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Health & Science

Bugs from 50 million B.C.; BPA impairs male fertility; Why some people go Left; Walking off the common cold

Bugs from 50 million B.C.It’s the Jurassic Park of bugs. In a large deposit of amber recently unearthed in India, scientists discovered a treasure trove of more than 700 kinds of arthropods—including perfectly preserved bees, ants, termites, crustaceans, and spiders—from about 53 million years ago. “It’s like having the complete dinosaur, not just the bones,” team member Jes Rust, an invertebrate paleontologist at the University of Bonn in Germany, tells DiscoverMagazine.com. “You can see all the surface details on their bodies and wings. It’s fantastic.” The bounty, which includes at least 100 previously unknown species of insects, was recovered from an open-pit mining operation, and sheds light on both the geological and biological past. Scientists believe that India broke off from a massive supercontinent called Gondwana about 100 million years ago and drifted alone until colliding with Asia about 50 million years ago; the amber “shows, similar to an old photo, what life looked like in India just before the collision,” Rust says. At the time that the semi-transparent amber was formed, from the resin of trees, this part of India was a tropical rain forest, teeming with life. Some of the specimens show surprising similarity to fossils found as far away as Central America, which suggests that the Indian subcontinent may not have been isolated for as long as previously thought.

BPA impairs male fertilityTo the lengthening list of health risks associated with the plastics additive bisphenol A, or BPA, add male infertility. BPA is an estrogen-mimicking chemical that is widely used in plastics, including canned-food linings and other household items. Even low-level exposure to it has been linked to heart ailments, cancer, and behavioral and reproductive problems; Canada recently banned its use outright. The latest troubling news comes from a study of 514 factory workers in China; compared with a control group, those who worked with BPA were four times more likely to have lowered sperm counts and twice as likely to have sperm with hampered swimming ability. Many of the affected men had been exposed to BPA levels that were 50 times higher than what the average American male encounters, but even subjects with low exposure showed diminished sperm count and quality. “The higher your exposure, the lower your sperm quality is,” lead researcher De-Kun Li, of the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, Calif., tells The Washington Post. Li hopes the results will put more pressure on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which in March listed BPA as a “chemical of concern,” to take an even harder look. “U.S. regulation is way out of whack.”

Why some people go Left Is liberalism in the genes? Recent research has found some biological underpinnings for conservative views: People who have stronger startle reflexes to loud sounds, and express more disgust at disturbing photos, tend to identify with the political Right. Now, scientists have isolated a gene that appears to be associated with having a liberal worldview. In a study of 2,000 students, researchers at Harvard and the University of California at San Diego found that people with the specific variant of a gene called DRD4 were more likely to have a liberal outlook—but only if they’d had a lot of friends when they were younger. People with this gene tend to seek out new experiences and get a rush of pleasure from novelty. This tendency, researchers say, opens them to friendships with people of different races, religions, sexual orientations, and lifestyles—making them receptive to change and to unconventional ideas. “It is the crucial interaction of two factors—the genetic predisposition and the environmental condition of having many friends in adolescence—that is associated with being more liberal,” lead researcher James H. Fowler tells ScienceDaily.com. The study found that the genetic influence held true regardless of ethnicity, culture, or sex. 

Walking off the common coldA mile or two a day may well help keep the doctor away, says LiveScience.com. Researchers at Appalachian State University in North Carolina monitored the health of 1,000 people, ages 18 to 85, for three months in the fall and winter, and quizzed them on their health and fitness habits. The people with the fewest and least-severe colds, it turned out, were those who exercised five or more times a week: Their cold symptoms ended 43 percent to 46 percent sooner than those in people who worked out once a week or not at all, and the symptoms themselves felt 41 percent less severe. “We looked at diet, we looked at mental stress, weight, education levels, gender, on and on,” says study author David Nieman. “The most powerful weapon someone has during cold season is to go out, on a near-daily basis, and put in at least a 30-minute brisk walk.” More frequent exercise gets immune cells circulating and appears to put them on alert.

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