. Scientific Frontline: February 2022

Monday, February 21, 2022

Viagra promising as treatment for canine eating disorder

Cake, a beagle mix, who suffers from the eating disorder known as megaesophagus, sits in specialized chair known as a Bailey chair, at the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital. Bailey chairs allow dogs with megaesophagus to better digest their food.
Credit: Washington State University

Sildenafil, the generic version of the drug known as Viagra, could be the long-awaited remedy for a group of dogs with a rare disorder called megaesophagus.

The condition involves an enlargement of the esophagus and a loss of the organ’s ability to move food to the stomach, which leaves food bottling up in the lower esophagus. If left untreated, many animals regurgitate their food and aspirate food into their lungs, causing aspiration pneumonia.

“The literature tells us that many dogs with the disease die from aspiration pneumonia or are humanely euthanized due to poor quality of life within eight months of diagnosis,” said Dr. Jillian Haines, a veterinarian at Washington State University who co-led the study.

Liquid sildenafil was shown to relax the smooth muscle of the lower esophagus so it will open to let food pass to the stomach. Besides some rare gastrointestinal irritation, there are no side effects to dogs at the dose used in the study. While sildenafil is most known to treat erectile dysfunction, the drug is also used to treat elevated pulmonary blood pressure in dogs and humans.

Versatile ‘Nanocrystal Gel’ Could Enable Advances in Energy, Defense and Telecommunications

This graphic shows the material in its gelled state (left) and its non-gelled state (right). When the material is heated (right), the chemical bonds between the nanocrystals break and the gel breaks down. When the material is cooled (left), chemical bonds form between the nanocrystals and they organize themselves into a network (the gel). Molecular bonding(top) that controls gelation as a function of temperature is understood using supercomputer simulations (bottom).
Credit: Kang, Valenzuela, et al./UT Austin

New applications in energy, defense and telecommunications could receive a boost after a team at The University of Texas at Austin created a new type of “nanocrystal gel” — a gel composed of tiny nanocrystals each 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair that are linked together into an organized network.

The crux of the team’s discovery is that this new material is easily tunable. That is, it can be switched between two different states by changing the temperature. This means the material can work as an optical filter, absorbing different frequencies of light depending on whether it’s in a gelled state. So, it could be used, for example, on the outside of buildings to control heating or cooling dynamically. This type of optical filter also has applications for defense, particularly for thermal camouflage.

Bacteria upcycle carbon waste into valuable chemicals

Credit: Justin Muir
Bacteria are known for breaking down lactose to make yogurt and sugar to make beer. Now researchers led by Northwestern University and LanzaTech have harnessed bacteria to break down waste carbon dioxide (CO2) to make valuable industrial chemicals.

In a new pilot study, the researchers selected, engineered and optimized a bacteria strain and then successfully demonstrated its ability to convert CO2 into acetone and isopropanol (IPA).

Not only does this new gas fermentation process remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, it also avoids using fossil fuels, which are typically needed to generate acetone and IPA. After performing life-cycle analysis, the team found the carbon-negative platform could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 160% as compared to conventional processes, if widely adopted.

The study was published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

“The accelerating climate crisis, combined with rapid population growth, pose some of the most urgent challenges to humankind, all linked to the unabated release and accumulation of CO2 across the entire biosphere,” said Northwestern’s Michael Jewett, co-senior author of the study. “By harnessing our capacity to partner with biology to make what is needed, where and when it is needed, on a sustainable and renewable basis, we can begin to take advantage of the available CO2 to transform the bioeconomy.”

Jewett is the Walter P. Murphy Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and director of the Center for Synthetic Biology. He co-led the study with Michael Koepke and Ching Leang, both researchers at LanzaTech.

Molecule snapshot by explosion

Scientists use X-rays to trigger a violent explosion of single molecules. From the fragmentation pattern they infer detailed information on the molecule and its fragmentation.
Credit: illustratoren.de/TobiasWuestefeld in cooperation with European XFEL

 An international team of scientists at the European XFEL has taken a snapshot of a cyclic molecule using a novel imaging method. Researchers from the European XFEL, DESY, Universität Hamburg and the Goethe University Frankfurt and other partners used the world's largest X-ray laser to explode the molecule iodopyridine in order to construct an image of the intact molecule from the resulting fragments.

Exploding a photo subject in order to take its picture? An international research team at the European XFEL, the world's largest X-ray laser, applied this “extreme" method to take pictures of complex molecules. The scientists used the ultra-bright X-ray flashes generated by the facility to take snapshots of gas-phase iodopyridine molecules at atomic resolution. The X-ray laser caused the molecules to explode, and the image was reconstructed from the pieces. “Thanks to the European XFEL's extremely intense and particularly short X-ray pulses, we were able to produce an image of unprecedented clarity for this method and the size of the molecule," reports Rebecca Boll from the European XFEL, principal investigator of the experiment and one of the two first authors of the publication in the scientific journal Nature Physics in which the team describes their results. Such clear images of complex molecules have not been possible using this experimental technique until now.

A “hot Jupiter’s” dark side is revealed in detail for first time

An artists’s impression of WASP-121 b.
Credit: Mikal Evans

MIT astronomers have obtained the clearest view yet of the perpetual dark side of an exoplanet that is “tidally locked” to its star. Their observations, combined with measurements of the planet’s permanent day side, provide the first detailed view of an exoplanet’s global atmosphere.

“We’re now moving beyond taking isolated snapshots of specific regions of exoplanet atmospheres, to study them as the 3D systems they truly are,” says Thomas Mikal-Evans, who led the study as a postdoc in MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

The planet at the center of the new study, which appears in Nature Astronomy, is WASP-121b, a massive gas giant nearly twice the size of Jupiter. The planet is an ultrahot Jupiter and was discovered in 2015 orbiting a star about 850 light years from Earth. WASP-121b has one of the shortest orbits detected to date, circling its star in just 30 hours. It is also tidally locked, such that its star-facing “day” side is permanently roasting, while its “night” side is turned forever toward space.  

“Hot Jupiters are famous for having very bright day sides, but the night side is a different beast. WASP-121b's night side is about 10 times fainter than its day side,” says Tansu Daylan, a TESS postdoc at MIT who co-authored the study.

Scientists engineer bacteria to cope in challenging environments

Green fluorescent protein (shown in the middle) is used by engineered bacteria as a reserve of amino acids. When nutrients become scarce, the protein can be broken down to provide essential amino acids needed for survival.
Credit: Klara Szydlo and Thomas Gorochowski

Researchers from the Universities of Bristol and Hamburg have engineered bacteria with internal nutrient reserves that can be accessed when needed to survive extreme environmental conditions. The findings, published in ACS Synthetic Biology, pave the way for more robust biotechnologies based on engineered microbes.

Synthetic Biology allows scientists to redesign organisms, harnessing their capabilities to lead to innovative solutions spanning the sustainable production of biomaterials to advanced sensing of pathogens and disease.

Dr Thomas Gorochowski, joint senior author and a Royal Society University Research Fellow in the School of Biological Sciences at Bristol, said: “Many of the engineered biological systems we have created to date are fragile and break easily when removed from the carefully controlled conditions of the lab. This makes their deployment and scale-up difficult.”

To tackle this problem, the team focused on the idea of building up reserves of protein within cells when times are good, and then breaking these down when conditions are difficult and additional nutrients are needed.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Pollination by birds can be advantageous

Photo by Philippe Donn from Pexels
Why have some plant species changed pollinators in their evolution? An international team of researchers from the Universities of Bonn and Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University Suzhou (China) studied the reproductive systems of three sister species pairs, where one species is pollinated by insects and the other by hummingbirds. Mechanisms were discovered that explain the switch from insect to bird pollination. The study has now appeared in the journal Ecology and Evolution.

Different strategies have evolved in the pollination of flowering plants. The frequency and efficiency of the flower visitor plays a role. Here, there are major differences between the various animal groups. Worldwide, insects, especially bees, are the most common pollinators. Bees usually have quite a small activity range while other pollinator groups such as hummingbirds fly much longer distances. "It was previously assumed that plants switch their pollinator group from bees to hummingbirds when the activity and thus the pollination efficiency of bees is too low or too unpredictable, for example in the high mountains," says Dr. Stefan Abrahamczyk of the Nees Institute for Plant Biodiversity at the University of Bonn. For example, in cloud forests of tropical high mountains, it is often too humid or too cold for many bees.

Self-healing materials for robotics made from ‘jelly’ and salt

The low-cost jelly-like materials, developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge, can sense strain, temperature and humidity. And unlike earlier self-healing robots, they can also partially repair themselves at room temperature.

The results are reported in the journal NPG Asia Materials.

Soft sensing technologies could transform robotics, tactile interfaces and wearable devices, among other applications. However, most soft sensing technologies aren’t durable and consume high amounts of energy.

“Incorporating soft sensors into robotics allows us to get a lot more information from them, like how strain on our muscles allows our brains to get information about the state of our bodies,” said David Hardman from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, the paper’s first author.

As part of the EU-funded SHERO project, Hardman and his colleagues have been working to develop soft sensing, self-healing materials for robotic hands and arms. These materials can detect when they are damaged, take the necessary steps to temporarily heal themselves and then resume work – all without the need for human interaction.

“We’ve been working with self-healing materials for several years, but now we’re looking into faster and cheaper ways to make self-healing robots,” said co-author Dr Thomas George-Thuruthel, also from the Department of Engineering.

Sunken ships ideal habitat for reef-building corals

Aerial view of the Baker atomic test, less than one second after the detonation. Identifiable ships are (left to right): USS Pensacola (CA-24), USS Saratoga (CV-3), USS Pennsylvania (BB-38), the former Japanese battleship Nagato, USS New York (BB-34) and USS Salt Lake City (CA-25). Some 75 years later, scientists are studying how those sunken ships are providing a home to flourishing coral colonies. Photo courtesy U.S. Navy

An hour and a half before sunrise on the morning of Feb. 17, 1944, 500 U.S. Navy Grumman Hellcats swarmed the Japanese base at Chuuk Lagoon in Micronesia, the South Pacific.

Merchant tankers, ammunition ships, a cruiser, an auxiliary cruiser, two destroyers and a minesweeper tried desperately to escape. American submarines destroyed vessels outside the lagoon while torpedo bomber and dive bomber squadrons caught ships at anchor, sending them to the bottom in minutes. By the end of the next day, 39 ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy lay in watery graves.

Today the collection of wrecks has been called one of the great underwater marvels of the world. It’s a signature destination for divers.

Opioid’s Impact on the Brain Felt Across Generations, Study in Rats Suggests

Credit: Ishmail Abdus-Saboor
New scientific evidence has emerged that opioids, the cause of an ongoing public health crisis, can have a biological impact not only on those who use them, but on their progeny. In a study of rats, males with a father repeatedly exposed to morphine tended to be more sensitive to the pain-relieving effects of the opioid. Their brains were altered by their dad’s experiences with the drug, seemingly passed down on his DNA.

Published in Science Advances, this research could lay the foundation for new approaches to curbing the opioid epidemic.

“We don’t yet know if the intergenerational effects of morphine we see in rats also occur in humans,” said first author on the paper Andre Toussaint, a PhD candidate in the Wimmer lab at Temple University. “But if they do, people with a family history of opioid use disorder might be more strongly affected by—and potentially more easily addicted to—these drugs.”

The findings, made possible by a new method of measuring pain and the alleviation of pain, also cast doubt on decades of pain research that employs older, more subjective methods.

“Although pain impacts millions of people every day, the quantitative measurement of painful experiences remains difficult for scientists to capture,” said senior author Ishmail Abdus-Saboor, PhD, who conducted this research at the University of Pennsylvania and is now a principal investigator at Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute. “By rethinking how we measure pain, we are gaining a better understanding of the substances we use for pain relief.”

Targeted method for probing the function of 3D chromosomal structure

A new method—chemically induced chromosomal interaction (CICI)—can induce interactions between any two regions of the genome to test relationships between genome structure and function. The illustration (top) shows the scheme of the method. Researchers insert long arrays of binding sites into two genomic locations. These arrays are associated with a large amount of two transcription factor proteins, LacI and TetR. LacI and TetR then fuse with two additional proteins, FKBP12 and FRB, that bind in the presence of the compound rapamycin. Thus, researchers can induce the two genomic loci to strongly associate with each other by adding rapamycin to the cells and compare cellular function before and after the induced interaction. Typical data are shown below. The two loci (labeled by the red and green fluorescent dots) are spatially separated prior to the addition of rapamycin, but become co-localized after adding rapamycin.
Credit: Bai Laboratory, Pennsylvania State University

A new method that can induce interactions between specifically chosen locations on the genome allows researchers to begin to identify the causal relationship between three-dimensional chromosome structure and genome function. A paper by researchers at Penn State describing the method, called “chemically induced chromosomal interaction (CICI),” and two functional tests of the method appears in the journal Nature Communications.

The genomes of eukaryotes — organisms ranging from yeast to humans whose cells have a distinct nucleus — are made up of chromosomes. Inside the nucleus, the chromosomes, which are long, linear strands of DNA packaged with numerous proteins that carry genetic information, are arranged in a three-dimensional conformation that, depending on the cell type, can bring genomic regions that are linearly distant from one another into close enough contact to functionally interact. These interactions are thought to be important for things like gene regulation, which controls when and where certain genes are used by the cell.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Chemists discover a range of environmental contaminants in fracking wastewater

As companies that drill for oil and natural gas using hydraulic fracturing consider recycling and reusing wastewater that surfaces from wells during the fracking process, chemists at The University of Toledo discovered that the new and unexplored waste contains many environmental contaminants including organic chemicals and metallic elements.

Research scientists at UToledo’s Dr. Nina McClelland Laboratory for Water Chemistry and Environmental Analysis in collaboration with the University of Texas Arlington achieved a comprehensive characterization of the chemical composition of produced water samples extracted in Texas, indicating the presence of toxic and carcinogenic contaminants in untreated samples, which can pose a threat to wildlife and human health.

Unraveling the complex composition of produced water by specialized extraction methodologies, the results published in Environmental Science and Technology provide critical information that can help regulatory agencies fine-tune proposed guidelines related to the safe treatment and disposal of fracking wastewater to protect drinking water sources.

“The discovery of these chemicals in produced water suggests that greater monitoring and remediation efforts are needed since many of them are listed to be dangerous for human health by the World Health Organization,” said Dr. Emanuela Gionfriddo, assistant professor of analytical chemistry in the UToledo Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and the School of Green Chemistry and Engineering. “Our comprehensive characterization sheds insight into the processes taking place during hydraulic fracturing and the nature of the geologic formation of each well site.”

Bacteria in the nose may increase risk of Alzheimer’s disease

Associate Professor Jenny Ekberg, Clem Jones Centre for Neurobiology and Stem Cell Research

New research from Griffith University has shown that a bacterium commonly present in the nose can sneak into the brain and set off a cascade of events that may lead to Alzheimer’s disease.

Associate Professor Jenny Ekberg and colleagues from the Clem Jones Centre for Neurobiology and Stem Cell Research at Menzies Health Institute Queensland and Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery, in collaboration with Queensland University of Technology, have discovered that the bacterium Chlamydia pneumoniae can invade the brain via the nerves of the nasal cavity.

While this bacterium often causes respiratory tract infections, it has also been found in the brain which has raised the question of whether it causes damage to the central nervous system.

The research team has performed extensive research in animal models to show not only how the bacteria gets into the brain, but also how it leads to Alzheimer disease pathologies.

Ultraprecise atomic clock poised for new physics discoveries

One of the first steps in creating the optical atomic clocks used in this study is to cool strontium atoms to near absolute zero in a vacuum chamber, which makes them appear as a glowing blue ball floating in the chamber.
Credit: Shimon Kolkowitz

University of Wisconsin–Madison physicists have made one of the highest performance atomic clocks ever, they announced Feb. 16 in the journal Nature.

Their instrument, known as an optical lattice atomic clock, can measure differences in time to a precision equivalent to losing just one second every 300 billion years and is the first example of a “multiplexed” optical clock, where six separate clocks can exist in the same environment. Its design allows the team to test ways to search for gravitational waves, attempt to detect dark matter, and discover new physics with clocks.

Stanford scientists combine AI and atomic-scale images in pursuit of better batteries

From left, Will Chueh, associate professor; Tanya Jomaa, high school summer intern; and Haitao “Dean” Deng, PhD ’21. Jomaa, now an undergraduate at Yale University, worked with Deng researching lithium titanate batteries.
Image credit: Norman Jin

Using artificial intelligence to analyze vast amounts of data in atomic-scale images, Stanford researchers answered long-standing questions about an emerging type of rechargeable battery posing competition to lithium-ion chemistry.

Today’s rechargeable batteries are a wonder, but far from perfect. Eventually, they all wear out, begetting expensive replacements and recycling.

“But what if batteries were indestructible?” asks William Chueh, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford University and senior author of a new paper detailing a first-of-its-kind analytical approach to building better batteries that could help speed that day. The study appears in the journal Nature Materials.

Butterfly eyespots reuse gene regulatory network that patterns antennae, legs and wings

A silky owl (Taenaris catopsv) butterfly with distinctive eyespots on its wings.
Photo credit: Kristof Zyskowski and Yulia Bereshpolova

Findings highlight those novel complex traits, such as eyespots, evolve from gene networks that already pattern pre-existent complex traits in the body

Eyespots, the circular markings of contrasting colors found on the wings of many butterfly species, are used by these fluttering creatures to intimidate or distract predators. A team of scientists led by Professor Antónia Monteiro from the National University of Singapore (NUS) conducted a research study to better understand the evolutionary origins of these eyespots, and they discovered that eyespots appear to have derived from the recruitment of a complex network of genes that was already operating in the body of the butterflies to build antennae, legs, and even wings.

“This new study addresses how novel complex traits might originate. These complex traits require the input of many interacting genes for their development, and are often illustrated by the vertebrate eye, or the bacteria flagellum. In our study, we looked at how butterfly eyespots – an example of a complex trait - came about and concluded that a network recruitment approach is adopted by butterflies for the creation of eyespots. We have also identified the specific network of genes that was likely recruited,” said Prof Monteiro, who is from the NUS Department of Biological Sciences.

The findings were first published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Can a planet have a mind of its own?

In a self-described "thought experiment," University of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank and colleagues David Grinspoon at the Planetary Science Institute and Sara Walker at Arizona State University use scientific theory and broader questions about how life alters a planet, to posit four stages to describe Earth's past and possible future.
University of Rochester illustration / Michael Osadciw

Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank discusses why cognitive activity operating on a planetary scale is necessary to tackle global issues such as climate change.

The collective activity of life—all of the microbes, plants, and animals—have changed planet Earth.

Take, for example, plants: plants ‘invented’ a way of undergoing photosynthesis to enhance their own survival, but in so doing, released oxygen that changed the entire function of our planet. This is just one example of individual lifeforms performing their own tasks, but collectively having an impact on a planetary scale.

If the collective activity of life—known as the biosphere—can change the world, could the collective activity of cognition, and action based on this cognition, also change a planet? Once the biosphere evolved, Earth took on a life of its own. If a planet with life has a life of its own, can it also have a mind of its own?

Sunlight can help dissolve oil into seawater

A slick of sunlight-altered oil floating on the Gulf of Mexico after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. A team of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution researchers found that nearly 10 percent of the oil floating on the Gulf after the spill dissolved into the water by sunlight – a process called photo-dissolution.
Photo by Cabell Davis III © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill was the largest marine oil spill in United States history. The disaster was caused by an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, taking 11 lives and releasing nearly 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Twelve years and hundreds of millions of dollars later, scientists are still working to understand where all this oil ended up, a concept known as environmental fate.

The most commonly discussed fates of oil spilled at sea are biodegradation (microorganisms consuming and breaking down the oil), evaporation (liquid oil becoming a gas), and oil stranding on shorelines.

A team of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) researchers discovered that nearly 10 percent of the oil floating on the Gulf after the Deepwater Horizon disaster was dissolved into seawater by sunlight - a process called “photo-dissolution”. The findings were published today in the paper “Sunlight-driven dissolution is a major fate of oil at sea” in Science Advances.

Engineer develops tool to predict oxygen in water, finds streams along southeastern U.S. in poorer quality

The muddy water in the Monongahela River in Morgantown. WVU engineer Omar Abdul-Aziz has developed a model that can be utilized on any body of water to predict levels of dissolved oxygen, which contributes to water quality.
Photo Provided/Omar Abdul-Aziz

Plants and animals on land aren’t the only organisms that need oxygen to survive. Underwater aquatic life requires dissolved oxygen to live and prosper.

But a variety of factors, such as pollution, water temperature and bacteria, can deplete the amount of dissolved oxygen within a water ecosystem, setting off a chain reaction that kills off aquatic life and potentially spreads disease to humans.

In a new study, one West Virginia University engineer developed a simpler, more effective model that predicts dissolved oxygen in streams across the U.S. Atlantic Coast. Omar Abdul-Aziz, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, said the model can be applied to water bodies anywhere in the world.

Abdul-Aziz’s research also found that streams in the southern U.S. (Florida and Georgia, for instance) have a higher metabolism, meaning that they contain less dissolved oxygen due to warmer temperatures and the heavy presence of nitrogen and phosphorus.

Study finds older Americans are largely unaware of new Alzheimer‘s drug

There’s a new drug to treat Alzheimer’s disease, but those who might benefit from it know almost nothing about it, a new study shows.

In spring 2021, for the first time in decades, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a drug to treat Alzheimer’s disease. Enthusiasm for the drug, aducanumab, was swiftly eclipsed by concerns about efficacy, prohibitive cost and serious side effects.

Now, USC researchers have found older Americans most at risk for Alzheimer’s know little about aducanumab (brand name Aduhelm™), despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of survey respondents said they were worried about Alzheimer’s disease. The study appears this week in JAMA Network Open.

“The contrast between older Americans who were very concerned about developing Alzheimer’s disease and those that actually knew anything about the drug was surprising,” said Julie Zissimopoulos, the lead study author, associate professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy and a senior fellow at the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics.

Study looks at older Americans’ knowledge about new Alzheimer’s drug

Shortly after the FDA’s decision, the study authors sought to understand older Americans’ knowledge of and opinions about aducanumab and its potential outcomes.

The researchers analyzed more than 1,000 responses to an online survey of people 55 and older who are part of the USC Center for Economic and Social Research large online survey panel, Understanding America Study. The responses, collected just a few weeks after the June 2021 approval, revealed that although more than 8 in 10 respondents were concerned about Alzheimer’s disease, only about 1 in 4 had some knowledge of the drug.

Where Wild Honeybees Survive

Bee colonies also use hollow electricity poles as nest sites (here a photo from Belgium).
Credit: Dimi Dumortier

In northern Spain, wild honeybees use hollow electricity poles as nesting cavities. Natural areas in the surroundings promote the colonies’ chances to survive the winter.

Until recently, experts considered it unlikely that the honeybee had survived as a wild animal in Europe. In a current study, biologists Benjamin Rutschmann and Patrick Kohl from Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU) in Bavaria, Germany, show that wild honeybees still exist in the region of Galicia in the northwest of Spain.

The researchers describe where to find the bees’ nests and under which conditions they can survive in Biological Conservation, a journal for conservation biology.

136 square kilometers searched for power poles

Rutschmann and Kohl are doctoral students at the JMU Chair of Animal Ecology and Tropical Biology in the group of Professor Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter.

New method provides more detailed information about leukemia

Genetic analysis is standard for investigating the cause of leukemia and for deriving the optimal treatment strategy for diseases also known as blood cancer. A research team from Bochum and Essen has examined a new methodology that offers more accuracy. The so-called optical genome mapping produced more precise information on the genetic basis of the disease in two thirds of all cases examined. The team led by Prof. Dr. Huu Phuc Nguyen, chair of human genetics at the Ruhr University Bochum (RUB), and Prof. Dr. Roland Schroers, head of the hematology, oncology, stem cell / immunotherapy department at the Knappschaftskrankenhaus University Hospital, reports in the International Journal of Cancer.

Laser lights up molecules

For optical genome mapping, very long molecules of the human genome are obtained, for example, from routinely taken blood samples or bone marrow material from patients. These long DNA molecules are marked with luminous dye molecules at over half a million different positions of the entire human genome and passed through very thin nanocannels on a special chip. As the DNA molecules move through the nanocannels, they are made to glow with a laser and photographed using a microscope. The images of the entire genome are then analyzed bioinformatically. "The aim is to find and evaluate changes in regions that are important for the development of cancer," explains Dr. Wanda Gerding from Bochum's human genetics.

Even in Southern California, wildfire frequency is likely to increase by end of century

A wildfire in Lake Elsinore, California, in 2018. Under one possible scenario, the study projects, the number of days with a high risk of fire would nearly double to about 58 days per year by 2100.
Credit: slworking2/Flickr

California’s massive fire seasons in the past two years are part of a trend that scientists have traced back for more than four decades. The area consumed each year by fires has increased significantly over that period — particularly in the Sierra Nevada and northern parts of the state. Although Southern California has had its share of wildfires in that span, too, the region hasn’t experienced the same increase.

But that disparity between north and south is not likely to continue. The number of days per year with increased risk for more and larger wildfires in Southern California is projected to increase significantly through the end of the century, according to new UCLA-led research.

The study, which is published in the Nature journal Communications Earth & Environment, analyzes data dating to 1975. Researchers found no substantial increase in the amount of area burned per year over the past 45 years.

Monday, February 14, 2022

Sustainable bioeconomy: development of environmentally friendly bio-shampoos and plant protection agent technologies

With the early assessment of sustainable, newly developed chemicals and products it is possible to assess a potential risk of toxic substances being released at a later point in product cascades. This has been revealed in a proof-of-concept study jointly coordinated by Goethe University Frankfurt and RWTH Aachen University. In the course of the study the toxicity of sustainable biosurfactants, potentially applied in, e.g., bio-shampoos, and of a new technology for the economical deployment of plant protection agents were analyzed using a combination of computer modelling and laboratory experiments. The study is the first step towards a safe bioeconomy from an eco-toxicological stance, and which uses sustainable resources and processes to reduce environmental burdens significantly.

The natural resources of the planet are running short, yet at the same time they are the basis for our prosperity and development. A dilemma which the EU intends to overcome with the aid of its revised bioeconomy strategy. Rather than relying on fossil-based materials, the economy is to be based on renewable materials. These include plants, wood, microorganisms and algae. At some point in time everything is to be found in closed loops, yet the implementation of a circular bioeconomy requires a shift in the manufacture of chemicals. These also have to be produced from bio-materials rather than crude oil. Based on these requirements the American chemists Paul Anastas and John C. Warner formulated their twelve principles of green chemistry in 1998. One of their principles has very much been neglected to date, however: the reduction of the environmental toxicity of newly developed substances.

Advanced computer simulations shed intriguing new light on magma deep below Earth’s surface

A molecular dynamics snapshot showing the atomic-scale structure of hydrous magma under high pressure and temperature conditions at 500 km depth in the transition zone region of the Earth’s mantle. The colored spheres denote hydrogen (white), oxygen (red), magnesium (blue), or silicon (yellow) atoms, with O-H, Mg-O, and Si-O, bonds represented by white sticks.
Credit: University of Bristol

Unlike the classic Jules Verne science fiction novel Journey to the Center of the Earth or movie The Core, humans cannot venture into the Earth’s interior beyond a few kilometers of its surface. But thanks to latest advances in computer modelling, an international team of researchers led by the University of Bristol has shed new light on the properties and behavior of magma found several hundreds of kilometers deep within the Earth.

The study showed water-rich (hydrous) magmas (extremely hot liquid rocks) formed in the Earth’s mantle – the layer beneath its crust – are more buoyant and fluid than previously believed. This discovery allows us to predict how and where hydrous magmas move within Earth’s interior, which means the amount of water in these realms can be more reliably predicted, furthering understanding of the deep Earth water cycle.

How a feeling of satiety unconsciously controls body sensation

Martin Diers let healthy women go through a door in a rich and hungry state.
Credit: LWL Clinic

Hungry - full! Thick or thin? Researchers at the Bochum University Hospital are studying the body structure of healthy women.

Whether looking at your own body in the mirror or classifying your body feeling when walking through a door - in people with an eating disorder, the body image and body scheme have been proven to be disturbed. For a study, a team of scientists led by Prof. Dr. Martin Diers from the LWL University Clinic for Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy at RUB only healthy, normal weight test subjects run through a door, both hungry and saturated, thus demonstrating that hunger and satiety have an active influence on the body's scheme - the unconscious body feeling. For further research on eating disorders, it is important to consider body image and body scheme differently based on the mechanisms of action. In a specialist article in Scientific Reports, the scientists report on the results.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Fermi's 12-year View of the Gamma-ray Sky


Credit: NASA/EGRET Team and NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration
Hi-Res Zoomable Still Image

This animation cycles between images that encapsulate decades of progress in gamma-ray astrophysics. The lower-resolution image shows the sky as seen by the EGRET instrument aboard NASA's Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory (1991 to 2000) using gamma rays above 100 million electron volts. Lighter colors indicate greater numbers of gamma rays. The most prominent feature is the central plane of our galaxy, which runs across the middle of the map, a result of gamma rays produced when accelerated particles strike interstellar gas and starlight. The largest yellow spot on the right side of the galactic plane is the Vela pulsar, one of five new gamma-ray pulsars EGRET discovered. The prominent reddish blob at top right is the blazar 3C 279. The all-sky map produced by Fermi's Large Area Telescope (LAT), using 12 years of data, is sharper, more detailed, and shows gamma rays of much higher energy than EGRET's. In its first five years, the LAT detected more than 10 times the number of gamma-ray sources seen by EGRET and had captured more high-energy gamma rays from a single source, the Vela pulsar, than the total number EGRET detected from all sources.

These all-sky views show how the sky appears at energies greater than 1 billion electron volts (GeV) according to 12 years of data from NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. (For comparison, the energy of visible light is between 2 and 3 electron volts.) The image contains 144 months of data from Fermi's Large Area Telescope; for better angular resolution, the map shows only gamma rays detected at the front of the instrument's tracker. Lighter colors indicate brighter gamma-ray sources. The images show the entire sky in galactic coordinates, in which the center is the center of our galaxy. The bright midplane of our galaxy runs across the images.

Source/Credit: NASA / GSFC


Reusable plastic bottles release hundreds of chemicals

Selina Tisler in the lab
Credit: University of Copenhagen

Have you ever experienced the strange taste of water after it has been in a reusable plastic bottle for a while? It appears that there is a solid, yet worrying reason for this.

Two chemists from the University of Copenhagen have studied which chemical substances are released into liquids by popular types of soft plastic reusable bottles. The results were quite a surprise.

"We were taken aback by the large number of chemical substances we found in water after 24 hours in the bottles. There were hundreds of substances in the water – including substances never before found in plastic, as well as substances that are potentially harmful to health. After a dishwasher cycle, there were several thousand," says Jan H. Christensen, Professor of Environmental Analytical Chemistry at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences.

Endocrine disruptors and insecticide

Professor Christensen and fellow researcher Selina Tisler detected more than 400 different substances from the bottle plastic and over 3,500 substances derived from dishwasher soap. A large portion of these are unknown substances that the researchers have yet to identify. But even of the identified chemicals, the toxicity of at least 70 % remains unknown.

COVID-19 vaccination may protect against variants better than natural infection

A Stanford study found that COVID-19 vaccines generate antibodies that are more capable of recognizing viral variants than are those created by natural infection.
Credit: Steve Fisch

Antibodies generated by COVID-19 vaccines are more suited to recognizing viral variants than antibodies that arise from natural infection, according to a study by researchers at Stanford Medicine.

A key finding of the study might explain why: Regions in lymph nodes known as germinal centers — where antibodies are chosen and amplified by the immune system — are highly active for several weeks after vaccination. In contrast, the structure and cell composition of germinal centers are profoundly disrupted in people with fatal cases of COVID-19.

“Vaccination generates a range of antibodies capable of responding to viral antigens beyond the original exposure,” said Scott Boyd, MD, PhD, associate professor of pathology. “This greater breadth of antibodies suggests that vaccination is likely to be more protective against viral variants than immunity generated by previous infection.”

Boyd shares a senior authorship of the study, which was published in Cell, with Kari Nadeau, MD, PhD, the Naddisy Foundation Professor in Pediatric Food Allergy, Immunology, and Asthma. The lead authors are postdoctoral scholar Katharina Röltgen, PhD; former postdoctoral scholar Sandra Nielsen, PhD; clinical assistant professor of pathology Oscar Silva, MD, PhD; and life science researcher Sheren Younes, MD, PhD.

Friday, February 11, 2022

Eating prunes may help protect against bone loss in older women

It’s already well known that prunes are good for your gut, but new Penn State research suggests they may be good for bone health, too.

In a research review, the researchers found that prunes can help prevent or delay bone loss in postmenopausal women, possibly due to their ability to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, both of which contribute to bone loss.

“In postmenopausal women, lower levels of estrogen can trigger a rise of oxidative stress and inflammation, increasing the risk of weakening bones that may lead to fractures,” said Connie Rogers, associate professor of nutritional sciences and physiology. “Incorporating prunes into the diet may help protect bones by slowing or reversing this process.”

The review was recently published in the journal Advances in Nutrition.

Osteoporosis is a condition in which bones become weak or brittle that can happen to anyone at any age, but according to the researchers is most common among women over the age of 50. The condition affects more than 200 million women worldwide, causing almost nine million fractures each year.

While medications exist to treat osteoporosis, the researchers said there is a growing interest in ways to treat the condition with nutrition.

“Fruits and vegetables that are rich in bioactive compounds such as phenolic acid, flavonoids and carotenoids can potentially help protect against osteoporosis,” said Mary Jane De Souza, professor of kinesiology and physiology, “with prunes in particular gaining attention in previous research.”

Scientists breaking barriers to treating heart failure

New technology that could radically improve the outlook for patients with serious heart conditions has been developed by scientists at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI) and the Universities of Bristol and Bath together with Ceryx Medical Limited.

Julian Paton, currently Professor of Translational Physiology at ABI, began studying the relationship between the heartbeat and respiration more than a decade ago while at Bristol's School of Physiology, Pharmacology & Neuroscience. He has since worked with his team at UK-based Ceryx Medical, the company he founded while at Bristol, to develop ‘Cysoni’, a unique cardiac rhythm management device.

The bionic device paces the heart with real-time respiratory modulation. The innovation stems from the idea that heart rate increases and decreases with each breath in normal physiology, termed ‘respiratory sinus arrhythmia’ (RSA). Cysoni replicates this natural interaction, triggering heartbeats based on respiratory function, as opposed to the usual ‘metronomic’ generation by traditional pacemakers. This sets Cysoni apart from existing devices, which generate an output with no breath-by-breath induced variation in the inter-beat interval. In essence, Cysoni listens and responds to the cardiorespiratory system and optimizes its performance.

The team’s studies found that RSA pacing increased cardiac output by 20 per cent, compared to monotonic pacing. This increase in output led to a significant decrease in heart failure-associated symptoms such as apneas and significant improvements in performance during exercise. It also reversed cardiomyocyte hypertrophy and restored the T-tubule structure that is essential for force generation. This repair of cardiac damage indicative of heart failure is particularly exciting.

Two-dimensional material could store quantum information at room temperature

Artistic rendition of isolated spins on hexagonal boron nitride under an optical microscope 
Credit: Qiushi Gu

Quantum memory is a major building block to be addressed in the building of a quantum internet, where quantum information is securely stored and sent via photons, or particles of light.

Researchers from the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, in collaboration with colleagues from UT Sydney in Australia, have identified a two-dimensional material, hexagonal boron nitride, that can emit single photons from atomic-scale defects in its structure at room temperature.

The researchers discovered that the light emitted from these isolated defects gives information about a quantum property that can be used to store quantum information, called spin, meaning the material could be useful for quantum applications. Importantly, the quantum spin can be accessed via light and at room temperature.

The finding could eventually support scalable quantum networks built from two-dimensional materials that can operate at room temperature. The results are reported in the journal Nature Communications.

Future communication networks will use single photons to send messages around the world, which will lead to more secure global communication technologies.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Futuristic coating for hospital fabrics and activewear kills COVID and E. coli

Material coated in polymer in small scale tests with a green lamp.
Credit: Taylor Wright

UBC researchers have developed an inexpensive, non-toxic coating for almost any fabric that decreases the infectivity of the virus that causes COVID-19 by up to 90 per cent.

And in the future, you might be able to spray it on fabric yourself.

“When you’re walking into a hospital, you want to know that pillow you’re putting your head onto is clean,” says lead author Taylor Wright, a doctoral student in the department of chemistry. “This coating could take a little bit of the worry off frontline workers to have Personal Protection Equipment with antimicrobial properties.”

Researchers soaked fabric in a solution of a bacteria-killing polymer which contains a molecule that releases sterilizing forms of oxygen when light shines on it. They then used an ultraviolet (UV) light to turn this solution to a solid, fixing the coating to the fabric. “This coating has both passive and active antimicrobial properties, killing microbes immediately upon contact, which is then amped up when sunlight hits the cloth,” says senior author Dr. Michael Wolf, a professor of chemistry.

Both components are safe for human use, and the entire process takes about one hour at room temperature, says Wright. It also makes the fabric hydrophobic, meaning microbes are less likely to stick to the cloth, and doesn’t seem to affect the strength of the fabric.

A Possible COVID-19 Silver Lining for Great Ape Conservation

Mountain gorilla family
Credit: Skyler Bishop for Gorilla Doctors

Respiratory illness outbreaks among wild mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park have declined since the start of COVID-19, according to a “Correspondence” report in the journal Nature from Gorilla Doctors and the Rwanda Development Board.

Mountain gorillas are susceptible to human-transmitted respiratory pathogens. Respiratory illness is the second leading cause of death in wild, human-habituated populations.

In the five years prior to March 2020, the Volcanoes National Park population averaged 5.4 respiratory illness outbreaks in gorilla family groups annually. In contrast, from March 2020 through December 2021, the population averaged 1.6 respiratory illness outbreaks in the family groups each year. To date, SARS-CoV-2 has not been detected in samples collected from mountain gorillas with respiratory illness.

The decline in respiratory illness outbreaks in mountain gorillas during the COVID-19 pandemic correlates with an overall reduction in the number of people coming into close proximity of the gorillas, and with additional health protection measures taken to reduce the risk of disease transmission from humans to gorillas.

First Modern Humans Arrived in Europe Earlier Than Previously Known

Close-up of the Grotte Mandrin in southern France where scientists have uncovered layers of history that include both modern human and Neanderthal activity.
Credit: Ludovic Slimak

Some 30 years of archeological and other types of scientific research around the ancient artifacts and human remains in the Grotte Mandrin, located in the Rhone River Valley in southern France, has revealed that humans may have arrived in Europe about 10,000 years earlier than originally thought. This conclusion, drawn by an international team of researchers including Jason Lewis, PhD, of Stony Brook University, will help scientists rethink the arrival of humans into Europe and their replacement of and interactions with Neanderthals who also lived in the cave. The research is detailed in a paper published in Science Advances.

Previous studies have suggested that the first modern humans reached the European continent – originally from Africa and via the Levant, the eastern Mediterranean crossroads – between 43,000 and 48,000 years ago. But this discovery of modern human presence in the heart of the Rhone River Valley at Grotte Mandrin points to about 54,000 years ago.

The area of the cave excavated and analyzed that proved the evidence of modern human presence is Mandrin’s Layer E. It is sandwiched between 10 other layers of artifacts and fossils that contain evidence of Neanderthal life.

Vaccinated Patients Less Likely to Need Critical Care During Omicron Surge

A new study of COVID-19 patients who had the omicron variant of the disease shows that vaccinated adults had less severe illness than unvaccinated adults and were less likely to land in intensive care. Source: Cedars-Sinai

The highly contagious omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 became the dominant strain in the United States in mid-December 2021, coinciding with a rise in hospitalizations of patients with COVID-19. Among those admitted during the omicron surge, vaccinated adults had less severe illness compared with unvaccinated adults and were less likely to land in intensive care, according to a new study by Cedars-Sinai and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"Overall, the omicron-period group had a lower likelihood of being admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) and were also less likely to require invasive mechanical ventilation compared with the delta-period group,” said Matthew Modes, MD, a pulmonologist at Cedars-Sinai and co-first author of the paper.

Investigators also found that during the omicron period fewer patients died while hospitalized (4.0%), compared with those admitted when the delta variant was dominant (8.3%).

This Bizarre Looking Helmet Can Create Better Brain Scans

Ke Wu, a PhD student in BU’s department of mechanical engineering, demonstrates a new magnetic metamaterial device intended to be used in conjunction with MRI machines to boost the quality of brain scans.
Credit: Cydney Scott

It may look like a bizarre bike helmet, or a piece of equipment found in Doc Brown’s lab in Back to the Future, yet this gadget made of plastic and copper wire is a technological breakthrough with the potential to revolutionize medical imaging. Despite its playful look, the device is actually a metamaterial, packing in a ton of physics, engineering, and mathematical know-how.

It was developed by Xin Zhang, a College of Engineering professor of mechanical engineering, and her team of scientists at BU’s Photonics Center. They’re experts in metamaterials, a type of engineered structure created from small unit cells that might be unspectacular alone, but when grouped together in a precise way, get new superpowers not found in nature. Metamaterials, for instance, can bend, absorb, or manipulate waves—such as electromagnetic waves, sound waves, or radio waves. Each unit cell, also called a resonator, is typically arranged in a repeating pattern in rows and columns; they can be designed in different sizes and shapes, and placed at different orientations, depending on which waves they’re designed to influence.

Animals deceive opponents by producing giant weapons on a small budget

En Garde! Belligerent fiddler crabs intimidate before striking, relying on relatively cheap prop weapons to scare.
Lillie via Wikimedia Commons

Two knights stand face to face. One has a plain average-sized sword. The other has a massive fear-inducing sword stained with blood. After one quick look at it, the first knight quickly puts his average sword away, backs off to a safe distance, and runs for his life.

He’ll never know that the massive fear-inducing sword was actually a plastic toy.

In a new study appearing in the journal Biology Letters, Jason Dinh, Ph.D. candidate in Biology at Duke University, shows that animal weapons can be a lot like plastic swords: impressive, but ultimately cheap.

From deer antlers to lobster claws, many animals have weapons. These are often large, clunky and heavy appendages that are metabolically costly for the animal to maintain. In clawed crustaceans, such as shrimps, lobsters, and crabs, their weapons can weigh more than a third of the animal’s body mass. That’s a lot of extra tissue to feed and maintain, even when the animal is perfectly still.

“Some animals can spend 40% of their energy budget for the day just maintaining themselves sitting there doing nothing,” Dinh said. “It's a very slow and steady cost that's happening throughout the animal’s adult life.”

Unlocking the mechanical secrets of giant Amazonian waterlilies

Giant Amazonian waterlilies at Oxford Botanic Garden
Credit: Chris Thorogood

Researchers studying giant Amazonian waterlilies grown at the University's Botanic Garden have unraveled the engineering enigma behind the largest floating leaves in nature.

In a study published recently in Science Advances, researchers found that the distinctive pattern on the underside of the gargantuan leaves is the secret to the success of the giant Amazonian waterlily (genus Victoria).

The crisscross framework makes up the vascular structure of the lily pad (or leaf), supporting its large surface area and keeping it afloat. The giant leaves can grow 40cm a day, reaching nearly 3m in diameter – ten times larger than any other species of waterlily – and carry the weight of a small child.

Dr Chris Thorogood, Deputy Director at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden said:

'I used to marvel at this extraordinary plant on childhood trips to botanic gardens. I remember wondering how on earth does it grow this big.'

The researchers compared the high-sided giant Amazonian waterlily leaf which has thick veins to Nymphaea – a smaller relation with disc-like leaves and a less prominent vascular system. Using in-situ experiments and mathematical modelling, the team found that the giant Amazonian waterlily leaves had a greater rigidity for a given volume of plant matter.

New study unlocks mystery origin of iconic Aussie snakes

Tiger Snake (Notechis scutatus)
Credit: Max Tibby- Snake Catchers Adelaide

New research led by the University of Adelaide has found the first tangible evidence that the ancestors of some of Australia’s most venomous snakes arrived by sea rather than by land – the dispersal route of most other Australian reptiles.

In a paper published in Genes, the researchers analyzed the genomes of two Australian elapids (front fanged snakes), a tiger and a brown snake, and compared them to marine and semi-marine elapid sea snakes and Asian elapids.

“Some believe their ancestors travelled by land, whereas others hold the more contentious view that a marine or semi-marine ancestor swam here."
Professor David Adelson

They inferred that the ancestor of all Australian elapids had accumulated self-replicating and self-mobilizing genes (jumping genes) that were not present in their land relatives but came from another source altogether.

Einstein’s photoelectric effect: The time it takes for an electron to be released

COLTRIMS reaction microscope at electron storage ring BESSY II, Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin für Materialien und Energie (HZB).
Photo: Miriam Weller, Goethe University Frankfurt

When light hits a material, electrons can be released from this material – the photoelectric effect. Although this effect played a major role in the development of quantum theory, it still holds a number of secrets: To date it has not been clear how quickly the electron is released after the photon is absorbed. Jonas Rist, a Ph.D. student working within an international team of researchers at the Institute for Nuclear Physics at Goethe University Frankfurt, has now been able to find an answer to this mystery with the aid of a COLTRIMS reaction microscope which had been developed in Frankfurt: The emission takes place lightning fast, namely within just a few attoseconds – within a billionth of billionths of a second.

It is now exactly one hundred years ago that Albert Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the photoelectric effect. The jury had not yet really understood his revolutionary theory of relativity – but Einstein had also conducted ground-breaking work on the photoelectric effect. With his analysis he was able to demonstrate that light comprises individual packets of energy – so-called photons. This was the decisive confirmation of Max Planck's hypothesis that light is made up of quanta, and paved the way for the modern quantum theory.

Researchers identify brain region associated with feeling full after eating

Feeling full, or satiated, after a meal is healthy and normal, but what causes that feeling is complicated and not well understood. New University of Arizona-led research published in the journal Molecular Metabolism has identified a brain region and neural circuitry that mediate satiation, which could help scientists better target drugs to treat eating disorders or manage weight.

There are currently six Food and Drug Administration-approved medications for weight management, but they often come with side effects.

"When we can more precisely target the part of the brain responsible for feelings of satiation, then we can create treatments with fewer side effects," said lead study author Haijiang Cai, an associate professor in the Department of Neuroscience.

Previous research has mapped the circuits for satiation to the brain's central amygdala, which also controls fear, pain and other strong emotions. But the complexity of the neurons in this part of the brain has made it difficult for scientists to map where the signal goes next.

Cai and his team found that after the amygdala, the signal heads to neurons located in a brain region called the parasubthalamic nucleus, or PSTh, responsible for the feeling of satiation.

Here's how they did it: First, they knew that the hormone cholecystokinin, or CCK, is secreted by the gut to tell the brain "I'm full" after a meal. They also knew that specific neurons in the amygdala, called PKC-delta neurons, mediate the satiation effect of CCK by turning off other central amygdala inhibitory neurons. The researchers reasoned that the neurons downstream of the central amygdala should be turned on by PCK-delta neurons while also being turned on by CCK, Cai said.

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