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Hank dishes out updates on the mutant flu virus and the James Webb Space Telescope, and gives us some new bits about new exoplanets, secret space planes, and a study that shows that music evolves according to Darwin's rules.

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Hello and welcome back for more SciShow News, today I'm dishing out updates on the mutant flu virus and the frickin' amazing James Webb Space Telescope, and also little bits on new planets, secret spaceplanes, and a study that shows that music evolves according to Darwin's rules.
Prepare to be nerded!


In one of our very first news shows this year, I told you about controversial research by a team of Dutch biologists who have mutated the H5N1 bird flu virus to make it contagious between mammals.

At the time it was generally known how they did it, by passing a modified version of the virus among ferrets until it became transmissible through the air, but the details weren't known until yesterday, when the scientists published their research in full in the journal Science.

And here is what we now know about the mutant flu.
First, it only took five mutations to turn the bird flu that we know and love today into a potential pandemic maker. And only three of those changes were made by the biologists. They changed three amino acids in the virus' RNA that made the virus more adaptable to mammalian cells. The other two mutations, one to a protein on the virus' outer surface and the other to the enzyme that the virus uses to replicate itself, happened naturally as the infection spread from one ferret to another.

Second, in a separate study released yesterday, an international team of biologists reported that, of those five dangerous mutations, two of them have since been found in strains of H5N1 that are currently circulating around the world. That means that we could just be three mutations away from a game changer. And that same team added that it's possible that those mutations could take place in a single mammalian host. So they conclude that the bird flu evolving into an airborne mammal killer is, in their words, a "potentially serious threat", which I think we already knew.
Now you might be wondering, why in the name of Steven Soderbergh would someone do something like turn a deadly disease that's hard for mammals to catch and make it easier for mammals to catch?

Well, these researchers argue that, given how deadly the disease has been so far, we have to find out how the virus can be transmitted, so that we can start preparing vaccines and other defenses. And in fact, they were paid by the US National Institutes of Health to do it.

As far as I'm concerned, these people are just doing their jobs, and it's an important job, and they're doing it well, but I am curious what you think. Should the research have been done, or published? Or do you have any tips on nice, sunny, isolated places to wait out a pandemic? Let us know in the comments below.

Most of you know that in addition to being an amazing scientist, I'm also a pretty fine musician; I'm just stating the facts here, people!

New research released Monday shows that music can evolve much like organisms do.

A team at Imperial College, London, created a website called DarwinTunes which randomly generates short audio loops. The scientists let Internet users listen to the clips and rank them, basically acting as a force of artificial selection.

Loops with the worst ratings went extinct, while the top ten rated loops were automatically paired up as parents and their elements were combined to create 20 new offspring loops.
After 3,000 generations, a random noise like this ("Darwin Tunes Medley at O Generations" plays) evolved into a medley like this ("Darwin Tunes Medley at 3000 generations" plays). Not really my kind of sound, but cool nonetheless, because as scientists argue that, strictly speaking, the audio loops sexually reproduced and mutated in a biological fashion. I'm not sure how pieces of music can have sex, but that's what they said. They added that Darwin tunes shows that cultural changes, like in music or language, can take place through natural selection just as physical changes do. We link to the study, published in the journal PNAS and DarwinTunes in the citations below, so click around and have some fun with it.

Next! It seems like astronomers discover a new exoplanet every week nowadays, but this week they not only discovered two at the same time, but the two worlds are closer to each other than any other known planets. The plants, called Kepler-36B and 36C were found some 1200 light-years away by astronomers at the University of Washington and Harvard University. One of the worlds is rocky, it's a terrestrial planet, it's about one and a half times the size of Earth and appears to have small amounts of water in its atmosphere. The other is a gas giant, nearly four times the size of Earth, and the two are only 1.9 million km apart, that's just five times the distance from the Earth to the moon.

This close proximity, combined with the possibility that the smaller planet could be volcanically active, leads scientists to speculate that the view from the planet looks a lot like an early 80s album cover, see for yourself.

Now, if you feel like you've been missing a couple of billion dollars, that's probably because the US government was secretly using it to send space planes into orbit. Last week, the US Airforce's X37B, one of two unmanned mini space shuttles, landed after spending a record-breaking 15 months in orbit. It was the second mission for the X37 program, the first vehicle having spent nine months in orbit in 2010. A lot of people didn't know that these things even existed, but they're pretty awesome. They're launched on Atlas rockets and they land like shuttles and they run on Lithium Ion batteries and solar arrays, so they can stay in orbit for months at a time. They could be used to do things like send supplies to the space station and conduct zero gravity experiments or even repair satellites or orbiting telescopes so why aren't they doing these things? Well, the Department of Defense says that it's still testing the planes' various technologies, but the details of these testing missions have been very, very secret. I can assume that in total, their motives are "defense-oriented", but what do you think they're doing up there? What would you use it for? Let me know in the comments below.

Finally, the next generation of astronautical awesome, the James Webb space telescope. Last week, NASA announced that the first of Webb's four observing instruments, the mid-infrared instrument or MIRI, has been finished and sent to Maryland's Goddard Space Flight Center. MIRI was assembled by the Rutherford Appleton laboratory in the UK, and it'll observe light in the mid-infrared wavelength. This will allow the telescope to detect distant old galaxies, find dust shrouded newly forming stars that can't be seen with visible light, and possibly even pick up on traces of the so-called first light of the earliest forming stars in the universe. And let me tell you, the JWST is a frickin' marvel of engineering, MIRI will observe light by way of Webb's primary segmented mirror whose collecting area is about 25 square meters and is coated with a microscopically thin layer of gold because gold bests reflects infrared light. Astronomers say that MIRI will have 50 times the sensitivity and seven times the resolution of NASA's only other infrared space telescope, the Spitzer. Webb's three other instruments, a camera and two kinds of spectrographs, will now make observations at even shorter waves of infrared light. Those instruments are still in development, and we'll keep you posted on that.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow News. If you have any questions, ideas, or comments, leave them in the comments or on Facebook or Twitter, and we'll see you next time.

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