These half-billion-year-old creatures were animals—but unlike any known today
So-called Ediacaran organisms have puzzled biologists for decades. To the untrained eye they look like fossilized plants, in tube or frond shapes up to 2 meters long. These strange life forms dominated Earth’s seas half a billion years ago, and scientists have long struggled to figure out whether they’re algae, fungi, or even an entirely different kingdom of life that failed to survive. Now, two paleontologists think they have finally established the identity of the mysterious creatures: They were animals, some of which could move around, but they were unlike any living on Earth today.
Lip-reading artificial intelligence could help the deaf—or spies
For millions who can’t hear, lip reading offers a window into conversations that would be lost without it. But the practice is hard—and the results are often inaccurate. Now, researchers are reporting a new artificial intelligence (AI) program that outperformed professional lip readers and the best AI to date, with just half the error rate of the previous best algorithm. If perfected and integrated into smart devices, the approach could put lip reading in the palm of everyone’s hands.
Scientists endorse billion-dollar collider to look inside protons and neutrons
The next dream machine for U.S. nuclear physicists got an important boost today in a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The report committee glowingly approved of the science that could be done with the proposed Electron-Ion Collider (EIC), a billion-dollar accelerator that would probe the innards of protons and neutrons. The endorsement should help the Department of Energy (DOE) justify building the EIC at one of two national laboratories competing to host it, although the project probably won’t get the go-ahead for several years.
Congo’s Ebola outbreak is all but over. Did an experimental vaccine help?
An Ebola outbreak that erupted 8 May in a remote region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and then threatened to explode in a highly populated city appears to have been quelled. On 12 June, the last known person infected with the deadly hemorrhagic fever had recovered, twice testing negative for the virus. That started the 42-day clock for an official declaration, expected on 24 July, that the outbreak is over.
Ghostly particle caught in polar ice ushers in new way to look at the universe
If astronomers are right, a ghostly particle that lit up an instrumented swathe of ice beneath the South Pole on 22 September last year was a messenger from a distant galaxy. The particle was a neutrino, electrically neutral and almost massless, which means its path could be traced back to the extragalactic event that created it. Cued by IceCube, the Antarctic detector, the orbiting Fermi Gammaray Space Telescope found that the neutrino likely came from a far off blazar, a hugely bright source of radiation powered by a supermassive black hole.
A fence built to keep out wild dogs has dramatically altered the Australian landscape
Southern Australia’s Strzelecki Desert is home to two very different landscapes: an area of 10-meter-high sand dunes with patches of dense woody shrubs, and—just a few kilometers away—shorter and flatter dunes surrounded by sparse vegetation. The reason for the difference? Dingoes.
The momentous transition to multicellular life may not have been so hard after all
Billions of years ago, life crossed a threshold. Single cells started to band together, and a world of formless, unicellular life was on course to evolve into the riot of shapes and functions of multicellular life today, from ants to pear trees to people. It’s a transition as momentous as any in the history of life, and until recently we had no idea how it happened.
Male scientists are far more likely to be referred to by their last names, impacting status and awards
Darwin, Newton, Einstein. When scientists reach a certain level of fame, first names need not apply. That’s especially true if the scientist is a man, according to a new study. And it doesn’t just go for scientists: Politicians, athletes, and other high-profile figures are more likely to be referred to by their last names alone if they’re a man.
Neanderthal ‘minibrains’ grown in dish
A recent marriage of three hot fields—ancient DNA, the genome editor CRISPR, and “organoids” built from stem cells—offers a provocative, if very preliminary, new option. At least two research teams are engineering stem cells to include Neanderthal genes and growing them into “minibrains” that reflect the influence of that ancient DNA.
Africa’s strangest trees are stranger than thought—and they’re dying mysteriously
Africa’s baobab tree looks like something from a Dr. Seuss book. When young, the species (Adansonia digitata) is single-stemmed, branchless, and sports fruit that resembles giant sausages. Now, researchers report things get even weirder as the tree grows older. Over its lifetime, its roots send up several more stems in a ring, which eventually fuse to form a cavity “inside” big enough for bars, churches, or prisons for people, and refuges for animals seeking relief from the hot sun. The work also addresses the mystery of why so many of these strange trees are dying.