This Week's "Planet Earth Report" --The Zombie Gene, Antarctica's Super Volcano to 1st Alien Contact -Extinction or Salvation?
This week's link to 10 headline stories from around the world on the threats, opportunities, and dangers facing our fragile planet --along with an occasional dash of humor, popular culture, and a conspiracy theory or two.
E. coli, a common bacterial pathogen responsible for millions of urinary tract infections and foodborne illnesses every year, will blast off to the International Space Station (ISS) on Saturday (Nov. 11) to take part in a study of antibiotic resistance.
The E. coli AntiMicrobial Satellite (EcAMSat) mission is scheduled to launch to the ISS on Orbital ATK's Cygnus cargo spacecraft at 7:37 a.m. EST (1237 GMT) along with a slew of other science experiments and supplies for the Expedition 53 crew. You can watch the launch live on Space.com, beginning at 7 a.m. EST (1100 GMT), courtesy of NASA TV. [Preview: Weird Science Experiments Launching to Space Station Early Saturday]
After the E. coli samples arrive at the ISS, the experiment will examine how microgravity affects the bacteria's ability to thrive while exposed to antibiotics. Since humans started using antibiotics in the mid-20th century, pathogens like E. coli have evolved new genes that make them increasingly resistant to antibiotics.
Elephants did not evolve to become huge animals until after they turned a bit of genetic junk into a unique defense against inevitable tumors. Elephants and other large animals have a lower incidence of cancer than would be expected statistically, suggesting that they have evolved ways to protect themselves against the disease. A new study reveals how elephants do it: An old gene that was no longer functional was recycled from the vast “genome junkyard” to increase the sensitivity of elephant cells to DNA damage, enabling them to cull potentially cancerous cells early.
In multicellular animals, cells go through many cycles of growth and division. At each division, cells copy their entire genome, and inevitably a few mistakes creep in. Some of those mutations can lead to cancer. One might think that animals with larger bodies and longer lives would therefore have a greater risk of developing cancer. But that’s not what researchers see when they compare species across a wide range of body sizes: The incidence of cancer does not appear to correlate with the number of cells in an organism or its lifespan. In fact, researchers find that larger, longer-lived mammals have fewer cases of cancer. In the 1970s, the cancer epidemiologist Richard Peto, now a professor of medical statistics and epidemiology at the University of Oxford, articulated this surprising phenomenon, which has come to be known as Peto’s paradox.
The fact that larger animals like elephants do not have high rates of cancer suggests that they have evolved special cancer suppression mechanisms. In 2015, Joshua Schiffman at the University of Utah School of Medicine and Carlo Maley at Arizona State University headed a team of researchers who showed that the elephant genome has about 20 extra duplicates of p53, a canonical tumor suppressor gene. They went on to suggest that these extra copies of p53 could account, at least in part, for the elephants’ enhanced cancer suppression capabilities. Currently, Lisa M. Abegglen, a cell biologist at the Utah School of Medicine who contributed to the study, is leading a project to find out whether the copies of p53 have different functions.
Vincent Lynch, a geneticist at the University of Chicago, has shown that part of what enabled elephants to grow so big was that one of their pseudogenes — a broken duplicate of an ancestral gene — suddenly acquired a new function.
Yet extra copies of p53 are not the elephants’ only source of protection. New work led by Vincent Lynch, a geneticist at the University of Chicago, shows that elephants and their smaller-bodied relatives (such as hyraxes, armadillos and aardvarks) also have duplicate copies of the LIF gene, which encodes for leukemia inhibitory factor. This signaling protein is normally involved in fertility and reproduction and also stimulates the growth of embryonic stem cells.
Lynch found that the 11 duplicates of LIF differ from one another but are all incomplete: At a minimum they all lack the initial block of protein-encoding information as well as a promoter sequence to regulate the activity of the gene. These deficiencies suggested to Lynch that none of the duplicates should be able to perform the normal functions of a LIF gene, or even be expressed by cells.
The eminent biologist Richard Peto, now at the University of Oxford, pointed out in the 1970s that elephants and other large-bodied animals ought to be at great statistical risk for cancer.
Clusters of human brain cells can integrate into rat brains, and that’s raising concerns about giving animals some form of human consciousness. Researchers can grow stem cells into tiny clumps of cells, called organoids, that display similar activity and structure to human brains. To find out more about how exactly that works, read our primer from when we made the technique one of our Ten Breakthrough Technologies of 2015.
Now, though, reports Stat, several labs have inserted those organoids into rat brains and connected them to blood vessels; some of the organoids have even grown physical links with the rat brains. From Stat’s report:
Some of the axons grew as much as 1.5 millimeters, connecting to the corpus callosum, a bundle of neurons connecting the left and right cerebral hemispheres. When the scientists shined light on a rat’s eye, or stimulated brain regions involved in vision, neurons in the implanted organoid fired. That suggested the human brain tissue had become functionally integrated with the rat’s.
The aim of this kind of research is noble: to work out how lab-grown clusters of brain cells could be used to understand or even treat brain diseases or injuries. But while a handful of cells in a rat brain may not be a problem now, and the idea of imbuing animals with human characteristics or consciousness seems distant, the integration reported by the labs in Stat’s report is giving some ethicists cause for concern.
That’s especially the case as the number of organoids placed inside a rat’s head increases. “People are talking about connecting three or four,” says Stanford bioethicist Hank Greely to Stat. “But what if you could connect 1,000? That would be getting close to the number of cells in a mouse brain … At some future point it could be that what you’ve built is entitled to some kind of respect.”
Thursday marks what would have been astronomer Carl Sagan’s 83rd birthday. The icon of popular science and turtleneck sweaters alike is most known for his contributions to astronomy, astrobiology, and, of course, for hosting the much-beloved Cosmos series.
Though Sagan died in 1996, his scientific legacy lives on in his myriad writings, including the famous Pale Blue Dot. While scientists and artists have written so many touching tributes to the late astronomer over the years, none is more heart-wrenchingly beautiful than the one penned by his wife, author and producer Ann Druyan.
Back in 2003, Druyan reflected on her nearly 20-year relationship with Sagan for The Skeptical Inquirer. The couple met at screenwriter Nora Ephron’s home in New York City in 1974, and were married from 1981 until his death from pneumonia 15 years later.
No matter what you do — or don’t — believe about the afterlife, Druyan’s note is irrefutably one of the most poignant letters ever written about the special peculiarity of love.
Here are a few samples:
Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting.
Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous-not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural.
We knew we were beneficiaries of chance. . . . That pure chance could be so generous and so kind. . . . That we could find each other, as Carl wrote so beautifully in Cosmos, you know, in the vastness of space and the immensity of time. . . . That we could be together for twenty years. That is something which sustains me and it’s much more meaningful. . . .
The way he treated me and the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other and our family, while he lived. That is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday. I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.”
Issac Arthur on Alien First Contact --Extinction or Salvation?
Physicist Issac Arthur looks at hypothetical alien civilizations by discussing the various possible circumstances in which we might first contact them or be contacted by them.
Meanwhile, The Atlantic reports that bets are being placed that China, with its superpowerful new FAST radio telescope, will be Earth's first civilization to diuscover and make contact with an advanced alien civilization in the Milky Way.
Last january, the Chinese Academy of Sciences invited Liu Cixin, China’s preeminent science-fiction writer, to visit its new state-of-the-art radio dish in the country’s southwest. Almost twice as wide as the dish at America’s Arecibo Observatory, in the Puerto Rican jungle, the new Chinese dish is the largest in the world, if not the universe. Though it is sensitive enough to detect spy satellites even when they’re not broadcasting, its main uses will be scientific, including an unusual one: The dish is Earth’s first flagship observatory custom-built to listen for a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence. If such a sign comes down from the heavens during the next decade, China may well hear it first.
In some ways, it’s no surprise that Liu was invited to see the dish. He has an outsize voice on cosmic affairs in China, and the government’s aerospace agency sometimes asks him to consult on science missions. Liu is the patriarch of the country’s science-fiction scene. Other Chinese writers I met attached the honorific Da, meaning “Big,” to his surname. In years past, the academy’s engineers sent Liu illustrated updates on the dish’s construction, along with notes saying how he’d inspired their work.
But in other ways Liu is a strange choice to visit the dish. He has written a great deal about the risks of first contact. He has warned that the “appearance of this Other” might be imminent, and that it might result in our extinction. “Perhaps in ten thousand years, the starry sky that humankind gazes upon will remain empty and silent,” he writes in the postscript to one of his books. “But perhaps tomorrow we’ll wake up and find an alien spaceship the size of the Moon parked in orbit.”
In recent years, Liu has joined the ranks of the global literati. In 2015, his novel The Three-Body Problem became the first work in translation to win the Hugo Award, science fiction’s most prestigious prize. Barack Obama told The New York Times that the book—the first in a trilogy—gave him cosmic perspective during the frenzy of his presidency. Liu told me that Obama’s staff asked him for an advance copy of the third volume.
At the end of the second volume, one of the main characters lays out the trilogy’s animating philosophy. No civilization should ever announce its presence to the cosmos, he says. Any other civilization that learns of its existence will perceive it as a threat to expand—as all civilizations do, eliminating their competitors until they encounter one with superior technology and are themselves eliminated. This grim cosmic outlook is called “dark-forest theory,” because it conceives of every civilization in the universe as a hunter hiding in a moonless woodland, listening for the first rustlings of a rival.
Now Nasa says that it might have found the source of that strange heating – a “mantle plume” – or upwelling of abnormally hot rock, that lies deep beneath the surface. The heat is causing the surface of the ice to melt and crack, resulting in rivers and other disruption to Antarctica.
Around 30 years ago, a scientist at the University of Colorado Denver said that there might be a mantle plume under a region of the continent known as Marie Byrd Land. That hypothesis helped explain some strange features seen on the ice, like volcanic activity and a dome.
Mantle plumes are narrow streams through which hot rock rises up from the Earth’s mantle, and then spreads out under the crust. Because the material itself is hot and buoyant, it makes the crust bulge upwards. They explain how some places – like Hawaii and Yellowstone – have huge amounts of geothermal activity despite being far from the edge of a tectonic plate.
But it was also an idea that was hard to believe, since the ice above the plume is still there. “I thought it was crazy,” said Helene Seroussi of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who helped the lead work. “I didn’t see how we could have that amount of heat and still have ice on top of it.”
Now scientists have used the latest techniques to support the idea. The team developed a mantle plume numerical model to look at how much geothermal heat would be needed to explain what is seen at Marie Byrd Land, including the dome and the giant subsurface rivers and lakes present on Antarctica’s bedrock.
They compared the theoretical model with data brought back from Nasa’s missions over the Antarctic, to ensure it was realistic. It led them to believe there was a mantle plume, packed with huge amounts of pressure and heat, beneath the surface. It would have formed 50 million to 110 million years ago, long before the ice sheet itself came into being.
As the autumn chill sets in, it’s easy to forget that just over a year ago the threat of the mosquito-borne, fetus-deforming Zika virus held Americans in its grip. The immediate danger has fortunately passed, but the United States Environmental Protection Agency is intent on preventing another terrifying mosquito-driven event from happening, even if it means setting a swarm of “killer,” bacteria-laden mosquitos loose on the U.S.
On Monday, Nature News reported that the EPA bought the mosquitos from a company called MosquitoMate, which is based in Kentucky and was founded by Stephen Dobson, an entomologist at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Through his work, Dobson has figured out how to modify Asian tiger (Aedes albopictus) mosquitos to harbor bacteria that prevent future generations from being born — a non-chemical, non-GMO approach to curbing the spread of mosquitos bearing not only the Zika virus but also yellow fever and dengue.
This strategy’s biggest selling point is that it cuts off the life cycle of the invasive Asian tiger dead in its tracks rather than providing only a temporary fix, like pesticides.
It’s especially appealing because the warming climate is slowly but steadily making larger areas of the U.S. hospitable to the mosquitos that carry these diseases, and pesticide use is increasingly drawing criticism.
Naturally, the idea of releasing a bunch of genetically modified animals into the wild has raised some concerns. People in Brazil would tell you not to worry, though. In 2016, the Brazilian government, responding to the Zika scare, released genetically modified mosquitos that passed on a lethal gene to their offspring in two large metropolises, and so far, there haven’t been any noticeable environmental consequences.
Area 51 has been the focal point of alien conspiracy theories in America for decades. The remote military base in the Nevadadesert has a lot of history, and has been associated with aliens almost since its inception. Here's why. Following is a transcript of the video:
In the early 1950s, US planes were conducting low-flying recon missions over the USSR. But there were constant worries of them being spotted and shot down. So … in 1954, President Eisenhower authorized the development of a top secret, high-altitude recon aircraft Dubbed Project Aquatone. The program required a remote location that wasn't easily accessible to civilians or spies. Area 51 fit the bill perfectly.
It was in the Nevada desert near a salt flat called Groom Lake. No one knows exactly why it's called Area 51, but one theory suggests it came from its proximity to the Nevada Nuclear Test Sites. The Nevada Test Site was divided into number-designated areas by the Atomic Energy Commission. The location was already familiar territory for the military, as it had served as a World War II aerial gunnery range.
In the summer of 1955, sightings of "unidentified flying objects" were reported around Area 51. That's because the Air Force had begun its testing of the U-2 aircraft. The U-2 can fly higher than 60,000 feet. At the time, normal airliners were flying in the 10,000 to 20,000 feet range. While military aircraft topped out around 40,000 feet. So if a pilot spotted the tiny speck that was the U-2 high above it, they would have no idea what it was. And they would usually let air traffic control know someone was out there. Which is what led to the increase of UFO sightings in the area. While Air Force officials knew the UFO sightings were U-2 tests, they couldn’t really tell the public. So they explained the aircraft sightings by saying they were "natural phenomena" and "high-altitude weather research."
On Thursday, a huge swath of previously classified documents about the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy will be made public. The greatest conspiracy theory in American history — there more of them than those about aliens or the moon landing — has also seen science fiction storylines exhaustively approach the subject.
From Stephen King to The X-Files to Philip K. Dick, here are six ways popular sci-fi has anticipated secret histories surrounding this infamous historical event. Aliens and time travel are almost certainly involved. But then again, you probably knew that. Spoilers ahead for The X-Files, Quantum Leap, a few novels, and who knows, maybe the actual declassified JFK files themselves!
Here are a couple of excerpts"
Post- JFK shooting, the smoking man smokes.
The mysterious Cigarette Smoking Man, one the central figures in the various conspiracies in The X-Files did, in fact, kill JFK. In the episode “The Musings of the Cigarette Smoking Man,” various conspiracies, including the murder of a Roswell alien, are attributed to a character named “Deep Throat” and the Cigarette Smoking Man. In the episode, the murder of JFK (and subsequent framing of Oswald) results in the Cigarette Smoking Man smoking his first smoke. Ridiculously, one of the producers of The X-Files — Frank Spotnitz — has suggested that this episode is not actually part of the official X-Files canon. What happens when a show about conspiracy theories has its own conspiracy theories? Does the universe implode?
Magneto in Dallas, and in custody afterwards.
When Wolverine travels back in time to his own body in the 1970s, he and Professor X enlist the help of Magneto to prevent the Sentinels from killing all the X-Men in the future. But, it turns out Magneto has been imprisoned underneath the Pentagon for the murder of JFK. But here’s the rub: Magneto didn’t kill JFK at all. He was actually trying to save the slain President because John F. Kennedy was in fact, a secret Mutant and would have probably pushed for more legislation to protect them. This explains all the confusion with different shots and the inconsistent trajectories of the bullet. Magneto can manipulate metal with his mind, but sadly, wasn’t successful. What was JFK’s Mutant power? Days of Future Past never tells us, but maybe he could move metal with his mind too?
Stephen King Sends a Time Traveller to Save JFK in 11.26.63
In this contemporary time-travel thriller, Stephen King suggests an unexplored side-effect of certain kinds of time-travel missions: you might like the past better than the present. Though he’s from the early 21st Century, Jake Epping falls in love with a woman named Sadie when he travels back in time to 1958. Though he’s supposed to save JFK, the threat of losing Sadie in the process complicates his goals. More than one alternate timeline is created here, and King even published an alternate ending for the novel on his website, which is son suggested actually become the “real ending.” Meaning, there’s a small, real-world alternate timeline swirling around a book about alternate timelines.
Philip K. Dick Believed He Could Have Prevented JFK From Being Killed
In one posthumous work by Philip K. Dick — Radio Free Albemuth — an alternate history exists after JFK is assassinated in which aliens are controlling the minds of various people in the government. The evil President Ferris F. Fremont’s rise to power in this universe is implied to be a direct result of an alien conspiracy that may have begun with JFK’s death. But, this book isn’t even the most interesting detail about JFK’s death as it relates to Philip K. Dick. Famously, Dick was a huge believer in using the I-Ching to predict the future. And in his letters, Dick reveals that he and his wife were informed by the I-Ching that Kennedy would be killed: “My wife and I own a 4,000 year old oracle called the I-Ching; just before Kennedy’s election we asked it what sort of President Kennedy would make. It’s answer: no kind, since he would be assassinated. My wife wanted to write Mrs. Kennedy and warn her, but I persuaded my wife that we were a couple of nuts and ought to forget it.” Dick’s beliefs were often stranger than his science fiction, but in this case, if he was telling the truth, also eerily prescient
Artist Posits JFK Faked His Death In Order to Hunt Aliens on the Moon
The popular artist “Sharpwriter” has created a slew of striking images depicting U.S. Presidents doing all sorts of cool sci-fi and fantasy stuff. For his JFK piece, Sharpwriter decided that the slain president wasn’t killed at all, but instead, continued a different career path on the Moon where he hunted aliens. The art piece tells the whole story: JFK rides a robot unicorn on the surface of the Moon. Sadly, this image will probably not be confirmed to be true by the JFK Files anytime soon.