. Scientific Frontline: December 2023

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Novel food regulations are a barrier for edible insects

Photo Credit: SatyaPrem

Edible insects could be the key to a more sustainable food system, yet Novel Food Regulations could be restricting alternative environmentally-friendly sources of protein for consumers, a new report has found.

  • Edible insect companies could play a part in a more sustainable food system by providing an alternative and environmentally sustainable source of protein, relative to conventional forms of meat
  • Research shows that there are still regulatory barriers for the production of edible insects that need to be addressed
  • Although not a familiar part of European diets, edible insects are regularly consumed elsewhere in the world
  • New report from the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food and the UK Edible Insect Association shows professionally farmed edible insects pose no more risks than commonly eaten foods such as chicken, pork, or shellfish
  • Edible insects could be the key to a more sustainable food system, yet Novel Food Regulations could be restricting alternative environmentally-friendly sources of protein for consumers, a new report has found.

A carbon-lite atmosphere could be a sign of water and life on other terrestrial planets

In the search for extraterrestrial life, MIT scientists say a planet’s carbon-lite atmosphere, relative to its neighbors, could be a sure and detectable signal of habitability.
Image Credit: Scientific Frontline stock image.

Scientists at MIT, the University of Birmingham, and elsewhere say that astronomers’ best chance of finding liquid water, and even life on other planets, is to look for the absence, rather than the presence, of a chemical feature in their atmospheres.

The researchers propose that if a terrestrial planet has substantially less carbon dioxide in its atmosphere compared to other planets in the same system, it could be a sign of liquid water — and possibly life — on that planet’s surface.

What’s more, this new signature is within the sights of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). While scientists have proposed other signs of habitability, those features are challenging if not impossible to measure with current technologies. The team says this new signature, of relatively depleted carbon dioxide, is the only sign of habitability that is detectable now.

“The Holy Grail in exoplanet science is to look for habitable worlds, and the presence of life, but all the features that have been talked about so far have been beyond the reach of the newest observatories,” says Julien de Wit, assistant professor of planetary sciences at MIT. “Now we have a way to find out if there’s liquid water on another planet. And it’s something we can get to in the next few years.”

The team’s findings appear today in Nature Astronomy. De Wit co-led the study with Amaury Triaud of the University of Birmingham in the UK. Their MIT co-authors include Benjamin Rackham, Prajwal Niraula, Ana Glidden Oliver Jagoutz, Matej Peč, Janusz Petkowski, and Sara Seager, along with Frieder Klein at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), Martin Turbet of Ècole Polytechnique in France, and Franck Selsis of the Laboratoire d’astrophysique de Bordeaux.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Electronic “soil” enhances crop growth

Alexandra Sandéhn, PhD student, one of the lead authors, and Eleni Stavrinidou, Associate Professor, and supervisor of the study, connect the eSoil to a low power source for stimulating plant growth.
Photo Credit: Thor Balkhed

Barley seedlings grow on average 50% more when their root system is stimulated electrically through a new cultivation substrate. In a study published in the journal PNAS, researchers from Linköping University have developed an electrically conductive “soil” for soilless cultivation, known as hydroponics.

Alexandra Sandéhn, PhD student, one of the lead authors, and Eleni Stavrinidou, Associate Professor, and supervisor of the study, connect the eSoil to a low power source for stimulating plant growth. Thor Balkhed

“The world population is increasing, and we also have climate change. So, it’s clear that we won’t be able to cover the food demands of the planet with only the already existing agricultural methods. But with hydroponics we can grow food also in urban environments in very controlled settings,” says Eleni Stavrinidou, associate professor at the Laboratory of Organic Electronics at Linköping University, and leader of the Electronic Plants group.

Her research group has now developed an electrically conductive cultivation substrate tailored to hydroponic cultivation which they call eSoil. The Linköping University researchers have shown that barley seedlings grown in the conductive “soil” grew up to 50% more in 15 days when their roots were stimulated electrically.

Brain cell discovery sparks hope for fertility treatments

Photo Credit: Yoshihisa Uenoyama, Graduate School of Bioagricultural Sciences, Nagoya University

Researchers at Nagoya University’s Graduate School of Bioagricultural Sciences and the National Institute of Physiological Sciences in Japan have demonstrated how a specific type of neuron in the brain affects the release of hormones that control ovarian function, such as follicular development and ovulation in females. These findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports, could help researchers understand and treat reproductive disorders in both animals and humans.  

Kisspeptin neurons in the brain regulate the release of hypothalamic gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) and pituitary follicle-stimulating hormone/luteinizing hormone (LH). This process is important for reproduction, as pituitary hormones stimulate the ovaries to perform their reproductive functions. Examples include follicular development and ovulation in all mammals, including humans.   

There are two main areas of the brain involved in the process: the arcuate nucleus (ARC), in which kisspeptin neurons maintain the regular rhythmic (pulsatile) secretion of GnRH/LH that maintains normal follicular development and sex steroid production; and the anteroventral periventricular nucleus (AVPV), in which kisspeptin neurons trigger a surge of GnRH/LH that leads to ovulation.  

Human-driven extinction of birds much greater than previously known

The dodo was endemic to the island of Mauritius. It could not fly and was exterminated by man during the 17th century.
Image Credit: German Rojas

On many of the world's islands, bird species began to become extinct with the arrival of humans. In a new study involving researchers from the University of Gothenburg and Uppsala University, it is estimated that humans have contributed to the extinction of around 1,400 bird species – twice as high as previously thought.

Because the lightweight bones of birds break down quickly, few fossils are formed. In the past, when scientists had to rely on observations and fossils, it was estimated that 640 species of birds had become extinct during the lifetime of modern humans, 90 percent of them on islands inhabited by humans. Classic examples are the dodo on Mauritius and the great auk in the North Atlantic, which, like penguins, could not fly.

However, by using statistical modeling, scientists now dare to estimate that around 1,400 bird species have become extinct.

“This is twice as many species as those that have left fossils as evidence of their existence. “Virtually all of these species were wiped out directly or indirectly due to human activity,” says Søren Faurby, a researcher in Zoology at the University of Gothenburg and co-author of the study published in Nature Communications.

The Evolutionary Timeline of Diminished Boric Acid and Urea Transportation in Aquaporin 10

Aquaporin (Aqp) 10 water channels in humans allow the free passage of water, glycerol, urea, and boric acid across cells. However, Aqp10.2b in pufferfishes allows only the passage of water and glycerol and not urea and boric acid. Researchers from the Tokyo Institute of Technology sought to understand the evolutionary timeline that resulted in the variable substrate selection mechanisms among Aqp10s. Their results indicate that Aqp10.2 in ray-finned fishes may have reduced or lost urea and boric acid permeabilities through evolution.

Aquaporins (Aqps) are proteins that form water channels in the membranes of living cells, including those of bacteria, fungi, animals, and plants. These channels facilitate water transportation across cells more rapidly than diffusion through the membrane phospholipid bilayer.

Aqp10 belongs to the aquaglyceroporin subfamily of water channels. These proteins facilitate many of our body's physiological processes, including gut function, liver and fat cell metabolism, and skin elasticity. Water and solutes, such as glycerol, urea, and boric acid, get transported through human Aqp10 depending on concentration gradients across the membrane.

Sarcopterygians, which include coelacanths, lungfish, and tetrapods (such as amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals), are known to have a single gene that codes for Aqp10. In contrast, actinopterygians, such as ray-finned fishes, have paralogs, or near-identical copies, of the aqp10 gene, such as aqp10.1 and aqp10.2. Interestingly, the ray-finned Japanese pufferfish has paralog called aqp10.2b that shows permeability to water and glycerol but not to urea and boric acid.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Western Cascades landscapes in Oregon historically burned more often than previously thought

Students, tribal members and others visit the study site.
Photo Credit: Sarah Altemus Pope of the Southern Willamette Forest Collaborative.

Forests on the west slope of Oregon’s Cascade Range experienced fire much more often between 1500 and 1895 than had been previously thought, according to new research by scientists at Oregon State University.

The findings provide important insight, the authors say, into how landscapes might adapt to climate change and future fire regimes.

James Johnston of the OSU College of Forestry led the study, which was published in Ecosphere.

“Wildland fire is a fundamental forest ecosystem process,” he said. “With temperatures rising and more and more area burning, we need to know as much as we can about the long-term variability in fire.”

Johnson and collaborators at Oregon State, the University of Oregon and the U.S. Forest Service gathered tree ring data at 16 sites in the southern part of the Willamette National Forest, in the general vicinity of Oakridge.

Trees form scars after cambial cells are killed by wildfire heat, he said. These scars are partially or completely covered by new tissue as a tree grows, and tree rings tell the story of when the fire exposure occurred.

Risk of young-onset dementia could be reduced through targeting health and lifestyle factors

Researchers have identified a wide range of risk factors for young-onset dementia. The findings challenge the notion that genetics are the sole cause of the condition, laying the groundwork for new prevention strategies.

The largescale study identified 15 risk factors, which are similar to those for late-onset dementia. For the first time, they indicate that it may be possible to reduce the risk of young-onset dementia by targeting health and lifestyle factors.

Relatively little research has been done on young-onset dementia, though globally there are around 370,000 new cases of young-onset dementia each year.

Published in JAMA Neurology, the new research by the University of Exeter and Maastricht University followed more than 350,000 participants younger than 65 across the United Kingdom from the UK Biobank study. The team evaluated a broad array of risk factors ranging from genetic predispositions to lifestyle and environmental influences. The study revealed that lower formal education, lower socioeconomic status, genetic variation, lifestyle factors such as alcohol use disorder and social isolation, and health issues including vitamin D deficiency, depression, stroke, hearing impairment and heart disease significantly elevate risk of young-onset dementia

Monday, December 25, 2023

Blue PHOLEDs: Final color of efficient OLEDs finally viable in lighting

Jaesang Lee, Electrical Engineering PhD Student, demonstrates use of an earlier blue PHOLED innovation by University of Michigan professor Steve Forrest’s research group in 2014. Forrest’s lab introduced PHOLEDs to the world in the early 2000s and has been trying to improve the lifetime of blue PHOLEDs ever since. Now, they might finally be hardy enough to use in lighting applications. Image credit: Joseph Xu, Michigan Engineering Communications & Marketing The blue LEDs were developed in EECS Professor Stephen Forrest’s lab groups and are for use in cell phones, tablets, and other electronics. The LEDs’ lifetime has been enhanced by a factor of ten, allowing for more efficient use.
Photo Credit: Joseph Xu, Michigan Engineering Communications & Marketing

Lights could soon use the full color suite of perfectly efficient organic light-emitting diodes, or OLEDs, that last tens of thousands of hours, thanks to an innovation from physicists and engineers at the University of Michigan.

The U-M team’s new phosphorescent OLEDs, commonly referred to as PHOLEDs, can maintain 90% of the blue light intensity for 10-14 times longer than other designs that emit similar deep blue colors. That kind of lifespan could finally make blue PHOLEDs hardy enough to be commercially viable in lights that meet the Department of Energy’s 50,000-hour lifetime target. Without a stable blue PHOLED, OLED lights need to use less-efficient technology to create white light.

The lifetime of the new blue PHOLEDs currently is only long enough to use as lighting, but the same design principle could be combined with other light-emitting materials to create blue PHOLEDs hardy enough for TVs, phone screens and computer monitors. Display screens with blue PHOLEDs could potentially increase a device’s battery life by 30%.

How antibiotic-resistant bacteria can teach us to modify behavior

UCLA researchers used knowledge of biological resistance to build a framework for modifying behavior that contributes to climate change.
Photo Credit: Arndt-Peter Bergfeld

Most people want to do something about climate change, but lifestyle trade-offs and a narrowing window to enact broad changes to industrial, transportation, and consumption patterns are daunting enough to make them resist.  

Resistance has different meanings across different fields of study. But UCLA biologists who study resistance in the natural world believe insights gleaned from some of its smallest inhabitants could help identify barriers to social changes, including those required to resolve human–wildlife conflicts, and formulate specific strategies for overcoming them.

Biologists have long studied how agricultural pests become resistant to pesticides and how bacteria evolve antibiotic resistance. UCLA researchers have pinpointed several effective tactics to counter this resistance that could help humans embrace urgently needed changes, they suggest in a paper published in Evolutionary Applications

The team built a framework of biologically derived resistance management strategies, suggesting that the different views of resistance can help to identify friction points between humans and the natural world, and between humans and their social worlds.  

Nanoscale Analysis Provides Key Answers for Modeling Mineralization in Basalt

A methodology on resolving nanoscale processes during carbon mineralization—discovered and led by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Post Doctoral Researcher Xiaoxu Li and Chemist Emily Nienhuis—provides insight into the previous knowledge gaps needed for accurate reservoir models.  
Composite Credit: Mike Perkins | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from industrial emissions and from the atmosphere and then safely storing it into the Earth’s deep subsurface is becoming increasingly essential to meeting decarbonization goals and preserving a livable planet.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) scientists discovered how to store supercritical CO2—carbon dioxide in its fluid state—in basalt reservoirs safely and permanently. This process is called geologic carbon sequestration, or carbon mineralization. But for the technology to be deployed commercially in the United States a Class VI well permit must first be attained.

“In order to apply for and be issued this permit, there has to be what is called a reservoir model for us to understand the fate and behavior of the injected CO2,” said PNNL Chemist Emily Nienhuis. “In other words, if we inject x amount of CO2 into a reservoir, where does it go? And how long does it take to mineralize or become rock?”

New study examines the relationship between the rate of wound healing, the circadian rhythm, and ‘hair’ on cells

Fibroblasts need to accumulate at the wound site when repairing wounds such as skin wounds. We found that fibroblasts with long primary cilia migrate slower to the wound site than fibroblasts with short primary cilia.
Illustration Credit: Ryota Nakazato/Hiroshima University

We’re all familiar with our body’s internal clock: it gives us cues on when to wake and when to rest, but it also can determine the rate and time of day at which your body most effectively heals wounds.

Nearly every organism on Earth follows a natural circadian rhythm that is coded by your cell’s clock genes, which do exactly as you suspect from the name: regulate your body’s rhythm on a 24-hour basis. Most cells in mammalian bodies have cilia of some sort, which are hair-like structures that perform a variety of functions such as movement for motile cilia and aiding in structure in function for non-motile, or primary, cilia. The primary cilia also act as a sensory organ for the cell, a function which has illuminated the primary cilia’s potential role in the healing process and how bodies heal at a different rate according to our circadian rhythm. In this research, the role of the primary cilia, biological clock and wound healing is explored.

Ural Scientists Assessed How Vegetation Changes in the Mountains

As scientists explain, the woody vegetation of high mountains is a sensitive indicator of climate change.
 Photo Credit: Pavel Yelfimov

Specialists of the Ural Carbon test site, researchers from the Ural Federal University (UrFU) with colleagues from the Ural State Forestry Technical University, have proposed a methodology for automated mapping of high mountain woody vegetation. The methodology is based on the comparison of data from archival aerial images and modern satellite images, RIA Novosti reported. The work of researchers will help to objectively assess the peculiarities of the appearance of new trees on unforested territory depending on the influence of the environment. The description of the methodology is published in the journal Forests.

"Woody vegetation of high mountains, near its upper limit of growth, is a sensitive indicator of climate change. Therefore, mountain ranges in different regions of the Earth are considered as areas for studying the early vegetation response to regional climate change. The aim of our work was twofold. The first part involves demonstrating an effective method of automated mapping of vegetation cover units: forest, sparse woodland, open stand, and tundra with freestanding trees developed by us, and to analyze changes occurring in plant communities under the conditions of modern climate warming near the upper limit of tree growth. The second part includes evaluating the efficiency of the method on the example of assessing the expansion of Siberian larch into mountain tundra in the Polar Urals over the past 50 years," explains Valery Fomin, Vice-Rector for Research and Innovation at Ural State Forestry Technical University and researcher at UrFU.

Shock wave photographed passing through a single cell

Images of an underwater shock wave moving through a HeLa cell.
Using this new technology, the researchers could see the difference between how the shock wave moved inside and outside of a cell submerged in water. They noted that the results suggested that the cell structure shifts with the visualized wavefront position (shown in the red/ orange line in the image).
 Image Credit: © 2023 Saiki et al. University of Tokyo

A microscopic shock wave has been photographed passing through a single biological cell, thanks to a new photography technique. Nanosecond photography uses ultrafast electronic cameras to take images at the speed of a billionth of a second. However, image quality and exposure time are typically limited. Now, a team led by researchers at the University of Tokyo has achieved superfine images taken over multiple timescales at high-speed using a system they named spectrum circuit. Spectrum circuit bridges the gap between optical imaging and conventional electronic cameras, enabling photography at ultrafast speeds with less blur and more accuracy. This technology has potential applications for science, medicine and industry.

You’re waiting with your camera for just the right moment. Suddenly, your subject speeds by and you’ve barely clicked the shutter. Missed it. Timing can be everything in photography and capturing images at high speed poses a particular challenge. But thanks to advances in camera technology, these days we can see the world like never before. Whether it’s the sweat on a racing cyclist’s brow, the focus in the eyes of a swooping falcon or, with this latest improvement in nanosecond photography, the movement of a shock wave passing through a microscopic single cell at high speed.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Light color is less important for the internal clock than originally thought

To what extent does the color of light influence our internal clock and sleep? The results of a study conducted in Basel shed light on this.
Photo Credit: Josh Hild

Light in the evening is thought to be bad for sleep. However, does the color of the light play a role? Researchers from the University of Basel and the Technical University of Munich (TUM) compared the influence of different light colors on the human body. The researchers’ findings contradict the results of a previous study in mice.

Vision is a complex process. The visual perception of the environment is created by a combination of different wavelengths of light, which are decoded as colors and brightness in the brain. Photoreceptors in the retina first convert the light into electrical impulses: with sufficient light, the cones enable sharp, detailed, and colored vision. Rods only contribute to vision in low light conditions allowing for different shades of grey to be distinguished but leaving vision much less precise. The electrical nerve impulses are finally transmitted to ganglion cells in the retina and then via the optic nerve to the visual cortex in the brain. This region of the brain processes the neural activity into a colored image.

Monash researchers discover key to epithelial cell growth

L-R: Dr Benjamin Kroeger and Professor Kieran Harvey
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Monash University

Monash researchers have discovered a new way that epithelial cells, which form layers in organs such as the skin and stomach, attach to one another, and how they perceive growth signals at these attachments, helping them form tissues of the right size and shape.

Epithelial cells cover the surfaces of most organs in the body and must adhere to each other to form both a protective and permeable barrier. They are exquisitely designed to both be tightly sealed against pathogens such as bacteria, and to also allow the transport of salts, fluids, and nutrients.

Researchers, led by Professor Kieran Harvey and first author Dr Benjamin Kroeger, at the Monash University Biomedicine Discovery Institute have discovered a new way by which epithelial cells adhere to each other in the vinegar fly, Drosophila. The study is published in the journal, Developmental Cell.

Previous work from Professor Harvey and others led to the discovery of an important organ growth control pathway, called Hippo. First discovered in Drosophila, the Hippo pathway does effectively the same job in mammals and controls the size of different organs such as the liver and heart. The Hippo pathway is also important for human diseases as it is mutated in multiple epithelial cancers.

Joint research project on groundwater: searching for underground pollutants

A copepod is a crustacean barely a millimeter in size which lives in groundwater. The presence of such animals is an indicator of good water quality.
Photo Credit: Sabrina Schiwy, Goethe University Frankfurt

The joint project, recently launched under the name “gwTriade," involves six scientific institutes with Goethe University Frankfurt as the coordinator, which are investigating groundwater quality in Germany. This is the first time the triad approach has been applied to combine chemical analyses and methods revealing how pollutants entering the groundwater affect the ecosystem there – called effect-based methods. The project aims to develop a concept that water suppliers and nature conservation authorities can use in the future to examine and assess the groundwater quality themselves. The gwTriade project is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. 

The effects of climate change pose an ever-greater threat to our groundwater because more frequent and longer periods of drought reduce groundwater levels. Groundwater is therefore already supplemented with surface water in conurbations like the Rhine-Main area. This surface water often contains treated wastewater that may add pollutants to the groundwater. More frequent heavy rainfalls – another consequence of climate change – lead to large quantities of pollutants entering the groundwater. As a result, over one third of all groundwater bodies in Germany fail to achieve good chemical status. The European Water Framework Directive establishes the legal framework for assessing the quality of groundwater. However, a “huge amount of investigation" into the groundwater quality is still required, according to Professor Henner Hollert from the Institute of Ecology, Diversity and Evolution at Goethe University Frankfurt. Chemical analyses have identified at least some of the pollutants in the groundwater, including drugs, pesticides and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which originate from the wastewater, traffic or agriculture. “What we don't have at all is effect-based data, i.e. data about how the pollutants impact life in the groundwater ecosystem and also human health. We already know a lot about surface water, but not about the groundwater." 

New COVID vaccine induces good antibody response to mutated viral variants

Photo Credit: CDC

Researchers at Karolinska Institutet and Danderyd Hospital have followed recipients of the new updated COVID-19 vaccine and analyzed the antibody response to different SARS-CoV-2 variants. The results show a surprisingly strong response to the now dominant and highly mutated Omicron variants.

The ongoing COMMUNITY study, which was launched in the spring of 2020 with the regular testing of 2,149 members of the Danderyd Hospital staff, has recently published the results of this autumn’s leg of the study. Twenty-four participants were recorded in this study, the majority of whom were over 64 and had received four or five previous vaccine doses. The article has been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication in the scientific journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases, and is accessible prior to publication on the preprint server, bioRxiv.

Octopus DNA solves mystery of ice sheet’s past

Octopus, probably Pareledone species, from 500m depth on the Bellingshausen Sea continental shelf.
Photo Credit: British Antarctic Survey

Scientists, including from British Antarctic Survey, have used octopus DNA to discover that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) likely collapsed during the Last Interglacial period around 120,000 years ago – when the global temperatures were similar to today.

This provides the first empirical evidence that the tipping point of this ice sheet could be reached even under the Paris Agreement targets of limiting warming to 1.5-2oC.

The study, published in the journal Science, was led by Professor Jan Strugnell, Chief Investigator, and Dr Sally Lau, Postdoctoral Research Fellow from ARC Securing Antarctica’s Environmental Future at James Cook University.

Octopus, probably Pareledone species, from 500m depth on the Bellingshausen Sea continental shelf. BAS.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Artificial intelligence unravels mysteries of polycrystalline materials

Researchers used 3D model created by AI to understand complex polycrystalline materials that are used in our everyday electronic devices.
Illustration Credit: Kenta Yamakoshi

Researchers at Nagoya University in Japan have used artificial intelligence to discover a new method for understanding small defects called dislocations in polycrystalline materials, materials widely used in information equipment, solar cells, and electronic devices, that can reduce the efficiency of such devices. The findings were published in the journal Advanced Materials.  

Almost every device that we use in our modern lives has a polycrystal component. From your smartphone to your computer to the metals and ceramics in your car. Despite this, polycrystalline materials are tough to utilize because of their complex structures. Along with their composition, the performance of a polycrystalline material is affected by its complex microstructure, dislocations, and impurities. 

A major problem for using polycrystals in industry is the formation of tiny crystal defects caused by stress and temperature changes. These are known as dislocations and can disrupt the regular arrangement of atoms in the lattice, affecting electrical conduction and overall performance. To reduce the chances of failure in devices that use polycrystalline materials, it is important to understand the formation of these dislocations. 

How technology and economics can help save endangered species

The gray wolf is among the animals protected by the Endangered Species Act.
Image Credit: Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife
(CC BY-SA 2.0)

A lot has changed in the world since the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was enacted 50 years ago in December 1973.

Two researchers at The Ohio State University were among a group of experts invited by the journal Science to discuss how the ESA has evolved and what its future might hold.

Tanya Berger-Wolf, faculty director of Ohio State’s Translational Data Analytics Institute, led a group that wrote on “Sustainable, trustworthy, human-technology partnership.”  Amy Ando, professor and chair of the university’s Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics, wrote on “Harnessing economics for effective implementation.”

Berger-Wolf and her colleagues wrote, “We are in the middle of a mass extinction without even knowing all that we are losing and how fast.” But technology can help address that.

For example, they note the value of tools like camera traps that survey animal species and smartphone apps that allow citizen scientists to count insects, identify bird songs and report plant observations.

Inside the Matrix: Nanoscale Patterns Revealed Within Model Research Organism

Super-resolution microscopy reveals two roundworm collagens labeled in red and green.
Image Credit: Courtesy of University of California San Diego

Species throughout the animal kingdom feature vital interfaces between the outermost layers of their bodies and the environment. Intricate microscopic structures—featured on the outer skin layers of humans, as one example—are known to assemble in matrix patterns.

But how these complex structures, known as apical extracellular matrices (aECMs) are assembled into elaborately woven architectures has remained an elusive question.

Now, following years of research and the power of a technologically advanced instrument, University of California San Diego scientists have unraveled the underpinnings of such matrices in a tiny nematode. The roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans has been studied extensively for decades due to its transparent structure that allows researchers to peer inside its body and examine its skin.

Described in the journal Nature Communications, School of Biological Sciences researchers have now deciphered the assemblage of aECM patterns in roundworms at the nanoscale. A powerful, super-resolution microscope helped reveal previously unseen patterns related to columns, known as struts, that are key to the proper development and functioning of aECMs.

“Struts are like tiny pillars that connect the different layers of the matrix and serve as a type of scaffolding,” said Andrew Chisholm, a professor in the School of Biological Sciences and the paper’s senior author.

The future of canine stem cell therapy: unprecedented, painless, and feeder-free

Generating canine induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) without using feeder cells   Scientists created canine iPSCs from urine-derived cells with great efficiency     
Illustration Credit: Shingo Hatoya, Osaka Metropolitan University

Dog owners may need to learn to appreciate their best friend’s urine. Scientists at Osaka Metropolitan University have devised an efficient, non-invasive, and pain-free method to reprogram canine stem cells from urine samples, bringing furry companions one step closer to veterinary regenerative treatment.

Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) have been widely employed in studies on human generative medicine. With the growing importance of advanced medical care for dogs and cats, there is an expectation that new therapies utilizing iPSCs will be developed for these companion animals, just as they have been for humans. Unfortunately, canine somatic cells exhibit lower reprogramming efficiency compared to those of humans, limiting the types of canine cells available for generating iPSCs. IPSC induction often involves using feeder cells from a different species. However, considering the associated risks, minimizing xenogeneic components is often advisable, signifying the need to improve the efficiency of reprogramming various types of canine cells in dogs without using feeder cells.

Moderation surpasses excess

DYRK1A bound to FAM53C in the cytoplasm is less active. DYRK1A not bound to FAM53C in the nucleus is highly active. Functional abnormalities cause various neuropsychiatric developmental and functional disorders. 
Illustration Credit: KyotoU/Gakuji Tobiyama/Yoshihiko Miyata

Down syndrome, a congenital disorder stemming from abnormal cell division and differentiation, is most common in newborns fated to neurodevelopmental delays and other health complications.

The genetic defect causes the dysfunction of the protein kinase DYRK1A, which is encoded on chromosome 21 and is deeply associated with both Down syndrome and autism spectrum disorder. DYRK1A has attracted attention as a target molecule for treating various diseases, but specific cellular mechanisms regulating the enzyme DYRK1A have yet to be made clear.

Now, researchers at Kyoto University have identified the FAM53C protein and its DYRK1A-inhibiting effect that keeps the protein kinase inactive inside the cytoplasm.

Artery calcification more common in night owls

Artery calcification is almost twice as common in night owls compared to early birds, according to a study from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Circadian rhythm appears to be particularly important for the heart and blood vessels during the early stages of the disease.

Artery calcification, or atherosclerosis as it is also known, involves fatty deposits accumulating on the inside of the arteries, making it harder for blood to pass through. The disease develops over a very long period of time, and is not noticed until it leads to angina, blood clots, heart attack, or stroke. Previous research has shown that people with late-night habits have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, but this is the first study to show how circadian rhythm specifically affects artery calcification.

Coronary artery calcification

The study, which has been published in the journal Sleep Medicine, involved 771 men and women aged between 50 and 64, all of whom are part of the larger population study SCAPIS. The degree of artery calcification in the heart’s coronary arteries was examined using computer tomography. Participants themselves indicated their so called chronotype on a five-point scale: extreme morning type, morning type to some extent, neither morning nor evening type, evening type to some extent, or extreme evening type.

Common insect species are suffering the biggest losses

The invasive Asian Ladybeetle (Harmonia axyridis)
Photo Credit: Melani Marfeld

Insect decline is being driven by losses among the locally more common species, according to a new study published in Nature. Led by researchers at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) and the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU), the meta-analysis of 923 locations around the world notes two significant trends: Species with the most individuals are disproportionately decreasing in number, and no other species have increased to the high numbers previously seen. This likely explains the frequent observation that there are fewer insects around now than ten, twenty, or thirty years ago.

Researchers at iDiv looked at long-term trends of land-based insects, such as beetles, moths, and grasshoppers, and found that decreases in the number of the formerly most common species have contributed most to local insect declines. Common or abundant insect species are those species that are locally found in the highest numbers, but which species these are differ among locations. The study’s findings challenge the idea that changes in insect biodiversity result from rarer species disappearing.

The study follows the recent sounding of alarm bells about insect loss, as researchers note dramatic declines in the total number of insects in many parts of the world. However, little is known about the general trends among locally rare and abundant species over long periods. "It was obvious this needed exploring," says Roel van Klink, lead author of the study and senior scientist at iDiv and MLU. "We had to know whether observations about declines in total abundances of insects differed among common and rare species, and how this translated into changes in the overall insect diversity."

Multitasking microbes: UW–Madison scientists engineer bacteria to make two valuable products from plant fiber

Ben Hall, Genetics Ph.D. Student, holds a mixed sample of microbes and carotenoids, in Tim Donohue’s lab.
Photo Credit: Chelsea Mamott

We often look to the smallest lifeforms for help solving the biggest problems: Microbes help make foods and beverages, cure diseases, treat waste and even clean up pollution. Yeast and bacteria can also convert plant sugars into biofuels and chemicals traditionally derived from fossil fuels — a key component of most plans to slow climate change.

Now University of Wisconsin–Madison researchers have engineered bacteria that can produce two chemical products at the same time from underutilized plant fiber. And unlike humans, these multitasking microbes can do both things equally well.

“To my knowledge, it’s one of the first times you can make two valuable products simultaneously in one microbe,” says Tim Donohue, UW–Madison professor of bacteriology and director of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.

The discovery, detailed in a paper in the December issue of the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, could help make biofuels more sustainable and commercially viable.

“In principle, the strategy lowers the net greenhouse gas emissions and improves the economics,” Donohue says. “The amount of energy and greenhouse gas that you need to make two products in one pot is going to be less than running two pots to make one product in each pot.”

Novel Catalyst System for CO2 Conversion

Kevinjeorjios Pellumbi with the experimental setup for CO2 conversion
Photo Credit: © RUB, Marquard

Researchers are constantly pushing the limits of technology by breaking new ground in CO2 conversion. Their goal is to turn the harmful greenhouse gas into a valuable resource.

Research groups around the world are developing technologies to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into raw materials for industrial applications. Most experiments under industrially relevant conditions have been carried out with heterogeneous electrocatalysts, i.e. catalysts that are in a different chemical phase to the reacting substances. However, homogeneous catalysts, which are in the same phase as the reactants, are generally considered to be more efficient and selective. To date, there haven’t been any set-ups where homogeneous catalysts could be tested under industrial conditions. A team headed by Kevinjeorjios Pellumbi and Professor Ulf-Peter Apfel from Ruhr University Bochum and the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology UMSICHT in Oberhausen has now closed this gap. The researchers outlined their findings in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science.

“Our work aims to push the boundaries of technology in order to establish an efficient solution for CO2 conversion that will transform the climate-damaging gas into a useful resource,” says Ulf-Peter Apfel. His group collaborated with the team led by Professor Wolfgang Schöfberger from the Johannes Kepler University Linz and researchers from the Fritz Haber Institute in Berlin.

New brain-like transistor mimics human intelligence

An artistic interpretation of brain-like computing.
Illustration Credit: Xiaodong Yan/Northwestern University

Taking inspiration from the human brain, researchers have developed a new synaptic transistor capable of higher-level thinking.

Designed by researchers at Northwestern University, Boston College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the device simultaneously processes and stores information just like the human brain. In new experiments, the researchers demonstrated that the transistor goes beyond simple machine-learning tasks to categorize data and is capable of performing associative learning.

Although previous studies have leveraged similar strategies to develop brain-like computing devices, those transistors cannot function outside cryogenic temperatures. The new device, by contrast, is stable at room temperatures. It also operates at fast speeds, consumes very little energy and retains stored information even when power is removed, making it ideal for real-world applications.

“The brain has a fundamentally different architecture than a digital computer,” said Northwestern’s Mark C. Hersam, who co-led the research. “In a digital computer, data moves back and forth between a microprocessor and memory, which consumes a lot of energy and creates a bottleneck when attempting to perform multiple tasks at the same time. On the other hand, in the brain, memory and information processing are co-located and fully integrated, resulting in orders of magnitude higher energy efficiency. Our synaptic transistor similarly achieves concurrent memory and information processing functionality to more faithfully mimic the brain.”

Gravity data could reveal underwater volcanoes with high potential for devastating eruptions

This looping video shows an umbrella cloud generated by the underwater eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano on Jan. 15, 2022. The GOES-17 satellite captured the series of images that also show crescent-shaped shock waves and lightning strikes.
Video Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens using GOES imagery courtesy of NOAA and NESDIS

New research led by Carnegie’s Hélène Le Mével reveals new details about the system of magma chambers under the Hunga volcano, both before and after its disastrous 2022 eruption. The team’s findings, published last week in Science Advances, demonstrate a new method for probing submarine volcanoes for their potential to cause similar damage.

The eruption came at the end of a month-long period of volcanic unrest, following a seven-year hiatus for the volcano—devastating the Kingdom of Tonga islands and causing a global tsunami, an unprecedented amount of volcanic lightning, and perturbations in the upper atmosphere. . It was the largest explosive eruption recorded since Pinatubo in 1991.

“Although we have a wealth of data about the Hunga eruption’s effects both locally and globally, we know very little about its subsurface structure,” Le Mével explained.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Researchers uncover on/off switch for breast cancer metastasis

Songnan Wang (left) and Lingyin Li (right) found that a protein called ENPP1 acts as an on/off switch for breast cancer metastases. High protein levels lead to a high chance of metastasis (as seen by cells growing in the dish on the left), while low levels lead to no metastasis (as seen by no cells growing in the dish on the right).
Photo Credit: Lingyin Li and Songnan Wang

New research from Stanford and the Arc Institute could lead to a new and more effective immunotherapy and help clinicians better predict patient response to existing medicines.

Despite their promise, immunotherapies fail to treat many cancers, including over 80% of some of the most advanced breast cancers. And many of those patients who do respond still experience metastases eventually. New research from Stanford University and the Arc Institute has revealed a better way to predict and improve patient responses.

A team led by Lingyin Li, associate professor of biochemistry at Stanford and Arc Core Investigator, found that a protein called ENPP1 acts as an on/off switch that controls breast cancer’s ability to both resist immunotherapy and metastasize. The study, published on Dec. 20 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that ENPP1 is produced by cancer cells and by healthy cells in and around the tumor, and that high patient ENPP1 levels are linked to immunotherapy resistance and subsequent metastases. The research could lead to new, more effective immunotherapies and help clinicians better predict patient response to existing medicines.

“Our study should offer hope for everyone,” said Li, who is also an institute scholar at Sarafan ChEM-H.

RIT researchers develop new technique to study how cancer cells move

Vinay Abhyankar, right, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, works closely with two doctoral students, Mehran Mansouri, left, and Indranil Joshi, on research to assess cancer cell migration processes.
Photo Credit: A. Sue Weisler/RIT

In tumors, cells follow microscopic fibers, comparable to following roads through a city. Researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology developed a new technique to study different features of these “fiber highways” to provide new insights into how cells move efficiently through the tumor environment.

The study, published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, focused on contact guidance, a process where migrating cells follow aligned collagen fibers. Understanding this process is crucial, as it plays a key role in cancer metastasis, the spread of cancer to other parts of the body.

“Previous research on contact guidance, a process where cancer cells migrate along aligned collagen fibers, has been largely studied in collagen gels with uniform fiber alignment,” said Vinay Abhyankar, associate professor of biomedical engineering in RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering, and study co-author. “However, the tumor microenvironment also features subtle variations or gradients in fiber alignment, and their role in cell migration has been largely unexplored. We suspected that alignment gradients could efficiently direct cell movement but lacked the technology to test the hypothesis.”

A Trillion Scents. One Nose.

The genome inside an olfactory cell’s nucleus is shown as a tangle of color-marked chromosomes with genomic locations of olfactory receptor genes revealed on the right
Illustration Credit: Lomvardas lab, Columbia's Zuckerman Institute

The mammalian nose is a work of evolutionary art. Its millions of nerve cells, each tailored with just one of thousands of specific odor-chemical receptors encoded in the genome, can collectively distinguish a trillion distinct scents. Those sensations, in turn, inform many behaviors, from assessing food options to discerning friends from foes to sparking memories. 

Today, in the journal Nature, a research team led by scientists at Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute describes a previously undetected mechanism in mice—starring the genetic molecule RNA—that could explain how each sensory cell, or neuron, in mammalian noses becomes tailored to detect a specific odor chemical. 

For example, there are sensory neurons in our noses that bear receptors uniquely tuned to detect ethyl vanillin, the main odorant in vanilla, and other cells with receptors for limonene, lemon’s signature odorant.

Moderate low-carbohydrate diet is beneficial for adults with type 1 diabetes

Sofia Sterner Isaksson and Marcus Lind, Institute of Medicine, Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg.
Photo Credit: Malin Arnesson, Johan Wingborg

A moderate low-carbohydrate diet for adults with type 1 diabetes has advantages over traditional diet. The average blood sugar level is reduced and the time with good values during a 24-hour period is increased, without any negative health impact. This has been shown in a study carried out at the University of Gothenburg.

The study published in The Lancet Regional Health - Europe is the largest of its kind to date. Participants were for different periods randomly assigned in a crossover manner to eat a traditional diet with 50% of the energy from carbohydrates, or a moderate low-carbohydrate diet with 30% of the energy from carbohydrates.

This is a moderate reduction in carbohydrates, with 24-hour monitoring of all participants via continuous glucose monitoring (CGM). Blood glucose levels were recorded at least every 15 minutes during the 16 weeks of the study, and were followed up by a dietitian and diabetes nurse.

The researchers emphasize that for safety reasons, major changes in carbohydrate intake in type 1 diabetes should always be made in consultation with the healthcare provider. Individuals should not make these dietary changes on their own, especially not for children with type 1 diabetes. The current study concerns only adults.

Inhaled statins show promise as effective asthma treatment

This diagram shows how the inhaled medication pitavastatin may play a beneficial role in reducing obstructive airway diseases such as asthma.
Illustration Credit: Courtesy of University of California at Davis

Statins are a class of drugs commonly used to lower bad cholesterol, but can they also treat obstructive airway diseases, such as asthma?

UC Davis Health pulmonologists taking part in an NIH-funded study are exploring an innovative approach to determine whether statins may help treat obstructive airway diseases by delivering the medication via inhalation.

“Delivering statins by inhalation is a creative way to deploy a drug that has potent biological effects in pre-clinical cell-based and animal model studies,” said Amir A. Zeki, the principal investigator of the study and professor of internal medicine who specializes in pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine. “Because oral statins do not penetrate the airway compartment at high enough levels to be effective, delivering statins directly to the lung via inhalation might achieve better local tissue drug levels, and therefore, better clinical results. This allows the use of lower drug doses to achieve efficacy while also minimizing systemic side effects.”

Scientists uncover link between the ocean’s weather and global climate

Oceanic weather systems (mesoscale eddies) from data overlaid with atmospherically driven climate-scale currents (black lines), which can be extracted with a coarse graining technique developed in the lab of Hussein Aluie. The image reveals how these ocean weather systems are energized (red) or weakened (blue) when interacting with climate-scales, which follows a pattern mirroring the global atmospheric circulation.
Illustration Credit: Benjamin Storer

Using mechanical rather than statistical analysis, the team offers a new framework for understanding the climate system.

An international team of scientists has found the first direct evidence linking seemingly random weather systems in the ocean with climate on a global scale. Led by Hussein Aluie, an associate professor in the University of Rochester’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and staff scientist at the University’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics, the team reported their findings in Science Advances.

The ocean has weather patterns like what we experience on land, but on different time and length scales, says lead author Benjamin Storer, a research associate in Aluie’s Turbulence and Complex Flow Group. A weather pattern on land might last a few days and be about 500 kilometers wide, while oceanic weather patterns such as swirling eddies last three to four weeks but are about one-fifth the size.

Cosmic lights in the forest

TACC’s Frontera, the fastest academic supercomputer in the US, is a strategic national capability computing system funded by the National Science Foundation.
Photo Credit: TACC.

Like a celestial beacon, distant quasars make the brightest light in the universe. They emit more light than our entire Milky Way galaxy. The light comes from matter ripped apart as it is swallowed by a supermassive black hole. Quasar light reveals clues about the large-scale structure of the universe as it shines through enormous clouds of neutral hydrogen gas formed shortly after the Big Bang on the scale of 20 million light years across or more. 

Using quasar light data, the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Frontera supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) helped astronomers develop PRIYA, the largest suite of hydrodynamic simulations yet made for simulating large-scale structure in the universe.

“We’ve created a new simulation model to compare data that exists at the real universe,” said Simeon Bird, an assistant professor in astronomy at the University of California, Riverside. 

Bird and colleagues developed PRIYA, which takes optical light data from the Extended Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (eBOSS) of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). He and colleagues published their work announcing PRIYA in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics (JCAP). 

Research offers a reason why diversity in plant species causes higher farming yield, solving 'a bit of a mystery'

Co-author Peggy Schultz collects data on plots with undergraduate workers.
Photo Credit: KU Marketing

A study appearing in Nature Communications based on field and greenhouse experiments at the University of Kansas shows how a boost in agricultural yield comes from planting diverse crops rather than just one plant species: Soil pathogens harmful to plants have a harder time thriving.

“It’s commonly observed that diverse plant communities can be more productive and stable over time,” said corresponding author James Bever, senior scientist with the Kansas Biological Survey & Center for Ecological Research and Foundation Distinguished Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at KU. “Range lands with numerous species can show increased productivity. But the reason for this has been a bit of a mystery.”

While crop rotation and other farming and gardening practices long have reflected benefits of a mix of plants, the new research puts hard data to one important mechanism underpinning the observation: the numbers of microorganisms in the soil that eat plants.

“Diverse agricultural communities have the potential to keep pathogens at bay, resulting in greater yields,” Bever said. “What we show is that a major driver is the specialization of pathogens, particularly those specific to different plant species. These pathogens suppress yields in low-diversity communities. A significant advantage of rangeland diversity is that less biomass is consumed by pathogens, allowing more biomass for other uses, such as cattle. The same process is crucial for agricultural production.”

Aerogel can become the key to future terahertz technologies

Aerogel can obtain high hydrophobicity by simple chemical modifications.
Photo Credit: Thor Balkhed

High-frequency terahertz waves have great potential for a number of applications including next-generation medical imaging and communication. Researchers at Linköping University, Sweden, have shown, in a study published in the journal Advanced Science, that the transmission of terahertz light through an aerogel made of cellulose and a conducting polymer can be tuned. This is an important step to unlock more applications for terahertz waves.

The terahertz range covers wavelengths that lie between microwaves and infrared light on the electromagnetic spectrum. It has a very high frequency. Thanks to this, many researchers believe that the terahertz range has great potential for use in space exploration, security technology and communication systems, among other things. In medical imaging, it can also be an interesting substitute for X-ray examinations as the waves can pass through most non-conductive materials without damaging any tissue.

However, there are several technological barriers to overcome before terahertz signals can be widely used. For example, it is difficult to create terahertz radiation in an efficient way and materials that can receive and adjust the transmission of terahertz waves are needed.

Uncovering the role of beta diversity in ecosystems

Karen Castillioni observes beta diversity in a prairie habitat.
Photo Credit: College of Biological Sciences

As climate change progresses, scientists want to better understand how species interact across habitats to preserve diversity. Key to these efforts is the concept of beta diversity, which explores species that thrive exclusively in specific habitats. The University of Minnesota's Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve in East Bethel is an ideal place to study beta diversity because it gives researchers access to many distinct habitats in one place. 

Karen Castillioni, a postdoctoral research associate in the College of Biological Sciences, along with Associate Professor Forest Isbell, wanted to know how beta diversity affects plant biomass, the total mass of living plants in a given area. Plant biomass is crucial for various ecological and environmental functions, including carbon sequestration and supporting food webs.

During the first phase of an experiment at Cedar Creek called BetaDIV, the researchers looked at five habitats: oak savanna, where bur oak tree dominates; coniferous forest, where white pine dominates; deciduous forest, where red maple dominates; bog, where tamarack dominates; and an old grassland where big bluestem dominates.

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