Wednesday, December 31, 2014

How To Become Invisible: The Science Behind The Fiction

The idea of invisibility sounds like something out of science fiction: but could new research turn it from fiction into science? The ambition behind Professor Leonhardt’s ERC- funded research is to trace the connections between abstract theoretical concepts, drawn from geometry and relativity, and their practical implications in fields from materials to photonics. He  presented this research to the public at the TEDx Brussels event on 1 December.

© Ulf Leonhardt

The ideas behind the science of invisibility seem to come from a fantastical realm outside the reach of the laboratory. Yet, the tools used to investigate this are not in themselves complicated. Prof. Leonhardt’s work explores the practicalities of invisibility: drawing on cutting-edge optical science which also has profound implications for relativity theory.

The science of the everyday

This research is founded on the connection between geometry and optics: in exploring the space/time curvature for example. This kind of high-impact physics may seem remote from everyday life but the same physics governs the optics of magnifying glasses, or the displacement of objects in water. The best way to describe this process is to think of fish in an aquarium. We see the fish in places other than where they are actually located because the water has distorted the images. Our perception of space is then altered by the water, as our perception is created by the way in which light perceives the altered space.

The research team are testing this distinction by pushing it to extremes to see where it can be taken, and whether any new and intriguing ideas can be developed.

The fundamentals of science

The mysteries of optics have interested scientists for over a thousand years. They have inspired research into what new technology can teach us about the intersection between physics and optics. Beyond this theoretical exploration, Prof. Leonhardt is tracing the potential practical applications: for example in the sharpness and resolution of imaging techniques, and the implications for quantum physics. The forces acting in a quantum vacuum are of particular interest for this project. 

Whilst these concepts seem abstract, Prof. Leonhardt explains that the vacuum is something we experience day-to-day: “These forces are what make a parking ticket stick to a windscreen. Both surfaces are electrically neutral but they nonetheless attract each other. The forces are particularly important for micro-mechanical devices where they may cause parts of the machinery to get stuck. Our work should aid the development of frictionless devices. The quantum vacuum is also what drives particle behaviour at the event horizon, only on a cosmological scale. This research could shed light on the mysteries of dark energy, the repulsive force which energises the universe, but about which we understand very little.”

The appeal of optics

Prof. Leonhardt’s current line of research began fifteen years ago, when he was giving a lecture course on general relativity. The details of this were unfamiliar, and it prompted him to think about how to communicate it clearly, and to explore the connections between what he was teaching and his background in optics.

This project should enlarge our understanding of the world at both the small and the cosmological scale. Prof. Leonhardt emphasises that the ERC’s commitment to funding frontier research means that “ideas which may seem outrageous can be pursued. Because if they are right they should be taken seriously, however peculiar they may seem. The significant thing is what they teach us.”

The world beyond the laboratory

Prof. Leonhardt’s research is highly imaginative, but the tools themselves are not particularly technical. He believes this is the source of his appeal to the TEDx audience. He argues that the public can be “gripped by frontier research without even labelling it as such. They can then be made to understand that research takes time. We do not always need to think in terms of applications, though of course these can and do arise in the course of research. If we don’t support frontier research we will just carry on refining existing technologies. We may even run out of ideas.”

Discussing the TEDx event, Prof. Leonhardt is adamant that such dissemination events are vital because the science is “publicly funded and so the public should know where the money goes - that it is not wasted and that it produces interesting ideas and applications.”

The ERC funding is focused on the individual researcher, an emphasis which Prof. Leonhardt argues ideally suits the generation of ideas. Flexibility fosters the kind of science where by definition you don’t know the answers yet. Also inspired by the relationship between imaginative literature, science and musics, he compares the science he does to an orchestra “where both the conductor and the varied musicians are necessary to complete the piece.”

Ancient Martian Meteorite Provides Clues To The Planet's History Of Habitability

A new analysis of a Martian rock that meteorite hunters plucked from an Antarctic ice field 30 years ago this month reveals a record of the planet's climate billions of years ago, back when water likely washed across its surface and any life that ever formed there might have emerged.

Credit: NASA

Scientists from the University of California, San Diego, NASA and the Smithsonian Institution report detailed measurements of minerals within the meteorite in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week.
"Minerals within the meteorite hold a snapshot of the planet's ancient chemistry, of interactions between water and atmosphere," said Robina Shaheen, a project scientist at UC San Diego and the lead author of the report.

The unlovely stone, which fell to Earth 13 thousand years ago, looked a lot like a potato and has quite a history. Designated ALH84001, it is the oldest meteorite we have from Mars, a chunk of solidified magma from a volcano that erupted four billion years ago. Since then something liquid, probably water, seeped through pores in the rock and deposited globules of carbonates and other minerals.

The carbonates vary subtly depending on the sources of their carbon and oxygen atoms. Both carbon and oxygen occur in heavier and lighter versions, or isotopes. The relative abundances of isotopes forms a chemical signature that careful analysis and sensitive measurements can uncover.

Mars's atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide but contains some ozone. The balance of oxygen isotopes within ozone are strikingly weird with enrichment of heavy isotopes through a physical chemical phenomenon first described by co-author Mark Thiemens, a professor of chemistry at UC San Diego, and colleagues 25 years ago.

"When ozone reacts with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it transfers its isotopic weirdness to the new molecule," said Shaheen, who investigated this process of oxygen isotope exchange as a graduate student at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. When carbon dioxide reacts with water to make carbonates, the isotopic signature continues to be preserved.

The degree of isotopic weirdness in the carbonates reflects how much water and ozone was present when they formed. It's a record of climate 3.9 billion years ago, locked in a stable mineral. The more water, the smaller the weird ozone signal.

This team measured a pronounced ozone signal in the carbonates within the meteorite, suggesting that although Mars had water back then, vast oceans were unlikely. Instead, the early Martian landscape probably held smaller seas.

"What's also new is our simultaneous measurements of carbon isotopes on the same samples. The mix of carbon isotopes suggest that the different minerals within the meteorite had separate origins," Shaheen said. "They tell us the story of the chemical and isotopic compositions of the atmospheric carbon dioxide."

ALH84001 held tiny tubes of carbonate that some scientists saw as potential evidence of microbial life, though a biological origin for the structures has been discarded. On December 16, NASA announced another potential whiff of Martian life in the form of methane sniffed by the rover Curiosity.

Credit: NASA

Carbonates can be deposited by living things that scavenge the minerals to build their skeletons, but that is not the case for the minerals measured by this team. "The carbonate we see is not from living things," Shaheen said. "It has anomalous oxygen isotopes that tell us this carbonate is abiotic."

By measuring the isotopes in multiple ways, the chemists found carbonates depleted in carbon-13 and enriched in oxygen-18. That is, Mars's atmosphere in this era, a period of great bombardment, had much less carbon-13 than it does today.

The change in relative abundances of carbon and oxygen isotopes may have occurred through extensive loss of Martian atmosphere. A thicker atmosphere would likely have been required for liquid water to flow on the planet's chilly surface.

"We now have a much deeper and specific insight into the earliest oxygen-water system in the solar system," Thiemens said. "The question that remains is when did planets, Earth and Mars, get water, and in the case of Mars, where did it go? We've made great progress, but still deep mysteries remain."

Contacts and sources:
University Of California - San Diego

"Weird Little Corner" Of The Already Weird World Of Neutrinos

In what they call a "weird little corner" of the already weird world of neutrinos, physicists have found evidence that these tiny particles might be involved in a surprising reaction.

Neutrinos are famous for almost never interacting. As an example, ten trillion neutrinos pass through your hand every second, and fewer than one actually interacts with any of the atoms that make up your hand. However, when neutrinos do interact with another particle, it happens at very close distances and involves a high-momentum transfer.

 This MINERvA event display shows a coherent pion production candidate interaction. The neutrino enters the detector from the left and interacts with a nucleus, producing a muon and a pion. The colors indicate the amount of energy deposited at that point.
Credit: Fermilab Today

And yet a new paper, published in Physical Review Letters this week, shows that neutrinos sometimes can also interact with a nucleus but leave it basically untouched - inflicting no more than a "glancing blow" - resulting in a particle being created out of a vacuum.

Professor Kevin McFarland is a scientific co-spokesperson with the international MINERvA collaboration, which carries out neutrino scattering experiments at Fermilab McFarland, who also heads up the Rochester team that was primarily responsible for the analysis of the results, compares neutrino interactions to the firing of a bullet at a bubble, only to find the bubble was left intact.

"The bubble - a carbon nucleus in the experiment - deflects the neutrino 'bullet' by creating a particle from the vacuum," McFarland explains. "This effectively shields the bubble from getting blasted apart and instead the bullet only delivers a gentle bump to the bubble."

Producing an entirely new particle - in this case a charged pion - requires much more energy than it would take to blast the nucleus apart - which is why the physicists are always surprised that the reaction happens as often as it does. McFarland adds that even painstakingly detailed theoretical calculations for this reaction "have been all over the map."

"The production of pions from this reaction had not been observed consistently in other experiments," McFarland said. By using a new technique, they were able to measure how much momentum and energy were transferred to the carbon nucleus - showing that it remained undisturbed - and the distribution of the pions that were created.

"After analyzing the results, we now have overwhelming evidence for the process," McFarland says.

The two members of the collaboration who were primarily responsible for analyzing the results were Aaron Higuera, at the time a postdoc at Rochester and now at the University of Houston, and Aaron Mislivec, one of McFarland's Ph.D. students.

Working with Higuera, Mislivec wrote the computer code that allowed them to sift through the results and get a picture of the reaction. "Our detector gave us access to the full information of exactly what was happening in this reaction," Mislivec explains. "Our data was consistent with the unique fingerprint of this reaction and determined how these interactions happen and how often." The key to identifying the reaction was finding undisturbed carbon nuclei and then studying the two resulting particles - the pion, which is responsible for shielding the nucleus, and the muon.

Understanding this reaction, McFarland states, "is not going to make a better mousetrap, but it is exciting to learn that this weird reaction really does take place."

Researchers in the MINERvA collaboration measure low energy neutrino interactions both to support neutrino oscillation experiments and study the strong dynamics of the nucleon and nucleus that affect the interactions.

The work is funded by the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and partnering scientific agencies in Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Switzerland, Peru and Russia.

Contacts and sources:
Leonor Sierra and Peter Iglinski

Number of Objects in Space: 1957 to 2010 Timelapse Animation

This video shows the growth of all objects in space from 1957 to 2010. 

It was produced by AGI, the software company that designed and operates the Space Data Center ( for the Space Data Association (, a group of international satellite operators who voluntarily share proprietary orbital data to improve the safety of space. 

The video above depicts satellites, both active and inactive, and space debris.
To learn more about the software that allows this international space collaboration, visit

Monday, December 29, 2014

Looking Forward To The 24th Century: Cardiac Arrest Remains A Deadly Problem - But For Different Reasons From Today

The Star Trek universe is one of the most popular pieces of science fiction entertainment. Lots of the technologies seen in the TV and cinema episodes featuring Captain Kirk, Mr Spock or Captain Picard were once regarded as futuristic, but have now become reality - with examples including wireless communication or portable computers. 

Emergency medicine in the make-believe 24th century
Credit: Medical University of Vienna

In a recent study by the University Department of Emergency Medicine at the MedUni Vienna, the make-believe future of the human race depicted in this series has been used to investigate the frequency and mortality of cardiac arrests in the 24th century.

Right from the start, the scientists were involved in the production of the Star Trek series. The famous researcher Stephen Hawking, a self-confessed Star Trek fan, once wrote in a preface that the series "expands the human imagination". Many of the technical devices that occur very early on in the series have become reality. Even in the pilot film in 1966, the crew was given a message on a sheet of paper that was emitted from a machine. In those days, the fax machine hadn't even been invented. It wasn't until 1979 that the first fax machines were connected to the telephone network.

Captain Kirk's "communicator" from 1966 can be regarded as the fore-runner to the modern-day mobile phone. Some manufacturers later declared that they had been inspired by Star Trek. The same goes for hands-free earpieces, flat screens, video phones or a type of laptop. All of these had been used in the Star Trek series long before they were used in the real world.

Emergency medicine in the make-believe 24th century

Scientists at the MedUni Vienna now used this vision of the future to take a look at emergency medicine in the make-believe 24th century. The result: even in the world of Star Trek, a cardiac arrest is associated with high mortality - albeit less due to general medical reasons than today. "The treatment of cardiac arrests is a very highly-researched field of modern medicine. Unfortunately, survival rates after an event such as this have continued to stagnate at a low level for many years," explains study leader David Hörburger. "The aim of the study was to analyse its epidemiology and treatment in the way it is fictitiously portrayed in the 24th century in the world of Star Trek in order to find inspiration for the present day."

526 episodes of the TV series "Star Trek - The Next Generation", "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and "Star Trek: Voyager" were studied to determine the occurrence of cardiac arrests. A total of 96 cardiac arrests were documented and analysed.

In the 24th century, people "live" more healthily

A cardiac arrest is therefore associated with high mortality in the 24th century too (around 90 per cent). However, an analysis of how they are portrayed in the Star Trek series illustrates a significant shift in the cause from general medical to traumatological, i.e. death caused by severe physical injury, injury caused by "energy weapons" and poisoning, rather than by heart attacks or cardiac arrhythmias, which are the most common causes of present-day cardiac arrests. Says Hörburger: "This invites the conclusion that people in the future will be living much more healthily and will have better preventative medicine than we do now."

Another interesting result of this analytical glimpse of a make-believe future is that, today, people who suffer a cardiac arrest in hospital have the best chances of survival, followed by patients who have a cardiac arrest in the street. The poorest outlook is reserved for people who have a cardiac arrest at home. In the Star Trek future presented in this study, this situation is different - and can be explained by the technology of "teleportation", i.e. the lightning-fast transport of a human through the transfer of matter from one location to another. Hand-held medical scanners ("tricorders") were also used frequently in the programmes and helped to treat patients.

Contacts and sources:
Medical University of Vienna

Citation: Where no guideline has gone before: Restrospective analysis of resuscitation in the 24th century.“ D. Hörburger, J. Haslinger, H. Bickel, N. Graf, A. Schober, C. Testori, C. Weiser, F. Sterz, M. Haugk.

Parasite Eggs From The Celtic Period Found In Basel

Archaeologists from the University of Basel discovered eggs of intestinal parasites in samples from the former Celtic settlement “Basel-Gasfabrik”, and concluded that its population lived in poor sanitary conditions. Using special geoarchaelogical methods, they found three different types of parasites, as reported in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Roundworm egg (Ascaris sp.) with typical undulating membrane. 


As part of an international project, researchers at the Integrative Prehistory and Archaeological Science center (IPAS) at the University of Basel examined samples from the “Basel-Gasfabrik” Celtic settlement, at the present day site of Novartis. The settlement was inhabited around 100 B.C. and is one of the most significant Celtic sites in Central Europe. The team found the durable eggs of roundworms (Ascaris sp.), whipworms, (Trichuris sp.) and liver flukes (Fasciola sp.). The eggs of these intestinal parasites were discovered in the backfill of 2000 year-old storage and cellar pits from the Iron Age.

The presence of the parasite eggs was not, as is usually the case, established by wet sieving of the soil samples. Instead, a novel geoarchaeology-based method was applied using micromorphological thin sections, which enable the parasite eggs to be captured directly in their original settings. The thin sections were prepared from soil samples embedded in synthetic resin, thus permitting the researchers to determine the number and exact location of the eggs at their site of origin in the sediments of the pits. This offered new insights into diseases triggered by parasites in the Iron Age settlement.

Poor sanitary conditions

The eggs of the Iron Age parasites originate from preserved human and animal excrement (coprolites) and show that some individuals were host to several parasites at the same time. Furthermore, the parasite eggs were distributed throughout the former topsoil, which points to the waste management practiced for this special type of 'refuse'. It may, for example, have been used as fertilizer for the settlement's vegetable gardens. As liver flukes require freshwater snails to serve as intermediate hosts, it is conceivable that this type of parasite was introduced via livestock brought in from the surrounding areas to supply meat for the settlement's population.

The archaeologists also used the microscopic slides to show that the eggs of the intestinal parasites were washed out with water and dispersed in the soil. This suggests poor sanitary conditions in the former Celtic community, in which humans and animals lived side by side. At the same time, the distribution of the parasite eggs indicates possible routes of transmission within and between species.

The results of the study were published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. The research project conducted by the IPAS (University of Basel), and Archäologische Bodenforschung Basel-Stadt was also supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation and the Freiwillige Akademische Gesellschaft Basel.

Contacts and sources:
University of Basel 

Citation: Sandra L. Pichler, Christine Pümpin, David Brönnimann, Philippe Rentzel, Life in the Proto-Urban Style: The identification of parasite eggs in micromorphological thin sections from the Swiss Basel-Gasfabrik late Iron Age settlement.  Journal of Archaeological Science (2014) | doi:10.1016/j.jas.2013.12.002

Lost Memories Might Be Able To Be Restored, New UCLA Study Indicates

New UCLA research indicates that lost memories can be restored. The findings offer some hope for patients in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

For decades, most neuroscientists have believed that memories are stored at the synapses — the connections between brain cells, or neurons — which are destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease. The new study provides evidence contradicting the idea that long-term memory is stored at synapses.

Credit: Curtis Neveu/Wikimedia Commons 

“Long-term memory is not stored at the synapse,” said David Glanzman, a senior author of the study, and a UCLA professor of integrative biology and physiology and of neurobiology. “That’s a radical idea, but that’s where the evidence leads. The nervous system appears to be able to regenerate lost synaptic connections. If you can restore the synaptic connections, the memory will come back. It won’t be easy, but I believe it’s possible.”

The findings were published recently in eLife, a highly regarded open-access online science journal.

Glanzman’s research team studies a type of marine snail called Aplysia to understand the animal’s learning and memory. The Aplysia displays a defensive response to protect its gill from potential harm, and the researchers are especially interested in its withdrawal reflex and the sensory and motor neurons that produce it.

They enhanced the snail’s withdrawal reflex by giving it several mild electrical shocks on its tail. The enhancement lasts for days after a series of electrical shocks, which indicates the snail’s long-term memory. Glanzman explained that the shock causes the hormone serotonin to be released in the snail’s central nervous system.

Long-term memory is a function of the growth of new synaptic connections caused by the serotonin, said Glanzman, a member of UCLA’s Brain Research Institute. As long-term memories are formed, the brain creates new proteins that are involved in making new synapses. If that process is disrupted — for example by a concussion or other injury — the proteins may not be synthesized and long-term memories cannot form. (This is why people cannot remember what happened moments before a concussion.)

David Glanzman with a marine snail

Credit: Christelle Nahas/UCLA

“If you train an animal on a task, inhibit its ability to produce proteins immediately after training, and then test it 24 hours later, the animal doesn’t remember the training,” Glanzman said. “However, if you train an animal, wait 24 hours, and then inject a protein synthesis inhibitor in its brain, the animal shows perfectly good memory 24 hours later. In other words, once memories are formed, if you temporarily disrupt protein synthesis, it doesn’t affect long-term memory. That’s true in the Aplysia and in human’s brains.” (This explains why people’s older memories typically survive following a concussion.)

Glanzman’s team found the same mechanism held true when studying the snail’s neurons in a Petri dish. The researchers placed the sensory and motor neurons that mediate the snail’s withdrawal reflex in a Petri dish, where the neurons re-formed the synaptic connections that existed when the neurons were inside the snail’s body. When serotonin was added to the dish, new synaptic connections formed between the sensory and motor neurons. But if the addition of serotonin was immediately followed by the addition of a substance that inhibits protein synthesis, the new synaptic growth was blocked; long-term memory could not be formed.

The researchers also wanted to understand whether synapses disappeared when memories did. To find out, they counted the number of synapses in the dish and then, 24 hours later, added a protein synthesis inhibitor. One day later, they re-counted the synapses.

What they found was that new synapses had grown and the synaptic connections between the neurons had been strengthened; late treatment with the protein synthesis inhibitor did not disrupt the long-term memory. The phenomenon is extremely similar to what happens in the snail’s nervous system during this type of simple learning, Glanzman said.

Next, the scientists added serotonin to a Petri dish containing a sensory neuron and motor neuron, waited 24 hours, and then added another brief pulse of serotonin — which served to remind the neurons of the original training — and immediately afterward add the protein synthesis inhibitor. This time, they found that synaptic growth and memory were erased. When they re-counted the synapses, they found that the number had reset to the number before the training, Glanzman said. This suggests that the “reminder” pulse of serotonin triggered a new round of memory consolidation, and that inhibiting protein synthesis during this “reconsolidation” erased the memory in the neurons.

If the prevailing wisdom were true — that memories are stored in the synapses — the researchers should have found that the lost synapses were the same ones that had grown in response to the serotonin. But that’s not what happened: Instead, they found that some of the new synapses were still present and some were gone, and that some of the original ones were gone, too.

Glanzman said there was no obvious pattern to which synapses stayed and which disappeared, which implied that memory is not stored in synapses.

When the scientists repeated the experiment in the snail, and then gave the animal a modest number of tail shocks — which do not produce long-term memory in a naive snail — the memory they thought had been completely erased returned. This implies that synaptic connections that were lost were apparently restored.

“That suggests that the memory is not in the synapses but somewhere else,” Glanzman said. “We think it’s in the nucleus of the neurons. We haven’t proved that, though.”

Glanzman said the research could have significant implications for people with Alzheimer’s disease. Specifically, just because the disease is known to destroy synapses in the brain doesn’t mean that memories are destroyed.

“As long as the neurons are still alive, the memory will still be there, which means you may be able to recover some of the lost memories in the early stages of Alzheimer’s,” he said.

Glanzman added that in the later stages of the disease, neurons die, which likely means that the memories cannot be recovered.

The cellular and molecular processes seem to be very similar between the marine snail and humans, even though the snail has approximately 20,000 neurons and humans have about 1 trillion. Neurons each have several thousand synapses.

Glanzman used to believe that traumatic memories could be erased but he has changed his mind. He now believes that, because memories are stored in the nucleus, it may be much more difficult to modify them. He will continue to study how the marine snail’s memories are restored and how synapses re-grow.

Co-authors of the study include Shanping Chen, Diancai Cai and Kaycey Pearce, research associates in Glanzman’s laboratory.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Science Foundation.

Almost all the processes that are involved in memory in the snail also have been shown to be involved in memory in the brains of mammals, Glanzman said.

In a 1997 study published in the journal Science, Glanzman and colleagues identified a cellular mechanism in the Aplysia that plays an important role in learning and memory. A protein called N-methyl D-aspartate, or NMDA, receptor enhances the strength of synaptic connections in the nervous system and plays a vital role in memory and in certain kinds of learning in the mammalian brain as well. Glanzman’s demonstration that the NMDA receptor plays a critical role in learning in a simple animal like the marine snail was entirely unexpected at the time.

Contacts and sources:
Stuart Wolpert

'Radiogenetics' Seeks To Remotely Control Cells And Genes

It's the most basic of ways to find out what something does, whether it's an unmarked circuit breaker or an unidentified gene -- flip its switch and see what happens. New remote-control technology may offer biologists a powerful way to do this with cells and genes.

A team at Rockefeller University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is developing a system that would make it possible to remotely control biological targets in living animals -- rapidly, without wires, implants or drugs.

Researchers experimented with different configurations for their remote control system, and they found the best relies on an iron nanoparticle (blue), which is tethered by a protein (green) to an ion channel (red). Above, all three appear within cell membranes.

Credit: Laboratory of Molecular Genetics at The Rockefeller University/Nature Medicine

Today (December 15) in the journal Nature Medicine, the team describes successfully using electromagnetic waves to turn on insulin production to lower blood sugar in diabetic mice. Their system couples a natural iron storage particle, ferritin, to a heat activated ion channel called TRPV1 such that when the metal particle is exposed to a radio wave or magnetic field it opens the channel, leading to the activation of an insulin producing gene. Together, the two proteins act as a nano-machine that can be used to trigger gene expression in cells.

"The method allows one to wirelessly control the expression of genes in a living animal and could potentially be used for conditions like hemophilia to control the production of a missing protein. Two key attributes are that the system is genetically encoded and can activate cells remotely and quickly," says Jeffrey Friedman, Marilyn M. Simpson Professor head of the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics at Rockefeller. "We are now exploring whether the method can also be used to control neural activity as a means for noninvasively modulating the activity of neural circuits." Friedman and his Rensselaer colleague Jonathan S. Dordick were co-senior researchers on the project.

Other techniques exist for remotely controlling the activity of cells or the expression of genes in living animals. But these have limitations. Systems that use light as an on/off signal require permanent implants or are only effective close to the skin, and those that rely on drugs can be slow to switch on and off.

The new system, dubbed radiogenetics, uses a signal, in this case low-frequency radio waves or a magnetic field, to heat or move ferritin particles. They, in turn, prompt the opening of TRPV1, which is situated in the membrane surrounding the cell. Calcium ions then travel through the channel, switching on a synthetic piece of DNA the scientists developed to turn on the production of a downstream gene, which in this study was the insulin gene.

In an earlier study, the researchers used only radio waves as the 'on' signal, but in the current study, they also tested out a related signal - a magnetic field - could also activate insulin production. They found it had a similar effect as the radio waves.

"The use of a radiofrequency-driven magnetic field is a big advance in remote gene expression because it is non-invasive and easily adaptable," says Dordick, who is Howard P. Isermann Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and vice president of research at Rensselaer. "You don't have to insert anything -- no wires, no light systems -- the genes are introduced through gene therapy. You could have a wearable device that provides a magnetic field to certain parts of the body and it might be used therapeutically for many diseases, including neurodegenerative diseases. It's limitless at this point."

The choice to look at insulin production was driven by the equipment they used to generate the radio waves and magnetic fields. Because the coil that generates these signals is currently small i.e; only three centimeters in diameter, it was necessary to anesthetize the mice to keep them still. Since anesthesia can repress the production of insulin, the hormone that reduces blood sugar, Stanley and her colleagues designed the genetically encoded system to replace the insulin that is normally reduced by anesthesia in mice.

"Ferritin, a protein-coated iron storage molecule, is normally found throughout the mouse and human body, but in our experiments, we modified it, placing the ferritin particles in different positions to see if we could improve our results," says co-first author Sarah Stanley, a senior research associate in Friedman's lab. "We found tethering the ferritin to the channel to be most effective."

The team's positive results suggest other applications for the system. In late September, Stanley received a first-round BRAIN grant from the ambitious federal initiative seeking to create a dynamic map of the brain in action. Stanley and colleagues plan to adapt this system to switch neurons on and off, and so examine their roles within the brain.

"In this current study, we've shown that by opening the TRPV1 channel to allow calcium ions to enter the cell, we can turn on a gene. Since neurons can be depolarized by calcium and other positively charged ions, such as those the TRPV1 channel controls, we hope that this system may be effective at regulating neural activity."

Contacts and sources:
Zach Veilleux

New Research Suggests An Existing Drug, Riluzole, May Prevent Foggy ‘Old Age’ Brain

New experiments suggest that riluzole, a drug already on the market as a treatment for ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), may help prevent the fading memory and clouding judgment that comes with advancing age.

Researchers at The Rockefeller University and The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai found they could stop normal, age-related memory loss in rats by treating them with riluzole. The treatment prompted changes known to improve connections, and as a result, communication between certain neurons within the brain’s hippocampus.

When researchers looked at certain neurons (similar to the one shown on top) in rats treated with riluzole, they found an important change in one brain region, the hippocampus: more clusters of spines, receiving connections that extend from the branches of a neuron (bottom) 

Credit: John H. Morrison’s lab, The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

“By examining the neurological changes that occurred after riluzole treatment, we discovered one way in which the brain’s ability to reorganize itself — its neuroplasticity — can be marshaled to protect it against some of the deterioration that can accompany old age, at least in rodents,” says co-senior study author Alfred E. Mirsky Professor Bruce McEwen, head of the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology. The research is published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Controlling glutamate

Neurons communicate using neurochemical glutamate. But too much glutamate can cause damage; excess can spill out and excite connecting neurons in the wrong spot. In the case of age-related cognitive decline, this process damages neurons at the points where they connect — their synapses. In neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, this contributes to the death of neurons.

Used to slow the progress of another neurodegenerative condition, ALS, riluzole was an obvious choice as a potential treatment, because it works by helping to control glutamate release and uptake, preventing harmful spillover. The researchers began giving riluzole to rats once they reached 10 months old, the rat equivalent of middle age, when their cognitive decline typically begins.

After 17 weeks of treatment, the researchers tested the rats’ spatial memory — the type of memory most readily studied in animals — and found they performed better than their untreated peers, and almost as well as young rats. For instance, when placed in a maze they had already explored, the treated rats recognized an unfamiliar arm as such and spent more time investigating it.

Hippocampus effects

When the researchers looked inside the brains of riluzole-treated rats, they found telling changes to the vulnerable glutamate sensing circuitry within the hippocampus, a brain region implicated in memory and emotion.

“We have found that in many cases, aging involves synaptic changes that decrease synaptic strength, the plasticity of synapses, or both,” said John Morrison, professor of neuroscience and the Friedman Brain Institute and dean of basic sciences and the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Mount Sinai. “The fact that riluzole increased the clustering of only the thin, most plastic spines, suggests that its enhancement of memory results from both an increase in synaptic strength and synaptic plasticity, which might explain its therapeutic effectiveness.”

In this case, the clusters involved thin spines, a rapidly adaptable type of spine. The riluzole-treated animals had more clustering than the young animals and their untreated peers, who had the least. This discovery led the researchers to speculate that, in general, the aged brain may compensate by increasing clustering. Riluzole appears to enhance this mechanism.

“In our study, this phenomenon of clustering proved to be the core underlying mechanism that prevented age-related cognitive decline. By compensating the deleterious changes in glutamate levels with aging and Alzheimer’s disease and promoting important neuroplastic changes in the brain, such as clustering of spines, riluzole may prevent cognitive decline,” says first author Ana Pereira, an instructor in clinical investigation in McEwen’s laboratory.

Taking advantage of the overlap of neural circuits vulnerable to age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease, Pereira is currently conducting a clinical trial* to test the effectiveness of riluzole for patients with mild Alzheimer’s.

Contacts and sources:

Biomarkers For Early Cancer Diagnosis

Early detection of cancer greatly increases the chances for successful treatment. For early detection of cancer, better diagnostic and cancer management techniques are required.

Credit: © Thinkstock

Millions of deaths occur annually worldwide as a result of ovarian, endometrial, bladder and prostate cancers. Early diagnosis is a key factor to achieve treatment breakthrough and better patient outcomes.

The EU-funded PROTBIOFLUID project created a network to develop early cancer detection techniques and spread this knowledge in the medical community. Biofluids were studied to develop specific proteomic profiles that could act as biomarkers for cancer diagnosis.

From the very beginning, this project acted as a catalyst for organising a focused scientific network. This network includes leading research partners with desired complementary expertise.

Several strategies were defined for the identification of diagnostic markers in ovarian, endometrial and prostate cancers as well as prognostic markers in ovarian cancer. Researchers' finalised the optimisation phase for all the approaches and are currently performing in-depth study and data analysis. They characterised molecular events of myometrium infiltration in vitro and in vivo associated with ETV5 transcription factor, as this gene is upregulated in invasive cancers.

Tumour invasion in many types of cancer is triggered by epithelial-mesenchymal transition with the participation of E-cadherin, a transmembrane protein. Researchers observed that the relation between E-cadherin and its variant defines the prognostic value of the tumours. To evaluate future therapies, they developed prostate and endometrial animal models that can be followed-up in vivo to study the progression of the tumour. This tool permits in vivo monitoring to determine drug efficacy and characterise the role of the targets.

At the conclusion of the PROTBIOFLUID project, partners plan to create a framework for joint programs between their institutions. This nucleus of teams would form the core of a growing network working on developing innovative treatments for these deadly cancers.

Contacts and sources


Cyberlightning: 3D Visualisation Of The Internet Of Things

The Finnish start-up CyberLightning used FI-WARE, a set of online services for developers, to create a new software platform named CyberVille®. This 3D visualisation tool can monitor Internet of Things networks such as Smart Grids and Smart City infrastructures.


FI-WARE is the core component of The Future Internet Public-Private Partnership. It supports hundreds of developers and their companies to implement innovative ideas. ‘Thanks to our involvement with FI-WARE, and by developing core components and applications with FI-WARE technology, today we are recognized as the leading industrial Internet company in Finland,’ explains Ville Mickelsson, CEO of CyberLightning, a spin-off from theUniversity of Oulu. ‘The EU funding enabled us to build a team to work on the project and these people have stayed with us to take the company forward.’

CyberLightning is now a company making headway with its pioneering 3D visualization techniques connecting the industrial Internet of Things – and has created 14 full-time jobs in the process.


CyberVille® software platform is based on FI-WARE and was launched in May this year. It combines data collection and big data processing with 3D modelling in a powerful platform to monitor and control industrial networks made up of the Internet of Things (IoT). These include energy networks (smart grids) and smart city infrastructure.

The resulting visualisation tool, based on geographic information system (GIS) data sets and real-time data feeds from IoT sensors, provides companies and organisations with a strategic tool. It enables the company’s corporate customers to control sensor and machine networks using a simple point-and-tap interface on any mobile device.

CyberVille's core engine is the CyberVille™ Mind which collects and elaborates big data and prepares data representation in 3D for the user interface (Cyberville™ UI), which displays in all types of tablet and smartphone browsers.


To demonstrate its energy applications, CyberLightning has built a 3D model of an operating wind farm, with sample data sets reporting on the status of individual wind turbines and control points in the system. Viewed on a tablet, the visualization is so richly detailed that different rotation speeds of fan blades can be seen.

In a smart city application such as facility management, GIS data is merged with Computer Aided Design (CAD) models of a building and its internal smart networks, such as lighting, air conditioning control, occupancy sensors, and security. On a city-wide scale, visualization of intelligent street lighting, or the operation of public transit systems based on real-time data, will benefit operations, maintenance and customer service.

Two of CyberLightning’s important customers are the Finnish electric utility Fortum and the state real estate company, Senate Properties, both of which are already using CyberVille to develop their Internet of Things smart grid and real estate interfaces. CyberLightning is also talking to industrial original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), system integrators and other companies in the energy sector about implementing its solutions.

‘Network operations and control rooms for infrastructure systems today are typically populated with dozens of displays. It’s a major challenge for skilled staff and managers alike to view the big picture,’ said Ville.

‘The complexity of these types of networks will grow exponentially in the Internet of Things era. With CyberVille, we are presenting the first solution addressing the challenges of systems management in incredibly complex network environments,’ he added.

CYBERLIGHTNING received 1 million euros of funding from FI-WARE from April 2013 to September 2014. FI-WARE’s third funding phase launched in September this year with a budget of more than 100 million euros, 80 million of which is destined to SMEs and entrepreneurs.

Contacts and sources:

How ‘Christmas Trees’ Can Help Improve Hydrogen Refuelling Technologies

Sofia Capito, coordinator of HYTRANSFER, describes how the project aims to improve the efficiency of fuelling ‘Fuel cell vehicles’ (FCV).

How can we ensure safe, fast and efficient refuelling of hydrogen-powered cars, all at the same time? This brain teaser, key to the successful deployment of hydrogen technology in our future green economies, is being mulled over thanks to sensor technologies and a prediction model developed under the HYTRANSFER project.

Credit: © Thinkstock

When discussing the market potential of hydrogen, the sceptics often have refuelling at the top of their list of cons. Not only will it take decades to build the necessary infrastructure, but the refuelling operation itself is challenging to say the least.

Let’s pretend that you have a ‘Fuel cell vehicle’ (FCV) and need to fill the tank up before a long trip. With a ‘standard’ fuel car, the operation would be completed in about a minute, whereas the latest FCVs require about three minutes for the whole operation. And getting to this result hasn’t exactly been a sinecure for engineers: unlike petrol or diesel, hydrogen tends to heat up as it is being compressed into the fuel tank, and the composite materials used to create these tanks while keeping their weight as low as possible cannot withstand temperatures above 85 °C. In order to make the three-minute fast-filling operation possible, current refuelling stations pre-cool the hydrogen to -40 °C.

Improving this process to bring more efficient fuelling and even defuelling is the core objective of the HYTRANSFER (Pre-Normative Research for Thermodynamic Optimization of Fast Hydrogen Transfer) project, which started in June 2013 and will end in November 2015. Should it achieve its objectives, the project would help in reducing investment and operating costs, increase the reliability of refuelling stations and reduce maximum refuelling time, which would be a huge step forward in the successful rollout of the technology.

Sofia Capito, coordinator of the project, tells us more about HYTRANSFER’s achievements so far, and how close it is to the ultimate goal of providing new recommendations for implementation into international standards and refuelling protocols.

What are the main objectives of the project?

In the HYTRANSFER project we develop methods and processes to adapt and reduce pre-cooling requirements, thus also reducing the capital and operating expenditure of refuelling stations. Experiments show that the heat transfer between hydrogen gas and the tank wall is rather ineffective. As a result, even when the hydrogen inside the tank reaches 85 °C — the maximum temperature composite-based tanks can be exposed to — the tank wall temperature will be significantly lower. Experiments conducted with nitrogen show a difference of 27 °C! Using thermodynamics to determine the relation between injected hydrogen, filling parameters such as hydrogen flow rate, and ambient temperature, can lead to a hydrogen transfer process which is optimised for the real boundary conditions.

What were the main difficulties you faced during the project and how did you resolve them?

Fortunately we are pretty much on track and many of the drawbacks we could have experienced just did not happen. The challenge for the two tank manufacturers involved, including project partner Hexagon Lincoln, are the particular requirements associated with the experiments: we need temperature sensors in the tank walls! And we don’t need just one or two of them, but 30 sensors per tank. Positioning them during the manufacturing process is rather tricky, but both manufacturers put a lot of effort into it and eventually succeeded. With these sensors we can measure the temperature inside the tank walls. But we also need sensors to measure the temperature of the gas itself at various points in the tanks. As the tank openings are just a few millimetres in diameter, we introduce sensor arrangements nicknamed ‘Christmas trees’, narrow enough to fit through the tank orifices before they unfold themselves, similar to putting a ship in a bottle.

Where do you stand with the project? Have you achieved a satisfying level of temperature control yet?

At the moment three different laboratories are conducting experiments on three different kinds of tanks, as examining tanks in several labs ensures reliability and reproducibility of the results. Many of the experiments take place at the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission which is a project partner. In parallel, accompanying ‘Computational fluid dynamics’ (CFD) simulations are further developed to be consistent with the results of the experiments. The project partner TesTneT is currently pre-checking initial experiment results, while the PPRIME institute (French research institute, CNRS/ENSMA/Univ. Poitiers) has already produced detailed measurements of the actual thermal properties of the tanks used. A simplified model with significantly reduced computation time — seconds to minutes instead of days to weeks — has been validated as well. So far, our experiments and modelling exercises support our assumption that there is significant room for improvement in pre-cooling requirements.

Are you optimistic about your approach impacting international standards?

As one of the first steps in HYTRANSFER, we analysed optimisation opportunities for the hydrogen transfer process within existing international ‘Regulations, codes and standards’ (RCS) and state-of-the-art of hydrogen technology. Based on this and the results obtained so far, we are quite confident that the project will produce test results and validation of these results leading to strong recommendations for RCS.

The CCS Global Group (CCS), with its decades of leadership in RCS development and compliance in the FCH and electrical sectors, is monitoring the relevant RCS activities and test results of the project so that we will be able to identify and extract RCS recommendations and develop a path forward for them to international bodies (e.g. CEN/ISO).

How do you expect your conclusions to help boost the hydrogen car market?

Car efficiency as such will not be boosted, but the interplay between refuelling stations and fuel cell vehicles will be improved. For the customers, this will result in reduced maximum refuelling time, increased reliability of the station and even reduced hydrogen prices. Ludwig-Bölkow-Systemtechnik (LBST) will conduct a detailed techno-economic analysis to identify the impact of the improved processes.

What are the next steps for the project, and do you have any follow-up plans after its end?

Current vehicles typically have not just one, but two or three connected tanks, so we need to find a viable refuelling approach for both single tanks and tank systems. The next step for us is to conclude our experiments on single tanks and further develop our simulations based on what we learn, after which a new, detailed refuelling protocol will be developed and tested on tank systems supplied by FCV manufacturer and project partner Honda.

HYTRANSFER will be considered as successful when the newly developed refuelling approach is published as a recommendation to international RCS bodies, and when our recommendations related to defueling are published.

We don’t have any specific follow-up plans yet, but when HYTRANSFER is concluded and eventually finds its way into international RCS, further validation and an even a broader spectrum of experiments will have to be conducted.

Contacts and sources:

Fuel Cells To Connect Our Smartphones To The Outside World

Giancarlo Tomarchio, coordinator of the FCPOWEREDRBS project, explains how fuel cells can represent a real alternative to standard power sources.

Credit: © Thinkstock

The potential of hydrogen and fuel cell applications goes way beyond the development of green cars. The FCPOWEREDRBS team is determined to prove this with a Fuel Cell technology to power off-grid telecom stations. They believe not only that this solution is better than standard generators, but also that it provides a significant advantage in terms of ‘Total cost of ownership’ (TCO).

Did you know that, in 2014 alone, worldwide smartphone usage has grown by 25 %? Or that most of the telecom sites connecting these smartphones to the outside world are off-grid? This increasing pressure on self-powered installations requires continued efforts to come up with ever more innovative, reliable, efficient, cost-effective and sustainable energy generators.

Currently, most sites for which connection to the electricity grid is not an option rely on batteries and diesel generators. However, the FCPOWEREDRBS project has set out to convince telecom operators and local administrations alike that fuel cells represent a real alternative to such standard power sources. To this end, the project — which involves European industries and research centres Dantherm Power AS (Denmark) and MES SA (Switzerland), electrolyser manufacturer GreenHydrogen (Denmark), the University of Rome, the EU’s Joint Research Centre and Ericsson — is testing a custom-made fuel cell solution on various sites across Italy. This specific solution has been engineered by the project team and integrates different energy provider components (fuel cells, photovoltaics and batteries) in the ‘most efficient and reliable way’.

For Giancarlo Tomarchio, coordinator of the project and Customer Project Manager at Ericsson, the ultimate goal of the project is clear: demonstrating the industrial readiness and the market appeal of Fuel Cell technology for off-grid telecom applications. In this exclusive interview with the research*eu results magazine, he tells us how advanced he and his team are with the field trials, and how they intend to demonstrate the advantages of hydrogen and fuel cells for delivering the expected power supply service.

What are the main objectives of the project?

FCPOWEREDRBS is a demo project within the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking Programme. We are conducting a set of field trials that aim to demonstrate the advantages of hydrogen and fuel cell technology for off-grid telecom applications. These trials consists in replacing the power supply of 15 radio base stations in the live network of selected Italian telecom operators with a new one based on our solution — which integrates different energy provider components (fuel cells, photovoltaics and batteries) with efficiency and reliability in mind.

We are also committed to other initiatives aiming to increase the visibility of the fuel cell technology and facilitate its penetration in the telecom market.

What is the added value of using hydrogen and fuel cell technology to power telecom stations?

Remotely located ‘Radio base stations’ (RBS) for Telecom applications are becoming more and more important with the increasing penetration of mobile services. As for many of these stations, the connection to the electricity grid is not an option, and specific off-grid power generation solutions are required and quite often based on diesel fuel generators. With the solution proposed by our project, the amount of unattended hours can be increased thanks to an efficient usage of the different energy sources and to the storage potential of H2. For a Telecom operator, this means lower operational costs. In general, we think that it’s possible to provide our customers (the Telecom operators) with certain benefits in terms of ‘Total cost of ownership’ (TCO), something that nowadays is a strong argument for any Energy Manager.

Moreover, the system includes a smart-metering and telecontrol system providing the operator with more details on the energy behaviour of their base station.

What were the main difficulties you faced in the project and how did you resolve them?

Even though this project is a demo, it is a major innovation for the telecom market. In all our activities, we have to challenge ourselves with the need to produce a system that complies with the demanding requirements of the telecom market: durability and reliability 24/7.. Some of the issues we faced are comparable to those occurring when introducing a new product to the market, in this case aggravated by the nature of the fuel in use.

Resorting to H2 storage in the system implies the adoption of specific processes and procedures in terms of safety. Joint work is needed between the project and the Telecom operators who accepted to host our solution on their sites, in order to customise existing O&M procedures.

When it was time to get the necessary authorisations from the different local administrations in the territories where the sites are located, we were sometimes faced with inconsistent knowledge of the national regulations, which led to misunderstandings and delays in obtaining permits.

We have adopted all the necessary precautions in order to avoid any loss of power for the radio station, as any interruption to the service would be the worst message to give, if we want to gain customers’ trust. Really, our goal is to create long-term trust in fuel cells within the world of telecommunications.

Where do you stand with the on-site demonstrations?

At the moment we have an agreement for installing 10 systems on Telecom Italia’s live network, and three on H3G Italia’s. We have already installed eight sites — five of which are now up and running — while the other sites are about to be connected. We expect a first annual projection of TCO by the end of 2014. The trial will then continue until next year to reach the 12 months of operation normally needed for the verification.

We are also finalising the agreement for an additional installation of a non-telecom application, but with similar electrical requirements.

Are you happy with the results of the project so far?

The project started at the beginning of 2012 with the initial purpose being to install a system which was a ‘simple’ integration of a commercial product. In reality, we discovered that, besides the system configuration tuning, some additional developments were needed both in the fuel cell equipment and in the control logic. These activities have been successfully carried out and the lab tests hold much promise. We will spend the next few months continuously monitoring the system behaviour and optimising the parameters to make the system as efficient as possible.

When do you expect this technology to hit the market?

An exact forecast is always difficult. We definitely think that the solution proposed has high market potential: worldwide, more than 100 000 new cell phone base stations are installed every year. Most of them are installed in emerging and developing countries with a poor grid infrastructure, which means they have batteries and/or a backup power generator installed. The majority of these new base stations could be set up with a fuel cell system for power generation, if the technologies were proven safe and if the systems were available at competitive costs.

The FCPOWEREDRBS project still has some way to go to prove that such benchmarks are being achieved and opening up the way for broader commercialisation.

What are the next steps for the project, and do you have any follow-up plans after its end?

For the project team, it is now time to consolidate the results, optimise the solution and disseminate the results. We have already begun training activities to raise awareness among the telecom engineers about the FC technology, and we will also continue to share the telecom requirements with the FC world.

Should the project become a success story, as we all hope, there will be some further work to do in order to industrialise the solution so that it can be considered as a real product. The introduction or integration into a larger portfolio is now our dream and final goal.

Contacts and sources:

Tackling Parkinson’s With Targeted Therapeutic Vaccines

EU-funded researchers are behind a pioneering clinical trial that could one day offer Parkinson’s disease sufferers a new lease of life.

Credit:  © Thinkstock

Clinical trials are about to begin on a new Parkinson’s disease vaccine that could offer patients significant improvements over current treatments. The vaccine, developed through the FP7-funded SYMPATH project, may actually be able to modify disease progression, rather than simply providing symptomatic improvement.

The breakthrough could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Parkinson's disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disorder among the elderly; it has been estimated that there are around 1.2 million patients in Europe alone. There is currently no cure and existing therapeutic measures are only able to treat symptoms. The disease typically starts with non-motor symptoms, and progresses slowly but steadily to a debilitating state.

What is more, the provision of healthcare for the elderly has become a pressing social and economic concern. By 2025, more than 20 % of Europeans will be 65 or over, with a particularly rapid increase in the number of over 80s. An ageing population means increased incidences of physical, sensory and mental diseases. If Europe is to maintain manageable healthcare costs and ensure a decent quality of life for millions of its citizens, then diseases like Parkinson’s must be tackled.

This has been the objective of the SYMPATH project. Although therapeutic vaccines have been the subject of intensive research for neurodegenerative disorders, no concept has as yet entered into clinical practice.

The new vaccine works by targeting a specific protein called alpha-Synuclein, which plays a key role in the onset and progression of Parkinson’s as well as ‘Multiple system atrophy’ (MSA). MSA is a rare neurodegenerative disorder that progresses rapidly, usually leading to death within nine years. It is associated with the degeneration of nerve cells in specific areas of the brain, causing problems with movement and balance.

These randomised, placebo-controlled trials will be conducted in Vienna and Innsbruck, Austria. The trials aim to demonstrate the safety and tolerability of the vaccine, and researchers will also assess the vaccine’s immunological and clinical activity in vaccinated patients.

SYMPATH builds on the fact that vaccines have a particularly attractive cost-effectiveness ratio. Their protection rate is usually high, side effects are minimal, and vaccines only need to be administered a limited number of times. The cost-medical benefits ratio of a therapeutic vaccine is therefore unlikely to be met by any other form of treatment currently under development. In this way, the SYMPATH project will help to meet public health needs and contribute to the sustainability of European healthcare systems.

The start of the clinical trial comes only a year after the SYMPATH consortium was launched, reflecting the high level of cooperation achieved between the expert partners. Scheduled to run until September 2017, the project has received nearly EUR 6 million in EU funding from the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). AFFiRiS, located in Vienna, Austria, is the coordinator for the project’s ambitious research programme. Project partners include five universities and three SMEs from across Europe.

Contacts and sources:

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Origin Of Theta Auroras Found

Auroras are the most visible manifestation of the sun's effect on Earth, but many aspects of these spectacular displays are still poorly understood. Thanks to the joint European Space Agency and NASA's Cluster mission combined with data from a past NASA mission called the Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration, or IMAGE, a particular type of very high-latitude aurora has now been explained.

The ESA/NASA Cluster and NASA's IMAGE missions were in a position around Earth on Sep. 15, 2005, to determine how solar material in the magnetic environment in near-Earth space creates a special kind of high-latitude aurora called a theta aurora.


Known as a theta aurora -- because seen from above it looks like the Greek letter theta, an oval with a line crossing through the center -- this type of aurora sometimes occurs closer to the poles than normal aurora. While the genesis of the auroral oval emissions is reasonably well understood, the origin of the theta aurora was unclear until now. A paper in the Dec. 19, 2014, issue of Science shows that hot plasma funneled into near-Earth space from the sun helps cause these unique aurora.

"The possibilities have been debated since the first satellite observations of the phenomenon were made in the 1980s," said Robert Fear of the University of Southampton in the U.K. (formerly at the University of Leicester), and lead author of the Science paper.

Although separated by some 93 million miles, the sun and Earth are connected by what's known as the solar wind. This plasma - electrically charged atomic particles - streams from the sun and travels across the solar system, carrying its own magnetic field along for the ride.

Depending on how this interplanetary magnetic field is aligned in relationship to Earth's magnetic field, there can be various results when the solar wind arrives at near-Earths space. At the point where the two fields meet, Earth's magnetic field points north. If the interplanetary field points in the opposite direction -- south -- then something called magnetic reconnection occurs, causing magnetic field lines pointing in opposite directions to suddenly realign into a new configuration.

The realignment opens the door so that solar wind material can funnel into the magnetosphere - the giant magnetic bubble surrounding Earth. This is what leads to the aurora, which is produced when the particles funnel down along Earth's magnetic field lines and strike atoms high in the atmosphere. The interaction with oxygen atoms results in a green or, more rarely, red glow in the night sky, while nitrogen atoms yield blue and purple colors. Normally, the main region for this impressive display is the auroral oval, which lies at around 65-70 degrees north or south of the equator, encircling the polar caps.

But when the interplanetary magnetic field points northward, auroras can occur at even higher latitudes, sometimes resulting in theta aurora. Prior to the recent work, scientists suspected that theta aurora had something to do with the particles observed in the lobe regions of the magnetosphere. The plasma in the lobes is normally cold, but previous observations suggested that theta auroras are linked with unusually hot lobe plasma - but just how was unclear.

"It was unclear whether this hot plasma was a result of direct solar wind entry through the lobes of the magnetosphere," said Fear. "Or if the plasma is somehow related to the plasma sheet on the night side of Earth. One idea is that the process of magnetic reconnection on the night side of Earth causes a build-up of trapped, hot plasma in the higher latitude lobes."

The mystery was finally solved by studying data collected simultaneously by the Cluster and IMAGE spacecraft on Sept. 15, 2005. While the four Cluster satellites were located in the southern hemisphere magnetic lobe, IMAGE had a wide-field view of the southern hemisphere aurora. As one Cluster satellite observed uncharacteristically energetic plasma in the lobe, IMAGE saw the arc of the theta aurora cross the magnetic footprint of Cluster.

The team found that the energetic plasma appeared on high-latitude magnetic field lines that had been closed by the process of magnetic reconnection driven by the northward pointed fields. This in turn caused the plasma to become relatively hot. Such observations support the idea that theta aurora are due to plasma trapped inside the magnetosphere, rather than material being directly pushed in from the solar wind.

"Solving the question of the origin of the theta aurora required Cluster's high inclination orbit that sweeps over the region where the aurora are generated together with the imaging capability of IMAGE, which is no longer functioning," said Melvyn Goldstein, Cluster project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "Hopefully, future missions will give comparable capabilities to view the polar regions of the magnetosphere."

Cluster consists of four satellites flying in formation around Earth. The data presented in this report were collected by Cluster-1. The Cluster mission was launched in 2000 and is still operating. IMAGE was launched in 2000 and concluded operations at the end of 2005. The data presented in this report were collected by the satellite's far-ultraviolet Wideband Imaging Camera.

Contacts and sources:
European Space Agency and Karen C. Fox
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland

How 'Microbial Dark Matter' Might Cause Disease Revealed By Researchers

One of the great recent discoveries in modern biology was that the human body contains 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells. But much of that bacteria is still a puzzle to scientists.

It is estimated by scientists that roughly half of bacteria living in human bodies is difficult to replicate for scientific research -- which is why biologists call it "microbial dark matter." Scientists, however, have long been determined to learn more about these uncultivable bacteria, because they may contribute to the development of certain debilitating and chronic diseases.

The left image shows the tight physical association between TM7x cells and XH001. The right image shows TM7x cells (red) attach to the surface of XH001 (white). 

Credit: Batbileg Bor/UCLA and Ryan Hunter/U of Minnesota

For decades, one bacteria group that has posed a particular challenge for researchers is the Candidate Phylum TM7, which has been thought to cause inflammatory mucosal diseases because it is so prevalent in people with periodontitis, an infection of the gums.

Now, a landmark discovery by scientists at the UCLA School of Dentistry, the J. Craig Venter Institute and the University of Washington School of Dentistry has revealed insights into TM7's resistance to scientific study and to its role in the progression of periodontitis and other diseases. Their findings shed new light on the biological, ecological and medical importance of TM7, and could lead to better understanding of other elusive bacteria.

The team's findings are published online in the December issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"I consider this the most exciting discovery in my 30-year career," said Dr. Wenyuan Shi, a UCLA professor of oral biology. "This study provides the roadmap for us to make every uncultivable bacterium cultivable."

The researchers cultivated a specific type of TM7 called TM7x, a version of TM7 found in people's mouths, and found the first known proof of a signaling interaction between the bacterium and an infectious agent called Actinomyces odontolyticus, or XH001, which causes mucosal inflammation.

"Once the team grew and sequenced TM7x, we could finally piece together how it makes a living in the human body," said Dr. Jeff McLean, acting associate professor at the University of Washington School of Dentistry. "This may be the first example of a parasitic long-term attachment between two different bacteria -- where one species lives on the surface of another species gaining essential nutrients and then decides to thank its host by attacking it."

To prove that TM7x needs XH001 to grow and survive, the team attempted to mix isolated TM7x cells with other strains of bacteria. Only XH001 was able to establish a physical association with TM7x, which led researchers to believe that TM7x and XH001 might have evolved together during their establishment in the mouth.

What makes TM7x even more intriguing are its potential roles in chronic inflammation of the digestive tract, vaginal diseases and periodontitis. The co-cultures collected in this study allowed researchers to examine, for the first time ever, the degree to which TM7x helps cause these conditions.

"Uncultivable bacteria presents a fascinating 'final frontier' for dental microbiologists and are a high priority for the NIDCR research portfolio," said Dr. R. Dwayne Lunsford, director of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research's microbiology program. "This study provides a near-perfect case of how co-cultivation strategies and a thorough appreciation for interspecies signaling can facilitate the recovery of these elusive organisms. Although culture-independent studies can give us a snapshot of microbial diversity at a particular site, in order to truly understand physiology and virulence of an isolate, we must ultimately be able to grow and manipulate these bacteria in the lab."

It was previously known that XH001 induces inflammation. But by infecting bone marrow cells with XH001 alone and then with the TM7x/XH001 co-culture, the researchers also found that inflammation was greatly reduced when TM7x was physically attached to XH001. This is the only known study that has provided evidence of this relationship between TM7 and XH001.

The researchers plan to further study the unique relationship between TM7X and XH001 and how they jointly cause mucosal disease. Their findings could have implications for potential treatment and therapeutics.

221 New Species Described By The California Academy Of Sciences In 2014

In 2014, researchers at the California Academy of Sciences added a whopping 221 new plant and animal species to our family tree, enriching our understanding of Earth's complex web of life and strengthening our ability to make informed conservation decisions. The new species include 110 ants, 16 beetles, three spiders, 28 fishes, 24 sea slugs, two marine worms, 9 barnacles, two octocorals, 25 plants, one waterbear, and one tiny mammal. More than a dozen Academy scientists--along with several dozen international collaborators--described the discoveries.

Proving that there are still plenty of places to explore and things to discover on Earth, the scientists made their finds over five continents and two oceans, ventured into remote caves and descended to the bottom of the sea, looked in their owns backyards (California) and on the other side of the world (Africa). Their results, published in 64 different scientific papers, help advance the Academy's research into two of the most important scientific questions of our time: "How did life evolve?" and "How will it persist?"

Meet Phyllodesmium undulatum -- a brightly colored, poison-loving sea slug.
Credit:  The California Academy of Sciences

"Biodiversity scientists estimate that we have discovered less than 10% of species on the planet," says Dr. Meg Lowman, the Academy's Chief of Science and Sustainability. "Academy scientists tirelessly explore the unexplored regions of Earth--not only to discover new species, but also to uncover the importance of these species to the health of our natural systems. Our findings help to sustain the future of life for our children and grandchildren. Even in our own backyards," she adds, "new discoveries abound!"

New species of mammal found in Namibia

Scientists from the California Academy of Sciences discovered a new species of round-eared sengi, or elephant-shrew, in the remote deserts of southwestern Africa. It is the smallest known member of the 19 sengis in the order Macroscelidea. The team's discovery and description of the Etendeka round-eared sengi--Macroscelides micus--was published in the June issue of the Journal of Mammalogy.

While collecting and examining sengi specimens from southwestern Africa, Drs. Jack Dumbacher and Galen Rathbun found an unusual specimen they hadn't previously encountered. When preliminary genetic analysis showed important differences between this specimen and close relatives, the Academy scientists joined forces with an international team of experts to collect new wild specimens and compare their findings to existing museum collections worldwide. The collaborative research efforts--spanning several years and nine African expeditions--culminated in the confirmation of Macroscelides micus as a unique species.

Sengis are restricted to Africa and, despite their small size, are more closely related to elephants, sea cows, and aardvarks than they are to true shrews. Found in a remote area of Namibia, on the inland edge of the Namib Desert, scientists believe this new rust-colored species went undescribed for so long because of the challenges of doing scientific research in such an isolated area.

"With only about a dozen new species of mammal discovered in the wild each year, it is amazing that the Academy has been involved in describing three new sengis in the last decade," says Rathbun, one of the world's foremost experts on sengis and an Academy Fellow and Research Associate. "There are new and exciting insights into biodiversity awaiting discovery, even in a group as familiar as mammals."

An Etendeka round-eared sengi specimen is on display in the Namib Desert diorama exhibit in the Academy's African Hall, part of its natural history museum. For more information about sengis and their biology, visit

The Hero Ant of Madagascar

The island nation of Madagascar is a biodiversity hotspot teeming with wildlife found nowhere else on Earth. Academy entomologist and renowned ant expert Dr. Brian Fisher has worked in the critically threatened region for more than 20 years, training local leaders to protect their country's priceless natural resources before they are lost forever.

2014 was a banner year for scientific exploration in Madagascar and mainland Africa. Fisher and his research team found and described 110 new species of ants and 4 new genera, with several additional findings slated for publishing in the coming year.

One species stands out against the stunning backdrop of entomological treasures: Malagidris sofina, or, "the Hero Ant." Armed with a host of special nest-building techniques and defense behaviors, the Hero Ant has adapted to its home (and threat of invaders) in fascinating ways.M. sofina lives in an environment with non-porous clay, and is thought to build a striking, funnel-like nest to promote oxygen exchange and protect its colony from suffocation.

While a heroic feat of insect engineering, this knack for nest architecture did not inspire the Hero moniker. Fisher and his colleagues painstakingly observed the species' bold defense against invaders--a behavior they call "cliff-jumping" in the journal Insectes Sociaux. As soon as a foreign ant approaches the funnel's entrance, a lone Hero Ant breaks from the colony and tackles the intruder, springing them both dramatically over the lip of the nest.

"Some arboreal ants have been observed taking to the air to avoid a predator, but no type of ant is known to sacrifice itself alongside an invader," says Fisher. "This remarkable species is one of thousands threatened by slash-and-burn agriculture in Madagascar. The more we know about this critically diverse region, the more we can do to help protect it."

Beneath the Sea

Academy scientists described a jaw-dropping 65 new species of ocean-dwellers--including a new type of 23-million year old megamouth shark (in the form of fossilized teeth)--in 2014 alone. Along with the new fossil shark, researches uncovered 20 new species of gobies, one cardinalfish, one toadfish, two grenadiers, one yellow damselfish, one pipefish, 24 colorful nudibranchs, a gigantic deepwater worm eel, two octocoral, nine new barnacles, two marine worms, and a ghost shark from New Zealand.

The gigantic deepwater worm eel--Pylorobranchus hearstorum, the largest of its kind--caught its namesakes by surprise. Aquatic biologist Dr. John McCosker, Emeritus Curator, discovered a single female specimen in a treasure trove of Philippine marine biodiversity called the Verde Island Passage. William and Margaret Hearst sponsored the massive 2011 Academy expedition to the region, said to be the "center of the center" of fish diversity, and were surprised to hear that a new species had been named for them.

"Some might be less than thrilled to have a gigantic worm eel named in their honor, but the Hearsts were delighted," says McCosker, acknowledging the Hearsts' commitment to ocean exploration in an era of great environmental change. "People don't think of eels as fish, but indeed they are! This discovery reminds us that there are many deep water creatures yet to be discovered, in the Philippines and beyond."

The new eel is called gigantic for good reason; at nearly 50 inches from head to tail, it is almost twice as long and three times heavier than any known worm eel. Pylorobranchus hearstorum is related to snake eels--aptly named for their snake-like appearance--and probably lurks at depths close to 1,000 feet beneath the ocean's surface. McCosker's find is the only specimen of its kind, highlighting our need to learn more about unique deepwater habitats and the life that thrives so far from the sun.

A "new" ancient shark unearthed close to home

The discovery of a new fossil relative of the megamouth shark came from a very different--and decidedly un-aquatic--habitat than that of the gigantic worm eel. Academy Research Associate Dr. Douglas Long calls the description of Megachasma applegatei, published in the March issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, a discovery "decades in the making."

Throughout the 1960's and 1970's, paleontologists digging in California's Central Valley uncovered small, prehistoric shark teeth that looked markedly different from others on record. Moving from 23-million year old marine sediment sites to local museum collections, the fossilized teeth sat relatively unnoticed until a U.S. Navy boat hauled up an extraordinarily rare megamouth shark--Megachasma pelagios--off the coast of Hawaii in 1976. Once a formal description was published in 1983, scientists speculated that the fossilized teeth belonged to an ancient relative of the filter-feeding megamouth shark.

Without a formal study on record, the shark mystery remained unsolved for five decades. Scientists noticed privately owned fossils of the supposed ancestor's teeth popping up on online auction sites, and decided it was time to take action.

Long and a team of passionate researchers analyzed 67 teeth--carefully preserved in museum collections--from sites in California and coastal Oregon, and placed M. applegatei in its proper place on the shark tree of life. Study findings revealed that the megamouth's lineage extends far earlier in history than previously imagined, converging with another group of ancient sharks called Odontaspids that persist in today's oceans in the form of sand tiger and gray nurse sharks. With stronger lineage information and teeth from ancient and existing sharks for comparison, scientists suggest that megamouth sharks evolved from sharp-toothed fish-eaters before evolving into the small-toothed filter-feeders they are today.

From islands to the mainland: three new spiders

The tropical forests and reef-filled waters of Southeast Asia are renowned for their unique plants and animals--and now, three newly discovered ray spiders. Arachnologist Dr. Charles Griswold, Emeritus Curator, wasn't terribly surprised to find tiny orb-weavers from the family Theridiosomatidae in the dark, wet forests of Malaysia and the Philippines, but notes that few researchers have formally documented the region's wild spiders. Well-known spiders abound in local rice paddies, but the new ray species--about the size of a single, chunky grain of sand--are wild mountain-dwellers.

To solve the problem of spotting such small spiders in the wild, researchers use "puffers" filled with fine cornstarch to seek out characteristic webs near waterfalls and damp rock structures. Named for their ray-like (and incredibly diverse) webs, these spiders have a neat trick for catching prey.

"Ray spiders aren't filter feeders," says Griswold. "They tend to stretch their sticky webs into a cone-like shape, and hold on tightly while they wait for unsuspecting prey. Once spotted, they shake or let their webs fly out to catch a meal."

Griswold and his research team found the new genus Tagalogonia (with two novel species) on dormant Philippine volcanoes. Another new species--from a genus previously described in China--was discovered in the forested hills of Malaysia. The latter is the first new ray spider described from Malaysia in more than a century, shedding more light on the region's stunning biodiversity.

Contacts and sources:
Haley Bowling