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Tue, 25 Sep 2018
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Plagues

Microscope 2

DARPA scientists working to engineer cells to eat deadly bacteria

Scientist
© 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.
Permian-Triassic boundary
© 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

Malaria drug resistance
© 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.

Bizarro Earth

Earth 'overdue' for magnetic pole reversal

Earth's Magnetic Field
© Shutterstock
The Earth's magnetic field, magnetic poles and geographic poles.
Earth's magnetic field may be about to reverse, which could have devastating consequences for humanity.

Scientists think that Earth is long "overdue" for a full magnetic reversal and have determined that the magnetic field's strength is already declining by 5 percent each century. This suggests that a fully reversal is highly probable within the next 2,000 years

Earth's magnetic field surrounds the planet and deflects charged particles from the sun away, protecting life from harmful radiation. There have been at least several hundred global magnetic reversals throughout Earth's history, during which the north and south magnetic poles swap. The most recent of these occurred 41,000 years ago.

During the reversal, the planet's magnetic field will weaken, allowing heightened levels of radiation on and above the Earth's surface.

The radiation spike would cause enormous problems for satellites, aviation, and the power grid. Such a reversal would be comparable to major geomagnetic storms from the sun.

The sun last produced such a storm that struck Earth during the summer of 1859, creating the largest geomagnetic storm on record. The storm was so powerful that it caused telegraph machines around the world to spark, shocking operators and setting papers ablaze. The event released the same amount of energy as 10 billion atomic bombs.

Researchers estimate that a similar event today would cause $600 billion to $2.6 trillion in damages to the U.S. alone. National Geographic found that a similar event today would destroy much of the internet, take down all satellite communications, and almost certainly knock out most of the global electrical grid. The Earth would only get about 20 hours of warning. Other estimates place the damage at roughly $40 billion a day.

A similar solar event occurred in 2012, but missed Earth.

Igloo

Ice age cycles linked to orbital periods and sea ice

Ice Ages
© Jung-Eun Lee/Brown University
The Southern Hemisphere has a higher capacity to grow sea ice than the Northern Hemisphere, where continents block growth. New research shows that the expansion of Southern Hemisphere sea ice during certain periods in Earth’s orbital cycles can control the pace of the planet’s ice ages.
Providence, R.I. — Earth is currently in what climatologists call an interglacial period, a warm pulse between long, cold ice ages when glaciers dominate our planet's higher latitudes. For the past million years, these glacial-interglacial cycles have repeated roughly on a 100,000-year cycle. Now a team of Brown University researchers has a new explanation for that timing and why the cycle was different before a million years ago.

Using a set of computer simulations, the researchers show that two periodic variations in Earth's orbit combine on a 100,000-year cycle to cause an expansion of sea ice in the Southern Hemisphere. Compared to open ocean waters, that ice reflects more of the sun's rays back into space, substantially reducing the amount of solar energy the planet absorbs. As a result, global temperature cools.

"The 100,000-year pace of glacial-interglacial periods has been difficult to explain," said Jung-Eun Lee, an assistant professor in Brown's Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Studies and the study's lead author. "What we were able to show is the importance of sea ice in the Southern Hemisphere along with orbital forcings in setting the pace for the glacial-interglacial cycle."

The research is published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Arrow Down

British court blocks Niger Delta pollution claims against Shell

Shell Pollution
© PIUS UTOMI EKPEI, AFP/File
Shell Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) claims the main sources of pollution in Nigeria's Ogale and Bille communities are oil theft, pipeline sabotage and illegal refining.
A British court on Thursday blocked pollution claims against Anglo-Dutch energy giant Shell by more than 40,000 Niger Delta residents demanding action over decades of oil spills in the region.

Members of the Ogale and Bille communities had applied for the case to be heard in Britain, arguing they could not get justice in Nigeria. But the High Court in London said it did not have jurisdiction in the case.

"Our community is disappointed but not discouraged by this judgement," King Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi, ruler of the Ogale Community, said in a statement.

"This decision has to be appealed, not just for Ogale but for many other people in the Niger Delta who will be shut out if this decision is allowed to stand.

"Shell is simply being asked to clean up its oil and to compensate the communities it has devastated," he said.

The firm's lawyer Peter Goldsmith told judge Peter Fraser during a hearing in November that the cases concerned "fundamentally Nigerian issues", and should not be heard in London. However, Daniel Leader from legal firm Leigh Day, representing the claimants, responded that the spills had "blighted the lives of the thousands".

He said they had "no choice" other than to seek legal redress in London. Goldsmith also argued that the case involves Shell's Nigerian subsidiary SPDC, which runs a joint venture with the Nigerian government.

He claimed that the case was aimed at establishing the High Court's jurisdiction over SPDC, opening the door for further claims.

Health

Researchers: Countries 'grossly underprepared' for infectious disease outbreaks

Ebola virus
© UPI/NIAID
This National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) image taken on August 12, 2014 by a digitally-colorized scanning electron micrograph (SEM) depicts a single filamentous Ebola virus particle.
Review of the response to the Ebola virus points to the world not being prepared for infectious disease outbreaks

An analysis of reports on the response to the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa has researchers sounding the alarm about worldwide infectious disease outbreak preparedness.

Suerie Moon of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, and a team of researchers examined seven post-Ebola reports.

They identified critical problems and made recommendations including strengthening compliance with the International Health Regulations, or IHR, improving outbreak-related research and information sharing, reforming the World Health Organization, or WHO, and broadening the humanitarian response system.

"We found remarkable consensus on what went wrong with the Ebola response and what we need to do to address the deficiencies," study authors said in a press release. "Yet not nearly enough has been done. Ebola, and more recently Zika and yellow fever, have demonstrated that we do not yet have a reliable or robust global system for preventing, detecting and responding to disease outbreaks."

The team urged the world "to mobilize greater resources and put in place monitoring and accountability mechanisms to ensure we are better prepared for the next pandemic."

Microscope 1

Rare Seoul rat virus sickens 6 people in Illinois, 2 in Wisconsin

Girl with pet rat
© Diez, O./Global Look Press
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said eight people became ill after contracting a rare rat virus in Illinois and Wisconsin. The one unifying factor between all the infected people was their contact with pet rats.

Two of the people who fell ill worked in ratteries in Wisconsin, with one going to hospital. People are infected when they breathe in dust contaminated with rodent droppings or urine.

"A home-based rodent breeder in Wisconsin was hospitalized in December 2016 with fever, headache and other symptoms," the CDC said in a statement.

"Symptoms may include fever, severe headache, back and abdominal pain, chills, blurred vision, redness of the eyes, or rash. In rare cases, infection can also lead to acute renal disease," the CDC added. "However, not all people infected with the virus experience symptoms. Most people infected with Seoul virus recover."

Both breeders tested positive for Seoul virus, a member of the Hantavirus family of rodent-borne viruses, according to the CDC. Others fell ill who purchased pet rats from animal suppliers in Wisconsin and Illinois. All the people have recovered.

Sun

Ancient tree rings suggest sunspot cycles similar to the one observed in more modern times

The Sun
© NASA
The Sun by the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly of NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory.
A pair of researchers affiliated with the Natural History Museum in Chemnitz and Technische Universität Bergakademie Freiberg, both in Germany, has found evidence in ancient tree rings of a solar sunspot cycle millions of years ago similar to the one observed in more modern times. In their paper published in the journal Geology, Ludwig Luthardt and Ronny Rößler describe how they gathered an assortment of petrified tree samples from a region in Germany and used them to count sunspot cycles.

Scientists know that the sun undergoes a sunspot cycle of approximately 11 years—some spots appear, grow cooler and then slowly move toward the equator and eventually disappear—the changes to the sun spots cause changes to the brightness level of the sun—as the level waxes and wanes, plants here on Earth respond, growing more or less in a given year—this can be seen in the width of tree rings. In this new effort, the researchers gathered petrified tree samples from a region of Germany that was covered by lava during a volcanic eruption approximately 290 million years ago (during the Permian period), offering a historical record of sun activity.

The research pair obtained 43 petrified tree specimens (tree-trunk slices) and report that they were able to count 1,917 rings which were preserved well enough to allow for observation under a microscope. Because the trees had all died at the same time, the researchers were able to establish a baseline between them which allowed for comparing tree ring growth between samples over the same time periods—which covered 79 years. Doing so, they report, revealed very clearly a cycle of growth similar to that seen in modern trees, though in this case, it was slightly different. Today the cycle is an average of 11.2 years, back then it was 10.6—close enough, the researchers suggest, to conclude that the sun has been behaving very predictably for at least 290 million years.

It should be noted that not everyone agrees with the theory that sunspot activity leaves such a clear record in tree rings—other factors might be involved such as general global temperature, weather patterns or even outbreaks of insect populations.

More information: Ludwig Luthardt et al. Fossil forest reveals sunspot activity in the early Permian, Geology(2017)

Syringe

Convenient excuse? Race to make vaccine for the plague amid fears 'terrorists could be turning it into a weapon' to wipe out millions

black plague
Scientists are racing to create a vaccine for the plague - before terrorists develop the deadly disease into a weapon. The illness is largely seen as a thing of the past, best known for wiping out a third of Europe's population during the Black Death of the 1300s. But experts warn it is one of the most likely candidates for a bioweapon - especially given the increasing rate of antibiotic resistance.

Lead researcher Dr Ashok Chopra, whose research is being backed by the Department of Defense, warns the scenario is a more realistic prospect than we think. 'Terrorists can easily grow the bacteria and make the strains resistant to antibiotics,' Dr Chopra, a microbiologist and immunologist at the University of Texas microbiologist, told Daily Mail Online.

'The pneumonic plague is very contagious and very hard to treat. It could kill millions. 'Think of the Black Death of the 14th century. It is not unrealistic that we would experience the same number of mass casualties. It could be quite devastating.'

There are three strains of the plague - pneumonic, bubonic, and septicemic - all caused by bacteria called Yersinia pestis. The most common type is the bubonic plague, typically found on animals and transmitted to humans via fleas.

It was the bubonic plague that caused the Black Death, as well as America's first outbreak in 1900 when infected animals were imported from Asia to San Francisco. However, the pneumonic plague, which is airborne, is fatal almost 100 percent of the time.


Comment: Although a horrible disease, Bubonic plague is not the infamous Black Death that killed half of Europe's population in the Middle Ages, according to recent research. The latter was likely to be caused in part by pathogens brought to Earth by comets. See this book review for more information:

New Light on the Black Death: The Cosmic Connection


Comment: For an even more in-depth study of cosmic forces at work, read Pierre Lescaudron with Laura Knight-Jadczyk's Earth Changes and the Human-Cosmic Connection