Day: March 25, 2020

Tired of The Coronavirus? Here Are 10 Good News Stories You Need Right Now

Life during a global pandemic takes on a surreal quality. The ubiquitous presence of social media and a constant fire hose of coronavirus news can make it particularly hard if you’re already feeling anxious.


So, we’ve put together a little round-up of recent science news that we find inspiring, encouraging, and worthy of note in these trying times.

1. CRISPR has been used to attempt a cure for genetic blindness for the first time

In a world first, surgeons at Oregon Health & Science Institute have used the CRISPR gene-editing technique to attempt a cure for Leber congenital amaurosis, a rare genetic condition that causes blindness in early childhood.

While we await results on how this experiment worked out, this achievement joins a list of other medical uses of the technique, including the search for a Huntington’s disease cure, herpes, HIV, and immunotherapy for some types of cancer.

Living at a time when medical researchers have this powerful tool at their disposal is certainly a good news item in our books.

2. 60,000 more seed samples have been added to the Arctic seed vault in Svalbard

In February, a huge stock of 60,000 seed samples was added to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault nestled inside a mountain in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, including the first-ever heirloom seed deposit by an indigenous US tribe.

Increasing deposits to this safehouse of crops reflect growing worldwide concern about potential loss of biodiversity and food security – but these actions also demonstrate a beautiful commitment to our future generations.


3. A potential universal flu vaccine has passed an important set of clinical trials

The virus strains that cause influenza are shapeshifters, constantly moving beyond our ability to immunise against them – hence, we need annual flu shots to stay ahead of the disease. A ‘universal’ flu vaccine would give us a huge advantage in this race, and there’s now a truly promising candidate on the cards.

The vaccine, called FLU-v, has successfully passed phase I and phase II clinical trials, demonstrating its safety in human subjects; it’s been found to induce immune responses that last at least six months. We can’t wait to see the results of the next phase of trials.

4. Scientists have invented contact lenses that can correct red-green colour blindness

A new type of contact lens could restore the colour spectrum limitations in people whose eyes struggle to tell apart green and red hues.

This brilliant technology already exists in some cleverly designed sunglasses; soon, people might also have access to it in the highly convenient form of contacts, thanks to a team of engineers at Tel Aviv University.

colour contact lens result‘Normal’ image of a tree; colour blind version; corrected version. (Sharon Karepov/Tel Aviv University)

5. A patient has been declared ‘cured’ of HIV – and it’s not even the first time

Researchers have announced that for the second time ever, a patient carrying the HIV virus has been declared cured, with no trace of infection in his blood 30 months after he stopped traditional treatment, undergoing a specialised type of stem cell therapy.

The achievement doesn’t constitute a generalised cure, because the patient also had a type of lymphoma that enabled him to receive this experimental treatment; but it demonstrates a real breakthrough in medical science, showing scientists are able to push the boundaries like never before.


6. Niue has been named the world’s first ‘Dark Sky Nation’

The tiny South Pacific nation of Niue recently accepted a unique honour, as it became the first country to be formally accredited as an International Dark Sky Place.

This accreditation is bestowed by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), a conservation non-profit charged with preserving the naturally dark night-time environment, defending it from the intrusive disturbances of artificial light pollution.

There’s no end of scientific research charting the negative effects of light pollution, whether on animals, plants, or human health; this honour emphasises that seeking a truly dark night sky remains as important as ever.

7. We’ve found a clean method for hydrogen fuel production that’s 25 times more efficient

Hydrogen fuel is one of the more promising zero-emissions options around – if only we could produce it cheaply and without needing insane amounts of energy input.

Now, a team of researchers in Tokyo have managed to do just that, refining a method that produces hydrogen fuel using just a few basic ingredients, including light and a particular type of rust. A new study shows this method yields 25 times more hydrogen than existing methods.


8. There’s one excellent way to store renewable energy, and we already have the necessary tech

Speaking of sustainability, one of the biggest challenges to widespread adoption of renewables remains the problem of large-scale storage. However, there is one excellent solution to this problem – pumped thermal electricity storage. This approach stores electricity by turning it into heat, then turning it back into electricity when needed using an engine.

Unlike pumped hydro, which requires specific geographic requirements, this type of storage can be built in many places, and it uses thermodynamic principles to store electricity in the form of heat. And the best part? It’s already being tested in pilot plants.

9. A flawed paper that blames the Sun for climate change has been retracted

In June 2019, an odd paper made waves after it was published in Scientific Reports. The scientific community was quick to voice their concerns over this flawed study, which claimed that the Sun’s movements were the real cause of anthropogenic global warming.

Now, the editors of the well-known journal have corrected the scientific record, issuing a retraction notice that explains the errors, showing that even if something incorrect initially slips through peer review, the scientific process is still rigorous enough to fix the mistake. You can read about this fascinating case in full here.

10. There are 76 solutions available right now that can slow down climate change

A new report by the non-profit Project Drawdown has outlined a whopping 76 solutions the world already has at hand if we want to slow down climate change. These strategies – from shifting our means of energy production, to reducing food waste and empowering women – span across all sectors.

Furthermore, these solutions are actually cheaper than maintaining the status quo (also known as ‘doing nothing’). Project Drawdown estimates that if we implemented these 76 solutions, it would result in savings of up to around US$144 trillion of avoided climate damage and pollution-related healthcare costs. Tell everyone – we can do this.


Eerie Circle Built From Mammoth Bones Reveals New Clues About Survival in The Ice Age

Long before the comfort of modern amenities, ancient human communities were capable of living in some truly harsh and frigid environments.

On the central Russian Plain, a mysterious ring of mammoth bones has been dated to the peak of the last European ice age, when winter temperatures regularly reached -20 degrees Celsius or lower.


The site where this ancient structure was found – on the west bank of the Don River, about 500 kilometres (300 miles) south of Moscow – is known as Kostenki 11. The area has a long history of excavation, dating back to the 1700s; early structures were found there during digs in the 1950s and 60s.

Thanks to radiocarbon dating, a new study has revealed the discovery of the oldest known bone circle built by modern humans on the Russian Plain; there are about 70 of these mysterious structures littered throughout the area.

At more than 20,000 years old, this one particular site would have just started going up as the last ice age reached its coldest and most severe yet.

“Archaeology is showing us more about how our ancestors survived in this desperately cold and hostile environment at the climax of the last ice age,” says palaeolithic archaeologist Alexander Pryor from the University of Exeter.

“Most other places at similar latitudes in Europe had been abandoned by this time, but these groups had managed to adapt to find food, shelter and water.”


Of course, even these few remaining communities didn’t last forever. Eventually, the bone circles were abandoned. But for a while there at least, they were important sites for humans.

The oldest continuous bone circle, which stretches 12.5 metres in diameter (41 feet), appears to be made almost exclusively of mammoth bones, along with a smattering of bones from reindeer, horse, bear, wolf, red fox and arctic fox; the archaeologists have identified a total of 51 lower jaws and 64 individual skulls from mammoths.

At the edge of the circle, three large pits were revealed as well, filled with large mammoth bones.

Screen Shot 2020 03 16 at 2.12.19 pm(Pryor et al., Antiquity, 2020)

Using radiocarbon dating of fragments of charcoal found among the remains, the research team confirmed there was a human presence on the Russian Plain during a time when similar latitudes in Europe were already abandoned.

“Yet despite this cold, the widespread distribution of charcoal and burnt bone at Kostenki 11 indicates the availability of wood fuel and the sustained use of mixed-fuel (wood and bone) fires,” the authors write in their study.

In fact, this is only the second mammoth-bone circle at which habitual wood burning has been identified. And it’s some 5,000 years older than the other one.


The discovery adds weight to the idea that conifer trees survived on the Russian mammoth steppe throughout the last glacial cycle. Wood to burn is a prerequisite for many modern hunter-gatherers in high-latitude cold climates, and the availability of trees in this part of the world is a possible reason for why humans persisted here for so much longer than other areas of northern Europe.

Apart from burned wood, the team also identified several plants which could have been used for poisons, medicines, string or fabric, as well as over 50 small, charred seeds. It’s still unclear if these were brought by humans or dropped here by randomness, although other remains were clearly manufactured.

More than 300 tiny stone and flint chips suggest the people here once used to knap stone tools, likely for butchering animals and scraping hides.

Screen Shot 2020 03 16 at 2.12.44 pm(Pryor et al., Antiquity, 2020)

In the past, archaeologists have assumed that bone circles were used as dwellings, but this new site doesn’t imply long-term human encampment.

“What might have brought ancient hunter gatherers to this site?” asks Pryor.

“One possibility is that the mammoths and humans could have come to the area en masse because it had a natural spring that would have provided unfrozen liquid water throughout the winter – rare in this period of extreme cold.”

For now, the purpose of this bone circle remains a mystery.

The study was published in Antiquity.


Legendary ‘Tree of Life’ in New Mexico’s Ancient Past Might Not Be What We Thought

For hundreds of years, it lay undisturbed. Then, almost a century ago, archaeologists discovered it: a single pine tree, buried amidst the grandest of all the great houses of Chaco culture.


Pueblo Bonito (Beautiful Town), in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, has long been considered the cultural hub of the Ancestral Puebloans who dwelled here for centuries, founding the site over 1,000 years ago, before abandoning it about 1126 CE.

When they departed, the villagers left behind a wondrous legacy of massive structures that once stood up to five storeys high, filled with hundreds of rooms, and cultural artefacts, including pottery, musical instruments, and tools for use in ancient rituals.

They also left something else behind: the lone log of a ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), measuring 6 metres (20 ft) long, which archaeologists couldn’t make sense of when they stumbled upon it during a dig in 1924.

008 plaza tree 4A modern reconstruction of what Pueblo Bonito might have looked like. (National Park Service)

“At the south end of the West Court we unexpectedly discovered the remains of a large pine that had stood there, alive and green, when Pueblo Bonito was inhabited,” the researchers later wrote of the find.

“Its decayed trunk lay on the last utilised pavement, and its great, snaglike roots preclude the possibility of its ever having been moved.”


This vivid description – and the assumptions inherent within it – have ever since resonated throughout archaeological and anthropological literature, creating a rich legend around this seemingly unique pine, alone in the otherwise treeless environment of Pueblo Bonito.

Within these narratives, the pine has been characterised as a ‘tree of life’ or ‘world tree’ imbued with cosmological significance, notions of birth symbolism, or other mysterious speculations about its purpose (including that it might be a giant sun-dial).

“It is apt that the world tree should be viewed as the centre of the Universe, for it is relative to this axis that sacred time, the heavenly rhythm reflected by the play of light and shadow, becomes the geometry and symmetry of a sacred place,” one study observed.

In rebuttal, a new study led by tree-ring expert Christopher Guiterman from the University of Arizona suggests some of the more fanciful ideas around this majestic pine “have not been rigorously tested”, and offers an alternative explanation for the tree’s backstory.

“Based on converging lines of evidence – documentary records, strontium isotopes, and tree-ring provenance testing – we present a new origin for the Plaza Tree,” the authors write in their paper.

“It did not grow in Pueblo Bonito or even nearby in Chaco Canyon.”

008 plaza tree 4Cross-section of a sample taken from the Pueblo Bonito plaza tree. (Christopher Guiterman)

According to the evidence Guiterman’s team found, including comparisons of tree rings in a sample from the Plaza Tree with samples from trees in nearby regions, the famous pine did not ever lay its roots in Pueblo Bonito.

“We have this incredible database from 100-plus years of tree-ring science,” says Guiterman.


“Trees from the San Juan Mountains, the Jemez Mountains or the Chuska Mountains – they all have their own kind of flavour, their own peculiar signature.”

By analysing those signatures, along with over evidence to date the tree, the team concludes that the town’s majestic pine lived for about 250 years (until about the early 1100s) in the Chuska Mountains, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Chaco Canyon.

At some point around then – which is hard to know for sure, since the outer layers of the log were lost to decay – the tree died, either from natural causes or from being felled. Then, it was transported to Pueblo Bonito, where the team says it might have been intended for firewood, used as a bench, or erected as a standing pole.

008 plaza tree 4Pueblo Bonito as it is today. (Thomas Swetnam)

“It could have toppled or been left standing to eventually collapse onto the plaza,” the researchers explain. “Finally, it was buried by windblown sand over the centuries.”

While not entirely discounting the possibility that the tree might have served as a gnomon (the part of a sundial that casts a shadow), the team says their “mundane” explanations are far more likely than it being a symbol of ‘birth’ or ‘life’ in Pueblo Bonito, given we now know it was a dead, imported tree, and not the lone remnant of a mysterious Chaco forest for which no other evidence survives.

Exactly why these ancient villagers felt the need to transport the giant log such a great distance remains a compelling question, but the team is confident the rest of this mysterious legend can finally be put to rest.

“If a marker of anything, the Plaza Tree of Pueblo Bonito reflects the final fluorescence or decline of Pueblo Bonito,” the team says, “rather than its beginning.”

The findings are reported in American Antiquity.


How Much Should You Be Exercising During The Coronavirus Pandemic?

So here we are, perfecting our social distancing skills while schools, sports and other forms of social engagement are on indefinite hold, by a dangerous virus named after a (regal) crown. The coronavirus is named so because the center envelope is surrounded by small protein spikes called peplomers. These little protein spikes wreak havoc when they attach to lung tissue and hijack otherwise healthy tissue into building a potentially lethal coronavirus army of invaders.


Because the virus settles primarily with the respiratory tract – the nose, mouth and lungs – it is highly contagious when people sneeze, cough or exchange respiratory droplets with others.

Despite its importance, social distancing has been a social disappointment for many weekend warriors, team sport athletes, fitness fanatics and sports fans who find camaraderie, biochemical joy from dopamine rushes or stress reduction through regular exercise and sport.

We are both sports scientists who study athlete health and safety. We’re also proud exercise addicts who find the prospect of not exercising almost as disturbing as the prospect of the disease itself.

Here’s how exercise affects the immune system in response to the flu and some practical tips on how much people should (and should not) exercise.

Look for the ‘just right’ amount

Both too much and too little are bad while somewhere in the middle is just right. Scientists commonly refer to this statistical phenomenon as a “J-shaped” curve. Research has shown exercise can influence the body’s immune system.

Exercise immunity refers to both the systemic (whole body cellular response) and mucosal (mucous lining of the respiratory tract) response to an infectious agent, which follows this J-shaped curve.


A large study showed that mild to moderate exercise – performed about three times a week – reduced the risk of dying during the Hong Kong flu outbreak in 1998.

The Hong Kong study was performed on 24,656 Chinese adults who died during this outbreak. This study showed that people who did no exercise at all or too much exercise – over five days of exercise per week – were at greatest risk of dying compared with people who exercised moderately.

Additionally, studies performed on mice demonstrated that regular exercise performed two to three months prior to an infection reduced illness severity and viral load in obese and non-obese mice.

Thus, limited animal and human data cautiously suggest that exercise up to three days per week, two to three months prior, better prepares the immune system to fight a viral infection.

What if we have not exercised regularly? Will restarting an exercise routine be good or bad? Limited data, also obtained from mice, suggests that moderate exercise for 20 to 30 minutes a day after being infected with the influenza virus improves the chances of surviving.


In fact, 82 percent of the mice who exercised 20-30 minutes a day during the incubation period, or the time between getting infected with flu and showing symptoms, survived. In contrast, only 43 percent of the sedentary mice and 30 percent of the mice who performed strenuous exercise – or 2.5 hours of exercise a day – survived.

Therefore, at least in laboratory mice, mild to moderate exercise may also be protective after we get infected with the flu virus, whereas a little exercise is good while no exercise – or even too much exercise – is bad.

For those who are “committed exercisers,” how much exercise is probably too much during a flu pandemic? It is clear that both too much exercise and exercising while sick increases the risk of medical complications and dying.

We conducted studies on both collegiate football players and cross-country runners, which showed a decrease in secretory immunoglobulin A, or “sIgA” when athletes competed and trained hard. SIgA is an antibody protein used by the immune system to neutralize pathogens, including viruses.

SIgA is also closely associated with upper respiratory tract infections (URTI). When sIgA levels go down, URTI’s usually go up. We saw this relationship in football players, whereas the players showed the most URTI symptoms when their sIgA levels were lowest.

This indirectly suggests that over-exercise without adequate recovery may make our body more vulnerable to attack, especially by respiratory viruses. So, when it comes to immunity, our studies show that more exercise is not necessarily better.


How much exercise may be just right?

Here are some guidelines based on just the right amount – for most people.

  • Do perform mild to moderate exercise (20-45 minutes), up to three times per week.

  • Strive to maintain (not gain) strength or fitness during the quarantine period.

  • Do avoid physical contact during exercise, such as playing team sports, that is likely to expose you to mucosal fluids or hand-to-face contact.

  • Wash and disinfect equipment after use.

  • If you use a gym, find one that is adequately ventilated and exercise away from others to avoid droplets.

  • Remain engaged with teammates through social media, rather than social gatherings or contact.

  • Eat and sleep well to boost your immune system.

  • Remain optimistic that this too shall pass.

How much exercise may be too risky?

Here are some things not to do:

  • Do not exercise past exhaustion, which increases the risk of infection. An example would include marathon running, which increases the risk of illness from 2.2 percent to 13 percent after the race.

  • Do not exercise if you have any flu-like symptoms.

  • Do not exercise more than five days a week.

  • Do not exercise in crowded, enclosed spaces.

  • Do not share drinks or eating utensils.

Do not overdrink fluids, especially when sick, to try and “flush out” the toxins or prevent dehydration. It is not true that you can “flush out” toxins.

The J-shaped (“just right”) curve suggests that exercise, like most things, is best in moderation. Stay safe out there and be creative – our game is not over, just temporarily suspended. The Conversation

Tamara Hew-Butler, Associate Professor of Exercise and Sports Science, Wayne State University and Mariane Fahlman, Professor, Kinesiology, Health and Sport Studies, Wayne State University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Scientists Just Revealed The Electronic Structure of a Molecule That Exists in 126 Dimensions

Well, those crazy chemistry cats have done it. Nearly 200 years after the molecule was discovered by Michael Faraday, researchers have finally revealed the complex electronic structure of benzene.


This not only settles a debate that has been raging since the 1930s, this step has important implications for the future development of opto-electronic materials, many of which are built on benzenes.

The atomic structure of benzene is pretty well understood. It’s a ring consisting of six carbon atoms, and six hydrogen atoms, one attached to each of the carbon atoms.

Where it gets extremely tricky is when we consider the molecule’s 42 electrons.

“The mathematical function that describes benzene’s electrons is 126-dimensional,” chemist Timothy Schmidt of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Exciton Science and UNSW Sydney in Australia told ScienceAlert.

“That means it is a function of 126 coordinates, three for each of the 42 electrons. The electrons are not independent, so we cannot break this down into 42 independent three-dimensional functions.

The answer computed by a machine is not easy to interpret by a human, and we had to invent a way to get at the answer.”

So, that means mathematically describing the electronic structure of benzene needs to take 126 dimensions into account. As you can imagine, this is not exactly a simple thing to do. In fact, this complexity is why revealing the structure has remained a problem for so long, leading to debates about how benzene’s electrons even behave.


There are two schools of thought: that benzene follows valence bond theory, with localised electrons; or molecular orbital theory, with delocalised electrons. The problem is, neither really seems to quite fit.

“The interpretation of electronic structure in terms of orbitals ignores that the wavefunction is antisymmetric upon interchange of like-spins,” the researchers wrote in their paper. “Furthermore, molecular orbitals do not provide an intuitive description of electron correlation.”

voronoi benzeneVoronoi site showing electron spins (left), and cross sections of the site (right). (Liu et al. Nature Communications, 2020)

The team’s work was based on a technique they recently developed. It’s called dynamic Voronoi Metropolis sampling, and it uses an algorithmic approach to visualise the wavefunctions of a multiple-electron system.

This separates the electron dimensions into separate tiles in a Voronoi diagram, with each of the tiles corresponding to electron coordinates, allowing the team to map the wavefunction of all 126 dimensions.

And they found something strange.

“The electrons with what’s known as up-spin double-bonded, where those with down-spin single-bonded, and vice versa,” Schmidt said in statement. “That isn’t how chemists think about benzene.”


The effect of this is that the electrons avoid each other when it is advantageous to do so, reducing the energy of the molecule, and making it more stable.

“Essentially, this unites chemical thought, by showing how the two prevailing paradigms by which we describe benzene come together,” he told ScienceAlert.

“But we also show how to inspect what is called electron correlation – how the electrons avoid each other. This is almost always ignored qualitatively, and only invoked for calculations where only the energy is used, not the electronic behaviour.”

The research has been published in Nature Communications.


Prestigious Abel Maths Prize Has Been Awarded For ‘Random Walk’ Probability Techniques

The Abel Prize for mathematics was on Wednesday awarded to Israeli-American Hillel Furstenberg and Russian-born Gregory Margulis, both probability experts, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters said.


The pair were honoured “for pioneering the use of methods from probability and dynamics in group theory, number theory and combinatorics,” the Academy said in a statement.

Furstenberg, 84, is affiliated with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, while Margulis, a decade younger, is at Yale University.

Furstenberg and Margulis invented so-called random walk techniques, or a path consisting of a succession of random steps. The study of random walks is a central branch of probability theory.

The pair used the technique “to investigate mathematical objects such as groups and graphs, and in so doing introduced probabilistic methods to solve many open problems,” the statement said.

Their work “has opened up a wealth of new results” in diverse areas of mathematics and “brought down the traditional wall between pure and applied mathematics”.

Born in Berlin, Furstenberg and his Jewish family fled Nazi Germany for the US just before the start of World War II.

After starting his career at top universities like Princeton and MIT, he left the United States for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1965 and stayed there until his retirement in 2003.


Margulis stood out as a math wiz early on. At age 16, he won the silver medal at the International Mathematical Olympiad, and 16 years later won the prestigious Fields Medal.

The Soviet authorities however did not allow him to travel to Helsinki to pick up the medal because of discrimination against his Jewish origin. Soviet academics were finally granted more freedom in 1979.

He went on to work at universities in Switzerland, France and the US, where he became a professor at Yale in 1991. In 2001, he was elected a member of the US National Academy of Sciences.

Because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Abel Prize award ceremony has been postponed indefinitely. It was originally scheduled for May 19.

Named after the 19th-century Norwegian mathematician Niels Henrik Abel, the prize was established by the Oslo government in 2002 and first awarded a year later, to honour outstanding scientific work in the field of mathematics, a discipline not included among the Nobel awards.

This year it comes with a cheque for 7.5 million kroner (US$711,000 or 648,000 euros).

Along with the Fields Medal, which is awarded every four years at the Congress of the International Mathematical Union (IMU), it is one of the world’s most prestigious maths prizes.

© Agence France-Presse


Coronavirus Could Be a ‘Chimera’ of Two Different Viruses, Genome Analysis Suggests

In the space of a few weeks, we have all learned a lot about COVID-19 and the virus that causes it: SARS-CoV-2. But there have also been a lot of rumours.

And while the number of scientific articles on this virus is increasing, there are still many grey areas as to its origins.


In which animal species did it occur? A bat, a pangolin or another wild species? Where does it come from? From a cave or a forest in the Chinese province of Hubei, or elsewhere?

In December 2019, 27 of the first 41 people hospitalised (66 percent) passed through a market located in the heart of Wuhan city in Hubei province. But, according to a study conducted at Wuhan Hospital, the very first human case identified did not frequent this market.

Instead, a molecular dating estimate based on the SARS-CoV-2 genomic sequences indicates an origin in November. This raises questions about the link between this COVID-19 epidemic and wildlife.

Genomic data

The SARS-CoV-2 genome was rapidly sequenced by Chinese researchers. It is an RNA molecule of about 30,000 bases containing 15 genes, including the S gene which codes for a protein located on the surface of the viral envelope (for comparison, our genome is in the form of a double helix of DNA about 3 billion bases in size and contains about 30,000 genes).

Comparative genomic analyses have shown that SARS-CoV-2 belongs to the group of Betacoronaviruses and that it is very close to SARS-CoV, responsible for an epidemic of acute pneumonia which appeared in November 2002 in the Chinese province of Guangdong and then spread to 29 countries in 2003.


A total of 8,098 cases were recorded, including 774 deaths. It is known that bats of the genus Rhinolophus (potentially several cave species) were the reservoir of this virus and that a small carnivore, the palm civet (Paguma larvata), may have served as an intermediate host between bats and the first human cases.

Since then, many Betacoronaviruses have been discovered, mainly in bats, but also in humans. For example, RaTG13, isolated from a bat of the species Rhinolophus affinis collected in China’s Yunan Province, has recently been described as very similar to SARS-CoV-2, with genome sequences identical to 96 percent.

These results indicate that bats, and in particular species of the genus Rhinolophus, constitute the reservoir of the SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 viruses.

But how do you define a reservoir? A reservoir is one or several animal species that are not or not very sensitive to the virus, which will naturally host one or several viruses.

The absence of symptoms of the disease is explained by the effectiveness of their immune system, which allows them to fight against too much viral proliferation.


Recombination mechanism

On 7 February, 2020, we learned that a virus even closer to SARS-CoV-2 had been discovered in pangolin. With 99 percent of genomic concordance reported, this suggested a more likely reservoir than bats.

However, a recent study under review shows that the genome of the coronavirus isolated from the Malaysian pangolin (Manis javanica) is less similar to SARS-Cov-2, with only 90 percent of genomic concordance. This would indicate that the virus isolated in the pangolin is not responsible for the COVID-19 epidemic currently raging.

However, the coronavirus isolated from pangolin is similar at 99 percent in a specific region of the S protein, which corresponds to the 74 amino acids involved in the ACE (Angiotensin Converting Enzyme 2) receptor binding domain, the one that allows the virus to enter human cells to infect them.

By contrast, the virus RaTG13 isolated from bat R. affinis is highly divergent in this specific region (only 77 percent of similarity). This means that the coronavirus isolated from pangolin is capable of entering human cells whereas the one isolated from bat R. affinis is not.

In addition, these genomic comparisons suggest that the SARS-Cov-2 virus is the result of a recombination between two different viruses, one close to RaTG13 and the other closer to the pangolin virus. In other words, it is a chimera between two pre-existing viruses.

This recombination mechanism had already been described in coronaviruses, in particular to explain the origin of SARS-CoV. It is important to know that recombination results in a new virus potentially capable of infecting a new host species.

For recombination to occur, the two divergent viruses must have infected the same organism simultaneously.

Two questions remain unanswered: in which organism did this recombination occur? (a bat, a pangolin or another species?) And above all, under what conditions did this recombination take place? The Conversation

Alexandre Hassanin, Maître de Conférences (HDR) à Sorbonne Université, ISYEB – Institut de Systématique, Evolution, Biodiversité (CNRS, MNHN, SU, EPHE, UA), Muséum national d’histoire naturelle (MNHN).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


It Looks Like That Interstellar Comet Came All The Way to The Solar System to Die

A comet that entered our Solar System from interstellar space may not make it out again. As it zooms away from the Sun, 2I/Borisov has been spotted spewing out material in two cometary outbursts.


These outbursts show that the comet is disintegrating, according to Polish astronomers from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and the University of Warsaw who recorded the activity.

“This behaviour is strongly indicative of an ongoing nucleus fragmentation,” they wrote in a notice posted to Astronomers Telegram.

2I/Borisov first drew the world’s attention at the end of August last year, when it was officially discovered whizzing through the Solar System on a trajectory that indicated an interstellar origin.

Scientists later pored through observation data, and found images of the comet dating all the way back to December 2018. This wealth of additional data supported conclusions about the comet’s interstellar origins, and allowed for a more precise prediction of its future trajectory.

What astronomers were particularly keen to see what happened after the comet reached perihelion – its closest approach to the Sun – on 8 December 2019.

That’s because there are two types of comets in the Solar System. Short-period comets typically come from the Kuiper Belt or closer, and have an orbital period of less than 200 years. They are much more likely to stay intact when they go past the Sun.


Long-period, or dynamically new comets come from farther away – the Oort cloud – and are more likely than short-period comets to break up. Analyses of 2I/Borisov’s colour and composition found it was very similar to long-period comets, so disintegration due to heating from the Sun was anticipated, but not guaranteed.

“For Solar System comets, it is known that dynamically new comets are 10 times more likely to disintegrate than short-period comets, presumably due to their pristine state and weaker structural strength,” wrote researchers led by Quanzhi Ye from the University of Maryland last year.

This would be seen as a change in brightness in the comet – and indeed, this is what has been observed. Between 5 and 9 March 2020, the comet brightened twice.

But although it may be the end of the line for 2I/Borisov – a journey of an unconfirmed number of light-years across space – it’s not a sad one. As the comet disintegrates, observations of its spectrum will reveal its internal chemistry, including its nucleus.

It’s an excellent opportunity to study the comet’s guts, and compare it to our Solar System comets, to see how similar or different they are.

Since comets are thought to be a vital part of the emergence of life here on Earth, those comet guts could help us discover if the ingredients for life are common in our galaxy.

So astronomers will be continuing to closely monitor 2I/Borisov’s activity.


Australian Engineers Just Accidentally Solved a 58-Year-Old Quantum Mystery

Nearly 60 years ago, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Nicolaas Bloembergen predicted an exciting new phenomenon called nuclear electric resonance. But no one has been able to demonstrate it in action – until now.


Actual evidence of nuclear electric resonance has now been discovered by accident in a lab at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia, thanks to faulty equipment. The breakthrough gives scientists a new level of control over nuclei, and could seriously speed up the development of quantum computers.

Central to the phenomenon is the idea of controlling the spin of individual atoms using electrical rather than magnetic fields. That means more precise and more miniaturised management of nuclei, which could have profound impacts in a variety of fields.

“This discovery means that we now have a pathway to build quantum computers using single-atom spins without the need for any oscillating magnetic field for their operation,” says quantum physicist Andrea Morello, from UNSW.

“Moreover, we can use these nuclei as exquisitely precise sensors of electric and magnetic fields, or to answer fundamental questions in quantum science.”

In some situations, nuclear electric resonance has the potential to replace nuclear magnetic resonance, which is widely used today for a variety of purposes: for scanning human bodies, chemical elements, rock formations, and more.


The problem with the magnetic option is that it requires powerful currents, big coils, and a substantial amount of space – think about the size of an fMRI scanner at your local hospital, for example.

Not only that, in some ways it’s a bit of a blunt instrument too. If you want to control individual atomic nuclei – for quantum computing, perhaps, or very small sensors – then nuclear magnetic resonance isn’t a very good tool for the job.

“Performing magnetic resonance is like trying to move a particular ball on a billiard table by lifting and shaking the whole table,” says Morello. “We’ll move the intended ball, but we’ll also move all the others.”

“The breakthrough of electric resonance is like being handed an actual billiards stick to hit the ball exactly where you want it.”

It was during a nuclear magnetic resonance experiment that the UNSW researchers cracked the puzzle set by Bloembergen in 1961, and it was all down to a broken antenna. After some head-scratching over unexpected results, the researchers realised their equipment was faulty – and demonstrating nuclear electric resonance.

With subsequent computer modelling, the team was able to show that the electrical fields could influence a nucleus at a fundamental level, distorting the atomic bonds around the nucleus and causing it to reorient itself.

Now that scientists know how nuclear electric resonance can work, they can research new ways to apply it. What’s more, we can add this to the growing list of significant scientific discoveries that have been made by accident.

“This landmark result will open up a treasure trove of discoveries and applications,” says Morello. “The system we created has enough complexity to study how the classical world we experience every day emerges from the quantum realm.”

“Moreover, we can use its quantum complexity to build sensors of electromagnetic fields with vastly improved sensitivity. And all this, in a simple electronic device made in silicon, controlled with small voltages applied to a metal electrode.”

The research has been published in Nature.


Here Are Simple Tips to Help You Avoid Fake Coronavirus News

The proliferation of fake news about the COVID-19 pandemic has been labelled a dangerous “infodemic“. Fake news spreads faster and more easily today through the internet, social media and instant messaging.


These messages may contain useless, incorrect or even harmful information and advice, which can hamper the public health response and add to social disorder and division.

Confusingly some fake news also contains a mixture of correct information, which makes it difficult to spot what is true and accurate. Fake news may also be shared by trusted friends and family, including those who are doctors and nurses.

They might not have read the full story before sharing or just glanced over it. Before you decide to share, make sure to read stories properly and follow some checks to determine the accuracy.

If the story appears to claim a much higher level of certainty in its advice and arguments than other stories, this is questionable. People will be seeking certainty in a time of high uncertainty, anxiety and panic.

So it is only natural to more readily accept information that resolves, reassures and provides easy solutions – unfortunately, often in a false way.

Similarly, if a story is more surprising or upsetting than other stories it is worth double-checking, as fake news will try to grab your attention by being more exaggerated than real stories.

What to look out for

  • Source. Question the source. References have been made to “Taiwanese experts” or “Japanese doctors” or “Stanford University” during the outbreak. Check on official websites if stories are repeated there. If a source is “a friend of a friend”, this is a rumour unless you also know the person directly.

  • Logo: Check whether any organisation’s logo used in the message looks the same as on the official website.

  • Bad English: Credible journalists and organisations are less likely to make repeated spelling and grammar mistakes. Also, anything written entirely in capital letters or containing a lot of exclamation marks should raise your suspicions.

  • Pretend social media accounts: Some fake accounts mimic the real thing. For example, the unofficial Twitter handle @BBCNewsTonight, which was made to look like the legitimate @BBCNews account, shared a fake story about the actor Daniel Radcliffe testing positive for coronavirus. Media platforms try to remove or flag fake accounts and stories as well as verify real ones. Look out for what their policies are to try to do this.

  • Over-encouragement to share: Be wary if the message presses you to share – this is how viral messaging works.

  • Use fact-checking websites: Websites such as APFactCheck and Full Fact highlight common fake news stories. You can also use a search engine to look up the title of the article to see if it has been identified as fake news by the mainstream media.

Who to trust

The best sources to go to for health information about COVID-19 are your government health websites and the World Health Organization website. Primary sources are generally better than news articles.

Even government messaging and the mainstream media can get things wrong, but they are more trustworthy than unverified sources on social media and viral messaging.


For instance, The Conversation is a more trusted source because all content is written by academics who are experts in their fields.

Charlatans have been promoting false preventions and cures for people to spend their money on. For example, the New York attorney general has had to send cease and desist notices for claims that toothpaste, dietary supplements and creams will prevent and cure COVID-19.

The effects can also be more serious than losing some cash. Iran has reported at least 44 people died from alcohol poisoning after drinking bootleg alcohol in a misguided attempt to cure COVID-19.

Unfortunately, the most basic and correct advice given so far does not offer a miracle or special insight. Wash your hands often (use hand sanitisers if you cannot), avoid touching your face, and sneeze or cough into the crook of your elbow or a tissue (and throw it away in a bag-lined bin).

Avoid crowds and public places, keep a sensible distance from people, and do not travel unless absolutely necessary.

Now many governments are introducing measures including travel bans and quarantines that need to be followed to protect the health of everyone, especially the most vulnerable.

We can all get caught out. Think twice about the messages currently circulating and help guide your family and friends to decide what to trust.The Conversation

Samantha Vanderslott, Postdoctoral Researcher in Social Sciences, University of Oxford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.