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Sat, 20 Jul 2019
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Plant viruses may be essential for maintaining biodiversity and helping plants adapt to their environment


Mysteries abound in the viral world. Scientists still aren't quite sure where they came from. The illustration describes three leading theories.
The community of viruses is staggeringly vast. Occupying every conceivable biological niche, from searing undersea vents to frigid tundra, these enigmatic invaders, hovering between inert matter and life, circumnavigate the globe in the hundreds of trillions. They are the most abundant life forms on earth.

Viruses are justly feared as ingenious pathogens, causing diseases in everything they invade, including virtually all bacteria, fungi, plants and animals. Recent advances in the field of virology, however, suggest that viruses play a more significant and complex role than previously appreciated, and may be essential to the functioning of diverse ecosystems.

We now know that humans contain roughly 100,000 pieces of viral DNA elements, which make up around 8 percent of our genome. Speculation on the role of these ancient viral fragments ranges from protection against disease to increasing the risk of cancer or other serious illnesses, though researchers acknowledge they have barely scratched the surface of this enigma

A new review article appearing in the journal Nature Reviews Microbiology highlights the evolution and ecology of plant viruses. Arvind Varsani, a researcher at ASU's Biodesign Institute joins an international team to explore many details of viral dynamics. They describe the subtle interplay between three components of the viral infection process, the virus itself, the plant cell hosts infected by the virus and the vectors that act as go-betweens — an intricate system evolving over some 450 million years. All three elements are embedded within wider relations of the surrounding ecosystem.

Recent studies in the field of virology have shown that viruses are sometimes beneficial to the organisms they infect. "Prior to this people have always seen viruses as disease-causing entities," Varsani says. "This breaks all the dogmas of how we study viruses. We have a section where we review mutualism and symbiosis and also how some of the symbiotic relationships are being uncoupled."

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Microscope 2

Shocker! The single-celled organisms prior to animals were "amazingly complex"

© Klaus Stiefel
Ancient animals still alive today, such as the sponge and hydroids shown above, hold important clues about how multicellular animal life evolved.
From one came many. Some 700 million years ago, a single cell gave rise to the first animal, a multicellular organism that would eventually spawn the incredible complexity and diversity seen in animals today. New research is now offering scientists a fresh perspective on what that cell looked like, and how multicellularity could have emerged from it — a transition that marks one of the most pivotal events in the history of life on Earth.

Comment: "Gave rise to" - the passive voice of Darwinian assumptions. No, even the first single-celled organism did not "spawn" the incredible complexity that came after. That required intelligence, just as did the genesis of the first cell.

For well over a century, it has been widely assumed that the ancestors from which the first animal evolved were simple blobs of identical cells. Only later, after the animals formed their own branch on the tree of life, did those cells start to differentiate into various cell types with specialized functions. But now, painstaking genomic analyses and comparisons between the most ancient animals alive today and their closest non-animal relatives are starting to overturn that theory.

The recent work paints a picture of ancestral single-celled organisms that were already amazingly complex. They possessed the plasticity and versatility to slip back and forth between several states — to differentiate as today's stem cells do and then dedifferentiate back to a less specialized form. The research implies that mechanisms of cellular differentiation predated the gradual rise of multicellular animals.

Comment: And that simple fact seemingly doesn't disturb Darwinian biologists - that the FIRST life (not just animal life) was "amazingly complex". Complexity doesn't arise out of nothing. But that suggests Darwinism cannot explain the first life. So the only response can be "nothing to see here - moving on."


Europe: Galileo GPS system is back online after a six-day outage failure

Galileo satellite
Galileo Satellite
Europe's Galileo satellite navigation system, a rival of the American GPS network, is back in service after a six-day outage, its oversight agency said on Thursday.

"Commercial users can already see signs of recovery of the Galileo navigation and timing services, although some fluctuations may be experienced until further notice," the European Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency said in a statement.

The system of 22 orbiting satellites, which helps to pinpoint and track mobile telephone users and vehicles, began experiencing problems last Friday. Only the search and rescue function, which helps locate boat crews or hikers in distress, was unaffected.

The European Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency said the problem was due to an equipment malfunction in the ground control centres that make time and orbit predictions for the satellites.

Galileo has been in a pilot phase since December 2016 and devices that use its signal should be able to switch to GPS or Glonass, the Russian satellite navigation system. It is due to become fully operational next year, offering a civilian, European alternative to the US and Russian-controlled networks.

Comment: See also: EU's GPS satellites down four days in mysterious outage, nearing 100 hours downtime


The sweetest sound: Flowers can hear buzzing bees and it makes their nectar sweeter

© Dennis Frates Alamy
The bowl-shaped flowers of evening primrose may be key to their acoustic capabilities.
"I'd like people to understand that hearing is not only for ears."

Even on the quietest days, the world is full of sounds: birds chirping, wind rustling through trees, and insects humming about their business. The ears of both predator and prey are attuned to one another's presence.

Sound is so elemental to life and survival that it prompted Tel Aviv University researcher Lilach Hadany to ask: What if it wasn't just animals that could sense sound - what if plants could, too? The first experiments to test this hypothesis, published recently on the pre-print server bioRxiv, suggest that in at least one case, plants can hear, and it confers a real evolutionary advantage.


Astronomers come up with a new way to measure how fast the universe is expanding

spiral universe
Astronomers have made a new measurement of how fast the universe is expanding, using an entirely different kind of star than previous endeavors. The revised measurement, which comes from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, falls in the center of a hotly debated question in astrophysics that may lead to a new interpretation of the universe's fundamental properties.

Scientists have known for almost a century that the universe is expanding, meaning the distance between galaxies across the universe is becoming ever more vast every second. But exactly how fast space is stretching, a value known as the Hubble constant, has remained stubbornly elusive.

Now, University of Chicago professor Wendy Freedman and colleagues have a new measurement for the rate of expansion in the modern universe, suggesting the space between galaxies is stretching faster than scientists would expect. Freedman's is one of several recent studies that point to a nagging discrepancy between modern expansion measurements and predictions based on the universe as it was more than 13 billion years ago, as measured by the European Space Agency's Planck satellite.


Coral reefs dying because of pollution, 30 years of unique data reveals

coral reef
© Larry Lipsky
A snorkeler swims among healthy Elkhorn corals off Key Largo in the Florida Keys in the early 1980s. Named for its antler-like shape for its colonies, the Elkhorn coral is one of the most important corals in the Caribbean. Current populations are struggling to recover from coral disease and bleaching. Elkhorn coral once dominated coral reefs in the Florida Keys. Today, less than 5 percent of these corals remain in the Florida Keys.
Coral reefs are considered one of the most threatened ecosystems on the planet and are dying at alarming rates around the world. Scientists attribute coral bleaching and ultimately massive coral death to a number of environmental stressors, in particular, warming water temperatures due to climate change.

A study published in the international journal Marine Biology, reveals what's really killing coral reefs. With 30 years of unique data from Looe Key Reef in the lower Florida Keys, researchers from Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and collaborators have discovered that the problem of coral bleaching is not just due to a warming planet, but also a planet that is simultaneously being enriched with reactive nitrogen from multiple sources.

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Facebook AI's "alt text" feature likely to be abused by spooks & hackers

facebook zuckerberg
© AP Photo / Jeff Chiu
Facebook's "automatic alternative text" feature silently implemented by the IT giant on its social media platforms may be used to track users and could potentially be abused by hackers and intelligence agencies, say cyber security experts, suggesting that EU authorities may roast the tech giant for violating the bloc's data protection rules.

Massive outage and loading problems have unexpectedly revealed that Facebook's AI is adding a text description to every photo posted on its social media platforms, including Instagram.

According to Facebook, this feature, called an "automatic alternative (alt) text" uses "object recognition technology to create a description of a photo for the blind and vision-loss community".

Cyber security experts, however, believe that there is more to the tech giant's software than meets the eye.


11-month old infant becomes youngest patient to receive novel treatment for rare lung disease

© Yves Herman / Reuters
An Indian doctor has claimed to have performed a novel Bronchoscopic Cryobiopsy Technique to treat a rare form of interstitial lung disease (ILD) for the first time in the world on an 11-month old infant. So far the youngest person treated using this procedure was a 7-year-old in Europe.

ILD is a progressive lung disorder which if not detected at an early stage can cause significant damage to the lungs. It often occurs in adults in the age group of 40 and above who are exposed to chemicals, fumes, fungal spores related to farming. This disease is also seen in people who suffer from various forms of arthritis as well. In children, however, it's an extremely rare occurrence.

"Recently there has been an increase in the trend of this disease in persons exposed to pigeons and poultry droppings also", Dr Tinku Joseph, Interventional Pulmonologist, at the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences and Research Centre in the southern Indian city of Kochi told Sputnik.


Resurgence of wildlife at Chernobyl disaster site a boost for Intelligent Design

Chernobyl reactor No. 4
© Carl Montgomery
Chernobyl reactor No. 4
To evolutionists, radiation is like manna from heaven. It feeds the engine of Darwinian evolution — random mutation — providing variations that evolution's Tinkerer, natural selection, can use to build new watches blindfolded. Well, the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 gave evolutionary biologists an unexpected natural lab to test their view, and this experiment has been going on for two years longer than Richard Lenski's Long-Term Evolution Experiment with E. coli.

The recent HBO miniseries Chernobyl brought back memories of the event that seems synonymous with "disaster." Experts had predicted a high death toll on all life as a result of the radiation bath. People were quickly evacuated from a 3500-km area, and the cities closest to the nuclear plant quickly became ghost towns (see the video "Postcards from Pripyat"). A 30-km Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) was enforced. To everyone's surprise, though, life in the CEZ is thriving 33 years later. Therein is a story worth investigating: which view of biology scored, Darwin or intelligent design?

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A crisis of bad data analysis and replication in scientific studies

video gamer
© Alexander Andrews
In 2014, a study published in JAMA Pediatrics linked playing aggressive video games to real-life aggression in a large sample of Singaporean youth. The study attracted considerable news media attention. For instance, a sympathetic article in Time magazine breathlessly reported its findings and suggested that brain imaging research found aggressive games change kids' brains. But was the evidence from the Singapore study reliable?

In recent years, concerns about the Singapore dataset have grown. UK scholars Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein recently wrote that the way the dataset had been used by the primary authors was problematic. The analyses from the same dataset kept changing across published articles in suspicious ways. These shifting analyses can be a red flag for the data massaging that may produce statistically significant outcomes and hide outcomes that didn't work out. Such practices may be unintentional or unconscious (scholars are only human after all). But they do suggest that the results could do with further scrutiny.

When the dataset became available to my colleague John Wang and me, we re-analyzed the data using more rigorous methods. We publicly pre-registered our analyses, which meant we couldn't subsequently alter them to fit our hypotheses. Our results were strikingly different from the 2014 paper: in fact, there was no evidence in the dataset that aggressive game play was related to later aggression at all. So, what happened? How did a dataset come to show links that don't exist between aggressive video games and youth aggression?

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