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Updated: 23 min 36 sec ago

Faster ‘door-to-balloon’ time is critical for heart patients

36 min 50 sec ago

New research suggests there is a medical benefit to reducing “door-to-balloon” time—how long it takes to treat emergency heart patients.

Door-to-balloon (D2B) refers to the tiny balloons inflated in patients to reopen blocked blood vessels. The new findings contradict previous research that claimed D2B times had no effect on patient outcome.

The key factor, researchers say, is that many more people are receiving emergency heart treatment than even a decade earlier—including patients with more complicated health issues that put them at higher risk for death.

“This settles some of the concern that shorter times were not benefiting patients and makes clear that advances in quality of care in terms of timely treatment is very importantly linked with survival after heart attacks,” says Harlan Krumholz, professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine and senior author of the study, published online in the journal Lancet.

The study looked at National Cardiovascular Data Registry information from 150,116 primary percutaneous coronary interventions (pPCI) performed in 423 hospitals between 2005 and 2011. During that time, the number of pPCI procedures jumped 55.4 percent. The average D2B time dropped from 86 minutes to 63 minutes.

The first author of the paper is Brahmajee Nallamothu, an interventional cardiologist at the University of Michigan Health System.

Source: Yale University

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How schools can prevent teen dating abuse

2 hours 54 min ago

School-based intervention may be an effective way to address and even prevent teen dating abuse, a new study shows.

Researchers conducted the study during the 2012-2013 academic year at eight school-based health centers in California where students receive confidential clinical health services.

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For the study, published in the journal Pediatrics, 1,062 teens ages 14 to 19 were asked about their exposure to adolescent relationship abuse (including cyber dating abuse), sexual behavior, and care-seeking for sexual and reproductive health at their initial visit and again three months later.

Providers and staff in four school-based health centers received training on how to talk about healthy and unhealthy relationships; received palm-sized brochures about relationship abuse and available resources to hand out to patients; and learned how to refer youth to additional services and supports.

No changes were implemented at the other four school-based health centers.

Students at the intervention sites were more likely than those at the other sites to recognize sexual coercion. Among students who reported relationship abuse at the initial visit on a confidential survey, students at intervention schools were significantly less likely to report such abuse on the follow-up survey three months later.

Talking about it

“This study shows that a universal education and brief counseling approach in health care settings may be a useful way to address relationship abuse among adolescents,” says lead investigator Elizabeth Miller, associate professor of pediatrics s and chief of the division of adolescent and young adult medicine at University of Pittsburgh.

“Clinicians talking about healthy and unhealthy relationships with all of their patients can make a difference.”

Among almost 400 youth who reported experiencing relationship abuse at an initial visit, 65 percent of students in intervention schools reported still experiencing such abuse about three months later, compared to 80 percent of students in the other schools.

In addition, youth in the intervention clinics were much more likely to discuss being in an unhealthy relationship with their health care provider.

Empowering teenagers

“Embedding prevention messages and information about relevant resources within clinical settings for adolescents may be an effective way to reduce relationship abuse,” says Lisa James, the director of Health at Futures Without Violence and a co-investigator on the study.

“Youth seeking care in adolescent health settings appear to have more exposure to relationship abuse and associated poor health outcomes,” Miller says. “Finding an intervention that may make a difference for these youth who are at higher risk for relationship abuse is encouraging.”

“This study effectively combined school-based clinical interventions with youth-led promotion of healthy adolescent relationships,” says co-investigator Samantha Blackburn, formerly with the California School-Based Health Alliance, and now an assistant professor of nursing at California State University Sacramento. “Not only did students receive needed services, they were also empowered to help their peers be healthy and safe.”

“Prevention of relationship abuse among adolescents requires a range of strategies from educating youth and adults about the extent of the problem; connecting youth to relevant supports and services; and engaging schools, parents, and other influential adults to talk about healthy relationships,” says co-investigator Alison Chopel from the Public Health Institute’s California Adolescent Health Collaborative.  “This intervention is a part of the prevention solution.”

The researchers are hopeful that the findings will encourage schools and adolescent health care providers to implement this program, Miller says.

“This study suggests that creating spaces for young people to learn about healthy and unhealthy relationships and how to help their friends can really help to reduce adolescent relationship abuse.”

The National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, US Department of Justice supported the study.

Source: University of Pittsburgh

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Incredibly thin material could capture images

3 hours 24 min ago

A new material may lead to the thinnest-ever imaging platform and could be the basis for superthin devices, say researchers.

Sidong Lei, a graduate student in the Rice University lab of materials scientist Pulickel Ajayan, synthesized copper indium selenide (CIS)—a single-layer matrix of copper, indium, and selenium atoms.

Lei also built a prototype—a three-pixel, charge-coupled device (CCD)—to prove the material’s ability to capture an image.

The details appear this month in the journal Nano Letters.

Researchers started with few-layer exfoliated CIS on a silicon substrate, fabricated three pairs of titanium/gold electrodes on top of the CIS, and cut the CIS into three sections with a focused ion beam. (Credit: Ajayan Group/Rice University)

Lei says the optoelectronic memory material could be an important component in two-dimensional electronics that capture images.

“Traditional CCDs are thick and rigid, and it would not make sense to combine them with 2D elements,” he says. “CIS-based CCDs would be ultrathin, transparent, and flexible, and are the missing piece for things like 2D imaging devices.”

The device traps electrons formed when light hits the material and holds them until released for storage, Lei says.

Medical imaging devices

CIS pixels are highly sensitive to light because the trapped electrons dissipate so slowly, said Robert Vajtai, a senior faculty fellow in Rice’s materials science and nanoengineering department.

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“There are many two-dimensional materials that can sense light, but none are as efficient as this material,” he adds. “This material is 10 times more efficient than the best we’ve seen before.”

Because the material is transparent, a CIS-based scanner might use light from one side to illuminate the image on the other for capture.

For medical applications, Lei envisions CIS being combined with other 2-D electronics in tiny bio-imaging devices that monitor real-time conditions.

The prototype

In the experiments for the newly reported study, Lei and colleagues grew synthetic CIS crystals, pulled single-layer sheets from the crystals, and then tested the ability of the layers to capture light.

He says the layer is about two nanometers thick and consists of a nine-atom-thick lattice. The material may also be grown viachemical vapor deposition to a size limited only by the size of the furnace.

Because it’s flexible, CIS could also be curved to match the focal surface of an imaging lens system. Lei says this would allow for the real-time correction of aberrations and significantly simplify the entire optical system.

The Army Research Office Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative, the Function Accelerated nanoMaterial Engineering Division of the Semiconductor Technology Advanced Research Network, the Microelectronics Advanced Research Association, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, the Robert A. Welch Foundation, the National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellowship, and the Office of Naval Research supported the work.

Source: Rice University

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Team uncovers origin of high-latitude aurora

3 hours 57 min ago

Researchers have solved a long standing space mystery about the origin of an unusual type of aurora.

Auroras—the most visible manifestation of the sun’s effect on Earth—are seen as colorful displays in the night sky, known as the Northern or Southern Lights.

They are caused by the solar wind, a stream of plasma—electrically charged atomic particles—carrying its own magnetic field, interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field.

The ESA/NASA Cluster and NASA’s IMAGE missions were in a position around Earth on Sep. 15, 2005, to determine how solar material in the magnetic environment in near-Earth space creates a theta aurora. (Credit: ESA/NASA/SOHO/LASCO/EIT)

Normally, the main region for this impressive display is the “auroral oval,” which lies at around 65–70 degrees north or south of the equator, encircling the polar caps.

But they can occur at even higher latitudes. One type is known as a theta aurora because seen from above it looks like the Greek letter theta—an oval with a line crossing through the center.

While the cause of the auroral oval emissions is reasonably well understood, the origin of the theta aurora has been unclear—until now.

Hot plasma

Researchers observed particles in the two “lobe” regions of the magnetosphere. The plasma in the lobes is normally cold, but previous observations suggested that theta auroras are linked with unusually hot lobe plasma.

“Previously it was unclear whether this hot plasma was a result of direct solar wind entry through the lobes of the magnetosphere, or if the plasma is somehow related to the plasma sheet on the night side of Earth,” says Robert Fear from University of Southampton and formerly of University of Leicester, where much of the research took place. Fear is lead author of the study published in the journal Science.

“One idea is that the process of magnetic reconnection on the night side of Earth causes a build-up of ‘trapped’ hot plasma in the higher latitude lobes.”

Solar winds

The mystery was finally solved by studying data collected simultaneously by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Cluster and NASA’s IMAGE satellites. While the four Cluster satellites were located in the southern hemisphere magnetic lobe, IMAGE had a wide-field view of the southern hemisphere aurora.

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As one Cluster satellite observed uncharacteristically energetic plasma in the lobe, IMAGE saw the “arc” of the theta aurora cross the magnetic footprint of Cluster.

“We found that the energetic plasma signatures occur on high-latitude magnetic field lines that have been ‘closed’ by the process of magnetic reconnection, which then causes the plasma to become relatively hot,” Fear says.

“Because the field lines are closed, the observations are incompatible with direct entry from the solar wind. By testing this and other predictions about the behavior of the theta aurora, our observations provide strong evidence that the plasma trapping mechanism is responsible for the theta aurora.”

“The study highlights the intriguing process that can occur in the magnetosphere when the interplanetary magnetic field of the solar wind points northwards,” says Philippe Escoubet, ESA’s Cluster project scientist.

“This is the first time that the origin of the theta aurora phenomenon has been revealed, and it is thanks to localized measurements from Cluster combined with the wide-field view of IMAGE that we can better understand another aspect of the Sun–Earth connection.”

Source: University of Southampton

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Does pregnancy lower testosterone in dads-to-be?

4 hours 31 min ago

When a couple is expecting a baby, it’s not just the mother that goes through hormonal changes. A new study suggests impending fatherhood coincides with a drop in two hormones in men—testosterone and estradiol—even before the baby is born.

Previous research has suggested that men’s hormones change once they become fathers, and there is some evidence that this is a function of a decline after the child’s birth.

The new study is the first to show that the decline may begin even earlier, during the transition to fatherhood, says Robin Edelstein, associate professor of psychology at University of Michigan.

“We don’t yet know exactly why men’s hormones are changing,” Edelstein says.

“These changes could be a function of psychological changes that men experience as they prepare to become fathers, changes in their romantic relationships, or even physical changes that men experience along with their pregnant partners.

“Nevertheless, fathers’ hormonal changes could have important implications for paternal behavior once their babies are born.”

Drop in hormones

Expectant mothers experience significant hormone changes throughout the transition to parenthood, but less has been known about the prenatal hormone changes among soon-to-be fathers.

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For the new study, published in the American Journal of Human Biology, researchers examined salivary testosterone, cortisol, estradiol, and progesterone in 29 first-time expectant couples between the ages of 18 and 45. The saliva samples were obtained up to four times during the prenatal period at about 12, 20, 28 and 36 weeks of pregnancy.

Women showed large prenatal increases in all four hormones, while men saw declines in testosterone (which is associated with aggression and parental care) and estradiol (which is associated with caregiving and bonding). No changes were found in men’s cortisol (a stress hormone) or progesterone (which is associated with social closeness and maternal behavior).

So it’s not just about the presence of an infant that lowers testosterone.

One limitation of the new study—as it relates to lower testosterone—is that researchers do not have a comparison group of men who are not expecting a child, Edelstein says.

“Thus, we can’t completely rule out the possibility that the changes are simply due to age or the passage of time.”

Source: University of Michigan

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Breastfeeding past 2 months lowers obesity risk

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 12:07

Infants at risk for childhood and adult obesity have a better chance of not becoming overweight if they breastfeed longer than two months.

“Children at the highest risk for rising weight gain patterns in infancy appear to benefit the most from longer breastfeeding duration,” says Stacy J. Carling, a doctoral student in nutritional sciences at Cornell University.

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“Infants who breastfed for two months or less were 2.5 times more likely to add weight rapidly, compared to similarly high risk children who breastfed longer.”

Excessive weight gain in infancy has been linked with obesity later in life and there are several well-known risk factors for that, Carling says. “Our study is the first to show that stopping breastfeeding too soon tips the scale for at-risk children.”

Published in the journal Pediatrics, the two-year study tracked 595 children in a health care system in central New York, asking mothers to fill out questionnaires and give access to the children’s medical records.

Excessive (or normal) weight gain by the maturing infants was followed with their weight-for-length/height “z scores,” a standard measure used by the World Health Organization to detect malnutrition in children not gaining enough weight as their bodies lengthen.

On the mothers’ part, risk factors for subsequent childhood obesity included maternal BMI (body mass index), education, gestational weight gain, food insecurity, and smoking during pregnancy, postpartum stress, and lack of social support.

In the final analysis for this particular cohort, maternal BMI, education and smoking during pregnancy were the only factors associated with an infant’s weight-gain trajectory.

“Now we can add short-duration breastfeeding to the list,” Carling says. “Breastfeeding may protect against elevated infant weight gain—with better appetite control and lower protein intake—compared to formula-fed babies.”

The findings should “aid in the identification of infants at high risk for obesity … targeting mothers of high-risk infants for breastfeeding promotion and support may prove protective against overweight and obesity during a critical window of development when such efforts are most effective,” the authors write.

The National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases supported the study.

Source: Cornell University

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How pride could hint at mood disorders

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 11:33

Inflated or deflated feelings of self-worth may be connected to mood disorders, such as bipolar disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, anxiety, and depression, report researchers.

“We found that it is important to consider the motivation to pursue power, beliefs about how much power one has attained, pro-social and aggressive strategies for attaining power, and emotions related to attaining power,” says senior author Sheri Johnson, psychologist at University of California, Berkeley.

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In their study of more than 600 young men and women conducted at Berkeley, researchers conclude that one’s perceived social status—or lack thereof—is at the heart of a wide range of mental illnesses.

The findings support assessing such traits as “ruthless ambition,” “discomfort with leadership,” and “hubristic pride” to understand psychopathologies.

“People prone to depression or anxiety reported feeling little sense of pride in their accomplishments and little sense of power,” Johnson says. “In contrast, people at risk for mania tended to report high levels of pride and an emphasis on the pursuit of power despite interpersonal costs.”

Specifically, Johnson and fellow researchers looked at how study participants fit into the “dominance behavioral system,” a construct in which humans and other mammals assess their place in the social hierarchy and respond accordingly to promote cooperation and avoid conflict and aggression. The concept is rooted in the evolutionary principle that dominant mammals gain easier access to resources for the sake of reproductive success and the survival of the species.

Studies have long established that feelings of powerlessness and helplessness weaken the immune system, making one more vulnerable to physical and mental ailments. Conversely, an inflated sense of power is among the behaviors associated with bipolar disorder and narcissistic personality disorder, which can be both personally and socially corrosive.

Two kinds of pride

For this study, 612 young men and women rated their social status, propensity toward manic, depressive or anxious symptoms, drive to achieve power, comfort with leadership, and degree of pride, among other measures.

In one study, they were gauged for two distinct kinds of pride: “authentic pride,” which is based on specific achievements and is related to positive social behaviors and healthy self-esteem; and “hubristic pride,” which is defined as being overconfident and is correlated with aggression, hostility and poor interpersonal skills.

And in a test for tendencies toward hypomania, a manic mood disorder, participants ranked how strongly they agreed or disagreed with such statements as “I often have moods where I feel so energetic and optimistic that I feel I could outperform almost anyone at anything,” or “I would rather be an ordinary success in life than a spectacular failure.”

Overall, the results showed a strong correlation between the highs and lows of perceived power and mood disorders.

“This is the first study to assess the dominance behavioral system across psychopathologies,” Johnson says. “The findings present more evidence that it is important to consider dominance in understanding vulnerability to psychological symptoms.”

The research is published in the journal Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice.

Source: UC Berkeley

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Brain waves predict which kids will share

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 10:18

Specific brain markers predict generosity in children, report developmental neuroscientists. Those neural markers appear to be linked to both social and moral evaluation processes.

Although young children are natural helpers, their perspective on sharing resources tends to be selfish. Jean Decety, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Chicago, and Jason Cowell, a postdoctoral scholar in Decety’s lab, wanted to find out how young children’s brains evaluate whether to share something with others out of generosity.

In this study, generosity was used as a proxy for moral behavior. “We know that generosity in children increases as they get older,” says Decety. He adds that neuroscientists have not yet examined the mechanisms that guide the increase in generosity.

“The results of this study demonstrate that children exhibit both distinct early automatic and later more controlled patterns of neural responses when viewing scenarios showing helping and harmful behaviors. It’s that later more controlled neural response that is predictive of generosity.”

Children were monitored with EEGs while watching animated characters perform prosocial and antisocial behaviors, and later participated in a task measuring generosity. (Credit: Jean Decety)

The ‘dictator game’

The study included recording brain waves by EEG and eye tracking of 57 children, ages three to five, while they viewed short animations depicting prosocial and antisocial behaviors of cartoon-like characters helping or hurting each other.

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Following that testing, the children played a modified version of a scenario called the “dictator game.” The children were given ten stickers and were told that the stickers were theirs to keep. They were then asked if they wanted to share any of their stickers with an anonymous child who was to come to the lab later that day.

The children had two boxes, one for themselves and one for the anonymous child. In an effort to prevent bias, the experimenter turned around while the child decided whether or how much to share.

On average, the children shared fewer than two stickers (1.78 out of 10) with the anonymous child. There was no significant difference in sharing behavior by gender or age. The authors also found that the nature of the animations the children watched at the outset could influence the children’s likelihood of behaving in a generous way.

The study shows how young children’s brains process moral situations presented in these scenarios and the direct link to actual prosocial behavior in the act of generosity by sharing the stickers.

Moral behavior

The developmental scientists found evidence from the EEG that the children exhibited early automatic responses to morally laden stimuli (the scenarios) and then reappraised the same stimuli in a more controlled manner, building to produce implicit moral evaluations.

“This is the first neuro-developmental study of moral sensitivity that directly links implicit moral evaluations and actual moral behavior, and identifies the specific neuro markers of each,” says Decety.

“These findings provide an interesting idea that by encouraging children to reflect upon the moral behavior of others, we may be able to foster sharing and generosity in them.”

Decety adds that these findings show that, contrary to several predominant theories of morality, while gut reactions to the behavior of others do exist, they are not associated with one’s own moral behavior, as in how generous the children were with their stickers.

Decety and Cowell are now conducting similar work with even younger children, ages 12 to 24 months, to look at when these neural markers for generosity emerge.

The paper is available online in Current Biology.

Source: University of Chicago

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‘Ripple effect’ as fish opt for cooler water?

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 08:41

Increasing temperatures are pushing fish and crustaceans north in search of cooler waters along the east and west coasts of North America.

The shift could have an effect on birds, marine mammals, and those who depend on fishing for food and income.

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For example, lobsters that were once abundant off Long Island have moved to cooler waters of Maine while summer flounder and black sea bass, once common to the waters off Cape Hatteras, have moved north and are now more abundant off the coast of New Jersey.

“As temperatures have warmed in the waters off our coasts, animals with a low tolerance for that warming have just picked up and shifted,” says Malin Pinsky, assistant professor of ecology and evolution at Rutgers.

“I hesitate to say ‘moved,’ mainly because we don’t yet know whether fish are actually swimming, or whether they’re simply reproducing more slowly in their old ranges and faster in their new ranges.”

Researchers say the shift northward is happening at different rates among species—not because of their biological differences—but because of the rate and direction of climate change in their waters.

During the past 18 months, Pinsky has published two papers—in Climatic Change in October 2012 and in Science in September 2013—documenting the trend and exploring its implications. The data is now available at a new website, OceanAdapt.

Much of the information on the website helps explain how the ecology, business, and economics of sport and commercial fishing are connected to the effects of climate change and how difficult it is to adapt to the resulting changes.

Can fisheries adapt?

The challenge now, says Pinsky, in a study in Oceanography, is for fisheries, which provide a source of protein to 60 percent of the world’s population, to adapt to these changes.

In the case of the black sea bass, for instance, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates certain fisheries in the eastern United States, still allocates quotas among states according to their distribution in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At that time, black sea bass was more often caught in Virginia than in New York, while the bass is now found further north.

The regulations require that fish caught in North Carolina, for instance, be distributed and sold from North Carolina. While the number of black bass that can be harvested in North Carolina is the same as it was two decades ago, the black bass population has dwindled in those waters—forcing fishermen from North Carolina to travel to New Jersey to do their harvesting.

Fundamental changes are necessary for fisheries to remain healthy as changes in climate continue to affect the stability of marine life, Pinsky says.

While a number of species like the black sea bass are shifting their habitat range, not all species are moving at the same rate. Although it isn’t clear how this separation of predators will affect the food web in the future, it may force birds and mammals that rely on fish to survive to find new food and prey elsewhere.

“We don’t necessarily foresee a catastrophic collapse,” says Pinsky. “Species that are heavily overfished are especially sensitive to climate change, and so allowing overfished species to recover may be one of the best things we can do for preserving fisheries in the future.”

The US National Marine Fisheries Service funded development of the website.

Source: Rutgers

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Birds knew to flee before tornado hit

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 08:13

While tracking a population of golden-winged warblers, scientists discovered that birds in the mountains of eastern Tennessee fled their breeding grounds one to two days before powerful supercell storms arrived.

The storm system swept through the central and southern United States in late April 2014, generating 84 confirmed tornadoes and killing 35 people.

“It is the first time we’ve documented this type of storm avoidance behavior in birds during breeding season,” says ecologist Henry Streby, who conducted the work while he was a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow and a visiting research scholar in University of California, Berkeley’s department of environmental science, policy and management.

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“We know that birds can alter their route to avoid things during regular migration, but it hadn’t been shown until our study that they would leave once the migration is over and they’d established their breeding territory to escape severe weather,” says Streby, who led the research team.

“The warblers in our study flew at least 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) total to avoid a severe weather system. They then came right back home after the storm passed.”

Notably, the birds fled while the storm was still 250-560 miles away, and local environmental cues to inclement weather—including changes in atmospheric pressure, temperature, and wind speed—were largely absent.

“At the same time that meteorologists on the Weather Channel were telling us this storm was headed in our direction, the birds were apparently already packing their bags and evacuating the area,” says Streby.

The researchers described this “evacuation migration” of the warblers in Current Biology.

An accidental discovery

The unplanned exodus was a collateral finding to an ongoing study of the birds’ migratory pattern. Golden-winged warblers regularly spend their winters in Central and South America before returning to North America’s Great Lakes and Appalachian Mountain regions to breed.

There is growing urgency to study the golden-winged warblers. Although the birds’ numbers are stable in the Great Lakes, their population is only five percent of historic levels in the Appalachians due to factors such as habitat loss and hybridization with other species.

Truly tiny birds

The researchers were testing whether a bird so small—an adult golden-winged warbler weighs about 9 grams, about as much as four dimes—could successfully carry a half-gram geolocator throughout the year. To obtain the tracking data, the researchers had to retrieve as many geolocators as possible from the 20 birds that had been originally tagged. The new study results come from five geolocators with usable data.

“These warblers are the smallest bird species ever marked,” says Streby. “The fact that any geolocators came back at all was a relief.”

After examining the data, the researchers found anomalies in the geographical locations for the birds from April 26 to May 2. It appeared that the birds reversed course and flew back from their breeding grounds in Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains to the Gulf coast. This was odd, the researchers say, since golden-winged warblers usually stay put after returning to their breeding grounds to establish their territory and raise their young.

The researchers initially thought the readings were a mistake, but when they went through their data again, they could not find errors consistent with known factors that can throw off geolocator readings. The search for an alternate explanation began.

“We remembered the supercell storm because we also had to evacuate to a hotel to wait it out,” says Streby.

But when the birds left town, the local weather conditions were normal. The researchers wondered how the birds got their alert, and infrasound emerged as the most logical explanation.

Bombs, jets, and pigeons

Acoustic waves that occur at frequencies below 20 hertz (cycles per second) fall into the infrasound range, which is below the normal limits of human hearing. Birds and other animals, however, have been shown to hear infrasound.

When winds blow over mountains, ocean waves crash onto shorelines and volcanoes erupt, they create higher frequencies that are discernible by humans. But those events also generate infrasound waves that can travel thousands of kilometers away.

The lower the frequency, the farther the sound waves can travel. The powerful explosion of a nuclear bomb can be detected acoustically across the globe, for instance, which is why there is a network of infrasound arrays worldwide that is used to monitor compliance with the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Scientists have known for decades that tornadoes produce very strong infrasound, and that birds can hear and respond to infrasound frequencies.

In 2000, research by Jon Hagstrum, a geophysicist at the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park, found that before supersonic flights were discontinued, the infrasonic noise from Concorde jets could interfere with the ability of racing pigeons to find their way home. His paper was the first evidence beyond the laboratory that birds use infrasound to orient themselves.

“Pigeons use the geomagnetic field and the sun as compasses and directional guides, but those markers make terrible maps,” says Hagstrum, who was not part of the warbler study. “Pigeons still need a map to determine which direction home is, and the source of that map had been unclear until recently. My work suggests that birds use infrasound as their map.”

Will birds have to dodge more storms?

Hagstrum says the new paper about warbler’s clearing out before tornadoes hit presents convincing evidence that birds also use infrasound to remotely detect storms.

“Biologists had not been looking at the use of infrasound in this way, but it certainly makes sense to me,” he says. “We may find that acoustics are a pretty significant way that birds in general view their environment, much like dogs use olfaction and humans use sight.”

The ability of birds to forecast massive storms could become increasingly important in the decades ahead, the study authors say.

“There’s growing research that shows that tornadoes are becoming more common and severe with climate change, so evasive actions like the ones the warbler took might become more necessary,” says Streby. “It could come at a cost, though, since such actions place added energetic and reproductive stress on populations that are already struggling.”

The US Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Geological Survey helped support this research. Other members of the team were biologists at the University of Minnesota, the University of Tennessee, and the US Geological Survey.

Source: UC Berkeley

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Will ‘capture and culture’ personalize cancer therapy?

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 07:27

A new way to grow a certain type of cancer cell from a patient outside the body could lead to a deeper understanding of cancer and better early-stage treatment of the disease.

Researchers say the new technique is a major step forward in the study of circulating tumor cells, which are shed from tumors and circulate through the blood of cancer patients.

These are the cells that are thought to cause metastasis, the spread of cancer through the body that’s responsible for nearly 90 percent of cancer-related deaths.

The cells also hold valuable genetic information that could lead doctors to more informed treatment decisions and even tailor-made therapies for individual patients. And because the cells circulate in the blood, they can be gathered with a blood draw rather than a more invasive tissue biopsy.

But progress has been slow, largely because the cells are rare in early-stage cancer patients.

The new capture and culture method changes this by providing a reliable way to get usable numbers of circulating tumor cells from even early-stage patients. It grew new cells from 73 percent of the patients in a recent study, more than three times the success rate of previous methods and a first for early-stage cancers.

Electron microscopy shows cultured CTC cells (circled in red) growing on the chip device used in the study. (Credit: Jennifer Zhuo Zhang)

Non-invasive blood biopsy

It’s a major game changer, says Sunitha Nagrath, assistant professor of chemical engineering at University of Michigan.

“This culture method gives clinicians a way to study each patient’s cancer much earlier and much more frequently. We can look for resistance to therapy and test potential therapeutics. It also moves us closer to being able to predict metastasis.”

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The technique, described in the journal Oncotarget, may also bring doctors closer to their goal of capturing cancer cells for diagnosis with a quick, non-invasive “blood biopsy” instead of the tissue biopsies that are currently used. This could allow them to keep closer tabs on each patient’s status and make more informed treatment decisions.

“We envision a point-of-care solution in four to five years,” says Nithya Ramnath, associate professor of medical oncology. “You’d give blood and a short time later, doctors would have a whole repertoire of what’s going on with your tumor.”

The capture and culture process starts with a microfluidic chip device that captures cancer cells as a blood sample is pumped across it. The research team used a chip made of polydimethylsiloxane on a 1-inch by 3-inch glass slide. They covered the chip with microscopic posts that slow and trap cells, then coated it with antibodies that bind to the cancer cells.

Cancer cells need neighbors

After the cancer cells were captured on the chip, the team pumped in a mixture of collagen and Matrigel growth medium. They also added cancer-associated fibroblast cells that were grown in the lab of Diane Simeone, surgical director at the Multidisciplinary Pancreatic Cancer Clinic of the University of Michigan Cancer Center. This created a three-dimensional environment that closely mimics the conditions inside the body of a cancer patient.

The captured cancer cells prospered in the mixture, reproducing additional cells in 73 percent of tested samples. It was a dramatic improvement over earlier methods, which studied later-stage cancer patients and saw success rates of only around 20 percent.

“Primary cancer cells don’t grow well on a flat surface, and like people, they need neighbors to really prosper,” Nagrath says. “The collagen and Matrigel provide a three-dimensional environment for the cells to grow, while the cancer-associated fibroblasts give them the neighboring cells they need.”

The technology can be applied to most cancers, including breast, lung, pancreatic and others. It could enable doctors to follow the progression of each patient’s disease much more closely, says Max Wicha, professor of oncology and director of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, who is working to develop the technology.

“Cancer cells change constantly and they can quickly develop resistance to a given treatment,” Wicha says. “A device like this will enable us to follow the cancer’s progression in real time. If a cancer develops resistance to one therapy, we’ll be able to quickly change to a different treatment.”

The National Institutes of Health provided funding.

Source: University of Michigan

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You pick the names for 5 craters on Mercury

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 07:15

The team behind NASA’s Messenger mission is looking for your help: they need names for five newly discovered craters on Mercury.

If you’re a citizen of the Earth, you’re eligible to enter the contest. The entry deadline is January 15.

Messenger, built and operated for NASA by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, launched in 2004 and—nearly seven years later—became the first human spacecraft to enter orbit around Mercury. Its original one-year science mission to investigate the planet has been extended twice.

Messenger is expected to drop out of orbit and crash into Mercury in spring 2015.

“This brave little craft, not much bigger than a Volkswagen Beetle, has travelled more than 8 billion miles since 2004—getting to the planet and then in orbit,” says Julie Edmonds, mission education and public outreach manager at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and organizer of the competition.

“We would like to draw international attention to the achievements of the mission and the guiding engineers and scientists on Earth who have made the Messenger mission so outstandingly successful,” she says.

(Credit: The Mercury crater at the center of this image is named Dickens, after Charles Dickens, the 19th century British author of Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, and A Christmas Carol. (Credit: NASA/JHU APL/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

Choose a creative name

According to the International Astronomical Union, arbiter of planetary and satellite nomenclature since its inception in 1919, all new craters must be named after an artist, composer, or writer famous for more than 50 years and dead for more than three years. See the current list of named Mercury craters here.

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Edmonds says participants should first research the individual they are considering before filling out the contest entry. “Once online, registrants will be asked to submit a short description of the individual’s contributions to the arts, music, or literature, as well as an authoritative source for background information,” she says.

The name should not have political, religious, or military significance. It is also essential that there be no other features in the solar system with the same name, Edmonds says. For example, photographer Ansel Adams is not eligible because there is a feature on the moon with the name Adams (even though it was not named for Ansel).

Participants can check their ideas against the list of named solar system features and enter the name in the “Search by Feature Name” box in the upper-right corner.

Messenger team representatives and other experts will review all entries. A short list of 15 names (three per crater) will then go to the IAU, which will make the final selection.

Winning submissions will be announced by the IAU to coincide with the end of Messenger mission operations in late March or April 2015.

Naming Messenger’s discoveries

“We now have a detailed, high-resolution map of the entire planet,” Edmonds says. “As scientists study the incredible data returned by Messenger, it becomes important to give names to surface features that are of special scientific interest.”

Names for landforms such as mountains, craters, and cliffs make it easier for scientists and others to discuss what they have learned, Edmonds says. On Earth, for example, it’s easier to refer to “Mount Everest” than “the 8,484-meter peak located at 27º 59′ 17″ N, 86º 55′ 31″ E.”

The Messenger team, under principal investigator Sean C. Solomon of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, set out to take 2,500 images of the planet. But the overachieving spacecraft has returned more than 250,000.

Messenger has rewritten scientists’ ideas about Mercury and contributed to a deeper understanding of the history and formation of planet and the solar system.

For instance, geochemical measurements revealed a surface poor in iron but rich in moderately volatile elements such as sulfur and sodium. That ruled out longstanding theories that sought to explain Mercury’s high density compared with the other inner planets.

The probe has also helped show that Mercury’s surface was shaped by volcanic activity. It confirmed the presence of large amounts of water ice in permanently shadowed craters near the planet’s poles.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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Thoughts make robot hand pinch and scoop

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 05:32

A woman with quadriplegia was able to manipulate a robot hand into four positions using just her thoughts to successfully pick up big and small boxes, a ball, an oddly shaped rock, and fat and skinny tubes.

The findings describe, for the first time, 10-degree brain control of a prosthetic device, in which the woman was able to maneuver the hand into four positions: fingers spread, scoop, pinch, and thumbs up.

Four of the gestures possible with the robotic hand, clockwise from top left: scoop, opposition, spread, and pinch. (Credit: Journal of Neural Engineering/IOP Publishing)

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The achievement, described in the Journal of Neural Engineering, is a further demonstration of how brain-computer interface technology has the potential to improve the function and quality of life of those unable to use their own arms.

“Our project has shown that we can interpret signals from neurons with a simple computer algorithm to generate sophisticated, fluid movements that allow the user to interact with the environment,” says senior investigator Jennifer Collinger, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

In February 2012, small electrode grids with 96 tiny contact points each were surgically implanted in the regions of trial participant Jan Scheuermann’s brain that would normally control her right arm and hand movement.

Each electrode point picked up signals from an individual neuron, which were then relayed to a computer to identify the firing patterns associated with particular observed or imagined movements, such as raising or lowering the arm, or turning the wrist.

That “mind-reading” was used to direct the movements of a prosthetic arm developed by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

Within a week of the surgery, Scheuermann could reach in and out, left and right, and up and down with the arm to achieve 3D control, and before three months had passed, she also could flex the wrist back and forth, move it from side to side, and rotate it clockwise and counter-clockwise, as well as grip objects, adding up to 7D control. Those findings were published in The Lancet.

Natural movements

“In the next part of the study, described in this new paper, Jan mastered 10D control, allowing her to move the robot hand into different positions while also controlling the arm and wrist,” says Michael Boninger, professor and chair of PM&R and director of the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute.

To bring the total of arm and hand movements to 10, the simple pincer grip was replaced by four hand shapes: finger abduction, in which the fingers are spread out; scoop, in which the last fingers curl in; thumb opposition, in which the thumb moves outward from the palm; and a pinch of the thumb, index, and middle fingers.

As before, Scheuermann watched animations of and imagined the movements while the team recorded the signals her brain was sending in a process called calibration. Then, they used what they had learned to read her thoughts so she could move the hand into the various positions.

“Jan used the robot arm to grasp more easily when objects had been displayed during the preceding calibration, which was interesting,” says co-investigator Andrew Schwartz, a professor of neurobiology. “Overall, our results indicate that highly coordinated, natural movement can be restored to people whose arms and hands are paralyzed.”

After surgery in October to remove the electrode arrays, Scheuermann concluded her participation in the study.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute funded the project.

Source: University of Pittsburgh

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Zooming in on cilia can detect mutations

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 13:02

A deep breath sucks in dust, dirt, pollen, bacteria, and probably more than a few dust mites. Cilia, the cell’s tails and antennas, are among the most important biological structures. They line our windpipes and sweep away all the junk we inhale. They help us see, smell, and reproduce.

When a mutation disrupts the function or structure of cilia, the effects on the human body are devastating and sometimes lethal.

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The challenge in diagnosing, studying, and treating these genetic disorders, called ciliopathies, is the small size of cilia—about 500-times thinner than a piece of paper. It’s been difficult to examine them in molecular detail until now.

Professor Daniela Nicastro and postdoctoral fellow Jianfeng Lin have captured the highest-resolution images of human cilia ever, using a new approach developed jointly with Lawrence Ostrowski and Michael Knowles from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. They reported on the approach in a recent issue of Nature Communications.

About 20 different ciliopathies have been identified so far, including primary ciliary dyskinesia (PCD) and polycystic kidney disease (PKD), two of the most common ciliopathies. They are typically diagnosed through genetic screening and examination of a patient’s cilia under a conventional electron microscope.

The problem is, conventional electron microscopy is not powerful enough to detect all anomalies in the cilia, even when genetic mutations are present. As a result, the cause of ciliary malfunctions can be elusive and patients with ciliopathies can be misdiagnosed or undiagnosed.

Nicastro and her team developed an approach that includes advanced imaging technique that entails rapidly freezing human samples to preserve their native structure, imaging them with transmission electron microscopy, and turning those images into 3D models.

“For so long, researchers haven’t been able to see the small defects in human cilia,” Nicastro says. “Now, we can fill in the pieces of the puzzle.”

The researchers used the Louise Mashal Gabbay Cellular Visualization Facility at Brandeis. It is the first time this approach has been used on human cilia and patient samples.

Source: Brandeis University

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‘Snail’ gene gives breast cancer the ability to move

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 13:00

A gene normally involved in the regulation of embryonic development allows breast cancer cells to break free and move through the body without regard to biological controls that normally restrict metastasis.

The findings are important as more than 90 percent of cancer-related deaths are caused by the spread of cancer cells from their primary tumor site.

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Analysis of downstream signaling pathways of this gene, called SNAIL, could be used to identify potential targets for scientists who are looking for ways to block or slow metastasis.

“This gene relates directly to the mechanism that metastatic cancer cells use to move from one location to another,” says Michelle Dawson, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“If you have a cell that overexpresses SNAIL, then it can potentially be metastatic without having any environmental cues that normally trigger this response.”

Previously, Dawson and Daniel McGrail, the lead author of the new study, published a study showing how ovarian cancer cells respond to the mechanics of their bodily environment. Their data showed that ovarian cancer cells are more aggressive on soft tissues—such as the fatty tissue that line the gut—due to the mechanical properties of this environment. The finding is contrary to what is seen with other malignant cancer cells that seem to prefer stiffer tissues.

Aggressive cancer cells

In the new study, published in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biologyresearchers show how overexpression of the gene SNAIL in vitro allows breast cancer cells to operate independently of the mechanics of the environment inside the body.

Growing evidence suggests that cancer cells metastasize by hijacking the process by which cells change their type from epithelial (cells that lack mobility) to mesenchymal (cells that can easily move). Researchers examined the biophysical properties of breast cancer cells that had undergone this epithelial to mesenchymal transition (through overexpression of SNAIL).

They measured the mechanical properties within the nucleus and cytosol of breast cancer cells, and then measured the surface traction forces and the motility of the cells on different substrates. They found that cells became much softer, which could help them spread throughout the body.

Dawson’s lab collaborated with the lab of John McDonald, a professor of biology, to use microarray analysis to examine changes in genes related to the observed biophysical changes. The researchers found that regardless of the substrate that the cells were grown on, cells that overexpress SNAIL look and act like aggressive cancer cells.

“We found that when the cells express SNAIL, they have biophysical properties that are similar to what we see for an activated metastatic cancer cell,” Dawson says.

Although SNAIL triggers a transformation that helps cells move from the primary tumor to the metastatic site, once the cell arrives at the metastatic site and that tumor starts to grow, SNAIL no longer helps cancer progress. Though becoming softer may help cells spread to the secondary site, they were no longer sturdy enough to form a secondary tumor.

“The cells need to transfer back to the epithelial state so they can withstand solid stress,” Dawson says.

The researchers hope that their unique blend of microarray analysis and characterization of physical changes in breast cancer cells undergoing metastasis could aid the search for ways to block or slow the spread of cancer.

“We think this work has great potential to lead to a new approach to cancer therapeutics,” McDonald says.

The National Science Foundation supported the research.

Source: Georgia Tech

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‘High-rise’ chip could shrink supercomputers

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 12:39

At a conference in San Francisco, a Stanford University team revealed how to build high-rise chips that could leapfrog the performance of the single-story logic and memory chips on today’s circuit cards.

Those circuit cards are like busy cities in which logic chips compute and memory chips store data. But when the computer gets busy, the wires connecting logic and memory can get jammed.

Engineers have created a four-layer prototype high-rise chip. In this representation, the bottom and top layers are logic transistors. Sandwiched between them are two layers of memory. The vertical tubes are nanoscale electronic “elevators” that connect logic and memory, allowing them to work together to solve problems. (Credit: Max Shulaker)

The new approach would end these jams by building layers of logic atop layers of memory to create a tightly interconnected high-rise chip.

Many thousands of nanoscale electronic “elevators” would move data between the layers much faster, using less electricity, than the bottleneck-prone wires connecting single-story logic and memory chips today.

The work is led by Subhasish Mitra, a Stanford associate professor of electrical engineering and of computer science, and H.-S. Philip Wong, a professor in Stanford’s School of Engineering. They describe their new high-rise chip architecture in a paper presented at the IEEE International Electron Devices Meeting on December 15-17.

Three breakthroughs

The first breakthrough is a new technology for creating transistors, those tiny gates that switch electricity on and off to create digital zeroes and ones. The second is a new type of computer memory that lends itself to multi-story fabrication. The third is a technique to build these new logic and memory technologies into high-rise structures in a radically different way than previous efforts to stack chips.

“This research is at an early stage, but our design and fabrication techniques are scalable,” Mitra says. “With further development this architecture could lead to computing performance that is much, much greater than anything available today.”

Wong says the prototype chip unveiled at IEDM shows how to put logic and memory together into three-dimensional structures that can be mass-produced.

“Paradigm shift is an overused concept, but here it is appropriate,” Wong says. “With this new architecture, electronics manufacturers could put the power of a supercomputer in your hand.”

Silicon heat

Engineers have been making silicon chips for decades, but the heat emanating from phones and laptops is evidence of a problem. Even when they are switched off, some electricity leaks out of silicon transistors. Users feel that as heat. But at a system level, the leakage drains batteries and wastes electricity.

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Researchers have been trying to solve this major problem by creating carbon nanotubes–or CNT–transistors. They are so slender that nearly 2 billion CNTs could fit within a human hair. CNTs should leak less electricity than silicon because their tiny diameters are easier to pinch shut.

Mitra and Wong are presenting a second paper at the conference showing how their team made some of the highest performance CNT transistors ever built.

They did this by solving a big hurdle: packing enough CNTs into a small enough area to make a useful chip.

Until now the standard process used to grow CNTs did not create a sufficient density of these tubes. The engineers solved this problem by developing an ingenious technique.

They started by growing CNTs the standard way, on round quartz wafers. Then they added their trick. They created what amounts to a metal film that acts like a tape. Using this adhesive process they lifted an entire crop of CNTs off the quartz growth medium and placed it onto a silicon wafer.

This silicon wafer became the foundation of their high-rise chip.

But first they had to fabricate a CNT layer with sufficient density to make a high-performance logic device. So they went though this process 13 times, growing a crop of CNTs on the quartz wafer, and then using their transfer technique to lift and deposit these CNTs onto the silicon wafer.

Using this elegant technological fix, they achieved some of the highest density, highest performance CNTs ever made–especially given that they did this in an academic lab with less sophisticated equipment than a commercial fabrication plant.

Moreover, the team showed that they could perform this technique on more than one layer of logic as they created their high-rise chip.

What about the memory?

Creating high-performance layers of CNT transistors was only part of their innovation. Just as important was their ability to build a new type of memory directly atop each layer of CNTs.

Wong is a world leader in this new memory technology, which he unveiled at last year’s IEDM conference.

Unlike today’s memory chips, this new storage technology is not based on silicon.

Instead, the team fabricated memory using titanium nitride, hafnium oxide and platinum. This formed a metal/oxide/metal sandwich. Applying electricity to this three-metal sandwich one way causes it to resist the flow of electricity. Reversing the electric jolt causes the structure to conduct electricity again.

The change from resistive to conductive states is how this new memory technology creates digital zeroes and ones. The change in conductive states also explains its name: resistive random access memory, or RRAM.

Wong designed RRAM to use less energy than current memory, leading to prolonged battery life in mobile devices.

Inventing this new memory technology was also the key to creating the high-rise chip because RRAM can be made at much lower temperatures than silicon memory.

Four-story prototype

Max Shulaker and Tony Wu, graduate students in electrical engineering, created the techniques behind the four-story high-rise chip unveiled at the conference.

Everything hinged on the low-heat process for making RRAM and CNTs, which enabled them to fabricate each layer of memory directly atop each layer of CNT logic. While making each memory layer, they were able to drill thousands of interconnections into the logic layer below.

This multiplicity of connections is what enables the high-rise chip to avoid the traffic jams on conventional circuit cards.

There is no way to tightly interconnect layers using today’s conventional silicon-based logic and memory. That’s because it takes so much heat to build a layer of silicon memory–about 1,000 degrees Celsius–that any attempt to do so would melt the logic below.

Previous efforts to stack silicon chips could save space but not avoid the digital traffic jams. That’s because each layer would have to be built separately and connected by wires, which would still be prone to traffic jams, unlike the nanoscale elevators in the new design.

Source: Stanford University

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How ‘worms’ end up in fool’s gold fossils

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 11:45

How did ancient soft-body creatures become part of the fossil record? New findings suggest that bacteria involved in the decay of those organisms play an active role in how fossils are formed—often in a matter of just a few tens to hundreds of years.

Understanding the relationship between decay and fossilization will inform future study and help researchers interpret fossils in a new way.

“The vast majority of the fossil record is composed of bones and shells,” says James Schiffbauer, assistant professor of geological sciences at the University of Missouri.

“Fossils of soft-bodied animals like worms and jellyfish, however, provide our only views onto the early evolution of animal life. Most hypotheses as to the preservation of these soft tissues focus on passive processes, where normal decay is halted or impeded in some way, such as by sealing off the sediments where the animal is buried,” he says.

“Our team is instead detailing a scenario where the actual decay helped ‘feed’ the process turning the organisms into fossils—in this case, the decay of the organisms played an active role in creating fossils.”

Fool’s gold and wormy creatures

Schiffbauer studied a type of fossil animal from the Ediacaran Period called Conotubus, which lived more than 540 million years ago. He notes that these fossils are either replicated by, or associated with, pyrite—commonly called fool’s gold.

The tiny fossils are tube-shaped and believed to have been composed of substances similar at least in hardness to human fingernails. These fossilized tubes are all that remain of the soft-bodied animals that inhabited them and most likely resembled worms or sea anemone-like animals.

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“Most of the animals that had once lived on the Earth—with estimates eclipsing 10 billion species—were never preserved in the fossil record, but in our study we have a spectacular view of a tinier fraction of soft-bodied animals,” says Shuhai Xiao, professor of geobiology at Virginia Tech and a coauthor of the study.

“We asked the important questions of how, and under what special conditions, these soft-tissued organisms can escape the fate of complete degradation and be preserved in the rock record.”

Schiffbauer and his team performed a sophisticated suite of chemical analyses of these fossils to determine what caused the pyrite to form. They found that the fool’s gold on the organisms’ outer tube formed when bacteria first began consuming the animal’s soft tissues, with the decay actually promoting the formation of pyrite.

“Normally, the earth is good at cleaning up after itself,” Schiffbauer says. “In this case, the bacteria that helped break down these organisms also are responsible for preserving them as fossils. As the decay occurred, pyrite began replacing and filling in space within the animal’s exoskeleton, preserving them.

“Additionally, we found that this process happened in the space of a few years, perhaps even as low as 12 to 800. Ultimately, these new findings will help scientists to gain a better grasp of why these fossils are preserved, and what features represent the fossilization process versus original biology, so we can better reconstruct the evolutionary tree of life.”

The study is available in Nature Communications. Collaborators are from Virginia Tech, Northwest University in Xi’an, China, University of Delaware, University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, University of Maryland.

Source: University of Missouri

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Can hugs keep us from catching colds?

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 10:20

Greater social support and more frequent hugs may protect people from the increased likelihood of infection associated with stress, and result in less severe illness symptoms.

Led by Sheldon Cohen, professor of psychology in Carnegie Mellon University, researchers tested whether hugs act as a form of social support, protecting stressed people from getting sick.

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Cohen and his team chose to study hugging as an example of social support because hugs are typically a marker of having a more intimate and close relationship with another person.

“We know that people experiencing ongoing conflicts with others are less able to fight off cold viruses. We also know that people who report having social support are partly protected from the effects of stress on psychological states, such as depression and anxiety,” says Cohen.

“We tested whether perceptions of social support are equally effective in protecting us from stress-induced susceptibility to infection and also whether receiving hugs might partially account for those feelings of support and themselves protect a person against infection.”

Hugs and colds

In 404 healthy adults, perceived support was assessed by a questionnaire, and frequencies of interpersonal conflicts and receiving hugs were derived from telephone interviews conducted on 14 consecutive evenings. Then, the participants were intentionally exposed to a common cold virus and monitored in quarantine to assess infection and signs of illness.

The results, published in Psychological Science, show that perceived social support reduced the risk of infection associated with experiencing conflicts. Hugs were responsible for one-third of the protective effect of social support. Among infected participants, greater perceived social support and more frequent hugs both resulted in less severe illness symptoms whether or not they experienced conflicts.

“This suggests that being hugged by a trusted person may act as an effective means of conveying support and that increasing the frequency of hugs might be an effective means of reducing the deleterious effects of stress,” Cohen says.

“The apparent protective effect of hugs may be attributable to the physical contact itself or to hugging being a behavioral indicator of support and intimacy.”

Cohen adds, “Either way, those who receive more hugs are somewhat more protected from infection.”

In addition to Cohen, the research team included Carnegie Mellon’s Denise Janicki-Deverts, University of Virginia Health Sciences Center’s Ronald B. Turner, and University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s William J. Doyle.

The National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute funded this research.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

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Glacier beds get slippery when ice slides fast

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 08:03

As a glacier’s sliding speed increases, the bed beneath the glacier can grow slipperier, laboratory simulations show.

Researchers say including this effect in efforts to calculate future increases in glacier speeds could improve predictions of ice volume lost to the oceans and the rate of sea-level rise.

Lucas Zoet, a postdoctoral research associate, and Neal Iverson, a professor of geological and atmospheric sciences, at Iowa State University describe the results of their experiments in the Journal of Glaciology.

The researchers used a newly constructed sliding simulator device to explore the relationship between drag and sliding speed for comparison with the predictions of theoretical models.

“We really have a unique opportunity to study the base of glaciers with these experiments,” says Zoet, the paper’s lead author. “The other tactic you might take is studying these relationships with field observations, but with field data so many different processes are mixed together that it becomes hard to untangle the relevant data from the noise.”

The ongoing debate

Data collected by the researchers show that resistance to glacier sliding—the drag that the bed exerts on the ice—can decrease in response to increasing sliding speed.

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This decrease in drag with increasing speed, although predicted by some theoreticians as long as 45 years ago, is the opposite of what is usually assumed in mathematical models of the flow of ice sheets.

These are the first empirical results demonstrating that as ice slides at an increasing speed—perhaps in response to changing weather or climate—the bed can become slipperier, which could promote still faster glacier flow.

The response of glaciers to changing climate is one of the largest potential contributors to sea-level rise. Predicting glacier response to climate change depends on properly characterizing the way a glacier slides over its bed. There has been a half-century debate among theoreticians as to how to do that.

How the simulator works

The simulator features a ring of ice about 8 inches thick and about 3 feet across that is rotated over a model glacier bed. Below the ice is a hydraulic press that can simulate the weight of a glacier several hundred yards thick.

Neal Iverson developed the Iowa State University Sliding Simulator to test how glaciers slide over their beds. (Credit: Bob Elbert)

Above are motors that can rotate the ice ring over the bed at either a constant speed or a constant stress. A circulating, temperature-regulated fluid keeps the ice at its melting temperature—a necessary condition for significant sliding.

“About six years were required to design, construct, and work the bugs out of the new apparatus,” Iverson says, “but it is performing well now and allowing hypothesis tests that were formerly not possible.”

Source: Iowa State University

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Cows and calves only need 3 calls to ‘chat’

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 07:18

Cows and their calves basically communicate using three distinct calls, according to researchers who, for the first time, used detailed acoustics to eavesdrop on conversations between the two.

A study of the way cows communicate with their young identified two distinct maternal calls. When cows were close to their calves, they communicated with them using low frequency calls.

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But, when they were separated and out of visual contact, the calls were louder and at a much higher frequency.

Calves use a third call to let their mothers know when they wanted to start suckling.

All three types of calls were individualized, the researchers say. It was possible to identify each cow and calf using its calls.

For the study, published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior, researchers studied two herds of free-range cattle on a farm in Radcliffe-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire.

A call of their own

Recordings were made using highly sensitive equipment, gathering so much data it took another year to analyze.

“The research shows for the first time that mother-offspring cattle calls are individualized—each calf and cow have a characteristic and exclusive call of their own,” says Mónica Padilla de la Torre of the University of Nottingham.

“Acoustic analysis also reveals that certain information is conveyed within the calf calls—age, but not gender.”

Coauthor Alan McElligott of Queen Mary University of London adds, “By investigating vocalizations in behavioral contexts outside of mother-offspring communication, further research could reveal vocal indicators of welfare—and influence change in animal care policies.”

The National Council of Science and Technology, Mexico funded the study.

Source: University of Nottingham

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