. Scientific Frontline: 2023

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Searching for life with space dust

Space dust. This piece of interplanetary dust is thought to be part of the early solar system and was found in our atmosphere, demonstrating lightweight particles could survive atmospheric entry as they do not generate much heat from friction.
Photo Credit: 2023 NASA CC-0

Following enormous collisions, such as asteroid impacts, some amount of material from an impacted world may be ejected into space. This material can travel vast distances and for extremely long periods of time. In theory this material could contain direct or indirect signs of life from the host world, such as fossils of microorganisms. And this material could be detectable by humans in the near future, or even now.

When you hear the words vacuum and dust in a sentence, you may groan at the thought of having to do the housework. But in astronomy, these words have different connotations. Vacuum of course refers to the void of space. Dust, however, means diffuse solid material floating through space. It can be an annoyance to some astronomers as it may hinder their views of some distant object. Or dust could be a useful tool to help other astronomers learn about something distant without having to leave the safety of our own planet. Professor Tomonori Totani from the University of Tokyo’s Department of Astronomy has an idea for space dust that might sound like science fiction but actually warrants serious consideration.

Climate change affects greenhouse gas emissions from stream networks

Photo Credit: Mitchell Kmetz

Natural greenhouse gas emissions from streams and lakes are strongly linked to water discharge and temperature according to a new study led by Linköping University, Sweden. This knowledge is necessary to assess how man-made climate change is altering greenhouse emissions from natural landscapes and has large implications for climate change mitigation measures.

“The study is a big step forward towards increased understanding of the greenhouse gas fluxes in stream networks, providing potential to predict future fluxes", says David Bastviken, professor at Thematic Studies Environmental Change. Charlotte Perhammar

“The use of agriculture and forestry as carbon sinks is debated at the moment and the question is how effective such carbon sinks are for mitigating climate change. Our new study shows that with increased precipitation, a larger amount of carbon may be washed into streams and lakes and an increased share of this carbon also ends up in the atmosphere. Hence, landscape carbon sinks may become less effective in the future,” says David Bastviken, professor at the Department of Thematic Studies Environmental Change at Linköping University.

Tackling counterfeit seeds with “unclonable” labels

As a way to reduce seed counterfeiting, MIT researchers developed a silk-based tag that, when applied to seeds, provides a unique code that cannot be duplicated.
Photo Credit: Photograph courtesy of the researchers. Edited by Jose-Luis Olivares, MIT
(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Average crop yields in Africa are consistently far below those expected, and one significant reason is the prevalence of counterfeit seeds whose germination rates are far lower than those of the genuine ones. The World Bank estimates that as much as half of all seeds sold in some African countries are fake, which could help to account for crop production that is far below potential.

There have been many attempts to prevent this counterfeiting through tracking labels, but none have proved effective; among other issues, such labels have been vulnerable to hacking because of the deterministic nature of their encoding systems. But now, a team of MIT researchers has come up with a kind of tiny, biodegradable tag that can be applied directly to the seeds themselves, and that provides a unique randomly created code that cannot be duplicated.

The new system, which uses minuscule dots of silk-based material, each containing a unique combination of different chemical signatures, is described today in the journal Science Advances in a paper by MIT’s dean of engineering Anantha Chandrakasan, professor of civil and environmental engineering Benedetto Marelli, postdoc Hui Sun, and graduate student Saurav Maji.

New UBC water treatment zaps ‘forever chemicals’ for good


UBC researchers devised a unique adsorbing material that is capable of capturing all the PFAS present in the water supply.
Photo Credit: Mohseni lab

Engineers at the University of British Columbia have developed a new water treatment that removes “forever chemicals” from drinking water safely, efficiently – and for good.

“Think Brita filter, but a thousand times better,” says UBC chemical and biological engineering professor Dr. Madjid Mohseni, who developed the technology.

Forever chemicals, formally known as PFAS (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a large group of substances that make certain products non-stick or stain-resistant. There are more than 4,700 PFAS in use, mostly in raingear, non-stick cookware, stain repellents and firefighting foam. Research links these chemicals to a wide range of health problems including hormonal disruption, cardiovascular disease, developmental delays and cancer.

To remove PFAS from drinking water, Dr. Mohseni and his team devised a unique absorbing material that is capable of trapping and holding all the PFAS present in the water supply.

The PFAS are then destroyed using special electrochemical and photochemical techniques, also developed at the Mohseni lab and described in part in a paper published recently in Chemosphere.

How the brain's 'internal compass' works

New study reveals how the brain makes sense of changing environmental cues
Photo Credit: Albrecht Fietz

Scientists have gained new insights into the part of the brain that gives us a sense of direction, by tracking neural activity with the latest advances in brain imaging techniques. The findings shed light on how the brain orients itself in changing environments – and even the processes that can go wrong with degenerative diseases like dementia, that leave people feeling lost and confused.

“Neuroscience research has witnessed a technology revolution in the last decade allowing us to ask and answer questions that could only be dreamed of just years ago,” says Mark Brandon, an Associate Professor of psychiatry at McGill University and researcher at the Douglas Research Centre, who co-led the research with Zaki Ajabi, a former student at McGill University and now a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University.

Reading the brain's internal compass

To understand how visual information impacts the brain’s internal compass, the researchers exposed mice to a disorienting virtual world while recording the brain's neural activity. The team recorded the brain’s internal compass with unprecedented precision using the latest advances in neuronal recording technology.

Surprisingly simple explanation for alien comet ‘Oumuamua’s weird orbit

An artist’s depiction of the interstellar comet ‘Oumuamua, as it warmed up in its approach to the sun and outgassed hydrogen (white mist), which slightly altered its orbit. The comet, which is most likely pancake-shaped, is the first known object other than dust grains to visit our solar system from another star.
Image Credit: NASA, ESA and Joseph Olmsted and Frank Summers of STScI

In 2017, a mysterious comet dubbed ‘Oumuamua fired the imaginations of scientists and the public alike. It was the first known visitor from outside our solar system, it had no bright coma or dust tail, like most comets, and a peculiar shape — something between a cigar and a pancake — and its small size more befitted an asteroid than a comet.

But the fact that it was accelerating away from the sun in a way that astronomers could not explain perplexed scientists, leading some to suggest that it was an alien spaceship.

Now, a University of California, Berkeley, astrochemist and a Cornell University astronomer argue that the comet’s mysterious deviations from a hyperbolic path around the sun can be explained by a simple physical mechanism likely common among many icy comets: outgassing of hydrogen as the comet warmed up in the sunlight.

What made ‘Oumuamua different from every other well-studied comet in our solar system was its size: It was so small that its gravitational deflection around the sun was slightly altered by the tiny push created when hydrogen gas spurted out of the ice.

The oxygen-ion battery

Prof. Jürgen Fleig, Tobias Huber, Alexander Schmid (left to right)
Photo Credit: Courtesy of TU Wien

A new type of battery has been invented at TU Wien (Vienna): The oxygen-ion battery can be extremely durable, does not require rare elements and solves the problem of fire hazards.

Lithium-ion batteries are ubiquitous today - from electric cars to smartphones. But that does not mean that they are the best solution for all areas of application. TU Wien has now succeeded in developing an oxygen-ion battery that has some important advantages. Although it does not allow for quite as high energy densities as the lithium-ion battery, its storage capacity does not decrease irrevocably over time: it can be regenerated and thus may enable an extremely long service life.

In addition, oxygen-ion batteries can be produced without rare elements and are made of incombustible materials. A patent application for the new battery idea has already been filed together with cooperation partners from Spain. The oxygen-ion battery could be an excellent solution for large energy storage systems, for example to store electrical energy from renewable sources. 

Pregnant women diagnosed with cancer don’t get the emotional support they need due to research gap

Photo Credit: Lucas Mendes

Support for pregnant women diagnosed with cancer is limited because of insufficient research into the specific emotional consequences and needs associated with a diagnosis at this time, according to a new report from the University of Surrey.

Researchers have also found that pregnant women diagnosed with cancer often delay seeking medical help because they believe their symptoms are due to natural changes in their body.

In the most comprehensive study of its kind, researchers from Surrey, in collaboration with the charity Mummy’s Star, reviewed causes of psychosocial issues (distress, depression, and anxiety) affecting pregnant women diagnosed with cancer and what supportive care is available to them and their partners.

Hunting Venus 2.0: Scientists sharpen their sights

Composite view of Venus consisting of two images from Japan's Akatsuki mission, taken at two different distances.
Image Credit: JAXA / ISAS / DARTS / Damia Bouic

With the first paper compiling all known information about planets like Venus beyond our solar system, scientists are the closest they’ve ever been to finding an analog of Earth’s “twin.” 

If they succeed in locating one, it could reveal valuable insights into Earth’s future, and our risk of developing a runaway greenhouse climate as Venus did. 

Scientists who wrote the paper began with more than 300 known terrestrial planets orbiting other stars, called exoplanets. They whittled the list down to the five most likely to resemble Venus in terms of their radii, masses, densities, the shapes of their orbits, and perhaps most significantly, distances from their stars. 

The paper, published in The Astronomical Journal, also ranked the most Venus-like planets in terms of the brightness of the stars they orbit, which increases the likelihood that the James Webb Space Telescope would get more informative signals regarding the composition of their atmospheres.

Emory researchers shine light on how stress impacts women's hearts

Stress has significant impact on women's heart health, research has found
Photo Credit: Engin Akyurt

Right in the middle of women’s history month, it’s staggering to think back on how recently women and their hearts began to be taken seriously by the scientific community. As legendary Emory cardiologist Nanette Wenger, MD, wrote in a 2016 American College of Cardiology article: “Although heart disease is the number one killer of women, cardiovascular disease was really thought of as a man’s disease until the last few decades.” 

In the not-so-distant past, Wenger added, “Women who came into the emergency room with chest pains were told they had a stomach problem or that they were imagining the pain and had emotional problems, so they were sent home.” 

Thankfully, following down the path first carved out by pioneers like Wenger, there are researchers and physicians like Viola Vaccarino, MD, PhD, who have continued to build a data-backed case for the fact that women are very much not just making things up. 

Vaccarino, the Wilton Looney Professor of Cardiovascular Research at Rollins’ Department of Epidemiology and faculty member in the Division of Cardiology, is the principal investigator of a prospective study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) looking at sex differences in bodily responses to mental stress and subsequent cardiovascular events among young and middle-aged patients who survived a heart attack at Emory University.  

Shining a light into the ‘‘black box’’ of AI

With no insight into how Al algorithms work or what influences their results, the “black box” nature of AI technology raises important questions over trustworthiness.
Illustration Credit: Gerd Altmann

An international team led by UNIGE, HUG and NUS has developed an innovative method for evaluating AI interpretability methods, with the aim of deciphering the basis of AI reasoning and possible biases.

 Researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), the Geneva University Hospitals (HUG), and the National University of Singapore (NUS) have developed a novel method for evaluating the interpretability of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, opening the door to greater transparency and trust in AI-driven diagnostic and predictive tools. The innovative approach sheds light on the opaque workings of so-called "black box" AI algorithms, helping users understand what influences the results produced by AI and whether the results can be trusted. This is especially important in situations that have significant impacts on the health and lives of people, such as using AI in medical applications. The research carries particular relevance in the context of the forthcoming European Union Artificial Intelligence Act which aims to regulate the development and use of AI within the EU. The findings have recently been published in the journal Nature Machine Intelligence.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Researchers develop a universal oral COVID-19 vaccine that prevents severe illness in hamsters

Illustration Credit: PIRO

A UCLA-led team has developed an inexpensive, universal oral COVID-19 vaccine that prevented severe respiratory illness and weight loss when tested in hamsters, which are naturally susceptible to SARS-CoV-2. It proved as effective as vaccines administered by injection or intranasally in the research.

If ultimately approved for human use, it could be a weapon against all COVID-19 variants and boost uptake, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, and among those with an aversion to needles.

The study is published in the peer-reviewed journal Microbiology Spectrum.

The oral vaccine is based primarily on the nucleocapsid protein, which is the most abundantly expressed of the virus’s four major structural proteins and evolves at a much slower rate than the frequently mutating spike protein. The vaccine utilizes a highly weakened bacterium to produce the nucleocapsid protein in infected cells as well as the membrane protein, which is another highly abundant viral structural protein.

Recovery of endangered sunflower sea stars may play key role in restoring devastated submarine forests

Sunflower sea stars, such as the one that appears in the foreground, could help keep purple sea urchins in check, according to new research from Florida State University Assistant Professor Daniel Okamoto and colleagues published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Photo Credit: Lynn Lee

Scientists working to understand the decimation of kelp forests on the Pacific Coast have found that the endangered sunflower sea star plays a vital role in maintaining the region’s ecological balance and that sea star recovery efforts could potentially help restore kelp forests as well.

The multi-institution team, which includes Florida State University Assistant Professor of Biological Science Daniel Okamoto, has published a new study showing that a healthy sea star population could keep purple sea urchins — which have contributed to the destruction of kelp forests — in check.

Their work is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“Our work is focused on understanding what factors maintain healthy kelp forests as well as healthy urchin populations,” Okamoto said. “That is, what scenarios lead to collapse versus coexistence of these important species.”

‘Neutron camera’ method captures atomic-scale activity in a flash

Artist’s conceptual drawing illustrates the novel energy filtering technique using neutrons that enabled researchers at ORNL to freeze moving germanium telluride atoms in an unblurred image. The images offered key insights into how the material produces its outstanding thermoelectric performance.
Illustration Credit: Jill Hemman/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

Scientists have long sought to better understand the “local structure” of materials, meaning the arrangement and activities of the neighboring particles around each atom. In crystals, which are used in electronics and many other applications, most of the atoms form highly ordered lattice patterns that repeat. But not all atoms conform to the pattern.

When some atoms take up local arrangements that are different than that implied by the overall structure of the crystal, studying the local structure gets more difficult — especially when the atoms are moving. In fact, the inability to clearly see these local effects means researchers are often not aware they can happen.

Now researchers using the Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have developed a new method of studying the local structure of materials in detail and in real time.

The team developed a variable-shutter pair distribution function, or vsPDF, technique in which neutrons function like a camera but at timescales that are a trillion times faster.

Uracil found in Ryugu samples

A conceptual image for sampling materials on the asteroid Ryugu containing uracil and niacin by the Hayabusa2 spacecraft
Image Credit: NASA Goddard/JAXA/Dan Gallagher

Samples from the asteroid Ryugu collected by the Hayabusa2 mission contain nitrogenous organic compounds, including the nucleobase uracil, which is a part of RNA.

Researchers have analyzed samples of asteroid Ryugu collected by the Japanese Space Agency’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft and found uracil—one of the informational units that make up RNA, the molecules that contain the instructions for how to build and operate living organisms. Nicotinic acid, also known as Vitamin B3 or niacin, which is an important cofactor for metabolism in living organisms, was also detected in the same samples. 

This discovery by an international team, led by Associate Professor Yasuhiro Oba at Hokkaido University, adds to the evidence that important building blocks for life are created in space and could have been delivered to Earth by meteorites. The findings were published in the journal Nature Communications.

“Scientists have previously found nucleobases and vitamins in certain carbon-rich meteorites, but there was always the question of contamination by exposure to the Earth’s environment,” Oba explained. “Since the Hayabusa2 spacecraft collected two samples directly from asteroid Ryugu and delivered them to Earth in sealed capsules, contamination can be ruled out.”

Purifying water with the power of the sun

A Notre Dame researcher’s invention could improve access to clean water for some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

 “Today, the big challenges are information technology and energy,” says László Forró, the Aurora and Thomas Marquez Professor of Physics of Complex Quantum Matter in the University of Notre Dame's Department of Physics and Astronomy. “But tomorrow, the big challenge will be water.”

The World Health Organization reports that today nearly 2 billion people regularly consume contaminated water. It estimates that by 2025 half of the world’s population could be facing water scarcity. Many of those affected are in rural areas that lack the infrastructure required to run modern water purifiers, while many others are in areas affected by war, natural disasters or pollution. There is a greater need than ever for innovative ways to extend water access to those living without power, sanitation and transportation networks.

Recently, Forró's lab developed just such a solution. They created a water purifier, described in the Nature partner journal Clean Water, that is powered by a resource nearly all of the world’s most vulnerable people have access to: the sun.

New method to identify and explore functional proteoforms and their associations with drug response in childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia

Rozbeh Jafari, senior researcher at the Department of Oncology-Pathology.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Rozbeh Jafari

Researchers at the Department of Oncology-Pathology have together with researchers from The European Molecular Biology Laboratory published a paper in Nature Chemical Biology where they developed a method that can identify important differences between proteins in an unbiased way.

The paper examines melting behavior of proteins to define cases where portions of the protein melt differently. In these cases, the method can identify that the protein is likely to exist in multiple physical forms, called proteoforms. Therefore, a new perspective on variations between proteins can be interpreted. The method is applied in the context of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia cell lines, and is used to identify specific proteoforms associated with disease biology and drug response. This disease was selected as a proof of principle due to the need for improved precision therapies for patients.

First results from ESO telescopes on the aftermath of DART’s asteroid impact

This series of images, taken with the MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope, shows the evolution of the cloud of debris that was ejected when NASA’s DART spacecraft collided with the asteroid Dimorphos.  The first image was taken on 26 September 2022, just before the impact, and the last one was taken almost one month later on 25 October. Over this period several structures developed: clumps, spirals, and a long tail of dust pushed away by the Sun’s radiation. The white arrow in each panel marks the direction of the Sun.  Dimorphos orbits a larger asteroid called Didymos. The white horizontal bar corresponds to 500 kilometers, but the asteroids are only 1 kilometer apart, so they can’t be discerned in these images.  The background streaks seen here are due to the apparent movement of the background stars during the observations while the telescope was tracking the asteroid pair. 
Full Size Image
Image Credit: ESO/Opitom et al.

Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), two teams of astronomers have observed the aftermath of the collision between NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft and the asteroid Dimorphos. The controlled impact was a test of planetary defense, but also gave astronomers a unique opportunity to learn more about the asteroid’s composition from the expelled material.

On 26 September 2022 the DART spacecraft collided with the asteroid Dimorphos in a controlled test of our asteroid deflection capabilities. The impact took place 11 million kilometers away from Earth, close enough to be observed in detail with many telescopes. All four 8.2-metre telescopes of ESO’s VLT in Chile observed the aftermath of the impact, and the first results of these VLT observations have now been published in two papers.

”Asteroids are some of the most basic relics of what all the planets and moons in our Solar System were created from,” says Brian Murphy, a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh in the UK and co-author of one of the studies. Studying the cloud of material ejected after DART’s impact can therefore tell us about how our Solar System formed. “Impacts between asteroids happen naturally, but you never know it in advance,” continues Cyrielle Opitom, an astronomer also at the University of Edinburgh and lead author of one of the articles. “DART is a really great opportunity to study a controlled impact, almost as in a laboratory.”

Surprise from the quantum world

The ferromagnetism of the topological isolator manganese-bismuth-telluride only arises when the atomic structure fails. To do this, some manganese atoms (green) must be moved out of their original position (second green atomic plane from above). Only when there are manganese atoms in all levels with bismuth atoms (gray) is the magnetic orientation of the manganese atoms so contagious that ferromagnetism arises.
Illustration Credit: Jörg Bandmann / ct.qmat

The Würzburg-Dresden Cluster of Excellence ct.qmat has designed a ferromagnetic topological isolator - a milestone on the way to energy-efficient quantum technologies.

As early as 2019, an international research team around the material chemist Anna Isaeva - then junior professor at the Würzburg-Dresden Cluster of Excellence ct.qmat - complexity and topology in quantum materials - succeeded in producing the first antiferromagnetic topological isolator manganese-bismuth-tilluride. (Mn2Te4) a little sensation.

This miracle material no longer needs a strong external magnetic field - it brings its own inner magnetic field with it. This offers the opportunity for new types of electronic components that magnetically encode information and transport it on the surface without resistance. This could make information technology more sustainable and energy-saving in the future, for example. Since then, researchers worldwide have been analyzing different facets of this promising quantum material.

Researchers create exotic quantum light states

The graphic symbolizes how photons are coupled after they have been scattered on an artificial atom - a so-called quantum dot - in a cavity resonator.
Illustration Credit: © University of Basel

Coupled light particles could advance both medical imaging and quantum computing.

Light particles, also called photons, do not normally interact with each other. An international research team has now been able to show for the first time that a few photons can be manipulated in a controlled manner and brought into interaction. This opens up new opportunities in the development of quantum technologies. The results are described by a team from the University of Basel, the University of Sydney and the Ruhr University Bochum in the journal Nature Physics, published online on the 20th. March 2023.

Measure distances and transmit information using light

Photons do not interact with each other in a vacuum; they can fly through each other undisturbed. This makes them valuable for data transfer because information can be transported almost trouble-free at the speed of light. Light is helpful not only for data transmission, but also in certain measuring instruments, because it can be used to determine tiny distances, for example in medical imaging. The sensitivity of such measuring instruments depends on the average number of photons in the system.

Iron Nanoparticles Neurotoxic Even at Low Doses

Scientists discovered this by studying the brains of rats
Photo Credit: Aleksandr Gusev

Iron oxide nanoparticles, which pollute the air, are toxic to the central nervous system even in low doses. To find out, Ural scientists injected rats intranasally with suspensions containing iron oxide particles and studied functional and structural changes in their brains. The data may help to develop measures to prevent neurodegenerative diseases. The study was conducted at the Ekaterinburg Medical Research Centre of Rospotrebnadzor, and the analysis and synthesis of the data was carried out as part of the Priority 2030 program. The results have been published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.

"Many technological processes can produce nanoparticles in the metallurgical industry. Inhalation of nanoparticles is harmful to human health, because even at low concentrations they can penetrate directly into the brain: through the nasal cavity, through the olfactory tract, directly into various brain structures", - says Ilzira Minigalieva, Doctor of Biological Sciences and Head of the UrFU Laboratory "Stochastic transport of nanoparticles in a living organism".

To understand exactly how low doses of iron oxide affect the central nervous system, scientists conducted an experiment on rats and injected each rat intranasally with a suspension containing 0.45 mg of nanoparticles. This amount was not chosen at random because the main purpose of the study was to see if such low doses could have a neurotoxic effect.

UCLA-led study uses base editing to correct mutation that causes rare immune deficiency

Image Credit: Sangharsh Lohakare

A new UCLA-led study suggests that advanced genome editing technology could be used as a one-time treatment for the rare and deadly genetic disease CD3 delta severe combined immunodeficiency.

The condition, also known as CD3 delta SCID, is caused by a mutation in the CD3D gene, which prevents the production of the CD3 delta protein that is needed for the normal development of T cells from blood stem cells.

Without T cells, babies born with CD3 delta SCID are unable to fight off infections and, if untreated, often die within the first two years of life. Currently, bone marrow transplant is the only available treatment, but the procedure carries significant risks.

In a study published in Cell, the researchers showed that a new genome editing technique called base editing can correct the mutation that causes CD3 delta SCID in blood stem cells and restore their ability to produce T cells.

The potential therapy is the result of a collaboration between the laboratories of Dr. Donald Kohn and Dr. Gay Crooks, both members of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA and senior authors of the study.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Humans are Leading Source of Death for California Mountain Lions, Despite Hunting Protections

A female mountain lion (P-19) near Malibu Creek State Park in March 2014.
Photo Credit: National Park Service

Mountain lions are protected from hunting in California by a law passed by popular vote in 1990. However, a team of researchers working across the state found that human-caused mortality—primarily involving conflict with humans over livestock and collisions with vehicles—was more common than natural death for this protected large carnivore.

The study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was led by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, along with a broad team of coauthoring California researchers, including from the University of California, Davis.

Most research on mountain lions is conducted at relatively small scales, which limits understanding of mortality caused by humans across the large areas they roam. To address this, scientists from multiple universities, government agencies, and private organizations teamed up to better understand human-caused mortality for mountain lions across the entire state of California.

The team tracked almost 600 mountain lions in 23 different study areas, including the Sierra Nevada mountains, the northern redwoods, wine country north of San Francisco, the city of Los Angeles, and many other areas of the state.

Artificial light at night aids caterpillar predators

Under moderate levels of artificial light, predators have more opportunity to attack caterpillars.
Photo Credit: John Deitsch/Cornell University  

To save caterpillars, turn off your porch light.

Moderate levels of artificial light at night – like the fixture illuminating your backyard – bring more caterpillar predators and reduce the chance that these lepidoptera larvae grow up to become moths and serve as food for larger prey.

This new Cornell research was published March 8 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Scientists can place clay models that look like caterpillars in the woods. Due to the soft clay, the researchers can examine the marks and get a sense of how often larvae are attacked by predators.

The Cornell scientists placed more than 550 soft clay caterpillar models – lifelike replicas – in a forest setting to ascertain how the mockups were attacked and hunted by predators, compared to a control group.

Lack of canine COVID-19 data fuels persisting concerns over dog-human interactions

A research literature review by Purdue University researchers published in the journal Animals highlights unanswered questions about the COVID-19 virus dynamics between dogs and humans.
 Photo Credit: Purdue Agricultural Communications photo/Tom Campbell

Early COVID-19 pandemic suspicions about dogs’ resistance to the disease have given way to a long-haul clinical data gap as new variants of the virus have emerged.

“It is not confirmed that the virus can be transmitted from one dog to another dog or from dogs to humans,” said veterinarian Mohamed Kamel, a postdoctoral fellow at Purdue University.

During the pandemic’s early days, dogs seemed resistant to the coronavirus, showing little evidence of infection or transmission, said Mohit Verma, assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering and Purdue’s Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering. “As the virus evolved, or maybe the surveillance technology advanced, there seem to be more instances of potentially asymptomatic dogs.”

These are among the findings that Kamel, Verma and two co-authors summarized in a research literature review “Interactions Between Humans and Dogs in the COVID-19 Pandemic.” The summary, with recent updates and future perspectives, recently appeared in a special issue of the journal Animals on Susceptibility of Animals to SARS-CoV-2.

Can synthetic polymers replace the body’s natural proteins?

Biological fluids are made up of hundreds or thousands of different proteins (represented by space filling models above) that evolved to work together efficiently but flexibly. UC Berkeley polymer scientists are trying to create artificial fluids composed of random heteropolymers (threads inside spheres) with much less complexity, but which mimic many of the properties of the natural proteins (right), such as stabilizing fragile molecular markers.
Illustration Credit: Zhiyuan Ruan, Ting Xu lab

Most life on Earth is based on polymers of 20 amino acids that have evolved into hundreds of thousands of different, highly specialized proteins. They catalyze reactions, form backbone and muscle and even generate movement.

But is all that variety necessary? Could biology work just as well with fewer building blocks and simpler polymers?

Ting Xu, a University of California, Berkeley, polymer scientist, thinks so. She has developed a way to mimic specific functions of natural proteins using only two, four or six different building blocks — ones currently used in plastics — and found that these alternative polymers work as well as the real protein and are a lot easier to synthesize than trying to replicate nature’s design.

As proof of concept, she used her design method, which is based on machine learning or artificial intelligence, to synthesize polymers that mimic blood plasma. The artificial biological fluid kept natural protein biomarkers intact without refrigeration and even made the natural proteins more resistant to high temperatures — an improvement over real blood plasma.

Ultrafast beam-steering breakthrough at Sandia Labs

As a red beam of light is reflected in an arch, Prasad Iyer, right, and Igal Brener demonstrate optical hardware used for beam steering experiments at Sandia National Laboratories’ Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies.
Photo Credit: Craig Fritz

In a major breakthrough in the fields of nanophotonics and ultrafast optics, a Sandia National Laboratories research team has demonstrated the ability to dynamically steer light pulses from conventional, so-called incoherent light sources.

This ability to control light using a semiconductor device could allow low-power, relatively inexpensive sources like LEDs or flashlight bulbs to replace more powerful laser beams in new technologies such as holograms, remote sensing, self-driving cars and high-speed communication.

“What we’ve done is show that steering a beam of incoherent light can be done,” said Prasad Iyer, Sandia scientist and lead author of the research, which was reported in the current issue of the journal Nature Photonics

Incoherent light is emitted by many common sources, such as an old-fashioned incandescent light bulb or an LED bulb. This light is called incoherent since the photons are emitted with different wavelengths and in a random fashion. A beam of light from a laser, however, does not spread and diffuse because the photons have the same frequency and phase and is thus called coherent light.

Researchers Separate Cotton from Polyester in Blended Fabric

A cotton knit fabric dyed blue and washed 10 times to simulate worn garments is enzymatically degraded to a slurry of fine fibers and "blue glucose" syrup that are separated by filtration - both of these separated fractions have potential recycle value.
Photo Credit: Sonja Salmon.

In a new study, North Carolina State University researchers found they could separate blended cotton and polyester fabric using enzymes – nature’s tools for speeding chemical reactions. Ultimately, they hope their findings will lead to a more efficient way to recycle the fabric’s component materials, thereby reducing textile waste.

However, they also found the process needs more steps if the blended fabric was dyed or treated with chemicals that increase wrinkle resistance.

“We can separate all of the cotton out of a cotton-polyester blend, meaning now we have clean polyester that can be recycled,” said the study’s corresponding author Sonja Salmon, associate professor of textile engineering, chemistry and science at NC State. “In a landfill, the polyester is not going to degrade, and the cotton might take several months or more to break down. Using our method, we can separate the cotton from polyester in less than 48 hours.”

Researchers create breakthrough spintronics manufacturing process that could revolutionize the electronics industry

University of Minnesota researchers, along with a team at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), developed a breakthrough process for making spintronic devices that has the potential to become the new industry standard for semiconductors chips that are essential to computers, smartphones and many other electronics. The new process will allow for faster, more efficient spintronics devices that can be scaled down smaller than ever before. ​​

The paper is published in Advanced Functional Materials.

“We believe we’ve found a material and a device that will allow the semiconducting industry to move forward with more opportunities in spintronics that weren’t there before for memory and computing applications,” said Jian-Ping Wang, senior author of the paper and professor in the College of Science and Engineering. 

The semiconductor industry is constantly trying to develop smaller and smaller chips that can maximize energy efficiency, computing speed and data storage capacity in electronic devices. Spintronic devices, which leverage the spin of electrons rather than the electrical charge to store data, provide a promising and more efficient alternative to traditional transistor-based chips. These materials also have the potential to be non-volatile, meaning they require less power and can store memory and perform computing even after you remove their power source.

Underactive immune response may explain obesity link to COVID-19 severity

Intensive care unit at Addenbrooke's Hospital 
Photo Credit: Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

Scientists at the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease (CITIID) and Wellcome Sanger Institute showed that following SARS-CoV-2 infection, cells in the lining of the lungs, nasal cells, and immune cells in the blood show a blunted inflammatory response in obese patients, producing suboptimal levels of molecules needed to fight the infection.

Since the start of the pandemic, there have been almost 760 million confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2 infection, with almost 6.9 million deaths. While some people have very mild – or even no – symptoms, others have much more severe symptoms, including acute respiratory distress syndrome requiring ventilator support.

One of the major risk factors for severe COVID-19 is obesity, which is defined as a body mass index (BMI) of over 30. More than 40% of US adults and 28% of adults in England are classed as obese.

While this link has been shown in numerous epidemiological studies, until now, it has not been clear why obesity should increase an individual’s risk of severe COVID-19. One possible explanation was thought to be that obesity is linked to inflammation: studies have shown that people who are obese already have higher levels of key molecules associated with inflammation in their blood. Could an overactive inflammatory response explain the connection?

Upgraded tumor model optimizes search for cancer therapies

Study co-authors (from left) Caleb Bashor, Antonios Mikos and Letitia Chim.
Photo Credit: Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University

Tumor cells won’t show their true selves in a petri dish, isolated from other cells.

To find out how they really behave, Rice University researchers developed an upgraded tumor model that houses osteosarcoma cells beside immune cells known as macrophages inside a three-dimensional structure engineered to mimic bone. Using the model, bioengineer Antonios Mikos and collaborators found that the body’s immune response can make tumor cells more resistant to chemotherapy.

The study, which is published in Biomaterials, sheds light on why some cancer drugs that appear to be good candidates in the lab do not perform as well as expected in actual patients. It underscores weaknesses in traditional tumor modeling and points the way toward more effective cancer therapies.

“Existing tumor models used to test drug performance do not mimic the actual environment in the human body closely enough,” Mikos said. “We are trying to create an environment for the experiment that is closer to what is happening in the organism of actual patients. Having such an environment will allow us to test multiple drugs in a time- and cost-effective way.”

Widespread species are gaining even more ground, new study shows

The cabezon Scorpaenichthys marmoratus
Photo Credit: Steve Lonhart (SIMoN / MBNMS)

Widespread animal and plant species benefit from human impacts on nature and can spread even further. In contrast, species with a small range retreat even further. This is shown in a new study by the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig and the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU), which was published in "Nature Communications". The team analyzed data from over 200 studies and was able to show that protected areas can mitigate some of the effects of biodiversity change and slow down the systematic decline of less common species.

Every living species on the planet has its own unique geographic range, with some species occurring over large parts of the globe, while others inhabiting only a few select areas. But does the range size of a species influence how it responds to human activities and changes in the number of sites it occupies over time?

A team led by researchers from iDiv and MLU set out to evaluate the connection between the size of a species’ range and the changes in their regional occupancy over time. To do so, the researchers used an extensive dataset of 238 studies that monitored plant and animal species assemblages from across many sites for 10-90 years. From these time series, they were able to determine which species were increasing in the numbers of sites they occupied through time, which were decreasing in their site occupancy, and which stayed the same. They then wanted to compare the trends of species to the size of their ranges to see if there was a connection. To determine the range sizes of nearly 19,000 species from across the tree-of-life that were identified in the time series, they used data from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), which includes data on the occurrences of species from across the world, including data collected from popular smartphone apps like iNaturalist and eBird.

Discovering the Unexplored: Synthesis and Analysis of a New Orthorhombic Sn3O4 Polymorph

Tuning the reaction conditions such as degree of filling and gas composition can have a major impact on the products obtained by hydrothermal synthesis obtained. This was clearly represented in the new Tokyo Tech study where they synthesized an unreported orthorhombic polymorph of Sn3O4 instead of conventional monoclinic phase by optimizing the conditions inside the hydrothermal reactor. The orthorhombic Sn3O4 has a narrower bandgap than the conventional one, thus making it useful as a visible-light active photocatalyst.

Oxides of tin (SnxOy) are found in many of modern technologies due to their versatile nature. The multivalent oxidation states of tin—Sn2+ and Sn4+—impart tin oxides with electroconductivity, photocatalysis, and various functional properties. For the photocatalysis application of tin oxides, a narrow bandgap for visible-light absorption is indispensable to utilize a wide range of solar energy. Hence, the discovery of new SnxOy could help improve the efficiency of many environmentally significant photocatalytic reactions like water splitting and CO2 reduction. While there are many theoretical and computational predictions of the new stable SnxOy, there still remains a need for experimental studies that can turn the predictions into reality.

Sculpting quantum materials for the electronics of the future

Artistic view. Curvature of the space fabric due to the superposition of spin and orbital states at the interface between lanthanum aluminate (LaAlO3) and strontium titanate (SrTiO3).
Illustration Credit: © Xavier Ravinet – UNIGE

An international team led by the UNIGE has developed a quantum material in which the fabric of space inhabited by electrons can be curved on-demand.

The development of new information and communication technologies poses new challenges to scientists and industry. Designing new quantum materials - whose exceptional properties stem from quantum physics - is the most promising way to meet these challenges. An international team led by the University of Geneva (UNIGE) and including researchers from the universities of Salerno, Utrecht and Delft, has designed a material in which the dynamics of electrons can be controlled by curving the fabric of space in which they evolve. These properties are of interest for next-generation electronic devices, including the optoelectronics of the future. These results can be found in the journal Nature Materials.

The telecommunications of the future will require new, extremely powerful electronic devices. These must be capable of processing electromagnetic signals at unprecedented speeds, in the picosecond range, i.e. one thousandth of a billionth of a second. This is unthinkable with current semiconductor materials, such as silicon, which is widely used in the electronic components of our telephones, computers and game consoles. To achieve this, scientists and industry are focusing on the design of new quantum materials.

First detection of neutrinos made at a particle collider

The FASER (Forward Search Experiment) detector in the tunnel of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva.
Photo Credit: © 2021-2023 CERN

Neutrinos are fundamental particles that played an important role in the early phase of the universe. They are key to learning more about the fundamental laws of nature, including how particles acquire mass and why there is more matter than antimatter. Despite being among the most abundant particles in the universe they are very difficult to detect because they pass through matter with almost no interaction. They are therefore often called “ghost particles”.

Neutrinos have been known for several decades and were very important for establishing the standard model of particle physics. But most neutrinos studied by physicists so far have been low-energy neutrinos. Previously, no neutrino produced at a particle collider had ever been detected by an experiment. Now, an international team including researchers from the Laboratory for High Energy Physics (LHEP) of the University of Bern has succeeded in doing just that. Using the FASER particle detector at CERN in Geneva, the team was able to detect very high energy neutrinos produced by brand a new source: CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The international FASER collaboration announced this result on March 19 at the MORIOND EW conference in La Thuile, Italy.

Parasites alter likelihood of fish being caught by anglers

Itsuro Koizumi (second from left) and Ryota Hasegawa (first from right), authors of the paper, with Taro Matsuda of Setsunan University (center), and Masashiro Naka (first from left) and Chiharu Furusawa (second from right) of the Koizumi lab
Photo Credit: Itsuro Koizumi

Parasitic infections in salmonid fish can increase or decrease their vulnerability to angling, depending on their body condition.

Angling, a type of fishing, is a popular pastime across the world, and is known to be 40,000 years old. Angling usually takes place in natural bodies of water, which may have populations of wild fish, or be stocked with cultured fish. Fish caught by angling may either be consumed, or may be immediately released.

Parasites are very common in nature, found everywhere that their hosts are found. Parasites are known to alter the susceptibility of fish to predators. Angling can be considered predation of fish; however, there has been almost no in-depth research on how parasites affect the susceptibility of fish to angling.

Associate Professor Itsuro Koizumi at the Faculty of Environmental Earth Science, Hokkaido University, and graduate student Ryota Hasegawa have investigated how a mouth and gill parasite of the whitespotted char, a salmonid fish, affects its vulnerability to angling. Their findings were published in the journal The Science of Nature.

New way to study molecular drivers of cancer

Ch4 kinases.

Clearer understanding about the markers and drivers of cancer cell proliferation has emerged from research that identifies new opportunities to overcome convergence with complex enzymes, known as kinases.

The work paves the way for new approaches to study the molecular drivers of disease states such as cancer.

Kinases are a specific family of proteins that add phosphates to other molecules – a process called phosphorylation, which can change the function of their substrates (target proteins). In humans, more than 500 kinases phosphorylate approximately 15% of all proteins. However, more than one kinase can phosphorylate the same substrate, and this can occur at the same or different sites. This is known as convergence, and can often make it difficult to study a specific kinase or substrate, as the activity of multiple kinases can hamper analysis.

Understanding the complex kinase network is important, as dysregulation of these proteins can drive disease, such as the survival and spread of cancer cells or their resistance to therapeutics.

While most kinase research has tended to focus on characterizing phosphorylation networks between kinases and their substrates, researchers in the Janovjak Lab at Flinders University’s College of Medicine and Public Health have taken a different tack by analyzing how common convergence is across all human kinases, and using these insights to dissect it experimentally.

Friday, March 17, 2023

New study counts the environmental cost of managing knotweed

Invasive Knotweed
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Swansea University

New Swansea University research has looked at the long-term environmental impact of different methods to control Japanese knotweed.

The invasive species has been calculated to cost more than £165 million to manage every year in the UK alone. Its presence can blight property purchases for households across the country.

This has led to the development of different ways of trying to control it but with sustainability becoming increasingly important, understanding the effect of these management methods is vital.

A new study, led by biosciences lecturer Dr Sophie Hocking and looking at the entire life cycle and long-term impacts of different management approaches, has just been published in online journal Scientific Reports.

Dr Hocking said: “In light of the current climate emergency and biodiversity crisis, invasive species management and sustainability have never been so important.

New Study Provides First Comprehensive Look at Oxygen Loss on Coral Reefs

Coral reefs at a study site off Taiping Island, South China Sea.
Photo Credit: Yi Bei Liang

Scripps Oceanography scientists and collaborators provide first-of-its-kind assessment of hypoxia, or low oxygen levels, across 32 coral reef sites around the world

A new study is providing an unprecedented examination of oxygen loss on coral reefs around the globe under ocean warming. Led by researchers at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a large team of national and international colleagues, the study captures the current state of hypoxia—or low oxygen levels—at 32 different sites, and reveals that hypoxia is already pervasive on many reefs.

The overall decline of oxygen content across the world’s oceans and coastal waters—a process known as ocean deoxygenation—has been well documented, but hypoxia on coral reefs has been relatively underexplored. Oxygen loss in the ocean is predicted to threaten marine ecosystems globally, though more research is needed to better understand the biological impacts on tropical corals and coral reefs.

The study, published March 16 in the journal Nature Climate Change, is the first to document oxygen conditions on coral reef ecosystems at this scale.

Study Sheds Light on Ancient Microbial Dark Matter

Photo Credit: Apex 360

Bacteria are literally everywhere – in oceans, in soils, in extreme environments like hot springs, and even alongside and inside other organisms including humans. They’re nearly invisible, yet they play a big role in almost every facet of life on Earth.

Despite their abundance, surprisingly little is known about many microorganisms that have existed for billions of years.

This includes an entire lineage of nano-sized bacteria dubbed Omnitrophota. These bacteria, first discovered based on short fragments of DNA just 25 years ago, are common in many environments around the world but have been poorly understood. Until now.

An international research team produced the first large-scale analysis of more than 400 newly sequenced and existing Omnitrophota genomes, uncovering new details about their biology and behavior. The team’s findings are reported in the March 16 issue of the journal Nature Microbiology.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

I say dog, you say chicken? New study explores why we disagree so often

Celeste Kidd, assistant professor of psychology and the study’s principal investigator.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Celeste Kidd | University of California, Berkeley

Is a dog more similar to a chicken or an eagle? Is a penguin noisy? Is a whale friendly?

Psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley, say these absurd-sounding questions might help us better understand what’s at the heart of some of society’s most vexing arguments. 

Research published online Thursday in the journal Open Mind shows that our concepts about and associations with even the most basic words vary widely. At the same time, people tend to significantly overestimate how many others hold the same conceptual beliefs — the mental groupings we create as shortcuts for understanding similar objects, words or events.

It’s a mismatch that researchers say gets at the heart of the most heated debates, from the courtroom to the dinner table.

“The results offer an explanation for why people talk past each other,” said Celeste Kidd, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and the study’s principal investigator. “When people are disagreeing, it may not always be about what they think it is. It could be stemming from something as simple as their concepts not being aligned.”

Simple questions like, “What do you mean?” can go a long way in preventing a dispute from going off the rails, Kidd said. In other words, she said, “Just hash it out.”

‘Terminator zones’ on distant planets could harbor life

Some exoplanets have one side permanently facing their star while the other side is in perpetual darkness. The ring-shaped border between these permanent day and night regions is called a “terminator zone.” In a new paper in The Astrophysical Journal, physics and astronomy researchers at UC Irvine say this area has the potential to support extraterrestrial life.
Illustration Credit: Ana Lobo / University of California, Irvine

In a new study, University of California, Irvine astronomers describe how extraterrestrial life has the potential to exist on distant exoplanets inside a special area called the “terminator zone,” which is a ring on planets that have one side that always faces its star and one side that is always dark.

“These planets have a permanent day side and a permanent night side,” said Ana Lobo, a postdoctoral researcher in the UCI Department of Physics & Astronomy who led the new work, which was just published in The Astrophysical Journal. Lobo added that such planets are particularly common because they exist around stars that make up about 70 percent of the stars seen in the night sky – so-called M-dwarf stars, which are relatively dimmer than our sun.

The terminator is the dividing line between the day and night sides of the planet. Terminator zones could exist in that “just right” temperature zone between too hot and too cold.

“You want a planet that’s in the sweet spot of just the right temperature for having liquid water,” said Lobo, because liquid water, as far as scientists know, is an essential ingredient for life.

On the dark sides of terminator planets, perpetual night would yield plummeting temperatures that could cause any water to be frozen in ice. The side of the planet always facing its star could be too hot for water to remain in the open for long.

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