NPR Picks


Microplastics Have Invaded The Deep Ocean — And The Food Chain

"The largest habitat for life on Earth is the deep ocean. It's home to everything from jellyfish to giant bluefin tuna. But the deep ocean is being invaded by tiny pieces of plastic — plastic that people thought was mostly floating at the surface, and in amounts they never imagined."

"Very few people have looked for microplastic concentrations at mid- to deep-ocean depths. But there's a place along the California coast where it's relatively easy: The edge of the continent takes a steep dive into the deep ocean at Monterey Bay. Whales and white sharks swim these depths just a few miles offshore."

"The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute perches on the shoreline. At an MBARI dock, you can see one of their most sophisticated tools for doing that: a multimillion-dollar machine called Ventana sitting on the deck of the research vessel Rachel Carson. 'It's a massive underwater robot,' explains Kyle Van Houtan, chief scientist with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which collaborates with MBARI. 'Robotic arms, a lot of sensors, machinery, lights, video cameras.'"


Accumulated Mutations Create A Cellular Mosaic In Our Bodies

"Your body has about 40 trillion cells, and they all arose from a single fertilized egg. But it turns out the DNA in many of those cells is no longer a perfect clone of that original one."

"A study published Thursday in the journal Science shows that our body's cells are a mosaic, with many subtle genetic variations."

"It's not news that that our cells pick up mutations as we age. Some skin cells morph into moles. And scientists have previously documented widespread genetic changes in cells in the skin, esophagus and blood."

"Tumors start out as mutant cells, as well."

"'But no one has really characterized this across many different tissues and across a great amount of individuals,' says Keren Yizhak. She took that as a challenge as she started working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard."

"She and her colleagues tapped into genetic information from about 500 people, cataloging 29 different tissues. They found populations of mutant cells in just about everyone they studied."

"'The skin, the lung and the esophagus were the ones where we found the highest amount of mutations,' she says."



Internet Sensation April The Giraffe Going On Birth Control, Having No More Babies

"What's tall, spotted and on the pill? April the giraffe."

"An official from Animal Adventure Park in Harpursville, N.Y., has announced that April the giraffe, who achieved Internet stardom, will start contraceptives on Friday and no longer be part of the park's breeding program. The 17-year-old mother of five will now enter senior care."

"'She'll continue to be a star of education and conservation initiatives,' said Jordan Patch, the owner of the park."

"April's two livestreamed births and the park's 'giraffe cam' videos of April have, together, been viewed hundreds of millions of times. According to YouTube's statistics, videos of April have been seen 272 million times since February 2017."

"Giraffe gestation periods can run around 15 months. April's caretakers saw months-long interest on the park's YouTube channel ahead of the birth of her fifth calf in March."



The 'Great Dying' Nearly Erased Life On Earth. Scientists See Similarities To Today

"There was a time when life on Earth almost blinked out. The "Great Dying," the biggest extinction the planet has ever seen, happened some 250 million years ago and was largely caused by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Now scientists are beginning to see alarming similarities between the Great Dying and what's currently happening to our atmosphere. "

"Scientists are highlighting that similarity in a new exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C."

"The crown jewel of the Deep Time exhibit is the museum's first real Tyrannosaurus rex. Its skeleton stands over the bones of a prone triceratops, with one clawed foot holding down the hapless herbivore and jaws clamped onto its head, ready to take a bite the size of a manhole cover."

"'We like to say, 'Come for the dinosaurs, stay for everything else,' 'says Scott Wing, one of the curators."

"The theme of the exhibit is actually the interconnectedness of life through geologic time. The exhibit shows, for example, how plants at the bottom of the food chain supported everything from insects to 20-ton apatosauruses and how insects helped shape the kind of forests that evolved and changed over millions of years."


Astronomers Worry That Elon Musk's New Satellites Will Ruin The View

"Victoria Girgis was leading a public outreach session at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., when one of her guests noticed a string of lights moving high overhead."

"'Occasionally, you'll see satellites, and they look kind of like shooting stars moving through the sky,' Girgis says. "But this was a whole line of them all moving together.'"

"The guest hadn't spotted a UFO invasion. Rather, it was the first installment of billionaire Elon Musk's vision for the future: a constellation of satellites known as Starlink that's meant to provide Internet to the entire planet."

On May 23, Musk's company SpaceX launched a rocket that carried 60 Starlink satellites into orbit. The 500-pound satellites fanned out like a deck of cards. From the ground, they looked like a glittering string whizzing across the arc of the sky.


Stinking Rich? Malaysia Aims To Cash In On China's Durian Craze

"The durian, for those of you who've never seen one, is a Southeast Asian fruit that looks like a fiercely weaponized pineapple. It's prickly. It's pricey. And it's oh so pungent. And you will never forget your first whiff, says Zamzani Abdul Wahab — the Malaysian celebrity chef better known as Chef Zam — who remembers the first time two of his foreign friends got theirs when they visited him in Kuala Lumpur a few years back."

"'They almost died, and I had to call an ambulance on them,' he says, laughing. He may be exaggerating — but just a little. Last month, more than 500 people were evacuated from a library in Australia after a gas leak scare that turned out to be ... yup, a rotting durian left in a trash bin."

"'Julia Child once said that it smells like dead babies mixed with strawberries mixed with Camembert,' Chef Zam says.'You have to bear in mind, they're an acquired taste.'"

"Here in Southeast Asia, you may not bring durians on trains, planes or in taxis. And don't even think about sneaking one into your hotel room. But here's the thing: Once you get past the smell, they're delicious. And the Chinese in particular have fallen hard for the pungent fruit in the past few years, putting it in everything from pizza to ice cream, even cakes. And, says Chef Zam, the Chinese have fallen even harder for what's widely considered Malaysia's best variety of durian, the Musang King."


Scientists Know How Tornadoes Form, But They Are Hard To Predict

"Deadly tornadoes have been ripping through parts of the Unites States for weeks. Storms have been leaving a trail of destruction from Texas all the way up to Maryland, and on Monday, 52 tornadoes may have touched down across eight states, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration."

"Patrick Marsh, a meteorologist at the NOAA's Storm Prediction Center, says it's unusual to have this kind of sustained tornado activity."

"'We've had long stretches where we've had tornadoes over a long period of time, but the difference was we'd have a day or two here or there where we kind of had a reprieve. We're not seeing the reprieve this time, and that's what makes this outbreak so unique,' he tells All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro."

"Scientists know how the storms are created, but, he says, it's nearly impossible to predict where a tornado will touch down — and they don't have enough data to attribute the recent outbreaks to climate change."

"'I would love to be able to tell somebody, 'You know, tomorrow there's going to be a tornado that's going to go through downtown Oklahoma City.' But the atmosphere is inherently chaotic, and I don't know if we'll ever be able to get there,' he says."



Chinese Tourism To U.S. Is Down After Years Of Booming Growth

"For years, a record number of Chinese tourists have flocked to U.S. attractions like Hollywood, Capitol Hill and the Grand Canyon. But their numbers are now falling."

"The strong dollar has made U.S. travel more expensive and tourism to the U.S. has matured — just as trade and political tensions have grown between the countries."

"In Hawaii, the number of Chinese visitors dropped by a quarter in April and by more than 23% through the first four months of 2019, compared to the same time last year, according to the islands' tourism office."

"In Arizona, home of the Grand Canyon, the state's Office of Tourism estimates the number of Chinese visitors declined 3.7% in 2018 — after nearly quadrupling from 2010 to 2017."

"Nationwide, the number of visitors from China fell in 2018 for the first time since 2003 — down by 5.7%, according to data to be released on Friday by the National Travel and Tourism Office. However, they remained the biggest spenders of all international travelers, spending $36.4 billion last year."

"'It's really hard to predict what is actually causing' the trends, said Tori Barnes of the U.S. Travel Association. She said the strong dollar is making travel to the U.S. more expensive. And 'there's a potential that some of the trade skirmishes that we're having with countries like China could have unintended consequences,' Barnes said."

"At the same time, Barnes and other tourism experts also said the tourism market for Chinese travelers to the United States has grown so fast in recent years — skyrocketing to fifth-most-common origin of U.S. visitors — that it was bound to level off."


Scientists Genetically Modify Fungus To Kill Mosquitoes That Spread Malaria

"In the hope of finding a new way to fight malaria, scientists have used a spider gene to genetically engineer a fungus to produce a venom that can quickly kill mosquitoes."

"The modified fungus was a highly effective mosquito killer in the first tests mimicking conditions in sub-Saharan Africa, where malaria remains a major public health problem, researchers reported Thursday in the journal Science."

"'We're very excited,' says Raymond St. Leger, a professor of entomology at the University of Maryland who led the research. 'The results are very good. This could save many lives.'"

"Other researchers who are not involved in the research praised the advance."

"'I think it's an important step forward,' says Marcelo Jacobs-Lorena, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. 'We need something new to combat malaria.'"

"But others worry the approach may be unsafe."

"'Fighting malaria is something that everybody should do. But fighting malaria through genetic engineering is dangerous,' says Nnimmo Bassey of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation, an advocacy group based in Nigeria."



'Gold Rush': Cannabidiol Industry Booms Amid Uncertain Regulation

"Shea Castleberry works in a time capsule of sorts. He walks through the aisles of the Family Video store he manages in Murray, Ky., a small city surrounded by rolling farmland about two hours north of Nashville."

"Next to the movies and popcorn, there's a new addition to his store that surprises some of his regulars."

"'A lot of people are like 'a video store selling CBD?' But it really does tie into our values. Which is, we're here for the community,' Castleberry said."

"Cannabidiol, also known as CBD, is a compound that is increasingly becoming popular because of the alleged health benefits users report, ranging from better sleep, reduced anxiety and pain relief. Yet clinical studies are lacking for most claims."

"It's derived from a type of cannabis called hemp, and the latest Farm Bill signed by President Trump in December legalized the cultivation of the crop at the federal level."

Retailers across the country, including Walgreens and CVS, have invested in the CBD industry since that point. Castleberry said his Family Video store began carrying CBD oil, lotion, gummies, lip balm and water, in April. But he stressed Family Video isn't just selling CBD just to get extra profit.


At $2.1 Million, New Gene Therapy Is The Most Expensive Drug Ever

"The federal Food and Drug Administration has approved a gene therapy for a rare childhood disorder that is now the most expensive drug on the market. It costs $2.125 million per patient."

"But for those patients lucky enough to get it, it appears it can save their lives with a one-time treatment."

"Three-year-old Donovan Weisgarber is one of those patients. When he was born he seemed perfectly healthy. But within weeks, it became clear something was terribly wrong."

"'It was about when he was about one month old that when we started to notice some symptoms,' says his mother, Laura Weisgarber, 32, of Columbus, Ohio."

"Donovan started getting really fussy, stopped squirming, and got weaker and weaker."

"Donovan had spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a rare disorder caused by a defective gene; the illness destroys the nerves that control muscles. Babies with the most severe form of the disorder typically don't live past their second birthday."

"'We were devastated,' Weisgarber says, recalling the diagnosis. 'It was definitely the worst time of our lives.'"


Happy 500th, Tintoretto — A Retrospective Honors The Venetian Artist

"Legend has it that when Jacopo Tintoretto was 12 years old, he was so good at drawing that he rattled Titian — the master artist of Venice, 30 years his senior. Young Tintoretto was an apprentice in Titian's workshop and — as the story goes — the old master gone away for several days, and when he came back he found some of Tintoretto's drawings."

"'He saw these drawings and said, 'Who did this?' " explains art expert Frederick Ilchman. 'The young Tintoretto was nervous, thinking he'd done a bad job ... and was going to be corrected. No, they were not bad — in fact, they were too good.'"

"Titian felt threatened and kicked the kid out. But Tintoretto got all the lessons he needed in ambition and toughness — and went on to have a long, successful life in the art world."

"That career is the focus of Tintoretto's very first U.S. retrospective, now on view at the National Gallery of Art, co-curated by Frederick Ilchman and Robert Echols. It marks the 500th anniversary of the 16th century Venetian artist's birth."

"'He never saw a wall that he couldn't envision covered with a large Tintoretto,' says Echols. The canvases are huge — jammed with hunky men (and some women) — writhing, and reaching, and rushing — in myths or Biblical scenes. Tintoretto painted them all over a ceiling of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice. It took ambition — and a lot of hustle."

"In 1564, Tintoretto was one of four artists invited submit drawings for the grand building."


South Africa's Carbon Tax Set To Go Into Effect Next Week

"A carbon tax in South Africa will go into effect on June 1. President Cyril Ramaphosa signed the measure into law on Sunday, making South Africa one of about 40 countries worldwide to adopt a carbon-pricing program."

"Proponents of the carbon tax say the true cost of carbon emissions, a key contributor to climate change, is not reflected in the price of fossil fuels. Many economists have argued that taxing carbon would result in a shift toward cleaner sources of energy."

"The tax will be introduced in phases: The first phase will run until December 2022 and will tax carbon at a rate of about $8.34 per ton of CO2 equivalent. But according to a statement from the National Treasury, tax breaks will significantly reduce the effective rate of the tax."

"The treasury will assess the impact of the tax and the country's progress toward emissions goals before the second phase of the policy, which will start in 2023 and end in 2030."

"The policy has been in the works for the better part of a decade, Reuters reported."


Beer Archaeologists Are Reviving Ancient Ales — With Some Strange Results

"The closest that Travis Rupp came to getting fired from Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder, Colo., he says, was the time he tried to make chicha. The recipe for the Peruvian corn-based beer, cobbled together from bits of pre-Incan archaeological evidence, called for chewed corn partially fermented in spit. So, Rupp's first task had been to persuade his colleagues to gather round a bucket and offer up their chompers for the cause."

"Once he got to brewing, the corn-quinoa-spit mixture gelatinized in a stainless steel tank, creating a dense blob equivalent in volume and texture to about seven bathtubs of polenta. Oops."

"In another go, Rupp managed to avoid the brew's gelatinous fate, but encountered a new problem when it came time to drain the tank. 'It literally turned into cement in the pipes because the corn was so finely ground," says Rupp. "People were a little cranky.'"

"These are the kinds of sticky situations that come with trying to bring ancient flavors into modern times."



Why Corned Beef Sandwiches — And The Rest Of The Universe — Exist

"It's easy to take corned beef sandwiches for granted. There's no mystery about them. They simply exist."

"But corned beef sandwiches, along with everything else in the universe, raise a critical question in the minds of physicists: Why do they exist?"

"In the earliest moments of the universe, energy turned into matter. But matter comes in two forms, matter and antimatter. And when a particle of matter encounters a particle of antimatter, they annihilate each other — and all you're left with is light."

"The universe tends to be a symmetrical place, so it's reasonable to assume that at the dawn of the universe, matter and antimatter were produced in equal amounts."

"Somehow, somewhere, there had to be a slight imbalance — a bit more matter than antimatter — or else the universe would be just a big ball of light with no you or me or stars or galaxies or corned beef sandwiches."

"Physicists believe something called the ''electric dipole moment' of the neutron might just hold the answer."

"So when Indiana University physicist Chen-Yu Liu is asked why she's spending her research life looking for a rather obscure property of an atomic particle, she's ready with a response: 'I say I am trying to understand why we exist.'"



Botswana Lifts Its Ban On Elephant Hunting

"Botswana's government is lifting a ban that protected its elephants from being hunted, part of a series of decisions that could have lasting impacts on the country's conservation efforts."

"In a letter to reporters, the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism referred to elephants as predators and said their numbers 'appear to have increased.' It said a subcommittee found that conflicts between humans and elephants had risen, harming livestock and the livelihoods of Botswana's people."

"The announcement marked a sharp departure from the policies of former President Ian Khama, who suspended elephant hunting after data showed the population in decline. The ban took effect in 2014 but did not stop hunting in registered game ranches."

"In May, Botswana's newly elected president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, made international headlines for giving three African leaders stools made of elephant feet."

"In June, he requested a review of the ban on hunting elephants."

"His study group recommended 'regular but limited elephant culling,' in addition to establishing elephant meat canning for pet food and other products. Among other conclusions, it recommended the government expand Botswana's safari hunting industry."

"Authorities said Thursday that the government accepted all recommendations except the regular culling of elephants and the establishment of meat canning. 'This was rejected because culling is not considered acceptable given the overall continental status of elephants. Rather, a more sustainable method such as selective cropping should be employed,' the government said."



More Than 1,000 Holocaust Victims Are Buried In Belarus After Mass Grave Discovered

"More than 1,000 victims of the Holocaust were buried Wednesday in Belarus, some 70 years after they were killed in the genocide."

"Their bones were unearthed this winter by construction workers as they began to build luxury apartments in the southwestern city of Brest, near Poland."

"Soldiers brought in to excavate found undisputed evidence of a mass grave: skulls with bullet holes, shoes and tattered clothing worn on the last day of people's lives."

"Because the newly uncovered mass grave was on the site of a wartime ghetto, the victims were believed to be Jews slaughtered by Nazis. Many Jewish people had been forced to live behind barbed wires in the Brest ghetto before they were executed."

"On Wednesday, their remains were placed into 120 coffins decorated with the Star of David, according to The Associated Press. A burial and ceremony was held at a cemetery outside of the city."

"'I think it's very late, but better late than never,' Marcel Drimer, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor from Poland, told NPR."

"I am upset that the officials want to build on the sacred site," he added.

Authorities permitted the apartment construction to continue, prompting locals and leaders in the Jewish community to denounce the way the mass grave discovery was handled.

"A petition to stop construction emerged online, with signatures supporting a proposal for the grounds to become a memorial park."

"The Union of Belarusian Jewish Public Associations and Communities expressed dismay that the construction site had not been adequately examined before construction started, "even though, according to eyewitnesses and historians evidence, it was the place where mass executions of the Jewish population of the city took place," the group said in a statement in March."


Scientists Modify Viruses With CRISPR To Create New Weapon Against Superbugs

"Alphonso Evans rolls his wheelchair into a weight machine in the gym at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, Ga."

"'I'm not so much worried about dying from a heart attack or diabetes, because I'm active. I know what to do to work against it: watch what I eat, exercise,' Evans says. 'But what do I do about an infection? Or fighting off a bacteria — something inside me that I don't see until it's too late?'"

"Evans, 67, is fully paralyzed from the chest down and has only partial use of his hands. And like a lot of spinal cord injury patients, he's prone to infections, especially bladder infections."

"About two years ago, he came to the VA medical center for what he thought was just another bladder infection. Turns out, he also had a bone infection and developed pneumonia. He ended up in intensive care. 'It scared me," says Evans, who lives nearby in Hephzibah, Ga. "And I don't scare easy.'"

"Bladder infections, like many others, are increasingly becoming resistant to antibiotics."


Calories, Carbs, Fat, Fiber: Unraveling The Links Between Breast Cancer And Diet

"'A Low-Fat Diet Helps Reduce The Risk of Death From Breast Cancer.' Did a headline like this catch your eye this week?"

"Dozens of news organizations, including NPR, reported on a new study that found that a low-fat diet helped women reduce their risk of dying from breast cancer."

"The findings stem from the federally funded Women's Health Initiative, a huge, long-term, national health study launched back in 1993. At the time the study began, women who enrolled were in their 50s, 60s and 70s."

"As part of the study, about 20,000 women were coached to change their diets in a number of ways for at least eight years. "We asked women to reduce their total fat intake," explains Rowan Chlebowski of the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. In addition, the women were asked to eat more fruits, vegetables and grains. A comparison group of nearly 30,000 women continued to follow their normal diet."

"The strength of this study is twofold: its size, nearly 50,000 women in all, and its long-term follow-up, nearly 20 years. During the study, some women in both groups were diagnosed with breast cancer, but those who had changed their diets had a 21 percent lower risk of dying from the disease."



How The Brain Shapes Pain And Links Ouch With Emotion

"When Sterling Witt was a teenager in Missouri, he was diagnosed with scoliosis. Before long, the curvature of his spine started causing chronic pain."

"It was 'this low-grade kind of menacing pain that ran through my spine and mostly my lower back and my upper right shoulder blade and then even into my neck a little bit,"' Witt says."

"The pain was bad. But the feeling of helplessness it produced in him was even worse."

"'I felt like I was being attacked by this invisible enemy,' Witt says. 'It was nothing that I asked for, and I didn't even know how to battle it.'"

"So he channeled his frustration into music and art that depicted his pain. It was 'a way I could express myself,' he says. 'It was liberating.'"

"Witt's experience is typical of how an unpleasant sensation can become something much more complicated, scientists say."

"'At its core, pain is just something that hurts or makes you say ouch,' says Karen Davis, a senior scientist at the Krembil Brain Institute in Toronto. 'Everything else is the outcome of the pain, how it then impacts your emotions, your feelings, your behaviors.'"