Researchers build a metadata-based image database using DNA storage

Fluorescent tagged DNA is the key to a new storage system.

Enlarge / Fluorescent tagged DNA is the key to a new storage system. (credit: Gerald Barber, Virginia Tech)

DNA-based data storage appears to offer solutions to some of the problems created by humanity’s ever-growing capacity to create data we want to hang on to. Compared to most other media, DNA offers phenomenal data densities. If stored in the right conditions, it doesn’t require any energy to maintain the data for centuries. And due to DNA’s centrality to biology, we’re always likely to maintain the ability to read it.

But DNA is not without its downsides. Right now, there’s no standard method of encoding bits in the pattern of bases of a DNA strand. Synthesizing specific sequences remains expensive. And accessing the data using current methods is slow and depletes the DNA being used for storage. Try to access the data too many times, and you have to restore it in some way—a process that risks introducing errors.

A team based at MIT and the Broad Institute has decided to tackle some of these issues. In the process, the researchers have created a DNA-based image-storage system that’s somewhere between a file system and a metadata-based database.

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#biology, #computer-science, #dna, #science, #storage

0

Why Humans Are So Thirsty

Artificial proteins, carbon-sucking rocks, particle accelerators, and more

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#biology, #from-the-editor, #policyethics, #the-sciences

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We have another highly effective COVID vaccine, based on different tech

Image of a man receiving an injection.

Enlarge / A participant gets his second dose of the Novavax vaccine during the clinical trial. (credit: Karen Ducey / Getty Images)

Today, a company called Novavax announced that it had completed a large efficacy trial of its COVID-19 vaccine, and the news was good. The vaccine is highly effective, it blocked severe disease entirely, and it appeared to work against some of the more recently evolved virus variants. The company says it can produce 150 million doses per month by the end of the year, and the vaccine is stable when stored in a normal freezer, so it could play a big part in the effort to administer vaccines outside of industrialized nations.

Different tech

So far, US citizens have had the choice of RNA-based vaccines, like the offerings from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, or a vaccine based on a harmless virus engineered to carry the coronavirus spike protein, as used in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. (The AstraZeneca and Sputnik vaccines are similar to J&J’s.) Outside the US, many countries have used vaccines based on an inactivated coronavirus, although these have turned out not to be very effective.

The Novavax vaccine uses an entirely different technology. Vaccine production starts by identifying a key gene from the pathogen of interest—the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, in this case—and inserting it into a virus that infects insect cells. Insect cells can easily be grown in culture, and they process any proteins they make in the same way that human cells do. (This processing can involve chemically linking sugars or cleaving off superfluous parts of the protein.) The activity ensures that the purified protein will be chemically identical to the spike protein found on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself.

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#biology, #medicine, #novavax, #science, #vaccines, #virology

0

Why Scientists Tweak Lab Viruses to Make Them More Contagious

Some “gain of function” studies explore how a dangerous pathogen might cross species barriers to start an outbreak

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#biology, #health, #the-sciences

0

For African Elephants, Pee Could Be a Potent Trail Marker

Scientists found that elephants often sniff pathways—and seem especially attuned to urine.

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#biology, #the-sciences

0

Trace fossils, the most inconspicuous bite-sized window into ancient worlds

Image of a rock with oval outlines embedded in it.

Enlarge / It may not look like much, but you can actually learn a lot from a fossilized leaf that preserves insect damage. (credit: Donovan et. al.)

He knew what it was as soon as he saw it: the signature sign of a bird landing. He’d seen hundreds of such tracks along the Georgia coast. He’d photographed them, measured them, and drawn them. The difference here? This landing track was approximately 105 million years old.

Dr. Anthony Martin, a popular professor at Emory University, recognized that landing track in Australia in the early 2000s when he passed by a fossil slab in a museum. “Because my eyes had been trained for so long from the Georgia coast seeing those kinds of patterns, that’s how I noticed them,” he said. “Because it literally was out of the corner of my eye. I was walking by the slab, I glanced at it, and then these three-toed impressions popped out at me.”

Impressions of toes may seem to be pretty dull compared to a fully reconstructed skeleton. But many of us yearn for a window into ancient worlds, to actually see how long-extinct creatures looked, lived, and behaved. Paleontology lets us crack open that window; using fossilized remains, scientists glean information about growth rates, diet, diseases, and where species roamed. But there’s a lesser-known branch of paleontology that fully opens the window by exploring what the extinct animals actually did.

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#biology, #dinosaurs, #features, #fossils, #giant-sloths, #mammoths, #paleontology, #science

0

The First ‘Google Translate’ for Elephants Debuts

An online animal catalogue lets you decode communications and other behaviors for everyone’s favorite pachyderm

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#biology, #computing, #tech

0

See Iridescent Jellyfish and Glowing Wonders of the Sea in World Oceans Day Photos

Mysterious creatures of the deep shine in images by marine biologist Alexander Semenov

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#biology, #the-sciences

0

Transcendence Happens All the Time

We’ve long fantasized about transformations from one mode of life to another, but nature has already beaten us to it

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#biology, #the-sciences

0

Your dog’s desire to communicate with you just might be in the genes

Gimme five! New University of Arizona study finds puppies are wired to communicate with people. "There's definitely a strong genetic component, and they're definitely doing it from the get-go."

Enlarge / Gimme five! New University of Arizona study finds puppies are wired to communicate with people. “There’s definitely a strong genetic component, and they’re definitely doing it from the get-go.” (credit: Anita Kot/Getty Images)

That special social bond between dogs and humans might be a genetic trait that evolved as dogs became domesticated and diverged from wolves, according to a new study published in the journal Current Biology, looking at the cognitive and behavioral social skills of hundreds of adorable puppies.

“People have been interested in dogs’ abilities to do these kinds of things for a long time, but there’s always been debate about to what extent is this really in the biology of dogs, versus something they learn by palling around with humans,” said co-author Evan MacLean, director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “We found that there’s definitely a strong genetic component, and they’re definitely doing it from the get-go.”

His co-author, Emily Bray, an anthropology postdoc at the university, has spent the last ten years studying how dogs think and solve problems, in conjunction with Canine Companions, a California-based service dog organization catering to people with disabilities. It’s known that human children can reason about the physical world, and have sufficient social cognitive skills for cooperative communication by the age of two-and-a-half years. But according to the authors, there is also a growing body of research showing evidence that domesticated dogs share similar social cognitive skills, although possible biological bases for those abilities had not been tested.

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#animal-behavior, #animals, #anthropology, #biology, #cognitive-science, #puppies, #science

0

Researchers perform magic tricks for birds, who are not amused

A Eurasian jay takes a skeptical view of magic.

Enlarge / A Eurasian jay takes a skeptical view of magic. (credit: Luc Viatour)

Most magic tricks require a fairly sophisticated understanding of how humans perceive the world. To fall for a trick, people have to see things they perceive as important and ignore things that are actually important. Understanding why magic works can tell us important things about how humans direct their attention and form expectations.

At some point, behavioral scientists realized they could take this idea and apply it to animals. If animals are also fooled by magic tricks, we can identify where our cognitive skills overlap. If the trick fails, we can identify points where our understandings of the world diverge. Unsurprisingly, most early experiments were done with other primates, as they would likely have a lot of overlap with us. But a new study attempts magic with birds and finds that many tricks just don’t work with them.

Not easily fooled

The birds in the study were Eurasian jays, who are part of a family (corvids) known to be unusually intelligent. Many species of jays cache food (if you’ve ever found that oak trees have been seeded in your flower pots, jays are probably why) and often engage in elaborate deceptions to keep their fellow jays from stealing their caches. So it’s not a stretch to think that magic might be something birds could comprehend.

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#behavioral-science, #biology, #birds, #magic, #science

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Researchers rewire the genetics of E. coli, make it virus-proof

Image of a woman holding bacterial plates.

Enlarge / On the outside, these heavily engineered bacteria look no different from their normal peers. (credit: Raphael Gaillarde / Getty Images)

Many of the fundamental features of life don’t necessarily have to be the way they are. Chance plays a major role in evolution, and there are alternate paths that were never explored, simply because whatever evolved previously happened to be good enough. One instance is the genetic code, which converts the information carried by our DNA into the specific sequence of amino acids that form proteins. There are scores of potential amino acids, many of which can form spontaneously. But most life uses a genetic code that relies on just 20 of them.

Over the past couple of decades, researchers have shown that it doesn’t have to be that way. If you supply bacteria with the right enzyme and an alternative amino acid, they can use it. But bacteria won’t use the enzyme and amino acid very efficiently, as all the existing genetic code slots are already in use.

Now, researchers have managed to edit bacteria’s genetic code to free up a few new slots. They then filled those slots with unnatural amino acids, allowing the bacteria to produce proteins that would never be found in nature. One side effect of the reprogramming? No viruses could replicate in the modified bacteria.

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#amino-acids, #biology, #genetic-code, #genetic-engineering, #genetics, #science, #synthetic-biology

0

Century-Old Textiles Woven from Fascinating Fungus

Researchers pinpoint the mycelial source of museum artifacts

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#advances, #biology, #the-sciences

0

Dunning-Kruger meets fake news

A silhouetted figure goes fishing in a complex collage.

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson | Getty Images)

The Dunning-Kruger effect is perhaps both one of the the most famous biases in human behavior—and the most predictable. It posits that people who don’t understand a topic also lack sufficient knowledge to recognize that they don’t understand it. Instead, they know just enough to convince themselves they’re completely on top of the topic, with results ranging from hilarious to painful.

Inspired by the widespread sharing of news articles that are blatantly false, a team of US-based researchers looked into whether Dunning-Kruger might be operating in the field of media literacy. Not surprisingly, people do, in fact, overestimate their ability to identify misleading news. But the details are complicated, and there’s no obvious route to overcoming this bias in any case.

Evaluating the news

Media literacy has the potential to limit the rapid spread of misinformation. Assuming people care about the accuracy of the things they like or share—something that’s far from guaranteed—a stronger media literacy would help people evaluate if something was likely to be accurate before pressing that share button. Evaluating the credibility of sources is an essential part of that process.

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#behavioral-science, #biology, #dunning-kruger, #misinformation, #science

0

How Slime Molds Remember Where They Ate

These simple organisms physically encode food locations to solve complex tasks

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#advances, #biology, #the-sciences

0

Engineered virus and goggles restore object recognition in a blind man

Image of a seated person wearing a red cap and goggles.

Enlarge / The goggles in use. The red cap isn’t part of the system; it holds electrodes that are tracking the participant’s brain activity. (credit: Sahel et. al.)

Our nerves’ electrical impulses are created by a class of proteins called ion channels, which let ions flow into and out of cells. But controlling the flow of ions has uses that go well beyond creating nerve impulses, and there are many other channels made by cells—and even some made by bacteria and other organisms that don’t have nerves.

Scientists have discovered channels that only allow ions to flow after being triggered by light of specific wavelengths. When placed back into nerve cells, the channels turned out to be useful, as they allowed researchers to activate nerves using nothing but light. This discovery created an entire field of research—optogenetics—which has demonstrated that even complicated behaviors like socializing can be controlled with light.

But light-activated nerve activity is also part of normal biology, in the form of our eyes. The development of channels as a research tool has raised the prospect of using them to treat failing vision. In an important proof of concept, researchers have now used a light-sensitive channel and some specialized goggles to allow someone who is otherwise blind to locate objects.

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#biology, #biotechnology, #blindness, #optogeneitcs, #science, #vision

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Can a Cell Remember?

Surprisingly, there’s some evidence that it can

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#biology, #the-sciences

0

How This Zombie Fungus Turns Cicadas into Horror-Movie Sex Bots

Researchers explore how an amphetamine and a psychedelic help parasitic fungi spread their spores through insects’ doomed mating attempts

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#biology, #the-sciences

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The Dirty Secret behind Some of the World’s Earliest Microscopes

Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek made extraordinary observations of blood cells, sperm cells and bacteria with his microscopes. But it turns out the lens technology he used was quite…

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#biology, #the-sciences

0

Humans Could Live Up to 150 Years, New Research Suggests

A study counts blood cells and footsteps to predict a hard limit to our longevity

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#biology, #the-body, #the-sciences

0

The Maximum Human Life Span Is 150 Years, New Research Estimates

A study counts blood cells and footsteps to predict a hard limit to our longevity

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#biology, #the-body, #the-sciences

0

Injection of Light-Sensitive Proteins Restores Blind Man’s Vision

The first successful clinical test of optogenetics lets a person see for the first time in decades, with help from image-enhancing goggles

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#biology, #medicalbiotech, #mind, #neuroscience, #tech

0

Can a Cell Make Decisions?

A series of experiments shows, remarkably, that it just might

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#biology, #the-sciences

0

Researchers add sense of touch to robotic arm via brain implant

A robotic arm grasps a white spherical object.

Enlarge (credit: University of Pittsburgh Medical Center)

One of the most astonishing examples of the promise of brain implants is shown in a video in which a paralyzed person controls a robotic arm with nothing but her thoughts. The technology alone is impressive, but the joy on the participant’s face as she grabs herself a drink for the first time in over a decade really drives home just how important this technology can be.

While we’re still decades away from widespread implant use, there are continued signs of progress in making implants more functional. Last week, we saw a neural implant that could turn imagined writing into real text. This week, the research community has followed up with an implant-controlled robotic arm that sends touch feedback to the user via a second implant.

Adding senses

When we go to pick up an object, we locate the object primarily through vision. From there, other senses take over. Humans have a sense called proprioception, which helps us know where are body parts are, even when they’re not visible. Our sense of touch tells us when we’ve made contact with the object, and pressure sensation gives us an indication of how firmly we’ve grasped the object. The visual system quickly becomes secondary to the process.

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#biology, #brain-implants, #brain-computer-interface, #medicine, #neuroscience, #robotics, #science

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See the Most Bizarre and Beautiful Animal Eyes on Earth

Some of these peepers have eyepopping abilities

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#biology, #the-sciences

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Indigenous forest gardens remain productive and diverse for over a century

Image of a section of the Pacific Northwest coast.

Enlarge / From some perspectives, the forest garden doesn’t stand out from the landscape. (credit: Chelsey Armstrong)

In the 1930s, an archeologist from the Smithsonian wrote a short paper remarking on the exquisite vegetation around First Nation villages in Alaska. The surroundings were filled with nuts, stone fruit, berries, and herbs—several non-native to the area and many that would never grow together naturally. Apart from this brief mention, however, the significance of these forest gardens went largely overlooked and unrecognized by modern archeology for the next 50-plus years.

In the last decades, archeologists have learned that perennial forest management—the creation and care of long-lived food-bearing shrubs and plants next to forests—was common among the Indigenous societies of North America’s northwestern coast. These forest gardens played a central role in the diet and stability of these cultures in the past, and now a new publication shows that they offer an example of a far more sustainable and biodiverse alternative to conventional agriculture.

In a collaboration with the Tsm’syen and Coast Salish First Nations, this research shows that these gardens have become lasting hotspots of biodiversity, even 150 years after colonists forcibly removed the inhabitants from their villages. In a project combining archeology, botany, and ecology, this work is the first to systematically study the long-term ecological effects of Indigenous peoples’ land use in this region. Beyond the impressive longevity of these gardens, they offer ideas for farming practices that might restore, rather than deplete, local resources to create healthier, more resilient ecosystems.

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#agriculture, #archeology, #biodiversity, #biology, #ecology, #forestry, #science

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Researchers show neutralizing antibodies correlate with COVID protection

Cartoon of a virus surrounded by small, Y-shaped molecules.

Enlarge / Illustration of antibodies (red and blue) responding to an infection with the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (purple). (credit: Getty Images)

From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of researchers’ nagging questions involved trying to understand what constitutes immunity to future infections. People who had been infected by the virus produced varying amounts of antibodies, and it wasn’t clear what levels were needed to provide protection. Similar issues applied to figuring out how long protection lasted, given that antibody levels appeared to decline over time. Those questions have implications for whether we will eventually need booster shots to maintain our immunity.

The most common way of looking at immunity at the beginning of the pandemic was to check for neutralizing antibodies, which could block the virus’s ability to infect new cells. But we’ve gone through much of the pandemic without knowing exactly how levels of these antibodies relate to protection.

Evidence has been building that neutralizing antibodies directly correlate with protection, and a new paper provides some of the most decisive evidence yet. The authors also provide some hints about the sort of decline in immunity we might expect.

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#antibodies, #biology, #covid-19, #immunology, #medicine, #pandemic, #sars-cov-2, #science

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Deadly Fungi Are the Newest Emerging Microbe Threat All Over the World

These pathogens already kill 1.6 million people every year, and we have few defenses against them

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#biology, #features, #public-health, #the-sciences

0

Making Sense of the Great Whip Spider Boom

The discovery of exotic arachnids reveals as much about the structure of science as it does about the creatures

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#biology, #the-sciences

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From apes to birds, there are 65 animal species that “laugh”

The stuff we call "laughter" from hyenas? It's not.

Enlarge / The stuff we call “laughter” from hyenas? It’s not. (credit: Getty Images)

Among humans, laughter can signify a lot of different things, from intimacy to discomfort. Among animals, however, laughter usually signifies something along the lines of “this is playtime—I’m not actually going for your throat.”

According to new research from the University of California, Los Angeles, there are likely at least 65 different creatures, including humans, that make these vocalizations. They’re most commonly found in primates, but they have also been noted in distant relatives like birds. It’s not clear whether this is because laughter has arisen several times over the course of evolution or if it’s more widespread and we just haven’t noticed.

Laughter in the library stacks

To reach this number, Sasha Winkler, a PhD student in UCLA’s anthropology department, searched high and low for any mention of animals making noises during play sessions. Some of the articles she found were quite old—one paper on mink dates back to 1931—so she ended up dusting off some aged tomes in the university’s library.

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#behavioral-science, #biology, #laughter, #science

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Researchers force two mice to hang out and induce FOMO in a third

Researchers force two mice to hang out and induce FOMO in a third

Enlarge (credit: David Aubrey)

Since its advent in 2005, a technique called optogenetics has made it vastly easier to link neural activity with behavior and to understand how neurons and brain regions are connected to each other. Neuroscientists just pick the (animal) neurons they’re interested in, genetically engineer them to express a light-responsive protein, and then stimulate them with the right type of light. This technique can be used to inhibit or excite a select subset of neurons in living, breathing, moving animals, illuminating which neural networks dictate the animals’ behaviors and decisions.

Taking advantage of work done in miniaturizing the optogenetic hardware, researchers have now used optogenetics to alter the activity in parts of the brain that influence social interactions in mice. And they’ve exerted a disturbing level of control over the way the mice interact.

Going small

A big limitation for early optogenetic studies was that the wires and optical fibers required to get light into an animal’s brain also get in the animals’ way, impeding their movements and potentially skewing results. Newer implantable wireless devices were developed about five years ago, but they can only be placed near certain brain regions. They’re also too tiny to accommodate many circuit components and receiver antennas, and they have to be programmed beforehand. Pity the poor would-be mind controllers who have to deal with such limited tools.

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#biology, #neuroscience, #optogenetics, #science, #social-behavior

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Lab-Made Chicken Reaches Select Diners in Singapore

Club-goers in the island city-state take first bites of slaughter-free chicken nuggets grown in bioreactors

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#biology, #medicalbiotech, #tech

0

First Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Released in U.S. Are Hatching Now

As Aedes aegypti mosquitoes increase their range because of warming climate, genetic manipulation of the disease-carrying species could gain wider appeal

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#biology, #climate, #environment, #the-sciences

0

Neural implant lets paralyzed person type by imagining writing

An artist's schematic of the system.

Enlarge / An artist’s schematic of the system. (credit: Nature)

Elon Musk’s Neuralink has been making waves on the technology side of neural implants, but it hasn’t yet shown how we might actually use implants. For now, demonstrating the promise of implants remains in the hands of the academic community.

This week, the academic community provided a rather impressive example of the promise of neural implants. Using an implant, a paralyzed individual managed to type out roughly 90 characters per minute simply by imagining that he was writing those characters out by hand.

Dreaming is doing

Previous attempts at providing typing capabilities to paralyzed people via implants have involved giving subjects a virtual keyboard and letting them maneuver a cursor with their mind. The process is effective but slow, and it requires the user’s full attention, as the subject has to track the progress of the cursor and determine when to perform the equivalent of a key press. It also requires the user to spend the time to learn how to control the system.

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#biology, #brain-computer-interface, #medicine, #neural-implants, #neuroscience, #science

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Artificial Light Keeps Mosquitoes Biting Late into the Night

It is like when your cell phone keeps you awake in bed—except mosquitoes do not doom scroll when they stay up, they feast on your blood.

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#biology, #the-sciences

0

Brood X Cicadas Are Emerging at Last

The Great Eastern Brood has been underground for 17 years. Here’s what the insects have been up to down there

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#biology, #the-sciences

0

The Woman Who Solved a Cicada Mystery–but Got No Recognition

Margaretta Hare Morris discovered that the hordes of chirping insects that will emerge en masse this spring come in more than one species—but men

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#biology, #the-sciences

0

This Woman Solved a Cicada Mystery–but Got No Recognition

Margaretta Hare Morris discovered that the hordes of chirping insects that will emerge en masse this spring come in more than one species

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#biology, #the-sciences

0

Did our ancestors kill all the island megafauna?

The bones of a pygmy mammoth.

The bones of a pygmy mammoth. (credit: National Park Service/Justin Tweet)

Humans haven’t always been great to nature. But at least our ancestors may not have killed off island megafauna in the distant past, so that’s something. New research, published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, suggests that there’s not enough data to say that hominids in the Pleistocene—2.6 million to 11,700 years ago—were responsible for most of the extinctions on the islands they traveled to.

Overkill

The hypothesis that homo sapiens’ distant ancestors killed off the world’s myriad ancient megafauna (not just on islands) dates back to 1966, with geoscientist Paul Martin‘s “overkill” proposal. But the idea has been floating around for far longer than the formal proposal. According to Julien Louys—associate professor of paleontology at Griffiths University in Australia and an author of the new research—the question of what caused the death of the world’s megafauna dates back to the 19th century.

“It has, in certain circles, become very polarized,” Louys told Ars.

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#biology, #ecology, #extinction, #science

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Bird Brawlers Love Spectators–Other Avian Species Are Welcome at Ringside

Tufted titmice scuffle more vigorously in front of a crowd—even if some of the onlookers are woodpeckers

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#biology, #the-sciences

0

Researchers raise bats in helium-rich air to check how they sense sound

Image of a bat in flight

Enlarge (credit: Bernd Wolter / EyeEm)

It’s now well-established that bats can develop a mental picture of their environment using echolocation. But we’re still figuring out what that means—how bats take the echoes of their own vocalizations and use them to figure out the locations of objects.

In a paper released today, researchers provide evidence that bats engage in echolocation in part because they’re born with an innate sense of the speed of sound. How did the researchers study this phenomenon? By raising bats in a helium-rich atmosphere, where the lower-density air produces an increase in the speed of sound.

Putting the location in echo

Echolocation is rather simple in principle. A bat produces sound, which bounces off objects in their environment and then returns to the bat’s ears. For more distant objects, the sound takes longer to return to the bat, providing a sense of relative distance.

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#bats, #biology, #echolocation, #science

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Personalized nutrition startup Zoe closes out Series B at $53M

Personalized nutrition startup Zoe — named not for a person but after the Greek word for ‘life’ — has topped up its Series B round with $20M, bringing the total raised to $53M.

The latest close of the B round was led by Ahren Innovation Capital, which the startup notes counts two Nobel laureates as science partners. Also participating are two former American football players, Eli Manning and Ositadimma “Osi” Umenyiora; Boston, US-based seed fund Accomplice; healthcare-focused VC firm THVC and early stage European VC, Daphni.

The U.K.- and U.S.-based startup was founded back in 2017 but operated in stealth mode for three years, while it was conducting research into the microbiome — working with scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital, Stanford Medicine, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and King’s College London.

One of the founders, professor Tim Spector of King’s College — who is also the author of a number of popular science books focused on food — became interested in the role of food (generally) and the microbiome (in particular) on overall health after spending decades researching twins to try to understand the role of genetics (nature) vs nurture (environmental and lifestyle factors) on human health.

Zoe used data from two large-scale microbiome studies to build its first algorithm which it began commercializing last September — launching its first product into the U.S. market: A home testing kit that enables program participants to learn how their body responds to different foods and get personalized nutrition advice.

The program costs around $360 (which Zoe takes in six instalments) and requires participants to (self) administer a number of tests so that it can analyze their biology, gleaning information about their metabolic and gut health by looking at changes in blood lipids, blood sugar levels and the types of bacteria in their gut.

Zoe uses big data and machine learning to come up with predictive insights on how people will respond to different foods so that it can offer individuals guided advice on what and how to eat, with the goal of improving gut health and reducing inflammatory responses caused by diet.

The combination of biological responses it analyzes sets it apart from other personalized nutrition startups with products focused on measuring one element (such as blood sugar) — is the claim.

But, to be clear, Zoe’s first product is not a regulated medical device — and its FAQ clearly states that it does not offer medical diagnosis or treatment for specific conditions. Instead it says only that it’s “a tool that is meant for general wellness purposes only”. So — for now — users have to take it on trust that the nutrition advice it dishes up is actually helpful for them.

The field of scientific research into the microbiome is undoubtedly early — Zoe’s co-founder states that very clearly when we talk — so there’s a strong component here, as is often the case when startups seek to use data and AI to generate valuable personalized predictions, whereby early adopters are helping to further Zoe’s research by contributing their data. Potentially ahead of the sought for individual efficacy, given so much is still unknown around how what we eat affects our health.

For those willing to take a punt (and pay up), they get an individual report detailing their biological responses to specific foods that compares them to thousands of others. The startup also provides them with individualized ‘Zoe’ scores for specific foods in order to support meal planning that’s touted as healthier for them.

“Reduce your dietary inflammation and improve gut health with a 4 week plan tailored to your unique biology and life,” runs the blurb on Zoe’s website. “Built around your food scores, our app will teach you how to make smart swaps, week by week.”

The marketing also claims no food is “off limits” — implying there’s a difference between Zoe’s custom food scores and (weight-loss focused) diets that perhaps require people to cut out a food group (or groups) entirely.

“Our aim is to empower you with the information and tools you need to make the best decisions for your body,” is Zoe’s smooth claim.

The underlying premise is that each person’s biology responds differently to different foods. Or, to put it another way, while we all most likely know at least one person who stays rake-thin and (seemingly) healthy regardless of what (or even how much) they eat, if we ate the same diet we’d probably expect much less pleasing results.

“What we’re able to start scientifically putting some evidence behind is something that people have talked about for a long time,” says co-founder George Hadjigeorgiou. “It’s early [for scientific research into the microbiome] but we have shown now to the world that even twins have different gut microbiomes, we can change our gut microbiomes through diet, lifestyle and how we live — and also that there are associations around particular [gut] bacteria and foods and a way to improve them which people can actually do through our product.”

Users of Zoe’s first product need to be willing (and able) to get pretty involved with their own biology — collecting stool samples, performing finger prick tests and wearing a blood glucose monitor to feed in data so it can analyze how their body responds to different foods and offer up personalized nutrition advice.

Another component of its study of biological responses to food has involved thousands of people eating “special scientific muffins”, which it makes to standardized recipes, so it can benchmark and compare nutritional responses to a particular blend of calories, carbohydrate, fat, and protein.

While eating muffins for science sounds pretty fine, the level of intervention required to make use of Zoe’s first at-home test kit product is unlikely to appeal to those with only a casual interest in improving their nutrition.

Hadjigeorgiou readily agrees the program, as it is now, is for those with a particular problem to solve that can be linked to diet/nutrition (whether obesity, high cholesterol or a disease like type 2 diabetes, and so on). But he says Zoe’s goal is to be able to open up access to personalized nutrition advice much more widely as it keeps gathering more data and insights.

“The idea is, as always, we start with a focused set of people with problems to solve who we believe will have a life-changing experience,” he tells TechCrunch. “At this point we are not trying to create a product for everyone — and we understand that that has limitations in terms of how much we scale in the beginning. Although even still within this focused group of people I can assure you there’s tonnes of people!

“But absolutely the whole idea is that after we get a first [set of users]… then with more data and with more experience we can simplify and start making this simpler and more accessible — both in terms of its simplicity and also it’s price. So more and more people. Because at the end of the day everyone has this right to be able to optimize and understand and be in control — and we want to make that available to everyone.

“Regardless of background and regardless of socio-economic status. And, in fact, many of the people who have the biggest problems around health etc are the ones who have maybe less means and ability to do that.”

Zoe isn’t disclosing how many early users it’s onboarded so far but Hadjigeorgiou says demand is high (it’s currently operating a wait-list for new sign ups).

He also touts promising early results from interim trial with its first users — saying participants experienced more energy (90%), felt less hunger (80%) and lost an average of 11 pounds after three months of following their AI-aided, personalized nutrition plan. Albeit, without data on how many people are involved in the trials it’s not possible to quantify the value of those metrics.

The extra Series B funding will be used to accelerate the rollout of availability of the program, with a U.K. launch planned for this year — and other geographies on the cards for 2022. Spending will also go on continued recruitment in engineering and science, it says.

Zoe already grabbed some eyeballs last year, as the coronavirus pandemic hit the West, when it launched a COVID-19 symptom self-reporting app. It has used that data to help scientists and policy makers understand how the virus affects people.

The Zoe COVID-19 app has had some 5M users over the last year, per Hadjigeorgiou — who points to that (not-for-profit) effort as an example of the kind of transformative intervention the company hopes to drive in the nutrition space down the line.

“Overnight we got millions and millions of people contributing to help uncover new insights around science around COVID-19,” he says, highlighting that it’s been able to publish a number of research papers based on data contributed by app users. “For example the lack of smell and taste… was something that we first [were able to prove] scientifically, and then it became — because of that — an official symptom in the list of the government in the U.K.

“So that was a great example how through the participation of people — in a very, very fast way, which we couldn’t predict when we launched it — we managed to have a big impact.”

Returning to diet, aren’t there some pretty simple ‘rules of thumb’ that anyone can apply to eat more healthily — i.e. without the need to shell out for a bespoke nutrition plan? Basic stuff like eat your greens, avoid processed foods and cut down (or out) sugar?

“There are definitely rules of thumb,” Hadjigeorgiou agrees. “We’ll be crazy to say they’re not. I think it all comes back to the point that although there are rules of thumb and over time — and also through our research, for example — they can become better, the fact of the matter is that most people are becoming less and less healthy. And the fact of the matter is that life is messy and people do not eat even according to these rules of thumb so I think part of the challenge is… [to] educate and empower people for their messy lives and their lifestyle to actually make better choices and apply them in a way that’s sustainable and motivating so they can be healthier.

“And that’s what we’re finding with our customers. We are helping them to make these choices in an empowering way — they don’t need to count calories, they don’t need to restrict themselves through a Keto [diet] regime or something like that. We basically empower them to understand this is the impact food has on your body — real time, how your blood sugar levels change, how your bacteria change, how your blood fat levels changes. And through that empowerment through insight then we say hey, now we’ll give you this course, it’s very simple, it’s like a game — and we’ll given you all these tools to combine different foods, make foods work for you. No food is off limits — but try to eat most days a 75 score [based on the food points Zoe’s app assigns].

“In that very empowering way we see people get very excited, they see a fun game that is also impacting their gut and metabolism and they start feeling these amazing effects — in terms of less hunger, more energy, losing weight and over time as well evolving their health. That’s why they say it’s life changing as well.”

Gamifying research for the goal of a greater good? To the average person that surely sounds more appetitizing than ‘eat your greens’.

Though, as Hadjigeorgiou concedes, research in the field of microbiome — where Zoe’s commercial interests and research USP lie — is “early”. Which means that gathering more data to do more research will remain a key component of the business for the foreseeable future. And with so much still to be understood about the complex interactions between food, exercise and other lifestyle factors and human health, the mission is indeed massive.

In the meanwhile, Zoe will be taking it one suggestive nudge at a time.

“Sugar is bad, kale’s great but the whole kind of magic happens in the middle,” Hadjigeorgiou goes on. “Is oatmeal good for you? Is rice good for you? Is wholewheat pasta good for you? How do you combine wholewheat pasta and butter? How much do you have? This is where basically most of our life happens.

“Because people don’t eat ice-cream the whole day and people don’t eat kale the whole day. They eat all these other foods in the middle and that’s where the magic is — knowing how much to have, how to combine them to make it better, how to combine it with exercise to make it better? How to eat a food that doesn’t dip your sugar levels three hours after you eat it which causes hunger for you. Theses are all the things we’re able to predict and present in a simple and compelling way through a score system to people — and in turn help them [understand their] metabolic response to food.”

#ahren-innovation-capital, #artificial-intelligence, #biology, #eli-manning, #food, #fundings-exits, #george-hadjigeorgiou, #health, #healthcare, #machine-learning, #microbiome, #personalized-nutrition, #series-b, #tc, #tim-spector, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #wearables, #zoe

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Male Lyrebirds Lie to Get Sex

It seems like the males will do anything, even fake nearby danger, to get females to stick around to mate.

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#biology, #the-sciences

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‘Mother Trees’ Are Intelligent: They Learn and Remember

And ecologist Suzanne Simard says they need our help to survive

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#biology, #earth, #sustainability, #the-sciences

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The Delight of Watching Birds on the Streets of New York

This past pandemic winter, when the world felt doubly dreary, our avian friends were especially high on many peoples’ happy lists

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#biology, #the-sciences

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Dozens of viruses seem to use a different DNA base

Image of two chemical structures.

Enlarge / Normal DNA uses adenine (left), while some viruses use diaminopurine instead.

DNA is the genetic material used by every living organism. But, in a few edge cases, the four bases of DNA—adenine, thymidine, cytosine, and guanine—undergo chemical modifications. And in viruses, things are far more flexible, with many using RNA instead of DNA as their genetic material. In all these cases, the base pairing in the genetic material takes place according to the rules that James Watson and Francis Crick first proposed.

Until now, there was a single exception, a virus that infects bacteria and uses its own, seemingly unique base. But researchers have finally looked in more detail, and they’ve discovered that this “Z-DNA” seems to be used by dozens of viruses.

Not that Z

Confusingly, there’s something else called Z-DNA. The DNA in our cells has a right-handed curve, called A-DNA, to its double helix. But it’s also possible to have a double helix with a left-handed curve, called Z-DNA.

Read 15 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#biochemistry, #biology, #chemistry, #dna, #science

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Want to save an island’s coral reefs? Get rid of invasive rats

The stark surface of Redonda Island is turning green again.

Enlarge / The stark surface of Redonda Island is turning green again. (credit: Invertzoo)

Hundreds of years ago, Europeans were sailing the globe and “discovering” new parcels of land—and rats came along with them as stowaways. As crews made landfall on many islands, rats hopped off and made themselves new homes.

The rats prospered, outcompeting, eating, or otherwise driving off native species, and fragile island ecosystems suffered. However, new research suggests that these remote, isolated ecosystems can bounce back relatively quickly after conservation groups eliminate the rats, a practice that is becoming increasingly common. And the changes caused by the rats’ removal are even felt in offshore ecosystems.

Rats actually harm coral

Rats are not picky when it comes to food. They’ll happily chow down on fruit, seeds, nuts, insects, and almost anything else they can stomach. This has a notable impact on the islands’ terrestrial habitats. But in a stark yet roundabout way, rats also harm marine habitats.

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#biology, #birds, #coral, #ecology, #islands, #rats, #science

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Lovebirds Adore Our Inefficient Air-Conditioning

The rosy-faced lovebirds that live in Phoenix appear to be free riding on our urban climate control.

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#biology, #the-sciences

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Artificial Intelligence Develops an Ear for Birdsong

Machine-learning algorithms can quickly process thousands of hours of natural soundscapes

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#biology, #computing, #tech

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Children of Chernobyl cleanup crew don’t have excess mutations

Nature slowly reclaims a squat, concrete and tile building.

Enlarge / Trees grow near a former hospital in a town abandoned due to the Chernobyl disaster. (credit: Canvan Images / Getty Images)

Chernobyl is generally recognized as the worst nuclear accident on record, directly killing 31 people and causing widespread contamination in Eurasia. It’s estimated that thousands of people will eventually die earlier than they would have due to the cancers caused by their exposure.

Now, international teams of researchers have looked at the genetic damage that’s the legacy of Chernobyl exposures. One group looked at the genetic changes found in thyroid tumors that have been linked to exposure to the radioactive iodine spewed out during the disaster. And another team looked at the children of people assigned to the Chernobyl cleanup and found that the damage seems to be limited to those exposed rather than being passed down.

Radiation and DNA

Radiation causes long-term problems because it can cause damage to our DNA. The precise nature of the damage, however, is complicated. The radiation can damage individual bases of DNA, leading to minor mutations. But it can also make breaks in both of the strands of DNA’s double helix (which biologists creatively call “double-stranded breaks”).

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#biology, #chernobyl, #nuclear-accident, #radiation, #science

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