Inverse Daily: Life on Earth could owe its existence to 'space sugar'

The RNA World Hypothesis is controversial — but a new study suggests it is not impossible.

It’s Tuesday, the second day of the week. And today feels as good as any to restate that there’s nothing wrong with being second. You’ve probably come in second a few times in your life, right?

Being first often promises glory in exchange for risk, but the actual work begins on the second attempt. Take, for instance, the Apollo 12 mission, which made a precision landing on the moon 50 years ago today, becoming the second crew to reach the moon.

The lunar module Intrepid can be seen in this iconic image, photographed from the Apollo command and service module nearby. On this second day of the week, take comfort in the fact that it’s not always being first that matters most.

I’m Nick Lucchesi, executive editor at Inverse, and this is Inverse Daily. Let’s get into it:

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INVERSE QUOTE OF THE DAY

“It’s a biologically inspired machine learning.”

— Kevin Bock, a computer science Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland.

How a city emerged from the smog

Stuck under the world’s spotlight in 2008 as the host of the Olympics, China took decisive actions to clean up its capital city’s air. Before and after the games, Beijing had a rep as a smog-filled metropolis, with some of the worst air quality in the world.

But strict reductions to traffic and other sources of emissions meant that, by the time visitors were flocking to the city, the air was a lot cleaner. For the world, it was a lesson in how dramatic policies could have an outsized effect on air quality.

China took its striking approach to air quality national in 2013 — it’s the largest intervention by this highly interventionist state in pollution. And while the regulations are tough, they seem to be working pretty well, according to a new study. So well, in fact, that they may have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

How Beijing cleaned up its act →

The more you know:

Ketamine has the potential to treat a big problem

Ketamine, a drug once famous for trance-like hallucinations, is now an FDA-approved treatment for depression. Now it might have another counterintuitive use: treating alcohol abuse.

A rat study has shown that hard-drinking male rats who received ketamine reduced their alcohol intake. It stayed reduced for three weeks, suggesting that ketamine could be a long-term way to curb alcohol dependence. But it didn’t work so well for female rats.

Hard-drinking female rats didn’t see significant reductions in alcohol use, and they had higher motivations to use ketamine, suggesting that one dependency could just be swapped for another.

An estimated 14.1 million Americans suffered from alcohol use disorder in 2017. There are a range of treatment options available, like AA or three FDA-approved drugs that can treat alcohol dependence. Ketamine could be a fourth if the results of the rat study and human trials hold up.

But before this treatment goes anywhere, researchers will have to find out what doses work best for women, and if there are any special steps that need to be taken to make sure people don’t get hooked on ketamine instead.

Read more about this remarkable research →

Related headlines:

What does sugar from outer space taste like?

You might have heard that we’re “all made of star stuff,” but we might also be made of space sugar. In a new study, scientists analyzed three carbon-containing meteorites and found the presence of ribose and other biologically important sugars.

While other building blocks of life (amino acids) have been found on meteorites before, this is the first time that sugars have been detected. This suggests that extraterrestrial sugars made their way to Earth by hitching a ride on a space rock.

The presence of ribose is particularly important because it’s the backbone of one of life’s critical molecules, ribonucleic acid, or RNA. How life began on Earth is still the source of major debate, but one hypothesis is that the very first primitive life was RNA, not DNA, based.

However, what hasn’t been known is how the ribose that could have lead to primordial life forms could have emerged in the first place. This study suggests that space ribose could explain at least some of its presence on Earth, and provides geological evidence to the RNA World Hypothesis.

Read about this new discovery →

More about our celestial origins:

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The little-told story of sexist science

In the 1970s, women of childbearing age were banned from taking part in first-stage clinical trials. The idea, it seems, was to protect them and their potential offspring from any side effects from unapproved medicines. But despite ending more than 20 years ago, the ban continues to have an influence on women’s reproductive health.

The exclusion of women from research means there are gaps in the science that dictate almost every aspect of a woman’s health — from birth control methods to potentially life-saving medications, like drugs to treat HIV. The missing research makes it difficult for women to make confident health decisions — especially around their sexual and reproductive health.

“Women need to recognize that health care doesn’t understand women yet,” Sarah Hill, a professor at Texas Christian University, tells Inverse.

Read about the research gap →

Related stories:

Train your mind to become an expert

When we learn, our brains undergo “big” changes that underpin the transition from novice to expert.

A new study on mice shows that when they had to learn how to navigate a new environment, the firing patterns in their neurons changed as they learned. When they became experts, their neurons fired more selectively, suggesting that they became pickier about when they fired and when they didn’t. At the end of the day, the way an expert brain behaves is very different from the way a novice’s does. It’s a finely tuned machine.

The researchers suggest that this kind of learning plays out in human brains during a very specific type of learning: when we feel like we’re in over our heads and have to learn things from scratch.

A cool side note that also came out of this study: The authors say that their work suggests that the fastest way to learn these new tasks is to experience new information in a multitude of ways, using visuals and audio tools, for example. This wasn’t the main finding, but it’s a neat implication.

Read more about this brain-changing process →

Read more about human potential:

Meanwhile …

  • Scientists glimpse Titan’s startling terrain for the first time.
  • Google Stadia is impressive if you have fast Wi-Fi and tons of data.
  • We talked to the Russo Brothers about deleted Endgame scenes, 21 Bridges, Cherry, and more.
  • Marvel adds 5 new movies through 2023. Here’s what they may be.
  • Mandalorian leak hints at the return of a classic Star Wars character.

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That’s all for today!

Thank you for reading and if you have a suggestion for how to make this newsletter better, drop me a line at nick@inverse.com. And follow me on Twitter where I retweet the best of Inverse every day.