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Small Triceratops relative walked on two feet

Wed, 2019-07-17 10:50

We have an unusually large trove of fossils to guide our understanding of Auroraceratops, a small-bodied plant-eating dinosaur, say researchers.

Fossils from more than 80 individuals make Auroraceratops one of the few very early horned dinosaurs that we know from complete skeletons.

Many dinosaur species are known from scant remains, with some estimates suggesting 75 percent are known from five or fewer individuals. Auroraceratops rugosus was typical in this regard when it was named in 2005 based upon a single skull from the Gobi Desert in northwestern China. But that is no longer the case.

In a collection of articles appearing as Memoir 18 in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, researchers describe the anatomy, age, preservation, and evolution of this large collection of Auroraceratops.

Scientists were fortunate to have a robust set of fossils of Auroraceratops to use to characterize the dinosaur, including near-complete skeletons. (Credit: Scott Hartman) What Auroraceratops looked like

The new analysis places Auroraceratops, which lived roughly 115 million years ago, as an early member of the group Ceratopsia, or horned dinosaurs, the same group to which Triceratops belongs.

In contrast to Triceratops, Auroraceratops is small, approximately 49 inches (1.25 meters) in length and 17 inches (44 cm) tall, weighing on average 34 pounds (15.5 kilograms). While Auroraceratops has a short frill and beak that characterize it as a horned dinosaur, it lacks the “true” horns and extensive cranial ornamentation of Triceratops.

“When I first saw this animal back in 2004, I knew instantly it was a new kind that had never been seen before and was very excited about it,” says senior author Peter Dodson, a professor of anatomy in the biomedical sciences department School of Veterinary Medicine’s at the University of Pennsylvania and a professor of paleontology in the earth and environmental science department. “This monograph on Auroraceratops is long-awaited.”

In 2005, Dodson and his former students Hai-Lu You and Matthew Lamanna named Auroraceratops (in Latin, “dawn’s horned face”) in honor of Dodson’s wife, Dawn Dodson. You, along with fellow scientist Da-Qing Li—both authors on the current work—and collaborators followed up on the discovery, identifying more than 80 additional examples of the species, from near-hatchlings to adults.

Lead author Eric Morschhauser, an assistant professor of biology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a research associate of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, focused on characterizing Auroraceratops using this robust dataset.

A clearer picture

Auroraceratops represents the only horned dinosaur in the group Neoceratopsia (the lineage leading to and including the large bodied ceratopsians such as Triceratops) from the Early Cretaceous with a complete skeleton. This exclusiveness is significant, the researchers say, because horned dinosaurs transitioned from being bipedal, like their ancestors, to being the large rhinoceros-like quadrupedal animals most people think of as horned dinosaurs during the later parts of the Cretaceous.

“Before this study,” says Morschhauser, “we had to rely on Psittacosaurus, a more distantly related and unusual ceratopsian, for our picture of what the last bipedal ceratopsian looked like.”

Auroraceratops preserves multiple features of the skeleton, like a curved femur and long, thin claws, that are unambiguously associated with walking bipedally in some dinosaurs.

“It can now provide us with a better picture of the starting point for the changes between bipedal and quadrupedal ceratopsians,” adds Morschhauser.

Additional researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Gansu Agricultural University, and other institutions contributed to the work.

Funding for the group came from the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, the University of Pennsylvania, Jurassic Foundation, 2009 National Science Foundation /Ministry of Science and Technology East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes program, National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Gansu Geological Museum.

Source: University of Pennsylvania

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Standard approach to mild asthma often falls short

Wed, 2019-07-17 10:44

Many patients with mild asthma may not benefit from inhaled steroid medications, the current standard treatment, according to the results of a new clinical trial.

People with persistent asthma commonly receive prescriptions for inhaled glucocorticoids, a type of steroid which reduces inflammation in the airways. However, the medications are not always effective in all patients, suggesting that different forms of asthma may require different treatments.

“Healthcare providers need a way to decide which patients might benefit from a steroid medication versus another, non-steroid type of controller medication,” says coauthor Jacqueline Pongracic, chief of allergy and immunology in the pediatrics department at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University and division head of allergy and immunology at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

“…asthma guidelines should be re-assessed for patients with mild asthma…”

In the current study, investigators focused on levels of an inflammatory cell called eosinophils in the sputum (mucus from the lungs) of patients, as previous research had suggested that asthma patients with less than 2 percent sputum eosinophils may not respond well to glucocorticoids.

The multicenter study, which included 295 people over the age of 12 with mild persistent asthma, first classified participants as having either low or high sputum eosinophil levels. The investigators discovered that 73 percent of participants had low eosinophil levels—a much higher rate than they expected.

The trial then compared how patients, based on their sputum eosinophil levels, responded to three treatments: either mometasone (a common inhaled glucocorticoid), tiotropium (a non-steroid asthma medication), or placebo.

The investigators found that patients classified as low eosinophil responded no better to either of the treatments than they did to placebo. In contrast, the smaller group of patients considered to have high eosinophil levels were significantly more likely to respond to the inhaled glucocorticoids than to placebo.

According to the authors, more research is needed to determine alternative treatments for patients with low eosinophil levels, for whom inhaled glucocorticoids may not be appropriate.

“The study findings suggest that asthma guidelines should be re-assessed for patients with mild asthma who do not have high levels of eosinophils in their sputum, so that options that do not carry steroid side effects might be considered as first-line treatment,” Pongracic says.

The research appears in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute supported the research. Boehringer Ingelheim provided the tiotropium and tiotropium placebo. Merck provided mometasone and mometasone placebo. Teva provided albuterol.

Source: Anna Williams for Northwestern University

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Cold probe promises cheaper treatment for breast cancer

Wed, 2019-07-17 10:07

A reusable breast cancer treatment device could offer a low-cost alternative for women in low-income and low-resource countries.

The tissue-freezing probe uses cryoablation, a method that kills cancerous tissue by exposing it to extremely cold temperatures, and uses carbon dioxide, a widely available and affordable alternative to argon, the current industry standard.

“Innovation in cancer care doesn’t always mean you have to create an entirely new treatment,” says Bailey Surtees, a recent biomedical engineering graduate from Johns Hopkins University and first author of the paper in PLOS ONE.

“Sometimes it means radically innovating on proven therapies such that they’re redesigned to be accessible to the majority of the world’s population.”

While the survival rate for women with breast cancer in the United States is greater than 90 percent, it is the largest cause of cancer-related mortality for women across the globe and disproportionately affects women in lower-income countries, where treatment options are scarce.

‘She has death’

Survival rates for women with breast cancer in Saudi Arabia, Uganda, and The Gambia are just 64 percent, 46 percent, and 12 percent, respectively.

“Instead of saying ‘she has breast cancer,’ the locals we met while conducting focus groups for our research said ‘she has death,’ because breast cancer is often considered an automatic death sentence in these communities,” Surtees says.

The main barriers to treating breast cancer in lower-income countries, are inadequate treatment options. Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation are often impractical or too expensive, and women in remote areas have long travel times to regional hospitals. Even if a woman is able to travel to a hospital for treatment, she may not be seen, and recovery times will keep her out of work for an additional few weeks.

Cryoablation is an optimal treatment option in these countries because it eliminates the need for a sterile operating room and anesthesia, thus making it possible for local clinics to perform the procedure. It’s also minimally invasive, which reduces complications such as pain, bleeding, and extended recovery time.

CO2 instead of argon

However, current cryoablation technologies are expensive, with a single treatment costing more than $10,000. The devices rely on argon gas, which typically isn’t available in lower-income countries, to form the tissue-killing ice crystals.

With these barriers in mind, a student-led research team, named Kubanda—which means “cold” in Zulu—wanted to create a tissue-freezing tool that uses carbon dioxide—already widely available in most rural areas thanks to the popularity of carbonated drinks.

The researchers tested the tool in three experiments to ensure it could remain cold enough in conditions similar to the human breast and successfully kill tumor tissue.

In the first experiment, the team used the tool on jars of ultrasound gel, which thermodynamically mimics human breast tissue, to determine whether it could successfully reach standard freezing temperatures to kill tissue and form consistent ice balls.

In all trials, the device formed large enough ice balls and reached temperatures below 40 degrees below zero Celsius, which meets standard freezing temperatures for tissue death for similar devices in the United States.

For the second experiment, the team treated rats with mammary tumors. A look at the tissue under a microscope confirmed that the tool successfully killed 85 percent or more tissue for all tumors. In a third animal experiment, the device proved capable of staying cold enough during the entire experiment to kill the target tissue.

“When we started the project, experts in the area told us it was impossible to ablate meaningful tissue volumes with carbon dioxide,” says senior author Nicholas Durr, assistant professor in the biomedical engineering department at Johns Hopkins University. “This mindset may have come from both the momentum of the field and also from not thinking about the importance of driving down the cost of this treatment.”

While the results are promising, the device still requires additional testing before it’s ready for commercial use. Next steps include ensuring the device can consistently kill cancer tissue under the same heat conditions as human breast tissue. In the near future, the team hopes to continue testing its device for human use and expand its use to pets.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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Drug could treat acid issue in chronic kidney disease

Wed, 2019-07-17 09:35

A new drug could one day control metabolic acidosis, a common condition that often accompanies chronic kidney disease, researchers say.

Chronic kidney disease—which affects about 14 percent of Americans—kills more people each year than breast or prostate cancer. Patients often develop metabolic acidosis, where there is too much acid in bodily fluids because diseased kidneys are less able to remove it.

Clinicians currently treat the condition in two ways. Most commonly, they prescribe drugs like sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) that are absorbed from the gut into the blood to neutralize accumulated acid. Alternatively, clinicians prescribe a diet that limits acid accumulation in body fluids.

The new drug candidate, called veverimer, offers a way to remove accumulated acid from the gut without entering the bloodstream to treat metabolic acidosis safely and effectively, according to a phase III clinical trial detailed in The Lancet.

“In later stages of chronic kidney disease, metabolic acidosis may further complicate the condition, resulting in muscle wasting, bone loss, and further progression of kidney disease,” says Donald Wesson, professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine and nephrologist by medical specialty.

“The importance of metabolic acidosis as both a serious complication of chronic kidney disease and an underlying cause of chronic kidney disease progression has been under recognized and markedly under treated.”

In the first long-term, randomized, multicenter, blinded, placebo-controlled clinical trial to evaluate the treatment of metabolic acidosis in patients with chronic kidney disease, veverimer proved more effective than a placebo at treating the condition.

Researchers followed patients for an initial 12 weeks, then in a 40-week extension study. In those 40 weeks, only 2 percent of people on veverimer had serious adverse events compared with 5 percent of those taking a placebo.

The next step, the researchers say, is to submit a new drug application to the US Food and Drug Administration.

“Metabolic acidosis is common, harmful, and must be treated to help spare patients the untoward consequences of chronic kidney disease,” Wesson says. “Veverimer offers the hope to treat this devastating complication safely and effectively.”

Source: Kelli Reynolds for Texas A&M University

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3D imaging reveals hidden history in old shells

Wed, 2019-07-17 09:08

High-resolution 3D imaging and new geometric deep learning approaches are revealing a fuller version of the story hidden in shells, researchers report.

A clam shell may be a familiar find on the beach, but its intricate curves and markings tell a rich tale. For centuries, biologists have collected, drawn, measured, and compared the shells of bivalve species, pursuing knowledge about how the environment and behavior shape biodiversity.

Over the last two years, David Jablonski’s research group has moved into the third dimension, using a campus micro-CT scanner to create 3D images of more than 3,000 shells from clams, oysters, mussels, and other members of the bivalve class scientists and museums around the world have collected.

This growing database will allow scientists to ask deeper questions about biodiversity both between and within species, and how climate change might affect the survival, distribution, and shape of organisms with ecological, economic, and dietary importance. But fully realizing the potential of the new data will require novel and advanced techniques for measuring, analyzing, and comparing shell features.

“The challenge to all this is how to capture those morphologies quantitatively in a way that lets us say something concrete about the distribution of form in time and space,” says Jablonski, a professor in the geophysical sciences department at the University of Chicago. “As you can imagine, it’s really hard to compare these three-dimensional shells to one another in any rigorous way.”

Injecting geometry into deep learning networks

That need led to a partnership with Tingran Gao, an instructor in the statistics department. Gao’s research focuses on learning and understanding the geometry and topology of high-dimensional data sets, especially those arising from social and natural sciences. Recently, Gao developed geometric learning frameworks to analyze 3D scans of complex biological surfaces such as primate bones and teeth.

The shell database provided a unique opportunity to adapt and expand that line of work in a new biological context, as well as to push the boundaries of geometric deep learning and develop new methods for tackling emerging computational and statistical challenges.

“These shells have many geometric features that don’t exist in primate shape data, which tend to be more smooth and relatively easier to handle,” Gao says. “Shells, unlike bones or teeth, are not covered by soft tissue; instead, they are directly exposed to external environments and thus encode more ecological information. Their curved external surfaces are often covered with characteristic geometric patterns and textures, which are central objects of study in applied and computational harmonic analysis.”

Deep learning, the machine learning approach that utilizes algorithms known as neural networks, provides several advantages in addressing these challenges. As recent advances in computer vision show, deep learning excels at making sense of high-dimensional data and sophisticated structures. Instead of the traditional practice of choosing physical characteristics of the shells to measure and compare, deep learning can mathematically extract the most relevant features that distill rich information about morphological differences and, more broadly, the nature of biodiversity.

From old collections, new knowledge

The ideal end result will be a trained model that allows researchers to interrogate the unseen mechanisms driving biodiversity, trace the path of evolution through reanalyzing fossil specimens, and make predictions about the future of bivalve species, Jablonski says. For example, scientists can study the biological trade-offs bivalves make between investing in a tougher, more elaborate shell or growing the soft tissue within, and how different environments or modes of life affect that balance.

“What we want to do is ask questions about how those knobs are twiddled by the organisms as they confront different climate zones or predation intensities or, for that matter, how that varies among lineages that are economically important versus lineages that aren’t,” Jablonski says.

“The association between the surface textures and the ecology has never been accessible, because no one has ever really been able to quantify in a rigorous, reproducible way the huge variety of surface structures that there are.”

The researchers will share image and mesh data from the project through open resources such as the digital repository MorphoSource. The deep learning and morphometrics communities will benefit from new approaches that bridge these shape disparities with geospatial information, Gao says. Beyond bivalves, these approaches have the potential to extract new knowledge from species across the Tree of Life, and bring fresh scientific value to specimens archived in museums.

“Who would’ve dreamed when some of this stuff was collected in the 19th century what it would be used for?” Jablonski says.

“Technology is always creating new ways to learn new things about museum collections that go back centuries. That’s one of the joys of being involved with this kind of work, diving into those biological archives to weave together species, ecology, and form.”

Funding for the research came from a seed grant from the University of Chicago’s Center for Data and Computing.

Source: University of Chicago

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Can brain implants with lasers ‘reprogram’ our genomes?

Wed, 2019-07-17 08:56

Tiny brain implants can wirelessly control FGFR1—a gene that plays a key role in how humans grow from embryos to adults—in lab-grown brain tissue, according to new research.

The research represents a step forward toward genetic manipulation technology that could upend the treatment of cancer, as well as the prevention and treatment of schizophrenia and other neurological illnesses. It centers on the creation of a new subfield of research the study’s authors are calling “optogenomics,” or controlling the human genome through laser light and nanotechnology.

“The potential of optogenomic interfaces is enormous,” says coauthor Josep M. Jornet, associate professor in the electrical engineering department in University at Buffalo’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “It could drastically reduce the need for medicinal drugs and other therapies for certain illnesses. It could also change how humans interact with machines.”

What is ‘optogenomics’?

For the past 20 years, scientists have been combining optics and genetics—the field of optogenetics—with a goal of employing light to control how cells interact with each other.

By doing this, one could potentially develop new treatments for diseases by correcting the miscommunications that occur between cells. While promising, this research does not directly address malfunctions in genetic blueprints that guide human growth and underlie many diseases.

The new research begins to tackle this issue because FGFR1—it stands for Fibroblast Growth Factor Receptor 1—holds sway over roughly 4,500 other genes, about one-fifth of the human genome, according to Human Genome Project estimates, says study coauthor Michal K. Stachowiak, professor in the pathology and anatomical sciences department in the university’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

“In some respects, it’s like a boss gene,” says Stachowiak. “By controlling FGFR1, one can theoretically prevent widespread gene dysregulations in schizophrenia or in breast cancer and other types of cancer.”

Turning the gene on and off

The research team was able to manipulate FGFR1 by creating tiny photonic brain implants. These wireless devices include nano-lasers and nano-antennas and, in the future, nano-detectors.

Researchers inserted the implants into the brain tissue, which was grown from induced pluripotent stem cells and enhanced with light-activated molecular toggle switches. They then triggered different laser lights—common blue laser, red laser, and far-red laser—onto the tissue.

The interaction allowed researchers to activate and deactivate FGFR1 and its associated cellular functions—essentially hacking the gene. The work may eventually enable doctors to manipulate patients’ genomic structure, providing a way to prevent and correct gene abnormalities, says Stachowiak.

The development is far from entering the doctor’s office or hospital, but the research team is excited about next steps, which include testing in 3D “mini-brains” and cancerous tissue.

The research appears in the Proceedings of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Additional study authors are from the University at Buffalo, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Maria Sklodowska-Curie Memorial Cancer Center and Institute of Oncology in Poland. Support for the research came from the US National Science Foundation.

Source: University at Buffalo

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To farm mussels offshore, consider ocean cycles

Wed, 2019-07-17 08:21

Long-term ocean cycles have a strong influence on mussel farm productivity, according to new research.

As a growing population places pressure on the world’s fisheries, aquaculture has emerged as a potential solution to the rising demand for seafood. Offshore enterprises, often called mariculture, have gained popularity on this front. But selecting a site for a farm is a complex matter involving a variety of different factors.

The new research examines how long-term oceanographic cycles affect mariculture in Southern California.

“Fisheries have reached a production plateau, and now aquaculture is a promising solution for the future of seafood,” says lead author Jade Sainz, a doctoral student at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. But, not all aquaculture ventures have the same impact on the environment, and she wants to ensure the practice becomes a solution to issues facing the ocean, rather than another problem.

“When you are going to do aquaculture in the ocean you’re looking for the best site,” she says. “And what’s the best site? Well it’s an interplay between many variables.” Local conditions—like temperature, topography, and currents—affect the animals, and the farmers have practical considerations as well, such as distance from shore and availability of space.

Sainz was curious how a location’s suitability might change after factoring in variability from long-term oceanographic cycles. She also wanted to find out which trends have the largest impact on productivity.

Major weather cycles and mussels

Of the major cycles that influence conditions in the Southern California Bight, many who live in the region are familiar with the El Niño Southern Oscillation, which brings warmer, wetter conditions to California every half decade or so. Water temperature also fluctuates in a cycle known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which can last anywhere from a few years to multiple decades. By tracking sea surface height, scientists can detect yet another pattern, the North Pacific Gyre Oscillation, which has profound effects on the ocean’s biology, chemistry, and physics, particularly along the California coast.

Sainz decided to use mussels to investigate the effects these ocean cycles have on mariculture, following a previous study by former Sustainable Fisheries Group researcher Sarah Lester, now an assistant professor at Florida State University. Sainz simulated mussel production at 223 sites between Point Conception and the Mexican border from 1981 through 2008.

She used four variables to calculate mussel production. Water temperature and the velocity of the currents figured prominently in the team’s model. They also accounted for water salinity, which correlates with nutrient upwelling from deeper, saltier water. Lastly, Sainz incorporated data on the depth of the mixed layer—the upper portion of the surface where interactions between the ocean and atmosphere are most pronounced. This is important for understanding photosynthetic activity.

Sainz had access to 28 years’ worth of high-resolution data through an ocean model researchers at UC Santa Cruz run. By feeding the historical data into a model for mussel growth, she could create a hindcast of modeled mussel production for each of the 223 locations.

Planning for the future

Sainz found not only that these cycles influenced mussel production in her modeled farms, but also production across all the sites correlated strongly with the North Pacific Gyre Oscillation. This means that farmers need to consider these long-term oscillations when selecting a site alongside local conditions and practical concerns.

“We were very surprised by this result, especially because we knew how variable production seemed from year to year,” Sainz says.

The North Pacific Gyre Oscillation has a strong correlation with nutrient and chlorophyll levels in the region’s historic data, particularly toward the southern extent of the California Current. So it makes sense the pattern may have a large effect on mussels farmed in Southern California because they filter food from the environment, she adds.

Although other variables also affect mariculture—rain runoff, oil spills, harmful algae blooms, and predators, for example—this model can serve as a foundation for further investigations.

Additionally, not all farmed species show this strong correlation with the North Pacific Gyre Oscillation. Sainz’s preliminary findings suggest that farmed fish track other climactic cycles. Still, the study highlights the importance of accounting for regional cycles when considering mariculture ventures.

Sainz plans to repeat her analysis for striped bass and sugar kelp, two other species covered in Lester’s previous work. Ultimately, she will consider how global climate change might impact mariculture in the future.

“Originally my motivations were considering what is going to happen to marine aquaculture with climate change,” Sainz says, “but we took a step back and says, ‘OK, let’s first analyze the natural variability of the region.'”

Without a clear understanding of a region’s natural variability, scientists and farmers might not have a complete picture of how conditions will change as the climate shifts.

The research appears in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

Source: UC Santa Barbara

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Team investigates lava tubes as potential moon shelter

Wed, 2019-07-17 08:12

3D image reconstructions of lava tubes on Earth could help assess if lunar equivalents are stable enough to build human habitats.

In 2017, researchers helped discover a lava tube on the moon that could protect astronauts from hazardous conditions on the surface.

The new work is part of Purdue University’s Resilient ExtraTerrestrial Habitats (RETH), a group that investigates how future human habitats on the moon or Mars can be made resilient against hazards like radiation, temperature fluctuations, seismic activity, and meteorite impacts. Lava tubes could be part of the solution.

Thousands of photos, reconstructed into a 3D model, are helping researchers evaluate lava tubes as a potential habitat for humans on the moon or Mars. (Credit: Jongseong Choi/Purdue)

“Lava tubes form when a volcanic eruption sends lava flowing in channels on the ground,” says Anahita Modiriasari, a postdoctoral researcher in the Lyles School of Civil Engineering. “The surface of the lava flow cools and forms a crust on top, while the hot lava keeps flowing underneath, forming a tunnel. We know these lava tubes exist on the moon, as satellite imagery has shown openings on the lunar surface, sometimes called ‘skylights.'”

Purdue researchers previously found that these lava tubes are much larger than those on Earth—potentially many kilometers wide and providing potential protection from space-based hazards.

Does that mean they would make ideal places for humans to live? “We don’t know for sure,” Modiriasari says. “We cannot yet visit lava tubes on the moon or Mars. But there are a lot of things we can learn from visiting those on Earth.”

Modiriasari and graduate students recently visited Lava Beds National Monument in California to explore these lava tubes and establish a baseline of information. “This is an ideal test bed,” Modiriasari says, “because it has similar basaltic rock, and it formed in a similar way to those on the moon. These lava tubes also have skylights, which is an important factor we’re investigating.”

The team chose specific caves and identified cross-sections of rock that the members wanted to investigate. “Our main goal was to investigate the geomechanical properties of the basaltic rock,” Modiriasari says. “We were particularly interested in the ceiling of the lava tube—the number and spacing of the visible fractures, the characteristics of the joints, the chemical weathering, and the strength index of the rock mass.”

They also took thousands of photos—enough to reconstruct a 3D model capturing the essential features of the lava tube. This is a task that a rover or drone could potentially accomplish on the moon or Mars.

“All of this collected data is vital,” Modiriasari says. “We are using it to build an advanced model of the size, strength, and structural stability of the lava tube. What happens during seismic activity? What would happen if a meteorite strikes? This helps us assess whether similar lava tubes on the moon or Mars would be capable of hosting a permanent human habitat.”

With funding from NASA, RETH will establish a new Space Technology Research Institute to investigate the resilience, intelligence, and autonomy of future human habitats.

“I hear a lot of positive feedback whenever we present our research at a space conference,” Modiriasari said. “This is a brand-new application of my background in underground construction and tunneling, in a very different environment. It will be very interesting to see humans living on the moon in my lifetime.”

Source: Jared Pike for Purdue University

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Worm gene offers early clues to greater healthspan

Wed, 2019-07-17 06:00

A genetic discovery in worms suggests there may be molecular switches controlling lifespan and healthspan—quality of life as we age—separately.

Aging research indicates that better healthspan may be more important than lifespan.

Healthspan includes a set of parameters like mobility and immune resistance that are distinct from lifespan, which is easier to measure. In the long run, it may be more relevant to modify healthspan, even though it’s harder to study, says senior author Arjumand Ghazi, associate professor of pediatrics, developmental biology, and cell biology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and UPMC Children’s Hospital.

She uses the Greek myth of Eos and Tithonus to describe the difference: “The goddess Eos fell in love with a mortal man, Tithonus, and asked that he be granted eternal life, but forgot to ask for eternal youth. Tithonus lived forever but as a frail and immobile old man.”

Longevity gene TCER-1

As reported in Nature Communications, Ghazi and her team focused on a protein called TCER-1 in the worm Caenorhabditis elegans. Earlier work from their lab showed that TCER-1 promotes longevity in worms and also is critical to its fertility.

Longevity genes in many animals increase resistance to stressors, such as infection, so the researchers expected that removing TCER-1 would make the worms less resilient.

Much to their surprise, they saw the exact opposite. When infected with bacteria, subjected to DNA-damaging radiation, or high temperatures, worms without TCER-1 survived much longer than normal worms. They also had improved mobility with age and were less prone to protein clumping that causes human neurodegenerative diseases. Conversely, increasing TCER-1 levels beyond normal suppressed the animal’s immune defenses.

“I was sure I’d made a mistake somewhere,” says Francis Amrit, the study’s lead author and a staff scientist in Ghazi’s lab. “But I repeated the experiments and realized that TCER-1 was unlike any other longevity gene we’d seen before—it was actually suppressing immune resistance.”

Interestingly, TCER-1 seemed to be able to wield its influence only as long as the animals were young and capable of laying eggs.

“I liken TCER-1 in C. elegans to a DJ who controls the base, treble, and other tones to get the music to sound just right,” says Amrit. “During its reproductive age, TCER-1 tunes all the molecular dials to ensure that the animal reproduces efficiently to propagate the species, partly by diverting resources meant for stress management.”

How can we improve human healthspan?

Ghazi cautions that it is too soon to make any conclusions about human healthspan, but notes that the finding should change how we understand the molecular basis of aging.

“It will be interesting to understand how the body allocates resources,” Ghazi speculates. “For example, could women one day take a pill once they decide to stop having children that would improve their healthspan by diverting resources used for reproduction toward improved stress resilience?”

Additional coauthors of the study are from the University of Pittsburgh and Rutgers University. Funding came from the National Institutes of Health and the New Jersey Commission on Cancer Research.

Source: University of Pittsburgh

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Sea urchins aren’t just ‘bad guys’

Tue, 2019-07-16 20:06

Sea urchins play a more complex role in their ecosystems than previously believed, report researchers.

Urchins have gotten a bad rap on the Pacific coast. The spiky sea creatures can mow down entire swaths of kelp forest, leaving behind rocky urchin barrens. An article in the New York Times went so far as to call them “cockroaches of the ocean.”

Researchers studied how urchins might function to break up tough kelp into more manageable pieces that can feed other scavengers, also known as detritivores, living on the kelp forest floor. The paper, which appears in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, is the first to look at sea urchins’ role as shredders in the kelp forest ecosystem.

Purple sea urchins munch on kelp off the coast of California. (Credit: Christie Yorke)

Urchins can have an outsized effect on kelp forests, especially when their predators aren’t around to keep their population in check, explains Christie Yorke, a postdoctoral scholar at the Marine Science Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Overhunting of the sea otter, one of urchins’ most significant predators, has allowed some urchin populations to clear cut vast tracts of kelp forest, drastically reducing the productivity and biodiversity of sites they’ve munched through. Some groups have even taken to indiscriminately smashing urchins to stem this scourge.

Nevertheless, urchins may be crucial to the health of the kelp forest ecosystem. Giant kelp is highly productive, growing up to 18 inches per day under ideal conditions. But a significant amount of this material gets transported away from the ecosystem, washing up on beaches, getting swept out to the open ocean or drifting into the deep sea. Kelp is also rather unpalatable compared to single-celled phytoplankton.

“We should not go around and vilify or smash sea urchins before we understand their role in the ecosystem better.”

Yorke and her colleagues were curious whether anything might be able to retain this food source within the kelp forest. “We know that kelp affects animals by providing habitat for fish and other species, but does it actually feed any of these animals?” says coauthor Bob Miller, a research biologist at the Marine Science Institute.

Scientists have hypothesized that kelp sheds small particles that could be a food source. But the team’s previous work found that kelp didn’t appear to be nourishing the filter feeders in this way. The activity of sloppy sea urchins offered a promising alternative pathway for funneling nutrients from kelp to the ecosystem’s detritivore.

Sea urchins as kelp shredders

To test their hypothesis, Yorke set up several tanks with a number of detritivore from several species, along with some labeled kelp. Half of the tanks also got sea urchins.

To label the kelp, the team spiked it with rare forms of carbon and nitrogen by letting the algae photosynthesize in seawater enriched with these isotopes for three days, allowing them to trace the extent to which the tank residents ate the kelp. After 28 days, the researchers compared the isotope measurements for the specimens after the experiment to baselines they had established beforehand.

“We found that a whole host of detritivores can take advantage of kelp as long as urchins are there to process it for them, whereas otherwise they can’t,” says Miller. Indeed, only one species, a type of brittle star, ate a significant amount of kelp in the absence of sea urchins.

“Essentially, [sea urchins] create a kelp smoothie for the reef.”

“Even then, the brittle stars used much more kelp when the urchins were present,” adds Yorke.

Urchins excel in their role of processing kelp for other detritivores. They are remarkably messy eaters, scattering all sorts of bits and pieces as they chow down on giant kelp. What’s more, sea urchins digest remarkably little of what they actually eat. Meanwhile, their guts contain a rich assortment of microbes, some of which can pull nitrogen from the seawater itself, enriching the urchin’s waste. Some studies have shown that urchin feces can be more nutritious than fresh algae, says Yorke.

“Essentially, they create a kelp smoothie for the reef,” Miller says.

Yorke agrees and says that “without the urchins there, it’s possible that this kelp would just get washed out of the kelp forest by the current and be unavailable altogether.”

Villains no more?

Extrapolating from small experiments in the lab to the processes out in the environment can be difficult, so the team used historical data the Santa Barbara Coastal Long Term Ecological Research project (SBC LTER) collected to place their results in context.

The scientists looked at 11 years of relevant data, including the amount of kelp litter over time, as well as sea urchin abundance and biomass. Their analysis suggested that the amount of kelp that urchins shred and process could be a significant portion of the resources available to the creatures that live on the seafloor.

“A lot of times urchins are portrayed as grazers,” says Yorke, “but that’s actually an uncommon condition. Most of the time the urchins are just sedentary detritivores that wait for leaf litter from the kelp to fall and drift past them. They capture this detritus and consume it.

“Urchins switch from this sedentary behavior to active grazing if drift kelp becomes limited,” she explains. This can happen for a number of reasons. If urchins become super-abundant there may not be enough drift kelp to sustain them. Alternatively, oceanographic conditions like El Niño can impact kelp productivity.

In this way, urchins are more like grasshoppers. Under normal conditions, grasshoppers are a healthy part of their ecosystem. But in certain circumstances, some species will swarm, becoming a plague of locusts.

“Urchins are generally cast as the villain in the kelp forest,” says Miller, “but this study shows that they can play an important role as an intermediary in the food web.”

“We should not go around and vilify or smash sea urchins before we understand their role in the ecosystem better,” he adds. “They’re not necessarily always the bad guy they’re made out to be.”

The National Science Foundation funds the Santa Barbara Coastal Long Term Ecological Research project, which UC Santa Barbara oversees.

Source: UC Santa Barbara

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Why planting a flag on the moon was so hard

Tue, 2019-07-16 19:56

When Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted the United States flag on the moon 50 years ago on July 20, 1969, it represented a major feat of engineering, argues Annie Platoff.

“The flag on the moon is a great illustration of the fact that in space, nothing is simple,” says Platoff, a librarian at the University of California, Santa Barbara Library and a leading expert on the Apollo program’s placement of flags on the lunar surface.

“For me, the flag on the moon is an excellent example of something that seems very, very simple, but once you really start thinking about it, you realize is very complex.”

Planting a flag on the moon vs. Earth

With virtually no atmosphere on the moon—and, therefore, no wind—flags that fly freely on Earth would hang like limp cloth in the lunar environment. So engineers had to rethink flagpole design entirely, according to Platoff.

On an earthbound flagpole, the flag is attached at the hoist—the vertical section closest to the pole—at both the top and bottom of the flag. The pole might slide through a sleeve on the hoist side of the flag, or attach by grommets or some other type of fastener. A lunar flag, however, is anchored to the pole only at the bottom. A horizontal crossbar at the top mainly holds it in place.

“A lunar flagpole has three parts,” Platoff explains. “There are two vertical sections, and then the horizontal crossbar that’s hinged at the top of the upper vertical section.”

NASA engineer Jack Kinzler’s original sketch of the Lunar Flag Assembly.(Credit: Jack Kinzler)

To deploy the flag, one astronaut used a sampling hammer to pound the lower vertical section into the ground. The other astronaut extended the telescoping crossbar and raised it to a 90-degree angle with the vertical section to click it into place. Then the two astronauts slid the upper part of the pole into the lower one.

“Once they got the flag up, several factors made it look as though it was flying,” Platoff notes. “First there were wrinkles in it because of how tightly it was packed. And these add to the illusion that the flag is waving. Also, the astronauts didn’t always get the horizontal crossbar extended all the way—they were working in pressurized spacesuits and really cumbersome gloves, after all—which caused the flag to bunch up in places. That also made it look like it’s waving.”

Getting the flag to space

Simply getting the flag to the moon also proved a challenge for NASA engineers.

“The Apollo 11 and 12 flags were stored on the ladder of the lunar module,” says Platoff. “It was kind of a last-minute add-on, and I think that’s why they picked that location. But they had to protect it from the engines of the lunar module. As the astronauts were coming down to land, they were firing the engines to slow themselves down. And those engines got really hot. Without adequate thermal protection, the flag would have been gone.”

To protect Old Glory, engineers built a metal shroud that went around the apparatus on the ladder. They also added some insulating blanket material. On later missions, the flag was moved to a storage compartment outside the lunar module.

“It was basically the space where they kept their cameras, hammers, sampling scoops, and other equipment. And that area was already thermally protected,” Platoff says.

What is vexillology?

Though her interest in flags developed at an early age, it wasn’t until Platoff started college that she realized entire books had been written on the subject, or that organizations exist for people who share her passion.

“That was when I also discovered there is a name for it—vexillology. Once I got in touch with this larger community, I was no longer isolated, and I started reading everything I could get my hands on,” Platoff says.

An opportunity of a lifetime came along when Whitney Smith, the father of modern vexillology, and director of the Flag Research Center in Winchester, Massachusetts, invited Platoff to do some research with him in her hometown of Topeka, Kansas. It happened to be close to where a meeting of the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA) was set to take place. “He is the person I really consider to have been my mentor,” Platoff says. Still an active NAVA member, Platoff serves as director of the organization’s digital library.

When Smith invited Platoff to attend the NAVA meeting, her hobby transitioned into a serious scholarly pursuit. Later, her husband took a job at Johnson Space Center in Houston, and a television interview with one of the engineers who designed the lunar flagpole for the Apollo 11 mission piqued her interest in flags on the moon as a research project.

“I’d also always been interested in the space program, so this was the perfect melding of my two interests,” she says.

Source: UC Santa Barbara

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Quantum control with light paves way for ultra-fast computers

Tue, 2019-07-16 19:50

Terahertz light can control some of the essential quantum properties of superconducting states, report researchers.

Jigang Wang patiently explains his latest discovery in quantum control that could lead to superfast computing based on quantum mechanics: He mentions light-induced superconductivity without energy gap. He brings up forbidden supercurrent quantum beats. And he mentions terahertz-speed symmetry breaking.

Then he backs up and clarified all that. After all, the quantum world of matter and energy at terahertz and nanometer scales—trillions of cycles per second and billionths of meters—is still a mystery to most of us.

“I like to study quantum control of superconductivity exceeding the gigahertz, or billions of cycles per second, bottleneck in current state-of-the-art quantum computation applications,” says Wang, a professor of physics and astronomy at Iowa State University. “We’re using terahertz light as a control knob to accelerate supercurrents.”

A bit more explanation

Superconductivity is the movement of electricity through certain materials without resistance. It typically occurs at very, very cold temperatures. Think -400 Fahrenheit for “high-temperature” superconductors.

Terahertz light is light at very, very high frequencies. Think trillions of cycles per second. It’s essentially extremely strong and powerful microwave bursts firing at very short time frames.

It all sounds esoteric and strange. But the new method could have very practical applications.

“Light-induced supercurrents chart a path forward for electromagnetic design of emergent materials properties and collective coherent oscillations for quantum engineering applications,” Wang and his coauthors write in a paper in Nature Photonics.

In other words, the discovery could help physicists “create crazy-fast quantum computers by nudging supercurrents,” Wang writes in a summary of the research team’s findings.

Controlling quantum physics

Finding ways to control, access, and manipulate the special characteristics of the quantum world and connect them to real-world problems is a major scientific push these days. The National Science Foundation has included the “Quantum Leap” in its “10 big ideas” for future research and development.

“By exploiting interactions of these quantum systems, next-generation technologies for sensing, computing, modeling, and communicating will be more accurate and efficient,” says a summary of the science foundation’s support of quantum studies. “To reach these capabilities, researchers need understanding of quantum mechanics to observe, manipulate, and control the behavior of particles and energy at dimensions at least a million times smaller than the width of a human hair.”

The researchers are advancing the quantum frontier by finding new macroscopic supercurrent flowing states and developing quantum controls for switching and modulating them.

A summary of the research team’s study says experimental data they obtained from a terahertz spectroscopy instrument indicates terahertz light-wave tuning of supercurrents is a universal tool “and is key for pushing quantum functionalities to reach their ultimate limits in many cross-cutting disciplines” such as those mentioned by the science foundation.

And so, the researchers write, “We believe that it is fair to say that the present study opens a new arena of light-wave superconducting electronics via terahertz quantum control for many years to come.”

The Army Research Office supports Wang’s research. Additional researchers from Iowa State, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham contributed to the work.

Source: Iowa State University

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Device recycles waste heat into light to boost solar systems

Tue, 2019-07-16 19:30

Arrays of aligned single-wall carbon nanotubes could channel wasted heat and greatly raise the efficiency of solar energy systems, report researchers.

The new invention is a hyperbolic thermal emitter that can absorb intense heat that would otherwise spew into the atmosphere, squeeze it into a narrow bandwidth, and emit it as light that can be turned into electricity.

The discovery rests on another that Junichiro Kono’s group at the Brown School of Engineering at Rice University made in 2016 when it found a simple method to make highly aligned, wafer-scale films of closely packed nanotubes.

A scanning electron microscope image shows submicron-scale cavities patterned into films of aligned carbon nanotubes. The cavities trap thermal photons and narrow their bandwidth, turning them into light that can then be recycled as electricity. (Credit: Naik Lab) Waste heat

Discussions with Gururaj Naik, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, led the pair to see if the films could be used to direct “thermal photons.”

“Thermal photons are just photons emitted from a hot body,” Kono says. “If you look at something hot with an infrared camera, you see it glow. The camera is capturing these thermally excited photons.”

About 20 percent of our industrial energy consumption is waste heat. That’s about three years of electricity just for the state of Texas.

Infrared radiation is a component of sunlight that delivers heat to the planet, but it’s only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

“Any hot surface emits light as thermal radiation,” Naik says. “The problem is that thermal radiation is broadband, while the conversion of light to electricity is efficient only if the emission is in a narrow band. The challenge was to squeeze broadband photons into a narrow band.”

The nanotube films presented an opportunity to isolate mid-infrared photons that would otherwise be wasted. “That’s the motivation,” Naik says. “A study by [co-lead author and graduate student] Chloe Doiron found that about 20 percent of our industrial energy consumption is waste heat. That’s about three years of electricity just for the state of Texas. That’s a lot of energy being wasted.

Carbon nanotubes can take the heat

“The most efficient way to turn heat into electricity now is to use turbines, and steam or some other liquid to drive them,” he says. “They can give you nearly 50 percent conversion efficiency. Nothing else gets us close to that, but those systems are not easy to implement.” Naik and his colleagues aim to simplify the task with a compact system that has no moving parts.

The aligned nanotube films are conduits that absorb waste heat and turn it into narrow-bandwidth photons. Because electrons in nanotubes can only travel in one direction, the aligned films are metallic in that direction while insulating in the perpendicular direction, an effect Naik called hyperbolic dispersion. Thermal photons can strike the film from any direction, but can only leave via one.

“Instead of going from heat directly to electricity, we go from heat to light to electricity,” Naik says. “It seems like two stages would be more efficient than three, but here, that’s not the case.”

Naik says adding the emitters to standard solar cells could boost their efficiency from the current peak of about 22 percent. “By squeezing all the wasted thermal energy into a small spectral region, we can turn it into electricity very efficiently,” he says. “The theoretical prediction is that we can get 80 percent efficiency.”

Nanotube films suit the task because they stand up to temperatures as high as 1,700 degrees Celsius (3,092 degrees Fahrenheit). Naik’s team built proof-of-concept devices that allowed them to operate at up to 700 C (1,292 F) and confirm their narrow-band output. To make them, the team patterned arrays of submicron-scale cavities into the chip-sized films.

“There’s an array of such resonators, and each one of them emits thermal photons in just this narrow spectral window,” Naik says. “We aim to collect them using a photovoltaic cell and convert it to energy, and show that we can do it with high efficiency.”

A paper on the technology appears in ACS Photonics. The Basic Energy Science program of the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and the Robert A. Welch Foundation supported the research.

Source: Rice University

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How the moon landing still shapes our lives

Tue, 2019-07-16 19:21

It’s hard to overstate the significance of the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969.

Whether you view it as an unlikely feat of engineering, a definitive surge ahead in the Cold War, or even just really, really good live TV, Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” emerges as one of the defining moments of human history.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of this unprecedented technological and cultural milestone, experts in various disciplines—including a professor who worked on the thermal analysis for the lunar module—weigh in on how the space program continues to shape their fields today:

‘Nobody knew how to do that’

Gunter Georgi, industry professor and course director for “Introduction to Engineering and Design” at the Tandon School of Engineering at New York University, describes his experience working on the thermal analysis for the lunar module and outlines the technological advances the mission inspired:

Advances in aerospace engineering

“Aerospace engineering, like all engineering disciplines, has changed dramatically in the 50 years since the moon landing,” says Richard Thorsen, chair in the mechanical and aerospace engineering department at the Tandon School of Engineering at New York University.

“Some drivers of that change have been the rapid advance of supercomputing—both in terms of speed and capacity—and the miniaturization of devices, which is very important in modern aerospace engineering, where weight is so important, particularly in spacecraft.

“The evolution of materials, too, during the past 50 years has changed aircraft and spacecraft design. The options are so much greater today than they were in the Apollo era,” Thorsen says.

“Today we would do it so much more easily and in some sense better because of the tools that we have. And these new tools permeate all of the aerospace industry, not just space exploration.”

Journalism and ‘the infinite voyage’

“The first three Earthlings to reach the moon profoundly influenced American journalism by turning many of the reporters and editors who covered the epic feat of a lifetime—and who, by tradition, were supposed to ‘stay out of the story’—into unabashed, blatant, cheerleaders and aspiring space travelers themselves,” says William E. Burrows, a professor emeritus of journalism and SHERP founder and director emeritus.

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin walks on the surface of the moon. (Credit: History in HD/Unsplash)

“Reporters and other correspondents who ordinarily produced stories that described the human race’s sordid side, including wars, purges, and other atrocities—and even those who covered the exploits of brave adventurers who climbed Everest, flew over the poles, and crossed oceans in frail craft—were so awed by the Apollo 11 astronauts being the first to reach another world and actually land on it that they became virtual celebrants themselves,” Burrows says.

“The moon landings changed journalism by literally raising the sights—the aspirations—of those who covered it. As their predecessors wanted to take to the air after Lindberg’s and Byrd’s glorious adventures, many who covered Apollo 11 and the flights that followed it became addicted to the infinite voyage and wanted to share that ultimate adventure. That, in the jargon of the trade, would make them part of the story.”

Astronaut food

“The postwar mid-20th century United States is often called the ‘golden age’ of food processing. While the mass production and processing of food began earlier, it was World War II that spurred technology, innovation, and product development. Military researchers, in alliance with food manufacturers, freeze-dried, pounded, packaged, dehydrated, and preserved food in order to feed the US military, as well as allies and newly-independent former Axis nations,” says Amy Bentley, professor of nutrition and food studies at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

“After the war, food manufacturers turned their attention to American consumers eager to spend their dollars. In this era television came of age and advertised the food products, which were readily stocked in grocery stores. Consumers were fascinated by the conveniences and novelty of the new products: ready to eat canned spaghetti, instant coffee, TV dinners,” Bentley says.

“The entire country was enamored with NASA and the Apollo space program. Astronauts were genuine heroes…”

“The 1960s and 1970s were the heyday of the Apollo space program. The Cold War space race was in full swing, and JFK and presidents afterward felt the need to compete with the USSR on land and in space.

“As with WWII, the space program spurred on technologies focused on food preservation and product development to ensure that the men sent into space would be adequately nourished, both physically and psychologically,” she says.

“The entire country was enamored with NASA and the Apollo space program. Astronauts were genuine heroes, and fashions, furniture, and home décor—even popular culture (think of The Jetsons!)—reflected the public’s fascination with space.

“Among the two most notable were Tang instant beverage, a powder that, when stirred into water, replaced orange juice, and Pillsbury Space Food Sticks, long Tootsie Roll-type candies that were either chocolate or peanut butter flavored and contained some nutrients,” Bentley says.

“Kids thought they were totally cool, and in an age where mass-produced, shelf stable foods were ubiquitous, the products were wildly popular. As a kid during that period, my sisters and I begged my mom to buy both. Neither product was remarkable as far as taste was concerned, as I remember, but taste wasn’t really primary. The products felt modern, it was cool that the astronauts ate them too (or products like them), and we enjoyed their novelty.

“I would say the legacy of space-inspired food products is significant. Americans still drink large quantities of beverages from powders (such as Country Time Lemonade and others), and Tang is still around. And while space food has come a long way, our food supply is still dependent on technologies developed and perfected in the mid- to late-20th century. Breakfast bars, energy ‘goo’ packets, and freeze-dried camping food are remnants. And instant coffee is still popular, too,” she says.

Beyond the limits of early software engineering

“The software used on the lunar lander is seen as a tour de force that would be almost inconceivable today. It had minuscule memory and incredibly slow hardware, from today’s point-of-view, and yet it supported concurrent processes with different priorities,” says Ed Schonberg, professor emeritus of computer science at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences.

“Since then, the methodology for the construction of reliable software systems has become much more rigorous, and makes use of formal verification tools, formal testing procedures, and high-level programming languages. The FAA requires such procedures to be used when constructing software systems for aerospace, and similar requirements apply to transportation systems and medical devices,” he says.

Space travel and medicine

“Technologies developed for space travel have benefitted health and medicine in various capacities,” says Maya N. Clark-Cutaia, assistant professor at the Meyers College of Nursing.

“One lesser-known innovation is a chemical process developed under a NASA contract that removes toxic waste from used dialysis fluid, or dialysate. Essentially, under this ‘sorbent’ system, a much smaller volume of dialysate is cleaned and replenished for use rather than being drained and requiring additional fluid from a continuous water source to maintain additional dialysis sessions,” she says.

“Additionally, cost reduction has made them particularly attractive for home maintenance hemodialysis. Sorbent technology is now being incorporated into both home and dialysis centers by one major for-profit company and for use with the first wearable kidney. I expect that this trend will only gain momentum.”

Source: New York University

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Gadget counts cancer cells to see if chemo is working

Tue, 2019-07-16 14:31

A new device can determine whether targeted chemotherapy drugs are working on individual cancer patients, report researchers.

The portable device, which uses artificial intelligence and biosensors, is up to 95.9 percent accurate at counting live cancer cells when they pass through electrodes.

“We built a portable platform that can predict whether patients will respond positively to targeted cancer therapy,” says senior author Mehdi Javanmard, an assistant professor in the electrical and computer engineering department in the School of Engineering at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. “Our technology combines artificial intelligence and sophisticated biosensors that handle tiny amounts of fluids to see if cancer cells are sensitive or resistant to chemotherapy drugs.”

This image shows six devices with biosensors that can detect whether a cancer cell is alive when it passes through a tiny hole for fluids. The devices fit on a 3-inch wide piece of glass. (Credit: Zhongtian Lin/Rutgers)

The device provides immediate results and will allow for more personalized interventions for patients as well as better management and detection of the disease. It can rapidly analyze cells without having to stain them, allowing for further molecular analysis and instantaneous results. Current devices rely on staining, limiting the characterization of cells.

“We envision using this new device as a point-of-care diagnostic tool for assessing patient response and personalization of therapeutics,” write the researchers.

Treatment of cancer patients often requires drugs that can kill tumor cells, but chemotherapy destroys both tumor cells and healthy cells, causing side effects such as hair loss and gastrointestinal problems.

Coauthor Joseph R. Bertino, a resident researcher at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and professor at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, and his team previously developed a therapeutic approach that targets cancer cells, such as those in B-­cell lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and epithelial carcinomas. It binds a chemotherapy drug to an antibody so it only targets tumor cells and minimizes interaction with healthy cells. Patients will respond positively to this therapy if their tumor cells generate a protein called matriptase. Many patients will benefit while the side effects from standard chemotherapy are minimized.

“Novel technologies like this can really have a positive impact on the standard-of-care and result in cost-savings for both healthcare providers and patients,” Bertino says.

The research team tested their new device using cancer cell samples they treated with different concentrations of a targeted anti­cancer drug. The device detects whether a cell is alive based on the shift in its electrical properties as it passes through a tiny fluidic hole.

The next step is to perform tests on tumor samples from patients. The researchers hope the device will eventually be used to test cancer therapies on samples of patient tumors before they receive treatment.

The study appears in the journal Microsystems & Nanoengineering.

Source: Rutgers University

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Swampy cells coordinate defenses in a surprising way

Tue, 2019-07-16 10:36

Without touching and with no electrical or chemical signals, certain single-celled organisms can communicate with each other to coordinate ultrafast contractions.

The communication allows the aquatic cells, called Spirostomum, to release paralyzing toxins in sync to ward off predators.

Crouching in the boot-sucking mud of the Baylands Nature Preserve in Palo Alto, Manu Prakash, associate professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, peered through his Foldscope—a $1.75 origami microscope of his own invention—scrutinizing the inhabitants of the marsh’s brackish waters. With his eye trained on an individual Spirostomum he watched it do something that immediately made it his next research subject.

“I still remember for the very first time, seeing this organism swim by under the Foldscope,” says Prakash. “This is a massive cell but it contracts in less than a blink of an eye, accelerating faster than almost any other single cell. When you aren’t expecting it, it’s like it disappears. I remember being so excited, I had to bring the cells back to the lab and take a careful look.”

This observation, made through a simple tool only five miles from Prakash’s lab, has now led him and colleagues to the discovery of the new form of communication between cells, which they detail in a paper in Nature.

“There are many different ways of communication in biology but this is really a new kind of signaling between cells that we’re trying to understand,” says lead author Arnold Mathijssen, a postdoctoral scholar in the Prakash lab. “It’s possible this is more universal than we’ve described so far and is a way many different kinds of organisms communicate.”

From benches to black holes

The Prakash lab gathers wild samples of various tiny organisms from an area they call Peggy’s Bench—so named for a nearby memorial bench—and they’ve been coming here for years, often a couple times a week. Mixed salt and fresh waters, changing tides, and bird migrations make the marsh a potential biodiversity hot spot. Although, Prakash knew none of that when he first visited.

“Lake Lagunita had dried out and I was looking for a new place to sample,” recalls Prakash, referring to a small seasonal lake. “I looked in the GPS map on my phone and I saw this blue spot. I didn’t know anything about it in the beginning, but it was worth a try.”

Back in the lab, the group studied wild samples of Spirostomum while also growing their own cultures of Spirostomum ambiguum, and began a deep dive into details of this ultra-fast contraction. Using high-speed imaging, they found it happens in 5 milliseconds—the human eye takes 100-400 milliseconds to blink—and that the cell endures about 14 times the force of gravity in the process. As it shrinks, pouches of toxin break off from the cell’s edges and release their contents into the surrounding fluid.

During one late night in the lab, the researchers also noticed that, when in clumps, the cells seemed to all contract at the same time.

“We wondered, ‘How can cells that are almost centimeters away from each other synchronize to do something almost simultaneously?'” says Saad Bhamla, a former postdoctoral fellow in the Prakash lab who is now an assistant professor at Georgia Tech.

The researchers solved this mystery by applying insights from separate research being conducted by Deepak Krishnamurthy, another graduate student in the Prakash lab, on how an individual cell can sense the movement of water around it. Once they observed the flow fields around Spirostomum, it became clear that they were communicating via hydrodynamic flows.

“The first cell contracts and generates a flow, which triggers the second and that one triggers the third. So, you get this propagating trigger wave that passes through the whole colony,” Mathijssen says. “These are big, long-range vortex flows and the velocities of the communication rise up to meters per second—even though each cell is only 1 to 4 millimeters long.”

Mathijssen figured out what triggers the first cell to contract through an experiment that Prakash and Krishnamurthy had already built for Krishnamurthy’s research. By sucking liquid ever so carefully out of a small hole in a pair of slides containing S. ambiguum, Mathijssen mimicked the eating action of its predators. The closer to the hole the cell moved, the more one end of its body was stretched relative to the other—as happens when an object approaches a black hole. With this simple and relatively large-scale experiment, researchers determined that a specific amount of bodily tension likely causes the opening or closing of tension gated ion channels within S. ambiguum, making it contract.

Where the wild things are

The Prakash lab and Bhamla lab continue to work on S. ambiguum to learn more about how, when, and why these cells contract. They also want to know whether the hydrodynamic communication they’ve discovered is used by other organisms, because in nature both generating and sensing flows is essential for survival. As part of this research and other work, the Prakash lab has been regularly returning to Peggy’s Bench.

“Even though this spot was an accidental discovery for me, we’re working on several projects in the lab that have been inspired by what we’ve collected right here,” says Prakash, while standing at the edge of the marsh. “This work is just one example of many hidden gems we can find when we step outside the lab—and literally anyone with simple frugal tools, like Foldscope, can uncover and start exploring.”

In the near future, Prakash is planning an extensive biodiversity survey in the marsh where they collect Spirostomum, which would include setting up a microscope-based live feed video of their subjects’ watery world and bringing undergraduate students to explore this swampy field.

Additional coauthors are from Georgia Institute of Technology.

The Human Frontier Science Program, the National Science Foundation Center for Cellular Construction, the US Army Research Laboratory and the US Army Research Office, the Chan Zuckerberg BioHub, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute funded the research.

Source: Stanford University

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Sometimes generic drugs actually cost more

Tue, 2019-07-16 10:25

Some patients may pay more out of pocket for high-priced specialty generic drugs than their brand-name counterparts, researchers say.

For a new study, researchers examined differences in brand-name and generic or biosimilar drug prices, formulary coverage, and expected out-of-pocket spending across all of the Medicare Part D plans available in the United States in the first quarter of 2018.

The findings, published in Health Affairs, show that current Medicare Part D beneficiaries can have higher out-of-pocket spending for generics than their branded counterparts if they use expensive specialty drugs and if the price differences between brands and generics are not large.

That can be common for individuals prescribed specialty drugs typically used to treat rare or complex conditions such as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, or multiple sclerosis, researchers say.

“Ironically, even if we assume that generic drugs have lower list prices than brands, for Medicare beneficiaries with $20,000 to $80,000 in annual drug spending, using only brand-name drugs could actually save them money,” says lead author Stacie Dusetzina, associate professor of health policy and associate professor of cancer research at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“This is happening because branded drug manufacturers now pay a discount in the donut hole, which gets counted as out-of-pocket spending,” she says. “This helps patients reach catastrophic coverage faster, where they pay 5 percent of the drug’s price instead of 25 percent.

“Generic drug makers do not pay these same discounts, so patients have to spend more of their own money to make it to the catastrophic phase of the benefit.”

In 2019, this means people using brand-name drugs who reach the donut hole, or coverage gap, have to spend $982 to get to the catastrophic coverage phase. People using generic drugs have to spend $3,730 to reach that point.

The study also notes policy changes set to take effect in 2020 that will increase patient out-of-pocket spending requirements for the catastrophic phase coverage from $5,100 to $6,350 will only make the situation worse.

In response, the Trump administration and the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) have included recommendations to exclude the manufacturer discount from out-of-pocket spending calculations.

“While this would level the playing field between generic drugs and brands, it would do so by making brand-name drugs more expensive instead of making generic drugs less expensive,” Dusetzina says.

“Congressional committees have signaled interest in addressing this and other issues in Medicare Part D, including placing a cap on out-of-pocket spending.

“The Part D benefit needs a redesign so that it works for people needing expensive drugs. I hope Congress will take this opportunity to make changes to Part D, including making sure that generic drug users aren’t overpaying for these drugs.”

Additional coauthors are from Vanderbilt, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Duke University.

Source: Jake Lowary for Vanderbilt University

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People with mental health disorders amend the descriptions

Tue, 2019-07-16 09:29

A new study is the first to seek input from people with common mental health issues on how diagnostic guidelines describe their disorders.

“Including people’s personal experiences with disorders in diagnostic manuals will improve their access to treatment and reduce stigma,” says Margaret Swarbrick, an adjunct associate professor and director of practice innovation and wellness at Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care and coauthor of the study in The Lancet.

In collaboration with the World Health Organization Department of Mental Health, researchers from the US and UK talked to people with five common disorders—schizophrenia, bipolar disorder type 1, depressive episode, personality disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder—about how their conditions should be described in the upcoming 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-11).

The ICD is the most widely used classification system for mental disorders. This is the first time people with diagnosed mental health disorders who are not health practitioners have been invited to give input on any published mental health diagnostic guidelines.

The project surveyed 157 people diagnosed with these conditions in the United Kingdom, India, and the United States. The participants reviewed an initial draft of the ICD-11 chapter on mental, behavioral, and neurodevelopmental disorders and recommended changes to more accurately reflect their experiences and/or remove objectionable language.

Many participants said the draft omitted emotional and psychological experiences they regularly have. More specifically:

  • People with schizophrenia added references to anger, fear, memory difficulties, isolation, and difficulty communicating internal experiences.
  • People with bipolar disorder added anxiety, anger, nausea, and increased creativity.
  • People with generalized anxiety disorder added nausea and anger.
  • People with depression added pain and anxiety.
  • People with personality disorder added distress and vulnerability to exploitation.

The participants also suggested removing confusing or stigmatizing terms such as “retardation,” “neuro-vegetative,” “bizarre,” “disorganized,” and “maladaptive.”

“We discovered that the current draft reflected an external perspective of these conditions rather than the perspective of the person’s lived experience,” Swarbrick says. “This is a needed perspective for clinicians and researchers.

“Participants appreciated the non-technical summaries, which suggest that using such common language would go a long way in bridging the communication gap between the people being diagnosed and clinicians.”

Source: Rutgers University

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We’re on track to lose lots of island conifers by 2070

Tue, 2019-07-16 08:18

Climate change could put many small-island conifers in danger of extinction by 2070, researchers warn.

The findings hold true even after allowing for some realistic wiggle room in the range of climate conditions those species might be able to withstand, scientists say.

A new study in Nature Climate Change shows that up to a quarter of the 55 conifer species (a group that includes fir and pine trees) included in the study will face extinction based on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predictions for future global warming.

Species most at risk tend to be those native to smaller islands, with extinction risk increasing rapidly on islands smaller than 20,000 square kilometers (about 7,700 square miles).

“Our work shows that species native to relatively small islands are in a lot of danger from climate change, and relatively soon,” says coauthor Dov Sax, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Brown University.

“But the work also helps us to identify which species are most at risk and which are least at risk, which helps to prioritize conservation.”

Extinction risk

The research takes an emerging approach to studying extinction risk, scientists say. Researchers have traditionally assessed risk by looking at the range of climate conditions in a species’ native range and assuming that those are the climate limits the species can withstand. But for the new study, the researchers hoped to use a potentially more realistic estimate of the climate conditions that species can handle.

“If you just look at conditions in native ranges and you model risk off of that, you’d conclude that everything on small islands is doomed,” says Sax, who is deputy director of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society. “But we know that many of these species have survived past instances of climate change, so what we wanted to do here was think about what conditions species could potentially thrive in if they needed to.”

Climate niches

To do that, researchers used data on where they know members of a given species survive and thrive outside their native ranges. Conifers are a popular for planting in lawns and gardens, which means there are plenty of documented instances of individual trees and populations living away from their native islands in a variety of climates.

The researchers constructed three categories of climate niches for the species in the study based on data of where they live.

First is the realized niche, which consists of the climate conditions in a species’ native range. Second is the fundamental niche, which includes conditions outside those within a species’ native range in which plants can reproduce well enough to sustain a population on their own. The researchers determined that by looking for instances where species, likely first planted horticulturally, were able to leak out into the wild, and establish breeding populations.

Third is the tolerance niche—the conditions in which individual plants can survive, but are not able to reproduce at a rate that sustains a population. In other words, species pushed to the tolerance niche are on the road to extinction.

Having established niche categories for each species, the researchers then used IPCC estimates of future climate change to see which were in extinction danger. The study found that 23.6 percent of species in the study will be outside their fundamental niches under the IPCC’s most extreme climate scenario.

Sax points out that’s also the most likely scenario given our current carbon emission levels. Some species, the analysis shows, will be outside even their tolerances niches. Importantly, estimates of expanded niches helps to give an idea which specific species are at risk and which are not, which could be important for conservation.

Wiggle room for island conifers

“At first, we were encouraged to discover that most species show a lot of wiggle room in their climatic niches,” says coauthor Kyle Rosenblad, a researcher in Sax’s lab. “But alarmingly, all this wiggle room still isn’t enough to buffer some of them from predicted changes in climate.”

The study showed that the Canary Island Pine, for example, should stay within its fundamental niche—the climate conditions where it reproduce on its own outside its native range—suggesting that it is potentially safe from extinction.

On the other end of the spectrum, scientists expect the Bermuda Cedar will be pushed out of not only its fundamental niche, but even its tolerance niche. That means that there will be no place on its native island of Bermuda where individuals from this species could survive.

A third category includes species like the Norfolk Island Pine, which is native to the small island of Norfolk in the South Pacific. Future climate conditions in Norfolk are expected to be outside the species’ fundamental niche, but within its tolerance niche. That means individuals will still be able to survive in some places, but they won’t be able to reproduce without human assistance. That makes extinction inevitable without human intervention.

“We found a whole range of range of species that will look like they’re fine,” Sax says. “They’ll be alive and you may even see some seedlings. But since they can’t reproduce sufficiently to maintain their population on their own, they’ll actually be on the road to extinction.”

By identifying the species most at risk for extinction, Sax says, the study may help to direct efforts to save them through engineering solutions, such as irrigation or other strategies. And by identifying the species with a good chance of surviving, the study could help to concentrate conservation efforts toward preserving their habitats. That would benefit not only conifers, but also other plant species, he says.

“If you protect areas that are good for these conifers, you protect areas that are good for other plant species as well.”

Source: Brown University

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How Japan’s royal family changes with the times

Mon, 2019-07-15 21:08

Japan’s royal family has bound generations together through strong traditions that continue to shape the country’s culture, infrastructure, and public policy, argues Alice Y. Tseng.

Tseng, chair of the department of history of art & architecture and associate professor of Japanese art and architecture at Boston University, has done extensive research on Japanese art and architecture, revealing a cohesive story of the imperial family’s influence through time.

Her book Modern Kyoto: Building for Ceremony and Commemoration, 1868–1940 (University of Hawai’i Press, 2018) explores the architectural and urban changes that happened in Kyoto after Japan’s imperial family moved to Tokyo in 1868. Tseng reveals how the past still influences the Japanese imperial family as the new emperor and empress start their reign.

Today, the Japanese imperial family—the oldest royal line in the world—is in the midst of a historic transition of reign.

On April 30, 2019, former Emperor Akihito, the 125th monarch to rule in the line of Japan’s imperial family, willingly abdicated the Japanese throne. It was an extremely rare move for a member of the imperial family (the likes of which has not happened since 1817, when Emperor Kokaku became the first emperor in several hundred years’ time to rule past the age of 40, after which he decided to hand over the throne to his much younger and healthier son). Likewise, upon the recent abdication of Akihito, who is currently 85 years old, the throne was passed to his son and successor, Naruhito.

For Akihito to be able to give up the throne, which he wanted to do for age- and health-related reasons (not unlike his ancestor Kokaku), Akihito went through a lengthy process to persuade Japanese cabinet members to change an existing law that prevented him from abdicating. Since ascending the throne on May 1, 2019, Emperor Naruhito, along with his wife, Empress Masako, are now preparing for October of this year, when the formal enthronement ceremony will take place.

Here, Tseng explains the historical influence of Japan’s imperial family and how tradition is shaping what we will see surrounding the enthronement of Japan’s new emperor, Naruhito, and empress, Masako.

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