The first scientific autopsy on an ancient Egyptian mummy, performed back in 1825, might have botched the cause of death. The original ruling was that the mummified woman, Irtyersenu, died of ovarian cancer, but a new study strongly suggests she died of tuberculosis [BBC News]. The original autopsy was performed by one Dr. Augustus Bozzi Granville, a surgeon and a gynecologist (and apparently a fan of infectious diseases; he personally overcame bouts with malaria, bubonic plague and yellow fever).
Irtyersenu is a remarkable specimen in that she was mummified with her organs intact. Most mummies have their organs removed or dissolved inside their bodies prior to mummification. Dr. Granville was correct in detecting that the mummified woman had an ovarian tumor—but later studies determined it was benign. Granville studied her pelvic bone and also determined the woman to be an overweight mother between the ages of 50-55 when she died.
Here’s a timely piece of research that may inspire some trepidation, as it comes hard on the heels of Tuesday’s tsunami-triggering earthquake in the South Pacific and today’s destructive earthquake in Indonesia. Researchers have found evidence that major quakes can weaken faults on the other side of the world, increasing the chance of further tremors.
The researchers analyzed 20 years of data at Parkfield, which sits on the mighty San Andreas Fault halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It’s the most studied earthquake zone in the world, rigged with sensitive instruments to detect minute changes in the Earth’s crust [AP]. In 2004, the seismic records showed a change beginning shortly after the 9.3 magnitude earthquake in Sumatra that caused a deadly tsunami.
There was an increase in the number of small “repeating earthquakes” that regularly shudder through the ground around the San Andreas fault. Study coauthor Taka’aki Taira says that “after Sumatra, the frequency changed – it increased – but the magnitude decreased. That is a signal of the fault weakening; you only have to push a little bit and the fault fails” [BBC News].
Could the Chicago Field Museum’s mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex, a dino named Sue, have been toppled by a lowly parasite? According to a recent study in the journal PLoS ONE, a microbe commonly found in pigeons may be responsible for holes in the dinosaur‘s mandible, holes that were previously thought to be bite marks. Paleontologists compared a similar infection in a modern predatory bird to the T-Rex holes and found surprising similarities.
The researchers think the parasite, a protozoan named Trichomonas gallinae, settled in the back of Sue’s throat, and in nine other Tyrannosaurs … studied with similar holes. The parasite caused inflammation that eventually damaged the jawbone [Los Angeles Times], first forming lesions and then eroding the bone away. The inflammation would have choked off the dino’s esophagus, they say, eventually starving the T. Rex to death.
Scientists in the United Kingdom are outraged over a new program that seeks to determine asylum seekers’ nationalities through DNA and the isotopes present in their hair and fingernails. “Horrifying,” “naïve,” and “flawed” are among the adjectives geneticists and isotope specialists have used to describe the “Human Provenance pilot project,” launched quietly in mid-September by the U.K. Border Agency [Science Insider]. The experts say the tests simply aren’t accurate enough to pinpoint a person’s country of origin.
The program will be tried out on asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa, and will seek to establish whether applicants from Kenya or Ethiopia are masquerading as refugees from war-torn Somalia. Yet scientists say the Border Agency’s goals confuse ancestry or ethnicity with nationality. David Balding, a population geneticist at Imperial College London, notes that “genes don’t respect national borders, as many legitimate citizens are migrants or direct descendants of migrants, and many national borders split ethnic groups” [Science Insider].
The tsunami that struck the South Pacific islands of Somoa, American Somoa, and Tongo yesterday has resulted in at least 108 deaths, according to early reports.
Experts monitoring the underwater earthquake that triggered the tsunami have issued various reports of its magnitude, ranging from 7.8 to 8.3. The powerful quake struck early on Tuesday morning, local time, as island residents were getting ready for work and school. About ten minutes after the shock, ten-foot-high waves hit American Somoa’s shore. “American Samoa is a small island, and most of the residents are around the coastline,” [said Filipo Ilaoa, deputy director of the American Samoan office in Honolulu]. “There was no warning or anything at all. By the time the alert was out of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, it had already hit” [The New York Times].
Scientists have located a biological dimmer switch in a species of electric fish that uses electricity during everything from swimming to mating. The switch comes in handy when they don’t need to be electrified; during the day, the fish turn their current down to save energy for other activities, according to a new study in PLoS Biology. That means that the South American river fish, Sternopygus macrurus, is a natural practitioner of energy efficiency. It can reshape the charged-molecule channels in its electricity-producing cells to tone down its electrical signature within a matter of minutes [Wired.com].
Scientists found the dimmer switch in the membranes of cells called electrocytes within this electric organ. The switch takes the form of sodium channels that the fish can insert and remove from the electrocyte membranes. More sodium channels mean a stronger electric impulse [LiveScience]. Because the energy is expensive to produce for the fish, they do what the rest of us do when energy gets expensive–turn it off. The fish keep sodium channels on stand-by in the electric cells so they can switch the electricity back on in a moments notice if something spooks them.
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Image: flickr / walknboston
A 8.3 magnitude earthquake in the South Pacific triggered a tsunami early Tuesday morning local time (5:48 pm Greenwich Mean Time), sending residents of the Samoan Islands running to the hills. At this time there are unconfirmed reports of scattered deaths in American Samoa. The powerful waves reportedly swept into Pago Pago, American Samoa’s capital city.
To the west, in the independent state of Samoa, at least one coastal village was leveled, according to eyewitness Graeme Ansell of New Zealand. “It was very quick. The whole village has been wiped out,” Ansell told National Radio from a hill near Samoa’s capital, Apia. “There’s not a building standing. We’ve all clambered up hills, and one of our party has a broken leg. There will be people in a great lot of need ’round here” [AP].
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Image: flickr / epugachev
One thing we might have to look forward to should we fall deeper into a recession—a boost in public health. Americans were healthier during the Great Depression than the stronger economic periods surrounding the slump, according to a surprising new study.
Researchers studied life expectancies, mortality rates, GDP, and unemployment rates from 1920 to 1940. The team found an inverse association between economic health and population health: Life expectancy fell during economic upturns and increased during recessions. Mortality, meanwhile, tended to rise during economic upturns and fall during recessions. Deaths related to flu and pneumonia, for example, fell from about 150 per 100,000 people in 1929 to roughly 100 per 100,000 people in 1930, the researchers report online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [ScienceNOW Daily News].
The researchers won’t say for sure why this is, but they offer several theories. When the economy is growing, people tend to sleep less and smoke and drink more. They also engage in more strenuous labor, endure more work stress and breathe more polluted air. Traffic and industrial accidents rise [Los Angeles Times]. The one exception, of course, is suicides. As times get harder suicides go up, but during the time period studied they accounted for less than 2 percent of all deaths.
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Image: flickr / Tony the Misfit
Today in the innermost region of our solar system, NASA’s Messenger space probe will swoop past Mercury for the third and final time. The maneuver will give scientists a close look at the dense, iron-rich, oddball planet, and will also alter the probe’s trajectory and prepare it to begin orbiting Mercury in March 2011.
As Messenger travels within 142 miles of Mercury at 12,000 miles per hour, the spacecraft’s camera will swivel to stare at a succession of craters and other geological features…. One target will be an old 90-mile-wide crater. Another will be young 13-mile crater and a splash of light-colored soil surrounding it. A third crater of interest has materials of unusual color perhaps produced by violent volcanic eruptions [The New York Times]. When this third flyby is complete, 95 percent of the planet will have been mapped in high resolution.
Organisms evolve to fit the world around them–but if the changes don’t work out, can a creature reverse the process? Say, for example, an insect originally eats a wide variety of tree leaves, but then evolves to live exclusively on the leaves from one type of tree that is abundant in its habitat; if that tree goes extinct, can the bug reverse course? A new study in Nature sheds some light on such questions, which have perplexed evolutionary biologists for many decades.
More than a century ago, the French–born Belgian palaeontologist Louis Dollo proposed that evolution cannot retrace its steps to restore a lost trait — an idea that has remained controversial [Nature News]. So researchers set out to test “Dollo’s Law” on the molecular level, studying a protein called the glucocorticoid receptor, which binds to the hormone cortisol to regulate the stress response. Study coauthor Joseph Thornton says that at least in this protein’s case, new mutations make it practically impossible for evolution to reverse direction. “They burn the bridge that evolution just crossed” [The New York Times], he says.