. Scientific Frontline

Monday, June 27, 2022

Study hopes to understand the impact of exposure to COVID-19 infection early in life on a child’s brain development

More than 650,000 babies are born every year [i] in the UK, and during the pandemic some of them will have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus which causes COVID-19. A national study, funded by the charity Action Medical Research, will investigate the long-term impact of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 in the womb or shortly after birth.

It is known that exposure to certain viral infections shortly after birth or during pregnancy can impact a baby’s brain development or affect their development later in life, but it is not known if this is the case with SARS-CoV-2 infection. The SINEPOST (SARS-CoV-2 infection in neonates or in pregnancy) study, led by the University of Bristol in collaboration with researchers from the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit (NPEU) at the University of Oxford, Imperial College London, and University of Leicester, aims to compare the impact of SARS-CoV-2 on the development of children who were exposed to the virus during pregnancy or shortly after birth to infants who have not been exposed to the virus.

Two hundred and fifty-seven infants have already been enrolled into the study, with recruitment ongoing until October 2022. The children will be followed up when they are 21 to 24 months old, with parents or carers being asked to complete questionnaires on how their child is developing.

The questionnaire will include the Ages and Stages Questionnaires (ASQ) used by professionals to monitor a child’s developmental progress; the Liverpool Respiratory Symptoms Questionnaire (LRSQ) which assesses patterns of wheezing and other respiratory symptoms in infants and preschool children; and additional questions about the child’s general health and use of health care services.

Chemically modified plant substances work against the hepatitis E virus

Chemically modified rocaglamides prevent certain viruses from multiplying.
Credit: Department of Molecular and Medical Virology

Rocaglamides from mahogany plants raise hope for the development of an antiviral drug.

The hepatitis E virus (HEV) is widespread and so far, there is no effective drug. In the search for this, the so-called rocaglamides have come into focus: plant substances that can inhibit the multiplication of viruses. Researchers from the Molecular and Medical Virology Department at the Ruhr University Bochum (RUB) have examined a library of chemically modified rocaglamides for their antiviral effects, which a team from Boston has created. A group of active substances that has a so-called amidino group stood out. It particularly effectively inhibited virus multiplication. The team around Dimas F. Praditya, Mara Klöhn and Prof. Dr. Eike Steinmann reports in the journal Antiviral Research.

Plant substances inhibit the multiplication of cancer cells and viruses

Rocaglamides are a group of plant substances that are produced by various mahogany plants. It is known that they have an inhibitory effect on the multiplication of some cancer cells. It was not until 2008 that findings on their antiviral effects against RNA viruses were published for the first time: for example, they can inhibit the multiplication of Ebolaviruses, HEV, zikaviruses or Sars-Cov-2.

Ancient microbes may help us find extraterrestrial life forms

Rendering of the process by which ancient microbes captured light with rhodopsin proteins.
Credit: Sohail Wasif/UCR

Using light-capturing proteins in living microbes, scientists have reconstructed what life was like for some of Earth’s earliest organisms. These efforts could help us recognize signs of life on other planets, whose atmospheres may more closely resemble our pre-oxygen planet.

The earliest living things, including bacteria and single-celled organisms called archaea, inhabited a primarily oceanic planet without an ozone layer to protect them from the sun’s radiation. These microbes evolved rhodopsins — proteins with the ability to turn sunlight into energy, using them to power cellular processes.

“On early Earth, energy may have been very scarce. Bacteria and archaea figured out how to use the plentiful energy from the sun without the complex biomolecules required for photosynthesis,” said UC Riverside astrobiologist Edward Schwieterman, who is co-author of a study describing the research.

Rhodopsins are related to rods and cones in human eyes that enable us to distinguish between light and dark and see colors. They are also widely distributed among modern organisms and environments like saltern ponds, which present a rainbow of vibrant colors.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Environmental Factors Predict Risk of Death

Photo by Amir Hosseini on Unsplash

Along with high blood pressure, diabetes, and smoking, environmental factors such as air pollution are highly predictive of people’s chances of dying, especially from heart attack and stroke, a new study shows.

Led by researchers at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, the study showed that exposure to above average levels of outdoor air pollution increased risk of death by 20 percent, and risk of death from cardiovascular disease by 17 percent.

Using wood- or kerosene-burning stoves, not properly ventilated through a chimney, to cook food or heat the home also increased overall risk of death (by 23 percent and 9 percent) and cardiovascular death risk (by 36 percent and 19 percent). Living far from specialty medical clinics and near busy roads also increased risk of death.

Published online June 24 in the journal PLOS ONE, the findings come from personal and environmental health data collected from 50,045 mostly poor, rural villagers living in the northeast Golestan region of Iran. All study participants were over age 40 and agreed to have their health monitored during annual visits with researchers dating as far back as 2004.

Researchers say their latest investigation not only identifies environmental factors that pose the greatest risk to heart and overall health, but also adds much-needed scientific evidence from people in low- and middle-income countries. Traditional research on environmental risk factors, the researchers note, has favored urban populations in high-income countries with much greater access to modern healthcare services.

Small molecules transport iron in mice, and human cells to treat some forms of anemia

University of Illinois chemistry professor Martin D. Burke and graduate student Stella Ekaputri were part of a team that found a small molecule, hinokitiol, ferries iron out of liver cells lacking the protein that normally does the job and restores hemoglobin and red blood cell production.   
Photo Credit: Michelle Hassel

A natural small molecule derived from a cypress tree can transport iron in live mice and human cells lacking the protein that normally does the job, easing a buildup of iron in the liver and restoring hemoglobin and red blood cell production, a new study found.

Stemming from a collaboration between researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and the University of Modena in Italy, the study demonstrated that the small molecule hinokitiol potentially could function as a “molecular prosthetic” when the iron-transporting protein ferroportin is missing or defective, offering a potential treatment path for ferroportin disease and certain kinds of anemia.

“This is a really striking demonstration in a whole animal model that an imperfect mimic of a missing protein can reestablish physiology, acting as a prosthesis on a molecular scale,” said study co-leader Dr. Martin D. Burke, a professor of chemistry at Illinois and a member of the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, as well as a medical doctor. “The implications are really quite broad with respect to other diseases caused by loss of protein function.”

Ferroportin is a protein that forms a channel for transporting iron in and out of cells. Ferroportin deficiency can be due to a genetic mutation or caused by inflammation or infection. Patients without the protein have an excess buildup of iron in the liver, spleen and bone marrow, particularly in a type of cell called a macrophage. Macrophages in the liver chew up old red blood cells and transport the iron in them for recycling into new red blood cells. However, without ferroportin, the iron builds up inside the cells and can’t be recycled, Burke said.

The laboratory comet

The aim of several scientists is to trace the changes of a comet during its journey through the solar system by reproducing the thermal and light characteristics of the cosmos in the laboratory. This will enable them to understand where the elements that formed the Earth came from and to track down the first traces of life.

Source/Credit: French National Center for Scientific Research


Proactive approaches needed to enable ecosystems to adapt to climate change

Human activities and infrastructure, such as cities and roads, may reduce future options for species as they need to move to keep pace with climate change. Shown is a willow ptarmigan above a port city.
 Photo Credit: Chris Sergeant.

As the need to address climate change becomes increasingly urgent so too does the concurrent need for proactive stewardship of the Earth’s rapidly changing biosphere, according to research published today in the journal Science.

“There is actually a lot we can do to help systems cope with oncoming climate change,” says Simon Fraser University biology professor and author Jonathan Moore, who with University of Washington professor Daniel Schindler, reviewed and assessed the potential benefits of forward-looking approaches. “From restoring connectivity to reducing local stressors to conserving future habitats—all of these proactive approaches can help the ecosystems that we rely upon to adapt to climate change.”

With that in mind, in order for species and ecosystems to adapt and be resilient it is critical to move beyond preservation-oriented approaches and include those that enable ecological change, Schindler notes. “Local efforts to conserve biodiversity and regenerate habitat complexity will also help maintain a diversity of future options for species and ecosystems in an unpredictable future.”

Developmental dyslexia essential to human adaptive success, study argues

Photo by Allan Mas
Cambridge researchers studying cognition, behavior and the brain have concluded that people with dyslexia are specialized in exploring the unknown. This is likely to play a fundamental role in human adaptation to changing environments.

They think this ‘explorative bias’ has an evolutionary basis and plays a crucial role in our survival.

Based on these findings − which were apparent across multiple domains from visual processing to memory and at all levels of analysis − the researchers argue that we need to change our perspective of dyslexia as a neurological disorder.

The findings, reported today in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, have implications both at the individual and societal level, says lead author Dr Helen Taylor, an affiliated Scholar at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge and a Research Associate at the University of Strathclyde.

“The deficit-centered view of dyslexia isn’t telling the whole story,” said Taylor. “This research proposes a new framework to help us better understand the cognitive strengths of people with dyslexia.”

She added: “We believe that the areas of difficulty experienced by people with dyslexia result from a cognitive trade-off between exploration of new information and exploitation of existing knowledge, with the upside being an explorative bias that could explain enhanced abilities observed in certain realms like discovery, invention and creativity.”

This is the first-time a cross-disciplinary approach using an evolutionary perspective has been applied in the analysis of studies on dyslexia.

New study solves long-standing mystery of what may have triggered ice age

At the beginning of the last ice, local mountain glaciers grew and formed large ice sheets, like the one seen here in Greenland, that covered much of today's Canada, Siberia, and Northern Europe.
Credit: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

A new study led by University of Arizona researchers may have solved two mysteries that have long puzzled paleo-climate experts: Where did the ice sheets that rang in the last ice age more than 100,000 years ago come from, and how could they grow so quickly?

Understanding what drives Earth’s glacial–interglacial cycles – the periodic advance and retreat of ice sheets in the Northern Hemisphere – is no easy feat, and researchers have devoted substantial effort to explaining the expansion and shrinking of large ice masses over thousands of years. The new study, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, proposes an explanation for the rapid expansion of the ice sheets that covered much of the Northern Hemisphere during the most recent ice age, and the findings could also apply to other glacial periods throughout Earth's history.

About 100,000 years ago, when mammoths roamed the Earth, the Northern Hemisphere climate plummeted into a deep freeze that allowed massive ice sheets to form. Over a period of about 10,000 years, local mountain glaciers grew and formed large ice sheets covering much of today's Canada, Siberia and northern Europe.

While it has been widely accepted that periodic "wobbling" in the Earth's orbit around the sun triggered cooling in the Northern Hemisphere summer that caused the onset of widespread glaciation, scientists have struggled to explain the extensive ice sheets covering much of Scandinavia and northern Europe, where temperatures are much milder.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Boron nitride nanotube fibers get real

A tangle of unprocessed boron nitride nanotubes seen through a scanning electron microscope. Rice University scientists introduced a method to combine them into fibers using the custom wet-spinning process they developed to make carbon nanotube fibers.
Credit: Pasquali Research Group/Rice University

Boron nitride nanotubes used to be hard to process, according to Rice University researchers. Not anymore.

A Rice team led by professors Matteo Pasquali and Angel Martí has simplified handling of the highly valuable nanotubes to make them more suitable for large-scale applications, including aerospace, electronics and energy-efficient materials.

The researchers reported in Nature Communications that boron nitride nanotubes, aka BNNTs, assemble themselves into liquid crystals under the right conditions, primarily concentrations above 170 parts per million by weight in chlorosulfonic acid.

These liquid crystals consist of aligned BNNTs that are far easier to process than the tangled nanotubes that usually form in solution. The lab proceeded to form fibers and films from the liquid crystalline solutions.

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