The True Origin of Hepatitis B

The big news two years ago was that the genes of the hepatitis B virus were discovered in the fossils of ancient birds. These birds — forebears of modern finches and robins, crows and a host of songbirds —lived around 82 million years ago, when dinosaurs walked the Earth.

So when a team of researchers recently stumbled upon a hepatitis B-like virus in a fish, it was a surprise. They double-checked the gene sequencing in white sucker fish from the Great Lakes region. A match in an online database of gene sequences left little doubt. They had discovered hepatitis in a creature that predates birds.

Now the mystery surrounding the age of one of the most notorious viruses on the planet has deepened. What is the origin of a virus that kills more than half a million humans each year? What organism carried it first? How was it transmitted to birds? And when was it first transmitted to mammals and primates such as humans? Science isn’t close to an answer on any of those questions.

The new research isn’t much help. It’s a scientific first, a beginning. West Virginia University doctoral student Cassidy Hahn and her team of fish biologists were studying the genes of white suckers rarely used for genetic work, so they were forced to double-check everything they found. “We were looking for a different virus,“ Hahn said. “We’re scientists. We’re skeptical. So we did some sequencing, checked it and said, ‘We have something.‘ “

Except her voice at the time of the discovery wasn’t as flat. What they uncovered seemed like a pretty big deal, since the hepatitis B virus, part of the big family of hepatitis that causes many kinds of illnesses, including cancer, had been found only in birds and mammals previously. The find had great potential for more research to track how the virus evolved, how immune systems developed to attack it, to possibly design more effective treatments.

“This new virus is similar, but also very different from hepatitis B-like viruses found in mammals and birds, and may be a new genus,” Hahn said. How the hepatitis B-like virus is transmitted between fish is not yet understood, she said, and it is unlikely to be communicable to humans.

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Cassidy Hahn performs a necropsy on a white sucker fish. (Sarah Warner, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Hepatitis-B virus infections “manifest in various ways,“ said a U.S. Geological Survey statement that announced the study. They attack the livers of mammals and multiply in their cells. Acute chronic liver diseases such as fibrosis, cirrhosis, bile duct cancer and hepatocellular carcinoma are associated with the virus. About 350 million people are chronically infected with hepatitis B viruses.

“For decades, virologists have been looking for the origin of where this virus came from. If you know where it occurred, you can potentially see how it changed over time … they can work on those predictive models,“ said Luke R. Iwanowicz, a research biologist for the USGS in West Virginia who, along with Hahn, was an author on the research paper. It was published last week in the Journal of Virology.

Other authors include Vicki S. Blazer, Robert S. Cornman, Carla M. Conway and James R. Winton, all USGS researchers and biologists.

“After we did all the putting sequencing together ... and searched an online database ... all the parts of the virus were there,“ Iwanowicz said. “I’ve never had that experience before. It was pretty exciting to actually see that happen.“

Iwanowicz said an excited Indiana University professor who hoped to start investigating the finding contacted him even before the paper was published. “I really found this work very interesting,“ said Haitao Guo, an associate professor of microbiology at the university. “I read it one week early on a Saturday night. I e-mailed Luke immediately and said, ‘Come on, let’s do something.‘ “

Guo has studied hepatitis for more than a decade and still has a host of questions about how it came to be. He wants to track it using plasma and liver samples, and possibly create a clone, to determine how it replicates. “If it replicates better, it may replace [the hepatitis-B virus] to study some aspects of the hepadnavirus molecular biology.”

~~  Darryl Fears ~~

Crowdsourcing Helps Professor Solve Old Math Problem

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UCLA professor Terence Tao, one of the world’s top mathematicians, has just solved a famous problem dating back to the 1930s—and he says it was a comment on his blog earlier this year that sent him in the right direction. He also built off earlier crowdsourced work to solve what’s known as the Erdos discrepancy problem, which, as New Scientist explains, involves “the properties of an infinite, random sequence of +1s and -1s.“ For the technical minded, Nature presents it this way: “(Paul) Erdos, who died in 1996, speculated that any infinite string of the numbers 1 and −1 could add up to an arbitrarily large (positive or negative) value by counting only the numbers at a fixed interval for a finite number of steps.“ For the non-technical minded, the important thing to know is that “Terry Tao just dropped a bomb,“ as Iowa State University mathematician Derrick Stolee tweeted the day Tao’s paper was published on the new open-access journal Discrete Analysis.

Tao, who met and worked with Erdos when he was a kid in the 1980s, joined a few dozen mathematicians in 2010 as part of the Fifth Polymath Project to harness the power of many human brains working on blogs and wikis to try to finally crack the code. While they made progress, they ultimately gave up. Then earlier this year, Uwe Stroinski, a mathematician out of Germany, commented on Tao’s blog that the problem might be linked to what is called the Elliott conjecture, which Tao at first dismissed as being only superficially similar. But after careful review, “I realized there was a link,“ Tao wrote. He produced the proof less than two weeks later. It still must undergo peer review, but most think that will wrap up quickly. And yes, Tao has thanked Stroinski for his contribution.

Why iOS 9 Users Are Getting High Bills

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If you’re using iOS 9 and your data rates are reaching new highs, watch out for an otherwise-useful feature called “Wi-Fi Assist.“ It automatically allows your phone to download data via your cellular plan when Wi-Fi coverage isn’t great, ZDNet explains, which is fine—but can lead to high bills if, say, your office Wi-Fi is poor. You can turn it off at Settings > Cellular (called Mobile Data in certain areas) by scrolling to the bottom of the page for the toggle. (A Gizmodo blogger and iPhone user suggests you do so.) You can also go to Settings > Cellular to see how much data you’ve already consumed this month, Quartz notes. Some users have already found surprises there:

  • I usually use 1-2GB of mobile data a month, this month I’m up to 7. I suspect iOS 9 wifi assist, anybody else?— Jim Ray (@jimray) September 24, 2015
  • Pretty certain ios9’s “wifi assist” is responsible for my last huge 4g data bill.— Dan Walsh (@travors) September 24, 2015

Bill Nye: Anti-Abortion Laws Are Based on ‘Ignorance’

Bill Nye, who rose to fame as a science educator with his eponymous show for kids in the ‘90s, has picked a new topic to speak out on in a new video from Big Think: Abortion.

Nye’s career has found a second wave in recent years as he’s taken a stand on issues like climate change and the teaching of evolution in schools. Ever The Science Guy, Nye seems to relish stepping into hot debates and dropping matter-of-fact scientific information.

“We have so many more important things to be dealing with, we have so many other problems,“ Nye says in the video. “To squander resources on this argument based on bad science, on just lack of understanding, is very frustrating.“

The scientific facts Nye points out are nothing new: He focuses on the fact that eggs are fertilized quite frequently, and that it’s illogical to protect a fertilized egg over the interests of a woman. This is absolutely true. Scientists estimate that at least 50 percent of fertilized eggs fail to develop. From there, 10 to 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, with some researchers estimating that around 40 percent of all pregnancies do so—because many end before the woman realizes she’s pregnant. 

“If you’re going to say when an egg is fertilized it therefore has the same rights as an individual, then whom are you going to sue?“ he says. “Whom are you going to imprison? Every woman who’s had a fertilized egg pass through her? Every guy whose sperm has fertilized an egg and then it didn’t become a human? Have all these people failed you?“

Nye also points out something studies have shown for quite some time: Abstinence-only sex education doesn’t work.

It’s unlikely that Nye’s video will convince anyone who wasn’t already pro-choice. The facts he presents are already out there. And historically, those who oppose the views that Nye is pushing (read: climate change deniers) have had no trouble calling him a liberal shill, or pointing out that as an engineer, he isn’t an “expert” on these particular topics.

Nye probably realizes this. But since his new mission seems to be to inject scientific literacy into matters of policy, I think we can expect a lot more videos like this one in the future.

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