Monthly Archives: March 2017

Scientists discover world’s most ancient fossils

Scientists have discovered tiny fossils that are thinner than a human hair and are an astounding 3.7 billion years old, making them the oldest known fossils on Earth, University College London announced on Wednesday. They could even be as old as 4.2 billion years.

The fossils were likely created by bacteria that lived near hydrothermal vents and consumed iron. Those ancient critters lived an incredible 3.8 to 4.3 billion years ago.

“Our discovery supports the idea that life emerged from hot, seafloor vents shortly after planet Earth formed,”  Matthew Dodd, a PhD student at the University College London and the first author of a new study about the fossils, said in a statement. “This speedy appearance of life on Earth fits with other evidence of recently discovered 3,700 million year old sedimentary mounds that were shaped by microorganisms.”

The scientists found the fossils in a part of Quebec, Canada, known for having ancient sedimentary rock. The little fossils are much older than their closest competitors.

“The microfossils we discovered are about 300 million years older than the previously thought oldest microfossils,” Dominic Papineau, a lecturer at University College London and the study’s lead researcher, said in a video announcing the find. “So there are within a few hundred million years from the accretion of the solar system.”

In the statement, Papineau described these tiny fossils— they’re less than a millimeter long— as “direct evidence of one of Earth’s oldest life forms.”

Planet Earth itself is believed to be 4.5 billion years old.

One of the most exciting ramifications of the find is that since it shows that life began on Earth so long ago, perhaps the same thing could have happened in other places in our solar system— like Mars.

“These discoveries demonstrate life developed on Earth at a time when Mars and Earth had liquid water at their surfaces, posing exciting questions for extra-terrestrial life,” Dodd said, in the statement. “Therefore, we expect to find evidence for past life on Mars 4,000 million years ago, or if not, Earth may have been a special exception.”

The discovery was reported in a study published online Wednesday in the journal Nature.

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Rabbit hole leads to incredible 700-year-old Knights Templar cave complex

Four4Four Science: 700-year-old Knights Templar cave complex hidden beneath U.K. farmer's field; Jeff Bezos plans moon deliveries, mind-controlled robot, mold sells for $15,000
Hidden caves of the mysterious Knights Templar revealed

A rabbit hole in the UK conceals the entrance to an incredible cave complex linked to the mysterious Knights Templar.

New photos show the remarkable Caynton Caves network, which looks like something out of the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” The shadowy Knights Templar order is said to have used the caves.

The Sun reports that the caves are hidden beneath a farmer’s field in Shropshire. The site was visited by photographer Michael Scott after he saw a video of the caves online. “I traipsed over a field to find it, but if you didn’t know it was there you would just walk right past it,” Scott said.

Once inside, Scott encountered arches, walkways, and carved niches. He described the caves as cramped, noting that anyone nearing six-feet tall has to bend down inside the complex. “I had to crouch down and once I was in it was completely silent,” he said. “There were a few spiders in there but that was it.

Said to be 700 years old, the caves have been long been linked to the Knights Templar – a Catholic military order that played a key role during the Crusades. Named after Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, where the order was based, the order was founded in 1119 protect pilgrims visiting the Holy Land.

With the loss of the Holy Land, the Templars’ military influence waned, although they still held great economic sway in medieval Europe. In 1307 the French King Philip IV, who wanted to wipe out his debts to the order, launched a plot to bring the Knights Templar down. Many Templars were arrested on charges including heresy and dozens were later burned at the stake.

Pope Clement V disbanded the order in 1312.

The caves had been closed for a number of years before Scott’s visit. Black magic ceremonies reportedly forced the owners to seal up the entrance to the caves in 2012.

While some people believe the caves are 700 years old, others think that the complex was carved out by followers of the Templars in the 17th century.

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Chinese researchers announce designer baby breakthrough

embryopic

Science has taken another step toward delivering the perfect newborn – or at least a bouncing baby free of certain genetic defects.

Chinese researchers used a genome editing technique called CRISPR to rid normal embryos of hereditary diseases that cause blood disorders and other ailments, according to New Scientist. Experts who reviewed the project told the publication that, even though it involved just six embryos, it carries promise.

“It is encouraging,” Robin Lovell-Badge, a human genome expert at the Francis Crick Institute in London, told New Scientist.

“It is encouraging.”

– Robin Lovell-Badge, Francis Crick Institute

 The acronym stands for “Clustered Regularly-Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats,” and the technique is a method of disabling genes by introducing small mutations that disrupt the code of a DNA sequence. Prior to the Chinese experiment, studies involving the CRISPR technique have focused on its use in abnormal embryos that could never fully develop. For bioethics reasons, it was not previously used on healthy, or normal embryos.

The experiment successfully repaired just under 10 percent of genetic mutations, a rate too low to be practical, but high enough to be encouraging.

The Chinese team working at the Third Affiliated Hospital of Guangzhou Medical University first worked with abnormal embryos, with little success, according to the report. But when they tried to repair mutations in normal embryos from immature eggs donated by people undergoing IVF, they had a breakthrough.

The eggs presented less of a bioethical dilemma, as they are usually discarded by IVF clinics. But healthy children have been born from such eggs. The team fertilized each egg by injecting sperm from one of two men with a hereditary disease, then used the CRISPR technique on the single-cell embryos before they started dividing.

In one case, the technique zapped a mutation that causes favism, a condition in which consumption of fava beans causes destruction of red blood cells.

In another case, it fixed a mutation that causes the blood disease beta-thalassemia, a group of inherited blood disorders that affect about one in every 100,000 people.

Another expert told New Scientist the results were compelling.

“It does look more promising than previous papers,” Fredrik Lanner, of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, told the publication.

The study could lead to wider experimentation with using CRISPR to edit the genomes of normal human embryos. But experts cautioned the technology is far from the point where it could be safely used for editing embryos.

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Cute Dogs for Your Monday Blues!

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March 13, 2017 · 7:00 am

Cosplay Pictures for Your Enjoyment

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Some Neanderthals Were Vegetarian — And They Likely Kissed Our Human Ancestors

March 8, 20177:11 PM ET

A new study of the dental plaques of three Neanderthals reveals surprising facts about their lives, including what they ate, the diseases that ailed them and how they self-medicated (and smooched). (Above) An illustration of Neanderthals in Spain shows them preparing to eat plants and mushrooms.

Courtesy of Abel Grau/Comunicación CSIC

Now, it’s no surprise that Neanderthals didn’t brush their teeth. Nor did they go to the dentist.

That means bits of food and the microbes in their mouths just stayed stuck to their teeth. While not so good for dental hygiene, these dental plaques are a great resource for scientists interested in understanding more about Neanderthal diet and lifestyle.

Luckily for researchers, there is an abundance of Neanderthal teeth in the fossil record. “We have complete jaws with teeth, we have upper jaws with skulls with teeth intact, isolated teeth,” says Keith Dobney, an archaeologist at the University of Liverpool.

He and his colleagues have been studying Neanderthal dental plaques — or rather, the hardened version of plaque, tartar, or what scientists call dental calculus. They scraped off some of the calculus and analyzed the DNA that was preserved in it for clues to what the Neanderthals ate.

They looked at plaques from the teeth of three Neanderthals living in Europe about 50,000 years ago. One individual was from a cave in Spy, Belgium, and the other two were from El Sidrón cave in Spain.

Enlarge this image

The Spy Cave site in Belgium from which several Neanderthal skeletons were excavated in 1886. Only one skeleton was used in this study.

Courtesy of Royal Belgian Institute of Nature Sciences

The researchers also found evidence of mushrooms, but this was certainly a meat lover. This isn’t that surprising to scientists who study Neanderthal diets. After all, the butchered bones of woolly rhinos, mammoths, horses and reindeer had been found in the Spy cave and other sites, suggesting a meat-heavy diet.

There had also been other indirect sources of evidence of carnivory, like high levels of a certain nitrogen isotopes, which suggested meat- and/or mushroom-heavy diets.

“Most Neanderthals that had been analyzed [before] were really heavy meat eaters,” says Laura Weyrich, at the Australian Center for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide, Australia, and the lead author on the new study. She says those previous studies had suggested that “Neanderthals were as carnivorous as polar bears.”

And this is where the new study offered a big surprise. According to the DNA in dental plaques, the Neanderthals in Spain ate no meat at all.

“We find things like pine nuts, moss, tree barks and even mushrooms as well,” says Weyrich. “It is very indicative of a vegetarian diet, probably the true Paleo diet.” (Not all of the region’s Neanderthals were necessarily vegetarians: The El Sidrón cave also contained grisly evidence of cannibalism.)

She says the difference in diets reflects the fact that the two groups lived in two very different environments.

Northern Europe, including Belgium, had wide open spaces with grasslands and many mammals. “It would have been very grassy, and kind of mountainous,” says Weyrich. “You can imagine a big woolly rhino wandering through the grass there.” Perhaps tracked by hungry Neanderthals looking for dinner.

But farther south in Spain, the Neanderthals lived in dense forests. “It’s hard to imagine a big woolly rhino trying to wedge themselves between the trees,” says Weyrich. And so, she says the Neanderthals there feasted on all kinds of plants and mushrooms. “They’re very opportunistic, trying to find anything that’s edible in their environment.”

“Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Neanderthals are adapting to local conditions and varying their diets,” says Chris Stringer at the Natural History Museum in London. He studies human origins, but wasn’t involved in the new study.

For example, Neanderthals living on the coast of Gibraltar “were collecting molluscs and baking them,” he says. “They were butchering at least one seal. There [was] dolphin material at the site. That may have been stranded dolphin that they scavenged.”

The complete jaw of a Neanderthal individual found in Spy, Belgium. Small and thin tartar deposits provided the researchers with enough DNA sequences to study.

Courtesy of Royal Belgian Institute of Nature Sciences

Stringer says it was the Neanderthals’ adaptability that allowed them to thrive for tens of thousands of years across Europe and Asia.

“They were very evolved humans,” he says. “They lived over a range of very different environments. They lived in different climatic conditions.”

But Stringer cautions that the new study’s findings probably don’t reflect everything about the diets of these Neanderthals. “Not everything that you eat has an equal chance of getting incorporated into the calculus,” he says. “And not everything has a chance of being preserved long term.”

Perhaps more surprising than the clues about diets is what the DNA revealed about other aspects of Neanderthal life. The scientists uncovered the identities of more than 200 different species of microbes that lived in the mouths of these Neanderthals. It also gave clues to some diseases that might have ailed them.

One of the individuals in Spain seems to have had a painful tooth abscess and was suffering from a stomach bug. “We saw that he also had Microsporidia, which is a gastrointestinal pathogen,” says Weyrich.

That means he probably had diarrhea and was throwing up. “He was a sick individual,” says Weyrich. “He was a young adolescent male. He was mostly with … females. So we like to think of him as this sick boy that the females were dragging along with them.”

But what’s more remarkable, she says, is that DNA in his dental plaque suggests he was self-medicating by eating the bark of poplar trees. “And poplar bark contains salicylic acid, one of the natural sources of what we call aspirin,” she says.

Even more surprising was that they also found evidence of Penicillium in his plaque. That’s the mold that makes the antibiotic penicillin. “It’s pretty phenomenal that these guys were so in tune with their environment and to know what was going on and how to treat things,” says Weyrich.

Enlarge this image

A dental calculus deposit is visible on the rear molar (right). The teeth belong to the sick boy in the Spanish cave. He was eating poplar, a source of aspirin, and vegetation with mold, including the fungus Penicillium, which is the source of the antibiotic penicillin.

Courtesy of Paleoanthropology Group MNCN-CSIC

But the surprises didn’t end there. Weyrich and her colleagues also identified the DNA of a microbe that causes gum disease in humans today. “We were able to track back that this particular microorganism was actually obtained from humans, likely about 120,000 years ago.” Weyrich and her colleagues don’t believe the microbe caused disease in Neanderthals, but they think it tells a fascinating story about how the two species — our ancestors and Neanderthals — interacted.

Genetics has shown that the two interbred and swapped genes. “A lot of these breeding interactions had been thought to be rough interactions, something that wouldn’t be sensual or enjoyable,” says Weyrich. But if they were swapping microbes in their mouths, that suggests a different story: “It suggests that there’s kissing — or at least food sharing — going on between these two groups. So we really think that those interactions were probably more friendly, and much more intimate, than what anyone ever imagined before.”

Weyrich and her colleagues think that in the years to come, we will learn a lot more about Neanderthals and other human ancestors, just by studying the ancient DNA trapped in their dental plaques.

“It’s a very exciting paper,” says Jean-Jacques Hublin at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, who was not involved in the new study. “It opens a new window into the past, a new way to investigate [the] life and behavior of Neanderthals.”

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