Month: November, 2018

‘Siberian Unicorns’ Walked the Earth Alongside Modern Humans

A reconstruction of what a Siberian unicorn might look like, by Heinrich Harder in 1908

Weighing up to 7,700 pounds, Elasmotherium sibiricum—an extinct hairy rhino popularly known as the “Siberian unicorn”—was thought to have disappeared as long as 200,000 years ago.

An updated fossil analysis suggests this formidable species was still around some 39,000 years ago, and that Ice Age conditions, not human hunters, contributed to its demise.

Paleontologists know of around 250 rhino species, of which only five still exist today. Among the most spectacular of these rhinos was Elasmotherium sibiricum—the Siberian unicorn.

For the Neanderthals and modern humans who lived alongside and possibly hunted this massive creature in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, it must’ve been an impressive and deeply intimidating sight.

Fossil evidence suggests Elasmotherium weighed over 3.5 tons, was covered in a thick coat of hair, and sported a horn of biblical portions, possibly as long as three feet (1 meter) in length.

Impressive though it may have been, the Siberian unicorns eventually died out. Previous fossil dating suggested an expiry date at some point between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago, long before the large-scale late Quaternary megafaunal extinction, which got rolling around 40,000 years ago.




New research published this week in Nature Ecology & Evolution is now offering a more reliable estimate, dating the demise of Elasmotherium at some point between 39,000 and 35,000 years ago.

The extinction of the Siberian unicorns, therefore, can now be connected to the late Quaternary megafaunal extinction, an event that witnessed the end of the wooly mammoth, Irish elk, and saber-toothed cat.

Siberian unicorns lived alongside anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals. That ancient hominids may have preyed upon these oversized rhinos is not as outrageous a proposition as it may seem.

Early humans, likely a form of Homo erectus, were hunting rhinos in the Philippines around 700,000 years ago.

First published restoration of Elasmotherium sibiricum

But while rhinos were on the hominid menu, this new research suggests climate change, and not hunters, was responsible for Elasmotherium’s demise.

These rhinos, as we now know from the new research, lived during the Ice Age just prior to the Last Glacial Maximum—the stage at which the ice sheets covered their largest area, around 26,500 years ago.

Earth was prone to dramatic climate shifts during this period, producing drought, desertification, a drop in sea levels, and the steady encroachment of glaciers.

These climactic disruptions proved fatal to many species, Elasmotherium among them.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

Jumping Spiders Produce Protein-Packed Milk to Feed Their Young

When the 18th-century biologist Carl Linnaeus classified a group of animals as “mammals,” he based the name on one key characteristic—mammary glands, from which females produce milk to feed their young.

While lactation is a common feature among mammals, it turns out that it isn’t unique. Scientists have since learned that some nonmammalian creatures also make milk to feed their young.

Cockroaches, for example, nourish their developing embryos with a milky, protein-rich fluid.

And a new study, published today in Science, reveals that at least one other invertebrate species, the ant-like jumping spider Toxeus magnus also produces milk to feed its young.

Zhanqi Chen, a postdoc at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’s Center for Integrative Conservation, and his colleagues began to investigate parental behavior in T. magnus after noticing that the spiders’ breeding nests consisted of either several adults or a single adult female and her young.




An observation that suggested that the mothers engaged in long-term care. Upon further investigation, the researchers made a puzzling finding: Baby spiders steadily grew bigger despite never leaving their nests, and their mothers did not appear to be bringing them any food.

There were several potential explanations for where the offsprings’ nutrition came from, Chen says, such as trophic eggs (unfertilized eggs stockpiled for food) or regurgitation (when a parent vomits up food they ate to feed its young).

But the team’s observations led them to another, unexpected possibility.

While recording data on the growing spiders’ body sizes one evening, Chen spotted some spiderlings attached to their mother’s body—it looked to him just like a mammal latching on to its mother’s breast.

I had many hypotheses, but this one was not included,” Chen tells The Scientist. “At that point, I was so excited, I couldn’t sleep.” 

This startling finding jumpstarted a series of additional experiments. When the researchers peered at the critters under a microscope, they discovered that mothers excreted a milk-like substance from their epigastric furrows, an abdominal opening from which they lay eggs.

The team then analyzed the milk’s contents and found it was composed of sugar, fat, and four times more protein than cow milk.

They also demonstrated that the milk was crucial for offspring survival: When the researchers blocked the mothers’ epigastric furrows, spiderlings died within 10 days of hatching.

Chen, Quan, and their colleagues have several remaining questions they hope to tackle in future experiments.

For example, they plan to investigate whether the spiders, like mammals, produce milk in mammary glands, and to probe for other invertebrate species that display similar parenting behaviors.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

5 Most Dangerous Scientific Experiments in History

Science is a force for good in our world, improving lives of people all across Earth in immeasurable ways. But it is also a very powerful tool that can become dangerous in some situations.

Especially when it gets entangled in politics. At other times, science’s inherent ambition to push boundaries of what is known can also lead to some heart-stopping moments.

The following list is in no way exhaustive but gives us a place to start when thinking about the serious responsibility that comes with the march of science.




1. Project MKUltra

The infamous project MKUltra was CIA’s attempt at mastering mind control. The program started in the 1950s and lasted seemingly until 1966.

Under MKUltra, often-unwilling subjects were given drugs, especially hallucinogenics like LSD.

The people tested were also put through sleep and sensory deprivation, hypnosis, sexual abuse, and other kinds of psychological torture, while some tests proved lethal.

The supposed goal of the project was some combination of chemical weapons research and effort to create mind-controlling drugs to combat the Soviets.

2. Weaponizing the Plague

The last time plague roamed around, it killed around half of Europe’s population, reducing the amount of people in the world by nearly a 100 million during the 13th and 14th century.

In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union’s biological warfare research program figured out how to use the plague as a weapon, to be launched at enemies in missile warheads.

What could go wrong? Besides the plague, defectors revealed that the Soviet bio-weapons program also had hundreds of tons of anthrax and tons of smallpox.

3. The Large Hadron Supercollider

A giant magnet used in the Large Hadron Collider, weighing 1920 tonnes. 28 February, 2007 at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland, built to study particle physics, is the world’s largest machine and single most sophisticated scientific instrument.

Because of this and the cutting-edge research its involved in, the LHC has prompted more than its share of fears from the general public. It has been blamed for causing earthquakes and pulling asteroids towards Earth.

4. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

Doctor drawing blood from a patient as part of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. 1932.

A government-funded “study” from 1932-1972 denied treatment for syphilis to 399 African American patients in rural Alabama, even as penicillin was found to be effective against the disease in 1947.

The patients were actually not told they had syphilis, with doctors blaming their “bad blood” instead and given placebos.

The goal of the experiment, carried out by the U.S. Public Health Service, was to study the natural progress of syphilis if left untreated. 28 of the people in the study died directly from syphilis while 100 died from related complications.

5. Kola Superdeep Borehole

A Soviet experiment, started in 1970, sought to drill as deeply as possible into the crust of the planet. By 1994, they bore a 12-km-deep hole into the Kola Peninsula in Russia’s far northwest.

The record dig provided much scientific data, like the finding of ancient microscopic plankton fossils from 24 species.

While nothing negative happened, there were concerns at the time that drilling so deep towards the center of Earth might produce unexpected seismic effects. Like cracking the planet open.

The hole’s site is currently closed.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

An Edible Controller Moves Gaming From the Screen to Your Gut

 

Just like “Back to the Future Part II” predicted, Gamepads are so old-fashioned.

A new pill acts as the controller for a new video game out of Australia’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

In “The Guts Game,” two players will have anywhere from 24 to 36 hours to kill off a digital parasite by raising and lowering the temperature of their digestive systems as measured by the pill.




Eating for Two

Players are encouraged to do whatever they need to raise or lower their body temperature and kill off their virtual bugs: eat spicy food, drink ice water, go for a jog, or anything else.

When The Guts Game was presented at Chi Play 2018, a gaming technology convention held in Melbourne in late October.

The developers reassured the crowd that any temperature changes in the body were completely safe.

After all, people eat spicy food and exercise all the time; there’s nothing about doing so for a new video game that suddenly makes it dangerous.

Presumably, The Guts Game’s version of cheat codes would be popping the pill before sweating your virtual parasite out in a sauna, but since you would have to buy each single-use pill, this sort of defeats the point.

Race Against the Clock

Like all good things in the world, this game too must end. Players in The Guts Game are in an endless race against time, against whom there are no victors.

Win or lose the game ends the moment the controller leaves the body.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Early Humans Hooked Up With Neanderthals All The Time

Early humans had mated with Neanderthals and other primitive cousins far more often than thought in a world of debauchery, according to a new study.

Researchers found that interbreeding happened “multiple times” as our ancestors began to pour out of Africa and mingle with more species around 75,000 years ago.

The analysis of Neanderthal DNA in modern East Asians and Europeans found the assumption it was rare is wrong. It happened often — over a period of up to 35,000 years.

Data from the 1,000 Genomes project — which has mapped the DNA of 1,000 people from around the world — suggests an environment of rampant promiscuity.

It was a complex web of relationships in which individuals had intercourse with members of their own group — and different early humans, or hominins.




Co-author Joshua Schraiber said: “I do think there was probably much more interbreeding than we initially suspected. Some of the fantastical aspects come from a lack of a clear definition of ‘species’ in this case.

“It is always very hard to know if an extinct group constituted a different species or not.

“My guess is that any time two different human groups lived in the same place at the same time for a while, they probably had some sort of breeding contact.”

Recent studies have found Denisovans, another extinct relative, had sex with Neanderthals and humans on numerous occasions.

The Denisovan species was only discovered in southern Siberia a decade ago. They were genetically distinct from both Neanderthals and humans.

There were at least three different human forms on Earth only 40,000 years ago — all having an intercourse with each other. And there may have been more.

When anatomically modern humans dispersed from Africa, they encountered Neanderthals in Europe and Asia.

This left a signature in our genomes — with about 2 percent inherited from the Neanderthal. This DNA influences our immune system and the diseases we develop.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

Announcing IntroFest 2018

As a fun little end-of-year thing, I’m going to have you guys vote on your favorite intro sketch on this channel, which I’ll reveal in a mini-festival on December 27th!

Vote here: https://www.answerswithjoe.com/introfest

Robots Will Know They’ve Been Blasted With a Shotgun

Light fibers in the silicone foam allow an AI system to detect how it’s being manipulated.

Soft robots could soon be everywhere: the squishy, malleable buggers might lead search and rescue missions, administer medication to specific organs, and maybe even crawl up your butt.

And now, soft robots will know how and when they’ve been bent out of shape — or shot full of holes by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The trick is to simulate an animal’s peripheral nervous system with a network of fiber optic cables, according to research published Wednesday in the journal Science Robotics.

The Cornell University scientists behind the project hope that the tech could be used to build robots with a sense of whether they’ve been damaged.




Light Show

As the fiber optic cables, encased in a block of smart foam, bend and twist, the pattern and density of the light traveling through them changes in specific ways.

But the differences in light among various movements and manipulations are too minute for a human spot, so the researchers trained a machine learning algorithm to analyze the shifts.

The AI system was trained to track how the light traveling through the fiber optic cables changed based on how researchers bent the foam.

Once it picked up on the patterns, according to the research, the machine learning algorithm could predict the type of bend with 100 percent accuracy — it always knew whether the foam was bent up, down, left, right, or the direction in which it had been twisted.

The whole experimental set-up.

From there, the system could guess the extent to which it had been bent or twist within a margin of 0.06 degrees.

Baby Steps

Someday, technology like this fiber optic network might give rise to robots that could teach themselves to walk, the researchers said.

With this new form of high-tech proprioception, the sense that lets us determine where our limbs are in space without looking, futuristic robots may be able to keep track of their own shape, detect when they’ve been damaged, and better understand their surroundings.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

A Functional, Beating Hearts Will Soon Be 3D-Printed Using Patients’ Own Cells

Inside a lab that will open in a couple of months in Chicago, a biotech startup will soon begin perfecting the process of 3D-printing human hearts that could eventually be used in transplants.

The process combines several steps that have been developed by various researchers in university labs. First, a patient’s heart will be scanned using an MRI machine to create a digital image of the heart’s shape and size.

Next, doctors will take a blood sample. Using techniques that have been developed over the last decade, the blood cells will be converted into stem cells–and then converted a second time into heart cells.

Those new heart cells will be combined with nutrients in a hydrogel to make a “bio-ink” that can be used in a specialized 3D printer.

Printing one layer at a time, with a biodegradable scaffolding to keep everything in place, the cells can be formed into the exact shape of the patient’s original heart.

The new heart will be moved to a bioreactor to strengthen it. Amazingly, new heart cells outside a body will begin to self-assemble.

When the heart is strong enough, technicians will raise the temperature to melt the scaffolding around the cells.




The new heart can then be transplanted–and because it is the exact size of a patient’s original heart, and made from the patient’s own cells, it has a greater chance of success than a traditional transplant.

In studies, other researchers have successfully transplanted stem cells in both humans and animals without the need for anti-rejection drugs.

Most people who receive heart transplants now don’t live more than a decade. Their body may reject the organ directly.

The drugs they take to suppress their immune system–in an attempt to prevent the body from rejecting the foreign organ–may also make them unable to fight off another disease, such as cancer.

The Biolife4D heart, in contrast, won’t require patients to take immunosuppressant drugs since it is an exact genetic match.

The company isn’t the only startup in the space. A startup called Prellis Biologics, for example, has another printing process that is optimized for speed, and that includes blood vessels.

A company called Organovo already makes 3D printed human tissue for drug discovery. But Biolife4D may be the only startup to use equity crowdfunding.

The company has opened up investment to the public. “We wanted to make [the investment opportunity] available to everybody, not just wealthy people on Wall Street,” Morris says.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Violent Robot Rat Harassing Laboratory Rodents So Scientists Can Learn About Stress And Depression

Lab rats don’t have the easiest of lives but now Japanese scientists have added to their burden by putting a robotic bully in their midst.

The mechanical menace was designed to harass the rodents by chasing them around a cage before rearing up. However, this seemingly pointless study does have a serious purpose.

Mice and rats are often used as models to test treatments for human conditions including drugs for mental disorders. But that left scientists with the perplexing question, how do you depress a rat?

Up till now, they have relied on stressful physical activities such as forced swimming, giving them electric shocks or severing their sense of smell.

But scientists from Wakeda University in Japan, came up with the novel approach of creating a machine that could induce social stress, which is a common trigger for depression.

The team studied rat behaviour before creating a model that was capable to mimicking actions such as chasing, rearing, grooming and mounting.




The robot, called WR-3, moves on two wheels and has a mechanical skeleton allowing basic movements. Its shape and size were comparable to a typical white adult male rat.

The researchers timed how long it took rats to make certain moves, such as rearing up on hind legs and then programmed the robot to match them.

Early tests revealed that the robot could successfully interact with lab rats.

The researchers then performed a study on two groups of 12 rats, to see if WR-3 could induce depression. This was based on the assumption that a stressed rat would move around less.

Rats in group A was constantly harassed by their robot counterpart, while rats in group B were attacked intermittently or when they moved.

The team, led by Hiroyuki Ishii, found the deepest depression was triggered when a rat was constantly harassed in its youth and then attacked now and then as an adult.

It is not clear how closely the rodent reactions predict those of humans placed under stress, but the team said it was a subject worthy of further research.

They next plan to see if these ‘mental disorder‘ rats become more socially active after receiving particular anti-depressants. They have already developed a more sophisticated rat model called WR-4.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Rare Findings Show Mitochondrial DNA Can Be Inherited From Dads

Not all DNA is the same, and science has long held that not all kinds of DNA are passed down from both your mother and your father. But it looks like the time has come to rewrite the textbooks.

While most of our DNA resides within the nucleus of the cell, some of our genetic code is stored inside mitochondria, the so-called ‘powerhouse of the cell’.

The conventional view is this mitochondrial DNA (or mtDNA) is only inherited from mothers, but new evidence suggests that’s not the case at all.

A new study led by geneticist Taosheng Huang from the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Centre shows human mitochondrial DNA can be paternally inherited, in a landmark case that started with the treatment of a sick four-year-old boy.




The child, who was showing signs of fatigue, muscle pain, and other symptoms, was evaluated by doctors, and tested to see if he had a mitochondrial disorder.

The reason Huang was so shocked was because the boy’s results showed a mix – called a heteroplasmy – in his mitochondrial DNA, which was made up of more then just maternal contributions.

While there’s evidence of paternal mtDNA transmission in other species, the existence of the phenomenon in humans has been debated, but has never before been demonstrated like this.

Be that as it may, they suggest their “clear and provocative” evidence should now initiate a broader assessment of the mtDNA possibilities, despite maternal transmission remaining the norm.

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Pass it on: New Scientist