Why didn't chimpanzees learn to cook?

Chimpanzees in the London zoo in 1935 play with cooking equipment. [Credit: Imagno/Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

Chimpanzees in the London zoo in 1935 play with cooking equipment. [Credit: Imagno/Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

A study has shown that chimps prefer the taste of cooked food begging the question why they never learnt to do it for themselves.

Researchers believe the answer lies in their inability to control fire as well as not being able to trust others within their group not to steal their food while it is being prepared.

The experiment earlier this year, is reported by Oxford University students' magazine Bang! Science.

Scientists from Harvard University, led by Dr Felix Warneken, say that chimps have most of the mental capacities required to cook food. Their experiment showed chimps preferred cooked food, were willing to wait for raw food to be cooked, and also put raw food in a box for it to be replaced with cooked food.

But while chimpanzees never learnt to cook themselves, Warneken says the findings suggest that the mental skills required for cooking were in place up to seven million years ago – much earlier than previously believed.

"Humans must have adopted cooking fairly early in their evolution,” he said.

With the cognitive ability in place to cook, all our ancestors would have needed to develop was the ability to control fire and the capacity to trust others.

Others, such as Professor Chris Stringer, of the Natural History Museum in London, are not so sure.

“Cooking was an important milestone for humans in terms of making meat more digestible and neutralising pathogens and toxins, also for its social role, but best evidence for the ability to make fire at will only shows in the last 400,000 years”.

Bang! quotes an even more blunt palaeontologist Professor Fred Spoor. “Who cares that early humans may have liked the idea of cooked food?" he asks. "Perhaps they would have liked eating naturally roasted carcasses of animals occasionally trapped in savannah fires, but that is not cooking.”

NASA balloon flight tests whether bacteria can live on Mars

The 2014 test of the E-MIST system is prepared for flight at NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. [Credits: NASA / David J. Smith]

NASA researchers recently launched a helium-fileld scientific balloon to the edge of space to discover if bacteria might be able to hitch a ride to Mars and survive after they get there.

The abloom voyage is designed to expose the bacteria to conditions similar to those found on the surface of the Red Planet.

NASA researchers will measure how long the bacteria can endure the conditions, and they also will study the biological underpinnings of bacterial survival in harsh conditions.

Gianine M. Figliozzi, of the Space Biosciences Division of the NASA Ames Research Center, explains:

Earth’s stratosphere is an extreme environment. Situated above 99% of Earth’s protective atmosphere, conditions are dry, cold, and bathed with intense ultraviolet solar radiation. The air pressure is so low it’s nearly a vacuum. For these reasons, Earth’s stratosphere is a great stand-in for the surface of Mars.

“If we want to discover life on other planets we need to know if we are introducing Earth life as we explore,” said David J. Smith, scientist in the Space Biosciences Division at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, and principal investigator for the study.

“There are terrestrial microorganisms that can survive space-like conditions. We know some of these same microorganisms are onboard robotic spacecraft so we need to be able to predict what will happen when they get to Mars.”

A specialized hardware system that will be used for the study, Exposing Microorganisms in the Stratosphere (E-MIST), was developed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The E-MIST system was successfully flight tested during a five hour balloon flight in 2014. A report on the test flight was published in the December 2014 issue of Gravitational And Space Research.

The first full science mission using the E-MIST system launched from NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Fort Sumner, New Mexico on 26 September. During this mission, the balloon reached altitudes upward of 36,500 metres.

The video below is a history of NASA's scientific ballooning program.

There's more to a jellyfish than meets the eye

Jellyfish are among the oldest creatures on the planet, but also subject to less research than most animals and science is only now catching up.

With no heart, blood, or brain, you'd think they would be simple, but there is more to them than meets the eye.

They have survived five mass extinctions and live in every ocean.

This video from the PBS Deep Look series investigates these ultimate survivors. 

Dormant viruses may be responsible for motor neurone disease

Avindra Nath, M.D., discusses results from a study he lead showing that HERV-K genes, a group of ancient, inherited retrovirus genes may awaken to cause some forms of ALS. Video courtesy of NINDS.

Viruses lying dormant inside the human genome may “reawaken” to cause motor neuron disease, according to new research published in the journal Science Translational Medicine

The study also raises the possibility that antiretroviral therapy might be useful in some form of treatment.

The study found that the genome of the Human endogenous retrovirus called HERV-K, was abnormally activated in the brains of deceased Lou Gehrig's disease patients. 

The work follows on from a 2011 study when, Avindra Nath and his colleagues found that proteins synthesized by HERV-K were concentrated in the brains of patients with the disease.

But there are still questions to be answered.

"Perhaps most fundamental is the proverbial chicken and egg challenge: Is the activation of HERV-K a cause or a consequence of motor neuron degeneration? In this context, the most compelling aspect of their transgenic mouse work is the finding that elevated expression of the HERV-K env protein is directly pathogenic to motor neurons," an accompanying analysis in the journal  said.

Humans have for generations been passing on genetic remnants of HERV infections that may have happened millions of years ago. Although nearly 8% of the normal human genome is made up of these genes, very little is known about their role in health and disease.

"People call the genes for these viruses junk DNA. Our results suggest they may become activated during ALS," said Nath, clinical director at the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and a senior author of the study.

"Ultimately we hope the results will lead to effective treatments for a heartbreaking disorder."

Lou Gehrig's disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), is a progressive and fatal neurodegenerative disease which destroys the motor neurons that control speech, movement, swallowing and breathing.

On rare occasions, HIV-infected, AIDS patients develop ALS-like symptoms. In many of these patients, the symptoms can be reversed by treatment with antiretroviral drugs.

Previous studies found reverse transcriptase, a protein encoded by retroviral genes, in the blood of some ALS patients but its role in the disorder is unknown.


New insights into star-forming giant galaxy cluster

A composite of X-ray and optical wavelengths of the Phoenix Cluster [Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/MIT/M. McDonald et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI]

Galaxy clusters, huge conglomerations of galaxies, hot gas, and dark matter, are the largest structures in the Universe held together by gravity. But they are generally poor at producing new stars in their centres.

The galaxy cluster SPT-CLJ2344-4243, nicknamed the Phoenix Cluster, however, bucks the trend.

Scientists already knew the cluster featured the highest rate of cooling hot gas and star formation ever seen in the centre of a galaxy cluster, and that it is the most powerful producer of X-rays of all known clusters.

Now new data from observations at X-ray, ultraviolet, and optical wavelengths by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Clay-Magellan telescope in Chile, are helping astronomers better understand how this may be happening. 

NASA explains:

Clay-Magellan’s optical data reveal narrow filaments from the center of the cluster where stars are forming. These massive cosmic threads of gas and dust, most of which had never been detected before, extend for 160,000 to 330,000 lights years. This is longer than the entire breadth of the Milky Way galaxy, making them the most extensive filaments ever seen in a galaxy cluster.

They surround large regions with greatly reduced X-ray emission in the hot gas. These regions can be seen as dark patches surrounded by the blue in the composite image above, which shows the Chandra X-ray data in blue and optical data from the Hubble Space Telescope (red, green, and blue).

Astronomers think that the X-ray cavities were carved out of the surrounding gas by powerful jets of high-energy particles emanating from near a supermassive black hole in the central galaxy of the cluster. As matter swirls toward a black hole, an enormous amount of gravitational energy is released. Combined radio and X-ray observations of supermassive black holes in other galaxy clusters have shown that a significant fraction of this energy is released as jets of outbursts that can last millions of years. The observed size of the X-ray cavities indicates that the outburst that produced the cavities in SPT-CLJ2344-4243  SPT- CLJ2344-4243 was one of the most energetic such events ever recorded.

Genetically edited 'micro-pigs' set to hit the pet market

BGI's micropigs on show in Shenzhen, China. [Credit: BGI]

BGI's micropigs on show in Shenzhen, China. [Credit: BGI]

A Chinese genomics institute will soon sell tiny pigs it has produced using cutting-edge gene-editing techniques.

Nature News reports that BGI, previously known as Beijing Genomics Institute, originally created the pigs for use as models for human disease. They did so by using the gene-editing tool TALENs to turn off certain genes such as the growth hormone receptor gene in the already small Bama pig breed.

Pigs make sense as a vehicle for studying human disease as they are closer to humans physiologically and genetically than rats or mice. However, they cost more to keep and require bigger drug doses in tests.

But now BGI has announced at the Shenzhen International Biotech Leaders Summit that it will begin selling the 15-kilogram pigs for 10,000 yuan – about US$1,600. A normal Bama pig weighs up to 50 kilograms.

In future, customers will be offered pigs with different coat colours and patterns, which BGI says it can also set through gene editing.

But the move has  raises some concerns. "It's questionable whether we should impact the life, health and well-being of other animal species on this planet light-heartedly," Jens Boch from Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg, who helped develop the TALENs approach, told Nature News.


Early exposure to 'good' bacteria may protect against asthma

Babies who acquire certain bacteria in their gut may be protected against asthma, a new study suggests.

An obsession with germ-free environments might account for the sharp rise in asthma rates in the West. [Credit: Novastock/Getty Images]

An obsession with germ-free environments might account for the sharp rise in asthma rates in the West. [Credit: Novastock/Getty Images]

Canadian researchers hope that their work will lead to a test to identify at-risk infants.

"It shows there's a short, maybe 100-day window for giving babies therapeutic interventions to protect against asthma," study lead co-author Professor Stuart Turvey, Pediatrics Professor at the University of British Columbia, told ABC news.

The protection appears to revolve around four key bacteria, the research published in Science Translational Medicine says.

The study also suggests that increasingly germ-free home environments have fuelled a rise in asthma rates in the West since the 1950s.

The researchers analysed stool samples collected at age three months and one year of 319 children participating in the larger Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD) study.
The study showed lower levels of four specific gut bacteria - Faecalibacterium, Lachnospira, Veillonella and Rothia - in three-month-olds who were later found to be at an increased risk for asthma.

NASA's Dawn team looks at mysteries and insights about Ceres

A map-projected view of Ceres created from images taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft during in August and September, 2015. In this false-colour view, redder colours indicate places on Ceres' surface that reflect light strongly in the infrared, while bluish colours indicate enhanced reflectivity at short (bluer) wavelengths; green indicates places where overall brightness, is strongly enhanced. This technique can provide insights into the mineral composition of the surface, as well as the relative ages of surface features. [Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA]

The team behind NASA's Dawn spacecraft this week are at the European Planetary Science Conference in Nantes, France, to discuss data they gathered from the dwarf planet Ceres.

"Ceres continues to amaze, yet puzzle us, as we examine our multitude of images, spectra and now energetic particle bursts," said Chris Russell, Dawn principal investigator at the University of California, Los Angeles.

A new colour-coded topographic map shows more than a dozen recently approved names for features on Ceres, all eponymous for agricultural spirits, deities and festivals from cultures around the world.

These include Jaja, after the Abkhazian harvest goddess, and Ernutet, after the cobra-headed Egyptian harvest goddess. A 20-kilometre diameter mountain near Ceres' north pole is now called Ysolo Mons, for an Albanian festival that marks the first day of the eggplant harvest.

Another new Ceres map, in false colour, above, enhances compositional differences present on the surface. NASA writes:

The variations are more subtle than on Vesta, Dawn's previous port of call. Color-coded topographic images of Occator (oh-KAH-tor) crater, home of Ceres' brightest spots, below, and a cone-shaped six-kilometre-high) mountain, are also available. Scientists are still trying to identify processes that could produce these and other unique Cerean phenomena.

"The irregular shapes of craters on Ceres are especially interesting, resembling craters we see on Saturn's icy moon Rhea," said Carol Raymond, Dawn's deputy principal investigator based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

"They are very different from the bowl-shaped craters on Vesta."

A surprising bonus observation came from Dawn's gamma ray and neutron spectrometer. The instrument detected three bursts of energetic electrons that may result from the interaction between Ceres and radiation from the sun. The observation isn't yet fully understood, but may be important in forming a complete picture of Ceres. 

"This is a very unexpected observation for which we are now testing hypotheses," Russell said.

Dawn is currently orbiting Ceres at an altitude of 1,470 kilometres, and the spacecraft will image the entire surface of the dwarf planet up to six times in this phase of the mission.

You can get more information on the Dawn mission here.

This view, made using images taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft, is a colour-coded topographic map of Occator crater on Ceres. Blue is the lowest elevation, and brown is the highest. The crater, which is home to the brightest spots on Ceres, is approximately 90 kilometres wide. [Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA]

This view, made using images taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft, is a colour-coded topographic map of Occator crater on Ceres. Blue is the lowest elevation, and brown is the highest. The crater, which is home to the brightest spots on Ceres, is approximately 90 kilometres wide. [Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA]

Film captures 'dirty thunderstorm' over Chilean volcano

A supercharged ash cloud sparks stunning lightning strikes at an erupting Chilean volcano in what is known as a "dirty thunderstorm".

The BBC explains the phenomenon.

Dirty thunderstorms are a rare phenomenon, associated with large volcanic eruptions...
In a normal thunderstorm ice crystals collide and generate electric charges, which results in lightning. In an eruption cloud ash particles collide instead of ice crystals.”


Will astronauts be able to find their feet on Mars?

One less obvious challenge to people landing on Mars is the adaptation to gravity after a long space flight and whether astronauts will be able to stand up when they get there.

Astronauts returning to Earth from the International Space Station exhibit balance control problems, muscle weakness and cardiovascular deconditioning. They also suffer a loss of hand-eye coordination problems, postural stability or steadiness, and vision and perception issues. 

In fact, the longer an astronaut spends in space, the more difficult it is for their brain to readapt to gravity, and with a journey time to Mars of about six months, the problem could be severe when astronauts arrive, even though the planet's gravity is only 62% that of Earth.

A recent study analysing the balance control disturbances by Jacob Bloomberg, a senior research scientist at NASA evaluated test subjects who have undergone body "unloading" (not carrying one's own weight), after returning from space missions, space station expeditions or from bed rest studies of up to 70 days.

Bloomberg and his team developed the Functional Task Test (FTT), which identifies mission critical tasks that may impact astronauts' movement and performance immediately after transition to a higher gravity environment.

"These tests are very operation-oriented and are related to different aspects of the mission and activities an astronaut would need to do after landing on the surface of Mars," Bloomberg said.

Bloomberg found that functions that involved postural stability were the most difficult for participants. He and his team are now investigating whether countermeasures can be taken during flight to help "train the brain to become more adaptable," Bloomberg said.

A 10-minute walk can counteract the negative impact of sitting for six hours

As we've reported recently, more and more research shows how bad sitting down for long periods can be for your health, even as modern lifestyles demand longer and longer hours at the computer.

But the good news, as we reported last week, appears to be that even a little movement, such as fidgeting, can go some way to counteract the negative impacts.

Now new research adds to the evidence of both the negative impacts of sitting for long periods and the way to combat those ill effects. 

The study by the University of Missouri School of Medicine found that when a person sits for six straight hours, vascular function is impaired but by walking for just 10 minutes after a prolonged period of sitting, vascular health can be restored.

"It's easy for all of us to be consumed by work and lose track of time, subjecting ourselves to prolonged periods of inactivity," said Jaume Padilla, an assistant professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at the MU School of Medicine and lead author of the study.

"However, our study found that when you sit for six straight hours, or the majority of an eight-hour work day, blood flow to your legs is greatly reduced. We also found that just 10 minutes of walking after sitting for an extended time reversed the detrimental consequences."

During the study, the researchers compared the vascular function of 11 healthy young men before and after a period of prolonged sitting. The findings indicated that blood flow in the popliteal – an artery in the lower leg – was greatly reduced after sitting at a desk for six hours. Researchers then had the participants take a short walk, and found that 10 minutes of self-paced walking could restore the impaired vascular function and improve blood flow.

"When you have decreased blood flow, the friction of the flowing blood on the artery wall, called shear stress, is also reduced," Padilla said.

"Moderate levels of shear stress are good for arterial health, whereas low levels of shear stress appear to be detrimental and reduce the ability of the artery to dilate. Dilation is a sign of vascular health. The more the artery can dilate and respond to stimuli, the healthier it is."