Scientists find 31,000-year-old skeleton with signs of medical amputation

The only surgery I’ve had was after some inattentive goon in an SUV made a wide right turn in front of me at a Boston intersection, which sent me flying off my Vespa and into a fire hydrant.

Shattered right ankle, mostly. What I remember most vividly about the incident is how the city ambulance seemed to have no suspension whatsoever, so the entire time between the accident scene and Boston Medical Center we were hitting Boston’s ubiquitous potholes. Everything in the ambulance — including my shattered ankle — would bounce violently.

What a relief it was when we arrived at the emergency room and they gave me a shot of pain killer. And then put me under for emergency surgery.

I was in that hospital bed for a couple of days and nights while they gave me shots of glorious morphine every four hours — I watched the clock closely, let me tell you.

And I remember thinking, “I cannot imagine that they used to do all of this without pain killers of any kind. Surgery without being asleep.”

Life before general anesthesia must have been grim and terrifying.

On a related note, researchers in the journal Nature have revealed that they found a very old skeleton that shows signs of pre-planned amputation that had healed:

A 31,000-year-old skeleton missing its lower left leg and found in a remote Indonesian cave is believed to be the earliest known evidence of surgery, according to a peer-reviewed study that experts say rewrites understanding of human history.

An expedition team led by Australian and Indonesian archaeologists stumbled upon the skeletal remains while excavating a limestone cave in East Kalimantan, Borneo looking for ancient rock art in 2020.

The finding turned out to be evidence of the earliest known surgical amputation, pre-dating other discoveries of complex medical procedures across Eurasia by tens of thousands of years.

By measuring the ages of a tooth and burial sediment using radioisotope dating, the scientists estimated the remains to be about 31,000 years old.

Palaeopathological analysis of the remains revealed bony growths on the lower left leg indicative of healing and suggesting the leg was surgically amputated several years before burial.

Dr Tim Maloney, a research fellow at Australia’s Griffith University who oversaw the excavation, said the discovery was an “absolute dream for an archaeologist”.

The stuff of nightmares.

Are we moving closer to understanding some animals’ languages?

If you watch and love (as much as I do) the Amazon production of “The Boys,” the series about a world populated with deeply flawed superheroes, you’re no doubt familiar with the character called The Deep, the underwater-breathing, talk-to-the-fishies, self-involved numbskull who is pretty, but dim-witted.

The Deep is also wracked by self-doubt, as in this S1E4 exchange with his therapist:

The Deep: I mean, yeah, I can talk to fish. So what? How often do you need to be saved by a school of salmon?

Psychiatrist: Kevin, that’s just not true. Where would that Carnival cruise ship be without you?

The Deep: Yeah, I know.

Deep’s ability to talk to the animals presents him as a sort of perverted aquatic Dr. Doolittle.

That kind of animal-to-human two-way communication may never happen. But thanks to machine learning, we might not be that far off from understanding what some animals are saying to each other, as this New York Times article by Emily Anthes explains:

Machine-learning systems, which use algorithms to detect patterns in large collections of data, have excelled at analyzing human language, giving rise to voice assistants that recognize speech, transcription software that converts speech to text and digital tools that translate between human languages.

In recent years, scientists have begun deploying this technology to decode animal communication, using machine-learning algorithms to identify when squeaking mice are stressed or why fruit bats are shouting. Even more ambitious projects are underway — to create a comprehensive catalog of crow calls, map the syntax of sperm whales and even to build technologies that allow humans to talk back.

“Let’s try to find a Google Translate for animals,” said Diana Reiss, an expert on dolphin cognition and communication at Hunter College and co-founder of Interspecies Internet, a think tank devoted to facilitating cross-species communication.

The field is young and many projects are still in their infancy; humanity is not on the verge of having a Rosetta Stone for whale songs or the ability to chew the fat with cats. But the work is already revealing that animal communication is far more complex than it sounds to the human ear, and the chatter is providing a richer view of the world beyond our own species.

I find it really intriguing that machines might help us to feel closer to animate life, that artificial intelligences might help us to notice biological intelligences,” said Tom Mustill, a wildlife and science filmmaker and the author of the forthcoming book, “How to Speak Whale.” “This is like we’ve invented a telescope — a new tool that allows us to perceive what was already there but we couldn’t see before.”

Studies of animal communication are not new, but machine-learning algorithms can spot subtle patterns that might elude human listeners. For instance, scientists have shown that these programs can tell apart the voices of individual animals, distinguish between sounds that animals make in different circumstances and break their vocalizations down into smaller parts, a crucial step in deciphering meaning.

Interesting article that you can read in its entirety here.

The Deep, who is paradoxically not very deep.

Northwestern scientists may have found a way to break down some “forever” chemicals

PFAS — so-called “forever chemicals” — are everywhere. So much so that you or someone (or someones) you love are probably already carrying toxic levels of the chemicals, and will likely have some adverse health effects because of that contamination. (It’s not even clear how much of an exposure means you increase levels of, for example, certain cancers or endocrine disruption diseases.)

An estimated 26,000 U.S. sites are contaminated with some form of PFAS. At least six million Americans are estimated to have drinking water containing some form of PFAS above the existing safe limits recommended by the U.S. EPA.

Coming up with ways rid of these PFAS chemicals from our environment has been difficult because the properties that make them so durable in everyday use are the same ones that make them tough to destroy.

For over a century, our world has been made of plastic. It’s in everything from firefighting foam to water bottles to nonstick pans, yielding convenient products that last. But in the long run, plastic releases hazardous chemicals, called Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS), that seep into the soil and groundwater. These “forever chemicals” are everywhere today: in our drinking supplies, our food, the air, and even our bodies, where they can lead to unwelcome consequences, including cancer, infant development problems, and weakened immunity.

Scientists have been working on ways to destroy PFAS chemicals that permeate our environment, but no easy method exists. That’s because these standoffish compounds don’t react to anything—not biological or other chemical agents. They stick only to each other and resist being torn apart. Current methods require“very harsh conditions to decompose these compounds,” according to chemists at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Until now, how to break those PFAS bonds has been unclear.

That team’s recent work, published in the journal Science on August 18, proves that the stubborn power of PFAS bonds can, in fact, be broken. The scientists discovered a way to disintegrate two concentrated, toxic forms of PFAS into smaller, innocuous compounds that decompose. Using low heat, a solvent, and sodium hydroxide (lye, the basis of some soaps), the method is both simple and inexpensive. It works for two major categories of PFAS permeating the environment today: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and one of its common replacements, known as GenX.

The traditional difficulty in destroying a PFAS compound lies in its many carbon-fluorine bonds, which organic chemists know as the strongest bonds. They require immense heat (about 400 degrees Celsius) and pressure to break, which can lead to cases of air contamination during incineration, William Dichtel, the lead author of the new study, explains in a news release. “In New York state, a plant claiming to incinerate PFAS was found to be releasing some of these compounds into the air,” says Dichtel, a professor of chemistry. “The compounds were emitted from the smokestacks and into the local community.” And burying PFAS just causes them to contaminate the environment after a few decades, he adds.

You can read the rest of the article here.

French physicist apologizes for tweeting a fake James Webb telescope image that was actually a slice of chorizo

In a world where scientists and their reliability are under constant attack by right-wing forces to the point that even the public, which doesn’t understand the scientific method anyway, also distrusts them, this is a really stupid stunt.

A senior French scientist has apologised after tweeting a picture which he said was from the James Webb Space Telescope — but which was not quite what it seemed.

Etienne Klein, a director at France’s Atomic Energy Commission, posted a picture purportedly showing Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our sun.

“This level of detail … a new world is revealed every day”, he enthused in the tweet, sent to more than 90,000 followers on Monday.

However, Professor Klein has now admitted that the glowing celestial body shown was in fact nothing more than a slice of Spanish chorizo sausage.

Apologising for what he described as “a scientist’s joke”, he said his aim had been to remind people to “be wary of arguments from people in positions of authority”.

What a crank.

I did a bit of checking on Klein and found this on his Wikipedia page:

In December 2016, Science magazine, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, reported that Popular French physicist Étienne Klein was responsible of a plagiarism, his work was said to be plagiarizing the novelist Stefan Zweig and other authors.

Seems as if Klein has a bit of experience in fake scientific authority.

You can read the rest of the article at this link.

His tweet is below.

Are we on the cusp of a brave new world of artificial human embryos?

That reality is still a ways off, but scientists in Israel are getting closer, according to Jacob Hanna, a biologist at the Weizmann Institute:

Hanna tells MIT Technology Review he is already working to replicate the technology starting with human cells and hopes to eventually produce artificial models of human embryos that are the equivalent of a 40- to 50-day-old pregnancy. At that stage basic organs are formed, as well as tiny limbs and fingers.

Researchers can already print or grow simple tissues, like cartilage or bone, but making more complex cell types and organs has proved difficult. An embryo, however, starts building the body naturally.

“The vision of the company is ‘Can we use these organized embryo entities that have early organs to get cells that can be used for transplantation?’ We view it as perhaps a universal starting point,” says Hanna.

Embryonic blood cells might be collected, multiplied, and transferred to an elderly person in order to reboot the immune system. Another concept is to grow embryonic copies of women with age-related infertility. Researchers could then collect the model embryo’s gonads, which could be further matured, either in the lab or via transplant into the woman’s body, to produce youthful eggs.

The startup, funded so far with seed capital from the venture firm NFX has been briefing other investors, and its pitch materials state that its mission is “renewing humanity—making all of us young and healthy.”

Renewal Bio’s precise technical plan remains under wraps, and the company’s website is just a calling card. “It’s very low on details for a reason. We don’t want to overpromise, and we don’t want to freak people out,” says Omri Amirav-Drory, a partner at NFX who is acting as CEO of the new company. “The imagery is sensitive here.”

“Sensitive” may be the biggest understatement I read this week.

There are so many terrible things that can come of this. Certainly also some good. Any inclination I have that this might be useful is tempered by the fact that we live under capitalism, and capitalism will always find ways to use scientific discoveries like these in evil ways that will harm society as a whole.

You can read the rest of Antonio Regaldo’s article in the MIT Technology Review at this link. (Note: paywall after you read a certain numbers of articles in a month.)

A plastic model of a human fetus. They can’t come close to artificial embryos taken to this point of development — yet.

Scientist may have found a living tree that is over 5,400 years old

If true, it means this tree in South America was starting its life around the time that the area now known as the Sahara Desert was beginning to turn from savannah to sand, and pictographic proto-writing started developing towards writing proper in Sumer, thus starting what is technically considered “history.”

High on a ridge in California’s Eastern Sierra, a gnarled bristlecone pine known as Methuselah has reigned over almost five millennia’s worth of snowy winters and blazing summers. Methuselah, whose crooked and weather-beaten boughs make it look more like a sculpture than a living thing, is estimated to be 4,853 years old, based on data from a core sample taken in 1957—making it the oldest tree in the world.

Until now. This year, an upstart competitor has appeared to challenge California’s grizzly old-timer. Nicknamed Alerce Milenario, or Gran Abuelo, which means great grandfather in Spanish, it sits in a humid valley outside La Unión, Chile. As reported in Science in May, researcher Jonathan Barichivich says new data suggest the tree might hold a new record: 5,484 years old. (That record excludes clonal trees that share root systems, like aspen colonies, Science specified. In the search for the oldest tree, scientists focus on individuals with just one trunk.)

Gran Abuelo is an alerce, or Patagonian cypress, a type of conifer related to giant sequoias and coast redwoods. Like their Californian cousins, alerces can grow to very old age; at least one other alerce in southern Chile has been dated at 3,600 years old. That makes the species the second longest-lived in the world—older than sequoias but not quite at the bristlecone pine level. And Barichivich knows alerces well. He grew up around them, including Gran Abuelo, since his grandfather and mother both worked as rangers in the park where Gran Abuelo grows. He says his grandfather discovered the tree around 1972. “It’s a tree that’s very, very close to our hearts,” he told Science.

You can read the rest on the PBS NOVA web site in an article by Alissa Greenberg.

“Methuselah,” a bristlecone pine in California long considered to be the world’s oldest tree. Image Credit: Yen Chao, Flickr

Why did humans develop a tolerance for lactose?

Did you know most of us are born lactose tolerant?

This is how almost all babies can drink breast milk without any stomach upset.

But then some time in early childhood genetics would take over and most of us would become lactose intolerant.

At least that is the way it used to be.

Somewhere along the way, a substantial portion of us started being able to ingest lactose-rich foods — milk, cheeses, etc. — without problems.

The question of how and why that happened is examined by writer Haley Weiss in The Atlantic.

People like to say that you are what you eat, but the truth is more like this: In the broad course of human history, we become what we eat. The contents of our ancestors’ dinner tables have slowly but surely left their signatures in the human genome. Learning to cook and soften our food was likely the major driver of our teeth shrinking during the Neolithic age. The lightening of Europeans’ skin is in part a product of dietary changes associated with farming.

The genes that let some adults drink milk with no attendant tummy troubles—a trait commonly called lactose tolerance—are a different story. A few different alleles, or versions of genes that influence a particular trait, can make for comfortable dairy consumption, and they’re all known for their unusually speedy spread.

A new study mapping European milk consumption throughout history suggests that humans owe the quick proliferation of lactose tolerance to a legacy of famine and disease that began thousands of years after we became dairy fiends. In other words, lactose-intolerant people have been throwing back dairy for thousands and thousands of years.

But whereas I think moaning to my boyfriend about my hot-girl tummy issues is just the sign of a tasty, tasty meal, our lactose-intolerant ancestors were more likely putting themselves through the digestive wringer just so they could survive.

You can read the rest of this fascinating article here.

Lactose, the molecule that launches countless bouts of diarrhea.

News of possible fraud in famous seminal study roils Alzheimer’s research

I’ve worked as support staff in college and university science departments most of my adult life, and only two times have I witnessed what happens when solid evidence comes to light that a respected researcher in a department might be falsifying data.

It’s the equivalent of an all-hands-on-deck university emergency. The department mobilizes. The highest levels of university leadership get involved. Campus police are called and the lab where the suspect researcher works is locked down, as are any lab notebooks, computers or other research materials. Then the university lawyers get involved and the suspect researcher takes a sudden leave of absence.

So when I read yesterday that the highly respected journal Science had published a story questioning the work of an Alzheimer’s researcher so respected that much of all the research done on Alzheimer’s is based on his work, I knew that this is going to turn out to be a paradigm-shifting scandal.

In August 2021, Matthew Schrag, a neuroscientist and physician at Vanderbilt University, got a call that would plunge him into a maelstrom of possible scientific misconduct. A colleague wanted to connect him with an attorney investigating an experimental drug for Alzheimer’s disease called Simufilam. The drug’s developer, Cassava Sciences, claimed it improved cognition, partly by repairing a protein that can block sticky brain deposits of the protein amyloid beta (Aβ), a hallmark of Alzheimer’s. The attorney’s clients—two prominent neuroscientists who are also short sellers who profit if the company’s stock falls—believed some research related to Simufilam may have been “fraudulent,” according to a petition later filed on their behalf with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Schrag, 37, a softspoken, nonchalantly rumpled junior professor, had already gained some notoriety by publicly criticizing the controversial FDA approval of the anti-Aβ drug Aduhelm. His own research also contradicted some of Cassava’s claims. He feared volunteers in ongoing Simufilam trials faced risks of side effects with no chance of benefit.

So he applied his technical and medical knowledge to interrogate published images about the drug and its underlying science—for which the attorney paid him $18,000. He identified apparently altered or duplicated images in dozens of journal articles. The attorney reported many of the discoveries in the FDA petition, and Schrag sent all of them to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which had invested tens of millions of dollars in the work. (Cassava denies any misconduct [see sidebar, below].)

But Schrag’s sleuthing drew him into a different episode of possible misconduct, leading to findings that threaten one of the most cited Alzheimer’s studies of this century and numerous related experiments.

The first author of that influential study, published in Nature in 2006, was an ascending neuroscientist: Sylvain Lesné of the University of Minnesota (UMN), Twin Cities. His work underpins a key element of the dominant yet controversial amyloid hypothesis of Alzheimer’s, which holds that Aβ clumps, known as plaques, in brain tissue are a primary cause of the devastating illness, which afflicts tens of millions globally. In what looked like a smoking gun for the theory and a lead to possible therapies, Lesné and his colleagues discovered an Aβ subtype and seemed to prove it caused dementia in rats. If Schrag’s doubts are correct, Lesné’s findings were an elaborate mirage.

I literally got goose bumps when I read that the first time. I got them just now when I read that passage again.

People have died in Alzheimer’s clinical trials testing drugs that have been treating the entirely wrong symptom.

Drug companies — and the federal government — have spent untold billions looking into how to treat a hallmark of Alzheimer’s that might be nothing more than an artifact rather than the root cause of the disease.

And the field of Alzheimer’s research has likely been set back decades as everyone went on a scientific wild good chase.

This is so crazy to almost be unbelievable.

At least we likely now know why so many Alzheimer’s drugs that successfully treat amyloid plaques in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients have failed so miserably at stopping the disease.

You can read the rest of Charles Piller’s article in Science at this link.

Using dead spiders as “necrobiotic” grabbers

Weird, but cool:

In what may well be a case of bio-inspired robotics gone too far, the researchers are exploring how the dead arachnids can double as a robotic gripper using hydraulic pressure. Turns out spiders use blood pressure to move their legs. When they die, their hearts stop beating, causing them to lose that hydraulic pressure. This is why they curl up into a ball when they die.

Turns out pairing them with a syringe full of air makes for a handy off-the-shelf robotic gripper.

“This area of soft robotics is a lot of fun because we get to use previously untapped types of actuation and materials,” Assistant Professor or Engineering Daniel Preston says in a release. “The spider falls into this line of inquiry. It’s something that hasn’t been used before but has a lot of potential.”

Video below.