I’m back with a bumper issue to make up for my absence! This week: how measles destroys children’s immunity to common diseases; an exciting old-new treatment for traumatic brain injury; sophisticated early mammals; glaciers as carbon sinks; how UK science is already being damaged by Brexit, and more…
One of the justifications I’ve sometimes heard anti-vaxxers use for refusing vaccinations is that a vaccine won’t boost “natural” immunity in a way that actually catching the disease would. This assertion is, of course, completely without evidence, but it can sound quite appealing. Now there’s compelling evidence to suggest that in one of their favourite targets, measles, the opposite is true: catching measles wipes out the immunity you’ve developed to other pathogens. This would help explain why, after measles outbreaks, a rise in mortality is observed. The researchers looked at blood samples from children who had caught measles (because they were unvaccinated) and found that they lost 20-70% of their antibody repertoire against common diseases, with their immune system returning to a more naive, baby-like state. By contrast, those who had received the measles vaccine showed no such effect. Measles is a serious disease that can cause blindness or even kill – and does kill several thousand people a year, worldwide. There’s no excuse – vaccinate your children! Science comment piece on the results here, and the original study published here (behind Science paywall).
Good news: a common and inexpensive drug could reduce deaths due to head injury by up to 20%, potentially saving thousands of lives a year. Tranexamic acid (TXA), prevents bleeding, in this case into the brain, by inhibiting blood clot breakdown. It’s already being used for victims of traumatic injury into the abdomen, such as in car crashes. A large trial showed that it’s most effective in those with mild to moderate traumatic brain injury (the majority), and the sooner it is administered the better: there’s a 10% reduction in effectiveness for every 20 minute delay, so it ideally needs to be administered before the patient arrives at the hospital. Original trial results published in The Lancet here.
A very lovely little video here explaining how radio astronomers can work out the age of the universe and the galaxies within it. Good, simple explanations and nice graphics.
In findings that will surprise nobody who works in UK science, Brexit uncertainty is already significantly harming our science base. Headline figures by the Royal Society indicate that, since 2015, funding has dropped by half a billion Euros, and there’s been a 40% drop in applications for Horizon 2020 funding. Additionally, we are now seen as a less attractive destination to do science, with a 35% drop in scientists arriving through EU Marie Curie fellowships. All this was warned about – to Parliament – ahead of the Brexit referendum (as I reported in the aftermath, here), and will only get significantly worse if we exit without freedom of movement and access to EU funding streams. Anecdotally, my colleagues here report an increasing negativity about the prospect of UK science, with continental EU colleagues in some cases reporting hostility and a lack of faith in the EU settlement scheme.
To that end, have a clip of the loudest bird in the world screaming for a mate in a most unpleasant siren sound that really shouldn’t attract anybody:
What’s more, they do it to females even when said females are sitting right next to them, an experience with obnoxious males I’m sure many women are familiar with at some point in their lives. (I’m also unclear as to why it has a dangly bit hanging off its beak, but then I also can’t explain the attraction of Nigel Farage, so there you go).
Best to move on, I think. This week’s featured image is of rat-sized early mammal that lived alongside the dinosaurs. This Nature commentary piece gives a great overview of the evolution of the earliest mammals, and includes a really nice infographic that you can download too. There have been a wealth of fossil discoveries about these early mammals, and their immediate ancestors, in recent years. These findings are overturning the classic idea you were probably told in school, about how mammals were tiny insect-eaters, limited in diversity by the dominance of the dinosaurs until the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous, which allowed them to “take over.” Not so: there was already a wide ecological diversity, with early mammals – some the size of badgers – swimming, digging, climbing and even gliding in the shadow of the dinosaurs. The new studies are also shedding light on the evolution of key mammal innovations, such as lactation, complicated jaws and sensitive hearing.
Glacial rivers can absorb as much carbon dioxide (metre squared) as tropical rainforest, which is a finding nobody was expecting. Rivers in temperate parts of the world tend to be considered net carbon emitters, because of the decay of rich organic matter from dead plants and animals on their beds. However, glacial rivers are fairly inhospitable to organic life, so they don’t really emit much carbon. They also contain a lot of sediment from weathered rock, which mixes (in their often turbulent, fast-flowing waters) with atmospheric carbon dioxide, in a process of chemical weathering that removes it from the air. The study looked at glacial rivers in Canada and Greenland – which are diminishing as the climate warms, exacerbating the problem. Obviously rivers make up far less of the globe than the Amazon, so tropical rainforests are overwhelmingly more important in terms of carbon dioxide absorption, but this is still a significant finding. Original study published in PNAS here.
Surveillance has detected tick-borne encephalitis in two parts of the UK for the first time ever. It’s probably been carried across by migratory birds. Coupled with the increase in Lyme disease, it’s ever more important to be vigilant about preventing tick bites and removing them when found. Ugh.
And finally, a nice Nature feature piece on 100 years of Doris Lessing.
“Early mammals like this rat-sized species Liaoconodon hui coexisted with feathered dinosaurs like Sinotyrannus in the temperate ecosystems of the Cretaceous in what is now Liaoning in northern China.” Illustration by Davide Bonadonna via Nature Publishing.