October 6, 2022

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Epicurean Science & Tech

News at a glance: Mysterious space filaments, damaged dinosaur tracks, and edible worms | Science

8 min read
ASTRONOMY

Telescope reveals plethora of mysterious Milky Way filaments

One of the most detailed pictures yet of the center of the Milky Way has revealed nearly 1000 mysterious strands that slash across the plane of the galaxy, 10 times more than previously known. The image, released last week by South Africa’s MeerKAT radio telescope array, shows a region 25,000 light-years from Earth. Colors denote the bright radio emissions from objects such as stellar nurseries and supernova remnants, the expanding shells of exploded stars. The brightest spot of all is the home of the Milky Way’s giant black hole, with a mass of 4 million Suns. But researchers were also intrigued to find so many radio-emitting filaments, up to 150 light-years long, cutting across the scene. They are thought to arise from electrons moving close to the speed of light as they gyrate around magnetic field lines. But researchers don’t know what accelerates the electrons, why the filaments exist in regularly spaced clusters, or what creates the magnetic field lines in the first place. Some suspect outbursts of the black hole are responsible.

PUBLIC HEALTH

Watchdog chides health agency

The auditing arm of the U.S. Congress last week slammed the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for “persistent deficiencies” in its response to the coronavirus pandemic and past public health emergencies. For example, HHS still has no comprehensive COVID-19 testing strategy, according to a 27 January report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The problems date back more than 10 years to other crises, including the H1N1 influenza pandemic, the Zika and Ebola virus outbreaks, and the public health threats posed by natural disasters such as hurricanes. The failures leave the nation vulnerable to future viruses and weather events, GAO says. In tandem with the release of the report, GAO announced it has added HHS leadership and public health emergency coordination to its list of “high-risk” issues that Congress and the executive branch should address. The list now highlights 37 problems at more than a dozen agencies, with some dating back to 1990.

Underserved communities … have been waiting long enough, and they are counting on us to get this right.

  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, about the agency’s new plans to increase monitoring of industrial pollution implicated in high cancer rates.
PUBLIC HEALTH

Malaria bed nets protect long term

Bed nets can save young children from malaria, but some researchers have worried about a “rebound effect,” in which children succumb to the disease later in life because they lack natural immunity. A new, unusual follow-up study has dispelled those fears. Researchers tracked down nearly 6000 people who, as infants or toddlers, had been part of a study in Tanzania that measured the efficacy of insecticide-treated bed nets between 1998 and 2003. Among the participants—young adults today—they found no sign of a rebound effect: Those who, decades ago, slept under a bed net more than half the time still had a 40% survival advantage in 2019 over those who slept under nets less frequently, according to the study in this week’s issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

ENVIRONMENT

Gold mines flood forests with mercury

Peruvian miner pours chemical mixture into a container
A miner in Madre de Dios in Peru pours a mixture of mercury and gold into a container.ROBERTO GUERRA/ZUMAPRESS/NEWSCOM

A nearby gold rush has left protected jungles in the Peruvian Amazon polluted with toxic mercury at among the world’s highest levels, comparable to those in forests near major industrial cities in China, a study has found. Small-scale, illicit gold miners around the world, often in impoverished regions such as Peru’s Madre de Dios, use mercury to separate gold flakes from raw ore. The mercury is then burned off to extract the gold. In a protected forest near a Peruvian mining hot spot, researchers found mercury in tree leaves, runoff, and soil at levels up to 15 times higher than in nearby unforested areas, according to an article last week in Nature Communications. The results—the first tracking the toxic metal’s pathway through forests near mine sites—suggest forests act as a mercury sponge, concentrating and storing it. But some mercury also finds its way into water bodies, where it is transformed to the more toxic methylmercury, the researchers discovered; that chemical showed up in the forest’s songbirds at levels that would impair reproduction. Small-scale, “artisanal” gold mining recently outstripped coal burning as the world’s single largest source of airborne mercury pollution, annually releasing as much as 1000 tons.

LAW

Breyer shaped law on experts

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who last week announced he will retire later this year, will leave a notable imprint on the use of science in U.S. courtrooms. During his 27 years on the bench, he wrote opinions that helped clarify how judges should decide what kinds of expert testimony to allow. In 1999, he authored a key opinion in Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, which established that a judge’s gatekeeping authority applies not only to testimony from witnesses who are scientists, but also those who are engineers or technical specialists. In a 1998 essay in Science, Breyer argued that judges increasingly needed education about technical issues. And in a separate, 2000 essay, he wrote that legal proceedings are not necessarily a “search for scientific precision. … But the law must seek decisions that fall within the boundaries of scientifically sound knowledge.”

DIVERSITY

Awards bypass Asian researchers

Asian scientists are markedly underrepresented among recipients of U.S. biomedical research prizes, an analysis shows. Only 6.8% of 838 awardees who received 14 top U.S. prizes, such as the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, are of Asian descent, even though they make up more than 20% of U.S. biomedical faculty researchers, according to a commentary this week in Cell. For Black scientists, the picture is worse: They make up 2.6% of biological science faculty, but were shut out of the prizes. But there’s some reason for hope: In the past decade, the percentage of female recipients of eight long-running prizes increased substantially, from 10% to almost 30%, a change that may reflect efforts to promote gender equality. To improve racial and ethnic diversity, award panels should encourage self-nominations, among other steps, says the commentary’s author, neuroscientist Yuh Nung Jan of the University of California, San Francisco.

larvae of the yellow mealworm beetle
A French company is developing the larvae of the yellow mealworm beetle as a food source. CAROLYN A. MCKEONE/SCIENCE SOURCE
GENETICS

Breeding the ideal, edible worm

A French company last week announced it is starting the first industrial breeding program to grow beetle larvae on a large scale as food for humans and animals. Ÿnsect already grows and processes the yellow mealworm beetle (Tenebrio molitor) to turn into powders and oils for fishmeal and pig feed. In 2021, the company published the worm’s genome. Now, it is working to identify strains of this species and other beetles with desirable traits, including faster growth and reproduction, more efficient food consumption, and pathogen resistance. Most traits involve a complicated tangle of genes, but large-scale screening could speed the selection, specialists say. Food specialists say mealworms could help alleviate food insecurity. They are high in protein, and raising them emits much less greenhouse gas than other forms of animal protein. Last year, the European Food Safety Authority deemed the yellow mealworm safe for human consumption.

EPIDEMIOLOGY

Tighter soot limits offer benefits

Tightening the air quality standard for particulate matter in the United States would prevent premature deaths in older people, a study has found. It offers stronger evidence than previous analyses covering fewer people, which also found that low levels of the small particles, measuring no more than 2.5 micrometers wide, pose health risks. Researchers led by Francesca Dominici of Harvard University compared the health of 68.5 million Medicare recipients, all ages 65 or above, across the United States with their estimated exposure to air pollution between 2000 to 2016. More than 143,000 deaths in this group could have been avoided if the U.S. standard for particulate matter had been 10 micrograms per cubic meter between 2006 and 2016, instead of the current 12 micrograms. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had already planned to propose a new standard for the pollutant this spring, which is intended to protect people of all ages. The new study was released on 26 January by the Health Effects Institute, which is funded by EPA and industry groups.

PANDEMIC

COVID-19 vaccines make strides

Two makers of COVID-19 vaccines logged major milestones on 31 January. Moderna won full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its messenger RNA–based vaccine, 13 months after the agency granted the company an emergency use authorization (EUA). It is the country’s second fully authorized COVID-19 vaccine, after Pfizer’s, which won approval in August 2021. And after a monthslong delay caused by manufacturing issues, Novavax applied to FDA for an EUA for its protein-based vaccine. Last month, it won conditional marketing authorization in Europe, and the World Health Organization granted it an emergency use listing, opening up an avenue to buttress global vaccine supplies.

PALEONTOLOGY

Prized dinosaur tracks damaged

A backhoe operator last week reportedly damaged part of one of North America’s largest and most diverse sets of early Cretaceous dinosaur tracks near Moab, Utah. The Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite contains more than 200 tracks left by at least 10 different species about 112 million years ago. Last week, work was underway to replace a boardwalk at the location, which is administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Paleontologists say the agency provided no notice of the work and had no fossil expert on site to monitor it; BLM’s Moab office has lacked a paleontologist on staff since 2018. In a statement this week, BLM did not explain the apparent damage or accept responsibility, saying only “heavy equipment is on location, but it is absolutely not used in the protected area,” and it “is committed to balancing resource protection and public access” to the site. The damage there was verified in person this week by Utah’s state paleontologist.

ECOLOGY

Elder trees promote forest health, diversity

Very old trees like “General Sherman,” a giant sequoia in California, can be a forest’s insurance policy for weathering environmental changes.JIM BRANDENBURG/MINDEN PICTURES

Ancient trees are rare but play an outsize role in helping a forest survive, says a study that quantifies conditions under which a forest gains these old-timers. Charles Cannon of the Morton Arboretum and colleagues analyzed published annual death rates of forests—the percentage of trees that die each year. The team’s simulations indicated that if the rate does not exceed 1%, about 1% of a forest’s trees will eventually become long-lived behemoths—surviving for hundreds or thousands of years, up to 20 times longer than the trees around them, the scientists report this week in Nature Plants. Luck plays a large role in which trees survive lightning, fires, chain saws, drought, and disease. But the paper suggests genetics make the old-timers more resilient, particularly in dealing with long-term climate oscillations, which in turn helps make the entire forest more adaptable and sustainable. It’s yet another reason, the authors say, for protecting old-growth forests.

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