The 50,000 year old chemists!

If you thought Neanderthals were simple cave men, you may have to think again. It has been known for a long time that Neanderthals used fire, but there has been highly debated as to whether they took advantage of naturally occurring fire or whether they knew how to make it themselves from scratch. New research published in Nature Scientific Reports suggests that they were not only able to spark a fire from scratch, but that they used chemistry to make the fire starting process easier! Blocks of manganese dioxide were uncovered in a 50,000 year old site at Pech-de-l’Azé I in southwest France, which had clear aberration marks on them. Sprinkling powdered manganese dioxide over a pile of wood was found to lower the temperature needed to spark a fire by approximately 100°C. This is something other manganese oxides cannot do and the abundance of the material found in this site suggests that perhaps, the Neanderthals here knew that too.

A new long distance record!

The universe is really…really old. About 13.8 billion years old to be more precise. Light can travel a long way in this time. In fact, a single photon would travel 13.8 billion light-years in that time. That is equivalent to approximately 130,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 km (…a really, really long way). This defines the rough size of the universe that we are physically able to observe and if we could see that far back, we would be able to see what the universe was like at the point of the Big Bang. With this in mind, astronomers at Yale University reported this week that they had discovered a galaxy that is 13.4 billion light-years away from us, which corresponds to light having been emitted when the universe was less than 3% of its current age. This smashes the previous cosmological distance record set just last year by a staggering 300 million light-years, which is the same as travelling from one end of the Milky Way to the other 3000 times! The astronomers calculate that this galaxy at this stage of its life was only 1% the size of our Milky Way today and forming new stars 20x faster, with its unexpected brightness challenging the current models for how galaxies form.

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The noose tightens further for cancer

Scientists at University College London reported this week in Science that they have developed a way to use the patient’s own immune system to kill cancers, by discovering unique markings within a tumour. This has been particularly difficult in the past because cancerous tumours are clumps of very different and highly mutated cells, making different parts of a tumour look and behave differently. They typically grow like a tree, with core “trunk” mutations that can then branch off. This study developed a way of discovering the trunk mutations that change the proteins that stick out of the cancerous cells. Although yet to be tested in humans and could be expensive, it helps pave the way to more effective personalised therapies by targeting these trunk mutations, much like how weed killers destroy the roots of the plant.

Written by: Justin Aluko