This Week in Science: NASA’s armageddon mission, boosters for all adults, high-kicking frogs, the best way to hug, COVID-19 origin

A happy hug is pictured. via Pexels

DARTing across the cosmos: NASA’s plan to protect planet Earth 

NASA plans to launch a spacecraft this week that, in late 2022, will intentionally crash into an asteroid, hopefully changing its trajectory. Planetary defense research has been conducted over the past several years in hopes of preventing foreseeable meteor crashes. Although scientists believe massive meteorites do not pose a significant Armageddon-level threat in the next few centuries, smaller astrological debris can be just as deadly, with the potential to decimate entire cities like Manhattan.  

The spacecraft and its mission, called Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), is programmed to travel 300 million miles to a pair of asteroids named Didymos and Dimorphos in 10 months. Dimorphos, the smaller asteroid of the two, is NASA’s crash-course target; upon arriving, DART will collide into it at more than 13,400 miles per hour, or almost 45,000 times the speed at which Dimorphos regularly orbits. The intentional crash should ideally help disrupt the asteroid’s normal route, kicking it into a shorter orbit. While these defense missions are still in their initial stages, successful trials can pave the way for techniques to save our planet in the future.

— Ian Lau

All adults now eligible for COVID-19 booster shots

Ahead of the winter season and a rise in holiday travel, the Food and Drug Administration on Friday authorized booster shots for everyone above the age of 18. Later that day, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also signed off on expanding booster eligibility for both the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.

Officials said a booster shot given six months after the initial dosage provides continued protection against breakthrough infections and symptomatic COVID-19. The FDA analyzed clinical trial data showing that 149 participants who received the Moderna booster shot had higher antibody levels than 1,055 participants who only received two doses of the vaccine. Pfizer’s data showed that the immune responses of 200 people were higher after they received the booster compared to one month after these individuals received their second shot.

With the newly simplified eligibility criteria, officials hope to alleviate confusion over who is eligible for a booster dose. Previously, only people who were 65 and older or who had elevated risk of contracting COVID-19 were eligible to receive a booster shot six months or more after completing their primary vaccine series. While the booster rollout is gaining momentum, the CDC continues to encourage those who have not yet been vaccinated to get their initial shots.

Even though boosters are now available to any adult who wants one, a debate remains regarding whether supplies should be dedicated to revaccinating young, healthy individuals whose two doses already provide ample protection against serious injury or death, or to making sure people who have not been vaccinated at all receive their initial dose. Some public health experts believe that immunization outreach to the as-of-yet unvaccinated, and to people at highest risk for the disease, should be prioritized above boosters for the general population.

— Rachel Liu

How do male Bornean Rock frogs defend themselves? It’s a real kick.

When one thinks of high kicks, the iconic dance company from Manhattan, the Rockettes, usually comes to mind over a small amphibian. But recent studies show that this dance-like motion of kicking legs toward the sky, known as foot-flagging, is used by male Bornean rock frogs to intimidate male competitors and that the motion can be amplified using testosterone.

Most animals give verbal warnings to enemies, but because their natural habitat is located near noisy waterfalls and streams, male Bornean rock frogs have had to adapt a visual technique of deterrence towards their challengers. A frog relies heavily on what it can see; things that are parallel and low to the ground represent a food source, while those perpendicular to the ground represent a threat. Thus, it is seen as a warning when another frog raises its foot along a line perpendicular to the frog’s point of view.

A new study found that dosing male Bornean rock frogs with exogenous testosterone could increase this foot-flagging behavior, as the hormone exaggerates muscle movement in the leg. When a group of rock frogs was injected with testosterone, results showed that they had kicks that were about 10 millimeters higher than the other frogs.

Next, scientists hope to see whether rock frogs can distinguish between testosterone-enhanced foot flags, and if so, if they are more intimidating than non-testosterone-enhanced displays.

— Maddie Yost

Is there a best way to hug?

As it turns out, you might have been getting your embraces all wrong. A recent study analyzed how the duration and arm-crossing style of a hug affects its quality. The first part of the study found that hugs that lasted five or 10 seconds were rated higher on a scale of one to 100 for pleasure, arousal and control than those that lasted only one second. The researchers also tested the length of pleasure experienced, finding that pleasure was greatest immediately following the hug compared with three minutes and six minutes after the hug. The second part of the study, which consisted of both controlled experiments and real-world observations, examined two different hugging positions: criss-cross, in which both people’s arms are crossed over each other’s shoulder and waist, and neck-waist, in which one hugger’s arms are wrapped around the other’s waist. While there were no quality differences in hug style in the lab setting, the researchers found that male-male hugs are more likely to be in the criss-cross style than female-female or mixed-gender hugs. Emotional closeness and height difference generally did not influence hug type. The study suggests that criss-cross hugs, which previous studies have shown to be more egalitarian, may provide a sense of social equality for male-male hugging partners.

While there’s no quality difference between hug types, these researchers recommend a five-second criss-cross hug for the most pleasant experience.

— Peri Barest

New paper claims Wuhan market as suspected origin of first COVID-19 case

A new analysis of early COVID-19 cases suggests that the origin of the pandemic can be tied to a large animal market in Wuhan, China. Over the past two years, scientists have debated the chronology of the pandemic and whether COVID-19 could be traced to a spillover from infected wildlife sold at a market, a leak from a Wuhan virology lab or some other form of transmission.

A recent perspective published in “Science” gravitates toward the Huanan market in Wuhan as the culprit and origin for the spread of COVID-19. The paper describes how many of the earlier cases of COVID-19 were found to be near the Huanan market and were likely transmitted through human-to-human contact or community connection. With the high transmissibility of the COVID-19 virus and the elevated rate of asymptomatic spread, the author of the new analysis believes cases could have been mistakenly reported for other illnesses or not reported at all, and thus could have led doctors to believe there were other sources of origin. Still, many scientists argue that  the lack of data, faulty patient reports and incomplete evidence are not enough to conclude a true source for the start of the pandemic.

— Sophie Wax


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