. Scientific Frontline: April 2022

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Researchers Create Self-Assembled Logic Circuits from Proteins

In a proof-of-concept study, researchers have created self-assembled, protein-based circuits that can perform simple logic functions. The work demonstrates that it is possible to create stable digital circuits that take advantage of an electron’s properties at quantum scales.

One of the stumbling blocks in creating molecular circuits is that as the circuit size decreases the circuits become unreliable. This is because the electrons needed to create current behave like waves, not particles, at the quantum scale. For example, on a circuit with two wires that are one nanometer apart, the electron can “tunnel” between the two wires and effectively be in both places simultaneously, making it difficult to control the direction of the current. Molecular circuits can mitigate these problems, but single-molecule junctions are short-lived or low-yielding due to challenges associated with fabricating electrodes at that scale.

“Our goal was to try and create a molecular circuit that uses tunneling to our advantage, rather than fighting against it,” says Ryan Chiechi, associate professor of chemistry at North Carolina State University and co-corresponding author of a paper describing the work.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Global warming accelerates the water cycle, with relevant climatic consequences

Global warming could lead to a destabilization of the global climate system
Credit: /ICM-CSIC.

According to a new study led by the ICM-CSIC, this could lead to a destabilization of the global climate system, an intensification of storms in specific areas, and an acceleration of ice melting at the poles.

Researchers at the Institut de Ciències del Mar (ICM-CSIC) in Barcelona have found that global warming is accelerating the water cycle, which could have significant consequences on the global climate system, according to an article published recently in the journal Scientific Reports.

This acceleration of the water cycle is caused by an increase in the evaporation of water from the seas and oceans resulting from the rise in temperature. As a result, more water is circulating in the atmosphere in its vapor form, 90 per cent of which will eventually precipitate back into the sea, while the remaining 10 per cent will precipitate over the continent.

New Model for Antibacterial Mechanism

Brookhaven Lab biologist Paul Freimuth and co-author Feiyue Teng, a scientist in Brookhaven Lab's Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN), at the light microscope used to image bacteria in this study.
Credit: Brookhaven National Laboratory

Biologists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and their collaborators have discovered an aberrant protein that’s deadly to bacteria. In a paper just published in the journal PLOS ONE, the scientists describe how this erroneously built protein mimics the action of aminoglycosides, a class of antibiotics. The newly discovered protein could serve as a model to help scientists unravel details of those drugs’ lethal effects on bacteria—and potentially point the way to future antibiotics.

“Identifying new targets in bacteria and alternative strategies to control bacterial growth is going to become increasingly important,” said Brookhaven biologist Paul Freimuth, who led the research. Bacteria have been developing resistance to many commonly used drugs, and many scientists and doctors have been concerned about the potential for large-scale outbreaks triggered by these antibiotic-resistant bacteria, he explained.

“What we’ve discovered is a long way from becoming a drug, but the first step is to understand the mechanism,” Freimuth said. “We’ve identified a single protein that mimics the effect of a complex mixture of aberrant proteins made when bacteria are treated with aminoglycosides. That gives us a way to study the mechanism that kills the bacterial cells. Then maybe a new family of inhibitors could be developed to do the same thing.”

Revealing the secret language of dark matter

In the Universe, dark matter and standard matter “talk” to each other using a secret language. This “discussion” happens thanks to gravity, scientists say, but not in a way they can fully comprehend. A new SISSA study published in The Astrophysical Journal sheds light on this long-standing issue. The authors of the research, Ph.D Student Giovanni Gandolfi and supervisors Andrea Lapi and Stefano Liberati, propose a special property for dark matter called “non-minimal coupling with gravity”. This new type of interaction can modify dark matter gravitational influence on standard 'baryonic' matter.

According to the authors, the 'non-minimal coupling' could be the key to decrypting the enigmatic dialogue between the two components, possibly solving one of the biggest open questions about dark matter's nature. To prove the hypothesis, the assumption has been tested and then confirmed with experimental data from thousands of spiral galaxies.

The mysterious interplay with standard matter

“Dark matter is everywhere” says the research’s authors. “Like a cosmic scaffolding, it interconnects the Universe and holds galaxies together. Dark matter is as important as mysterious, though. Possibly, one of dark matter's greatest enigmas is its interplay with standard matter, or 'baryons'”. We know that in this dialogue gravity has an important role, but scientists still don’t entirely understand the phenomenon. “For this reason,” say Gandolfi, Lapi and Liberati “we asked ourselves: is gravity wrong or are we just missing something crucial about dark matter's nature? What if dark matter and standard 'baryonic' matter do not communicate in the way we have always imagined? With our research, we have tried to answer these intriguing questions”.

Fermilab engineers develop new control electronics for quantum computers that improve performance and cut costs

Gustavo Cancelo led a team of Fermilab engineers to create a new compact electronics board: It has the capabilities of an entire rack of equipment that is compatible with many designs of superconducting qubits at a fraction of the cost.
Photo: Ryan Postel, Fermilab

When designing a next-generation quantum computer, a surprisingly large problem is bridging the communication gap between the classical and quantum worlds. Such computers need specialized control and readout electronics to translate back and forth between the human operator and the quantum computer’s languages — but existing systems are cumbersome and expensive.

However, a new system of control and readout electronics, known as Quantum Instrumentation Control Kit, or QICK, developed by engineers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, has proved to drastically improve quantum computer performance while cutting the cost of control equipment.

“The development of the Quantum Instrumentation Control Kit is an excellent example of U.S. investment in joint quantum technology research with partnerships between industry, academia and government to accelerate pre-competitive quantum research and development technologies,” said Harriet Kung, DOE deputy director for science programs for the Office of Science and acting associate director of science for high-energy physics.

Engineers at UBC get under the skin of ionic skin

Dr. John Madden and Yuta Dobashi with one of the hydrogel sensors.
Photo by Kai Jacobson/UBC Faculty of Applied Science

In the quest to build smart skin that mimics the sensing capabilities of natural skin, ionic skins have shown significant advantages. They’re made of flexible, biocompatible hydrogels that use ions to carry an electrical charge. In contrast to smart skins made of plastics and metals, the hydrogels have the softness of natural skin. This offers a more natural feel to the prosthetic arm or robot hand they are mounted on, and makes them comfortable to wear.

These hydrogels can generate voltages when touched, but scientists did not clearly understand how — until a team of researchers at UBC devised a unique experiment, published in Science.

“How hydrogel sensors work is they produce voltages and currents in reaction to stimuli, such as pressure or touch – what we are calling a piezoionic effect. But we didn’t know exactly how these voltages are produced,” said the study’s lead author Yuta Dobashi, who started the work as part of his master’s in biomedical engineering at UBC.

Working under the supervision of UBC researcher Dr. John Madden, Dobashi devised hydrogel sensors containing salts with positive and negative ions of different sizes. He and collaborators in UBC’s physics and chemistry departments applied magnetic fields to track precisely how the ions moved when pressure was applied to the sensor.

Experts predict this hurricane season will only be slightly above average

Hurricane Ida, Tropical Storm Julian and Tropical Depression Ten - which intensified into Tropical Storm Kate on August 30 - as shown from NOAA's GOES-16 satellite on August 29, 2021.
Credit: NOAA

For the seventh year in a row, University of Arizona hurricane forecasters say to prepare for an above-average hurricane season, which runs from June 1 through Nov. 30. However, this year isn't expected to be as active as recent years.

The experts' forecast, released this month, shows 14 named storms and seven hurricanes developing over the Atlantic Ocean. Three of those seven hurricanes are expected to develop into major hurricanes – which are classified as category 3 or above. The UArizona experts also predict an accumulated cyclone energy, or ACE, index of 129 units. The ACE index provides a value for the combined strength and duration of a storm.

These predictions are only slightly higher than the seasonal median since 1980, which is 13 named storms and seven hurricanes, two of which are major hurricanes, and an ACE index of 107 units.

Professor of atmospheric sciences Xubin Zeng and former graduate student Kyle Davis developed their predictive model in 2014. It has since become one of the most accurate in the world for seasonal hurricane forecasting. It combines seasonal forecasts of sea surface temperature from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts with machine learning and the researchers' own understanding of hurricanes.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Higher COVID-19 Death Rates in the Southern U.S. Due to Behavior Differences

During the pre-Omicron phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, regions of the U.S. had markedly different mortality rates, primarily due to differences in mask use, school attendance, social distancing and other behaviors. Had the entire country reacted to the pandemic as the Northeast region, more than 316,000 deaths might have been avoided, 62% of those avoidable deaths being in the South.

The study, by Georgetown University’s School of Nursing & Health Studies researchers, appeared April 28, 2022, in PLOS ONE.

Excess mortality, which helps account for avoidable deaths from a new disease or situation, is defined by the difference between total current deaths and deaths expected based on earlier time period, usually the previous decade or so. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calculate these numbers weekly. For this study, the CDC excess mortality data were analyzed for the period between January 3, 2020, to September 26, 2021. For regional comparison purposes, areas of the country were broken down into the Northeast, Midwest, South and West.

“Our goal was to carefully examine regional differences in COVID-19 death rates based on reliable statistical data,” says Michael Stoto, PhD, professor of Health Systems Administration and Population Health at the School of Nursing & Health Studies and corresponding author of the study. “Our study is the first to quantify avoidable deaths and confirm that both COVID-19 deaths and avoidable deaths disproportionately occurred in the South.”

Diminishing Arctic Sea Ice Has Lasting Impacts on Global Climate

Source: University at Albany, State University of New York

As the impacts of climate change are felt around the world, no area is experiencing more drastic changes than the northern polar region. Studies have shown the Arctic is warming at two to three times as fast as the rest of the planet, resulting in a rapid loss of its sea ice volume.

The loss of sea ice, declining at an average rate of about 13 percent per decade, is having a long-lasting climatic impact in the Arctic and beyond, according to a new study published this month in Nature Communications.

The research team, led by University at Albany atmospheric scientist Aiguo Dai, analyzed observational data and climate model simulations to show how fluctuations in Arctic Sea ice cover are able to amplify multi-decadal variations in surface temperatures not only in the Arctic but also in the North Atlantic Ocean.

Their results indicate that recent – and future – decreases in sea ice cover have a significant influence on global climate.

“Through our study, we demonstrated for the first time that fluctuations in sea ice-air interactions can greatly enlarge or amplify multi-decadal climate variations not only in the Arctic, but also the North Atlantic,” said Dai, a distinguished professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences.

Researchers Discover New Function Performed by Nearly Half of Brain Cells

Scientists say the discovery of a new function by cells known as astrocytes opens a whole new direction for neuroscience research.
Illustration Credit: Siena Fried

Researchers at Tufts University School of Medicine have discovered a previously unknown function performed by a type of cell that comprises nearly half of all cells in the brain.

The scientists say this discovery in mice of a new function by cells known as astrocytes opens a whole new direction for neuroscience research that might one day lead to treatments for many disorders ranging from epilepsy to Alzheimer’s to traumatic brain injury.

It comes down to how astrocytes interact with neurons, which are fundamental cells of the brain and nervous system that receive input from the outside world. Through a complex set of electrical and chemical signaling, neurons transmit information between different areas of the brain and between the brain and the rest of the nervous system.

Until now, scientists believed astrocytes were important, but lesser cast members in this activity. Astrocytes guide the growth of axons, the long, slender projection of a neuron that conducts electrical impulses. They also control neurotransmitters, chemicals that enable the transfer of electrical signals throughout the brain and nervous system. In addition, astrocytes build the blood-brain barrier and react to injury.

But they did not seem to be electrically active like the all-important neurons—until now.

Bird populations in eastern Canada declining due to forest ‘degradation,’ research shows

Mixed forest at left, spruce plantation at right.
Credit: by Debora Carr

Bird species that live in wooded areas are under stress from human-caused changes to forest composition, according to new research led by Oregon State University that quantifies the effects of forest “degradation” on bird habitat.

“Reducing forest loss has been the main focus of conservation policy to date, which is well justified because it has a strong negative effect on biodiversity,” said Matt Betts of the OSU College of Forestry. “But the effects of changing the composition and age of forest via timber management have traditionally been very difficult to measure at large scales and thus have been largely ignored. Our work shows population declines in many bird species in eastern Canada are due to habitat loss caused by forestry activities.”

Findings by the international collaboration led by Betts were published today in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

The scientists looked at the degree to which forest degradation – the reduction or loss of biological complexity – in the form of clearcutting and then thinning or replanting single tree species affected bird habitat and long-term trends in bird populations.

The study area was the Acadian Forest in Canada’s maritime provinces. Breeding habitat loss occurred for 66% of the forest’s 54 most common bird species from 1985 to 2020 and was strongly associated with the loss of older forests.

Unchecked global emissions on track to initiate mass extinction of marine life

Princeton University researchers report that unless greenhouse gas emissions are curbed, marine biodiversity could be on track to plummet to levels not seen since the extinction of the dinosaurs. The study authors modeled future marine biodiversity under projected climate scenarios and found that species such as dolphinfish (shown) would be imperiled as warming oceans decrease the ocean’s oxygen supply while increasing marine life’s metabolic demand for it. 
Credit: Evan Davis

As greenhouse gas emissions continue to warm the world’s oceans, marine biodiversity could be on track to plummet within the next few centuries to levels not seen since the extinction of the dinosaurs, according to a recent study in the journal Science by Princeton University researchers.

Princeton University researchers report that unless greenhouse gas emissions are curbed, marine biodiversity could be on track to plummet to levels not seen since the extinction of the dinosaurs. The study authors modeled future marine biodiversity under projected climate scenarios and found that species such as dolphinfish (shown) would be imperiled as warming oceans decrease the ocean’s oxygen supply while increasing marine life’s metabolic demand for it.

The paper’s authors modeled future marine biodiversity under different projected climate scenarios. They found that if emissions are not curbed, species losses from warming and oxygen depletion alone could come to mirror the substantial impact humans already have on marine biodiversity by around 2100. Tropical waters would experience the greatest loss of biodiversity, while polar species are at the highest risk of extinction, the authors reported.

Large bodies helped extinct marine reptiles with long necks swim, study finds

3D models of aquatic tetrapods
Credit: S. Gutarra Díaz

Scientists at the University of Bristol have discovered that body size is more important than body shape in determining the energy economy of swimming for aquatic animals.

This study, published today in Communications Biology, shows that big bodies help overcome the excess drag produced by extreme morphology, debunking a long-standing idea that there is an optimal body shape for low drag.

One important finding of this research is that the large necks of extinct elasmosaurs did add extra drag, but this was compensated for by the evolution of large bodies.

Tetrapods or ‘four-limbed vertebrates’, have repeatedly returned to the oceans over the last 250 million years, and they come in many shapes and sizes, ranging from streamlined modern whales over 25 meters in length, to extinct plesiosaurs, with four flippers and extraordinarily long necks, and even extinct fish-shaped ichthyosaurs.

Dolphins and ichthyosaurs have similar body shapes, adapted for moving fast through water producing low resistance or drag. On the other hand, plesiosaurs, who lived side by side with the ichthyosaurs in the Mesozoic Era, had entirely different bodies. Their enormous four flippers which they used to fly underwater, and variable neck lengths, have no parallel amongst living animals. Some elasmosaurs had really extreme proportions, with necks up to 20 feet (6 meters) long. These necks likely helped them to snap up quick-moving fish, but were also believed to make them slower.

Boeing Unveils First T-7A Red Hawk Advanced Trainer Jet to be Delivered to the U.S. Air Force

The first T-7A Red Hawk advanced trainer has rolled out of the production facility in St. Louis, Missouri. Ushering in a new era of training for U.S. Air Force fighter and bomber pilots. The jets have red tails to honor the legendary Tuskegee Airmen who flew their aircraft with red tails during World War II. First jets scheduled to arrive at Joint Base San Antonio- Randolph next year.
Photo Credit- Eric Shindelbower

Boeing [NYSE: BA] has unveiled the first T-7A Red Hawk advanced trainer jet to be delivered to the U.S. Air Force. The jet, one of 351 the U.S. Air Force plans to order, was unveiled prior to official delivery.

The fully digitally designed aircraft was built and tested using advanced manufacturing, agile software development and digital engineering technology significantly reducing the time from design to first flight. The aircraft also features open architecture software, providing growth and flexibility to meet future mission needs.

“We’re excited and honored to deliver this digitally advanced, next-generation trainer to the U.S. Air Force,” said Ted Colbert, president and CEO, Boeing Defense, Space & Security. “This aircraft is a tangible example of how Boeing, its suppliers and partners are leading the digital engineering revolution. T-7A will prepare pilots for future missions for decades to come.”

Childhood obesity increases risk of Type 1 diabetes

Being overweight in childhood increases the risk of developing type 1 diabetes in later life, according to the findings of a new study that analyzed genetic data on over 400,000 individuals. The study, co-led by researchers from the Universities of Bristol and Oxford and published today in Nature Communications, also provides evidence that being overweight over many years from childhood influences the risk of other diseases including asthma, eczema and hypothyroidism.

The number of individuals being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes has increased drastically in the last 20 years. One possible explanation is the rising prevalence of childhood obesity in an increasingly obesogenic environment. Poor diets with high fat, salt and carbohydrate may compromise early life health-promoting effects of the bacteria in the gut and pancreatic beta-cell fragility in childhood and subsequently increase type 1 diabetes risk.

In contrast to type 1 diabetes, there is irrefutable evidence that children who are overweight are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes and that weight loss can lead to its sustained remission. However, detecting reliable evidence for the factors that contribute to type 1 has been challenging, particularly given that individuals are typically diagnosed early in life before reaching adulthood.

New Study Could Help Reduce Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Researchers developed a first-of-its-kind knowledge-guided machine learning model for agroecosystem, called KGML-ag that includes less obvious variables such as soil water content, oxygen level, and soil nitrate content related to nitrous oxide production and emission.
Credit: University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering

A team of researchers led by the University of Minnesota has significantly improved the performance of numerical predictions for agricultural nitrous oxide emissions. The first-of-its-kind knowledge-guided machine learning model is 1,000 times faster than current systems and could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.

The research was recently published in Geoscientific Model Development, a not-for-profit international scientific journal focused on numerical models of the Earth. Researchers involved were from the University of Minnesota, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the University of Pittsburgh.

Compared to greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, nitrous oxide is not as well-known. In reality, nitrous oxide is about 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere. Human-induced nitrous oxide emissions (mainly from agricultural synthetic fertilizer and cattle manure) have also grown by at least 30 percent over the past four decades.

Origin of complex cells started without oxygen

Since the 1960s, many experts have argued that the emergence of eukaryotes (cells containing a clearly defined nucleus) happened in response to the oxygenation of Earth’s surface environment.

But a team led by the universities of Stanford and Exeter say recent advances in the Earth and life sciences challenge this view.

Their review says these breakthroughs "decouple" the emergence of eukaryotes (known as eukaryogenesis) from rising oxygen levels, and suggest eukaryotes in fact emerged in an anoxic (no-oxygen) environment in the ocean.

"We can now independently date eukaryogenesis and key oxygenation transitions in Earth history," said Dr Daniel Mills, of Stanford University.

"Based on fossil and biological records, the timing of eukaryogenesis does not correlate with these oxygen transitions in the atmosphere (2.22 billion years ago) or the deep ocean (0.5 billion years ago).

"Instead, mitochondria-bearing eukaryotes are consistently dated to between these two oxygenation events, during an interval of deep-sea anoxia and variable surface-water oxygenation."

The emergence of mitochondria – the energy-producing "powerhouses" of eukaryote cells – is now thought to be the defining step in eukaryogenesis.

Mitochondria have different DNA to the cells in which they live, and the new paper addresses the possible origin of this symbiotic relationship, famously championed by the biologist Lynn Margulis.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Ancient hand grenades: explosive weapons in medieval Jerusalem during Crusades

A fragment of the sphero-conical vessel that was identified as containing a possibly explosive material from Jerusalem.
Credit: Robert Mason, Royal Ontario Museum.

New analysis into the residue inside ancient ceramic vessels from 11th-12th century Jerusalem has found that they were potentially used as hand grenades.

Previous research into the diverse sphero-conical containers, which are within museums around the world, had identified that they were used for a variety of purposes, including beer drinking vessels, mercury containers, containers for oil and containers for medicines.

This latest research, led by Griffith University’s Associate Professor Carney Matheson, confirmed that some vessels did indeed contain oils and medicines, and some contained scented oils, consistent with other recent research into the use of the vessels.

However, his findings also revealed that some of the vessels contained a flammable and probably explosive material that indicated they may have been used as ancient hand grenades.

Associate Professor Matheson, from Griffith’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution, said the explosive material he analyzed within the vessels suggested that there may have been a locally developed ancient explosive.

New research finds the risk of psychotic-like experiences can start in childhood


It has long been understood that environmental and socio-economic factors – including income disparity, family poverty, and air pollution – increase a person’s risk of developing psychotic-like experiences, such as subtle hallucinations and delusions that can become precursors to a schizophrenia diagnosis later in life. Research has long focused on young adults but now, thanks to data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, researchers at the University of Rochester have found these risk factors can be observed in pre-adolescent children.

“These findings could have a major impact on public health initiatives to reduce the risk of psychotic-like experiences,” said Abhishek Saxena, a graduate student in the department of Psychology at the University of Rochester and first author of the study recently published in Frontiers in Psychiatry. “Past research has largely focused on the biological factors that lead to development of schizophrenia spectrum disorders, but we now know that social and environmental factors can also play a large role in the risk and development of schizophrenia. And this research shows these factors impact people starting at a very young age.”

Researchers looked at data collected from 8,000 kids enrolled in the ABCD study. They found that the more urban of an environment a child lived in – proximity to roads, houses with lead paint risks, families in poverty, and income disparity – the greater number of psychotic-like experiences they had over a year’s time. These findings are in line with past research conducted in young adults, but have not been found like this in pre-adolescences.

New research provides better understanding of skin’s durability

Guy German is an associate professor at Binghamton University's biomedical engineering department. Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.

As someone who has extensively studied what nature has produced, Associate Professor Guy German likes to tell his students: You think you’re a good engineer, but evolution is a better one.

Reinforcing this point is newly published research from German’s lab regarding the structure of human skin and the amount of damage it can sustain.

The paper, “Biomechanical fracture mechanics of composite layered skin-like materials,” was published in the journal Soft Matter. German co-authored the study with two former students from his lab, Christopher Maiorana, PhD ’21, and Rajeshwari Jotawar, MS ’21.

The team created membranes from polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), an inert and nontoxic material used in biomedical research. They mimicked the structure of mammalian skin by covering a soft, compliant layer with a thinner, stiffer outer later.

The “artificial skin” then underwent a series of tests to see how much stress it could take to break. Under the pressure of a sharp or blunt rod, the samples indented to form huge divots before breaking. The researchers also made an interesting discovery.

Plastic-eating Enzyme Could Eliminate Billions of Tons of Landfill Waste

An enzyme variant created by engineers and scientists at The University of Texas at Austin can break down environment-throttling plastics that typically take centuries to degrade in just a matter of hours to days.

This discovery, published today in Nature, could help solve one of the world’s most pressing environmental problems: what to do with the billions of tons of plastic waste piling up in landfills and polluting our natural lands and water. The enzyme has the potential to supercharge recycling on a large scale that would allow major industries to reduce their environmental impact by recovering and reusing plastics at the molecular level.

“The possibilities are endless across industries to leverage this leading-edge recycling process,” said Hal Alper, professor in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering at UT Austin. “Beyond the obvious waste management industry, this also provides corporations from every sector the opportunity to take a lead in recycling their products. Through these more sustainable enzyme approaches, we can begin to envision a true circular plastics economy.”

The project focuses on polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a significant polymer found in most consumer packaging, including cookie containers, soda bottles, fruit and salad packaging, and certain fibers and textiles. It makes up 12% of all global waste.

UBC team discovers ‘silver bullet’ to keep medical devices free of bacteria

Photo of a coated versus an uncoated catheter.
Credit: Kizhakkedathu Lab

University of British Columbia researchers have found a ‘silver bullet’ to kill bacteria and keep them from infecting patients who have medical devices implanted.

The team from UBC and the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute has developed a silver-based coating that can easily be applied to devices such as catheters and stents. Their novel formulation, discovered by screening dozens of chemical components, overcomes the complications of silver that have challenged scientists for years.

Dr. Jayachandran Kizhakkedathu
“This is a highly effective coating that won’t harm human tissues and could potentially eliminate implant-associated infections. It could be very cost-effective and could also be applicable to many different products,” said Dr. Jayachandran Kizhakkedathu, professor in UBC’s department of pathology and laboratory medicine, Centre for Blood Research and Life Sciences Institute and co-senior author of the study published today in ACS Central Science.

Implanted medical devices can save lives, but they carry a great risk of infection which usually arises from contamination as the device is being implanted. Urinary tract infections from catheters, for example, are among the most common hospital-acquired infections.

Meet the forest microbes that can survive megafires

The image highlights the diversity in colors and morphologies of microbes obtained from Soberanes Fire-burned soil.
Credit: Jenna Maddox/UCR

New UC Riverside research shows fungi and bacteria able to survive redwood tanoak forest megafires are microbial “cousins” that often increase in abundance after feeling the flames.

Fires of unprecedented size and intensity, called megafires, are becoming increasingly common. In the West, climate change is causing rising temperatures and earlier snow melting, extending the dry season when forests are most vulnerable to burning.

Though some ecosystems are adapted for less intense fires, little is known about how plants or their associated soil microbiomes respond to megafires, particularly in California’s charismatic redwood tanoak forests.

“It’s not likely plants can recover from megafires without beneficial fungi that supply roots with nutrients, or bacteria that transform extra carbon and nitrogen in post-fire soil,” said Sydney Glassman, UCR mycologist and lead study author. “Understanding the microbes is key to any restoration effort.”

The UCR team is contributing to this understanding with a paper in the journal Molecular Ecology.

Rare, endangered insects illegally for sale online

Brazilian salmon pink bird-eating tarantula (Lasiodora Parahybana) in the lab of Linda Rayor, senior research associate in CALS.
Credit: Jason Koski/Cornell University 

A survey has found that endangered and threatened insects and spiders, as well as common species that provide valuable ecological services, can be easily purchased– without adequate oversight – through basic internet searches, according to a new Cornell study.

For example, the Luzon peacock swallowtail, one of the rarest butterflies, which is listed as endangered both internationally and, in the U.S., and is illegal to trade, was found for sale at Amazon.com pinned in a display box for around $110.

Many species of live tarantulas, which are not threatened with extinction but whose trade is strictly controlled, were also readily discovered for sale as pets without any oversight or enforcement.

These results are concerning given that insects are in steep decline globally due to habitat loss, pesticides, invasive species, urbanization, pollution, and climate change. Some entomologists have estimated that the Earth is losing about 10 to 20% of all insect species every decade, and researchers said an insect or spider species’ survival can be greatly impacted when it is collected and sold.

John Losey, professor of entomology and the lead author of the paper, “Insects and Spiders on the Web: Monitoring and Mitigating Online Exploitation of Species and Services,” which published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation, said the study began as a project for his Insect Conservation Biology course. The paper included 18 student co-authors who were undergraduates in 2019 when the research was done. Paul Curtis, extension wildlife specialist in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, is a senior co-author.

New climate modeling predicts increasing occurrences of flash flooding across most of the U.S.

a illustration of calculated flood characteristics; b the percentage change of flood occurrences comparing the future (PGW) and retrospective analysis (CTL) at 1-km spatial resolution; c conditional plot of frequency changes against drainage area (shaded contour plot) and standard error of the mean in dark red line. Maps and figures are produced using the Python package Matplotlib and Cartopy.
Source/Credit: University of Oklahoma

The latest U.N. report on climate change documented researchers’ efforts that have shown some measures of global warming are now unavoidable, and current research efforts are focusing on mitigation and adaptation strategies. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration describes this as a global problem, felt on local scales. Likewise, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers are providing the data, tools and information to better understand and prepare for climate change. One of the effects being impacted by the warming climate is a change in frequency of flash flooding events, as well as the locations in which they most often occur.

A research team led by the University of Oklahoma, with the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory and collaborators at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, have created simulations from coupled climate and hydrologic models that demonstrate widespread increases in the occurrences of flash flooding events across most of the United States.

The study is led by Yang Hong, a professor of hydrology and remote sensing in the School of Civil Engineering and Environmental Sciences and in the School of Meteorology at OU. He is the director of the Hydrometeorology and Remote Sensing Laboratory and the founding director of the hydrology and water security online master’s program at OU. The research team’s findings are published in Nature Communications Earth and Environment. Zhi Li, a doctoral student with the HyDROS Lab, is the first author.

Five diseases attack language areas in brain

Each condition causes a different type of language impairment in primary progressive aphasia (PPA)

  • Word comprehension is lost for some patients, others lose grammar
  • Most extensive study to date on PPA
  • Disease is often misdiagnosed in early stages, missing chance for treatment
  • Not all dementia is caused by Alzheimer’s disease

There are five different diseases that attack the language areas in the left hemisphere of the brain that slowly cause progressive impairments of language known as primary progressive aphasia (PPA), reports a new Northwestern Medicine study.

“We’ve discovered each of these diseases hits a different part of the language network,” said lead author Dr. M. Marsel Mesulam, director of Northwestern’s Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease. “In some cases, the disease hits the area responsible for grammar, in others the area responsible for word comprehension. Each disease progresses at a different rate and has different implications for intervention.”

This study published in the journal Brain is based on the largest set of PPA autopsies — 118 cases — ever assembled.

“The patients had been followed for more than 25 years, so this is the most extensive study to date on life expectancy, type of language impairment and relationship of disease to details of language impairment,” said Mesulam, also chief of behavioral neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Patients with PPA were prospectively enrolled in a longitudinal study that included language testing and imaging of brain structure and brain function. The study included consent to brain donation at death.

Glim­pse inside a gra­phene sand­wich

Honeycomb-shaped structures made of carbon atoms, known as graphene, can conduct electric current without resistance when twisted against each other.
Credit: Uni Innsbruck

In the search for novel types of superconductors – phases of matter that conduct electric current without loss – scientists are investigating materials that consist of multiple layers. A team led by theoretical physicist Mathias Scheurer has studied in detail the properties of a system of three twisted graphene layers and gained important insights into its properties.

Since the first successful fabrication of a two-dimensional structure of carbon atoms about 20 years ago, graphene has fascinated scientists. A few years ago, researchers discovered that two layers of graphene, slightly twisted against each other, can conduct electric current without loss. In recent years, this discovery has prompted scientists to explore such layered materials in greater detail. A recent notable example is mirror-symmetric twisted trilayer graphene, where three layers of graphene are stacked with alternating twist angles. It is the first moiré system that can both be efficiently tuned with a perpendicular electric field and was demonstrated experimentally to exhibit robust superconductivity, alongside various other phases. “This establishes trilayer graphene as an exciting platform for complex many-body physics, but the nature of the observed interaction-induced insulators, semi-metals, and superconductivity remains unknown”, says Mathias Scheurer from the Department of Theoretical Physics of the University of Innsbruck.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Study Reveals Diminished Role for Neutrons in Creation of Carbon in Stars

The Texas Active Target (TexAT) particle detector designed and built by Texas A&M physicists is the centerpiece in a collaborative experiment to test whether other particles — specifically stray neutrons — could be involved in creating carbon.
Credit: Rogachev Group

A Texas A&M University-led collaboration has yielded new insight into one of the universe’s most important primordial reactions that made all life on Earth possible.

The multi-institution team of nuclear scientists that also includes researchers from Washington University in St. Louis and Ohio University concluded in a recent study that the role neutrons play in the creation of carbon, considered the definitive building block of life, actually is much smaller than previously thought.

Their data, acquired during 2020 and analyzed within the past year, is detailed in a paper published in Nature Communications.

“These findings are extremely significant because it demonstrates that the rate at which stars burn helium together to form carbon is less sensitive to any neutrons in the stars, which were previously thought to speed up this process,” said Dr. Jack Bishop, an assistant research scientist at the Texas A&M Cyclotron Institute and a lead author of the paper. “Understanding the way that stars burn is extremely important in understanding the life and death of stars, as well as where the elements that make up our universe originate from and in what quantity.”

Scientists discover promising biologic drug for treating chronic lung disease

Associate Professor Ge Ruowen (left) from NUS Biological Sciences and Professor Fred Wong (right) of NUS Pharmacology.
Credit: National University of Singapore

NUS scientists have discovered a novel property of a protein found in human lungs which could lead to the development of biologic drugs to treat chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a debilitating, progressive lung disease that is one of the leading causes of death worldwide.

The research was led by Associate Professor Ge Ruowen from NUS Biological Sciences and published in the prestigious scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Fighting COPD

COPD is currently the third-leading cause of death globally and poses a large socioeconomic burden on nations. It can be caused by long-term exposure to irritants or particulate matter, such as cigarette smoke, and symptoms include coughing, breathing difficulties, mucus production and wheezing.

Patients with COPD display two key conditions - emphysema (the destruction of alveolar walls and enlargement of the alveoli) and chronic obstructive bronchitis (inflamed small airways). These patients suffer persistent respiratory symptoms with progressive long-term lung function decline. However, current drugs targeting COPD only provide symptomatic relief and are not able to suppress the underlying tissue inflammation to effectively block the spread of COPD or reduce mortality.

“COPD patients have difficulty breathing which hinders their ability to work or exercise. They do not absorb enough oxygen, and this affects their heart function too. COPD is a very dangerous condition, but public awareness of it is very low,” said Assoc Prof Ge.

The destructive power of language

Hate expressions can take many forms - they can also be very subtle in the field of language.
Credit: Roberto Schirdewahn

Artificial intelligence can well identify swear words. But it can also recognize more hidden forms of linguistic violence?

"Piss off, you bitch!"" I'll get the bum. I'll stab you."" You should all pop them off. "Just a few examples of the form that language can take on social media. People are insulted, threatened or incited to crime. Prof. is interested in what distinguishes hate speech and other forms of damaging language from a linguistic perspective and how you can automatically recognize them. Dr. Tatjana Scheffler. She conducts research at the RUB in the field of digital forensic linguistics.

"Language processing in general has made big leaps in recent years," says Scheffler. Anyone who uses translation programs such as Google Translator or language assistants such as Siri today will achieve significantly better results than a few years ago. The classification of texts is now working quite well. Artificial intelligence algorithms can learn to assign statements to different categories. For example, you can decide whether a text passage contains a direct insult or not. The algorithms learn the categories using large training data sets that people have previously classified. Later they can transfer the knowledge of the learned categories to new data.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Fermilab is home to a new baby bison!

This year, Fermilab is expecting up to 20 new calves.
Credit: Ryan Postel, Fermilab

World-class particle physics research isn’t the only thing Fermilab is known for. The iconic sight of the Midwestern bison graces the acres of prairie land surrounding the lab, beckoning visitors from across the country. On April 13, baby bison season officially began at the lab, a sure sign spring is truly on its way. The first calf of the year was born in the morning, and we’re pleased to announce that both mother and baby are doing well.

 Currently, the herd comprises 32 bison — 30 females and two bulls. The bulls are changed out periodically to maintain the herd’s health and genetic diversity.

This year, Fermilab is expecting up to 20 new calves. For a front-seat view of the bison, visit Fermilab’s new bison cam to glimpse the activities of the mighty herd.

Robert Wilson, Fermilab’s first director, established the bison herd in 1969 as a symbol of the history of the Midwestern prairie and the laboratory’s pioneering research at the cutting-edge of particle physics.

Study finds an unexpected upside to imposter syndrome

People who report “impostor workplace thoughts” are often still successful, by being strong team players in the office, and being recognized as such, according to a new study. The research was led by MIT Sloan Assistant Professor Basima Tewfik.
Credit: MIT

Even many successful people harbor what is commonly called impostor syndrome, a sense of being secretly unworthy and not as capable as others think. First posited by psychologists in 1978, it is often assumed to be a debilitating problem.

But research by an MIT scholar suggests this is not universally true. In workplace settings, at least, those harboring impostor-type concerns tend to compensate for their perceived shortcomings by being good team players with strong social skills, and are often recognized as productive workers by their employers.

“People who have workplace impostor thoughts become more other-oriented as a result of having these thoughts,” says Basima Tewfik, an assistant professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of a new paper detailing her findings. “As they become more other-oriented, they’re going to be evaluated as being more interpersonally effective.”

Tewfik’s research as a whole suggests we should rethink some of our assumptions about impostor-type complexes and their dynamics. At the same time, she emphasizes, the prevalence of these types of thoughts among workers should not be ignored, dismissed, or even encouraged.

Putting Tried-and-True Theories to the Test

Assistant Professor of Physics Katerina Chatziioannou
Source: California Institute of Technology

Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity is a triumph of science, celebrated by scientists around the world for, among other truths, explaining how gravity works. Whereas Isaac Newton proposed in the late 17th century that gravity is a force tugging on objects, Einstein taught us, in the early 20th century, that gravity is in fact a warping of space and time. The more massive an object, the more it curves space and produces stronger gravity.

Now, many decades later, scientists are using a prediction of Einstein's general theory of relativity—gravitational waves—to study the universe and to even poke holes in the theory itself. Einstein predicted these ripples in spacetime 100 years ago but they were not directly detected until 2015, when the National Science Foundation-funded LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) detected the waves from a collision between two black holes.

Assistant Professor of Physics Katerina Chatziioannou, who joined the Caltech faculty in 2020 and is part of the LIGO team, is using gravitational waves to explore these extreme events. She is using the waves to study the space-bending objects themselves, such as black holes and neutron stars, as well as to look for places where our current knowledge of gravity might break down. Any deviations from the tried-and-true theory could lead to new discoveries in physics.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Stroke cuts life expectancy by one third

Almost two thirds of acute stroke patients fail to survive more than a decade and have high risk of recurrence, prompting researchers to call for better patient care.

University of Queensland researchers analyzed data from more than 300,000 patients admitted to hospital following a sudden stroke between 2008 and 2017 in Australia and New Zealand.

The team also investigated how many years were lost to stroke by comparing a patient’s predicted life expectancy with the length of actual survival.

Study leader and UQ epidemiologist, Dr Yang Peng, a Research Fellow with the Prince Charles Hospital Northside Clinical Unit, said only 36.4 per cent of patients survived beyond 10 years, and 26.8 per cent had another stroke.

“We found that a stroke reduced a patient’s life expectancy by five and a half years on average, compared with the general population,” Dr Peng said.

“In proportional terms, this meant a stroke reduced a person’s life expectancy by one third.

“Patients with a hemorrhagic stroke who have bleeding in the brain are at greater risk of death, another stroke and reduced life expectancy, than those with an ischemic stroke, which is caused by a burst blood vessel.”

Acute stroke is one of the most common causes of hospitalization and disability in Australia and has been linked to risk factors such as high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels, diabetes, smoking and heart disease by the Stroke Foundation.

Nationwide maps of bird species can help protect biodiversity

Researchers mapped the number of bird species found across the contiguous U.S. Blue areas host fewer bird species than green or yellow areas do. 
Images by Kathleen Carroll and Anna Pidgeon

New, highly detailed and rigorous maps of bird biodiversity could help protect rare or threatened species.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison developed the maps at a fine-enough resolution to help conservation managers focus their efforts where they are most likely to help birds — in individual counties or forests, rather than across whole states or regions.

The maps span the contiguous U.S. and predict the diversity of birds that live in a given area, related by traits such as nesting on the ground or being endangered. Those predictions are based on both detailed observations of birds and environmental factors that affect bird ranges, such as the degree of forest cover or temperature in an area.

Changes in vegetation shaped global temperatures over last 10,000 years

Alexander Thompson, a postdoctoral research associate in earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences, updated simulations from an important climate model to reflect the role of changing vegetation as a key driver of global temperatures over the last 10,000 years.
Source: Washington University in St. Louis

Follow the pollen. Records from past plant life tell the real story of global temperatures, according to research from a climate scientist at Washington University in St. Louis.

Warmer temperatures brought plants — and then came even warmer temperatures, according to new model simulations published in Science Advances.

Thompson had long been troubled by a problem with models of Earth’s atmospheric temperatures since the last ice age. Too many of these simulations showed temperatures warming consistently over time.

But climate proxy records tell a different story. Many of those sources indicate a marked peak in global temperatures that occurred between 6,000 and 9,000 years ago.

Thompson had a hunch that the models could be overlooking the role of changes in vegetation in favor of impacts from atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations or ice cover.

Scientists resurrect ancient enzymes to improve photosynthesis

 Maureen Hanson, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of Plant Molecular Biology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Myat Lin, research associate, work in their lab in the Biotechnology Building.
Credit: Ryan Young/Cornell University

A Cornell study describes a breakthrough in the quest to improve photosynthesis in certain crops, a step toward adapting plants to rapid climate changes and increasing yields to feed a projected 9 billion people by 2050.

The study, “Improving the Efficiency of Rubisco by Resurrecting Its Ancestors in the Family Solanaceae,” published in Science Advances. The senior author is Maureen Hanson, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of Plant Molecular Biology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. First author Myat Lin is a postdoctoral research associate in Hanson’s lab.

The authors developed a computational technique to predict favorable gene sequences that make Rubisco, a key plant enzyme for photosynthesis. The technique allowed the scientists to identify promising candidate enzymes that could be engineered into modern crops and, ultimately, make photosynthesis more efficient and increase crop yields.

Their method relied on evolutionary history, where the researchers predicted Rubisco genes from 20-30 million years ago, when Earth’s carbon dioxide (CO2) levels were higher than they are today and the Rubisco enzymes in plants were adapted to those levels.

Researcher identifies peptide active against certain cancers

Shugeng Cao in his lab.
Credit: University of Hawaiʻi

A University of Hawaiʻi researcher has identified a rare bacterium that is active against certain cancers. The bacterium, Lentzea flaviverrucosa, that produces petrichorin A, was discovered by Shugeng Cao, associate member of the Cancer Biology Program at the UH Cancer Center, and co-investigators Chunshun Li and Xiaohua Wu, in collaboration with Joshua Blodgett of Washington University in St. Louis. The research team proved that petrichorin A is active against cancers such as ovarian cancer, fibrosarcoma, prostate cancer and T-cell leukemia.

These findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Petrichorin A is a peptide that contains special amino acids, and each amino acid has a nitrogen-nitrogen bond. Petrichorin A, a dumbbell-like natural product, was evaluated for anti-cancer activity against multiple cancer cell lines. The researchers conducted a preliminary test and discovered that petrichorin A was not toxic to a normal human cell line. With this observation, his team proved that petrichorin A was active against ovarian cancer, fibrosarcoma, prostate cancer and T-cell leukemia. This highlighted the importance of including petrichorin A in future research of pharmaceutical design and discovery programs.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Cloud server leasing can leave sensitive data up for grabs

Renting space and IP addresses on a public server has become standard business practice, but according to a team of Penn State computer scientists, current industry practices can lead to "cloud squatting," which can create a security risk, endangering sensitive customer and organization data intended to remain private.

Cloud squatting occurs when a company, such as a bank, leases space and IP addresses — unique addresses that identify individual computers or computer networks — on a public server, uses them, and then releases the space and addresses back to the public server company, a standard pattern seen every day. The public server company, such as Amazon, Google, or Microsoft, then assigns the same addresses to a second company.  If this second company is a bad actor, it can receive information coming into the address intended for the original company — for example, when you as a customer unknowingly use an outdated link when interacting with your bank — and use it to its advantage — cloud squatting.

"There are two advantages to leasing server space," said Eric Pauley, doctoral candidate in computer science and engineering. "One is a cost advantage, saving on equipment and management. The other is scalability. Leasing server space offers an unlimited pool of computing resources so, as workload changes, companies can quickly adapt." As a result, the use of clouds has grown exponentially, meaning almost every website a user visits takes advantage of cloud computing.

A right to clean drinking water?

Dr. Edith Nettmann is a microbiologist at the Chair for Urban Water Management and Environmental Technology.
Credit: Damian Gorczany

Water is the elixir of life on our planet. The free availability of clean water must not be a privilege. Therefore, in 2010 the United Nations decided that everyone has the right to clean water and sanitation. However, this human right has not yet been implemented globally. Around 2.2 billion people still have no access to drinking water and around 4.4 billion no sanitary facilities are available. Given these numbers, it is difficult not to speak of a crime against humanity.

People in emerging and developing countries and / or in rural regions are particularly affected. There are many reasons for this: among other things, a lack of / missing wastewater treatment and corresponding infrastructures, environmental pollution, still a lack of information about hygiene, armed conflicts and climate change.

Many fatalities

Worldwide, over 80 percent of all wastewater is still fed into the water cycle untreated. They not only pollute the environment and drinking water resources, but also contribute to the spread of diseases in addition to poor hygiene. These include cholera, typhoid, dysentery and hepatitis A. Children in particular are worst hit: in the past ten years, more children worldwide have died of water-related diarrhea than people in all armed conflicts since the Second World War. Today, 450 million children already live in areas with high or extremely high-water uncertainty. And climate change is exacerbating this precarious situation. The increasing extreme weather conditions caused by global warming, such as droughts, floods and heavy rain events, have a very strong influence on the amount and quality of our drinking water.

Quantum teleportation: the express lane for quantum data traffic

An artist’s conception of an error-correction protocol: the photons affected by environment are fixed then used to carry the data teleported into them.
Credit: Maria Slussarenko

Teleportation may be a concept usually reserved for science fiction, but researchers have demonstrated that it can be used to avoid loss in communication channels on the quantum level.

The team, including researchers from Griffith University’s Centre for Quantum Dynamics, has highlighted the issues around inherent loss that occurs across every form of communication channel (for example, internet or phone) and discovered a mechanism that can reduce that loss.

Dr Sergei Slussarenko
from the Centre of Quantum Dynamics.
Professor Geoff Pryde, Dr Sergei Slussarenko, Dr Sacha Kocsis and Dr Morgan Weston, and researchers from The University of Queensland and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, say the finding is an important step towards implementing ‘quantum internet’, which will bring unprecedented capabilities not accessible with today’s web.

Dr Slussarenko said the study was the first to demonstrate an error reduction method that improved the performance of a channel.

“First, we looked at the raw data transmitted via our channel and could see a better signal with our method, than without it,” he said.

“In our experiment, we first sent a photon through the loss – this photon is not carrying any useful information so losing it was not a big problem.

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