. Scientific Frontline

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Origins of Earth’s water could be solved in space dust analysis

Meteorites on their way to earth and breaking through atmosphere.
Elements of this image furnished by NASA- earthmap for 3Drender

A key mystery about the origins of Earth’s water may have been solved after an international team of scientists uncovered persuasive new evidence pointing to an unlikely culprit—the Sun.

In a paper published in Nature Astronomy, a team of researchers, including two from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST), describe how analysis of dust grains from the surface of an ancient asteroid suggests that extraterrestrial dust grains from asteroids and comets carried water to the surface of the early Earth. The water in the grains is produced by space weathering, a process by which charged particles from the Sun, known as solar wind, altered the chemical composition of the grains to produce water molecules.

The finding could answer the longstanding question about the sources of the water that covers 70% of Earth’s surface—far more than any other rocky planet in our Solar System. Planetary scientists have been puzzled for decades over the source of Earth’s oceans. One theory suggests that comets and asteroids brought the water to the planet in the final stages of its formation 4.6 billion years ago.

Researchers discover a potential new therapeutic pathway to clear chronic viral infections

A recent study in mice has uncovered the role of a
protein, called BMI-1, in chronic viral infections.
Chronic infectious diseases have a devastating effect on global health. When someone is suffering from a chronic viral infection such as HIV or hepatitis C, their B cells get altered resulting in low-quality antibodies that are not strong enough to help the body clear the infection.

A recent study in mice, conducted by the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute (BDI), has uncovered that during chronic viral infection, a protein called BMI-1 gets turned on too early in B cells and messes up the delicate balance of gene expression, resulting in antibodies that are unsuccessful in their endeavor to clear the virus from the body.

However, when this protein is targeted, the nature of the B cell can be changed to produce a higher quality antibody that accelerates clearance of a virus and may provide a new therapeutic pathway to help improve and regulate the body’s antibody response to achieve better outcomes.

The findings have now been published in Nature Immunology.

B cells, a type of white blood cell, respond to infection and can eventually turn into plasma cells. It is the plasma cells that make and secrete antibodies. During an infection, some of the B cells that become activated can quickly become plasma cells and start to produce antibodies in the first few days of the body’s immune response. While these antibodies are helpful, they are typically lower in quality and do not clear the infection. However, they do give the immune system some time to allow other B cells to undergo a "training period" to become high-quality memory B cells and plasma cells for immunity.

Miniature grinding mill closes in on the details of ‘green’ chemical reactions

Credit: Photo by Chokniti Khongchum from Pexels
The study, published in Nature Communications and led by Cambridge Earth Sciences’ Dr Giulio Lampronti, observed reactions as materials were pulverized inside a miniaturized grinding mill — providing new detail on the structure and formation of crystals.

Knowledge of the structure of these newly-formed materials, which have been subjected to considerable pressures, helps scientists unravel the kinetics involved in mechanochemistry. But they are rarely able to observe it at the level of detail seen in this new work.

The study also involved Dr Ana Belenguer and Professor Jeremy Sanders from Cambridge’s Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry.

Mechanochemistry is touted as a ‘green’ tool because it can make new materials without using bulk solvents that are harmful to the environment. Despite decades of research, the process behind these reactions remains poorly understood.

To learn more about mechanochemical reactions, scientists usually observe chemical transformations in real time, as ingredients are churned and ground in a mill — like mixing a cake — to create complex chemical components and materials.

Study aims to understand why COVID-19 vaccines can lead to very rare blood clotting with low platelets

A group of 11 institutions, led by the University of Liverpool and including the University of Bristol, is seeking to understand the very rare, but very serious, condition of blood clotting with low platelets in the general population, in COVID-19 infection, and potentially following vaccination.

The vast majority of people who experience a side effect from COVID-19 vaccination have only mild reactions lasting for two or three days. However, in March 2021 reports of small numbers of people being admitted to hospital predominantly after the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine with what could potentially be a very rare side effect of vaccination began to emerge. These people had blood clots in the major veins in the brain, abdomen, or elsewhere in the body, but at the same time a low level of platelets – which are responsible for clotting – in the blood.

The group of researchers, supported by a wide range of collaborators within the NHS and national agencies, will work together to study the mechanisms underlying the occurrence of blood clots with low platelets – known as thrombotic thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS). This project is supported by the National Institute for Health Research and backed by £1.6 million of government funding from the Vaccine Taskforce.

Bristol's involvement in the study, led by Professor Jonathan Sterne, will be to look at the association of COVID-19 vaccination with cardiovascular events after vaccination by analyzing very large (population-level) datasets.

Which glioblastoma patients will respond to immunotherapy?

Northwestern Medicine scientists have discovered a new biomarker to identify which patients with brain tumors called glioblastomas — the most common and malignant of primary brain tumors — might benefit from immunotherapy.

The treatment could extend survival for an estimated 20% to 30% of patients. Currently, patients with glioblastoma do not receive this life-prolonging treatment because it has not been fully understood which of them could benefit.

“This is an important breakthrough for patients who have not had an effective treatment in the cancer drug arsenal available to them,” said Dr. Adam Sonabend, the senior/corresponding author of this study, and associate professor of neurosurgery at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a Northwestern Medicine brain-tumor neurosurgeon. “It might ultimately influence the decision on how to treat glioblastoma patients and which patients should get these drugs to prolong their survival.”

“Our study emphasizes important immune cells that might be relevant for response to immunotherapy. We hope that ultimately this benefits glioblastoma patients,” said Victor Arrieta, a post-doctoral scientist at the Sonabend lab and the first author of this study.

The immunotherapy response marker now needs to be validated in a clinical trial to make sure the study findings are reproducible and applicable to any glioblastoma patient, Sonabend said. He also is a member of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University.

The study was published in Nature Cancer Nov. 29.

Glioblastomas are the most common form of malignant brain tumors in adults and have the worst prognosis. Patients are treated with radiation and chemotherapy, but the cancer inevitably recurs. Upon recurrence, there are no treatments that prolong survival.

How T Cells recognize infection or disease

Research illuminating an elusive component of the adaptive immune system,
how gamma delta T cells sense the metabolite-antigen presenting molecule MR1.
Artwork image created by Dr Erica Tandori. 
Monash University researchers have expanded their knowledge of how T cells might recognize infections or disease, providing key insight into how an often-overlooked T cell lineage becomes activated when encountering pathogens such as viruses, bacteria, and cancers.

T cells communicate with other cells in the body in search of infections or diseases. This crosstalk relies on specialized receptors known as T cell receptors that recognize foreign molecular fragments from an infection or cancer that are presented for detection by particular molecules called major histocompatibility complex (MHC) or MHC-like.

In this study, Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute scientists have expanded the understanding of how a poorly defined class of gamma delta T cells recognizes an MHC-like molecule known as MR1. MR1 is a protein sensor that takes cellular products generated during infections or disease and presents them for T cells to detect, thereby alerting the immune system.

These gamma delta T cells play an understudied role within specific tissues around the body including the intestinal tract and may be an important factor in diseases that impact these tissues.

The findings are published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study was co-led by Dr Benjamin S. Gully and Dr Martin Davey with first author Mr Michael Rice from the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute.

Closest pair of supermassive black holes yet

Hi-Res Zoomable Left Image | Hi-Res Zoomable Right Image
This image shows close-up (left) and wide (right) views of the two bright galactic nuclei, each housing a supermassive black hole, in NGC 7727, a galaxy located 89 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation Aquarius. Each nucleus consists of a dense group of stars with a supermassive black hole at its center. The two black holes are on a collision course and form the closest pair of supermassive black holes found to date. It is also the pair with the smallest separation between two supermassive black holes found to date — observed to be just 1600 light-years apart in the sky.    The image on the left was taken with the MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile while the one on the right was taken with ESO's VLT Survey Telescope.  Credit: ESO/Voggel et al.; ESO/VST ATLAS team.
Acknowledgement: Durham University/CASU/WFAU

Using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT), astronomers have revealed the closest pair of supermassive black holes to Earth ever observed. The two objects also have a much smaller separation than any other previously spotted pair of supermassive black holes and will eventually merge into one giant black hole.

Located in the galaxy NGC 7727 in the constellation Aquarius, the supermassive black hole pair is about 89 million light-years away from Earth. Although this may seem distant, it beats the previous record of 470 million light-years by quite some margin, making the newfound supermassive black hole pair the closest to us yet.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Team Builds First Living Robots That Can Reproduce

To persist, life must reproduce. Over billions of years, organisms have evolved many ways of replicating, from budding plants to sexual animals to invading viruses.

Now scientists have discovered an entirely new form of biological reproduction — and applied their discovery to create the first-ever, self-replicating living robots.

The same team that built the first living robots ("Xenobots,” assembled from frog cells — reported in 2020) has discovered that these computer-designed and hand-assembled organisms can swim out into their tiny dish, find single cells, gather hundreds of them together, and assemble “baby” Xenobots inside their Pac-Man-shaped “mouth” — that, a few days later, become new Xenobots that look and move just like themselves.

And then these new Xenobots can go out, find cells, and build copies of themselves. Again and again.

“With the right design — they will spontaneously self-replicate,” says Joshua Bongard, a computer scientist and robotics expert at the University of Vermont who co-led the new research.

The results of the new research were published November 29, 2021, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Bots talk like humans but their cloned personalities give them away

The image indicates the amount of genuine human accounts (blue) and fake bot accounts (red) by different ages and personality scores within the data of the study. The bot accounts have reasonable ages and personalities but only within an extremely thin range of values (ie, they all express the same human attributes), while the genuine human accounts have a large spread of values.
Credit: Stony Brook University

Social Bots, or accounts from non-genuine people, are posted all over social media. They infiltrate popular topics and serious ones like the Covid-19 pandemic. These bots are not like obvious robocalls or spam emails. They are designed to be human-like and interact with real social media users without their awareness. In fact, recent studies show that social media users find them mostly indistinguishable from real humans.

Now a study by Stony Brook University and University of Pennsylvania researchers published in Findings of the Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL) attempts to look at how human these social spambots really are by estimating 17 human attributes of the bot and implementing state-of-the-art machine learning and natural language processing. The study findings shed light on how bots behave on social media platforms and interact with genuine accounts, as well as the capabilities of current bot-generation technologies.

“This research gives us insight into how bots are able to engage with these platforms undetected,” explains lead author Salvatore Giorgi, a Visiting Scholar at Stony Brook University and a PhD student in the Department of Computer and Information Science (CIS) at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “If a Twitter user thinks an account is human, then they may be more likely to engage with that account. Depending on the bot’s intent, the end result of this interaction could be innocuous, but it could also lead to engaging with potentially dangerous misinformation.”

The superfoods that fueled ancient Andeans through 2,500 years of turmoil

Quinoa growing on Bolivia’s Taraco Peninsula
Photo by Maria Bruno

What if Indigenous diets could save our politically and ecologically strained planet? The answer may lie in the success of an ancient civilization high in the Andes Mountains, where not much grows.

UC Berkeley archaeologists reconstructed the diets of ancient Andeans living around Lake Titicaca, which straddles Bolivia and Peru 12,500 feet above sea level. They found that quinoa, potatoes and llama meat helped fuel the Tiwanaku civilization through 2,500 years of political and climate upheaval.

The findings, appearing this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, help explain the endurance of Andean cultural practices in the millennia preceding the Inca Empire. Moreover, they underscore the contribution of traditional Indigenous foods to human resilience.

“Thousands of years ago, these people already knew that quinoa was a superfood. They came up with this lucky triangle to meet their dietary needs in a pretty stark environment, and we can learn something from them,” said study senior author Christine Hastorf, a UC Berkeley professor of anthropology.

“Today, we’re living under the cloud of climate change. Rising sea levels are drowning tiny Pacific islands, and droughts and wildfires are destroying California’s crops,” she added. “Our findings point to how ancient people successfully adjusted to environmental and political changes, bolstered by a healthy Indigenous diet.”

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