. Scientific Frontline: May 2023

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Fossil of mosasaur with bizarre “screwdriver teeth” found in Morocco

The strange ridges on the teeth indicate a specialised feeding strategy, however its diet remains a mystery.
Photo Credit: Dr Nick Longrich

Scientists have discovered a new species of mosasaur, a sea-dwelling lizard from the age of the dinosaurs, with strange, ridged teeth unlike those of any known reptile. Along with other recent finds from Africa, it suggests that mosasaurs and other marine reptiles were evolving rapidly up until 66 million years ago, when they were wiped out by an asteroid along with the dinosaurs and around 90% of all species on Earth.

The new species, Stelladens mysterious, comes from the Late Cretaceous of Morocco and was around twice the size of a dolphin.

It had a unique tooth arrangement with blade-like ridges running down the teeth, arranged in a star-shaped pattern, reminiscent of a cross-head screwdriver.

Most mosasaurs had two bladelike, serrated ridges on the front and back of the tooth to help cut prey, however Stelladens had anywhere from four to six of these blades running down the tooth.

“It’s a surprise,” said Dr Nick Longrich from the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath, who led the study. “It’s not like any mosasaur, or any reptile, even any vertebrate we’ve seen before.”

Past climate change to blame for Antarctica’s giant underwater landslides

Dr Jenny Gales (right) and Professor Rob McKay examine the half-section of a core recovered from the Antarctic seabed
Photo Credit: Justin Dodd

Scientists have discovered the cause of giant underwater landslides in Antarctica which they believe could have generated tsunami waves that stretched across the Southern Ocean.

An international team of researchers, led by Dr Jenny Gales from the University of Plymouth, uncovered layers of weak, fossilized and biologically-rich sediments hundreds of meters beneath the seafloor.

These formed beneath extensive areas of underwater landslides, many of which cut more than 100 meters into the seabed.

Writing in Nature Communications, the scientists say these weak layers – made up of historic biological material – made the area susceptible to failure in the face of earthquakes and other seismic activity.

They also highlight that the layers formed at a time when temperatures in Antarctica were up to 3°C warmer than they are today, when sea levels were higher and ice sheets much smaller than at present.

Researchers identify 10 pesticides toxic to neurons involved in Parkinson’s

Photo Credit: Rosyid Arifin

Researchers at UCLA Health and Harvard have identified 10 pesticides that significantly damaged neurons implicated in the development of Parkinson’s disease, providing new clues about environmental toxins’ role in the disease.

While environmental factors such as pesticide exposure have long been linked to Parkinson’s, it has been harder to pinpoint which pesticides may raise risk for the neurodegenerative disorder. Just in California, the nation’s largest agricultural producer and exporter, there are nearly 14,000 pesticide products with over 1,000 active ingredients registered for use.

Through a novel pairing of epidemiology and toxicity screening that leveraged California’s extensive pesticide use database, UCLA and Harvard researchers were able to identify 10 pesticides that were directly toxic to dopaminergic neurons. The neurons play a key role in voluntary movement, and the death of these neurons is a hallmark of Parkinson’s.

Further, the researchers found that co-exposure of pesticides that are typically used in combinations in cotton farming were more toxic than any single pesticide in that group.

'Charge Density Wave' Linked to Atomic Distortions in Would-be Superconductor

This image shows the positions of atoms (blue spheres) that make up the crystal lattice of a copper-oxide superconductor, superimposed on a map of electronic charge distribution (yellow is high charge density, dark spots are low) in charge-ordered states. Normally, the atoms can vibrate side-to-side (shadows represent average locations when vibrating). But when cooled to the point where the ladder-like charge density wave appears, the atomic positions shift along the "rungs" and the vibrations cease, locking the atoms in place. Understanding these charge-ordered states may help scientists unlock other interactions that trigger superconductivity at lower temperatures.
Illustration Credit: Courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory

Precision measurements reveal connection between electron density and atomic arrangements in charge-ordered states of a superconducting copper-oxide material

What makes some materials carry current with no resistance? Scientists are trying to unravel the complex characteristics. Harnessing this property, known as superconductivity, could lead to perfectly efficient power lines, ultrafast computers, and a range of energy-saving advances. Understanding these materials when they aren’t superconducting is a key part of the quest to unlock that potential.

“To solve the problem, we need to understand the many phases of these materials,” said Kazuhiro Fujita, a physicist in the Condensed Matter Physics & Materials Science Department of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory. In a new study just published in Physical Review X, Fujita and his colleagues sought to find an explanation for an oddity observed in a phase that coexists with the superconducting phase of a copper-oxide superconductor.

Scientists unearth forgotten children of the past

One of the team of scientists analyzing hair under the microscope
Photo Credit: Courtesy of University of York

Scientists have unearthed a story of forgotten children of the past, providing the first direct evidence of the lives of early nineteenth-century ‘pauper apprentices'.

A team from the University of York in collaboration with Durham University and volunteer researchers at Washburn Heritage Centre, examined human remains from a rural churchyard cemetery in the village of Fewston, North Yorkshire. 

Analysis

The analysis discovered the skeletal remains of over 150 individuals, including an unusually large proportion of children aged between eight and 20 years. 

Early analysis immediately identified the children as being distinctive from the locals, showing signs of stunted growth and malnutrition, as well as evidence of diseases associated with hazardous labor. 

The team of scientists, working together with local historians, have been able to piece together the story of these forgotten children, transported from workhouses in London and indentured to work long hours in the mills of the North of England. They were used as an expendable and cheap source of labor.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Adult Friendships Can Triumph Over Childhood Trauma, Even in Baboons

Members of a baboon group in Amboseli, Kenya, relax and groom together, a baboon's way of social bonding.
Photo Credit: Susan C. Alberts, Duke University

Decades of research show that experiencing traumatic things as a child -- such as having an alcoholic parent or growing up in a tumultuous home -- puts you at risk for poorer health and survival later in life.

But mounting evidence suggests that forging strong social relationships can help mitigate these effects. And not just for people, but for our primate cousins, too.

Drawing on 36 years of data, a new study of nearly 200 baboons in southern Kenya finds that adversity early in life can take years off their lifespan, but strong social bonds with other baboons in adulthood can help get them back.

“It’s like the saying from the King James Apocrypha, ‘a faithful friend is the medicine of life,’” said senior author Susan Alberts, professor of biology and evolutionary anthropology at Duke University.

Baboons who had challenging childhoods were able to reclaim two years of life expectancy by forming strong friendships.

The findings were published May 17 in the journal Science Advances.

New study explains how a common virus can cause multiple sclerosis

Olivia Thomas and Mattias Bronge
Photo Credit: Erik Holmgren

Researchers at Karolinska Institutet have found further evidence for how the Epstein-Barr virus can trigger multiple sclerosis or drive disease progression. A study published in Science Advances shows that some individuals have antibodies against the virus that mistakenly attacks a protein in the brain and spinal cord.

The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infects most people early in life and then remains in the body, usually without causing symptoms. The link between EBV and the neurological disease multiple sclerosis (MS) was discovered many years ago and has puzzled researchers ever since. Increasing evidence, including two papers published in Science and Nature last year, suggests that EBV infection precedes MS and that antibodies against the virus may be involved. However, the molecular mechanisms seem to vary between patients and remain largely unknown.

“MS is an incredibly complex disease, but our study provides an important piece in the puzzle and could explain why some people develop the disease,” says Olivia Thomas, postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet and shared first author of the paper. “We have discovered that certain antibodies against the Epstein-Barr virus, which would normally fight the infection, can mistakenly target the brain and spinal cord and cause damage.”

How Breast Cancer Arises

Breast cancer: polyploid giant cancer cell (PGCC)
Image Credit: National Cancer Institute

In what may turn out to be a long-missing piece in the puzzle of breast cancer, Harvard Medical School researchers have identified the molecular sparkplug that ignites cases of the disease currently unexplained by the classical model of breast-cancer development.

A report on the team’s work is published May 17 in Nature.

“We have identified what we believe is the original molecular trigger that initiates a cascade culminating in breast tumor development in a subset of breast cancers that are driven by estrogen,” said study senior investigator Peter Park, professor of Biomedical Informatics in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS.

The researchers said as many as one-third of breast cancer cases may arise through the newly identified mechanism.

The study also shows that the sex hormone estrogen is the culprit behind this molecular dysfunction because it directly alters a cell’s DNA.

Most, though not all, breast cancers are fueled by hormonal fluctuations. The prevailing view of estrogen’s role in breast cancer is that it acts as a catalyst for cancer growth because it stimulates the division and proliferation of breast tissue, a process that carries the risk for cancer-causing mutations. The new work, however, shows that estrogen causes mischief in a far more direct manner.

Genetic research offers new perspective on the early evolution of animals

Some representatives of comb jellies - (a) Beroe ovata, (b) Euplokamis sp., (c) Nepheloctena sp., (d) Bathocyroe fosteri, (e) Mnemiopsis leidyi, and (f) Ocyropsis sp.
Image Credits: a, b, e, f: Joseph F. Ryan; c: R. Griswold, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; d: Marsh Youngbluth, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Mapping gene linkages provides clear-cut evidence for comb jellies as sibling group to all other animals

A study published by University of Vienna and MBARI researchers and their collaborators today in Nature provides new insights into one of the earliest points in animal evolution that happened more than 700 million years ago.

For more than a century, scientists have been working to understand the pivotal moment when an ancient organism gave rise to the diverse array of animals in the world today. As technology and science have advanced, scientists have investigated two alternative hypotheses for which animals—sponges or comb jellies, also known as ctenophores—were most distantly related to all other animals. Identifying this outlier—known as the sibling group—has long eluded scientists.

In the new study, a team of researchers from MBARI, the University of Vienna, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, Santa Cruz, mapped sets of genes that are always found together on a single chromosome, in everything from humans and hamsters to crabs and corals, to provide clear evidence that comb jellies are the sibling group to all other animals. Understanding the relationships among animals will help shape our thinking about how key features of animal anatomy, such as the nervous system or digestive tract, have evolved over time.

Radio signal reveals supernova origin

Artist impression of the double star system with a compact white dwarf star accreting matter from a helium-rich donor companion, surrounded by dense and dusty circumstellar material. It was the interaction of the exploded star and the material left over from this companion that gave rise to the strong radio signal, the conspicuous helium lines in the optical spectra and the infrared emission from SN 2020eyj.
Video Credit: Adam Makarenko/W. M. Keck Observatory

In the latest issue of the journal Nature, an international team including astronomers from University of Turku reveal the origin of a thermonuclear supernova explosion. Strong emission lines of helium and the first detection of such a supernova in radio waves show that the exploding white dwarf star had a helium-rich companion.

Thermonuclear (Type Ia) supernovae are important for astronomers since they are used to measure the expansion of the Universe. However, the origin of these explosions remains an open question. While it is established that the explosion is that of a compact white dwarf star somehow accreting too much matter from a companion star, the exact process and the nature of the progenitor is not known. The new discovery of supernova SN 2020eyj established that the companion star was a so-called helium star that had lost much of its material just prior to the explosion of the white dwarf.

“Once we saw the signatures of strong interaction with the material from the companion, we tried to detect it also in radio emission”, explains Erik Kool, post-doc at the Department of Astronomy at Stockholm University and lead author of the paper. “The detection in radio is actually the first one of a Type Ia supernova – something astronomers have tried to do for decades.”

Scales or feathers? It all comes down to a few genes

From left to right: Rory Cooper, a post-doctoral researcher in Michel Milinkovitch’s laboratory, and Michel Milinkovitch, professor in the Department of Genetics and Evolution at the Faculty of Science of the UNIGE. 
Photo Credit: UNIGE

Scales, spines, feathers and hair are examples of vertebrate skin appendages, which constitute a remarkably diverse group of micro-organs. Despite their natural multitude of forms, these appendages share early developmental processes at the embryonic stage. Two researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) have discovered how to permanently transform the scales that normally cover the feet of chickens into feathers, by specifically modifying the expression of certain genes. These results, published in the journal Science Advances, open new perspectives for studying mechanisms that have enabled radical evolutionary transitions in form among species.

The skin of terrestrial vertebrates is adorned with diverse keratinized appendages, such as hair, feathers, and scales. Despite the diversity of forms within and among species, the embryonic development of skin appendages typically begins in a very similar way. Indeed, all of these structures develop from cells that produce a localized thickening on the skin surface and express particular genes. One of these genes, called Sonic hedgehog (Shh), controls a signaling pathway - a communication system that allows the transmission of messages within and between cells. Shh signaling is involved in the development of diverse structures, including the neural tube, limb buds and skin appendages.

New Model for Human Evolution Suggests Homo Sapiens Arose from Multiple Closely Related Populations

View of the village of Kuboes, on the border of South Africa and Namibia. DNA samples were collected from Nama individuals who have historically lived in the region.
Photo Credit: Brenna Henn/UC Davis

In testing the genetic material of current populations in Africa and comparing against existing fossil evidence of early Homo sapiens populations there, researchers have uncovered a new model of human evolution — overturning previous beliefs that a single African population gave rise to all humans. The new research was published today, May 17, in the journal Nature.

Although it is widely understood that Homo sapiens originated in Africa, uncertainty surrounds how branches of human evolution diverged and how people migrated across the continent, said Brenna Henn, professor of anthropology and the Genome Center at UC Davis, corresponding author of the research.

“This uncertainty is due to limited fossil and ancient genomic data, and to the fact that the fossil record does not always align with expectations from models built using modern DNA,” she said. “This new research changes the origin of species.”

Research co-led by Henn and Simon Gravel of McGill University tested a range of competing models of evolution and migration across Africa proposed in the paleoanthropological and genetics literature, incorporating population genome data from southern, eastern and western Africa.

Are Earth and Venus the only volcanic planets? Not anymore.

LP 791-18 d is an Earth-size world about 90 light-years away. The gravitational tug from a more massive planet in the system, shown as a blue disk in the background, may result in internal heating and volcanic eruptions – as much as Jupiter’s moon Io, the most geologically active body in the solar system.
Illustration Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith/KRBwyle

Imagine an Earth-sized planet that’s not at all Earth-like. Half this world is locked in permanent daytime, the other half in permanent night, and it’s carpeted with active volcanoes. Astronomers have discovered that planet. 

The planet, named LP 791-18d, orbits a small red dwarf star about 90 light years away. Volcanic activity makes the discovery particularly notable for astronomers because volcanism facilitates interaction between a world’s interior and its exterior.

“Why is volcanism important? It is the major source contributing to a planetary atmosphere, and with an atmosphere you could have surface liquid water — a requirement for sustaining life as we know it,” said UC Riverside astrophysicist Stephen Kane. 

Astronomers already knew about two other worlds in this star system, LP 791-18b and c. The outer planet, c, is about 2.5 times Earth’s size, and nearly nine times its mass. 

Researchers develop new method to synthesize cannabis plant compound

Photo Credit: Matthew Brodeur

A group of researchers at Leipzig University has developed a new method for synthesizing cis-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – a natural substance found in the cannabis plant that produces the characteristic psychoactive effect and has many potential applications, including in the pharmaceutical industry. “Our strategy makes it possible to produce cis-tetrahydrocannabinoids and test them for their biological activity,” explains researcher Caroline Dorsch, who, together with Professor Christoph Schneider from the Institute of Organic Chemistry, has published her findings in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

She points out that until now there has been no way of synthesizing this structural class in a consistent way. With their simple, inexpensive and nature-based synthesis, the Leipzig researchers have for the first time made the substance class of cis-tetrahydrocannabinoids accessible for a broad range of applications. The researcher notes that because previous methods required many steps and large amounts of chemicals and solvents, their approach is clearly superior. The substance can be synthesized with high overall yields and excellent optical purities using the new method.  

Study Finds Carrying Pollen Heats Up Bumble Bees, Raising New Climate Change Questions

Photo Credit: Malia Naumchik.

A new study from North Carolina State University finds carrying pollen is a workout that significantly increases the body temperature of bumble bees. This new understanding of active bumble bee body temperatures raises questions about how these species will be impacted by a warmer world due to climate change.

Spend a bit of time at a nearby flower patch and you will spot a fuzzy bumble bee with yellow bumps on her back legs. These yellow bumps are solid packets of pollen that have been carefully collected during the bees’ foraging trip for transport back to their nests. And while bees may seem to move from flower to flower with ease, these pollen packets can weigh up to a third of their body weight. This new study found that – after accounting for environmental temperature and body size – the body temperature of bumble bees carrying pollen was significantly hotter than the temperature of bees that were empty-legged.

Specifically, the researchers found that bee body temperatures rose 0.07°C for every milligram of pollen that they carried, with fully laden bees being 2°C warmer than unladen bees.

Evidence of ‘pandemic brain’ in college students

“This study provides additional information to understand why students may have been having difficulty coming to class, focusing on class and getting things turned in – because there was this global event affecting every part of their lives,” lead researcher Melissa Buelow says.
Photo Credit: RF._.studio

Decision-making capabilities of college students – including some graduating this spring – were likely negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, new research suggests.

Students in the small study conducted by researchers at The Ohio State University were less consistent in their decision making during the 2020 fall semester compared to students who had participated in similar research over several previous years.

The researchers compared responses to a hypothetical situation made by students during the pandemic to responses made by students in earlier studies. They found evidence that students in 2020 were more likely to cycle between going with their gut and more thoroughly mulling over their answers depending on how the scenario was described.

“Our theory is that feeling stressed by everything going on was limiting students’ resources to really evaluate the information that was presented to them,” said lead author Melissa Buelow, professor of psychology at Ohio State’s Newark campus. 

A better way to study ocean currents

Computer scientists at MIT joined forces with oceanographers to develop a machine-learning model that incorporates knowledge from fluid dynamics to generate more accurate predictions about the velocities of ocean currents. This figure shows drifting buoy trajectories in the Gulf of Mexico superimposed on surface currents. The red dots mark the buoys’ positions on March 9, 2016, and the tails are 14 days long.
Image Credits: Edward Ryan and Tamay Özgökmen from the University of Miami.

A new machine-learning model makes more accurate predictions about ocean currents, which could help with tracking plastic pollution and oil spills, and aid in search and rescue.

To study ocean currents, scientists release GPS-tagged buoys in the ocean and record their velocities to reconstruct the currents that transport them. These buoy data are also used to identify “divergences,” which are areas where water rises up from below the surface or sinks beneath it.

By accurately predicting currents and pinpointing divergences, scientists can more precisely forecast the weather, approximate how oil will spread after a spill, or measure energy transfer in the ocean. A new model that incorporates machine learning makes more accurate predictions than conventional models do, a new study reports.

A multidisciplinary research team including computer scientists at MIT and oceanographers has found that a standard statistical model typically used on buoy data can struggle to accurately reconstruct currents or identify divergences because it makes unrealistic assumptions about the behavior of water.

The researchers developed a new model that incorporates knowledge from fluid dynamics to better reflect the physics at work in ocean currents. They show that their method, which only requires a small amount of additional computational expense, is more accurate at predicting currents and identifying divergences than the traditional model.

Mystery of important blood pressure drugs solved

Prof. Daniel Fuster, M.D. Department for BioMedical Research (DBMR) of the University of Bern and Department of Nephrology and Hypertension, Inselspital, Bern University Hospital.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Daniel Fuster

Diuretic drugs from the thiazide group have been used for 60 years to treat high blood pressure. But they also increase the risk of developing diabetes. Researchers at the University of Bern and Inselspital have now pinpointed the cause of this side effect and in the process also gained new insights into the development of diabetes.

High blood pressure is a global health problem. In Switzerland, one in two people over the age of 65 has high blood pressure. This has been shown to increase the risk of serious secondary diseases such as dementia, stroke, cerebral hemorrhage, heart attack, and kidney failure. According to estimates by the World Health Organization, for example, around 54 percent of strokes are a direct result of high blood pressure. "Accordingly, there is a great need for effective, and also inexpensive and widely available antihypertensive drugs - particularly in light of our aging society," explains Prof. Daniel Fuster, M.D., from the Department for BioMedical Research at the University of Bern (DBMR) and Head Physician at the Department of Nephrology and Hypertension at Inselspital, Bern University Hospital.

Curved spacetime in a quantum simulator

   In the background: the gravitational lens effect, an example of an effect explained by relativity. With quantum particles, analogous effects can be studied.
Image Credit: NASA / TU Wien

New techniques can answer questions that were previously inaccessible experimentally - including questions about the relationship between quantum mechanics and relativity.

The theory of relativity works well when you want to explain cosmic-scale phenomena - such as the gravitational waves created when black holes collide. Quantum theory works well when describing particle-scale phenomena - such as the behavior of individual electrons in an atom. But combining the two in a completely satisfactory way has yet to be achieved. The search for a "quantum theory of gravity" is considered one of the significant unsolved tasks of science.

This is partly because the mathematics in this field is highly complicated. At the same time, it is tough to perform suitable experiments:  One would have to create situations in which phenomena of both the relativity theory play an important role, for example, a spacetime curved by heavy masses, and at the same time, quantum effects become visible, for example the dual particle and wave nature of light.

Fauna return rapidly in planted eelgrass meadows

Comparison between newly planted eelgrass, to the left and eelgrass that is 15 months old, right.
Photo Credit: Eduardo Infantes

A study of eelgrass meadows planted by researchers from the University of Gothenburg shows that fauna return rapidly once the eelgrass has started to grow. Already after the second summer, the biodiversity in the planted meadow was almost the same as in old established eelgrass meadows.

Eelgrass meadows have declined heavily in southern Bohus county in recent decades and in many places have disappeared altogether. Researchers at the University of Gothenburg have been working on the restoration of eelgrass meadows for twelve years. These meadows are important for biodiversity, as the eelgrass serves as habitat or nursery for young cod, crabs and shrimps for example.  

In a new study, the researchers have evaluated how rapidly replanted eelgrass gets populated by various invertebrates. The study has been going on for over two years in a bay near Gåsö island just west of Skaftö in Bohus county, and the findings are very positive. The researchers counted the abundance of invertebrates that live or burrow in bottom sediments or on the surface of bottom sediments.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

New transparent augmented reality display opens possibilities to see digital content in real-time

The flexible, transparent polymer-based material will advance how AR is used across a range of industries.
Photo Credit: Cesar Nicolas

The world's first flexible, transparent augmented reality (AR) display screen using 3D printing and low-cost materials has been created by researchers at the University of Melbourne, KDH Design Corporation and the Melbourne Centre for Nanofabrication (MCN). The development of the new display screen is set to advance how AR is used across a wide range of industries and applications.

AR technology overlays digital content onto the real world, enhancing the user's real-time perception and interaction with their environment. Until now, creating flexible AR technology that can adjust to different angles of light sources has been a challenge, as current mainstream AR manufacturing uses glass substrates, which must undergo photomasking, lamination, cutting, or etching microstructure patterns. These time-consuming processes are expensive, have a poor yield rate and are difficult to seamlessly integrate with product appearance designs.

UC Irvine research team identifies glycosylation enzyme critical in brain formation

Lisa Flanagan, professor of neurology
Photo Credit: Courtesy of University of California, Irvine

The MGAT5 glycosylation enzyme plays a crucial role in brain development, according to a study by University of California, Irvine researchers, a discovery that may contribute to new therapeutic purposes for neural stem cells.

Neurons, astrocytes and oligodendrocytes are the final mature cells of the brain and spinal cord formed by neural stem cells. Each has distinct and key functions. Neurons transmit signals, astrocytes help modify those signals, and oligodendrocytes keep the signals from degrading. When any cells make proteins or fats that end up on the cell surface, they often add small sugar molecules. The team tested whether this internal process – called glycosylation – affects how neural stem cells form mature brain cells.

The study, published in the journal Stem Cell Reports, found that during glycosylation, the MGAT5 enzyme significantly regulates the formation of neurons and astrocytes from neural stem cells. Neural stem cells that don’t have MGAT5 make more neurons and fewer astrocytes during the very early stages of brain development, altering its structure. These changes may contribute to later aberrant behavior patterns, including abnormal social interactions and repetitive actions.

Warm Ice Age” Changed Climate Cycles

The “Joides Resolution” research vessel – in the port of Lisbon – has been used since 1985 as part of the International Ocean Discovery Program for scientific drilling. The drill cores used in the current “warm ice age” study were taken during an expedition in the Gulf of Cádiz and off of southern Portugal. 
Photo Credit:  André Bahr

Earth scientists identify pivotal step in the Earth’s later climate development

Approximately 700,000 years ago, a “warm ice age” permanently changed the climate cycles on Earth. Contemporaneous with this exceptionally warm and moist period, the polar glaciers greatly expanded. A European research team including Earth scientists from Heidelberg University used recently acquired geological data in combination with computer simulations to identify this seemingly paradoxical connection. According to the researchers, this profound change in the Earth’s climate was responsible for the change in the climate cycles, thus representing a critical step in the later climate evolution of our planet.

Contraception, evolution and the genetic maintenance of same-sex sexual behavior

A gene is a basic unit of heredity. It is a segment of DNA that codes for a specific protein or RNA molecule. Genes are responsible for passing on traits from parents to their offspring. 
Image Credit: THAVIS 3D

Evolution depends on genes being passed down through the generations via reproduction, and same-sex sexual behavior does not result in offspring.

So, why haven’t the many genes associated with same-sex sexual behavior, known as SSB-associated genes, been purged from the human genome over time? It’s a question that has perplexed scientists for decades, one that’s explored anew in a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study by two University of Michigan biologists.

One possible explanation for the persistence of SSB-associated genes is that they have more than one function, a concept called pleiotropy. Perhaps SSB-associated genes are advantageous to heterosexuals in some way, helping them to have more children.

Support for this idea includes a 2021 Nature Human Behaviour study by University of Queensland biologist Brendan Zietsch and colleagues. They presented evidence that heterosexuals carrying SSB-associated genes have more sexual partners than those not carrying the genes. This could confer an evolutionary advantage, because more sexual partners could translate into more children, according to the Zietsch et al. study.

Scientists use X-ray beams to determine role of zinc in development of ovarian follicles

Elemental map of zinc measured by synchrotron-based X-ray fluorescence microscopy demonstrates the increase in total zinc content, and the differential distribution of zinc in ovarian follicles during primordial-through-secondary-stage development. The color scale bar represents the minimum and maximum zinc contents (µg/cm2). Scale bar=10 μm.
Image Credit: NIH/Yu-Ying Chen

To make a baby, first you need an egg. To have an egg, there needs to be a follicle. And in the very beginning of follicle development, there needs to be zinc.

The last of those statements represents the new findings reported recently by a team of researchers from Michigan State University, Northwestern University and the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory. The research builds upon earlier work looking at the role of zinc in fertilization and uncovers the importance of the metal earlier in the process of ovulation.

The results were reported in a paper in the Journal of Biological Chemistry that looked at the role of zinc in follicle development. The researchers, led by Teresa Woodruff and Tom O’Halloran of Michigan State University, used the Bionanoprobe at Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source (APS) to examine zinc and other trace elements in the egg cell itself as well as surrounding somatic cells.

Insight into brain’s waste clearing system may shed light on brain diseases

The image shows a microscopic image revealing the enhanced glymphatic transport of an intranasally delivered tracer (red), achieved using ultrasound combined with microbubbles.
Image Credit: Chen lab

Like the lymphatic system in the body, the glymphatic system in the brain clears metabolic waste and distributes nutrients and other important compounds. Impairments in this system may contribute to brain diseases, such as neurodegenerative diseases and stroke.

A team of researchers in the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis has found a noninvasive and nonpharmaceutical method to influence glymphatic transport using focused ultrasound, opening the opportunity to use the method to further study brain diseases and brain function. Results of the work are published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences May 15, 2023.

Hong Chen, associate professor of biomedical engineering in McKelvey Engineering and of neurological surgery in the School of Medicine, and her team, including Dezhuang (Summer) Ye, a postdoctoral research associate, and Si (Stacie) Chen, a former postdoctoral research associate, found the first direct evidence that focused ultrasound, combined with circulating microbubbles — a technique they call FUSMB — could mechanically enhance glymphatic transport in the mouse brain. 

Focused ultrasound can penetrate the scalp and skull to reach the brain and precisely target a defined region within the brain. In previous work, Chen’s team found that microbubbles injected into the bloodstream amplify the effects of the ultrasound waves on the blood vessels and generate a pumping effect, which helps with the accumulation of intranasally-delivered agents in the brain, such as drugs or gene therapy treatments.

South Africa’s desert-like interior may have been more inviting to our human ancestors

Illustration Credit: Scientific Frontline

Lining the Cape of South Africa and its southern coast are long chains of caves that nearly 200,000 years ago were surrounded by a lush landscape and plentiful food.

During a glacial phase that lasted between 195,000 to 123,000 years ago, these caves served as refuge to a group of humans that some researchers think were the only people to survive this ice age, called Marine Isotope Stage Six, or MIS6. And in this coastal region, a lot of archaeological research has taken place. Of less interest to archaeologists has been the interior of South Africa, which was thought to be an uninhabited, inhospitable place during at least two waves of ice ages, MIS3 and 2.

Now, a study has shown that the region might have been more fertile and temperate during these two glacial periods than previously thought, and that the region likely played host to human populations living around a series of paleolakes. The study, led by University of Michigan archaeologist Brian Stewart, provides a more comprehensive timeline of the age and stages of these lakes, and shows human fingerprints across the region. The research, funded by the National Geographic Society, is published in the journal PNAS.

Mast cells have an important impact on the development of chronic myeloid leukemia

Microscopic image of bone marrow from a mouse with CML showing an unusually high number of mast cells (purple).
Image Source / Credit: Sebastian Halbach

Research team at the University of Freiburg traces the origin of proinflammatory cytokines

Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) is a type of blood cancer that arises from malignant changes in blood-forming cells of the bone marrow. It mainly occurs in older individuals and represents about 20 percent of all adult leukemia cases. A research team led by Dr. Sebastian Halbach, Melanie Langhammer and Dr. Julia Schöpf from the Institute of Molecular Medicine and Cell Research at the University of Freiburg has now demonstrated for the first time that mast cells play a crucial role in the development of CML.  Mast cells could therefore serve as an additional therapeutic target in the clinic. “It was really impressive to see that mice lacking mast cells no longer developed severe CML,” says study leader Halbach. The results were recently published in the journal Leukemia.

Significantly elevated cytokine levels

Mast cells are cells of the immune system that play a decisive role in the defense against pathogens, but also in allergies. In this context, mast cells release inflammation inducing messenger molecules, so-called proinflammatory cytokines, which are crucial for the immune response. However, proinflammatory cytokines are also frequently found in the microenvironment of tumors and are suspected of decisively promoting cancer development. Using a mouse model for CML, the scientists were able to demonstrate for the first time that cytokines in CML could indeed originate from mast cells.

Monkeypox viruses relatively stable on surfaces

Cleaning surfaces with alcohol-based disinfectant is a good protection against infection.
Photo Credit: © RUB, Marquard

The virus remains infectious on steel surfaces for up to 30 days, but can be effectively deactivated by alcoholic disinfectants.

Pockenviruses are known to remain infectious in the area for a very long time. A study by the Molecular and Medical Virology Department at the Ruhr University Bochum showed that the temperature is very important: at room temperature, it can take up to eleven days until there is no longer a reproductive monkeypox virus on a stainless-steel surface, at four degrees Celsius even up to a month. Accordingly, it is particularly important to disinfect surfaces. According to the study, alcoholic disinfectants work well against monkeypox viruses. However, hydrogen peroxide-based disinfectants are not sufficiently effective. The team reports in Journal of infectious diseases.

Weekly observation

Since 2022, the monkey pox virus has been spreading from person to person. Even if the infection is primarily due to direct physical contact, it is possible to infect yourself via contaminated surfaces, for example in the household or in hospital rooms. "Pockenviren is known to remain infectious in the area for a very long time," explains Dr. Toni Meister from the Department of Molecular and Medical Virology at Ruhr University. “So far we have not known the exact times for monkey pox."

Brain research with organoids

Section of an electroporated brain organoid of a common marmoset. Green: electroporated cells that glow green due to the green fluorescent protein; magenta: neurons; gray: nuclei.
Photo Credit: Lidiia Tynianskaia

Scientists at the German Primate Center develop effective method to genetically modify brain organoids

Primates are among the most intelligent creatures with distinct cognitive abilities. Their brains are relatively large in relation to their body stature and have a complex structure. However, how the brain has developed over the course of evolution and which genes are responsible for the high cognitive abilities is still largely unclear. The better our understanding of the role of genes in brain development, the more likely it will be that we will be able to develop treatments for serious brain diseases. 

Researchers are approaching these questions by knocking out or activating individual genes and thus drawing conclusions about their role in brain development. To avoid animal experiments as far as possible, brain organoids are used as an alternative. These three-dimensional cell structures, which are only a few millimeters in size, reflect different stages of brain development and can be genetically modified. However, such modifications are usually very complex, lengthy and costly. Researchers at the German Primate Center (DPZ) – Leibniz Institute for Primate Research in Göttingen have now succeeded in genetically manipulating brain organoids quickly and effectively. 

Deficiency causes appetite for meat

A carnivorous leaf of Triphyophyllum peltatum with glands excreting a sticky liquid to capture insect prey.
Photo Credit: Traud Winkelmann / Universität Hannover

Under certain circumstances, a rare tropical plant develops into a carnivore. A research team from the universities of Hannover and Würzburg has now deciphered the mechanism responsible for this.

Triphyophyllum peltatum is a unique plant. Native to the tropics of West Africa, the liana species is of great interest for medical and pharmaceutical research due to its constituents: In the laboratory, this show promising medically useful activities against pancreatic cancer and leukemia cells, among others, as well as against the pathogens that cause malaria and other diseases.

However, the plant species is also interesting from a botanical perspective: Triphyophyllum peltatum is the only known plant in the world that can become a carnivore under certain circumstances. Its menu then includes small insects, which it captures with the help of adhesive traps in the form of secretion drops and digests with synthesized lytic enzymes.

Sea butterfly life cycle threatened by climate change

An adult sea butterfly, a tiny free swimming sea snail.
Photo Credit: Victoria Peck – British Antarctic Survey

Shelled pteropods, commonly known as sea butterflies, are increasingly exposed to ocean changes, but some species are more vulnerable to this threat. In a new study, published this month in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, British Antarctic Survey (BAS) scientists examining pteropod life cycles in the Southern Ocean have found that some species might be more vulnerable to this threat due to different timings of their life cycle.

Sea butterflies are tiny, free-swimming sea snails, which are an important part of the marine ecosystem. They are also vulnerable to climate change as their shells are sensitive to ocean acidification. Now, a team of researchers led by BAS has examined the life cycles of two free-swimming sea snail species. They found that one is less vulnerable to changes in the Southern Ocean than the other, which could affect the sea snails on a population level and in turn impact the marine ecosystem.

The world’s oceans absorb approximately a quarter of all carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. During absorption, CO2 reacts with seawater and oceanic pH levels fall. This is known as ocean acidification and results in lower carbon ion concentrations. Certain ocean inhabitants use carbon ions to build and sustain their shells. Pteropods, which are important components of the marine ecosystem, are among them.

Butterflies on the decline

According to the analysis of the scientists, the orange tip (Anthocharis cardamines) is the only butterfly species in Europe for which a significant increase can be recorded.
Photo Credit: Ulrike Schäfer

Research shows that the numbers of butterflies in meadows and pastures of Europe are in a continuous decline. A new EU regulation aims to stop this trend.

Grassland butterflies will soon play an even greater role in EU nature conservation legislation. Based on the occurrences and population trends of butterflies, the member states are supposed to document the progress they have made in implementing the planned "Nature Restoration Law". The Butterfly Grassland Indicator, recently calculated for the eighth time by European foundation "Butterfly Conservation Europe", is to be used for this. This analysis, which also includes data and expertise from many volunteers in Germany - coordinated by experts from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Halle - shows an urgent need for action. This is because the situation of grassland butterflies in Europe has deteriorated considerably since the first calculations in 1990.

The diagnosis sounds worrying: More than 80% of habitats in the EU are currently considered vulnerable. This has negative consequences on their functional capability and thus the services they provide for humans. In order to counter this, the European Commission has proposed a new set of rules. This "Nature Restoration Law" is one of the key elements of the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 to be published this May. It defines binding targets for the entire EU for the renaturation of various ecosystems. Two years after the regulation enters into force, member states must submit plans on how they intend to meet these targets. They must also document the success of their measures.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Latest research provides SwRI scientists close-up views of energetic particle jets ejected from the sun

Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) scientists observed the first close-up views of the source of jets of energetic particles expelled from the Sun. The high-resolution images of the solar event were provided by ESA and NASA Solar Orbiter, a Sun-observing satellite launched in 2020.
Image Credit: Courtesy of SwRI

Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) scientists observed the first close-ups of a source of energetic particles expelled from the Sun, viewing them from just half an astronomical unit (AU), or about 46.5 million miles. The high-resolution images of the solar event were provided by ESA’s Solar Orbiter, a Sun-observing satellite launched in 2020.

“In 2022, the Solar Orbiter detected six recurrent energetic ion injections. Particles emanated along the jets, a signature of magnetic reconnection involving field lines open to interplanetary space,” said SwRI’s Dr. Radoslav Bucik, the lead author of a new study published this month in Astronomy & Astrophysics Letters. “The Solar Orbiter frequently detects this type of activity, but this period showed very unusual elemental compositions.”

Chemists Unravel Reaction Mechanism for Clean Energy Catalyst

Dmitry Polyansky (left) and David Grills in the pulse radiolysis lab where the research was conducted. Here, Grills programs a syringe pump that delivers the catalyst to the radiolysis cell. Polyansky adjusts the radiolysis cell inside a white insulated compartment.
Photo Credit: Brookhaven National Laboratory

Hydrogen, the simplest element on Earth, is a clean fuel that could revolutionize the energy industry. Accessing hydrogen, however, is not a simple or clean process at all. Pure hydrogen is extremely rare in nature, and practical methods to produce it currently rely on fossil fuels. But if scientists find the right chemical catalyst, one that can split the hydrogen and oxygen in water molecules apart, pure hydrogen could be produced from renewable energy sources such as solar power.

Now, scientists are one step closer to finding that catalyst. Chemists at the University of Kansas and the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory have unraveled the entire reaction mechanism for a key class of water-splitting catalysts. Their work was published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“It’s very rare that you can get a complete understanding of a full catalytic cycle,” said Brookhaven chemist Dmitry Polyansky, a co-author of the paper. “These reactions go through many steps, some of which are very fast and cannot be easily observed.”

Sea anemone’s sweet efforts help reef ecosystems flourish

KAUST researchers have discovered how corals can thrive in nutrient-depleted oceans. Their study shows how sea anemones are able to recycle the essential nutrient Nitrogen.
Photo Credit: Morgan Bennett-Smith / King Abdullah University of Science and Technology

Tropical oceans are known for being low in nutrients, yet they support incredibly diverse and thriving reef ecosystems created by symbiotic cnidarians such as corals and anemones. This intriguing contradiction, referred to as the Darwin Paradox, has fascinated scientists ever since Charles Darwin first described it in 1842.

A group of researchers from KAUST conducted a study on sea anemones called Aiptasia. They found out that Aiptasia uses the sugar it gets from its partners to recycle waste in its body and survive in places where there are not many nutrients.

According to Guoxin Cui, a research scientist who worked on the project with Manuel Aranda, many studies in the past have tried to figure out where the limited nutrients in the ocean come from, especially nitrogen which is rare.

Guoxin Cui explains that some studies about coral have suggested that the partnership between coral and algae creates areas with lots of nutrients. But until now, researchers didn't fully understand how these organisms were able to create such large ecosystems.

Saturn’s rings younger than previously thought — just a few hundred million years

New research reveals that Saturn's rings are much younger than the planet itself.
Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

Saturn’s rings are much younger than scientists once thought, according to new research from Indiana University Professor Emeritus of Astronomy Richard Durisen — and they are not here to stay.

For decades, there has been debate about the origin of Saturn’s icy rings. But according to two new studies from Durisen, published in Icarus, the rings are no more than a few hundred million years old — much younger than the planet itself, which formed 4.5 billion years ago. In fact, Durisen said the rings may well have formed when dinosaurs were still walking on the Earth.

Durisen and co-author Paul Estrada, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, also concluded that the rings will last only another few hundred million years at most.

“Our inescapable conclusion is that Saturn’s rings must be relatively young by astronomical standards, just a few hundred million years old,” Durisen said. “If you look at Saturn’s satellite system, there are other hints that something dramatic happened there in the last few hundred million years.”

Heat is the Top Cause of Exertion-Related Injuries and Fatalities for Laborers

This study is one of the first of its kind to evaluate exertion-related injuries and fatalities from word-related activities
Photo Credit: Jeriden Villegas

Dangers like working high above the ground or with heavy machinery are common hazards for laborers in industries like construction or excavation. But there’s another near-universal hazard for laborers – heat.

Margaret Morrissey, a postdoctoral fellow within UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources and president of occupational safety for the Korey Stringer Institute, led a recently published study that found heat is the number one cause of exertion-related injuries and fatalities on U.S. work sites.

This work was recently published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Using data reported to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), the team found that of all injuries and fatalities, about 3% were exertion related. Of that 3%, a staggering 89% were related to heat stress.

Most species, including humans, who experience early life adversity suffer as adults. How are gorillas different?

Experienced the loss of her mother and father and the disintegration of her family group before the age of 5. Now 20, she has become a successful mother, raising three offspring.
Photo Credit: Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund

There’s something most species—from baboons to humans to horses—have in common: When they suffer serious adversity early in life, they’re more likely to experience hardship later on in life.

When researchers from the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and the University of Michigan decided to look at this question in gorillas, they weren’t sure what they would find.

Previous studies by the Fossey Fund revealed that young gorillas are surprisingly resilient to losing their mothers, in contrast to what has been found in many other species. But losing your mother is only one of many potential bad things that can happen to young animals.

“Assuming that you survive something that we consider early life adversity, it’s often still the case that you will be less healthy or you will have fewer kids or your lifespan will be shorter—no matter what species you are,” said Stacy Rosenbaum, U-M assistant professor of anthropology and senior author of the study. “There’s this whole range of things that happens to you that seems to just make your life worse in adulthood.”

Phage structure captured for the first time, to benefit biotech applications

Phage image
Image Credit: Dr Vicki Gold et al, Nature Communications

New insights into the structure of phages will enable researchers to develop new uses for viruses in biotechnology.

Phages are viruses that infect bacteria, which enables them to be exploited as tools in biotechnology and medicine. Now, for the first time, researchers at the University of Exeter, in collaboration with Massey University and Nanophage Technologies, New Zealand, have mapped out what a commonly-used form of phage looks like, which will help researchers design better uses in future.

One common use for phage is phage display, which is a useful tool in drug discovery. Phage display works by linking a gene fragment of interest to a phage gene that makes one of the phage coat proteins. The new coat protein with the linked protein of interest appears on the surface of the phage, where it can be assayed and tested for biological activity.

Billions of types of phages exist. Phage display often uses a type of phage known as filamentous, so called because they are long and thin, making the display of many proteins across its surface possible. Although phage display and other applications have proved successful, until now, scientists have not known what this type of phage looks like.

Combined delivery of engineered virus with immunotherapy is safe and improves outcomes in subset of patients with glioblastoma

From left to right: Frederick Lang, M.D., Juan Fueyo, M.D., and Candelaria Gomez-Manzano, M.D.
Image Credit: Courtesy of MD Anderson Cancer Center

Intratumoral delivery of an engineered oncolytic virus (DNX-2401) targeting glioblastoma (GBM) cells combined with subsequent immunotherapy was safe and improved survival outcomes in a subset of patients with recurrent GBM, according to results from a multi-institutional Phase I/II clinical trial co-led by researchers at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and the University of Toronto.

The study, published today in Nature Medicine, met its primary safety endpoint and demonstrated the combination was well tolerated overall with no dose-limiting toxicities. The study did not meet its primary efficacy endpoint of objective response rate, but the combination achieved a 12-month overall survival (OS) rate of 52.7%, which is greater than the prespecified efficacy threshold of 20%. Three patients remained alive at 45, 48 and 60 months after treatment.

“This viral therapy is a different approach to the current standard of care,” said co-corresponding author Frederick Lang, M.D., chair of Neurosurgery. “Our previous trial demonstrated that not only does the virus act by killing cancer cells directly, it also effectively activates the innate immune system to convert these immunologically cold tumors into hot tumors. This led us to evaluate a combination with checkpoint inhibitors, which we now see can improve survival outcomes in a subset of patients.”

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