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Teaching Bats to Say ‘Move Out of My Way’ in Many Dialects

Image result for batsWild fruit bats, living in crowded roosts, are exposed to calls from hundreds of fellow bats from birth. Most often these calls are made in response to unsolicited physical contact, and essentially amount to a crabby “move out of my way.” In a study published Wednesday in PLOS Biology, a team of Israeli researchers found that bat pups match their vocalizations to the group sounds they are immersed in, even if this “dialect” differs from that of their mothers. Human babies and toddlers pick up the utterances around them effortlessly. The ability, called vocal learning, is considered critical for our spoken language. But vocal learning has rarely been proven to exist in animals other than humans or songbirds, said Yossi Yovel, a neuroecologist at Tel Aviv University who led the study with graduate students Yosef Prat and Lindsay Azoulay.

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How Neanderthals Influenced Human Genetics at the Crossroads of Asia and Europe

Image result for western asiaWhen the ancestors of modern humans migrated out of Africa, they passed through the Middle East and Turkey before heading deeper into Asia and Europe. Here, at this important crossroads, it’s thought that they encountered and had sexual rendezvous with a different hominid species: the Neanderthals. Genomic evidence shows that this ancient interbreeding occurred, and Western Asia is the most likely spot where it happened.

A new study explores the legacy of these interspecies trysts, with a focus on Western Asia, where the first relations may have taken place. The research, published on Oct. 13 in Genome Biology and Evolution, analyzes the genetic material of people living in the region today, identifying DNA sequences inherited from Neanderthals. “As far as human history goes, this area was the stepping stone for the peopling of all of Eurasia,” says Omer Gokcumen, PhD, an assistant professor of biological sciences in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences. “This is where humans first settled when they left Africa. It may be where they first met Neanderthals. From the standpoint of genetics, it’s a very interesting region.”

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h7n9 Influenza Is Both Lethal and Transmissible in Animal Model for Flu

In 2013, an influenza virus that had never before been detected began circulating among poultry in China. It caused several waves of human infection and in late 2016, the number of people to become sick from the H7N9 virus suddenly started to rise. As of late July 2017, nearly 1,600 people had tested positive for avian H7N9. Nearly 40 percent of those infected had died. In early 2017, Yoshihiro Kawaoka, professor of pathobiological sciences at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, received a sample of H7N9 virus isolated from a patient in China who had died of the flu. He and his research team subsequently began work to characterize and understand it. The first of those results are published today (Oct. 19, 2017) in Cell Host & Microbe. For the first time, Kawaoka says, his team has identified an influenza virus strain that is both transmissible between ferrets (the best animal model proxy for human influenza infections) and lethal, both in the animal originally infected and in otherwise healthy ferrets in close contact with these infected animals. “This is the first case of a highly pathogenic avian virus that transmits between ferrets and kills them,” Kawaoka says. “That’s not good for public health.”

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‘This Is Very Alarming!’: Flying Insects Vanish from Nature Preserves

Not long ago, a lengthy drive on a hot day wouldn’t be complete without scraping bug guts off a windshield. But splattered insects have gone the way of the Chevy Nova — you just don’t see them on the road like you used to. Biologists call this the windshield phenomenon. It’s a symptom, they say, of a vanishing population. “The windscreen phenomenon is probably one of the best illustrative ways to realize we are dealing with a decline in flying insects,” said Caspar Hallmann, an ecologist at Radboud University in the Netherlands. Hallmann is part of a research team that recently waded through 27 years’ worth of insects collected in German nature preserves. “This decline happened in nature reserves, which are meant to preserve biodiversity and ecosystem functioning,” Hallmann said. “This is very alarming!”

“If you like to eat nutritious fruits and vegetables, you should thank an insect. If you like salmon, you can thank a tiny fly that the salmon eat when they’re young,” Black said. “The whole fabric of our planet is built on plants and insects and the relationship between the two.”

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Nature or Nurture? Innate Social Behaviors in the Mouse Brain

Adult male mice have a simple repertoire of innate, or instinctive, social behaviors: When encountering a female, a male mouse will try to mate with it, and when encountering another male, the mouse will attack. The animals do not have to be taught to perform these behaviors. This has led to the widespread presumption among neuroscientists that the brain circuits mediating these behaviors are “hardwired,” meaning that they are genetically encoded pathways with little flexibility. But new research from Caltech neuroscientists shows that these behaviors and the neurons that represent them are not as fixed as previously believed. “This is an unexpected discovery,” says co-first author Ann Kennedy, a Caltech postdoctoral scholar in biology and biological engineering. “This area of the brain, the ventromedial hypothalamus, is a primitive, ancient region. We used to think of it as the basement of the brain, more like a plumbing system than a computer. Our study shows that this region exhibits plasticity and computation.”

The paper is titled “Social behaviour shapes hypothalamic neural ensemble representations of conspecific sex.”

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New Study Shows How Bee’s Brain Functions to Guide It Home

Image result for Megalopta genalisBees use their vision to navigate, but until now little was known about what happens inside their brains — which are smaller than a grain of rice — as they perform this task. “Polarized-light-based compass neurons and optic-flow-based speed-encoding neurons are located in a part of the bee brain called the central complex,” the study authors explained. “We found this region plays a pivotal role in controlling the navigation system — known as path integration or ‘dead reckoning’ — which is used by many animals, including bees, ants and humans.”

Dr. Heinze and colleagues unraveled the complex workings of the system by studying the brains of tropical nocturnal bees Megalopta genalis. Their results, together with microscope studies of how the nerve cells are connected, were used to develop a detailed computer model of the bee’s brain. “Understanding such a complex behavior at the level of single neurons is an important step forward for the science of brain function.”

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‘Antibiotic Apocalypse’: Doctors Sound Alarm Over Drug Resistance

Image result for drug resistanceScientists attending a recent meeting of the American Society for Microbiology reported they had uncovered a highly disturbing trend. They revealed that bacteria containing a gene known as mcr-1 – which confers resistance to the antibiotic colistin – had spread round the world at an alarming rate since its original discovery 18 months earlier. In one area of China, it was found that 25% of hospital patients now carried the gene. The arithmetic is stark and disturbing, as the conference organisers make clear. At present about 700,000 people a year die from drug-resistant infections. However, this global figure is growing relentlessly and could reach 10 million a year by 2050. The danger, say scientists, is one of the greatest that humanity has faced in recent times. In a drug-resistant world, many aspects of modern medicine would simply become impossible.

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Two Ancient DNA Studies Provide New Insights into Lives of Neanderthals and Paleolithic Humans

Image result for neanderthalTwo separate teams of researchers have used advanced DNA sequencing methods to analyze the 52,000-year-old remains of a Neanderthal woman from Vindija Cave in Croatia, and the 34,000-year-old remains of four anatomically modern humans from the Upper Paleolithic archaeological site of Sunghir. The findings are published in two papers in the journal Science.

Kay Prüfer et al. A high-coverage Neandertal genome from Vindija Cave in Croatia. Science, published online October 5, 2017; doi: 10.1126/science.aao1887

Martin Sikora et al. Ancient genomes show social and reproductive behavior of early Upper Paleolithic foragers. Science, published online October 5, 2017; doi: 10.1126/science.aao1807

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