. Scientific Frontline: March 2024

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Combining multiple meds into a single pill reduces cardiovascular deaths

Image Credit: Copilot Dall e-3 AI generated.

Taking a single pill that combines medications targeting cardiovascular disease-related conditions was shown long ago to lower the risk of death from such causes, including heart attacks and strokes. The concept of using such “polypills” to prevent and treat atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease was introduced nearly 25 years ago. Shortly thereafter, the strategy was the focus of a seminal modeling study that promoted polypills to reduce cardiovascular disease at the population level. Still, many years and a body of supportive research later, use of such pills remains low throughout the world.

Now, a new study from researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis bolsters previous findings and provides additional evidence that polypills are beneficial in preventing heart attacks and strokes and reducing deaths among people with cardiovascular risk factors, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol. As a result of the study, the World Health Organization (WHO) has added such polypills to its most recent Model List of Essential Medicines. The list comprises medicines considered key to public health due to their importance in treating common diseases, as well as their safety, efficacy and cost-effectiveness.

Rice biologists uncover new species of tiger beetle: Eunota houstoniana

Eunota houstoniana, with male on left and female on right.
Photo Credit: Rice University

Rice University evolutionary biologist Scott Egan and his research team have unearthed a new species of tiger beetle, deemed Eunota houstoniana, honoring the Houston region where it predominantly resides.

The team employed cutting-edge genetic sequencing technology alongside traditional measurements of their physical appearance and geographic range data to redefine species boundaries within the Eunota circumpicta species complex. This approach, known as integrative taxonomy, allowed them to identify distinct biological entities previously overlooked.

The study is published online in Nature Scientific Reports.

“It is amazing that within the city limits of Houston, we still don’t know all the species of insects or plants we share our region with,” Egan said. “I’m always interested in learning more about the biodiversity of the Gulf Coast.”

The Eunota houstoniana was once considered synonymous with the more common Eunota circumpicta, but the team’s research revealed significant differences, emphasizing the need for a refined process to species delineation.

Eunota houstoniana exhibits distinct genetic and physical characteristics. It is slightly smaller in size, its metallic coloring is more subdued, and it has unique behavior and habitat preferences.

Scientists identify Achilles heel of lung cancer protein

Researchers have shown for the first time that a crucial interface in a protein that drives cancer growth could act as a target for more effective treatments.

The study, led by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Central Laser Facility (CLF) with support from the Imaging Therapies and Cancer Group at King's, used advanced laser imaging techniques to identify structural details of a mutated protein which help it to evade drugs that target it.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications and lays the groundwork for future research into more effective, long-lasting cancer therapies.

The Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor (EGFR) is a protein that sits on the surface of cells and receives molecular signals that tell the cell to grow and divide. In certain types of cancer, mutated EGFR stimulate uncontrolled growth, resulting in tumors.

Various cancer treatments block and inhibit mutant EGFR to prevent tumor formation, but these are limited as eventually cancerous cells commonly develop further EGFR mutations that are resistant to treatment.

Until now, how exactly these drug-resistant EGFR mutations drive tumor growth was not understood, hindering our ability to develop treatments that target them.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Purdue researchers create biocompatible nanoparticles to enhance systemic delivery of cancer immunotherapy

Purdue University researchers are developing and validating patent-pending nanoparticles (left) to enhance immunotherapy effects against tumors. The nanoparticles are modified with adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, to recruit dendritic cells (right), which are immune cells that recognize tumor antigens and bring specialized immune cells to fight off tumors.
Image Credit: Yoon Yeo

Purdue University researchers are developing and validating patent-pending poly (lactic-co-glycolic acid), or PLGA, nanoparticles modified with adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, to enhance immunotherapy effects against malignant tumors.

The nanoparticles slowly release drugs that induce immunogenic cell death, or ICD, in tumors. ICD generates tumor antigens and other molecules to bring immune cells to a tumor’s microenvironment. The researchers have attached ATP to the nanoparticles, which also recruits immune cells to the tumor to initiate anti-tumor immune responses. 

Yoon Yeo leads a team of researchers from the College of Pharmacy, the Metabolite Profiling Facility in the Bindley Bioscience Center, and the Purdue Institute for Cancer Research to develop the nanoparticles. Yeo is the associate department head and Lillian Barboul Thomas Professor of Industrial and Molecular Pharmaceutics and Biomedical Engineering; she is also a member of the Purdue Institute for Drug Discovery and the Purdue Institute for Cancer Research.

The researchers validated their work using paclitaxel, a chemotherapy drug used to treat several types of cancers. They found that tumors grew slower in mice treated with paclitaxel enclosed within ATP-modified nanoparticles than in mice treated with paclitaxel in non-modified nanoparticles.

“When combined with an existing immunotherapy drug, the ATP-modified, paclitaxel-loaded nanoparticles eliminated tumors in mice and protected them from rechallenge with tumor cells,” Yeo said.

Researchers discover molecule that promotes production of cancer cells in triple-negative breast cancer

Hiroshima University researchers found that AIbZIP is highly upregulated in triple negative breast cancer (TNBC). AIbZIP induces hyper proliferation of TNBC cells by promoting the degradation of p27, a negative regulator for cell proliferation.
Illustration Credit: Atsushi Saito/Hiroshima University

A team of researchers from Hiroshima University has discovered a molecule that promotes the production of cancer cells. This molecule may prove to be a potential therapeutic target in the treatment of triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of breast cancer.

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer, ranking fifth among all cancers in cancer-related deaths. In 2020, there were 2.3 million new cases of breast cancer reported around the globe. In that year, breast cancer caused 685,000 deaths.

Several studies have reported that a molecule called AIbZIP (androgen induced basic leucine zipper) promotes malignant behavior in different cancer types. So, the research team examined the potential role of AIbZIP in malignant tumors. Their computer simulation analysis revealed that AIbZIP was highly expressed in the luminal androgen receptor subtype of triple negative breast cancer, playing a significant role in cell cycle regulation. They identified a novel mechanism by which AIbZIP regulates cancer cell proliferation in this type of breast cancer.

“We found that AIbZIP is highly upregulated in triple negative breast cancer. AIbZIP plays a crucial role for hyper proliferation of triple negative breast cancer cells by promoting the degradation of p27, a negative regulator for cell proliferation. Our study indicates that AIbZIP may be potential therapeutic target of triple negative breast cancer” said Atsushi Saito, an associate professor and Kazunori Imaizumi, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Graduate School of Biomedical and Health Sciences, Hiroshima University.  

Assessing the impact of sweeteners on appetite

Photo Credit: Jan Haerer

Replacing sugar with artificial and natural sweeteners in foods does not make people hungrier – and also helps to reduce blood sugar levels, a significant new study has found. 

The double blind randomized controlled trial found that consuming food containing sweeteners produced a similar reduction in appetite sensations and appetite-related hormone responses as sugary foods - and provides some benefits such as lowering blood sugar, which may be particularly important in people at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. 

The use of sweeteners in place of sugar in foods can be controversial due to conflicting reports about their potential to increase appetite. Previous studies have been carried out but did not provide robust evidence. 

However, the researchers say their study, which meets the gold standard level of proof in scientific investigation, provides very strong evidence that sweeteners and sweetness enhancers do not negatively impact appetite and are beneficial for reducing sugar intake. The study is published in The Lancet eBioMedicine.  

Our study provides crucial evidence supporting the day-to-day use of sweeteners and sweetness enhancers for body weight and blood sugar control. 

Friday, March 29, 2024

‘Back to the Future’ to Forecast the Fate of a Dead Florida Coral Reef

Alex Modys, Ph.D., diving at the coral death assemblage in Pompano Ridge and digging up a subfossil coral, Orbicella annularis.
Photo Credit: Anton Olenik, Ph.D., Florida Atlantic University

Rising temperatures and disease outbreaks are decimating coral reefs throughout the tropics. Evidence suggests that higher latitude marine environments may provide crucial refuges for many at-risk, temperature-sensitive coral species. However, how coral populations expand into new areas and sustain themselves over time is constrained by the limited scope of modern observations. 

What can thousands of years of history tell us about what lies ahead for coral reef communities? A lot. In a new study, Florida Atlantic University researchers and collaborators provide geological insights into coral range expansions by reconstructing the composition of a Late Holocene-aged subfossil coral death assemblage in an unusual location in Southeast Florida and comparing it to modern reefs throughout the region. 

Located off one of the most densely populated and urbanized coastlines in the continental United States, the Late Holocene coral death assemblage known as “Pompano Ridge,” records a northward range expansion of tropical coral communities that occurred during a period of regional climate warming more than 2,000 years ago.

Could this happen again in the face of climate change? Going “back to the future,” this study offers a unique glimpse into what was once a vibrant coral reef assemblage and explores if history can repeat itself.

‘Exhausted’ immune cells in healthy women could be target for breast cancer prevention

Photo Credit: Angiola Harry

Everyone has BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, but mutations in these genes - which can be inherited - increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

The study found that the immune cells in breast tissue of healthy women carrying BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations show signs of malfunction known as ‘exhaustion’. This suggests that the immune cells can’t clear out damaged breast cells, which can eventually develop into breast cancer.

This is the first time that ‘exhausted’ immune cells have been reported in non-cancerous breast tissues at such scale - normally these cells are only found in late-stage tumors.

The results raise the possibility of using existing immunotherapy drugs as early intervention to prevent breast cancer developing, in carriers of BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations.

The researchers have received a ‘Biology to Prevention Award’ from Cancer Research UK to trial this preventative approach in mice. If effective, this will pave the way to a pilot clinical trial in women carrying BRCA gene mutations.

“Our results suggest that in carriers of BRCA mutations, the immune system is failing to kill off damaged breast cells - which in turn seem to be working to keep these immune cells at bay,” said Professor Walid Khaled in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Pharmacology and Wellcome-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute, senior author of the report.

Magnetic Avalanche Triggered by Quantum Effects

Christopher Simon holds a crystal of lithium holmium yttrium fluoride.
Photo Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech

Iron screws and other so-called ferromagnetic materials are made up of atoms with electrons that act like little magnets. Normally, the orientations of the magnets are aligned within one region of the material but are not aligned from one region to the next. Think of groups of tourists in Times Square pointing to different billboards all around them. But when a magnetic field is applied, the orientations of the magnets, or spins, in the different regions line up and the material becomes fully magnetized. This would be like the packs of tourists all turning to point at the same sign.

The process of spins lining up, however, does not happen all at once. Rather, when the magnetic field is applied, different regions, or so-called domains, influence others nearby, and the changes spread across the material in a clumpy fashion. Scientists often compare this effect to an avalanche of snow, where one small lump of snow starts falling, pushing on other nearby lumps, until the entire mountainside of snow is tumbling down in the same direction.

Cats with MDR1 mutation at risk of severe reactions to popular medication

Photo Credit: Zhang Kaiyv

More than half a million cats in the United States could be at risk of a severe or even fatal neurological reaction to the active ingredient in some top-selling parasite preventatives for felines.

While the ingredient, eprinomectin, which is found in products like NexGard COMBO and Centragard, appears safe and effective for the significant majority of cats when used at label doses, a study conducted by Washington State University’s Program for Individualized Medicine identified a risk of severe adverse effects in cats with the MDR1 genetic mutation. Genetically affected cats lack a protective mechanism that prevents certain drugs, including eprinomectin, from entering the brain and causing serious neurological toxicity.

“Almost every week we receive reports about someone’s pet cat having serious reactions to eprinomectin. This is not an issue with the drug itself — the problem lies in the genes of 1% of cats. That is a sizable number considering there are over 60 million pet cats in the U.S., and we’re trying to increase general awareness of these risks,” said Dr. Katrina Mealey, a WSU veterinarian and pharmacologist who led the research.

Patients with delirium more likely to develop dementia

Professor Ruth Hubbard interacting with a patient.
Photo Credit: The University of Queensland

University of Queensland researchers have found older patients who experience delirium are three times more likely to develop dementia.

Professor Ruth Hubbard from UQ’s Centre for Health Services Research (CHSR) said the study also found that every episode of delirium increased the chance of developing dementia by 20 per cent.

“Delirium is an acute confusional state which particularly impacts older people and can have long term detrimental effects on patients,” Professor Hubbard said.

“Our study found that it is also strongly linked to dementia.”

The researchers analyzed a cohort of more than 110,000 patients from New South Wales hospitals over five years.

Lead author and CHSR research fellow, Dr Emily Gordon, said more than 55,000 patients who had experienced delirium were compared to patients who had not.

Rice study identifies protein responsible for gas vesicle clustering in bacteria

Zongru Li (left) and George Lu
Photo Credit: Anna Stafford/Rice University

Gas vesicles are hollow structures made of protein found in the cells of certain microorganisms, and researchers at Rice University believe they can be programmed for use in biomedical applications.

“Inside cells, gas vesicles are packed in a beautiful honeycomb pattern. How this pattern is formed has never been thoroughly understood. We are presenting the first identification of a protein that can regulate this patterning, and we believe this will be a milestone in molecular microbiology,” said George Lu, assistant professor of bioengineering and a Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas scholar.

Lu and colleagues have published their findings in a paper published in Nature Microbiology. The lead author is Zongru Li, a fourth-year bioengineering doctoral student in Lu’s Laboratory for Synthetic Macromolecular Assemblies.

“Gas vesicles are cylindrical tubes closed by conical end caps,” Li said. “They provide buoyancy within the cells of their native hosts.”

Largest ice shelf in Antarctica lurches forward once or twice each day

A side view of the Ross Ice Shelf, the largest ice shelf in Antarctica. Washington University in St. Louis seismologist Doug Wiens discovered that unexpected movements of the Ross Ice Shelf are triggered by the sudden slipping of parts of the Willans Ice Stream.
Photo Credit: Lin Padgham
(CC BY 2.0.)

In Antarctica, heavy glaciers are always on the move. Conveyor belts of ice known as ice streams are the corridors of faster flow that carry most of the vast glaciers’ ice and sediment debris out toward the ocean.

One such ice stream jostles the entire Ross Ice Shelf out of place at least once daily, according to new research from Washington University in St. Louis.

This finding is significant because of the scale of the Ross Ice Shelf: It is the largest ice shelf in Antarctica, about the same size as the country of France.

“We found that the whole shelf suddenly moves about 6 to 8 centimeters (or 3 inches) once or twice a day, triggered by a slip on an ice stream that flows into the ice shelf,” said Doug Wiens, the Robert S. Brookings Distinguished Professor of earth, environmental and planetary science​s in Arts & Sciences. “These sudden movements could potentially play a role in triggering icequakes and fractures in the ice shelf.”

The Ross Ice Shelf is a floating lip of ice that extends out over the ocean from inland glaciers.

Risk factors for faster aging in the brain revealed in new study

Governments have been urged to act decisively before 2035 to ensure global warming can be kept below 2°C by 2100.
Photo Credit: Nöel Puebla

Researchers from the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Oxford have used data from UK Biobank participants to reveal that diabetes, traffic-related air pollution and alcohol intake are the most harmful out of 15 modifiable risk factors for dementia.

The researchers had previously identified a ‘weak spot’ in the brain, which is a specific network of higher-order regions that not only develop later during adolescence, but also show earlier degeneration in old age. They showed that this brain network is also particularly vulnerable to schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.

In this new study, published in Nature Communications, they investigated the genetic and modifiable influences on these fragile brain regions by looking at the brain scans of 40,000 UK Biobank participants aged over 45.

The researchers examined 161 risk factors for dementia, and ranked their impact on this vulnerable brain network, over and above the natural effects of age. They classified these so-called ‘modifiable’ risk factors − as they can potentially be changed throughout life to reduce the risk of dementia − into 15 broad categories: blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, weight, alcohol consumption, smoking, depressive mood, inflammation, pollution, hearing, sleep, socialization, diet, physical activity, and education.

Not unique to humans but uniquely human: researchers identify factor involved in brain expansion in humans

A microscopy image of a human brain organoid.
Image Credit: © Janine Hoffmann

What makes us human? According to neurobiologists it is our neocortex. This outer layer of the brain is rich in neurons and lets us do abstract thinking, create art, and speak complex languages. An international team led by Dr. Mareike Albert at the Center for Regenerative Therapies Dresden (CRTD) of TUD Dresden University of Technology has identified a new factor that might have contributed to neocortex expansion in humans. The results were published in the EMBO Journal.

The neocortex is the characteristic folded outer layer of the brain that resembles a walnut. It is responsible for higher cognitive functions such as abstract thinking, art, and language. “The neocortex is the most recently evolved part of the brain,” says Dr. Mareike Albert, research group leader at the CRTD. “All mammals have a neocortex, but it varies in size and complexity. Human and primate neocortices have folds while, for example, mice have a completely smooth neocortex, without any creases.”

The folds characteristic of the human brain increases the surface area of the neocortex. The human neocortex has a greater number of neurons that support complex cognitive functions.

The molecular mechanisms driving neocortex evolution are still largely unknown. “Which genes are responsible for inter-species differences in neocortex size? What factors have contributed to brain expansion in humans? Answering these questions is crucial to understanding human brain development and potentially addressing mental health disorders,” explains Dr. Albert.

Liquid crystal nanoparticles supercharge antibiotics for cystic fibrosis

Image Credit: Copilot Dall E-3 AI generated

Cystic fibrosis is the most common, life-limiting genetic condition in Australia. It affects the lungs, digestive system, and reproductive system, producing excess mucus, infections, and blockages.

Now, thanks to a $500,000 grant from Brandon BioCatalyst's CUREator incubator, through their CSIRO-funded Minimizing Antimicrobial Resistance Stream, University of South Australia researchers are advancing the development of liquid crystal nanoparticle-formulated antibiotics to more accurately target and eliminate difficult-to-cure lung infections in people with cystic fibrosis.

Funded by the Medical Research Future Fund CUREator provides grant funding to support the development of Australian biomedical research and innovations.

The study will use a patent-protected platform technology, invented by UniSA’s Centre for Pharmaceutical Innovation to establish new therapies for cystic fibrosis sufferers. UniSA will also work with the Cystic Fibrosis Airways Research Group at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital to advance the platform.

True trans visibility requires better data

The influential book Invisible Women articulates some of the countless ways in which women are missing from the data we use to understand the world, including the testing of many drugs, consideration of how best to support refugees, and others. The book is powerful, because it shines a light into how, by missing women out, we (unintentionally) do harm.

This trans visibility day, we’ve been thinking about whether a similar book could be written for trans people, and have had to conclude that it could not. Trans people and their experiences are so missing from the datasets that shape social science that we cannot even begin to fully understand the extent of their absence, and how this affects their lives.

Trans identities are missing from our datasets, meaning that their experiences in a number of domains cannot be studied quantitatively. The way in which many of our datasets are constructed reinforces a cis-normative understanding of the world, where people are pushed into the false binary of describing themselves as either male or female. Even less desirably, their gender is often assumed by the person administering the dataset, or worse, lumped into the amorphous category of “other” – literally othering survey respondents with a trans or non-binary identity.

Unleashing Disordered Rocksalt Oxides as Cathodes for Rechargeable Magnesium Batteries

Schematics of the battery and present cathode material. The present material contains many metal elements as cations thanks to the effect of the high configurational entropy.
Illustration Credit: ©Tohoku University

Researchers at Tohoku University have made a groundbreaking advancement in battery technology, developing a novel cathode material for rechargeable magnesium batteries (RMBs) that enables efficient charging and discharging even at low temperatures. This innovative material, leveraging an enhanced rock-salt structure, promises to usher in a new era of energy storage solutions that are more affordable, safer, and higher in capacity.

Details of the findings were published in the Journal of Materials Chemistry

The study showcases a considerable improvement in magnesium (Mg) diffusion within a rock-salt structure, a critical advancement since the denseness of atoms in this configuration had previously impeded Mg migration. By introducing a strategic mixture of seven different metallic elements, the research team created a crystal structure abundant in stable cation vacancies, facilitating easier Mg insertion and extraction.

This represents the first utilization of rocksalt oxide as a cathode material for RMBs. The high-entropy strategy employed by the researchers allowed the cation defects to activate the rocksalt oxide cathode.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

New Method Developed to Isolate HIV Particles

The image shows PNF-coated magnetic microbeads that bind HIV particles to their surface.
Image Credit: Torsten John

Researchers at Leipzig University and Ulm University have developed a new method to isolate HIV from samples more easily, potentially making it easier to detect infection with the virus. They focus on peptide nanofibrils (PNFs) on magnetic microparticles, a promising tool and hybrid material for targeted binding and separation of viral particles. They have published their new findings in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.

“The presented method makes it possible to efficiently capture, isolate and concentrate virus particles, which may improve the sensitivity of existing diagnostic tools and analytical tests,” says Professor Bernd Abel of the Institute of Technical Chemistry at Leipzig University. The nanofibrils used – small, needle-like structures – are based on the EF-C peptide, which was first described in 2013 by Professor Jan Münch from Ulm University and Ulm University Medical Center. EF-C is a peptide consisting of twelve amino acids that forms nanoscale fibrils almost instantaneously when dissolved in polar solvents. These can also be applied to magnetic particles. “Using the EF-C peptide as an example, our work shows how peptide fibrils on magnetic particles can have a completely new functionality – the more or less selective binding of viruses. Originally, fibrils of this kind were more likely to be associated with neurodegenerative diseases,” adds Dr Torsten John, co-first author of the study and former doctoral researcher under Professor Abel at Leipzig University. He is now a junior researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz, Germany.

Key Ocean Current Contains a Warning on Climate

Scientists extracted a 5.3 million-year record of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current by drilling sediment cores in the Earth’s most remote waters. Here, the drill ship JOIDES Resolution makes its way through the far southeast Pacific.
Photo Credit: Gisela Winckler

It carries more than 100 times as much water as all the world’s rivers combined. It reaches from the ocean’s surface to its bottom, and measures as much as 2,000 kilometers across. It connects the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and plays a key role in regulating global climate. Continuously swirling around the southernmost continent, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current is by far the world’s most powerful and consequential mover of water. In recent decades it has been speeding up, but scientists have been unsure whether that is connected to human-induced global warming, and whether the current might offset or amplify some of warming’s effects.

In a new study, an international research team used sediment cores from the planet’s roughest and most remote waters to chart the ACC’s relationship to climate over the last 5.3 million years. Their key discovery: During past natural climate swings, the current has moved in tandem with Earth’s temperature, slowing down during cold times and gaining speed in warm ones―speedups that abetted major losses of Antarctica’s ice. This suggests that today’s speedup will continue as human-induced warming proceeds. That could hasten the wasting of Antarctica’s ice, increase sea levels, and possibly affect the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

“This is the mightiest and fastest current on the planet. It is arguably the most important current of the Earth climate system,” said study coauthor Gisela Winckler, a geochemist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who co-led the sediment sampling expedition. The study “implies that the retreat or collapse of Antarctic ice is mechanistically linked to enhanced ACC flow, a scenario we are observing today under global warming,” she said.

New Nanoceramics Could Help Improve Smartphone and TV Displays

Nanoceramics are strong because they are made under high pressure.
Photo Credit: Anna Marinovich

Scientists from the Ural Federal University, together with colleagues from India and the Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, have developed a nanoceramic that glows in three main colors - red, green, and blue. The new material is extremely strong because it is created under high pressure. Scientists believe that the characteristics of the new nanoceramics - luminescence, strength, and transparency - will be useful for creating screens with improved brightness and detail for smartphones, televisions, and other devices. The scientists published detailed information about the new nanoceramics and their properties in the journal Applied Materials Today

"We obtained optically transparent nanoceramics capable of luminescing in red, green, and blue colors. This was made possible by adding carbon particles that act as carbon nanodots. During the synthesis process, the carbon components are encapsulated between the ceramic particles, creating defects on their surface. We believe that these defects create several energy levels in the carbon nanodots, allowing the material to glow in different colors in the visible spectrum", explains Arseny Kiryakov, the co-author of the work, Associate Professor of the UrFU Department of Physical Techniques and Devices for Quality Control.

New rapid method to predict effects of conservation actions on complex ecosystems

From left: Dr Matthew Adams, Sarah Vollert, Professor Drovandi
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Queensland University of Technology

A new way to analyze the effects of conservation actions on complex ecosystems has cut the modelling time from 108 days to six hours, QUT statisticians have found:

  • Some conservation efforts backfire, eg eradicating feral cats could lead to rabbit explosion
  • Modeling predicts the cascading effects through species in a complex ecosystem, but is computationally slow
  • New method cuts prediction time from 3.5 months to six hours

PhD researcher Sarah Vollert, from the School of Mathematical Sciences and the QUT Centre for Data Sciences, said it was impossible to predict exactly how conservation actions would affect each species.

“Though well-intentioned, conservation actions have the potential to backfire,” Ms. Vollert said.

“For example, if decision-makers decide to eradicate feral cats, it could lead to explosive populations of their prey species, like rabbits.

“Uncontrolled rabbit populations could then have devastating effects on the vegetation, destroying the habitat native species need to survive.

A Tiny Spot Leads to a Large Advancement in Nano-processing, Researchers Reveal

A conceptual illustration of single-shot laser processing by an annular-shaped radially polarized beam, focused on the back surface of a glass plate.
Illustration Credit: ©Y. Kozawa et al.

Focusing a tailored laser beam through transparent glass can create a tiny spot inside the material. Researchers at Tohoku University have reported on a way to use this small spot to improve laser material processing, boosting processing resolution.

Laser machining, like drilling and cutting, is vital in industries such as automotive, semiconductors, and medicine. Ultra-short pulse laser sources, with pulse widths from picoseconds to femtoseconds, enable precise processing at scales ranging from microns to tens of microns. But recent advancements demand even smaller scales, below 100 nanometers, which existing methods struggle to achieve.

The researchers focused on a laser beam with radial polarization, known as a vector beam. This beam generates a longitudinal electric field at the focus, producing a smaller spot than conventional beams.

Scientists have identified this process as promising for laser processing. However, one drawback is that this field weakens inside the material due to light refraction at the air-material interface, limiting its use.

A new type of cooling for quantum simulators

Tiantian Zhang and Maximilian Prüfer discussing measurements in the quantum lab
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Technische Universität Wien

Quantum experiments always have to deal with the same problem, regardless of whether they involve quantum computers, quantum teleportation or new types of quantum sensors: quantum effects break down very easily. They are extremely sensitive to external disturbances - for example, to fluctuations caused simply by the surrounding temperature. It is therefore important to be able to cool down quantum experiments as effectively as possible.

At TU Wien (Vienna), it has now been shown that this type of cooling can be achieved in an interesting new way: A Bose-Einstein condensate is split into two parts, neither abruptly nor particularly slowly, but with a very specific temporal dynamic that ensures that random fluctuations are prevented as perfectly as possible. In this way, the relevant temperature in the already extremely cold Bose-Einstein condensate can be significantly reduced. This is important for quantum simulators, which are used at TU Wien to gain insights into quantum effects that could not be investigated using previous methods.

Researchers Identify Microbes That Help Plants Thwart Parasite

Sorghum crops in sub-Saharan Africa suffer heavy losses from the parasitic plant witchweed (Striga hermonthica). A new study shows how soil microbes can help protect sorghum from this pest and could be the basis for a soil probiotic treatment.
Photo Credit: Sabine

Bacteria that could help one of Africa’s staple crops resist a major pest have been identified by researchers at the University of California, Davis. Their findings, published in Cell Reports, could improve yields of sorghum, a mainstay of food and drink in West and East African countries.

About 20 percent of Africa’s sorghum crop is lost due to witchweed (Striga hermonthica), a parasitic plant that steals nutrients and water by latching onto the plant’s roots.

In a new study, UC Davis researchers show that soil microbes induce changes in sorghum roots that make the plant more resistant to infection by witchweed. They identified specific strains of bacteria that trigger these resistance traits and could be applied as a soil “probiotic” to improve sorghum yields in future.

“These microbes have great promise as soil additives that can help farmers grow sorghum successfully in sub-Saharan Africa,” said Siobhan Brady, a professor in the Department of Plant Biology and Genome Center and a senior author on the paper. 

Scientists propose a new way to search for dark matter

(Left) The new dark matter detection proposal looks for frequent interactions between nuclei in a detector and low-energy dark matter that may be present in and around Earth. (Right) A conventional direct detection experiment looks for occasional recoils from dark matter scattering.
Image Credit: Anirban Das, Noah Kurinsky and Rebecca Leane

Ever since its discovery, dark matter has remained invisible to scientists, despite the launch of multiple ultra-sensitive particle detector experiments around the world over several decades. 

Now, physicists at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory are proposing a new way to look for dark matter using quantum devices, which might be naturally tuned to detect what researchers call thermalized dark matter.

Most dark matter experiments hunt for galactic dark matter, which rockets into Earth directly from space, but another kind might have been hanging around Earth for years, said SLAC physicist Rebecca Leane, who was an author on the new study. 

“Dark matter goes into the Earth, bounces around a lot, and eventually just gets trapped by the gravitational field of the Earth,” Leane said, bringing it into an equilibrium scientists refer to as thermalized. Over time, this thermalized dark matter builds up to a higher density than the few loose, galactic particles, meaning that it could be more likely to hit a detector. Unfortunately, thermalized dark matter moves much more slowly than galactic dark matter, meaning it would impart far less energy than galactic dark matter – likely too little for traditional detectors to see.

New machine to enhance understanding of nuclear weapons’ behavior

Bob Webster, deputy Laboratory director for Weapons (far right); Mike Furlanetto, Scorpius Advanced Sources and Detection project director (center); and Geoffrey Zehnder, project engineer (far left); discuss the prototype module Lab employees constructed for Scorpius' first accelerator cells and modules.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory

On March 7, assembly began at Los Alamos National Laboratory on a groundbreaking machine that will allow scientists to use real plutonium in experiments while studying the conditions immediately before the nuclear phase of a weapon's functioning. The machine will prove instrumental in the Laboratory's stockpile stewardship mission, which ensures the safety, security and reliability of the nation's nuclear weapons through computational tools and engineering test facilities, rather than underground testing.

Although the plutonium used will never reach criticality — the condition that forms a self-sustaining nuclear reaction — the tests performed as part of the Scorpius Advanced Sources and Detection (ASD) project will provide essential knowledge about how the key element in nuclear weapons behaves.

The components being built will be the first two accelerator cell modules for Scorpius.

"This means we have officially started building, and I am so looking forward to seeing this experiment in my lifetime," said Bob Webster, deputy Laboratory director for Weapons.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

New Genetic Analysis Tool Tracks Risks Tied to CRISPR Edits

UC San Diego researchers have created a new system that reveals specific categories of potentially risky mutations resulting from CRISPR edits. This high magnification image reveals CRISPR-based DNA transcription of the homothorax gene in fruit fly embryos.
Image Credit: Bier Lab, UC San Diego

Since its breakthrough development more than a decade ago, CRISPR has revolutionized DNA editing across a broad range of fields. Now scientists are applying the technology’s immense potential to human health and disease, targeting new therapies for an array of disorders spanning cancers, blood conditions and diabetes.

In some designed treatments, patients are injected with CRISPR-treated cells or with packaged CRISPR components with a goal of repairing diseased cells with precision gene edits. Yet, while CRISPR has shown immense promise as a next-generation therapeutic tool, the technology’s edits are still imperfect. CRISPR-based gene therapies can cause unintended but harmful “bystander” edits to parts of the genome, at times leading to new cancers or other diseases.

Next-generation solutions are needed to help scientists unravel the complex biological dynamics behind both on- and off-target CRISPR edits. But the landscape for such novel tools is daunting, since intricate bodily tissues feature thousands of different cell types and CRISPR edits can depend on many different biological pathways.

Researchers a step closer to a cure for HIV

HIV, the AIDS virus (yellow), infecting a human cell
Image Credit: National Cancer Institute

A new study involving University of Bristol researchers has shown a virus-like particle (HLP) can effectively 'shock and kill' the latent HIV reservoir.

By 2030, the World Health Organization (WHO), the Global Fund and UNAIDS are hoping to end the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and AIDS epidemic. An international team of researchers led by Professor Eric Arts from the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Canada, and Dr Jamie Mann, Senior Lecturer at the University of Bristol, has brought us another step closer to meeting this goal, by finding an effective and affordable targeted treatment strategy for an HIV cure. 

In a first, the study published in Emerging Microbes and Infections demonstrated the team's patented therapeutic candidate. The HIV-virus-like-particle (HLP), is 100 times more effective than other candidate HIV cure therapeutics for people living with chronic HIV on combined antiretroviral therapy (cART). If successful in clinical trials, HLP could be used by millions of people living around the world to free them of HIV. This study was done using blood samples from people living with chronic HIV. 

HLPs are dead HIV particles hosting a comprehensive set of HIV proteins that increase immune responses without infecting a person. When compared with other potential cure approaches, HLP is an affordable biotherapeutic and can be administered by intramuscular injection – similar to the seasonal flu vaccine. 

Two-Way Cell-based Treatment Repairs Muscle After Rotator Cuff Injury

A combination of mobilizing agent, designed to “push” pro-healing cells into the blood, and SDF-1a, designed to “pull” the cells into the injury site, leads to an increase in muscle regeneration following a rotator cuff tear. Muscle regeneration was characterized based on the number of centrally located nuclei (marked with the white arrows).
Image Credit: Courtesy of the researchers / Georgia Institute of Technology

A team of Georgia Tech researchers has introduced a new therapeutic system to offset the poor clinical outcomes often associated with common rotator cuff surgery.

It’s the kind of surgery that makes headlines whenever a famous athlete is sidelined with a torn rotator cuff. Major League Baseball All-Star pitchers Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander, for example, both had rotator cuff surgeries and made successful comebacks.

For those of us who can’t throw baseballs 95 miles an hour, the rotator cuff may tear over time from repeated overhead motions (painters and carpenters, for instance). Or an injury can occur as we age and our body’s tissues naturally degenerate. And although rotator cuff injuries are common, they can be serious, leading to muscle degeneration after surgery.

Now, two professors from the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, a joint department of Georgia Tech and Emory University, have addressed the problem with a novel cell-based dual treatment, which they describe in a study published recently in the journal Tissue Engineering.

Climate change will see Australia’s soil emit CO2 and add to global warming

Australian Outback
Photo Credit: Nathan March

New Curtin University research has shown the warming climate will turn Australia’s soil into a net emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2), unless action is taken.

Soil helps to keep the planet cool by absorbing carbon, however as the climate gets warmer its ability to retain carbon decreases — and in some instances can start to release some carbon back into the air.

A global research team — led by Professor Raphael Viscarra Rossel from Curtin’s School of Molecular and Life Sciences— predicted the changes in the amount of carbon in Australia’s soil between now and the year 2100.

To do so, the team ran simulations using three different paths for society: an eco-focused ‘sustainable’ scenario, a ‘middle-of-the-road’ scenario and another which predicted a continued reliance on ‘fossil-fueled development’.

It found Australian soil will be a net emitter and could account for 8.3 per cent of Australia’s total current emissions under the ‘sustainable’ scenario and more than 14 per cent by 2045 under the ‘middle-of-the-road’ and ‘fossil-fueled’ scenarios.

Study explores severe hurricanes and coral reef sponge recolonization

For the study, scuba divers collected small samples of the thin purple morphotype sponges 14 and 22 months after the two Category 5 hurricanes in St. Thomas.
Photo Credit: Karli Hollister

Named for its ropy-looking long branches, Aplysina cauliformis, a coral reef sponge, provides a critical 3D habitat for marine organisms and helps to stabilize the foundation of coral reefs. However, these upright branching sponges are highly susceptible to breaking during storms, which increases sponge fragmentation and contributes to population clonality and inbreeding.

Many sponges can survive severe damage and undergo frequent fragmentation, which is considered a mechanism for asexual reproduction. While fragmentation is a commonly utilized reproductive strategy in rope sponges, they also can reproduce sexually by producing larvae. How and whether they recolonize following extreme weather events is critical for the restoration and resilience of coral reef ecosystems.

Hurricanes Irma and Maria – both in 2017 – were two rapid succession storms that provided researchers from Florida Atlantic University’s Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College and Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, and collaborators from the University of the Virgin Islands, the University of Mississippi and the University of Alabama, with a unique opportunity to address a priority concern – the resilience of coral reef sponge populations after severe hurricanes. 

Gut microbiota and antibiotics: Missing puzzle piece discovered

3D model of the small ribonucleic acid MasB.
Image Credit: Alexander Westermann/HIRI

HIRI scientists have identified a small RNA that influences the sensitivity of the intestinal commensal Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron to certain antibiotics.

The intricacies of how intestinal bacteria adapt to their environment have yet to be fully explored. Researchers from the Helmholtz Institute for RNA-based Infection Research (HIRI) in Würzburg and the University of California, Berkeley, USA, have now successfully closed a gap in this knowledge: They have identified a small ribonucleic acid (sRNA) that affects the susceptibility of the gut commensal Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron to specific antibiotics. The findings, published today in the journal Nature Microbiology, could serve as the foundation for novel therapies addressing intestinal diseases and combating antibiotic resistance. 

The gut, a complex ecosystem of numerous microorganisms, plays a pivotal role in human well-being. Factors like dietary changes, medications, or bile salts can influence the microbiota, impacting health. Among the prevalent intestinal bacteria in humans are Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron. These gut microbes play a role in breaking down polysaccharides during digestion, contributing to human health. Yet they can also promote infections when the ecosystem is disbalanced, such as after antibiotic treatment. However, the molecular mechanisms enabling these gut microbes to adapt to their environment remain largely unknown.

New Study Reveals Who Was More Vulnerable to Post-COVID Syndrome in Early Phases of the Pandemic

Fatigue, malaise and difficulty breathing were associated with post-COVID syndrome, according to the new Nordic study.
Photo Credit: Kinga Howard

People with post-COVID syndrome (PCS) following the COVID-19 infection often suffer from intense fatigue and dyspnea. This is what emerges from a new Nordic study led by Umeå University and recently published in the BMJ Public Health journal. High blood pressure also appears to be a risk factor for PCS diagnosis, according to the study’s findings.

"These scientific results are an important step in better understanding PCS. By identifying key factors, we can improve diagnosis, adapt care and pave the way for research into more effective treatments," says Anne-Marie Fors Connolly, MD PhD, Assoc Prof, clinical researcher at Umeå University and the study's senior author.

The study analyzed data from over one million people in Sweden who tested positive for COVID-19 during the period from February 2020 to May 2021. Of these, 1.5 percent, just over 16,000 people, were diagnosed with PCS after the main COVID-19 infection. They were diagnosed in both outpatient and inpatient care, which provided large datasets for the researchers to examine the clinical footprint of PCS. The researchers conducted an in-depth study of PCS symptoms in individuals who required ongoing healthcare three months after the COVID-19 infection.

Behavior of ant queens is shaped by their social environment

A black garden ant queen caring for her brood
Photo Credit: © Romain Libbrecht)

The queens in colonies of social insects, such as ants, bees, and wasps, are considered the veritable embodiment of specialization in the animal kingdom. The common perception is that the queen's only task is to lay eggs – and that this attribute is an inherent trait, not influenced by external factors. In contrast, recent research undertaken at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) has demonstrated that in certain ant colonies the social environment can play a crucial role in shaping the behavioral specialization of the queens. "With regard to the ant species we studied, it is social factors that control whether queens become specialized or not. Our findings challenge the widely accepted notion of social insect queens as inherently specialized egg-laying machines," stated Dr. Romain Libbrecht.

The research was conducted by the Reproduction, Nutrition, and Behavior in Insect Societies group at JGU under the supervision of Dr. Romain Libbrecht, an evolutionary biologist. The corresponding paper has recently been published in Functional Ecology. Dr. Romain Libbrecht currently works at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in the Insect Biology Research Institute of the University of Tours.

Seeing a Path to Nerve Regeneration

The image on the left (A) shows four optic nerves that have been crushed. Live nerve tissue glows green in this image, while damaged nerve tissue is dark. The top nerve was not treated with any regenerative factors, and there is no regrowth of the nerve (shown by the uniformly dark area on the right.) The second and third nerves were treated with previously identified regeneration factors, and show some live nerve tissue beyond the crushed area. The bottom nerve was treated with Nfe3, and also shows live nerve tissue beyond the crushed region. (B) shows close-ups of the left, middle, and far right sections of the crushed nerves. The nerve treated with Nfe3 (bottom) shows regeneration as good or better than the nerves treated with the other factors (middle two rows).
Image Credit: Courtesy of researcher Et al Experimental Neurology and University of Connecticut

This opens a whole new novel realm of research. It could help glaucoma and other types of nerve damage

Damage to the optic nerve can lead to irreversible blindness. A newly investigated regeneration factor could change that, UConn researchers report in the May 2024 issue of Experimental Neurology.

Blindness and vision impairment due to optic nerve damage affect more than 3 million people in the US alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The most common reason for that damage is glaucoma, a family of eye diseases that affect the flow of liquid in the eye, eventually damaging the long bundle of cells that connect the retina to the brain. That bundle of cells is the optic nerve. They don’t grow back after being damaged, leading to permanent vision loss.

Now, a team of researchers in the lab of UConn School of Medicine neuroscientist Ephraim Trakhtenberg have shown that a protein previously thought unimportant can stimulate regrowth of nerve cells. The protein is called nuclear factor erythroid 3 (Nfe3), and it is unique to nerves originating in the retina. Normally it is not produced by adult neurons.

Protect habitat to prevent pandemics

Photo Credit: Vlad Kutepov

An international research team has proposed using ecological perspectives to prevent the occurrence of disease outbreaks.

Pandemics begin when disease-harboring animals, such as bats, come in close proximity with people, livestock or other animals and pass on new pathogens. Viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, SARS-CoV-1, Nipah, Hendra and possibly Ebola have all fatally spilled over from bats to humans, sometimes through an intermediate host.

Led by Cornell University expert, Professor Raina Plowright, the international team has proposed a roadmap for how to prevent the next pandemic by conserving natural areas and promoting biodiversity, thereby providing animals with enough food, safe havens and distance to limit contact and transfer of pathogens to humans.

Professor Plowright said: “The world is focused on how can we detect and then contain a novel pathogen once it is circulating in humans, rather than how can we prevent that pathogen from entering the human population in the first place.”

The roadmap uses insights from recently published case studies to explain the mechanisms linking environmental change and spillover of pathogens from animals to humans and identifies ecological interventions to disrupt these links and policy frameworks to implement them.

Blood analysis predicts sepsis and organ failure in children

Photo Credit: Edward Jenner

University of Queensland researchers have developed a method to predict if a child is likely to develop sepsis and go into organ failure.

Associate Professor Lachlan Coin from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience said sepsis was a life-threatening condition where a severe immune response to infection causes organ damage.

“Our research involved more than 900 critically ill children in the emergency departments and intensive care units of four Queensland hospitals,” Dr Coin said.

“Blood samples were taken from these patients at the acute stage of their infection, and we analyzed which genes were activated or deactivated.

“We were able to identify patterns of gene expression which could predict whether the child would develop organ failure within the next 24 hours, as well as whether the child had a bacterial or viral infection or a non-infectious inflammatory syndrome.”

Professor Luregn Schlapbach from UQ’s Child Health Research Centre said sepsis is best treated when recognized early, so the finding could help clinicians in the future.

Astronomers discover 49 new galaxies in under three hours

The MeerKAT radio telescope, located in South Africa, enabled this discovery of 49 brand new galaxies.
Photo Credit: South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO)

An international team of astronomers has discovered 49 new gas-rich galaxies using the MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa.

Dr Marcin Glowacki, from the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) in Western Australia, led the research, which aimed to study the star-forming gas in a single radio galaxy.  Although the team didn’t find any star-forming gas in the galaxy they were studying, Dr Glowacki instead discovered other galaxies while inspecting the data.

In total, the gas of 49 galaxies were detected. Dr Glowacki said this was a great example of how fantastic an instrument like MeerKAT is for finding the star-forming gas in galaxies.

The observations, which lasted less than three hours and were facilitated by IDIA (Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy), made this discovery possible.

“I did not expect to find almost fifty new galaxies in such a short time,” Dr Glowacki said. “By implementing different techniques for finding galaxies, which are used for other MeerKAT surveys, we were able to detect all of these galaxies and reveal their gas content.”

The new galaxies have been informally nicknamed the 49ers, a reference to the 1849 California gold rush miners. Dr Glowacki views the 49 new galaxies as valuable as gold nuggets in our night sky. Many galaxies are near each other, forming galaxy groups, with several identified in one observation.

Human brains are getting larger. That may be good news for dementia risk

Image Credit: Dmitriy Gutarev

A new study by researchers at UC Davis Health found human brains are getting larger. Study participants born in the 1970s had 6.6% larger brain volumes and almost 15% larger brain surface area than those born in the 1930s.

The researchers hypothesize the increased brain size may lead to an increased brain reserve, potentially reducing the overall risk of age-related dementias.

The findings were published in JAMA Neurology.

“The decade someone is born appears to impact brain size and potentially long-term brain health,” said Charles DeCarli, first author of the study. DeCarli is a distinguished professor of neurology and director of the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. “Genetics plays a major role in determining brain size, but our findings indicate external influences — such as health, social, cultural and educational factors — may also play a role.”

Monday, March 25, 2024

Electrochemistry helps clean up electronic waste recycling, precious metal mining

A new study from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign shows how electrochemistry can be used to extract precious metals from discarded electronics in an efficient and environmentally friendly manner. 
Photo Credit: Fred Zwicky

A new method safely extracts valuable metals locked up in discarded electronics and low-grade ore using dramatically less energy and fewer chemical materials than current methods, report University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign researchers in the journal Nature Chemical Engineering

Gold and platinum group metals such as palladium, platinum and iridium are in high demand for use in electronics. However, sourcing these metals from mining and current electronics recycling techniques is not sustainable and comes with a high carbon footprint. Gold used in electronics accounts for 8% of the metal’s overall demand, and 90% of the gold used in electronics ends up in U.S. landfills yearly, the study reports. 

The study, led by chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Xiao Su, describes the first precious metal extraction and separation process fully powered by the inherent energy of electrochemical liquid-liquid extraction, or e-LLE. The method uses a reduction-oxidation reaction to selectively extract gold and platinum group metal ions from a liquid containing dissolved electronic waste. 

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