Welcome to Sott.net
Mon, 24 Apr 2017
The World for People who Think

Plagues


Info

Indigenous peoples around the world tell myths which contain warning signs for natural disasters - Scientists are now listening

© Photo by Taylor Weidman/LightRocket/Getty
Native knowledge - A Moken woman stares out to sea.
Shortly before 8am on 26 December 2004, the cicadas fell silent and the ground shook in dismay. The Moken, an isolated tribe on the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, knew that the Laboon, the 'wave that eats people', had stirred from his ocean lair. The Moken also knew what was next: a towering wall of water washing over their island, cleansing it of all that was evil and impure. To heed the Laboon's warning signs, elders told their children, run to high ground.

The tiny Andaman and Nicobar Islands were directly in the path of the tsunami generated by the magnitude 9.1 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra. Final totals put the islands' death toll at 1,879, with another 5,600 people missing. When relief workers finally came ashore, however, they realised that the death toll was skewed. The islanders who had heard the stories about the Laboon or similar mythological figures survived the tsunami essentially unscathed. Most of the casualties occurred in the southern Nicobar Islands. Part of the reason was the area's geography, which generated a higher wave. But also at the root was the lack of a legacy; many residents in the city of Port Blair were outsiders, leaving them with no indigenous tsunami warning system to guide them to higher ground.

Humanity has always courted disaster. We have lived, died and even thrived alongside vengeful volcanoes and merciless waves. Some disasters arrive without warning, leaving survival to luck. Often, however, there is a small window of time giving people a chance to escape. Learning how to crack open this window can be difficult when a given catastrophe strikes once every few generations. So humans passed down stories through the ages that helped cultures to cope when disaster inevitably struck. These stories were fodder for anthropologists and social scientists, but in the past decade, geologists have begun to pay more attention to how indigenous peoples understood, and prepared for, disaster. These stories, which couched myth in metaphor, could ultimately help scientists prepare for cataclysms to come.

Anyone who has spent time around small children gets used to the question 'why?' Why is the sky blue? Why do birds fly? Why does thunder make such a loud noise? A friend's mother told us that thunder was God going bowling in the sky. Nature need not be scary and unpredictable, even if it was controlled by forces we could neither see nor understand.

The human penchant for stories and meaning is nothing new. Myths and legends provide entertainment, but they also transmit knowledge of how to behave and how the world works. Breaking the code of these stories, however, takes skill. Tales of gods gone bowling during summer downpours seems nonsensical on the surface, but know a little about the sudden thunderclaps and the clatter of bowling pins as they're struck by a ball, and the story makes sense.

Ambulance

Hawaii confirms nine cases of rat lungworm infections; researchers call it 'epidemic'

Researchers are calling it an epidemic: a big spike in the number of people infected with rat lungworm disease in Hawaii.

The Department of Health says so far there are nine confirmed cases of the disease. Four are Maui residents, two are visitors who contracted it on Maui, and three live on Hawaii Island.

State officials are also looking into three possible cases on Maui, and one on Hawaii Island.

The Department of Health adds 11 cases were confirmed on Hawaii Island in 2016.

The disease starts out as a parasitic worm that invades the human brain. The worm is carried by rats, then spread through snails or slugs that crawl onto fruits or vegetables.

Microscope 2

Giant Frankenstein-like virus discovered in Austrian sewage plant

© F. Schultz, et al., Science 356, 6333 (7 APRIL 2017) AAS
Researchers detected this giant virus particle in Austrian sewage.
New giant viruses found at an Austrian wastewater treatment plant probably evolved from a smaller virus that picked up bits of genome from its hosts and incorporated it, Frankenstein-like, into its own genetic code.

The viruses — four species in a new group dubbed the Klosneuviruses — are a type of Mimivirus. The giant viruses in the Mimivirus group were discovered just in 2003. Giant viruses live up to their name: They can reach sizes of up to 500 nanometers in diameter, compared to a few dozen nanometers for typical viruses. Giant viruses also have more complicated genetic machinery than their tinier cousins.

One of the new Klosneuviruses, for example, is so big that it carries transfer ribonucleic acids (tRNA) that can translate the genetic code for 19 out of the 20 protein-building amino acids found in nature. (Translation is part of the process in which a gene's instructions are decoded and carried out. Viruses use tRNA in their replication process, but not all of them have their own tRNA; some hijack their hosts'.) That's impressive, even for a giant virus, scientists led by Tanja Woyke of the Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute reported April 6 in the journal Science.

Bug

MERS coronavirus emerges in Saudi Arabia hospital; 10 infected

Ten people have caught the MERS coronavirus after an outbreak in a haemodialysis unit in a hospital in Saudi Arabia, the World Health Organization said on Tuesday, without giving details of how the virus was able to spread within the hospital.

The potentially fatal Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is thought to be carried by camels and comes from the same family as the coronavirus that caused China's deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003.

Since MERS emerged in September 2012, 1,935 cases have been confirmed and there have been at least 690 related deaths, WHO said.

The latest outbreak, at Wadi al-Dawasir in Riyadh province, began at the end of February, when a 32-year-old woman and a 31-year-old man showed symptoms. They were hospitalized in the first few days of March, and both were confirmed to have MERS on March 4.

Contact tracing found eight symptomatic and two asymptomatic cases. Two of those infected were health workers, WHO said.

None of the patients in the outbreak has yet died, WHO said, although MERS generally kills about 36 percent of sufferers.

Most of the known human-to-human transmission has occurred in health care settings, and the WHO has said hospitals and medical workers should take stringent precautions as a standard measure to stop the disease spreading.

Syringe

Bumper crop of acorns could put U.S. on brink of Lyme disease epidemic

© Shutterstock
A bumper crop of acorns could be putting the US on the brink of an unprecedented outbreak of Lyme disease, experts warn.

An estimated 300,000 Americans are diagnosed with Lyme disease each year, but the illness is now on track to being the worst in 2017, according to Rick Ostfeld, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York.

The acorn surge means mouse populations will climb — giving rise to more disease-carrying ticks.

"We predict the mice population based on the acorns and we predict infected nymph ticks with the mice numbers. Each step has a one-year lag," Ostfeld told New Scientist magazine.

One mouse alone can carry hundreds of immature ticks, according New Scientist.

The rodents' blood contains the Lyme-causing bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, which gets transferred to the tick's stomach as it feeds. The bacteria can then be passed on to whatever new host — like humans — the tick latches onto.

Comment: See also:


Ambulance

DARPA aims to develop platform to stop spread of pandemic in 60 days

© darpa.mil
Over the past several years, DARPA-funded researchers have pioneered RNA vaccine technology, a medical countermeasure against infectious diseases that uses coded genetic constructs to stimulate production of viral proteins in the body, which in turn can trigger a protective antibody response. As a follow-on effort, DARPA funded research into genetic constructs that can directly stimulate production of antibodies in the body.1,2

DARPA is now launching the Pandemic Prevention Platform (P3) program, aimed at developing that foundational work into an entire system capable of halting the spread of any viral disease outbreak before it can escalate to pandemic status. Such a capability would offer a stark contrast to the state of the art for developing and deploying traditional vaccines—a process that does not deliver treatments to patients until months, years, or even decades after a viral threat emerges.

"DARPA's goal is to create a technology platform that can place a protective treatment into health providers' hands within 60 days of a pathogen being identified, and have that treatment induce protection in patients within three days of administration. We need to be able to move at this speed considering how quickly outbreaks can get out of control," said Matt Hepburn, the P3 Program Manager. "The technology needs to work on any viral disease, whether it's one humans have faced before or not."

Recent outbreaks of viral infectious diseases such as Zika, H1N1 influenza, and Ebola have cast into sharp relief the inability of the global health system to rapidly contain the spread of a disease using existing tools and procedures. State-of-the-art medical countermeasures typically take many months or even years to develop, produce, distribute, and administer. These solutions often arrive too late—if at all—and in quantities too small to respond to emerging threats. In contrast, the envisioned P3 platform would cut response time to weeks and stay within the window of relevance for containing an outbreak.

Bizarro Earth

New lethal virus causing mass mortality in amphibian species in Portugal

© Goncalo M. Rosa
Common midwife toad metamorphic forms and larvae in the Serra de Estrela, infected simultaneously by chytrid fungi and ranavirus.

A new strain of ranavirus is currently causing mass mortality in several species of amphibian in the Serra da Estrela, the highest mountain range in continental Portugal. This infectious agent is hypervirulent and also affects fish and reptiles, which complicates the situation, according to a study boasting the collaboration of the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid.

An emerging virus is affecting amphibian populations in Portugal, but this is not the first time amphibians have been a source of worry in the country. In 2009, hundreds of midwife toads (Alytes obstetricans) were found dead in Serra da Estrela Natural Park.

A research study published in the journal Scientific Reports raises a new alert on this genus of virus, which has also been discovered in Spain and elsewhere in Europe. As Jaime Bosch, a researcher at the National Museum of Natural Sciences and co-author of the study, tells SINC: "Ranaviruses have been known about for a long time, although in recent years globalisation is setting off mass mortalities throughout the world, and new strains also keep appearing, probably from Asia."

Microscope 2

DARPA scientists working to engineer cells to eat deadly bacteria

© Baltimore Sun
Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University are working to engineer single-cell organisms that will seek out and eat bacteria that are deadly to humans.

Their work combines the fields of biology and engineering in an emerging discipline known as synthetic biology.

Although the work is still in its infancy, the researchers' engineered amoeba cells could be unleashed one day in hospitals to kill Legionella, the bacteria that cause Legionnaire's disease, a type of pneumonia; or Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a dangerous, drug-resistant bacteria associated with various infections and other life-threatening medical conditions in hospital patients.

Because amoeba are able to travel on their own over surfaces, the engineered cells also could be used to clean soil of bacterial contaminants, or even destroy microbes living on medical instruments. If the scientists are successful at making the cells perform tasks, it also could have important implications for research into cancer and other diseases.

"We're using this as a test bed for determining do we understand how cells work to the point where we can engineer them to perform certain tasks," said Douglas N. Robinson, a professor of cell biology and a member of the Hopkins team. "It's an opportunity to demonstrate that we understand what we think we understand. I think it's an opportunity to push what we're doing scientifically to another level."

The five-member team's work began in October after it received a four-year, $5.7 million federal contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA.

Info

Shock finding: P-T mass extinction was due to an ice age

From the UNIVERSITÉ DE GENÈVE

The cold exterminated all of them

Through age determinations that are using the radioactive decay of uranium,scientists have discovered that one of the greatest mass extinctions was due to an ice age and not to a warming of Earth temperature.
© H. Bucher, Zürich
Permian-Triassic boundary in shallow marine sediments, characterised by a significant sedimentation gap between the black shales of Permian and dolomites of Triassic age. This gap documents a globally recognized regression phase, probably linked to a period of a cold climate and glaciation.
The Earth has known several mass extinctions over the course of its history. One of the most important happened at the Permian-Triassic boundary 250 million years ago. Over 95% of marine species disappeared and, up until now, scientists have linked this extinction to a significant rise in Earth temperatures. But researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, working alongside the University of Zurich, discovered that this extinction took place during a short ice age which preceded the global climate warming. It's the first time that the various stages of a mass extinction have been accurately understood and that scientists have been able to assess the major role played by volcanic explosions in these climate processes. This research, which can be read in Scientific Reports, completely calls into question the scientific theories regarding these phenomena, founded on the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, and paves the way for a new vision of the Earth's climate history.

Teams of researchers led by Professor Urs Schaltegger from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the Faculty of Science of the UNIGE and by Hugo Bucher, from the University of Zürich, have been working on absolute dating for many years. They work on determining the age of minerals in volcanic ash, which establishes a precise and detailed chronology of the earth's climate evolution. They became interested in the Permian-Triassic boundary, 250 million years ago, during which one of the greatest mass extinctions ever took place, responsible for the loss of 95% of marine species. How did this happen? for how long marine biodiversity stayed at very low levels ?

Bug

Drug resistance? Primary malaria treatment fails to cure 4 patients in the UK

© Jim Young/Reuters
A key malaria treatment has failed for the first time, prompting scientists to fear the disease could be becoming resistant to the primary drugs used to counter it. The failure occurred in four patients being treated in the UK for an African strain of the mosquito-borne condition.

A team of medics from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said it's still too early to say for sure that they had found a dangerous level of resistance, but called for further investigation. The results were reported in the Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy Journal after being carried out in late 2016.

"It's remarkable there's been four apparent failures of treatment, there's not been any other published account [in the UK]," Dr Colin Sutherland told the BBC on Tuesday. Although the evidence is not yet conclusive, there are signs the strain is learning to fight back.

"It does feel like something is changing, but we're not yet in a crisis. It is an early sign and we need to take it quite seriously as it may be snowballing into something with greater impact," he said.