Million suns shed light on fossilized plant

Scientists have used one of the brightest lights in the Universe to expose the biochemical structure of a 50 million-year-old fossil plant to stunning visual effect.The team of palaeontologists, geochemists and physicists investigated the chemistry of exceptionally preserved fossil leaves from the Eocene-aged ‘Green River Formation’ of the western United States by bombarding the fossils with X-rays brighter than a million suns produced by synchrotron particle accelerators.Researchers from Britain’s University of Manchester and Diamond Light Source and the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource in the US have published their findings, along with amazing images, in Metallomics; one of the images is featured on the cover of the latest edition of the Royal Society of Chemistry journal.Lead author Dr Nicholas Edwards, a postdoctoral researcher at The University of Manchester, said: “The synchrotron has already shown its potential in teasing new information from fossils, in particular our group’s previous work on pigmentation in fossil animals. With this study, we wanted to use the same techniques to see whether we could extract a similar level of biochemical information from a completely different part of the tree of life.”To do this we needed to test the chemistry of the fossil plants to see if the fossil material was derived directly from the living organisms or degraded and replaced by the fossilisation process.”We know that plant chemistry can be preserved over hundreds of millions of years — this preserved chemistry powers our society today in the form of fossil fuels. However, this is just the ‘combustible’ part; until now no one has completed this type of study of the other biochemical components of fossil plants, such as metals.”By combining the unique capabilities of two synchrotron facilities, the team were able to produce detailed images of where the various elements of the periodic table were located within both living and fossil leaves, as well as being able to show how these elements were combined with other elements.The work shows that the distribution of copper, zinc and nickel in the fossil leaves was almost identical to that in modern leaves. Each element was concentrated in distinct biological structures, such as the veins and the edges of the leaves, and the way these trace elements and sulphur were attached to other elements was very similar to that seen in modern leaves and plant matter in soils.Co-author Professor Roy Wogelius, from Manchester’s School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, said: “This type of chemical mapping and the ability to determine the atomic arrangement of biologically important elements, such as copper and sulphur, can only be accomplished by using a synchrotron particle accelerator.”In one beautiful specimen, the leaf has been partially eaten by prehistoric caterpillars — just as modern caterpillars feed — and their feeding tubes are preserved on the leaf. The chemistry of these fossil tubes remarkably still matches that of the leaf on which the caterpillars fed.”The data from a suite of other techniques has led the team to conclude that the chemistry of the fossil leaves is not wholly sourced from the surrounding environment, as has previously been suggested, but represents that of the living leaves. Another modern-day connection suggests a way in which these specimens are so beautifully preserved over millions of years.Manchester palaeontologist and co-author Dr Phil Manning said: “We think that copper may have aided preservation by acting as a ‘natural’ biocide, slowing down the usual microbial breakdown that would destroy delicate leaf tissues. This property of copper is used today in the same wood preservatives that you paint on your garden fence before winter approaches.”Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by Manchester University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Unique chromosomes preserved in Swedish fossil

Researchers from Lund University and the Swedish Museum of Natural History have made a unique discovery in a well-preserved fern that lived 180 million years ago. Both undestroyed cell nuclei and individual chromosomes have been found in the plant fossil, thanks to its sudden burial in a volcanic eruption.The well-preserved fossil of a fern from the southern Swedish county of Skne is now attracting attention in the research community. The plant lived around 180 million years ago, during the Jurassic period, when Skne was a tropical region where the fauna was dominated by dinosaurs, and volcanoes were a common feature of the landscape. The fossilised fern has been studied using different microscopic techniques, X-rays and geochemical analysis. The examinations reveal that the plant was preserved instantaneously, before it had started to decompose. It was buried abruptly under a volcanic lava flow.”The preservation happened so quickly that some cells have even been preserved during different stages of cell division,” said Vivi Vajda, Professor of Geology at Lund University.Thanks to the circumstances of the fern’s sudden death, the sensitive components of the cells have been preserved. The researchers have found cell nuclei, cell membranes and even individual chromosomes. Such structures are extremely rare finds in fossils, observed Vivi Vajda.”This naturally leads us to think that there must be more to discover. It isn’t hard to imagine what else could be encapsulated in the lava flows at Korsard in Skne,” said Vivi Vajda.Professor Vajda has carried out the study with two researchers from the Swedish Museum of Natural History, Benjamin Bomfleur and Stephen McLoughlin. The fern belonged to the family Osmundaceae, Royal Ferns. …

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Cultural hitchhiking: How social behavior can affect genetic makeup in dolphins

A UNSW-led team of researchers studying bottlenose dolphins that use sponges as tools has shown that social behaviour can shape the genetic makeup of an animal population in the wild.Some of the dolphins in Shark Bay in Western Australia put conical marine sponges on their rostrums (beaks) when they forage on the sea floor — a non-genetic skill that calves apparently learn from their mother.Lead author, Dr Anna Kopps, says sponging dolphins end up with some genetic similarities because the calves also inherit DNA from their mothers. As well, it is likely that sponging dolphins are descendants of a “sponging Eve,” a female dolphin that first developed the innovation.”Our research shows that social learning should be considered as a possible factor that shapes the genetic structure of a wild animal population,” says Dr Kopps.”It is one of the first studies to show this effect — which is called cultural hitchhiking — in animals other than people.”The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.Dr Kopps and her colleagues identified individual dolphins in western Shark Bay about 850 kilometres north of Perth. They observed them from a boat as they foraged for food, travelled around the bay, rested, and played with other dolphins.Genetic samples were also taken, and analysed for mitochondrial DNA type, which is only inherited from the mother.It was found that the dolphins that lived in shallow waters, where sponges do not grow, mainly fell into a genetic group called Haplotype H.The dolphins living in deep waters, where sponges do grow, were predominantly Haplotype E or Haplotype F.”This striking geographic distribution of a genetic sequence cannot be explained by chance,” says Dr Kopps, who carried out the research while at UNSW and is now at the University of Groningen.As well, the DNA results from 22 dolphins that both lived in deep water and used sponges as tools showed they were all Haplotype E.”For humans we have known for a long time that culture is an important factor in shaping our genetics. Now we have shown for the first time that a socially transmitted behaviour like tool use can also lead to different genetic characteristics within a single animal population, depending on which habitat they live in,” she says.The team includes UNSW’s Professor Bill Sherwin and researchers from the University of Zurich and Murdoch University.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by University of New South Wales. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Mutations in leukemia gene linked to new childhood growth disorder

Mutations in a gene associated with leukemia cause a newly described condition that affects growth and intellectual development in children, new research reports.A study led by scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, identified mutations in the DNA methyltransferase gene, DNMT3A, in 13 children.All the children were taller than usual for their age, shared similar facial features and had intellectual disabilities. The mutations were not present in their parents, nor in 1,000 controls from the UK population.The new condition has been called ‘DNMT3A overgrowth syndrome’.The research is published today in the journal Nature Genetics and is a part of the Childhood Overgrowth Study, which is funded by the Wellcome Trust, and aims to identify causes of developmental disorders that include increased growth in childhood. The DNMT3A gene is crucial for development because it adds the ‘methylation’ marks to DNA that determine where and when genes are active.Intriguingly, DNMT3A mutations are already known to occur in certain types of leukemia. The mutations that occur in leukemia are different from those in DNMT3A overgrowth syndrome and there is no evidence that children with DNMT3A mutations are at increased risk of cancer.Researchers at The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), with colleagues at St George’s, University of London, The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, and genetics centres across Europe and the US, identified the mutations after analysing the genomes of 152 children with overgrowth disorders and their parents.Study leader Professor Nazneen Rahman, Head of Genetics and Epidemiology at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and Head of Cancer Genetics at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Our findings establish DNMT3A mutations as the cause of a novel human developmental disorder and add to the growing list of genes that appear to have dual, but distinct, roles in human growth disorders and leukemias.”The new discovery is of immediate value to the families in providing a reason for why their child has had problems. Moreover, because the mutations have arisen in the child and have not been inherited from either parent, the risk of another child in the family being similarly affected is very low. This is very welcome news for families.Study co-leader Dr Katrina Tatton-Brown, Clinical Researcher at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and Consultant Geneticist at St George’s, University of London, said: “Having a diagnosis can make a real difference to families — I recently gave the result back to one of the families in which we identified a DNMT3A mutation and they greatly appreciated having a reason for their daughter’s condition after many years of uncertainty.”Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by Institute of Cancer Research. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Plants convert energy at lightning speed

A new way of measuring how much light a plant can tolerate could be useful in growing crops resilient to a changing climate, according to scientists from Queen Mary University of London.”This is the first time we have been able to quantify a plant’s ability to protect itself against high light intensity,” said Professor Alexander Ruban, co-author of the study and Head of the Cell and Molecular Biology Division at Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Science.Professor Ruban added: “A changing climate will lead to fluctuations in temperature, humidity, drought and light. Knowing the limits of how much sunlight a crop can happily tolerate could be valuable information for farmers or people who breed new plants.”Publishing in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B today (Monday 3 March) the scientists demonstrate a novel method that enables them to relate the photoprotective capacity of a plant to the intensity of environmental light by measuring the fluorescence of the pigment chlorophyll, which is responsible for absorbing sunlight.Co-author Erica Belgio, also at Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Science said: “The plants we used to measure the light varied in their capacity to protect themselves against high levels of intensity. We exposed them to gradually increasing levels of light, from the sunlight more common on a rainy day to the light you would find at noon on summer’s day in the south of France and recorded the responses.”The researchers found the plants grown without the ability to respond quickly to high light intensity had a reduced capacity to protect themselves from damage.”The photosynthetic apparatus in the plants is like the retina in human eyes — it is sensitive to how much light can be soaked up,” commented Professor Ruban.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by Queen Mary, University of London. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Ancient ‘great leap forward’ for life in the open ocean: Cyanobacteria sheds light on how complex life evolved on earth

Plankton in Earth’s oceans received a huge boost when microorganisms capable of creating soluble nitrogen ‘fertilizer’ directly from the atmosphere diversified and spread throughout the open ocean. This event occurred at around 800 million years ago and it changed forever how carbon was cycled in the ocean.It has long been believed that the appearance of complex multicellular life towards the end of the Precambrian (the geologic interval lasting up until 541 million years ago) was facilitated by an increase in oxygen, as revealed in the geological record. However, it has remained a mystery as to why oxygen increased at this particular time and what its relationship was to ‘Snowball Earth’ — the most extreme climatic changes Earth has ever experienced — which were also taking place around then.This new study shows that it could in fact be what was happening to nitrogen at this time that helps solve the mystery.The researchers, led by Dr Patricia Sanchez-Baracaldo of the University of Bristol, used genomic data to reconstruct the relationships between those cyanobacteria whose photosynthesis in the open ocean provided oxygen in quantities sufficient to be fundamental in the development of complex life on Earth.Some of these cyanobacteria were also able to transform atmospheric nitrogen into bioavailable nitrogen in sufficient quantities to contribute to the marine nitrogen cycle, delivering ‘nitrogen fertiliser’ to the ecosystem. Using molecular techniques, the team were able to date when these species first appeared in the geological record to around 800 million years ago.Dr Sanchez-Baracaldo, a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Research Fellow in Bristol’s Schools of Biological and Geographical Sciences said: “We have known that oxygenic photosynthesis — the process by which microbes fix carbon dioxide into carbohydrates, splitting water and releasing oxygen as a by-product — first evolved in freshwater habitats more than 2.3 billion years ago. But it wasn’t until around 800 million years ago that these oxygenating cyanobacteria were able to colonise the vast oceans (two thirds of our planet) and be fertilised by enough bioavailable nitrogen to then produce oxygen — and carbohydrate food — at levels high enough to facilitate the next ‘great leap forward’ towards complex life.”Our study suggests that it may have been the fixing of this nitrogen ‘fertiliser’ in the oceans at this time that played a pivotal role in this key moment in the evolution of life on Earth.”Co-author, Professor Andy Ridgwell said: “The timing of the spread in nitrogen fixers in the open ocean occurs just prior to global glaciations and the appearance of animals. Although further work is required, these evolutionary changes may well have been related to, and perhaps provided a trigger for, the occurrence of extreme glaciation around this time as carbon was now being buried in the sediments on a much larger scale.”Dr Sanchez-Baracaldo added: “It’s very exciting to have been able to use state of the art genetic techniques to help solve an age-old mystery concerning one of the most important and pivotal moments in the evolution of life on Earth. In recent years, genomic data has been helping re-tell the story of the origins of life with increasing clarity and accuracy. It is a privilege to be contributing to our understanding of how microorganisms have contributed to make our planet habitable.”Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by University of Bristol. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Genetically modified spuds beat blight

In a three-year GM research trial, scientists boosted resistance of potatoes to late blight, their most important disease, without deploying fungicides.The findings, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and The Gatsby Foundation, will be published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B on 17 February.In 2012, the third year of the trial, the potatoes experienced ideal conditions for late blight. The scientists did not inoculate any plants but waited for races circulating in the UK to blow in.Non-transgenic Desiree plants were 100% infected by early August while all GM plants remained fully resistant to the end of the experiment. There was also a difference in yield, with tubers from each block of 16 plants weighing 6-13 kg while the non-GM tubers weighed 1.6-5 kg per block.The trial was conducted with Desiree potatoes to address the challenge of building resistance to blight in potato varieties with popular consumer and processing characteristics.The introduced gene, from a South American wild relative of potato, triggers the plant’s natural defense mechanisms by enabling it to recognize the pathogen. Cultivated potatoes possess around 750 resistance genes but in most varieties, late blight is able to elude them.”Breeding from wild relatives is laborious and slow and by the time a gene is successfully introduced into a cultivated variety, the late blight pathogen may already have evolved the ability to overcome it,” said Professor Jonathan Jones from The Sainsbury Laboratory.”With new insights into both the pathogen and its potato host, we can use GM technology to tip the evolutionary balance in favor of potatoes and against late blight.”In northern Europe, farmers typically spray a potato crop 10-15 times, or up to 25 times in a bad year. Scientists hope to replace chemical control with genetic control, though farmers might be advised to spray even resistant varieties at the end of a season, depending on conditions.The Sainsbury Laboratory is continuing to identify multiple blight resistance genes that will difficult for blight to simultaneously overcome. Their research will allow resistance genes to be prioritized that will be more difficult for the pathogen to evade.In a new BBSRC-funded industrial partnership award with American company Simplot and the James Hutton Institute, the TSL researchers will continue to identify and experiment with multiple resistance genes. By combining understanding of resistance genes with knowledge of the pathogen, they hope to develop Desiree and Maris Piper varieties that can completely thwart attacks from late blight.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by Norwich BioScience Institutes. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Jupiter will be at its highest point in the sky for many years to come

In just over a week, Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, will be at its highest point in the sky for many years to come. Near their closest to Earth, Jupiter and its moons will appear obvious in the sky, offering fantastic opportunities to view the giant planet through a telescope.”Through binoculars you’ll be able to see that Jupiter is distinctly non-star-like and you should be able to make out the Galilean moons of Jupiter — the four largest moons,” said Dr Chris Arridge, astronomer from University College, London. “These go around Jupiter in a matter of days and so you’ll be able to watch them orbit by looking at the giant planet from one night to the next.”Viewing Jupiter will be a highlight of National Astronomy Week (1-8 March 2014) where UK astronomers and local organisations have teamed up to offer opportunities all over the UK to view the giant planet. Both professional and amateur astronomers as well as organisations have been arranging events and activities in locations all over the country, giving members of the public of all ages, opportunities to get involved.Among the events taking place across the UK, are:1 March — 4.30pm until late — Great Ellingham Recreation Centre, Great Ellingham, Attleborough — All things nocturnal! Night time guided walk, talks, star gazing and moth trapping with the RSPB and Breckland Astronomical Society.5 March — 7.30pm — South Downs Planetarium and Science Centre, Chichester: A unique show in the Planetarium Dome where people will be shown the sights to look for in the night sky during the spring.6 March — 4:30-6:30pm and 7-9pm — Almondell Country Park: Join the Royal Observatory Edinburgh and the Astronomical Society of Edinburgh for a night of comet making demonstrations and Jupiter viewing. Activities will be British Sign Language interpreted.7-9 March — 7-9pm — Ruislip Lido in North West London: Come and view Jupiter, the Moon and other sky wonders courtesy of the West of London Astronomical Society. There’ll be telescopes galore to allow you to gaze at the craters and mountains of the Moon, the belts and satellites of Jupiter and the Orion Nebula and the Pleiades star cluster.1-9 March — 4pm — Life Science Centre in Newcastle: Sit back and enjoy a tour of the night sky in the planetarium, zooming into this planetary giant and investigate two of Jupiter’s moons, Io and Europa: Fire and Ice. The price for this event is included in the admission for the Science Centre.1-8 March — Wimbleball Lake, Exmoor National Park: Wimbleball Astrocamp includes a variety of exciting activities for all the family to enjoy including talks and presentations, workshops, Planetarium, telescopes, stargazing opportunities, plus a BBQ on 1, 7 and 8 March (weather dependent). 8 March — 6.30-pm — Kingsland Primary School, Peebles — Star Party and Planetarium Night including talks on how wild birds navigate using moons and stars, public viewing sessions and meteorite viewing.Dr Tom Johnston, Co-ordinator of the Peebles Astronomy Group in the Scottish borders, said: “National Astronomy Week is a wonderful vehicle through which our new Astronomy Group in Peebles can engage with the public and introduce both young and old alike to the hobby. It will provide an opportunity for many here in The Scottish Borders to experience what will be their first views of our beautiful dark skies through a telescope.”Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by Royal Astronomical Society (RAS). …

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Meet your match: Using algorithms to spark collaboration between scientists

Speed dating, in which potential lovers size each other up in brief 10 minute encounters before moving on to the next person, can be an awkward and time-wasting affair. Finding the perfect research partnership is often just as tough. Speed dating-style techniques are increasingly used at academics conferences, but can be equally frustrating — with busy academics being pushed into too many pointless encounters.But now a group of scientists led by geneticist Rafael Carazo Salas have constructed a system that could revolutionise conference speed dating — by treating scientists like genes.Using mathematical algorithms, the team created a method of matching conference-goers according to pre-set criteria, bringing about unforeseen collaboration opportunities while also enabling “would-like-to-meet” match-ups across disciplines and knowledge areas. The results have been recently published in the open-access journal eLife.Funded by the Royal Society to run a small-scale satellite conference on cell polarity, the researchers wanted to find a way to not only break the ice between scientists who did not know each other, but also to “break the heat” — to encourage big name scientists to step outside of their usual small circle, and mix with up-and-coming scientists.”We wanted to avoid the usual pattern that happens at conferences, especially at interdisciplinary meetings, of like sticking with like. Then we came up with an idea — what if we treated the delegates like we treat genes, and used mathematical algorithms to build a connectivity picture that could enable new links to be made?” said Carazo Salas, from the Gurdon Institute and Genetics Department of Cambridge University, who co-developed the technique with colleagues Federico Vaggi and Attila Csikasz-Nagy from Fondazione Edmund Mach, Italy.In the lead-up to the conference, delegates were asked to submit information about their research areas and disciplines and also to come up with a ‘wish list’ of specialist areas that they would like to know more about.”The conference started in a predictable way. After the first couple of talks, questions came entirely from people in the first few rows. We then did a brief presentation about the “speed dating” session that was about to happen. People’s eyes lit up when they got the game — the notion of being treated like genes seemed to appeal.”In the first speed-dating round, the 40 delegates were each paired up with someone who was not known to them and who had a very different knowledge base — so someone specialising in X technique might be paired with a specialist in Y. Pairs were given around 10 minutes to talk and then moved on to new pairs, so that each person met a total of four other people they knew very little about.”The atmosphere in the room after the first round of speed dating was entirely different. There was a buzz, and at the next set of talks questions came from all over the room, not just the usual couple of rows at the front.”In the second round, the pairings made use of the wish lists the delegates had created. …

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How stellar death can lead to twin celestial jets

Astronomers know that while large stars can end their lives as violently cataclysmic supernovae, smaller stars end up as planetary nebulae — colourful, glowing clouds of dust and gas. In recent decades these nebulae, once thought to be mostly spherical, have been observed to often emit powerful, bipolar jets of gas and dust. But how do spherical stars evolve to produce highly aspherical planetary nebulae?In a theoretical paper published this week in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, a University of Rochester professor and his undergraduate student conclude that only “strongly interacting” binary stars — or a star and a massive planet — can feasibly give rise to these powerful jets.When these smaller stars run out of hydrogen to burn they begin to expand and become Asymptotic Giant Branch (AGB) stars. This phase in a star’s life lasts at most 100,000 years. At some point some of these AGB stars, which represent the distended last spherical stage in the lives of low mass stars, become “pre-planetary” nebula, which are aspherical.”What happens to change these spherical AGB stars into non-spherical nebulae, with two jets shooting out in opposite directions?” asks Eric Blackman, professor of physics and astronomy at Rochester. “We have been trying to come up with a better understanding of what happens at this stage.”For the jets in the nebulae to form, the spherical AGB stars have to somehow become non-spherical and Blackman says that astronomers believe this occurs because AGB stars are not single stars but part of a binary system. The jets are thought to be produced by the ejection of material that is first pulled and acquired, or “accreted,” from one object to the other and swirled into a so-called accretion disk. There are, however, a range of different scenarios for the production of these accretion disks. All these scenarios involve two stars or a star and a massive planet, but it has been hard to rule any of them out until now because the “core” of the AGBs, where the disks form, are too small to be directly resolved by telescopes. Blackman and his student, Scott Lucchini, wanted to determine whether the binaries can be widely separated and weakly interacting, or whether they must be close and strongly interacting.By studying the jets from pre-planetary and planetary nebulae, Blackman and Lucchini were able to connect the energy and momentum involved in the accretion process with that in the jets; the process of accretion is what in effect provides the fuel for these jets. …

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New research reinforces danger of drinking alcohol while pregnant

Women who drink alcohol at moderate or heavy levels in the early stages of their pregnancy might damage the growth and function of their placenta — the organ responsible for supplying everything that a developing infant needs until birth — research at The University of Manchester shows.Placentas studied in a laboratory environment showed that drinking alcohol at moderate (2/3 standard drinks) to high (4-6 standard drinks) rates reduced the cell growth in a woman’s placenta.The research, published in the journal PLoS One and funded by the British Medical Association, investigated the effect of alcohol and its major toxic breakdown product, acetaldehyde, had on the placenta in the first few weeks — a period essential for normal development where three primary germ cell layers in the very early infant develop into internal organs.While placental cell growth was reduced at mid and heavy drinking levels, the cells that ensure the placenta attaches to the mother were unaffected. Alcohol at very low concentrations (1-2units, equal to half or one standard drink) did not have any effect on growth or function. Scientists also found alcohol at moderate to heavy levels reduced the transport of an important amino acid — known as taurine — from mother to baby via the placenta.Taurine is vital for brain and physiological development. However, acetaldehyde did not have any effect on the transportation of taurine suggesting alcohol is the main culprit. Reduced taurine has been shown to have negative effects on behaviour and physical development, so this might explain why some neurological symptoms are seen in children of alcoholic mothers, the researchers conclude.Sylvia Lui, from the Tommy’s Maternal and Fetal Health Research Centre based at The University of Manchester who carried out the research, said: “Alcohol and acetaldehyde are known to be toxic at high levels, but these results clearly show that levels easily achieved in a normal population have specific effects in the placenta.”Placental growth is reduced in comparison to non-exposed placentas, suggesting that in the long-term, there could be consequences to how much support the infant receives from the placenta during the rest of the pregnancy after this exposure.”Dr Clare Tower, consultant obstetrician at Saint Mary’s Hospital part of Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Though low levels of alcohol did not have a harmful effect, moderate to high levels were damaging. The safest clinical advice would be to agree with the current Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology guidelines and abstain.This is because UK studies show that there is still a lot of confusion in the perception of what alcohol ‘units’ are, as well as a lack of accurate self-monitoring of drinking levels.Professor John Aplin, Professor of Reproductive Biomedicine in the Tommy’s Maternal and Fetal Health Research Centre at the University, said “This research also suggests that women who are trying to conceive should not drink as the damage caused by alcohol can happen very early on in pregnancy — perhaps before a woman knows she is pregnant.”Jane Brewin, Chief Executive of baby charity Tommy’s, said: “It can often be a few weeks before a woman discovers she’s pregnant, and this research shows that moderate drinking during those vital first weeks can have a big impact on the development of the baby.”Many pregnancies are unplanned, but for those actively planning a family this research raises questions about whether women should consider their alcohol intake even before they fall pregnant.”Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by Manchester University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Social norms strongly influence vaccination decisions, the spread of disease

Our response to societal pressures about vaccination has a direct effect on the spread of pediatric infectious diseases in areas where inoculation is not mandatory, says new research published this week in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.By incorporating social norms into predictive mathematical modelling, a research team from the University of Guelph and the University of Waterloo found that they can foresee the observed patterns of population behavior and disease spread during vaccine scares — times when anti-vaccine sentiment is strong.”If vaccination is not mandatory and disease is rare, then a few parents will be tempted to stop vaccinating their children,” said Professor Chris Bauch of Waterloo’s Faculty of Mathematics, and one of the study authors. “More parents adopt this behavior as social norms begin to change and it becomes increasingly acceptable to avoid some vaccines. Obviously, when enough parents are no longer vaccinating, the disease will come back.”In most of North America, pediatric vaccination is mandatory for children enrolled in public education. However, the number of parents applying for exemptions to pediatric vaccination is on the rise. According to Professor Bauch, as that trend continues Canadians will increasingly find themselves in a situation where vaccination coverage has declined and populations are once again susceptible to disease.”Parents are not cold, clinical rationalists who base their decisions only on data. They are strongly influenced by other parents and what they read,” said Professor Bauch. “Our research suggests that health officials needs to have a really good understanding of the social context to better understand vaccine scares and why people refuse vaccines. To do that, we have to develop predictive tools that also reflect social behavior patterns, or we won’t be able to accurately represent what is happening during vaccine scares.”Predictive modelling can help public health officials plan for responses to vaccine programs. The models that Professor Bauch and his colleagues use can determine what may happen in a population where a vaccine scare has taken hold.”If you’ve seen a big drop in vaccine coverage and you’ve seen a surge of disease because of that, you can use these models to predict how long it will take vaccine coverage to recover,” said Professor Bauch.Professor Bauch and his colleagues will continue to study how social norms interact with disease spread. Down the road, he hopes to use this model to create an index, which may be able to help determine which populations are more susceptible to vaccine scares, with the hope of preventing them from occurring.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by University of Waterloo. …

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Sustainable livestock production is possible

Sep. 25, 2013 — Consumers are increasingly demanding higher standards for how their meat is sourced, with animal welfare and the impact on the environment factoring in many purchases. Unfortunately, many widely-used livestock production methods are currently unsustainable. However, new research out today from the University of Cambridge has identified what may be the future of sustainable livestock production: silvopastoral systems which include shrubs and trees with edible leaves or fruits as well as herbage.Professor Donald Broom, from the University of Cambridge, who led the research said: “Consumers are now demanding more sustainable and ethically sourced food, including production without negative impacts on animal welfare, the environment and the livelihood of poor producers. Silvopastoral systems address all of these concerns with the added benefit of increased production in the long term.”Current cattle production mostly occurs on cleared pastures with only herbaceous plants, such as grasses, grown as food for the cows. The effects on the local environment include the removal of trees and shrubs as well as the increased use of herbicides, all of which result in a dramatic decrease in biodiversity. Additionally, there is also contamination of soil and waterways by agricultural chemicals as well as carbon costs because of vehicles and artificial fertiliser necessary to maintain the pasture.The researchers advocate that using a diverse group of edible plants such as that in a silvopastural landscape promotes healthy soil with better water retention (and less runoff), encourages predators of harmful animals, minimizes greenhouse gas emissions, improves job satisfaction for farm workers, reduces injury and stress in animals, improves welfare and encourages biodiversity using native shrubs and trees.Additionally, shrubs and trees with edible leaves and shoots, along with pasture plants, produce more food for animals per unit area of land than pasture plants alone. Trees and shrubs have the added benefit of providing shade from hot sun and shelter from rain. It also reduces stress by enabling the animals to hide from perceived danger.”The planting as forage plants of both shrubs and trees whose leaves and small branches can be consumed by farmed animals can transform the prospects of obtaining sustainable animal production,” said Professor Broom. “Such planting of ‘fodder trees’ has already been successful in several countries, including the plant Chamaecytisus palmensis which is now widely used for cattle feed in Australia.”Another success has been in Colombia where a mixed planting of the shrub Leucaena with a common pasture grass resulted in a 27% increase in dry matter for food and 64% increase of protein production.When ruminants, such as cows, goats and sheep, are consuming the plants from a silvopastoral system, researchers have seen an increase in growth and milk production. …

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Model of ‘near-optimal’ genetic code developed

Aug. 28, 2013 — Researchers have created a model that may explain the complexities of the origins of life. Their work, which appears in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, offers new insights into how RNA signaling likely developed into the modern “genetic code.”“Our model shows that today’s genetic code probably resulted from a combination of selective forces and random chance,” explained Justin Jee, a doctoral student at NYU School of Medicine and the paper’s lead author.The study’s other co-authors included: Bud Mishra, who has appointments at NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences and the Sackler Institute of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at NYU School of Medicine; Andrew Sundstrom of the Courant Institute; and Steven Massey, an assistant professor in the University of Puerto Rico’s Department of Biology.The researchers sought to account for the composition of the genetic code, which allows proteins to be built from amino acids with high specificity based on information stored in a RNA or DNA genome. This translation process between the nucleic acids and amino acids is remarkably and mysteriously universal; the same code is shared in all organisms from bacteria to human beings. At the same time, the genetic code is nearly, but not completely, optimal in terms of how “good” it is at specifying particular amino acids for particular nucleic acid sequences.Since the code’s discovery in the 1960’s, researchers have wondered: how is it that a near-optimal code became so universal?To address this question, the researchers created a model of genetic code evolution in which multiple “translating” RNAs and “genomic” RNAs competed for survival. Specifically, the translating RNAs were able to link amino acids together based on information stored in genomic RNA, but with varying levels of specificity.In running computer simulations of RNA interactions, they could see two phenomena. First, it was necessary for the translating and genomic RNAs to organize into cells, which aided the coordination of a code between the translating and genomic RNAs. Second, selective forces led a single set of translating RNAs to dominate the population. In other words, the emergence of a single, universal, near-optimal code was a natural outcome of the model. Even more remarkably, the results occurred under realistic conditions—specifically, they held under parameters such as protein lengths and rates of mutation that likely existed in a natural RNA world.“The most elegant ideas in this paper are rather obvious consequences of a well-studied model based on sender-receiver games,” noted Mishra, the paper’s senior author. …

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Epilepsy drug dosage linked to specific birth defects

Aug. 25, 2013 — In a world first, new Australian medical research has given pregnant women with epilepsy new hope of reducing their chance of having a baby with physical birth defects.According to research published in the September 2013 issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, epilepsy experts at The Royal Melbourne Hospital have discovered a link between high doses of common epilepsy drug valproate and the increased risk of having a baby with spina bifida or hypospadias.Royal Melbourne Hospital epilepsy specialist and Head of the Department of Medicine at The University of Melbourne, Professor Terry O’Brien, said there was increasing concern among clinicians, patients and their families about the risk to the developing fetus of mothers taking valproate.”For many women on epilepsy medication, the desire to start a family can be fraught with fear that they could have a baby with a range of disabilities or malformations,” Professor O’Brien said.”Previous studies have shown a strong relationship between the dose of valproate taken and the risk of the child having a birth defect. However, for many women valproate is the only drug that will help control their seizures.”Through our research, we now know that by reducing the dose taken in the first trimester of pregnancy, the risk of having a baby with spina bifida or hypospadias will be greatly reduced.”Spina bifida is a birth defect of the spine and spinal cord, which occurs in utero in the first three months of pregnancy and cannot be cured. Hypospadias is a birth defect of the penis but can be treated with surgery.Professor O’Brien added other birth defects such as cleft palates and heart defects were still common irrespective of the drug dosage given to pregnant women.The research data was extracted from the Australian Pregnancy Register (APR), based at The Royal Melbourne Hospital.The APR has the data of more than 1700 women with epilepsy who have been or are currently pregnant, and is the world’s most comprehensive pregnancy epilepsy database. Since its inception in 1999, the APR has gathered data that has been used to change epilepsy prescribing practices worldwide.Founder of the APR and RMH Epilepsy specialist, Professor Frank Vajda AM, said the findings were statistically significant to make a real difference to the lives of women with epilepsy and their families.”We always knew that epilepsy drugs were responsible for the high level of fetal malformations but we never knew how much dosage played a role until recently,” Professor Vajda said.”The present findings for spina bifida are clinically significant, as 80 per cent of all instances of spina bifida in the APR were associated with valproate exposure.”However, since the collection of data for the APR started, we have noted that valproate was being taken less often by pregnant women and in lower dosages.”This evidence now tells us that by using valproate in the lowest dose that can control severe seizures may reduce the hazard of one of the most devastating birth defects.”

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New technology protects against password theft and phishing attacks

Aug. 21, 2013 — New technology launched today by Royal Holloway University, will help protect people from the cyber attack known as “phishing,” believed to have affected 37.3 million of us last year, and from online password theft, which rose by 300% during 2012-13.Phishing involves cyber criminals creating fake websites that look like real ones and luring users into entering their login details, and sometimes personal and financial information. In recent months, the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) has successfully launched phishing attacks against employees of the Financial Times to enable them to post material to its website, and mass attacks were launched within Iran using a fake Google email, shortly before the elections.Scientists from Royal Holloway have devised a new system called Uni-IDM which will enable people to create electronic identity cards for each website they access. These are then securely stored, allowing owners to simply click on the card when they want to log back in, safe in the knowledge that the data will only be sent to the authentic website. A key feature of the technology is that it is able to recognise the increasing number of websites that offer more secure login systems and present people with a helpful and uniform way of using these.”We have known for a long time that the username and password system is problematic and very insecure, proving a headache for even the largest websites. LinkedIn was hacked, and over six million stolen user passwords were then posted on a website used by Russian cyber criminals; Facebook admitted in 2011 that 600,000 of its user accounts were being compromised every single day,” said Professor Chris Mitchell from Royal Holloway’s Information Security Group.”Despite this, username and password remains the dominant technology, and while large corporations have been able to employ more secure methods, attempts to provide homes with similar protection have been unsuccessful, except in a few cases such as online banking. The hope is that our technology will finally make it possible to provide more sophisticated technology to protect all internet users.”Uni-IDM is also expected to offer a solution for people who will need to access the growing number government services going online, such as tax and benefits claims. The system will provide a secure space for these new users, many of whom may have little experience using the internet.

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Hue of barn swallow breast feathers can influence their health

Aug. 21, 2013 — A new study conducted at the University of Colorado Boulder and involving Cornell University shows the outward appearance of female barn swallows, specifically the hue of their chestnut-colored breast feathers, has an influence on their physiological health.It has been known that in North American barn swallows, both males and females, those with darker ventral feathers have higher reproductive success than those with lighter colors, said Cornell Senior Research Associate Maren Vitousek, who led the new research while a postdoctoral researcher at CU-Boulder. Although there is evidence that breast feather color is significantly influenced by genetics, melanin-based plumage color like that in barn swallows also has been tied to social status and even to circulating testosterone, she said.The new study showed that both naturally darker barn swallow females and those with artificially darkened breast feathers also had lower levels of oxidative damage, which could ultimately make the birds healthier. Oxidative stress results when the production of harmful metabolites known as free radicals exceeds antioxidant defenses in the birds, which can lead to DNA, protein and fat damage in the birds, said Vitousek.”Intriguingly, females whose feathers were darkened to resemble ‘attractive’ birds rapidly adopted the physiological state of darker birds, decreasing their level of oxidative damage,” said Vitousek. “These results suggest the appearance of an individual may be an under-appreciated driver of physiological health.”A paper on the subject by Vitousek, CU-Boulder Assistant Professor Rebecca Safran and Indiana University Research Associate Rosemary Stewart appeared in the Aug. 21 online edition of Biology Letters, a publication of the Royal Society in London. The National Science Foundation, the Max Planck Institute in Radolfzell, Germany, and CU-Boulder funded the study.A 2008 study led by CU-Boulder’s Safran showed the testosterone of male North American barn swallows skyrocketed early in the breeding season when their breast colors were artificially enhanced by researchers, indicating the clothes — or in this case, the feathers — make the man. The study was the first to show significant feedback between physical appearance and physiology in birds, with implications for better understanding the ecology and evolution of physical signals such as feather color.”Features of an individual bird’s appearance are often signals of a physiological condition, health and status, but little is known about how these relationships are formed,” said Safran of CU-Boulder’s ecology and evolutionary biology department. “The twist in our new study is that the same color manipulation in males and females induced opposite effects on testosterone: It goes up in darkened males and goes down in darkened females.”For the new barn swallow study, Vitousek, Safran and a team of undergraduate and graduate students captured 60 female barn swallows with mist nets in Boulder and Jefferson counties near Denver. Thirty of the birds were used as the control group, while the other 30 had their ventral plumage darkened using a non-toxic marker. …

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Chemotherapy before radiotherapy for testicular cancer could reduce long-term side-effects

Aug. 16, 2013 — Giving men with testicular cancer a single dose of chemotherapy alongside radiotherapy could improve the effectiveness of treatment and reduce the risk of long-term side-effects, a new study reports. As many as 96% of men with testicular cancer now survive at least ten years from diagnosis (1), but more advanced forms need to be treated with combination chemotherapy — which can have serious long-term complications. Researchers at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust have therefore been searching for new treatments that would reduce the risk of relapse after initial treatment and so spare as many men as possible from needing combination chemotherapy.The new pilot study, published in the August issue of the Annals of Oncology, tested a new treatment in a pilot study of men with stage IIA and IIB testicular seminoma — where the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in the abdomen.The researchers showed that giving chemotherapy drug carboplatin before radiotherapy could reduce relapse rates compared with radiotherapy alone — cutting the numbers of men who would need follow-up treatment. It also allowed radiation doses to be reduced. The study was funded by The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), the Bob Champion Cancer Trust and Cancer Research UK, as well as through the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at The Royal Marsden and the ICR.Researchers gave 51 men with stage IIA and IIB testicular seminoma a single cycle of carboplatin — a low toxicity form of chemotherapy — followed three to four weeks later by radiotherapy. Most of the men were aged below 50, over a range of 18-73 years.Adding carboplatin to patients’ treatment plans allowed doctors to give a lower dose of radiation over a smaller area of the body for most of the men in the study. Some 39 of the men in the study had their prescription of radiation reduced from the standard 35 Grays (Gy) of radiation to 30 Gy, delivered to a smaller area of the abdomen.After an average of 4.5 years of follow-up, there were no relapses of the cancer compared with a relapse risk of 5-11% after radiotherapy alone. The side-effects from treatment were mild and only lasted a short time.Dr Robert Huddart, Team Leader in the Division of Radiation and Imaging at the Institute of Cancer Research, London, and Consultant at The Royal Marsden, who led the study, said:”The results of this study show great promise. Men who have this stage of testicular seminoma are normally treated with just radiotherapy, or in some countries with intensive combination chemotherapy, where several anticancer drugs are given at once. …

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More accurate multiple sclerosis diagnostics possible

Aug. 13, 2013 — A group of proteins identified by researchers at Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology could play a role in helping multiple sclerosis patients get more accurate diagnostics about the severity and progress of their disease.Like other autoimmune diseases, MS is complex and difficult to cure or to mitigate. At SciLifeLab in Stockholm, Peter Nilsson, professor in Proteomics at the School of Biotechnology, leads a group that that is looking for answers in large scale protein analysis.By analysing tens of thousands of protein fragments for new autoimmunity biomarkers, or indicators, the group is identifying proteins that distinguish groups of MS patients according to the severity of the disease and how the disease develops over time. Their progress was published in the June 3 issue of Molecular & Cellular Proteomics.”A group of 51 proteins have been identified as useful in future research around the diagnosis of MS,” Nilsson says. “This is to study the origin of the disease and its development — how severe it will be and how quickly it evolves over time.”As part of the Human Protein Atlas (HPA) project, Nilsson’s group has access to more than 38,000 protein fragments. Nilsson says the HPA offers a unique resource that enables the team, which also includes Burcu Ayoglu, Anna Häggmark, Mohsen Khademi, Tomas Olsson, Mathias Uhlén and Jochen Schwenk, to continue their research with confidence.”We expect a whole new field of research to open up around autoimmune disease, and with that, new insights,” Nilsson says.Ayoglu, a senior graduate student and researcher on the project, agrees that their work could yield much more knowledge about autoimmune diseases, such as hyperthyroidism, type 1 diabetes, vitiligo, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren’s syndrome and psoriasis.”Many autoimmune diseases are very complex and we currently lack complete knowledge of them,” she says. “Most likely there are many more indicators to find. Our wide approach — in which we study thousands of proteins — is very suited to studying these autoimmune diseases.”

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Cesareans weaken gut microbiota and increase risk of allergies

Aug. 8, 2013 — Children who came into the world by Caesarean section are more often affected by allergies than those born in the natural way. The reason for this may be that they have a less diverse gut microbiota, according to a study by universities in Sweden and Scotland.The researchers have followed gut macrobiota development in 24 children up to the age of two in the Swedish provinces of Östergötland and Småland, nine delivered through Caesarean and 15 delivered naturally, through vaginal birth. They used a type of molecular biology analysis, which gives a broad overview of the varieties of bacteria present in the intestines.The results are presented in the scientific journal Gut, with Anders Andersson of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Science for Life Laboratory as the senior author. Other researchers in the study come from Linköping University, Karolinska Institutet (KI), Örebro University and the University of Glasgow, Scotland.Those that were delivered by Caesarean section had a less diverse gut microbiota during their first two years of life than those born vaginally. Particularly clear was the low diversity among the group Bacteroidetes that, according to earlier observations of the research groups, are particularly linked to protection against allergies. Thus, these children may run greater risk of developing allergies, but diabetes and irritable bowel syndrome are also more common among children born by Caesarean.”Sometimes Caesarean sections are necessary. But it is important that both expectant mothers and doctors are aware that such a delivery may affect the child’s health,” says Maria Jenmalm, professor of Experimental Allergology at Linköping University and one of the authors of the article.Everything indicates that right up until the moment of birth the child’s gut is completely sterile. Colonisation by many different bacteria is believed to be necessary for the immune system to develop and mature over the first years of life. If this does not happen there is a risk that the system can overreact against innocuous antigens in its surroundings, for example foodstuffs. …

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