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Italy’s genetic diversity goes back at least 19,000 years, study says



May 22 (UPI) — Italy has been a genetic melting pot for almost 20,000 years, according to a new study. Nowhere else in Europe hosts a greater mix of genetic heritage.

In addition to the deep history of the region’s genetic diversity, dating to the Late Glacial Maximum, the genomic survey of modern and ancient Italians showed people in the north and south of Italy have evolved unique genetic characteristics in response to the divergent environmental conditions.

The genetic peculiarities of the people of those two regions at least partially explain why these populations a reduced risk of kidney inflammation, certain skin cancers, diabetes and obesity — all of which favor a longer lifespan.

Pockets of Italy are often included on lists of so-called “blue zones,” places and populations characterized by large numbers of octogenarians.

“Gaining an understanding of the evolutionary history of the ancestors of Italians allows us to better grasp the demographic processes and those of environmental interactions that shaped the complex mosaic of ancestry components of today’s European populations,” researcher Marco Sazzini, professor of molecular anthropology at the University of Bologna, said in a news release.

“This investigation provides valuable information in order to fully appreciate the biological characteristics of the current Italian population. Moreover, it let us understand the deep causes that can impact on this population’s health or on its predisposition to a number of diseases.”

For the study, scientists sequenced the genomes of 40 volunteers from across Italy. The participants were selected for their representation of the country’s broad genetic diversity.

Scientists compared the group’s genomic characteristics to the genetic markers of 35 populations from Europe and from the Mediterranean, as well as the genetic variants found among some 600 human remains dating to the Upper Palaeolithic and the Bronze Age — 40,000 and 4,000 years ago, respectively.

The analysis, detailed Friday in the journal BMC Biology, showed modern genomic signatures can be traced back as far as 19,000 years ago — to the period following the last glaciation.

Researchers also compared the genomes of people from northern and southern Italy and traced the emergence of these difference back through the region’s genetic timeline.

“We observe some partially overlapping demographic trends among the ancestors of these two groups from 30,000 years ago and for the remaining years of the Upper Palaeolithic,” said study co-author Stefania Sarno, a researcher at the University of Bologna.

“However, we observed a significant variation between their gene pools from the Late Glacial period, thus some thousands of years before those great migrations that happened in Italy from the Neolithic onward,” Sarno said.

Researchers suspect refugees of the last glaciation period persisted in central Italy before splitting in opposite directions after the glaciers melted. The genomes of northern Italian contain traces of these post-glacial migrations.

Researchers were able to recognize even more ancient signatures in the genomes of northern Italians — genetic signatures unique to eastern European hunter-gatherers that populated large swaths of Europe between 36,000 and 26,000 years ago.

The latest analysis showed these genetic signatures have disappeared in the genomes of southern Italians.

Researchers also identified the genetic effects of the population’s adaptation to millennia of climate change. The populations of northern Italy evolved a metabolism optimized for a high-calorie diet rich in animal fat.

“In the subjects from northern Italy, we observed changes in the gene networks regulating insulin and body-heat production as well as in those responsible for fat tissue metabolism,” said study co-author Paolo Garagnani, professor of experimental medicine and pathophysiology at the University of Bologna.

“These changes could have resulted in key factors reducing the susceptibility to diseases like diabetes and obesity,” Garagnani said.

In southern Italy, populations also evolved genetic characteristics in response the region’s environmental conditions, including coding for the production of mucins, which are protective proteins found in the mucous membranes of the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems.

“These genetic adaptations may have evolved in response to ancient micro-organisms,” said study co-author Paolo Abondio, a doctoral student at the University of Bologna.

“Some scholars have linked some of these genetic variants with a reduced susceptibility to Berger’s disease, which is a common inflammation affecting the kidneys and is indeed less frequent in the south than in the north of Italy,” he said.

Millennia spent the Mediterranean sun also inspired changes to the genes that regulate melanin production — changes that explain the lower incidence of most skin cancers among southern Italians.

“We observed that some of these genetic variants have been also linked to a longer lifespan. This is also true for other genetic modifications, which are characteristic of southern Italians,” said study co-author Claudio Franceschi, emeritus professor at the University of Bologna.

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Watch live: NASA chief to lay out budget needs to send astronauts to moon



Sept. 23 (UPI) — Congress will hear testimony Wednesday from NASA about its budget needs as the space agency argues for full funding to carry out plans to send astronauts to the moon by 2024.

NASA Administrator James Bridenstine will appear before a Senate appropriations subcommittee to discuss the agency’s fiscal 2021 budget.

The hearing is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. EDT and will be streamed live.

NASA said in a report Monday it needs $28 billion for the first phase of its Artemis lunar program through fiscal 2025.

That figure includes $16.2 billion to develop, test and launch new-generation moon lander vehicles that will carry astronauts to the surface of the moon, as well as $7.6 billion for Boeing Space Launch System rockets, ground systems and Lockheed Martin Orion crew capsules.

The Senate has yet to pass a bill to fund NASA and an appropriations bill passed by the House in July provided the agency with $625 million for the development of a new moon lander, well short of the $3.2 billion Bridenstine said was “critically important” to the project on Monday.

“If we go to March without the $3.2 billion, it becomes more difficult,” he said. “We’re still within the realm of possibility because we do have our work underway right now.”

NASA said in August the cost for its SLS moon rocket, shown here in an artist’s conception, has swelled 30% to more than $9 billion. Image courtesy NASA

Bridenstine added that plans to send astronauts to the moon would remain on track if the funds are appropriated by Christmas, but added that NASA would still move forward with its moon plans even if the funding was delayed.

“Speed is still of the essence and sustainability follows speed,” he said. “If they keep delaying the funding, we [still] will go to the moon at the earliest possible opportunity.”

The 2024 timeline is four years sooner than NASA had originally planned, following a challenge by Vice President Mike Pence.

“With bipartisan support from Congress, our 21st century push to the moon is well within America’s reach,” Bridenstine said. “As we’ve solidified more of our exploration plans in recent months, we’ve continued to refine our budget and architecture.”

No human has been on the lunar surface since Apollo 17 left in late 1972, but NASA is planning this time to send the first woman to walk on the moon.

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Apple recalls shipment of iPhone 6 Plus due to photo glitch



CUPERTINO, Calif., Aug. 23 (UPI) — Apple has recalled a shipment of its iPhone 6 Plus due to a technological glitch that produces blurry photos in the device’s camera, the company announced.

The recall affects a small number of iPhone 6 Plus devices, Apple said in a statement, which have demonstrated a glitch in the iSight camera.

Apple said it’s “a component that may fail causing your photos to look blurry.”

Apple created a web page where users can enter their phone’s serial number to determine if they are affected by the recall.

The iPhone 6 and larger iPhone 6 Plus were released last September.

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‘Invisible’ words reveal common structure among famous stories



Aug. 7 (UPI) — Storytelling requires a narrative arc, but the trajectory of a dramatic arc isn’t always obvious.

By tracing the abundance of “invisible” words — pronouns, articles and other short words — researchers were able to identify patterns shared by a diversity of stories, from Shakespeare to Spielberg, according to a study published Friday in Science Advances.

“Over the years, these ‘invisible’ words have been found to be related to a whole mess of psychological processes — how people use small words like articles and pronouns tell us about a person’s mental health, thinking style, their social status, and even how well they get along with other people,” study lead author Ryan Boyd told UPI.

“In many ways, it was a natural progression to look at what these words can tell us how the nature of stories,” said Boyd, a lecturer in behavioral analytics at the University of Leeds.

For the study, Boyd and his colleagues used a range of statistical techniques to analyze the abundance and distribution of invisible words in 40,000 fictional texts, including short stories, novels and movie scripts.

The analysis revealed a common structure — a so-called narrative curve — featuring three distinct phases.

During the “staging” phase, authors use prepositions and articles in greater abundance, peppering their prose with “a” and “the.” These words are more useful at the beginning, when authors must set the scene and provide the audience with basic information.

The middle phase is defined by plot progression, which is revealed by a greater abundance of auxiliary verbs, adverbs and pronouns — or interactional language. During this phase, “the house” from the staging phase becomes “her home” or “it.”

During the third phase, cognitive tension is ramped up as the narrative arc reaches a climax. As the author guides the reader or viewer through the process of conflict resolution, cognitive-processing words like “think,” “believe,” “understand” and “cause” begin to crop up in greater numbers.

Researchers found this three-phase narrative shape remained consistent, regardless of a stories length.

“A 25,000 word story has the same shape as a 250 word story,” said Boyd, lead author of the new study. “It seems, then, that we are able to do a good job of structuring our stories in an optimal way regardless of how much space we have to do it in.”

The researchers set up a website showing the shapes of staging, plot progression and cognitive tension in eight texts at The Arc of Narrative website.

The patterns left by invisible words proved both good and bad stories — tales spun by amateurs, as well as professionals — utilize similar structures.

“Our results confirm what people have long believed about stories,” Boyd said. “Like DNA, we knew about it long before we could actually see it and measure it. With these new methods, we are able to see and measure the ‘DNA’ of stories and understand them in more objective, scientific ways.”

According to Boyd, studying the patterns of stories can offer insights into cognitive processes unique to humans.

“What these story shapes seem to tell us is that we have, to some degree, evolved to process information in certain ways,” he said. “We need to understand the ‘who’ and ‘what’ in order to understand the ‘why’ of our everyday lives and the lives of others.”

The authors of the latest story are already mining text for other language patterns that might help researchers determine whether a story-teller is telling the truth, or perhaps reveal the secrets to a “good” story.

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