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How an 18th-Century Mutiny May Help Explain Migraine Headaches

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On April 28, 1789, Fletcher Christian and 18 other sailors aboard the HMS Bounty wrested control of the ship from their commanding officer, Lieutenant William Bligh. The mutineers sent Bligh and the members of the crew loyal to him off in a lifeboat in the South Pacific, then set sail to some nearby islands for new lives in a tropical paradise. Over 220 years later, their actions may help researchers unlock the mysteries of the migraine.

A 1,222 Hour Tour

Without charts or a compass, and relying only on a quadrant and his pocket watch, Bligh navigated the lifeboat on a 47-day, 3,618-nautical-mile voyage and safely landed at Timor in the Dutch East Indies. From there he returned to England, two years after he left, and reported the mutiny. He eventually achieved the rank of Vice Admiral of the Royal Navy.

Meanwhile, the mutineers didn’t fare as well. They first attempted to settle on the island of Tubai, but abandoned it after three months of near constant harassment and attack by the natives. Some of the men settled in Tahiti, and the rest moved on to Pitcairn Island, where they burned the ship in what is now called Bounty Bay.  As the mutineers settled into island life, the Crown dispatched the HMS Pandora to retrieve the men and bring them home for trial. The Pandora arrived at Tahiti in early 1791 and 14 of the mutineers were arrested within a few weeks. The ship collided with a part of the Great Barrier Reef during its return trip, losing 31 crew and four of the prisoners, but the remaining ten mutineers eventually made it back to England, where they were tried in a naval court.

The mutineers on Pitcairn managed to avoid detection. Some of them married natives or Tahitians who had hopped aboard the boat when it stopped there. They started families. By 1855, they numbered around 200, and the 88 acres of usable land on the island could no longer sustain the population. Queen Victoria provided some relief and granted the mutineers' descendants Norfolk Island, a former penal colony a few thousand miles west. The next year, they abandoned Pitcairn and settled their new home. Some eventually went back to Pitcairn, and today about 50 people live there. All but a handful -- the pastor, the schoolteacher, and few others -- are direct descendants of the mutineers. The rest stayed at Norfolk, and today’s inhabitants include approximately 1,000 Bounty descendants, about half the island’s population.

No Day at the Beach

Life on Pitcairn and Norfolk can be tough. The only real way to reach Pitcairn is by boat, and storms and rough waters have derailed many of its thrice-annual supply ships. Mail service takes approximately three months, and for medical attention, islanders have to make a several-thousand-mile trip by boat to a New Zealand hospital. Norfolk, which eventually became an external territory of Australia, recently saw a drop in tourism and had to petition the Australian government for financial aid in 2010. As a result, the islanders had to pay income tax for the first time in their history.

And the Bounty descendants on both islands have another problem: headaches.

Migraine affects ~12?% of the Caucasian population worldwide, but among Bounty descendants, the number jumps to 23%, with approximately 12% of males and 33% of females afflicted. This prevalence, combined with their history and living situation, makes the children of the mutiny very attractive to scientists.

Migraine has a strong genetic basis but it’s what medical researchers call a “multifactorial disorder,” meaning that it involves a combination of genes plus environmental triggers, which makes it difficult to study. Two hundred years of geographic isolation, well-kept genealogical records, and restrictions on immigration have left Norfolk and Pitcairn Islands with relatively genetically homogeneous populations where environmental and genetic diversity is reduced enough for effective gene mapping studies, and the islanders are an ideal study sample for studying migraine.

X Marks the Spot?

A team of genomics researchers at Griffith University in Queensland recently studied the islanders at Norfolk, and confirmed earlier research suggesting that at least part of migraine’s genetic cause could be hidden on the X chromosome. Their analysis of the genetics of 377 Bounty descendants associated two mutations on the X chromosome with migraine, which helps explain its increased prevalence among women. Their results also implicated a few other genes with functions as varied as RNA packaging, cell change regulation, protein folding and lipid assembly. They’re now looking harder at these genes and trying to figure out where things are going wrong.

They also think that there’s more where this came from, and that even more genes -- dozens or maybe hundreds -- are involved. More studies like this could eventually isolate other potential migraine susceptibility genes and build up a catalogue of them that could paint a decent picture of the underlying biological pathways of migraine inheritance and susceptibility. In turn, that would help doctors develop better means of migraine diagnosis and treatment, and relieved migraine sufferers might ultimately be able to thank Bligh’s angry crew for putting an end to their misery.

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Courtesy Murdoch University
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Animals
Australian Scientists Discover First New Species of Sunfish in 125 Years
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Courtesy Murdoch University

Scientists have pinpointed a whole new species of the largest bony fish in the world, the massive sunfish, as we learned from Smithsonian magazine. It's the first new species of sunfish proposed in more than 125 years.

As the researchers report in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, the genetic differences between the newly named hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta) and its other sunfish brethren was confirmed by data on 27 different samples of the species collected over the course of three years. Since sunfish are so massive—the biggest can weigh as much as 5000 pounds—they pose a challenge to preserve and store, even for museums with large research collections. Lead author Marianne Nyegaard of Murdoch University in Australia traveled thousands of miles to find and collected genetic data on sunfish stranded on beaches. At one point, she was asked if she would be bringing her own crane to collect one.

Nyegaard also went back through scientific literature dating back to the 1500s, sorting through descriptions of sea monsters and mermen to see if any of the documentation sounded like observations of the hoodwinker. "We retraced the steps of early naturalists and taxonomists to understand how such a large fish could have evaded discovery all this time," she said in a press statement. "Overall, we felt science had been repeatedly tricked by this cheeky species, which is why we named it the 'hoodwinker.'"

Japanese researchers first detected genetic differences between previously known sunfish and a new, unknown species 10 years ago, and this confirms the existence of a whole different type from species like the Mola mola or Mola ramsayi.

Mola tecta looks a little different from other sunfish, with a more slender body. As it grows, it doesn't develop the protruding snout or bumps that other sunfish exhibit. Similarly to the others, though, it can reach a length of 8 feet or more. 

Based on the stomach contents of some of the specimens studied, the hoodwinker likely feeds on salps, a jellyfish-like creature that it probably chomps on (yes, sunfish have teeth) during deep dives. The species has been found near New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and southern Chile.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Gregory H. Revera, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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Space
Study Suggests There's Water Beneath the Moon's Surface
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Gregory H. Revera, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Astronauts may not need to go far to find water outside Earth. As CNN reports, Brown University scientists Ralph E. Milliken and Shuai Li suspect there are significant amounts of water churning within the Moon’s interior.

Their findings, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, lean on the discovery of glass beads encased in the Moon’s volcanic rock deposits. As recently as 100 million years ago, the Earth’s moon was a hotbed of volcanic activity. Evidence of that volatile time can still be found in the ancient ash and volcanic rock that’s scattered across the surface.

Using satellite imagery, the researchers identified tiny water droplets preserved inside glass beads that formed in the volcanic deposits. While water makes up a small fraction of each bead, its presence suggests there’s significantly more of it making up the Moon’s mantle.

Milliken and Li aren't the first scientists to notice water in lunar rocks. In 2008, volcanic materials collected from the Moon during the Apollo missions of 1971 and 1972 were revealed to contain the same water-flecked glass beads that the Brown scientists made the basis of their recent study. They took their research further by analyzing images captured across the face of the Moon and quickly saw the Apollo rocks represented a larger trend. "The distribution of these water-rich deposits is the key thing," Milliken said in a press statement. "They're spread across the surface, which tells us that the water found in the Apollo samples isn't a one-off. Lunar pyroclastics seem to be universally water-rich, which suggests the same may be true of the mantle."

The study challenges what we know about the Moon's formation, which scientists think occurred when a planet-sized object slammed into the Earth 4.5 billion years ago. "The growing evidence for water inside the Moon suggests that water did somehow survive, or that it was brought in shortly after the impact by asteroids or comets before the Moon had completely solidified," Li said. "The exact origin of water in the lunar interior is still a big question."

The findings also hold exciting possibilities for the future of space travel. NASA scientists have already considered turning the Moon into a water station for astronauts on their way to Mars. If water on the celestial body is really as abundant as the evidence may suggest, figuring out how to access that resource will definitely be on NASA's agenda.

[h/t CNN]

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