Welcome to the Altmetric High Five for February! On a monthly basis, my High Five posts examine a selection of the most popular research outputs Altmetric has seen attention for that month.
This month’s papers all have big, catchy headlines, from the earliest life on earth, to earth-like exoplanets, to human longevity.
Paper #1. The Earliest Life on Earth – Found?
Our first High Five paper appeared in Nature last week with the headline-making title “Evidence for early life in Earth’s oldest hydrothermal vent precipitates.” The study reports evidence of early life based on fossils discovered in rocks found in Quebec, Canada believed to originate from ancient submarine-hydrothermal vents that occurred billions of years ago.
“Here we describe putative fossilized microorganisms that are at least 3,770 million and possibly 4,280 million years old in ferruginous sedimentary rocks, interpreted as seafloor hydrothermal vent-related precipitates, from the Nuvvuagittuq belt in Quebec, Canada.” – Dodd et al. 2017
“It’s entirely conceivable that it was here – in the deep ocean – that life first popped into existence.” – George Dvorsky, Gizmodo
“The jasper belt in which the fossils were found is thought to have once been an undersea vent. There, researchers say, the vents played hosts to prehistoric microbes – much like modern vents, where heat-loving bacteria loves to gather.” – Erin Blakemore, Smithsonian.com
A whopping 363 news outlets in multiple languages picked up the study according to Altmetric data. Some controversy surrounds the claims made in the paper, with skeptics doubting whether the fossil structures found in these rocks are actually fossils at all. But this controversy likely only made the study more popular in the mass media.
“Life on Earth may have originated in the sunless depths of the ocean rather than shallow seas. In a new study, scientists studying 3.77-billion-year-old rocks have found tubelike fossils similar to structures found at hydrothermal vents, which host thriving biological communities. That would make them more than 300 million years older than the most ancient signs of life on Earth—fossilized microbial mats called stromatolites that grew in shallow seas. Other scientists are skeptical about the new claims.” – Carolyn Gramling, Science News
NPR headlined, “Tiny Fossils Could Be Oldest Evidence Of Life On Earth.”
“The rocks hold some very small and curious shapes. […] They look a lot like the microbes you’d find clumping around volcanic vents in the ocean today — like the rusty-looking gelatinous mats full of bacteria that form around vents off the coast of Hawaii.” – Rae Ellen Bichell, NPR
Whether life on Earth is really more than 3.7 billion years old is a question that further research must answer.
- Scientists Say Canadian Bacteria Fossils May Be Earth’s Oldest, by Carl Zimmer, NYTimes
- These Tiny Fossils From An Ancient Undersea Vent Are The Oldest Ever Found, by Tom Chivers, BuzzFeed
- This May Be the Oldest Known Sign of Life on Earth, by Nadia Drake, NatGeo
- The oldest evidence of life on Earth could radically change how we search for life on Mars, by Akshat Rathi, Quartz
Paper #2. Earth Number 8.
Our second High Five paper is as headline-worthy as our first. “Seven temperate terrestrial planets around the nearby ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1” appeared in Nature in February.
“Our observations reveal that at least seven planets with sizes and masses similar to those of Earth revolve around TRAPPIST-1. The six inner planets form a near-resonant chain, such that their orbital periods […] are near-ratios of small integers. This architecture suggests that the planets formed farther from the star and migrated inwards. Moreover, the seven planets have equilibrium temperatures low enough to make possible the presence of liquid water on their surfaces.” – Gillon et al. 2017
“[A] key question is what state that water is in: ice, liquid, or vapor?” – John Timmer, ArsTechnica
Nearly 300 news outlets picked up the study. The New York Times headlined, “7 Earth-Size Planets Orbit Dwarf Star, NASA and European Astronomers Say.”
“Trappist-1, named after a robotic telescope in the Atacama Desert of Chile that the astronomers initially used to study the star, is what astronomers call an ‘ultracool dwarf,’ with only one-twelfth the mass of the sun and a surface temperature of 4,150 degrees Fahrenheit, much cooler than the 10,000 degrees radiating from the sun. […] Until the last few years, scientists looking for life elsewhere in the galaxy have focused on finding Earth-size planets around sun-like stars. But it is hard to pick out the light of a planet from the glare of a bright star. Small dim dwarfs are much easier to study.” – Kenneth Chang, NYTimes
Will these planets be a “test bed” for the search for extraterrestrial life?
“The most exciting thing for actual scientists is that these planets are close enough that we’re actually going to be able to study them – particularly when the James Webb Space Telescope launches (October 2018.) When that launches, it will have a real shot at actually taking a look at the atmospheres of these planets – or if they have atmospheres at all. So it’s like a promise of future excitement, in some ways.” – NASA Exoplanet expert Aki Roberge, quoted in Forbes
- Astronomers Find 7 Potentially Habitable Planets, by Lulu Garcia-Navarro, NPR
- Scientists Spot Seven Earth-Sized Planets Orbiting a Nearby Star, by Ben Panko, Smithsonian.com
Paper #3. Millennials and Colon Cancers
Our third High Five paper is “Colorectal Cancer Incidence Patterns in the United States, 1974–2013,” published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in February. The study reports a rise of age-specific colon cancer risk among young Americans.
The authors conclude based on their findings, “as nearly one-third of rectal cancer patients are younger than age 55 years, screening initiation before age 50 years should be considered.”
Over 200 news outlets covered the study, many of which were TV news stations. Many of these included headlines such as “colon cancer rates rise among millennials.”
NPR Shots headlined, “Why Are More Young Americans Getting Colon Cancer?”
“A study released Tuesday by researchers from the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute found that a typical American millennial born in 1990 is, in any given year of her life, twice as likely to be diagnosed with colon cancer as a person born in 1950. And compared to that older baby boomer, the average twenty-something is four times as likely — again, at every age — to be diagnosed with cancer of the rectum.” – Melissa Healy, LA Times
Popular Science pointed to the potential role of obesity in this trend.
“Some cases of colorectal cancer come from a strong genetic predisposition—there are several mutations and syndromes that put you at a much higher risk than the general population. But those inherited types of colorectal cancer aren’t increasing, and that suggests some kind of lifestyle change that preceded the rise in cancer rates is to blame.” – Sara Chodosh, Popular Science
Paper #4. The Reign of the 90-year-olds
Our next High Five paper is “Future life expectancy in 35 industrialised countries: projections with a Bayesian model ensemble,” published in The Lancet in February. The study findings indicate that life expectancy is likely to increase, especially among women, in the next few decades.
“There is more than a 50% probability that by 2030, national female life expectancy will break the 90 year barrier, a level that was deemed unattainable by some at the turn of the 21st century. Our projections show continued increases in longevity, and the need for careful planning for health and social services and pensions.” – Kontis et al. 2017
Over 250 news outlets covered the study. Increased human life expectancy ruled the headlines. Buzzfeed published a series of helpful graphs communicating the study’s findings.
“Everyone knows we’re living a lot longer than we used to. Now a new study in The Lancet has suggested that the change is going to be almost as dramatic in the next few years. It looked at 35 industrialised countries around the world, and used statistical techniques to project how it thinks life expectancy will change between now and 2030.” – Tom Chivers, BuzzFeed
Other news outlets focused on the bad news the study tells for the U.S., where various health and health-care issues contribute to more moderate life expectancy estimates. The Washington Post headlined, “U.S. life expectancy will soon be on par with Mexico’s and the Czech Republic’s.”
“South Korean women and Hungarian men are projected to make the largest overall gains (with South Koreans second among males). There is a better-than-even chance that South Korean women will live to an average of 90 years old by 2030, which would be the first time a population will break the 90-year barrier, according to the research published in The Lancet. Not so in the United States.” – Lenny Bernstein, The Washington Post
Paper #5. Human Pollution Reaches the Deep Ocean
Our final High Five paper ends on a more pressing note. The study, “Bioaccumulation of persistent organic pollutants in the deepest ocean fauna,” appeared in Nature Ecology & Evolution in February, 2017.
“The legacy and reach of anthropogenic influence is most clearly evidenced by its impact on the most remote and inaccessible habitats on Earth. Here we identify extraordinary levels of persistent organic pollutants in the endemic amphipod fauna from two of the deepest ocean trenches (>10,000 metres).” – Jamieson et al. 2017
Over 180 news outlets and 20 blogs covered the study. Science News headlined, “‘Extraordinary’ levels of pollutants found in deepest parts of sea.”
“Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are tough chemicals. Created mainly for electrical equipment, and also during waste incineration, their production was banned starting in 1979 due to cancer risk and other health worries. But PCBs have resisted degradation and spread far and wide, reaching the Arctic and Antarctic. Now, researchers report finding PCBs in crustaceans living in two of the deepest trenches in the ocean.” – Erik Stokstad, Science News
The Washington Post headlined, “Scientists discover pollution 10,000 meters below the ocean’s surface in the Mariana Trench.”
“The findings, presented Monday in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, underscore the idea that different parts of the ocean may be far more interconnected than previously thought — and that dangerous forms of pollution may be pervasive even in the most remote places.” – Chelsea Harvey, The Washington Post