Now We Know How the Zombie Ant Gets Its Bite

How do we begin to comprehend the astonishing complexity of a fungus that invades an ant’s body, grows throughout its tissues, and orders the host to climb up a tree and bite onto a twig, killing it and exploding out the back of its head to rain down spores on more ants below? Should science just leave this zombie outbreak a mystery?

Nah, ain’t no fun in that. Over at Penn State, biologists have been teasing apart this incredible manipulation by the Ophiocordyceps fungus, and today they’ve put a new piece of the puzzle in place—how the fungus gets the ant to bite down on a twig. The answer is every bit as dastardly as you’d expect from a murderous fungus.

Matt Simon covers cannabis, robots, and climate science for WIRED.

When an Ophiocordyceps spore lands on the exoskeleton of an ant, it begins to eat its way through the hard material, eventually infiltrating the gooey, nutritious innards. Here it grows so-called hyphal tubes throughout the body, forming a network that penetrates the muscles of the poor ant. (How that [...]  read more

Climate Change Is Very Real. But So Much of It Is Uncertain

One of the more terrifying elements of climate change is the uncertainty of it all. You start with the big picture of a warming planet, but as you zoom in you find ever more climatic and geological and biological systems interacting with one another—a complexity unfathomable for the human mind. We’re talking about a crisis that is affecting every organism and every square inch of this planet.

That makes calculating the carbon budget—the amount of greenhouse gases humanity can emit globally while adhering to certain goals—an unenviable task. (The goal of the Paris Agreement was 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels; we’re already at 1 degree.) Different teams of researchers have reached wildly diverging conclusions, from “We can emit 1,000 gigatonnes more CO2 before we reach 1.5 degrees” to “Sorry, but we’ve already spent our carbon budget for 1.5.” There is simply too much uncertainty in the models.

But today  [...]  read more

What Happens When Reproductive Tech Like IVF Goes Awry?

It sounds like the setup to a bad joke: Three couples walk into a fertility clinic. But the punch line—what happened to those families at one Los Angeles medical facility in August 2018—is no laughing matter. The embryos from two couples hoping to conceive were mistakenly implanted into a third patient. That third woman and her husband, both of Korean descent, suspected that something was amiss when their two newborns didn’t look anything like them.

DNA testing confirmed that Baby A and Baby B (as court documents called them) weren’t genetically related to either of the birth parents, or to each other—they were related to two other couples who had been seeking fertility treatments at the same clinic. The birth parents were forced to give up their “twins” to their respective genetic parents.

The other two couples, while granted the surprise of children they thought they’d never have, missed out on the experience of pregnancy and early bonding. One of the [...]  read more

Not Everyone on 23andMe Will Get the Latest Gene Chip Updates

If you were early to the 23andMe spit party, you’ve probably noticed that you haven’t gotten any new reports about your genes from the company in a while. Not like more recent customers, whose inboxes receive the results of such analyses on the regular—like one with more specific ancestry estimates, which came out last year, or this one, for risk of type 2 diabetes, which arrived in March.

You haven’t gotten them because 23andMe, like most other direct-to-consumer DNA companies, untangles your genetic secrets using a relatively inexpensive technology called genotyping. Instead of sequencing all 6.4 billion base pairs of DNA, it takes strategic snapshots at just a few hundred thousand locations across the genome, looking at the different, important, and changeable parts. But since scientists frequently discover new links between DNA and disease, genes [...]  read more

A Leaky Component Caused the SpaceX Crew Dragon Explosion

Ever since the space shuttle program ended in 2011, American astronauts bound for the International Space Station have had to hitch a ride with the Russians. It’s a costly arrangement—$75 million per seat—and depends on cordial relations between Moscow and Washington. That’s why the US space program has made it a priority to return crewed launches to American soil. NASA has tapped SpaceX and Boeing to lead the effort, and both companies hope to attempt crewed missions to the ISS by the end of the year.

But SpaceX’s ambitions appeared to suffer a major setback in April when its Crew Dragon spacecraft exploded during testing. NASA and SpaceX have spent the past three months investigating the “anomaly”; although the inquiry is ongoing, the company announced earlier today that it has identified the cause of the disaster.

According to Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of build and flight reliability, the explosion was likely the result of a leaky component. [...]  read more

Headed to Mars? Pack Some Aerogel—You Know, for Terraforming

Mars attacks. Its wisp of an atmosphere means that if you were standing on the surface, it’d be a race to see if suffocation or the sub-zero temperature killed you first. But that’s all tarring the red planet with too broad a brush, perhaps. It’s not all a rusty, frozen hellscape. At the mid-latitudes, just inches down into the ground, you’d find ice—frozen gases like carbon dioxide, even frozen water.

If only Mars was warmer, wetter, more oxygen-y, the would-be Martians whine. If only people wouldn’t have to carry bubbles of home with them to colonize Mars and make manifest humanity’s destiny among the stars, or something. As most humans busily make Earth less and less habitable, a few humans propose making Mars more Earth-like, via a process called terraforming.

Carl Sagan pitched the idea back in 1971, and even then he knew the main [...]  read more

Robots Alone Can’t Solve Amazon’s Labor Woes

Today is Prime Day, that time of year when shoppers swarm Amazon’s discounted digital shelves. A few days later all that stuff will show up at your door, as if by capitalistic magic. But it’s not magic—it’s the product of an army of human packers in warehouses.

And some of those workers are angry. Amazon warehouse employees in Minnesota plan on striking today, demanding better working conditions and less intense productivity quotas. In a photo published by Bloomberg last week, the workers held a sign reading: “We Are Humans, Not Robots!”

Which brings us to an uncomfortable idea in this new era of robotic automation: If human workers are working like robots, why can’t they just be robots? Can’t Amazon replace everyone with machines and wave goodbye to its labor woes? But in asking that question we’re not giving these workers enough credit for how smart and versatile and dexterous they are, and we’re forgetting just how inept robots still are. [...]  read more

Gulf Fisheries Are Under Siege—Now Comes Tropical Storm Barry

This story originally appeared on HuffPost and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

As fishermen deep in the Louisiana bayou, Kindra Arnesen and her family have faced their share of life-altering challenges in recent years.

First came Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 monster storm that devastated her small fishing community in Plaquemines Parish before roaring up the Gulf Coast, killing more than 1,800 people and destroying $125 billion in property. Five years later, BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded 40 miles offshore, spewing nearly 200 million gallons of crude. The fisheries have not fully recovered more than nine years later, nor has her family.

But this year may be worse. A historic slow-moving flood of polluted Mississippi River water loaded with chemicals, pesticides, and human waste from 31 states and two Canadian provinces is draining straight into the marshes and bayous of the Gulf [...]  read more

The Simple Idea Behind Einstein’s Greatest Discoveries

The flashier fruits of Albert Einstein’s century-old insights are by now deeply embedded in the popular imagination: Black holes, time warps and wormholes show up regularly as plot points in movies, books, TV shows. At the same time, they fuel cutting-edge research, helping physicists pose questions about the nature of space, time, even information itself.

Quanta Magazine

author photo
Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research develop­ments and trends in mathe­matics and the physical and life sciences.

Perhaps ironically, though, what is arguably the most revolutionary part of Einstein’s legacy rarely gets attention. It has none of the splash of gravitational waves, the pull of black holes or even the charm of quarks. But lurking just behind the curtain of all these exotic phenomena is a deceptively simple idea that pulls the levers, shows how the pieces fit together, and lights the path ahead.

The idea is this: Some changes don’t change anything. The most fundamental aspects of nature stay the same even as they seemingly shape-shift in unexpected ways. Einstein’s 1905 papers on relativity led to the unmistakable [...]  read more

Tropical Storm Barry Pits New Orleans Against Water—Again

If all does not go well this weekend, Tropical Storm Barry will spin into the city of New Orleans, bringing with it (according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) life-threatening storm surge, 40 mile-per-hour winds, and perhaps as much as 25 inches of rain. Barry is a lumbering brute; forecasters expect it to linger.

Early coverage of the oncoming storm has focused, understandably, on the seemingly tenuous state of the levees alongside the Mississippi River. Swollen by floods in the Midwest this spring, the river is nearly 17 feet above sea level, and NOAA expects it to briefly go higher still when the river meets Barry’s storm surge. But the real worry in New Orleans right now, and all along the Gulf coast, is rainfall. More than two centuries of trying [...]  read more