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New Viruses and Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria May be Released from Thawing Permafrost Thawing permafrost is a major concern across many parts of the northern and southern hemispheres. Towards the poles, ice formed in the ground from the last ice age, called permafrost, melts and causes infrastructure problems. Roadways may need repair, structures can sink into the melting permafrost, and now new evidence shows that viruses and bacteria may be released from melting permafrost. Thawing permafrost could introduce new viruses to society, and pose health risks. The research, published in Nature Climate Change, also showed that now-banned pollutants and even radioactive waste from Cold War nuclear reactors and submarines could be released from the permafrost. Permafrost is permanently frozen land, but it's not so permanent anymore. Covering about 23 million square kilometers of the northern hemisphere. The permafrost is up to a million years old, and the older permafrost is deeper. Nearly a third of this near-surface permafrost could be lost by 2100. Beyond this, thawing permafrost releases greenhouse gasses. There are also by-products of fossil fuels in permafrost, introduced at the beginning of the industrial revolution. The artic contains natural metal deposits, which have been mined and caused widespread contamination from mining waste. The research describes deep permafrost, at a depth of three meters or more. This microbial environment in this permafrost hasn't been exposed to modern antibiotics, and there are more than 100 microorganisms that have been found to be resistant to antibiotics in Siberias permafrost alone. Melting permafrost increases water flow, so contamination from permafrost is likely to spread through moving water. This can damage native species as well as lead to contaminated material from permafrost entering the human food chain. More than 1000 settlements have been built on permafrost in the last 70 years, for all sorts of purposes. Despite these findings, the risks of melting permafrost aren't well understood yet. Further research needs to be done in order to better understand the nature of permafrost.

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The Malaria Vaccine Will Drastically Improve Lives Across the World Malaria is a dangerous disease spread by mosquitoes. It has been treatable with medication for decades, but only recently has a vaccine been made available for the disease. This vaccine is going to change lives drastically in Africa, Asia, and across the world. It's great news for anyone who has ever caught malaria, and especially those at risk. A vaccine could help reduce the spread and therefore the risk of malaria, which devastates many communities. The vaccine is already being made available to people, and it is effective. The vaccine could prevent as many as four out of every ten cases of malaria, and three out of every ten severe cases. How does the vaccine work? Malaria is a parasite that destroys cells in order to reproduce, spreading through the "spit" of mosquitoes, infecting the person. This vaccine specifically targets Plasmodium falciparum, the most deadly and common parasite in many parts of Africa and Asia. This vaccine partially blocks the parasites' access into human cells and therefore prevents disease. It is effective at four doses, given a month apart at five, six, and seven months old, and a final booster around 18 months. Children are at the most risk for malaria, so it is logical to vaccinate them first. Unlike adults, they have not had a chance to build up immunity. The company making the vaccine, GSK, hasn't released information about how much the vaccine will cost. Largely vaccination campaigns rely on international support and support from donors. The company's pilot programs in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi are in progress, and the company says it has donated 10 million doses for the study. A quarter of those doses have been used. GSK is committed to providing 15 million doses a year. More doses could be made available by 2022 or early 2023. Researchers estimate that 100 million doses may be needed every year by the end of the decade. The vaccine will be given along with other routine immunizations. It is a real step forward in the battle against malaria and other infectious diseases.

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AI Coding Technology Doesn't Pose a Threat to Human Workers A new coding technology, Codex, writes code with AI to tackle programming challenges that would otherwise be difficult for humans to solve. However, according to Tom Smith, who oversees an A.I. startup called Gado Images, the technology doesn't pose a threat to professional coders. In fact, he sees it as a tool that could "make a coder's life a lot easier". Built by OpenAI, one of the most ambitious artificial intelligence research labs, Codex sheds light on the current state of artificial intelligence. Huge leaps and bounds have been made, though most AI systems complement human workers instead of replacing them. With the consistent rise of technology called neural networks, machines can now learn skills by looking at large amounts of data. By statistically computing and analyzing cat photos, a neural network can recognize a cat. This is the same technology that recognizes your voice, translates between languages, and drives self-driving cars. Years ago, researchers at similar labs to OpenAI built neural networks that analyzed large amounts of text, including digital books, articles, and other text on the internet. After computing patterns in the text, the networks were able to predict the next word in the sentence. With some short seed text, the AIs could produce full paragraphs by completing the thought. GPT-3, created by OpenAI, could write Twitter posts, speeches, poetry, and news for example. Surprisingly, the program could even write its own computer code, though the programs were short and simple. The AI had learned from code on the internet. OpenAI took the project a step further, and created Codex, training a new system on an enormous database of prose and code. The resulting system understands both prose and code and cooperates with user input. If you tell it to do something, it will do something. Codex can generate programs in 12 languages and translate between them. But it only writes the right code 37% of the time. It makes mistakes, and it can't reason like a human. It doesn't really think on its own. From a beta testers' perspective, the code that Codex produces is impressive. But it needs some tweaking to work correctly. That means that codex is only useful to an experienced programmer. Using the technology, GitHub, a popular online service for computer programmers, now offers a tool called Copilot that suggests the next line of code, like how autocomplete tools suggest the next word when texting or emailing. It's a way of writing code without writing a lot of code, at least with GitHubs product. It's not always perfect, but it is close enough. Codex could help novices learn to code, and professionals code faster. With his start-up, Gado Images, Mr. Smith set out to sort through photo archives of newspapers and libraries, captioning and tagging the photos before sharing them. But technology could only do part of the job. Its output still needed to be manually reviewed and edited before it worked. And a seasoned archivist still needed to find the best and most important photos. These tools don't completely remove the need for humans. They can be helpful at making our jobs easier though. AI isn't taking all the jobs, instead, it's making all of them easier.

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Less Sugar in Packaged Foods Could Prevent Heart Disease According to a new health and economic model, it's imperative that manufacturers of packaged food products reduce the sugar added to their products. Reducing added sugar by 20% from foods and 40% from drinks could prevent 2.48 million strokes, heart attacks, cardiac arrests, and other cardiovascular disease problems. The study, published in Circulation, also concludes that 490,000 cardiovascular deaths and 750,000 diabetes cases in the U.S. could be prevented by reducing sugar content in products. The researchers, from the Massachusetts General Hospital, the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene created a model to simulate the impacts of policy proposed by an organization called NSSRI, an initiative aimed at reducing the sugar content of sugary products. NSSRI, the U.S. National Salt and Sugar Reduction Initiative, finalized the policy this February. Their goal is to get sugar giants in the industry to reformulate their products. However, implementing a national policy would require government support to monitor and regulate companies as they work toward the targets of sugar reduction. The researchers hope to build a consensus and "push the reformulation initiative forward in the next few years," according to Siyi Shangguan, MD, MPH. show that it would be healthier and better to put less sugar in products. The U.S. could expect to save $4.28 million in healthcare costs, and $118.04 billion over the lifetime of the current population ages 25 to 79, according to the researchers' model. Even more money could be saved with the societal costs of lost productivity from Americans developing diseases from excessive sugar consumption averted. The policy would become cost-effective at six years and cost-saving at nine years. Previous product reformation efforts have been successful in reducing other harmful nutrients such as trans fat and sodium. However, the U.S. lags behind other countries in sugar-formulation efforts, while the UK, Norway, and Singapore are taking the lead on sugar-reformulation efforts. Consumption of sugary packaged foods and beverages is strongly linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of mortality in the U.S. Another scientist participating in the study, Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, says that sugar is one of the "most obvious additives" in the food supply which should be reduced to reasonable amounts. The findings suggest that it is "time to implement a national program" in order to meet sugar reduction targets, which can generate major improvements in the health of the population.

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Are COVID-19 Vaccines Effective Against the Delta Variant? According to data from a national study, vaccines are effective at preventing hospitalizations and emergency medical visits related to COVID-19. The same study also shows that Moderna's vaccine is the most effective, significantly reducing hospitalizations even in the presence of the new COVID-19 variant. Vaccines are strongly recommended to everyone eligible to reduce serious illness and ease the burden on our healthcare system. The data, provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)'s VISION Network, included more than 32,000 medical encounters from nine states during June, July, and August 2021. During this time, when the variant became the predominant strain, the study showed that vaccinated people are 5-7 times less likely to need emergency department care or hospitalization. This overall effect is similar to before the variant. In the study, the vaccines were effective at preventing hospitalizations in adults 18 and older as follows:

  • Moderna was 95 percent effective
  • Pfizer was 80 percent effective
  • Johnson and Johnson was 60 percent effective
Vaccine effectiveness is also lower for people ages 75 or older according to the study, which previous research did not show. This could be due to the increased time since vaccination. In preventing emergency department and urgent care visits, analysis showed that:
  • Moderna was 92 pecrent effective
  • Pfizer was 77 percent effective
  • Johnson and Johnson was 65 percent effective
According to scientists, these findings need further monitoring and evaluation. Dr. Grannis, with the study, says that "vaccines continue to offer much more protection" than not getting one. Data shows that "symptoms are less severe" in vaccinated individuals, according to Grannis. COVID-19 vaccines are powerful tools for combating a pandemic that has devastated and continues to devastate many communities. Funded by the CDC, the VISION network includes seven organizations that contribute to and analyze data from U.S. healthcare systems to study COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness. In addition to Regenstrief Institute, other members of the network are Columbia University Irving Medical Center, HealthPartners, Intermountain Healthcare, Kaiser Permanente Northern California, Kaiser Permanente Northwest, and the University of Colorado.

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Wildfires Break CO2 Emissions Records in 2021 This year, wildfires have caused record carbon dioxide emissions, higher than ever before in nearly two decades of satellite data. 2021 has been a year of climate-related disasters around the world. The landmark report by the United Nations on climate change, released Monday, August 9, confirms that the planet cannot handle the human influences civilization is causing and the climate is only going to get worse. These record-breaking wildfires, triggered by heatwaves are being tracked by Earth observation satellites, some owned by space agencies and some private. In California, the Dixie Fire has become the largest wildfire in the history of the state. It has destroyed more than 700 square miles of land (as of August 8) and has forced people in affected areas to evacuate. In Siberia, out of control wildfires have broken annual records for greenhouse gas emissions. While wildfires in Siberia are less often covered by the news, they are the most worrying. The sparsely populated area has released over 188 megatonnes of carbon since June according to CAMS. The area has almost lost 19,300 square miles of land to the fires, according to estimates at the end of July. These fires are warning signs of the growing climate problems the world is experiencing. They are also contributing to the climate problem, with the greenhouse gasses being released by the fires contributing to global warming.

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Researchers at Penn State are Turning COVID-19 on Itself Using a defective version of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, researchers at Penn State hope to drive the disease-causing version to extinction. The team designed a synthetic defective virus that interferes with the real virus, potentially able to cause the extinction of both the disease-causing virus and the synthetic defective. The researchers observed that the disease-causing virus "actually enables the replication and spread of [the] synthetic virus", according to Marco Archetti, associate professor of biology at Penn State. He also notes that a new version of this synthetic construct could be used as a "self-promoting antiviral therapy for COVID-19". How does the therapy work? In order to understand this, it's important to understand how viruses work. When a virus attacks a cell, it attaches to the surface of the cell and injects its genetic material into the cell. The cell is tricked into replicating the virus until it bursts, sending the new viruses off to infect other cells. "Defective interfering" viruses, or DI viruses, which are common in nature, contain deletions in their genomes which can make them unable to attack cells. However, with the help of COVID-19, or wild-type viruses, these DI viruses are able to replicate. In other words, the DI genome can hijack a wild-type genome's replication machinery. These defective genomes work like "parasites of the wild-type virus", said Archetti, explaining that DI genomes use the wild-type genomes machinery to impair its growth. Additionally, DI genomes can replicate faster than wild-type genomes and outcompete the wild-type. In fact, their new study, published in the journal PeerJ, found that the DI genome can replicate three times faster than the wild-type genome, resulting in a lower wild-type viral load by half in one day. The study was done by engineering short synthetic DI genomes from the wild-type SARS-CoV-2 genome and introducing them to African green monkey cells already infected with the wild-type virus. The scientists then measured the relative amounts of DI and wild-type viruses, giving an indication of the interference. Though according to Archetti, the 50% reduction in virus load that they observed over 24 hours is not enough for any therapeutic purposes, presumably the DI genomes could increase in frequency and eventually lead to both the demise of the virus and the DI genome, because the DI cannot persist without the wild-type virus. Archetti says that with "some additional research and fine-tuning", this synthetic DI could be used as a "self-sustaining therapeutic for COVID-19". Reference: “A synthetic defective interfering SARS-CoV-2” by Shun Yao, Anoop Narayanan, Sydney A. Majowicz, Joyce Jose​ Marco Archetti​, 1 July 2021, PeerJ.

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July 2021 Was Earth's Hottest Month on Record According to NOAA'S National Centers for Environmental Information, July 2021 earned the record for the hottest month to date. This reflection of the massing climate crisis is a stern reminder that we need to act quickly to combat climate change. "Addressing the climate crisis is a top priority for the Biden Administration and NOAA is and will continue to support that work", says NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad. NOAA is working hard to provide scientific information, tools, and services to help understand climate change and face the future of our climate. Spinrad notes that "It is a sobering IPCC report that finds that human influence is, unequivocally, causing climate change, and it confirms the impacts are widespread and rapidly intensifying." NOAA is stressing that human impacts on the environment are causing climate change, and things are only getting worse. We are seeing a reflection of the worsening climate change situation in higher temperatures this year, breaking records. The combined land and ocean surface temperature was 1.67 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average of 60.4 degrees F, 0.2 degrees F over the previous record set in July 2016, and tied in 2019 and 2020. More work needs to be done to work to solve the worsening climate situation. These record temperatures are caused by human influence, and the climate will continue to worsen until we switch to renewable energy sources.

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Scientists Write Guide for Creating Mouse-Human Embryos Last year, scientists at the University of Buffalo demonstrated a process able to produce mature human cells in a mouse embryo. They have now documented the process for creating chimeric mouse-human embryos and published a detailed description allowing other labs to replicate the process. This ability to produce mature human cells in a living organism is invaluable to research in the use of stem cells to treat disease in humans. These mature cells are produced by converting the stem cells into a less developed state in order for the cells to co-develop. This has been done before, but now the procedure has been published in Nature Protocols after the significant interest generated by the project led to an invitation to publish. The research will allow more scientists to use this technology as a platform for studying human diseases. As the research develops, it will help us move toward a better human model system to study any condition. It will spur more discoveries and applications that could lead to a new understanding of human biology and medicine. The researchers add that a better understanding of how human cells develop in chimera may enable the generation of human cells in artificial systems and fundamentally change how diseases are treated. Supporters of the work included NYSTEM and the Buffalo Blue Sky Initiative.

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New Face Mask Uses Sensors to Detect COVID-19 COVID-19 has been a tragic and devastating pandemic, completely changing the world and the way we go about our lives. In some countries, vaccination has slowed the spread of the pandemic, while in others, the threat of new mutations and increased risk looms. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University have developed wearable sensor-equipped masks that can detect COVID-19 in the wearer. The study was published in the Nature Biotechnology journal. Titled "Wearable materials with embedded synthetic biology sensors for biomolecule detection", involved using wearable biosensors installed on KN95 masks to detect whether to virus was present in the wearer's breath. Within 90 minutes and with the accuracy of a standard PCR COVID test, they were able to test for COVID-19 using the masks. Peter Nguyen, a scientist who co-authored the study, says the sensor has the high accuracy of PCR tests with the speed and low cost of antigen tests. He also said these sensors could be worn on clothing and used to detect "dangerous substances, including viruses, bacteria, toxins, and chemical agents." According to researchers, the team is now looking for manufacturing partners to make these masks available in large numbers during the pandemic.

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