. Scientific Frontline

Monday, October 3, 2022

Specialized smart soft contact lenses can address global issues of glaucoma diagnosis and management

New smart soft contact lens technology developed by a multidisciplinary team of engineers and health care researchers at Purdue University and Indiana University School of Optometry looks to gather important intraocular pressure measurements for 24-hour cycles as a way to detect glaucoma.
Credit: Purdue University photo/Rebecca McElhoe

The vision of Purdue University biomedical engineer Chi Hwan Lee to develop specialized smart soft contact lenses that can accurately measure intraocular pressure (IOP) in a person’s eye could be the latest answer to stopping glaucoma-related blindness.

Lee, the Leslie A. Geddes Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering in Purdue’s Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering, led a research team that developed new ocular technology to continuously monitor patients’ IOP readings more comfortably and accurately.

The technology serves as another option for eye specialists to identify glaucoma, which, according to the Glaucoma Research Foundation, can steal a person’s vision without early warning signs or pain and affects more than 80 million people worldwide.

The only known modifiable risk factor is lowering a person’s IOP, which is difficult to monitor for long periods of time, particularly during sleep.

While exams can be performed in a specialist’s office and at-home monitoring systems are available, these all have their limitations. For instance, in-office measures are time-consuming, and current at-home technology is difficult to use, is uncomfortable and doesn’t gather sufficient data at the right time periods or over long enough time periods for specialists to appropriately use the information to make optimized treatment decisions.

Not enough: Protecting algae-eating fish insufficient to save imperiled coral reefs

Bright blue Chromis fish on acropora coral at a back reef on the French Polynesian island of Mo’orea.
 Image credit: Kelly Speare

How can we boost the resilience of the world’s coral reefs, which are imperiled by multiple stresses including mass bleaching events linked to climate warming?

One strategy advocated by some researchers, resource managers and conservationists is to restore populations of algae-eating reef fish, such as parrotfish. Protecting the fish that keep algae in check leads to healthier corals and can promote the recovery of distressed reefs, according to this idea, which is known as fish-mediated resilience.

But a new study that analyzed long-term data from 57 coral reefs around the French Polynesian island of Mo’orea challenges this canon of coral reef ecology.

The study, published online Oct. 3 in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, provides compelling new evidence that fish don’t regulate coral over time, according to University of Michigan marine ecologist and study co-senior author Jacob Allgeier. The other author is former U-M postdoctoral researcher Timothy Cline.

North Carolina Lake Sediments Show Decades of Coal Ash Contamination

Bottom sediments from five North Carolina lakes near coal-fired power plants shows coal ash contamination that likely entered the lakes by three different routes.
Credit: Avner Vengosh

An analysis of sediments from five North Carolina lakes near coal-burning power plants has found that coal ash pollution of surface waters has been more persistent and widespread than was previously known.

The findings, from scientists at Duke University and Appalachian State University, show that large quantities of coal ash have been transferred and deposited in lake sediments since the beginning of coal operations in North Carolina.

“The bottom sediments of a lake represent a complete history of what has fallen into the lake water and settled to the bottom,” said Avner Vengosh, a Duke University Distinguished Professor of Environmental Quality at the Nicholas School of the Environment. “Using our age-dating methods, we were able to go back in time, in some cases even before the coal plant was built, and reconstruct the history of the lakes.”

Coal ash is the residual material from burning coal to generate electricity, and is known to contain hazardous metals including lead, chromium, cadmium, mercury, arsenic, selenium and molybdenum, many of which have been tied to human cancers and other health effects.

AI boosts usability of paper-making waste products

Photo and graphic with birch tree by J. Löfgren

In a new and exciting collaboration with the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems, researchers in the CEST group have published a study demonstrating how artificial intelligence (AI) can boost the production of renewable biomaterials. Their publication focuses on the extraction of lignin, an organic polymer that together with cellulose makes up the cell walls of plants. As a side-product of papermaking, lignin is produced in large quantities around the world but seldom used as anything other than cheap fuel. Developing valuable materials and chemicals from lignin would consequently be a big step towards a sustainable society.

A key challenge for the valorization of lignin is to find the right experimental extraction conditions. These include things like the temperature in the hot-water reactor where the wood is processed, the reaction time and the ratio of wood to water. These conditions not only affect the amount of lignin that can be extracted, but also the physical and chemical properties of the extracted lignin itself. Therefore, knowing how to choose the right experimental conditions is important since the more lignin can be extracted the better, and different lignin-based products may require lignin with different properties.

U.S. Army Orders Additional Enhanced CH-47F Block II Chinooks

The CH-47F Block II during first flight. The Block II Chinook is powered by cutting-edge technologies — including redesigned fuel tanks, a strengthened fuselage and an enhanced drivetrain.
Resized Image using AI by SFLORG
Photo Credit: Fred Troilo

The U.S. Army is continuing to modernize its heavy-lift helicopter fleet with an order for two more Boeing CH-47F Block II Chinooks and long lead funding for additional aircraft.

“Modernizing the Chinook for our Army customer is a priority,” said Ken Eland, Boeing vice president and H-47 program manager. “CH-47F Block II improves readiness, limits future sustainment costs and provides commonality across the fleet. We're dedicated to making CH-47F Block II the best option for the Army's heavy lift mission, now and well into the future." The CH-47F Block II Chinook is powered by cutting-edge technologies — including redesigned fuel tanks, a strengthened fuselage and an enhanced drivetrain.

Last year, the Army awarded Boeing a $136 million contract for the first four CH-47F Block II aircraft, which began production in April 2022. The Lot 2 order valued at $63 million brings the total number of aircraft under contract to six. The separate Lot 3 advance procurement contract is valued at $29 million

Jurassic ichthyosaurs divided food resources to co-exist, researchers find

The skull of Ichthyosaurs Hauffiopteryx typicus from the Strawberry Bank Lagerstätt, one of the specimens that were the subject of this study.
Credit: Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution Collections

Early Jurassic ichthyosaur juveniles show predatory specializations, scientists at the University of Bristol have revealed.

Their findings, published today in Journal of Anatomy, suggest that physical differences in their snouts show they evolved to have different diets and were not competing for the same resource.

Ichthyosaurs, the classic ‘sea dragons’, were dolphin-shaped marine predators that fed on fish and squid-like swimming shellfish. The ichthyosaurs of the Lower Jurassic, some 185 million years ago, are renowned because the first specimens were found over 200 years ago at Lyme Regis in southern England, by the celebrated fossil collector and paleontologist Mary Anning. Some of her specimens have long, slender snouts and others have short, broad snouts.

“Functional studies need excellent three-dimensional specimens,” said Matt Williams of Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, “and the Lower Jurassic ichthyosaur fossils from Strawberry Bank in Ilminster are just that. Mary Anning’s fossils are amazing, but they are mostly squashed flat.”

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Exploring Europa Possible with Silicon-Germanium Transistor Technology

Europa Image
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

Europa is more than just one of Jupiter’s many moons – it’s also one of most promising places in the solar system to look for extraterrestrial life. Under 10 kilometers of ice is a liquid water ocean that could sustain life. But with surface temperatures at -180 Celsius and with extreme levels of radiation, it’s also one of the most inhospitable places in the solar system. Exploring Europa could be possible in the coming years thanks to new applications for silicon-germanium transistor technology research at Georgia Tech.

Regents’ Professor John D. Cressler in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) and his students have been working with silicon-germanium heterojunction bipolar transistors (SiGe HBTs) for decades and have found them to have unique advantages in extreme environments like Europa.

“Due to the way that they're made, these devices actually survive those extreme conditions without any changes made to the underlying technology itself,” said Cressler, who is the project investigator. “You can build it for what you want it to do on Earth, and you then can use it in space.”

The researchers are in year one of a three-year grant in the NASA Concepts for Ocean Worlds Life Detection Technology (COLDTech) program to design the electronics infrastructure for upcoming Europa surface missions. NASA plans to launch the Europa Clipper in 2024, an orbiting spacecraft that will map the oceans of Europa, and then eventually send a landing vehicle, Europa Lander, to drill through the ice and explore its ocean. But it all starts with electronics that can function in Europa’s extreme environment.

Cressler and his students, together with researchers from NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) and the University of Tennessee (UT), demonstrated the capabilities of SiGe HBTs for this hostile environment in a paper presented at the IEEE Nuclear and Space Radiation Effects Conference in July.

What caused the holes in SUE the T. rex ’s jaw? Probably not an infection

Field Museum paleontologist Jingmai O’Connor with SUE the T. rex’s skull.
Resized Image using AI by SFLORG
Credit: Katharine Uhrich, Field Museum

SUE the T. rex is one of the most complete, best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex specimens ever found. That level of preservation helps reveal details about SUE’s life. For instance, SUE lived to a ripe old age of about thirty-three, and in those years, suffered their fair share of injuries. SUE’s most mysterious ailment might be the holes in their jawbone. These holes, some the diameter of a golf ball, dot the back half of the left lower jaw. It’s not clear what caused them, but similar injuries have been found in other T. rex fossils. In a new study published in Cretaceous Research, scientists showed that one of the popular theories-- that SUE had suffered an infection from a protozoan parasite-- couldn’t be true.

“These holes in SUE’s jaw have been a mystery for decades,” says Jingmai O’Connor, the associate curator of fossil reptiles at Chicago’s Field Museum and a co-author of the study. “Nobody knows how they formed, and there have been lots of guesses.”

One early hypothesis was that SUE suffered from a fungus-like bacterial infection, but that was later shown to be unlikely. It was re-hypothesized that SUE had a protozoan infection. Protozoans are microbes with more complex cell structures than bacteria. There are lots of protozoan-caused maladies out there; one common such disease is called trichomoniasis, caused by a microbe called Trichomonas vaginalis. Humans can get infected with trichomoniasis as an STD, but other animals can catch it too.

What a reptile’s bones can teach us about Earth’s perilous past

An illustration of how Palacrodon may have looked.
Credit: K.M. Jenkins

An extinct reptile’s oddly shaped chompers, fingers, and ear bones may tell us quite a bit about the resilience of life on Earth, according to a new study.

In fact, paleontologists at Yale, Sam Houston State University, and the University of the Witwatersrand say the 250-million-year-old reptile, known as Palacrodon, fills in an important gap in our understanding of reptile evolution. It’s also a signal that reptiles, plants, and ecosystems may have fared better or recovered more quickly than previously thought after a mass extinction event wiped out most of the plant and animal species on the planet.

“We now know that Palacrodon comes from one of the last lineages to branch off the reptile tree of life before the evolution of modern reptiles,” said Kelsey Jenkins, a doctoral student in Yale’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and first author of the study, which appears in the Journal of Anatomy. “We also know that Palacrodon lived in the wake of the most devastating mass extinction in Earth’s history.”

That would be the Permian-Triassic extinction event, which occurred 252 million years ago. Known as “the Great Dying,” it killed off 70% of terrestrial species and 95% of marine species.

Although a large number of reptile species eventually bounced back from this extinction event, the details of how that happened are murky. Researchers have spent decades trying to fill in the gaps in our understanding of key adaptations that enabled reptiles to flourish after the Permian-Triassic extinction — and what those adaptations may reveal about the ecosystems where they lived.

Machine learning may enable bioengineering of the most abundant enzyme

Photo Credit: Melissa Askew

A Newcastle University study has for the first time shown that machine learning can predict the biological properties of the most abundant enzyme on Earth - Rubisco.

Rubisco (Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase) is responsible for providing carbon for almost all life on Earth. Rubisco functions by converting atmospheric CO2 from the Earth’s atmosphere to organic carbon matter, which is essential to sustain most life on Earth.

For some time now, natural variation has been observed among Rubisco proteins of land plants and modelling studies have shown that transplanting Rubisco proteins with certain functional properties can increase the amount of atmospheric CO2 crop plants can uptake and store.

Study lead author, Wasim Iqbal, a PhD researcher at Newcastle University’s School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, part of Dr Maxim Kapralov’s group, developed a machine learning tool which can predict the performance properties of numerous land plant Rubisco proteins with surprisingly good accuracy. The hope is that this tool will enable the hunt for a ‘supercharged’ Rubisco protein that can be bioengineered into major crops such as wheat.

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