Cold Fathers Have Leaner Children, Study Suggests

By Nathaniel Scharping | July 11, 2018 5:11 pm
(Credit: Smile19/Shutterstock)

(Credit: Smile19/Shutterstock)

Did your dad like to take cold showers? Or perhaps he was a ski buff, or an open-water swimmer.

It’s too late now, but you very might well wish that your paternal progenitor had a fondness for cold temperatures. A new study published Monday in Nature Medicine shows that mice exposed to cold temperatures sire offspring that are both slimmer and healthier on high-fat diets than those whose fathers were kept warm. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

World’s Oldest Colors Shed Light On Ancient Life

By Charles Choi | July 11, 2018 2:21 pm
Biogeochemistry Lab Manager Janet Hope from the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences holds a vial of colored porphyrins (pink colored liquid), believed to be some of the oldest pigments in the world.

Biogeochemistry Lab Manager Janet Hope from the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences holds a vial of colored porphyrins (pink colored liquid), believed to be some of the oldest pigments in the world. (Credit: ANU)

Bright pink 1.1-billion-year-old molecules from deep beneath the Sahara desert are now the oldest biological colors that scientists have discovered so far, and could shed light on why complex, multicellular life took so long to evolve on Earth.

This discovery “really came as a fluke,” said study senior author Jochen Brocks, a paleobiogeochemist at the Australian National University in Canberra. “About 10 years ago, a petroleum company looking for oil in the Sahara was exploring the black shales of the Taoudeni Basin in Mauritania when they hit upon something date 1.1 billion years in age. Our lab is renowned for analyzing the oldest molecules in the world, so they sent us a few samples to analyze.”

The scientists crushed the rock they were given to powder and suspended it within an organic solvent. “It was just like working with a coffee machine — instead of pumping water through a powder to get coffee, we ran a solvent through the rock powder to get a brown to black extract,” Brocks said.

This sample was unusually rich in carbon — “so rich and black that it would burn in an oven,” Brocks said. When they separated the different molecules in the extract within a gel, study lead author Nur Gueneli screamed, came into the office, and showed Brocks that it wasn’t just a typical brown or black oil at all, but had an amazing pink band in it.

Blood-Red Chlorophyll

The researchers had discovered ancient chlorophyll, the pigment that plants and other photosynthetic life use to convert sunlight into biological energy. The normal blue-green color of chlorophyll is due largely to magnesium, “which sits like a wobbly tooth in chlorophyll — it’s not very stable inside,” Brocks said. However, when an organism dies, other metals can replace this magnesium.

“Every single black shale that can preserve these molecules has all sorts of heavy metals in it,” Brocks said. “If that metal is nickel, the chlorophyll becomes blood-red; if vanadium, it becomes purple, and if that gets diluted, that’s how you get pink.”

Until now, the oldest pigment molecules scientists had found were about 500 million years old. “This is older by about 600 million years,” Brocks said. “These molecules are just exceedingly rare, and unlikely to find. We looked at just about every conceivable rock of this age before and found nothing. I’m not sure we’re going to find anything older ever, and I’m not sure we’re going to find any molecules filling in the gap between 500 million years ago and 1.1 billion years ago.”

Pigments of Life

These molecules are more than just a pretty color — they are now also shedding light on ancient oceans. When the scientists analyzed these compounds, they discovered they were unusually rich in the isotope nitrogen-15. Isotopes of an element vary in how many neutrons they possess in their atomic nuclei — the most common nitrogen isotope, nitrogen-14, has seven neutrons in its nucleus, while nitrogen-15 has eight.

Previous research found that different photosynthetic organisms consistently have different, specific levels of nitrogen-15 in their photosynthetic pigments. It remains a mystery why this is — “what we do know is that this suggests these pigments we found belonged to cyanobacteria and not algae,” Brocks said.

Cyanobacteria are microbes that were likely among the first photosynthetic life on Earth. They were later joined in ancient oceans by algae, which like plants and animals but unlike cyanobacteria are eukaryotes — that is, they have nuclei in their cells.

The scientists found this sample was overwhelmingly cyanobacterial in nature. “That surprised me — it wasn’t, like 50 percent cyanobacteria and 50 percent algae, it was really strongly cyanobacterial,” Brocks said. The researchers also saw the sample had a dearth of molecules known as steranes that are typical of eukaryotes but not of bacteria.

These findings suggest that about 1.1 billion years ago, Earth’s oceans were dominated by cyanobacteria and not algae. “These ancient oceans were really bacterial oceans,” Brocks said. “We do have eukaryotic fossils from this time, but ecologically, they were really unimportant.”

The Mystery Of Complexity

As such, “the beautiful pink molecule could help answer a major question — why did large multicelullar complex animals on Earth take so long to develop?” Brocks said.

“Earth is 4.6 billion years old, and it’s well-established without a doubt it had life by 3.5 billion years, and it probably emerged earlier,” Brocks said. “But the first complex multicellular creatures big enough to see with the eye did not emerge until about 600 million years ago. So why did it take about 3 billion years of evolution before something complex and multicellular emerged?”

One possible explanation was that relatively large animals could not appear until large, nutritious photosynthetic microbes such as algae evolved. These animals then supported the evolution of carnivores that preyed on these herbivores, and life on Earth exploded with complexity.

“These pigments we found suggested that at 1.1 billion years, there were no algae, only cyanobacteria, which supports the idea that animals could not exist in such oceans because the food sources were not sufficient,” Brocks said.

The scientists detailed their findings online July 9 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts, Uncategorized

Giving Mice — Male and Female — Hot Flashes Reveals Possible Path to Treatment

By Roni Dengler | July 11, 2018 1:52 pm
(Credit: YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV/Shutterstock)

(Credit: YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV/Shutterstock)

Hot flashes — sudden rushes of overwhelming warmth that heat up the body like a roaring furnace – plague millions of women, and some men. Now scientists find a single type of brain cell is responsible for setting off these heat bombs in mice. The discovery may lead to better treatments for keeping the body’s thermostat at a pleasant temperature.

Currently, the go-to remedy for hot flashes is estrogen replacement therapy to compensate for a drop in estrogen levels after menopause. But as a hormone, estrogen has effects throughout the body and isn’t an option for many people including those with liver disease, who are at risk for strokes and women suffering breast cancer. To find better treatments, scientists needed a better grasp on what causes hot flashes. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain

Romans Might Have Been First Commercial Whalers

By Mark Barna | July 11, 2018 1:03 pm
Right whales were hunted to extinction in the Mediterranean. New evidence indicates even the Romans may have hunted whales on a commercial scale. (Credit: wildestanimal/shutterstock)

Right whales were hunted to extinction in the Mediterranean. New evidence indicates even the Romans may have hunted whales on a commercial scale. (Credit: wildestanimal/shutterstock)

In the second century, the Greco-Roman writer Oppian described men in rowboats thrusting harpoons into a “sea monster,” which is then roped and towed to shore.

At the time, the Romans had a successful fishing industry in the Strait of Gibraltar, the western waterway to the Mediterranean world. Historians sometimes say Roman fishing at this bottleneck included whaling, but other than Oppian’s poem and other indirect clues, there was no evidence.

A paper published Wednesday in The Royal Society Journal suggests coastal whales lived in great numbers in the strait during Roman times. The authors speculate that a commercial whaling operation may have existed.
Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: animals, archaeology, romans

Competition For Mates Gives Male Mice Bigger Genitals

By Charles Choi | July 11, 2018 12:00 pm
(Credit: Victor Tyakh/shutterstock)

(Credit: Victor Tyakh/shutterstock)

Men trying to look good for the ladies might pump iron, but when male mice are regularly exposed to male rivals, it results in thicker penis bones, potentially because wider girth might prove more desirable to females, a new study finds. Though the authors point out it’s not applicable to humans.

The intense rivalry between males over females has helped drive the evolution of many extraordinary male traits, from peacock plumes to the gigantic antlers of the extinct Irish elk. Evolutionary biologist Gonçalo Igreja André at the University of Western Australia wanted to see if sexual competition might also influence male genitals, reasoning that such research might yield insights on the female orgasm, the evolutionary benefits of which remain hotly debated, he said.

The scientists experimented with mice to see whether the mere possibility of competition between males triggered physical changes. Their research focused on the baculum, or penis bone, of the rodents.
Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Uncategorized

What Sparks Hot Streaks For Artists And Athletes?

By Lacy Schley | July 11, 2018 12:00 pm
(Credit: Elnur/shutterstock)

(Credit: Elnur/shutterstock)

Francis Ford Coppola, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg: all directors who’ve had a string of successes in their careers. Hot streaks like these stretch beyond the realm of movie directors, though. Athletes, gamblers, musicians — the list could go on.

Regardless of your niche, what’s going on that spurs these back-to-back wins? And when are they most likely to strike?

To try and find out, an international group of researchers looked at the careers of approximately 3,500 artists, 6,200 film directors and 20,000 scientists. The team used art auction prices, IMDb movie ratings and how often a paper was cited after 10 years of publication to gauge a work’s impact.

After analyzing the numbers, the team came away with some interesting conclusions, published today in Nature. Most artists, directors and scientists experience at least one hot streak during their careers: 91 percent, 82 percent and 90 percent, respectively. (Though the likelihood of hitting a second was less likely, most notably for directors, and having more than two was rare no matter the occupation.)

So while it’s mostly a ubiquitous phenomenon, interestingly, when it happens is pretty random. So a newbie, a vet or someone in the middle of their career are all equally likely to go on a tear. And usually, that tear will last, on average, 5.7 years for artists, 5.2 years for directors and just 3.7 years for scientists.

Maybe most surprising finding, though, is that when people were on a hot streak, they weren’t any more productive than they’d been at any other time in their careers. Even though they were cranking out about the same amount of work, for some reason, the work they produced during their hot streak made more of an impact.

The authors argue this is likely because the artist, director or scientist in question experienced some sort of creative shift during this chunk of time. Though, the authors do caution in their study that “the identification of the true origins of hot streaks is beyond the scope of this paper.”

Perhaps someday we’ll really get to the bottom of where such successive success comes from. Until then, keep striking while the iron’s hot.

A Baby’s Cries Predict Their Future Voice

By Carl Engelking | July 10, 2018 6:00 pm
(Credit: Billion Photos/shutterstock)

(Credit: Billion Photos/shutterstock)

By his baby bawls, we may know the next James Earl Jones.

According to a team of scientists from the United Kingdom and France, babies’ cries may accurately predict their voice pitch later in life. This, researchers say, is an indication that your golden pipes were tuned long before puberty, potentially even in the womb.

What we do with this information is unclear, but their finding is certainly worthy of adding to the your-body-is-a-fortune-teller collection. You know the classics: finger-length predicts speed and aggression; index- and ring-finger digit ratios predict masculinity; the waist-to-hip ratio predicts health; facial shape predicts perceived height and leadership ability. The list goes on.

Here’s how the baby-cries-predicts-adult-voice ditty came together.

Bawl to the Future

For their study, researchers weren’t entering unprecedented territory. A previous experiment found that voice pitch at age seven predicted 64 percent of the variance in pitch at adulthood. Basically, accounting for all other factors – size, sex, weight, etc. – a person’s voice at age seven was the best predictor of a person’s voice later in life.

So, the U.K.-French research team asked the next logical question: Can your voice as a baby predict how you’ll sound as an adult? To answer it, researchers pulled out recordings of crying, four-month-old babies they captured years ago for a different study (parents all consented, of course). Then, they reconnected with those babies, now 5 years old, to record their voices today (again, parents were cool).

They found that the pitch of babies’ cries at four months of age was a significant predictor of their speech pitch at age five. Layer that previous study about seven-year-olds on top of this one, and it would appear it’s possible to determine a person’s future voice pitch very, very early in life. Researchers say their voice frequency findings were also positively correlated with the 2D:4D digit ratio, but only in the right hand.

Here’s the 2D:4D ratio in a nutshell: If your index finger is shorter than your ring finger, you may have been exposed to more testosterone in the womb. If your index finger is longer than your ring finger, you may have been exposed to lower levels of testosterone. The ratio is a supposed predictor of masculine traits later in life (more testosterone=more masculine traits). Given early voice frequency and finger length are related, researchers say these two traits may share a common origin, such as exposure to prenatal hormones.

Researchers published their findings Tuesday in the journal Biology Letters, but there are a few caveats. First of all, there were only 15 children in the study, as it is difficult to record people as babies and then 5, 10, 15, 20 years later. We’ll need larger follow-up studies. Also, girls were underrepresented in the study, so future examinations would balance the equation.

Time will tell if these findings hold up under further scrutiny. But, who knows, maybe by 2050 we’ll be watching a show called “America’s Got Talent and We Know It Before They Did,” which follows celebrity judges as they scour maternity wards tuning their ears for the iconic voice of a new generation.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts

In a Rare Feat, Scientists Anticipate and Recover an Incoming Asteroid

By Amber Jorgenson | July 10, 2018 3:59 pm
The small meteorite recovered from the impact of asteroid 2018 LA. (Credit: Peter Jenniskens)

The small meteorite recovered from the impact of asteroid 2018 LA. (Credit: Peter Jenniskens)

We have swarms of scientists searching the skies for space oddities, but it’s rare that they actually find one in the act of plunging to Earth.

On June 23, a group of international geoscientists discovered a meteorite in Botswana that had been dwelling in space just weeks earlier. The fresh fragment broke off of asteroid 2018 LA as it plummeted to Earth on June 2, turning into a fiery meteor and exploding as it entered our atmosphere.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics

Childhood Cancer Survivors Face Another Struggle: Endocrine Disorders

By Ian Graber-Stiehl | July 10, 2018 10:25 am
(Credit: sumroeng chinnapan/Shutterstock)

(Credit: sumroeng chinnapan/Shutterstock)

Cancer survivors often go through hell to earn the prize of simply returning to a somewhat normal life — none more so than children. But even after the cancer is gone, many young patients are still at risk for another kind of medical difficulty.

Endocrine disorders, a class of issues characterized by hormone imbalances and including hyperthyroidism and metabolic disorders, are far more common among those who have survived cancer, two papers published late last month show. Ironically, it’s a problem that’s sprung from good news. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
MORE ABOUT: cancer

Using Sunlight To Make Spaceship Fuel And Breathable Air

By Erika K. Carlson | July 10, 2018 10:00 am
Lockheed Martin’s concept, called Mars Base Camp, would need a way to replenish their fuel and air supplies. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

Lockheed Martin’s concept, called Mars Base Camp, would need a way to replenish their fuel and air supplies. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

Spaceflight is like backpacking. If you can’t restock supplies like food and water along the way, how far you can travel is limited by how much you can carry. And in space, you also have to worry about having enough fuel for your spacecraft and breathable air for your crew.

That’s why some researchers are looking toward technology that they call artificial photosynthesis — a way of harnessing the sun’s light to generate fuel and breathable air for longer missions. This system would mimic, in a sense, the way plants perform natural photosynthesis by converting light energy into chemical energy and producing oxygen in the process.
Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
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