• Researchers find a microbe that could help end malaria.
  • Author Colson Whitehead wins a second Pulitzer Prize.
  • ‘Murder hornets’ have been found in the US for the first time.
  • Will Tom Cruise make a movie in space?

1. Ending malaria, one microbe at a time

Researchers in the UK and Kenya have discovered a microbe that protects mosquitos from malaria, according to a study published in Nature Communications. Female Anopheles mosquitoes are the chief cause of malaria infections, as they carry the parasite from one host to another; an infected mosquito will infect a human that it feeds on. An infected human will infect any mosquito that feeds on it.

There were an estimated 228 million cases of malaria worldwide in 2018 and around 405,000 deaths.

Scientists have discovered a link between a microbe known as Microsporidia MB and resistance to malaria. Analyzing mosquito populations in the wild, the researchers concluded that none of the insects with the microbe were also carrying the malaria parasite – known as plasmodium falciparum.

Deaths from malaria, by age, World, 1990 to 2017
The percentage of deaths, by age, from malaria
Image: Our World in Data

The resistance is passed from one generation of mosquitos to another, raising the possibility of breeding anti-malaria properties into the insects. Just 5% of mosquitos are believed to carry the microbe – to influence the overall population and bring down infections in people, that would need to be higher than 40%.

2. Pulitzer Prize winner joins elite group

Author Colson Whitehead has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Again. He becomes only the fourth writer to have done so: Booth Tarkington, William Faulkner and John Updike being the others.

In his novel, The Nickel Boys, Whitehead tells the story of Elwood Curtis, a young black man in 1960s Florida who finds himself sentenced to a spell in a juvenile detention centre called the Nickel Academy. The institution is described as “a grotesque chamber of horrors” and reflects many of the injustices of the so-called Jim Crow era when racial segregation and the denial of civil rights to the African American population was mandated in law across southern states.

Whitehead won the Pulitzer for the first time in 2017 for The Underground Railroad, which centred on the life of Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation, and her attempt to escape to freedom.

3. Murder hornets: bad news for people, even worse for bees

If you’re unfortunate enough to get stung by an Asian giant hornet you might not live to tell the tale – they are known as the murder hornets.

Now, for the first time, they’ve been found in the US. In August 2019, the creatures were found in the western Canadian province of British Columbia. Since then, they’ve headed south, and crossed the border into Washington state.

The murder hornet
The murder hornet
Image: Yasunori Koide, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

They’re called giant for a reason – they can grow to 6cm in length with a 7cm wing-span. The “murder hornet” monicker is appropriate too. Multiple stings can kill humans and the hornets feast on honeybees, attacking colonies by entering the hive and killing all the bees. Larvae and pupae are then removed from their cocoons and – along with the bodies of the dead adult bees – chewed into balls of pulp, which the hornets take back home to feed to their young.

Bee populations are already under enormous pressure in the US. This new pressure will only make their situation worse.

4. Take a deep breath – of hydrogen?

Planets with hydrogen-rich atmospheres could support life, according to scientists from MIT, who conducted experiments on simple organisms such as e.coli and yeast. Some of the microbes were kept in jars containing hydrogen gas, some with helium gas, and some with a mixture of 80% nitrogen and 20% carbon dioxide. There was also a control sample in a jar with plain old, regular air.

They found that all the samples thrived in the artificial atmospheres. Not only had they survived, they had replicated too. The e.coli had also produced several gases, including ammonia, methanethiol and nitrous oxide, which are regarded as potential signs of life.

Microbes here on Earth already get by in atmospheres humans would find alien. Yeast thrives in the brewing process. E.coli lives in the digestive tract of animals. But the discovery opens up new possibilities for the ongoing search for life on alien worlds.

5. Ground control to Major Tom

One of Hollywood’s leading leading-men, Tom Cruise, is said to be collaborating with NASA to make a movie onboard the International Space Station (ISS). Although it’s certain to happen, the plan would seem to be for Cruise to be blasted 400 kilometres above the Earth where he’ll make his home on the ISS. That would mean he becomes the first actor to perform anywhere other than Earth.

Currently, the only way to the ISS is on a Russian rocket, but private businesses like SpaceX and Boeing are believed to be close to being able to make the journey. It’s an expensive undertaking. According to CNN Business, last year NASA announced a price list for commercial use of the ISS. For $11,250 per day, visitors can have use of life-support equipment and the toilet. However, food and other provisions are priced at $22,500 per day. But for that, you would also have access to air, which may come as a relief to Mr Cruise.