Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Potential for Life On Other Planets In Milky Way Revealed in New Study

One of the conditions for the emergence and persistence of life on Earth is the existence of geological activity such as earthquakes and volcanoes.

Volcanic activity caused by the movement of tectonic plates over the mantle (plate tectonics) recycles gases such as carbon dioxide through the mantle, crust, atmosphere and oceans, helping to keep the planet habitable by maintaining temperatures at ideal levels for the survival of living beings, scientists explain.

A study conducted by Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE) suggests our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains other rocky planets with a high probability of having plate tectonics, increasing the chances that they are habitable.

Researchers have found evidence of the existence of rocky exoplanets with a high probability of having plate tectonics, increasing the likelihood that they are habitable 

Credit: R. Hurt / NASA

The study was supported by FAPESP. The results have been published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS).

“We found that geological conditions favorable to the emergence and maintenance of life exist on rocky planets, that life may exist throughout the Milky Way and that it may have originated at any time during our galaxy’s evolution,” said Jorge Luis Melendez Moreno, a professor at the University of São Paulo’s Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences (IAG-USP) in Brazil and one of the authors of the study.

Scientists at other research institutions in Brazil and abroad also participated in the study.

They determined the surface parameters, masses and ages of 53 solar twins located at different points in the Milky Way. They also analyzed the chemical composition of these stars, called solar twins because their temperature, gravity and surface chemistry are similar to those of our Sun. The aim of the study was to discover whether potentially habitable rocky planets also orbit around the stars in question.

The analysis was performed using a spectrograph called HARPS (High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher) installed on the 3.6 m telescope operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) at the La Silla facility in Chile. The instrument measures the electromagnetic spectra of the “colors” emitted by celestial bodies, from shorter (ultraviolet) to longer (infrared) wavelengths.

The findings showed that the stars contain an abundance of thorium, a radioactive element with isotopes that split owing to atomic instability into smaller isotopes, emitting energy in a process called radioactive decay.

The energy released by the decay of unstable isotopes – not only thorium but also other radioactive elements such as uranium and potassium – gives rise to Earth’s mantle convection and tectonic activity. Part of the planet’s internal heat is a remnant of the primordial heat from its formation, but at least half is due to radioactive energy.

Thus, the initial levels of these radioactive elements in a rocky exoplanet contribute indirectly to the habitability of its surface, especially given the long time they take to decay, on the scale of billions of years, the researchers explained.

“The thorium levels we measured in these solar twins point to a sufficient amount of available energy from the decay of this radioactive element to maintain mantle convection and plate tectonics in any rocky planets that may be orbiting around them,” said Rafael Botelho, first author of the study. Botelho is studying for a PhD in astrophysics at INPE.

The initial thorium abundances in the solar twins were compared with the abundances of iron, silicon (an indicator of mantle thickness and mass in rocky planets) and two other heavy elements, neodymium and europium. The results showed that the thorium-silicon ratio in the solar twins increased over time and was equal to or higher than that of our Sun since the formation of the Milky Way.

“There are signs that thorium is also abundant in old solar twins. This means the Milky Way’s disk could be full of life,” said André Milone, a scientist at INPE and supervisor of Botelho’s PhD research.

Contacts and sources:
By Elton Alisson
Agência FAPESP

Citation: “Thorium in solar twins: implications for habitability in rocky planets” by R. B. Botelho, A. de C. Milone, J. Melendez, M. Bedell, L. Spina, M. Asplund, L. dos Santos, J. L. Bean, I. Ramirez, D. Yong, S. Dreizler, A. Alves-Brito and J. Yana Galarza can be retrieved from: academic.oup.com/mnras/article-abstract/482/2/1690/5134163?redirectedFrom=fulltext.

Nanotechnology Clothing Controls Heat, Odor and Repels Insects

Functional fabrics that are due to be marketed next summer retain less heat, control body odor, protect against sunlight, and repel mosquitoes such as Aedes aegypti, which transmit pathogens that cause dengue, yellow fever, chikungunya and Zika.

Garments with this functionality use technology developed by Nanox Tecnologia S.A., a startup supported by FAPESP’s Innovative Research in Small Business Program (PIPE). The nanotechnology company is a spinoff from the Center for Research and Development of Functional Materials (CDMF), one of the Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDCs) funded by FAPESP.

In partnership with textile manufacturers, Nanox is developing nanometric particles with different properties, such as controlling the microorganisms that produce body odor, reflecting electromagnetic radiation from the Sun, and releasing insect repellent in a controlled fashion.

Brazilian firm has developed nanoparticles that eliminate body odor, reflect solar radiation, and release insect repellent and insecticide in fabric 
Credit: Nanox

“We have a number of projects in progress with textile companies. Several are in the final stages of production of fabrics with these properties,” Daniel Minozzi told Agência FAPESP. Minozzi is Nanox’s co-founder and chief operating officer.

The nanoparticles developed by Nanox are made of different inorganic materials and can be added to fabric individually or in combinations to confer the desired properties. Body odor, for example, is controlled by bactericidal, antimicrobial and self-sterilizing nanoparticles containing silver, zinc and copper.

When the nanoparticles are added to fabric fibers, they protect the material against the bacteria, fungi and mites that cause unpleasant smells. They also prevent yellowing of the fabric, according to Nanox.

“One of the advantages of these antimicrobial nanoparticles over other chemicals added to commercially available anti-odor textiles is their enhanced resistance to washing, temperature and abrasion,” Minozzi said.

“They also have less environmental impact, and they’re anti-allergic, so they can be used in any type of fabric that comes into direct contact with skin, such as the material for regular clothing, sports apparel, underwear, bed sheets, towels, and military or security uniforms.”

Nanoparticles that protect against solar radiation and improve thermal comfort can be used in curtains, everyday garments, sportswear and beachwear, as well as apparel worn by workers exposed to sunlight for long periods.

The nanoparticles consist of hollow glass microspheres coated with a thin, transparent nanostructured film made of zinc oxide, aluminum or titanium. These nanostructured materials act as micromirrors that reflect infrared and ultraviolet light, blocking the light from penetrating the fabric. As a result, they are capable of reducing thermal transmittance (heat transfer to the fabric) by up to 65% at wavelengths of 500-4,000 nanometers.

The technology was developed as part of a project supported by FAPESP via PIPE.

In tests performed by Nanox, a fabric containing its customized nanoparticles and exposed to sunlight achieved a temperature reduction of 6.5 °C compared to the same fabric without the nanoparticles.

“The fabrics available today for protection against sunlight are only able to block ultraviolet rays,” Minozzi said. “The nanoparticles we’ve developed also reflect infrared rays, making the fabric cooler for use during the day. The technology is totally innovative.”

The firm’s nanoparticle technology for protection against flying and crawling insects represents an incremental innovation, he explained. Nanox does not disclose details of the technology for industrial secrecy reasons. However, it does say the innovation is in the system for containing repellent or insecticide molecules inside the nanoparticles and their fixation to the fabric.

“Some of the main issues currently complicating the addition of repellent to fabrics are repellent odor and postwash fixing. We’ve developed a system that overcomes these issues when insecticide or repellent is included to fabrics,” Minozzi said.

Bactericidal nanoparticles

The nanoparticles with bactericidal, antimicrobial and self-sterilizing properties developed by the firm are currently used in a range of products, including plastic utensils, PVC film for food wrapping, toilet seats, shoe insoles, hair dryers and flatirons, paints, resins, and ceramics, as well as coatings for medical and dental instruments such as grippers, drills and scalpels.

Today, the company’s largest markets are makers of white goods such as refrigerators, drinking fountains and air conditioners, as well as rugs and carpets.

“We’ve supplied the carpet and rug industry for eight years, so our effective entry into the textile segment now is a natural move,” Minozzi said.

Nanox currently exports via local distributors to Chile, China, Colombia, Italy, Mexico and Japan, among others, and recently opened a subsidiary in Boston (USA).

“We need a US branch to facilitate and accelerate the pursuit of a license to sell our product there. The licensing process is in the final stage of evaluation for approval,” Minozzi said.

Contacts and sources:
 Elton Alisson
Agência FAPESP

Anti-Tumor Activity of Curcumin On Stomach Cancer Highlighted in New Study

 Curcumin is widely used to impart color and flavor to food, but scientists have discovered that this yellow powder derived from the roots of the turmeric plant (Curcuma longa) can also help prevent or combat stomach cancer.

The study by researchers at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP) and the Federal University of Pará (UFPA) in Brazil identified possible therapeutic effects of this pigment and of other bioactive compounds found in food on stomach cancer, the third and fifth most frequent type of cancer among Brazilian men and women, respectively.

The study was part of a Thematic Project supported by FAPESP. Its findings have been published in the journal Epigenomics.

“We undertook a vast review of the scientific literature on all nutrients and bioactive compounds with the potential to prevent or treat stomach cancer and found that curcumin is one of them,” Danielle Queiroz Calcagno, a professor at UFPA and first author of the study, told Agência FAPESP.

According to Calcagno, who conducted postdoctoral research at UNIFESP with a scholarship from FAPESP, compounds such as cholecalciferol (a form of vitamin D), resveratrol (a polyphenol) and quercetin can prevent or combat stomach cancer because they are natural regulators of histone activity.

Histones are proteins in cell nuclei that organize the DNA double helix into structural units called nucleosomes. Each nucleosome is made of DNA coiled like a spool around eight histone proteins (a histone octamer) to compact the DNA so that it fits in the cell, where it is packaged into chromatin.

Posttranslational chemical modification of the amino acid chain in these proteins, such as acetylation (introduction of an acetyl group) or methylation (addition of a methyl group), can affect chromatin compaction and hence gene expression.

“If the histones are acetylated, for example, the chromatin will be less condensed, and a gene in a region of the DNA segment inside it will be available to be expressed. In contrast, if the histones aren’t acetylated, the chromatin will be more condensed, and the gene won’t be expressed,” Calgano explained.

Research conducted in recent years has suggested that posttranslational histone modification causes alterations in gene expression without affecting the DNA sequence. These epigenetic variations influence the development of different types of cancer.

To determine whether this hypothesis also applied to stomach cancer, several groups of researchers coordinated by Marília de Arruda Cardoso Smith, a professor at UNIFESP, studied histone acetylation patterns in stomach cell samples from healthy individuals and patients diagnosed with stomach cancer.

The researchers found that the cells from stomach cancer patients displayed alterations in the pattern of expression of histone acetyltransferases (HATs) and histone deacetylases (HDACs). These alterations are epigenetic and affect the structure and integrity of the genome in many tumors, including stomach cancer.

A review article authored by Brazilian researchers evaluated several compounds with therapeutic potential against gastric tumors
Credit: Pixabay

Because recent research has also shown that nutrients and bioactive compounds can regulate the activity of HATs and HDACs, the scientists at UNIFESP and UFPA set out to identify any that might influence histone acetylation and hence help prevent stomach cancer or even treat the disease.

In addition to curcumin, other compounds found to play a key role in modulating histone activity were cholecalciferol, resveratrol (present mainly in grape seeds and red wine), quercetin (abundant in apples, broccoli and onions), garcinol (isolated from the bark of the kokum tree, Garcinia indica), and sodium butyrate (produced by gut bacteria via fermentation of dietary fiber).

“These compounds can favor the activation or repression of genes involved in the development of stomach cancer by promoting or inhibiting histone acetylation,” Calcagno said.

Curcumin, for example, influences histone modifications primarily by inhibiting HATs and HDACs to suppress cancer cell proliferation and induce apoptosis (programmed cell death). Garcinol, whose chemical structure resembles that of curcumin, inhibits HATs and helps prevent stomach cancer by neutralizing free radicals.

“We now plan to clarify the anticancer and epigenetic effects of bioactive compounds derived from plants in the Amazon, such as açaí [Euterpe oleracea] and nanche or hogberry [Byrsonima crassifolia], with a view to their future use in the prevention and treatment of stomach cancer,” Calcagno said.

The Epigenomics article “Role of histone acetylation in gastric cancer: implications of dietetic compounds and clinical perspectives” (DOI: 10.2217/epi-2018-0081) by Danielle Q. Calcagno, Fernanda Wisnieski, Elizangela R. da Silva Mota, Stefanie B. Maia de Sousa, Jéssica M. Costa da Silva, Mariana F. Leal, Carolina O. Gigek, Leonardo C. Santos, Lucas T. Rasmussen, Paulo P. Assumpção, Rommel R. Burbano and Marília A. C. Smith can be retrieved from www.futuremedicine.com/doi/abs/10.2217/epi-2018-0081.

This text was originally published by FAPESP Agency according to Creative Commons license CC-BY-NC-ND. Read the original here.

Contacts and sources:
Elton AlissonFundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo

Citation: Role of histone acetylation in gastric cancer: implications of dietetic compounds and clinical perspectives
Danielle Q Calcagno, Fernanda Wisnieski, Elizangela R da Silva Mota, Stefanie B Maia de Sousa, Jéssica M Costa da Silva, Mariana F Leal, Carolina O Gigek, Leonardo C Santos, Lucas T Rasmussen, Paulo P Assumpção, Rommel R Burbano, Marília AC Smith. . Epigenomics, 2019; 11 (3): 349 DOI: 10.2217/epi-2018-0081

The Cerrado Once Connected the Andes with the Atlantic Rainforest

The tropical forests of the Andes and Brazil’s Atlantic Rainforest biome are separated by almost 1,000 km of drier areas with open vegetation in the Chaco, Cerrado (Brazilian savanna), and Caatinga (Brazilian semiarid) biomes. Today, these tropical forests are not connected, but the fact that they share closely related species and lineages suggests that these biomes were connected in the past. For example, 23 rainforest bird species have been found in both the Andean and Atlantic tropical forests.

Several published studies reinforce such hypothesis. What scientists do not know for sure is whether this connection consisted of past gallery forests along rivers in what is now the Chaco (which spans across southern Bolivia, northern Argentina and Paraguay) or the Cerrado (in part of Bolivia, central-west Brazil and northern Paraguay).

A genetic and computational analysis of birds suggests that the Andean and Atlantic tropical forests, which are now almost a thousand kilometers apart, were connected via the Cerrado in the distant past (bird species Syndactyla rufosuperciliata) 
Photo: Gustavo Cabanne

According to a new study based on genomic and biogeographical data for two bird species (Syndactyla rufosupercilita and S. dimidiata), the past connection between Andean and Atlantic tropical forests ran through the Cerrado. Such connection may have emerged several times during the Pleistocene, the geological epoch that lasted from approximately 2.5 million years ago to 11,700 years ago.

The study was part of a research project conducted by Gustavo Cabanne, an ornithologist at Argentina’s Museum of Natural Sciences (MACN), in collaboration with Cristina Yumi Miyaki, a professor at the University of São Paulo’s Bioscience Institute (IB-USP) in Brazil. Results of the study were published in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.

The team was supported by FAPESP via the FAPESP Research Program on Biodiversity Characterization, Conservation, Restoration and Sustainable Use (BIOTA-FAPESP), by Brazil’s National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), and by Argentina’s National Scientific and Technological Research Council (CONICET).

The research team also included scientists affiliated with several institutions in Brazil (the Federal University of Minas Gerais, the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais, the University of Brasília, and the Emilio Goeldi Museum of Pará), Bolivia (the University of San Andrés and the National Museum of Natural History), the United States (the American Museum of Natural History and Cornell University), and Canada (Royal Ontario Museum).

Biogeography studies the relationships among living beings, latitude, elevation and climate over time. Paleobiogeography focuses on species distribution and relationships in remote epochs. An understanding of the paleobiogeography of the species that inhabit certain biomes in the present can help scientists infer the distribution of these same biomes in the past.

“The main challenge in biogeographical research is integrating and interpreting the information obtained from several sources, such as data on biological components and genomes for the species analyzed, geology and paleoclimate, palynology [pollen and spores], and even remote sensing data from satellite imagery,” Miyaki said.

“We needed to collect and analyze all these kinds of data in order to investigate the hypothesis that there was an ancient connection between the Andean and Atlantic tropical forests and to test whether this connection ran through the Cerrado or the Chaco. The connection may have consisted of gallery forests that, during the Pleistocene, would have been remnants of wetland vegetation crossing more arid biomes.”

According to Cabanne, the existence of a connection between the Andean and Atlantic tropical forests is supported by palynological studies, among others, according to which both forests expanded transitorily in some regions (such as the Cerrado) toward the Andes during the most recent glacial cycle and last glacial maximum, i.e., the coldest period among the various ice ages that occurred in the past 2.5 million years (at least 11 have been identified).

This is a map showing the location of the Cerrado ecoregion as delineated by the World Wide Fund for Nature .
Closed ecoregion.jpg
Credit: Pfly - NASA / Wikimedia Commons

“In this past biogeographical context, the Andean and Atlantic tropical forests may have served as refugia. Their dynamic history [connection and isolation cycles] may have been an important driver of speciation in the Neotropics [a region comprising Central and South America, the Caribbean and parts of Mexico and the United States],” Cabanne said.

In the present interglacial period, Cabanne explained that these biomes represent forest refugia, where isolated organisms in either biome are expected to differentiate. During the Pleistocene ice ages, both forests were connected, allowing for gene flow between forest domains.

Genetic and computational analysis

In the study published in Molecular Phylogenetic & Evolution, researchers chose to study the Buff-browed Foliage-gleaner, a New World ovenbird whose scientific name is Syndactyla rufosuperciliata, a passerine belonging to the order Passeriformes and family Furnariidae, as do other ovenbirds, such as the Rufous hornero (Furnarius rufus) and 230 other species found in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay. There are five recognized subspecies in this taxon.

“S. rufosuperciliata is an appropriate model with which to explore the Andean-Atlantic forest connection because it inhabits both the main forest domains and the areas that could have been directly involved in bridging them: the gallery forests of the eastern Chaco and some parts of the southern Cerrado,” Cabanne said.

Researchers used niche modeling to investigate the historical connectivity between the two regions. They then used DNA sequences from 71 birds and the genomic analysis of samples from other 33 specimens to evaluate the genetic structure of the population and the gene flow within the species. Lastly, they performed population model selection with the aid of approximate Bayesian computation (ABC), a method of inference based on summary statistics.

According to the researchers, their genomic analysis showed that the populations of S. rufosuperciliata now found in the Andean and Atlantic tropical forests belong to different lineages, but hundreds of thousands of years ago, the species was far more widely distributed, and its lineages were less differentiated from a genomic standpoint.

As the ice age continued and the vegetation in the Cerrado advanced and retreated, Andean and Atlantic birds became isolated from each other for tens of thousands of years, leading to diversification into two lineages.

The data also suggested new contacts between the eastern and western populations of the species during the interglacial periods of the Pleistocene, when temperatures rose and rainforests advanced, permitting cross-breeding between the two lineages and new gene exchanges.

The analysis of genomic diversity between Andean and Atlantic birds combined with paleoclimate data suggested that these gene exchanges occurred via the Cerrado to the north rather than via the Chaco further to the south.

“Our results showed that the Andean and Atlantic tropical forests were refugia and that populations of the species from both regions made contact via the Cerrado,” Cabanne said. “This suggests that the historical dynamics of the Andean and Atlantic forests played an important role in the evolution of forest birds in the region.”

“Our findings are consistent with studies of other organisms and may indicate a more general pattern of connectivity among biomes in the Neotropics,” Miyaki added.

In addition, this new study and previous research by the same group “point to high levels of cryptic diversity [meaning morphologically similar but genetically diverse species] between the Andes and Atlantic Rainforest biomes and suggest that the Andean population of S. rufosuperciliata should be recognized as an independent species”, Cabanne added.

Contacts and sources:
By Peter Moon
 Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo

Citation: Phylogeographic variation within the Buff-browed Foliage-gleaner (Aves: Furnariidae: Syndactyla rufosuperciliata) supports an Andean-Atlantic forests connection via the Cerrado.
Gustavo S. Cabanne, Leonardo Campagna, Natalia Trujillo-Arias, Kazuya Naoki, Isabel Gómez, Cristina Y. Miyaki, Fabricio R. Santos, Giselle P.M. Dantas, Alexandre Aleixo, Santiago Claramunt, Amanda Rocha, Renato Caparroz, Irby J. Lovette, Pablo L. Tubaro. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 2019; 133: 198 DOI: 10.1016/j.ympev.2019.01.011

Blind People Develop More Nuanced Sense of Hearing

Research has shown that people who are born blind or become blind early in life often have a more nuanced sense of hearing, especially when it comes to musical abilities and tracking moving objects in space (imagine crossing a busy road using sound alone). For decades scientists have wondered what changes in the brain might underlie these enhanced auditory abilities.

People who are visually impaired rely on other senses to interpret their surroundings. A pair of studies from the University of Washington shows how the brains of blind people adapt to process information. Photo of blind person walking with cane.
Credit: University of Washington

Now, a pair of research papers published the week of April 22 from the University of Washington — one in the Journal of Neuroscience, the other in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — use functional MRI to identify two differences in the brains of blind individuals that might be responsible for their abilities to make better use of auditory information.

“There’s this idea that blind people are good at auditory tasks, because they have to make their way in the world without visual information. We wanted to explore how this happens in the brain,” said Ione Fine, a UW professor of psychology and the senior author on both studies.

Instead of simply looking to see which parts of the brain were most active while listening, both studies examined the sensitivity of the brain to subtle differences in auditory frequency.

“We weren’t measuring how rapidly neurons fire, but rather how accurately populations of neurons represent information about sound,” said Kelly Chang, a graduate student in the UW Department of Psychology and lead author on the Journal of Neuroscience paper.

That study found that in the auditory cortex, individuals who are blind showed narrower neural “tuning” than sighted subjects in discerning small differences in sound frequency.

“This is the first study to show that blindness results in plasticity in the auditory cortex. This is important because this is an area of the brain that receives very similar auditory information in blind and sighted individuals,” Fine said. “But in blind individuals, more information needs to be extracted from sound — and this region seems to develop enhanced capacities as a result.

“This provides an elegant example of how the development of abilities within infant brains is influenced by the environment they grow up in.”

The second study examined how the brains of people who are born blind or become blind early in life — referred to as “early blind” individuals — represent moving objects in space. The research team showed that an area of the brain called the hMT+ — which in sighted individuals is responsible for tracking moving visual objects — shows neural responses that reflect both the motion and the frequency of auditory signals in blind individuals. This suggests that in blind people, area hMT+ is recruited to play an analogous role — tracking moving auditory objects, such as cars, or the footsteps of the people around them.

The paper in the Journal of Neuroscience involved two teams — one at the UW, the other at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. Both teams measured neural responses in study participants while participants listened to a sequence of Morse code-like tones that differed in frequency while the fMRI machine recorded brain activity. The research teams found that in the blind participants, the auditory cortex more accurately represented the frequency of each sound.

“Our study shows that the brains of blind individuals are better able to represent frequencies,” Chang said. “For a sighted person, having an accurate representation of sound isn’t as important because they have sight to help them recognize objects, while blind individuals only have auditory information. This gives us an idea of what changes in the brain explain why blind people are better at picking out and identifying sounds in the environment.”

Left: Researchers began by measuring responses in the auditory cortex to find a map of how frequency responses were represented in the brain. The warm colors represent regions of the brain that showed the greatest response to low-pitched tones, while blue colors represent regions that responded more to high-pitched tones.
Right: When researchers examined the range of frequencies each vertex of the brain was selective to, they found tuning tended to be narrower for blind individuals, which may underlie the enhanced ability of blind individuals to pick out and identify sounds in the environment.

Credit: Kelly Chang/U. of Washington

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study examined how the brain’s “recruitment” of the hMT+ region might help blind people track the motion of objects using sound. Participants once again listened to tones that differed in auditory frequency, but this time the tones sounded like they were moving. As has been found in previous studies, in blind individuals the neural responses in area hMT+ contained information about the direction of motion of the sounds, whereas in the sighted participants these sounds did not produce significant neural activity.

By using sounds that varied in frequency, the researchers could show that in blind individuals, the hMT+ region was selective for the frequency as well as the motion of sounds, supporting the idea that this region might help blind individuals track moving objects in space.

“These results suggest that early blindness results in visual areas being recruited to solve auditory tasks in a relatively sophisticated way,” Fine said.

This study also included two sight-recovery subjects — individuals who had been blind from infancy until adulthood, when sight was restored via surgery in adulthood. In these individuals, area hMT+ seemed to serve a dual purpose, capable of processing both auditory and visual motion. The inclusion of people who used to be visually impaired lends additional evidence to the idea that this plasticity in the brain happens early in development, Fine said, because the results show that their brains made the shift to auditory processing as a result of their early-life blindness, yet maintains these abilities even after sight was restored in adulthood.

According to Fine, this research extends current knowledge about how the brain develops because the team was not only looking at which regions of the brain are altered as a result of blindness, but also examining precisely what sort of changes — specifically, sensitivity to frequency —might explain how early blind people make sense of the world. As one of the study participants described it, “You see with your eyes, I see with my ears.”

Both studies were funded by the National Eye Institute and the National Institutes of Health. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study was co-authored by Elizabeth Huber of the UW and Fang Jiang of the University of Nevada, Reno. The Journal of Neuroscience study was co-authored by Chang and Huber, as well as Ivan Alvarez, Aaron Hundle and Holly Bridge of the University of Oxford.

Contacts and sources:
Kim Eckart
University of Washington

Working Out Makes Artificial Muscles Perform More Like Real Muscles

Artificial muscles can grow stronger by working out just like real muscles.

Human skeletal muscles have a unique combination of properties that materials researchers seek for their own creations. They’re strong, soft, full of water, and resistant to fatigue. A new study by MIT researchers has found one way to give synthetic hydrogels this total package of characteristics: putting them through a vigorous workout.

In particular, the scientists mechanically trained the hydrogels by stretching them in a water bath. And just as with skeletal muscles, the reps at the “gym” paid off. The training aligned nanofibers inside the hydrogels to produce a strong, soft, and hydrated material that resists breakdown or fatigue over thousands of repetitive movements.

A mechanically-trained artificial muscle resists damage (crack) propagation using aligned nanofibrils, a similar fatigue-resistant mechanism as in skeleton muscles.
A mechanically-trained artificial muscle resists damage (crack) propagation using aligned nanofibrils, a similar fatigue-resistant mechanism as in skeleton muscles.
Image: Ji Liu, Shaoting Lin, and Xinyue Liu

The polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) hydrogels trained in the experiment are well-known biomaterials that researchers use for medical implants, drug coatings, and other applications, says Xuanhe Zhao, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “But one with these four important properties has not been designed or manufactured until now.”

In their paper, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Zhao and his colleagues describe how the hydrogels also can be 3-D-printed into a variety of shapes that can be trained to develop the suite of muscle-like properties.

In the future, the materials might be used in implants such as “heart valves, cartilage replacements, and spinal disks, as well as in engineering applications such as soft robots,” Zhao says.

Other MIT authors on the paper include graduate student Shaoting Lin, postdoc Ji Liu, and graduate student Xunyue Liu in Zhao’s lab.

Training for strength and more

Excellent load-bearing natural tissues such as muscles and heart valves are a bioinspiration to materials researchers, but it has been very challenging to design materials that capture all their properties simultaneously, Zhao says.

For instance, one can design a hydrogel with highly aligned fibers to give it strength, but it may not be as flexible as a muscle, or it may not have the water content that makes it compatible for use in humans. “Most of the tissues in the human body contain about 70 percent water, so if we want to implant a biomaterial in the body, a higher water content is more desirable for many applications in the body,” Zhao explains.

The discovery that mechanical training could produce a muscle-like hydrogel was something of an accident, says Lin, the lead author of the PNAS study. The research team had been performing cyclic mechanical loading tests on the hydrogels, trying to find the fatigue point where the hydrogels would begin to break down. They were surprised instead to find that the cyclic training was actually strengthening the hydrogels.

“The phenomenon of strengthening in hydrogels after cyclic loading is counterintuitive to the current understanding on fatigue fracture in hydrogels, but shares the similarity with the mechanism of muscle strengthening after training,” says Lin.

Before training, the nanofibers that make up the hydrogel are randomly oriented. “During the training process, what we realized is that we were aligning the nanofibers,” says Lin, adding that the alignment is similar to what happens to a human muscle under repeated exercise. This training made the hydrogels stronger and fatigue-resistant. The combination of the four key properties appeared after about 1,000 stretching cycles, but some of the hydrogels were stretched over 30,000 cycles without breaking down. The tensile strength of the trained hydrogel, in the direction of the aligned fibers, increased by about 4.3 times over the unstretched hydrogel.

At the same time, the hydrogel demonstrated soft flexibility, and maintained a high water content of 84 percent, the researchers found.

Credit: MIT

The antifatigue factor

The scientists turned to confocal microscopy to take a closer look at the trained hydrogels, to see if they could discover the reasons behind their impressive anti-fatigue property. “We put these through thousands of cycles of load, so why doesn’t it fail?” Lin says. “What we did is make a cut perpendicular to these nanofibers and tried to propagate a crack or damage in this material.”

“We dyed the fibers under the microscope to see how they deformed as a result of the cut, [and found that] a phenomenon called crack pinning was responsible for fatigue resistance,” Ji says.

“In an amorphous hydrogel, where the polymer chains are randomly aligned, it doesn’t take too much energy for damage to spread through the gel,” Lin adds. “But in the aligned fibers of the hydrogel, a crack perpendicular to the fibers is ‘pinned’ in place and prevented from lengthening because it takes much more energy to fracture through the aligned fibers one by one.”

In fact, the trained hydrogels break a famous fatigue threshold, predicted by the Lake-Thomas theory, which proposes the energy required to fracture a single layer of amorphous polymer chains such as those that make up PVA hydrogels. The trained hydrogels are 10 to 100 times more fatigue-resistant than predicted by the theory, Zhao and his colleagues concluded.

The research was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, and the U.S. Army Research Office through the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies at MIT.

Contacts and sources:
Becky HamMIT - Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Vulture Species Coexist, Share Feasts

Two species of vulture—the turkey vulture and the black vulture—are able to coexist because their respective traits reduce the need for them to compete for nutritional resources, according to a study by University of Georgia researchers.

In the ecosystem, vultures serve as garbage disposals, eliminating rotting flesh and reducing the spread of diseases. For example, in Asia population declines in vultures have given rise to diseases like rabies.

Both turkey and black vultures discover and partake in this feast.

Credit: James C. Beasley/UGA

A team of UGA researchers investigated how the turkey vulture and the black vulture—which have similar outward appearances—are able to coexist in a geographic region based on unique physical traits, skills and behavioral characteristics.

The team was led by Mike Byrne, a postdoctoral researcher at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory at the time of the study. Rabbit and pig carcasses were placed as bait in open canopy and forested habitats. Byrne used an advanced GPS tracking system with high-resolution capability and remote cameras to examine the birds’ foraging behavior and movement patterns.

“Our results reveal how their physical and behavioral differences interact to reduce direct foraging competition between the species,” he said. “In particular, turkey vultures appear to use their superior sense of smell to locate smaller carcasses, as well as carcasses in forested areas that are difficult to see overhead. Black vultures appear more specialized at utilizing larger carrion.”

The turkey vulture’s body mass relative to its wing surface area is much lighter than a black vulture’s, according to Byrne, now an assistant professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Missouri. This physical trait allows them to soar more efficiently than black vultures, enabling them to cover a larger land mass and zoom in on small carcasses.

Their keen sense of smell, coupled with their flight skills, means that they’re the first to arrive at the buffet. The study revealed that turkey vultures arrived first at 94% of the carcasses.

But black vultures are adept at foraging larger carcasses, and they have other traits that allow them to successfully compete with turkey vultures, according to James Beasley, Byrne’s supervisor at the time of the study.

“Black vultures are much more social than turkey vultures,” said Beasley, associate professor at SREL and the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. “They are able to locate potential carrion by keying in on the movements of turkey vultures or through communication at communal roosts, and then they usurp larger carrion from turkey vultures through their more aggressive nature.”

Understanding how functionally similar vulture species are able to coexist can provide insight to European conservationists, who are using feeding programs to offset population declines, the researchers said.

The study, published in Ecosphere, is available at https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ecs2.2548

Additional authors on the study are Amanda Holland, University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, Aiken, South Carolina; College of Forestry, Oregon State University, 3100 SW Jefferson Way, Corvallis, Oregon, 97333; Kelsey Turner, SREL; Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources; USDA-APHIS-WS, 400 Northeast Drive, Suite L, Columbia, South Carolina, 29203; and Albert Bryan, SREL.

Contacts and sources:
University of Georgia

Scientists Create World’s First Gene-Edited Lizards

A group of University of Georgia researchers led by geneticist Douglas Menke has become the first in the world to successfully produce a genetically modified reptile—specifically, four albino lizards—using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool. 

Researches used CRISPR to create albino brown anole lizards.
Credit: UGA

The team’s results, which appeared online March 31, have been submitted for peer review.

“Reptiles are very understudied in terms of their reproductive biology and embryonic development,” said Menke, associate professor in the department of genetics. “There are no good methods to manipulate embryos like we can easily do with mammals, fish or amphibians. To our knowledge, no other lab in the world has produced a genetically altered reptile.”

Gene manipulation using CRISPR typically involves injecting gene-editing solutions into an animal’s newly fertilized egg or single-cell embryo, causing a mutation in the DNA that is reproduced in all subsequent cells. However female reptiles can store sperm in their oviducts for long periods, making it difficult to pinpoint the exact moment of fertilization. Also, the physiology of their fertilized eggs, which have pliable shells with no air space inside, presents challenges for manipulating embryos without damaging them.

Working with the species Anolis sagrei, commonly called the brown anole, Menke’s team overcame these challenges by microinjecting CRISPR proteins into multiple immature eggs, or oocytes, still located in the lizards’ ovaries. Targeting the tyrosinase gene, they successfully injected 146 oocytes from 21 lizards, then waited for the oocytes to be fertilized naturally. Within a few weeks, they realized their goal: four offspring displaying the telltale trait of albinism, which results when tyrosinase is inactivated.

“When I saw our first albino hatchling, it was truly awe inspiring,” said D.V.M./Ph.D. student Ashley Rasys, who was first author on the study. “I’m most excited about the possibility of expanding this approach into many other reptilian model systems, effectively opening the doorway for future functional studies.”

Ashley Rasys holds one of the lizards on her fingertip.
Newswise: Scientists create world’s first gene-edited lizards
Credit: UGA

Menke, who typically studies mice, said he chose brown anoles because they essentially represent a reptilian counterpart to Darwin’s famous Galapagos finches—the lizards are spread throughout the islands of the Caribbean, with distinctive traits arising among each island’s relatively isolated population. Leg size, for example, is highly variable among different species of anoles, with ground-dwelling species possessing big and strong legs adapted to running and leaping, while their tree-dwelling cousins have smaller legs that are more agile for limb-hopping. The lizards for this study were all collected from the wild in an area near Orlando, Florida.

The ability to study the genes of brown anoles could also have implications for human genetics work. The tyrosinase gene is required for certain aspects of eye development shared between humans and anoles, but absent in the eyes of mice and other organisms commonly used for biomedical research. Researchers looking to explore ways to manipulate this gene for human ocular health did not have a suitable animal model—until now.

As an added bonus, Menke’s team noted that the mutant anoles not only displayed the manipulated tyrosinase in the gene copies inherited from their mother, but from the father as well. This means that the CRISPR reagent likely remained active in the mother’s oocytes much longer than anticipated and mutated the paternal genes post-fertilization.

“That was a surprise,” Menke said. “It enabled us to see the functional requirements of the gene without having to breed mutated animals to produce offspring who inherit the mutated gene from both parents. It’s a big time-saver.”

“This work could have far-reaching impact not only for the study of reptile genetics but also for the advancement of genomic medicine and application in humans,” said David Lee, UGA vice president for research. “I applaud Dr. Menke and his colleagues on this very significant achievement.”

Additional co-authors on the study include James Lauderdale, associate professor in the department of cellular biology; research staff members Sungdae Park and Rebecca Ball; and graduate student Aaron Alcala. The research was primarily supported by grants from the National Science Foundation’s Enabling Discovery through GEnomic Tools (EDGE) program and from the Society for Developmental Biology.

Contacts and sources:
Douglas Menke\
Writer: Michael Terraza
University of Georgia

Star Wars-like Planetary System Verified as Most Interesting of Binary-Star Worlds

Astronomers have discovered a third planet in the Kepler-47 system, securing the system’s title as the most interesting of the binary-star worlds. Using data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope, a team of researchers, led by astronomers at San Diego State University, detected the new Neptune-to-Saturn-size planet orbiting between two previously known planets.

With its three planets orbiting two suns, Kepler-47 is the only known multi-planet circumbinary system . Circumbinary planets are those that orbit two stars.  This discovery cements the system's title as the most interesting of the binary-star worlds, and marks the first complete and dynamically full planetary system around a binary star.

A team of astronomers, including Nader Haghighipour from the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, have discovered a third planet in the circumbinary planetary system Kepler-47.

This discovery cements the system's title as the most interesting of the binary-star worlds, and marks the first complete and dynamically full planetary system around a binary star. A complete and dynamically full planetary system is one that cannot have any more planets — like our solar system. Circumbinary planets are those that orbit both stars of a binary star system, like Tatooine in the Star Wars films.

Animation showing the orbits of the three planets in the Kepler 47 system.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

With its three planets orbiting two stars, Kepler-47 is the only known multi-planet circumbinary system. The orbit of the outer planet of this system falls well within the binary's habitable zone, the region where an Earth-like planet could maintain liquid water on its surface.

The planets in the Kepler-47 system were detected via the transit method. This method relies on small decreases in the measured brightness of a star (or, in this case, a pair of stars), when a planet passes in front of the star as seen from Earth. The newly discovered planet, dubbed Kepler-47d, was not detected earlier because its distance from its host stars means it produces only a tiny transit signal.

"We saw a hint of a third planet back in 2012, but with only one transit we needed more data to be sure," said SDSU astronomer Jerome Orosz, the paper's lead author. "With an additional transit, the planet's orbital period could be determined, and we were then able to uncover more transits that were hidden in the noise in the earlier data."

Artist's depiction of the relative sizes of the three planets in the Kepler-47 system. The large middle planet is the newly discovered planet, Kepler-47d.
Artist's rendition of the three planets in the Kepler-47 system.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

As is common with circumbinary planets, the alignment of the orbital planes of the planets changes with time. In this case, the middle planet's orbit was not aligned during the first two years of operation of the Kepler Space Telescope. In 2012, astronomers saw a hint of the existence of a third planet in the data. As the orbit of the third planet became more aligned, stronger transit signals were detected, and the transits went from undetectable at the beginning of the Kepler Mission to the deepest of the three planets over the span of just four years.

"In 2015, we predicted the existence of a third planet in this system on dynamical grounds. It is great to see reality matches our prediction," said Haghighipour.

The inner, middle, and outer planets of Kepler-47 system are 3.1, 7.0, and 4.7 times the size of the Earth, and take 49, 187, and 303 days, respectively, to orbit around the central binary. The stars themselves orbit each other in only 7.45 days. One star is similar to the Sun, while the other has only one-third of the Sun's mass. The researchers were surprised by both the size and location of the new planet. Kepler-47d is the largest of the three planets in the Kepler-47 system.

An overhead view of the orbital configuration of the Kepler-47 circumbinary planet system.
Credits: NASA/JPL Caltech/T. Pyle
"The discovery of Kepler-47d confirms two of our predictions - first, that planets form around binary stars the same way they form around single stars, and second, that they too can form complete systems", says Haghighipour, who has developed theories of planet formation and habitability in circumbinary orbits.

The Kepler-47 planetary system is an example of the diversity of solar systems outside our own. Despite having two "suns", the entire system is so compact that it would fit inside the orbit of Earth. It is approximately 3340 light-years away in the direction of the constellation Cygnus.

"This work builds on one of the Kepler's most interesting discoveries: that systems of closely-packed, low density planets are extremely common in our galaxy," said University of California, Santa Cruz astronomer, Jonathan Fortney, who was not part of the study.

This research has been published in the Astronomical Journal, volume 157, issue 5, article 174, doi: 10.3847/1538-3881/ab0ca0.

Contacts and sources:
Roy Gal
University of Hawaii at Manoa

Dr. Nader Haghighipour
UH Institute for Astronomy

First, Primordial Molecule in the Universe Found

The first type of molecule that ever formed in the universe has been detected in space for the first time, after decades of searching. Scientists discovered its signature in our own galaxy using the world’s largest airborne observatory, NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, as the aircraft flew high above the Earth’s surface and pointed its sensitive instruments out into the cosmos.

Image of planetary nebula NGC 7027 with illustration of helium hydride molecules. In this planetary nebula, SOFIA detected helium hydride, a combination of helium (red) and hydrogen (blue), which was the first type of molecule to ever form in the early universe. This is the first time helium hydride has been found in the modern universe

Credits: NASA/ESA/Hubble Processing: Judy Schmidt

When the universe was still very young, only a few kinds of atoms existed. Scientists believe that around 100,000 years after the big bang, helium and hydrogen combined to make a molecule called helium hydride for the first time. Helium hydride should be present in some parts of the modern universe, but it has never been detected in space — until now.

SOFIA found modern helium hydride in a planetary nebula, a remnant of what was once a Sun-like star. Located 3,000 light-years away near the constellation Cygnus, this planetary nebula, called NGC 7027, has conditions that allow this mystery molecule to form. The discovery serves as proof that helium hydride can, in fact, exist in space. This confirms a key part of our basic understanding of the chemistry of the early universe and how it evolved over billions of years into the complex chemistry of today. The results are published in this week’s issue of Nature.

“This molecule was lurking out there, but we needed the right instruments making observations in the right position — and SOFIA was able to do that perfectly,” said Harold Yorke, director of the SOFIA Science Center, in California’s Silicon Valley.

Today, the universe is filled with large, complex structures such as planets, stars and galaxies. But more than 13 billion years ago, following the big bang, the early universe was hot, and all that existed were a few types of atoms, mostly helium and hydrogen. As atoms combined to form the first molecules, the universe was finally able to cool and began to take shape. Scientists have inferred that helium hydride was this first, primordial molecule.

Once cooling began, hydrogen atoms could interact with helium hydride, leading to the creation of molecular hydrogen — the molecule primarily responsible for the formation of the first stars. Stars went on to forge all the elements that make up our rich, chemical cosmos of today. The problem, though, is that scientists could not find helium hydride in space. This first step in the birth of chemistry was unproven, until now.

“The lack of evidence of the very existence of helium hydride in interstellar space was a dilemma for astronomy for decades,” said Rolf Guesten of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, in Bonn, Germany, and lead author of the paper.

Helium hydride is a finicky molecule. Helium itself is a noble gas making it very unlikely to combine with any other kind of atom. But in 1925, scientists were able to create the molecule in a laboratory by coaxing the helium to share one of its electrons with a hydrogen ion.

Then, in the late 1970s, scientists studying the planetary nebula called NGC 7027 thought that this environment might be just right to form helium hydride. Ultraviolet radiation and heat from the aging star create conditions suitable for helium hydride to form. But their observations were inconclusive. Subsequent efforts hinted it could be there, but the mystery molecule continued to elude detection. The space telescopes used did not have the specific technology to pick out the signal of helium hydride from the medley of other molecules in the nebula.

In 2016, scientists turned to SOFIA for help. Flying up to 45,000 feet, SOFIA makes observations above the interfering layers of Earth’s atmosphere. But it has a benefit space telescopes don't— it returns after every flight.

“We’re able to change instruments and install the latest technology,” said Naseem Rangwala SOFIA deputy project scientist. “This flexibility allows us to improve observations and respond to the most pressing questions that scientists want answered.”

A recent upgrade to one of SOFIA’s instruments called the German Receiver at Terahertz Frequencies, or GREAT, added the specific channel for helium hydride that previous telescopes did not have. The instrument works like a radio receiver. Scientists tune to the frequency of the molecule they’re searching for, similar to tuning an FM radio to the right station. When SOFIA took to the night skies, eager scientists were onboard reading the data from the instrument in real time. Helium hydride’s signal finally came through loud and clear.

“It was so exciting to be there, seeing helium hydride for the first time in the data,” said Guesten. “This brings a long search to a happy ending and eliminates doubts about our understanding of the underlying chemistry of the early universe.

Scientists on the airborne observatory SOFIA detected the first type of molecule that ever formed in the universe. They found the combination of helium and hydrogen, called helium hydride, in a planetary nebula near the constellation Cygnus. This discovery confirms a key part of our basic understanding of the early universe and how it evolved over billions of years into the complex chemistry of today.

Credits: NASA/Ames Research Center

SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, is a Boeing 747SP jetliner modified to carry a 106-inch diameter telescope. It is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center, DLR. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley manages the SOFIA program, science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, and the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) at the University of Stuttgart. The aircraft is maintained and operated from NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center Building 703, in Palmdale, California.

Contacts and sources:
Nicholas Veronico
SOFIA Science Center
Ames Research Center

Elizabeth Landau
NASA Headquarters, Washington
Written by Kassandra Bell and Alison Hawkes


Geomagnetic Jerks Finally Reproduced and Explained

Initially described in 1978, geomagnetic jerks are unpredictable events that abruptly accelerate the evolution of the Earth's magnetic field, and skew predictions of its behaviour on a multi-year scale. Our magnetic field affects numerous human activities, ranging from establishing the direction in smartphones to the flight of low-altitude satellites. It is therefore essential to accurately predict its evolution. Still, geomagnetic jerks have presented a problem for geophysicists for over forty years.

Visualization of the interior of the Earth's core, as represented by a computer simulation model (view of the equatorial plane and a spherical surface near the inner core, seen from the North Pole). Magnetic field lines (in orange) are stretched by turbulent convection (in blue and red). Hydromagnetic waves are emitted from the inner core, and spread along the magnetic field lines up to the core's boundary, where they are focused and give rise to geomagnetic jerks.

Credit: © Aubert et al./IPGP/CNRS Photo library

The Earth's magnetic field is produced by the circulation of matter within its metallic core, via the energy released when this core cools. Researchers know of two types of movements that cause two types of variations in the magnetic field: those resulting from slow convection movement, which can be measured on the scale of a century, and those resulting from "rapid" hydromagnetic waves, which can be detected on the scale of a few years. They suspected that the latter played a role in the jerks, but the interaction of these waves with slow convection, along with their mechanism of propagation and amplification, had yet to be revealed.

To solve this mystery, Julien Aubert from l'Institut de physique du globe de Paris (CNRS/IPGP/IGN/Université de Paris) developed, with a colleague from the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), a computer simulation very close to the physical conditions of our core. The simulation required the equivalent of 4 million hours of calculation, and was carried out thanks to the supercomputers of GENCI.

Researchers were subsequently able to reproduce the succession of events leading to geomagnetic jerks, which arise in the simulation from hydromagnetic waves emitted in the inner core. These waves are focused and amplified as they approach the core's surface, causing magnetic disturbances comparable in all ways to the jerks observed.

The digital reproduction and comprehension of these jerks paves the way for better predictions of the Earth's magnetic field. Identifying the cause of magnetic field variations could also help geophysicists study the physical properties of the Earth's core and inner mantle.

This research project was financed by the Fondation Simone et Cino Del Duca of Institut de France, which supports fundamental research in the Earth Sciences through one of its scientific grants.

Contacts and sources:
François Maginiot

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Future Hypersonic Weapons Could Be Artificially Intelligent

A test launch for a hypersonic weapon — a long-range missile that flies a mile per second and faster — takes weeks of planning. So, while the U.S. and other states are racing to deploy hypersonic technologies, it remains uncertain how useful the systems will be against urgent, mobile or evolving threats.

Sandia National Laboratories, which has made and tested hypersonic vehicles for more than thirty years, thinks artificial intelligence and autonomy could slash these weeks to minutes for deployed systems. To prove it, Sandia announced today the formation of Autonomy New Mexico, an academic research coalition whose mission is to create artificially intelligent aerospace systems.

A diverse set of technologies to be developed at Sandia National Laboratories could strengthen future hypersonic and other autonomous systems.

Credit: Sandia National Laboratories

“AutonomyNM is a gathering of some of the best minds in autonomous systems technology in a uniquely oriented, collaborative environment,” said Sandia’s Michael Burns, associate labs director for national security programs. “We expect it to make important impacts on a number of research areas.”

AI could accelerate flight planning

A hypersonic boost-glide vehicle — the type tested by Sandia — launches into space aboard a rocket, then detaches and uses only its momentum to sail across the upper atmosphere before finally plunging back to Earth and its target.

“At extreme speeds, the flight is incredibly challenging to plan for and program,” said Alex Roesler, a senior manager at Sandia who leads the coalition.

In theory, artificial intelligence could generate a hypersonic flight plan in minutes for human review and approval, and in milliseconds a semi-autonomous vehicle could self-correct in flight to compensate for unexpected flight conditions or a change in the target’s location. A human monitoring the flight could regain control by turning off the course-correcting function at any time.

Autonomous technologies, such as self-driving cars, are designed to perform complicated tasks without human intervention. They require a broad range of technologies that work in tandem, including advanced computing, artificial intelligence and machine-learning algorithms, sensors, navigation systems and robotics.

The Sandia-led collaboration integrates leading expertise from throughout the country in these areas with its own knowledge in high-performance flight vehicles. Sandia makes hypersonic glide vehicles for research purposes and operates a hypersonic wind tunnel.

Members collaborating with Sandia represent the Georgia Institute of Technology; Purdue University; the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; the University of New Mexico; Stanford University; Texas A&M University; The University of Texas at Austin; and Utah State University.

AutonomyNM assembles for first conference

The coalition is converging today on the University of New Mexico campus for its first general meeting. For two days, members will present experimental results, propose new ideas and discuss progress toward their shared goals.

“The research objectives of AutonomyNM are similar to those being studied for self-driving cars and other autonomous system technologies, and we’re building off that groundwork,” Roesler said. “Unfortunately, you can’t put an algorithm developed for a car into a high-speed aircraft, so we’re working with our partners to create new technologies for a new application.”

AutonomyNM’s broader ambitions are to serve as a wellspring for other industries by developing ideas that could lead to safer, more efficient robots in, for example, autonomous transportation, manufacturing, space or agriculture. If the group reaches its goals, it will have created computing algorithms that compress 12 hours of calculations into a single millisecond, all on a small, onboard computer.

A pilot flies a drone at dusk. Humans might see their roles throughout aviation and aerospace shift if Sandia National Laboratories can simplify manual tasks with artificial intelligence.
A pilot flies a drone at dusk. Humans might see their roles throughout aviation and aerospace shift if Sandia National Laboratories can simplify manual tasks with artificial intelligence.
Credit: Sandia National Laboratories

Sandia is aiming to complete the foundational technologies of new autonomous flight systems by 2024. In addition to hypersonic flight systems, AutonomyNM plans to explore other applications of autonomy in aerospace, emphasizing solutions to national security challenges.

AutonomyNM is partly patterned after similar collaborations formed by other government agencies, like the Defense Department. The Sandia-led organization differs in its focus on academic partnerships and its objective to develop autonomy customized for hypersonic flight.

Funding for AutonomyNM research is provided by Sandia’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development and Academic Alliance programs.

Contacts and sources:
Sandia National Laboratories


Coming Soon Godlike Thinking: Neural Nanobots and the Internet of Thoughts

In the future nanobots will connect human brains to the Internet and bring about the Internet of Thoughts. A 'Human Brain/Cloud Interface' will give people instant access to vast knowledge and computing power via thought alone, predict experts

Imagine a future technology that would provide instant access to the world's knowledge and artificial intelligence, simply by thinking about a specific topic or question. Communications, education, work, and the world as we know it would be transformed.  Would that not give humans godlike knowledge? And who would get it first?

Woodcut by Master MS from Luther's bible of 1545
Am Anfang schuffF GOtt Himel vnd Erden.jpg
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Writing in Frontiers in Neuroscience, an international collaboration led by researchers at UC Berkeley and the US Institute for Molecular Manufacturing predicts that exponential progress in nanotechnology, nanomedicine, AI, and computation will lead this century to the development of a "Human Brain/Cloud Interface" (B/CI), that connects neurons and synapses in the brain to vast cloud-computing networks in real time.

The first reported direct transmission of information between two human brains without intervention of motor or peripheral sensory systems occurred in 2014, using a brain-to-brain communication technique referred to as “hyperinteraction”

The most promising long-term future technology for non-destructive, real-time human–brain–computer interfaces and brain-to-brain communications may be neuralnanorobotics.

Nanobots on the brain

The B/CI concept was initially proposed by futurist-author-inventor Ray Kurzweil, who suggested that neural nanorobots - brainchild of Robert Freitas, Jr., senior author of the research - could be used to connect the neocortex of the human brain to a "synthetic neocortex" in the cloud. Our wrinkled neocortex is the newest, smartest, 'conscious' part of the brain.

Freitas' proposed neural nanorobots would provide direct, real-time monitoring and control of signals to and from brain cells.

"These devices would navigate the human vasculature, cross the blood-brain barrier, and precisely autoposition themselves among, or even within brain cells," explains Freitas. "They would then wirelessly transmit encoded information to and from a cloud-based supercomputer network for real-time brain-state monitoring and data extraction."

. Brain-to-brain interface (BTBI) for information transfer between human subjects. The emitter subject is shown on the left, where sensorimotor cortex activity was recorded using EEG electrodes. The emitter performed an imagery based binary motor task: imagery of the feet (bit value 0) versus imagery of the hands (bit value 1). The receiver subject is shown on the right. The TMS coil was positioned differently over the visual cortex for 1 and 0 bit values, and evoked or did not evoke phosphenes (flashes of light), respectively. An Internet link was used for this brain-to-brain communication. Image reproduced from Grau et al. (2014).
Credit  Human Brain/Cloud Interface 

The internet of thoughts

This cortex in the cloud would allow "Matrix"-style downloading of information to the brain, the group claims.

"A human B/CI system mediated by neuralnanorobotics could empower individuals with instantaneous access to all cumulative human knowledge available in the cloud, while significantly improving human learning capacities and intelligence," says lead author Dr. Nuno Martins.

B/CI technology might also allow us to create a future "global superbrain" that would connect networks of individual human brains and AIs to enable collective thought.

"While not yet particularly sophisticated, an experimental human 'BrainNet' system has already been tested, enabling thought-driven information exchange via the cloud between individual brains," explains Martins. "It used electrical signals recorded through the skull of 'senders' and magnetic stimulation through the skull of 'receivers,' allowing for performing cooperative tasks.

"With the advance of neuralnanorobotics, we envisage the future creation of 'superbrains' that can harness the thoughts and thinking power of any number of humans and machines in real time. This shared cognition could revolutionize democracy, enhance empathy, and ultimately unite culturally diverse groups into a truly global society."

When can we connect?

According to the group's estimates, even existing supercomputers have processing speeds capable of handling the necessary volumes of neural data for B/CI - and they're getting faster, fast.

Rather, transferring neural data to and from supercomputers in the cloud is likely to be the ultimate bottleneck in B/CI development.

"This challenge includes not only finding the bandwidth for global data transmission," cautions Martins, "but also, how to enable data exchange with neurons via tiny devices embedded deep in the brain."

One solution proposed by the authors is the use of 'magnetoelectric nanoparticles' to effectively amplify communication between neurons and the cloud.

"These nanoparticles have been used already in living mice to couple external magnetic fields to neuronal electric fields - that is, to detect and locally amplify these magnetic signals and so allow them to alter the electrical activity of neurons," explains Martins. "This could work in reverse, too: electrical signals produced by neurons and nanorobots could be amplified via magnetoelectric nanoparticles, to allow their detection outside of the skull."

Getting these nanoparticles - and nanorobots - safely into the brain via the circulation, would be perhaps the greatest challenge of all in B/CI.

"A detailed analysis of the biodistribution and biocompatibility of nanoparticles is required before they can be considered for human development. Nevertheless, with these and other promising technologies for B/CI developing at an ever-increasing rate, an 'internet of thoughts' could become a reality before the turn of the century," Martins concludes.

“We’ll have nanobots that… connect our neocortex to a synthetic neocortex in the cloud… Our thinking will be a…. biological and non-biological hybrid.”— Ray Kurzweil, TED 2014

Two hundred million years ago, our mammal ancestors developed a new brain feature: the neocortex. This stamp-sized piece of tissue (wrapped around a brain the size of a walnut) is the key to what humanity has become. Now, futurist Ray Kurzweil suggests, we should get ready for the next big leap in brain power, as we tap into the computing power in the cloud
Credit: TED

The first reported scientific instance of the term “brain–computer interface” dates to 1973.

Contacts and sources:
Dr. Nuno Martins

Human Brain/Cloud Interface  https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2019.00112/full

Superstitions Are Infectious, How They Spread

Evidently irrational beliefs can become established in the social norms of a society. Research by biologists shows how.

Ancient Roman leaders once made decisions about important events, such as when to hold elections or where to build new cities, based on the presence or flight patterns of birds. Builders often omit the thirteenth floor from their floor plans, and many pedestrians go well out of their way to avoid walking under a ladder. 

Do you change direction when you see a black cat approaching? A game theory-driven model developed by two theoretical biologists at Penn shows how such superstitions can catch on.


While it’s widely recognized that superstitions like these are not rational, many persist, guiding the behavior of large groups of people even today.

In a new analysis driven by game theory, two theoretical biologists devised a model that shows how superstitious beliefs can become established in a society’s social norms. Their work, which appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, demonstrates how groups of individuals, each starting with distinct belief systems, can evolve a coordinated set of behaviors that are enforced by a set of consistent social norms.

“What’s interesting here is that we show that, beginning in a system where no one has any particular belief system, a set of beliefs can emerge, and from those, a set of coordinated behaviors,” says Erol Akçay, an assistant professor of biology at Penn.

“Slowly, these actors accumulate superstitions,” adds Bryce Morsky, a postdoctoral researcher. “They may say, ‘Ok, well I believe that when I observe this event I should behave this way because another person will behave that way,’ and over time, if they have success in using that kind of a strategy, the superstitions catch on and can become evolutionarily stable.”

Morsky and Akçay’s work is an application of game theory, which attempts to predict how people will interact and make decisions in a social setting. They specifically considered what are known as correlated equilibria, scenarios in which all actors are given correlated signals that dictate their response to any given situation.

“A classic example is a traffic light,” says Akçay. “If two people are approaching an intersection, one will get a ‘stop’ signal and one will get a ‘go’ signal and everybody knows that. It’s rational for both parties to obey the light.”

The signal, in this case the traffic light, is known as a correlating device, or more evocatively, a “choreographer.” But the Penn team wanted to know what would happen if there was no choreographer. If people could pay attention to a variety of other signals that could direct their actions, and their beliefs were transmitted according to the success of their actions, would coordinated behaviors arise? In other words, can evolution act as a “blind choreographer?”

“What if a cyclist is riding toward an intersection, and instead of a traffic light they see a cat,” Akçay says. “The cat is irrelevant to the intersection, but maybe the person decides that if they see a black cat, that means they should stop, or that maybe that means the approaching cyclist is going to stop.”

Despite the color of a cat having no bearing on the likelihood of an approaching cyclist stopping or going, sometimes this kind of conditional strategy might result in a higher payoff to the cyclist—if it is correlated with superstitions of other cyclists.

“Sometimes it may be rational to hold these irrational beliefs,” Morsky notes.

Erol Akçay and Bryce Morsky
Credit: University of Pennsylvania

In their model, Morsky and Akçay assume that individuals are rational, in that they do not follow a norm blindly, but only do so when their beliefs make it seem beneficial. They change their beliefs by imitating successful people’s beliefs. This creates an evolutionary dynamic where the norms “compete” against one another, rising and falling in prevalence through the group. This evolutionary process eventually leads to the formation of new social norms.

Morsky and Akçay showed that the evolutionarily stable norms, those that cannot be replaced by others, have to be consistent, meaning that they successfully coordinate individual behavior even in the absence of an external “choreographer. “

Credit: Weird Tales / Wikimedia Commons

They found that these evolutionarily stable norms, in both prescribing how an actor should behave and also describing that actor’s expectations of how others should behave, create a consistent belief system that helps coordinate the overall behavior of many actors, even if that coordination is not being directed by any outside choreographer.

To further explore their findings, the researchers hope to engage in social experiments to see whether individuals might start devising their own superstitions or beliefs when none are provided.

“What I like about this work,” says Morsky, “is that these beliefs are made-up superstitions, but they become real because everybody actually follows them, so you create this social reality. I’m really interesting in testing that further.”
Contacts and sources:
Katherine Unger Baillie
University of Pennsylvania

Citation: Evolution of social norms and correlated equilibria.
Bryce Morsky, Erol Akçay. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2019; 201817095 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1817095116

Deepwater Horizon Disaster Damage Continuing, Recovery a Decade Away

The Gulf Coast is still suffering from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and full recovery may take another 10 years or more.

Nine years ago on April 20, 2010, crude oil began leaking from the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig into the Gulf of Mexico in what turned out to be the largest marine oil spill in history. A long-term study suggests the oil is still affecting the salt marshes of the Gulf Coast, and reveals the key role that marsh grasses play in the overall recovery of these important coastal wetlands.

Photos of a heavily oiled saltmarsh in Louisiana's Barataria Bay show recovery of the plant community following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Qianxin Lin

Conducting the study was a multi-institutional research team funded in part by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, a 10-year independent program established through a $500 million financial commitment from BP. The team began sampling soon after the spill was finally contained, and continue their work today. Their most-recent article--in Estuaries and Coasts--reports on the first six and a half years of sampling post-spill.

Lead author on the study is John Fleeger, an emeritus professor at LSU. Co-authors are Rita Riggio, Irving Mendelssohn, Qianxin Lin, and Aixin Hou of LSU; David Johnson of William & Mary's Virginia Institute of Marine Science; Donald Deis of Atkins North America; Kevin Carman of the University of Nevada-Reno; Sean Graham of Nicholls State University; and Scott Zengel of Research Planning, Inc.

Johnson, an assistant professor at VIMS and expert in salt marsh invertebrates, says "Our study highlights the crucial role that plants play in the recovery of important links in the Gulf of Mexico's coastal food web." Those links ultimately connect to the fish and shellfish that support the region's economy and culture.

Dr. Sean Graham of Nicholls State (L) prepares to sample the marsh soil within a Louisiana salt marsh as his students work in the background.

Credit: © D. Johnson/VIMS.

Two plants dominate healthy Gulf Coast salt marshes--the smooth cordgrass Spartina alterniflora and the black needlerush Juncus roemerianus. Also abundant on the marsh surface are single-celled, plant-like organisms that scientists collectively refer to as benthic microalgae, while a suite of small invertebrates--amphipods, copepods, nematodes, snails, worms, and others--swim, hop, and crawl among the grass blades or burrow in the underlying root zone.

The team studied these organisms by measuring their abundance and biomass in heavily oiled, moderately oiled, and oil-free areas of Louisiana's Barataria Bay, using both surface plots and shallow cores. Sampling took place at roughly 6-month intervals between 2011 and 2016.

The researchers' early sampling showed that nearly all the plants in heavily oiled areas died, while benthic microalgae and burrowing invertebrates suffered significant reductions. Their later sampling showed that marsh recovery was led by benthic microalgae and Spartina--which began to show significant above-ground growth within two to three years.

Importantly, it was only after Spartina started its comeback that recovery of the invertebrate community began in earnest. "Plants are the foundation of salt marshes," explains Johnson. "Marsh grasses facilitate colonization by burrowing invertebrates; fuel the food web, provide animal habitat, bind the soil, and slow water flow. Without plants there is no marsh, and there is no marsh recovery following a spill without plants leading the way."

If you plant it, they will come

The team's findings have important implications for responding to any future spills. Fleeger says "our findings indicate that mitigation strategies for any future spills should include the planting of foundation species such as Spartina."

Mendelssohn, a VIMS alumnus (M.A. '73), says that foundation species "enhance recovery by providing habitat and reducing sediment erosion." Over the longer term, he says, "plant growth enhances recovery by improving soil quality. Plants generate organic matter that accumulates belowground, while their roots and rhizomes release oxygen, bind sediments, and increase sediment volume. Breakdown of plant tissues also provides nutrients that further stimulate plant growth and beneficial microbial processes in the marsh."

A slow road to full recovery

Tempering the promise of marsh recovery via planting of grasses such as Spartina is the team's discovery that heavily oiled marsh sites remained less healthy than moderately oiled and oil-free sites more than 6 years after the Deepwater Horizon spill. Heavily oiled sites still had elevated concentrations of oil and its breakdown products, and showed slower growth of black needlerush, lower production of plant detritus and below-ground organic matter, and altered soil density. Populations of worms, juvenile snails, and other small invertebrates had also failed to fully recover.

Particularly troubling was the continued rarity of the polychaete worm Manayunkia aestuarina. One of the most abundant single species in the invertebrate community, this tube dweller is important to the health of marsh sediments, and plays a key role in the marsh food web as a major prey item for crabs, shrimp, and fish. "The near absence of this species could indicate significant alteration of ecological function at heavily oiled sites," says Johnson.

Manisha Pant, a technician in David Johnson's laboratory at VIMS, samples the invertebrate community within a lightly oiled Louisiana salt marsh.

Credit: © D. Johnson/VIMS.

Also troubling is that projecting the observed pace of mash recovery into the future suggests that complete recovery at moderately and heavily oiled sites will likely take much longer than a decade. This is slower than reported in many previous studies of oil spills and their impacts on the marsh community.

"Previous work shows that oil spills in salt marshes can impact bottom-dwelling invertebrates for more than four decades," says Fleeger. "Long-term exposure to oil and its breakdown products may also decrease the sensitivity and resilience of these organisms to future spills," he adds.

On a brighter note, a previous study by Johnson and colleagues suggests that fertilization of Spartina plantings can enhance growth of both its stems and roots, thus aiding marsh recovery in the long term. "We're starting to see the salt marsh in the Gulf of Mexico rebound," says Johnson, "but it will likely be a decade or more before we see complete recovery."

This study was made available online in August 2018 ahead of final publication in print in January 2019.

Contacts and sources:
David MalmquistVirginia Institute of Marine Science

Citation: What Promotes the Recovery of Salt Marsh Infauna After Oil Spills?J. W. Fleeger, M. R. Riggio, I. A. Mendelssohn, Q. Lin, D. R. Deis, D. S. Johnson, K. R. Carman, S. A. Graham, S. Zengel, A. Hou. Estuaries and Coasts January 2019, Volume 42, Issue 1, pp 204–21 http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s12237-018-0443-2

Fish Warn Friends and Family but Not Strangers to Dangers

Wild fish purposely alert familiar fish to perils and predators with urea and other chemicals.

Fish warn each other about danger by releasing chemicals into the water as a signal, research by the University of Saskatchewan (USask) has found.

The USask researchers discovered that wild fish release chemicals called 'disturbance cues' to signal to other fish about nearby dangers, such as predators.

Fathead minnows engage in normal feeding behaviour until they sense chemicals indicating danger from others, causing them to shoal tightly together.

Credit: Katherine Fedoroff.
The findings may have implications for fish conservation efforts across the globe.

"Disturbance cues may help to explain why some fish populations crash after they decline past a certain point," said Kevin Bairos-Novak, a graduate student member of the research team.

While researchers have been aware that fish release chemicals into the water for 30 years, this is the first time their use has been studied.

The findings, involving researchers from the USask biology department and the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, are published in the Journal of Animal Ecology.

Fish signaled most when in the presence of familiar fish, but signaled far less or not at all when in the presence of strangers, or when on their own.

The signals provoked a 'fright response' in fish they knew, including freezing, dashing about and then shoaling tightly together. Fish use this behavior to defend themselves against predators.

"When minnows were present alongside familiar minnows, they were much more likely to produce signals that initiated close grouping of nearby fish, a strategy used to avoid being eaten by predators," said Bairos-Novak, who is now at James Cook University, Australia.

Disturbance cues are voluntarily released by prey after being chased, startled or stressed by predators.

One of the main constituents of the signal is urea, found in fish urine.

Fathead minnows, caught at a lake, were placed in groups with familiar fish, unfamiliar fish or as isolated individuals. The research team then simulated a predator chase. The fish responded by shoaling, freezing and dashing when they received a signal from a group they knew. But they did not take significant defensive action when receiving cues from unfamiliar fish or isolated minnows.

Disturbance cues are voluntarily released by prey after being chased, startled or stressed by predators.

"It is exciting to discover a new signaling pathway in animals," said Maud Ferrari, Bairos-Novak's supervisor and a behavioral ecologist in the veterinary college's Department of Veterinary Biomedical Sciences. "We found that fish are able to manipulate the behavior of other individuals nearby by issuing a signal."

The research was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

Contacts and sources:
Jennifer Thoma
University of Saskatchewan (USask)


A novel alarm signal in aquatic prey: Familiar minnows coordinate group defences against predators through chemical disturbance cues
Kevin R. Bairos‐NovakMaud C. O. FerrariDouglas P. Chivers, British Ecological Society