Thursday, February 28, 2019

Origin of Upright Walking in Human Ancestors

Walking came to human ancestors even further in the past that scientists initially thought. 

The oldest distinguishing feature between humans and our ape cousins is our ability to walk on two legs – a trait known as bipedalism. Among mammals, only humans and our ancestors perform this atypical balancing act. New research led by a Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine professor of anatomy provides evidence for greater reliance on terrestrial bipedalism by a human ancestor than previously suggested in the ancient fossil record.

Scott W. Simpson, PhD, led an analysis of a 4.5 million-year-old fragmentary female skeleton of the human ancestor Ardipithecus ramidus that was discovered in the Gona Project study area in the Afar Regional State of Ethiopia.

Fossil hominin talus from excavation site (2005) at the time of its discovery.
Newswise: New Findings Shed Light on Origin of Upright Walking in Human Ancestors
Credit: Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine

The newly analyzed fossils document a greater, but far from perfect, adaptation to bipedalism in the Ar. ramidus ankle and hallux (big toe) than previously recognized. “Our research shows that while Ardipithecus was a lousy biped, she was somewhat better than we thought before,” said Simpson.

Fossils of this age are rare and represent a poorly known period of human evolution. By documenting more fully the function of the hip, ankle, and foot in Ardipithecus locomotion, Simpson’s analysis helps illuminate current understanding of the timing, context, and anatomical details of ancient upright walking.

Previous studies of other Ardipithecus fossils showed that it was capable of terrestrial bipedalism as well as being able to clamber in trees, but lacked the anatomical specializations seen in the Gona fossil examined by Simpson. The new analysis, published in the Journal of Human Evolution, thus points to a diversity of adaptations during the transition to how modern humans walk today. “The fact that Ardipithecus could both walk upright, albeit imperfectly, and scurry in trees marks it out as a pivotal transitional figure in our human lineage,” said Simpson.

Ardipithecus
Ardipithecus Gesamt1.jpg
Credit: Ori~ / Wikimedia Commons

Key to the adaptation of bipedality are changes in the lower limbs. For example, unlike monkeys and apes, the human big toe is parallel with the other toes, allowing the foot to function as a propulsive lever when walking. While Ardipithecus had an offset grasping big toe useful for climbing in trees, Simpson’s analysis shows that it also used its big toe to help propel it forward, demonstrating a mixed, transitional adaptation to terrestrial bipedalism.

Specifically, Simpson looked at the area of the joints between the arch of the foot and the big toe, enabling him to reconstruct the range of motion of the foot. While joint cartilage no longer remains for the Ardipithecus fossil, the surface of the bone has a characteristic texture which shows that it had once been covered by cartilage. “This evidence for cartilage shows that the big toe was used in a more human-like manner to push off,” said Simpson. 

“It is a foot in transition, one that shows primitive, tree-climbing physical characteristics but one that also features a more human-like use of the foot for upright walking.” Additionally, when chimpanzees stand, their knees are “outside” the ankle, i.e., they are bow-legged. When humans stand, the knees are directly above the ankle – which Simpson found was also true for the Ardipithecus fossil.

Skull of Ardipithecus ramidus
Ardipithecus skull.png

Credit: Conty / Wikimedia Commons

The Gona Project has conducted continuous field research since 1999. The study area is located in the Afar Depression portion of the eastern Africa rift and its fossil-rich deposits span the last 6.3 million years. Gona is best known as documenting the earliest evidence of the Oldowan stone tool technology. The first Ardipithecus ramidus fossils at Gona were discovered in 1999 and described in the journal Nature in 2005.

 Gona has also documented one of the earliest known human fossil ancestors – dated to 6.3 million years ago. The Gona Project is co-directed by Sileshi Semaw, PhD, a research scientist with the CENIEH research center in Burgos, Spain, and Michael Rogers, PhD, of Southern Connecticut State University. The geological and contextual research for the current research was led by Naomi Levin, PhD, of the University of Michigan, and Jay Quade, PhD, of the University of Arizona.





Contacts and sources:
Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine


Citation: Simpson, S., et al. “Ardipithecus ramidus postcrania from the Gona Project area, Afar Regional State, Ethiopia.” Journal of Human Evolution. DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2018.12.005 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S004724841730444X


How Surfaces May Have Helped Early Life on Earth Begin Discovered

How did life begin?

On early earth, a series of spontaneous events needed to happen in order for life as we know it to begin. One of those phenomena is the formation of compartments enclosed by lipid membranes.

 New research by Irep Gözen, Elif Koksal, and colleagues at the University of Oslo reveals, for the first time, how these vesicles can self-assemble on surfaces without external input. The team discovered the most straight-forward and plausible explanation so far with the simplest assumptions. They will present their research at the 63rd Biophysical Society Annual Meeting, to be held March 2 - 6, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Gözen’s lab was originally focused on biomaterials, not origins of life research.

Spontaneously-formed protocells, which resemble balloons anchored to a surface by a network of ropes, are visualized by 3D confocal microscopy
Newswise: Scientists Discover How Surfaces May Have Helped Early Life on Earth Begin
Credit: Image courtesy of Irep Gözen.
“We were actually trying to do another experiment and this came as a discovery,” said Gözen. “The formation of lipid tubes and the emergence of thousands of vesicles was happening spontaneously when we left lipids on a silicon dioxide surface.”

The lipids in their experiment were similar to those in bacteria membranes and have water-loving heads and water-avoiding tails. Because of these water-preferring properties, they spontaneously organize with their tails facing inward and their heads facing out. On the silicon dioxide surface, the lipids became sheets, with layers of these organized lipids. Due to the stickiness of the surface, at some points the two layers separate, and the top layer bulges out, creating tubes and then round balls as they gain more lipids. The entire process is fully autonomous. A gentle flow from the movement of liquid can then cause these vesicles to detach from the surface creating protocells, like those believed to be a stepping-stone to the origin of life.

“This is a new and novel means of compartmentalization,” Gözen said.

It is conceivable that something similar happened on early earth. Silicone dioxide, or silica, is one of the most abundant minerals on the earth’s surface. Fatty molecules could have easily existed in the previological era, as confirmed by the results of their successful synthesis performed in possible primitive Earth conditions, together with their traces found in fossils and meteorites. Intriguingly, silicon dioxide was recently detected on Mars by the Curiosity Rover.

Another puzzle in life’s beginnings is how genetic material got inside of protocells. It is not known whether the compartments formed around the already-existing lengthy genetic chains such as RNA, or if the small building blocks somehow found their way inside these tiny bubbles and made the chains inside. Gözen and colleagues added a light-emitting organic molecule similar in size to nucleotides, the genetic building blocks, to the surrounding of the bubbles. Such molecules which were too big to diffuse through the wall of the bubble, could get inside without compromising the protocells. They speculate it gets through transient defects or pores in the protocell wall.

“Our research may explain, for the first time, the details of self-directed transition from weakly organized lipids on solid surfaces to protocells with secluded internal contents,” Gözen said.

 
Contacts and sources:
The Biophysical Society




Ultra-Creepy Photos of Amazon Spiders Making Meals of Frogs, Lizards and Furry Mammals Revealed



Warning to arachnophobes and the faint of heart: This is the stuff of nightmares, so you might want to proceed with caution.

A University of Michigan-led team of biologists has documented 15 rare and disturbing predator-prey interactions in the Amazon rainforest including keep-you-up-at-night images of a dinner plate-size tarantula dragging a young opossum across the forest floor.
Credit: University of Michigan

The photos are part of a new journal article titled "Ecological interactions between arthropods and small vertebrates in a lowland Amazon rainforest." Arthropods are invertebrate animals with segmented bodies and jointed appendages that include insects, arachnids (spiders, scorpions, mites and ticks) and crustaceans.

A wandering spider (genus Ancylometes) in the lowland Amazon rainforest preying on a tree frog (Dendropsophus leali).
A wandering spider (genus Ancylometes) in the lowland Amazon rainforest preying on a tree frog (Dendropsophus leali).
Credit: Photo Emanuele Biggi, in Amphibian & Reptile Conservation

The article, scheduled for online publication Feb. 28 in Amphibian & Reptile Conservation, details instances of arthropod predators—mostly large spiders along with a few centipedes and a giant water bug—preying on vertebrates such as frogs and tadpoles, lizards, snakes, and even a small opossum.

"This is an underappreciated source of mortality among vertebrates," said University of Michigan evolutionary biologist Daniel Rabosky. "A surprising amount of death of small vertebrates in the Amazon is likely due to arthropods such as big spiders and centipedes."

Once or twice a year, Rabosky leads a team of U-M researchers (faculty members, postdocs, graduate students and undergraduates) and international collaborators on a month-long expedition to the Los Amigos Biological Station in the remote Madre de Dios region of southeastern Peru.

The study site, in lowland Amazon rainforest near the Andes foothills, is in the heart of one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. The team's main research focus is the ecology of reptiles and amphibians. But over the years, the scientists have witnessed and documented numerous interactions between arthropod predators and vertebrate prey.

"We kept recording these events, and at some point we realized that we had enough observations to put them together in a paper," said Rabosky, an associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and an associate curator at the U-M Museum of Zoology.

Spiders are among the most diverse arthropod predators in the tropics, and previous reports of spider predation in the Amazon include prey from all major vertebrate taxonomic groups: fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.

But knowledge of these interactions remains limited, especially given the diversity of vertebrate prey and potential arthropod predators in species-rich tropical communities. The new paper includes observations from 2008, 2012, 2016 and 2017.

"These events offer a snapshot of the many connections that shape food webs, and they provide insights into an important source of vertebrate mortality that appears to be less common outside the tropics," said the study's first author, Rudolf von May, a postdoctoral researcher in Rabosky's lab.

"Where we do this research there are about 85 species of amphibians—mostly frogs and toads—and about 90 species of reptiles," von May said. "And considering that there are hundreds of invertebrates that potentially prey upon vertebrates, the number of possible interactions between species is huge, and we are highlighting that fact in this paper," von May said.

In addition to the Los Amigos Biological Station, other observations were made at the Villa Carmen Biological Station, also in Peru's Madre de Dios region, and at the Madre Selva Research Station in the Loreto region of northern Peru.

Nearly all of the sightings were made at night, when the arthropod predators are most active. During their night surveys, team members walk slowly through the forest with flashlights and headlamps, in single file, scanning the forest and listening intently.

During one of those night surveys, U-M doctoral candidate Michael Grundler and two other students "heard some scrabbling in the leaf litter."

"We looked over and we saw a large tarantula on top of an opossum," said Grundler, a co-author of the paper. "The opossum had already been grasped by the tarantula and was still struggling weakly at that point, but after about 30 seconds it stopped kicking."

The tarantula was the size of a dinner plate, and the young mouse opossum was about the size of a softball. Grundler's sister Maggie pulled out her cell phone and shot photos and some video.

Later, an opossum expert at the American Museum of Natural History confirmed they had captured the first documentation of a large mygalomorph spider preying on an opossum. The infraorder Mygalomorphae is a group of mostly heavy-bodied, stout-legged spiders that includes tarantulas.

"We were pretty ecstatic and shocked, and we couldn't really believe what we were seeing," Michael Grundler said. "We knew we were witnessing something pretty special, but we weren't aware that it was the first observation until after the fact."

Most predaceous arthropods rely on specialized body parts and venom to capture and paralyze vertebrate prey. These adaptations include modified jaws, enlarged beaks and massive fangs. Some groups have evolved dozens of venom proteins that are injected during prey capture.

Other predator-prey interactions documented in the Amphibian & Reptile Conservation paper include:
Several examples of large spiders of the family Ctenidae preying on frogs and also a lizard. Most of the predation events documented in the paper involve spiders, and most of those were ctenids, which are commonly known as wandering spiders. Ctenid spiders are sit-and-wait predators that hunt at night and use specialized hairs on their legs to detect air vibrations and the direction of prey. Their principal eyes are responsible for object discrimination, and secondary eyes detect motion.
A large scolopendrid centipede consuming a live Catesby's snail-eater snake, and another centipede eating a dead coral snake that it had decapitated. "Coral snakes are very dangerous and can kill humans," said U-M doctoral candidate and study co-author Joanna Larson. "To see one taken down by an arthropod was very surprising. Those centipedes are terrifying animals, actually."

In addition to predation events, the researchers also report on lethal parasite infections in lowland Amazonian frogs and commensal relationships between spiders and frogs. A commensal relationship is one in which one organism benefits and the other is not harmed.

"One of the coolest things about working in Peru is the sheer number of species that you encounter every day simply by walking in the forest," said Larson, who studies the evolution of diet in frogs. "Every day you see something new and exciting."

"One offshoot of the work that we've been doing is this collection of odd natural history events we've witnessed involving arthropod predators and vertebrates," she said. "I have not reached the level of being grossed out by any of it yet. We'll see what else Peru has to offer."

The other authors of the paper, in addition to Rabosky, von May, Michael Grundler and Larson, are Emanuele Biggi of the International League of Conservation Photographers; Heidy Cárdenas and Roy Santa-Cruz of the Museo de Historia Natural de la Universidad Nacional de San Agustín, Peru; M. Isabel Diaz of the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco and the Museo de Biodiversidad del Perú, both in Peru; Consuelo Alarcón of John Carroll University and the Museo de Biodiversidad del Perú; Valia Herrera of the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, Peru; Francesco Tomasinelli of Milan, Italy; Erin P. Westeen and Maggie R. Grundler of the University of California, Berkeley; Ciara M. Sánchez-Paredes of the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia, Peru; and Pascal O. Title and Alison R. Davis Rabosky of the U-M Museum of Zoology and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

The field research was supported by a fellowship from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation to Daniel Rabosky, as well as the Amazon Conservation Association, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Rosemary Grant Award, the Edwin C. Hinsdale UMMZ Scholarship, and the University of Michigan.

The paper will be available online Feb. 28 at: Amphibian & Reptile Conservation


Contacts and sources:



Citation:


Ancient Extinct Sloth Tooth in Belize Tells Story of Creature’s Last Year



Some 27,000 years ago in central Belize, a giant sloth was thirsty. The region was arid, not like today’s steamy jungle. The Last Glacial Maximum had locked up much of Earth’s moisture in polar ice caps and glaciers. Water tables in the area were low.

The sloth, a beast that stood up to 4 meters tall, eventually found water – in a deep sinkhole with steep walls down to the water. That is where it took its final drink. In 2014, divers found some of the sloth’s remains – parts of a tooth, humerus and femur – while searching for ancient Maya artifacts in the pool, in Cara Blanca, Belize.

Researchers analyzed the orthodentin and the cementum in the sloth tooth. Pits mark locations where samples were collected for analysis.
Researchers analyzed the orthodentin and the cementum in the sloth tooth. Pits mark locations where samples were collected for analysis.
Photo by Stanley Ambrose

Though partially fossilized, the tooth still held enough unaltered tissue for stable carbon and oxygen isotope analysis, which provided clues to what the sloth ate in the last year of its life. This, in turn, revealed much about the local climate and environment of the region at the time. The findings, reported in the journal Science Advances, will aid the study of similar fossils in the future, the researchers said.


The ancient sloth, Eremotherium laurillardi, grew up to 4 meters in height.

Photo by Tony Rath

“We began our study with the hopes of gaining a better understanding of the landscape within which large mammals went extinct and humans emerged in central Belize,” said University of Illinois graduate student Jean T. Larmon, who led the research with U. of I. anthropology professors Lisa Lucero and Stanley Ambrose. “In the process, we discovered which part of the tooth had best maintained its integrity for analysis. And we refined methods for studying similar specimens in the future.”

While searching for ancient Maya artifacts in a sinkhole in central Belize, U. of I. anthropology professor Lisa Lucero and her colleagues discovered the remains of an extinct giant sloth. An analysis of the sloth tooth offers insight into the climate and environment of the region 27,000 years ago.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

The new findings “add to the evidence that many factors, in addition to a changing climate, contributed to the extinction of megafauna in the Americas,” said Lucero, who studies the ancient Maya of central Belize. “One of those potential factors is the arrival of humans on the scene 12,000 to 13,000 years ago.”

The teeth of giant sloths like the one found in Belize, Eremotherium laurillardi, differ from those of other large mammals, like mammoths, that went extinct between 14,000 and 10,000 years ago, Larmon said.

“Giant sloth teeth have no enamel, the hard, outer layer of human and some animal teeth that can be analyzed to learn about their diet,” she said.


Pool 1, where the ancient sloth tooth was discovered. The structure at the bottom of the photo is an ancient Maya ceremonial platform
Drone photo by Jeannie Larmon, Valley of Peace Archaeological project (VOPA)

Other factors have limited scientists’ ability to study the teeth of ancient sloths. Most are fossilized, with minerals replacing much or all of the original tissue and bone.

By using cathodoluminescence microscopy, a technique that causes minerals to glow and can detect the extent of mineralization in fossils, the researchers discovered that one type of tooth tissue, the dense orthodentin, was largely intact.


Study co-author Greg McDonald extracted a sloth tooth from this fossil bed in a large sinkhole in central Belize.
Photo by Tony Rath

Larmon drilled 20 samples of orthodentin for isotopic analysis along the 10-centimeter-long tooth fragment, spanning more than a year of tooth growth.

“This allowed us to trace monthly and seasonal changes in the sloth’s diet and climate for the first time, and also to select the best part of the tooth for reliable radiocarbon dating,” Ambrose said.

The isotopic analysis revealed that the giant sloth lived through a long dry season, which lasted about seven months, sandwiched between two short rainy seasons. The analysis also revealed that the creature lived in a savanna, rather than a forest, and consumed a variety of plants that differed between wet and dry seasons.

Divers found the sloth tooth in one of several large pools in the Cara Blanca region of central Belize.
Photo by Lisa Lucero, Valley of Peace Archaeological Project

“We were able to see that this huge, social creature was able to adapt rather readily to the dry climate, shifting its subsistence to relying upon what was more available or palatable,” Larmon said.

“This supports the idea that the sloths had a diverse diet,” Lucero said. “That helps explain why they were so widespread and why they lasted so long. It’s likely because they were highly adaptable.”

The National Science Foundation and the University of Illinois supported this research








Contacts and sources:
Diana Yates
University of Illinois

Citation:


Northwest Coast Clam Gardens Nearly 2,000 Years Older than Previously Thought

People were making clam gardens in North America 3,500 years ago and they still work. 

A study led by Simon Fraser University (SFU) archaeology professor Dana Lepofsky and Hakai Institute researcher Nicole Smith reveals that clam gardens, ancient Indigenous food security systems located along B.C.'s coast, date back at least 3,500 years--almost 2,000 years older than previously thought. These human-built beach terraces continue to create habitat for clams and other sea creatures to flourish in the area.

Credit: Nicole Smith

For thousands of years, First Nations of the Northwest Coast, from Alaska to Washington, relied on clams as a staple food. Clam gardens have helped Indigenous peoples prevent the depletion of this important food resource despite ongoing harvesting to support the growth of dense and widespread human populations. 

"Oral traditions, songs, and local Indigenous knowledge, as well as the archaeological record indicate that clam gardens were built and used throughout the coast," says Dana Lepofsky. "However, because clam gardens are constructed of rock, it is difficult to determine the age of these features using standard archaeological techniques.

"The findings in this study provide unequivocal evidence for long-term and sustainable management of coastal ecosystems by Northwest Coast peoples -- and supports what they have always said about their traditional marine management practices."

For the study, published in PLOS ONE, the researchers analyzed multiple clam gardens located on Quadra Island, British Columbia. They used radiocarbon dating on the clams and other marine organisms that were trapped when the clam garden walls were built, as well as the accumulating sediment.

The researchers combined this information with the history of changing sea levels in the area to achieve a more accurate read than previous studies.

"This traditional form of mariculture has been used continuously for 3500 years and into the present day, and it holds potential to become a model for how local, sustainable food systems could operate in the future," says Nicole Smith.



Contacts and sources:
Justin Wong 
Simon Fraser University (SFU)


Fungi's Great Influence on Global Plant Colonization

Fungus more important that you probably ever thought.

It isn’t just differences in climate and geology, but also the availability of symbionts such as the mycorrhizal fungus, that influence plant diversity at different locations, for example on the dry east coast of Tenerife.

Photo: Holger Kreft

The symbiosis of plants and fungi has a great influence on the worldwide spread of plant species. In some cases, it even acts like a filter. This has been discovered by an international team of researchers with participation from the University of Göttingen. The results appeared in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

In the colonisation of islands by plant species, it isn't just factors like island size, isolation and geological development that play an important role, but also the interactions between species. The scientists found that the symbiosis of plant and fungus - the mycorrhiza - is of particular importance. The two organisms exchange nutrients via the plant's fine root system: the fungus receives carbohydrates from the plant; the plant receives nutrients that the fungus has absorbed from the soil.

"For the first time, new data on the worldwide distribution of plant species in 1,100 island and mainland regions allows us to investigate the influence of this interaction on a global scale," says Dr Patrick Weigelt from the University of Göttingen's Department of Biodiversity, Macroecology and Biogeography, who worked on the study. The results: mycorrhiza-plant interactions, which are naturally less frequent on islands because the two organisms rely on each other, mean that the colonisation of remote islands is hindered.


The nearer to the equator, the more frequently the plant-fungus symbiosis occurs - for example in the species-rich tropical rainforest of the Amboró National Park in Bolivia.

Photo: Patrick Weigelt


The lack of this symbiotic relationship may act like a brake on the spread of the plants. This is not the case for plant species introduced by humans, as fungi and plants are often introduced together. Head of Department, Professor Holger Kreft, adds, "The proportion of plant species with mycorrhiza interactions also increases from the poles to the equator". One of the most prominent biogeographic patterns, the increase in the number of species from the poles to the tropics, is closely related to this symbiosis.

Dr Camille Delavaux, lead author from the University of Kansas (US), explains, "We show that the plant symbiotic association with mycorrhizal fungi is an overlooked driver of global plant biogeographic patterns. This has important consequences for our understanding of contemporary island biogeography and human-mediated plant invasions." The results show that complex relationships between different organisms are crucial for understanding global diversity patterns and preserving biological diversity. "The absence of an interaction partner can disrupt ecosystems and make them more susceptible to biological invasions," Weigelt stresses.








Contacts and sources:
Dr Patrick Weigelt
University of Göttingen


Citation:Camille S Delavaux et al. Mycorrhizal fungi influence global plant biogeography. Nature Ecology & Evolution (2019). http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41559-019-0823-4

Revolutionary Breakthrough: Scientists Turn Carbon Dioxide Back into Coal at Room Temperature

New liquid metal technology offers the possibility of pulling carbon dioxide from the air, turning it to coal and burying it. It would be like turning back time for the atmosphere 

Researchers have used liquid metals to turn carbon dioxide back into solid coal, in a world-first breakthrough that could transform our approach to carbon capture and storage.

The research team led by RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, have developed a new technique that can efficiently convert CO2 from a gas into solid particles of carbon.

Published in the journal Nature Communications, the research offers an alternative pathway for safely and permanently removing the greenhouse gas from our atmosphere.

A schematic illustration showing how liquid metal is used as a catalyst for converting carbon dioxide into solid coal.

Credit: RMIT University


Current technologies for carbon capture and storage focus on compressing CO2 into a liquid form, transporting it to a suitable site and injecting it underground.

But implementation has been hampered by engineering challenges, issues around economic viability and environmental concerns about possible leaks from the storage sites.


Credit: RMIT University


RMIT researcher Dr Torben Daeneke said converting CO2 into a solid could be a more sustainable approach.

“While we can’t literally turn back time, turning carbon dioxide back into coal and burying it back in the ground is a bit like rewinding the emissions clock,” Daeneke, an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow, said.

“To date, CO2 has only been converted into a solid at extremely high temperatures, making it industrially unviable.

“By using liquid metals as a catalyst, we’ve shown it’s possible to turn the gas back into carbon at room temperature, in a process that’s efficient and scalable.

“While more research needs to be done, it’s a crucial first step to delivering solid storage of carbon.”
How the carbon conversion works

Lead author, Dr Dorna Esrafilzadeh, a Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow in RMIT’s School of Engineering, developed the electrochemical technique to capture and convert atmospheric CO2 to storable solid carbon.


To convert CO2, the researchers designed a liquid metal catalyst with specific surface properties that made it extremely efficient at conducting electricity while chemically activating the surface.


The carbon dioxide is dissolved in a beaker filled with an electrolyte liquid and a small amount of the liquid metal, which is then charged with an electrical current.

The CO2 slowly converts into solid flakes of carbon, which are naturally detached from the liquid metal surface, allowing the continuous production of carbonaceous solid.

Esrafilzadeh said the carbon produced could also be used as an electrode.

Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow Dr Torben Daeneke and Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow Dr Dorna Esrafilzadeh.


“A side benefit of the process is that the carbon can hold electrical charge, becoming a supercapacitor, so it could potentially be used as a component in future vehicles.”

“The process also produces synthetic fuel as a by-product, which could also have industrial applications.”

The research was conducted at RMIT’s MicroNano Research Facility and the RMIT Microscopy and Microanalysis Facility, with lead investigator, Honorary RMIT and ARC Laureate Fellow, Professor Kourosh Kalantar-Zadeh (now UNSW).

The research is supported by the Australian Research Council Centre for Future Low-Energy Electronics Technologies (FLEET) and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES).

The collaboration involved researchers from Germany (University of Munster), China (Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics), the US (North Carolina State University) and Australia (UNSW, University of Wollongong, Monash University, QUT).

The paper is published in Nature Communications (“Room temperature CO2 reduction to solid carbon species on liquid metals featuring atomically thin ceria interfaces”, DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-08824-8).





Contacts and sources:
Gosia Kaszubska
RMIT University



Citation: Room temperature CO2 reduction to solid carbon species on liquid metals featuring atomically thin ceria interfaces.
Dorna Esrafilzadeh, Ali Zavabeti, Rouhollah Jalili, Paul Atkin, Jaecheol Choi, Benjamin J. Carey, Robert Brkljača, Anthony P. O’Mullane, Michael D. Dickey, David L. Officer, Douglas R. MacFarlane, Torben Daeneke, Kourosh Kalantar-Zadeh.Nature Communications, 2019; 10 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-08824-8

The Oldest Frog Fossils of North America Go Back 216 Million Years



A team of paleontologists led by Virginia Tech’s Michelle Stocker and Sterling Nesbitt of the Department of Geosciences have identified fossil fragments of what are thought to be the oldest known frogs in North America.

The fossils are composed of several small pieces of hip bone, called an ilium, from Chinle frogs, a distant, long-extinct branch, but not a direct ancestor of, modern frogs. The fragments are packed into rock and are smaller than a pinky nail. They represent the first known and earliest equatorial remains of a salientian — the group containing living frogs and their most-closely related fossil relatives — from the Late Triassic, roughly 216 million years ago.

Virginia Tech Assistant Professor Michelle Stocker holds a rock with an enbedded Chinle frog hipbone fossil. The size of an eyelash — look for the small brownish line with a dot at the bottom — the fossil was found in Arizona.
Michelle Stocker holds a hipbone of an ancient frog
Credit: Virginia Tech

The name of the fossil derives from where they were found, the Chinle Formation of Arizona.


Stocker, an assistant professor of geosciences in the Virginia Tech College of Science, says the fossils, discovered in May 2018, underscore the importance of microfossil collection and analysis for understanding extinct species whose total length is under three feet in length.

A concept rendering of a Chinle frog, inside the jaw of a phitosaur.
 Image by Andrey Atuchin.


“This new find highlights just how much there is still to learn about the Late Triassic ecosystem and how much we find when we just look a little closer,” Stocker said. “We’re familiar with the charismatic archosaurs from the Chinle Formation, but we know that based on other ecosystems, they should make up a small percentage of the animals that lived together. With this new focus, we’re able to fill in a lot of those missing smaller components with new discoveries.”

Coming from multiple individuals, the hip bones are are long and hollow, with a hip socket offset rather than centered. The bones of the frogs show how tiny they were: just a bit over half-an-inch long. “The Chinle frog could fit on the end of your finger,” Stocker added.


Credit: Virginia Tech

Stocker and her team include researchers from Virginia Tech, Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, and the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History, with the findings published today in the online journal Biology Letters. Even though the fossils are part of the Chinle frog family, they are not yet naming the specific fossils.

“We refrain from naming this Chinle frog because we are continuing to process microvertebrate matrix that will likely yield additional skull and postcranial material that has the potential to be even more informative,” Stocker added.

The Chinle frog shares more features with living frogs and Prosalirus, an Early Jurassic frog found in sediments from the present-day Navajo Nation, than to Triadobatrachus, an Early Triassic frog found in modern day Madagascar in Africa. “These are the oldest frogs from near the equator,” Stocker added. “The oldest frogs overall are roughly 250 million years old from Madagascar and Poland, but those specimens are from higher latitudes and not equatorial.”

Left to right, Virginia Tech assistant professors Sterling Nesbitt and Michelle Stocker, and Ph.D. student Ben Kligman, all of the Department of Geosciences.

Credit: Virginia Tech

Added Nesbitt, also an assistant professor of geosciences, “Now we know that tiny frogs were present approximately 215 million years ago from North America, we may be able to find other members of the modern vertebrate communities in the Triassic Period.”

(During the Triassic, the separate continents we recognize today formed the single landmass named Pangaea. Present-day Arizona was located roughly 10 degrees north of the equator.)

The team added that this discovery also marks the first time that frog fossils have been found directly with phytosaurs and other early dinosaurs.

The Virginia Tech team included both undergraduate and graduate students from across the university, using fossils found in the field and dousing additional rock samples repeatedly in water buckets. Further study of the fossils was completed by CT scans. The undergraduates who accompanied Stocker and Nesbitt on the spring 2018 expedition to Arizona included Elizabeth Evans, a major in the School of Performing Arts; Rebecca Hawkins, majoring in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation; and Hector Lopez, majoring in biological sciences.

“Through my internship with Drs. Stocker and Nesbitt in Arizona, I learned firsthand the hard work that paleontologists put into finding fossils,” said Hawkins, a sophomore in the College of Natural Resources and Environment. “Every day you have to brave long treks, heavy loads, scorching heat, and more. But, with just the right combination of patience and luck, you can find something truly amazing that makes the toil worth it, like a tiny frog hip that tells a big story.”

“Our development of methods that recover delicate bones from small-bodied vertebrates enabled this exciting discovery,” said Ben Kligman, a Ph.D. student in geosciences from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “Our aim is to use similar techniques in the Chinle Formation to uncover the early history of other small-bodied animals, including lizards, salamanders, turtles, and mammals.”

Funding for the study came from the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, the David B. Jones Foundation, the Petrified Forest Museum Association, and the Friends of Petrified Forest National Park.


Contacts and sources:
Lon Wagner
Virginia Tech



Worldwide First: Test Identifies Semi-Identical Twins


Young Brisbane twins, a boy and a girl, have been identified as only the second set of semi-identical, or sesquizygotic, twins in the world – and the first to be identified by doctors during pregnancy.
The now four-year-old boy and girl are identical (monozygotic) on their mother’s side sharing 100 per cent of their mother’s DNA, but are like siblings on their father’s side, sharing only a proportion of their father’s DNA.

The case, the first worldwide to identify semi-identical twins on genetic testing while in the womb, has been reported in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) by QUT clinical geneticist and Diagnostic Genomics course coordinator Dr Michael Gabbett and fetal medicine specialist and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at UNSW Professor Nicholas Fisk.

Sesquizygotic represents a third type of ‘twinning’ between identical and fraternal (dizygotic).

“It is likely the mother’s egg was fertilised simultaneously by two of the father’s sperm before dividing,” said Professor Fisk, who led the fetal medicine team that cared for the mother and twins while based at Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital in 2014. Professor Fisk, a past President of the International Fetal Medicine and Surgery Society, worked alongside Dr Gabbett.

“The mother’s ultrasound at six weeks showed a single placenta and positioning of amniotic sacs that indicated she was expecting identical twins. However, an ultrasound at 14 weeks showed the twins were male and female, which is not possible for identical twins.”

Identical twins result when cells from a single egg fertilised by a single sperm divide into two, so identical twins are the same gender and share identical DNA. Fraternal twins occur when each twin develops from a separate egg and the egg is fertilised by its own sperm.

Three types of twins
Graphic courtesy UNSW


Dr Gabbett said if one egg is fertilized by two sperm it results in three sets of chromosomes, one from the mother and two from the father.

“Three sets of chromosomes are typically incompatible with life and embryos do not usually survive,” he said.

“In the case of the Brisbane sesquizygotic twins, the fertilized egg appears to have equally divided up the three sets of chromosomes into groups of cells which then split into two, creating the twins.

“Some of the cells contain the chromosomes from the first sperm while the remaining cells contain chromosomes from the second sperm, resulting in the twins sharing only a proportion rather 100 per cent of the same paternal DNA.”Dr Michael Gabbett.



Sesquizygotic twins were first reported in the US in 2007. Those twins came to doctors’ attention in infancy after one was identified with ambiguous genitalia. On investigation of mixed chromosomes, doctors found the boy and girl were identical on their mother’s side but shared around half of their paternal DNA.

Professor Fisk said an analysis of worldwide twin databases pointed to just how rare sesquizygotic twins are.

“We at first questioned whether there were perhaps other cases which had been wrongly classified or not reported, so examined genetic data from 968 fraternal twins and their parents,” he said.

“However we found no other sesquizygotic twins in these data, nor any case of semi-identical twins in large global twin studies.

“We know this is an exceptional case of semi-identical twins. While doctors may keep this in mind in apparently identical twins, its rarity means there is no case for routine genetic testing.”


Video: The New England Journal of Medicine ©2019.

The NEJM paper, Molecular Support for Heterogonesis Resulting in Sesquizygotic Twinning, is available here.









Contacts and sources:
Karen Milliner
Queensland University of Technology



Citation: Molecular Support for Heterogonesis Resulting in Sesquizygotic Twinning
Michael T. Gabbett et al. ,. The New England Journal of Medicine, 2019 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1701313


Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Remains of a Phoenician Settlement at Sa Caleta a d' "Ibiza Is Different", Genetically

An investigation reveals that Ibizans are genetically different from the rest of Spain inhabitants. The genetic difference is comparable to that between Basques and the rest of peninsular inhabitants, considered a genetic anomaly to date.

Ibiza is different." That is what the hundreds of standard-bearers of the "hippie" movement who visited the Pitiusan Island during the 60s thought, fascinated by its climate and its unexplored nature. What they did not imagine was that the utmost unique feature of the island was in its inhabitants. Now a study led by Francesc Calafell, principal investigator of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (IBE) - a mixed center of the UPF and the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC) reveals that the genes of Ibiza natives are really different. Yes indeed, the island is unique.

These are remains of the Phoenician settlement of Sa Caleta (Ibiza).

Credit: UPF

The piece of work, published in the European Journal of Human Genetics with the collaboration of researchers from the American University of Lebanon and the University of Otago, reveals that current Ibizans come from the Catalan invaders who repopulated the island from the 13th century.

The result seems to conflict with the history of the island, which had been invaded and inhabited by many peoples previously, from the Phoenicians and Carthaginians to the Romans and Arabs. In a previous work - this time led by Zalloua and with the collaboration of Francesc Calafell and Benjamí Costa, Director of the Archaeological Museum of Ibiza -, researchers had already observed that the original settlers, the Phoenicians, did not seem to have much in common with current Ibizans, but had not located the source of their genetic heritage.

"The famine that followed the Franco-Ottoman attack in 1536 along with the epidemic of bubonic plague that struck Ibizan people in 1652 was a major demographic crisis for the island; this would explain the current absence of ancient genetic traits in the islanders, as well as their differentiation, since the current population descends from a small number of survivors of these calamities, "says Simone Biagini, PhD student in Francesc Calafell's group and first author of the study.

To discover the origin of Ibizan genes, scientists have determined the genetic information of 163 volunteers from 3 regions of Spain (Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands) and have used 69 Spanish samples previously published. To evaluate the connection with the Phoenician genome, samples of ancient DNA from the Phoenician necropolis of Puig des Molins, in Ibiza, and 257 samples of modern DNA from the Middle East and North Africa have been used.

"Although we expected that there was no genetic link with the Phoenicians, the genetic singularity of today's Ibizan people is very surprising," says Benjamí Costa, who has collaborated in the genetic analysis of ancient Phoenician samples.

The information on the Ibizan population contributed by the study of Calafell, also a professor at UPF, could shed light on other scenarios where there has been a similar geographical segregation. However, not all Mediterranean islands follow the same pattern: while Ibiza and Sardinia are clearly differentiated populations, Mallorca, Menorca and Sicily peoples are much more similar to mainland inhabitants.

The study has been financed by the Agencia Estatal de Investigación and the Fondo Europeo de Desarollo Regional (FEDER), the Agència de Gestió d'Ajuts Universitaris i de la Recerca (Generalitat de Catalunya) and the Unidad de Excelencia María de Maeztu




Contacts and sources:
Gerard Vall-llovera
Universitat Pompeu Fabra - Barcelona




Citation: People from Ibiza: an unexpected isolate in the Western Mediterranean Simone Andrea Biagini, Neus Solé-Morata, Elizabeth Matisoo-Smith, Pierre Zalloua, David Comas & Francesc Calafell European Journal of Human Genetics (2019) https://www.nature.com/articles/s41431-019-0361-1 http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41431-019-0361-1



Z

How Our Immune System Balances Our Gut Microbes

Gut microbes play a symbiotic role in balancing our body chemistry.

Researchers from the Cluster of Excellence "Precision Medicine in Chronic Inflammation" in Kiel and Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin have uncovered a critical mechanism that controls immune reactions against microorganisms in the intestine. The results of the international study may contribute to the development of new therapies for chronic inflammatory bowel disease. They have been published in the journal Nature Immunology*.

The immune system protects against the spread of pathogenic germs in the intestine. At the same time, it allows the colonisation of beneficial microorganisms. Conversely, the composition of the microorganisms in the intestine, the so-called microbiota, has an influence on the quality of the immune reaction. An international research group led by Prof. Dr. Alexander Scheffold of Kiel University (CAU) and the Cluster of Excellence "Precision Medicine in Chronic Inflammation" has uncovered a critical mechanism that establishes the balance between immune system and microbiota.

This set of works depicts the ecosystem of gut bacteria which help keep us healthy. It is created using gut bacteria, grown on color-changing agar in striking, organic patterns to suggest that bacteria, rather than 'good' or 'bad', should be viewed like the plants around us, where diversity, and balance is key to health.
Credit: Nicola Fawcett  / Wikimedia Commons A full description is available at: https://livinginamicrobialworld.wordpress.com/2015/09/01/the-wild-garden-of-the-gut-bacteria/Created by Dr Nicola Fawcett (microbes) and Christopher Wood (photography)

The researchers Dr. Christian Neumann (Charité), Dr. Sascha Rutz (Genentech, San Francisco), Prof. Dr. Axel Kallies (University of Melbourne and Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Melbourne), Prof. Scheffold and colleagues studied molecular regulators of immune-microbiome interactions in mice. The team focused on so-called regulatory T cells. These are immune cells that prevent harmless or even useful microorganisms in the intestine from being attacked by the immune system.

 "We have identified a molecule, c-Maf, which is critical for the development and function of specific regulatory T cells in the gut," explains Scheffold. C-Maf prevents the immune system from attacking the microbiota. "If this molecule is missing, the gut's immune system overreacts and the microbiota composition changes considerably," added first author Dr. Neumann of Charité's Institute of Microbiology, Infectious Diseases and Immunology. This change in composition proved remarkably stable: When the researchers transferred the altered microbiota to mice with intact c-Maf-dependent regulatory T cells, they also developed an overreaction of the intestinal immune system.

"These results show that both the immune system and the microbiota mutually contribute to establishing and maintaining the balance in the gut," emphasises Prof. Scheffold. "This could explain how a microbial imbalance can contribute to chronic inflammatory bowel disease and why the treatment often fails". These findings could lead to new therapeutic approaches that, for example in the case of inflammatory bowel disease, aim to influence and harmonize both immune response and microbiota. In the future, the team would like to study how an established pathological interaction between intestinal bacteria and the immune system can be destabilized in patients and restored to its original state.




Contacts and sources:
Christian Neumann, Institute for Microbiology and Infection
Universitätsmedizin Berlin 

Prof. Dr. Alexander ScheffoldInstitute of Immunology
Christian-Albrechts-University Kiel
University Hospital Schleswig-Holstein, Campus Kiel

Citation: *Neumann C et al. c-Maf-dependent Treg cell control of intestinal TH17 cells and IgA establishes host-microbiota homeostasis. Nat Immunol. 2019 Feb 18. doi: 10.1038/s41590-019-0316-2.



Tuesday, February 26, 2019

How Deadly Are Dead Zones: A Better Way to Know Found

Measuring the volume of dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico may be a better way to determine their deadliness. 

Dubravko Justic, Texaco Distinguished Professor in the LSU’s Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences, or DOCS, and Lixia Wang, Research Associate IV in DOCS, recently co-authored a study suggesting that measuring the volume rather than the area of the Gulf of Mexico’s “Dead Zone,” is more appropriate for monitoring its effects on marine organisms.

The “Dead Zone,” a hypoxic zone, is a region of low oxygen that results from high-nutrient runoff, such as nitrogen and phosphorus often found in fertilizer, flowing from the Mississippi River into the coastal ocean. It is the largest recurring hypoxic zone in the United States, occurring most summers, and is located off the coast of Louisiana. This nutrient pollution, coupled with other factors, is believed to have a negative impact on fisheries because it depletes the oxygen required to support most marine life in bottom and near-bottom waters.

Figure caption: Midsummer (July 21 – 26) hypoxic area (left) and hypoxic volume (right) in the northern Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone simulated by the Justic and Wang (2014) model for present day condition (2002, upper), for a 25% N reduction scenario (middle) and under a 50% N reduction scenario (lower). Color bars on the left denote bottom dissolved oxygen concentrations (mg/l); color bars on the right denote the thickness of the hypoxic layer (m). The solid black line in the upper left plot denotes the areal extent of hypoxia (dissolved oxygen < 2 mg/l) in bottom waters observed during the July 21 – 26, 2002, hypoxia monitoring cruise. 
Photo Credit: Dubravko Justic


Since 2001, stakeholders have used hypoxic area measurements to set goals for limiting or reversing its size, but this new study shows that the hypoxic volume appears more responsive to reductions in nitrogen flowing into the northern Gulf of Mexico than the hypoxic area. The researchers’ model simulations indicate that even under a modest 25% nitrogen load reduction, the thickness of the hypoxic layer in the northern Gulf of Mexico decreases markedly, and hypoxia remains localized to a relatively thin layer near the bottom that most fish and other mobile organisms can more effectively avoid.

Justic believes this should be considered when reviewing and potentially setting new hypoxia management goals.

“Understanding variability in hypoxic volume is relevant to assessing the effects of hypoxia on fish and fisheries, such as enhanced susceptibility to fishing due to an increased aggregation of fish avoiding hypoxic waters,” Justic said.

LSU is at the forefront of coastal research and education with more than 200 faculty exploring and collaborating on every continent. This study was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters and included co-authors from the University of Michigan, North Carolina State University and NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center, in addition to Louisiana State University’s College of the Coast & Environment. The full study is available here: https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aaf938/meta.




Contacts and sources:
 Christine Wendling
LSU College of the Coast & Environment

Alison SatakeLSU


Citation:Hypoxic volume is more responsive than hypoxic area to nutrient load reductions in the northern Gulf of Mexico—and it matters to fish and fisheries. Donald Scavia, Dubravko Justić, Daniel R Obenour, J Kevin Craig and Lixia Wang  Environmental Research Letters, Volume 14, Number 2 https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aaf938/meta

Kids Need Green Space for Healthy Mental Development



Children who grow up with greener surroundings have up to 55 percent less risk of developing various mental disorders later in life; this calls for greener and healthier cities for the future

 This is shown by a new study from Aarhus University, Denmark, emphasizing the need for designing green and healthy cities for the future.

A larger and larger share of the world's population now lives in cities and WHO estimates that more than 450 millions of the global human population suffer from a mental disorder. A number that is expected to increase.

A new study from Aarhus University shows that children who grow up surrounded by high amounts of green space have up to 55 percent less risk of developing a mental disorder later in life. According to the researchers, integration of green space in urban planning is important to ensure green and healthy cities for the future generations.

Credit: Model photo: Colourbox.dk.

Now, based on satellite data from 1985 to 2013, researchers from Aarhus University have mapped the presence of green space around the childhood homes of almost one million Danes and compared this data with the risk of developing one of 16 different mental disorders later in life.

The study, which is published today in the prestigious American Journal PNAS, shows that children surrounded by the high amounts of green space in childhood have up to a 55% lower risk of developing a mental disorder - even after adjusting for other known risk factors such as socio-economic status, urbanization, and the family history of mental disorders.

The entire childhood must be green

Postdoc Kristine Engemann from Department of Bioscience and the National Centre for Register-based Research at Aarhus University, who spearheaded the study, says: "Our data is unique. We have had the opportunity to use a massive amount of data from Danish registers of, among other things, residential location and disease diagnoses and compare it with satellite images revealing the extent of green space surrounding each individual when growing up."

Researchers know that, for example, noise, air pollution, infections and poor socio-economic conditions increase the risk of developing a mental disorder. Conversely, other studies have shown that more green space in the local area creates greater social cohesion and increases people's physical activity level and that it can improve children's cognitive development. These are all factors that may have an impact on people's mental health.

"With our dataset, we show that the risk of developing a mental disorder decreases incrementally the longer you have been surrounded by green space from birth and up to the age of 10. Green space throughout childhood is therefore extremely important," Kristine Engemann explains.

Green and healthy cities

As the researchers adjusted for other known risk factors of developing a mental disorder, they see their findings as a robust indication of a close relationship between green space, urban life, and mental disorders.

Kristine Engemann says: "There is increasing evidence that the natural environment plays a larger role for mental health than previously thought. Our study is important in giving us a better understanding of its importance across the broader population."

This knowledge has important implications for sustainable urban planning. Not least because a larger and larger proportion of the world's population lives in cities.

"The coupling between mental health and access to green space in your local area is something that should be considered even more in urban planning to ensure greener and healthier cities and improve mental health of urban residents in the future," adds co-author Professor Jens-Christian Svenning from the Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University.


Contacts and sources:Postdoc Kristine Engemann, Centre for Biodiversity Dynamics in a Changing World (BIOCHANGE) & Section for Ecoinformatics and Biodiversity, Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University, and The National Centre for Register-based Research, Department of Economics and Business, Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University

Professor Jens-Christian Svenning, Centre for Biodiversity Dynamics in a Changing World (BIOCHANGE) & Section for Ecoinformatics & Biodiversity, Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University

Professor Carsten Bøcker Pedersen, The National Centre for Register-based Research, Department of Economics and Business, Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University.



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New Rubbery 'Smart' Material to Treat Open Wounds, Infections and Cancer



New shape memory polymer doesn't require additional triggers like temperature changes and could have major implications for health care treatment.

Researchers in the Syracuse University College of Engineering and Computer Science have developed a material--a new kind of shape memory polymer (SMP)--that could have major implications for health care.

SMPs are soft, rubbery, "smart" materials that can change shape in response to external stimuli like temperature changes or exposure to light. They can hold each shape indefinitely and turn back when triggered to do so.

Professor James H. Henderson and Ph.D. candidate Shelby L. Buffington of Syracuse University display the new shape memory polymer in their lab.

Credit: Syracuse University



SMPs have many potential biomedical applications. For example, they are ideal as cardiovascular stents because they can be one shape for surgical insertion and another once positioned in a blood vessel. The warmth of the patient's body is all that is required to trigger the shape change.

Along with collaborators at Bucknell University, Syracuse University researchers have designed an SMP that can change its shape in response to exposure to enzymes and is compatible with living cells. It requires no additional trigger, such as a change in temperature. Given these properties, it can respond to cellular activity like healing.

"The enzymatic sensitivity of the material allows it to respond directly to cell behavior," explains biomedical engineering Ph.D. candidate Shelby L. Buffington. "For instance, you could place it over a wound, and as the tissue remodeled and degraded it, the SMP would slowly pull the wound closed. It could be adapted to play a role in treating infections and cancer by adjusting the material's chemistry."

The research team includes Buffington, Justine E. Paul '18, bioengineering junior Mark M. Macios, Professor James H. Henderson and Bucknell's Patrick T. Mather and Matthew M. Ali Ph.D. '18. Their research, "Enzymatically triggered shape memory polymers," was published in Acta Biomaterialia this year.

The team created the material using a process called dual electrospinning, in which a high-voltage current is applied to two needle tips pumping two separate polymer solutions. The voltage draws out the polymer fibers, and they are blended into a fiber polymer mat. The proper combination of fibers gives the material its shape memory qualities.

Detailed in their paper, the teams analyzed the material's properties, shape memory performance and cytocompatibility. Their experiments successfully demonstrated that the SMP's original shape could be recovered through a degree of reversal, or degradation, of the shape-fixing phase.

Today, the research team is examining their SMP in cancer and macrophage cell cultures. They hope that with additional research, they will uncover practical uses for their material using lower concentrations of enzymes, produced by less extreme cellular activity.

"We anticipate that the materials we're developing could have broad application in health care. For example, our SMPs could be used in drugs that only activate when the target cells or organ are in the desired physiological state, in scaffolds that guide tissue regeneration in response to the behavior of the regenerating tissue itself, and in decision-making biosensors that guide patient treatment more effectively," Henderson says. "We're very excited to have achieved these first enzymatically responsive SMPs."



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


Contacts and sources:
Matt Wheeler
Syracuse University

Citation: Enzymatically triggered shape memory polymers
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.actbio.2018.11.031


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Do Believers in Conspiracy Theories Really Commit More Petty Crimes?

One could say university research conspires against conspiracy theory believes.

People who believe in conspiracy theories - such as the theory that Princess Diana was murdered by the British establishment - are more likely to accept or engage in everyday criminal activity.

That's the main finding from new research by psychologists at the universities of Kent and Staffordshire into the wider impact that conspiracy beliefs can have on behavior.

Professor Karen Douglas, of Kent's School of Psychology, was one of a team of four researchers to show that belief in conspiracy theories, previously associated with prejudice, political disengagement and environmental inaction, also makes people more inclined to actively engage in antisocial behavior.

The logo of the Skull and Bones consists of a skull and crossbones, along with the number 322. According to one theory, 322 symbolizes the year the society was founded (1832) and indicates that it is the second chapter of a German secret society, supposedly the Bavarian Illuminati. It more likely records the date of Demosthenes' death.
Credit: Yale University Archives / Wikimedia Commons

In a first study, the findings indicated that people who believed in conspiracy theories were more accepting of everyday crime, such as trying to claim for replacement items, refunds or compensation from a shop when they were not entitled to do so.

In a second study, exposure to conspiracy theories made people more likely to intend to engage in everyday crime in the future. The researchers found that this tendency was directly linked to an individual's feeling of a lack of social cohesion or shared values, known as 'anomie'.

Illuminati Organizational Chart Protest Sign during the Occupy Wall St. protests.
File:Illuminati Organizational Chart Protest Sign.jpg
Credit: emilydickinsonridesabmx / Wikimedia Commons

Professor Douglas said: 'Our research has shown for the first time the role that conspiracy theories can play in determining an individual's attitude to everyday crime. It demonstrates that people subscribing to the view that others have conspired might be more inclined toward unethical actions.'

Dr Dan Jolley, of Staffordshire University, said: 'People believing in conspiracy theories are more likely to be accepting of everyday crime, while exposure to theories increases a feeling of anomie, which in turn predicts increased future everyday crime intentions.'





Contacts and sources:
 Martin Herrema 
University of Kent 

The research, entitled Belief in conspiracy theories and intentions to engage in everyday crime (Daniel Jolley and Tanya Schrader, Staffordshire University; Karen Douglas and Ana Leite, University of Kent) is published in the British Journal of Social Psychology. See: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/bjso.12311

Best Exercise Times for Adjusting Body's Internal Clock Identified



Everyone needs sleep, but that doesn’t mean it comes easy for everyone — especially when your natural sleep cycle is disrupted, throwing off your internal clock.

New research, though, offers hope for people looking to adjust more easily to unique bedtimes associated with jet lag, shift work or military deployments.Credit: ASU 

ASU College of Nursing and Health InnovationProfessor Shawn Youngstedt and his co-authors Jeffrey Elliott and Daniel Kripke wanted to expand on previous research that had shown exercising can cause changes to the body clock or circadian rhythm.

“We know that it can affect the internal clock, but there was never a clear understanding of what time of day exercise causes delays and when exercise advances the body clock. Without knowing this information, it is more difficult to help people who have body-clock disturbances,” he said.

So their study, outlined in an article just published in the Journal of Physiology, sought to narrow down the time of day you should work out for the desired adjustment.

Their results found:


Exercise at 7 a.m. or between 1 and 4 p.m. advanced the body clock, which would help people start activities earlier the next day.


Exercise between 7 and 10 p.m. delayed the body clock, which would help people shift their peak performance later the next day.


Exercise between 1 and 4 a.m. or at 10 a.m. had little effect on the body clock.

We asked Youngstedt to walk us through the study, the findings and to put the challenges of body-clock disruption in perspective.

Question: What makes this study unique?

Answer: This was the first study to examine exercise at eight different times of the day or night in a large enough number of subjects (101 subjects) to show clearly when exercise advances the body clock and when it delays the body clock. This was also the first study to compare women vs. men and older adults vs. young adults. No differences were found in how exercise shifts the body clock by age or sex.

Shawn Youngstedt
Credit: ASU


Q: What are some of the common disruptors to one's internal body clock?

A: Shift work and jet lag are common disruptors. Having a light on, even a cellphone light, at night can delay the body clock, making it harder to get up in the morning. Not getting enough outdoor light or physical activity are also disruptors.

Q: What can happen if you experience those disruptors?

A: In the short term, these disruptors often lead to sleep disturbance, impaired mood and alertness, and increased risk of accidents. Jet lag also commonly leads to digestion problems. Shift work is associated with a high risk of cancer. Indeed, shift work is now considered a carcinogenic behavior. It is also associated with cardiovascular disease, depression, diabetes and obesity.

Q: How significant a problem is this?

A: About 20 percent of the world's population are shift workers, and millions of air travelers suffer from jet lag annually. Social jet lag, which is associated with sleeping later and longer on weekends than on school or work days, also seems to be becoming more prevalent. Delayed sleep phase is particularly common in adolescents and young adults and commonly leads to loss of sleep during the week.

Q: What’s the potential impact of your study’s findings?

A: We think there will be more exploration of exercise for shifting the body clock in real-world situations.

Q: Are there plans to further the research?

A: We hope to look at dose-response effects. Our study used one hour of moderately intense exercise. It will be helpful to know if similar effects are shown with lighter-intensity exercise or shorter exercise. Maybe slowly strolling around the Louvre for a few hours would produce the same or greater effects, which would be helpful to know for travelers. Another thing we would like to explore is combining exercise with bright light and melatonin. Now that we know the best time for causing shifts for all of these stimuli, we might be able to travel across 12 time zones and be adjusted in just a few days.

Contacts and sources:
Amanda Goodman
Arizona State University (ASU)



2.7 Billion Year Old Rocks Provide Clues to Earth’s “Great Oxidation Event"



The 2.5 billion-year-old Mt. McRae Shale from Western Australia was analyzed for thallium and molybdenum isotope compositions, revealing a pattern that indicates manganese oxide minerals were being buried over large regions of the ancient sea floor. For this burial to occur, O2 needed to have been present all the way down to the sea floor 2.5 billion-years-ago.

Image credit: Chad Ostrander, ASU

Oxygen in the form of the oxygen molecule (O2), produced by plants and vital for animals, is thankfully abundant in Earth’s atmosphere and oceans. Researchers studying the history of O2 on Earth, however, know that it was relatively scarce for much of our planet’s 4.6 billion-year existence.

So when, and in what environments, did O2 begin to build up on Earth?

Stromatolite in Shark Bay, Western Australia. These stromatolites are thought to be some of the most ancient forms of life on Earth and are comprised of organisms that probably contributed to the O2 scientists are inferring existed on ancient Earth (i.e., cyanobacteria).
 Credit: Ariel Anbar, ASU Download Full Image

By studying ancient rocks, researchers have determined that sometime between 2.5 and 2.3 billion years ago, Earth underwent what scientists call the


'” or “GOE” for short. O2 first accumulated in Earth’s atmosphere at this time and has been present ever since.

Through numerous studies in this field of research, however, evidence has emerged that there were minor amounts of O2 in small areas of Earth’s ancient shallow oceans before the GOE. And in a study published recently in the journal Nature Geoscience, a research team led by scientists at Arizona State University has provided compelling evidence for significant ocean oxygenation before the GOE, on a larger scale and to greater depths than previously recognized.

For this study, the team targeted a set of 2.5 billion-year-old marine sedimentary rocks from Western Australia known as the Mt. McRae Shale.


Researcher Chad Ostrander with a 2.7 billion-year-old fossilized stromatolite in Western Australia.
Photo credit: Chad Ostrander, ASU 

“These rocks were perfect for our study because they were shown previously to have been deposited during an anomalous oxygenation episode before the Great Oxidation Event,” said lead author Chadlin Ostrander, of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Shales are sedimentary rocks that were, at some time in Earth’s past, deposited on the sea floor of ancient oceans. In some cases, these shales contain the chemical fingerprints of the ancient oceans they were deposited in.
Stromatolite in Shark Bay, Western Australia. These stromatolites are thought to be some of the most ancient forms of life on Earth and are comprised of organisms that probably contributed to the O2 scientists are inferring existed on ancient Earth (i.e., cyanobacteria).
Photo Credit: Ariel Anbar, ASU

For this research, Ostrander dissolved shale samples and separated elements of interest in a clean lab, then measured isotopic compositions on a mass spectrometer. This process was completed with the help of co-authors Sune Nielsen at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (Massachusetts); Jeremy Owens at Florida State University; Brian Kendall at the University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada); scientists Gwyneth Gordon and Stephen Romaniello of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration; and Ariel Anbar of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and School of Molecular Sciences. Data collection took over a year and utilized facilities at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Florida State University and ASU.



Contacts and sources:
Karin Valentine
Arizona State University



Citation:Fully oxygenated water columns over continental shelves before the Great Oxidation Event.
Chadlin M. Ostrander, Sune G. Nielsen, Jeremy D. Owens, Brian Kendall, Gwyneth W. Gordon, Stephen J. Romaniello, Ariel D. Anbar. Nature Geoscience, 2019; DOI: 10.1038/s41561-019-0309-7

To Do the Waggle Dance Well Is To Tell a Secret in Bee World

Humans will never twerk at the rate bees waggle dance.  You won't see moves like the waggle on Dancing with the Stars either though the end result of communication is the same. . 

Social communication in bee colonies is done by waggling. Bees learn to evaluate the importance of information shared by waggle dances

For bees and other social insects, being able to exchange information is vital for the success of their colony. One way honeybees do this is through their waggle dance, which is a unique pattern of behavior, which probably evolved more than 20 million years ago. A bee's waggle dance tells its sisters in the colony where to find a high-quality source of food. However, in recent years people have begun to study the actual benefits of this dance language. 

A honeybee performing a waggle dance
Credit: ©: Christoph Grüter


Biologists at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in Germany have now shed some new light on the benefits and disadvantages of the bee dance. "To our surprise, we found that bee colonies are more successful at collecting food if they are deprived of their dance language," reported Dr. Christoph Grüter, a behavioral ecologist at Mainz University. One possible reason may be human-induced habitat change. Together with his colleagues in Lausanne, Grüter conducted experiments over several years to examine what effect the dance language has on a colony's success.

There are about ten different species of honeybees communicating through waggle dancing. However, the vast majority of bees, i.e., more than 500 species of highly social stingless insects, have no dance language. Thus, Grüter was interested in the benefits the waggle dance brings to colonies, not least because, as a communication strategy, it is relatively time-consuming. Some waggle dances can last only a few seconds, while others may take up to five minutes.

A colony of bees on a horizontally rotated honeycomb. This makes it impossible for the bees to orientate themselves with the help of light or gravity. The hive was also placed on a balance to record variations in biomass weight.
Credit: ©: Christoph Grüter

In the experiments, the scientists manipulated the conditions influencing some of the bee colonies to confuse and, as a result, disorientate the dancing bees. Performed under such conditions, the waggle dance no longer made sense to its bee audience. To create these conditions, light was prevented from falling on the honeycombs, and they were also turned into a horizontal position, preventing the bees from using gravity to orientate themselves. Another particularly important aspect was to take into account their ability to memorize the location of food.

 "Bees foraging for food have an excellent memory and can recall a rich feeding spot for several days," explained Grüter. Thus, the research team had to prevent foragers performing the waggle dance for 18 days to ensure they could not use their memory to tell other bees where to fly to find the excellent sources of food. Foraging bees are older than other colony members. In their final phase of life, they no longer work in the hive, but go out to collect nectar and pollen. Typically, they are in the last 18 days of their life.

Honeybees with no information from the waggle dance are more effective in challenging conditions

The team of biologists was surprised by their result that beehives without the dance information were more active and produced more honey than beehives that used dance language. "We were expecting to confirm that dance language was important, but our results were the exact opposite," said Dr. Robbie I'Anson Price, lead author of the study. "I suspect that the bees probably lose interest when confronted with a disoriented dance, and they go out to search for food on their own initiative," added Price. The differences are significant: Bees in colonies with no dance language went on foraging flights that were eight minutes longer and yielded 29 percent more honey over the entire 18-day period than bees using the waggle dance.

Colonies of bees on vertical honeycombs, the standard orientation of hives. The hives were placed on balances to record variations in biomass weight
Credit: ©: Christoph Grüter

The conclusion is that some bees, such as the Buckfast bee in this study, a 100-year-old cross-bred western honeybee, may do better without social communication. Grüter believes that the environment and the availability of food play an important role. If there is a large apple tree in full bloom nearby, then waiting for information on its location is probably a good strategy. If, on the other hand, there is only a sparse scattering of flowering plants on balconies or roadsides, it may be better to leave the hive sooner and forage independently. "In our opinion, the behavior we observed can be primarily explained in terms of how much time the bees save," said Grüter.

Bees might be able to learn how to assess the value of waggle dance information

By observing the bees, the scientists made the extraordinary discovery that the bees were apparently able to judge the relevance of the information content of a dance and hence would lose interest in disoriented dancing. "It looks as if after a while they become aware that something is wrong," postulated Grüter. "Our results raise the possibility that humans have created environments to which the waggle dance language is not well adapted," write the authors in their study, recently published in the renowned journal Science Advances.

The idea that bees may be capable of evaluating the quality of information in a dance is one that Grüter wants to investigate more closely in the future. He is also planning to repeat the experiments in the Mainz area under different conditions – in urban and rural areas and at different times of the year.

Christoph Grüter has been head of a research team at the Institute of Organismic and Molecular Evolution at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz since 2015. Previously, he was head of a research group at the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. His group investigates how social insects organize and coordinate their collective activities, with communication in insect colonies playing a central role.




Contacts and sources:
Dr. Christoph Grüter 
Johannes Gutenberg Universitaet Mainz

Citation: Honeybees forage more successfully without the “dance language” in challenging environments.
R. I’Anson Price, N. Dulex, N. Vial, C. Vincent, C. Grüter. Science Advances, 2019; 5 (2): eaat0450 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aat0450