Mastodon Scientific Frontline: November 2022

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Blood group can predict risk of contracting viral disease

People with blood type Rh(D) have a higher risk of being infected by parvovirus
Photo Credit: Bartek Kopała

The risk of being infected by parvovirus is elevated in those people who have blood group Rh(D), according to a study published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases by researchers from Karolinska Institutet in collaboration with Octapharma.  

Fifth disease is a viral disease caused by parvovirus. Most often, school-age children are affected with common symptoms such as red blotches on the cheeks that can also spread to the arms and legs. Even adults can become infected, but many do not show any symptoms.  

In a new study, researchers can now demonstrate that the risk of contracting the disease is elevated if the person belongs to the blood group Rhesus D antigen or what is called Rh(D). In addition to the blood typing in the AB0 system, the Rh system is the most common.

Rice lab’s catalyst could be key for hydrogen economy

Rice University researchers have engineered a key light-activated nanomaterial for the hydrogen economy. Using only inexpensive raw materials, a team from Rice’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics, Syzygy Plasmonics Inc. and Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment created a scalable catalyst that needs only the power of light to convert ammonia into clean-burning hydrogen fuel.

The research is published in the journal Science.

The research follows government and industry investment to create infrastructure and markets for carbon-free liquid ammonia fuel that will not contribute to greenhouse warming. Liquid ammonia is easy to transport and packs a lot of energy, with one nitrogen and three hydrogen atoms per molecule. The new catalyst breaks those molecules into hydrogen gas, a clean-burning fuel, and nitrogen gas, the largest component of Earth’s atmosphere. And unlike traditional catalysts, it doesn’t require heat. Instead, it harvests energy from light, either sunlight or energy-stingy LEDs.

The pace of chemical reactions typically increases with temperature, and chemical producers have capitalized on this for more than a century by applying heat on an industrial scale. The burning of fossil fuels to raise the temperature of large reaction vessels by hundreds or thousands of degrees results in an enormous carbon footprint. Chemical producers also spend billions of dollars each year on thermocatalysts — materials that don’t react but further speed reactions under intense heating.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Improving AI training for edge sensor time series

Engineers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) have demonstrated a simple computational approach for improving the way artificial intelligence classifiers, such as neural networks, can be trained based on limited amounts of sensor data. The emerging applications of the internet of things often require edge devices that can reliably classify behaviors and situations based on time series. However, training data is difficult and expensive to acquire. The proposed approach promises to substantially increase the quality of classifier training, at almost no extra cost.

In recent times, the prospect of having huge numbers of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors quietly and diligently monitoring countless aspects of human, natural, and machine activities has gained ground. As our society becomes more and more hungry for data, scientists, engineers, and strategists increasingly hope that the additional insight which we can derive from this pervasive monitoring will improve the quality and efficiency of many production processes, also resulting in improved sustainability.

The world in which we live is incredibly complex, and this complexity is reflected in a huge multitude of variables that IoT sensors may be designed to monitor. Some are natural, such as the amount of sunlight, moisture, or the movement of an animal, while others are artificial, for example, the number of cars crossing an intersection or the strain applied to a suspended structure like a bridge. What these variables all have in common is that they evolve over time, creating what is known as time series, and that meaningful information is expected to be contained in their relentless changes. In many cases, researchers are interested in classifying a set of predetermined conditions or situations based on these temporal changes, as a way of reducing the amount of data and making it easier to understand. For instance, measuring how frequently a particular condition or situation arises is often taken as the basis for detecting and understanding the origin of malfunctions, pollution increases, and so on.

NIST Finds a Sweet New Way to Print Microchip Patterns on Curvy Surfaces

Using sugar and corn syrup (i.e., candy), researcher Gary Zabow transferred the word "NIST" onto a human hair in gold letters, shown in false color in this grayscale microscope image. 
Image Credit: G. Zabow/NIST

NIST scientist Gary Zabow had never intended to use candy in his lab. It was only as a last resort that he had even tried burying microscopic magnetic dots in hardened chunks of sugar — hard candy, basically — and sending these sweet packages to colleagues in a biomedical lab. The sugar dissolves easily in water, freeing the magnetic dots for their studies without leaving any harmful plastics or chemicals behind.

By chance, Zabow had left one of these sugar pieces, embedded with arrays of micromagnetic dots, in a beaker, and it did what sugar does with time and heat — it melted, coating the bottom of the beaker in a gooey mess.

“No problem,” he thought. He would just dissolve away the sugar, as normal. Except this time when he rinsed out the beaker, the microdots were gone. But they weren’t really missing; instead of releasing into the water, they had been transferred onto the bottom of the glass where they were casting a rainbow reflection.

“It was those rainbow colors that really surprised me,” Zabow recalls. The colors indicated that the arrays of microdots had retained their unique pattern.

Protein Spheres Protect the Genome of Cancer Cells

MYC proteins are colored green in this figure. In normally growing cells, they are homogeneously distributed in the cell nucleus (left). In diverse stress situations, as they occur in cancer cells, they rearrange themselves, form sphere-like structures and thus surround particularly vulnerable sections of the genome.
Image Credit: Team Martin Eilers / Universität Würzburg

Hollow spheres made of MYC proteins open new doors in cancer research. Würzburg scientists have discovered them and report about this breakthrough in the journal "Nature".

MYC genes and their proteins play a central role in the emergence and development of almost all cancers. They drive uncontrolled growth and altered metabolism of tumor cells. And they help tumors hide from the immune system.

MYC proteins also show an activity that was previously unknown – and which is now opening new doors for cancer research: They form hollow spheres that protect particularly sensitive parts of the genome. If these MYC spheres are destroyed, cancer cells will die.

This was reported by a research team led by Martin Eilers and Elmar Wolf from the Institute of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU, Bavaria, Germany) in the journal Nature. The researchers are convinced that their discovery is a game changer for cancer research, an important breakthrough on the way to new therapeutic strategies.

New CRISPR-based tool inserts large DNA sequences at desired sites in cells

Building on the CRISPR gene-editing system, MIT researchers designed a new tool that can snip out faulty genes and replace them with new ones.
Image Credit: Sangharsh Lohakare

Building on the CRISPR gene-editing system, MIT researchers have designed a new tool that can snip out faulty genes and replace them with new ones, in a safer and more efficient way.

Using this system, the researchers showed that they could deliver genes as long as 36,000 DNA base pairs to several types of human cells, as well as to liver cells in mice. The new technique, known as PASTE, could hold promise for treating diseases that are caused by defective genes with a large number of mutations, such as cystic fibrosis.

“It’s a new genetic way of potentially targeting these really hard to treat diseases,” says Omar Abudayyeh, a McGovern Fellow at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. “We wanted to work toward what gene therapy was supposed to do at its original inception, which is to replace genes, not just correct individual mutations.”

The new tool combines the precise targeting of CRISPR-Cas9, a set of molecules originally derived from bacterial defense systems, with enzymes called integrases, which viruses use to insert their own genetic material into a bacterial genome.

Synthetic fibers discovered in Antarctic samples show the ‘pristine’ continent is now a sink for plastic pollution

As nations prepare to meet in Uruguay to negotiate a new Global Plastics Treaty, a new study has revealed the discovery of synthetic plastic fibers in air, seawater, sediment and sea ice sampled in the Antarctic Weddell Sea. The field research was carried out by scientists from the University of Oxford and Nekton (a not-for-profit research institute) during an expedition to discover Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance. The results are published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

Fibrous polyesters, primarily from textiles, were found in all samples. The majority of microplastic fibers identified were found in the Antarctic air samples, revealing that Antarctic animals and seabirds could be breathing them.

‘The issue of microplastic fibers is also an airborne problem reaching even the last remaining pristine environments on our planet’, stated co-author Lucy Woodall, a Professor in the University of Oxford’s Department of Biology and Principal Scientist at Nekton. ‘Synthetic fibers are the most prevalent form of microplastic pollution globally and tackling this issue must be at the heart of the Plastic Treaty negotiations.’ Professor Woodall was the first to reveal the prevalence of plastic in the deep sea in 2014.

The whole in a part: Synchronizing chaos through a narrow slice of spectrum

Conceptual overview of the coupling scheme between a master and a slave chaotic oscillator via a band-pass filter, and the resulting complex interdependence between their activities.
Credit: Tokyo Institute of Technology

Engineers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) have uncovered some intricate effects arising when chaotic systems, which typically generate broad spectra, are coupled by conveying only a narrow range of frequencies from one to another. The synchronization of chaotic oscillators, such as electronic circuits, continues to attract considerable fascination due to the richness of the complex behaviors that can emerge. Recently, hypothetical applications in distributed sensing have been envisaged, however, wireless couplings are only practical over narrow frequency intervals. The proposed research shows that, even under such constraints, chaos synchronization can occur and give rise to phenomena that could one day be leveraged to realize useful operations over ensembles of distant nodes.

The abstract notion that the whole can be found in each part of something has for long fascinated thinkers engaged in all walks of philosophy and experimental science: from Immanuel Kant on the essence of time to David Bohm on the notion of order, and from the self-similarity of fractal structures to the defining properties of holograms. It has, however, remained understandably extraneous to electronic engineering, which strives to develop ever more specialized and efficient circuits exchanging signals that possess highly controlled characteristics. By contrast, across the most diverse complex systems in nature, such as the brain, the generation of activity having features that present themselves similarly over different temporal scales, or frequencies, is nearly a ubiquitous observation.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Overgrazing is threatening global drylands

Sheep on Green Grass Field
Photo Credit: Gökçe Gök

The positive effects of grazing by livestock and wild herbivores can turn negative as temperatures become warmer.

Grazing is a trillion-dollar industry, and is particularly important in drylands, which cover about 40 percent of Earth's land surface and support half of the world’s livestock. Livestock are critical for food, shelter and a source of capital, but changing climates threaten livestock production and the livelihoods of billions of people worldwide.

An international team of scientists has published a study in the journal Science today with the first global estimates of how grazing will affect ecosystem services across the world’s drylands. The research, led by the Dryland Ecology and Global Change group in Spain with collaborators from UNSW Sydney, shows that grazing by livestock and wild herbivores in drylands can have positive effects on ecosystem services, but these effects can turn negative as Earth’s temperature becomes warmer.

Physicist strikes gold, solving 50-year lightning mystery

Photo Credit: Bogdan Radu

The chances of being struck by lightning are less than one in a million, but those odds shortened considerably this month when more than 4.2 million lightning strikes were recorded in every Australian state and territory over the weekend of 12-13 November.

When you consider that each lighting strike travels at more than 320,000 kilometers per hour, that’s a massive amount of electricity.

Ever wondered about lightning? For the past 50 years, scientists around the world have debated why lightning zig-zags and how it is connected to the thunder cloud above.

There hasn’t been a definitive explanation until now, with a University of South Australia plasma physicist publishing a landmark paper that solves both mysteries.

Dr John Lowke, former CSIRO scientist and now UniSA Adjunct Research Professor, says the physics of lightning has stumped the best scientific minds for decades.

“There are a few textbooks on lightning, but none have explained how the zig-zags (called steps) form, why the electrically conducting column connecting the steps with the cloud remains dark, and how lightning can travel over kilometers,” Dr Lowke says.

A brain circuit underpinning locomotor speed control

Zebrafish Photo Credit: Petr Kuznetsov

Researchers at Karolinska have uncovered how brain circuits encode the start, duration and sudden change of speed of locomotion. The study is published in the journal Neuron.

Important findings

By exploiting the relative accessibility of adult zebrafish, combined with a broad range of techniques, the researchers can now reveal two brain circuits that encode the start, duration and sudden change in locomotor speed.

The brain circuits represent the initial step in the sequence of commands coding for the onset, duration, speed and vigor of locomotion. The two command streams revealed here, with their direct access to the spinal circuits, allow the animal to navigate through their environment by grading the speed and strength of their locomotor movements, while at the same time controlling directionality. These mechanisms in adult zebrafish can be extrapolated to mammalian model systems.

Mapping connectivity

The next step will be to map the connectivity between these brain circuits and those in the spinal cord driving locomotion.

Hopefully, the circuit revealed in the study can guide designing novel therapeutic strategies aimed at restoring motor function after traumatic spinal cord injury.

The study was financed by The Swedish Research Council, Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, The Swedish Brain Foundation.

Source/Credit: Karolinska Institutet | Charlotte Brandt


Old World flycatchers’ family tree mapped

European robin in snow. A new study of Old World flycatcher family, to which these birds belong. The study comprises 92 per cent of the more than 300 species in this family. 
Photo Credit: Tomas Carlberg

The European robin’s closest relatives are found in tropical Africa. The European robin is therefore not closely related to the Japanese robin, despite their close similarity in appearance. This is confirmed by a new study of the Old World flycatcher family, to which these birds belong. The study comprises 92 per cent of the more than 300 species in this family.

“The fact that the European and Japanese robins are so similar-looking despite not being closely related is one of many examples of so-called convergent evolution in this group of birds. Similarities in appearance can evolve in distant relatives, e.g., as a result of similarities in lifestyle,” says Per Alström from Uppsala University, who is one of the researchers behind the study published in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.

Engineers improve electrochemical sensing by incorporating machine learning

Aida Ebrahimi, Thomas and Sheila Roell Early Career Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering and assistant professor of biomedical engineering, and Vinay Kammarchedu, 2022-23 Milton and Albertha Langdon Memorial Graduate Fellowship in Electrical Engineering, developed a new approach to improve the performance of electrochemical biosensors by combining machine learning with multimodal measurement.
Photo Credit: Kate Myers | Pennsylvania State University

Combining machine learning with multimodal electrochemical sensing can significantly improve the analytical performance of biosensors, according to new findings from a Penn State research team. These improvements may benefit noninvasive health monitoring, such as testing that involves saliva or sweat. The findings were published this month in Analytica Chimica Acta.

The researchers developed a novel analytical platform that enabled them to selectively measure multiple biomolecules using a single sensor, saving space and reducing complexity as compared to the usual route of using multi-sensor systems. In particular, they showed that their sensor can simultaneously detect small quantities of uric acid and tyrosine — two important biomarkers associated with kidney and cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, metabolic disorders, and neuropsychiatric and eating disorders — in sweat and saliva, making the developed method suitable for personalized health monitoring and intervention.

Many biomarkers have similar molecular structures or overlapping electrochemical signatures, making it difficult to detect them simultaneously. Leveraging machine learning for measuring multiple biomarkers can improve the accuracy and reliability of diagnostics and as a result improve patient outcomes, according to the researchers. Further, sensing using the same device saves resources and biological sample volumes needed for tests, which is critical with clinical samples with scarce amounts.

Study sheds new light on the link between oral bacteria and diseases

Photo Credit: Quang Tri NGUYEN

Researchers at Karolinska Institutet have identified the bacteria most commonly found in severe oral infections. Few such studies have been done before, and the team now hopes that the study can provide deeper insight into the association between oral bacteria and other diseases. The study is published in Microbiology Spectrum.

Researchers at Karolinska Institutet have now analyzed samples collected between 2010 and 2020 at the Karolinska University Hospital in Sweden from patients with severe oral infections and produced a list of the most common bacteria.

This was a collaborative study that was performed by Professor Margaret Sällberg Chen and adjunct Professor Volkan Özenci’s research groups.

“We’re reporting here, for the first time, the microbial composition of bacterial infections from samples collected over a ten-year period in Stockholm County,” says Professor Sällberg Chen of the Department of Dental Medicine at Karolinska Institutet. “The results show that several bacterial infections with link to systemic diseases are constantly present and some have even increased over the past decade in Stockholm.”

A warmer Arctic Ocean leads to more snowfall further south

An increasingly warm and ice-free Arctic Ocean has, in recent decades, led to more moisture in higher latitudes. This moisture is transported south by cyclonic weather systems where it precipitates as snow, influencing the global hydrological cycle and many terrestrial systems that depend on it
Illustration Credit: Tomonori Sato

A new model explains that water evaporating from the Arctic Ocean due to a warming climate is transported south and can lead to increased snowfall in northern Eurasia in late autumn and early winter. This information will allow for more accurate predictions of severe weather events.

Rising air temperatures due to global warming melt glaciers and polar ice caps. Seemingly paradoxically, snow cover in some areas in northern Eurasia has increased over the past decades. However, snow is a form of water; global warming increases the quantity of moisture in the atmosphere, and thus the quantity and likelihood of rain and snow. Understanding where exactly the moisture comes from, how it is produced and how it is transported south is relevant for better predictions of extreme weather and the evolution of the climate.

SARS-CoV-2 detection in 30 minutes using gene scissors

Multiplex chip of a Freiburg research team: On this chip, the viral load in the nasal swab and, if necessary, the antibiotic concentration in the blood of COVID-19 patients could be measured simultaneously.
Photo Credit: AG Disposable Microsystems/University of Freiburg

Researchers of the University of Freiburg introduce biosensor for the nucleic acid amplification-free detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA

CRISPR-Cas is versatile: Besides the controversial genetically modified organisms (GMOs), created through gene editing, various new scientific studies use different orthologues of the effector protein ‘Cas’ to detect nucleic acids such as DNA or RNA.

In its most recent study, the research group headed by microsystems engineer Dr. Can Dincer of the Department of Microsystems2 Engineering, University of Freiburg introduces a microfluidic multiplexed chip for the simultaneous measurement of the viral load in nasal swabs and (if applicable) the blood antibiotic levels of COVID-19 patients.

Rapid test or PCR?

The market launch of rapid antigen test kits has significantly changed the way in which society handles the effects of the pandemic: Individuals suspecting an infection with SARS-CoV-2 can now test themselves at home with kits that are readily available at most drug stores, pharmacies and supermarkets, instead of making an, oftentimes difficult to acquire, appointment for PCR testing, that requires 1 to 3 additional days to receive the result. This convenience is, however, paid for with test sensitivity. This issue became flagrantly apparent during the wave of infections last winter, when the ‘lateral flow devices’ frequently failed to detect infections with the Omicron-variant until after the onset of symptoms. “The trade-off between sensitivity and sample-to-result time could potentially be bridged using our method,” says Midori Johnston, first author of the study, that is now being published in the journal Materials Today.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Pocket feature shared by deadly coronaviruses could lead to pan-coronavirus antiviral treatment

Spike glycoprotein structure of SARS-CoV, the coronavirus causing the 2002 outbreak. When linoleic acid is bound, the structure is locked in a non-infectious form. The cryo-EM density, calculated by cloud computing, is shown (left) along with the protein structure (middle). Linoleic acid molecules are colored orange. A zoom-in of the pocket (boxed), conserved in all deadly coronaviruses, is shown
 Illustration Credit: Christiane Schaffitzel and Christine Toelzer, University of Bristol

Scientists have discovered why some coronaviruses are more likely to cause severe disease, which has remained a mystery, until now. Researchers of the University of Bristol-led study, published in Science Advances today [23 November], say their findings could lead to the development of a pan-coronavirus treatment to defeat all coronaviruses—from the 2002 SARS-CoV outbreak to Omicron, the current variant of SARS-CoV-2, as well as dangerous variants that may emerge in future.

In this new study, an international team, led by Bristol's Professor Christiane Schaffitzel, scrutinized the spike glycoproteins decorating all coronaviruses. They reveal that a tailor-made pocket feature in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, first discovered in 2020, is present in all deadly coronaviruses, including MERS and Omicron. In striking contrast, the pocket feature is not present in coronaviruses which cause mild infection with cold-like symptoms.

The team say their findings suggest that the pocket, which binds a small molecule, linoleic acid—an essential fatty acid indispensable for many cellular functions including inflammation and maintaining cell membranes in the lungs so that we can breathe properly—could now be exploited to treat all deadly coronaviruses, at the same time rendering them vulnerable to a linoleic acid-based treatment targeting this pocket.

Spin correlation between paired electrons demonstrated

Electrons leave a superconductor only as pairs with opposite spins. If both electron paths are blocked for the same type of spin by parallel spin filters, paired electrons from the superconductor are blocked and the currents decrease.
Image Credit: University of Basel, Department of Physics/Scixel

Physicists at the University of Basel have experimentally demonstrated for the first time that there is a negative correlation between the two spins of an entangled pair of electrons from a superconductor. For their study, the researchers used spin filters made of nanomagnets and quantum dots, as they report in the scientific journal Nature.

The entanglement between two particles is among those phenomena in quantum physics that are hard to reconcile with everyday experiences. If entangled, certain properties of the two particles are closely linked, even when far apart. Albert Einstein described entanglement as a “spooky action at a distance”. Research on entanglement between light particles (photons) was awarded this year's Nobel Prize in Physics.

Two electrons can be entangled as well – for example in their spins. In a superconductor, the electrons form so-called Cooper pairs responsible for the lossless electrical currents and in which the individual spins are entangled.

For several years, researchers at the Swiss Nanoscience Institute and the Department of Physics at the University of Basel have been able to extract electron pairs from a superconductor and spatially separate the two electrons. This is achieved by means of two quantum dots – nanoelectronic structures connected in parallel, each of which only allows single electrons to pass.

A Radical New Approach in Synthetic Chemistry

The Laser Electron Accelerator Facility (LEAF) generates intense high-energy electron pulses that allow scientists to add or subtract electrons from molecules to make chemically reactive species and monitor what happens as a reaction proceeds.
Full Size Original
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory helped measure how unpaired electrons in atoms at one end of a molecule can drive chemical reactivity on the molecule’s opposite side. As described in a paper recently published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, this work, done in collaboration with Princeton University, shows how molecules containing these so-called free radicals could be used in a whole new class of reactions.

“Most reactions involving free radicals take place at the site of the unpaired electron,” explained Brookhaven Lab chemist Matthew Bird, one of the co-corresponding authors on the paper. The Princeton team had become experts in using free radicals for a range of synthetic applications, such as polymer upcycling. But they’ve wondered whether free radicals might influence reactivity on other parts of the molecule as well, by pulling electrons away from those more distant locations.

“Our measurements show that these radicals can exert powerful ‘electron-withdrawing’ effects that make other parts of the molecule more reactive,” Bird said.

The Princeton team demonstrated how that long-distance pull can overcome energy barriers and bring together otherwise unreactive molecules, potentially leading to a new approach to organic molecule synthesis.

Genome studies uncover a new branch in fungal evolution

In a class of their own: The earth tongue is one of 600 “oddball” fungi that were found to share a common ancestor dating back 300 million years, according to U of A researchers.
Full Size Original
Photo Credit: Alan Rockefeller, CC-BY-SA-4.0

About 600 seemingly disparate fungi that never quite found a fit along the fungal family tree have been shown to have a common ancestor, according to a University of Alberta-led research team that used genome sequencing to give these peculiar creatures their own classification home.

“They don't have any particular feature that you can see with the naked eye where you can say they belong to the same group. But when you go to the genome, suddenly this emerges,” says Toby Spribille, principal investigator on the project and associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences.

“I like to think of these as the platypus and echidna of the fungal world.”

Spribille, Canada Research Chair in Symbiosis, is referring to Australia’s famed Linnaean classification system-defying monotremes — which produce milk and have nipples, but lay eggs — that were the source of debate as to whether they were even real.

Major discovery about mammalian brains surprises researchers

Illustration shows vacuolar-type adenosine triphosphatases (V-ATPases, large blue structures) on a synaptic vesicle from a nerve cell in the mammalian brain.
Illustration Image: C. Kutzner, H. Grubmüller and R. Jahn/Max Planck Institute for Multidisciplinary Sciences.

Major discovery about mammalian brains surprises researchers, University of Copenhagen researchers have made an incredible discovery. Namely, a vital enzyme that enables brain signals is switching on/off at random, even taking hours-long “breaks from work”. These findings may have a major impact on our understanding of the brain and the development of pharmaceuticals. 

Millions of neurons are constantly messaging each other to shape thoughts and memories and let us move our bodies at will. When two neurons meet to exchange a message, neurotransmitters are transported from one neuron to another with the aid of a unique enzyme.

This process is crucial for neuronal communication and the survival of all complex organisms. Until now, researchers worldwide thought that these enzymes were active at all times to convey essential signals continuously. But this is far from the case.

Using a groundbreaking method, researchers from the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Chemistry have closely studied the enzyme and discovered that its activity is switching on and off at random intervals, which contradicts our previous understanding.

Machine learning gives nuanced view of Alzheimer’s stages

A Cornell-led collaboration used machine learning to pinpoint the most accurate means, and timelines, for anticipating the advancement of Alzheimer’s disease in people who are either cognitively normal or experiencing mild cognitive impairment.

The modeling showed that predicting the future decline into dementia for individuals with mild cognitive impairment is easier and more accurate than it is for cognitively normal, or asymptomatic, individuals. At the same time, the researchers found that the predictions for cognitively normal subjects are less accurate for longer time horizons, but for individuals with mild cognitive impairment, the opposite is true.

The modeling also demonstrated that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a useful prognostic tool for people in both stages, whereas tools that track molecular biomarkers, such as positron emission tomography (PET) scans, are more useful for people experiencing mild cognitive impairment.

The team’s paper, “Machine Learning Based Multi-Modal Prediction of Future Decline Toward Alzheimer’s Disease: An Empirical Study,” published in PLOS ONE. The lead author is Batuhan Karaman, a doctoral student in the field of electrical and computer engineering.

Vitamin D fails to reduce statin-associated muscle pain

Study is the first placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial to study this
Photo Credit: PublicDomainPictures

Patients who take statins to lower high cholesterol levels often complain of muscle pains, which can lead them to stop taking the highly effective medication and put them at greater risk of heart attack or stroke.

Some clinicians have recommended vitamin D supplements to ease the muscle aches of patients taking a statin, but a new study from scientists at Northwestern University, Harvard University and Stanford University shows the vitamin appears to have no substantial impact.

The study was published Nov. 23 in JAMA Cardiology.

Although non-randomized studies have reported vitamin D to be an effective treatment for statin-associated muscle symptoms, the new study, which is the first randomized clinical trial to look at the effect of vitamin D on statin-associated muscle symptoms, was large enough to rule out any important benefits.

In the randomized, double-blind trial, 2,083 participants ingested either 2,000 units of vitamin D supplements daily or a placebo. The study found participants in both categories were equally likely to develop muscle symptoms and discontinue statin therapy.

Human evolution wasn’t just the sheet music, but how it was played

The fluorescent glow of mouse brain cells on the right indicates the effectiveness of a human-derived gene enhancer, HAQER0059, versus a 6-million-year-old version of the enhancer at left.
Image Credit: Riley Mangan, Duke University

A team of Duke researchers has identified a group of human DNA sequences driving changes in brain development, digestion and immunity that seem to have evolved rapidly after our family line split from that of the chimpanzees, but before we split with the Neanderthals.

Our brains are bigger, and our guts are shorter than our ape peers.

“A lot of the traits that we think of as uniquely human, and human-specific, probably appear during that time period,” in the 7.5 million years since the split with the common ancestor we share with the chimpanzee, said Craig Lowe, Ph.D., an assistant professor of molecular genetics and microbiology in the Duke School of Medicine.

Specifically, the DNA sequences in question, which the researchers have dubbed Human Ancestor Quickly Evolved Regions (HAQERS), pronounced like hackers, regulate genes. They are the switches that tell nearby genes when to turn on and off. The findings appear Nov.23 in the journal Cell.

The rapid evolution of these regions of the genome seems to have served as a fine-tuning of regulatory control, Lowe said. More switches were added to the human operating system as sequences developed into regulatory regions, and they were more finely tuned to adapt to environmental or developmental cues. By and large, those changes were advantageous to our species.

Physicist Errando helps NASA solve black hole jet mystery

Illustration Credit: NASA courtesy of IXPE team

Some of the brightest objects in the sky are called blazars. They consist of a supermassive black hole feeding off material swirling around it in a disk, which can create two powerful jets perpendicular to the disk on each side. A blazar is especially bright because one of its powerful jets of high-speed particles points straight at Earth. For decades, scientists have wondered: How do particles in these jets get accelerated to such high energies?

NASA’s Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer, or IXPE, has helped astronomers get closer to an answer. In a new study in the journal Nature, authored by a large international collaboration, astronomers find that the best explanation for the particle acceleration is a shock wave within the jet.

Manel Errando, an assistant professor of physics in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, and a faculty fellow of the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences, is part of the team that analyzed the IXPE data.

Young lives under pressure as global crises hits mental health and well-being

Photo Credit: Marco Torrazzina

The well-being and mental health of young people in low - and middle - income countries have been dramatically affected by the series of crises hitting the world.

As the international community continues to struggle with the impact of COVID-19, conflict and climate change, the latest report from the Young Lives project shows a long-running upward trend in young people’s well-being has been sharply reversed alongside widespread anxiety and depression. Young people are less confident about their futures for the first time in their 20-year study.

Before the pandemic, there had been a steady but notable upward trend in young people’s sense of well-being across all four countries in the Young Lives study - Peru, Vietnam, India and Ethiopia. But new data from the most recent survey, collected during the pandemic, shows young people reported a significant decline in well-being - and high levels of anxiety and depression.

New data shows young people reported a significant decline in well-being - and high levels of anxiety and a critical period in [young] lives - because long-term mental health issues often begin in adolescence and early adulthood

New study on morphine treatment in people with COPD and severe, long-term breathlessness

Magnus Ekström, researcher at Lund University and Chief Physician in Pulmonary Medicine at Blekinge Hospital in Karlskrona
Photo Credit: Curtsey of Lund University

Sometimes healthcare professionals treat patients with opioids such as morphine to relieve symptoms, but there has been a lack of evidence as to whether this helps with severe chronic breathlessness. A randomized Phase 3 study conducted by Swedish and Australian researchers now finds that morphine does not reduce worst breathlessness.

The study is published in JAMA.

Long term shortness of breath is a common cause of ongoing suffering that often occurs with advanced serious illness and at the end of life. COPD can cause breathlessness by damaging the lungs and airways and for seriously ill people with severe long-term breathlessness, physical activity is often a challenge.

"Many people live with shortness of breath. It is distressing that no better treatment exists, but based on the results we’ve seen, we cannot generally recommend giving morphine to people with chronic breathlessness", says Magnus Ekström, a researcher in Palliative Medicine and Pulmonary Medicine at Lund University in Sweden and Chief Physician in Pulmonary Medicine at Blekinge Hospital.

World’s oldest meal offers food for thought

Professor Jochen Brocks (left) and Dr Ilya Bobrovskiy
Photo Credit: ANU

The contents of the last meal consumed by the earliest animals known to inhabit Earth more than 550 million years ago has unearthed new clues about the physiology of our earliest animal ancestors, according to scientists from The Australian National University (ANU).

Ediacara biota are the world's oldest large organisms and were first discovered in the Ediacara Hills in South Australia's Flinders Ranges. They date back 575 million years.

ANU researchers found the animals ate bacteria and algae that was sourced from the ocean floor. The findings, published in Current Biology, reveal more about these strange creatures, including how they were able to consume and digest food.

The scientists analyzed ancient fossils containing preserved phytosterol molecules -- a type of fat found in plants -- that remained from the animals' last meal. By examining the molecular remains of what the animals ate, the researchers were able to confirm the slug-like organism, known as Kimberella, had a mouth and a gut and digested food the same way modern animals do. The researchers say it was likely one of the most advanced creatures of the Ediacarans.

Most young people’s well-being falls sharply in first years of secondary school

Most young people in the UK experience a sharp decline in their subjective well-being during their first years at secondary school, regardless of their circumstances or background, new research shows.

Academics from the Universities of Cambridge and Manchester analyzed the well-being and self-esteem of more than 11,000 young people from across the UK, using data collected when they were 11, and again when they were 14.

The adolescents’ overall ‘subjective well-being’ – their satisfaction with different aspects of life (such as friends, school and family) – dropped significantly during the intervening years.

It is widely accepted that young people’s well-being and mental health are influenced by factors such as economic circumstances and family life. The research shows that notwithstanding this, well-being tends to fall steeply and across the board during early adolescence.

That decline is probably linked to the transition to secondary school at age 11. The study identified that the particular aspects of well-being which changed in early adolescence were typically related to school and peer relationships, suggesting a close connection with shifts in these young people’s academic and social lives.

New Omicron subvariant BQ.1.1 resistant to all therapeutic antibodies

The Omicron subvariants BA.1, BA.4, BA.5 as well as Q.1.1 have a high number of mutations in the spike protein. Some of these mutations are escape mutations that allow the virus to escape neutralization by antibodies. In addition, resistance to biotechnologically produced antibodies, which are administered to high-risk patients as a preventive measure or as therapy for a diagnosed SARS-CoV-2 infection, is also developing. Omicron sub-lineage BQ.1.1 is the first variant resistant to all antibody therapies currently approved by the EMA (European Medicines Agency) and/or FDA (US Food and Drug Administration).
Figure Credit: Markus Hoffmann, German Primate Center – Leibniz Institute for Primate Research.

Are the currently approved antibody therapies used to treat individuals at increased risk for severe COVID-19 disease also effective against currently circulating viral variants? A recent study by researchers at the German Primate Center (DPZ) – Leibniz Institute for Primate Research and Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg shows that the Omicron sub-lineage BQ.1.1, currently on the rise worldwide, is resistant to all approved antibody therapies. published in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Alzheimer’s risk gene undermines insulation of brain’s “wiring”

A new study shows how carrying the biggest genetic risk factor for Alzheimer's disease, the APOE4 gene variant, contributes to disease pathology. Here, black gold staining in postmortem brain tissue shows people with two copies of the APOE3 variant have much more myelin insulation of their neurons than people (bottom row) with a copy of APOE4.
Resized Image using AI by SFLORG
Image Credit: Tsai Lab/The Picower Institute

It’s well-known that carrying one copy of the APOE4 gene variant increases one’s risk for Alzheimer’s disease threefold and two copies about tenfold, but the fundamental reasons why, and what can be done to help patients, remain largely unknown. A study published by an MIT-based team in the journal Nature provides some new answers as part of a broader line of research that has demonstrated APOE4’s consequences, cell-type-by-cell-type, in the brain.

The new study combines evidence from postmortem human brains, lab-based human brain cell cultures, and Alzheimer’s model mice to show that when people have one or two copies of APOE4, rather than the more common and risk-neutral APOE3 version, cells called oligodendrocytes mismanage cholesterol, failing to transport the fat molecule to wrap the long vine-like axon “wiring” that neurons project to make brain circuit connections. Deficiency of this fatty insulation, called myelin, may be a significant contributor to the pathology and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease because without proper myelination, communications among neurons are degraded.

Researchers use blockchain to increase electric grid resiliency

A team led by Raymond Borges Hink has developed a method using blockchain to protect communications between electronic devices in the electric grid, preventing cyberattacks and cascading blackouts.
Photo Credit: Genevieve Martin/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

Although blockchain is best known for securing digital currency payments, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory are using it to track a different kind of exchange: It’s the first time blockchain has ever been used to validate communication among devices on the electric grid.

The project is part of the ORNL-led Darknet initiative, funded by the DOE Office of Electricity, to secure the nation’s electricity infrastructure by shifting its communications to increasingly secure methods.

Cyber risks have increased with two-way communication between grid power electronics equipment and new edge devices ranging from solar panels to electric car chargers and intelligent home electronics. By providing a trust framework for communication among electrical devices, an ORNL research team led by Raymond Borges Hink is increasing the resilience of the electric grid. The team developed a framework to detect unusual activity, including data manipulation, spoofing and illicit changes to device settings. These activities could trigger cascading power outages as breakers are tripped by protection devices.

A growing trend of antibody evasion by new omicron subvariants

Scanning electron micrograph of a cell (purple) infected with the omicron strain of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles (orange), isolated from a patient sample and colorized.
Image Credit: NIAID/NIH

Three currently circulating omicron subvariants of SARS-CoV-2 – including two that currently make up almost 50% of reported COVID-19 infections in the U.S. – are better at evading vaccine- and infection-generated neutralizing antibodies than earlier versions of omicron, new research suggests.

Scientists tested neutralizing antibodies in blood serum samples from vaccinated and once-boosted or recently infected health care professionals against several subvariants in circulation. Three subvariants stood out for their resistance to the antibody immune response: BQ.1, BQ.1.1 and BA.2.75.2.

BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 are subvariants of the BA.4/5 omicron variants that have been dominating the last few months in the U.S., and each now accounts for about a quarter of current infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). BA.2.75.2, a mutant of the BA.2 omicron variant, was the best of all variants tested at evading neutralizing antibodies, but currently accounts for only a very small proportion of reported illnesses in the United States.

“In general, the subvariants BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 are much better compared to prior variants at evading the booster-mediated antibody response – the neutralizing antibody titers are clearly much lower. And those two variants are becoming dominant,” said Shan-Lu Liu, senior author the study and a virology professor in the Department of Veterinary Biosciences at The Ohio State University.

Researchers working to improve and simplify models for how PFAS flows through the ground

Will Gnesda demonstrates a PFAS flow lab experiment. Gnesda is graduate student in the UW–Madison Department of Geosciences and lead author of a new study modeling PFAS flow through the ground. The experiment is designed to build on the modeling study.
Photo Credit: Will Cushman

As a growing number of communities are forced to confront PFAS contamination in their groundwater, a key hurdle in addressing this harmful group of chemicals lies in unraveling how they move through a region of the environment called the unsaturated zone — a jumble of soil, rock and water sandwiched between the ground’s surface and the water table below.

A new study by University of Wisconsin­–Madison researchers offers a simplified new way of understanding PFAS movement through this zone.

PFAS is an abbreviation for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The synthetic chemicals have been used for decades in products ranging from nonstick cookware to firefighting foams. Some PFAS chemicals are associated with health risks and can persist in the environment indefinitely. Modeling their flow through the unsaturated zone — also known as the vadose zone — is important because the chemicals can linger there for years or decades, all the while slowly leaching into aquifers many communities use to provide drinking water.

Researchers find decrease in crucial trace element preceded ancient mass extinction

The research group collecting samples.
Photo Credit Ben Gill

A decline in the element molybdenum across the planet’s oceans preceded a significant extinction event approximately 183 million years ago, new research from Florida State University shows.

The decrease may have contributed to the mass extinction, in which up to 90% of species in the oceans perished, and it suggests that much more organic carbon was buried in the extinction event than had been previously estimated. The work is published in AGU Advances.

“This research tells us more about what was happening with molybdenum during this extinction event, but we also take it a step further,” said Jeremy Owens, an associate professor in FSU’s Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science and a paper co-author. “Our findings help us understand how much carbon was cycling through the system, and it’s much larger than previously thought — potentially on the scale of modern atmospheric and oceanic increases due to human activities.”

Previous research showed decreases in molybdenum during the main phase of the ancient mass extinction, but it was unclear how widespread the decrease was, how early it started or how long it lasted.

Webb Reveals an Exoplanet Atmosphere as Never Seen Before

The atmospheric composition of the hot gas giant exoplanet WASP-39 b has been revealed by the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope. This graphic shows four transmission spectra from three of Webb’s instruments operated in four instrument modes. All are plotted on a common scale extending from 0.5 to 5.5 microns.  A transmission spectrum is made by comparing starlight filtered through a planet’s atmosphere as it moves in front of the star, to the unfiltered starlight detected when the planet is beside the star. Each of the data points (white circles) on these graphs represents the amount of a specific wavelength of light that is blocked by the planet and absorbed by its atmosphere. Wavelengths that are preferentially absorbed by the atmosphere appear as peaks in the transmission spectrum.  The blue line is a best-fit model that takes into account the data, the known properties of WASP-39 b and its star (e.g., size, mass, temperature), and assumed characteristics of the atmosphere. Researchers can vary the parameters in the model – changing unknown characteristics like cloud height in the atmosphere and abundances of various gases – to get a better fit and further understand what the atmosphere is really like.  At upper left, data from NIRISS shows fingerprints of potassium (K), water (H2O), and carbon monoxide (CO). At upper right, data from NIRCam shows a prominent water signature. At lower left, data from NIRSpec indicates water, sulfur dioxide (SO2), carbon dioxide (CO2), and carbon monoxide (CO). At lower right, additional NIRSpec data reveals all of these molecules as well as sodium (Na). 
Full Size Original
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, J. Olmsted (STScI)

The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope just scored another first: a molecular and chemical portrait of a distant world’s skies. While Webb and other space telescopes, including the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, have previously revealed isolated ingredients of this heated planet’s atmosphere, the new readings provide a full menu of atoms, molecules, and even signs of active chemistry and clouds. The latest data also give a hint of how these clouds might look up close: broken up rather than as a single, uniform blanket over the planet.

The telescope’s array of highly sensitive instruments was trained on the atmosphere of WASP-39 b, a “hot Saturn” (a planet about as massive as Saturn but in an orbit tighter than Mercury) orbiting a star some 700 light-years away. This Saturn-sized exoplanet was one of the first examined by the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope when it began regular science operations. The results have excited the exoplanet science community. Webb’s exquisitely sensitive instruments have provided a profile of WASP-39 b’s atmospheric constituents and identified a plethora of contents, including water, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, sodium and potassium.

New study reveals high rates of iron deficiency in women during late-stage pregnancy

Photo Credit: Juan Encalada

Pregnant women may need to take more supplemental iron than current Health Canada guidelines recommend, after two UBC researchers found high rates of iron deficiency in a recent study.

The research investigated iron deficiency prevalence among 60 pregnant women in Metro Vancouver and found that over 80 per cent of them were likely iron-deficient in late pregnancy despite taking daily prenatal supplements that provided 100 per cent of the daily iron recommendation in pregnancy.

“This was much higher than I expected to see, which worries us because a woman who is iron-deficient in pregnancy is at higher risk for having an infant with iron deficiency,” said faculty of land and food systems professor Dr. Crystal Karakochuk (she/her), the study’s principal investigator.

Iron is an important nutrient during pregnancy and infancy as it supports optimal growth and development for the fetus and, eventually, the baby.

Kelsey Cochrane (she/her), a PhD candidate in the faculty of land and food systems and the study’s first author, explains that, for the first six months of their lives, babies rely on iron stores they built throughout gestation.

Limiting Global Warming Now Can Preserve Valuable Freshwater Resource

Spring snowmelt in the Ansel Adams Wilderness of the California Sierra Nevada. New research identifies how climate change could differentially alter spring snowmelt in iconic mountain landscapes of the American Cordillera.
Photo Credit: Alan Rhoades

Snowcapped mountains not only look majestic – They’re vital to a delicate ecosystem that has existed for tens of thousands of years. Mountain water runoff and snowmelt flows down to streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans – and today, around a quarter of the world depends on these natural “water towers” to replenish downstream reservoirs and groundwater aquifers for urban water supplies, agricultural irrigation, and ecosystem support.

But this valuable freshwater resource is in danger of disappearing. The planet is now around 1.1 degrees Celsius (1.9 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than pre-industrial levels, and mountain snowpacks are shrinking. Last year, a study co-led by Alan Rhoades and Erica Siirila-Woodburn, research scientists in the Earth and Environmental Sciences Area of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), found that if global warming continues along the high-emissions scenario, low-to-no-snow winters will become a regular occurrence in the mountain ranges of the western U.S. in 35 to 60 years.

Now, in a recent Nature Climate Change study, a research team led by Alan Rhoades found that if global warming reaches around 2.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, mountain ranges in the southern midlatitudes, the Andean region of Chile in particular, will face a low-to-no-snow future between the years 2046 and 2051 – or 20 years earlier than mountain ranges in the northern midlatitudes such as the Sierra Nevada or Rockies. (Low-to-no-snow occurs when the annual maximum water stored as snowpack is within the bottom 30% of historical conditions for a decade or more.)

Can a new technique for capturing ‘hot’ electrons make solar cells more efficient?

A scanning tunnelling microscope is used to study the dynamics of hot electrons through single molecule manipulation.
Photo Credit: Adrian Hooper

A new way of extracting quantitative information from state-of-the-art single molecule experiments has been developed by physicists at the University of Bath. Using this quantitative information, the researchers will be able to probe the ultra-fast physics of ‘hot’ electrons on surfaces – the same physics that governs and limits the efficacy of silicon-based solar cells.

Solar cells work by converting light into electrons, whose energy can be collected and harvested. A hot solar cell is a novel type of cell that converts sunlight to electricity more efficiently than conventional solar cells. However, the efficiency of this process is limited by the creation of energetic, or ‘hot’, electrons that are extremely short lived and lose most of their energy to their surrounding within the first few femtoseconds of their creation (1 femtosecond equals 1/1,000,000,000,000,000 of a second).

The ultra-short lifetime of hot electrons and the corresponding short distance they can travel mean probing and influencing the properties of hot electrons is experimentally challenging. To date, there have been a few techniques capable of circumventing these challenges, but none has proven capable of spatial resolution – meaning, they can’t tell us about the crucial connection between a material’s atomic structure and the dynamics of hot electrons within that material.

New process developed to extract high purity rare earth element oxides

Pennsylvania stream impacted by acid mine drainage.
Photo Credit: Pennsylvania State University

Critical minerals, including rare earth elements, are used to power devices like smartphones and computers and are essential to our nation’s economy and national security. Penn State’s Center for Critical Minerals has developed a new purification process that extracts mixed rare earth oxides from acid mine drainage and associated sludges at purities of 88.5%

Critical minerals (CMs), including the 17 rare earth elements (REEs), are used in many common household products like smartphones and computers, and in many commercial products such as electric vehicles, batteries and solar panels. Demand for them has skyrocketed, and they are classified as critical because they have high economic importance, high supply risk, and their absence would have significant consequences on the economic and national security of the United States.

Acid mine drainage (AMD) and associated solids and precipitates resulting from AMD treatment have been found to be viable sources of multiple CMs, including REEs, aluminum, cobalt and manganese.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has funded efforts to demonstrate both the technical feasibility and economic viability of extracting, separating and recovering REEs and CMs from U.S. coal and coal by-product sources, with the goal of achieving mixed rare earth oxides from coal-based resources with minimum purities of 75%.

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A growing trend of antibody evasion by new omicron subvariants

Scanning electron micrograph of a cell (purple) infected with the omicron strain of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles (orange), isolated from a pat...

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