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Health & Science

Life, one mile beneath the ground; What wrinkles reveal; Women’s ancient wanderlust; Why the team in red often wins

Life, one mile beneath the groundNearly a mile beneath the Earth’s surface, scientists have discovered tiny worms thriving in a hellish realm of enormous heat and pressure—opening an entirely new realm of potential habitats for multicellular life. The tiny worm Halicephalobus mephisto thrives far underground despite just traces of oxygen and no sunlight—conditions researchers thought only single-cell bacteria could endure. H. mephisto is only two hundredths of an inch long, feeds solely on bacteria, and doesn’t need a mate to reproduce. Tests of the water where it was found—in rock fractures at the bottom of a South African gold mine—suggest it may have lived there for as many as 12,000 years. The discovery of complex life sealed away from the rest of the world “is pretty amazing,” Caleb Scharf, a researcher at the Columbia Astrobiology Center, tells New Scientist. Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, says the find implies that similar creatures could be living in harsh environments far below the surface of other planets, including Mars. The surprising survival skills of H. mephisto are proof, he says, that “the universe might have many more habitats than we thought.”

What wrinkles revealA glance in the mirror may be enough to gauge how likely you are to suffer bone fractures as you age. A new Yale University study shows that the deeper a middle-aged woman’s facial wrinkles appear, the weaker her bones are. Researchers tested postmenopausal women in their late 40s and early 50s and found a link between wrinkles and osteoporosis, regardless of whether the women smoked, took vitamins, exposed themselves to the sun, or were overweight. The reason may turn out to be that firm skin and strong bones are both built by collagen, a protein our body begins to lose as we get older. Study author Lubna Pal tells ABCNews.com that confirming a link between wrinkles and bone health could help doctors identify and treat osteoporosis among older patients. The condition currently requires an expensive diagnostic test, so it often goes unnoticed until a person breaks a hip or a leg. But “if things on the outside of us can indicate a risk to things inside,” Pal says, “osteoporosis may not be such a silent disease.”

Women’s ancient wanderlustAmong the “cavemen’’ of pre-human history, females often moved away from the tribe and region of their birth right after puberty, while males stayed close to home all their lives. That’s the conclusion of a new study of the fossilized teeth of ape-like australopithecines who lived in South African caves some 2 million years ago. The isotopes in the females’ teeth showed that they had grown up far from the regions where they died. “We don’t know whether they drifted, or they went across deliberately, or they were abducted,” study author Julia Lee-Thorp of Oxford University tells BBCNews.com. But she notes that chimpanzees exhibit similar patterns: Females set off to find foreign mates to prevent inbreeding; males, by contrast, are too aggressive with strangers to form peaceful bonds away from home. Co-author Matt Sponheimer says the fossil record will never fully answer the question of why female hominids usually left the tribes of their birth. “It is difficult enough to work out the relations between the sexes today,” he says.

Why the team in red often winsGlimpsing the color red makes us stronger and faster, at least momentarily, a new study says. Researchers at the University of Rochester had undergraduates clench a handgrip the instant they saw the word “squeeze” appear on a computer screen. When the word popped up in red, the students squeezed both harder and more quickly than they did if the word appeared in blue or gray. A test on elementary and high school students yielded similar results. The simple experiment offers further proof that humans are hardwired to pick up on red “as a danger cue,” study author Andrew Elliot tells ScienceDaily.com. Since “humans flush when they are angry or preparing for attack,” he explains, they “are acutely aware of such reddening in others and its implications.” But while seeing red may improve our muscular performance in the short term, it also takes a mental toll. Previous studies have shown that athletes facing a red-clad team tend to lose, and students who see red before a test perform worse than those who don’t—in part because they find the color stressful and distracting. Yet we rarely notice the impact red has on us, Elliot says: “Those color effects fly under our awareness radar.”

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