The Daily Dose: NASA’s big day; 1 million year old mammoth genome decoded.

Today’s a big day for NASA. Their latest and greatest Mars rover, Perseverance, is set to touch down on the Red Planet. Either that or it will come crashing down or disintegrate on entry. In other words, a successful landing is anything but guaranteed and shouldn’t be taken for granted. You can follow the events on various outlets, including NASA’s own website and YouTube channel.

The reach of modern biotechnology never ceases to amaze. It’s ability to fill in the blanks from our distant past gets better with each passing year. Enter the oldest genome ever to be extracted and decoded. Per Nature, “The million-year-old genome is here. Mammoth teeth preserved in eastern Siberian permafrost have produced the oldest ancient DNA on record, pushing the technology close to — but perhaps not past — its limits… Genomic DNA extracted from a trio of tooth specimens excavated in the 1970s has identified a new kind of mammoth that gave rise to a later North American species. The findings were published in Nature on 17 February.” The oldest previously sequenced ancient DNA was 560,000-780,000 years old. Additionally, the findings may also be further evidence of a still-controversial notion of hybrid speciation which suggests that new species can be created by mixing and not just splitting from a parent branch.

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Global health inequities continue to be put in focus as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is particularly true when it comes to vaccine distribution. Lower income countries have yet to enjoy any of the benefits. An article in Science highlights how the medical community in Africa are suffering the consequences. In many cases, doctors who chose to stay in their home countries are suffering. “Hakim’s death also highlights a stark reality in the global response to the coronavirus pandemic. Countries in Europe, Asia, and the Americas have administered more than 175 million shots to protect people against COVID-19 since December 2020, with most countries giving priority to medical workers. But not a single country in sub-Saharan Africa has started immunizations—South Africa will be the first, this week—leaving health care workers dying in places where they are scarce to begin with.” The situation could have been mitigated to a degree if wealthier countries had not acted entirely in their self-interest. It’s too late for that now.

Meanwhile, the journal is also reporting that people in France need to be convinced (!) to get vaccinated. “Recent polls suggest just 57% of the country intends to get vaccinated, whereas in the United Kingdom, 89% wants to get a shot for COVID-19.” Talk about entitlement.

Worrying news is being reported by the New Scientist. According to them, the first recombinant SARS-CoV-2 variant may have been isolated in a sample from California. “Two variants of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes covid-19 have combined their genomes to form a heavily mutated hybrid version of the virus. The “recombination” event was discovered in a virus sample in California, provoking warnings that we may be poised to enter a new phase of the pandemic… The hybrid virus is the result of recombination of the highly transmissible B.1.1.7 variant discovered in the UK and the B.1.429 variant that originated in California and which may be responsible for a recent wave of cases in Los Angeles because it carries a mutation making it resistant to some antibodies.” This is not entirely unexpected since coronaviruses are widely known to recombine due to the nature of the RNA polymerase responsible for replication. It’s also important to note that the finding has not be confirmed by other labs.

Biotechnology isn’t the only field that’s been filling in the considerable blanks in our planet’s historical record. Geologists continue to decode layers of earth for clues as to what exactly happened when the dinosaurs were wiped out. A team of researchers report that the burning of organic matter at the Chicxulub impact site may have exacerbated the toxic environment. “We present a detailed record of molecular burn markers (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons [PAHs]) from the Chicxulub crater and in ocean sediments distant from the impact site. PAH features indicate rapid heating and a fossil carbon source and are consistent with sedimentary carbon ejected from the impact crater and dispersed by the atmosphere. Target rock-derived soot immediately contributed to global cooling and darkening that curtailed photosynthesis and caused widespread extinction. PAH evidence indicates wildfires were present but less influential on global climate and extinction.” The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences.

Thanks for reading. Let’s be careful out there.

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