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Computer beats people at detecting fake pain

Mon, 03/24/2014 - 07:03

A computer system can spot real or faked expressions of pain more accurately than people can.

“The computer system managed to detect distinctive dynamic features of facial expressions that people missed,” says Marian Bartlett, research professor at University of California, San Diego’s Institute for Neural Computation and lead author of the study. “Human observers just aren’t very good at telling real from faked expressions of pain.”

Senior author Kang Lee, professor at the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study at the University of Toronto, says, “humans can simulate facial expressions and fake emotions well enough to deceive most observers. The computer’s pattern-recognition abilities prove better at telling whether pain is real or faked.”

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The research team found that humans could not discriminate real from faked expressions of pain better than random chance—and, even after training, only improved accuracy to a modest 55 percent. The computer system attains 85 percent accuracy.

“In highly social species such as humans,” says Lee, “faces have evolved to convey rich information, including expressions of emotion and pain. And, because of the way our brains are built, people can simulate emotions they’re not actually experiencing—so successfully that they fool other people.

“The computer is much better at spotting the subtle differences between involuntary and voluntary facial movements.”

“By revealing the dynamics of facial action through machine vision systems,” says Bartlett, “our approach has the potential to elucidate ‘behavioral fingerprints’ of the neural-control systems involved in emotional signaling.

Fakers’ mouths

The single most predictive feature of falsified expressions, the study shows, is the mouth, and how and when it opens. Fakers’ mouths open with less variation and too regularly.

“Further investigations,” says the researchers, “will explore whether over-regularity is a general feature of fake expressions.”

In addition to detecting pain malingering, the computer-vision system might be used to detect other real-world deceptive actions in the realms of homeland security, psychopathology, job screening, medicine, and law, says Bartlett.

“As with causes of pain, these scenarios also generate strong emotions, along with attempts to minimize, mask, and fake such emotions, which may involve ‘dual control’ of the face,” she says.

“In addition, our computer-vision system can be applied to detect states in which the human face may provide important clues as to health, physiology, emotion, or thought, such as drivers’ expressions of sleepiness, students’ expressions of attention and comprehension of lectures, or responses to treatment of affective disorders.”

The work appears in the latest issue of Current Biology.

Source: University of Toronto

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Chemo-vaccine combo reduces lung tumors in mice

Mon, 03/24/2014 - 06:47

When given with cisplatin, a type of chemotherapy, the investigational cancer vaccine tecemotide boosts immune response and reduces the number of tumors in mice with lung cancer.

New research also shows that radiation treatments do not significantly impair the immune response. Though tecemotide, also known as Stimuvax, has shown great potential at times, a recent Phase III trial found no overall survival benefit for patients with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

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However, further analysis showed one group of patients, who received concurrent chemotherapy and radiation followed by tecemotide, did benefit from the vaccine. As a result, tecemotide’s manufacturer, Merck KGaA, is sponsoring additional post-clinical animal and human studies, so far with good results.

“There aren’t any good options for patients with inoperable stage III lung cancer following mainline chemotherapies,” says Michael DeGregorio, professor of medicine at the University of California, Davis, and the study’s lead author.  “We are looking at tecemotide as a potential maintenance therapy to prolong survival and improve quality of life.”

Tecemotide activates an immune response by targeting the protein MUC1, which is often overexpressed in lung, breast, prostate, and other cancers. The vaccine stimulates production of interferon gamma and MUC1-targeted killer T-lymphocytes, which seek out and destroy MUC1 cancer cells.

Researchers wanted to know if cisplatin/tecemotide treatments, along with radiation therapy, could boost the immune response and alter lung cancer’s trajectory, stabilizing the disease.

More impact

Published in Cancer Immunology Research, the study produced a number of positive results. Tecemotide increased interferon gamma levels and boosted the T-cell response to MUC1-expressing cancer cells. When administered by themselves, both tecemotide and cisplatin reduced the number of lung tumors. However, combining these therapies enhanced their impact, suggesting that tecemotide may increase cisplatin’s anticancer activity.

Though radiation therapy did reduce the number of lymphocytes, it did not appear to hamper the immune response. In addition, interferon levels actually increased several hours after radiation treatments. “Radiation may actually be helpful by exposing targets for the vaccine,” DeGregorio says.

While the study revives hope for tecemotide as a potential NSCLC therapy, there are still questions to be answered. Researchers need to further refine these therapies to determine which protocols provide the best survival benefits.

In addition, tecemotide can only be effective if it does not exhaust the immune system in the process. Still, the research provides a ray of hope for patients with few options.

“We believe this vaccine could be coupled with standard treatments to create a maintenance therapy,” says DeGregorio. “If we can help patients with a life expectancy of 18 to 20 months increase that to 30 months or more, with a high quality of life, that’s a big benefit.”

Merck KGaA funded the study.

Source: UC Davis


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Supercomputing reveals geometry of ‘jamming’

Fri, 03/21/2014 - 10:35

Using a supercomputer and mathematically rich formulas, physicists have captured fundamental insights about what happens when objects moving freely jam to a standstill.

Their approach captures jamming—the point at which objects come together too tightly to move—by identifying geometric signatures.

The payoff, while likely far down the road, could be a roadmap to preventing overfilled conveyor belts from stopping in factories, separating oil deposits trapped in sand, or allowing for the rapid, efficient transfer of mass quantities of data packets on the internet, say University of Oregon doctoral student Peter K. Morse and physics professor Eric I. Corwin.

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Their paper is online ahead of print in the journal Physical Review Letters.

“The history of the field has been looking at mechanical properties really close to the jamming transition, right where a sand pile starts to push back,” says Corwin.

“What we’re doing that is really different is we’re asking what happens before the sand pile starts to push back. When it’s not pushing back, you can’t get any information about its mechanical properties. So, instead, we’re looking at the geometry—where particles are in relation to one another.”

A fourth state of matter?

According to Corwin, the problem involves an ages-old question used to introduce physics in early education: Is sand a liquid, a solid, or a gas? “Make a sand pile, step back, and it holds its shape, so clearly it’s a solid,” he says. “But I can take that same sand and pour it into a bucket; it flows in and takes the shape of the container and has a level surface, so clearly sand is a liquid. Or I can put a top on the bucket and shake it around really hard, and when I do that the sand fills all of the space. Clearly sand is a gas. Except, it’s none of those things.

“This has led to granular materials, or little chunks of things, being referred to as a fourth state of matter,” he continues. “Is sand something else? One thing everyone agrees on—the one feature about sand or piles of gravel or piles of glass spheres or ball bearings, that makes them really unique—is that when spread out they can’t support any load.

“If you keep compressing them, and they get denser and denser, you reach a density where it’s like flipping a switch. All of a sudden they can support a load.”

Each particle’s neighbors

The key, the researchers say, is identifying the nearest neighbors of particles. This is done using the Voronoi construction, a method of dividing spaces into a number of regions that was devised by Georgy Feodosevich Voronoy, a Russian mathematician in the late 19th century.

“Imagine a cluster of islands in the ocean,” Morse says. “If you found yourself dropped in the water you would swim to the nearest island. You could say that the island ‘owns’ the region of ocean closest to it and islands that ‘own’ adjacent patches of ocean are nearest neighbors. We use this to characterize the internal geometry of a sand pile.”

On the verge of jamming

To study what happens to this internal geometry as a sand pile is compressed, they entered data into the University of Oregon’s ACISS (Applied Computational Instrument for Scientific Synthesis) supercomputer, applying the Voronoi construction.

“Using these cells, called Voronoi tesslations, you can find out all you want to know about a geometric object—its volume, surface area, number of sides—you get it all,” says Morse. “All of the geometric features that we can think of so far show us that systems below jamming are very different than systems that are about to jam or that are jammed already. We end up finding that this purely geometric construct will exhibit this phase transition.”

And by carrying out their computations into multidimensional spaces—up to the eighth dimension in this project—researchers learned that the physics of the jamming process can be simply identified by seeing what happens in the transition from 2D to 3D spaces.

It’s at that level, applying the knowledge to high-dimensional spaces, Corwin says, that application to expanding data transfer capabilities come into focus.

The National Science Foundation supported the work.

Source: University of Oregon

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Hearing tests don’t work as well for teens

Fri, 03/21/2014 - 08:35

School hearing tests can’t effectively detect teens’ high-frequency hearing loss, which typically results from exposure to loud noise, say researchers.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health mandates school-administered hearing screens for children in kindergarten to third, seventh, and eleventh grades. The school screenings primarily focus on low-frequency hearing loss. This is logical for young children, who are more likely to develop low-frequency hearing loss due to fluid in the ear after a bad cold or an ear infection.

Adolescents, however, are more susceptible to high-frequency hearing loss, usually brought on by exposure to loud noises, but the same tests are used on adolescents and young children.

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Deepa Sekhar, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Penn State College of Medicine, compared the results of a special hearing screening designed to detect noise-related high-frequency hearing loss with the results of the standard Pennsylvania school hearing test. The researchers report their findings in the Journal of Medical Screening.

Both screenings test the ability to hear a tone at a specific loudness. The tone is played at different frequencies, or pitches. The screening for noise-related hearing loss tests the ability to hear higher pitches, up to twice the frequency of the Pennsylvania school screen.

Screening participants were 11th grade students at Hershey High School. Researchers administered both the statewide school screening and a high-frequency screening. Of the 282 participants, five failed the Pennsylvania school test and 85 failed the noise-related test. Of the group of 48 students returned for testing by an audiologist in a soundproof booth, nine were diagnosed with hearing loss.

“More participants failed the initial screening than we predicted,” says Sekhar. “Even with the effort and care put in by school nurses across the state, the current Pennsylvania school screen just isn’t designed to detect high-frequency hearing loss in adolescents.”

One in five adolescents experiences hearing loss, and most of this is high-frequency hearing loss related to continued exposure to noise hazards. Early detection and avoidance of loud noises can prevent hearing loss from progressing.

To efficiently detect adolescent hearing loss, schools across the US may need to consider alternate tests that are better designed to detect noise-related high-frequency hearing loss.

“The results of this study have the potential to reach schools across the nation, as many use screens similar to those used in Pennsylvania schools,” says Sekhar. “We are currently working on a follow-up study at Lebanon High School in partnership with Penn State Nursing to further improve the high-frequency school hearing screen for use in the school setting.”

Additional researchers from Penn State College of Medicine; University of Illinois, Chicago; Bloomsburg University; Impulse Monitoring, Inc.; and Summit ENT & Hearing Services contributed to the study.

The Academic Pediatric Association/Maternal and Child Health Bureau Young Investigator Award funded this research.

Source: Penn State

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Faces show fear and disgust to help eyes see

Fri, 03/21/2014 - 08:20

Facial expressions—such as wide-eyed fear or narrow-eyed disgust—are the result of how our eyes have evolved to perceive, not to communicate.

Our eyes widen in fear, boosting sensitivity and expanding our field of vision to locate surrounding danger. When repulsed, our eyes narrow, blocking light to sharpen focus and pinpoint the source of our disgust.

Eyes widen to show fear and narrow to show disgust. (Credit: Cornell)

The findings by Adam Anderson, professor of human development in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, suggest that human facial expressions arose from universal, adaptive reactions to environmental stimuli and not originally as social communication signals, lending support to Charles Darwin’s theories on the evolution of emotion.

Get it in focus

“These opposing functions of eye widening and narrowing, which mirror that of pupil dilation and constriction, might be the primitive origins for the expressive capacity of the face,” says Anderson. “And these actions are not likely restricted to disgust and fear, as we know that these movements play a large part in how perhaps all expressions differ, including surprise, anger, and even happiness.”

Looks of disgust result in the greatest visual acuity—less light and better focus; fearful expressions induce maximum sensitivity—more light and a broader visual field.

Emotions first

“These emotions trigger facial expressions that are very far apart structurally, one with eyes wide open and the other with eyes pinched,” says Anderson, the paper’s senior author. “The reason for that is to allow the eye to harness the properties of light that are most useful in these situations.”

What’s more, emotions filter our reality, shaping what we see before light ever reaches the inner eye.

“We tend to think of perception as something that happens after an image is received by the brain, but in fact emotions influence vision at the very earliest moments of visual encoding.”

Anderson’s Affect and Cognition Laboratory is now studying how these contrasting eye movements may account for how facial expressions have developed to support nonverbal communication across cultures. The current research is published in Psychological Science.

“We are seeking to understand how these expressions have come to communicate emotions to others,” he says. “We know that the eyes can be a powerful basis for reading what people are thinking and feeling, and we might have a partial answer to why that is.”

Source: Cornell University

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Google is right: We work better when we’re happy

Fri, 03/21/2014 - 07:35

New research confirms what Google already knows—greater employee happiness results in higher productivity without sacrificing quality.

Economists carried out a number of experiments to test the idea that happy employees work harder. In the laboratory, they found happiness made people about 12 percent more productive.

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Andrew Oswald, Eugenio Proto, and Daniel Sgroi from the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick led the research.

The findings, to be published in the Journal of Labor Economics, included four different experiments with more than 700 participants.

During the experiments a number of the participants were either shown a comedy movie clip or treated to free chocolate, drinks, and fruit. Others were questioned about recent family tragedies, such as bereavements, to assess whether lower levels of happiness were later associated with lower levels of productivity.

“Companies like Google have invested more in employee support and employee satisfaction has risen as a result. For Google, it rose by 37 percent; they know what they are talking about. Under scientifically controlled conditions, making workers happier really pays off,” says Oswald.

“The driving force seems to be that happier workers use the time they have more effectively, increasing the pace at which they can work without sacrificing quality,” adds Sgroi.

Pronto points out that the research had implications for employers and promotion policies.

“We have shown that happier subjects are more productive, the same pattern appears in four different experiments. This research will provide some guidance for management in all kinds of organizations, they should strive to make their workplaces emotionally healthy for their workforce.”

Source: University of Warwick

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Scientists decode loblolly pine’s giant genome

Fri, 03/21/2014 - 07:29

Scientists have completed the massive genome sequence of the loblolly pine—the most commercially important tree species in the United States and the source of most American paper products.

The draft genome—approximately seven times bigger than the human genome—is the largest genome sequenced to date and the most complete conifer genome sequence ever published. The sequencing was accomplished by using, for the first time, a faster and more efficient analytical process. Two papers about the work appear in Genetics and one in Genome Biology.

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The genome sequence will help scientists breed improved varieties of the loblolly pine, which also is being developed as a feedstock for biofuel. The newly sequenced genome also provides a better understanding of the evolution and diversity of plants.

“It’s a huge genome. But the challenge isn’t just collecting all the sequence data. The problem is assembling that sequence into order,” says David Neale, a professor of plant sciences at the University of California, Davis, who led the loblolly pine genome project.

Faster sequencing

To tackle the enormous size of the loblolly pine’s genome, which until recently has been an obstacle to sequencing efforts, the research team used a new method that can speed up genome assembly by compressing the raw sequence data 100-fold.

Modern genome sequencing methods make it relatively easy to read the individual “letters” in DNA, but only in short fragments. In the case of the loblolly, 16 billion separate fragments had to be fit back together—a computational puzzle called genome assembly.

“We were able to assemble the human genome, but that was close to the limit of our ability; seven times bigger was just too much,” says Steven Salzberg, professor of medicine and biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University, one of the directors of the loblolly genome assembly team and an author on the papers.

The key to the solution was using a new method, developed by researchers at the University of Maryland, which pre-processes the sequence data, eliminates redundancies and yields 100 times less sequence data.

This approach, tested for the first time in this study, allowed the team to assemble a much more complete genome sequence than the draft assemblies of two other conifer species reported last year.

“The size of the pieces of consecutive sequence that we assembled are orders of magnitude larger than what’s been previously published,” says Neale, who notes that the loblolly now provides a high-quality “reference” genome that considerably speeds along future conifer genome projects.

The open-access project benefited the research community even before the genome sequencing effort was completed and published. Data have been freely available throughout the project, with three public releases starting in June 2012.

Pathogen resistance

The new sequencing confirmed that 82 percent of the loblolly genome is made up of invasive DNA elements and other DNA fragments that copied themselves around the genome. The genome sequencing also revealed the location of genes that may be involved in fighting off pathogens, which will help scientists understand more about disease resistance in pines.

For example, researchers from the Forest Service Southern Institute for Forest Genetics identified an important candidate gene for resistance to fusiform rust, the most damaging disease of southern pines. A molecular understanding of genetic resistance is a valuable tool for forest managers as they select trees that will develop into healthy stands.

“The fusiform rust mapping that our scientists did as part of this project provides significant information for land managers, since more than 500 million loblolly pine seedlings with these resistance genes are planted every year,” says Dana Nelson, the institute’s project leader.

“The group selected loblolly pine for sequencing because of the relatively long history of genetic research from the institute and others on the loblolly’s complex traits such as disease resistance,” he says.

Sonny Ramaswamy, director of USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which funded the research, notes that the loblolly pine plays an important role in American forestry.

“Now that we’ve unlocked its genetic secrets, loblolly pine will take on even greater importance as we look for new sources of biomass to drive our nation’s bio-economy, and ways to increase carbon sequestration and mitigate climate change,” Ramaswamy says.

A UC Davis team led the loblolly genome project, while Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland led the assembly stages. Other collaborating institutions include Indiana University, Bloomington; Texas A&M University; Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute; and Washington State University.

Source: UC Davis

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How to take control of an unruly system (like your brain)

Fri, 03/21/2014 - 07:00

All complex systems—whether they are found in the human body, in financial markets, or in social situations—actually fall into just three basic categories, in terms of how they can be controlled.

That’s the conclusion Justin and Derek Ruths, both professors and brothers, reached after surveying the inputs and outputs and the critical control points in a wide range of systems that appear to function in completely different ways. The critical control points are the parts of a system that you have to control in order to make it do whatever you want—not dissimilar to the strings you use to control a puppet.

“When controlling a cell in the body, for example, these control points might correspond to proteins that we can regulate using specific drugs,” says Justin Ruths, a professor at Singapore University of Technology and Design. “But in the case of a national or international economic system, the critical control points could be certain companies whose financial activity needs to be directly regulated.”

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One grouping, for example, put organizational hierarchies, gene regulation, and human purchasing behavior together, in part because in each it is hard to control individual parts of the system in isolation.

Another grouping includes social networks, such as groups of friends (whether virtual or real) and neural networks (in the brain), where the systems allow for relatively independent behavior.

The final group includes things like food systems, electrical circuits, and the internet, all of which function basically as closed systems where resources circulate internally.

Referring to these groupings, Derek Ruths from McGill University says: “While our framework does provide insights into the nature of control in these systems, we’re also intrigued by what these groupings tell us about how very different parts of the world share deep and fundamental attributes in common—which may help unify our understanding of complexity and of control.”

“What we really want people to take away from the research at this point is that we can control these complex and important systems in the same way that we can control a car,” says Justin Ruths. “And that our work is giving us insight into which parts of the system we need to control and why. Ultimately, at this point we have developed some new theory that helps to advance the field in important ways, but it may still be another five to ten years before we see how this will play out in concrete terms.”

Their study is published in the journal Science.

Source: McGill University

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Sea snakes dehydrate for 6-7 months at a time

Fri, 03/21/2014 - 06:41

Sea snakes don’t drink salt water, even though they live in the ocean. They actually dehydrate for months at a time, until fresh water is available from rainfall.

The finding contradicts the accepted belief that marine vertebrates have evolved to use salt water to meet their water requirements, says University of Florida professor Harvey Lillywhite, whose research appears in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“These snakes refuse to drink salt water, even when dehydrated,” Lillywhite says. “They need fresh water to survive.”

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Current physiology textbooks state that marine reptiles drink sea water, distilling the water by excreting excess salt via salt glands. While it is true that they excrete salt, Lillywhite says, “no sea snake we have tested drinks sea water.”

Fresh water ‘lens’

The findings are the result of three years of field studies of the Yellow-bellied Sea Snake, the most widely distributed pelagic sea snake, which inhabits tropical oceans. Lillywhite and his colleagues also studied the sea snakes in the laboratory.

Both in the field and in the lab, sea snakes shunned salt water, taking a drink only when fresh water was available. At sea, sips of fresh water depend on rainfall.

Rainfall is less dense than sea water, so it floats on the surface, forming a “lens” of fresh water. Such layers of water may persist as fresh water or dilute brackish water at the ocean surface for days, but snakes probably drink the rainwater during or shortly after a rainstorm. In lagoons, where sea snakes often are abundant, a fresh water lens might persist longer than one in the open ocean.

The snakes appear to sense rainfall.

“We think they almost certainly know that it rains because their behavior changes during the approach of a tropical storm as the atmospheric pressure changes,” Lillywhite says.

During or after a rain, the snakes, which spend most of their time deeper in the water, surface to take a sip of fresh water. The Yellow-bellied Sea Snake, Lillywhite says, consumes varying quantities, from small amounts up to 25 percent of its body mass when fresh water is available.

The open ocean is a virtual desert, especially during the dry season, which can last six or seven months at Guanacaste, Costa Rica, where the snakes were studied, Lillywhite says. During that time, sea snakes slowly dehydrate, and lose possibly up to 25 percent of their body mass, a level that would be “way past lethal for a human,” Lillywhite says.

Drought conditions

Lillywhite says diminishing rainfall might be the cause of declining populations of sea snakes in some areas, such as drought-stricken Northern Australia, where sea snake populations have declined for 10 years and two local species are thought now to be extinct.

If global climate change causes drought conditions to worsen, sea snakes and other marine vertebrates that depend on rainfall for fresh water could be hurt, Lillywhite says.

There are more than 60 species of entirely marine sea snakes and eight species of sea kraits that live in the sea but spend some time on shore. Lillywhite’s study also raises the question of whether other marine species might depend more on fresh water than previously thought.

An interesting follow-up project, he says, would be to study sea turtles—which live in salt water and have a broad distribution similar to the pelagic species of sea snake—to determine if they depend, even partially, on fresh water.

“Understanding the water requirements and drinking behaviors of marine vertebrates could help with conservation efforts,” Lillywhite says. “In areas of intensifying drought, they will need to move or die out.”

Source: University of Florida

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Scent that guides seabirds keeps climate cool, too

Fri, 03/21/2014 - 05:15

The top predators of the Southern Ocean, far-ranging seabirds, are tied both to the health of the ocean ecosystem and to global climate regulation through a mutual relationship with phytoplankton, according to newly published research.

When phytoplankton are eaten by grazing crustaceans called krill, they release a chemical signal that calls in krill-eating birds. At the same time, this chemical signal—dimethyl sulfide, or DMS—forms sulfur compounds in the atmosphere that promote cloud formation and help cool the planet.

Seabirds consume the grazers, and fertilize the phytoplankton with iron, which is scarce in the vast Southern Ocean.

(Credit: Liam Quinn/Flickr, Vernon Adams)

“The data are really striking,” says Gabrielle Nevitt, professor of neurobiology, physiology, and behavior at the University of California, Davis, and co-author of the paper with graduate student Matthew Savoca. This suggests that marine top predators are important in climate regulation, although they are mostly left out of climate models, Nevitt says.

“In addition to studying how these marine top predators are responding to climate change, our data suggest that more attention should be focused on how ecological systems, themselves, impact climate. Studying DMS as a signal molecule makes the connection,” she says.

Nevitt has studied the sense of smell in ocean-going birds for about 25 years, and was the first to demonstrate that marine top predators use climate-regulating chemicals for foraging and navigation over the featureless ocean. DMS is now known to be an important signal for petrels and albatrosses, and the idea has been extended to various species of penguins, seals, sharks, sea turtles, coral reef fishes, and possibly baleen whales, she says.

Negative feedback loop

Phytoplankton are the plants of the open ocean, absorbing carbon dioxide and sunlight to grow. When these plankton die, they release an enzyme that generates DMS.

In the 1980s, researchers proposed a role for DMS in regulating climate. According to this hypothesis, warming oceans lead to more growth of green phytoplankton, which in turn release a precursor to DMS when they die.

Rising levels of DMS in the atmosphere cause cloud formation, and clouds reflect sunlight, helping to cool the planet. It’s a negative feedback loop to control the planet’s temperature.

Savoca and Nevitt looked at 50 years of records on seabirds’ stomach contents, combined with Nevitt’s experimental results of which species use DMS to forage. They found that species that respond to DMS overwhelmingly fed on krill, which graze on phytoplankton.

On land, there are several known examples of plants that respond to attack by insects by producing chemicals that attract predators that eat those insects. Nevitt and Savoca propose the same thing happens in the open ocean: when phytoplankton come under attack by krill, the DMS released as they die attracts predators that eat the krill.

The birds have something else to contribute. The Southern Ocean lacks large land masses, and is relatively poor in iron, which has to be washed out from land by rivers. Krill are rich in iron, but birds can absorb relatively little of it—so the rest is excreted back into the ocean, promoting plankton growth.

Seabirds in danger

The work suggests that by linking predatory seabirds and phytoplankton—the top and bottom levels of the food chain—DMS plays an important role in the ocean ecosystem, which affects climate by taking up carbon, as well as a physical role in generating clouds, Nevitt says.

“Studying how seabirds use scent cues to forage has shown us a mechanism by which the seabirds themselves contribute to climate regulation. That’s not what we expected, but I really think our results will have global significance,” she says.

At the same time, numbers of these birds are declining, with almost half of species listed as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered. The newly discovered links between top predators and the base of the ocean food web mean that a decline in seabirds could have a significant effect on the marine productivity.

The National Science Foundation funded the research, which appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: UC Davis

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Earth’s inner radiation belt wears zebra stripes

Thu, 03/20/2014 - 10:36

NASA’s two Van Allen Probes have discovered a zebra-striped structure in the Earth’s inner radiation belt.

Scientists say the structure is produced—surprisingly—by Earth’s rotation. The planet’s slow 24-hour turns had previously been thought to be incapable of affecting radiation belt particles, which approach the speed of light.

The discovery was made by the Ion Composition Experiment, known as RBSPICE, on board each of the twin Van Allen spacecraft orbiting Earth. The instruments revealed that the highly energized electrons of the inner radiation belt are organized into very structured patterns that resemble slanted zebra stripes.

Scientists had previously believed that solar wind was the primary force behind any structures in our planet’s radiation belts. But the newly discovered stripes are present even during low solar wind activity, which forced researchers to rethink the question. The physical mechanism of their generation turned out to be the rotation of Earth itself. The findings are reported in the journal Nature.

“It is truly humbling, as a theoretician, to see how quickly new data can change our understanding of physical properties,” says Aleksandr Ukhorskiy of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and lead author of the paper.

Like taffy stretched and folded

Because of the tilt in Earth’s magnetic field axis, the planet’s rotation generates an oscillating, weak electric field that permeates through the entire inner radiation belt.

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To understand how that field affects electrons, Ukhorskiy suggests an analogy: “If the inner belt electron populations are viewed as a viscous fluid, these global oscillations slowly stretch and fold that fluid, much like taffy is stretched and folded in a candy store machine.”

This stretching and folding process results in the striped pattern observed across the entire inner electron belt, extending from above Earth’s atmosphere (about 500 miles, or 800 kilometers, above the planet’s surface) up to roughly 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers).

The radiation belts are dynamic doughnut-shaped regions around our planet, extending high above the atmosphere, made up of high-energy particles (electrons and ions) that are trapped by Earth’s magnetic field.

Radiation levels across the belts are affected by solar activity (such as solar storms) and can ebb and flow. During active conditions, radiation levels can dramatically increase, which can create hazardous space weather conditions that harm orbiting spacecraft and endanger humans in space. It is the goal of the Van Allen Probes mission to understand how and why radiation levels in the belts change with time.

“It is amazing how Earth’s space environment, including the radiation belts, continue to surprise us even after we have studied them for over 50 years,” says study co-author Louis Lanzerotti of the Center for Solar-Terrestrial Research at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. “Our understanding of the complex structures of the belts, and the processes behind the belts’ behaviors, continues to grow, all of which contribute to the eventual goal of providing accurate space weather modeling.”

“This finding tells us something new and important about how the universe operates,” says Barry Mauk of APL, Mauk is a Van Allen Probes project scientist and also an author of the study. “The new results reveal a new large-scale physical mechanism that can be important for planetary radiation belts throughout the solar system.

“An instrument similar to RBSPICE is now on its way to Jupiter on NASA’s Juno mission, and we will be looking for the existence of zebra stripe-like patterns in Jupiter’s radiation belts.”

NASA launched the twin Van Allen probes in the summer of 2012. APL built and operates the probes for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The Van Allen Probes are the second mission in NASA’s Living with a Star program, managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. The program explores aspects of the connected sun-Earth system that directly affect life and society.

Souce: Johns Hopkins

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Gut bacteria put preterm babies at risk for sepsis

Thu, 03/20/2014 - 10:07

Researchers find preterm babies’ guts can harbor infectious microbes that can cause late-onset sepsis—a life-threatening bloodstream infection that strike infants after 72 hours of age.

While early-onset sepsis often is caused by pathogens acquired from the amniotic sac or birth canal, the causes of late-onset sepsis have been far less clear.

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The findings suggest new strategies to detect and prevent severe bloodstream infections in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs)—and that such strategies include the gut as a target. The research is published in Clinical Infectious Diseases.

“There is a tremendous emphasis in intensive-care units throughout the world on stopping infections related to the insertion of IVs, catheters or other tubes, but that leaves a sizable subset of people who get bloodstream infections from germs that don’t necessarily reside on the skin,” says senior author Phillip I. Tarr, professor of pediatrics. “It’s been suspected that these other infections come from the gut. This research proves that.”

The researchers, in collaboration with scientists at Michigan State and the University of Minnesota, found three types of potentially harmful gut microbes in the bloodstreams of most babies in the study who developed late-onset sepsis: E. coli, group B strep, and S. marcescens.

Beyond preterm babies

The findings also are relevant to other patient populations, says study co-author Barbara B. Warner, a professor of pediatrics who treats patients at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

“Although our study was in preterm infants, its applicability is much more broad and may include people who are susceptible to bloodstream infections, for example, people in intensive care units or with chronic illnesses, or cancer patients who take medicine that may suppress their immune systems,” Warner says.

“Late-onset sepsis is not just a disease in preterm infants—it’s a cause of serious illness and death among many acutely ill and immunocompromised patients.”

Sepsis, which contributes to billions of dollars in health care costs each year, occurs when the immune system has an overwhelming response to a bacterial infection. The body releases chemicals into the blood to fight the infection, but this triggers widespread inflammation that can lead to blood clots and leaky blood vessels. In severe cases, sepsis causes shock, organ failure and death.

It’s widely accepted that preterm babies—and patients of all ages—can acquire such infections via IVs, catheters and other tubes. These infections are thought to be hospital-based or otherwise associated with health care.

About 20 percent of preterm babies develop late-onset sepsis. Overall, about 10 to 20 percent of infants whose infections aren’t successfully treated with antibiotics die because of the condition. This death rate varies according to the bacteria causing sepsis; some gut organisms result in higher death rates, in the range of 20 to 30 percent.

Flourishes in the gut

The Washington University investigators, including first author Mike A. Carl, a medical student at Saint Louis University, studied 217 premature infants from whom they collected all stool samples, beginning as soon as possible after birth. The babies had been admitted to the NICU at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, which has stringent infection-control practices and sepsis rates that fall below the national average. Still, at or after three days of age, 11 of the infants developed sepsis.

The researchers, working with scientists at the Genome Institute at Washington University School of Medicine, used genome sequencing to compare bacteria in the blood samples of the 11 affected infants with bacteria found in their stool samples, which are a proxy for microbes in the lower intestine, or gut. To assess whether sepsis-causing infections spread between infants, the scientists also compared stool-based bacteria with bacteria in stool samples from two groups of infants without sepsis.

In seven of the 11 infants who developed sepsis, the researchers found that bacteria in stool samples taken days to weeks before the onset of sepsis matched bacteria in the blood samples taken later, suggesting that bacteria from the gut—rather than from other parts of the body—quite likely caused the bloodstream infection.

“We obtained the organism from the blood and then isolated the organism from the stool and then sequenced both,” Warner explained. “We could tell, because the sequences were genetically identical, that the source of that organism was the same in the blood as what was in the stool.”

They also found the same microbes in the stool samples of infants whose NICU stays overlapped, suggesting that such bacteria occasionally are transmitted from infant to infant, though the bacteria don’t always lead to illness.

“No one can be completely sterile; it is inevitable that bacteria will be encountered by infants in these settings,” says Tarr, who is also a professor of molecular microbiology. “We do not know the origin of these bacteria in most cases. However, this study tells us that at least in a subset of infants who develop bloodstream infections, the germ that invades their blood flourishes in their gastrointestinal tracts for at least a few days before it causes sepsis.

New prevention strategies

“That’s an opportunity to be on top of colonization and to be aggressive in preventing dissemination between infants in NICUs and within infants who are colonized. The concept of sepsis as gut infection offers a new strategy to prevent this serious, hospital-acquired condition independent of assiduous skin care, which we continue to endorse.”

Warner stressed that the findings indicate a need to consider infection-control steps outside of those taken regarding the insertion of IVs and other tubes into patients. “We could be spending millions of dollars to decrease line-related sepsis, but health-care and infection-control experts haven’t addressed this other component,” she says. “Considering our findings, this should be looked at more broadly and more intensively.”

The National Institutes of Health, the Office of Research and Development, Medical Research Service, Department of Veterans Affairs, the Infectious Diseases Society of America Medical Scholars Program, the Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth, an initiative of Seattle Children’s Hospital and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Melvin E. Carnahan Professorship supported the study.

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

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Fruit flies could be difficult pests to control

Thu, 03/20/2014 - 09:38

Of thousands of known species of Drosophila fruit flies, just one is known as a crop pest, depositing eggs inside ripening fruit so its maggots can feed and grow.

New research from the University of California, Davis, shows the similarities and crucial differences between this pest and its close relatives—and that one related fly has potential to also become a pest.

Drosophila flies, found worldwide, lay their eggs in rotting fruit. Drosophila suzukii, also referred to as “spotted-wing Drosophila” because the male has large black blotches on his wings (as do males of several other closely related species), is able to penetrate the skins of ripening fruit and lay eggs inside.

“It was a surprise for western researchers when D. suzukii was identified as a pest,” says Joel Atallah, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Davis who carried out the research with colleagues. “Previously, it was thought that Drosophila would just lay eggs on rotting fruit.”

Cherries, raspberries, and grapes

D. suzukii apparently originated in Asia and was reported in Hawaii in the 1980s. However, it wasn’t identified as a pest in North America until 2008, when a UC Cooperative Extension specialist sent samples of infested strawberries to Professor Ahmed Kopp’s laboratory at UC Davis, asking for help in identification.

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The same year, D. suzukii was found in Southern California orchards, and since then it has spread rapidly across the country.

Atallah and the undergraduate researchers analyzed the ovipositor, or egg-laying organ of D. suzukii and three other closely related species, D. subpulchrella, D. biarmipes, and D. mimetica. They also offered lab-raised flies different fruits and observed whether they were able to lay eggs in them.

D. suzukii has a large, pointed ovipositor with prominent bristles. D. subpulchrella also has a large, bristly ovipositor, of slightly different shape, while the other flies have much smaller ovipositors similar to those of other Drosophila. They do have the same pattern of bristles, but they are much smaller and less visible.

In the lab, both D. suzukii and D. subpulchrella flies could penetrate the skins of cherries and raspberries and deposit eggs in them. D. suzukii flies, but not D. subpulchrella, made holes in grape skins, although they laid relatively few eggs there.

Kopp notes that even when the Drosophila flies could penetrate fruit, they were not very good at it, taking several minutes and multiple attempts.

Laying eggs inside ripening fruit is probably a recent development for Drosophila. Kopp speculates that as flies compete for good food sources in which to lay their eggs, there would be an advantage in being able to colonize fresher and firmer fruit. Eventually, this could have pushed D. suzukii to the point where it can penetrate fruit before it falls and starts to rot.

Controlling the flies will be challenging, Kopp says. Unlike the notorious Mediterranean fruit fly or Medfly, Drosophila flies are generalists with a wide range of food sources and breeding sites, and a generation time of less than two weeks.

“We want to identify which flies are dangerous and which are not,” says Atallah. “D. subpulchrella has not yet been identified as a pest in the western world, but it may have the potential to become one.”

The Proceedings of the Royal Society B published the paper on the work, which was supported in part by the National Institutes of Health.

Source: UC Davis

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Among primates, owl monkeys are least likely to cheat

Thu, 03/20/2014 - 08:51

True monogamy is rare in the animal kingdom. Even in species that appear to “mate for life,” genetic maternity and paternity tests have revealed that philandering often takes place.

Yet a new study by University of Pennsylvania researchers shows that Azara’s owl monkeys (Aotus azarae) are unusually faithful. The investigation of 35 offspring born to 17 owl monkey pairs turned up no evidence of cheating—the male and female monkeys that cared for the young were the infants’ true biological parents.

An additional analysis of 15 pair-living mammals by the team found a strong connection between a species’ faithfulness and significant involvement of males in caring for their young.

“Our study is the first of any primate species, and only the fourth for a pair-living mammal, to show genetic monogamy, or real faithfulness, between partners,” says study author Eduardo Fernandez-Duque, an associate professor in the University of Pennsylvania anthropology department. “Paternal care in owl monkeys now makes sense. The males are making a huge investment in their own offspring.”

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As part of the Owl Monkey Project, the evolutionary anthropologists have been studying a population of these primates in Argentina’s Chaco region for 18 years. Previous work had shown that male and female owl monkeys form strong pair-bonds and that males contribute significantly to raising young by carrying them on their bodies, playing with them, and feeding them solid foods.

Though the species was known to be socially monogamous, no one had tested whether the species was genetically monogamous—in other words, whether there were any cases of females reproducing with a male other than her mate, a behavior known as extra-pair paternity.

To test this, the researchers paired behavioral field observations with genetic tests to see whether the “social” mothers and fathers of infant monkeys were the biological parents. They collected samples from 128 individual monkeys living in 29 groups or as solitary “floaters.” This set included genetic samples from 35 infants born to 17 reproducing pairs.

By examining 14 different regions of the genome, the research team’s analysis strongly suggested that owl monkeys were completely faithful. They found no evidence of extra-pair paternity.

Genetic monogamy is rare

“In the 18 years of the Owl Monkey Project, we never witnessed a little sneaky copulation with a neighbor, or that one partner dashed off for some time,” Fernandez-Duque says. “So in that sense we were not very much surprised by our results. But true genetic monogamy is very rare. We would not have been surprised if there had been at least one non-pair infant, but there were none.”

Indeed, no other robust study of primates has demonstrated genetic monogamy. It has been shown in only four other mammal species, including coyotes and the California mouse.

Because the researchers were interested in how genetic monogamy has evolved and the conditions under which it occurs, they went on to perform an analysis of 15 mammal species that have been shown to live in socially monogamous pairs and for which paternity studies have been conducted. In addition to the owl monkeys, this group included birds, rodents, and canines.

The results of this broader investigation showed that species in which males contribute significantly to infant care were more likely to be genetically monogamous. They also found an association between the strength of the bond between mates—that is, the percentage of time the male and female spent together—and low levels of extra-pair paternity, but this connection was not as strong.

Though their results underline the presence of a connection between intense male care for young and faithfulness, the researchers say they cannot yet tell which condition gives rise to the other. They also note that other factors, including the ecological conditions in which a species dwell, play a role.

“Male care is surely not the only factor explaining genetic monogamy,” Huck says. “Some of the species that show male care have, due for example to their foraging habits, much more opportunities for seeking extra-pair copulations than owl monkeys.”

The team also notes that being a good dad can also be a mating strategy in and of itself; females might be attracted to males that appear to be caring fathers.

Human relationships

These findings in the owl monkey and other species can begin to help explain the evolution of pair-bonds in another primate species: human beings.

“Pair bonding, love if you want, is prevalent in all human societies, whereas fathering is much more variable,” Fernandez-Duque says. “The owl monkey story is suggesting that, under very specific ecological settings, this preference for each other leads to the pair spending a lot of time in close proximity, thus facilitating paternal care and increasing paternity certainty. Genetic monogamy is the result.”

The Wenner-Gren Foundation, the German Science Foundation, the Leakey Foundation, the National Geographic Society, the National Science Foundation, the University of Pennsylvania Research Foundation, and the Zoological Society of San Diego funded the research.

Fernandez-Duque collaborated on the work with lead author Maren Huck, who completed a postdoctoral fellowship in his lab and is now a lecturer at the University of Derby, as well as professor Theodore Schurr of Penn’s department of anthropology, and Paul Babb, who completed his Ph.D. with Fernandez-Duque and Schurr and is now a postdoctoral researcher at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine.

The study appears in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Source: Penn

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One reason why Earth is the perfect place to live

Thu, 03/20/2014 - 08:27

Part of the reason why Earth has become neither sweltering like Venus nor frigid like Mars is because our planet has a built-in carbon dioxide regulator.

The geologic cycles act as a regulator by churning up the planet’s rocky surface, according to evidence documented by an international team of researchers.

Scientists have long known that “fresh” rock pushed to the surface via mountain formation effectively acts as a kind of sponge, soaking up the greenhouse gas CO2. Left unchecked, however, that process would simply deplete atmospheric CO2 levels to a point that would plunge the Earth into an eternal winter within a few million years during the formation of large mountain ranges like the Himalayas—which has clearly not happened.

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And while volcanoes have long been pointed to as a source of carbon dioxide, alone they cannot balance out the excess uptake of carbon dioxide by large mountain ranges.

Instead, it turns out that “fresh” rock exposed by uplift also emits carbon through a chemical weathering process, which replenishes the atmospheric carbon dioxide at a comparable rate.

“Our presence on Earth is dependent upon this carbon cycle. This is why life is able to survive,” says Mark Torres, lead author of a study published in Nature and a doctoral fellow at the University of Southern California.

Torres is also a fellow at the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations, and he collaborated on the project with Joshua West, professor of earth sciences at USC, and Gaojun Li of Nanjing University in China.

‘Big, natural recycler’

While human-made atmospheric carbon dioxide increases are currently driving significant changes in the Earth’s climate, the geologic system has kept things balanced for million of years.

“The Earth is a bit like a big, natural recycler,” West says.

Torres and West studied rocks taken from the Andes mountain range in Peru and found that weathering processes affecting rocks released far more carbon than previously estimated, which motivated them to consider the global implications of CO2 release during mountain formation.

The researchers note that rapid erosion in the Andes unearths abundant pyrite—the shiny mineral known as “fool’s gold” because of its deceptive appearance—and its chemical breakdown produces acids that release CO2 from other minerals.

These observations motivated them to consider the global implications of CO2 release during mountain formation.

Like many other large mountain ranges, such as the great Himalayas, the Andes began to form during the Cenozoic period, which began about 60 million years ago and happened to coincide with a major perturbation in the cycling of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Using marine records of the long-term carbon cycle, Torres, West, and Li reconstructed the balance between CO2 release and uptake caused by the uplift of large mountain ranges and found that the release of CO2 release by rock weathering may have played a large, but thus far unrecognized, role in regulating the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide over the last roughly 60 million years.

USC, the US National Science Foundation, and National Natural Science Foundation of China supported the study.

Source: USC

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Global fishing snags lots of the wrong creatures

Thu, 03/20/2014 - 07:58

Seabirds, sea turtles, and marine mammals such as dolphins are all unintended victims—by-catch—of intensive global fishing. In fact, accidental entanglement in fishing gear is the single biggest threat to some species in these groups.

A new analysis co-authored by Larry Crowder, biology professor at Stanford University, provides an unprecedented global map of this by-catch, starkly illustrating the scope of the problem and the need to expand existing conservation efforts in certain areas.

“Some of the earliest by-catch issues involved marine mammals taken in purse seines (large nets with floats) and shrimp trawls that drowned sea turtles,” says Crowder, who is the science director at the Center for Ocean Solutions and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

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“The problems were ultimately solved by scientists who clearly defined the problems and by managers and fishermen who sought innovative fishing methods to allow fisheries and protected species to coexist.”

During the past half-century, fish hauls around the world have increased from about 19 million tons per year to more than 154 million tons per year. Beyond the problem of overfishing—more than 60 percent of sea creatures brought up are classified as overfished or collapsed stocks—by-catch can lead to “major changes in ecosystem function and process,” the study’s authors write.

By-catch also damages fishing gear and wastes fishermen’s time and money. Accurate data on global by-catch are hard to find because of the need for trained on-ship observers across vast oceans.

The big picture

To fill the gap, Crowder and Rebecca Lewison, the lead author of the paper and a co-leader of the study, directed a research team that looked at hundreds of peer-reviewed studies, reports, and symposia proceedings published between 1990 and 2008 to obtain a global perspective on what kinds of animals were being caught, where they were being caught, and the types of gear in which they were trapped. They then compiled all of this information into a single comprehensive map and dataset.

“It highlights the importance of looking at the by-catch issue across different species, fishing gears, and countries,” says Lewison, an ecology professor at San Diego State University. “When you do that, it makes it clear that to address by-catch, fishing nations need to work together to report and mitigate by-catch. No single country can fix this.”

The study reveals by-catch hotspots and gaps in available data, such as the lack of information on small-scale and coastal fisheries and many ocean regions that are heavily fished by commercial fleets. Among the findings:

  • Marine mammal by-catch is highest in the eastern Pacific and the Mediterranean.
  • Sea turtle by-catch is most prevalent in the southwest Atlantic, eastern Pacific, and Mediterranean oceans.
  • Seabird by-catch is highest in the southwest Atlantic and Southern Indian oceans.

Expanding the use of by-catch mitigation tools such as turtle excluder devices is only part of the solution, according to the study’s authors. Community engagement is key in less-regulated, small-scale fisheries. To make meaningful headway, researchers and managers need more data on the extent and distribution of global fishing.

“Reducing by-catch levels in coastal fisheries sectors will require coordination across national boundaries using integrated approaches that link conservation action with sustaining human livelihoods, incentives, and commitment to protecting the environment,” the study’s authors write.

This study is part of a research initiative funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The findings appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: Stanford

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Our rivals look ‘mindless’ until they’re a threat

Thu, 03/20/2014 - 07:27

We are less likely to humanize members of groups we don’t belong to—except, in certain cases, when it comes to members of the opposite political party.

A new study suggests that we are more prone to view members of the opposite political party as human if we view those individuals as threatening.

“It’s hardly surprising that we dehumanize those who are not part of our groups,” says Jay Van Bavel, an assistant professor in the New York University psychology department and one of the study’s co-authors. “However, what is interesting is that we may be motivated to perceive the presence of a mind among political adversaries who threaten us.

“It’s possible that when we believe our political opponents are formidable we may humanize them in ways we don’t with members of other out-groups.”

Mindless faces

In a set of experiments with NYU undergraduates and online adult volunteers, participants viewed a series of faces that were morphs between human faces and inanimate faces (e.g. dolls, statues). See an example of this morphing process—similar to the one used in these experiments—here.

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Participants were asked to rate how much each entity was “alive” or “had a mind” (1 [definitely has no mind/definitely not alive] to 7 [definitely has a mind/definitely alive]). To clarify the concept of “alive,” participants were given the example: a snake is alive while a rock is not. To clarify the concept of “mind,” participants were given the example of a human mind differing from that of an animal or robot.

In one experiment, these morphed faces were described as based on either “in-group” members or “out-group” members. In this procedure, which displayed the faces on a computer screen, subjects viewed still images of the morphed faces in random order and rated, from 1 to 7, whether each face was less (no mind/not alive) or more (mind/alive) human.

Their results showed that subjects were more likely to view “in-group” faces as having a mind than they were those faces labeled as members of an “out-group.” Specifically, the “out-group” faces needed to morph into a more human form than did “in-group” faces” before they were judged by subjects as having a mind.

In-group bias

In a second experiment, the researchers employed real-world “in-group” and “out-group” examples. Specifically, in this procedure, the researchers labeled the human faces as either NYU students or students from Boston University. University affiliation of faces was cued by an instruction screen—appearing before each facial image—that featured the university name and logo.

The researchers predicted that participants who strongly identified with NYU would be most likely to show an in-group bias. To gauge this, the NYU students responded to a series of statements (strongly agree to strongly disagree), which measured the extent to which they felt invested in, and defined themselves as members of, the NYU community.

The results showed that participants who identified more highly with NYU had higher thresholds for perceiving minds in the BU students than did those who identified less strongly with the New York institution.

In other words, for subjects who identified strongly with NYU, the “out-group” (BU) faces needed to morph into a more human form than did “in-group” (NYU) faces before participants judged them as having a mind.

Political rivals

In a final experiment, conducted online, the researchers tested the views of national sample of self-identified Democrats and Republicans in May 2012—after both parties’ presidential nominees had become clear and the general election was heating up. Participants were told that they would rate images based on the faces of models from the NYU Democrats and NYU Republicans.

Participants rated the same sets of morph images from the previous studies. Before each set of images, participants saw a cue thanking members of the NYU Democrats or NYU Republicans for serving as models for the upcoming face images and featuring the logo of the political party specified.

After completing their ratings, participants reported their own political party affiliation. Finally, participants were asked, “To what extent do you think Democrats (Republicans) pose a threat to Republicans (Democrats)”, using a 7-point scale (1 = not at all to 7 = very much).

A portion of these results was consistent with the previous two experiments: Democrats who strongly identified with their group had a higher threshold for judging Republicans as having a mind than they did Democrats and vice versa. However, both Republicans and Democrats who viewed the out-group as threatening more readily viewed their political adversaries as having “a mind” than did those who saw no such threat.

“We often have different perceptions of the minds and mental states of in-group and out-group members,” says Leor Hackel, an NYU doctoral student and the study’s lead author.

“However, as our findings show, these views may be altered when we take into account concerns such as perceived threat, which may increase the importance of getting inside the out-group mind. We hope these findings can offer insights into better understanding, and perhaps improving, relations between adversarial groups.”

Researchers from Harvard Business School also contributed to the study, which appears in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Source: NYU

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Software tracks NYC flu outbreak on Twitter

Thu, 03/20/2014 - 07:20

When the flu bug hit the Big Apple, computer scientists used Twitter data to track it.

It’s not the first time researchers have used Twitter to trace nationwide trends in influenza outbreaks by mining huge volumes of tweets with software that culls out irrelevant reports and analyzes those that matter.

This word cloud features some of the words the researchers looked for to identify tweets associated with a flu infection. (Credit: Johns Hopkins University)

But this time a team from Johns Hopkins University and the George Washington University used specialized software to drill deeper, probing flu-related tweets from a single bustling metropolis: New York.

The finding, based on data from the 2012-2013 US flu season, was published by the journal PLOS ONE.

Local response

The results show that Twitter data can accurately gauge the spread of flu at the local level, too.

“We found that we could do just as well in predicting flu trends in New York City as we did nationally,” says Mark Dredze, the assistant research professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins who supervised the research. “That’s critical because decisions about what to do during a flu epidemic are largely made at the local level.”

For example, when flu cases are on the rise, hospital administrators must make sure they have enough beds, staff, and medicine to cope. Also, an early alert can lead local health officials to boost efforts to vaccinate healthy residents to help contain the virus.

Software analyzes tweets

The team used software developed in Dredze’s lab to scan through hundreds of millions of tweets. Many Twitter users mention where they live or use a GPS-equipped cell phone to tweet. That allows the researchers to focus on posts from particular geographic areas.

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The team’s software is also designed to distinguish between a tweet from someone who likely is ill with flu, as opposed someone who is merely talking about the disease or worried about catching it.

“Not only did our results track trends on the national level, but they also did so on the local level,” says David Broniatowski, the paper’s lead author and former postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins who is now an assistant professor at George Washington. “It gives our system validity.

“It shows that we’re measuring what we say we’re measuring, that we’re tracking very useful information. And that localized data is valuable because the flu activity in, say, Boise, Idaho, may be quite different from the national flu trends.”

Track crime data on Twitter

The researchers isolated flu patient tweets from Sept. 30, 2012, through May 31, 2013, from the five boroughs of New York City and some adjoining communities; they compared their results with compilations of flu cases by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Although Dredze’s team collected its own Twitter data for this project, Twitter’s recently announced Data Grants program will give scholars access to its public and historical data for use in gleaning helpful information on various topics.

Broniatowski suggests that the techniques used to track flu trends via Twitter data might also be applied to the study of subjects such as crime, political developments, and response to natural disasters.

The National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation funded the flu trend research. Publication was funded in part by the Open Access Promotion Fund of the Johns Hopkins University Libraries.

Source: Johns Hopkins

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Challenge kindergartners for strides later on

Wed, 03/19/2014 - 12:23

Children of all economic backgrounds could score bigger gains in math and reading if teachers introduced more advanced content in kindergarten, according to new research.

When kindergarten teachers neglect advanced content, children tend to stagnate in reading performance later in elementary school, says study co-author Amy Claessens, assistant professor of public policy at Chicago Harris. The same applies to students whose teachers do not include advanced content in mathematics.

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According to Claessens, “basic content” is defined as skills that more than half of the children entering kindergarten have mastered. If the majority of children have not yet grasped it, the content is considered to be advanced.

“There have been many studies of the effects of full-day kindergarten and reduced class size on student learning during kindergarten,” Claessens says. “But we know relatively little about the role of content coverage during the kindergarten years.”

Using the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study–Kindergarten Cohort, a nationally representative sample of kindergarteners, Claessens and her co-authors, Mimi Engel and Chris Curran from Vanderbilt University, examined the reading and math content covered in kindergarten classrooms and how they relate to later changes in children’s academic achievement.

The authors also looked at whether exposure to advanced content in reading and mathematics would enable kindergarten children to maintain and extend the advantages acquired from attending preschool programs. The study appears in American Educational Research Journal.

The results indicate that adding four more days per month on advanced topics in reading or mathematics is associated with moderate increases of test score gains.

Claessens believes changing content coverage is a potentially easy and low-cost means to improve student achievement in kindergarten and beyond, especially compared with options such as lengthening the school day or reducing class size.

“At a time when education programs are facing budget constraints, this is a more viable option,” Claessens says. “Teachers could increase their time on advanced content while reducing time on basic content, without the need to increase overall instructional time, and do so in a developmentally appropriate way for young kids.”

Source: University of Chicago

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Orchid bee survival may rely on roaming males

Wed, 03/19/2014 - 12:10

During Pleistocene era climate changes, neotropical orchid bees that relied on year-round warm, wet weather found their habitats reduced by 30 to 50 percent, according to a new study that used computer models and genetic data to understand bee distributions during past climate changes.

In previous studies, researchers have tracked male and female orchid bees and found that while females stay near their nests, male orchid bees travel, with one study concluding they roam as far as 7 kilometers per day. These past findings, corroborated by genetic data in the current study, reveal that males are more mobile than females.

The study, published online in the journal Molecular Ecology, has important implications for future climate changes.

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“The dataset tells us that if the tendency [in the future] is to have lower precipitation, in combination with deforestation, the suitable habitat for the bees is going to be reduced,” says Margarita López-Uribe, the paper’s first author and a graduate student in the lab of Bryan Danforth, professor of entomology at Cornell University and co-author of the study.

The good news is that since male orchid bees habitually travel far, they can keep bee populations connected and healthy.

“The males are mediating genetic exchange among populations, maintaining connectivity in spite of fragmentation of habitats,” says López-Uribe. “This is a possible mechanism bees could use to ameliorate the negative impacts of population isolation resulting from future climate changes and deforestation,” she adds.

By looking at current climate and bee distributions, López-Uribe and colleagues assessed parameters of climate conditions that each of three bee species within the genus Eulaema could tolerate physiologically, including temperature and precipitation variability.

She found that one of the three species, Eulaema cingulata, was three times more tolerant to a variety of climatic conditions.

Orchid bee DNA

By proceeding with the caveat that physiological tolerance has remained constant—species tend to be evolutionarily conservative about shifting their niches—the researchers used computer models to simulate past bee distributions based on climate conditions in the Pleistocene.

The results showed that in the past, during periods when the neotropics had lowered precipitation, each species experienced significant reduction in suitable habitat, with E. cingulata maintaining the largest geographical ranges.

Climate and ecological niche computer model simulations were closely matched by genetic data of the two less tolerant orchid bee species. The genetic data included mitochondrial markers, which are only inherited from females, and nuclear markers, which come from males and females.

The mitochondrial DNA showed that individual bees in one geographic area were more closely related to each other than to bees from other areas. The findings suggest the maternal lines of these bees remained in the area and shared the same pools of DNA over time. But the bi-parental nuclear DNA showed more variation between individuals within an area, offering evidence that males traveled and shared their DNA with other regional groups.

Important pollinators

Orchid bees live in the neotropics, an ecozone that includes part of South and Central America, the Mexican lowlands, and the Caribbean islands. They are one of the most important pollinators, visiting many types of plants, including some 700 species of orchids that are exclusively pollinated by these bees.

Co-authors include Kelly Zamudio, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell, and Carolina Cardoso, a researcher at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Brazil.

The Organization of Tropical Studies, Grace Griswold Endowment, Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Lewis and Clark Exploration Fund, Explorer’s Club Exploration Fund, and the National Science Foundation funded the study.

Source: Cornell University

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