A bizarre gamma-ray burst breaks the rules for these cosmic eruptions

Astronomers have spotted a bright gamma-ray burst that upends previous theories of how these energetic cosmic eruptions occur.

For decades, astronomers thought that GRBs came in two flavors, long and short — that is, lasting longer than two seconds or winking out more quickly. Each type has been linked to different cosmic events. But about a year ago, two NASA space telescopes caught a short GRB in long GRB’s clothing: It lasted a long time but originated from a short GRB source.

“We had this black-and-white vision of the universe,” says astrophysicist Eleonora Troja of the Tor Vergata University of Rome. “This is the red flag that tells us, nope, it’s not. Surprise!”

This burst, called GRB 211211A, is the first that unambiguously breaks the binary, Troja and others report December 7 in five papers in Nature and Nature Astronomy.

Prior to the discovery of this burst, astronomers mostly thought that there were just two ways to produce a GRB. The collapse of a massive star just before it explodes in a supernova could make a long gamma-ray burst, lasting more than two seconds (SN: 10/28/22). Or a pair of dense stellar corpses called neutron stars could collide, merge and form a new black hole, releasing a short gamma-ray burst of two seconds or less.

But there had been some outliers. A surprisingly short GRB in 2020 seemed to come from a massive star’s implosion (SN: 8/2/21). And some long-duration GRBs dating back to 2006 lacked a supernova after the fact, raising questions about their origins.

“We always knew there was an overlap,” says astrophysicist Chryssa Kouveliotou of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., who wrote the 1993 paper that introduced the two GRB categories, but was not involved in the new work. “There were some outliers which we did not know how to interpret.”

There’s no such mystery about GRB 211211A: The burst lasted more than 50 seconds and was clearly accompanied by a kilonova, the characteristic glow of new elements being forged after a neutron star smashup.
“Although we suspected it was possible that extended emission GRBs were mergers … this is the first confirmation,” says astrophysicist Benjamin Gompertz of the University of Birmingham in England, who describes observations of the burst in Nature Astronomy. “It has the kilonova, which is the smoking gun.”

NASA’s Swift and Fermi space telescopes detected the explosion on December 11, 2021, in a galaxy about 1.1 billion light-years away. “We thought it was a run-of-the-mill long gamma-ray burst,” says astrophysicist Wen-fai Fong of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
It was relatively close by, as GRBs go. So that allowed Fong’s and Troja’s research groups to independently continue closely observing the burst in great detail using telescopes on the ground, the teams report in Nature.

As the weeks wore on and no supernova appeared, the researchers grew confused. Their observations revealed that whatever had made the GRB had also emitted much more optical and infrared light than is typical for the source of a long GRB.

After ruling out other explanations, Troja and colleagues compared the burst’s aftereffects with the first kilonova ever observed in concert with ripples in spacetime called gravitational waves (SN: 10/16/17). The match was nearly perfect. “That’s when many people got convinced we were talking about a kilonova,” she says.

In retrospect, it feels obvious that it was a kilonova, Troja says. But in the moment, it felt as impossible as seeing a lion in the Arctic. “It looks like a lion, it roars like a lion, but it shouldn’t be here, so it cannot be,” she says. “That’s exactly what we felt.”

Now the question is, what happened? Typically, merging neutron stars collapse into a black hole almost immediately. The gamma rays come from material that is superheated as it falls into the black hole, but the material is scant, and the black hole gobbles it up within two seconds. So how did GRB 211211A keep its light going for almost a minute?

It’s possible that the neutron stars first merged into a single, larger neutron star, which briefly resisted the pressure to collapse into a black hole. That has implications for the fundamental physics that describes how difficult it is to crush neutrons into a black hole, Gompertz says.

Another possibility is that a neutron star collided with a small black hole, about five times the mass of the sun, instead of another neutron star. And the process of the black hole eating the neutron star took longer.

Or it could have been something else entirely: a neutron star merging with a white dwarf, astrophysicist Bing Zhang of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and colleagues suggest in Nature. “We suggest a third type of progenitor, something very different from the previous two types,” he says.

White dwarfs are the remnants of smaller stars like the sun, and are not as dense or compact as neutron stars. A collision between a white dwarf and a neutron star could still produce a kilonova if the white dwarf is very heavy.

The resulting object could be a highly magnetized neutron star called a magnetar (SN: 12/1/20). The magnetar could have continued pumping energy into gamma rays and other wavelengths of light, extending the life of the burst, Zhang says.

Whatever its origins, GRB 211211A is a big deal for physics. “It is important because we wanted to understand, what on Earth are these events?” Kouveliotou says.

Figuring out what caused it could illuminate how heavy elements in the universe form. And some previously seen long GRBs that scientists thought were from supernovas might actually be actually from mergers.

To learn more, scientists need to find more of these binary-busting GRBs, plus observations of gravitational waves at the same time. Trejo thinks they’ll be able to get that when the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, comes back online in 2023.

“I hope that LIGO will produce some evidence,” Kouveliotou says. “Nature might be graceful and give us a couple of these events with gravitational wave counterparts, and maybe [help us] understand what’s going on.”

In 2022, the James Webb Space Telescope brought us new views of the cosmos

This year marked the end of a decades-long wait for astronomers. The James Webb Space Telescope is finally in action.

The telescope, which launched in December 2021, released its first science data in July (SN: 8/13/22, p. 30) and immediately began surpassing astronomers’ expectations.

“We’ve realized that James Webb is 10 times more sensitive than we predicted” for some kinds of observations, says astronomer Sasha Hinkley of the University of Exeter in England. His team released in September the telescope’s first direct image of an exoplanet (SN: 9/24/22, p. 6). He credits “the people who worked so hard to get this right, to launch something the size of a tennis court into space on a rocket and get this sensitive machinery to work perfectly. And I feel incredibly lucky to be the beneficiary of this.”
The telescope, also known as JWST, was designed to see further back into the history of the cosmos than ever before (SN: 10/9/21 & 10/23/21, p. 26). It’s bigger and more sensitive than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope. And because it looks in much longer wavelengths of light, JWST can observe distant and veiled objects that were previously hidden.

JWST spent its first several months collecting “early-release” science data, observations that test the different ways the telescope can see. “It is a very, very new instrument,” says Lamiya Mowla, an astronomer at the University of Toronto. “It will take some time before we can characterize all the different observation modes of all four instruments that are on board.”

That need for testing plus the excitement has led to some confusion for astronomers in these heady early days. Data from the telescope had been in such high demand that the operators hadn’t yet calibrated all the detectors before releasing data. The JWST team is providing calibration information so researchers can properly analyze the data. “We knew calibration issues were going to happen,” Mowla says.

The raw numbers that scientists have pulled out of some of the initial images may end up being revised slightly. But the pictures themselves are real and reliable, even though it takes some artistry to translate the telescope’s infrared data into colorful visible light (SN: 3/17/18, p. 4).

The stunning photos that follow are a few of the early greatest hits from the shiny new observatory.
JWST has captured the deepest views yet of the universe (above). Galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 (bluer galaxies) is 4.6 billion light-years from Earth. It acts as a giant cosmic lens, letting JWST zoom in on thousands of even more distant galaxies that shone 13 billion years ago (the redder, more stretched galaxies). The far-off galaxies look different in the mid-infrared light (above left) captured by the telescope’s MIRI instrument than they do in the near-infrared light (above right) captured by NIRCam. The first tracks dust; the second, starlight. Early galaxies have stars but very little dust.
JWST was built to peer over vast cosmic distances, but it also provides new glimpses at our solar system neighbors. This pic of Neptune was the first close look at its delicate-looking rings in over 30 years (SN: 11/5/22, p. 5).
The rings in this astonishing image are not an optical illusion. They’re made of dust, and a new ring is added every eight years when the two stars in the center of the image come close to each other. One of the stars is a Wolf-Rayet star, which is in the final stages of its life and puffing out dust. The cyclical dusty eruptions allowed scientists to directly measure for the first time how pressure from starlight pushes dust around (SN: 11/19/22, p. 6).
With JWST’s unprecedented sensitivity, astronomers plan to compare the earliest galaxies with more modern galaxies to figure out how galaxies grow and evolve. This galactic smashup, whose main remnant is known as the Cartwheel galaxy, shows a step in that epic process (SN Online: 8/3/22). The large central galaxy (right in the above composite) has been pierced through the middle by a smaller one that fled the scene (not in view). The Hubble Space Telescope previously snapped a visible light image of the scene (top half). But with its infrared eyes, JWST has revealed much more structure and complexity in the galaxy’s interior (bottom half).
The gas giant HIP 65426b was the first exoplanet to have its portrait taken by JWST (each inset shows the planet in a different wavelength of light; the star symbol shows the location of the planet’s parent star). This image, released by astronomer Sasha Hinkley and colleagues, doesn’t look like much compared with some of the other spectacular space vistas from JWST. But it will give clues to what the planet’s atmosphere is made of and shows the telescope’s potential for doing more of this sort of work on even smaller, rocky exoplanets (SN: 9/24/22, p. 6).
Another classic Hubble image updated by JWST is the Pillars of Creation. When Hubble viewed this star-forming region in visible light, it was shrouded by dust (above left). JWST’s infrared vision reveals sparkling newborn stars (above right).

The ancestor to modern brewing yeast has been found hiding in Ireland

In 1516, the duchy of Bavaria in Germany imposed a law on its beer brewers meant to reserve ingredients like wheat and rye for the baking of bread. The decree restricted brewers to using only barley, hops, water and yeast to make their libations, and set the prices for beer depending on the time of year. The law inadvertently limited brewing to the winter, which favored a cold-tolerant yeast called Saccharomyces pastorianus, which brews lager, over the more common S. cerevisiae, which brews ale.

S. pastorianus is a hybrid, produced from the mating of S. cerevisiae with another yeast called S. eubayanus. Despite lager’s European origins, S. eubayanus hadn’t actually been found there and was only first discovered in 2011, in the Patagonia region of South America (SN: 8/23/11). Now, thanks to a research project carried out by undergraduate students, S. eubayanus has been found living in European soil — fittingly, in the beer-loving nation of Ireland.

“Since the discovery of S. eubayanus [more than] 10 years ago, it’s been a fun puzzle putting together where the species is actually found,” says Quinn Langdon, a biologist at Stanford University, who was not involved with the study.

A leading theory is that S. eubayanus originated in Patagonia and then spread around the world, eventually mating with S. cerevisiae in European breweries to make S. pastorianus.

Geraldine Butler, a geneticist at University College Dublin and leader of the project, always thought that teaching genome-sequencing techniques by having students scour soils for yeast could turn up S. eubayanus. Still, she says, she couldn’t contain her excitement when she saw the first hint of the microbe. “I was sitting by the sequencer waiting for the results to come out,” she says.

One of Butler’s students, Stephen Allen, found two local strains of S. eubayanus hiding in plain sight on the Belfield campus of University College Dublin. The team has since gone back and found the yeast again, Butler says, suggesting that there is a stable population of the yeast living in the Irish soil.

The new discovery was published December 7 in FEMS Yeast Research.

Butler hopes this discovery will brew interest elsewhere in Europe to search for S. eubayanus, including in Bavaria, where lager brewing is thought to have first started. She is also looking for commercial partners to try making beer with the Irish strains.

Langdon isn’t confident that the new microbes will lead to tasty brews because there are other S. eubayanus strains that don’t grow well on maltose, the sugar that needs to be digested by yeasts during the brewing process. Still, Langdon says, “it’d be fun to brew with them.”
Whether the newly discovered Irish strains of S. pastorianus’ missing parent taste good or not, there’s no denying that their discovery helps solve a little piece of the puzzle of lager brewing’s origins. That 16th century shift from S. cerevisiae to S. pastorianus led to a global shift that continues to this day — more than 90 percent of beer sold worldwide today is lager.

Fungi are the “forgotten kingdom,” Langdon says, not getting as much attention as plants or animals, despite playing an outsize role in human history. “Yeasts are just single cells living in the soil, and they’re doing really important things.”

Tina Lasisi wants to untangle the evolution of human hair

Though humans’ nearly hairless bodies stick out like a cowlick among other primates, our nakedness isn’t unique in the world of mammals. Dolphins and whales are naked, says biological anthropologist Tina Lasisi of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. There are naked mole-rats. “Elephants, depending on how you look at them, are kind of naked,” she says. “But we’re the only weirdos that are naked except for our head.”

Our species traded off much of our body hair for more sweat glands, an evolutionary adaptation that helps us regulate body heat more efficiently. But what about another uniquely human feature? We’re the only animals known to express tightly curled hair, like that seen in many people of African descent. Lasisi wants to know why and how it came to be.

Backstory
For decades, traits that have been associated with racial categories, such as skin pigmentation and hair texture, have gone understudied or ignored among anthropologists, Lasisi says. Much of the study of human biological variation was deserted after the post–World War II backlash against eugenics, a racist field birthed from the idea that humankind could be improved if those deemed to have desirable traits were selectively allowed to reproduce. Since then, research on human variation has largely focused instead on traits that are not overtly racialized, such as lactose intolerance and adaptations to high altitudes.

But studying all forms of human variation is crucial to understanding our species’s evolution, Lasisi says. Studying variation in a way that normalizes rather than dampens or paints differences in a bad light is key not only to righting anthropology’s harmful legacy, but also ethical, socially responsible and sound science, she says.
Lasisi discovered biological anthropology as an undergraduate student at the University of Cambridge. As a Black person who spent many of her formative years among white people in the Netherlands, she was always aware of skin color. She vividly remembers learning that human skin pigmentation evolved as an adaptation to ultraviolet radiation — research pioneered by anthropologist Nina Jablonski of Penn State, who would later become Lasisi’s primary adviser. “It’s like a lightbulb went off in my head,” Lasisi says, and it made her wonder, “What else out there can be explained by evolution?”

Her interest in the origins of curly hair grew in part as an effort to understand her own locks. “Research is me-search,” Lasisi says. But when she first began, there wasn’t much science to comb through, and methodologies for measuring hair texture were either unreliable or inefficient.
Standout research
As part of her Ph.D. research, Lasisi worked with a team of anthropologists, thermal engineers and physiologists to study how curly hair might have given our bipedal ancestors a leg up in the hot and dry African savanna.

The team placed a variety of wigs made of human hair onto heat-sensing models and measured heat transfer in different environments. In dry settings, curly hair, especially tightly curled hair, protected the scalp from solar radiation while releasing more heat from the head than straight hair. Lasisi speculates that the larger amount of air space within curly hair is what does the trick.

To underpin her efforts and support future hair research, Lasisi developed an improved and standardized way of measuring hair curvature and cross-sectional shape. The technique involves segmenting, washing and taking pictures of hair strands and then running the images through an open-source computer program that she created.

Measuring these characteristics on a continuous spectrum (much like we do height, for instance), she argues, is a better way of studying hair texture than the long-standing practice of classifying hair into discrete categories, such as straight, wavy or curly. Such discrete categories are not standardized among experts and can become subjective, she says. They also obscure the immense variation that exists, even on a single person’s head, and especially among curly hair.
Lasisi is doing highly technical work that hasn’t been part of the conversation, says Robin Nelson, a biological anthropologist at Arizona State University in Tempe. “Before Tina, very few people were working on hair texture in the same way.”

Lasisi will bring this experience to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor as an assistant professor in 2023, where she’ll continue her studies on human variation.

Reaching out
Lasisi wants everyone to be included in conversations about what makes humans human. She has appeared on the podcast Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness (of Queer Eye fame). She also hosts a PBS digital show on human evolutionary biology called Why Am I Like This?, which she helps conceptualize and write.

What’s more, Lasisi has cultivated a community of curious science seekers on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. Through short-form videos marked by her signature wit and humor, such as her “Melanin March” series or “Darwin’s greatest hits against white supremacy,” Lasisi educates thousands of followers on human variation, how to talk about race and ethnicity from an anthropological perspective, and much more. She even gives prospective anthropologists career tips and behind-the-scenes glimpses of life in academia. Two-way discussions let her learn from her audience, which she calls her “little focus groups.”
Lasisi hopes her research and outreach will inspire and provide a helpful framework for more nuanced discussions about race, ethnicity, ancestry and human diversity — and that her visibility as a Black anthropologist will encourage other people of color to ask questions that are important to them. “I want to put enough information out there in the world, and [have] enough people out there in the world who have a grasp of that information,” she says, “so that we can see human variation for the beautiful, magnificent, complex thing that it is.”

The pandemic may be stunting young adults’ personality development

The psychological development of young adults may have taken a hit, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In typical times, people tend to become more conscientious and agreeable and less neurotic with age, a process known as psychological maturation. But in the United States, the pandemic seems to have reversed that personality trajectory, especially among adults under 30, researchers report September 28 in PLOS ONE. If those patterns persist, that could spell long-term trouble for this cohort, the researchers say.

“You get better as you go through life at being responsible, at coping with emotions and getting along with others,” says personality psychologist Rodica Damian of the University of Houston, who was not involved with this study. “The fact that in these young adults you see the opposite pattern does show stunted development.”
Personalities shape how people think, feel and behave. Researchers often assess a person’s personality profile along five core traits: neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion and openness to experience (SN: 9/1/21). Over time, these traits change slightly in individuals; neuroticism tends to decrease, for example, while agreeableness typically improves.

The pandemic, though, may be upending those typical trend lines. Even after factoring out expected changes, researchers in the new study observed about a decade’s worth of personality change, averaged across all study participants, in just three years — but going in the opposite of the expected direction. Young adults showed the greatest change in certain traits. Middle-aged adults — 30 to 64 years old — showed more change across all traits. The personalities of older adults, meanwhile, stayed largely unchanged.

Such age differences make intuitive sense to personality psychologist Wiebke Bleidorn of the University of Zurich. “The density of experiences in adolescence and young adulthood is so much higher” than in later life, says Bleidorn, who was not involved with the study. “If you miss out on your senior year of high school, you can’t get that back.”
To look at personality change in the United States before and during the pandemic, personality psychologist Angelina Sutin and colleagues analyzed data from the Understanding America Study.
This survey looks at how attitudes and behaviors in the country change in response to major events, such as the 2020 presidential election and the ongoing pandemic. Among those surveyed, roughly 7,000 people — ranging in age from 18 to 109 — took a personality inventory at least once in the six years prior to the pandemic and once during the pandemic.

Based on those responses, neuroticism overall in the United States dropped slightly in 2020, during the first year of the pandemic. That finding mirrors what the researchers found with a different dataset two years ago, when they reported that neuroticism declined in adults during the first six weeks of the pandemic. But the new findings include data from 2021 and 2022, which show that the dip was fleeting.

That initial dip was probably due to the sense of solidarity that emerged in the health crisis’s earlier months, along with people attributing their worries to the crisis rather than their own internal state, says Sutin, of Florida State University in Tallahassee. “In the second year, all that support fell apart.”
Average neuroticism scores have since rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. But the picture is nuanced, the researchers found. The 2020 dip was driven almost entirely by middle-aged participants and older adults. For those two groups, neuroticism scores continued to fall over the following years, albeit more slowly than before the pandemic. Neuroticism scores among young adults in 2021 and beyond, however, surpassed pre-pandemic levels.

Similarly, conscientiousness and agreeableness scores also declined among middle-aged adults in 2021 and early 2022, but the drop wasn’t nearly as steep as the one observed among young adults.

The findings are troubling, Sutin says. “We know these traits predict all sorts of long-term outcomes.”

For instance, high neuroticism links to mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression and feelings of loneliness. And low conscientiousness is linked to poor educational, work, health and relationship outcomes.

Still, whether these personality changes persist remains to be seen. It could be that young adults “missed the train” during a critical development period, Damian says. Maybe they would have gotten a college degree or pursued a more lucrative career without the pandemic. Or maybe these people can still reach their designated stop, just behind schedule.

“There are critical developmental periods and then there is plasticity,” Damian says. “We don’t know how it’s going to play out.”

Emily Jacobs wants to know how sex hormones sculpt the brain

When Emily Jacobs embarked on a career studying the brain in the early 2000s, a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, was having a moment. “Just like we have super powerful telescopes that can let us quantify the farthest reaches of the known universe, here we have this tool that could allow us to see the entire human brain and as a pulsing, living organ,” says Jacobs, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

By measuring changes in blood flow that serve as a proxy for brain activity, neuroscientists were getting new views of how different situations spur conversations between brain regions, and how the intensity of the conversations changes over time. “I was riding that wave of excitement,” Jacobs says.

But she soon realized there were big questions that weren’t being asked — questions important to half the world’s population. Do the natural hormonal changes that come with menstruation, pregnancy and menopause affect communication across the brain? What about hormonal contraceptives, such as the birth control pill, which are used by hundreds of millions of people globally? And what does it all mean for brain health and behavior?
Big goal
The rise and fall of hormones is a big reason women have historically been excluded from biomedical research, even though hormones in men fluctuate too. The resulting gap in knowledge of female biology has led to inadequate mental, physical and reproductive health care. “Science, and especially neuroscience, has not served the sexes equally,” Jacobs says.

With a range of tools — fMRI, other types of MRI and brain imaging, blood testing, neuropsychological testing, virtual reality and more — Jacobs’ lab is trying to fill in gaps in our basic understanding of how hormones act in the human brain. And she is studying the hormones as a lens for bigger questions about brain changes.

“What’s really special about Emily’s work is that she does it at so many different levels. It’s so multifaceted,” says cognitive neuroscientist Caterina Gratton of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “She has multiple different types of brain measures, from the molecular all the way up to brain systems.”

Standout research
In a series of studies dubbed 28 and Me — for the 28 days of a typical menstrual cycle — Jacobs and colleagues closely monitored the brain of one woman for the duration of her natural menstrual cycle. Every 24 hours over 30 days, this 20-something woman’s brain was scanned, blood hormone levels checked and mood assessed.

As the woman’s estrogen levels peaked during ovulation, regions throughout the brain synced up. And regions in an important hub called the default mode network became tight conversationalists. What’s more, one part of this network rearranged itself to create a new and transient communication clique. After ovulation, when estrogen levels dropped and progesterone levels spiked, gray matter temporarily expanded in a brain structure tied to learning and memory.

When the same woman was examined a year later while on the pill, which quells progesterone, the changes weren’t observed.

The findings, described in 2021 in Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, provide strong evidence that the ebb and flow of sex hormones drives changes in the brain on a day-to-day basis, Jacobs and colleagues say. They also saw links between hormone fluctuations and brain changes in a male participant.
What’s next
The observations led cognitive neuroscientist Caitlin Taylor, a postdoc in Jacobs’ lab, to wonder how the brain responds to chronic hormone suppression from oral contraceptive use. The team is launching a large-scale study to attempt to find out.

Initially, Jacobs hesitated to green-light the research. She worried it could be twisted to erode access to contraception. Eventually, she relented, because women “deserve to have science that can serve us,” she says.

Another effort, which Jacobs and Taylor are building, will make data for such large-scale studies widely available. Called the University of California Women’s Brain Initiative, it aims to funnel records from the university system’s eight brain-imaging research centers into an open-access database. When a woman gets her brain scanned at one of the centers, her de-identified brain-imaging data, medical data and information about hormonal contraceptive use will be entered into the database. Once all eight centers are on board, there could be about 10,000 participants annually — way more than a single lab could recruit.

The expected mountain of data should be a boon to researchers asking big and small questions about brain health, Jacobs says. And she hopes it will improve women’s health care.

Christopher Barnes is on a quest for a universal coronavirus vaccine

In January 2020, Caltech biochemist Pamela Bjorkman asked for volunteers to help work out the structures of immune proteins that attack a newly discovered coronavirus. The pathogen had emerged in China and was causing severe pneumonia-like symptoms in the people it infected. Knowing the molecular arrangements of these antibodies would be an important step toward developing drugs to fight the virus.

Christopher Barnes, a postdoc working in Bjorkman’s lab on the structure of HIV and the antibodies that target it, jumped at the chance to solve a new puzzle. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll do it!’” Barnes says. At the time he wasn’t aware how urgent the research would become.

Now, we are all too familiar with SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19 and has killed more than 6 million people globally. Studies of the structure of the virus and the antibodies that target it have helped scientists quickly develop vaccines and treatments that have saved tens of millions of lives. But the virus continues to adapt, making changes to the spike protein that it uses to break into cells. That has left researchers scrambling for new drugs and updated vaccines.

Using high-resolution imaging techniques, Barnes is probing coronavirus spike proteins and the antibodies that attack them. His goal: Find a persistent weak spot and exploit it to create a vaccine that works against all coronaviruses.

Standout research
Barnes’ team used cryo-electron microscopy to reveal the structures of eight antibodies that stop the original version of SARS-CoV-2. The technique catches cells, viruses and proteins going about their business by flash freezing them. In this case, the team isolated coronavirus particles entwined with immune system proteins from people with COVID-19.

The antibodies had attached to four spots on the spike protein’s receptor binding domain, or RBD, the team reported in Nature in 2020. This fingerlike region anchors the virus to the cell it will infect. When antibodies bind to the RBD, the virus can no longer connect to the cell.
Barnes’ team also created an antibody classification system based on the RBD location where the immune system proteins tend to latch on. “That’s been really helpful for understanding the types of antibody responses that are elicited by natural infection,” says structural biologist Jason McLellan, who wasn’t involved in the work, and for identifying prime candidates for drug development.

“A major strength of Chris is that he does not limit himself or his research to one technique,” says McLellan, of the University of Texas at Austin. “He quickly adapts and incorporates new technologies to answer important questions in the field.”

Since launching his own lab at Stanford, Barnes and colleagues have determined the structures of six antibodies that attack the original SARS-CoV-2 virus and delta and omicron variants. Those variants are skilled at evading antibodies, including lab-made ones given to patients to treat COVID-19.

The newly identified antibodies, described in the June 14 Immunity, target the spike protein’s N-terminal domain. The structures of the sites where the proteins attach are the same in delta and omicron, hinting that the sites might remain unchanged even in future variants, the team says. Eventually, scientists may be able to mass-produce antibodies that target these sites for use in new therapies.

What’s next
Barnes has now turned his attention to antibodies that can fend off all coronaviruses — from ones that cause the common cold to ones found in livestock and other animals that have the potential to spill over into people.

Barnes and immunologist Davide Robbiani of the University of Lugano in Switzerland identified classes of antibodies that target variants from all four coronavirus families, blocking the viruses’ ability to fuse with cells.

What’s more, the structure of one of the binding sites on the spike protein is the same across the coronavirus family tree, Barnes says. “This is something you wouldn’t want to mutate as you diversify your viral family because this is a critical component of how you enter the cell.”

Two independent teams have identified similarly broad action in the same antibody classes. Taken together, the findings suggest that a universal coronavirus vaccine is possible, Barnes says.

“We’ve all kind of discovered this at the same time,” he says. The teams are now thinking, “Wow, this exists. So let’s try to make a real, true pan-coronavirus vaccine.”

The pandemic shows us how crises derail young adults’ lives for decades

Ninna Ragasa was 24 years old when doctors discovered a mass on the left hemisphere of her brain. Further imaging revealed that Ragasa had an arteriovenous malformation, a tangle of blood vessels that disrupt the flow of oxygen to the brain.

Doctors suggested removing the mass to avoid the possibility of it rupturing, a potentially fatal outcome. Ragasa, a graduate student in interior design at the Pratt Institute in New York City, worried that the brain surgery would hurt her mobility and her career aspirations.

“Being a designer came easily to me,” says Ragasa, who is a friend of mine.

But the procedure went smoothly, and Ragasa returned to her life at Pratt. Then a year or so after the surgery, Ragasa started falling. At first, she blamed her hard-work, hard-party lifestyle and cut back on drinks. But she kept falling. So she switched from spike heels to chunky boots and then to flip flops. Nothing helped. One day Ragasa fell getting off the subway and had to crawl to her mother’s house.

Scans revealed that Ragasa’s brain had swelled after the procedure, causing her to gradually lose mobility along the right side of her body. Ragasa could no longer handle the physical demands of being an art student, such as building models and drawing. So she dropped out of school and found a job that came with medical insurance to pay for her physical therapy treatments. She felt, she says, totally lost.

Many of us get derailed at some point in our lives. We may get sick like Ragasa, divorced, laid off or lose a loved one. Our age when calamity strikes can profoundly influence our response to the event, research suggests, with young adults particularly vulnerable to getting thrown off course. That’s partially because when the rites of passage that mark the transition from childhood to adulthood are delayed or lost, young adults can feel unmoored and increasingly uncertain about the future — a point driven home by this cohort’s plummeting well-being during the ongoing pandemic.
Researchers have not always treated young adulthood as markedly different from other adult years. But it’s now well established that the human brain matures well into one’s 20s (SN: 5/22/19). And social and economic changes in recent generations mean that the once linear path from living in one’s parents’ home to moving out and starting one’s own family has elongated and become considerably more jagged. And for years, climate change has added mounting uncertainty to the already fraught mix (SN: 8/18/21). The pandemic, in other words, did not cause the mental health crisis among young adults, but merely accelerated existing trends.

Ages 18 to 25 constitute an intense time of exploration in love, work and worldview. This age band should be treated as a unique developmental period, distinct from either being a child or a full-fledged adult, psychologist Jeffrey Arnett of Clark University in Worcester, Ma., wrote in a seminal 2000 paper in American Psychologist. “Emerging adulthood is a time of life when many different directions remain possible, when little about the future has been decided for certain, when the scope of independent exploration of life’s possibilities is greater for most people than it will be at any other period of the life course.”

The pandemic has forced us to ask: What happens when that “scope of independent exploration of life’s possibilities” gets stalled or even curtailed?

The evidence so far suggests that the fallout for young adults could be dire. Instead of maturing, this group’s personalities have become more juvenile, I reported last month (SN: 9/28/22). In general, those under age 30 have become less conscientious, less agreeable and more neurotic. Compared with older adults, young adults have also reported higher levels of anxiety, depression and feelings of loneliness during the pandemic.
A survey of roughly 2,600 U.S. adults taken in January 2022, showed that members of this group have distorted the U-curve. This somewhat controversial theory holds that well-being, including happiness and health, are high in early and later life but low in middle age. In this view, despair, once reserved for middle age, has, it seems, become the badge of youth.

“The left part of the ‘U’ has essentially completely flattened,” wrote study coauthor and Harvard University epidemiologist Tyler VanderWeele in Psychology Today. “Young people … report being less happy and less healthy; having less meaning, greater struggles with character, and poor relationships; and [being] less financially stable compared to their older counterparts.”

Decisions made during young adulthood can also have profound knock-on effects. Temporarily delaying going to college at the pandemic’s onset, for instance, could become a permanent decision, thereby radically shifting the trajectory of one’s life.

Some young adults will recover from this event without much trouble, but others may struggle, says personality psychologist Rodica Damian of the University of Houston. “Sometimes when something happens during a critical development period, there is a snowball effect.”

Damian’s comment reminded me of a conversation I had more than a year ago with developmental psychologist Anthony Burrow of Cornell University. Rather presciently, shortly before the pandemic hit, Burrow had begun characterizing a phenomenon he referred to as “derailment.” Derailment, Burrow told me, refers to people’s feeling that their life has been thrown off course. That feeling can lead people to lose their sense of identity, to struggle to answer the question: Who am I?

“Derailment is a subjective sense that who you were cannot be reconciled with who you are,” Burrow says. “That train was heading in one direction on those tracks, but can no longer advance on that track.”

One way to gauge derailment during the pandemic is to ask ourselves: “Am I still the same person as I was pre-pandemic?” Burrow says. “It’s a basic question with profound implications.”

People in the United States who feel derailed struggle with anxiety, depression and reduced feelings of well-being, Burrow and his team reported in 2020 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Moreover, those feelings of derailment are associated with depressive symptoms a year or more down the road.

But Burrow’s work also points to ways to get our metaphorical trains back on track. In that same study, he found that journaling — having people write a narrative that stitches together their past and present selves — can help them regain that sense of continuity and reestablish goals for the future.

Other research suggests that adopting a more flexible East Asian mindset could help people cope with a life that veers off course. Derailed Japanese individuals, that is, do not show the same drop in well-being observed as Westerners, researchers reported in 2021 in the Journal of Happiness Studies. The researchers suspect that the difference lies in thinking styles. While Westerners tend to believe life should follow a linear course, Japanese people tend to believe life is dialectic, or full of contradictions and in constant flux. Derailments, as such, are to be expected.

Ragasa, who moved to the United States from the Philippines as a child, understands that flux. But losing her identity in her 20s, at a time when she felt physically and emotionally invincible, left her reeling. She eventually moved to Vermont and had a son.

Still, she took years to accept that the old art track she was on was gone forever. “I had to mourn it and let it go,” she says. Now, she says, she has begun the arduous process of finding a new track. “I still feel lost,” she says. “I have to figure out who I am now.”

For the first time, astronomers saw dust in space being pushed by starlight

A pair of stars in our galaxy is revealing how light pushes around matter. It’s the first time anyone has directly seen how the pressure of light from stars changes the flow of dust in space.

Such radiation pressure influences how dust clears from the regions near young stars and guides the formation of gas clouds around dying stars (SN: 9/22/20). The dust pattern surrounding a stellar pair 5,600 light-years away in the Cygnus constellation is providing a rare laboratory to observe the effect in action, astronomer Yinuo Han and colleagues report in the Oct. 13 Nature.

Astronomers have long known that the dust emerging from the star WR 140 and its companion is formed by gas from these two stars colliding and condensing into soot. But images of the pair taken over the course of 16 years show that the dust is accelerating as it travels away from the stars.

Dust initially departs the stars at about 6.5 million kilometers per hour, the researchers report, and over the course of a year accelerates to nearly 10 million km/h. At that speed, the dust could make the trip from our sun to Earth in a mere 15 hours.

The revelation came from comparing the positions of concentric dust shells year to year and deducing a speed. The researchers’ calculations show that the force accelerating the dust is the pressure exerted by light radiated from the stars, says Han, of the University of Cambridge. “Radiation pressure [becomes apparent] only when we put all the images next to each other.”

Not only are those layers of dust feeling light’s push, they also extend out farther than any telescope could see — until this year. Images from the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, depict more of the dusty layers around WR 140 and its companion than ever seen before, Han and another team report October 12 in Nature Astronomy.

At first glance, the intricate patterns surrounding the stars resemble a gigantic spider web. But the researchers’ analysis reveals that they are actually enormous, expanding, cone-shaped dust shells. They’re nested inside each other, with a new one forming every eight years as the stars complete another journey around their orbits. In the new images, the shells look like sections of rings because we observe them from the side, Han says.
The patterns don’t completely surround the stars because the distance between the stars changes as they orbit one another. When the stars are far apart, the density of the colliding gas is too low to condense to dust — an effect the researchers expected.

What surprised them is that the gas doesn’t condense well when the stars are closest together either. That suggests there’s a “Goldilocks zone” for dust formation: Dust forms only when the separation between the stars is just right, creating a series of concentric dust shells rippling away from the duo.

“Their Goldilocks zone is a new idea,” says astrophysicist Andy Pollock of the University of Sheffield in England, who was not part of either study. “A similar sort of thing happens in my field of X-rays.”

In his work, Pollock has observed that WR 140 and its partner emit more X-rays as the stars approach each other, but then fewer as they get very close together, suggesting there’s a Goldilocks zone for X-rays coming from the stars as well. “It would be interesting to see if there’s any connection” between the two types of Goldilocks zones, he says. “All of this must somehow fit together.”

Ancient DNA unveils Siberian Neandertals’ small-scale social lives

DNA from a group of Neandertals who lived together and a couple of others who lived not far away has yielded the best genetic peek to date into the social worlds of these ancient hominids.

As early as around 59,000 years ago, Neandertal communities in a mountainous part of Central Asia consisted of small groups of close relatives and adult female newcomers, researchers report October 19 in Nature.

That social scenario comes courtesy of DNA extracted from the teeth and bones of 13 Neandertals found at two caves in the foothills of southern Siberia’s Altai Mountains. Estimates of overall genetic similarity among these Stone Age folks indicate that they formed communities of about 20 individuals, with females often migrating from their home groups to those of their mates, say evolutionary geneticist Laurits Skov of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and colleagues.

It’s unknown whether Altai Neandertals’ small-scale lifestyle was unusual, perhaps due to living in a sparsely populated area, or mirrored Neandertal practices elsewhere in Asia and Europe. Large numbers of Neandertals in Central Europe transformed a forest into grassland around 125,000 years, suggesting they could scale up communities when needed (SN: 12/15/21).

Skov’s group studied the DNA of 11 Neandertals from Chagyrskaya Cave and two Neandertals from Okladnikov Cave (SN: 1/27/20). The Chagyrskaya individuals included a father and his teenage daughter as well as an adult female and an 8- to 12-year-old boy, who was possibly her nephew or grandson.

In the Chagyrskaya group, mitochondrial DNA, typically inherited from the mother, displayed greater diversity than DNA from the Y chromosome, which is inherited only by males. The enhanced mitochondrial DNA variety suggests that adult females frequently moved into that community while the males stayed put, the researchers suspect.