Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Thunderquakes Make Underground Fiber Optic Telecommunications Cables Hum

Telecommunications lines designed for carrying internet and phone service can pick up the rumble of thunder underground, potentially providing scientists with a new way of detecting environmental hazards and imaging deep inside the Earth.
gif of a lightning flash. Credit: AGU

The new research being presented today at AGU’s Fall Meeting and published in AGU’s Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres marks the first time thunder has been heard underground by a telecommunications fiber optic array, according to the study’s authors.

The new study used The Pennsylvania State University’s existing fiber network for internet and phone service as a distributed sensor array to observe the progress of thunderstorms as they crossed the campus.

Traditional seismometers have recorded ground motions evoked by thunder, called thunderquakes, vibrating in the infrasound frequency range, below 20 Hertz, which is inaudible to the human ear. The fiber array, which is buried 1 meter (3 feet) underground, picked up a wider range of the frequencies heard in a peal of thunder. The bandwidth detected, from 20 to 130 Hertz, is consistent with microphone recordings of thunder and provides more information about the event, the study found.

Penn State geophysicist Tieyuan Zhu and meteorologist David Stensrud gained access to the university’s telecommunication fiber optic cable in April 2019. They were listening for subtle vibrations from a variety of environmental effects, including sinkhole formation and flooding.

“Once we set up, we found a lot of very strong events in our fiber optic data, so I was very curious, what’s the cause of these signals?” said Zhu. The researchers found a match when they synchronized their results with data from the U.S. National Lightning Detection Network. “We thought, yeah, this is exactly the thunderstorm data, actually recorded by our fiber array.”

The passage of lightning heats the air so fast it creates a shockwave we hear as thunder. Vibrations from loud events like lightning, meteor explosions and aircraft sonic booms pass from the air to Earth’s surface, shaking the ground.

Fiber optic cables carry telecommunications information in bursts of laser light conducted by strands of transparent glass about as thick as a human hair. Vibrations in the Earth such as those created by thunderstorms, earthquakes or hurricanes stretch or compress the glass fibers, causing a slight change in light intensity and the time the laser pulse takes to travel to its destination. The researchers tracked these aberrations to monitor ground motion, converting the laser pulses back to acoustic signals.

“The laser is very sensitive. If there is a subtle underground perturbation, the laser can detect that change,” said Zhu.

Several kilometers of continuous fiber underlay Penn State’s campus, which means the array can act like a network of more than 2,000 seismometers emplaced every two meters along the cable path. With this high density of sensors, the researchers can calculate the location where the thunder originated, potentially distinguishing between cloud-to-ground and cloud-to-cloud lightning.

“Compared to the seismometers, the fiber optic array can provide fabulous spatial, and also temporal, resolution,” said Zhu. “We can track the thunderstorm source movement.”

The researchers said the new study demonstrates fiber optic networks under urban areas are an untapped resource for monitoring environmental hazards. They also hold potential for studying the crust and deep structures of the Earth, which cannot be measured directly.

Scientists learn about the inside of the planet by observing the way seismic waves from earthquakes are altered as they pass through it. Ground motions induced by thunderstorms, which are much more frequent than earthquakes on the east coast of North America, could help reveal the hidden shapes of Earth’s interior, Zhu said.

Contacts and sources:
Tieyuan Zhu 
Penn State University

Liza Lester
American Geophysical Union

Citation: “Characterizing thunder-induced ground motions using fiber-optic distributed acoustic sensing array

Tieyuan Zhu, Department of Geosciences & EMS Energy Institute, The Pennsylvania State University, State College, Pennsylvania, United States

David Stensrud, Department of Meteorology and Atmosphere Science, The Pennsylvania State University, State College, Pennsylvania, United States

Have You Found Meaning in Life? Answer Determines Health and Well-Being

A new study examines meaning in life and relationship with physical, mental and cognitive functioning.

Over the last three decades, meaning in life has emerged as an important question in medical research, especially in the context of an aging population. A recent study by researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine found that the presence of and search for meaning in life are important for health and well-being, though the relationships differ in adults younger and older than age 60.

"Many think about the meaning and purpose in life from a philosophical perspective, but meaning in life is associated with better health, wellness and perhaps longevity," said senior author Dilip V. Jeste, MD, senior associate dean for the Center of Healthy Aging and Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine. "Those with meaning in life are happier and healthier than those without it."

Dilip V. Jeste, MD, senior associate dean for the Center of Healthy Aging and Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

Credit: Erik Jepson, UC San Diego Publications

The study, publishing online in the December 10, 2019 edition of the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, found the presence of meaning in life is associated with better physical and mental well-being, while the search for meaning in life may be associated with worse mental well-being and cognitive functioning. "When you find more meaning in life, you become more contented, whereas if you don't have purpose in life and are searching for it unsuccessfully, you will feel much more stressed out," said Jeste.

The results also showed that the presence of meaning in life exhibited an inverted U-shaped relationship, while the search for meaning in life showed a U-shaped relationship with age. The researchers found that age 60 is when the presence of meaning in life peaks and the search for meaning of life was at its lowest point.

"When you are young, like in your twenties, you are unsure about your career, a life partner and who you are as a person. You are searching for meaning in life," said Jeste. "As you start to get into your thirties, forties and fifties, you have more established relationships, maybe you are married and have a family and you're settled in a career. The search decreases and the meaning in life increases."

"After age 60, things begin to change. People retire from their job and start to lose their identity. They start to develop health issues and some of their friends and family begin to pass away. They start searching for the meaning in life again because the meaning they once had has changed."

The three-year, cross-sectional study examined data from 1,042 adults, ages 21 to 100-plus, who were part of the Successful Aging Evaluation (SAGE)--a multi-cohort study of senior residents living in San Diego County. The presence and search for meaning in life were assessed with interviews, including a meaning in life questionnaire where participants were asked to rate items, such as, "I am seeking a purpose or mission for my life" and "I have discovered a satisfying life purpose."

"The medical field is beginning to recognize that meaning in life is a clinically relevant and potentially modifiable factor, which can be targeted to enhance the well-being and functioning of patients," said Awais Aftab, MD, first author of the paper and a former fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at UC San Diego. "We anticipate that our findings will serve as building blocks for the development of new interventions for patients searching for purpose."

Jeste said next research steps include looking at other areas, such as wisdom, loneliness and compassion, and how these impact meaning in life. "We also want to examine if some biomarkers of stress and aging are associated with searching and finding the meaning in life. It's an exciting time in this field as we are seeking to discover evidence-based answers to some of life's most profound questions." 

Co-authors include: Ellen Lee, Federica Klaus, Rebecca Daly, Tsung-Chin Wu, Xin Tu and Steven Huege, all at UC San Diego.

Contacts and sources:
Michelle Brubaker
University of California San Diego

Citation: Meaning in Life and Its Relationship With Physical, Mental, and Cognitive Functioning: A Study of 1,042 Community-Dwelling Adults Across the Lifespan
Awais Aftab, MD; Ellen E. Lee, MD; Federica Klaus, MD, PhD; Rebecca Daly, BA; Tsung-Chin Wu, BS; Xin Tu, PhD; Steven Huege, MD; and Dilip V. Jeste, MD  The Journal of Clinical Society

Print Me an Organ -- Why Are We Not There Yet?

Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) leads in-depth review on the impending reality of 3D printed organs and analyses recent accomplishments, limitations and opportunities for future research.

3D bioprinting is a highly-advanced manufacturing platform that allows for the printing of tissue, and eventually vital organs, from cells. This could open a new world of possibilities for the medical field, while directly benefiting patients who need replacement organs.

Instead of waiting for a suitable donor or having the risk of their body rejecting a transplanted organ, 3D printed organs allow patients to have a customised organ fabricated specifically to replace their faulty ones. However, even with headway that 3D bioprinting has made in the last two decades, it is still lacking significant strides in order to produce complex 3D biomimetic tissue constructs.

According to researchers from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Asia University, tissue culture techniques in particular require accelerated progress to address the bottleneck of maturing bioprinted multi-cellular 3D tissue constructs into functional tissues. Their research paper entitled "Print me an organ! Why are we not there yet?" has been published in the Progress in Polymer Science.

In the paper, researchers also provided in-depth review of recent improvements and analysed the bioprinting techniques, progress in bio-ink development, implementation of new bioprinting and tissue maturation strategies. Special attention was also given to the role of polymer science and how it complemented 3D bioprinting to overcome some of the major impediments such as achieving biomimicry, vascularization and 3D anatomically-relevant biological structures, in the field of organ printing 

Credit: SUTD

The use of complementary strategies such as dynamic co-culture perfusion system was seen as critical towards ensuring maturation and assembly of bioprinted tissue constructs. Even though it is now possible to fabricate human-scale tissues or organs that can potentially mature into vascularized and partially-functional tissues, the industry is still lagging behind in the bioprinting of human-specific tissues or organs due to the complexities in tissue-specific extracellular matrices (ECM) and tissue maturation process - the lack of suitable co-culture medium to support multiple types of cells and the need for further tissue conditioning prior to implantation.

"While 3D bioprinting is still in its early stages, the remarkable leap it has made in recent years points to the eventual reality of lab-grown, functional organs. However, to push the frontiers of medicine we must overcome the technical challenges in creating tissue-specific bio-inks and optimizing the tissue maturation process. This will ultimately have a huge impact on patients' lives, many of whom may be reliant on the future of 3D bioprinting," said Professor Chua Chee Kai, lead author of the paper from SUTD.

Contacts and sources:
Jessica Sasayiah
Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD)

Citation: Print Me An Organ! Why We Are Not There Yet Author links open overlay panelWei Long Ng, Chee Kai Chua, Yu-Fang Shen

How Does Political News Affect Moods?

Major American political events of the last three years altered interns' moods, but non-political events didn't, signaling a politically aware generation of physicians.  A new study in young doctors shows real-time effects of political news.

They work in a bubble of 80-hour work weeks, and 24-hour shifts. They're caring for patients for the first time, while still learning the ropes of the medical profession. The constant stress wears on their mental health.

But for first-year doctors who started their careers in the past few years, a new study shows that certain political events pierced that bubble of intense training.

The study looks at the impact of political events on the moods of young doctors.
Credit: University of Michigan

In fact, some political events affected their mood just as much as the intense first weeks of their training had.

In a paper in the journal BMJ, a team from the University of Michigan reports the results of a real-time, long-term assessment of the moods of young doctors, called interns, in relation to major political and non-political events of the past few years.

The authors call for further exploration of the interactions between politics and medicine, and the implications for physicians and their patients.

Monitoring mood

The study used data from an ongoing study of intern health that has already yielded findings about the high risk of depression among interns, and the relationship between intense stress and mental health in general.

The new paper focuses on daily mood ratings from 2,345 interns who were in their first year of training at American hospitals anytime between mid-2016 and late 2018, and how they changed in the immediate aftermath of major national and world events.

Three events -- the 2016 U.S. election, the 2017 U.S. presidential inauguration, and the failure of a federal spending bill to fund a Mexican border wall - were followed by the largest collective changes in mood.

The first of these events was actually associated with a drop in mood larger than the drop that interns experienced in the first weeks of their intense training. The second led to a sizable mood drop, while the third led to a collective mood boost.

The authors note in an accompanying commentary, the decline in mood immediately after the election was four times greater than any other day they had tracked, and female interns' mood drop was twice as large as that seen among male interns. The study group was 55% female, a slightly higher percentage than the current generation of recent medical school graduates.

Two-thirds of the major political events in the study period prompted significant changes in interns' moods. No non-political event during the study period - not mass shootings, hurricanes, wildfires, a royal wedding or a solar eclipse - affected interns' moods.

"This suggests to us that interns were deeply engaged with and affected by the election, even while facing the incredible demands of their intern year," says Elena Frank, Ph.D., the director of the Intern Health Study. "It also suggests that the 2016 election was experienced as deeply personal and distressing for many young women in medicine."

Politics and physicians

Srijan Sen, M.D., Ph.D., the principal investigator of the Intern Health Study and a professor of psychiatry at U-M, said that given the intensity of the intern year's demands, he had been surprised that any external event managed to affect the moods of interns as much as the study shows.

He recalls that Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans and neighboring areas of the Gulf Coast during his own intern year, and he only became aware weeks later.

"The new generation of physicians seems to be more politically engaged than how doctors had traditionally been seen," he says. "This suggests that there is a real opportunity for physicians to lend their voice and join the discussion on issues relevant to clinicians and their patients."

Frank, Sen and their colleagues used mood ratings collected daily from interns via a smartphone app used in the study, which asks them to assess their mood each evening. They combined these data with national Google search data about the most searched-for events during the study period.

They note that the strong negative and positive reactions to certain news events may also have to do with the changing demographics of those going into the medical profession - not just more women, but more people of color, and more people from varied socioeconomic backgrounds.

But the question of whether the broader range of backgrounds - and political views - of doctors will translate into more political activism and public expression of views still remains to be seen. Physicians in the past may have refrained from engaging in politics in public ways, to avoid having their political views affect their interactions with patients.

"There has always been a vigorous debate in medicine on whether physicians should engage in politics and to what extent," says Brahmajee Nallamothu, M.D., M.P.H., a co-author of the study and professor of internal medicine at U-M. "These data suggest deep engagement is happening in young doctors during even their most intense clinical workload."

The new findings may also add to understanding of how the tumult of the current period may be affecting people who aren't in the midst of intense medical training.

"Political events may be affecting people's moods in ways they didn't before, and we hope our research in general can help illuminate the ways that stress and external events affect mental health," says Sen.

Contacts and sources:
Kara Gavin
Michigan Medicine - University of Michigan

Citation: Political events and mood among young physicians: a prospective cohort study BMJ 2019; 367 doi: (Published 09 December 2019) BMJ,

Chiton Mollusk Provides Model for New Armor Design

The chiton mollusk, which is about 1 to 2 inches long, has a series of eight large plates and is ringed by a girdle of smaller, more flexible scales. The mollusk is the inspiration behind a 3D printed armor.

Credit: Virginia Tech

The motivations for using biology as inspiration to engineering vary based on the project, but for Ling Li, assistant professor of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering, the combination of flexibility and protection seen in the chiton mollusk was all the motivation necessary
“The system we’ve developed is based on the chiton, which has a unique biological armor system,” Li said. “Most mollusks have a single rigid shell, such as the abalone, or two shells, such as clams. But the chiton has eight mineralized plates covering the top of the creature and around its base it has a girdle of very small scales assembled like fish scales, that provide flexibility as well as protection.”

Li’s work, which was featured in the journal Nature Communications Dec. 10, is the result of a collaboration with researchers from various institutions, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at the Harvard Medical School, California State University, Fullerton, the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces, Germany, and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.

Because the mechanical design of the chiton’s girdle scales had not been studied in-depth before, the team of researchers needed to start with basic material and mechanical analysis with the mollusk before using that information as the bio-inspiration for the engineering research.

Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering Ling Li, right, with doctoral students Ting Yang, left, and Zhifei Deng, center.

Credit: Virginia Tech

“We studied this biological material in a very detailed way. We quantified its internal microstructure, chemical composition, nano-mechanical properties, and three-dimensional geometry. We studied the geometrical variations of the scales across multiple chiton species, and we also investigated how the scales assemble together through 3D tomography analysis,” Li said.

The team then developed a parametric 3D modeling methodology to mimic the geometry of individual scales. They assembled individual scale units on either flat or curved substrates, where the scales’ sizes, orientations, and geometries can also be varied, and used 3D printing to fabricate the bio-inspired scale armor models.

“We produced the chiton scale-inspired scale assembly directly with 3D multi-material printing, which consists of very rigid scales on top of a flexible substrate,” Li explained. With these physical prototypes of controlled specimen geometries and sizes, the team conducted direct mechanical testing on them with controlled loading conditions. This allowed the researchers to understand the mechanisms behind the dual protection-flexibility performance of the biological armor system.

The way the scale armor works is that when in contact with a force, the scales converge inward upon one another to form a solid barrier. When not under force, they can “move” on top of one another to provide varying amounts of flexibility dependent upon their shape and placement.
A demonstration of the 3D printed flexible armor on broken glass.

Credit: Virginia Tech
“The strength comes from how the scales are organized, from their geometry,” Li said. “Reza’s [Mirzaeifar, assistant professor of mechanical engineering] team has done an amazing job by using computational modeling to further reveal how the scale armor becomes interlocked and rigid when the external load reaches a critical value.”

The design of place-specific armor takes into account the size of scales used. Smaller scales, such as those around the girdle of the chiton, are more useful for regions requiring maximum flexibility, while larger scales are used for areas requiring more protection. “Working with Reza, our next step is to expand the space so we can design tailored armor for different body locations. The flexibility vs. protection needs of the chest, for example, will be different than for the elbow or knee, so we would need to design the scale assembly accordingly in terms of scale geometry, size, orientation, etc.”

The work being featured began with Department of Defense funding when Li was a graduate research assistant at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Since he arrived at Virginia Tech in 2017, the work has continued without sponsorship as part of his start-up funding.

“We started with a pretty pure motivation – looking for multifunctional biological materials,” Li said. “We wanted to integrate flexibility and protection and that’s very hard to achieve with synthetic systems. We will continue with our research to explore the design space beyond the original biological model system and conduct testing under different load conditions.”

Li admits the process, which has taken multiple years, is long, but the work is unique in how they’ve approached it from the start as a two-step process in conducting the fundamental biological materials research followed by the bio-inspired research.

“Having that level of familiarity with the subject has been very useful to the design and modeling of the armor,” Li said. “I think this type of bio-inspired armor will represent a significant improvement to what is currently available.”

Contacts and sources:
Lindsey Haugh
Written by Rosaire Bushey
Virginia Tech

A New Network Design for the “Internet from Space”

A new generation of low-​flying satellites promises an “Internet from space”, that will be able to cover even remote regions around the world. Computer scientists at ETH Zurich are proposing a novel network design that could double the network capacity of such systems.

 How the ETH computer scientists Debopam Bhattacherjee and Ankit Singla are improving the “Internet from space”. 
Video: ETH Zurich / Bhattacherjee, D & Singla, A

Satellites do not yet play a major role in the world’s Internet infrastructure. However, this may soon be set to change. Within the next decade, a new generation of satellites could lay the foundations for an “Internet from space”, believes Ankit Singla, professor at ETH Zurich’s Network Design & Architecture Lab. His team is investigating how to improve the performance of large-​scale computer networks, including the Internet.

Exploiting advances in cost-​cutting technologies in the space sector, the new satellite systems would use thousands of satellites instead of the tens of satellites used in past systems. These satellites could then be linked to each other via laser light to form a network. The coverage provided by these satellites would reach remote regions that currently have no or very limited access to the Internet, since they are not or only poorly connected to the intercontinental fibre-​optic cables that power today’s Internet. 

The race for the Internet of the sky

The capabilities of the LEO satellites have triggered a new, contested “space race”, with heavyweights such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Amazon throwing their hats into the ring. These companies are developing large-​scale satellite constellations with thousands to tens of thousands of satellites. These would orbit the Earth at speeds of 27,000 km/h at a height of around 500 km (geostationary satellites: 35,768 km).

A SpaceX rocket  
 File:2018 12 03 spacex-launch 019 (45254556065).jpg
Credit: Doc Searls from Santa Barbara, USA / Wikimedia Commons

SpaceX, for example, has already launched its first 120 satellites, and is planning to offer a satellite-​based broadband Internet service from 2020. In addition to global coverage, the technology used in the “Internet from space” promises high data transfer rates without major delays in data transmission – the latency, as computer scientists call these delays, is significantly lower than that of traditional, geostationary satellites, and even that of underground fibre-​optic lines for long-​distance communication.

“If these plans succeed, it would be a huge leap forward in the world’s Internet infrastructure,” says Debopam Bhattacherjee. The doctoral candidate who is working with Singla is investigating the optimal design of networks for satellite-​based broadband Internet in order to guarantee a high-​bandwidth, delay-​free data flow. He will present his results in Florida today at ACM CoNEXT 2019, the International Conference on emerging Networking EXperiments and Technologies. 

New design for dynamic networks

The new research challenges arising from the “Internet from space” compared to the “Internet at ground level” are due to the fact that the satellites are in motion. The satellites represent nodes through which the data travels. As the satellite-​based nodes constantly change their position in relation to one another, they form a highly dynamic network. In contrast, the transit nodes belonging to the “Internet at ground level” do not change their location or position. As a result, the largely static infrastructure of the “Internet at ground level” does not address the same requirements as those for the “Internet from space”.

“To implement satellite-​based broadband Internet, we have to rethink virtually all aspects of the way in which the Internet is currently designed to function,” says Singla. He explains that as the satellites fly very fast and in dense swarms, more efficient approaches to network design are required for the satellite Internet. Even the design concepts used for mobile networks on high-​speed trains, drones and aircraft cannot be transferred easily to satellites.

Bhattacherjee and Singla have now developed a mathematical model that demonstrates how one might fundamentally improve the network design in space. They have tested their design approach using the example of SpaceX and Amazon, but it can be applied independently of the technology of a particular company. 

Patterns ensure smooth data traffic

The design concept devised by Bhattacherjee and Singla is based entirely on the high temporal dynamics of the low-​Earth orbit satellites. The key question they first asked was: how can thousands of satellites be linked together to achieve the best possible network performance? The answer is not easy, as each satellite can have no more than four connections to other satellites.

Intuitively, one might think that the satellites always connect only to the nearest satellites. According to Bhattacherjee, however, this assumption is too restrictive. The satellites could well connect to satellites that are more distant. To maximise data transfer efficiency, it would actually be more efficient if the data used longer connections but crossed fewer nodes (satellites). After all, the act of data crossing through a node also consumes resources, thus reducing resources available for other connections.

However, reducing the number of on-​path nodes in order to increase efficiency must not compromise the length of the end-​to-end path. Otherwise, this will deteriorate latency. Further, it is important that inter-​satellite connections do not change too often, as establishing new connections can take tens of seconds during which data cannot be exchanged.

The novel idea behind Bhattacherjee’s and Singla’s approach is that the connections between the satellites would be built based on specialised, repetitive patterns. The most suitable pattern depends on the satellite constellation’s geometry and the network’s input traffic. A key point is that the connection pattern repeats on every satellite in the network, with all satellites connected in exactly the same way, and with the connections remaining stable over time.

In the case of SpaceX, the new design concept increases network efficiency by 54 percent in comparison with the current approach; for Kuiper (Amazon), the efficiency increase is 45 percent. “Our approach could double the efficiency of satellite-​based Internet,” says Bhattacherjee in conclusion.

Contacts and sources:
Florian Meyer
ETH Zurich
Citation: Network topology design at 27,000 km/hour.
Debopam B, Singla S.  The 15th International Conference on emerging Networking EXperiments and Technologies (CoNEXT ’19), 9–12 December 2019, Orlando, FL, US. doi: 10.1145/3359989.3365407.

New Method to Store Data in Everyday Objects Like Buttons or Bottles

A research team with members from ETH Zurich has discovered a new method for turning nearly any object into a data storage unit. This makes it possible to save extensive data in, say, shirt buttons, water bottles or even the lenses of glasses, and then retrieve it years later. The technique also allows users to hide information and store it for later generations. It uses DNA as the storage medium.

A 3D-​printed plastic rabbit. The plastic contains DNA molecules in which the printing instructions have been encoded. 
Photograph: ETH Zurich / Julian Koch

Living beings contain their own assembly and operating instructions in the form of DNA. That’s not the case with inanimate objects: anyone wishing to 3D print an object also requires a set of instructions. If they then choose to print that same object again years later, they need access to the original digital information. The object itself does not store the printing instructions.

Researchers at ETH Zurich have now collaborated with an Israeli scientist to develop a means of storing extensive information in almost any object. “With this method, we can integrate 3D-​printing instructions into an object, so that after decades or even centuries, it will be possible to obtain those instructions directly from the object itself,” explains Robert Grass, Professor at the Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences. The way of storing this information is the same as for living things: in DNA molecules. 

“DNA of Things”

Several developments of the past few years have made this advance possible. One of them is Grass’s method for marking products with a DNA “barcode” embedded in miniscule glass beads. These nanobeads have various uses; for example, as tracers for geological tests, or as markers for high-​quality foodstuffs, thus distinguishing them from counterfeits. The barcode is relatively short: just a 100-​bit code (100 places filled with “0”s or “1”s). This technology has now been commercialized by ETH spin-​off Haelixa.

At the same time, it has become possible to store enormous data volumes in DNA. Grass’s colleague Yaniv Erlich, an Israeli computer scientist with whom he is now collaborating, developed a method that theoretically makes it possible to store 215,000 terabytes of data in a single gram of DNA. And Grass himself was able to store an entire music album in DNA – the equivalent of 15 megabytes of data (see ETH News article).

The two scientists have now wedded these inventions into a new form of data storage, as they report in the journal Nature Biotechnology. They call the storage form “DNA of Things”, a takeoff on the Internet of Things, in which objects are connected with information via the internet.

Video: ETH Zurich

Comparable to biology

As a use case, the researchers 3D printed a rabbit out of plastic, which contains the instructions (about 100 kilobytes’ worth of data) for printing the object. The researchers achieved this by adding tiny glass beads containing DNA to the plastic. “Just like real rabbits, our rabbit also carries its own blueprint,” Grass says.

And just like in biology, this new technological method retains the information over several generations – a feature the scientists demonstrated by retrieving the printing instructions from a small part of the rabbit and using them to print a whole new one. They were able to repeat this process five times, essentially creating the “great-​great-great-grandchild” of the original rabbit.

“All other known forms of storage have a fixed geometry: a hard drive has to look like a hard drive, a CD like a CD. You can’t change the form without losing information,” Erlich says. “DNA is currently the only data storage medium that can also exist as a liquid, which allows us to insert it into objects of any shape.” 

Hiding information

A further application of the technology would be to conceal information in everyday objects, a technique experts refer to as steganography. To showcase this application, the scientists turned to history: among the scant documents that attest to life in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II is a secret archive, which was assembled by a Jewish historian and ghetto resident at that time and hidden from Hitler’s troops in milk cans. Today, this archive is listed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.

The lenses in ETH doctoral student Julian Koch’s glasses contain a short video. 
Photograph: ETH Zurich / Jonathan Venetz

Grass, Erlich and their colleagues used the technology to store a short film about this archive (1.4 megabytes) in glass beads, which they then poured into the lenses of ordinary glasses. “It would be no problem to take a pair of glasses like this through airport security and thus transport information from one place to another undetected,” Erlich says. In theory, it should be possible to hide the glass beads in any plastic objects that do not reach too high a temperature during the manufacturing process. Such plastics include epoxides, polyester, polyurethane and silicone. 

Marking medications and construction materials

Furthermore, this technology could be used to mark medications or construction materials such as adhesives or paints. Information about their quality could be stored directly in the medication or material itself, Grass explains. This means medical supervisory authorities could read test results from production quality control directly from the product. And in buildings, for example, workers doing renovations can find out which products from which manufacturers were used in the original structure.

At the moment the method is still relatively expensive. Translating a 3D-​printing file like the one stored in the plastic rabbit’s DNA costs around 2,000 Swiss francs, Grass says. A large sum of that goes t wards synthesising the corresponding DNA molecules. However, the larger the batch size of objects, the lower the unit cost.

Contacts and sources:
Fabio Bergamin
ETH Zurich

Citation: A DNA-​of-things storage architecture to create materials with embedded memoryKoch J, Gantenbein S, Masania K, Stark WJ, Erlich Y, Grass RN: . Nature Biotechnology, 9 December 2019, doi: 10.1038/s41587-​019-0356-z

Stardust from Red Giants Helped Build Earth

Some of the Earth's building material was stardust from red giants, researchers from ETH Zurich have established. They can also explain why the Earth contains more of this stardust than the asteroids or the planet Mars, which are farther from the sun.

Stardust in the area of the Pleiades. 
Photograph: Keystone / Miguel Claro / Science Photo Library

Around 4.5 billion years ago, an interstellar molecular cloud collapsed. At its centre, the Sun was formed; around that, a disc of gas and dust appeared, out of which the earth and the other planets would form. This thoroughly mixed interstellar material included exotic grains of dust: “Stardust that had formed around other suns,” explains Maria Schönbächler, a professor at the Institute of Geochemistry and Petrology at ETH Zurich. These dust grains only made up a small percentage of the entire dust mass and were distributed unevenly throughout the disc. “The stardust was like salt and pepper,” the geochemist says. As the planets formed, each one ended up with its own mix.

Thanks to extremely precise measurement techniques, researchers are nowadays able to detect the stardust that was present at the birth of our solar system. They examine specific chemical elements and measure the abundance of different isotopes – the different atomic flavors of a given element, which all share the same number of protons in their nuclei but vary in the number of neutrons. “The variable proportions of these isotopes act like a fingerprint,” Schönbächler says: “Stardust has really extreme, unique fingerprints – and because it was spread unevenly through the protoplanetary disc, each planet and each asteroid got its own fingerprint when it was formed.”
Studying palladium in meteorites
This Muonionalusta meteorite is a stony contemporary witness from the beginnings of our solar system. 
Photograph: Windell Oskay / Flickr / CC BY 2.0)
Over the past ten years, researchers studying rocks from the Earth and meteorites have been able to demonstrate these so-​called isotopic anomalies for more and more elements. Schönbächler and her group have been looking at meteorites that were originally part of asteroid cores that were destroyed a long time ago, with a focus on the element palladium.

Other teams had already investigated neighbouring elements in the periodic table, such as molybdenum and ruthenium, so Schönbächler’s team could predict what their palladium results would show. But their laboratory measurements did not confirm the predictions. “The meteorites contained far smaller palladium anomalies than expected,” says Mattias Ek, postdoc at the University of Bristol who made the isotope measurements during his doctoral research at ETH.

Now the researchers have come up with a new model to explain these results, as they report in the journal Nature Astronomy. They argue that stardust consisted mainly of material that was produced in red giant stars. These are aging stars that expand because they have exhausted the fuel in their core. Our sun, too, will become a red giant four or five billion years from now.
Scheme of stardust accumulation in our solar system. 
Graphic from Ek et al, Nature Astronomy, 2019

In these stars heavy elements such as molybdenum and palladium were produced by what is known at the slow neutron capture process. “Palladium is slightly more volatile than the other elements measured. As a result, less of it condensed into dust around these stars, and therefore there is less palladium from stardust in the meteorites we studied” Ek says.

The ETH researchers also have a plausible explanation for another stardust puzzle: the higher abundance of material from red giants on Earth compared to Mars or Vesta or other asteroids further out in the solar system. This outer region saw an accumulation of material from supernova explosions.

“When the planets formed, temperatures closer to the Sun were very high,” Schönbächler explains. This caused unstable grains of dust, for instance those with an icy crust, to evaporate. The interstellar material contained more of this kind of dust that was destroyed close to the Sun, whereas stardust from red giants was less prone to destruction and hence concentrated there. It is conceivable that dust originating in supernova explosions also evaporates more easily, since it is somewhat smaller. “This allows us to explain why the Earth has the largest enrichment of stardust from red giant stars compared to other bodies in the solar system” Schönbächler says.

Contacts and sources:
Barbara Vonarburg
National Competence Center in Research PlanetS
Maria Schoenbaechler
ETH Zurich

Citation: The origin of s-​process isotope heterogeneity in the solar protoplanetary disk, Ek M, Hunt AC, Lugaro M, Schönbächler M:  Nature Astronomy (2019), doi: 10.1038/s41550-​019-0948-z

New Laser Technique Images Quantum World in a Trillionth of a Second

For the first time, researchers have been able to record, frame-by-frame, how an electron interacts with certain atomic vibrations in a solid. The technique captures a process that commonly causes electrical resistance in materials while, in others, can cause the exact opposite--the absence of resistance, or superconductivity.

"The way electrons interact with each other and their microscopic environment determines the properties of all solids," said MengXing Na, a University of British Columbia (UBC) PhD student and co-lead author of the study, published last week in Science. "Once we identify the dominant microscopic interactions that define a material's properties, we can find ways to 'turn up' or 'down' the interaction to elicit useful electronic properties."

Ultrafast pulses of extreme ultraviolet light are created in a gas jet of white plasma, and are visible as blue dots on a phosphor screen as well as yellow beams from oxygen fluorescence.
Credit: Research2Reality

Controlling these interactions is important for the technological exploitation of quantum materials, including superconductors, which are used in MRI machines, high-speed magnetic levitation trains, and could one day revolutionize how energy is transported.

At tiny scales, atoms in all solids vibrate constantly. Collisions between an electron and an atom can be seen as a 'scattering' event between the electron and the vibration, called a phonon. The scattering can cause the electron to change both its direction and its energy. Such electron-phonon interactions lie at the heart of many exotic phases of matter, where materials display unique properties.

With the support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the team at UBC's Stewart Blusson Quantum Matter Institute (SBQMI) developed a new extreme-ultraviolet laser source to enable a technique called time-resolved photoemission spectroscopy for visualizing electron scattering processes at ultrafast timescales.

"Using an ultrashort laser pulse, we excited individual electrons away from their usual equilibrium environment," said Na. "Using a second laser pulse as an effective camera shutter, we captured how the electrons scatter with surrounding atoms on timescales faster than a trillionth of a second. Owing to the very high sensitivity of our setup, we were able to measure directly--for the first time--how the excited electrons interacted with a specific atomic vibration, or phonon."

The researchers performed the experiment on graphite, a crystalline form of carbon and the parent compound of carbon nanotubes, Bucky balls and graphene. Carbon-based electronics is a growing industry, and the scattering processes that contribute to electrical resistance may limit their application in nanoelectronics.

The approach leverages a unique laser facility conceived by David Jones and Andrea Damascelli, and developed by co-lead author Arthur Mills, at the UBC-Moore Centre for Ultrafast Quantum Matter. The study was also supported by theoretical collaborations with the groups of Thomas Devereaux at Stanford University and Alexander Kemper at North Carolina State University.

"Thanks to recent advances in pulsed-laser sources, we're only just beginning to visualize the dynamic properties of quantum materials," said Jones, a professor with UBC's SBQMI and department of Physics and Astronomy.

"By applying these pioneering techniques, we're now poised to reveal the elusive mystery of high-temperature superconductivity and many other fascinating phenomena of quantum matter," said Damascelli, scientific director of SBQMI.

The work was supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation's EPiQS Initiative (Grant GBMF4779 to A.D. and D.J.J.), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Canada Foundation for Innovation, the B.C. Knowledge Development Fund, and the Canada First Research Excellence Fund.

Contacts and sources:
Chris Balma
University of British Columbia

Citation: Direct determination of mode-projected electron-phonon coupling in the time domain
M. X. Na, et. al. Science 06 Dec 2019:Vol. 366, Issue 6470, pp. 1231-1236
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw1662

Greenland Losing Ice 'Faster than Expected'

Greenland is losing ice faster than in the 1990s and is tracking the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s high-end climate scenario.

As a result, 40 million more people will be exposed to coastal flooding by 2100.

A team of 89 polar scientists from 50 international organisations have produced the most complete picture of Greenland ice loss to date.

Greenland losing ice 'faster than expected'
Credit: Ian Joughin

The Ice Sheet Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise (IMBIE) Team combined 26 separate surveys to compute changes in the mass of Greenland’s ice sheet between 1992 and 2018. Altogether, data from 11 different satellite missions were used, including measurements of the ice sheet’s changing volume, flow and gravity.

The findings, published today in Nature, show that Greenland has lost 3.8 trillion tonnes of ice since 1992 – enough to push global sea levels up by 10.6 millimetres.

The rate of ice loss has risen from 33 billion tonnes per year in the 1990s to 254 billion tonnes per year in the last decade – a seven-fold increase within three decades.

Aerial photo of icebergs discharging from Greenland's Jakobshavn Glacier

Credit: William Colgan, Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland

The assessment, led by Professor Andrew Shepherd at the University of Leeds and Dr Erik Ivins at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, was supported by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that global sea levels would rise 60 centimetres by 2100, putting 360 million people at risk of annual coastal flooding.

But this new study shows that Greenland’s ice losses are rising faster than expected and are instead tracking the IPCC’s high-end climate warming scenario, which predicts 7 centimetres more.

Professor Shepherd said: “As a rule of thumb, for every centimetre rise in global sea level another six million people are exposed to coastal flooding around the planet.

“On current trends, Greenland ice melting will cause 100 million people to be flooded each year by the end of the century, so 400 million in total due to all sea level rise.

“These are not unlikely events or small impacts; they are happening and will be devastating for coastal communities.”

The team also used regional climate models to show that half of the ice losses were due to surface melting as air temperatures have risen. The other half were due to increased glacier flow, triggered by rising ocean temperatures.

An iceberg located in Disko Bay, Greenland.

Credit: Ian Joughin

Ice losses peaked at 335 billion tonnes per year in 2011 – ten times the rate of the 1990s – during a period of intense surface melting. Although the rate of ice loss dropped to an average 238 billion tonnes per year since then, this remains seven times higher and does not include all of 2019, which could set a new high due to widespread summer melting.

Dr Ivins said: “Satellite observations of polar ice are essential for monitoring and predicting how climate change could affect ice losses and sea level rise.

“While computer simulation allows us to make projections from climate change scenarios, the satellite measurements provide prima facie, rather irrefutable, evidence.

The midnight sun casts a golden glow on an iceberg and its reflection in Disko Bay, Greenland. Much of Greenland's annual mass loss occurs through calving of icebergs such as this.

Credit: Ian Joughin, University of Washington
“Our project is a great example of the importance of international collaboration to tackle problems that are global in scale.”

  Guðfinna Aðalgeirsdóttir, Professor of Glaciology at the University of Iceland and lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment report, who was not involved in the study, said: “The IMBIE Team’s reconciled estimate of Greenland ice loss is timely for the IPCC. Their satellite observations show that both melting and ice discharge from Greenland have increased since observations started.

“The ice caps in Iceland had similar reduction in ice loss in the last two years of their record, but this last summer was very warm here and resulted in higher loss. I would expect a similar increase in Greenland mass loss for 2019.

“It is very important to keep monitoring the big ice sheets to know how much they raise sea level every year.”

Image credits:

The paper ‘Mass balance of the Greenland Ice Sheet from 1992-2018’ by the IMBIE Team, is published in Nature on 10 December 2019.

Contacts and sources:Anna Harrison

When Penguins Ruled after Dinosaurs Died

What waddled on land but swam supremely in subtropical seas more than 60 million years ago, after the dinosaurs were wiped out on sea and land?

Fossil records show giant human-sized penguins flew through Southern Hemisphere waters - along side smaller forms, similar in size to some species that live in Antarctica today.

Now the newly described Kupoupou stilwelli has been found on the geographically remote Chatham Islands in the southern Pacific near New Zealand's South Island. It appears to be the oldest penguin known with proportions close to its modern relatives.

This is an illustration of the newly described Kupoupou stilwelli by Jacob Blokland, Flinders University.

Credit: Jacob Blokland, Flinders University

It lived between 62.5 million and 60 million years ago at a time when there was no ice cap at the South Pole and the seas around New Zealand were tropical or subtropical.

Flinders University PhD palaeontology candidate and University of Canterbury graduate Jacob Blokland made the discovery after studying fossil skeletons collected from Chatham Island between 2006 and 2011.

He helped build a picture of an ancient penguin that bridges a gap between extinct giant penguins and their modern relatives.

"Next to its colossal human-sized cousins, including the recently described monster penguin Crossvallia waiparensis, Kupoupou was comparatively small - no bigger than modern King Penguins which stand just under 1.1 metres tall," says Mr Blokland, who worked with Professor Paul Scofield and Associate Professor Catherine Reid, as well as Flinders palaeontologist Associate Professor Trevor Worthy on the discovery.

"Kupoupou also had proportionally shorter legs than some other early fossil penguins. In this respect, it was more like the penguins of today, meaning it would have waddled on land.

"This penguin is the first that has modern proportions both in terms of its size and in its hind limb and foot bones (the tarsometatarsus) or foot shape."

As published in the US journal Palaeontologica Electronica, the animal's scientific name acknowledges the Indigenous Moriori people of the Chatham Island (R?kohu), with Kupoupou meaning 'diving bird' in Te Re Moriori.

The discovery may even link the origins of penguins themselves to the eastern region of New Zealand - from the Chatham Island archipelago to the eastern coast of the South Island, where other most ancient penguin fossils have been found, 800km away.

University of Canterbury adjunct Professor Scofield, Senior Curator of Natural History at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, says the paper provides further support for the theory that penguins rapidly evolved shortly after the period when dinosaurs still walked the land and giant marine reptiles swam in the sea.

"We think it's likely that the ancestors of penguins diverged from the lineage leading to their closest living relatives - such as albatross and petrels - during the Late Cretaceous period, and then many different species sprang up after the dinosaurs were wiped out," Professor Scofield says

"It's not impossible that penguins lost the ability to fly and gained the ability to swim after the extinction event of 66 million years ago, implying the birds underwent huge changes in a very short time. If we ever find a penguin fossil from the Cretaceous period, we'll know for sure."

 The new species is based on the fossilised bones of five partial skeletons. Another two specimens showed a second larger penguin species was also present on the main Chatham Island but there was not enough material to formally name it. All of the described skeletons were collected between 2006 and 2011 by a group led by Monash University palaeontologist Jeffrey Stilwell. Dr Alan Tennyson from Te Papa Tongarewa the Museum of New Zealand and Professor Julia Clark from University of Texas at Austin were in the group and are also-coauthors of the paper. The species is named after Associate Professor Stilwell with all specimens now cared for by Te Papa.

Contacts and sources:
Jacob Blokland
Flinders University

Citation: 'Chatham Island Paleocene fossils provide insight into the palaeobiology, evolution, and diversity of early penguins (Aves, Sphenisciformes) by JC Blokland, CM Reid, TH Worthy, AJD Tennyson, JA Clarke and RP Scofield will be published in Palaeontologia Electronica 22.3.78 1-92 - the oldest electronic professional, peer-reviewed journal of paleontology sponsored by the Palaeontological Association, the Paleontological Society, and the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology 

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Large Atmospheric Waves in The Jet Stream Present Risk to Global Food Production

Researchers at Oxford University, together with and international colleagues, have discovered jet stream patterns that could affect up to a quarter of global food production.

In a new study published today in Nature Climate Change, scientists show how specific wave patterns in the jet stream strongly increase the chance of co-occurring heatwaves in major food producing regions of Northern America, Western Europe and Asia. Their research finds that these simultaneous heatwaves significantly reduce crop production across those regions, creating the risk of multiple harvest failures and other far-reaching societal consequences, including social unrest.

Lead author, Dr Kai Kornhuber from the University of Oxford's Department of Physics and Colombia University's Earth Institute, said: 'Co-occurring heatwaves will become more severe in the coming decades if greenhouse gases are not mitigated. In an interconnected world, this can lead to food price spikes and have impacts on food availability even in remote regions not directly affected by heatwaves.

Extreme drought in a cornfield under a hot sun
Credit: University of Oxford

'We found a 20-fold increase in the risk of simultaneous heatwaves in major crop producing regions when these global scale wind patterns are in place. Until now this was an underexplored vulnerability in the food system. We have found that during these events there actually is a global structure in the otherwise quite chaotic circulation. The bell can ring in multiple regions at once and the impacts of those specific interconnections were not quantified previously.'

Western North America, Western Europe and the Caspian Sea region are particularly susceptible to these atmospheric patterns that get heat and drought locked into one place simultaneously where they then affect crops production yields.

Dr Dim Coumou, co-author from the Institute for Environmental Studies at VU Amsterdam, said: 'Normally low harvests in one region are expected to be balanced out by good harvests elsewhere but these waves can cause reduced harvests in several important breadbaskets simultaneously, creating risks for global food production.'

Dr Elisabeth Vogel, co-author from Melbourne University, said: 'During years in which two or more summer weeks featured the amplified wave pattern, cereal crop production was reduced by more than 10% in individual regions, and by 4% when averaged across all crop regions affected by the pattern.'

Dr Radley Horton, co-author from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Colombia University, said: 'If climate models are unable to reproduce these wave patterns, risk managers such as reinsurers and food security experts may face a blind spot when assessing how simultaneous heat waves and their impacts could change in a warming climate.'

The scientists conclude that a thorough understanding of what drives this jet stream behaviour could ultimately improve seasonal predictions of agricultural production at the global scale and inform risk assessments of harvest failures across multiple food-producing regions.

Contacts and sources:
Ruth Abrahams
University of Oxford

Scientists Search for Causes of Vaping-Related Illnesses and Deaths

Rutgers University‒Camden researchers are leading an effort to find out what may be causing young people to become sick or die from mysterious vaping-related respiratory illnesses.

File:Vaping - Vape Cloud (24986432483).jpg
Credit: Lindsay Fox / Wikimedia Commons

“Vaping came onto the scene with very little regulation, very little research behind it, and now, unfortunately, we’re seeing problems that this sort of approach leads to,” says Kimberlee Moran, an associate teaching professor and director of forensics at Rutgers–Camden.

Manufacturers of electronic cigarettes tout the battery-powered devices that heat liquid-based nicotine or cannabis extracts as a safer substitute to traditional cigarettes. However, health concerns about the safety of e-cigarettes are growing as more than 1,000 people in the United States have been sickened and several dozen people have died from vaping-related lung injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Graduate student Shavari Fagan and Professor Kimberlee Moran

Rutgers‒Camden researchers plan to examine many aspects of e-cigarettes in their study, including the contents of the vape liquid, the components and construction of the cartridges, and how the cartridges might break down over time.

“We don’t know what they are using to make these cartridges,” says Shavari Fagan, the lead researcher of the project, and a student in the Rutgers‒Camden master of science in forensic science (MSFS) program. “We don’t know the solvents they are using to extract the vape oil, and those could be very big factors in why certain illnesses like respiratory issues are happening.”

The cannabis vape liquid can contain cannabidiol (CBD), one of two primary cannabinoids that occur naturally in the cannabis plant. CBD, an ingredient in dietary and natural supplements, is nonpsychoactive so it will not get the user high. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the primary agent responsible for creating the “high” associated with recreational cannabis use.

To conduct studies on the vaping cartridges, the researchers are holding a drive to collect used, empty vape cartridges from Rutgers‒Camden students. Students can donate anonymously by dropping cartridges into a box outside of Moran’s office in Science Building room 212.

Fagan will extract contents of the vape cartridge to examine the oil’s components and check for contaminants, such as vegetable glycerin or propylene glycol, which are solvents used in the extraction of the oil. He says there is a possibility of other components contained in the oil as well, such as pesticides, fungicides, or other microbes in the plants that may have carried over into the vaping oil.

Vaping appeals to many high school and college students because the vape pens come in flavors such as mango, chocolate, and cotton candy. The researchers say the flavorings could have implications as to why the illnesses are occurring.

Vitamin E acetate used in some vape pens could cause respiratory illnesses, Fagan says. “Vitamin E is good for skincare products, but once you heat it, it has a toxic element to it.”
Credit: Rutgers University

“If you are vaping a mango-flavored vape juice, you’re inhaling the nicotine, but you’re also delivering the flavoring chemicals directly into your bloodstream, and we have no idea what kind of effect that has,” says Moran.

The vaping-related health issues recently hit home for the Rutgers–Camden research team. After the research project started, a student in the graduate program became sick from vaping and was hospitalized briefly.

“It’s something that we see in the now,” says Moran. “We hope that the research that we’re generating is not only impactful and useful to students, but will generate interest in students as well, maybe to have a better appreciation for the science that goes into the things that they consume on a daily basis, and hopefully leading them to want to be more informed and educated about the things that they put in their bodies.”

The forensic science program’s research is a collaborative effort involving David Salas-de la Cruz, a Rutgers‒Camden assistant professor of chemistry; Gene Hall, a Rutgers‒New Brunswick chemistry professor; Mary Bridgeman, a clinical associate professor in the Rutgers School of Pharmacy; and local practitioners in the forensic science community from the tristate region, including the New Jersey State Police lab, the Philadelphia Police Department’s office of forensic science, and the Dover Air Force Base Medical Examiner Facility’s special forensic toxicology drug-testing laboratory.

“It’s really exciting to get the opportunity to work on something that is in the news at the moment,” says Moran. “One of the challenges with that is that a lot of people are rushing to fill this space, so how can you fill it in a unique way and answer and address unique research questions? Through our process of collaboration, rather than everybody working separately in their little silos, together, we are going to achieve more.”

Contacts and sources:
Jeanne Leong
Rutgers University

Two Compounds in Coffee May Team Up to Fight Parkinson's and Lewy Body Dementia

Caffeine plus another compound in coffee beans’ waxy coating may protect against brain degeneration, a Rutgers study finds

Rutgers scientists have found a compound in coffee that may team up with caffeine to fight Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia – two progressive and currently incurable diseases associated with brain degeneration.

The discovery, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests these two compounds combined may become a therapeutic option to slow brain degeneration.

Lead author M. Maral Mouradian, director of the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School Institute for Neurological Therapeutics and William Dow Lovett Professor of Neurology, said prior research has shown that drinking coffee may reduce the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. While caffeine has traditionally been credited as coffee’s special protective agent, coffee beans contain more than a thousand other compounds that are less well known.

M. Maral Mouradian of Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School has found a compound in coffee that when paired with caffeine may help to fight Parkinson's disease and Lewy body dementia.
M. Maral Mouradian
Photo by Steve Hockstein/Harvard Studio

The Rutgers study focused on a fatty acid derivative of the neurotransmitter serotonin, called EHT (Eicosanoyl-5-hydroxytryptamide), found in the bean’s waxy coating. The researchers found that EHT protects the brains of mice against abnormal protein accumulation associated with Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia.

In the current research, Mouradian’s team asked whether EHT and caffeine could work together for even greater brain protection. They gave mice small doses of caffeine or EHT separately as well as together. Each compound alone was not effective, but when given together they boosted the activity of a catalyst that helps prevent the accumulation of harmful proteins in the brain. This suggests the combination of EHT and caffeine may be able to slow or stop the progression of these diseases. Current treatments address only the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease but do not protect against brain degeneration.

Mouradian said further research is needed to determine the proper amounts and ratio of EHT and caffeine required for the protective effect in people.

“EHT is a compound found in various types of coffee but the amount varies. It is important that the appropriate amount and ratio be determined so people don’t over-caffeinate themselves, as that can have negative health consequences,” she said.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Parkinson’s disease is a brain disorder that can lead to shaking, stiffness and difficulty with walking, balance and coordination. Nearly one million people in the United States are living with Parkinson’s disease. Lewy body dementia, one of the most common forms of dementia, affects more than one million people in the United States. It causes problems with thinking, behavior, mood and movement.

Contacts and sources:

Caitlin Coyle, Neal Buccino
Rutgers University

Researchers Discover Stress In Early Life Extends Lifespan

Some stress at a young age could actually lead to a longer life, new research shows.

University of Michigan researchers have discovered that oxidative stress experienced early in life increases subsequent stress resistance later in life.

Oxidative stress happens when cells produce more oxidants and free radicals than they can deal with. It’s part of the aging process, but can also arise from stressful conditions such as exercise and calorie restriction.

Credit: University of Michigan

Examining a type of roundworm called C. elegans, U-M scientists Ursula Jakob and Daphne Bazopoulou found that worms that produced more oxidants during development lived longer than worms that produced fewer oxidants. Their results are published in the journal Nature.

Researchers have long wondered what determines variability in lifespan, says Jakob, a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology. One part of that is genetics: If your parents are long-lived, you have a good chance for living longer as well. Environment is another part.

Ursula Jakob
Credit: University of Michigan

That other stochastic—or random—factors might be involved becomes clear in the case of C. elegans. These short-lived organisms are a popular model system among aging researchers in part because every hermaphroditic mother produces hundreds of genetically identical offspring. However, even if kept in the same environment, the lifespan of these offspring varies to a surprising extent, Jakob says.

“If lifespan was determined solely by genes and environment, we would expect that genetically identical worms grown on the same petri dish would all drop dead at about the same time, but this is not at all what happens. Some worms live only three days while others are still happily moving around after 20 days,” Jakob said. “The question then is, what is it, apart from genetics and environment, that is causing this big difference in lifespan?”

Jakob and Bazopoulou, a postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the paper, found one part of the answer when they discovered that during development, C. elegans worms varied substantially in the amount of reactive oxygen species they produce.

Reactive oxygen species, or ROS, are oxidants that every air-breathing organism produces. ROS are closely associated with aging: the oxidative damage they elicit are what many anti-aging creams claim to combat. Bazopoulou and Jakob discovered that instead of having a shorter lifespan, worms that produced more ROS during development actually lived longer.

Daphne Bazopoulou
Credit: University of Michigan

“Experiencing stress at this early point in life may make you better able to fight stress you might encounter later in life,” Bazopoulou said.

When the researchers exposed the whole population of juvenile worms to external ROS during development, the average lifespan of the entire population increased. Though the researchers don’t know yet what triggers the oxidative stress event during development, they were able to determine what processes enhanced the lifespan of these worms.

To do this, Bazopoulou sorted thousands of C. elegans larvae according to the oxidative stress levels they have during development. By separating worms that produced large amounts of ROS from those that produced little amounts of ROS, she showed that the main difference between the two groups was a histone modifier, whose activity is sensitive to oxidative stress conditions.

The researchers found that the temporary production of ROS during development caused changes in the histone modifier early in the worm’s life. How these changes persist throughout life and how they ultimately affect and extend lifespan is still unknown. What is known, however, is that this specific histone modifier is also sensitive to oxidative stress sensitive in mammalian cells. Additionally, early-life interventions have been shown to extend lifespans in mammalian model systems such as mice.

“The general idea that early life events have such profound, positive effects later in life is truly fascinating. Given the strong connection between stress, aging and age-related diseases, it is possible that early events in life might also affect the predisposition for age-associated diseases, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease,” Jakob said.

Next, the researchers want to figure out what key changes are triggered by these early-life events. Understanding this might allow scientists to develop lifespan-extending interventions that work at later stages in life.

Contacts and sources:
Morgan Sherburne
University of Michigan

Citation: Developmental ROS Individualizes Organismal Stress Resistance and Lifespan.

Study: Water Births Are As Safe As Land Births For Mom, Baby

A new study found that water births are no more risky than land births, and that women in the water group sustain fewer first and second-degree tears.

University of Michigan researchers analyzed 397 waterbirths and 2025 land births from two midwifery practices. There were no differences in outcomes between waterbirth and land birth for neonatal intensive care admissions, and postpartum hemorrhage rates were similar for both groups.

Mother holding newborn baby and holding its hand. Image credit: iStock
Credit: University of Michigan

"The long and short of it is that if you use proper techniques...the outcomes are very good," said Lisa Kane Low, professor in the U-M School of Nursing, and senior author on the paper. "They mirror what we see in international studies of water birth."

Ruth Zielinski, clinical associate professor of nursing and study co-author, said more facilities should offer water birth and have guidelines for implementing it.

In water birth, the woman gives birth in a water-filled tub rather than a bed. Few US hospitals or birth centers offer tub births because of perceived risk to the newborn, mainly suggested by case studies of neonatal infections or cord tearing. Professional organizations tend to agree that women in labor should have access to water for comfort, but not all support birth in the water. This means hospitals must make women leave the tub before the birth.

During a water birth, babies take their first breath when removed from the tub. Until then, their lungs are filled with water, which is displaced when they hit the air and breathe. The connected umbilical cord provides oxygen.

"It's important not to re-submerge babies", Zielinski said. At U-M, they are birthed in the water, brought out almost immediately, and they're careful to not re-submerge them. Mom and baby exit the tub with help and warm blankets, typically prior to delivering the placenta so that blood loss can be more accurately calculated.

Zielinski said more studies are needed to understand the satisfaction level of women who have water births.

Contacts and sources:
Laura Bailey
University of Michigan

Citation: "A retrospective comparison of waterbirth outcomes in two United States hospital settings," is scheduled to appear online Dec. 10 in the journal Birth. Co-authors include: Joanne Bailey, Cathy Emeis, and Lisa Kane Low. More information on water birth.

How Planets May Form after Dust Sicks Together

Scientists may have figured out the origins of planets.

Scientists may have figured out how dust particles can stick together to form planets, according to a Rutgers co-authored study that may also help to improve industrial processes.

In homes, adhesion on contact can cause fine particles to form dust bunnies. Similarly in outer space, adhesion causes dust particles to stick together. Large particles, however, can combine due to gravity - an essential process in forming asteroids and planets. But between these two extremes, how aggregates grow has largely been a mystery until now.

The study, published in the journal Nature Physics, found that particles under microgravity - similar to conditions believed to be in interplanetary space - develop strong electrical charges spontaneously and stick together, forming large aggregates. Remarkably, although like charges repel, like-charged aggregates form nevertheless, apparently because the charges are so strong that they polarize one another and therefore act like magnets.

These are glass particles colliding in microgravity.

Credit: Gerhard Wurm, Tobias Steinpilz, Jens Teiser and Felix Jungmann

Related processes seem to be at work on Earth, where fluidized bed reactors produce everything from plastics to pharmaceuticals. During this process, blowing gas pushes fine particles upwards and when particles aggregate due to static electricity, they can stick to reactor vessel walls, leading to shutdowns and poor product quality.

"We may have overcome a fundamental obstacle in understanding how planets form," said co-author Troy Shinbrot, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the School of Engineering at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. "Mechanisms for generating aggregates in industrial processes have also been identified and that - we hope - may be controlled in future work. Both outcomes hinge on a new understanding that electrical polarization is central to aggregation."

The study, led by researchers at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany, opens avenues to potentially controlling fine particle aggregation in industrial processing. It appears that introducing additives that conduct electricity may be more successful for industrial processes than traditional electrostatic control approaches, according to Shinbrot.

The researchers want to investigate effects of material properties on sticking and aggregation, and potentially develop new approaches to generating and storing electricity.

Contacts and sources:
Todd Bates
Rutgers University

Citation: Electrical charging overcomes the bouncing barrier in planet formation Tobias Steinpilz, Kolja Joeris, Felix Jungmann, Dietrich Wolf, Lothar Brendel, Jens Teiser, Troy Shinbrot & Gerhard Wurm Nature Physics (2019)

How Enceladus Got Its "Tiger Stripes"

Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus is of great interest to scientists due to its subsurface ocean, making it a prime target for those searching for life elsewhere. New research led by Carnegie’s Doug Hemingway reveals the physics governing the fissures through which ocean water erupts from the moon’s icy surface, giving its south pole an unusual “tiger stripe” appearance.

“First seen by the Cassini mission to Saturn, these stripes are like nothing else known in our Solar System,” lead author Hemingway explained. “They are parallel and evenly spaced, about 130 kilometers long and 35 kilometers apart. What makes them especially interesting is that they are continually erupting with water ice, even as we speak. No other icy planets or moons have anything quite like them.”
Credit: NASA, ESA, JPL, SSI, Cassini Imaging Team

Working with Max Rudolph of the University of California, Davis and Michael Manga of UC Berkeley, Hemingway used models to investigate the physical forces acting on Enceladus that allow the tiger stripe fissures to form and remain in place. Their findings are published by Nature Astronomy.

The team was particularly interested in understanding why the stripes are present only on the moon’s south pole but were also keen to figure out why the cracks are so evenly spaced.

The answer to the first question turns out to be a bit of a coin toss. The researchers revealed that the fissures that make up Enceladus’ tiger stripes could have formed on either pole, the south just happened to split open first.

Enceladus experiences internal heating due to the eccentricity of its orbit. It is sometimes a little closer to Saturn and sometimes a littler farther, which causes the moon to be slightly deformed—stretched and relaxed—as it responds to the giant planet’s gravity. It is this process that keeps the moon from freezing completely solid.

Key to the formation of the fissures is the fact that the moon’s poles experience the greatest effects of this gravitationally induced deformation, so the ice sheet is thinnest over them. During periods of gradual cooling on Enceladus, some of the moon’s subsurface ocean will freeze. Because water expands as it freezes, as the icy crust thickens from below, the pressure in the underlying ocean increases until the ice shell eventually splits open, creating a fissure. Because of their comparatively thin ice, the poles are the most susceptible to cracks.

The researchers believe the fissure named after the city of Baghdad was the first to form. (The stripes are named after places referred to in the stories of One Thousand and One Nights, which are also called Arabian Nights.) However, it didn’t just freeze back up again. It stayed open, allowing ocean water to spew from its crevasse that, in turn, caused three more parallel cracks to form.

“Our model explains the regular spacing of the cracks,” Rudolph said.

The additional splits formed from the weight of ice and snow building up along the edges of the Baghdad fissure as jets of water from the subsurface ocean froze and fell back down. This weight added a new form of pressure on the ice sheet.

“That caused the ice sheet to flex just enough to set off a parallel crack about 35 kilometers away,” Rudolph added.

That the fissures stay open and erupting is also due to the tidal effects of Saturn’s gravity. The moon’s deformation acts to keep the wound from healing—repeatedly widening and narrowing the cracks and flushing water in and out of them—preventing the ice from closing up again.

For a larger moon, its own gravity would be stronger and prevent the additional fractures from opening all the way. So, these stripes could only have formed on Enceladus.

“Since it is thanks to these fissures that we have been able to sample and study Enceladus’ subsurface ocean, which is beloved by astrobiologists, we thought it was important to understand the forces that formed and sustained them,” Hemingway said. “Our modeling of the physical effects experienced by the moon’s icy shell points to a potentially unique sequence of events and processes that could allow for these distinctive stripes to exist.”

This work was supported by NASA and the U.S. National Science Foundation.

The work was based on data collected by the NASA/ESA Cassini mission to Saturn.

Contacts and sources:
Doug Hemingway
Carnegie Institution for Science

Citation: Cascading parallel fractures on Enceladus Douglas J. Hemingway, Maxwell L. Rudolph & Michael Manga Nature Astronomy (2019)Cite this article Article metrics 303 Altmetric Metrics