By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE executive editor
Time may be an illusion (lunchtime doubly so), but apparently that does not stop its steady march from wreaking havoc on our bodies. As humans age, we experience a wave of physiological effects from head to toe: graying hair, deteriorating eyesight, heart problems, and weakened bones, just to name a few of the possibilities.
The conundrum is that we’ve also made leaps in improving medical care so that, on average, a person born today can expect to live longer than someone born a couple hundred years ago. But living longer does not mean the aging process itself takes a holiday, and people are still faced with the prospect of physical and mental decline. Understanding how and why we age is therefore of great interest the world over. And, as it happens, one of the best laboratories for decoding these mysteries is currently soaring about 260 miles above our heads.
A fleet of studies conducted on board the International Space Station shows that space travel affects our bodies in ways that are strikingly similar to aging, just put on fast forward. “It’s estimated that the heart, blood vessels, bones, and muscles deteriorate more than 10 times faster in space than by natural aging,” Shi En Kimwrites for Nat Geo.
In some cases, these effects are reversed once the person returns to terra firma, which is certainly good news for astronauts. Still, the ISS provides scientists with a unique opportunity to study age-related maladies on shorter time scales—and experiment with drugs that may help treat the worst effects of getting older. (Pictured above, former NASA astronauts—and twins—Mark (left) and Scott Kelly (right), who spent varying lengths of time aboard the ISS.)
Of course, it may be a while yet before any of this foundational science leads to major medical breakthroughs. But don’t panic. As long as astronauts are in orbit, discoveries about longevity are sure to come flowing back down to Earth.
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Today in a minute
The fifth astronaut in the Senate: The previously mentioned Mark Kelly today follows in the footsteps of John Glenn, Harrison Schmidt, Jake Garn, and Bill Nelson to serve both in space—and in the upper house of Congress. Kelly, who won Arizona’s Senate election, not only is the twin brother of another former NASA astronaut, Scott Kelly, but he is the husband of former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords. Glenn and Schmidt served with NASA before coming to Congress; Garn and Nelson flew on the space shuttle after being elected to Washington, Space.com reports.
Vaccine news: Britain today approved a COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer, paving the way for the first 800,000 of an estimated 40 million shots for the UK to roll out next week, CNN reports. Here’s the latest on vaccine efforts and a report on why some people can become reinfected with the virus.
Slow burn: Why were experts and others so late to the realization that COVID-19 was spreading to rural and small-town America? Limited resources, stigma, and politics made the coronavirus difficult to track in rural areas, allowing its spread to go largely unnoticed all summer, Lois Parshley writes for Nat Geo. Since the coronavirus first hit U.S. cities in force, “it was just a matter of time before we saw it in more rural settings,” says Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Stefan Baral. More than 270,000 Americans have died since February from the virus, and more than 13.7 million people have been infected.
From discarded PPE to bricks: That’s what an Indian entrepreneur is doing with the rising stocks of disposable face masks from the pandemic. “I have eco-anxiety,” says Binish Desai, who already has molded 40,000 bricks for construction from the used (and well sanitized) personal protective equipment and is gearing up to produce 15,000 such bricks a day. The masks are often made of polypropylene plastic, which can take hundreds of years to degrade, the Washington Post reports.
The 12,500-year-old story: It has been hailed as “the Sistine Chapel of the ancients”—a cliff face with tens of thousands of paintings that was recently discovered in Amazon rainforest. The age of the paintings was partly determined by what these early Amazon settlers painted; the portraits include Ice Age animals such as the mastodon and the palaeolama, the Guardian reports. The discovery was made by a British-Colombian team in Colombia’s Serranía de la Lindosa.
Instagram photo of the day
A ghostly blue: That’s a florescent-stained chicken embryo about to be examined under a microscope in a Yale lab. By tracking how genes orchestrate the patterns of animals’ growing bodies, paleontologist Bhart-Anjan Bhullar can see the nuts and bolts of development, improving our understanding of dinosaurs and their modern descendants, birds.
Subscriber exclusive: How prehistoric icons have gotten a modern reboot
The night skies
The W: On the next clear night, take a tour of a group of stars that form a large lopsided W high above the northeastern horizon. That’s the constellation Cassiopeia. Its five most visible stars shine with similar brightness, but their distance varies greatly, with the star Caph only 54 light-years away while Gamma Cassiopeiae sits 650 light-years from Earth. Cassiopeia is also home to two jewel-like open star clusters easily visible with binoculars. The easiest to pick out is NGC 663, but look near the bright star Ruchbahm and you can also glimpse the majestic Owl Cluster, a swarm of 200 newborn stars over 9,000 light-years away. And before dawn on Monday, sky-watchers in the Southern Hemisphere can see a handful of shooting stars an hour during the minor Puppid-Velid meteor shower. — Andrew Fazekas
The big takeaway
A humble bean to the rescue: For centuries, the Wayuu people of Colombia survived a harsh desert environment by herding goats and harvesting wild fruits. They also cultivated the brown-patterned cowpeas dubbed after the Spanish name for their home, guajiro beans. That sacred bean may save the Wayuu, whose land has been plagued by droughts and a dam that has dried their watershed. Some of the people, aided by red earthworms and a low-tech irrigation system, have begun harvesting the resilient guajiro beans anew, with a singular focus. “People are surprised by our harvests,” says one community member, Rita Uriana. “They are surprised we still have this plant.” Could it help others? (Pictured above, a woman and child tending to guajiro beans in Manaure, Colombia.)
In a few words
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The last glimpse
A teaching tree: For nearly 200 million years, ginkgo trees flourished. But in a twist, humans had to rescue the last seed-producing trees of their particular family from extinction. It’s “such a great evolutionary story, and also a great cultural story,” says Peter Crane, author of the book Ginkgo. Nat Geo’s Sarah Gibbens tells how the trees were imported to Europe and then North America. Resistant to insects, fungi, and high levels of air pollution, and with roots that can thrive under concrete, the ginkgo (pictured above) is now among the most common trees on the U.S. East Coast.