. Scientific Frontline: January 2022

Monday, January 31, 2022

New study finds some flowers unchanged for 100 million years

Flower preserved in amber
Credit: The Open University
An international research team has discovered 100-million-year-old fossil flowers preserved in amber, showing that some flowers found living today in South Africa have remained unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs.

The flowers, discovered by experts from The Open University, Qingdao University, and others, are nearly identical to those of modern Phylica species, which are part of the Cape Fynbos flora that is exposed to frequent wildfires.

The fossils were found alongside long-extinct burned plants, pointing to wildfires being an important aspect of early flower evolution.

The sudden appearance of flowering plants as fossils in middle Cretaceous time was described by Charles Darwin as an “abominable mystery” and usually, flower fossils are rare, not well preserved and come from an extinct group of species.

However, this study, published in Nature Plants, found an exception – the research team found flowers, trapped in fossil ambers, that are almost identical to plants living today near Cape Town, South Africa.

Robert A. Spicer, Emeritus Professor at The Open University, described the historical context of the flowers and what the findings can tell us about the plant evolution:

“These exquisitely preserved flowers, fruits, leaves and pollen from 100 million years ago provide a snapshot of an important time in the evolution of flowering plants, showing that early flowers were not primitive as many people suppose, but were already superbly adapted to survive the frequent wildfires that ravaged the warm ‘greenhouse’ world of the Cretaceous.

Number of Earth’s tree species estimated to be 14% higher than currently known, with some 9,200 species yet to be discovered

Coniferous mixed forest, Val Saisera, Italian Julian Alps, Italy.
Image credit: Dario Di Gallo, Regional Forest Service of Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy

A new study involving more than 100 scientists from across the globe and the largest forest database yet assembled estimates that there are about 73,000 tree species on Earth, including about 9,200 species yet to be discovered.

The global estimate is about 14% higher than the current number of known tree species. Most of the undiscovered species are likely to be rare, with very low populations and limited spatial distribution, the study shows.

That makes the undiscovered species especially vulnerable to human-caused disruptions such as deforestation and climate change, according to the study authors, who say the new findings will help prioritize forest conservation efforts.

“These results highlight the vulnerability of global forest biodiversity to anthropogenic changes, particularly land use and climate, because the survival of rare taxa is disproportionately threatened by these pressures,” said University of Michigan forest ecologist Peter Reich, one of two senior authors of a paper scheduled for publication Jan. 31 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Low Volcanic Temperature Ushered in Global Cooling and the Thriving of Dinosaurs

Researchers in Japan, Sweden, and the US have unearthed evidence that low volcanic temperatures led to the fourth mass extinction, enabling dinosaurs to flourish during the Jurassic period.

Large volcanic eruptions create climatic fluctuations, ushering in evolutionary changes. Yet it is the volcanic temperature of the eruption that determines whether the climate cools or warms.

Since the emergence of early animals, five mass extinctions have taken place. The fourth mass extinction occurred at the end of the Triassic Period - roughly 201 million years ago. This mass extinction saw many marine and land animals go extinct, especially large-body, crocodilian-line reptiles known as pseudosuchia. Approximately 60-70% of animal species disappeared. As a result, small bodied dinosaurs were able to grow and prosper.

Scientists think the fourth mass extinction was triggered by the eruptions in the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province - one of the largest regions of volcanic rock. But the correlation between the eruption and mass extinction has not yet been clarified.

Understanding coral reef connectivity important to focus conservation efforts

Coral reef in Fiji.
Photo credit: Joao Paulo Krajewski

Local fisheries and their associated biodiversity benefit from the transfer of larvae between reefs, with some benefitting more than others, prompting recommendations to protect larval connectivity among coral reefs. A team of international researchers, led in part by the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) within the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, emphasize that coral reef connectivity is crucial to supporting the benefits coral reefs provide. Their study is published in Science.

Researchers identified significant gaps and opportunities for positioning marine protected areas (MPAs) and other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs) strategically on coral reefs.

The findings indicate fundamental differences in the relative importance of coral reefs’ connectivity characteristics and their role in maintaining biodiversity and supporting local fisheries. That’s according to the study’s lead author, Luisa Fontoura, a postdoctoral researcher from Macquarie University’s School of Natural Sciences in Australia and recently-graduated doctoral student and UH Mānoa faculty Elizabeth Madin.

2D materials could be used to simulate brain synapses in computers

Credit: KTH Royal Institute of Technology

With the introduction of a new component material, researchers at KTH take another step toward computers that mimic the human brain.

Researchers from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and from Stanford University have fabricated a material for components that enable the commercial viability of computers which mimic the human brain.

Electrochemical random access (ECRAM) memory components made with 2D titanium carbide showed outstanding potential for complementing classical transistor technology, and contributing toward commercialization of powerful computers that are modeled after the brain’s neural network. Such neuromorphic computers can be thousands of times more energy efficient than today’s computers.

These advances in computing are possible because of some fundamental differences from the classic computing architecture in use today, and the ECRAM, a component that acts as a sort of synaptic cell in an artificial neural network, says KTH Associate Professor Max Hamedi.

“Instead of transistors that are either on or off, and the need for information to be carried back and forth between the processor and memory—these new computers rely on components that can have multiple states, and perform in-memory computation,” Hamedi says.

Quantum leap on film

Jumping electrons: Using a combination of scanning tunneling microscopy and laser spectroscopy with attosecond pulses, Max Planck researchers have filmed electrons in PTCDA molecules arranged next to each other. The position of two molecules are made visible by graphical models. One electron at a time switches back and forth between a higher-energy state and a lower-energy state. The blue coloring stands for a low electron density and the red for a high one. The electron is initially in the energetically higher state. This can be recognized by the relatively high proportion with low electron density (blue). Excited by a laser, it then jumps back and forth between the higher-energy and lower-energy states. The lower-energy state can be recognized by the generally more even distribution of electron density (green, yellow, and orange). After about 1.4 femtoseconds (three images), the electron once again reaches the higher-energy state.
Credit:  Manish Garg / MPI for Solid State Research

An ultra-fast microscope combines atomic spatial and temporal resolution and thus enables unprecedented insights into the dynamics of electrons in molecules

In order to better understand (and possibly control) fast chemical reactions, it is necessary to study the behavior of electrons as precisely as possible – in both space and time. However, up to now, microscopy methods have delivered only either spatially or temporally sharp images. By cleverly combining established techniques of tunneling microscopy and laser spectroscopy, a team led by Klaus Kern, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart, has now overcome these obstacles. Using their atomic quantum microscope, they can make the movement of electrons in individual molecules visible.

It is essential not only for understanding biological processes (e.g. plant photosynthesis) to map the electron dynamics in molecules but also for many technical applications such as the development of solar cells or new types of electronic components. Until now, imaging methods have sometimes delivered images that are difficult to reproduce – or even contradictory. This is because they cannot map the fast electrons directly but rather must resort to techniques that can only reconstruct the behavior of the electrons.

Molecular machine in the nanocontainer

Lars Schäfer from Theoretical Chemistry examined a nanocreis with colleagues from South Korea. Credit: Ruhr University Bochum / Marquard

What a toy: A tiny gyro that has space in a cell and can be controlled from the outside.

The theoretical chemists Dr. have a molecular gyroscope that can be controlled remotely by light. Chandan Das and Prof. Dr. Lars Schäfer from the Ruhr University Bochum (RUB) constructed together with an international team at the Institute for Basic Science in South Korea. In addition, they managed to characterize the rotary movements of this synthetic nanomachine with computer simulations. The authors describe their results in the journal Chem.

Navigation of aircraft or satellites

Machines that are enclosed in a cage or housing can have interesting properties. You can convert any energy supplied into programmed functions. One such system is the mechanical gyroscope. This toy fascinates with its constant rotation. Gyroscopes are also used in practice, for example in navigation systems of aircraft or satellites and in wireless computer mice. "What makes these gyroscopes so advantageous is not only the rotor, but also the housing, which aligns the rotor in a certain direction and protects it from obstacles," says Lars Schäfer.

At the molecular level, many proteins work as biological nanomachines. They are present in every biological cell and perform precise and programmed actions or functions, also within a limited environment. The machines can be controlled by external stimuli. "In the laboratory, the synthesis and characterization of such complex structures and functions in an artificial molecular system is a major challenge," said Schäfer.

Study shows how temperate rainforests can aid the fight against climate change

Fenced livestock enclosures at the edge of oak woodland at Piles Copse where efforts are ongoing to encourage woodland expansion.
Credit: Thomas Murphy University of Plymouth

There is global recognition that woodland expansion could be one of the most effective solutions in the fight against climate change.

However, new research has shown that the level of growth needed to produce the number of trees required by UK targets is unlikely to be achieved through natural means alone.

Environmental scientists and ecologists at the University of Plymouth showed that browsing behavior by livestock is a major determinant of the expansion and connection of fragmented UK upland oak woodlands – so-called ‘temperate rainforests.

The study, focused on Dartmoor in South West England, found the presence of livestock led to far fewer oak saplings surviving. When saplings did survive, they were smaller and in poorer condition, and seldom lived beyond eight years old without protection.

Interestingly, however, disturbance by grazing livestock may not be all bad and its precise impact may depend on surrounding plant species.

Individuals with immunodeficiency at high risk of mortality following SARS-CoV-2 infection

Patients with primary and secondary immunodeficiency are at higher risk of mortality following SARS-CoV-2 infection compared with the general population, according to a new study led by the University of Birmingham.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected individuals with primary immunodeficiency (PID) and secondary immunodeficiency (SID). These conditions arise when the immune system’s ability to fight infectious disease is compromised or entirely absent as a result of genetic mutations (PID) or other factors, such as immunosuppressive drugs, blood cancers or chemotherapy (SID).

In a significant national effort, and the largest study of its kind to date, the United Kingdom Primary Immunodeficiency Network (UKPIN) collated the outcomes of individuals with PID and SID following infection and treatment for COVID-19.

This retrospective study, published in the journal Clinical & Experimental Immunology, aims to better understand the risk of severe disease and death following SARS-CoV-2 infection in patients with primary or secondary immunodeficiency. The outcomes of 310 individuals from across the United Kingdom were reported to a UKPIN case series between March 2020 and July 2021.

The team found that 45.8% of patients with PID or SID were hospitalized with COVID-19, a significantly higher rate than for the UK general population, and died up to 26 years younger than the median age of death from COVID-19 in the UK. The risk of dying in patients with primary or secondary immunodeficiency was also higher than the general population, varying between subgroups of these conditions. For example, 16.3% of individuals with primary immunodeficiency receiving immunoglobulin replacement and 27.2% with secondary immunodeficiency died from infection during the first three waves of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in the UK.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Hubble Captures Chameleon Cloud I

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, K. Luhman and T. Esplin (Pennsylvania State University), et al., and ESO; Processing: Gladys Kober (NASA/Catholic University of America)
Hi-Res Zoomable Image

This NASA Hubble Space Telescope image captures one of three segments that comprise a 65-light-year wide star-forming region named the Chamaeleon Cloud Complex. The segment in this Hubble composite image, called Chamaeleon Cloud I (Cha I), reveals dusty-dark clouds where stars are forming, dazzling reflection nebulae glowing by the light of bright-blue young stars, and radiant knots called Herbig-Haro objects.

Herbig-Haro objects are bright clumps and arcs of interstellar gas shocked and energized by jets expelled from infant “protostars” in the process of forming. The white-orange cloud at the bottom of the image hosts one of these protostars at its center. Its brilliant white jets of hot gas are ejected in narrow torrents from the protostar’s poles, creating the Herbig-Haro object HH 909A.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Modern Day Gold Rush Turns Pristine Rainforests into Heavily Polluted Mercury Sinks

Illegal gold miners use mercury to bind gold particles, then separate the two metals by burning gold-mercury pellets in open fire ovens, releasing clouds of highly toxic mercury particles into the atmosphere.
Credit – Melissa Marchese

If you had to guess which part of the world has the highest levels of atmospheric mercury pollution, you probably wouldn’t pick a patch of pristine Amazonian rainforest. Yet, that’s exactly where they are.

In a new study appearing in the journal Nature Communications, an international team of researchers show that illegal gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon is causing exceptionally high levels of atmospheric mercury pollution in the nearby Los Amigos Biological Station.

One stand of old-growth pristine forest was found to harbor the highest levels of mercury ever recorded, rivaling industrial areas where mercury is mined. Birds from this area have up to twelve times more mercury in their systems than birds from less polluted areas.

The spread of mercury pollution from gold mining has primarily been studied in aquatic systems. In this study, a team of researchers led by Jacqueline Gerson, who completed this research as part of her Ph.D. at Duke, and Emily Bernhardt, professor of Biology, provide the first measurements of terrestrial inputs, storage and impact of atmospheric mercury to forests and measurements of methylmercury, the most toxic form of mercury.

Illegal miners separate gold particles from river sediments using mercury, which binds to gold, forming pellets large enough to be caught in a sieve. Atmospheric mercury is released when these pellets are burned in open fire ovens. The high temperature separates the gold, which melts, from the mercury, which goes up in smoke. This mercury smoke ends up being washed into the soil by rainfall, deposited onto the surface of leaves, or absorbed directly into the leaves’ tissues.

Thawing permafrost can accelerate global warming

Outcrop of Yedoma sediments with the thick ice masses underlain by river sediments exposed on an arm of the Lena River in the river delta.
Credit: Janet Rethemeyer

Thawing permafrost in the Arctic could be emitting greenhouse gases from previously unaccounted-for carbon stocks, fueling global warming. That is the result of a study conducted by a team of geologists led by Professor Dr Janet Rethemeyer at the University of Cologne’s Institute of Geology and Mineralogy, together with colleagues from the University of Hamburg and the Helmholtz Centre Potsdam – GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences. In the Siberian Arctic, the research team determined the origin of carbon dioxide released from permafrost that is thousands of years old. This research endeavor is part of the German-Russian research endeavor ‘Kopf – Kohlenstoff im Permafrost’, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The paper ‘Sources of CO2 Produced in Freshly Thawed Pleistocene-Age Yedoma Permafrost’ has now appeared in Frontiers in Earth Science.

Global climate change is causing temperatures to rise sharply, especially in the Arctic. Among other things, higher temperatures are causing more and more permafrost soils, which have been frozen for thousands of years, to thaw. Particularly affected is so-called ‘yedoma’ permafrost, which is widespread in areas that were not covered by ice sheets during the last ice age. Yedoma contains up to 80 per cent ice and is therefore also called ice complex. The ground ice can thaw very abruptly, causing the bedrock to collapse and erode. Such processes, known as thermokarst, make carbon previously stored in the frozen ground accessible to microorganisms, which break it down and release it as carbon dioxide and methane. The greenhouse gas release amplifies global warming, which is known as permafrost-carbon feedback.

New species of 'incredibly rare' insect discovered

The newly discovered leafhopper Phlogis kibalensis
Credit: Dr Alvin Helden, Anglia Ruskin University 

An Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) scientist has discovered a new species that belongs to a group of insects so rare that its closest relative was last seen in 1969.

Dr Alvin Helden found the new species of leafhopper, which he has named Phlogis kibalensis, during field work with students in the rainforest of the Kibale National Park in western Uganda, and the discovery has been announced in the journal Zootaxa.

The new species, which has a distinctive metallic sheen, pitted body, and, in common with most leafhoppers, uniquely-shaped male reproductive organs – in this case partially leaf-shaped – belongs to a group, or genus, called Phlogis.

Prior to this new discovery, the last recorded sighting of a leafhopper from this rare genus was in Central African Republic in 1969.

Friday, January 28, 2022

A 3D View of an Atmospheric River

Features in Earth’s atmosphere, spawned by the heat of the Sun and the rotation of the Earth, transport water and energy around the globe. Clouds and precipitation shown here are from NASA’s MERRA-2 reanalysis, a retrospective blend of a weather model and conventional and satellite observations.

Video: NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio
Final Editing and Conversion: Scientific Frontline


Invisible machine-readable labels that identify and track objects

Caption:MIT scientists built a user interface that facilitates the integration of common tags (QR codes or ArUco markers used for augmented reality) with the object geometry to make them 3D printable as InfraredTags.
Credits: Photos courtesy of MIT CSAIL.

If you download music online, you can get accompanying information embedded into the digital file that might tell you the name of the song, its genre, the featured artists on a given track, the composer, and the producer. Similarly, if you download a digital photo, you can obtain information that may include the time, date, and location at which the picture was taken. That led Mustafa Doga Dogan to wonder whether engineers could do something similar for physical objects. “That way,” he mused, “we could inform ourselves faster and more reliably while walking around in a store or museum or library.”

The idea, at first, was a bit abstract for Dogan, a 4th-year PhD student in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. But his thinking solidified in the latter part of 2020 when he heard about a new smartphone model with a camera that utilizes the infrared (IR) range of the electromagnetic spectrum that the naked eye can’t perceive. IR light, moreover, has a unique ability to see through certain materials that are opaque to visible light. It occurred to Dogan that this feature, in particular, could be useful.

Researchers identify proteins that could predict liver transplant rejection

Northwestern University scientist have discovered families of proteins in the body that could potentially predict which patients may reject a new organ transplant, helping inform decisions about care.

The advancement marks the beginning of a new era for more precise study of proteins in specific cells.

Scientists tend to look at shifting patterns of proteins as if through goggles underwater, taking in just a fraction of available information about their unique structures. But in a new study in the journal Science, scientists took a magnifying glass to these same structures and created a clarified map of protein families. They then held the map up in front of liver transplant recipients and found new indicators in immune cell proteins that changed with rejection. The study is available online and will be published tomorrow (Jan. 28).

The result, the Blood Proteoform Atlas (BPA), outlines more than 56,000 exact protein molecules (called proteoforms) as they appear in 21 different cell types — almost 10 times more of these structures than appeared in similar previous studies.

Climate change in the Early Holocene - archaeology report

New insight into how our early ancestors dealt with major shifts in climate is revealed in research by an international team, led by Professor Rick Schulting from Oxford University’s School of Archaeology.

  • Radiocarbon dating from a prehistoric cemetery in Northern Russia reveals human stress caused by a global cooling event 8,200 years ago.
  • Early hunter gatherers developed more complex social systems and, unusually, a large cemetery when faced by climate change

Published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, the report reveals, new radiocarbon dates show the large Early Holocene cemetery of Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov, at Lake Onega, some 500 miles north of Moscow, previously thought to have been in use for many centuries, was, in fact, used for only one to two centuries. Moreover, this seems to be in response to a period of climate stress.

"The team believes the creation of the cemetery reveals a social response to the stresses caused by regional resource depression...[it] would have helped define group membership for what would have been previously dispersed bands of hunter-gatherers - mitigating potential conflict over access to the lake’s resources"

The team believes the creation of the cemetery reveals a social response to the stresses caused by regional resource depression. At a time of climate change, Lake Onega, as the second largest lake in Europe, had its own ecologically resilient microclimate. This would have attracted game, including elk, to its shores while the lake itself would have provided a productive fishery. Because of the fall in temperature, many of the region’s shallower lakes could have been susceptible to the well-known phenomenon of winter fish kills, caused by depleted oxygen levels under the ice.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Expanded University of Hawaiʻi asteroid tracking system can monitor entire sky

Left: Sutherland ATLAS station during construction in South Africa.
Credit: Willie Koorts (SAAO)
Right: Chilean engineers and astronomers installing the ATLAS telescope at El Sauce Observatory.

A state-of-the-art asteroid alert system operated by the University of Hawaiʻi Institute for Astronomy (IfA) can now scan the entire dark sky every 24 hours for dangerous bodies that could plummet toward Earth.

The NASA-funded Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) has expanded its reach to the southern hemisphere, from two existing northern-hemisphere telescopes on Haleakalā and Maunaloa. Construction is now complete and operations are underway on two additional telescopes in South Africa and Chile.

Telescope unit on Haleakalā, Maui.
Photo credit: Henry Weiland

Large Herbivores Help Rare Species Persist in a Warming Arctic

A herd of caribou in arctic Greenland. Caribou at this study site have been declining over the past several years, while muskoxen have been increasing. Such herbivores help rare plant species persist in a rapidly changing climate.
Credit: Eric Post/UC Davis

Being common is rather unusual. It’s far more common for a species to be rare, spending its existence in small densities throughout its range. How such rare species persist, particularly in an environment undergoing rapid climate change, inspired a 15-year study in arctic Greenland from the University of California, Davis.

Arctic wintergreen, a very rare species,
grows among birch and willow
shrubs near Kangerlussuaq, Greenland.
Credit: Eric Post/UC Davis
The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, found that caribou and muskoxen helped mitigate the effects of climate change on rare arctic plants, lichens and mushrooms at the study site.

The authors suggest that by constraining the abundance of the two most common plant species — dwarf birch and gray willow — large herbivores may allow other, less common species to persist rather than be shaded or outcompeted for nutrients by the woody shrub’s canopy, or suppressed by leaf litter and cooler soils.

“This is more evidence that conserving large herbivores is really important to maintaining the compositional integrity of species-poor systems like the arctic tundra,” said lead author Eric Post, director of the UC Davis Polar Forum and a professor in the UC Davis Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology.

Microbes help hibernating animals recycle nutrients, maintain muscle through winter

Like many hibernators, thirteen-lined ground squirrels retain muscle tone and healthy gut microbiomes through hibernation even though they aren’t eating or moving around. Their success at rest may help humans make long space voyages.
Credit: Rob Streiffer

To get through a long winter without food, hibernating animals — like the 13-lined ground squirrel — can slow their metabolism by as much as 99 percent, but they still need important nutrients like proteins to maintain muscles while they hibernate. A new study from the University of Wisconsin–Madison shows that hibernating ground squirrels get help from microbes in their guts.

The discovery could help people with muscle-wasting disorders and even astronauts on extended space voyages.

“The longer any animal doesn’t exercise, bones and muscles start to atrophy and lose mass and function,” says Hannah Carey, an emeritus professor in the UW–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine and co-author of the new study, published today (Jan. 27) in the journal Science. “Without any dietary protein coming in, hibernators need another way to get what their muscles need.”

One source of nitrogen, a vital building block for amino acids and proteins, accumulates in the bodies of all animals (including humans) as urea, a component of urine. The researchers knew that urea that moved into the squirrels’ digestive tract could be broken down by some gut microbes, which also need nitrogen for their own proteins. But the researchers wanted to see if some of that urea nitrogen freed up by the microbes was also being incorporated into the squirrels’ bodies.

Chemist Identifies New Way of Finding Extraterrestrial Life

SDSU researchers Chris Harrison and Jessica Torres, seen above in Harrison's lab, are using lasers and liquids to detect amino acids in extraterrestrial rocks. In the background, an image of Mars.
Source: San Diego State University

Have we been looking for extraterrestrials in all the wrong places? San Diego State University chemists are developing methods to find signs of life on other planets by looking for the building blocks of proteins in a place they've never been able to test before: inside rocks.

After collaborating with researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in La Cañada Flintridge in 2019, Jessica Torres, a doctoral student studying chemistry at SDSU, is experimenting with ways to extract amino acids from porous rocks that could be used on future rovers.

Previous research has looked for evidence of other life forms in water and soil, but not from solid materials.

Current methods for identifying amino acids can’t differentiate versions created by a living organism from those formed through random chemical reactions. And existing techniques usually require water — which would freeze or evaporate if placed on a space probe traveling to Mars or Europa, the ice-covered saltwater moon of Jupiter that some regard as a prime candidate for extraterrestrial life because of its subsurface ocean.

Tumors dramatically shrink with new approach to cell therapy

Graphic of tumor-infiltrating lymphocites, natural immune cells that invade tumors.
Credit: Shana O. Kelley Lab/Northwestern University

Northwestern University researchers have developed a new tool to harness immune cells from tumors to fight cancer rapidly and effectively.

Their findings, published January 27 in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering, showed a dramatic shrinkage in tumors in mice compared to traditional cell therapy methods. With a novel microfluidic device that could be 3D printed, the team multiplied, sorted through and harvested hundreds of millions of cells, recovering 400% more of the tumor-eating cells than current approaches.

Most treatments for cancer involve toxic chemicals and foreign substances, which cause harmful side effects and weaken the body’s immune response. Using tissue from one’s own body can eliminate side effects and risk of rejection, and many disease therapies in regenerative medicine and cancer treatment have gained traction in the clinic. But sometimes the wheels skid.

“People have been cured in the clinic of advanced melanoma through treatment with their own immune cells that were harvested out of tumor tissue,” said Shana O. Kelley, a pioneer in translational biotechnology and corresponding author on the paper. “The problem is, because of the way the cells are harvested, it only works in a very small number of patients.”

Uncontrolled Blood Pressure Is Sending More People to the Hospital

New research from the Smidt Heart Institute shows that more
people are being hospitalized for dangerously high blood pressure.
Photo by Cedars-Sinai.
The number of people hospitalized for a hypertensive crisis—when blood pressure increases so much it can cause a heart attack, stroke or other sudden cardiovascular event—more than doubled from 2002 to 2014, according to Cedars-Sinai investigators.

The increase occurred during a period when some studies reported overall progress in blood pressure control and a decline in related cardiovascular events in the U.S. The findings are published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

“Although more people have been able to manage their blood pressure over the last few years, we’re not seeing this improvement translate into fewer hospitalizations for hypertensive crisis,” said Joseph E. Ebinger, MD, a clinical cardiologist and director of clinical analytics at the Smidt Heart Institute and first author of the study.

Ash trees may be more resilient to warming climate than previously believed

Students taking tree measurements in Penn State's green ash provenance trial are shown in this photo, circa 2000. Almost all the trees are dead and gone now, victims of the emerald ash borer. However, in the decades before they died — along with ash trees at other university trials and plantations and U.S. Forest Service installations — they offered an unprecedented perspective on how forests may be changed by a warming climate.
Credit: Kim Steiner / Penn State. Creative Commons

Since the 1990s, scientists have been predicting that North American tree species will disappear from portions of their ranges within the next 50 to 100 years because of projected changes in climate. A new study led by Penn State forest biologists found that when transplanted to warmer environments, ash trees can survive increased temperatures of 7 degrees Fahrenheit and sometimes even up to 18 degrees Fahrenheit, suggesting that these trees may be more resilient to climate warming than previously believed.

“We know that species distribution models based only on climate are biologically imperfect,” said lead researcher Kim Steiner, professor emeritus of forest biology in the College of Agricultural Sciences. “However, they are the best we have for predicting where species would be found in a climatically different future, and it is extremely difficult — especially with trees — to experimentally test and possibly refute such predictions."

Male carriers of BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutation also at risk of multiple cancers

The BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations are well known for their female carriers to have increased risk of cancers, but new research reveals the increased risk of various cancers for male carriers.

People who carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation have an increased risk of pancreatic, stomach and prostate cancers, as well as the previously well-known risk of breast and ovarian cancers – but not for melanoma, according to new University of Melbourne led research calling for increased testing in male carriers to detect the cancers early.

The study used the largest sample size ever in a cancer study of the same kind worldwide, critiquing 22 cancers to establish that in addition to female breast and ovarian cancers, BRCA1/2 carriers are at risk for male breast, pancreatic, stomach and prostate (BRCA2 carriers only) cancers, but not other cancers as previously thought. Significantly, the study team found that BRCA1/2 carriers did not have higher risk of melanoma.

Lead author and Victorian Cancer Agency Early Career Research Fellow Dr Shuai Li said the research suggested male relatives of known BRCA1/2 carriers should be informed about their individual cancer risk.

“They should be informed about cancer risk and encouraged to be tested, because male and female carriers have the same cancer risks for pancreatic and stomach cancers, and male BRCA2 carriers also have increased risk of prostate cancers. Male carriers can also have increased risk of developing breast cancer. BRCA-related cancers are not a ‘female only’ thing,” Dr Shuai Li said.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Current anti-COVID pills work well against omicron, but antibody drugs are less effective

Yoshihiro Kawaoka
The drugs behind the new pills to treat COVID-19 remain very effective against the omicron variant of the virus in lab tests, according to a new study.

However, lab tests also showed that the available antibody therapies — typically given intravenously in hospitals — are substantially less effective against omicron than against earlier variants of the virus. The antibody treatments by Lilly and Regeneron have entirely lost their ability to neutralize omicron at realistic dosages. The Food and Drug Administration recently removed these two drugs from approved treatment lists because they are ineffective against the variant.

If the ability of the antiviral pills to combat omicron is confirmed in human patients, it would be welcome news. Public health officials expect the pills to become an increasingly common treatment for COVID-19 that will reduce the severity of the disease in at-risk patients and decrease the burden of the pandemic.

For now, the pills remain in short supply during the current omicron wave, which has broken case records in the U.S. and other countries.

The findings corroborate other studies that show most available antibody treatments are less effective against omicron. Drug makers could design, test and produce new antibody drugs targeted at the omicron variant to overcome the limitations of current therapies, but this process would take months.

“The bottom line is we have countermeasures to treat omicron. That’s good news,” says Yoshihiro Kawaoka, the University of Wisconsin–Madison lead of the study and virologist at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine and the University of Tokyo. “However, this is all in laboratory studies. Whether this translates into humans, we don’t know yet.”

Studying the Big Bang with Artificial Intelligence

A quark gluon plasma after the collision of two heavy nuclei
Credit: Technische Universität Wien

Can machine learning be used to uncover the secrets of the quark-gluon plasma? Yes - but only with sophisticated new methods.

It could hardly be more complicated: tiny particles whir around wildly with extremely high energy, countless interactions occur in the tangled mess of quantum particles, and this results in a state of matter known as "quark-gluon plasma". Immediately after the Big Bang, the entire universe was in this state; today it is produced by high-energy atomic nucleus collisions, for example at CERN.

Such processes can only be studied using high-performance computers and highly complex computer simulations whose results are difficult to evaluate. Therefore, using artificial intelligence or machine learning for this purpose seems like an obvious idea. Ordinary machine-learning algorithms, however, are not suitable for this task. The mathematical properties of particle physics require a very special structure of neural networks. At TU Wien (Vienna), it has now been shown how neural networks can be successfully used for these challenging tasks in particle physics.

Scientists Regrow Frog’s Lost Leg

A normal African clawed frog. “It’s exciting to see that the drugs we selected were helping to create an almost complete limb,” said Nirosha Murugan.
Photo: Pouzin Olivier, via Creative Commons

For millions of patients who have lost limbs for reasons ranging from diabetes to trauma, the possibility of regaining function through natural regeneration remains out of reach. Regrowth of legs and arms is the province of salamanders and superheroes.

But in a study published in the journal Science Advances, scientists at Tufts and Harvard University’s Wyss Institute have brought us a step closer to the goal of regenerative medicine.

On adult frogs, which are naturally unable to regenerate limbs, the researchers were able to trigger regrowth of a lost leg using a five-drug cocktail applied in a silicone wearable bioreactor dome that seals in the elixir over the stump for just 24 hours. That brief treatment sets in motion an 18-month period of regrowth that restores a functional leg.

Many creatures have the capability of full regeneration of at least some limbs, including salamanders, starfish, crabs, and lizards. Flatworms can even be cut up into pieces, with each piece reconstructing an entire organism. Humans are capable of closing wounds with new tissue growth, and our livers have a remarkable, almost flatworm-like capability of regenerating to full size after a 50% loss.

Future forests will have smaller trees and soak up less carbon, study suggests

There is no crystal ball to tell ecologists how forests of the future will respond to the changing climate, but a University of Arizona-led team of researchers may have created the next best thing.

By combining tree-ring data with U.S. Forest Service inventory data on Arizona's ponderosa pines, the team captured a more complete picture than traditional models have provided of what drives future tree growth. The researchers predict a 56 to 91% decline in individual tree growth, according to a new study published in Global Change Biology.

"The growth declines we're forecasting will mean less uptake of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the future by Arizona's forests," said lead study author Kelly Heilman, a postdoctoral research associate in the UArizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. "While Arizona's forests are relatively small in terms of their contribution to the total U.S. carbon sequestration, our approach can be used to make the same predictions for forests around the world."

Forests remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which offsets some greenhouse gas emissions globally and helps to mitigate climate change.

"It's a free service that forests provide, so forests have been touted as one of the many natural climate solutions that countries rely on to offset their emissions," Heilman said. "But competition between trees, droughts and disturbances can reduce forest carbon uptake. Knowing how much carbon forests take up globally is essential to addressing the climate crisis and planning for a resilient future."

Many countries, including the U.S., maintain national forest inventory programs in which foresters take a census of trees in 1/6-acre plots to track forest status and change. These censuses are taken as frequently as every five years, but in the western U.S. they're done every 10 years. Among the data collected is the number of trees, their diameters and soil quality.

Southern Ocean storms cause outgassing of carbon dioxide

Researchers have examined the inaccessible waters around Antarctica using unique robot technology, and find that ocean storms in the region lead to outgassing of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Credit: Fred Fouri

Storms over the waters around Antarctica drive an outgassing of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to a new international study with researchers from the University of Gothenburg. The research group used advanced ocean robots for the study, which provides a better understanding of climate change and can lead to better global climate models.

The world's southernmost ocean, the Southern Ocean that surrounds Antarctica, plays an important role in the global climate because its waters contain large amounts of carbon dioxide. A new international study, in which researchers from the University of Gothenburg participated, has examined the complex processes driving air-sea fluxes of gasses, such as carbon dioxide.

Storms bring carbon dioxide-rich waters to the surface

The research group is now delivering new findings that shed light on the area's important role in climate change.

“We show how the intense storms that often occur in the region increase ocean mixing and bring carbon dioxide-rich waters from the deep to the surface. This drives an outgassing of carbon dioxide from the ocean to the atmosphere. There has been a lack of knowledge about these complex processes, so the study is an important key to understanding the Southern Ocean's significance for the climate and the global carbon budget”, says Sebastiaan Swart, professor of oceanography at the University of Gothenburg and co-author of the study.

Technique Improves AI Ability to Understand 3D Space Using 2D Images

This image shows how MonoCon places objects in a "bounding box" for use in navigating the street.

Researchers have developed a new technique, called MonoCon, that improves the ability of artificial intelligence (AI) programs to identify three-dimensional (3D) objects, and how those objects relate to each other in space, using two-dimensional (2D) images. For example, the work would help the AI used in autonomous vehicles navigate in relation to other vehicles using the 2D images it receives from an onboard camera.

“We live in a 3D world, but when you take a picture, it records that world in a 2D image,” says Tianfu Wu, corresponding author of a paper on the work and an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at North Carolina State University.

“AI programs receive visual input from cameras. So if we want AI to interact with the world, we need to ensure that it is able to interpret what 2D images can tell it about 3D space. In this research, we are focused on one part of that challenge: how we can get AI to accurately recognize 3D objects – such as people or cars – in 2D images, and place those objects in space.”

While the work may be important for autonomous vehicles, it also has applications for manufacturing and robotics.

Supercomputing exposes potential pathways for inhibiting COVID-19

SARS-CoV-2 spike protein in the trimer state, shown here, to pinpoint structural transitions that could be disrupted to destabilize the protein and negate its harmful effects.
Credit: Debsindhu Bhowmik/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

To explore the inner workings of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2, researchers from the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory developed a novel technique.

The team — including computational scientists Debsindhu Bhowmik, Serena Chen and John Gounley — ran molecular dynamics simulations of the novel virus that caused the COVID-19 disease pandemic on ORNL’s Summit supercomputer, an IBM AC922 system. The researchers then analyzed the output with a customized deep learning approach to produce a complete molecular picture of the “spike” protein on the virus’s surface.

This method enabled them to pinpoint specific flexible regions, which they studied in extreme detail to reveal promising therapeutic targets. Aiming for these targets could create more reliable treatment avenues that interrupt key structural transitions in the virus’s lifecycle while also supporting the body’s natural immune response.

“A better understanding of the spike protein could complement current COVID-19 vaccines by informing new treatments and providing insights into potential drug design,” Bhowmik said.

Nearly 1,000 mysterious strands revealed in Milky Way’s center

An image showing the spectral index for filaments.
Credit: Northwestern University/SAORO/Oxford University

An unprecedented new telescope image of the Milky Way galaxy’s turbulent center has revealed nearly 1,000 mysterious strands, inexplicably dangling in space.

Stretching up to 150 light years long, the one-dimensional strands (or filaments) are found in pairs and clusters, often stacked equally spaced, side by side like strings on a harp. Using observations at radio wavelengths, Northwestern University’s Farhad Yusef-Zadeh discovered the highly organized, magnetic filaments in the early 1980s. The mystifying filaments, he found, comprise cosmic ray electrons gyrating the magnetic field at close to the speed of light. But their origin has remained an unsolved mystery ever since.

Now, the new image has exposed 10 times more filaments than previously discovered, enabling Yusef-Zadeh and his team to conduct statistical studies across a broad population of filaments for the first time. This information potentially could help them finally unravel the long-standing mystery.

The study is now available online and has been accepted for publication by The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“We have studied individual filaments for a long time with a myopic view,” said Yusef-Zadeh, the paper’s lead author. “Now, we finally see the big picture — a panoramic view filled with an abundance of filaments. Just examining a few filaments makes it difficult to draw any real conclusion about what they are and where they came from. This is a watershed in furthering our understanding of these structures.”

Yusef-Zadeh is a professor of physics and astronomy at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA).

Omicron genetics and early transmission patterns are characterized in new study

The Omicron variant was first detected in Botswana
in October 2021 and has quickly spread throughout the world
Credit: Justice Hubane / Unsplash
The Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 diverged from previous SARS-CoV-2 variants as a result of adaptive evolution, in which beneficial mutations are passed on to future generations through natural selection, rather than through recombination between previous variants, according to a large international team of researchers. The study, which published recently in Nature, is the first to describe the genomic profile of Omicron and explore the origins of the variant.

“We have seen SARS-CoV-2 generate three major variants — Alpha, Delta and Omicron — in about 16 months, which is very surprising because other viruses do not make such repeated big evolutionary leaps,” said Maciej Boni, associate professor of biology, Penn State, who led the recombination analysis for this global collaboration. “The latest variant — Omicron — is extraordinary because of the even bigger jump it made in the evolution of its spike protein.”

Boni noted that compared to previous variants, Omicron’s spike protein has more than 30 mutations, many of which are known to influence host antibody neutralization.

“Given that Omicron made such a big leap forward evolutionarily speaking, we wanted to investigate why and how this may have happened,” he said.

To do that, the team — which was led by the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation in South Africa — analyzed all 686 Omicron sequences that were available by Dec. 7, 2021. They found that Omicron falls within the B.1.1 lineage, which also includes the Alpha variant. Interestingly, the team found that Omicron is genetically distinct from Alpha, as well as any other known variants of interest.

Kirigami Robotic Grippers Are Delicate Enough to Lift Egg Yolks

Engineering researchers from North Carolina State University have demonstrated a new type of flexible, robotic grippers that are able to lift delicate egg yolks without breaking them, and that are precise enough to lift a human hair. The work has applications for both soft robotics and biomedical technologies.

The work draws on the art of kirigami, which involves both cutting and folding two-dimensional (2D) sheets of material to form three-dimensional (3D) shapes. Specifically, the researchers have developed a new technique that involves using kirigami to convert 2D sheets into curved 3D structures by cutting parallel slits across much of the material. The final shape of the 3D structure is determined in large part by the outer boundary of the material. For example, a 2D material that has a circular boundary would form a spherical 3D shape.

“We have defined and demonstrated a model that allows users to work backwards,” says Yaoye Hong, first author of a paper on the work and a Ph.D. student at NC State. “If users know what sort of curved, 3D structure they need, they can use our approach to determine the boundary shape and pattern of slits they need to use in the 2D material. And additional control of the final structure is made possible by controlling the direction in which the material is pushed or pulled.”

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Using nanodiamonds as sensors just got easier

University of Rochester PhD student Dinesh Bommidi (left) and Andrea Pickel, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, used an atomic force microscope to locate and move nanodiamond sensors. University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster

For centuries people have placed the highest value on diamonds that are not only large but flawless.

Scientists, however, have discovered exciting new applications for diamonds that are not only incredibly small but have a unique defect.

In a recent paper in Applied Physics Letters, researchers at the University of Rochester describe a new way to measure temperature with these defects, called nitrogen vacancy centers, using the light they emit. The technique, adapted for single nanodiamonds by Andrea Pickel, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Dinesh Bommidi, a PhD student in her lab, allowed them to precisely measure, for the first time, the duration of these light emissions, or “excited state lifetimes,” at a broad range of temperatures.

The discovery earned the paper recognition as an American Institute of Physics “Scilight,” a showcase of what AIP considers the most interesting research across the physical sciences.

The Rochester method gives researchers a less complicated, more accurate tool for using nitrogen vacancy centers to measure the temperature of nanoscale-sized materials. The approach is also safe for imaging sensitive nanoscale materials or biological tissues and could have applications in quantum information processing.

Hungry yeast are tiny, living thermometers

This fluorescence microscopy image shows yeast vacuoles that have undergone phase separation.Luther Davis/Alexey Merz/University of Washington

Membranes are crucial to our cells. Every cell in your body is enclosed by one. And each of those cells contains specialized compartments, or organelles, which are also enclosed by membranes.

Membranes help cells carry out tasks like breaking down food for energy, building and dismantling proteins, keeping track of environmental conditions, sending signals and deciding when to divide.

Biologists have long struggled to understand precisely how membranes accomplish these different types of jobs. The primary components of membranes — large, fat-like molecules called lipids and compact molecules like cholesterol — make great barriers. In all but a few cases, it’s unclear how those molecules help proteins within membranes do their jobs.

In a paper published Jan. 25 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team at the University of Washington looked at phase separation in budding yeast — the same single-celled fungus of baking and brewing fame — and reports that living yeast cells can actively regulate a process called phase separation in one of their membranes. During phase separation, the membrane remains intact but partitions into multiple, distinct zones or domains that segregate lipids and proteins. The new findings show for the first time that, in response to environmental conditions, yeast cells precisely regulate the temperature at which their membrane undergoes phase separation. The team behind this discovery suggests that phase separation is likely a “switch” mechanism that these cells use to govern the types of work that membranes do and the signals they send.

How a Smart Electric Grid Will Power Our Future

The Electricity Infrastructure Operations Center, located at PNNL, allows researchers to evaluate electric grid scenarios in the context of current industry conditions.
Photo by Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

A novel plan that offers partnership in keeping the United States electric grid stable and reliable could be a win-win for consumers and utility operators.

The largest ever simulation of its kind, modeled on the Texas power grid, concluded that consumers stand to save about 15 percent on their annual electric bill by partnering with utilities. In this system, consumers would coordinate with their electric utility operator to dynamically control big energy users, like heat pumps, water heaters and electric vehicle charging stations.

This kind of flexible control over energy supply and use patterns is called “transactive” because it relies on an agreement between consumers and utilities. But a transactive energy system has never been deployed on a large scale, and there are a lot of unknowns. That’s why the Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity called upon the transactive energy experts at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to study how such a system might work in practice. The final multi-volume report was released today.

Hayden Reeve, a PNNL transactive energy expert and technical advisor, led a team of engineers, economists and programmers who designed and executed the study.

Novel research identifies fresh 'mixers' in river pollution 'cocktail'

Researchers from the Universities of Manchester, Birmingham and Mahavir Cancer Sansthan collecting field data along the River Ganga in Bihar
Photo - Aman Gaurav

Water quality in rivers is affected by underpinning ‘natural’ hydrogeological and biogeochemical processes, as well as interactions between people and their environment that are accelerating stress on water resources at unprecedented rates.

Pollutants can move at different speeds and accumulate in varying quantities along rivers where the mix of the complex ‘cocktail’ of chemicals that is making its way towards the ocean is constantly changing, a new study reveals.

Researchers have discovered characteristic breakpoints – often found when a tributary joins the main river or significant point sources exist – can change the behavior of some compounds, causing the concentration of these chemicals to change drastically, depending on where they are on their journey down the river.

Experts discovered the phenomenon after piloting a new, systematic approach to understanding hydrogeochemical dynamics in large river systems along the entire length of India’s River Ganges (Ganga) – from close to its source in the Himalayas down to the Indian Ocean.

This new research approach proven successful at the iconic Ganga can be applied to other large river systems across the world – hopefully shedding new light on how to tackle the global challenge of aquatic pollution by multiple interacting contaminants.

Calculating the best shapes for things to come

Wei Lu 
Professor  Mechanical Engineering 
University of Michigan
Maximizing the performance and efficiency of structures—everything from bridges to computer components—can be achieved by design with a new algorithm developed by researchers at the University of Michigan and Northeastern University.

It’s an advancement likely to benefit a host of industries where costly and time-consuming trial-and-error testing is necessary to determine the optimal design. As an example, look at the current U.S. infrastructure challenge—a looming $2.5 trillion backlog that will need to be addressed with taxpayer dollars.

Planners searching for the best way to design a new bridge need to answer a string of key questions. How many pillars are needed? What diameter do those pillars need to be? What should the radius of the bridge’s arch be? The new algorithm can determine the combination that gives the highest load capacity with lowest cost.

The team tested their algorithm in four optimization scenarios: designing structures to maximize their stiffness for carrying a given load, designing the shape of fluid channels to minimize pressure loss, creating shapes for heat transfer enhancement, and minimizing the material of complex trusses for load bearing. The new algorithm reduced the computational time needed to reach the best solution by roughly 100 to 100,000 times over traditional approaches. In addition, it outperformed all other state-of-the-art algorithms.

“It’s a tool with the potential to influence many industries—clean energy, aviation, electric vehicles, energy efficient buildings,” said Wei Lu, U-M professor of mechanical engineering and corresponding author of the study in Nature Communications.

The new algorithm plays in a space called topology optimization—how best to distribute materials within a given space to get the desired results.

“If you really want to design something rationally, you’re talking about a large number of calculations, and doing those can be difficult with time and cost considerations,” Lu said. “Our algorithm can reduce the calculations and facilitate the optimization process.”

Worldwide assessment of protected areas

According to a TUM-led study, mountain habitats as seen here in Pakistan’s Deosai National Park are quite well protected. Many other habitats do not yet have this level of protection.
Image: Ch. Hof / TUM

Protected areas are among the most effective tools for preserving biodiversity. However, new protected areas are often created without considering existing ones. This can lead to an overrepresentation of the biophysical characteristics, such as temperature or topography, that define a certain area. A research group at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) has now assessed a global analysis of the scope of protection of various biophysical conditions.

Protected areas are important for maintaining populations of various species. They ensure that many animals and plants do not lose their habitat and thus help to protect endangered species and safeguard biodiversity.

The worldwide protected area network is steadily growing in number and extent. “From a conservation standpoint, this is generally a welcome trend. But the uncoordinated expansion of protected areas can result in wasted resources worldwide if care is not taken to protect as many species communities and environmental conditions as possible,” says Dr. Christian Hof, the director of the junior research group “MintBio – Climate change impacts on biological diversity in Bavaria: Multidimensional Integration for better BIOdiversity projections” under the auspices of the Bavarian climate research network bayklif at TUM.

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