Scientists Just Discovered the First Brainless Animal That Sleeps

Original Article

By Sarah Kaplan


Cassiopea jellyfish rests upside-down on black sand and pulses, rhythmically contracting and relaxing its bell. At night, Cassiopea jellies pulse less frequently — a clue that they’re sleeping, researchers report. (Photo by JanEaster.com)

It was well past midnight when Michael Abrams, Claire Bedbrook and Ravi Nath crept into the Caltech lab where they were keeping their jellyfish. They didn’t bother switching on the lights, opting instead to navigate the maze of desks and equipment by the pale blue glow of their cellphones. The students hadn’t told anyone that they were doing this. It wasn’t forbidden, exactly, but they wanted a chance to conduct their research without their PhD advisers breathing down their necks.

“When you start working on something totally crazy, it’s good to get data before you tell anybody,” Abrams said.

The “totally crazy” undertaking in question: an experiment to determine whether jellyfish sleep.

It had all started when Bedbrook, a graduate student in neurobiology, overheard Nath and Abrams mulling the question over coffee. The topic was weird enough to make her stop at their table and argue.

“Of course not,” she said. Scientists still don’t fully know why animals need to snooze, but research has found that sleep is a complex behavior associated with memory consolidation and REM cycles in the brain. Jellyfish are so primitive they don’t even have a brain — how could they possibly share this mysterious trait?

Her friends weren’t so sure. “I guess we’re going to have to test it,” Nath said, half-joking.

Bedbrook was dead serious: “Yeah. Yeah, we are.”

After months of late-night research, Bedbrook has changed her mind. In a paper published Thursday in the journal Current Biology, she, Nath and Abrams report that the upside-down jellyfish Cassiopea exhibit sleeplike behavior — the first animals without a brain known to do so. The results suggest that sleep is deeply rooted in our biology, a behavior that evolved early in the history of animal life and has stuck with us ever since.

Further study of jellyfish slumber might bring scientists closer to resolving what Nath called “the paradox of sleep.”

Think about it, he urged. If you’re asleep in the wild when a predator comes along, you’re dead. If a food source strolls past, you go hungry. If a potential mate walks by, you miss the chance to pass on your genetic material.

“Sleep is this period where animals are not doing the things that benefit from a natural selection perspective,” Nath said.

Abrams chimed in: “Except for sleep.” Nath laughed.

“We know it must be very important. Otherwise, we would just lose it,” Bedbrook said. If animals could evolve a way to live without sleep, surely they would have. But many experiments suggest that when creatures such as mice are deprived of sleep for too long, they die. Scientists have shown that animals as simple as the roundworm C. elegans, with a brain of just 302 neurons, need sleep to survive.

Cassiopea has no brain to speak of — just a diffuse “net” of nerve cells distributed across their small, squishy bodies. These jellyfish barely even behave like animals. Instead of mouths, they suck in food through pores in their tentacles. They also get energy via a symbiotic relationship with tiny photosynthetic organisms that live inside their cells.

“They’re like weird plant animals,” Bedbrook said.

They’re also ancient: Cnidarians, the phylogenetic group that includes jellies, first arose some 700 million years ago, making them some of Earth’s first animals. These traits make Cassiopea an ideal organism to test for the evolutionary origins of sleep. Fortuitously, Abrams already had some on hand.

So the trio designed an experiment. At night, when the jellies were resting and their professors were safely out of the picture, the students would test for three behavioral criteria associated with sleep.

First: Reversible quiescence. In other words, the jellyfish become inactive but are not paralyzed or in a coma. The researchers counted the jellyfish’s movements and found they were 30 percent less active at night. But when food was dropped into the tank, the creatures perked right up. Clearly not paralyzed.

Second: An increased arousal threshold. This means it’s more difficult to get the animals’ attention; they have to be “woken up.” For this, the researchers placed sleeping jellies in containers with removable bottoms, lifted the containers to the top of their tank, then pulled out the bottom. If the jellyfish were awake, they’d immediately swim to the floor of the tank. But if they were asleep, “they’d kind of strangely float around in the water,” Abrams said.

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Watch a magnificent jellyfish at a depth of more than 12,000 feet
This jellyfish was seen during a dive on April 24, while exploring Enigma Seamount at a depth of more than 12,000 feet. (NOAA)

“You know how you wake up with vertigo? I pretend that maybe there’s possible chance that the jellyfish feel this,” Nath added. “They’re sleeping and then they wake up and they’re like, ‘Ahhhh!’ ”

And third: The quiescent state must be homeostatically regulated. That is, the jellyfish must feel a biological drive to sleep. When they don’t, they suffer.

“This is really equivalent to how we feel when we pull an all-nighter,” Bedbrook said. She’s all too familiar with the feeling — getting your PhD requires more late nights than she’s willing to count.

The jellyfish have no research papers to keep them awake past their bedtimes, so the scientists prevented them from sleeping by “poking” them with pulses of water every 20 minutes for an entire night. The following day, the poor creatures swam around in a daze, and the next night they slept especially deeply to make up for lost slumber.


Jellyfish in their tank. (Caltech)

Realizing they really had something here, the students clued their professors in on what they were doing. The head of the lab where Nath worked, Caltech and Howard Hughes Medical Institute biologist Paul Sternberg, offered the trio a closet in which they could to continue their experiments.

“It’s important,” Sternberg said, “because it’s [an organism] with what we think of as a more primitive nervous system. … It raises the possibility of an early evolved fundamental process.”

Sternberg, along with Abram and Bedbrook’s advisers, is a co-author on the Current Biology paper.

Allan Pack, the director of the Center for Sleep and Respiratory Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania, was not involved in the jellyfish research, but he’s not surprised by the finding, given how prevalent sleep is in other species.

“Every model that has been looked at … shows a sleep-like state,” he said.

But the revelations about jellyfish sleep are important, he said, because they show how basic sleep is. It appears to be a “conserved” behavior, one that arose relatively early in life’s history and has persisted for millions of years. If the behavior is conserved, then perhaps the biological mechanism is too. Understanding why jellyfish, with their simple nerve nets, need sleep could lead scientists to the function of sleep in humans.

“I think it’s one of the major biological questions of our time,” Pack said. “We spend a third of a life sleeping. Why are we doing it? What’s the point?”

 

War With North Korea Starts to Look Inevitable

Original Article

By Gordon G. Chang

“We have pretty much exhausted all the things that we could do at the Security Council at this point,” said Nikki Haley on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday, referring to North Korea. “We wanted to be responsible and go through all diplomatic means to get their attention first,” the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said. “If that doesn’t work, General Mattis [Defense Secretary James Mattis] will take care of it.”

The comments, no off-the-cuff remarks, mirrored her words at a White House press briefing Friday, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, standing next to Haley at that briefing, was even more explicit. “I think we ought to make clear what’s different about this approach is, is that we’re out of time,” he noted, referring to sanctions. “As Ambassador Haley said before, we’ve been kicking the can down the road, and we’re out of road.”

When senior Trump administration officials talk about the end of diplomacy they raise the prospect of war. But have all measures short of war been exhausted?

CNN’s Barbara Starr reported Saturday, “North Korea’s latest ballistic missile test has renewed discussion at the highest levels of the Trump administration about how military force could be used to stop [North Korean Leader] Kim Jong Un’s development of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.”

The war talk is the result of exasperation by American officials who see that their actions so far have not convinced Kim, the North Korean supremo, to slow down the testing of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.

Take Haley’s CNN comment. Even as President Donald Trump, a U.N. skeptic, prepares to address the United Nations General Assembly, many Americans, viewing the nine ineffective sets of sanctions on North Korea since 2006, say the Security Council itself is broken.

But the Security Council is not “broken.” It was never designed to work in an era of disagreement among the five veto-wielding permanent members.

What is not working is the United States. Unfortunately, from administration to administration, American leaders have failed to use all the elements of American power. If China and Russia use their vetoes to frustrate efforts to disarm North Korea—and they do—it is because the United States has not been willing to coerce them into acting responsibly.

With regard to Moscow, recent American policymakers have been more worried about a weak Russia than a strong one. Therefore, they have opted for mild sanctions on Vladimir Putin’s dangerous behavior. Ronald Reagan, at a time when the U.S. was far weaker than it is today and the Soviet Union was far stronger than Russia is now, used American economic might to end the Cold War. Putin today is able to bedevil the U.S. at the Security Council only because Americans are afraid of what happens if they move to take him down.

At the same time, the U.S. has not stopped the People’s Republic of China. Washington has allowed Chinese banks, large and small, to launder money for the North Koreans for decades. Americans reportedly have permitted Chinese leaders to help Pyongyang transfer missiles to the Iranians. The White House did nothing when enterprises connected to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army sold mobile launchers for the North’s intercontinental ballistic missiles. The U.S. has not asked the Chinese, at least in public, how North Korea’s most advanced missiles appear to be derived from China’s Jl-1. And Washington acted as if it did not matter when Chinese businesses allegedly sold uranium hexafluoride, components, and equipment for the Kim regime’s nuclear-weapons program.

No wonder the Chinese feel free to support their North Korean allies. U.S. policymakers, they can see, have been feckless. It is one thing for, say, Liechtenstein to fail to convince Beijing to do the right thing. It is quite another for the United States of America to fail to do so. American policymakers have simply failed to coerce Beijing, failed to leave it no choice but to join in the effort to disarm the Kims.

What can the United States do to China? It can declare its largest banks “primary money-laundering concerns” under Section 311 of the Patriot Act, thereby denying them the ability to transact business in the world’s dominant currency. That would be essentially imposing a death sentence on the Chinese banking system and possibly China’s economy, perhaps the Communist Party itself.

Trump can also remind China’s leaders that U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in the middle of last month formally initiated, pursuant to Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, an investigation into Chinese intellectual-property theft. A finding of such theft—virtually assured—can lead to the imposition of high across-the-board tariffs on Chinese goods.

And this month, the People’s Bank of China, the central bank, appears to have driven the renminbi lower, an indication central technocrats are once again “manipulating” their currency as that is defined by U.S. law. That gives Trump another point of leverage.

The Chinese economy, debt-fueled for years, is particularly vulnerable, especially in the run-up to the historic 19th Communist Party Congress, which begins Oct. 18. General Secretary Xi Jinping, who seeks to grab unprecedented power, cannot afford to see a major disruption of relations with the United States at this sensitive time.

The Trump administration, with the series of actions it took in the last week of June, signaled it would move against China for its support for North Korea. For instance, the Treasury Department sawed off Bank of Dandong, a small Chinese financial institution, from the global economy due to its persistent money-laundering. The Chinese, unfortunately, have continued their support for the Norks at the Security Council.

So what should the United States do? It could just give up efforts to disarm Pyongyang, as James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, suggested in widely reported comments to CNN last month. There is an air of defeatism in American policy circles these days.

The assumption among Clapper and others is that the U.S. can deter the North Koreans indefinitely. Perhaps Washington can do that and, at the same time, stop their sale of nuclear-weapons technology to Iran and make sure they do not begin merchandising thermonuclear devices to established weapons customers, some of them terrorist groups.

But perhaps deterrence is not possible. Kim Jong Un, who surely knows what Clapper and others are saying, is obviously defiant these days. And the core goal of the Kim regime—the basis of its legitimacy—is taking over the other Korea, the one governed from Seoul.

Kim, once confident about his nukes and the means to deliver them, will almost surely attempt to use the threat of war to break America’s 64-year-old mutual-defense treaty with South Korea and get America’s 28,500 service personnel off the peninsula. Once he accomplishes that, he surely thinks he can intimidate the South into submission.

Kim has recently been talking about “final victory,” a reference to taking over the South. An overconfident despot could miscalculate and begin a chain of events spiraling into war.

Although Americans are confident in their “overwhelming” capabilities, as Trump’s comments at Joint Base Andrews on Friday indicate, the North Koreans probably do not view it that way. They have long memories and they know they grabbed the Pueblo, an unarmed U.S. Navy reconnaissance vessel, from international waters in 1968 and held the crew for almost a year, killing one sailor and even getting an apology from the Johnson administration. They no doubt recall they killed 31 Americans when, a year later, they shot down a Navy EC-121. In 1976, they hacked to death two U.S. Army officers in the Demilitarized Zone. In no case, did North Korea pay a price. So Americans do not look especially intimidating to the Kim family.

And although many Americans call Kim “irrational,” would it be crazy for him to think, now, that Washington will not stop him?

War, through miscalculation and misconception, is beginning to look probable, if not inevitable.

North Korea Fired Missile That Flew Over Japan And Landed In Ocean

Original Article 

By Jacob Pramuk

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on “all nations to take new measures” against North Korea after the pariah state launched another missile over Japan on Friday local time.

Tillerson added that “China and Russia must indicate their intolerance for these reckless missile launches by taking direct actions of their own.”

“These continued provocations only deepen North Korea’s diplomatic and economic isolation,” the secretary of state added.

North Korea launched an unidentified missile Thursday that landed in the sea after passing over Japan, the latest escalation as the isolated regime flaunts its nuclear weapon ambitions, according to multiple reports.

The missile was launched from the communist dictatorship’s capital of Pyongyang at about 6:57 a.m. local time Friday headed east, reports said. The projectile passed over Japan before landing in the sea at roughly 7:16 a.m., roughly 2,000 kilometers (about 1,240 miles) east of Japan’s Cape Erimo, according to reports.

South Korea conducted its own missile exercise as Pyongyang fired its missile, taking into account the distance to North Korea’s firing site, according to NBC News.

The United Nations Security Council will meet at 3 p.m. ET on Friday to discuss missile test, diplomats said, at the request of the United States and Japan.

This story is developing. Please check back for further updates.

—Reuters and CNBC’s Jacob Pramuk contributed to this report.

Houston: A Global Warning.

Original Article

By Jeff Goodell

Let there be no doubt: the horrific damage wrought by Hurricane Harvey was an almost entirely man-made catastrophe, one fingerprinted by all-too-human neglect, corruption and denial. If we needed a reminder of the power of water to destroy an American city, Hurricane Harvey provided it. In Houston, a fast-growing metropolis of more than 2 million people, it wasn’t the wind that was so damaging, or a storm surge pushing in – it was just water everywhere, falling for days in biblical torrents and transforming highways into rivers, flowing into homes, killing dozens, sending tens of thousands of people fleeing for higher ground. It was a terrifying and deadly display of what happens when nature collides with urban life on a planet radically altered by climate change.

Harvey is the worst rainfall event ever in the continental U.S. More than 50 inches of rain deluged parts of Houston. The amount of water that poured from the sky is difficult to conceptualize. By some estimates, 19 trillion gallons of water fell in five days. That’s roughly a million gallons of water for every person in southeastern Texas. Harvey’s economic toll will likely exceed Katrina as the most expensive disaster in American history.

Hurricanes are nothing new in Texas. In 1900, a hurricane hit Galveston, causing 15-foot storm surges, killing an estimated 8,000 people. But given what scientists know now about how rising CO2 levels impact the climate, it’s wrong to dismiss Harvey as a purely “natural” event.

First, thanks to increasing carbon pollution, the waters in the Gulf of Mexico, over which Harvey formed, were about five degrees higher than average. “As the world warms, evaporation speeds up,” explained climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe. So on average, there is more water vapor in the air now to sweep up and later dump over land. Also, because hurricane winds are generated by the difference in temperature between the atmosphere and oceans, the warmer waters tend to intensify a hurricane’s gales.

Second, a warming climate fuels sea-level rise, which is the result of the thermal expansion of the oceans and the melting of glaciers. Higher seas mean bigger storm surges, which can be devastating (recall the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy). But when the seas are higher, it also means that it is more difficult to drain rainwater into the ocean. And that is what happened in Houston: The water had nowhere to go.

“19 trillion gallons of water fell from the sky in five days, roughly a million gallons for every person in southeast Texas.”

This was a disaster foretold. In the 1990s, climate scientist Wallace Broecker said that the Earth’s climate was “an angry beast” and that by dumping massive quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, we were “poking it with sticks” – and nobody could say how the beast would react. That’s where we are today. Harvey is the third 500-year flood to hit the Houston area in the past three years. Ten years ago, most scientists thought we might see three feet of sea-level rise by 2100. Now, estimates by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say the worst-case might be eight feet by 2100, while former NASA scientist James Hansen argues that it could be 10 feet or more. The larger reality is, we’re moving into an era of unknown impacts, where it is impossible to say how fast our world will change, or how bad it will get. “We are dealing with an event that no human has ever witnessed,” Penn State scientist Richard Alley recently told me as we discussed the collapsing Antarctic ice sheets. “We have no analog for this.”

At the same time, we’ve allowed cities like Houston to become empires of denial. If you set out to design a metropolis that is poorly adapted to the future, you couldn’t do much better than Houston. Consider the rate at which it’s paved over the wetlands, nature’s sponges for absorbing water. Thirty percent of the surrounding coastal prairie wetlands was developed between 1992 and 2010, creating what amount to concrete catch basins that capture the water and funnel it toward destruction. In Houston, the bayou is just a place to drive your Lexus – this is a city that’s said to have 30 parking spots for every resident.

Houston proudly touts itself as “the City With No Limits,” playing up its Wild West heritage of endless land and opportunity. But it is also the largest U.S. city to have no zoning laws, meaning you can build whatever you want, wherever you want. While that makes developers happy, it’s not how you build a climate-resilient city. According to a Washington Post investigation, more than 7,000 residential buildings have been constructed in 100-year FEMA-designated flood plains since 2010. But given that FEMA’s flood maps haven’t been updated to reflect sea-level rise and other factors, the actual number of new buildings constructed in high-risk places is likely much larger. And this is true not just in Houston but in Miami, South Carolina and every other flood-prone region. Ten years ago, Houston officials banned development in areas with high risk of flooding. But developers sued, until the policy was weakened by the City Council. Government officials tried putting up flood gauges in low-lying areas to show how high the water could get during a hurricane, but pressure from real-estate agents got the signposts removed.

The feds bear some responsibility for the disaster-friendly design of Houston, too. Virtually all flood insurance in America is administered through the National Flood Insurance Program, which is supposed to prevent risky development by requiring better building standards and relocation of buildings that flood repeatedly. But since it was founded in 1968, the program has been contorted by developers, real-estate agents, and politicians lobbying for special treatment for their constituents. In places like Houston, the program helps enable development in high-risk areas by offering subsidized insurance rates that don’t reflect the real cost of living in flood-prone areas, as well as by offering repeat payouts for often-flooded homes. Even before Harvey, the program was already $25 billion in debt.

As always, it’s poor people and people of color who end up bearing most of the risk. “They not only have to deal with flooding in their homes, but pollution in water that’s contaminated when water floods refineries and plants,” Texas Southern University sociologist Robert Bullard told Huffington Post. “You’re talking about a perfect storm of pollution, environmental racism, and health risks that are probably not going to be measured and assessed until decades later. The fact is that laissez-faire, unrestrained capitalism and lack of zoning mean people with money can put protections up, and people without can’t.”

In moments like this, it’s always tempting to say that a disaster like Hurricane Harvey is a game-changer, that seeing the devastation and suffering this storm has wrought will help us think differently about the world we live in. In the past, big catastrophes have led to big changes. The fire on Ohio’s Cuyahoga River in the 1960s resulted in the Clean Water Act; after the spill of the Exxon Valdez,Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act. In a rational world, Harvey would lead to (among other things) passage of carbon legislation to reduce emissions, as well as a fundamental restructuring of the National Flood Insurance Program to quit subsidizing development in risky places.

Instead, we are likely to get a lot of rah-rah about rebuilding Houston bigger and better than before, some marginal improvements in building codes, and a lot of fighting in Congress over how much money to spend on recovery. President Trump will tout the heroics of the rescuers and the TV ratings of the storm – he is his own empire of denial. He not only pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate deal, but just weeks before Harvey hit, he rolled back common-sense requirements for flood protection in federal projects.

Beyond the post-storm platitudes, it’s not hard to foresee what is coming. There will be another hurricane – next time it might hit Charleston or Miami or Norfolk, and it will destroy buildings and highways built in harm’s way and it will again cause billions of dollars worth of damage. Eventually, taxpayers in Kansas will get tired of bailing out people who live on the coast, and disaster-relief funds will dry up. As seas rise, mortgage companies will stop writing 30-year loans for homes by the sea. Bond ratings for cities will fall. Coastal roads will be washed away. Airports will be flooded. And the great coastal retreat will begin.

The simple truth is, it’s not just Houston that’s done a poor job of thinking about the future – it’s all of us. We’ve spent 40 years denying the risks of climate change, thinking that if we can just get everyone to buy a Prius and recycle their plastic, everything will be OK. The message of Hurricane Harvey is that it will not be OK. We’re living in a new world now, and we better get ready. Mother Nature is coming for us.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Sandra Bullock, Kevin Hart among the actors and artists leading the donations for Hurricane Harvey relief. Watch here.