. Scientific Frontline: 2024

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

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Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Tiny plastic particles are found everywhere

The researchers were out in the southern Arctic Ocean on the research vessel Polarstern and took water samples, which they analyzed for the smallest microplastic particles.
Photo Credit: Clara Leistenschneider, University of Basel

Microplastic particles can be found in the most remote ocean regions on earth. In Antarctica, pollution levels are even higher than previously assumed. This is one finding of a recent study involving researchers from the University of Basel.

It’s not the first study on microplastics in Antarctica that researchers from the University of Basel and the Alfred-Wegener Institute (AWI) have conducted. But analysis of the data from an expedition in spring 2021 shows that environmental pollution from these tiny plastic particles is a bigger problem in the remote Weddell Sea than was previously known.

The total of 17 seawater samples all indicated higher concentrations of microplastics than in previous studies. “The reason for this is the type of sampling we conducted,” says Clara Leistenschneider, doctoral candidate in the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Basel and lead author of the study.

The current study focused on particles measuring between 11 and 500 micrometers in size. The researchers collected them by pumping water into tanks, filtering it, and then analyzing it using infrared spectroscopy. Previous studies in the region had mostly collected microplastic particles out of the ocean using fine nets with a mesh size of around 300 micrometers. Smaller particles would simply pass through these plankton nets.

The results of the new study indicate that 98.3 percent of the plastic particles present in the water were smaller than 300 micrometers, meaning that they were not collected in previous samples. “Pollution in the Antarctic Ocean goes far beyond what was reported in past studies,” Leistenschneider notes. The study appears in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

Monday, April 8, 2024

Deep parts of Great Barrier Reef ‘insulated’ from global warming – for now

Mesophotic corals on the Great Barrier Reef.
Photo Credit Prof Peter Mumby
Some deeper areas of the Great Barrier Reef are insulated from harmful heatwaves – but that protection will be lost if global warming continues, according to new research.

High surface temperatures have caused mass “bleaching” of the Great Barrier Reef in five of the last eight years, with the latest happening now.

Climate change projections for coral reefs are usually based on sea surface temperatures, but this overlooks the fact that deeper water does not necessarily experience the same warming as that at the surface.

The new study – led by the universities of Exeter and Queensland – examined how changing temperatures will affect mesophotic corals (depth 30-50 meters).

It found that separation between warm buoyant surface water and cooler deeper water can insulate reefs from surface heatwaves, but this protection will be lost if global warming exceeds 3°C above pre-industrial levels.

The researchers say similar patterns could occur on other reefs worldwide, but local conditions affecting how the water moves and mixes will mean the degree to which deeper water coral refuges exist and remain insulated from surface heatwaves will vary.

“Coral reefs are the canary in the coalmine, warning us of the many species and ecosystems affected by climate change,” said Dr Jennifer McWhorter, who led the research during a QUEX PhD studentship at the universities of Exeter and Queensland.

Finding New Chemistry to Capture Double the Carbon

An established carbon capture solvent can form clusters that could significantly increase the amount of carbon dioxide stored. 
Credits: Photo by Andrea Starr; Composite Graphic by Cortland Johnson
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Finding ways to capture, store, and use carbon dioxide (CO2) remains an urgent global problem. As temperatures continue to rise, keeping CO2 from entering the atmosphere can help limit warming where carbon-based fuels are still needed.

Significant progress has been made in creating affordable, practical carbon capture technologies. Carbon-capturing liquids, referred to as solvents when they are present in abundance, can efficiently grab CO2 molecules from coal-fired power plants, paper mills, and other emission sources. However, these all work through the same fundamental chemistry. Or so researchers assumed.

In a new work published in Nature Chemistry, scientists were surprised to find that a familiar solvent is even more promising than originally anticipated. New details about the solvent’s underlying structure suggest that the liquid could hold twice as much CO2 as previously thought. The newly revealed structure could also hold the key to creating a suite of carbon-based materials that could help keep even more CO2 out of the atmosphere.

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) team developed the solvent several years ago and has studied it in a variety of scenarios. The team has worked to dial down the costs of using the solvent and turn up its efficiency. Last year, they revealed the least costly carbon capture system to date. It was during this research that the team noticed something odd.

MIT engineers design flexible “skeletons” for soft, muscle-powered robots

MIT engineers have developed a new spring (shown in Petri dish) that maximizes the work of natural muscles. When living muscle tissue is attached to posts at the corners of the device, the muscle’s contractions pull on the spring, forming an effective, natural actuator. The spring can serve as a “skeleton” for future muscle-powered robots.
Photo Credit: Felice Frankel

Our muscles are nature’s perfect actuators — devices that turn energy into motion. For their size, muscle fibers are more powerful and precise than most synthetic actuators. They can even heal from damage and grow stronger with exercise.

For these reasons, engineers are exploring ways to power robots with natural muscles. They’ve demonstrated a handful of “biohybrid” robots that use muscle-based actuators to power artificial skeletons that walk, swim, pump, and grip. But for every bot, there’s a very different build, and no general blueprint for how to get the most out of muscles for any given robot design.

Now, MIT engineers have developed a spring-like device that could be used as a basic skeleton-like module for almost any muscle-bound bot. The new spring, or “flexure,” is designed to get the most work out of any attached muscle tissues. Like a leg press that’s fit with just the right amount of weight, the device maximizes the amount of movement that a muscle can naturally produce.

The researchers found that when they fit a ring of muscle tissue onto the device, much like a rubber band stretched around two posts, the muscle pulled on the spring, reliably and repeatedly, and stretched it five times more, compared with other previous device designs.

The team sees the flexure design as a new building block that can be combined with other flexures to build any configuration of artificial skeletons. Engineers can then fit the skeletons with muscle tissues to power their movements.

Boreal forest and tundra regions worst hit over next 500 years of climate change, study shows

The boreal forest is the Earth's most significant provider of carbon storage and clean water
Photo Credit: Landon Parenteau

The boreal forest, covering much of Canada and Alaska, and the treeless shrublands to the north of the forest region, may be among the worst impacted by climate change over the next 500 years, according to a new study.

The study, led by researchers at the White Rose universities of York and Leeds, as well as Oxford and Montreal, and ETH, Switzerland, ran a widely-used climate model with different atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to assess the impact climate change could have on the distribution of ecosystems across the planet up to the year 2500.

Most climate prediction models run to the year 2100, but researchers are keen to explore longer-term projections that give a global picture of how much humans, animals and plant-life may need to adapt to climate change beyond the next century, which is important as long-lived trees adapt at scales of centuries rather than decades.

First-of-its-kind integrated dataset enables genes-to-ecosystems research

DOE national laboratory scientists led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory have developed the first tree dataset of its kind, bridging molecular information about the poplar tree microbiome to ecosystem-level processes.
Illustration Credit: Andy Sproles/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

The first-ever dataset bridging molecular information about the poplar tree microbiome to ecosystem-level processes has been released by a team of Department of Energy scientists led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The project aims to inform research regarding how natural systems function, their vulnerability to a changing climate, and ultimately how plants might be engineered for better performance as sources of bioenergy and natural carbon storage.

The data, described in Nature Publishing Group’s Scientific Data, provides in-depth information on 27 genetically distinct variants, or genotypes, of Populus trichocarpa, a poplar tree of interest as a bioenergy crop. The genotypes are among those that the ORNL-led Center for Bioenergy Innovation previously included in a genome-wide association study linking genetic variations to the trees’ physical traits. ORNL researchers collected leaf, soil and root samples from poplar fields in two regions of Oregon — one in a wetter area subject to flooding and the other drier and susceptible to drought. 

Details in the newly integrated dataset range from the trees’ genetic makeup and gene expression to the chemistry of the soil environment, analysis of the microbes that live on and around the trees and compounds the plants and microbes produce.

The dataset “is unprecedented in its size and scope,” said ORNL Corporate Fellow Mitchel Doktycz, section head for Bioimaging and Analytics and project co-lead. “It is of value in answering many different scientific questions.” By mining the data with machine learning and statistical approaches, scientists can better understand how the genetic makeup, physical traits and chemical diversity of Populus relate to processes such as cycling of soil nitrogen and carbon, he said. 

Researchers develop better way to make painkiller from trees

Steven Karlen, left, and Vitaliy Tymokhin, scientists with the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, examine a reactor used to convert chemicals in poplar trees into paracetamol, the active ingredient in Tylenol.
Photo Credit: Chelsea Mamott

Scientists at the University of Wisconsin–Madison have developed a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable way to make a popular pain reliever and other valuable products from plants instead of petroleum.

Building on a previously patented method for producing paracetamol – the active ingredient in Tylenol – the discovery promises a greener path to one of the world’s most widely used medicines and other chemicals. More importantly, it could provide new revenue streams to make cellulosic biofuels — derived from non-food plant fibers — cost competitive with fossil fuels, the primary driver of climate change.

“We did the R&D to scale it and make it realizable,” says Steven Karlen, a staff scientist at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center who led the research published recently in the journal ChemSusChem.

Paracetamol, also known as acetaminophen, is one of the most widely used pharmaceuticals, with a global market value of about $130 million a year. Since it was introduced in the early 1900s, the drug has traditionally been made from derivatives of coal tar or petroleum.

Fueling nerve cell function and plasticity

The picture shows neurons (magenta) born in the adult mouse hippocampus. Nuclei are stained cyan. The extending dendrites are important sites where mechanisms of plasticity and competition for survival take place.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of ©Bergami Lab / University of Cologne

New finding from scientists at the University of Cologne discloses how mitochondria control tissue rejuvenation and synaptic plasticity in the adult mouse brain

Nerve cells (neurons) are amongst the most complex cell types in our body. They achieve this complexity during development by extending ramified branches called dendrites and axons and establishing thousands of synapses to form intricate networks. The production of most neurons is confined to embryonic development, yet few brain regions are exceptionally endowed with neurogenesis throughout adulthood. It is unclear how neurons born in these regions successfully mature and remain competitive to exert their functions within a fully formed organ. However, understanding these processes holds great potential for brain repair approaches during disease.

A team of researchers led by Professor Dr Matteo Bergami at the University of Cologne’s CECAD Cluster of Excellence in Aging Research addressed this question in mouse models, using a combination of imaging, viral tracing and electrophysiological techniques. They found that, as new neurons mature, their mitochondria (the cells’ power houses) along dendrites undergo a boost in fusion dynamics to acquire more elongated shapes. This process is key in sustaining the plasticity of new synapses and refining pre-existing brain circuits in response to complex experiences. The study ‘Enhanced mitochondrial fusion during a critical period of synaptic plasticity in adult-born neurons’ has been published in the journal Neuron.

Kerr-Enhanced Optical Spring for Next-Generation Gravitational Wave Detectors

A novel technique for enhancing optical spring that utilizes the Kerr effect to improve the sensitivity of gravitational wave detectors (GWDs) has recently been developed by scientists at Tokyo Tech. This innovative design uses optical non-linear effects from the Kerr effect in the Fabry-Perot cavity to achieve high signal amplification ratios and optical spring constant, with potential applications in not only GWDs but also in a range of optomechanical systems.

The detection of gravitational waves stands as one of the most significant achievements in modern physics. In 2017, gravitational waves from the merger of a binary neutron star were detected for the first time which uncovered crucial information about our universe, from the origin of short gamma-ray bursts to the formation of heavy elements. However, detecting gravitational waves emerging from post-merger remnants has remained elusive due to their frequency range lying outside the range of modern gravitational wave detectors (GWDs). These elusive waves hold important insights into the internal structure of neutron stars, and since these waves can be observed once every few decades by modern GWDs, there is an urgent need for next-generation GWDs.

One way to enhance the sensitivity of GWDs is signal amplification using an optical spring. Optical springs, unlike their mechanical counterparts, leverage radiation pressure force from light to mimic spring-like behavior. The stiffness of optical springs, such as in GWDs, is determined by the light power within the optical cavity. Thus, enhancing the resonant frequency of optical springs requires increasing the intracavity light power which, however, can result in thermally harmful effects and prevent the detector from working properly.

This 3D printer can figure out how to print with an unknown material

Researchers developed a 3D printer that can automatically identify the parameters of an unknown material on its own.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the researchers

While 3D printing has exploded in popularity, many of the plastic materials these printers use to create objects cannot be easily recycled. While new sustainable materials are emerging for use in 3D printing, they remain difficult to adopt because 3D printer settings need to be adjusted for each material, a process generally done by hand.

To print a new material from scratch, one must typically set up to 100 parameters in software that controls how the printer will extrude the material as it fabricates an object. Commonly used materials, like mass-manufactured polymers, have established sets of parameters that were perfected through tedious, trial-and-error processes.

But the properties of renewable and recyclable materials can fluctuate widely based on their composition, so fixed parameter sets are nearly impossible to create. In this case, users must come up with all these parameters by hand.

Researchers tackled this problem by developing a 3D printer that can automatically identify the parameters of an unknown material on its own.

Scientists Have Detailed the Nature of the Darkest Gamma-ray Burst in the Universe

Objects like GRB 150309A tend to be located deep within galaxies.
Photo Credit: Graham Holtshausen

An international group of scientists has presented the results of a detailed spectral analysis of the instantaneous and residual X-ray emission (afterglow) from the intense two-episode dark gamma-ray burst GRB 150309A. The researchers' task was to determine the nature of the instantaneous emission and the composition of the jet ejected in the burst. In addition, based on optical and X-ray spectral analysis of the energy distribution, the researchers performed modeling of the parent galaxy of GRB 150309A to study the surrounding interstellar medium in which this outburst occurred. The results of the analysis are presented in a paper published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

A bright flash GRB 150309A lasting about 52 seconds was detected on March 9, 2015, by the Gamma-ray Burst Observatory of the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, a space observatory in low Earth orbit. The event consisted of two bursts: about 200 seconds after the first, more powerful burst, an episode of faint and quiet emission followed.

Despite the strong gamma-ray emission, optical observations with the BOOTES (Burst Observer and Optical Transient Exploration System) and GTC (Gran Telescopio Canarias) telescopes were inconclusive: only the parent galaxy of the outburst signal was detected at optical wavelengths. The X-ray afterglow of GRB 150309A was detected about 5.2 hours after the outburst by the CIRCE instrument installed on the GTC at the Spanish La Palma Observatory.

The optical inaccessibility under intense gamma-ray emission and the intense red X-ray afterglow detected in the near-infrared with CIRCE led scientists to suggest that GRB 150309A belongs to a subclass of dark bursts.

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Disparities in sleep health and insomnia may begin at a young age

Photo Credit: Komang Dewi

Most people have experienced a night or two of sleeplessness, tossing and turning while being unable to fall asleep or stay asleep. But for some people, sleep disturbances aren’t just a one-off occurrence, and they can begin in childhood.

A team, led by Penn State researchers, found that children and teens from racial and ethnic minority groups are disproportionately affected by persistent insomnia symptoms that begin in childhood and continue through young adulthood. Specifically, Black children were 2.6 times more likely to experience these long-term sleep problems compared to white children. The findings underscore the need to identify insomnia symptoms early and intervene with age-appropriate treatment.

“Insomnia is a public health problem,” said Julio Fernandez-Mendoza, professor at Penn State College of Medicine and senior author of the study recently published in the journal SLEEP. “We’ve identified that more people than we thought have childhood-onset insomnia where symptoms start in childhood and remain chronic all the way through young adulthood.”

Poor sleep is linked to cardiometabolic disease, depression and anxiety, among other concerns. Yet, when it comes to sleep and children, insomnia symptoms aren’t always taken seriously. Fernandez-Mendoza said that most people assume that difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep is a phase that kids will outgrow.

Friday, April 5, 2024

Single genomic test could speed up diagnoses for rare genetic diseases

Image Credit: Sinousxl

A new approach to analyzing exome sequencing data reliably detects large-scale genetic changes and could reduce the number of genetic tests a child might need.

A single genetic test could potentially replace the current two-step approach to diagnosing rare developmental disorders in children, enabling earlier diagnoses for families and saving the NHS vital resources.

Researchers from the University of Exeter, along with collaborators at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, and the University of Cambridge, reassessed genetic data from nearly 10,000 families from the Deciphering Developmental Disorders study.

In a new study, recently published in Genetics in Medicine, they show for the first time that using exome sequencing – which reads only protein-coding DNA – is as accurate, if not better, than standard microarrays at identifying disease-causing structural genetic variations.

Its adoption offers hope for faster and more accurate diagnoses of rare genetic diseases. It could also deliver substantial cost savings for the NHS, though more training is needed for specialists to generate and analyze the data, say researchers.

First atlas of the human ovary with cell-level resolution is a step toward artificial ovary

University of Michigan BME graduate student Jordan Machlin shows to prof. Ariella Shikanov and fellows grad student Margaret Brunette the images of oocytes in ovarian tissue she collected using RNA-fluorescence in situ hybridization.
Photo Credit: Marcin Szczepanski/Lead Multimedia Storyteller, Michigan Engineering

A new “atlas” of the human ovary provides insights that could lead to treatments restoring ovarian hormone production and the ability to have biologically related children, according to University of Michigan engineers.

This deeper understanding of the ovary means researchers could potentially create artificial ovaries in the lab using tissues that were stored and frozen before exposure to toxic medical treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation. Currently, surgeons can implant previously frozen ovarian tissue to temporarily restore hormone and egg production. However, this does not work for long because so few follicles—the structures that produce hormones and carry eggs—survive through reimplantation, the researchers say.

The new atlas reveals the factors that enable a follicle to mature, as most follicles wither away without releasing hormones or an egg. Using new tools that can identify what genes are being expressed at a single-cell level within a tissue, the team was able to home in on ovarian follicles that carry the immature precursors of eggs, known as oocytes.

Chemical reactions can scramble quantum information as well as black holes

Rice University theorist Peter Wolynes and collaborators at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have shown that molecules can be as formidable at scrambling quantum information as black holes.
Image Credit: Courtesy of Martin Gruebele; DeepAI was used in image production

If you were to throw a message in a bottle into a black hole, all of the information in it, down to the quantum level, would become completely scrambled. Because in black holes this scrambling happens as quickly and thoroughly as quantum mechanics allows, they are generally considered nature’s ultimate information scramblers.

New research from Rice University theorist Peter Wolynes and collaborators at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, however, shows that molecules can be as formidable at scrambling quantum information as black holes. Combining mathematical tools from black hole physics and chemical physics, they have shown that quantum information scrambling takes place in chemical reactions and can nearly reach the same quantum mechanical limit as it does in black holes. The work is published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This study addresses a long-standing problem in chemical physics, which has to do with the question of how fast quantum information gets scrambled in molecules,” Wolynes said. “When people think about a reaction where two molecules come together, they think the atoms only perform a single motion where a bond is made or a bond is broken.

Tomorrow's reefs – the importance of environmental awareness in coral restoration

Restoration nursery in the northern Red Sea of smooth cauliflower coral (Stylophora pistillata), almost ready for reef transplantation. Classified as near-threatened, S. pistillata is native to the wider Indo-Pacific region. This nursery is at 5 metres depth, close to the Inter University Institute of Marine Science, Eilat.
Photo Credit: H Nativ/Morris Kahn Marine Research

Around the world, projects are underway to save or rebuild damaged coral reefs. However, many restoration projects fail within just a few years. Giving more consideration to current and future environmental conditions would, in many cases, improve long-term restoration success, say the researchers behind a new article published in Plos Biology.

Coral reefs are extremely valuable. An estimated 25 percent of all plants and animals in the ocean, and 1 billion people worldwide depend on them – for food, income, coastal protection or cultural traditions. But their existence is also threatened by multiple factors, such as climate change, pollution, overfishing and coastal development.

Relying on climate change mitigation alone to ensure the future viability of coral reefs is no longer realistic. Targeted efforts are now needed, and restoration of damaged coral reefs has today become a multimillion-dollar business. Nevertheless, the long-term outcome of many coral restoration projects is highly uncertain.

Plucking key evidence from air

PhD candidate Emily Bibbo and Dr Mariya Goray at the DNA forensics research room at Flinders University.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Flinders University

Culprits may one day be found using a new technique to potentially pick up and record key airborne forensic DNA evidence from crime scenes wiped clean of fingerprints and other trace evidence.

A new study led by Flinders University forensic science researchers puts the new method to the test with conventional air-conditioning units as well as a portable, commercially available air collection device regularly used to test for COVID19 and other airborne viruses in hospitals, schools and nursing homes.

“Human DNA can be found in the air after people have spoken or breathed (via saliva droplets), shed skin cells or dislodged and aerosolized from surfaces and collected for DNA analysis,” says Emily Bibbo, a PhD candidate at Flinders University’s College of Science and Engineering.

“We may be able to use this as evidence to prove if someone has been in the room, even if they wore gloves or wiped surfaces clean to remove the evidence.”

Collection of trace DNA, comprising just a few human cells, is commonly used in criminal investigations. For example, 62% of all samples processed by Forensic Science SA in 2020 were trace or touch evidence, yet success rates with this type of evidence remain poor.

Discovery of how limiting damage from an asthma attack could stop disease

Scientists at King’s have discovered a new cause for asthma that sparks hope for treatment that could prevent the life-threatening disease.
Image Credit: Copilot DALL-E 3 AI Generated

Most current asthma treatments stem from the idea that it is an inflammatory disease. Yet, the life-threatening feature of asthma is the attack or the constriction of airways, making breathing difficult. A new study, published in the journal Science, shows for the first time that many features of an asthma attack—inflammation, mucus secretion, and damage to the airway barrier that prevents infections - result from this mechanical constriction in a mouse model.

The findings suggest that blocking a process that normally causes epithelial cell death could prevent the damage, inflammation, and mucus that result from an asthma attack.

Professor Jody Rosenblatt from the School of Basic & Medical Biosciences said: “Our discovery is the culmination of more than ten years of work. As cell biologists who watch processes, we could see that the physical constriction of an asthma attack causes widespread destruction of the airway barrier. Without this barrier, asthma sufferers are far more likely to get long-term inflammation, wound healing, and infections that cause more attacks. By understanding this fundamental mechanism, we are now in a better position to prevent all these events.”

Rapid, simultaneous detection of multiple bacteria achieved with handheld sensor

Marking bacteria electrochemically for rapid detection   
From left: Image of bacteria labeled with electrochemical markers, an electrochemical instrument to measure the data, and an image of the data displayed on a smartphone.     
Image Credit: Hiroshi Shiigi, Osaka Metropolitan University

Hearing the words E. coli or salmonella and food poisoning comes to mind. Rapid detection of such bacteria is crucial in preventing outbreaks of foodborne illness. While the usual practice is to take food samples to a laboratory to see the type and quantity of bacteria that forms in a petri dish over a span of days, an Osaka Metropolitan University research team has created a handheld device for quick on-site detection.

Led by Professor Hiroshi Shiigi of the Graduate School of Engineering, the team experimented with a biosensor that can simultaneously detect multiple disease-causing bacterial species within an hour.

“The palm-sized device for detection can be linked to a smartphone app to easily check bacterial contamination levels,” Professor Shiigi explained.

His team synthesized organic metallic nanohybrids of gold and copper that do not interfere with each other, so that electrochemical signals can be distinguished on the same screen-printed electrode chip of the biosensor. These organic−inorganic hybrids are made up of conductive polymers and metal nanoparticles. The antibody for the specific target bacteria was then introduced into these nanohybrids to serve as electrochemical labels.

Prehistoric henge reveals centuries-old sacred site in Lincolnshire

An aerial view of the excavation site at Crowland.
Photo Credit: The Anchor Church Field Project

Archaeologists from Newcastle University have unearthed evidence for an evolving sacred landscape spanning centuries in Crowland, Lincolnshire.

Crowland today is dominated by the ruins of its medieval abbey. However, local tradition holds that the area was the site of an Anglo-Saxon hermitage belonging to Saint Guthlac, who died in the year 714 and was famed for his life of solitude, having given up a life of riches as the son of a nobleman.

When his uncorrupted body was discovered 12 months after his death, Guthlac was venerated by a small monastic community dedicated to his memory. Guthlac’s popularity while he was alive, and the success of this cult and the pilgrimage it inspired, were key factors in the establishment of Crowland Abbey in the 10th century to honor the saint.

Early historical sources for Guthlac’s life exist, mainly through the Vita Sancti Guthlaci (Life of Saint Guthlac) written shortly after his death by a monk called Felix. Although there is little other evidence about his life, it was believed that Guthlac created his hermitage from a previously plundered barrow, or burial mound. For years, archaeologists have tried to find its location, and while Anchor Church Field was widely held to be the most likely site, the lack of excavation and the increasing impact of agricultural activity in the area have prevented a comprehensive understanding of the area.   

The team, which also included experts from the University of Sheffield, excavated Anchor Church Field and, to their surprise, found a much more complex and older history than they expected.

The first discovery they made was a previously unknown Late Neolithic or early Bronze Age henge, a type of circular earthwork and one of the largest ever discovered in eastern England.

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Airy cellulose from a 3D printer

Complexity and lightness: Empa researchers have developed a 3D printing process for biodegradable cellulose aerogel.
Photo Credit: Empa

Ultra-light, thermally insulating and biodegradable: Cellulose-based aerogels are versatile. Empa researchers have succeeded in 3D printing the natural material into complex shapes that could one day serve as precision insulation in microelectronics or as personalized medical implants.

At first glance, biodegradable materials, inks for 3D printing and aerogels don't seem to have much in common. All three have great potential for the future, however: "green" materials do not pollute the environment, 3D printing can produce complex structures without waste, and ultra-light aerogels are excellent heat insulators. Empa researchers have now succeeded in combining all these advantages in a single material. And their cellulose-based, 3D-printable aerogel can do even more.

The miracle material was created under the leadership of Deeptanshu Sivaraman, Wim Malfait and Shanyu Zhao from Empa's Building Energy Materials and Components laboratory, in collaboration with the Cellulose & Wood Materials and Advanced Analytical Technologies laboratories as well as the Center for X-ray Analytics. Together with other researchers, Zhao and Malfait had already developed a process for printing silica aerogels in 2020. No trivial task: Silica aerogels are foam-like materials, highly open porous and brittle. Before the Empa development, shaping them into complex forms had been pretty much impossible. "It was the logical next step to apply our printing technology to mechanically more robust bio-based aerogels," says Zhao.

The researchers chose the most common biopolymer on Earth as their starting material: cellulose. Various nanoparticles can be obtained from this plant-based material using simple processing steps. Doctoral student Deeptanshu Sivaraman used two types of such nanoparticles – cellulose nanocrystals and cellulose nanofibers – to produce the "ink" for printing the bio-aerogel.

Cystic fibrosis: why infections persist despite therapy

The anchor points present on the surface of the airways in cystic fibrosis (left image, in red) decrease when the balance between the two cell signaling pathways is restored (right image).
Image Credit: Marc Chanson et al, 2024

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease that causes serious and sometimes fatal respiratory and digestive disorders. A new treatment, available since 2020, improves lung function and quality of life. However, it does not always eradicate the bacteria responsible for respiratory infections. By studying 3D models of human lung cells, scientists at the University of Geneva (UNIGE) discovered that this drug does not prevent the development on the surface of the respiratory tract of ''docking stations'' to which bacteria attach themselves to infect the body. These docking stations result from a disruption in the signals involved in cell development in the respiratory system. By combining the current treatment with other molecules, it may be possible to restore cell balance and thus better prevent bacterial infections. These results are published in the American Journal of Respiratory Cell and Molecular Biology.

Cystic fibrosis is the most common genetic disease. Each year, it affects one in every 3,300 newborns in Switzerland. Mutations in the gene responsible for the CFTR protein cause the secretion of excessively thick mucus, which obstructs the airways. Although a triple therapy, available in Switzerland since 2020, has improved the quality of life of people with cystic fibrosis, it is not suitable for all those affected and does not always prove effective.

New sunflower family tree reveals multiple origins of flower symmetry

A new sunflower family tree reveals that flower symmetry evolved multiple times independently. Chrysanthemum lavandulifolium, on the upper left, and Artemisia annua, upper right, are closely related species from the same tribe; the former has bilaterally symmetric flowers — the rays — and the latter does not. Rudbeckia hirta, lower left, from the sunflower tribe has bilaterally symmetric flowers, and Eupatorium chinense, lower right, from the Eupatorieae tribe does not; these two tribes are closely related groups. A sunflower, center, shows flowers with bilateral symmetry — the large petal-like flowers in the outer row — and without bilateral symmetry — the small flowers in the inner rows.
Photo Credits: Guojin Zhang, Ma laboratory / Pennsylvania State University

The sunflower family tree revealed that flower symmetry evolved multiple times independently, a process called convergent evolution, among the members of this large plant family, according to a new analysis. The research team, led by a Penn State biologist, resolved more of the finer branches of the family tree, providing insight into how the sunflower family — which includes asters, daisies and food crops like lettuce and artichoke — evolved.

A paper describing the analysis and findings, which researchers said may help identify useful traits to selectively breed plants with more desirable characteristics is available online and will be published in an upcoming print edition of the journal Plant Communications.

“Convergent evolution describes the independent evolution of what appears to be the same trait in different species, like wings in birds and bats,” said Hong Ma, Huck Chair in Plant Reproductive Development and Evolution, professor of biology in the Eberly College of Science at Penn State and the leader of the research team. “This can make it difficult to determine how closely related two species are by comparing their traits, so having a detailed family tree based on DNA sequence is crucial to understanding how and when these traits evolved.”

Scientists discover potential treatment approaches for polycystic kidney disease

cientists would like to know how cysts form in polycystic kidney disease (PKD). Here, they compared two 3-D mini-kidney models. On the left, a model shows a mini kidney with a gene mutation that causes cysts to form. On the right, researchers used gene editing to correct a gene mutation, preventing the development of cysts.
Image Credit: Vishy, et al., Cell Stem Cell 2024

Researchers have shown that dangerous cysts, which form over time in polycystic kidney disease (PKD), can be prevented by a single normal copy of a defective gene. This means the potential exists that scientists could one day tailor a gene therapy to treat the disease. They also discovered that a type of drug, known as a glycoside, can sidestep the effects of the defective gene in PKD. The discoveries could set the stage for new therapeutic approaches to treating PKD, which affects millions worldwide. The study, partially funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is published in Cell Stem Cell.

Scientists used gene editing and 3-D human cell models known as organoids to study the genetics of PKD, which is a life-threatening, inherited kidney disorder in which a gene defect causes microscopic tubes in the kidneys to expand like water balloons, forming cysts over decades. The cysts can crowd out healthy tissue, leading to kidney function problems and kidney failure. Most people with PKD are born with one healthy gene copy and one defective gene copy in their cells.

“Human PKD has been so difficult to study because cysts take years and decades to form,” said senior study author Benjamin Freedman, Ph.D., at the University of Washington, Seattle. “This new platform finally gives us a model to study the genetics of the disease and hopefully start to provide answers to the millions affected by this disease.”

The Rotisserie-Inspired Device That Could Revolutionize Cancer Surgery

The Zavaleta Lab’S Raman Rotisserie Device Creates a Map of the Surface of a Resected Tumor to Aid Surgeons in the Operating Room.
Photo Credit: Alex Czaja

Like many Texans, Cristina Zavaleta grew up enjoying the culinary delights of the state’s famous smokehouse BBQs. She couldn’t have imagined that those humble rotisseries of her childhood would one day inspire a game-changing device for the operating room that could help surgeons prevent tumor recurrence.

On a team excursion to Disneyland, the WiSE Gabilan Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering and her students were reminded of rotisseries when they encountered a food vendor at the Star Wars-themed land, Galaxy’s Edge. It was a lightbulb moment. The rotisserie configuration was a perfect way of intricately scanning excised tumors, with the help of the Zaveleta Lab’s unique nanoparticles, to light up where the cancerous tissue may not have been entirely removed from the patient. Surgeons could then be guided to precisely remove the remaining tumor, all while the patient is still under anesthesia. The result would reduce the need for traumatic repeat surgeries and potential cancer recurrence and metastasis.

Zavaleta and her team built the device, which they dubbed the Raman Rotisserie. It physically rotates a tumor specimen and works in conjunction with an imaging technique known as Raman spectroscopy, which scans the surface of the excised tumor. Their research, which aims to improve the success rate of breast cancer lumpectomies, has now been published in NPJ Imaging.

Feeding the lonely brain

Study finds that lonely women experienced increased activation in regions of the brain associated with food cravings
Photo Credit: Ryanwar Hanif

A new UCLA Health study has found that women who perceive themselves to be lonely exhibited activity in regions of the brain associated with cravings and motivation towards eating especially when shown pictures of high calorie foods such as sugary foods. The same group of women also had unhealthy eating behaviors and poor mental health.

Arpana Gupta, Ph.D., a researcher and co-director of the UCLA Goodman-Luskin Microbiome Center, wanted to research the negative impacts of loneliness, especially as people continue to be working remotely after the COVID-19 pandemic, and how the brain interplays with social isolation, eating habits, and mental health. While it is established that obesity is linked to depression and anxiety, and that binge eating is understood to be a coping mechanism against loneliness, Gupta wanted to observe the brain pathways associated with these feelings and behaviors.

“Researching how the brain processes loneliness and how this is related to obesity and health outcomes hasn't been done,” said Gupta, senior author of the paper, which is published in JAMA Network Open

The researchers surveyed 93 women about their support system and their feelings of loneliness and isolation, then separated them into two groups: those who scored high on the perceived social isolation scale, and those who scored low. The researchers found that women who had higher levels of social isolation tended to have higher fat mass, lower diet quality, greater cravings, reward-based eating, and uncontrolled eating, and increased levels of anxiety and depression.

Vaping additives harm a vital membrane in the lungs, according to new Concordia research

Panagiota Taktikakis (left) and Christine DeWolf: “Understanding the impact of vaping additives on lung surfactant is vital, particularly for younger generations who are more influenced by vaping trends.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Concordia University

The health risks associated with consumption of tobacco and cannabis products are well-established by now. Much less understood are the risks associated with vaping, particularly flavored products popular with young adults.

It is an increasingly pressing issue: Statistics Canada says one in 10 Canadians aged 20 to 24 and one in 15 aged 15 to 19 reported to have vaped every day in 2022.

Writing in the journal Langmuir, Concordia researchers show how the e-cigarette additive tocopherol — an organic compound better known as vitamin E — and tocopherol acetate can damage the lungs. The study adds to the growing body of literature on what has become known as electronic cigarette or vaping product use–associated lung injury (EVALI).

When heated and inhaled, the compound embeds in the pulmonary surfactant, a nanoscopically thin lipid protein membrane coating the surface of the alveoli that regulates the oxygen-carbon dioxide gas exchange and stabilizes the lungs’ surface tension during breathing.

Scientists identify rare gene variants which confer up to 6-fold increase in risk of obesity

Photo Credit: Mart Production

The discovery of rare variants in the genes BSN and APBA1 are some of the first obesity-related genes identified for which the increased risk of obesity is not observed until adulthood.

The study, published in Nature Genetics, was led by researchers at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit and the MRC Metabolic Diseases Unit at the Institute of Metabolic Science, both based at the University of Cambridge.

The researchers used UK Biobank and other data to perform whole exome sequencing of body mass index (BMI) in over 500,000 individuals.

They found that genetic variants in the gene BSN, also known as Bassoon, can raise the risk of obesity as much as six times and was also associated with an increased risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and of type 2 diabetes.

The Bassoon gene variants were found to affect 1 in 6,500 adults, so could affect about 10,000 people in the UK.

“It’s ultimately about predicting everything” – theory could be a map to hunted quantum materials

Photo Credit: Vendi Jukic Buca

A breakthrough in theoretical physics is an important step towards predicting the behavior of the fundamental matter of which our world is built. It can be used to calculate systems of enormous quantities of quantum particles, a feat thought impossible before. The University of Copenhagen research may prove of great importance for the design of quantum computers and could even be a map to superconductors that function at room-temperature.

On the fringes of theoretical physics, Berislav Buca investigates the nearly impossible by way of "exotic" mathematics. His latest theory is no exception. By making it possible to calculate the dynamics, i.e., movements and interactions, of systems with enormous quantities of quantum particles, it has delivered something that had been written off in physics. An impossibility made possible.

The unexpected presence of a white cat adorns the illustrations of Buca's research. Pulci the cat is his eye-catching muse. Arrows through the cat's body illustrate the quantum mechanical origin of the playful cat's movements – and this is precisely the relationship that Buca is trying to understand by making it possible to calculate the dynamics of the very smallest particles.

The breakthrough has reinvigorated an old and fundamental scientific question: Theoretically, if all behavior in the universe can be calculated by way of the laws of physics, can we then predict everything by calculating its smallest particles? 

Heat flows the secret to order in prebiotic molecular kitchen

Schematic visualization of heat flows in rock cracks.
Illustration Credit: Christof Mast

Life is complicated. What is true for our everyday existence also holds for the many complex processes that take place inside cells. Proteins constantly have to be synthesized, cell walls built, and DNA replicated. This can only work when reaction partners converge at the right time in sufficiently high concentrations while suffering little disruption from other substances. Over the course of billions of years, evolution has perfected these mechanisms and ensured that such vital processes occur with high efficiency at the correct place.

Circumstances were probably a lot more chaotic four billion years ago, when prebiotic reactions created the conditions for the emergence of the first lifeforms. For these reactions, too, it was necessary for the ‘right’ substances to be brought together at the ‘right’ time in one place, so that more complex biomolecules like RNA and amino acid chains could form. While such reactions are possible to recreate in the laboratory thanks to manual intermediate steps, it is highly challenging for them to come about in a simple ‘primordial soup’ – that is to say, a very dilute mixture of prebiotic building blocks. So how could nature create suitable conditions for the origin of life?

Shy sea anemones are more likely to survive heatwaves

Photo Credit: Praveen Kenderla

Even in nature, pride can prevail. A study with researchers from the University of Gothenburg shows that sea anemones that react more slowly to change can survive a heatwave better than individuals that change their behavior quickly.

Along the Atlantic coasts of Europe, many species are exposed to abrupt shifts in habitat. Tides, storms and rapid temperature changes are commonplace for the marine species that live there. With climate change, heatwaves are expected to become more frequent, and researchers wanted to find out how coastal marine species cope with extreme water temperatures. They chose to study the sea anemone species Actinia equina, a species that exhibits individual behaviors.

Bold or shy

“We call them animal personalities. They are different behavioral life strategies found in the same species. The anemones we studied have two personality traits, bold and shy, and in extreme heat waves the shy anemones do better,” says Lynne Sneddon, a zoophysiologist at the University of Gothenburg and co-author of the study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Physics of Complex Fluids: Ring Polymers Show Unexpected Motion Patterns Under Shear

Schematic of poly[2]catenane slip tumbling and bonded ring gradient tumbling.
Illustration Credit: Reyhaneh A. Farimani

An international research team is attracting the attention of experts in the field with computational results on the behavior of ring polymers under shear forces: Reyhaneh Farimani, University of Vienna, and her colleagues showed that for the simplest case of connected ring pairs, the type of linkage – chemically bonded vs. mechanically linked – has profound effects on the dynamic properties under continuous shear. In these cases, novel rheological patterns emerge. In addition to being recently published in the prestigious journal Physical Review Letters, the study received an "Editors' Suggestion" for its particular novelty.

The shearing of fluids – meaning the sliding of fluid layers over each other under shear forces – is an important concept in nature and in rheology, the science that studies the flow behavior of matter, including liquids and soft solids. Shear forces are lateral forces applied parallel to a material, inducing deformation or slippage between its layers. Fluid shear experiments allow the characterization of important rheological properties such as viscosity (resistance to deformation or flow) and thixotropy (decrease in viscosity under the influence of shear) which are important in applications ranging from industrial processes to medicine. Studies on the shear behavior of viscoelastic fluids, created by introducing polymers into Newtonian fluids, have already been conducted in recent years. However, a novel approach in the current research involves the consideration of polymer topology – the spatial arrangement and structure of molecules – by using ring polymers. Ring polymers are macromolecules composed of repeating units, forming closed loops without free ends. 

Autism and ADHD are linked to disturbed gut flora very early in life

The researchers have found links between the gut flora in babies first year of life and future diagnoses.
Photo Credit: Cheryl Holt

Disturbed gut flora during the first years of life is associated with diagnoses such as autism and ADHD later in life. This is according to a study led by researchers at the University of Florida and Linköping University and published in the journal Cell.

The study is the first forward-looking, or prospective, study to examine gut flora composition and a large variety of other factors in infants, in relation to the development of the children's nervous system. The researchers have found many biological markers that seem to be associated with future neurological development disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, communication disorder and intellectual disability.

“The remarkable aspect of the work is that these biomarkers are found at birth in cord blood or in the child’s stool at one year of age over a decade prior to the diagnosis,” says Eric W Triplett, professor at the Department of Microbiology and Cell Science at the University of Florida, USA, one of the researchers who led the study.

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Discovery of how COVID-19 virus replicates opens door to new antiviral therapies

A new study, looking at the replication stage of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, discovered important mechanisms in its replication that could be the foundation for new antiviral therapies.
Image Credit: Gerd Altmann

The study, which sets out to investigate how the SARS-CoV-2 virus replicates once it enters the cells, has made surprising discoveries that could be the foundation for future antiviral therapies. It also has important theoretical implications as the replication of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has, so far, received less attention from researchers.

The viral life cycle can be broken down into two main stages: the first stage is where the virus enters the cell. The second stage is replication where the virus uses the molecular machinery of the cell it has infected to replicate itself by building its parts, assembling them into new viruses that can then exit to infect other cells.

The majority of research into SARS-CoV-2 – the causative agent of COVID-19 – has focused on the Spike protein that allows viral entry. This has led to a lack of understanding of how the virus replicates once it has entered the cell.

A new paper led by Dr Jeremy Carlton in collaboration with Dr David Bauer at the Francis Crick Institute, focuses on how the Envelope protein of SARS-CoV-2 controls late stages of viral replication.

Self-assembly of complex systems: hexagonal building blocks are better

Professor Erwin Frey
Photo Credit: © Benjamin Asher / Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

Complex systems in nature, like their synthetic counterparts in technology, comprise a large number of small components that assemble of their own accord through molecular interactions. Gaining a better understanding of the principles and mechanisms of this self-assembly is important for the development of new applications in domains such as nanotechnology and medicine.

Professor Erwin Frey, Chair of Statistical and Biological Physics at LMU and member of the ORIGINS Excellence Cluster, and his research fellow Dr. Florian Gartner has now investigated an aspect of self-assembly that has received little attention before now: What role do the shape and the number of possible bonds between particles play? As the researchers report in the journal Physical Review X, their results show that hexagonal morphologies – in other words, six-sided structures – such as molecules with six binding sites are ideal for self-assembly.

Drug shows promise for slowing progression of rare, painful genetic disease

A CT angiography scan of a person with ACDC disease showing abnormal calcification of the blood vessels in the legs and feet.
Image Credit: Courtesy of National Institutes of Health

A drug used to treat certain bone diseases shows promise for slowing the progression of a rare, painful genetic condition that causes excessive calcium buildup in the arteries, known as arterial calcification due to deficiency of CD73 (ACDC). These results are from a first-in-human clinical trial supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the National Institutes of Health. The study, published in the journal Vascular Medicine, could lead to the first effective treatment for the rare disease.

ACDC, which has no known cure, often targets the arteries of the legs and can make walking painful and difficult. It can also affect the joints of the hands, causing pain and deformities. In severe cases, the condition can lead to potential limb loss. Symptoms of the disease often begin in the late teens and 20s. An extremely rare disease, it is believed to affect only about 20 people worldwide and has an estimated prevalence of less than 1 in 1 million. Previous studies have identified the gene for ACDC disease and the biochemical mechanism behind it. More recent studies by the NHLBI research team identified an existing drug, called etidronate, as a potential treatment for ACDC based on disease models in animals and human cells.

Pressure determines which embryonic cells become ‘organizers’

 Tooth epithelium (cell surface; yellow) and mesenchyme (cell surface; magenta). Proliferating cells (cyan) expand the tissue, generating a mechanical pressure at the tissue center that drives the formation of the main tooth signaling center or organizer, the enamel knot.
Photo Credit Neha Pincha Shroff and Pengfei Xu

A collaboration between research groups at the University of California, TU Dresden in Germany and Cedars-Sinai Guerin Children’s in Los Angeles has identified a mechanism by which embryonic cells organize themselves to send signals to surrounding cells, telling them where to go and what to do. While these signaling centers have been known to science for a while, how individual cells turn into organizers has been something of a mystery.

Until now. In a paper published in the journal Nature Cell Biology, the researchers find that cells are literally pressed into becoming organizers.

“We were able to use microdroplet techniques to figure out how the buildup of mechanical pressure affects organ formation,” said co-corresponding author Otger Campàs, former associate professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara, who is currently managing director, professor and chair of tissue dynamics at the Physics of Life Excellence Cluster of TU Dresden.

Discovery could end global amphibian pandemic

Panamanian golden frog
Photo Credit: Brian Gratwicke/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

A fungus devastating frogs and toads on nearly every continent may have an Achilles heel. Scientists have discovered a virus that infects the fungus, and that could be engineered to save the amphibians.

The fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis or Bd, ravages the skin of frogs and toads, and eventually causes heart failure. To date it has contributed to the decline of over 500 amphibian species, and 90 possible extinctions including yellow-legged mountain frogs in the Sierras and the Panamanian golden frog. 

A new paper in the journal Current Biology documents the discovery of a virus that infects Bd, and which could be engineered to control the fungal disease.

The UC Riverside researchers who found the virus are excited about the implications of their discovery. In addition to helping them learn about how fungal pathogens rise and spread, it offers the hope of ending what they call a global amphibian pandemic. 

“Frogs control bad insects, crop pests, and mosquitoes. If their populations all over the world collapse, it could be devastating,” said UCR microbiology doctoral student and paper author Mark Yacoub. 

“They’re also the canary in the coal mine of climate change. As temperatures get warmer, UV light gets stronger, and water quality gets worse, frogs respond to that. If they get wiped out, we lose an important environmental signal,” Yacoub said. 

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Autism and ADHD are linked to disturbed gut flora very early in life

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