Science news this week: Space tomatoes and sacred baboons

Dwarf tomatoes on the International Space Station; Skulls of ancient Egyptian sacred mummified baboons.
Dwarf tomatoes on the International Space Station; Skulls of ancient Egyptian sacred mummified baboons. (Image credit: NASA; Bea De Cupere)

This week in science news, we rediscovered a missing tomato on the International Space Station (ISS), found a temple possibly dedicated to Alexander the Great and unpacked how traumatic memories are processed in the brain.

In the equivalent of finding a lost sock in the dryer, astronauts on board the International Space Station have located something that was lost eight months earlier: a dwarf tomato that had been grown on the spacecraft. The fruit was part of the final harvest from spacefaring tomato plants, and astronauts initially blamed fellow space explorer Frank Rubio for sneakily eating it. In reality, the desiccated tomato floated away in its Ziploc bag before Rubio could take a bite. And that's not the only thing that's pulling a disappearing act in the cosmos: The bright star Betelgeuse will "blink out" on Dec. 11-12. Here's how you can watch Betelgeuse disappear.

Back on Earth, archaeologists at the ghost of an ancient megacity discovered something else that had been lost: a 4,000-year-old Sumerian temple, with another temple from the Hellenistic period built right on top of it. Based on an enigmatic coin and tablet found at the site, archaeologists suspect the latter temple may have been dedicated to Alexander the Great.

This week, we learned about yet more things hidden underground, including this fossil pool of groundwater buried deep beneath the Sicilian mountains. Experts say it's 6 million years old. Archaeologists also unearthed a Byzantine gold coin with the  "face of Jesus" on it, the earliest known framed saddle in the Central Asian "cave of the equestrian," and a "sensational" cache of Bronze Age axes in a Polish forest. In sadder news, "sacred baboons" that were mummified in ancient Egypt led bleak lives, being held captive in the dark and suffering from vitamin deficiencies as a result, archaeologists reported this week.

And remember that tablet said to contain the earliest Hebrew name of God? Turns out, it's probably just a fishing weight, and the so-called inscriptions are natural wear and tear.

Doctors took a deep dive into the mysteries of the brain this week, finding that traumatic memories are processed differently than ordinary ones and debunking the myth that newborns aren't born with "underdeveloped" brains, at least not compared with our primate cousins. They also zapped brains to help heal traumatic injuries, found that inflammation may drive mood changes in Alzheimer's disease, and showed that the key ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms could ease depression in those with bipolar disorder.

Back to the future, bioengineers have created nerve-cell-based "biobots" that could heal damaged skin and designed powerful "Star Wars"-like laser weapons that could melt distant targets. Thankfully, we're unlikely to see a Death Star anytime soon.

Speaking of amazing objects, scientists finally discovered how elephants got their amazing trunks. These incredible organs, which contain 40,000 individual muscles and nerve fibers, can both lift over 600 pounds (270 kilograms) and carefully pick up a single peanut. It turns out, these traits may have evolved millions of years ago in elephant-like ancestors to slash the soft, long grasses that grew in their habitat.

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Picture of the week

A gigantic coronal hole that opened up on the sun is more than 60 times wider than Earth. (Image credit: NASA/SDO/AIA)

A gaping hole opened up in the sun this week. The massive canyon is wider than 60 Earths and, since Dec. 4, has been spewing unusually fast radiation, known as solar wind, straight at Earth. Such dark patches emerge when the magnetic fields that keep the sun contained suddenly open up — but unlike sunspots, these holes are invisible, except in ultraviolet light. The massive hole is unprecedented to see at this point in the solar cycle, scientists say. Intriguingly, this massive hole is not tied to the explosive peak of the sun's 11-year cycle, known as the solar maximum. Most often, these coronal holes gape during the solar minimum.

However, there was news on other sky phenomena tied to increases in solar activity — such as this 1977 solar storm that shows how dramatically magnetic fields can vary during such magnetic disturbances.

Sunday reading

Live Science long read

Inflammation is essential to life, but when it goes awry, it can harm the body. Here's how researchers are working to tame and redirect this function. (Image credit: Nicholas Forder)

Inflammation is one of the body's superpowers, a first line of defense that helps us fight infections and heal wounds. Without it, we'd all swiftly die. Yet because of a mismatch between our evolutionary past and our modern lifestyle, inflammation has become chronic, fueling diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, cirrhosis, heart disease and cancer.

Historically, scientists tried to silence all inflammation with heavy-hitting drugs, but those medications can have nasty side effects.

Now, scientists are trying a subtler approach. By reprogramming the cells involved in misdirected inflammation, they are hoping to tune the inflammatory response — maximizing the good side of this essential immune response while muting its dark side.

Tia Ghose
Managing Editor

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.