Unsettling News on Knee Surgery, and a Striking Neanderthal Gene

An image captured from NASA TV showing astronaut Mike Hopkins during a spacewalk outside the Ineternational Space Station.

“Houston, you’ve got yourself a new pump module,” Col. Michael S. Hopkins said last Tuesday after some maintenance on the International Space Station. Repairs to the cooling system were needed after a valve malfunctioned, forcing astronauts to dim the lights and curtail operations. “It’s like Christmas morning, opening up a little present here,” the astronaut Richard A. Mastracchio said.



Doubts About a Knee Operation

Arthroscopic knee surgery is no more effective than fake operations for people with a certain kind of injury, according to an unusual study from Finland. People with a torn meniscus (the crescent-shaped cartilage that helps cushion and stabilize knees) were split into groups: One was given surgery, the other only anesthesia and incisions. A year later, most patients in each group said they felt better and would have the procedure again.

The study does not imply the surgery never helps, the authors said, but adds to a body of research that suggests it should be aimed at a narrower subset of patients.


An Ancient Link for Diabetes

Researchers have identified gene mutations that may explain why Latinos are almost twice as likely to develop Type 2 diabetes as Caucasians and African-Americans. And in a twist, the quirk can be traced to Neanderthals.

While trying to explain the high rate of Type 2 diabetes among Latinos, an international team of scientists happened on an ancient gene, most likely involved in fat metabolism. Having mutations in that gene raises a person’s risk by about 20 percent; having two copies, one from each parent, raises it by 40 percent.

Credit...Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“As far as I know, this is the first time a version of a gene from Neanderthal has been connected to a modern-day disease,” David Altshuler, a geneticist at Harvard and an author of the study, told NPR.


A Plant Fuels Energy Hopes

A company in San Diego says it has cultivated hybrid strains of a plant that could produce enough biofuel to compete with energy sources like petroleum. The plant, jatropha, whose seeds produce a high-quality oil that can be refined into low-carbon fuel, was once dismissed because it produced too few seeds. But thanks to advances in molecular genetics and DNA sequencing, the start-up SGB domesticated the plant in a few years, rather than decades.

The company is also working to identify traits that make certain strains of the plant resistant to heat or cold. If such traits could be identified in cash crops like corn and soybeans, the knowledge could be valuable as climate change accelerates.


For Anxiety, Don’t Keep Calm

Feeling nervous? Don’t bother calming down. You’re better off getting excited, according to a new study from Harvard Business School.

Participants in several anxiety-inducing experiments consistently performed better when prompted to get excited rather than to relax, the study found. For example, people told to say “I am excited” before delivering a public speech gave longer, more competent presentations and appeared more relaxed than speakers told to say “I am calm.” The shift from anxiety to excitement may be eased by the fact that both are highly aroused states, suggested the author of the study, published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Coming Up


Dry Cleaning Challenge

Can you build a washing machine that uses no liquid, creates no wrinkles and doesn’t damage clothes? To win $20,000 from the “open innovation” firm InnoCentive, you don’t have to.

The company, which builds inventions from crowdsourced ideas, is seeking proposals for better clothes-washing techniques — no working prototype needed — for its Future Clothes Washing Technology challenge. The deadline is Jan. 11, but be warned: The winner must surrender intellectual property rights. So maybe give them your second-best idea.

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