Human Hearts Evolved for Endurance — and They Need It to Stay Healthy

By Chris Gorski | September 19, 2019 4:42 pm
Endurance Running
(Credit: lzf/Shutterstock)

(Inside Science) — Millions of years ago, after the ancestors of humans diverged from the last link they shared with chimpanzees, they began developing the numerous adaptations that made endurance one of the defining traits of our species. By about 2 million years ago, the genus Homo had emerged and the process really took off. Today, humans can run for miles or walk all day thanks to those changes. In new research, scientists have shown just how substantially evolution has changed one crucial organ: the heart.

“We now understand the evolutionary trajectory of the heart,” said Aaron Baggish, who leads the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “And we now understand how that helps us to place common contemporary diseases into perspective.”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts
MORE ABOUT: personal health

Hubble Spots a Dim, Dark Matter-Rich Galaxy

By Eric Betz | September 19, 2019 1:45 pm
(Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, D. Calzetti)

Some 30 million light-years from Earth, a faint monster lurks in the constellation Cetus the Whale. Astronomers dub the object UGC 695, and astronomers recently caught this image of it using the Hubble Space Telescope.

It’s a galaxy fainter than even the background brightness of our planet’s atmosphere, which makes it tough to see with Earth-bound telescopes.

These so-called “low-surface-brightness galaxies” get their signature dimness from the fact that they’re loaded with huge clouds of gas and dust, plus abundant dark matter, while containing relatively few stars spread over a large area. But astronomers still aren’t sure how these galaxies form. And that makes looks like this one from Hubble all the more valuable.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: galaxies

Giant Volcano on Jupiter’s Moon Could Erupt Any Second

By Mara Johnson-Groh | September 19, 2019 12:11 pm
Jupiter Io
A true color approximation of Jupiter’s moon Io taken by the Galileo spacecraft in 1999. (credit: PIRL/University of Arizona)

A volcano spread across an area greater than Lake Michigan could erupt any day. Located on Jupiter’s moon Io scientists predict that Loki, named after the Norse trickster god, is due to explode sometime in mid-September. The volcano last erupted in May 2018, an event also predicted by scientists.

“Loki volcano is huge — 200 kilometers across. It’s large enough that it would completely take out southern California if it were on Earth,” said Julie Rathbun, a scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona. She presented the prediction in a poster at the European Planetary Science Congress-Division for Planetary Sciences meeting in Geneva on September 17.

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MORE ABOUT: solar system

This is What Denisovans May Have Looked Like

By Leslie Nemo | September 19, 2019 10:21 am
denisovan portrait
This is an estimate of what Denisovan’s may have looked like, based on a new DNAS analysis technique. (Credit: Maayan Harel)

Every time archaeologists pry the remains of a newly-identified human ancestor from the earth, there’s one question we care about most: What did they look like? For the first time, researchers have tried to answer that burning query about Denisovans, one of the most intriguing ancient relatives on our family tree.

Discovered in 2010 in a Siberian cave, these ancient humans have begun to reveal tantalizing hints of their past in recent years. They interbred with both humans and Neanderthals, for example, and spread from Siberia to Indonesia before going extinct around 40,000 years ago.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: human origins

This Gut Bacteria Makes People Drunk Without Drinking — And Causes Liver Disease

By Jillian Mock | September 19, 2019 10:00 am
Klebsiella pneumoniae
Klebsiella pneumoniae bacteria grown in culture. (Credit: Sirirat/Shutterstock)

Three years ago, a woman in upstate New York was charged with drunk driving and then exonerated when she proved her high blood alcohol level was the result of a rare condition in which her body brews its own alcohol. At the time, the bizarre story made national headlines. Now, auto-brewery syndrome, as the condition is called, may have helped researchers unlock some of the secrets of a common but little-understood liver disease.

In a new study, scientists discovered that certain strains of a common gut bacteria can produce a ton of alcohol in the body. They also found these bacterial strains might be the connection between ABS and a liver condition known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). The findings were published today in the journal Cell Metabolism.

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MORE ABOUT: microbes & viruses

Evaporating Exomoon Could Explain Weird Light Patterns of Tabby’s Star

By Erika K. Carlson | September 18, 2019 5:15 pm
An artist’s concept of a ring of dust orbiting Tabby’s Star. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

About four years ago, one star gained notoriety when some astronomers suggested its weird light pattern could be signs of artificial “alien megastructures” blocking the star’s light. Though scientists generally say that clouds of gas and dust are most likely the culprit, the source of that gas and dust remains a mystery.

One possibility is that the star, formally called KIC 8462852, kidnapped an icy “exomoon” from its parent planet within the system, researchers reported earlier this month in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Scientists called these hypothetical escaped moons “ploonets.” And if such a moon was brought close to the star, the world would evaporate, creating dust and debris that obscures the star.

If the researchers are right, this would be one of the earliest signs of an alien moon we’ve ever observed.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts

One Protein Makes Ebola Deadly. Scientists Can Turn it Off

By Anna Groves | September 18, 2019 5:00 pm
ebola signs
A sign in the Democratic Republic of the Congo warns people that Ebola is in the area. (Credit: Sergey Uryadnikov/Shutterstock)

The Ebola virus continues to ravage populations across Africa. But earlier this week, researchers reported that they’ve figured out what makes Ebola just so virulent. One particular protein is giving Ebola its punch, and researchers know how to switch it off. The find could lead to new vaccines and may give a huge boost to Ebola research safety.

Ebola’s Sneak Attack

The Ebola virus disease progresses quickly and is transmitted easily; it’s killed tens of thousands of people since the first major outbreak in 2014. Vaccines that would protect people from the disease have been in the works for years, but despite their successes in trials, they’re still in the experimental phase — none are widely available.

One of the reasons the Ebola pathogen is so virulent is that it has ways of thwarting the body from putting up a normal immune defense. The virus impairs the immune system’s internal communications network, delaying the body’s immune response long enough to do major damage. The body can’t catch up.

For the past few years, researchers have been homing in on a specific protein on the Ebola virus’ outer structure, called a nucleocapsid. Experiments in cells and tests in rodents have confirmed that the protein, called VP35, is a major factor in how Ebola disrupts the immune system. But exactly how VP35 would interact with the whole Ebola system — in a human — was unclear.

A Mutant, Disarmed

So researchers turned to closer approximations of humans: macaque monkeys.

Chris Basler is a virologist at Georgia State University who studies emerging viruses and how they interact with the immune system. Basler and his team, which included researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch and the University of California, Irvine, created mutated versions of the Ebola virus that had a key function — the one that messes with the immune system — of their VP35 proteins disabled. Then, they exposed the macaques to it.

As the team expected, the monkeys didn’t get sick. The virus didn’t proliferate in the body — and, their bodies were able to put up a normal immune response.

“Despite the fact that the mutant virus grows at a really quite minimal level in the animal, it can induce a robust adaptive immune response,” explains Basler. “So we get antibodies; we get T- cell responses that can control infections.

“And that’s in contrast to how we think of the lethal [Ebola] virus disease, where it seems like the infection progresses so rapidly that you don’t really have time to mount a robust effective immune response,” he says.

Lasting Defense

More, this immune response to the mutant Ebola had a lasting effect that protected the monkeys against other strains: the wild, lethal Ebola. In essence, they were vaccinated. And the more mutant virus they were exposed to, the more immune they were to the wild Ebola.

“It was very striking,” says Basler. “There really was no sign of disease in the animals.”

Basler says the team isn’t promoting VP35-mutants as a new vaccine candidate just yet. Other vaccines in the works are quite effective, he says, and the safety tests and regulatory approval that would be required to get a vaccine with a live Ebola virus in it — mutated or not — would be intense.

The more immediate application of this work is that the VP35 mutant strain opens up avenues for much safer Ebola research.

“You wouldn’t be studying the immune evasion functions, but you could be studying all the other functions of the virus in a manner that would be safer than working with the fully wild type virus,” he says.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts

Two Asteroids Collided in Deep Space, Sparking an Ancient Ice Age

By Jake Parks | September 18, 2019 1:34 pm
This artist’s concept captures the catastrophic collision that destroyed the parent body, which was bigger than any known asteroid break-up in the past 3 billion years. (Credit: Don Davis/Southwest Research Institute.)

A giant collision between two asteroids may have triggered a global ice age that hit Earth some 466 million years ago. The cosmic crash — which took place between Mars and Jupiter and destroyed an asteroid some 93 miles (150 km) wide — created a thick plume of dust that spread throughout the inner solar system.

This massive reservoir of debris then continually rained down on our planet as our orbit crossed through it over the span of some 2 million years, slowly changing Earth’s overall climate.

According to the new study, published Wednesday in Science Advances, the timing of the suspected global dust storm lines up pretty well with a particularly chilly period in Earth’s history, when a drop in temperatures is thought to have triggered an explosion of new species. In fact, “the timing appears to be perfect,” said lead author Birger Schmitz of Lund University in a press release.

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MORE ABOUT: asteroids, solar system

Scientists Experiment With Growing Human Tissues on Tofu, Paper, Ice and More

By Matthew Phelan | September 18, 2019 10:12 am
lab grown organs
(Credit: ValentinaKru/Shutterstock)

It’s been more than a decade since the first lab-grown organ (a more-or-less functional replacement bladder) was successfully implanted into a human body. But in the time since tens of thousands of people have been added to the organ donor waiting list in America alone.

Scientists are still figuring out how to grow organs at a scale — and price — that can meet the needs of thousands of patients a year. One of the big challenges to creating new organs in the lab is simply growing them: human cells require a very specific environment to shape themselves into functioning tissues.

Now, a team of researchers at the University of Massachusetts Lowell points out that human cells can grow on on a variety of scaffolds made of materials from everyday life. Think eggshells, paper, spinach leaves and more.

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This Device Can Recommend the Best Cancer Treatment — Using Just a Patient’s Breath

By Jennifer Walter | September 17, 2019 6:05 pm
A patient breathes into the eNose, a tool designed to determine effective cancer treatments for lung cancer patients. (Credit: Amsterdam University Medical Centers)

The newest cancer sniffer might not be as cute as a sharp-nosed canine, but it could give doctors a new way to determine the best treatment for patients using just the melange of compounds in their breath.

The eNose can detect with 85 percent accuracy if a person will respond to immunotherapy, say researchers in a paper published today in Annals of Oncology. That could make it an alternative to current methods of determining which cancer treatment is best suited to different patients.

What’s in a Whiff?

Normally, determining what treatment will work for people with non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is invasive and time-consuming. Immunotherapy, a type of treatment that equips the immune system to fight off cancer cells, is an option, but it’s only effective in about a fifth of patients. To see if it will work, doctors take tissue samples, sometimes from the lungs, and analyze them in a lab. In some cases, results can take weeks to come back. But the eNose, after analyzing a patient’s breath, can churn out results in less than a minute.

The device consists of a tube and seven sensors that sniff out particles in the breath of patients with advanced NSCLC. Think of it as a breathalyzer, but for determining cancer treatments.

When a patient breathes into the device, sensors analyze volatile organic compounds (VOCs), gaseous molecules that carry important information about our metabolic processes. Based on the presence of telltale biomarkers in the breath, the device is able to recommend whether immunotherapy is a good option or not.

The researchers took breath samples of 143 patients with advanced lung cancer two weeks before they started immunotherapy treatment. After three months, they analyzed the progress of the treatment to see if the eNose had prescribed an effective solution.

They concluded that 85 percent of those patients were prescribed the most effective treatment.

Besides being a quicker alternative to previous methods, the eNose is noninvasive. That means it offers a way to detect cancer without requiring doctors to snip any tissues from a patient’s body.

A Long Way to the Hospital

While the researchers are optimistic about the eNose’s potential, they also acknowledge that it might be a while before it becomes a regular diagnostic tool in hospitals.

Since these trials were conducted in a clinical setting, the dataset is lacking the perspective of a larger-scale lab trial among patients. In a press release, the researchers say that the results of this first trial lay the groundwork for further trials – likely something on a larger scale.

But, said study author and oncologist Michel van den Heuvel in the release, “We are convinced that this study merely scratches the surface.”

The science of using breath to churn out speedy diagnoses is in its beginning stages. But our exhalations have more potential than we realize.

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