Health & Science
Signs of life in a flickering star?
A mysterious star 1,500 light-years away has captivated astronomers, who suggest it just might be displaying signs of extraterrestrial life. So much so, in fact, that it’s now a prime target of the Breakthrough Listen program, the $100_million alien-hunting project backed by Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner. Yale researcher Tabetha Boyajian last year observed a strange and unpredictable flickering in the star, formally named KIC 8462852. Since dubbed Tabby’s Star in Boyajian’s honor, it has grown generally fainter over the past century, but also dims by up to 22_percent at irregular intervals. Astronomers have struggled to account for the phenomenon. A range of possibilities—say, passing debris from a planetary-scale collision or a swarm of comets—can’t fully explain it, and while distant stars do flicker when orbiting planets pass in front of them, even a Jupiter-size gas giant would cause a dimming of only about 1_percent, and do so in a predictable pattern. One lingering hypothesis remains to be investigated: an “alien megastructure” composed of highly advanced solar energy panels is orbiting the star. To test this theory, the Breakthrough Listen program has trained several of the world’s largest and most powerful radio telescopes on Tabby’s Star, hoping to detect an advanced civilization, reports Space.com. “I don’t think it’s very likely—a one-in-a-billion chance or something like that,” says Dan Werthimer, chief scientist at the Berkeley SETI center. “But nevertheless, we’re going to check it out.”
A patch for peanut allergies
A new skin patch may help treat children and young adults with peanut allergies, which afflict some 3 million Americans, CNN.com reports. Known as epicutaneous immunotherapy, the patch releases peanut proteins into the skin to build up cellular tolerance for the nuts. Investigators from the Consortium of Food Allergy Research worked with 74 volunteers between 4 and 20, all of whom had a peanut allergy. The volunteers were randomly assigned to wear a high-dose patch, a low-dose patch, or a placebo. After a year, 46 percent of the low-dose group and 48 percent of the high-dose group could consume at least 10 times more peanut protein than they could when the study began, as opposed to only 12 percent of those on the placebo patch. Children ages 4 to 11 had the best response, while the patch had less effect on those ages 12 and older, study authors said. The patch could hopefully protect people accidentally exposed to peanuts in other foods, says Emory University allergy researcher Jennifer Shih, who wasn’t involved in the study. But “this is not so that somebody can eat a bunch of Reese’s.”
First dinosaur brain found
Paleontologists say a pebble on an English beach has turned out to be the first known fossil of a dinosaur’s brain. After conducting a forensic analysis, researchers found the 133 million–year-old specimen contains blood vessels and tissue from the cortex (the brain’s outer layer) as well as a portion of the membrane that holds the brain in place. Soft tissue, such as nerves and muscle, usually breaks down quickly after death, but an acidic, low-oxygen environment could slow the rate of decay, allowing mineralization to occur. “It’s not the entire brain—it’s just remarkable preservation of soft tissues you wouldn’t expect to have preserved,” study author David Norman tells The New York Times. The researchers speculate the brain tissue probably came from an Iguanodon or similar large, plant-eating dinosaur that died head-down in a shallow swamp or bog. Gravity likely forced the dinosaur’s brain up against its skull, preserving it for millions of years.
Swifts’ nonstop flight
The common swift flies faster and higher than most other birds, earning it the nickname “greyhound of the skies.” New research reveals swifts are also astonishingly durable, holding the record for nonstop flight: They can stay airborne for up to 10 months straight. Every year, swifts embark on an epic 6,000-mile migration, flying roundtrip from Europe to sub-Saharan Africa. A Swedish study tracked 19 of these tiny, torpedo-shaped birds for two years, after fitting them with lightweight devices that monitored how fast and high they flew as well as when they rested. The researchers found the swifts spent less than 1 percent of their migration on the ground. Remarkably, three of the birds never stopped flying. “They feed in the air, they mate in the air, they get nest material in the air,” researcher Susanne Åkesson tells NationalGeographic.com. “They can land on nest boxes, branches, or houses, but they can’t really land on the ground.” Swifts’ long wings and short legs prevent them from taking off from flat surfaces. The birds likely evolved to fly continuously, feeding on insects and possibly even sleeping during flight.
Health scare of the week
Zika may shrink testicles
Zika virus has been shown to cross the placenta during pregnancy and cause devastating brain damage and other birth defects. New research suggests the virus— which is known to persist in semen for months—could also wreak havoc on men’s fertility. A study by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that testicles of mice infected with Zika shrank do wn to one-tenth of their normal size. The mice had sharp reductions in their sperm count and testosterone levels as the infection progressed, reports NBCNews.com. The infected mice were also four times less likely to get females pregnant—all effects scientists believe may be permanent. “This is the only virus I know of that causes such severe symptoms of infertility,” says study author Dr. Kelle Moley. “There are very few microbes that can cross the barrier that separates the testes from the bloodstream to infect the testes directly.” More research is needed to determine if Zika virus poses a similar threat to human males.