. Scientific Frontline

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Do you see faces in things?

Composite image: Dr Jessica Taubert
Seeing faces in everyday objects is a common experience, but research from The University of Queensland has found people are more likely to see male faces when they see an image on the trunk of a tree or in burnt toast over breakfast.

Dr Jessica Taubert from UQ’s School of Psychology said face pareidolia, the illusion of seeing a facial structure in an everyday object, tells us a lot about how our brains detect and recognize social cues.

“The aim of our study was to understand whether examples of face pareidolia carry the kinds of social signals that faces normally transmit, such as expression and biological sex,” Dr Taubert said.

“Our results showed a striking bias in gender perception, with many more illusory faces perceived as male than female.

“As illusory faces do not have a biological sex, this bias is significant in revealing an asymmetry in our face evaluation system when given minimal information.

“The results demonstrate visual features required for face detection are not generally sufficient for the perception of female faces.”

More than 3800 participants were shown numerous examples of face pareidolia and inanimate objects with no facial structure and they were asked to indicate whether each example had a distinct emotional expression, age, and biological sex, or not.

Monday, January 24, 2022

Overweight dogs respond well to high-protein, high-fiber diet

Overfed dogs experience some of the same maladies associated with overweight and obesity in humans. A new study finds that overweight dogs also benefit from a high-protein, high-fiber weight loss regimen. 
Photo by www.pixel.la, CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

A study of overweight dogs fed a reduced calorie, high-protein, high-fiber diet for 24 weeks found that the dogs’ body composition and inflammatory markers changed over time in ways that parallel the positive changes seen in humans on similar diets. The dogs achieved a healthier weight without losing too much muscle mass, and their serum triglycerides, insulin and inflammatory markers all decreased with weight loss.

All such changes are beneficial, said University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign animal sciences professor Kelly Swanson, who led the new research.

Mixed Reality and AI to aid surgeons with keyhole heart valve surgery

Cardiac surgeons could in the future be conducting procedures virtually before even stepping into an operating theatre thanks to researchers from the University of West of England who are working with cardiac surgeons from the University of Bristol on new technology that will allow surgeons to better predict risks and help prevent the conversion of a keyhole heart valve operation to open heart surgery.

The research team from UWE Bristol’s Big Data lab and Faculty of Health and Applied Sciences (HAS) is developing technology that uses artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to assist cardiac surgeons in planning and preparing for complex keyhole heart valve surgery. The team is initially collaborating with the Bristol Heart Institute (BHI), a Specialist Research Institute at the University of Bristol, whose surgeons will test the system when preparing for minimally invasive cardiac valve surgery (MICVS).

Compared to conventional open-heart surgery involving cutting through the breastbone to reach the heart, MICVS is less intrusive as the heart is accessed through smaller incisions using endoscopic instruments. And patient recovery time is generally quicker after this keyhole surgery.

However, MICVS is complex and requires hours of pre-operative planning and preparation.

Dr Hunaid Vohra, Consultant Cardiac Surgeon and Honorary Senior Lecturer and Researcher at the BHI, who is collaborating with UWE Bristol, said: “In the operating room, despite pre-planning, it is currently very common to find unexpected challenges, as every patient’s height, weight and heart-lung anatomy is different. And patients’ frailty varies.

Mystery of sweet potato origin uncovered

Ipomoea aequatoriensis flowers at
University of Oxford Department of Plant Sciences.
Photographs by Tom Wells

New scientific research from Oxford University's Plant Sciences department transforms our understanding of the origins of the sweet potato - identifying a key piece in the puzzle of the evolutionary history of one of the world’s most important staple crops.

Years of careful taxonomic research by a team led by Robert Scotland, Professor of Systematic Botany at Oxford Plant Sciences, has concluded with the discovery of a new species that is sweet potato’s closest wild relative, Ipomoea aequatoriensis.

"How the sweet potato evolved has always been a mystery. Now, we have found this new species in Ecuador...a fundamental piece of the puzzle to understand the origin and evolution of this top-ten global food crop"
Professor Robert Scotland

This species, which most likely played a key role in the origin of the crop, is the latest in a series of discoveries by the Oxford team and collaborators at USDA and the International Potato Centre Peru, and one that represents an ‘extraordinary discovery in untangling the evolution’ of the plant, according to the researchers.

Professor Scotland says, ‘How the sweet potato evolved has always been a mystery. Now, we have found this new species in Ecuador that is the closest wild relative of sweet potato known to date and is a fundamental piece of the puzzle to understand the origin and evolution of this top-ten global food crop.’

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Researchers discover way to disarm potentially deadly Listeria bacteria

A drug-like inhibitor that stops Listeria from making virulence proteins helps immune cells control and kill the bacteria.
Image: Dr Carmen Mathmann

University of Queensland researchers have unlocked a way of fighting Listeria infections, which can cause severe illness in pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems.

During the study, researchers discovered a way to block Listeria from making the proteins that allow bacteria to survive and multiply in immune cells.

UQ Diamantina Institute’s Professor Antje Blumenthal said using a small, drug-like inhibitor has improved their understanding of the Achilles heel of Listeria.

“Listeria is found in the soil and sometimes in raw foods. Once ingested it can hide from the immune system and multiply inside immune cells,” Professor Blumenthal said.

“Instead of killing the bacteria, the immune cells are used by the bacteria to multiply and are often killed by Listeria growing inside them.

“Our study showed the bacteria could be cleared with a small drug-like inhibitor that targets the 'master regulator’ of the proteins that help Listeria grow in immune cells. The inhibitor helped the immune cells survive infection and kill the bacteria.”

CRISPR-Cas13 targets proteins causing ALS, Huntington's disease in the mouse nervous system

Spinal cord astrocytes, the cells seen in this fluorescent microscope image, are involved in the progression of ALS. A new CRISPR-Cas13 system targeting mutant protein production in these cells improved outcomes for mice with ALS. 
Image courtesy of Thomas Gaj and Colin Lim

A single genetic mutation can have profound consequences, as demonstrated in neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Huntington’s disease. A new study by University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign researchers used a targeted CRISPR technique in the central nervous systems of mice to turn off production of mutant proteins that can cause ALS and Huntington’s disease.

Rather than the popular DNA-editing CRISPR-Cas9 technique, the new approach uses CRISPR-Cas13, which can target mRNA – the messenger molecule that carries protein blueprints transcribed from DNA. The Illinois team developed Cas13 systems to target and cut RNAs that code for mutant proteins that trigger ALS and Huntington’s disease, effectively silencing the mutant genes without disturbing the cell’s DNA, said study leader Thomas Gaj, an Illinois professor of bioengineering. The team published its results in the journal Science Advances.

“Targeting RNA rather than DNA has some unique advantages, including the fact that, in theory, its effects within a cell can be reversed since RNAs are transient molecules,” said Colin Lim, a graduate student who helped lead the study. “Because Cas13 enzymes just target RNA, they also carry minimal risk for introducing any permanent off-target mutations to DNA.”

Researchers will use the world’s most accurate radiation detector in quantum computers

Physicists at Aalto University and VTT have developed a new detector for measuring energy quanta at unprecedented resolution.
Photo: Aalto University.

A radiation detector developed by Aalto University and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland can also be used in ultralow-temperature freezers and terahertz cameras.

In September 2020, researchers at Aalto University and VTT revealed that they had developed a high-speed nano-scale radiation detector—a bolometer—fast enough to read the qubits in a quantum computer.

Now, Professor Mikko Möttönen’s team and their partners have acquired funding to refine the bolometer technology for use not only in quantum computers but also in ultralow-temperature (ULT) freezers and terahertz cameras. The funding is from the Future Makers Funding Program by Technology Industries Finland Centennial Foundation and by Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation. This would be the first time ever that this bolometer is utilized for practical applications.

Möttönen explains that building a nano-scale bolometer was already a significant feat. ‘We wanted to develop the world’s best radiation detector. It took seven years for us to get it to function, and for three years we have been improving it,’ he says.

Scientists Find Previously Unknown Jumping Behavior in Insects

Images courtesy of Matt Bertone and Adrian Smith.
A team of researchers has discovered a jumping behavior that is entirely new to insect larvae, and there is evidence that it is occurring in a range of species – we just haven’t noticed it before.

The previously unrecorded behavior occurs in the larvae of a species of lined flat bark beetle (Laemophloeus biguttatus). Specifically, the larvae are able to spring into the air, with each larva curling itself into a loop as it leaps forward. What makes these leaps unique is how the larvae are able to pull it off.

“Jumping at all is exceedingly rare in the larvae of beetle species, and the mechanism they use to execute their leaps is – as far as we can tell – previously unrecorded in any insect larvae,” says Matt Bertone, corresponding author of a paper on the discovery and director of North Carolina State University’s Plant Disease and Insect Clinic.

While there are other insect species that are capable of making prodigious leaps, they rely on something called a “latch-mediated spring actuation mechanism.” This means that they essentially have two parts of their body latch onto each other while the insect exerts force, building up a significant amount of energy. The insect then unlatches the two parts, releasing all of that energy at once, allowing it to spring off the ground.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Native Fish Population Predicted to Rise After Major Expansion of Texas Port

Red drum fish
Image Source: University of Texas at Austin
Researchers have predicted that expanding the Aransas Pass — the marine pass between Mustang Island and Saint Joseph Island, offshore from the town of Aransas Pass, Texas — would increase the native red drum fish population.

From late summer through autumn, native red drum fish spawn off the Texas coast, where the current carries their larvae through the Aransas Pass into the safety of the bay. The fast-growing red drum can be found in shallow coastal waters (1-4 feet deep) along the edges of bays from Massachusetts to Mexico, where it is a popular sportfish important to many coastal economies, including the Texas Gulf Coast.

The Port of Corpus Christi intends to deepen the Aransas Pass to supply some of the biggest crude-carrying ships in the world. In response, UT Austin’s Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences collaborated with the university’s Marine Science Institute to predict what effect deepening the pass could have on the copper scaled fish for which Redfish Bay was named.

Opponents to deepening the Aransas Pass fear an end to the prolific fishing and bird life that draws tourists to the area. The Marine Science Institute, which funded the research, chose red drum fish as the study’s focus because they have been researched by biologists extensively, and their spawning patterns and locations are well known. The new research, published in the Journal of Marine Science and Engineering, predicts that deepening the Aransas Pass would boost the number of red drum fish larvae that reach their nursery grounds by 0.5% based on the selected model parameters.

The Oden Institute’s Computational Hydraulics Group modeled the transport of red drum fish larvae through the Aransas Pass by plugging tides and meteorological conditions into a coastal circulation model, where red drum larvae ebb and flow as Lagrangian particles due to the circulation.

Device wraps around hot surfaces, turns wasted heat to electricity

A new flexible thermoelectric device can wrap around pipes and other hot surfaces and convert wasted heat into electricity. 
Credit: Pennsylvania State University

The energy systems that power our lives also produce wasted heat — like heat that radiates off hot water pipes in buildings and exhaust pipes on vehicles. A new flexible thermoelectric generator can wrap around pipes and other hot surfaces and convert wasted heat into electricity more efficiently than previously possible, according to scientists at Penn State and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

“A large amount of heat from the energy we consume is essentially being thrown away, often dispersed right into the atmosphere,” said Shashank Priya, associate vice president for research and professor of materials science and engineering at Penn State. “We haven’t had cost-effective ways with conformal shapes to trap and convert that heat to useable energy. This research opens that door.”

Penn State researchers have been working to improve the performance of thermoelectric generators — devices that can convert differences in temperature to electricity. When the devices are placed near a heat source, electrons moving from the hot side to the cold side produce an electric current, the scientists said.

In prior work, the team created rigid devices that were more efficient than commercial units in high-temperature applications. Now the team has developed a new manufacturing process to produce flexible devices that offer higher power output and efficiency, the scientists said.

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