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An elevated view of people are work at the archaeological site of El Salt in Spain.

El Salt, an archaeological site in Spain, which has the remains of several Neanderthal hearths.Credit: University of Bologna

Fire pits offer glimpse into Neanderthal life

Ancient hearths reveal that generations of Neanderthals regularly visited a rugged river valley in Spain over a period of around 200 years. Previous work estimated that Homo neanderthalensis made these fires around 52,000 years ago — plus or minus a few thousand years. Researchers dramatically narrowed down this timeframe by analysing traces of Earth’s changing magnetic field preserved in the fire pits’ minerals. The oldest and youngest of the hearths were last lit at least 200 years apart, with decades-long intervals between the use of different hearths.

Nature | 4 min read

Reference: Nature paper

Dad’s diet affects sons’ health

A father’s sperm records his diet, which affects his sons’ metabolism — in both mice and in humans. The male offspring of mice that ate high-fat foods were more likely to have problems such as glucose intolerance, a characteristic of diabetes. And the sons of human dads with a high body-mass index had similar problems, according to an analysis of more than 3,000 children. In mice, an unhealthy diet changed certain types of sperm RNA, which could alter the offspring’s epigenome — the collection of chemical tags hanging from DNA and its associated proteins. Why this seems to only affect sons is “a very good question for future studies”, says biologist Qi Chen.

Nature | 5 min read

Reference: Nature paper

Squishy surgery-free brain sensors

Biodegradable, wireless sensors can monitor changes in the brain following a head injury or cancer treatment without invasive surgery. The sensors are made from a soft, flexible hydrogel that is injected beneath the skull and dissolves after five weeks. In rats and pigs, the sensors were just as good at measuring temperature and pH as conventional wired probes and could even detect the minute pressure changes induced by the animal’s breathing — a feature that a wired sensor failed to pick up.

Nature | 5 min read

Reference: Nature paper

Bird flu in cows could spread through milk

Astonishing amounts of H5N1 virus have been found in the raw milk of cows infected with avian influenza. The virus can survive for hours in splattered milk. This reinforces that the milking process is probably driving transmission among cows and might be spreading the virus to humans. The fact that H5N1 doesn’t seem to spread through airborne particles is good news. It means changes to milking procedures — such as disinfecting equipment between cows and protective equipment to farm workers — could help to bring the outbreak under control.

Nature | 5 min read

Reference: bioRxiv preprint & medRxiv preprint (not peer reviewed)

Features & opinion

The chips powering the AI revolution

Computer chips are trying to keep pace with the ever-increasing computing demands of AI models. A key part of this has been the switch from central processing units (CPUs) to graphics processing units (GPUs), which can do the many parallel calculations needed for AI tasks much faster than can CPUs. As AI applications move into mobile devices, “I don’t think GPUs are enough any more”, says computer engineer Cristina Silvano. Engineers are starting to use various tricks, including more accessible memory and numerical shorthand, to push the speed barriers of conventional computing.

Nature | 11 min read

The GPU Advantage: Two diagrams comparing the composition of central processing unit and graphics processing unit chips.

Source: Cornell University

‘I saw that discrimination wasn’t hearsay’

Graduate-school admissions committees have “a complete lack of understanding of how people with different experiences face different barriers,” says pharmacologist JoAnn Trejo, who grew up in poverty in a single-parent, Mexican immigrant family. She now co-leads a programme that provides three years of mentored postdoctoral training. The initiative’s success is obvious: of those from under-represented groups who completed the training, 48% are in tenure-track jobs — nearly double the typical success rate for these positions.

Nature | 7 min read

What we don’t know about misinformation

There are gaps in our knowledge about how and why digital misinformation spreads, argues a Nature editorial. Some researchers suggest that exposure to mistruths is widely overestimated. The message from researchers is that misinformation can be curbed. For that to happen, platforms must share their data with scientists and regulators should compel them to do so, the editorial says.

Nature | 6 min read

QUOTE OF THE DAY

“The majority of national action plans available have no mention of sex or gender, let alone consider this in the design of [antimicrobial resistance] interventions.”

Zlatina Dobreva, technical officer at the World Health Organization, says there’s little recognition that women might be at a higher risk of contracting drug-resistant infections. (Nature | 5 min read)