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How climate shaped human ancestry

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The first human species Homo heidelbergensis (skull pictured) could have spread to Earth because wetter weather conditions more favorable for migration occurred, according to a climate model.Credit: Javier Trueba/MSF/Scientific photo library

Record-breaking simulation of the past two million years of Earth’s climate provides evidence that temperature and other planetary conditions influenced early human migrations – and possibly contributed to the emergence of the modern human species about 300,000 years ago. “It’s another brick in the wall to support the role of climate in shaping human ancestry,” says marine geologist Peter de Menocal.

Nature | 5 minute read

Reference: Nature paper

DNA extracted from blood ingested by leeches has been used to track wildlife in China’s Ailaoshan Nature Reserve. More than 160 park rangers went pest hunting along their regular patrol routes, collecting 30,468 leeches in three months. The researchers then extracted DNA from the blood of the leeches and detected 86 different species, among the endangered Yunnan spiny frogs (Nanorana yunnanensis) to Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus) and humans. Biodiversity was highest in the high-altitude interior of the reserve, suggesting that human activity had driven wildlife away from other areas.

ScienceNews | 4 minute read

Reference: Nature Communication paper

It’s well known that somatic mutations — which occur in the body’s genetic code and accumulate over time — can cause cancer, but their broader role in aging is less clear. Now researchers have measured somatic mutation rates in a range of mammals and found a striking correlation between that rate and lifespan, proving the theory that mutations are a cause of aging rather than a result of it.

Nature | 6 minute video

Reference: Nature paper


Features & Reviews

Last July, London-based company DeepMind released an artificial intelligence (AI) tool called AlphaFold. The software could predict the 3D shape of a protein from its genetic sequence with, for the most part, pinpoint accuracy. Since then, AlphaFold mania has gripped the life sciences. In some cases, AI has saved scientists time; in others, it has made possible previously inconceivable research in areas ranging from drug discovery and protein design to the origins of complex life.

Nature | 17 minute read

AlphaFold mania: A bar chart that shows the number of research articles and preprints that have cited Alphafold since its release.

Astronomers are starting to dream of how a new generation of mega-rockets could enable groundbreaking space telescopes and larger, bolder interplanetary missions. NASA’s Space Launch System and SpaceX’s spacecraft are large and powerful enough to carry heavy and complex spacecraft further and faster than ever before. “Starship holds the promise of transforming the solar system in ways we can’t quite appreciate,” says planetary scientist Alan Stern. “It completely changes the game.”

American scientist | 12 minute read

Conservation scientist Morad Tahbaz is one of a long list of people involved in scientific activities who are imprisoned in Iran for espionage. Tahbaz and seven colleagues are currently serving ten-year sentences for research that used camera traps to monitor endangered cheetahs. The scientific community must do more to raise its voice for academics who have been wrongfully imprisoned, says Nature editorial.

Nature | 4 minute read

QUOTE OF THE DAY

An “extinct” species of woodpecker has been found alive and foraging in the forests of Louisiana, having managed to hide from humans for over 70 years. (The Guardian | 3 minute read)