. Scientific Frontline: November 2022

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Better Than a Hole in the Head

Just as blood pressure informs heart health, intracranial pressure (ICP) helps indicate brain health. ICP sensing is the burgeoning focus of Jana Kainerstorfer's biomedical optics lab at Carnegie Mellon University. Her team is working to modernize ICP sensing approaches, which historically have been invasive and risky. Their noninvasive alternatives will ease the risk of infection, pain and medical expenses, as well as present new monitoring capabilities for patients with an array of brain injuries and conditions, from stroke to hydrocephalus.

Investigating pressure levels in the brain is a laborious task for health professionals and hasn't progressed much since the 1960s. Current practice involves drilling a hole into a patient's skull and placing a probe inside for continuous monitoring of ICP levels. It comes with the risk of infection and damaging the brain itself, and while valuable data is to have, ICP measurement is reserved only for the most critical of situations.

"At the core of it, what we've done is build a sensor alternative that doesn't require drilling a hole into the patient's head," said Kainerstorfer, an associate professor of biomedical engineering. "We recently published two papers that explore the use of optical sensors on the forehead for noninvasive ICP monitoring, using near-infrared spectroscopy and diffuse correlation spectroscopy. Both approaches represent huge strides in improving the patient experience and providing better tools to monitor pressure levels in the brain, which can be a key variable in both diagnosis and treatment decisions."

Male orb-weaving spiders fight less in female-dominated colonies

 Orb-weaving spiders spin webs connected to each other in vast networks; within their colonies, individual spiders guard their own webs from intruders and often fight each other over food and mates.
Photo Credit: Gregory Grether/UCLA

Birds do it. Bees do it. Even spiders in their webs do it: cooperate for more peaceful colonies.

That’s one of the surprising findings of a new study by UCLA undergraduates of orb-weaving spiders in Peru.

The study also revealed that when there are more females than males in colonies of orb-weaving spiders, males fight less with each other — and that females fight less in female-dominated colonies than in male-dominated ones, leading to colonies that are somewhat more peaceful. The spiders also showed little hostility to individuals from different colonies, a discovery that has not been previously documented for colonial spiders.

The research was published in the Journal of Arachnology.

“We’re used to thinking of animals like honeybees and elephants living cooperatively,” said the paper’s senior author, Gregory Grether, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “But spiders usually live solitarily, so we were excited to study these colonial spiders and find out how they interact with colony mates as well as with individuals from other colonies.”

Mysteriously bright flash is a black hole jet pointing straight toward Earth, astronomers say

Caption:Astronomers identified an extremely bright black hole jet, halfway across the universe, pointing straight toward Earth.
Illustration Credit: Dheeraj Pasham, Matteo Lucchini, and Margaret Trippe.

Earlier this year, astronomers were keeping tabs on data from the Zwicky Transient Facility, an all-sky survey based at the Palomar Observatory in California, when they detected an extraordinary flash in a part of the sky where no such light had been observed the night before. From a rough calculation, the flash appeared to give off more light than 1,000 trillion suns.

The team, led by researchers at NASA, Caltech, and elsewhere, posted their discovery to an astronomy newsletter, where the signal drew the attention of astronomers around the world, including scientists at MIT. Over the next few days, multiple telescopes focused on the signal to gather more data across multiple wavelengths in the X-ray, ultraviolet, optical, and radio bands, to see what could possibly produce such an enormous amount of light.

Now, the MIT astronomers along with their collaborators have determined a likely source for the signal. In a study appearing in Nature Astronomy, the scientists report that the signal, named AT 2022cmc, likely comes from a relativistic jet of matter streaking out from a supermassive black hole at close to the speed of light. They believe the jet is the product of a black hole that suddenly began devouring a nearby star, releasing a huge amount of energy in the process.

Physicists observe wormhole dynamics using a quantum computer

Artwork depicting a quantum experiment that observes traversable wormhole behavior.
Illustration Credit: inqnet/A. Mueller | Caltech

Scientists have, for the first time, developed a quantum experiment that allows them to study the dynamics, or behavior, of a special kind of theoretical wormhole. The experiment has not created an actual wormhole (a rupture in space and time), rather it allows researchers to probe connections between theoretical wormholes and quantum physics, a prediction of so-called quantum gravity. Quantum gravity refers to a set of theories that seek to connect gravity with quantum physics, two fundamental and well-studied descriptions of nature that appear inherently incompatible with each other.

"We found a quantum system that exhibits key properties of a gravitational wormhole yet is sufficiently small to implement on today's quantum hardware," says Maria Spiropulu, the principal investigator of the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science research program Quantum Communication Channels for Fundamental Physics (QCCFP) and the Shang-Yi Ch'en Professor of Physics at Caltech. "This work constitutes a step toward a larger program of testing quantum gravity physics using a quantum computer. It does not substitute for direct probes of quantum gravity in the same way as other planned experiments that might probe quantum gravity effects in the future using quantum sensing, but it does offer a powerful testbed to exercise ideas of quantum gravity."

The research will be published December 1 in the journal Nature. The study's first authors are Daniel Jafferis of Harvard University and Alexander Zlokapa (BS '21), a former undergraduate student at Caltech who started on this project for his bachelor's thesis with Spiropulu and has since moved on to graduate school at MIT.

Most distant detection of a black hole swallowing a star

This artist’s impression illustrates how it might look when a star approaches too close to a black hole, where the star is squeezed by the intense gravitational pull of the black hole. Some of the star’s material gets pulled in and swirls around the black hole forming the disc that can be seen in this image. In rare cases, such as this one, jets of matter and radiation are shot out from the poles of the black hole. In the case of the AT2022cmc event, evidence of the jets was detected by various telescopes including the VLT, which determined this was the most distant example of such an event. 
Illustration Credit: ESO/M.Kornmesser

Earlier this year, the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT) was alerted after an unusual source of visible light had been detected by a survey telescope. The VLT, together with other telescopes, was swiftly repositioned towards the source: a supermassive black hole in a distant galaxy that had devoured a star, expelling the leftovers in a jet. The VLT determined it to be the furthest example of such an event to have ever been observed. Because the jet is pointing almost towards us, this is also the first time it has been discovered with visible light, providing a new way of detecting these extreme events.

Stars that wander too close to a black hole are ripped apart by the incredible tidal forces of the black hole in what is known as a tidal disruption event (TDE). Approximately 1% of these cause jets of plasma and radiation to be ejected from the poles of the rotating black hole. In 1971, the black hole pioneer John Wheeler[1] introduced the concept of jetted-TDEs as “a tube of toothpaste gripped tight about its middle,” causing the system to “squirt matter out of both ends.”

Tropical wildlife follow the same daily patterns worldwide

An elephant faces a camera trap in one of millions of photos analyzed for a new study led by a Rice University visiting student. The study found striking similarities in how rainforest animals across the world spend their days.
Resized Image using AI by SFLORG
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Lydia Beaudrot/Conservation International

How do animals in the wild use their time? A researcher at Rice University is part of a new study that shows what motivates the daily ramble of tropical populations.

The study by an international team that includes Rice bioscientist Lydia Beaudrot and is led by Andrea Vallejo-Vargas, a graduate student at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and currently a visiting scholar at Rice, found that communities of mammals across the wet tropics divide their days in similar ways, all generally geared toward finding their next meal. (Or avoiding being the next meal.)

Using millions of images from camera trap networks in 16 protected forests around the world, they examined the relationship of mammal activities to body sizes and feeding routines to find common characteristics among diverse populations.

Their open-access study in Nature Communications confirms that despite their diversity, similar patterns dominate the days of wildlife in Africa, Asia and the Americas.

The study showed that the activity of herbivores and insectivores was largely influenced by temperature in the environment (in study-speak, “thermoregulatory constraints”). For instance, large African herbivores are seven times more likely to be nocturnal than smaller herbivores.

Important discovery could help extinguish disease threat to koalas

Retrovirus is more prevalent in New South Wales and Queensland koalas, compared to animals in Victoria and South Australia.
Photo Credit: Jordan Whitt

University of Queensland virologists are a step closer to understanding a mysterious AIDS-like virus that is impacting koala populations differently across state lines.

Dr Michaela Blyton and Associate Professor Keith Chappell from the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) and School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, have uncovered another piece of the puzzle in their quest to halt the koala retrovirus known as KoRV - a condition strongly associated with diseases that cause infertility and blindness.

“We’ve learned that the retrovirus is far more prevalent in New South Wales and Queensland koalas, compared to the southern populations in Victoria and South Australia,” Dr Blyton said.

“Uncovering crucial patterns like these helps us learn how the disease is evolving, how it’s spreading, and how we can contain the damage through anti-viral medication or koala breeding programs.”

Koala numbers have fallen rapidly over the past decade due to widespread land clearing, climate change induced weather events, and disease.

Dr Blyton’s research has already established the link between KoRV and chlamydia, cystitis and conjunctivitis, which suggests the virus weakens the animal’s immune system.

To track disease-carrying mosquitoes, researchers tag them with DNA barcodes

 The researchers at a field site in Fort Collins, Colorado collecting mosquitoes for analysis.
Photo Credit: Rebekah Kading/Colorado State University

West Nile, Zika, dengue and malaria are all diseases spread by bites from infected mosquitoes. To track the threat of such diseases over large populations, scientists need to know where the mosquitoes are, where they’ve been, and where they might go.

But take it from Rebekah Kading, a Colorado State University researcher who studies mosquito-borne arboviruses: tracking mosquitoes is no easy task. The capture, tagging and release of single mosquitoes – as is commonly done with bats and other disease carriers – would be ridiculous, if not impossible. A common mosquito-tracking technique involves dousing the insects in fluorescent powder and letting them fly away, but the practice is error-prone and unreliable.

Thanks to a collaboration with CSU engineers, Kading and colleagues are introducing a better way to perform mosquito-tracking for disease applications. Their new method, which involves getting larval mosquitoes to eat harmless particles made entirely of DNA and proteins, has the potential to revolutionize how people study mosquito-borne diseases.

The edible mosquito marker particles are the work of Chris Snow, associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. For the last several years, Snow’s team has been developing microscopic, porous protein crystals that self-assemble from a protein originally found in Camplyobacter jejuni bacteria. Since inventing these very small, non-toxic protein crystals that feature highly precise arrays of pores, Snow’s team has been exploring diverse applications for them, like capturing virus particles to facilitate wastewater testing.

How giant-faced owls snag voles hidden in snow

Video Credit: Sylvain Eckhardt

Hovering over a target helps giant-faced Great Gray owls pinpoint prey hidden beneath as much as two feet of snow.

Several of the owls’ physical features, especially parts of their wings and face, help them correct for sonic distortions caused by the snow, enabling them to find their moving food with astonishing accuracy, according to a new UC Riverside study.

While most owls fly straight at their prey, this species hovers just above a target area before dropping straight down and punching through the snow with its talons.

“These aren’t the only birds to hunt this way, but in some ways, they are the most extreme because they can locate prey so far beneath the snow cover,” said UC Riverside biologist Christopher Clark, who led the study. “This species is THE snow hunting specialist.”

Clark and his team conducted a series of experiments in the forests of Manitoba, Canada, this year to better understand the owls’ precision despite snow-limited visibility and sounds. Their observations are documented in a new Proceedings of the Royal Society B paper.

A key finding relates to the owls’ broad disc-like face, which they use like radar to find food. The fleshy part of our ears works the way their facial features do. An opening under their feathers funnels sound toward their ears, which are located near the center of their faces.

Kibble-Zurek Mechanism for Nonequilibrium Phase Transitions

The Kibble-Zurek (KZ) mechanism, confirmed experimentally only for equilibrium phase transitions, is also applicable for non-equilibrium phase transitions, as is now shown by Tokyo Tech researchers in a landmark study. The KZ mechanism is characterized by the formation of topological defects during continuous phase transition away from the adiabatic limit. This breakthrough finding could open the doors to investigation of the mechanism for other nonequilibrium phase transitions.

Phase transitions describe various phenomena around us, from water turning into ice to magnetic transitions to the superconducting transition where electrical resistance vanishes. In the cases of superconductivity and magnetism, the phase transition is continuous, characterized by "symmetry breaking" that leads to the formation of an ordered state. The ordered state is perfect (defect-free) when this transition is very slow, a regime called the "adiabatic limit". However, for transitions not satisfying this limit, there appear topological defects, whose generation is described by the Kibble-Zurek (KZ) mechanism. Experimentally, the KZ mechanism manifests as a power-law dependence of the defect density on the cooling rate.

Interestingly, the KZ mechanism, while widely studied for phase transitions at thermal equilibrium, has not yet been demonstrated experimentally for nonequilibrium phase transitions. However, a recent simulation study has suggested that the KZ mechanism can be applied to dynamical ordering transitions between disordered and ordered flow states, a phenomenon that can be experimentally tested in superconducting vortex systems.

Sex roles in the animal kingdom are driven by the ratio of females to males

A female (left) and a male (right) red-fronted lemur with an infant (center).
Photo Credit: Louise Peckre

How picky should females and males be when they choose a mate? How fiercely should they compete for mates? And how much should they engage in raising their offspring? The answers to these questions largely depend on the ratio of adult females to males in the social group, population or species. This is the conclusion of a review by a scientific team with the participation of the German Primate Center – Leibniz Institute for Primate Research (DPZ), the Max Planck Institute for Biological Intelligence, in foundation, and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW). The paper is published in the journal Biological Reviews.

In species with separate sexes, females and males often differ in their morphology, physiology and behavior. Such sex-specific adaptations imply differences between females and males in the degree of mate competition, mate choice and parental care. Empirical research showed that females generally tend to be choosier than males about whom to mate with, and males are more likely than females to compete for mating opportunities. This pattern is often referred to as “conventional” sex roles. But the opposite pattern (“reversed” sex roles) also exists and there generally is a lot of variation in sex roles both between and within species. How can this surprisingly large variation in sex roles be explained? The team led by Peter Kappeler from the German Primate Center now reviewed the sex roles literature in animals and found that the ratio of adult males to females in a population likely is a strong evolutionary driver of sex roles. The scientific paper also identifies unanswered questions and proposes research that can lead to a better understanding of sexual selection and the evolution of sex roles.

Automated chemical reaction prediction: now in stereo

The AFIR method traces back the reaction of endiandric acid C methyl ester, a 52-atom natural product, to its starting materials using only quantum chemical calculations.
Illustration Credit: Tsuyoshi Mita et al. JACS. November 30, 2022

Automated reaction path search method predicts accurate stereochemistry of pericyclic reactions using only target molecule structure.

Researchers at the Institute for Chemical Reaction Design and Discovery (WPI-ICReDD) have demonstrated the expanded use of a computational method called the Artificial Force Induced Reaction (AFIR) method, predicting pericyclic reactions with accurate stereoselectivity based only on information about the target product molecule. The accurate prediction of a molecule’s stereochemistry—i.e., the 3D arrangement of its constituent atoms—is unprecedented for such an automated reaction path search method. This study serves as proof of concept that the AFIR method has the potential to discover novel reactions with specific stereochemistry.

In this study, AFIR is used to calculate retrosynthetic, or reverse, reactions going from product molecules to starting materials. Previously, AFIR has been used to predict small, simple reactions, but accurate stereochemistry predictions were out of reach, limiting the technique’s applicability. In this study, researchers overcome this hurdle by using the AFIR method on a major class of chemical reactions called pericyclic reactions, which are commonly found in biological processes, including the synthesis of Vitamin D.

Small asteroids are probably young

Simulation of the SCI impact. a) – c) Snapshots of the simulation at different times. At t = 1200s, the development of the crater is over. d) SCI crater on the asteroid Ryugu. The key characteristics of the observed crater, including the displacement of the boulders, are recreated in the simulation.
Credit: Courtesy of Martin Jutzi

The impact experiment conducted on the asteroid Ryugu by the Japanese Hayabusa2 mission which took place two years ago resulted in an unexpectedly large crater. With the use of simulations, a team led by the University of Bern and the National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) PlanetS has recently succeeded in gaining new insights from the experiment regarding the formation and development of asteroids. These insights are also important for the DART mission of NASA.

The Hayabusa2 spacecraft was developed in order to study the history of the asteroid Ryugu, and collected samples and returned them to earth for laboratory analysis. The project participants are Dr. Martin Jutzi and Dr. Sabina Raducan, both from the Physical Institute of the University of Bern, Department for Space Research and Planetology (WP), and are members of the National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) PlanetS. Under their leadership, in a study which has recently been published in Nature Communications, the team has presented new findings on the formation and development of asteroids.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

New quantum computing feat is a modern twist on a 150-year-old thought experiment

UNSW Sydney research demonstrates a 20x improvement in resetting a quantum bit to its ‘0’ state, using a modern version of the ‘Maxwell’s demon’.

A team of quantum engineers at UNSW Sydney has developed a method to reset a quantum computer – that is, to prepare a quantum bit in the ‘0’ state – with very high confidence, as needed for reliable quantum computations. The method is surprisingly simple: it is related to the old concept of ‘Maxwell’s demon’, an omniscient being that can separate a gas into hot and cold by watching the speed of the individual molecules.

“Here we used a much more modern ‘demon’ – a fast digital voltmeter – to watch the temperature of an electron drawn at random from a warm pool of electrons. In doing so, we made it much colder than the pool it came from, and this corresponds to a high certainty of it being in the ‘0’ computational state,” says Professor Andrea Morello of UNSW, who led the team.

“Quantum computers are only useful if they can reach the final result with very low probability of errors. And one can have near-perfect quantum operations, but if the calculation started from the wrong code, the final result will be wrong too. Our digital ‘Maxwell’s demon’ gives us a 20x improvement in how accurately we can set the start of the computation.”

Common Veterinary Drugs Show Effectiveness Against Bed Bugs

Fluralaner and ivermectin were tested for their effectiveness in killing bed bugs.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Coby Schal and Maria Gonzalez-Morales.

Two common drugs used by veterinarians to combat parasites may be effective against bed bugs, with one showing especially strong potential, according to a new study from North Carolina State University that examined the drugs in the context of controlling resurgent bed bug populations on poultry farms.

Fluralaner and ivermectin, which are used to kill fleas and ticks on household pets like dogs and cats, among other uses, were tested for their effectiveness in killing bed bugs. In a collaboration between entomologists and veterinary scientists from NC State’s College of Veterinary Medicine, researchers tested bed bug mortality rates in different experiments: after the pests consumed blood mixed with the drugs on the lab bench and after bed bugs bit and fed off chickens that had either ingested or received topical treatment with the drugs.

Fluralaner is a relatively new, longer-lasting anti-parasitic drug used mostly for companion animals; however, Europe and Australia have approved its use for the poultry industry. Besides household pet uses, ivermectin effectively serves anti-parasitic uses in human populations, particularly in Africa, as well as in larger animals.

Gut Microbes Influence Binge-Eating of Sweet Treats in Mice

Sarkis Mazmanian, Luis B. and Nelly Soux Professor of Microbiology
Photo Credit: Caltech

We have all been there. You just meant to have a single Oreo as a snack, but then you find yourself going back for another, and another, and before you know it, you have finished off the entire package even though you were not all that hungry to begin with.

But before you start feeling too guilty for your gluttony, consider this: It might not be entirely your fault. Now, new research in mice shows that specific gut bacteria may suppress binge eating behavior.

Oreos and other desserts are examples of so-called "palatable foods"—food consumed for hedonistic pleasure, not simply out of hunger or nutritional need. Humans are not alone in enjoying this kind of hedonism: Mice like to eat dessert, too. Even when they have just eaten, they will still consume sugary snacks if available.

The new Caltech study shows that the absence of certain gut bacteria causes mice to binge eat palatable foods: Mice with microbiotas disrupted by oral antibiotics consumed 50 percent more sugar pellets over two hours than mice with gut bacteria. When their microbiotas were restored through fecal transplants, the mice returned to normal feeding behavior. Further, not all bacteria in the gut are able to suppress hedonic feeding, but rather specific species appear to alter the behavior. Bingeing only applies to palatable foods; mice with or without gut microbiota both still eat the same amount of their regular diet. The findings show that the gut microbiota has important influences on behavior and that these effects can be modulated when the microbiota is manipulated.

Major fires an increasing risk as the air gets thirstier, research shows

Researchers examined global climate and fire records for the world’s forests over the last 20 years, linking fire activity and a measure of the atmosphere’s thirst.
Photo Credit: Mike Newbry

Greater atmospheric demand for water means a dramatic increase in the risk of major fires in global forests unless we take urgent and effective climate action, new research finds.

Published in Nature Communications, researchers have examined global climate and fire records in all of the world’s forests over the last 20 years.

The researchers found that in all kinds of forests, there is a strong link between fire activity and vapor pressure deficit (VPD), which is a measure of the atmosphere’s thirst.

VPD is calculated from temperature and humidity. It describes the difference between how much moisture there is in the air, and how much moisture the air can hold when it’s saturated (which is when dew forms.) The greater this difference, or deficit, the greater the air’s drying power on fuels.

Importantly, warmer air can hold more water, which means that VPD increases – and fuels will dry out more often – with rising temperatures due to climate change.

Neurotic personality trait a key risk factor for stress perception

While all of the “Big Five” personality traits – agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism and openness – are related to experiencing stress, neuroticism showed the strongest link, according to research co-written by Bo Zhang, a professor of labor and employment relations and of psychology at Illinois. 
Photo Credit: Fred Zwicky

A new paper co-written by a team of University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign experts who study the science of personalities points to the important role of personality traits to account for individual differences in experiencing stress.

In a meta-analysis synthesizing more than 1,500 effect sizes from about 300 primary studies, the team showed that while all of the “Big Five” personality traits – agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism and openness – are related to experiencing stress, neuroticism showed the strongest link, said Bo Zhang, a professor of labor and employment relations and of psychology at Illinois and a co-author of the paper.

“Stress is a significant mental and physical health issue that affects many people and many important domains of life, and some individuals are more likely to experience or perceive stress disproportionately or more intensely than others, which can then play a role in mental and physical health problems such as anxiety or depression,” he said. “We found that individuals high in neuroticism” – a heightened tendency toward negative affect as well as an exaggerated response to threat, frustration or loss – “demonstrated a relationship with both stressor exposure and perceived stress that was stronger than the other four personality traits.”

Strongest Arctic cyclone on record led to surprising loss of sea ice

A ship-based view of the Arctic Ocean in October 2015, when the ocean’s surface is beginning to freeze. In January, when the massive 2022 cyclone occurred, large sections of the Arctic Ocean would be covered in a layer of sea ice.
Photo Credit: Ed Blanchard-Wrigglesworth/University of Washington

A warming climate is causing a decline in sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, where loss of sea ice has important ecological, economic and climate impacts. On top of this long-term shift due to climate change are weather events that affect the sea ice from week to week.

The strongest Arctic cyclone ever observed poleward of 70 degrees north latitude struck in January 2022 northeast of Greenland. A new analysis led by the University of Washington shows that while weather forecasts accurately predicted the storm, ice models seriously underestimated its impact on the region’s sea ice.

The study, published in October in the Journal of Geophysical Research–Atmospheres, suggests that existing models underestimate the impact of big waves on ice floes in the Arctic Ocean.

“The loss of sea ice in six days was the biggest change we could find in the historical observations since 1979, and the area of ice lost was 30% greater than the previous record,” said lead author Ed Blanchard-Wrigglesworth, a research assistant professor of atmospheric sciences at the UW. “The ice models did predict some loss, but only about half of what we saw in the real world.”

Fertilizing the Ocean to Store Carbon Dioxide

Seeding the oceans with nano-scale fertilizers could create a much-needed, substantial carbon sink.
  Illustration Credit: Stephanie King | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

The urgent need to remove excess carbon dioxide from Earth’s environment could include enlisting some of our planet’s smallest inhabitants, according to an international research team led by Michael Hochella of the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Hochella and his colleagues examined the scientific evidence for seeding the oceans with iron-rich engineered fertilizer particles near ocean plankton. The goal would be to feed phytoplankton, microscopic plants that are a key part of the ocean ecosystem, to encourage growth and carbon dioxide (CO2) uptake. The analysis article appears in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

“The idea is to augment existing processes,” said Hochella, a Laboratory fellow at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “Humans have fertilized the land to grow crops for centuries. We can learn to fertilize the oceans responsibly.”

A pair of lizard ‘kings’ from the old, old West

This photograph shows two blocks containing the holotype of Microteras borealis. It consists of a portion of the snout (left) and the braincase (right).
Resized Image using AI by SFLORG
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

Yale researchers have identified the oldest-known, definitive members of the lizard crown group that includes all living lizards and their closest extinct relatives.

The two new species, Eoscincus ornatus and Microteras borealis, fill important gaps in the fossil record and offer tantalizing clues about the complexity and geographic distribution of lizard evolution. The new lizard “kings” are described in a study published in Nature Communications.

“This helps us time out the ages of the major living lizard and snake groups, as well as when their key anatomical features originated,” said Chase Brownstein, first author of the study. Brownstein, a Yale senior, collaborated on the study with Yale paleontologists Jacques Gauthier and Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullar.

Gauthier is a professor of Earth and planetary sciences in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Science and curator at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Bhullar is an associate professor of Earth & planetary sciences and an associate curator at the Peabody Museum.

The brain's immune cells can be triggered to slow down Alzheimer's disease

Joana B. Pereira, researcher at Lund University and Karolinska Institutet who is first author of the study.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Lund University

The brain's big-eating immune cells can slow down the progression of Alzheimer's disease. This is shown by a study that is now published in Nature Aging.

The brain's own immune cells are called microglia and are found in the central nervous system. They are big eaters that kill viruses, damaged cells and infectious agents they come across. It has long been known that microglial cells can be activated in different ways in several neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. Depending on how they are activated, they can both drive and slow disease development. Researchers from Lund University and Karolinska Institutet have now shown that a certain type of activation of the microglial cells triggers inflammatory protective mechanisms in the immune system:

“Most people probably think that inflammation in the brain is something bad and that you should inhibit the inflammatory system in case of illness. But inflammation doesn't just have to be negative”, says Joana B. Pereira, researcher at Lund University and Karolinska Institutet who is first author of the study.

Machine learning model builds on imaging methods to better detect ovarian lesions

(From left) The top row shows an ultrasound image of a malignant lesion, the blood oxygen saturation, and hemoglobin concentration. The bottom row is an ultrasound image of a benign lesion, the blood oxygen saturation, and hemoglobin concentration.
Image Credit: Zhu lab

Although ovarian cancer is the deadliest type of cancer for women, only about 20% of cases are found at an early stage, as there are no real screening tests for them and few symptoms to prompt them. Additionally, ovarian lesions are difficult to diagnose accurately — so difficult, in fact that there is no sign of cancer in more than 80% of women who undergo surgery to have lesions removed and tested.

Quing Zhu, the Edwin H. Murty Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis’ McKelvey School of Engineering, and members of her lab have applied a variety of imaging methods to diagnose ovarian cancer more accurately. Now, they have developed a new machine learning fusion model that takes advantage of existing ultrasound features of ovarian lesions to train the model to recognize whether a lesion is benign or cancerous from reconstructed images taken with photoacoustic tomography. Machine learning traditionally has been focused on single modality data. Recent findings have shown that multi-modality machine learning is more robust in its performance over unimodality methods. In a pilot study of 35 patients with more than 600 regions of interest, the model’s accuracy was 90%.

To Battle Climate Change, Scientists Tap into Carbon-Hungry Microorganisms for Clues

Electron microscopy images of 7-nanometer-diameter copper nanoparticles (shown left) and silver nanoparticles (center). At right: Electron microscopy image of ultrathin material synthesized from copper and silver nanoparticles, which could potentially be coupled with light-absorbing silicon nanowires for the design of efficient artificial photosynthesis systems. 
Credit: Peidong Yang/Berkeley Lab; courtesy of Nature Catalysis

Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have demonstrated a new technique, modeled after a metabolic process found in some bacteria, for converting carbon dioxide (CO2) into liquid acetate, a key ingredient in “liquid sunlight” or solar fuels produced through artificial photosynthesis.

The new approach, reported in Nature Catalysis, could help advance carbon-free alternatives to fossil fuels linked to global warming and climate change.

The work is also the first demonstration of a device that mimics how these bacteria naturally synthesize acetate from electrons and CO2.

“What’s amazing is that we learned how to selectively convert carbon dioxide into acetate by mimicking how these little microorganisms do it naturally,” said senior author Peidong Yang, who holds titles of senior faculty scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division and professor of chemistry and materials science and engineering at UC Berkeley.

Breaking the scaling limits of analog computing

MIT researchers have developed a technique that greatly reduces the error in an optical neural network, which uses light to process data instead of electrical signals. With their technique, the larger an optical neural network becomes, the lower the error in its computations. This could enable them to scale these devices up so they would be large enough for commercial uses.
Credit: SFLORG stock photo

As machine-learning models become larger and more complex, they require faster and more energy-efficient hardware to perform computations. Conventional digital computers are struggling to keep up.

An analog optical neural network could perform the same tasks as a digital one, such as image classification or speech recognition, but because computations are performed using light instead of electrical signals, optical neural networks can run many times faster while consuming less energy.

However, these analog devices are prone to hardware errors that can make computations less precise. Microscopic imperfections in hardware components are one cause of these errors. In an optical neural network that has many connected components, errors can quickly accumulate.

Even with error-correction techniques, due to fundamental properties of the devices that make up an optical neural network, some amount of error is unavoidable. A network that is large enough to be implemented in the real world would be far too imprecise to be effective.

MIT researchers have overcome this hurdle and found a way to effectively scale an optical neural network. By adding a tiny hardware component to the optical switches that form the network’s architecture, they can reduce even the uncorrectable errors that would otherwise accumulate in the device.

Cognitive flexibility enhances mathematical reasoning

Multiple categorizations involves presenting students with mathematical problems that can be solved from different perspectives.
Illustration Credit: Calliste Scheibling-Sève

At school or in everyday life, proportional reasoning is essential for many activities. This type of reasoning allows us to adapt the quantity of ingredients in a recipe or to calculate the distance traveled as a function of speed by relying on ratios and proportions. In school settings, certain intuitive conceptions of proportions can mislead students and hinder their learning. A team from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) shows that multiple categorizations in mathematical problems - the ability to adopt several points of view on the same problem - makes it possible to go past this obstacle. These results open up new perspectives for the learning of mathematics but also for other disciplines. They can be found in the Journal of Numerical Cognition.

Proportional reasoning is a cognitive process that involves ratios and proportions to solve a mathematical problem. This reasoning is regularly practiced and applied in school, but it is also very useful in our daily lives. It allows us to calculate the price of certain products when we shop, to adapt the quantity of ingredients in a recipe, and to convert foreign currencies. It is at play when we understand that a speed of 30mph is equivalent to a distance of 15 miles travelled in 30 minutes. It is also involved in assessing our risk-taking: for example, when we make choices about our health by weighing the effectiveness of a treatment or vaccine against the risks of the disease.

Lychee Peel Powder Can Remove Persistent Dye from Wastewater

The peel of the lychee makes up about 15% of the weight of the fruit.
Photo Credit: Jamie Trinh

The international team of scientists, which includes chemists from the Ural Federal University, found out that chemically modified lychee peel eliminates a very persistent red dye from wastewater. The researchers have developed a new method that can be used to clean wastewater near textile production facilities in an environmentally friendly and cheap way. By doing so, it can prevent disease in humans and save animals, fish and birds that interact with dyed water. It will also help make the world's dirtiest rivers cleaner: the Buringanga River in Bangladesh, the Ganges in India, and the Chintarum in Indonesia, for example. A description of the new method and the results of the experiments were published in the Journal of Molecular Liquids.

"Red dyes emitted in various industries such as textiles, cosmetics, leather, food and plastic are dangerous environmental pollutants. From 20 to 40% of persistent dyes remain in wastewater and cause a critical increase in its acidity and alkalinity. The key factor here is the nature of these dyes. They contribute to increased deposition of calcium salts in organs, are considered highly toxic and pose a serious threat to humans, causing various cancers and mutagenic phenomena at cellular and molecular levels," explains Grigory Zyryanov, Professor of the Department of Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry at the Ural Federal University.

Novel sex-determination mechanism revealed in mammals

Amami spiny rat
Photo Credit: Asato Kuroiwa

In mammals, the distinction between male and female at the chromosomal level is due to the X and Y chromosomes. Typically, females have two X chromosomes (XX) while males have an X and a Y chromosome (XY). The Sry gene on the Y chromosome triggers the formation of the testes. However, there exist a handful of rodent species in which the Y chromosome has disappeared, taking with it the Sry gene. The mechanism by which testes development occurs in these species is not fully understood, and is subject to much research.

A team of researchers led by Professor Asato Kuroiwa at Hokkaido University has uncovered the genetic basis for sexual differentiation in the Amami spiny rat, one of the species the lacks a Y chromosome and the Sry gene. Their discoveries were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Amami spiny rat is an endangered rodent found only on Amami Oshima, Japan. It is one of just four mammals known to lack a Y chromosome, alongside its close relative the Tokunoshima spiny rat, as well as the Transcaucasian mole vole and the Zaisan mole vole. In the Amami spiny rat, the the Sry gene is completely absent; thus, it has evolved a novel, unknown sex-determining mechanism independent of Sry.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Blood thinning drug to treat recovery from severe COVID-19 is not effective

The HEAL-COVID trial (Helping to Alleviate the Longer-term consequences of COVID-19) is funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) and the Cambridge NIHR Biomedical Research Centre. To date, more than a thousand NHS patients hospitalized with COVID have taken part in HEAL-COVID, a platform trial that is aiming to find treatments to reduce the number who die or are readmitted following their time in hospital.

In these first results from HEAL-COVID, it’s been shown that prescribing the oral anticoagulant Apixaban does not stop COVID patients from later dying or being readmitted to hospital over the following year (Apixaban 29.1%, versus standard care 30.8%).

As well as not being beneficial, anticoagulant therapy has known serious side effects, and these were experienced by participants in the trial with a small number of the 402 participants receiving Apixaban having major bleeding that required them to discontinue the treatment.

There was also no benefit from Apixaban in terms of the number of days alive and out of hospital at day 60 after randomization (Apixaban 59 days, versus standard care 59 days).

Following these results, the trial will continue to test another drug called Atorvastatin, a widely used lipid lowering drug (‘a statin’) that acts on other mechanisms of disease that are thought to be important in COVID.

Rock Samples from the Floor of Jezero Crater Show Significant Contact with Water Together with Possible Organic Compounds

A photo of Jezero Crater on Mars. It was taken by instruments on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which regularly takes images of potential landing sites for future missions.
Hi-Res Full-Size Image

Analysis of multiple rocks found at the bottom of Jezero Crater on Mars, where the Perseverance rover landed in 2020, reveals significant interaction between the rocks and liquid water, according to a study published in the journal Science. Those rocks also contain evidence consistent with the presence of organic compounds.

The existence of organic compounds (chemical compounds with carbon–hydrogen bonds) is not direct evidence of life, as these compounds can be created through nonbiological processes.

Perseverance previously found organic compounds at Jezero's delta. Deltas are fan-shaped geologic formations created at the intersection of a river and a lake at the edge of the crater. Mars 2020 mission scientists had been particularly interested in the Jezero delta because such formations are created when a river transporting fine-grained sediments enter a deeper, slower-moving body of water. As the river water spreads out, it abruptly slows down, depositing the sediments it is carrying—and in so doing, traps and preserves any microorganisms that may exist in the water.

Astrophysicists Hunt for Second-Closest Supermassive Black Hole

Illustration Credit: Scott Anttila Anttler

Two astrophysicists at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian have suggested a way to observe what could be the second-closest supermassive black hole to Earth: a behemoth 3 million times the mass of the Sun, hosted by the dwarf galaxy Leo I.

The supermassive black hole, labeled Leo I*, was first proposed by an independent team of astronomers in late 2021. The team noticed stars picking up speed as they approached the center of the galaxy — evidence for a black hole — but directly imaging emission from the black hole was not possible.

Now, CfA astrophysicists Fabio Pacucci and Avi Loeb suggest a new way to verify the supermassive black hole's existence; their work is described in a study published today in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

"Black holes are very elusive objects, and sometimes they enjoy playing hide-and-seek with us," says Fabio Pacucci, lead author of the ApJ Letters study. "Rays of light cannot escape their event horizons, but the environment around them can be extremely bright — if enough material falls into their gravitational well. But if a black hole is not accreting mass, instead, it emits no light and becomes impossible to find with our telescopes."

New device can control light at unprecedented speeds

Scientists have developed a programmable, wireless spatial light modulator that can manipulate light at the wavelength scale with orders-of-magnitude faster response than existing devices.
Illustration Credit: Sampson Wilcox

In a scene from “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope,” R2D2 projects a three-dimensional hologram of Princess Leia making a desperate plea for help. That scene, filmed more than 45 years ago, involved a bit of movie magic — even today, we don’t have the technology to create such realistic and dynamic holograms.

Generating a freestanding 3D hologram would require extremely precise and fast control of light beyond the capabilities of existing technologies, which are based on liquid crystals or micromirrors.

An international group of researchers, led by a team at MIT, spent more than four years tackling this problem of high-speed optical beam forming. They have now demonstrated a programmable, wireless device that can control light, such as by focusing a beam in a specific direction or manipulating the light’s intensity, and do it orders of magnitude more quickly than commercial devices.

They also pioneered a fabrication process that ensures the device quality remains near-perfect when it is manufactured at scale. This would make their device more feasible to implement in real-world settings.

Study finds that big rains bring big algae blooms… eventually

Center for Limnology system engineer Mark Gahler, right, co-author of a new study on the relationship between big storms and algae blooms, and colleague Jonathon Thom collect Lake Mendota data from instruments aboard David Buoy.
Photo Credit: Paul Schramm / University of Wisconsin–Madison

In the lake-rich regions of the world, algae blooms are a growing problem. Not only are the floating green scums a nuisance for anyone hoping to enjoy the water, they can turn toxic and threaten public health.

The main driver behind these blooms is phosphorus, an element used widely in agriculture to fertilize crops, that can run from the land and into lakes — especially during heavy rains. A new study from the University of Wisconsin–Madison shows how soon after a storm phosphorous “loading” sparks algae explosions, but also describes the many other factors that weigh on when and whether the lake reaches a tipping point.

“The fact that you just had a big storm doesn’t mean now you’re going to get a big [algae] bloom. The blooms are much more complicated.” says Steve Carpenter, lead author of a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences.

Ancient Iowan super predator got big by front-loading its growth in its youth

Co-author Ben Otoo with a life-size illustration of Whatcheeria.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Ben Otoo.

The Field Museum in Chicago is home to the best, most-complete fossils of a prehistoric superpredator-- but one that lived hundreds of millions of years before SUE the T. rex. Whatcheeria was a six-foot-long lake-dwelling creature with a salamander-like body and a long, narrow head; its fossils were discovered in a limestone quarry near the town of What Cheer, Iowa. There are around 350 Whatcheeria specimens, ranging from single bones to complete skeletons, that have been unearthed, and every last one of them resides in the Field Museum’s collections. In a new study in Communications Biology, these specimens helped reveal how Whatcheeria grew big enough to menace its fishy prey: instead of growing “slow and steady” the way that many modern reptiles and amphibians do, it grew rapidly in its youth.

“If you saw Whatcheeria in life, it would probably look like a big crocodile-shaped salamander, with a narrow head and lots of teeth,” says Ben Otoo, a co-author of the study and a PhD student at the University of Chicago and the Field Museum. “If it really curled up, probably to an uncomfortable extent, it could fit in your bathtub, but neither you nor it would want it to be there.”

Organizing nanoparticles into pinwheel shapes offers new twist on engineered materials

Jiahui Li, left, Shan Zhou and professor Qian Chen show off an electron micrograph image of their new pinwheel lattice structure developed to help engineers build new materials with unique optical, magnetic, electronic and catalytic properties. 
Photo Credit: Fred Zwicky

Researchers have developed a new strategy to help build materials with unique optical, magnetic, electronic and catalytic properties. These pinwheel-shaped structures self-assemble from nanoparticles and exhibit a characteristic called chirality – one of nature’s strategies to build complexity into structures at all scales, from molecules to galaxies.

Nature is rich with examples of chirality – DNA, organic molecules and even human hands. In general, chirality can be seen in objects that can have more than one spatial arrangement. For example, chirality in molecules might present itself as two strings of atoms that have the same composition, but each having a “twist” to the left or right in their spatial orientations, the researchers said.

The new study, led by Qian Chen, a professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and Nicholas A. Kotov, a professor chemical engineering at the University of Michigan, extends chirality into lattices assembled from nanoparticle building blocks to create new metamaterials – materials designed to interact with their surroundings to perform specific functions.

The study is published in the journal Nature.

Researchers build long-sought nanoparticle structure, opening door to special properties

Theoretical physicist Alex Travesset uses computer models, equations and scientific figures to explain how nanostructures assemble.
Photo Credit: Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University.

Alex Travesset doesn’t have a shiny research lab filled with the latest instruments that probe new nanomaterials and measure their special properties.

No, his theoretical work explaining what’s happening inside those new nanomaterials is all about computer models, equations and figures. And so, when he joins a project, the Iowa State University professor of physics and astronomy who’s also affiliated with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames National Laboratory might contribute many dense pages showing how nanoparticles assemble.

Case in point: Travesset’s “Chiral Tetrahedra” calculations and illustrations that are part of a research paper just published by the journal Nature. Those calculations show how controlled evaporation of a solution containing tetrahedron-shaped gold nanoparticles on a solid silicon substrate can assemble into a pinwheel-shaped, two-layered structure.

It turns out the nanostructure is chiral, meaning it’s not identical to its mirror image. (The classic example is a hand and its reflection. The thumbs end up on opposite sides and so one hand can’t be superimposed on the other. That’s chirality.)

Positive media coverage of cannabis studies regardless of therapeutic effect

Photo Credit: Julia Teichmann

In cannabis trials against pain, people who take placebos report feeling largely the same level of pain relief as those who consume the active cannabinoid substance. Still, these studies receive significant media coverage regardless of the clinical outcome, report researchers from Karolinska Institutet in Sweden in a study published in JAMA Network Open.

“We see that cannabis studies are often described in positive terms in the media regardless of their results,” says the study’s first author Filip Gedin, postdoc researcher at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet. “This is problematic and can influence expectations when it comes to the effects of cannabis therapy on pain. The greater the benefit a treatment is assumed to have, the more potential harms can be tolerated.”

The study is based on an analysis of published clinical studies in which cannabis has been compared with placebo for the treatment of clinical pain. The change in pain intensity before and after treatment were the study’s primary outcome measurement.

The analysis drew on 20 studies published up to September 2021 involving almost 1,500 individuals.

Discovery of antibody structure could lead to treatment for Crimean Congo Hemorrhagic Fever virus

Scott D. Pegan, a professor of biomedical sciences
Photo Source: University of California, Riverside

A research team led by the University of California, Riverside, has discovered important details about how therapeutically relevant human monoclonal antibodies can protect against Crimean Congo Hemorrhagic Fever virus, or CCHFV. Their work, which appears online in the journal Nature Communications, could lead to the development of targeted therapeutics for infected patients.

An emerging zoonotic disease with a propensity to spread, CCHF is considered a priority pathogen by the World Health Organization, or WHO. CCHF outbreaks have a mortality rate of up to 40%. Originally described in Crimea in 1944–1945, and decades later in the Congo, the virus has recently spread to Western Europe through ticks carried by migratory birds. The disease is already endemic in Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East, and some Asian countries. CCHFV is designated as a biosafety level 4 pathogen (the highest level of biocontainment) and is a Category A bioterrorism/biological warfare agent. There is no vaccine to help prevent infection and therapeutics are lacking.

Scott D. Pegan, a professor of biomedical sciences in the UCR School of Medicine, collaborated on this study with the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, which studies CCHFV because of the threat it poses to military personnel around the world. They examined monoclonal antibodies, or mAbs, which are proteins that bind to antigens — foreign substances that enter the body and cause the immune system to mount a protective response.

In a previous publication, USAMRIID scientists Joseph W. Golden and Aura R. Garrison reported that an antibody called 13G8 protected mice from lethal CCHFV when administered post-infection. They provided Pegan with the sequence information for that antibody, clearing the way for UCR to “humanize” it and conduct further research.

Squirrel sperm and feet tell a different climate change story

Cape ground squirrels are ecosystem engineers
Photo Credit: Gary Simons

Perhaps it’s time to replace the canary in a coal mine metaphor with a squirrel in the ground. Because two University of Manitoba studies found that climate change is altering ground squirrels’ sperm and feet, and this warns of big consequences potentially coming to endangered ecosystems.

These subtle squirrel changes concern UM researchers Jane Waterman and Miya Warrington, who tuned into them only recently and published their latest findings in the latest Journal of Mammalogy.

It began last year when they found that some male Richardson’s ground squirrels, a species found throughout the Canadian prairies, emerged from hibernation during a particularly warm winter with non-motile sperm. This non-lethal effect of climate change fortunately did not result in fewer young that year, although other negative consequences of males “shooting blanks” may emerge in other species or situations.

Intrigued by this finding, they then looked at what non-lethal affects climate change was having on African ground squirrels in the grasslands of South Africa.

Researchers take first step towards controlling photosynthesis using mirrors

The researchers used ultrafast laser spectroscopy
Photo Credit: Pavel Chabera

With the help of mirrors, placed only a few hundred nanometers apart, a research team has managed to use light more efficiently. The finding could eventually be useful for controlling solar energy conversion during photosynthesis, or other reactions driven by light. For example, one application could be converting carbon dioxide into fuel.

The sunlight that hits Earth for one hour is almost equivalent to the total energy consumption of mankind for an entire year. At the same time, our global emissions of carbon dioxide are increasing. Harnessing the sun's energy to capture greenhouse gas and then convert it into fuel is a hot research field.

A research team at Lund University in Sweden was previously able to show that with ultrafast laser spectroscopy, and the help of advanced materials, it would be possible to reduce the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in the long term. In their latest study in Nature Communications, the team has made new progress when it comes to taking advantage of light.

Why steamed hay can lead to protein deficiency in horses

Photo Credit: Manfred Richter

Hay treated with hot steam is safer for horses but provides them with less protein. The horse forage is treated with steam to rid it of potentially harmful microorganisms and to bind particles that could otherwise be inhaled. However, a team of scientists from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) has discovered that this also causes a chemical reaction which damages the proteins in the hay and makes them harder for horses to digest. This can lead to signs of nutrient deficiency in the animals and, for example, impair growth or muscle development. The team reports on their scientific work in the journal Animals.

Hot steam is used to heat hay up to 100 degrees Celsius, which kills harmful microorganisms and binds fungal spores and dust to the hay. "Many horses suffer from lung problems such as equine asthma. The steaming process virtually eliminates all of the living microorganisms and particles in the hay that could be inhaled during feeding and damage the lungs. In theory, the end result is a very good forage," explains Professor Annette Zeyner from the Institute of Agricultural and Nutritional Sciences at MLU.

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