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Do gut bacteria make flu shots work better?

8 hours 11 min ago

People treated with an antibiotic before or while receiving a flu shot may have a weakened response to the vaccine, according to a new study with mice.

The research shows that mice treated with antibiotics to remove most of their intestinal bacteria or raised under sterile conditions have weakened antibody responses to the seasonal influenza vaccination.

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The findings, published in the journal Immunity, demonstrate a dependency on gut bacteria for strong immune responses to the seasonal flu and inactivated polio vaccines, and may also help explain why immunity induced by some vaccines varies in different parts of the world.

Antibody responses to vaccines containing immune stimulating substances called adjuvants were not affected by a lack of gut bacteria. For example, bacteria were not critical for responses to the Tdap (Tetanus-Diphtheria-Pertussis) vaccine.

“Our results suggest that the gut microbiome may be exerting a powerful effect on immunity to vaccination in humans, even immunity induced by a vaccine that is given at a distant site,” says Bali Pulendran, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Emory University School of Medicine and Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

The impetus for the research was a previous study involving an analysis of the immune response to influenza vaccination in humans, using the “systems vaccinology” approach, Pulendran says.

Critical ingredient: Flagella

Researchers had observed that in humans given the flu vaccine, the expression of the gene encoding TLR5 a few days after vaccination was correlated with strong antibody responses weeks later. TLR5 encodes a protein that enables immune cells to sense flagellin, the main structural protein for the whips (flagella) many bacteria use to propel themselves.

The ability of immune cells to sense flagellin appears to be the critical component affecting vaccine responses, the study shows. Mice lacking TLR5—but still colonized with bacteria—have diminished responses to flu vaccines, similar to antibiotic-treated or germ-free mice.

Oral reconstitution of antibiotic treated mice with bacteria containing flagellin, but not with mutant bacteria lacking flagellin, could restore the diminished antibody response.

“These results demonstrate an important role for gut bacteria in shaping immunity to vaccination, and raise the possibility that the microbiome could be harnessed to modulate vaccine efficacy,” says Pulendran. “The key question is the extent to which this impacts protective immunity in humans.”

Pulendran says that his team is planning a study in humans to address this issue.

The first author of the paper is postdoctoral fellow Jason Oh. Researchers at Georgia State University and University of North Carolina contributed to the paper.

The National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive, and Kidney Diseases supported the study.

Source: Emory University

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Brain ‘node’ causes deep sleep without sedative

12 hours 50 min ago

Scientists have identified a second “sleep node” in the mammalian brain whose activity appears to be both necessary and sufficient to produce deep sleep.

The sleep-promoting circuit located deep in the primitive brainstem reveals how we fall into deep sleep.

Published online in Nature Neuroscience, the study demonstrates that fully half of all of the brain’s sleep-promoting activity originates from the parafacial zone (PZ) in the brainstem.

The brainstem is a primordial part of the brain that regulates basic functions necessary for survival, such as breathing, blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature.

“The close association of a sleep center with other regions that are critical for life highlights the evolutionary importance of sleep in the brain,” says study coauthor Caroline E. Bass, assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology in the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Better brain control

The researchers found that a specific type of neuron in the PZ that makes the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is responsible for deep sleep. They used a set of innovative tools to precisely control these neurons remotely, in essence giving them the ability to turn the neurons on and off at will.

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“These new molecular approaches allow unprecedented control over brain function at the cellular level,” says Christelle Ancelet, postdoctoral fellow at Harvard School of Medicine.

“Before these tools were developed, we often used ‘electrical stimulation’ to activate a region, but the problem is that doing so stimulates everything the electrode touches and even surrounding areas it didn’t. It was a sledgehammer approach, when what we needed was a scalpel.”

“To get the precision required for these experiments, we introduced a virus into the PZ that expressed a ‘designer’ receptor on GABA neurons only but didn’t otherwise alter brain function,” explains Patrick Fuller, assistant professor at Harvard and senior author of the paper.

“When we turned on the GABA neurons in the PZ, the animals quickly fell into a deep sleep without the use of sedatives or sleep aids.”

Sleep disorder treatment

How these neurons interact in the brain with other sleep and wake-promoting brain regions still need to be studied, the researchers say, but eventually these findings may translate into new medications for treating sleep disorders, including insomnia, and the development of better and safer anesthetics.

“We are at a truly transformative point in neuroscience,” says Bass, “where the use of designer genes gives us unprecedented ability to control the brain.

“We can now answer fundamental questions of brain function, which have traditionally been beyond our reach, including the ‘why’ of sleep, one of the more enduring mysteries in the neurosciences.”

The National Institutes of Health funded the work.

Source: University at Buffalo

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How to make carbon thread without ‘clumps’

13 hours 2 min ago

Made into fibers, single-walled carbon nanotubes line up like a fistful of raw spaghetti noodles, thanks to a new process.

The tricky bit, according to Rice University chemist Angel Martí, is keeping the densely packed nanotubes apart before they’re drawn together into a fiber.

Left to their own devices, carbon nanotubes form clumps that are perfectly wrong for turning into the kind of strong, conductive fibers needed for projects ranging from nanoscale electronics to macro-scale power grids.

Earlier research at Rice by chemist and chemical engineer Matteo Pasquali, a coauthor of the new paper, used an acid dissolution process to keep the nanotubes separated until they could be spun into fibers.

No acid

Now Martí, Pasquali, and their colleagues are producing “neat” fibers with the same mechanical process, but they’re starting with a different kind of feedstock.

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“Matteo’s group used chlorosulfonic acid to protonate the surface of the nanotubes,” Martí says. “That would give them a positively charged surface so they would repel each other in solution. The technique we use is exactly the opposite.”

A process revealed last year by Martí and lead authors Chengmin Jiang, a graduate student, and Avishek Saha, a Rice alumnus, starts with negatively charging carbon nanotubes by infusing them with potassium, a metal, and turning them into a kind of salt known as a polyelectrolyte.

They then employ cage-like crown ethers to capture the potassium ions that would otherwise dampen the nanotubes’ ability to repel one another.

Put enough nanotubes into such a solution and they’re caught between the repellant forces and an inability to move in a crowded environment, Martí says. They’re forced to align—a defining property of liquid crystals—and this makes them more manageable.

The tubes are ultimately forced together into fibers when they are extruded through the tip of a needle. At that point, the strong van der Waals force takes over and tightly binds the nanotubes together, says Martí, an assistant professor of chemistry and bioengineering and of materials science and nanoengineering.

Pack them in

But to make macroscopic materials, Martí’s team needed to pack many more nanotubes into the solution than in previous experiments. “As you start increasing the concentration, the number of nanotubes in the liquid crystalline phase becomes more abundant than those in the isotropic (disordered) phase, and that’s exactly what we needed,” Martí says.

The researchers discovered that 40 milligrams of nanotubes per milliliter gave them a thick gel after mixing at high speed and filtering out whatever large clumps remained. “It’s like a centrifuge together with a rotary drum,” Martí says of the mixing gear. “It produces unconventional forces in the solution.”

Feeding this dense nanotube gel through a narrow needle-like opening produced continuous fiber on the Pasquali lab’s equipment. The strength and stiffness of the neat fibers also approached that of the fibers previously produced with Pasquali’s acid-based process. “We didn’t make any modifications to his system and it worked perfectly,” Martí says.

The hair-width fibers can be woven into thicker cables, and the team is investigating ways to improve their electrical properties through doping the nanotubes with iodide.

“The research is basically analogous to what Matteo does,” Martí says. “We used his tools but gave the process a spin with a different preparation, so now we’re the first to make neat fibers of pure carbon nanotube electrolytes. That’s very cool.”

Pasquali says that the spinning system worked with little need for adaptation because the setup is sealed. “The nanotube electrolyte solution could be protected from oxygen and water, which would have caused precipitation of the nanotubes,” he says.

“It turns out that this is not a showstopper, because we want the nanotubes to precipitate and stick to each other as soon as they exit the sealed system through the needle. The process was not hard to control, adapt, and scale up once we figured out the basic science.”

The Welch Foundation supported the research, which appears in ACS Nano.

Source: Rice University

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Asian monsoon may be much older than we thought

13 hours 11 min ago

Scientists have long thought the climate pattern known as the Asian monsoon began 22 to 25 million years ago as a result of the uplift of the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalaya Mountains. But new research challenges that idea.

The findings show the Asian monsoon existed about 40 million years ago during a period of high atmospheric carbon dioxide and warmer temperatures.

“It is surprising,” says lead author Alexis Licht, a research associate in the geosciences department at University of Arizona. “People thought the monsoon started much later.”

The monsoon, the largest climate system in the world, governs the climate in much of mainland Asia, bringing torrential summer rains and dry winters.

“This research compellingly shows that a strong Asian monsoon system was in place at least by 35 to 40 million years ago,” says coauthor Jay Quade, professor of geosciences.

The research shows the earlier start of the monsoon occurred at a time when atmospheric CO2 was three to four times greater than it is now. The monsoon then weakened 34 million years ago when atmospheric CO2 then decreased by 50 percent and an ice age occurred.

Monsoon origins

Published online in the journal Nature, the study is the first to show the rise of the monsoon is as much a result of global climate as it is a result of topography.

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“This finding has major consequences for the ongoing global warming,” Licht says. “It suggests increasing the atmospheric CO2 will increase the monsoonal precipitation significantly.”

Unraveling the monsoon’s origins required contributions from three different teams of scientists that were independently studying the environment of 40 million years ago.

All three investigations showed the monsoon climate pattern occurred 15 million years earlier than previously thought. Combining different lines of evidence from different places strengthened the group’s confidence in the finding, Licht says. The climate modeling team also linked the development of the monsoon to the increased CO2 of the time.

Licht and colleagues at Poitiers and Nancy universities in France examined snail and mammal fossils in Myanmar. A group at Utrecht University in the Netherlands studied lake deposits in Xining Basin in central China. And researchers at the Laboratory of Sciences of the Climate and Environment (LSCE) in Gif-sur-Yvette, France, created climate simulations of the Asian climate.

40-million-year-old shells

Licht didn’t set out to study the origin of the monsoon.

He chose his study site in Myanmar because the area was rich in mammal fossils, including some of the earliest ancestors of modern monkeys and apes. His research focused on understanding the environments those early primates inhabited. Scientists thought those primates had a habitat like the current evergreen tropical rain forests of Borneo, which do not have pronounced differences between wet and dry seasons.

To learn about the past environment, Licht analyzed 40-million-year-old freshwater snail shells and teeth of mammals to see what types of oxygen they contained. The ratio of two different forms of oxygen, oxygen-18 and oxygen-16, shows whether the animal lived in a relatively wet climate or an arid one.

“One of the goals of the study was to document the pre-monsoonal conditions, but what we found were monsoonal conditions,” Licht says.

Unexpected story

The oxygen ratios showed that the region had a seasonal pattern very much like the current monsoon—dry winters and very rainy summers.

“The early primates of Myanmar lived under intense seasonal stress—aridity and then monsoons. That was completely unexpected.”

The team of researchers working in China found another line of evidence pointing to the existence of the monsoon about 40 million years ago. The monsoon climate pattern generates winter winds that blow dust from central Asia and deposits it in thick piles in China. The researchers found deposits of such dust dating back 41 million years ago, indicating the monsoon had occurred that long ago.

The third team’s climate simulations indicated strong Asian monsoons 40 million years ago. The simulations showed the level of atmospheric CO2 was connected to the strength of the monsoon, which was stronger 40 million years ago when CO2 levels were higher and weakened 34 million years ago when CO2 levels dropped.

The next step is to investigate how geologically short-term increases of atmospheric CO2 known as hyperthermals affected the monsoon’s behavior 40 million years ago, Licht says.

“The response of the monsoon to those hyperthermals could provide interesting analogs to the ongoing global warming.”

Source: University of Arizona

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Early poverty linked to obesity in women, not men

Tue, 09/16/2014 - 12:11

Adolescent girls from economically disadvantaged families have a high risk of being overweight or obese as adults, new research shows. The same is not true for boys.

Using data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, researchers tracked patterns of weight gain among more than 10,000 men and women from high school graduation in 1957 to later career stages in 1993.

The findings, published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, show that economic disadvantage in early life is significantly linked to higher body mass at age 18 and a greater risk of obesity at age 54.

The link is the strongest among women and absent or inconsistent among men.

In addition to health risks, obese and overweight women face multiple social and economic disadvantages, says lead author Tetyana Pudrovska, assistant professor of sociology at University of Texas at Austin.

Less education, fewer earnings

The study shows that obese women are less likely than their thinner peers to secure important social resources including education, occupational prestige, and earnings. This socioeconomic disadvantage in adulthood further increased the risk of obesity, suggesting a vicious circle of obesity and compromised economic resources. According to the study, this effect was not evident among men.

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“Girls born into socioeconomically disadvantaged families are exposed from early life to an unfolding chain of lower socioeconomic status and higher body mass,” Pudrovska says.

“Women are more strongly impacted than men both by adverse effects of low socioeconomic status on obesity and by adverse effects of obesity on status attainment.”

Why does obesity have such a strong and persistent adverse effect on women’s social achievement? The simple answer is that big is not considered beautiful, Pudrovska says.

Slender rules

“In our perpetual quest for female beauty, slenderness has become paramount,” Pudrovska says. “Physical attractiveness is more closely tied to thinness and more strictly enforced for girls and women than boys and men.”

More public awareness of weight-based discrimination in the labor market could go a long way to stop the cycle of poverty and obesity, Pudrovska says.

“Because obesity is not a protected status under federal law, promoting legal protection of overweight and obese persons from unfair treatment in the workplace is important, especially among women.”

Coauthors of the study are from Penn State and Utah State University.

Source: University of Texas at Austin

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Washington insiders are whiter and well-paid

Tue, 09/16/2014 - 11:53

New research suggests that America’s unelected officials and bureaucrats may not have enough in common with the people they govern to understand them.

A survey of 850 people who work either in the federal government or directly with it reveals that the inside-the-Beltway crowd has very little in common with America at large.

View larger. (Credit: Johns Hopkins)

Washington insiders, the researchers found, are more likely to be white. They are more educated. Their salaries are higher, they vote more often, and they have more faith in the fairness of elections.

They are probably Democrat and liberal. They more diligently follow the news. And they think the mechanics of government couldn’t be easier to comprehend.

Two totally different views

“The elements of difference we have identified between the rulers and the ruled—demographic, experiential, partisan, and ideological—give us some reason to suspect that the two groups may not perceive the political world in the same way,” write Johns Hopkins University researchers Jennifer Bachner and Benjamin Ginsberg.

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“Taken together, these elements could well create a substantial cognitive and perceptual gulf between official and quasi-official Washington on the one hand and the American public on the other.”

The research team in 2013 asked hundreds of questions of employees in federal agencies, on Capitol Hill and in other Washington policy jobs.

They presented some of their findings recently at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in a talk called The Civic Distance Between the Rulers and Ruled. Complete results of their research will be featured in a forthcoming book, What the Government Thinks of the People.

Americans vs. federal workers:
  • Ninety-one percent of those who work for federal agencies are white, versus 78 percent of the public.
  • In 2012, federal worker compensation averaged $81,704, 48 percent more than the private sector average of $54,995, according to the US Bureau of Economic Analysis. That puts federal workers in the top 10 percent of American earners.
  • Sixty percent of those who work on the Hill are Democrats versus 35 percent of Americans at large.
  • In the 2012 presidential election, 97 percent of congressional and White House staffers voted versus 80 percent of other Americans. Sixty-two percent of those Hill staffers believe election votes are counted fairly “very often” compared with 33 percent of other Americans.
  • Washingtonians read the news at least five days a week compared with about three days a week for the rest of the country.
  • And while 100 percent of congressional and White House staffers believe government and politics can be understood by people like them, only 30 percent of regular Americans feel that way.

The data on “average Americans” is largely drawn from the 2012 American National Election Study.

Who needs civic education?

All told, Bachner and Ginsberg found, if random Americans were dropped into the offices of a Washington administrative agency or into a lunch at a Washington power restaurant, it would feel and sound to them like another planet.

These crucial differences, the researchers say, lead to entirely divergent philosophies on policies, priorities, and government’s ultimate purpose.

“Official Washington views the public through jaundiced eyes, believing that ordinary Americans are uninformed and misguided and that policymakers should ignore them,” Ginsberg says.

“The government’s lack of trust in the people reflects the civic distance between the American people and their government as much as any political reality. Nevertheless, what the government thinks of the people affects how it governs, especially the chance that policy will be influenced by citizen preferences.

“Some say American democracy would be strengthened if the people received better civic education,” Ginsberg continues. “We argue that it is America’s governing elite that needs civic education, focusing on the responsibilities of officials in a democracy.”

Bachner is director of the Master of Science in Government Analytics program at Johns Hopkins. Ginsberg is a professor of political science and director of the university’s Washington Center for the Study of American Government.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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DNA on leaves reveals tree microbiomes

Tue, 09/16/2014 - 10:22

Scientists examined the genetic “fingerprints” on 57 types of trees on an island in Panama and found that each tree species has its own bacterial identity.

“This study demonstrates for the first time that host plants from different plant families and with different ecological strategies possess very different microbial communities on their leaves,” says lead author Steven W. Kembel, a former postdoctoral researcher in the University of Oregon’s Institute of Ecology and Evolution who is now a professor of biological sciences at the University of Quebec at Montreal.

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For the research, available early online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers gathered bacterial samples from 57 of the more than 450 tree species growing in a lowland tropical forest on Barro Colorado Island, Panama.

Using DNA sequencing technology housed at the University of Oregon’s Genomics Core Facility, scientists sequenced the bacterial 16S ribosomal RNA gene isolated from the samples.

That gene, which biologists call a barcode gene, allowed researchers to identify and measure the diversity of bacteria based on millions of DNA fragments produced from bacterial communities collected from the surfaces of leaves, says Jessica Green, a professor at both University of Oregon and Santa Fe Institute.

“Some bacteria were very abundant and present on every leaf in the forest, while others were rare and only found on the leaves of a single host species,” Kembel says. “Each tree species of tree possessed a distinctive community of bacteria on its leaves.”

In the world of microbiology, plant leaves are considered to be a habitat known as the phyllosphere. They are host to millions of bacteria, Kembel says.

“These bacteria can have important effects—both positive and negative—on the health and functioning of their host plants,” he says. “For example, while some bacteria on leaves cause disease, others may protect the plant against pathogens or produce hormones that increase plant growth rates.”

Bacteria and tree growth

In the animal microbiome, the researchers note, studies comparing large numbers of species have shown that host diet—for example, herbivory versus carnivory—has a large effect on the structure of microbial communities in their guts.

The new study, Kembel and Green say, provides a comparable understanding of the host attributes that explain patterns of microbial diversity in the plant microbiome.

“We found that the abundance of some bacterial taxa was correlated with the growth, mortality, and function of the host,” Kembel says. These included bacteria involved in nitrogen fixing and the consumption of methane, as well as bacteria linked to soil and water.

Dominating the bacterial communities were a core microbiome of taxa including Actinobacteria, Alpha-, Beta-, and Gamma-Proteobacteria, and Sphingobacteria.

Some types of bacteria, the researchers found, were more abundant when growing on the leaves of fast-growing or slow-growing tree species, or on leaves with different concentrations of elements such as nitrogen or phosphorous.

Preserving ecosystems

“Because of the importance of the microbiome for the growth and function of the host, understanding the factors that influence bacteria on the leaves of different trees could have important implications for our ability to model and conserve biological diversity and ecosystem function,” Kembel says.

“Ultimately, we hope that understanding the factors that explain variation in bacterial abundances across host species will help us better manage biological diversity in forests and the health and function of forest ecosystems.”

The Center for Tropical Forest Science of the Smithsonian Research Institute, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Canada Research Chairs Program, National Science Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and Small World Institute Fund were the leading supporters of the research.

Source: University of Oregon

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Maybe early Earth wasn’t hellishly hot

Tue, 09/16/2014 - 10:18

Conditions on Earth for the first 500 million years after it formed may have not been as extreme as originally thought. Rather, they might have been surprisingly similar to conditions today, complete with oceans, continents, and active crustal plates.

This alternate view of Earth’s first geologic eon, called the Hadean, has gained substantial new support from the first detailed comparison of zircon crystals that formed more than 4 billion years ago with those formed contemporaneously in Iceland, proposed as a possible geological analog for early Earth.

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From the early 20th century up through the 1980s, geologists generally agreed that conditions during the Hadean period were utterly hostile to life.

Inability to find rock formations from the period led them to conclude that early Earth was hellishly hot, either entirely molten or subject to such intense asteroid bombardment that any rocks that formed were rapidly remelted. As a result, they pictured the surface of the Earth as covered by a giant “magma ocean.”

This perception began to change about 30 years ago when geologists discovered zircon crystals (a mineral typically associated with granite) with ages exceeding 4 billion years old preserved in younger sandstones.

These ancient zircons opened the door for exploration of the Earth’s earliest crust. In addition to the radiometric dating techniques that revealed the ages of these ancient zircons, geologists used other analytical techniques to extract information about the environment in which the crystals formed, including the temperature and whether water was present.

Cool enough for oceans?

Since then zircon studies have revealed that the Hadean Earth was not the uniformly hellish place previously imagined, but during some periods possessed an established crust cool enough so that surface water could form—possibly on the scale of oceans.

Accepting that the early Earth had a solid crust and liquid water (at least at times), scientists have continued to debate the nature of that crust and the processes that were active at that time: how similar was the Hadean Earth to what we see today?

Two schools of thought have emerged: one argues that Hadean Earth was surprisingly similar to the present day. The other maintains that, although it was less hostile than formerly believed, early Earth was nonetheless a foreign-seeming and formidable place, similar to the hottest, most extreme, geologic environments of today.

Icelandic zircon

A popular analog is Iceland, where substantial amounts of crust are forming from basaltic magma that is much hotter than the magmas that built most of Earth’s current continental crust.

“We reasoned that the only concrete evidence for what the Hadean was like came from the only known survivors: zircon crystals—and yet no one had investigated Icelandic zircon to compare their telltale compositions to those that are more than 4 billion years old, or with zircon from other modern environments,” says Calvin Miller, professor of Earth and environmental sciences at Vanderbilt University

In 2009, Vanderbilt doctoral student Tamara Carley, who has just accepted the position of assistant professor at Layfayette College, began collecting samples from volcanoes and sands derived from erosion of Icelandic volcanoes. She separated thousands of zircon crystals from the samples, which cover the island’s regional diversity and represent its 18-million-year history.

Carley and colleagues analyzed about 1,000 zircon crystals for their age and elemental and isotopic compositions. She then searched the literature for all comparable analyses of Hadean zircon and for representative analyses of zircon from other modern environments.

Counterintuitive conclusions

“We discovered that Icelandic zircons are quite distinctive from crystals formed in other locations on modern Earth. We also found that they formed in magmas that are remarkably different from those in which the Hadean zircons grew,” she says.

Most importantly, their analysis found that Icelandic zircons grew from much hotter magmas than Hadean zircons. Although surface water played an important role in the generation of both Icelandic and Hadean crystals, in the Icelandic case the water was extremely hot when it interacted with the source rocks while the Hadean water-rock interactions were at significantly lower temperatures.

“Our conclusion is counterintuitive,” Miller says. “Hadean zircons grew from magmas rather similar to those formed in modern subduction zones, but apparently even ‘cooler’ and ‘wetter’ than those being produced today.”

The findings are published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

Researchers from Stanford University, University of Oregon, UCLA, and University of South Dakota contributed to the study. The National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, and the Keck Geology Consortium provided funding.

Source: Vanderbilt University

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23 new gene variants linked to prostate cancer risk

Tue, 09/16/2014 - 10:16

Scientists can now explain one-third of the inherited risk for prostate cancer, thanks to a large study that identifies 23 new genetic variants associated with an increased risk for the disease.

The data study, analyzing more than 87,000 individuals of European, African, Japanese, and Latino ancestry, is the largest of its kind and is the first to combine multiple studies across different ethnic populations.

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“The goal of this research is to identify regions of the genome that contribute susceptibility to prostate cancer that could be used for understanding a man’s future risk of developing this disease,” says principal investigator Christopher Haiman, professor of preventive medicine at Keck School of Medicine of University of Southern California.

According to the American Cancer Society, prostate cancer is the second most common cancer among American men, behind skin cancer. It is estimated that nearly 30,000 men will die of prostate cancer and more than 233,000 new cases will be diagnosed in 2014.

Past genome-wide association studies identified 77 variants associated with prostate cancer risk. The additional 23 variants found in the new study “give us another piece in the puzzle,” Haiman says, and new targets for researchers looking into the causes of prostate cancer.

“There is still a lot we do not know about the role of genetics and prostate cancer,” explains study coauthor Barbara Nemesure, professor in the department of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University, and director of the Cancer Prevention and Control Program at Stony Brook University Cancer Center.

“But as a result of this study, we now have 23 additional and promising loci to further interrogate. This work represents a significant step forward in helping us to better understand the complex and somewhat allusive genetic contributions to this disease.”

The combined studies that are part of this research have been conducted around the world over the past seven years. The NCI GAME-ON Consortium is the primary source of funding for the work.

The study is published in Nature Genetics.

Source: USC, Stony Brook University

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Color display designed for ‘squid skin’ camo

Tue, 09/16/2014 - 08:41

Scientists have developed a new full-color display technology that, once refined, could be a critical component for creating artificial “squid skin”—camouflaging metamaterials that can “see” colors and automatically blend into the background.

The technology uses aluminum nanoparticles to create the vivid red, blue, and green hues found in today’s top-of-the-line LCD televisions and monitors.

The new color display technology is capable of producing dozens of colors, including rich red, green, and blue tones comparable to those found in high-definition LCD displays. (Credit: J. Olson/Rice University)

The breakthrough is the latest in a string of recent discoveries by a research team working to develop materials that mimic the camouflage abilities of cephalopods—the family of marine creatures that includes squid, octopus, and cuttlefish.

“Our goal is to learn from these amazing animals so that we could create new materials with the same kind of distributed light-sensing and processing abilities that they appear to have in their skins,” says Naomi Halas, a coauthor of the study published in PNAS and director of Rice University’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics.

“We know cephalopods have some of the same proteins in their skin that we have in our retinas, so part of our challenge, as engineers, is to build a material that can ‘see’ light the way their skin sees it, and another challenge is designing systems that can react and display vivid camouflage patterns,” Halas says.

Aluminum nanorods

The color display technology delivers bright red, blue, and green hues from five-micron-square pixels that each contains several hundred aluminum nanorods. By varying the length of the nanorods and the spacing between them, researchers Stephan Link and Jana Olson showed they could create pixels that produced dozens of colors, including rich tones of red, green, and blue that are comparable to those found in high-definition LCD displays.

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“Aluminum is useful because it’s compatible with microelectronic production methods, but until now the tones produced by plasmonic aluminum nanorods have been muted and washed out,” says Link, associate professor of chemistry at Rice and the lead researcher on the PNAS study. “The key advancement here was to place the nanorods in an ordered array.”

Olson says the array setup allowed her to tune the pixel’s color in two ways, first by varying the length of the nanorods and second by adjusting the length of the spaces between nanorods.

“This arrangement allowed us to narrow the output spectrum to one individual color instead of the typical muted shades that are usually produced by aluminum nanoparticles,” she adds.

Olson’s five-micron-square pixels are about 40 times smaller than the pixels used in commercial LCD displays. To make the pixels, she used aluminum nanorods that each measured about 100 nanometers long by 40 nanometers wide.

She used electron-beam deposition to create arrays—regular arrangements of nanorods—in each pixel.

She was able to fine-tune the color produced by each pixel by using theoretical calculations by Rice physicists Alejandro Manjavacas, a postdoctoral researcher, and Peter Nordlander, professor of physics and astronomy.

“Alejandro created a detailed model of the far-field plasmonic interactions between the nanorods,” Olson says. “That proved very important because we could use that to dial in the colors very precisely.”

LCD display

Halas and Link say the research team hopes to create an LCD display that uses many of the same components found in today’s displays, including liquid crystals, polarizers and individually addressable pixels. The photonic aluminum arrays would be used in place of the colored dyes that are found in most commercial displays.

Unlike dyes, the arrays won’t fade or bleach after prolonged exposure to light, and the inherent directionality of the nanorods provides another advantage.

“Because the nanorods in each array are aligned in the same direction, our pixels produce polarized light,” he says. “This means we can do away with one polarizer in our setup, and it also gives us an extra knob that we can use to tune the output from these arrays. It could be useful in a number of ways.”

They hope to further develop the display technology and eventually to combine it with other new technologies that the squid skin team has developed both for sensing light and for displaying patterns on large polymer sheets.

For example, Halas and colleagues published a study in Advanced Materials in August about an aluminum-based CMOS-compatible photodetector technology for color sensing. In addition, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign co-principal investigator John Rogers and colleagues published a proof-of-concept study in PNAS in August about new methods for creating flexible black-and-white polymer displays that can change color to match their surroundings.

“We hope to eventually bring all of these technologies together to create a new material that can sense light in full color and react with full-color camouflage displays,” Halas explains.

The Department of Defense through the Office of Naval Research’s Basic Research Challenge program and the Welch Foundation funded the project.

Source: Rice University

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Decoy ladies ‘electrify’ invasive male beetles

Tue, 09/16/2014 - 08:41

New decoys attract male emerald ash borers, but when the males fly in to mate with what they think are females, they get high-voltage zaps instead.

“Our new decoy and electrocution process may be useful in managing what the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service claims to be the most destructive forest pest ever seen in North America,” says Michael Domingue, postdoctoral fellow in entomology at Penn State.

According to the Forest Service, the emerald ash borer was introduced to the US from China in 2002. Since then, it has spread throughout 24 states and two Canadian provinces, and killed tens of millions of otherwise healthy native ash trees.

“Early detection of the pest in traps such as ours can help in coordinating management strategies to slow its spread and minimize its impact,” says Domingue.

“Ultimately, we have gained new insights into how to manipulate the behavior of emerald ash borers and similar pests in ways that can help to trap them and monitor where they might be doing damage,” says Michael Domingue. (Credit: Jonathan Lelito/BASF Corporation)

Bioreplicated vs. 3D-printed

The researchers created the decoys using a bioreplication process with nanoscale fidelity.

“Specifically, we coated a dead female beetle with a vapor of nickel, and used the ‘nickelized’ shell to fabricate two matching molds in the shape of a resting beetle,” says Akhlesh Lakhtakia, professor of engineering science and mechanics at Penn State.

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“Pressing a structurally colored plastic sheet between the two molds while simultaneously applying heat, we cast numerous replicas or decoys. The finished bioreplicated decoys retained the surface texture of the beetle at the nanoscale.

Additionally, we painted some decoys a metallic green.”

The engineers also created decoys using a 3D-printing process. In this method, they molded plastic into the size and shape of emerald ash borers, but did not attempt to duplicate the surface texture of the insects.

Next, the entomology researchers pinned the bioreplicated and 3D-printed decoys, as well as dead female emerald ash borers, onto leaves in forests in Hungary to see which of them best attracted wild males.

In the same forests, the team also placed traps configured with decoys bearing a 4,000-volt charge to electrocute and trap males as they landed on the decoy females.

The results appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Lifelike lady beetles

The scientists found that both types of synthetic decoys, as well as the dead pinned females, elicited initial flights by males toward them. Males nearly always chose to land on the dead females and the more realistic bioreplicated decoys.

However, while the males initially flew toward the simpler 3D-printed decoys, they did not land on them. Males would normally quickly leave the bioreplicated decoys after they touched them. Yet, that brief contact was enough for them to become instantly stunned and captured by the trap if the voltage was applied to the decoys.

According to Domingue, the light-scattering properties of the beetle’s shell—which the team experimentally demonstrated using a white laser—made the nano-bioreplicated decoys more lifelike and, therefore, more attractive to males than the non-textured 3D-printed decoy.

“We learned that not only do color and shape of a resting female beetle play a role in attracting males to a mate, but also the fine-scale texture of the visible surface is important,” says Domingue.

“Small bumps and spines on the outer surface of their wings and heads that aren’t visible to the human eye scatter light in a distinctive pattern. Beetles appear to be able to recognize this feature of the decoys and are strongly attracted to it.

“This insight may at least partially explain how mate-seeking males can easily detect and approach green-colored females cryptically resting on green leaves.

“Ultimately, we have gained new insights into how to manipulate the behavior of emerald ash borers and similar pests in ways that can help to trap them and monitor where they might be doing damage.”

Other traps, other bugs

The researchers say their next step will be to further improve the traps to maximize their potential as part of an early detection tool for emerald ash borers.

“Our laboratory has ongoing research with the USDA Animal Plant Health Inspection Service into remote-reporting, internet-based technologies, and we will be working to couple this research with our ash-borer detection technique so that activity of the pest can be reported and assessed immediately by APHIS [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] personnel, rather than waiting days or weeks until a trap might usually be checked,” says Baker.

In addition, the team has been investigating the use of the decoys to attract other insect species, some of which are aggressive feeders on oak trees in central Europe and might threaten North American oaks in urban and forest landscapes much as the emerald ash borer destroyed ash trees.

“We have made progress in our research so far in Hungary these past few summers, and it looks like our decoys can be refined to attract and detect these other, new and potentially invasive pest species effectively,” says Domingue.

Additional researchers from Penn State, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the Forest Research Institute in Matrafured, Hungary, and the USDA contributed to the work, which the USDA and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences supported.

Source: Penn State

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Embedded journalists offer dark view of Afghan war

Tue, 09/16/2014 - 05:57

An analysis of news reports about the war in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2010 shows that reporters at three major US news outlets wrote increasingly negative stories. The negative tone was particularly pronounced in stories posted by reporters embedded in military units.

“When the war in Afghanistan started, the tone of the stories that reporters filed was generally neutral,” says Michel Haigh, associate professor of communications at Penn State. “However, over time, and as casualties increased, the coverage became more negative.”

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In 2003, as the media began to focus more on the conflict in Iraq, reporters for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times wrote less than 20 stories about Afghanistan.

Haigh and colleagues examined articles about the war from these three major newspapers during the 10-year period from 2001 to 2010. Between 2009 and 2010, when casualties reached their highest levels, there were more than 450 articles written about the war in Afghanistan.

The negativity toward the war effort was reflected in stories written by reporters in the field, as well as articles written by journalists in the US and in other countries, says Haigh.

While reporters who were embedded in military units in previous conflicts tended to be more positive about the military, embedded reporters in Afghanistan were typically negative. In fact, reporters in Afghanistan wrote stories with tones that were slightly less positive about the military than reporters who wrote their articles outside the country.

More casualties

“This isn’t the type of story we expected from embedded reporters,” Haigh says. “Typically, the use of embeds in a military unit leads to more positive reporting, however, coverage in Afghanistan was negative, regardless of whether the journalists reported from in Afghanistan or outside the country.”

Published in Newspaper Research Journal, the study also shows that reporters framed their stories differently as casualties rose. Framing refers to how reporters decide to tell the story. For example, a journalist may decide to focus the story on the war on terrorism or on casualties.

In this case, reporters both inside and outside of Afghanistan reported on the increasing casualties. Reporters who were not in Afghanistan also wrote stories on the economic and political impact of the conflict.

There were fewer embedded reporters in Afghanistan than in previous conflicts. Because newspapers pay to have embedded reporters travel with the troops, the cost of sending reporters to file stories in Afghanistan was too expensive for most news outlets that were struggling during the economic downturn. War fatigue may have been another reason for fewer embedded reporters. The American public was tired of hearing about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For the study, researchers examined more than 1,100 articles. A group of eight coders was trained to analyze the frames and tone of the stories. The coders did not consider opinion and editorial columns when they analyzed the content.

Source: Penn State

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5 common worries when fracking comes to town

Tue, 09/16/2014 - 03:35

Communities in parts of the country suitable for what’s commonly called “fracking” may face a number of potential health-related issues. Interviews with community leaders in three states reveal common public health concerns about the practice.

Scientists are trying to determine how future research can best address communities’ health questions and inform their decisions.

“While this study is just a first step, it clearly indicates that the communities in areas that are considering hydraulic fracturing have many questions and environmental health research priorities—and that these priorities may differ from those of technical experts and government agencies,” says lead author Katrina Korfmacher, director of the University of Rochester Environmental Health Sciences Center’s Community Outreach and Engagement Core.

High-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing consists of injecting large volumes of fluids into wells drilled deep into shale formations in order to release and extract natural gas. The fluids used in this process contain water and a host of chemicals and other materials.

Drilling activities and associated growth have the potential to impact water and air quality and the quality of life in these communities.

While many communities welcome the potential economic growth that can accompany natural gas extraction, uncertainties about the health risks and environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing have generated anxiety and—in some cases—conflict.

New York, North Carolina, Ohio

Each state is at a different stage of natural gas extraction development. For the last seven years, New York State has suspended fracking pending an assessment of the potential health and environmental impacts.

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The regulations governing fracking in North Carolina are currently up for debate, and eastern Ohio has seen a rapid expansion since natural gas extraction began in 2011.

Researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 48 community leaders in the three states. The objective was to obtain a broad and diverse spectrum of perspectives on health issues related to natural gas development.

Interviewees included residents/homeowners, environmental advocates, members of local government, business leaders, educators, members of the media, and public health professionals.

The 5 most common concerns 1. Water Quality and Quantity:

This included the potential impact on ground and surface water and the ability of drilling companies and regulators to ensure that the fluids used in the fracking process do not contaminate water and impact health, agriculture, and the environment.

An additional concern was the lack of sufficient information on the specific chemicals used by drilling companies and whether local water supplies would be depleted because of the high volume required by the fracking process.

2. Air Emissions:

Concerns included impact on air quality by the evaporation of chemicals from holding ponds, emissions brought to the surface from the wells themselves, and emissions from the trucks and equipment that service the drilling sites.

3. Quality of Life and Economic Issues:

While some interviewees emphasized the economic benefits expected to accrue from natural gas development, others raised concerns including the potential impact of increased traffic, housing costs, and crime rates.

More general concerns include potential “boom and bust” cycle of natural resource extraction, the loss of the “rural character” of their communities, and potential conflicts that will arise between those who are economic “winners” and “losers” in the wake of new development.

4. Public Health and Health Care:

Interviewees raised concerns about direct and indirect burdens on public health and health care systems, including the health care needs of industry workers, increased needs for and training of emergency responders, new or increased rates of disease related to environmental impacts such as air pollution, and demographic shifts created by the influx of drilling workers (including violence and alcohol abuse).

On the other hand, some interviewees noted that economic development could lead to improved population health.

5. Vulnerable Populations:

Concerns raised included the unequal health and economic impact on community residents depending upon their socioeconomic status (inability to benefit economically, disruption of traditional source of rural jobs, greater burden if they become sick, and less ability to avoid potential health risks).

Unbiased information

The participants also indicated that it was difficult to find unbiased sources of information on the potential health impact of natural gas development.

There was a clear demand for research that addressed their concerns and could help their communities grapple with decisions over how to protect public health in the face of environmental, economic, and social changes associated with natural gas extraction.

“Given the increasing amount of research focused on the health impacts of natural gas extraction, this assessment provides timely insights into community concerns and underscores the value of including impacted communities in identifying research questions and conducting research,” says Kathleen Gray, coauthor and director of the Community Outreach and Engagement Core of the University of North Carolina Center for Environmental Health and Susceptibility.

“We hope that this assessment will help create a framework that provides for ongoing community engagement in research on the potential health, environmental, and economic impacts of natural gas extraction,” says Korfmacher.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the Center for Environmental Genetics at the University of Cincinnati, and the Center for Environmental Health and Susceptibility at UNC-Chapel Hill supported the project.

The assessment, which appears in the journal Reviews on Environmental Health, was led collaboratively by three environmental health science centers in New York, North Carolina, and Ohio.

Source: University of Rochester

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How 2 genes synch your body’s circadian clock

Mon, 09/15/2014 - 13:58

Researchers have figured out how two genes keep the circadian clocks in all human cells in time and in proper rhythm with the 24-hour day, as well as with the seasons.

The discovery has been a “long time coming,” says Aziz Sancar, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the UNC School of Medicine.

“We’ve known for a while that four proteins were involved in generating daily rhythmicity but not exactly what they did. Now we know how the clock is reset in all cells. So we have a better idea of what to expect if we target these proteins with therapeutics.”

In all human cells, there are four genes—Cryptochrome, Period, CLOCK, and BMAL1—that work in unison to control the cyclical changes in human physiology, such as blood pressure, body temperature, and rest-sleep cycles. The way in which these genes control physiology helps prepare us for the day. This is called the circadian clock.

It keeps us in proper physiological rhythm. When we try to fast-forward or rewind the natural 24-hour day, such as when we fly seven time zones away, our circadian clocks don’t let us off easy; the genes and proteins need time to adjust. Jetlag is the feeling of our cells “realigning” to their new environment and the new starting point of a solar day.

‘It’s a feedback loop’

Previously, scientists found that CLOCK and BMAL1 work in tandem to kick start the circadian clock. These genes bind to many other genes and turn them on to express proteins. This allows cells, such as brain cells, to behave the way we need them to at the start of a day.

Specifically, CLOCK and BMAL1 bind to a pair of genes called Period and Cryptochrome and turn them on to express proteins, which—after several modifications—wind up suppressing CLOCK and BMAL1 activity.

Then, the Period and Cryptochrome proteins are degraded, allowing for the circadian clock to begin again.

“It’s a feedback loop,” says Sancar, who discovered Cryptochrome in 1998. “The inhibition takes 24 hours. This is why we can see gene activity go up and then down throughout the day.”

Two genes: Cryptochrome and Period

But scientists didn’t know exactly how that gene suppression and protein degradation happened at the back end.

In fact, during experiments using one compound to stifle Cryptochrome and another drug to hinder Period, other researchers found inconsistent effects on the circadian clock, suggesting that Cryptochrome and Period did not have the same role.

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Sancar thought the two genes might have complementary roles. His team conducted experiments to find out.

Chris Selby, a research instructor in Sancar’s lab, used two different kinds of genetics techniques to create the first-ever cell line that lacked both Cryptochrome and Period. (Each cell has two versions of each gene. Selby knocked out all four copies.)

Then Rui Ye, a postdoctoral fellow in Sancar’s lab and first author of the paper published in Genes and Development, put Period back into the new mutant cells.

But Period by itself did not inhibit CLOCK-BMAL1; it actually had no active function inside the cells.

Next, Ye put Cryptochrome alone back into the cell line. He found that Cryptochrome not only suppressed CLOCK and BMAL1, but it squashed them indefinitely.

“The Cryptochrome just sat there,” Sancar says. “It wasn’t degraded. The circadian clock couldn’t restart.”

For the final experiment, Sancar’s team added Period to the cells with Cryptochrome. As Period’s protein accumulated inside cells, the scientists could see that it began to remove the Cryptochrome, as well as CLOCK and BMAL1.

This led to the eventual degradation of Cryptochrome, and then the CLOCK-BMAL1 genes were free to restart the circadian clock anew to complete the 24-hour cycle.

Jetlag and cancer

“What we’ve done is show how the entire clock really works,” Sancar says. “Now, when we screen for drugs that target these proteins, we know to expect different outcomes and why we get those outcomes.

“Whether it’s for treatment of jetlag or seasonal affective disorder or for controlling and optimizing cancer treatments, we had to know exactly how this clock worked.”

Previous to this research, in 2010, Sancar’s lab found that the level of an enzyme called XPA increased and decreased in synchrony with the circadian clock’s natural oscillations throughout the day. Sancar’s team proposed that chemotherapy would be most effective when XPA is at its lowest level. For humans, that’s late in the afternoon.

“This means that DNA repair is controlled by the circadian clock,” Sancar says. “It also means that the circadian clocks in cancer cells could become targets for cancer drugs in order to make other therapeutics more effective.”

The National Institutes of Health and the Science Research Council and Academia Sinica in Taiwan funded the research.

Source: UNC-Chapel Hill

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How mindfulness can help preschool teachers cope

Mon, 09/15/2014 - 12:53

A new survey of early childhood education teachers shows that mindfulness is linked with alleviating lasting physical and emotional effects of childhood adversity.

The findings are especially important because adults who were abused or neglected as children typically experience poorer health, according to Robert Whitaker, professor of public health and pediatrics at Temple University.

“Previous research has shown that childhood traumas worsen adult health through changes in how the body responds to stress,” says Whitaker, who led the new study in Preventative Medicine. He adds that some people might adopt poor health behaviors, like smoking, to cope with stress.

Childhood stress, round two?

Whitaker collaborated with scientist Kathleen Gallagher of UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute on the study, which surveyed 2,160 adults working for Head Start, the nation’s largest federally funded early childhood education program.

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According to Gallagher, one of the study’s most striking features is its focus on Head Start teachers and staff, who are responsible for teaching and caring for some of America’s most vulnerable children.

“It’s essential for adults working with young children to be well—physically and emotionally,” says Gallagher. “Better health enables better relationships with children, and research has long demonstrated that good relationships are crucial for children’s learning and social-emotional development.”

Whitaker explains that when adults provide services to children who are experiencing trauma, it can reactivate in adults an unhealthy stress response to their own childhood adversity. “This can potentially worsen the health and functioning of these adult caregivers,” he says.

According to Whitaker, studies have shown the health benefits of learning to be more mindful—focusing on and accepting your reactions to the present moment. Nobody, however, had explored whether mindfulness in adulthood could offset the effects of adverse childhood experiences.

Mindfulness and health

Whitaker’s team surveyed 66 Head Start programs across Pennsylvania, asking staff if they experienced emotional, physical, or sexual abuse as children or if they were exposed to other adversities such as household violence, substance abuse, or mental illness.

He also asked about their current health, as well their mindfulness—their tendency in daily life to notice what happens as it happens and to be aware and accepting of their thoughts and feelings.

“Nearly one-fourth of our Head Start respondents reported three or more types of adverse childhood experiences,” says Whitaker, who adds that almost 30 percent reported having three or more stress-related health conditions, such as depression, headache, or back pain.

However, the risk of having multiple health conditions was nearly 50 percent lower among respondents with the highest level of mindfulness compared to those with the lowest levels, even for those with multiple types of childhood adversity.

In addition, regardless of the amount of childhood adversity, Head Start workers who were more mindful also reported significantly better health behaviors, like getting enough sleep, and better functioning, including fewer days when they felt unwell mentally or physically.

“Our results suggest that mindfulness may provide some resilience against the poor adult health outcomes that often result from childhood trauma,” Whitaker says.

“Mindfulness training may help adults, including those with a history of childhood trauma, to improve their own well-being—and to be more effective with children.”

Online training

The findings compelled Whitaker and Gallagher to begin developing Be Well to Teach Well, an online professional development program designed to help Head Start teachers improve their well-being and classroom interactions.

“In-person training on mindfulness practices is difficult to implement on a large scale and very costly,” Gallagher says.

“But by providing online training and ongoing coaching, we plan to help many more teachers to be well—and to develop the healthy relationships that are so important for positive child outcomes.”

“We need more research on delivering mindfulness training to teachers,” says Whitaker. “But there’s reason to believe a program for teachers like Be Well to Teach Well will help teachers and children in their classrooms flourish.

Researchers from UNC, Temple University, and Rockefeller University contributed to the work.

Source: UNC Chapel Hill

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Slimy ‘hairs’ let microbes clean up toxic waste

Mon, 09/15/2014 - 12:47

Stronger “hairs” make microbes developed to clean up nuclear waste even better at their jobs, report researchers.

In earlier research, microbiologist Gemma Reguera of Michigan State University identified that Geobacter bacteria’s tiny conductive hair-like appendages, or pili, did the lion’s share of remediation.

By increasing the strength of the pili nanowires, she improved their ability to clean up uranium and other toxic wastes.

In new research, published in the current issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology, Reguera has added an additional layer of armor to her enhanced microbes.

The microbes also use the pili to stick to each other and grow a film on just about any surface, similar to the bacterial film that forms on teeth.

The Geobacter biofilm, encased by a network of nanowires and slime, gives the bacteria a shield and increases their ability to neutralize even more uranium. The improvement also allows the bacteria to survive longer even when exposed to higher concentrations of the radioactive material.

Armored microbes

Geobacter immobilizing uranium can be described as nature’s version of electroplating. The beefed-up microbes engulf the uranium and turn it into a mineral, which prevents the toxic material from leaching into groundwater.

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Reguera’s team had previously linked the conductive pili to the ability of the microbe to mineralize the soluble uranium. As the biofilm concentrates many nanowires around the Geobacter cells, more uranium can be bound and mineralized.

The pili are immersed in a matrix of slime, which surrounds the biofilm cells and boosts the Geobacter’s pili armor, so the biofilm now can pull double duty by helping mineralize uranium.

The shield keeps the uranium from penetrating deep into the Geobacter biofilm. By keeping this process on the surface of the film, the bacteria are not exposed to uranium and, as a community, they are able to clean up more toxic waste.

“The results surpassed our most optimistic predictions,” Reguera says. “Even thin biofilms immobilized uranium like sponges. They reduced it to a mineral, all while not suffering any damage to themselves, for prolonged periods of time.”

Even when exposed to extremely high and toxic concentrations of uranium, levels that would destroy individual Geobacter cells, the biofilms didn’t just survive, they thrived, she adds.

Additional researchers from Michigan State and EXAFS Analysis also contributed to the study.

Reguera’s future research will focus on deciphering how the biofilm matrix that encases the cells shields them so effectively and how to improve its properties further. She has patented the microbe.

Source: Michigan State University

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‘No-seeums’ harbor virus that makes cows sick

Mon, 09/15/2014 - 12:43

A virus that causes a serious disease in cows and sheep is able to survive the winter by reproducing in the biting bugs that transmit it.

The discovery solves a century-old mystery about bluetongue virus—and is particularly significant as climate change brings more moderate winter temperatures. In the United States alone, the disease costs the cattle and sheep industry an estimate $125 million annually.

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“By conducting this epidemiological study on a commercial dairy farm in Northern California, we were able to demonstrate that the virus overwinters in female midges that had fed on an infected animal during the previous season,” says lead author Christie Mayo, a veterinarian and postdoctoral researcher in the School of Veterinary Medicine at University of California, Davis.

“This discovery has important ramifications for predicting the occurrence of bluetongue in livestock and, we hope, for eventually developing controls for the disease,” says coauthor James MacLachlan, veterinary professor and viral disease expert.

Bluetongue disease

Bluetongue disease, first identified during the 1800s in southern Africa, is transmitted by the Culicoides biting midge, a tiny gnat sometimes referred to as a “no-seeum.”

The disease mostly sickens sheep but also infects cattle and goats, and deer and other wild ruminants. In the US, the virus’ greatest economic impact is in the cattle industry, because it is bigger than the domestic sheep industry and most adversely impacted by international trade barriers related to bluetongue. The disease doesn’t pose a threat to human health.

The name bluetongue derives from the swollen lips and tongue of affected sheep, which may turn blue in the late stages of the disease. The virus that causes bluetongue was first isolated and identified in the Western Hemisphere in the early 1950s.

In California, bluetongue is most prevalent when midges are abundant in late summer and fall, but there has been speculation over how the virus survives through the winter. When temperatures turn cold and the biting-midge populations plummet, transmission appears to cease for more than six months, but the virus reappears when temperatures warm the following season.

Long-lived female midges

For the new study, published in PLOS ONE, researchers monitored cows and midges on a Northern California dairy farm for more than a year. They documented, for the first time, the presence of genetic material for the bluetongue virus in female midges that were collected during two consecutive winter seasons.

The bluetongue virus was widespread in both the dairy cows and the midges from August to November. Surprisingly, however, the researchers discovered that the virus was also present in female midges captured in February of both 2013 and 2014. There was no sign of infection in the dairy cattle being studied.

The researchers concluded that those long-lived female midges had been infected with the bluetongue virus during the previous warm-weather season. They were carrying the virus through the winter months and would later in the season once again transmit it to cows on the dairy.

The bluetongue virus may also have other yet-to-be discovered modes of overwintering in temperate regions, the researchers say.

Other researchers from UC Davis, UC Riverside, University of Florida, Gainesville, and the Atlantic Veterinary College, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada contributed to the study.

The US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine’s Center for Food Animal Health provided funding.

Source: UC Davis

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At-home test diagnoses anemia in 60 seconds

Mon, 09/15/2014 - 08:30

A device that uses a single drop of blood can quickly diagnose anemia and allow inexpensive at-home monitoring.

The basic test produces results in about 60 seconds and requires no electrical power. A companion smartphone application can automatically correlate the visual results to specific blood hemoglobin levels.

The disposable self-testing device uses a chemical reagent that produces visible color changes corresponding to different levels of anemia.

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By allowing rapid diagnosis and more convenient monitoring of patients with chronic anemia, the device could help patients receive treatment before the disease becomes severe, potentially heading off emergency room visits and hospitalizations.

Anemia, which affects two billion people worldwide, is now diagnosed and monitored using blood tests done with costly test equipment maintained in hospitals, clinics, or commercial laboratories.

Because of its simplicity and ability to deliver results without electricity, the device could also be used in resource-poor nations.

“Our goal is to get this device into patients’ hands so they can diagnose and monitor anemia themselves,” says Wilbur Lam, a physician in the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and the department of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine.

“Patients could use this device in a way that’s very similar to how diabetics use glucose-monitoring devices, but this will be even simpler because this is a visual-based test that doesn’t require an additional electrical device to analyze the results,” adds Lam, who is senior author of a paper published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Less than a droplet

The test device was developed in a collaboration of Emory University, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and Georgia Institute of Technology. It grew out of a 2011 undergraduate senior design project at Georgia Tech and Emory University.

Using a two-piece prototype device, the test works this way: A patient sticks a finger with a lance similar to those used by diabetics to produce a droplet of blood. The device’s cap, a small vial, is then touched to the droplet, drawing in a precise amount of blood using capillary action. The cap containing the blood sample is then placed onto the body of the clear plastic test kit, which contains the chemical reagent.

After the cap is closed, the device is briefly shaken to mix the blood and reagent.

“When the capillary is filled, we have a very precise volume of blood, about five microliters, which is less than a droplet—much less than what is required by other anemia tests,” says Erika Tyburski, the paper’s first author and leader of the undergraduate team that developed the device.

Blood hemoglobin then serves as a catalyst for a reduction-oxidation reaction that takes place in the device. After about 45 seconds, the reaction is complete and the patient sees a color ranging from green-blue to red, indicating the degree of anemia.

Tyburski and Lam have teamed up with two other partners and worked with Emory’s Office of Technology Transfer to launch a startup company, Sanguina, to commercialize the test, which will be known as AnemoCheck. The test ultimately will require approval from the FDA. The team also plans to study how the test may be applied to specific diseases, such as sickle cell anemia.

The device could be on pharmacy shelves in 2016.

The FDA-funded Atlantic Pediatric Device Consortium, the Georgia Research Alliance, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the Georgia Center of Innovation for Manufacturing, and the Global Center for Medical Innovation provided support for the test’s development.

Source: Georgia Tech

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Moral outrage can kill your thirst

Mon, 09/15/2014 - 08:24

Shady business deals, crimes, and other acts that violate our sense of right and wrong can leave us feeling sick—literally.

“The emotion we feel from experiencing a moral violation can profoundly affect our behavior,” says Cindy Chan, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough and Rotman School of Management.

“It causes us to consume less and highlights a psychological truth that moral violations can, in a manner of speaking, leave a bad taste in our mouths.”

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Across a series of three studies, participants drank less chocolate milk while watching a film portraying incest and listening to a news report about fraud. They also reported not enjoying the chocolate milk as much.

Participants also consumed considerably less water when asked to write a story about cheating or theft.

Chan and colleagues wanted to see if the effects of moral disgust follow the same pattern as core disgust. Core disgust has been shown to evoke a range of physical and behavioral responses to possible contaminants including, the feeling of nausea and revulsion as well as a withdrawal or avoidance of food.

“Moral violations stir up moral disgust and that disgust can cause us to lose our appetites because it functions as a way to protect us from ingesting something that may be harmful,” says Chan.

The research supports the idea that moral violations are grounded in the emotion of core disgust. Chan says the research may also be of interest to marketers whose brands are associated with moral violations or whose products may be consumed in morally charged environments.

“People may drink less coffee at a café if they are reading about corporate fraud in the newspaper,” she says. “They may consume less popcorn and pop at a movie theatre if they are watching a film about corruption and greed.”

The research is available online and is published in the current edition of the Journal of Consumer Psychology. Leaf Van Boven from the University of Colorado at Boulder, Eduardo Andrade from FGV Rio de Janeiro, and Dan Ariely from Duke University collaborated on the project.

Source: University of Toronto

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Humans and mice can regenerate missing rib

Mon, 09/15/2014 - 07:06

Mammals can’t regenerate lost limbs like salamanders can, but they can repair large sections of their ribs.

Using CT imaging, researchers monitored the healing of a human rib that had been partially removed by a surgeon. The eight centimeters of missing bone and one centimeter of missing cartilage did partially repair after six months.

To better understand this repair process, they surgically removed sections of rib cartilage—ranging from three to five millimeters—from mice.

When they removed both rib cartilage and its surrounding sheath of tissue—called the “perichondrium,” the missing sections failed to repair even after nine months. However, when they removed rib cartilage but left its perichondrium, the missing sections entirely repaired within one to two months.

They also found that a perichondrium retains the ability to produce cartilage even when disconnected from the rib and displaced into nearby muscle tissue—further suggesting that the perichondrium contains progenitor or stem cells.

Rib cell therapy?

“We believe that the development of this model in the mouse is important for making progress in the field of skeletal repair, where an acute clinical need is present for ameliorating skeletal injury, chronic osteoarthritis, and the severe problems associated with reconstructive surgery,” says team leader Francesca Mariani, assistant professor of cell and neurobiology and principal investigator in the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at University of Southern California.

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“At the early stages in our understanding, the mouse provides us with an exceptional ability to make progress, and we are excited about the potential for using cells derived from the rib perichondrium or using rib perichondrium-like cells for regenerative therapy.”

The lab received support for this study and future work from the NIH, the Merck Investigator Studies Program, and the USC Regenerative Medicine Initiative Award.

As Mariani explains, “These grants will allow us to address several key questions: Which cells are involved in mediating the repair? How big of a piece of rib can we take out and still see repair? And can we use cells from the rib to get repair in another part of the skeleton? By answering these questions, we are accelerating the discovery of new regenerative therapies for the patients who need them the most.”

The results of the study appear in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research.

Funding came from an Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Foundation Research Award; the Baxter Medical Scholar Research Fellowship; USC undergraduate fellowships; the Provost, Dean Joan M. Schaeffer, and Rose Hills fellowships; a California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) training fellowship; CIRM BRIDGES fellowships through California State University, Fullerton, and Pasadena City College; and the James H. Zumberge Research and Innovation Fund.

Additional coauthors contributed from USC and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

Source: USC

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