Nov 2, 2017

Axios Science

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Quick note for Philly readers: Vice President and Dr. Biden, along with Sean Parker, will join Axios' Mike Allen on November 8th to discuss cancer research and care, and you're invited. Celgene CEO Mark Alles, cancer survivor and advocate Stefanie Joho, and Elizabeth Jaffee, the deputy director of the Kimmel Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins, will also discuss the topic with Mike. RSVP here.

1. How people came to the Americas

Axios' Erin Ross writes: We still don't know how humans got to the Americas. Many researchers are arguing we need to ditch the land-first hypothesis of human migration, and look for underwater evidence of a seafaring past. It's an idea that's gaining momentum, though the evidence is complex and the proposal isn't unanimously accepted.

The map above shows some of the oldest archaeological sites in the Americas. Many in South America are either along the coastline or major waterways, supporting the coastal migration hypothesis. But North America looks a lot messier and lacks many coastal sites.

Why it matters: "We're trying to answer one of the most fundamentally important questions in American archaeology," Todd Braje, an author of the paper that appears today in Science, tells Axios. Recent finds have challenged the old, accepted models of a single migration over a single route.

Read the rest of Erin's story here.

2. Axios stories to spark your brain
3. Language, like life, can evolve by chance

Since Darwin's day, the principles of evolution have been used to try to explain how and why language changes. In a new study, researchers look at changes within the English language over short periods of time and find random chance plays a larger role than previously thought in quickly altering aspects of language.

What's new: Techniques used by biologists to study genetic changes have been honed, and linguists can now use them to analyze the large amounts of digitized texts. Understanding what causes individual words, sounds and syntax to change within a single language could provide clues about how new languages arise. And, advances in linguistic understanding have led to better speech recognition, predictive text, artificial intelligence and related algorithms.

Bottom line: We are beginning to get a detailed picture of the history of language, much like we have for the history of species.

Read the rest of the story here.

4. What we can learn from a return to the Moon

At last month's meeting of the National Space Council, Vice President Mike Pence announced plans for the next stages of U.S. space exploration. "We will return American astronauts to the Moon, not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but to build the foundation we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond," he said.

We asked four experts what we might learn by sending astronauts back to the Moon:

5. What we're reading elsewhere
  • Nature: Emma Marris' beautiful tale in Outside of the wolf's return to Oregon and the man who tried to manage it.
  • Math ability: Philip Ball in Aeon about whether culture or biology gave us our sense of numbers.
  • Pest management: The Galapagos Island of Floreana has a rodent problem that one conservationist is proposing be solved by genetically modifying rats and mice. Stephen Hall writes in Scientific American about the complexities of that approach.
6. Something wondrous

Armillaria fungi can spread across thousands of acres of forest for thousands of years, making it one of Earth's largest organisms. Above ground, the fungus is seen as honey mushrooms growing on trees but under the soil it extends a vast network of structures called rhizomorphs (pictured above) that scientists suspect allow the fungus to grow to such large sizes.

How? Researchers looked at the genes expressed in the rhizomorphs and the mushroom fruiting bodies and, surprisingly, found that rather than evolving completely new genes, the rhizomorphs co-opted genes from the mushroom to form multicellular structures below the ground, explains László Nagy from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. They also found genes responsible for degrading plant cells being expressed in the rhizomorphs, suggesting they aren't just exploring the surrounding soil but taking up nutrients.

Why it matters: Armillaria are forest pathogens that infect and damage trees. They can wipe out forests. Understanding how their rhizomorphs develop, explore the soil and communicate with host trees could lead to more effective strategies for preventing their spread and fighting infection, says the University of Sopron's György Sipos.