The Denisovans: New Finds are Illuminating the Mysterious Ancient Humans

By Bridget Alex | August 19, 2019 11:52 am
Denisova Cave
The entrance to Denisova cave, where the ancient humans were first discovered. (Credit: Igor Boshin/Shutterstock)

Nestled in foothills of Russia’s Altai Mountains, Denisova Cave has been a research mecca since 2010, when fossil DNA from the site revealed a previously unknown human lineage, now called the Denisovans. Scientists have been working hard to reconstruct the cave’s history, through ongoing excavations as well as new analyses of materials recovered years ago.

First, what everyone wants to know: Yes, they found more human remains. In addition to the four Denisovan specimens (one pinky finger, two adult molars and a baby tooth), the cave has yielded 12 fossils from ancient humans, including teeth, toes, fingers and unclassifiable fragments.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

Why Do We Still Believe in ‘Lunacy’ During a Full Moon?

By Kate Golembiewski | August 16, 2019 11:06 am
full moon lunacy
The full moon has been associated with aberrant behavior for centuries. (Credit: Aron Visuals/Unsplash)

It’s sometimes called the “Transylvania effect.” In the dark sky, the clouds shift, revealing the full moon’s eerie silver gleam, and the people on Earth below go mad. It’s a story that gets repeated by doctors, teachers and police officers. The science, though, says something different.

Blaming the full moon for strange behavior is a time-honored tradition. In the first century AD, the Roman philosopher Pliny suggested that the full moon caused more dew to form, which led to increased moisture in the brain, and that, he said, led to madness.

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Where Does the Fecal Transplant Industry Get its Poop?

By Cody Cottier | August 14, 2019 10:48 am
FMT Capsules
A fecal transplant capsule from OpenBiome. (Credit: Erik Jacobs)

Mark Smith dares you to come up with a fecal joke he hasn’t heard. It’s not your typical industry parlance, but when you’re in the business of transplanting the stuff, it helps to have a sense of humor about it. “I think we’ve gone through just about every poop pun under the sun,” says Smith, who makes a living reallocating the contents of people’s bowels. 

He’s the co-founder and CEO of Massachusetts-based Finch Therapeutics, one of a host of companies developing, erm, unexpected cures for patients with ailing microbiomes. Our guts are home to billions of bacteria, many of which are actually essential to our internal workings. They’re key players in digestion and the immune system, among other bodily functions. Imbalances in the microbiome have been implicated in conditions ranging from irritable bowel syndrome to Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and depression.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Our Cells Are Filled With ‘Junk DNA’ — Here’s Why We Need It

By Daniel Bastardo Blanco | August 13, 2019 4:58 pm
Junk DNA
Much of our genome has no apparent purpose. Is it so-called “junk DNA” or do we simply not understand it? (Credit: ktsdesign/Shutterstock)

Would you purchase a book with over 98 percent of the text written in gibberish? Biology has no business in the book industry, yet it still writes a pretty fascinating guidebook: DNA. Our genetic manual holds the instructions for the proteins that make up and power our bodies. But less than 2 percent of our DNA actually codes for them.

The rest — 98.5 percent of DNA sequences — is so-called “junk DNA” that scientists long thought useless. The non-protein-coding stretches looked like gibberish sentences in a book draft — useless, perhaps forgotten, writing. But new research is revealing that the “junky” parts of our genome might play important roles nonetheless.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: genes and health

Why Do People Get Goosebumps?

By Megan Schmidt | August 12, 2019 6:00 pm
goosebumps
Our goosebumps are one of those weird quirks that make us human.
(Credit: Michal Cervenansky/Shutterstock)

Human bodies do a lot of weird stuff. But goosebumps may be one of our strangest bodily functions.

Goosebumps are humanity’s near-universal reaction to the cold. But for some reason, those unmistakable, tiny bumps on the skin also appear when we’re scared or when we’re moved by something awe-inspiring.

What is it about these starkly different experiences that triggers a similar reaction on our skin? And why do we get goosebumps in the first place? The answers are rooted in our evolutionary history. 

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Mind & Brain

9 Things You Think Are Environmentally Friendly — But Aren’t

By Anna Groves | August 9, 2019 11:07 am
Tote Bag
Hopefully that bag isn’t made out of organic cotton. (Credit: Vasiliy Ptitsyn/Shutterstock)

We all care about the environment at least a tiny bit. Some of us more than others. But there are things a few of us do with the best intentions that, it turns out, fall somewhere between not helpful and completely counterproductive. Here are some of the worst offenders and how to avoid them.

Recycling something “just in case”

Yeah, sadly, “aspirational recycling” is not helpful at all. Although recycling centers do have ways of sorting recyclables from non-recyclables — called residuals — you’re just making more work for them. And recycling centers still have to deal with your trash.

The Chicago Tribune reported that average contamination rates are about 16 percent across the country. In urban areas, they’re more like 20 percent.

After China announced it would no longer accept imports of plastic waste — a.k.a. our recyclables — recycling programs are even more strapped than usual. Some cities, like Philadelphia, have been forced to institute new policies. As the New York Times reported, they “identified the neighborhoods with the most contamination in its recycling bins and started sending their material to an incinerator in nearby Chester, Pa. The rest still send their material to a recycling facility.”

What’s recyclable also varies from place to place, so be sure you know what your town actually accepts. Not everything with a recycling symbol may be recyclable in your area.

Of course, there are things that are almost never recyclable that tend to make their way into bins, too. Common offenders are disposable paper cups, like the ones you might get to-go from a coffee shop. The plastic-based lining that makes them liquid-proof is too hard to separate from the paper.

Other offenders are paper towels, Styrofoam, glass from things like windows or mirrors, plastic bags (more on that in a sec), greasy pizza boxes and really anything that’s covered in food (I’m looking at you, empty peanut butter jar.)

When in doubt, your city should have a complete list of what they do and do not accept posted on their website.

Putting plastic bags in any single-stream recycling bin

This one deserves its own number, because it’s still SUCH a common practice. Cut it out! Don’t. Put. Plastic. Bags. In. The. Recycling.

If you put all your recyclables in a big plastic trash bag and put it in the bin — guess what — that could mean the whole thing is going to the landfill. If you must collect recyclables in a plastic bag, dump them out loose into the bin when you take them to the curb, and then toss the plastic bag in the trash where it belongs (or, you know, reuse it.)

plastic bags recycling
Dump those bags out! (Credit: WillemijnB/Shutterstock)

Plastic bags like you get at the grocery, drug or big box store are recyclable, but you have to bring them back to a designated plastic-bags-only receptacle. There’s often one right inside the door at grocery stores or places like Walmart. A few other bags can get recycled here, too, like the bag a loaf of bread might come in.

But other soft filmy plastics, like your sandwich baggies, the film you peeled off your lunch meat container or the cellophane that held your muffin from the coffee shop — sorry to say, these are trash.

Why does this matter? Besides making more work for recycling centers (see #1), the soft plastics clog up the machinery. You could break the recycling center.

Tote bags

Ah, sorry to break it to you. I know reusable grocery bags are one of the most popular ways people try to minimize their environmental footprint — whenever we actually remember to bring them in from our trunk. Although cutting out plastic bags from your life is a good move, most people don’t stop to think about the impact of the tote bag itself.

Last year, the Administration of Environment and Food of Denmark put together a big assessment of the environmental impacts of different types of shopping bags, from the thin, flimsy polyethylene bags all the way up to the most “eco-friendly” organic cotton totes.

As it turns out, It takes exponentially more resources to make a tote bag compared to the cheap polyethylene. The report analyzed how many times you’d need to use each type of bag to equal the environmental impact of a plastic one. Paper bags, and plastic-based reusable totes, required between 35 and 85 re-uses. A cotton tote, though, had to be used 7,100 times to make up for the resources that went into it. Organic cotton? 20,000 times. If you used your organic cotton bag twice a week for the rest of your life, it’d be worth it after 192 years.

Of course, if you’re already stocked up on tote bags — organic cotton or otherwise — the best thing you can do is keep using them (see #5.)

Organic cotton

Well, if an organic cotton grocery bag is 20,000 times more resource-hungry than a flimsy plastic bag, that’s a pretty good hint that organic cotton is not a sustainable choice.

How could this be? Conventional cotton has been genetically engineered to increase yields and decrease the need for water. Plus, without pesticides, more of the crop is lost to pest damage. That means it takes way more organic cotton plants to make a t-shirt than it does conventional plants. That’s on top of cotton already being a fairly resource-intensive crop.

Buying new, more sustainable versions of anything you already have

This one is easy to get wrong, even when your heart’s in the right place. Have you purchased a new tote bag, reusable water bottle, metal straw, storage containers or coffee mug lately? What about those cute cutlery sets to keep in your bag, so you don’t have to use disposable plastic utensils if you eat out? Though I admire your efforts, sadly, if there was a cup, bottle, utensil or container at home — or at a thrift shop — that you could’ve used instead of buying something new, you messed up.

Reusable Items
Buy with caution. (Credit: Svetlana Cherruty/Shutterstock)

That’s because any new product requires resources to make. Some are worse than others, sure, but anything new you buy has been made and probably shipped halfway around the world to get to you. It’s reduce, reuse, recycle for a reason. First and foremost, use less stuff.

Instead of buying a new bamboo cutlery set for your purse, just grab a fork and spoon from your kitchen. Instead of buying new mason jars, re-use the glass jars that your pickles and jam came in and the plastic containers from your take-out. And if you already have 10 water bottles, maybe don’t get an 11th, no matter if it’s labeled “eco-friendly.”

Especially cars

If you thought a new water bottle was bad, how about that new Prius? Yeah, we’re happy about cutting our miles-per-gallon in half, but replacing an okay-mpg car with a shiny new one doesn’t come without its own environmental costs. A ton of materials are (literally) required to make a new car.

Don’t worry, researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory crunched the numbers, and the resources required to create a hybrid car do cancel out over the long run. But whenever possible, buying used and not new will keep your impact at a minimum.

Taking ride shares

City dwellers are increasingly foregoing car ownership. Making the switch to walking, biking and taking public transit is cheaper, more sustainable and can mean you don’t have to sit in rush hour traffic or circle for parking spots ever again.

But as ride shares like Uber and Lyft have gained popularity, more attention is being given to the environmental blight that is cars that never stop driving.

Rideshare Uber
How many miles are you really saving? (Credit: MikeDotta/Shutterstock)

People tend to think of ride shares as almost on par with public transit. But they’re not. They’re worse than taking a personal vehicle because they roam around between fares. This means the total number of miles your trip takes up is more than just the distance you travel. One study in Denver found that using ride shares increased the average miles driven by 84 percent for each trip. Plus, all these extra cars on the road are making traffic worse.

Assuming anything vegan, organic, local or non-GMO is environmentally innocent

Hey, almond milk drinkers: This one’s for you. A lot of environmentally-conscious people will gravitate toward products with some sort of “green” labelling like vegan, organic or non-GMO. But these labels don’t guarantee the products are better for the environment than their conventional counterparts.

We met organic cotton already, and it’s lately become apparent that almond milk isn’t a great choice, either. Although the nuts do have a smaller carbon footprint than cow’s milk, they’re still super water hungry: it takes more than a gallon of water to grow one almond. Oat and soy milks are better for the environment. (Okay, and dairy milks are still the worst.)

In some places, buying a local version of a product can reduce its environmental impact by reducing the number of miles it had to travel to get to you. But this concept has diminishing returns, because of how super-efficient it is to ship things like produce in huge batches. The local farmer bringing a couple crates to the market might actually have a bigger carbon footprint per tomato.

Worse, some people are so obsessed with “buying local” that “indoor farming” is becoming a thing: literally replacing free sunshine and rain with electric bulbs and water hoses. The Guardian reported on an analysis by Cornell University professor emeritus Louis Albright, which crunched the numbers on how impractical the practice really is. They estimate it would take about three Empire State Buildings-worth of space to grow enough wheat to meet the bread needs of the citizens of New York City. Another study found that growing lettuce under artificial lighting caused five times the carbon emissions compared to just shipping it in.

Putting compostable or biodegradable stuff in the landfill, not the compost

With an upsurge of restaurants making the switch to compostable, biodegradable bowls, cups and serving wares, one might assume that these are successfully reducing waste.

But, sadly, most landfills are set up so that even biodegradable stuff doesn’t biodegrade. That’s because most decomposition comes from bacteria and fungi which require oxygen to do their thing. Landfills are tightly packed, anaerobic places where decomposition just doesn’t happen. Worse, once they get “full,” landfills are often sealed off with layers of clay and plastic to prevent liquids from seeping in or out.

That’s why composting food waste is so important. The EPA estimates that most composting households send 30 percent less trash to the curb than their non-composting peers.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts

Scientists Are Zapping Fake Electrical Grids to Help Us Survive an EMP Attack

By Jennifer Walter | August 8, 2019 3:13 pm
EMP Attack
(Credit: Quality Stock Arts/Shutterstock)

If you’re a doomsday prepper or were alive during the Cold War you may already be aware – and fearful – of an imminent electromagnetic pulse (EMP) event. It’s a disaster scenario that’s captured the imaginations of filmmakers and video game creators, as well as legitimate organizations, like the United States government.

EMPs are brief but powerful jolts of high-frequency electromagnetic waves that can fry electronics – and on a grander scale may have the capability to cripple power grids, leaving millions of people without electricity. It’s been theorized that we’d plunge back into the dark ages, or worse — in 2017, representatives from the now defunct EMP Commission cited comments that a worst-case scenario could lead to millions of deaths.  

EMP disasters are the stuff of science fiction, but they’re not beyond reality. We’ve seen massive solar flares — like the one during the 1859 Carrington event — cause electronic systems  nationwide to fail (although telegraph lines were the main casualty back then). And knowing how powerful these blasts can be, the United States and Russia found ways to weaponize EMPs during the Cold War via nuclear bombs.

But besides theorizing about the threats that EMPs could pose to civilization, little research has been done on what the actual impact of an EMP event would be, and what we can do to prepare in the event of a disaster.

Here’s what science does (and doesn’t) know about EMPs so far — and how concerned you should be about building that doomsday shelter.

Surprise! Your Power is Out

It wasn’t a coincidence that 36 strings of streetlights suddenly went dead in Honolulu on July 9, 1962. That same day, the United States tested Starfish Prime, a nuclear bomb detonated above the Pacific Ocean that sent out high-altitude electromagnetic pulses – or HEMPs, as they’re known – and accidentally took Honolulu’s power out with it.

The bomb test was part of Operation Fishbowl, the United States’ Cold War-era program to develop high-altitude nuclear weapons that could detonate above the atmosphere and emit high radiation to compromise electronics on the ground. And even though the test site was about 900 miles from Honolulu, the blast was strong enough to be seen from the island and take out a transmission station.

Starfish Prime
The Starfish Prime blast, as seen from Honolulu. (Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

But it wasn’t until 1989 that Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque released a report that suggested the blast caused the Hawaiian power outage. And in fact, similar events happened in Kazakhstan when Russia did HEMP testing over the country during Project K in the Cold War. A paper on the damage in 1998 noted that some 300 miles worth of power lines were compromised as a result of testing.

HEMPs have the potential to cause more damage than naturally-occurring solar flares because they emit higher levels of radiation. Electromagnetic waves from such events are divided into three levels, commonly known as E1, E2 and E3. E2 and E3 waves do damage comparable to lightning strikes and mild solar flares, respectively.

E1 pulses, which have the highest frequency, reach the furthest and cause the most damage. High-frequency electromagnetic pulses disrupt the normal flow of electricity in modern devices. When an extreme interference like an E1 wave comes in contact with your cell phone, computer or even your local power plant, the resulting surge can destroy components and render our technology useless.

And just because nuke-generated E1 waves pack the most punch doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be wary of solar flares. In March 1989, Quebec’s power grid was shut down by a massive flare that stopped subways and airports and left nearly 3 million people without power.

So, the most vulnerable victim in a modern-day EMP event is the power grid. Simply put, that’s all the wires, transmission stations and power plants that bring electricity to your home and office. But how much of that equipment is ready for an EMP event, and what could we do to make it better?

Under One Roof

Substations are the central hubs of the power grid, but if you don’t work for a power company, it may not be obvious. Next time you’re driving around, watch where the power lines go — eventually they’ll connect to large metal towers on a fenced-in patch of dirt or rock.

On the outskirts of the substation will be a little shed, called a control house. Think of it as a giant version of the circuit breaker in your home. It houses the switches, batteries, meters and control boards that keep transmission lines and transformers in check.

The control houses can be made of a variety of materials – concrete, brick, metal, or a combination of the three. But little research has been done on what might happen to these power centers during an EMP. To find out, Randy Horton and his colleagues at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) took on the challenge in a report released in April.

Horton and his colleagues at EPRI spent the last three years simulating what happens when E1 waves ripple through the equipment used in power stations. This included actually zapping transformers and transmissions lines with high-frequency pulses and building substation housing out of different materials and putting them to the test to see how the electronics inside held up.

The results showed that although some parts of power lines and transformer equipment were damaged by the pulses, they weren’t as drastically affected as some predictions presumed. And with the control houses, some structures held up better than others — namely the ones made with mostly metal, not concrete. The conductive qualities of metal make the control house act like a Faraday Cage, absorbing and dissipating the incoming energy so none reaches the electronics inside. While the modern-day metal control house designs weren’t totally EMP-proof, they did have better shielding qualities than their concrete counterparts.

EPRI is now working with 18 utilities across the U.S. for further testing and to develop plans to create EMP-resistant housing in substations. Although these power centers come in different shapes and sizes, Horton wants to develop a common blueprint that could aid in helping companies when taking protective measures against outside forces.

“We’re trying to get to the point where you don’t have to do individual design for individual substations,” he says, although he wouldn’t call it a “one-size-fits-all” type of project. Rather, the guidelines will help each utility figure out what materials they can use to better EMP-proof their substations.

The End of the World as We Know It?

So, how likely is it that a HEMP attack or solar flare would send us spiraling into a chaotic doomsday situation? The answer isn’t simple, but Horton says utility companies are already prepared to handle blackouts, and wouldn’t be completely in the dark about how to revive the grid after an EMP-related outage. 

Power companies have what’s called a black start plan, which targets specific substations and uses exterior equipment to jumpstart them. As long as that equipment stays safe, it can help get the grid back on its feet in a blackout.

The only caveat is if an EMP does significant damage to that equipment – but with preventative measures, such as the ones EPRI is helping develop, the grid could stay safe in a disaster scenario.

“If this happens, utilities aren’t like, ‘oh my God, what do we do,’” Horton says. “The black start plans should work just like they always have.”

It could be a long road to fully protecting the grid from a flare or HEMP attack, but it’s not without government attention. The initial EPRI study was released just a month after President Trump signed an executive order to encourage research into EMPs, noting that government agencies must share critical data and technical expertise with the private sector. So the EMP-proof substations of the future may be here before we know it.

In the meantime, if you’re still planning to build that doomsday shelter, make sure it’s made of metal, not concrete.

New Blood Tests for Alzheimer’s Might Make Early Diagnosis a Reality

By Todd Golde and Steven DeKosky | August 7, 2019 5:20 pm
Alzheimer's Disease
Many older people and their families worry about a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. (Credit: Nadya Chetah/Shutterstock)

Many people who have problems with their memory, especially if they are elderly, worry that they have Alzheimer’s disease, which afflicts at least 5.5 million people in the U.S. and brings tremendous burdens to families as well. This concern is paramount among those who have seen a family member, friend or colleague develop this insidious progressive disease.

Now, there is a real possibility that blood tests may aid in firming up a clinical diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, and that additional blood tests may help to determine how the disease will progress. Studies presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Los Angeles in July demonstrated the utility of various blood tests for Alzheimer’s disease.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Alzheimer's

SNAPSHOT: Swirling Clouds on Jupiter

By Ernie Mastroianni | August 7, 2019 10:31 am
Photo by NASA/JPL-CalTech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin Gill

Looking a bit like earthly thunderheads, a white band of high-altitude clouds emerge above the colorful, swirling patterns of Jupiter in a photo taken last summer by NASA’s Juno spacecraft. Jupiter, the solar system’s largest planet, has no Earth-like surface. Instead of an outer crust, the gas giant consists mainly of hydrogen and helium that condenses into liquid the deeper you go, all wrapped in an atmosphere of clouds made up of ammonia ice, ammonium hydrosulfide crystals and ice water vapor.

Measurements taken by Juno suggest the atmosphere extends nearly 2,000 miles below the gaseous surface. The solar-powered spacecraft eased into a 53-day orbit around Jupiter in 2016 for a mission expected to last into 2021. 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics

SNAPSHOT: The Dangerous Dance of the Jackdaw

By Lacy Schley | August 7, 2019 10:23 am
Image by Alex Thornton

Despite a spirograph-like appearance, these loops and twists actually represent the flight paths and wingbeats of a flock of jackdaws, members of the wily crow family that mate for life. Researchers had thought that each member of a flock flew independently of their mates, allowing them to pay close attention to others and rapidly communicate to evade predators.

But new research in Cornwall, England, found that jackdaws stick with their mates as they fly, a sweet but ultimately dangerous act since it distracts the pair from the rest of the flock’s actions and slows the overall flow of information. This newly discovered behavior could change our understanding of how avian flight patterns evolved.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World
MORE ABOUT: animals, birds
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