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An attack on stomach bacteria cuts the risk of one of the deadliest cancers

Stomach cancer, light micrograph.

People with gastric cancer (tumour, top left) in their families had a lower risk of developing the disease after taking drugs that wipe out ulcer-causing bacteria. Credit: Biophoto Associates/SPL

Cancer

Eradication of the microbe that causes gastric ulcers has a potentially life-saving side effect.

Ridding the gut of the ulcer-causing bacterium Helicobacter pylori could prevent stomach cancer in people with a family history of the disease.

H. pylori infects more than half of all people, and has been linked to peptic ulcers and gastric cancer, which kills more people worldwide than all but two other cancers. Il Ju Choi at the National Cancer Center in Goyang, South Korea, and his colleagues studied 1,676 people with H. pylori infection who had a close relative with stomach cancer. Half of the participants received a placebo. The other half received a cocktail of antibiotics, which eradicated H. pylori in most but not all of the participants who took the drugs

About 9 years later, 1.2% of participants who had been treated with the cocktail had developed stomach cancer, compared with 2.7% of those who had received the placebo. Stomach cancer occurred in only 0.8% of those whose H. pylori population had been eradicated, compared with 2.9% of those who remained infected.

Water effect on morphogenesis of lotus leaves.

Don’t just lie there: lotus leaves atop long stems curve and ripple without the vertical support of the water’s surface. Credit: Fan Xu

Biophysics

Scientists explore why some lotus leaves lie smooth and flat, but others are deeply ruffled.

Floating lotus leaves retain their flat, circular shape thanks to the water that supports them.

The leaves of a young lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) lie flat on the surface of ponds and lakes, with only small ripples forming at the edge. But long stems often push the leaves of full-grown plants above the water’s surface. Such leaves typically have a wavy, warped appearance.

Fan Xu and his colleagues at Fudan University in Shanghai, China, modelled the physics of lotus leaves and found that those sprouting from long stems experience a critical amount of strain that causes the leaves to warp as they grow. But floating leaves experienced vertical support from the water, allowing them to stay mostly flat and to form wrinkles on only the edges.

The team confirmed these findings with experiments on sheets of rubber cut to the shapes of different leaves. When lying on water, the rubber leaves experienced only slight buckling on the edges. But when removed from water and suspended in the air, the entire leaf became warped.

Micoquian stone tool (9.5 cm long) used as a meat knife by Neanderthals at Chagyrskaya Cave.

This meat-cutting knife was found with Neanderthal fossils in the Altai Mountain foothills in Russia. Credit: IAET

Archaeology

Stone tools found in a Siberian cave hint at a rugged intercontinental journey.

A rich trove of fossils and stone tools in a Siberian cave suggests Neanderthals made an extraordinary 3,000-kilometre trek from Europe to colonize central Asia about 60,000 years ago.

Neanderthals have been found at numerous sites in Europe and western Asia, but the origins of Siberian populations have been elusive. Kseniya Kolobova at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk, Richard Roberts at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and their colleagues unearthed 74 Neanderthal fossils and 90,000 stone tools and other artefacts at Chagyrskaya Cave in Siberia’s Altai Mountains. The researchers argue that the tools closely match the style of Neanderthal tools found in Crimea and northern Caucasus, suggesting the Chagyrskaya Neanderthals originated in eastern Europe.

The tool analysis supports a 2019 DNA study suggesting that a Neanderthal from Chagyrskaya Cave was more closely related to Neanderthals from Europe than to Neanderthals at Denisova Cave, located 100 kilometres east of Chagyrskaya. The Neanderthal remains at Denisova Cave are more than 100,000 years old, and probably represent an earlier wave of migration.

Flames rise from an experimental forest fire in Canada’s remote Northwest Territories.

Forest fires blazing across western Canada in 2018 released air pollution that drifted all the way to the northeastern United States. Credit: Stefan Doerr

Atmospheric science

Air quality in the United States’ most populous city reached unhealthy levels thanks to incoming smoke from wildfires and agricultural burning.

Dirty air that blanketed New York City in the summer of 2018 has been traced to its source: fires in two North American regions, one of them more than 4,000 kilometres away.

Drifting smoke carries small particles that can harm human health. To see how this might affect a major urban area, Drew Gentner and his colleagues at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, analysed air quality in and around the New York City region in August 2018. They found that pollution levels were high enough to trigger an air-quality alert in mid-August and another towards the end of the month.

The scientists modelled the origins of the air parcels that settled over New York City during those periods. The air mass that set off the first alert had passed over western Canada, where wildfires were burning. The air mass behind the second alert had passed over agricultural fires in the southeastern United States.

As climate change makes wildfires more common, officials need to prepare for the health effects of smoke on cities — even when fires are thousands of kilometres away.

A wooded area with deforestation is seen in the Serrania del Chiribiquete, Colombia.

Logging has cut into the core of Colombia’s Chiribiquete National Park, the world’s largest tropical rainforest national park, since guerrilla fighters moved out of the region. Credit: Handout/Reuters

Conservation biology

The rebels’ departure from their rainforest strongholds triggered mass deforestation.

The Colombian government’s 2016 peace agreement with guerrilla fighters who hid in the jungle came at an environmental cost: rainforests previously deemed too dangerous to enter are now being destroyed.

During the five-decade-long conflict between the government and the FARC rebel group, guerrillas scattered land mines across their strongholds and threatened intruders with violence. Such measures led developers to avoid FARC territory, a phenomenon termed ‘gunpoint conservation’.

To quantify the peace agreement’s environmental effects, Paulo Murillo-Sandoval at Oregon State University in Corvallis and his colleagues collected satellite images of Colombia’s rainforest taken every 16 days from 2010 to 2018. They found that in the first two years after the agreement was signed, the average amount of land deforested per year in a previously rebel-controlled area was 50% greater than during the preceding four years. In protected areas, such as national parks, the disturbed area increased by 187% as ranching and coca cultivation spread after the treaty’s signing.

The authors say that rainforest conservation efforts should take local social concerns into account to avoid more untoward effects.

Partially excavated and restored ancient ruins of Herculaneum, Ercolano, Italy.

Ash from Mount Vesuvius buried both the Roman city of Herculaneum (pictured) and the better-known Pompeii. Credit: Getty

Archaeology

Remains found at a city near Pompeii present opposing narratives of how people perished in the AD 79 eruption.

Some of Mount Vesuvius’s victims might have died more slowly than previously thought after the eruption’s hot gases and ash engulfed them nearly two millennia ago.

Vesuvius brought death not only to Pompeii, but also to nearby Herculaneum, a neighbouring city where the remains of 340 people have been found on the beach and in nearby boathouses. Researchers have long thought that those victims died instantly as their soft tissue vapourized.

After analysing the ribs of 152 victims, however, Tim Thompson at Teesside University in Middlesbrough, UK, and his colleagues found that the crystalline structure of the bone and the remaining collagen did not show the expected signs of exposure to high temperatures. The researchers say that the individuals in the boathouses were suffocated and baked rather than vapourized.

But in a separate finding, Pier Paolo Petrone at the University of Naples Federico II in Italy and his colleagues report that a Herculaneum victim’s skull contained brain tissue that had turned into a hard, glass-like substance. That finding and an analysis of nearby charred wood suggest the person was subjected to extreme temperatures that would have vapourized human tissues, Petrone and his colleagues say.

Photographs of human brain organoids in cell culture dishes.

Model brains in a dish are helping scientists to probe the human forebrain, the seat of complex abilities such as language. Credit: Pașca Lab/Stanford University

Neuroscience

Brain models in a dish offer clues to molecular signals involved in the human forebrain’s development.

The human brain contains billions of cells with a wide variety of functions, and how this intricate network forms during development has intrigued neuroscientists for decades. Researchers have now used lab-grown brain tissue to peer — in real time — into the development of the forebrain, the part of the brain that controls higher mental functions, including cognition and language.

Using human stem cells as a starting material, William Greenleaf and Sergiu Pașca at Stanford University in California and their colleagues grew pea-sized brain organoids that recreate features of some of the regions in the human forebrain. The researchers then set out to identify the molecular signals that guide the fate of specific cells.

The team found several proteins that seem to regulate the development of specific types of brain cell — from star-shaped cells that support and protect neurons to neurons that transmit signals to other neurons. The authors also mapped an elevated genetic risk for autism spectrum disorder to the precursors of non-neuronal cells called glia and to a group of fully developed neurons in the forebrain.

Thwaites Glacier.

Seismographs across Antarctica sensed vibrations created by icebergs breaking free from Thwaites Glacier (pictured). Credit: NASA/OIB/Jeremy Harbeck

Climate sciences

Calving events at Thwaites Glacier, which is shedding vast amounts of ice, are detected from up to 1,600 kilometres away.

Seismic ‘icequake’ data might allow scientists to study ice loss from a notoriously unstable glacier in Antarctica.

Thwaites Glacier in fast-melting West Antarctica has the potential to contribute more than half a metre to global sea-level rise. But Thwaites’s melt rate depends on how and when new icebergs calve, or break away, from the glacier — a process that’s not easily observed.

Paul Winberry at Central Washington University in Ellensburg and his colleagues used vibration data from seismographs at seven stations across West Antarctica to identify a large potential calving event. Satellite imagery from the days and hours surrounding this seismic activity confirmed the team’s suspicions: the icequakes had been caused by new icebergs sloughing off the glacier’s front.

Similar techniques have been used to study ice loss in Greenland and other parts of Antarctica, but this is the first time that seismic monitoring has identified a calving event at Thwaites. The researchers say the method could help them to understand why the glacier is losing ice at such an alarming rate.

Barlangi Hill, site of the Yarrabubba impact in Western Australia.

Barlangi Hill marks the site of the buried Yarrabubba crater, which lies roughly 600 kilometres northeast of Perth in Australia. Credit: Graeme Churchard (CC BY 2.0)

Geology

Collision with a huge object more than 2 billion years ago might even have altered the planet’s climate.

A crater in Australia that was carved out by an incoming space rock has been dated to 2.23 billion years old, making the scar the oldest known impact crater on Earth.

Geological activity has obliterated most of the planet’s ancient crust, leaving scientists with little information about Earth’s early history. One of the few remaining chunks of old crust lies in Western Australia, which is where researchers discovered a buried impact crater that they reported in 2003. They suspected that the feature, which they named Yarrabubba crater, could be one of Earth’s oldest impact craters, but could not tell its exact age.

Timmons Erickson at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and his colleagues measured the amounts of uranium and lead in the 70-kilometre-wide crater’s minerals. The results show that Yarrabubba is older than a 2-billion-year-old impact crater in South Africa.

The researchers speculate that if the incoming meteorite hit ice or water, it could have vaporized massive amounts of water. This vapour could have warmed the planet and helped to bring it out of a global deep freeze that drew to a close around that time.

Artist impression of giant sloth.

Giant ground sloths (artist’s impression) might have travelled in family groups, according to analysis of a trove of sloth fossils. Credit: Alamy

Palaeontology

Fossils hint that families of the hulking animals could have gathered at an Ice Age waterhole.

The bones of 22 giant ground sloths that probably died en masse have been found at an Ecuadorian fossil site, offering insights into the lives of these long-gone, three-tonne herbivores.

Previous research has focussed on the evolutionary tree of giant ground sloths and their modern kin. Seeking to understand the animals’ behaviour, Emily Lindsey at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum in Los Angeles, California, and her colleagues analysed 575 bones, all excavated from the Tanque Loma site in southwestern Ecuador, of the sloth species Eremotherium laurillardi.

The team found that the animals ranged from juveniles to full-grown adults, hinting that these Ice Age behemoths might have travelled in herds. The site, which has been carbon dated to roughly 18,000 to 23,000 years ago, features copious remains of the beasts’ digested food.

Ground sloths found at other fossil sites died after becoming mired in asphalt seeps. But the authors hypothesize that the Tanque Loma animals might have been gathered in a drying waterhole — as modern-day hippopotamuses do — when they perished of thirst or disease.

Yingwuzhou wetland.

The extensively restored Yingwuzhou wetland (pictured) in Shanghai, China, emits less methane than a nearby wild wetland. Credit: Xuechu Chen

Biogeochemistry

Restoration and strict controls help a saltwater marsh in China to absorb greenhouse gases.

A restored and carefully managed wetland on the Chinese coast is a much larger carbon sink than a natural marsh nearby.

Since 1970, 35% of global wetland habitat has disappeared, largely owing to human activity. Researchers say that wetlands restoration is crucial for both maintaining biodiversity and combating climate change.

Jianwu Tang at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, Xuechu Chen at East China Normal University in Shanghai and their colleagues measured the flows of three powerful greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — in two coastal marshes in Shanghai. The first marsh was relatively untouched; the second had been restored by planting local vegetation and installing erosion controls.

The team found that the rehabilitated wetland took up more carbon dioxide and emitted much less methane than the natural one. As a result, the restored habitat has the net effect of soaking up 13 times more carbon than the natural marsh.

The authors call for similar restorations of degraded wetlands to store carbon.

Worker opening wooden whisky cask in whisky distillery.

Casks of whisky in a distillery. Isotopes released by twentieth-century nuclear tests have helped to expose young whisky disguised in old bottles. Credit: Getty

Chemistry

Carbon-14 dating reveals that an ‘antique’ Scotch is roughly 150 years younger than claimed.

Swindlers can make a killing by passing off recently distilled whisky as old and rare Scotch, but the fallout from nuclear bombs can expose such fakery.

Bidders pay dearly for a wee dram of antique Scotch; one bottle fetched more than US$1 million in 2018. To foil counterfeiters, Gordon Cook at the University of Glasgow, UK, and his colleagues capitalized on twentieth-century nuclear-bomb tests, which added large amounts of the isotope carbon-14 to the atmosphere. Carbon-14 is absorbed by living things and decays at a known rate, which means that an organic sample — such as the barley distilled into whisky — can be accurately dated by measuring how much of its carbon is carbon-14.

The team collected samples of whisky with known production dates and measured the samples’ ratios of carbon-14, -13 and -12. The researchers then compared carbon-14 measurements from unverified booze with measurements from definitively dated samples — and found multiple imposters. One drink that was purported to be from 1863 was actually made between 2007 and 2014.

Retinal scar caused by a Toxoplasma gondii infection, or toxoplasmosis.

A retina scarred by infection with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which goes quiet when triggered by a gene called BFD1. Credit: Paul Whitten/SPL

Microbiology

The toxoplasmosis parasite can hide in a person’s organs after infection and re-emerge years later.

About one-quarter of the world’s population is chronically infected with an inactive form of the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which when active can cause blindness and even death. Now, researchers have found a genetic switch that helps Toxoplasma to hide from the immune system and remain in the body for life.

Infected cat poo and undercooked food can both spread Toxoplasma. After infection, some Toxoplasma parasites convert into inactive forms called bradyzoites that reside harmlessly in the body, and many people never realize that they are carriers. But bradyzoites can re-activate and cause symptoms, which pose the biggest threat to individuals with weakened immune systems.

Sebastian Lourido at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and his colleagues identified a gene called BFD1 that seems to be necessary for Toxoplasma to enter the semi-dormant state. Parasites lacking BFD1 could not become bradyzoites, and therefore could not create Toxoplasma-filled pods in the brains of mice. Providing the BFD1 gene to these parasites was sufficient to turn them into inactive forms.

The researchers say that targeting BFD1 could help to prevent and treat Toxoplasma infections.

3D rendering of GPS satellite in orbit around Earth.

Most satellites (artist’s impression of a GPS satellite, pictured) can’t be refuelled, but placing craft in optimal orbits could save large amounts of propellant. Credit: Alamy

Engineering

A four-satellite network takes advantage of forces that would hamper other spacecraft.

Engineers have discovered orbits that allow satellites to harness forces that would disrupt other craft — making it possible for a four-craft constellation to monitor almost the entire globe at once.

Calculations in the 1980s showed that it is theoretically possible for four satellites to constantly observe all of Earth. But substantial amounts of propellant, an expensive resource, would be needed to maintain the required orbits, in part to correct for forces such as the gravitational pull of the Moon and the Sun.

Lake Singh at the Aerospace Corporation in Chantilly, Virginia, and his colleagues created an algorithm to look for orbits that maximize satellite coverage while taking into account forces that are usually disruptive. Sifting through five million simulated orbits, the algorithm found configurations that exploit these forces to keep a four-craft system in check. One such arrangement would cover 86% of Earth’s surface; another, 95%. Both would use 60% less propellant than existing systems with similar coverage.

The gains could allow mission operators to save money or to extend satellite flights, say the authors.

Wolf puppy named Flea, who comes from a non-fetching litter born in 2src15.

Flea the wolf puppy and his littermate ignored a tennis ball thrown by a human, but other wolf pups startled researchers by retrieving the ball. Credit: Christina Hansen Wheat

Animal behaviour

Young wolves’ enthusiasm for retrieving toys hints at an ability to read cues from humans.

Wolf puppies can play fetch.

This game is a snap for domesticated dogs (Canis lupus familiaris), which excel at interpreting human signals, such as those involved in playing fetch. Researchers had thought that this ability arose after people started domesticating our furry companions’ wild ancestors, grey wolves (Canis lupus).

As part of a study of wolf behaviour, Christina Hansen Wheat and Hans Temrin at Stockholm University in Sweden scored hand-reared, 8-week-old wolf puppies on whether they chased after a tennis ball and brought it back to a stranger who provided verbal encouragement. Of the 13 tested puppies, 10 showed little or no interest in the toy — but 3 puppies chased after the ball and brought it back to the unfamiliar human.

The finding suggests that the ability to interpret humans’ social cues was present in the ancestral wolf populations that gave rise to dogs. The authors say that humans could have selected for this trait during domestication.

A 1,4srcsrc-year-old ginkgo tree in China.

A ginkgo tree in Xi’an, China, that an emperor planted some 1,400 years ago. Genetic activity in old ginkgos resembles that of much younger trees. Credit: Alamy

Plant sciences

By some measures, ancient trees in China have equal vigor to whippersnappers a few decades old.

Centuries-old ginkgo trees show high activity in genes that fend off disease and produce antioxidants, just as their more youthful counterparts do.

Trees can live for millennia — some ginkgos (Ginkgo biloba), for example, survive more than 1,000 years — but it is unclear how they fend off the ravages of ageing. Richard Dixon at the University of North Texas in Denton, Jinxing Lin at the Beijing Forestry University and their colleagues addressed this question by studying ginkgos ranging from 15 to 667 years old.

The team found that, compared with younger ginkgos, older trees produced less of the plant hormone auxin, which stimulates growth, and more of the hormone abscisic acid, which helps plants to respond to stress. But the old trees photosynthesized with the same efficiency as young trees, and produced seeds that were just as viable.

Gene activity in old trees also resembled that of their younger counterparts: older trees activated genes related to age-related decline, disease resistance, and the production of defensive compounds, such as antioxidants, at the same level as young trees.

A broad-billed hummingbird perches on a branch.

The broad-billed hummingbird, Cynanthus latirostris. Hummingbirds owe their dazzling plumage in part to the arrangement of pigmented organelles inside their feathers. Credit: John Bates/Field Museum

Evolution

Variations in tiny cellular structures add together to create the paint jobs of these brilliant birds.

Hummingbirds became the fluttering jewels of the animal kingdom by evolving innovative ways of producing shimmering colour.

Many birds owe their colours in part to tiny organelles called melanosomes, which are embedded in bird feathers and produce pigments. Melansomes also reflect light in a way that creates iridescence in ducks, hummingbirds and other birds.

Chad Eliason at the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, and his colleagues compared melanosomes and other feather structures among 34 hummingbird species. The scientists found that hummingbird melanosomes are stuffed with tiny air bubbles, and are stacked on top of one another. Variation in the sizes of both the bubbles and the stacks alters the feathers’ hue and colour saturation, and transforms the feathers’ reflective surfaces and thus their iridescence. In addition, the thickness of the keratin that coats the feathers helps to determine the wavelength of light that the feathers reflect.

The authors conclude that hummingbirds have a rainbow of colours because of the many tweaks to each of these feather characteristics over evolutionary time.

The interior staircase with 311 steps inside The Monument to the Great Fire of London.

The tall, sheltered spiral staircase in the London tower called the Monument proved the perfect setting for testing a wire’s reaction to stress. Credit: David Warren/Alamy

Physics

Researchers enlist the seventeenth-century memorial called the Monument to study physical deformation.

Physicists have made the most precise measurements ever of deformations in the shape of a wire. They did the experiment inside the 60-metre-tall column in central London known as the Monument — built in the 1670s to commemorate the city’s great fire of 1666.

Working at night, when the landmark is closed to tourists, Waris Ali at Queen Mary University of London and his colleagues hung a 50-metre-long wire down the shaft of the Monument’s spiral staircase. They then twisted and untwisted the wire from its bottom tip, and allowed it to come to rest again.

The wire displayed a slight permanent deformation, which varied with the amount of twist and which the researchers could measure with exquisite precision. Over a length of 50 metres, a one-degree difference between the wire’s position before and after twisting corresponded to deformation of less than 9 parts in one billion.

Deformation is an exception to Hooke’s law, which describes the elastic behaviour of idealized springs and was formulated by the same Robert Hooke who originally conceived the Monument as a vertical telescope to measure the distance to a star.

Amazon forest area is burnt in rural Novo Progresso.

A section of the Amazon burns in Novo Progresso, Brazil, in 2019. Fires are likely to ravage larger areas of the forest even if greenhouse-gas emissions fall. Credit: Gustavo Basso/NurPhoto/Getty

Climate sciences

More blazes are forecast for the iconic rainforest as the climate changes, but stringent measures could limit the damage.

Resolute efforts to prevent fires in the Amazon could more than halve the projected greenhouse-gas emissions from forest fires in the region.

Trees store carbon, but burning them releases those stores. To forecast the future of Earth’s largest rainforest, Paulo Brando at the University of California, Irvine, and his colleagues modelled how an increasingly warm and dry climate will affect wildfire risk in the southern Brazilian Amazon. They found that, even if global greenhouse-gas emissions are reduced, forest fires will intensify over the next decades, possibly doubling the total area of burnt forest.

But the researchers found that greenhouse-gas emissions from Amazon fires can be substantially reduced if further deforestation is avoided, and if fire management is improved in areas that are dependent on slash-and-burn agriculture.

Aggressive efforts to eliminate sources of sparks and to suppress unwanted fires are crucial to prevent the Amazon from turning from a carbon sink to a carbon source, they say.

Group of young teenagers students using smartphone on a school break.

Young people who think their families are high status tend to have better mental health than teens with a more modest perception of their families. Credit: Getty

Human behaviour

Socioeconomic factors are less important than an adolescent’s assessment of their family’s place in society.

A teenager’s well-being can be predicted by their perception of their family’s social status.

Candice Odgers at the University of California, Irvine, and her colleagues examined data from 1,116 pairs of twins born in England and Wales, who had been followed across the first two decades of life. Eighteen-year-olds who thought their families were of high social standing were less likely to smoke marijuana and have conduct problems than those who gave a lower rating to their family’s rank. A relatively high perception of family status was also correlated with good mental health and participation in education or the workforce.

These correlations generally persisted even after controlling for participants’ actual socioeconomic circumstances. When the authors focused on twins who held divergent views of their family’s status, the teen who viewed the family’s standing more highly tended to fare better than their twin — despite growing up in an identical family environment.

Further studies are needed to test whether the relationship is causal, and whether raising teens’ views of their family status could improve their prospects in life.

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