China just landed the first spacecraft on the moon’s farside

China’s Chang’e-4 lander and rover just became the first spacecraft to land on the farside of the moon.

The lander touched down at 9:26 p.m. Eastern time on January 2, according to an announcement from the China National Space Administration. The spacecraft is part of a series of Chinese space missions named Chang’e (pronounced CHONG-uh) for the Chinese goddess of the moon.

A small rover dubbed Yutu 2, or Jade Rabbit 2, rolled off the craft several hours after landing. The rover will explore the terrain around the 186-kilometer-wide Von Kármán crater located inside the 2,500-kilometer-wide South Pole–Aitken basin. The basin, one of the largest and oldest impact features in the solar system, could contain exposed parts of the moon’s interior that might reveal details of its formation and early history (SN: 11/24/18, p. 14).
Chang’e-4 will measure some of the region’s composition, use ground-penetrating radar to probe just below the surface, and take panoramic images of a landscape that has never been seen from the ground before. It will also make measurements of charged particles and radiation, which could help support future astronaut missions, and test whether plants and insects can grow together on the moon.
Because the moon always shows the same face to Earth, it is impossible to communicate directly with spacecraft on the farside. A relay satellite named Queqiao, or Magpie Bridge, that launched in May 2018 will beam signals between Chang’e-4 and Earth (SN Online: 5/20/18).
The landing marks China’s second lunar landing, and a step towards more ambitious moon missions. The Chinese space agency is planning another mission to collect moon rock samples later in 2019.

A new way to genetically tweak photosynthesis boosts plant growth

A genetic hack to make photosynthesis more efficient could be a boon for agricultural production, at least for some plants.

This feat of genetic engineering simplifies a complex, energy-expensive operation that many plants must perform during photosynthesis known as photorespiration. In field tests, genetically modifying tobacco in this way increased plant growth by over 40 percent. If it produces similar results in other crops, that could help farmers meet the food demands of a growing global population, researchers report in the Jan. 4 Science.
Streamlining photorespiration is “a great step forward in efforts to enhance photosynthesis,” says Spencer Whitney, a plant biochemist at Australian National University in Canberra not involved in the work.

Now that the agricultural industry has mostly optimized the use of yield-boosting tools like pesticides, fertilizers and irrigation, researchers are trying to micromanage and improve plant growth by designing ways to make photosynthesis more efficient (SN: 12/24/16, p. 6).

Photorespiration is a major roadblock to achieving such efficiency. It occurs in many plants, such as soybeans, rice and wheat, when an enzyme called Rubisco — whose main job is to help transform carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into sugars that fuel plant growth — accidentally snatches an oxygen molecule out of the atmosphere instead.

That Rubisco-oxygen interaction, which happens about 20 percent of the time, generates the toxic compound glycolate, which a plant must recycle into useful molecules through photorespiration. This process comprises a long chain of chemical reactions that span four compartments in a plant cell. All told, completing a cycle of photorespiration is like driving from Maine to Florida by way of California. That waste of energy can cut crop yields by 20 to 50 percent, depending on plant species and environmental conditions.Streamlining photorespiration is “a great step forward in efforts to enhance photosynthesis,” says Spencer Whitney, a plant biochemist at Australian National University in Canberra not involved in the work.

Now that the agricultural industry has mostly optimized the use of yield-boosting tools like pesticides, fertilizers and irrigation, researchers are trying to micromanage and improve plant growth by designing ways to make photosynthesis more efficient (SN: 12/24/16, p. 6).

Photorespiration is a major roadblock to achieving such efficiency. It occurs in many plants, such as soybeans, rice and wheat, when an enzyme called Rubisco — whose main job is to help transform carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into sugars that fuel plant growth — accidentally snatches an oxygen molecule out of the atmosphere instead.

That Rubisco-oxygen interaction, which happens about 20 percent of the time, generates the toxic compound glycolate, which a plant must recycle into useful molecules through photorespiration. This process comprises a long chain of chemical reactions that span four compartments in a plant cell. All told, completing a cycle of photorespiration is like driving from Maine to Florida by way of California. That waste of energy can cut crop yields by 20 to 50 percent, depending on plant species and environmental conditions.
Using genetic engineering, researchers have now designed a more direct chemical pathway for photorespiration that is confined to a single cell compartment — the cellular equivalent of a Maine-to-Florida road trip straight down the East Coast.

Paul South, a molecular biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Urbana, Ill., and colleagues embedded genetic directions for this shortcut, written on pieces of algae and pumpkin DNA, in tobacco plant cells. The researchers also genetically engineered the cells to not produce a chemical that allows glycolate to travel between cell compartments to prevent the glycolate from taking its normal route through the cell.
Unlike previous experiments with human-designed photorespiration pathways, South’s team tested its photorespiration detour in plants grown in fields under real-world farming conditions. Genetically altered tobacco produced 41 percent more biomass than tobacco that hadn’t been modified.
“It’s very exciting” to see how well this genetic tweak worked in tobacco, says Veronica Maurino, a plant physiologist at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf in Germany not involved in the research, but “you can’t say, ‘It’s functioning. Now it will function everywhere.’”

Experiments with different types of plants will reveal whether this photorespiration fix creates the same benefits for other crops as it does for tobacco. South’s team is currently running greenhouse experiments on potatoes with the new set of genetic modifications, and plans to do similar tests with soybeans, black-eyed peas and rice.

The vetting process for such genetic modifications to be approved for use on commercial farms, including more field testing, will probably take at least another five to 10 years, says Andreas Weber, a plant biochemist also at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf who coauthored a commentary on the study that appears in the same issue of Science. In the meantime, he expects that researchers will continue trying to design even more efficient photorespiration shortcuts, but South’s team “has now set a pretty high bar.”

The physics of fluids explains how crowds of marathon runners move

Marathoners queuing up for a big race tend to go with the flow, surging toward the start line like a fluid.

Using footage of runners moving in groups toward the start of the Chicago Marathon, researchers developed a theory that treats the crowd like a liquid to explain its movement. The theory correctly predicted the motion of crowds of runners at marathons in two other locations, physicists report in the Jan. 4 Science.

Previous studies have devised rules for how individuals act within a crowd and used that behavior to describe crowd motion (SN: 1/10/15, p. 15). But to understand how wine swirls in a glass, you don’t need to know the behavior of each molecule. So physicists Nicolas Bain and Denis Bartolo of École Normale Supérieure de Lyon in France considered the crowd as a whole.

At the start of a marathon, runners arrange themselves into groups known as corrals, which individually advance to the starting line. Marathon staff members form a line in front of each corral, periodically holding participants back until there’s space to move forward. The researchers filmed this start-and-stop process at four marathons, including the Chicago Marathon in 2016 and 2017. The movements of the staff set off a change in crowd density and speed that traveled through the throng akin to waves produced when water is pushed, the team found. Similar effects occurred at marathons in Paris and Atlanta in 2017.

Marathon crowds are a special type in that everyone travels in the same direction. Eventually, this type of research could lead to new insight into other crowd formations, including those packed more tightly than marathon crowds, with pedestrians literally shoulder to shoulder. Such crowds sometimes result in deadly stampedes, such as the 2015 event at the hajj in Mecca, Saudi Arabia (SN: 4/7/07, p. 213). Better understanding of these crowd dynamics could help prevent similar tragedies.

The science of CBD lags behind its marketing

Treatments for pain and other common health problems often fall short, leading to untold misery and frustration. So it’s not hard to understand the lure of a treatment that promises to be benign, natural and good for just about everything that ails you. Enter cannabidiol, or CBD.

So far, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved only one drug containing the chemical: a treatment for rare and severe forms of epilepsy. But that hasn’t stopped people from trying CBD to relieve arthritis, morning sickness, pain, depression, anxiety, addiction, inflammation and acne. And it hasn’t kept companies from marketing the heck out of CBD-infused anything. It’s the sort of situation that gets us wondering: What’s the science here?
The science is skimpy at best, neuroscience writer Laura Sanders reports in this issue. Clinical trials, some of which included children, were conducted to determine safety and efficacy before the FDA approved the first CBD-based epilepsy drug in 2018. But much less research has been done on CBD with regard to other ailments.

Adding to the intrigue, CBD can be extracted from marijuana, though CBD lacks the capacity to induce a buzzy high like its sister molecule THC. So government restrictions have been tight, and scientists have had a hard time getting access to CBD for studies. That makes it less likely that we’ll get clear answers anytime soon on whether CBD is indeed a panacea, or just another triumph of hype.

The surplus of unknowns hasn’t stopped companies from marketing hundreds of CBD products as treatments, attempting to avoid scrutiny by adding disclaimers that the products “are not intended to diagnose, treat or cure or prevent any disease.” But with such large gaps in the research, people trying these products in the hope of benefit become inadvertent guinea pigs.

The process of science may be frustratingly slow, but it can get the job done. In the last decade, clinical trials on vitamin D, for example, have found that despite much excitement surrounding the “sunshine vitamin,” there’s no definitive evidence of benefits in preventing heart disease or cancer. In our recent cover story “Vitamin D supplements aren’t living up to their hype,” contributing correspondent Laura Beil described the years of effort needed to develop that data (SN: 2/2/19, p. 16).
As journalists, we see a big part of our mission as making sure that people have access to accurate, timely information about medical research, so people can make informed decisions for themselves and their families. That’s especially important when it involves products that people can self-prescribe. These two articles — by skilled journalists who put weeks of effort into reading studies, talking with researchers and investigating the business side — are great examples of how sophisticated and useful consumer science journalism can be. Most people look for health information online, but Googling a term like “CBD oil” serves up a muddle of marketing masquerading as impartial information.

CBD may end up being a worthwhile treatment for some problems beyond epilepsy; it’s too early to know. But while we wait for the evidence, it’s essential to know where the science stands right now.

Kuiper Belt dust may be in our atmosphere (and NASA labs) right now

THE WOODLANDS, Texas — Grains of dust from the edge of the solar system could be finding their way to Earth. And NASA may already have a handful of the debris, researchers report.

With an estimated 40,000 tons of space dust settling in Earth’s stratosphere every year, the U.S. space agency has been flying balloon and aircraft missions since the 1970s to collect samples. The particles, which can be just a few tens of micrometers wide, have long been thought to come mostly from comets and asteroids closer to the sun than Jupiter (SN Online: 3/19/19).

But it turns out that some of the particles may have come from the Kuiper Belt, a distant region of icy objects orbiting beyond Neptune, NASA planetary scientist Lindsay Keller said March 21 at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. Studying those particles could reveal what distant, mysterious objects in the Kuiper Belt are made of, and perhaps how they formed (SN Online: 3/18/19).

“We’re not going to get a mission out to a Kuiper Belt object to actually collect [dust] samples anytime soon,” Keller said. “But we have samples of these things in the stratospheric dust collections here at NASA.”
One way to find a dust grain’s home is to probe the particle for microscopic tracks where heavy charged particles from solar flares punched through. The more tracks a grain has, the longer it has wandered in space — and the more likely it originated far from Earth, says Keller, who works at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

But to determine precisely how long a dust grain has spent traveling space, Keller first needed to know how many tracks a grain typically picks up per year. Measuring that rate required a sample with a known age and known track density — criteria met only by moon rocks brought back on the Apollo missions. But the last track-rate estimate was done in 1975 and with less precise instruments than are available today.
So Keller and planetary scientist George Flynn of SUNY Plattsburgh reexamined that same Apollo rock with a modern electron microscope. They found that the rate at which rocks pick up flare tracks was about 20 times lower than the previous study estimated.

That means it takes longer for dust flakes to pick up tracks than astronomers assumed. When Keller and Flynn counted the number of tracks in 14 atmospheric dust grains, the pair found that some of the particles must have spent millions of years out in space — far too long to have come just from between Mars and Jupiter.

Grains specifically from the Kuiper Belt would have wandered 10 million years to reach Earth’s stratosphere, the researchers calculated. That’s “pretty solid evidence that we’re collecting Kuiper Belt dust right here,” Keller says.
Four of the particles contained minerals that had to have formed through interactions with liquid water. That’s surprising; the Kuiper Belt is thought to be too cold for water to be liquid.

“Many of these particles, if they in fact are from the Kuiper Belt, tell you that some of the minerals in Kuiper Belt objects formed in the presence of liquid water,” Keller says. The water probably came from collisions between Kuiper Belt objects that produced enough heat to melt ice, he says.

“I think it’s incredible if Lindsay Keller has shown that he has pieces of Kuiper Belt dust in his lab,” says planetary scientist Carey Lisse of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. But more work needs to be done to confirm that the dust really came from the Kuiper Belt, he says, and wasn’t just sitting on an asteroid for millions of years. “Lindsay needs to get a lot more samples,” Lisse says. “But I do think he’s on to something.”

Lisse works on NASA’s New Horizons mission, which found plenty of dust in the outer solar system and measured its abundance near Pluto when the spacecraft flew past the dwarf planet in 2015. Based on those results, he finds it unsurprising that some of that dust has made it to Earth. But it is “really cool,” he says. “We can actually try to figure out what the Kuiper Belt is made of.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated April 8, 2019, to correct that the newly calculated flare track rate was about 20 times lower than the rate calculated in 1975, not two orders of a magnitude lower.

Treating cystic fibrosis patients before birth could safeguard organs

A drug that treats a rare form of cystic fibrosis may have even better results if given before birth, a study in ferrets suggests.

The drug, known by the generic name ivacaftor, can restore the function of a faulty version of the CFTR protein, called CFTRG551D. The normal CFTR protein controls the flow of charged atoms in cells that make mucus, sweat, saliva, tears and digestive enzymes. People who are missing the CFTR gene and its protein, or have two copies of a damaged version of the gene, develop the lung disease cystic fibrosis, as well as diabetes, digestive problems and male infertility.
Ivacaftor can reduce lung problems in patients with the G551D protein defect, with treatment usually starting when a patient is a year old. But if the results of the new animal study carry over to humans, an even earlier start date could prove more effective in preventing damage to multiple organs.

Researchers used ferret embryos with two copies of the G551D version of the CFTR gene. Giving the drug to mothers while the ferrets were in the womb and then continuing treatment of the babies after birth prevented male infertility, pancreas problems and lung disease in the baby ferrets, called kits, researchers report March 27 in Science Translational Medicine. The drug has to be used continuously to prevent organ damage — when the drug was discontinued, the kits’ pancreases began to fail and lung disease set in.

Cystic fibrosis affects about 30,000 people in the United States and 70,000 worldwide. But only up to 5 percent of patients have the G551D defect.

Other researchers are testing combinations of three drugs, including ivacaftor, aimed at helping the roughly 90 percent of cystic fibrosis patients afflicted by another genetic mutation that causes the CFTR protein to lack an amino acid (SN: 11/24/18, p. 11). Those drug combos, if proven effective, might also work better if administered early, cystic fibrosis researcher Thomas Ferkol of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis writes in a commentary published with the study.

How scientists took the first picture of a black hole

Black holes are extremely camera shy. Supermassive black holes, ensconced in the centers of galaxies, make themselves visible by spewing bright jets of charged particles or by flinging away or ripping up nearby stars. Up close, these behemoths are surrounded by glowing accretion disks of infalling material. But because a black hole’s extreme gravity prevents light from escaping, the dark hearts of these cosmic heavy hitters remain entirely invisible.

Luckily, there’s a way to “see” a black hole without peering into the abyss itself. Telescopes can look instead for the silhouette of a black hole’s event horizon — the perimeter inside which nothing can be seen or escape — against its accretion disk. That’s what the Event Horizon Telescope, or EHT, did in April 2017, collecting data that has now yielded the first image of a supermassive black hole, the one inside the galaxy M87.

“There is nothing better than having an image,” says Harvard University astrophysicist Avi Loeb. Though scientists have collected plenty of indirect evidence for black holes over the last half century, “seeing is believing.”

Creating that first-ever portrait of a black hole was tricky, though. Black holes take up a minuscule sliver of sky and, from Earth, appear very faint. The project of imaging M87’s black hole required observatories across the globe working in tandem as one virtual Earth-sized radio dish with sharper vision than any single observatory could achieve on its own.
Putting the ‘solution’ in resolution
Weighing in around 6.5 billion times the mass of our sun, the supermassive black hole inside M87 is no small fry. But viewed from 55 million light-years away on Earth, the black hole is only about 42 microarcseconds across on the sky. That’s smaller than an orange on the moon would appear to someone on Earth. Still, besides the black hole at the center of our own galaxy, Sagittarius A* or Sgr A* — the EHT’s other imaging target — M87’s black hole is the largest black hole silhouette on the sky.
Only a telescope with unprecedented resolution could pick out something so tiny. (For comparison, the Hubble Space Telescope can distinguish objects only about as small as 50,000 microarcseconds.) A telescope’s resolution depends on its diameter: The bigger the dish, the clearer the view — and getting a crisp image of a supermassive black hole would require a planet-sized radio dish.
Even for radio astronomers, who are no strangers to building big dishes (SN Online: 9/29/17), “this seems a little too ambitious,” says Loeb, who was not involved in the black hole imaging project. “The trick is that you don’t cover the entire Earth with an observatory.”
Instead, a technique called very long baseline interferometry combines radio waves seen by many telescopes at once, so that the telescopes effectively work together like one giant dish. The diameter of that virtual dish is equal to the length of the longest distance, or baseline, between two telescopes in the network. For the EHT in 2017, that was the distance from the South Pole to Spain.

Telescopes, assemble!
The EHT was not always the hotshot array that it is today, though. In 2009, a network of just four observatories — in Arizona, California and Hawaii — got the first good look at the base of one of the plasma jets spewing from the center of M87’s black hole (SN: 11/3/12, p. 10). But the small telescope cohort didn’t yet have the magnifying power to reveal the black hole itself.

Over time, the EHT recruited new radio observatories. By 2017, there were eight observing stations in North America, Hawaii, Europe, South America and the South Pole. Among the newcomers was the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA, located on a high plateau in northern Chile. With a combined dish area larger than an American football field, ALMA collects far more radio waves than other observatories.

“ALMA changed everything,” says Vincent Fish, an astronomer at MIT’s Haystack Observatory in Westford, Mass. “Anything that you were just barely struggling to detect before, you get really solid detections now.”
More than the sum of their parts
EHT observing campaigns are best run within about 10 days in late March or early April, when the weather at every observatory promises to be the most cooperative. Researchers’ biggest enemy is water in the atmosphere, like rain or snow, which can muddle with the millimeter-wavelength radio waves that the EHT’s telescopes are tuned to.

But planning for weather on several continents can be a logistical headache.

“Every morning, there’s a frenetic set of phone calls and analyses of weather data and telescope readiness, and then we make a go/no-go decision for the night’s observing,” says astronomer Geoffrey Bower of the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Hilo, Hawaii. Early in the campaign, researches are picky about conditions. But toward the tail end of the run, they’ll take what they can get.

When the skies are clear enough to observe, researchers steer the telescopes at each EHT observatory toward the vicinity of a supermassive black hole and begin collecting radio waves. Since M87’s black hole and Sgr A* appear on the sky one at a time — each one about to rise just as the other sets — the EHT can switch back and forth between observing its two targets over the course of a single multi-day campaign. All eight observatories can track Sgr A*, but M87 is in the northern sky and beyond the South Pole station’s sight.

On their own, the data from each observing station look like nonsense. But taken together using the very long baseline interferometry technique, these data can reveal a black hole’s appearance.

Here’s how it works. Picture a pair of radio dishes aimed at a single target, in this case the ring-shaped silhouette of a black hole. The radio waves emanating from each bit of that ring must travel slightly different paths to reach each telescope. These radio waves can interfere with each other, sometimes reinforcing one another and sometimes canceling each other out. The interference pattern seen by each telescope depends on how the radio waves from different parts of the ring are interacting when they reach that telescope’s location.
For simple targets, such as individual stars, the radio wave patterns picked up by a single pair of telescopes provide enough information for researchers to work backward and figure out what distribution of light must have produced those data. But for a source with complex structure, like a black hole, there are too many possible solutions for what the image could be. Researchers need more data to work out how a black hole’s radio waves are interacting with each other, offering more clues about what the black hole looks like.

The ideal array has as many baselines of different lengths and orientations as possible. Telescope pairs that are farther apart can see finer details, because there’s a bigger difference between the pathways that radio waves take from the black hole to each telescope. The EHT includes telescope pairs with both north-south and east-west orientations, which change relative to the black hole as Earth rotates.

Pulling it all together
In order to braid together the observations from each observatory, researchers need to record times for their data with exquisite precision. For that, they use hydrogen maser atomic clocks, which lose about one second every 100 million years.

There are a lot of data to time stamp. “In our last experiment, we recorded data at a rate of 64 gigabits per second, which is about 1,000 times [faster than] your home internet connection,” Bower says.

These data are then transferred to MIT Haystack Observatory and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, for processing in a special kind of supercomputer called a correlator. But each telescope station amasses hundreds of terabytes of information during a single observing campaign — far too much to send over the internet. So the researchers use the next best option: snail mail. So far, there have been no major shipping mishaps, but Bower admits that mailing the disks is always a little nerve-wracking.

Though most of the EHT data reached Haystack and Max Planck within weeks of the 2017 observing campaign, there were no flights from South Pole until November. “We didn’t get the data back from the South Pole until mid-December,” says Fish, the MIT Haystack astronomer.

Filling in the blanks
Combining the EHT data still isn’t enough to render a vivid picture of a supermassive black hole. If M87’s black hole were a song, then imaging it using only the combined EHT data would be like listening to the piece played on a piano with a bunch of broken keys. The more working keys — or telescope baseline pairs — the easier it is to get the gist of the melody. “Even if you have some broken keys, if you’re playing all the rest of them correctly, you can figure out the tune, and that’s partly because we know what music sounds like,” Fish says. “The reason we can reconstruct images, even though we don’t have 100 percent of the information, is because we know what images look like” in general.
There are mathematical rules about how much randomness any given picture can contain, how bright it should be and how likely it is that neighboring pixels will look similar. Those basic guidelines can inform how software decides which potential images, or data interpretations, make the most sense.

Before the 2017 observing campaign, the EHT researchers held a series of imaging challenges to make sure their computer algorithms weren’t biased toward creating images to match expectations of what black holes should look like. One person would use a secret image to generate faux data of what telescopes would see if they were peering at that source. Then other researchers would try to reconstruct the original image.

“Sometimes the true image was not actually a black hole image,” Fish says, “so if your algorithm was trying to find a black hole shadow … you wouldn’t do well.” The practice runs helped the researchers refine the data processing techniques used to render the M87 image.

Black holes and beyond
So, the black hole inside M87 finally got its closeup. Now what?

The EHT’s black hole observations are expected to help answer questions like how some supermassive black holes, including M87’s, launch such bright plasma jets (SN Online: 3/29/19). Understanding how gas falls into and feeds black holes could also help solve the mystery of how some black holes grew so quickly in the early universe, Loeb says (SN Online: 3/16/18).

The EHT could also be used, Loeb suggests, to find pairs of supermassive black holes orbiting one another — similar to the two stellar mass black holes whose collision created gravitational waves detected in 2015 by the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or Advanced LIGO (SN: 3/5/16, p. 6). Getting a census of these binaries may help researchers identify targets for the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, or LISA, which will search from space for gravitational waves kicked up by the movement of objects like black holes (SN Online: 6/20/17).
The EHT doesn’t have many viable targets other than supermassive black holes, says astrophysicist Daniel Marrone, at the University of Arizona in Tucson. There are few other things in the universe that appear as tiny but luminous as the space surrounding a supermassive black hole. “You have to be able to get enough light out of the really tiny patches of sky that we can detect,” Marrone says. “In principle, we could be reading alien license plates or something,” but they’d need to be super bright.

Too bad for alien seekers. Still, even if the EHT is a one-trick pony, spying supermassive black holes is a pretty neat trick.

A new hominid species has been found in a Philippine cave, fossils suggest

A new member of the human genus has been found in a cave in the Philippines, researchers report.

Fossils with distinctive features indicate that the hominid species inhabited the island now known as Luzon at least 50,000 years ago, according to a study in the April 11 Nature. That species, which the scientists have dubbed Homo luzonensis, lived at the same time that controversial half-sized hominids named Homo floresiensis and nicknamed hobbits were roaming an Indonesian island to the south called Flores (SN: 7/9/16, p. 6).
In shape and size, some of the fossils match those of corresponding bones from other Homo species. “But if you take the whole combination of features for H. luzonensis, no other Homo species is similar,” says study coauthor and paleoanthropologist Florent Détroit of the French National Museum of Natural History in Paris.

If the find holds up to further scientific scrutiny, it would add to recent fossil and DNA evidence indicating that several Homo lineages already occupied East Asia and Southeast Asian islands by the time Homo sapiens reached what’s now southern China between 80,000 and 120,000 years ago (SN: 11/14/15, p. 15). The result: an increasingly complicated picture of hominid evolution in Asia.

Excavations in 2007, 2011 and 2015 at Luzon’s Callao Cave yielded a dozen H. luzonensis fossils at first — seven isolated teeth (five from the same individual), two finger bones, two toe bones and an upper leg bone missing its ends, the scientists say. Analysis of the radioactive decay of uranium in one tooth suggested a minimum age of 50,000 years. Based on those fossils, a hominid foot bone found in 2007 in the same cave sediment was also identified as H. luzonensis. It dates to at least 67,000 years ago.
had molars that were especially small, even smaller than those of hobbits, with some features similar to modern humans’ molars. The hominid also had relatively large premolars that, surprisingly, had two or three roots rather than one. Hominids dating to several hundred thousand years ago or more, such as Homo erectus , typically had premolars with multiple roots. H. luzonensis finger and toe bones are curved, suggesting a tree-climbing ability comparable to hominids from 2 million years ago or more.
It’s unclear whether H. luzonensis was as small as hobbits, Détroit says. The best-preserved hobbit skeleton comes from a female who stood about a meter tall. Based on the length of the Callao Cave foot bone, Détroit’s team suspects that H. luzonensis was taller than that, although still smaller than most human adults today.

As with hobbits, H. luzonensis’ evolutionary origins are unknown. Scientists think that hobbits may have descended from seagoing H. erectus groups, and perhaps H. luzonensis did too, writes paleoanthropologist Matthew Tocheri of Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Canada, in a commentary published with the new report. Evidence suggests that hominids reached Luzon by around 700,000 years ago (SN Online: 5/2/18). So H. erectus may have also crossed the sea from other Indonesian islands or mainland Asia to Luzon and then evolved into H. luzonensis with its smaller body and unusual skeletal traits, Détroit speculates, a process known as island dwarfing.

But some scientists not involved in the research say it’s too soon to declare the Luzon fossils a brand-new Homo species. Détroit’s group, so far, has been unable to extract ancient DNA from the fossils. So “all [evolutionary] possibilities must remain open,” says archaeologist Katerina Douka of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany.

The mosaic of fossil features that the team interprets as distinctive, for instance, may have been a product of interbreeding between two or more earlier Homo species, creating hybrids, but not a new species.

Or perhaps a small population of, say, H. erectus that survived on an isolated island like Luzon for possibly hundreds of thousands of years simply acquired some skeletal features that its mainland peers lacked, rather than evolving into an entirely new species, says paleoanthropologist María Martinón-Torres.

Those questions make the new fossils “an exciting and puzzling discovery,” says Martinón-Torres, director of the National Research Centre on Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain.

If the unusual teeth and climbing-ready hand and foot bones found at Callao Cave occurred as a package among Luzon’s ancient Homo crowd, “then that combination is unique and unknown so far” among hominids, Martinón-Torres says. Only a more complete set of fossils, ideally complemented by ancient DNA, she adds, can illuminate whether such traits marked a new Homo member.

Climate change made the Arctic greener. Now parts of it are turning brown.

The Chugach people of southern Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula have picked berries for generations. Tart blueberries and sweet, raspberry-like salmonberries — an Alaska favorite — are baked into pies and boiled into jams. But in the summer of 2009, the bushes stayed brown and the berries never came.

For three more years, harvests failed. “It hit the communities very hard,” says Nathan Lojewski, the forestry manager for Chugachmiut, a nonprofit tribal consortium for seven villages in the Chugach region.
The berry bushes had been ravaged by caterpillars of geometrid moths — the Bruce spanworm (Operophtera bruceata) and the autumnal moth (Epirrita autumnata). The insects had laid their eggs in the fall, and as soon as the leaf buds began growing in the spring, the eggs hatched and the inchworms nibbled the stalks bare.

Chugach elders had no traditional knowledge of an outbreak on this scale in the region, even though the insects were known in Alaska. “These berries were incredibly important. There would have been a story, something in the oral history,” Lojewski says. “As far as the tribe was concerned, this had not happened before.”

At the peak of the multiyear outbreak, the caterpillars climbed from the berry bushes into trees. The pests munched through foliage from Port Graham, at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula, to Wasilla, north of Anchorage, about 300 kilometers away. In summer, thick brown-gray layers of denuded willows, alders and birches lined the mountainsides above stretches of Sitka spruce.
Two summers ago, almost a decade after the first infestation, the moths returned. “We got a few berries, but not as many as we used to,” says Chugach elder Ephim Moonin Sr., whose house in the village of Nanwalek is flanked by tall salmonberry bushes. “Last year, again, there were hardly any berries.”
For more than 35 years, satellites circling the Arctic have detected a “greening” trend in Earth’s northernmost landscapes. Scientists have attributed this verdant flush to more vigorous plant growth and a longer growing season, propelled by higher temperatures that come with climate change. But recently, satellites have been picking up a decline in tundra greenness in some parts of the Arctic. Those areas appear to be “browning.”
Like the salmonberry harvesters on the Kenai Peninsula, ecologists working on the ground have witnessed browning up close at field sites across the circumpolar Arctic, from Alaska to Greenland to northern Norway and Sweden. Yet the bushes bereft of berries and the tinder-dry heaths (low-growing shrubland) haven’t always been picked up by the satellites. The low-resolution sensors may have averaged out the mix of dead and living vegetation and failed to detect the browning.

Scientists are left to wonder what is and isn’t being detected, and they’re concerned about the potential impact of not knowing the extent of the browning. If it becomes widespread, Arctic browning could have far-reaching consequences for people and wildlife, affecting habitat and atmospheric carbon uptake and boosting wildfire risk.

Growing greenbelt
The Arctic is warming two to three times as fast as the rest of the planet, with most of the temperature increase occurring in the winter. Alaska, for example, has warmed 2 degrees Celsius since 1949, and winters in some parts of the state, including southcentral Alaska and the Arctic interior, are on average 5 degrees C warmer.

An early effect of the warmer climate was a greener Arctic. More than 20 years ago, researchers used data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather satellites to assess a decade of northern plant growth after a century of warming. The team compared different wavelengths of light — red and near-infrared — reflecting off vegetation to calculate the NDVI, the normalized difference vegetation index. Higher NDVI values indicate a greener, more productive landscape. In a single decade — from 1981, when the first satellite was launched, to 1991 — the northern high latitudes had become about 8 percent greener, the researchers reported in 1997 in Nature.

The Arctic ecosystem, once constrained by cool conditions, was stretching beyond its limits. In 1999 and 2000, researchers cataloged the extent and types of vegetation change in parts of northern Alaska using archival photographs taken during oil exploration flyovers between 1948 and 1950. In new images of the same locations, such as the Kugururok River in the Noatak National Preserve, low-lying tundra plants that once grew along the riverside terraces had been replaced by stands of white spruce and green alder shrubs. At some of the study’s 66 locations, shrub-dominated vegetation had doubled its coverage from 10 to 20 percent. Not all areas showed a rise in shrub abundance, but none showed any decrease.

In 2003, Howard Epstein, a terrestrial ecologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and colleagues looked to the satellite record, which now held another decade of data. Focusing on Alaska’s North Slope, which lies just beyond the crown of the Brooks Range and extends to the Beaufort Sea, the researchers found that the highest NDVI values, or “peak greenness,” during the growing season had increased nearly 17 percent between 1981 and 2001, in line with the warming trend.
Earth-observing satellites have been monitoring the Arctic tundra for almost four decades. In that time, the North Slope, the Canadian low Arctic tundra and eastern Siberia have become especially green, with thicker and taller tundra vegetation and shrubs expanding northward. “If you look at the North Slope of Alaska, if you look at the overall trend, it’s greening like nobody’s business,” says Uma Bhatt, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Yet parts of the Arctic, including the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta of western Alaska, the Canadian Arctic Archipelago (the islands north of the mainland that give Canada its pointed tip) and the northwestern Siberian tundra, show extensive browning over the length of the satellite record, from the early 1980s to 2016. “It could just be a reduction in green vegetation. It doesn’t necessarily mean the widespread death of plants,” Epstein says. Scientists don’t yet know why plant growth there has slowed or reversed — or whether the satellite signal is in some way misleading.

“All the models indicated for a long time that we would expect greening with warmer temperatures and higher productivity in the tundra, so long as it wasn’t limited in some other way, like [by lower] moisture,” says Scott Goetz, an ecologist and remote-sensing specialist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. He is also the science team lead for ABoVE, NASA’s Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment, which is tracking ecosystem changes in Alaska and western Canada. “Many of us were quite surprised … that the Arctic was suddenly browning. It’s something we need to resolve.”

Freeze-dried tundra
While global warming has propelled widespread trends in tundra greening, extreme winter weather can spur local browning events. In recent years, in some parts of the Arctic, extraordinary warm winter weather, sometimes paired with rainfall, has put tundra vegetation under enormous stress and caused plants to lose freeze resistance, dry up or die — and turn brown.

Gareth Phoenix, a terrestrial ecologist at the University of Sheffield in England, recalls his shock at seeing a series of midwinter timelapse photos taken in 2001 at a research site outside the town of Abisko in northern Sweden. In the space of a couple of days, the temperature shot up from −16° C to 6° C, melting the tundra’s snow cover.
“As an ecologist, you’re thinking, ‘Whoa! Those plants would usually be nicely insulated under the snow,’ ” he says. “Suddenly, they’re being exposed because all the snow has melted. What are the consequences of that?”

Arctic plants survive frigid winters thanks to that blanket of snow and physiological changes, known as freeze resistance, that allow plants to freeze without damage. But once the plants awaken in response to physical cues of spring — warmer weather, longer days — and experience bud burst, they lose that ability to withstand frigid conditions.
That’s fine if spring has truly arrived. But if it’s just a winter heat wave and the warm air mass moves on, the plants become vulnerable as temperatures return to seasonal norms. When temporary warm air covers thousands of square kilometers at once, plant damage occurs over large areas. “These landscapes can look like someone’s gone through with a flamethrower,” Phoenix says. “It’s quite depressing. You’re there in the middle of summer, and everything’s just brown.”Jarle Bjerke, a vegetation ecologist at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research in Tromsø, saw browning across northern Norway and Sweden in 2008. The landscape — covered in mats of crowberry, an evergreen shrub with bright green sausagelike needles — was instead shades of brown, red-brown and grayish brown. “We saw it everywhere we went, from the mountaintops to the coastal heaths,” Bjerke says.
Bjerke, Phoenix and other researchers continue to find brown vegetation in the wake of winter warming events. Long periods of mild winter weather have rolled over the Svalbard archipelago, the cluster of islands in the Arctic Ocean between Norway and the North Pole, in the last decade. The snow melted or blew away, exposing the ground-hugging plants. Some became encrusted in ice following a once-unheard-of midwinter rainfall. In 2015, the Arctic bell heather, whose small white flowers brighten Arctic ridges and heaths, were brown that summer, gray the next and then the leaves fell off. “It’s not new that plants can die during mild winters,” Bjerke says. “The new thing is that it is now happening several winters in a row.”

Insect invasion
The weather needn’t always be extreme to harm plants in the Arctic. With warmer winters and summers, leaf-eating insects have thrived, defoliating bushes and trees beyond the insects’ usual range. “They’re very visual events,” says Rachael Treharne, an Arctic ecologist who completed her Ph.D. at the University of Sheffield and now works at ClimateCare, a company that helps organizations reduce their climate impact. She remembers being in the middle of an autumnal moth outbreak in northern Sweden one summer. “There were caterpillars crawling all over the plants — and us. We’d wake up with them in our beds.”

In northernmost Norway, Sweden and Finland in the mid-2000s, successive bursts of geometrid moths defoliated 10,000 square kilometers of mountain birch forest — an area roughly the size of Puerto Rico. The outbreak was one of Europe’s most abrupt and large-scale ecosystem disturbances linked to climate change, says Jane Jepsen, an Arctic ecologist at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research.
“These moth species benefit from a milder winter, spring and summer climate,” Jepsen says. Moth eggs usually die at around −30° C, but warmer winters have allowed more eggs of the native autumnal moth to survive. With warmer springs, the eggs hatch earlier in the year and keep up with the bud burst of the mountain birch trees. Another species — the winter moth (O. brumata), found in southern Norway, Sweden and Finland — expanded northward during the outbreak. The spring and summer warmth favored the larvae, which ate more and grew larger, and the resulting hardier female moths laid more eggs in the fall.

While forests that die off can grow back over several decades, some of these mountain birches may have been hammered too hard, Jepsen says. In some places, the forest has given way to heathland. Ecological transitions like this could be long-lasting or even permanent, she says.

Smoldering lands
Once rare, wildfires may be one of the north’s main causes of browning. As grasses, shrubs and trees across the region dry up, they are being set aflame with increasing frequency, with fires covering larger areas and leaving behind dark scars. For example, in early 2014 in the Norwegian coastal municipality of Flatanger, sparks from a power line ignited the dry tundra heath, destroying more than 100 wooden buildings in several coastal hamlets.

Sparsely populated places, where lightning is the primary cause of wildfires, are also seeing an uptick in wildfires. Scientists say lightning strikes are becoming more frequent as the planet warms. The number of lightning-sparked fires has risen 2 to 5 percent per year in Canada’s Northwest Territories and Alaska over the last four decades, earth system scientist Sander Veraverbeke of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and his colleagues reported in 2017 in Nature Climate Change.

In 2014, the Northwest Territories had 385 fires, which burned 34,000 square kilometers. The next year, 766 fires torched 20,600 square kilometers of the Alaskan interior — accounting for about half the total area burned in the entire United States in 2015.

In the last two years, wildfires sent plumes of smoke aloft in western Greenland (SN: 3/17/18, p. 20) and in the northern reaches of Sweden, Norway and Russia, places where wildfires are uncommon. Wildfire activity within a 30-year period could quadruple in Alaska by 2100, says a 2017 report in Ecography. Veraverbeke expects to see “more fires in the Arctic in the future.”

The loss of wide swaths of plants could have wide-ranging local effects. “These plants are the foundation of the terrestrial Arctic food webs,” says Isla Myers-Smith, a global change ecologist at the University of Edinburgh. The shriveled landscapes can leave rock ptarmigan, for example, which rely heavily on plants, without enough food to eat in the spring. The birds’ predators, such as the arctic fox, may feel the loss the following year.

The effects of browning may be felt beyond the Arctic, which holds about half of the planet’s terrestrial carbon. The boost in tundra greening allows the region to store, or “sink,” more carbon during the growing season. But carbon uptake may slow if browning events continue, as expected in some regions.

Treharne, Phoenix and colleagues reported in February in Global Change Biology that on the Lofoten Islands in northern Norway, extreme winter conditions cut in half the heathlands’ ability to trap carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during the growing season.

Yet there’s still some uncertainty about how these browned tundra ecosystems might change in the long-term. As the land darkens, the surface absorbs more heat and warms up, threatening to thaw the underlying permafrost and accelerate the release of methane and carbon dioxide. Some areas might switch from being carbon sinks to carbon sources, Phoenix warns.

On the other hand, other plant species — with more or less capacity to take up carbon — could move in. “I’m still of the view that [these areas] will go through these short-term events and continue on their trajectory of greater productivity,” Goetz says.

A better view
The phenomena that cause browning events — extreme winter warming, insect outbreaks, wildfires — are on the rise. But browning events are tough to study, especially in winter, because they’re unpredictable and often occur in hard-to-reach areas.
Ecologists working on the ground would like the satellite images and the NDVI maps to point to areas with unusual vegetation growth — increasing or decreasing. But many of the browning events witnessed by researchers on the ground have not been picked up by the older, lower-resolution satellite sensors, which scientists still use. Those sensors oversimplify what’s on the ground: One pixel covers an area 8 kilometers by 8 kilometers. “The complexity that’s contained within a pixel size that big is pretty huge,” Myers-Smith says. “You have mountains, or lakes, or different types of tundra vegetation, all within that one pixel.”
At a couple of recent workshops on Arctic browning, remote-sensing experts and ecologists tried to tackle the problem. “We’ve been talking about how to bring the two scales together,” Bhatt says. New sensors, more frequent snapshots, better data access and more computing power could help scientists zero in on the extent and severity of browning in the Arctic.

Researchers have begun using Google Earth Engine’s massive collection of satellite data, including Landsat images at a much better resolution of 30 meters by 30 meters per pixel. Improved computational capabilities also enable scientists to explore vegetation change close up. The European Space Agency’s recently launched Sentinel Earth-observing satellites can monitor vegetation growth with a pixel size of 10 meters by 10 meters. Says Myers-Smith: “That’s starting to get to a scale that an ecologist can grapple with.”

Ketamine cultivates new nerve cell connections in mice

Ketamine banishes depression by slowly coaxing nerve cells to sprout new connections, a study of mice suggests. The finding, published in the April 12 Science, may help explain how the hallucinogenic anesthetic can ease some people’s severe depression.

The results are timely, coming on the heels of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s March 5 approval of a nasal spray containing a form of ketamine called esketamine for hard-to-treat depression (SN Online: 3/21/19). But lots of questions remain about the drug.
“There is still a lot of mystery in terms of how ketamine works in the brain,” says neuroscientist Alex Kwan of Yale University. The new study adds strong evidence that newly created nerve cell connections are involved in ketamine’s antidepressant effects, he says.

While typical antidepressants can take weeks to begin working, ketamine can make people feel better in hours. Scientists led by neuroscientist Conor Liston suspected that ketamine might quickly be remodeling the brain by spurring new nerve cell connections called synapses. “As it turned out, that wasn’t true, not in the way we expected, anyway,” says Liston, of Cornell University.

Newly created synapses aren’t involved in ketamine’s immediate effects on behavior, the researchers found. But the nerve cell connections do appear to help sustain the drug’s antidepressant benefits over the longer term.

To approximate depression in people, researchers studied mice that had been stressed for weeks, either by being restrained daily in mesh tubes, or by receiving injections of the stress hormone corticosterone. These mice began showing signs of despair, such as losing their taste for sweet water and giving up a struggle when dangled by their tails.
Three hours after a dose of ketamine, the mice’s behavior righted, as the researchers expected. But the team found no effects of the drug on nerve cells’ dendritic spines — tiny signal-receiving blebs that help make new neural connections. So the creation of new synapses couldn’t be responsible for ketamine’s immediate effects on behavior, “because the behavior came first,” Liston says.

When the researchers looked over a longer time span, though, they found that these new synapses were key. About 12 hours after ketamine treatment, new dendritic spines began to pop into existence on nerve cells in part of the mice’s prefrontal cortex, the brain area responsible for complex thinking. These dendritic spines seemed to be replacing those lost during the period of stress, often along the same stretch of neuron.

To test if these newly created spines were important for the mice’s improved behavior, the researchers destroyed the spines with a laser a day after the ketamine treatment. That effectively erased ketamine’s effects, and the mice again exhibited behavior resembling depression, including struggling less when held by their tails. (The mice kept their regained sugar preference.)

Research on humans has also suggested that depressed people have diminished synapses, says Ronald S. Duman, a neuroscientist at Yale University not involved in the study. The new work adds more support to those findings by showing that destroying new synapses can block ketamine’s behavioral effects. “That’s a huge contribution and advance,” Duman says.