Dark matter-free galaxies, alarming tree deaths and the dawn of farming


This Hubble image captures a set of galaxies that are unusual because they seem not to have dark matter.Credit: NASA/ESA/P. van Dokkum, Yale Univ.

Galaxies without dark matter baffle astronomers

Scientists have long thought that galaxies cannot form without the gravitational pull of the mysterious material known as dark matter. But one group of astronomers thinks it might have observed a line of 11 galaxies that don’t contain any of the substance, and could all have been created in an ancient collision (P. van Dokkum et al. Nature 605, 435–439; 2022).

This kind of system could be used to learn about how galaxies form, and about the nature of dark matter itself. However, some researchers are not convinced that the claim is much more than a hypothesis.

The finding centers on two galaxies, called DF2 and DF4, that were described in 2018 and 2019. Their stars moved so slowly that the pull of dark matter was not needed to explain their orbits, so the team concluded that the galaxies contained no dark matter .

In the latest research, scientists identified between three and seven new candidates for dark-matter-free galaxies in a line between DF2 and DF4, as well as strange, faint galaxies at either end.

“If proven right, this could certainly be exciting for galaxy formation. However, the jury is still out,” says Chervin Laporte, an astronomer at the University of Barcelona in Spain.

Northern Australian tree deaths double in 35 years

The rate at which trees are dying in the old-growth tropical forests of northern Australia each year has doubled since the 1980s, and researchers say climate change is probably to blame.

The findings, published in Nature on 18 May, come from an extraordinary record of tree deaths catalogued at 24 sites in the tropical forests of northern Queensland over the past 49 years (D. Bauman et al. Nature https://doi.org/hv67; 2022).

The research team recorded that 2,305 trees across 81 key species had died since 1971. But from the mid-1980s, tree mortality risk increased from an average of 1% a year to 2% a year (see ‘Increasing death rate’). Of the 81 tree species that the team studied, 70% showed an increase in mortality risk over the study period.

The study found that the rise in death rate occurred at the same time as a long-term trend of increases in the atmospheric vapor pressure deficit, which is the difference between the amount of water vapor that the atmosphere can hold and the amount of water it does hold at a given time. The higher the deficit, the more water trees lose through their leaves, which can lead to sustained stress and eventually tree death.

A woman harvests wheat by hand in a field in Turkey

Europe’s first farming populations descended mostly from farmers in the Anatolian peninsula, in what is now Turkey.Credit: Fatih Kurt/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Ancient DNA maps ‘dawn of farming’

Sometime before 12,000 years ago, nomadic hunter-gatherers in the Middle East made one of the most important transitions in human history: they began staying put and took to farming.

Two ancient-DNA studies have now homed in on the identity of the hunter-gatherers who settled down.

Researchers sequenced the genomes of 15 hunter-gatherers and early farmers who lived in southwest Asia and Europe, along a key migration routes into Europe — the Danube River (N. Marchi et al. Cell https://doi.org/gp49rr; 2022).

The team found that ancient farmers in Anatolia — now Turkey — descended from repeated mixing between distinct hunter-gatherer groups from Europe and the Middle East. These groups first split at the height of the last Ice Age, some 25,000 years ago. Modeling suggests that the western groups nearly died out, before rebounding as the climate warmed.

Once established in Anatolia, the researchers found, early farmers moved west into Europe in a stepping-stone-like way, beginning around 8,000 years ago. They mixed occasionally — but not extensively — with local hunter-gatherers.

The findings chime with those of a similar ancient-genomics study posted on the bioRxiv preprint server this month (ME Allentoft. et al. Preprint at bioRxiv https://doi.org/hv7g; 2022).

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