises that were reached? Certainly it is not a perfect definition. With Kepler mission data, we now know that the issue of uncertainties about upper limit on planetary mass was probably an overcautious stance. The ‘clearing the orbit’ criterion is also not as straightforward as people thought then. As you go in the outer reaches of the solar system, orbital periods become longer and hence even Neptune-size bodies may get classified as ‘dwarf planets’.

We don’t know for sure what the final number of planets in the solar system is going to be. Even now, some astronomers are looking for bodies bigger than Earth beyond the Kuiper belt. But we know for sure that the current way of classifying the planets is the least bad of all options.

— The author is an Associate Professor at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE-TIFR), Mumbai.

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The fossils are so well preserved that the paleontologists were able to observe relationships between species — something that is often difficult to parse from fossil sites.

Written by Jack Tamisiea

Australia’s Central Tablelands, hundreds of miles northwest of Sydney, are dominated today by grasses and spindly trees. But scientists recently discovered that some of the area’s rusted rocks conceal traces of the lush rainforests that covered the area 15 million years ago during the Miocene Epoch.

The area, McGraths Flat, is not Australia’s only Miocene deposit, but these new fossils are a paleontological boon because of their exquisite preservation. Over the past three years, paleontologists have excavated flowers, insects and even a bird’s wispy feather.

The scientists’ discoveries, published Friday in the journal Science Advances, help reconstruct Australia’s Miocene rainforest in extensive detail, and the site “opens a whole new area of exploration for Australian paleontology,” said Scott Hocknull, a paleontologist at Queensland Museum who was not involved in the research.

Fifteen million years ago, a river carved through the jungle, leaving an oxbow lake (known as a billabong in Australia) in its wake at McGraths Flat. Nearly devoid of oxygen, this stagnant pool kept scavengers at bay, allowing plant material and animal carcasses to accumulate. As iron-rich runoff from nearby basalt mountains seeped into the billabong, the pool’s low pH caused the iron to precipitate and encase the organic material. As a result, the fossils at McGraths Flat are preserved in a dense, iron-rich rock known as goethite.

This method of fossilization is uncommon, Hocknull said. Because quality fossils are rarely found in igneous rocks, paleontologists often overlook them. However, the fossils from McGraths Flat illustrate that goethite, which is common in Australia, can yield remarkable fossils.

Read more |Car-sized millipedes once roamed Northern England, fossil find shows

“There’s no shortage of goethite,” Hocknull said. “We’re essentially a rusting country.”

Because of their iron-tinted origins, many of the fossils from McGraths Flat glimmer with a metallic sheen. In addition to pristine plants, the goethite is crawling with fossilized insects. As they split apart the brick-colored slabs of stone, researchers have discovered a miniature menagerie of giant cicadas, dragonflies and parasitic wasps. And many are remarkably preserved — some ancient flies sport the detailed imprints of their compound eyes.

The site has also yielded more than a dozen archaic arachnids. While insects have sturdy exoskeletons, Michael Frese, a virus expert and paleontologist at the University of Canberra and a co-author of the study, likens spiders to “squishy bags of liquid.” As a result, Australia’s fossil record of spiders was nearly nonexistent before McGraths Flat.

The fossils are so well preserved that the paleontologists were able to observe relationships between species — something that is often difficult to parse from fossil sites, according to Matthew McCurry, curator of paleontology at the Australian Museum and the study’s lead author. For example, the team observed parasites fastened to a fish’s tail and a nematode that had infiltrated a longhorn beetle.

Frese utilized an electron microscope and microphotography techniques to examine the rainforest’s inhabitants. While imaging a fossilized sawfly, Frese discovered a clump of pollen on the beelike insect’s head.

“We can tell which flower was visited by this particular sawfly before it fell into the water and met its untimely end,” Frese said. “That would not be possible if the quality of preservation was not as high.”

The pollen also revealed that the rainforest was surrounded by drier environments, making it likely that McGraths Flat represents a remnant patch of a once larger forest. According to McCurry, this makes sense considering the climatic trends of the Miocene.

When these insects scurried around the iron-tainted billabong, Australia was drifting northward, away from Antarctica. As it traveled, its climate drastically dried out, causing the rainforests to retract and leading to widespread extinctions.

The researchers believe McGraths Flat offers an intimate glimpse of how this dramatic climate transition affected particular species within the rainforest ecosystem. For instance, some insects found at McGraths Flat endured drier conditions while others are now found only in northern Australia’s remnant pockets of rainforest.

“Studying these fossil ecosystems, we can see which species were better able to adapt to those changes,” McCurry said. “We can potentially predict which are most at risk in terms of future changes.”

Frese said that McGraths Flat was particularly useful for reconstructing ancient ecosystems because of the breadth of species it preserved.

“Our site is different because it’s all small fossils, but in the end, I think it will tell us more about what has happened in the ecosystem,” he said. “You do not need to find a 1-ton terror bird to tell this story.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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Consisting of 18 hexagonal segments of gold-plated beryllium metal, the primary mirror measures 21 feet 4 inches (6.5 m) in diameter.

NASA on Wednesday embarked on a months-long, painstaking process of bringing its newly launched James Webb Space Telescope into focus, a task due for completion in time for the revolutionary eye in the sky to begin peering into the cosmos by early summer.

Mission control engineers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, began by sending their initial commands to tiny motors called actuators that slowly position and fine-tune the telescope’s principal mirror.

Consisting of 18 hexagonal segments of gold-plated beryllium metal, the primary mirror measures 21 feet 4 inches (6.5 m) in diameter – a much larger light-collecting surface than Webb’s predecessor, the 30-year-old Hubble Space Telescope.

The 18 segments, which had been folded together to fit inside the cargo bay of the rocket that carried the telescope to space, were unfurled with the rest of its structural components during a two-week period following Webb’s launch on December 25.

Those segments must now be detached from fasteners that held them in place for the launch and then moved forward half an inch from their original configuration – a 10-day process – before they can be aligned to form a single, unbroken, light-collecting surface.

The alignment will take an additional three months, Lee Feinberg, the Webb optical telescope element manager at Goddard, told Reuters by telephone.

Aligning the primary mirror segments to form one large mirror means each segment “is aligned to one-five-thousandth the thickness of a human hair”, Feinberg said. “All of this required us to invent things that had never been done before,” such as the actuators, which were built to move incrementally at -400 Fahrenheit (-240 Celsius) in the vacuum of space, he added.

The telescope’s smaller, secondary mirror, designed to direct light collected from the primary lens into Webb’s camera and other instruments, must also be aligned to operate as part of a cohesive optical system. If all goes as planned, the telescope should be ready to capture its first science images in May, which would be processed over about another month before they can be released to the public, Feinberg said.

The $9-billion telescope, described by NASA as the premier space-science observatory of the next decade, will mainly view the cosmos in the infrared spectrum, allowing it to gaze through clouds of gas and dust where stars are being born. Hubble has operated primarily at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths.

Webb is about 100 times more powerful than Hubble, enabling it to observe objects at greater distances, thus farther back in time, than Hubble or any other telescope. Astronomers say this will bring into view a glimpse of the cosmos never previously seen – dating to just 100 million years after the Big Bang, the theoretical flashpoint that set in motion the expansion of the observable universe an estimated 13.8 billion years ago. The telescope is an international collaboration led by NASA in partnership with the European and Canadian space agencies. Northrop Grumman Corp was the primary contractor.

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By comparing the piece with ancient forms of chess, the researchers note that the piece appears to be a horse or a knight.

Archaeologists from the Norwegian Institute of Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) have found a small medieval chess piece during an excavation at the Anders Madsens Gate in Tønsberg.

They found it in a house that dates to the 13th century. But what fascinated the researchers more was the Arabian pattern on it. “The design of the piece has an abstract shape and is designed according to Islamic tradition, where no human figures are to be depicted,” said the project manager for the excavation, Lars Haugesten, in a release.

The piece, 30 mm in height with a diameter of 26 mm, is made of antler and is decorated with several dotted circles. “No previous archaeological finds from Tønsberg have such details, which emphasises that this chess piece is a unique object,” added Haugesten.

“The oldest find in the Nordic region is from Lund, Sweden, dating back to the last half of the 12th century. That piece is similar to the find from Tønsberg.”

By comparing the piece with ancient forms of chess, the researchers note that the piece appears to be a horse or a knight. “In Norway, some chess pieces from the Middle Ages have been found but (only) few similar knights. For example, in Bergen, more than 1,000 gaming pieces have been found. Of these, there are some chess pieces but only 6 abstract knights,” says Haugesten.

During the excavation, in addition to the chess piece, the archaeologists found ceramics, metal, combs and antlers. Several houses and streets were also discovered.

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The images were taken as a part of the Physics at High Angular resolution in Nearby GalaxieS (PHANGS) project.

The European Southern Observatory’s picture of this week looks like a mouthwatering caramel nest. The image is of the NGC 1300 spiral galaxy, located about 61 million light-years from Earth. It was created using data collected by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and the Very Large Telescope (VLT) located in Chile.

The image shows a bar of stars and gas along with a central ring which shows an intense star formation.

“The image is a combination of observations conducted at different colours — or wavelengths — of light. The golden caramel glow corresponds to clouds of molecular gas, the raw material out of which stars form,” said ESO in a release.

The images were taken as a part of the Physics at High Angular resolution in Nearby GalaxieS (PHANGS) project. The project aims to make high-resolution observations of nearby galaxies using several telescopes, including the ALMA, VLT, Hubble and the newly-launched James Webb Space Telescope.

The different telescopes will help observe the nearby galaxies at different wavelengths. “Different wavelengths can reveal a multitude of secrets about a galaxy and by comparing them astronomers are able to study what activates, boosts, or hinders the birth of new stars,” adds the release.


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Ichthyosaurs, fish-shaped marine reptiles that resemble whales and dolphins, first appeared about 250 million years ago.

Written by Neil Vigdor

At the bottom of a lagoon at a nature reserve in England, a secret lay dormant for millenniums, hidden by mud, water and ice.

Only recently had the fossilized remains been found, a throwback to when dinosaurs ruled the Earth and gigantic marine reptiles, colloquially referred to as “sea dragons,” marauded the oceans.

This was not just any old find: The remains of the sea creature, an ichthyosaur, were the largest ever discovered of that type in Britain, those involved in a now-complete excavation project announced on Monday. They said it was also one of the largest and most complete skeletons of an ichthyosaur (pronounced IK-thee-uh-sor) found anywhere in the world.

The skeleton is from the early Jurassic Period about 180 million years ago and measures about 10 meters (more than 30 feet), they said. It might never have been unearthed if the lagoon hadn’t been drained as part of a landscaping project.

The fossil was found in 2021 at the Rutland Water Nature Reserve in England’s East Midlands, a landlocked reservoir about 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of London that is known for attracting water fowl and other birds.

Joe Davis, a conservation team leader at Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust, said on Monday that he first encountered the fossil last February as he plodded through the mud in his waders with a colleague.

“We sort of looked at it and scratched our heads,” Davis recounted in an interview. “I realized it might be something from the dinosaur era. We could see these ridges and bumps. That’s when alarm bells started to ring.”

Davis, 48, took photographs of the fossil and contacted the Rutland County Council, which connected him with a geology curator at the University of Leicester, who referred him to Dean R. Lomax, a paleontologist specializing in the study of ichthyosaurs.

“I immediately recognized them as ichthyosaur vertebrae,” Lomax, the head of the excavation project, said on Monday. “He had found this so serendipitously.”

Ichthyosaurs, fish-shaped marine reptiles that resemble whales and dolphins, first appeared about 250 million years ago, according to Lomax, who said that they were apex predators that likely feasted on other ichthyosaurs, fish, another reptile known as a plesiosaur and ammonites, a kind of mollusk. They disappeared about 90 million years ago and overlapped with dinosaurs, he said.

“They had these big eyes, big teeth,” he said. “A lot of people tend to go back to the old days and call them sea dragons.”

From the photos, Lomax said, he could not tell whether the specimen was an entire skeleton or just fragments like many of those that had been discovered over the centuries in England. He needed to see it for himself.

So about two weeks later, he said, he led a one-day, mini-excavation to the nature reserve with four paleontologists.

“We were all blown away by it,” said Lomax, 32, a visiting scientist at the University of Manchester.

But the conditions at the nature reserve didn’t lend themselves to a full-scale excavation. The lagoon was frozen and would eventually need to be refilled with water so as not to disturb the natural habitat, according to Lomax, who said that the paleontologists covered the skeleton with plastic sheets and mud until they could return.

“As an expert, I was itching to get there and excavate it,” he said. “We had a bunch of migratory birds there as well. We had to wait for them to leave.”

In August, a team of experts that included Lomax returned to the site for several weeks to excavate the skeleton, taking daily tests for the coronavirus and signing nondisclosure agreements saying that they would keep the discovery a secret.

“The skull weighs over a ton,” said Davis, who made the initial discovery and whose son kidded that the skeleton was from the “Joe-rassic” era.

To protect the skeleton as it was hoisted from the ground, it was wrapped in plaster, which Davis and Lomax likened to molding a cast for broken bones. Lomax lay down on the ground next to the excavated skeleton to show its size.

Davis said it was fortunate that the skeleton was not damaged when the lagoon was initially excavated 12 years earlier.

“They must have been inches away when they originally constructed the lagoon,” he said.

It could take 18 to 24 months to preserve the skeleton and remove the rock from the bones, according to Lomax, who said those involved in the project hoped to display the specimen in the Rutland area. Skeletal remains of ichthyosaurs have more typically been found along the Jurassic Coast in southern England, he said.

After the skeleton was removed from the ground, it was taken by trucks to the laboratory of Nigel Larkin, the project’s co-leader, which Lomax said was about a 2.5-hour drive from Rutland. The main body section was too large to fit inside a truck, so it was loaded onto a trailer — not that other drivers would have noticed. It was wrapped.

Said Lomax, “It would have given people a good scare.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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Biologists say big cats on the Olympic Peninsula have lower genetic diversity than the rest of Washington state as they are hemmed in by Interstate 5 and cut off from natural breeding partners in the Cascade mountains.

Howling hounds picked up a cougar’s scent and led researchers deep into the forest, where the steep hills were covered with cedars and ferns dusted with snow. The dogs chased Lilu, an 82-pound (37-kg) cougar whose collar needed a new battery, up a tree. After being plunked by a tranquilizer dart, the groggy cat climbed down and went to sleep. The team was able to swap her collar, examine Lilu, and then inject her with a drug to wake her.

It was part of a day’s work for the Olympic Cougar Project, a partnership between a coalition of Native American tribes, a renowned cougar expert, and the Washington Department of Transportation.

The project could lead to placing highway crossings so wandering cougars – also known as mountain lions and pumas – can find new places to breed, improving the wider environment. The same species of cat prowls terrain from Canada to Tierra del Fuego.

“Without a doubt, mountain lions increase the health of ecosystems,” said Mark Elbroch, one of the world’s leading cougar experts with Panthera, a wildcat conservation group that is part of the Olympic Cougar Project.

When a cougar kills a large mammal like a deer or elk, it cannot eat the whole carcass. In the Olympic Peninsula, the apex predator leaves behind a meal for golden eagles, bald eagles, ravens, crows and other birds; mammals such as bear, weasels, bobcats, and coyotes; and a range of invertebrates including all kinds of beetles.

Like bears, cougars claw salmon out of rivers, helping fertilise plant species in the woods. The Lower Elwha Klallam, Skokomish, Makah, Quinault, Jamestown S’Klallam and the Port Gamble S’Klallam tribes in the Olympic Peninsula are lending their traditional knowledge to the project, along with the modern expertise of wildlife biologists.

“As an indigenous person, we are taught that we have to walk in two worlds, one of our traditional sense and one of the modern day sense,” said Vanessa Castle, a Lower Elwha Klallam tribal member who works for the project. “I think it changes the way these scientists think about these animals.”

Biologists say big cats on the Olympic Peninsula have lower genetic diversity than the rest of Washington state as they are hemmed in by Interstate 5 and cut off from natural breeding partners in the Cascade mountains.

Part of figuring out where to build a wildlife crossing – a practice used in habitat conservation – involves tracking the cougars by fitting them with GPS collars that provide a wealth of useful data. Lilu is among about 60 collared cougars on the peninsula. There is no consenus on the total population of the elusive, wide-ranging animals.

“The collaring piece gives us information that we just could not get in any other way,” said Kim Sager-Fradkin, a wildlife biologist hired by the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.

Some 100,000 cars travel along I-5 each day, blocking cougars and other wildlife from crossing to the other side of the freeway.

“It is likely one of the worst barriers for all species in the state,” said Glen Kalisz, a habitat connectivity biologist with the Washington state Department of Transportation.

In Southern California, transit authorities are soon to break ground on a wildlife crossing over U.S. Highway 101, used by 350,000 cars a day, in one of the last remaining areas where there is natural habitat on both sides of the freeway.

As with the Washington project, the aim is to improve cougars’ genetic diversity.Both the California crossing and the Washington I-5 project are learning from one of the largest such undertakings, along a corridor of I-90 further north in Washington, which is about halfway through building 26 wildlife crossings along 15 miles (24 km) of the highway.

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Though humans have modified the South Indian rock agama's natural habitat, “they seem to cope well with the drastically altered conditions of city life,” says Dr. Mohanty.

Where an animal chooses to sleep can be the difference between life and death in the wild. By studying peninsular rock agamas (Psammophilus dorsalis) in Bangalore city and surrounding rural areas, researchers have found remarkable behavioural flexibility in city agamas in response to the stressor of artificial light. The city dwellers were nine times more likely to use covered sleep sites that limit illumination, compared to lizards in rural areas.

The team saw that both populations preferred sleep sites that are rocky and warm. “Sleeping animals are vulnerable to predators and even harsh climatic conditions. A suboptimal sleep site can, for example, be uncomfortably cold, especially for ectotherms (cold-blooded) like lizards,” says first author Nitya Prakash Mohanty from the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The findings were published last month in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.

Why should we study where animals sleep?

Dr. Mohanty explains that examining sleep site characteristics in terms of structure (e.g., type of substrate, perch height), temperature profile (of the substrate in relation to other available but unused sleep sites), and light conditions can yield valuable insights into why animals choose specific sleep sites. “They tell us if the choice of sleep site is driven more by a certain ecological factor (predation) than others,” he adds.

‘Cope well with city life’

Though humans have modified the South Indian rock agama’s natural habitat consisting of rocks and boulders to urban structures, “they seem to cope well with the drastically altered conditions of city life, via a slew of behavioural (as in this study) and physiological ways,” says Dr. Mohanty.

Previous studies from the research group have shown that lizards from urban areas learn faster to choose safe refuges during the day, can respond to higher stress better, and also show changes to their limb lengths that enable them to better use urban surfaces.

The team has now planned to quantitatively compare the sleep duration between rural and urban rock agamas, to see if sleep is hampered or of poorer quality in cities, despite behavioural modifications.

Also read: Lizards are friendly creatures with happy eyes and a positive outlook

“Broadly, we want to understand how sleep responds to a changing world and plan to evaluate sleep ecology (combining behaviour, physiology, and neurology) in response to urbanisation, biological invasions, and climate change,” concludes Dr. Mohanty.

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Showing that a fish has the cognitive capability to navigate outside its natural environment of water can expand scientific knowledge of animals' essential navigation skills.

Goldfish are capable of navigating on land, Israeli researchers have found, after training fish to drive. The team at Ben-Gurion University developed an FOV – a fish-operated vehicle. The robotic car is fitted with lidar, a remote sensing technology that uses pulsed laser light to collect data on the vehicle’s ground location and the fish’s whereabouts inside a mounted water tank.

A computer, camera, electric motors and omni-wheels give the fish control of the vehicle. “Surprisingly, it doesn’t take the fish a long time to learn how to drive the vehicle. They’re confused at first. They don’t know what’s going on but they’re very quick to realise that there is a correlation between their movement and the movement of the machine that they’re in,” said researcher Shachar Givon.

Six goldfish, each receiving around 10 driving lessons, took part in the study. Each time one of them reached a target set by the researchers, it was rewarded with food. And some goldfish are better drivers than others.

“There were very good fish that were doing excellent and there were mediocre fish that showed control of the vehicle but were less proficient in driving it,” said biology professor and neuroscientist Ronen Segev.

Showing that a fish has the cognitive capability to navigate outside its natural environment of water can expand scientific knowledge of animals’ essential navigation skills.

“We humans think of ourselves as very special and many think of fish as primitive but this is not correct,” said Segev. “There are other very important and very smart creatures.”

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“There’s a huge amount of diversity over 1 square centimeter of your face,” said Arolyn Conwill, a postdoctoral researcher who is the study’s lead author.

Written by Veronique Greenwood

Your skin is home to a thousand kinds of bacteria, and the ways they contribute to healthy skin are still largely mysterious. This mystery may be getting even more complex: In a paper published Thursday in the journal Cell Host & Microbe, researchers studying the many varieties of Cutibacterium acnes bacteria on 16 human volunteers found that each pore was a world unto itself. Every pore contained just a single type of C. acnes.

C. acnes is naturally occurring, and the most abundant bacteria on skin. Its link to acne, the skin disease, is not clear, said Tami Lieberman, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an author of the new paper. If biologists want to unpack the relationship between your face’s inhabitants and its health, it will be an important step to understand whether varying strains of C. acnes have their own talents or niches, and how the strains are distributed across your skin.

Why do multiple strains of the same species coexist in a microbiome?

For C. acnes, we find that skin pores play a surprising – and genotype agnostic – role in maintaining diversity.

🧵Delighted to share our latest preprint, led by @arolynconwill.

— Tami Lieberman (@conTaminatedsci) May 17, 2021

To collect their samples, Lieberman and her colleagues used commercially available nose strips and old-fashioned squeezing with a tool called a comedone extractor. They then smeared samples, each a bit like a microscopic glacial core, from within pores on Petri dishes. They did the same with samples from toothpicks rubbed across the surface of participants’ foreheads, cheeks and backs, which picked up bacteria living on the skin’s surface rather than in the pores. They allowed the bacteria to grow, then sequenced their DNA to identify them.

Each person’s skin had a unique combination of strains, but what surprised the researchers most was that each pore housed a single variety of C. acnes. The pores were different from their neighbors, too — there was no clear pattern uniting the pores of the left cheek or forehead across the volunteers, for instance.

What’s more, judging from the sequencing data, the bacteria within each pore were essentially identical.

“There’s a huge amount of diversity over 1 square centimeter of your face,” said Arolyn Conwill, a postdoctoral researcher who is the study’s lead author. “But within a single one of your pores, there’s a total lack of diversity.”

What the scientists think is happening is that each pore contains descendants of a single individual. Pores are deep, narrow crannies with oil-secreting glands at the bottom, Lieberman said. If a C. acnes cell manages to get down there, it may proliferate until it fills the pore with copies of itself.

This would also explain why strains that don’t grow very quickly manage to avoid being outcompeted by speedier strains on the same person. They’re not competing with each other; they’re living side by side in their own walled gardens.

Intriguingly, these gardens are not very old, the scientists think. They estimate that the founding cells in the pores they studied took up residence only about one year before.

What happened to the bacteria that previously lived there? The researchers don’t know — perhaps they were destroyed by the immune system, fell prey to viruses or were unceremoniously yanked out by a nose strip, clearing the way for new founders.

Lieberman said the finding has implications for microbiome research more broadly. Taking a simple swab of someone’s skin would never hint at the complexity uncovered in this study, for instance. And as scientists consider the possibility of manipulating our microbiomes to help treat disease, the patterns uncovered in this study imply the need for information about the location and arrangement of microbes, not just their identities. In the future, should doctors hope to replace someone’s current skin inhabitants with others, they may need to clean out their pores first.

And could it be that another inhabitant on our faces plays a role in how each pore’s bacteria comes and goes?

“We have mites on our faces that live in pores and eat bacteria,” Lieberman said. What role they play in this ecosystem, as far as the maintenance of gardens of C. acnes, has yet to be determined.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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Just like humans, these little birds don't associate with each other randomly during the long winter months. They have specific individuals and/or groups they choose to be with.

Written by Ettore Camerlenghi and Anne Peters

One mystery many biologists want to solve is how complexity develops in nature. And among the many social systems in the natural world, multilevel societies stand out for their complexity. Individuals first organise into families, which are members of bands, which are organised into clans.

At each level, associations between components (individuals, families and clans) are structured and stable. In other words, individuals within families usually stay together, and families usually interact with other specific families in a predictable way, to form stable clans.

Such social organisation has probably characterised much of human evolution (and is still common among many hunter-gatherer societies around the world).

In fact, multilevel societies likely played a fundamental role in human history, by accelerating our cultural evolution. Organising into distinct social groups would have reduced the transmission of cultures and allowed for multiple traditions to coexist.

In our research, published today in Ecology Letters, we studied social behaviours in a wild population of superb fairy-wrens. We found these birds also organise into multilevel societies — a level of complexity once thought to be exclusive to big-brained mammals.

Cooperatively breeding birds

Although we have ideas about the advantages of multilevel societies, we know relatively little about how and why they form in the first place.

Of the few species known to live in multilevel societies, there is one characteristic shared among all. That is, they live in stable groups, in environments where food availability is inconsistent and difficult to predict.

This is also true for many cooperatively breeding birds, including the superb fairy-wren — familiar across southeastern Australia’s parks and gardens. They breed in small family groups, with non-breeding helpers assisting a dominant breeding pair. And this social system is common among Australian bird species.

The superb fairy-wren is a well-studied species and is beloved by Australians, even being crowned bird of the year in this year’s Guardian/BirdLife Australia poll.

These birds are notorious for their polyamorous approach to sex, despite being socially monogamous. Breeding pairs form exclusive social bonds, yet each partner will still mate with other individuals.

Our work now reveals this complex arrangement during the breeding season is just the tip of the iceberg.

Associating by choice

We tracked almost 200 birds over two years, by attaching different-coloured leg bands to each individual. We recorded the birds’ social associations and, from our observations, built a complex social network that let us determine the strength of each relationship.

We found that during the autumn and winter months, some breeding groups — (which include the breeding pair, one or more helpers and last summer’s offspring), stably associated with other breeding groups to form supergroups. And this was usually done with individuals they were genetically related with.

In turn, these supergroups associated with other supergroups and breeding groups on a daily basis, forming large communities. In the following spring, these communities split back into the original breeding groups inhabiting well-defined territories — only to join again next winter.

Just like humans, these little birds don’t associate with each other randomly during the long winter months. They have specific individuals and/or groups they choose to be with (but we’re currently not sure how they make this choice).

While it’s not yet clear why superb fairy-wrens form upper social units (supergroups and communities), we suspect this might allow individuals to exploit larger areas during winter, when food is scarce. It would also provide additional safety against predators, such as hawks and kookaburras.

This theory is supported by our literature study, which shows that multilevel societies are likely common among other Australian cooperatively breeding birds, such as the noisy and bell miners and striated thornbills.

Cooperative breeding is another strategy to deal with harsh condition such as food scarcity. So the conditions that favour cooperative breeding are the same as those that favour multilevel societies.

Multilevel societies in other animals

There are several other species which seem to have a similar social organisation. They include primates such as baboons, and other large mammals that exhibit rich animal cultures, such as killer whales, sperm whales and elephants.

For a long time, researchers thought living in complex societies might be how humans evolved large brains. They also thought this characteristic may be exclusive to mammals with large brains, since keeping track of many different social relationships is not easy (or so the reasoning went).

Consequently, other animals with whom we are less closely related have mostly been excluded from this field of investigation.

This might reflect a bias that we, humans, have towards our own species and species which are similar to us.

As it turns, you don’t need to be a mammal with a big brain to evolve complex multilevel societies. Even small-brained birds such as the tiny superb fairy-wren can do this — as well as the vulturine guineafowl a chicken-like bird from northeast Africa.

We strongly suspect quite a few birds will join their ranks in the coming years as more research is done.

–The authors are from Monash University

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Latest images showed that fragments of cored rock fell out of the sample tube during dropoff.

If you thought dust storms and tough terrains gave Mars rovers a hard time, here is more news – even a few pieces of pebble-sized debris can halt its functioning. On January 8, NASA tweeted that debris were obstructing the robotic arm from handing off the tube for sealing/storage.

Last month, the Perseverance rover successfully cored and extracted a sample from a Mars rock. While processing the rock samples, the rover’s sensors recorded resistance or drag. “This is only the 6th time in human history a sample has been cored from a rock on a planet other than Earth, so when we see something anomalous going on, we take it slow,” wrote Louise Jandura, Chief Engineer for Sampling and Caching at NASA/JPL, in a blog.

The team commanded the rover to take more images to study what happened and how it can be fixed. The latest images showed that fragments of cored rock fell out of the sample tube during dropoff. This prevented the bit from seating completely in the bit carousel.

“This is not the first curve Mars has thrown at us – just the latest. One thing we’ve found is that when the engineering challenge is hundreds of millions of miles away (Mars is currently 215 million miles from Earth), it pays to take your time and be thorough. We are going to do that here. So that when we do hit the unpaved Martian road again, Perseverance sample collection is also ready to roll,” adds Jandura.

Launched on July 30, 2020, the rover landed on the Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021. Its key objective is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. It will also collect rock and soil samples to be returned to Earth by a future NASA mission. In October, a device aboard the rover was able to produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere for the first time. Images sent by Perseverance have helped researchers confirm that Mars’ Jezero crater was once a lake.

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To solve the mystery the team re-created what is happening in their laboratory with the help of lasers.

written by Kenneth Chang

The head of a comet often glows green; the tail mostly does not. That includes Comet Leonard, which made its closest pass to the sun on Monday and is heading away again.

A team of scientists have now come up with a detailed explanation for this multi-chromatic behavior. The molecule responsible for the emerald hue gets blown apart by sunlight within a couple of days of being created near the comet’s core, leaving almost nothing to glow green in the tail.

“We showed exactly how that happens in the lab by using UV lasers, measuring exactly how the molecule blows apart,” said Timothy W. Schmidt, a professor of chemistry at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

As a comet — a clump of ices and dust — approaches the sun, it heats up and its ices turn to gas, producing a fuzzy atmosphere known as the coma. The atmosphere includes carbon-based molecules that are in turn bombarded with ultraviolet light from the sun, breaking it apart and stripping off outer pieces. That generates a simple but fragile molecule known as dicarbon, or C2 in chemical notation. It is two carbon atoms bonded together.

Scientists have known for the better part of a century that photons can knock dicarbon molecules into an excited state. Because of the quantum nature of the universe, an excited molecule reverts to its ground state by emitting a photon. For dicarbon, the photon is commonly one of green light. This explained the green color of comet comas. But the apparent dearth of dicarbon in the comet tails was something of a mystery.

So Schmidt re-created what is happening in their laboratory. To produce dicarbon, they started with molecules consisting of two carbon atoms and four chlorine atoms and used a laser to strip off the chlorines, leaving only dicarbon. Then they used another laser to break up the dicarbon, measuring exactly how much energy that required.

From that, they showed how the dicarbon molecules had to absorb two photons to be blown apart, and the lifetime of a dicarbon molecule bathed in sunlight is about 44 hours. In that time, the molecules might travel 80,000 miles or so — quite far. But comet tails can stretch millions of miles. Thus, there would be little or no dicarbon, and no green glow, there.

That largely fits with what has been observed in comets.

Schmidt’s team reported its findings last month in a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“What they’re doing is the ground work that is fundamental to explaining the observations,” said Anita Cochran, assistant director of the University of Texas’ McDonald Observatory who was not involved with the research. “Understanding carbon in the universe is pretty important since it is such a common species.”

William Jackson, an emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of California, Davis, lauded the work but said there was likely more to the story. He noted that a photograph of a comet included in the paper shows not only a green coma but also a slight tinge of green in the tail.

“I think this is a great example of the importance of doing laboratory measurements and combining with astronomical observations, and trying to understand what you see,” Jackson said.

But the bombarding sunlight likely produces additional dicarbon in the comet tails and knocks the molecules into a variety of excited states. “It’s a little too simple to say that you don’t see C2 in the tail,” Jackson said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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It was the solar wind that contributed to the most humidity of lunar soil as it brought hydrogen that makes up the water, the researchers said.

China’s Chang’e 5 lunar lander has found the first-ever on-site evidence of water on the surface of the moon, lending new evidence to the dryness of the satellite.

The study published on Saturday in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances revealed that the lunar soil at the landing site contains less than 120 parts-per-million (ppm) water or 120 grams water per ton, and a light, vesicular rock carries 180 ppm, which are much drier than that on Earth.

The presence of water had been confirmed by remote observation but the lander has now detected signs of water in rocks and soil.

A device on-board the lunar lander measured the spectral reflectance of the regolith and the rock and detected water on the spot for the first time.

The water content can be estimated since the water molecule or hydroxyl absorbs at a frequency of about three micrometers, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported, citing researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

It was the solar wind that contributed to the most humidity of lunar soil as it brought hydrogen that makes up the water, the researchers said.

The additional 60 ppm water in the rock may originate from the lunar interior, according to the researchers. Therefore, the rock is estimated to hail from an older, more humid basaltic unit before being ejected onto the landing site to be picked up by the lunar lander.

The study revealed that the moon had turned drier within a certain period, owing probably to the degassing of its mantle reservoir.

The Chang’e-5 spacecraft landed on one of the youngest mare basalts located at a mid-high latitude on the moon. It measured water on the spot and retrieved samples weighing 1,731 grams.

“The returned samples are a mixture of granules both on the surface and beneath. But an in-situ probe can measure the outermost layer of the lunar surface,” Lin Honglei, a researcher with the Institute of Geology and Geophysics under CAS, told Xinhua.

Lin also said that to simulate authentic lunar surface conditions on Earth is challenging, thus making the in-situ measurement so essential.

The results are consistent with a preliminary analysis of the returned Chang’e-5 samples, according to the study.

The findings provide more clues to China’s Chang’e-6 and Chang’e-7 missions. The investigations of lunar water reserves come into the limelight as the building of manned lunar stations are in the pipeline in the next decades, the report said.

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Webb should reach its destination 1.6 million kms away in another two weeks; it’s already more than 1 million kms from Earth since its Christmas Day launch. If all continues to go well, science observations will begin this summer.

NASA’s new space telescope opened its huge, gold-plated, flower-shaped mirror Saturday, the final step in the observatory’s dramatic unfurling.

The last portion of the 21-foot (6.5-meter) mirror swung into place at flight controllers’ command, completing the unfolding of the James Webb Space Telescope.

“I’m emotional about it. What an amazing milestone. We see that beautiful pattern out there in the sky now,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, chief of NASA’s science missions.

More powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope, the $10 billion Webb will scan the cosmos for light streaming from the first stars and galaxies formed 13.7 billion years ago. To accomplish this, NASA had to outfit Webb with the largest and most sensitive mirror ever launched — its “golden eye,” as scientists call it.

Webb is so big that it had to be folded orgami-style to fit in the rocket that soared from South America two weeks ago. The riskiest operation occurred earlier in the week, when the tennis court-size sunshield unfurled, providing subzero shade for the mirror and infrared detectors.

Flight controllers in Baltimore began opening the primary mirror Friday, unfolding the left side like a drop-leaf table. The mood was even more upbeat Saturday, with peppy music filling the control room as the right side snapped into place. After applauding, the controllers immediately got back to work, latching everything down. They jumped to their feet, exchanged high-fives and cheered from behind masks when the operation was finally complete 2 1/2 hours later, doing their best to remain socially distant because of the global surge in Covid-19 cases.

“We have a deployed telescope on orbit, a magnificent telescope the likes of which the world has never seen,” Zurbuchen said, congratulating the team. “So how does it feel to make history, everybody? You just did it.”

His counterpart at the European Space Agency, astronomer Antonella Nota, noted that after years of preparation, the team made everything look “so amazingly easy.”

“This is the moment we have been waiting for, for so long,” she said.

Webb’s main mirror is made of beryllium, a lightweight yet sturdy and cold-resistant metal. Each of its 18 segments is coated with an ultra thin layer of gold, highly reflective of infrared light. The hexagonal, coffee table-size segments must be adjusted in the weeks ahead so they can focus as one on stars, galaxies and alien worlds that might hold atmospheric signs of life.

“It’s like we have 18 mirrors that are right now little prima donnas all doing their own thing, singing their own tune in whatever key they’re in, and we have to make them work like a chorus and that is a methodical, laborious process,” operations project scientist Jane Rigby told reporters.

Webb should reach its destination 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) away in another two weeks; it’s already more than 667,000 miles (1 million kilometers) from Earth since its Christmas Day launch. If all continues to go well, science observations will begin this summer. Astronomers hope to peer back to within 100 million years of the universe-forming Big Bang, closer than Hubble has achieved.

Project manager Bill Ochs stressed the team isn’t letting its guard down, despite the unprecedented successes of the past two weeks.

“It’s not downhill from here. It’s all kind of a level playing field,” he said.

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“It’s like watching a ticking time bomb,” said senior author Raffaella Margutti.

What does a dying star look like? Astronomers have suspected that they might become red supergiants and explode. But no one has captured this phenomenon. Now, using ground and space-based telescopes, astronomers have recorded how a star about 120 million light-years from Earth collapsed and exploded. The star was located in the outer reaches of the galaxy NGC 5731.

“It’s like watching a ticking time bomb,” said senior author Raffaella Margutti, associate professor of astronomy and of physics at UC Berkeley in a release. “We’ve never confirmed such violent activity in a dying red supergiant star, where we see it produce such a luminous emission, then collapse and combust, until now.”

The discovery was published in The Astrophysical Journal. The energetic explosion was named supernova 2020tlf, or SN 2020tlf.

Study lead author Wynn Jacobson-Galán said, “Detecting more events like SN 2020tlf will dramatically impact how we define the final months of stellar evolution, uniting observers and theorists in the quest to solve the mystery on how massive stars spend the final moments of their lives…I am most excited by all of the new ‘unknowns’ that have been unlocked by this discovery.”

The increase in brightness in the final months suggests that the supergiant underwent changes in its internal structure that resulted in the ejection of gas.

The researchers suggest that before the ultimate explosion, the gaseous material it expelled could have come from nuclear reactions inside the star. Previously, models of such nuclear reactions have suggested that sudden flashes of neon and oxygen fusion could generate gravitational waves that blow off some of the outer regions of the star.

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The permanent station upon completion will weigh about 66 tons, about a quarter the size of the International Space Station.

China has recommitted itself to completing its orbiting space station by the end of the year and says it is planning more than 40 launches for 2022, putting it roughly level with the United States.

Launches would include those of two Shenzhou crewed missions, two Tianzhou cargo spacecraft and the station’s additional two modules, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Thursday, citing a recent announcement by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation known as CASC.

Named Mengtian and Wentian, the science modules will join the Tianhe core module that is currently home to a three-person crew.

The launch schedule shows how China’s traditionally cautious program is increasing the cadence of its missions as it seeks to take a leading role in space exploration.

The US expects around the same number of launches this year, after the pace slowed in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Supply chains for crucial items such as computer chips were disrupted and liquid oxygen used as rocket fuel had to be diverted to hospitals to save patients.

Among the most anticipated is the launch expected around March of the Space Launch System — a 1,010-meter- (332-foot-) tall rocket slated for future lunar missions.

China’s military-run space program was barred from the International Space Station, mainly due to US objections.

Working largely on its own, China has pushed ahead with its Tiangong space station program, building and then abandoning two experimental stations before embarking on the latest iteration.

The current six-month mission Shenzhou-13 by the crew aboard Tianhe is China’s longest since it first put a human in space in 2003, becoming only the third country to do so after Russia and the US.

The crew has conducted a pair of spacewalks — including the first by a Chinese female astronaut — and carried out tests alongside the station’s robotic service arm, which on Thursday successfully undocked then redocked the Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft for the first time.

The three are the second crew on the permanent station, which upon completion will weigh about 66 tons, about a quarter the size of the ISS, which launched its first module in 1998 and weighs around 450 tons.

China has also chalked up success with un-crewed missions, and its lunar exploration program generated media buzz last year when its Yutu 2 rover sent back pictures of what was described by some as a “mystery hut” but was most likely only a rock of some sort.

The rover is the first to be placed on the little-explored far side of the moon. China’s Chang’e 5 probe returned lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since the 1970s in December 2000 and another Chinese rover is searching for evidence of life on Mars.

The program has also drawn controversy. In October, China’s Foreign Ministry brushed off a report that China had tested a hypersonic missile two months earlier, saying it had merely tested whether a new spacecraft could be reused.

China is also reportedly developing a highly secretive space plane.

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The collision will lead to the ‘formation of a long mountain range along the modern west coast of India’ which the team named ‘Somalaya’.

A study published recently in the American Journal of Science shows that east Africa (including modern Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique), and Madagascar, will override India in about 200 million years. This will also lead to the ‘formation of a long mountain range along the modern west coast of India’ which the team named ‘Somalaya’.

Speaking to, Utrecht University geologist Prof. Douwe van Hinsbergen, who led the team, said ‘we now have the answer as to how the mountains and continents of the future will look like.

“I had made reconstructions of the past – of a continent that disappeared in the Mediterranean region, another major continent that disappeared in Southeast Asia whose relics we find all over Indonesia. But I had never made any future simulations. But the question caught my attention and I discussed it with my student and after about two years we now have an answer,” said Dr. van Hinsbergen.

The research team noted that Seychelles and Mauritius islands will all be pushed up and Mumbai will lie at the foot of the Somalaya range, as New Delhi lies at the foot of the Himalayas today.

“You will get a depression in southwest India, from Trivandrum all the way to Karachi. And the Horn of Africa which includes Somalia will override or bulldoze over southwest India and make this big mountain belt,” explained Dr. van Hinsbergen.

How did they arrive at this conclusion?

Thomas Schouten, a PhD student at ETH Zürich, in Switzerland, and one of the authors explained: “We have so many studies that have reconstructed the past, for which we have knowledge on how tectonic plates moved – how fast, which way they went etc. In our study, we assumed that the rift that goes through the African continent and underlies the east African lakes will continue to split the two parts of Africa and an ocean will be formed in the next 200 million years.”

He added that when this space is created in Africa, we must remove space in the Indian Ocean. “So basically the beaches of Malabar will be scooped up like a bulldozer, and coral reefs, beaches, and low lying areas will fold up to become high peaks. Seychelles will also get placed next to the Lakshadweep and along with the Malabar sediments they may become a mountain range of eight kilometers high, similar to the Himalayas where we find old coral reefs at the tops of mountains like Everest,” explains Schouten.

Why break Africa?

The team explained that the fault lines along which two ancient continents collided in the past remain weak. “So, modern continents like Africa can break along those old fault lines. And it’s a similar thing to how India broke off from Madagascar, 90 million years ago,” explains Dr. van Hinsbergen “The most important thing to remember is, continents do not exist forever. India has existed as we know it today only for the last few tens of million years. Before that, it was an island. The Indian Ocean will surely close one day. And then there will be a continent hitting India. And it’s either Africa or Antarctica, or it might be Australia.”

In the construction of the future, the team looked at Africa. They added that they ignored Southeast Asia, which will likely collide with east India. “India may sometime in the future even look like Mongolia – situated right in the middle of an enormous supercontinent surrounded by high mountain ranges of which the Somalaya may be one,” said Dr. van Hinsbergen.

The team said that the main goal was to think through which features of the modern Indian Ocean will be preserved in mountain belts, and which may not. This helps to better reconstruct the history of the Earth’s plates and surfaces of the geological past, which is important to help understand the evolution of climate, life, and resources.

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Forty-year-old 'Gori', hatched and bred by the Forest Department in 1975 as a part of a crocodile conservation programme, was the first albino crocodile spotted in Bhitarkanika.

A rare albino salt-water crocodile has been recently sighted at Odisha’s Bhitarkanika National Park, a forest officer said on Friday.

Rajnagar Mangrove (Wildlife) Divisional Forest Officer J D Pati said that the albino crocodile was sighted in the hatchery and rearing complex of crocodiles at Dangmal in the national park.

Forest personnel have named it ‘Sweta’. The national park is now home to three captive albino crocodiles. The three-year-old female crocodile was born in the hatchery from the eggs collected from the wild, he said.

“During my visit to the hatchery on Wednesday, I discovered this albino crocodile and advised the forest personnel to take proper care of this whitish-coloured crocodile,” researcher Sudhakar Kar said.

It takes some years for the whitish complexion of an albino crocodile to develop, he said.

Although albino estuarine crocodiles are rare, they have been spotted in the wild in Bhitarkanika.

“During the census last year, we counted 1,768 crocodiles, including 15 albino reptiles, in the rivers, creeks and other water bodies of Bhitarkanika,” Kar said.

Forty-year-old ‘Gori’, hatched and bred by the Forest Department in 1975 as a part of a crocodile conservation programme, was the first albino crocodile spotted in Bhitarkanika.

It had hogged the spotlight over the years for its typical behavioural instinct. Living in captivity since its birth in the national park, the animal continues to shun mating habits.

It had rejected companionship on several occasions in the past. In 2005, another albino crocodile ‘Malli’ was also born in the hatchery.

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The tree was assessed as 'critically endangered', as its habitat remains unprotected and faces threats from logging, conversion to plantations, and mining.

An international team of researchers has now reported a new tropical tree from the Ebo Forest in Cameroon and named it after American actor and conservationist Leonardo DiCaprio. The paper published yesterday in the journal PeerJ explains that the actor’s name was chosen as he had “lobbied extensively on social media to draw attention to threats for the numerous rare Ebo species from the logging concession that had been announced at Ebo earlier that year.”

The tree, named Uvariopsis dicaprio, is four metres tall, with 15 cm long leaves, and bears bunches of large, glossy, bright yellow-green flowers on its trunk. The tree is endemic to the Ebo forest and is so far only known from the lower submontane forest which has an elevation of 850 metres. The area of occupation of U. dicaprio is estimated as 4 sq. km.

With the recognition of U. dicaprio, 20 species of Uvariopsis are now accepted and the highest species diversity is found in Cameroon.

The new tree was assessed as ‘critically endangered’, as its habitat remains unprotected and faces threats from logging, conversion to plantations, and mining.

“There are still thousands of plant species and maybe millions of fungal species out there that we don’t know about…This natural habitat that they’re growing in – especially forests, but other habitats, too, is increasingly and more rapidly being destroyed by us humans without knowing what’s there,” one of the authors, Dr Martin Cheek, was quoted by the BBC. He is from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, United Kingdom.

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One pair of the birds had been born in captivity to other rescues and had to learn to fly over two months around wild birds.

A trio of Andean condors were released back into the wild last month after years of rehabilitation for the members of the vulnerable species at a rescue center an hour southeast of Chile’s capital Santiago, the Ministry of Agriculture said.

The three condors – among the world’s largest birds that are able to fly – had been undergoing rehabilitation in the Melimoyu Ecosystem Research Institute (MERI) Foundation rescue center near the mountainous town of San Jose de Maipo.

One pair of the birds had been born in captivity to other rescues and had to learn to fly over two months around wild birds, the latest of about a dozen birds MERI has released back into the wild in recent years.

Maria Emilia Undurraga, Chile’s agriculture minister, was present at the release of the three, dubbed Huenchuman, Huenuman and Kalfuman – names from the indigenous Mapuche language. Undurraga said at the time of the birds’ release last month that she was “really excited, not just to see them fly, to see this animal that’s so vulnerable, but that’s also so symbolic for our country.”

The Andean condor is the national bird of Chile and other countries in the region, as well as an indigenous symbol for power and health. It’s also considered vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and several Andean countries have implemented conservation programs in recent years.

After the birds were released at the Likandes Elemental Reserve, a private park outside of San Jose de Maipo, scientists will continue to monitor them with satellite radio transmitters, according to the director of the Manku Project, a rescue group backed by the national avian research organization.

Little by little, Director Eduardo Pavez said, the birds should become more independent and fly longer distances. “We’ve put all of our effort, dedication and resources into helping these birds,” said Pavez in the press release.

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Weinstein’s drive for advancing telepathology included not only widening medicine’s reach but also bringing greater humanity to it.

Written by Neil Genzlinger

In August 1986, a doctor in Washington, DC, manipulating a microscope, examined a tissue sample from a breast-cancer patient and correctly diagnosed that her tumor had spread. What was unusual about the diagnosis was that the tissue sample and the microscope were half a country away, in El Paso, Texas.

It was a demonstration of a technology, now known as telepathology, which enables specialists to render diagnoses and other medical opinions from afar using various telecommunications technologies. At the time, the internet was in its early stages, fiber optics were not widely available and the high-definition screens now common were unknown. So for a doctor to remotely control a microscope and see a clear enough image to render a conclusion was a significant breakthrough.

The demonstration had been arranged by the founder of Corabi Telemetrics, Dr. Ronald Weinstein, who at the time was also chairman of the pathology department at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago and had led the team that perfected the technology. (In fact, he is credited with coining the term “telepathology.”) He spent the rest of his career furthering telemedicine of various kinds, first in Chicago and then, starting in 1990, at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson, where he was a founder of the widely admired Arizona Telemedicine Program.

Weinstein saw early on the potential for telepathology to broaden medical access.

“The limited availability of pathologists in some rural locations and areas serviced by federal medical centers is a bottleneck in the United States health care delivery system,” he wrote in the journal Human Pathology in May 1986, a few months before his groundbreaking demonstration.

By the time he died last month, his early vision of telemedicine’s possibilities had become an integral part of the health care system, not only in pathology but also in numerous other specialties. The Arizona Telemedicine Program, which he directed for 25 years, had “linked more than 160 sites in 70 communities, bringing clinical services — in some cases lifesaving — to hundreds of thousands of patients, many of whom live in Arizona’s medically underserved areas,” Dr. Michael M.I. Abecassis, dean of the College of Medicine, said in announcing Weinstein’s death to the University of Arizona community.

Weinstein’s wife, Mary (Corabi) Weinstein, said he died of heart failure Dec. 3 at a medical center in Tucson, Arizona. He was 83.

Ronald S Weinstein (the S did not stand for anything and carried no period) was born Nov. 20, 1938, in Schenectady, New York, to H. Edward and Shirley (Diamond) Weinstein.

He studied pre-med at Union College in Schenectady, but at his father’s urging took a course in government. He got the top grade and received a Ford Foundation summer fellowship working for Rep. Samuel Stratton of New York — “a transformational education for me,” as he put it in a 2019 Founders Day lecture at the Tucson college. The skills he learned then, he said, served him well all his life, especially in his efforts to bring in government funding for medical initiatives.

After earning a bachelor’s degree at Union College in 1960, he enrolled at Albany Medical College, attending from 1960-63 and also working for several summers at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. In the 2019 lecture, he told the story of mistaking a rumpled older man for a janitor and asking him to empty the trash can, which the man did. A few minutes later, someone told him the “janitor” was actually Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, the Nobel Prize-winning biologist. He went to apologize, and the Nobelist became a friend and mentor.

He finished his medical education at Tufts University in 1965 and completed his residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, which at the time was experimenting with an early telemedicine program linking it by television camera to a clinic at Logan Airport in Boston. He was asked to look in on a few cases and, he said, “that stuck in my mind.”

In 1975 he became chairman of the pathology department at Rush-Presbyterian in Chicago, and 11 years later he was ready to introduce the idea of telepathology, founding Corabi Telemetrics, one of several companies he created or helped create to bring ideas developed in academia to market.

“Sears and Roebuck never intended to get into the financial business,” he said in a speech a few weeks before the 1986 demonstration of his new technology, referring to the retail giant’s expansion into banking at the time. “But somewhere along the line, engineers figured out how to put satellites in space and revolutionized the financial industry. And what I’m going to talk about today is how the very same changes are going to revolutionize the way that we practice medicine.”

Weinstein took his expertise to the University of Arizona in 1990, becoming head of the pathology department at the College of Medicine. By the mid-1990s telemedicine was well established, at least as a concept, and Bob Burns, a member of the Arizona House of Representatives who later became a state senator, had a computer programming background and took an interest in it, securing financing for a statewide initiative.

When the state asked the university to oversee the project, “they gave us the best man they had,” Burns said in a phone interview. That was Weinstein, who was named director when the program was initiated in 1996.

The project, Burns said, made a particular effort to bring medical expertise to remote areas, Indian reservations and prisons — and even abroad, to places like Panama.

Elizabeth A. Krupinski, a longtime colleague and collaborator now at Emory University, said Weinstein had both vision and people skills.

“He had a knack for identifying where and how aspects of health care process and outcomes could be improved, devising a potential solution, then finding the right people to work with to make that vision a reality,” she said by email. “That process always included bringing in people from a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives to truly optimize the results, and to bring in trainees so they could be a part of the future.”

Weinstein’s drive for advancing telepathology included not only widening medicine’s reach but also bringing greater humanity to it. One effort he was involved with, at the Tucson Breast Center, enabled women to have a breast biopsy, get the results and consult with a specialist on the same day, eliminating what could be a long and stressful wait.

That was an issue that frequently came up during Weinstein’s time on the project. “The majority of phone calls I get are from women who want to know where their breast biopsy report is,” he told the journal Health Executive in 2007. “The terror in their voice is really moving.”

In addition to his wife, whom he married in 1964, Weinstein is survived by a daughter, Katherine Weinstein Miller; a son, John; and two grandchildren.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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The secondary mirror is the small round convex mirror (0.74 metres in diameter) and is located at the end of long booms.

Last night, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) successfully deployed its secondary mirror and the support structure. “Another banner day for JWST,” said Bill Ochs, Webb project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, as he congratulated the secondary mirror deployment team at the Mission Operations Center in Baltimore. “This is unbelievable…We’re about 600,000 miles from Earth, and we actually have a telescope.”

The deployment process began at approximately 8:22 pm IST and at approximately 10:53 pm IST, engineers confirmed that the deployment was complete.

“The world’s most sophisticated tripod has deployed,” said Lee Feinberg, optical telescope element manager for Webb at Goddard in a release. “That’s really the way one can think of it. Webb’s secondary mirror had to deploy in microgravity, and in extremely cold temperatures, and it ultimately had to work the first time without error. It also had to deploy, position, and lock itself into place to a tolerance of about one and a half millimeters, and then it has to stay extremely stable while the telescope points to different places in the sky – and that’s all for a secondary mirror support structure that is over seven meters in length.”

Why is the secondary mirror important?

The secondary mirror is the small round convex mirror (0.74 metres in diameter) and is located at the end of long booms. These booms were kept folded during launch. When light hits Webb’s primary mirrors, it will reflect off and hit the smaller secondary mirror. This mirror will then direct the light into the instruments.

Previously, the Webb team had successfully deployed and tensioned the sunshield. It also unlocked the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) Contamination Control Cover. MIRI’s sensitive detectors will help see the light of distant galaxies and newly forming stars.

“To unlock the cover, we first had to power on our Instrument Control Electronics and confirm that they were functioning correctly. The MIRI Contamination Control Cover will be closed in the next few days to protect the optics from any possible contaminants as the observatory cools. It will then be reopened much later in the timeline when MIRI has cooled to its operating temperature of just 7K [-266 degree Celsius] and is ready to look out at the sky,” explained Gillian Wright, European principal investigator for the Mid-Infrared Instrument, UK Astronomy Technology Centre in a release.

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The image was taken using the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment.

The European Southern Observatory has released a new image of Orion’s Flame Nebula. Named NGC 2024, the Flame Nebula is a large star-forming region located in the Orion constellation situated about 1,400 light-years from Earth. The Orion constellations is easily visible high in the night sky. You can spot Orion’s “belt” consisting of three bright blue stars.

The image was taken using the ESO-operated Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX), located in the Atacama Desert. The team used radio waves to capture the fiery picture.

Former ESO astronomer Thomas Stanke and his team used the new SuperCam instrument at APEX to make the observations. “As astronomers like to say, whenever there is a new telescope or instrument around, observe Orion: there will always be something new and interesting to discover!” says Dr Stanke in a release.

The results of his observations are now accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

In addition to the Flame Nebula, the team also observed reflection nebulae Messier 78 and NGC 2071.

A reflection nebula is created when light from a star is scattered by nearby dust clouds. In 2018, Hubble’s Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) captured a colorful image of M78. The team also found a new small, spherical cloud to the north of NGC2071 and named it the ‘Cow Nebula’ globule. Studying nebulae can help astronomers understand how stars form and evolve during its lifetime.

If you look closely at the new image, you may see a peaceful background with tiny stars. This image was made using observations from ESO’s Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. The infrared waves help astronomers spot stars that are hidden when observed using visible light.

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The sunshield spans 70 feet by 46 feet to keep all the infrared, heat-sensing science instruments in constant subzero shadow.

NASA aced the most complicated, critical job on its newly launched space telescope Tuesday: unrolling and stretching a sunshade the size of a tennis court.

Ground controllers cheered and bumped fists once the fifth and final layer of the sunshield was tightly secured. It took just 1 1/2 days to tighten the ultra-thin layers using motor-driven cables, half the expected time.

The 7-ton James Webb Space Telescope is so big that the sunshield and the primary gold-plated mirror had to be folded for launch. The sunshield is especially unwieldly — it spans 70 feet by 46 feet (21 metres by 14 metres) to keep all the infrared, heat-sensing science instruments in constant subzero shadow.

The mirrors are next up for release this weekend.

The $10 billion telescope is more than halfway toward its destination 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) away, following its Christmas Day send-off. It is the biggest and most powerful observatory ever launched — 100 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope — enabling it to peer back to almost the beginning of time.

Considered Hubble’s successor, Webb will attempt to hunt down light from the universe’s first stars and galaxies, created 3.7 billion years ago.

“This is a really big moment,” project manager Bill Ochs told the control team in Baltimore. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do, but getting the sunshield out and deployed is really, really big.”

Engineers spent years redoing and tweaking the shade. At one point, dozens of fasteners fell off during a vibration test. That made Tuesday’s success all the sweeter, since nothing like this had ever been attempted before in space.

“First time and we nailed it,” engineer Alphonso Stewart told reporters.

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One reason that the red wolf populations declined in the wild is because the animals frequently interbred with coyotes.

Written by Emily Anthes

From a distance, the canids of Galveston Island, Texas, look almost like coyotes, prowling around the beach at night, eyes gleaming in the dark.

But look closer and oddities appear. The animals’ bodies seem slightly out of proportion, with overly long legs, unusually broad heads and sharply pointed snouts. And then there is their fur, distinctly reddish in hue, with white patches on their muzzles.

The Galveston Island canids are not conventional coyotes — at least, not entirely. They carry a ghostly genetic legacy: DNA from red wolves, which were declared extinct in the wild in 1980.

For years, these genes have been hiding in plain sight, tucked away in the seemingly unremarkable animals that scavenged for food behind housing developments and roamed the grounds of the local airport.

Their discovery, which came after a determined local resident persuaded scientists to take a closer look at the canids, could help revive a captive breeding program for red wolves and restore the rich genetic variation that once existed in the wild population.

“It doesn’t seem to be lost any longer,” said Bridgett vonHoldt, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University, referring to the genetic diversity that once characterized red wolves. “We might have a chance to bring it back.”

‘They Just Didn’t Look Right’

Ron Wooten, a Galveston resident, never paid close attention to the local coyotes until they ran off with his dog one night in 2008. “A pack took him and carried him off,” recalled Wooten, an outreach specialist at the US Army Corps of Engineers.

He found the pack, and what remained of his dog, in a nearby field. He was horrified, and he blamed himself for his dog’s death. But as his flashlight swept over the coyotes’ red muzzles, he found himself fascinated.

Determined to learn more, he posted a message on Facebook asking his neighbors to alert him if they spotted the animals. Eventually, a friend came through: There was a pack near her apartment building.

Wooten raced over with his camera, snapping photographs as he watched a group of pups chasing each other. “They were just beautiful,” he said.

But when he looked more carefully at the photos, he began to wonder whether the so-called coyotes were really coyotes at all. “They just didn’t look right,” he said. “I thought at first that they must have bred with Marmaduke or something because they had superlong legs, superlong noses.”

Wooten, a former fisheries biologist, started reading up on the local wildlife and stumbled across the history of red wolves. Once abundant in the southeastern United States, the wolves had dwindled in number during the 20th century — a result of habitat loss, hunting and other threats.

In the 1970s, the US Fish and Wildlife Service made a last-ditch effort to save the species, traveling along the Gulf Coast and trapping all the red wolves it could find. Scientists selected some of the animals for a breeding program, in hopes of maintaining the red wolf in captivity.

Wooten became convinced that the creatures that had taken his dog were actually red wolf-coyote hybrids, if not actual red wolves.

Eager to prove his hypothesis, he began looking for dead canids by the side of the road. “I was thinking that if these are red wolves, then the only way they’re going to be able to tell is with genetics,” he recalled.

He soon found two dead animals, collected a small patch of skin from each and tucked them away in his freezer while he tried, for years, to pique scientists’ interest.

“Sometimes they wouldn’t respond,” he said. “Sometimes they’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s a neat animal. Nothing we can do about it.’ And, ‘They’re extinct. It’s not a red wolf.’”

Genetic Secrets

Eventually, in 2016, Wooten’s photos made their way to vonHoldt, an expert on canid genetics.

The animals in Wooten’s photos immediately struck her. They “just had a special look,” she said. “And I bit. The whole thing — hook, line and sinker.”

She asked him to send his specimens, but there was a glitch: By then, he had lost one. So he packed up the skin tissue he could find and threw in the scalpel he had used to prepare the other sample, hoping that the scientists could extract DNA from it.

“It was just a really kind of lovely chaos,” vonHoldt said. (The scientists did manage to pull DNA from the scalpel, but Wooten later found the second sample and mailed that, too.)

VonHoldt and her colleagues extracted DNA from the skin samples and compared it to DNA from coyotes, red wolves, gray wolves and eastern wolves. Although the two Galveston Island canids were mostly coyote, they had significant red wolf ancestry; roughly 30 per cent of their genetic material was from the wolves, they found.

“It was a real validation, I think, to the people on the ground — the naturalists and the photographers on the ground saying, ‘We have something special here,’” said Kristin Brzeski, a conservation geneticist who was a postdoctoral fellow in vonHoldt’s lab at the time. “And they do.”

Wooten was thrilled. “It blew me away,” he said.

Even more remarkable, some of the genetic variants, or alleles, the Galveston animals carried were not present in any of the other North American canids the researchers analyzed, including the contemporary red wolves. The scientists theorize that these alleles were passed down from the wild red wolves that used to roam the region.

“They harbor ancestral genetic variation, this ghost variation, which we thought was extinct from the landscape,” vonHoldt said. “So there’s a sense of reviving what we thought was gone.”

The researchers suspect that some red wolves evaded the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service dragnet back in the 1970s. “There was surely a little slippery one that got away, or a couple,” vonHoldt said.

At some point, the red wolves or their descendants bred with local coyotes — and not just in Texas. In 2018, the same year vonHoldt’s team published its findings, another group documented high levels of red wolf ancestry in wild canids in Louisiana.

The findings could help scientists understand the genetic variation that once existed in wild red wolves and even resurrect it.

“We can start actually understanding what was the historical red wolf and think about reconstructing that animal,” said Brzeski, who is now at Michigan Technological University.

In the late 1980s, some of the red wolves from the captive breeding program were released in North Carolina. But that experimental population has plummeted in recent years; officials estimate that fewer than 20 of the animals now patrol the Carolina coast. And all the red wolves alive today are descended from about a dozen animals, an extremely low level of genetic diversity that could further imperil the species.

Hybrid Help

The hybrids raise new conservation possibilities. For instance, scientists might be able to restore genetic diversity by carefully breeding red wolves to hybrids with high levels of red wolf ancestry. Or they could use artificial reproductive technologies or gene-editing techniques to insert the ghost alleles back into red wolves, vonHoldt said.

The findings also come as some scientists have begun rethinking the value of interspecies hybrids. “Oftentimes, hybridization is viewed as a real threat to the integrity of a species, which it can be,” Brzeski said.

One reason that the red wolf populations declined in the wild is because the animals frequently interbred with coyotes. But, she added, “here we have these hybrids that are now potentially going to be the lifeline for the highly endangered red wolves.”

The discovery of hybrids in both Texas and Louisiana also suggests that scientists and officials may want to “refocus” their red wolf conservation efforts on those areas, said Lisette Waits, a conservation geneticist at the University of Idaho and co-author of the 2018 paper on the Louisiana hybrids.

In addition to studying the hybrids, it might make sense to reintroduce captive-bred red wolves to those regions, where animals with red wolf genes still roam the landscape. “It could completely change the direction of the red wolf recovery program,” Waits said.

Brzeski, vonHoldt and their collaborators are now studying the hybrids in both Texas and Louisiana as part of the new Gulf Coast Canine Project.

They are using GPS collars and wildlife cameras to learn more about the canids’ movements and behaviors, collecting fecal samples to analyze their diets, using genetic analysis to trace pack relatedness and collecting tissue samples from animals with the most red wolf ancestry. One goal, vonHoldt said, is to create a “biobank set of specimens that could be used to help increase the genetic health of the captive red wolf population.”

They are also hoping to learn more about how these red wolf alleles have persisted, especially in animals that live close to humans in a popular tourist destination. The island setting, which keeps the canids relatively reproductively isolated, is probably part of the explanation, but so is the “lack of persecution,” Brzeski said, noting that the animals were not commonly hunted.

Indeed, Wooten is not the only local resident who has taken an interest in the animals. The research team works closely with Josh Henderson, the animal services supervisor at the Galveston Police Department, and there is considerable community support for the canids.

Steve Parker, a lawyer who grew up in the area, remembers hearing childhood stories about his relatives trapping red wolves. The Galveston canids have helped him connect with the older generations, many of whom have passed away. “I’d like to see something and maybe be able to touch something that was special to them,” he said.

Wooten, for his part, dreams of setting up an educational center devoted to teaching the public about the unique animals. “The possibilities of what these animals hold down here is pretty valuable,” he said. “And that’s the reason I pursued it, I think. I think God was thumping me on the head and saying, ‘Hey, I got animals here. Take care of ’em.’”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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The study also found the earliest direct evidence of Merkel cell Polyomavirus.

An international team of researchers has successfully extracted human DNA from the ‘cement’ that headlice use to stick their eggs to human hairs. The DNA was recovered from mummies from Argentina that date back about 1,500 to 2,000 years.

“Headlice have accompanied humans throughout their entire existence, so this new method could open the door to a goldmine of information about our ancestors,” Dr Alejandra Perotti, one of the authors of the study said in a press statement Perotti is affiliated with the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Section at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Reading, UK.

“Like the fictional story of mosquitos encased in amber in the film Jurassic Park, carrying the DNA of the dinosaur host, we have shown that our genetic information can be preserved by the sticky substance produced by headlice on our hair. In addition to genetics, lice biology can provide valuable clues about how people lived and died thousands of years ago,” she explained.

The paper published last week in Molecular Biology and Evolution notes that such lice sheaths can be a new source of high-quality ancient DNA not just from humans but also from a variety of other animals where bones and teeth are not available. The team writes that DNA extracted from nit cement contained the same concentration of DNA as from a tooth and double that from bone remains.

Dr Mikkel Winther Pedersen from the GLOBE institute at the University of Copenhagen, and first author, said: “…it was striking to me that such small amounts could still give us all this information about who these people were, and how the lice related to other lice species but also giving us hints to possible viral diseases. There is a hunt out for alternative sources of ancient human DNA and nit cement might be one of those alternatives. I believe that future studies are needed before we really unravel this potential.”

The analysis of the DNA from nit-cement helped confirm the sex of the human hosts and the genetic link between the mummies and humans in Amazonia. The study also found the earliest direct evidence of Merkel cell Polyomavirus.

The team notes that the cause of death was extreme cold temperatures as there was a very small gap between the nits and the mummy’s scalp. Lice generally rely on the host body heat to keep the eggs warm and lay them close to the scalp in very cold environments.

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Deforestation and other clearances of native vegetation in the Cerrado rose to 8,531 square kilometers in the 12 months through July. That is more than 10 times the size of New York City's land area.

Deforestation last year rose to the highest level since 2015 in Brazil’s Cerrado, prompting scientists on Monday to raise alarm over the state of the world’s most species-rich savanna, a major carbon sink that helps to stave off climate change.

The Cerrado, which is spread across several states of Brazil and is one of the world’s largest savannas, is often called an “upside-down forest” because of the deep roots its plants sink into the ground to survive seasonal droughts and fires. Destruction of these trees, grasses and other plants in the Cerrado is a major source of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions, although it is far less densely forested than the more famous Amazon rainforest that it borders.

Also read |Brazil’s Amazon deforestation surges to 15-year high, undercutting government pledge

Deforestation and other clearances of native vegetation in the Cerrado rose 8 per cent to 8,531 square kilometers in the 12 months through July, Brazil’s official period for measuring deforestation, according to national space research agency Inpe. That is more than 10 times the size of New York City’s land area of 783.84 square km.

“It’s extremely worrying,” said Mercedes Bustamante, an ecologist at the University of Brasilia. Bustamante also criticized the government for a lack of transparency for announcing the deforestation data on New Year’s Eve.

The added destruction is particularly concerning, scientists say, when considering that roughly half of the Cerrado has been destroyed since the 1970s, mostly for farming and ranching.

“You’re transforming thousands of square kilometers annually,” said Manuel Ferreira, a geographer at the Federal University of Goias.”Few other places on earth have seen that rapid of a transformation.”

Ferreira said that new plant and animal species are regularly being discovered in the Cerrado and that many are probably being eradicated before they can be studied. After falling from highs in the early 2000s, deforestation in the Cerrado has been creeping up again since right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, calling for more farming and development in sensitive ecosystems.

Last month, a Brazilian soy lobby group said that data showed farmers were increasingly using previously cleared land in the Cerrado rather than deforesting wholly new areas to plant the cash crop. More than half of Brazil’s soy farmland is in the Cerrado.

Bustamante and other scientists blame Bolsonaro for encouraging deforestation with his pro-development rhetoric and for rolling back environmental enforcement. Bolsonaro’s office did not immediately respond to request for comment. He has previously defended his policies as a means to lift the interior of the country out of poverty and pointed out that Brazil has preserved far more of its territory than Europe or the United States.

“Deforestation is the most naked and raw indicator of the terrible environmental policy of this government,” said Ane Alencar, the science director at the non-profit Amazon Environmental Research Institute.

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Resin-hardened sediment blocks are very stable over time and are unlikely to become contaminated by other sources of DNA

Written by Mike W Morley, Diyendo Massilani, Matthias Meyer, Richard ‘Bert’ Roberts

Archaeological deposits typically consist of a mix of artefacts and the remains of plants and animals –including the occasional human fossil — all held in a matrix of dirt. But these days, we dig for a lot more besides fossils and artefacts.

Now we can find clues to the deep past in the very dirt that we excavate. Alongside plant and animal remains, the sediments in an archaeological deposit might also contain ancient DNA molecules that can be extracted and used to identify the species that once lived there.

This was the case at Denisova Cave in southern Siberia, where — sediment DNA — revealed the evolutionary comings and goings of two now-extinct groups of humans who once lived there: the Neanderthals and a mysterious group dubbed the Denisovans.

Recent advances in this new field of genetic research offer exciting opportunities to study the geographic spread, timing and behaviour of past human populations. The possibility of obtaining clues from sediment DNA is important also because human remains (bones and teeth) are rarely preserved at archaeological sites.

Our new research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals exactly where the DNA in archaeological sediments comes from — at a microscopic scale.

Together with colleagues from around the world, we extracted ancient DNA from intact blocks of resin-soaked sediment collected at 13 archaeological sites in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. From these blocks, we identified a variety of mammals, including Neanderthals in a sample from Denisova Cave.

We recovered ancient DNA from 23 of the 47 blocks analysed, including samples from Russia, Germany, France and Turkey, but not from samples collected at sites in Israel, Morocco, South Africa or the United States.

These results align with previous reports on the limits of ancient DNA preservation in bones and teeth. DNA survival depends on the complex interaction of environmental conditions, including temperature, humidity and soil composition. It is usually much better preserved in cold and dry environments than in deserts or the tropics.

Although DNA can survive in sediments for tens of thousands of years under favourable conditions, lingering questions persist about where these DNA molecules originate, and whether they could have been transported by water between archaeological layers.

In archaeological research, it’s crucial to know the exact location of where a piece of evidence was found. Sediment layers are laid down over many millennia, so if DNA molecules find their way into older or younger layers, then our estimates of their age could potentially be out by thousands of years.

To investigate whether DNA molecules can indeed be transported by water from one archaeological layer to another, we looked at sediment samples from caves occupied in the past by humans and other animals.

We cut resin-soaked blocks of cave sediment into thin slices for microscopic imaging and genetic analysis. From these, we successfully extracted DNA from blocks dug up as long as 40 years ago.

The blocks were originally collected and set in hardened resin to help understand how archaeological sites were formed. But our relatively new-found ability to retrieve ancient DNA from these samples opens new possibilities to explore the past.

We used a dental drill to bore tiny holes into the sediment slices and were encouraged to find the resulting powder contained ancient DNA. So we then looked in detail at particular microscopic features preserved intact in the blocks from which we cut the slices, and targeted them for genetic analysis.

In our samples, the ancient DNA was concentrated in millimetre-sized ‘hotspots’. These were typically associated with tiny fragments of bone — in effect, microfossils or fossilised faeces. By understanding better where DNA is preserved in sediments, we now know which microscopic features to target in future studies.

Resin-hardened sediment blocks are very stable over time and are unlikely to become contaminated by other sources of DNA, such as modern DNA from present-day humans.

Blocks of resin-soaked sediment can be found in archaeology storerooms around the world, offering a largely untapped reservoir of clues about ancient human populations and the animals and plants that lived alongside them.

In a pandemic world, where access to archaeological sites might be limited, these sediment blocks might also usher in a new era of ‘scientific excavation’, carried out in the lab, not in the field.

Detailed analyses of archived sediment blocks could reduce the need to travel to remote sites. Already a financially and environmentally costly exercise, it has become even more challenging during the current pandemic.

Pinpointing the origin of DNA in archaeological dirt will help us to refine this understanding, especially for sites that lack ancient bones and teeth.

— Mike W Morley is from Flinders University, Diyendo Massilani and Matthias Meyer from Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Richard ‘Bert’ Roberts from the University of Wollongong.

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In October, a boom shook homes in New Hampshire, giving rise to theories that an earthquake or an aircraft was to blame. Satellite imagery, however, suggested a meteor exploded in the atmosphere above the state.

Written by Azi Paybarah

For Heather Lin Ishler, the first morning of 2022 in Dormont, a neighborhood just south of downtown Pittsburgh, began like most days had in 2021. She was on her bed, scrolling through social media while her boyfriend was downstairs playing a game on his Xbox. Then, the bed shook.

“The sensation,” Ishler later said, “reminded me of fireworks” and how, if you stand too close, you can feel “a rumbling in your chest.”

Ishler, 34, looked out her bedroom window. It was gray — a little rainy but calm.

Her boyfriend said that he, too, had felt something, as did a neighbor in their building. “It was just the feeling of the shock wave,” Ishler recalled, “but no sound or flash or anything like that.”

Diane Turnshek, an astronomer who lectures at Carnegie Mellon University, felt something powerful Saturday morning, too. She was in her home, atop a Pittsburgh hill, 1,120 feet above sea level. Her initial thought was that her dryer had fallen off the washing machine in the room next door.

Calls started coming into the Pittsburgh office of the National Weather Service from people who had heard “a really loud sound but didn’t see anything,” said Jenna Lake, a weather service meteorologist.

Soon, it seemed as if everyone was looking for answers. (Lake’s curiosity was more professional than personal. She was in the office that morning but did not feel or hear anything. Lake chalks that up to the fact that the office has “pretty sturdy windows,” and also possibly that “our cleaning staff was here and maybe a vacuum was on.”)

No earthquakes were detected by the seismograph at the nearby Allegheny Observatory, Turnshek said. Seismographs are sensitive enough to detect earthquakes, but they are not calibrated to detect surface vibrations that rattle homes or windows.

Lake said the air over Pittsburgh on Saturday was “too benign” for storms or lightning, so those were ruled out, too.

Airplanes were quickly discounted, Lake said, because they do not move as fast as meteors that break pressure barriers, and “we don’t typically hear them when they’re all the way up,” flying at high altitude.

“Our guess was potentially a meteor,” Lake said. It is the “only thing besides aircraft incidents that would have been known occurrences and could have caused that type of sound.”

Chris Leonardi, also a weather service meteorologist based in Pittsburgh, said the thinking was that a meteor either “exploded or vaporized.”

One of their colleagues used a device called a Geostationary Lightning Mapper, which, according to NASA, “can detect the momentary changes in an optical scene, indicating the presence of lightning.”

Since there were no storms in the area, meteorologists believe the source of the vibration was “a meteor moving toward Earth pretty low in the atmosphere, relatively close,” Lake said.

Just after 4 pm Saturday, the weather service announced its conclusion on Twitter: “The loud explosion heard over SW PA earlier,” it said, “may have been a meteor explosion.”

After the announcement, people took to social media to share their accounts and theories about what had happened. Some posted videos on Twitter that they said captured the “boom.” One person posted a video of a backyard pond on Facebook in which fish can be seen almost jumping, as if they had been startled. “No discernible sound,” the person wrote, “but something spooked them.”

It was not the first time in recent memory that people have wondered about seemingly mysterious activities overhead.

In December 2018, the sky over New York City erupted in a blue light. People theorized about a UFO flyby or an alien invasion, although the cause turned out to be a transformer explosion at a Con Edison substation. In 2015, a 500-pound meteor streaked through the sky above western Pennsylvania, triggering a sonic boom, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. More recently, in October, a boom shook homes in New Hampshire, giving rise to theories that an earthquake or an aircraft was to blame. Satellite imagery, however, suggested a meteor exploded in the atmosphere above the state.

In Pittsburgh on Saturday, Lake said that nobody reported seeing anything “below the cloud deck,” which was about 2,000 feet above the ground. Lake thinks the meteor could have been “a couple of thousand feet” above the ground, but not below the cloud cover.

For now, a meteor explosion is the best theory about what happened Saturday, Lake said, and it will remain just a theory “unless someone finds some rocks in their backyard,” she said.

Turnshek, the Carnegie Mellon lecturer, said what she and others in Pittsburgh experienced on New Year’s Day was “rare and notable,” a “once-in-a-lifetime event.”

Despite the rarity, there is no shortage of movies depicting the dangers of a meteor, asteroid or comet crashing to Earth (including “The Day the Sky Exploded,” “Meteor,” “Armageddon” and the recent “Don’t Look Up”).

Astronomers are on the lookout for such things, Turnshek said. “If we had found a large body incoming,” the best solution would probably be to “send a rocket to sit next to it, and the gravitational pull of the rocket will pull it off course.”

In Dormont, Ishler shared the weather service’s conclusions with her friends and neighbors, mostly out of delight. The year, she said, had started off “with a bang.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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The chairperson also gave some updates. “Chandrayaan-3 design changes incorporating and testing has seen huge progress. The mission could be launched by middle of next year,” he said.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), India’s space agency, is targeting the launch of first of the two planned uncrewed flights under the Gaganyaan mission before Independence Day this year and the third lunar mission Chandrayaan-3 by “middle of the next year”, said the chairperson Dr K Sivan on Monday.

“If you look at the immediate task at hand this year, we have many missions to execute. Some of these are launch of EOS-4 and EOS-6 on board PSLV. Launch of EOS-02 on board maiden flight of SSLV. Many test flights for Crew Escape System of Gaganyaan and Launch of the first unmanned mission of Gaganyaan. In addition, we also have Chandrayaan-03, Aditya Ll, XpoSat, IRNSS and technology demonstration missions with advanced indigenously developed technologies on-board,” Sivan said in the letter encouraging the scientists at the organisation, posted on the agency’s website.

There is a directive to launch the first unmanned mission before the 75th anniversary of India’s independence (August 15, 2022) and all the stake-holders are putting their best effort to meet the schedule. I am sure that we will be able to meet this target, Sivan said in the letter.

The chairperson also gave updates on the most anticipated missions. “Chandrayaan-3 design changes incorporating and testing has seen huge progress. The mission could be launched by middle of next year,” he said.

The launch of the three earth observation satellites – EOS-02, EOS-04, and EOS-06 have been delayed for several months now. All big-ticket scientific missions, including India’s first solar mission Aditya-L1, which were to take place in 2021 were pushed when the launch schedule was revised after the second wave of the pandemic.

“All indicators point towards the next imminent wave. All of us have to prepared and protect ourselves both at the personnel level as well as at the institutional level to safeguard the ongoing programmes and activities,” he said in his message.

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The sunshield will help the telescope cool down to -223°C.

The James Webb Space Telescope has now passed another critical milestone – the sunshield is deployed and it looks like a kite or diamond in space. The team will now begin the sunshield tensioning activities which include separating and stretching the five layers to create enough space between them to help radiate the heat.

The sunshield is made of a lightweight material called Kapton. The layers of the tennis-court-sized sunshield (21.197 m x 14.162 m) are also coated with aluminum and doped-silicon. The sunshield will help the telescope cool down to -223°C.

NASA said in a release that the engineers will begin with the bottom layer – the largest and flattest layer, which is closest to the Sun and will reach the highest temperatures. This layer is 0.05 millimetres thick, while the other four are 0.025 mm. The silicon coating is about 50 nanometres thick, while the aluminum coating is approximately 100 nm thick.

“The [tensioning] process involves sending commands to activate several motors to reel in a total of 90 cables through numerous pulleys and cable management devices,” the space agency said. Though the process is expected to last at least two days, NASA said that it may take longer, due to the complexity of the process.

Mike Menzel, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Webb’s lead systems engineer said: “We’ve spent 20 years on the ground with Webb, designing, developing, and testing…We’ve had a week to see how the observatory actually behaves in space. It’s not uncommon to learn certain characteristics of your spacecraft once you’re in flight. That’s what we’re doing right now. So far, the major deployments we’ve executed have gone about as smoothly as we could have hoped for. But we want to take our time and understand everything we can about the observatory before moving forward.”

These steps will ensure that the James Webb Space Telescope is in good condition to start the next deployment steps which include unfolding its secondary and primary mirrors.

“Nothing we can learn from simulations on the ground is as good as analysing the observatory when it’s up and running,” said Bill Ochs, Webb project manager, based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in a release. “Now is the time to take the opportunity to learn everything we can about its baseline operations. Then we will take the next steps.”

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Leakey was also a fellow of the UK-based Royal Society and an honorary fellow of the African Academy of Sciences.

Richard Leakey, a Kenyan conservationist and paleoanthropologist who spearheaded campaigns against the ivory trade to save the dwindling African elephant population, has died, the Kenyan presidency said on Sunday. He was 77.

For years Leakey served in various roles in the government including as director of the state-run National Museums of Kenya and twice as board chairman at the Kenya Wildlife Service.

President Uhuru Kenyatta said Leakey had “served our country with distinction…Besides his distinguished career in the public service, Dr. Leakey is celebrated for his prominent role in Kenya’s vibrant civil society where he founded and successfully ran a number of institutions.”

Leakey was the son of palaeontologists Louis and Mary Leakey, whose work helped demonstrate that human evolution began in Africa. He was celebrated for his work to save wildlife from poachers and for leading campaigns against the ivory trade.

Paula Kahumbu, a wildlife conservationist who heads WildlifeDirect, told Reuters she had been mentored by Leakey, as had many other young Kenyans. “Very courageous, he was a person who stood for integrity whether it was in wildlife conservation, whether it was related to archaeological and paleoanthropological research at museums or whether it was related to politics,” she said.

Leakey also served Kenya’s head of civil service from July 1999 to March 2001, at a time when then president Daniel Arap Moi was under pressure from donors to tackle corruption and other inefficiencies in government. He was a co-founder of the Safina Party in 1995.

At the time of his death, he was serving as chairman of the Turkana Basin Institute at Stony Brook University in the United States, which works to facilitate research and education in palaeontology and archaeology in northern Kenya. Leakey was also a fellow of the UK-based Royal Society and an honorary fellow of the African Academy of Sciences.

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In 1998, conservationists from the Chester Zoo in England and other European institutions arrived to help set up a laboratory for conserving Mexican fish.

There once was a small fish called “tequila splitfin” or Zoogoneticus tequila that swam in a river in western Mexico, but disappeared in the 1990s. Scientists and residents, however, have achieved the return of a species extinct in nature — but conserved in captivity — to its native habitat.

Its success is now intertwined with the community’s identity and being touted internationally.

It began more than two decades ago in Teuchitlán, a town near the Tequila volcano. A half-dozen students, among them Omar Domínguez, began to worry about the little fish that fit in the palm of a hand and had only ever been seen in the Teuchitlán river. It had vanished from local waters, apparently due to pollution, human activities and the introduction of non-native species.

Domínguez, now a 47-year-old researcher at the University of Michoacán, says that then only the elderly remembered the fish called “gallito” or “little rooster” because of its orange tail.

In 1998, conservationists from the Chester Zoo in England and other European institutions arrived to help set up a laboratory for conserving Mexican fish. They brought several pairs of tequila splitfin fish from the aquariums of collectors, Domínguez said.

The fish began reproducing in aquariums and within a few years Domínguez and his colleagues gambled on reintroducing them to the Teuchitlán river. “They told us it was impossible, (that) when we returned them they were going to die.”

So they looked for options. They built an artificial pond for a semi-captivity stage and in 2012 they put 40 pairs there.

Two years later, there were some 10,000 fish. The result guaranteed funding, not only from the Chester Zoo but also a dozen organizations from Europe, the United States and the United Arab Emirates, to move the experiment to the river.

There they studied parasites, microorganisms in the water, the interaction with predators, competition with other fish, and then introduced the fish in floating cages.

The goal was to re-establish the fragile equilibrium. For that part, the key was not so much the scientists as the local residents.

“When I started the environmental education program I thought they were going to turn a deaf ear to us…and at first that happened,” Domínguez said.

But the conservationists succeeded with patience and years of puppet shows, games and explanations about the ecological and health value of Zoogoneticus tequila — the fish help control mosquitos that spread dengue.

Some residents made up a nickname for the little fish: “Zoogy.” They made caricatures and formed the “River Guardians,” a group mostly of children. They collect garbage, clean the river and remove invasive plants.

Domínguez said it is difficult to say if water quality is better because there is no previous data to compare, but the entire ecosystem has improved. The river is cleaner, there are fewer non-native species and cattle are no longer permitted to drink in some areas.

The fish rapidly multiplied inside their floating cages. Then they were marked so they could be followed and set free. It was late 2017 and in six months the population increased 55 per cent. Last month, the fish had expanded to another part of the river.

The reintroduction into nature of species that were extinct in the wild is complex and time-consuming. Przewalski’s horse and the Arabian oryx are among successful examples. The Chester Zoo said Dec. 29 that the tequila splitfin had joined that small group.

“The project has been cited as an International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) case study for successful global reintroductions – with recent scientific studies confirming the fish are thriving and already breeding in the river,” the zoo said in a statement.

“This is an important moment in the battle for species conservation,” said Gerardo García, the zoo’s curator of lower vertebrates and invertebrates.

The IUCN’s red list of threatened species lists the tequila splitfin as endangered. Mexico’s freshwater ecosystems are under pressure from pollution, over-extraction of water resources and other factors. More than one-third of 536 species of freshwater fish that were assessed in the country are threatened with extinction, according to a 2020 report led by the IUCN and and the ABQ BioPark in the United States.

Still, in Mexico, Domínguez and his team are already beginning work on another fish that is considered extinct in the wild: Skiffia francesae. The Golden Skiffia could some day join “Zoogy” in the Teuchitlán river.

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The meteor shower gets its name from the constellation of Quadrans Muralis (Mural Quadrant)

The Quadrantids are here to welcome the new year. The annual meteor showers will peak after 2:00 am tomorrow morning and you can see approximately 80 meteors per hour. According to NASA, the meteor velocity is 41 kilometres per second.

The Quadrantids, one of the brightest meteor showers, are active every year from December 28 through January 12.

What makes the Quadrantid meteor shower unique?

Most meteor showers originate from comets, but the Quadrantids originate from an asteroid named 2003 EH1. The asteroid takes 5.52 years to orbit our sun and when Earth passes through the particles left by this asteroid, we see the shower. These debris trails disintegrate when they collide with our atmosphere and create the fiery streaks we see in the sky.

The meteor shower gets its name from the constellation of Quadrans Muralis (Mural Quadrant). When the shower was first noted, it appeared to be radiating from this constellation. It is now a defunct constellation that lies near the constellation of Bootes.

How to watch the shower?

Drive away from the light pollution of your cities and find a safe empty field or terrace of a house. Your eyes need about 20 to 30 minutes to adjust to the dark, so arrive early. Make sure you bring a blanket to keep yourself cozy on this winter night. You do not need any special instruments. The best strategy is to face the northeast side of the sky and look out for the fireballs.

The Virtual Telescope Project 2.0 will run a live stream starting tomorrow at 5:15 am IST. They will be capturing the shower from Rome.

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India plans to send the Chandrayaan-3 lander and rover to the moon in the third quarter of this year.

Written by Joey Roulette

Robotic missions to Mars and advances in space tourism dominated the space activities of 2021. But this year, the moon is likely to stand out, as companies and governments launch various moonbound spacecraft.

Most of those missions revolve around Artemis, NASA’s multibillion-dollar effort to return astronauts to the moon later in the decade and conduct routine science missions on its surface in preparation for farther treks to Mars (a far more ambitious endeavor that will probably not happen in this decade). But before astronauts make the moonshot, a series of rocket tests and science missions without humans will need to be completed.

2022 is the year for those initial steps toward the moon. Two new rockets central to NASA’s lunar plans will launch to space for the first time, each with more power than the Saturn 5 rocket from the Apollo program. And other countries are expected to join the march to the moon as well.

NASA’s Gigantic Moon Rocket Debut

After years of development delays, NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, could make its first journey to space — without any humans — as early as March.

The mission, called Artemis 1, will mark the first in a series of flights under NASA’s Artemis program by SLS, NASA’s centerpiece rocket system for getting moonbound astronauts off Earth. For Artemis 1, SLS will launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to send a capsule named Orion around the moon and back, rehearsing a trajectory that will be performed by Artemis 2, the subsequent mission that is scheduled to carry astronauts sometime in 2024. The third mission, Artemis 3, will result in a moon landing.

Like any major space mission, Artemis 1 has been delayed several times. It was initially planned for 2020, then pushed to various times throughout 2021 because of development challenges and setbacks caused by the pandemic. NASA blames the most recent delay to March on the need to investigate and replace a faulty internal computer controlling one of the rocket’s four main engines.

SpaceX’s Next Starship Test

Central to NASA’s efforts to return humans to the moon is SpaceX’s Starship, which will be used as a human lunar lander in roughly 2025. It will be the agency’s first astronaut mission to the moon’s surface since 1972. Designed as a fully reusable rocket system, Starship also stands at the center of Elon Musk’s ultimate goal of ferrying humans to Mars and will be crucial to SpaceX’s revenue-generating satellite launch business.

But first, Starship must reach orbit. That test flight, also with no people on board, could happen sometime in mid-2022.

Musk, SpaceX’s CEO, had hoped to launch Starship to orbit in 2021. But a protracted Federal Aviation Administration review of the environmental impact of SpaceX’s launch site in Texas and development delays with the company’s new Raptor engines have postponed the test flight. The FAA review is expected to finish in late February and determine whether deeper environmental reviews will be necessary, or whether SpaceX can resume Starship launches.

A successful orbital test will be a key step in NASA’s moon program. Astronauts launching atop the SLS inside the Orion capsule will rendezvous with and transfer to Starship above the moon to descend the rest of the way to the lunar surface. Starship would later liftoff from the moon, then transfer the astronauts back to Orion for the journey home to Earth.

NASA-Funded Moon Robots

Three robotic moon landers under a NASA program are scheduled to make their way to the lunar surface this year — if development goes as planned.

Intuitive Machines, a Houston-based company, and Astrobotic, based in Pittsburgh, are each aiming to send small lunar landers carrying various scientific payloads to the moon by the end of this year. Their landers were developed under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program — part of the agency’s effort to rely on private companies for sending cargo and research instruments into space with the hopes of stimulating a commercial market.

Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander, a six-legged cylindrical robot, is expected to launch on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket early this year carrying a dozen payloads to the lunar surface. One of the instruments on board will measure the plume of lunar dirt kicked up during Nova-C’s landing, an experiment that could help engineers prevent messy lunar landings in the future. The lander will also deploy a small rover built by Spacebit, a British company. In the fourth quarter of this year, the company could also send a second mission to the moon’s surface.

Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander is a boxy, four-legged lander with an onboard propulsion system that will ease itself onto a basaltic plain on the sunlit side of the moon’s northeastern quadrant carrying 14 research payloads. The company says Peregrine will be ready for launch aboard United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket in the middle of this year.

But whether it launches on time is dependent on when the rocket will be ready to fly. Vulcan’s debut has been held up by the engine supplier for the rocket, which is Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ space company. Its new BE-4 engines have yet to be delivered.

Testing a Complex Lunar Orbit

Rocket Lab, which builds rockets for small launches, is poised to send in March a microwave-size satellite, or CubeSat, for NASA called CAPSTONE from the company’s launch site in New Zealand.

The satellite will study an orbit around the moon that a future space station called Gateway, being developed by NASA and other space agencies, will reside in sometime in the next decade.

CAPSTONE will also test new navigation technology designed to calculate a spacecraft’s position relative to other spacecraft. Traditionally, satellites use onboard cameras to determine their whereabouts relative to star formations or the apparent position of the sun. Instead, CAPSTONE will try to glean its position in space by communicating with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, an imaging satellite launched in 2009.

South Korea’s First Moonshot

The Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter, a box-shaped satellite, will be South Korea’s first foray to the moon as the country aims to bolster its technical know-how for conducting missions in space.

Led by the Seoul’s space agency, the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, the spacecraft carrying six main tools is scheduled to launch in August on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and arrive in lunar orbit by December. It will spend a year surveying the moon’s geology and examine from afar the chemical composition of lunar dirt.

The satellite will also carry a Lunar Terrain Imager, which will survey potential landing sites for a subsequent South Korean robotic lunar lander mission.

Even More Global Visitors

Lunar robots from three other countries — Russia, India and Japan — will also try to make their way to the moon this year.

The Luna-25 lander, possibly launching in mid-2022, will mark Russia’s first moon landing since 1976, when the Soviet-era Luna-24 lander collected lunar samples to return to Earth. The lander will study the lunar soil and test technologies for future Russian moon landings.

India plans to send the Chandrayaan-3 lander and rover to the moon in the third quarter of this year, attempting its third moon mission after the lander-rover bundle from India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission crashed in 2019.

A Japanese space company, ispace, intends to send its Mission 1 lander to the moon sometime in the second half of this year. If the landing is successful, it will deploy a pair of rovers.

One, a small, four-wheeled robot named Rashid, is built by the United Arab Emirates. Another smaller robotic explorer built by Japan’s space agency is the size and shape of a basketball. It can transform into a rover after deployment, dividing itself in two and using its halves as wheels to rove around and study lunar dirt.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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