Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday, 1/7/23

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News for a dying world

Welcome to the Overnight News Digest with a crew consisting of founder Magnifico, regular editors side pocket, maggiejean, Chitown Kev, eeff, Magnifico, annetteboardman, Rise above the swamp, Besame and jck. Alumni editors include (but not limited to) Interceptor 7, Man Oh Man, wader, Neon Vincent, palantir, Patriot Daily News Clearinghouse (RIP), ek hornbeck (RIP), rfall, ScottyUrb, Doctor RJ, BentLiberal, Oke (RIP) and jlms qkw.

OND is a regular community feature on Daily Kos, consisting of news stories from around the world, sometimes coupled with a daily theme, original research or commentary. Editors of OND impart their own presentation styles and content choices, typically publishing each day near 12:00 AM Eastern Time.  

Please feel free to share your articles and stories in the comments.


Could Getting Rid of Old Cells Turn Back the Clock on Aging?

Long-time geriatrician James Kirkland is a Mayo clinic researcher joining “a growing movement to halt chronic disease by protecting brains and bodies from the biological fallout of aging,” reports Ars Technica.

“While researchers like Kirkland don’t expect to extend lifespan, they hope to lengthen ‘health span,’ the time that a person lives free of disease.”One of their targets is decrepit cells that build up in tissues as people age. These “senescent” cells have reached a point — due to damage, stress or just time — when they stop dividing, but don’t die. While senescent cells typically make up only a small fraction of the overall cell population, they accounted for up to 36 percent of cells in some organs in aging mice, one study showed. And they don’t just sit there quietly. Senescent cells can release a slew of compounds that create a toxic, inflamed environment that primes tissues for chronic illness. Senescent cells have been linked to diabetes, stroke, osteoporosis and several other conditions of aging.

These noxious cells, along with the idea that getting rid of them could mitigate chronic illnesses and the discomforts of aging, are getting serious attention. The U.S. National Institutes of Health is investing $125 million in a new research effort, called SenNet, that aims to identify and map senescent cells in the human body as well as in mice over the natural lifespan. And the National Institute on Aging has put up more than $3 million over four years for the Translational Geroscience Network multicenter team led by Kirkland that is running preliminary clinical trials of potential antiaging treatments. Drugs that kill senescent cells — called senolytics — are among the top candidates. Small-scale trials of these are already underway in people with conditions including Alzheimer’s, osteoarthritis and kidney disease.

“It’s an emerging and incredibly exciting, and maybe even game-changing, area,” says John Varga, chief of rheumatology at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, who isn’t part of the Translational Geroscience Network.  But he and others sound a note of caution as well, and some scientists think the field’s potential has been overblown. “There’s a lot of hype,” says Varga. “I do have, I would say, a very healthy skepticism.” He warns his patients of the many unknowns and tells them that trying senolytic supplementation on their own could be dangerous….

So far, evidence that destroying senescent cells helps to improve health span mostly comes from laboratory mice. Only a couple of preliminary human trials have been completed, with hints of promise but far from blockbuster results.
In conjunction with SpaceX and Axiom Space, Kirkland and a colleague also are investigating how space radiation affects senescence indicators in astronauts, the article points out .  “They hypothesize that participants in future long-term missions to Mars might have to monitor their bodies for senescence or pack senolytics to stave off accelerated cellular aging caused by extended exposure to radiation.”


Comet To Make First, And Likely Only, Appearance in Recorded History

The new year has just begun, but the cosmos are already set to make history in 2023. From a report: A comet discovered less than a year ago has traveled billions of miles from its believed origins at the edge of our solar system and will be visible in just a few weeks during what will likely be its only recorded appearance. The comet, C/2022 E3 (ZTF), was first seen in March 2022 as it made its way through Jupiter’s orbit. According to NASA, it’s a long-period comet believed to come from the Oort Cloud, the most distant region of Earth’s solar system that’s “like a big, thick-walled bubble made of icy pieces of space debris” that can get even bigger than mountains. The inner edge of this region is thought to be between 2,000 and 5,000 astronomical units (AUs) from the sun — between 186 billion and 465 billion miles.

This means that C/2022 E3 (ZTF) has made a rare, once-in-a-lifetime journey to be close to Earth. “Most known long-period comets have been seen only once in recorded history because their orbital periods are so, well, long,” NASA says. “Countless more unknown long-period comets have never been seen by human eyes. Some have orbits so long that the last time they passed through the inner solar system, our species did not yet exist.”

Now, the recently discovered E3 comet, which has been seen with a bright greenish coma and “short broad” dust tail, is set to make its closest approach to the sun on January 12. It will make its closest approach to Earth on February 2. Astrophotographer Dan Bartlett managed to capture an image of the comet in December from his backyard in California. He was able to see “intricate tail structure” in the comet’s plasma tail, he said, and “conditions are improving.”

Government Scientists Discover Entirely New Kind of Quantum Entanglement

Scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory have uncovered an entirely new kind of quantum entanglement, a phenomenon that causes particles to become weirdly linked, even across vast cosmic distances, reports a new study. The discovery allowed them to capture an unprecedented glimpse of the bizarre world inside atoms, the tiny building blocks of matter.  The mind-bending research resolves a longstanding mystery about the nuclei of atoms, which contain particles called protons and neutrons, and could help shed light on topics ranging from quantum computing to astrophysics. The exciting discoveries took place at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), a specialized facility at Brookhaven in New York that can accelerate charged atoms, known as ions, to almost light speed. When these ions collide — or even just pass near each other — their interactions expose the inner workings of atoms, which are governed by the trippy laws of quantum mechanics. […]

Now, for the first time ever, scientists at Brookhaven have captured interference patterns that are created by the entanglement of two particles with different charges, a breakthrough that has opened up a completely new window into the mysterious innards of atoms that make up visible matter in the universe, according to a study published on Wednesday in Science Advances. “There’s never been any measurement in the past of interference between distinguishable particles,” said Daniel Brandenburg, a physics professor at the Ohio State University who co-authored the new study, in a call with Motherboard. “That’s the discovery; the application is that we get to use it to do some nuclear physics.” Brandenburg and his colleagues achieved this milestone with the help of a sensitive detector called the Solenoidal Tracker at RHIC, or STAR, that captured interactions between gold ions that were boosted to the brink of light speed. Clouds of photons, which are particles that carry light, surround the ions and interact with another type of particle, called gluons, that hold atomic nuclei together. These encounters between the photons and the gluons set off a chain of events that ultimately created two new particles, called pions, which have opposite charges — one positive and one negative. When these pions careened into the STAR detector, the precision instrument measured some of their key properties, such as velocity and angle of impact, which were then used to probe the size, shape, and arrangement of gluons inside the atomic nuclei with a precision that has never been achieved before.

Giant Plasma Cloud Bursts From the Sun

A giant cloud of magnetized plasma exploded from a sunspot hidden on the far side of the sun that might turn to face Earth only two days from now, so get ready for some solar fireworks. The explosion that erupted from behind the sun’s eastern edge in the early morning of Tuesday (Jan. 3) was a so-called coronal mass ejection (CME), a burst of particles from the sun’s upper atmosphere, or corona. The CME was accompanied by a powerful solar flare that lasted an overwhelming six hours, solar scientist Keith Strong said on Twitter. Neither the flare nor the CME were directed at Earth, but experts warn that the hidden sunspot that produced them will soon be facing the planet as the sun rotates.

Yesterday’s flare and CME were detected by multiple sun-observing spacecraft including the joint NASA/European Space Agency Solar and Heliospheric Observatory mission (SOHO) and NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. The measurements helped scientists to determine that the sunspot, or active region, that produced the bursts, will move to the Earth-facing portion of the sun’s disk within two days, according to Space Weather. […] The British space weather forecaster Met Office predicts low solar activity in the next couple of days with a potential increase expected toward the end of this week as the mysterious sunspot emerges at the sun’s eastern edge.

James Webb telescope reveals Milky Way-like galaxies in young universe

New images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveal for the first time galaxies with stellar bars — elongated features of stars stretching from the centers of galaxies into their outer disks — at a time when the universe was a mere 25% of its present age. The finding of so-called barred galaxies, similar to our Milky Way, this early in the universe will require astrophysicists to refine their theories of galaxy evolution.

Prior to JWST, images from the Hubble Space Telescope had never detected bars at such young epochs. In a Hubble image, one galaxy, EGS-23205, is little more than a disk-shaped smudge, but in the corresponding JWST image taken this past summer, it’s a beautiful spiral galaxy with a clear stellar bar.

“I took one look at these data, and I said, ‘We are dropping everything else!'” said Shardha Jogee, professor of astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin. “The bars hardly visible in Hubble data just popped out in the JWST image, showing the tremendous power of JWST to see the underlying structure in galaxies,” she said, describing data from the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science Survey (CEERS), led by UT Austin professor, Steven Finkelstein.

High-performance visible-light lasers that fit on a fingertip

As technologies keep advancing at exponential rates and demand for new devices rises accordingly, miniaturizing systems into chips has become increasingly important. Microelectronics has changed the way we manipulate electricity, enabling sophisticated electronic products that are now an essential part of our daily lives. Similarly, integrated photonics has been revolutionizing the way we control light for applications such as data communications, imaging, sensing, and biomedical devices. By routing and shaping light using micro- and nanoscale components, integrated photonics shrinks full optical systems into the size of tiny chips.

Despite its success, integrated photonics has been missing a key component to achieve complete miniaturization: high-performance chip-scale lasers. While some progress has been done on near-infrared lasers, the visible-light lasers that currently feed photonic chips are still benchtop and expensive. Since visible light is essential for a wide range of applications including quantum optics, displays, and bioimaging, there is a need for tunable and narrow-linewidth chip-scale lasers emitting light of different colors.

Two out of three glaciers could be lost by 2100

Assistant Professor David Rounce of Civil and Environmental Engineering led an international effort to produce new projections of glacier mass loss through the century under different emissions scenarios. The projections were aggregated into global temperature change scenarios to support adaptation and mitigation discussions, such as those at the recent United Nations Conference of Parties (COP 27). His work showed that the world could lose as much as 41 percent of its total glacier mass this century — or as little as 26 percent — depending on today’s climate change mitigation efforts.

Specifically, Rounce and his team found that in a future scenario with continued investment in fossil fuels, over 40 percent of the glacial mass will be gone within the century, and over 80 percent of glaciers by number could well disappear. Even in a best-case, low-emissions scenario, where the increase in global mean temperature is limited to +1.5° C relative to pre-industrial levels, over 25 percent of glacial mass will be gone and nearly 50 percent of glaciers by number are projected to disappear. A majority of these lost glaciers are small (less than one km2) by glacial standards, but their loss can negatively impact local hydrology, tourism, glacier hazards, and cultural values.

Cyclone researchers: Warming climate means more and stronger Atlantic tropical storms

A warming climate will increase the number of tropical cyclones and their intensity in the North Atlantic, potentially creating more and stronger hurricanes, according to simulations using a high-resolution, global climate model.

“Unfortunately, it’s not great news for people living in coastal regions,” said Christina Patricola, an Iowa State University assistant professor of geological and atmospheric sciences, an affiliate of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and a study leader. “Atlantic hurricane seasons will become even more active in the future, and hurricanes will be even more intense.”

The research team ran climate simulations using the Department of Energy’s Energy Exascale Earth System Model and found that tropical cyclone frequency could increase 66% during active North Atlantic hurricane seasons by the end of this century. (Those seasons are typically characterized by La Niña conditions — unusually cool surface water in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean — and the positive phase of the Atlantic Meridional Mode — warmer surface temperatures in the northern tropical Atlantic Ocean).


Newly discovered anatomy shields and monitors brain

From the complexity of neural networks to basic biological functions and structures, the human brain only reluctantly reveals its secrets. Advances in neuro-imaging and molecular biology have only recently enabled scientists to study the living brain at level of detail not previously achievable, unlocking many of its mysteries. The latest discovery, described today in the journal Science, is a previously unknown component of brain anatomy that acts as both a protective barrier and platform from which immune cells monitor the brain for infection and inflammation.

The new study comes from the labs of Maiken Nedergaard, co-director of the Center for Translational Neuromedicine at University of Rochester and the University of Copenhagen and Kjeld Møllgård, M.D., a professor of neuroanatomy at the University of Copenhagen. Nedergaard and her colleagues have transformed our understanding of the fundamental mechanics of the human brain and made significant findings to the field of neuroscience, including detailing the many critical functions of previously overlooked cells in the brain called glia and the brain’s unique process of waste removal, which the lab named the glymphatic system.

Inflammatory trigger a new clue in Alzheimer’s

Scientists from The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UT Health San Antonio) today reported that an inflammatory trigger like one present during viral infections is elevated in Alzheimer’s disease and progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare brain disorder.

“We have identified a new trigger of brain inflammation in these disorders,” said Elizabeth Ochoa, PhD, study author from UT Health San Antonio. The finding published in Science Advances is novel for this reason, she said.

Ochoa, a recent doctoral graduate, and her mentor, Bess Frost, PhD, study senior author, are investigators with the Sam and Ann Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies, the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases, and the Department of Cell Systems and Anatomy at UT Health San Antonio. Frost is the Bartell Zachry Distinguished Professor for Research in Neurodegenerative Disorders.

Alzheimer’s disease and progressive supranuclear palsy are marked by toxic deposits of a protein called tau. Their research found that tau-induced “jumping genes” — which can relocate or copy themselves to other locations in the genome — form double-stranded RNA. This abnormal RNA mimics the inflammatory trigger that is also present in viral infections.

Study reveals average age at conception for men versus women over past 250,000 years

Using a new method based upon comparing DNA mutation rates between parents and offspring, evolutionary biologists have revealed the average age of mothers versus fathers over the past 250,000 years, including the discovery that the age gap is shrinking, with women’s average age at conception increasing from 23.2 years to 26.4 years, on average, in the past 5,000 years.

The length of a specific generation can tell us a lot about the biology and social organization of humans. Now, researchers at Indiana University can determine the average age that women and men had children throughout human evolutionary history with a new method they developed using DNA mutations.

The researchers said this work can help us understand the environmental challenges experienced by our ancestors and may also help us in predicting the effects of future environmental change on human societies.

Study shows gardening may help reduce cancer risk, boost mental health

Get more exercise. Eat right. Make new friends.

As we compile our lists of resolutions aimed at improving physical and mental health in 2023, new CU Boulder research suggests one addition could have a powerful impact: Gardening.

Funded by the American Cancer Society, the first-ever, randomized, controlled trial of community gardening found that those who started gardening ate more fiber and got more physical activity — two known ways to reduce risk of cancer and chronic diseases. They also saw their levels of stress and anxiety significantly decrease.

The findings were published Jan. 4 in the journal Lancet Planetary Health.

“These findings provide concrete evidence that community gardening could play an important role in preventing cancer, chronic diseases and mental health disorders,” said senior author Jill Litt, a professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at CU Boulder.

Researchers reveal an added layer of nuance in our sense of smell

The delicate fragrance of jasmine is a delight to the senses. The sweet scent is popular in teas, perfumes and potpourri. But take a whiff of the concentrated essential oil, and the pleasant aroma becomes almost cloying. Indeed, part of the flower’s smell comes from the compound skatole, a prominent component of fecal odor.

Our sense of smell is clearly a complex process; it involves hundreds of different odorant receptors working in concert. The more an odor stimulates a particular neuron, the more electrical signals that neuron sends to the brain. But researchers at UC Santa Barbara discovered that these neurons actually fall silent when an odor rises above a certain threshold. Remarkably, this was integral to how the brain recognized each smell. “It’s a feature; it’s not a bug,” said Matthieu Louis, an associate professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology.

The paradoxical finding, published in Science Advances, shakes up our understanding of olfaction. “The same odor can be represented by very different patterns of active olfactory sensory neurons at different concentrations,” Louis said. “This might explain why some odors can be perceived as very different to us at low, medium and very high concentrations. Consider for instance the smell of a ripe banana from a distance (sweet and fruity) versus up-close (overpowering and artificial).”

New discovery of sunscreen-like chemicals in fossil plants reveals UV radiation played a part in mass extinction events

New research has uncovered that pollen preserved in 250 million year old rocks contain compounds that function like sunscreen, these are produced by plants to protect them from harmful ultraviolet (UV-B) radiation. The findings suggests that a pulse of UV-B played an important part in the end Permian mass extinction event.

Scientists from the University of Nottingham, China, Germany and the UK led by Professor Liu Feng from Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology have developed a new method to detect plant’s sunscreen-like compounds in fossil pollen grains. The research has been published today in Science Advances.

The end-Permian mass extinction event (250 million years ago) is the most severe of the big five mass extinction events with the loss of ~80% of marine and terrestrial species. This catastrophic loss of biodiversity was a response to a palaeoclimate emergency triggered by the emplacement of a continental-scale volcanic eruption that covers much of modern-day Siberia. The volcanic activity drove the release of massive amounts of carbon that had been locked up in Earth’s interior into the atmosphere, generating large-scale greenhouse warming. Accompanying this global warming event was a collapse in the Earth’s ozone layer. Support for this theory comes from the abundant occurrence of malformed spores and pollen grains that testify to an influx of mutagenic UV irradiation.

Marine plankton tell the long story of ocean health, and maybe human too

Using samples from an almost century-old, ongoing survey of marine plankton, researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine suggest that rising levels of humanmade chemicals found in parts of the world’s oceans might be used to monitor the impact of human activity on ecosystem health, and may one day be used to study the connections between ocean pollution and land-based rates of childhood and adult chronic illnesses.

The findings are published in the January 6, 2023 issue of the journal Science of the Total Environment.

“This was a pilot study to test the feasibility of using archived samples of plankton from the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) Survey to reconstruct historical trends in marine pollution over space and time,” said senior author Robert K. Naviaux, MD, PhD, professor in the Department of Medicine, Pediatrics and Pathology at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “We were motivated to explore these new methods by the alarming increase in childhood and adult chronic disease that has occurred around the world since the 1980s.


Scientists get fungi to spill their secrets

As anyone who has ever attended a cocktail party can tell you, shedding inhibitions makes you more talkative and possibly more prone to divulging secrets. Fungi, it turns out, are no different from humans in this respect.

Using an approach that simultaneously modifies multiple sites in fungal genomes, Rice University chemical and biomolecular engineer Xue Sherry Gao and collaborators coax fungi into revealing their best-kept secrets, ramping up the pace of new drug discovery.

It is the first time that the technique, multiplex base-editing (MBE), has been deployed as a tool for mining fungal genomes for medically useful compounds. Compared to single-gene editing, the MBE platform reduces the research timeline by over 80% in equivalent experimental settings, from an estimated three months to roughly two weeks.

Invasive rats transform reef fish behavior

Scientists have discovered for the first time that invasive rats on tropical islands are affecting the territorial behaviour of fish on surrounding coral reefs.

The new study, led by scientists from Lancaster University in the UK and involving researchers from Lakehead University, Canada, shows that the presence of invasive black rats on tropical islands is causing changes in the territorial behaviour of the jewel damselfish — a herbivorous species of tropical reef fish that ‘farm’ algae in the branches of corals.

The study, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, compared five rat-infested and five rat-free islands in a remote island archipelago in the Indian Ocean. The rats, which in many cases arrived on the islands as stowaways on ships in the 1700s, change damselfish behaviour by disrupting an important nutrient cycle. Seabirds travel out into the open ocean to feed and return to nest on islands. The seabirds then deposit nutrients, through their droppings onto the islands and many of these nutrients are subsequently washed into the seas, fertilising the surrounding coral reef ecosystems.

On islands with invasive rats, the rodents attack and eat small resident seabirds and their eggs, decimating their populations to the extent that seabird densities are up to 720 times smaller on rat-infested islands.


Mayas utilized market-based economics

More than 500 years ago in the midwestern Guatemalan highlands, Maya people bought and sold goods with far less oversight from their rulers than many archeologists previously thought.

That’s according to a new study in Latin American Antiquity that shows the ruling K’iche’ elite took a hands-off approach when it came to managing the procurement and trade of obsidian by people outside their region of central control.

In these areas, access to nearby sources of obsidian, a glasslike rock used to make tools and weapons, was managed by local people through independent and diverse acquisition networks. Overtime, the availability of obsidian resources and the prevalence of craftsmen to shape it resulted in a system that is in many ways suggestive of contemporary market-based economies.

“Scholars have generally assumed that the obsidian trade was managed by Maya rulers, but our research shows that this wasn’t the case at least in this area,” said Rachel Horowitz, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of anthropology at Washington State University. “People seem to have had a good deal of economic freedom including being able to go to places similar to the supermarkets we have today to buy and sell goods from craftsmen.”

Riddle solved: Why was Roman concrete so durable?

The ancient Romans were masters of engineering, constructing vast networks of roads, aqueducts, ports, and massive buildings, whose remains have survived for two millennia. Many of these structures were built with concrete: Rome’s famed Pantheon, which has the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome and was dedicated in A.D. 128, is still intact, and some ancient Roman aqueducts still deliver water to Rome today. Meanwhile, many modern concrete structures have crumbled after a few decades.

Researchers have spent decades trying to figure out the secret of this ultradurable ancient construction material, particularly in structures that endured especially harsh conditions, such as docks, sewers, and seawalls, or those constructed in seismically active locations.

Archaeologists Uncover Upper Paleolithic Proto-Writing System

In at least 400 European caves such as Lascaux, Chauvet and Altamira, Upper Paleolithic humans drew, painted and engraved non-figurative signs from at least 42,000 years ago and figurative images — notably animals – from at least 37,000 years ago. Since their discovery 150 years ago, the purpose or meaning of these non-figurative signs has eluded researchers. New research by independent researchers and their professional colleagues from University College London and the University of Durham suggests how three of the most frequently occurring signs — the line ‘|’, the dot ‘•’, and the ‘Y’ — functioned as units of communication. The authors demonstrate that when found in close association with images of animals the line ‘|’ and dot ‘•’ constitute numbers denoting months, and form constituent parts of a local phenological/meteorological calendar beginning in spring and recording time from this point in lunar months; they also demonstrate that the ‘Y’ sign, one of the most frequently occurring signs in Paleolithic non-figurative art, has the meaning ‘To Give Birth.’

New Research Shows How Humans Lost Their Body Hair

Humans, whales, elephants, and naked mole-rats all share a somewhat rare trait for mammals: their bodies are covered with little to no hair. The common ancestors of each of these species are considerably hairier which must mean that hairlessness evolved multiple times independently. To identify genomic regions that appear to have evolved at a faster or slower evolutionary rate along hairless lineages, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Utah scanned the genomes of multiple mammalian species. They identified a number of protein-coding genes as well as noncoding regions that might explain how hairlessness evolved in mammals.