All posts by Mark Wood

19% of the world’s population infected with toxocara parasite larvae

Up to 19% of the human population would have been exposed to the Toxocara parasite according to a new analysis that led to a study published in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases. The Toxocara parasite can also cause toxocariasis in humans.

This small gastrointestinal nematode worm is one of the most present and widespread in domestic dogs and cats and can also spread in the human body in the form of larvae when people come into contact with Toxocara canis or Toxocara cati larvae.

The faeces of these animals are in fact found everywhere, sometimes even in the street or in public parks, and coming into contact with the eggs of these nematodes is unfortunately more than easy. To favour even more the diffusion are the insects, in particular the flies, which nourish of the faeces of these animals and which then lean on other surfaces or even the food.

Once infected, the disease can see several symptoms including migraine, fever, cough and abdominal pain. In more severe cases it can lead to other symptoms including allergic skin disorders and asthma. The parasite can get to infect, is believed to migrate through the optic nerve, even the eye and create damage to the eye system. Children, especially those living in poverty, are among the most affected.

In most cases, toxocariasis resolves itself and often the people affected, apart from some headaches or stomach pain, do not even know that they have been exposed or infected. This is because Toxocara larvae cannot mature inside the human body.

In this new study, researcher Ali Rostami, with the help of colleagues, has analyzed 250 previously published studies on the prevalence of these infections or on the exposure of humans to Toxocara. In total all the studies concerned data from 265,000 people from 71 countries.

The results show, according to the researchers, that 1.4 billion people worldwide, or 19% of the entire world population, were exposed to Toxocara. Of course, the rates vary from region to region and the highest rates are those for Africa and East Asia while the lowest are those for Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean.

ESA’s CHEOPS space telescope has made it: it’s in orbit and already hunting exoplanets

ESA’s CHEOPS space telescope, after a few weeks of tribulation, has managed to to move into orbit to hunt for planets that do not belong to the solar system. Let’s talk about the new space telescope of the European Space Agency called CHEOPS (CHaracterising ExOPlanets Satellite) whose launch took place yesterday.

Located at an orbital point 710 kilometers away from the Earth’s surface, the telescope was launched on a Russian Soyuz rocket from a base located in French Guiana. It is an “exceptional moment in the history of European space and in the history of exoplanets”, as reported by Didier Queloz, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2019 and discoverer of the first exoplanet in 1995 (51 Pegasi b), together with his colleague Michel Mayor.

The peculiarity of this telescope is that it will allow, compared to other space telescopes designed to detect exoplanets, an analysis with more detail. It will not yet be able to understand precisely and definitively if there could be life on an exoplanet but it will collect very important data in this sense to compose clues of a certain importance.

For example CHEOPS will allow to measure with a degree of precision never obtained before the dimensions of the exoplanets whose mass is already known, something that not even Kepler and TESS space telescopes can do. This will allow, among other things, to understand with greater precision whether you are facing a gaseous planet like Jupiter or a rocky one like Earth. A golden period in the coming years is expected, therefore, in terms of the amount of data and information on the search for exoplanets and perhaps even extraterrestrial life.

This is the “first step on a large scale”, as Guenther Hasinger, ESA’s scientific director, reports. In addition to the CHEOPS space telescope, the launcher also brought into orbit a second generation COSMO-SkyMed satellite from the Italian Space Agency, a nanosatellite from Tyvak, an Italian company, and two other small satellites from the French Space Agency.

Growth of the Amazon forest much slower than previously calculated

According to a new study published in Ecology, the regrowth of the Amazonian forest following the acts of deforestation carried out by human beings would be slower than previously calculated. And since the Amazon rainforest itself is crucial to absorb the carbon in the atmosphere, carbon that is increasingly increasing the ongoing global warming, such a study creates some alarm.

The study was written by Fernando Elias of the Federal University of Pará, the first author to collaborate with other Brazilian and British researchers, who explains in the press release: “The region we studied in the Amazon has seen a temperature increase of 0.1 C per decade and tree growth has been lower during periods of drought. With forecasts of increased drought in the future, we need to be cautious about the ability of secondary forests to mitigate climate change. Our findings underline the need for international agreements that minimise the impacts of climate change.”

The researchers monitored the growth of the Amazon rainforest for about two decades and concluded that the so-called secondary forests, i.e. those forests born and developed as a result of deforestation, even after sixty years of regrowth, tended to absorb only 40% of carbon compared to those forests that had never been disturbed by humans. With such an estimate, and if this rate of regrowth continues, it could take more than a century for a deforested area to fully recover.

Furthermore, the researchers themselves found that secondary forests were home to only 56% of living species compared to forests that had always remained undisturbed. Joice Ferreira, a scientist at the Empresa Brasileña de Investigación Agropecuaria (EMBRAPA), believes that these results strongly show that those deforested areas need much more support and much more investment to achieve effective reforestation.

Gastroesophageal reflux affects one third of US adults

Gastroesophageal reflux disease is a disorder that can cause heartburn as well as acid reflux. Now a new study published in Gastroenterology confirms how common the disorder is.

The study, conducted by researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, therefore, considers one of the most common stomach ailments that sees stomach acid flow to the upper part of the stomach through the esophagus. Usually this occurs when the lower oesophageal sphincter, a muscle that does nothing but open and close to allow food to reach the stomach, tends to relax too much.

Reflux usually causes a burning sensation in the throat and chest accompanied by heartburn. The same reflux can cause regurgitation and only in the most serious cases can it lead to tissue damage.

To arrive at the result they achieved, the researchers analyzed data from more than 71,000 people aged 18 years or more living in the United States, a relatively large study that, according to Brennan Spiegel, professor of medicine and corresponding author of the study, defines as one of “one of the largest and most diverse population-based studies on gastrointestinal symptoms ever conducted”.

Of all the people surveyed, 44.1% reported having experienced symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux in the past and 30.9% of them in the last week. According to the data they acquired, more than half of people with gastroesophageal reflux disorder taking drugs known as proton pump inhibitors reported that they still had persistent symptoms.

These drugs serve to reduce the level of acid in the stomach but, as reported in the press release presenting the study, may have side effects according to the Food and Drug Administration. These drugs include lansoprazole (Prevacid), exomeprazole (Nexium), magnesium omeprazole (Prilosec) and omeprazole and sodium bicarbonate (Zegerid).

New class of superlight planets discovered

Gaseous planets like Jupiter and Saturn have a much lower density than Earth (Saturn could even float in a huge bathtub) but now astronomers have discovered what can be called a new class of even lighter planets, different even from the two largest pyerids in our solar system.

Rather than “gas giants,” these new planets could be classified as “cotton candy” because their density is so low that they look swollen. Thanks to the Kepler telescope, three of them have been found orbiting the star Kepler 51, about 2600 light years away from us and very similar to the Sun. These planets are almost the size of Jupiter but only a hundredth of its mass.

Astronomers believe that they may have formed further away from their star than their current position and then migrated inward. Most likely they have an atmosphere made of low-density hydrogen and helium, an atmosphere that they are losing in space as they get closer and closer to the star. This same phase could be considered a transitional phase in the evolution of planets of this type.

There is nothing like this in our solar system and the first clues of these super swollen planets were found in Kepler-51’s star system in 2012 but it wasn’t until 2014 that it became clear that their densities were so low that they surprised the astronomers themselves. Now the astronomers have made new measurements and have come to the conclusion that the very low density of these planets is partly a consequence of the young age of the system itself, born just 500 million years ago, a fraction of the 4.5 billion years of our solar system.

According to astronomers, these super-light planets have formed outside the so-called “snow line”, a limit beyond which there are usually only frozen planets. These planets have an atmosphere with such a low density that the same atmospheres are expected to evaporate into space over the next billion years. The planet closest to the star, Kepler-51b, in a billion years should be a smaller, warmer version of Neptune.

The one furthest from the star, Kepler-51b, will continue to be an ultralight planet even if it will shrink a little and lose some atmosphere. Now researchers intend to determine the chemical composition of the atmosphere of these two planets and in this regard they plan to use NASA’s next space telescope, the James Webb, which with its ability to look infrared could be able to observe beyond the layers of the surface clouds.

Surface of the moon could electrocute astronauts

The surface of the Moon could electrify astronauts according to an interesting study produced by Joseph Wang, a physicist at the University of Southern California. The study takes into account the hypothesis that the dusty surface of the Moon may be electrically charged in some of its regions to such an extent that it could create problems for space suits, which are known to boast various electronic components, or even the astronauts’ bodies and equipment.

An astronaut, for example, could suffer a static electricity shock a bit like when you touch a door handle after walking on a carpet, as Gizmodo points out. The surface of the Moon, in fact, is characterized by an electric charge whose accumulation is caused by the perennial exposure to the solar wind that carries streams of charged particles.
On Earth there is no accumulation because there is the magnetic field that protects us, but on the Moon, lacking the latter, all these electrons eventually charge the surface of our natural satellite.

It is precisely the dust present on the surface that is an excellent element to start a shock, that is, a transfer of the flow of these electrons, as Wang himself explains. Lunar dust is a problem and it’s one of the first elements you face when you organize a mission to the Moon. It starts to stick everywhere, basically on every kind of surface, and this could be a problem in relation to the charge that it could have accumulated.

In previous Apollo missions astronauts have shown that they have not reported problems in this sense but according to Wang himself there are particular regions on the Moon characterized by a surface that does not balance the negative charges brought by electrons from the solar wind. These regions would be precisely those of interest for NASA in relation to the landing of human beings, i.e. where sunlight hits the surface at a certain angle and where the permanently shaded regions are able to retain water in the form of ice.

In these regions an imbalance could occur and could accumulate large negative charges, up to hundreds or even thousands of volts according to the scientist’s hypothesis. This could be a problem for the material sorted in these areas or for any equipment and rovers. As for possible damage to the spacesuits, the researcher is conducting experiments to find more precise answers also in relation to NASA’s next mission.

Caffeine may compensate for a diet too high in fat and sugar

Caffeine can be useful as an element of compensation for a diet with too much fat or sugar. This conclusion was reached by a study produced by researchers at the University of Illinois who claim to have discovered that this substance, naturally present in coffee or tea, helps to limit weight gain and cholesterol production, even in diets that are not exactly healthy.

The researchers carried out experiments on rats by making them consume caffeine derived from tea, showing that animals gained 16% less weight and accumulated 22% less body fat compared to those rats that instead consumed decaffeinated tea despite having a similar diet. The same effects were had with caffeine extracted from coffee and synthetic caffeine.

For the experiments, the researchers used Mate tea, a drink rich in phytochemicals, flavonoids and amino acids very common in Latin America. The proportion of caffeine in this type of tea can vary from 65 to 130 mg. The rats that participated in the study, besides taking this caffeine or decaffeinated tea, had to carry on a diet that contained 40% fat, 45% carbohydrates and 15% protein.

The experiment lasted four weeks and in the end the percentage of lean body mass of the rats that ingested caffeine derived from tea, coffee or synthetic sources was higher than the rats that had not taken caffeine. At this point tea and caffeine itself can be considered anti-obesity agents, as explained by Elvira Gonzalez de Mejia, one of the authors of the study who adds the results of this research confirm that tea and caffeine in general can be used for new strategies to prevent overweight obesity as well as all the associated metabolic disorders.

Do we respect the environment? Most of us overestimate ourselves according to a new study

We usually overestimate our level of commitment to the environment according to an interesting new study produced by researchers at the University of Gothenburg. According to the researchers, who analyzed the questionnaire responses of several people from the United States, Sweden, India and England, most people tend to consider themselves to be more environmentally friendly than others.

The researchers calculated the answers to the questionnaires of more than 4000 people. The questions were related to people’s pro-environmental activities, such as buying environmentally friendly products, saving domestic energy or using plastics less every day. The researchers found that most of the answers were related to people who thought they were more environmentally friendly than others.

According to Magnus Bergquist, this study shows that there is indeed a tendency for us to overestimate our environmental capabilities. This is an “over-optimism” and certainly cannot be positive in terms of environmentally friendly behaviour. Too much optimism, for example, can diminish the motivation that a person may have to act in an environmentally friendly way and in general can lead people who are too optimistic to be less environmentally friendly.

It is also a logical concept, as the researcher himself points out: “If you think about it logically, the majority cannot be more environmentally friendly than others”. If the majority of people were environmentally friendly, we would not be in the current situation.

Watermelon supplements are great for obese mice

Powdered watermelon supplements can be a great help in counteracting the harmful effects of obesity and an unhealthy diet in general, at least in mice according to a new study published in the Journal of Nutrition and carried out by researchers at Oregon State University.

Researcher Neil Shay, Professor of Food Science at the College of Agricultural Sciences at the University of Oregon, carried out several experiments on male mice with an age of 10 weeks. He fed the rodents for a period of 10 weeks on a high-fat diet. At the same time he selected another control group whose mice were fed the same fat diet but without the addition of supplements.

In fact, the researcher also gave mice fed a high-fat diet with watermelon supplements in the form of powder obtained from a freeze-drying process. The amount supplied to the mice was equivalent to a typical portion and a half of water melon for a human being every day.

The researchers then analyzed various body data from the animals at both the beginning and end of the experiment and found that the mice given the powdered supplement showed an increase in beneficial bacteria and reduced blood glucose levels, an effect that the researcher himself described in the press release as significant compared to mice in the control group.

DNA is not our destiny, genetics has little to do with many diseases according to a new study

DNA represents our destiny, at least for a number of diseases for which we usually give a lot of importance to the genetic profile. This is the opinion of a team of researchers led by David Wishart, professor of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta, who published a study on PLOS ONE .

As clearly explained in the press release that appeared on the website of the University of Canarese, single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP), the possible variations within our DNA, cannot be taken into account with regard to disease prediction.

The researcher examined data from various studies conducted over two decades concerning the relationships between the most common genetic mutations and their connection to different diseases and illnesses.

The results show, according to the researchers themselves, that these links between genetics and different human diseases are “at best shaky”. Of course, there are exceptions, as the statement itself points out, represented by diseases that are known to have a genetic background, such as Crohn’s disease, celiac disease or macular degeneration, diseases for which the genetic profile can count for about 40-50%.

But these are “rare exceptions” because, as Wishart himself explains, most diseases derive from metabolism, the environment, exposure to certain types of nutrients or chemicals as well as bacteria and viruses and in general from lifestyle. For most diseases, therefore, it is not very useful to study the genetic profile in the first place, but it is much more profitable to measure or analyze profiles such as those of metabolites, chemicals, proteins and microbiome within the body.

These are analyses which, according to the researchers, provide a more accurate measure of the risk of disease also in terms of diagnosis. “The bottom line is that if you want to have an accurate measure of your health, your propensity for disease or what you can do about it, it’s better to measure your metabolites, microbes or proteins, not your genes,” says Wishart quite clearly.