Microplastics are in our bodies. Here’s why we don’t know the health risks

Tiny particles of plastic have been found everywhere — from the deepest place on the planet, the Mariana Trench, to the top of Mount Everest. And now more and more studies are finding that microplastics, defined as plastic pieces less than 5 millimeters across, are also in our bodies.

“What we are looking at is the biggest oil spill ever,” says Maria Westerbos, founder of the Plastic Soup Foundation, an Amsterdam-based nonprofit advocacy organization that works to reduce plastic pollution around the world. Nearly all plastics are made from fossil fuel sources. And microplastics are “everywhere,” she adds, “even in our bodies.”
In recent years, microplastics have been documented in all parts of the human lung, in maternal and fetal placental tissues, in human breast milk and in human blood. Microplastics scientist Heather Leslie, formerly of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and colleagues found microplastics in blood samples from 17 of 22 healthy adult volunteers in the Netherlands. The finding, published last year in Environment International, confirms what many scientists have long suspected: These tiny bits can get absorbed into the human bloodstream.

“We went from expecting plastic particles to be absorbable and present in the human bloodstream to knowing that they are,” Leslie says.
The findings aren’t entirely surprising; plastics are all around us. Durable, versatile and cheap to manufacture, they are in our clothes, cosmetics, electronics, tires, packaging and so many more items of daily use. And the types of plastic materials on the market continues to increase. “There were around 3,000 [plastic materials] when I started researching microplastics over a decade ago,” Leslie says. “Now there are over 9,600. That’s a huge number, each with its own chemical makeup and potential toxicity.”

Though durable, plastics do degrade, by weathering from water, wind, sunlight or heat — as in ocean environments or in landfills — or by friction, in the case of car tires, which releases plastic particles along roadways during motion and braking.

In addition to studying microplastic particles, researchers are also trying to get a handle on nanoplastics, particles which are less than 1 micrometer in length. “The large plastic objects in the environment will break down into micro- and nanoplastics, constantly raising particle numbers,” says toxicologist Dick Vethaak of the Institute for Risk Assessment Sciences at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who collaborated with Leslie on the study finding microplastics in human blood.

Nearly two decades ago, marine biologists began drawing attention to the accumulation of microplastics in the ocean and their potential to interfere with organism and ecosystem health (SN: 2/20/16, p. 20). But only in recent years have scientists started focusing on microplastics in people’s food and drinking water — as well as in indoor air.

Plastic particles are also intentionally added to cosmetics like lipstick, lip gloss and eye makeup to improve their feel and finish, and to personal care products, such as face scrubs, toothpastes and shower gels, for the cleansing and exfoliating properties. When washed off, these microplastics enter the sewage system. They can end up in the sewage sludge from wastewater treatment plants, which is used to fertilize agricultural lands, or even in treated water released into waterways.

What if any damage microplastics may do when they get into our bodies is not clear, but a growing community of researchers investigating these questions thinks there is reason for concern. Inhaled particles might irritate and damage the lungs, akin to the damage caused by other particulate matter. And although the composition of plastic particles varies, some contain chemicals that are known to interfere with the body’s hormones.

Currently there are huge knowledge gaps in our understanding of how these particles are processed by the human body.

How do microplastics get into our bodies?
Research points to two main entry routes into the human body: We swallow them and we breathe them in.

Evidence is growing that our food and water is contaminated with microplastics. A study in Italy, reported in 2020, found microplastics in everyday fruits and vegetables. Wheat and lettuce plants have been observed taking up microplastic particles in the lab; uptake from soil containing the particles is probably how they get into our produce in the first place.

Sewage sludge can contain microplastics not only from personal care products, but also from washing machines. One study looking at sludge from a wastewater treatment plant in southwest England found that if all the treated sludge produced there were used to fertilize soils, a volume of microplastic particles equivalent to what is found in more than 20,000 plastic credit cards could potentially be released into the environment each month.

On top of that, fertilizers are coated with plastic for controlled release, plastic mulch film is used as a protective layer for crops and water containing microplastics is used for irrigation, says Sophie Vonk, a researcher at the Plastic Soup Foundation.

“Agricultural fields in Europe and North America are estimated to receive far higher quantities of microplastics than global oceans,” Vonk says.
A recent pilot study commissioned by the Plastic Soup Foundation found microplastics in all blood samples collected from pigs and cows on Dutch farms, showing livestock are capable of absorbing some of the plastic particles from their feed, water or air. Of the beef and pork samples collected from farms and supermarkets as part of the same study, 75 percent showed the presence of microplastics. Multiple studies document that microplastic particles are also in fish muscle, not just the gut, and so are likely to be consumed when people eat seafood.

Microplastics are in our drinking water, whether it’s from the tap or bottled. The particles may enter the water at the source, during treatment and distribution, or, in the case of bottled water, from its packaging.

Results from studies attempting to quantify levels of human ingestion vary dramatically, but they suggest people might be consuming on the order of tens of thousands of microplastic particles per person per year. These estimates may change as more data come in, and they will likely vary depending on people’s diets and where they live. Plus, it is not yet clear how these particles are absorbed, distributed, metabolized and excreted by the human body, and if not excreted immediately, how long they might stick around.

Babies might face particularly high exposures. A small study of six infants and 10 adults found that the infants had more microplastic particles in their feces than the adults did. Research suggests microplastics can enter the fetus via the placenta, and babies could also ingest the particles via breast milk. The use of plastic feeding bottles and teething toys adds to children’s microplastics exposure.

Microplastic particles are also floating in the air. Research conducted in Paris to document microplastic levels in indoor air found concentrations ranging from three to 15 particles per cubic meter of air. Outdoor concentrations were much lower.

Airborne particles may turn out to be more of a concern than those in food. One study reported in 2018 compared the amount of microplastics present within mussels harvested off Scotland’s coasts with the amount of microplastics present in indoor air. Exposure to microplastic fibers from the air during the meal was far higher than the risk of ingesting microplastics from the mussels themselves.

Extrapolating from this research, immunologist Nienke Vrisekoop of the University Medical Center Utrecht says, “If I keep a piece of fish on the table for an hour, it has probably gathered more microplastics from the ambient air than it has from the ocean.”
What’s more, a study of human lung tissue reported last year offers solid evidence that we are breathing in plastic particles. Microplastics showed up in 11 of 13 samples, including those from the upper, middle and lower lobes, researchers in England reported.

Perhaps good news: Microplastics seem unable to penetrate the skin. “The epidermis holds off quite a lot of stuff from the outside world, including [nano]particles,” Leslie says. “Particles can go deep into your skin, but so far we haven’t observed them passing the barrier, unless the skin is damaged.”

What do we know about the potential health risks?
Studies in mice suggest microplastics are not benign. Research in these test animals shows that lab exposure to microplastics can disrupt the gut microbiome, lead to inflammation, lower sperm quality and testosterone levels, and negatively affect learning and memory.

But some of these studies used concentrations that may not be relevant to real-world scenarios. Studies on the health effects of exposure in humans are just getting under way, so it could be years before scientists understand the actual impact in people.

Immunologist Barbro Melgert of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands has studied the effects of nylon microfibers on human tissue grown to resemble lungs. Exposure to nylon fibers reduced both the number and size of airways that formed in these tissues by 67 percent and 50 percent, respectively. “We found that the cause was not the microfibers themselves but rather the chemicals released from them,” Melgert says.

“Microplastics could be considered a form of air pollution,” she says. “We know air pollution particles tend to induce stress in our lungs, and it will probably be the same for microplastics.”

Vrisekoop is studying how the human immune system responds to microplastics. Her unpublished lab experiments suggest immune cells don’t recognize microplastic particles unless they have blood proteins, viruses, bacteria or other contaminants attached. But it is likely that such bits will attach to microplastic particles out in the environment and inside the body.

“If the microplastics are not clean … the immune cells [engulf] the particle and die faster because of it,” Vrisekoop says. “More immune cells then rush in.” This marks the start of an immune response to the particle, which could potentially trigger a strong inflammatory reaction or possibly aggravate existing inflammatory diseases of the lungs or gastrointestinal tract.
Some of the chemicals added to make plastic suitable for particular uses are also known to cause problems for humans: Bisphenol A, or BPA, is used to harden plastic and is a known endocrine disruptor that has been linked to developmental effects in children and problems with reproductive systems and metabolism in adults (SN: 7/18/09, p. 5). Phthalates, used to make plastic soft and flexible, are associated with adverse effects on fetal development and reproductive problems in adults along with insulin resistance and obesity. And flame retardants that make electronics less flammable are associated with endocrine, reproductive and behavioral effects.

“Some of these chemical products that I worked on in the past [like the polybrominated diphenyl ethers used as flame retardants] have been phased out or are prohibited to use in new products now [in the European Union and the United States] because of their neurotoxic or disrupting effects,” Leslie says.
Concerning chemicals
Bits of plastic floating in the world’s air and water contain chemicals that may pose risks to human health. A 2021 study identified more than 2,400 chemicals of potential concern found in plastics or used in their processing. Here are a few of the most worrisome.

Short-chain chlorinated paraffins are used as lubricants, flame retardants and plasticizers. They can cause cancer in lab rodents, but the mechanisms may not be relevant for human health.
The chlorinated compound mirex was once used as a flame retardant and can persist in the environment. It’s suspected of being a human carcinogen and may affect fertility.
2,4,6-Tri-tert-butylphenol is an antioxidant and ultraviolet stabilizer, added to plastics to prevent degradation. There’s evidence that it causes liver damage in lab animals with prolonged or repeated exposure.
Benzo(a)pyrene is a polyaromatic hydrocarbon that can be released when organic matter such as coal or wood burns. It is also produced in grilled meats. It has been shown to cause cancer, damage fertility and affect development in lab animals.
Dibutyl phthalate is a plasticizer that is known to cause endocrine disruption, may interfere with male fertility and has been shown to affect fetal development in lab animals.
Tetrabromobisphenol-A is a flame retardant that can cause cancer in lab animals and may be an endocrine disruptor. It is chemically related to bisphenol A, which has been linked to developmental effects in children.
What are the open questions?
The first step in determining the risk of microplastics to human health is to better understand and quantify human exposure. Polyrisk — one of five large-scale research projects under CUSP, a multidisciplinary group of researchers and experts from 75 organizations across 21 European countries studying micro- and nanoplastics — is doing exactly that.

Immunotoxicologist Raymond Pieters, of the Institute for Risk Assessment Sciences at Utrecht University and coordinator of Polyrisk, and colleagues are studying people’s inhalation exposure in a number of real-life scenarios: near a traffic light, for example, where cars are likely to be braking, versus a highway, where vehicles are continuously moving. Other scenarios under study include an indoor sports stadium, as well as occupational scenarios like the textile and rubber industry.

Melgert wants to know how much microplastic is in our houses, what the particle sizes are and how much we breathe in. “There are very few studies looking at indoor levels [of microplastics],” she says. “We all have stuff in our houses — carpets, insulation made of plastic materials, curtains, clothes — that all give off fibers.”

Vethaak, who co-coordinates MOMENTUM, a consortium of 27 research and industry partners from the Netherlands and seven other countries studying microplastics’ potential effects on human health, is quick to point out that “any measurement of the degree of exposure to plastic particles is likely an underestimation.” In addition to research on the impact of microplastics, the group is also looking at nanoplastics. Studying and analyzing these smallest of plastics in the environment and in our bodies is extremely challenging. “The analytical tools and techniques required for this are still being developed,” Vethaak says.

Vethaak also wants to understand whether microplastic particles coated with bacteria and viruses found in the environment could spread these pathogens and increase infection rates in people. Studies have suggested that microplastics in the ocean can serve as safe havens for germs.

Alongside knowing people’s level of exposure to microplastics, the second big question scientists want to understand is what if any level of real-world exposure is harmful. “This work is confounded by the multitude of different plastic particle types, given their variations in size, shape and chemical composition, which can affect uptake and toxicity,” Leslie says. “In the case of microplastics, it will take several more years to determine what the threshold dose for toxicity is.”

Several countries have banned the use of microbeads in specific categories of products, including rinse-off cosmetics and toothpastes. But there are no regulations or policies anywhere in the world that address the release or concentrations of other microplastics — and there are very few consistent monitoring efforts. California has recently taken a step toward monitoring by approving the world’s first requirements for testing microplastics in drinking water sources. The testing will happen over the next several years.

Pieters is very pragmatic in his outlook: “We know ‘a’ and ‘b,’” he says. “So we can expect ‘c,’ and ‘c’ would [imply] a risk for human health.”

He is inclined to find ways to protect people now even if there is limited or uncertain scientific knowledge. “Why not take a stand for the precautionary principle?” he asks.

For people who want to follow Pieters’ lead, there are ways to reduce exposure.

“Ventilate, ventilate, ventilate,” Melgert says. She recommends not only proper ventilation, including opening your windows at home, but also regular vacuum cleaning and air purification. That can remove dust, which often contains microplastics, from surfaces and the air.

Consumers can also choose to avoid cosmetics and personal care products containing microbeads. Buying clothes made from natural fabrics like cotton, linen and hemp, instead of from synthetic materials like acrylic and polyester, helps reduce the shedding of microplastics during wear and during the washing process.

Specialized microplastics-removal devices, including laundry balls, laundry bags and filters that attach to washing machines, are designed to reduce the number of microfibers making it into waterways.

Vethaak recommends not heating plastic containers in the microwave, even if they claim to be food grade, and not leaving plastic water bottles in the sun.

Perhaps the biggest thing people can do is rely on plastics less. Reducing overall consumption will reduce plastic pollution, and so reduce microplastics sloughing into the air and water.

Leslie recommends functional substitution: “Before you purchase something, think if you really need it, and if it needs to be plastic.”

Westerbos remains hopeful that researchers and scientists from around the world can come together to find a solution. “We need all the brainpower we have to connect and work together to find a substitute to plastic that is not toxic and doesn’t last [in the environment] as long as plastic does,” she says.

Chia seedlings verify Alan Turing’s ideas about patterns in nature

LAS VEGAS – Chia seeds sprouted in trays have experimentally confirmed a mathematical model proposed by computer scientist and polymath Alan Turing decades ago. The model describes how patterns might emerge in desert vegetation, leopard spots and zebra stripes.

These and other blotchy and stripy features in nature are examples of what are called Turing patterns, so named because in 1952, Turing presented equations for how simple interactions between competing factors can lead to surprisingly complex surface patterns. In the case of arid regions, the competition for moisture among plants would drive the intricate distribution of vegetation.
But proving that Turing’s model explains patterns in the real world has been challenging (SN: 10/21/15). It wasn’t clear whether Turing’s idea is really behind natural distributions of vegetation. It could be that the idea is a mathematical just-so story that happens to produce similar shapes in a computer, says physicist Flavio Fenton of Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

In research presented at the American Physical Society meeting, Brendan D’Aquino, who studied in Fenton’s lab during the summer of 2022, described an experiment that seems to confirm that Turing’s model truly underlies patterns in vegetation.

The team grew chia seeds in even layers in trays and then adjusted the available moisture. In essence, the researchers were experimentally tweaking the factors that appear in the Turing equations. Sure enough, patterns resembling those seen in natural environments emerged. The patterns also strongly resembled computer simulations of the Turing model.
“In previous studies,” said D’Aquino, who is an undergraduate computer science student at Northeastern University, “people kind of retroactively fit models to observe Turing patterns that they found in the world. But here we were actually able to show that changing the relevant parameters in the model produces experimental results that we would expect.”

Although Turing patterns have been produced in some chemistry experiments and other artificial systems, the team believes this is the first time that experiments with living vegetation have verified Turing’s mathematical insight.

Self-driving cars see better with cameras that mimic mantis shrimp vision

To help self-driving cars drive safely, scientists are looking to an unlikely place: the sea.

A new type of camera inspired by the eyes of mantis shrimps could help autonomous vehicles better gauge their surroundings, researchers report October 11 in Optica. The camera — which detects polarized light, or light waves vibrating on a single plane — has roughly half a million sensors that each capture a wide range of light and dark spots within a single frame, somewhat similar to how mantis shrimps see the world.
The researchers wanted to “mimic the animals’ ability to detect a wide range of light intensities,” says coauthor Viktor Gruev, a bioengineer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The crustaceans’ visual system allows them to see both light and dark areas while moving in and out of dark crevices in shallow waters, he says.

The newly devised camera can take in a wider range of light intensities, measured in decibels, than other digital or polarization cameras. Previously, the best polarization cameras operated with a dynamic range of about 60 decibels; the new one works within a 140 decibel range, resulting in a clearer mapping of objects in the same frame.

Depending on the maker, autonomous vehicles currently use a mixture of methods to map the world around them, including lidar (light detection and ranging equipment), cameras and GPS. But the cameras currently guiding autonomous vehicles aren’t good at handling sharp lighting transitions and have trouble detecting features in foggy weather (SN: 12/24/16, p. 34). Because the new cameras are small and use many of the same parts as common digital cameras, Gruev says they could cost as little as $10.

Hundreds of dietary supplements are tainted with potentially harmful drugs

From 2007 to 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration flagged nearly 800 over-the-counter dietary supplements as tainted with potentially harmful pharmaceutical drugs, a study shows. Fewer than half of those products were recalled by their makers, scientists found.

Researchers analyzed the FDA’s public database of tainted supplements, identifying both the type of contaminating ingredients they contained and how the products were marketed. Most of these supplements, which are allowed to contain only dietary ingredients, included drugs such as steroids, the active ingredient in Viagra and a weight loss drug banned from the U.S. market eight years ago. The products had been marketed primarily for sexual enhancement, weight loss or muscle building, scientists report online October 12 in JAMA Network Open.

More than half of American adults have reported taking dietary supplements, such as vitamins, minerals and other specialty products. More than 85,000 supplements are estimated to be available in the United States, and the FDA says it cannot test all of them.
No No’s
These pharmaceutical ingredients are not permitted in dietary supplements, but were found to be contaminating supplements.

What it is: A medication that dilates blood vessels in the penis, and is the active ingredient in Viagra
Health issue: Can lower blood pressure to levels that are unsafe for people taking medications for diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol
Supplement type: Sexual enhancement
What it is: An appetite suppressant removed from the U.S. market in 2010
Health issue: Increased risk of heart attack or stroke
Supplement type: Weight loss
What it is: A laxative removed from the U.S. market in 1999
Health issue: Potential carcinogen
Supplement type: Weight loss
Anabolic steroids
What they are: Chemicals related to the male sex hormone testosterone
Health issue: Associated with liver injury, kidney damage, heart attack and stroke
Supplement type: Muscle building
Aromatase inhibitors
What they are: A class of drugs that lower estrogen levels, and are used to treat breast cancer
Health issue: Associated with decreased bone growth, infertility, liver dysfunction
Supplement type: Muscle building
These supplements aren’t subject to the same regulations, testing and approval process that are required for pharmaceutical drugs. But if the FDA identifies tainted supplements after they’re on the market, the agency can issue public warnings or suggest the company voluntarily remove the product.

Whether that approach is effective raises questions, though, says general internist Pieter Cohen of Cambridge Health Alliance in Cambridge, Mass., who was not involved in the new work. Voluntary recalls don’t necessarily mean a product is completely removed from shelves or that consumers become aware and stop using a product, Cohen’s research has found.

And only 360 of the 776 supplements flagged as tainted from 2007 to 2016 were recalled, the study found. “What really jumped out at me,” Cohen says, is that “when the FDA detects drugs in supplements, more than half the time the product isn’t even recalled.”

Supplement use does carry health risks. A 2015 study estimated that 23,000 emergency room visits each year are due to health problems related to dietary supplements. Of those, about 2,100 patients are hospitalized annually, commonly for symptoms related to heart trouble.
In 2013, 20 percent of drug-induced liver injury cases recorded in the Drug-Induced Liver Injury Network registry were caused by dietary supplements. That’s up from 7 percent in 2004. Liver damage can be fatal or require a liver transplant. A 2013 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on 29 cases of liver injury found that 24 of those patients reported using a dietary supplement for weight loss.

“The law allows companies to advertise supplements as if they’re good for your health, even if there’s no evidence in humans that that’s the case,” Cohen says. He began studying dietary supplements after noting that his patients developed health problems, including panic attacks, chest pain and kidney failure, related to weight-loss supplements. One patient was suspended from his job when his urine tested positive for amphetamine; a chemical derivative of the drug was found in the weight-loss pills that he was taking.

Cohen’s recommendation? Avoid supplements “that promise you anything.”

Virtual avatars learned cartwheels and other stunts from videos of people

Animated characters can learn from online tutorials, too.

A new computer program teaches virtual avatars new skills, such as dances, acrobatic stunts and martial art moves, from YouTube videos. This kind of system, described in the November ACM Transactions on Graphics, could render more physically coordinated characters for movies and video games, or serve as a virtual training ground for robots.

“I was really impressed” by the program, says Daniel Holden, a machine-learning researcher at Ubisoft La Forge in Montreal not involved in the work. Rendering accurate, natural-looking movements based on everyday video clips “has always been a goal for researchers in this field.”
Animated characters typically have learned full-body motions by studying motion capture data, collected by a camera that tracks special markers attached to actors’ bodies. But this technique requires special equipment and often works only indoors.

The new program leverages a type of computer code known as an artificial neural network, which roughly mimics how the human brain processes information. Trained on about 100,000 images of people in various poses, the program first estimates an actor’s pose in each frame of a video clip. Then, it teaches a virtual avatar to re-create the actor’s motion using reinforcement learning, giving the character a virtual “reward” when it matches the video actor’s pose in a frame.

Computer scientist Jason Peng and colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, fed YouTube videos into the system to teach characters to do somersaults, backflips, vaulting and other stunts.
Even characters such as animated Atlas robots with bodies drastically different from those of their human video teachers mastered these motions (SN: 12/13/14, p. 16). Characters could also perform under conditions not seen in the training video, like cartwheeling while being pelted with blocks or moving across terrain riddled with holes.
The work, also reported October 8 at arXiv.org, is a step “toward making motion capture easier, cheaper and more accessible,” Holden says. Videos could be used to render virtual versions of outdoor activities, since motion capture is difficult to do outdoors, or to create lifelike avatars of large animals that would be difficult to stick with motion capture markers.

This kind of program may also someday be used to teach robots new skills, Peng says. An animated version of a robot could master skills in a virtual environment before that learned computer code powered a machine in the physical world.

These animated characters still struggle with nimble dance steps, such as the “Gangnam Style” jig, and learn from short clips featuring only a single person. David Jacobs, a computer scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park not involved in the work, looks forward to future virtual avatars that can reenact longer, more complex actions, such as pairs of people dancing or soccer teams playing a game.

“That’s probably a much harder problem, because [each] person’s not as clearly visible, but it would be really cool,” Jacobs says. “This is only the beginning.”

U.S. cases of a polio-like illness rise, but there are few clues to its cause

The cause of a rare polio-like disease continues to elude public health officials even as the number of U.S. cases grows.

Confirmed cases of acute flaccid myelitis cases have risen to 90 in 27 states, out of a possible 252 under investigation, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced November 13. That’s up from 62 confirmed cases out of 127 suspected just a month ago (SN Online: 10/16/18). There were a record 149 cases in 2016.
“I understand parents want answers,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases in Atlanta, said at a news conference. The agency continues to investigate the disease, which causes weakness in one or more limbs and primarily affects children. But “right now the science doesn’t give us an answer,” she said.

A deep dive into 80 of the confirmed cases offered some details about the course of AFM. In most, fever or respiratory symptoms like coughing and congestion, or both, preceded limb weakness by three to 10 days. Most cases involved weakness in an upper limb, researchers report online November 13 in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Only two samples of cerebrospinal fluid — the clear fluid that bathes the brain and spinal cord — tested positive for a pathogen, each for a different enterovirus. Since 2014, when the first big outbreak of AFM occurred, most AFM spinal fluid samples haven’t produced a culprit, Messonnier said. The body may clear the pathogen or it hides in tissues, she said, or the body’s own immune response to a pathogen may lead to spinal cord damage.

“This time of year, many children have fever and respiratory symptoms [and] most of them do not go on to develop AFM,” Messonnier said. “We’re trying to figure out what the triggers are that would cause someone to develop AFM later.”

Physicists finally calculated where the proton’s mass comes from

A proton’s mass is more than just the sum of its parts. And now scientists know just what accounts for the subatomic particle’s heft.

Protons are made up of even smaller particles called quarks, so you might expect that simply adding up the quarks’ masses should give you the proton’s mass. However, that sum is much too small to explain the proton’s bulk. And new, detailed calculations show that only 9 percent of the proton’s heft comes from the mass of constituent quarks. The rest of the proton’s mass comes from complicated effects occurring inside the particle, researchers report in the Nov. 23 Physical Review Letters.

Quarks get their masses from a process connected to the Higgs boson, an elementary particle first detected in 2012 (SN: 7/28/12, p. 5). But “the quark masses are tiny,” says study coauthor and theoretical physicist Keh-Fei Liu of the University of Kentucky in Lexington. So, for protons, the Higgs explanation falls short.

Instead, most of the proton’s 938 million electron volts of mass is due to complexities of quantum chromodynamics, or QCD, the theory which accounts for the churning of particles within the proton. Making calculations with QCD is extremely difficult, so to study the proton’s properties theoretically, scientists rely on a technique called lattice QCD, in which space and time are broken up into a grid, upon which the quarks reside.
Using this technique, physicists had previously calculated the proton’s mass (SN: 12/20/08, p. 13). But scientists hadn’t divvied up where that mass comes from until now, says theoretical physicist André Walker-Loud of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. “It’s exciting because it’s a sign that … we’ve really hit this new era” in which lattice QCD can be used to better understand nuclear physics.

In addition to the 9 percent of the proton’s mass that comes from quarks’ heft, 32 percent comes from the energy of the quarks zipping around inside the proton, Liu and colleagues found. (That’s because energy and mass are two sides of the same coin, thanks to Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2.) Other occupants of the proton, massless particles called gluons that help hold quarks together, contribute another 36 percent via their energy.

The remaining 23 percent arises due to quantum effects that occur when quarks and gluons interact in complicated ways within the proton. Those interactions cause QCD to flout a principle called scale invariance. In scale invariant theories, stretching or shrinking space and time makes no difference to the theories’ results. Massive particles provide the theory with a scale, so when QCD defies scale invariance, protons also gain mass.

The results of the study aren’t surprising, says theoretical physicist Andreas Kronfeld of Fermilab in Batavia, Ill. Scientists have long suspected that the proton’s mass was made up in this way. But, he says, “this kind of calculation replaces a belief with scientific knowledge.”

NASA’s InSight lander has touched down safely on Mars

Editor’s note: This story will be periodically updated as new images are released.

NASA’s InSight lander touched down on Mars on November 26 for a study of the Red Planet’s insides.

“Touchdown confirmed, InSight is on the surface of Mars!” said Christine Szalai, a spacecraft engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in a live broadcast from mission control. The lander sent its first picture — which mostly showed the inside of the dust cover on its camera lens — shortly after landing.
The landing of InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, brings the total number of successful NASA Mars landings to eight. InSight touched down at about 2:55 p.m. Eastern time in a wide, flat plain called Elysium Planitia, near Mars’ equator. News of the landing was relayed by a pair of tiny satellites called MarCO that travelled to Mars with InSight as an in-house communications team (SN Online: 11/18/18).

Over the next Martian year (about two Earth years), InSight will use a seismometer to listen for “Marsquakes” and other seismic waves rippling through the planet (SN: 5/26/18, p. 13). The lander will also drill five meters into Mars’ surface to measure the planet’s internal heat flow, a sign of how geologically active Mars is today.
Update, November 27, 2018: InSight has opened its solar panels and is charging its batteries. In the next few days, the Mars lander will stretch out its robotic arm and take photos of the ground so the InSight team can decide where to place its scientific instruments. The first image from the Instrument Deployment Camera, taken shortly after landing November 26 and beamed back at 8:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, shows the spacecraft’s body, the folded-up robotic arm and the wide flat expanse of Elysium Planitia.

Two new books explore the science and history of the 1918 flu pandemic

The U.S.S. Leviathan set sail from Hoboken, N.J., on September 29, 1918, carrying roughly 10,000 troops and 2,000 crewmen. The ship, bound for the battlefields in France, had been at sea less than 24 hours when the first passengers fell ill. By the end of the day, 700 people had developed signs of the flu.

The medical staff tried to separate the sick from the healthy, but that soon proved impossible. The poorly ventilated bunkrooms filled with the stench of illness. The floor grew slippery with blood from many nosebleeds, and the wails of the sick and dying echoed below deck. Bodies piled up and began decomposing, until finally the crew was forced to heave them into the sea. It was the stuff of nightmares.
This is just one of the grisly scenes in Pandemic 1918 by historian Catharine Arnold. The book details how the movement of troops during World War I helped drive the spread of a deadly strain of influenza around the globe — from the American Midwest to Cape Town, South Africa, to New Zealand and beyond.

Scientists have yet to conclusively determine where that flu originated; Arnold suggests it was on a massive military base in Étaples, France. But all agree that the pandemic that became known as the Spanish flu didn’t begin in Spain. And the disease, which ultimately killed more than 50 million people, wasn’t caused by any ordinary influenza strain.
Grim eyewitness accounts chronicle the gory details of how this virus differed. Victims often bled from the nose or mouth, writhed in pain and grew delirious with fever. Their faces turned dusky blue as their lungs filled with pus. Healthy men and women in their prime were dying, sometimes within days of falling ill. And there was a smell associated with the sick, “like very musty straw,” recalled one survivor. Arnold’s graphic depictions of the carnage make for some gripping scenes, but the book is perhaps too ambitious. She zigzags between so many people and places that only the most careful reader will be able to keep track of who fell ill where.

Another book tied to the 100th anniversary of the Spanish flu, Influenza, by long-time emergency room doctor Jeremy Brown, covers some of the same ground. Both Arnold and Brown, for instance, chronicle the hunt for the 1918 virus in bodies buried in Arctic permafrost and efforts to reconstruct the virus’s genetic code. But while Arnold’s book is rooted primarily in the past, Brown spends more time on recent research. He provides an in-depth look at what scientists now know about the 1918 strain, an H1N1 virus that originated in birds and spent time in an unknown mammalian host before infecting humans. In 2005, researchers managed to re-create the virus and test it in mice. The experiment provided insight into how the virus might have wrought so much damage in the lungs, but it also renewed a debate over the ethics of reconstructing deadly viruses. These kinds of experiments can help scientists better understand the inner workings of pathogens, but might also help people build biological weapons.

Brown also provides a fascinating look at the factors that make the more common seasonal flu so challenging to predict and prevent. Because data collection relies on the generosity of health care workers and because doctors rarely test for influenza, researchers can’t get a full picture of the scope of the disease. And because the virus mutates easily, scientists struggle to accurately predict what next year’s outbreak might look like. The strains circulating when pharmaceutical companies begin making vaccines might not be the strains that are circulating when the vaccines reach clinics and pharmacies. That’s why the flu shot’s efficacy varies from about 10 to 60 percent each year (SN: 10/28/17, p. 18).

Both books provide fresh perspectives on the 1918 pandemic and the influenza virus that caused it. Readers interested in a deep dive into the harrowing details and eyewitness accounts from that dark time should pick up Arnold’s book. For those who want more science with a frank discussion of the challenges influenza still poses, Brown delivers a clear and captivating overview. Together the books offer an unsettling picture of the damage influenza inflicted on the world 100 years ago and the misery that this virus might yet bring again.

Magnets make a new soft metamaterial stiffen up in a flash

Magnetism transforms a weird new material from soft to rigid in a split second.

This metamaterial — a synthetic structure designed to behave in ways that natural materials don’t — comprises a gridlike network of plastic tubes filled with fluid that becomes more viscous in a magnetic field, causing the tubes to firm up. The material could help make more adaptable robots or body armor, researchers report online December 7 in Science Advances.

Christopher Spadaccini, a materials engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and colleagues 3-D printed lattices composed of plastic struts 5 millimeters long and injected them with a mixture of tiny iron particles and oil. In the absence of a magnetic field, the iron microparticles remain scattered randomly throughout the oil, so the liquid is runny. But close to a magnet, these iron microparticles align into chains along the magnetic field lines, making the fluid viscous and the lattices stiffer.
A solid hunk of iron microparticle–filled material would be heavy and expensive to make. Building tubular structures that are mostly open space makes this tunable material more lightweight, says coauthor Julie Jackson, an engineer at Lawrence Livermore.
The researchers tested individual “unit cells” of the new material — hollow, die-shaped structures that can collectively form the larger lattices. Moving one unit cell from about eight centimeters to one centimeter away from a magnet increased its stiffness by about 62 percent.

In future technologies, this material could be paired with devices that use electricity to generate magnetic fields, called electromagnets. Material that becomes softer or stiffer on demand could be used to make next-generation sports pads or helmets with tunable impact absorption, Jackson says. Robots with changeable stiffness could squeeze into small spaces, but then be sturdy enough to carry or move other objects.