What the sci­en­tists are say­ing…

The Week - - News -

Alien space rock spot­ted For the first time ever, an in­ter­stel­lar as­ter­oid – from an­other so­lar sys­tem – has been ob­served cross­ing into our sys­tem. The rocky in­truder, which mea­sures around 400m across, was de­tected in mid-oc­to­ber by a team in Hawaii. “It didn’t move like comets or as­ter­oids nor­mally do,” said Rob Weryk, of the Uni­ver­sity of Hawaii. The as­ter­oids from our own so­lar sys­tem or­bit the Sun el­lip­ti­cally. By con­trast, this one was found to be on a hy­per­bolic tra­jec­tory. It skirted the Sun in early Septem­ber, be­fore pass­ing Earth at a dis­tance of 15 mil­lion miles, and is now rac­ing away from us, at a speed of about 15 miles per sec­ond, get­ting fainter and fainter all the time – which is frus­trat­ing for astronomers who had long an­tic­i­pated such an event. The grav­i­ta­tional pull of our gas gi­ants, like Jupiter, cat­a­pulted tril­lions of comets and as­ter­oids from the early so­lar sys­tem into in­ter­stel­lar space. The pre­sump­tion was that the plan­ets in other so­lar sys­tems had done the same, lit­ter­ing space with ob­jects that might, one day, come our way. “We have waited a long time [for this],” said plan­e­tary sci­en­tist Dr Alan Stern of the South­west Re­search In­sti­tute in Boul­der, Colorado.

Blood test for mis­car­riages A blood test de­signed to de­tect whether preg­nant women are at high risk of mis­car­riage has achieved im­pres­sive re­sults in its first clin­i­cal tri­als, re­ports The Times. The test, de­vel­oped by a team in San Fran­cisco, screens for mol­e­cules called mi­crorna, which are found in blood cells in the pla­cen­tal bed. Their pres­ence is thought to in­di­cate prob­lems with blood sup­ply, which can trig­ger a range of com­pli­ca­tions. In four tri­als, in­volv­ing a to­tal of 160 births, the test achieved 92% ac­cu­racy for pre­dict­ing both mis­car­riages and “late pre­ma­ture” births (those oc­cur­ring be­tween 32 and 37 weeks). For “ex­tremely pre­ma­ture” births, ac­cu­racy was 98% .The test was also 82% ac­cu­rate in spot­ting pre-eclamp­sia. The re­searchers be­lieve that these com­pli­ca­tions are all re­lated to the sup­ply of blood to the foe­tus, and that po­ten­tial treat­ments could in­clude blood-thin­ning drugs such as hep­arin. How­ever, the re­search is in its early days and larger tri­als are needed.

Do mi­croplas­tics taste good? Corals ap­pear to en­joy the taste of plas­tic – rais­ing fur­ther fears about the threat to marine life posed by pol­lu­tion. Most of the sea crea­tures that in­gest mi­croplas­tics – tiny frag­ments mea­sur­ing less than 5mm in di­am­e­ter – prob­a­bly do so be­cause they mis­take them for prey. Corals, how­ever, are blind, sug­gest­ing a dif­fer­ent mo­ti­va­tion. To cast light on this, sci­en­tists at Duke Uni­ver­sity in North Carolina ran a two-part lab ex­per­i­ment: first, they of­fered corals eight types of plas­tic and sim­i­larly sized par­ti­cles of sand. Next, they ex­posed the corals to a choice of clean plas­tics or ones coated in nu­tri­tious mi­crobes, which corals are pre­sumed to like. In the first ex­per­i­ment, the corals gob­bled up the plas­tics while re­ject­ing the sand; in the sec­ond, they still pre­ferred the clean plas­tics by a three­fold mar­gin – sug­gest­ing that the plas­tic it­self “con­tains some­thing that makes it tasty”. That corals are eat­ing plas­tic is alarm­ing, be­cause it can get stuck in their tiny guts; how­ever, the team hopes that if they can iden­tify what chem­i­cal in plas­tic gives it its flavour, man­u­fac­tur­ers might be per­suaded to re­move it.

Aspirin may ward off can­cers The largest-ever study into the link be­tween aspirin and can­cer has sug­gested that sus­tained use of the drug can re­duce the risk of sev­eral forms of the dis­ease, says The Daily Tele­graph. Re­searchers at The Chi­nese Uni­ver­sity of Hong Kong, who tracked more than 600,000 peo­ple, found that long-term aspirin use – that is, tak­ing it in low doses ev­ery day for an av­er­age of seven years – was as­so­ci­ated with a 47% re­duc­tion in the risk of liver or oe­sopha­gal can­cer, a 38% re­duc­tion in the risk of gas­tric can­cer and a 34% re­duced risk of pan­cre­atic can­cer. Pro­fes­sor Kelvin Tsoi, the lead re­searcher, noted that the pos­i­tive ef­fect was most marked on can­cers within the di­ges­tive tract; aspirin had no ef­fect on a range of other can­cers, in­clud­ing breast, blad­der and kid­ney. Tak­ing aspirin has in the past been linked with a re­duced risk of heart at­tacks and strokes. How­ever, pro­longed use is as­so­ci­ated with bleed­ing of the gut, and peo­ple should talk to their GPS be­fore tak­ing it daily.

Co­ral reefs: in­gest­ing mi­croplas­tics

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