Watson to sell Nobel Prize for DNA

James Watson
Watson is the first living recipient to auction off his Nobel medal

Prof James Watson is to auction off the Nobel Prize medal he won for the discovery of the structure of DNA.

The auctioneer says the medal is the first to be auctioned by a living recipient and could fetch between $2.5m (£1.6m) and $3.5m (£2.2m).

The 1962 prize was awarded to Watson, Maurice Wilkins and Francis Crick, with each receiving a gold medal.

The auction includes papers belonging to Watson, including handwritten notes for his acceptance speech.

Christie’s estimates these at between $300,000 (£190,000) and $400,000 (£254,000)

The discovery of the structure of DNA – which encodes the instruction booklet for building a living organism – was made by Watson and Crick, using experimental data that had been gathered by Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin.

Prof Watson said part of the proceeds would go to the University of Chicago, Clare College at Cambridge University, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Long Island Land Trust and other charities.

Francis Crick’s Nobel medal sold for $2.2m last year. He died in 2004.

The ruffling effect of rumble

Barely perceptible low-frequency signals nevertheless activate measurable responses in our auditory circuits. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet Muenchen (LMU) neurobiologists have now characterized the remarkable impact of low-frequency sounds on the inner ear.

The human auditory system appears to be poorly adapted to the perception of low-frequency sound waves, as hearing thresholds become markedly higher for frequencies lower than about 250 Hz. Yet sensory cells do react to pressure waves with frequencies below 100 Hz, as revealed by the fact that such signals actually evoke detectable micromechanical responses in nerve cells in the inner ear, as LMU neurobiologists now report in the journal “Royal Society Open Science”.

Sources of low-frequency signals are a prominent feature of technologically advanced societies like our own. Wind turbines, air-conditioning systems and heat pumps, for instance, can generate such sounds. Hearing thresholds in this region of the acoustic spectrum vary from one person to the next. “But the assumption that the ear is unresponsive to low-frequency sounds because these are seldom consciously perceived is actually quite false. The ear indeed reacts to very low-frequency signals,” says Dr. Markus Drexl of LMU. In collaboration with researchers led by Professor Benedikt Grothe (Head of the Division of Neurobiology in LMU’s Department of Biology II) and a team based at Munich University Medical Center, Drexl has carried out a laboratory study which shows that low-frequency sounds, though virtually imperceptible, actually have a surprisingly strong effect on sensory cells in the inner ear.

Low-frequency hum stimulates the cochlea

The new study is based on data collected from 21 experimental subjects with normal hearing, whose ears were exposed to a 30-Hz tone for 90 seconds at a sound-pressure level equivalent to 80 decibels. To determine how the inner ear responded to the signal, the researchers took advantage of a phenomenon referred to as spontaneous otoacoustic emissions (SOAEs). SOAEs are scarcely perceptible acoustic signals which are produced by the inner ear in the absence of overt stimulation, and can be detected with a sensitive microphone inserted in the ear canal.

“It turns out that low-frequency sounds have a clearly definable modulatory influence on spontaneous otoacoustic emissions,” says Drexl. Following exposure to the 30-Hz signal for 90 seconds, the subjects’ SOAEs exhibited slow oscillations in frequency and level, which persisted for up to 120 seconds. “Strikingly, the effect of the low-frequency stimulus on the cochlea persists for longer than the duration of the stimulus itself,” Drexl points out. Further experiments will probe the possibility that this phenomenon may be linked to noise-induced auditory damage, one of the most common causes of hearing impairment in industrialized countries.


Afghan opium levels hit record high

In this photograph taken on April 27, 2014 poppy seedheads stand amidst the blooming flowers in a field on the outskirts of Kandahar
Years of opium poppy eradication efforts have failed

Cultivation of opium poppies in Afghanistan has hit new records this year as Nato pulls out combat troops.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said opium production was up by 17% since last year.

Its Afghan Opium Survey 2014 said the area under poppy cultivation had risen by 7% to cover 224,000 hectares.

UNODC head Yury Fedotov warned there was a serious risk Afghanistan could become a narco-state, following the withdrawal of foreign forces.

Most poppies are still grown in southern Helmand province, where British troops were stationed until October.


The annual survey says the eradication of poppies has decreased by 63%.

Most of the opium poppies are grown in the south and west of Afghanistan, including its most insecure provinces, such as Helmand.

One of the reasons British troops were sent to Helmand was to help cut opium production.

Billions of dollars have been spent trying to eradicate opium poppies in Afghanistan since US-led troops ousted the Taliban in 2001.

In October the US government watchdog for Afghan reconstruction said the US had spent $7.6bn (£4.72bn) over 13 years trying to eradicate the plant.

Despite those efforts the report predicted further increases in cultivation.

The UN valued the Afghan opium crop at nearly $3bn (£1.86bn) in 2013, up 50% from 2012.

Cultivation has been rising yearly since 2010. Afghanistan currently produces more than 80% of the world’s opium.

Often go to bed late? It could leave you with a chronic sleep disorder

  • Niamh Spence, 23, from Manchester, has survived on little sleep for 4 years
  • Now doesn’t feel tired before 3am and she can’t sleep before 3.30am
  • She is one of an increasing number of people suffering from DSPS
  • Long-standing sleep deprivation is associated with increased heart rate, blood pressure and higher levels of chemicals linked with inflammation

When her alarm goes off at 7am, Niamh Spence aches so much that she wonders momentarily if she is ill. At best, she will have had four hours’ sleep, but usually it’s nearer three.

Niamh, 23, has survived on this little sleep for the past four years. As a child and teenager, she got at least eight hours’ sleep a night. But her sleep patterns shifted at university when juggling two waitressing jobs, as she’d start her university work after coming home at midnight.

Now she doesn’t feel tired before 3am and she can’t sleep before 3.30am.


Niamh has survived on this little sleep for the past four years

Niamh has survived on this little sleep for the past four years

‘No matter what I do, I can’t change my body clock back,’ says Niamh, who lives in Manchester.

Every so often she tries sleeping from 11pm, but ends up tossing and turning for two hours, before giving up to do some work on her laptop instead.

So, normally, she doesn’t bother trying to sleep before 3am. She stays up doing laundry, cleaning or working until she’s tired, despite having to be at work by 9.30am. ‘I take work home and if I’m not asleep, I’ll reply to emails and check news feeds on my phone. It’s as if I can’t switch off.’

What it means for sufferers is that their natural sleep patterns are pushed back – so they don’t feel sleepy until the early hours of the next morning. However, unlike insomniacs, once they do fall asleep, they sleep well.

Yet because they have problems getting to sleep at a decent time they can become chronically sleep deprived, so their physical and mental health can suffer as a result.

She is one of an increasing number of people suffering from delayed sleep phase syndrome

She is one of an increasing number of people suffering from delayed sleep phase syndrome

‘Delayed sleep phase syndrome is an extreme version of being a night owl – someone who sleeps late and gets up late – and it became a recognised condition in the Eighties,’ says sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley.

‘It could be genetic, behaviour you’ve learned from your parents or that you’ve slipped into from going to bed later than normal and your body has got used to it. This can happen over up to three months.’

Research suggest about 0.15 per cent of the population – 96,000 Britons – suffer from the disorder yet this may be the tip of the iceberg, says Dr Stanley, who runs The Sleep Consultancy.

He says that the number of sufferers is probably rising thanks to a stressful work culture and increased use of technology, with the light emitted by devices such as TV, computers and mobile phones confusing the body clock.

‘People suffer in silence,’ he says. ‘We don’t go to our GP with sleep problems and, if we did, most of our GPs don’t know enough about sleep illnesses to make an accurate diagnosis. Most GPs will never have heard of delayed sleep phase syndrome and might misdiagnose it as depression.’

When you sleep and how long you sleep for is not a problem unless it affects your daytime behaviour, says Dr Stanley.

‘If you’re at university and you go to bed at 3am and get up at 10am, yet you still attend all your lectures, it’s not a problem, but because of our nine-to-five society it is a problem for anyone who has to be at work at 9am.’

People with this problem will go to bed at least two or three hours later than most people and so often end up chronically tired.

Niamh has tried various remedies to help her drop off earlier, including lavender oils (lavender may help to lower the heart rate and blood pressure, aiding relaxation), drinking warm milk (which contains tryptophan, an amino acid that helps produce the sleep-inducing chemicals serotonin and melatonin) and chamomile tea (thought to work as a mild tranquiliser). But nothing has helped.

‘My lack of sleep has affected my health,’ she says. ‘I’m run down and get ill more often now. It takes weeks to shake off a cold or a bug.

‘I look tired most of the time. I have dark circles under my eyes, and I’m getting paler through lack of sleep.

‘My social life has been affected because I’m so shattered physically. There are times I feel I can’t take on any more – it’s hard to cope on so little sleep.’

 I look tired most of the time. I have dark circles under my eyes, and I’m getting paler through lack of sleep

Long-standing sleep deprivation is associated with increased heart rate, blood pressure and higher levels of chemicals linked with inflammation, which may put extra strain on the heart.

It has been suggested that missing out on deep sleep may also change the way the body processes glucose, the high-energy carbohydrate that cells use for fuel, leading to type 2 diabetes. But that’s not the only risk to those with delayed sleep phase syndrome, says Dr Stanley.

‘If you’ve been awake for 16 hours, your performance driving a car can be as impaired as if you’re over the drink-driving limit because without sleep, your brain is like a battery that has run out of charge, so judgment will be poor.’

Little sleep also means that the body hasn’t had the repair and renewal process that takes place through the night.

This affects concentration and mood by destroying the balance of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) and hormones. Skin loses its tone, giving dark circles and bags under the eyes.

‘It can make people gain weight because lack of sleep affects appetite hormones,’ says Dr Stanley. ‘This puts them at higher risk of diabetes and heart disease. Lack of sleep also weakens the immune system, so people get ill more often.’

The CIRCADIAN rhythm, the natural cycle that guides when we fall asleep and wake up, is governed by light. One thing that can muddle sleeping patterns is that artificial light at night can signal to the brain that it needs to stay awake.

Dr Stanley says blue wavelengths – given out by televisions, computers, tablets, mobile phones and laptops – can also cause problems, as the eye (and therefore the brain) responds to this light as a signal of daylight.

People with delayed sleep phase syndrome should avoid technology and bright light

People with delayed sleep phase syndrome should avoid technology and bright light

Light plays a key role in the production of melatonin, the so-called sleep hormone, produced by the pineal gland in the brain.

Our melatonin levels vary in 24-hour cycles and they’re controlled by our body clock. Normally, melatonin levels increase at night to ensure we sleep and they’re reduced in bright light to ensure we are alert.

Dr Stanley says that people with delayed sleep phase syndrome should avoid technology and bright light and use only a dim light for an hour before bed. ‘They should also try shifting their bedtime by 15 minutes at a time gradually to train themselves to sleep at a normal time.’

He believes a 10,000 lux blue light box used on waking for 30 minutes can help too by encouraging wakefulness in the morning. These are about the size of an iPad, with several high-powered blue LED lightbulbs instead of a screen.

‘This gives the brain the signal it is day time. Once you’re used to this box, you can experiment with waking up a bit earlier to try to shift your sleep pattern.’

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, a London-based sleep and energy coach and author of Tired But Wired, says finding ways to tackle stress can also help. Stress causes production of adrenaline, the hormone that prepares the body for a fight or flight response and keeps us alert.

Signs to watch out for

Feeling tired later and later at night, with bedtime shifting to the early hours.

UNLIKE with insomnia, you sleep well once you drift off.

Struggling when you get up at a normal time.

Feeling sleepy through the day.

Suffering from low mood, exhaustion and poor concentration.

‘We’re in a state of high alert all the time, especially if we sleep with our phones switched on and on our pillow,’ says Dr Ramlakhan. ‘The brain is almost over-wired. It’s getting harder to calm the brain down and get into deep levels of sleep.’

She believes that getting the body clock into the right rhythm starts with breakfast. ‘Eating well, including having a good breakfast, keeps the blood sugar levels stable and gives us the resources to make melatonin.’ However, many sufferers often skip breakfast either because they’re too tired or are running late, and opt for a shot of caffeine instead.

‘I’m not hungry in the morning,’ says Niamh. ‘Caffeine is my reassurance that my body can get me through the next 19 hours. I have three or four lattes and four cans of Diet Coke a day.’

Because caffeine increases heart rate, a safe limit is around 400mg daily, but Niamh, a senior account executive for a public relations company, has up to 760mg. But she says it is the only thing keeping her going. ‘I think I’m stuck in this pattern.’

Long-standing sleep deprivation is associated with increased heart rate and blood pressure

Long-standing sleep deprivation is associated with increased heart rate and blood pressure

Dr Ramlakhan also advises making ‘to do’ lists before bed to get the day’s pressures out of your head and onto paper, and calm the mind with yoga or meditation.

10,000 lux light boxes such as the Sad Light Therapy Daylight Sunlight Box Lamp, £69.99, are available from Tesco.com and Amazon.

Gadgets to help you drift off without pills

Many of us think we get less sleep than we do, and it’s worrying about it that causes problems, says Professor Jim Horne of the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University. Talking therapies can help, but what about gadgets that promise to help you sleep? Here, he gives his verdict.

UK team’s data bonanza from comet

UK Researchers received “rich” data from the Philae lander just before its power died.


LanderScientists peer through the glass at a monitor (below) showing Philae’s dwindling power levels
Philae dies

Scientists say they detected what might be complex carbon compounds on the surface of the comet the craft landed on two weeks ago.

The results are from the Ptolemy instrument, which is a miniaturised on-board laboratory.

The detection of carbon supports a view that comets may have brought key chemicals to Earth to kick-start life.

“Start Quote

Now we have some data and it’s: Wow! This is what scientists do this stuff for”

Prof Ian WrightOpen University

The team leader, Prof Ian Wright, told BBC News: “We can say with absolute certainty that we saw a very large signal of what are basically organic (carbon) compounds.

“There is a rich signal there. It is not simple. It is not like there are two compounds; there are clearly a lot of things there – a lot of peaks. Sometimes a complicated compound can give a lot of peaks.”

The “peaks” refer to the graph produced by the Ptolemy instrument of the different molecules it detected. The result is in line with initial observations made by a similar German-led instrument on Philae.

In an exclusive interview with BBC News, Prof Wright explained that Ptolemy had gathered huge amounts of scientific data. Normally a quiet, understated man, he was marginally better at containing his enthusiasm than his co-worker and wife, Prof Monica Grady, whojumped for and then wept with joy and relief when Philae landed.

Prof Wright told me: “I am as excited now as I was a couple of weeks ago. It’s tremendous!”

Ptolemy team
Tense moments as the Ptolemy team waits to see how much of data will be streamed back from Philae

“For years, I’ve been giving public lectures about what we plan to do. Now we have some data and it’s: Wow! This is what scientists do this stuff for.”

Much of the data gathered by Ptolemy was collected on the fly. Shortly after the Rosetta spacecraft was activated in January, Prof Wright and his team saw the opportunity to analyse the comet’s tail as the spacecraft approached.

“It is not something we had planned to do, but it became obvious that it was something we could do.”

The early data suggests that the composition of the gases changed as the spacecraft got closer to the comet.

Prof Wright also explained that Philae’s bouncy landing suited his experiment. Among Ptolemy’s capabilities is the ability to analyse gases and particles around it, and so it was pre-programmed to sniff its environment shortly after landing.

Pictures from Rosetta show that the first landing created a dust cloud, providing Ptolemy with a feast of data.

An heroic demise for the little lander. With its last ounce of strength, Philae sent back precious data

But Philae’s bouncy landing and eventual resting place in the shade meant that it would not be able to recharge its solar powered batteries. The Ptolemy team had a few hours to rethink its scientific programme and upload a much curtailed set of experiments to the instrument.

Fuelled by the drama of the landing, and feeling the weight of history on their shoulders, all the various Philae instrument teams spent the night feverishly working to make the best use of the precious few days of operating life that the lander had left.

The hardest moment for the Philae team was having to abandon plans to analyse material drilled from underneath the comet’s surface. Overall, programme managers deemed that there was only sufficient battery power to drill for one sample, rather than two as was originally planned. A collective decision was therefore made that any sample should be analysed by the German-led COSAC instrument – not Ptolemy.

67P Comet
Philae should tell us what comets are made from, and what happened at the dawn of the Solar System

It is unclear whether the drill successfully managed to get a sample to COSAC.

But mission planners did grant the UK team Philae’s last ounce of strength to operate Ptolemy’s oven, to heat up all the debris that had collected inside the instrument to 200C and analyse the gases that came off.

Prof Wright confirms that this experiment was successfully carried out and that the results could give an indication of the composition of the carbon and nitrogen on the comet. These results may in turn help piece together what happened in the early years of the Solar System when the planets were forming.

The team wishes that Ptolemy could have carried out its full mission, but Prof Wright says the group is delighted with the results it has obtained. It also has the optimistic possibility of Philae coming back to life in the weeks ahead as the comet moves closer to the Sun and lighting conditions improve at the landing site.

“If you ask me whether we have done all we could have done, the answer is ‘no’. But I remain optimistic that the thing may come back to life and we will get the chance to do those things,” he said.

Risk from extreme weather rises


The UK is comparatively resilient to extreme events – but vulnerable because of high population density

Climate change and population growth will hugely increase the risk to people from extreme weather, a report says.

The Royal Society warns that the risk of heatwaves to an ageing population will rise about ten-fold by 2090 if greenhouse gases continue to rise.

They estimate the risk to individuals from floods will rise more than four-fold and the drought risk will treble.

The report’s lead author Prof Georgina Mace said: “This problem is not just about to come… it’s here already.”

She told BBC News: “We have to get the mindset that with climate change and population increase we are living in an ever-changing world – and we need much better planning if we hope to cope.”

The report says governments have not grasped the risk of booming populations in coastal cities as sea level rises and extreme events become more severe.

“People are increasingly living in the wrong places, and it’s likely that extreme events will be more common,” Prof Mace says.

“For most hazards, population increase contributes at least as much as climate change – sometimes more. We are making ourselves more vulnerable whilst making the climate more extreme.

“It is impossible for us to avoid the worst and most unexpected events. But it is not impossible to be prepared for an ever-changing world. We must organise ourselves right away.”

The report’s team said the UK was comparatively resilient to extreme events – but still vulnerable because of the high density of people living in areas at risk.

Floods in Jakarta
The report says governments have not grasped the risk of booming populations in coastal cities

The report advises all levels of society to prepare – from strategic planning at an international and national level to local schemes by citizens to tackle floods or heatwaves.

Its scenarios are based on the assumption that the world stays on the current trajectory of emissions, which the authors assume will increase temperature by 2.6-4.8C around 2090. It assumes a population of nine billion.

They say they have built upon earlier work by calculating the effects of climate change coupled with population trends. They warn that the effects of extremes will be exacerbated by the increase in elderly people, who are least able to cope with hot weather.

Urbanisation will make the issue worse by creating “heat islands” where roads and buildings absorb heat from the sun. As well as building homes insulated against the cold, we must also ensure they can be properly ventilated in the summer, the report says.

The authors say cutting greenhouse gas emissions is essential. But they argue that governments will also need to adapt to future climatic shifts driven by climate change.

They suggest threats could be tackled through a dual approach. The simplest and cheapest way of tempering heatwaves, they say, is to maintain existing green space. Other low-cost options are planting new trees, encouraging green roofs, or painting roofs white to reflect the sun.

The authors say air conditioners are the most effective way of keeping cool – but they are costly, they dump heat into city streets and their use exacerbates climate change.

Flooding is another priority area, the report says. It finds that large-scale engineering solutions like sea walls offer the most effective protection to coastal flooding – but they are expensive, and when they fail the results can be disastrous.

London skyline shimmers in heat
Urbanisation creates heat islands which can exacerbate the effects of hot weather

The ideal solution, the authors think, may be a combination of “hard” engineering solutions like dykes matched with “soft” solutions like protecting wetlands to hold water and allow it to seep into the ground.

A scheme at Pickering in Yorkshire previously featured by BBC News is held as an example. The report concludes more research is needed to measure the effectiveness of these ecosystem solutions.

It insists that governments should carefully prioritise their spending. They should protect major infrastructure like electricity generation because of its knock-on effect on the broader economy. They should expect some lower-priority defences to fail from time to time, then work to minimise the consequences of that failure .

The authors identify excess heat as another potential threat to economies and agriculture if temperatures climb too high for outdoor workers.

They examine projected rises in the “wet bulb” index used by the US Army and others to measure the temperature felt when the skin is wet and exposed to moving air.

Some areas may experience many weeks when outdoor activity is heavily restricted, they fear – although the trend of agricultural labour loss may be offset through the century as more and more people move to cities.

It puts a figure on those at greatest overall risk: populations in poor countries make up only 11% of those exposed to hazards but account for 53% of the disaster deaths.

Some economists argue this shows that poor nations should increase their economies by burning cheap fossil fuels because that will allow them to spend more later on disaster protection.

The authors also call for reform of the financial system to take into account the exposure of assets to extreme events.

They say: “Unless risks are accurately evaluated and reported, companies will have limited incentives to reduce them. And valuations and investment decisions will continue to be poorly informed.”

One author, Rowan Douglas, from the Willis Research Network, said he suspected this might be the most significant contribution of the report.

The authors want organisations to report their maximum probable losses due to extreme events, based on a 1% chance of the event on any given year.

“The 1% stress test is not as extreme as it might sound – it implies a 10% chance of an organization being affected once a decade,” they say.

They say decisions made over the next few decades as the world builds vast urban areas will be key to the resilience of people by the end of the century.

How I drank urine and bat blood to survive

 Mauro Prosperi in the desert

Mauro Prosperi was 39 years old when he took part in the 1994 Marathon des Sables – a six-day, 250km (155-mile) race through the Sahara described as the toughest race of its kind. Following a sandstorm, the former Olympic pentathlete was lost in the desert for 10 days. Here he tells his story.

What I like most about running extreme marathons is the fact that you come into close contact with nature – the races take place in beautiful settings such as mountains, deserts, glaciers. As a professional athlete I hadn’t been able to enjoy these surroundings because I was so focused on winning medals.

I found out about the Marathon des Sables by chance. I had already retired from the pentathlon when a good friend said to me: “There’s this amazing marathon in the desert – but it’s very tough.” I love a challenge so I started training immediately, running 40km (25 miles) a day, reducing the amount of water I was drinking to get used to dehydration. I was never home.

My wife, Cinzia, thought I was insane – the race is so risky that you have to sign a form to say where you want your body to be sent in case you die. We had three children under the age of eight, so she was worried. I tried to reassure her. “The worst that can happen is that I get a bit sunburned,” I said.

When I arrived in Morocco, I discovered a marvellous thing – the desert. I was bewitched.

Mauro Prosperi and a fellow runner in the 1994 Marathon des Sables
Prosperi runs with fellow Italian Mario Malerba in the 1994 Marathon des Sables

These days the Marathon des Sables is a very different experience, with up to 1,300 participants it’s like a giant snake – you couldn’t get lost if you tried. But back in 1994 there were only 80 of us, and very few who were actually running, so most of the time I was on my own.

I was always the first Italian to reach the next stage and I’d put up a flag on my tent so that we could all get together in the evenings. It was fun.

Things went wrong on the fourth day, during the longest and most difficult stage of the race.

When we set out that morning there was already quite a bit of wind. I had passed through four checkpoints when I entered an area of sand dunes. I was alone – the pacemakers had gone ahead.

Mauro Prosperi and some fellow desert marathoners
The camaraderie of desert running

Suddenly a very violent sandstorm began. The wind kicked in with a terrifying fury. I was swallowed by a yellow wall of sand. I was blinded, I couldn’t breathe. The sand whipped my face – it was like a storm of needles. I understood for the first time how powerful a sandstorm could be. I turned my back on the wind and wrapped a scarf around my face to stop the sand from wounding me. I wasn’t disoriented, but I had to keep moving to keep from getting buried. Eventually I crouched down in a sheltered spot, waiting for the storm to end.

It lasted eight hours. When the wind died down it was dark, so I slept out on the dunes. I was upset about the race because, until then, I had been in fourth place. I thought: “Oh well, I can’t win now but I can still make good time. Tomorrow morning I’ll get up really early and try to reach the finish.” You have 36 hours to run that stage of the race – any longer and you are disqualified – so there was still a chance. What I couldn’t have imagined was how dramatically that storm would change everything around me.

Marathon des Sables competitors battle a sandstorm in 2006
Marathon des Sables competitors battle a sandstorm in 2006

I woke up very early to a transformed landscape. I didn’t know I was lost. I had a compass and a map so I thought I could navigate perfectly well, but without points of reference it’s a lot more complicated.

I wasn’t worried because I was sure that sooner or later I’d meet someone. “Who knows how many others are in the same situation?” I thought. “As soon as I see someone we can team up and get to the finish together.” That was my plan, but unfortunately it didn’t work out.

Marathon des sables runners snake across the sands in 2009
Marathon des Sables runners snake across the sands in 2009 – it attracts more than 1000 people a year

After running for about four hours I climbed up a dune and still couldn’t see anything. That’s when I knew I had a big problem. I started to walk – what was the point of running? Running where?

When I realised I was lost, the first thing I did was to urinate in my spare water bottle, because when you’re still well-hydrated your urine is the clearest and the most drinkable. I remembered my grandfather telling me how, during the war, he and his fellow soldiers had drunk their own urine when their water ran out. I did it as a precaution, but I wasn’t desperate. I was sure the organisers would find me soon.

When running the Marathon des Sables you have to be self-sufficient, and I was well-prepared: I had a knife, a compass, sleeping bag and plenty of dehydrated food in my backpack. The problem was water. We were given fresh water at the checkpoints, but when the storm hit I only had half a bottle of water left. I drank it as slowly as I could.

I’m very resistant to heat and I was very careful. I would only walk when it was cool, early in the morning and then again in the evening. During the day, when I wasn’t walking, I’d try to find shelter and shade. I was wearing two hats – a baseball cap with a red woollen hat on top – to keep the temperature as constant as possible. Luckily my skin is quite dark so I didn’t really suffer from sunburn.

A map showing the 1994 Marathon des Sables route
Prosperi’s map of the 1994 Marathon des Sables

On the second day, at sunset, I heard the sound of a helicopter coming towards me. I assumed it was looking for me so I took out my flare and shot it in the air, but he didn’t see it. It was flying so low that I could see the pilot’s helmet, but he didn’t see me – he flew right past.

The helicopter, on loan from the Moroccan police, was returning to base to refuel. Since 1995, because of my experience, runners have been equipped with the kind of flares they use at sea – which they’re not happy about, because they weigh 500g – but at the time the flares we had were really small, no bigger than a pen.

Nevertheless I remained calm, because I was convinced the organisers would have the resources to find anyone lost in the desert. I still thought I would be rescued sooner or later.

The Marabout - a Muslim shrine and holy man's tomb - where Mauro Prosperi stayed during his ordeal
The holy man’s tomb that almost became Prosperi’s tomb

After a couple of days I came across a marabout – a Muslim shrine – where Bedouins stop when they are crossing the desert. I was hoping it was inhabited, but unfortunately there was nobody there – only a holy man in a coffin. But at least I had a roof over my head, it was like being home. I assessed my situation: it wasn’t rosy, but I was feeling all right physically. I ate some of my rations, which I cooked with fresh urine, not the bottled urine that I was saving to drink – I started to drink that on the fourth day.

The marabout had filled up with sand from all the sandstorms, so the ceiling was very low. I went up to the roof to plant my Italian flag, in the hope that anybody looking for me could see it. While I was up there I saw some bats, huddled together in the tower. I decided to drink their blood. I grabbed a handful of bats, cut their heads and mushed up their insides with a knife, then sucked them out. I ate at least 20 of them, raw – I only did what they do to their prey.

I stayed in the marabout for a few days, waiting to be found.

I gave in to despair only twice. Once was when I saw the helicopter and it didn’t see me. The other time was when I saw the aeroplane.

I had been in the marabout for three days when I heard the sound of a motor – an aeroplane. I don’t know if it was looking for me, but I immediately started a fire with whatever I had – my rucksack, everything – in the hope the plane would see the smoke. But just then another sandstorm hit. It lasted for 12 hours. The aeroplane didn’t spot me.

I felt it was my very last chance to be found. I was very depressed. I was convinced I was going to die and that it was going to be a long agonising death, so I wanted to accelerate it. I thought if I died out in the desert no-one would find me, and my wife wouldn’t get the police pension – in Italy, if someone goes missing you have to wait 10 years before they can be declared dead. At least if I died in this Muslim shrine they would find my body, and my wife would have an income.

Mauro Prosperi was part of the mounted police
Prosperi worked for the mounted police in Sicily

I wasn’t afraid of dying and my decision to take my own life came out of logical reasoning rather than despair. I wrote a note to my wife with a piece of charcoal and then cut my wrists. I lay down and waited to die, but my blood had thickened and wouldn’t drain.

The following morning I woke up. I hadn’t managed to kill myself. Death didn’t want me yet.

I took it as a sign. I regained confidence and I decided to see it as a new competition against myself. I became determined and focused again. I was thinking of my children. I put myself in order – Mauro the athlete was back. I needed to have a plan. I still had quite a lot of energy left, I wasn’t tired. As a former pentathlete I was used to training 12 hours a day and I had trained well for the Marathon des Sables so I didn’t feel too weak. I still had some energy tablets, too.

Prosperi started near Foum Zguid and was found in Tindouf 300km from the finishing line in Zagora - the Marathon des sables route changes every year
Prosperi started near Foum Zguid and was found in Tindouf 300km from the finishing line in Zagora

I regained my strength and mental lucidity. I decided to get out of the shrine and start walking again, but where to? I followed the advice the Tuareg had given us all before we started the race: “If you’re lost, head for the clouds that you can see on the horizon at dawn, that’s where you will find life. During the day they will disappear but set your compass and carry on in that direction.” So I decided to head for those mythical clouds on the horizon.

I walked in the desert for days, killing snakes and lizards and eating them raw – that way I drank, too. I think there are some instincts, a kind of deja vu, that kick in in an emergency situation: my inner caveman emerged.

I was aware that I was losing an incredible amount of weight – the more I walked, the looser my watch felt on my wrist. I was so dehydrated I couldn’t urinate anymore. Luckily I had some anti-diarrhoea medicine which I kept taking.


Surviving in the desert

  • Without water, death occurs after about three days in the desert as the body dries out quickly – at sea people can survive six to seven days
  • Drink nothing for the first 24 hours to put your body into survival mode
  • Drinking urine is not recommended, it contains salt and urea so will actually dehydrate you further – seawater is even worse
  • Digesting protein uses more water than other foods so is best avoided
  • Drinking blood may help as it is easy to digest and may conserve body water – survivors at sea have drunk turtle blood
  • Source: The Essentials of Sea Survival by F Golden and M Tipton (2002)

I wanted to see my family and friends again and I concentrated on that. I wasn’t afraid. At the same time, I started to view the desert as a place where people can live. I could see the beauty of the desert. I paid careful attention to every trace – even dried excrement gave me clues about what direction to go in.

“Start Quote

I started to think of myself as a man of the desert”

Mauro ProsperiDesert survivor

I learned that there is food all around you, if you learn to look. As I was walking through the desert I recognised dried riverbeds where succulents grew, so I squeezed their juice out and drank that.

I started to think of myself as a man of the desert. Later, a Tuareg prince dedicated a poem to me – according to him I was a “chosen one” because I survived for so long in the desert.

Meanwhile, the organisers were out looking for me. My brother and brother-in-law had flown in from Italy to join the search. They found some of the traces I had left behind, like my shoelaces. They got to the marabout and found signs of me. But they were sure they were looking for a body.

On the eighth day I came across a little oasis. I lay down and drank, sipping slowly, for about six or seven hours. I saw a footprint in the sand, so I knew people couldn’t be far.

The next day, I saw some goats in the distance – it gave me hope.

A Tuareg man on his camel during the annual festival of Assihar in Tamanrasset, Algeria

The song of the Tuareg

Singing springs under the palms of the green oasis, listen to the call of the Tuareg in the night, in the calm/ At the pace of my pale camel I go, I travel without destination/ The desert is a world, a land of thirst and hunger/ The immense dunes stretch out, like an ocean of misfortune, from the waves of stirring sands.

Excerpt from a poem dedicated to Mauro Prosperi by a Tuareg prince


Then I saw a young shepherd girl. She saw me too and ran away, scared. After nine days in the desert I must have looked quite a sight, I was black with dirt. The girl ran towards a large Berber tent to warn the women I was coming. There were no men in the camp – they had gone to market – but the women took care of me. They were so kind. An older woman came out of the tent and immediately gave me some goat’s milk to drink. She tried to give me some food as well, but I threw it up. They wouldn’t allow me into the tent because I was a man, but they put me on a carpet in the shade of their veranda. Then they sent someone to call the police – they like to camp close to military bases for protection.

A visibly thin Mauro Prosperi returns to a hero's welcome in Italy
A visibly thin Prosperi returns to a hero’s welcome in Italy

The police came and carried me to their Jeep. They took me to their military base, blindfolded, because they didn’t know who I was. They thought I might be dangerous. They had guns and I thought at times that they were going to kill me. When they found out I was the marathon runner who had got lost in Morocco they took off my blindfold and celebrated. I discovered that I had crossed the border into Algeria. I was 291km (181 miles) off course.

Prosperi has run the Marathon des Sables seven times: in 2001 he came 12th

They took me to hospital in Tindouf, where finally, after 10 days, I was able to call my wife. The first thing I said to her was: “Have you already had my funeral?” Because after 10 days lost in the desert you would expect someone to be dead.

When they weighed me in the hospital I had lost 16kg (35lb) – I weighed just 45kg (99lb). My eyes had suffered and my liver was damaged, but my kidneys were fine. I couldn’t eat anything other than soup or liquids for months. It took me almost two years to recover.

Mauro Prosperi has run many desert races
Prosperi plans to run a 7000km race across the Sahara next year

Four years later I was back at the Marathon des Sables. People ask me why I went back, but when I start something I want to finish it. The other reason was that I can’t live without the desert. Desert fever does exist, and it’s a disease that I’ve absolutely caught. I’m drawn back to the desert every year to greet it, to experience it.

I ran eight more desert marathons and am now preparing for my biggest yet. Next year I’m planning to run 7,000km (4,350 miles) coast-to-coastacross the Sahara from Agadir (Morocco) on the Atlantic Ocean to Hurghada (Egypt) on the Red Sea. Sport and nature are part of my life, and these races allow me to experience them first-hand.

My wife was a saint. She coped with me for many years but at a certain point, because of my lifestyle, we decided to split up. We are still best friends, maybe more so now than when we were married. I have a new partner but she knows I am a man on a mission. I can’t change.

Mauro Prosperi will be 60 next year but is still running


‘New era for off-world manufacturing’: NASA prints first 3D object in space

In a historic move, the International Space Station’s (ISS) NASA-installed 3D printer has manufactured its first object – a replacement part for itself.

NASA’s Zero-G printer, which is designed to operate in zero gravity, was developed in collaboration with Made In Space – a California-based startup – with the aim of eventually being able to manufacture all replacement parts needed in space, instead of having to have spare parts delivered by rocket from Earth.

“This first print is the initial step toward providing an on-demand machine shop capability away from Earth,” Niki Werkheiser, NASA project manager for the ISS 3D printer, said in a press release.

   Screenshot from YouTube user ReelNASA

Werkheiser explained that if the technology proves successful after further testing, scientists will soon be able to email hardware to space.

Proponents are excited about the burgeoning potential of printing in space, and claim that it marks a historical shift in how scientists and astronauts will approach space travel, explaining that the development could improve the feasibility of traveling to Mars or beyond, by ushering in “the era of off-world manufacturing,” as the Made in Space website puts it.

“It represents the idea that if something goes wrong on the space station, or future space stations, the crew and NASA now have the ability to build a solution,” Made in Space CEO Aaron Kemmer told Space.com.

“It’s a huge milestone, not only for Made In Space and NASA, but for humanity as a whole,” he added.

The printer was installed earlier this month by astronaut Butch Wilmore, after being delivered to the station by the SpaceX dragon capsule – a robotic freight carrier – in September.


Screenshot from YouTube user ReelNASA

Teams from NASA and Made In Space are currently analyzing the printed part’s functionality, and are hoping to incorporate their findings into developing the next model.

The team’s next 3D printer is expected to be delivered to the space station in early 2015.

New Study Finds Gut Bacteria Can Cause Heart Attacks and Stroke.

Heart Disease: The Silent Killer

Heart disease remains the number one killer in America. Nowadays, after several studies and research we know how to reduce cholesterol, treat blood pressure, and reduce cardiac risks through diet, exercise, and other interventions, but missing data still remains on how to attack heart disease. Scientists search to solve the mystery and get answers as to why thousands of heart attack victims each year have none of the common risk factors before their emergency incident.

New Study Finds Gut Bacteria Can Cause Heart Attacks & Stroke.

The Role of Lecithin in Heart Disease:

According to a recent study from Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute, a microbial byproduct of gut bacteria contributes to heart disease and may be used as a valuable tool for predicting the risk of heart attacks, stroke, and even death. This study recently released found that foods containing lecithin- such as eggs (especially egg yolk), dairy products, meats, soy products, and wheat germ – are converted into chemical compounds known as Trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) by gut bacteria. TMAO is an artery-clogging compound that affects the metabolism of cholesterol.

The new study builds on a 2011 Cleveland Clinic discovery that also reports people with high levels of TMAO are more likely to have heart disease. To see whether TMAO predicts cardiovascular events, researchers analyzed levels of TMAO in 4,007 heart patients. After accounting for common risk factors such as age and past heart attack history, they found that high levels of TMAO were predictive of heart attack, stroke, and death over the three years that the patients were followed.

Previously, the Cleveland Clinic had also reported that gut bacteria can transform carnitine, a nutrient found in red meats and dairy products, into TMAO. Based on their research, vegetarians produced much less TMAO, suggesting that avoiding animal products may help reduce gut bacteria that turns into TMAO.

More studies are still needed to confirm that TMAO testing, like lipid panel testing or glucose levels, might reliably predict cardiovascular risks. For now, the goal is to simply make public aware that research shows consumption of eggs, meat, and other animal products when digested by gut flora can generate TMAO and may contribute to higher risks of cardiovascular disease.

Cleveland Clinic. “New Link Between Common Fat, Gut Bacteria and Heart Disease Discovered.” http://bit.ly/116qoLt
Huffington Post. “Gut Bacteria Implicated In Heart Attacks, Stroke.” http://huff.to/13vqwSc

1.2 million Afghan children severely malnourished

A United Nations humanitarian coordinator says around 1.2 million children in Afghanistan are acutely malnourished, with half a million of those suffering from poor nutrition under the age of five.

The UN Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan Mark Bowden stated on Wednesday that food insecurity affects nearly eight million people in the war-wrecked Asian country, and the presence of 225,000 refugees who have fled the Pakistani army’s operations against militant hideouts in a northwestern tribal region near the border with Afghanistan has exacerbated the humanitarian problems.

Bowden also appealed for USD 405 million to cover the humanitarian needs of the people in Afghanistan in 2015.

According to the data collected by the Afghan government and UN in June, 55 percent of Afghan children are suffering irreversible complications of severe malnutrition.

The majority of Afghans cannot afford even a minimally healthy diet, and in some provinces only one in five could afford regular balanced meals, another UN study suggests.

Severe cases of malnutrition have been reported in the provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Konar, Farah, Paktia and Paktika — all places where the US-led war has wrecked people’s lives and pushed the poor over the nutritional edge.

Medical sources and aid workers have mainly blamed continuing war and refugee displacement for the hunger crisis.

Meanwhile, human rights activists have raised alarm over the plight of child workers in Afghanistan, noting that most of these youngsters are facing rising levels of violence and sexual abuse.

The United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan in 2001 as part of Washington’s so-called war on terror. The offensive removed the Taliban from power, but insecurity remains across the country despite the presence of thousands of US-led troops.