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Team finds the biggest, oldest Maya monument

1 hour 12 min ago

The Maya civilization may have developed more rapidly than archaeologists once thought, according to new research.

The findings also hint at less social inequality than in later periods.

From the ground, it’s impossible to tell that the plateau underfoot is something extraordinary. But from the sky, with laser eyes, and beneath the surface, with radiocarbon dating, it’s clear that it is the largest and oldest Mayan monument ever discovered.

Located in Tabasco, Mexico, near the northwestern border of Guatemala, the newly discovered site of Aguada Fénix lurked beneath the surface, hidden by its size and low profile, until 2017. The monument measures nearly 4,600 feet long, ranges from 30 to 50 feet high and includes nine wide causeways.

“…this site was not known because it is so flat and huge. It just looks like a natural landscape. But with lidar, it pops up as a very well-planned shape.”

The researchers discovered the monument using lidar—or light detection and ranging—technology, which uses laser-emitting equipment from an airplane. Laser beams penetrate the tree canopy, and their reflections off the ground’s surface reveal the three-dimensional forms of archaeological features. The team then excavated the site and radiocarbon-dated 69 samples of charcoal to determine that it was constructed sometime between 1,000 to 800 BCE.

Until now, the Maya site of Ceibal, built in 950 BCE, was the oldest confirmed ceremonial center. This oldest monumental building at Aguada Fénix is also the largest known in the entire Maya history, far exceeding pyramids and palaces of later periods.

“Using low-resolution lidar collected by the Mexican government, we noticed this huge platform. Then we did high-resolution lidar and confirmed the presence of a big building,” says Takeshi Inomata, a professor in the University of Arizona’s School of Anthropology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Aerial view of Aguada Fenix Main Plateau and the ramps connecting to causeways viewed from northwest. (Credit: Takeshi Inomata)

“This area is developed—it’s not the jungle; people live there—but this site was not known because it is so flat and huge. It just looks like a natural landscape. But with lidar, it pops up as a very well-planned shape.”

Maya civilization

The discovery marks a time of major change in Mesoamerica and has several implications, Inomata says.

First, archaeologists traditionally thought Maya civilization developed gradually. Until now, it was thought that small Maya villages began to appear between 1,000 and 350 BCE—what’s known as the Middle Preclassic period—along with the use of pottery and some maize cultivation.

Second, the site looks similar to the older Olmec civilization center of San Lorenzo to the west in the Mexican state of Veracruz, but the lack of stone sculptures related to rulers and elites, such as colossal heads and thrones, suggests less social inequality than San Lorenzo and highlights the importance of communal work in the earliest days of the Maya.

“There has always been debate over whether Olmec civilization led to the development of the Maya civilization or if the Maya developed independently,” Inomata says. “So, our study focuses on a key area between the two.”

The period in which Aguada Fénix was constructed marked a gap in power—after the decline of San Lorenzo and before the rise of another Olmec center, La Venta. During this time, there was an exchange of new ideas, such as construction and architectural styles, among various regions of southern Mesoamerica. The extensive plateau and the large causeways suggest the monument was built for use by many people, Inomata says.

“During later periods, there were powerful rulers and administrative systems in which the people were ordered to do the work. But this site is much earlier, and we don’t see the evidence of the presence of powerful elites. We think that it’s more the result of communal work,” he says.

Working together

The fact that monumental buildings existed earlier than thought and when Maya society had less social inequality makes archaeologists rethink the construction process.

“It’s not just hierarchical social organization with the elite that makes monuments like this possible,” Inomata says. “This kind of understanding gives us important implications about human capability, and the potential of human groups. You may not necessarily need a well-organized government to carry out these kinds of huge projects. People can work together to achieve amazing results.”

Inomata and his team will continue to work at Aguada Fénix and do a broader lidar analysis of the area. They want to gather information about surrounding sites to understand how they interacted with the Olmec and the Maya. They also want to focus on the residential areas around Aguada Fénix.

“We have substantial information about ceremonial construction,” Inomata says, “but we want to see how people lived during this period and what kind of changes in lifestyle were happening around this time.”

The findings appear in Nature. Support for the work came from the University of Arizona’s Agnese Nelms Haury program and under the authorization of the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico.

Source: University of Arizona

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Did insomnia cause April’s spike in suicidal thoughts?

Wed, 2020-06-03 18:50

Evidence from surveys shows that there may have been a spike in suicidal thoughts in the United States during the wide lockdown period in April.

The harmful effects of COVID-19 may go beyond the body, whether you’ve contracted the disease or not, according to the research, which focused on the impact of the novel coronavirus on mental health.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s telephone number is 1-800-273-8255.

Researchers found two possible reasons for the increase in suicidal thoughts: loneliness and anxiety-induced insomnia.

Their findings, which are yet to be peer-reviewed, appear as two letters to the editor (one, two) of the journal Psychiatry Research.

The researchers, including William “Scott” Killgore, a psychiatry professor in the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine-Tucson, and study coauthor Michael Grandner, an associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Sleep and Health Research Program in the psychiatry department and the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Clinic at Banner University Medical Center Tucson, based their findings on surveys of over 1,000 Americans between the ages of 18 and 34.

The researchers continue to analyze survey data monthly in an effort to track mental health responses to COVID-19 throughout the year.

Here, Killgore and Grandner explain ways to protect your mental health during this time:

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How legume ‘fertilizer factories’ make ammonium

Wed, 2020-06-03 14:52

New information about how soy and clover manufacture ammonium in their roots could help make agriculture more sustainable, say researchers.

Plants need nitrogen in the form of ammonium to grow, and farmers spread it on fields as fertilizer. Manufacturing ammonium is an energy-intensive and costly process—and today’s production methods also release large amounts of CO2.

However, a handful of crops replenish their own supply of ammonium. The roots of beans, peas, clover, and other legumes harbor bacteria (rhizobia) that can convert nitrogen from the air into ammonium. This symbiosis benefits both the plants and the rhizobia in an interaction that scientists had until now seen as relatively straightforward: the bacteria supply the plant with ammonium; in return, the plant provides them with carbonaceous carboxylic acid molecules.

ETH Zurich researchers have demonstrated that the plant-bacteria interaction is in fact surprisingly complex. Along with carbon, the plant gives the bacteria the nitrogen-rich amino acid arginine.

“Although nitrogen fixation in rhizobia has been studied for many years, there were still gaps in our knowledge,” says study leader Beat Christen, professor of experimental systems biology. “Our new findings will make it possible to reduce farmers’ dependence on ammonium fertilizer, thereby making agriculture more sustainable.”

Using systems biology methods, the researchers investigated and unraveled the metabolic pathways of rhizobia that cohabit with clover and soy. The researchers verified the results in growth experiments with plants and the bacteria in the lab. The scientists suspect that their new findings will apply to not only clover and soy, but also the metabolic pathways of other legumes.

The findings shed new light on the coexistence of plants and rhizobia. “This symbiosis is often misrepresented as a voluntary give and take. In fact, the two partners do their utmost to exploit each other,” says coauthor Matthias Christen, a scientist at the Institute for Molecular Systems Biology.

As the scientists were able to demonstrate, soy and clover don’t exactly roll out the red carpet for their rhizobia, but rather regard them as pathogens. The plants try to cut off the bacteria’s oxygen supply and expose them to acidic conditions. Meanwhile, the bacteria toil ceaselessly to survive in this hostile environment. They use the arginine present in the plants because it enables them to switch to a metabolism that does not require much oxygen.

To neutralize the acidic environment, the microbes transfer acidifying protons to nitrogen molecules taken from the air. This produces ammonium, which they get rid of by conducting it out of the bacterial cell and passing it on to the plant. “The ammonium that is so crucial for the plant is thus merely a waste product in the bacteria’s struggle for survival,” Beat Christen says.

Converting molecular nitrogen into ammonium is an energy-intensive process not only for industry but also for rhizobia. The newly characterized mechanism explains why the bacteria expend so much energy on the process: it ensures their survival.

Agriculture and biotechnology will be able to use this new insight to transfer the process of bacterial nitrogen fixation to non-leguminous crops, such as wheat, maize, or rice. Scientists have made many attempts to achieve this transfer, but have had limited success because an important piece of the metabolic puzzle was missing.

“Now that we’ve mapped the mechanism down to the last detail, this is likely to improve our chances of achieving a favorable result,” Beat Christen says.

One possible approach is to use biotechnological methods to insert all genes necessary for the metabolic pathway directly into the crops. Another line of action would be to transfer these genes into bacteria interacting with the roots of wheat or maize. These bacteria do not currently convert nitrogen in the air to ammonium, but biotechnology has the means to make it happen—and the researchers will now pursue this approach.

The research appears in Molecular Systems Biology.

Source: ETH Zurich

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Police brutality isn’t about ‘a few bad apples’

Wed, 2020-06-03 12:16

The problem of police brutality against black Americans isn’t caused by “a few bad apples” on police forces, a new paper argues.

Recently, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter after a widely circulated video showed him kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for more than eight minutes.

Floyd, a black man who the police suspected of using a counterfeit $20 bill, died after repeatedly calling out that he could not breathe.

“…training and interventions that change the way police interact with black neighborhoods are needed.”

Since then, protests have broken out across the country, calling for justice for Floyd and for other black victims of excessive force by police.

“In explaining these events, the common understanding has been that there are some ‘bad apples’ among police forces who exert excessive force due to personal conscious bias or implicit racial bias,” writes Michael Siegel, a professor of community health sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health, in a new article on racial disparities in police use of deadly force in the Boston University Law Review.

However, according to Siegel, growing evidence suggests that the issue is not only about individual officers and individual black civilians, something that many cities have tried to address with bias training.

Instead, Siegel says, it is about structural racism—in the form of residential segregation—affecting neighborhoods, not individuals.

In a study published in the Journal of the National Medical Association last year, Siegel and colleagues found that racial residential segregation was the predominant factor explaining why some cities have greater black-white racial disparities in fatal police shootings—even after controlling for a city’s crime rate, median income, racial composition of its police force, and other factors.

In his new article, Siegel examines this and other empirical evidence using critical race theory and the Public Health Critical Race Praxis.

He finds that segregation plays a key role because of the way that officers interact with predominantly black neighborhoods. “Interventions, such as inherent-bias training, aim to alter the way police officers interact with black individuals,” he writes. “The empirical evidence… suggests that training and interventions that change the way police interact with black neighborhoods are needed.”

That is the immediate action for city policymakers to take, according to Siegel. But ultimately, he says the issue can be remedied by racially integrating neighborhoods and otherwise pouring resources into neighborhoods affected by racial inequities.

“While the focus of police training has typically been related to the person and the situation, more attention needs to be given to the place,” Siegel writes.

Source: Boston University

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Natural antibiotic resists ‘superbugs’

Wed, 2020-06-03 11:43

A newly discovered natural antibiotic, teixobactin, could be effective in treating bacterial lung conditions such as tuberculosis and those commonly associated with COVID-19, according to the new study.

As bacteria evolve, they develop strategies that undermine antibiotics and morph into “superbugs” that can resist most available treatments and cause potentially lethal infections.

The new work could pave the way for a new generation of treatments for particularly stubborn superbugs.

A team of researchers Professor Kim Lewis of Northeastern University led discovered Teixobactin in Boston in 2015. His company is now developing it as a human therapeutic.

The new research in mSystems is the first to explain how teixobactin works in relation to the superbug Staphylococcus aureus—also known as MRSA.

MRSA is among bacteria responsible for several difficult-to-treat infections in humans, particularly post-viral secondary bacterial infections such as COVID-19 chest infections and influenza.

The researchers synthesized an aspect of teixobactin to produce a compound that showed excellent effectiveness against MRSA, which is resistant to the antibiotic methicillin.

There was no way to stop bacteria like MSRA from developing resistance to antibiotics as it was part of its evolution, says Maytham Hussein a research fellow in anti-infectives at the University of Melbourne. This made combatting it extremely challenging.

“The rise of multi drug-resistant bacteria has become inevitable,” Hussein says. “These bacteria cause many deadly infections, particularly in immunocompromised patients such as diabetic patients or those with cancers, or even elderly people with post-flu secondary bacterial infections.”

The researchers are the first to find that teixobactin significantly suppressed mechanisms involved in resistance to vancomycin-based antibiotics that are recommended for complicated skin infections, bloodstream infections, endocarditis, bone and joint infections, and MRSA-caused meningitis.

The development could lead to new lung infection treatments and it would greatly facilitate the pre-clinical development of teixobactin, says Tony Velkov, a principal research fellow in pharmacology and therapeutics.

“Bacteria often develop resistance towards antibiotics within 48 hours after exposure,” Velkov says. “The bacteria failed to develop resistance towards this compound over 48 hours.

“These novel results will open doors to develop novel antibacterial drugs for the treatment of multi-drug resistant Gram-positive infections—bacteria with a thick cell wall—which are caused by certain types of bacteria.”

Source: University of Melbourne

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What is a ‘good death’ during COVID-19?

Wed, 2020-06-03 11:33

There are ways we can prepare for the possibility of a family member or loved one dying during the COVID-19 pandemic, two experts argue.

During the COVID-19 public health care crisis, thousands of people are dying in hospitals without loved-ones due to health concerns around the virus.

Elissa Kozlov, a clinical psychologist and instructor at the Rutgers School of Public Health, and Johanna Schoen, associate chair of the history department, have tips for making sure that family member and loved ones have a “good death” during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

Here, they discuss death, dying, and end-of-life care during the global pandemic:

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Brain circuitry can create desire for stuff that hurts

Wed, 2020-06-03 09:28

Stimulating the brain’s circuitry related to addiction can create strong desires even for something that hurts, according to a new study with rats.

The researchers used a laser to excite neurons in rats’ amygdala—a brain region that generates emotional responses—to create intense desires focused on particular targets.

These targets, for different rats, were either sugar, cocaine, or even an object painful to touch, each paired with brief amygdala excitation. The addictive-type desire was equally strong, whether the target was liked or disliked, the researchers found.

The pain-target group of rats had amygdala laser excitations paired with voluntary encounters of an object that gave an electric shock whenever touched (an immobile rod sticking out of a wall). After a number of brain activation and shock pairings, those rats came to compulsively seek out the electrified rod, climbing over a barrier to reach and touch it repeatedly, and subject themselves to shocks repeatedly.

A different group of rats, choosing between sugar and cocaine, seemed “addicted” to sugar after amygdala laser activations were paired with earning sugar. Those rats single-mindedly pursued sugar and ignored the chance to earn intravenous cocaine.

A third group given the same sugar-cocaine choice seemed “addicted” to cocaine after their amygdala laser activation was paired with earning cocaine. Those rats pursued only cocaine while ignoring sugar.

Amygdala laser activations by themselves were not particularly rewarding, and could even increase fear in some other situations, demonstrating its emotional flexibility. The amygdala activation had to be combined with the sugar/cocaine/shock target in order to create the strong desires, the study shows.

“In each desire group, the amygdala recruited additional addiction-related brain circuitry to create a strong and narrowly focused wanting for its paired target, whether the target itself was pleasant or painful,” says Kent Berridge, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

The findings reveal how brain circuitry can create addictive-like maladaptive desires for particular targets, even in the absence of any pleasure.

The results also help reveal how emotional brain systems can, in certain circumstances, flexibly switch between generating opposite motivations of desire and fear, says lead author Shelley Warlow, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Diego.

For humans with addiction, the results help understand why it isn’t always necessary to enjoy the thing they intensely desire, the researchers say.

The research appears in Nature Communications.

Source: University of Michigan

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Device generates power from shadows

Wed, 2020-06-03 09:05

A new device called a shadow-effect energy generator harnesses shadows to generate electricity, researchers report.

This concept opens up new approaches in generating green energy under indoor lighting conditions.

The shadow-effect energy generator (SEG) makes use of the contrast in illumination between lit and shadowed areas to generate electricity.

“Shadows are omnipresent, and we often take them for granted. In conventional photovoltaic or optoelectronic applications where a steady source of light is used to power devices, the presence of shadows is undesirable, since it degrades the performance of devices. In this work, we capitalized on the illumination contrast caused by shadows as an indirect source of power,” says research team leader Tan Swee Ching, an assistant professor in the materials science and engineering department at the National University of Singapore.

“The contrast in illumination induces a voltage difference between the shadow and illuminated sections, resulting in an electric current. This novel concept of harvesting energy in the presence of shadows is unprecedented.”

Mobile electronic devices such as smartphones, smart glasses, and e-watches require efficient and continuous power supply. As people wear these devices both indoors and outdoors, wearable power sources that could harness ambient light can potentially improve the versatility of these devices.

While commercially available solar cells can perform this role in an outdoor environment, their energy harvesting efficiency drops significantly under indoor conditions where shadows are persistent.

To address this technological challenge, the researchers developed a low-cost, easy-to-fabricate SEG to perform two functions: to convert illumination contrast from partial shadows castings into electricity; and to serve as a self-powered proximity sensor to monitor passing objects.

The SEG is made of a set of SEG cells arranged on a flexible and transparent plastic film. Each SEG cell is a thin film of gold deposited on a silicon wafer. Carefully designed, the SEG can be fabricated at a lower cost compared to commercial silicon solar cells. The team then conducted experiments to test the performance of the SEG in generating electricity and as a self-powered sensor.

“When the whole SEG cell is under illumination or in shadow, the amount of electricity generated is very low or none at all. When a part of the SEG cell is illuminated, a significant electrical output is detected,” says co-team leader Andrew Wee, a professor in the department of physics.

“We also found that the optimum surface area for electricity generation is when half of the SEG cell is illuminated and the other half in shadow, as this gives enough area for charge generation and collection respectively.”

Based on laboratory experiments, the team’s four-cell SEG is twice as efficient when compared with commercial silicon solar cells, under the effect of shifting shadows. The harvested energy from the SEG in the presence of shadows created under indoor lighting conditions is sufficient to power a digital watch (i.e. 1.2 V).

In addition, the team also showed that the SEG can serve as a self-powered sensor for monitoring moving objects. When an object passes by the SEG, it casts an intermittent shadow on the device and triggers the sensor to record the presence and movement of the object.

The researchers took four months to conceptualize, develop, and perfect the performance of the device. In the next phase of research, they will experiment with other materials, besides gold, to reduce the cost of the SEG.

The researchers are also looking at developing self-powered sensors with versatile functionalities, as well as wearable SEGs attached to clothing to harvest energy during normal daily activities.

Another promising area of research is the development of low-cost SEG panels for efficient harvesting of energy from indoor lighting.

Their research appears in the journal Energy & Environmental Science.

Source: National University of Singapore

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Fewer women die when insurance covers infertility treatments

Wed, 2020-06-03 09:04

When states require insurance companies to provide coverage of infertility treatments, 20% fewer mothers die during pregnancy, childbirth, or shortly after birth, research finds.

Nearly 11% of women ages 15-44 and 21% of currently married, childless women report having difficulty getting pregnant and carrying a baby to term, but fertility treatments such as in vitro fertilization can be expensive and often require multiple attempts to be successful. Infertility treatments are often not covered by insurance, unless a state mandate requires that insurers provide insurance plans that cover the procedures.

Between 1977 and 2001, 15 states mandated insurance coverage for infertility treatments in some form, according to Joelle Abramowitz, lead author of the study that examined maternal mortality rates in women in states that mandated coverage of infertility treatments compared to states that didn’t.

“Previous findings suggest that the mandates were effective at increasing access to infertility treatment, but less work has explored how mandates affected maternal health outcomes,” says Abramowitz, an assistant research scientist at the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.

Insurance coverage for infertility treatment

Abramowitz found for white women, there were 3.4 fewer deaths per 100,000 births, a 20% decrease from the mean of 16.9 deaths per 100,000 in states that mandated coverage of infertility treatments. Her results appear on the journal Fertility and Sterility commentary website, the Fertility and Sterility Dialog.

The analysis focused on white women ages 35-49—the majority of women using assisted reproductive technology is age 30 and up—between the years 1981-1988. To examine maternal outcomes in these women, Abramowitz compared states that enacted the mandates to states that didn’t enact mandates, before and after their enactments. Then, once the mandates were enacted, she studied what happened to maternal mortality trends.

Why lower maternal mortality?

“I would have expected, prior to this research, that there would be an increase in maternal mortality. But there are reasons why we would expect to see a decreased risk as well,” Abramowitz says.

Some of these reasons could be that because infertility treatments such as IVF are so expensive, women without insurance may try riskier procedures to ensure the IVF is successful. Additionally, women included in the analysis were likely more affluent and to have access to private health insurance in order to benefit from the mandates.

Abramowitz’s results suggest the mandates were associated with statistically significantly different maternal mortality rates for white mothers, but not for black mothers. That may be because baseline maternal mortality rates differ by race—and minorities may not have the same access to employer-sponsored insurance coverage.

Abramowitz says having a fuller understanding of the effect of mandates such as this one is important because it can inform future policy decisions—as well as having a more complete picture of women’s health.

“We should care about the health of women undergoing these treatments, and the outcomes for them, but instead we’re focused on their fertility and the outcomes for their children,” Abramowitz says.

“Finding these effects suggests the importance of more research on women’s health and maternal mortality, but a lack of good data prevents such research. Collecting better data would allow researchers to better investigate determinants of maternal health, thereby saving women’s lives and improving their well-being.”

Source: University of Michigan

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Could an early antiviral block COVID-19 transmission?

Wed, 2020-06-03 08:21

Some antivirals can not only help sick people get better, but can also prevent hundreds of thousands of virus cases if people get them in the early stages of infection, researchers report.

The study focused on influenza but also has implications for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. By modeling the impact of a pair of leading flu drugs, the team found significant differences in effects between oseltamivir, an older antiviral treatment for flu that patients know by the name Tamiflu, and a newer one, baloxavir, sold under the brand name Xofluza.

The researchers found that the newer treatment—by effectively and rapidly stopping virus replication—dramatically reduced the length of time that an infected person is contagious and, therefore, better limited the spread of flu.

“We found that treating even 10% of infected patients with baloxavir shortly after the onset of their symptoms can indirectly prevent millions of infections and save thousands of lives during a typical influenza season,” says Robert Krug, a professor emeritus of molecular biosciences, writing for a post that accompanied the paper. Krug’s early basic research discoveries informed the development of baloxavir.

The researchers concluded that having a similarly effective antiviral treatment for the coronavirus would help to prevent thousands of infections and deaths. Creating such an antiviral would take time and new strategies in public health planning, but the benefits for patients, communities, and health care settings could be profound.

“Imagine a drug that quashes viral load within a day and thus radically shortens the contagious period,” says Lauren Ancel Meyers, a professor of integrative biology who models the spread of viruses, including the one that causes COVID-19. “Basically, we could isolate COVID-19 cases pharmaceutically rather than physically and disrupt chains of transmission.”

To date, most COVID-19 drug research efforts have prioritized existing antivirals that can be deployed quickly to treat the most seriously ill patients coping with life-threatening symptoms. The scientists acknowledge it would represent a shift to develop a new antiviral for the coronavirus, to be used early in an infection with the aim of curtailing viral replication, just as baloxavir does for flu.

“It may seem counterintuitive to focus on treatments not for the critically ill patient in need of a life-saving intervention, but rather for the seemingly healthy patient shortly after a COVID-19 positive test,” Krug says. “Nonetheless, our analysis shows that the right early-stage antiviral treatment can block transmission to others and, in the long run, may well save more lives.”

The research appears in the journal Nature Communications. Additional coauthors are from UT Austin and Yale University. Support for the research came from the National Institutes of Health.

Source: UT Austin

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To fight climate change, eco groups get political

Wed, 2020-06-03 07:32

Environmental non-governmental organizations are increasingly focused on advocacy in climate change politics and environmental justice, according to a new study.

Regional disparities in human and financial resources largely determine how they do their work.

Although non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have become powerful voices in world environmental politics, little is known of the global picture of this sector.

To understand what these groups are doing and why, researchers analyzed data from 679 environmental NGOs worldwide. The results appear in PLOS ONE.

These organizations are usually thought to focus on environmental protection and conservation. However, in examining the mission statements of these groups, the researchers found that the importance of climate politics (engagement on climate change) and environmental justice (respect for nature and human rights) had been grossly underestimated in previous research.

The researchers calculated a power index for the NGOs based on their human and financial resources and found that more than 40% of the most powerful organizations focus on these areas in their mission.

“There are more powerful organizations working on climate issues than on issues of biodiversity loss or land degradation,” says coauthor Klara Winkler, a postdoctoral researcher from McGill University.

“It is important to be aware that some environmental issues garner more attention than others because it means that these other issues risk being neglected or even forgotten.”

The study also shows regional disparities in human resources and financial capacity. Environmental NGOs in Africa and Oceania have the lowest median number of employees and African NGOs have the lowest median annual budgets. While organizations in North America and Europe have the highest median financial capacity, Latin America and the Caribbean has the highest median number of employees.

According to the researchers, these differences likely reflect both labor costs and financial flows, where environmental NGOs in the Global South employ more people with less money while groups in the Global North handle more money with fewer employees.

This disparity is also indicative of a global division of labor where Northern environmental NGOs act as donors or coordinators for large projects, while Southern organizations are subcontracted for implementation.

“The findings give us an indication of how feasible it is for NGOs to advocate and implement their agendas in practice. Seeing where the disparities and limitations are in different regions can help us better understand observed differences in environmental policies and politics,” says coauthor Stefan Partelow from the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research in Germany.

Additional coauthors are from McGill University, the University of Georgia, and the Leibniz Centre of Tropical Marine Research.

Source: McGill University

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Blood plasma analysis could spot signs of ALS

Tue, 2020-06-02 19:39

Analysis of blood plasma could help identify diagnostic and prognostic biomarkers for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, according to new research.

The work sheds further light on a pathway involved in disease progression and appears to rule out an environmental neurotoxin as playing a role in ALS.

ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that causes deterioration of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Currently, a lack of definitive targets, a diagnostic process that often takes over a year to complete, and insufficient and subjective methods for monitoring progression hamper treatments.

“…a panel of plasma metabolites could be used both for diagnosis and as a way to monitor disease progression.”

“Early diagnosis is important, but we are in dire need of quantitative markers for monitoring progression and the efficacy of therapeutic intervention,” says Michael Bereman, associate professor of biological sciences at North Carolina State University and corresponding author of the paper on the work in the Journal of Proteome Research.

“Since disruptions in metabolism are hallmark features of ALS, we wanted to investigate metabolite markers as an avenue for biomarker discovery.”

The researchers took blood plasma samples for 134 ALS patients and 118 healthy individuals from the Macquarie University MND Biobank. They used chip-based capillary zone electrophoresis coupled to high resolution mass spectrometry to identify and analyze blood plasma metabolites in the samples.

This method quickly breaks the plasma down into its molecular components, which are then identified by their mass. The researchers developed two computer algorithms: one to separate healthy and ALS samples and the other to predict disease progression.

The researchers found the most significant metabolism markers were associated with muscle activity: elevated levels of creatine, which aids muscle movement, and decreased levels of creatinine and methylhistidine, which are byproducts of muscle activity and breakdown. Creatine was 49% elevated in ALS patients, while creatinine and methylhistindine decreased by 20% and 24%, respectively. Additionally, the ratio of creatine versus creatinine increased 370% in male, and 200% in female, ALS patients.

Through machine learning, the algorithms that the researchers created were then able to both separate healthy participants from ALS patients and predict the progression of the disease. The models produced results for both sensitivity (ability to detect disease), and specificity (ability to detect individuals without disease). The disease detection model performed at 80% sensitivity and 78% specificity, and the progression model performed at 74% sensitivity and 87% specificity.

“Creatine deficiency alone does not seem to be a problem—our results confirm that the creatine kinase pathway of cellular energy production, known to be altered in ALS, is not working as well as it should,” Bereman says.

“These results are strong evidence that a panel of plasma metabolites could be used both for diagnosis and as a way to monitor disease progression,” says coauthor Gilles Guillemin, professor of neurosciences at Macquarie University. “Our next steps will be to examine these markers over time within the same patient.”

Another goal of the work was to look for evidence of exposure to an environmental neurotoxin, Beta Methylamino-L-Alanine (BMAA), which is in green and blue algae blooms. BMAA has been associated with ALS since the 1950s, but few studies have attempted to detect it in human ALS patients. The researchers did not detect BMAA in the blood of either healthy or ALS patients.

Additional researchers from NC State and Australia’s Macquarie University contributed to the work.

Support for the research came, in part, from the ALS Biomarker Consortium, ALS Association, ALS Finding a Cure, the Packard Association for ALS, and the Chancellor’s Innovation Fund at NC State University.

Source: NC State

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Switch ‘turns off’ breast cancer metastasis in mice

Tue, 2020-06-02 19:25

Researchers have identified a gene that causes an aggressive form of breast cancer to rapidly grow in animal models.

More importantly, they have also discovered a way to “turn it off” and inhibit cancer from occurring.

The study results have been so compelling that the team is now working on FDA approval to begin clinical trials.

The researchers examined the role two genes play in causing triple negative breast cancer (TNBC).

TNBC is considered to be the most aggressive of breast cancers, with a much poorer prognosis for treatment and survival. The researchers specifically identified an inhibitor of the TRAF3IP2 gene, which they proved suppressed the growth and spread (metastasis) of TNBC in mouse models that closely resemble humans.

Inhibiting the TRAF3IP2 gene not only stopped future tumor growth but caused existing tumors to shrink to undetectable levels.

In parallel studies looking at a duo of genes—TRAF3IP2 and Rab27a, which play roles in the secretion of substances that can cause tumor formation—the research teams studied what happens when they were stopped from functioning.

Suppressing the expression of either gene led to a decline in both tumor growth and the spread of cancer to other organs.

When the researchers silenced Rab27a, the tumor did not grow but was still spreading a small number of cancer cells to other parts of the body, says Reza Izadpanah, an assistant professor of medicine at Tulane University School of Medicine.

When the TRAF3IP2 gene was turned off, however, they found no spread (known as “metastasis” or “micrometastasis”) of the original tumor cells for a full year following the treatment.

Even more beneficial, inhibiting the TRAF3IP2 gene not only stopped future tumor growth but caused existing tumors to shrink to undetectable levels.

“Our findings show that both genes play a role in breast cancer growth and metastasis,” says Izadpanah.

“While targeting Rab27a delays progression of tumor growth, it fails to affect the spread of tiny amounts of cancer cells, or micrometastasis. On the contrary, targeting TRAF3IP2 suppresses tumor growth and spread, and interfering with it both shrinks pre-formed tumors and prevents additional spread,” he says.

“This exciting discovery has revealed that TRAF3IP2 can play a role as a novel therapeutic target in breast cancer treatment.”

The team is now working on getting FDA approval and hopes to begin clinical trials soon.

The research appears in the journal Scientific Reports. Additional researchers from Tulane University and the University of Missouri contributed to the work.

Source: Tulane University

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Indigenous Alaskans probably didn’t eat sea otters

Tue, 2020-06-02 19:17

Before fur traders decimated sea otter populations from Alaska to Oregon, ancestors of at least one Alaskan indigenous population, the Tlingit, hunted the mammals for their pelts but probably not for food, according to a new study.

The findings could help Alaskans confront growing numbers of the mammals and Oregonians who want to reintroduce them on the coast.

“Hunting sea otters and using sea otter skins has been a Tlingit and Haida cultural tradition for thousands of years…”

The research in American Antiquity takes on questions about traditional use by native populations amid calls to expand harvesting. Since their reintroduction in the 1960s, the population of sea otters has spiraled.

Only Alaska Natives living along the coast are permitted under federal law to hunt sea otters for subsistence and with little waste. They use the pelts for clothing, bedding, hats, and other regalia.

Some environmentalists have challenged the right of Alaska Natives to hunt sea otters without eating their meat. Conservationists want to show that native populations regularly did so as part of their case for allowing larger-scale harvesting for consumption.

The idea comes amid rising tensions. Sea otters have altered ecosystems, making it more difficult for commercial fisherman to catch abalone, clams, Dungeness crabs, red sea urchins, and other invertebrates the otters consume. From 1996 to 2005, the industry was reported to have experienced an economic loss of $11.2 million.

Thousands of years of tradition

The research, however, speaks only for Tlingit ancestors.

Numerous indigenous populations from Alaska to California hunted sea otters for thousands of years, says Madonna Moss, a professor in the anthropology department at the University of Oregon and curator of zooarchaeology at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History at the University of Oregon.

As sea otters recolonize their historic range through population growth or additional reintroduction, such as along the Oregon coast where the mammals are rarely seen, she says, finding out whether other native populations ate sea otter meat is worthy of attention.

“Hunting sea otters and using sea otter skins has been a Tlingit and Haida cultural tradition for thousands of years,” says Moss. “If sea otters are reintroduced elsewhere on the Pacific Coast, or their numbers steadily increase on their own, First Nations, Native Americans, and Alaska Natives should be involved in planning and decision-making and given priority in terms of resource rights.”

Moss examined 461 sea otter and 195 seal specimens found among 940 bones previously collected at two of 16 southeast Alaska sites. Moss examined them for telltale signatures of human modifications that result from using sea otters for different purposes. Indigenous peoples have been using sea otters for at least 10,000 years.

Working with the Sealaska Heritage Institute, Moss also observed the process of skinning the otters for pelts and butchering by today’s Tlingit, and she interviewed tribe members about their understanding of ancient practices from before sea otters went extinct. She found little evidence of human consumption but some for the Tlingit dogs eating otter meat.

Moss excavated the two sites in the 1980s when she was studying fish and shellfish remains as part of her research on subsistence economies of the Angoon Tlingit. While working on her dissertation she visited the University of California, Berkeley Museum, where she obtained a handwritten catalog earlier researchers made at the two sites. She had wanted to study the bones in the collection for years, she says.

“It was particularly gratifying to come up with a research question that allowed me to do that and be of interest to my Tlingit colleagues,” Moss says. “They have been genuinely interested in and supporting this research for several years. When I presented these results in Juneau at the Sealaska Heritage Institute this past summer, there was a large crowd of listeners, including people who said they would never eat sea otter, and others who liked the meat.”

Sea otter bones and DNA

Efforts to reintroduce sea otters to the Oregon coast failed in the 1970s, but amid fresh calls to try again, a current project could prove to be helpful. Sea otter sightings on the coast are rare and are thought to reflect temporary visits rather than residence.

Euro-American fur traders decimated sea otters. By 1911, the otters had disappeared from Oregon, says doctoral candidate Hannah Wellman. She is studying the historical ecology of sea otters and cetaceans—whales, dolphins, and porpoises—along the coast.

Wellman is exploring the past practices of the state’s indigenous populations by studying ancient DNA and cut marks on remains unearthed at two large archaeological sites near Seaside in the 1960s and ’70s. The remains are at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the University of Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History.

“The excavations unearthed a lot of material, and researchers like me are slowly working through analyzing the animal bone that was collected,” says Wellman, whose research Moss supervises. “The preservation was really exceptional.”

Researchers are comparing DNA from the Oregon sea otters to modern California otters, as well as sea otter remains dated from 1857 to 1983 from Russia, Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington.

Previous research, Wellman says, suggested that Oregon’s ancient otters were genetically linked with those in California, which may explain why Alaskan otters used in the 1970s’ effort failed. She is using a more robust DNA-sequencing technology in hopes of getting definitive results.

“The cut marks on the bones should give me a good idea of use patterns,” Wellman says. “We know from archaeology, tribal knowledge, oral histories, and ethnographies that sea otters were extremely important to indigenous groups along the Northwest Coast. I hope to provide a really specific insight into that use. Did they skin them for their pelts, eat the meat, or both?”

A return of sea otters could alter marine habitats and fisheries in Oregon, as has been the case in Alaska. The animal remains researchers are now studying can inform present-day ecological issues, says Wellman, who grew up near Boston and earned a bachelor’s degree from Tufts University.

“Our goal is to provide an additional source of deep-time data to wildlife managers and biologists as they debate reintroducing sea otters to Oregon,” she says. “We’ll be sharing our results with the Elakha Alliance, which is investigating the feasibility of reintroductions to Oregon, as well as the Oregon tribes.”

A predoctoral fellowship from the Smithsonian Institution, University of Oregon Graduate School travel awards, and departmental funds support Wellman’s research. Courtney Hofman from the University of Oklahoma also collaborated on the work.

Source: University of Oregon

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Collision may explain asteroid Bennu’s ‘spinning top’ shape

Tue, 2020-06-02 10:19

Researchers with NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission, OSIRIS-REx, are gaining a new understanding of asteroid Bennu’s carbon-rich material and signature “spinning-top” shape.

Bennu, the target asteroid for the OSIRIS-REx mission, and Ryugu, the target of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa2 asteroid sample return mission, are composed of fragments of larger bodies that shattered upon colliding with other objects. The small fragments reaccumulated to form an aggregate body.

Bennu and Ryugu may actually have formed in this way from the same original shattered parent body. Now, scientists are looking to discover what processes led to specific characteristics of these asteroids, such as their shape and mineralogy.

This image, showing asteroid Bennu’s spinning-top shape, was taken by the MapCam camera on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on April 29, from a distance of 5 miles. From the spacecraft’s vantage point, half of Bennu is sunlit and half is in shadow. (Credit: NASA/Goddard/U. Arizona)

Bennu and Ryugu are both “spinning-top” asteroids, which means they have a pronounced equatorial ridge. Until now, scientists thought that this shape formed as the result of thermal forces, called the YORP effect. The YORP effect increases the speed of the asteroid’s spin, and over millions of years, material near the poles could have migrated to accumulate on the equator, eventually forming a spinning-top shape—meaning that the shape would have formed relatively recently.

However, in a new paper in Nature Communications, scientists from the OSIRIS-REx and Hayabusa2 teams argue that the YORP effect may not explain the shape of either Bennu or Ryugu. Both asteroids have large impact craters on their equators, and their size suggests that these craters are some of Bennu’s oldest surface features. Since the craters cover the equatorial ridges, their spinning-top shapes must also have been formed much earlier.

“Using computer simulations that model the impact that broke up Bennu’s parent body, we show that these asteroids either formed directly as top-shapes, or achieved the shape early after their formation in the main asteroid belt,” says co-lead author Ronald Ballouz, OSIRIS-REx postdoctoral research associate at the University of Arizona.

“The presence of the large equatorial craters on these asteroids, as seen in images returned by the spacecraft, rules out that the asteroids experienced a recent reshaping due to the YORP effect. We would expect these craters to have disappeared with a recent YORP-induced reshaping of the asteroid.”

In addition to their shapes, Bennu and Ryugu also both contain water-bearing surface material in the form of clay minerals. Ryugu’s surface material is less water-rich than Bennu’s, which implies that Ryugu’s material experienced more heating at some point.

Assuming Bennu and Ryugu formed simultaneously, the paper explores two possible explanations for the different hydration levels of the two bodies based on the team’s computer simulations.

One hypothesis suggests that when the parent asteroid was disrupted, Bennu formed from material closer to the original surface, while Ryugu contained more material from near the parent body’s original center.

Another possible explanation for the difference in hydration levels is that the fragments experienced different levels of heating during the parent asteroid’s disruption. If this is the case, Ryugu’s source material is likely from an area near the impact point, where temperatures were higher. Bennu’s material would have come from a region that didn’t undergo as much heating, and was likely farther from the point of impact.

Analysis of the returned samples and further observational analysis of the asteroids’ surfaces will provide a clearer idea of the possible shared history of the two asteroids.

“These simulations provide valuable new insights into how Bennu and Ryugu formed,” says Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator and professor of planetary sciences. “Once we have the returned samples of these two asteroids in the lab, we may be able to further confirm these models, possibly revealing the true relationship between the two asteroids.”

Scientists anticipate that the samples will also provide new insights into the origins, formation, and evolution of other carbonaceous asteroids and meteorites. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa2 mission is currently making its way back to Earth, and is scheduled to deliver its samples of Ryugu late this year. The OSIRIS-REx mission will perform its first sample collection attempt at Bennu on October 20 and will deliver its samples to Earth on September 24, 2023.

Source: Brittany Enos for University of Arizona

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The word ‘bigot’ is back. Here’s why it’s so powerful

Tue, 2020-06-02 10:14

Who, exactly, counts as a bigot? A new book on civil rights and marriage law considers the term closely.

Linda McClain wants you to know that even though people can’t physically be together right now, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, they can still help reduce prejudiced and bigoted views through remote social interactions, whether through phone calls, Zooms, social media correspondence, or texting.

“I hope we will find new ways to engage in social contact across boundaries and foster solidarity and reduce prejudice,” says McClain, professor of law at the Boston University School of Law.

She has been an investigator of bigotry in all its ugly forms since before the 2016 presidential election—when the term “bigot” seemed to reenter the day-to-day lexicon of Americans. McClain has spent years digging through archives of civil rights and marriage law to uncover the meaning of bigotry—which Merriam-Webster defines as “obstinate or intolerant devotion to one’s own opinions and prejudices”—and how it stokes the fires of gender, racial, and other forms of discrimination.

In her recently published book, Who’s the Bigot? Learning from Conflicts over Marriage and Civil Rights Law (Oxford University Press, 2020), McClain examines how political and legal disagreements over bigotry have helped change the course of history, and the hearts and minds of millions of Americans. She also delves into all the ways that bigotry, past and present, is shaping how Americans view religion, gender, and race today.

“People want to learn from the past and [how not to] repeat it,” McClain says. They also don’t want to “fail to recognize new forms of injustice.”

Here, McClain talks about her research on bigotry and some key cases now in front of the US Supreme Court that could redefine who bigots really are. An excerpt of her book is available here.

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Where do our brains process colors?

Tue, 2020-06-02 10:10

A new study identifies the neural networks that process light, particularly the areas of the brain that encode the colors we see.

Scientific research has long shown that such colors are not inherent to the physical world, but rather a result of how our brains process light.

“We’ve been able to show where it happens in the visual pathway, which is relatively early,” says Steven Shevell, a professor of psychology, ophthalmology, and visual science who directs the Institute for Mind and Biology at the University of Chicago.

“It’s like a road map that shows where to look for the neural circuits that cause the transition from the earliest neural representations of the physical world to our mental world.”

Using brain scans and a novel “switch-rivalry” technique, he and his coauthors discovered that the primary visual cortex, which is the first stage of cortical visual processing, does not accurately represent colors we experience. On the other hand, higher areas in the visual pathway follow the hues we actually see.

Building on previous work from Shevell’s lab, the researchers conducted their experiments with a technique that rapidly switched back and forth between two different wavelengths of light. Although the change happened six times per second, viewers saw one sustained color (green) for several seconds before their perceived color shifted to another color (magenta).

Upon reviewing fMRI scans, the researchers found that the activity in higher visual cortex areas were the ones that matched the colors study subjects saw. Those results mark an important step in explaining the transition from encoding physical light entering our eyes to the perceptual experience of seeing color.

Shevell had previously published about the use of switch rivalry in a 2017 paper. That work revealed a similar color perception phenomenon, but did not identify which areas of the brain were responsible.

Now, Shevell hopes these new findings can lead to research that clarifies how the different regions of the visual pathway accomplish the transition to human color perception.

“We can zero in and do experiments in those areas to understand how this happens,” he says. “We weren’t able to show how transitions happen. We showed that they did happen. We want to understand how it is done.”

The research appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Additional researchers from the University of Chicago, Sungkyunkwan University, and Florida Atlantic University contributed to the work.

Source: University of Chicago

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US founders feared distrust would undo democracy

Tue, 2020-06-02 09:59

The United States was celebrated as the world’s first modern democracy, but its founders feared that distrust in government could be its undoing, the author of a new book says.

Two decades ago, protestors disrupted a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle with multiple days of demonstrations and property destruction. They punctuated their actions with a now-world-famous chant, “This is what democracy looks like!”

Since then, other activists have taken up the phrase as a rallying cry for everything from protesting police brutality, most recently during demonstrations in response to the killing of George Floyd, to advocating for women’s rights and blasting corporations. The line even found its way into a modernized production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in Central Park in 2017.

But what does democracy actually look like?

You won’t find the answer just by looking to a familiar origin story about ancient Greece, says David Stasavage, a professor in the politics department, dean for the social sciences at New York University, and author of the newly released The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today (Princeton University Press, 2020).

While this form of government dates back thousands of years and covers multiple continents, Stasavage’s research shows that its contours are varied, with no two democracies looking exactly alike. Some lacked constitutions and even elections, Stasavage says, but nonetheless “still adhered to the principle that the people ought to hold some sort of power.”

Questions about what a democracy can or should be are very much alive in the US today, amidst a pandemic that has tested faith in local, state, and federal government responses in what already would have been a contentious presidential election year. While many saw the suffering caused by COVID-19 as the result of a failure of an elected government to protect and serve its citizens, demonstrators this spring compared restrictions designed to halt the virus’s spread to “tyranny”—implying they were democracy’s true defenders.

More globally, some historians, such as Michael Lind, have expressed concerns about democracy’s viability, sounding alarm bells over its “decay” in Western Europe and North America. But others, including Jill Lepore, have acknowledged that while the 21st century has seen a decline in the number of democracies, the concept has previously survived dire threats—such as in the 1930s, when industrialized nations turned to fascism.

Here, Stasavage explains where democracy has been, where it’s headed, and why he remains cautiously optimistic about its survival—provided we heed history’s lessons:

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Tags on pet dogs could monitor our chemical exposure

Tue, 2020-06-02 08:51

Dogs could be an important sentinel species for the long-term health effects of environmental chemicals, research shows.

Researchers used silicone dog tags as passive environmental samplers to collect information about everyday chemical exposures.

“Silicone monitoring devices are still relatively new, but they represent an inexpensive and effective way to measure exposure to the chemicals we encounter in daily life—from pesticides to flame retardants,” says Catherine Wise, PhD candidate at North Carolina State University and lead author of a paper describing the work. “And we know that many human diseases caused by environmental exposure are similar clinically and biologically to those found in dogs.”

Wise and other researchers recruited 30 dogs and their owners to wear silicone monitors for a five-day period in July 2018. Humans wore wristbands, while the dogs wore tags on their collars.

The researchers analyzed the wristbands and tags for exposures to chemicals within three classes of environmental toxicants that are often found in human blood and urine: pesticides, flame retardants, and phthalates, which are found in plastic food packaging and personal care products. They found high correlations between exposure levels for owners and their pets. Urinalysis also revealed the presence of organophosphate esters (found in some flame retardants) in both owners and dogs.

“What was remarkable about these results were the similar patterns of exposure between people and their pets,” says study coauthor Heather Stapleton, professor and director of the Duke Environmental Analysis Laboratory at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “It’s quite clear that the home environment contributes strongly to our daily exposure to chemical contaminants.”

However, while dogs and humans may share similar exposures, the health effects do not follow similar timelines—a finding that could aid researchers in teasing out relationships between chemical exposure and human health. “Dogs are special when it comes to linking exposures and disease outcomes because effects that may take decades to show up in humans can occur in one to two years in a dog,” Wise says.

“Humans spend incredible amounts of time with their dogs—that’s especially true right now,” says Matthew Breen, professor of comparative oncology genetics at NC State and corresponding author of the paper.

“If we develop ways to correlate dog disease with their exposures over time, it may give human-health professionals the opportunity to mitigate these exposures for both species. Dogs are a powerful biological sentinel species for human disease.”

The work appears in Environmental Science & Technology. Grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, the NC State Cancer Genomics Fund, and the Wallace Genetic Foundation supported the work.

Source: NC State

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Chicken ‘memories’ ease return to ancestral homeland

Tue, 2020-06-02 07:05

Organisms carry long-term “memories” of their ancestral homelands that improve their adaptation to environmental change, according to a new study.

The study, for which researchers raised chickens on the Tibetan Plateau and an adjacent lowland site, provides new insights into how creatures adapt to changing environments.

It’s a topic that’s especially relevant today in the context of rapid climate change, which is creating challenges for plants and animals worldwide.

“These findings reveal a mechanism by which past experience affects future evolution…”

People domesticated the chicken from the red jungle fowl in South Asia and Southeast Asia at least 4,000 to 4,500 years ago. They brought the chicken to the Tibetan Plateau by about 1,200 years ago, where it acquired high-altitude adaptations such as an increase in oxygen-carrying red blood cells.

Tibetan chickens and adaptation

In a set of experiments, researchers hatched and reared hundreds of chickens on the Tibetan Plateau, at an elevation of nearly 11,000 feet, and at an adjacent lowland site in China’s Sichuan Province. Some of the eggs from lowland chickens hatched on the plateau, and some high-altitude eggs hatched at a site 2,200 feet above sea level.

A male Tibetan chicken (left) and a female Tibetan chicken. Bottom row: A male lowland chicken (left) and a female lowland chicken. (Credit: Diyan Li)

The researchers’ goal was to assess the relative contributions of two types of phenotypic change—meaning changes to an organism’s observable physical characteristics or traits—to the process of environmental adaptation.

“Plastic” phenotypic changes involve altered gene activity but no rewriting of the genetic code in DNA molecules, while mutations cause altered gene activity by modifying the sequence of letters in the code itself.

Evolutionary biologists have debated the relative roles of plastic and mutation-induced changes in adaptation, and whether the former serve as stepping stones to the latter.

In the chicken study, researchers were specifically interested in how organisms readapt when reintroduced to ancestral environments. They found that plastic changes play a more prominent role when organisms return to an ancestral home than when they adapt to new environments.

“These findings reveal a mechanism by which past experience affects future evolution,” says Jianzhi Zhang, the study’s senior author and a professor in the ecology and evolutionary biology department.

“Our findings contribute to the recent debate on the relative roles of plastic and genetic changes in adaptation and reveal the importance of considering whether the environment is changing to a novel or ancestral one.”

To study the relative roles of plastic and DNA-sequence changes, the researchers looked at gene-expression differences between lowland and Tibetan chickens in five tissue types: brain, liver, lung, heart, and muscle. To do that, they analyzed RNA transcriptomes from cells in those tissues.

The genome is made of DNA that contains the instructions needed to build an organism. For those instructions to be carried out, DNA must be read and transcribed into messenger RNA molecules.

By analyzing the entire collection of RNA sequences in a cell, known as the transcriptome, researchers can determine when and where genes are turned on and off. Gene-expression studies provide snapshots of actively expressed genes under various conditions.

Changes in gene activity alter an organism’s phenotype, which includes its morphology, behavior, and physiology. The term phenotypic plasticity refers to environmentally induced phenotypic changes that do not involve genetic mutations.

In the chicken study, the researchers found that while many mutation-induced phenotypic changes were necessary when the animals first adapted to the Tibetan Plateau, plastic changes largely transformed the transcriptomes to the preferred state when Tibetan chickens returned to the lowland.

Eggs, too

The researchers saw a similar result with egg “hatchability,” the fraction of fertilized chicken eggs that hatched in the study.

When they incubated lowland eggs on the unfamiliar Tibetan Plateau, hatchability was significantly lower than that of Tibetan chicken eggs. But when they incubated Tibetan eggs in the lowland—an environment familiar from the distant past—there was no significant difference in hatchability between the two groups.

The egg result suggests that adaptive mutational changes are necessary when an organism moves to an unfamiliar environment for the first time, while plastic changes will do the trick when those same creatures return to an ancestral home.

Zhang’s team also analyzed transcriptomes from previous studies of guppies and E. coli bacteria and found comparable results—regardless of whether the new environment was more stressful or less stressful than the ancestral environment.

“In summary, our work uncovers a phenomenon conserved from bacteria to vertebrates that organisms remember their ancestral environments in the form of phenotypic plasticity,” the authors write.

The findings appear in the journal Science Advances. Additional coauthors are from the University of Michigan and Sichuan Agricultural University.

Support for the work came from the US National Institutes of Health and the Sichuan Provincial Department of Science and Technology Program. The Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee of Sichuan Agricultural University approved the animal handling experiment.

Source: University of Michigan

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