Tuesday, May 31, 2022

History of Lake Cahuilla

Today, the Salton Sea occupies a fraction of the area once covered by Lake Cahuilla.
Photo: Susanne Clara Bard.

Today, the Salton Sea is an eerie place. Its mirror-like surface belies the toxic stew within. Fish skeletons line its shores and the ruins of a once thriving vacation playground is a reminder of better days.

But long before agricultural runoff bespoiled the Salton Sea, the lakebed it now occupies was home to a much larger body of water known as Lake Cahuilla. The lake was six times the size of the Salton Sea and once covered much of Mexicali, Imperial and Coachella valleys.

“It was a freshwater lake that was about 100 meters deep in its deepest part,” said San Diego State University emeritus professor of geology Tom Rockwell. “It extended from up near Palm Springs southward into Mexico, so it was a very extensive lake.”

Lake Cahuilla went through many cycles of filling and drying out over thousands of years. A new study by Rockwell and his colleagues used radiocarbon dating to determine the timing of the last seven periods of filling. The research sheds light on both the history of human occupation in the area and its seismic past.

Shark antibodies may have the teeth to stop COVID-19

Nurse sharks have a surprisingly effective adaptive immune system that may help shape novel COVID-19 therapies

Fossil evidence suggests sharks first existed 420 million years ago, predating humanity, Mount Everest and even trees. Over the course of time, sharks and other fish with cartilage skeletons developed what is now believed to be the oldest adaptive immune system in the animal kingdom.

According to a recent study published in Nature Communications, these ancient predators and their prehistoric immune systems may also be key to developing effective COVID-19 treatments.

“The shark antibodies neutralized the proteins in ways we weren’t expecting.” — 
Surajit Banerjee, Cornell University/NE-CAT

Professors Aaron LeBeau of the University of Wisconsin and Hideki Aihara of the University of Minnesota used the Advanced Photon Source (APS), a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science user facility at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory, to look at nurse shark antibodies. With exquisite resolution, the APS’s extremely bright X-ray beams showed that variable new antigen receptors (VNARs), the smallest unit of a shark antibody, can stop SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 and its variants.

Astronomers identify 116,000 new variable stars

An ASAS-SN telescope helps astronomers discover new stars.
Photo: ASAS-SN

Ohio State University astronomers have identified about 116,000 new variable stars, according to a new paper.

These heavenly bodies were found by The All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASAS-SN), a network of 20 telescopes around the world which can observe the entire sky about 50,000 times deeper than the human eye. Researchers from Ohio State have operated the project for nearly a decade.

Now in a paper published on arXiv, an open-access preprint server, researchers describe how they used machine learning techniques to identify and classify variable stars — celestial objects whose brightness waxes and wanes over time, especially if observed from our perspective on Earth.

The changes these stars undergo can reveal important information about their mass, radius, temperature and even their composition. In fact, even our sun is considered a variable star. Surveys like ASAS-SN are an especially important tool for finding systems that can reveal the complexities of stellar processes, said Collin Christy, the lead author of the paper and an ASAS-SN analyst at Ohio State.

“Variable stars are sort of like a stellar laboratory,” he said. “They’re really neat places in the universe where we can study and learn more about how stars actually work and the little intricacies that they all have.”

Great white sharks may have contributed to megalodon extinction

Tooth size comparison between the extinct Early Pliocene Otodus megalodon tooth and a modern great white shark. 
Credit: MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology

The diet of fossil extinct animals can hold clues to their lifestyle, behavior, evolution and ultimately extinction. However, studying an animal’s diet after millions of years is difficult due to the poor preservation of chemical dietary indicators in organic material on these timescales. An international team of scientists led by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, applied a new method to investigate the diet of the largest shark to have ever existed, the iconic Otodus megalodon. This new method investigates the zinc isotope composition of the highly mineralized part of teeth and proves to be particularly helpful to decipher the diet of these extinct animals.

Megatooth sharks like Otodus megalodon, more commonly known as megalodon, lived between 23 and 3.6 million years ago in oceans around the globe and possibly reached as large as 20 meters in length. For comparison, the largest great white sharks today reach a total length of only six meters. Many factors have been discussed to explain the gigantism and extinction of megalodon, with its diet and dietary competition often being thought of as key factors.

Asteroid Institute Uses Revolutionary Cloud-Based Astrodynamics Platform to Discover and Track Asteroids

The Asteroid Institute, a program of B612 Foundation, today announced it is using a groundbreaking computational technique running on its Asteroid Discovery Analysis and Mapping (ADAM) cloud-based astrodynamics platform to discover and track asteroids. The Minor Planet Center has confirmed and added the first 104 of these newly discovered asteroids to its registry, thus opening the door for Asteroid Institute-supported researchers to submit thousands of additional new discoveries.

The ADAM platform is an open-source computational system that runs astrodynamics algorithms using the scalable computational and storage capabilities in Google Compute Engine, Google Cloud Storage, and Google Kubernetes Engine. The novel algorithm used to discover these new asteroids is called THOR (Tracklet-less Heliocentric Orbit Recovery), and it links points of light in different sky images that are consistent with asteroid orbits. Unlike current state-of-the-art algorithms, THOR does not require the telescope to observe the sky in a particular pattern for asteroids to be discoverable. Researchers can now begin systematic explorations of large datasets that were previously not usable for discovering asteroids. THOR recognizes asteroids, and most importantly, calculates their orbits well enough to be recognized by the Minor Planet Center as tracked asteroids.

For its initial demonstration, Joachim Moeyens, THOR co-creator and the Asteroid Institute Graduate Student Fellow at the University of Washington, searched a 30-day window of images from the NOIRLab Source Catalog (NSC), a collection of nearly 68 billion observations taken by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory telescopes between 2012 and 2019. From this Moeyens submitted a small, initial subset of discoveries to the Minor Planet Center for official recognition and validation. Now that the computational discovery technique has been validated, thousands of new discoveries from NSC and other datasets are expected to follow.

The grass may be greener on old mine sites

Researchers at WVU’s Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design will use $817,000 in grant funding from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to study the resiliency of miscanthus, a bioenergy crop that grows well on reclaimed mine land.
Credit: photo/Jenni Kane

West Virginia University researchers are working to better understand how climate change may make an impact on a bioenergy crop that flourishes on reclaimed mining lands.

Previously living materials, including perennial grasses like Miscanthus x giganteus, produce bioenergy. Ember Morrissey, associate professor of environmental microbiology in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, is examining the symbiotic relationship between microbes and this type of tall grass to prepare for climate change and decreasing fossil fuel usage.

The research group includes Jeff Skousen, professor of soil science, Louis McDonald, professor of environmental soil chemistry and soil fertility, and Jenni Kane, a doctoral student in plant and soil sciences.

Skousen, an expert in soil reclamation, helped Morrissey establish miscanthus stands on marginal soil for research over the next five years funded with a more than $817,000 grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

The goal is to determine if fertilization will weaken the relationship between the plant and its microbes and then determine the best way to manage the plant in unpredictable climates.

Making colors out of gold and DNA

In this experiment, the gel is being activated by a red LED before the researchers measure the light it transmits.
Photo: Joonas Ryssy

Folk belief says there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but a new technology is turning that idea on its head – using particles of gold to make colors. With further work, the method developed at Aalto University could herald a new display technology.

The technique uses gold nanocylinders suspended in a gel. The gel only transmits certain colors when lit by polarized light, and the color depends on the orientation of the gold nanocylinders. In a clever twist, a collaboration led by Anton Kuzyk’s and Juho Pokki’s research groups used DNA molecules to control the orientation of gold nanocylinders in the gel.

‘DNA isn’t just an information carrier – it can also be a building block. We designed the DNA molecules to have a certain melting temperature, so we could basically program the material,’ says Aalto doctoral candidate Joonas Ryssy, the study’s lead author. When the gel heats past the melting temperature, the DNA molecules loosen their grip and the gold nanocylinders change orientation. When the temperature drops, they tighten up again, and the nanoparticles go back to their original position.

Palms at the Poles: Fossil Plants Reveal Lush Southern Hemisphere Forests in Ancient Hothouse Climate

For decades, paleobotanist David Greenwood has collected fossil plants from Australia – some so well preserved it’s hard to believe they’re millions of years old. These fossils hold details about the ancient world in which they thrived, and Greenwood and a team of researchers including climate modeler and research David Hutchinson, from the University of New South Wales, and UConn Department of Geosciences paleobotanist Tammo Reichgelt, have begun the process of piecing together the evidence to see what more they could learn from the collection. Their findings are published in Paleoceanography & Paleoclimatology.

The fossils date back 55 to 40 million years ago, during the Eocene epoch. At that time, the world was much warmer and wetter, and these hothouse conditions meant there were palms at the North and South Pole and predominantly arid landmasses like Australia were lush and green. Reichgelt and co-authors looked for evidence of differences in precipitation and plant productivity between then and now.

Since different plants thrive under specific conditions, plant fossils can indicate what kinds of environments those plants lived in.

By focusing on the morphology and taxonomic features of 12 different floras, the researchers developed a more detailed view of what the climate and productivity was like in the ancient hothouse world of the Eocene epoch.

Reichgelt explains the morphological method relies on the fact that the leaves of angiosperms — flowering plants — in general have a strategy for responding to climate.

New Artificial Enzyme Breaks Down Tough, Woody Lignin

Researchers Xiao Zhang (L) and Chun-long Chen (R) examine the products of lignin digestion by their novel biomimetic peptoid catalyst.
Photo by Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

A new artificial enzyme has shown it can chew through lignin, the tough polymer that helps woody plants hold their shape. Lignin also stores tremendous potential for renewable energy and materials.

Reporting in the journal Nature Communications, a team of researchers from Washington State University and the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory showed that their artificial enzyme succeeded in digesting lignin, which has stubbornly resisted previous attempts to develop it into an economically useful energy source.

Lignin, which is the second most abundant renewable carbon source on Earth, mostly goes to waste as a fuel source. When wood is burned for cooking, lignin byproducts help impart that smoky flavor to foods. But burning releases all that carbon to the atmosphere instead of capturing it for other uses.

“Our bio-mimicking enzyme showed promise in degrading real lignin, which is considered to be a breakthrough,” said Xiao Zhang, a corresponding author on the paper and associate professor in WSU’s Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering. Zhang also holds a joint appointment at PNNL. “We think there is an opportunity to develop a new class of catalysts and to really address the limitations of biological and chemical catalysts.”

Drought, megafires, and flood – citizen scientists reveal impact on river water quality

Upper Macleay River
Source: Southern Cross University

In a few short years Australia’s east coast has experienced drought, blazing bushfires and unprecedented floods, driving discussion about the impacts of climate change. What is less discussed, and also less well understood, are the implications of such extremes for the quality of water in our rivers.

Researchers from Southern Cross University led a unique study published in Water Research with collaboration from dedicated team of citizen scientists to help monitor how these climate extremes impact river water quality.

Professor Scott Johnston, a Landscape Hydrogeochemist from the University’s Faculty of Science and Engineering has overseen this water quality monitoring project in the Macleay River since 2016. The Macleay is a large coastal catchment in Northern New South Wales that stretches across the Great Dividing Range from the tablelands near Armidale to the coast at Kempsey and South West Rocks.

“We collaborated with a trained group of local citizen scientist volunteers who were able to regularly collect river water samples, capturing what took place at a level of detail that is really quite unique,” he said. ‘’Without their hard work on the ground, this study would not have happened and it is a great example of a university and community working closely together to help understand a locally relevant issue.’

Alzheimer’s disease causes cells to overheat and ‘fry like eggs’

Mammalian cell stained with fluorescence polymeric thermometers and falsely-colored based on temperature gradients. 
Credit: Chyi Wei Chung

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, used sensors small and sensitive enough to detect temperature changes inside individual cells, and found that as amyloid-beta misfolds and clumps together, it causes cells to overheat.

In an experiment using human cell lines, the researchers found the heat released by amyloid-beta aggregation could potentially cause other, healthy amyloid-beta to aggregate, causing more and more aggregates to form.

In the same series of experiments, the researchers also showed that amyloid-beta aggregation can be stopped, and the cell temperature lowered, with the addition of a drug compound. The experiments also suggest that the compound has potential as a therapeutic for Alzheimer’s disease, although extensive tests and clinical trials would first be required.

The researchers say their assay could be used as a diagnostic tool for Alzheimer’s disease, or to screen potential drug candidates. The results are reported in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

The Sun is spinning round again

The model developed by the scientists includes the history of the rotation of the sun but also the magnetic instabilities that it generates.
Credit: Sylvia Ekström / UNIGE

All was amiss with the Sun! In the early 2000s, a new set of data brought down the chemical abundances at the surface of the Sun, contradicting the values predicted by the standard models used by astrophysicists. Often challenged, these new abundances made it through several new analyses. As they seemed to prove correct, it was thus up to the solar models to adapt, especially since they serve as a reference for the study of stars in general. A team of astronomers from the University of Geneva, Switzerland (UNIGE) in collaboration with the Université de Liège, has developed a new theoretical model that solves part of the problem: considering the Sun’s rotation, that varied through time, and the magnetic fields it generates, they have been able to explain the chemical structure of the Sun. The results of this study are published in Nature Astronomy.

“The Sun is the star that we can best characterize, so it constitutes a fundamental test for our understanding of stellar physics. We have abundance measurements of its chemical elements, but also measurements of its internal structure, like in the case of Earth thanks to seismology”, explains Patrick Eggenberger, a researcher at the Department of astronomy of the UNIGE and first author of the study.

These observations should fall in line with the results predicted by the theoretical models which aim at explaining the Sun’s evolution. How does the Sun burn its hydrogen in the core? How is energy produced there and then transported towards the surface? How do chemical elements drift within the Sun, influenced both by rotation and magnetic fields?

Monday, May 30, 2022

Research finds small modular reactors will exacerbate challenges of highly radioactive nuclear waste

Engineers prepare to test an advanced prototype of a small modular reactor developed by the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory.
Image credit: Idaho National Laboratory

Small modular reactors, long touted as the future of nuclear energy, will actually generate more radioactive waste than conventional nuclear power plants, according to research from Stanford and the University of British Columbia.

Nuclear reactors generate reliable supplies of electricity with limited greenhouse gas emissions. But a nuclear power plant that generates 1,000 megawatts of electric power also produces radioactive waste that must be isolated from the environment for hundreds of thousands of years. Furthermore, the cost of building a large nuclear power plant can be tens of billions of dollars.

Engineers prepare to test an advanced prototype of a small modular reactor developed by the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory. (Image credit: Courtesy Idaho National Laboratory)

To address these challenges, the nuclear industry is developing small modular reactors that generate less than 300 megawatts of electric power and can be assembled in factories. Industry analysts say these advanced modular designs will be cheaper and produce fewer radioactive byproducts than conventional large-scale reactors.

But a May 30 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has reached the opposite conclusion.

Frontier supercomputer debuts as world’s fastest, breaking exascale barrier

The Frontier supercomputer at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory earned the top ranking today as the world’s fastest on the 59th TOP500 list, with 1.1 exaflops of performance. The system is the first to achieve an unprecedented level of computing performance known as exascale, a threshold of a quintillion calculations per second.

Frontier features a theoretical peak performance of 2 exaflops, or two quintillion calculations per second, making it ten times more powerful than ORNL’s Summit system. The system leverages ORNL’s extensive expertise in accelerated computing and will enable scientists to develop critically needed technologies for the country’s energy, economic and national security, helping researchers address problems of national importance that were impossible to solve just five years ago.

“Frontier is ushering in a new era of exascale computing to solve the world’s biggest scientific challenges,” ORNL Director Thomas Zacharia said. “This milestone offers just a preview of Frontier’s unmatched capability as a tool for scientific discovery. It is the result of more than a decade of collaboration among the national laboratories, academia and private industry, including DOE’s Exascale Computing Project, which is deploying the applications, software technologies, hardware and integration necessary to ensure impact at the exascale.”

Revelations of genetic diversity of bass species can enhance conservation


Black Bass

A new study by Yale ichthyologists provides a clearer picture of species diversity among black basses — one of the most cherished and economically important lineages of freshwater gamefish. Their findings can help guide the conservation and management of bass species that are both prized by anglers across the globe and ranked among the world’s most invasive organisms.

For the study, published May 30 in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers used genomic analysis to more accurately delineate the places of 19 black bass species in the tree of life. Importantly, the analysis revealed that two popular species — the largemouth bass and Florida bass — have been misclassified over the past 75 years. The scientific names Micropterus salmoides and Micropterus floridanus have been incorrectly applied to the largemouth bass and Florida bass, respectively.

The researchers concluded that Micropterus salmoides is the accurate scientific name for the Florida bass while the largemouth bass should be reclassified as Micropterus nigricans, the oldest available scientific name for largemouth bass. This is important because both the largemouth bass and Florida bass have been introduced in 57 countries on every continent except Antarctica under the misapplied scientific name Micropterus salmoides, meaning introductions were made to support fisheries without knowing the precise species, explained lead author Daemin Kim, a graduate student in Yale’s Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology.

Multi-functional bandage helps wounds to heal

Ceren Kimna, doctoral candidate at the TUM School of Engineering, performing a mechanical stretching test with the newly developed biomolecular film for wound healing.
Image: Astrid Eckert / TUM

Researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have developed a film that not only protects wounds similar to the way a bandage does, but also helps wounds to heal faster, repels bacteria, dampens inflammation, releases active pharmaceutical ingredients in a targeted manner and ultimately dissolves by itself. This is all made possible by its dedicated design and the use of mucins, molecules which occur naturally in mucous membranes.

Conventional bandages may be very effective for treating smaller skin abrasions, but things get more difficult when it comes to soft-tissue injuries such as on the tongue or on sensitive surfaces like the intestines. What kind of material will adhere there without damaging the tissue or sticking to adjacent points? How can wounds be protected from external influences and bacteria? What kind of substance will allow cells underneath to close the wound, and then ultimately disappear without a trace?

Scientists Synthesize Material for Fuel Cells

Natalia Tarasova notes that the new material is harmless to the environment.
Credit: Ilya Safarov

Scientists at Ural Federal University and the Institute of High Temperature Electrochemistry, Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences have synthesized a proton conductor, a solid electrolyte in which positively charged hydrogen (proton) particles are current carriers. It has a high level of electrical conductivity and could become the basis for a solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC). Such cells are an environmentally friendly alternative to hydrocarbon energy sources. The results of the study are published in the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, an international journal dedicated to hydrogen energy.

Solid oxide fuel cells are instruments that convert fuel energy into electrical energy through a chemical reaction. SOFC is used in hydrogen power, they can replace fossil fuel sources and reduce their impact on climate change and air pollution. Such cells can be used in car engines or the space industry to reduce hydrocarbon emissions into the environment. Fuel cells based on the new material developed by scientists are potentially cost-effective to produce and can exhibit higher electrical conductivity than other solid-state conductors for SOFC.

"The transition to clean hydrogen energy is one of the possible ways to solve the problem of fossil fuel pollution. Proton-ceramic fuel cells are a promising alternative to hydrocarbon engines, because they combine high efficiency, flexibility in various operating conditions, and excellent performance. In our work we obtained a new energy-efficient material in which the proton concentration is doubled and the electrical conductivity becomes two times higher. It is important to note that the material shows such results at a temperature that is twice as low as the currently most studied solid-state oxygen-ion conductors. Lowering the temperature increases the economic efficiency of the final electrochemical device," explains the study's co-author Natalia Tarasova, Associate Professor at the Department of Physical Chemistry at UrFU.

Scientists discover new clues to liver cancer progression

A team of researchers from the College of Design and Engineering, the N.1 Institute for Health and the Cancer Science Institute of Singapore at the National University of Singapore has recently engineered in vitro tumor models to better understand the crosstalk between liver cancer cells and their microenvironment. Using lab-grown mini liver tumors co-cultured with endothelial cells – these are cells that form the lining of blood vessels – to conduct their study, the research team investigated the role of endothelial cells in liver cancer progression.

“The conventional understanding is that endothelial cells are structural cells that form blood vessels. Our latest findings suggest that these cells also give ‘instructions’ to liver cancer cells to increase the production of a protein called CXCL1, which is associated with poor survival outcome in liver cancer patients,” explained Assistant Professor Eliza Fong, who led the research study.

CXCL1 is a type of chemokine, which signals proteins secreted by cells to regulate the infiltration of different immune cells into tumors. Hence, these molecules affect tumor immunity and may influence therapeutic outcomes in patients.

“Our results pave the way for new therapeutic targets to control tumor development, and further our team’s understanding of the mechanisms behind the progression of liver cancer,” Dr. Toh Tan Boon added, who is also a key member of the research team.

Olfactory neurons adapt to the surrounding environment

Cross-section of the nasal cavity of a mouse (wide view). Within the dense population of olfactory neurons (in blue), the olfactory neurons expressing a specific type of receptor (Olfr151) are marked in bright green.
Credit: Madlaina Boillat

Olfactory receptors, present on the surface of sensory neurons in the nasal cavity, recognize odorant molecules and relay this information to the brain. How do these neurons manage to detect a large variability of signals and adapt to different levels of stimulation? A joint team from the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Geneva (UNIGE) investigated the gene expression profile of these neurons in the presence or absence of odorant stimulation. The scientists discovered an unsuspected variability in these profiles depending on the expressed olfactory receptor and previous exposure to odors. These results, to be read in the journal Nature Communications, highlight a wide range of identities of olfactory neurons, and their adaptation to the surrounding environment.

In mammals, the perception of odors is ensured by millions of olfactory neurons, located in the mucosa of the nasal cavity. These neurons have on their surface receptors able to bind specifically to an odorant molecule. Each olfactory neuron expresses only one gene coding for an olfactory receptor, chosen from a repertoire of about 450 in humans and 1,200 in mice.

Unselfish behavior has evolutionary reasons

Florida scrub jays,
Image: Wikimedia commons / Richard Crossley

Altruistic behavior is often seen as an exclusively human characteristic. However, behavioral research has uncovered numerous examples of altruistic behavior in the animal kingdom. In a new study, researchers at the University of Bern show that animals that help others “selflessly” to raise their young generate an evolutionary advantage.

Altruism is defined as doing something that benefits someone else, at a cost to oneself. In the animal kingdom, the most astonishing examples of this selflessness occur in the rearing of the next generation. Animal societies that exhibit cooperative breeding include cichlids in Lake Tanganyika, some mammals, many bird species, and numerous insects. In these societies, typically a single, dominant breeding pair produces young, and the other members of the group help raise them. These members of the group are therefore acting altruistically by the care of young that are not their own.

This type of care makes sense from an evolutionary perspective when the young are siblings of the carers – the brood care helpers are successfully handing down the genes that stimulate the care via their siblings, with whom they share these genes. However, from an evolutionary perspective it does not seem to make sense to look after young with whom you are not related. So why do unrelated group members often help to raise “foreign” young? A new study in the Science Advances academic journal by Irene Garcia Ruiz and Michael Taborsky from the Institute for Ecology and Evolution at the University of Bern, in collaboration with Andres Quinones from the University of Los Andes in Bogota, Colombia, and the University of Neuchâtel, reveals how this altruistic care of young can evolve by natural selection.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Black Hole Orrery

This visualization shows 22 X-ray binaries in our Milky Way galaxy and its nearest neighbor, the Large Magellanic Cloud, that host confirmed stellar-mass black holes. The systems are shown at the same physical scale, and their orbital motion is sped up by nearly 22,000 times. The view of each binary replicates how we see it from Earth. The star colors range from blue-white to reddish, representing temperatures from 5 times hotter to 45% cooler than our Sun.

While the black holes appear on a scale reflecting their masses, all are depicted using spheres larger than actual size. Cygnus X-1, with the largest companion star shown, is the first black hole ever confirmed and weighs about 21 times more than the Sun. But its surface – called its event horizon – spans only about 77 miles (124 kilometers). The enlarged spheres also cover up visible distortions produced by the black holes’ gravitational effects.

Friday, May 27, 2022

‘Transformative’ effects of mass gatherings like Burning Man are lasting

Photo by Curtis Simmons, Flickr: simmons_tx

Throughout history, mass gatherings such as collective rituals, ceremonies, and pilgrimages have created intense social bonds and feelings of unity in human societies. But Yale psychologists wondered if modern day secular gatherings that emphasize creativity and community serve an even broader purpose.

The research team studied people’s subjective experiences and social behavior at secular mass gatherings, such as the annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. They found that people who reported transformative experiences at the gatherings felt more connected with all of humanity and were more willing to help distant strangers, the researchers report May 27 in the journal Nature Communications.

“We’ve long known that festivals, pilgrimages, and ceremonies make people feel more bonded with their own group,” said Daniel Yudkin, a postdoctoral researcher and first author of the paper. “Here we show that experiences at secular mass gatherings also have the potential to expand the boundaries of moral concern beyond one’s own group.”

The research team, led by M.J. Crockett, an associate professor of psychology at Yale, conducted field studies of more than 1,200 people attending multi-day mass gatherings in the United States and United Kingdom: Burning Man, Burning Nest, Lightning in a Bottle, Dirty Bird, and Latitude, all events that feature art, music, and self-expression.

Unlocking the Secrets of the Brain

Roberto Vargas
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have explored the regions of the brain where concrete and abstract concepts materialize. A new study now explores if people who grow up in different cultures and speak different languages form these concepts in the same regions of the brain.

"We wanted to look across languages to see if our cultural backgrounds influence how we understand, how we perceive abstract ideas like justice," said Roberto Vargas, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and lead author on the study.

Vargas is continuing fundamental research in neural and semantic organization initiated by Marcel Just, the D.O. Hebb University Professor of Psychology. Just began this process more than 30 years ago by scanning the brains of participants using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. His research team began by identifying the regions of the brain that light up for concrete objects, like an apple, and later moved to abstract concepts from physics like force and gravity.

The latest study took the evaluation of abstract concepts one step further by exploring the regions of the brain that fire for abstract objects based on language. In this case, the researchers studied people whose first language is Mandarin or English.

"The lab's research is progress to study universalities of not only single concept representations, but also representations of larger bodies of knowledge such as scientific and technical knowledge," Just said. "Cultures and languages can give us a particular perspective of the world, but our mental filing cabinets are all very similar."

Quest for elusive monolayers just got a lot simpler

Researchers can process 100 images covering 1 centimeter x 1 centimeter-sized samples like this one in around nine minutes using a new system that greatly simplifies the often-tedious search for monolayers in the lab.
Credit: University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster

One of the most tedious, daunting tasks for undergraduate assistants in university research labs involves looking for hours on end through a microscope at samples of material, trying to find monolayers.

These two-dimensional materials—less than 1/100,000th the width of a human hair—are highly sought for use in electronics, photonics, and optoelectronic devices because of their unique properties.

“Research labs hire armies of undergraduates to do nothing but look for monolayers,” says Jaime Cardenas, an assistant professor of optics at the University of Rochester. “It’s very tedious, and if you get tired, you might miss some of the monolayers or you might start making misidentifications.”

Even after all that work, the labs then must doublecheck the materials with expensive Raman spectroscopy or atomic force microscopy.

Jesús Sánchez Juárez, a PhD student in the Cardenas Lab, has made life a whole lot easier for those undergraduates, their research labs, and companies that encounter similar difficulties in detecting monolayers.

Gene Linked to Severe Learning Disabilities Governs Cell Stress Response

Like superheroes of the cell, the protein Rad6 (red), and its partner Uba1 (blue) respond to environmental stress by modifying the protein-producing ribosomes (purple) to stop their maintenance program. 
Credit: Dinachi Okonkwo

A gene that has been associated with severe learning disabilities in humans has been found to also play a vital role in cells’ response to environmental stress, according to a Duke University study appearing in the journal Cell Reports.

Cells are stressed by factors that may damage them, such as extreme temperatures, toxic substances, or mechanical shocks. When this happens, they undergo a range of molecular changes called the cellular stress response.

“Every cell, no matter from which organism, is always exposed to harmful substances in their environment that they have to deal with all the time,” said Gustavo Silva, assistant professor of biology at Duke and senior author on the paper. “Many human diseases are caused by cells not being able to cope with these aggressions.”

During the stress response, cells press pause the genes related to their normal housekeeping activities, and turn on genes related to crisis mode. Just like in a house being flooded, they put down the window cleaner, turn off the TV, and run to close the windows, then they patch holes, turn on the sump pump, and if needed, rip up carpet and throw away irreparably damaged furniture.

British coral predicted to be resilient to climate change

Pink sea fan / Warty coral (Eunicella verrucosa), Lundy Island Marine Conservation Zone, Devon, England, UK,

An iconic coral species found in UK waters could expand its range due to climate change, new research shows.

The pink sea fan is a soft coral that lives in shallow waters from the western Mediterranean (southern range) to north-west Ireland and the south-west of England and Wales (northern range).

The species is classified as "vulnerable" worldwide and it is listed as a species of principal importance in England and Wales under the NERC Act 2006.

The new study, by the University of Exeter, found that the species is likely to spread northwards – including around the British coast – as global temperatures rise.

The results could be used to identify priority areas to protect pink sea fan populations.

"We built models to predict the current and future (2081-2100) habitat of pink sea fans across an area covering the Bay of Biscay, the British Isles and southern Norway," said Dr Tom Jenkins, from the University of Exeter.

Researchers aim X-rays at century-old plant secretions for insight into Aboriginal Australian cultural heritage

Century-old plants exudate samples in amber jars. Researchers mapped the chemistry of these samples using high-energy photons. Scientists can analyze other historical artifact chemistries by applying this technique in the future.
Credit: Flinders University, South Australia, Kaurna Country

By revealing the chemistry of plant secretions, or exudates, these studies build a basis for better understanding and conserving art and tools made with plant materials.

For tens of thousands of years, Aboriginal Australians have created some of the world’s most striking artworks. Today their work continues long lines of ancestral traditions, stories of the past and connections to current cultural landscapes, which is why researchers are keen on better understanding and preserving the cultural heritage within.

In particular, knowing the chemical composition of pigments and binders that Aboriginal Australian artists employ could allow archaeological scientists and art conservators to identify these materials in important cultural heritage objects. Now, researchers are turning to X-ray science to help reveal the composition of the materials used in Aboriginal Australian cultural heritage – starting with the analysis of century-old samples of plant secretions, or exudates.

Aboriginal Australians continue to use plant exudates, such as resins and gums, to create rock and bark paintings and for practical applications, such as hafting stone points to handles. But just what these plant materials are made of is not well known.

Chemists reveal how tau proteins form tangles

MIT chemists have used nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to reveal how two different forms of the Tau protein mix to form the tangles seen in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. 
Credit: Aurelio Dregni/Nadia El-Mammeri/Hong Lab at MIT

One of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease is the presence of neurofibrillary tangles in the brain. These tangles, made of tau proteins, impair neurons’ ability to function normally and can cause the cells to die.

A new study from MIT chemists has revealed how two types of tau proteins, known as 3R and 4R tau, mix together to form these tangles. The researchers found that the tangles can recruit any tau protein in the brain, in a nearly random way. This feature may contribute to the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease, the researchers say.

“Whether the end of an existing filament is a 3R or 4R tau protein, the filament can recruit whichever tau version is in the environment to add onto the growing filament. It is very advantageous for the Alzheimer’s disease tau structure to have that property of randomly incorporating either version of the protein,” says Mei Hong, an MIT professor of chemistry.

Hong is the senior author of the study, which appears today in Nature Communications. MIT graduate student Aurelio Dregni and postdoc Pu Duan are the lead authors of the paper.

Same symptom – different cause?

Head of the LipiTUM research group Dr. Josch Konstantin Pauling (left) and PhD student Nikolai Köhler (right) interpret the disease-related changes in lipid metabolism using a newly developed network.
Credit: LipiTUM

Machine learning is playing an ever-increasing role in biomedical research. Scientists at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have now developed a new method of using molecular data to extract subtypes of illnesses. In the future, this method can help to support the study of larger patient groups.

Nowadays doctors define and diagnose most diseases on the basis of symptoms. However, that does not necessarily mean that the illnesses of patients with similar symptoms will have identical causes or demonstrate the same molecular changes. In biomedicine, one often speaks of the molecular mechanisms of a disease. This refers to changes in the regulation of genes, proteins or metabolic pathways at the onset of illness. The goal of stratified medicine is to classify patients into various subtypes at the molecular level in order to provide more targeted treatments.

To extract disease subtypes from large pools of patient data, new machine learning algorithms can help. They are designed to independently recognize patterns and correlations in extensive clinical measurements. The LipiTUM junior research group, headed by Dr. Josch Konstantin Pauling of the Chair for Experimental Bioinformatics has developed an algorithm for this purpose.

Autistic individuals have poorer health and healthcare

Autistic man at home looking out of a window 
Credit: NicolasMcComber

These findings, published in Molecular Autism, have important implications for the healthcare and support of autistic individuals.

Many studies indicate that autistic people are dying far younger than others, but there is a paucity of research on the health and healthcare of autistic people across the adult lifespan. While some studies have previously suggested that autistic people may have significant barriers to accessing healthcare, only a few small studies have compared the healthcare experiences of autistic people to others.

In the largest study to date on this topic, the team at the Autism Research Centre (ARC) in Cambridge used an anonymous, self-report survey to compare the experiences of 1,285 autistic individuals to 1,364 non-autistic individuals, aged 16-96 years, from 79 different countries. 54% of participants were from the UK. The survey assessed rates of mental and physical health conditions, and the quality of healthcare experiences.

The team found that autistic people self-reported lower quality healthcare than others across 50 out of 51 items on the survey. Autistic people were far less likely to say that they could describe how their symptoms feel in their body, describe how bad their pain feels, explain what their symptoms are, and understand what their healthcare professional means when they discuss their health. Autistic people were also less likely to know what is expected of them when they go to see their healthcare professional, and to feel they are provided with appropriate support after receiving a diagnosis of any kind.

Researchers from Goethe University Frankfurt develop new biobattery for hydrogen storage

Model of a potential bacterial hydrogen storage system: during the day, electricity is generated with the help of a photovoltaic unit, which then powers the hydrolysis of water. The bacteria bind the hydrogen produced in this way to CO2, resulting in the formation of formic acid. This reaction is fully reversible, and the direction of the reaction is steered solely by the concentration of the starting materials and end products. During the night, the hydrogen concentration in the bioreactor decreases and the bacteria begin to release the hydrogen from the formic acid again. This hydrogen can then be used as an energy source.
Credit: Goethe University

A team of microbiologists from Goethe University Frankfurt has succeeded in using bacteria for the controlled storage and release of hydrogen. This is an important step in the search for carbon-neutral energy sources in the interest of climate protection. The corresponding paper has now been published in the renowned scientific journal Joule.

The fight against climate change is making the search for carbon-neutral energy sources increasingly urgent. Green hydrogen, which is produced from water with the help of renewable energies such as wind or solar power, is one of the solutions on which hopes are pinned. However, transporting and storing the highly explosive gas is difficult, and researchers worldwide are looking for chemical and biological solutions. A team of microbiologists from Goethe University Frankfurt has found an enzyme in bacteria that live in the absence of air and bind hydrogen directly to CO2, in this way producing formic acid. The process is completely reversible – a basic requirement for hydrogen storage. These acetogenic bacteria, which are found, for example, in the deep sea, feed on carbon dioxide, which they metabolize to formic acid with the aid of hydrogen. Normally, however, this formic acid is just an intermediate product of their metabolism and further digested into acetic acid and ethanol. But the team led by Professor Volker Müller, head of the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Bioenergetics, has adapted the bacteria in such a way that it is possible not only to stop this process at the formic acid stage but also to reverse it. The basic principle has already been patented since 2013.

New sensors allow the exact measurement of the messenger substance dopamine

Sebastian Kruss (right) and Björn Hill belong to the team that was able to measure the messenger substance dopamine directly.
Credit: RUB, Kramer

Carbon nanotubes shine brighter in the presence of the messenger. In this way, signals between nerve cells can be measured easily and precisely.

Dopamine is an important signaling molecule for nerve cells. So far, its concentration could not be determined spatially and temporally. Thanks to a new process, this is now possible: A research team from Bochum, Göttingen and Duisburg used modified carbon nanotubes that glow brighter in the presence of the messenger substance dopamine. With these sensors, the release of dopamine from nerve cells with a resolution that has not yet been achieved has been made visible. The researchers around Prof. Dr. Sebastian Kruss from the Physical Chemistry of the Ruhr University Bochum (RUB) and Dr. James Daniel and Prof. Dr. Nils Brose from the Max Planck Institute for Multidisciplinary Natural Sciences in Göttingen reports on this in the journal PNAS.

Fluorescence changes in the presence of dopamine

The messenger substance dopamine controls, among other things, the reward center of the brain. If this signal transmission no longer works, diseases such as Parkinson's can occur. In addition, the chemical signals are changed by drugs such as cocaine and play a role in addiction. "However, there was previously no method with which the dopamine signals could be made visible at the same time with high spatial and temporal resolution," explains Sebastian Kruss, head of the functional interfaces and biosystems group at the RUB and member of the Ruhr Explores Solvation Cluster of Excellence, in short RESOLV, and the Research Training Group International Graduate School of Neuroscience (IGSN).

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Non-invasive liquid biopsy tracks cancer treatment success in real time

 A non-invasive, blood-based biopsy for kidney cancer can tell doctors how a patient’s disease is responding to treatment.

Known as liquid biopsies, these blood tests could help physicians better treat their patients by allowing them to see which treatments are working in real time without the need for repeated, invasive biopsies of solid tumors.

A clinical study published May 26 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology and led by University of Wisconsin–Madison scientists followed more than 100 patients undergoing treatment for renal cell carcinoma. Researchers isolated and measured circulating tumor cells, which tumors release into the blood. These cells can act as a signal of disease burden in a patient.

Changes in both the number of circulating tumor cells and their molecular profiles were able to predict how long a patient would survive while undergoing either new immune system-based treatments or receiving more traditional kidney cancer drugs.

“Cancer is not a static disease. As the disease progresses, molecular characteristics change over time, and these changes are important to understand how the disease responds to treatment as well as how resistance develops,” says Matthew Bootsma, a researcher in the UW School of Medicine and Public Health and one of the lead authors of the report. “That makes it really important for a clinician to have real-time access to these metrics.”

Finding coherence in quantum chaos

A theoretical breakthrough in understanding quantum chaos could open new paths into researching quantum information and quantum computing, many-body physics, black holes, and the still-elusive quantum to classical transition.

“By applying balanced energy gain and loss to an open quantum system, we found a way to overcome a previously held limitation that assumed interactions with the surrounding environment would decrease quantum chaos,” said Avadh Saxena, a theoretical physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and member of the team that published the paper on quantum chaos in Physical Review Letters. “This discovery points to new directions in studying quantum simulations and quantum information theory.”

Quantum chaos differs from classical-physics chaos theory. The latter seeks to understand deterministic, or non-random, patterns and systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions. The so-called butterfly effect is the most familiar example, whereby the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Texas could, through a bewilderingly complicated but not random chain of cause and effect, lead to a tornado in Kansas.

On the other hand, quantum chaos describes chaotic classical dynamical systems in terms of quantum theory. Quantum chaos is responsible for the scrambling of information occurring in complex systems such as blackholes. It reveals itself in the energy spectra of the system, in the form of correlations between its characteristic modes and frequencies.

It has been believed that as a quantum system loses coherence, or its “quantumness,” by coupling to the environment outside the system—the so-called quantum to classical transition—the signatures of quantum chaos are suppressed. That means they can’t be exploited as quantum information or as a state that can be manipulated.

Models predict that planned phosphorus reductions will make Lake Erie more toxic

Photo by Aerial Associates Photography, Inc. (Zachary Haslick) via NOAA cc 2.0

Reducing levels of the nutrient phosphorus to control harmful algal blooms in places like Lake Erie is actually advantageous to toxic cyanobacteria strains, which can lead to an increase in toxins in the water, according to a new modeling study.

Researchers from Technische Universität Berlin (TU Berlin) detail their findings in a paper published online May 26 in the interdisciplinary journal Science. Two University of Michigan scientists are among the co-authors.

“The big advance here was to integrate our understanding of the microbiology of the blooms into predictive models,” said U-M environmental microbiologist and study co-author Gregory Dick. “The results suggest that biologically informed models are able to reproduce emergent properties of blooms that are not predicted by traditional models.”

Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, can produce toxins and deplete lakes of oxygen when they die. Phosphorus is an important nutrient for these algae, and efforts are underway worldwide to reduce phosphorus levels and inhibit the growth of cyanobacteria.

Discovery offers starting point for better gene-editing tools

CRISPR has ushered in the era of genomic medicine. A line of powerful tools has been developed from the popular CRISPR-Cas9 to cure genetic diseases. However, there is a last-mile problem – these tools need to be effectively delivered into every cell of the patient, and most Cas9s are too big to be fitted into popular genome therapy vectors, such as the adenovirus-associated virus (AAV).

In new research, Cornell scientists provide an explanation for how this problem is solved by nature: they define with atomic precision how a transposon-derived system edits DNA in RNA-guided fashion. Transposons are mobile genetic elements inside bacteria. A lineage of transposon encodes IscB, which is less than half the size of Cas9 but equally capable of DNA editing. Replacing Cas9 with IscB would definitively solve the size problem.

The researchers’ paper, “Structural Basis for RNA-Guided DNA Cleavage by IscB-ωRNA and Mechanistic Comparison with Cas9,” published May 26 in Science.

The researchers used cryo-electron microscopy (Cryo-EM) to visualize the IscB-ωRNA molecule from a transposon system in high resolution. They were able to capture snapshots of the system in different conformational states. They were even able to engineer slimmer IscB variants, by removing nonessential parts from IscB.

“Next-generation fancy applications require the gene editor to be fused with other enzymes and activities and most Cas9s are already too big for viral delivery. We are facing a traffic jam at the delivery end,” said corresponding author Ailong Ke, professor of molecular biology and genetics in the College of Arts and Sciences. “If Cas9s can be packaged into viral vectors that have been used for decades in the gene therapy field, like AAV, then we can be confident they can be delivered and we can focus research exclusively on the efficacy of the editing tool itself.”

A unique catalyst paves the way for plastic upcycling

Visual of two variations of the catalyst, with a segment of the shell removed to show the interior. The white sphere represents the silica shell, the holes are the pores. The bright green spheres represent the catalytic sites, the ones on the left are much smaller than the ones on the right. The longer red strings represent the polymer chains, and the shorter strings are products after catalysis. All shorter strings are similar in size, representing the consistent selectivity across catalyst variations. Additionally, there are smaller chains produced by the smaller catalyst sites because the reaction occurs more quickly.
Credit: Ames Laboratory

A recently developed catalyst for breaking down plastics continues to advance plastic upcycling processes. In 2020, a team of researchers led by Ames Laboratory scientists developed the first processive inorganic catalyst to deconstruct polyolefin plastics into molecules that can be used to create more valuable products. Now, the team has developed and validated a strategy to speed up the transformation without sacrificing desirable products.

The catalyst was originally designed by Wenyu Huang, a scientist at Ames Lab. It consists of platinum particles supported on a solid silica core and surrounded by a silica shell with uniform pores that provide access to catalytic sites. The overall amount of platinum needed is quite small, which is important because of platinum's high cost and limited supply. During deconstruction experiments, the long polymer chains thread into the pores and contact the catalytic sites, and then the chains are broken into smaller sized pieces that are no longer plastic material (see image for more details).

The secret to a longer lifespan? Gene regulation holds a clue

In comparing the gene expression patterns of 26 species with diverse lifespans, Rochester biologists Vera Gorbunova and Andrei Seluanov found that the characteristics of the different genes were controlled by circadian or pluripotency networks. 
Credit: University of Rochester illustration / Julia Joshpe

Rochester biologists who study the genetics of lifespan suggest novel targets to combat aging and age-related diseases.

Natural selection has produced mammals that age at dramatically different rates. Take, for example, naked mole rats and mice; the former can live up to 41 years, nearly ten times as long as similar-size rodents such as mice.

What accounts for longer lifespan? According to new research from biologists at the University of Rochester, a key piece of the puzzle lies in the mechanisms that regulate gene expression.

In a paper published in Cell Metabolism, the researchers, including Vera Gorbunova, the Doris Johns Cherry professor of biology and medicine; Andrei Seluanov, professor of biology and medicine; and Jinlong Yu, a postdoctoral research associate in Gorbunova’s lab and the first author of the paper, investigated genes connected to lifespan. Their research uncovered specific characteristics of these genes and revealed that two regulatory systems controlling gene expression—circadian and pluripotency networks—are critical to longevity. The findings have implications both in understanding how longevity evolves and in providing new targets to combat aging and age-related diseases.

Arc volcanoes are wetter than previously thought

Benjamin Urann, who graduated from the MIT-WHOI Joint Program in 2021 and is now a NSF postdoctoral fellow at University of Wyoming, analyzes water in minerals with a secondary ion mass spectrometer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
Photo by Ben Urann, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The percentage of water in arc volcanoes, which form above subduction zones, may be far more than many previous studies have calculated.

This increased amount of water has broad implications for understanding how Earth’s lower crust forms, how magma erupts through the crust, and how economically important mineral ore deposits form, according to a new paper led by authors from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), “High water content of arc magmas recorded in cumulates from subduction zone lower crust,” published in Nature Geoscience.

The estimated water concentrations in primitive arc magmas from this study are more variable and significantly higher than the average of about four weight percent of water found in other studies, according to the paper. The results show that primitive arc H2O after extensive crystal fractionation in the lower arc crust, the paper adds.

Geology from 50 Light-Years: Webb Gets Ready to Study Rocky Worlds

Comparison of Exoplanets 55 Cancri e and LHS 3844 b to Earth and Neptune
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Dani Player (STScI)

With its mirror segments beautifully aligned and its scientific instruments undergoing calibration, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is just weeks away from full operation. Soon after the first observations are revealed this summer, Webb’s in-depth science will begin.

Among the investigations planned for the first year are studies of two hot exoplanets classified as “super-Earths” for their size and rocky composition: the lava-covered 55 Cancri e and the airless LHS 3844 b. Researchers will train Webb’s high-precision spectrographs on these planets with a view to understanding the geologic diversity of planets across the galaxy, and the evolution of rocky planets like Earth.

New Combined Therapy Helps Extend Lives of Men With Prostate Cancer

Howard Sandler, MD
Source: Cedars-Sinai
Practice-changing research from Cedars-Sinai Cancer shows that a combination of androgen deprivation therapy—a commonly used hormone injection—plus pelvic lymph node radiation, kept nearly 90% of clinical trial patients’ prostate cancer at bay for five years. The findings were published in the peer-reviewed journal The Lancet.

The study also shows that patients with prostate cancer who didn’t receive androgen deprivation therapy—and who did not receive pelvic lymph node radiation—had a five-year survival of 70%.

“We can now confirm that pelvic lymph node treatment used together with androgen deprivation therapy, or even used as a stand-alone treatment option greatly improves outcomes in patients with postoperative prostate cancer,” said Howard Sandler, MD, chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology at Cedars-Sinai Cancer and senior author of the study. “These findings are an encouraging step forward, both for the medical community and for the patients and their loved ones seeking curative treatment options.”

The international Phase III clinical trial that served as the basis of The Lancet study enrolled 1,716 patients between March 31, 2008, and March 30, 2015. Enrollees were separated into three groups.

Group one received salvage prostate bed radiotherapy—a standard radiation targeted to the area in which the prostate used to exist before its surgical removal. These patients had a median five-year survival of 71%.

The second group received the standard radiation treatment, in combination with androgen deprivation therapy. They had a median five-year survival of 81%.

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