Ancient retrovirus causes addictive behaviour

Some evolutionary mutations to human genes have been cause by the ability of ancient retroviruses to insert themselves (randomly) into our genes. One such retrovirus is HK2 – It’s activity was relatively recent (250,000 years) and it is only present in 5 – 10% of humans, inserted into the RASGRF2 gene, which is part of the Dopamine release pathway – the reward feedback circuit.

Two studies communicated today, show that

(a) those who contracted HIV through IV drug use are 2.5 times more likely to have the HK2 mutation than those who contracted HIV through sex.

(b) those who contracted Hepatitis C through IV drug use were 3.6 times more likely to have the HK2 mutation to RASGRF2 than those who contracted Hep C in other ways.

Then, to establish whether the clear implication that addictive behaviour is associated with this HK2 on RASGRF2 mutation, researchers then took normal human brain cells in vitro, and precisely duplicated the mutation. Sure enough the effect was to increase Dopamine expression in the cells, confirming that the reward pathway would be affected by that mutation.


FRBs in the news again

Fast Radio Bursts are one of my favourite astronomical phenomena, because their cause or origin is still completely unknown. They are very short bursts of radio-frequency radiation, lasting just a few milliseconds, but of colossal intensity. There have been only about 37 catalogued to date, all one-offs except FRB 121102.

FRB121102 is a “repeater” – a series of bursts were observed coming from the same source in 2012, then again on several days in 2015, and 15 more bursts during 30 minutes in 2017. The origin appears to be a galaxy about 2 billion light years away.

Although spinning black holes and neutron stars are possible candidate for generating the FRBs, there is no regularity of pulse in the transmissions as there is with spinning pulsars. One outside, but not discounted, possibility is that the source of the FRBs is some sort of extraterrestrial intelligent action – an attempt at communication or the utilisation of power for some purpose.

The new news is that researchers have re-analysed the data from August 26, 2017, when 21 bursts were detected, and they have found another 72 pulses by using AI – a convolutional neural network.

Link to Research paper

Link to article

Update 8th Jan 2019: A new Canadian Observatory called CHIME has reported finding another 13 FRBs including another repeater.

Update 14th February 2019: Observations reported today suggest that Superluminous Supernovae give rise to magnetars that then emit FRBs. More observations to follow.

Link to Scientific American article

Update 27th Jun 2019: Astronomers using the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), a network of 36 radio telescopes, can now auto-detect and successfully triangulate to pinpoint the source of FRBs. Today they detailed one from the outskirts of a very different type of galaxy than the repeater mentioned above. This weakens the existing theory of the cause of FRBs.

Link to article

Unexplained cold spot on Jupiter’s moon

Europa           Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

Astronomers have mapped the surface temperature of Europa for the first time, and compared it with predictions from a model of sunlight’s influence.

It was already known that craters can be slightly warmer than the rest of the surface, but a cold spot was found, for which there is no current explanation.

Link to research paper

Link to article

Software Engineer Hacks a Knitting Machine to Create Massive Stellar Map

This just had to deserve a mention.

Australian software engineer Sarah Spencer spent years hacking and programming a 1980s domestic knitting machine, knitting with bird’s-eye backing using one knit per pixel in three colors. “Stargazing: a knitted tapestry.” The piece features all 88 constellations as seen from Earth, as well as the equatorial line with the zodiac constellations running along it, stars scaled according to their real-life brightness, the Milky Way galaxy, the sun, Earth’s moon and all of the planets within our solar system. Spencer made sure to put the planets, sun and moon in specific, strategic positions so that the heavenly bodies indicate a specific date in time. link

Strange “Failed Star”

Artist’s impression  Credit: Caltech/Chuck Carter; NRAO/AUI/NSF

A lone planet-size object (called SIMP J01365663+0933473) has been observed about 20 light years away. It is thought to be a “brown dwarf” – that is an object which is not quite large enough to attain the density needed to start hydrogen fusion and become a star. Scientists estimate the critical size between failed-star and ordinary star at about 13 times the mass of Jupiter. And the mass of this object is – yes – 12.7 times the mass of Jupiter – so it only just failed! It is said to be relatively young – about 200 million years old, and on its own – not orbiting a star.

But the most interesting property of the object is that it has an extremely strong magnetic field – more than 200 times as strong as Jupiter’s, which causes it to have strong auroras. The mechanism generating its magnetic field is unknown. Earth has auroras due to the interaction between the solar wind and Earth’s magnetic field. This object has no solar wind to interact with, so the mechanism may depend on an orbiting object. (Jupiter and its moon Io have a similar interaction.)

National Radio Astronomy Observatory News Release

Universe Expansion rate – measurements conflict

There are two basic approaches to measuring the rate of expansion of the universe:

a) using Cepheid variable stars – their brightness tells us how far away they are, and their redshift facilitates calculating the expansion rate

b) deductions from ripples in the CMB (Cosmic Microwave Background) – originating from the big-bang

These two methods have become more refined over time, but their measured values are some way apart – “about four times the size of their combined uncertainty.” This is according to research published in the Astrophysics Journal, July 12th.

The simplest explanation would be that the expansion rate is greater in the nearby universe than the more distant universe – but such a conclusion is incompatible with the current model, and would require new physics. Research is ongoing. article

Update: 8th February 2019: A new technique has been described for measuring the rate of expansion of the Universe (the Hubble constant). Observing the duplicate images of quasars that show when an intervening galaxy acts as a gravitational lens, astronomers can use the slight differences in light path for the images, (which are revealed by the slight difference in arrival-time of brightness variations), to measure the distances to the lens-galaxy and quasar. Combining this with the red-shift gives a measurement of the Hubble Constant – in this case 72.5. This agrees with the Cepheid variable measurements ((a) above) but is 8% higher than measurements form the ancient universe i.e. the CMB measurements. This goes some way to confirming that the rate of expansion is increasing, but does not provide any explanation why.

Live Science article

Herpes virus implicated in Alzheimers

Research published today in the journal “Neuron”, from analysis of DNA and RNA in Alzheimer brains, shows that Herpes virus HHV-6A and 7 (as well as the cold sore  Herpes HSV-1) are present at higher levels in Alzheimer brains than normal brains, and that the level is associated with severity.

It is posited that the virus suppresses a microRNA which usually turns off a specific gene. Indeed when they bred mice deficient in that mRNA, they found the mice developed abundant amyloid plaques – the hallmark of Alzheimers.

Alternatively it may be that amyloid plaque is generated as a defence by the brain against the virus, but that the immune response cascades out of control.

A lot more research is needed to clarify, and unfortunately the Alzheimer research community is currently rather hostile to the idea that microbes are involved in the disease process. (Interestingly the researchers were not looking for viral implication, it just showed up in the data.)

Scientific American article