Gene mutation made modern humans produce more neurons than Neanderthals

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New Delhi: A single genetic mutation made humans have the ability to generate more neurons than our closest relatives, the Neanderthals, a new study has found.

The research provides new insights into the question of what makes modern humans unique.

The increase in brain size and in neuron production during brain development are considered to be major factors for the increased cognitive abilities that occurred during human evolution. 

However, while both Neanderthals and modern humans develop brains of similar size, the study reveals how modern human and Neanderthal brains differed in terms of their neuron production during development.

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics (MPI-CBG) found that the modern human variant of the protein TKTL1, which differs by only a single amino acid — the building blocks of proteins — from the Neanderthal variant, increases one type of brain progenitor cells, called basal radial glia, in the modern human brain. 

Basal radial glial cells generate the majority of the neurons in the developing neocortex, a part of the brain that is crucial for many cognitive abilities. 

This study implies that the production of neurons during foetal development was more in modern humans than it was in Neanderthals — in particular in the frontal lobe. This may have promoted modern humans’ cognitive abilities. Read more

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Aluminium used to produce hydrogen out of air

Scientists at the University of California, Santa Cruz, USA, have created aluminium nanoparticles that react rapidly with water at room temperature to yield large amounts of hydrogen. 

For years, researchers have tried to find efficient and cost-effective ways to use aluminium’s reactivity to generate clean hydrogen fuel. 

Aluminium is a highly reactive metal that can strip oxygen from water molecules to generate hydrogen gas. Its widespread use in products that get wet poses no danger because aluminum instantly reacts with air to acquire a coating of aluminium oxide, which blocks further reactions.

The nanoparticles are a composite of aluminium and gallium. The reaction of aluminium and gallium with water has been known since the 1970s, and videos of it are easy to find online. 

It works because gallium, a liquid at just above room temperature, removes the passive aluminum oxide coating, allowing direct contact of aluminium with water. The new study, however, includes several innovations and novel findings that could lead to practical applications.

Previous studies had mostly used aluminum-rich mixtures of aluminium and gallium, or in some cases more complex alloys. But the team found that hydrogen production increased with a gallium-rich composite. Read more

Also Read: Ancient rocks reveal how Earth’s magnetic field bounced back to save life on the planet

New method detects baby planets in forming in dust

Scientists have spotted a small Neptune or Saturn-like planet lurking in rings of dust and gas that surround young, newborn stars using a new method they developed to detect elusive newborn planets.

Planets are born in protoplanetary disks — rings of dust that surround a star. While hundreds of these disks have been spotted throughout the universe, observations of actual planetary birth and formation have proved difficult.

Astronomers at the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have now developed a new way to detect these newborn planets.

For the study, the team re-examined a protoplanetary disk known as LkCa 15 located 518 light years away. 

Using high-resolution data obtained primarily in 2019, the team discovered two faint features that had not previously been detected.

About 42 astronomical units out from the star—or 42 times the distance Earth is from the Sun— they found a dusty ring with two separate and bright bunches of materials orbiting within it. The materials took the shape of a small clump and a larger arc and were separated by 120 degrees.

Computer models then helped the team understand what was causing the buildup of materials —  their size and locations matched the model for the presence of a planet.

The research may help look for more newborn planets, which can further improve our understanding of how planets are formed. Read more

Tectonic movements have triggered mass extinctions on Earth in the past 

The slowing of continental plate movement was the critical event that enabled magma to rise to the Earth’s surface and deliver devastating knock-on impacts, triggering major volcanic events millions of years ago that drove some of the most devastating extinction events in Earth’s history.

Earth’s history has been marked by major volcanic events, called Large Igneous Provinces (LIPs) — the largest of which have caused major increases in atmospheric carbon emissions that warmed Earth’s climate and resulted in mass extinctions on land and in the oceans.

Using chemical data from ancient mudstone deposits obtained from a 1.5 km-deep borehole in Wales, scientists from Trinity College Dublin’s School of Natural Sciences were able to link two key events from around 183 million years ago.

The team discovered that this time period — characterised by the most severe climatic and environmental changes in earth’s history — directly coincided with the occurrence of major volcanic activity and associated greenhouse gas release in the southern hemisphere.

The team’s plate reconstruction models helped them discover the key fundamental geological process that seemed to control the timing and onset of this volcanic event and others of great magnitude. Read more 

(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)

Also Read: West Antarctica glacier disintegrating faster than thought


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Mohana Basu

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