Scientists create circuit board modeled on the human brain

Stanford scientists have developed faster, more energy-efficient microchips based on the human brain — 9,000 times faster and using significantly less power than a typical PC. This offers greater possibilities for advances in robotics and a new way of understanding the brain. For instance, a chip as fast and efficient as the human brain could drive prosthetic limbs with the speed and complexity of our own actions.Stanford scientists have developed a new circuit board modeled on the human brain, possibly opening up new frontiers in robotics and computing.For all their sophistication, computers pale in comparison to the brain. The modest cortex of the mouse, for instance, operates 9,000 times faster than a personal computer simulation of its functions.Not only is the PC slower, it takes 40,000 times more power to run, writes Kwabena Boahen, associate professor of bioengineering at Stanford, in an article for the Proceedings of the IEEE.”From a pure energy perspective, the brain is hard to match,” says Boahen, whose article surveys how “neuromorphic” researchers in the United States and Europe are using silicon and software to build electronic systems that mimic neurons and synapses.Boahen and his team have developed Neurogrid, a circuit board consisting of 16 custom-designed “Neurocore” chips. Together these 16 chips can simulate 1 million neurons and billions of synaptic connections. The team designed these chips with power efficiency in mind. Their strategy was to enable certain synapses to share hardware circuits. The result was Neurogrid — a device about the size of an iPad that can simulate orders of magnitude more neurons and synapses than other brain mimics on the power it takes to run a tablet computer.The National Institutes of Health funded development of this million-neuron prototype with a five-year Pioneer Award. Now Boahen stands ready for the next steps — lowering costs and creating compiler software that would enable engineers and computer scientists with no knowledge of neuroscience to solve problems — such as controlling a humanoid robot — using Neurogrid.Its speed and low power characteristics make Neurogrid ideal for more than just modeling the human brain. Boahen is working with other Stanford scientists to develop prosthetic limbs for paralyzed people that would be controlled by a Neurocore-like chip.”Right now, you have to know how the brain works to program one of these,” said Boahen, gesturing at the $40,000 prototype board on the desk of his Stanford office. …

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Tsetse fly genome reveals weaknesses: International 10-year project unravels biology of disease-causing fly

Mining the genome of the disease-transmitting tsetse fly, researchers have revealed the genetic adaptions that allow it to have such unique biology and transmit disease to both humans and animals.The tsetse fly spreads the parasitic diseases human African trypanosomiasis, known as sleeping sickness, and Nagana that infect humans and animals respectively. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, 70 million people are currently at risk of deadly infection. Human African trypanosomiasis is on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) list of neglected tropical diseases and since 2013 has become a target for eradication. Understanding the tsetse fly and interfering with its ability to transmit the disease is an essential arm of the campaign.This disease-spreading fly has developed unique and unusual biological methods to source and infect its prey. Its advanced sensory system allows different tsetse fly species to track down potential hosts either through smell or by sight. This study lays out a list of parts responsible for the key processes and opens new doors to design prevention strategies to reduce the number of deaths and illness associated with human African trypanosomiasis and other diseases spread by the tsetse fly.”Tsetse flies carry a potentially deadly disease and impose an enormous economic burden on countries that can least afford it by forcing farmers to rear less productive but more trypanosome-resistant cattle.” says Dr Matthew Berriman, co-senior author from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. “Our study will accelerate research aimed at exploiting the unusual biology of the tsetse fly. The more we understand, the better able we are to identify weaknesses, and use them to control the tsetse fly in regions where human African trypanosomiasis is endemic.”The team, composed of 146 scientists from 78 research institutes across 18 countries, analysed the genome of the tsetse fly and its 12,000 genes that control protein activity. The project, which has taken 10 years to complete, will provide the tsetse research community with a free-to-access resource that will accelerate the development of improved tsetse-control strategies in this neglected area of research.The tsetse fly is related to the fruit fly — a favoured subject of biologists for more than 100 years — but its genome is twice as large. Within the genome are genes responsible for its unusual biology. …

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Green tea extract boosts your brain power, especially the working memory, new research shows

Green tea is said to have many putative positive effects on health. Now, researchers at the University of Basel are reporting first evidence that green tea extract enhances the cognitive functions, in particular the working memory. The Swiss findings suggest promising clinical implications for the treatment of cognitive impairments in psychiatric disorders such as dementia. The academic journal Psychopharmacology has published their results.In the past the main ingredients of green tea have been thoroughly studied in cancer research. Recently, scientists have also been inquiring into the beverage’s positive impact on the human brain. Different studies were able to link green tea to beneficial effects on the cognitive performance. However, the neural mechanisms underlying this cognitive enhancing effect of green tea remained unknown.Better memoryIn a new study, the researcher teams of Prof. Christoph Beglinger from the University Hospital of Basel and Prof. Stefan Borgwardt from the Psychiatric University Clinics found that green tea extract increases the brain’s effective connectivity, meaning the causal influence that one brain area exerts over another. This effect on connectivity also led to improvement in actual cognitive performance: Subjects tested significantly better for working memory tasks after the admission of green tea extract.For the study healthy male volunteers received a soft drink containing several grams of green tea extract before they solved working memory tasks. …

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Night owls, unlike early birds, tend to be unmarried risk-takers

Women who are night owls share the same high propensity for risk-taking as men, according to a recent study by a University of Chicago professor.The research suggests that sleep patterns are linked with important character traits and behavior, said study author Dario Maestripieri, professor in Comparative Human Development. Night owls — people who tend to stay up late and wake up late in the morning — are different in many important ways from early risers, he found.”Night owls, both males and females, are more likely to be single or in short-term romantic relationships versus long-term relationships, when compared to early birds,” Maestripieri said. “In addition, male night owls reported twice as many sexual partners than male early birds.”The study, published in the February edition of the journal Evolutionary Psychology, draws on data from earlier research of more than 500 graduate students at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. That initial study assessed financial risk aversion among male and female students and found men are more willing to take financial risks than women. Females with high testosterone levels, however, were more similar to males in financial risk-taking, that study found.Maestripieri wanted to explore why men take more risks than women. He was curious whether sleep patterns have any influence on these tendencies, through an association with differences in personality and in novelty-seeking.The study participants (110 males and 91 females) provided saliva samples to assess their levels of cortisol and testosterone. Those levels were measured before and after participants took a computerized test of their tendencies for financial risk aversion. The participants also described their own willingness to take risks and gave information about their sleep patterns.Men had higher cortisol and testosterone levels than women; however, night-owl women had cortisol levels comparable to night-owl and early-morning men. Maestripieri’s study suggests high cortisol levels may be one of the biological mechanisms explaining higher risk-taking in night owls.Maestripieri explains that some people have chronically high cortisol levels regardless of stress, which is known to increase cortisol for short periods of time. These people have high metabolism, high energy and arousability. …

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Religion, spirituality influence health in different but complementary ways

Religion and spirituality have distinct but complementary influences on health, new research from Oregon State University indicates.”Religion helps regulate behavior and health habits, while spirituality regulates your emotions, how you feel,” said Carolyn Aldwin, a gerontology professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at OSU.Aldwin and colleagues have been working to understand and distinguish the beneficial connections between health, religion and spirituality. The result is a new theoretical model that defines two distinct pathways.Religiousness, including formal religious affiliation and service attendance, is associated with better health habits, such as lower smoking rates and reduced alcohol consumption. Spirituality, including meditation and private prayer, helps regulate emotions, which aids physiological effects such as blood pressure.The findings were published recently in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Co-authors were Crystal L. Park of the University of Connecticut, and Yu-Jin Jeong and Ritwik Nath of OSU. The research was supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.”No one has ever reviewed all of the different models of how religion affects health,” said Aldwin, the Jo Anne Leonard endowed director of OSU’s Center for Healthy Aging Research. “We’re trying to impose a structure on a very messy field.”There can be some overlap of the influences of religion and spirituality on health, Aldwin said. More research is needed to test the theory and examine contrasts between the two pathways. The goal is to help researchers develop better measures for analyzing the connections between religion, spirituality and health and then explore possible clinical interventions, she said.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by Oregon State University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Crows understand water displacement at the level of a small child: Show causal understanding of 5-7 year old child

New Caledonian crows may understand how to displace water to receive a reward, with the causal understanding level of a 5-7 year-old child, according to results published March 26, 2014, in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Sarah Jelbert from University of Auckland and colleagues.Understanding causal relationships between actions is a key feature of human cognition. However, the extent to which non-human animals are capable of understanding causal relationships is not well understood. Scientists used the Aesop’s fable riddle — in which subjects drop stones into water to raise the water level and obtain an out-of reach-reward — to assess New Caledonian crows’ causal understanding of water displacement. These crows are known for their intelligence and innovation, as they are the only non-primate species able to make tools, such as prodding sticks and hooks. Six wild crows were tested after a brief training period for six experiments, during which the authors noted rapid learning (although not all the crows completed every experiment). The authors note that these tasks did not test insightful problem solving, but were directed at the birds’ understanding of volume displacement.Crows completed 4 of 6 water displacement tasks, including preferentially dropping stones into a water-filled tube instead of a sand-filled tube, dropping sinking objects rather than floating objects, using solid objects rather than hollow objects, and dropping objects into a tube with a high water level rather than a low one. However, they failed two more challenging tasks, one that required understanding of the width of the tube, and one that required understanding of counterintuitive cues for a U-shaped displacement task. According to the authors, results indicate crows may possess a sophisticated — but incomplete — understanding of the causal properties of volume displacement, rivalling that of 5-7 year old children.Sarah Jelbert added, “These results are striking as they highlight both the strengths and limits of the crows’ understanding. In particular, the crows all failed a task which violated normal causal rules, but they could pass the other tasks, which suggests they were using some level of causal understanding when they were successful.”Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by PLOS. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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New fossil find: Precursor of European rhinos found in Vietnam

A team of scientists from the University of Tbingen and the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment Tbingen was able to recover fossils of two previously unknown mammal species that lived about 37 million years ago. The newly described mammals show a surprisingly close relationship to prehistoric species known from fossil sites in Europe. The location: The open lignite-mining Na Duong in Vietnam. Here, the team of scientists was also able to make a series of further discoveries, including three species of fossilized crocodiles and several new turtles.Southeast Asia is considered a particularly species-rich region, even in prehistoric times — a so-called hotspot of biodiversity. For several decades now, scientists have postulated close relationships that existed in the late Eocene (ca. 38-34 million years ago) between the faunas of that region and Europe. The recent findings by the research team under leadership of Prof. Dr. Madelaine Bhme serve as proof that some European species originated in Southeast Asia.Rhinoceros and Coal beastOne of the newly described mammals is a rhinoceros, Epiaceratherium naduongense. The anatomy of the fossil teeth allows identifying this rhinoceros as a potential forest dweller. …

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Can the blind ‘hear; colors, shapes? Yes, show researchers

What if you could “hear” colors? Or shapes? These features are normally perceived visually, but using sensory substitution devices (SSDs) they can now be conveyed to the brain noninvasively through other senses.At the Center for Human Perception and Cognition, headed by Prof. Amir Amedi of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences and the Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Faculty of Medicine, the blind and visually impaired are being offered tools, via training with SSDs, to receive environmental visual information and interact with it in ways otherwise unimaginable. The work of Prof. Amedi and his colleagues is patented by Yissum, the Hebrew University’s Technology Transfer CompanySSDs are non-invasive sensory aids that provide visual information to the blind via their existing senses. For example, using a visual-to-auditory SSD in a clinical or everyday setting, users wear a miniature camera connected to a small computer (or smart phone) and stereo headphones. The images are converted into “soundscapes,” using a predictable algorithm, allowing the user to listen to and then interpret the visual information coming from the camera.With the EyeMusic SSD (available free at the Apple App store at http://tinyurl.com/oe8d4p4), one hears pleasant musical notes to convey information about colors, shapes and location of objects in the world.Using this SSD equipment and a unique training program, the blind are able to achieve various complex. visual-linked abilities. In recent articles in Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience and Scientific Reports, blind and blindfolded-sighted users of the EyeMusic were shown to correctly perceive and interact with objects, such as recognizing different shapes and colors or reaching for a beverage (A live demonstration can be seen at http://youtu.be/r6bz1pOEJWg).In another use of EyeMusic, it was shown that other fast and accurate movements can be guided by the EyeMusic and visuo-motor learning. …

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Research on 3D scaffolds sets new bar in lung regeneration

In end-stage lung disease, transplantation is sometimes the only viable therapeutic option, but organ availability is limited and rejection presents an additional challenge. Innovative research efforts in the field of tissue regeneration, including pioneering discoveries by University of Vermont Professor of Medicine Daniel Weiss, M.D., Ph.D., and colleagues, hold promise for this population, which includes an estimated 12.7 million people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), the third leading cause of death in the U.S.In the past year alone, Weiss and colleagues published four articles in Biomaterials, the leading bioengineering journal, as well as two March 2014 articles by first author Darcy Wagner, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow working in Weiss’ lab, reporting their development of new methods and techniques for engineering lungs for patients with COPD and pulmonary fibrosis.Weiss and his team’s work focuses on lung tissue bioengineering, which involves the use of a scaffold — or framework — of lungs from human cadavers to engineer new lungs for patients with end-stage disease. Their studies have examined multiple perspectives on the process of stripping the cellular material from these lungs — called decellularizing — and replacing it with stem cells (recellularization), in an effort to grow new, healthy lungs for transplantation.Working in animal and human models, Wagner, Weiss and colleagues have addressed numerous challenges faced during the lung tissue bioengineering process, such as the storage and sterilization of decellularized cadaveric scaffolds and the impact of the age and disease state of donor lungs on these processes.In one of the latest Biomaterials studies, the researchers report on novel techniques that increase the ability to perform high-throughput studies of human lungs.”It’s expensive and difficult to repopulate an entire human lung at one time, and, unlike in mouse models, this doesn’t readily allow the study of multiple conditions, such as cell types, growth factors, and environmental influences like mechanical stretch — normal breathing motions — that will all affect successful lung recellularization,” explains Weiss.To address this, Wagner developed a technique to dissect out and recellularize multiple, small segments in a biological/physiological manner that would take into consideration the appropriate three-dimensional interaction of blood vessels with the lung’s airways and air sacs.Working with biomaterials scientist Rachel Oldinski, Ph.D., UVM assistant professor of engineering, they further developed a new method using a nontoxic, natural polymer derived from seaweed to use as a coating for each lung segment prior to recellularization. This process allowed the team to selectively inject new stem cells into the small decellularized lung segments while preserving vascular and airway channels. Use of this technique, which resulted in a higher retention of human stem cells in both porcine (pig) and human scaffolds, allows the small lung segments to be ventilated for use in the study of stretch effects on stem cell differentiation.”The ability to perform numerous experiments and screen multiple conditions from a single decellularized human lung provides an avenue to accelerate progress towards the eventual goal of regenerating functional lung tissue for transplantation,” says Wagner.Through another novel technique — thermography or thermal imaging — Wagner and colleagues developed a non-invasive and non-destructive means for monitoring the lung scaffolds’ integrity and physiologic attributes in real-time during the decellularization process. According to Wagner, this method could be used as a first step in evaluating whether the lungs and eventual scaffolds are suitable for recellularization and transplantation.The development of these new techniques are “a significant step forward” in the field of lung regeneration, say Wagner and her coauthors.This study and Weiss’ and Wagner’s related publications over the past 15 months showcase the positive impact of the $4.26 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s Opportunity for Research grant Weiss received in October 2010 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding. In addition to these scientific accomplishments, he’s forged strong industry ties, as well, and has several patents pending.”This work serves as a core for helping develop a robust bioengineering effort to parallel ongoing stem cell activities in the Department of Medicine and for fostering increasing collaborative efforts between the Colleges of Medicine and Engineering,” says Weiss.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by University of Vermont. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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BPA linked to breast cancer tumor growth

UT Arlington biochemists say their newly published study brings researchers a step closer to understanding how the commonly used synthetic compound bisphenol-A, or BPA, may promote breast cancer growth.Subhrangsu Mandal, associate professor of chemistry/biochemistry, and Arunoday Bhan, a PhD student in Mandal’s lab, looked at a molecule called RNA HOTAIR. HOTAIR is an abbreviation for long, non-coding RNA, a part of DNA in humans and other vertebrates. HOTAIR does not produce a protein on its own but, when it is being expressed or functioning, it can suppress genes that would normally slow tumor growth or cause cancer cell death.High levels of HOTAIR expression have been linked to breast tumors, pancreatic and colorectal cancers, sarcoma and others.UT Arlington researchers found that when breast cancer and mammary gland cells were exposed to BPA in lab tests, the BPA worked together with naturally present molecules, including estrogen, to create abnormal amounts of HOTAIR expression. Their results were published online in February by the Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.”We can’t immediately say BPA causes cancer growth, but it could well contribute because it is disrupting the genes that defend against that growth,” said Mandal, who is corresponding author on the paper.”Understanding the developmental impact of these synthetic hormones is an important way to protect ourselves and could be important for treatment,” he said.Bhan is lead author on the new paper. Co-authors include Mandal lab members Imran Hussain and Khairul I Ansari, as well as Linda I. Perrotti, a UT Arlington psychology assistant professor, and Samara A.M. Bobzean, a member of Perrotti’s lab.”We were surprised to find that BPA not only increased HOTAIR in tumor cells but also in normal breast tissue,” said Bhan. He said further research is needed, but the results beg the question — are BPA and HOTAIR involved in tumor genesis in addition to tumor growth?BPA has been widely used in plastics, such as food storage containers, the lining of canned goods and, until recently, baby bottles. It belongs to a class of endocrine disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, which have been shown to mimic natural hormones. These endocrine disruptors interfere with hormone regulation and proper function of human cells, glands and tissue. …

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Coral fish biodiversity loss: Humankind could be responsible

Literal biodiversity reservoirs, coral reefs and associated ecosystems are in grave danger from natural and human-made disturbances. The latest World Resources Institute assessment is alarming with 75% of coral reefs reported as endangered worldwide, a figure that may reach 100% by 2050. The numbers are concerning, particularly as coral reefs provide sustenance and economic benefits for many developing countries and fish biodiversity on coral reefs partly determines the biomass available for human consumption.A Multi-Facetted BiodiversityWhile phylogenetic diversity in communities is acknowledged for its vital heritage value, illustrating, as it does, a “part” of the tree of life, ecosystem functional diversity has long been overlooked in impact studies. An ecosystem’s richness is also measured both in taxonomic biodiversity terms (number of different species) as well as by the number of lineages or functions performed by many ecosystem goods and services.*There have not as yet been any studies into the impact of human activity on coral fish community taxonomic, functional and phylogenetic taxonomic diversity loss.Functional and Phylogenetic Diversity Loss RevealedAfter sampling 1553 fish communities through underwater surveys in 17 Pacific countries, researchers assessed the taxonomic, functional and phylogenetic diversity levels of a group of species fished along a human density gradient ranging from 1.3 to 1705 persons per sq. km of reef.The social and environmental data were collected under the PROCFish and CoFish projects co-ordinated by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community and funded by the European Union.The results showed a sharp drop in functional and phylogenetic diversity levels, particularly above 20 people per sq. km of reef, while species richness was barely affected along the gradient.When human population density reached 1700 persons per sq. km of reef, the impact on functional and phylogenetic diversity levels (-46 % and -36 %, respectively) was greater than on species richness (-12 %).A Tree of Life that Needs ProtectingThe research shows that species numbers are a poor indicator of anthropogenic pressure, while two other biodiversity components are far more heavily affected by human density. These components make up the tree of life, i.e. the diversity of biological traits and phylogenetic lineages that are essential for coral systems to function.The researchers emphasised how important it was to conserve all the components of biodiversity. They also recommended using trait and lineage diversity as reliable and sensitive indicators of damage to species communities.*Some reef fish species play key roles in ecosystem functions: regulating competition between algae and coral colonies; and creating areas that are conducive to recruiting coral larvae by bio-erosion, etc.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by Institut de Recherche pour le Dveloppement (IRD). …

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Dual role of brain glycogen revealed by researchers

In 2007, in an article published in Nature Neuroscience, scientists at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona) headed by Joan Guinovart, an authority on glycogen metabolism, reported that in Lafora Disease (LD), a rare and fatal neurodegenerative condition that affects adolescents, neurons die as a result of the accumulation of glycogen — chains of glucose. They went on to propose that this accumulation is the root cause of this disease.The breakthrough of this paper was two-sided: first, the researchers established a possible cause of LD and therefore were able to point to a plausible therapeutic target, and second, they discovered that neurons have the capacity to store glycogen — an observation that had never been made — and that this accumulation was toxic.Some scientists sceptical about the article upheld that the glycogen deposits were not cause by the neurodegeneration but were a consequence of another, more important, cell imbalance, such as a down deregulation of autophagy — the cell recycling and cleaning programme. In several articles, Guinovart’s “Metabolic engineering and diabetes therapy” group has recently brought to light evidence of the toxicity of glycogen deposits for LD patients, and has now provided irrefutable data.In an article published at the beginning of February in Human Molecular Genetics, with the associate researcher Jordi Duran as first author, the scientists show that in LD the accumulation of glycogen directly causes neuronal death and triggers cell imbalances such a decrease in autophagy and synaptic failure. All these alterations lead to the symptoms of LD, such as epilepsy.Glycogen, a Trojan horse for neurons?There was still a greater mystery to be solved. Was glycogen synthase truly a Trojan horse for neurons, as apparently established in the article in Nature Neuroscience? That is to say, was the accumulation of glycogen always fatal for cells, thus explaining why their glycogen synthesis machinery is silenced? The inevitable question was then why these cells had such machinery.In another paper published in Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow & Metabolism, part of the Nature Group, the researchers provided the first evidence that neurons constantly store glycogen but in a different way: accumulating small amounts and using it as quickly as it becomes available. In this regard, the scientists set up new, more sensitive, analytical techniques to confirm that the machinery responsible for glycogen synthesis and degradation existed. In summary, they showed that, in small amounts, glycogen is beneficial for neurons.”For example, while the liver accumulates glycogen in large amounts and releases it slowly to maintain blood sugar levels, above all when we sleep, neurons synthesize and degrade small amounts of this polysaccharide continuously. They do not use it as an energy store but as a rapid and small, but constant, source of energy,” explains Guinovart, also senior professor at the University of Barcelona (UB).To observe the action of glycogen, the scientists forced cultured mouse neurons to survive under oxygen depletion. …

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Fossilized human feces from 14th century contain antibiotic resistance genes

A team of French investigators has discovered viruses containing genes for antibiotic resistance in a fossilized fecal sample from 14th century Belgium, long before antibiotics were used in medicine. They publish their findings ahead of print in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.”This is the first paper to analyze an ancient DNA viral metagenome,” says Rebecca Vega Thurber of Oregon State University, Corvallis, who was not involved in the research.The viruses in the fecal sample are phages, which are viruses that infect bacteria, rather than infecting eukaryotic organisms such as animals, plants, and fungi. Most of the viral sequences the researchers found in the ancient coprolite (fossil fecal sample) were related to viruses currently known to infect bacteria commonly found in stools (and hence, in the human gastrointestinal tract), including both bacteria that live harmlessly, and even helpfully in the human gut, and human pathogens, says corresponding author Christelle Desnues of Aix Marseille Universit.The communities of phage within the coprolite were different, taxonomically, from communities seen within modern human fecal samples, but the functions they carry out appear to be conserved, says Desnues. That reinforces the hypothesis that the viral community plays a fundamental role within the human gastrointestinal tract, and one which remains unchanged after centuries, even while the human diet and other human conditions have been changing.Over the last five years, considerable evidence has emerged that bacteria inhabiting the gut play an important role in maintaining human health, for example, as part of the human metabolic system, says Desnues. Her own research suggests that the bacteriophage infecting the gut bacteria may help maintain these bacteria. Among the genes found in the phage are antibiotic resistance genes and genes for resistance to toxic compounds. Both toxins and antibiotics are common in nature, and Desnues suggests that the resistance genes may simply be protecting the gut bacteria from them.”Our evidence demonstrates that bacteriophages represent an ancient reservoir of resistance genes and that this dates at least as far back as the Middle Ages,” says Desnues.”We were interested in viruses because these are 100 times more abundant than human cells in our bodies, but their diversity is still largely unexplored,” says Desnues. “In the present study, we thus focused on the viral fraction of the coprolite by using, for the first time, a combination of electron microscopy, high-throughput sequencing and suicide PCR approaches.”Desnues and her collaborators are currently conducting further studies on the fungi and parasites in the coprolites, which she says will be of interest not only to microbiologists, but to historians, anthropologists, and evolutionists.The genesis of the research was an urban renewal project in the city of Namur, Belgium, in which latrines dating back to the 1300s were discovered beneath a square.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by American Society for Microbiology. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Ordinary conditioner removes head lice eggs as effectively as special products

Eggs from head lice, also called nits, are incredibly difficult to remove. Female lice lay eggs directly onto strands of hair, and they cement them in place with a glue-like substance, making them hard to get rid of. In fact, the eggs are glued down so strongly that they will stay in place even after hair has been treated with pediculicides — substances used to kill lice.Some shampoos and conditioners that contain chemicals or special oils are marketed as nit-removal products. However, new research just published in the Journal of Medical Entomology shows that ordinary hair conditioner is just as effective.In an article called “Efficacy of Products to Remove Eggs of Pediculus humanus capitis (Phthiraptera: Pediculidae) From the Human Hair,” scientists from Belgium gathered 605 hairs from six different children. Each hair had a single nit attached to it. Approximately 14% of the eggshells contained a dead egg, whereas the rest were empty.They then tried to remove the eggs and tested the amount of force needed to do so. They found that nits on the hairs that were left completely untreated were the most difficult to remove. Eggs on hairs that had been soaked in deionized water were much easier to remove, as were the eggs on hairs that had been treated with ordinary hair conditioner and with products specifically marketed for the purpose of nit removal.However, they found no significant differences between the ordinary conditioners and the special nit-removal products. In all cases, less force was required to remove the nits after the hair had been treated, but the effectiveness of the products was essentially the same.”There were no significant differences in measured forces between the ordinary conditioner and the commercial nit removal product,” the authors write. “The commercial nit removal products tested in the current study do not seem to have an additional effect.”The authors hypothesize that the deionized water was effective because it acts as a lubricant, so less friction is needed to remove the nits from the hairs. …

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Seed-filled buoys may help restore diverse sea meadows in San Francisco Bay

A pearl net filled with seedpods, tethered by a rope anchored in the coastal mud but swaying with the tide, could be an especially effective way to restore disappearing marine meadows of eelgrass, according to a new study.The resulting crop of eelgrass grown by SF State researchers is as genetically diverse as the natural eelgrass beds from which the seeds were harvested, said Sarah Cohen, an associate professor of biology at the Romberg Tiburon Center. As eelgrass meadows are threatened by a number of human activities, restoration plans that maintain diversity are more likely to succeed, she noted.The emphasis on genetic diversity is a relatively new concern in ecosystem restoration projects, where there has been an understandable urgency to move plants and animals back into an area as quickly as possible. “It’s taken a little longer for people to say, ‘we need to know who we’re moving,'” Cohen said, “and to explore how successful different genotypes are in different settings, so we can more strategically design the movement of individuals for restoration.”Eelgrass restoration projects are challenging because it’s not easy to plant seedlings under the water, and seeds scattered over a large area could be washed away from the restoration site. Instead, RTC researchers tested the Buoy Deployed Seeding (BuDS) restoration technique. They first harvested eelgrass seedpods from several eelgrass beds in San Francisco Bay, then suspended the pods within floating nets over experimental tanks (called mesocosms) supplied with Bay water and with or without sediment from the original eelgrass areas. As the seeds inside each pod ripened, a few at a time, they dropped out of the nets and began to grow within the tanks.The researchers then examined “genetic fingerprints” called microsatellites from the plants to measure the genetic diversity in each new crop. Genetic diversity can be measured in a number of ways, by looking at the number of different variants in a gene in a population, for instance, or by examining how these variants are mixed in an individual.Based on these measurements and others, the new crops were nearly as genetically diverse as their parent grass beds, Cohen and colleagues found. “These offspring impressively maintained the genetic diversity and distinctiveness of their source beds in their new mesocosm environments at the RTC-SFSU lab,” said Cohen.”I think it’s impressive how well it worked for a relatively small scale design,” she added, “and that’s one of the things we wanted to point out in the paper, since a lot of eelgrass restoration projects are so small, up to a few acres.”Sea grass meadows are a key marine environment under siege. In their healthy state, they stabilize coastal sediment and provide a huge nursery for a variety of algae, fish, shellfish and birds. But a variety of human influences, from bridge building to runoff pollution to smothering loads of sediment, have threatened these grass beds globally.They’re often overlooked and misunderstood, Cohen said. …

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Whole genome analysis speeds up: 240 full genomes in 50 hours

Although the time and cost of sequencing an entire human genome has plummeted, analyzing the resulting three billion base pairs of genetic information from a single genome can take many months.In the journal Bioinformatics, however, a University of Chicago-based team — working with Beagle, one of the world’s fastest supercomputers devoted to life sciences — reports that genome analysis can be radically accelerated. This computer, based at Argonne National Laboratory, is able to analyze 240 full genomes in about two days.”This is a resource that can change patient management and, over time, add depth to our understanding of the genetic causes of risk and disease,” said study author Elizabeth McNally, MD, PhD, the A. J. Carlson Professor of Medicine and Human Genetics and director of the Cardiovascular Genetics Clinic at the University of Chicago Medicine.”The supercomputer can process many genomes simultaneously rather than one at a time,” said first author Megan Puckelwartz, a graduate student in McNally’s laboratory. “It converts whole genome sequencing, which has primarily been used as a research tool, into something that is immediately valuable for patient care.”Because the genome is so vast, those involved in clinical genetics have turned to exome sequencing, which focuses on the two percent or less of the genome that codes for proteins. This approach is often useful. An estimated 85 percent of disease-causing mutations are located in coding regions. But the rest, about 15 percent of clinically significant mutations, come from non-coding regions, once referred to as “junk DNA” but now known to serve important functions. If not for the tremendous data-processing challenges of analysis, whole genome sequencing would be the method of choice.To test the system, McNally’s team used raw sequencing data from 61 human genomes and analyzed that data on Beagle. They used publicly available software packages and one quarter of the computer’s total capacity. …

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Addicts and Disease

Commentary.Former National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) director Alan Leshner has been vilified by many for referring to addiction as a chronic, relapsing “brain disease.” What often goes unmentioned is Leshner’s far more interesting characterization of addiction as the “quintessential biobehavioral disorder.”Multifactorial illnesses present special challenges to our way of thinking about disease. Addiction and other biopsychosocial disorders often show symptoms at odds with disease, as people generally understand it. For patients and medical professionals alike, questions about the disease aspect of addiction tie into larger fears about the medicalization of human behavior.These confusions are mostly understandable. Everybody knows what cancer is—a disease of the cells. Schizophrenia? Some kind of brain illness. But addiction? Addiction strikes many people as too much a part …

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Zebrafish neurons may lead to understanding of birth defects like spina bifida

The zebrafish, a tropical freshwater fish similar to a minnow and native to the southeastern Himalayan region, is well established as a key tool for researchers studying human diseases, including brain disorders. Using zebrafish, scientists can determine how individual neurons develop, mature and support basic functions like breathing, swallowing and jaw movement. Researchers at the University of Missouri say that learning about neuronal development and maturation in zebrafish could lead to a better understanding of birth defects such as spina bifida in humans.”We are studying how neurons move to their final destinations,” said Anand Chandrasekhar, professor of biological sciences and a researcher in the Bond Life Sciences Center at MU. “It’s especially critical in the nervous system because these neurons are generating circuits similar to what you might see in computers. If those circuits don’t form properly, and if different types of neurons don’t end up in the right locations, the behavior and survival of the animal will be compromised.”The scientists studied zebrafish embryos, which are nearly transparent, making internal processes easy to observe. Using modified zebrafish expressing green fluorescent jellyfish protein, Chandrasekhar and his team were able to track neuronal migration.”This approach is used extensively to visualize a group of cells,” Chandrasekhar said. “In our study, clusters of green cells glowed and indicated where motor neurons were located in the brain. Some groupings are shaped like sausages while others are round, but each cluster of 50 to150 cells sends out signals to different groups of jaw muscles.”These motor neurons that Chandrasekhar studied are located in the hindbrain, which corresponds to the human brainstem and controls gill and jaw movement in these tiny fish. Genes controlling the development and organization of these neurons in zebrafish are functionally similar to genes in higher vertebrates including mammals.Chandrasekhar’s work contributes to a better understanding of how neuronal networks are organized and “wired” during development. These studies also may provide insight into birth defects like spina bifida, which affects 1 in every 2,000 births, according to the National Institutes of Health.”One of the hallmarks of spina bifida is an open neural tube in the spinal cord,” Chandrasekhar said. …

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Traditional Medicine: Environment change threatens indigenous know-how

The way indigenous cultures around the globe use traditional medicines and pass on knowledge developed over centuries is directly linked to the natural environment, new research has found.This makes indigenous cultures susceptible to environmental change, a threat that comes on top of the challenges posed by globalisation.”Traditional medicine provides health care for more than half the world’s population, with 80 per cent of people in developing countries relying on these practices to maintain their livelihood. It is a very important part of traditional knowledge,” says Dr Haris Saslis-Lagoudakis, from The Australian National University’s (ANU) Research School of Biology.”This knowledge is typically passed down from generation to generation, or it is ‘borrowed’ from neighbours. Because of this borrowing, globalisation can homogenise medicinal practices of different communities, leading to loss of medicinal remedies.”But this is not the only challenge that indigenous cultures face.”Imminent changes in the environment also pose a threat to traditional knowledge,” explains Dr Saslis-Lagoudakis.”Traditional medicine utilises plants and animals to make natural remedies. Despite a lot of these species being under threat due to ongoing climatic changes and other human effects on the environment, the effect that these changes can have on traditional medicine is not thoroughly understood.”Dr Saslis-Lagoudakis and a team of international researchers led by the University of Reading (UK) investigated how the environment shapes medicinal plant use in indigenous cultures, specifically Nepal, a country in the Himalayans that has outstanding cultural, environmental and biological diversity.”By understanding the relationship between environment and traditional knowledge, we can then understand how cultures have responded to changes in the environment in the past,” he says.The team studied 12 ethnic groups from Nepal and recorded what plants different cultures use in traditional medicine. They calculated similarities in their medicinal floras and also calculated similarities in the floras these cultures are exposed to, how closely related they are, and their geographic separation.”We found that Nepalese cultures that are exposed to similar floras use similar plant medicines.”Although shared cultural history and borrowing of traditional knowledge among neighbouring cultures can lead to similarities in the plants used medicinally, we found that plant availability in the local environment has a stronger influence on the make-up of a culture’s medicinal floras.”Essentially, this means that the environment plays a huge role in shaping traditional knowledge. This is very important, especially when you think of the risks that these cultures are already facing.”Due to ongoing environmental changes we are observing across the globe, we might lose certain plant species which will lead to changed ecosystems, and an overall poorer natural environment. This will then affect what plants people can use around them.”We should be concerned about the fate of the traditional knowledge of these cultures. However, understanding the factors that shape traditional knowledge can provide the underpinnings to preserve this body of knowledge and predict its future.”Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by Australian National University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Nanomotors are controlled, for the first time, inside living cells

For the first time, a team of chemists and engineers at Penn State University have placed tiny synthetic motors inside live human cells, propelled them with ultrasonic waves and steered them magnetically. It’s not exactly “Fantastic Voyage,” but it’s close. The nanomotors, which are rocket-shaped metal particles, move around inside the cells, spinning and battering against the cell membrane.”As these nanomotors move around and bump into structures inside the cells, the live cells show internal mechanical responses that no one has seen before,” said Tom Mallouk, Evan Pugh Professor of Materials Chemistry and Physics at Penn State. “This research is a vivid demonstration that it may be possible to use synthetic nanomotors to study cell biology in new ways. We might be able to use nanomotors to treat cancer and other diseases by mechanically manipulating cells from the inside. Nanomotors could perform intracellular surgery and deliver drugs noninvasively to living tissues.”The researchers’ findings will be published in Angewandte Chemie International Edition on 10 February 2014. In addition to Mallouk, co-authors include Penn State researchers Wei Wang, Sixing Li, Suzanne Ahmed, and Tony Jun Huang, as well as Lamar Mair of Weinberg Medical Physics in Maryland U.S.A.Up until now, Mallouk said, nanomotors have been studied only “in vitro” in a laboratory apparatus, not in living human cells. Chemically powered nanomotors first were developed ten years ago at Penn State by a team that included chemist Ayusman Sen and physicist Vincent Crespi, in addition to Mallouk. “Our first-generation motors required toxic fuels and they would not move in biological fluid, so we couldn’t study them in human cells,” Mallouk said. “That limitation was a serious problem.” When Mallouk and French physicist Mauricio Hoyos discovered that nanomotors could be powered by ultrasonic waves, the door was open to studying the motors in living systems.For their experiments, the team uses HeLa cells, an immortal line of human cervical cancer cells that typically is used in research studies. …

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