Natural variation: Warm North Atlantic Ocean promotes extreme winters in US and Europe

The extreme cold weather observed across Europe and the east coast of the US in recent winters could be partly down to natural, long-term variations in sea surface temperatures, according to a new study published today.Researchers from the University of California Irvine have shown that a phenomenon known as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO) — a natural pattern of variation in North Atlantic sea surface temperatures that switches between a positive and negative phase every 60-70 years — can affect an atmospheric circulation pattern, known as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), that influences the temperature and precipitation over the Northern Hemisphere in winter.When the AMO is in its positive phase and the sea surface temperatures are warmer, the study has shown that the main effect in winter is to promote the negative phase of the NAO which leads to “blocking” episodes over the North Atlantic sector, allowing cold weather systems to exist over the eastern US and Europe.The results have been published today, Wednesday 2 April, in IOP Publishing’s journal Environmental Research Letters.To arrive at their results, the researchers combined observations from the past century with climate simulations of the atmospheric response to the AMO.According to their observations, sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic can be up to 1.5 C warmer in the Gulf Stream region during the positive phase of the AMO compared to the negative, colder phase. The climate simulations suggest that these specific anomalies in sea surface temperatures can play a predominant role in promoting the change in the NAO.Lead authors of the study Yannick Peings and Gudrun Magnusdottir said: “Our results indicate that the main effect of the positive AMO in winter is to promote the occurrence of the negative phase of the NAO. A negative NAO in winter usually goes hand-in-hand with cold weather in the eastern US and north-western Europe.”The observations also suggest that it takes around 10-15 years before the positive phase of AMO has any significant effect on the NAO. The reason for this lag is unknown; however, an explanation might be that AMO phases take time to develop fully.As the AMO has been in a positive phase since the early 1990s, it may have contributed to the extreme winters that both the US and Europe have experienced in recent years.The researchers warn, however, that the future evolution of the AMO remains uncertain, with many factors potentially affecting how it interacts with atmospheric circulation patterns, such as Arctic sea ice loss, changes in solar radiation, volcanic eruptions and concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.The AMO also shows strong variability from one year to the next in addition to the changes seen every 60 – 70 years, which makes it difficult to attribute specific extreme winters to the AMO’s effects.Responding to the extreme weather that gripped the eastern coast of the US this winter, Yannick Peings continued: “Unlike the 2012/2013 winter, this winter had rather low values of the AMO index and the pattern of sea surface temperature anomalies was not consistent with the typical positive AMO pattern. Moreover, the NAO was mostly positive with a relatively mild winter over Europe.””Therefore it is unlikely that the positive AMO played a defining role on the east coast of the US, although further work is necessary to answer this question. Such an event is consistent with the large internal variability of the atmosphere, and other external forcings may have played a role.”Our future studies will look to compare the role of the AMO compared to Arctic sea ice anomalies, which have also been shown to affect atmospheric circulation patterns and promote colder, more extreme winters.”Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by Institute of Physics. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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What does ‘whole grain’ really mean? European definition published

The most comprehensive definition of whole grain termed to date has been published this week in the journal Food and Nutrition Research. The effort to create the definition, which is intended to assist in the production and labeling of foods rich in whole grains, was born of the HEALTHGRAIN EU project, the largest project ever focusing on cereals and health; and was led by a multi-disciplinary team from some of Europe’s leading universities and food research institutes.Historically, there’s been no complete, legally endorsed definition of whole grain flour and products,” explains Jan-Willem van der Kamp, corresponding author of the paper and Senior Officer of International Projects at TNO Food and Nutrition. “Most supermarkets today are stocked with foods that originate from many different countries. When you read ‘25% whole grain flour’ on one product label; the same claim on a different label could mean something quite different nutritionally. If use of this definition is adopted broadly, this inconsistency eventually would cease.”The HEALTHGRAIN definition is the next step in reaching a precise, common understanding of what constitutes whole grain in food products — from breads to pasta to breakfast cereals — regardless of where they originate, adds van der Kamp.Almost universally, the term whole grain indicates inclusion of all three components of the cereal grain kernel — endosperm (this is the largest part of the grain and provides mostly starch), germ (comprises only a small part of the grain; this is where sprouting begins) and bran (the grain’s protective outer layer; it is rich in dietary fiber). Variances, however, arise around the particular grains considered “whole,” precise combination of the three components once processed, and processing practices which can affect the resulting flour’s nutritional value. The HEALTHGRAIN definition addresses all three of these issues detailing a permitted list of grains and “pseudo grains” (such as quinoa and amaranth) and processing guidelines that take into account current milling practices.The need for developing a more comprehensive, detailed whole grain definition was identified during the course of the HEALTHGRAIN EU project, an initiative intended to increase the use of whole grains and their health protecting constituents in food products for improved nutrition and health benefits. The expansive project has involved everything from research to better understand specific health benefits of whole grains to exploration of new ways to get products high in their healthy compounds onto the market.The HEALTHGRAIN definition was developed by a committee led by van der Kamp, representatives of the Swedish Nutrition Foundation; DPR Nutrition Ltd., UK; and VTT and University of Eastern Finland; in cooperation with a multidisciplinary group of nutrition scientists, cereal scientists and technologists, plant breeders, flour milling specialists and experts in regulatory affairs from throughout Europe.The article with the complete HEALTHGRAIN definition, including the permitted grains, can be accessed in the current volume of Food and Nutrition Research (http://www.foodandnutritionresearch.net/index.php/fnr/article/view/22100).Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by Co-Action Publishing. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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U. S. regions exhibit distinct personalities, research reveals

Oct. 17, 2013 — Americans with similar temperaments are so likely to live in the same areas that a map of the country can be divided into regions with distinct personalities, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.People in the north-central Great Plains and the South tend to be conventional and friendly, those in the Western and Eastern seaboards lean toward being mostly relaxed and creative, while New Englanders and Mid-Atlantic residents are prone to being more temperamental and uninhibited, according to a study published online by APA’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.”This analysis challenges the standard methods of dividing up the country on the basis of economic factors, voting patterns, cultural stereotypes or geography that appear to have become ingrained in the way people think about the United States,” said lead author Peter J. Rentfrow, PhD, of the University of Cambridge. “At the same time, it reinforces some of the traditional beliefs that some areas of the country are friendlier than others, while some are more creative.”The researchers analyzed the personality traits of more than 1.5 million people. Through various online forums/media (e.g., Facebook and survey panels), participants answered questions about their psychological traits and demographics, including their state of residence. The researchers identified three psychological profiles based on five broad dimensions of personality — openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism — also known as the “Big Five” personality traits. When the researchers overlaid the findings on a national map, they found certain psychological profiles were predominant in three distinct geographic areas. The data were collected over 12 years in five samples with participants from the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia. Overall, the samples were nationally representative in terms of gender and ethnicity, with the exception of a larger proportion of young people.”These national clusters of personalities also relate to a region’s politics, economy, social attitudes and health,” Rentfrow said. The study found that people in the friendly and conventional regions are typically less affluent, less educated, more politically conservative, more likely to be Protestant and less healthy compared to people in the other regions. …

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An unprecedented threat to Peru’s cloud forests

Sep. 11, 2013 — Peru’s cloud forests are some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world. A profusion of tree and plant species as well as one third of Peru’s mammal, bird and frog species make their home in these perennially wet regions, located along the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains. The high elevation (6,500-11,000 feet), and remote location of these areas makes them some of the hardest to reach and therefore hardest to study ecosystems in the world. To date, scientists only believe a fraction of cloud forest tree and plant species have been discovered.This massive array of underexplored biodiversity will face an unprecedented threat before the end of the century.Now, researchers at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. have pieced together startling new evidence that shows rapid 21st century warming may spell doom for tree species in Peruvian cloud forests, with species losing 53-96 percent of their populations.Stuck in a Hot PlaceThe habitats of most Andean plants-and therefore the habitats of the organisms that use them for food and shelter- are determined largely by temperature. Temperatures change quickly on the slopes of the Andes due to the region’s steep terrain. This means the vast majority of trees and plants only can live in a range that extends a few hundred meters.”I could be standing among a group of one tree species and throw a rock completely across their ranges,” says David Lutz, the paper’s lead author and a former postdoctoral associate at Wake Forest University. Lutz, who is now a post-doctoral research associate at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, says this means cloud forest trees are particularly sensitive to climate change.Historically, Andean cloud forest seedlings sprout higher in elevation during periods of global warming. However, an unprecedented rate of projected temperature gain in the region over the next century, 5 degrees Celsius, will have them going upslope faster than ever before, says Miles Silman, professor of Biology at Wake Forest University. …

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Oldest land-living animal from Gondwana found

Sep. 3, 2013 — A postdoctoral fellow from Wits University has discovered the oldest known land-living animal from Gondwana in a remote part of the Eastern Cape. Dr Robert Gess, from the Evolutionary Studies Institute at Wits, discovered the 350-million-year-old fossilised scorpion from rocks of the Devonian Witteberg Group near Grahamstown. This unique specimen, which is a new species, has been called Gondwanascorpio emzantsiensis.Share This:His discovery has been published in the peer reviewed journal African Invertebrate.Explaining his discovery, Gess said that early life was confined to the sea and the process of terrestrialisation — the movement of life onto land — began during the Silurian Period roughly 420 million years ago. The first wave of life to move out from water onto land consisted of plants, which gradually increased in size and complexity throughout the Devonian Period.This initial colonisation of land was closely followed by plant and debris-eating invertebrate animals such as primitive insects and millipedes. By the end of the Silurian period about 416 million years ago, predatory invertebrates such as scorpions and spiders were feeding on the earlier colonists of land.By the Carboniferous period (360 million years ago), early vertebrates — our four-legged ancestors -had in turn left the water and were feeding on the invertebrates. Although we knew that Laurasia -the single northern landmass then comprising what is today North America and Asia — was inhabited by diverse invertebrates by the Late Silurian and during the Devonian, this supercontinent was at the time separated from the southerly positioned Gondwana by a deep ocean.Evidence on the earliest colonisation of land animals has up till now come only from the northern hemisphere continent of Laurasia, and there has been no evidence that Gondwana was inhabited by land living invertebrate animals at that time,” explained Gess.For the first time we know for certain that not just scorpions, but whatever they were preying on were already present in the Devonian. We now know that by the end the Devonian period Gondwana also, like Laurasia, had a complex terrestrial ecosystem, comprising invertebrates and plants which had all the elements to sustain terrestrial vertebrate life that emerged around this time or slightly later,” said Gess.Share this story on Facebook, Twitter, and Google:Other social bookmarking and sharing tools:|Story Source: The above story is based on materials provided by University of the Witwatersrand. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length. For further information, please contact the source cited above. …

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Red cedar tree study shows that clean air act is reducing pollution, improving forests

Sep. 2, 2013 — A collaborative project involving a Kansas State University ecologist has shown that the Clean Air Act has helped forest systems recover from decades of sulfur pollution and acid rain.The research team — which included Jesse Nippert, associate professor of biology — spent four years studying centuries-old eastern red cedar trees, or Juniperus virginiana, in the Central Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. The region is downwind of the Ohio River Valley coal power plants and experienced high amounts of acidic pollution — caused by sulfur dioxide emissions — in the 20th century.By studying more than 100 years of eastern red cedar tree rings, the scientists found that the trees have improved in growth and physiology in the decades since the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970.”There is a clear shift in the growth, reflecting the impact of key environmental legislation,” Nippert said. “There are two levels of significance in this research. One is in terms of how we interpret data from tree rings and how we interpret the physiology of trees. The other level of significance is that environmental legislation can have a tremendous impact on an entire ecosystem.”The findings appear in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, or PNAS, in the article “Evidence of recovery of Juniperus virginiana trees from sulfur pollution after the Clean Air Act.”The principal investigator on the project was Richard Thomas, professor of biology at West Virginia University. Other researchers include Scott Spal, master’s graduate from West Virginia University, and Kenneth Smith, undergraduate student at West Virginia University.For the study, the scientists collected and analyzed data from eastern red cedar trees ranging from 100 to 500 years old. The researchers wanted to better understand the trees’ physiological response and the growth response to long-term acid deposition, or acid rain.The team focused on red cedar trees because they are abundant, long-lived and a good recorder of environmental variability. Red cedar trees grow slowly and rely on surface soil moisture, which makes them sensitive to environmental change. Their abilities to live for centuries meant that researchers could analyze hundreds of years of tree rings, Nippert said.The researchers analyzed the stable carbon isotopes within each tree ring as a recorder of physiological changes through time. …

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Where can coral reefs relocate to escape the heat?

Aug. 29, 2013 — The best real estate for coral reefs over the coming decades will no longer be around the equator but in the sub-tropics, new research from the University of Bristol suggests.Fossil fuel emissions are impacting corals through high temperatures which can cause their deaths and ocean acidification which makes it difficult for them to produce their skeletons. In a study published today in Global Change Biology, Dr Elena Couce, Professor Andy Ridgwell and Dr Erica Hendy used computer models to predict future shifts in the global distribution of coral reef ecosystems under these two stressors.The researchers found that warming impacts were dominant, with a significant decline in suitability for corals near the equator.Dr Couce said: “Just as we have to take into account many factors when deciding where to live and juggle the trade-offs such as proximity to a city centre or the desire for a garden, whether a coral reef can establish or not depends on conflicting stressors. Global warming is stronger at the equator and drives corals away into higher latitudes, whereas acidification is stronger close to the poles and pushes coral habitat towards the equator.”Dr Hendy said: “We also found that some areas where conditions are currently borderline for corals, such as the eastern Pacific Ocean, could remain as they are or even become more suitable. This was unexpected and has important implications for coral management, as it suggests that these areas are not necessarily a ‘lost cause’.”Coral reefs are very sensitive to future changes. They are also very important to life in the oceans, with the highest biodiversity of all marine ecosystems.Dr Couce continued: “By 2070 we predict that the Western Pacific, including the area known as the ‘Coral Triangle’, the bridge between Asia and Australia, will become much less suitable for corals. This is concerning because the Coral Triangle is a biodiversity hotspot containing over 70 per cent of known coral species. Conditions in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia will also get worse, although less rapidly, since it is farther away from the equator.”Professor Ridgwell added: “Suitability for corals gets better at the limits of the current coral reef distribution. But a possible move into higher latitudes will also be difficult. Range expansion is constrained by availability of shallow water areas with adequate light penetration for coral larvae to settle and form new reefs.”

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European hunter-gatherers owned pigs as early as 4600 BC

Aug. 27, 2013 — European hunter-gatherers acquired domesticated pigs from nearby farmers as early as 4600 BC, according to new evidence.The international team of scientists, including researchers at Durham and Aberdeen universities, showed there was interaction between the hunter-gatherer and farming communities and a ‘sharing’ of animals and knowledge. The interaction between the two groups eventually led to the hunter-gatherers incorporating farming and breeding of livestock into their culture, say the scientists.The research, published in Nature Communications today (27 August), gives new insights into the movements of pre-historic humans and the transition of technologies and knowledge.The spread of plants and animals throughout Europe between 6000 and 4000 BC involved a complex interplay between indigenous Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and incoming Neolithic farmers but the scale of the interaction and the extent to which hunter-gatherers took ideas from their neighbours remains hotly debated.The researchers say previous evidence about the ownership of domestic animals by hunter-gatherers has so far been circumstantial.Lead author, Dr Ben Krause-Kyora, from Christian-Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany, said: “Mesolithic hunter-gatherers definitely had dogs, but they did not practise agriculture and did not have pigs, sheep, goats, or cows, all of which were introduced to Europe with incoming farmers about 6000 BC. Having people who practised a very different survival strategy nearby must have been odd, and we know now that the hunter-gathers possessed some of the farmers’ domesticated pigs.”It is not yet known whether the hunter-gatherers received the pigs via trade or exchange, or by hunting and capturing escaped animals. However, the domestic pigs had different coloured and spotted coats that would have seemed strange and exotic to the hunter-gatherers and may have attracted them to the pigs.Co-author, Dr Greger Larson, from the Department of Archaeology at Durham University, added: “Humans love novelty, and though hunter-gatherers exploited wild boar, it would have been hard not to be fascinated by the strange-looking spotted pigs owned by farmers living nearby. It should come as no surprise that the hunter-gatherers acquired some eventually, but this study shows that they did very soon after the domestic pigs arrived in northern Europe.”The team analysed the ancient DNA from the bones and teeth of 63 pigs from Northern Germany which showed that the hunter-gatherers acquired domestic pigs of varying size and coat colour that had both Near Eastern and European ancestry.

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Archaeologists find massive fortifications from the Iron Age in present-day Israel

Aug. 19, 2013 — Researchers from Tel Aviv University have unearthed the remains of massive ancient fortifications built around an Iron-Age Assyrian harbor in present-day Israel.At the heart of the well-preserved fortifications is a mud-brick wall up to more than 12 feet wide and 15 feet high. The wall is covered in layers of mud and sand that stretch for hundreds of feet on either side. When they were built in the eighth century B.C.E., the fortifications formed a daunting crescent-shaped defense for an inland area covering more than 17 acres.The finding comes at the end of the first excavation season at the Ashdod-Yam archaeological dig in the contemporary Israeli coastal city of Ashdod, just south of Tel Aviv. Dr. Alexander Fantalkin of TAU’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures is leading the project on behalf of the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology.”The fortifications appear to protect an artificial harbor,” says Fantalkin. “If so, this would be a discovery of international significance, the first known harbor of this kind in our corner of the Levant.”Building up and putting downWhen the fortifications were built, the Assyrians ruled the southeastern part of the Mediterranean basin, including parts of Africa and the Middle East. Assyrian inscriptions reveal that at the end of the century, Yamani, the rebel king of Ashdod, led a rebellion against Sargon II, the king of the Assyrian Empire. The Kingdom of Judah, under King Hezekiah, rejected Yamani’s call to join the insurrection.The Assyrians responded harshly to the rebellion, eventually destroying Philistine Ashdod. As a result, power shifted to the nearby area of Ashdod-Yam, where the TAU excavations are taking place. …

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First probable person to person transmission of new bird flu virus in China: But researchers stress H7N9 is not able to spread efficiently between…

Aug. 6, 2013 — The first report of probable person to person transmission of the new avian influenza A (H7N9) virus in Eastern China has just been published.The findings provide the strongest evidence yet of H7N9 transmission between humans, but the authors stress that its ability to transmit itself is “limited and non-sustainable.”Avian influenza A (H7N9) virus was recently identified in Eastern China. As of 30 June 2013, 133 cases have been reported, resulting in 43 deaths.Most cases appear to have visited live poultry markets or had close contact with live poultry 7-10 days before illness onset. Currently no definite evidence indicates sustained human-to-human transmission of the H7N9 virus.The study reports a family cluster of two patients (father and daughter) with H7N9 virus infection in Eastern China in March 2013.The first (index) patient — a 60 year old man — regularly visited a live poultry market and became ill five to six days after his last exposure to poultry. He was admitted to hospital on 11 March.When his symptoms became worse, he was transferred to the hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) on 15 March. He was transferred to another ICU on March 18 and died of multi-organ failure on 4 May.The second patient, his healthy 32 year old daughter, had no known exposure to live poultry before becoming sick. However, she provided direct and unprotected bedside care for her father in the hospital before his admission to intensive care.She developed symptoms six days after her last contact with her father and was admitted to hospital on 24 March. She was transferred to the ICU on 28 March and died of multi-organ failure on 24 April.Two almost genetically identical virus strains were isolated from each patient, suggesting transmission from father to daughter.Forty-three close contacts of both cases were interviewed by public health officials and tested for influenza virus. Of these, one (a son in law who helped care for the father) had mild illness, but all contacts tested negative for H7N9 infection.Environmental samples from poultry cages, water at two local poultry markets, and swans from the residential area, were also tested. One strain was isolated but was genetically different to the two strains isolated from the patients.The researchers acknowledge some study limitations, but say that the most likely explanation for this family cluster of two cases with H7N9 infection is that the virus “transmitted directly from the index patient to his daughter.” But they stress that “the virus has not gained the ability to transmit itself sustained from person to person efficiently.”They believe that the most likely source of infection for the index case was the live poultry market, and conclude: “To our best knowledge, this is the first report of probable transmissibility of the novel virus person to person with detailed epidemiological, clinical, and virological data. …

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Not only bone density, but also quality of bone predicts fracture risk

Aug. 5, 2013 — In a study carried out at the University of Eastern Finland, bone histomorphometry and infrared spectroscopy revealed abnormal bone properties in children with vertebral fractures and in children after solid organ transplantation. Bone compositional changes in children with vertebral fractures and after different types of organ transplantation have not been reported previously.Bone samples were investigated using bone histomorphometry, a microscopic method that provides information about bone metabolism and remodelling. In children with vertebral fractures, there were changes in bone composition, such as lower carbonate-to-phosphate-ratio and increased collagen maturity, which could explain the increased fracture risk. The results also suggest that in children who have undergone kidney, liver or heart transplantation, the various changes related to bone microarchitecture and turnover may be more important predictors of fracture risk than lowered bone mineral density alone. Early detection of such changes in bone quality could help prevent fractures.Osteoporosis is the most common metabolic bone disease characterized by abnormal bone formation and resorption which lead to increased risk of bone fractures. However, the present diagnostics based on the measurement of bone mineral density predict fractures only moderately. In addition to decreased bone mineral density, changes in bone quality could explain increased fragility related to osteoporosis. The present study confirmed that bone histomorphometry is needed in clinical practice to study remodelling balance in bone in certain patient groups.”Especially in clinically challenging scenarios where different treatment options are being considered, bone histomorphometry provides valuable information. An accurate diagnosis and choice of medication are especially important when treating paediatric patients,” says Ms Inari Tamminen, MD, whose doctoral thesis on the topic was published in June.The findings were originally published in Journal of Bone and Mineral Research and Journal of Bone and Mineral Metabolism.The histomorphometry laboratory at the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio is one of the few in the world analyzing clinical bone biopsies. …

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Blocking key enzyme in cancer cells could lead to new therapy

Aug. 1, 2013 — Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine have identified a characteristic unique to cancer cells in an animal model of cancer — and they believe it could be exploited as a target to develop new treatment strategies.An enzyme that metabolizes the glucose needed for tumor growth is found in high concentrations in cancer cells, but in very few normal adult tissues. Deleting the gene for the enzyme stopped the growth of cancer in laboratory mice, with no associated adverse effects, reports Nissim Hay, UIC professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics, and his colleagues in the August 12 issue of Cancer Cell. Targeting glucose metabolism for cancer therapy — while avoiding adverse effects in other parts of the body — has been a “questionable” strategy, Hay said. But he and his coworkers showed that the glucose-metabolism enzyme hexokinase-2 can be almost completely eliminated in adult mice without affecting normal metabolic functions or lifespan.Hexokinase-2 is abundant in embryos but absent in most adult cells, where related enzymes take over its role in metabolism. One of the changes that mark a cell as cancerous is expression of the embryonic enzyme. Hay and his colleagues showed that the embryonic version is required for cancer cells to proliferate and grow, and that eliminating it halts tumor growth.They developed a mouse strain in which they could silence or delete the HK2 gene in the adult animal, and they found that these mice could not develop or sustain lung or breast cancer tumors but were otherwise normal and healthy.”We have deleted the HK2 gene systemically in these mice, and they have been living for more than two years now. Their lifespan is the same as normal mice,” Hay said. The researchers also looked at human lung and breast cancer cells in the lab, and found that if they eliminated all HK2, the cells stopped growing.”We think that the process we used to delete the HK2 gene is not absolutely perfect, so there must be some low levels of HK2 in the mice. But that seems to be enough for the cells that use HK2, and the therapeutic effects on tumors in these mice are stable.”Hay thinks the enzyme is involved in making the building-blocks for the DNA of cancer cells, which need lots of all cellular components as they rapidly divide.”Without HK2, the cancer cells don’t make enough DNA for new cells, and so tumor growth comes to a standstill,” said Hay.Krushna C. …

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The best defense against catastrophic storms: Mother Nature, researchers say

July 17, 2013 — Extreme weather, sea level rise and degraded coastal systems are placing people and property at greater risk along the coast. Natural habitats such as dunes and reefs are critical to protecting millions of U.S. residents and billions of dollars in property from coastal storms, according to a new study by scientists with the Natural Capital Project at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.The study, “Coastal habitats shield people and property from sea-level rise and storms,” published July 14 in the journal Nature Climate Change, offers the first comprehensive map of the entire U.S. coastline that shows where and how much protection communities get from natural habitats such as sand dunes, coral reefs, sea grasses and mangroves. The likelihood and magnitude of losses can be reduced by intact ecosystems near vulnerable coastal communities.One map shows predicted exposure of the United States coastline and coastal population to sea level rise and storms in the year 2100. An interactive map can be zoomed in on for the West, Gulf or East coasts; Hawaii or Alaska; or the continental United States.”The natural environment plays a key role in protecting our nation’s coasts,” said study lead author Katie Arkema, a Woods postdoctoral scholar. “If we lose these defenses, we will either have to have massive investments in engineered defenses or risk greater damage to millions of people and billions in property.”With the release of the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan on June 25, there is renewed interest in coastal resilience and climate adaptation planning, as well as in finding natural ways to protect America’s coastline. Billions of dollars will soon be spent on restoration activities in the Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern Seaboard affected by Hurricane Sandy. Leaders can make decisions now to factor natural capital into decisions that could have long-term benefits.”As a nation, we should be investing in nature to protect our coastal communities,” said Mary Ruckelshaus, managing director of the Natural Capital Project. “The number of people, poor families, elderly and total value of residential property that are most exposed to hazards can be reduced by half if existing coastal habitats remain fully intact.”At a moment when many coastal planners are considering their options for dealing with the impacts of sea level rise, the study provides both a national and a localized look at coastal areas where restoration and conservation of natural habitats could make the biggest difference.”Hardening our shorelines with sea walls and other costly engineering shouldn’t be the default solution,” said Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy and co-author of the study. …

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Buying behavior can be swayed by cultural mindset

July 11, 2013 — There are some combinations that just go well together: Milk and cookies, eggs and bacon, pancakes and maple syrup. But new research reveals that people with individualistic mindsets differ from their collectivist counterparts in ascribing value to those perfect combinations.The collection of new studies, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, demonstrate that people with collectivist mindsets tend to value the relationships between items more than the particular items themselves. People with individualistic mindsets, on the other hand, tend to see an item’s intrinsic value, and are, therefore, more likely to split up a complete set of items.The individualistic mindset, as psychological scientist and lead author Daphna Oyserman of the University of Michigan and her colleagues explain, centers around personal goals.”Institutions and relationships are just backdrops to individual striving,” Oyserman explains. This individualistic mindset is found most often in the United States and Western Europe.Conversely, the collectivist mindset is more common in Eastern cultures, and ascribes value to the oneness of communities, stressing the relationships between individuals.Though research has typically focused on relationships between individual people and their communities, Oyserman and her colleagues were interested in how these different mindsets affect consumer decision-making.In the first of several experiments, the researchers asked Anglo- and Latino-American students to choose their favorite cell phone accessory set (red, blue, black, or white). Afterward, the participants were told that one of the items in their preferred set was no longer available. At this point, the participants had two options: They could still choose their favorite set and simply replace the unavailable item with an item from another set, or they could choose a new set entirely — one that matched.The Anglo-American students — who were likely to have more individualistic mindsets — usually picked another individual item from a different set rather than starting over with a completely new set.But Latino-American students showed the opposite effect: When one of the accessories in their favorite set was unavailable, they were more likely to choose a new set altogether, even one that they didn’t like all that much to begin with. They appeared to take a collectivist perspective, focusing on the inherent relationship between the matching accessories, which led them to view each set as one item.Because all societies socialize for both collectivistic and individualistic mindsets at least to some degree, Oyserman and colleagues hypothesized that it should be possible to cue either mindset under certain conditions. In line with the initial studies, further experiments revealed that participants who were cued to have a collectivist accessible mindset were more hesitant to break up their preferred set, were more willing to pay extra to restore a set, and gave more compelling reasons explaining why items in a set should be grouped together.This effect held across several different decision making scenarios. In one experiment, for example, participants were asked to choose their two favorite two puppies to suggest to a friend, but were then told that only one puppy could be adopted. As predicted, collectivist thinkers were more likely to choose an entirely new puppy instead of choosing to split up their favorite two.Similarly, collectivist thinkers were more likely to choose an entirely new snack when their favorite snack/drink combo became unavailable.”These choices seem odd until one considers what the collectivistic mindset does,” Oyserman explains. …

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Bird vaccine for West Nile Virus

July 9, 2013 — University of British Columbia researchers have developed a vaccine that may halt the spread of West Nile Virus (WNV) among common and endangered bird species.WNV, a mosquito borne pathogen, arrived in North America in 1999 and is now endemic across the continent. In 2012 alone, WNV killed 286 people in the United States, and 42 people have died from the virus in Canada since 2002. There is currently no effective vaccine against WNV infection in humans or birds.Common birds such as crows, ravens and jays, and endangered species such as the Greater Sage-Grouse and the Eastern Loggerhead Shrike, are also susceptible to WNV infection, with mortality rates in some species and populations as high as 100 per cent.”West Nile Virus has been identified as a threat contributing to the extinction of some rare bird species and its presence in common birds facilitates the spread of the disease,” says Joanne Young , lead author of a study recently published in PLOS ONE and a PhD student in UBC’s Michael Smith Laboratories and Department of Zoology. “A bird vaccine would go a long way to helping combat these adverse effects.”Young and Prof. Wilfred Jefferies developed and tested a vaccine made from components of WNV and found it generated an effective immune response in birds. This may protect against the spread of virus not only among birds but also to other species. The team will now study the vaccine’s effectiveness in protecting birds against mortality caused by the disease.

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Farming started in several places at once: Origins of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent

July 5, 2013 — For decades archaeologists have been searching for the origins of agriculture. Their findings indicated that early plant domestication took place in the western and northern Fertile Crescent. In the July 5 edition of the journal Science, researchers from the University of Tübingen, the Tübingen Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment, and the Iranian Center for Archaeological Research demonstrate that the foothills of the Zagros Mountains of Iran in the eastern Fertile Crescent also served as a key center for early domestication.Archaeologists Nicholas Conard and Mohsen Zeidi from Tübingen led excavations at the aceramic tell site of Chogha Golan in 2009 and 2010. They documented an 8 meter thick sequence of exclusively aceramic Neolithic deposits dating from 11,700 to 9,800 years ago. These excavations produced a wealth of architectural remains, stone tools, depictions of humans and animals, bone tools, animal bones, and — perhaps most importantly — the richest deposits of charred plant remains ever recovered from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Near East.Simone Riehl, head of the archaeobotany laboratory in Tübingen, analyzed over 30,000 plant remains of 75 taxa from Chogha Golan, spanning a period of more than 2,000 years. Her results show that the origins of agriculture in the Near East can be attributed to multiple centers rather than a single core area and that the eastern Fertile Crescent played a key role in the process of domestication.Many pre-pottery Neolithic sites preserve comparatively short sequences of occupation, making the long sequence form Chogha Golan particularly valuable for reconstructing the development of new patterns of human subsistence. The most numerous species from Chogha Golan are wild barley, goat-grass and lentil, which are all wild ancestors of modern crops. These and many other species are present in large numbers starting in the lowest deposits, horizon XI, dating to the end of the last Ice Age roughly 11,700 years ago. In horizon II dating to 9.800 years ago, domesticated emmer wheat appears.The plant remains from Chogha Golan represent a unique, long-term record of cultivation of wild plant species in the eastern Fertile Crescent. Over a period of two millennia the economy of the site shifted toward the domesticated species that formed the economic basis for the rise of village life and subsequent civilizations in the Near East. …

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Climate change threatens forest survival on drier, low-elevation sites

June 28, 2013 — Predicted increases in temperature and drought in the coming century may make it more difficult for conifers such as ponderosa pine to regenerate after major forest fires on dry, low-elevation sites, in some cases leading to conversion of forests to grass or shrub lands, a report suggests.Researchers from Oregon State University concluded that moisture stress is a key limitation for conifer regeneration following stand-replacing wildfire, which will likely increase with climate change. This will make post-fire recovery on dry sites slow and uncertain. If forests are desired in these locations, more aggressive attempts at reforestation may be needed, they said.The study, published in Forest Ecology and Management, was done in a portion of the Metolius River watershed in the eastern Cascade Range of Oregon, which prior to a 2002 fire was mostly ponderosa pine with some Douglas-fir and other tree species. The research area was not salvage-logged or replanted following the severe, stand-replacing fire.”A decade after this fire, there was almost no tree regeneration at lower, drier sites,” said Erich Dodson, a researcher with the OSU Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society. “There was some regeneration at higher sites with more moisture. But at the low elevations, it will be a long time before a forest comes back, if it ever does.”Similar situations may be found in many areas of the American West in coming decades, the researchers say, and recruitment of new forests may be delayed or prevented — even in climate conditions that might have been able to maintain an existing forest. While mature trees can use their roots to tap water deeper in the soil, competition with dense understory vegetation can make it difficult for seedlings to survive.Openings in ponderosa pine forests created by wildfire have persisted for more than a century on harsh, south-facing slopes in Colorado, the researchers noted in their report. And fire severity is already increasing in many forests due to climate change — what is now thought of as a drought in some locations may be considered average by the end of the next century.If trees do fail to regenerate, it could further reduce ecosystem carbon storage and amplify the greenhouse effect, the study said.Restoration treatment including thinning and prescribed burning may help reduce fire severity and increase tree survival after wildfire, as well as provide a seed source for future trees, Dodson said. These dry sites with less resilience to stand-replacing fire should be priorities for treatment, if maintaining a forest is a management objective, the study concluded.Higher-elevation, mixed conifer forests in less moisture-limited sites may be able to recover from stand-replacing wildfire without treatment, the researchers said.

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Better wheat varieties in the future? Wheat genome shows resistance genes easy to access

Apr. 29, 2013 — It’s hard to go anywhere without a map — especially into the deep and complex world of genetics. Now, Kansas State University researcher Bikram Gill and an international team of researchers have developed a physical map of wheat’s wild ancestor, Aegilops tauschii, commonly called goatgrass, as they take the first huge step toward sequencing the wheat genome — a complete look at wheat’s genetic matter.

A physical map of a genome shows the physical locations of genes and other DNA sequences of interest. Scientists use them to identify and isolate genes that are responsible for different traits, such as disease resistance and days to maturity.

The research was published in the April 22 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“Making a physical map is akin to breaking an egg and then assembling it back into a whole egg,” said Gill, who is a university distinguished professor of plant pathology at K-State. “The wheat chromosome DNA is cloned in bacteria, millions of bits of DNA, which are sorted by robots and fingerprinted on sequencing machines and pseudochromosomal molecules are reassembled using powerful computers and algorithms.”

“Wheat has the largest genome among crop plants and this is the biggest map as yet assembled for any organism, animal or plant,” Gill said.

The work, which began 10 years ago, was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation. K-State’s portion of the $10 million funding totaled $2 million.

“Many years ago we discovered that a particular wheat ancestor — Aegilops tauschii, commonly called goatgrass — is a gold mine for wheat improvement,” Gill said. “Wheat varieties grown in the Great Plains are protected from the leaf rust disease by genes extracted from goatgrass and from Hessian fly in the eastern U.S.”

The physical map developed by the research team provides a roadmap for the mapping of genes that make wheat resistant to diseases, heat and drought and result in quality bread, Gill said, adding, ” Most resistance genes seem to lie at the ends of chromosomes and can be easily accessed, leading to breeding of more productive and sustainable wheat varieties.”

The next step in the process, Gill said, is to obtain funds to sequence the wheat genome, but added, “it’s tough, in the tight budgetary situation we are in.”

“Research is expensive and long term and we need to keep at it slowly and surely and not by ‘stops and starts,” Gill said. “We need to invest in research.”

At stake is a crop worth billions of dollars to the United States and Kansas.

The dollar value of U.S. wheat production over the last six years (2007-2012) averaged $14.2 billion per year, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. In Kansas, the average dollar value per year over the same period was $2.101 billion.

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No-win situation for agricultural expansion in the Amazon

May 10, 2013 — The large-scale expansion of agriculture in the Amazon through deforestation will be a no-win scenario, according to a new study.

Published today, 10 May, in IOP Publishing’s journal Environmental Research Letters, it shows that deforestation will not only reduce the capacity of the Amazon’s natural carbon sink, but will also inflict climate feedbacks that will decrease the productivity of pasture and soybeans.

The researchers used model simulations to assess how the agricultural yield of the Amazon would be affected under two different land-use scenarios: a business-as-usual scenario where recent deforestation trends continue and new protected areas are not created; and a governance scenario which assumes Brazilian environmental legislation is implemented.

They predict that by 2050, a decrease in precipitation caused by deforestation in the Amazon will reduce pasture productivity by 30 per cent in the governance scenario and by 34 per cent in the business-as-usual scenario.

Furthermore, increasing temperatures could cause a reduction in soybean yield by 24 per cent in a governance scenario and by 28 per cent under a business-as-usual scenario.

Through a combination of the forest biomass removal itself, and the resulting climate change, which feeds back on the ecosystem productivity, the researchers calculate that biomass on the ground could decline by up to 65 per cent for the period 2041-2060

Brazil faces a huge challenge as pressure mounts to convert forestlands to croplands and cattle pasturelands in the Amazon. A fine balance must be struck, however, as the natural ecosystems sustain food production, maintain water and forest resources, regulate climate and air quality, and ameliorate infectious diseases.

Lead author of the study, Dr Leydimere Oliveira, said: “We were initially interested in quantifying the environmental services provided by the Amazon and their replacement by agricultural output.

“We expected to see some kind of compensation or off put, but it was a surprise to us that high levels of deforestation could be a no-win scenario — the loss of environmental services provided by the deforestation may not be offset by an increase in agriculture production.”

The researchers, from the Federal University of Viçosa, Federal University of Pampa, Federal University of Minas Gerais and the Woods Hole Research Center, show that the effects of deforestation will be felt most in the eastern Pará and northern Maranhão regions.

Here the local precipitation appears to depend strongly on forests and changes in land cover would drastically affect the local climate, possibly to a point where agriculture becomes unviable.

“There may be a limit for expansion of agriculture in Amazonia. Below this limit, there are not important economic consequences of this expansion.. Beyond this limit, the feedbacks that we demonstrated start to introduce significant losses in the agriculture production,” continued Dr Oliveira.

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