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The crisis engulfing our freshwater molluscs


Why people are always butting in


The wobbly way to free ships from frozen seas WEEKLY 10 March 2018

WHY WE DON’T SLEEP ENOUGH Evolution made us the wide-awake ape


Found: the hidden genes that drive evolution

1 0

9 770262 407282

No3168 £4.50 US/CAN$6.99





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Volume 237 No 3168

Analysis Australia trials power from the people 22

On the cover


38 Mussel pain The crisis engulfing our freshwater molluscs

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We shouldn’t dismiss mind-reading technology as science fiction


34 Rudely interrupted Why people are always butting in


32 Shaking the ice The wobbly way to free ships from frozen seas

THIS WEEK Outsmarting cancer with game theory. Ex-spy poisoned. Hiding penguins


NEWS & TECHNOLOGY The oldest known caring parent. Twisted graphene makes a superconductor. AI cheats at computer games. We evolved to sleep less. Mountains on Saturn’s moon may be fallen ring. Red squirrel saviours. Earliest stars spotted. Literal brain over brawn. Our moon came from shapeshifting Earth. How to think creatively. Mind-reading algorithm


Why we don’t sleep enough Evolution made us the wideawake ape

28 Dark DNA Found: the hidden genes that drive evolution

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Customer services manager Gavin Power Head of data science Kimberly Karman HR co-ordinator Serena Robinson Facilities manager Ricci Welch Executive assistant Sarah Gauld Trainee PA Emily Perry Receptionist Alice Catlin

Plus Psychological profiling: “We can be hacked, persuaded, manipulated” (42). First stars (10). Creative brainwaves (13). Storms on Jupiter (26). Cancer game changer (4)

17 IN BRIEF Enceladus may have Earth-like microbes. Largest ever family tree. Plant rediscovered after 151 years. Sarcastic fish

Analysis 22 Virtual power plant Community-wide energy sharing is getting its first big test in South Australia 24 COMMENT Electric shocks are a bad way to train your dog. There is a good side to processed food 25 INSIGHT There may be five kinds of diabetes, not just types 1 and 2

Features 28 The hunt for dark DNA A hidden universe within the genome challenges our understanding of evolution 32 Shaking the ice The wobbly way to free ships from frozen seas 34 Rudely interrupted Why people are always butting in – and what to do about it 38 Shell shock The crisis engulfing our freshwater molluscs 42 Psychological profiling David Stillwell revealed how companies gauge our personalities online

Culture 44 Becoming human An account of the origin of feelings has them central to life and consciousness 46 Beyond self-expression Inside the cryptic world of US computer art pioneer Paul Brown

Regulars 26 APERTURE Eye of the storms 52 LETTERS Solving a sand crisis 55 CROSSWORD 56 FEEDBACK Non-jelly jellies 57 THE LAST WORD Stray cat strut

10 March 2018 | NewScientist | 1




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Your mind is not your own Don’t dismiss thought-reading technology as science fiction HOWEVER much technology piece of equipment and, crucially, knows about you – and you would the total consent of the brain be surprised how much it does being scanned. Subjects have to (see page 42) – there is one firewall enter a narrow tunnel on a gurney that it can’t penetrate: your skull. with their head held perfectly Unless you choose to share your still, and submit to a lengthy thoughts, they remain private. examination. On top of that, But for how much longer? fMRI is still a fairly crude device Increasingly, a combination of for mind reading. It has been brain scanning and artificial criticised for producing colourful intelligence is opening the cartoons of brain activity but not black box, gathering signals much actual data. from deep inside the mind and Other imaging techniques are reverse-engineering them to available, but none could easily recreate thoughts. For now, the be turned into a portable device technology is limited to vision – inconspicuous enough to use working out what somebody “In principle there appears is looking at from their brain no reason why the entire activity (see page 14) – but in contents of our minds principle there appears no reason could not be revealed” why the entire contents of our minds couldn’t be revealed. This line of research inevitably without the subject’s consent. raises fears about the ultimate The simplest, EEG, has to be invasion of privacy: mind reading. donned like a cap or headband It is not difficult to imagine some and is hopelessly inaccurate sort of device that can simply be unless the subject is not moving. pointed at somebody’s head to Nevertheless, we should not extract their thoughts. dismiss mind reading as being Not difficult to imagine, but forever confined to laboratory extremely difficult to realise. At conditions. The AI side of the present, the scanning part is done equation is a game changer: with by functional magnetic resonance enough training, perhaps it could imaging (fMRI). This requires an learn to extract useful signals extremely large and expensive from a noisy EEG trace.

Even today, the combination of fMRI and AI could be developed for limited uses, such as accessing the thoughts of people in a minimally conscious state. This is possible to some extent now, and is already controversial. Similarly, it may be feasible to develop polygraph-like tests for people accused of crimes, to assess what they really know. Again, this is not without precedent and is extremely contentious. A decade ago a USbased company called Cephos began selling fMRI scans to defendants. Around the same time, courts in India started accepting evidence from an extremely controversial brain scanning technique called brain electrical oscillation signature (BEOS) profiling. Cephos ceased selling scans in 2010 after a court ruled the technology wasn’t permissible, but other companies have stepped in to offer similar things; BEOS profiling is still being used in the Indian legal system. Mass surveillance mind-reading is not on the cards. But even the limited applications are troubling. That is one black box we should think very hard about opening. ■ 10 March 2018 | NewScientist | 3



Treat cancer like a game An algorithm that tailors treatments to shape cancer evolution is letting doctors gain the upper hand on the disease, doubling survival times Andy Coghlan

treatment regime to maximise a person’s survival. This enables the team to use game theory to keep the upper hand over cancer. In this “game”, the oncologists are predators, and the cancer cells are prey. The oncologists’ objective is to kill the prey, or to at least keep it in check. But

APPROACHING cancer treatment as a game has doubled the survival time of men with advanced prostate cancer. This achievement could mark the start of using game theory to target a range of cancers more cleverly. “This approach is elegant and exciting, and shows real promise “This approach could revolutionise cancer to delay treatment failure,” says therapy. I want to try it Charles Swanton at the Francis on every cancer we can” Crick Institute in London. People with cancer aren’t usually killed by their initial conventional cancer treatment tumour, but by the rapidly shifts this balance. By giving a evolving secondary tumours that patient repeated strong doses of occur once the disease has spread. a cancer drug, the cells are pushed To work out how each case of to evolve resistance. cancer is evolving, Robert Gatenby When this occurs, the and his colleagues at the Moffitt oncologists stop leading the game Cancer Center & Research and instead have to keep up with Institute in Florida created an an evolving, stronger cancer. By algorithm. Built using clinical using the algorithm to deploy data, it also suggests the best drugs more subtly, and closely

monitoring what the cancer does in response, Gatenby says oncologists can stay ahead. To test this approach, his team turned to people whose prostate cancer has spread to other parts of the body. They kept track of whether the cancer was growing or shrinking by measuring how much of a chemical called prostate specific antigen was shed by tumours into the blood every month. As this chemical rises and falls, the algorithm calculates how much of the drug abiraterone to administer in each treatment cycle, tailoring dosages and treatment to each individual. The approach works because it keeps the prostate cancer hooked on testosterone. Many cells in prostate tumours require this hormone, so men with this cancer are given a chemical to stop them making it. However, the cancer often evolves cells that

Russian ex-spy poisoned in the UK


WHAT poison was used on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia? The former Russian spy and his daughter were found on a bench in a shopping centre in Salisbury, UK, on Sunday. The pair are in intensive care, with doctors racing to find out what they have been given and how to treat it. In a statement, Wiltshire Police said there is no risk to the wider public. Public Health England said that other people have been “decontaminated”. Because the pair were found in a shopping centre, it is likely the substance was delivered in a massive dose or is a rapidly acting poison, says Michelle Carlin at Northumbria University. The area has been 4 | NewScientist | 10 March 2018

make their own testosterone. Abiraterone is then used to target these cells, but large doses of the drug wipes them out, prompting cells that don’t need testosterone to take over and ultimately kill the patient. By using less of the drug, and taking breaks between treatment cycles, the team can stop these more lethal cells from becoming dominant, retaining control over the cancer.

Outsmarting evolution It typically takes prostate cancers 15 months to evolve resistance to standard doses of abiraterone, at which point the tumours are able to grow bigger than their initial size. But in an ongoing trial of the algorithm in the treatment of 17 men, this timescale has more than doubled to an average of 33 months – and could keep rising.

sealed off by police. Typically, a hospital will first screen samples like blood for common compounds, like over-the-counter drugs, prescription drugs and household chemicals. If these come up short, samples would be tested for metal salts like arsenic, says Carlin. A toxicology report was expected as New Scientist went to press.

Secret penguins revealed by drones TWO huge colonies of Adélie penguins have been discovered hiding in plain sight on Antarctic islands. Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) were known to nest on the Danger Islands, near the tip of the

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Cancer has been able to progress in only three men in the trial, and some of the participants have now lived for four years without this happening, Gatenby told New Scientist. These results are so impressive that the team is beginning a larger trial, and plans to extend the treatment strategy to skin and thyroid cancer. “This is an approach that could revolutionise cancer therapy, and it doesn’t even require the

discovery and approval of a new drug,” says Carlo Maley of Arizona State University. “I want to try this on every cancer we can.” The team will keep running their small trial until cancers resume progressing in all 17 men, but it could be a long wait. “These patients are still chugging along three to four years after the trial started,” says Gatenby, whose team published a preliminary report of the first 11 patients last

Two prostate cancer cells in the final stage of cell division–

west Antarctic Peninsula. But only in 2014 did satellite images reveal large areas stained with guano. A team led by Heather Lynch of Stony Brook University in New York has now surveyed the birds, using drones specially adapted for the cold. They found 1.5 million Adélie penguins, taking the total number in the world to 8 million (Scientific Reports, There were also smaller colonies of gentoo and chinstrap penguins. The global population of Adélie penguins was already increasing, for unknown reasons. However, numbers have fallen around the west Antarctic Peninsula, which has warmed rapidly in recent decades because of climate change. An east Antarctic colony, on Petrel Island, has suffered two bad breeding seasons in the last decade.

Biggest quantum computer yet

believed to be needed for supremacy. Bristlecone was presented on 5 March at a meeting of the American Physical Society in Los Angeles. Google has yet to demonstrate its abilities. Julian Kelly of the firm’s Quantum AI Lab said in a blog post that the research team is “cautiously optimistic that quantum supremacy can be achieved with Bristlecone”.

GOOGLE has introduced Bristlecone, its new 72-qubit quantum processor, and the largest yet. The tech giant is racing rivals like IBM to demonstrate a quantum computer that can surpass the abilities of ordinary machines. This goal of “quantum supremacy” is generally thought to require about 50 quantum bits, or qubits, and Google hopes to achieve it this year. A successful quantum computer must also have low error rates. Bristlecone is designed to mimic Google’s previous 9-qubit machine, which had an error rate of 0.6 per cent for every two-qubit quantum logic gate. A rate below 0.5 per cent is

year (Nature Communications, The approach is one of several to look at cancer evolution. Rather than go for broke trying to eradicate an advanced cancer, these strategies instead aim to maximise how long a person can continue living a relatively normal life with the disease. ■

Cervical cancer to be eradicated? AUSTRALIA is on track to become the first country to practically eradicate cervical cancer. A national school-based vaccination programme has seen a sharp decline in human papillomavirus

Game theory could be one way to keep rapidly evolving cancer cells under control (see main story), but it isn’t the only game in town. The CAR-T approach genetically engineers a person’s own T immune cells so that they recognise and kill cancer cells. The strategy has shown promise in treating otherwise incurable blood cancers, including chronic leukaemias. It works because it can eliminate all cancer cells, including those that have evolved drug resistance. Another tactic is to use immunotherapy to reawaken a person’s immune system. Cancers often evolve to evade a person’s immune system by producing molecules that make them look like normal cells. Drugs like nivolumab unmask these cells, enabling the immune system to see them and weed them out – a strategy that has sent cases of melanoma and lung cancer into long-term remission. A newer technique is to test dozens of drugs on clones of a person’s cancer in the lab. This should enable oncologists to pick the best drug first time, giving the cancer less time to grow and evolve.

(HPV) infections, which cause over 99 per cent of cervical cancer cases. Since 2007, all girls aged 12 or 13 in Australia have been offered a free HPV vaccination. A decade later, the proportion of 18 to 24-year-old women with HPV has fallen from 22.7 to 1.5 per cent (Journal of Infectious Diseases, The number of Australian women diagnosed annually with cervical cancer should drop from 3000 to just a few by the year 2050, says study author Suzanne Garland at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne. The original vaccine protected against four HPV strains that cause 70 per cent of cervical cancer. The latest version – rolled out in Australia in January – protects against nine HPV strains that cause 90 per cent of cases. 10 March 2018 | NewScientist | 5



Ancient sea animal doted on young different growth stages, so could see how they grew. “Juveniles are very similar to the adult, but… they are naturally smaller and have a more slender body,” says Ortega-Hernández. Crucially, one fossil seems to be of a mature adult with four young. The juveniles are all a similar

A SHRIMP-LIKE creature is frozen in the act of caring for its four offspring. Captured in a fossil dating back some 520 million years, it is the oldest evidence of a parent actively looking after its young after they hatch. There is little trace of extended parental care in the fossil record. One of the few examples is a 160-million-year-old reptile that died alongside its six young. But we have more evidence of animals protecting their eggs. This needs less commitment and has been reported in dinosaurs, and in a 508-million-year-old crustacean-like creature that carried eggs in between her body and shell. Now Javier Ortega-Hernández at the University of Cambridge and his colleagues have published a study of Fuxianhuia protensa specimens from the Cambrian period, found at the Chengjiang fossil site in Yunnan, China. The tiny creature is an arthropod, the group that includes insects. The team had many fossils at

Graphene twist makes simple superconductor SUPERCONDUCTIVITY holds great promise for delivering energy without the usual losses found in regular power lines due to heat and electrical resistance. It is notoriously tricky to achieve, but a new superconductor may help us better understand how such materials work – and bring us closer to using them in everyday life. Superconductors transfer energy without resistance, but they generally only work at very low temperatures. 6 | NewScientist | 10 March 2018

It is the oldest known example of parental behaviour


Jasmin Fox-Skelly

shape and size, and have the same number of body segments, suggesting they are the same age (bioRxiv, The remains are pristine, so the team claims the five animals died and were fossilised together, not at different times. “We argue that they are basically siblings that were born from the same egg clutch and grew together,” says Ortega-Hernández. It seems F. protensa lived with its young

Among the warmest operators are cuprate superconductors, which work at -173°C. But these are messy electrical systems that are difficult to understand and recreate. Pablo Jarillo-Herrero at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his colleagues have made a superconductor that exhibits the same kind of resistance-free energy transfer as cuprates but is much less complicated. It switches easily between superconducting and insulating states, making it easier to study how superconductivity arises. Their material is made from two layers of graphene – a form of carbon that is pliable yet incredibly strong,

and a superb conductor of heat. Each layer is less than 30 nanometres thick and features a hexagonal pattern of molecules. The two layers are stacked, with one rotated by about 1 degree with respect to the other, causing the hexagons to overlap. This changes the way the electrons within the lattice interact such that they flow through without resistance when a voltage applied to the system is increased (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature26160).

“This material switches from superconducting to insulating, which is useful for quantum computers”

for some time, perhaps to protect them from predators. The find is “as convincing a case as possible for the existence of parenting in the Cambrian”, says Bruce Lieberman at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. It also implies parental care evolved in this period. Until then, most organisms were simple and single-celled. “The Cambrian is known to be a time when many of the major animal groups, or phyla, first appear in the fossil record,” says Lieberman. But if new behaviours like this arose at this time, it is not clear why parental care evolved in F. protensa and not in other arthropods of a similar age. Previous studies found that the animal had an advanced brain and complex cardiovascular system. This could have allowed it to be more active and care for its young. However, “other arthropods may have had a similarly advanced brain at this time”, says Lieberman. Instead, F. protensa may have had a different lifestyle to other arthropods. “There are certain environments or lifestyles where [parental care] would be favoured evolutionarily, and others where it wouldn’t be,” says Lieberman. “Parental care has not only evolved multiple times… it has also been lost multiple times.” ■

This transformation from an insulator to a superconductor occurs at around -271°C, which may seem frigid, but is warm compared with the temperatures at which many other superconductors operate. “This is a striking result – a clean system that appears to show the same kind of superconductivity that we’ve been trying to understand in cuprates for three decades,” says Jenny Hoffman at Harvard University. Because this material is tunable, Jarillo-Herrero says it could also be used to make superconducting transistors for use in quantum computers or other sophisticated electronic applications. Leah Crane ■

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Cheat helps AI beat classic video game


IF YOU can’t win the game, selfdestruct or cheat. That is the strategy invented by an artificial intelligence trained to play old Atari video games. Patryk Chrabaszcz at the University of Freiburg, Germany, and his colleagues created an AI to play eight Atari games, including the arcade classic Q*bert, in which players must navigate a strange orange character around a pyramid and dodge enemies. Rather than mastering the game as a human gamer might, the algorithm came up with two unusual tactics. In the first, the AI gives up trying to win and instead baits an enemy into killing itself, before self-destructing. This scores just enough points for the AI to advance to the next level. In the second, the AI seems to have discovered a bug that lets it cheat. The algorithm completes the first level, but doesn’t advance to the second as expected. Instead, the pyramid starts flashing and the AI’s score starts rising rapidly, reaching nearly a million points ( abs/1802.08842). Chrabaszcz and colleagues developed their AI using a so-called evolution strategy, which involves borrowing ideas about mutation and selection from biology. The AI is given a random strategy initially, then as it plays the game it tweaks or mutates the approach to create new ones. The system evaluates which of these “offspring” strategies achieves the highest score and then further mutates the best-performing ones at the next time step. Over time, evolution ensures the best strategies, or at least the most successful ones,  dominate. In 2015, Google DeepMind demonstrated an AI that learned to play Atari games just by “watching” the pixels on screen, and could beat high scores set by top human players. The idea is that game-playing algorithms could one day start learning about the real world. Jacob Aron ■

Our species is adapted to staying up past our bedtime

Why humans evolved to need a lot less sleep THE 7 hours of sleep we get every In fact, we mostly get about night may not feel like quite 7 hours a night: 5.4 hours in enough, but compared with our non-REM sleep and 1.6 hours in fellow primates, which spend REM sleep. So the drop has come around 12 hours a day slumbering, about by cutting non-REM sleep humans barely get any shut-eye. (American Journal of Physical It seems we have evolved to Anthropology, limit our sleep, and that may be The findings don’t mean we because we have better things to should be sleeping for 9.5 hours, do, says Charles Nunn at Duke says Nunn. “We know that, in University in North Carolina. But terms of health, there is an this might have left us susceptible “Time spent sleeping could to Alzheimer’s disease. have been used to find Nunn and his colleague David allies, develop skills like Samson collected data on how tool-making, and teach” long 29 other primate species sleep, including how much time they spend in the REM (rapid eye optimal amount of sleep, and movement) sleep of vivid dreams people who sleep more or less and in deep, non-REM sleep. than that have health problems,” The pair also included factors he says. “It definitely seems that that might affect sleep, such as sleep has been optimised.” diet and brain size. They used all Nunn thinks humans sleep less this to build a model that predicts because we have more important how much sleep a given primate things to do. Time our ancestors should get, based on the others. spent sleeping could have been Their model calculated that used to do all the things that made humans should have around us so successful, such as finding 9.5 hours a night. Of this, 8.4 hours allies, developing skills like toolwould be in non-REM sleep and making and teaching children. 1.3 hours in REM sleep – if we were But not everyone is convinced. like other primates. Other primates learn plenty, says

Simon Durrant at the University of Lincoln, UK. Chimpanzees procure a variety of foods, make tools, have complex social lives and fight wars – yet they sleep much more than we do, he says. Durrant points out that the study was based on captive animals, which may sleep more than their wild counterparts. “Animals in captivity are notoriously bored,” he says. Nunn and Samson aren’t sure why we have cut non-REM sleep and preserved REM sleep. NonREM sleep seems important for storing long-term memories. There also appears to be a link between the amount of non-REM sleep a person gets and whether or not they develop Alzheimer’s disease. Some have suggested that the plaques of amyloid protein that characterise this condition are cleared from the brain in non-REM sleep. “This may make humans uniquely vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease,” says Nunn. Such a change in sleeping patterns might have increased this risk, agrees Dave Holtzman at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. Our brains make less of the amyloid protein characteristic of Alzheimer’s during deep sleep. “If you shorten the period of non-REM sleep, presumably levels of the protein are higher, allowing it to accumulate over time,” he says. That said, sleeping more than average may not protect you against Alzheimer’s, given the research showing that oversleeping can also be harmful. “I don’t think we can improve on someone who gets normal amounts of sleep,” says Holtzman. “But many people don’t have appropriate sleep patterns. It is more important to correct those to protect against problems.” He recommends getting enough exercise, not reading too close to bedtime and switching off lights. Jessica Hamzelou ■ 10 March 2018 | NewScientist | 7




Pine martens may save UK’s red squirrels

Moon peaks are fallen ring debris James Romero

kilometres, far enough away from the planet’s strong pull that the tiny moon’s own gravity can keep hold of debris and force it into a ring. If destabilised, falling ring material could form a thin equatorial surface ridge. But there is a problem. “Usually impacts make a crater. Here, we need to build [ridge] topography,” says James Roberts at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Craters would certainly be the most common result of impacts from objects not bound to Iapetus’s

SATURN’S moon Iapetus resembles a walnut, with a ridge of peaks 20 kilometres high running around its centre. A new model suggests the ridge could be made of rubble from the collapse of a former ring. And data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft could confirm it. Iapetus’s mountain range runs 1400 kilometres around the equator of the tiny moon. Scaled to Earth proportions, its peaks would reach over 100 kilometres high. Astronomers initially thought that internal geological “Lower-angle impacts could processes could have pushed up allow ring debris to build the ridge, but models struggled to up instead of digging out replicate what the Cassini probe Iapetus’s surface” saw as it flew by in 2004. Recent alternative ideas suggest it is made of impact debris. gravity – like meteorites – which Material kicked up when space would often come in at steep junk collides with a moon angles to the surface, causing generally falls straight back maximum damage. down or gets sent into orbit Falling ring material doesn’t around the moon’s host planet. behave like impacting asteroids However, Iapetus orbits Saturn at or meteorites. Trapped inside the a distance of more than 13 million moon’s gravity, the falling ring 8 | NewScientist | 10 March 2018

The mountains circling Iapetus may be remnants of a former ring

particles would slowly spiral downwards over several orbits. Roberts and his colleague Angela Stickle wondered if the resulting lower-angle impacts could allow ring debris to build up instead of digging out Iapetus’s surface. Them team simulated the impacts of icy blocks 1 metre to 1 kilometre in diameter over various shallow angles. Their results show that falling ring material would rarely make deep craters (Icarus, Also, because impactors generally survive these glancing blows, ring material piles up. “You get little traffic jams of debris as each bumps up against previous impacts,” says Stickle. “It isn’t a final demonstration by any means, but I can’t imagine another physically plausible scenario,” says William B. McKinnon at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. Roberts now wants to look through Cassini data for geological features associated with their model. Such a heavy load sitting on Iapetus’s surface should cause the icy crust to bulge upwards on each side of it, which may be visible in the images the probe took. ■

YOUR enemy’s enemy is your friend. The UK’s endangered red squirrels are getting an unexpected helping hand – from predators that kill the grey squirrels that threaten them. Grey squirrels are native to North America. They got settled in the UK in the 19th century after being brought over by a silk manufacturer, and soon began to suppress the native red squirrels. They are bigger, bolder and eat a more varied diet, and also carry a virus deadly to red squirrels. Today, they have driven red squirrels out of much of the UK – although in Europe the red squirrels remain widespread. It has been suggested that predators called pine martens might help restore the UK’s red squirrels, by driving down grey squirrel populations. Pine martens look like a cross between an otter and a weasel. They were almost wiped out in the UK, but have been recovering since the 1970s. Emma Sheehy at the University of Aberdeen, UK, and her colleagues studied the populations of all three animals in Scotland during 2016. They enticed pine martens and squirrels to feeders and recorded their numbers, using DNA analysis and cameras. This revealed how often red and grey squirrels encountered pine martens, and how this affected them. In areas where grey squirrels were exposed to pine martens, their numbers dwindled, whereas red squirrel numbers increased if they encountered pine martens (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2017.2603). Red squirrels were more cautious than grey squirrels when visiting feeders in areas with lots of pine martens, says Sheehy. It may be that grey squirrels don’t recognise pine martens as a threat, as they didn’t evolve alongside them, she says. Sheehy’s team is now studying how the growing pine marten population is affecting farmers and foresters, who have persecuted them in the past. Helen Thomson ■






MNL Performance, % Total Return Y/E 31 July 2017

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We’ve seen traces of the first stars in the Australian outback, where it can avoid contamination by Earthly radio waves. Their radio spectra of the entire sky showed that hydrogen atoms began absorbing background light about 180 million years after the big bang (Nature, gcz8xm). “Aside from the CMB, this is the farthest we’ve seen in the early universe,” Bowman says. “It’s the earliest evidence of stars existing.” Surprisingly, the signal was much stronger than expected. The

OUR first glimpse of the universe’s earliest stars may help us figure out what makes up dark matter. Observations have revealed hydrogen from the era when stars were first lighting up, and the gas appears to have interacted with dark matter particles. After the big bang but before stars and galaxies formed, most of space was filled with hydrogen gas that blended in with the background light remaining from the big bang, called the cosmic microwave background or CMB. This renders the gas invisible to telescopes. But as stars began to form, their ultraviolet radiation imparted energy to the gas atoms, letting them absorb some of the background light. Astrophysicists have been trying to observe that absorption for decades. Now, Judd Bowman at Arizona State University and his colleagues have finally spotted it. As the frequency of the signal from the early universe overlaps with FM radio frequencies, they built a specialised radio telescope

Brains really do mean having less brawn PRIMATE species with larger brains have less muscle mass, supporting a controversial theory that energyhungry brains grew larger by stealing resources from other tissues. Brains are expensive to run. Some estimates suggest every kilogram of brain tissue needs 240 kilocalories each day. Many researchers have wondered how primates – particularly 10 | NewScientist | 10 March 2018

This radio antenna in Western Australia detected the oldest stars


Leah Crane

strength of absorption depends on the gas’s temperature, so this means the gas was twice as cold – at 5 kelvin, or -268°C – as decades of models predicted. “The only way to cool something is to transfer energy from it, but what could possibly be even colder than the gas? The only candidate is dark matter,” says Rennan Barkana at Tel Aviv University in Israel. Everything else in the early universe is just too warm. Barkana simulated the early universe and found that the dark matter particles must have been fairly light to absorb enough velocity and thus heat from the

humans – find the energy to keep their big brains running. An idea emerged in the mid-1990s: perhaps primates support their large brains by saving energy elsewhere. In particular, the idea is that their guts – another “expensive” tissue – got smaller as brains became larger. But it isn’t clear that this idea is correct. In 2011, Karin Isler at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, published a study questioning whether animals with big brains really have small guts. There may be another piece to the puzzle, says Magdalena Muchlinski at the University of North Texas.

She says muscle – particularly slow twitch muscle used in sustained activities like long-distance running – is also an expensive tissue. So she explored whether primates with big brains have less muscle mass. Muchlinski and her colleagues dissected primates of 10 species that lived in captivity and died of natural causes. They included the Philippine tarsier, which weighs about 130 grams,

“Primates with larger brain volumes had less muscle mass, relative to their overall body mass”

gas to account for the drastic drop in temperature. That is because it is easier to transfer velocity to a lighter particle. He calculated that the particles can be no heavier than about 4.3 giga-electronvolts (GeV) (Nature, That is much lighter than the mass of about 100 GeV that had long been predicted for weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs), the leading contender for dark matter. This measurement is a key addition to the evidence for what dark matter is and how it looks. “Until now, dark matter has been implied from its gravity. It’s been indirect, and some people have just questioned our theories of gravity,” says Barkana. “This is the first evidence that’s independent of gravity.” Bowman and his team remain cautious about their finding, even after two years of double-checking every part of their radio telescope, and building an exact copy to confirm their measurement. Other experiments will have to independently verify the signal that the team found. “If it’s confirmed, then the implication is going to be a new understanding of dark matter – how it affected the early universe and the universe now,” says Lincoln Greenhill at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “It’s going to change everything.” ■

and the crab-eating macaque, which weighs several kilograms. The team found that primates with larger brain volumes had less muscle mass, relative to their overall body mass (The Anatomical Record, “What I am seeing now is larger-brained primates have less muscle,” says Muchlinski. But she admits the sample size is small. “I think it may be possible that primates, as a group, are adapted to spend relatively little energy on locomotion,” says Isler. But she is reserving judgement until Muchlinski gets more data. Colin Barras ■


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A SHAPE-SHIFTING Earth might have formed the moon. Roughly 4.5 billion years ago, a collision made our planet mushroom outward into a spinning cloud of vaporised rock resembling a squished jam doughnut. At its puffy edges the moon formed, suggests new work on a model of early Earth. Scientists have long suspected that a Mars-sized body known as Theia struck the young Earth, throwing molten rock into orbit. It would have coalesced into a moon mostly made of material from Theia, but Apollo moon rocks suggest that its make-up is almost identical to Earth’s. Last year, Simon Lock at Harvard University stumbled upon a solution. When he and Sarah Stewart at the University of California, Davis, simulated the impact, they did not see a young Earth surrounded by a molten debris disc. Instead, the collision vaporised the planet into that cosmic doughnut. They called the structure a synestia, and argued that most planets might form these oddities at some point in their lives. Now, Lock and his colleagues argue it can even explain our moon (Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, Heated to roughly 3000°C, the synestia would have had an outer edge marked by clouds of molten rock that formed silica rain. There were also chunks of debris throughout. Should some of those have slammed together, they could have formed a proto-moon. Then silica rain would have collected on to it, helping it grow. Meanwhile, the synestia cooled and shrank until it was smaller than the young moon’s orbit. That caused our planetary companion to condense at the edges of the synestia, leaving it in orbit around the body that kept cooling until it resembled Earth. The model helps explain why the moon is almost Earth’s chemical clone, yet lacks elements that are easily vaporised, such as potassium and sodium. Shannon Hall ■


Earth vaporised and the moon then sprang out

Tap brainwaves to jazz up music skills Helen Thomson

have been linked with coming up with creative ideas, such as answering questions like “name as many original uses for a mop as you can”. When the researchers analysed the pianists’ brainwaves, they found the alpha waves became more in sync – more neurons were firing at the same time – the more creative someone was at the time. However, they only saw this in people who had formal training in improvisation. Among these

IF YOU need to produce your best creative work, try boosting your alpha brainwaves. Joel Lopata at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and his colleagues have found that people with more synchronised alpha waves are more creative and produce work of higher quality. The team asked 22 pianists to listen to, play back or improvise jazz melodies. As they did so, the researchers monitored electrical “Creativity seems to be activity in the prefrontal cortex, a distinct mental state – a brain region that orchestrates one that can be nurtured our thoughts. through training” When groups of neurons send signals at the same time, the result is a wave of electrical pianists, alpha waves became activity that EEG caps can pick more synchronised when they up. Certain brainwave types have played back music they had been linked with mental states – previously heard, and even more delta waves are detectable during so when they were improvising deep sleep, for instance, whereas their own melodies. beta waves signify that someone When expert musicians is analysing something critically. listened to and rated them, Alpha brainwaves, with a the improvisations that were frequency of 7 to 14 hertz or so, associated with the highest alpha-

Nurturing your talents can help ease you into that alpha state

wave synchronisation got the best scores (Neuropsychologia, But there was no increase in alpha-wave synchronisation in pianists who had no improvisation training. “Our results suggest that creativity can be characterised as a distinct mental state – one that can be nurtured through training, and that can reflect the quality of the finished product,” says Lopata. So would boosting alpha-wave activity make you more musical? Researchers have found that electrical brain stimulation can improve the playing of novice jazz musicians. “This may have put them into an alpha state, where they were better able to come up with new ideas,” suggests Lopata, who was not involved in that experiment. But in 2016, Rachel Wurzman at the University of Pennsylvania warned in an open letter of many safety issues in sourcing brain stimulation gear online. Instead, Lopata says that an activity like free-writing, where you write a spontaneous stream of ideas, would probably help you practise getting into the alpha zone. ■ 10 March 2018 | NewScientist | 13



AI reads your mind to describe images CAN you guess what I’m looking at? Artificial intelligence can. A system developed in Japan can describe a picture someone is viewing, using scans of their brain. Algorithms have recently become pretty good at generating captions when shown an image. Now it seems a similar technique can be used to generate captions when an AI is shown scans of a

“One accurate caption it generated was: ‘A dog is sitting on the floor in front of an open door’ ” person’s brain, taken while they were looking at an image. “I consider it a form of mind reading, or perhaps at this point just mind skimming,” says Umut Güçlü at Radboud University in the Netherlands, who was not involved in the research. To generate a caption, the AI is given an image of a person’s brain, taken with an fMRI scanner. The fMRI scanner shows the surges in blood flow that correspond with activity, so the different parts of the brain involved in processing the image light up on the scan.

From this, the AI then produces a caption based on what it thinks the person was viewing. For example, one caption it generated was “A dog is sitting on the floor in front of an open door”, which correctly described the scene (arXiv, Determining the accuracy of the system is tricky because there is no definitive best caption. However, of the six captions included in the paper, most of them fairly accurately described the original image and made grammatical sense. To train the AI, Ichiro Kobayashi at Ochanomizu University in Japan and his colleagues split the process into two parts. The first identifies features in an image like “man”, “surfboard” or “ocean”, and the second forms captions by putting these together into a basic sentence such as “a man is surfing in the ocean on his surfboard”. Both components of the AI contain a type of algorithm called a neural network, which consists of thousands of different connections, inspired by the way neurons connect in the brain. Neural networks typically require tens or hundreds of thousands of examples to become good at a task. But

fMRI imaging is expensive, so a dataset of 100,000 brain scans of people looking at images just doesn’t exist. To get around this, the team trained the caption-forming part of the AI on regular images with captions. This is the most complex task the AI performs, so requires a lot more training data to become accurate. They then trained the feature-extracting part on brain scans of a person viewing images. This is an easier task and so required less training data. It learned to associate

experimented with three types of images: “natural” pictures of things like bats, snowmobiles and stained glass; simple shapes like squares and plus signs; and alphabetical letters. The shapes and letters were fairly recognisable, but the reconstructions of the natural images tended to be blurry and difficult to parse. You can see the images at The team trained their algorithm using 6000 images that were paired

with associated fMRI scans. With enough data, AIs like this might make it possible for computers to know what we are thinking about (see main story). “These decoding methods could be used for human-computer interaction in the future,” says Haiguang Wen at Purdue University in Indiana. “You could know what a person is dreaming or thinking just by analysing the exciting brain signals.” Leah Crane


Timothy Revell

PICTURE PERFECT AI can pluck images directly from a person’s brain. Given an fMRI scan of someone looking at a picture, an algorithm can reconstruct the original image from the scan alone (bioRxiv, Although the results aren’t yet perfect, they are still often recognisable and hint at what may be possible in the future. Guohua Shen at Japan’s Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute and his colleagues

14 | NewScientist | 10 March 2018

certain patterns of brain activity with certain features within the images the person was viewing. Putting the two components together gave the final AI. There are still questions around how good an AI system like this can be. Because fMRIs do not record everything the brain is doing, just a snapshot, this means there may be a limit to the amount of detail that can be extracted using this method. In the past, teams have shown that it is possible to make very rough video clips estimating what a person is seeing using brain scans, as well as detecting what type of object a macaque is viewing. Applications are still a long way off, but companies like Facebook and Elon Musk’s Neuralink are exploring technology to control computers directly with the brain. “Once such methods start to reliably decode what we imagine or think rather than what we see, I expect them to play an important role in the development of new neuroprosthetic devices,” says Güçlü. ■





APRIL 5, 2018

Join us at the 5th USA Science & Engineering Festival where we’ll take you on an amazing interactive exploration of everything STEM from outer space to the deep blue.

APRIL 6, 2018









AAAS, AACT, Abbott, American Chemical Society (ACS), American Physical Society, American Scientist,Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), Events DC, Howard University, Innovation & Tech Today, Linder Global, MasterCard, National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), ResMed Foundation and Farrell Family Foundation, SeaWorld, Sigma Xi, Stanley Black & Decker NOBELIUM




Explore what consciousness is, what are out of body experiences, will we ever build conscious machines and much more. Speakers incude Anil Seth, Karl Friston, Susan J Blackmore and three other experts.

Saturday 14 April 2018


Learn about the many causes of mental illness, what is normal, understanding psychosis, meditation and much more. Speakers include Anne Cooke, Catherine Wikholm, Praveetha Patalay and three other experts.

Saturday 2 June 2018


Delve into the genetic revolution, nature vs nurture, genetic factors in disease, gene therapies, gene editing and much more. Speakers include Tim Frayling, Lone Frank and four other experts.

Find out more and book tickets: 10am – 5pm at: Royal College of General Practitioners 30 Euston Square London



IN BRIEF AI learns to rate your dance moves

Open-and-shut case on ‘sarcastic’ fish’s big mouth SARCASTIC FRINGEHEADS have more of a temper than your average fish, but it isn’t a sharp tongue that their rivals face: it is their gaping, fluorescent mouth. When threatened by another male, the fish opens its mouth about as wide as its head, displaying an outer and inner row of teeth. This effort is intended to show other fringeheads that “I’m bigger than you and you shouldn’t come into my area”, says Watcharapong Hongjamrassilp at the University of California, Los Angeles. Sarcastic fringeheads (Neoclinus blanchardi ) are about 20 centimetres long. They may have been named

for their apparently sardonic expression when encountered with their mouths closed. While at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, Hongjamrassilp studied how fringeheads can open their mouths so wide. He and his colleagues discovered that the fish can extend its mouth so much because its upper jawbone is extremely long. It flares out to the sides when its mouth is open. In addition, the fish has big cheek membranes, which hang off the bones like sails on a boat. The team has also found that part of the inside of the mouth is fluorescent yellow and the rest reflects ultraviolet light. These traits make its mouth more conspicuous in the dark and sometimes murky water this fish calls home (Journal of Morphology,

Trump supporters hate bad BO PEOPLE with authoritarian attitudes are more likely to be disgusted by bad body odours. Jonas Olofsson at Stockholm University in Sweden and his colleagues asked 201 volunteers from around the world how disgusting they found various hypothetical situations. Some of these involved smell, such as exposure to body odour. Their survey also assessed

right-wing authoritarianism, asking to what degree volunteers agreed with statements along the lines of “we need a strong leader to deal with an immoral society”. People who scored higher for disgust also tended to do likewise for right-wing authoritarianism. Compared with other cues, such as the thought of seeing something disgusting, it was a high disgustresponse to the thought of body

odours that most strongly predicted if a person would rate highly for authoritarianism (Royal Society Open Science, DOI: 10/1098/rsos.171091). The team reran the experiment a month before the 2016 US presidential election, and asked participants which candidate they supported and to what degree. “Those that were most supportive of Donald Trump had the highest body-odour-disgust sensitivity,” says Olofsson.

STRICTLY Come Dancing judges watch out. Artificial intelligence could be about to waltz in on your territory. Abu Zaher Faridee and his colleagues at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, unveiled HappyFeet at the HotMobile conference in Arizona last month. The team asked people learning an Indian dance called lasya to don two wrist and two ankle motion sensors each. They also trained an algorithm on data from an expert dancer, then got it to process the students’ moves after each class. In early tests, the system was 94 per cent accurate at recognising when someone was dancing in the correct style. It could also score their routine for accuracy. Ultimately, says Faridee, the team wants to create a smartphone app that acts as “a personalised dance tutor”.

Skin bacteria can fight cancer MICROBES on your skin may be protecting you from cancer. Teruaki Nakatsuji at the University of California, San Diego, and his colleagues have found that a strain of Staphylococcus epidermidis makes a molecule that is similar to a blood cancer drug. When they gave mice with skin tumours injections of this chemical, “the tumour size was suppressed by 60 per cent” compared with mice given saline injections, says Nakatsuji. Mice given this bacterial strain and then exposed to enough UV light to cause skin tumours developed around 20 per cent fewer tumours than mice given a different strain (Science Advances, 10 March 2018 | NewScientist | 17

РЕЛИЗ ПОДГОТОВИЛА ГРУППА "What's News" VK.COM/WSNWS For new stories every day, visit


Lost plant refound Biggest family tree shows when cousins stopped having sex after 151 years THE world’s largest family tree families to spread out. The family suggests lifespan is partly


18 | NewScientist | 10 March 2018

has 13 million people and was built using crowdsourced data. Joanna Kaplanis, now at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, UK, and her colleagues collected 86 million publicly available profiles from Users on this website create family trees, which are then merged when matches occur. The data dispelled a longstanding myth: that Westerners largely stopped marrying close relatives in the 19th century because better transport allowed

tree showed otherwise (Science, “Even though people started to be born further away from their families during the early 19th century, they were still marrying cousins for 50 years,” says Kaplanis. It seems the change was more to do with cultural influences. “It just became less socially acceptable,” she says. The results also shed light on longevity. We know siblings tend to live to a similar age, as do parents and their children. This

heritable, but we haven’t found many of the responsible genes. “It’s difficult to tease apart the genetic influence,” says Kaplanis, because close relatives often share the same environment. The family tree allowed the team to compare the lifespans of people who lived together or apart and of close and distant relatives. This showed that 16 per cent of the variance in lifespan is genetic. That “is on the lower end of what previous research had suggested”, says Kaplanis. ALEX SEGRE / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

A PECULIAR plant has been discovered in the rainforests of Borneo after having been lost for more than 150 years. Thismia neptunis was found in 1866 by Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari in the Gunung Matang massif in western Sarawak, Malaysia. He described it a few years later. There are no records of anyone seeing it since, so it was assumed extinct. But in January 2017, Michal Sochor of the Crop Research Institute in the Czech Republic and his colleagues found a few specimens in this area of Borneo and took the first photographs (Phytotaxa, T. neptunis belongs to a group of plants that steal food from fungi. There are around 500 species of such “underground plant”, says Vincent Merckx of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands, who studies these so-called mycoheterotrophs. Many are known only from one site, so they are assumed to be rare and endangered. But it may just be that no one is looking. While doing fieldwork in Australia, Merckx was surprised to find that some species are quite widespread. “They are much more common than people think,” he says.

Earth microbes can thrive on Enceladus SATURN’S moon Enceladus could host methane-making organisms. A microbe found on Earth has been shown to survive happily in conditions known to exist on Enceladus, which has a liquid water ocean beneath its icy crust. This archaeon lives in deep sea vents near Japan, and survives by combining hydrogen and carbon dioxide – both detected in Enceladus’s atmosphere – while excreting methane. The Cassini probe found methane traces in the moon’s watery plumes, and there is a chance some were from this kind of microbe. For five years, Simon Rittmann at the University of Vienna in Austria and his team exposed the microbe to combinations of gases found on Enceladus. It survived in hydrogen and carbon dioxide levels like those there, and coped with temperatures from 0°C to 90°C, and pressures up to 50 Earth atmospheres – both likely to be found in its oceans (Nature Communications, The team also calculate that the breakdown of olivine minerals – thought to make up the moon’s solid core – could produce enough hydrogen to sustain methanemaking microbes.

Superfast charging ahead A CHANCE finding could speed the development of electric cars and phones that charge in just minutes. While attempting to develop water-absorbing plastics called hydrophilic polymers for use in smart contact lenses, UK company Superdielectrics inadvertently created an excellent capacitor. It stores energy by maintaining an electric field within the material. The firm has now used this material to create prototypes of a new kind of supercapacitor. The hope is it will be able to store more energy for its volume and charge faster than

lithium-ion batteries, which take hours to charge fully, wear out after a few hundred charges and can explode if they overheat. At a press conference in London last week, the team said the material’s performance is an order of magnitude better than commercially available supercapacitors. Team member Sushma Acharya used a 2-centimetre square piece of the material to power a 2-volt fan for a few minutes. The material is mostly water by volume, so these supercapacitors should also be safer than lithium batteries.



The science of the Renaissance

Discover the great scientific minds and discoveries of the age on an eight-day cultural adventure across Florence, Pisa and Bologna






1 5 N O V E M B E R 2 0 1 8 Join a group of like-minded, inquisitive New Scientist readers on an enlightening eight-day tour of Florence, Pisa and Bologna.


Led by art and architecture expert Andrew Spira, you will wander through echoing churches, study extraordinary museum collections and visit hidden Renaissance buildings. On this distinctive trip, you’ll also enjoy a special lecture from New Scientist’s editor-at-large, Jeremy Webb.

From the Ptolemaic planetarium in the dome of the Old Sacristy, San Lorenzo, to Bologna’s Anatomical Theatre, you will be guided through the astronomic, architectural, medical and mathematic discoveries of the period. The trip includes three evening lectures from our experts and four-star hotels throughout. The itinerary has been curated by New Scientist and is packed with insight.

WHAT’S INCLUDED ❭ Return flights with British Airways from London ❭ All hotels and transfers ❭ Entry to museums and tours ❭ Expert guide throughout ❭ Evening lectures from:

Andrew Spira

START PL ANNING YOUR TRIP Call now on +44 (0)20 7251 0045 or visit

Jeremy Webb


Advertising feature

How HIV treatment became global At the turn of the century, the best HIV therapies were available only in developed countries. Now, the increasingly global availability of powerful new treatments is helping to bring the HIV epidemic to heel


he impact of HIV in Africa in the 1990s and 2000s was profound. “It was a horrendous time,” says Kenly Sikwese, who has lived in Zambia for most of his life. One report found that, in 1999 alone, 5.4 million people were infected and 2.8 million died. “I lost two of my own brothers to HIV, and I was one of the lucky ones – there were families of 10 that only had two members left,” says Sikwese, who coordinates an HIV treatment advocate network called AfroCAB, which campaigns for the speedy development and approval of life-saving treatments. “It was a time of no hope; if you had HIV, all you could do was wait to die.” The rapid spread of the virus, combined with a lack of access to treatments, was especially felt by African nations. “Zambia became a country of funerals,” says Sikwese. Since then, things have changed thanks to a huge surge of financial support from

foreign governments and smart licensing deals by pharmaceutical companies. Much of the early funding was made available via the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief – an initiative launched by George W. Bush, US president at the time. This programme released $15 million to fund HIV prevention, care and treatment in

“Global AIDS-related deaths peaked at 1.9 million in 2005 but had halved by 2016” developing countries between 2004 and 2008. Together with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, these organisations are still the mainstay for global HIV funding. “Things changed in the 2000s,” says Linda-Gail Bekker, who in 1995 founded the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation in Cape

On the decline The number of new HIV infections is dropping in many parts of the world but challenges remain in places such as Eastern Europe and central Asia where numbers are rising Western and central Europe and North America Eastern Europe and central Asia Latin America Caribbean Middle East and North Africa

Eastern and southern Africa Western and central Africa Asia and the Pacific Shaded areas show range of uncertainty

1.5 1.0 0.5 0 1992




200 150 100 SOURCE: UNAIDS


Number of new HIV infections (thousands)



Number of new HIV infections (millions)


50 0 1992




Town, South Africa, in response to the lack of available treatments. “We said to pharmaceutical companies that we needed access to their drugs on the grounds of compassionate use,” she says. Part of that change was led by Gilead Sciences. The company has pioneered the development of medicines for HIV. “Their drugs have been the first-line agents from the get go,” says Bekker. Gilead was also one of the first to introduce tiered pricing of the antiretroviral treatments that had become so effective at tackling HIV. This made key medicines available in lowand middle-income countries for a fraction of what they cost in high-income countries. Having lower prices for drugs in Africa “has really been a game changer,” says Sikwese. In another move to make treatments more accessible, Gilead began entering into generic drug licensing agreements with manufacturers in India and elsewhere. This means that since 2006, these drug makers have been allowed to make their own, generic versions of Gilead’s HIV drugs, and sell them cheaply in low-income countries. Five years later, Gilead became the first pharmaceutical company to sign an agreement with the newly formed Medicines Patent Pool – an organisation formed to coordinate the licensing of patent-protected medicines so that they can be produced in generic form for low income countries. Today, numerous drug manufacturers based in India, South Africa and China produce Gilead-developed medicines at low cost. The greater the number of manufacturers, the better it is for countries like Zambia, says Sikwese. “You have more competition, which means you have a lower price, which means you have more accessibility,” he says. The impact has been huge. In 2006, just 30,000 people received Gilead’s HIV



medicines. By 2011, this number had risen to 2.4 million. By 2016, the company achieved a long-standing goal of treating 10 million people. At the same time, the price of these drugs has fallen by 80 per cent since 2006. Other companies have since followed Gilead’s lead, making a range of medicines available at affordable prices; “21 million people are now on treatment,” says Bekker. The wait for drugs is shrinking, too. In the early days, treatments for HIV that were developed in the US or Europe took a long time to be approved for use in developing countries. Sikwese remembers one drug that was approved for use in the US in 1996, but didn’t make it into Africa until 2010. But Gilead’s latest agreement with the Medicines Patent Pool aims to have new drugs ready for generic manufacturers as soon as they are available in high-income countries. On the whole, there has been a huge

HIV self-testing kits are helping people get treatment earlier

turnaround in the availability of HIV treatments. According to the latest statistics from UNAIDS, the UN body that coordinates global action on HIV, 20.9 million people now have access to antiretroviral drug treatments. And that’s led to ambitious plans to build on that success, tackling the disease on an even larger scale. In 2014, UNAIDS launched the 90:90:90 goal – aiming to make 90 per cent of people with HIV aware of their status, to give 90 per cent of those people HIV treatment, and for 90 per cent of those on treatment to have the virus so suppressed that it is undetectable in a blood test. And all by 2020. There are encouraging signs. Global AIDS-related deaths peaked at 1.9 million in 2005, and had halved to 1 million by 2016, for example. But the epidemic is far from over (see On the decline). Today, around 36.7 million people globally are living with HIV, and there were 1.8 million new infections in 2016. “There are still more than 1 million deaths,” says Sikwese. “That’s unacceptably high.” One of the key challenges faced by public health practitioners is ensuring that everyone who is infected knows their status. “More people need to be tested at an early stage, without clinical symptoms,” says Papa Salif Sow, who helps oversee Gilead’s efforts to improve access to treatments in Africa. Self-testing kits are proving helpful here – people can receive and use the kits at home, allowing them to learn their status without the stigma and time commitment associated with attending a clinic. Improvements are still needed, however. “HIV mother-to-child transmission remains high in some sub-Saharan African countries,” says Salif. “And mortality in children living with HIV remains high.” He says better paediatric formulations of antiretroviral drugs are urgently needed. But the tide seems to be turning. “Over time, we’ve seen a huge difference in mortality as more people have access to antiretroviral therapy,” says Sikwese. “Drugs companies including Gilead have become more proactive,” he adds. “In terms of making drugs available, and ensuring widespread uptake, they’ve played a critical role in levelling the playing field.” The next article in this series will explore the future of HIV treatment.

For more see: @GileadSciences Date of preparation: February 2018 Job code: 999/IHQ/18-02//1005



Virtual power to the people A new way of generating energy by letting communities pool together is getting its first big test in South Australia, says Alice Klein FIRST there was ride-sharing than it generates, the surplus and room-sharing. Now Tesla can be redirected to another that is bringing us energy-sharing, needs a bit extra. If a heatwave with the announcement that it is predicted tomorrow, every is building the world’s largest battery can recharge from the grid “virtual” power plant in Australia. overnight at cheap, off-peak rates, Last month, the government then feed the grid when everyone of South Australia revealed that turns on their air conditioning it had hired Elon Musk’s firm to “These plants can cut fit 50,000 homes with solar costs for everyone by panels and lithium ion batteries. offsetting price-gouging The aim is to shake up the from energy companies” traditional model of having all houses connect to a central power station. Instead, houses that can in the morning. Or if the forecast generate power themselves will is looking cloudy, limiting be wired up separately. solar energy generation, the The government says that by software will ensure homes top producing their own solar energy, up from the grid to ensure participating households will continuous supply. shave 30 per cent off their energy Sonnen, a German battery bills. Anything they don’t use will company, has already tried this be stored in their batteries and peer-to-peer model on a smaller fed into the grid to reduce bills scale. In 2015, they created a for everyone in the state, to the virtual power plant that now tune of $140 million per year connects about 10,000 German (all prices given are in US dollars). homes. Customers pay It sounds like a win-win for $10,000 for the solar panels everyone – if it works. and battery but no longer have Paul Graham at Australia’s national science organisation STORING THE WIND CSIRO says conditions are ripe Last July, South Australia and Tesla for a shift towards decentralised partnered to build what is in effect energy. A major driver is the the world’s biggest lithium ion battery. dramatic fall in the prices of Made up of thousands of individual solar panels and batteries, he says. “Just two years ago, batteries batteries, the 100-megawatt system were twice the cost they are now.” in Hornsdale stores energy from an As prices fall, it makes sense for adjacent wind farm. Unlike a virtual power plant, individual households to install which provides day-to-day energy their own power systems, but the to its member households and coordination offered by a virtual occasional surplus power to the wider power plant means the entire grid (see main story), the Hornsdale community can benefit. battery kicks in only if demand surges. Software oversees the plant to ensure that energy is shared in the It can respond within milliseconds and power 30,000 homes for 1 hour. Since most cost-efficient way between battery-fitted households and the it went online on 1 December, it has main grid, Graham says. It means reduced the cost of electricity across the state during such spikes by about that if a home uses less energy 22 | NewScientist | 10 March 2018

to buy grid electricity – they rely solely on the shared energy in the virtual power plant. They pay a flat fee of $30 per month to be part of the network, instead of the typical $200 per month for grid energy. That means they recoup the upfront costs and start making a profit after about five years – which is half the warranty period of the battery. And it won’t be just households signed up to the scheme that benefit. Virtual power plants can cut costs for everyone by offsetting price-gouging from energy companies during peak demand, says Dylan McConnell at the University of Melbourne. This has long been a headache for South Australia, where gas companies have been known to jack up prices 100-fold if asked to provide emergency back-up from gas-fired power stations during a heatwave or grid failure. A separate Tesla project in South Australia has already shown that batteries can forestall these

75 per cent, for example, when a coal plant failed in December and a heatwave struck in January. The neighbouring state of Victoria has now commissioned Tesla to build a 20-megawatt battery next to a wind farm to help power a large hydroponic greenhouse. French renewable energy company Neoen is also looking to build another “very large” battery in the state of Queensland. Having one big battery instead of connecting individual household units does have the downside of taking up land. Moreover, if it’s attached to just one solar or wind farm rather than a wider network, it can’t store much energy when local weather is poor.

price spikes by providing cheaper energy on demand (see “Storing the wind”, below). Spreading out the state’s power supply could also improve resilience, because it’s unlikely that every battery would fail at the same time, says Graham. Plus, home batteries don’t require a large expanse of land like a central power plant. With these advantages, it’s no surprise that CSIRO is predicting that 30 to 45 per cent of Australia’s electricity needs will come from home solar panels and batteries by 2050. Maybe we won’t need central power stations at all.

Power hungry Well, not quite. Even if every house in South Australia was fitted with a solar panel and battery, the energy harvested would satisfy only about onethird of the state’s daily requirements. “It’s not just about powering homes,” says Graham. “Heavy industries like aluminium smelting chew through heaps of energy, so you still need big power generators to support those.” And virtual power stations would be much harder in countries with less reliable sunshine, says Kathryn Toghill at Lancaster University, UK. “When the sun rises at 8.30 am and sets at 3.30 pm in winter and it’s drizzly all day, it’s hard to see the UK running on virtual power plants.” Nevertheless, a recent energysharing trial by battery company Moixa suggests these systems could play a useful role in the UK grid. The firm partnered with Oxford City Council to fit 82 social housing properties with solar



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Tesla’s solar panels are designed to look like ordinary roof tiles

panels and batteries, and found that residents’ power bills fell by about 35 to 45 per cent. The company is now hoping to sell its energy-sharing platform to 50,000 UK homes by 2022, with the solar panels and batteries costing $7000 upfront. It also plans to incorporate electric car batteries into its network. “If, for example, you worked at a factory with massive solar panels on the roof, you could charge your car at work and use its battery to power your home at night,” says Moixa cofounder Chris Wright. In South Australia, the first 25,000 homes plugged into Tesla’s virtual power plant will be social housing properties, with the government covering

they also crank their air the upfront costs. This kind of conditioning, will there be approach is important, says McConnell, otherwise low-income enough spare for the grid?” Even so, other countries are households could miss out. ploughing ahead with their own Another 25,000 homeowners virtual power plants. Sonnen who register their interest will announced in October that it then be invited to join the had struck a deal to build a network. They will have to pay 3000-home network in Arizona for the installation themselves and then recoup the cost through and a 20,000-home network in Italy. In December, US company their discounted energy bills over several years. The final “The ultimate hope is that $625 million network will have virtual power plants will a capacity of 250 megawatts – similar to that of a small coal-fired solve the storage issues of renewable energy” plant – and is expected to be completed by 2022. Stem Inc. announced it had We still don’t know for sure won a contract to build several whether virtual power plants will be economical and reliable on virtual power plants in Japan. McConnell believes these such a large scale. “One question systems could be suitable for on my mind is, what’s going to developing countries, too. happen on peak hot days?” says “It might be like the mobile Graham. “Solar energy will pour phone revolution in South-East into customers’ batteries but if

Asia where some parts basically bypassed landlines,” he says. “You could see a similar thing with virtual power plants bypassing traditional energy infrastructure.” The ultimate hope is that virtual power plants will finally solve the storage issue that has plagued renewable energy for years. If so, it won’t matter so much if one area is cloudy, because a home there can tap into energy stored in a battery in a sunny part of the country. Tesla’s system will be the first big test of this new energy model. Although it won’t completely replace conventional power in the short term, it is set to become a mighty competitor. And if it can indeed save everyone money and cut carbon emissions to boot, it will prove the old adage that a problem shared is a problem halved. ■ 10 March 2018 | NewScientist | 23



Shockingly bad Collars that deliver a jolt of electricity are a poor way to train dogs. A wider ban on their use would be welcome, says Danny Chambers OUR ancient ancestors probably argued about dog training techniques as far back as the domestication of these animals more than 15,000 years ago. We know Roman farmers were exchanging views in the second century BC when scholar Marcus Varro put pen to papyrus with tips on how to get canines to herd livestock. And of course, debates over training methods still rage. The latest discussion concerns dog collars controlled remotely to deliver an electric shock. Their use is illegal in Wales and will soon be banned in Scotland, but is still permitted in England. UK charity the Dogs Trust is now leading a campaign for a ban there too. There are many approaches to training, but they tend to involve rewarding desirable behaviour or, as the collars do, punishing unacceptable behaviour. Advocates of the collars say

they can be very effective at preventing unwanted behaviours. A commonly cited example is to stop sheep-worrying. In theory, a shock will stop an out-of-control dog chasing sheep and may also prevent a repeat because of the pain associated with that behaviour. Shock collars are also used to teach dogs not to display signs of aggression when around people or other animals. The problem is that this type of punishment suppresses the desire to act rather than changing it. So, a dog does not lose the desire to chase sheep, it simply fears the shock more. Likewise, a dog that gets shocked when it shows signs of aggression learns not to display these signs. The underlying cause is not addressed, potentially making the dog more dangerous because warning signs of an attack are stifled. Aggressive dogs can become more aggressive

Chew it over carefully Don’t hate all processed foods – they make modern life possible, says Nicola Temple WITH a glut of headlines linking processed foods to obesity and cancer, their status as modern society’s scourge seems assured. But is it wise to view all processed foods with equal disdain? They range from the minimally processed – frozen vegetables, plain yogurt and dried fruit – to ultra-processed – crisps, sauces, 24 | NewScientist | 10 March 2018

small faces and misaligned teeth to a dependence on softer, processed foods. It is quite likely that the genetic mutation that enables many Europeans to digest milk into adulthood came about because milk was being processed into cheese about 9000 years ago. Processed food has arguably helped us tackle hunger, cut waste and saved front-line troops from malnutrition. It helped free the 1950s housewife from the kitchen, provided more options for older

soft drinks and sausages. We think of this latter group as a product of modern society, and yet there are references to sausages in Homer’s Odyssey, and during the Roman Emperor Nero’s rule there were “Processed food has festivals devoted to the sausage. arguably helped us tackle We have been processing food hunger, cut waste and for so long that it has shaped us as a species. We owe our relatively enabled space travel”

people living independently and enabled space travel. We mustn’t lose sight of such benefits. Just as with most things we buy, quality varies and we should be discerning. Some ready meals dramatically overshoot the recommended range of calories for a single meal (500 to 700 calories). Some are higher in sugar or saturated fats than others. Some are more nutritionally balanced and provide more fibre. There are of course ready meals made with cheap ingredients to improve profit margins. Others are committed to quality ingredients, with a smaller

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Danny Chambers is a vet at Langford Vets, part of the University of Bristol, UK, and is a member of the British Veterinary Association’s policy committee

environmental footprint than a home-made equivalent. But if we continue to vilify it all, we risk public funding bodies shying away from an important part of food research, leaving it in the hands of those who are motivated by profit. We face big challenges in food security in an increasingly uncertain environment. We need to be capable of having rational conversations about the role processed food might have in helping us overcome these. ■ Nicola Temple is the author of Best Before: The evolution and future of processed food (Bloomsbury)

INSIGHT Diabetes


with punishment-based training. In addition, it can be hard to deliver the shock at the right moment, even for experienced trainers. Punishment can induce fear, anxiety, confusion and stress, which may result in a dog that is dangerous or aggressive to its owners. All these problems can arise even when shock collars are used by responsible owners and trainers. The pain and distress caused by irresponsible, ignorant or sadistic use would be severe. As for reward-based training, research shows this is as effective at changing behaviour as punishment techniques and also increases the dog’s desire to engage in a desirable behaviour. Using rewards to train is not a recent thing. In 1882 Stephen Hammond authored a book, Practical Dog Training, advising praise and rewards of meat for displaying a desired behaviour. The final word should perhaps go to army officer and author William Hutchinson, another advocate of positive training. In his 1848 book he wrote: “Be to his virtues ever kind. Be to his faults a little blind.” I’ll second that. Q

Old disease, brand new view – but will it help? Jessica Hamzelou

People with the three more severe forms are more likely to develop eye and kidney disease, so treating them is a higher priority. So far, so good. After all, this is the way medicine is heading. The more we learn about common diseases, the more we realise there is huge variation in the way they present themselves. For example, research into the genetics of several cancers has helped identify which treatments might work best for individuals. The idea that a cheap and fairly straightforward blood test, along with a note of a person’s age, height and

MOST people who know about diabetes think there are two kinds: type 1, which you are born with, and type 2, which you get later in life from eating too much. This isn’t quite right, since the two types can occur at different life stages and for a number of reasons, but the broad distinction is well established in the public’s mind. Now some doctors want to change that and break the disease down into five subtypes, each with its own set of risk factors, outcomes and treatments. The new claim was made by researchers based in Sweden and “Around 9 per cent of Finland, who assessed almost people are affected by 15,000 people with diabetes in those diabetes and many don’t countries. They found that these get the right treatment” people fell into one of five categories based on their blood sugar, insulin production and sensitivity, and their weight, could help doctors predict the cause and prognosis of that body mass index and age. The individual’s diabetes – as well as the subgroups also vary genetically (The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, DOI: best treatment to use – is appealing. This is especially the case given that 10.1016/S2213-8587(18)30051-2). The researchers say that two of the an estimated 9 per cent of the global population are affected by the subtypes are mild, and can be largely treated with lifestyle changes and low disorder and many aren’t getting the right treatment. doses of a standard drug, metformin.

But the five subgroups aren’t the end of the story. Diabetes just isn’t that simple. For a long time, we considered the condition as being either “childhood-onset” or “adultonset”, and this is how many people still think of the disease. Yet in the last decade, this taxonomy was discredited as it was discovered that adults in their 40s and 50s could develop a form of the disease that looked very “childhood”like, while more children are developing type 2 diabetes. It is also quite likely that the risks and outcomes of diabetes will look different in people who live outside Sweden and Finland, such as in the Middle East, whose nations have some of the highest rates of the condition in the world. The results can’t even be generalised to the rest of Europe, as those in southern nations are likely to have very different diets and lifestyles. That’s not to pour cold water on the study – it is an important first step. And even if it is too soon for doctors to use the subtypes for diagnosis, the blood test, if verified, could assist with prescriptions. “I wouldn’t necessarily tell patients [about the new set of subtypes], I’d just use it to tweak treatments,” says Rob Sladek at McGill University in Canada. He stresses that our understanding of diabetes and other metabolic diseases is still very much evolving. “This is not a quick discovery – it’s a 20-year plan.” Q 10 March 2018 | NewScientist | 25



26 | NewScientist | 10 March 2018


Eye of the storms THE storms on Jupiter are always brewing. Cloud formations made of ammonia, hydrocarbons and water swirl in a frigid soup of hydrogen and helium. Fingers of thick haze thousands of kilometres across feel their way around the planet, with various bands of the atmosphere circling at different speeds. Depending on their size, these churning clouds can last from a few days to hundreds of years. NASA’s Juno spacecraft took this image on 7 February from more than 8000 kilometres above Jupiter’s northern cloud tops. In the original design for the spacecraft, which launched in 2011, there was no camera. Thankfully, JunoCam was added later on, primarily to send back pretty pictures rather than to perform scientific study. To create this image, citizen scientist Kevin Gill processed the camera’s raw data, combining three images representing red, green and blue, and enhancing the colour. It looks like it was taken with a fisheye lens, but this panorama effect was actually the result of the spacecraft’s rotation. Leah Crane

Image NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill

10 March 2018 | NewScientist | 27




The hunt for dark DNA A hidden universe within the genome is challenging our ideas about genetics and evolution. Biologist Adam Hargreaves explains

HE fat sand rat is a strange creature. It lives in burrows, eats around 80 per cent of its body mass in leaves each day and doesn’t drink water. But the really odd thing about this gerbil is that some of its DNA appears to be missing. No doubt you have heard of dark matter, which is thought to make up over a quarter of the universe. We know it’s there; we just haven’t been able to detect it. Well, something similar is afoot in the genome. My colleagues and I have dubbed this elusive genetic matter “dark DNA”. And our investigations into the sand rat are starting to reveal its nature. The discovery of dark DNA is so recent that we are still trying to work out how widespread it is and whether it benefits those species that possess it. However, its very existence raises some fundamental questions about genetics and evolution. We may need to look again at how adaptation occurs at the molecular level. Controversially, dark DNA might even be a driving force of evolution. The sand rat (Psammomys obesus) is a desert species native to North Africa and the Middle East, but put it in a lab and something strange happens. When fed a “normal” diet – the standard fare for laboratory rodents – sand rats tend to become obese and develop type 2 diabetes. This was discovered in the 1960s, and has made sand rats the focus of study for



biologists interested in understanding nutrition-induced diabetes in humans. Yet, in all that time, the mystery of why these gerbils are so susceptible to the disease has remained unsolved. My main work interest is venomous snakes. Admittedly, the link with sand rats is tenuous – at best, the rodents might be seen as dinner for the snakes – so the species is not an obvious target of study for me. But I have

“We need to rethink how much mutation a gene can tolerate and still work” always relished a mystery, and the more I found out about sand rats, the more intrigued I became. The smoking gun seemed to be a gene called Pdx1. The Pdx1 protein it codes for has many roles, including in the development of the pancreas and in switching the insulin gene on and off. Being crucial for normal physiology, this gene is found in all vertebrates. Intriguingly, though, genetic studies had failed to spot it in sand rats. Yet they have a normal pancreas and are able to secrete insulin. That didn’t make sense. What was really going on here? Luckily for me, my fascination with this

paradox coincided with a revolution in genetics that made it possible to investigate. I teamed up with 17 researchers at nine institutions around the world, including the Beijing Genomics Institute, and we set out to sequence the entire sand rat genome. What we discovered was even more baffling; Pdx1 was not the only missing gene. In fact, a big chunk of DNA containing nearly 90 genes, which are found on the same chromosome in other animals, was nowhere to be seen. Many of these genes, like Pdx1, are essential for survival. What’s more, we found their corresponding RNA transcripts – copies of stretches of genetic code that cells use as templates to make proteins (see diagram, page 30). But where were the genes? The big clue came when we scrutinised the RNA transcripts. The genetic code is comprised of four bases, A, T, G and C. What made the sequences in these transcripts so bizarre was the very high level of two of these, G and C. None of us had ever seen anything like it. But we realised it might explain why the corresponding DNA appeared to be missing – standard sequencing technology is not very good at picking up sections of DNA with high levels of G and C. So we set out to reveal the elusive DNA in a different way: using caesium chloride ultracentrifugation. This involves spinning chopped-up DNA in a highly > 10 March 2018 | NewScientist | 29


Gene genius The DNA code consists of pairs of bases: C always pairs with G and A with T. To make a protein, the code is transcribed onto a molecule of RNA – with U replacing T. This is then used as a template to assemble amino acids, the building blocks of proteins T C T G A C T A G T A G





RNA transcript



concentrated salt solution very fast – at least 40,000 revolutions per minute – for three days so that denser fragments, like those rich in GC bases, sink to the bottom. Having separated this out, we attempted to sequence it alone. It worked. What we found was a mutation hotspot – a region of DNA with an extraordinarily large number of mutations, many of them changes from A or T to G or C bases. Sand rat Pdx1, for example, contains more mutations than any other version of the gene we know of in the animal kingdom – resulting in a Pdx1 protein that, in just one key

region that binds to DNA, has at least 15 amino acids differing from the normal version. It is extremely rare for vertebrates to have any mutations in this region. Mutations usually compromise the function of a gene, and the genes in our chunk of hard-to-detect dark DNA are so essential for survival that they have barely changed over the course of evolution. Yet somehow the sand rat’s Pdx1 gene, along with others here, are managing to function despite the dramatic mutation levels. This discovery has forced us to revise our ideas about how much

change a gene can tolerate and still work. The extreme divergence of Pdx1 might help explain why sand rats develop diabetes, if their Pdx1 protein turns out to be not as effective as its counterpart in other animals. It also explains why Pdx1 initially appeared to be absent. But in solving the mystery of the missing DNA, we have raised an intriguing possibility. We know that standard genome sequencing has trouble picking up sections of DNA containing lots of G and C bases, so perhaps sand rats are not alone in carrying these sorts of mutation hotspots. Dark DNA might be lurking in other genomes. In fact, 12 other species of gerbils apparently lack Pdx1, suggesting that they too may possess dark DNA. We are now looking into that. What’s more, a striking parallel to the sand rat story is found in birds. The many bird genomes sequenced so far seemed to lack more than 270 genes present in most other vertebrate genomes, including important genes such as the one coding for leptin, a hormone that regulates hunger. However, new research by Fidel BoteroCastro of Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, Germany, and colleagues reveals that birds do make RNA transcripts of these “missing” genes. What’s more, the sequences are very high in G and C bases. Sound familiar? In fact, the researchers estimate that around 15 per cent of all bird genes have been overlooked in previous studies. This hints that dark DNA could be quite widespread. If so, we may have to rethink some current ideas about how genomes evolve. By comparing the thousands of whole

DECIPHERING THE CODE OF LIFE It took over a decade, a huge consortium and an estimated $2.7 billion to sequence the human genome. Since the project was completed in 2003, there have been huge advances in technology, making sequencing much faster and cheaper. To date, the full genomes of some 15,000 species have been deciphered. And that’s just the start – the race to commercialise whole genome sequencing is so intense that it may not be long before we routinely decipher the entire genetic blueprint of individuals, including fetuses in the womb. Genetic sequencing involves 30 | NewScientist | 10 March 2018

deducing the exact order of the four nucleotides or bases – known as A, T, G and C – paired along a DNA strand. Pioneering technologies, such as the one devised by Frederick Sanger in the 1970s, were largely manual. Sanger sequencing entails using a single strand of DNA as a template to “grow” a complementary strand, one base at a time in a test tube, using special markers that are then read off to give the sequence. It is accurate but extremely time-consuming; a skilled worker might decipher 10,000 base pairs on a good day. The human genome

consists of some 3.2 billion base pairs. These days, sequencing is largely automated, so the process is much faster. Multiple copies of a DNA strand are first chopped up at random into small fragments – usually between 100 and 150 bases long – which are then sequenced individually before being pieced back together by computer programs that match overlapping sections. But there’s a problem. This “next-generation” sequencing is not very good at deciphering stretches of DNA dominated by just two bases, such as G and C, because this makes it

hard to reassemble overlapping fragments. As a result, we may have overlooked substantial chunks of DNA in the genomes sequenced to date. My colleagues and I have dubbed this “dark DNA” (see main story). Newer sequencing methods are more accurate. They can process stretches of DNA up to several thousand bases long, reducing the problem of deciphering overlapping areas. With the technology rapidly improving, dark DNA will come into view. We may even discover new surprises in genomes we thought we had decoded.


How much is missing? If dark DNA is common, that would throw a spanner in the works because genes we thought were missing might actually be present. It may be time to take another look at the genomes sequenced to date to find out whether we have got the full picture. At the least, we should be alert to the possibility of dark DNA when sequencing new genomes. Alternatively, some might argue that if dark DNA were widespread, we would have been on to it before now. Perhaps gerbils and birds are extreme cases and regions of dark DNA are far less extensive in other organisms. That would be interesting too, because it raises the question of what makes gerbils and birds different. Answering that could be the key to understanding how dark DNA forms. Perhaps there’s a clue in the fact that both groups of animals show an unusually large variation in the number of chromosomes each species has – in gerbils it ranges between 22 and 68, for example. This suggests that during their evolution their chromosomes have been prone to breakage. Chromosomes ordinarily break and recombine during the production of sex cells, boosting genetic diversity in offspring. When this happens, a process called GC-biased gene conversion can occur, resulting in more G and C mutations than A and T ones. This can lead to G and C bases accumulating in particular regions of DNA. Could this be the cause of dark DNA in species with chromosomes that are prone to breakage? We don’t know, but it’s possible. Even more intriguing is how dark DNA might influence evolution. Most textbooks describe evolution as a two-step process. First, a steady trickle of random genetic mutation creates variation in an organism’s DNA. Then, natural selection acts like a filter, deciding which mutations are passed on. This usually depends on whether they confer some sort of advantage, although not everything produced over the course of evolution is an adaptation. So, natural selection is the sole driving force pushing the direction in which organisms evolve. But add dark DNA to the picture, and that’s not necessarily the case. If genes

Solving the mystery of why sand rats are prone to diabetes led to the discovery of dark DNA


genomes that have been sequenced in the past decade (see “Deciphering the code of life”, page 30), biologists are trying to work out which genes have been lost in certain lineages and which new ones have arisen. This helps them see what makes groups of organisms different from one another and how adaptation occurs at the molecular level.

contained within these mutation hotspots have a greater chance of mutating than those elsewhere, they will display more variation on which natural selection can act, so the traits they confer will evolve faster. In other words, dark DNA could influence the direction of evolution, giving a driving role to mutation. Indeed, my colleagues and I have suggested that mutation rates in dark DNA may be so rapid that natural selection cannot act fast enough to remove deleterious variants in the usual way. Such genes might even become adaptive later on, if a species faces

“Dark DNA could be influencing the direction of evolution” a new environmental challenge. The idea of mutation-driven evolution is controversial, but it is not without precedent. Since the mid-1970s, esteemed molecular biologist Masatoshi Nei has argued that the most important driving force behind evolution occurs at the molecular level, in the variation created within DNA by mutation. Without this spontaneous variation, natural selection would have nothing to work with, making it of secondary importance. The discovery of dark DNA lends weight to this way of thinking. Of course, it’s not a straight choice between mutation and natural selection. In the sand rat, for example, a massively elevated

rate of mutation in the many dark DNA genes could have had a significant effect upon the species’ evolutionary trajectory. Nevertheless, some selection must also act upon these genes, otherwise mutation would run rampant, creating a region of nonsense with no functional genes, and the species would not have survived. In truth, it is difficult to determine whether the sand rat has benefited overall from its mutation hotspot. You would expect its extreme mutation to be a problem, otherwise why would proteins such as Pdx1 be virtually identical in all other animals? But the sand rat’s dark DNA could have led to some adaptations that would not have arisen under normal circumstances. Perhaps these have allowed it to survive on a diet of very nutritionally poor food with little access to water, and so thrive in a harsh desert environment with very few competitors. On the other hand, if sand rats eat nutritionally rich food they will develop diabetes and die. That could mean they are constrained to living in deserts. So dark DNA could be both their liberator and their jailer. In general, the implications of dark DNA remain enigmatic. One thing is for sure, though. It shows we still have a lot to learn about how genomes evolve at the molecular level, and how these processes give rise to the awe-inspiring diversity of life on Earth. Q Adam Hargreaves is a biologist at the University of Oxford 10 March 2018 | NewScientist | 31





A radical new idea could free ships from frozen seas in no time, says David Hambling

T WAS snowing at the edge of Lake Erie during the commissioning ceremony for the USS Little Rock in December 2017. The US Navy ship cost more than $300 million and is designed to have the speed and manoeuvrability needed for anti-submarine warfare. Towards the end of the ceremony, the ship’s chaplain prayed for its crew: “Protect them from the perils of the sea and the violence of the enemy.” Ice probably wasn’t at the forefront of his mind, yet it is the most troublesome foe the


32 | NewScientist | 10 March 2018

ship has faced to date. It is trapped in port, its route to sea frozen shut. The USS Little Rock is only the latest ship to be frozen out of action. Freight and research vessels routinely get stuck in Arctic ice, leaving crews twiddling their thumbs until an icebreaker ship arrives to smash a path out. But icebreakers make slow progress and frequently get stuck themselves. Luckily, there is an alternative approach that promises to clear ice much quicker: just give it the right sort of shake.

Despite the risks of ice, Arctic seas are getting busier. The Northern Sea Route running along the coast of Russia, for example, provides a shortcut for cargo ships between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, reducing the distance compared with the Suez Canal route by about 40 per cent. As the ice cap thins, the Arctic route is becoming increasingly viable: a record high of almost ten million tonnes of cargo travelled that way in 2017. But although the route isn’t frozen solid these days, there will still be plenty of ice floating around for



Smashing job: hovercraft shatter ice as they whizz around

decades to come – so a way to clear it is more important than ever. The first inkling that a method less brutish than ice-breaking by ship might be possible came more than half a century ago at the opposite pole. In the 1950s, the US military was doing experiments to work out when it was safe to land aircraft on the Antarctic ice sheet. On touchdown, the planes immediately created a bowl-shaped depression as expected. But intriguingly, instruments attached to the ice recorded a wave rippling through the ice away from the landing site.

Ride the wave It turned out that the plane had set the ice sheet wobbling at what is known as its resonant frequency. To see how this works, imagine pushing a child on a swing: you must push at just the right moment to force the swing higher. Ice is similar. Bang it at the right speed and you will set it shaking with the maximum possible energy. That speed isn’t easy to calculate because it depends on factors such as ice thickness and the depth of water underneath. But the military experiments showed that resonant waves in ice travel at between 20 and 60 kilometres an hour. It was an abstruse effect that went largely unnoticed until 1974, when the Canadian Coast Guard accidentally discovered what could follow. A team was testing whether an experimental hovercraft could break ice using the downwards pressure jets it uses to get around. But when the vehicle accelerated to just over 20 kilometres an hour as it travelled across the ice to a test site, the crew saw a wave form behind. The wave rose and rose – until the ice started breaking at its crest. The hovercraft happened to be pumping energy into the ice at its resonant frequency, with consequences that are, in hindsight, predictable, says fluid dynamicist Paul Milewski at the University of Bath, UK. Similar to the situation with the swing, if you apply a

force to ice at its resonant frequency, the response will be significant. “That means you’ll crack it,” he says. The potential was obvious: rather than laboriously focusing its jets on small areas of ice until they broke, the hovercraft could skim around, quickly breaking ice as it went. Today, the Canadian Coast Guard operates a pair of 29-metre hovercraft for resonant ice-breaking (pictured above). Based in the Québec city of Trois-Rivières, they play a vital part in controlling flooding along the St Lawrence river, freeing up shallow tributaries where conventional icebreakers can’t operate. It is ice on this river that is blocking the USS Little Rock’s route to the sea, but unfortunately the hovercraft can’t help. It’s so frigid this winter that cracked ice quickly fuses again. Even in less adverse weather, the craft have limitations. They have a short range compared with ships. And shards of ice can damage the flexible skirt that contains the cushion of air supporting the craft, meaning they can only operate safely in daylight. For long-distance ice-breaking – such as clearing Arctic sea routes – something better is needed. Some believe the solution lies below the ice. In the 1990s, Viktor Kozin of the Komsomolsk-on-Amur State Technical University in Russia was trying to find ways for submarines to safely surface through ice. Hiding beneath the ice is a neat tactic for subs, but they must get above it to launch missiles. Traditionally, this involves forcing the vessel upwards by increasing its buoyancy. That cracks the ice alright, but it comes with a significant risk of damaging the sub. Then Kozin and his team noticed in some calculations that the waves created by a submarine of a particular shape as it moves under ice might hit its resonant frequency. So the subs could pull off a similar trick to the hovercraft, but from below. So far the team hasn’t carried out any large-scale tests of the idea. One was scheduled to take place in the Black Sea’s Kerch Strait in

2016, but Kozin couldn’t get the required funds together. For the moment, Kozin and his team have set up a large water tank covered in ice and started dragging model submarines through it. On several occasions, they have seen the sheet shiver and split as a model sub with the right shape passes below at just the right speed. Using computer models to scale up the results, they believe that a sub travelling 20 metres below the ice at 20 to 60 kilometres per hour could break sheets that are up to 2 metres thick. That is the same thickness an ice-breaking ship can manage, but the subs could do the job 10 times as fast. One niggle that needs attention is that sheets of ice have irregular projections beneath them known as keels that can extend for many metres. It would be hard to spot these with sonar, so to reduce the risk of

“Submarines could break thick ice ten times faster than ships can manage” hitting them, submarines might need to have the towers that contain their periscopes removed, says Vitaliy Zemlyak of SholemAleichem Amur State University in Russia, who is part of Kozin’s team. Although that’s a dramatic change, the towers aren’t critical to the subs’ movement. Meanwhile, commercial interest in Arctic shipping is only growing. A study by the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis suggests the thawing of the Northern Sea Route could lead to two-thirds of the ships that currently use the Suez Canal being diverted to the Arctic. And with conventional icebreakers being both expensive and slow – and plenty of obsolete submarines sitting in Russian shipyards – the ice shakers could soon be making waves. ■ David Hambling is a writer based in London 10 March 2018 | NewScientist | 33



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Don’t interru... Fed up with people butting in? Teal Burrell reveals the surprising causes and how you can fight back

T HAS happened to all of us. You’re in the middle of an important point, or reaching the climax of a humorous anecdote, and someone butts right in. You may jump back in to finish the story, indignantly stammer a few more words or quietly fume while the interrupter takes the floor, but the moment has passed: your eloquent point is lost, your story garbled. Media reports tell us that men often interrupt and “mansplain” things to women – last month, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau got unflattering attention for doing so – and stereotypes would have us believe that people from some countries are more likely to jump in than those from others. But take a closer look at how interruptions play out and things aren’t always what they seem. Figure out why and how people interrupt and you might find yourself more forgiving of the big mouth who stole your moment or better placed to avoid it happening again. Let’s start with the oft-cited finding that men are much quicker to interrupt and talk over women than the other way round. Media reports aside, the original research backing up this idea comes from the 1970s. It showed that, in covertly recorded conversations between men and women in the US, the men cut in 46 out of 48 times. And a 2014 study found that men and women both interrupted women more than they did men. But psychologist Ann Weatherall at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand says the early studies counted all overlapping speech, skewing the results. “Sometimes people overlap and it’s not interruptive at all,” she says. It is also hard to know whether men interrupt because of their gender or their status, she says, with men more often holding positions of power. To try and disentangle the relationship between gender, status and interrupting, Tonja Jacobi and Dylan Schweers at Northwestern University Pritzker School of


Law in Chicago took their research to the US Supreme Court, in a manner of speaking. In this arena, where nine justices must together reach a decision, the ability to dominate the floor can determine the fate of a case. By documenting court hearings, Jacobi and Schweers found that interrupting was indeed highly gendered, regardless of whether a woman was in a more senior role. Male justices interrupted female justices three times as often as the reverse. Female justices were also interrupted three times more than their male colleagues by male lawyers arguing the cases, despite clear rules against doing so to justices. “Even when women reach such a high pinnacle in their profession, they are interrupted by men, not only their colleagues, but also their explicit subordinates,” says Jacobi. So it seems women, at least supreme court justices, have to fight to be heard. But accepted wisdom about interruptions goes beyond

“Offer someone a cup of tea in Sweden and you might wait a minute for a reply” gender. Generalisations abound in popular culture and the scientific literature about nationalities too. Italians are famed for animated discussion, with people talking over each other, and Japanese speakers are reported to leave long gaps between each person’s turn in a conversation. It is a similar story if you offer Swedish visitors a cup of tea, says Nick Enfield at the University of Sydney. “Ethnographers would write that in Scandinavian conversations one might wait a whole minute before a response,” he says. To find out if there is any truth to these potentially offensive stereotypes, Enfield and his colleagues analysed hours of videotape of natural conversations between people speaking in 10 languages over five continents. We know that English speakers don’t wait > 10 March 2018 | NewScientist | 35


for a distinct pause in the conversation to take turns speaking, but instead rely on grammar and other signals in speech such as intonation to know when it is their go. The ideal is to avoid both gaps and overlaps – in everyday speech, English speakers are actually finely honed in the skill of not-interrupting. Is this turn-taking system any different elsewhere? What Enfield’s team found challenged all their preconceptions. The English speakers took about 240 milliseconds between speaking turns, whereas Danes waited nearly half a second and Japanese were quickest to respond, jumping in after just 7 milliseconds. “What surprised us was how small the differences were,” says Enfield. In fact, they were so tiny, the team concluded that this finely tuned ability to take turns without talking over each other or waiting too long is universal across languages, geography and culture. Because it is so widespread, this ability may even provide clues about the earliest social interactions from which all languages were built. So if speakers of certain languages are no more likely to interrupt, where do these ideas come from? Enfield thinks it boils down to subjective experience. “Even though the difference between average response across the cultures is tiny in terms of clock time, we are exquisitely sensitive to timing in conversation,” he says. We are so fine-tuned to the tempo of languages we speak, we feel these tiny differences to be much longer, or shorter, than they are. Inevitably, that can lead to interruptions. “Any time two people are speaking that have a different sense of how long of a pause is normal, the one who is expecting the longer pause will get interrupted,” says Deborah Tannen, who studies linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington DC. She has found that New Yorkers inferred Californians had nothing to say because of their supposedly long pauses, while Californians felt they couldn’t get a word in. Moreover, New Yorkers tended to jump in, assuming the other person would stop them if they weren’t finished. So next time someone speaks out of turn, remember they might just be experiencing a language-induced time warp. You could also consider their reasons for interrupting, which do seem to vary across cultures. According to work by Han Li at the University of Northern British Columbia in Canada, Chinese people tend to interrupt each other more often with “cooperative interruptions”, such as agreeing with what was said or providing assistance with a word or 36 | NewScientist | 10 March 2018

HOW TO INTERRUPT LIKE A BOSS Sometimes you need to cut in. “When what you’re doing in a particular social interaction requires holding the floor, then interrupting is part and parcel of that activity,” says Ann Weatherall at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. So how best to do it? Don’t bother raising your

hand. Research shows that the longer women serve on the US Supreme Court, the more they learn to just jump in — as their male peers do. This strategy is viewed more negatively when women do it than men, but Deborah Tannen at Georgetown University in Washington DC, says it is a trade-off women

sometimes have to make. Once you have the floor, there are tricks to keeping it. Speak more quickly than feels natural, and if you get interrupted, Weatherall advises saying, “Let me finish,” speaking loudly or using phrases to fill pauses. “Don’t stop, just keep going,” says Tannen.

Topic change: Cuts in to change the subject.

men-only conversations, but women interrupted each other to agree and build on the point being made, rather than to argue or change the topic. “Two people talking at the same time can be positive, it can show positive engagement with what somebody else is saying,” says Weatherall, like when couples finish each other’s sentences. Besides, interruptions are a part and parcel of our conversations. “A lively conversation is one where everybody’s jumping in,” says Tannen. Interrupting starts at an early age. In a 1990 review, Eleanor Maccoby at Stanford University in California wrote that by early school years in the US, boys are already more likely to interrupt one another, while girls are more likely to acknowledge what someone has said or pause to let another girl speak. Understanding the differences in styles is a good first step to conversational harmony. “The solution is for us to become more aware of the workings of conversations so that we can overcome our instinct to quickly jump to conclusions about the intentions of others,” says Enfield. People who respond quickly aren’t pushy, people who respond slowly aren’t docile, and someone may leap in to show interest, not to take over. Men may not be conscious of interrupting women, so awareness can help there too. Since her study was published, Jacobi has noticed chief justice John Roberts give the floor back to women more often than before (although she hasn’t formally quantified this). “It looks like the court actually paid attention to this and that it wasn’t deliberate,” says Jacobi. She also notes that the research has made her male co-authors realise how often they interrupt women. “The traditional power dynamic is just so engrained in us that men just think it’s natural that they interrupt women,” she says. “A lot of times, it’s just a matter of realising they’re doing it.” ■

Summarisation: Paraphrases the speaker’s point, often minimising it.

Teal Burrell is a writer based in Richmond, Virginia

idea, than with “intrusive interruptions”, such as attempts to steal the floor or change the subject (see “Types of interruption”, below). In comparison, Canadians used intrusive interruptions slightly more than cooperative ones, although the difference wasn’t significant. The contrast may be because Chinese culture is more collective, rather than individualistic like Western culture, and cooperative interruption is a way of working together to facilitate the conversation. Studies of Thai and Japanese speakers have revealed similar patterns to those of Chinese people. Men and women also use different types of interruptions when talking to their same-sex peers. Tannen counted more interruptions in women-only conversations compared with

TYPES OF INTERRUPTION Interruptions aren’t always bad news. Building on the work of others, Han Li at the University of Northern British Columbia in Canada created the following categories:

COOPERATIVE INTERRUPTIONS Agreement: Shows support or elaborates on the speaker’s idea. Assistance: Provides a word or phrase the speaker was searching for. Clarification: Asks for an explanation of something just said.

INTRUSIVE INTERRUPTIONS Disagreement: Jumps in to voice a different opinion. Floor taking: Takes over the conversation, but stays on the same subject.


Shell shock Saving America’s freshwater mussels requires some oddball interventions, finds Jason Bittel

HINY pigtoes, elephant ears, winged spikes, snuffboxes, monkeyfaces and heelsplitters. If the names call to mind fantastical creatures from the world of Harry Potter, think again. These are all freshwater mussels, inconspicuous filter-feeders that have kept our rivers and lakes clean for millions of years, only to now find themselves at the sharp end of a little-known ecological crisis. You probably don’t give them a second thought, even on the occasions you are tucking into their saltwater cousins in a whitewine sauce. But these unsung riverkeepers aren’t without their charms: some can live to be upwards of 100 years old, for starters, with shells that grow rings over time like trees. The problem is that these days, many of them are growing old and dying without producing any offspring. In fact, freshwater mussels are some of the most imperilled lifeforms on the planet. One-third of all species hail from the US and of these, more than 70 per cent are listed as threatened, endangered or potentially extinct. Just last year, the known global population of golden riffleshell mussels was down to only five individuals. They are never going to be a conservation priority. So it is down to the underdog efforts of a handful of biologists strung across the US to halt the collapse before it is too late. Their strategy? To hand-rear species on the brink – a task rendered all the more difficult by the mussels’ exceedingly peculiar reproductive habits. Freshwater mussels are part of the mollusc family, a large group of invertebrates that

includes fellow bivalves like oysters and clams as well as octopuses, squid, slugs and snails. At first blush, theirs is a simple lifestyle. They anchor themselves in the sediment at the bottom of lakes, streams and rivers, where they make a living by filtering water for algae and other microscopic morsels. But they do have a few tricks up their shells. To overcome their lack of mobility, freshwater mussels deceive fish into serving as roaming nurseries for their young – and it is quite the show. Evolution has equipped the females with fleshy lures that mimic worms, minnows or even crayfish to tempt predators like the largemouth bass down to the riverbed for a nibble. When the fish attacks, the bait explodes into a cloud of parasitic spawn, which latch on to the fish’s gills to gorge

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Mussels mimic tasty morsels to attract fish that then nourish and carry their young

on blood and other nutrients. Several weeks later, the larval mussels metamorphose into juveniles and finally drop off the fish to colonise new territories (See “Masters of disguise”, page 41). It is a good job they do, because mussels are the overlooked guardians of freshwater ecosystems. Not only do they stabilise riverbeds and provide food for all sorts of creatures, they also clean the water, filtering out toxic substances including heavy metals and bacteria such as E. coli. One adult mussel can process up to a litre of water per hour, which means that a healthy mussel bed of around 100,000 animals can purify enough water to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool each day. “That’s the kind of a service we’re obtaining for free just from these organisms existing,” says Carla Atkinson, an ecologist at the University of Alabama. Even mussels have their limits, though. We have spent the last 300 years polluting and damming our rivers, and the results for freshwater mussels have been catastrophic. When the Wilson dam was built on the Tennessee river in Florence, Alabama, for example, it put the most diverse mussel bed on the planet under vast amounts of standing water, says Paul Johnson, a malacologist, or mollusc specialist, at the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center. Some of the 75 or so species in this area adapted and got on with their lives but more than half disappeared. And that is just one spot. There are similar stories all over the place, leading the US Geological Survey to declare freshwater mussels the most endangered group in the country. >



10 March 2018 | NewScientist | 39



FASHION VICTIMS The current crisis isn’t the first time North America’s rich array of freshwater mussels have been taken to the brink of extinction. For about two decades around the turn of the 20th century, freshwater mussels were hauled out of the water by the tonne to make buttons with a fashionable pearly shimmer. Not even the species with shells too thin to make buttons from were spared, says G. Thomas Watters, who studies molluscs at Ohio State University: “The idea was if you threw them back, you were just going to waste time recollecting them. Better to just kill them all.” Then someone invented plastic buttons, and the industry went down the tubes overnight. The problem was that the nascent science of how to make sure there would always be enough mussels went with it – at least until the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973. Suddenly there was a mandate for states to save their most vulnerable creatures, and a new generation of mussel breeders was born. 40 | NewScientist | 10 March 2018

Mussels in the US aren’t the only molluscs under threat. We are living through a global mollusc crisis, though you aren’t likely to see a bumper sticker decrying it. In 2007, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed this as the group most affected by extinction, with 302 species and 11 subspecies officially extinct. A study published two years later found that the true scope of the crisis was being under-reported: the number of extinct molluscs was close to double the earlier figures. That means more than 600 species of mollusc have gone the way of the dodo in the last century or so – that is twice as many lost as there are primate species known to exist. Some are not giving up hope. Bernard Sietman, a malacologist at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, is one of those dedicated conservationists who spend much of the year face-down in frigid waterways. In recent years, Sietman has focused on the spectaclecase mussel. Growing oblong shells large enough to stow a pair of glasses, this species used to inhabit 44 rivers and streams across the Midwest. Today, it can be found in just 20, and the remaining populations are severely fragmented. Because of this, the spectaclecase was added to the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered list in 2012. But it has been in trouble for a while. In 1907, the St Croix river that divides Minnesota and Wisconsin was dammed for hydroelectricity at St Croix Falls. As a result, there are places above the dam where barely a mussel can be found, Sietman says, and those that remain are all senior citizens that have not been reproducing. Below the dam, however, the mussels were doing the business. This led Sietman to scour all the information he could find about the fishes that used to inhabit the St. Croix, and to identify the ones that had disappeared from the river’s upper reaches. At the same time,


While many freshwater mussel species native to the US are barely scraping by (see main story), invasive species such as zebra mussels and quagga mussels are making a killing. “There’s a big difference in life cycle,” says Monte McGregor, a mollusc specialist at the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources. For starters, zebra and quagga mussels don’t require a fish host to nourish and transport their offspring, which means one mussel can pump out millions of free-swimming larvae every spawning season. And once those larvae turn into adults, they ruthlessly outcompete native species. In extreme cases, 10,000 tiny zebra mussels have been seen locking onto a single native. This starves natives of food and oxygen, and can stop them from closing their shells, making them vulnerable to predators. Death by 10,000 anchors, if you will.

When it comes to saving hopeless mussels, the secret ingredient is rabbit blood

he and his colleagues started taking every candidate fish species he could find and squirting them in the face with spectaclecase larvae taken from the lower-river mussels. River shiner? Nope. Gizzard shad? Nope. Sauger, white bass, logperch and channel catfish? Nothing. At least one mussel species is known to parasitise salamanders called mudpuppies, so the team tested similarly outside-the-box species, including tiger salamanders, American eels, crayfish and even turtles. All told, Sietman and his team tested more than 70 species, and all of them were busts. Finally, Sietman zeroed in on two migratory fish known for their iridescent peepers: the mooneye and the goldeye. The trouble is that they are notoriously difficult to catch and keep alive. “The mooneye would just rub their eyes along the tank wall and one or both eyes would eventually get infected, start swelling and then sort of rupture,” he says. Having installed bubble curtains in the tanks to keep the fish from grinding off their own eyes, Sietman’s careful fish husbandry was eventually rewarded when he saw a mooneye’s gills heavy with mussel larvae. Today, his team have about 200 baby spectaclecase mussels growing in the lab, as well as containers full of lab-raised juveniles growing au naturel in the St Croix river. Some may be mature enough for release this year,



North America’s rich diversity of freshwater mussels is in danger

but Sietman says that is probably a long shot. For the time being, he can only watch and wait: “It’s a 365-day-a-year monitoring process.” Even in cases where the host is known or discovered quickly, it can still take several years before you start churning out mussels, says Tyler Hern, a biologist at the White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery in West Virginia. Hern has spent the past few years working with the purple cat’s paw mussel, named for the colour of its inner shell

and a feline-finger-shaped divot on its exterior. This species isn’t so picky: it parasitises several fish. But for Hern and his colleagues that came as little consolation when it was discovered in 2012 that there were just 10 females left, all of them languishing in a drought-scorched stream in Ohio. The following year, experts from three facilities were given permission to extract larvae from these females to grow in the lab. Several weeks later, Hern announced that 13 of his larvae had successfully metamorphosed, making them the first purple cat’s paw mussels born in captivity. However, even with two other facilities dedicated to the same species, just 48 almost-adult mussels were reintroduced to the wild in October. That’s not a bad haul given how few remain, but it illustrates the glacial pace at which freshwater-mussel conservation moves. In many cases, it seems hopeless. What is a malacologist to do when they simply can’t find the host fish or they suspect that it is extinct? It turns out that even then, all is not lost. Some researchers have come up with a way to bypass the host altogether. At the Freshwater Mussel Conservation and Research Center at Columbus Zoo, home to around 700 rare mussels, researchers from Ohio State University are raising thousands of mussel larvae in dishes filled with warm, red goo. This is designed as a proxy for fish gills and the secret ingredient is rabbit blood – a cheaper, more readily available alternative to fish blood. “The benefit is that you can transform thousands of larvae in one petri dish,” says team member Jacqualyn Halmbacher. Elsewhere, it has already helped to push the pause button on extinction for the golden riffleshell mussel. Monte McGregor, a malacologist at the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources, has successfully

Masters of disguise Freshwater mussels use a fleshy lure to mimic minnows, worms and other tasty morsels to trick unsuspecting fish into nourishing their young and carrying them upstream

Male mussels release sperm, which fertilises the female’s eggs

Females entice fish with a fleshy lure. When the fish attacks, it is engulfed by parasitic larvae

The larvae latch onto the fish’s gills, where they suck blood and other nutrients

Once the larvae have metamorphosed into juveniles, they drop to a new part of the riverbed

grown more than 70 species of freshwater mussel in vitro. But the golden riffleshell stands out as a striking story of redemption. Once found in droves across the southern section of the Appalachian mountains, the entire population had dwindled to just five. Nobody knows the riffleshell’s host fish, but McGregor and his team coaxed larvae from those last remaining adults and, thanks to the in vitro method, brought them to adulthood in the lab. In September last year, he and his

“This gruesome strategy has helped to save the golden riffleshell from extinction” colleagues distributed some of those individuals across three sites in Virginia, boosting the population to 700 . “If we hadn’t raised these, I think they may have gone extinct,” he says If nothing else, such dogged efforts buy time to better understand what is laying mussels low. In addition to dams, dredging and reduced water quality, there is evidence that run-off from fertilisers can affect mussel health, says G. Thomas Watters, a malacologist also at Ohio State University. The rock salt used in the US to melt ice on winter roads could also be neutralising mussel sperm before it can reach the females. Nowadays, mussels are even occasionally targeted by poachers, since their shells can be broken up and inserted into oysters to encourage the growth of cultured pearls – a throwback to an earlier era when mussels’ pearly innards made them a target (see “Fashion victims”, left). The true test of whether it is possible to return North America’s mussels back to their former glories is whether recovered populations can go on to produce new generations on their own. Hern, for one, sees reasons for optimism: a single female can generate hundreds of thousands of larvae, he says, so a species can recover rapidly if we can get enough individuals back into the water with their host fish. And Watters, who wades into Ohio’s Darby river every year to check the endangered northern riffleshell mussels he helped to reintroduce, insists that such efforts are more important than they might appear: “I would like to think that by protecting a very rare and intolerant species we are protecting everything else as well”. ■ Jason Bittel is a writer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 10 March 2018 | NewScientist | 41



The internet knows you all too well David Stillwell revealed how easily your personality can be gauged online, and used to exploit you. But he seems surprisingly sanguine about it, finds Douglas Heaven

AVID STILLWELL fidgets with his empty takeaway cup as we talk. Sitting in this quiet cafeteria at the University of Cambridge, the ongoing firestorm of US politics feels a million miles away. But with Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the 2016 US presidential election, the fire found its way to him, thrusting the young researcher into the spotlight. “It’s uncomfortable,” he says, uncomfortably. “Plenty of investigative journalists have wanted to have off-the-record conversations about what companies are doing and whether we’ve helped them.” The conversations he is referring to concern what some consider a form of pervasive mind control. Stillwell played a key role in exposing ways that firms and governments can exploit our online data, mining it to create individual psychological profiles they can use to fine-tune adverts and political messages for maximum impact, ushering in an era of unprecedented digital persuasion of the masses. It started in summer 2007. On a whim – having just finished a psychology degree at the University of Nottingham, UK – Stillwell made a Facebook app called myPersonality. It let people take a test that describes personality types according to the “Big Five” traits, which include degrees of agreeableness, conscientiousness and extroversion. Months later, some researchers asked Stillwell if they could use his data. But he hadn’t collected any. He had only set it up because “I thought it would be cool,” he says. Then he wised up and started gathering data. It would prove a career-making move. When Michal Kosinski, then at the University of Cambridge, approached him a year later, Stillwell had a data gold mine of more than a million


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Facebook profiles paired to personality types (that number now tops 6 million). In 2013, Stillwell, Kosinski and colleague Thore Graepel dropped the bombshell that machine-learning techniques made it possible to accurately predict someone’s personality type simply from their Facebook likes. And accurately too. Just nine likes is enough to predict your personality traits as well as a colleague could. With 65 likes, as well as a friend; with 125 likes, a family member. Most people have around 225 likes, so organisations that possess this sort of data can predict your personality just as well as a spouse could. Not only that, it only takes a few Facebook likes to predict your age, gender, intelligence, sexuality, political and religious views, relationship status and a host of other things. In short, the internet knows just what pushes your buttons.

Laid bare Why was that a big deal? For marketers, discovering someone’s characteristics to any great degree typically involved asking them to fill out a questionnaire, making it impractical. But if it could be done automatically, our psychologies are laid bare. Nowadays, even your Twitter account can be analysed, your personality predicted from your tweets. What does it mean to have such knowledge in corporate hands? “We can be hacked,” says Stillwell. “Manipulated, persuaded or encouraged.” He gives the example of a smooth-talking car seller. “The guy sizes you up and starts giving you the spiel he thinks will perfectly match you. As he’s talking, you are either smiling or looking disinterested and he’s using that to adjust his pitch as he goes along.” That’s the level of targeting we are

talking about, says Stillwell. And it can be done online, by an algorithm, when you don’t have your psychological guard up. Stillwell is now deputy director of The Psychometrics Centre at the University of Cambridge. His latest experiment with Kosinski and colleagues involved 3.5 million people. They found that those targeted with online advertising based solely on a single Facebook like were 40 per cent more likely to click on an online advert and 50 per cent more likely to follow through with a purchase than those seeing untailored advertising. When

РЕЛИЗ ПОДГОТОВИЛА ГРУППА "What's News" VK.COM/WSNWS Photographed for New Scientist by Daniel Stier

Analytica would have been able to come up with something so genius it would have swung an entire election,” he says. “We spent four years on it and didn’t come up with anything that incredible.” Think of Trump as a dry run, however. With the amount of money and personal data that companies like Cambridge Analytica are feeding into the hopper, there is no doubt that personality-based profiling will be perfected. “Just because it didn’t matter in 2016 doesn’t mean it won’t matter next time,” says Stillwell. So having lifted the lid of Pandora’s box, I want to know what worries Stillwell the most. Being drip-fed personalised messages without being aware that someone is trying to change how we think is insidious, he says. “The power balance right now is weighted towards those who hold the data, and we really don’t know how it’s being used,” he says. Later, Brett Frischmann, a law professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, goes further, telling me over the phone that we are

“If we think we have it bad today, mass persuasion could make it a lot worse”

such messaging can be scaled to target many millions of people at the press of a button, and with no regulatory oversight, that for some is an alarming degree of influence. Nudges at vast scales might sway democracies. Cambridge Analytica, a firm that taps into big data, approached Stillwell’s team in 2013. It had been spending big buying personal data from various sources and wanted help using it to influence US politics. The chance to work with this trove of data was tempting – “we discussed possibilities for months” – but ultimately Stillwell couldn’t

reconcile himself with Cambridge Analytica’s political ambitions. And that was that – until Trump’s win shocked the world. Cambridge Analytica wasted no time in announcing that its social media ads tailored to individual voters’ personality types were key. Many were scandalised: targeted campaign ads are legit, but automated personality profiling had the whiff of foul play. When I ask Stillwell about the election result, he shrugs. “Given the timescales involved, I didn’t think it likely that Cambridge

on a slippery slope. “If we think we have it bad with filter bubbles today – with people being fed radically different takes on world events finding it harder and harder to find political common ground – then [mass] persuasion could make it a lot worse. These tools could be used for a form of brainwashing.” Considering how much Stillwell knows about all this, I’m curious to what extent he moderates his own online habits. “There is some horrific stuff I’m interested in that I still Google now and again,” he deadpans. I laugh. He laughs. Awkward silence. “I don’t think my data is being used in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable,” he adds. In a world of handwringing over big-data exploitation, Stillwell manages to find a silver lining. “In the 1950s, shopkeepers knew you and sold stuff in a way that made it relevant to you – it was a personalised, one-to-one relationship. Then we moved to a world of internet stores where, in the name of efficiency, we give everyone the same experience.” Stillwell believes that automated psychological profiling is helping to bring back that personal touch. “It’s not necessarily all about people taking advantage of us. We can also be treated like individuals again.” ■ Douglas Heaven is a consultant for New Scientist 10 March 2018 | NewScientist | 43



Feel your way to being human

The Strange Order of Things: Life, feeling, and the making of cultures by Antonio Damasio, Random House

given the credit they deserve.” Damasio has spent a lifetime investigating “why and how we emote, feel, use feelings to construct our selves; how feelings assist or undermine our best intentions; why and how brains interact with the body”. This book is a summing-up of what he has learned, explaining why feelings not only help us crack the hard

WE ARE still struggling with the question of how it is that our brains not only produce images of the sights, sounds and smells around us but also accompany them with “Feelings work because they ‘see’ the inner private feelings and a sense of “being there”. state and make it Antonio Damasio is a professor matter to the owner” of neuroscience, psychology and philosophy at the University of problem but also give us a way Southern California, and he has a to connect human culture with profound answer to this so-called life that existed “as early as hard problem of consciousness. 3.8 billion years ago”. In The Strange Order of Things, Damasio’s views have always he argues that brains don’t been controversial because he produce consciousness on their insists that we can’t understand own. Rather, brains and bodies consciousness by only looking at work together: feelings, how the brain interacts with the subjectivity and consciousness world outside ourselves; we have emerge from their interactions. to include the world within us Damasio’s explanation of too. This is “commonly ignored to how consciousness might be the peril of realistic conceptions constructed is a dramatic of general physiology and moment in a wonderful, deep cognition”, he writes. and wide-ranging book. He has The body is so important to tackled the topic before in The consciousness because alongside Feeling of What Happens and what we perceive in the outside other bestsellers, but never world, we map two kinds of given such a lucid explanation internal world, says Damasio. in non-technical language, nor The first is the old world of embedded it within the wider metabolism – of heart, lungs, guts, theme explained in this new skin and blood vessels. What we book. That theme is simple, says sense from this ancient world Damasio: “Feelings have not been we describe in terms of pain, 44 | NewScientist | 10 March 2018

pleasure, well-being and fatigue. These are the “core components of feelings”. He quotes Wordsworth with approval: “sensations sweet, felt in the blood and felt along the heart”. Riding on this background flow are more powerful emotive responses, triggered by our reactions to things around us, by memories, by hunger, thirst or lust, and by emotions like joy, sadness, fear, anger and envy. These reactions, which bring about changes within the body, are largely powered by parts of the brain beneath the cortex, and are triggered non-consciously. It is then that the second and more recently evolved vertebrate bodily world, that of the skeleton and muscles, can play its part. “Images” from this second world provide a “body phantom” for our sensory portals – our ears, nose, mouth and eyes – and maps of where we are looking as muscles direct our view. The subjective view emerges, says Damasio, when feelings that describe the inner state of life are placed in the perspective of the body as it catches itself in the act of creating images of the outside world. Let’s reflect. Damasio has provided several ingredients of consciousness but has scarcely mentioned the cortex, where explanations usually begin. For him, focusing entirely in the cortex and visual system for the “neural correlates of


A pioneering account of the origin of feelings shows how central they are to life, consciousness and human culture. Alun Anderson explores

consciousness” is “wrong on all counts”. We certainly need the cortex. It helps bring together many different brain areas in the final step of the multimedia theatre experience of consciousness. Here Damasio concurs with other researchers that we need to explain how the cortex pulls off massive brain-wide integration, in what neurobiologist Stanislas Dehaene vividly describes as “global ignition”. Damasio is a profound thinker, and there is more to his layered panorama describing the work of feelings in consciousness than this sketch implies. I particularly

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Reframing your past may make your future wonderful

like the way it encourages you automatically in bacteria, but in to look at your own experience: creatures with nervous systems, you might observe that “your its processes can be monitored: conscious mind is not a monolith. “feelings tell the mind, without It is composed. It has parts. The any word being spoken, of the parts are well integrated, so much good or bad direction of the life so that some hinge on others, “It is the range of feelings but they are parts nonetheless.” that makes us what we To search for the roots of are, with our triumphs, feeling, Damasio repurposes tragedies, suffering, joy” the word homeostasis, moving from a definition of maintaining process”. Feelings work because an organism’s balance to one they “see” the inner state and of its “flourishing”, and to the make it matter to the owner. This projection of life into the future. metaphorical use of homeostasis Looked at in this way, he finds allows Damasio to take an original a unity in life, everywhere driven look at culture, the human by “the homeostatic imperative”. condition and science. Homeostasis may proceed

We usually associate culture with creative intelligence, but instead Damasio asks us to see its purpose as “producing homeostatic corrections”. How can we imagine the birth of the arts, Damasio asks, and not picture “one individual working on the resolution of a problem posed by a feeling?” I accept Damasio’s big thesis that the human condition encompasses two worlds: reason, and feeling. These “nature-given rules of life-regulation” reach back to the homeostatic world of the earliest creatures, “the strings of which are pulled by the invisible hands of pain and

pleasure” – strings we didn’t make and can’t easily alter. I am less sure that this makes it any easier to pin down the human condition, other than exploring it as writers and artists have always done. In his explorations of himself, Damasio reveals a humanist with a few tricks for managing his own feelings. He explains that, “for some of us, so many good moments of the past can become, in recollection, wonderful… even extraordinary moments… the transformation can be magic and entertaining”. The positive feeling accompanying his reconstruction of his past helps to create a great future. He accepts not everyone thinks this way, but I suspect it might be worth learning. He is unimpressed by futurists who imagine we may one day engineer our pains away, or perfect ourselves. It is the full range of feelings that makes us what we are, with our triumphs and tragedies, suffering and joy. And he thinks it fine to accept life doesn’t deal you a perfect hand and you must make the best of it. “I know, I should have been taller,” he writes, adding that his acceptance of imperfection has been criticised as a kind of “Stockholm syndrome”, in which you come to love your captors. Damasio has a love of life, and the real joy of reading The Strange Order of Things isn’t its bigger thesis but the insights that make you stop and think. He has considered this way of reading, too, explaining how the reference “I” of subjectivity can come and go, and that a flow of highly absorbing media can catch us up in another’s vision so we lose awareness of our thoughts and cede control of our time. “Turn to literature if you really want to be free,” says Damasio. His book is a wonderful space to practise that freedom. ■ Alun Anderson is an editor emeritus of New Scientist 10 March 2018 | NewScientist | 45



Beyond self-expression Brendan Byrne explores Paul Brown’s pioneering generative art

COMPUTER art pioneer Paul Brown likes to say that his work is “art that makes itself”. Brown’s involvement in the genre dates from 1968, when he visited the Cybernetic Serendipity show at the ICA in London, featuring such notable trailblazers as Nam June Paik and Jean Tinguely. The impact this show had on Brown and his peers could be compared to the famous 1976 Sex Pistols gig in Manchester, UK. Brown would go on to study at University College London’s Slade School of Art, one of the few schools that had already integrated computers into its curriculum. Prefiguring the habits of a start-up culture still two decades away, Brown took to sleeping on the studio floor where he worked, as the Slade’s mainframes were both in high demand and needed lots of processing time to finish tasks. Avant-garde work such as John Cage’s indeterminate music and early 20th-century movements, especially Dada, deeply influenced Brown’s experiments with randomisation, chance and mathematics. The I Ching, a major text for Cage and Philip K. Dick among others, also played a part. Brown wrote of these years: “Selfexpression was perceived as an outdated romantic notion and many artists were exploring methods for removing themselves from the production process.” A new retrospective of Brown’s Reconfigurable Painting can no longer be toyed with 46 | NewScientist | 10 March 2018

work allows us to place it in the context of the process-oriented art of the last 50 years. The earliest of the pieces on display, Untitled Gouache, was composed the year Brown saw Cybernetic Serendipity. To generate its orderly chutes and ladders, Brown opened up psychoanalyst-theorist Anton Ehrenzweig’s The Hidden Order of Art at random, and plugged the last digit of the page number into his code. Untitled Computer Assisted Drawing is populated by what look like deconstructed alien emojis. Its code was written

in the early programming language Fortran and run off punch cards. The original took several hours to print out on a drum plotter. Like several pieces, this is a recent reprint – surely one of the benefits of composing computer-generated art. The succinctly and charmingly named BIG DIM/0363000 200, 120/11,969 shows stages in the growth of a 3D cellular automaton under certain constraints. Those

“Just like punk, the insurgent art of the late 20th century has been de-weaponised”


Process, Chance, and Serendipity: Art that makes itself, an exhibition by Paul Brown, National Academy of Sciences, Washington DC, to 15 July

“certain constraints” remain invisible to the audience, and are probably indecipherable to anyone but the artist. This is one of the problems with process-oriented art: if the underlying rules – the work’s central fascination – are too complex, they mean nothing to the viewer. The development of the fine-art inkjet printing process known as giclée in the 1990s enabled Brown to expand his style, pushing his use of colour and depth. The colours of Gymnasts somersault off the wall and glue themselves behind your eyelids. Ceiling Detail from the House of Signs resembles a series of interlocking sigils from a Jorge Luis Borges fable. Both pieces achieve the rare distinction of being more beautiful than they are interesting. The presentation of Reconfigurable Painting is less successful. Originally a set of six triangular canvases, each composed of nine sub-triangles, it was meant to be something the viewer could rearrange. Visitors to the exhibition are no longer given this opportunity: just like punk, the insurgent art of the late 20th century has been de-weaponised. The show is housed in a small atrium at the National Academy of Sciences and is best accessed via the building’s C Street entrance. However, you shouldn’t miss the chance to walk past the main entrance on Constitution Avenue to the south, if only for the glares from the goons guarding the Federal Reserve next door. Q Brendan Byrne is a writer and critic based in New York






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From Barry Cash, Bristol, UK

From Trevor Jones, Sheringham, Norfolk, UK As an architect, I was dismayed to learn that the right sort of sand is another diminishing, non-renewable raw material (17 February, p 35). I had no idea this was the case. My reaction is to campaign for millions more trees to be grown and for there to be more

A simple way to use less sand would be to reuse buildings instead of demolishing and “redeveloping” them. Here in Bristol, for example, the recent construction of a hospital involved knocking down about £60 million worth of buildings that were less than 20 years old, some less than 10 years old. Reusing them would have saved a great deal of sand and carbon dioxide emissions, not to mention money.


Plant communication has even more to tell us

Sundry solutions to stop sand slipping through our fingers research and development into wood and wood products, their durability, fireproofing, maintenance and so on. In the meantime, it seems we have to look again at traditional, modern and future materials and ask what is the most sustainable combination for a particular context.


From Malcolm Ratcliff, Lincoln, UK Easily available alluvial sand and gravel reserves may be running out, but the situation can be easily managed. There are simpler alternatives than high-tech remedies, although they need planning and the right investment decisions. The Verney Report on aggregate supplies to south-east England proposed solutions to the same problem in 1976. These have stood the test of time. We now use less aggregates as building projects have been redesigned with lean construction principles. We use more recycled materials: around 90 per cent of construction and demolition waste is already recycled in the UK. We excavate marine aggregates from around our shores sustainably.

From Jonathan Wallace, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK Marta Zaraska describes worrying evidence of common air pollutants disrupting chemical communication in plants (17 February, p 32). She suggests this may also be implicated in the decline of pollinating insects, if they are finding it harder to locate flowers as a result. This raises another troubling possibility. Many insects rely on chemical signals to attract mates. If these pheromones are similarly broken down in the presence of ozone and nitrogen oxides, this could also seriously hit population levels. Monitoring of moths in the UK has shown that many species have declined substantially over the past 50 years. Might disruption of


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“Trigger warnings stop flashbacks of sexual assault, so I don’t nosedive into depression…” Who drank all the coffee? patiently explains why such warnings are in fact useful, not censorship (24 February, p 20)

pheromone communication be a factor in this, alongside habitat degradation, pesticide use and light pollution? From Bob Ladd, Edinburgh, UK It is interesting that plants communicate chemically, but your use of “word” and “sentence” metaphors is misleading. Plants may combine different chemicals to mean different things, but there is no plant analogue to the way we combine words to make sentences. Each chemical combination has only a stand-alone meaning. The sentence metaphor would be valid if one chemical meant “attack” and it could be combined variously with others that meant “cutworm”, “aphid” and so on to yield combinations with derivable meanings like “cutworm attack”. As far as I know, that property,

Humane execution and the fear of the tumbril

consequences of hypoxia and allowed to experience it by breathing through a carbon dioxide-absorbing canister. I can honestly describe the onset of profound hypoxia as an enjoyable event. It was only the presence of fellow students, who forcefully separated me from the apparatus, that prevented me coming to an untimely end. Gregg DuPont refers to the use of barbiturate drugs for the humane euthanasia of pets (Letters, 20 January). Surely hypoxia must be the most humane way of inducing death?

From Tom Clarke, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK You report on low atmospheric pressure stunning as a more humane method of slaughtering chickens (3 February, p 8). As a medical student in 1968, I was instructed in the physiological

From Chrissy Philp, Bath, UK I am glad that scientific attention is being directed at finding the kindest way to kill chickens. But I have a question. During the French Revolution, the guillotine was adopted to kill painlessly.

known as compositionality, has developed in only one biological communication system – ours. From Roy Smith, Burntwood, Staffordshire, UK It is a sad irony that at the same time as Zaraska notes the value of urban trees in dealing with pollutants, a council contractor in Sheffield, UK, is busy cutting down hundreds of trees in the city streets. This is in spite of vigorous protests by its citizens.



But physical pain is only one factor: the emotional torment as the tumbril trundled to the killing site must have been horrific. Having cared for chickens, I have seen that sudden changes in circumstances upset them. Are those organising painless killing emotionally aware? From Archie Campbell, Cambridge, UK I welcome trials of the stunning of chickens using low oxygen levels, which lead to death with no warning. It is incomprehensible, though, that the UK Home Office promotes carbon dioxide for the killing of certain laboratory animals. This is a cruel method since it triggers gasping, a feeling of suffocation and panic. Perhaps civil servants should be asked to try a lungful of CO2 to see if they would still advocate its use for humane killing. >



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LETTERS Symbiosis is ubiquitous and perhaps inevitable From Guy Cox, St Albans, New South Wales, Australia Eric Wynter describes the internalisation of bacteria into proto-eukaryotes to become mitochondria as being “more unlikely, perhaps, than the appearance of life itself” (Letters, 3 February). But this is just one example of such symbiosis. Another is photosynthetic bacteria being ingested to form chloroplasts, which happened several times, giving rise to different lineages of algae. Some scientists believe that cilia, such as those that remove mucus from our lungs, and flagella, such as those that enable sperm to swim, had a symbiotic origin, too. Symbiosis can be seen as inevitable.

The relative risks of Everest and rockets From David Plews, Wath-uponDearne, South Yorkshire, UK Danielle Young says Everest climbers are more daring than TOM GAULD

astronauts (Letters, 3 February). But she compares the fatality rate NASA tolerates with the actual death rate for climbers. The two figures have nothing in common. From Paul Whiteley, Bittaford, Devon, UK How we perceive risk depends on how much control we have. Imagine climbing a tree. Now imagine climbing a tree with a headset, being instructed what handholds to take. Which is more daring? From Aidan Karley, UK US and European astronauts at least are employees of civilian agencies that have “duties of care” to reduce the hazards of that employment. Everest climbers impose risks upon themselves. The question for them is about their employees: the professional mountaineers called “guides” if Western and “Sherpas” if Nepali or Tibetan in origin. So rich and mostly white people have one set of rules and poor local people a different set. Given the supposed egalitarianism of climbing culture, this is very awkward.

The yet deeper roots of environmental struggle From Joan Zealey, Balgownie, New South Wales, Australia Guy Cox reminds us about concern for the environment in the 1960s (Letters, 3 February). The environmental movement goes back far further than that. The world’s first national park, Yellowstone, was proclaimed in 1872, and Australia’s Royal National Park followed in 1879. In the UK, Emily Williamson and Eliza Phillips, both opposed to the slaughter of birds for feathers to adorn women’s hats, combined their fledgling organisations in 1891, leading to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Cloning credit needed for Dolly the Scottish sheep From Lynne Turnbull, North Berwick, East Lothian, UK I bought a subscription to New Scientist for my husband, never having read it myself. Now, each week I will him to finish reading so I can devour it. I love it and am engaging my daughter with it.



I am disappointed, however, with your mentions of Dolly the sheep in three articles over two weeks (27 January, p 3 and p 4, and 3 February, p 24). Not once did you credit the Roslin Institute, nor the University of Edinburgh. Don’t assume everyone knows where Dolly was made. Do acknowledge those scientists in Scotland.

The shipping forecast: old ships may sink From Michael Strakosch, Sydney, Australia Joshua Howgego asks why ore carrier ships are sinking (27 January, p 34). Some of the more ethical mining and oil companies insist that their cargoes be carried by ships that are less than 10 years old. Old oil tankers converted to bulk commodities carriers seem to have the habit of sinking that Howgego describes.

Might we have proof of a quantised God or gods? From Ian Napier, Adelaide, South Australia Terry Klumpp shows us that Epicurus had an understanding of God that was well ahead of his time (Letters, 3 February). She or He can be seen to be both able and unable, and willing and unwilling to prevent evil – would that be a quantum God, perhaps?

For the record Q The team refining the mass of the proton measured a property of this subatomic particle called the cyclotron frequency (13 January, p 7).

Letters should be sent to: Letters to the Editor, New Scientist, 25 Bedford Street, London, WC2E 9ES Email: [email protected] Include your full postal address and telephone number, and a reference (issue, page number, title) to articles. We reserve the right to edit letters. New Scientist Ltd reserves the right to use any submissions sent to the letters column of New Scientist magazine, in any other format.

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CROSSWORD Compiled by Richard Smyth

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Crossword No16 ACROSS

1 In biology, a population that is less widespread than in the past (6) 5 Birth city of physicists John von Neumann, Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller (8) 9 Process once crucial in the production of high-grade iron (8) 10 Twofold; of communication, two-way; of printing, double-sided (6) 11 The generic name for polymethyl methacrylate (10) 12 A number that when raised to the power n yields x (4) 13 Boring structure (5,3) 16 Asian antelope also known as the blue bull (6)

17 Planet discovered by Sir William Herschel in 1781 (6) 19 (& 24 Down) Maria ___ (1906–72), Poland-born physicist and Nobel laureate (8,5) 21 The ___ , campus newspaper at MIT (4) 22 Surgical removal of breast tissue (10) 25 Marc Isambard ___ (1769–1849), engineer, designer of the Thames Tunnel (6) 26 HO• (8) 27 Bird in the curlew group (8) 28 Term describing motion about a fixed axis, as in some kinds of engine (6) +44 (0) 7814 181647 [email protected]


2 3 4

Identical in magnitude (5) Searchable data set; forefinger (5) Schmitt ___ , logic input type that provides hysteresis (7) 5 Probable origin of the universe (3,4) 6 Charles Lutwidge ___ (1832–98), mathematician and author of Euclid and His Modern Rivals; also known as a writer for children (7) 7 Fastener developed in the 19th century by the Gem Manufacturing Company (5,4)

8 Chungkingosaurus or Wuerhosaurus, perhaps (9) 14 One of a set of 17 elements that includes Ce and Y (4,5) 15 A 14 Down, atomic number 57 (9) 18 Musical instrument used to manipulate sound recordings (7) 19 Low-ethanol fuel mixture (7) 20 Device for the perusal of electronic books (1-6) 23 Kilgore ___ , fictional sci-fi writer created by Kurt Vonnegut (5) 24 See 19 Across


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HOW do you tell a king penguin from his queen? Get them to sing you a song. Antarctic scientists struggle to distinguish males from females of the species, as they look almost identical. Traditionally, beak length was used to sort the royalty, but this is only accurate in four out of five cases. Happily, a new study in Ibis shows that a trained ear can tell apart the distinct vocal patterns of male and female king penguins with perfect accuracy. The technique will let researchers keep tabs on penguin populations without needing to follow them into the throne room.


WHAT comes in snack packets and goes crunch when you eat it? Jellyfish, as connoisseurs of Asian cuisine well know. But how the gelatinous animals are transformed into a pickle-like texture is still poorly understood. Traditionally, the delicacy is cured in salt and potassium alum for several weeks, but Mathias Clausen and his team at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense were able to replicate the process in just a few days using ethanol. Yet they are less certain what they are putting in their mouths. “Little is known about the molecular anatomy of the jellyfish,” Clausen said, adding that he was “still not completely sure” what the tissue they had transformed was. Reassuring stuff. Despite this, with fish stocks in decline, the team says that jellyfish could become an important foodstuff, particularly if the texture can be made more palatable. Are you ready for this jelly?

LATE last month, UK science minister Sam Gyimah retweeted a video from the World Economic

Forum calling on parents to limit their children’s use of social media. Too much screen time, it said, was causing distress. It called for watermarks to identify falsified images, and classes on how to use social media in a healthy way, such as creating your own content. Unfortunately, creating your own content on social media can go awry, as Gyimah’s colleague Ben Bradley, Conservative MP for Mansfield, was in the process of finding out. Days earlier, Bradley had tweeted an accusation that opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn had “sold British secrets to communist spies”. Faster than you can say “Fake news!”, lawyers for Corbyn appeared in Bradley’s mentions column. Bradley found himself posting an apology for distress caused by his “untrue and false” statement and promising to make a substantial donation to a charity of Corbyn’s choice. Never mind the children: perhaps we ought to limit MPs’ use of social media.

What happens to food passing its best before date? Paul Burall knows exactly when to look: his Tesco flapjack bites, says the label, expire on 15 March 2018 at 13:48 56 | NewScientist | 10 March 2018

OVERSIZED coats and jewelled hair partings might have been in vogue recently at London Fashion Week, but 1300 years ago in what is now Peru, head binding was all the rage. A recent study reveals that, even then, different skull styles competed for dominance. Anthropologist Matthew Velasco at Cornell University, New York, examined hundreds of skeletons uncovered in the Colca valley. He found that as head binding became the fashion, two distinct looks emerged: the Collaguas made their heads longer and narrower, while the Cavanas aimed for a wider, stouter skull. In time, the Collagua style won out, as cultural identity in the region coalesced in the face of threats from beyond, including the Inca. Those with modified heads tended to be better fed and lead safer lives, suggesting that for ancient Peruvians, getting ahead in society meant just that. THE Unicode Consortium recently unveiled 157 new icons to jazz up text messages and soften passiveaggressive notes in shared kitchens. But not all is picture perfect in the world of typography. The original proposal for a lobster emoji, submitted in June 2017, noted that the animals “are well known for their red color, large claws and long segmented tails”. Sadly, the number of legs wasn’t specified, resulting in Emojipedia – the unofficial reference

guide to all things emoji – releasing a design that was two legs short of a full thermidor. Not only that, the DNA symbol contained in the update was back to front, presenting a rare left-handed molecule instead of the more familiar right-twisted one. In response, Emojipedia’s Jeremy Burge announced that the site would be updating its designs for accuracy. What’s the emoji for “red-faced”?

PREVIOUSLY Feedback discussed the poronkusema, a Finnish unit of distance that describes how far a reindeer is believed to travel before relieving itself, roughly 7.5 kilometres (24 February). “There’s an old French country measurement of distance, a pipée, the distance you can walk while smoking one pipe of tobacco,” says Ralph Hancock. “If the pipe was large and smoked slowly,

maybe this could be 7.5 km too.” Meanwhile, Richard Machin tells us that in Colombia, one horse rider asking directions from another might describe the distance as cinco puros. He explains: “A puro is a cigar, so a puro is the time it takes to smoke one. At a gallop, this could equate to around 7.5 km, though that would be pushing it.” Instead, Richard places the conversion at about three puros to the poronkusema.

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THE LAST WORD Stray cat strut In countries where there are lots of stray cats and dogs, many are in poor condition, especially compared with the truly wild animals that live in the same places. Why is this? The battle for survival must be incredibly tough for all these animals. Is it because feral domesticated animals can somehow live on in poor health through their association with humans, whereas nature would ruthlessly pick off any weaklings in the wild animal population?

QWell-adapted feral populations may thrive: consider dromedaries in Australia, pigs in North America and city pigeons. Natural selection never sleeps, so feral populations such as Soay sheep, originally from the Scottish island of that name, may become as uniform as most wild species. Most successful feral populations are ecologically flexible, non-specialist herbivores or omnivores not vastly different from their ancestors in behaviour or physiology. Feral city carnivores often rely opportunistically on a prey-rich ecology plus scavenging. Lapdogs are handout specialists, and in nature, specialisation is an evolutionary one-way ticket. So those that survive as strays are usually “natural-looking” opportunists like mongrels, rather than pekes or pugs. Feral and hybrid populations succeed mainly in rural or wild regions (such as dingoes and cats in Australia, or Maine Coon and

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skaukatt in North America and Scandinavia respectively), and are largely adapted to the available prey. The most miserable feral carnivores occur in cities with little alternative to scavenging; they face pervasive human enmity and, instead of enjoying handouts, must cope with intensified garbage control. They prey on pets, each other and disease-ridden rats. In contrast, urban foxes and raccoons are non-feral, omnivorous predators; they merge into city ecology, withdrawing at need. There is misery in the wild too, but it is seldom visible or long-lasting. Jon Richfield Somerset West, South Africa

Life in the dome When we were hiking the Oyster Dome Trail in Whatcom County near Puget Sound in Washington, I found this strange plant – or is it a fungus (see photo)? Can anyone identify it?

QThis is Monotropa uniflora, commonly known as ghost pipe, QFeral animals that live in urban corpse plant or Indian pipe, areas with no fear of humans can presumably because the seed eke out a living on abundant but capsules look like a Native otherwise poor-quality food, American pipe. such as discarded scraps from It is a flowering plant, not a takeaways. fungus, but is unusual in having I recently saw a very mangy no chlorophyll, hence the white fox in the centre of Purley, south London, scavenging. With little need of physical fitness to obtain “It is also known as Indian pipe, presumably because enough calories to keep going, the seed capsules look like and probably few predators, the a Native American pipe” urban environment keeps such unfit or elderly individuals alive or pink colour. It parasitises the until they fall ill or become less mobile through arthritis or injury. mycelium of Russula fungi, which in turn parasitise the roots of Then they may crawl somewhere deciduous trees such as beech. quiet to die, and birds, rats and It is also said to have a variety of insects will quickly dispose of medicinal uses. the body. A related species grows in Hillary Shaw the UK: Monotropa hypopitys, Newport, Shropshire, UK

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or yellow bird’s nest, which is occasionally found in conifer woods. Greg Nuttgens Bridgend, Mid-Glamorgan, UK

This week’s questions POTATO TIP

I work in a restaurant where the chef saves time by parboiling potatoes and leaving them in the water overnight, then roasting them the following day. To stop the potatoes discolouring overnight, he puts a slice of brown bread in the water. Is this an old wives’ tale or does this really work? And does it have to be brown bread? Emma Down Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, UK OUT COLD

I read recently that turtles were being “cold-stunned” and sharks were freezing to death in the ocean off the north-eastern US coast. This was due to a cold spell with air temperatures of -12°C, rather than the average 1°C. Is this particularly cold or within the normal winter range, and how is it possible for animals to be affected in these ways? Also, why do we not see mass freezing of land animals before sea animals are affected, given the relative stability of ocean temperatures? Sophie McGlynn Haverford College, Pennsylvania, US