. Scientific Frontline: April 2023

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Urologists to perform world’s first bladder transplant

The Keck Medicine of USC surgical team evaluates the integrity of a bladder during the research and development stage of bladder transplantation.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of USC Urology

No one has ever performed a bladder transplant in humans. But that may be about to change.

Urologists with Keck Medicine of USC have launched a clinical trial to perform the world’s first human bladder transplant.

The trial is actively screening potential participants for this first-ever type of transplantation.

During the procedure, the patient’s diseased bladder will be removed and replaced with a healthy bladder from a deceased donor.

“Transplantation is a lifesaving treatment option for conditions affecting many major organs, and transplanting a bladder could be a historic step in improving lives,” said Inderbir Gill, MD, founding executive director for USC Urology, part of Keck Medicine. Gill is also the principal investigator of the clinical trial and leading the transplantation efforts. “We could be on the verge of a medical advance that has the potential to revolutionize how we treat terminally compromised bladders.”

Targeting mitochondria and related protein suggest new therapeutic strategy for treating Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS)

Researchers have discovered a receptor, sigma-1 receptor (green), and a protein, ATAD3A (red),  that are associated with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Image Credit: Yamanaka Laboratory

Researchers at Nagoya University in Japan have discovered a receptor, sigma-1 receptor, and a protein, ATAD3A, that are associated with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Since there are drugs that specifically target the receptor, their findings suggest a new therapeutic strategy. They published the study in the journal Neurobiology of Disease

ALS causes degeneration of motor neurons and the resulting muscle atrophy. Some of this degeneration is the result of the dysfunction of mitochondria, the energy-generating organelles of the body. This dysfunction causes a lack of energy in neurons resulting in the characteristic symptoms of the disease.   

The integrity of the mitochondria-associated membrane (MAM) is important for the stability of the mitochondria. The MAM is especially important during the processes of division of mitochondria (called fission) and mitochondria fusing together (called fusion). Several proteins, including enzymes, are associated with these processes and accumulate in the MAM.  

Scientists Identify Antivirals that Could Combat Emerging Infectious Diseases

Aedes aegypti mosquito.
Photo Credit: Pixabay

A new study has identified potential broad-spectrum antiviral agents that can target multiple families of RNA viruses that continue to pose a significant threat for future pandemics. The study, led by Gustavo Garcia Jr. in the UCLA Department of Molecular and Medical Pharmacology, tested a library of innate immune agonists that work by targeting pathogen recognition receptors, and found several agents that showed promise, including one that exhibited potent antiviral activity against members of RNA viral families.

The ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, which has claimed nearly seven million lives globally since it began, has revealed the vulnerabilities of human society to a large-scale outbreak from emerging pathogens. While accurately predicting what will trigger the next pandemic, the authors say recent epidemics as well as global climate change and the continuously evolving nature of the RNA genome indicate that arboviruses, viruses spread by arthropods such as mosquitoes, are prime candidates. These include such as Chikungunya virus (CHIKV), Dengue virus, West Nile virus and Zika virus. The researchers write: “Given their already-demonstrated epidemic potential, finding effective broad-spectrum treatments against these viruses is of the utmost importance as they become potential agents for pandemics.”

In their new study, published in Cell Reports Medicine, researchers found that several antivirals inhibited these arboviruses to varying degrees. “The most potent and broad-spectrum antiviral agents identified in the study were cyclic dinucleotide (CDN) STING agonists, which also hold promise in triggering an immune defense against cancer,” said senior author Vaithi Arumugaswami, Associate Professor in the UCLA Department of Molecular and Medical Pharmacology and a member of the California NanoSystems Institute.

Study unlocks potential breakthrough in Type 1 diabetes treatment

Omid Veiseh and Boram Kim. Kim is holding a medical-grade catheter similar to ones used in the study experiments.
Photo Credit: Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University

For the over 8 million people around the globe living with Type 1 diabetes, getting a host immune system to tolerate the presence of implanted insulin-secreting cells could be life-changing.

Rice University bioengineer Omid Veiseh and collaborators identified new biomaterial formulations that could help turn the page on Type 1 diabetes treatment, opening the door to a more sustainable, long-term, self-regulating way to handle the disease.

To do so, they developed a new screening technique that involves tagging each biomaterial formulation in a library of hundreds with a unique “barcode” before implanting them in live subjects.

According to the study in Nature Biomedical Engineering, using one of the alginate formulations to encapsulate human insulin-secreting islet cells provided long-term blood sugar level control in diabetic mice. Catheters coated with two other high-performing materials did not clog up.

“This work was motivated by a major unmet need,” said Veiseh, a Rice assistant professor of bioengineering and Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas scholar. “In Type 1 diabetes patients, the body’s immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. As those cells are killed off, the patient loses the ability to regulate their blood glucose.”

The world’s first wood transistor

Isak Engquist, senior associate professor and Van Chinh Tran, PhD student at the Laboratory for Organic Electronics at Linköping University.
Photo Credit: Thor Balkhed

Researchers at Linköping University and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology have developed the world’s first transistor made of wood. Their study, published in the journal PNAS, paves the way for further development of wood-based electronics and control of electronic plants.

Transistors, invented almost one hundred years ago, are considered by some to be an invention just as important to humanity as the telephone, the light bulb or the bicycle. Today, they are a crucial component in modern electronic devices, and are manufactured at nanoscale. A transistor regulates the current that passes through it and can also function as a power switch.

Researchers at Linköping University, together with colleagues from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, have now developed the world’s first electrical transistor made of wood.

“We’ve come up with an unprecedented principle. Yes, the wood transistor is slow and bulky, but it does work, and has huge development potential,” says Isak Engquist, senior associate professor at the Laboratory for Organic Electronics at Linköping University.

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Perovskite solar cells' instability must be addressed for global adoption

Photo Credit: Chelsea

Mass adoption of perovskite solar cells will never be commercially viable unless the technology overcomes several key challenges, according to researchers from the University of Surrey. 

Perovskite-based cells are widely believed to be the next evolution of solar energy and meet the growing demand for clean energy. However, they are not as stable as traditional solar-based cells.  

The Surrey team found that stabilizing the perovskite "photoactive phases" – the specific part of the material that is responsible for converting light energy into electrical energy – is the key step to extending the lifespan of perovskite solar cells.  

The stability of the photoactive phase is important because if it degrades or breaks down over time, the solar cell will not be able to generate electricity efficiently. Therefore, stabilizing the photoactive phase is a critical step in improving the longevity and effectiveness of perovskite solar cells. 

‘Spectacular’ new find: Roman military camps in desert found by Oxford archaeologists using Google Earth

An aerial view of the western camp
Photo Credit: APAAME

Three new Roman fortified camps have been identified across northern Arabia by a remote sensing survey by the University of Oxford’s School of Archaeology.  Their paper, published today in the journal Antiquity, reports the discovery may be evidence of a probable undocumented military campaign across south east Jordan into Saudi Arabia.

The camps were identified using satellite images. According to the research team, they may have been part of a previously undiscovered Roman military campaign linked to the Roman takeover of the Nabataean Kingdom in AD 106 CE, a civilization centered on the world-famous city of Petra, located in Jordan.

"These camps are a spectacular new find and an important new insight into Roman campaigning in Arabia."
Dr Mike Bishop

Dr Michael Fradley, who led the research and first identified the camps on Google Earth, suggests there is little doubt about the date of the camps. He says, ‘We are almost certain they were built by the Roman army, given the typical playing card shape of the enclosures with opposing entrances along each side. The only notable difference between them is that the westernmost camp is significantly larger than the two camps to the east.’

Researchers get the drop on new frog species

The Litoria naispela juvenile mimics bird droppings.
Photo Credit: Steve Richards

Five new species of frogs, including one with camouflage that makes it look like bird droppings, have been described by Australian scientists.

Scientists from Griffith University, Queensland Museum and South Australian Museum recently described the five species of treefrogs from Papua New Guinea.

Griffith University scientist Dr Paul Oliver, a joint appointee with Queensland Museum, said the new species highlighted the remarkable and poorly understood diversity of New Guinea frogs.

“These small tree frogs lay their eggs out of the water, typically on leaves, quite different to your typical treefrog, which lay their eggs directly into water,” Dr Oliver said.

Discovering Hidden Order in Disordered Crystals New Material Analysis Method Combining Resonant X-Ray Diffraction and Solid-State NMR

Researchers at Tokyo Tech have discovered hidden chemical order of the Mo and Nb atoms in disordered Ba7Nb4MoO20, by combining state-of-the-art techniques, including resonant X-ray diffraction and solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance. This study provides valuable insights into how a material's properties, such as ionic conduction, can be heavily influenced by its hidden chemical order. These results would stimulate significant advances in materials science and engineering.

Determining the precise structure of a crystalline solid is a challenging endeavor. Materials properties such as ion conduction and chemical stability, are heavily influenced by the chemical (occupational) order and disorder. However, the techniques that scientists typically use to elucidate unknown crystal structures suffer from serious limitations.

For instance, X-ray and neutron diffraction methods are powerful techniques to reveal the atomic positions and arrangement in the crystal lattice. However, they may not be adequate for distinguishing different atomic species with similar X-ray scattering factors and similar neutron scattering lengths.

Twilight zone at risk from climate change

Photo Credit: PublicDomainPictures

Life in the ocean’s “twilight zone” could decline dramatically due to climate change, new research suggests.

The twilight zone (200m to 1,000m deep) gets very little light but is home to a wide variety of organisms and billions of tons of organic matter.

The new study warns that climate change could cause a 20-40% reduction in twilight zone life by the end of the century.

And in a high-emissions future, life in the twilight zone could be severely depleted within 150 years, with no recovery for thousands of years.

“We still know relatively little about the ocean twilight zone, but using evidence from the past we can understand what may happen in the future,” said Dr Katherine Crichton, from the University of Exeter, and lead author of the study.

The research team, made up of paleontologists and ocean modelers, looked at how abundant life was in the twilight zone in past warm climates, using records from preserved microscopic shells in ocean sediments.

How wiggly spaghetti guard the genome

The image shows an artistic impression of the rocky scaffold structure of the nuclear pore complex filled with intrinsically disordered nucleoporins in the central channel depicted as seaweeds. In this work, the viewer dives into the dark hole of the nuclear pore complex to shine light on the disordered nucleoporins.
Illustration Credit: ©: Sara Mingu

Tiny pores in the cell nucleus play an essential role for healthy aging by protecting and preserving the genetic material. A team from the Department of Theoretical Biophysics at the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics in Frankfurt am Main and the Synthetic Biophysics of Protein Disorder group at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) has literally filled a hole in the understanding of the structure and function of these nuclear pores. The scientists found out how intrinsically disordered proteins in the center of the pore can form a spaghetti-like mobile barrier that is permeable for important cellular factors but blocks viruses or other pathogens.

Human cells shield their genetic material inside the cell nucleus, protected by the nuclear membrane. As the control center of the cell, the nucleus must be able to exchange important messenger molecules, metabolites or proteins with the rest of the cell. About 2,000 pores are therefore built into the nuclear membrane, each consisting of about 1,000 proteins.

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Drug for rare form of ALS approved by FDA

A new drug has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a rare, inherited form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Called tofersen, the drug — developed by Biogen Inc. and based in part on research conducted at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis — slows the progression of the deadly, paralyzing disease. 
Video Credit: Huy Mach and Tamara Bhandari

A new drug has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a rare, inherited form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a paralyzing neurological disease. Known as tofersen, the drug has been shown to slow progression of the deadly disease. International clinical trials of tofersen, developed by the global biotechnology company Biogen Inc., were led by a neurologist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Tofersen, also known by the brand name Qalsody, is designed for ALS patients whose disease is caused by mutations in the gene SOD1. In the phase 3 clinical trial, the drug reduced molecular signs of disease and curbed neurodegeneration in the first six months of use. Over longer time frames, some participants experienced a stabilization of muscle strength and control.

The drug is approved under the accelerated approval pathway, under which FDA may approve drugs for serious conditions where there is an unmet medical need and a drug is shown to have an effect on a surrogate endpoint that is reasonably likely to predict a clinical benefit to patients.

Membrane proteins of cyanobacteria and higher organisms are structurally highly similar

SynDLP, the dynamin-like protein of the cyanobacterium Synechocystis, forms highly ordered oligomeric structures that bind to membranes.
Illustration Credit: ©: Lucas Gewehr, Dirk Schneider

The cells of living organisms are equipped with proteins that are involved in the shaping and remodeling of cellular membranes, thereby performing important tasks. The cell membrane encloses the cell interior, but is constantly remodeled, for example, due to membrane budding, invagination, or fusion processes. This also involves various proteins that were long assumed to be present exclusively or predominantly in higher organisms. In the past 10 to 20 years, however, proteins have been identified or predicted to be present also in simple organisms that do not possess a nucleus. In a research collaboration, a protein involved in membrane remodeling in cyanobacteria has now been described for the first time. The existence of such a bacterial protein was suspected, but proof was still pending. The studied protein is likely a bacterial representative of a similar protein found in higher organisms such as animals and plants.

Chest E-Tattoo Boasts Major Improvements in Heart Monitoring

A new flexible, wearable medical device could provide a major boost in the fight against heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States.
Photo Credit: University of Texas at Austin / Cockrell School of Engineering

A team led by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin has developed an ultrathin, lightweight electronic tattoo, or e-tattoo, that attaches to the chest for continuous, mobile heart monitoring outside of a clinical setting. It includes two sensors that together provide a clear picture of heart health, giving clinicians a better chance to catch red flags for heart disease early.

“Most heart conditions are not very obvious. The damage is being done in the background and we don’t even know it,” said Nanshu Lu, a professor in the Department of Aerospace and Engineering Mechanics and a lead author of the study. “If we can have continuous, mobile monitoring at home, then we can do early diagnosis and treatment, and if that can be done, 80% of heart disease can be prevented.”

The study is published in Advanced Electronic Materials.

A 'cocktail' of human antibodies shows promise in fighting severe SARS-CoV-2 infections

Antibody 2A10 (yellow shades) and antibody 1H2 (blue shades) were isolated from a vaccinated research volunteer. The LJI team found these two antibodies can neutralize many SARS-CoV-2 variants.
Illustration Credit: Saphire Lab, La Jolla Institute for Immunology.

An anonymous San Diego resident has become a fascinating example of how the human immune system fights SARS-CoV-2. In a new investigation, scientists from La Jolla Institute for Immunology (LJI) have shown how antibodies, collected from this clinical study volunteer, bind to the SARS-CoV-2 “Spike” protein to neutralize the virus.

Although studies have shown antibodies bound to Spike before, this new research reveals how the original Moderna SARS-CoV-2 vaccine could prompt the body to produce antibodies against the later Omicron variants of SARS-CoV-2. The researchers also captured highly detailed, 3D structures of three promising neutralizing antibodies bound to Spike.

This important work shows exactly where Spike is vulnerable to human antibodies—and how future vaccines and antibody therapeutics might exploit these weaknesses. In fact, studies in mice suggest some of these antibodies may help prevent severe cases of COVID-19.

“To blunt the next pandemic and protect people from seasonal re-emergence of this one, we need antibodies of the broadest possible capacity—ones that are not escaped,” says LJI President and CEO Erica Ollmann Saphire, Ph.D., senior author of the new Cell Reports study. “We found those in a vaccinated San Diegan.”

Toward a Therapy for a Rare Genetic Disease

Researchers have designed a “mini gene” that could eventually be developed into a gene therapy for Usher Syndrome type 1F
Photo Credit: Subin

Usher Syndrome type 1F is a rare but severe genetic disease that causes deafness, lack of balance, and progressive blindness.

Now, a team led by researchers at Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts Eye and Ear, and The Ohio State University has made an important first step toward developing a gene therapy for the disease.

The research, conducted in mice, is described Apr. 26 in Nature Communications.

The scientists designed a “mini gene” — a shortened version of a gene — to replace the gene that is mutated in Usher 1F. The mutation renders hair cells inside the inner ear incapable of producing a key protein involved in sound transmission. In mice, the mini gene increased production of the missing protein, enabling the hair cells to sense sound and restoring hearing.

Because vision loss in Usher 1F involves a slightly different form of the same protein, the researchers say the same approach may be useful for preventing blindness.

“Patients with Usher 1F are born with profound hearing loss and progressive vision loss, and so far, we have been able to offer very few solutions to these families,” said co-senior author Artur Indzhykulian, HMS assistant professor of otolaryngology–head and neck surgery at Mass Eye and Ear.

Brain circuits for locomotion evolved long before appendages and skeletons

The sea slug, Pleurobranchea californica 
Photo Credit: Fred Zwicky

Hundreds of millions of years before the evolution of animals with segmented bodies, jointed skeletons or appendages, soft-bodied invertebrates like sea slugs ruled the seas. A new study finds parallels between the brain architecture that drives locomotion in sea slugs and that of more complex segmented creatures with jointed skeletons and appendages. 

Reported in the Journal of Neuroscience, the study suggests that, rather than developing an entirely new set of neural circuits to govern the movement of segmented body parts, the insects, crustaceans and even vertebrates like mammals adapted a network of neurons, a module, that guided locomotion and posture in much simpler organisms. 

“Sea slugs may still have that module, a smallish network of neurons called the ‘A-cluster,’ with 23 neurons identified so far,” said University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign molecular and integrative physiology professor Rhanor Gillette, who led the new research. 

“The question that we addressed in this study is whether the similarities we see between sea slugs and more complex creatures evolved independently or whether those with segmented body parts and appendages may have inherited their underlying neural circuitry from a soft-bodied, bilaterally symmetrical common ancestor,” he said. 

Predators decrease prey disease levels but also population size

Microscope image showing a phantom midge larva (genus Chaoborus), top left, preying on a Daphnia dentifera water flea, bottom right. Chaoborus is a fierce predator with a complex “catching basket” on its head for quickly trapping small crustaceans like water fleas.
Photo Credit: Meghan Duffy, University of Michigan.

Nature documentaries will tell you that lions, cheetahs, wolves and other top predators target the weakest or slowest animals and that this culling benefits prey herds, whether it’s antelope in Africa or elk in Wyoming.

This idea has been widely accepted by biologists for many years and was formalized in 2003 as the healthy herds hypothesis. It proposes that predators can help prey populations by picking off the sick and injured and leaving healthy, strong animals to reproduce.

The healthy herds hypothesis has even been used to suggest that manipulating predator numbers to protect prey might be a useful conservation strategy. Even so, hard evidence supporting the hypothesis is scarce, and in recent years many of its assumptions and predictions have been questioned.

In a study published online April 26 in the journal Ecology, a University of Michigan-led research team used a pint-sized predator-prey-parasite system inside 20-gallon water tanks to test the healthy herds hypothesis.

Woodpecker helps managers promote new life in burned forests

A male Black-backed Woodpecker at Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge, Brunswick, Vermont, USA.
Photo Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region
(CC BY 2.0)

Scientists have created a tool based on the habitat preferences of the black-backed woodpecker to help forest managers make decisions that promote regrowth and biodiversity following wildfires.

“Wildfire is like a 10,000-piece puzzle, and climate change is rearranging the pieces,” said Andrew Stillman, a postdoctoral researcher at the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and first author of “Incorporating Pyrodiversity into Wildlife Habitat Assessments for RapidPost-Fire Management: A Woodpecker Case Study,” published April 25 in Ecological Applications.

“Gigantic, severe fires are becoming the new norm in California due to drought, longer burn seasons and dense forests. But birds do really well in landscapes that are ‘pyrodiverse’ – areas where fire results in uneven patches burned at high, medium, and low severity,” Stillman said.

Black-backed woodpeckers love pyrodiversity. They prefer to build their nest cavities in newly burned areas after high severity fires. But they also like to be adjacent to areas that burned at low intensity, where their young can hide from predators among living trees that still provide cover. Because of the species’ unique habitat associations, they are sensitive to the removal of trees after fire, and forest managers use information on the woodpecker to guide their post-fire planning.

This killer protein causes pancreatic cancer

Mouse pancreas cells with high levels of the protein SRSF1; CSHL Professor Adrian Krainer found that mice with high levels of SRFS1 tend to exhibit intraepithelial neoplasia—a known precursor to the most common form of pancreatic cancer.
Image Credit: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) is the most common form of pancreatic cancer. It’s also one of the deadliest. More than 90% of PDAC patients die within five years of diagnosis. Usually, by the time the cancer is identified, it has already spread.

“PDAC is often found too late for treatments like chemotherapy and surgery to be very effective,” Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) Professor Adrian Krainer says. “But if we can clearly understand the underlying genetic mechanisms of PDAC, this might lead to earlier diagnoses and new types of therapies.”

Krainer and CSHL Postdoc Ledong Wan partnered with CSHL Professor David Tuveson to explore the role of a genetic process called RNA splicing in pancreatic cancer. RNA splicing helps DNA deliver instructions to cells for protein production. The team zeroed in on a splicing-regulator protein called SRSF1. They found that high levels of SRSF1 cause inflammation, or pancreatitis. This jumpstarts PDAC tumor development.

New black hole images reveal a glowing, fluffy ring and a high-speed jet

Scientists observing the compact radio core of M87 have discovered new details about the galaxy’s supermassive black hole. In this artist’s conception, the black hole’s massive jet is seen rising up from the center of the black hole. The observations on which this illustration is based represent the first time that the jet and the black hole shadow have been imaged together, giving scientists new insights into how black holes can launch these powerful jets. 
Illustration Credit: S. Dagnello (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

In 2017, astronomers captured the first image of a black hole by coordinating radio dishes around the world to act as a single, planet-sized telescope. The synchronized network, known collectively as the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), focused in on M87*, the black hole at the center of the nearby Messier 87 galaxy. The telescope’s laser-focused resolution revealed a very thin glowing ring around a dark center, representing the first visual of a black hole’s shadow. 

Astronomers have now refocused their view to capture a new layer of M87*. The team, including scientists at MIT’s Haystack Observatory, has harnessed another global web of observatories — the Global millimeter VLBI Array (GMVA) — to capture a more zoomed-out view of the black hole.

The new images, taken one year after the EHT’s initial observations, reveal a thicker, fluffier ring that is 50 percent larger than the ring that was first reported. This larger ring is a reflection of the telescope array’s resolution, which was tuned to pick up more of the super-hot, glowing plasma surrounding the black hole. 

Paradoxical quantum phenomenon measured for the first time

Photo Credit: © Thomas Schweigler, TU Wien

How do quantum particles share information? A peculiar conjecture about quantum information has been experimentally confirmed at the TU Wien.

Some things are related, others are not. Suppose you randomly select a person from a crowd who is significantly taller than the average. In that case, there is a good chance that they will also weigh more than the average. Statistically, one quantity also contains some information about the other.

Quantum physics allows for even stronger links between different quantities: different particles or parts of an extensive quantum system can "share" a certain amount of information. There are curious theoretical predictions about this: surprisingly, the measure of this "mutual information" does not depend on the size of the system but only on its surface. This surprising result has been confirmed experimentally at the TU Wien and published in "Nature Physics". Theoretical input to the experiment and its interpretation came from the Max-Planck-Institut für Quantenoptik in Garching, FU Berlin, ETH Zürich and New York University.

Prolonged droughts likely spelled the end for Indus megacities

A section through the Dharamjali stalagmite that the authors studied. 
Photo Credit: Alena Giesche

The beginning of this arid period — starting at around 4,200 years ago and lasting for over two centuries — coincides with the reorganization of the metropolis-building Indus Civilization, which spanned present-day Pakistan and India.

The research identified three protracted droughts — each lasting between 25 and 90 years — during this arid period. “We find clear evidence that this interval was not a short-term crisis but a progressive transformation of the environmental conditions in which Indus people lived,” said study co-author Prof Cameron Petrie, from Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology.

The researchers charted historic rainfall by examining growth layers in a stalagmite collected from a cave near Pithoragarh, India. By measuring a range of environmental tracers — including oxygen, carbon and calcium isotopes — they obtained a reconstruction showing relative rainfall at seasonal resolution. They also used high-precision Uranium-series dating to get a handle on the age and duration of the droughts.

“Multiple lines of evidence allow us to piece together the nature of these droughts from different angles — and confirm they are in agreement,” said lead author of the research Alena Giesche, who conducted the research as part of her PhD in Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences.

Near-universal T cell immunity towards a broad range of bacteria

Neutralizing the bacterially derived cytotoxic bomb: the pneumococci lie in the background, an array of macrophages and dendritic cells are arranged around the central image of a T cell. Rows of TCRs interacting with the identified pneumolysin epitope bound to HLA (white) cross the length and breadth of the artwork, emphasizing their centrality in the immune response.
Illustration Credit: Dr. Erica Tandori.

Typically, T cells of the immune system respond to a specific feature (antigen) of a microbe, thereby generating protective immunity. As reported in the journal Immunity, an international team of scientists have discovered an exception to this rule. Namely, a group of divergent bacterial pathogens, including pneumococci, all share a small highly conserved protein sequence, which is both presented and recognized by human T cells in a conserved population-wide manner.

The study set out to understand immune mechanisms that protect against pneumococcus, a bacterial pathobiont that can reside harmlessly in the upper respiratory mucosae but can also cause infectious disease, especially in infants and older adults, which can range from middle ear and sinus infections to pneumococcal pneumonia and invasive bloodstream infections.

Most currently used pneumococcal polysaccharide-based conjugate vaccines (PCVs) are effective against 10–13 serotypes, but growing serotype replacement becomes a problem.

Versatile, High-Speed, and Efficient Crystal Actuation with Photothermally Resonated Natural Vibrations

Mechanically responsive molecular crystals are extremely useful in soft robotics, which requires a versatile actuation technology. Crystals driven by the photothermal effect are particularly promising for achieving high-speed actuation. However, the response (bending) observed in these crystals is usually small. Now, scientists from Japan address this issue by inducing large resonated natural vibrations in anisole crystals with UV light illumination at the natural vibration frequency of the crystal.

Every material possesses a unique natural vibration frequency such that when an external periodic force is applied to this material close to this frequency, the vibrations are greatly amplified. In the parlance of physics, this phenomenon is known as "resonance." Resonance is ubiquitous in our daily life, and, depending on the context, could be deemed desirable or undesirable. For instance, musical instruments like the guitar relies on resonance for sound amplification. On the other hand, buildings and bridges are more likely to collapse under an earthquake if the ground vibration frequency matches their natural frequency.

Interestingly, natural vibration has not received much attention in material actuation, which relies on the action of mechanically responsive crystals. Versatile actuation technologies are highly desirable in the field of soft robotics. Although crystal actuation based on processes like photoisomerization and phase transitions have been widely studied, these processes lack versatility since they require specific crystals to work. One way to improve versatility is by employing photothermal crystals, which show bending due to light-induced heating. While promising for achieving high-speed actuation, the bending angle is usually small (<0.5°), making the actuation inefficient.

Scientists discover rare element in exoplanet’s atmosphere

Illustration Credit: Bibiana Prinoth

The rare metal terbium has been found in an exoplanet’s atmosphere for the first time. The researchers at Lund University in Sweden have also developed a new method for analyzing exoplanets, making it possible to study them in more detail.

KELT-9 b is the galaxy’s hottest exoplanet, orbiting its distant star about 670 light years from Earth. The celestial body, with an average temperature of a staggering 4,000 degrees Celsius, has excited the world's astronomers since its discovery in 2016. A new study in Astronomy & Astrophysics reveals discoveries about the scalding-hot oddball's atmosphere.

“We have developed a new method that makes it possible to obtain more detailed information. Using this, we have discovered seven elements, including the rare substance terbium, which has never before been found in any exoplanet's atmosphere”, says Nicholas Borsato, PhD student in astrophysics at Lund University.

Terbium is a rare earth metal that belongs to the so-called lanthanoids. The substance was discovered in 1843 by the Swedish chemist Carl Gustaf Mosander in the Ytterby mine in the Stockholm archipelago. The substance is very rare in nature, and 99 percent of the world's terbium production today takes place in the Bayan Obo mining district in Inner Mongolia.

Material found in smartphone screens can be harnessed to map magnetic fields

Existing magnetic field imaging equipment tends to be large and expensive, but this research marks the next step in the development of quantum sensing.
Photo Credit: Rodion Kutsaiev

Hand-held magnetic field imaging equipment could be used in construction safety and medical diagnostics.

Smartphones could one day become portable quantum sensors thanks to a new chip-scale approach that uses organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) to image magnetic fields, with significant implications for use in healthcare and industry settings.  

UNSW researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Exciton Science have demonstrated that OLEDs, a type of semiconductor material commonly found in flat-screen televisions, smartphone screens and other digital displays, can be harnessed to map magnetic fields. 

The latest research, led by Dr Rugang Geng and Professor Dane McCamey from the UNSW School of Physics, has been detailed in Nature Communications

How to increase the chance of survival in older patients with head and neck cancer

Prof. Dr. Nils Nicolay,
Photo Credit: Stefan Straube

Should patients over the age of 70 with head and neck cancer receive aggressive combined radiotherapy and chemotherapy? This is a controversial issue among patients, their families and health professionals. A large-scale international study involving Leipzig University Hospital proves the effectiveness of this combined treatment in older patients. The findings have recently been published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

As a result of demographic change, the proportion of older oncology patients is rising sharply. Compared to younger patients, cancer treatment is highly individualized due to more frequent and sometimes severe comorbidities, increasing age-related infirmities and reduced physical fitness. It is also important to consider the side effects of treatment, which can affect quality of life. The standard treatment for head and neck cancer is either surgical removal of the tumor followed by radiotherapy, or organ-preserving radiotherapy in combination with chemotherapy. The use of concomitant chemotherapy is particularly controversial because of the physical strain and side effects in older patients. So far, there is only a limited amount of trial data on the best treatment.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

COVID-19 vaccine appears more effective if received around midday

A new study led by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis suggests that circadian rhythm — the natural cycle of physical and other changes our bodies go through in a 24-hour period — may affect the body’s response to the COVID-19 vaccine. The research suggests that vaccines given around the middle of the day may prevent more infections than those given at other times.
Image Credit: Scientific Frontline

A study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis indicates that the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine may be more effective at preventing infections if doses are given around the middle of the day rather than at other times. The researchers believe circadian rhythm — the natural cycle of physical and other changes our bodies go through in a 24-hour period — may affect the body’s response to the vaccine.

Further, they found that the correlation was strongest in children and teenagers, as well as adults over age 50.

The study is published April 25 in The Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Horses living in groups are better at following human indications than horses living in individual paddocks

An illustration and photo of the research situation.
Photo Credit: Océane Liehrmann

Wild horses live in complex social groups and can move an average distance of 9–16 kilometers in a day, and cover areas up to 40 km2 in one summer. In contrast, domestic horses are kept in enclosures and groups varying in size and even in individual stalls or small paddocks.

Horses living in bigger fields or pastures are more active – they are free to move according to their needs and, for example, to look for shade or shelter against wind and rain. When living in a group, horses can fulfil their social needs, interact in complex ways with many individuals, and have enough space to avoid unwanted interactions.

“It has been observed in earlier studies that horses with access to a pasture with other horses showed better learning performance and were less aggressive towards humans than horses kept in individual stables. Therefore, we wanted to explore whether horses’ social and physical environment affect their responsiveness to human indications,” says the lead author of the study, Doctoral Researcher Océane Liehrmann from the Department of Biology at the University of Turku, Finland.

SwRI tests automated vehicles in virtual off-road environments

A virtual unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) in a simulated 3D scene rendered from a real location based on geographical data.
Image Credit: Courtesy of SwRI

Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) has created a 3D simulation tool to test automated vehicles in virtual off-road environments modeled after real-world conditions. The research expands SwRI’s investment into software-in-the-loop solutions to test connected and automated vehicles (CAVs) in scenarios ranging from congested roadways to off-road terrain. A simulated environment, or a 3D “software loop,” supports evaluations of an infinite number of scenarios that would be cost-prohibitive to test in the real world.

The technology meets U.S. Department of Defense demands for modeling and simulation tools to help advance the development of unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), the military term for automated or autonomous vehicles.

SwRI used internal funding to develop a “pipeline” of technology with custom algorithms, off-the-shelf software, open-source tools and public map data. The project developed a “Simulation Scene Adjustment Tool” with a 3D video game-style interface to test virtual ground vehicles on off-road terrain. The simulator also creates a digital twin, a virtual representation of an automated vehicle that looks and behaves like its counterpart in the real world.

Hunting for microbes in the global ocean

Hunting for microbes in the global ocean. Sampling of seawater is performed with Niskin Bottles, which are cylindrical container used in oceanography to collect water samples containing microbes at various depths, triggered to snap shut at the desired depth.
Photo Credit: © 2022 Federico Baltar

A team of international researchers led by Federico Baltar of the University of Vienna and José M González of the University of La Laguna has identified a previously unknown group of bacteria, called UBA868, as key players in the energy cycle of the deep ocean. They are significantly involved in the biogeochemical cycle in the marine layer between 200 and 1000 meters. The results have now been published in the journal Nature Microbiology.

The deep sea, the marine layer at depths of 200 meters and more, accounts for about 90 percent of the world's ocean volume. It forms the largest habitat on Earth and is home to the largest number of microorganisms. These microorganisms contribute significantly to the biogeochemical cycles. They extract organic material, for example from phytoplankton and zooplankton, transform it and make it available again to the ecosystem as nutrients. In this way, they play a major role in the fixation and cycling of carbon. Dissolved sulfur compounds are also converted by bacteria and returned to the material cycle. 

Scientists Create a Longer-Lasting Exciton that May Open New Possibilities in Quantum Information Science

Alessandra Lanzara at Berkeley Lab.
Photo Credit: Mark Joseph Hanson

In a new study, scientists have observed long-lived excitons in a topological material, opening intriguing new research directions for optoelectronics and quantum computing. 

Excitons are charge-neutral quasiparticles created when light is absorbed by a semiconductor. Consisting of an excited electron coupled to a lower-energy electron vacancy or hole, an exciton is typically short-lived, surviving only until the electron and hole recombine, which limits its usefulness in applications. 

“If we want to make progress in quantum computing and create more sustainable electronics, we need longer exciton lifetimes and new ways of transferring information that don’t rely on the charge of electrons,” said Alessandra Lanzara, who led the study. Lanzara is a senior faculty scientist at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and a UC Berkeley physics professor. “Here we’re leveraging topological material properties to make an exciton that is long lived and very robust to disorder.” 

In a topological insulator, electrons can only move on the surface. By creating an exciton in such a material, the researchers hoped to achieve a state in which an electron trapped on the surface was coupled to a hole that remained confined in the bulk. Such a state would be spatially indirect – extending from the surface into the bulk – and could retain the special spin properties inherent to topological surface states. 

A simple paper test could offer early cancer diagnosis

MIT engineers have designed a new nanoparticle sensor that can enable cancer diagnosis with a simple urine test. The nanoparticles (blue) carry DNA barcodes (zigzag lines) that can be cleaved by cancer-associated proteases in the body (pac-man shapes). Once cleaved, the DNA barcodes can be detected in a urine sample.
Illustration Credit: Courtesy of the researchers. Edited by MIT News

MIT engineers have designed a new nanoparticle sensor that could enable early diagnosis of cancer with a simple urine test. The sensors, which can detect many different cancerous proteins, could also be used to distinguish the type of a tumor or how it is responding to treatment.

The nanoparticles are designed so that when they encounter a tumor, they shed short sequences of DNA that are excreted in the urine. Analyzing these DNA “barcodes” can reveal distinguishing features of a particular patient’s tumor. The researchers designed their test so that it can be performed using a strip of paper, similar to an at-home Covid test, which they hope could make it affordable and accessible to as many patients as possible.

“We are trying to innovate in a context of making technology available to low- and middle-resource settings. Putting this diagnostic on paper is part of our goal of democratizing diagnostics and creating inexpensive technologies that can give you a fast answer at the point of care,” says Sangeeta Bhatia, the John and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and Institute for Medical Engineering and Science.

Study links nutrients, brain structure, cognition in healthy aging

In a study of older adults, a research team led by, from left, Christopher Zwilling, Tanveer Talukdar and Aron Barbey found that blood markers of two saturated fatty acids, along with certain omega-6, -7 and -9 fatty acids, correlated with better scores on tests of memory and were associated with larger brain structures in the frontal, temporal, parietal and insular cortices. 
Photo Credit: Fred Zwicky

In a new study, scientists explored the links between three measures known to independently predict healthy aging: nutrient intake, brain structure and cognitive function. Their analysis adds to the evidence that these factors jointly contribute to brain health in older adults. 

Reported in the Journal of Nutrition, the study found that blood markers of two saturated fatty acids, along with certain omega-6, -7 and -9 fatty acids, correlated with better scores on tests of memory and with larger brain structures in the frontal, temporal, parietal and insular cortices. 

While other studies have found one-to-one associations between individual nutrients or classes of nutrients and specific brain regions or functions, very little research takes a comprehensive look at brain health, cognition and broad dietary patterns overall, said Aron Barbey, a professor of psychology, bioengineering and neuroscience at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who led the study with postdoctoral researcher Tanveer Talukdar and psychology research scientist Chris Zwilling. The three co-authors are all affiliated with the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the U. of I. 

Antimicrobial use in agriculture can breed bacteria resistant to first-line human defenses

E. coli bacteria
Image Credit: itstheeighthhorcrux

A new study led by the University of Oxford has shown that overuse of antimicrobials in livestock production can drive the evolution of bacteria more resistant to the first line of the human immune response. The results, published today in the journal eLife, indicate that farmed pigs and chickens could harbor large reservoirs of cross-resistant bacteria, capable of fueling future epidemics.

Drug-resistant infections are one of the most serious threats to global health, and there is an urgent need to develop new, effective antimicrobials. One promising solution could be antimicrobial peptides (AMPs). These are compounds naturally produced by most living organisms, including animals, and have important roles in innate immunity, our first line of defense against bacterial infections.

However, some AMPs are also used widely in livestock production, both to control infections and as growth promoters. This has raised concerns that agricultural AMP use may generate cross-resistant bacteria that could then overcome the human innate immune response.

 In this new study, led by the University of Oxford, researchers have demonstrated that evolution of such cross-resistant bacteria is not only possible, but also highly likely.

Condensed Matter Physics Inspires a New Model of Cellular Behavior

Model illustrating how cells exert pressure on one another, leading to extrusion.
Image Credit: Courtesy of S. Monfared

Cells are expert cooperators and collaborators. To maintain tissue health, cells talk to each other, exert pressure on each other, and kick out cells that are not contributing to the overall well-being of the collective. When it's time to get rid of a cell, the collective group initiates a process called cell extrusion. Cells can be extruded for a number of reasons—they could be cancerous, or old, or they simply could be overcrowding other cells. Extrusion is a necessary process for tissues to maintain health and integrity.

Biologists have long studied the biochemical cues and signals that underly cell extrusion, but the mechanical, physical forces involved are poorly understood.

Now, inspired by the mechanics of a phase of matter called liquid crystals, researchers have developed the first three-dimensional model of a layer of cells and the extrusion behavior that emerges from their physical interactions. From this new model, the team discovered that the more a cell is squeezed by its neighbors in a particular symmetric way, the more likely it is to get extruded from the group.

Mysterious underwater acoustic world of British ponds revealed in new study

Old Sneed Park
Photo Credit: Dr Jack Greenhalgh

The previously hidden and diverse underwater acoustic world in British ponds has been revealed by a team of researchers at the University of Bristol.

Ponds are magnets for life and a lot of that life is very noisy. Water beetles, bugs, fish, frogs, and even aquatic plants all produce sound creating a diverse underwater orchestra that scientists are only just starting to understand.

Acoustic monitoring has been shown to effectively survey birds and monkeys in rainforests, and marine mammals in the oceans. However, freshwater environments have remained largely unexplored despite their diverse soundscapes.

“Ponds are packed full of bizarre and mysterious sounds made by scratching aquatic insects, booming fish, and popping plants. It’s like an underwater disco!” explained lead author Dr Jack Greenhalgh from Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences.

To better understand these mysterious soundscapes, the team collected 840 hours of underwater sound recordings from five ponds in the southwest of England using an underwater microphone (a hydrophone).

Genetically Modified Plants Grow Better in Arid and Saline Conditions

Tobacco is one of the most well-studied plants by scientists.
Photo Credit: Rodion Narudinov

Russian scientists have modified tobacco. They added the AtGSTF11 gene and improved the plant's resistance to adverse conditions. These adverse conditions include low temperatures, drought and salty soil. Model plants with the new gene used in the experiments showed increased vitality. The scientists have published a description of their experiments in the Russian Journal of Plant Physiology.

Plant stress (caused by a variety of factors - drought, temperature, contaminated soil, etc.) ends at the cellular level with oxidative stress: reactive oxygen species are formed in the cell. They destroy proteins, disrupt the structure of DNA and lead to cell death or interfere with vital functions, the scientists add. There are cellular mechanisms that prevent the development of oxidative stress - low-molecular antioxidant compounds, proteins (antioxidant enzymes), glutathione.

"Glutathione is a short sulfur-containing peptide that plays an important role in protecting plants from stress. It is formed, then cycled into oxidized and reduced forms, and so on. This is the glutathione cycle. In this process, reactive oxygen species are eliminated and plant cells do not die. A number of genes are involved in this cycle. We added another gene, glutathione S-transferase, and got a more viable plant," says Bulat Kuluev, Head of the Plant Genomics Laboratory at the Institute of Biochemistry and Genetics (Subdivision of the Ufa Federal Research Centre of the Russian Academy of Sciences).

Highly sensitive Raman probe detects enzyme expression in heterogeneous tissues

Raman imaging offers a greater potential for detecting multiple enzyme activities than fluorescence imaging, demonstrate Tokyo Tech researchers by developing 9CN-rhodol-based activatable Raman probes using a novel mechanism for Raman signal activation. The strategy allows a synthesis of highly activatable Raman probes with high aggregation and multiplexing ability, making it a promising tool for extending the range of Raman probes for the detection of multiple enzyme activities in heterogeneous biological tissues.

The involvement of enzymes in a wide range of biological activities makes them ideal biomarkers for the detection of diseases. In fact, cancer-specific diagnostic technologies use fluorescence imaging for detecting upregulated cancer-associated enzymes in the affected cells. Moreover, since tumor tissues are heterogenous, detecting multiple enzyme activities simultaneously could allow precise cancer visualization and diagnosis. However, the inability to detect multiple enzyme activities can potentially limit the application of fluorescence imaging in heterogeneous tumor tissues and other complex biological phenomena.

Super-charged textile sets trends

The fabric becomes conductive when coated with with a special 'breathable' metallic layer.
Photo Credit: Flinders University

Scientists from around the world have developed a simple metallic coating treatment for clothing or wearable textiles which can repair itself, repel bacteria from the wearer and even monitor a person’s electrocardiogram (ECG) heart signals. 

Researchers from North Carolina State University, Flinders University and South Korea say the conductive circuits created by liquid metal (LM) particles can transform wearable electronics and open doors for further development of human-machine interfaces, including soft robotics and health monitoring systems.  

The ‘breathable’ electronic textiles have special connectivity powers to ‘autonomously heal’ itself even when cut, says the US team led by international expert in the field, Professor Michael Dickey. 

When the coated textiles are pressed with significant force, the particles merge into a conductive path, which enables the creation of circuits that can maintain conductivity when stretched. 

Monday, April 24, 2023

Researchers Identify a New Genetic Culprit in Canine Bladder Cancers

Photo Credit: Lucie Helešicová

Researchers have identified new genetic mutations linked to a subset of canine bladder cancers. Their findings have implications both for early cancer detection and for targeted treatments in dogs and humans.

Previous research showed that 85% of canine urothelial carcinomas (a type of bladder cancer) share a specific mutation in a gene named BRAF. This mutation (known as V595E) is caused by an error in BRAF’s genetic code, where a normal ‘T’ nucleotide in the DNA sequence is substituted by an ‘A’. The BRAF V595E mutation results in abnormal activation of a genetic signaling pathway called MAPK, leading to uncontrolled cellular growth, or proliferation.

“Essentially, BRAF V595E generates an abnormal protein that instructs the cells to keep dividing, forming a tumor. So, if this single nucleotide substitution in the BRAF gene is detected in 85% of all canine urothelial carcinomas, why is it not in all of them?” asks Matthew Breen, Oscar J. Fletcher Distinguished Professor of Comparative Oncology Genetics at North Carolina State University and corresponding author of the research. “Pathologists see no difference between those cancers with this mutation and those without, so what’s going on with that other 15%?”

Pioneering research sheds new light on the origins and composition of planet Mars

The InSight mission’s seismometer, though coated by several years of Martian dust, was able to capture recordings of seismic events from the far side of the planet. NASA's InSight Mars lander acquired this image of the area in front of the lander using its lander-mounted Instrument Context Camera (ICC).
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A new study has uncovered intriguing insights into the liquid core at the center of Mars, furthering understanding of the planet’s formation and evolution.

The research, led by the University of Bristol and published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the US, reveals the first-ever detections of sound waves travelling into the Martian core. Measurements from this acoustic energy, called seismic waves, indicate its liquid core is slightly denser and smaller than previously thought, and comprises a mixture of iron and numerous other elements.

The findings are all the more remarkable, as the research mission was initially only scheduled to last for a little over one Mars year (two Earth years). Despite Martian storms hastening the accumulation of dust and reducing power to the NASA InSight Mars lander, NASA extended its stay, so geophysical data, including signals of marsquakes, continued to be gathered until the end of last year.

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