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Earth

Countries Are Gathering In an Effort To Stop a Biodiversity Collapse (nytimes.com) 70

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The New York Times: As 20,000 government leaders, journalists, activists and celebrities from around the world prepare to descend on Glasgow for a crucial climate summit starting late this month, another high-level international environmental meeting got started this week. The problem it seeks to tackle: A rapid collapse of species and systems that collectively sustain life on earth. The stakes at the two meetings are equally high, many leading scientists say, but the biodiversity crisis has received far less attention. "If the global community continues to see it as a side event, and they continue thinking that climate change is now the thing to really listen to, by the time they wake up on biodiversity it might be too late," said Francis Ogwal, one of the leaders of the working group charged with shaping an agreement among nations. Because climate change and biodiversity loss are intertwined, with the potential for both win-win solutions and vicious cycles of destruction, they must be addressed together, scientists say. But their global summits are separate, and one overshadows the other.

This week, environment officials, diplomats and other observers from around the world gathered online, and a small group assembled in person in Kunming, China, for the meeting, the 15th United Nations biodiversity conference. The United States is the only country in the world besides the Vatican that is not a party to the underlying treaty, the Convention on Biological Diversity, a situation largely attributed to Republican opposition. American representatives participate on the sidelines of the talks, as do scientists and environmental advocates. Because of the pandemic, the conference has been broken into two parts. While this virtual portion was largely about drumming up political will, nations will meet again in China in the spring to ratify a series of targets aimed at tackling biodiversity loss. The aim will be to adopt a pact for nature akin to the Paris Agreement on climate change, said Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the executive secretary of the convention.

Last year, officials reported that the world's nations largely failed to achieve the targets of the previous global agreement on biodiversity, made in 2010. If the new commitments are not translated into "effective policies and concrete actions," Ms. Mrema said this week at the meeting, "we risk repeating the failures of the last decade." The working draft includes 21 targets that act as a blueprint for reducing biodiversity loss. Many are concrete and measurable, others more abstract. None are easy. They include, in summary: Create a plan, across the entire land and waters of each country, to make the best decisions about where to conduct activities like farming and mining while also retaining intact areas; Ensure that wild species are hunted and fished sustainably and safely; Reduce agricultural runoff, pesticides and plastic pollution; Use ecosystems to limit climate change by storing planet-warming carbon in nature; Reduce subsidies and other financial programs that harm biodiversity by at least $500 billion per year, the estimated amount (PDF) that governments spend supporting fossil fuels and potentially damaging agricultural practices; and Safeguard at least 30 percent of the planet's land and oceans by 2030.

Medicine

Acer Launches Bacteria-Resistant PCs (arstechnica.com) 69

During its next@Acer event today, the company announced three new PCs -- a laptop, a two-in-one, and a tablet -- that will be joining its antimicrobial lineup. Ars Technica reports: Something is considered antimicrobial if it's capable of "destroying or inhibiting the growth of microorganisms, and especially pathogenic microorganisms." That means it fights disease-causing things you can't see. Acer claims its Antimicrobial 360 Design, as it brands the feature, fights germs in two ways. First, high-touch surfaces -- such as the chassis's exterior and hinge, the keyboard, the touchpad, and the fingerprint reader -- are coated with a silver-ion agent. For years, research has pointed to silver ions' ability to fight bacteria. As a more recent report published in ACS Applied Bio Materials explains, "They can readily adsorb to most biomolecules (DNA, membrane protein, enzymes, or intracellular cofactors) in bacteria to inactivate their functions." Acer's silver-ion agent is compliant with regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Biocidal Products Regulation; it can cut the bacteria count to 1,000 after a 99.9 percent reduction, based on the International Organization for Standardization 22196 test protocol. The 22196 standard specifies methods for testing the "antibacterial activity of antibacterial-treated plastics and other non-porous surfaces of products."

The products also use Corning Gorilla Glass coated with the silver-ion product. "This is done via trace amounts of silver ions leaching to the glass surface to eliminate the surface bacteria, while still offering other benefits such as improved durability and improved scratch resistance," Acer said. Acer introduced new antimicrobial PCs to its lineup in 2020 but is still adding to the roster. The company sees its antimicrobial coating expanding even further "across multiple product lines," an Acer spokesperson told Ars.

Medicine

Aspirin Use To Prevent 1st Heart Attack or Stroke Should Be Curtailed, US Panel Says 87

Doctors should no longer routinely start most people who are at high risk of heart disease on a daily regimen of low-dose aspirin, according to new draft guidelines by a U.S. panel of experts. The New York Times reports: The proposed recommendation is based on mounting evidence that the risk of serious side effects far outweighs the benefit of what was once considered a remarkably cheap weapon in the fight against heart disease. The U.S. panel also plans to retreat from its 2016 recommendation to take baby aspirin for the prevention of colorectal cancer, guidance that was groundbreaking at the time. The panel said more recent data had raised questions about the benefits for cancer, and that more research was needed.

On the use of low-dose or baby aspirin, the recommendation by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force would apply to people younger than 60 who were at high risk of heart disease and for whom a new daily regimen of the mild analgesic might have been a tool to prevent a first heart attack or stroke. The proposed guidelines would not apply to those already taking aspirin or those who have already had a heart attack. The U.S. task force also wants to strongly discourage anyone 60 and older from starting a low-dose aspirin regimen, citing concerns about the age-related heightened risk for life-threatening bleeding. The panel had previously recommended that people in their 60s who were at high risk for cardiovascular disease consult their doctors to make a decision. A low dose is 81 milligrams to 100 milligrams.

The task force proposals follow years of changes in advice by several leading medical organizations and federal agencies, some of which had already recommended limiting the use of low-dose aspirin as a preventive tool against heart disease and stroke. Aspirin inhibits the formation of blood clots that can block arteries, but studies have raised concerns that regular intake increases the risk of bleeding, especially in the digestive tract and the brain, dangers that increase with age. "There's no longer a blanket statement that everybody who's at increased risk for heart disease, even though they never had a heart attack, should be on aspirin," said Dr. Chien-Wen Tseng, a member of the national task force who is the research director of family medicine and community health at the University of Hawaii. "We need to be smarter at matching primary prevention to the people who will benefit the most and have the least risk of harms." Those who are already taking baby aspirin should talk to their doctor.
Space

Captain Kirk Safely Goes To Space and Back (bbc.com) 108

New submitter pele writes: Captain Kirk alias William Shatner has just safely completed his first trip to space and back, and in the process has become the oldest person ever to have been to space. More news and coverage at BBC and Evening Standard. Blue Origin took the 90-year-old just about 60 miles (100km) above the Earth's surface where those aboard got to experience a short period of weightlessness. The trip only lasted about 10 minutes.

"Everybody in the world needs to do this," the Canadian actor told Mr Bezos after landing back on Earth. "It was unbelievable." In tears, he added: "What you have given me is the most profound experience. I'm so filled with emotion about what just happened. I hope I never recover from this. I hope I can retain what I feel now. I don't want to lose it."
China

China's Solar Power Has Reached Price Parity With Coal (arstechnica.com) 102

Like everywhere else, China has seen the cost of solar power dive over the last decade, with a 63 percent drop between 2011 and 2018 alone. In line with that, the installation of solar has risen dramatically. From a report: Currently, a third of the entire planet's new solar capacity is being commissioned in China; the country passed the installed capacity of the US in 2013 and Germany in 2015, and it now has over 250 GW active -- well more than double what its economic plan had specified by this point. Given that China plans to hit net zero emissions by 2060, it is likely to continue this building spree. But the forecast is not all rosy. Most of China's population is located in the country's southeast. The best solar resources (in terms of cloudless days and available land) are in the northwest, which also happens to be sparsely populated.

This mismatch has left solar facing constraints due to limits in the ability of China's grids to shift power across its vast distances. The output of solar plants in the northwest has frequently ended up curtailed, as there's no capacity to send it where it's needed. As a result, it's been somewhat difficult to fully understand the economics of solar power in China. To get a clearer picture, the researchers built a model that takes into account most of the factors influencing solar's performance. The model tracks changes in technology, economics, solar resources, and the Chinese grid for the period from 2020 to 2060. It used six years of satellite weather data to estimate typical productivity in different areas of the country, and it included information on existing land use that would interfere with solar-farm siting.

Science

FAST, the World's Largest Radio Telescope, Zooms in on a Furious Cosmic Source (scientificamerican.com) 18

China's Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope has detected more than 1,600 fast radio bursts from a single enigmatic system. From a report: Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are one of the greatest mysteries of our universe. Coming from deep space, these outbursts can flash and fade in a matter of milliseconds, yet in each instance can release as much energy as the sun does in a year. They pop up all across the sky multiple times a day, but most appear to be one-off events and are thus hard to catch. First discovered in 2007, FRBs have challenged and tantalized scientists seeking to uncover their obscure origins and to use them as unique tools for probing the depths of intergalactic space. Now, using the world's largest single-dish radio telescope, an international team has reported the largest set of FRB events ever detected in history.

According to their paper published in Nature today, between August and October 2019 the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) in southwestern China recorded a total of 1,652 such brief and bright outbursts from a single repeating FRB source in a dwarf galaxy three billion light years away. Besides dramatically boosting the total number of known FRB events, the observations also revealed a very wide range of brightnesses among the recorded events, offering new clues about the astrophysical nature of their mysterious source. "The study is very thorough, with a level of details and sensitivity we've never had before," says astrophysicist Emily Petroff from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and McGill University in Canada, who is not involved in the research. "Such in-depth analyses of individual sources will be a top priority in FRB research in the near future."

Medicine

Neuroscientists Claim To Have Pinpointed the Brain States Unique To 'Team Flow' (sciencealert.com) 49

An anonymous reader quotes a report from ScienceAlert: At some point in life, you have probably enjoyed a 'flow' state -- when you're so intensely focused on a task or activity, you experience a strong sense of control, a reduced awareness of your environment and yourself, and a minimized sense of the passing of time. It's also possible to experience 'team flow,' such as when playing music together, competing in a sports team, or perhaps gaming. In such a state, we seem to have an intuitive understanding with others as we jointly complete the task at hand. An international team of neuroscientists now thinks they have uncovered the neural states unique to team flow, and it appears that these differ both from the flow states we experience as individuals, and from the neural states typically associated with social interaction.

Researchers found increased beta and gamma brain wave activity in the left middle temporal cortex. This region of the brain is typically associated with information integration and key functions like attention, memory, and awareness, which are "consistent with higher team interactions and enhancing many flow dimensions," the team writes. However, what was unique about team flow, was that participants' neural activity appeared to synchronize. When participants were performing the task as a unit, their brains would mutually align in their neural oscillations (beta and gamma activity), creating a "hyper-cognitive state between the team members." If brains can be functionally connected through inter-brain synchrony, does this mean it is not only our brain that contributes to our consciousness? It's a curious question, but the authors warn it is much too soon to tell. "Based on our findings, we cannot conclude that the high value of integrated information correlates with a modified form of consciousness, for instance, 'team consciousness'," they write. "Its consistency with neural synchrony raises intriguing and empirical questions related to inter-brain synchrony and information integration and altered state of consciousness."
The study was published in the journal eNeuro.
Space

Star Trek's William Shatner On His Plan To Boldly Go Into Space (cbsnews.com) 118

In an interview with Gayle King on "CBS Mornings," Star Trek's William Shatner talks about his plan to boldly go into space, becoming the oldest person to do so. He's planning to launch to the final frontier on Wednesday, courtesy of Jeff Bezos and his rocket company Blue Origin. CBS News reports: Shatner joked that he'll be able to brag about the age record. But he said his actual motivation was "to have the vision. I want to see space. I want to see the Earth. I want to see what we need to do to save Earth." "I want to have a perspective that hasn't been shown to me before," he said. "That's what I'm interested in seeing."

Shatner will eclipse Funk's record by eight years and John Glenn's mark before that by 13. "I'm looking forward to the whole thing," Shatner told CNN's Anderson Cooper. "Imagine being weightless and staring into the blackness and seeing the Earth, that's what I want to absorb." But he added, smiling: "Things like that go up and boom in the night. It's a little scary, I'll tell you." The most difficult challenges for 90-year-old Shatner likely will be climbing the seven flights of stairs required to reach the gangway to board the New Shepard capsule and then enduring more than five times the normal force of gravity during descent. But Funk had no problems, and Blue Origin officials presumably expect the same for Shatner.

Science

Can Nuclear Fusion Put the Brakes on Climate Change? (newyorker.com) 293

Amid an escalating crisis, the power source offers a dream -- or a pipe dream -- of limitless clean energy. From a report: Let's say that you've devoted your entire adult life to developing a carbon-free way to power a household for a year on the fuel of a single glass of water, and that you've had moments, even years, when you were pretty sure you would succeed. Let's say also that you're not crazy. This is a reasonable description of many of the physicists working in the field of nuclear fusion. In order to reach this goal, they had to find a way to heat matter to temperatures hotter than the center of the sun, so hot that atoms essentially melt into a cloud of charged particles known as plasma; they did that. They had to conceive of and build containers that could hold those plasmas; they did that, too, by making "bottles" out of strong magnetic fields. When those magnetic bottles leaked -- because, as one scientist explained, trying to contain plasma in a magnetic bottle is like trying to wrap a jelly in twine -- they had to devise further ingenious solutions, and, again and again, they did. Over decades, in the pursuit of nuclear fusion, scientists and engineers built giant metal doughnuts and Gehryesque twisted coils, they "pinched" plasmas with lasers, and they constructed fusion devices in garages. For thirty-six years, they have been planning and building an experimental fusion device in Provence. And yet commercially viable nuclear-fusion energy has always remained just a bit farther on.

As the White Queen, in "Through the Looking Glass," said to Alice, it is never jam today, it is always jam tomorrow. The accelerating climate crisis makes fusion's elusiveness more than cutely maddening. Solar energy gets more efficient and affordable each year, but it's not continuously available, and it still relies on gas power plants for distribution. The same is true for wind power. Conventional nuclear power has extremely well-known disadvantages. Carbon capture, which is like a toothbrush for the sky, is compelling, but after you capture a teraton or two of carbon there's nowhere to put it. All these tools figure extensively in decarbonization plans laid out by groups like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but, according to those plans, even when combined with one another the tools are insufficient. Fusion remains the great clean-energy dream -- or, depending on whom you ask, pipe dream. Fusion, theoretically, has no scarcity issues; our planet has enough of fusion's primary fuels, heavy hydrogen and lithium, which are found in seawater, to last thirty million years.

Fusion requires no major advances in batteries, it would be available on demand, it wouldn't cause the next Fukushima, and it wouldn't be too pricey -- if only we could figure out all the "details." (A joke I heard is that fusion operates according to the law of the "conservation of difficulty": when one problem is solved, a new one of equal difficulty emerges to take its place.) The details are tremendously complex, and the people who work to figure them out have for years been dealing with their own scarcities -- scarcities of funding and scarcities of faith. Fusion, as of now, has no place in the Green New Deal. In 1976, the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration published a study predicting how quickly nuclear fusion could become a reality, depending on how much money was invested in the field. For around nine billion a year in today's dollars -- described as the "Maximum Effective Effort" -- it projected reaching fusion energy by 1990. The scale descended to about a billion dollars a year, which the study projected would lead to "Fusion Never." "And that's about what's been spent," the British physicist Steven Cowley told me. "Pretty close to the maximum amount you could spend in order to never get there."

Space

New Studies Argue Distant Cosmic Gamma-Ray Explosion Was Actually Just Russian Space Junk (science.org) 16

"Last year, a team of astronomers made a blockbuster claim, saying they had captured the most distant cosmic explosion ever — a gamma ray burst in a galaxy called GN-z11," reports Science magazine.

"But that flash of light — supposedly from the most distant galaxy known — has a far more prosaic explanation: It was a glinting reflection from a tumbling, spent Russian rocket that happened to photobomb observers at just the right moment, two new studies claim..." Although they happen all the time, the chances of catching one when a telescope is pointed at a particular galaxy are quite slim. So it was even more surprising when astronomer Linhua Jiang of Peking University and colleagues claimed — using data from the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii — to find a burst coming from GN-z11, a galaxy dating back to a mere 420 million years after the big bang. Indeed, the team itself reported in December 2020 that the odds of catching such a burst were one in 10 billion.

Those odds raised red flags for Charles Steinhardt, an astronomer at the University of Copenhagen. "You start asking," he says, "'Are there any other causes that are more likely?'"

That's where the Russian rocket comes in. Humans have launched and left behind large numbers of objects in orbit around Earth, including satellites, rocket boosters, and even screwdrivers gone missing during spacewalks. Up to half a million bits of metal larger than 1 centimeter are thought to be tumbling around our planet. Glints of sunlight reflecting off this debris could be responsible for as many as 10,000 flashes of light per hour throughout the night sky, estimates Eran Ofek, an astrophysicist at the Weizmann Institute of Science who has published independent analyses of this phenomenon. The vast majority are invisible to the naked eye, he says, but they can be discernable to astronomical observatories.

Given such potential light pollution, the possibility of finding a debris glint in a random telescope image is somewhere between one in 1000 and one in 10,000, Steinhardt and his collaborators calculate in one of the new studies, published today in Nature Astronomy. That seems more likely than the one-in-10-billion chance of a gamma ray burst, Steinhardt says. "If you have to pick between the two answers, yes they're both unlikely, but one of them is millions of times more likely."

Science

Did Death Cheat Stephen Hawking of a Nobel Prize? (msn.com) 60

"Did death cheat Stephen Hawking of a Nobel Prize?" asks the New York Times: When the iconic physicist died on March 14, 2018, data was already in hand that could confirm an ominous and far-reaching prediction he had made more than four decades before. Dr. Hawking had posited that black holes, those maws of gravitational doom, could only grow larger, never smaller — swallowing information as they went and so threatening our ability to trace the history of the universe. That data was obtained in 2015 when the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, recorded signals from two massive black holes that had collided and created an even more massive black hole. Dr. Hawking's prediction was a first crucial step in a series of insights about black holes that have transformed modern physics. At stake is whether Einsteinian gravity, which shapes the larger universe, plays by the same rules as quantum mechanics, the paradoxical rules that prevail inside the atom.

A confirmation of Dr. Hawking's prediction was published this summer in Physical Review Letters. A team led by Maximiliano Isi, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his colleagues had spent years digging into the details of the LIGO results, and in July they finally announced that Dr. Hawking was right, at least for this particular black hole collision. "It's an exciting test because it's a long-desired result that cannot be achieved in a lab on Earth," Matthew Giesler, a researcher at Cornell University and part of Dr. Isi's team, said in an email. "This test required studying the merger of two black holes over a billion light years away and simply could not be accomplished without LIGO and its unprecedented detectors."

Nobody claims to know the mind of the Nobel Prize committee, and the names of people nominated for the prize are held secret for another 50 years. But many scientists agree that Dr. Isi's confirmation of Dr. Hawking's prediction could have made Dr. Hawking — and his co-authors on a definitive paper about it — eligible for a Nobel Prize.

But the Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously. Dr. Isi's result came too late.

ISS

Astronaut Spots Rare and Ethereal 'Transient Luminous Event' From ISS (cnet.com) 11

"Transient luminous event" sounds like a euphemism for a ghost, but it's actually a beautiful phenomenon that can sometimes be seen from the International Space Station. European Space Agency astronaut and current ISS resident Thomas Pesquet shared a view of an ethereal blue glow emerging over Europe. CNET reports: Transient luminous events are caused by upper-atmospheric lightning. This one happened in early September and Pesquet tweeted about it this week, calling it "a very rare occurrence." "What is fascinating about this lightning is that just a few decades ago they had been observed anecdotally by pilots and scientists were not convinced they actually existed," Pesquet said on Flickr. "Fast forward a few years and we can confirm elves, and sprites are very real and could be influencing our climate too!" Pesquet's image represents a single frame from a time-lapse taken from the station. The image would be a beauty just for the way it shows the curve of Earth and the twinkling lights of Europe below. The transient luminous event captured at its finest moment takes it to the next level.
Science

Neuroscientists Roll Out First Comprehensive Atlas of Brain Cells (sciencedaily.com) 11

A slew of 17 studies reveals the first comprehensive list of all cell types in the primary motor complex, offering "a starting point for tracing cellular networks to understand how they control our body and mind and how they are disrupted in mental and physical disorders," reports ScienceDaily. From the report: The 17 studies, appearing online Oct. 6 in the journal Nature, are the result of five years of work by a huge consortium of researchers supported by the National Institutes of Health's Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative to identify the myriad of different cell types in one portion of the brain. It is the first step in a long-term project to generate an atlas of the entire brain to help understand how the neural networks in our head control our body and mind and how they are disrupted in cases of mental and physical problems. [...] Individual researchers have previously identified dozens of cell types based on their shape, size, electrical properties and which genes are expressed in them. The new studies identify about five times more cell types, though many are subtypes of well-known cell types. For example, cells that release specific neurotransmitters, like gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) or glutamate, each have more than a dozen subtypes distinguishable from one another by their gene expression and electrical firing patterns.

While the current papers address only the motor cortex, the BRAIN Initiative Cell Census Network (BICCN) -- created in 2017 -- endeavors to map all the different cell types throughout the brain, which consists of more than 160 billion individual cells, both neurons and support cells called glia. The BRAIN Initiative was launched in 2013 by then-President Barack Obama. [Researchers] have already used CRISPR-Cas9 to create mice in which a specific cell type is labeled with a fluorescent marker, allowing them to track the connections these cells make throughout the brain. For the flagship journal paper, the Berkeley team created two strains of "knock-in" reporter mice that provided novel tools for illuminating the connections of the newly identified cell types.

"The big advance by the BICCN is that we combined many different ways of defining a cell type and integrated them to come up with a consensus taxonomy that's not just based on gene expression or on physiology or morphology, but takes all of those properties into account," [UC Berkeley colleague Dirk Hockemeyer] said. "So, now we can say this particular cell type expresses these genes, has this morphology, has these physiological properties, and is located in this particular region of the cortex. So, you have a much deeper, granular understanding of what that cell type is and its basic properties." [F]uture studies could show that the number of cell types identified in the motor cortex is an overestimate, but the current studies are a good start in assembling a cell atlas of the whole brain.

Medicine

WSU Will Lead $125 Million Global Project To Find, Analyze Animal Viruses (geekwire.com) 34

Washington State University this week launched a new $125 million program to collect and analyze animal viruses with the aim of preventing the next pandemic. GeekWire reports: The program is funded with an award from the U.S. Agency for International Development and includes researchers at the University of Washington and the Seattle-based nonprofit PATH. The project will partner with up to 12 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to build up lab capacity for surveillance of animal viruses that have the potential to "spillover" into humans and cause disease. The project will survey wildlife and domesticated animals for three families of viruses -- coronaviruses, filoviruses (which includes Ebola), and paramyxoviruses (which are in the same family as the measles and Nipah viruses). Researchers will not be working in the lab with the live viruses and will kill them as part of the collection process.

The team aims to collect more than 800,000 samples in the five years of the project, called Discovery & Exploration of Emerging Pathogens -- Viral Zoonoses, or DEEP VZN. The project is expected to yield 8,000 to 12,000 novel, previously unknown, viruses for analysis. The program has parallels with another USAID-funded program, STOP Spillover, which assesses risk factors for animal-to-human disease transmission and implements interventions to stop it. DEEP VZN will select partner sites outside the U.S. based on factors such as commitment to data sharing and whether there are lots of interactions between humans and animals in the region. Other partners for the project include Washington University in St. Louis and the nonprofit FHI 360.

Science

A French Company Is Using Enzymes To Recycle One of the Most Common Single-Use Plastics (technologyreview.com) 64

In late September, Carbios, a French startup, opened a demonstration plant in central France to test the use of enzymes to recycle PET, one of the most common single-use plastics and the material used to make most beverage bottles. MIT Technology Review reports: While we've had mechanical methods for recycling some plastics, like PET, for decades, chemical and enzyme-based processes could produce purer products or allow us to recycle items like clothes that conventional techniques can't process. [...] Carbios's new reactor measures 20 cubic meters -- around the size of a cargo van. It can hold two metric tons of plastic, or the equivalent of about 100,000 ground-up bottles at a time, and break it down into the building blocks of PET -- ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid -- in 10 to 16 hours. The company plans to use what it learns from the demonstration facility to build its first industrial plant, which will house a reactor about 20 times larger than the demonstration reactor. That full-scale plant will be built near a plastic manufacturer somewhere in Europe or the US, and should be operational by 2025, says Alain Marty, Carbios's chief science officer.

Carbios has been developing enzymatic recycling since the company was founded in 2011. Its process relies on enzymes to chop up the long chains of polymers that make up plastic. The resulting monomers can then be purified and strung together to make new plastics. Researchers at Carbios started with a natural enzyme used by bacteria to break down leaves, then tweaked it to make it more efficient at breaking down PET. Carbios estimates that its enzymatic recycling process reduces greenhouse gas emissions by about 30% compared to virgin PET. Marty says he expects that number to increase as they work out the kinks. In a recent report, researchers estimated that manufacturing PET from enzymatic recycling could reduce greenhouse gas emissions between 17% and 43% compared to making virgin PET. The report wasn't specifically about Carbios, but it's probably a good estimate for its process, according to Gregg Beckham, a researcher at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory and a co-author of the report.

Carbios's product is about twice as expensive as virgin PET, Marty says. By comparison, mechanically recycled PET is only about 50% more expensive than virgin. Marty points out that Carbios's PET would still only cost about two cents for a small, clear plastic bottle, which he argues is a relatively small expense for manufacturers. Companies may be willing to pay. In a press release earlier this year, Carbios revealed demonstration bottles from partner brands that included PepsiCo and Nestle. Carbios recycled discarded plastic and handed it off to the companies, which used it to make new bottles. Eventually, enzymatic recycling may be able do things that mechanical recycling can't, like recycle clothes or mixed streams of plastics.

Medicine

A Controversial Autism Treatment Is About To Become a Very Big Business (vice.com) 141

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Motherboard: At Duke University's Marcus Center for Cellular Cures, parents can enroll their children into a number of clinical trials that aim to study the effects of cells derived from umbilical cord blood on treating the effects of autism and brain injuries; adults can also participate in a trial testing whether cord blood can help them recover from ischemic strokes. And when parents can't get their children into any of these clinical trials, particularly for autism, they often opt for what's called the Expanded Access Program (EAP), in which they pay between $10,000 and $15,000 to get their kids a single infusion. All of the trials use products derived from human umbilical cord blood, which is a source of stem cells as well as other types of cells. The autism trials are using a type of immune cells called monocytes, according to Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg, a well-respected Duke professor who's conducting clinical trials into whether cord blood can help with autism, and who has been researching stem cells since the early '90s. (On ClinicalTrials.gov, however, these trials are listed as using mesenchymal stromal cells, which are a completely different type of cord blood cell.)

Now, a for-profit company called Cryo-Cell International with ties to Duke researchers has indicated that it plans to open clinics promoting these treatments, under a licensing agreement with the renowned North Carolina university. In their investor presentation, Cryo-Cell said they plan to become "an autonomous, vertically integrated cellular therapy company that will treat patients." Duke and Cryo-Cell's rush to monetize a procedure before it's shown to have solid benefits has created concern, though, across the community of scientists, clinicians, and medical ethicists who study autism treatments. The hope is that these cord blood infusions can improve some autism symptoms, like socialization and language, or decrease the inflammation that some parents and clinicians think might exacerbate autism symptoms. Early study results, however, haven't been very promising.

A large randomized clinical trial, the results of which were released in May 2020, showed that a single infusion of cord blood was not, in the words of the researchers, "associated with improved socialization skills or reduced autism symptoms." This is why Duke's latest move comes as such a surprise: The university and Cryo-Cell have told investors that they're planning to open a series of "infusion centers." At these clinics, Cryo-Cell will use Duke's technology and methods to offer cord blood treatments for $15,000 per infusion. In an exuberant presentation for investors (PDF), Cryo-Cell said it estimates an annual revenue of $24 million per clinic; it hasn't disclosed how many clinics it plans to open. At least one will reportedly open in Durham, North Carolina. The move follows a June 2020 announcement that Cryo-Cell had entered into an exclusive patent-option agreement with Duke, allowing it to manufacture and sell products based on patents from Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg.

China

China PCR Purchases Spiked In Months Before First Known Covid Cases, Firm Says (bloomberg.com) 219

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Bloomberg: The Chinese province that was the initial epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak made significant purchases of equipment used to test for infectious diseases months before Beijing notified international authorities of the emergence of a new coronavirus, according to research by a cybersecurity company. The province's purchase of polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, testing equipment, which allows scientists to amplify DNA samples to test for infectious disease or other genetic material, shot upward in 2019, with most of the increase coming in the second half of the year, the Australian-U.S. firm Internet 2.0 found. Hubei province is home to Wuhan, the large Chinese city where the first known cases of the virus emerged. The World Health Organization reported that its China Country Office was informed on Dec. 31, 2019, that cases of pneumonia from an unknown cause had been detected in the city.

Based on the research, Internet 2.0 concluded with "high confidence that the pandemic began much earlier than China informed the WHO about Covid-19," according to the report. The cybersecurity firm, which specializes in digital forensics and intelligence analysis, called for further investigation. But several medical experts said the Internet 2.0 report wasn't enough information to draw such conclusions. For one thing, PCR testing, which has been in broad use for several decades, has been been growing in popularity as it has become a standard method to test for pathogens, according to one of the experts. In addition, PCR equipment is widely used in laboratories to test for many other pathogens beside Covid-19, including in animals, and is commonly found in modern hospitals and labs. China was also dealing with an outbreak of African swine fever across the country in 2019.

Earth

Earth Is Getting Dimmer (gizmodo.com) 40

Earth is losing some of its glow, a study published in Geophysical Research Letters last week shows. It appears climate change and a natural climate shift have essentially scuffed up our planet. From a report: The study takes a look at earthshine, or the light reflected from the planet that casts a faint light on the surface of the Moon. It's also known as the Da Vinci Glow, because Leonardo da Vinci was the first person to formally write about it. Research has advanced quite a bit since da Vinci's writing 500 years ago, and the new findings use two decades of earthshine data collected at Big Bear Solar Observatory using a special type of telescope to view the Moon. The best time to observe earthshine is when the Moon is waxing or waning. Look at the Moon then, and you may be able to make out a faint outline of the whole Moon in addition to the sliver brightly illuminated by the Sun. That ghostly outline is thanks to earthshine, caused by the sunlight reflecting off our planet.

The observatory is perfectly situated to measure earthshine for 40% of the planet, spanning the Pacific and parts of North America. Analyzing the data for roughly 800 nights between 1998 and 2017 showed a small but significant decline in earthshine. There were some year-to-year shifts, but the paper notes that those are "quite muted, with a long-term decline dominating the time series." The scientists used satellite data to gauge what drove the dimming. Land, ice, clouds, and open ocean all have different levels of reflectivity that contribute to earthshine. (The reflectivity of different surfaces is also referred to as albedo.) The findings point to the disappearance of clouds in the tropical Pacific as the culprit in dulling Earth's shine. "The albedo drop was such a surprise to us when we analyzed the last three years of data after 17 years of nearly flat albedo," said Philip Goode, a researcher at New Jersey Institute of Technology and the lead author of the report, in a statement.

Earth

Historic Go-ahead for Malaria Vaccine To Protect African Children (bbc.com) 67

Children across much of Africa are to be vaccinated against malaria in a historic moment in the fight against the deadly disease. From a report: Malaria has been one of the biggest scourges on humanity for millennia and mostly kills babies and infants. Having a vaccine -- after more than a century of trying -- is among medicine's greatest achievements. The vaccine -- called RTS,S -- was proven effective six years ago. Now, after the success of pilot immunisation programmes in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi, the World Health Organization says the vaccine should be rolled out across sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions with moderate to high malaria transmission. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO said it was "a historic moment." "The long-awaited malaria vaccine for children is a breakthrough for science, child health and malaria control." Using the vaccine on top of existing tools "could save tens of thousands of young lives each year," he said.
Science

Nobel Prize in Chemistry Awarded To Scientists for Creating a Tool To Build Molecules (nytimes.com) 22

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded on Wednesday to Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan for their development of a new tool to build molecules, work that has spurred advances in pharmaceutical research and lessened the impact of chemistry on the environment. From a report: Their work, while unseen by consumers, is an essential part in many leading industries and is crucial for research. Chemists are among those tasked with constructing molecules that can form elastic and durable materials, store energy in batteries or inhibit the progression of diseases. But that work requires catalysts, which are substances that control and accelerate chemical reactions without becoming part of the final product. "For example, catalysts in cars transform toxic substances in exhaust fumes to harmless molecules," the Nobel committee said in a statement. "Our bodies also contain thousands of catalysts in the form of enzymes, which chisel out the molecules necessary for life." The problem was that there were just two types of catalysts available: metals and enzymes.

In 2000, Dr. List and Dr. MacMillan -- working independently of each other -- developed a new type of catalysis that reduced waste and allowed for novel ways to construct molecules. It is called asymmetric organocatalysis and builds upon small organic molecules. "This concept for catalysis is as simple as it is ingenious, and the fact is that many people have wondered why we didn't think of it earlier," said Johan Aqvist, chairman of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry. Virtually everyone on the planet has come across a product that has benefited from a chemist's expertise. The process of using catalysts to break down molecules or join them together is essential in industry and research.

Data Storage

Scientists Have Successfully Recorded Data To DNA In a Few Short Minutes (interestingengineering.com) 29

Researchers at Northwestern University have devised a new method for recording information to DNA that takes minutes rather than hours or days. Interesting Engineering reports: The researchers utilized a novel enzymatic system to synthesize DNA that records rapidly changing environmental signals straight into its sequences, and this method could revolutionize how scientists examine and record neurons inside the brain. To record intracellular molecular and digital data to DNA, scientists currently rely on multipart processes that combine new information with existing DNA sequences. This means that, for an accurate recording, they must stimulate and repress the expression of specific proteins, which can take over 10 hours to complete.

The new study's researchers hypothesized they could make this process faster by utilizing a new method they call "Time-sensitive Untemplated Recording using Tdt for Local Environmental Signals," or TURTLES. This way, they would synthesize completely new DNA rather than copying a template of it. The method enabled the data to be recorded into the genetic code in a matter of minutes. "Nature is good at copying DNA, but we really wanted to be able to write DNA from scratch," Northwestern engineering professor Keith E.J. Tyo, the paper's senior author, said, in the press release. "The ex vivo (outside the body) way to do this involves a slow, chemical synthesis. Our method is much cheaper to write information because the enzyme that synthesizes the DNA can be directly manipulated. State-of-the-art intracellular recordings are even slower because they require the mechanical steps of protein expression in response to signals, as opposed to our enzymes which are all expressed ahead of time and can continuously store information."

NASA

NASA's 'Armageddon'-style Asteroid Deflection Mission Takes Off Next Month (techcrunch.com) 34

NASA has a launch date for that most Hollywood of missions, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, which is basically a dry run of the movie "Armageddon." From a report: Unlike the film, this will not involve nukes, oil rigs or Aerosmith, but instead is a practical test of our ability to change the trajectory of an asteroid in a significant and predictable way. The DART mission, managed by the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (!), involves sending a pair of satellites out to a relatively nearby pair of asteroids, known as the Didymos binary. It's one large-ish asteroid, approximately 780 meters across -- that's Didymos proper -- and a 160-meter "moonlet" in its orbit.
ISS

Russian Actress and Director To Start Making First Movie on Space Station (nytimes.com) 45

The first dog in space. The first man and woman. Now Russia has clinched another spaceflight first before the United States: Beating Hollywood to orbit. From a report: A Russian actress, Yulia Sherepild, a director, Klim Shipenko, and their veteran Russian astronaut guide, Anton Shkaplerov, launched on a Russian rocket toward the International Space Station on Tuesday. Their mission is to shoot scenes for the first feature-length film in space. While cinematic sequences in space have long been portrayed on big screens using sound stages and advanced computer graphics, never before has a full-length movie been shot and directed in space.

Whether the film they shoot in orbit is remembered as a cinematic triumph, the mission highlights the busy efforts of governments as well as private entrepreneurs to expand access to space. Earth's orbit and beyond were once visited only by astronauts handpicked by government space agencies. But a growing number of visitors in the near future will be more like Ms. Sherepild and Mr. Shipenko, and less like the highly trained Mr. Shkaplerov and his fellow space explorers. A Soyuz rocket, the workhorse of Russia's space program, lifted off on time at 4:55 a.m. Eastern time from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Before the launch on Tuesday, the MS-19 crew posed for photos and waved to family and fans in Baikonur. Mr. Shipenko, the director of the film which is named "The Challenge," held up a script as he waved to cameras.

Earth

Nobel Prize in Physics Awarded To Scientists Whose Work Helps Predict Global Warming (washingtonpost.com) 103

The Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded half of the Nobel Prize in physics jointly to Syukuro Manabe of the United States and Klaus Hasselmann of Germany for modeling Earth's climate and predicting global warming. From a report: Giorgio Parisi of Italy won the other half of the prize for describing fluctuating physical systems on scales from atoms to planets. The three scientists were honored "for groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of complex physical systems," Goran K. Hansson, secretary general Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, told reporters in Stockholm.
Medicine

A Surgically Implanted Brain Stimulation Device Could Help Treat Severe Depression (theverge.com) 90

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Verge: Sarah was the patient in a proof-of-concept trial of a new approach to treating severe, treatment-resistant depression, published today in the journal Nature Medicine. The findings open up another possible strategy for helping people with the disorder. The study only involved Sarah, and it's still not clear how well it might work in other people. The lessons from the trial, though, helped the researchers understand more about the nature of depression and could apply to other efforts to treat the disease. The trial used a technique called deep brain stimulation, where electrodes implanted within the brain deliver electrical impulses in an attempt to change or regulate abnormal brain activity. It's common for conditions like epilepsy and Parkinson's disease. Research over the past decade has shown that it can sometimes help with depression, but the findings have been inconsistent. Most previous efforts delivered stimulation to individual regions of the brain thought to be involved in depression. This study, though, was targeted at regions that were part of specific brain circuits -- interconnected parts of the brain that are responsible for specific functions.

In addition, the circuits involved might be different for each person. So in this trial, the study team personalized the treatment approach to the specific patient's depression. They mapped out the type of brain activity that occurred when Sarah's depression symptoms flared. Then, they surgically implanted a device that could detect that brain activity and send stimulation to the circuit where the activity was happening. For Sarah, the procedure was highly effective. Her scores on depression rating scales dropped the morning after the device was turned on. And perhaps more importantly, she felt dramatic changes in her mood. During her first time getting the stimulation, she laughed out loud in the lab. "And everyone in the room went, 'Oh my god,' because that's the first time I spontaneously laughed and smiled, where it wasn't faked, in five years," she said. Sarah's depression circuit flares up hundreds of times a day, and each time, the implanted device delivers a brief stimulating pulse. In total, she gets around 30 minutes of stimulation each day [...]. Sarah can't feel the pulses, but she said she does have a general idea of when they're happening throughout the day. "There's a sense of alertness and energy or positivity that I'll feel," she said.

Earth

The Surprising Downsides To Planting Trillions of Trees (vox.com) 115

Large tree-planting initiatives often fail -- and some have even fueled deforestation. From a report: On November 11, 2019, volunteers planted 11 million trees in Turkey as part of a government-backed initiative called Breath for the Future. In one northern city, the tree-planting campaign set the Guinness World Record for the most saplings planted in one hour in a single location: 303,150. "By planting millions of young trees, the nation is working to foster a new, lush green Turkey," Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said when he kicked off the project in Ankara. Less than three months later, up to 90 percent of the saplings were dead, the Guardian reported. The trees were planted at the wrong time and there wasn't enough rainfall to support the saplings, the head of the country's agriculture and forestry trade union told the paper.

In the past two decades, mass tree-planting campaigns like this one have gained popularity as a salve for many of our modern woes, from climate change to the extinction crisis. Companies and billionaires love these kinds of initiatives. So do politicians. [...] There's just one problem: These campaigns often don't work, and sometimes they can even fuel deforestation. In one recent study in the journal Nature, for example, researchers examined long-term restoration efforts in northern India, a country that has invested huge amounts of money into planting over the last 50 years. The authors found "no evidence" that planting offered substantial climate benefits or supported the livelihoods of local communities.

The study is among the most comprehensive analyses of restoration projects to date, but it's just one example in a litany of failed campaigns that call into question the value of big tree-planting initiatives. Often, the allure of bold targets obscures the challenges involved in seeing them through, and the underlying forces that destroy ecosystems in the first place. Instead of focusing on planting huge numbers of trees, experts told Vox, we should focus on growing trees for the long haul, protecting and restoring ecosystems beyond just forests, and empowering the local communities that are best positioned to care for them. In the past three decades, the number of tree-planting organizations has skyrocketed, growing nearly threefold in the tropics alone. So have global drives: Today, there are no fewer than three campaigns focused on planting 1 trillion trees, including the World Economic Forum's (WEF) One Trillion Trees Initiative, which launched in 2020.

Medicine

The Medicine Nobel Prize Honors the Discovery of Temperature and Touch Receptors (npr.org) 17

The Nobel Prize in the field of physiology or medicine has been awarded to U.S.-based scientists David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian. From a report: They were cited for their discovery of receptors for temperature and touch. The winners were announced Monday by Thomas Perlmann, secretary-general of the Nobel Committee.Patrik Ernfors of the Nobel Committee said Julius, 65, used capsaicin, the active component in chili peppers, to identify the nerve sensors that allow the skin to respond to heat. Patapoutian found separate pressure-sensitive sensors in cells that respond to mechanical stimulation, he said. "This really unlocks one of the secrets of nature," said Perlmann. "It's actually something that is crucial for our survival, so it's a very important and profound discovery." The pair also shared the prestigious Kavli Award for Neuroscience last year. Further reading: California Scientists Share Nobel for Work on Sense of Touch.
Science

Ancient Footprints Could Be Oldest Traces of Humans in the Americas (nature.com) 38

Opyros writes: Fossil footprints in New Mexico have been dated to 21,000-23,000 years before present. As a result, human habitation of the Americas can be pushed back several thousand years.

The footprints were found in sedimentary rock at White Sands National Park, near the location of a long-vanished lake. Since the rock contains seeds of ditchgrass, it was possible to apply radiocarbon dating, leading to the remarkably early date. Until now, the oldest unequivocally dated signs of human presence in the New World were only 16,000 years old. Hence the great significance of the find.

Medicine

Is the Coronavirus Just Getting Better at Airborne Transmission? (yahoo.com) 203

A New York Times science/global health reporter reminds us that "Newer variants of the coronavirus like Alpha and Delta are highly contagious, infecting far more people than the original virus."

But then they add that "Two new studies offer a possible explanation: The virus is evolving to spread more efficiently through air." Most researchers now agree that the coronavirus is mostly transmitted through large droplets that quickly sink to the floor and through much smaller ones, called aerosols, that can float over longer distances indoors and settle directly into the lungs, where the virus is most harmful. The new studies don't fundamentally change that view. But the findings signal the need for better masks in some situations, and indicate that the virus is changing in ways that make it more formidable.

"This is not an Armageddon scenario," said Vincent Munster, a virologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who led one of the new studies. "It is like a modification of the virus to more efficient transmission, which is something I think we all kind of expected, and we now see it happening in real time." Dr. Munster's team showed that small aerosols traveled much longer distances than larger droplets and the Alpha variant was much more likely to cause new infections via aerosol transmission. The second study found that people infected with Alpha exhaled about 43 times more virus into tiny aerosols than those infected with older variants.

The studies compared the Alpha variant with the original virus or other older variants. But the results may also explain why the Delta variant is so contagious — and why it displaced all other versions of the virus...

At least in some crowded spaces, people may want to consider switching to more protective masks, said Don Milton, an aerosol expert at the University of Maryland who led the research. "Given that it seems to be evolving towards generating aerosols better, then we need better containment and better personal protection," Dr. Milton said of the virus. "We are recommending people move to tighter-fitting masks."

Science

Can High-Powered Lasers Unlock the Secrets of Strong Field Quantum Electrodynamics? (phys.org) 37

Phys.org reports that a newly published theoretical/computer-modeling study "suggests that the world's most powerful lasers might finally crack the elusive physics behind some of the most extreme phenomena in the universe — gamma ray bursts, pulsar magnetospheres, and more."

The study comes from an international team including researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and France's Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (publishing in the journal Physical Review Letters.): The team's modeling study shows that petawatt (PW)-class lasers — juiced to even higher intensities via light-matter interactions — might provide a key to unlock the mysteries of the strong-field (SF) regime of quantum electrodynamics (QED). A petawatt is 1 times ten to the fifteenth power (that is, followed by 15 zeroes), or a quadrillion watts. The output of today's most powerful lasers is measured in petawatts... "This is a powerful demonstration of how advanced simulation of complex systems can enable new paths for discovery science by integrating multiple physics processes — in this case, the laser interaction with a target and subsequent production of particles in a second target," said ATAP Division Director Cameron Geddes....

The scheme consists of boosting the intensity of a petawatt laser pulse with a relativistic plasma mirror. Such a mirror can be formed when an ultrahigh intensity laser beam hits an optically polished solid target. Due to the high laser amplitude, the solid target is fully ionized, forming a dense plasma that reflects the incident light. At the same time the reflecting surface is actually moved by the intense laser field. As a result of that motion, part of the reflected laser pulse is temporally compressed and converted to a shorter wavelength by the Doppler effect. Radiation pressure from the laser gives this plasma mirror a natural curvature. This focuses the Doppler-boosted beam to much smaller spots, which can lead to extreme intensity gains — more than three orders of magnitude — where the Doppler-boosted laser beam is focused. The simulations indicate that a secondary target at this focus would give clear SF-QED signatures in actual experiments.

The study drew upon Berkeley Lab's diverse scientific resources, including its WarpX simulation code, which was developed for modeling advanced particle accelerators under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Energy's Exascale Computing Project... The discovery via WarpX of novel high-intensity laser-plasma interaction regimes could have benefits far beyond ideas for exploring strong-field quantum electrodynamics. These include the better understanding and design of plasma-based accelerators such as those being developed at the Berkeley Lab Laser Accelerator. More compact and less expensive than conventional accelerators of similar energy, they could eventually be game-changers in applications that range from extending the reach of high-energy physics and of penetrating photon sources for precision imaging, to implanting ions in semiconductors, treating cancer, developing new pharmaceuticals, and more.

"It is gratifying to be able to contribute to the validation of new, potentially very impactful ideas via the use of our novel algorithms and codes," Vay said of the Berkeley Lab team's contributions to the study. "This is part of the beauty of collaborative team science."

Long-time Slashdot reader fahrbot-bot has suggested that the article deserves an alternate title: "Article I Read Three Times and Still Don't Completely Understand."
Science

Newly-Published Evidence Undermines China Lab-Leak Theory (yahoo.com) 442

In 1999 Los Angeles Times reporter Michael Hiltzik won a Pulitzer Prize. Now a business columnist for the Times, he writes that "new evidence undermines the COVID lab-leak theory — but the press keeps pushing it." A paper posted online [in September] chiefly by researchers at France's Institut Pasteur and under consideration for publication in a Nature journal...reports that three viruses were found in bats living in caves in northern Laos with features very similar to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. As Nature reported, those viruses are "more similar to SARS-CoV-2 than any known viruses."

Another paper, posted in late August by researchers from the Wuhan lab, reports on viruses found in rats also with features similar to those that make SARS-CoV-2 infectious in humans.

Two other papers published on the discussion forum virological.org present evidence that the virus jumped from animals to humans at more than one animal market in Wuhan, not just the Huanan seafood market. Given that these so-called wet markets have long been suspected as transmission points of viruses from animals to humans because they sell potentially infected animals, that makes the laboratory origin vastly less likely, according to a co-author of one of the papers. "That a laboratory leak would find its way to the very place where you would expect to find a zoonotic transmission is quite unlikely," Joel Wertheim, an associate professor at UC San Diego's medical school, told me. "To have it find its way to multiple markets, the exact place where you would expect to see the introduction, is unbelievably unlikely."

As virologist Robert F. Garry of Tulane, one of Wertheim's co-authors, told Nature, the finding is "a dagger into the heart" of the lab-leak hypothesis.

United States

More Vaccinations, Less Pushback: America's Vaccine Mandates Are Working, Says Public Health Professor (seattletimes.com) 308

Last month U.S. President Biden issued "a mandate that all companies with more than 100 workers require vaccination or weekly testing," remembers the New York Times, and "also moved to mandate shots for health care workers, federal contractors and a vast majority of federal workers, who could face disciplinary measures if they refuse."

So what happened next? Until now, the biggest unknown about mandating COVID-19 vaccines in workplaces has been whether such requirements would lead to compliance or to significant departures by workers unwilling to get shots — at a time when many places were already facing staffing shortages. So far, a number of early mandates show few indications of large-scale resistance. "Mandates are working," said John Swartzberg, a physician and professor at the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley. "If you define 'working' by the percentage of people getting vaccinated and not leaving their jobs in droves."

Unlike other incentives — "prizes, perks, doughnuts, beer, we've seen just about everything offered to get people vaccinated" — mandates are among the few levers that historically have been effective in increasing compliance, said Swartzberg, who has tracked national efforts to increase rates of inoculation...

[T]he pushback has been less dramatic than initially feared. At Houston Methodist Hospital, which mandated vaccines this summer for 25,000 employees, for example, only about 0.6% of employees quit or were fired. Dorit Reiss, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco who is tracking employer mandates, said that, despite their propensity for backlash and litigation, mandates generally increase vaccine compliance because the knowledge that an order is coming has often been enough to prompt workers to seek inoculation before courts even can weigh in. Mandates are becoming more commonplace as several other states have imposed requirements for workers. In New York, Rhode Island, Maine, Oregon and the District of Columbia, health care workers must get vaccinated to remain employed.

The Times's article (original URL here) provides statistics from specific examples:
  • "When Tyson Foods announced Aug. 3 that it would require coronavirus vaccines for all 120,000 of its U.S. employees, less than half of its workforce was inoculated. Nearly two months later, 91% of the company's U.S. workforce is fully vaccinated, said Dr. Claudia Coplein, Tyson's chief medical officer."
  • "In New York, where some 650,000 employees at hospitals and nursing homes were to have received at least one vaccine dose by the start of this week, 92% were in compliance, state officials said. That was up significantly from a week ago, when 82% of the state's nursing home workers and at least 84% of its hospital workers had received at least one dose."
  • "As California's requirement that all health care workers be vaccinated against the coronavirus took effect Thursday, major health systems reported that the mandate had helped boost their vaccination rates to 90% or higher."

Science

Study Finds People Enjoy Deep Conversations With Strangers (phys.org) 71

People benefit from deep and meaningful conversations that help us forge connections with one another, but we often stick to small talk with strangers because we underestimate how much others are interested in our lives and wrongly believe that deeper conversations will be more awkward and less enjoyable than they actually are, according to research published by the American Psychological Association. Phys.Org reports: If connecting with others in deep and meaningful ways increases well-being, then why aren't people doing it more often in daily life? To answer that question, [researchers] designed a series of twelve experiments with more than 1,800 total participants. The researchers asked pairs of people -- mainly strangers -- to discuss either relatively deep or shallow topics. In some experiments, people received shallow or deep questions to discuss. Shallow questions included typical small-talk topics, such as, "What is the best TV show you've seen in the last month? Tell your partner about it" or "What do you think about the weather today?" while deep questions elicited more personal and intimate information, such as, "Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?" or "If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, your future, or anything else, what would you want to know?" In other experiments, people generated their own deep and shallow conversation topics.

Before the conversations, participants predicted how awkward they thought the conversations would be, how connected they thought they would feel to their conversation partner and how much they would enjoy the conversation. Afterward, they rated how awkward the conversations actually were, how connected they actually felt and how much enjoyment they actually experienced. Overall, the researchers found that both deep and shallow conversations felt less awkward and led to greater feelings of connectedness and enjoyment than the participants had expected. That effect tended to be stronger for deep conversations. Participants who discussed the deep questions overestimated how awkward the conversation would be significantly more than those who discussed shallow questions. Deep conversations were also more enjoyable and led to a stronger sense of connection.

Space

Europe's BepiColombo Spacecraft To Attempt Its First Swing Past Mercury Tonight (space.com) 21

A spacecraft bound for the planet Mercury will take a first look at the target tonight, when it makes its first-ever flyby of the small rocky world during an incredibly close encounter tonight. Space.com reports: The mission, called BepiColombo, is a joint project of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). It is only the second mission in history sent to orbit Mercury, the smallest and innermost planet of the solar system. BepiColombo's flyby tonight (Oct. 1) will bring the spacecraft within just 124 miles (200 kilometers) of the surface of Mercury, the closest the probe will ever get to the planet during its mission. The first images from the encounter are expected to reach Earth early Saturday (Oct. 2) and will be the first close images of Mercury's scorched surface since the end of NASA's Messenger orbiter mission in 2015.

BepiColombo will make its closest approach to Mercury at 7:34 p.m. EDT (2334 GMT) today (Oct.1), ESA said in a statement. The spacecraft will then continue on its winding trajectory around the sun. This close pass is one of nine gravity-assist flybys, maneuvers that use the gravity of celestial bodies to adjust a spacecraft's trajectory, that BepiColombo needs to perform before it can enter its target orbit around the planet. This flyby, however, will take the spacecraft even closer to the scorched planet's surface, than its ultimate scientific orbit of 300 to 930 miles (480 to 1,500 kilometers). The $750 million BepiColombo mission will be able to make measurements of the environment around the planet and take images with its black and white 'selfie' cameras, which provide a 1024 by 1024 pixel resolution (comparable to an early-2000s flip phone.) [...] After tonight's close pass, it will take four more flybys of Mercury by BepiColombo before the spacecraft is in the correct position to finally enter the planet's orbit, which is set to happen in 2025.

Medicine

Meet Molnupiravir, Merck's Pill That Cuts COVID-19 Hospitalization and Death By About Half (arstechnica.com) 181

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: An oral antiviral drug appears to cut the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19 by roughly 50 percent in people newly diagnosed with the infection and at risk for severe disease, pharmaceutical company Merck announced Friday morning. The drug-maker and its partner, Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, released top-line results of a Phase III trial, which the companies ended early given the positive results. The companies say they will apply for an Emergency Use Authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration as soon as possible.

The trial enrolled people who had newly tested positive for a SARS-CoV-2 infection and had onset of mild-to-moderate COVID-19 symptoms within just the past five days of starting the trial. The enrollees also had to have at least one risk factor for a poor outcome, such as having obesity, diabetes, heart disease, or being age 60 or above. While some participants received a placebo and standard care, others took an oral dose of the drug every 12 hours for five days. After 29 days of follow-up, 53 out of 377 participants who received the placebo were hospitalized with COVID-19, and eight of those participants died. Among those who received the drug, only 28 of 385 were hospitalized and none of those patients died. Put another way, 7.3 percent of patients on the drug were either hospitalized or died compared with 14.1 percent in the placebo group. Merck also highlighted that the trial was global and that the drug appeared to work equally well against varying SARS-CoV-2 variants, including delta, gamma, and mu. The drug-maker noted that it had viral genetic data to identify variants from 40 percent of participants. The safety data was equally promising, with participants reporting similar numbers of drug-related adverse events between the placebo group than the drug group (11 percent and 12 percent, respectively). About 3.4 percent of people in the placebo group quit the study due to adverse events, while only 1.3 percent quit in the drug group.

The drug at the center of these seemingly smashing results is dubbed molnupiravir -- a name inspired by that of Thor's hammer, Mjolnir. The idea is that the drug will strike down SARS-CoV-2, like a mighty blow from the god of thunder. In an interview with Stat news, Merck's head of research and development, Dean Li, said that the new data proves the drug's mythological force. "Our prediction from our in vitro studies and now with this data is that molnupiravir is named after the right [thing]... this is a hammer against SARS-CoV-2 regardless of the variant." Molnupiravir is a small molecule that wallops the work of a viral RNA-dependent RNA polymerase, an enzyme critical for making copies of RNA viruses, such as SARS-CoV-2. [...] Molnupiravir delivers a precise blow to viral RNA polymerase by posing as a building block for RNA. In the body, molnupiravir is forged into a deceptive ribonucleoside that the polymerase unwittingly incorporates into new strands of viral RNA instead of cytidine. This is essentially lethal. Researchers call the effect a "viral error catastrophe," in which the rate of genetic mutations or errors exceeds a threshold compatible with the virus surviving.

Censorship

Who Censored Marie Antoinette's Letters? X-Rays Reveal a Surprise (science.org) 26

sciencehabit shares a report from Science.org: In late 1791 and early 1792, on the eve of the French Revolutionary Wars, Queen Marie Antoinette engaged in a secret correspondence with her confidant and rumored lover, Swedish Count Axel von Fersen. Nearly 50 letters from that exchange survive at the French National Archives. But certain passages in 15 of the letters were unreadable, obscured by redactions made with swirls of dark ink. Now, researchers have revealed the words beneath 45 of these alterations using x-ray technology. They have also discovered the censor's identity: von Fersen, himself. The idea that von Fersen made the redactions is "a revelation," says Catriona Seth, a professor of French literature at the University of Oxford who was not involved with the work. Historians had thought the letters were censored in the second half of the 19th century -- most likely by von Fersen's great-nephew -- to protect the writers' reputations. Now, she says, scholars will need to rethink the cover-up -- and the reasons behind it.

The newly legible passages are largely sentimental, phrases like "made my heart happy," and "you that I love." Comments on politics and world events, meanwhile, remain uncensored. But even these seemingly intimate phrases don't definitively tell historians anything new about Marie Antoinette and von Fersen's relationship, Seth says. Scholars, she notes, already knew Marie Antoinette had "a very deep affection for him." Still, she adds, the letters offer "direct insight into the thoughts and feelings of Marie Antoinette." In the future, the techniques in this study could be used in combination with machine algorithms to automatically transcribe old texts, the researchers say, making it easier to understand these important documents -- and others like them.
The researchers published their findings in the journal Science Advances.
Education

California Becomes First State To Require Covid-19 Vaccination For Students 232

skam240 writes: California has just become the first state to add Covid-19 vaccination to its list of required vaccines for in-school attendance. "The requirement will go into effect at the start of the term that follows the FDA's full approval for that grade group -- either January 1 or July 1," reports CNN, citing a release from Gov. Gavin Newsom's office. For grades 7-12 the requirement is expected to begin on July 1, 2022. Newsom's office said independent study is an option for unvaccinated students. "This will accelerate our effort to get this pandemic behind us," Newsom told CNN's Ana Cabrera minutes after making the announcement. "We already mandate 10 vaccines. In so many ways... it's probably the most predictable announcement."

"I have four young kids. I can't take this anymore. I'm like most parents, I want to get this behind us, get this economy moving again, make sure our kids never have to worry about getting a call saying they can't go to school the next day because one of the kids or a staff member tested positive," the governor added.
AI

AI Can Predict If It Will Rain In Two Hours' Time (bbc.com) 50

Artificial intelligence can tell whether it is going to rain in the next two hours, research suggests. The BBC reports: Scientists at Google-owned London AI lab DeepMind and the University of Exeter partnered with the Met Office to build the so-called nowcasting system. Traditional methods use complex equations and often forecast for only between six hours and two weeks' time. The AI system can make more accurate short-term predictions, including for critical storms and floods. The system learned how to identify common patterns of rainfall, using UK radar maps from 2016 to 2018, was tested on maps from 2019 and found, by 50 Met Office meteorologists, to be accurate in 89% of cases. The research, published in the journal Nature, found: "Meteorologists significantly preferred the [AI] approach to competing methods."
Space

Blue Origin Has a Toxic Culture, Former and Current Employees Say (arstechnica.com) 97

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: A former communications executive at Blue Origin and 20 other current and former employees have written a blistering essay about the company's culture, citing safety concerns, sexist attitudes, and a lack of commitment to the planet's future. "In our experience, Blue Origin's culture sits on a foundation that ignores the plight of our planet, turns a blind eye to sexism, is not sufficiently attuned to safety concerns, and silences those who seek to correct wrongs," the essay authors write. "That's not the world we should be creating here on Earth, and certainly not as our springboard to a better one." Published Thursday on the Lioness website, the essay is signed publicly by only Alexandra Abrams, who led employee communications for the company until she was terminated in 2019. The other signatories, a majority of whom were engineers, declined to publicly disclose their names because they did not want to jeopardize employment at Blue Origin or harm their prospects in the aerospace industry for other jobs.

At times, the essay is shocking in its candor. Many of the essay's authors said they would not feel safe flying on a Blue Origin vehicle. And the anecdotes of sexism and an unhealthy work culture are vivid. "Former and current employees have had experiences they could only describe as dehumanizing, and are terrified of the potential consequences for speaking out against the wealthiest man on the planet," the authors write. "Others have experienced periods of suicidal thoughts after having their passion for space manipulated in such a toxic environment. One senior program leader with decades in the aerospace and defense industry said working at Blue Origin was the worst experience of her life."

After publication of the essay, Ars spoke with several current and former employees who have provided reliable information in the past about the company. Although it is clear the essay was a product of disgruntled workers, these sources agreed that there were elements of truth in the essay. For these sources, the withering criticism of Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, and his hand-picked chief executive, Bob Smith, rang especially true. The essay authors write, "Professional dissent at Blue Origin is actively stifled. Smith personally told one of us to not make it easy for employees to ask questions at company town halls -- one of the only available forums for live, open discussion." These town halls are typically moderated so that employees cannot directly ask questions of Smith. In one infamous exchange, there were apparently so few substantive questions Smith was willing to answer that the moderator resorted to asking Smith what his favorite ice cream was. "Sorbet," Smith answered. Another example of unwelcome management tactics cited in the essay was Bezos' decision, after the Supreme Court ruling in the Epic Systems arbitration case, to force employees to sign away their right to resolve employment disputes in court. Sources confirmed to Ars that they were indeed faced with the choice of signing such an onerous contract or realizing they would eventually have to leave Blue Origin. It seemed grossly unfair.
In response, Blue Origin said in a statement: "Ms. Abrams was dismissed for cause two years ago after repeated warnings for issues involving federal export control regulations. Blue Origin has no tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind. We provide numerous avenues for employees, including a 24/7 anonymous hotline, and will promptly investigate any new claims of misconduct."

Abrams disputes those claims, saying that she never received any warnings, verbal or written, from management issues involving federal export control regulations.
Space

FAA Clears Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo For Flight After Probe Into July Incident (npr.org) 14

Virgin Galactic is cleared to resume flights of its SpaceShipTwo space plane, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said Wednesday, after capping a safety investigation into issues that came up during the company's July flight carrying its founder Richard Branson. During that mission, SpaceShipTwo strayed from its designated airspace on its descent from space, and Virgin Galactic didn't tell the FAA about it when it was supposed to. The Verge reports: With the investigation now closed, the FAA required Virgin Galactic to make changes "on how it communicates to the FAA during flight operations to keep the public safe," it said in a statement. Virgin Galactic said that includes "updated calculations to expand the protected airspace for future flights" and "additional steps into the Company's flight procedures to ensure real-time mission notifications to FAA Air Traffic Control." Another change: "Updated calculations to expand the protected airspace for future flights," the company said. "We appreciate the FAA's thorough review of this inquiry. Our test flight program is specifically designed to continually improve our processes and procedures," Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said in a statement. "The updates to our airspace and real-time mission notification protocols will strengthen our preparations as we move closer to the commercial launch of our spaceflight experience."
Science

CRISPR Gene-Editing Experiment Partly Restores Vision In Legally Blind Patients (npr.org) 26

An anonymous reader quotes a report from NPR: Carlene Knight's vision was so bad that she couldn't even maneuver around the call center where she works using her cane. But that's changed as a result of volunteering for a landmark medical experiment. Her vision has improved enough for her to make out doorways, navigate hallways, spot objects and even see colors. Knight is one of seven patients with a rare eye disease who volunteered to let doctors modify their DNA by injecting the revolutionary gene-editing tool CRISPR directly into cells that are still in their bodies. Knight and [another volunteer in the experiment, Michael Kalberer] gave NPR exclusive interviews about their experience. This is the first time researchers worked with CRISPR this way. Earlier experiments had removed cells from patients' bodies, edited them in the lab and then infused the modified cells back into the patients. [...]

CRISPR is already showing promise for treating devastating blood disorders such as sickle cell disease and beta thalassemia. And doctors are trying to use it to treat cancer. But those experiments involve taking cells out of the body, editing them in the lab, and then infusing them back into patients. That's impossible for diseases like [Leber congenital amaurosis, or LCA], because cells from the retina can't be removed and then put back into the eye. So doctors genetically modified a harmless virus to ferry the CRISPR gene editor and infused billions of the modified viruses into the retinas of Knight's left eye and Kalberer's right eye, as well as one eye of five other patients. The procedure was done on only one eye just in case something went wrong. The doctors hope to treat the patients' other eye after the research is complete. Once the CRISPR was inside the cells of the retinas, the hope was that it would cut out the genetic mutation causing the disease, restoring vision by reactivating the dormant cells.

The procedure didn't work for all of the patients, who have been followed for between three and nine months. The reasons it didn't work might have been because their dose was too low or perhaps because their vision was too damaged. But Kalberer, who got the lowest dose, and one volunteer who got a higher dose, began reporting improvement starting at about four to six weeks after the procedure. Knight and one other patient who received a higher dose improved enough to show improvement on a battery of tests that included navigating a maze. For two others, it's too soon to tell. None of the patients have regained normal vision -- far from it. But the improvements are already making a difference to patients, the researchers say. And no significant side effects have occurred. Many more patients will have to be treated and followed for much longer to make sure the treatment is safe and know just how much this might be helping.

NASA

Blue Origin 'Gambled' With Its Moon Lander Pricing, NASA Says in Legal Documents (theverge.com) 92

Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin "gambled" with its Moon lander proposal last year by hoping NASA would be willing to negotiate its $5.9 billion price tag, agency attorneys argued in blunt legal filings obtained by The Verge. From a report: NASA, cash-strapped with a tight budget from Congress, declined to negotiate and turned down Blue Origin's lunar lander in April and picked SpaceX's instead, sparking ongoing protests from Bezos' space company. NASA officials haven't talked much about Blue Origin's legal quarrels beyond occasional acknowledgements that the company's protesting -- first at a watchdog agency and now in federal court -- is holding up the agency's effort to land humans on the Moon by 2024.

But in hundreds of pages of legal filings The Verge obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request, agency attorneys exhaustively laid out NASA's defense of its Artemis Moon program and doubled down on its decision to pick one company, SpaceX, for the first crewed mission to the lunar surface since 1972. In NASA's main response to Blue Origin's protest, filed in late May, senior agency attorneys accused the company of employing a sort of door-in-the-face bidding tactic with its $5.9 billion proposal for Blue Moon, the lunar lander Blue Origin is building with a "National Team" that includes Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Blue Origin was "able and willing" to offer NASA a lower price for its lunar lander but chose not to because it expected NASA to ask and negotiate for a lower price first, the attorneys allege, citing a six-page declaration written by the company's senior vice president Brent Sherwood in April.

Science

Gene Editing 'Would Allow Us To Create Hardier Farm Breeds' (theguardian.com) 91

Leading UK researchers, vets and farmers have urged ministers to free livestock science of unnecessary legal curbs as the country prepares, post-Brexit, to ease gene-editing rules. Such a move would allow the creation of new breeds of animals resistant to disease, heat and drought, they argue. From a report: The government is expected to propose easing gene-editing restrictions in the near future to enable the creation of new generations of crops. However, the group -- which has written to the environment secretary, George Eustice -- worries there is less interest in using the technology to create new breeds of pigs, cows and poultry.

"It is every bit as important that we use the enormous power of gene editing to create breeds of animals that are resistant to disease, droughts and heatwaves as it is to fashion new crop varieties," said Professor Bruce Whitelaw of Edinburgh's Roslin Institute. "This is particularly important as global warming intensifies and we strive to ensure we are protected against future outbreaks of zoonotic diseases." The value of gene editing in this latter field is shown by work carried out at Roslin and Imperial College London, where scientists have identified a gene that may confer resistance to influenza. "We can now think about using gene editing to create breeds resistant to avian and swine flu, and so curb outbreaks on farms, while also reducing the risk of triggering future pandemics in humans," added Whitelaw, one of the letter's signatories.

Youtube

YouTube Will Remove Videos With Misinformation About Any Vaccine 549

YouTube will begin removing content questioning any approved medical vaccine, not just those for Covid-19, a departure from the video site's historically hands-off approach. From a report: The division of Alphabet's Google announced Wednesday that it will extend its policy against misinformation to cover all vaccines that health authorities consider effective. The ban will include any media that claims vaccines are dangerous or lead to chronic health outcomes such as autism, said Matt Halprin, YouTube's vice president for trust and safety. A year ago, YouTube banned certain videos critical of Covid-19 vaccines. The company said it has since pulled more than 130,000 videos for violating that rule. But many videos got around the rule by making dubious claims about vaccines without mentioning Covid-19. YouTube determined its policy was too limited. "We can imagine viewers then potentially extrapolating to Covid-19," Halprin said in an interview. "We wanted to make sure that we're covering the whole gamut."
Science

Identical Twins Carry Genetic Modifications No One Else Has (science.org) 17

sciencehabit shares a report from Science.org: Identical twins are living proof of how genetics shapes our looks and traits. Now, researchers have found they carry a molecular signature on their DNA that no one else has -- one that becomes fixed in their cells early in development and stays with them into adulthood. This signature doesn't seem to influence a twin's health, but it could offer insights into how identical twinning happens. "It is a starting point" for solving "what is really an enigma," says Jenny van Dongen, a twin genetics researcher at Free University (VU), Amsterdam. The signature could also be used to test whether a person had a "vanishing twin," an identical twin that died in the womb.

An international team led by van Dongen and VU twin genetics researcher Dorret Boomsma looked for clues in what's known as the epigenome. Patterns of chemical tags called methyl groups glom onto genes, turning them on or off. (Such epigenetic changes are responsible for everything from enabling Peruvians to live at high altitudes to helping the placenta develop.) Using blood and cheek cell samples, the researchers scanned the epigenomes of more than 3000 identical twins, as well as a comparable number of fraternal twins and some twins' parents. They looked at 400,000 different places on each person's genome. About 800 locations had differences in methylation that set identical twins apart from everyone else, the team reports today in Nature Communications. "It's likely something established very early on that is propagated to subsequent cells," van Dongen says.

Some of the methylated or unmethylated spots made sense, such as tags on genes involved in cell adhesion that might influence how easily a fertilized egg splits into two embryos. But changes in other locations, such as the ends of chromosomes, don't have an obvious explanation. These regions have been associated with aging, yet identical twins' life spans are similar to other people's. An epigenetic test might also be useful to determine whether a person once had an identical twin that vanished in the uterus, perhaps because it didn't have enough room or nutrients to grow. Sometimes a twin fetus appears in an ultrasound before vanishing, but other times it may be absorbed without leaving a trace. As many as 12% of pregnancies start out as multiples (including fraternal twins), according to some estimates, but only 2% of twin pairs survive. Using a separate data set, the epigenetic signature could predict whether someone was an identical twin in 70% to 80% of cases, van Dongen says. With data from a large enough group of people, the test would get even better, she says, and it could also help "predict the exact rate" of vanishing twins. That figure would be useful not only for researchers, but also "of broad interest" to twins themselves and to families who are mourning the loss of an identical twin, Boomsma says.

Medicine

Apple Watch Can Detect Arrhythmias Other Than AFib, Study Shows (myhealthyapple.com) 22

According to new research published this week in American Heart Association Journal, Apple Watch can detect arrhythmias other than Atrial Fibrillation (AFib). The Apple watch irregular pulse detection algorithm was found to have a positive predictive value of 0.84 for the identification of atrial fibrillation (AFib). MyHealthyApple reports: The Apple Heart Study investigated a smartwatch-based irregular pulse notification algorithm to identify AFib. For this secondary analysis, the researchers analyzed participants who received an ambulatory ECG patch after index irregular pulse notification. Among 419,297 participants enrolled in the Apple Heart Study, 450 participant ECG patches were analyzed, with no AF on 297 ECG patches (66%). Non-AF arrhythmias (excluding supraventricular tachycardias [less than] 30 beats and pauses [less than] 3 seconds) were detected in 119 participants (40.1%) with ECG patches without AFib. 76 participants (30.5%) reported subsequent AF diagnoses. In participants with an irregular pulse notification on the Apple Watch and no AF observed on ECG patch, atrial and ventricular arrhythmias, mostly PACs and PVCs, were detected in 40% of participants.
Space

This May Be the First Planet Found Orbiting 3 Stars at Once (nytimes.com) 51

GW Ori is a star system 1,300 light years from Earth in the constellation of Orion. It is surrounded by a huge disk of dust and gas, a common feature of young star systems that are forming planets. But fascinatingly, it is a system with not one star, but three. From a report: As if that were not intriguing enough, GW Ori's disk is split in two, almost like Saturn's rings if they had a massive gap in between. And to make it even more bizarre, the outer ring is tilted at about 38 degrees. Scientists have been trying to explain what is going on there. Some hypothesized that the gap in the disk could be the result of one or more planets forming in the system. If so, this would be the first known planet that orbits three stars at once, also known as a circumtriple planet.

Now the GW Ori system has been modeled in greater detail, and researchers say a planet -- a gassy world as massive as Jupiter -- is the best explanation for the gap in the dust cloud. Although the planet itself cannot be seen, astronomers may be witnessing it carve out its orbit in its first million years of its existence. A paper on the finding was published in September in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The scientists say it disproves an alternative explanation -- that the gravitational torque of the stars cleared the space in the disk. Their paper suggests there is not enough turbulence in the disk, known as its viscosity, for this explanation to suffice The finding also highlights how much more there is to learn about the unexpected ways in which planets can form.

Earth

Air Pollution Likely Cause of Up To 6 Million Premature Births, Study Finds (theguardian.com) 48

Air pollution is likely to have been responsible for up to 6 million premature births and 3 million underweight babies worldwide every year, research shows. From a report: The analysis, which combines the results of multiple scientific studies, is the first to calculate the total global burden of outdoor and indoor air pollution combined. Indoor pollution, mostly from cooking stoves burning solid fuel such as coal or wood, made up almost two-thirds of the total pollution burden on pregnancies in 2019, according to the latest findings. This is especially true in developing areas, such as in some parts of south-east Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. "At an individual level, indoor air pollution exposure appears to carry a much higher burden compared to outdoor levels," said Rakesh Ghosh, an epidemiologist at University of California, San Francisco and lead researcher on the paper, published in the journal Plos Medicine.

"So, minimising household pollution exposure, to the extent possible, should be part of the message during prenatal care, especially where household pollution is prevalent." Air pollution is usually measured according to exposure to particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns: once inhaled, the minuscule size of these particles allows them to be absorbed deep into the bloodstream, potentially causing far-reaching health problems.

Australia

Little Fluffy Clouds May Help Save Australia's Great Barrier Reef (reuters.com) 20

To slow the speed at which high temperatures and warm waters bleach the corals of the Great Barrier Reef, Australian scientists are spraying droplets of ocean water into the sky to form clouds to protect the environmental treasure. From a report: Researchers working on the so-called Cloud Brightening project said they use a turbine to spray microscopic sea particles to thicken existing clouds and reduce sunlight on the world's largest coral reef ecosystem located off Australia's northeast coast. The water droplets evaporate leaving only tiny salt crystals which float up into the atmosphere allowing water vapour to condense around them, forming clouds, said Daniel Harrison, a senior lecturer at Southern Cross University, who runs the project.

"If we do it over an extended period of time for a few weeks to a couple of months when the corals are experiencing a marine heatwave we can actually start to lower the water temperature over the Reef," said Harrison. The project had its second trial in March, the end of the Southern Hemisphere summer when the Reef off Australia's northeast is at its hottest, gathering valuable data on the atmosphere when corals are at most risk of bleaching. A combination of light and warm water causes coral bleaching. By cutting light over the reef by 6% in summer, "bleaching stress" would be cut by 50% to 60% on the undersea ecosystem, Harrison said.

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