Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Can’t Sleep or Think Clearly? Maybe the Culprit is Bacteria

With a $1 million grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation, neuroscience researchers at Washington State University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst will explore whether variations in brain levels of bacterial fragments can account for life’s sleep/wake and 24-hour cycles, known as circadian rhythms.

“The bacteria residing inside of you outnumber your own cells 10 to one and affect sleep, cognition, mood, brain temperature, appetite and many additional brain functions. Yet we lack an understanding of how they do it,” says James Krueger, Regents Professor of Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience at the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine.

The sleep research is led by Krueger, and the circadian rhythm portion of the project is led by co-investigator Ilia Karatsoreos, who recently joined UMass Amherst from WSU as an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences.

At Karatsoreos’ Lab, researchers will use models of simulated jet lag, a way to disrupt our circadian (daily) rhythms. As anyone who has flown cross-country has likely experienced firsthand, disrupting these rhythms is associated with changes in sleep, cognition and even body temperature.

“When jetlagged, many of the normal bodily functions are out of synchrony with each other. This is a consequence of altering circadian rhythms,” Karatsoreos says. “By looking for changes of bacterial products in the brain, we anticipate we will discover new approaches to treat jet lag, and possibly the desynchrony of physiological functions that occurs with old age.”

Credit: UMass Amherst

The new grant builds on nearly 40 years of cutting-edge sleep research. In the early 1980s, Krueger isolated a sleep-promoting molecule from brains of sleep-deprived rabbits and from human urine. Its chemical structure was a muramyl peptide – a building block component of bacterial cell walls.

At the time of the discovery, it was difficult to measure small amounts of muramyl peptides. Now, improved measurement technologies and the Keck Foundation funding will enable researchers to determine the brain’s muramyl peptide levels and whether they correlate with sleep-wake cycles or circadian rhythms.

Further, researchers will determine if sleep loss results in increased levels of muramyl peptides in the brain, a predicted result based on the 1980s investigations.

Another goal of the Keck-funded work will be to determine how brain muramyl peptides elicit sleep. “Our minds are an outcome of a bacteria/human symbiosis,” Krueger said. “Expanding this concept by determination of how such disparate species talk to each other will transform our views of cognition, psychiatric disorders, consciousness including sleep, and our understanding of what it means to be human.”

The late W. M. Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Company, established The W. M. Keck Foundation in 1954. The Foundation’s grant making is focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical research, science and engineering, and undergraduate education.

Contacts and sources:
Ilia Karatsoreos
University of Massachusetts Amherst

New Green Technology Generates Electricity ‘Out of Thin Air’

A new renewable electricity source could help mitigate climate change, power medical devices.

Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have developed a device that uses a natural protein to create electricity from moisture in the air, a new technology they say could have significant implications for the future of renewable energy, climate change and in the future of medicine.

Graphic image of a thin film of protein nanowires generating electricity from atmospheric humidity.
Graphic image of a thin film of protein nanowires generating electricity from atmospheric humidity.
Credit: University of Massachusetts Amherst  / Yao and Lovley labs.

As reported today in Nature, the laboratories of electrical engineer Jun Yao and microbiologist Derek Lovley at UMass Amherst have created a device they call an “Air-gen.” or air-powered generator, with electrically conductive protein nanowires produced by the microbe Geobacter. The Air-gen connects electrodes to the protein nanowires in such a way that electrical current is generated from the water vapor naturally present in the atmosphere.

“We are literally making electricity out of thin air,” says Yao. “The Air-gen generates clean energy 24/7.” Lovely, who has advanced sustainable biology-based electronic materials over three decades, adds, “It’s the most amazing and exciting application of protein nanowires yet.”

The new technology developed in Yao’s lab is non-polluting, renewable and low-cost. It can generate power even in areas with extremely low humidity such as the Sahara Desert. It has significant advantages over other forms of renewable energy including solar and wind, Lovley says, because unlike these other renewable energy sources, the Air-gen does not require sunlight or wind, and “it even works indoors.”

The Air-gen device requires only a thin film of protein nanowires less than 10 microns thick, the researchers explain. The bottom of the film rests on an electrode, while a smaller electrode that covers only part of the nanowire film sits on top. The film adsorbs water vapor from the atmosphere. A combination of the electrical conductivity and surface chemistry of the protein nanowires, coupled with the fine pores between the nanowires within the film, establishes the conditions that generate an electrical current between the two electrodes.

The researchers say that the current generation of Air-gen devices are able to power small electronics, and they expect to bring the invention to commercial scale soon. Next steps they plan include developing a small Air-gen “patch” that can power electronic wearables such as health and fitness monitors and smart watches, which would eliminate the requirement for traditional batteries. They also hope to develop Air-gens to apply to cell phones to eliminate periodic charging.

The current Air-gen device can power small devices.  
The current Air-gen device can power small devices. Photos courtesy: UMass Amherst/Yao and Lovley labs.
Credit: University of Massachusetts Amherst / Yao and Lovley labs.

Yao says, “The ultimate goal is to make large-scale systems. For example, the technology might be incorporated into wall paint that could help power your home. Or, we may develop stand-alone air-powered generators that supply electricity off the grid. Once we get to an industrial scale for wire production, I fully expect that we can make large systems that will make a major contribution to sustainable energy production.”

Continuing to advance the practical biological capabilities of Geobacter, Lovley’s lab recently developed a new microbial strain to more rapidly and inexpensively mass produce protein nanowires. “We turned E. coli into a protein nanowire factory,” he says. “With this new scalable process, protein nanowire supply will no longer be a bottleneck to developing these applications.”

The Air-gen discovery reflects an unusual interdisciplinary collaboration, they say. Lovley discovered the Geobacter microbe in the mud of the Potomac River more than 30 years ago. His lab later discovered its ability to produce electrically conductive protein nanowires. Before coming to UMass Amherst, Yao had worked for years at Harvard University, where he engineered electronic devices with silicon nanowires. They joined forces to see if useful electronic devices could be made with the protein nanowires harvested from Geobacter.

Xiaomeng Liu, a Ph.D. student in Yao’s lab, was developing sensor devices when he noticed something unexpected. He recalls, “I saw that when the nanowires were contacted with electrodes in a specific way the devices generated a current. I found that that exposure to atmospheric humidity was essential and that protein nanowires adsorbed water, producing a voltage gradient across the device.”

In addition to the Air-gen, Yao’s laboratory has developed several other applications with the protein nanowires. “This is just the beginning of new era of protein-based electronic devices” said Yao.

The research was supported in part from a seed fund through the Office of Technology Commercialization and Ventures at UMass Amherst and research development funds from the campus’s College of Natural Sciences.

Contacts and sources:
Derek Lovley
University of Massachusetts Amherst
Publication: . Power generation from ambient humidity using protein nanowires. Xiaomeng Liu, Hongyan Gao, Joy E. Ward, Xiaorong Liu, Bing Yin, Tianda Fu, Jianhan Chen, Derek R. Lovley, Jun YaoNature, 2020; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2010-9

Archaeologists Receive Letter From Biblical Era

Hebrew University team unearths Canaanite temple at Lachish; find gold artifacts, cultic figurines, and oldest known etching of Hebrew letter 'Samech'

"And the Lord delivered Lachish into the hand of Israel, which took it on the second day, and smote it with the edge of the sword, and all the souls therein..." -Joshua, 10:32

The Biblical Book of Joshua tells the story of the ancient Israelites' entry into the Promised Land after a 40-year sojourn in the desert. Now, a team of archaeologists led by Professor Yosef Garfinkel at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Institute of Archaeology and Professor Michael Hasel at Southern Adventist University in Tennessee, have opened a window onto the Canaanite society that inhabited the land during that era.

A Canaanite storage jar with an inscription bearing the letter "samek."

Credit: T. Rogovski

In a study published last month in Levant, Garfinkel and his co-authors revealed, for the first time ever, extensive ruins of a Canaanite temple dating to the 12th century BCE that they uncovered in National Park Tel Lachish, a large Bronze Age-era settlement near the present-day Israeli city of Kiryat Gat.

Lachish was one of the most important Canaanite cities in the Land of Israel during the Middle and late Bronze Ages; its people controlled large parts of the Judean lowlands. The city was built around 1800 BCE and later destroyed by the Egyptians around 1550 BCE. It was rebuilt and destroyed twice more, succumbing for good around 1150 BCE. The settlement is mentioned in both the Bible and in various Egyptian sources and was one of the few Canaanite cities to survive into the 12th century BCE.

"This excavation has been breath-taking," shared Garfinkel. "Only once every 30 or 40 years do we get the chance to excavate a Canaanite temple in Israel. What we found sheds new light on ancient life in the region. It would be hard to overstate the importance of these findings."

Canaanite Temple at Tel Lachish.

Credit:  Courtesy of the Fourth Expedition to Lachish

The layout of the temple is similar to other Canaanite temples in northern Israel, among them Nablus, Megiddo and Hazor. The front of the compound is marked by two columns and two towers leading to a large hall. The inner sanctum has four supporting columns and several unhewn "standing stones" that may have served as representations of temple gods. The Lachish temple is more square in shape and has several side rooms, typical of later temples including Solomon's Temple.

In addition to these archaeological ruins, the team unearthed a trove of artifacts including, bronze cauldrons, Hathor-inspired jewellery, daggers and axe-heads adorned with bird images, scarabs, and a gold-plated bottle inscribed with the name Ramses II, one of Egypt's most powerful pharaohs. Near the temple's holy of holies, the team found two bronze figurines. Unlike the winged cherubs in Solomon's Temple, the Lachish figurines were armed "smiting gods".

Of particular interest was a pottery sherd engraved with ancient Canaanite script. There, the letter "samek" appears, marked by an elongated vertical line crossed by three perpendicular shorter lines. This makes it the oldest known example of the letter and a unique specimen for the study of ancient alphabets.

Only time will tell what treasures still remain to be uncovered in the ancient city of Lachish.

Contacts and sources:
Tali AronskuHebrew University of Jerusalem

Publication: CrossRef citations to date 55 Altmetric Articles The Level VI North-East Temple at Tel Lachish Itamar Weissbein,Yosef Garfinkel,Michael G. Hasel,Martin G. Klingbeil,Baruch Brandl &Hadas Misgav

New Catalyst Recycles Greenhouse Gases into Fuel and Hydrogen Gas​

Scientists have taken a major step toward a circular carbon economy by developing a long-lasting, economical catalyst that recycles greenhouse gases into ingredients that can be used in fuel, hydrogen gas, and other chemicals. The results could be revolutionary in the effort to reverse global warming, according to the researchers. The study was published on February 14 in Science.

“We set out to develop an effective catalyst that can convert large amounts of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane without failure,” said Cafer T. Yavuz, paper author and associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and of chemistry at KAIST.

The catalyst, made from inexpensive and abundant nickel, magnesium, and molybdenum, initiates and speeds up the rate of reaction that converts carbon dioxide and methane into hydrogen gas. It can work efficiently for more than a month.

Newly developed catalyst that recycles greenhouse gases into ingredients that can be used in fuel, hydrogen gas and other chemicals.
Credit: The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST).

This conversion is called ‘dry reforming’, where harmful gases, such as carbon dioxide, are processed to produce more useful chemicals that could be refined for use in fuel, plastics, or even pharmaceuticals. It is an effective process, but it previously required rare and expensive metals such as platinum and rhodium to induce a brief and inefficient chemical reaction.

Other researchers had previously proposed nickel as a more economical solution, but carbon byproducts would build up and the surface nanoparticles would bind together on the cheaper metal, fundamentally changing the composition and geometry of the catalyst and rendering it useless.

“The difficulty arises from the lack of control on scores of active sites over the bulky catalysts surfaces because any refinement procedures attempted also change the nature of the catalyst itself,” Yavuz said.

The researchers produced nickel-molybdenum nanoparticles under a reductive environment in the presence of a single crystalline magnesium oxide. As the ingredients were heated under reactive gas, the nanoparticles moved on the pristine crystal surface seeking anchoring points. The resulting activated catalyst sealed its own high-energy active sites and permanently fixed the location of the nanoparticles — meaning that the nickel-based catalyst will not have a carbon build up, nor will the surface particles bind to one another.

“It took us almost a year to understand the underlying mechanism,” said first author Youngdong Song, a graduate student in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at KAIST. “Once we studied all the chemical events in detail, we were shocked.”

Professor Cafer T. Yavuz (left), PhD Candidate Youngdong Song (center), and Researcher Sreerangappa Ramesh (right)

Credit: Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST)

The researchers dubbed the catalyst Nanocatalysts on Single Crystal Edges (NOSCE). The magnesium-oxide nanopowder comes from a finely structured form of magnesium oxide, where the molecules bind continuously to the edge. There are no breaks or defects in the surface, allowing for uniform and predictable reactions.

“Our study solves a number of challenges the catalyst community faces,” Yavuz said. “We believe the NOSCE mechanism will improve other inefficient catalytic reactions and provide even further savings of greenhouse gas emissions.”

This work was supported, in part, by the Saudi-Aramco-KAIST CO2 Management Center and the National Research Foundation of Korea.

Other contributors include Ercan Ozdemir, Sreerangappa Ramesh, Aldiar Adishev, and Saravanan Subramanian, all of whom are affiliated with the Graduate School of Energy, Environment, Water and Sustainability at KAIST; Aadesh Harale, Mohammed Albuali, Bandar Abdullah Fadhel, and Aqil Jamal, all of whom are with the Research and Development Center in Saudi Arabia; and Dohyun Moon and Sun Hee Choi, both of whom are with the Pohang Accelerator Laboratory in Korea. Ozdemir is also affiliated with the Institute of Nanotechnology at the Gebze Technical University in Turkey; Fadhel and Jamal are also affiliated with the Saudi-Armco-KAIST CO2 Management Center in Korea.


Song et al. (2020) Dry reforming of methane by stable Ni–Mo nanocatalysts on single-crystalline MgO. Science, Vol. 367, Issue 6479, pp. 777-781. Available online at

Contacts and sources:


5200-Year-Old Cereal Grains from The Eastern Altai Mountains Predate The Trans-Eurasian Crop Exchange

Agricultural crops dispersed across Eurasia more than five millennia ago, causing significant cultural change in human populations across the ancient world. New discoveries in the Altai Mountains illustrate that this process occurred earlier than believed.

Cereals from the Fertile Crescent and broomcorn millet from northern China spread across the ancient world, integrating into complex farming systems that used crop-rotation cycles enabled by the different ecological regions of origin. The resulting productivity allowed for demographic expansions and imperial formation in Europe and Asia. In this study, an international, interdisciplinary team of scientists illustrate that people moved these crops across Eurasia earlier than previously realized, adapting cultivation methods for harsh agricultural environments.

Most people are familiar with the historical Silk Road, but fewer people realize that the exchange of items, ideas, technology, and human genes through the mountain valleys of Central Asia started almost three millennia before organized trade networks formed. These pre-Silk Road exchange routes played an important role in shaping human cultural developments across Europe and Asia, and facilitated the dispersal of technologies such as horse breeding and metal smelting into East Asia. One of the most impactful effects of this process of ancient cultural dispersal was the westward spread of northeast Asian crops and the eastward spread of southwest Asian crops. However, until the past few years, a lack of archaeobotanical studies in Central Asia left a dearth of data relating to when and how this process occurred.

Low-investment farming homesteads still exist across the Central Asian mountains. In many cases, such as in this high-elevation river valley in the Pamir Mountains, farmers take advantage of microenvironmental pockets, planting small fields in well-watered river valleys where crops are also protected from cold winds and frosts.

Credit:  © Robert Spengler

This new study, led by scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, provides details of recently recovered ancient grains from the far northern regions of Inner Asia. Radiocarbon dating shows that the grains include the oldest examples of wheat and barley ever recovered this far north in Asia, pushing back the dates for early farming in the region by at least a millenium. These are also the earliest domesticated plants reported from the northern half of Central Asia, the core of the ancient exchange corridor. This study pulls together sedimentary pollen and ancient wood charcoal data with archaeobotanical remains from the Tiangtian archaeological site in the Chinese Altai Mountains to reveal how humans cultivated crops at such northern latitudes. This study illustrates how adaptable ancient crop plants were to new ecological constraints and how human cultural practices allowed people to survive in unpredictable environments.

The Northern Dispersal of Cereal Grains

The ancient relatives of wheat and barley plants evolved to grow in the warm and dry climate of the eastern Mediterranean and southwest Asia. However, this study illustrates that ancient peoples were cultivating these grasses over five and a half thousand kilometers to the northeast of where they originally evolved to grow. In this study, Dr. Xinying Zhou and his colleagues integrate paleoenvironmental proxies to determine how extreme the ecology was around the archaeological cave site of Tangtian more than five millennia ago, at the time of its occupation. The site is located high in the Altai Mountains on a cold,dry landscape today; however, the study shows that the ecological setting around the site was slightly warmer and more humid at the time when people lived in and around this cave.

Dr. Xinying Zhou and his team from the IVPP inBeijing excavated the Tangtian Cave site during the summer of2016.

Credit:  © Xinying Zhou

The slightly warmer regional conditions were likely the result of shifting air masses bringing warmer, wetter air from the south. In addition to early farmers using a specific regional climate pocket to grow
crops in North Asia, analysis showed that the crops they grew evolved to survive in such northern regions. The results of this study provide scholars with evidence for when certain evolutionary changes in these grasses occurred, including changes in the programed reliance of day length, which signals to the plant when to flower, and a greater resistance to cold climates.

The Trans-Eurasian Exchange and Crop Dispersal

The ancient dispersal of crops across Inner Asia has received a lot of attention from biologists and archaeologists in recent years; as Dr. Spengler, one of the study’s lead authors, discusses in his recent book Fruit from the Sands, these ancient exchange routes shaped the course of human history. The mingling of crops originating from opposite ends of Asia resulted in the crop-rotation cycles that fueled demographic growth and led to imperial formation. East Asian millets would become one of the most important crops in ancient Europe and wheat would become one of the most important crops in East Asia by the Han Dynasty. While the long tradition of rice cultivation in East Asia made rice a staple of the Asian kitchen, Chinese cuisine would be unrecognizable without wheat-based food items like steamed buns, dumplings, and noodles. The discovery that these plants dispersed across Eurasia earlier than previously understood will have lasting impacts on the study of cultivation and labor practices in ancient Eurasia, as well as the history cultural contact and shifts in culinary systems throughout time.

Charred seeds from Tontian Cave site

Credit: © Xinying Zhou

These new discoveries provide reason to question these views, and seem to suggest that mixed small-scale human populations made major contributions to world history through migration and cultural and technological exchange. “This study not only presents the earliest dates for domesticated grains in far North Asia,” says Professor Xiaoqiang Li, director of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, “it represents the earliest beginning of a trans-Eurasian exchange that would eventually develop into the great Silk Road”.

Dr. Xinying Zhou, who headed the study and directs a research team at the IVPP in Beijing, emphasizes that “this discovery is a testament to human ingenuity and the amazing coevolutionary bond between people and the plants that they maintain in their cultivated fields.”

Contacts and sources:
AJ Zeilstra, Petra Mader
Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History

Publication: 5,200-year-old cereal grains from the eastern Altai Mountains redate the trans-Eurasian crop exchange. Xinying Zhou, Jianjun Yu, Robert Nicholas Spengler, Hui Shen, Keliang Zhao, Junyi Ge, Yige Bao, Junchi Liu, Qingjiang Yang, Guanhan Chen, Peter Weiming Jia, Xiaoqiang Li. Nature Plants, 2020; DOI: 10.1038/s41477-019-0581-y

Boom and Bust for Ancient Sea Dragons

A new study by scientists from the University of Bristol's School of Earth Sciences, shows a well-known group of extinct marine reptiles had an early burst in their diversity and evolution - but that a failure to adapt in the long-run may have led to their extinction.

Ichthyosaurs rapidly evolved a large range of forms and sizes early in their evolution, but after a bottle neck at the end of the Triassic, show much slower rates and more restricted variety
Credit: Dr Ben Moon and Dr Tom Stubbs

Ichthyosaurs were fish-like reptiles that first appeared about 250 million years ago and quickly diversified into highly capable swimmers, filling a broad range of sizes and ecologies in the early Mesozoic oceans. However, this rapid pace didn’t last long and an evolutionary bottleneck 200 million years ago, through which only one lineage of ichthyosaurs survived, led to much slower evolution in much of their long history.

Dr Ben Moon, who led the research, published in the journal Communications Biology, said: "Ichthyosaurs are a fascinating group of animals to work on because they evolved so many adaptations for living in water very quickly: a fish-like body and tail fin, giving birth to live young rather than laying eggs, and lots of different feeding styles.

"Because of this we expected to see a rapid evolution early after ichthyosaurs first appeared, but we were staggered by just how big this early burst was and how relatively short it was."

There are over 100 known species of ichthyosaur from between 250–90 million years ago in the Mesozoic Era, when the infamous dinosaurs ruled the land and the seas were full of marine reptiles, the top predators that filled comparable roles to dolphins, orcas, and sharks in modern seas.

This very complete specimen of the ichthyosaur Suevoleviathan is from the Early Jurassic of Germany. Many excellently preserved ichthyosaur fossils are known from this time and have been collected from the UK and Germany. Mary Anning from Lyme Regis is intimately associated with fossil collection and found the first recognized ichthyosaur fossils in 1810
Credit: Dr Ben Moon and Dr Tom Stubbs

The study used state-of-the-art computational methods and looked at two types of data, one covering skull size and the other including many features of ichthyosaurs’ skeleton. All methods show an 'early burst' of evolution in ichthyosaurs, with high rates and rapid variation soon after the appearance of the group, that quickly diminishes later on.

Co-author Dr Tom Stubbs said: "Ichthyosaurs really dominated early in the Triassic (252–201 million years ago), rapidly evolving in an ocean with few predators soon after the largest known mass extinction in Earth’s history. However, the seas quickly became more crowded and competitive, and ichthyosaurs lost their top position in the Jurassic (201–145 million years ago) to other marine reptiles like plesiosaurs and pliosaurs.

"It may well have been the ichthyosaurs’ decreasing evolutionary rates which made them less able to adapt quickly, and therefore less diverse and competitive, allowing other marine reptiles to take over as the top predators."

The huge ichthyosaur Temnodontosaurus from the Early Jurassic of Germany. This specimen is about 7 m long, but other ichthyosaurs grew up to 21 metres

Credit: Dr Ben Moon and Dr Tom Stubbs

Despite slower evolution and going through a bottleneck at the end of the Triassic period, ichthyosaurs remained a common group but had less variation between them. These are perhaps best known ichthyosaurs, found in several UK locations, including Lyme Regis in Dorset, and first collected by Mary and Joseph Anning.

Dr Ben Moon added: "Even though ichthyosaurs were evolving more slowly in their last 100 million years, they are still known from many species, but with less variety between them.

"It's possible that we might find more ichthyosaurs out there that buck this trend, but it seems that this lack of variety was eventually the cause of their extinction when global conditions became less favorable around 90 million years ago. Ichthyosaurs were simply unable to adapt."

Contacts and sources:
University of Bristol

Publication:'Early high rates and disparity in the evolution of ichthyosaurs'. Benjamin C. Moon, Thomas L. Stubbs. Communications Biology, 2020; 3 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s42003-020-0779-6

Cheap “Smart” Diaper Can Notify Caregiver When It’s Wet

For some infants, a wet diaper is cause for an instant, vociferous demand to be changed, while other babies may be unfazed and happy to haul around the damp cargo for lengthy periods without complaint. But if worn too long, a wet diaper can cause painful rashes, and miserable babies — and parents.

Now MIT researchers have developed a “smart” diaper embedded with a moisture sensor that can alert a caregiver when a diaper is wet. When the sensor detects dampness in the diaper, it sends a signal to a nearby receiver, which in turn can send a notification to a smartphone or computer.

A new disposable, affordable “smart” diaper embedded with an RFID tag is designed by MIT researchers to sense and communicate wetness to a nearby RFID reader, which in turn can wirelessly send a notification to a caregiver that it’s time for a change.
A new disposable, affordable “smart” diaper embedded with an RFID tag is designed by MIT researchers to sense and communicate wetness to a nearby RFID reader, which in turn can wirelessly send a notification to a caregiver that it’s time for a change.
Image: MIT News

The sensor consists of a passive radio frequency identification (RFID) tag, that is placed below a layer of super absorbent polymer, a type of hydrogel that is typically used in diapers to soak up moisture. When the hydrogel is wet, the material expands and becomes slightly conductive — enough to trigger the RFID tag to send a radio signal to an RFID reader up to 1 meter away.

The researchers say the design is the first demonstration of hydrogel as a functional antenna element for moisture sensing in diapers using RFID. They estimate that the sensor costs less than 2 cents to manufacture, making it a low-cost, disposable alternative to other smart diaper technology.

Over time, smart diapers may help record and identify certain health problems, such as signs of constipation or incontinence. The new sensor may be especially useful for nurses working in neonatal units and caring for multiple babies at a time.

Pankhuri Sen, a research assistant in MIT’s AutoID Laboratory, envisions that the sensor could also be integrated into adult diapers, for patients who might be unaware or too embarrassed to report themselves that a change is needed.

“Diapers are used not just for babies, but for aging populations, or patients who are bedridden and unable to take care of themselves,” Sen says. “It would be convenient in these cases for a caregiver to be notified that a patient, particularly in a multibed hospital, needs changing.”

“This could prevent rashes and some infections like urinary tract infections, in both aging and infant populations,” adds collaborator Sai Nithin R. Kantareddy, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Sen, Kantareddy, and their colleagues at MIT, including Rahul Bhattacharryya and Sanjay Sarma, along with Joshua Siegel at Michigan State University, have published their results today in the journal IEEE Sensors. Sarma is MIT’s vice president for open learning and the Fred Fort Flowers and Daniel Fort Flowers Professor of Mechanical Engineering.

Sticker sense

Many off-the-shelf diapers incorporate wetness indicators in the form of strips, printed along the outside of a diaper, that change color when wet — a design that usually requires removing multiple layers of clothing to be able to see the actual diaper.

Companies looking into smart diaper technology are considering wetness sensors that are wireless or Bluetooth-enabled, with devices that attach to a diaper’s exterior, along with bulky batteries to power long-range connections to the internet. These sensors are designed to be reusable, requiring a caregiver to remove and clean the sensor before attaching it to each new diaper. Current sensors being explored for smart diapers, Sen estimates, retail for over $40.

RFID tags in contrast are low-cost and disposable, and can be printed in rolls of individual stickers, similar to barcode tags. MIT’s AutoID Laboratory, founded by Sarma, has been at the forefront of RFID tag development, with the goal of using them to connect our physical world with the internet.

A typical RFID tag has two elements: an antenna for backscattering radio frequency signals, and an RFID chip that stores the tag’s information, such as the specific product that the tag is affixed to. RFID tags don’t require batteries; they receive energy in the form of radio waves emitted by an RFID reader. When an RFID tag picks up this energy, its antenna activates the RFID chip, which tweaks the radio waves and sends a signal back to the reader, with its information encoded within the waves. This is how, for instance, products labeled with RFID tags can be identified and tracked.

Sarma’s group has been enabling RFID tags to work not just as wireless trackers, but also as sensors. Most recently, as part of MIT’s Industrial Liason Program, the team started up a collaboration with Softys, a diaper manufacturer based in South America, to see how RFID tags could be configured as low-cost, disposable wetness detectors in diapers. The researchers visited one of the company’s factories to get a sense of the machinery and assembly involved in diaper manufacturing, then came back to MIT to design a RFID sensor that might reasonably be integrated within the diaper manufacturing process.

Tag, you’re it

The design they came up with can be incorporated in the bottom layer of a typical diaper. The sensor itself resembles a bow tie, the middle of which consists of a typical RFID chip connecting the bow tie’s two triangles, each made from the hydrogel super absorbent polymer, or SAP.

Normally, SAP is an insulating material, meaning that it doesn’t conduct current. But when the hydrogel becomes wet, the researchers found that the material properties change and the hydrogel becomes conductive. The conductivity is very weak, but it’s enough to react to any radio signals in the environment, such as those emitted by an RFID reader. This interaction generates a small current that turns on the sensor’s chip, which then acts as a typical RFID tag, tweaking and sending the radio signal back to the reader with information — in this case, that the diaper is wet.

The researchers found that by adding a small amount of copper to the sensor, they could boost the sensor’s conductivity and therefore the range at which the tag can communicate to a reader, reaching more than 1 meter away.

To test the sensor’s performance, they placed a tag within the bottom layers of newborn-sized diapers and wrapped each diaper around a life-sized baby doll, which they filled with saltwater whose conductive properties were similar to human bodily fluids. They placed the dolls at various distances from an RFID reader, at various orientations, such as lying flat versus sitting upright. They found that the particular sensor they designed to fit into newborn-sized diapers was able to activate and communicate to a reader up to 1 meter away when the diaper was fully wet.

Sen envisions that an RFID reader connected to the internet could be placed in a baby’s room to detect wet diapers, at which point it could send a notification to a caregiver’s phone or computer that a change is needed. For geriatric patients who might also benefit from smart diapers, she says small RFID readers may even be attached to assistive devices, such as canes and wheelchairs to pick up a tag’s signals.

This research was supported in part by Softys under the MIT Industry Liason Program.

Contacts and sources:
 Jennifer Chu
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Publication: Low-cost diaper wetness detection using hydrogel-based RFID tags.Pankhuri Sen, Sai Nithin R. Kantareddy, Rahul Bhattacharyya, Sanjay E. Sarma, Joshua E. Siegel. IEEE Sensors Journal, 2019; 1 DOI: 10.1109/JSEN.2019.2954746

First Results on the "Spectacular Meteorite Fall" of Flensburg

Planetologists from Münster University show that the meteorite contains minerals that formed under the presence of water on small planetesimals in the early history of our solar system.

A fireball in the sky, accompanied by a bang, amazed hundreds of eyewitnesses in northern Germany in mid-September last year. The reason for the spectacle was a meteoroid entering the Earth's atmosphere and partially burning up. One day after the observations, a citizen in Flensburg found a stone weighing 24.5 grams and having a fresh black fusion crust on the lawn of his garden.

Dieter Heinlein, coordinator of the German part of the European Fireball Network at the German Aerospace Center in Augsburg, directly recognized the stone as a meteorite and delivered the rock to experts at the “Institut für Planetologie” at Münster University. Prof. Addi Bischoff and PhD student Markus Patzek have been studying the stone mineralogically and chemically ever since. About 15 university and research institutes in Germany, France, and Switzerland now take part in the science consortium.

The meteorite "Flensburg" in close-up view
 Credit: © Markus Patzek

The first research results show that the meteorite "Flensburg", named after the location of the fall, belongs to an extremely rare type of carbonaceous chondrites. Scanning electron microscopic analyses prove that it contains minerals, especially sheet silicates and carbonates that formed in the presence of water on small planetesimals in the early history of our solar system. Thus, these types of early parent bodies can be regarded as possible building blocks of the Earth that delivered water.

"The meteorite of Flensburg belongs to an extremely rare meteorite class and is the only meteorite fall of this class in Germany proving that 4.56 billion years ago there must have been small bodies in the early solar system storing liquid water. Perhaps such bodies also delivered water to the Earth,” Addi Bischoff said.

Meteorites provide information on the development of the Earth

The new German meteorite “Flensburg” fully fits into the research program of the Collaborative Research Centre „TRR170 – Late Accretion onto Terrestrial Planets”, a science cooperation between institutions in Münster and Berlin. The major aim of the Collaborative Research Centre TRR170 is to understand the late growth history of the terrestrial planets. This leads to the question about the possible building blocks of the Earth. In order to find answers to this question, the researchers investigate various aspects including meteorites – most of them are fragments of asteroids and can be regarded as the oldest rocks of our solar system. Thus, studying them allows scientists to gain insight into the formation processes of the first solids and accretion and evolution of small bodies and planets in our solar system.

First details on the Flensburg meteorite have just been published in the “Meteoritical Bulletin Database” of the “Meteoritical Society”.

Contacts and sources:
Münster University

Publication: The Flensburg meteorite in the “Meteoritical Bulletin Database”

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Discovery at 'Flower Burial' Site Could Unravel Mystery of Neanderthal Death Rites

Traces of pollen among a cache of Neanderthal skeletons discovered in the mid-20th century led to contentious claims of a ‘flower burial’ and human-like death rituals.

Now, the legendary site has been re-excavated, revealing a further body – the first articulated Neanderthal skeleton to be unearthed anywhere in 25 years.

The opportunity to use latest technologies on this new find could help answer a much-debated question: what did Neanderthals do with their dead? 

The Neanderthal skull, flattened by thousands of years of sediment and rock fall, in situ in Shanidar Cave, Iraqi Kurdistan. 
Credit: Graeme Barker

The first articulated Neanderthal skeleton to come out of the ground for over 20 years has been unearthed at one of the most important sites of mid-20th century archaeology: Shanidar Cave, in the foothills of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Researchers say the new find offers an unparalleled opportunity to investigate the "mortuary practices" of this lost species using the latest technologies.

Shanidar Cave was excavated in the 1950s, when archaeologist Ralph Solecki uncovered partial remains of ten Neanderthal men, women and children.

View of the entrance to Shanidar Cave, in the foothills of the Baradost Mountains of North-East Iraqi Kurdistan.

Credit: Graeme Barker

Some were clustered together, with clumps of ancient pollen surrounding one of the skeletons. Solecki claimed this showed Neanderthals buried their dead and conducted funerary rites with flowers.

The 'flower burial' captured the public imagination, and prompted a reappraisal of a species that - prior to Shanidar Cave - was thought to have been dumb and animalistic.

It also sparked a decades-long controversy over whether evidence from this extraordinary site did actually point to death rituals, or burial of any kind, and if Neanderthals were really capable of such cultural sophistication.

More than 50 years later, a team of researchers have reopened the old Solecki trench to collect new sediment samples, and discovered the crushed skull and torso bones of another Shanidar Neanderthal.

The discovery has been named Shanidar Z by researchers from Cambridge, Birkbeck and Liverpool John Moores universities.

The work was conducted in conjunction with the Kurdistan General Directorate of Antiquities and the Directorate of Antiquities for Soran Province. The find is announced today in a paper published in the journal Antiquity.

"So much research on how Neanderthals treated their dead has to involve returning to finds from sixty or even a hundred years ago, when archaeological techniques were more limited, and that only ever gets you so far," said Dr Emma Pomeroy, from Cambridge's Department of Archaeology, lead author of the new paper.

"To have primary evidence of such quality from this famous Neanderthal site will allow us to use modern technologies to explore everything from ancient DNA to long-held questions about Neanderthal ways of death, and whether they were similar to our own."

Ralph Solecki died last year aged 101, having never managed to conduct further excavations at his most famous site, despite several attempts.

In 2011, the Kurdish Regional Government approached Professor Graeme Barker from Cambridge's McDonald Institute of Archaeology about revisiting Shanidar Cave. With Solecki's enthusiastic support, initial digging began in 2014, but stopped after two days when ISIS got too close. It resumed the following year.

"We thought with luck we'd be able to find the locations where they had found Neanderthals in the 1950s, to see if we could date the surrounding sediments," said Barker. "We didn't expect to find any Neanderthal bones."

The bones of the Neanderthal's left hand emerging from the sediment in Shanidar Cave.
Credit: Graeme Barker

In 2016, in one of the deepest parts of the trench, a rib emerged from the wall, followed by a lumbar vertebra, then the bones of a clenched right hand. However, metres of sediment needed carefully digging out before the team could excavate the skeleton.

During 2018-19 they went on to uncover a complete skull, flattened by thousands of years of sediment, and upper body bones almost to the waist - with the left hand curled under the head like a small cushion.

Early analysis suggests it is over 70,000 years old. While the sex is yet to be determined, the latest Neanderthal discovery has the teeth of a "middle- to older-aged adult".

Shanidar Z has now been brought on loan to the archaeological labs at Cambridge, where it is being conserved and scanned to help build a digital reconstruction, as more layers of silt are removed.

The team is also working on sediment samples from around the new find, looking for signs of climate change in fragments of shell and bone from ancient mice and snails, as well as traces of pollen and charcoal that could offer insight into activities such as cooking and the famous 'flower burial'.

Four of the Neanderthals, including the 'flower burial' and the latest find, formed what researchers describe as a "unique assemblage". It raises the question of whether Neanderthals were returning to the same spot within the cave to inter their dead.

A prominent rock next to the head of Shanidar Z may have been used as a marker for Neanderthals repeatedly depositing their dead, says Pomeroy, although whether time between deaths was weeks, decades or even centuries will be difficult to determine.

"The new excavation suggests that some of these bodies were laid in a channel in the cave floor created by water, which had then been intentionally dug to make it deeper," said Barker. "There is strong early evidence that Shanidar Z was deliberately buried."

CT-scans in Cambridge have revealed the petrous bone - one of the densest in the body; a wedge at the base of the skull - to be intact, offering hope of retrieving ancient Neanderthal DNA from the hot, dry region where "interbreeding" most likely took place as humans spilled out of Africa.

Added Pomeroy: "In recent years we have seen increasing evidence that Neanderthals were more sophisticated than previously thought, from cave markings to use of decorative shells and raptor talons.

"If Neanderthals were using Shanidar cave as a site of memory for the repeated ritual interment of their dead, it would suggest cultural complexity of a high order."

Contacts and sources:Fred Lewsey
University of Cambridge


Betelgeuse Is Dimming

Using ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT), astronomers have captured the unprecedented dimming of Betelgeuse, a red supergiant star in the constellation Orion.
Credit: ESO

Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), astronomers have captured the unprecedented dimming of Betelgeuse, a red supergiant star in the constellation of Orion. The stunning new images of the star’s surface show not only the fading red supergiant but also how its apparent shape is changing.

The red supergiant star Betelgeuse, in the constellation of Orion, has been undergoing unprecedented dimming. This stunning image of the star’s surface, taken with the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope late last year, is among the first observations to come out of an observing campaign aimed at understanding why the star is becoming fainter. When compared with the image taken in January 2019, it shows how much the star has faded and how its apparent shape has changed.
SPHERE’s view of Betelgeuse in December 2019
Credit: ESO/M. Montargès et al.

Betelgeuse has been a beacon in the night sky for stellar observers but it began to dim late last year. At the time of writing Betelgeuse is at about 36% of its normal brightness, a change noticeable even to the naked eye. Astronomy enthusiasts and scientists alike were excitedly hoping to find out more about this unprecedented dimming.

The red supergiant star Betelgeuse, in the constellation of Orion, has been undergoing unprecedented dimming. This stunning image of the star’s surface was taken with the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in January 2019, before the star started to dim. When compared with the image taken in December 2019, it shows how much the star has faded and how its apparent shape has changed.
SPHERE’s view of Betelgeuse in January 2019
Credit: ESO/M. Montargès et al.

A team led by Miguel Montargès, an astronomer at KU Leuven in Belgium, has been observing the star with ESO's Very Large Telescope since December, aiming to understand why it’s becoming fainter. Among the first observations to come out of their campaign is a stunning new image of Betelgeuse’s surface, taken late last year with the SPHERE instrument.

This video shows the star Betelgeuse before and after its unprecedented dimming. The observations, taken with the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in January and December 2019, show how much the star has faded and how its apparent shape has changed.

Credit: ESO/M. Montargès et al.

The team also happened to observe the star with SPHERE in January 2019, before it began to dim, giving us a before-and-after picture of Betelgeuse. Taken in visible light, the images highlight the changes occurring to the star both in brightness and in apparent shape.

This comparison image shows the star Betelgeuse before and after its unprecedented dimming. The observations, taken with the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in January and December 2019, show how much the star has faded and how its apparent shape has changed.
Betelgeuse before and after dimming
Credit: ESO/M. Montargès et al.

Many astronomy enthusiasts wondered if Betelgeuse’s dimming meant it was about to explode. Like all red supergiants, Betelgeuse will one day go supernova, but astronomers don’t think this is happening now. They have other hypotheses to explain what exactly is causing the shift in shape and brightness seen in the SPHERE images. “The two scenarios we are working on are a cooling of the surface due to exceptional stellar activity or dust ejection towards us,” says Montargès [1]. “Of course, our knowledge of red supergiants remains incomplete, and this is still a work in progress, so a surprise can still happen.”

This video takes the viewer from the surroundings of Betelgeuse, recently observed with the VISIR instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), to its surface, which has been imaged by SPHERE on the VLT. The VISIR image shows the infrared light being emitted by the dust surrounding Betelgeuse in December 2019. The SPHERE image shows Betelgeuse’s visible surface, which has a size close to the orbit of Jupiter, in the same month.

Credit: ESO/P. Kervella/M. Montargès et al., Acknowledgement: Eric Pantin

Montargès and his team needed the VLT at Cerro Paranal in Chile to study the star, which is over 700 light-years away, and gather clues on its dimming. “ESO's Paranal Observatory is one of few facilities capable of imaging the surface of Betelgeuse,” he says. Instruments on ESO’s VLT allow observations from the visible to the mid-infrared, meaning astronomers can see both the surface of Betelgeuse and the material around it. “This is the only way we can understand what is happening to the star.”

This image, obtained with the VISIR instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope, shows the infrared light being emitted by the dust surrounding Betelgeuse in December 2019. The clouds of dust, which resemble flames in this dramatic image, are formed when the star sheds its material back into space. The black disc obscures the star's centre and much of its surroundings, which are very bright and must be masked to allow the fainter dust plumes to be seen. The orange dot in the middle is the SPHERE image of Betelgeuse’s surface, which has a size close to that of Jupiter’s orbit.
Betelgeuse’s dust plumes seen by VISIR image
Credit: ESO/P. Kervella/M. Montargès et al., Acknowledgement: Eric Pantin

Another new image, obtained with the VISIR instrument on the VLT, shows the infrared light being emitted by the dust surrounding Betelgeuse in December 2019. These observations were made by a team led by Pierre Kervella from the Observatory of Paris in France who explained that the wavelength of the image is similar to that detected by heat cameras. The clouds of dust, which resemble flames in the VISIR image, are formed when the star sheds its material back into space.

This artist’s impression shows the supergiant star Betelgeuse as it was revealed thanks to different state-of-the-art techniques on ESO’s Very Large Telescope, which allowed two independent teams of astronomers to obtain the sharpest ever views of the supergiant star Betelgeuse. They show that the star has a vast plume of gas almost as large as our Solar System and a gigantic bubble boiling on its surface. These discoveries provide important clues to help explain how these mammoths shed material at such a tremendous rate. The scale in units of the radius of Betelgeuse as well as a comparison with the Solar System is also provided.
A plume on Betelgeuse (artist’s impression with annotations)
Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

“The phrase ‘we are all made of stardust’ is one we hear a lot in popular astronomy, but where exactly does this dust come from?” says Emily Cannon, a PhD student at KU Leuven working with SPHERE images of red supergiants. “Over their lifetimes, red supergiants like Betelgeuse create and eject vast amounts of material even before they explode as supernovae. Modern technology has enabled us to study these objects, hundreds of light-years away, in unprecedented detail giving us the opportunity to unravel the mystery of what triggers their mass loss.”

[1] Betelgeuse's irregular surface is made up of giant convective cells that move, shrink and swell. The star also pulsates, like a beating heart, periodically changing in brightness. These convection and pulsation changes in Betelgeuse are referred to as stellar activity.
More information

The team is composed of Miguel Montargès (Institute of Astronomy, KU Leuven, Belgium), Emily Cannon (Institute of Astronomy, KU Leuven, Belgium), Pierre Kervella (LESIA, Observatoire de Paris - PSL, France), Eric Lagadec (Laboratoire Lagrange, Observatoire de la Côte d'Azur, France), Faustine Cantalloube (Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie, Heidelberg, Germany), Joel Sánchez Bermúdez (Instituto de Astronomía, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City, Mexico and Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie, Heidelberg, Germany), Andrea Dupree (Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, USA), Elsa Huby (LESIA, Observatoire de Paris - PSL, France), Ryan Norris (Georgia State University, USA), Benjamin Tessore (IPAG, France), Andrea Chiavassa (Laboratoire Lagrange, Observatoire de la Côte d'Azur, France), Claudia Paladini (ESO, Chile), Agnès Lèbre (Université de Montpellier, France), Leen Decin (Institute of Astronomy, KU Leuven, Belgium), Markus Wittkowski (ESO, Germany), Gioia Rau (NASA/GSFC, USA), Arturo López Ariste (IRAP, France), Stephen Ridgway (NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory, USA), Guy Perrin (LESIA, Observatoire de Paris - PSL, France), Alex de Koter (Astronomical Institute Anton Pannekoek, Amsterdam University, The Netherlands & Institute of Astronomy, KU Leuven, Belgium), Xavier Haubois (ESO, Chile), Eric Pantin (Laboratoire AIM, CEA/DRF - CNRS - Université Paris Diderot, France), Ralf Siebenmorgen (ESO, Germany).

The VISIR image was obtained as part of the NEAR science demonstration observations. NEAR (Near Earths in the AlphaCen Region) is an upgrade of VISIR, which was implemented as a time-limited experiment.

ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It has 16 Member States: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile and with Australia as a Strategic Partner. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope and its world-leading Very Large Telescope Interferometer as well as two survey telescopes, VISTA working in the infrared and the visible-light VLT Survey Telescope. Also at Paranal ESO will host and operate the Cherenkov Telescope Array South, the world’s largest and most sensitive gamma-ray observatory. ESO is also a major partner in two facilities on Chajnantor, APEX and ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre Extremely Large Telescope, the ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.

Contacts and sources:
Miguel Montargès
FWO [PEGASUS]² Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow / Institute of Astronomy, KU Leuven

Emily Cannon
Institute of Astronomy, KU Leuven

Pierre Kervella
LESIA, Observatoire de Paris - PSL

Bárbara Ferreira

Sunday, February 16, 2020

SwRI Models Hint at Longer Timescale for Mars Formation

The early solar system was a chaotic place, with evidence indicating that Mars was likely struck by planetesimals, small protoplanets up to 1,200 miles in diameter, early in its history. Southwest Research Institute scientists modeled the mixing of materials associated with these impacts, revealing that the Red Planet may have formed over a longer timescale than previously thought.

A Southwest Research Institute team performed high-resolution, smoothed-particle simulations of a large, differentiated projectile hitting early Mars after its core and mantle had formed. The projectile’s core and mantle particles are indicated by brown and green spheres respectively, showing local concentrations of the projectile materials assimilated into the Martian mantle.
Early Mars after impact, showing projectile materials leaving the planet
Courtesy of Southwest Research Institute 

An important open issue in planetary science is to determine how Mars formed and to what extent its early evolution was affected by collisions. This question is difficult to answer given that billions of years of history have steadily erased evidence of early impact events. Luckily, some of this evolution is recorded in Martian meteorites. Of approximately 61,000 meteorites found on Earth, just 200 or so are thought to be of Martian origin, ejected from the Red Planet by more recent collisions.

These meteorites exhibit large variations in iron-loving elements such as tungsten and platinum, which have a moderate to high affinity for iron. These elements tend to migrate from a planet’s mantle and into its central iron core during formation. Evidence of these elements in the Martian mantle as sampled by meteorites are important because they indicate that Mars was bombarded by planetesimals sometime after its primary core formation ended. Studying isotopes of particular elements produced locally in the mantle via radioactive decay processes helps scientists understand when planet formation was complete.

“We knew Mars received elements such as platinum and gold from early, large collisions. To investigate this process, we performed smoothed-particle hydrodynamics impact simulations,” said SwRI’s Dr. Simone Marchi, lead author of a Science Advances paper outlining these results. “Based on our model, early collisions produce a heterogeneous, marble-cake-like Martian mantle. These results suggest that the prevailing view of Mars formation may be biased by the limited number of meteorites available for study.” 

Marchi Scientists developed this illustration of how early Mars may have looked, showing signs of liquid water, large-scale volcanic activity and heavy bombardment from planetary projectiles. SwRI is modeling how these impacts may have affected early Mars to help answer questions about the planet’s evolutionary history.
Illustration of how early Mars may have looked, showing signs of liquid water, large-scale volcanic activity and heavy bombardment from planetary projectiles
Courtesy of Southwest Research Institute

Based on the ratio of tungsten isotopes in Martian meteorites, it has been argued that Mars grew rapidly within about 2–4 million years after the Solar System started to form. However, large, early collisions could have altered the tungsten isotopic balance, which could support a Mars formation timescale of up to 20 million years, as shown by the new model.

“Collisions by projectiles large enough to have their own cores and mantles could result in a heterogeneous mixture of those materials in the early Martian mantle,” said co-author Dr. Robin Canup, assistant vice president of SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division. “This can lead to different interpretations on the timing of Mars’ formation than those that assume that all projectiles are small and homogenous.”

The Martian meteorites that landed on Earth probably originated from just a few localities around the planet. The new research shows that the Martian mantle could have received varying additions of projectile materials, leading to variable concentrations of iron-loving elements. The next generation of Mars missions, including plans to return samples to Earth, will provide new information to better understand the variability of iron-loving elements in Martian rocks and the early evolution of the Red Planet.

“To fully understand Mars, we need to understand the role the earliest and most energetic collisions played in its evolution and composition,” Marchi concluded.

The paper, “A compositionally heterogeneous Martian mantle due to late accretion,” will be published in Science Advances on February 12, 2020. The research was partially funded by NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute and a NASA Habitable Worlds grant.

Contacts and sources:
Deb Schmid
Southwest Research Institute

Publication: A compositionally heterogeneous Martian mantle due to late accretion.
Simone Marchi1, Richard J. Walker and Robin M. Canup. Science Advances, 2020 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aay2338

Critical Piece of the Planetary Formation Puzzle Discovered on Arrokoth by New Horizons Team

Data from NASA’s New Horizons mission are providing new insights into how planets and planetesimals – the building blocks of the planets – were formed.

The New Horizons spacecraft flew past the ancient Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth (2014 MU69) on Jan. 1, 2019, providing humankind’s first close-up look at one of the icy remnants of solar system formation in the vast region beyond the orbit of Neptune. Using detailed data on the object’s shape, geology, color and composition – gathered during a record-setting flyby that occurred more than four billion miles from Earth – researchers have apparently answered a longstanding question about planetesimal origins, and therefore made a major advance in understanding how the planets themselves formed.

The uniform color and composition of Arrokoth’s surface shows the Kuiper Belt object formed from a small, uniform, cloud of material in the solar nebula, rather than a mishmash of matter from more separated parts of the nebula. The former supports the idea that Arrokoth formed in a local collapse of a cloud in the solar nebula.
Arrokoth in color
Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Roman Tkachenko

The team reports those findings in a set of three papers in the journal Science, and at a media briefing Feb. 13 at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Seattle.

“Arrokoth is the most distant, most primitive and most pristine object ever explored by spacecraft, so we knew it would have a unique story to tell,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “It’s teaching us how planetesimals formed, and we believe the result marks a significant advance in understanding overall planetesimal and planet formation.”

The first post-flyby images transmitted from New Horizons last year showed that Arrokoth had two connected lobes, a smooth surface and a uniform composition, indicating it was likely pristine and would provide decisive information on how bodies like it formed. These first results were published in Science last May.

“This is truly an exciting find for what is already a very successful and history-making mission” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division. “The continued discoveries of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft astound as it reshapes our knowledge and understanding of how planetary bodies form in solar systems across the universe.”

Over the following months, working with more and higher-resolution data as well as sophisticated computer simulations, the mission team assembled a picture of how Arrokoth must have formed. Their analysis indicates that the lobes of this “contact binary” object were once separate bodies that formed close together and at low velocity, orbited each other, and then gently merged to create the 22-mile long object New Horizons observed.

This indicates Arrokoth formed during the gravity-driven collapse of a cloud of solid particles in the primordial solar nebula, rather than by the competing theory of planetesimal formation called hierarchical accretion. Unlike the high-speed collisions between planetesimals in hierarchical accretion, in particle-cloud collapse, particles merge gently, slowly growing larger.

“Just as fossils tell us how species evolved on Earth, planetesimals tell us how planets formed in space,” said William McKinnon, a New Horizons co-investigator from Washington University in St. Louis, and lead author of an Arrokoth formation paper in Science this week. “Arrokoth looks the way it does not because it formed through violent collisions, but in more of an intricate dance, in which its component objects slowly orbited each other before coming together.”

Two other important pieces of evidence support this conclusion. The uniform color and composition of Arrokoth’s surface shows the KBO formed from nearby material, as local cloud collapse models predict, rather than a mishmash of matter from more separated parts of the nebula, as hierarchical models might predict.

The flattened shapes of each of Arrokoth’s lobes, as well as the remarkably close alignment of their poles and equators, also point to a more orderly merger from a collapse cloud. Further still, Arrokoth’s smooth, lightly cratered surface indicates its face has remained well preserved since the end of the planet formation era.

“Arrokoth has the physical features of a body that came together slowly, with ‘local’ materials in the solar nebula,” said Will Grundy, New Horizons composition theme team lead from Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, and the lead author of a second Science paper. “An object like Arrokoth wouldn’t have formed, or look the way it does, in a more chaotic accretion environment.”

The latest Arrokoth reports significantly expand on the May 2019 Science paper, led by Stern. The three new papers are based on 10 times as much data as the first report, and together provide a far more complete picture of Arrokoth’s origin.

“All of the evidence we’ve found points to particle-cloud collapse models, and all but rule out hierarchical accretion for the formation mode of Arrokoth, and by inference, other planetesimals,” Stern said.

Scientists have used all available New Horizons images of Arrokoth, taken from many angles, to determine its 3D shape, as shown in this animation. The shape provides additional insight into Arrokoth’s origins. The flattened shapes of each of Arrokoth’s lobes, as well as the remarkably close alignment of their poles and equators, point to an orderly, gentle merger of two objects formed from the same collapsing cloud of particles. Arrokoth has the physical features of a body that came together slowly, with ‘locally-sourced’ materials from a small part of the solar nebula. An object like Arrokoth wouldn’t have formed, or look the way it does, in a more chaotic accretion environment.

Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/James Tuttle Keane

New Horizons continues to carry out new observations of additional Kuiper Belt objects it passes in the distance. New Horizons also continues to map the charged-particle radiation and dust environment in the Kuiper Belt. The new KBOs being observed now are too far away to reveal discoveries like those on Arrokoth, but the team can measure aspects such as each object's surface properties and shape. This summer the mission team will begin using large groundbased telescopes to search for new KBOs to study in this way, and even for another flyby target if fuel allows.

The New Horizons spacecraft is now 4.4 billion miles (7.1 billion kilometers) from Earth, operating normally and speeding deeper into the Kuiper Belt at nearly 31,300 miles (50,400 kilometers) per hour.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft, and manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The Marshall Space Flight Center Planetary Management Office provides the NASA oversight for the New Horizons. Southwest Research Institute, based in San Antonio, directs the mission via Principal Investigator Stern, and leads the science team, payload operations and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Contacts and sources:
Tricia Talbert

New Study Shows Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Larger Than Previously Thought

Toxic and invisible oil spread well beyond the known satellite footprint of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, according to a new study led by scientists at the University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel school of Marine and Atmospheric Science. These new findings have important implications for environmental health during future oil spills.

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, releasing 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico for a total of 87 days, making it the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Oil slicks from the blowout covered an estimated area of 57,000 square miles (149,000 square kilometers).
Credit: Univerity of Miami

The UM Rosenstiel School-led research team combine oil-transport modeling techniques with remote sensing data and in-water sampling to provide a comprehensive look at the oil spill. The findings revealed that a fraction of the spill was invisible to satellites, and yet toxic to marine wildlife.

“We found that there was a substantial fraction of oil invisible to satellites and aerial imaging,” said the study’s lead author Igal Berenshtein, a postdoctoral researcher at the UM Rosenstiel School. “The spill was only visible to satellites above a certain oil concentration at the surface leaving a portion unaccounted for.”

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, releasing 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico for a total of 87 days, making it the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Oil slicks from the blowout covered an estimated area of 57,000 square miles (149,000 square kilometers).

These new findings, published in Science Advances, showed a much wider extent of the spill beyond the satellite footprint, reaching the West Florida shelf, the Texas shores, the Florida Keys and along the Gulf Stream towards the East Florida shelf.

“Our results change established perceptions about the consequences of oil spills by showing that toxic and invisible oil can extend beyond the satellite footprint at potentially lethal and sub-lethal concentrations to a wide range of wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Claire Paris, senior author of the study and professor of ocean sciences the UM Rosenstiel School. “This work added a 3rd dimension to what was previously seen as just surface slicks. This additional dimension has been visualized with more realistic and accurate oil spill models developed with a team of chemical engineers and more efficient computing resources.”

The new framework developed by the researchers can assist emergency managers and decision makers in better managing the impacts of future potential oil spills, said the authors.

The study, titled “Invisible oil beyond the Deepwater Horizon satellite footprint,” was published on February 12, 2020 in the journal Science Advances. The study’s co-authors include: Igal Berenshtein, Claire Paris, Natalie Perlin and Matthew Alloy from the UM Rosenstiel School; Samantha Joye from the University of Georgia; and Steve Murawski from the University of South Florida. Support for the study was provided by an award from The National Academies of Sciences - Gulf Research Program.

Contacts and sources:
Diana Udel
University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science

Publication: Invisible oil beyond the Deepwater Horizon satellite footprint. Igal Berenshtein, Claire B. Paris, Natalie Perlin, Matthew M. Alloy, Samantha B. Joye, Steve Murawski. Science Advances, 2020; 6 (7): eaaw8863 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaw8863

A Dinosaur Disease Still Plagues Humans

The rare disease LCH discovered in the remains of a dinosaur that lived in Canada at least 60 million years ago, Tel Aviv University (TAU) researchers say

Researchers led by Dr. Hila May of the Department of Anatomy and Anthropology at TAU's Sackler Faculty of Medicine and Dan David Center for Human Evolution and Biohistory Research, have identified this benign tumor as part of the pathology of LCH (Langerhans cell histiocytosis), a rare and sometimes painful disease that still afflicts humans, particularly children under the age of 10.

The fossilized tail of a young dinosaur that lived on a prairie in southern Alberta, Canada, is home to the remains of a 60-million-year-old tumor.

Photograph of the larger hadrosaur vertebra in lateral view. The space that contained the overgrowth opens to the caudal surface of the vertebra
. Photo credit: Assaf Ehrenreich, Sackler Faculty of Medicine, Tel Aviv University.

A study on the TAU discovery was published on February 10 in Scientific Reports. Prof. Bruce Rothschild of Indiana University, Prof. Frank Rühli of the University of Zurich and Mr. Darren Tanke of the Royal Museum of Paleontology also contributed to the research.

Bottom left: Dr. Hila May holds a hadrosaur vertebra.
Photo credit: Tel Aviv University

Prof. Rothschild and Tanke spotted an unusual finding in the vertebrae of a tail of a young dinosaur of the grass-eating herbivore species, common in the world 66-80 million years ago," Dr. May explains. "There were large cavities in two of the vertebrae segments, which were unearthed at the Dinosaur Provincial Park in southern Alberta, Canada."

It was the specific shape of the cavities that attracted the attention of researchers.

"They were extremely similar to the cavities produced by tumors associated with the rare disease LCH that still exists today in humans," adds Dr. May. "Most of the LCH-related tumors, which can be very painful, suddenly appear in the bones of children aged 2-10 years. Thankfully, these tumors disappear without intervention in many cases."

The dinosaur tail vertebrae were sent for on-site advanced micro-CT scanning to the Shmunis Family Anthropology Institute at TAU's Dan David Center for Human Evolution and Biohistory Research, Sackler Faculty of Medicine, which is located at the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History.

"The micro-CT produces very high-resolution imaging, up to a few microns," Dr. May says. "We scanned the dinosaur vertebrae and created a computerized 3D reconstruction of the tumor and the blood vessels that fed it. The micro and macro analyses confirmed that it was, in fact, LCH. This is the first time this disease has been identified in a dinosaur."

According to Dr. May, the surprising findings indicate that the disease is not unique to humans, and that it has survived for more than 60 million years.

"These kinds of studies, which are now possible thanks to innovative technology, make an important and interesting contribution to evolutionary medicine, a relatively new field of research that investigates the development and behavior of diseases over time," notes Prof. Israel Hershkovitz of TAU's Department of Anatomy and Anthropology and Dan David Center for Human Evolution and Biohistory Research. "We are trying to understand why certain diseases survive evolution with an eye to deciphering what causes them in order to develop new and effective ways of treating them."

See the publication at the Scientific Reports web site:

Contacts and sources:
American Friends of Tel Aviv University

Publication: Suggested Case of Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis in a Cretaceous dinosaur. Bruce M. Rothschild, Darren Tanke, Frank Rühli, Ariel Pokhojaev, Hila May. Scientific Reports, 2020; 10 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-59192-z

Wasp Nests Used To Date Ancient Kimberley Rock Art

Mud wasp nests have helped establish a date for one of the ancient styles of Aboriginal rock art in the Kimberley.

University of Melbourne and ANSTO scientists put the Gwion Gwion art period around 12,000 years old.

“This is the first time we have been able to confidently say Gwion style paintings were created around 12,000 years ago,” said PhD student Damien Finch, from the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Melbourne. “No one has been able present the scientific evidence to say that before.”

One wasp nest date suggested one Gwion painting was older than 16,000 years, but the pattern of the other 23 dates is consistent with the Gwion Gwion period being 12,000 years old.

Wasp nests near the paintings have given scientists a major breakthrough on Kimberley rock art. 
Wasp on Kimberley rock art
Image: Damien Finch

The rock paintings, more than twice as old as the Giza Pyramids, depict graceful human figures with a wide range of decorations including headdresses, arm bands, and anklets. Some of the paintings are as small as 15cm, others are more than two metres high.

The details of the breakthrough are detailed in the paper 12,000-year-old Aboriginal rock art from the Kimberley region, Western Australia, now published in Science Advances.

More than 100 mud wasp nests collected from Kimberley sites, with the permission of the Traditional Owners, were crucial in identifying the age of the unique rock art.

“A painting beneath a wasp nest must be older than the nest, and a painting on top of a nest must be younger than the nest,” Mr Finch said. “If you date enough of the nests, you build up a pattern and can narrow down an age range for paintings in a particular style.”

Lack of organic matter in the pigment used to create the art had previously ruled out radiocarbon dating. But the University of Melbourne and ANSTO scientists were able to use dates on 24 mud wasp nests under and over the art to determine both maximum and minimum age constraints for paintings in the Gwion style.

Wandjina Rock Art, The Kimberley, Western Australia
File:Wandjina Rock Art, The Kimberley, Western Australia (6933546326).jpg
Credit: Travel & Shit from Brighton, UK / Wikimedia Commons

The project was initiated by Professor Andy Gleadow and Professor Janet Hergt, from the School of Earth Sciences, and started in 2014 with funding from the Australian Research Council and the Kimberley Foundation. It is the first time in 20 years scientists have been able to date a range of these ancient artworks.

“The Kimberley contains some of the world’s most visually spectacular and geographically extensive records of Indigenous rock art, estimated to include tens of thousands of sites, only a small fraction of which have been studied intensively,” said Professor Gleadow.

Professor Hergt said being able to estimate the age of Gwion art is important as it can now be placed into the context of what was happening in the environment and what we know from excavations about other human activities at the same time.

Wandjina rock art painting from the Kimberley Region of Western Australia
File:Wandjina rock art painting.jpg
Credit: Stephan Ridgway / Wikimedia Commons

Dr Vladimir Levchenko, an ANSTO expert in radiocarbon dating and co-author, said rock art is always problematic for dating because the pigment used usually does not contain carbon, the surfaces are exposed to intense weathering and nothing is known about the techniques used thousands of years ago.

“Beeswax or resin have also been used – usually on more modern samples,” Dr Levchenko said.

“Although soil is full of carbon, most of it is easily degradable. However, charcoal is more likely to survive for longer periods. There is lots of black carbon in Australian soil because of bushfires.”

Contacts and sources:
Lito Vilisoni Wilson
University of Melbourne
Publication: 12,000-Year-old Aboriginal rock art from the Kimberley region, Western Australia. Damien Finch, Andrew Gleadow, Janet Hergt, Vladimir A. Levchenko, Pauline Heaney, Peter Veth, Sam Harper, Sven Ouzman, Cecilia Myers, Helen Green. Science Advances, 2020; 6 (6): eaay3922 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aay3922