Genetic theory shows how durians got their unpleasant smell

Researchers in Singapore may have finally discovered where the durian — a fruit known for its strong and unpleasant odor — first got its pungent smell.

Though many people in the west do not care for the odd fruit, durian is eaten throughout different parts of southeast Asia. Scientists have already analyzed the odd chemicals behind the fruit’s strange smell, but nobody has ever looked at the genetics.

“Despite the importance of durian as a tropical fruit crop, durian—related genetic research is almost nonexistent,” the researchers wrote in their study, Gizmodo reports.

To take a better look at the plant, researchers in the study sequenced the genome of the popular durian species Durio zibethinus and then took an in-depth look at its RNA.

This revealed the durian’s fruit cells produce more sulfur-producing proteins than the rest of the plant, including the enzyme known as methionine gamma-lyase (MGL). In addition, they also produce large amounts of the enzyme aminocyclopropane-carboxylic acid synthase (ACS), which is associated with ripening.

While other plant species have the MLG gene, the durian is unique because it has four copies. To explain this, researchers believe that some time in the durian’s evolutionary history its genome doubled twice. That then allowed the original set of genes to carry out their intended functions, while the second set evolved into other traits, including the durian’s smell and spiky outer shell.

“When we compared the genome sequence of durian to earlier ancestors like the cacao plant, what we found is that durian has experienced a whole genome duplication event,” explained study co-author Patrick Tan a biomedical researcher at Singapore’s Dune-NUS Medical School, according to Popular Science.

The study shows that the entire fruit system works to produce the unique smell. Though the team is not sure, they believe the odor is likely to attract certain primates in hopes they will eat the fruit and disperse the seeds.

Such findings are important because they build both a scientific and agricultural understanding of the popular fruit. Scientists hope this understanding of the fruit’s genome will help them breed healthier durians with less sugar to help people with conditions such as diabetes.

The new research is published in Nature Genetics.


Soil carbon may trigger global warming feedback loop

Global warming’s effect on soil carbon could create a dangerous feedback loop that may cause Earth to get warmer and warmer as the years go on.

Past research shows that, as soil warms up it leaks carbon into the atmosphere. As a result, rising temperatures cause soil to release greater amounts of carbon, which then warm the air and cause temperatures to rise. Those processes then create a feedback loop that is very hard to stop.

This new information comes from researchers at various U.S. universities who ran a series of experiments in a Massachusetts hardwood forest for the past 26 years. In the studies, researchers have been artificially heating different parts of the soil and recording the results.

The trials first began in 1991, when a team placed heating coils — which helped keep certain patches of soil 9 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than control plots — roughly 3.9 inches underground in the Harvard Forest. Since that time, the heated patches have lost almost 17 percent of the total carbon stored in the top 23.6 inches of soil. Not only that, but the loss in warmer soil has outpaced the loss in control plots in two distinct bursts: one that occurred between 1991 to 2000 and one that occurred between 2008 to 2013.

However, in between those periods the carbon release was at similar levels in both heated and unheated areas. Researchers believe that cycle occurs because of tiny microbes that feast on hard-to-digest organic material and push more carbon out into the air.

“If a significant amount of that soil carbon is added to the atmosphere, due to microbial activity in warmer soils, that will accelerate the global warming process,” said lead author Jerry Melillo, a researcher at the Marine Biological Laboratory, in a statement. “And once this self-reinforcing feedback begins, there is no easy way to turn it off. There is no switch to flip.”

These findings are important because, while there is a lot of research on global warming, scientists do not know a lot about the connection between soil microbes and carbon release. Studies like this one help shed light on the subject, but more long-term trials are going to be needed in the future.

“If these findings hold more widely across major terrestrial ecosystems, then a much greater portion of the global soil carbon store could be vulnerable to decomposition and release of carbon dioxide under global warming than previously thought,” explained Daniel Metcalfe, a scientists at Lund University who not involved in the study, according to Science Alert .

The research is outlined in the journal Science.


Charlie Gard’s parents give up legal fight to keep baby alive

In an emotional appearance before the British High Court, the parents of Charlie Gard told a judge they had decided to stop efforts to prolong the life of their terminally ill baby.

The child’s mother, Connie Yates said she and her husband, Chris Gard, had “decided to let our son go” in light of the overwhelming consensus of medical experts who said there was no change that additional therapy could save him or improve the quality of his life, a report by The New York Times said.

Yates said she and her husband “only wanted to give him a chance of life.”

Because of a rare genetic abnormality known as mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome, Charlie is unable to hear, see, cry, or swallow.

Charlie’s case reached the High Court after Great Ormond Street Hospital where he is being treated won a series of court rulings allowing his life support to be withdrawn. The hospital argued that letting nature take its course was the only humane thing to do.

Dr. Michio Hirano, a neurologist at Columbia University Medical Center, recently traveled to London to assess Charlie for an experimental treatment —known as nucleoside bypass therapy — but tests showed the therapy would be futile and serve only to prolong the child’s suffering.

“We will have to live with what-ifs which will haunt us for the rest of our lives,” Yates told the judge, breaking into sobs. “We have not kept him alive out of selfishness.”


Nine family members, including five children, killed in Arizona flash flood

Three generations of family members were enjoying themselves at a swimming hole in Arizona on Saturday when a flash flood swallowed up nine of the 14 people gathered there, including five children.

Heavy rains in the mountains miles away from the swimming hole, which is located about 100 miles northeast of Phoenix in the Tonto National Forest, triggered floodwaters as high as six feet, a report by ABC News said.

A 27-year-old man is the only person still missing, officials say, and some 40 volunteers and four search dogs are still searching.

Dana Alexander, a hiker who was on her way to the swimming hole at the time the torrents of water started to surge, saw a man clinging to a tree and holding a baby. His wife also had sought refuge in a tree. When Alexander could not reach them, she summoned help, which happened to be nearby.

According to a National Weather Service estimate, up to 1.5 inches of rain fell over the mountains in as little as an hour. The agency had issued a flash flood warning about one-and-a-half hours before the family was swept up, “but unless they had a weather radio out there, they wouldn’t have known about it. There is no cellphone service out here,” an official said.

The torrential thunderstorm occurred in a region that is scarred by a recent wildfire.

“If it’s an intense burn, it creates a glaze on the surface that just repels water,” said meteorologist David McCollum, in the ABC News report.

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New atomic clock is the most precise one ever created

Scientists from the National Institute of Standards and Technology have built the world’s most precise atomic clock in order to shed light on both time and the universe.

The researchers built the new machine by vibrating atoms across three dimensions and then using laser light to trap them inside a bookcase-like modular where they count down to the tiniest measurable units of time. Though the clock has no strong applications yet, it could one day help researchers conduct advanced experiments in the field of quantum mechanics.

“Developing a clock like this represents the most sensitive and inquisitive instruments mankind has built,” study co-author Jun Ye, a researcher from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, told Gizmodo. “We want to use it to describe the connection between quantum mechanics, the mathematics describing the smallest pieces of the universe, and general relativity.”

Atomic clocks are merely atoms that vibrate in a special way when subjected to light. Though scientists first used microwaves to run such machines, they now use visible light because it is both more accurate and more precise.

However, there are some issues with the technology as well. For example, the more atoms they use, the higher the chance inter-atomic interactions will undo any accuracy benefits. The signal from the vibrating atoms can get fuzzy as well.

To overcome such problems, researchers in a new study used a special gas at hyper-cold temperatures to amplify one of the specific properties shared by atoms in the gas. This then reduced the interactions between the molecules and helped the new clock become more precise than any other.

Though the new technology is not going to be used in everyday life anytime soon, it could have large applications for future research. A wristwatch loses roughly 1 second a year. That may not seem like a huge deal, but it can make a big difference in the world of quantum mechanics.

In addition, extremely precise clocks can be used to look at some of the universe’s biggest mysteries. For instance, they could be used to detect both dark matter and gravitational waves.

“This new strontium clock using a quantum gas is an early and astounding success in the practical application of the ‘new quantum revolution,’ sometimes called ‘quantum 2.0’,” said Thomas O’Brian, a scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology who was not involved in the research, according to “This approach holds enormous promise for NIST and JILA to harness quantum correlations for a broad range of measurements and new technologies, far beyond timing.”

The technology is a big step forward for quantum mechanics, but there is still a lot work to do. While the clocks are precise, that does not mean they are accurate. Further research is needed to see how the ticking compares to the way the universe keeps time.

The new study is published in the journal Science.

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Ancient papyrus reveals secrets of Great Pyramid construction

For centuries, archaeologists have puzzled over how the ancient Egyptians built the Great Pyramid of Giza with the primitive technology available in 2600 BCE. Now, an ancient papyrus is finally shedding light on the mystery.

How the Egyptians transported blocks of granite weighing an average of two-and-a-half metric tons from 500 miles away to construct the tomb of the pharaoh Khufu has given rise to a myriad of explanations — but no definitive one.

“For the construction of the pyramids, there is no single theory that is 100 percent proven of checked; They are all theories and hypotheses,” said Henry Helal, Vice President of the Heritage Preservation Institute, in a report by Ancient Origins.

But the discovery of a papyrus in a cave at the ancient Red Sea port of Wadi el-Jarf is now providing the only first-hand account of how the Great Pyramid was built. Written by Merer, an overseer in charge of a 40-man team of elite workmen, it describes in detail how limestone blocks were transported downstream from quarries at Tura, eight miles away, along the Nile River to the construction site.

The hieroglyphic logbook, which recorded a daily timetable and reported on the daily lives of the workers, also noted that a system of canals was used for the journey that took between two and three days. But, until recently, scant evidence existed for such a canal system.

Archaeologist Mark Lehner told Mail Online about the discovery of a system of lost waterways beneath the Giza Plateau.

“We’ve outline the central canal basin which we think was the primary delivery area to the foot of the Giza Plateau,” Lehner said.

Last week, six of the papyri fragments were put on public display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo as part of a special exhibition.

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Guppies have individual personalities, study shows

Scientists studying how guppies react to stressful situations have discovered that the tiny fish have surprisingly complex personalities.

The study is published in the journal Functional Ecology.

In the experiment, a team of researchers led by Thomas M. Houslay at the University of Exeter in the UK caught individual guppies from the main fish tank and isolated them in tanks of their own, which included a small area where they could hide. Then, the scientists elicited a fear response in each guppy by showing it models of predators it would normally face in the wild.

Initially, the researchers intended to measure the differences in the guppies’ responses to stress by how risk-averse or risk-prone they were. But the variations between individual guppies turned out to be too complex to be described that simply.

“The idea of a simple spectrum is often put forward to explain the behavior of individuals in species such as the Trinidadian guppy,” said Dr. Houslay of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation (CEC) on the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall, in a statement. “But our research shows that the reality is much more complex.”

Houslay explained that guppies placed in an unfamiliar environment had a variety of strategies for dealing with their stressful situations. For example, some tried to escape, some tried to hide, and others explored cautiously.

“The differences between them were consistent over time and in different situations,” Houslay said. “So, while the behavior of all the guppies changed depending on the situation — for example, all becoming more cautious in more stressful situations — the relative differences between individuals remained intact.”

According to co-author Alastair Wilson, the goal of the study is to gain insight into evolutionary processes and how certain behavioral strategies for survival arose and persisted over time.


Plant-eating dinosaurs may have dined on crustaceans, study reports

There is a chance that some large, herbivorous dinosaur species ate shellfish in addition to their regular plant-filled diet, according to new research published in the journal Scientific Reports.

A group of researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder made this discovery after examining fossilized dinosaur dung. The deposits, known as coprolites, were uncovered at the Kaiparowits Formation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah.

Almost all of the samples — which date back to between 76 million and 74 million years ago — contained crustacean shells that are filled with the remains of rotten wood. Though that may seem odd, decaying wood is known to be a good source of fiber. As a result, when the dinosaurs chowed down on fallen logs they likely also consumed the animals that lived within them. 

There is a chance this consumption was unintentional. However, as crustaceans are a good source of both calcium and protein, scientists postulate that female dinosaurs, like some bird species today, could have eaten the small animals to prepare for laying eggs. In addition, there is no doubt that this consumption happened quite often.

“If we had found just one coprolite with crustacean pieces in it, that would have been interesting,” explained lead researcher Karen Chin, an associate professor and a curator of paleontology at the University of Colorado Boulder, according to Live Science. “But the fact that we found coprolites that spread out over at least 12 miles at different stratigraphic levels — that really strengthens our evidence for this being a behavior that these dinosaurs engaged in.”

While the team is not sure, they believe the droppings came from the 27-foot-long, duck-billed dinosaur known as Gryposaurus. This is the first time such a large herbivore has been known to dine on meat in this way.

“It’s a very unusual case of an herbivorous dinosaur supplementing its diet with something else,” says Paul Barrett, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London who was not involved in the research, according to Nature.

The research comes as a surprise to many scientists. It could change common conceptions about plant-eating species, and perhaps give more insight into their regular behavior.


Jury awards $417 million against Johnson & Johnson in case linking talc powder to cancer

Johnson & Johnson was hit Monday with a $417 million judgment in a case that found the company liable for knowing about and failing to warn 63-year-old Eva Echeverria about the risk of developing ovarian cancer from using its talcum powder products.

Echeverria, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2007 and is now so close to death she could not attend trial, testified in a videotaped deposition that she had used Johnson’s Baby Powder for about 50 years until she saw a news story about a possible link between the product and ovarian cancer, according to a report by the Los Angeles Times. She said she would have stopped using the product if she had been warned about the risk.

Another one of Johnson’s products, Shower to Shower, also is talc-based and linked to an increased risk of ovarian cancer.

Echeverria’s attorneys argued that Johnson & Johnson knew about the risk, citing a 1982 study showing that women who used talc powder on their genitals had a 92 percent increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. The lead researcher in that study later advised the company to put a warning label on their products.

Johnson & Johnson contended that other studies, including by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, did not find evidence that its talc powders cause cancer.

A Los Angeles jury deliberated for two days before awarding Echeverria $70 million in compensatory damages and $347 million in punitive damages. Johnson & Johnson promises to appeal.

More than 4,500 legal claims are pending against Johnson & Johnson across the nation alleging that the company turned a blind eye to studies showing a causal link between its talc products and ovarian cancer.

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Puppies with loving mothers make poor guide dogs, study reports

A team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have found that puppies with caring, hands-on mothers make worse guide dogs than ones whose mothers are more distant, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science reports.

Guide dogs come in all shapes and sizes. However, little research has been done on how mothering behavior affects them. While past studies that were focused on rodents and primates have found that active mothering is better than no mothering, the new findings show too much mothering works against potential guides.

“[O]n one hand, we’d think ‘Yes, you need your mother. Mothering should be a good thing,’” said lead author Emily Bray, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, according to NPR. “But for guide dogs, the mothers are with their puppies in the pen 24/7. So then the question becomes ‘What exactly is beneficial?’ “

To answer that, the team analyzed 98 puppies that were eventually put into a guide dog program. During the study, the young canines were kept in towel-lined kiddie pools. Some of the dogs were constantly licked and groomed by their mothers, while others were generally left alone.

This revealed that puppies raised by active mothers were much more likely to fail a guide dog training program than those that were raised by more distant dogs. In addition, nursing also affected the pups. Mother dogs that sat down or stood up during nursing typically bred better guide dogs as well.

Though the team is not sure, they believe that hands-off mothering creates desirable traits because the challenges puppies face early on prepare them for the hardship that comes with guiding humans. There is also a chance that maternal stress could have a significant impact on early development.

One other possibility is that genetics may play a big role. Most high-performing guide dogs are chosen to breed, which could then lead to successful puppies. If this were the case, the type of mothering would have nothing to do with the process. However, the team was not able to test this theory.

Guide dog training is a strict process that looks for a certain set of skills and seeks dogs that are calm under all circumstances. As a result, this new information is important because it could help better predict which puppies are going to make it through the program and enable breeders to choose better candidates.

“At a completely practical level, there’s always a problem finding enough guide dogs for people who need guide dogs,” said Clive Wynne, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University who was involved in the research. “It’s always difficult getting dogs through those kinds of programs.”