. Scientific Frontline

Monday, November 28, 2022

Mussel survey reveals alarming degradation of River Thames ecosystem since the 1960s

Photo Credit: Gil Ndjouwou

The detailed study measured the change in size and number of all species of mussel in a stretch of the River Thames near Reading between 1964 and 2020.

The results were striking: not only had native populations severely declined, but the mussels that remained were much smaller for their age – reflecting slower growth.

Mussels are important in freshwater ecosystems because they filter the water and remove algae. As filter feeders they’re exposed to everything in the water, and this makes them a valuable indicator of ecosystem health. Mussel shells also provide places for other aquatic species to live.

“Mussels are a great indicator of the health of the river ecosystem. Such a massive decline in mussel biomass in the river is also likely to have a knock-on effect for other species, reducing the overall biodiversity,” said Isobel Ollard, a PhD student in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and first author of the report.

She added: “The depressed river mussel used to be quite widespread in the Thames, but this survey didn’t find a single one - which also raises concerns for the survival of this species.”

Research shows ‘danger zones’ for wandering albatrosses

A pair of wandering albatrosses (Diomedea exulans) courting at Bird Island, South Georgia.
Source/Credit: British Antarctic Survey | NERC

Over half of wandering albatrosses breeding on Bird Island, in the sub-Antarctic, encounter fishing vessels when feeding, putting them at risk of being accidentally caught or killed in fishing gear, according to new research led by British Antarctic Survey and Birdlife International. The results will help conservation efforts for a species that is in decline.

In the study funded by the Darwin Plus scheme and published this month (November 2022) in Biological Conservation, researchers tracked the movements of wandering albatrosses using radar-GPS devices to study their interactions with fishing vessels. By cross-referencing the birds’ movements with the locations of fishing vessels, they found that, of the 251 birds that were tracked, 55% went within 30km of a fishing vessel, and 43% within 5km. Birds traveling to the Patagonian Shelf break were particularly at risk of an interaction.

This study is one of the most comprehensive studies of bycatch risk for any seabird species to date, and combines precise locations of fishing vessels from Global Fishing Watch, another collaborator of the study, with those of wandering albatrosses of different ages and breeding stages.

Localizing BRCA gene mutations to better treat ovarian cancer

Dr. Intidhar Labidi-Galy
Researcher at the Translational Research Centre in Onco-hematology at the UNIGE Faculty of Medicine and a physician at the HUG.
Credit: University of Geneva /  Intidhar Labidi-Galy

Mutations of BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which are inherited by 1 in 400 and 1 in 800 people respectively, significantly increase the risk of certain cancers such as ovarian, breast, pancreatic and prostate cancer. In 2016, a new class of drugs, the PARP inhibitors, was found to be highly effective against BRCA mutation-related tumors. However, almost half of women with ovarian cancer experience a recurrence of the disease within 5 years. An international team led by the University of Geneva (UNIGE), the Geneva University Hospitals (HUG), the Centre Léon Bérard in Lyon, the Curie Institute, the French collaborative group ARCAGY- GINECO and the European consortium ENGOT, examined the genetic data of 233 patients enrolled in the pre-marketing phase III clinical trial of olaparib, a PARP inhibitor added to bevacizumab, a drug already used to treat ovarian cancer. The researchers found that the success of PARP inhibitors depends on the precise location of the mutation on the gene. These results, that can be read in the journal Annals of Oncology, demonstrate that a very high precision medicine is possible in oncology.

The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes code for proteins involved in the repair of DNA double-strand breaks, a particularly severe form of DNA damage, and thus play an essential role in maintaining the genomic stability of cells. When they are mutated, cells are less able to repair damaged DNA, a phenomenon that promotes the development of cancers.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Blood group can predict risk of contracting viral disease

People with blood type Rh(D) have a higher risk of being infected by parvovirus
Photo Credit: Bartek Kopała

The risk of being infected by parvovirus is elevated in those people who have blood group Rh(D), according to a study published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases by researchers from Karolinska Institutet in collaboration with Octapharma.  

Fifth disease is a viral disease caused by parvovirus. Most often, school-age children are affected with common symptoms such as red blotches on the cheeks that can also spread to the arms and legs. Even adults can become infected, but many do not show any symptoms.  

In a new study, researchers can now demonstrate that the risk of contracting the disease is elevated if the person belongs to the blood group Rhesus D antigen or what is called Rh(D). In addition to the blood typing in the AB0 system, the Rh system is the most common.

Rice lab’s catalyst could be key for hydrogen economy


Rice University researchers have engineered a key light-activated nanomaterial for the hydrogen economy. Using only inexpensive raw materials, a team from Rice’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics, Syzygy Plasmonics Inc. and Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment created a scalable catalyst that needs only the power of light to convert ammonia into clean-burning hydrogen fuel.

The research is published in the journal Science.

The research follows government and industry investment to create infrastructure and markets for carbon-free liquid ammonia fuel that will not contribute to greenhouse warming. Liquid ammonia is easy to transport and packs a lot of energy, with one nitrogen and three hydrogen atoms per molecule. The new catalyst breaks those molecules into hydrogen gas, a clean-burning fuel, and nitrogen gas, the largest component of Earth’s atmosphere. And unlike traditional catalysts, it doesn’t require heat. Instead, it harvests energy from light, either sunlight or energy-stingy LEDs.

The pace of chemical reactions typically increases with temperature, and chemical producers have capitalized on this for more than a century by applying heat on an industrial scale. The burning of fossil fuels to raise the temperature of large reaction vessels by hundreds or thousands of degrees results in an enormous carbon footprint. Chemical producers also spend billions of dollars each year on thermocatalysts — materials that don’t react but further speed reactions under intense heating.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Improving AI training for edge sensor time series


Engineers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) have demonstrated a simple computational approach for improving the way artificial intelligence classifiers, such as neural networks, can be trained based on limited amounts of sensor data. The emerging applications of the internet of things often require edge devices that can reliably classify behaviors and situations based on time series. However, training data is difficult and expensive to acquire. The proposed approach promises to substantially increase the quality of classifier training, at almost no extra cost.

In recent times, the prospect of having huge numbers of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors quietly and diligently monitoring countless aspects of human, natural, and machine activities has gained ground. As our society becomes more and more hungry for data, scientists, engineers, and strategists increasingly hope that the additional insight which we can derive from this pervasive monitoring will improve the quality and efficiency of many production processes, also resulting in improved sustainability.

The world in which we live is incredibly complex, and this complexity is reflected in a huge multitude of variables that IoT sensors may be designed to monitor. Some are natural, such as the amount of sunlight, moisture, or the movement of an animal, while others are artificial, for example, the number of cars crossing an intersection or the strain applied to a suspended structure like a bridge. What these variables all have in common is that they evolve over time, creating what is known as time series, and that meaningful information is expected to be contained in their relentless changes. In many cases, researchers are interested in classifying a set of predetermined conditions or situations based on these temporal changes, as a way of reducing the amount of data and making it easier to understand. For instance, measuring how frequently a particular condition or situation arises is often taken as the basis for detecting and understanding the origin of malfunctions, pollution increases, and so on.

NIST Finds a Sweet New Way to Print Microchip Patterns on Curvy Surfaces

Using sugar and corn syrup (i.e., candy), researcher Gary Zabow transferred the word "NIST" onto a human hair in gold letters, shown in false color in this grayscale microscope image. 
Image Credit: G. Zabow/NIST

NIST scientist Gary Zabow had never intended to use candy in his lab. It was only as a last resort that he had even tried burying microscopic magnetic dots in hardened chunks of sugar — hard candy, basically — and sending these sweet packages to colleagues in a biomedical lab. The sugar dissolves easily in water, freeing the magnetic dots for their studies without leaving any harmful plastics or chemicals behind.

By chance, Zabow had left one of these sugar pieces, embedded with arrays of micromagnetic dots, in a beaker, and it did what sugar does with time and heat — it melted, coating the bottom of the beaker in a gooey mess.

“No problem,” he thought. He would just dissolve away the sugar, as normal. Except this time when he rinsed out the beaker, the microdots were gone. But they weren’t really missing; instead of releasing into the water, they had been transferred onto the bottom of the glass where they were casting a rainbow reflection.

“It was those rainbow colors that really surprised me,” Zabow recalls. The colors indicated that the arrays of microdots had retained their unique pattern.

Protein Spheres Protect the Genome of Cancer Cells

MYC proteins are colored green in this figure. In normally growing cells, they are homogeneously distributed in the cell nucleus (left). In diverse stress situations, as they occur in cancer cells, they rearrange themselves, form sphere-like structures and thus surround particularly vulnerable sections of the genome.
Image Credit: Team Martin Eilers / Universität Würzburg

Hollow spheres made of MYC proteins open new doors in cancer research. Würzburg scientists have discovered them and report about this breakthrough in the journal "Nature".

MYC genes and their proteins play a central role in the emergence and development of almost all cancers. They drive uncontrolled growth and altered metabolism of tumor cells. And they help tumors hide from the immune system.

MYC proteins also show an activity that was previously unknown – and which is now opening new doors for cancer research: They form hollow spheres that protect particularly sensitive parts of the genome. If these MYC spheres are destroyed, cancer cells will die.

This was reported by a research team led by Martin Eilers and Elmar Wolf from the Institute of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU, Bavaria, Germany) in the journal Nature. The researchers are convinced that their discovery is a game changer for cancer research, an important breakthrough on the way to new therapeutic strategies.

New CRISPR-based tool inserts large DNA sequences at desired sites in cells

Building on the CRISPR gene-editing system, MIT researchers designed a new tool that can snip out faulty genes and replace them with new ones.
Image Credit: Sangharsh Lohakare

Building on the CRISPR gene-editing system, MIT researchers have designed a new tool that can snip out faulty genes and replace them with new ones, in a safer and more efficient way.

Using this system, the researchers showed that they could deliver genes as long as 36,000 DNA base pairs to several types of human cells, as well as to liver cells in mice. The new technique, known as PASTE, could hold promise for treating diseases that are caused by defective genes with a large number of mutations, such as cystic fibrosis.

“It’s a new genetic way of potentially targeting these really hard to treat diseases,” says Omar Abudayyeh, a McGovern Fellow at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. “We wanted to work toward what gene therapy was supposed to do at its original inception, which is to replace genes, not just correct individual mutations.”

The new tool combines the precise targeting of CRISPR-Cas9, a set of molecules originally derived from bacterial defense systems, with enzymes called integrases, which viruses use to insert their own genetic material into a bacterial genome.

Synthetic fibers discovered in Antarctic samples show the ‘pristine’ continent is now a sink for plastic pollution


As nations prepare to meet in Uruguay to negotiate a new Global Plastics Treaty, a new study has revealed the discovery of synthetic plastic fibers in air, seawater, sediment and sea ice sampled in the Antarctic Weddell Sea. The field research was carried out by scientists from the University of Oxford and Nekton (a not-for-profit research institute) during an expedition to discover Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance. The results are published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

Fibrous polyesters, primarily from textiles, were found in all samples. The majority of microplastic fibers identified were found in the Antarctic air samples, revealing that Antarctic animals and seabirds could be breathing them.

‘The issue of microplastic fibers is also an airborne problem reaching even the last remaining pristine environments on our planet’, stated co-author Lucy Woodall, a Professor in the University of Oxford’s Department of Biology and Principal Scientist at Nekton. ‘Synthetic fibers are the most prevalent form of microplastic pollution globally and tackling this issue must be at the heart of the Plastic Treaty negotiations.’ Professor Woodall was the first to reveal the prevalence of plastic in the deep sea in 2014.

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