Category Archives: Studies

Pap tests could one day tell women if they have breast or ovarian cancer

Experts have identified changes in a woman’s cervix that can help detect tumors elsewhere in the body. These tests involve scraping cells from the cervix to detect any abnormalities that could cause cervical cancer. But researchers from Innsbruck University and gynecological cancer research charity The Eve Appeal found the cells from this test can also give clues and alerts for other types of cancers. With development, they state that the method used could one day predict the risk of developing ovarian, breast, womb, and cervical cancers from a straightforward smear pap test.

They developed their system using a process known as DNA methylation — epigenetic modifications to DNA that don’t alter the genetic sequence but do determine whether a gene expresses or stifles its function: in this case, forming or preventing cancer in the body. These modifications leave ‘methylation markers or signatures’ on genomic regions that scientists can read to determine what has occurred within a person’s body throughout their lifetime. Akin to the rings of a tree, this method can provide chronological clues as to what has happened in our biological life.

Researchers created the test, dubbed WID (Women’s Risk Identification), to analyze markers left by cancerous activity in the DNA of cervical cells. By calculating a woman’s WID, they hope to identify those with a high risk of developing ovarian, breast, womb, or cervical cancers: providing an early-warning system for medical teams to increase treatment outcomes.

The team was able to spot these modifications because they matched DNA markers found in diseased cervical, breast, ovarian, and womb biopsy tissue (a highly invasive procedure) to those found in the easier to access cells of the cervix — whose similar biological structures undergo the same hormonal changes as the tissues these cancers flourish in.

Finding cancer through the cervix

The first study examined cervical cell samples collected from 242 women with ovarian cancer and 869 healthy controls. To develop the WID risk scale, the scientists measured 14,000 epigenetic changes to identify ovarian cancer’s unique DNA signature to spot the presence of the disease in epithelial tissue scraped from the cervix.

They then validated the signature in an additional cohort of 47 women who had ovarian cancer and 227 healthy subjects. Results identified 71% of women under 50 and roughly 55% of the volunteers older than 50 who had previously tested positive for the disease — giving the tests an overall specificity of 75%. A test’s specificity is its ability to correctly identify people without the disease.

Professor Martin Widschwendter of the University of Innsbruck and UCL, heading up the research, said the findings suggest their WID index is picking up cancer predisposition, adding that the results were similar to a study on women with cancer of the womb. He is adamant their test cannot predict ovarian, with more studies needed.

A possible screening method for an undetectable cancer 

In the second study, the same team analyzed epigenetic changes in cervical cell samples provided by 329 women with breast cancer against those from the same 869 healthy volunteers in the first study. Using the WID index, they were able to identify women with breast cancer based on a unique epigenetic signature. The group once again confirmed these markers in a smaller consort of 113 breast cancer patients and 225 women without this condition.

The researchers also used the patterns to predict whether patients had breast cancer-but they didn’t say exactly how accurate the tests were. Instead, they stressed that further trials are needed-with the hope that clinicians could use their WID as a regular test for women in the future-specifically for those under fifty years of age who do not have access to screening for this disease.

“This research is incredibly exciting,” said Liz O’Riordan, a breast cancer surgeon who was also diagnosed with this disease. “At the moment, there is no screening test for breast cancer in women under the age of 50. If this test can help pick up women with a high risk of developing breast, ovarian, cervical, and uterine cancer at a younger age, it could be a game-changer.”

The team adds that these findings are also crucial for ovarian cancer, whose symptoms can be as benign as a bloated abdomen. The biggest killer of women out of gynecological-based tumors, this disease is diagnosed late by clinicians in an alarming 3 out of four cases.

But for now, Widschwendter says, the findings suggest that the molecular signatures in cervical cells may detect the predisposition to other women-specific cancers rather than providing a solid prediction of the disease.

Because of the pandemic, women have stopped taking pap tests

A pap smear test detects abnormal cells on the cervix, which is the entrance to the uterus from the vagina. Removing these cells can prevent cervical cancer, which most commonly affects sexually-active women aged between 30 and 45. In most cases, the human papillomavirus causes this cancer after being acquired through unprotected sex or skin-to-skin contact. To summarise, the whole point of these tests is to detect women at risk of developing cancer and encourage them to carry further health check-ups, not to find those displaying cancer symptoms.

Around the world, the number of women taking smear tests has dropped substantially during the pandemic. In England, for instance, one of the countries with the highest testing rates, just 7 out of 10 eligible women got a cervical check-up — and conditions are expected to worsen due to a new policy brought in by the UK government at the start of 2022, which saw all eligible women in Wales have their wait times increased from three to five years in between tests. The government expects to roll out the policy in England this year after the pandemic caused the delay of its initial release. Experts insisted the move was safe, but campaigners hit back at the plans, arguing it would cause preventable deaths by delaying the detection of cancer or pre-cancerous issues.

In a statement to the Guardian, the UK’s Secretary for Patient Safety and Primary Care says it’s “great to see how this new research could help alert women who are at higher risk to help prevent breast, ovarian, womb, and cervical cancer before it starts.” Until this time, cancer screening remained vital and urged all women aged 25 and above to attend their appointments when invited. The secretary did not remark on the new government policy.

An ovarian cancer specialist urged caution in interpreting the data: They show a “moderate association” between the methylation signature and ovarian cancer, said Dr. Rebecca Stone, the Kelly Gynecologic Oncology Service director at Johns Hopkins Hospital. “They are not showing that it’s predictive or diagnostic,” Stone stressed. Clarifying that to see whether the cervical cell signature predicts cancer, a study would have to observe a large group of women over a long period.

Filling the gap in screening options for women

In contrast, Athena Lamnisos, CEO of the Eve Appeal, emphasizes the importance of a new screening tool:

“Creating a new screening tool for the four most prevalent cancers that affect women and people with gynae organs, particularly the ones which are currently most difficult to detect at an early stage, from a single test could be revolutionary.”

The Eve Appeal goes on that women could get separate risk scores for each of the four cancers in the future where medical teams could offer those with high scores more active monitoring, regular mammograms, risk-reducing surgery, or therapeutics.

Ultimately, it’s better to prevent than to treat, and this method could offer women worldwide access to proper screening services that could save lives through the application of early intervention and preventative medicine.

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.

Study on mice: Exercising later in life can keep your muscles young

Exercising can not only make you feel younger, but it can also actually keep you younger as well. A study on mice suggests that exercising, even later in life, can do wonders for your muscles. In addition to underscoring the importance of staying active, the study could also help us uncover some of the secrets of rejuvenation.

Even though some diseases are inherited, we can still improve our overall health through lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise. Still, whatever the reason, the genes related to some of these conditions must be expressed for them to develop. So how does this happen?

A new study has brought us closer to an answer by mapping the genetic changes involved in rejuvenating the muscle cells of elderly mice put on an exercise program.

Turning genes on and off

The analysis centers on DNA, the “blueprint” for our bodies. DNA consists of four bases, called cytosine, guanine, adenine, and thymine, and the process used to help manage these massive helixes: a methyl molecule composed of one carbon and three hydrogen atoms. These atoms attach themselves to one of the four bases (cytosine) to form what’s known as a CpG site.

When this occurs, the CpG becomes methylated and the site produces proteins to regulate something in the body — whatever that something may be. In contrast, the region becomes unmethylated when you lose that methyl group, turning that gene off. In this way, a process called DNA methylation can promote or inhibit the expression of specific genes — whether it’s stopping a tumor, preventing cancer, or activating genes responsible for causing wrinkles in old age. This process is constant, occurring billions of times a second in every cell throughout the body, and we’re just starting to understand it.

DNA methylation is one of the many mechanisms of epigenetics, where inborn or acquired changes in DNA don’t touch the actual sequence – meaning a person can potentially reverse things like fat deposits through diet or exercise. More and more studies are starting to suggest that this is an unharnessed and robust process, linked to longevity and the regulation of lifespan in most organisms on earth.

The current study attempts to further this theory using lifestyle interventions such as exercise to roll back genetic aging in skeletal muscle – measuring the animal’s ‘epigenetic clock’ for accuracy. This clock is measured via methylation levels in the blood to reflect exposures and disease risks independent of chronological age, providing an early-warning system and a true representation of a period of existence.

Kevin Murach, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, says, “DNA methylation changes in a lifespan tend to happen in a somewhat systematic fashion. To the point, you can look at someone’s DNA from a given tissue sample and with a fair degree of accuracy predict their chronological age.”

Using exercise to turn back the clock

The study design was relatively simple: mice nearing the end of their natural lifespan, at 22 months, were given access to a weighted exercise wheel to ensure they built muscle. They required no coercion to run on the wheel, with older mice running from six to eight kilometers a day, mostly in spurts, and younger mice running up to 10-12 kilometers.

Results from the elderly mice after two months of weighted wheel running suggested they were the epigenetic age of mice eight weeks younger, compared to sedentary mice of the same maturity.

The team also used the epigenetic clock to map a multitude of genes involved in the formation and function of muscles, including those affected by exercise. Blood work indicated that the genes usually over methylated (hypermethylated) in old age resumed normal methylation in the active aged mice, unlike those mapped in their sedentary counterparts.

For instance, the rbm10 gene is usually hypermethylated in old age, disrupting the production of proteins involved in motor neuron survival, muscle weight & function, and the growth of striated muscle. Here it was shown to undergo less methylation in older mice who exercised, improving its performance. Normal methylation levels also resumed across the Timm8a1 gene, keeping mitochondrial function and oxidant defense at workable levels – even where neighboring sites exhibited dysfunctional epigenetic alterations.

More work is needed to harness DNA methylation

Murach notes that when a lifespan is measured incrementally in months, as with this mouse strain, an extra eight weeks — roughly 10 percent of that lifespan — is a noteworthy gain, further commending the importance of exercise in later life.

He adds: that although the connection between methylation and aging is clear, methylation and muscle function are less clear. Despite these sturdy results, Murach will not categorically state that the reversal of methylation with exercise is causative for improved muscle health. “That’s not what the study was set up to do,” he explained. However, he intends to pursue future studies to determine if “changes in methylation result in altered muscle function.”

And, “If so, what are the consequences of this?” he continued. “Do changes on these very specific methylation sites have an actual phenotype that emerges from that? Is it what’s causing aging or is it just associated with it? Is it just something that happens in concert with a variety of other things that are happening during the aging process? So that’s what we don’t know.”

He summarizes that once the medical community has mapped the mechanics of dynamic DNA methylation in muscle, their work could provide modifiable epigenetic markers to improve muscle health in the elderly. 

China builds the world’s first artificial moon

Chinese scientists have built an ‘artificial moon’ possessing lunar-like gravity to help them prepare astronauts for future exploration missions. The structure uses a powerful magnetic field to produce the celestial landscape — an approach inspired by experiments once used to levitate a frog.

The key component is a vacuum chamber that houses an artificial moon measuring 60cm (about 2 feet) in diameter. Image credits: Li Ruilin, China University of Mining and Technology

Preparing to colonize the moon

Simulating low gravity on Earth is a complex process. Current techniques require either flying a plane that enters a free fall and then climbs back up again or jumping off a drop tower — but these both last mere minutes. With the new invention, the magnetic field can be switched on or off as needed, producing no gravity, lunar gravity, or earth-level gravity instantly. It is also strong enough to magnetize and levitate other objects against the gravitational force for as long as needed.

All of this means that scientists will be able to test equipment in the extreme simulated environment to prevent costly mistakes. This is beneficial as problems can arise in missions due to the lack of atmosphere on the moon, meaning the temperature changes quickly and dramatically. And in low gravity, rocks and dust may behave in a completely different way than on Earth – as they are more loosely bound to each other.

Engineers from the China University of Mining and Technology built the facility (which they plan to launch in the coming months) in the eastern city of Xuzhou, in Jiangsu province. A vacuum chamber, containing no air, houses a mini “moon” measuring 60cm (about 2 feet) in diameter at its heart. The artificial landscape consists of rocks and dust as light as those found on the lunar surface-where gravity is about one-sixth as powerful as that on Earth–due to powerful magnets that levitate the room above the ground. They plan to test a host of technologies whose primary purpose is to perform tasks and build structures on the surface of the Earth’s only natural satellite.

Group leader Li Ruilin from the China University of Mining and Technology says it’s the “first of its kind in the world” that will take lunar simulation to a whole new level. Adding that their artificial moon makes gravity “disappear.” For “as long as you want,” he adds.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post, the team explains that some experiments take just a few seconds, such as an impact test. Meanwhile, others like creep testing (where the amount a material deforms under stress is measured) can take several days.

Li said astronauts could also use it to determine whether 3D printing structures on the surface is possible rather than deploying heavy equipment they can’t use on the mission. He continues:

“Some experiments conducted in the simulated environment can also give us some important clues, such as where to look for water trapped under the surface.”

It could also help assess whether a permanent human settlement could be built there, including issues like how well the surface traps heat.

From amphibians to artificial celestial bodies

The group explains that the idea originates from Russian-born UK-based physicist Andre Geim’s experiments which saw him levitate a frog with a magnet – that gained him a satirical Ig Nobel Prize in 2000, which celebrates science that “first makes people laugh, and then think.” Geim also won a Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 for his work on graphene.

The foundation of his work involves a phenomenon known as diamagnetic levitation, where scientists apply an external magnetic force to any material. In turn, this field induces a weak repulsion between the object and the magnets, causing it to drift away from them and ‘float’ in midair.

For this to happen, the magnetic force must be strong enough to ‘magnetize’ the atoms that make up a material. Essentially, the atoms inside the object (or frog) acts as tiny magnets, subject to the magnetic force existing around them. If the magnet is powerful enough, it will change the direction of the electrons revolving around the atom’s nuclei, allowing them to produce a magnetic field to repulse the magnets.

Diamagnetic levitation of a tiny horse. Image credits: Pieter Kuiper / Wiki Commons.

Different substances on Earth have varying degrees of diamagnetism which affect their ability to levitate under a magnetic field; adding a vacuum, as was done here, allowed the researchers to produce an isolated chamber that mimics a microgravity environment.

However, simulating the harsh lunar environment was no easy task as the magnetic force needed is so strong it could tear apart components such as superconducting wires. It also affected the many metallic parts necessary for the vacuum chamber, which do not function properly near a powerful magnet.

To counteract this, the team came up with several technical innovations, including simulating lunar dust that could float a lot easier in the magnetic field and replacing steel with aluminum in many of the critical components.

The new space race

This breakthrough signals China’s intent to take first place in the international space race. That includes its lunar exploration program (named after the mythical moon goddess Chang’e), whose recent missions include landing a rover on the dark side of the moon in 2019 and 2020 that saw rock samples brought back to Earth for the first time in over 40 years.

Next, China wants to establish a joint lunar research base with Russia, which could start as soon as 2027.  

The new simulator will help China better prepare for its future space missions. For instance, the Chang’e 5 mission returned with far fewer rock samples than planned in December 2020, as the drill hit unexpected resistance. Previous missions led by Russia and the US have also had related issues.

Experiments conducted on a smaller prototype simulator suggested drill resistance on the moon could be much higher than predicted by purely computational models, according to a study by the Xuzhou team published in the Journal of China University of Mining and Technology. The authors hope this paper will enable space engineers across the globe (and in the future, the moon) to alter their equipment before launching multi-billion dollar missions.

The team is adamant that the facility will be open to researchers worldwide, and that includes Geim. “We definitely welcome Professor Geim to come and share more great ideas with us,” Li said.

Science may not be the meritocracy we thought it to be: gender and race discrepancies are prevalent

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), researchers highlighted the disparities in the scientific community in the US. Simply put, the US scientific workforce is not representative of the population. Barriers to entry and participation prevent important segments of the population, especially when it comes to race and gender.

Concepción Feminist Mural in Madrid. Wikimedia commons.

Researchers investigated the representation of different groups between more than 1 million articles in the Web of Science between 2008 and 2019. The groups are racial categories constructed in the American society: White, Black, Asian, and Latinx. These categories were also divided by gender (male and female).

The data showed that women, Black and Latinx scientists are underrepresented in various different scientific topics, while White and Asian men are generally overrepresented. In Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields, Black, Latinx, and White women are underrepresented and Asian women have a medium representation. This is different in Psychology and Arts, both Asian women and men are underrepresented.

The most over-represented group in STEM are Asian men and, and the same carries in social sciences more related to economy and logistics topics. Black scientists are better represented only in research fields related to racial inequalities and African or African American culture. Something similar happens to Latinx authors that seem to be more involved in topics such as immigration, political identities, and racism. 

This graphic shows the representation of various racial, ethnic, and gender groups as published authors in various fields. It shows that Latino, Black, and white women are significantly underrepresented as authors in engineering and technology, mathematics, and physics publications and are heavily overrepresented in health fields. Credit: Diego Kozlowski/University of Luxembourg.

The authors also compared how specialized each group is. Asian scientists are more focused on a specific topic compared to White authors who are more scattered among the topics. In contrast, topics regarding gender identity and inequality are the focus of Black and Latinx women, emphasizing the gender role imposed in society and signaling that women are trying to shift perceptions in this field.

In terms of citation, Asian men are more cited in Social Sciences and are more likely to be involved in topics that are highly cited. In the Health topics, White authors are more cited, followed by Black, Asian, and Latinx. This is a clear confirmation that minoritized groups are more cited in topics less favored in the scientific community and are less cited in both lowly and highly cited topics.

These inequalities are indicative of the inequalities in American society. While this study focused on the US, this is a global problem that needs to be addressed. In addition to making academia fairer and more inclusive, research has also shown that diversity among research teams fosters innovation and more impactful research. For now, it appears the open and fair academia may not be all that open and fair after all.

Electric knee implants could help millions of arthritis patients

An answer could be on the horizon for millions of people living with arthritis after scientists have found a way to repair joints using electrical implants. The implants work by producing a current every time the person moves their joint to regrow the protective cartilage that cover the ends of bones .

Bioengineers from the University of Connecticut developed a biodegradable mesh implant, about half a millimeter thick, which generated tiny electrical signals to repair arthritic joints in rabbits. The study, published in Science Translational Medicine, saw the team successfully regrow cartilage in rabbits’ knees without using potentially toxic growth factors or stem cells. Crucially, the cartilage that grows back is mechanically robust, with further plans to trial the implant in larger animals and humans.

In their white paper, the team states that although more work is needed to improve the scaffold, this study provides evidence that biodegradable implants that produce electricity independently can use exercise to treat arthritis.

No cure for arthritis despite tens of millions of sufferers

According to the CDC, 58.5 million people currently have arthritis in the United States, which costs the American people $303.5 billion annually. While there are treatments, arthritis technically has no cure.

It is a widespread and painful disease caused by damage to joints formed between the body’s bones. One of the subtypes of this disease, called osteoarthritis, attacks the cartilage at the end of bones in the joint. As this buffer deteriorates, bones begin to rub against each other so that everyday activities like walking become agonizingly painful – making the growth of new cartilage highly desirable. 

Sufferers face years of pain without surgical or pharmaceutical intervention, but these treatments can only slow down the damage instead of repairing damage to the joint. However, even this process involves taking healthy cartilage from the patient or a donor and comes with inconveniences and risks.

Therefore, regrowing healthy cartilage in the damaged joint itself would be very helpful. Some researchers have investigated chemical growth factors to induce the body to regrow it; other attempts rely on a bioengineered scaffold to promote tissue growth. But, neither of these approaches works-even in combination-with the regrown cartilage breaking under the everyday stresses of the joint.

Your joints can generate electricity to heal you

The new breakthrough involves a tissue scaffold made out of poly-L lactic acid (PLLA) nanofibers, a material often used to stitch surgical wounds that dissolve after the person heals. The scaffold produces a little burst of electrical current when squeezed in a process known as piezoelectricity. In this case, the joint’s regular ‘squeezing’ is provided by walking, which generates a weak electrical field that encourages cells to colonize the implant and grow into cartilage.

“Piezoelectricity is a phenomenon that also exists in the human body. Bone, cartilage, collagen, DNA, and various proteins have a piezoelectric response. Our approach to healing cartilage is highly clinically translational, and we will look into the related healing mechanism”, says Dr. Yang Liu, a postdoctoral fellow in Nguyen’s group and the lead author of the published work.

Nguyen’s group implanted their scaffold in the knee of injured rabbits. After a month in recovery, the rabbits were encouraged to walk for 20 minutes a day on a slow-moving treadmill to exercise their legs and generate the electric current. The charge encouraged the regrowth of fresh, mechanically robust cartilage, making the knee as solid and functional as before it was injured. Whereas rabbits treated with nonpiezoelectric scaffold and exercise treatment still had a hole in this protective sheath and limited healing.

In an interview with New Scientist, Thanh Nguyen, an assistant professor in the department of mechanical engineering, says, “If used in people, the material used to make the implant would dissolve after about two months – although it could be tweaked to make it last longer.”

What next for this promising implant?

Nguyen states that the results are exciting but cautions that further tests need to be carried out on larger animals that bear more similarities to humans.

His lab now plans to observe the treated animals for 1-2 years to ensure the cartilage is durable and wants to test the PLLA scaffolds in older animals as arthritis usually affects the elderly. He concludes by saying that if the scaffolding helps older animals heal, it indeed could be a bioengineering breakthrough.

Masks made of ostrich cells make COVID-19 glow in the dark

In the two years that SARS‑CoV‑2 has ravaged across the globe, it has caused immeasurable human loss. But we as a species have been able to create monumental solutions amidst great adversity. The latest achievement involves a standard face mask that can detect COVID-19 in your breath, essentially making the pathogen visible.

A COVID-19 sample becomes apparent on a mask filter under ultraviolet light. Image credits: Kyoto Prefectural University.

Japanese researchers at Kyoto Prefectural University have created a mask that glows in the dark if COVID-19 is detected in a person’s breath or spit. They did this by coating masks with a mixture containing ostrich antibodies that react when they contact the SARS‑CoV‑2 virus. The filters are then removed from the masks and sprayed with a chemical that makes COVID-19 (if present) viewable using a smartphone or a dark light. The experts hope that their discovery could provide a low-cost home test to detect the virus.

Yasuhiro Tsukamoto, veterinary professor and president of Kyoto Prefectural University, explains the benefits of such a technology: “It’s a much faster and direct form of initial testing than getting a PCR test.”

Tsukamoto notes that it could help those infected with the virus but who show no symptoms and are unlikely to get tested — and with a patent application and plans to commercialize inspection kits and sell them in Japan and overseas within the next year, the test appears to have a bright future. However, this all hinges on large-scale testing of the mask filters and government approval for mass production. 

Remarkably, this all came with a little help from ostriches.

The ostrich immune system is one of the most potent on Earth

To make each mask, the scientists injected inactive SARS‑CoV‑2 into female ostriches, in effect vaccinating them. Scientists then extracted antibodies from the eggs the ostriches produced, as the yolk transfers immunity to the offspring – the same way a vaccinated mother conveys disease resistance to her infant through the placenta. 

An ostrich egg yolk is perfect for this job as it is nearly 24 times bigger than a chicken’s, allowing a more significant number of antibodies to form. Additionally, immune cells are also produced far more quickly in these birds—taking a mere six weeks, as opposed to chickens, where it takes twelve.

Because ostriches have an extremely efficient immune system, thought to be the strongest of any animal on the planet, they can rapidly produce antibodies to fight an enormous range of bacteria and viruses, with a 2012 study in the Brazilian Journal of Microbiology showing they could stop Staphylococcus aureus and E. coli in their tracks – experts also predict that this bird will be instrumental in fending off epidemics in the future.

Tsukamoto himself has published numerous studies using ostrich immune cells harvested from eggs to help treat a host of health conditions, from swine flu to hair loss.

Your smartphone can image COVID-19 with this simple test

The researchers started by creating a mask filter coated with a solution of the antibodies extracted from ostriches’ eggs that react with the COVID-19 spike protein. After they had a working material, a small consort of 32 volunteers wore the masks for eight hours before the team removed the filters and sprayed them with a chemical that caused COVID-19 to glow in the dark. Scientists repeated this for ten days. Masks worn by participants infected with the virus glowed around the nose and mouth when scientists shone a dark light on them.

In a promising turn, the researchers found they could also use a smartphone LED light to detect the virus, which would considerably widen the scope of testing across the globe due to its ease of use. Essentially, it means that the material could be used to the fullest in a day-to-day setting without any additional equipment.

“We also succeeded in visualizing the virus antigen on the ostrich antibody-carrying filter when using the LED ultraviolet black light and the LED light of the smartphone as the light source. This makes it easy to use on the mask even at home.”

To further illustrate the practicability of the test, Tsukamoto told the Kyodo news agency he discovered he was infected with the virus after he wore one of the diagnostic masks. The diagnosis was also confirmed using a laboratory test, after which authorities quarantined him at a hotel.

Next, the team aims to expand the trial to 150 participants and develop the masks to glow automatically without special lighting. Dr. Tsukamoto concludes: “We can mass-produce antibodies from ostriches at a low cost. In the future, I want to make this into an easy testing kit that anyone can use.”

The swarm is near: get ready for the flying microbots

Imagine a swarm of insect-sized robots capable of recording criminals for the authorities undetected or searching for survivors caught in the ruins of unstable buildings. Researchers worldwide have been quietly working toward this but have been unable to power these miniature machines — until now.

A 0.16 g microscale robot that is powered by a muscle-like soft actuator. Credit: Ren et al (2022).

Engineers from MIT have developed powerful micro-drones that can zip around with bug-like agility, which could eventually perform these tasks. Their paper in the journal Advanced Materials describes a new form of synthetic muscle (known as an actuator) that converts energy sources into motion to power these devices and enable them to move around. Their new fabrication technique produces artificial muscles, which dramatically extend the lifespan of the microbot while increasing its performance and the amount it can carry.  

In an interview with Tech Xplore, Dr. Kevin Chen, senior author of the paper, explained that they have big plans for this type of robot:

“Our group has a long-term vision of creating a swarm of insect-like robots that can perform complex tasks such as assisted pollination and collective search-and-rescue. Since three years ago, we have been working on developing aerial robots that are driven by muscle-like soft actuators.”

Soft artificial muscles contract like the real thing

Your run-of-the-mill drone uses rigid actuators to fly as these can supply more voltage or power to make them move, but robots on this miniature scale couldn’t carry such a heavy power supply. So-called ‘soft’ actuators are a far better solution as they’re far lighter than their rigid counterparts.

In their previous research, the team engineered microbots that could perform acrobatic movements mid-air and quickly recover after colliding with objects. But despite these promising results, the soft actuators underpinning these systems required more electricity than could be supplied, meaning an external power supply had to be used to propel the devices.

“To fly without wires, the soft actuator needs to operate at a lower voltage,” Chen explained. “Therefore, the main goal of our recent study was to reduce the operating voltage.”

In this case, the device would need a soft actuator with a large surface area to produce enough power. However, it would also need to be lightweight so a micromachine could lift it.

To achieve this, the group elected for soft dielectric elastomer actuators (DEAs) made from layers of a flexible, rubber-like solid known as an elastomer whose polymer chains are held together by relatively weak bonds – permitting it to stretch under stress.

The DEAs used in the study consists of a long piece of elastomer that is only 10 micrometers thick (roughly the same diameter as a red blood cell) sandwiched between a pair of electrodes. These, in turn, are wound into a 20-layered ‘tootsie roll’ to expand the surface area and create a ‘power-dense’ muscle that deforms when a current is applied, similar to how human and animal muscles contract. In this case, the contraction causes the microbot’s wings to flap rapidly.

A microbot that acts and senses like an insect

A microscale soft robot lands on a flower. Credit: Ren et al (2022).

The result is an artificial muscle that forms the compact body of a robust microrobot that can carry nearly three times its weight (despite weighing less than one-quarter of a penny). Most notably, it can operate with 75% lower voltage than other versions while carrying 80% more payload.

They also demonstrated a 20-second hovering flight, which Chen says is the longest recorded by a sub-gram robot with the actuator still working smoothly after 2 million cycles – far outpacing the lifespan of other models.

“This small actuator oscillates 400 times every second, and its motion drives a pair of flapping wings, which generate lift force and allow the robot to fly,” Chen said. “Compared to other small flying robots, our soft robot has the unique advantage of being robust and agile. It can collide with obstacles during flight and recover and it can make a 360 degree turn within 0.16 seconds.”

The DEA-based design introduced by the team could soon pave the way for microbots that work using untethered batteries. For example, it could inspire the creation of functional robots that blend into our environment and everyday lives, including those that mimic dragonflies or hummingbirds.

The researchers add:

“We further demonstrated open-loop takeoff, passively stable ascending flight, and closed-loop hovering flights in these robots. Not only are they resilient against collisions with nearby obstacles, they can also sense these impact events. This work shows soft robots can be agile, robust, and controllable, which are important for developing next generation of soft robots for diverse applications such as environmental exploration and manipulation.”

And while they’re thrilled about producing workable flying microbots, they hope to reduce the DEA thickness to only 1 micrometer, which would open the door to many more applications for these insect-sized robots.

Source: MIT

Immune cells from the common cold offer protection against COVID-19, researchers find

If one in 10 cold infections are from coronaviruses, then antibodies produced from these illnesses could surely give a bit more protection against COVID-19, right? A new study has just provided the answer to this question by showing that immunity induced by colds can indeed help fight off the far more dangerous novel coronavirus.

Image credits: Engin Akyurt.

A study from Imperial College London that studied people exposed to SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19 found that only half of the participants were infected, while the others tested negative. Before this, researchers took blood samples from all volunteers within days of exposure to determine the levels of an immune cell known as a T cell – cells programmed by previous infections to attack specific invaders.

Results show that participants who didn’t test positive had significantly higher levels of these cells; in other words, those who evaded infection had higher levels of T cells that attack the Covid virus internally to provide immunity — T cells that may have come from previous coronavirus infections (not SARS-CoV-2). These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, may pave the way for a new type of vaccine to prevent infection from emerging variants, including Omicron.

Dr. Rhia Kundu, the first author of the paper from Imperial’s National Heart & Lung Institute, says: “Being exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus doesn’t always result in infection, and we’ve been keen to understand why. We found that high levels of pre-existing T cells, created by the body when infected with other human coronaviruses like the common cold, can protect against COVID-19 infection.” Despite this promising data, she warns: “While this is an important discovery, it is only one form of protection, and I would stress that no one should rely on this alone. Instead, the best way to protect yourself against COVID-19 is to be fully vaccinated, including getting your booster dose.”

The common cold’s role in protecting you against Covid

The study followed 52 unvaccinated people living with someone who had a laboratory-confirmed case of COVID-19. Participants were tested seven days after being exposed to see if they had caught the disease from their housemates and to analyze their levels of pre-existing T cells. Tests indicated that the 26 people who tested negative for COVID-19 had significantly higher common cold T cells levels than the remainder of the people who tested positive. Remarkably, these cells targeted internal proteins within the SARS-CoV-2 virus, rather than the spike protein on its surface, providing ‘cross-reactive’ immunity between a cold and COVID-19.

Professor Ajit Lalvani, senior author of the study and Director of the NIHR Respiratory Infections Health Protection Research Unit at Imperial, explained:

“Our study provides the clearest evidence to date that T cells induced by common cold coronaviruses play a protective role against SARS-CoV-2 infection. These T cells provide protection by attacking proteins within the virus, rather than the spike protein on its surface.”

However, experts not involved in the study caution against presuming anyone who has previously had a cold caused by a coronavirus will not catch the novel coronavirus. They add that although the study provides valuable data regarding how the immune system fights this virus, it’s unlikely this type of illness has never infected any of the 150,000 people who’ve died of SARS-CoV-2 in the UK to date.

Other studies uncovering a similar link have also warned cross-reactive protection gained from colds only lasts a short period.

The road to longer-lasting vaccines

Current SARS-CoV-2 vaccines work by recognizing the spike protein on the virus’s outer shell: this, in turn, causes an immune reaction that stops it from attaching to cells and infecting them. However, this response wanes over time as the virus continues to mutate. Luckily, the jabs also trigger T cell immunity which lasts much longer, preventing the infection from worsening or hospitalization and death. But this immunity is also based on blocking the spike protein – therefore, it would be advantageous to have a vaccine that could attack other parts of the COVID virus.

Professor Lalvani surmises, “The spike protein is under intense immune pressure from vaccine-induced antibodies which drives the evolution of vaccine escape mutants. In contrast, the internal proteins targeted by the protective T cells we identified mutate much less. Consequently, they are highly conserved between the SARS-CoV-2 variants, including Omicron.” He ends, “New vaccines that include these conserved, internal proteins would therefore induce broadly protective T cell responses that should protect against current and future SARS-CoV-2 variants.”

New COVID variant identified in France — but experts say we shouldn’t fear it

Scientists have identified a previously unknown mutant strain in a fully vaccinated person who tested positive after returning from a short three-day trip to Cameroon.

Academics based at the IHU Mediterranee Infection in Marseille, France, discovered the new variant on December 10. So far, the variant doesn’t appear to be spreading rapidly and the World Health Organization has not yet labeled it a variant of concern. Nevertheless, researchers are still describing and keeping an eye on it.

The discovery of the B.1.640.2 mutation, dubbed IHU, was announced in the preprint server medRxiv, in a paper still awaiting peer review. Results show that IHU’s spike protein, the part of the virus responsible for invading host cells, carries the E484K mutation, which increases vaccine resistance. The genomic sequencing also revealed the N501Y mutation — first seen in the Alpha variant — that experts believe can make COVID-19 more transmissible.  

In the paper, the clinicians highlight that it’s important to keep our guard and expect more surprises from the virus: “These observations show once again the unpredictability of the emergence of new SARS-CoV-2 variants and their introduction from abroad,” they write. For comparison Omicron (B.1.1.529) carries around 50 mutations and appears to be better at infecting people who already have a level of immunity. Thankfully, a growing body of research proves it is also less likely to trigger severe symptoms.

Like many countries in Europe, France is experiencing a surge in the number of cases due to the Omicron variant.

Experts insist that IHU, which predates Omicron but has yet to cause widespread harm, should not cause concern – predicting that it may fade into the background. In an interview with the Daily Mail, Dr. Thomas Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, said the mutation had “a decent chance to cause trouble but never really materialized. So it is definitely not one worth worrying about too much at the moment.”

The strain was first uploaded to a variant tracking database on November 4, more than two weeks before Omicron was sequenced. For comparison, French authorities are now reporting over 300,000 new cases a day thought to be mostly Omicron, with data suggesting that the researchers have identified only 12 cases of IHU over the same period. 

On the whole, France has good surveillance for COVID-19 variants, meaning health professionals quickly pinpoint any new mutant strains. In contrast to Britain, which only checks three in ten cases for variants. The paper’s authors state that the emergence of the new variant emphasizes the importance of regular “genomic surveillance” on a countrywide scale.

Ancient poop suggests someone colonized the Faroe Islands before the Vikings

The Faroe Islands, a small archipelago located halfway between Iceland and Norway, was once home to an unknown group of people in the year 500 AD, around 350 years before the Vikings arrived, according to a new study. The finding is based on the analysis of centuries-old sheep poop found on the bottom of a lake in the islands. 

Image credit: Flickr / Allan Watt.

The Vikings were excellent sailors; any rugged and inhospitable place in Europe that you could reach by water, they did it. But maybe, in some places, others groups arrived before them. Until recently, evidence of people arriving in the Faeroe before Vikings has been limited. The islands are rocky and windswept, so not that much has remained intact on the surface. In 2013, researchers found burnt barley grains, not native to the island, beneath the floor of a Viking house. The grains were dated 300 to 500 years before the Vikings occupied the islands. 

Seeking to unravel the history that these grains hold, a group of researchers focused on a lake on the Faroese island of Eysturoy, located near a village that previously hosted a Viking settlement. They dropped tubes into the lake bottom and collected cores that were 2.7 meters in length (nine feet). Its analysis showed the presence of plenty of domesticated sheep. 

The team of researchers estimated the animals arrived between 492 and 512 – determined based on the depth of the sediment layers. There’s no evidence of mammals on the island before the arrival of the sheep, so this would indicate they were brought by people arriving on the islands. Sheep is now a staple of the Faroese diet. 

“We show conclusive evidence that humans had introduced livestock to the Faroe Islands three to four centuries before the Viking-age Norse settlement period that is widely documented in the archaeological record. We constrain the most likely timing of human arrival to 500 CE, approximately 350 years before Viking Age settlements,” they wrote.

The mystic Faroe Islands

Faroe Islands — the Grave of Viking Chieftain Havgrímur.

Located over 300 kilometers northwest of Scotland, the Faroes have impressive towering cliffs as their coastlines, with cloudy weather and strong winds. The landscape is largely tundra and only a few places would have been enticing for settlement. There are a few flat places near protected bays, where the Vikings would usually camp. It’s definitely not the place where you’d expect to find an inexperienced sailor.

Some medieval writings suggest that Irish monks used to live in the islands by the year 500, including among them the Irish navigator St. Brendan – famous for sailing the Atlantic. Now, the sheep DNA helps to better understand the history of the island. The researchers believe these first people were the Celts, crossing from Scotland or Ireland.

In fact, there are names in the Faroe Islands that come from Celtic words, as well as undated Celtic grave markings on the islands. Previous studies have found maternal Celtic lineage in Faroese people. It’s possible that Vikings had Celtic brides with them, but the maternal Celtic background is so high that the researchers think Celts were very likely on the islands before the Vikings. 

The study was published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment. 

We are one step closer to forecasting how volcanoes will behave during eruptions

We tend to not think about it, but around 10% of the human population currently lives in the risk zone of active volcanoes. While the other 90% of us are relatively safe from the eruptions of smaller volcanoes (such as the Cumbre Vieja in La Palma, which recently erupted), if one of the larger magmatic systems were to erupt, we would all find ourselves in one hot pickle — no matter where we reside.

A crater inside the larger caldera of Nisyros Volcano, in Greece. The caldera was formed after a catastrophic explosion that disintegrated a large part of the volcanic cone almost 60,000 years ago, while the smaller crater is about 150 years old.

The problem is, we have plenty of those big, mean volcanoes to start with — and they’re often closer to home than you’d think. Even in Europe, where volcanic eruptions are relatively rare to begin with, there are Nisyros, Santorini, Hekla, or Campi Flegrei. We don’t even want to think about what an eruption from the likes of Yellowstone, Toba, or Tambora would bring — and yet we have to.

When volcanoes erupt

Nowadays, with the knowledge and technology we have at our disposal, it is pretty easy to know when a particular volcano is going to erupt. The rise of magma through the crust triggers swarms of small intensity earthquakes, it causes the rocks to bulge, and hot waters and gas to reach the surface well before the magma does, heralding incoming trouble.

What we don’t really know — and this has bugged volcanologists for decades — is how a volcano is going to behave during the eruption. Will it generate effusive eruptions that lead to relatively mild lava flows which can damage property but are relatively harmless to people? Or will it trigger violent explosions, which eject clouds of hot gas and ash, or even disintegrate entire volcanic structures, leaving behind caldera depressions instead of mountains?

To solve this problem, volcanologists have mostly focused on what happens in the volcanic conduit — the pipeline that connects the magma chamber to the surface. Once an eruption begins, magma ascends through the crust, generally for about 8-10 km before reaching the volcanic summit. During this ascent, what happens to the gas that bubbles in the magma is the key to how the volcano will erupt.

If, for example, the gas remains trapped in the melt and can’t escape to seep away, there’s a big chance the magma will explode. If on the other hand, the gas bubbles get to sneak out and leave the melt behind, or outgas, the explosive potential of the magma is neutralized and the volcano will likely ooze lava flows. Letting the gas escape is more or less like defusing a bomb, reducing the risk of a big explosion.

A simplified diagram showing what happens with the magma underground, as it ascends towards the surface. In both cases the eruption is imminent, but the difference is in what happens with the gas bubbles: the magma to the left will explode, while the one to the right will effuse.

It sounds simple, but it’s deceptively complicated. Decompression, changes in ascent velocity and melt viscosity, gas bubbling and percolation, stress buildup, the mechanical resistance of the melt, and all sorts of complicated interactions between melt, crystals, gas bubbles and country rocks, will all compete or cooperate to either block the gas in the magma, or to allow it to outgas. It’s so complicated in fact that we don’t yet have a clear understanding of how all these processes interact, and we are still unable to build robust numerical models to simulate all of them. Even if we would reach the required level of understanding, and if we’d be able to forecast eruptive styles based on conduit processes, it would only give us a few minutes’ worth of time to do anything about it since the magma is already on its way up.

A few minutes isn’t exactly enough to do that much in case of an incoming explosive eruption. It would give you the chance to open that bottle of wine you’ve been saving (because you may not get another opportunity) but not much more. But what can we do if we forecast the eruptive behavior of a volcano well before the eruption is even triggered? What if instead of mere minutes, we’d have weeks, months, years, even decades to prepare?

We can now stop dreaming about it and start planning, because we are one step closer to achieving this goal.

Predicting eruptions

A recent study published in Nature Geoscience by researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zürich, Switzerland) and Brown University (USA), with myself as one of the authors, makes a major breakthrough in the direction of forecasting eruptive styles. The question we designed the study around was: what if the magma chamber conditions can predetermine eruptive behavior, regardless (to some extent) of what happens in the conduit?

It should be possible, after all, since the magma entering the volcanic conduit inherits all its initial properties from the magma chamber.

The big difference between magma chamber processes and conduit processes is that whatever happens in the magmatic reservoir takes place over days, months, years, even thousands or tens of thousands of years, giving us ample time to detect changes. Indeed, this new study shows a striking correlation between how the magma is stored underground, and how it ultimately behaves at the surface.

The study is based on reconstructing the magmatic storage conditions of about 245 eruptions generated by 75 volcanoes worldwide, including some really famous ones. To achieve this, we relied on the chemistry of minerals and glasses from erupted products, which are windows to processes and conditions that had happened deep underground, and which we can’t really probe directly. Using this approach, we determined the temperatures of the magmas, the amounts of solid crystals floating in the melt, the content of dissolved gas it stored, and whether some of that gas might have started exsolving (or forming gas bubbles) while still in the magma chamber.

As was expected, low amounts of dissolved gas (generally lower than 3.5 wt% water) leads to effusive outpourings of lava, while higher water contents (roughly between 4 and 5.5 wt%) favor explosive events. Interestingly, however, crystallinity (the volume of solid particles in the magma) has an important say in this as well. When more than 40% of the volume of the magma consists of crystals, the eruption becomes mild no matter the stored gas content. This happens because the solid particles form a kind of skeleton that the gas bubbles connect to, allowing them to form finger channels that act like pipes. In this way, even if the magma has enough gas content to explode, the crystals help the gas permeate the melt efficiently and defuse the volcanic bomb. At the same time, a large amount of crystals increases the bulk viscosity of the magma and its resistance to flowing. By doing so, the magma is slowed down considerably on its way to the surface (even by ten times), allowing more time for the gas to escape through the finger channels.

Deposits generated by volcanic explosions at Nisyros Volcano, in Greece.

A key observation, which is counter-intuitive and bound to spark a debate in the volcanological community, is that at very high gas contents (more than 5.5 wt% water), the magmas start behaving effusively again. Why, though? The higher the gas content, the more explosive the magma should be, right? But as we found, this is not necessarily the case.

At very high dissolved gas contents, the melt is unable to store all its water in dissolved form anymore: as disseminated molecules. Instead, the molecules come together to form gas bubbles, or to exsolve. It’s very much like a stirred bottle of champagne. What we found is that magmas very rich in gas are also likely to contain quite a few gas bubbles in the magma chamber. Their presence dramatically changes how the eruption is initiated, and as a result, how it is likely to behave.

How? Well, this is where things get complicated again. Most volcanic eruptions are triggered when magma that is even hotter and comes from even greater depths, from the lower crust of the Earth, intrudes the shallow magma chamber of the volcano. Yes, for us volcanologists 10 km is shallow… This intrusion of hot magma into another body of liquid magma is known as magmatic recharge. As more magma is being crammed inside, the magmatic reservoir is being pressurized: it’s more or less like blowing a balloon that has no space to expand, while more air keeps on going inside. At some point, the balloon will just break. The same happens in a magma chamber: the rocks sealing it fail, and the hot stuff starts threading its way towards the surface.

If a magma chamber doesn’t contain gas bubbles (or contains very few of them), it pressurizes fast during magmatic recharge, and the eruption is triggered readily. When many gas bubbles are present in the magma chamber though, as the article highlights through numerical simulations, they act as a myriad of tiny cushions. Each gas bubble compresses to allow space for the extra magma that comes from below. This means that even more hot material needs to intrude the magma chamber until the surrounding rocks finally break and allow the material to erupt at the surface. More and more hot recharge coming in, and more time for it to interact with the magma chamber means that the resident melt heats up. Heating up a melt is like heating up honey: it becomes less viscous, and a less viscous melt is able to lose gas easily. See the connection?

Solidified lava flow generated by water-rich magmas rich in gas bubbles, from Nisyros Volcano, in Greece.

Basically, a magma chamber containing gas bubbles heats up more intensely before an eruption is initiated, it ends up feeding the conduit with a melt of lower viscosity which allows the gases to seep through it faster, and in addition it already has a multitude of gas bubbles that are ready to connect and outgas even at the base of the volcanic conduit.

In conclusion, what the article shows is a clear window of explosivity, at between 4-5.5 wt% water and at low to moderate crystallinities. All we need to do now is to find a way of looking inside active magma chambers and evaluate their state. Scanning something buried at a depth of about 8-10 km might sound science-fiction, but geophysics is here to do the job. One method, in particular, magnetotellurics, which uses the natural magnetic and electric fields of the earth, is capable to reconstruct the electrical resistivity structure of active magma chambers. By approaching the problem interdisciplinary and integrating the geophysical and volcanological data, we can use this electrical resistivity structure to estimate the crystallinity of the magmatic reservoir and to check whether significant volumes of gas bubbles are currently present or not in the magma chamber. These are two of the three key parameters required for the timely forecasting of the eruptive behaviour of volcanoes.

The study has been published in Nature Geoscience. Journal Reference:

Popa, RG., Bachmann, O. & Huber, C. Explosive or effusive style of volcanic eruption determined by magma storage conditions. Nat. Geosci. 14, 781–786 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-021-00827-9

The crowd can do as good a job spotting fake news as professional fact-checkers — if you group up enough people

New research suggests that relatively small, politically balanced groups of laymen could do a reliable job of fact-checking news for a fraction of today’s cost.

Image credits Gerd Altmann.

A study from MIT researchers reports that crowdsourced fact-checking may not actually be a bad idea. Groups of normal, everyday readers can be virtually as effective as professional fact-checkers, it explains, at assessing the veracity of news from the headline and lead sentences of an article. This approach, the team explains, could help address our current misinformation problem by increasing the number of fact-checkers available to curate content at lower prices than currently possible.

Power to the people

“One problem with fact-checking is that there is just way too much content for professional fact-checkers to be able to cover, especially within a reasonable time frame,” says Jennifer Allen, a Ph.D. student at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-author of a newly published paper detailing the study.

Let’s face it — we’re all on social media, and we’ve all seen some blatant disinformation out there. That people were throwing likes or retweets at, just to add insult to injury. Calls to have platforms better moderate content have been raised again and again. Steering clear of the question of where exactly moderation ends and manipulation or censoring begins, one practical issue blocking such efforts is sheer work volume. There is a lot of content out in the online world, and more is published every day. By contrast, professional fact-checkers are few and far between, and they don’t enjoy particularly high praise or high pay, so not many people are planning on becoming one.

With that in mind, the authors wanted to determine whether unprofessional fact-checkers could help stymie the flow of bad news. It turns out they can if you lump enough of them together. According to the findings, the accuracy of crowdsourced judgments — from relatively small, politically balanced groups of normal readers — can be virtually as accurate as those from professional fact-checkers.

The study examined over 200 news pieces that Facebook’s algorithms flagged as requiring further scrutiny. They were flagged either due to their content, due to the speed and scale they were being shared at, or for covering topics such as health. The participants, 1,128 U.S. residents, were recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform.

“We found it to be encouraging,” says Allen. “The average rating of a crowd of 10 to 15 people correlated as well with the fact-checkers’ judgments as the fact-checkers correlated with each other. This helps with the scalability problem because these raters were regular people without fact-checking training, and they just read the headlines and lead sentences without spending the time to do any research.”

Participants were shown the headline and lead sentence of 20 news stories and were asked to rate them over seven dimensions: how “accurate,” “true,” “reliable,” “trustworthy,” “objective,” and “unbiased” they were, and how much they “describ[ed] an event that actually happened”. These were pooled together to generate an overall score for each category.

These scores were then compared to the verdicts of three professional fact-checkers, who evaluated all 207 stories involved in the study after researching each. Although the ratings these three produced were highly correlated with each other, they didn’t see eye to eye on everything — which, according to the team, is par for the course when studying fact-checking. More to the point, these fact-checkers agreed on the verdict about individual stories 49% of the stories. Two of the three agreed on a verdict with the third disagreeing on 42%, and all three disagreed on a verdict on 9% of the stories.

When the regular reader participants were sorted into groups with equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, the average ratings were highly correlated with those of the professional fact-checkers. When these balanced groups were expanded to include between 12 and 20 participants, their ratings were as strongly correlated with those of the fact-checkers as the fact-checkers’ were with each other. In essence, these groups matched the performance of the fact-checkers, the authors explain. Participants were asked to undertake a political knowledge test and a test of their tendency to think analytically

Overall, the ratings of people who were better informed about civic issues and engaged in more analytical thinking were more closely aligned with the fact-checkers.

Judging from these findings, the authors explain, crowdsourcing could allow for fact-checking to be deployed on a wide scale for cheap. They estimate that the cost of having news verified in this way rounds up to roughly $0.90 per story. This doesn’t mean that the system is ready to implement, or that it could fix the issue completely by itself. Mechanisms have to be set in place to ensure that such a system can’t be tampered with by partisans, for example.

“We haven’t yet tested this in an environment where anyone can opt in,” Allen notes. “Platforms shouldn’t necessarily expect that other crowdsourcing strategies would produce equally positive results.”

“Most people don’t care about politics and care enough to try to influence things,” says David Rand, a professor at MIT Sloan and senior co-author of the study. “But the concern is that if you let people rate any content they want, then the only people doing it will be the ones who want to game the system. Still, to me, a bigger concern than being swamped by zealots is the problem that no one would do it. It is a classic public goods problem: Society at large benefits from people identifying misinformation, but why should users bother to invest the time and effort to give ratings?”

The paper “Scaling up fact-checking using the wisdom of crowds” has been published in the journal Science Advances.

Men could significantly outnumber women within decades — and this is a problem

Cultural preferences for boys and prenatal sex selection are causing uneven ratios of men and women around the world, a group of researchers found in a new study. If this continues, there will be a deficit of at least 4.7 million female births by 2030 under a conservative scenario. By 2100, that number could even escalate to 22 million. 

Image credit: Flickr / Mulan

Over the last 40 years, prenatal gender-biased sex selection has become the most visible consequence of “son preference”. Simply put, with prenatal screening allowing parents to tell the sex of the child, many aren’t settling with a girl. Along with child marriage and female genital mutilation, sex selection is one of the key harmful practices defined by the United Nations (UN) and targeted under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Sex-selective abortions, the main mechanism behind sex selection, have been observed across various countries from Southeast Europe to South Asia. They lead to a hike in the sex ratio at birth above its natural level and to the emergence of a surplus of males, contributing to a population with fewer females than men.

This is not a new phenomenon. Previous studies showed there were 45 million “missing” female births between 1970 and 2017 due to prenatal sex selection – 95% in China and India. Now, in a new modeling study, the same group of scientists predicted that in 12 countries known to have skewed sex ratios at birth, there will be an extra 4.7 million missing female births by 2030. 

This would continue even more in the longer term, the researchers said, with a shortfall in female births of 5.7 million expected by 2100. The higher ratio of males to females will eventually decline in populous countries such as India and China, but could inflate in other countries such as Pakistan and Nigeria, Fengqing Chao, who co-authored the study, said in a statement. 

A global problem

Chao developed the predictive models with researchers from the UN, the National University of Singapore, the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Centre de Sciences Humaines in India. They based their projections on a database that incorporated over three billion birth records from more than 200 countries. 

The researchers warned the trends they identified would lead to a preponderance of men in more than a third of the world’s population, which could bring unknown social and economic consequences. They anticipate a set of demographic problems, such as large numbers of young men being unable to find wives in the coming decades, as well as violence against women becoming an even greater problem.  

“Prenatal sex selection accounts for about half of the recent deficit of females in the world during the previous decades. Fewer-than-expected females in a population could also result in elevated levels of antisocial behaviour and violence, and may ultimately affect long-term stability and social sustainable development,” the researchers wrote.

The main challenge now, the authors argued, is to understand whether birth masculinity will stay indefinitely skewed in countries affected by sex-selective abortions and whether new countries may be affected in the future. They described this as “essential” to anticipate and plan for changing sex structures around the world.

In addition, policies based on monitoring, advocacy campaigns, as well as direct and indirect measures to combat gender bias are required to slow down the rise of sex ratio at birth or to accelerate its decline. A broader objective is related to the need to influence gender norms that lie at the core of prenatal sex selection, they wrote.

The study was published in the journal BMJ Global Health. 

Study finds first evidence of honey hunting in prehistoric West Africa

Around 3,500 years ago, prehistoric communities from West Africa used to hunt for honey and then use it for food and medicinal purposes, according to a new study. Researchers found fragments of honey locked inside pottery fragments, which shows the importance of honey collecting in an early farming context.

Image credit: The researchers

Honey is the most important insect-related food globally. It comprises 80–95% sugar, several essential vitamins and minerals, and components that act as preservatives. Wild honey is known to be collected by foragers globally, except in environments such as the Arctic, where bees don’t survive.

Today, honeybees are an integral part of socio-ecological landscapes and beekeeping plays an important economic role with around 1.6 million tons of honey being produced annually around the world. However, evidence for ancient human exploitation of the honeybee is rare, with the exception of paleolithic rock art depicting bees and honey.

A team of researchers from the University of Bristol and the Goethe University carried out a chemical analysis of more than 450 prehistoric potsherds from the Central Nigerian Nok culture to investigate what foods they were cooking in their pots. The team found that a third of the vessels were used to process or store beeswax. 

“We originally started the study of chemical residues in pottery sherds because of the lack of animal bones at Nok sites, hoping to find evidence for meat processing in the pots. That the Nok people exploited honey 3,500 years ago, was completely unexpected,” Peter Breuning, a co-author of the study, said in a statement. 

The presence of beeswax in ancient pottery is identified through a complex series of lipids — the fats, oils, and waxes of the natural world. The vessels were likely used to melt the wax combs, leading to its absorption within the vessel walls, to cook the wax, or to store the honey itself, the researchers argued in their study. 

Honey is an important food source for hunter-gatherers and there are several groups in Africa, such as the Efe foragers of the Ituri Forest, who have historically relied on honey as their main source of food, collecting all parts of the hive — including honey and pollen from tree hollows which can be up to 30 m from the ground.

As well as using it as a food source, the researchers argued honey could have also been used to make drinks such as beer and wine – which are common across Africa today. Writings of ancient explorers describe the use of these practices. Ibn Battuta, a Muslim scholar, tells of a drink made with honey in Mauritania in 1352. 

Honey and beeswax may also have been used for medicinal, cosmetic, and technological purposes. There are records of beeswax being used in prehistoric times as a sealant or waterproofing agent, as a lamp illuminant, and as raw material to make candles. Honey was also been recorded to be used to store other products such as smoked meat. 

Professor Richard Evershed, co-author, said in a statement: “The association of prehistoric people with the honey bee is a recurring theme across the ancient world, however, the discovery of the chemical components of beeswax in the pottery of the Nok people provides a unique window on this relationship, when all other sources of evidence are lacking.”

The study was published in the journal Nature. 

If we want to reduce global inequality, we could learn a thing or two from Mario Kart

For Boston University researcher Andrew Reid Bell, the popular Mario Kart is much more than a racing video game. In a new study, Bell argues that the principles of Mario Mark can serve as a useful guide for creating more equitable and favorable social and economic programs for low-income farmers.

Image credit: Flickr / Yamashita Yoel

“Farming is an awful thing to have to do if you don’t want to be a farmer. You have to be an entrepreneur, you have to be an agronomist, put in a bunch of labor…and in so many parts of the world people are farmers because their parents are farmers and those are the assets and options they had,” Bell said in a media statement.

For Bell, agriculture was once a path to prosperity for the world’s poor, but that’s no longer the case. He traveled across several countries in southern Africa and found small-scale farmers currently face many challenges and life is a perpetual uphill battle for them. New mechanisms for the alleviation of poverty are needed. This is where the Mario Kart metaphor enters the stage.

In the game, when players drift to the back of the pack, they get power-ups such as bananas or green shells that can help them get back into the race – making cars at the front slower while boosting those at the back. Those on top of the race can also get power-ups such as stars and mushrooms but they are much less effective. The worse you’re doing in the race, the more likely it is to get a bonus.

“In any room of professionals or decision-makers, anywhere in the world, someone or their kid plays Mario Kart,” Bell told Vice. “That makes it potentially powerful, because the same people who might launch the next social or environmental program are people who can relate to Mario Kart. It shows us this important social feedback mechanism that’s rare in practice.”

Of course, using the concept of rubber banding to help agricultural families and communities who are in need is much more complicated in the real world than in the game. Still, Bell is optimistic about the prospects. Governments could create a program through which a third party would pay farmers to adopt better agricultural practices – a concept known as Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES).

Ecosystems support plant and animal life by maintaining the overall balance in nature. When functioning well, ecosystems also bring multiple benefits to people. These benefits range from the provision of basic commodities, such as food and fuel, to spiritual benefits – for example, the visually pleasing landscapes that we all enjoy. PES can support farmers who take care of those services for everyone to enjoy.

Bell acknowledges that a big challenge would be finding companies willing to pay for ecosystem services and linking them with the farmers who are open to changing their agricultural practices. The good news is that the more people that participate in such programs, the more that will likely join – a concept that Bell calls as “crowding in” in his paper.

He highlighted that the adoption of mobile phones has significantly increased in most of the world’s developing places. This could help governments and organizations find individuals that are searching for a better livelihood through more sustainable agricultural practices. Still, the access to mobile devices is still far from ideal.

“So many of the things we do in practice—think, reinvesting profits in a business, paying for schools with local property taxes—are reinforcing loops that tend to increase gaps between groups, and it’s really helpful to have this shared, relatable gaming experience to build on,” Bell told Vice.

The study was published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

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.

Even without fans, the home team advantage still exists

As the pandemic raged over society last year, sports were not spared. What games were played last year were played almost exclusively without fans — but this seemed to have a minimal effect on the phenomenon of home advantage. Researchers found that both European professional and amateur teams had an important advantage over visiting teams when playing at their home field last year. 

Image credit: Flickr / James Boyes

The home advantage is one of the most studied and best-documented phenomena in sports. It’s relevant in both team and individual sports and it has been linked by previous studies to many factors such as crowd support, referee biases, psychological effects of expectations, travel fatigue, familiarity, and tactical behavior. 

Spectators are usually described as a very important element for a team, but studies on the influence of absolute spectator numbers, stadium occupancy, or noise levels have shown that spectators don’t directly take effect on the home advantage – with other elements playing a more significant role to the home advantage. 

Now, the pandemic had provided an unprecedented chance to further investigate this as part of a live experiment, with matches taking place in the absence of spectators.  German researchers used the opportunity to carry out a statistical comparison of more than 40,000 soccer matches before and during the pandemic in European football leagues.

“Across European leagues the ratio of home wins, draws and away wins over the last ten seasons with spectators was roughly 45:27:28, meaning the home team wins in 45 out of 100 games, and the away team only 28 out of 100 games,” Daniel Memmert, co-author of the study, told ZME Science. “The reasons often cited for this are the direct influence of supporters.”

The researchers found that the absence of spectators wasn’t statistically significant in terms of the home advantage. Without the home fans, referees no longer favor the home team and both host and guest teams play equally offensively. Yet, in spite of this, the study found a clear home team advantage that persists even in matches played without the presence of the fans.

Expressed in numbers, this means that in matches without spectators the ratio of home wins, draws and away wins changed overall only slightly to 43:25:32. The ratio of results changed most dramatically in the German Bundesliga (46:24:30 with spectators; 33:23:45 without spectators), with other leagues such as the English Premier League reporting no statistically significant effect. 

However, the findings also suggested that the presence of fans could influence referee behavior. Visiting teams normally face more sanctions in terms of yellow and red cars but without spectators this referee bias has now disappeared. Home teams also experienced a decrease in their usual advantage in terms of number of shots and shots on target.

“If the home advantage exists for professionals in absence of spectators, then it must be true for amateur games too,” argued Memmert. The researchers looked also at 6,000 soccer games from the Kreisliga A in Germany and found that home-field advantage applies not only to professionals but also to recreational kickers, “even though they rarely, if ever, get to enjoy full stands and loud chanting fans.”  

Similar findings were reported in a 2020 study by Reading University researchers on UK’s Premier League and Championship. The researchers analyzed over 6,000 soccer games and found that the proportion of home victories on games played in empty stadiums only dropped from 43.4% before the pandemic to 42% last year. The pandemic also helped for away teams receiving fewer yellow cards.

The study was published in the journal PLOS One. 

The merging of Milky Way and Andromeda’s supermassive black holes

A recent study by Riccardo Schiavi, Roberto Capuzzo-Dolcetta, Manuel Arca-Sedda, and Mario Spera shows how the galactic merger between Andromeda and the Milky Way could go down.

Image credits: NASA.

Our neighbor in the vastness of the universe, the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), is a spiral galaxy and the biggest one in the Local Group — the galaxy group that includes the Milky Way. M31 is heavier than the Milky Way, in part due to the supermassive black hole keeping the galaxy gravitationally bound being almost 33 times more massive than the Milky Way.

The two galaxies, Andromeda and our own, are slowly heading towards each other — and we’ve known this for quite some time. In 1912, American astronomer Vesto Slipher discovered that the galaxy was coming toward us. Many observations and corrections have improved our understanding of this process, and now, researchers have new insights into this galactic migration and collision. 

N-body simulations

To have an idea of how the collision is going to take place, scientists need to first simulate the phenomenon. They use something called N-body simulations, a computer simulation which calculates the motion of particles. 

In this type of simulation, you first need to estimate the number of particles which are in the system you are trying to imitate. By ‘particles’ we mean a bunch of massive objects that are in the galaxies. Remember this is an artificial representation of both galaxies, so the N bodies are all the same, it’s not like simulating where the solar system is and all the atoms of the people reading ZME Science, but a more simplistic representation.

Once we’ve established that, we need to define the shape of the Milky Way and Andromeda and have their positions as close to reality as possible.

We know M31 is kind of tilted when facing the Earth and its velocity towards us is around 110 km/s, and that’s one important part of the details. Another important piece of information is the distance from them — which we know today to be 780 Mpc (780 megaparsecs). Take all of these into account and voilà, you have a model.

Then, it’s time to virtually smash some things.

The merge

With everything as close to reality as possible, the astronomers can make a simulation of the collision and merger. The Milky Way and Andromeda will start colliding in 4.3 billion years and fully merge in 10 billion years. It is certainly after the pandemic, so you won’t miss it.

The results have shown that the merging process will produce a giant elliptical galaxy, Milkomeda.  The video below shows a time-lapse video of the merging process. 

Gravitational waves

The new insight provided by Schiavi and the team shows what will happen to the supermassive black holes (SMBH) at the centers of both galaxies. According to them, the SMBHs will coalesce around 16.6 billion years after the merge.

The team has also estimated what kind of signal the coalescence will leave. The results have shown the emission left would only be detected by a gravitational wave detector sensitive enough, like LISA.

This illustration shows a stage in the predicted merger between our Milky Way galaxy and the neighboring Andromeda galaxy, as it will unfold over the next several billion years. In this image, representing Earth’s night sky in 3.75 billion years, Andromeda (left) fills the field of view and begins to distort the Milky Way with tidal pull. (Credit: NASA; ESA; Z. Levay and R. van der Marel, STScI; T. Hallas; and A. Mellinger)

According to a previous NASA simulation, the collision will start in 4 billion years, and the recent simulation suggests a potentially longer wait time of 4-5 billion years. According to the same NASA results, it’s unlikely that all stars will collide. The possible scenario is that many systems, like ours will be pushed to different orbits. What the merging of the SMBHs is going to change for the stars is still unknown.

The study was published in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Most conversations don’t end when people want them to, study finds

Ever feel trapped in a never-ending conversation? Well, you’re not the only one, according to a new study. A group of researchers surveyed over 800 people and found conversations almost never end when both parties want them to – and people don’t really think about their partner’s desires to end the conversation.

Image credit: Flickr / Felipe Cabrera

Back when he was studying for his master’s degree at the University of Oxford, Adam Mastroianni used to attend black-tie events and wonder how many people were stuck in conversations they couldn’t get out of. “What if we’re all trapped in conversations because we mistakenly think the other person wants to continue?” he asked himself.

It’s probably happened to all of us at some point. You’re not really into the conversation, but you don’t want to be rude so you half-heartedly keep going. Turns out, it’s very common.

Most previous studies about conversations were done by linguistics or sociologists. Psychologists did look at conversations but only as a way to study other things, such as how people use words to persuade. A few studies have explored the phrases used by individuals at the end of conversations, but not focusing on when people choose to say them.

“People feel like it’s a social rupture to say: ‘I’m ready to go’, or to say: ‘I want to keep going although I feel like you don’t want to keep going.’ Because of that, we’re pretty skilled at not broadcasting that information,” Mastroianni told New Scientist. “Whatever you think the other person wants, you may well be wrong. So you might as well leave at the first time it seemed appropriate.”

Now a Ph.D. student in Psychology, Mastroianni wanted to get some answers. With a group of researchers, he surveyed over 800 people randomly recruited from a crowdsourcing marketplace website. Participants responded to questions about recent conservations they had, including how they felt about the length and the way the conversation ended.

The researchers also worked with more than 250 students and non-students pooled from volunteers available for studies in the Harvard University psychology department. The group participated in one-on-one conversations with another participant, who they didn’t already know. They could chat for as long as they wanted, up to a maximum of 45 minutes.

When they finished talking, both study participants could leave the room and each was quizzed about the conversation. If the conversation lasted 45 minutes, one of the researchers stepped into the room to end it. Most of the pairs engaged in chitchat about where they grew up or what they were studying. It was mostly boring, even “hard to watch them,” Mastroianni recalls.

The findings showed most of the conversations rarely ended when people wanted to, even when both participants wanted to stop. The length of the conversations was off by about 50% compared with how long people would have liked them to last. Only 10% of the participants ended the conversations even though both people wanted to continue.

“They could have kept going; they had time left. But for some reason they stopped, maybe thinking they were doing a nice thing by letting the other person go,” Mastroianni said. People in conversations want different endpoints and know very little about what their partners actually want. But this doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy the conversations, he added.

Thalia Wheatley, a social psychologist at Dartmouth College, who was not involved in the study, told Scientific American it was “astounding” to find out people fail so much in judging when a conversation partner wisher to wrap things up. Conversations are otherwise “such an elegant expression of mutual coordination,” she said. “And yet it all falls apart at the end because we just can’t figure out when to stop.”

The researchers only covered people from the United States, which raises the question of whether the rules of conversations are clearer in other cultures or not. The study was published in the journal PNAS.