Tuesday, March 29, 2022

In the heat of the wound

Empa researcher Fei Pan is working on a membrane made of nanofibers that releases medication only when the material heats up. Such a membrane could, for example, become active in a bandage as soon as inflammation starts.
Image: Empa

A bandage that releases medication as soon as an infection starts in a wound could treat injuries more efficiently. Empa researchers are currently working on polymer fibers that soften as soon as the environment heats up due to an infection, thereby releasing antimicrobial drugs.

It is not possible to tell from the outside whether a wound will heal without problems under the dressing or whether bacteria will penetrate the injured tissue and ignite an inflammation. To be on the safe side, disinfectant ointments or antibiotics are applied to the wound before the dressing is applied. However, these preventive measures are not necessary in every case. Thus, medications are wasted and wounds are over-treated.

Even worse, the wasteful use of antibiotics promotes the emergence of multi-resistant germs, which are an immense problem in global healthcare. Empa researchers at the two Empa laboratories Biointerfaces and Biomimetic Membranes and Textiles in St. Gallen wants to change this. They are developing a dressing that autonomously administers antibacterial drugs only when they are really needed.

The idea of the interdisciplinary team led by Qun Ren and Fei Pan: The dressing should be "loaded" with drugs and react to environmental stimuli. "In this way, wounds could be treated as needed at exactly the right moment," explains Fei Pan. As an environmental stimulus, the team chose a well-known effect: the rise in temperature in an infected, inflamed wound.

Invading Hordes of Crazy Ants May Have Finally Met Their Kryptonite


Tawny crazy ants swarm on a cobweb spider.
Credit: Mark Sanders.

When tawny crazy ants move into a new area, the invasive species is like an ecological wrecking ball — driving out native insects and small animals and causing major headaches for homeowners. But scientists at The University of Texas at Austin have good news, as they have demonstrated how to use a naturally occurring fungus to crush local populations of crazy ants. They describe their work this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“I think it has a lot of potential for the protection of sensitive habitats with endangered species or areas of high conservation value,” said Edward LeBrun, a research scientist with the Texas Invasive Species Research Program at Brackenridge Field Laboratory and lead author of the study.

In some parts of Texas, homes have been overrun by ants that swarm breaker boxes, AC units, sewage pumps and other electrical devices, causing shorts and other damage. Natives of South America, tawny crazy ants have raised alarm bells as they’ve spread across the southeastern U.S. during the past 20 years. The idea for using the fungal pathogen came from observing wild populations of crazy ants becoming infected and collapsing without human intervention.

“This doesn’t mean crazy ants will disappear,” LeBrun said. “It’s impossible to predict how long it will take for the lightning bolt to strike and the pathogen to infect any one crazy ant population. But it’s a big relief because it means these populations appear to have a lifespan.”

Other study authors are Rob Plowes and Lawrence Gilbert at Brackenridge Field Laboratory, and Melissa Jones formerly of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

New method purifies hydrogen from heavy carbon monoxide mixtures

Chris Arges (right), Penn State associate professor of chemical engineering, proposes using high-temperature proton-selective polymer electrolyte membranes, or PEMs, to separate hydrogen from other gases in an ACS Energy Letters paper. Co-author Deepra Bhattacharya, Penn State doctoral student in chemical engineering, is seen at left.
Credit: Kelby Hochreither/Penn State.

Refining metals, manufacturing fertilizers and powering fuel cells for heavy vehicles are all processes that require purified hydrogen. But purifying, or separating, that hydrogen from a mix of other gases can be difficult, with several steps. A research team led by Chris Arges, Penn State associate professor of chemical engineering, demonstrated that the process can be simplified using a pump outfitted with newly developed membrane materials.

The researchers used an electrochemical hydrogen pump to both separate and compress hydrogen with an 85% recovery rate from fuel gas mixtures known as syngas and 98.8% recovery rate from conventional water gas shift reactor exit stream — the highest value recorded. The team detailed their approach in ACS Energy Letters.

Traditional methods for hydrogen separations employ a water gas shift reactor, which involves an extra step, according to Arges. The water gas shift reactor first converts carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide, which is then sent through an absorption process to separate the hydrogen from it. Then, the purified hydrogen is pressurized using a compressor for immediate use or for storage.

Fuel from waste wood

In collaboration with the Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology (LUT) in Finland, researchers at the Straubing Campus for Biotechnology and Sustainability of the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have developed a new process for the production of ethanol.
Image: Maria Schießl / TUM

According to the latest assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a considerable reduction in CO2 emissions is required to limit the consequences of climate change. Producing fuel from renewable sources such as waste wood and straw or renewable electricity would be one way to reduce carbon emissions from the area of transportation. This is an area which is being addressed by researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM).

Ethanol is usually produced through the fermentation of sugars from starchy raw materials such as corn, or from lignocellulosic biomass, such as wood or straw. It is an established fuel that decarbonizes the transportation sector and can be a building block to reduce emissions of CO2 over the long term. In collaboration with the Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology (LUT) in Finland, researchers at the Straubing Campus for Biotechnology and Sustainability of the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have developed a new process for the production of ethanol.

Accelerated biological aging may cause bowel cancer

Scientists have shown how accelerated biological aging measured by an epigenetic clock may increase the risk of bowel cancer, according to a report published today in eLife.

The study provides evidence that biological age might play a causal role in the increased risk of certain diseases, and paves the way for interventions that could slow down this process.

Epigenetic markers are changes to DNA which may alter the way in which our genes work and are known to vary as we age. A type of epigenetic marker called DNA methylation is often used to measure age. DNA methylation patterns on the genome have been shown to relate closely with age and they can provide insights into 'biological aging' – that is, how old our cells look compared to how old they are in years.

“When an individual’s biological age is older than their chronological age, they are said to be experiencing epigenetic age acceleration,” explains first author Fernanda Morales-Berstein, a Wellcome Trust PhD Student in Molecular, Genetic and Lifecourse Epidemiology at the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit, University of Bristol. “Epigenetic age acceleration, as measured by DNA methylation-based predictors of age called epigenetic clocks have been associated with several adverse health outcomes including cancer. But although epigenetics can be used to predict cancer risk or detect the disease early, it is still unclear whether accelerated epigenetic aging is a cause of cancer.”

When maggots uncover a murder

These maggots belong to the latrine fly. They are quasi criminal officers.
Credit: Roberto Schirdewahn

Investigators still have to go in search of traces. But if they find crawling animals at the scene, they can be of great help to them.

First come the blowflies. A few hours after death, they control the eyes, nose, mouth and wounds of a lifeless body. Here they lay their eggs - and just a few days later it is teeming with life: numerous maggots hatch and feed on the dead tissue until they finally become new flies. Not only gliding, other types of flies join in over time, and finally various beetles are crawled on. The hustle and bustle that takes place on corpses can be quite revealing - for example, if you want to find out when and under what circumstances a person died.

With these questions, Dr. Ersin Karapazarlioglu is only too good. He conducts research in the RUB Faculty of Biology and Biotechnology in the Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Kirchner. Before coming to Germany in 2020, he worked for 17 years in Turkey as a criminal officer and as a lecturer at the police college and a university. He always looked for insects at crime scenes. With their help, he was able to determine the time of death of a body more precisely than with other methods. The method is called forensic entomology. The method was initially established in the USA and is still in its infancy in Europe.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Scorpions’ venomous threat to mammals a relatively new evolutionary step

Prashant Sharma displays a scorpion in a container
Credit: University of Wisconsin–Madison

Despite their reputation as living fossils, scorpions have remained evolutionarily nimble — especially in developing venom to fend off the rise of mammal predators. A new genetic analysis of scorpions’ toxin-making reveals recent evolutionary steps and may actually be a boon for researchers studying scorpion venom’s benefits to human health.

An international team of researchers led by University of Wisconsin–Madison biologists has assembled the largest evolutionary tree of scorpions yet, showing seven independent instances in which, the distinctive eight-legged creatures evolved venom compounds toxic to mammals.

“The last major changes to their body shape, their morphology, happened about 430 million years ago, when they left the water and moved onto land,” says Carlos Santibáñez-López, a former postdoctoral researcher at UW–Madison and lead author of the new study published today in the journal Systematic Biology. “But we know now that they have evolved in very important ways much more recently.”

Solar energy explains fast yearly retreat of Antarctica’s sea ice

A research vessel in Antarctica on June 3, 2017, the first day researchers saw the sun rise above the horizon after weeks of polar darkness. New research shows that solar radiation drives the relatively fast annual retreat of sea ice around Antarctica at the end of each calendar year.
Credit: Ben Adkison

In the Southern Hemisphere, the ice cover around Antarctica gradually expands from March to October each year. During this time the total ice area increases by 6 times to become larger than Russia. The sea ice then retreats at a faster pace, most dramatically around December, when Antarctica experiences constant daylight.

New research led by the University of Washington explains why the ice retreats so quickly: Unlike other aspects of its behavior, Antarctic Sea ice is just following simple rules of physics.

The study was published March 28 in Nature Geoscience.

“In spite of the puzzling longer-term trends and the large year-to-year variations in Antarctic Sea ice, the seasonal cycle is really consistent, always showing this fast retreat relative to slow growth,” said lead author Lettie Roach, who conducted the study as a postdoctoral researcher at the UW and is now a research scientist at NASA and Columbia University. “Given how complex our climate system is, I was surprised that the rapid seasonal retreat of Antarctic Sea ice could be explained with such a simple mechanism.”

Little understood brain region linked to how we perceive pain

A new review paper, published in the journal Brain, has shown that a poorly understood region of the brain called the claustrum may play an important role in how we experience pain.

The little understood area of the brain called the claustrum may be the next frontier in improving outcomes for brain damage patients.

A collaboration of Oxford University research groups from the Department of Physiology, Anatomy & Genetics (DPAG), the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences (NDCN) and Experimental Psychology (EP) have uncovered new clues regarding the function of one of most densely interconnected, yet rarely studied, areas of the brain.

The researchers reviewed studies of patients with lesions in the claustrum, which although rare show cognitive impairments and seizures. Furthermore, the lack of clinical focus on the claustrum may mean there are many more cases yet to be uncovered.

They also uncovered an underappreciated link between the claustrum and pain. It is already known that there are links between the claustrum and perception, salience and the sleep-wake cycle, but this is the first time a research team has shown how the claustrum might be more involved in the debilitating experience of pain.

Unprecedented videos show RNA switching ‘on’ and ‘off’

Similar to a light switch, RNA switches (called riboswitches) determine which genes turn “on” and “off.” Although this may seem like a simple process, the inner workings of these switches have confounded biologists for decades.

Now researchers led by Northwestern University and the University at Albany discovered one part of RNA smoothly invades and displaces another part of the same RNA, enabling the structure to rapidly and dramatically change shape. Called “strand displacement,” this mechanism appears to switch genetic expression from “on” to “off.”

Using a simulation they launched last year, the researchers made this discovery by watching a slow-motion simulation of a riboswitch up close and in action. Affectionately called R2D2 (short for “reconstructing RNA dynamics from data”), the new simulation models RNA in three dimensions as it binds to a compound, communicates along its length and folds to turn a gene “on” or “off.”

The findings could have potential implications for engineering new RNA-based diagnostics and for designing successful drugs to target RNA to treat illness and disease.

Scientists identify overgrowth of key brain structure in babies who later develop autism

The amygdala is a small structure deep in the brain important for interpreting the social and emotional meaning of sensory input – from recognizing emotion in faces to interpreting fearful images that inform us about potential dangers in our surroundings. Historically the amygdala has been thought to play a prominent role in the difficulties with social behavior that are central to autism.

Researchers have long known the amygdala is abnormally large in school-age children with autism, but it was unknown precisely when that enlargement occurs. Now, for the first time, researchers from the Infant Brain Imaging Study Network, used magnetic resonance imaging to demonstrate that the amygdala grows too rapidly in infancy. Overgrowth begins between six and 12 months of age, prior to the age when the hallmark behaviors of autism fully emerge, enabling the earliest diagnosis of this condition. Increased growth of the amygdala in infants who were later diagnosed with autism differed markedly from brain-growth patterns in babies with another neurodevelopmental disorder, fragile X syndrome, where no differences in amygdala growth were observed.

Published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the official journal of the American Psychiatric Association, this research demonstrated that infants with fragile X syndrome already exhibit cognitive delays at six months of age, whereas infants who will later be diagnosed with autism do not show any deficits in cognitive ability at six months of age, but have a gradual decline in cognitive ability between six and 24 months of age, the age when they were diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder in this study. Babies who go on to develop autism show no difference in the size of their amygdala at six months. However, their amygdala begins growing faster than other babies (including those with fragile X syndrome and those who do not develop autism), between six and 12 months of age, and is significantly enlarged by 12 months. This amygdala enlargement continues through 24 months, an age when behaviors are often sufficiently evident to warrant a diagnosis of autism.

Promising nose spray could prevent and treat COVID-19

A newly discovered small molecule could be sprayed into people’s noses to prevent COVID-19 illness prior to exposure and provide early treatment if administered soon after infection, according to a study in mice led by Cornell researchers.

The study, published March 28 in the journal Nature, employed experimental mice engineered with human receptors for the SARS-CoV-2 virus on their cell surfaces and found that a molecule, called N-0385, inhibited entry of the virus into cells in the body. At Cornell, N-0385 was shown to protect mice from infection prior to exposure, while also providing effective treatment when administered up to 12 hours after exposure. The molecule was developed in collaboration with investigators at the Université de Sherbrooke in Quebec, Canada.

The treatment holds promise for both preventing disease and reducing severity of and mortality from COVID-19 post-infection with a few single daily doses.

“There are very few, if any, small molecule antivirals that have been discovered that work prophylactically to prevent infection,” said Hector Aguilar-Carreno, associate professor of virology in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the College of Veterinary Medicine, and a senior author of the paper, “A TMPRSS2 Inhibitor ACTS as a pan-SARS-CoV-2 prophylactic and therapeutic.” Other senior authors include Francois Jean, associate professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and Richard Leduc, professor of pharmacology at the Université de Sherbrooke.

New trials for alopecia treatment are a success

A new study shows that one in three patients with a severe skin disease were able to regrow hair after being treated with a common arthritis drug.

The study is based on Phase 3 clinical trials using baricitinib, a Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitor, to treat alopecia areata, an often-disfiguring skin disease characterized by rapid loss of scalp hair, and sometimes eyebrows and eyelashes.

Phase 3 clinical trials are the final testing hurdle before a new treatment can be considered for U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval.

“This is so exciting, because the data clearly show how effective baricitinib is,” said Dr. Brett King, an associate professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine and lead author of the new study, published March 26 in the New England Journal of Medicine. “These large, controlled trials tell us that we can alleviate some of the suffering from this awful disease.”

Before and after images for participants who received 36 weeks of treatment for alopecia areata with baricitinib.

Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks hair follicles. More than 200,000 new cases emerge each year in the United States. Although alopecia areata can develop in patients of any age, it typically occurs in people under the age of 40.

There is currently no FDA-approved treatment for the disease.

For the new study, King and his colleagues conducted two large, randomized trials involving a total of 1,200 people. The participants were adults with severe alopecia areata, who had lost at least half of their scalp hair; many had lost all of their scalp hair.

Let quantum dots grow regularly

With this experimental setup, the researchers check the quality of the quantum dots. Green laser light is used to stimulate the quantum dots that then emit infrared light.
© İsmail Bölükbaşı

With the previous manufacturing process, the density of the structures was difficult to control. Now researchers can create a kind of checkerboard pattern. A step towards application, for example in a quantum computer.

Quantum points could one day form the basic information units of quantum computers. Researchers at the Ruhr University Bochum (RUB) and the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have significantly improved the manufacturing process for these tiny semiconductor structures, together with colleagues from Copenhagen and Basel. The quantum dots are generated on a wafer, a thin semiconductor crystal disc. So far, the density of the structures on it has been difficult to control. Now scientists can create specific arrangements - an important step towards an applicable component that should have a large number of quantum dots.

The team published the results on 28. March 2022 in the journal Nature Communications. A group led by Nikolai Bart, Prof. Dr. Andreas Wieck and Dr. Arne Ludwig from the RUB Chair for Applied Solid State Physics with the team around Christian Dangel and Prof. Dr. Jonathan Finley from the TUM working group semiconductor nanostructures and quantum systems as well as with colleagues from the universities of Copenhagen and Basel.

A tool for predicting the future

MIT researchers created a tool that enables people to make highly accurate predictions using multiple time-series data with just a few keystrokes. The powerful algorithm at the heart of their tool can transform multiple time series into a tensor, which is a multi-dimensional array of numbers (pictured). Credits: Figure courtesy of the researchers Source: MIT

Whether someone is trying to predict tomorrow’s weather, forecast future stock prices, identify missed opportunities for sales in retail, or estimate a patient’s risk of developing a disease, they will likely need to interpret time-series data, which are a collection of observations recorded over time.

Making predictions using time-series data typically requires several data-processing steps and the use of complex machine-learning algorithms, which have such a steep learning curve they aren’t readily accessible to nonexperts.

To make these powerful tools more user-friendly, MIT researchers developed a system that directly integrates prediction functionality on top of an existing time-series database. Their simplified interface, which they call tspDB (time series predict database), does all the complex modeling behind the scenes so a nonexpert can easily generate a prediction in only a few seconds.

The new system is more accurate and more efficient than state-of-the-art deep learning methods when performing two tasks: predicting future values and filling in missing data points.

NUS-Monash University collaboration produces universal flu vaccine candidate

Current influenza vaccines have shortcomings
Credit: NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine

Influenza, commonly referred to as “flu”, is a major global public health concern and a huge economic burden to societies. Seasonal influenza epidemics afflict between 13 to 100 million individuals annually, including three to five million cases of severe illness and 300,000 to 600,000 deaths worldwide. This represents a top global public health concern and an extraordinary economic burden to all societies. Pandemics are less frequent, but are generally more severe and pose a greater threat. Over the past century, there have been at least four devastating pandemics caused by Influenza A virus which took the lives of hundreds of millions of individuals.

Although vaccination arguably represents the most effective way to prevent influenza, current vaccination strategies suffer from certain limitations, chief of which require current influenza vaccines to be updated annually to match circulating strains. This results in low vaccination take-up rates and poor coverage due to inaccurate prediction of circulating strains. Broadly protective, “universal” flu vaccines that do not need to be updated annually have therefore been pursued.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

What Mercury’s Unusual Orbit Reveals About the Sun

Mercury is special. As the closest planet to the Sun, it occupies a region where the Sun’s influence is changing dramatically. The Sun’s magnetic field, which dominates space close to the Sun, is rapidly waning. And Mercury’s orbit – more elliptical or “oval-shaped” than any other planet – allows it to experience a wider range of solar magnetic field conditions than any other planet. As a result, Mercury provides a unique opportunity to study how the Sun’s influence on a planet varies with distance.

In a new study published in Nature Communications, Goddard scientists Norberto Romanelli and Gina DiBraccio used data from NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft to study the Sun’s changing interaction with Mercury. As Mercury moves through the solar wind, the steady stream of particles escaping the Sun, some of them strike Mercury’s magnetosphere and bounce back towards the Sun. These rebounding solar wind particles generate low-frequency waves that reverberate through space, traveling “upstream” in the solar wind towards the Sun.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

A better way to separate gases

A new membrane material, pictured here, could make purification of gases significantly more efficient, potentially helping to reduce carbon emissions.
Credits: Courtesy of the researchers

Industrial processes for chemical separations, including natural gas purification and the production of oxygen and nitrogen for medical or industrial uses, are collectively responsible for about 15 percent of the world’s energy use. They also contribute a corresponding amount to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Now, researchers at MIT and Stanford University have developed a new kind of membrane for carrying out these separation processes with roughly 1/10 the energy use and emissions.

Using membranes for separation of chemicals is known to be much more efficient than processes such as distillation or absorption, but there has always been a tradeoff between permeability — how fast gases can penetrate through the material — and selectivity — the ability to let the desired molecules pass through while blocking all others. The new family of membrane materials, based on “hydrocarbon ladder” polymers, overcomes that tradeoff, providing both high permeability and extremely good selectivity, the researchers say.

The findings are reported in the journal Science, in a paper by Yan Xia, an associate professor of chemistry at Stanford; Zachary Smith, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at MIT; Ingo Pinnau, a professor at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, and five others.

Red-backed salamanders possess only limited ability to adjust to warming climate

To stay cool and not burn energy, salamanders have evolved strategies such as burrowing under rocks and logs. But if they are hiding to stay cool for much longer periods, they are not foraging and eating, and at the end of a long summer their condition deteriorates.
Credit: David Munoz

If average temperatures rise as projected in eastern North America in coming decades, at least one widespread amphibian species likely will be unable to adjust, and its range may shift northward, according to a new study led by Penn State scientists.

In a novel experiment, researchers devised a method to measure the metabolic rate of red-backed salamanders from different regions exposed to warmer temperatures — analyzing how much more energy the small, hardy woodland amphibians would expend to survive in the forests they now inhabit from Quebec south to North Carolina, and west to Missouri and Minnesota.

To stay cool and not burn energy, salamanders have evolved strategies such as burrowing under rocks and logs, explained study co-author David Miller, associate professor of wildlife population ecology. But if they are hiding to stay cool for much longer periods, they are not foraging and eating, and at the end of a long summer their condition deteriorates.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Quantum Physics Sets a Speed Limit to Electronics

An ultra-short laser pulse (blue) creates free charge carriers, another pulse (red) accelerates them in opposite directions.
Credit: Vienna University of Technology

Semiconductor electronics is getting faster and faster - but at some point, physics no longer permits any increase. The shortest possible time scale of optoelectronic phenomena has now been investigated.

How fast can electronics be? When computer chips work with ever shorter signals and time intervals, at some point they come up against physical limits. The quantum-mechanical processes that enable the generation of electric current in a semiconductor material take a certain amount of time. This puts a limit to the speed of signal generation and signal transmission.

TU Wien (Vienna), TU Graz and the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching have now been able to explore these limits: The speed can definitely not be increased beyond one petahertz (one million gigahertz), even if the material is excited in an optimal way with laser pulses. This result has now been published in the scientific journal "Nature Communications".

Researchers first to sample permafrost CO2 emissions during fall and winter

A soil sampling device used by Claudia Czimczik (left), UCI professor of Earth system science, and Shawn Pedron, UCI post-doctoral scholar in Earth system science, enabled the researchers to study permafrost at various depths to measure CO2 emissions from Arctic tundra permafrost. The photo was taken at the NSF Toolkit Field Station in Alaska in August 2019.
Credit: Claudia Czimzcik / UCI

The Arctic is warming along with the rest of the planet, and as this is happening, its permafrost – perennially frozen arctic soil that holds a lot of trapped organic matter from dead plants – is thawing. As the permafrost thaws, the organic matter it holds is thawing, too, and this is opening the door for microorganisms to decompose that matter and, in the process, release climate-warming greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

In new research published on today in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, a team led by scientists at the University of California, Irvine report for the first-time direct measurements of the gases emitted from permafrost during the fall and winter months – measurements that can help fill in gaps in permafrost emissions estimates that climate scientists have until now missed.

“It’s the first time we are able to look at the carbon sources that fuel carbon emissions during the fall and winter periods,” said Claudia Czimczik, a professor of Earth system scientist at UCI who’s the senior author of the new study.

Researchers discover new tools in regular blood samples for developing precision therapies for lymphoma

Image: Leppä lab
In a recently completed study, researchers from the University of Helsinki and Helsinki University Hospital Comprehensive Cancer Center investigated the characteristics and clinical significance of circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) found in the blood of patients with aggressive lymphoma. The study was carried out through Nordic collaboration.

Analyzed in the study were blood samples of lymphoma patients treated in a Nordic Lymphoma Group trial, which were collected before, at the mid-point of and after treatment.

Increasingly accurate diagnostics and more effective therapies

“The analysis of ctDNA in the blood samples revealed significant diagnostic features, not all of which were found in regular tumour biopsies,” says Professor Sirpa Leppä from the University of Helsinki and the HUS Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The researchers found that the concentration of ctDNA in blood before therapy varied considerably between patients and was comparable to the combined volume of the malignant tumors.

“Patients with the highest ctDNA levels at the time of lymphoma diagnosis had the poorest survival probability,” explains MD and PhD student Leo Meriranta.

At the same time, changes in ctDNA concentration during therapy reflected treatment responses in that the patients whose lymphoma was unaffected by the treatment were distinguished from other patients by the ctDNA analyses carried out using the follow-up blood samples.

Ultraviolet Light Can Clean N95 Masks for Reuse Without Hindering Performance

The N95 mask owes its remarkable filtering ability to its three-layer structure. While the fibers in the outer- and innermost layers block large particles such as water droplets, the middle is where much finer, charged fibers electrically attract and trap tiny, submicron aerosols.
Credits: SEM images by A. Vladar/NIST, animation by J. Wang/NIST

To combat COVID-19 amid supply shortages in 2020, health care facilities across the U.S. resorted to disinfecting personal protective equipment (PPE), such as N95 masks, for reuse with methods such as ultraviolet (UV) light. But questions lingered about the safety and efficacy of these methods and how best to implement them. 

Now, in perhaps the most rigorous examination of UV light’s effects on N95 masks yet, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have shown that these masks can be disinfected with little impact on their form or function. In a new study published in the Journal of Research of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the researchers, with help from federal and private partners, scrutinized UV-exposed N95 masks for traces of virus and looked for changes in the shape of their fibers, ability to filter out aerosols and other properties. 

The results represent a key step toward devising UV standards that could have far-reaching benefits in the future.

Enhancing the electromechanical behavior of a flexible polymer

Qiming Zhang, distinguished professor of electrical engineering, led a team of researchers to develop a robust piezoelectric material that can convert mechanical stress into electricity.
Credit: Tyler Henderson/Penn State

Piezoelectric materials convert mechanical stress into electricity, or vice versa, and can be useful in sensors, actuators and many other applications. But implementing piezoelectrics in polymers — materials composed of molecular chains and commonly used in plastics, drugs and more — can be difficult, according to Qiming Zhang, distinguished professor of electrical engineering.

Zhang and a Penn State-led team of interdisciplinary researchers developed a polymer with robust piezoelectric effectiveness, resulting in 60% more efficient electricity generation than previous iterations. They published their results today (Mar. 25) in Science

“Historically, the electromechanics coupling of polymers has been very low,” Zhang said. “We set out to improve this because the relative softness of polymers makes them excellent candidates for soft sensors and actuators in a variety of areas, including biosensing, sonar, artificial muscles and more.”

To create the material, the researchers deliberately implemented chemical impurities into the polymer. This process, known as doping, allows researchers to tune the properties of a material to generate desirable effects — provided they integrate the correct number of impurities. Adding too little of a dopant could prevent the desired effect from initiating, while adding too much could introduce unwanted traits that hamper the material’s function.  

Breakthrough application of moisture-trapping film


The team comprises Asst Prof Tan Swee Ching (front right), doctoral student Ms Yang Jiachen (third from right) and researchers from HTX.
Credit: National University of Singapore

A team of researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) has developed a novel super-hygroscopic material that enhances sweat evaporation within a personal protective suit, to create a cooling effect for better thermal comfort for users such as healthcare workers and other frontline officers. This invention was validated through laboratory tests conducted in collaboration with researchers from HTX (Home Team Science & Technology Agency) in Singapore.

The new desiccant film, which is biocompatible and non-toxic, has a fast absorption rate, high absorption capacity and excellent mechanical properties. This means that the material is very robust and durable for practical applications such as for protective suits worn by healthcare workers. It is also affordable, light-weight, easy to fabricate and reusable.

“Under room temperature of about 35 deg. C, a healthcare worker who doesn't wear a protective suit for one hour typically experiences a heat index of about 64 deg. C. This causes discomfort and prolong thermal strain can result in heat stroke and even death. Our novel composite moisture-trapping film achieves a cooling effect within the protective suit via evaporative cooling – by increasing sweat evaporation from the skin,” explained research team leader Assistant Professor Tan Swee Ching, who is from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering under the NUS College of Design and Engineering.

Molecular key may unlock new treatments for neurodegenerative disorders

Structure of SARM1 in complex with inhibitor.
Credit: Thomas Ve
Researchers have worked out how to successfully switch off a key pathway of nerve fiber breakdown in debilitating neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injury and glaucoma.

The study, led by Griffith University’s Institute for Glycomics and Disarm® Therapeutics, a wholly owned subsidiary of pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, reveals the structural processes behind activation and inhibition of SARM1, a key molecule in the destruction of nerve fibers.

“As a trigger for nerve fiber degeneration, understanding how the enzyme SARM1 works may help us treat several neurodegenerative conditions,” said Dr Thomas Ve from the Institute for Glycomics.

“In this study we show the molecular interactions that can switch SARM1 on and off. This gives us a clear avenue for the design of new drug therapeutics.”

In neurodegenerative conditions like peripheral neuropathy, Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), traumatic brain injury and glaucoma, when the nerve fibers are damaged, SARM1 is activated.

“This sparks a cascade of molecular processes that leads to the self-destruction of the nerve cell’s axon, the cable that carries electric impulse away from the body of the nerve cell to the next,’’ Dr Ve said.

Missing buil­ding block for quan­tum optimi­zation develo­ped

From left to right: Kilian Ender, Clemens Dlaska, Wolfgang Lechner, Rick van Bijnen, Andreas Kruckenhauser, Glen Bigan Mbeng
Credit: Uni Innsbruck

Optimization challenges in logistics or finance are among the first possible applications of quantum machines. Physicists from Innsbruck, Austria, have now developed a method that enables optimization problems to be investigated on quantum hardware that already exists today. For this purpose, they have developed a special quantum gate.

The development of quantum computers is being pursued worldwide, and there are various concepts of how computing using the properties of the quantum world can be implemented. Many of these have already advanced experimentally into areas that can no longer be emulated on classical computers. But the technologies have not yet reached the point where they can be used to solve larger computational problems. Therefore, researchers are currently looking for applications that can be implemented on existing platforms. "We are looking for tasks that we can compute on existing hardware," says Rick van Bijnen of the Institute of Quantum Optics and Quantum Information at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Innsbruck. A team around Van Bijnen and the Lechner research group is now proposing a method to solve optimization problems using neutral atoms.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Can a poisonous sea snail replace morphine?

Bea Ramiro from Department of Biomedical Sciences at Copenhagen University began to study the sea snail species Conus rolani more or less by chance. Together with two fishermen she was collecting material in the waters off the Philippine Island of Cebu in 2018.

At the time, researchers knew that poison from the sea snail species Conus magus could be used as a painkiller. It can replace morphine and opioids, and some patients experience fewer side effects. Therefore, Bea Ramiro hoped she could find a new sea snail species whose poison had a similar or possibly even better effect.

In order to study sea snails, Bea Ramiro had to collect a lot of snails of the same species. And once the fishermen had reeled in the net and the snails had been divided into groups according to species, she only had enough snails of the species Conus rolani to do a proper study.

Today, Bea Ramiro is glad that this large, white and brown snail six to seven centimeters long was the only species left.

Because a new study from the University of Copenhagen published in Science Advances to which she has contributed shows that poison from Conus rolani can function as a painkiller. The researchers have learned that a particular substance from the poison can block out pain in mice for an even longer time than morphine.

Blow flies can be used to detect use of chemical weapons and other pollutants

Blow flies are common across many environments.
Photo by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

Researchers at the School of Science at IUPUI have found that blow flies can be used as chemical sensors, with a particular focus on the detection of chemical warfare agents.

Despite widespread bans, chemical weapons have been deployed in recent conflicts such as the Syrian civil war, and some experts fear they may be used in the war in Ukraine. An IUPUI study shows that blow flies could be used as a safer alternative for investigating the use of these weapons -- as well as other chemicals in the environment -- keeping humans out of potentially dangerous situations.

The work appears in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. The research was funded through a contract from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Straws, crystals and the quest for new subatomic physics

Several of the Mu2e tracker planes, featuring thin mylar straws, are assembled in a cleanroom at Fermilab. The full tracker will contain 21,600 straws to measure the paths, energies and momentums of electrons with high precision.
Photo: Ryan Postel, Fermilab

Scientists build complex machines to better understand the particles that make up our universe — and sometimes, they use materials you might not expect. One example? The upcoming Mu2e experiment at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory will incorporate thousands of straws made by a drinking straw company.

But these aren’t your average soda straws. Mu2e will use special mylar straws, with walls thinner than a human hair, to search for a never-before-seen transformation of subatomic particles called muons.

Teams from this international collaboration are currently constructing the Mu2e particle detector at Fermilab and aim to start taking physics data by 2026. If they find the rare, sought-after signal, it will be a sign of new physics beyond the tried and tested Standard Model of particle physics. It would help pave the way to answer open questions about the fundamental nature of elementary particles and forces that physicists have had for many years.

The wild years of our Milky Way galaxy

The architectural galaxy: our Milky Way consists of different components. Max Planck researchers have now reconstructed the history of thick and thin discs in particular.
Credit: Stefan Payne-Wardenaar / MPIA

A very long time ago, our Milky Way had a truly eventful life: between about 13 and 8 billion years ago, it lived hard and fast, merging with other galaxies and consuming a lot of hydrogen to form stars. With the help of a new data set, Maosheng Xiang and Hans-Walter Rix from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg have reconstructed the turbulent teenage years of our home galaxy. To do this, the researchers had to precisely determine the ages of 250,000 Milky Way stars.

Understanding the formation history and evolution of our home galaxy is a major goal for astronomy and astrophysics, and one where a flood of high-quality “big data” over the past years has led to impressive progress. The new study by Xiang and Rix constitutes a big step forward by putting much more precise dates onto the different phases of early Milky Way history. This was made possible by a unique analysis that managed to determine the ages of 250,000 stars.

A rough sketch of Milky Way history

In our current understanding, our home galaxy went through several phases. During the “baby phase” (not an official astronomy term), small, gas-rich progenitor galaxies merged to form a conglomerate that subsequently grew into our Milky Way. As those galaxies did not collide head-on, they imparted a spin on the resulting structure, presumably flattening its out into what we now see as the so-called thick disk of our Milky Way: gas and stars in a flat pancake, 100,000 light-years in diameter and 6000 light-years thick.

New X-Ray Technique Provides Novel Images of Triso Nuclear Fuel

Credit: Idaho National Laboratory

Advanced nuclear technologies could play an important role for nations seeking carbon-free energy solutions to reduce the impacts of climate change.

Companies around the world are developing advanced reactor designs to meet a range of needs, from microreactors for remote applications to large reactors that could power huge urban areas while also providing heat for industrial applications such as hydrogen production.

While these advanced reactors are a diverse bunch, they all benefit from both passive and inherent safety design features that use advanced materials to increase safety, reliability and performance.

One type of inherently safe technology, TRi-structural ISOtropic particle fuel (TRISO), consists of a kernel of uranium-based fuel surrounded by three layers of carbon- and ceramic-based materials chemically and structurally resistant to degradation in a reactor environment.

The resulting fuel particle is roughly the size of a poppy seed and can withstand temperatures of more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, well beyond the threshold of current nuclear fuels, without melting or releasing significant quantities of fission products.

Research Says Docile Gecko is a Savage Scorpion Predator

SDSU researchers document geckos violently shaking from side to side to immobilize their scorpion prey.

When western banded geckos are hungry, they pounce on crickets, beetles, or other small arthropods in their environment, and quickly gobble them up.

But when they catch scorpions, they begin to shake themselves violently from side to side at high speeds, smashing their prey back and forth against the ground for several seconds until it is immobilized. After the fracas, the gecko devours the much smaller scorpion.

“It's a really kind of physically stunning behavior, something totally unexpected from a lizard like that,” said San Diego State University biologist Rulon Clark.

“They seem to be kind of body slamming the scorpions into the ground. If you ever see seals, they'll pick fish up and they'll slap them against the water. I think geckos are doing essentially the same thing, just blunt force trauma.” said Malachi Whitford (‘20), who studied the geckos’ unusual feeding behavior as a graduate student in the joint SDSU and University of California, Davis Ph.D. program in ecology. The University of California, Riverside, also participated in the research.

On Icy Enceladus, Expansion Cracks Let Inner Ocean Boil Out

Saturn's tiny, frozen moon Enceladus is slashed by four straight, parallel fissures or "tiger stripes" from which water erupts. These features are unlike anything else in the solar system. Researchers now have an explanation for them.
NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute image

In 2006, the Cassini spacecraft recorded geyser curtains shooting forth from “tiger stripe” fissures near the south pole of Saturn’s moon Enceladus — sometimes as much as 200 kilograms of water per second. A new study suggests how expanding ice during millennia-long cooling cycles could sometimes crack the moon’s icy shell and let its inner ocean out, providing a possible explanation for the geysers.

Enceladus has a diameter of about 504 kilometers (313 miles) — roughly the length of the United Kingdom at its longest point. The moon is covered in ice 20-30 kilometers (12.4-18.6 miles) thick, and the surface temperature is about -201 Celsius (-330 Fahrenheit), but a decade of data from NASA’s Cassini–Huygens mission supplied evidence for a deep liquid ocean inside the icy shell, escaping into space through continuous “cryo-volcanism”. How such a small, cold world can sustain so much geological activity has been an enduring scientific puzzle.

“It captivated both the scientists’ and the general public’s attention,” said Max Rudolph, an assistant professor in geophysics at the University of California, Davis, and lead author of the new study, published in Geophysical Research Letters.

New study of Yellowstone National Park shines new light on once hidden details of the famous American landmark

The SkyTEM instrument being flown over Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park.
Photo by Jeff Hungerford, Yellowstone National Park; supplied by Carol Finn of U.S. Geological Survey.

The geysers and fumaroles of Yellowstone National Park are among the most iconic and popular geological features on our planet. Each year, millions of visitors travel to the park to marvel at the towering eruptions of Old Faithful, the bubbling mud cauldrons of Artists Paint Pots, the crystal-clear water and iridescent colors of Grand Prismatic Spring, and the stacked travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs.

Those who have visited the park may have asked themselves, “Where does all the hot water come from?” A study published this week in Nature, co-authored by Virginia Tech’s W. Steven Holbrook and colleagues from the U.S. Geological Survey and Aarhus University in Denmark, provides stunning subsurface images that begin to answer that question.

The research team used geophysical data collected from a helicopter to create images of Yellowstone’s subsurface “plumbing” system. The method detects features with unusual electrical and magnetic properties indicative of hydrothermal alteration.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Quan­tum sen­sors: Mea­suring even more preci­sely

Time could be determined even more precisely with sophisticated computational methods on entangled atoms. Physicists from Innsbruck, Austria, have developed such a technique.
Credit: Uni Innsbruck/Harald Ritsch

Two teams of physicists led by Peter Zoller and Thomas Monz have designed the first programmable quantum sensor, and tested it in the laboratory. To do so they applied techniques from quantum information processing to a measurement problem. The innovative method promises quantum sensors whose precision reaches close to the limit set by the laws of nature.

Atomic clocks are the best sensors mankind has ever built. Today, they can be found in national standards institutes or satellites of navigation systems. Scientists all over the world are working to further optimize the precision of these clocks. Now, a research group led by Peter Zoller, a theorist from Innsbruck, Austria, has developed a new concept that can be used to operate sensors with even greater precision irrespective of which technical platform is used to make the sensor. “We answer the question of how precise a sensor can be with existing control capabilities, and give a recipe for how this can be achieved,” explain Denis Vasilyev and Raphael Kaubrügger from Peter Zoller's group at the Institute of Quantum Optics and Quantum Information at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Innsbruck.

Dense Bones Allowed Spinosaurus to Hunt Underwater

Dense bones in the skeleton of Spinosaurus strongly suggest it spent a substantial amount of time submerged in the water.
Artwork credit: Davide Bonadonna

Spinosaurus is the largest predatory dinosaur known – over two meters longer than the longest Tyrannosaurus rex – but the way it hunted has been a subject of debate for decades.

In a new paper, published today in Nature, a group of paleontologists have taken a different approach to decipher the lifestyle of long-extinct creatures: examining the density of their bones.

By analyzing the density of Spinosaurid bones and comparing them to other animals like penguins, hippos, and alligators, the team found that Spinosaurus and its close relative Baryonyx from the Cretaceous of the UK both had dense bones that would have allowed them to submerge themselves underwater to hunt.

Scientists already knew that Spinosaurids had certain affinities with water – their elongate jaws and cone-shaped teeth are similar to those of fish-eating predators, and the ribcage of Baryonyx, from Surrey, even contained half-digested fish scales.

Undersea sediment reveals clues about seismic activity

The Chikyu is capable of drilling deeper below the seafloor than any other science drilling vessel to date.
Credit: Sean Toczko (JAMSTEC staff scientist) ECORD/IODP/JAMSTEC.

Earthquakes are famously impossible to predict, and have been the cause of some of the most devastating events in human history. But could we learn more about these natural disasters by tracking them backwards through time?

One research mission, dubbed Expedition 386, wants to use sediment records in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Japan to track and record thousands of years of past seismic activity.

Although the offshore portion of the expedition ended last summer, the scientific portion of the mission, a month-long investigation into the recovered samples, recently ended on March 15.

Roughly 30 international scientists are involved with the project, including Derek Sawyer, an associate professor of earth sciences at The Ohio State University.

A Laser-Powered Upgrade to Cancer Treatment

Kei Nakamura, Antoine Snijders and Lieselotte Obst-Huebl (from left) at the BELLA laser facility aligning cartridges containing human cells in the proton beam path. This setup enabled measurements of the biological effects of laser-driven protons.
Credit: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Biologists and physicists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have teamed up to create new opportunities for cancer treatment using laser-generated proton beams.

The ongoing project seeks to adapt the nascent technology of laser-driven ion accelerators – which are as cool as they sound – to make a more effective type of radiation therapy more readily available to patients.

“Proton therapy centers are large, expensive facilities, so they are limited around the world,” said co-lead author Antoine Snijders, a cancer researcher and senior scientist in the Biological Sciences and Engineering (BSE) Division. “There is currently limited geographic distribution and access to proton therapy worldwide.  The way to get broader access, and potentially lower costs, is to reduce the cost and footprint of these types of facilities. And that means we need more compact sources of ions for proton accelerators.”

Scientists are also investigating the potential benefit of using these accelerators to deliver proton beam radiation therapy at ultrahigh doses within extremely short exposure times – a technology called FLASH radiotherapy. Though the approach remains experimental for now, FLASH radiotherapy could change the landscape of radiation oncology. “If our work could also bring FLASH radiotherapy to patients, it could be the best of both worlds,” Snijders added.

Artificial Intelligence Tool May Help Predict Heart Attacks

Damini Dey, PhD
Investigators from Cedars-Sinai have created an artificial intelligence-enabled tool that may make it easier to predict if a person will have a heart attack.

The tool described in The Lancet Digital Health accurately predicted which patients would experience a heart attack in five years based on the amount and composition of plaque in arteries that supply blood to the heart.

Plaque buildup can cause arteries to narrow, which makes it difficult for blood to get to the heart, increasing the likelihood of a heart attack. A medical test called a coronary computed tomography angiography (CTA) takes 3D images of the heart and arteries and can give doctors an estimate of how much a patient’s arteries have narrowed. Until now, however, there has not been a simple, automated and rapid way to measure the plaque visible in the CTA images.

“Coronary plaque is often not measured because there is not a fully automated way to do it,” said Damini Dey, PhD, director of the quantitative image analysis lab in the Biomedical Imaging Research Institute at Cedars-Sinai and senior author of the study. “When it is measured, it takes an expert at least 25 to 30 minutes, but now we can use this program to quantify plaque from CTA images in five to six seconds.”

Dey and colleagues analyzed CTA images from 1,196 people who underwent a coronary CTA at 11 sites in Australia, Germany, Japan, Scotland and the United States. The investigators trained the AI algorithm to measure plaque by having it learn from coronary CTA images, from 921 people, that already had been analyzed by trained doctors.

Preserving the past

Christina Chavez is Sandia National Laboratories’ first full-time archaeologist. She established the Labs’ cultural resources program within the Environment, Safety and Health group.
Photo by Bret Latter

When archaeologist Christina Chavez surveys Sandia National Laboratories land and finds rusted tobacco tins, ceramic fragments, glass shards or rocks resting in deliberate formations, she documents and determines who at the Labs needs to know.

“Archaeological resources are all around us, and even if most people don’t see them, there’s still a potential that they’re there,” Chavez said.

Chavez, the Labs’ first full-time archaeologist, works with teams throughout Sandia to ensure the U.S. Department of Energy remains in compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. Established in 1966, the act requires federal agencies to consider the effects on historic properties when carrying out or funding projects. For Sandia, projects can mean anything from construction to an experiment or explosion taking place in remote areas.

Scientists discover when beetles became prolific

 Credit: Vladimka production

Researchers at the University of Bristol have found that beetles first roamed the world in the Carboniferous and later diversified alongside the earliest dinosaurs during the Triassic and Jurassic.

Using a previously published and carefully curated 68-gene dataset, the scientists ran a battery of mathematical models to reconstruct the evolution of protein sequences - the results of which have been published today in Royal Society Open Science.

After a year and a half of running on a supercomputer at the University of Bristol’s Advanced Computing Research Centre, the scientists were able to build a robust evolutionary tree of beetles which also included data on 57 beetle fossils to contain the timescale of beetle evolution. Their findings provide one of the most comprehensive evolutionary trees of beetles.

Different beetle clades diversified independently, as various new ecological opportunities opened up. “There was not a single epoch of beetle radiation, their secret seems to lie in their remarkable flexibility,” explained author Professor Chenyang Cai of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences. “The refined timescale of beetle evolution will be an invaluable tool for investigating the evolutionary basis of the beetle’s success story.”

Nearby star could help explain why our sun didn’t have sunspots for 70 years

This image depicts a typical 11-year cycle on the sun, with the fewest sunspots appearing at its minimum (top left and top right) and the most appearing at its maximum (center).
Credit: NASA

The number of sunspots on our sun typically ebbs and flows in a predictable 11-year cycle, but one unusual 70-year period when sunspots were incredibly rare has mystified scientists for 300 years. Now a nearby sun-like star seems to have paused its own cycles and entered a similar period of rare starspots, according to a team of researchers at Penn State. Continuing to observe this star could help explain what happened to our own sun during this “Maunder Minimum” as well as lend insight into the sun's stellar magnetic activity, which can interfere with satellites and global communications and possibly even affect climate on Earth.

  The star — and a catalog of 5 decades of starspot activity of 58 other sun-like stars — is described in a new paper that appears online in the Astronomical Journal.

  Starspots appear as a dark spot on a star’s surface due to temporary lower temperatures in the area resulting from the star’s dynamo — the process that creates its magnetic field. Astronomers have been documenting changes in starspot frequency on our sun since they were first observed by Galileo and other astronomers in the 1600s, so there is a good record of its 11-year cycle. The exception is the Maunder Minimum, which lasted from the mid-1600s to early 1700s and has perplexed astronomers ever since.