. Scientific Frontline: February 2023

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Zombie forests

As the climate changes, plants often struggle to keep up. In many areas, the vegetation that stands today may not be well adapted for the climate it is now living in. After a major disturbance, such as a wildfire, the plant community likely will not return.
Video Credit: Lindsay Filgas, Madison Pobis & Rob Jordan

The researchers created maps showing where warmer weather has left trees in conditions that don’t suit them, making them more prone to being replaced by other species. The findings could help inform long-term wildfire and ecosystem management in these “zombie forests.”

Like an old man suddenly aware the world has moved on without him, the conifer tree native to lower elevations of California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range finds itself in an unrecognizable climate. A new Stanford-led study reveals that about a fifth of all Sierra Nevada conifer forests – emblems of Western wilderness – are a “mismatch” for their regions’ warming weather. The paper, published Feb. 28 in PNAS Nexus, highlights how such “zombie forests” are temporarily cheating death, likely to be replaced with tree species better adapted to the climate after one of California’s increasingly frequent catastrophic wildfires.

“Forest and fire managers need to know where their limited resources can have the most impact,” said study lead author Avery Hill, a graduate student in biology at Stanford’s School of Humanities & Sciences at the time of the research. “This study provides a strong foundation for understanding where forest transitions are likely to occur, and how that will affect future ecosystem processes like wildfire regimes.” Hill led a related study this past November showing how wildfires have accelerated the shifting of Western trees’ ranges.

Could Space Dust Help Protect the Earth from Climate Change?

Illustration Credit: Ben Bromley/University of Utah

On a cold winter day, the warmth of the Sun is welcome. Yet as humanity emits more greenhouse gases, the Earth's atmosphere traps more and more of the Sun's energy, which steadily increases the Earth's temperature. One strategy for reversing this trend is to intercept a fraction of sunlight before it reaches our planet.

For decades, scientists have considered using screens or other objects to block just enough of the Sun’s radiation — between 1 or 2 percent — to mitigate the effects of global warming. Now, a new study led by scientists at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian and the University of Utah explores the potential of using dust to shield sunlight.

The paper, published today in the journal PLOS Climate, describes different properties of dust particles, quantities of dust and the orbits that would be best suited for shading Earth. The team found that launching dust from Earth to a way station at the "Lagrange Point" between Earth and the Sun would be most effective but would require an astronomical cost and effort.

The team proposes moondust as an alternative, arguing that lunar dust launched from the Moon could be a low-cost and effective way to shade the Earth.

A motion freezer for particles

Illustration Credit: Jakob Hüpfl / TU Wien

Tailor-made laser light fields can be used to slow down the movement of several particles and thus cool them down to extremely low temperatures - as shown by a team from TU Wien.

Using lasers to slow down atoms is a technique that has been used for a long time already: If one wants to achieve low-temperature world records in the range of absolute temperature zero, one resorts to laser cooling, in which energy is extracted from the atoms with a suitable laser beam.

Recently, such techniques have also been applied to small particles in the nano- and micro-meter range. This already works quite well for individual particles – but if you want to cool several particles at once, the problem turns out to be much more difficult. Prof. Stefan Rotter and his team at the Institute of Theoretical Physics at TU Wien have now presented a method with which extremely effective cooling can also be achieved in this case.

Steel Was Already Used in Europe 2900 Years Ago

Using geochemical analyses, the researchers were able to prove that stone stelae on the Iberian peninsula that date back to the Final Bronze Age feature complex engravings that could only have been done using tempered steel. This was backed up by metallographic analyses of an iron chisel from the same period and region that showed the necessary carbon content to be proper steel.
Photo Credits: Rafael Ferreiro Mählmann (A), Bastian Asmus (B), Ralph Araque Gonzalez (C-E)

A study by an international and interdisciplinary team headed by Freiburg archaeologist Dr. Ralph Araque Gonzalez from the Faculty of Humanities has proven that steel tools were already in use in Europe around 2900 years ago. Using geochemical analyses, the researchers were able to prove that stone stelae on the Iberian Peninsula that date back to the Final Bronze Age feature complex engravings that could only have been done using tempered steel. This was backed up by metallographic analyses of an iron chisel from the same period and region (Rocha do Vigio, Portugal, ca. 900 BCE) that showed the necessary carbon content to be proper steel. The result was also confirmed experimentally by undertaking trials with chisels made of various materials: only the chisel made of tempered steel was suitably capable of engraving the stone. 

Until recently it was assumed that it was not possible to produce suitable quality steel in the Early Iron Age and certainly not in the Final Bronze Age, and that it only came to be widespread in Europe under the Roman Empire. “The chisel from Rocha do Vigio and the context where it was found show that iron metallurgy including the production and tempering of steel were probably indigenous developments of decentralized small communities in Iberia, and not due to the influence of later colonization processes. This also has consequences for the archaeological assessment of iron metallurgy and quartzite sculptures in other regions of the world,” explains Araque Gonzalez. The study ‘Stone-working and the earliest steel in Iberia: Scientific analyses and experimental replications of final bronze age stelae and tools’ has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Child obesity linked to increased risk of several types of diabetes as an adult

Yuxia Wei, doctoral student at Institute of Environmental Medicine and the study's first author.
Photo Credit: Jingwei Zhao

Child obesity is linked to an increased risk of suffering from diabetes in adulthood and the risk increase concerns both autoimmune forms of diabetes and various forms of type 2 diabetes, according to a new study published in Diabetologia. For example, the risk of suffering from the most insulin-resistant form of diabetes is three times as high for obese children.

Diabetes affects about seven percent of the adult population and is one of the world's fastest growing diseases. Diabetes has traditionally been divided into two subgroups, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, but research suggests that this is a gross simplification.

In 2018, a Swedish study identified five subgroups of adult-duty diabetes. These are characterized by autoimmunity, severe insulin deficiency, severe insulin resistance, obesity and high age, respectively.

Diabetes affects about seven percent of the adult population and is one of the world's fastest growing diseases. Diabetes has traditionally been divided into two subgroups, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, but research suggests that this is a gross simplification.

Blood test for brain cancer may be on horizon, new research finds

Researchers at Penn State College of Medicine have identified a biomarker that can be used in blood tests to diagnose glioblastoma, the most common and deadliest type of brain cancer, and track its progression and guide treatment.
Photo Credit: National Cancer Institute

Glioblastoma (GBM) is the most common and deadliest type of brain cancer with a five-year survival rate of only 5%. Researchers at Penn State College of Medicine have identified a biomarker that can be used in blood tests to diagnose GBM, track its progression and guide treatment. The researchers said that such a non-invasive liquid biopsy for GBM could help patients get the care they need more quickly.

“Patients normally receive imaging, such as MRI or CT scans, to diagnose and track the progression of brain tumors, but it can be difficult for physicians to tell from those scans if the patient is getting better or worse because they don’t provide detail at the cellular or molecular level,” said Vladimir Khristov, graduate and medical student, Penn State. “That is why we need a supplemental diagnostic test to help physicians determine if the tumors are responding to therapy and regressing, or if they are getting worse and need additional treatment.”

Indeed, added Brad Zacharia, associate professor of neurosurgery and of otolaryngology, Penn State, a liquid biopsy for glioblastoma could be of tremendous value to patients suffering from this devastating tumor.

In the end, it's the individual advantage that counts

The three phases of exceptional dynamics: (1) Predation on the unprotected bacteria by predators, (2) toxin formation as cooperative defense and recovery of the bacterial population, (3) filament formation as individual defense through evolution and stabilization of densities.
Photo Credit: David Kneis/TU Dresden

Bacteria rely on cooperation and evolution in order to defend themselves against predatory protists

Eating and being eaten is a normal process in nature. These predator-prey dynamics help to stabilize ecosystems. It ensures that individual species do not become too abundant, controls their populations, and prevents damage caused by overpopulation (e.g., browsing by deer in the forest or damage to crops by caterpillars). But how is it that the predators do not simply eat away all the prey, thus breaking down the system? A research team from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) together with scientists from the Technical University (TU) of Dresden and the University of Potsdam has investigated this using bacteria and protists that live in bodies of water and discovered something astonishing. According to an article recently published in ISME Journal, bacteria defend themselves against predatory protists with cooperative behavior and evolution.

In a lake or river, between one and 10 million bacteria live in just 1 ml of water. Such a high density is necessary because bacteria permanently break down organic compounds and pollutants and thus purify the water. However, if there are too many bacteria, this can lead to the spread of pathogens. Preventing this requires predators: microscopic protists of which there are usually between a few hundred and a few thousand individuals in 1 ml of water. They constantly eat bacteria and thus ensure that the bacteria fulfil their cleaning function but do not become too abundant. Using the bacterium Pseudomonas putida and the bacterivorous protist Poteriospumella lacustris, the research team investigated the role of the various defense strategies of the bacteria and how the formation of feeding resistance is related to the dynamics of ecological systems.

Breathing is going to get tougher

Dust rising at Noordoewer, Namibia. Research shows dust will be a major contributor to poor air quality as the climate changes.
Photo Credit: Matthieu Joannon

Not all pollution comes from people. When global temperatures increase by 4 degrees Celsius, harmful plant emissions and dust will also increase by as much as 14 percent, according to new UC Riverside research.

The research does not account for a simultaneous increase in human-made sources of air pollution, which has already been predicted by other studies. 

“We are not looking at human emissions of air pollution, because we can change what we emit,” said James Gomez, UCR doctoral student and lead author of the study. “We can switch to electric cars. But that may not change air pollution from plants or dust.”

Details of the degradation in future air quality from these natural sources have now been published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment. About two-thirds of the future pollution is predicted to come from plants.

All plants produce chemicals called biogenic volatile organic compounds, or BVOCs. “The smell of a just-mowed lawn, or the sweetness of a ripe strawberry, those are BVOCs. Plants are constantly emitting them,” Gomez said.

First patient receives milestone stem cell-based transplant for Parkinson’s Disease


On 13th of February, a transplant of stem cell-derived nerve cells was administered to a person with Parkinson’s at Skåne University Hospital, Sweden. The product has been developed by Lund University and it is now being tested in patients for the first time. The transplantation product is generated from embryonic stem cells and functions to replace the dopamine nerve cells which are lost in the parkinsonian brain. This patient was the first of eight with Parkinson’s disease who will receive the transplant.

“This is an important milestone on the road towards a cell therapy that can be used to treat patients with Parkinson’s disease. The transplantation has been completed as planned, and the correct location of the cell implant has been confirmed by magnetic resonance imaging. Any potential effects of the STEM PD-product may take several years. The patient has been discharged from the hospital and evaluations will be conducted according to the study protocol,” says Gesine Paul-Visse, principal investigator for the STEM-PD clinical trial, consultant neurologist at Skåne University Hospital and adjunct professor at Lund University in Sweden.

There are around eight million people living with Parkinson’s disease globally; a disease which involves loss of dopamine nerve cells deep in the brain, leading to problems in controlling movement. The standard treatment for Parkinson’s disease is medications that replace the lost dopamine, but over time these medications often become less effective and cause side effects. As of today, there are no treatments that can repair the damaged structures within the brain or that can replace the nerve cells that are lost.

Monday, February 27, 2023

Novel Peanut Allergy Treatment Shown to be Safe, Effective, and Lasting

Edwin Kim, MD, MS
A four-year clinical trial led by Edwin Kim, MD, at the UNC School of Medicine, has found that an increased dosage of a unique type of peanut allergy immunotherapy continues to show promise for children.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of UNC School of Medicine

A four-year phase 2 clinical trial demonstrated that a peanut allergy treatment called sublingual immunotherapy, or SLIT, is effective and safe, while offering durable desensitization to peanuts in peanut-allergic children.

SLIT is a treatment using a tiny amount of peanut protein that is the equivalent of only 1/75th of a peanut kernel. It is taken under the tongue, where it is absorbed into the body, as opposed to Palforzia® peanut oral immunotherapy, which requires patients to eat a medical grade peanut flour each day.

Published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, the research led by corresponding author Edwin Kim, MD, associate professor of pediatrics at the UNC School of Medicine, shows that a 4 mg dose of peanut SLIT provides strong desensitization that would be expected to protect against accidental exposures to peanut in the majority of children. And most importantly, the clinical study suggests the treatment is safe.

Researchers find sea urchin die-offs threaten Caribbean coral reefs

The urchin species Diadema antillarum has long been considered the most important grazer in the Caribbean, feeding on algae that would otherwise overrun the reef and make it difficult for coral to thrive.
Photo Credit: Rachel Best

The sustained loss of a once abundant species of sea urchin in the Caribbean could also result in the functional extinction of diverse coral species from the region’s reefs, according to new research from a Florida State University team.

The urchin species Diadema antillarum has long been considered the most important grazer in the Caribbean, feeding on algae that would otherwise overrun the reef and make it difficult for coral to thrive. But two mortality events over the past 40 years have caused much of that urchin population to die off.

New research led by FSU Professor of Biological Science Don Levitan shows that the loss of these algae-free areas due to the sea urchin die-off is threatening the existence of the corals that populate Caribbean reefs.

Levitan, along with collaborator Peter Edmunds, a professor at California State University Northridge, has been collecting data on D. antillarum since his first research trip to St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, in 1983, recording population density of the species and tracking it through mass mortality events in 1983-1984 and in 2022.

3D bioprinting inside the human body could be possible thanks to new soft robot

The tiny flexible 3D bioprinter developed at UNSW Sydney was able to 3D print a variety of materials with different shapes on the surface of a pig’s kidney.
Photo Credit: Dr Thanh Do

UNSW researchers unveil prototype device that can directly 3D print living cells onto internal organs and potentially be used as an all-in-one endoscopic surgical tool.

Engineers from UNSW Sydney have developed a miniature and flexible soft robotic arm which could be used to 3D print biomaterial directly onto organs inside a person’s body.

3D bioprinting is a process whereby biomedical parts are fabricated from so-called bioink to construct natural tissue-like structures.

Bioprinting is predominantly used for research purposes such as tissue engineering and in the development of new drugs – and normally requires the use of large 3D printing machines to produce cellular structures outside the living body.

The new research from UNSW Medical Robotics Lab, led by Dr Thanh Nho Do and his PhD student, Mai Thanh Thai, in collaboration with other researchers from UNSW including Scientia Professor Nigel Lovell, Dr Hoang-Phuong Phan, and Associate Professor Jelena Rnjak-Kovacina is detailed in a paper published in Advanced Science.

Chaos on the Nanometer Scale

Nanochaos on an asymmetric Rhodium nanocrystal
Illustration Credit: Vienna University of Technology

Sometimes, chemical reactions do not solely run stationary in one direction, but they show spatio-temporal oscillations. At TU Wien, a transition to chaotic behavior on the nanometer scale has now been observed.

Chaotic behavior is typically known from large systems: for example, from weather, from asteroids in space that are simultaneously attracted by several large celestial bodies, or from swinging pendulums that are coupled together. On the atomic scale, however, one does normally not encounter chaos – other effects predominate. Now, for the first time, scientists at TU Wien have been able to detect clear indications of chaos on the nanometer scale – in chemical reactions on tiny rhodium crystals. The results have been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Climate Trends in the West, Today and 11,000 Years Ago

UC Davis students hike in the Grand Canyon, a landscape that has changed dramatically over the past thousands and millions of years.
Photo Credit: Joe Proudman/UC Davis

People often say things like Phoenix has always been dry; Seattle has always been wet; and San Francisco has always been foggy. But “always” is a strong word. 

A study from the University of California, Davis, synthesizes climate trends across the Western U.S. during a relatively young period of Earth’s history — the Holocene Era, which stretches from the present day to the past 11,000 years. This look at the really Old West shows that the hallmarks of California’s climate — the foggy coastlines that gave rise to towering redwoods, the ocean upwelling that spawned productive fisheries, the warm summers and mild winters — began around 4,000 years ago. 

It also reveals a time when the Pacific Northwest was warm and dry and the Southwest was warm and wet.

Mysteries of the Earth: FSU researchers predict how fast ancient magma ocean solidified

An illustration of Earth as it existed during part of its formation billions of years ago, when an ocean of magma covered the surface of the planet and stretched thousands of miles deep into the core. A typical cell from a simulation conducted by FSU researchers with the relative positions of atoms are shown in the left
Illustration Credit: Courtesy of Suraj Bajgain / Lake Superior State University

Early in the formation of Earth, an ocean of magma covered the planet’s surface and stretched thousands of miles deep into its core. The rate at which that “magma ocean” cooled affected the formation of the distinct layering within the Earth and the chemical makeup of those layers.

Previous research estimated that it took hundreds of million years for that magma ocean to solidify, but new research from Florida State University published in Nature Communications narrows these large uncertainties down to less than just a couple of million years.

“This magma ocean has been an important part of Earth’s history, and this study helps us answer some fundamental questions about the planet,” said Mainak Mookherjee, an associate professor of geology in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science.

When magma cools, it forms crystals. Where those crystals end up depends on how viscous the magma is and the relative density of the crystals. Crystals that are denser are likely to sink and thus change the composition of the remaining magma. The rate at which magma solidifies depends on how viscous it is. Less viscous magma will lead to faster cooling, whereas a magma ocean with thicker consistency will take a longer time to cool.

London falcons ate fewer pigeons during lockdowns

Peregrine falcon
Photo Credit: Jasmin777

The study by King’s researchers suggests that predatory birds in urban spaces are vulnerable to changes in human activities that support prey populations.

Changes in peregrine falcon diets during COVID-19 lockdowns highlight the impact of human behavior on urban predators. The findings are from a new study co-authored by King’s researchers published in the British Ecological Society journal, People and Nature.

Researchers from King’s College London and University of Bristol found that during lockdowns, peregrine falcons in London were forced to change their diet away from pigeons since fewer of these birds were being drawn in by human food supplies such as discarded food waste or direct feeding.

Brandon Mak, a PhD student in the Department of Geography who co-led the study with Ed Drewitt from the University of Bristol, said: “Our results indicate that peregrines in larger, highly urbanized cities like London may be more dependent on, and hence more vulnerable to changes in, human activities which support their prey populations, particularly feral pigeons.”

Producing extreme ultraviolet laser pulses efficiently through wakesurfing behind electron beams

A 3D simulation of the wake behind the electron beam (purple) and how a light pulse (blue and red stripe) might surf behind it. The plasma wake is shown in alternating yellow for the absence of electrons and green for peaks in the electron density. When a light pulse sits on that boundary, it can continuously gain energy—the trick is keeping it there.
Image Credit: Ryan Sandberg, High Field Science Group

Simulations suggest this mechanism could provide a tenfold increase in frequency—likely hitting a peak power of 100 trillion watts in XUV

A laser pulse surfing in the wake of an electron beam pulse could get upshifted from visible to extreme ultraviolet light, simulations done at the University of Michigan have shown.

The approach could enable more efficient generation of high-energy laser light, perhaps even to X-rays. The 3D simulation showed up to a tenfold increase in the frequency of the light, while the 1D simulation went up to a 50-fold increase. In principle, the researchers say it is possible to continue amping up the energy of the laser pulse by extending the period of time that it can ride in the wake of the electron beam.

“Future lasers, potentially including those used to pattern semiconductor chips for computers, could take advantage of this effect to produce higher energy pulses more efficiently,” said Alec Thomas, U-M professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences and corresponding author of the study in Physical Review Letters.

Dinosaur claws used for digging and display

Therizinosaurs claw hooking and pulling trees
Image Credit: Shuyang Zhou for the 3D modelling and functional scenario restoration

Dinosaur claws had many functions, but now a team from the University of Bristol and the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing has shown some predatory dinosaurs used their claws for digging or even for display.

The study focused on two groups of theropod dinosaurs, the alvarezsaurs and therizinosaurs, that had weird claws whose function had been a mystery up to now. It turns out that alvarezsaurs used their rock-pick-like claws for digging, but their close relatives, the giant therizinosaurs, used their overdeveloped, meter-long, sickle-like claws for display.

The new work is led by Zichuan Qin, a PhD student at the University of Bristol and the IVPP. He developed a new, computational approach in biomechanics to identify functions based on detailed comparison with living animals. First, the claws were modelled in three dimensions from CT scans, then modelled for stress and strain using engineering methods, and finally matched to functions of pulling, piercing and digging by comparison with modern animals whose claw functions are known.

“Alvarezsaurs and therizinosaurs are definitely the strangest cousins among dinosaurs,” said Professor Michael Benton, one of Zichuan’s supervisors. “Alvarezsaurs were the tiniest dinosaurs ever, the size of chickens, with stubby forelimbs and robust single claws, but their closest relative, the therizinosaurs, evolved in the exact opposite path.”

Hackers could try to take over a military aircraft; can a cyber shuffle stop them?

Sandia National Laboratories cybersecurity expert Chris Jenkins sits in front of a whiteboard with the original sketch of the moving target defense idea for which he is the team lead. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Jenkins began working from home, and his office whiteboard remained virtually undisturbed for more than two years.
Photo Credit: Craig Fritz

A cybersecurity technique that shuffles network addresses like a blackjack dealer shuffles playing cards could effectively befuddle hackers gambling for control of a military jet, commercial airliner or spacecraft, according to new research. However, the research also shows these defenses must be designed to counter increasingly sophisticated algorithms used to break them.

Many aircraft, spacecraft and weapons systems have an onboard computer network known as military standard 1553, commonly referred to as MIL-STD-1553, or even just 1553. The network is a tried-and-true protocol for letting systems like radar, flight controls and the heads-up display talk to each other.

Securing these networks against a cyberattack is a national security imperative, said Chris Jenkins, a Sandia National Laboratories cybersecurity scientist. If a hacker were to take over 1553 midflight, he said, the pilot could lose control of critical aircraft systems, and the impact could be devastating.

Jenkins is not alone in his concerns. Many researchers across the country are designing defenses for systems that utilize the MIL-STD-1553 protocol for command and control. Recently, Jenkins and his team at Sandia partnered with researchers at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, to test an idea that could secure these critical networks.

Voluntary UK initiatives to phase out toxic lead shot for pheasant hunting have had little impact

Pheasant
Photo Credit: Julie Mayo

The pledge, made in 2020 by nine major UK game shooting and rural organizations, aims to protect the natural environment and ensure a safer supply of game meat for consumers. Lead is toxic even in very small concentrations, and discarded shot from hunting poisons and kills tens of thousands of the UK’s wild birds each year.

A Cambridge-led team of 17 volunteers bought whole pheasants from butchers, game dealers and supermarkets across the UK in 2022-23. They dissected the birds at home and recovered embedded shotgun pellets from 235 of the 356 pheasant carcasses.

The main metal present in each shotgun pellet was revealed through laboratory analysis - conducted at the Environmental Research Institute, University of the Highlands and Islands, UK. Lead was the main element in 94% of the recovered shot pellets; the remaining 6% were predominantly composed of steel or a metal called bismuth.

Australia’s rarest bird of prey disappearing at alarming rate

Researchers analyzed 40 years of sightings by citizen scientists to uncover concerning population trends.
Photo Credit: Chris McColl

Australia’s rarest bird of prey - the red goshawk - is facing extinction, with Cape York Peninsula now the only place in Queensland known to support breeding populations.

PhD candidate Chris MacColl from The University of Queensland’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences led the research project that made the discovery and was shocked by the hawk’s dwindling numbers.

“Over four decades the red goshawk has lost a third of its historical range, which is the area that’s it’s previously been known to occupy,” Mr. MacColl said.

“It’s barely hanging on in another 30 per cent of regions it has previously been known to inhabit.”

Mr. MacColl said the species is now considered extinct in New South Wales and the southern half of Queensland.

Let's get wasted and apply some deep thinking to rubbish

Photo Credit: John Cameron

Artificial intelligence has made a giant leap into our rubbish bins thanks to new technology being deployed at the University of South Australia.

Using algorithms to analyze data from smart bin sensors, UniSA PhD student Sabbir Ahmed is designing a deep learning model to predict where waste is accumulating in cities and how often public bins should be cleared.

“Sensors in the public smart bins can give us a lot of information about how busy specific locations are, what type of rubbish is being disposed of and even how much methane gas is being produced from food waste in bins,” Ahmed says.

“All that data can be fed into a neural network model to predict where bins in parks, shopping centers and other public places are likely to fill up quickly and, conversely, which locations are rarely visited.

“This can help councils to optimize their waste management services, schedule bin clearances and even relocate rarely used bins to where they are needed most.”

Researchers Uncover How Photosynthetic Organisms Regulate and Synthesize ATP


The redox regulation mechanism responsible for efficient production of ATP under varying light conditions in photosynthetic organisms has now been unveiled by Tokyo Tech researchers. They investigated the enzyme responsible for this mechanism and uncovered how the amino acid sequences present in the enzyme regulate ATP production. Their findings provide valuable insights into the process of photosynthesis and the ability to adapt to changing metabolic conditions.

ATP, the compound essential for the functioning of photosynthetic organisms such as plants and algae, is produced by an enzyme called "chloroplast ATP synthase" (CFoCF1). To control ATP production under varying light conditions, the enzyme uses a redox regulatory mechanism that modifies the ATP synthesis activity in response to changes in the redox state of cysteine (Cys) residues, which exist as dithiols under reducing (light) conditions, but forms a disulfide bond under oxidizing (dark) conditions. However, this mechanism has not been fully understood so far.

Now, in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers from Japan, led by Prof. Toru Hisabori from Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech), has uncovered the role of the amino acid sequences present in CFoCF1, revealing how the enzyme regulates ATP production in photosynthetic organisms.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

New Study Shows Archery Appeared in Europe Thousands of Years Earlier than Previously Thought

Laure Metz making experimental bow and arrow shots with arrows armed with Neronian light points.
 Photo Credit: Ludovic Slimak

The use of bow-and-arrow technology gave humans an edge over Neanderthal neighbors in hunting game

A new study published in Science Advances contextualizes the traditions and technological knowledge of early, pioneering Homo sapiens. The study demonstrates the mastery of archery by modern populations and extends the evidence of archery in Europe back by about 40,000 years.

The researchers analyzed lithic artifacts from a cave in Mediterranean France called Grotte Mandrin, which reveals the oldest occupation of modern humans on the European continent. The study focuses on a very rich level, attributed to the Neronian culture, and testifies to Homo sapiens occupations dating back 54,000 years, interposed between numerous Neanderthal occupations in the cave before and after the modern humans. That’s roughly 10,000 years earlier than what had been previously believed to be the earliest occupation of modern humans in Europe.

The research was directed by Laure Metz, an associated researcher at UMR 7269 (UMR LAMPEA, CNRS, Aix-Marseille University), and Ludovic Slimak, CNRS researcher (UMR 5608 TRACES, Toulouse Jean Jaurès University). Metz is a UConn-affiliated researcher and former post-doctoral researcher in the UConn Department of Anthropology Deep History Lab led by Professor Christian Tryon.

Custom, 3D-printed heart replicas look and pump just like the real thing


No two hearts beat alike. The size and shape of the heart can vary from one person to the next. These differences can be particularly pronounced for people living with heart disease, as their hearts and major vessels work harder to overcome any compromised function.

MIT engineers are hoping to help doctors tailor treatments to patients’ specific heart form and function, with a custom robotic heart. The team has developed a procedure to 3D print a soft and flexible replica of a patient’s heart. They can then control the replica’s action to mimic that patient’s blood-pumping ability.

The procedure involves first converting medical images of a patient’s heart into a three-dimensional computer model, which the researchers can then 3D print using a polymer-based ink. The result is a soft, flexible shell in the exact shape of the patient’s own heart. The team can also use this approach to print a patient’s aorta — the major artery that carries blood out of the heart to the rest of the body.

To mimic the heart’s pumping action, the team has fabricated sleeves similar to blood pressure cuffs that wrap around a printed heart and aorta. The underside of each sleeve resembles precisely patterned bubble wrap. When the sleeve is connected to a pneumatic system, researchers can tune the outflowing air to rhythmically inflate the sleeve’s bubbles and contract the heart, mimicking its pumping action. 

SLAC, Stanford researchers make a new type of quantum material with a dramatic distortion pattern

This illustration shows how an electronic tug-of-war between the layers of a new quantum material has warped its atomic lattice into a dramatic herringbone-like pattern. Scientists at SLAC and Stanford who created the material are just starting to explore how this 'huge' distortion affects the material's properties.   
Illustration Credit: Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Created by an electronic tug-of-war between the material's atomic layers, this ‘beautiful’ herringbone-like pattern could give rise to unique features that scientists are just starting to explore.

Researchers at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University have created a new type of quantum material whose atomic scaffolding, or lattice, has been dramatically warped into a herringbone pattern.

The resulting distortions are “huge” compared to those achieved in other materials, said Woo Jin Kim, a postdoctoral researcher at the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Sciences (SIMES) at SLAC who led the study. 

“This is a very fundamental result, so it’s hard to make predictions about what may or may not come out of it, but the possibilities are exciting,” said SLAC/Stanford Professor and SIMES Director Harold Hwang. 

“Based on theoretical modeling from members of our team, it looks like the new material has intriguing magnetic, orbital and charge order properties that we plan to investigate further,” he said. Those are some of the very properties that scientists think give quantum materials their surprising characteristics. 

The research team described their work in a paper published in Nature today.

WVU physicists give the first law of thermodynamics a makeover

Research findings led by Paul Cassak, WVU professor and associate director of the WVU Center for KINETIC Plasma Physics, have broken new ground on how scientists can understand the first law of thermodynamics and how plasmas in space and laboratories get heated. In this photo, argon plasma glows a bluish color in a Center experiment.
Photo Credit: Brian Persinger / West Virginia University

West Virginia University physicists have made a breakthrough on an age-old limitation of the first law of thermodynamics.

Paul Cassak, professor and associate director of the Center for KINETIC Plasma Physics, and graduate research assistant Hasan Barbhuiya, both in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, are studying how energy gets converted in superheated plasmas in space. Their findings, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation and published in the Physical Review Letters journal, will revamp scientists’ understanding of how plasmas in space and laboratories get heated up, and may have a wide variety of further applications across physics and other sciences.

The first law of thermodynamics states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but it can be converted into different forms.

“Suppose you heat up a balloon,” Cassak said. “The first law of thermodynamics tells you how much the balloon expands and how much hotter the gas inside the balloon gets. The key is that the total amount of energy causing the balloon to expand and the gas to get hotter is the same as the amount of heat you put into the balloon. The first law has been used to describe many things — including how refrigerators and car engines work. It’s one of the pillars of physics.”

Trawlers intermix with whale ‘supergroup’ in Southern Ocean

Fin whales surround the research vessel National Geographic Endurance in January 2022.
Video Credit: Eric Wehrmeister

Trawlers working amidst a whale ‘supergroup’ raise red flag about human-whale conflicts in a changing ocean, Stanford study says

Scientists observed close to 1,000 fin whales foraging near Antarctica, while fishing vessels trawled for krill in their midst. Without action, such encounters are likely to become more common as this endangered species recovers and krill harvesting intensifies in the Southern Ocean.

Once driven nearly to extinction, the second-largest animals of all time have recently been spotted in big numbers in the Southern Ocean, competing directly with industrial trawlers for prey, according to research led by scientists from Stanford University and Lindblad Expeditions.

Published in Ecology, the study focuses on scientists’ sighting of an enormous “supergroup” of fin whales foraging for shrimplike animals called krill northwest of the South Orkney Islands in January 2022, with four commercial fishing vessels trawling among them for the same tiny creatures.

The researchers, led by Matthew Savoca of Stanford and Conor Ryan of Lindblad Expeditions, estimate at least 830 and possibly more than 1,100 fin whales were present. This ranks among the largest groups of baleen whales ever recorded since commercial whaling decimated their populations last century.

New zirconia-based catalyst can make plastics upcycling more sustainable

A representation of the zirconia catalyst. The teal shows the mesoporous silica plates, the red represents the zirconia nanoparticles between the two sheets. The polymer chains enter the pores, contact the zirconia nanoparticles, and are cut into shorter chains.
Illustration Credit: Courtesy of Ames National Laboratory

A new type of catalyst breaks down polyolefin plastics into new, useful products. This project is part of a new strategy to reduce the amount of plastic waste and its impact on our environment, as well as recover value that is lost when plastics are thrown away. The catalyst was developed by a team from the Institute for Cooperative Upcycling of Plastic (iCOUP), a U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Frontier Research Center. The effort was led by Aaron Sadow, the director of iCOUP, scientist at Ames National Laboratory, and professor at Iowa State University; Andreas Heyden, professor at the University of South Carolina; and Wenyu Huang, scientist at Ames Lab and professor at Iowa State. The new catalyst is made only of earth-abundant materials, which they demonstrated can break carbon-carbon (CC) bonds in aliphatic hydrocarbons.

Aliphatic hydrocarbons are organic compounds made up of only hydrogen and carbon. Polyolefin plastics are aliphatic hydrocarbon materials composed of long chains of carbon atoms linked together to form strong materials. These materials are a big part of the plastic waste crisis. Wenyu Huang said, “More than half of produced plastics so far are polyolefin based.”

Simulations show aftermath of black hole collision


New simulations of two black holes colliding near the speed of light reveal the mysterious physics of what one astrophysicist calls "one of the most violent events you can imagine in the universe."

"It's a bit of a crazy thing to blast two black holes head-on very close to the speed of light," said Thomas Helfer, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University who produced the simulations. "The gravitational waves associated with the collision might look anticlimactic, but this is one of the most violent events you can imagine in the universe."

The work, which appears today in Physical Review Letters, is the first detailed look at the aftermath of such a cataclysmic clash, and shows how a remnant black hole would form and send gravitational waves through the cosmos.

Black hole mergers are one of the few events in the universe energetic enough to produce detectable gravitational waves, which carry energy produced by massive cosmic collisions. Like ripples in a pond, these waves flow through the universe distorting space and time. But unlike waves traveling through water, they are extremely tiny, and propagate through "spacetime," the mind-bending concept that combines the three dimensions of space with the idea of time.

Cells take on dual identities with competing factors trapped in the nucleus

Image showing one cellular response to Leptomycin B, with F-actin (pink), vimentin (yellow), and DAPI (cyan), in canine epithelial cells (MDCK I) cultured on soft hydrogels. This study demonstrates diverse epithelial-mesenchymal responses to nuclear export inhibition, including concurrent elevation of epithelial and mesenchymal cellular traits. The image was acquired on a laser-scanning confocal microscope using a 40X objective.
Image Credit: Carly Krull, Department of Biomedical Engineering

Cells migrate to different tissues for a variety of reasons, including organ development, tissue repair and the spread of cancer. Researchers in the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis has found unexpected activity in the nucleus of healthy cells that provides new insight into cell mechanics.

Amit Pathak, associate professor of mechanical engineering & materials science, working with Carly Krull, a doctoral student in biomedical engineering, and Haiyi Li, who earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science & engineering in 2022, found that when they gave the cancer drug Leptomycin B to healthy cells, the cells stopped growing, but several competing genes in their nuclei became active.

“All of a sudden, everything is happening in the nucleus,” Pathak said. “The factors that slow down the cells, the factors that make the cells faster, the factors that make the cells cohesive and the factors that generate forces in cells all became active. All of these factors are normally competing with each other, and they all became active together.”

NASA's Chandra Discovers Giant Black Holes on Collision Course

NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory helped identify two pairs of dwarf galaxies on track to merge.  Dwarf galaxies, which are at least about 20 times less massive than the Milky Way, likely formed larger galaxies through collisions in the early Universe.  These newly-discovered merging dwarf galaxies can be used as analogs for more distant ones that are too faint to observe.  The dwarf galaxies are on collision courses and are found in the galaxy clusters Abell 133 and Abell 1758S.
Full Size Version
Image Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Alabama/M. Micic et al.; Optical: International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA

Astronomers have discovered the first evidence for giant black holes in dwarf galaxies on a collision course. This result from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has important ramifications for understanding how the first wave of black holes and galaxies grew in the early universe.

Collisions between the pairs of dwarf galaxies identified in a new study have pulled gas towards the giant black holes they each contain, causing the black holes to grow. Eventually the likely collision of the black holes will cause them to merge into much larger black holes. The pairs of galaxies will also merge into one.

Scientists think the universe was awash with small galaxies, known as “dwarf galaxies,” several hundred million years after the big bang. Most merged with others in the crowded, smaller volume of the early universe, setting in motion the building of larger and larger galaxies now seen around the nearby universe.

New research reveals 12 ways aquaculture can benefit the environment

Researchers have identified 12 potential ecological benefits of aquaculture including species recovery, habitat restoration, rehabilitation and protection, and removal of overabundant species.
Photo Credit: John French

Aquaculture, or the farming of aquatic plants and animals, contributes to biodiversity and habitat loss in freshwater and marine ecosystems globally, but when used wisely, it can also be part of the solution, new research shows.

Published today in Conservation Biology, University of Melbourne researchers have identified 12 potential ecological benefits of aquaculture. These include species recovery, habitat restoration, rehabilitation and protection, and removal of overabundant species.

Lead author, University of Melbourne researcher Ms. Kathy Overton, said the potential environmental benefits of aquaculture have gone under the radar for many years.

“Most people around the world live near freshwater or marine ecosystems, and we rely on them as sources of food, tourism, recreation, culture, and livelihood,” Ms. Overton said.

“However, our impacts on freshwater and marine ecosystems are degrading important habitats and causing rapid declines in biodiversity. While the negative impacts of some types of aquacultures are well known, we can also use aquaculture as a tool to slow or stop these negative impacts and help restore ecosystems that have been largely lost over the last century.”

Infants Outperform AI in “Commonsense Psychology”

New Study Shows How Infants Are More Adept at Spotting Motivations that Drive Human Behavior

Infants outperform artificial intelligence in detecting what motivates other people’s actions, finds a new study by a team of psychology and data science researchers. Its results, which highlight fundamental differences between cognition and computation, point to shortcomings in today’s technologies and where improvements are needed for AI to more fully replicate human behavior. 

“Adults and even infants can easily make reliable inferences about what drives other people’s actions,” explains Moira Dillon, an assistant professor in New York University’s Department of Psychology and the senior author of the paper, which appears in the journal Cognition. “Current AI finds these inferences challenging to make.”

“The novel idea of putting infants and AI head-to-head on the same tasks is allowing researchers to better describe infants’ intuitive knowledge about other people and suggest ways of integrating that knowledge into AI,” she adds.

“If AI aims to build flexible, commonsense thinkers like human adults become, then machines should draw upon the same core abilities infants possess in detecting goals and preferences,” says Brenden Lake, an assistant professor in NYU’s Center for Data Science and Department of Psychology and one of the paper’s authors.

UrFU Chemists Found a Non-toxic Way to Obtain Piperine from Black Pepper

A new method of obtaining piperine from black pepper is more environmentally friendly than the traditional one.
Photo Credit: Anas Alhajj

An international research team of chemists from Russia (UrFU), the Republic of Congo, and India came up with an alternative to the traditional method of obtaining piperine from black pepper. The scientists used a natural solvent for extraction, which has no toxic properties because it consists of a composition from organic salts and acids that are well soluble in water. Moreover, the extract obtained using this technology has better antioxidant activity. The results of the study are published in the journal Sustainable Chemistry.

"Piperine is a bioactive substance that is found in black pepper. It has many useful properties. First of all, it causes that particular pungent taste. Piperine is used in food to increase the absorption of micro and macronutrients in the human body. For example, piperine may be added to yogurt and cheese. There are numerous studies about piperine, but the novelty of our work is the development of a new technology for extracting this substance from black pepper using natural, "green" solvents," - says Full Professor Elena Kovaleva from the UrFU Department of Organic Synthesis Technology.

Meteorite crater discovered in French winery

The “Trou du Météore": The crater at the “Domaine du Météore" winery really was caused by a meteorite impact.
Photo Credit: Frank Brenker, Goethe University Frankfurt

With the aim of creating an appealing brand, the name of the “Domaine du Météore" winery near the town of Béziers in Southern France points to a local peculiarity: one of its vineyards lies in a round, 200-meter-wide depression that resembles an impact crater. By means of rock and soil analyses, scientists led by cosmochemist Professor Frank Brenker from Goethe University Frankfurt have now established that the crater was indeed once formed by the impact of an iron-nickel meteorite. In doing so, they have disproved a scientific opinion almost 60 years old, because of which the crater was never examined more closely from a geological perspective.

Countless meteorites have struck Earth in the past and shaped the history of our planet. It is assumed, for example, that meteorites brought with them a large part of its water. The extinction of the dinosaurs might also have been triggered by the impact of a very large meteorite. 

Meteorite craters that are still visible today are rare because most traces of the celestial bodies have long since disappeared again. This is due to erosion and shifting processes in the Earth's crust, known as plate tectonics. The “Earth Impact Database" lists just 190 such craters worldwide. In the whole of Western Europe, only three were previously known: Rochechouart in Aquitaine, France, the Nördlinger Ries between the Swabian Alb and the Franconian Jura, and the Steinheim Basin near Heidenheim in Baden-Württemberg (both in Germany). Thanks to millions of years of erosion, however, for laypersons the three impact craters are hardly recognizable as such.

On the track of the big bang: The most sensitive detector for measuring radioactivity is now in dresden

Prof. Kai Zuber (right) and Steffen Turkat
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Technische Universität Dresden

The "Felsenkeller" underground laboratory in Dresden now hosts the most sensitive setup for measuring radioactivity in Germany and one of the most sensitive setups in the world. With the new detector, researchers at the Technische Universität Dresden and the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) will in future be working at the highest international level on some of the most exciting questions in astrophysics, such as dark matter, stars or the Big Bang.

What is dark matter? What are neutrinos all about? How do stars work and what was actually going on in the universe in the first minutes after the Big Bang? To answer these questions, you need very sensitive detectors and a lot of skill. Only a few laboratories in the world have been able to perform such sensitive measurements so far. Recently, however, an ultra-sensitive detector has been set up in Germany, which will enable researchers to find answers to these questions in the future.

After long development work, researchers from the Institute for Nuclear and Particle Physics (Technische Universität Dresden) and the Institute for Radiation Physics (HZDR) have now put the setup into operation in the underground laboratory "Felsenkeller" Dresden. From now on, they will be able to analyze samples of substances and materials with radioactivity in the range of 100 microbequerels, in other words, samples with 100 million times less radioactivity than is present in the human body. This puts the measurement setup in the Felsenkeller laboratory among the world's most sensitive measuring instruments for radioactivity.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Cohesion and connection drop in ageing population

A social network of macaques grooming each other on Cayo Santiago.
Photo Credit: Lauren Brent

Social cohesion and connection decline in an ageing population, according to a new study of one of humanity’s closest relatives.

For decades, researchers have been observing the rhesus macaques on Cayo Santiago (known as “Monkey Island”) in Puerto Rico.

Recent research showed that female macaques “actively reduce” the size of their social networks and prioritize existing connections as they age – something also seen in humans.

The new study, by an international team led by the University of Exeter, examines how this affects the overall cohesion and connection of the groups older monkeys live in.

While the observed macaque populations (which had no more than 20% “old” individuals) were not affected at group level, computer simulations showed higher proportions of old macaques would reduce cohesion and connection.

Salt Could Play Key Role in Energy Transition

Large underground salt formations can aid in the energy transition in myriad ways.
Illustration Credit: UT Jackson School of Geosciences.

A common ingredient – salt – could have a big role to play in the energy transition to lower carbon energy sources.

That’s according to a new study led by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin’s Bureau of Economic Geology.

The study describes how large underground salt deposits could serve as hydrogen holding tanks, conduct heat to geothermal plants, and influence CO2 storage. It also highlights how industries with existing salt expertise, such as solution mining, salt mining, and oil and gas exploration, could help.

“We see potential in applying knowledge and data gained from many decades of research, hydrocarbon exploration, and mining in salt basins to energy transition technologies,” said lead author Oliver Duffy, a research scientist at the bureau. “Ultimately, a deeper understanding of how salt behaves will help us optimize design, reduce risk, and improve the efficiency of a range of energy transition technologies.”

The study was published in the journal Tektonika.

New Hope for People Living with Paralysis after Stroke

Video Credit: Carnegie Mellon University

Globally, every fourth adult over the age of 25 will suffer a stroke in their lifetime, and 75% of those people will have lasting deficits in fine motor control. Until now, treating paralysis in the so-called chronic stage, which begins six months after the stroke, has remained ineffective.

Technology developed by Douglas Weber, the Akhtar and Bhutta Professor of Mechanical Engineering and the Neuroscience Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh is offering new hope for people living with impairments that would otherwise be considered permanent. The team discovered that muscles respond directly to electrical stimulation of specific spinal cord regions enabling patients to regain mobility of their arm and hand.  

Spinal cord stimulation technology uses a set of electrodes placed on the surface of the spinal cord to deliver pulses of electricity that activate the nerve cells inside. Research groups around the world have shown that this stimulation can be used to restore movement to the legs, but the complexity of the neural signals controlling the unique dexterity of the human hand and arm adds a significantly higher set of challenges.

So-called ‘safe’ pesticides have surprising ill effects

When the chemicals you use to protect crops harm their pollinators
Photo Credit: Sandy Millar

Health Canada is currently reviewing regulations for pesticides in Canada, and three UBC researchers say regulators might want to consider what happened in Japan.

A lake in Shimane Prefecture has seen its commercial fishery collapse by more than 90 per cent since 1993, when insecticides known as neonicotinoids were first introduced to the area. It just so happens that zooplankton—the tiny creatures in the water that fish feed on—declined by 83 per cent during the same period.

That’s just one example of the unanticipated ripple effects of pesticides uncovered by UBC ecologists Dr. Risa Sargent, Dr. Juli Carrillo and Dr. Claire Kremen in their review of recent science.

They also found concerning research about glyphosates. Use of this weed-killer has increased 100-fold in recent decades. Because it targets an enzyme that exists only in plants, it was thought to be perfectly safe for animals. However, a study last year showed that it alters the mix of bacteria and microbes in bees’ intestines, while also disrupting their ability to keep hives at the optimum temperature.

New insights into fetal development may protect against leukemia

Right to Left: Mohamed Eldeeb, doctoral student, Division of Molecular Hematology. David Bryder, Professor of experimental hematology, Division of Molecular Hematology.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Lund University

During the fetal stage, a number of so-called cell programs run that are vital to the development of the fetus. In a study published in Cell Reports, researchers from Lund University demonstrate that one of these fetal programs appears to protect against acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

“We have used an experimental mouse model that always results in this type of leukemia. The interesting thing is that, when we added to adult mice a specific molecular cell program that normally only runs during fetal development, over half did not develop AML,” says David Bryder, professor of experimental hematology at Lund University.

The fetal program that the researchers used consists of the RNA-binding protein LIN28, the normal function of which is to regulate other genes. LIN28 is usually only expressed during fetal development and disappears shortly after birth.

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