Archivo: Science

COVID-19, caused by the new pandemic coronavirus, is strangely—and tragically—selective. Only some infected people get sick, and although most of the critically ill are elderly or have complicating problems such as heart disease, some killed by the disease are previously healthy and even relatively young. Researchers are now gearing up to scour the patients’ genomes for DNA variations that explain this mystery. The findings could be used to identify those most at risk of serious illness and those who might be protected, and they might also guide the search for new treatments.


The city of Minamata, Japan, is dotted with monuments commemorating victims of an industrial mass poisoning decades ago. High in the hills, a small stone memorial honors other deaths—of cats sacrificed in secret to science. Now, after restudying the remains of one of those cats, a team of scientists is arguing, controversially, that the long-standing explanation for the tragedy is wrong.

“IT IS POSSIBLE TO STOP THE EPIDEMIC.” That’s the message splashed atop a website built by a University of Oxford team this week to share new research on the spread of the novel coronavirus. Below that hopeful statement comes a big caveat: To stop the virus’ spread, health officials need to find and isolate the contacts of infected people—lots of them—and fast. Such contact tracing is a mainstay of infectious disease control. But the Oxford team is one of several now advocating for a new approach: tapping into cellphone location data to track the spread of infection and warn people who may have been exposed.

Where on Earth, wondered Henri Weimerskirch, were all the penguins? It was early 2017. Colleagues had sent the seabird ecologist aerial photos of Île aux Cochons, a barren volcanic island halfway between Madagascar and Antarctica that humans rarely visit. The images revealed vast areas of bare rock that, just a few decades before, had been crowded with some 500,000 pairs of nesting king penguins and their chicks. It appeared that the colony—the world’s largest king penguin aggregation and the second biggest colony of any of the 18 penguin species—had shrunk by 90%. Nearly 900,000 of the regal, meter-high, black, white, and orange birds had disappeared without a trace. “It was really incredible, completely unexpected,” recalls Weimerskirch, who works at the French national research agency CNRS.

For years, drug discovery chemists have struggled to streamline a process that can boost a drug’s potency up to 2000-fold: “magic methylation.” The reaction sweeps out single hydrogen atoms and replaces them with methyl groups—reshaping the drug molecule to more easily interact with its biological targets. But carrying out this sleight of hand is so difficult that few researchers even try. Now, a team of chemists reports it has created a new catalyst that performs this delicate exchange with ease on a wide variety of druglike molecules, an advance that could lead to novel treatments for everything from cancer to infectious diseases.

In 2015, archaeologists Jeffrey Blomster and Víctor Salazar Chávez began excavating the Mexican site of Etlatongo, a 3400-year-old village in the mountains of Oaxaca. They chose a spot in the center of the site, one that appeared to be an important public space. But instead of finding anything resembling a palace or a temple, the team unearthed a flat stone floor that extended at least 46 meters (about half the length of a soccer field), flanked by low steps made from clay and stone. Mounds at least 1 meter tall enclosed this narrow area on either side.


Look closely at this piece of fossilized amber and you’ll spot something unusual: a cockroach trapped with its own feces (arrow).

Seeking a new treatment for people who have dangerous blockages in their coronary arteries, doctors in London are trying to disarm the body’s own defenders. The 90 patients in the study receive the usual treatments for heart disease, such as small tubes called stents to prop open their narrowed arteries. But half of the patients in the phase II trial, conducted by clinical pharmacologist Albert Ferro of King’s College London and colleagues, also pop pills targeting a class of immune cells called neutrophils. Researchers think that by invading the fatty obstructions, or plaques, in clogged arteries, neutrophils make them even more dangerous. The drug is designed to steer the cells away.


Building a beautiful robotic hand is one thing. Getting it to do your bidding is another. For all the hand-shaped prostheses designed to bend each intricate joint on cue, there’s still the problem of how to send that cue from the wearer’s brain.

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Studies of the origin of life are replete with paradoxes. Take this doozy: Every known organism on Earth uses a suite of proteins—and the DNA that helps build it—to construct the building blocks of our cells. But those very building blocks are also needed to make DNA and proteins.