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A new bird species is seen emerging in real-time

A medium ground finch, one of the two Galapagos finches that led to the new lineage.

Photo: Uwe-Bergwitz / iStock

Scientists have directly documented a new species evolving in the wild for the first time, according to the BBC. Fittingly, the event was seen in Galapagos Island finches, the same group of birds that helped Darwin solidify his theory of evolution. The research, published Thursday in the journal Science, started in 1981, when a single male from a different finch species came to the tiny island of Daphne Major.

Why it matters: This is the first time the formation of a new species has been observed in real-time in the wild. More than that, it shows how just a single individual can breed with one from another species, leading to the creation of a new species.

For several decades, scientists have been meticulously documenting minute changes in different finch species on the Galapagos Islands, an archipelago that's been referred to as a "natural laboratory for evolution."

How it started: The initial hybridization event happened in 1981 on the Galapagos island of Daphne Major, where evolutionary biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant conducted most of their research. They studied the group so closely that they noticed when a male large cactus finch, native to a different island 65 miles away, arrived on the island and began breeding with a local population.

What happened: Native females didn't recognize the songs of the new hybrid males, so instead of breeding with the local population as expected, the hybrids bred within their population. This paper shows that after just two generations, they stopped breeding with other populations and have remained reproductively isolated ever since.

Taking off: "In most cases, the offspring of cross-species matings are poorly adapted to their environment," writes Rory Galloway for the BBC. But the large size of these hybrids has allowed them to exploit resources the native birds weren't using, so the birds have flourished.

Go deeper: It just so happens that Darwin's personally annotated copy of The Origin of Species is up for auction. The Guardian has the story.

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Scientists have used cells as a recording device for the first time

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

For the first time, scientists have used a cell to record what happens in the world around it. They were able to retrieve the information and read it in chronological order.

Why it matters: Changes in temperature and chemical levels inside the body can be recorded in a broad sense, but tools like this are the biological equivalent of using a microscope versus a magnifying glass. "It's the next generation of resolution," says study author Harris Wang, a synthetic biologist at Columbia University.

What it's called: Temporal Recording Arrays by CRISPR Expansion — or TRACE, for short.

How it works: CRISPR isn't just for editing genes. In bacterial cells, CRISPR is a part of the immune system. Some parts of the CRISPR suite cut and store information from the genomes of invading viruses to help bacteria defend against them in the future. Because they register that information in a sort of a stack, with the most recent on the top, it's possible to use CRISPR to record something chronologically.

What they did: The researchers programmed the cells to respond to a biological input by increasing or decreasing the amount of a certain piece of DNA. The DNA contains pre-programmed 'trigger spacers' that cause the CRISPR to start making the record. They found that they were able to accurately reconstruct a timeline of the cell's environment based on information recovered from the cell.

This builds on previous research, where scientists at Harvard used the same mechanism to store and recover a video from E. coli bacteria cells. At the time, they hoped it would serve as proof-of-concept for storing sequential information in bacteria. "The idea is that eventually we can have the cells go out and collect information, store it in their genome, and later we can interrogate the cells and figure out what they've captured," Seth Shipman, who conducted the research, told Axios. Four months later, they've done just that.

What's next: The information gathered in the most recent study was relatively simple, but the research shows complex information can be stored and recovered, if it can be recorded. These cells could record the ways a neuron reacts to a medication, or track changes in a gut during an infection or be placed in the environment to monitor the soil. The cells Wang and his colleagues created passively collect data —Wang hopes to create ones that actively record specific types of data and even respond to those changes.

Sci-fi level stuff: On the extreme end, Wang imagines a future where bacteria throughout our body keep a running 'medical record' of sorts, ready for doctors to recover and read in the event of an illness. But there's still a lot work to be done."We're just starting to engineer bacteria to be able to do something truly useful associated with the human body," says Wang.
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Lightning can start nuclear reactions in the sky

Lightning. Photo: 4FR / iStock

Lightning can create fusion reactions in the air around it, according to research published today in the journal Nature. Nuclear reactions were thought to occur in some thunderstorms but the study provides the first conclusive evidence they are happening.

Why it matters: It's unclear how thunderstorms and lightning work. "How lightning initiates inside thunderstorms is a complete mystery, and how lightning initially moves inside the storms is not at all clear," lightning expert Joseph Dwyer from the University of New Hampshire tells Axios in an email. He says figuring out how some thunderstorms emit huge gamma-ray flashes thought to trigger the reactions "might tell us something interesting about what's going on inside the storms."

The question: It seems theoretically impossible for lightning to produce nuclear fusion reactions because the fuel for the reactions — a form of hydrogen called deuterium — isn't available in large enough amounts in the atmosphere. The 50,000°F temperature of lightning is also a lot cooler than the 30,000,000°F near the center of the Sun where nuclear fusion occurs. Yet scientists have observed by-products of these reactions being produced from lightning.

How it works: Lightning can emit high-energy bursts known as gamma-ray flashes. (How and when they occur — they are associated with a small fraction of lightning seen around the world each day — is a mystery itself.) The flashes are energetic enough to knock neutrons out of the nuclei of nitrogen and oxygen in the air, creating radioactive versions of them for a short time.

Researchers have seen signatures of neutrons being formed just after a lightning flash before. The new paper reports a second such observation on February 6, 2017 Japan along with detection of the radioactive nitrogen and oxygen produced when neutrons are removed from their nuclei.

"It leaves no possible doubt as to what's going on, and it's a beautiful and thorough analysis," says David Smith, a physicist at the University of California Santa Cruz who studies gamma-rays produced by lightning and wasn't involved in the research.

What's next: The gamma-ray flashes themselves were too bright for the researchers' instruments to record. Dwyer says having better instrumentation in places where there are lots of thunderstorms and on aircraft flying near storms would be a very important next step to confirm the bursts start the reactions.

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Vaccine researcher dodged medical regulations, conducted trials in hotels

Photo: AlexKich / iStock

Unlicensed and unregulated experimental vaccines were administered to at least eight herpes patients in the United States, in direct violation of US law, according to an investigation by Marisa Taylor at Kaiser Health News. The experiments were conducted secretly for several years in a Holiday Inn Express and Crown Plaza Hotel near Carbondale, Illinois.

What we already knew: William Halford, the associate professor at Southern Illinois University who conducted the experiments, died of cancer this summer. Halford had previously been accused of dodging US oversight laws by running trials out of a house on the island of St. Kitts in 2016. The St. Kitts and Nevis government says they were not notified of the research.

Why it matters: "We're not allowed to do this in guinea pigs in this country let alone human subjects," herpes expert Anne Wald told Kaiser Health News.

Money: Despite the controversy, a number of investors, including Peter Thiel, have invested several million dollars in Rational Vaccines, the company founded by Halford and Hollywood filmmaker Agustín Fernández III.

Deception: Halford, who was not a physician, took clear steps to cover his tracks, telling participants to keep the experiment a secret and "writing that it would be 'suicide' if he became to public about how he was conducting his research," writes Taylor.

Complications: Patients have reported side effects from the vaccine. Kaiser Health News reports that one participants fear that the vaccine gave him a new, different type of herpes is "possible."

Contamination: Not only were the trials conducted in violation of US law, they were conducted using live viruses. Live virus vaccines are traditionally handled in extremely sterile areas - which Holiday Inns are not - to prevent contamination.

Manipulation: Halford used patient's desire for a cure to manipulate them into joining the unauthorized trial: "People underestimate how desperate people with genital HSV are," Wald told Kaiser Health News.

Denial: Southern Illinois University, which previously denied it had any knowledge of Halford's action, refused to comment to Taylor.

Read the full Kaiser Health News report here.


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Why lefties have a competitive edge in certain sports

Pro-tennis player Martina Navratilova is left-handed. Photo: Jeff Daly / Invision via AP

A new study that analyzed whether left-handed people have a competitive advantage in sports over right-handed people found the distinction is more pronounced for sports in which a player has less time to react to an opponent, per the New York Times.

The score: Most players are trained to strategize based on righties' weaknesses (throwing a ball to their opponent's less dominant side, the left) which in turn may be an advantage for lefties because their opponents have a harder time anticipating their next move.

Details from the study:

  • Loffing studied six different sports: baseball, cricket, table tennis, badminton, tennis and squash — all of which incorporate a "standardized measure of time pressure," as Loffing described it.
  • Findings: Comparing all six sports, he found left-handed dominance was 2.6 times more likely in sports with higher time constraints like baseball, cricket and table tennis, than in those with lower time pressure (badminton, tennis and squash). "Nine percent of the top players were left-dominant in the slowest contest, squash, while 30 percent of the best pitchers were lefties in the fastest, baseball," reports NYT.
  • Loffing's bottom line: "We know that things like anticipation and decision-making are more difficult under time pressure," he said.
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Albatross are in decline, mirroring drops in shorebirds around the world

Wandering albatross nest on Prion Island in South Georgia. Photo iStock / Burroblando

Populations of wandering albatross are half as large as they were in the 1980s, according to a paper published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

What's happening: According to the BBC, there are two main reasons for the bird's decline:

  • Fishing: The birds "often try to take the bait on longline fishing gear. They get snagged on hooks, are pulled under the water and are drowned."
  • The climate: The birds are vulnerable to shifts in feeding grounds caused by events like El Nino and climate change.

Why it matters: It's not just wandering albatross. A study published last year in Nature found seabird populations are crashing around the globe, and another published in PLOS One in 2015 found that seabird numbers have dropped 70 percent in 60 years.

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6-month-old infants may understand related words

Thomas Brunson-Pitts, 6 months, plays inside his home in Washington. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin / AP

New research suggests babies as young as six months old understand more about language than was previously believed, per the Atlantic.

In the study, babies were first shown two different pictures at a time, of things like a blanket and a dog. Researchers observed what image the babies looked at after their parents named an image. The babies had a harder time distinguishing the difference between pictures of related things, like nose and mouth, than they did of the unrelated pictures. Per the Atlantic, this difficulty of distinguishing related images shows "that they somehow understand that the concepts are related."

Why it matters: Further developing the findings could help doctors flag when a child has a language delay, which is sometimes an indicator of autism.

A different part of the study included the parents showing an object to the baby while they discussed it. Following this, the babies were able to "look more at the correct objects during the in-lab task," the Atlantic reports. Elika Bergelson, lead author of the study, said this shows that "babies are listening, and you should treat them as conversational partners."

What's next: Bergelson acknowledged that more work needs to be done, considering this study only used 51 children, and they were primarily from "white, middle-class, well-educated families."

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Ancient fortress found at bottom of lake in Turkey

The Akdamar church stands on the Akdamar Island on Lake Van, Turkey. Photo: Burhan Ozbilici / AP

Archaeologists have discovered the ruins of an ancient fortress believed to be about 3,000 years old at the bottom of Lake Van, located in eastern Turkey near Iran, per National Geographic.

How it remained hidden: Lake Van isn't connected to the ocean so it is highly susceptible to dramatic changes in water levels. Archaeologists believe the lake's water level was lower when the Uratu kingdom reigned from 860-590 BC. Locally, people talked about ruins from the Uratu kingdom at the bottom of the lake.

One fun thing: Tahsin Ceylan, the head of the diving team from Van Yuzuncu Yil University who led the expedition, told local press that most archaeologists and museum officials told them not to search the lake because they'd never find anything. The diving team proceeded with their search anyway, based on the local rumors. They then discovered the fortress.

Details of the ruins: Ceylan said the archaeological site is about a kilometer long, and roughly 10 to 13 feet of castle walls are visible beneath the water.

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Elon Musk's new truck said to have a revolutionary new battery

Musk with the Tesla semi truck. Photo: Tesla

When Elon Musk guaranteed that the new Tesla semi-truck would last 1 million miles without breaking down, experts assumed he was talking about the drive train, not the ultra-sensitive battery. But a person familiar with the truck tells Axios that he meant the battery, too.

Why it matters: A battery going that far would have multiple times the longevity of any commercial vehicle battery in use now or announced for release, and would help make Tesla's Semi competitive with diesel-burning competitors (since the battery is estimated to cost $170,000 on top of the $100,000-plus cost of the truck itself).

Musk announced his truck with typical showmanship (see photo above), but fleet owners who buy cargo trucks are not typically given to whims of cool and style. "They decide on the total cost of ownership," John Rapaport, a co-founder of Repower, a consultant to truck fleet owners, tells Axios. "They are very sophisticated buyers. They understand how to model out all of the variables."

By the numbers: In his Nov. 16 unveiling of the Semi, Musk said the truck will travel 500 miles on a charge when it goes on sale starting in 2019, which is a lot; Mitsubishi's new eCanter has 62.5 miles of range on a charge. Given that the standard lithium-ion battery lasts 1,000 charge-discharge cycles before replacement is recommended, that would add up to about 500,000 miles.

  • But a typical tractor-trailer in the U.S. will travel 100,000 miles a year or more, according to industry data. Meaning that, if Musk's truck operates like most electrics including Tesla's own passenger vehicles, it would deliver only about five years of use before the battery needs replacing.
  • Truck drivers are also likely to use Tesla's 30-minute fast-charging technology almost every time their battery runs out, and not the slower recharging system, thus subjecting the pack's physics to regular, enormous stress, said Venkat Viswanathan, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
  • Musk has not disclosed his planned sticker price, but experts estimate that the Semi could be $300,000, about twice the cost of new diesel trucks. Very few fleet owners would spend that kind of money if the battery needs replacing so soon, even if they do save about $100,000 in diesel over the five years of ownership, as Tesla estimates.

That Musk instead plans to guarantee 1 million miles of travel, as we have been told, suggests his team has tinkered with the truck in unprecedented ways so that the battery can undergo 2,000 charge-recharge cycles, twice the usual number, Viswanathan said.

In a series of tweets, Nikola Motor Company, a rival truckmaker, yesterday speculated that Musk is modeling his battery pack not on his passenger vehicles, but on his stationary batteries — the Powerwall that he markets for use in buildings and homes. Such a configuration — installing many more battery cells than actually required, and running them at relatively low charging voltage — would make the system much more durable, Viswanathan said.

In an email exchange, Tony Seba, who teaches at Stanford University, adds that self-driving technology will make the Semi more efficient, and suggests that drivers may not be permitted to fully discharge the batteries. "If you don't fully charge and discharge a battery, it's going to last far longer than if you do," Seba said.

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There might not be flowing water on Mars

Mars' recurrent slope linnea, or RSL, may have been caused by flowing sand and not water.

Photo: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UA / USGS

Hopes of flowing water on Mars are evaporating. In 2015, scientists announced they had found dark streaks on mountains on Mars. At the time, they believed the streaks were formed by running water. However, a paper published Thursday in Nature Geosciences suggests the streaks were instead shaped by falling sand.

Why it matters: It seems counterintuitive, but this could make plans to travel to Mars a little easier. If there's running, liquid water on Mars, there could also be life. And that means that any missions would have to go to great lengths to avoid contaminating it. The authors note any water that is present would likely be "inhospitable to known terrestrial life, alleviating planetary protection concerns."

  • That doesn't mean there isn't life on Mars, but it's even less likely than before — and it probably won't be contaminated by any bacterial hitchhikers humans might send along.

What they saw: The researchers compared the patterns left by flowing sand on Martian sand dunes to the dark streaks, which are called recurring slope linnea, or RSL. The patterns on the dunes were startlingly similar to the patterns on the RSL. And, although the streaks do look like they contain some salts associated with liquid water, other salts can't be seen. Previous studies had suggested that if there was water in the streaks, there was little of it.

Yes, but the streaks do seem to lengthen during the warm season, suggesting liquid water under the surface could play a role in starting the sand on its journey downhill.