Biochar stimulates more plant growth but less plant defense, research shows

In the first study of its kind, research undertaken at the University of Southampton has cast significant doubt over the use of biochar to alleviate climate change.Biochar is produced when wood is combusted at high temperatures to make bio-oil and has been proposed as a method of geoengineering. When buried in the soil, this carbon rich substance could potentially lock-up carbon and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. The global potential of biochar is considered to be large, with up to 12 percent of emissions reduced by biochar soil application.Many previous reports have shown that biochar can also stimulate crop growth and yield, providing a valuable co-benefit when the soil is treated with biochar, but the mechanism enabling this to happen is unknown.Professor Gail Taylor, Director of Research at the University’s Centre for Biological Sciences and research colleagues, in collaboration with National Research Council (CNR) scientists in Italy and The James Hutton Institute in Scotland, have provided an explanation why biochar has this impact. They have published their findings in the journal Global Change Biology Bioenergy.They found that when thale cress and lettuce plants were subjected to increasing amounts of biochar mixed with soil, using the equivalent of up to 50 tonnes per hectare per year, if applied in the field, plant growth was stimulated by over 100 percent. For the first time, the response of more than 10,000 genes was followed simultaneously, which identified brassinosteroids and auxins and their signalling molecules as key to the growth stimulation observed in biochar. Brassinosteroids and auxins are two growth promoting plant hormones and the study goes further in showing that their signalling molecules were also stimulated by biochar application.However, the positive impacts of biochar were coupled with negative findings for a suite of genes that are known to determine the ability of a plant to withstand attack from pests and pathogens. These defence genes were consistently reduced following biochar application to the soil, for example jasmonic and salcyclic acid and ethylene, suggesting that crops grown on biochar may be more susceptible to attack by pests and pathogens.This was a surprising finding and suggests that if reproduced in the field at larger scales, could have wide implications for the use of biochar on commercial crops.Professor Taylor, who co-ordinated the research, says: “Our findings provide the very first insight into how biochar stimulates plant growth — we now know that cell expansion is stimulated in roots and leaves alike and this appears to be the consequence of a complex signalling network that is focussed around two plant growth hormones. However, the finding for plant defence genes was entirely unpredicted and could have serious consequences for the commercial development and deployment of biochar in future. Any risk to agriculture is likely to prevent wide scale use of biochar and we now need to see which pest and pathogens are sensitive to the gene expression changes..”Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by University of Southampton. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Regular physical activity reduces breast cancer risk irrespective of age

Practising sport for more than an hour day reduces the risk of contracting breast cancer, and this applies to women of any age and any weight, and also unaffected by geographical location, according to research presented to the 9th European Breast Cancer Conference (EBCC-9). Compared with the least active women, those with the highest level of physical activity reduced their risk of breast cancer by 12%, researchers say.Professor Mathieu Boniol, Research Director at the International Prevention Research Institute, Lyon, France, recently reported the results of a meta-analysis of 37 studies published between 1987 and 2013, representing over four million women. “These are all the studies looking at the relationship between physical exercise and breast cancer risk that have been published to date, so we are confident that the results of our analysis are robust,” he said.Although the results varied according to tumour type, the overall message was encouraging, the researchers say. However, in women taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT), the protective effect of exercise seemed to be cancelled out. But increased awareness of the side effects of HRT means that its use is decreasing in a number of countries, and this means that the beneficial effects of activity will most likely grow in the years to come. “Whether or not this will be the case is an interesting question and deserves to be followed up at a later date,” Prof Boniol said.Physical activity is known to have a protective role in other cancers, as well as in disorders such as cardiovascular disease. Although the mechanisms for its effect are unclear, the results are largely independent of body mass index (BMI), so the effect must be due to more than weight control. And the age at which sporting activity starts also appears to be immaterial; the researchers found no indication that breast cancer risk would decrease only when physical activity started at a young age.”Adding breast cancer, including its aggressive types, to the list of diseases that can be prevented by physical activity should encourage the development of cities that foster sport by becoming bike and walk-friendly, the creation of new sports facilities, and the promotion of exercise through education campaigns,” said Prof Boniol. “This is a low cost, simple strategy to reduce the risk of a disease that currently has a very high cost, both to healthcare systems and to patients and their families. It is good news both for individuals and for policy makers.”Dr Hilary Dobson, chair of EBCC-9’s national organising committee and who is Clinical Lead of the West of Scotland Breast Screening Service and the Lead Clinician of the West of Scotland Cancer Advisory Network (WoSCAN), commented: “These findings are important for all women, irrespective of their age and weight. …

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Genetic find might lead to cattle that are more resistant to TB

Scientists have identified genetic traits in cattle that might allow farmers to breed livestock with increased resistance to bovine tuberculosis (TB).The study, which compared the genetic code of TB-infected animals with that of disease-free cattle, could help to impact on a disease that leads to major economic losses worldwide.The research, led by the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, has identified a number of genetic signatures associated with TB resistance in the cows that remained unaffected.The study builds on previous research by The Roslin Institute, which showed that some cattle might be more resistant to bovine TB as a result of their genetic make-up.Researchers at The Roslin Institute say the latest finding is significant as it sheds further light on whether it might be possible to improve TB control through selective breeding.The team used the latest gene identification techniques to compare the genes of healthy and infected female Holstein-Friesians.Bovine TB, caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium bovis, not only infects cattle, but other livestock and wildlife. It also remains a risk to humans.Despite intensive efforts over many decades, bovine TB continues to have a serious impact on livestock at home and abroad, affecting farm profitability and animal welfare. In 2010/2011, its effects cost the UK government 152 million.This latest research, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the EU, is published in the journal Heredity.Researchers at The Roslin Institute worked on the study with colleagues from the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) and Queen’s University Belfast.Refining genomic predictors of resistance will be the focus of a new BBSRC-funded study to be carried out by researchers at Roslin, the AFBI and Scotland’s Rural College, the SRUC.Lead researcher Professor Liz Glass said of the results: “Differences between cattle in their genes is not the only factor in determining whether the animal will get bovine TB or not; various environmental factors as well as differences in the TB bacteria may also affect susceptibility.”If we can choose animals with better genotypes for TB resistance, then we can apply this information in new breeding programs alongside other control strategies. It is hoped that can help us to more effectively control TB in cattle.”Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by University of Edinburgh. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Clearer labels needed on drugs containing animal products

Dr Kinesh Patel and Dr Kate Tatham say most medications prescribed in primary care contain animal derived products and it is unclear whether they are suitable for vegetarians.They call for improved labeling, similar to those on food, to help inform doctors, pharmacists and patients about the content of medicines. And they stress that concerned patients should not stop taking their medication without consulting their doctor first.Specific dietary preferences regarding animal products in food are common in the general population. Influences such as religion, culture, economic status, environmental concern, food intolerances, and personal preferences all play a part in the foods that people choose to consume.Yet many patients and doctors are unaware that commonly prescribed drugs contain animal products — and simply reading the list of ingredients will not make it clear whether the product meets the patient’s dietary preferences.Problem ingredients include lactose (often extracted using bovine rennet), gelatine (sourced from cows, pigs and occasionally fish) and magnesium stearate (traditionally sourced from cows, pigs and sheep) although some manufacturers now use vegetarian alternatives.Last year a campaign to vaccinate children in Scotland against influenza was halted because of concern in the Muslim community about pork gelatine within the vaccine.Even though the absolute levels of animal products in many medications are likely to be minimal, the authors say doctors need to consider this when prescribing “to avoid non-adherence, which is a major healthcare concern.”To ascertain the scale of the problem, they identified the 100 most commonly prescribed drugs in UK primary care in January 2013. Of these, 73 contained one or more of lactose, gelatine, or magnesium stearate. But they found that information on the origins of the contents was difficult to obtain, unclear, inconsistently reported, and sometimes incorrect.”Our data suggest that it is likely that patients are unwittingly ingesting medications containing animal products with neither prescriber nor dispenser aware,” they write.They call for improved drug labeling, mirroring those standards advised for food. However, they acknowledge it is unlikely that any labeling standard could address all dietary requirements, “and the ultimate solution would be to eliminate animal derived products where possible from medications.”They point out that lactose is already produced by some manufacturers without using rennet, magnesium stearate can be made chemically without animal ingredients and vegetarian capsules to replace gelatine are already available.”Although vegetarian friendly ingredients may be more expensive than those produced by traditional processes, the costs would diminish as production expanded and they would limit the exposure of patients to products they find unacceptable,” they conclude.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by BMJ-British Medical Journal. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Children of obese mothers at greater risk of early heart death as adults

Aug. 14, 2013 — Children of obese and overweight women have a higher risk of early cardiovascular death as adults, finds a new study.The findings highlight the urgent need for strategies to prevent obesity in women of childbearing age and the need to assess the offspring of obese mothers for their cardiovascular risk, say the authors.Rates of maternal obesity have risen rapidly in the past two decades. In the United States, about 64% of women of reproductive age are overweight and 35% are obese, with a similar pattern in Europe.Many studies have shown a link between maternal obesity and disease later in life, but it is still not clear whether maternal obesity is associated with increased death in offspring from cardiovascular causes.Using birth and death records from 1950 to the present day, a team of researchers in Scotland identified 28,540 women — whose body mass index (BMI) was recorded at their first antenatal visit — and their 37,709 offspring.BMI was defined as underweight (BMI 18.5 or less), normal weight (BMI 18.5-24.9), overweight (BMI 25-29.9), and obese (BMI 30 or more).Relevant details about the pregnancy were collated, including the mother’s age at delivery, number of previous pregnancies, mother and father’s social class and infant sex, birth weight and gestation at delivery.Among the mothers, 21% were overweight and 4% were obese. Among the 37,709 offspring there were 6551 deaths from any cause.After adjusting for several factors, the researchers found a 35% increased risk of premature death in the adult offspring of obese mothers.They also found a 29% increased risk of a hospital admission for a cardiovascular event in the adult offspring of obese mothers compared with offspring of mothers with normal BMI.The offspring of overweight mothers also had a higher risk of adverse events later in life.It is thought that being overweight in pregnancy may cause permanent changes in appetite control and energy metabolism in the offspring, leading to a greater risk of heart problems later in life.With rising rates of excess weight among pregnant women, the authors say their findings are “a major public health concern” and indicate that the offspring of obese mothers are a high risk group who should be assessed for cardiovascular risk, and actively encouraged to maintain a healthy lifestyle.”As one in five women in the UK is currently obese at antenatal booking, strategies to optimise weight before pregnancy are urgently required,” they conclude.In an accompanying editorial, Dr Factor-Litvak from the Department of Epidemiology in New York, says that this study leaves open two questions. First, what is the role of the early post natal environment and secondly, what is the role of parental obesity? She asks what the implications of the study are concludes that along with recommended weight gain for overweight and obese women, “interventions should begin before pregnancy.”

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Bright birds make good mothers

Aug. 13, 2013 — Female blue tits with brightly coloured crowns are better mothers than duller birds, according to a new study led by the University of York.Unlike humans, birds can see ultra-violet (UV) light. While the crown of a blue tit looks just blue to us, to another bird it has the added dimension of appearing UV-reflectant.The three-year study of blue tits, which also involved researchers from the University of California Davis, USA and the University of Glasgow, showed that mothers with more UV-reflectant crown feathers did not lay more eggs, but did fledge more offspring than duller females. These brightly coloured mothers also experienced relatively lower levels of stress hormones during arduous periods of chick rearing.The results of the study are published in the journal Behavioral Ecology.Author Dr Kathryn Arnold, from the University of York’s Environment Department, said: “Previous studies have shown that male blue tits prefer mates that exhibit highly UV-reflectant crown feathers. Our work shows that this is a wise choice. UV plumage can signal maternal quality in blue tits, so a male choosing a brightly coloured female will gain a good mother for his chicks and a less stressed partner.”Funded by the Royal Society and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the project was based in woodlands on the shores of Loch Lomond, Scotland and investigated the factors that affect breeding success in wild birds.In blue tits (Cyanistes Caeruleus) both sexes exhibit bright UV-reflectant crown feathers. The birds are socially monogamous, with the female solely incubating the eggs and both parents feeding the chicks.The researchers looked at the relative UV reflectance of the crown feathers of female blue tits and related this to indices of reproductive success — lay date, clutch size, and number of chicks fledged — as well as the birds’ maternal state.Dr Arnold said: “With up to 14 chicks to care for, blue tit mothers in our study were feeding their broods every couple of minutes. We showed that dowdy coloured females found this level of hard work twice as stressful compared with brighter mothers. Also, the mothers with more UV-reflectant crowns were highly successful, fledging up to eight more chicks than females with drabber feathers.”

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Vitamin D supplementation does not appear to reduce blood pressure in patients with hypertension

Aug. 12, 2013 — Vitamin D supplementation does not appear to improve blood pressure or markers of vascular health in older patients with isolated systolic hypertension (a common type of high blood pressure), according to a study by Miles D. Witham, Ph.D., of the University of Dundee, Scotland, United Kingdom, and colleagues.Share This:A total of 159 patients (average age 77 years) with isolated systolic hypertension participated in the randomized clinical trial. Patients were randomly assigned to either the vitamin D group or the matching placebo group, and received supplementation every three months for one year. Researchers measured difference in office blood pressure, 24-hour blood pressure, arterial stiffness, endothelial function, cholesterol level, insulin resistance, and b-type natriuretic peptide level during the 12 month study period.No significant treatment effect was seen for average office blood pressure, and no significant treatment effect was evident for any of the secondary outcomes (24-hour blood pressure, arterial stiffness, endothelial function, cholesterol level, glucose level, and walking distance), according to study results.”It is still possible, however, that vitamin D supplementation could have beneficial effects on cardiovascular health via non-blood pressure effects, and ongoing large randomized trials are due to report on this in the next few years,” the study concludes.Share this story on Facebook, Twitter, and Google:Other social bookmarking and sharing tools:|Story Source: The above story is based on materials provided by American Medical Association (AMA). Note: Materials may be edited for content and length. For further information, please contact the source cited above. Journal Reference:Miles D. Witham et al. Cholecalciferol Treatment to Reduce Blood Pressure in Older Patients With Isolated Systolic Hypertension: The VitDISH Randomized Controlled Trial. …

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Increased fluctuation in blood pressure linked to impaired cognitive function in older people

July 30, 2013 — Higher variability in visit-to-visit blood pressure readings, independent of average blood pressure, could be related to impaired cognitive function in old age in those already at high risk of cardiovascular disease, suggests a a new article.There is increasing evidence that vascular factors contribute in development and progression of dementia. This is of special interest as cardiovascular factors may be amendable and thus potential targets to reduce cognitive decline and the incidence of dementia. Visit-to-visit blood pressure variability has been linked to cerebrovascular damage (relating to the brain and its blood vessels). It has also been shown that this variability can increase the risk of stroke.It has been suggested that higher blood pressure variability might potentially lead to cognitive impairment through changes in the brain structures.Researchers from the Leiden University Medical Center (Netherlands), University College Cork (Ireland) and the Glasgow University (UK) therefore investigated the association of visit-to-visit blood pressure variability (independent of average blood pressure) with cognitive function in older subjects at high risk of cardiovascular disease.All data were obtained from the PROSPER study, which investigated the effect of statins in prevention of vascular events in older men and women. This study took data on 5,461 individuals aged 70-82 years old in Ireland, Scotland and the Netherlands. Average follow-up was three years.Both systolic (peak pressure) and diastolic (minimum pressure) blood pressures were measured every three months in the same clinical setting. The variability between these measurements were calculated and used in the analyses.The study used data on cognitive function where the following was tested: selective attention and reaction time; general cognitive speed; immediate and delayed memory performance.Results showed that visit-to-visit blood pressure variability was associated with worse performance on all cognitive tests. The results were consistent after adjusting for cardiovascular disease and other risk factors.The main findings of the study were: higher visit-to-visit blood pressure variability is associated with worse performance in different cognitive tests; higher variability is associated with higher risk of stroke and both these associations are independent of various cardiovascular risk factors, in particular, average blood pressure.Researcher Simon Mooijaart, (Leiden University Medical Centre, Leiden, the Netherlands) says that by using a population of “over five thousand participants and over three years of blood pressure measurements, we showed that high visit-to-visit systolic and diastolic blood pressure variability associates with worse performance in different domains of cognitive function including selection attention, processing speed, immediate verbal memory and delayed verbal memory.” The researchers do add though that it is still unclear whether higher blood pressure variability is a cause or consequence of impaired cognitive function.They suggest several explanations for their findings: firstly that blood pressure variability and cognitive impairment could stem from a common cause, with cardiovascular risk factors being the most likely candidate; secondly that variability might reflect a long term instability in the regulation of blood pressure and blood flow to the key organs in the body; thirdly that exaggerated fluctuations in blood pressure could result in the brain not receiving enough blood, which can cause brain injury, leading to impairment of cognitive function.The researchers conclude that “higher visit-to-visit blood pressure variability independent of average blood pressure might be a potential risk factor with worse cognitive performance in older subjects at high risk of cardiovascular disease.” Given that dementia is a major public health issue, they say that further interventional studies are warranted to establish whether reducing blood pressure variability can decrease the risk of cognitive impairment in old age.

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Space weather forecast study turns table of effective predictions on its head

July 5, 2013 — A comparison of solar flare forecasting systems has turned the performance table of apparently effective prediction methods on its head. Researchers at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, have tested the reliability of seven techniques against their record of predicting flares and non-flare events correctly, as well as their history of missed flares and false alarms. When the predictions were put into context of the Sun’s activity levels over time, some of the most seemingly successful techniques slid down the table. Dr D. Shaun Bloomfield is presenting the findings at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in St. Andrews, Scotland.Solar flares are sudden and dramatic releases of energy from the Sun’s atmosphere in the form of radiation and electrically charged particles. These eruptions are associated with many aspects of ‘space weather’, which can damage satellites and interfere with communications, navigations and power systems. In our technology-dependent society, accurate advanced warning of solar flare occurrence is an area of increasing concern.”The most important aspect of any type of forecast is how it performs,” said Bloomfield. “If we always say, ‘flare expected today’, we will have successfully predicted all flares. However, we would be crying wolf and be completely wrong on most days, as flares can occur quite far apart in time. …

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Smoking in the entrances to bars increases the presence of nicotine inside

June 14, 2013 — The protection provided by the smoking ban decreases when people can still smoke outside the venue.For the first time, a study has analysed the effects of the modification to the Spanish tobacco control law, implemented in 2011 in hospitality venues in Spain. The findings show that smoking on terraces and in the entrances to bars and restaurants increases the concentration of nicotine and particulate matter, which affects clients and hospitality professionals alike.Smoke in bars would appear to be a thing of the past. However, Spanish scientists have analysed the reduction of nicotine in hospitality venues since the implementation of the 2011 smoking ban, and have found that smoking outside diminishes such protection.”Having studied hospitality venues in Madrid, Galicia and Catalonia, we found a 90% decrease in the presence of nicotine and particulate matter in suspension, attributable to the regulations that have been in place for the last two years,” explained Maria José López, the main author of the article and researcher at the Barcelona Public Health Agency (ASPB).This latest research, published in Nicotine & Tobacco Research, detected more nicotine and increased presence of particles in bars where clients smoked outside, which acts as a warning to experts on risks associated with incomplete protection for employees and customers.The results compare the situation in the same establishments before and after the change to the law that took place in January 2011, based on 351 nicotine measurements carried out and a total of 160 samples of particles under 2.5 µ.The mean concentration of nicotine in the atmosphere in venues with smokers outside was 1.13 µg/cubic meter (m3), while in those where this option is not available there were only 0.41 µg/m3.The authors also recorded other factors such as the presence of ashtrays, people smoking, and whether there were remnants of cigarette butts in the venue.An overall decreaseThe authors confirm that the 90% reduction in the presence of nicotine and particulate matter corresponds to the findings of similar studies in other European countries, such as Scotland and Ireland.”The same occurred in Uruguay, where implementation of the law led to a 91% reduction in the presence of secondary smoke in catering venues,” López affirms.The previous law in 2006 did not protect customers from second-hand smoke exposure, and even created inequalities, allowing hospitality workers to remain exposed to high levels of toxins and carcinogens.”The 2011 modification of the law represents an extraordinary step forward in the protection of workers’ and clients’ health,” López concludes. Although she insists that “the levels of exposure in outside areas should be studied in more detail and the potential need to establish consumption restrictions in certain places should be considered.”This study, undertaken by a work group on Nicotinism at the Spanish Society of Epidemiology, was made possible by the financial backing of the Ministry of Health, Social Services and Equality, the Department of Health of the Regional Government of Catalonia, and the National Centre for Epidemiology (Carlos III Health Institute).The authors wish to extend a special mention in memory of Manel Nebot, the driving force behind research on nicotinism in Spain, who passed away last October in Barcelona.

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Puffin count on Isle of May NNR in Scotland gives surprising result

May 31, 2013 — Atlantic Puffin numbers on the Isle of May National Nature Reserve (NNR) off Scotland’s east coast are at similar levels to 2009 despite this spring’s severe weather.The results of the latest puffin survey carried out by scientists from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology are released today. They indicate that a total of 46,000 burrows showed signs of use by puffins this spring, an almost identical total to the last count which was completed in 2009.The Isle of May NNR is home to the largest colony of puffins in the North Sea and has been the main centre of the UK science community’s research into puffins for nearly four decades.This year’s count was funded by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) with assistance from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.The result is a surprise as, earlier this year, just as they were returning to the colonies in March, severe weather resulted in the deaths of thousands of seabirds along the coasts of eastern Scotland and north-east England. Examination of the bodies of some of the 3500 dead puffins and ringing recoveries suggested that many of the birds involved were breeding adults from local colonies.Images of dead and dying puffins had resulted in great concern about the future of the major puffin breeding colonies in the region, especially since there was a 30% decline in the numbers of puffins on the Isle of May between 2003 and 2009.The survey was led by Professor Mike Harris, Emeritus Research Fellow at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, who has studied puffins for 41 years. Professor Harris said, “This March’s wreck has clearly had a serious effect on the puffins on the Isle of May but, perhaps surprisingly, numbers are very similar to the last count which took place in 2009. Our general impression over the last few years was that the population was increasing slowly and this may explain why we have not seen a decline following the recent wreck.”The count also revealed that the March wreck seriously disrupted breeding on the Isle of May, with laying two to three weeks later than normal, and it is possible that some birds will not breed this year.Distressing as this wreck was, we have seen much higher mortality of Isle of May puffins in four other winters in the last 40 winters. Only twice, in December 2006 and October 2007, were large numbers of dead puffins reported. It appears that Puffins normally die well away from land so that dead birds are unlikely to be found.SNH’s Reserve manager for the Isle of May, David Pickett said, “Despite the publicity of the wreck in March, the Isle of May NNR is still one of the best places to see puffins in the UK and together with the mass of other seabirds make it one of the best wildlife spectacles to be found in Scotland.” David added, “This late breeding could even result in puffins remaining at the colonies until later in the summer than normal, giving people even more opportunity to enjoy watching them.”Professor Harris added, “The wreck has, however, seriously affected the timing of breeding with those birds that did survive breeding very late. It would not be surprising if they needed a few weeks to recover and get into breeding condition. We now wait to see how successful these birds are in raising chicks this summer.”

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