Researchers finally solve mystery of ‘alien’ skeleton

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

 

Researchers finally solve mystery of ‘alien’ skeleton

The mummified specimen from Atacama region of Chile.

Story highlights

  • An unusual skeleton found in Chile has perplexed people for more than a decade
  • Whole genome sequencing revealed what caused its abnormalities

(CNN)A mummified skeleton discovered in Chile’s Atacama Desert 15 years ago doesn’t look like anyone you’ve ever met. In fact, some would say it looks, well, alien.

It’s a skeletal conundrum made up of perplexing features. It’s only 6 inches tall — but initial estimates of the age of the bones were consistent with a child aged 6 to 8 years.
The long, angular skull, slanted eye sockets and fewer than normal ribs — 10 pairs rather than the normal 12 — only deepened the mystery.
Questions surrounding the discovery led to speculation that it was a previously unidentified primate or even an extraterrestrial life form.
The skeleton, dubbed Ata, was featured in TV shows and a documentary, “Sirius,” in which a UFO researcher attempts to figure out Ata’s origins.
Now, the authors of a study based on five years of genomic analysis want to set the record straight: Ata is human, albeit one with multiple bone disease-associated mutations. And they believe that their findings, published Thursday in the journal Genome Research, could help diagnose genetic mutation-based cases for living patients.

Investigating Ata

In 2003, Ata was found in a deserted mining town called La Noria, in Chile’s Atacama region. It was thought to be ancient at first, but initial analysis conducted in 2012 proved that the skeleton was only about 40 years old. This meant DNA would still be intact and could be retrieved for study.
The widespread speculation surrounding Ata brought the case to the attention of Gary Nolan, senior author of the new study and professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University.
“I learned about this through a friend who was interested in the entire area of extraterrestrial life,” Nolan wrote in an email. “He told me about a documentary coming out (‘Sirius’ … you can find it on Netflix now) which was to feature the ‘Atacama Humanoid.’
It was claimed that this was possibly the mummy of an alien.
“That was a significant claim in and of itself. More shocking though was the picture I was provided that was part of the online publicity. I decided to contact the movie directors (basically on a dare …) to tell them it was possible to do a sequencing of the specimen (if it had earthly DNA …) to determine its origin.”
Nolan and his colleagues signed a confidentiality agreement, and the directors agreed to report Nolan’s findings, even if the results indicated that Ata’s DNA was human.
Nolan wanted to study Ata for several reasons. The extraordinary specimen could have been a previously unrecognized primate species, some sort of human deformity or something else entirely. Nolan said he and his colleagues never believed it could be an alien.
They wanted an answer to the basic question: “What is it?”
DNA analysis would tell the true story. A sample extracted from the bone marrow of Ata’s ribs was used to conduct a whole-genome sequence analysis.
It was compared with human and primate genomes and determined to be a human female, probably a fetus, with Chilean ancestry. Although dating initially estimated the bone age of the skeleton at between 6 and 8 years, the researchers found that the remains had a rare bone-aging disorder that made them seem older than the person they belonged to.
At first, 8% of the DNA didn’t match with human DNA. Researchers determined that this was because of a degraded sample. An improved analysis matched up to 98%, Nolan said. Given the exposure and age of the skeleton, this wasn’t surprising. Then, they moved on to diagnosing the abnormalities.

It’s all in the genes

The researchers were looking for what might explain the skeleton’s small stature, as well as the abnormal rib count and other bone and skull oddities.
Dr. Atul Butte, another senior author of the study, was brought in to assist with evaluating the genome. Butte, the Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg distinguished professor and director of the Institute for Computational Health Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, treated the analysis as though it were for a patient.
It revealed a number of mutations within seven genes. Together, these created bone and musculoskeletal deformities, like scoliosis, and skeletal dysplasia, known as dwarfism.
“There are mutations in many genes, including genes involved with the production of collagen (in our bones and hair), joints, ribs, and arteries,” Butte wrote in an email. “We know these genes are involved with these processes in human development, but we are still learning what all the other genes in the DNA do.”
Although the mutations found within the genes are known to cause bone disease, some of them had not been previously connected to growth or developmental disorders. The combination of genetic mutations explains Ata’s appearance, but it’s the number of mutations all present in the same specimen that surprised the scientists.
“It’s rare,” Butte said. “To our knowledge, no one has ever explained all of these symptoms in a patient before, and the changes in the DNA, or mutations, reflects this.”
But what could have caused this number of mutations?
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“Many times, genetic diseases are passed on from parents that are carriers,” Butte said. “In this case, these mutations are so rare that we haven’t actually ever seen some of these before, so it’s hard to imagine there are carriers out there. We do speculate that the environment where this child was developing might have played a role. The specimen was found in a town with abandoned nitrate mines, and exposure to nitrates might have caused the mutations. But it’s only speculation.”
No other researchers have seen the remains.
The way Nolan, Butte and their colleagues used their analytical tools to understand the mysteries presented by Ata’s skeleton may provide a pathway for analysis of multiple genes to discover the roots of mutations.
Butte said he hopes that the technology and tools used in this study can help patients and their families receive diagnoses quicker, as well as helping to develop treatments for conditions that can be traced to genetic mutations.
“Many children’s hospitals now see patients or children with unusual syndromes, including those never described before,” Butte said.
“DNA sequencing is now more commonly used to help us solve these ‘undiagnosed diseases.’ But many times, we tend to search for a single gene mutation that might explain what we see in the patient.
“What this case taught me we that sometimes there might actually be more than one major DNA difference involved in explaining a particularly hard-to-explain patient. We shouldn’t stop a search when we’ve found the first relevant mutation; indeed there might be many others also involved.”

Chile rocked by 7.1-magnitude quake; no major damage reported

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS)

Chile rocked by 7.1-magnitude quake; no major damage reported

People look out towards the ocean on Cerro Castillo hill, after a mass evacuation of the entire coastline during a tsunami alert after a magnitude 7.1 earthquake hit off the coast in Vina del Mar, Chile April 24, 2017 REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido
By Rosalba O’Brien | SANTIAGO

A major earthquake of magnitude 7.1 struck off the west coast of Chile on Monday, rocking the capital Santiago and briefly causing alarm along the Pacific Coast but not producing any serious damage.

The quake was centered 22 miles (35 km) west of the coastal city of Valparaiso at a shallow depth of 6.2 miles (10 km) below the sea, and about 85 miles (137 km) from Santiago, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

“It was short but very powerful,” said Paloma Salamo, a 26-year-old nurse, who was in a clinic in Viña del Mar, just north of Valparaiso, when the quake struck.

People ran out of the facility carrying children and some headed for the hills when the tsunami alarm sounded, she said, but calm was soon restored.

Officials canceled a tsunami warning that had been issued in Valparaiso after the Chilean Navy and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said the quake was not expected to produce a dangerous seismic sea wave. The center reported small tsunami waves of half a foot (15 cm).

There were no reports of structural damage in Valparaiso, but cellphone networks were down in some places, a spokesman with the local government in Valparaiso said.

“We have no reports of victims or significant damage. There have been some landslides in some places, without major complications,” said Interior Minister Mario Fernandez.

“In general the situation is pretty normal bearing in mind the quake’s intensity.”

Chile’s state-run Codelco, one of the largest copper mining companies in the world, said its operations were unaffected.

Anglo American, which has copper operations in central Chile, also said operations were normal.

A magnitude 7.1 quake is considered major and is capable of causing widespread and heavy damage, but the effects of this one would have been tempered because it was offshore.

Several aftershocks including two of magnitudes 5.0 and 5.4 were recorded in the same spot and could be felt in Santiago, part of a cluster of tremors from that area in recent days.

Chile, located on the so-called “Pacific Ring of Fire,” has a long history of deadly quakes, including a 8.8 magnitude quake in 2010 off the south-central coast, which also triggered a tsunami that devastated coastal towns. More than 500 people died.

That was the sixth-largest earthquake ever recorded, according to the USGS. The largest recorded temblor in history was also in Chile, a 9.5-magnitude quake in 1960.

A major 7.6 magnitude earthquake jolted southern Chile on Christmas Day 2016, prompting thousands to evacuate coastal areas, but no fatalities or major damage were reported in the tourism and salmon farming region.

The long, slender country runs along the border of two tectonic plates, with the Nazca Plate beneath the South Pacific Ocean pushing into the South America Plate, a phenomenon that also formed the Andes Mountains.

(Reporting by Rosalba O’Brien, Fabian Cambero, Gram Slattery, Felipe Iturrieta and Jorge Otaola; additional reporting by Sandra Maler in Washington; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by G Crosse and Mary Milliken)

New Earth Found?

 

Habitable planet found outside solar system

SCIENTISTS on Wednesday announced the discovery of an Earth-sized planet orbiting the star nearest our Sun, opening up the glittering prospect of a habitable world that may one day be explored by robots.

Named Proxima b, the planet is in a “temperate” zone compatible with the presence of liquid water — a key ingredient for life.

The findings, based on data collected over 16 years, were reported in the peer-reviewed journal Nature.

“We have finally succeeded in showing that a small-mass planet, most likely rocky, is orbiting the star closest to our solar system,” said co-author Julien Morin, an astrophysicist at the University of Montpellier in southern France.

“Proxima b would probably be the first exoplanet visited by a probe made by humans,” he said.

An exoplanet is any planet outside our Solar System.

Lead author Guillem Anglada-Escude, an astronomer at Queen Mary University London, described the find as the “experience of a lifetime.”

Working with European Southern Observatory telescopes in the north Chilean desert, his team used the so-called Doppler method to detect Proxima b and describe its properties.

The professional star-gazers spent 60 consecutive days earlier this year looking for signs of gravitational pull on its host star, Proxima Centauri.

Regular shifts in the star’s light spectrum — repeating every 11.2 days — gave a tantalising clue.

They revealed that the star alternately moved towards and away from our Solar System at the pace of a leisurely stroll, about five kilometers per hour.

Goldilocks zone

After cross-checking an inconclusive 2000-2014 dataset and eliminating other possible causes, the researchers determined that the tug of an orbiting planet was responsible for this tiny to-and-fro.

“Statistically, there is no doubt,” Anglada-Escude told journalists in a briefing.

“We have found a planet around Proxima Centauri.”

Proxima b is a mere four light years from the Solar System, meaning that it is essentially in our back yard on the scale of our galaxy, the Milky Way.

It has a mass around 1.3 times that of Earth, and orbits about seven million kilometers from its star.

A planet so near to our Sun — 21 times closer than Earth — would be an unlivable white-hot ball of fire.

But Proxima Centauri is a so-called red dwarf, meaning a star that burns at a lower temperature.

As a result, the newly discovered planet is in a “Goldilocks” sweet spot: neither so hot that water evaporates, nor so cold that it freezes solid.

But liquid water is not the only essential ingredient for the emergence of life.

An atmosphere is also required, and on that score the researchers are still in the dark. It all depends, they say, on how Proxima b evolved as a planet.

“You can come up with formation scenarios that end up with and Earth-like atmosphere, a Venus-like atmosphere” — 96 percent carbon dioxide — “or no atmosphere at all,” said co-author Ansgar Reiners, an expert on “cold” stars at the University of Goettingen’s Institute of Astrophysics in Germany.

Computer models suggest the planet’s temperature, with an atmosphere, could be “in the range of minus 30 Celsius on the dark side, and 30C on the light side,” Reiners said.

Like the Moon in relation to Earth, Proxima b is “tidally locked,” with one face always exposed to its star and the other perpetually in shadow.

Emerging life forms would also have to cope with ultraviolet and X-rays bombarding Proxima b 100 times more intensely than on Earth.

Search for life

An atmosphere would help deflect these rays, as would a strong magnetic field.

But even high doses of radiation do not preclude life, especially if we think outside the box, scientists say.

“We have to be very open-minded as to what we call ‘life’,” Jean Schneider, an expert on exoplanets at the Observatoire de Paris, said.

Last year, NASA unveiled Kepler 452b, a planet about 60 percent larger than Earth that could have active volcanoes, oceans, sunshine like ours, and a year lasting 385 days.

But at a distance of 1,400 light-years, humankind would have little hope of reaching this Earth-twin any time soon.

By comparison, Proxima b is a stone’s throw away, though still too far away for humans to visit with present-generation chemical rockets.

“This is a dream for astronomers if we think about follow up observations,” said Reiners.