May 22, 2015

425-Million-Year-Old Parasite Fossilized Mid-Invasion

About 425 million years ago, a sneaky worm-like parasite invaded a crustacean before the two were fossilized together in the limestone of modern-day England, a new study finds.

The parasite, a newly identified species, is an ancient type of tongue worm, an arthropod that has a wormlike body with a head and two pairs of limbs, the researchers said. It is the first adult tongue worm to be found in the fossil record, they added.

“This is the most important fossil evidence yet discovered of the origins of this type of parasitism,” study co-author Derek Briggs, a professor of geology and geophysics at Yale University and curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, both in New Haven, Connecticut, said in a statement.

The new species was dubbed Invavita piratica, meaning “ancient intruder,” as a nod to maritime piracy. It was discoveredin a crustacean host, called Nymphatelina gravida, a marine creature with two shells connected by a hinge. In fact, the researchers found several specimens of I. piratica in the fossil, which the scientists found in limestone rocks in Herefordshire, England.

The I. piratica specimens are “exceptionally preserved,” and range in size from about 0.04 to 0.16 inches (1 to 4 millimeters) long, the researchers wrote in the study.

“This discovery is important not only because examples of parasites are exceptionally rare in the fossil record, but also because the possible host of fossil tongue worms — and the origin of the lifestyle of tongue worms — has been the subject of much debate,” said the study’s lead author, David Siveter, a paleontologist at the University of Leicester, in the United Kingdom.

Researchers found several of the parasites inside the crustacean’s shell, near a bundle of eggs that may have belonged to the host, the researchers said. Other parasites were anchored to the outside of the shell, a position that is unique even among living tongue worms, the researchers said.

Nowadays, there are about 140 known species of parasitic tongue worms, known as pentastomids, which mostly prey on vertebrates, especially fish and reptiles.

Read more at Discovery News

Ancient Aqueduct Unearthed In Jerusalem

Workers building a sewer line in Jerusalem unearthed a section of the ancient lower aqueduct, which had long been one of the city’s principal sources of water.

Constructed by the Hasmonean kings more than 2,000 years ago to provide clean water to Jerusalem, the aqueduct was part of an elaborate water supply system devised for a city that had experienced a number of droughts.

The water conduit functioned intermittently until about 100 years ago, when it was replaced by a modern electrically operated system.

Unearthed in Umm Tuba, an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem, the aqueduct begins at the Eitam spring near Solomon’s Pools, three reservoirs south of Bethlehem that are the heart of the water system, and is approximately 13 miles long.

“Despite its length, it flows along a very gentle downward slope whereby the water level falls just one meter (3.2 feet) per kilometer of distance (0.62 miles),” Ya’akov Billig, the excavation director, said.

“At first, the water was conveyed inside an open channel and about 500 years ago, during the Ottoman period, a terracotta pipe was installed inside the channel in order to better protect the water,” he added.

The aqueduct tunneled beneath the town of Bethlehem, ran through a number of neighborhoods in Jerusalem and finally entered the Temple Mound over Wilson’s Arch bridge.

The Umm Tuba section of the aqueduct has now being covered up again “for the sake of future generations,” the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) said.

The archaeologists are now working to expose sections of its remains and make them soon accessible to the general public.

From Discovery News

Strange 'Nasty' Star May Be Spawned by Cannibalism

An ongoing act of cosmic cannibalism may be responsible for the strange appearance and unprecedented behavior of a gigantic star nicknamed “Nasty 1,” a new study reports.

Observations by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have revealed a disk of gas nearly 3 trillion miles (4.8 trillion kilometers) wide surrounding Nasty 1, which is a massive, rapidly aging object known as a Wolf-Rayet star.

Wolf-Rayet stars start out big, initially containing at least 20 times more mass than the sun. But their hydrogen-dominated outer layers soon puff up and are lost, exposing the objects’ helium-burning cores to space. Astronomers aren’t exactly sure how this process unfolds, but they have a few ideas.

For example, some scientists think these massive stars’ powerful stellar winds blow away their own hydrogen envelopes. Another idea holds that the outer layers are siphoned off by a cannibalistic companion star.

“That’s what we think is happening in Nasty 1,” study lead author Jon Mauerhan, of the University of California, Berkeley, said in a statement, referring to the second hypothesis. “We think there is a Wolf-Rayet star buried inside the nebula, and we think the nebula is being created by this mass-transfer process. So this type of sloppy stellar cannibalism actually makes Nasty 1 a rather fitting nickname.”

Such a disc had never before been seen surrounding a Wolf-Rayet star, researchers said. The nebula is likely only a few thousand years old and lies about 3,000 light-years from Earth, they added.

Several other factors further bolster the cannibalism idea over the stellar-wind hypothesis, study team members said. For one thing, at least 70 percent of all massive stars belong to binary systems. And modeling work suggests that such a star’s own winds may not be strong enough to push it to Wolf-Rayet status.

“We’re finding that it is hard to form all the Wolf-Rayet stars we observe by the traditional wind mechanism, because mass loss isn’t as strong as we used to think,” co-author Nathan Smith, of the University of Arizona, said in the same statement.

“Mass exchange in binary systems seems to be vital to account for Wolf-Rayet stars and the supernovae they make, and catching binary stars in this short-lived phase will help us understand this process,” Smith added.

It’s tough to get a precise bead on Nasty 1, whose nickname is a play off its formal catalog name NaSt1 (the star was discovered in 1963 by Jason Nassau and Charles Stephenson). The star is obscured by a great deal of gas and dust, so Mauerhan and his team were not able to determine the mass of Nasty 1 or its companion, the distance between them or the amount of material the companion is ingesting, researchers said.

It’s also unclear exactly what will happen to Nasty 1 down the road, but the star’s evolutionary path “will definitely not be boring,” Mauerhan said.

Read more at Discovery News

World's Largest Particle Collider Busts Record

The world's largest particle smasher broke the record for energy levels late Wednesday in a test run after a two-year upgrade, CERN announced Thursday.

"Last night, protons collided in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the record-breaking energy of 13 TeV (teraelectronvolts) for the first time," the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) said in a statement.

The LHC's previous highest energy for collisions was eight TeV, reached in 2012.

In April, it started up again after a two-year overhaul designed to pave the way to experiments at 13 TeV. It has the potential to be cranked up to 14 TeV.

Experiments at the collider are aimed at unlocking clues as to how the universe came into existence by studying fundamental particles, the building blocks of all matter, and the forces that control them.

Before the upgrade, the LHC was used to prove the existence of the Higgs Boson, also known as the God particle, which confers mass.

That discovery earned the 2013 Nobel physics prize for two of the scientists who had theorized the existence of the Higgs back in 1964.

Wednesday's collisions at the giant lab, housed in a 27-kilometer (17-mile) tunnel straddling the French-Swiss border, are part of a recommissioning program ahead of an even more ambitious roster of experiments, due to start next month.

"These test collisions were to set up systems that protect the machine and detectors from particles that stray from the edges of the beam," CERN said.

The LHC allows beams containing billions of protons traveling at 99.9 percent the speed of light to shoot through the massive collider in opposite directions.

Powerful magnets bend the beams so that they collide at points around the track where four laboratories have batteries of sensors to monitor the smashups.

Read more at Discovery News

May 21, 2015

Fears for Syria's Palmyra As ISIS Seizes Historic City

The ancient city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the desert northeast of Damascus, is on the brink of destruction, having just fallen under the control of ISIS.

The seizure of the 2,000-year-old city at the end of a week-long siege that led to the collapse of Syrian pro-government forces means Isis now controls 50 percent of the country.

“There are no forces to stop them entering the ruins,” Rami Abdurrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said.

Known as the “Venice of the Sands,” Palmyra was once Syria’s star attraction for its towering Roman colonnades and temple remains spectacularly rising from a palm-fringed oasis.

The city’s unique collection of monuments blending Greek, Roman and Persian influences might be bulldozed at anytime, following the fate of major archaeological sites in Iraq that that pre-date Islam.

Nothing remains of the ancient Assyrian cities of Nimrud and Nineveh, not to mention statues and artifacts at the Mosul Museum.

“Hundreds and hundreds of statues we were worried would be smashed and sold are all now in safe places,” Syria antiquities chief, Maamoun Abdulkarim, told reporters.

“The fear is for the museum and the large monuments that cannot be moved. This is the entire world’s battle,” he said.

Palmyra has already suffered four years of conflict, going through looting and damage.

A wealthy caravan center that stood at the crossroads of several civilizations, the city has been at the center of struggles throughout much of its history.

In 41 B.C., Mark Anthony attempted to lay hands on its riches, but had to give up on any booty as he found the city deserted by its inhabitants.

Palmyra, also known as Tadmur in Arabic, was made part of the Roman province of Syria during the reign of Tiberius (14–37) and grew to become the wealthiest center in the eastern empire during its golden age in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The Romans gave the Palmyrenes considerable freedom, allowing them to elect their own senators and govern the city under the Roman banner.

Standing across stone-paved streets, the city’s columns and archways represent both the power of the Roman empire and the fight against it.

Indeed, in the 3rd century, queen Zenobia, the widow of the local ruler Odenathus, declared her independence from the Romans. She resisted sporadic attacks by the Roman legions and created an empire that stretched from Turkey to Egypt. Eventually she was defeated by the emperor Aurelian in 271 A.D. Sent to Rome, Zenobia was reputedly paraded as a trophy in the streets, bound in gold chains.

A further rebellion in 273 saw the Palmyrenes massacring the Roman garrison. This led to a mass slaugthering; the city was torched and never really recovered from the blow.

Reduced to a small frontier city, Palmyra was conquered in 634 by Khālid ibn al-Walīd and assimilated into the Muslim caliphate.

It was devastated by earthquakes in 1068 and 1089 and fell into ruin after the Turko-Mongol conqueror Tamerlane sacked it at the end of the 14th century.

But the city has never entirely succumbed to its turbulent history. With its warm colored, intricately carved stoneworks, Palmyra boasts some of the most beautiful and well-preserved ruins of antiquity.

A grand colonnaded street stretching some 3,600 feet still stands as testament to the city’s imposing and wealthy past.

Major monuments include the Temple of Ba’al, the Agora, the Theatre, and other temples and urban quarters.

“Architectural ornament including unique examples of funerary sculpture unites the forms of Greco-Roman art with indigenous elements and Persian influences in a strongly original style. Outside the city’s walls are remains of a Roman aqueduct and immense necropolises,” the UNESCO wrote about the city.

Read more at Discovery News

Dogs and Humans Bonded Earlier Than Thought

New DNA evidence from a wolf bone suggests humans and dogs were companions for much longer than previously thought.

Modern Siberian huskies and Greenland dogs turn out to share an unusually large number of genes with a wolf that lived 35,000 years ago -- a time when our species was just beginning to populate Europe and Asia, reports the Current Biology study.

This animal, the Taimyr wolf of Siberia, is the most recent common ancestor of modern wolves and dogs.

"We find that the ancestors of domestic dogs must have separated from the ancestors of wolves at least 27,000 years ago," lead author Pontus Skoglund, a Harvard University geneticist, told Discovery News.

"As for the genetic link between the 35,000-year-old wolf and Husky-type dogs, the most natural explanation is that these dog breeds absorbed local wolf ancestry that still lived on in Siberia when they followed early human groups to this region," he said. "This is the first direct evidence we have that the diversity in common dog breeds today has such deep roots."

It's likely that many other dog breeds today are also related to prehistoric regional gray wolf populations, helping to explain why there is such incredible diversity among dogs, from Golden retrievers to poodles, due to factors beyond humans selecting for certain traits.

Skoglund and his colleagues made the discoveries after analyzing a small bone picked up during an expedition to the Taimyr Peninsula in Siberia. DNA tests revealed that the bone belonged to the prehistoric Taimyr wolf.

The direct dating of the wolf bone, combined with further genetic analysis, enabled the researchers to recalibrate the molecular timescale of wolves and dogs. This found that the mutation rate between the two is substantially slower than assumed by most prior studies, suggesting that the ancestors of dogs were separated from present-day wolves around 27,000 years ago.

Senior author Love Dalén of the Swedish Museum of Natural History told Discovery News that some of the debate over when dogs were "domesticated" hinges on the precise meaning of that word. If it is taken to mean a fully tame dog that doesn't look much like a wolf, then that happened much later.

"But if 'being domesticated' means an animal population that is held and breeds in captivity, then our results are consistent with dogs being domesticated at least 27,000 years ago," Dalén said.

Based on the new findings, the researchers propose that this kind of domestication happened just once, and probably from "a population of wolf that roamed the tundra steppe of the last Ice Age," Dalén shared.

As for what triggered the event, he and her colleagues suspect that "dogs may have originated through capture of wolf cubs or through self-domestication via attraction to food scraps," such as the meat and bones left behind by hunter-gatherers.

This is significant, because other research groups have tied dog domestication to farming, when humans first settled down to grow crops. That happened long after 27,000 years ago, however, so Skoglund and his team do not think farming led to dog domestication.

After domestication occurred, the researchers believe that as the wolf-resembling dogs traveled with humans, they interbred with multiple regional wolf populations, such as the one for the Taimyr wolf in Siberia.

Greger Larson, director of the Palaeogenomics & Bio-Archaeology Research Network at the University of Oxford, told Discovery News that the new study "is a significant step forward in the long winding road toward a satisfying understanding of how, when and where dogs were domesticated."

Larson said that the two major findings of the new paper are the recalibration of the molecular rate of evolution between dogs and wolves, and the demonstration that some modern dog breeds may share genes with certain early regional wolves.

Read more at Discovery News

Remains of Bronze-Age Cultic Priestess Hold Surprise

An iconic Bronze Age girl who was buried in Denmark about 3,400 years ago came from a foreign land, a new analysis of her hair and teeth suggests.

The Egtved girl was named after the village where she was found. All of her bones were missing from her remains, but her clothing, hair, nails and some teeth were still in pristine condition.

The new analysis, which was published today (May 21) in the journal Scientific Reports, suggests the woman may have spent her early life in southern Germany, making several long trips in the last two years of her life, said study co-author Karin Frei, a geologist and archaeology researcher at the National Museum of Denmark.

Ancient teenager

The girl’s final resting place was first unearthed in in 1921, in a large burial mound made of peat bog. In addition to the remains of a 16- to 18-year-old girl, the oak coffin bore the cremated remains of a child, who was about 5 or 6 when he or she died.

The grave formed a unique microclimate: The acidic peat created a thin layer of iron around the coffin, which let rainwater seep into, but not out of, the coffin, Frei said. These acidic, oxygen-free, waterlogged conditions led to the decay of the bones but left her hair, nails and clothing intact, Frei said.

The Bronze Age teenager was wearing a wool skirt belted with a large bronze disk with spirals on it.

“She looks, in a way, very modern, in this kind of miniskirt and a kind of T-shirt,” Frei told Live Science. (Her unique fashion sense has inspired scores of Pinterest-worthy re-enactments.)

Figurines from the Bronze Age show women in similar dress, with spiral symbols associated with a Scandinavian sun cult, so historians have concluded the girl must have been a priestess of that cult, Frei said.

Long-distance traveler

Frei first analyzed strontium isotopes, or atoms of the element with different numbers of neutrons, in the wool skirt. Because the rocks in different regions contain different ratios of strontium isotopes, which are then taken up by the plants, animals and people who eat in that region, the ratio can reveal where a person or animal lived.

The wool was not from anywhere near Denmark, and likely came from near the Black Forest in Germany, the team found.

Next, Frei analyzed a portion of the girl’s hair and a molar tooth, which forms early in childhood and doesn’t change after that. The girl had about 9 inches (23 centimeters) of hair at the longest point, and hair grows about 0.4 inches (1 cm) per month, allowing the team to recreate the last two years of her life.

“She moved from one place outside Denmark, to a place that could be Denmark, to a place very far from Denmark,” where she spent a large portion of the last six months of her life,” Frei said. “She probably died or got sick and died very shortly after her arrival to Egtved,” Frei said.

Given how many trips the girl made over long distances, she was likely traveling quickly by boat, Frei said.

The cremated cranial bones of the child buried alongside the Egtved girl revealed he or she spent much time in the same distant region as the Egtved girl.

Denmark and southern Germany were centers of power at the time, so the southern German girl was likely married in a strategic power alliance to a chieftain in Denmark, and may have been traveling back to her hometown in her last years. The two individuals may or may not have been related; either way, the youngster spent time in the same rough locale as the Egtved girl.

Read more at Discovery News

Newly Created Fungus Is Part Human, Part Yeast

A living yeast that is part human and part fungus has been engineered by scientists in a feat that shows how, despite a billion years of evolution separating humans from yeast, the two species share hundreds of genes in common.

Those genes remain, in part, from the last common ancestor of humans and yeast.

“Cells use a common set of parts and those parts, even after a billion years of independent evolution, are swappable,” Edward Marcotte, a professor at The University of Texas at Austin, said in a press release.

“It’s a beautiful demonstration of the common heritage of all living things — to be able to take DNA from a human and replace the matching DNA in a yeast cell and have it successfully support the life of the cell.”

That’s just what Marcotte and his colleagues did, as they describe in their study published in the journal Science. Although yeast (such as the Baker’s yeast that might be in your refrigerator now) consists of a single cell and humans have trillions of cells organized into complex systems, multiple genes are shared between the two.

Of those, about 450 are critical for yeast’s survival, so the researchers removed the yeast version of each one and replaced it with the human version and waited to see whether the yeast would die.

They wound up creating hundreds of new strains of yeast, each with a single human gene. About half of these resulted in an organism that could survive and reproduce.

While this might sound like an eerie Frankenstein-like experiment, the goal is to produce a new way of researching human genetic diseases caused by mutations.

It’s actually cutting edge research, since the technique could help to reduce or even eliminate testing on live animals.

Another benefit is that the testing could lead to treatments designed for a particular individual. For example, researchers might insert precise versions of a human gene mutation into yeast and then expose the yeast to different drugs to test new therapies. As a result, the treatments could be tailored to a person’s precise genetic mutation.

Read more at Discovery News

Ceres' Mysterious Bright Spots May Be Light Reflected by Ice

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is still getting itself into position for a 16-month study of the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest body in the asteroid belt, but scientists already are delving into photos taken for navigation purposes to learn more about mysterious bright white spots on Ceres’ surface.

Newly released pictures, taken when Dawn was about 4,500 miles from Ceres, confirm that the bright areas are patches of sunlight bouncing off some very reflective material on the surface, such as ice.

Dawn arrived at Ceres on March 6, its second destination in the main asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter. It has been using its ion propulsion system to gradually lower its orbit.

Scientists suspect Ceres may have once had an underground ocean that later froze.  Europe’s Herschel telescope last year detected water vapor around Ceres, a clue that impacting bodies may periodically send plumes of watery material shooting into space. Dawn will attempt to confirm those findings.

From Discovery News

May 20, 2015

Sophisticated Tool Kit Predates Humans

A recently unearthed stone tool kit consisting of hammer stones, anvils, worked cobblestones and other items dates to 3.3 million years ago, predating our genus Homo by over half a million years, according to a new study.

The items, described in the latest issue of the journal Nature, are now the oldest stone tools ever found.

They "show that early humans (essentially proto-humans) used and made stone tools 3.3 million years ago, which is about 700,000 years earlier than the previously earliest known date for early stone tools," Erella Hovers, who authored an accompanying "News & Views" article, told Discovery News.

Hovers, who is a senior member of the Institute of Archaeology at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, added that the other more recent tools were attributed to Homo habilis, aka "Handy Man," whose culture is called the Oldowan. Now it looks like there was a much earlier culture--as of yet unnamed--and that stone tool making was not unique to our genus.

The approximately 149 stone artifacts tied to tool making were found at a site called Lomekwi 3 next to Lake Turkana in Kenya.

"The tools from Lomekwi show a mixture of pounding and flaking activities," Hovers said.

Lead author Sonia Harmand of the Turkana Basin Institute at Stony Brook University and her team think that the tools could have been used for breaking open nuts or tubers, for bashing open dead logs to get at insects inside, and for other purposes.

The presence of volcanic ash layers, together with evidence about Earth's magnetic field, allowed the researchers to date the finds. Co-author Dennis Kent explained that Earth's magnetic field periodically reverses itself, and the chronology of those changes has been well documented going back millions of years.

"We essentially have a magnetic tape recorder that records the magnetic field…the music of the outer core," he said in a press release.

Now a key question is: Who made the tools?

Non-human primates, such as chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas and certain monkeys, are all known to make and use rudimentary tools. Other than cracking open nuts with big rocks, the non-human primates mostly just use twigs and other plant-based materials as tools. Hovers therefore believes that stone tool crafting is predominantly associated with humans.

The Lomekwi 3 toolkit "clearly predates the earlier known occurrence of Homo, which is currently known (from) 2.8 million years ago in the Afar region of Ethiopia," Hovers said.

A possible maker of the tools is Australopithecus afarensis, which had both ape and human characteristics. Yet another possibility is Kenyathropus platyops. As its name suggests, Kenyathropus lived in Kenya. It also exhibited a mixture of human and ape features.

Still another possibility is that the maker and user of the tools represents a species of human that is not known yet to anthropologists. What is clear is that the maker had good hand-eye coordination and ease in using his or her hands and arms.

This is significant, because that suggests changes in the brain and spinal tract needed for such activity could have occurred well before 3.3 million years ago.

Intriguingly, animal bones from Dikaka, Ethiopia, which bear stone-inflicted cut marks, date to at least 3.39 million years ago, suggesting that stone tools were made and used even before the Lomekwi 3 items.

Read more at Discovery News