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Got milk? Humans did 5,000 years ago

4 hours 10 min ago

Why do humans drink milk? Archaeologists and geneticists have been puzzling over this question since they discovered that the mutations allowing adults to drink milk are under the strongest selection of any in the human genome.

These mutations cause the human body to produce the intestinal enzyme lactase, which digests lactose milk sugar during infancy, long after weaning. This lactase persistence is prevalent only in some populations around the world, such as in Northern Europe.

Human mandible with extensive dental calculus deposits dated to the Roman period (1st-4th century CE) from York, UK. The dental calculus pictured above tested positive for milk proteins. (Credit: Camilla Speller)

In most other people of the world, the lactose cannot be properly digested and can cause diarrhea or other symptoms of lactose intolerance resulting from the gases produced by fermentation by the gut bacteria.

Some dairy products, such as yogurt and cheese, have had their lactose content reduced or removed through processing. In the case of cheese, the lactose ends up in the whey, where it is often fed to pigs and other animals.

If it is so easy to remove milk sugars, and the mutation is only required for drinking raw milk or whey, why is it under such strong selection?

An international team of researchers has shed new light on this puzzling question through an unusual source: calcified dental plaque on ancient human teeth.

To understand how, where, and when humans consumed milk products, it is necessary to link evidence of consumption directly to individuals and their livestock. Previous research by archaeologists has used indirect lines of evidence, such a high frequency of adult females in animal herds or milk lipids present on pots, to identify evidence of dairying.

Ancient teeth

Now a breakthrough by the international team, reported in the journal Scientific Reports, provides the first direct evidence of milk drinking from human dental calculus, a mineralized form of dental plaque.

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“The study has far-reaching implications for understanding the relationship between human diet and evolution. Dairy products are a very recent, post-Neolithic dietary innovation, and most of the world’s population is unable to digest lactose, often developing the symptoms of lactose intolerance,” says Christina Warinner, a co-lead author of the study and a researcher in the anthropology department at the University of Oklahoma.

Using the latest mass spectrometry-based techniques, the team detected a milk protein, beta-lactoglobulin (which they had previously reported from a modern dental plaque sample), in ancient remains.

“It seemed too good to be true; beta-lactoglobulin is the dominant whey protein—the one used by bodybuilders to build muscle mass—and therefore the ideal marker for milk consumption,” says Jessica Hendy from the University of York’s BioArCh research facility and the study’s co-lead author.

“We kept finding sequences of beta-lactoglobulin and at first we thought it could be modern contamination. But we repeated the analysis several times, at three different laboratories in three different countries, each time finding the same results.”

More evidence of milk

The new research provides direct protein evidence that cattle, sheep, and goat whey has been consumed by human populations for at least 5,000 years. This corroborates previous isotopic evidence for milk fats identified on pottery and cooking utensils in early farming communities.

Until now it has been difficult to investigate both human genetic milk adaptations and direct evidence of milk consumption at the same time, in part because milk preserves so poorly in the archaeological record.

“The discovery of milk proteins in human dental calculus will allow scientists to unite these lines of evidence and compare the genetic traits and cultural behaviors of specific individuals who lived thousands of years ago,” says Warinner.

The team found direct evidence of milk consumption preserved in human dental plaque from the Bronze Age to the present day.

“Some of the findings were as we expected. For example, we did not find any evidence of milk protein in 19th-century West African individuals from regions where dairying was uncommon. But we found widespread evidence for milk consumption at European sites spanning a period of 5,000 years,” says Professor Matthew Collins of BioArCh in York’s archaeology department.

“Most of the molecular evidence for milk consumption has previously come from residues on ceramics. While pot residues can tell you that people are using dairy products, it can’t tell you which individuals in the group are actually consuming the milk,” says Camilla Speller from York’s BioArCh research facility.

“This study is very exciting, because for the first time, we can link milk consumption to specific skeletons, and figure out who had access to this important nutritional resource.”

Enrico Cappellini from the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen says the milk protein beta-lactoglobulin is also an important find because it contains sequence variants that allow different milk-producing livestock to be distinguished.

“We found widespread evidence of cows’ and sheep milk consumption as early as the Bronze Age, whereas evidence for goat milk consumption was limited to Bronze Age northern Italy,” he adds.

The international team also included researchers from the University of Zürich; the Henry Wellcome Building for Cellular and Molecular Physiology, Oxford; the University of Edinburgh, Università degli Studi di Padova; and Curtin University, Perth.

The Swiss Foundation for Nutritional Research, the Zurich Maxi Foundation, the University of York’s Centre for Chronic Diseases and Disorders, and EUROTAST (EU Marie Curie) funded the project.

Source: University of York

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Was China home to the world’s first chickens?

Thu, 11/27/2014 - 03:06

Biologists have found the earliest evidence of domestic chickens in 10,000-year-old fossils from northern China.

At this age, the mitochondrial DNA sequences are several thousands of years older than any other ancient chicken DNA ever reported, researchers say.

Despite their age, the northern Chinese chicken sequences represent the three major groups of mitochondrial DNA sequences present in the modern chicken gene pool, suggesting genetic continuity between these oldest chicken bones and modern chicken populations.

Based on modern DNA sequences scientists had already proposed that chickens had been domesticated in different places in south and southeast Asia, but northern China had never previously been included as the place chickens were first domesticated.

Domesticated animals

“People argued that northern China did not provide suitable habitat for red jungle fowl, the wild ancestor of domestic chickens, but they do not take into account that climate and vegetation were very different 10,000 years ago,” says Xingbo Zhao from China Agricultural University in Beijing.

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Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the results not only suggest northern China as one of the earliest places for chicken domestication but also that the domestication of chickens, today the most important poultry species in the world, started as early as those of the other four agriculturally important animal species, cattle, pigs, goats, and sheep.

Moreover, the results provide further evidence for an early agricultural complex in northern China.

“These are really exciting results as they suggest that societies with mixed agriculture developed in northern China around the same time they did so in the Near East,” says Michi Hofreiter, an honorary professor in the biology department at University of York.

Source: University of York

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How to turn astronaut poop into rocket fuel

Wed, 11/26/2014 - 09:12

A new way to make rocket fuel uses something that is usually stored and burned up on re-entry: human waste.

In 2006, NASA began making plans to build an inhabited facility on the moon’s surface between 2019 and 2024. As part of NASA’s moon-base goal, the agency wanted to reduce the weight of spacecraft leaving Earth.

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Historically, waste generated during spaceflight would not be used further. NASA stores it in containers until it’s loaded into space cargo vehicles that burn as they pass back through the Earth’s atmosphere. For future long-term missions, though, it would be impractical to bring all the stored waste back to Earth.

Dumping it on the moon’s surface is not an option, so the space agency entered into an agreement with researchers at University of Florida to develop test ideas.

The results are published in the journal Advances in Space Research.

290 liters of methane per crew

“We were trying to find out how much methane can be produced from uneaten food, food packaging, and human waste,” says Pratap Pullammanappallil, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering at University of Florida.

“The idea was to see whether we could make enough fuel to launch rockets and not carry all the fuel and its weight from Earth for the return journey. Methane can be used to fuel the rockets. Enough methane can be produced to come back from the moon.”

NASA started by supplying scientists with a packaged form of chemically produced human waste that also included simulated food waste, towels, wash cloths, clothing, and packaging materials. Researchers then ran laboratory tests to find out how much methane could be produced from the waste and how quickly.

They found the process could produce 290 liters of methane per crew per day, all produced in a week. Their results led to the creation of an anaerobic digester process, which kills pathogens from human waste, and produces biogas—a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide by breaking down organic matter in waste.

Here on Earth, too

Like so many other things developed for the space program, the process could one day be used on Earth as well, for heating, electricity generation, or transportation, Pullammanappallil says.

“It could be used on campus or around town, or anywhere, to convert waste into fuel.”

The digestion process also would produce about 200 gallons of non-potable water annually from all the waste. That is water held within the organic matter, which is released as organic matter decomposes.

Through electrolysis, the water can then be split into hydrogen and oxygen, and the astronauts can breathe oxygen as a back-up system. The exhaled carbon dioxide and hydrogen can be converted to methane and water in the process.

Source: University of Florida

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How selenium in broccoli may fight melanoma

Wed, 11/26/2014 - 08:22

The mineral selenium, which naturally occurs in foods like broccoli and garlic, appears to slow down a process that allows cancers such as melanoma, prostate cancer, and leukemia to spread.

These types of cancer contain mechanisms that block the body’s ability to recognize and destroy them by causing the immune system to over-activate.

“You can say that the stimulating molecules over-activate the immune system and cause it to collapse, and we are, of course, interested in blocking this mechanism. We have now shown that certain selenium compounds . . . effectively block the special immunostimulatory molecule that plays a serious role for aggressive cancers,” says Søren Skov, a professor in the veterinary disease biology department at the University of Copenhagen.

Certain cancer cells overexpress immunostimulatory molecules in liquid form. Such over-stimulation has a negative impact on the immune system.

Dissolved molecules

In this study, the researchers focused on the so-called NGK2D ligands. There are eight variants, of which one in particular has caught the researchers’ attention, because it assumes liquid form.

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It is precisely the molecular dissolution that causes serious problems once the cancer is raging. The entire bloodstream is, so to speak, infected, and the molecule is therefore used as a marker of serious illness.

“Molecules are found both on the surface of the cancer cells and dissolved in the blood of the affected person. We are now able to show that selenium compounds appear to have a very beneficial effect when it comes to neutralizing the special variant of the NGK2D ligand—both in soluble form and when the molecule is placed on the cell surface,” says Skov.

Skov says the discovery is another step toward developing better cancer drugs. “If we can find ways to slow down the over-stimulation, we are on the right track.”

The new findings have just been published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Source: University of Copenhagen

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Anxiety meds may turn teens into drug abusers

Wed, 11/26/2014 - 07:36

Teenagers who are prescribed anti-anxiety or sleep medications are 12 times more likely to illegally abuse them later.

The findings suggest that the medical community may be inadvertently creating a new generation of illegal, recreational drug users, experts warn.

“The number of adolescents prescribed these medications and the number misusing them is disturbing for several reasons.”

Nearly 9 percent of the 2,745 adolescents in the study had received a prescription for anxiety or sleep medications during their lifetime, and more than 3 percent received at least one prescription during the three-year study period.

“I recognize the importance of these medications in treating anxiety and sleep problems,” says first author Carol Boyd, professor of nursing at University of Michigan.

“However, the number of adolescents prescribed these medications and the number misusing them is disturbing for several reasons.”

Anxiety and sleep meds

Anxiety and sleep medications can be addictive or even fatal when mixed with narcotics or alcohol, says Boyd. “What happened to (actor) Heath Ledger could happen to any teen who is misusing these medications, particularly if the teen uses alcohol in combination with these drugs.”

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Examples of anti-anxiety medications include Klonopin, Xanax, and Ativan; sleep medications include Ambien, Restoril, and Lunesta. The drugs are controlled substances partly because of the potential for abuse. It’s a felony to share them.

Published in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors,  the study included students from five Detroit-area schools grouped into three categories: those never prescribed anxiety or sleep medications; those prescribed those medications within the three-year study period; and those previously prescribed those medications but not during the study period.

Key findings
  • Adolescents prescribed anxiety medications during their lifetime, but not during the study, were 12 times more likely to use someone else’s anxiety medication than participants who had never been prescribed such drugs.
  • Teenagers prescribed anxiety or sleep medications during the study period were 10 times more likely to abuse them within two years, to get high or to experiment, than teens without prescriptions.
  • White students were twice as likely as black students to use others’ medications, and females older than 15 and teens who had prescriptions for longer periods of time were more likely to abuse the medications.

Researchers say this is the first longitudinal study to determine whether teens’ recent medical use of anxiety or sleep medications is associated with later taking somebody else’s prescription medication illegally, either for self-treatment or recreational use.

Boyd says she intended to write a paper about teens abusing their own prescriptions, but changed course when the results became clear.”I looked at these numbers and said, ‘There’s a story here.’ It just catches you off guard that so many adolescents are being prescribed these medications.”

“Why is it that our youth are anxious and sleepless? Is it because they are under stress, consuming too much caffeine, or seeking an altered state?”

Better education for parents and adolescents prescribed these medications is needed, the study says, as is better refill monitoring and making it standard practice to give teens a substance use assessment before writing prescriptions.

Source: University of Michigan

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Bone cells could help kids who need face surgery

Wed, 11/26/2014 - 06:55

Discovery of a new group of bone cells could mean some children with facial deformities won’t have to wait until they grow up to have corrective surgery.

The cartilage-making cells known as chondrocytes replicate themselves, make other bone cells, and drive bone growth.

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Bones are smart—they know that by adolescence it’s time to stop growing longer and stronger, and from that point on they keep their shape by healing injuries.

The question of why bones grow longer and stronger in children, but stay static in adults—yet retain the ability to heal themselves, has long perplexed scientists in the bone regeneration field.

Researchers say the new findings, published online in the journal Nature Cell Biology, may have unearthed a big piece of this puzzle.

It’s long been thought that chondrocytes die when children reach adolescence and their bones stop growing. However, the fact that bone still heals itself even without chondrocytes has caused intense debate among researchers.

Transformed bones

The new study shows that some chondrocytes don’t die, but rather transform themselves into other types of bone-growing and bone-healing cells, says Noriaki Ono, assistant professor of dentistry at University of Michigan.

“Up until now, the cells that drive this bone growth have not been understood very well. As an orthodontist myself, I have special interest in this aspect, especially for finding a cure for severe bone deformities of the face in children.

“If we can find a way to make bones that continue to grow along with the child, maybe we would be able to put these pieces of growing bones back into children and make their faces look much better than they do.”

One of the challenges in the bone and cartilage field is that stem cells haven’t really been identified, Ono says. The only widely accepted idea is that certain stem cells help bones grow and heal, but that’s only discussed in the context of adults with bone disorders such as osteoporosis.

Many factors cause craniofacial deformities, and all are devastating to children. In children with Goldenhar syndrome, underdeveloped facial tissues can harm the developing jawbone. Another bone deformity called deformational plagiocephaly causes a child’s head to grow asymmetrically.

Other researchers from University of Michigan and from Harvard University and Kyoto University in Japan are coauthors of the study.

 Source: University of Michigan

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In Beijing, weather and pollution are a deadly combo

Tue, 11/25/2014 - 12:39

Traffic and industrial emissions are largely responsible for severe urban haze in China, but weather also can make air pollution much worse.

For a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers collected extensive air samples in Beijing, China’s capital and one of the most heavily polluted areas in the world.

The city is teeming with a large amount of fine particulate matter (called PM) in the atmosphere that eventually results in environmental and health problems, but also in conditions that affect weather and climate.

Weather patterns and emissions from traffic, industrial plants, and aerosol chemical processes combine to produce extremely polluted conditions—forming a thick haze layer that covers the city for days.

“We find in our study that the conditions in Beijing are prone to PM formation, because of highly abundant condensable gases,” says Renyi Zhang, distinguished professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University.

“Emissions of volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides from urban transportation, and sulfur dioxide from regional industry trigger aerosol nucleation and continuous growth over multiple days, leading to particle mass exceeding several hundred micrograms per cubic meter,” he says.

“This efficient aerosol formation process is distinct from that occurring in many other urban centers worldwide, although the chemical composition of Beijing’s aerosols is unremarkable.”

Premature deaths

China’s pollution troubles go back three decades, when the country started its rapid modernization.

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Of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, China is home to 16 of them. Beijing often exceeds by many times the acceptable air standards set by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Sometimes the pollution in Beijing can be so bad that visibility is less than 50 feet (15 meters) and the air quality is 40 times higher than acceptable levels established by the World Health Organization, Zhang says.

A study by the Chinese government in 2010 showed that pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in that country, and that likely, more than 500 million Chinese will have their lives shortened by at least five years because of poor air quality.

Meteorology is a critical factor in how severe the haze is and how densely it forms, Zhang says. “We found that Beijing’s PM episodes occur on a periodic cycle, which is largely driven by wind variations.”

“When the wind is shifted from the south, that’s when trouble starts because most of the factories and power plants are located in the southern region. Under reactively stagnant conditions, the gaseous pollutants from city traffic and surrounding industry react in the air, locally producing a large amount of PM.”

The haze and pollution problem appears to be more intense in fall, spring, and winter months because it rains more in summer and that tends to clean the air by washing out the particles.

What should China do?

“Beijing’s pollution is similar to other urban cities in China,” Zhang says. “Collectively, those urban areas, along with regional industrial facilities, agricultural activities, and biogenic emissions, throughout the country constitute the dominant sources of large-scale pollution in China, covering thousands of square miles and lasting for many days.”

Facing mounting criticism from the world and its own people, the Chinese government has promised to improve air quality, but imposing the strict controls necessary on the many factories and power plants and reducing car emissions is not easy with China’s booming economy of the last 25 years.

“Our study suggests that targeted regulatory controls over the PM precursor emissions from transportation and regional industry are needed to reduce urban pollution in China,” Zhang points out.

“The formation of severe urban and regional haze in China is attributable to the higher rates but lower standards for air pollutant emissions, which are ultimately linked to its rapidly growing economy, fast urbanization, and a large population.

“Improving air quality in that country will likely have profound consequences on China or even the world economy.”

The Ministry of Science and Technology of China, and collaborative research program between Texas A&M University, the National Natural Science Foundation of China and the Robert A. Welch Foundation.

Source: Texas A&M University

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MLB batting averages slump after concussions

Tue, 11/25/2014 - 11:59

After a concussion, Major League Baseball players don’t perform as well at bat during their first two weeks back.

The concussed players’ batting performances were significantly worse than another group of players who were rusty because of being away for paternity or bereavement leave during the same period.

Brain injuries are most often associated with contact sports, but they are prevalent in baseball, too. During this year’s World Series, head injuries affected two San Francisco players, one of whom was not able to play due to his concussion.

At the high school and college levels, baseball concussions are rising at a rate of about 14 percent a year, researchers says.

Why batting suffers

In the MLB study, players returning after a concussion had lower batting averages (.234 versus .264); lower slugging percentages (.359 versus .420); and lower on-base plus slugging percentages (.654 versus .747) compared to players returning from bereavement or paternity leave.

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“Although players who sustain a concussion may be symptom-free and cleared by MLB protocol to return to play, the residual effects of concussion on the complex motor skills required for batting may still be a problem,” says principal investigator Jeffrey J. Bazarian, associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.

When a batter is at the plate, the brain and its neural networks must be in top form to master hand-eye coordination, intense visual acuity, fast reaction time, postural stability and balance, and swing control in just 400 milliseconds—the estimated time it takes most balls to pass from pitcher to batter, Bazarian says.

After a concussion, brain function can be impaired for weeks or months resulting in symptoms such as slowed thinking or response speed, and poor concentration. Understanding the impact of concussions on batting performance can help to inform decisions about when to return to the lineup.

Gathering the data

Concussions account for about 2 percent of all injuries that result in loss of playing time, behind strains and contusions as the most common MLB injuries.

Bazarian and colleagues believe their study is unique; only one other scientific article has looked at the relationship between concussions and a sport-specific performance such as batting, and that sport was football. The data were culled from the MLB’s disabled list, a Baseball Prospectus database, and game logs of all at-bats from

Researchers compared seven batting metrics among 59 players recovering from a concussion and 63 episodes of paternity/bereavement leave, controlling for the number of days missed and each player’s position. They analyzed the numbers again at the end of four-to-six weeks following the medical leave, and found that batting performance metrics still remained slightly lower for concussed players.

Erin Wasserman, an epidemiology doctoral student, presented the data recently at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association in New Orleans.

Source: University of Rochester

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Odd weather doesn’t sway climate skeptics

Tue, 11/25/2014 - 09:34

Many scientists believe that enough droughts, floods, and heat waves will convince climate skeptics that global warming is real. A new study throws cold water on that theory.

Only 35 percent of US citizens believe global warming was the main cause of the abnormally high temperatures during the winter of 2012, Aaron M. McCright and colleagues report in a paper published online in Nature Climate Change.

“Many people already had their minds made up about global warming and this extreme weather was not going to change that,” says McCright, associate professor in Michigan State University’s sociology department and Lyman Briggs College.

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Winter 2012 was the fourth warmest winter in the United States dating back to at least 1895, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Some 80 percent of US citizens reported winter temperatures in their local area were warmer than usual.

The researchers analyzed March 2012 Gallup Poll data of more than 1,000 people and examined how individuals’ responses related to actual temperatures in their home states. Perceptions of warmer winter temperatures seemed to track with observed temperatures.

“Those results are promising because we do hope that people accurately perceive the reality that’s around them so they can adapt accordingly to the weather,” McCright says.

But when it came to attributing the abnormally warm weather to global warming, respondents largely held fast to their existing beliefs and were not influenced by actual temperatures.

As this study and McCright’s past research shows, political party identification plays a significant role in determining global warming beliefs. People who identify as Republican tend to doubt the existence of global warming, while Democrats generally believe in it.

The abnormally warm winter was just one in an ongoing series of severe weather events—including the 2010 Russian heat wave, Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and the 2013 typhoon in the Philippines—that many believed would help start convincing global warming cynics.

“There’s been a lot of talk among climate scientists, politicians, and journalists that warmer winters like this would change people’s minds,” McCright says. “That the more people are exposed to climate change, the more they’ll be convinced. This study suggests this is not the case.”

McCright’s coauthors are Riley E. Dunlap of Oklahoma State University and Chenyang Xiao of American University.

Source: Michigan State University

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2 in 5 teens report cyber dating abuse

Tue, 11/25/2014 - 09:32

Two in five teenagers have experienced cyber dating abuse in the last three months, according to a recent survey.

Cyber dating abuse involves the use of technology to control, harass, threaten, or stalk another person in the context of a dating relationship.

The study took place at eight school-based health centers in California where students receive confidential clinical health services, including annual check-ups, sports physicals, and birth control.

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The study, conducted during the 2012-2013 school year, assessed teens ages 14 to 19 for exposure to cyber dating abuse, adolescent relationship abuse, sexual behavior, and care-seeking for sexual and reproductive health.

As reported in Pediatrics, key findings show that 41 percent of teens reported experiencing this form of abuse within the last three months, with more young women than young men reporting this type of victimization.

Most commonly, their partners used technology including mobile apps, social networks, texts, or other digital communication to repeatedly contact them to see where they were and whom they were with.

“These findings underscore that cyber dating abuse is an emerging concern,” says Elizabeth Miller, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

“We need to support prevention efforts that increase education about the many different forms of abuse in adolescent relationships, and to encourage parents, teachers, coaches, and others to talk to young people about what healthy relationships look like.”

More violence, less birth control

Like previous research examining this form of abuse, the researchers found that teens exposed to cyber dating abuse were more likely to also experience other forms of physical and sexual dating abuse, such as being slapped, choked, or made to have sex by a dating partner, and also non-partner sexual assault.

Additionally, greater exposure to cyber dating abuse was associated with less contraceptive use among adolescent girls.

“It is concerning to see such a large number of young people reporting these cyber dating abuse experiences, and to learn that experiencing this form of abuse is associated with other unhealthy behaviors such as not using any method of contraception for birth control,” says first author Rebecca Dick, a clinical research coordinator with the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

“Professionals should take cyber dating abuse seriously and actively ask teens if they are being monitored, threatened, or sexually coerced by their partner using technology-based communication,” adds Miller, who is also chief of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Children’s Hospital.

“Given the prevalence of cyber dating abuse in this sample of adolescents, we recommend that relationship abuse prevention education include cyber dating abuse and that such education and counseling be integrated into health assessments in clinical settings.”

Collaborators on the study contributed from Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC; University of California Davis School of Medicine; California Adolescent Health Collaborative, Public Health Institute; California School-Based Health Alliance and California State University Sacramento School of Nursing; University of California San Francisco School of Nursing; Futures Without Violence; and University of California, San Diego School of Medicine.

The National Institute of Justice of the US Department of Justice funded the work.

Source: University of Pittsburgh

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Tibetans farmed ‘roof of the world’ 3,600 years ago

Tue, 11/25/2014 - 08:10

Humans figured out how to survive and farm year-round in the extreme, high-altitude conditions of the Tibetan Plateau about 3,600 years ago—much earlier than previously believed.

“Our findings show that not only did these farmer-herders conquer unheard-of heights in terms of raising livestock and growing crops like barley and millet, but that human expansion into the higher, colder altitudes took place as the continental temperatures were becoming colder,” says study coauthor Xinyi Liu, assistant professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis.

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Published in the journal Science, the study relies on animal teeth, bones, and plant remains uncovered at an archaeology dig on the “roof of the world” site to pinpoint a date for what could be the earliest sustained human habitation at high altitude.

“Until now, when and how humans started to live and farm at such extraordinary heights has remained an open question,” Liu says. “Our study indicates that 3,600 years ago, humans were growing crops, raising livestock, and living year-round at hitherto unprecedented altitudes.”

The new findings demonstrate that across 53 archaeological sites spanning 800 miles once inhabited by the late Yangshao, Majiayao, Qiija, Xindian, Kayue, and Nuomuhong cultures, there is evidence of sustained farming and human habitation between 8,200 and 11,154 feet (2,500 and 3,400 meters) above sea level.

Evidence of an intermittent human presence on the Tibetan Plateau has been dated to at least 20,000 years ago, with the first semi-permanent villages established only 5,200 years ago. The presence of crops and livestock at such altitudes indicates a more sustained human presence than is needed to merely hunt game at such heights.

‘Fertile Crescent’ staples

Research on the Tibetan Plateau has raised interesting questions about the timing and introduction of Western staple crops such as barley and wheat—staples of the so-called “Fertile Crescent.”

From 4,000-3,600 years ago, this meeting of East and West led to the joining or displacement of traditional North Chinese crops of broomcorn and foxtail millet. The importation of Western cereals enabled human communities to adapt to the harsher conditions of higher altitudes in the plateau.

In this study, cereal grains (foxtail millet, broomcorn millet, barley, and wheat) were identified at all 53 sites and animal bones and teeth (from sheep, cattle, and pigs) were discovered at 10 sites.

Of the 53 sites, an earlier settlement group (dating from 5,200-3,600 years ago) reached a maximum elevation of 8,320 feet (2,536 meters) with millet cultivation, while a later group of 29 sites (dating from 3,600-2,300 years ago) approach 11,190 feet(3,411 meters) in altitude growing crops with Western Asian origins, barley and wheat.

Food security today

The findings could have wider and further-reaching implications for today’s world in terms of global food security and the possibilities of rebalancing the global diet, Liu says, noting that modern agriculture is heavily, and perhaps unsustainably, swayed in favor of the big three crops of rice, wheat, and maize.

“I hope more work will now be undertaken to look at the early use of indigenous high-altitude plant resources and biological adaptation of humans to high altitude,” Liu says.

“The more we learn about rich ecology of past and present societies around Tibetan Plateau, and the wider range of plants and animals they raised in the world’s more challenging environments, the more options we will have for thinking through challenging issues in the present and in the future.”

Other coauthors are from University of Pittsburgh, Lanzhou University, China, University of Cambridge, the Qinghai Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, Xining, China, and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Peking University, both in Beijing, China.

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

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Gutsy chimpanzee moms with sons are more social

Tue, 11/25/2014 - 07:36

Chimpanzee mothers of sons are about 25 percent more social than the mothers of daughters, despite the dangers of hanging out with aggressive males.

Boy moms were found to spend about two hours more per day with other chimpanzees than the girl moms did.

“It is really intriguing that the sex of her infant influences the mother’s behavior right from birth and that the same female is more social when she has a son than when she has a daughter,” says Anne Pusey, chair of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University.

The researchers believe the mothers are giving the young males the opportunity to observe other males in social situations, even while still clinging to their mothers. This gives the youngsters a start on developing the social skills they’ll need to thrive in the competitive world of adults.

Almost 40 years of observations

The findings are based on an analysis of 37 years of daily observations of East African chimpanzees from the Gombe National Park in Tanzania. Duke University houses all of the data from the famous Kasekela chimpanzee community in the Jane Goodall Institute Research Center, which contains more than 50 years of observational data all the way back to Jane Goodall’s first hand-written observations from the early 1960s.

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The data largely consist of “follows,” in which a researcher focuses on one chimpanzee and notes her behaviors and interactions with others throughout the day. Duke scholars led by Pusey are now working on digitizing the entire collection of Gombe data in the Goodall archive to enable more longitudinal studies of this kind.

“Drawing from the long-term datasets, we were able to investigate patterns within the same mother, examining how she behaved with her sons versus with her daughters,” says lead author Carson Murray, an assistant professor at George Washington University, who was a PhD student under Pusey.

“These results are even more compelling than a general pattern, demonstrating that the same female behaves very differently depending on the sex of her offspring.”

For this study, researchers measured gregariousness based on three kinds of analyses:

  • How much time a mother spent with other adults who were not immediate family members
  • The average size of the mother’s party and its composition
  • The proportion of time a mother spent in mixed-sex and female-only parties.

For the most part, mothers with offspring spend their time alone or with adult daughters and other dependents. Adult males are the more gregarious sex, forming coalitions with other males to assert rank, defend their territory, and hunt as a group.

Watch and learn

Mothers with sons were found to spend more time with others and to associate with more of their kin. During the first six months of an infant’s life, mothers with sons spend significantly more time in mixed-sex parties than mothers with daughters.

At 30 to 36 months, chimpanzee infants start moving around more on their own without being carried and spend most of their time out of mother’s reach. At this age, the male infants start having more interactions with unrelated chimpanzees, especially adult males. Their female counterparts are significantly less social.

As the offspring get older and range further from their mothers, the young males have more social partners over the course of the day. Juvenile and adolescent males watch their adult counterparts carefully and often mimic the behaviors they see, including charging displays and copulation.

“Mothers obviously increase social exposure for their young male infants,” Murray says. “This finding leads to a larger question about how social exposure might shape gender-typical behavior in humans as well.”

Being social is risky

This study also suggests it is possible the sons themselves are driving the increased gregariousness later in life. In early infancy, the boy mothers spend about the same time in female-only groups that the girl moms do.

But as their sons become older, boy moms spend more time in female-only, nursery groups, probably because the young males are attracted to the offspring of other females as playmates.

“One of the most surprising results to me was that mothers with young females still have lower association with their relatives,” Murray says. “As we argue in the paper, this suggests that social exposure is less critical to females in general.”

Social exposure has a potential downside too. Females with low rank are known to experience more social stress in large groups, and there is always a risk of infanticide against the young chimpanzees. Perhaps the best way to avoid having infants killed is to steer clear of groups, which the mothers do up to 70 percent of the time.

“Mothers with infant daughters were likely to be avoiding competitive and stressful situations,” Murray says. “While mothers with sons seem willing to incur those costs for the benefit of having their sons socialized.”

Read more about the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Data digitization was funded by National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, the Harris Steel Group, the Windibrow Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, the University of Minnesota, Duke University, the Leo S. Guthman Foundation, and the National Geographic Society.

Source: Duke University

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This streaky little bird is brand new to science

Tue, 11/25/2014 - 07:32

Fifteen years after an elusive new bird was spotted on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, a team of scientists confirms the discovery.

The Sulawesi streaked flycatcher, Muscicapa sodhii, has a mottled throat and short wings that set it apart from other species. It’s found in the forested lowlands of Sulawesi where it was first observed in 1997.

“Considering that 98% of the world’s birds have been described, finding a new species is quite rare”

The researchers report in PLOS ONE that the new species is markedly different from other flycatchers in its plumage, body structure, song, and genetics, which prove that it is a new species.

Because the bird has survived in a region heavily degraded by cacao plantations, the species is not currently at risk of extinction.

“The Sulawesi streaked flycatcher is similar to related Asian species in its song, producing whistles, chirps and trills, but is slightly more high-pitched and lacks the lower-pitched notes that other species make,” says Pam Rasmussen, assistant professor of zoology at Michigan State University and assistant curator of mammalogy and ornithology at the MSU Museum.

“We were lucky to be able to make the first known recording of this bird singing.”

Hear the Sulawesi streaked flycatcher sing:

Rasmussen, the author of Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide, also runs the global bird sounds website AVoCet, where the bird’s song is archived. (The recording above, by Pamela C. Rasmussen and Bert Harris, is courtesy of AVoCet.)

A rare find

Rasmussen and J.C. Berton Harris, a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University’s Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy, and their collaborators’ work finally allows this bird, which has awaited formal scientific description since 1997, to be included in scientific publications and conservation plans.

Above, the Sulawesi streaked flycatcher. (Credit: Courtesy of Martin Lindop via Michigan State)

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“Considering that 98 percent of the world’s birds have been described, finding a new species is quite rare,” Harris says. “And despite being a globally important avian hotspot, Sulawesi has largely gone unstudied by ornithologists.”

With funding from the National Geographic Society, Harris, Rasmussen, and other collaborators traveled to Central Sulawesi in 2011 and 2012 to continue the search for the mysterious animal. After weeks of camping, the researchers finally found the bird—in the place it was originally seen—in summer 2012, observing several of them.

A full examination of the bird’s measurements, genetics, and plumage revealed that, compared with similar flycatchers, the bird has shorter wings, a more strongly hooked bill, and a shorter tail. Its plumage also is distinct, as the bird has a plainer face and streaked throat.

The new species’ DNA shows that it is only distantly related to the gray-streaked flycatcher, and it most closely resembles the Thailand population of the Asian brown flycatcher.

Rasmussen is quite familiar with the thorough process required to confirm the discovery of new birds. In 2012, Rasmussen was part of a team that discovered two owls in the Philippines residing in forests on sparsely populated islands.

While the new species does not require pristine rainforest to survive, it does appear to be dependent on tall forest trees spared by farmers.

“At this point, the species is not at risk for extinction,” Rasmussen says. “However, this could change if agriculture intensifies in this region.”

Additional researchers contributing to this study include Ding Li Yong from the Australian National University and Southeast Asian Biodiversity Society; Dewi Prawiradilaga from the Research Center for Biology-LIPI in Indonesia; Dadang Dwi Putra from the Celebes Bird Club in Indonesia; Philip Round from Mahidol University in Bangkok; and Frank Rheindt from the National University of Singapore.

Source: Michigan State University

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Dying for more sleep? How insomnia may kill you

Tue, 11/25/2014 - 06:16

A 40-year study shows that people who suffer from chronic insomnia face a higher risk of dying.

Insomnia—difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking too early—is a common medical complaint that affects about 20 percent of adults in the United States. Chronic insomnia is estimated to occur in about half of those individuals.

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Researchers analyzed data from a long-running respiratory study, the Tucson Epidemiological Study of Airway Obstructive Disease, which began in 1972 and has followed participants for decades.

The data show that chronic insomnia is associated with higher levels of inflammation in the blood and a 58 percent increase in risk of death.

Unlike intermittent insomnia, chronic or persistent insomnia that lasts for at least six years is associated with mortality. Moreover, greater levels of inflammation (measured by a biomarker in blood called C-reactive protein) and a steeper rise in such biomarkers of inflammation is associated with the persistence of insomnia and death.

Although other researchers have found a link between insomnia and death, whether this association holds true for both chronic and intermittent insomnia remains unknown. Many underlying mechanisms for why chronic insomnia may lead to death have been suggested but not been shown.

Persistent insomnia

“An enhanced understanding of the association between persistence of insomnia and death would inform treatment of the at-risk population,” says Sairam Parthasarathy, associate professor of medicine at University of Arizona.

“We found that participants with persistent insomnia were at increased risk of dying due to heart and lung conditions independent of the effects of hypnotics, opportunity for sleep (as distinguished from sleep deprivation), sex, age, and other known confounding factors.

“Although there were higher levels of inflammation and steeper rises in inflammation in individuals with persistent insomnia when compared to those with intermittent or no insomnia, more research into other pathways by which persistent insomnia may lead to increased mortality needs to be explored,” says Stefano Guerra, research associate professor of medicine.

“Such biomarker-based research could potentially help advance precision science in predicting future clinical outcomes in patients with insomnia.”

Source: University of Arizona

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Hummingbirds and bugs share flight ‘tricks’

Tue, 11/25/2014 - 06:02

A tiny hummingbird hovering at one flower and then darting to another is an amazing sight. How do they do it?

The most detailed, 3D aerodynamic simulation of hummingbird flight yet may have the answer.

The findings show that the hummingbird owes its aerial skills to a unique set of aerodynamic forces that are more closely aligned to those found in flying insects than to those of other birds.

The new supercomputer simulation, produced by a pair of mechanical engineers at Vanderbilt University who teamed up with a biologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, appears in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

For some time researchers have been aware of the similarities between hummingbird and insect flight, but some experts have supported an alternate model that proposed that hummingbird’s wings have aerodynamic properties similar to helicopter blades.

However, the new realistic simulation demonstrates that the tiny birds make use of unsteady airflow mechanisms, generating invisible vortices of air that produce the lift they need to hover and flit from flower to flower.

Up and down

You might think that if the hummingbird simply beats its wings fast enough and hard enough it can push enough air downward to keep its small body afloat. But, according to the simulation, lift production is much trickier than that.

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For example, as the bird pulls its wings forward and down, tiny vortices form over the leading and trailing edges and then merge into a single large vortex, forming a low-pressure area that provides lift. In addition, the tiny birds further enhance the amount of lift they produce by pitching up their wings (rotate them along the long axis) as they flap.

Hummingbirds perform another neat aerodynamic trick—one that sets them apart from other birds. They not only generate positive lift on the downstroke, but they also generate lift on the upstroke by inverting their wings. As the leading edge begins moving backwards, the wing beneath it rotates around so the top of the wing becomes the bottom and bottom becomes the top. This allows the wing to form a leading edge vortex as it moves backward generating positive lift.

According to the simulation, the downstroke produces most of the thrust but that is only because the hummingbird puts more energy into it. The upstroke produces only 30 percent as much lift but it takes only 30 percent as much energy, making the upstroke equally as aerodynamically efficient as the more powerful downstroke.

Birds vs. bugs

Large birds, by contrast, generate almost all of their lift on the downstroke. They pull in their wings toward their bodies to reduce the amount of negative lift they produce while flapping upward.

Although hummingbirds are much larger than flying insects and stir up the air more violently as they move, the way they fly is more closely related to insects than it is to other birds, according to the researchers.

Insects like dragonflies, houseflies, and mosquitoes can also hover and dart forward and back and side-to-side. Although the construction of their wings is much different, consisting of a thin membrane stiffened by a system of veins, they also make use of unsteady airflow mechanisms to generate vortices that produce the lift they need to fly. Their wings are also capable of producing positive lift on both upstroke and downstroke.

1,000 frames per second

To capture the details of the aerodynamics of the hummingbird’s ability to hover, Tyson Hedrick, associate professor of biology at UNC, put tiny dabs of non-toxic paint at nine places on a female ruby-throated hummingbird’s wing.

Then he took high-speed videos at 1,000 frames per second with four cameras while the bird hovered in front of an artificial flower.

Then at Vanderbilt Haoxiang Luo, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and doctoral student Jialei Song took the video, extracted data on the position of the points in three dimensions and reconstructed the varying wing shape and position for a full flapping cycle.

Using the super-computers at the National Science Foundation’s Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE) and at Vanderbilt’s Advanced Computing Center for Research and Education, the engineers created a fluid-dynamic model that simulated the thousands of tiny vortices that the hummingbird’s wings create and so was able to reproduce the complex web of forces that let them fly.

The National Science Foundation funded the research.

Source: Vanderbilt University

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Bee brain hints at how we make memories

Mon, 11/24/2014 - 12:44

Researchers studying honey bees have found that genes switch off as memories are being formed, allowing for new connections between nerve cells.

Memory management in the bee brain is controlled by small genetic elements called microRNAs that help regulate gene expression.

These microRNAs could directly target the key developmental gene “actin,” which controls the ability of nerve cells to connect with other nerve cells.

“We believe the brain selectively controls the wiring of memory through microRNAs that switch off key genes that shape, connect, and signal between neurons,” says Charles Claudianos, who co-led the study and is a professor at the University of Queensland Brain Institute (QBI).

“The brain is constantly managing all of the sensory experiences we receive at any one time, and retains some of these as memories based on the relative importance or significance of the experience, such as food, danger, and sex, to name some examples.

“We are now gaining an insight into how this occurs.”

Autism and dementia

Claudianos says the findings could eventually suggest new ways to address disorders such as dementia and autism.

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“The current hypothesis in autism is that those brains are over-connected, so getting a grasp of understanding how to regulate neural circuitry could provide future methods of tackling these problems,” says Claudianos.

“The nervous system behind memory formation is fundamentally no different between a honey bee and a human, so by studying bees we identify the basic biological processes that help us understand humans.”

Judith Reinhard, who co-led the study and is also a researcher at QBI, says the research provides a fundamental understanding of how neural circuits are built and consolidated to retain memories.

“Memory is a fundamental component of many mental health disorders, so understanding the basic science behind memories will give us greater insight into many disorders,” she adds.

“Human illnesses and diseases such as muscular myopathies, neurodevelopmental disorders, and susceptibility to infection are caused by DNA mutations that affect actin and actin-related biological processes.

“Molecules such as microRNAs are thought to have evolved to shape biological processes through controlling the expression genes that function in that process. A single microRNA can control many genes that function in the nervous system.”

The researchers collaborated with teams from Universidade de Sao Paulo and Universidade Federal de Alfenas in Brazil and the University of Konstanz in Germany.

Read more about the work in the journal Nature Communications.

Source: University of Queensland

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Fewer suicide attempts after talk therapy

Mon, 11/24/2014 - 11:58

People who attempt suicide then undergo counseling are less likely to try again. In fact, short-term counseling after a failed suicide cut repeat attempts and deaths by roughly a quarter.

Patients who voluntarily took part in just six to 10 talk therapy sessions saw long-term benefits: five years after counseling ended, there were 26 percent fewer suicides among those who received treatment compared with those who did not.

“We know that people who have attempted suicide are a high-risk population and that we need to help them. However, we did not know what would be effective in terms of treatment,” says Annette Erlangsen, adjunct associate professor of mental health at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“Now we have evidence that psychosocial treatment—which provides support, not medication—is able to prevent suicide in a group at high risk of dying by suicide.”

Fewer suicide attempts

In Denmark, which has free health care for its citizens, the first suicide prevention clinics were opened in 1992 for people at risk of suicide but not in need of psychiatric hospitalization. Clinics were opened nationwide in 2007.

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The researchers analyzed health data from Danes who attempted suicide from 1992 to 2010. They looked at 5,678 people who received psychosocial therapy at one of eight suicide prevention clinics.

They then compared their outcomes over time with those of 17,304 people who looked similar on 31 factors but had not gone for treatment after attempting to kill themselves. Participants were followed for up to 20 years.

During the first year, those who received therapy were 27 percent less likely to attempt suicide again and 38 percent less likely to die of any cause.

After five years, there were 26 percent fewer suicides in the group that had been treated following their attempt. After 10 years, the suicide rate for those who had therapy was 229 per 100,000 compared to 314 per 100,000 in the group that did not get the treatment.

What’s the ‘active ingredient’?

The therapy itself varied depending on the patient so the researchers can’t say exactly what “active ingredient” inoculated many against future suicide attempts.

They say it’s possible that it was simply having a safe, confidential place to talk, but plan to look at more data to see if specific types of therapy worked better than others.

It has not previously been possible to determine if a specific suicide prevention treatment was working, says Elizabeth A. Stuart, associate professor of mental health and a coauthor of the study.

It would be unethical to do a randomized study in which some subjects get prevention therapy and others don’t. That the Danish clinics were rolled out over 15 years and participation was voluntary, and that extensive baseline and long-term follow-up data were available, gave researchers a way to analyze therapy effectiveness.

“Our findings provide a solid basis for recommending that this type of therapy be considered for populations at risk for suicide,” she says.

The Danish Health Insurance Foundation and Danish government sources funded Stuart’s participation was supported in part by the US National Institute of Mental Health. The results appear in the journal Lancet Psychiatry.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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Some soda won’t hurt an active teen

Mon, 11/24/2014 - 11:31

New research suggests that a moderate amount of soda won’t have much of an impact on an active teenager’s metabolic health.

Sugar-sweetened drinks are the biggest source of added sugar in the diets of US teenagers, and young adults ages 15-20 consume more of these drinks than any other age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Adolescent obesity rates, which have quadrupled over the past 30 years, led to widespread scrutiny of added dietary sugars, especially those found in carbonated beverages.

Now, researchers have found that short-term, moderate consumption of high-fructose and high-glucose beverages has little impact on the metabolic health of weight-stable, physically active adolescents.

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“These beverages may not be as unhealthy for adolescents as previously thought, provided that kids stay active,” says Jill Kanaley, professor and associate chair in the University of Missouri department of nutrition and exercise physiology.

“That physical activity component is really critical in protecting against some of the negative effects of drinking large amounts of sugar-sweetened drinks demonstrated in previous studies.”

Kanaley’s study measured several aspects of metabolic health, including insulin sensitivity and cholesterol levels, after participants had consumed moderate amounts of either high-glucose or high-fructose beverages every day for two weeks.

The high-glucose drink contained 50 grams of glucose and 15 grams of fructose; the high-fructose drink contained 50 grams of fructose and 15 grams of glucose.

In comparison, two 12-ounce cans of white soda contain about 50 grams of fructose, although the amount of sugar found in soft drinks varies by brand and type. The researchers used armbands with electronic sensors to monitor physical activity of the participants, who were healthy male and female adolescents ages 15-20.

Although some research has shown that consuming sugary drinks can have detrimental metabolic effects, Kanaley says that the results of these studies have been inconsistent. Previous research often has excluded adolescents and did not measure participants’ levels of physical activity.

Not athletes, but active

In one of her previous studies, which recently appeared in Medicine in Science and Sports, Kanaley found that increased physical activity diminished negative effects associated with high-fructose diets.

“Many parents of adolescents worry about their children’s consumption of sweetened beverages,” Kanaley says.

“I certainly would recommend that they work to reduce their children’s intake of sugary drinks, but it also is important for kids to remain active, especially if they are drinking a lot of sugary beverages.

“In our study, the female adolescents averaged around 8,000 steps per day, and the males averaged about 10,000 steps per day. These children weren’t athletes, but they had active lifestyles.”

Kanaley’s article, which was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, was partially funded by a grant from the JR Albert Foundation, which provides support to nonprofit organizations promoting healthy living and wellness.

Other MU researchers on the study included Ying Liu, Young-Min Park and Nathan Winn. Timothy Heden, who recently completed his doctorate at MU and currently is a postdoctoral fellow at East Carolina University, was listed as first author on the study.

Source: University of Missouri

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Gene may drive schizophrenia by stunting ‘branches’

Mon, 11/24/2014 - 10:39

Too much protein expressed by a gene associated with schizophrenia causes faulty connections between nerve cells and keeps them from branching out and communicating with each other, according to a new study with rats.

The findings about the NOS1AP gene may help explain the biological process of the disease, researchers say.

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The study, published online in the journal Biological Psychiatry, shows that an overabundance of the protein causes dendrites—the tree-like structures that allow cells to talk to each other and are essential to the functioning of the nervous system—to become stunted in the developing brains of rats.

This keeps the dendrites deep within the neocortex, the portion of the brain responsible for higher functioning skills, such as spatial reasoning, conscious thought, motor commands, language development, and sensory perception.

In the control group of rats in which NOS1AP chemical protein was not overexpressed, the cellular connections developed properly, with cells moving to the outer layers of the neocortex and enabling the nerve cells to communicate.

“When the brain develops, it sets up a system of the right type of connectivity to make sure that communication can occur,” says Bonnie Firestein, professor of cell biology and neuroscience at Rutgers.

“What we saw here was that the nerve cells didn’t move to the correct locations and didn’t have dendrites that branch out to make the connections that were needed.”

Family link

Although scientists can’t pinpoint for certain the exact cause of schizophrenia, they have determined that several genes, including NOS1AP, are associated with an increased risk for the disabling brain disorder and believe that when there is an imbalance of the chemical reactions in the brain, development can be disrupted.

While about 1 percent of the general population suffers from schizophrenia, the risk increases to about 10 percent in the first degree relatives of an individual with the disease. NOS1AP has been identified as a risk factor in some families with multiple individuals affected with schizophrenia.

Since the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is associated with schizophrenia matures through adulthood, Firestein says it is possible that drug treatment therapies could be developed to target the disease in adolescents, when schizophrenia is thought to develop and when symptoms appear.

“The next step would be to let the disease develop in the laboratory and try to treat the over expression of the protein with an antipsychotic therapy to see if it works,” says Firestein.

Linda Brzustowicz, professor and chair of the genetics department at Rutgers, is a coauthor of the paper.

Source: Rutgers

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‘Weird’ microbes could hold key to drug-resistance

Mon, 11/24/2014 - 09:06

One of the most mysterious forms of life, Archaea, could be a rich and untapped source of antibacterial drugs.

The family of single-celled organisms thrives in environments like boiling hydrothermal pools and smoking deep-sea vents, which are too extreme for most other species.

“It is the first discovery of a functional antibacterial gene in Archaea,” says Seth Bordenstein, the associate professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt University who directed the study.

“You can’t overstate the significance of the antibiotic resistance problem that humanity is facing. This discovery should help energize the pursuit for new antibiotics in this underexplored group of life.”

Jumping around the ‘tree of life’

Until the late 1970s, biologists thought that Archaea were just weird bacteria, but then a landmark analysis of their DNA showed that they represent an independent branch on the tree of life that stretches back more than three billion years.

The realization that Archaea could be a source of novel pharmaceuticals emerges from a study of widespread horizontal gene transfer between different species conducted by a team of scientists from Vanderbilt University and Portland State University in Oregon.

The researchers were investigating a gene that produces a type of enzyme found in tears, saliva, milk, and mucus called a lysozyme. This particular lysozyme possesses broad-spectrum antibacterial action and remarkably jumped from bacteria to all major branches of life.

They discovered it in an extremely unlikely source: an Archaea microorganism that inhabits deep sea areas surrounding jets of superheated mineral water spewing from hydrothermal vents.

The paper that describes this discovery will appear online in eLife on November 25.

Archaea interact

“We found that this Archaea lysozyme kills certain species of firmicutes bacteria, a large group of bacteria that contains the classic drug resistant bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, Bacillus anthracis, which causes anthrax, and the gut infection Clostridium difficule,” says Bordenstein.

Before now scientists had largely ignored Archaea as a source of drugs because they don’t cause any diseases in humans and experts thought they didn’t interact much with the other forms of life because they were limited to extreme environments.

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In recent years, however, investigators have found that significant numbers of bacteria co-exist with Archaea in extreme environments and that Archaea themselves are not limited to such environments but also live in milder environments, such as within marine algae and in mammalian guts.

“The fact that Archaea are interacting with other forms of life a lot more than we thought means that they are competing for resources,” says coauthor Jason Metcalf, who is pursuing an MD/PhD at Vanderbilt.

“And, if they are competing for resources, then they are creating chemicals to attack and defend against other organisms: compounds that could be effective against bacteria resistant to our current antibiotics.”

Where this gene shows up

The scientists first encountered this antibacterial gene, a GH25-muramidase, in a bacteriophage virus that attacks Wolbachia, a bacterial parasite that infects insects and other invertebrates worldwide. It is a member of a family of enzymes that are common in bacteria, which use them to remodel their cell walls. Bacteriophages use the same enzymes to invade bacteria by chewing holes in their cell walls.

In addition, the gene’s presence in an insect, the pea aphid, had previously been reported. But when they examined its evolutionary history, the researchers were surprised to find that the gene also popped up in an ancient lineage of plants (Selaginella moellendorffii) and many species of fungi including Aspergillus oryzae, a mold used in Asian cooking to make soy sauce, miso, and alcoholic beverages like sake.

“That was completely unexpected,” says Metcalf. “But the weirdest occurrence was in an Archaea species Aciduliprofundum boonei that lives in hydrothermal vent communities. Why in the world would it need such an enzyme?”

Stealing genes

In order to explore this question, Metcalf tracked down one of the few groups of scientists in the world who specialize in collecting and growing Archaea species, including A. boonei: the Reysenbach Lab at Portland State. With their aid, he was able to purify A. boonei‘s GH25-muramidase domain, a step that was needed to determine the enzyme’s function.

“What is really cool about these results for me comes from an ecological perspective,” says Reysenbach. “These Archaea live in close proximity, in biofilms, to extremophile bacteria and need to compete for resources. I have often wondered, ‘How do Archaea do it?’

“Through this paper, we show that the smart archaeal ‘bugs’ do so by stealing genes from their bacterial ‘mates’ and competitors. This points to Archaea being good, as yet relatively untapped targets for exploring new antibacterial drugs.”

Metcalf also spent more than two years trying to purify the enzymes from the gene-carrying plant and fungi without success. “That is not unusual. It can be very difficult to purify large antibacterial proteins,” says Bordenstein. “This was a very difficult, multifaceted project. Only someone with Jason’s abilities could have pulled it off.”

Study authors are Metcalf, doctoral student Lisa Funkhouser-Jones, and Bordenstein from Vanderbilt, and postdoctoral student Kristen Brileya and Professor Anna-Louise Reysenbach from Portland State University in Oregon.

The research was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health, and from the National Science Foundation.

The university has applied for a patent on the newly discovered gene and is exploring industry partnerships and licensing opportunities.

Source: Vanderbilt University

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