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How much plastic have humans made?

Fri, 2017-07-21 10:56

Humans have created more than 8 billion metric tons of plastic since the large-scale production of synthetic materials began in the early 1950s, a new study suggests.

The study provides the first global analysis of the production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made, including synthetic fibers.

“We cannot continue with business as usual unless we want a planet that is literally covered in plastic,” says lead author Roland Geyer, an associate professor in the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

(Credit: UC Santa Barbara)

“This paper delivers hard data not only for how much plastic we’ve made over the years but also its composition and the amount and kind of additives that plastic contains. I hope this information will be used by policymakers to improve end-of-life management strategies for plastics,” Geyer says.

Researchers compiled production statistics for resins, fibers, and additives from a variety of industry sources and synthesized them according to type and consuming sector.

They found that global production of resins and fibers increased from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to more than 400 million metric tons in 2015, outgrowing most other man-made materials. Notable exceptions are steel and cement. While these materials are used primarily for construction, the largest market is packaging, which is used once and then discarded.

“Roughly half of all the steel we make goes into construction, so it will have decades of use; plastic is the opposite,” Geyer says. “Half of all plastics become waste after four or fewer years of use.”

(Credit: UC Santa Barbara)

And the pace of production shows no signs of slowing. Of the total amount of plastic resins and fibers produced from 1950 to 2015, roughly half was produced in the last 13 years.

“What we are trying to do is to create the foundation for sustainable materials management,” Geyer says. “Put simply, you can’t manage what you don’t measure, and so we think policy discussions will be more informed and fact-based now that we have these numbers.”

The researchers also found that by 2015, humans had produced 6.3 billon tons of plastic waste. Of that total, only 9 percent was recycled; 12 percent was incinerated and 79 percent accumulated in landfills or the natural environment.

If current trends continue, roughly 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste—weighing more than 36,000 Empire State Buildings—will be in landfills or the natural environment by 2050.

Tons and tons of plastic are swimming in the ocean

“Most plastics don’t biodegrade in any meaningful sense, so the plastic waste humans have generated could be with us for hundreds or even thousands of years,” says coauthor Jenna Jambeck, an associate professor of engineering at the University of Georgia.

“Our estimates underscore the need to think critically about the materials we use and our waste management practices,” she says.

Two years ago, the same research team published a study in the journal Science that measured the magnitude of plastic waste going into the ocean. They found that of the 275 million metric tons of plastic waste generated in 2010, an estimated 8 million entered the world’s oceans. That study calculated the annual amount of plastic waste by using solid waste generation data; the new research instead uses plastic production data.

(Credit: UC Santa Barbara)

“Even with two very different methods, we got virtually the same waste number—275 million metric tons—for 2010, which suggests that the numbers are quite robust,” Geyer says.

“There are people alive today who remember a world without plastics,” Jambeck says. “But plastics have become so ubiquitous that you can’t go anywhere without finding plastic waste in our environment, including our oceans.”

The investigators are quick to caution that they don’t want to eliminate plastic from the marketplace but rather advocate a more critical examination of plastic use.

‘Safe’ plastics leach toxins when they break down

“There are areas where plastics are indispensable, such as the medical industry,” says coauthor Kara Lavender Law, a research professor at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “But I do think we need to take a careful look at our use of plastics and ask if it makes sense.”

The new study appears in the journal Science Advances.

Source: UC Santa Barbara

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Paying people to save trees could also save money

Fri, 2017-07-21 10:46

Paying people to conserve trees may be a cost-effective way to curb deforestation and reduce carbon emissions and should be a key component of fighting climate change, a new study suggests.

The study sought to evaluate how effective “Payments for Ecosystems” (PES) is at reducing deforestation. PES is a program in which people receive financial rewards for pro-environment behaviors.

In the study, people who owned forest in 60 villages in western Uganda received cash rewards if they kept their forest intact and refrained from deforesting it. Forest owners in another 61 villages in western Uganda received no monetary incentives.

(Credit: Northwestern)

“We found that the program had very large impacts on forest cover,” says Seema Jayachandran, associate professor of economics in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University and a faculty fellow with the university’s Institute for Policy Research.

“In the villages without the program, 9 percent of the tree cover that was in place at the start of the study was gone by the end of it, two years later. In the villages with the PES program, there was 4 to 5 percent tree loss. In other words, there was still deforestation, but much less of it,” she says.

“It wasn’t the case that only forest owners who were planning to conserve anyway enrolled,” Jayachandran says. “The payments changed people’s behavior and prompted them to conserve. And we didn’t find any evidence that they simply shifted their tree-cutting elsewhere. This truly was a net increase in forest cover in the study region.”

The first of its kind, the study applies the method of field experiments, or randomized controlled trials, to the question of how effective PES is. The study design helped the researchers accurately measure the averted deforestation caused by the program.

The best (and worst) ways to stop deforestation

Jayachandran says the cost effectiveness of the program compared to other approaches to reduce carbon emissions, such as subsidies for hybrid or electric vehicles in the United States, was eye opening.

“A major contribution of the study was to compare the benefit of reduced deforestation to the cost of the program. What’s that extra forest worth to society? We do that by applying what’s called the ‘social cost of carbon,'” Jayachandran says.

“This is an estimate that others have come up with for the economic damage to the world from each ton of CO2 that is emitted. We found that the benefit of the delayed CO2 emissions was over twice as large as the program costs. For many other environmental policies, the value of the averted CO2is in fact smaller than the program costs.”

The findings highlight the advantages of focusing on developing countries when working to reduce global carbon emissions. While the benefit of conserving a tree is the same regardless of the location, paying individuals to conserve forests in developing countries like Uganda is less expensive, making it cheaper to reduce overall emissions.

Paying farmers not to farm saved sage grouse

Today, with deforestation accounting for a substantial portion of human-induced carbon emissions, the researchers describe the payment program they studied as “a cost-effective way to avert deforestation in developing countries—and hence a powerful tool to mitigate climate change.”

The study appears in the journal Science. Additional coauthors are from Porticus, Amsterdam, Netherlands; Stanford University; the Carnegie Institution for Science; and the University of California, Berkeley.

Source: Northwestern University

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Clam fossils show rising sea levels boost parasites

Fri, 2017-07-21 10:31

New research suggests that parasitic infections could increase in the next century due to rising sea levels caused by climate change.

In 2014, a team of researchers found that clams from the Holocene Epoch (that began 11,700 years ago) contained clues about how sea level rise due to climate change could foreshadow a rise in parasitic trematodes, or flatworms. The team cautioned that the rise could lead to outbreaks in human infections if left unchecked.

Now, researchers have found that rising seas could be detrimental to human health on a much shorter time scale.

Location map, cross-section, and images of parasitized Abra segmentum valves. A-Location map of investigated Po coastal plain sector, Italy B-Cross section illustrating core samples. C-Photomicrographs of A. segmentum with trematode-induced pits. (Credit: Scientific Reports/U. Missouri)

Trematodes are internal parasites that affect mollusks and other invertebrates inhabiting estuarine environments, which are the coastal bodies of brackish water connecting rivers to the open sea. Ancient trematodes had soft bodies; therefore, they didn’t leave body fossils. However, infected clams developed oval-shaped pits around the parasite in the attempt to keep it out, and it’s the prevalence of those pits and their makeup that provide clues as to what happened during different eras in time.

With core samples taken from the Po River plain in Italy, geologist John Huntley, and colleagues found traces made by trematodes on the shells of the clams, revealing the connections between the ancient clams and climate change. Huntley, an assistant professor of geological sciences in the University of Missouri College of Arts and Science, studied the prehistoric clams as a senior visiting fellow for the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Bologna, Italy.

Researchers studied core samples from the Po River Delta in Italy and found that found that rising seas could be detrimental to human health on a much shorter time scale. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons via U. Missouri)

“The forecasts of increasing global temperatures and sea level rise have led to major concerns about the response of parasites to climate change,” he says. “Italy has a robust environmental monitoring program, so there was a wealth of information to examine.”

“What’s scary is it could potentially affect the generations of our kids or grandkids.”

Using 61 samples collected from a drill core obtained by the Italian government for geological research, the scientists examined trematode traces and matched the information to existing records measuring sea level and salinity rises through the ages.

“We found that pulses in sea-level rise occurred on the scale of hundreds of years, and that correlated to rises in parasitic trematodes in the core samples,” Huntley says. “What concerns me is that these rises are going to continue to happen and perhaps at accelerated rates.

“This poses grave concerns for public health and ecosystem services. These processes could increase parasitism in not only estuarine systems but also in freshwater settings. Such habitats are home to the snail hosts of blood flukes, which infect and kill a million or more people globally each year.

“What’s scary is it could potentially affect the generations of our kids or grandkids,” he says.

Huntley and his team think that their discoveries could provide a good road map for conservationists and those making decisions about marine environments worldwide.

The study appears in Scientific Reports. National Science Foundation grants, the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Bologna, the Unkelsbay Fund of the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Missouri, and the University of Bologna provided funding for the study.

Additional contributors to the study are from the University of Bologna and the University of Florida. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the funding agencies.

Source: University of Missouri

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Oil can lead fish to make bad decisions

Fri, 2017-07-21 09:45

Oil can negatively affect the higher-order thinking of coral reef fish, making them more vulnerable to predators and less able to find a livable habitat, new research suggests.

“…the fish exposed to oil exhibited very risky behavior, even in the presence of a predator.”

Researchers examined six different species of coral reef fish and discovered that exposure to oil consistently affects behavior in ways that put the fish at risk.

During several weeks when coral reef fish go through their juvenile stages of development, they are especially vulnerable. Even in healthy populations of reef fish, typically less than 10 percent of embryos and larvae reach adulthood. Those who survive must learn to identify friend from foe and adopt protective behaviors, such as traveling in groups, minimizing movement in open waters, and swimming away quickly from danger.

Experiments show that juvenile fish exposed to oil struggled on all these counts.

“In several different experiments, the fish exposed to oil exhibited very risky behavior, even in the presence of a predator,” says Andrew Esbaugh, assistant professor of marine science at the University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute.

Further, oil exposure negatively affects the fishes’ growth, survival, and settlement behaviors (their ability to find a suitable habitat).

Oil concentrations are found in oceans worldwide, but until now little has been known about the impact of oil exposure on coral reef fish.

Earlier research that explored how oil affects the physiology of fishes demonstrated developmental heart deformities and associated cardiac functions, but this is the first study to demonstrate that oil exposure affects behavior in a way that increases predation and reduces settlement success.

Food web shows winners and losers 7 years after Deepwater

The finding could be bad news for reefs, too, since many coral reefs depend on fish to remove algae that can restrict their growth and development.

Coral reef ecosystems are the oceans’ most diverse ecosystems—and the most threatened. Hundreds of millions of people depend on coral reefs and their fish for income or food, but widespread coral bleaching and overfishing threaten this way of life. The new study indicates that limiting oil-based industrial activities near reefs may be critical for reef preservation.

“Over the past 35 years, almost one-fifth of the world’s coral reefs have been lost and half of what’s remaining is either expected to disappear or be under severe threat in the next few decades,” says lead researcher Jacob Johansen.

“Still, many governments continue to allow industrial activities, including oil drilling and exploration, in sensitive reef habitats. If a spill were to occur, this study suggests there could be major consequences for the fish, for coral reefs, and for people working in fisheries and tourism,” Johansen continues.

“We used oil concentrations that are already present in many industrialized regions worldwide—concentrations that ranged from two to five parts per billion, the equivalent of a couple of drops in a swimming pool,” he says.

Exposure to these oil concentrations caused higher rates both of immediate death and more latent death, in addition to the behavioral shifts and cognitive changes in coral reef fish. These results suggest that future studies of oil in sensitive environments, such as coral reefs, should account for behavior in addition to the toxic effects when trying to capture the overall ecological health of the system or make predictions about fish populations.

This crude oil ingredient hurts tuna hearts

The paper appears in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Researchers from the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen, Norway and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies contributed to the study. The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, Australian Research Council, and Lizard Island Reef Research Foundation funded the work.

Source: University of Texas at Austin

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Fruit flies use a ‘map’ to avoid the heat

Fri, 2017-07-21 09:41

Researchers have created a visualization of how fruit flies sense and process temperature and humidity with a “sensory map” in their brains.

The findings could one day help researchers better understand how the human brain simultaneously processes humidity and temperature and might influence how humans control for mosquitoes in cities and prevent mosquito-borne diseases.

Fruit flies can detect changes in external humidity through a sophisticated “triad” of neurons…

“We know very little about how temperature and humidity are represented in the human brain,” says senior author Marco Gallio, assistant professor of neurobiology in Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

“This study demonstrates that the fruit fly brain contains a combined sensory map for temperature and humidity. We show how the fly’s brain reads this map to lead it away from dangerous hot and dry conditions,” Gallio says.

The fruit fly is a major model system for the genetics of sensory behavior, including human behavior.

The ability to process humidity in the brain together with temperature is imperative for the survival of fruit flies, which need warm, humid environments to thrive, and helps them make sensible behavioral choices to avoid hot, dry areas.

The study builds upon previous research in which neuroscientists developed a new tool that uses fluorescent molecules to light up conversations between neurons in the fruit fly’s brain to visualize when they’re experiencing hot or cold stimuli. This new study sought out where humidity is represented in the fruit fly’s brain to test that additional environmental element.

Fruit flies can detect changes in external humidity through a sophisticated “triad” of neurons located in their antenna that respond to humid, dry, and cool stimuli, the research found. These neurons target a region of the brain that is also innervated by receptors for hot and cold temperature, which reside somewhere else in the antenna.

The scientists restrained individual fruit flies under a microscope and controlled the level of humidity and temperature of the air flowing over their antennae. Meanwhile, they measured what was happening in this target region in the brain using genetically engineered flies in which neuronal conversations light up under a microscope.

“Hot, cold, dry, and wet light up different physical locations within this sensory map.”

A puff of dry air lit up the neuron in the fly’s brain that reads dry stimuli. A puff of humid air spurred activity in the humid neurons. The intensity of the stimuli (how dry, humid, hot, or cold it was) changed how bright the neuron became.

“Neurons that measure temperature and humidity converge in the brain, but there is a physical separation of activity, which we can see by looking as neurons light up,” Gallio says. “Hot, cold, dry, and wet light up different physical locations within this sensory map.”

Most interestingly, the scientists discovered that this map functions as a switchboard, so that neurons in the brain can connect at different locations to read one or more of the signals. Some neurons—narrowly tuned neurons—only read individual stimuli (just hot or just wet), while other neurons—broadly tuned neurons—can sample multiple stimuli at once (hot and dry).

Fruit flies are small and desiccate easily. When given a choice, they avoid dry heat much more than humid heat. The scientist reproduced this in the lab in a sophisticated chamber in which they controlled the level of humidity and temperature with puffs of air and heated floor tiles, respectively.

Fruit flies sense every wing beat to steer straight

“When we knocked out the neuron that helps the fly recognize dry air, the fruit flies lost their ability to determine the combined danger of hot and dry and avoided dry heat just as much as they avoided the humid heat,” Gallio says.

The scientists discovered a single type of broadly tuned brain neuron that simultaneously receives signals from both dry and hot sensors, explaining how flies steer away from this particularly dangerous combination.

Why would a fruit fly brain need such broadly tuned hot/dry neurons? One hypothesis, Gallio says, is that dry and hot are often found together in the environment, so it makes sense that they would be processed together.

“This neuron would be ideally positioned to summate the negative signals from dry and hot to make sure they get out of that environment as quickly as possible,” Gallio says.

The organization of the sensory triad of neurons is similar to what has been described in other insects, suggesting that other insects, such as the mosquito, might sense external humidity in the same manner as the fruit fly.

“It’s not a big leap to think that mosquitoes might use the same strategies to navigate their environment,” Gallio says. “One of the ways we’re trying to control the major issue of mosquito-borne diseases is to mess with their brains.”

Some fruit flies are surprisingly self-aware

Mosquitoes use temperature to find their prey, and they also like to lay their eggs in water, Gallio explains. As an example, he says scientists could screen in the lab for compounds that target a mosquito’s humidity receptor. A drop of that compound in the open water of an urbanized area may lead the mosquito to ignore that body of water when searching for a suitable place to lay its eggs.

The study appears in the journal Current Biology. Additional coauthors of the study are from Northwestern and Lund University.

National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants and the Pew Charitable Trust provided funding for the study.

Source: Northwestern University

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How treating brittle bones prevents gum disease

Fri, 2017-07-21 09:19

Treatment for osteoporosis may also help prevent gum disease, according to a new study that looked at the prevalence of periodontitis in postmenopausal women.

Women over the age of 50 who took estrogen for osteoporosis—in which bones become weak and brittle from tissue loss—were 44 percent less likely to have severe periodontitis than women who did not receive the treatment.

The lack of estrogen, a natural consequence of menopause, places women at risk of osteoporosis as they age. To counter these effects, some women get prescriptions for estrogen therapy along with supplements of calcium and vitamin D.

While previous studies have investigated the relationship between osteoporosis and tooth loss, few have examined the link between estrogen therapy and periodontitis, a disease that can ultimately lead to tooth loss and destruction of the jaw bone.

“These results help confirm the findings of previous studies that suggested that estrogen therapy to prevent osteoporosis could also play a role in the prevention of gum disease,” says Frank Scannapieco, professor of oral biology at the University at Buffalo.

“By advancing our understanding of how this treatment can impact oral health, we can better work to improve the bone health and quality of life of female patients.”

Researchers examined nearly 500 postmenopausal women who received service at an osteoporosis diagnosis center in Brazil. Of the 356 women who were diagnosed with osteoporosis, 113 chose to receive estrogen therapy. The findings appear in the journal Menopause.

Each participant was over the age of 50 and postmenopausal for at least one year. The women were divided into two categories: women who received estrogen therapy for at least six months and those who never received treatment. Other factors such as race, income, and level of education were also recorded.

Osteoporosis drug protects bones from breast cancer

Women receiving osteoporosis treatment had less periodontal probing depth and clinical attachment loss—the amount of space between teeth and surrounding tissue due to bone loss—and less gum bleeding than those who didn’t receive therapy.

Further, higher family income and more frequent consultations with a dentist were also associated with a lower prevalence of periodontitis.

Despite the evidence of estrogen playing a significant role in maintaining healthy bones, hormone therapy also has been shown to cause adverse effects, such as increasing the risk of heart disease and breast cancer, Scannapieco says.

Source: University at Buffalo

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Drug combo could repair fetal alcohol damage

Fri, 2017-07-21 08:41

Two drugs may erase the learning and memory deficits caused by fetal alcohol exposure when given after birth, according to new research with rodents.

The finding potentially makes way for a treatment for fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

“We have identified a potential treatment for alcohol spectrum disorder. Currently, there is none.”

The researchers also identified a key molecular mechanism by which alcohol neurologically and developmentally harms the developing fetus.

“We’ve shown you can interfere after the damage from alcohol is done. That’s huge,” says lead investigator and senior author Eva Redei, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “We have identified a potential treatment for alcohol spectrum disorder. Currently, there is none.”

In the United States, 1 to 5 percent of children are born with the disorder, which includes learning and memory deficits, major behavioral problems, a high rate of depression, low IQ, and cardiovascular and other developmental health problems.

Reversing the damage

The researchers’ study looked at rat pups. They are trying to raise funds for a clinical trial. If the drugs are effective in the trial, the infants whose mothers consumed alcohol during their pregnancy potentially could be treated with them, Redei says.

“There are women who drink before they are aware that they are pregnant and women who do not stop drinking during their pregnancy,” Redei says. “These women still can help their children’s future, if the current findings work in humans as well. The ideal, of course, is that women abstain from drinking when pregnant, but unfortunately that does not always happen.”

In two separate arms of the study, scientists gave either thyroxine (a hormone that is reduced in pregnant women who drink and in infants with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder) or metformin (an insulin sensitizing drug that lowers blood sugar levels, which is higher in alcoholics) to rat pups exposed to alcohol in utero. The pups received the drugs for 10 days immediately after they were born.

Intervention for kids with FASD helps parents most

Then scientists let the pups grow up and tested their memory compared to control rats also exposed to alcohol in utero but who did not receive either drug.

“We showed in the adult animals that both these treatments reversed the memory deficits as well as some of the molecular changes caused by maternal alcohol consumption,” Redei says.

Drinking alcohol reduces thyroxine levels and increases glucose in the pregnant rat—and in humans as well, according to limited human data.

“These changes are dangerous to the brain development of the fetus and are at least part of the reason for learning and memory deficits of the offspring,” Redei says.

Thyroxine is an essential hormone made by the thyroid gland that regulates multiple functions in the developing brain. Children born with very low levels of thyroxine are neurodevelopmentally disabled, a condition of severely stunted physical and mental growth.

Excessive glucose reaching the fetus also has a negative impact on brain development but scientists do not yet have a deep understanding of why. It also can affect any of the developing organ systems and cause type 2 diabetes later in life.

The surprise finding was that both of these very different drugs worked to reverse the effect of maternal alcohol.

Delving deeper

“When we got similar results we say, ‘Wait a second. These are two completely different drugs. What could they have in common?'” Redei says. “We had no idea.”

They delved deeper and discovered both drugs normalize genes that control the expression of DNA methyl transferase1, an enzyme critical for brain development via an epigenetic process called DNA methylation.

Blood test may predict severity of fetal alcohol syndrome

To further validate the role of DNA methyl transferase1 in fetal alcohol syndrome, the scientists took normal rat pups and gave them a drug to inhibit the gene. The result was alcoholic look-alike pups. When researchers then gave the pups metformin, the pups’ memory returned to normal.

Recently, DNA methyl transferase1 has been implicated in the etiology of autism and neurodegenerative diseases.

The paper appears in Molecular Psychiatry. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism of the National Institutes of Health grants supported the research.

Source: Northwestern University

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Yoga rivals P.T. for chronic low back pain

Fri, 2017-07-21 08:22

Yoga is as effective as physical therapy to treat mild to moderate chronic low back pain, research finds, including for some underserved patients with more severe functional disability.

A new study used a randomized trial of 320 predominantly low-income, racially diverse adults ages 18 to 64 with nonspecific chronic low back pain (cLBP). Participants took 12 yoga classes, 15 physical therapy visits, or an educational book and newsletters about managing back pain, followed by a 40-week maintenance period with yoga drop-in classes or home practice for the yoga group, and physical therapy booster sessions or home practice for the physical therapy group.

The findings, reported in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, show that about one-half of participants in both the yoga and physical therapy groups reported reduced pain and disability, compared to about one-fifth of participants in the education group.

The yoga and physical therapy participants were about 20 percent less likely to use any pain medication at 12 weeks compared to the education group.

Is this mind-body link why yoga calms us?

While the study found manualized (i.e. standardized, uniform) yoga designed to help cLBP was as effective as physical therapy, “the results may not generalize to typical nonmanualized, community-based yoga classes,” the authors write. “Future studies should focus on pragmatic trials of nonmanualized yoga classes.”

Previous research has already shown yoga is effective for cLBP, but its effectiveness compared to physical therapy was unknown. Likewise, little is known about yoga’s effectiveness for minority and low socioeconomic status patients with more severe functional disability and pain.

“Despite pain’s disproportionate impact on minority and low SES groups, few cLBP studies and even fewer yoga and PT trials have targeted these populations,” the authors write.

“Finding that yoga is as effective as physical therapy for chronic low back pain is important in that yoga can be performed long-term at home or in group settings where there is social support, it has additional mental health benefits, and may be a cost-effective alternative,” says Janice Weinberg, biostatistics professor at Boston University School of Public Health.

Source: Michelle Samuels for Boston University

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Aging oilfields pollute more and produce less

Thu, 2017-07-20 14:54

As the world’s largest oilfields age, the power required to keep them operating can rise dramatically even as the amount of petroleum they produce drops, a new study suggests.

Failing to take the changing energy requirements of oilfields into account can cause oilfield managers or policymakers to underestimate the true climate impacts, the study’s authors warn.

“As oilfields run low, emissions per unit of oil increase.”

The new findings, which appear in the journal Nature Climate Change, have implications for long-term emissions and climate modeling, as well as climate policy.

“Current climate and energy system models typically don’t explore the impacts of oil reservoir depletion in any detail,” says study coauthor Adam Brandt, an assistant professor of energy resources engineering at Stanford University’s School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences.

“As oilfields run low, emissions per unit of oil increase. This should be accounted for in future modeling efforts,” Brandt says.

Bottom-up instead of top-down

In the new study, postdoctoral researcher Mohammad Masnadi worked with Brandt to apply a new software tool for calculating greenhouse gas emissions to oilfields around the world that have produced more than 1 billion barrels of oil over their lifetimes, sometimes called “super-giant” oilfields.

Conventional greenhouse gas estimates calculate emissions through a kind of economic reverse engineering, whereby an economic index is used to convert the monetary value of an oilfield’s final products—whether it be processed oil, natural gas, or petroleum-based products—into greenhouse gas emissions.

…it’s necessary to assess the energy costs associated with every stage of the petroleum production process…

“This top-down approach for converting economic values into environmental and energetic costs misses a lot of underlying information,” Masnadi says.

What’s more, many studies look at data from only a single point in time, and as a result capture only a snapshot of an oilfield’s greenhouse gas emissions. But Brandt and colleagues argue that in order to paint the most accurate picture of an oilfield’s true climate impacts—and also have the best chance of reducing those impacts—it’s necessary to assess the energy costs associated with every stage of the petroleum production process, and to do so for the oilfield’s entire lifetime.

Developed in Brandt’s lab, a software tool called the Oil Production Greenhouse gas Emissions Estimator (OPGEE) is designed to do just that.

For any given oilfield, OPGEE performs what’s known as a lifecycle assessment, analyzing each phase of the oil production process—extraction, refinement, and transportation. It then uses computer models to calculate how much energy is consumed during each step. From this, scientists can calculate precisely how much greenhouse gas each oilfield emits.

“This bottom-up type of analysis hasn’t been done before because it’s difficult,” Masnadi says. “For this study, we needed over 50 different pieces of data for each oilfield for each year. When you’re trying to analyze an oilfield across decades, that’s a lot of data.”

Unfortunately, most oil companies are reluctant to release this type of temporal data about their oilfields.

The researchers developed two workarounds to this problem. First, they gathered data from places where transparency laws require oil production data be made publically available. These included Canada, Norway, and the UK, as well as the state of California in the United States. Secondly, the pair conducted a deep data mine of the scientific literature to seek out clues about oilfield production levels in published studies.

‘Doubling of emissions’

In the end, the pair ended up with data going back decades for 25 globally important super-giant oilfields. Applying OPGEE to this group, the scientists found that for many of the super-giant oilfields, oil production declined with time as the wells were depleted, but the energy expended to capture the remaining oil went up.

“The more oil that is extracted, the more difficult it becomes to extract the oil that remains, so companies have to resort to increasingly energy-intensive recovery methods, such as water, steam, or gas flooding,” Masnadi says.

Making matters worse, oil recovered through such methods has to undergo more intense surface processing to filter out the excess water and gas. In the latter case, this can result in an excess of carbon dioxide and methane gas that is typically eliminated through burning—a process called “flaring”—or venting into the atmosphere.

Old oil and gas wells can emit methane for decades

“We can show with these results that a typical large oilfield will have a doubling of emissions per barrel of oil over a 25-year operating period,” Brandt says.

Maximizing production, minimizing emissions

How to stop this harmful cycle? One way is through tougher government regulations that force companies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions or risk having to lower production. This has been shown to work at two Canadian offshore fields, Hibernia and Terra Nova, where regulations have sharply lowered greenhouse gas emissions by limiting oil production in fields where gas is wasted through flaring and venting.

“Better regulation is certainly part of the answer, but a more progressive solution is to encourage energy companies to draw the energy they need to operate their aging oilfields from renewable sources such as solar, wind, or geothermal,” Masnadi says.

He cites the example of the California-based company GlassPoint Solar, which uses solar-powered steam generators to reduce the gas consumption and carbon emissions of its oilfields by up to 80 percent.

Just 1 oil field is leaking 2% of Earth’s ethane

Done right, such solutions could end up being a win-win for industry and the environment, the scientists says, by helping oil companies drive down energy costs while simultaneously reducing their climate impacts.

The OPGEE tool Brandt’s team developed has already been adopted by the California Air Resources Board to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transport fuels, but Brandt thinks it could also prove useful to industry.

“This can serve as a stepping stone toward lifecycle management of field emissions,” Brandt says. “Companies could plan operations to maximize production while minimizing emissions.”

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and Ford Motor Company provided funding for the study.

Source: Stanford University

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Clipping cartilage after knee surgery doesn’t help

Thu, 2017-07-20 14:32

Medical doctors have discovered that clipping or removing loose cartilage after knee surgery for meniscal tears—one of the most common orthopedic surgical procedures—does not benefit the patient.

“Those with less surgery got better faster in comparison with the people we did more surgery on…”

According to the doctors’ study, patients who did not have dislodged cartilage removed, recovered faster, with less pain, and ended up a year later with identical results.

The study challenges a surgical practice used for decades during arthroscopic knee surgery.

“Those with less surgery got better faster in comparison with the people we did more surgery on,” says lead author Leslie J. Bisson, professor and chair in the orthopaedics department at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at University at Buffalo.

The finding was so surprising that an editor at the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, which published the study, also published a commentary that says, “The conclusion that unstable cartilage lesions do not need debridement could have a dramatic impact on practice management, save health-care dollars, and improve early patient outcomes.”

Doctors check for arthritis—the tearing or dislodgement of articular cartilage called chondral lesions—using X-rays when they are preparing to treat a meniscus in the knee. But sometimes low level arthritis is not visible, and doctors find it only when they are inside the knee, Bisson says. At that point, doctors have always opted to clip and smooth any loose cartilage.

Why doctors should fix tiny tears in knees

The study followed 190 patients who were having arthroscopic partial meniscectomies (APM). Of those, 98 received debridement of the damaged cartilage and 92 did not receive debridement. Both groups had the same results one year after surgery, but prior to that, the group without debridement had less pain and better function than those who had the cartilage trimmed and smoothed.

“We should question everything that we are doing that is not based on evidence.”

“That was very surprising to us,” Bisson says. “We are bringing those patients back and doing X-rays at five years to see if it made a difference in their arthritis.”

In the meantime, the surgeons at UBMD Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine, where Bisson and the other doctors involved in the study practice, are no longer debriding knee cartilage when repairing meniscal tears.

“That’s a marked change. In my group, with five sports medicine doctors, we do close to 1,000 APMs a year,” he says.

A meniscus is a little cartilage cushion on the inside and outside of the knee, and it can breakdown in middle age, or it can become damaged by trauma as gentle as squatting down to get something out of a cupboard or to line up a putt on the golf course.

“You stand up and you feel something catch in your knee,” Bisson says.

3D printing could soon save knees from arthritis

Bisson expects that not everyone will embrace a challenge to the way such injuries have always been treated.

“One of the things we say in surgery is you can’t practice based on the last study that was done. Hopefully this will push others to investigate this topic and consider things they are doing on a daily basis,” he says. “We should question everything that we are doing that is not based on evidence.”

Source: University at Buffalo

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Does 1 supergene control sperm size and speed?

Thu, 2017-07-20 14:08

The shape, size, and swimming speed of sperm all depend on one supergene, according to new research with zebra finches.

The relationship between sperm shape, its ability to move, and its success or failure at fertilization is not completely understood.

Previous studies have shown that sperm shape and speed are inherited—fathers with long, fast sperm have sons with long, fast sperm. The question has been: Which genes are responsible for sperm characteristics being passed from one generation to the next?

A supergene is a number of genes that are next to each other on a chromosome and inherited together as one unit. The importance of supergenes was first proposed in the 1930s, but there was little evidence of them until recently.

2 traits turn bird sperm into ‘super swimmers’

“Like humans, birds have sex chromosomes; males have two Z chromosomes and females have a Z and a W,” says Jon Slate, animal and plant sciences professor at the University of Sheffield.

“The zebra finch supergene that affects sperm is on the Z chromosome and has arisen because parts of the Z chromosome have been flipped around. Three different orientations of the Z chromosome (named A, B, and C) now exist and they have been evolving independently of one another for thousands, possibly millions, of years.

“Because males have two copies of the Z chromosome, they can either have two identical (e.g. AA) or two different (e.g. AB) copies of the supergene. The males with two different versions of the supergene have the best sperm with long midpieces, long tails, fast swimming speed, and a higher fertilization success in sperm competition experiments. Geneticists call this phenomenon heterozygote advantage.”

Scientists believe that a better understanding of how the shape of sperm and size influences fertilization success in non-human animals such as the zebra finch could eventually lead to new directions for investigating fertility in people.

The findings appear in Nature Ecology.

Source: University of Sheffield

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Even gecko grip has its limits

Thu, 2017-07-20 12:22

While geckos have amazing adhesive strength, a new theoretical study finds that adhesion has its limits and geckos still experience falls.

Geckos climb vertically up trees, walls, and even windows, thanks to pads on the digits of their feet that employ a huge number of tiny bristles and hooks.

Scientists have long marveled at the gecko’s adhesive capabilities, which have been described as 100 times more than what is needed to support their body weight or run quickly up a surface.

“…in some cases geckos don’t have enough adhesion to save themselves”

But the new theoretical study examines, for the first time, the limits of geckos’ gripping ability in natural contexts.

The study reports there are circumstances—such as when geckos fear for their lives, leap into the air, and must grab on to a leaf below—when they need every bit of that fabled adhesive ability, and sometimes it’s not enough.

“Geckos are notoriously described as having incredible ability to adhere to a surface,” says Karl Niklas, professor of plant evolution in Cornell University’s Plant Biology Section in the School of Integrative Plant Science and a coauthor of the paper.

“The paper shows that [adhesive capability] might be exaggerated, because geckos experience falls and a necessity to grip a surface like a leaf that requires a much more tenacious adhesion force; the paper shows that in some cases the adhesive ability can be exceeded,” Niklas says.

In the theoretical study, the researchers developed computer models to understand if there are common-place instances when the geckos’ ability to hold on to surfaces might be challenged, such as when canopy-dwelling geckos are being chased by a predator and are forced to leap from a tree, hoping to land on a leaf below.

How to control the forces that let geckos cling

The researchers incorporated ecological observations, adhesive force measurements, and body size and shape measurements of museum specimens to conduct simulations. They also considered the biomechanics of the leaves, the size of the leaves, and the angles on the surface that geckos might land on to determine impact forces. Calculations were also based on worst-case scenarios, where a gecko reaches a maximum speed when it is no longer accelerating, called “terminal settling velocity.”

“Leaves are cantilevered like diving boards and they go through harmonic motion [when struck], so you have to calculate the initial deflection and orientation, and then consider how does that leaf rebound and can the gecko still stay attached,” Niklas says.

The final result showed that in some cases geckos don’t have enough adhesion to save themselves, he adds.

Higham and Russell are planning to travel to French Guiana to do empirical adhesive force studies on living geckos in native forests.

The basic research helps people better understand how geckos stick to surfaces, and has the potential for future applications that mimic such biological mechanisms.

Gecko feet inspire a new way to clean up dust

The study appears in Journal of the Royal Society Interface. Additional coauthors are from the University of California, Riverside and the University of Calgary in Canada.

The National Science Foundation funded the study.

Source: Cornell University

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Telling languages apart may begin in the womb

Thu, 2017-07-20 12:03

A month before birth, fetuses can distinguish between someone speaking to them in English and in Japanese.

“Research suggests that human language development may start really early—a few days after birth,” says Utako Minai, associate professor of linguistics at the University of Kansas.

“Babies a few days old have been shown to be sensitive to the rhythmic differences between languages. Previous studies have demonstrated this by measuring changes in babies’ behavior; for example, by measuring whether babies change the rate of sucking on a pacifier when the speech changes from one language to a different language with different rhythmic properties.

“This early discrimination led us to wonder when children’s sensitivity to the rhythmic properties of language emerges, including whether it may, in fact, emerge before birth,” Minai says. “Fetuses can hear things, including speech, in the womb.”

There was already a study that suggested fetuses could discriminate between different types of language, based on rhythmic patterns, but the current work in the journal NeuroReport, used more accurate non-invasive technology called a magnetocardiogram (MCG).

“The previous study used ultrasound to see whether fetuses recognized changes in language by measuring changes in fetal heart rate,” Minai says. “The speech sounds that were presented to the fetus in the two different languages were spoken by two different people in that study.

Speech is “muffled, like the adults talking in a Peanuts cartoon, but the rhythm of the language should be preserved and available for the fetus to hear.”

“They found that the fetuses were sensitive to the change in speech sounds, but it was not clear if the fetuses were sensitive to the differences in language or the differences in speaker, so we wanted to control for that factor by having the speech sounds in the two languages spoken by the same person.”

Two dozen women, averaging roughly eight months pregnant, were examined using the MCG.

Fetal biomagnetometers fit over the maternal abdomen and detect tiny magnetic fields that surround electrical currents from the maternal and fetal bodies, including heartbeats, breathing, and other body movements.

Brain ‘reads’ sentence same way in 2 languages

“The biomagnetometer is more sensitive than ultrasound to the beat-to-beat changes in heart rate,” says Kathleen Gustafson, a research associate professor of neurology at the University of Kansas.

“Obviously, the heart doesn’t hear, so if the baby responds to the language change by altering heart rate, the response would be directed by the brain.”

Which is exactly what the study found.

“The fetal brain is developing rapidly and forming networks,” Gustafson says. “The intrauterine environment is a noisy place. The fetus is exposed to maternal gut sounds, her heartbeats and voice, as well as external sounds. Without exposure to sound, the auditory cortex wouldn’t get enough stimulation to develop properly. This study gives evidence that some of that development is linked to language.”

For the study, a bilingual speaker made two recordings, one each in English and Japanese, to be played in succession to the fetus. English and Japanese are argued to be rhythmically distinctive. English speech has a dynamic rhythmic structure resembling Morse code signals, while Japanese has a more regular-paced rhythmic structure.

Sure enough, the fetal heart rates changed when they heard the unfamiliar, rhythmically distinct language (Japanese) after having heard a passage of English speech, while their heart rates did not change when they were presented with a second passage of English instead of a passage in Japanese.

Babies can learn second language in 1 hour per day

“The results came out nicely, with strong statistical support,” Minai says. “These results suggest that language development may indeed start in utero. Fetuses are tuning their ears to the language they are going to acquire even before they are born, based on the speech signals available to them in utero.

“Prenatal sensitivity to the rhythmic properties of language may provide children with one of the very first building blocks in acquiring language.”

The National Institutes of Health funded the work.

Source: University of Kansas

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1 amino acid may give some whales teeth

Thu, 2017-07-20 11:42

Reserchers have found that a variation in a single amino acid in a key receptor in whales may explain why some species are sleek hunters (like orcas) while others are gargantuan filter feeders (like humpbacks).

Roger Cone of the University of Michigan is an obesity researcher who studies the melanocortin system. Just like the thermostat on a wall determines how much heat energy is in a room, the melanocortin circuits that the Cone lab has characterized determine how much energy is stored as fat. Mutations in this system are the most common genetic cause of early-onset obesity in humans.

Given the melanocortin system’s importance to feeding and energy balance in fish and mammals, Cone and his collaborators thought variations in the melanocortin genes may play a critical role in the evolution of different types of feeding behaviors and body sizes.

“This difference could well have played some role in the divergence of these two major types of cetaceans…”

When Liyuan Zhao, a marine biologist and scholar from Ocean University in China, came to the Cone lab for a visiting fellowship, she decided to examine this idea in whales. She wanted to know: Could variation in the melanocortin system play a role in the differences between the two main suborders of whales—Odontoceti, which include dolphins and killer whales, and Mysticeti, which include humpback and blue whales?

The Odontoceti feed by hunting prey, while the enormous Myticeti are filter feeders. The smallest Odontoceti grow to around 5 feet long, while Myticeti, such as the blue whale, can top 100 feet.

Through a collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California, Zhao was able to obtain whale DNA samples from an existing repository.

Then, the team sequenced the MCR4 neuropeptide receptor from 20 cetacean species and found one major difference that corresponded perfectly to the two groups. Odontoceti, or toothed whales, have the amino acid arginine at position 156 in the genetic code, while Mysticeti, or baleen whales, have a glutamine.

‘Lunge’ feeding lets minke whales get huge

Further experiments revealed that having a glutamine in that position significantly increased the sensitivity of the MCR4 receptor to the ligand that naturally activates it.

“Our data suggest that the melanocortin system is more highly regulated in whales that hunt—and, conversely, that the giant filter feeders may receive reduced satiety signals from this system,” says Cone, director of the University of Michigan Life Sciences Institute (LSI), where his lab is located, and professor of molecular and integrative physiology at the university’s Medical School.

“This difference could well have played some role in the divergence of these two major types of cetaceans—and may help explain the differences in feeding behavior and amazing range of body sizes among whales, which is far greater than in any other type of mammal,” he says.

While work in many labs at the LSI, including the Cone lab, seek to take discoveries from “bench to bedside,” applying basic findings to human health, Cone joked that his research also goes from “bench to barnside.”

In the future, the Cone lab plans to apply what they are learning about feeding and growth in different species to improve feed efficiency in agriculturally important fish species.

‘Dinner bell’ lets whales share midnight snack

This study appears in the journal Scientific Reports. Additional coauthors of the study are from Vanderbilt University and South China Agricultural University.

The majority of the work was done at Vanderbilt University, where Cone was employed prior to going to the University of Michigan. Grants and fellowships from the National Science Foundation, the State Oceanic Administration of China, and the China Scholarship Council supported the research.

Source: University of Michigan

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Odd grains like einkorn are making a comeback

Thu, 2017-07-20 11:39

Just a few kinds of white and wheat flour dominated the markets for a century, but ancient and heritage varieties of wheat are making a comeback.

A new project shows which modern, ancient, and heritage wheat varieties are most adapted for Northeastern and north-central climates under organic conditions and best processing practices.

As reported in the Journal of Cereal Science, the project also identifies avenues for marketing, and how these varieties fare as bread, pasta, and baked goods.

“Consumer tastes are changing,” says Mark Sorrells, the project’s principal investigator and professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University. “They are interested in local and flavorful food products, and farmers are looking for value-added crops to sell for higher prices to consumers.”

Marketing and economic analyses by Cornell researchers show that the demand for these unusual grains outstrips supply, and food lovers are willing to pay more for bread, pasta, and baked goods made from them.

Still, since older varieties and ancient forms of wheat such as emmer and einkorn have been out of mainstream production for close to a century, little was known about what varieties might be best-suited for organic growing in the region.

Trained taste and sensory evaluators rate sourdough breads at Cornell. (Credit: Allison Usavage) Emmer and einkorn

As a result of the project’s collaborations—with researchers, farmers, distributors and marketers, artisanal bakers, restaurants, consumers, and others—alternative grains are now finding their way to plates around the region.

“The project has laid some really important groundwork, and every year, we’ve seen things grow exponentially,” says June Russell, manager of farm inspections and strategic development at Greenmarket, a program of GrowNYC, and a coauthor of the paper. Greenmarket operates farmers markets in 52 locations across all five New York City boroughs and provides a bridge between growers and consumers.

Drought could turn millet into American food

“Demand is building, and that’s helping to drive more acres getting planted and some infrastructure development,” Russell says. Greenmarket has established a solid market for emmer and a growing market for einkorn, and 14 different kinds of wheat are now available, she says.

Wheat from before 1950

Before the project started five years ago, only modern wheat varieties—those developed after 1950—were grown in the Northeast, with a few isolated cases of farmers experimenting with grains. From 2012 to 2015, researchers at Cornell, Penn State, and North Dakota State University evaluated 146 varieties of modern and heritage spring and winter wheat, spring emmer, spring and winter spelt, and spring einkorn for how well they adapted to organic systems.

The varieties came from modern breeding programs, old landraces (crop varieties improved by traditional agricultural methods), wheat once grown in the region, farmer selections, and seed banks. The researchers identified grains that are of better quality, produce larger yields, and resist disease.

For sustainable agriculture, planting varieties of small grains plays an important role in crop rotation and adds to biodiversity. And by selling to local markets, farmers can charge more for their crop because it is fresh, of higher value, and reduces transportation cost.

Through outreach efforts, thousands of farmers have been educated about the best varieties of heritage and ancient grains, where to get seeds, organic management recommendations and techniques, and how to harvest and process the grains.

Climate change is likely bad news for wheat

“To have the information from the field trials has been incredibly valuable for growers,” Russell says. “We didn’t have any of that, especially for organic management.”

Sorrells adds: “The lesson we learned was if you really want to find out what varieties to grow organically, you have to evaluate them organically. Farmers that grow these grains can now look at real data and choose varieties that are most likely to benefit them economically.”

But do they taste good?

The next step was to take select varieties and see how well they baked, cooked, and tasted as sourdough and yeast breads, other baked goods, whole steamed kernels, and as pasta.

“We tried to find those that performed well in trials and from a variety of market classes,” says Lisa Kissing Kucek, project manager and first author of the paper. They chose seven varieties for sourdough baking; five for matzo crackers, yeast bread, shortbread, and cooked grain; and three emmer varieties for pasta and cooked grain evaluations.

Once the items were prepared, sensory evaluations began on Cornell’s Ithaca campus for sourdough evaluations, at the Culinary Institute of America’s New York City campus for baked goods, and at the Natural Gourmet Institute, also in New York City, for emmer pasta.

The project hired a certified sensory trainer, Liz Clarke from Ithaca-based Gimme Coffee, who worked with panels of professional and amateur bakers, consumers, professors, and students. Clarke trained them to identify sweet, salty, sour, and bitter flavors, and to arrive at a consensus for how to describe flavors and textures.

Ancient Chinese recipe makes lumpy, tasty beer

Among the results, Glenn, a modern hard red spring wheat that some specialty farmers were already growing, “did wonderfully in terms of sourdough baking,” Kucek says. “We could validate that this was a great spring wheat for our region.”

So, too, was Tom, a modern hard red spring wheat that hadn’t been grown much regionally. “We have a number of farmers now trying Tom,” she says.

Though modern varieties performed better than heritage and ancient types in the field trials, based on the evaluations, the researchers are working on new breeds that, for example, cross a high-yielding but bland modern variety with a low-yielding but flavorful heritage one, with the goal of producing a new high-yielding, tasty grain.

“The biggest takeaway for me, and I think for our stakeholders too, was that there’s not one variety that meets all needs,” Kucek says. “You should pick varieties based on the product that you are making, so getting that link between farmer and processor is really valuable, so that the processor can say, I really want this variety and then talk to the farmer in order to source it and get it.”

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Organic Research and Extension Initiative funds the work.

Source: Cornell University

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Dolphins inspire potential treatment for trauma

Thu, 2017-07-20 08:27

A potentially life-saving method to help raise blood pressure in trauma victims experiencing blood loss gets its inspiration from dolphins and seals.

The pre-hospital intervention is simple—place a bag of ice on the victim’s forehead, eyes, and cheeks. In a small study, the method increased and maintained blood pressure in a simulation of trauma victims experiencing blood loss.

“There is a slight reduction in blood pressure during the simulation and we wanted to see if face cooling would reverse that,” says Zachary Schlader, assistant professor of exercise and nutrition sciences at the University at Buffalo. “It turns out, it does. It raises blood pressure during a simulated hemorrhage situation.”

Mammals like seals and dolphins—and, to a much lesser extent, humans—have what’s called the “mammalian diving reflex.” It’s a physiological function that the animals employ for submersion in water.

During the reflex, which is partially activated when the face is immersed in cold water, certain bodily functions temporarily change to conserve oxygen, allowing the animals to remain underwater for long periods of time.

Lithium may save nerve cells after brain injury

“The idea is, can we utilize a physiological phenomenon to have practical benefit? We’re talking about pre-hospital interventions, so it has to be quick and easy for EMTs, military medics, and other first responders,” Schlader says.

“We’re not changing paradigms. But the biggest thing is, no one’s ever put two and two together. No one’s said I wonder if this could be used as a tool in clinical practice as opposed to simply a tool to probe physiology.”

The researchers have submitted a paper on their findings to the American Journal of Physiology – Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology.

Source: University at Buffalo

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Watch new rescue robot grow and twist like a vine

Thu, 2017-07-20 07:56

Inspired by natural organisms—such as vines, fungi, and nerve cells—that cover distance by growing, mechanical engineers have created a new type of soft robot that can extend itself like a fast-moving vine.

Imagine rescuers searching for people in the rubble of a collapsed building. Instead of digging through the debris by hand or having dogs sniff for signs of life, they bring out a small, air-tight cylinder. They place the device at the entrance of the debris and flip a switch.

From one end of the cylinder, a tendril extends into the mass of stones and dirt. A camera at the tip of the tendril gives rescuers a view of the otherwise unreachable places beneath the rubble.

This is just one possible application of the new kind of robot, detailed in a paper in Science Robotics.

Grow, ‘bot

“Essentially, we’re trying to understand the fundamentals of this new approach to getting mobility or movement out of a mechanism,” explains Allison Okamura, professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University and senior author of the paper. “It’s very, very different from the way that animals or people get around the world.”

To investigate what their robot can do, the group created prototypes that move through various obstacles, travel toward a designated goal, and grow into a free-standing structure. This robot could serve a wide range of purposes, particularly in the realms of search and rescue and medical devices, the researchers say.

The basic idea behind this robot is straightforward. It’s a tube of soft material folded inside itself, like an inside-out sock, that grows in one direction when the material at the front of the tube everts, as the tube becomes right-side-out.

In the prototypes, the material was a thin, cheap plastic and the robot body everted when the scientists pumped pressurized air into the stationary end. In other versions, fluid could replace the pressurized air.

“The body can be stuck to the environment or jammed between rocks, but that doesn’t stop the robot…”

What makes this robot design extremely useful is that the design results in movement of the tip without movement of the body.

“The body lengthens as the material extends from the end but the rest of the body doesn’t move,” explains Elliot Hawkes, a visiting assistant professor from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and lead author of the paper.

“The body can be stuck to the environment or jammed between rocks, but that doesn’t stop the robot because the tip can continue to progress as new material is added to the end,” he says.

The group tested the benefits of this method for getting the robot from one place to another in several ways. It grew through an obstacle course, where it traveled over flypaper, sticky glue, and nails, and up an ice wall to deliver a sensor, which could potentially sense carbon dioxide produced by trapped survivors.

The robot successfully completed this course even though it was punctured by the nails because the area that was punctured didn’t continue to move and, as a result, self-sealed by staying on top of the nail.

In other demonstrations, the robot lifted a 100-kilogram crate, grew under a door gap that was 10 percent of its diameter, and spiraled on itself to form a free-standing structure that then sent out a radio signal.

The robot also maneuvered through the space above a dropped ceiling, which showed how it was able to navigate unknown obstacles as a robot like this might have to do in walls, under roads, or inside pipes. Further, it pulled a cable through its body while growing above the dropped ceiling, offering a new method for routing wires in tight spaces.

Navigating the world

“The applications we’re focusing on are those where the robot moves through a difficult environment, where the features are unpredictable and there are unknown spaces,” says Laura Blumenschein, a graduate student in the Okamura lab and coauthor of the paper.

“If you can put a robot in these environments and it’s unaffected by the obstacles while it’s moving, you don’t need to worry about it getting damaged or stuck as it explores,” Blumenschein says.

Some iterations of these robots included a control system that differentially inflated the body, which made the robot turn right or left. The researchers developed a software system that based direction decisions on images coming in from a camera at the tip of the robot.

A primary advantage of soft robots is that they can be safer than hard, rigid robots not only because they are soft but also because they are often lightweight. This is especially useful in situations where a robot could be moving in close quarters with a person.

Squishy motor lets soft robots crawl over rocks

Another benefit, in the case of this robot, is that it is flexible and can follow complicated paths. This, however, also poses some challenges.

Joey Greer, a graduate student in the Okamura lab and coauthor of the paper, says that controlling a robot requires a precise model of its motion, which is difficult to establish for a soft robot. Rigid robots, by comparison, are much easier to model and control, but are unusable in many situations where flexibility or safety is necessary.

“Also, using a camera to guide the robot to a target is a difficult problem because the camera imagery needs to be processed at the rate it is produced. A lot of work went into designing algorithms that both ran fast and produced results that were accurate enough for controlling the soft robot,” Greer says.

Big plans, small size

As it exists now, the scientists built the prototype by hand and it is powered through pneumatic air pressure. In the future, the researchers would like to create a version that would be manufactured automatically.

Future versions may also grow using liquid, which could help deliver water to people trapped in tight spaces or to put out fires in closed rooms. They are also exploring new, tougher materials, like rip-stop nylon and Kevlar.

Robot tentacles are gentle enough to ‘hug’ ants

The researchers also hope to scale the robot much larger and much smaller to see how it performs. They’ve already created a 1.8 mm version and believe small growing robots could advance medical procedures. In place of a tube that is pushed through the body, this type of soft robot would grow without dragging along delicate structures.

The National Science Foundation funded this research.

Source: Stanford University

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You probably can’t tell how much fat is in ice cream

Thu, 2017-07-20 07:38

A team of food scientists has found that most people can’t tell the difference between fat levels in ice creams.

In a series of taste tests, participants were unable to distinguish a 2 percent difference in fat levels in two vanilla ice cream samples as long as the samples were in the 6 to 12 percent fat-level range. While the subjects were able to detect a 4 percent difference between ice cream with 6 and 10 percent fat levels, they could not detect a 4 percent fat difference in samples between 8 and 12 percent fat.

Sample taste studies helped researchers determine differences in preference and perception as they pertain to fat content in the manufacturing of ice cream. (Credit: Patrick Mansell/Penn State)

“I think the most important finding in our study was that there were no differences in consumer acceptability when changing fat content within a certain range,” says Laura Rolon, a former graduate student in food science at Penn State and lead author of the study. “There is a preconception of ‘more fat is better,’ but we did not see it within our study.”

The researchers also found that fat levels did not significantly sway consumers’ preferences in taste. The consumers’ overall liking of the ice cream did not change when fat content dropped from 14 percent to 6 percent, for example.

“Was there a difference in liking—that was our primary question—and could they tell the difference was our secondary question,” says Robert Roberts, the head of the food science department.

“People think premium ice cream means only high fat ice cream, but it doesn’t…”

John Hayes, associate professor of food science and director of the sensory evaluation center, says that perception and preference are often two separate questions in food science.

“Another example of this is how some people might like both regular lemonade and pink lemonade equally,” says Hayes. “They can tell the difference when they taste the different lemonades, but still like them both. Differences in perception and differences in liking are not the same thing.”

The study may challenge some ice cream marketing that suggests ice cream varieties with high fat levels are higher quality and better tasting products, according to researchers.

“People think premium ice cream means only high fat ice cream, but it doesn’t,” says Roberts.

Fat is sixth taste but it’s ‘unpleasant’ alone

Because there are only slight differences in taste perception and preferences at certain fat levels, ice cream manufacturers may have more latitude in adjusting their formulas to help control costs and create products for customers with certain dietary restrictions without sacrificing taste, according to the researchers.

“Fat is always the most expensive bulk ingredient of ice cream and so when you’re talking about premium ice cream, it tends to have a higher fat content and cost more, while the less expensive economy brands tend to have lower fat content,” says John Coupland, a professor of food science.

The researchers recruited a total of 292 regular ice-cream consumers to take part in the blind taste tests to determine their overall acceptability of various fat levels in fresh ice cream and to see if they could tell the difference between samples. They changed the fat content by adjusting the levels of cream and by adding maltodextrin, a mostly tasteless, starch-based material that is used to add bulk to products, such as frozen desserts.

Maltodextrin is not necessarily a healthy fat replacement alternative, according to the researchers.

“We don’t want to give the impression that we were trying to create a healthier type of ice cream,” says Coupland. “But, if you were in charge of an ice cream brand this information may help you decide if you are getting any advantage of having high fat in your product, or whether it’s worth the economic cost, or worth the brand risk to change the fat level of your ice cream.”

During storage, ice crystals can increase in size, which affects the quality of the ice cream. Because of this effect, the researchers also studied stored samples and found no significant difference in preference after storage.

Banning trans fats may cut these hospital stays

The study appears in the Journal of Dairy Science.

The US Department of Agriculture supported a portion of this work, as did the government of Argentina, among other sources.

Source: Penn State

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These viruses may skew children’s odds of diabetes

Wed, 2017-07-19 15:08

Viruses in the intestines may affect a person’s chance of developing type 1 diabetes, report researchers.

Children whose gut viral communities, or viromes, are less diverse are more likely to generate self-destructive antibodies that can lead to type 1 diabetes. Further, children who carried a specific virus belonging to the Circoviridae family were less likely to head down the path toward diabetes than those who carried members of a different group of viruses.

“We identified one virus that was significantly associated with reduced risk, and another group of viruses that was associated with increased risk of developing antibodies against the children’s own cells,” says senior author of the study Herbert “Skip” Virgin IV, professor and head of pathology and immunology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

“It looks like the balance of these two groups of viruses may control the risk of developing the antibodies that can lead to type 1 diabetes.”

The findings, published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest a way to predict, and maybe even prevent, the life-altering diagnosis.

Type 1 diabetes develops as a two-step process. First, a person acquires antibodies against cells in the pancreas responsible for producing insulin, a hormone that allows cells to absorb sugar from the bloodstream so they can burn it for energy. Some children generate the antibodies—called auto-antibodies because they target the person’s own cells—but never go on to develop disease.

In other children, however, the auto-antibodies signal a progressive attack by the body’s own immune system against the pancreatic cells, killing them and hindering the body’s ability to produce insulin. When the pancreas can no longer produce enough insulin, a person develops type 1 diabetes.

The new research follows an earlier study by Mikael Knip of the University of Helsinki, and Ramnik Xavier of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, who studied the gut bacterial ecosystems of 33 children who carried genes that put them at high risk of developing type 1 diabetes.

No clear link between gut bacteria and obesity

The researchers collected monthly stool samples from the children from birth to age three, and monitored the children for the development of auto-antibodies and the disease. In a small group of children who developed type 1 diabetes, the team noted significant alterations in the diversity of bacterial species in the gut before diagnosis. But this study only looked at bacteria in the gut—not viruses.

So, Virgin, Guoyan Zhao, an assistant professor of pathology and immunology at Washington University, and colleagues took the same samples and analyzed the population of viruses in a select subset of children. They carefully matched 11 children who went on to acquire auto-antibodies—five of whom later developed type 1 diabetes—with 11 children who did not develop auto-antibodies or the disease. All 22 children carried genes that put them at high risk to develop the disease.

“…having a circovirus may be a good thing for people at high risk for diabetes.”

A previously unknown virus related to circoviruses was found in five of the 11 children who did not develop auto-antibodies, but not in any of the children who did. Circoviruses are small viruses that infect a range of mammals but that are rarely linked to viral disease.

“Circoviruses have never been associated with disease in people,” says Zhao, the study’s first author. “Multiple lines of evidence support the inverse association between the virus we found and the development of auto-antibodies. This suggests that having a circovirus may be a good thing for people at high risk for diabetes.”

The researchers also found differences in a group of viruses called bacteriophages that infect bacteria in the gut, not human cells. Children carrying bacteriophages that target Bacteroides species—one of the major groups of intestinal bacteria—were more likely to start down the path toward diabetes.

“Previous studies had found that changes in Bacteroides species are associated with developing type 1 diabetes, and here we found that viruses that infect Bacteroides are associated with the development of auto-antibodies,” says Virgin, who is also a professor of molecular microbiology and of medicine. “Our findings support the idea that Bacteroides or other bacteria, and the viruses that infect them, play a role in the pathological process that leads to diabetes.”

Can screwy gut bacteria raise your diabetes risk?

When each child’s gut viral population was analyzed as a whole, the researchers found that children who went on to take a first step toward diabetes had fewer and a narrower range of viruses than those who did not.

“It could be that we’ve made ourselves unhealthy by not having the right viruses in our virome.”

“There are many autoimmune diseases that are much more common these days,” Virgin says. “It could be that we’ve made ourselves unhealthy by not having the right viruses in our virome.”

Virgin and Zhao have begun animal studies to understand what effect circoviruses have on the immune system and whether the virus can prevent diabetes.

“There’s a lot of verification that needs to be done,” Virgin says. “We need to see if we can replicate these findings in another group of children, and then we have to show causality in an animal model. But if these results hold up, we may one day be able to prevent type 1 diabetes by treating high-risk children with circoviruses. It can be a terrible disease and no one knows how to prevent it. Circoviruses are worth investigating.”

Funding for the research came from the NIH and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. The DIABIMMUNE study received support from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme and the Academy of Finland’s Centre of Excellence in Molecular Systems Immunology and Physiology Research.

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

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Could apes ever learn to speak like people?

Wed, 2017-07-19 14:53

War for the Planet of the Apes, the latest movie in the enduring Planet of the Apes franchise, took the top spot at the box office on its opening weekend and is one of the biggest films of the summer.

As with all films in the franchise, which first launched in 1968, the plot of the 2017 movie is based largely on the assumption that apes could speak like humans if only they had a boost in brainpower—which, on the big screen, they receive via a synthetic drug.

But could apes really be just one pharmaceutical away from being able to talk like people?

It’s an enduring debate among scientists: whether non-human primates could speak with a little more brainpower, or whether they lack the proper anatomical structure in their vocal tract to produce human-language sounds.

It’s also an area of interest for primatologists Dieter and Netzin Steklis, who have spent decades working with apes, and lead the University of Arizona summer Primate Studies Field School in Rwanda.

The most recent debate on the topic to capture the attention of the Steklises is between Philip Lieberman, a cognitive scientist at Brown University, and William Tecumseh Sherman Fitch III, an evolutionary biologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Vienna.

According to Lieberman’s research, which uses models of primates’ vocal tracts, monkeys and apes are unable to produce the range and succession of vowel sounds required for human speech because of the way their vocal tracts differ from humans’. Humans have a longer tract in the form of an L-shape that evolved with upright walking.

Fitch and his colleagues, on the other hand, argue that an L-shaped vocal tract is not necessary for vowel production. They concede that monkeys and apes don’t have the full range of vowel production, and that if apes could talk, it would sound quite different from human speech. However, they believe the speech could still function as a meaningful language.

Dieter Steklis, a professor in the university’s School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences, and Netzin Steklis, a lecturer in the same school and in the family studies and human development department, have done their own research on language and vocalizations in apes.

Here, they offer their perspectives on the debate, as well as their thoughts on why the Planet of the Apes movies continue to be so popular.

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