Jul 18, 2019

Axios Science

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  • Today's edition is 1,288 words, about a 5 minute read.
  • Heads-up: Keep an eye out for our Deep Dive about the Moon coming on Saturday, 50 years to the day after Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landed on the lunar surface for the first time. Sign up for Axios AM to receive it.
1 big thing: It's getting "tickier"

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The spread of ticks in the U.S. — and a rise in cases of the diseases they carry — is putting the tiny tick in the sights of Congress and spurring calls for better tools to track and control them.

Why it matters: Ticks spread bacteria that cause Lyme disease and more than a dozen other pathogens.

Driving the news: The increase in tick-borne illnesses moved New Jersey Rep. Christopher Smith to introduce an amendment — passed by the House last week — to investigate whether the Department of Defense experimented with weaponizing ticks with Lyme disease and released them between 1950 and 1975.

Reality check: There's evidence the Lyme disease-causing bacterium — Borrelia burgdorferi — has been in North America for 60,000 years.

  • The bacteria and the tick would make "a lame bioweapon," says Rick Ostfeld, who studies the arachnids at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.

The big picture: "The world is getting tickier for sure. That's especially true for the U.S.," Ostfeld says, referring to the arrival of a new tick species in the U.S. and the fact that ticks are expanding their range.

  • Climate change, reforestation in the Northeast, development that drives out predators of mice that harbor the disease, and a boom in deer that are hosts to ticks are all thought to be creating opportunities for ticks to expand their range and spread disease.
  • Unlike mosquitoes that can cause epidemics and then die out, longer-living ticks — like the black-legged tick that spreads Lyme disease — produce a chronic, steady, infectious vector risk, says the CDC's Paul Mead. "Their biology affects the patterns of illness we see."
  • He and Ostfeld say there's a need for new prevention tools, including vaccines and tick control measures.

What to watch: Ostfeld co-leads the Tick Project, an ongoing 5-year study looking at whether a fungus that kills ticks can be used to control and reduce cases of tick-borne disease in neighborhoods.

  • Researchers are also experimenting with controlling the spread of Lyme disease by editing the genes of mice so the rodents don't transmit disease-causing bacteria to ticks.
  • Six federal departments are drafting a national strategy to "combat the growing threat of vector-borne diseases," which includes those carried by ticks.
  • A CDC spokesperson tells Axios it is expected to be finalized later this summer.
2. Elon Musk's plan to merge with AI

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Elon Musk says he has charted the long path to merging man and machine, Axios' Kaveh Waddell writes.

The big picture: Around the world, top research labs are building brain–computer interfaces (BCIs), devices that can both read brain activity directly from neurons and write information straight into the brain.

  • At this early stage, BCIs are being used to treat conditions and injuries related to the brain or nervous system, including Parkinson's disease or paralysis, allowing people to control, and even feel, prosthetic limbs with their minds.
  • In the far future, researchers want to implant interfaces into healthy people. Among their ideas is to use the implants for communication, or a super-efficient connection to an electronic device.

How it works: Neuralink's system consists of hundreds of electrodes implanted deep inside the brain, connected by tiny wires to a hub that communicates wirelessly with a device behind the wearer's ear. There's also a robotic "sewing machine" that plunges the electrodes into patients' brains.

  • A version of the device has been tested on rats, according to an unreviewed white paper Neuralink circulated after Tuesday's event.
  • And in response to a question on stage, Musk casually dropped that it's also been installed on a monkey, which used it to control a computer. The next step is human testing, which Neuralink hopes to get underway next year.

Reality check: Getting surgical implants into healthy humans is a long shot in the near future, says Kenneth Shepard, a BCI researcher at Columbia University.

  • For the Food and Drug Administration to approve an implant, the upsides have to far outweigh the risks. "And anything that requires surgical implantation comes with a lot of risk," says Shepard.
  • Much more likely to be approved are medical applications that address sensory or motor problems like blindness or paralysis — a significant benefit to outweigh the risks of poking stuff into brains.
  • And those are still out of reach of the best scientists, who are developing devices and software to reliably decode brain activity and send signals back into the mind.
3. Ebola warning intensifies
Expand chart
Data: DRC Ministry of Health; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon, Harry Stevens/Axios

The World Health Organization Wednesday issued a global health warning on the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, although it added that the risk of the deadly virus spreading outside the region remains low, Axios' Eileen Drage O'Reilly writes.

Why it matters: The official intensification of the warning is partly due to the geographical expansion of cases, including at least one in the large, international city of Goma, plus renewed violence against health care workers that killed 2 recently.

  • The move is expected to spur WHO's 196 members to offer more resources and better organize an international response to this outbreak.

Between the lines: The declaration of a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) will not immediately change anything on the ground, says Julie Fischer, co-director of Georgetown University's Center for Global Health Science and Security. But she says it could lead to much-needed funding and the possible creation of a new UN body to coordinate international responses.

Details, per WHO's press conference:

  • There's alarm because the outbreak now has a geographic reach of roughly 500 km, says Robert Steffen, chair of the WHO's Ebola emergency committee. Beni, a city in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, remains the epicenter, with 46% of the cases over the last 3 weeks.
  • The committee recommended that borders with neighboring countries or other countries should not be closed at this time, as this could have negative consequences, Steffen said.

Meanwhile, concern over the amount of available vaccines grows, despite the DRC recently agreeing to use half-doses of the current Merck vaccine (the only experimental vaccine currently allowed in DRC).

Go deeper: Read Eileen's full story.

4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The robotic future began four decades ago (Steve LeVine, Axios)

The weather forecast that saved Apollo 11 (Jeremy Deaton, The Washington Post)

Magma found simmering under an 'extinct' volcano (Maya Wei-Haas, National Geographic)

A fish that holds its breath (Sandrine Ceurstemont, Hakai)

5. Something wondrous

The Marius Hills pit is a possible skylight in a lava tube on the Moon. Photo: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Lava tubes on the Moon or Mars could one day help people live off-Earth, Axios' Miriam Kramer writes.

The big picture: The surface of the Moon isn’t exactly a great place to live long term. It fluctuates between extreme heat and cold, and is slammed by radiation and meteorites.

  • If astronauts can find a way to safely live in lava tubes on the Moon — which formed when molten rock flowed there millions of years ago — it could keep them from being exposed on the surface.

What’s happening: Researchers from Purdue University created 3D reconstructions of lava tubes in Lava Beds National Monument in California to model lunar lava tubes.

  • “This helps us assess whether similar lava tubes on the Moon or Mars would be capable of hosting a permanent human habitat,” Anahita Modiriasari, one of the Purdue team members said in a statement.
  • According to her, the largest of the tubes found on the Moon are about 1–2 kilometers wide and several hundred kilometers long.
  • This kind of model will help scientists figure out if they're structurally stable, giving the researchers a better sense of what those caves might be like on other worlds.