Health & Science
Human remains found in ancient shipwreck
An ancient human skeleton dug up from the Mediterranean seabed could shed light on one of the most important shipwrecks in history, reports The New York Times. The remains—arm bones, pieces of rib, thighbones, and a partial skull with three teeth—were found earlier this year near a 2,100-year-old wreck off the Greek island of Antikythera. First discovered in 1900, the site has yielded dozens of jewels, coins, and other artifacts, including an astronomical calculator often described as the world’s earliest known computer. But the dearth of human remains there left archaeologists unable to establish who was on board the treasure-laden vessel, or where it was heading. This latest discovery could change that. Archaeologists believe the skeleton is that of a 20-something male; they called him (or her) “Pamphilos,” a name etched into a wine cup recovered from the wreckage, and carefully disinterred the bones. They hope DNA analysis will provide clues to who Pamphilos was, and what he or she was doing on the boat. One theory is slavery; the bones are stained amber red, which suggests they were bound by iron shackles that have since corroded. “We can’t really get closer to the story of these people than by looking at their actual remains,” says Hannes Schroeder, an expert on ancient DNA who’s working on the project. “It helps us reconstruct his or her identity and gives us insight into what kind of people undertook this voyage 2,000 years ago.”
How the White Cliffs formed
The mystery of how the majestic White Cliffs of Dover formed along England’s southeastern coastline may have been solved—thanks to a massive algae bloom in the Antarctic Ocean. Scientists have long known the geological landmark dates back about 100 million years, when calcite shells from single-celled plants called coccolithophores accumulated on the seafloor, reports LiveScience.com. Over time, the pulverized skeletons of the tiny sea plants are thought to have formed layers of chalk or white limestone. What isn’t clear is how these skeletons, which are less than .0001 inches in diameter, could accumulate in the vast numbers required to form 300-foot cliffs. Looking for answers, a team of scientists headed to the Great Calcite Belt, a region of the Antarctic Ocean teeming with coccolithophores. They discovered there a “Goldilocks” set of ocean conditions— including high nitrate levels, low silicate concentrations, and just the right amount of iron—that enable coccolithophores to thrive. The researchers believe the same environment may have created the White Cliffs of Dover, and speculate that eventually something similar could form in the Calcite Belt—in 100 million years or so.
First muscular dystrophy drug
In response to pleas from desperate patients and their advocates, the FDA overruled the recommendations of its own medical advisers and approved the first drug for a rare form of muscular dystrophy. Eteplirsen is designed to treat certain forms of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, an incurable genetic condition that slows the body’s production of dystrophin, an essential protein that protects muscles from deterioration. Patients with the disease rarely survive beyond their 20s or 30s. The FDA’s advisory committee opposed approval of eteplirsen—which could cost users as much as $350,000 a year—after concluding there was insufficient evidence it actually worked. Critics argue that the clinical trials were not robust enough because they lacked a “control” group. “It sets a dangerous precedent if the FDA is going to start approving drugs that aren’t compared to anything,” Diana Zuckerman from the National Center for Health Research tells CNN.com. The FDA contends that its approval is only preliminary, and may be withdrawn if ongoing trials fail to confirm eteplirsen’s benefits.
Don’t blame obesity genes
It is well established that certain genes predispose some people to gain weight. But new research suggests that these genes will not slow weight loss if people diet and exercise regularly. Scientists analyzed eight studies involving more than 9,500 overweight or obese adults. Each participant had been tested for a specific form of the FTO gene, which is believed to intensify cravings for high-calorie foods and reduce satiety after meals. Before the studies began, those carrying this so-called obesity gene were heavier than their peers. But when placed on weight-loss programs which involved both a diet and an exercise regimen, they dropped the pounds at exactly the same rate as those without the gene.
“We found no evidence at all that the FTO genotype affected weight loss,” the study’s leader, John Mathers, tells Time.com. “We think this is good news—carrying the highrisk [form of the gene] makes you more likely to be a bit heavier, but it shouldn’t prevent you from losing weight. That should encourage people.”
Health scare of the week
The toll of internet addiction
Young adults who spend too much time online may have higher rates of mental health issues. Scientists in Canada evaluated the internet use of 254 college freshmen, using a tool called the Internet Addiction Test (IAT). Developed in 1998, the IAT predates the advent of smartphones and social media, so the researchers also used their own scale based on updated criteria. They found that more than 40 percent of the freshmen had “problematic” internet use—and that these students also had higher rates of depression, anxiety, impulsiveness, and inattention. It’s unclear whether these issues are the cause of excessive internet use or the result of it. But the study’s authors say their findings could have practical medical implications. “If you are trying to treat someone for an addiction when in fact they are anxious or depressed, then you may be going down the wrong route,” chief researcher Michael Van Ameringen tells MedicalDaily.com. “We need to understand this more, so we need a bigger sample, drawn from a wider, more varied population.”