Ancient algae offers clues about where plants came from

These prehistoric algae specimens exhibit many traits seen today in green seaweeds.

How the first plants emerged on dry land on the prehistoric Earth has long been a mystery: They, like all life, existed only underwater billions of years ago, according to researchers. But some recent studies of molecular biology and an ancient algae fossil suggest a few clues.

According to researchers, the first plant life to transition out of water and onto land may have evolved from some form of seaweed and most likely had soft, mossy textures and shallow roots. Such plants don’t preserve well in fossils.

However, one recent find is an exception: an algae specimen in China that appears to be a billion years old, making it the oldest known specimen of green algae on Earth. It is 200 million years older than the previously oldest known algae fossil, which researchers had dated back to 800 million years ago.

“It’s very daunting. A billion years—that’s at least five times older than the oldest dinosaurs,” said Shuhai Xiao, a Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University geobiology professor and senior author of a paper announcing the discovery. “It’s before any animals. The world is very, very different from what we know today.”

These prehistoric algae specimens exhibit many traits seen today in green seaweeds: They were photosynthetic, multicellular, and had leaves and branches.

But the transition to dry land may have come even earlier, suggests another recent paper in Cell. University of Alberta biologist Gane Ka-Shu Wong and coauthors present evidence that the closest living relatives to land plants are a mossy freshwater species, Zygnematophyceae, which is single-celled. The adaptations plants need for dry land may have come about before the ancient algae specimens, the authors conclude.

Researchers analyze conditions that facilitate cooperation in nature

Research team develops a mathematical model of how individual animals inherit their social connections.

There are many examples of cooperation in nature. However, it is also easy to find examples of selfishness and conflict.

Researchers have been studying the conditions that lead to cooperation for years. The implications are for understanding the forces that drive animal behavior, charitable giving and international relations.

A basic doctrine of these studies is that cooperative behavior emerges when individuals interacting in a social network obtain some benefit from being generous with one another. Thus far, social networks are not fixed.

Erol Akçay, an assistant professor of biology at University of Pennsylvania School of the Arts and Sciences, addresses this question of how a developing social network influences the possibility of cooperation in a theoretical social group. He found that where connected individuals are closely related they are more likely to cooperate. Nevertheless, these same groups can trigger a feedback loop that leads to the collapse of cooperation.

“We know from a half-century of study that cooperation is quite easy to evolve in principle,” says Akçay. His academic work points to a reason why. It is the possibility that social structure that brings about high levels of cooperation may not be stable in such a cooperative environment.

He and former postdoctoral researcher Amiyaal llany collaborated on a research study and developed a mathematical model of how individual animals inherit their social connections. This model can explain the structure of social networks in animal groups.

Diet has fast impacts on sperm quality

Men could boost their own fertility in just one to two weeks just by cleaning up their diet.

Men can improve their sperm health in just one or two weeks if they change their diet, suggests a new study at Linköping University in Sweden. The researchers, who published their study in PLOS Biology, found that male study subjects’ sperm became healthier or less healthy within days based on the study subjects’ daily intake of key nutrients.

The study tested 15 healthy, non-smoking young men and had them all follow a specified diet, in which they received all of their food from the researchers, for two weeks. During the second week, the researchers added about 450 grams of sugar—equal to around 3.5 liters of soft drinks—to the daily food regimen.

The researchers tested the subjects’ sperm at the start of the study, after the first week, and after the second week. One-third of the test subjects exhibited low sperm motility at the beginning, but all test subjects’ motility reached normal levels by the end of the first week.

“We see that diet influences the motility of the, and we can link the changes to specific molecules in them. Our study has revealed rapid effects that are noticeable after one to two weeks,” said Anita Öst, senior lecturer in the Department of Clinical and Experimental Medicine at Linköping University, and head of the study.

The researchers also found that small RNA fragments that are related to sperm motility also changed during the course of the study. They now plan to investigate to find out if these RNA fragments affect male fertility itself, and whether the RNA code could be used to develop new diagnostic methods that in vitro fertilization procedures could use to assess sperm quality.

Scientist undergoes brain operation to cure alcoholism

A disease researcher with a deadly drinking habit credits a brain operation with giving him his life back.

AA Canadian microbiologist who has struggled for years with alcoholism credits a first-of-its-kind brain operation with ending his addiction and giving him his life back. The scientist, Frank Plummer, is the first person in North America known to have received this treatment.

“I’m very excited about the results. It took away my cravings and it made me change my mood, hugely,” he said, adding that without this treatment, “I’d be dead, several months ago.”

Plummer is the former director of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory and oversaw the lab’s response to a SARS outbreak in 2003 and the H1N1 pandemic of 2009. He also oversaw development of a successful vaccine for Ebola.

In 2014, however, he retired due to what his spokesperson called personal reasons.” Problems with alcohol were a factor: He was drinking up to 20 ounces of whiskey every evening, and he experienced liver failure in 2012. Plummer tried counseling and rehab without success.

Plummer underwent the operation at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. A neurosurgeon drilled holes into Plummer’s skull and inserted electrodes deep into his brain. The electrodes are attached to a pacemaker-like device that stimulates a brain region, the nucleus accumbens, which is linked to dopamine, the neurotransmitter that is involved in feelings of pleasure, motivation, and addiction cravings.

Nir Lipsman, a neurosurgeon at the centre and one of the researchers behind the experimental treatment, said that the procedure aims to disrupt the neuron circuitry that drives the patient’s addiction. Once the circuitry is altered, the patient will no longer be addicted to alcohol, he said.

Lipsman explained that the procedure may be an option for patients who are severely addicted and have tried all other options without success.

100-year-old fruitcake found in Antarctica in ‘excellent condition’

Conservators with the Antarctic Heritage Trust, based in New Zealand, recently found the fruitcake in a hut at Cape Adare, the oldest building in Antarctica.

A team excavating Cape Adare in Antarctica, where British explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s party took shelter during their 1910-1913 Terra Nova expedition, has stumbled on a century-old fruitcake in such good condition that it looks and smells almost edible.

Conservators with the Antarctic Heritage Trust, based in New Zealand, recently found the fruitcake in a hut at Cape Adare — the oldest building in Antarctica.

Although the tin the cake came in, manufactured by British biscuit company Huntley & Palmers, was in poor condition, the cake itself seemed almost as if it had been bought yesterday.

“With just two weeks to go on the conservation of the Cape Adare artifacts, finding such a perfectly preserved fruitcake in amongst the last handful of unidentified and severely corroded tins was quite a surprise,” said Programme Manager-Artefacts Lizzie Meeks, in a statement. “It’s an ideal high-energy food for Antarctic conditions, and is still a favorite on modern trips to the Ice.”

Scott and his four-person team arrived at the South Pole in 1912, but all died while returning to their base camp on Cape Evans, according to National Geographic.

Conservators have been excavating artifacts at Cape Adare since 2016. The hut where they found the fruitcake was built by Norwegian explorer Carsten Borchgrevink’s team in 1899.

“Fruitcake is not something that people usually get excited about, but this discovery shows what a spectacular environment for historic preservation the Antarctic is,” wrote Stephanie Barczewski, a historian at Clemson University, in an email to National Geographic.

‘Snowball Earth’ may have helped give rise to Earth’s first animals

Those new conditions perfectly allowed algae to spread across the globe. That then created the burst of energy needed for more complex organisms to thrive.

A group of researchers led by scientists at The Australian National University (ANU) have shed light on the mystery of how animals first appeared on Earth, a recent study published in the journal Nature reports.

The team began their researcher after uncovering ancient sedimentary rocks in central Australia. While researchers had previously been aware of such formations, new technology helped them look into the stones in a way that was not possible in the past. After looking into the rocks, scientists crushed them into powder and took molecules from the long-dead organisms inside them. This analysis revealed algae first began to rise some 650 million years ago.

That finding is important because, not only does it give a more concrete timeline of when multi-celled organisms first appeared on Earth, but it also sheds light on one of the most important ecological revolutions in the history of the world. In fact, without that event modern animals — including humans — would not exist today.

“Before all of this happened, there was a dramatic event 50 million years earlier called Snowball Earth,” said lead author Jochen Brocks, an associate professor at the Australian National University, according to Phys.org. “The Earth was frozen over for 50 million years. Huge glaciers ground entire mountain ranges to powder that released nutrients, and when the snow melted during an extreme global heating event rivers washed torrents of nutrients into the ocean.”

Those new conditions perfectly allowed algae to spread across the globe. That then created the burst of energy needed for more complex organisms to thrive. It was also the first time the oceans were dominated by life other than bacteria.

This discovery is the first evidence that Snowball Earth was directly evolved in the evolution of large and complex life. Researchers hope it will lead to further research into the origins of animals and spur other studies on one of the world’s oldest mysteries.

“The reason why [the timeline] is so exciting is it is just before animals appeared and also exciting because it happened after the biggest climatic catastrophe in Earth’s history,” added Brocks, according to ABC Online.

The findings will be presented this week at the Goldschmidt Conference in Paris, France.

Artificial muscles could one day help robots lift massive objects

A team of researchers has created a new artificial muscle that could help robots lift far beyond their own body weight.

Researchers from Columbia University have created a new type of artificial muscle that could allow robots to lift things up to 1000 times their own weight, a study in Nature Communications reports.

The team created the new technology with a 3D printing technique. The rubber-like material — which is heated by a small electric current — not only lifts like real muscle, but it is able to expand up to nine times its normal size as well. That gives it a lot of flexibility other such substances do not have.

During the study, the team found that the muscle has a strain density — the amount of energy stored in each gram of a stretched elastic body — 15 times greater than natural muscle.

“We’ve been making great strides toward making robot minds, but robot bodies are still primitive,” said study co-author Hod Lipson, a professor at Columbia University, according to Telegraph UK. “This is a big piece of the puzzle and, like biology, the new actuator can be shaped and reshaped a thousand ways. We’ve overcome one of the final barriers to making lifelike robots.”

The new muscles are important because, not only could they be used to make better, stronger robots, they could also lead to more effective surgical devices and help out any field where careful manipulation is important. Lifting is the main application, but the soft material could go far beyond that.

“Our soft functional material may serve as robust soft muscle, possibly revolutionizing the way that soft robotic solutions are engineered today,” said lead author Aslan Miriyev, a researcher at Columbia University, in a statement. “It can push, pull, bend, twist, and lift weight. It’s the closest artificial material equivalent we have to a natural muscle.”

The team hopes to expand on the new study by furthering the muscle’s development. They also plan to use better materials, which will help accelerate the muscle’s response time and also increase its shelf life.

99-million-year-old baby bird found trapped in amber

The fossilized hatchling was a member of the bird group known as enantiornithes, which disappeared along with dinosaurs some 65 million years ago.

About a 100 million years ago, a newly hatched baby bird fell into a puddle of tree sap. Now, scientists say the specimen is the most complete fossil ever found preserved in Burmese amber.

The discovery is detailed in the journal Gondwana Research.

“It’s the most complete and detailed view we’ve ever had,” said co-author Ryan McKellar of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, in a report by New Scientist. “Seeing something this complete is amazing. It’s just stunning.”

The fossilized hatchling was a member of the bird group known as enantiornithes, which disappeared along with dinosaurs some 65 million years ago.

About half of the hatchling’s body is preserved in the three-inch chunk of amber, including its head, skin, wings, and feathers, according to National Geographic. A clawed foot also is visible.

Although the baby bird had a complete set of flight feathers on its wings, the plumage on its body was sparse and resembles therapod dinosaur feathers, scientists say. Nevertheless, the presence of flight feathers suggests that enantiornithes had the ability to fly from birth and so were less dependent on their parent than modern birds.

CT imaging of the specimen revealed its extraordinary preservation, according to research team co-leader Lida Xing of the China University of Geosciences, who said she originally thought they had just some feathers and a pair of feet.

“The surprise continued when we started examining the distribution of feathers and realized that here were translucent sheets of skin that connected many of the body regions appearing in the CT scan data,” said McKellar in the National Geographic report.

Asteroid-bound spacecraft slingshots past Earth

Gravity assist will alter its trajectory while saving fuel.

Traveling through space at 19,000 miles (30,000 km) per hour, NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft is flying by Earth on Friday, September 22, using the planet’s gravity to redirect its path to the asteroid Bennu.

Launched a year ago from Cape Canaveral on an Atlas V rocket, the spacecraft will arrive at Bennu in November 2018. It will orbit the asteroid, identify ideal surface locations for collecting samples, then use a robotic arm to reach into the surface to take the samples and store them inside a special collection device.

In 2021, OSIRIS-REx will head back toward Earth where, two years later, it will return the samples by parachuting a canister containing them into Utah.

From there, they will be taken to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where scientists will analyze them for organic molecules and materials that make up the building blocks of life.

An Earth flyby is necessary to propel OSIRIS-REx to its target because a direct flight would have required additional fuel that would have mandated it launch on a larger rocket.

“It was a way to substantially save on resources, either on the spacecraft or on the launch vehicle, or both,” said mission principal investigator Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona.

The flyby, which takes the probe within about 11,000 miles (17,000 km) of Earth’s surface, will increase its velocity by 8,400 miles per hour.

NASA will be out of contact with the probe for about an hour during closest approach while it flies over Antarctica.

“OSIRIS-REx uses the Deep Space Network to communicate with Earth, and the spacecraft will be too low relative to the southern horizon to be in view with either the Deep Space tracking station at Canberra, Australia, or Goldstone, California,” explained Mike Moreau, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center flight dynamics system lead.

The spacecraft will photograph the Earth and Moon with its three imaging cameras for as long as 10 days after the flyby.

Earth data will be collected by its thermal emission spectrometer and visible and infrared spectrometer for instrument calibration purposes.

Members of the mission team plan to release photographs collected by the probe on Tuesday, September 26.

Birds can “see” magnetic fields, study reports

Researchers believe they have finally figured out how birds easily navigate around the world.

Two newly published papers show that birds likely use a special protein in their eyes to navigate around the world.

While birds have been the subject of study for centuries, researchers have never fully understood how they travel around the world with such ease. To shed light on that mystery, scientists at Lund University and the Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg found evidence that the protein known as Cry4 might be responsible for avian navigation.

Cry4 is from a protein class known as cryptochromes. Such molecules are sensitive to blue light.and help regulate circadian rhythms. Now, researchers have cause to believe they help birds detect magnetic fields as well.

Past research shows that the cryptochromes in birds’ eyes allows the animals to orient themselves through a process known as magnetoreception. Scientists also know that birds can only sense magnetic fields if certain wavelengths are available.

To follow up on such research, the teams behind the two new studies looked at both zebra finches and Europeans robins. They looked at the birds by analyzing gene expression of the cryptochromes, Cry1, Cry2, and Cry4.

That showed, while Cry1 and Cry2 fluctuated each day, Cry4 — which expressed at constant levels — was the most likely candidate for magnetoreception. That held true for both zebra finches and robins.

“We also found that Cry1a, Cry1b, and Cry2 mRNA display robust circadian oscillation patterns, whereas Cry4 shows only a weak circadian oscillation,” the researchers wrote in their study, according to Science Alert.

In addition, the teams also discovered that Cry4 sits in a region of the retina that receives a lot of light. That further adds credence to the idea that it is used for magnetoreception. In addition, European robins have increased their Cry4 expression over time.

While both teams believe more research is needed before anyone can definitively say that Cry4 is responsible for magnetoreception, the evidence laid out in the two studies is quite strong. The next step is to analyze birds with non-functioning Cry4 and see how they perceive magnetic fields. Only then will teams be able to tell just how important the protein is.

The two studies are published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, and Current Biology.