Axios Science

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June 21, 2018

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1 big thing: Viruses may play role in many diseases

Human herpes virus taken with transmission electron microscopy.
Human herpes virus, taken with transmission electron microscopy. Photo: BSIP/UIG via Getty Images

Beyond the chicken pox and flu, viruses are increasingly believed to play a role in other diseases, like cancer and brain diseases, Eileen Drage O'Reilly writes.

Case in point: Researchers announced today in Neuron that they found more live herpes viruses in the brains of patients with Alzheimer's disease than in those without the disorder. This doesn't prove the virus causes the fatal neurodegenerative disease 5.7 million Americans currently live with, but it suggests it plays a role in Alzheimer's pathology and may inform treatment.

The Alzheimer's study: The research team — from Mount Sinai and the Arizona State University-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center — examined data from 622 brain donors with late-onset Alzheimer's disease (AD) and 322 without the disease, and sequenced their exome DNA to see each person's inherited genes.

  • They also looked at clinical assessments of the patient taken before they died to see the trajectory of their cognitive decline and pathology assessments after they died to check the severity of plaques and tangles.
"The data sets we used in the study are some of the first data sets where we had deep genomic sequencing of tissue collected directly from affected brains, which enabled an entirely new opportunity to look for viral sequences," study author Joel Dudley tells Axios.

What they found: Two strains of herpes virus were prevalent and active in the brains of people with AD — human herpes virus (HHV) 6A and 7. These are found in most people due to childhood infections like roseola, but in its inactive form.

  • However, these dormant viruses can "wake up" and cause tissue damage and cell death, says the University of South Florida College of Medicine's Peter Medveczky, who was not part of this study.
  • One train of thought is that "there are 5 of 6 genes linked to Alzheimer's. It may be that the protein from these viruses can act as transcription factors and cause the expression of those genes," explains Sam Gandy, study author and Alzheimer's disease specialist at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Go deeper: Read the rest of Eileen's story in the Axios stream.

2. Methane emissions far higher than EPA says

Natural gas flaring at a drill site.
Flames from a flaring pit near a well in the Bakken Oil Field. Credit: Orjan F. Ellingvag/Corbis via Getty Images.

A new study out today in Science finds that methane emissions from the U.S. oil and gas industry are nearly 60% more than current EPA estimates.

Why it matters: With natural gas now the dominant fuel for generating electricity in the U.S., determining its environmental footprint is crucial. Although burning natural gas for energy emits fewer long-lived greenhouse gases, it does release considerable amounts of methane — a potent, short-lived global warming agent.

The background: During the past decade, as the U.S. energy market has increasingly favored natural gas as a power source over coal — think of the "fracking" boom that transformed the landscape in several states — numerous studies have attempted to estimate its climate change ramifications.

What they found: Using ground-based measurements as well as data gathered from aircraft, researchers found that the current leak rate from oil and gas operations in the U.S. is 2.3%, compared to the EPA's estimate of 1.4%.

  • The volume of natural gas lost during its production could fuel 10 million homes, according to an Environmental Defense Fund press release.
  • The study, which represents the largest effort yet to quantify methane emissions from oil and gas operations, states such gas is worth $2 billion, giving the energy industry an incentive to act.

The big picture: Methane can have more than 80 times the global warming impact of carbon dioxide during the first 20 years after its release, though it declines after that.

Go deeper: Read the whole post in the Axios stream.

3. 30 years since U.S.'s climate tipping point

Data: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios
Data: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

This Saturday, June 23, will mark 30 years since then-NASA climate scientist James Hansen warned the Senate that human-caused global warming had begun and would grow worse with time. That testimony is widely regarded as the moment climate change became a major issue for the American public.

About the data: A temperature anomaly is a departure from an average long-term baseline temperature. This dataset shows every month since January 1880 compared to the average temperature between the years 1901 and 2000. The data is constructed from available land and sea surface temperature readings across the world.

What's happened since Hansen's warnings: One key projection from his Senate appearance was that global average temperatures would continue to increase, while extreme weather events — such as heat waves — would grow more intense and frequent.

  • For the 30-year period since Hansen testified, the Lower 48 states have warmed at a rate of 5.22 degrees Fahrenheit per century.
  • And for the 30-year period since 1988, the global surface temperature has warmed at a rate of 3.22 degrees F per century, according to NOAA. 
  • The 5 warmest years on record have occurred in the 2010s, according to NOAA. A study published in April of 2017 found that the record warmth of 2016 could not have happened without human-caused climate change.

4. Axios stories worthy of your time

Aerial photo of one of the largest icebergs ever observed, in Antarctica in 2017.
The western edge of iceberg A68 with a strong reflection in the calm water, as seen from a NASA aircraft on Nov. 12, 2017. Credit: NASA/Nathan Kurtz.

A brake on Antarctic ice melt: Scientists have identified a mechanism that might slow the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, according to a new study.

Red planet turns redder: Dust storm covers all of Mars, darkening the skies above NASA's rovers and endangering the 15-year-old Opportunity rover in particular.

Perceptive prosthetics: A group of researchers from Johns Hopkins University say they've developed a skin for prosthetics that allow the wearer to perceive touch and even pain, Alison Snyder reports.

Weaponizing biology: Researchers sounded the alarm to the Defense Department about the threats posed by synthetic biology, Eileen writes.

5. What we're reading elsewhere

Plastics: Now that China is no longer accepting most of the world's plastic waste, a massive amount of single-use plastics are expected to pile up in the U.S. and elsewhere, Darryl Fears and Kate Furby from the Washington Post write. This could lead to changes in recycling programs.

Unlikely find: A fossil of a new, long-extinct gibbon species was found in an ancient Chinese tomb, and it could be the first case of a human-caused ape extinction, The Atlantic's Ed Yong reports.

Preventing academic fraud: A new algorithm, detailed in a forthcoming study, may be able to help prevent publishing studies with manipulated results, according to The Economist.

Investigating Woodstock: As part of an effort from a museum of the 1960s, scientists canvassed the famous site of the 1969 concert festival in New York. "Aging baby boomers might blanch at the thought of archaeologists combing over the place that literally lent its name to their generation — as if it was a Civil War battle site," the AP's Michael Hill writes.

6. Something wondrous: Manta ray nursery

Diver observing a juvenile manta ray in the Gulf of Mexico.
Diver following a juvenile manta ray at the sanctuary. Photo: G.P. Schmahl / FGBNMS

A nursery of giant manta rays (Manta birostris) was discovered in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Texas, marine researchers announced earlier this week in Marine Biology. This find is a rare feat considering how difficult it is to observe juvenile oceanic mantas in the wild.

“The juvenile life stage for oceanic mantas has been a bit of a black box for us, since we’re so rarely able to observe them,” said study author Joshua Stewart, in a press release.

Mantas are known to eat certain types of zooplankton that are mostly found in deeper waters, so it was a surprise to find the young mantas often circulating near the reef at NOAA’s Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, the authors said.

But, the study’s authors said they suspect the mantas established their nursery to take advantage of the relative safety of the banks after diving into cold offshore waters. To confirm this, researchers at the sanctuary began tagging juvenile mantas at the banks to track their movements and diving behavior..

“Identifying this area as a nursery highlights its importance for conservation and management, but it also gives us the opportunity to focus on the juveniles and learn about them. This discovery is a major advancement in our understanding of the species and the importance of different habitats throughout their lives,” said Stewart, who also serves as executive director of global conservation program Manta Trust.

Fun facts: This is thought to be only the second discovery of a manta ray nursery, per CNET. NOAA says grown mantas can weigh up to 4,300 pounds, but you can still watch these giant beings perform acrobatics in the air sometimes.

However, their numbers have been diminished by commercial fishing, which values their gills in particular, and they've been listed by NOAA as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Dive deeper: Watch a video of the nursery from the research team and read how Gizmodo says they are "more badass than we realized."