Untangling the Ancient Inca Code of Strings

By Bridget Alex | April 19, 2017 10:00 am


Two vibrant bundles of string, over 10,000 feet high in the Peruvian Andes, may hold clues for deciphering the ancient code of the Inca civilization.

Kept as heirlooms by the community of San Juan de Collata, the strings are khipus, devices of twisted and tied cords once used by indigenous Andeans for record keeping. Anthropologists have long debated whether khipus were simply memory aids — akin to rosary beads — or a three-dimensional writing system. The latter seems more possible, and decipherment more feasible, according to new research on the Collata khipus, published Wednesday inCurrent Anthropology.

In the study, University of St. Andrews anthropologist Sabine Hyland analyzed string color, fiber and twist direction to identify 95 unique signs — enough to constitute a writing system — and proposed a phonetic decipherment of the khipus’ final strings, thought to represent family lineage names.

“If that’s the case, that would be groundbreaking,” says Galen Brokaw, a scholar of Latin American Studies at Montana State University, who was not involved in the study. “The challenge is to find more sources, more khipu … more extensive evidence” to support this hypothesis.

The Khipu Code

Khipus are best known by archaeologists as record keeping devices of the Inca Empire, which encompassed over 18 million people and 3,000 miles of South America from the early 1400s until the Spanish conquest in 1532.


The strings usually consist of a top cord, to which pendants are attached; the pendants may have groupings of knots and subsidiary pendants. Complex khipus, made under the Imperial Inca, contained as many as 1,500 pendants branched over six levels of subsidiaries. Simpler ones comprised of a few strings and knots, were used by herders to count their animals.

Khipus have been “one of these mysteries that have really resisted interpretation over the years,” says Richard Burger, an expert in Andean archaeology at Yale University.

Most 20th century scholars believed that khipus were strictly memory aids that used knots to record numerical data: censuses, tributes, inventories. They thought, “there was nothing there you had to decipher,” says Hyland. But other scholars disagreed, contending that “it’s simply impossible to have a civilization like the Incas that didn’t have some form of what we would call writing.”

And according to colonial-era Spaniards — who never learned to read khipus, but witnessed indigenous people using them — the strings could also encode rituals, letters, and narrative histories.

Therefore, researchers have speculated that, in addition to knots representing numbers, features like color, fiber, cord groupings, and twist direction signified additional information.

“It remained really hard to move beyond sort of speculation about what those patterns might mean,” says Burger

Phonetic Potential of the Collata Khipus

Most of the 900-some surviving khipus are ancient artifacts, curated in museums and other collections. However, in some remote mountain villages, khipus were made and used into the 20th century. Although no one today can directly read them, communities preserve these khipu as cultural patrimony.

Such is the case with the Collata khipus, which, in 2015, village authorities invited Hyland to study — the first outsider permitted to view them.

The two khipus comprise 487 pendants cords, dyed 14 colors and made from six animal fibers, including alpaca, llama and vizcacha—a rabbit-looking rodent. Combinations of color, fiber and twist direction create 95 distinct symbols, a number that’s within the range of logosyllabic writing systems, or those with signs for full words and phonetic sounds.


The Collata strings, therefore, at least demonstrate the potential for khipus to symbolize speech and record as much information as written texts.

“If they’re phonetic that raises a kind of whole new realm of possibility,” says Hyland.

Recognizing this phonetic potential, Hyland applied principles of decipherment, developed for other ancient scripts, to the final strings of the Collata khipus.

Based on community interviews and colonial-era manuscripts stored with the khipu, Hyland believes the strings are narrative letters sent between Collata and the nearby village of Casta about a rebellion against the Spanish in the late 1700s. As letters, the final strings likely represent the senders’ names—one of the khipus is said to have been made by the Alluka family lineage of Collata.

Correlating the sounds in this name to features of the final cords, Hyland developed a tentative code. For instance, she hypothesized that a blue llama cord, twisted clockwise, symbolized the “ka” sound. This particular sound and color association makes sense, as ankas was the regional dialect word for “blue.”

She then used this code on the other khipu, translating the final strings asYakapar: one of the only two lineages in Casta.

A Khipus Key?

Hyland’s phonetic code may work for the final strings of the Collata khipu. However, more research is needed to see if it applies to all the strings on these devices, or to khipus from ancient times.

“If there’s a logosyllabic convention … to what extent is that used even on a particular khipu?” says Brokaw. Phonetic symbols may have been limited to proper names or used more broadly. “The khipu was a very heterogeneous device,” he adds.

The symbolic conventions of khipus likely changed across time, space and contexts. Narrative letters probably recorded information differently than accounting khipus, or those used by shepherds. And given that the Collata khipus are from the 1700s, alphabetic writing may have influenced their makers.

The logosyllabic features could be “the result of contact with Western writing systems, rather than being a continuity with the original Inca khipus,” says Burger. “But I think she makes a reasonable argument to the contrary.”

Hyland maintains that the Collata khipus may preserve coding practices from ancient times. They are structurally very similar to Inca-era khipus made from animal fibers and match colonial chroniclers’ descriptions of the devices. Moreover, the Collata khipus rely on three-dimensional symbolism, distinct from European-style writing.

“The phoneticism of the Collata khipus is not merely the result of contact with the European alphabet,” she stated in an email to Discover.


Posted, but not written, by Louis Sheehan

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Cassini finds final ingredient for alien life in Enceladus’s sea (– Hydrogen — Lou)

Cassini finds final ingredient for alien life in Enceladus’s sea

Enceladus: home to alien life, we hope
Home to alien life, we hope


Enceladus is ripe for life. In one final pass through the icy moon’s liquid plumes, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft found molecular hydrogen, which indicates favourable conditions for life in Enceladus’s subsurface sea.

For over a decade, Cassini has been exploring Saturn and its moons, sending back the best pictures and measurements we’ve ever had of the system. It dropped off the Huygens probe at hazy Titan, scrutinised the structure of Saturn’s rings, and revealed that Enceladus was much stranger than anyone expected.

Enceladus’s south pole has strange, warm fractures, and plumes of liquid water coming from an internal ocean many believed was impossible in such a small, cold world. The plumes also contain enticing compounds like organics and carbon dioxide, all necessary for life as we know it on Earth.

Those things represent tantalising hints of habitability. But there was no evidence for an energy source to feed potential life, until now. In extreme environments on Earth, hydrogen can play that role.

“What was missing to complete the story of habitability was an energy source,” says Chris McKay at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. “This completes that story.”

Candy for microbes

Cassini did detect hydrogen in early trips through the plumes, but there was no way to determine if it came from the moon itself or from inside the instrument. When particles from the plumes entered the spacecraft’s Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS), they interacted with its titanium walls, producing the same sort of hydrogen as hydrothermal processes would produce under Enceladus’s ocean.

“We didn’t know we were going to do this experiment when we launched Cassini,” says Hunter Waite at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Texas. So to look for hydrogen, Waite and his team had to put the INMS instrument in a new mode that measured the molecules without allowing them to touch the walls.

Finally, they found the molecular hydrogen they were looking for – and a lot of it. Their findings indicated that there was too much hydrogen to be stored in tiny Enceladus’s ice shell or ocean. That means it must be continuously produced there, probably by hydrothermal reactions similar to those that occur near hot vents at the bottom of Earth’s oceans.

Near those vents on Earth, there is life. Some of Earth’s oldest microorganisms, called methanogens, are often found near hydrothermal vents where, deprived of light and oxygen, they convert hydrogen and carbon dioxide to methane.

“If you were to take methanogens from Earth’s ocean and transport them to Enceladus, they would have all the food they need,” says Waite. “This is like candy for microbes.” If Earth microbes could exist on Enceladus, maybe it could have homegrown life, too.

Between its liquid water, organic molecules, and hydrogen, Enceladus is looking more and more like our best bet forfinding extraterrestrial life. “If we’re looking for life in the solar system, then Enceladus has a lot of potential to be the place that we could find it,” says Kelly Miller at SwRI, who was part of the team that discovered Enceladus’ molecular hydrogen.

Signs of life?

Showing Enceladus is habitable is one thing, finding life is quite another.

“Just because a place is suitable for life doesn’t mean that life is present, because we don’t understand the origin of life at all,” McKay says.

Some believe that life is inevitable, given the right conditions. Others think that it is rare and requires a great deal of luck. Right now, our sample of definitely habitable worlds has only one: Earth. But pairing observations of Enceladus with our own planet could help astrobiologists figure out the likelihood of life existing elsewhere in the universe.

“The message is in the molecules,” says Christopher Glein, another member of Waite’s group at SwRI. “We just have to keep measuring the molecules in that plume, and that’s going to tell us about what we cannot see.”

We won’t have any more molecules from Enceladus’s plumes for a long time, though. Cassini is running low on fuel, and if it were to crash into Enceladus it might destroy any extraterrestrial ecosystem living there. To protect potential life on Saturn’s ocean moons, we have to destroy the only tool we have to find it. The spacecraft will crashinto Saturn on 15 September.

Even if an Enceladus mission is selected in NASA’s next round of New Frontiers funding, to be announced in 2019, it wouldn’t reach the Saturn system until the late 2020s or early 2030s.

“To address whether there is life, we’ll have to go back,” McKay says. “Two decades can go by pretty fast.”


Journal reference: Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.aai8703

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Mars Research Scientist – Houston, TX

Mars Research Scientist – Houston, TX

Jacobs Technology is the advanced technology arm of Jacobs Engineering (NYSE:JEC), one of the largest engineering and technical service companies in the United States. Jacobs has partnered with NASA to support space flight programs for more than 40 years and held the predecessor Engineering and Science Contract (ESC) since 2005. We look forward to continuing that work as the prime contractor for the JSC Engineering, Technology, and Science (JETS) contract along with our eleven teammate companies to provide engineering, scientific and technical contract services at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (Houston, TX). JETS provides products and technical services related to human operations in space through development and integration of a broad spectrum of engineering requirements. This includes human spacecraft flight and flight development products, human exploration mission planning for NASA, institution support services, and new technology development. At Jacobs, we believe that people are our greatest asset, and that is why we offer a partnership in which you can grow personally and professionally with the advantages of strong leadership, competitive compensation and rewarding career paths. Our long-term client relationship with NASA has led to a need for a Mars Research Scientist. The Mars Research Scientist will: * Support the Astromaterials Research & Exploration Science Directorate (ARES) at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in the field of planetary science. * ARES staff members’ backgrounds include geology, chemistry, astronomy, physics, biology, mathematics, computer science, and engineering. * ARES is also responsible for the curation and analysis of a wide range of solar system materials including the Apollo lunar samples, meteorites, cosmic dust/interplanetary dust particles, cometary samples, solar wind samples, and terrestrial analogs. * Conduct fundamental planetary research and continue to be involved in the operation and collection/interpretation associated with planetary missions (e.g., Mars Science Laboratory). * Perform laboratory analysis of astromaterials and analog materials for peer-review research utilizing a suite of thermal analysis and mass spectrometry as well as X-ray diffraction instruments. * Train and assist researchers and students in the use of the thermal and evolved gas analysis (mass spectrometry). * Coordinate vendor service. * Summarize and communicate quantitative results * Meticulously document procedures and results, and actively participate in safety programs. * Work with visiting as well as in-house researchers on all aspects of experimentation and analysis. * Actively pursue collaborations and development of projects within and outside the department. * Perform other duties as required. Required Education/Experience/Skills: * BS degree from an accredited college or university in an associated technical discipline and two (2) years related experience, or M.S. degree in an associated technical discipline. * Experience working in laboratory environment preparing samples, conducting experiments, summarizing results, preparing reports for internal and external use, writing abstracts for submission to national and international meetings, and contributing to the preparation of manuscripts for publication in peer-reviewed journals. * Must have knowledge of the theory and practice of elemental analyses of geologic samples and data reduction. * Knowledge and experience of using analytical computer software for data analysis. * Ability to work with students, technicians, and researchers in a collaborative and dynamic environment. * Must have excellent verbal and written communication skills, as well as excellent interpersonal skills. Preferences: * An understanding of the theory and practice of thermal gravimetric analysis and calorimetry and coupled evolved gas analysis (mass spectrometry) and data reduction is also desired. * Previous experience with Mars missions, or planetary mission operations * Potential areas of research interest include (but are not limited to) water-rock interactions, hydrothermal geochemistry, isotope and trace-element geochemistry, mineralogy, and theoretical and experimental geochemistry of rock/mineral weathering (low temperature experimentation). * Existing associations, partnerships, and/or collaborations with on-going planetary missions, organization, or personnel that would be beneficial to the scope and objectives of the ARES Directorate. * Strong experimental foundation; able to integrate experimental work with multidisciplinary instrumented analytical techniques (electron microscopy, XRD, DSC, TGA, VNIR, Mossbauer) and computational approaches. * An understanding of the theory and practice of X-Ray Diffraction (XRD), Evolved Gas Analysis (EGA), and various forms of spectroscopy. * Additional instrument experience across disciplines (such as ICP-MS) is a plus. Why Work for JETS? * Opportunities for growth and advancement * Comprehensive Medical Coverage (medical, dental, vision) * 401(k) * Benefits Tuition Reimbursement * Much, much more! Don’t miss out on this great opportunity; for immediate consideration, apply now! (www.wehavespaceforyou.com). * Must be a U.S. Citizen and successfully complete a U.S. government background investigation. * Management has the prerogative to select at any level for which this position has been advertised. Posted by StartWire  posted on-line by Lou Sheehan
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Ancestral Climates May Have Shaped Your Nose

Posted, but not written by, Louis Sheehan


Ancestral Climates May Have Shaped Your Nose



A study led by Penn State researchers looked at nose shape in people whose parents and ancestors came from four regions of the world. CreditPhotographs from Getty Images

Ask anyone what the nose does, and the reply will most likely be related to smell. We appreciate our noses because they help us experience flowers and fresh-baked cookies.

In fact, our honkers have another, more important function: They warm and humidify the air we breathe, helping prevent illness and damage in our airways and lungs. Because of this, scientists have long suspected that nose shape evolved partly in response to local climate conditions. In cold, dry climates, natural selection may have favored noses that were better at heating and moisturizing air.

A team led by scientists at Pennsylvania State University has found more evidence of the relationship between the noses we have now and the climates where our ancestors lived.

In a study published in PLOS Genetics on Thursday, the researchers found that nostril width differed significantly between populations from different regions around the world. Moreover, the higher the temperature and absolute humidity of the region, the wider the nostril, the researchers found, suggesting that climate very well may have played a part in shaping our sniffers.

Physical traits that are in direct contact with the environment often undergo natural selection and evolve faster, said Arslan Zaidi, a postdoctoral scholar in genetics at Penn State and an author of the paper. “This is one of the reasons why we looked at nose shape.”

All in all, Dr. Zaidi and his colleagues measured seven nose traits, including the nose’s height, protrusion and nostril width, along with skin pigmentation and overall height in men and women whose parents were born in regions that corresponded with their genetic ancestry. They looked at four regions — West Africa, East Asia, Northern Europe and South Asia — with at least 40 participants in each group.

“We selected these to maximize the distance across populations,” Dr. Zaidi said, adding that his team wants to sample more groups in future research.

Between the groups in this study, only nostril width and skin pigmentation showed greater differences than would be expected because of chance accumulations of genetic mutations.

Over all, people whose parents and ancestors came from warm, humid climates tended to have wider nostrils, whereas those from cold, dry climates tended to have narrower ones. Correlations between nostril width and climate were strongest for Northern Europeans, the researchers found, suggesting that cold, dry climates in particular may have favored people with narrower nostrils.

These findings align with those of previous studies of the skull, which have shown that narrower internal nasal inlets tend to be more efficient at warming and humidifying air, said Katerina Harvati, director of the paleoanthropology department at the University of Tübingen in Germany, who was not involved in this study.

Dr. Zaidi and his colleagues also demonstrated that nose shape is a heritable trait. They did this by showing a relationship between shared genes and similarities in nose shape in large groups of unrelated people.

This is important because natural selection can act only on characteristics that can be passed from one generation to the next, said Todd Yokley, a biological anthropologist at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, who did not participate in the study.

The fact that nose shape is subject to natural selection and showed evidence of varying with climate paints a convincing picture that climate adaptation played some role in the evolution of nostril width, Dr. Zaidi said.

He added, however, that nostril width does not seem to correlate with climate as closely as skin pigmentation does. That may indicate that other factors are involved in what kinds of noses are passed down, he said, such as “cultural differences in what is considered an attractive nose or not.”

It’s also important to note that less than 15 percent of genetic variation in humans can be attributed to differences between people from different continents, Dr. Zaidi said.

In actuality, the genes that differ because of geographic origin, such as those affecting skin color, hair texture and nose shape, are the rare exception, rather than the rule.

“People are more similar than they are different. What this research does is offer people a view of why we’re different,” he said. “There’s an evolutionary history to it that, I think, kind of demystifies the concept of race.”

Studying how certain traits evolved as environmental adaptations that may no longer be relevant could also help us understand disease risk today, Dr. Zaidi said.

“We know there are variable risks of respiratory diseases across different populations in the U.S.,” he said. “Can we find an explanation for that in morphology?”



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Study shows dogs know how to lie. By Seriously Science | March 16, 2017


Posted, but not written, by Louis Sheehan


We know that dogs have a guilty look, but can they actually be guilty? Well, according to this study, the answer is… kind of. Here, researchers show that dogs are capable of “deceptive-like behavior.” In a set of experiments, dogs tended to lead a human “competitor” away from food when that human would keep it for himself. However, the same dogs happily lead their “cooperative” owner to the noms, who would give the food to the dog. Bad dog!

Deceptive-like behaviour in dogs (Canis familiaris)

“Deception, the use of false signals to modify the behaviour of the receiver, occurs in low frequencies even in stable signalling systems. For example, it can be advantageous for subordinate individuals to deceive in competitive situations. We investigated in a three-way choice task whether dogs are able to mislead a human competitor, i.e. if they are capable of tactical deception. During training, dogs experienced the role of their owner, as always being cooperative, and two unfamiliar humans, one acting ‘cooperatively’ by giving food and the other being ‘competitive’ and keeping the food for themselves. During the test, the dog had the options to lead one of these partners to one of the three potential food locations: one contained a favoured food item, the other a non-preferred food item and the third remained empty. After having led one of the partners, the dog always had the possibility of leading its cooperative owner to one of the food locations. Therefore, a dog would have a direct benefit from misleading the competitive partner since it would then get another chance to receive the preferred food from the owner. On the first test day, the dogs led the cooperative partner to the preferred food box more often than expected by chance and more often than the competitive partner. On the second day, they even led the competitive partner less often to the preferred food than expected by chance and more often to the empty box than the cooperative partner. These results show that dogs distinguished between the cooperative and the competitive partner, and indicate the flexibility of dogs to adjust their behaviour and that they are able to use tactical deception.”

Related content:
Cutest MRI ever shows that most dogs prefer praise over food.
Flashback Friday: Do dogs really have a “guilty look”?
Yes, dogs really can feel jealous.

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Republican plan un-insures more than simple repeal of Obamacare!

Fewer Americans Would Be Insured With G.O.P. Plan Than With Simple Repeal


Margot Sanger-Katz @sangerkatz MARCH 21, 2017


The Congressional Budget Office recently said that around 24 million fewer Americans would have health insurance in 2026 under the Republican repeal plan than if the current law stayed in place.

That loss was bigger than most experts anticipated, and led to a round of predictable laments from congressional Democrats — and less predictable ones from Republican senators, including Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and John Thune of South Dakota, who told reporters that the bill needed to be “more helpful” to low-income people who wanted insurance.

But one piece of context has gone little noticed: The Republican bill would actually result in more people being uninsured than if Obamacare were simply repealed. Getting rid of the major coverage provisions and regulations of Obamacare would cost 23 million Americans their health insurance, according to another recent C.B.O. report. In other words, one million more Americans would have health insurance with a clean repeal than with the Republican replacement plan, according to C.B.O. estimates.


The C.B.O. estimated what would happen after a simple repeal when it considered a bill that Congress passed last year. (President Obama latervetoed that bill.) The bill left parts of Obamacare in place, so the 23 million estimate didn’t come with the kind of detailed analysis that accompanied last week’s score of the American Health Care Act. But the similarity of the two estimates highlights some of the difficulties of the current proposal, both for Democrats, who are strongly criticizing potential coverage losses, and for the repeal-or-die crowd, who hate the structure of this new bill.

“It’s reaffirmed how exceedingly complicated and convoluted the approach the House leadership took,” said Dan Holler, the vice president for communications and government relations at Heritage Action, an advocacy group firmly in the repeal-or-die camp.

Late Monday, House leadership revealed a set of amendments to the bill, which will be considered when the bill comes up for a vote. But, if they are adopted, the changes are unlikely to have major effects on overall coverage numbers. If anything, the changes might lead to a larger increase in the number of Americans without health insurance.


The people who would end up without health insurance are slightly different in the two cases. The current bill would cause more people to lose employer insurance, while a straight repeal bill would most likely cause more people who buy their own coverage to become uninsured. A simple repeal would be worse for Americans with pre-existing conditions, but the current bill would be worse for older Americans who are relatively healthy. Both approaches would lead to major reductions in the number of Americans covered by Medicaid.

The bill that Congress passed in 2016 is the third scenario. It would have kept Obamacare’s major insurance regulations on the books, including its rule that health insurers need to sell insurance at the same price to healthy and sick customers of the same age. It would have removed funding for the expansion of Medicaid, dropped subsidies to help people buy health coverage, and eliminated the individual and employer mandates in the law.

The results of those changes would be drastic: In a decade, 32 million more people would be without health insurance, according to the estimates. The C.B.O. essentially said it was a policy combination that would break the insurance market, resulting in substantially more people losing coverage than gained it under Obamacare.


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Nearly Two-Thirds of Cancers Are Due to Random DNA ‘Mistakes’

Posted but not written by Lou Sheehan

Nearly Two-Thirds of Cancers Are Due to Random DNA ‘Mistakes’

Nearly Two-Thirds of Cancers Are Due to Random DNA 'Mistakes'

Credit: Cell division via Shutterstock

Cancer is caused by mistakes in DNA, and a new study finds that in most cancer cases, these mistakes are completely random; they’re not due to heredity or environmental factors, but rather the result of random errors.

The mistakes, or mutations, cause cancer to happen because even a tiny error in DNA can make cells multiply out of control, the study said. Scientists had thought these mutations resulted mainly from two things: Either the mutation was inherited, or it was caused by outside factors that can damage DNA, such as cigarette smoke or ultraviolet radiation, the researchers wrote.

But a third cause — random mistakes — actually accounts for two-thirds of these mutations, said the new study, published today (March 23) in the journal Science.

When a cell divides, it copies its DNA, so that each of the new cells will have its own version of the genetic material. But each time this copying happens, it creates an opportunity for a mistake to occur. And in some cases, these mistakes can lead to cancer. [10 Do’s and Don’ts to Reduce Your Risk of Cancer]

This means that cancer “will occur no matter how perfect the environment,” senior study author Dr. Bert Vogelstein, a pathologist at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University, said in a statement.

In the new study, the researchers wanted to calculate what percentage of cancers were due to heredity, the environment and random mistakes. The scientists developed a mathematical model that incorporated data from registries of cancer patients around the world and data from DNA sequencing.

About 66 percent of cancers were due to random mistakes, 29 percent of cancers were due to environmental factors or people’s lifestyles, and 5 percent of cancers were due to inherited mutations, the study found. This result, the researchers noted, lined up somewhat with an estimate from Cancer Research UK that 42 percent of cancers could be prevented with changes to lifestyle.

Some types of cancer, such as brain and prostate cancer, are nearly entirely attributable to random mistakes, the study said. The researchers found that random mistakes had caused more than 95 percent of these cancer cases that were looked at in the study.

For some other cancers, however, environmental factors play a large role, the study found. For example, environmental factors, primarily smoking, caused 65 percent of all lung cancers in the study, the researchers found. Just 35 percent of lung cancers were due to random mistakes, the investigators found.

In this image, the researchers used red coloring to indicate the percentage of cancers that are attributed to inherited mutations (left), random mistakes (center) and environmental factors (right) in women. For each organ, the color represents what percentage is attributable to each factor, ranging from white (0 percent) to red (100 percent). <br></br>The cancers are identified as: B, brain; Bl, bladder; Br, breast; C, cervical; CR, colorectal; E, esophagus; HN, head and neck; K, kidney; Li, liver; Lk, leukemia; Lu, lung; M, melanoma; NHL, non-Hodgkin lymphoma; O, ovarian; P, pancreas; S, stomach; Th, thyroid; U, uterus.

In this image, the researchers used red coloring to indicate the percentage of cancers that are attributed to inherited mutations (left), random mistakes (center) and environmental factors (right) in women. For each organ, the color represents what percentage is attributable to each factor, ranging from white (0 percent) to red (100 percent).

The cancers are identified as: B, brain; Bl, bladder; Br, breast; C, cervical; CR, colorectal; E, esophagus; HN, head and neck; K, kidney; Li, liver; Lk, leukemia; Lu, lung; M, melanoma; NHL, non-Hodgkin lymphoma; O, ovarian; P, pancreas; S, stomach; Th, thyroid; U, uterus.

Credit: C. Tomasetti et al,. Science (2017)

In this image, the researchers used red coloring to indicate the percentage of cancers that are attributed to inherited mutations (left), random mistakes (center) and environmental factors (right) in women. For each organ, the color represents what percentage is attributable to each factor, ranging from white (0 percent) to red (100 percent).

The cancers are identified as: B, brain; Bl, bladder; Br, breast; C, cervical; CR, colorectal; E, esophagus; HN, head and neck; K, kidney; Li, liver; Lk, leukemia; Lu, lung; M, melanoma; NHL, non-Hodgkin lymphoma; O, ovarian; P, pancreas; S, stomach; Th, thyroid; U, uterus.
Credit: C. Tomasetti et al,. Science (2017)

A single mutation in a cell is unlikely to cause cancer, Vogelstein noted, speaking in a podcast produced by Johns Hopkins. Rather, the more mutations there are, the more likely it is that the cell will turn cancerous, he said.

Thus, mutations from random mistakes are enough to cause cancer by themselves in some cases, Vogelstein said. But in others, a combination of random mistakes, plus mistakes due to environmental factors eventually turns the cell cancerous, he said. For example, skin cells have a baseline level of mutations due to random mistakes, and exposure to ultraviolet light can add even more mutations, leading to cancer, he said. [How to Protect Yourself from Sun and Heat in 2017]

Cristian Tomasetti, an assistant professor of biostatistics also at Johns Hopkins, likened the three causes of mutations to typos that occur while using a keyboard. Some of those typos may be the result of the typist being tired or distracted; these can be thought of as the environmental factors, Tomasetti said on the podcast. And if the keyboard the typist is using is missing a key, that’s a hereditary factor, Tomasetti said.

But even in a perfect environment, where the typist is perfectly rested and using a perfectly working keyboard, typos will still occur, Tomasetti said. And these represent the random mistakes.

There are prevention strategies for cancers caused by environmental factors or inherited genes: A smoker can quit smoking to help lower his or her risk of lung cancer, and a woman who finds that she carries the breast cancer BRCA mutation may opt to have a preventative mastectomy.

These “primary prevention” strategies are considered the best way to reduce deaths from cancers, the researchers wrote in the study.

Such primary prevention is not possible for cancers caused by random mutations, but still, “secondary prevention” can help save lives, the authors wrote. Secondary prevention refers to early detection of cancer, according to the study.

“We need to focus more on early detection, because these are not mutations” that can be avoided, Tomasetti said on the podcast.

Originally published on Live Science.

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