Category Archives: Discoveries

These are the world’s oldest pants — and there’s more to them than meets the eye.

That pair of jeans disintegrating in the bottom of your closet might look old, but that’s nothing compared to these pants. Back in 2014, a group of archaeologists discovered in China a pair of wool pants dating back to around 3,300 years ago – the oldest one ever found. Now, they’ve discovered the way the pants were likely made, and it involves innovative textile techniques.

Image credit: The researchers.

The pants were found by a team of archaeologists excavating tombs in an ancient burial ground in the Xinjiang Uighur region of western China. The cemetery is located on the fringes of the Taklamakan desert, close to the Turfan oasis – a usual stopping place first for Bronze age nomads and then for the caravans of the Silk Route.

The very dry climate in the area preserved the bodies and the grave in a very good condition, including items like food and clothing. The pants were found in the remains of two warriors about forty years old. They were created for horse-riding, which shows in the design. They have straight-fitting legs and a wide crotch with elegant decoration.

The pants were likely part of an outfit that also included a poncho, a pair of braided bands to fasten the trouser legs, another pair to fasten the leather booths, and a wool headband. Of all the garments, the pants were the most special one. They had a very modern look for the time, featuring two-leg pieces that gradually widen at the top.

While the pants were discovered over eight years ago, the same group of researchers continued working on them. Now, they were able to find out how the pants were manufactured and even created a modern replica. It’s a tale of textile innovations and of how cultural practices expanded across Asia, the team argues in its new study.

An innovative approach

Initially, the researchers were puzzled over how the pants had been made, as there were no traces of cutting on the fabric. However, after a close examination, they discovered that a combination of three weaving techniques was used to manufacture them. This was later confirmed by the re-created version of the pants, made by an expert weaver.

The study also revealed that much of the garment consisted of twill, a versatile fabric weave that features in most modern jeans – making this an innovation in textile history. Twill changes the woven wool from firm to elastic, giving the person plenty of flexibility. The most popular fabrics for twill weaves are cotton and polyester or a mix of both.

There were also other innovations in the pants. On the knee section, a technique currently known as tapestry weaving was used to produce a more protective fabric at these joints. On the waist, a method approach was used to have a thicker waistband. A twining method was also used to create a decorative, geometric pattern across the knees and at the ankles and calves.

Today, jeans are manufactured following the same techniques as those used three millennia ago. Also striking is the fact that the cultural practices and knowledge from the ancient herding groups spread across Asia. The patterns used to decorate the horseman’s pants also appear on bronze vessels found in China from around the same time.

The findings behind the pants were published in the journal Quaternary International. If you are still curious to learn more there’s a documentary on YouTube that takes us to the excavation grounds in Asia where the historic pants were discovered. And there’s more. There are a few places online that are also selling their own versions of the pants.

Modern humans ventured into Neanderthal territory much earlier than we thought

Until now, archaeological findings suggested that Neanderthals disappeared from Europe about 40,000 years ago, soon after the arrival of Homo sapiens – with limited evidence of encounters between the two groups. But a new study is now saying otherwise, showing evidence that Homo sapiens ventured into Europe much earlier than we thought, deep into Neanderthal territory. 

Image credit: The researchers.

The discovery of a child’s tooth and hundreds of stone tools at a cave in France by a group of archaeologists and paleoanthropologists pushes back the arrival of Homo sapiens to about 54,000 years ago. The study also showed that the two types of humans alternated in living in the cave, located in the Rhone region of France.

“We’ve often thought that the arrival of modern humans in Europe led to the pretty rapid demise of Neanderthals, but this new evidence suggests that both the appearance of modern humans in Europe and disappearance of Neanderthals is much more complex than that,” study coauthor Chris Stringer said in a press statement.

A long-term project

Since 1990, the team of researchers has been carefully investigating the sediment on the cave floor. The site is a strategic point in the landscape, they argue, as the river Rhone flows through a narrow between two mountain ranges. Inhabitants of the site would have clear views of herds of animals, today replaced by trains and a highway.

The researchers now discovered hundreds of thousands of objects that they attributed to either modern humans or Neanderthals. These included triangular stone points that were used by Homo sapiens to cut or scrape and as spear tips. Similar tools from the same period were found 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles) away in present-day Lebanon.

Image credit: The researchers.

Dental remains from at least seven individuals across 12 archaeological layers were also found in the cave. The researchers identified six of these individuals as Neanderthal. But there was a surprise. In a layer between the Neanderthal layers, the team found a fossil moral from a modern human child, between two and six years old.

While they couldn’t find evidence of cultural exchanges between modern humans and Neanderthals who alternated the cave, the succession of occupants is significant on its own. It’s the first-time evidence of the two groups living in the same place is found. They rotated quite rapidly, even abruptly, at least twice, according to the study. 

Understanding human history is a tricky process, but an important one. Modern humans originated in Africa and made their first migration between 50,000 to 70,000 years ago. Ancient hominins existed and coexisted before the emergence of Homo sapiens. Some of these groups are identified by fossils, while others by their genetic legacy. 

Many questions now remain after the study, as the researchers explain in a blog post in The Conversation. Did modern humans have a relationship with the Neanderthals, exchanging information for example? Did they interbreed at some point? How did modern humans learn about the stone tools in such a short period of time? 

“The findings are really exciting and are another piece in the puzzle of how and when modern humans arrived in Europe,” Stringer said. “Understanding more about the overlap between modern humans and other hominins in Eurasia is vital to understanding more about their interactions, and how we became the last remaining human species.”

The study was published in the journal Science Advances

Hero or usurper? Map discovery unveils land grabbing by controversial US explorer

Persistence pays off, at least in the case of historian Robert Lee. After spending very long hours going through microfilms in the US National Archives, he stumbled upon an intriguing map. Lee explored it further and realized that it was actually misattributed. The map had been done by controversial US explorer and politician William Clark — and that’s where an intriguing story begins.

A photo of the map. Credit: Lee.

The map depicts the basic geography of the Osage Treaty of 1808, a key moment in US history. Back then, the Osage Nation gave all their land east of Fort Clark in Missouri and Arkansas to the United States. The indigenous communities, affected by this land grabbing episode, ended up siding with the British in the War of 1812

Lee, a Cambridge historian, found the map filed in the secretary of war’s correspondence archive, filed under the authorship of Captain Eli Clemson. He decided to investigate this further, finding out that the map had actually been drawn by William Clark, who was the governor of Missouri at the time of the Osage Treaty. 

But this wasn’t the only finding. Lee also decoded the significance of an unlabeled line on the map. After failing to purchase land from the Sauks, Meskwakis, and Iowas in 1815, Clark redrew the lines of the Osage Treaty – adding 10.5 million acres to public land by claiming the US had already bought this region from the Osages in the 1808 treaty. Clark cheated.

“It’s the closest document we have to an admission in Clark’s own hand that he unilaterally moved a treaty line to aid settlers then invading Sauk, Meskwaki, and Iowa territory. I was stunned, not that Clark had done this, but that this piece of evidence—which is about as close as we’re going to get to catching him red-handed—was just sitting there hidden in plain sight,” Lee told ZME Science.

Understanding the map

Lee said he was convinced that this was a missing Clark map after spending a few hours examining it. The establishment dates of features on the map like several US settlements not founded until after 1808 cast doubt on Clemson’s authorship. One feature — a saltworks in what is today Oklahoma — wasn’t even established until after Clemson’s tour of duty in the region ended.

But figuring out that Clemson didn’t draw it—that it was misfiled and misattributed—was only half of the problem, Lee said. Although it’s unsigned and undated, several clues point to Clark. He was a horrendous speller and this became evident on the map, in which Clark’s map spells Shawnees as “Showonees”. This same mistake is evident in other letters and maps by him. 

The dead giveaway, however, is a line on the map between the Arkansas and Red Rivers that ties this map firmly to a letter Clark wrote in 1816 where he proposed obtaining a Quapaw land cession by extending an Osage treaty line, Lee explains. This proposal never actually happened. It was only even floated in this letter, Lee explained. 

“Most Americans learn about Clark for the three years he spent with the Corps of Discovery (1804-1806) and few know that he then spent over 30 years as the leading architect of Indigenous dispossession in the trans-Mississippi West. As historians have started to look closely at his whole career, the picture has become more balanced and less flattering. This new map adds a new level of detail,” Lee told ZME Science.

This research comes from ongoing work on a book examining how Indigenous dispossession by treaty shaped the development of the United States in the nineteenth century. Clark will figure prominently, as will other unstudied maps by him and others. For now, the study on the map’s finding was published in the journal William and Mary Quarterly. 

The fascinating science behind the first human HIV mRNA vaccine trial – what exactly does it entail?

In a moment described as a “potential first step forward” in protecting people against one of the world’s most devastating pandemics, Moderna, International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have joined forces to begin a landmark trial — the first human trials of an HIV vaccine based on messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) technology. The collaboration between these organizations, a mixture of non-profits and a company, will bring plenty of experience and technology to the table, which is absolutely necessary when taking on this type of mammoth challenge.

The goal is more than worth it: helping the estimated 37.7 million people currently living with HIV (including 1.7 million children) and protecting those who will be exposed to the virus in the future. Sadly, around 16% of the infected population (6.1 million people) are unaware they are carriers.

Despite progress, HIV remains lethal. Disturbingly, in 2020, 680,000 people died of AIDS-related illnesses, despite inroads made in therapies to dampen the disease’s effects on the immune system. One of these, antiretroviral therapy (ART), has proven to be highly effective in preventing HIV transmission, clinical progression, and death. Still, even with the success of this lifelong therapy, the number of HIV-infected individuals continues to grow.

There is no cure for this disease. Therefore, the development of vaccines to either treat HIV or prevent the acquisition of the disease would be crucial in turning the tables on the virus.

However, it’s not so easy to make an HIV vaccine because the virus mutates very quickly, creating multiple variants within the body, which produce too many targets for one therapy to treat. Plus, this highly conserved retrovirus becomes part of the human genome a mere 72 hours after transmission, meaning that high levels of neutralizing antibodies must be present at the time of transmission to prevent infection.

Because the virus is so tricky, researchers generally consider that a therapeutic vaccine (administered after infection) is unfeasible. Instead, researchers are concentrating on a preventative or ‘prophylactic’ mRNA vaccine similar to those used by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna to fight COVID-19.

What is the science behind the vaccine?

The groundwork research was made possible by the discovery of broadly neutralizing HIV-1 antibodies (bnAbs) in 1990. They are the most potent human antibodies ever identified and are extremely rare, only developing in some patients with chronic HIV after years of infection.

Significantly, bnAbs can neutralize the particular viral strain infecting that patient and other variants of HIV–hence, the term ‘broad’ in broadly neutralizing antibodies. They achieve this by using unusual extensions not seen in other immune cells to penetrate the HIV envelope glycoprotein (Env). The Env is the virus’s outer shell, formed from the cell membrane of the host cell it has invaded, making it extremely difficult to destroy; still, bnAbs can target vulnerable sites on this shell to neutralize and eliminate infected cells.

Unfortunately, the antibodies do little to help chronic patients because there’s already too much virus in their systems; however, researchers theorize if an HIV-free person could produce bnABS, it might help protect them from infection.

Last year, the same organizations tested a vaccine based on this idea in extensive animal tests and a small human trial that didn’t employ mRNA technology. It showed that specific immunogens—substances that can provoke an immune response—triggered the desired antibodies in dozens of people participating in the research. “This study demonstrates proof of principle for a new vaccine concept for HIV,” said Professor William Schief, Department of Immunology and Microbiology at Scripps Research, who worked on the previous trial.

BnABS are the desired endgame with the potential HIV mRNA vaccine and the fundamental basis of its action. “The induction of bnAbs is widely considered to be a goal of HIV vaccination, and this is the first step in that process,” Moderna and the IAVI (International AIDS Vaccine Initiative) said in a statement.

So how exactly does the mRNA vaccine work?

The experimental HIV vaccine delivers coded mRNA instructions for two HIV proteins into the host’s cells: the immunogens are Env and Gag, which make up roughly 50% of the total virus particle. As a result, this triggers an immune response allowing the body to create the necessary defenses—antibodies and numerous white blood cells such as B cells and T cells—which then protect against the actual infection.

Later, the participants will also receive a booster immunogen containing Gag and Env mRNA from two other HIV strains to broaden the immune response, hopefully inducing bnABS.

Karie Youngdahl, a spokesperson for IAVI, clarified that the main aim of the vaccines is to stimulate “B cells that have the potential to produce bnAbs.” These then target the virus’s envelope—its outermost layer that protects its genetic material—to keep it from entering cells and infecting them.  

Pulling back, the team is adamant that the trial is still in the very early stages, with the volunteers possibly needing an unknown number of boosters.

“Further immunogens will be needed to guide the immune system on this path, but this prime-boost combination could be the first key element of an eventual HIV immunization regimen,” said Professor David Diemert, clinical director at George Washington University and a lead investigator in the trials.

What will happen in the Moderna HIV vaccine trial?

The Phase 1 trial consists of 56 healthy adults who are HIV negative to evaluate the safety and efficacy of vaccine candidates mRNA-1644 and mRNA-1644v2-Core. Moderna will explore how to deliver their proprietary EOD-GT8 60mer immunogen with mRNA technology and investigate how to use it to direct B cells to make proteins that elicit bnABS with the expert aid of non-profit organizations. But readers should note that only one in every 300,000 B cells in the human body produces them to give an idea of the fragility of the probability involved here.

Sensibly, the trial isn’t ‘blind,’ which means everyone who receives the vaccine will know what they’re getting at this early stage. That’s because the scientists aren’t trying to work out how well the vaccine works in this first phase lasting approximately ten months – they want to make sure it’s safe and capable of mounting the desired immune response.

And even though there is much hype around this trial, experts caution that “Moderna are testing a complicated concept which starts the immune response against HIV,” says Robin Shattock, an immunologist at Imperial College London, to the Independent. “It gets you to first base, but it’s not a home run. Essentially, we recognize that you need a series of vaccines to induce a response that gives you the breadth needed to neutralize HIV. The mRNA technology may be key to solving the HIV vaccine issue, but it’s going to be a multi-year process.”

And after this long period, if the vaccine is found to be safe and shows signs of producing an immune response, it will progress to more extensive real-world studies and a possible solution to a virus that is still decimating whole communities.

Still, this hybrid collaboration offers future hope regarding the prioritization of humans over financial gain in clinical trials – the proof is that most HIV patients are citizens of the third world.

As IAVI president Mark Feinberg wrote in June at the 40th anniversary of the HIV epidemic: “The only real hope we have of ending the HIV/AIDS pandemic is through the deployment of an effective HIV vaccine, one that is achieved through the work of partners, advocates, and community members joining hands to do together what no one individual or group can do on its own.”

Whatever the outcome, money is no longer a prerogative here, and with luck, we may see more trials based on this premise very soon.

Archaeologists discover forgotten structures in Peru’s Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, built high in the Andes by the Inca civilization more than 500 years ago, remains one of the most fascinating and popular attractions for visitors to South America. The site, as well as the surrounding Machu Picchu National Park, also remains an important site for archaeological research, with new discoveries made to this day — as was the case with a new study.

Image credit: Flickr / Sandeepachetan

In a new study, a team of archaeologists from the University of Warsaw used drones and laser technology to explore the area around the Inca complex Chachabamba, a ceremonial center focused on water. They found a dozen previously-unknown small structures erected in a circular and rectangular pattern at the edge of the complex. 

The researchers suggest that the structures were inhabited by the individuals that operated Chachabamba. Dominika Sieczkowska, lead author of the study, told local media that there are indications that women were the main caretakers of the complex, based on objects discovered during previous archaeological studies. 

The ruins of Chachabamba, discovered around 1940, are located on an old Inca road along the southern bank of the Urubamba River. It was an important religious site, with a set of baths that were likely used for rituals. It’s also believed to have had a secondary function as a gatehouse, guarding the entrance to Machu Picchu. 

The area is difficult to study, as the ruins lie deep in the jungle. Also, in 2012, mudslides restricted access to the ruins even further. Seeking to further understand the area, and using novel archaeological approaches, researchers began doing archaeological research at the site in 2016. Now, they’ve published their findings. 

“This study was conducted to answer several fundamental questions,” the team wrote in their paper. “The amount of water that flowed through the channels which supplied water to the bathhouse system is unknown. a greater or lesser speed and quantity of water flow may have been crucial for the ceremonies performed in the baths.”

An innovative approach

A lidar view of the Vilcanota Valley and Chachabamba. Image credits: B. Ćmielewski.

For their study, the researchers used a relatively new tool in archaeology known as light detection and ranging (or LiDAR). Lidar uses a pulsed laser to estimate the variable distances of an object from the Earth’s surface. These pulses, together with data collected by an airborne system, generate 3D information about the target object.

LiDAR has become a valuable tool for archaeologists to study areas that are either dangerous or inaccessible to study. In 2018, Peru ordered a LiDAR survey by helicopter of the ruins of Chachabamba. While the data provided information over the area, it wasn’t sufficiently detailed, leading to researchers using drones for this study instead. All in all, drones and Lidar open up new avenues for archaeological research, especially in cases where objectives are remote and difficult to observe directly.

A ceremonial sector at the Chachabamba site. Image credits: D. Sieczkowska.

The scans showed 12 structures close to the main ceremonial part of Chachabamba and a set of underground stone canals. These were fed by the Urubamba River and supplied water across the site. The researchers then used computer simulations to re-create how water may have flowed to the ritual baths, based on the canal’s death.

“We can conclude that the water in the hydraulic system at Chachabamba served a more symbolic than utilitarian purpose (for example, the filling of vessels for domestic use). Our calculations indicate that the water may have flowed unevenly throughout the system and overflowed in certain parts of the channels,” the researchers wrote.

No doubt, many other structures await detection in South America’s deep jungle — we’re merely scratching the surface.

The study was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. 

For centuries, Peruvian elites used booze and drugs to cement their empire

The elites of the ancient Wari empire in Peru, which ruled the highlands of the country from 600 to 1,000 AD, used communal drugs and beer to maintain their political control for thousands of years, according to a new study. Archaeologists believe that hallucinogenic from a native tree were added to beer during their massive feasts. 

Image credit: The researchers

Previous studies have highlighted the role that chicha, a beer-like drink still consumed today in many Andean countries, played a key role in the culture of the Wari — a civilization that flourished in the south-central Andes and coastal area of modern-day Peru, whse used to host big parties for their neighbors. Now, the discovery of a psychotropic tree in a Wari brewery suggests they combined the two intoxicants for a bigger punch. 

Archaeologists from the Royal Ontario Museum made the discovery at Quilcapampa, a former Wari village in Peru, where the remains of what the residents drank and ate were preserved thanks to the arid environment. They found traces of potatoes, quinoa, and molle tree (Schinus mole), used to make chicha with a 5% alcohol content. 

So far, nothing spectacular. But among the leftovers, the researchers found hallucinogenic vilca seeds from the Anadenanthera colubrina tree. Previous studies suggest the seeds were used extensively across South America. The earliest evidence, a pipe with the seeds, is from a site in Northern Argentina that dates back 4,000 years.

The Quilcapampa settlement

The Wari arrived in Quilcapampa late in the ninth century. A group of migrant families from the heartlands farther north settled in the area and likely introduced the practice of combining chicha with vilca seeds to strengthen alliances with non-Wari communities. It was a strategy to make friends and also to consolidate political power.

“Our excavations at Quilcapampa have recovered vilca seeds, which were probably imported, in direct association with large quantities of molle used to create the beer for a feast that was held just before the site was abandoned,” researchers wrote. “This was one of many such events hosted by Quilcapampa’s Wari-associated families.”

Image credit: The researchers.

Similar to the drug ayahuasca, used by Amazonian communities, vilca results in an out-of-body experience. The seeds, bark, and other parts of the tree have tryptamine alkaloids, including the psychedelic substance DMT. Since the effects are weakened if ingested, the Wari usually smoked or grounded the seeds into snuff, the team said. 

The molle tree used to make chicha grew near the settlement. But this wasn’t the case of the vilca seeds, which had to be imported from the eastern borders of the Andes and transported over the mountains. Archaeologists found in Quilcapampa painted drinking vessels from the Wari that portray the vilca tree with distinctive seed pods

Vilca was incorporated in communal feasts hosted by the elites, the researchers argue. This helped to cement social relationships and highlight the Wari hospitality. They offered their visitors an experience that wasn’t available elsewhere and couldn’t be easily replicated, as it was too dry in the region near Quilcapampa to grow vilca. 

“We argue that the addition of vilca to molle chicha was an effective method for the hosts of Wari feasts to channel its psychotropic effects into a more collective experience,” the researchers wrote. “A host who provides alcohol and food to guests reinforces patron-client relationships, forging an indebtedness that confirms heightened position.”

The study was published in the journal Antiquity

Earrings aren’t just fashionable. They’re also a form of communication.

Something as simple as earrings can serve as a means of communication just by themselves. As it turns out, humans have been using this type of non-verbal communication for millennia, with researchers recently recovering shell beads that were used for earrings 150,000 years ago.  

The researchers working at the cave. Image credit: The researchers

The beads are the earliest known evidence of widespread non-verbal communication, according to the group of anthropologists who made the discovery. In their study, they argue that this brings new valuable information on the evolution of human cognitive abilities and interactions. 

“You think about how society works—somebody’s tailgating you in traffic, honking their horn and flashing their lights, and you think, ‘What’s your problem?'” Steven Kuhn, lead author of the study, said in a statement. “But if you see they’re wearing a blue uniform and a peaked cap, you realize it’s a police officer pulling you over.”

Kuhn and the group of researchers recovered 33 marine shell beads between 2014 and 2018 from Bizmoune Cave, located about 10 miles from the Atlantic coast of southwest Morocco. The cave, formed in Upper Cretaceous limestone, was discovered during a survey of the area in 2004 and was then subject to archaeological excavations — including the excavations .

The beads were made from sea snails shells belonging to the species Tritia Gibbosula, each measuring half an inch long. They feature an oval-shaped or circular perforation, indicating they were hung on strings or from clothing. There are also traces of human modification such as chipping, possibly using a stone tool, the researchers found.

“They were probably part of the way people expressed their identity with their clothing,” Kuhn said. “They’re the tip of the iceberg for that kind of human trait. They show that it was present even hundreds of thousands of years ago, and that humans were interested in communicating to bigger groups of people than their immediate friends and family.”

Looking into the beads

While is far from the first time researchers have found symbolic artifacts such as beads, previous examples date back to no older than 130,000 years. Some of the earliest examples are associated with the Aterian industry, a Middle Stone Age culture known for its advanced tools such as spear points, used to hunt diverse wild animals. 

For anthropologists as Kuhn, the beads are a way to advance our understanding of the evolution of human cognition and communication. They are a fossilized form of basic communication, Kuhn said. While they don’t know exactly what they meant, they are symbolic objects deployed in a way for other people to see them, Kuhn explained. 

The researchers agree that their findings, while significant, also leave a lot of open questions. They will know to explore further the role of the Aterian industry and why they had the need to make the beads when they did. A possibility is that they wanted to identify themselves as more people started expanding into the North of Africa. 

Using a certain bead might have meant that you belonged to a certain clan, created as a way to protect limited resources due to population expansion. Still, as Kuhn explains, it’s one thing to know that they were capable of making them, and another to understand what actually stimulated them to do it. A chapter for another day. 

The study was published in the journal Science Advances. 

Life in the universe may be way more common than we thought

A group of astronomers at the University of Leeds have identified rich reservoirs of life-giving molecules around young stars in our galaxy — which was previously believed to happen only under rare circumstances. The findings suggest that there could be as much as 100 times more of these molecules in the Milky Way than previously thought. 

Artist’s depiction of a protoplanetary disk with young planets forming around a star. The right-side panel zooms in to show various nitrile molecules that are accreting onto a planet. Image credit: M.Weiss/Center for Astrophysics

The researchers published a set of papers in which they detail the discovery of the molecules around disks of gas and dust particles, orbiting around stars. These disks are formed simultaneously with the stars and can eventually form planets. Such as it happened with the disc near the Sun that formed the planets of the Solar Systems. 

“These planet-forming disks are teeming with organic molecules, some which are implicated in the origins of life here on Earth,” Kartin Öberg, one of the authors, said in a statement. “This is really exciting. The chemicals in each disk will ultimately affect the type of planets that form and determine whether or not the planets can host life.”

The researchers used the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (or ALMA) radio telescope in Chile to look at the composition of the five discs. ALMA can detect even the weakest signals from molecules in outer space thanks to its 60 antennas. Each molecule emits a light at a different wavelength that scientists can investigate. 

The researchers looked for certain organic molecules and found them in four of the five disks, and in much larger numbers than they originally anticipated. These molecules are considered essential to life on Earth. They are believed to have reached the planet through asteroids or comets that crashed into Earth billions of years ago. 

The theory of the molecules traveling in asteroids and comets was reaffirmed here, as they were located in the same region that produces space rocks. They weren’t evenly distributed in the discs, with each containing a different mix of molecules. For the researchers, this shows that each planet is created based on a different mix of ingredients.

“ALMA has allowed us to look for these molecules in the innermost regions of these disks, on size scales similar to our Solar System, for the first time. Our analysis shows that the molecules are primarily located in these inner regions with abundances between 10 and 100 times higher than models had predicted,” John Ilee, one of the authors, said in a statement. 

The researchers specifically looked for three molecules, cyanoacetylene (HC3N), acetonitrile (CH3CN), and cyclopropenylidene (c-C3H2), in five protoplanetary disks, known as IM Lup, GM Aur, AS 209, HD 163296, and MWC 480. The discs were found 300 to 500 lights years from Earth, with each of them showing signals of on-going planet formation.

The next steps

Following this remarkable discovery, the researchers want to keep on searching for more complex molecules in the protoplanetary disks. They are specifically looking forward to the launch of the James Webb Telescope, so far scheduled for December 18th, as it will help to examine the molecules in much greater detail than before, they added. 

“If we are finding molecules like these in such large abundances, our current understanding of interstellar chemistry suggests even more complex molecules should also be observable,” Ilee said in a statement. “If we detect them, then we’ll be even closer to understanding how the raw ingredients of life can be assembled around other stars.”

All the studies related to this finding can be accessed here. 

Why Stonehenge megaliths stay up after 5,000 years — it’s all geology

The famous prehistoric landmark of Stonehenge in the United Kingdom has always been shrouded in a layer of mystery. But one step at a time, scientists are starting to answer some of the questions behind the monument. Now, a new study has revealed how the monument is still standing after all this time. 

Image credit: Flickr / Stanley Simny.

Built some 4,600 years ago, Stonehenge has fascinated historians, geologists, travelers, and artists for centuries. We know that it was a bustling spiritual center and that it must have held a huge significance for the society that built it, based on previous studies. We also have a pretty good idea of where the rocks that make it come from (about 180 miles). But Stonehenge is still keen on keeping some of its secrets.

An old drill

In 1958, Robert Phillips, a representative of a drilling company performing restoration work on the monument, took a cylindrical core after it was drilled from one of Stonehenge’s pillars — Stone 58. Philipps emigrated to the US and took the core with him. The piece then returned to the UK in 2018 and was handed over to a group of researchers.

Because of its protected status, it’s no longer possible to extract samples from the stones, which makes Philipps’ core quite unique. That’s why the core’s return presented a big opportunity, allowing the researchers to do unprecedented geochemical analyses of the Stonehenge pillar, which they described in the new study. It’s the first comprehensive scientific analysis of the megalith.

“Getting access to the core drilled from Stone 58 was very much the Holy Grail for our research. All the previous work on sarsens at Stonehenge involved samples either excavated from the site or knocked off from random stones,” David Nash, who led the study, said in a statement. “This small sample is now probably the most analyzed piece of stone other than moon rock.”

A comprehensive analysis

The megalith is made of stone called silcrete that formed gradually within a few meters of the ground surface as a result of groundwater washing through buried sediment. Using X-rays and microscopes, the researchers found the silcrete is made of sand-sized quartz grains joined together by an interlocking mosaic of quartz crystals.

Quartz is extremely durable and doesn’t easily crumble or erode even when exposed to eons of wind and weather. This may have been why the builders chose to use it for their massive monument thousands of years ago. Instead of using the closest and biggest boulders, they went for the ones that could stand the longest time, Nash said.

The sample of the core analyzed in the study. Image credit: The researchers.

The study also showed that the sediments within which the stone developed were deposited during the Paleogene period, from 66 million to 23 million years ago. This means that the megalith can’t be older than this. However, when comparing the isotopes in the samples, they found certain sediments were even more ancient, which raises an interesting question.

“Some of the grains were likely eroded from rocks dating to the Mesozoic era, from 252 million to 66 million years ago, when they may have been trodden upon by dinosaurs. And some of the sand grains formed as long ago as 1 billion to 1.6 billion years ago,” Nash said in a statement.

While the study answered some questions about the monument, other unresolved puzzles remain – including the location of the other two cores that were drilled from Stone 58 during the 1958 restoration that vanished from the record. Curators from the Salisbury Museum in England discovered part of one of those cores in their collection in 2019. 

The study was published in the journal Plos One. 

Beetles produce a lubricant that’s more slippery than Teflon

Humans may come up with clever innovations and designs for useful many products, but chances are nature has beaten us to the job. The latest example is lubricant: researchers have discovered that beetles can naturally lubricate their knees with a substance that works better than Teflon.

Image credit: Flickr / Budak

Insects are the largest group of animals on Earth, but there’s still much we haven’t discovered about them yet. For instance, scientists have a limited understanding of how insects’ joints reduce friction and are protected from wear and tear. In vertebrates, joints are enclosed into a cavity filled out by the synovial fluid serving as a lubricant between contacting cartilage surfaces. These fluid-lubricated joints exhibit a very low coefficient of friction.

But what happens to insects who don’t have this?

Researchers at the Christian-Albrechts University of Kiel and Aarhus University used a scanning electron microscope to examine the knee joint of the darkling beetle (Zophobas morio). They found that the area where the femur and tibia meet is covered with pores that excrete a lubricant substance made of proteins and fatty acids. Turns out, the lubricant is very powerful.

The team put it to the test, placing it between two glass surfaces and rubbing them together. The friction between the planes with the material between was much lower than without the material between them. The researchers also found that his material was better as a lubricant than vacuum grease and better than Teflon.

Polytetrafluoroethylene (PFTE), commonly known as Teflon, is a synthetic polymer containing carbon and fluorine. It’s commonly used as a non-stick coating in kitchen cookware, such as pans and baking trays. It’s also used in the manufacture of semiconductors and medical devices and as an inert ingredient of pesticides. 

The researchers think the insect lubricant also has other functions. Under a high load, chunks of it deformed and created a squashable layer between two surfaces that acted like a shock absorber and prevented abrasive contact. Still, extracting the lubricant would be too expensive and time consuming, so the team wants to find a way to synthesize it. 

“First of all, we need to understand the molecular structure, and then perhaps it is possible. Maybe it is necessary to involve biotechnology and use bacteria to produce it,” co-author Konstantin Nadein from the University of Kiel in Germany told New Scientist.

The researchers think this natural lubricant from beetles might be useful for small-scale robots and prosthetics, for which conventional lubricants don’t work that well. They called for further studies on the properties of the lubricant so to come up with ideas for further biometric applications in the area of novel lubricating materials. 

“In this regard, this research may be of particular interest for robotics and MEMS technology, and especially for prosthetics, in order to develop a new generation of completely bio-organic lubricants with friction-reducing properties similar to PTFE (Teflon),” the researchers wrote. 

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 

Scientists develop world’s thinnest technology – only two atoms thick

Researchers at Tel Aviv University have engineered what is currently the single smallest and thinnest piece of technology ever seen, with a thickness of just two atoms. The new invention uses quantum-mechanical electron tunneling, which allows information to travel through the thin film, and is able to store electric information, making it potentially applicable to all sorts of electronic devices.

In a screenshot from video released by Tel Aviv University on June 30, PhD student Maayan Wizner Stern uses tweezers to hold an electronic storage unit that is two-atoms thick. (Screen capture: YouTube)

Moshe Ben Shalom, who was involved in the project, said the research started from the team’s curiosity about the behavior of atoms and electrons in solid materials, which has generated the technology used by many modern devices. They tried to “predict and control” the properties of these particles, he added in a statement. 

“Our research stems from curiosity about the behavior of atoms and electrons in solid materials, which has generated many of the technologies supporting our modern way of life,” says Dr. Ben Shalom. “We (and many other scientists) try to understand, predict, and even control the fascinating properties of these particles as they condense into an ordered structure that we call a crystal. At the heart of the computer, for example, lies a tiny crystalline device designed to switch between two states indicating different responses — “yes” or “no,” “up” or “down” etc. Without this dichotomy — it is not possible to encode and process information. The practical challenge is to find a mechanism that would enable switching in a small, fast, and inexpensive device.

Modern devices have small crystals with a million atoms (one hundred atoms in height, width and thickness). This new development means that the crystals can be reduced to just two atoms thick, allowing the information to flow with greater speed and efficiency — which, if equal or comparable performance can be achieved, would make devices much more efficient.

For the study, the researchers used a two-dimensional material – one-atom-thick layers of boron and nitrogen, arranged in a repetitive hexagonal structure, drawing inspiration from graphene. They could break the symmetry of this crystal by artificially assembling two such layers “despite the strong repulsive force between them” due to their identical charges, Dr. Shalom explained. 

“In its natural three-dimensional state, this material is made up of a large number of layers placed on top of each other, with each layer rotated 180 degrees relative to its neighbors (antiparallel configuration)” said Dr. Shalom in a statement. “In the lab, we were able to artificially stack the layers in a parallel configuration with no rotation.” 

Maayan Wizner Stern, a PhD student who led the study, said the technology could have other applications beyond information storage, including detectors, energy storage and conversion and interaction with light. She hopes miniaturization and flipping through sliding will improve today’s electronic devices and allow new ways of controlling information in future devices. 

The new technology proposes a way for storing electric information in the thinnest unit known to science, in one of the most stable and inert materials in nature, the researchers said. The quantum-mechanical electron tunneling through the atomically thin film could boost the information reading process far beyond current technologies.

Researchers also expect the same approach to work with multiple crystals, potentially offering even more desirable properties. Wizner Stern concludes:

“We expect the same behaviors in many layered crystals with the right symmetry properties. The concept of interlayer sliding as an original and efficient way to control advanced electronic devices is very promising, and we have named it Slide-Tronics.”

The study has been published in the journal Science. 

This 5,000-year-old-man may have been the “oldest” plague victim

About 5,000 years ago, a young man in Northern Europe was buried in a region called Riņņukalns in Latvia. As it turns out, the man had been infected with the oldest strain of Yersinia pestis — the bacterium that caused the Black Death plague, which spread through medieval Europe. This is the oldest case of the plague researchers have ever found.

This means that the strain of the infectious bug emerged about 2,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to a new study. The black plague swept through Europe in the 1300s, wiping out as much as half of the population. Later waves continued to strike regularly over several centuries, causing millions of deaths. But we’re still not quite sure when the pathogen first emerged in humans.

“It seems this bacterium has been around for quite a long time,” study co-author Ben Krause-Kyora, who heads the Ancient DNA Laboratory at the University of Kiel in Germany, told ABC News. “Up to now this is the oldest-identified plague victim we have. He most likely was bitten by a rodent and got the primary infection.”

Riņņukalns is an archaeological site next to the River Salaca in Latvia, with layers of mussel shells and fish bones left by hunter-gatherers. The site was first excavated in 1875 by an archaeologist, who found two graves with the remains of a man and a girl. The bones were given to anthropologist Rudolf Virchow, but vanished during World War II.

In 2011, the bones were rediscovered in Virchow’s anthropological collection in Berlin. Shortly after, two more graves were uncovered at Riņņukalns. The remains were thought to be part of the same group of hunter-gatherers as the teenage and the man. Not much was known about their genetic makeup or the infectious diseases they encountered. 

To find out, Krause-Kyora and his team took samples from the teeth and bons of the four hunter gatherers, hoping to sequence their genomes. They also screened their genomic sequences for bacteria and viruses. All individuals were clear of Yersinia pestis, except one – the RV 2039 specimen who was a 20 to 30-year-old man.

The researchers compared the bacterium’s genome to ancient and modern Yersinia Pestis strains. The man had been infected with a strain that was part of a lineage that emerged about 7,000 years ago – the oldest-known strain. It may have evolved after breaking away from its predecessor, Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, which causes an illness similar to scarlet fever. 

This strain of the plague didn’t contain the gene that lets it spread from fleas to humans, unlike its medieval counterpart. But the researchers believe the man may have been infected after being bitten by a rodent carrying the bacterium. The man’s genome had signs of carrying the bug in his blood, suggesting he could have died of the infection. 

The fact that only one man and not the rest of the people buried showed signs of infection suggests that this Yersinia pestis srtain may have been less contagious than later strains. The infections caused by it may have occurred in small isolated cases, and evolved to its medieval and modern forms, alongside the growth of human civilization and the development of bigger cities.

The study was published in the journal Cell. 

This giant stone slab might be the oldest known 3D map in Europe

It’s not exactly 3D printing, but it’s just as amazing — if not more. First unearthed in France in 1900, a Bronze Age stone slab has been recently rediscovered by a group of researchers, who now believe it could be the oldest three-dimensional map in Europe.

In their study, they determined that the markings were carved 4,000 years ago, representing an area in Western Brittany, France.

Image courtesy of the researchers .

The intricately carved Saint-Bélec slab was found during digs on a prehistoric burial ground in Finistère by local archaeologist Paul du Chatellier. It is believed to date from the early Bronze Age, sometime between 1900 BC and 1650 BC. Following the finding, the slab was apparently forgotten for over a century, stored for decades at Chatellier’s home.

Back then, Chatellier wasn’t sure about the meaning of the carvings of the four-meter-long slab. Some scholars at the time argued they were shapeless human representations or even a picture of a beast. Researchers also suggested that the meaning would become clear with future research – which just what happened.

A group of French researchers looking for the slab found it in a cellar in 2014 and have been trying to figure it out ever since. After analyzing marks and engravings on the stone, the team suspected it could be a map. The “presence of repeated motifs joined by lines” on its surface suggested it depicted an area of Finistère in France.

“This is probably the oldest map of a territory that has been identified,” Clément Nicolas from Bournemouth University, one of the study’s authors, told the BBC. “There are several such maps carved in stone all over the world. Generally, they are just interpretations. But this is the first time a map has depicted an area on a specific scale.”

The study was carried out using whole slab observations, general and detailed photographs with oblique lighting, and several 3D survey methods such as photogrammetry and general and high-definition 3D-scanning. This allowed to record the surface topography of the slab at different scales and to analyze the morphology, technology, and chronology of the engravings.

Image credit: The researchers

Based on the findings, the researchers now believe the map-like engravings and motifs carved on the surface of the slab provide a rough three-dimensional (3D) match to the River Odet valley – with several lines depicting the area’s river network. The territory represented on the slab bears an 80% accuracy to an area around an 18 mile-long stretch of the river.

The slab, first found in a burial mound, was probably reused for some reason as part of the burial process, forming one of the walls of the stone barrow, the researchers believe. The engraved side was facing inward to the tomb so the markings weren’t exposed to the elements of thousands of years – which explains the slab’s overall good condition.

“A map is a drawing or plan of the earth’s surface or part of it,” the team wrote in their paper. “The Saint-Bélec Slab does indeed bear the three elements that are most probative of prehistoric cartographic representation: homogenous composition with engravings that are identical in technique and style and repetition of motifs.”

What’s less certain is what other motifs carved into the slab might represent, but the researchers believe they could reflect the location of early Bronze Age settlements, other barrow sites, field systems, and tracks. If that’s the case, the map would then reflect an organizational plan of land use and ownership according to the political and economic rulers of the time.

“There was undoubtedly a justification for carving this work in stone … leaving a mark,” archeologist Yvan Pailler from the University of Western Brittany, one of the team members, told Science Alert. “Making cartography like that … is often linked to the affirmation of power, of authority over a territory. This is the general context of achievement that occurs in the Early Bronze Age.”

The study was published in the journal Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française.

Scientists Find New Technique to Defeat Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

Petri Dish Bacteria
Photo by Andrian Lange/Unsplash

Stress often causes bacteria to form biofilms. The stress can be in the form of a physical barrier, ultraviolet light, or a toxic substance such as antibiotics. These biofilms take from hours to days to form and can be of various shapes, sizes, colors, and textures depending on the species of bacteria involved.

Being in the state of a biofilm protects them from hazardous substances in their environment — biofilms have a unique outer wall, with different physical and chemical properties than their individual cells. They can coordinate metabolically, slow their growth, and even form an impenetrable barrier of wrinkles and folds.

This is one way they achieve high antibiotic resistance. Researchers from the United Kingdom recently studied the bacteria B. Sultilis transition from a free-moving swarm to a biofilm as a defense mechanism and published what they did to combat its antibiotic resistive properties in eLife.

Photo by Clemencedg/CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia

To determine if their test strain behaves as others do, they recreated first performed stress tests on them. They tested the bacteria’s response to a physical barrier, ultraviolet light, and an antibiotic. The addition of a physical barrier led to a single-to-multi-layer transition of the bacteria, followed by an increase in cell density and the formation of multilayer islands near the barrier. Later, wrinkles developed on the islands near the barrier in the area the islands had started to appear initially.

When they applied ultraviolet light to the swarm, they again observed a drop in cell speed and an increase in density. And after the scientists added a large dose of the antibiotic kanamycin the bacterial cells formed a biofilm. The researchers then devised a strategy to tackle this bacteria biofilm.

They added kanamycin to the environment of a new batch of swarming bacterial cells and watched as a biofilm began to take shape. They then re-administered the antibiotic in a much larger dose than the first one, just before the completion of the biofilm’s formation. The breakdown of the partially formed biofilm and the death of the bacterial cells occurred as a result.

This shows that antibiotic-resistant bacteria lose their resistance to antibiotics when they undergo a phase transition, right before transitioning to a biofilm, where they would become much more resilient. So with proper timing of the administering of antibiotics, bacteria can be attacked in their most vulnerable state and eliminated. Researchersbelieve similar swarm-to-biofilm transitions occur in other bacterial species too.

Their research could pave the way to finding more effective ways of managing clinically relevant bacteria. Such as Salmonella enterica which spreads to the bloodstream and is transmitted by contaminated food. Or the multidrug-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa which causes infections in the blood, lungs (pneumonia), and other parts of the body after surgery and is spread in hospitals.

Scientists continue unlocking the mysteries of the world’s oldest computer

Scientists may have finally cracked the mystery behind the Antikythera Mechanism, a 2.000-year-old device used by the ancient Greeks to calculate astronomical positions. The “world’s oldest computer” has puzzled scientists for over a century, but a digital replica with a working gear system may shed new light on it.

Computer model of how the Antikythera mechanism may have worked. Image credits: UCL

The Antikythera Mechanism was found in a shipwreck off the coast of Crete in 1901 — one of the very first wrecks to be archaeologically investigated. Way ahead of its time, this complex mechanism of revolving bronze gears and a display is simply mind-boggling: it’s an analog computer dating from Ancient Greece.

The mechanism was used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses for the astrological calendar as well as the ancient Olympic Games but many questions still loom about it. Though obscured by corrosion after it was lost for thousands of years at the bottom of the sea, the Antikythera Mechanism still has visible gears with triangular teeth and a ring divided into degrees. It featured a handle on the side for winding the mechanism forward and backward – very similar to how a clock works but showing the position of planets instead of hours, minutes and seconds. Only a third of the device survived the shipwreck, leaving many open questions on how it worked and what it looked like.

Researchers believe they’ve solved the back of the mechanism in earlier studies, but the complex gearing system at the front remained a mystery. Now, scientists at University College London (UCL) believe they have finally cracked the puzzle.

“The Sun, Moon, and planets are displayed in an impressive tour de force of ancient Greek brilliance,” the paper’s lead author, Professor Tony Freeth, told the BBC. “Ours is the first model that conforms to all the physical evidence and matches the descriptions in the scientific inscriptions engraved on the mechanism itself.”

A part of the Antikythera mechanism.

Freeth and his team from UCL used 3D computer modeling to recreate the entire front panel, hoping to build a full-scale replica of the Antikythera using modern materials in the future. The digital result shows a center dome representing Earth – surrounded by the moon, the sun, Zodiac constellations, and rings for Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.

To create the model, the researchers relied on previous studies on the device, including that of Michael Wright, the former curator of the Science Museum of London who had constructed a working replica. They used inscriptions found on the mechanism and a mathematical model on how the planets moved that was first created by the philosopher Parmenides.

The model recreated by the researchers includes the gears and rotating dials, so to show how the planets, the sun, and the moon move across the Zodiac — the ancient map of the stars — on the front face and the phases of the moon and eclipses on the back. It replicates the ancient Greek assumption that all heaves revolved around the Earth.

Now that it has been made, the team at UCL wants to make physical versions of the front panel, starting by using modern techniques to check that the device works and then using the same techniques that would have been used by the ancient Greeks. This would help to get a better understanding of how the Greeks were able to build such a device, something that can’t be answered yet.

“If they had the tech to make the Antikythera mechanism, why did they not extend this tech to devising other machines, such as clocks?,” Adam Wojcik, a co-author of the paper, told The Guardian. “There’s also a lot of debate about who it was for and who built it. A lot of people say it was Archimedes. He lived around the same time it was constructed.”

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Fossils in China reveal an impressive evolutionary secret of plants

Reconstruction of the crown of Paratingia wuhaia sp. nov. Credit: University of Birmingham.

Noeggerathiales, a now-extinct order of vascular plants, were highly evolved members of the lineage that gave rise to seed plants, according to a new study. Researchers looked into fossil plants preserved within volcanic ash fall in China and shed light on the overall evolution of plants – a race eventually won by seed-bearing plants.

The enigmatic Noeggerathiales existed around 325 to 251 million years ago, over a hundred million years before dinosaurs started to emerge. Their relationship with other plant groups has until now been poorly understood due to poorly preserved fossils (plant fossils are hard to come across). They had a tree fern-like appearance, with leaves sprouting from the top of an unbranched trunk, and were commonly found in tropical regions.

Unfortunately for Noeggerathiales, they didn’t survive the profound environmental and climate changes of 251 million years ago that destroyed ecosystems globally. This event, called the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, wiped them out. Out of the two lineages of plants, only one survived: the seed plants which now dominate so much of the Earth.

In a new study, researchers found the “Pompeii of Plants” — a site in China where many Noeggerathiales were conserved as fossils, protected by a layer of ash deposited 300 million years ago. This volcanic eruption probably killed off the forest, but it protected much of it in fossilized form, much like the volcano that wiped off the Roman city of Pompeii preserved the archaeological remains.

This reconstruction is based on the type specimen from the Wuda Tuff Flora and shows what scientist think the plant looked like when it was alive. Reconstruction of the peat-forming plant community at Wuda in which the new species Paratingia wuhaia (yellow arrows) grew. Credit: University of Birmingham

The forest, west of the Inner Mongolian district of Wuda, was largely reconstructed by researchers in 2012 – identifying six groups of trees. Now, a group of paleontologists from Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology and the University of Birmingham looked at the fossils from Noeggerathiales found in China, which were preserved in “exquisite detail”. They concluded that the Noeggerthiales are much more related to seed plants than other fern groups.

“Noeggerathiales were recognized as early as the 1930s, but scientists have treated them as a ‘taxonomic football’, endlessly kicked around without anyone identifying their place in the Story of Life,” Jason Hilton, co-author of the study, said in a statement. The fossils found in China finally settled the group’s evolutionary importance, he added.

Fossil specimen of the new species preserving the crown of the tree with leaves and its fertile organs attached to the stem. Credit: University of Birmingham

Hilton and the group of researchers studied complete Noeggerathiales preserved in a bed of volcanic ash 66 cm thick formed 298 million years ago, smothering all the plants growing in a nearby swamp. The ash stopped the fossils from rotting or being consumed and preserved many complete individuals in microscopic detail, allowing them to be studied.

Lead-Author Jun Wang said many specimens of Noeggerathiales were identified in excavations in China in 2006 and 2007. Leaves were visible on the surface of the ash, which seemed connected to a stem below. The fossils were then extracted to further study them in the laboratory, which took many years. Additional specimens were later found and also incorporated into the research.

“The complete trees are the most impressive fossil plants I have seen and because of our careful work they are also some of the most important to science,” said Jun Wang in a statement.

The study was published in the journal PNAS.

Latin American’s science contribution against COVID-19

A developing country’s greatest fear is to be the last in line for vaccination during a pandemic — and this has happened before. African countries know it too well: when H5N1 hit in 2004 and later H1N1 in 2009, they were among the last to receive vaccines. The most developed countries made sure they could get large amounts that were later stored despite the promise of donation. Vaccine nationalism affects us all, and yet we’re seeing signs of it happening all over again.

Latin American scientists are battling this fear since the start of COVID-19. During the pandemic, students volunteered to produce safe equipment for the health care workers in their country, but scientists knew they needed to do more. Despite challenges faced, Latin American scientists made strong contributions that are beneficial not only their own countries but also to their neighbors.

Uruguay

Making Latin America very proud, Uruguay is the country with the smallest number of cases, less than 2000 cases and less than 500 deaths. This is thanks to an efficient universal health care early action, and active communication. In an article in the British Medical Journal, Uruguay was praised as “having a lid” on COVID-19.

“Uruguay continues to provide hope” for the region, says Marcos Espinal, the head of the Communicable Diseases and Health Analysis department at the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO). The country’s response could offer various lessons to the region and the world,” the BMJ article noted.

But despite being one of the most developed countries in the area and having such a solid response, Uruguay also showed how easy it is to lose control of the virus, with cases in early 2021 surging to unprecedented levels.

Uruguay was also involved in research throughout the pandemic. In the earlier stages, WHO recommended a more conservative method to diagnose SARS-CoV-2, but scientists from Universidad de la República and Institut Pasteur de Montevideo decided to develop a direct and cheaper method to test the disease and deploy large-scale testing. It is called a quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction(qPCR)

Their idea became reality and soon they prepared tests that are used in the country to detect COVID-19. In weeks, Uruguay had kits to test its population with the help of a lab network between public hospitals and the academia, around 1000 tests a day. This level of efficiency made one of the researchers involved, Gonzalo Moratorio, become one of Nature’s 10. This also turned out to be one of the key methods through which Uruguay kept the virus in check for the better part of a year.

Instituto Pasteur de Montevideo.

That’s not all: the Uruguayan $13 kits received funding from Mercosur (Southern Common Market) in order to produce more kits to distribute in other countries. However, Uruguay was also quick to deploy another measure to help contain the virus: closing off most of its borders to international travel.

ProductionFurther information
KCOVID-19 RT-PCR Real TM Fast – kits for diagnosisInstitut Pasteur and Universidad de la República – UruguayJournal of virological methods
Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccineLiomont Laboratory (Mexico) and mAbxience(Argentina)mAbxience
Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccineFiocruz – BrazilFiocruz
CoronaVacInstituto Butantan – BrazilIntituto Butantan
Production of vaccines and tests

Mexico

Mexico was the first Latin American country to start vaccination with Pfizer-BioNTech. They have recently approved Sputinik V and plan to use the single dose Convidencia, a vaccine developed in China by the CanSino Biologics, which recently showed 67% efficacy.

In terms of production, with the help of Argentina, the country is planning to produce AstraZeneca vaccines to distribute to Latin America at affordable prices. The partnership is made between two companies: the Argentinean mAbxience, and the Liomont Laboratory in Mexico; mAbxience provides the active ingredient for the production which makes the vaccine even more accessible for Argentina.

Mexico suffered greatly as 2020 was the year the world lost Mario Molina, Nobel Prize laureate in chemistry for the discovery of effects of CFCs in ozone-depleting during his postdoctoral research. This work influenced the United Nations to create the Montreal Protocol. Despite being a professor at University of California San Diego, his advocacy towards making face masks mandatory was wall-known by Mexican citizens.

Months before his death he was involved in a study to understand the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 through aerosols. It stated the transmissions could be highly reduced using face masks. The problem was there were serious flaws in the publication, some epidemiologists even asked for the removal of the publication. The methodology did not give enough credit to social distancing restrictions and lacked a more sophisticated statistical analysis. We now know the importance of face masks thanks to more cautious research, some similar analysis even cite the study.

Brazil

In Brazil, the pandemic struck harshly. In part because of the socioeconomic conditions, but also due to questionable leadership. It became the country with the second-highest number of cases, as president Bolsonaro asked the country to “stop being sissies.” But important scientific information about the transmission and immunity to COVID-19 emerged from Brazil.

The second worst country facing COVID-19 situation has received hope recently. Two vaccines are being used now for emergency use, CoronaVac and AstraZeneca. The vaccination started in January with the CoronaVac, its arrival was so celebrated there is even a popular song for it.

The Sinovac Biotech’s CoronaVac is going to be produced in the country by the supervision of Instituto Butantan in São Paulo. The vaccine has 50,38% global efficacy, but more importantly 100% efficacy against moderate and severe cases, a major help for a country in the verge of collapsing its health care system. Alongside CoronaVac, the other vaccine that will be produced in Brazil is the Oxford-AstraZeneca the cheapest around the world. The Brazilian will produce it with the help of Fundação Oswaldo (Fiocruz) in Rio de Janeiro.

A group made of only Brazilian scientists from Fiocruz, Instituto Vital Brazil, and the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro are also developing a serum to treat SARS-CoV-2 patients. It uses antibodies from horses, more specifically a glycoprotein, a technique usually used by Vital Brazil to produce hyperimmune serums. What the scientists do is inject the virus in the horses, who don’t get sick, so they produce the antibodies. It is estimated that 80 horses can produce enough plasma for 10,000 ampoules ofthe serum. The team is waiting for the approval of the beginning of the trials by Anvisa (Brazilian Health Regulatory Agency).

Cuba

The Caribbean country enjoys a lot of fame for its medical prowess and its diplomatic mission of sending doctors across the globe — the pandemic didn’t change that. Cuban doctors arrived in 40 different countries during the pandemic.

Cuba has had around 150 deaths and less than 12,000 cases. Now the race is on to vaccinate its population, with 4 studies being held in the country, the Cuban government plans to start vaccination during the first quarter of the year.

Soberana 2, developed by the Instituto Finlay de Vacunas, is the most promising vaccine they have right now. The phase 3 tests will be held with the help of Iran. The vaccine is a promising safe immunizer for infants and the elderly, it has part of the virus protein and is mixed with the tetanus vaccine. Another two vaccines in development are Abdala and Soberana 1 (also from a Finlay study) are still in phase 2.

But the interesting one is Mambisa which is delivered through a nasal spray, people who suffer from needle phobia may be glad to hear about this. Mambisa, which is in phase 1, uses part of the receptor-binding domain protein from coronavirus and a stimulus for the immune system using a protein from hepatitis B.

Argentina

The same technique used for the Brazilian serum was already approved by the ANMAT (Argentinian Health Regulatory Agency). It reduced mortality in 45% of patients experiencing the severe stages of the disease. The serum was developed by the biotech company Inmunova. It started being administered in January, a more advanced pace compared to other countries also trying the same method such as Brazil.

The therapy was developed by using the recombinant receptor-binding domain (RBD) of the virus to stimulate antibody production in mice and horses. Whereas the Brazilian study uses a different antigen, the trimeric spike (S) glycoprotein.

In the meantime, the Argentinian government didn’t stray away from Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine and decided to import it in December. The doubts towards Sputnik did not scare ANMAT, so they accepted it under emergency use. Well, now we actually have some confirmation so that’s excellent news for Argentina, although Argentina may not receive all the vaccines it expects for a while.

TypeResearch center Phase trialsPublication/
Further infromation
Hyperimmune
equine serum
therapy Inmunova
Argentina
approvedCONICET
Hyperimmune
equine serum
therapyVital Brazil,
Fiocruz, and
UFRJ
Brazil
to begin
phase 1
bioRxiv
Soberana 1 vaccineInstituto Finlay
de Vacunas
Cuba
phase 1 and
phase 2
RPCEC
Soberana 2 vaccineInstituto Finlay
de Vacunas
Cuba
phase 2RPCEC
Abdala vaccineInstituto Finlay
de Vacunas
Cuba
phase 2RPCEC
Mambisa vaccineInstituto Finlay
de Vacunas
Cuba
phase 1RPCEC
Therapies and vaccines being developed in Latin America.

Much like global heating, the ongoing pandemic is a challenge that requires both global and local solutions. It’s not just the most developed countries that can make a difference in the middle of a crisis, and even less so when facing science denial. Hopeful news like that shown here should be celebrated and serve as motivation for developing countries, without fueling selfish nationalistic policies that will make things even worse for everyone.

Poverty line shmoverty line: Backed by AI, researchers want a new way to measure poverty

Poverty is the common denominator for developing nations, usually defined against an arbitrary poverty line. Individuals or countries below it are considered ‘poor’ and those above it, not so much. But this isn’t necessarily the only way of measuring poverty, and it’s not the best way by any stretch. A team of researchers are now suggesting the use of machine learning to define what poverty really means in different contexts.

Image credit: Flickr / Anna Wolf

Researchers at Aston University argue that mainstream thinking regarding poverty is outdated, putting too much emphasis on subjective notions of basic needs and failing to capture the full complexity of how people use their incomes. That’s why they are calling for a new model, using computer algorithms instead.

There are three mainstream ways of looking at poverty. In the first approach, poverty is defined as the deficiency in the level of living, measured through insufficient consumption of the essential commodities for low-income persons, who spend all their income on essential commodities. This was the approach used by 19th-century economist Ernst Engel, for instance.

The second and more commonly used poverty approach depends on a poverty line that is obtained independently and exogenously. This trend started in 1901 with sociologist Seebohm Rowntree, who defined poor as individuals with income below the poverty line level of income needed to cover basic needs.

But no matter how you go about it, arbitrariness is embedded in the definition of the poverty line. While the U.S. poverty line is measured at three times the money needed to buy a low-income diet plan outlined by the US Department of Agriculture, the Indian poverty line is determined by assuming a particular percentage of urban poor.

There is also a third approach, now an accepted wisdom of multidimensional poverty. But it also requires multiple subjectively determined thresholds (poverty lines). But both this one and the previous two have several drawbacks, as they don’t link poverty to the wider economic system that generates this poverty, the researchers argue.

“No-one has ever used machine learning to decode multidimensional poverty before,” said lead researcher Dr. Amit Chattopadhyay of Aston University’s College of Engineering and Physical Sciences in a statement. “This completely changes the way people should look at poverty.”

In their study, Chattopadhyay and his team looked at 30 years’ worth of data from India and divided expenditure into three broad categories of basic food such as cereals, other food including meat, and non-food covering other spendings such as housing and transport costs. This can be applied to any country and social situation.

There’s a “push-and-pull” relationship between the three categories, the researchers argued, as more spending in one means a reduction in another, for example. Acknowledging this allows for a more holistic measure of poverty that can be adjusted to the circumstances of specific countries as they did with India.

Using used datasets on incomes, asset and commodity markets from the World Bank and other sources, Chattopadhyay and his team created a mathematical model. They were able to accurately predict past poverty levels in both India and the US, but also to predict future levels based on certain economic assumptions.

The model revises the number of people traditionally considered “poor” into a more practical “middle class,” considering the elasticity of supply and demand in the market. It can be used on a national level but also on sub-regions or even scaled down to a single city or neighborhood depending on the available data.

“Current thinking on poverty is highly subjective, because ‘poverty’ will mean different things in different countries and regions,” said Chattopadhyay. “With this model, we finally have a multi-dimensional poverty index that reflects the real-world experience of people wherever they live and largely independent of the social class they are deemed to belong to.”

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Ireland’s first-ever dinosaur fossils confirmed

Researchers from the University of Portsmouth, Queen’s University Belfast, and National Museums Northern Ireland (NI) report on a first-ever for the island — the first-ever dinosaur bones to be discovered in Ireland.

Proximal fragment of left femur of Scelidosaurus. Image credits Michael Simms, et al., (2020), Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association.

The two fossils were discovered by Roger Byrne, a late fossil collector and schoolteacher, who donated them (among many other specimens he’s gathered) to Ulster Museum. Researchers were able to confirm that they hail from the early Jurassic, based on where they were discovered — rocks in Islandmagee, on the east coast of Northern Ireland.

Locally-sourced

“This is a hugely significant discovery. The great rarity of such fossils here is because most of Ireland’s rocks are the wrong age for dinosaurs, either too old or too young, making it nearly impossible to confirm dinosaurs existed on these shores,” explains Dr. Simms, National Museums NI, first author of the study. “The two dinosaur fossils that Roger Byrne found were perhaps swept out to sea, alive or dead, sinking to the Jurassic seabed where they were buried and fossilized.”

The only dinosaur bones ever found on the island of Ireland have been formally confirmed for the first time by a team of experts from the University of Portsmouth and Queen’s University Belfast, led by Dr. Mike Simms, a curator and paleontologist at National Museums NI.

Initially, the two fossils were believed to have belonged to the same animal. However, the authors report that they, in fact, belonged to two completely different dinos. One of them, a femur, belonged to a plant-eating species, Scelidosaurus. The other one was a tibia from a theropod, a two-legged predatory dinosaur similar to Sarcosaurus. The team identified their origin starting from high-resolution 3D models of the bone fragments.

. Proximal fragment of left tibia of megalosauroid theropod. Image credits Michael Simms, et al., (2020), Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association.

“Analyzing the shape and internal structure of the bones, we realized that they belonged to two very different animals. One is very dense and robust, typical of an armored plant-eater” says co-author Robert Smyth from the University of Portsmouth. “The other is slender, with thin bone walls and characteristics found only in fast-moving two-legged predatory dinosaurs called theropods”.

Although the specimens aren’t in ideal shape — they are, after all, broken into pieces, they still carry a huge paleontological weight. Not only were they discovered in Ireland, filling a gap in our understanding, but they also hail from an important time in the history of the dinosaurs. During the early Jurassic, about 200 million years ago, dinosaurs were poised to take the crown of the dominant terrestrial lineage and start dominating land ecosystems.

The paper “First dinosaur remains from Ireland” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association.

Ancient DNA shows dogs are humans’ oldest friends

Researchers found that dog domestication took place 11,000 years ago, towards the end of the last Ice Age. This means they were domesticated before any other, and by a long shot.

Credit Flick Sasha

Until recently, the genetic history of dogs was told largely from the DNA from modern dogs. But this has offered a limited picture, as a large part of the genetic diversity of early dogs was likely lost when modern breeds were established. Early studies of ancient dog genomes hinted at past changes that have taken place in the canine genome.

Now, to expand the pool of ancient dog DNA, scientists at the Francis Crick Institute, University of Oxford, University of Vienna, and archaeologists from more than 10 countries teamed up. They sequenced 27 ancient dog genomes, which they obtained from Europe, the Middle East, and Siberia, and which ranged from 11,000 to 100 years old.

Dr. Pontus Skoglund, co-author of the told BBC News: “Dogs are really unique in being this quite strange thing if you think about it, when all people were still hunter-gatherers, they domesticate what is really a wild carnivore – wolves are pretty frightening in many parts of the world. The question of why did people do that?”

The researchers first modeled the relationships inside of and between groups of ancient and modern dogs. They established that a 10,900-year-old dog from Russia was distinct from later ancient European, Middle Eastern, Siberian, or American dogs, as was the case with a canine lineage characterized by modern New Guinea singing dogs.

This allowed them to follow ancient canine populations as they moved and mixed, and compare these shifts with those in human populations. Sometimes, dogs’ travels paralleled those of people. For example, when farmers from the Middle East expanded into Europe 10,000 years ago, they took their dogs with them.

However, the history of humans and dogs hasn’t always intertwined perfectly. A major influx of people from Russia and Ukraine 5,000 years ago led to lasting change in the genetic make-up of Europe’s humans, but not its dogs. The study also showed that the ancestry of European dogs has become much less varied in the past 4,000 years.

Greger Larson, an author from the University of Oxford, said in a statement: “Dogs are our oldest and closest animal partner. Using DNA from ancient dogs is showing us just how far back our shared history goes and will ultimately help us understand when and where this deep relationship began.”

The study provides major new insights into the early history of dog populations and their relationships with humans and each other. Still, many questions remain. The research team is now focused on trying to uncover where and in which human cultural context were dogs first domesticated.

The study was published in the journal Science.