The mummy speaks! But very cryptically, at least so far
In life, Nesyamun was an Egyptian priest who sang and chanted words of worship at the Karnak temple in Thebes. In death, he was ritually mummified and sealed in a coffin with the inscription “Nesyamun, true of voice”. Now, some 3,000 years into the afterlife and with the aid of a 3D-printed vocal tract, Nesyamun can once again be heard.
“He had this wish that his voice would somehow continue into perpetuity,” says David Howard, a speech scientist at Royal Holloway, University of London.
Howard and his team used a CT scanner to create a 3D-printed version of Nesyamun’s mouth and throat. They combined it with an electronic larynx to reconstruct “the sound that would come out of his vocal tract if he was in his coffin and his larynx came to life again”, Howard says.
So far the team has synthesised only a single sound from the mummy, which resembles the “ah” and “eh” vowel sounds heard in the words “bad” and “bed”. But the finding, published in Scientific Reports, may lay the groundwork for recreating and listening to an ancient person’s voice.
In September 2016, staff at the Leeds City Museum, where Nesyamun has resided for the last 200 years, wheeled the mummy to a nearby hospital to be CT scanned. The scan showed that much of his throat had remained intact.
“The actual mummification process was key here,” says Joann Fletcher, an Egyptologist at the University of York and an author on the paper. “The superb quality of preservation achieved by the ancient embalmers meant that Nesyamun’s vocal tract is still in excellent shape.”
Using the CT scan, the team 3D-printed a copy of Nesyamun’s vocal tract between the larynx and lips. Howard then took a loudspeaker, similar to one used on an ice cream truck, removed the horn portion and replaced it with the 3D-printed vocal tract. He also connected the loudspeaker to a computer that enabled him to create an electronic waveform similar to what is used in common speech synthesisers. This acts as an artificial larynx. Using the computer software, he could generate a sound that would go through the loudspeaker and into the 3D-printed vocal tract, creating the mummy’s vowel sound.
“He certainly can’t speak at the moment,” Howard says. “But I think it’s perfectly plausible to suggest that one day it will be possible to produce words that are as close as we can make them to what he would have sounded like.”
How a fish steals its ability to glow
Bioluminescence might seem uncommon, even alien. But biologists think organisms evolved the ability to light up the dark as many as 50 different times, sending tendrils of self-powered luminosity coursing through the tree of life, from fireflies and vampire squids to lantern sharks and foxfire, a fungus found in rotting wood.
Despite all this diversity, the general rules stay the same. Glowing in the dark or the deep takes two ingredients. You need some sort of luciferin, a molecule that can emit light, and you need an enzyme, luciferase, to trigger that reaction like the snapping of a glowstick.
Some creatures delegate this chemistry to symbiotic bacteria. Others possess the genes to make their own versions of luciferin and luciferase. But then there’s the golden sweeper, a reef fish that evolved a trick that hasn’t been seen anywhere else, according to a study published in Science Advances: It just gobbles up bioluminescent prey and borrows the entire kit.
“If you can steal an already established, sophisticated system by eating somebody else, that’s way easier,” says Manabu Bessho-Uehara, a postdoctoral scholar at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.
Biologists previously thought that the luciferase, at least, had to come from an animal’s own body. Animals do steal ready-made molecular machinery from each other: Sea slugs absorb chloroplasts from the algae they eat and use them to feed on sunlight. Nudibranchs, a related group of species, take stinging cells from anemones and repurpose them for self-defence.
But enzymes like luciferase are big, fragile proteins. Digestive systems typically break proteins into bits and absorb them as nutrients. “People just assumed it couldn’t be done,” says Edith Widder, a MacArthur-winning marine biologist who has used bioluminescence for conservation work and to hunt for giant squid.
But somehow the golden sweeper plucks luciferase intact from its own gut, a team led by Bessho-Uehara found. The researchers have proposed a new name for the target of this kind of molecular thievery: a kleptoprotein.
“I was initially quite sceptical when I heard what they were claiming,” Widder says. “But they’ve really done a very good job of convincing me.”
A prairie flower that flourishes in fire
As fires continue to rage across Australia, destroying ecosystems and killing millions of animals, it’s hard to imagine any good emerging from such devastation. But it’s long been known that some small plants can benefit from a fire, because they grow back faster than grasses and trees, giving them an advantage in the battle for resources.
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences gives another explanation for that success, at least for one prairie plant that has been in decline: reproductive advantage.
Purple coneflowers, also known as echinacea angustifolia, produce more seeds in years following fires, the new study shows, not just because there are fewer competitors for resources, but because a fire “also changes the mating opportunities”, says Stuart Wagenius, a conservation scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Wagenius, who led the research, tracked a 40-hectare plot, or nearly 100 acres, of prairie land in Minnesota for 21 years as part of the Echinacea Project.
The study found that coneflowers produced more seeds and were more genetically diverse in plots that were burnt every few years, compared with those where fires were prevented.
Coneflowers don’t bloom every year because it takes energy to produce a flower. Controlled burning in autumn or spring triggered the flowers on the study plot to put out blooms – often more than one – the following summer. Wagenius found this synchrony both in terms of the years of flowering and the dates within those years. So, in the summer after a fire, more flowers were open at the same time, and bees were better able to pollinate the coneflowers, he says.
“It just makes sense that if there are more plants flowering, there’s going to be better pollination,” he says.
Several other researchers not involved in the work say the group’s findings were surprising and persuasive.
“They show that the effect of fire isn’t what everybody assumed that it is,” says Ingrid Parker, chair of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “It shows that the role of fire is even more interesting than we realised and there’s a lot more to learn.”
Volcanoes on Venus might still be smoking
Venus is our toxic twin. Its chemical makeup, size and density are similar to our world’s, although its hellish temperatures can melt lead, and its atmosphere is rife with sulfuric acid.
But it may be even more Earthlike than we knew. A paper published in Science Advances demonstrates that Venus might still harbour active volcanoes. If confirmed, the finding could help astronomers and planetary scientists as they search for life on other worlds.
Scientists have long debated whether Venus might be volcanically active. In the early 1990s, cloud-penetrating radar on the Magellan orbiter revealed a surface studded with volcano-like mountains. But no one knew whether these features remained active. Then in 2010, data from Europe’s Venus Express spacecraft revealed several hot spots that suggested lava had flowed as recently as 250,000 years ago. And in 2012, the orbiter observed spikes in sulfur dioxide – a gas that smells like a struck match and is commonly produced on Earth by active volcanoes – within the Venusian atmosphere.
The evidence was tantalising, but incomplete. “The data that are currently available for Venus cannot unequivocally provide the smoking gun,” says Tracy Gregg, a geologist at the University at Buffalo.
So Justin Filiberto, a planetary scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, decided to take another look. His team experimented with crystals of olivine, a green mineral commonly found in volcanic rock. Specifically, they wanted to see how the mineral might change once it erupted into the hot, Venusian atmosphere.
To find out, the researchers heated olivine up to roughly 871C and exposed it to oxygen, which can also be found on Venus. Under such extreme conditions, the outer grains of olivine transformed into iron oxide, and very rapidly. Because olivine disappears quickly, the discovery of evidence of the mineral on the surface of Venus would signify young lava flows.
So Filiberto and his colleagues turned towards archived data from the Venus Express orbiter. They found that the lava flows previously dated at 250,000 years old actually contained olivine – proof that they were only a few years old.
“It means that Venus is a lot more like Earth than we thought,” Filiberto says.
Fossilised tooth captures a pterosaur’s failed squid meal
About 150 million years ago, a pterosaur experienced an embarrassing mealtime mishap. Attempting to catch and eat a seafood snack, the flying reptile came away one tooth short.
At least, that is the chain of events suggested by a fossil described in Scientific Reports: a preserved cephalopod with a pterosaur tooth embedded inside of it.
This “fossilised action snapshot” is the first evidence scientists have that these winged contemporaries of dinosaurs ate prehistoric squid, or at least tried, says Jean-Paul Billon Bruyat, an expert in prehistoric reptiles who was not involved in the research.
The fossil also joins a small group of records that hint at the ecological relationships between ancient creatures.
The specimen, which was found in Germany’s Solnhofen fossil beds, is an 11in coleoid cephalopod, a precursor to today’s squids, octopuses and cuttlefish. It is preserved well enough that its ink sac and fins are readily visible, as is the very sharp-looking tooth stuck just below its head.
René Hoffmann, an author of the paper and a postdoctoral researcher at Ruhr-Universitat Bochum in Germany and an expert in prehistoric cephalopods, came across a photo of the fossil last year and was immediately intrigued.
“Two fossils together could give us an idea of predator-prey relationships,” he says.
Based on the tooth’s shape, size and texture, along with the fossil’s location and age, the tooth probably belonged to Rhamphorhynchus muensteri. The species had a 5ft wingspan, says Jordan Bestwick, a paleobiologist at the University of Leicester who specialises in pterosaur diets and was an author of the paper.
Rhamphorhynchus hunted fish, likely by flying over the water and snapping them up. But this is the first direct evidence that these pterosaurs also had a taste for cephalopods, says Bestwick.
It is also the only record of “a failed predation attempt” made by any pterosaur.
The researchers also used ultraviolet light – which can differentiate between sediment and formerly living tissue – to determine if the tooth was stuck inside the cephalopod when both were fossilised, not merely lying on top. Overlap between the mantle tissue and the tip of the tooth showed that the tooth was embedded least half an inch deep.