SciTech Briefs

Earliest fossils of ancestral mammals discovered

Two newly discovered fossils of ancestral mammals help demonstrate the possibility of a wide range of ecological diversity in early mammals. The two fossils, Agilodocodon scansorius and Docofossor brachydactylus, were discovered in northeastern China and belong to creatures called docodonts, an evolutionary group that diverged from the mammalian branch and became extinct.

Agilodocodon, which lived around 165 million years ago, had curved claws on its hands and feet to climb trees, and its limb proportions are similar to those of modern-day animals that live in trees. Paleontologists have found that its teeth are most suited for a diet of tree gum and sap.

Docofossor, which lived around 160 million years ago, had shovel-like fingers for digging and teeth that suggested it foraged underground. Its proportions are strikingly similar to the modern African golden mole.

The dating on the fossils suggests they coexisted with the dinosaurs.

Papers regarding the fossils were published independently in Science on Feb. 13 by international teams of scientists from the University of Chicago and Beijing Museum of Natural History.

Source: Science Daily

Alan Turing’s code-breaking papers released

The notes of Alan Turing, a mathematician who played a key role in breaking the German Enigma code during World War II, were found in Bletchley Park, Britain’s code-breaking center. The papers were found stuffed inside holes in the ceiling of Hut 6, Turing’s workplace; Turing and his team appeared to be using them as draught excluders.

The notes were discovered in 2013 during a multimillion-dollar restoration project of Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, and they were recently released to the public.

Amongst the notes were “Banbury sheets,” long sheets of paper with holes punched in them to compare different ciphers. Turing used these Banbury sheets to speed up the decryption of Nazi messages.

“Discovering these pieces of code-breaking ephemera is incredibly exciting and provides yet more insight into how codebreakers worked,” Bletchley Park Trust chief executive, Iain Stander, said in a statement.

The notes, along with other artifacts found at Bletchley Park, will be displayed in a new exhibition called “The Restoration of Historic Bletchley Park” in Hut 12.

Source: BBC

Late-night screen time alters body’s natural clock

A new study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts shows that individuals who read off of a screen such as an iPad before sleeping have a more difficult time going to sleep and wake up feeling groggier than individuals who don’t.
The study consisted of six male and six female volunteers in their mid 20s who, for a two-week period, alternated between reading off of iPads and printed books four hours before a bedtime of 10 p.m. each night. The researchers found that subjects took nearly ten minutes more to fall asleep, and spent less time in rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep, after reading on iPads than they did when they were reading printed books. They also took longer to become alert in the morning, which could result in negative effects in the real world.

Exposure to light at night disrupts the body’s internal clock by suppressing melatonin, a hormone used as a sleep aid, so the study’s results are consistent with what experts would expect. Some experts did note that using a bright light while reading a paper book could have the same effect. The researchers reported their findings January 27th in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: Society for Science

Eight million tons of plastic dumped in ocean yearly

A groundbreaking study published in Science this week quantifies how much garbage flows into the world’s oceans every year. Previously, scientists estimated how much garbage was in the ocean by taking sample counts of plastic on the surfaces of large garbage patches in each of the world’s oceans. A study last year estimated the amount of floating trash to be 245,000 tons at most.

This study, lead by Jenna Jambeck, an Environmental Engineer from the University of Georgia, combines population and economic data from 192 coastal countries bordering the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans in addition to the Black and Mediterranean Seas to show that, of the 245 million tons of garbage accumulated by these countries annually, 4.8 to 12.7 million tons of plastic flows into the oceans.

The study also names the top twenty countries generating the most ocean-bound trash; China is first, and the United States is twentieth.

Since the gap between plastic floating on the ocean’s surface and plastic flowing into the ocean is so wide, scientists now have to figure out where else it is collecting and in what amounts in order to close the gap.

Source: National Geographic

First stars in the universe born later than thought

New maps from the European Space Agency’s satellite, Planck, revealed “polarized” light from the early Universe.
Previously, scientists determined how old the Universe was by examining the Cosmic Microwave Backgroud (CMB) fossil light remaining from a time when the Universe was hot and dense after the Big Bang. Planck studied this light in great detail between the years 2009 and 2013.

“After the CMB was released, the Universe was still very different from the one we live in today, and it took a long time until the first stars were able to form,” explains Marco Bersanelli of Università degli Studi di Milano, Italy. “Planck’s observations of the CMB polarisation now tell us that these ‘Dark Ages’ ended some 550 million years after the Big Bang – more than 100 million years later than previously thought.” While 100 million years seems negligible compared to the Universe’s age of almost 14 billion years, it makes a significant difference when it comes to the formation of the first stars.

This new data has many effects besides an understanding of when the first stars were formed. It could lead to discoveries regarding dark matter, neutrinos and the stucture of the Galactic magnetic field.

Source: Science News

Protein treatment fights Alzheimer’s symptoms

A recent paper published in the Journal of Neuroscienceby lead author Dena Dubal discusses how manipulating the protein levels associated with memory can delay Alzheimer’s symptoms. Dubal, Assistant Professor of Neurology from the University of California, San Fransisco, and her team work with klotho, a transmembrane protein associated with longevity.

Previous research indicated that increasing klotho levels in the brains of healthy mice also increased cognitive function. Dubal’s team then increased klotho levels in the brains of mice who also expressed large amounts of amyloid-beta and tau, proteins associated with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Her team found that, even with these toxic proteins, the mice with elevated klotho levels were able to retain cognitive function.

The team says that they would need to further investigate the mechanism behind this cognitive preservation before it is possible to treat humans in the future.

The next stages of this research involves identifying and testing drugs that affect klotho levels or are able to simulate klothos effects.

Source: The Journal of Neuroscience