Combating obesity with new Okinawan rice

In recent years, Okinawa has recorded the dubious distinction of having the highest obesity rate in Japan. Preventing obesity-related diseases is an urgent issue. Professor Hidetoshi Saze of the OIST Plant Epigenetics Unit is leading a new research project to develop a new strain of rice that produces digestion-resistant starch to prevent these diseases. The project, fostered by the Okinawan government, involves three activities by the medical, agricultural, and food industries: development of the new rice strain, nutritional and physiological analyses, and processing and sales.Nanshoka-Mai, or rice with digestion-resistant starch is a new breed of rice rich in starch that does not as readily break down into glucose. This rice strain was first developed by a research team at Kyushu University 30 years ago. The starch from most grains, which consist largely of an unbranched glucose polymer known as amylose, is normally broken down into glucose during the digestive process and serves as our primary energy source. However, excessive consumption of sugars (simple carbohydrates) can cause life-style-related diseases, such as obesity and diabetes. This new strain of rice is expected to serve as an alternative preventative measure. In addition to its anti-obesity effect, gathering evidence suggests that the rice with digestion-resistant starch may also provide other benefits, such as lower blood sugar levels, reduced neutral fat, and harmful cholesterol levels, and prevention of lipid accumulation in the liver.Despite its great promise, when researchers planted the original strain of resistant-starch rice in Okinawa, the yield per hectare was about half that achieved in mainland Japan. Prof. …

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New approach to leukemia testing may better define prognosis, treatment

Nearly half of patients with the most common form of adult leukemia are said to have normal chromosomes but appear instead to have a distinct pattern of genetic abnormalities that could better define their prognosis and treatment, researchers report.Using microarray technology that probes millions of genes within chromosomes, researchers found the unique pattern in the leukemia cells of 22 patients diagnosed with cytogenetically normal acute myelogenous leukemia, said Dr. Ravindra Kolhe, molecular pathologist at the Medical College of Georgia at Georgia Regents University.”This is a total game changer,” Kolhe said. “We have to use more sensitive tests to give patients the proper answer.”Kolhe, Director of the Georgia Esoteric, Molecular Labs, LLC, Department of Pathology, presented the findings March 29 during the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics Annual Clinical Genetics Meeting in Nashville.Acute myelogenous leukemia, the most common type of acute leukemia in adults, has about 20 subtypes, according to the National Cancer Institute. Patients with cytogenetically normal acute myelogenous leukemia experience widely varying outcomes following chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants. Ideally, identifying the causative genes will lead to a more targeted therapy and definitive prognosis, Kolhe said.”The technology we currently use can’t identify specifically what’s wrong,” Kolhe said. Patients have high percentages of cancer-producing cells called blasts in their blood and bone marrow but they do not show the distinctive chromosomal alterations that typically help characterize the leukemia and strategize therapy.Genetic abnormalities, inherited and/or caused by environmental exposures — including previous chemotherapy and radiation treatment — are thought to cause leukemia. The result is that a disproportionate number of stem cells get stuck in the blast, or cancerous, stage, rather than maturing to white blood cells that actually fight cancer and other invaders.Patients often feel tired and feverish and blood tests reveal high blast levels. Pathologists then take about 20 leukemia cells, chemically block their constant division, open the nucleus, and spread the chromosomes on a slide. They examine the chromosomes with a microscope and in-situ hybridization technology, which helps detect small deletions or rearrangements.”(Cytogenetically normal patients) show a normal chromosomal picture but they are clearly sick,” Kolhe said. Frustrated at being unable to give these patients better information, he partnered with California-based Affymetrix to look directly at the genes within chromosomes using CytoScanHD microarray technology.When he put cell contents instead on a computer chip with 2.7 million genetic probes, small, previously undetectable changes in the DNA became apparent in patients who had been classified as cytogenetically normal. …

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A battery that ‘breathes’ could power next-gen electric vehicles

Sales of electric vehicles (EVs) nearly doubled in 2013, but most won’t take you farther than 100 miles on one charge. To boost their range toward a tantalizing 300 miles or more, researchers are reporting new progress on a “breathing” battery that has the potential to one day replace the lithium-ion technology of today’s EVs. They presented their work at the 247th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in Dallas this week.”Lithium-air batteries are lightweight and deliver a large amount of electric energy,” said Nobuyuki Imanishi, Ph.D. “Many people expect them to one day be used in electric vehicles.”The main difference between lithium-ion and lithium-air batteries is that the latter replaces the traditional cathode — a key battery component involved in the flow of electric current — with air. That makes the rechargeable metal-air battery lighter with the potential to pack in more energy than its commercial counterpart.While lithium-air batteries have been touted as an exciting technology to watch, they still have some kinks that need to be worked out. Researchers are forging ahead on multiple fronts to get the batteries in top form before they debut under the hood.One of the main components researchers are working on is the batteries’ electrolytes, materials that conduct electricity between the electrodes. There are currently four electrolyte designs, one of which involves water. The advantage of this “aqueous” design over the others is that it protects the lithium from interacting with gases in the atmosphere and enables fast reactions at the air electrode. The downside is that water in direct contact with lithium can damage it.Seeing the potential of the aqueous version of the lithium-air battery, Imanishi’s team at Mie University in Japan tackled this issue. Adding a protective material to the lithium metal is one approach, but this typically decreases the battery power. …

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Stirring the simmering ‘designer baby’ pot

From genetic and genomic testing to new techniques in human assisted reproduction, various technologies are providing parents with more of a say about the children they have and “stirring the pot of ‘designer baby’ concerns,” writes Thomas H. Murray, President Emeritus of The Hastings Center, in a commentary in Science.Murray calls for a national conversation about how much discretion would-be parents should have. “Preventing a lethal disease is one thing; choosing the traits we desire is quite another,” he writes.He discusses public hearings two weeks ago by the United States Food and Drug Administration to consider whether to permit human testing of a new method of assisted reproduction — mitochondrial manipulation — that would prevent the transmission of certain rare diseases and perhaps address some causes of female infertility. At issue is the safety of the technology, as well as its ethical implications.Mitochondrial manipulation creates an embryo with the nuclear DNA from the prospective mother and father (which contains most of the genetic material) and the mitochondrial DNA (containing 37 genes) from a donor without mitochondrial defects. Among the ethical concerns is that daughters produced by this procedure could pass down the mitochondrial DNA to their children. “Up to now, the United States has not allowed such genetic changes across generations,” Murray writes.He says that the FDA’s discussion is the latest development that “tapped into a simmering controversy over what it means to have a child in an era of increasing convergence among genetic, genomic, and reproductive technologies.” Those technologies include preimplantation genetic diagnosis (genetic analysis of embryos before implantation via in vitro fertilization) and prenatal screening to detect health problems in the fetus, including the prospects of a blood test of a pregnant woman to screen fetal DNA in her blood.”Of all the possible choices prospective parents might make, sex selection for non-medical purposes has prompted the strongest policy response, “Murray writes. “It is prohibited in at least 36 countries, but not in the United States.” He notes that “conflicts over the legal and moral status of embryos and fetuses have discouraged American legislators from proposing sensible regulations, lest they be drawn in to the abortion debate.”The absence of federal legislation has left the regulation of sex selection up to professional societies. But they have different guidelines, reflecting “clashing ethical frameworks for thinking about parenthood in the genomic era.”Murray calls for a national conversation about current and emerging technologies shaping the choices that parents have, beginning with an examination by the U.S. Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. “It will not be easy to avoid the quicksand of the abortion debate,” he writes, “but it would be a great public service to provide a sober assessment of the choices that would-be parents increasingly face, and to encourage a respectful dialogue about the meaning of parenthood and the worth of a child so that parents and children can flourish together.”Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by The Hastings Center. …

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Farm salmon pose clear reproductive threat to wild gene pools, researchers say

Findings published today reveal that, while farmed salmon are genetically different to their wild counterparts, they are just as fertile. This is important information because millions of farmed salmon escape into the wild — posing threats to wild gene pools.Lead Researcher Prof Matt Gage from UEA’s school of Biological Sciences said: “Around 95 per cent of all salmon in existence are farmed, and domestication has made them very different to wild populations, each of which is locally adapted to its own river system.”Farmed salmon grow very fast, are aggressive, and not as clever as wild salmon when it comes to dealing with predators. These domestic traits are good for producing fish for the table, but not for the stability of wild populations.”The problem is that farmed salmon can escape each year in their millions, getting into wild spawning populations, where they can then reproduce and erode wild gene pools, introducing these negative traits.”We know that recently-escaped farmed salmon are inferior to wild fish in reproduction, but we do not have detailed information on sperm and egg performance, which could have been affected by domestication. Our work shows that farm fish are as potent at the gamete level as wild fish, and if farm escapes can revive their spawning behaviour by a period in the wild, clearly pose a significant threat of hybridisation with wild populations.”Researchers used a range of in vitro fertilization tests in conditions that mimicked spawning in the natural environment, including tests of sperm competitiveness and egg compatibility. All tests on sperm and egg form and function showed that farmed salmon are as fertile as wild salmon — identifying a clear threat of farmed salmon reproducing with wild fish.”Some Norwegian rivers have recorded big numbers of farmed fish present — as much as 50 per cent. Both anglers and conservationists are worried by farmed fish escapees which could disrupt locally adapted traits like timing of return, adult body size, and disease resistance.”Salmon farming is a huge business in the UK, Norway and beyond, and while it does reduce the pressure on wild fish stocks, it can also create its own environmental pressures through genetic disruption.”A viable solution is to induce ‘triploidy’ by pressure-treating salmon eggs just after fertilisation — where the fish grows as normal, but with both sex chromosomes; this is normal for farming rainbow trout. The resulting adult develops testes and ovaries but both are much reduced and most triploids are sterile. These triploid fish can’t reproduce if they escape, but the aquaculture industry has not embraced this technology yet because of fears that triploids don’t perform as well in farms as normal diploid fish, eroding profits.”Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by University of East Anglia. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Galaxies in the early universe mature beyond their years

An international team of researchers, including astronomers from Swinburne University of Technology, has discovered the most distant examples of galaxies in the early Universe that were already mature and massive.The mature galaxies were found at a record-breaking distance of 12 billion light years, seen when the Universe was just 1.6 billion years old. Their existence at such an early time raises new questions about what forced them to grow up so quickly.”These distant and early massive galaxies are one of the Holy Grails of astronomy,” Director of the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing at Swinburne University of Technology, Professor Karl Glazebrook, who was involved in the discovery, said.”Fifteen years ago they were predicted not to even exist within the cosmological model favoured at the time. In 2004 I wrote a paper on the discovery of such galaxies existing only three billion years after the Big Bang. Now, with improved technology we are pushing back to only 1.6 billion years, which is truly exciting.”Astronomers used deep images at near-infrared wavelengths to search for galaxies in the early Universe with red colours. These red colours indicate the presence of old stars and a lack of active star formation. Surprisingly, they located 15 galaxies at an average distance of 12 billion light years — only 1.6 billion years after the Big Bang.The galaxies are barely detectable at visual wavelengths and are easily overlooked. But in the new near-infrared light images they are easily measured, from which it can be inferred that they already contained as many as 100 billion stars on average per galaxy.The mature galaxies have masses similar to that of the Milky Way, but were already retired from star-formation when the universe was only 12 per cent of its current age.”While the Milky Way still forms new stars at a slow rate today, the galaxies we discovered must have formed very rapidly in a relatively ‘short’ time — roughly one billion years — with explosive rates of star-formation. These must have been several hundred times higher than in the Milky Way today,” Macquarie University’s Dr Lee Spitler said.”This is the best evidence to date that these galaxies grew up in a hurry. People have reported ‘old’ galaxies before, but it was never clear until our data that they were actually ‘old’. The excellent imaging products from the Magellan telescope allowed us to prove they are indeed ‘old’.”The finding raises new questions about how these galaxies formed so rapidly and why they stopped forming stars so early.The galaxies were discovered after 40 nights of observing with the FourStar camera on the Magellan Baade Telescope in Chile and combined with data from Hubble’s Cosmic Assembly Near-infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey and the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey. …

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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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Squeezing light into metals: Engineers control conductivity with inkjet printer

Using an inexpensive inkjet printer, University of Utah electrical engineers produced microscopic structures that use light in metals to carry information. This new technique, which controls electrical conductivity within such microstructures, could be used to rapidly fabricate superfast components in electronic devices, make wireless technology faster or print magnetic materials.The study appears online March 7 in the journal Advanced Optical Materials.High-speed Internet and other data-transfer techniques rely on light transported through optical fibers with very high bandwidth, which is a measure of how fast data can be transferred. Shrinking these fibers allows more data to be packed into less space, but there’s a catch: optical fibers hit a limit on how much data they can carry as light is squeezed into smaller and smaller spaces.In contrast, electronic circuits can be fashioned at much smaller sizes on silicon wafers. However, electronic data transfer operates at frequencies with much lower bandwidth, reducing the amount of data that can be carried.A recently discovered technology called plasmonics marries the best aspects of optical and electronic data transfer. By crowding light into metal structures with dimensions far smaller than its wavelength, data can be transmitted at much higher frequencies such as terahertz frequencies, which lie between microwaves and infrared light on the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation that also includes everything from X-rays to visible light to gamma rays. Metals such as silver and gold are particularly promising plasmonic materials because they enhance this crowding effect. “Very little well-developed technology exists to create terahertz plasmonic devices, which have the potential to make wireless devices such as Bluetooth — which operates at 2.4 gigahertz frequency — 1,000 times faster than they are today,” says Ajay Nahata, a University of Utah professor of electrical and computer engineering and senior author of the new study.Using a commercially available inkjet printer and two different color cartridges filled with silver and carbon ink, Nahata and his colleagues printed 10 different plasmonic structures with a periodic array of 2,500 holes with different sizes and spacing on a 2.5-inch-by-2.5 inch plastic sheet.The four arrays tested had holes 450 microns in diameter — about four times the width of a human hair — and spaced one-25th of an inch apart. Depending on the relative amounts of silver and carbon ink used, the researchers could control the plasmonic array’s electrical conductivity, or how efficient it was in carrying an electrical current.”Using a $60 inkjet printer, we have developed a low-cost, widely applicable way to make plasmonic materials,” Nahata says. “Because we can draw and print these structures exactly as we want them, our technique lets you make rapid changes to the plasmonic properties of the metal, without the million-dollar instrumentation typically used to fabricate these structures.”Plasmonic arrays are currently made using microfabrication techniques that require expensive equipment and manufacture only one array at a time. Until now, controlling conductivity in these arrays has proven extremely difficult for researchers.Nahata and his co-workers at the University of Utah’s College of Engineering used terahertz imaging to measure the effect of printed plasmonic arrays on a beam of light. …

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Talking Neanderthals challenge the origins of speech

We humans like to think of ourselves as unique for many reasons, not least of which being our ability to communicate with words. But ground-breaking research by an expert from the University of New England shows that our ‘misunderstood cousins,’ the Neanderthals, may well have spoken in languages not dissimilar to the ones we use today.Pinpointing the origin and evolution of speech and human language is one of the longest running and most hotly debated topics in the scientific world. It has long been believed that other beings, including the Neanderthals with whom our ancestors shared Earth for thousands of years, simply lacked the necessary cognitive capacity and vocal hardware for speech.Associate Professor Stephen Wroe, a zoologist and palaeontologist from UNE, along with an international team of scientists and the use of 3D x-ray imaging technology, made the revolutionary discovery challenging this notion based on a 60,000 year-old Neanderthal hyoid bone discovered in Israel in 1989.”To many, the Neanderthal hyoid discovered was surprising because its shape was very different to that of our closest living relatives, the chimpanzee and the bonobo. However, it was virtually indistinguishable from that of our own species. This led to some people arguing that this Neanderthal could speak,” A/Professor Wroe said.”The obvious counterargument to this assertion was that the fact that hyoids of Neanderthals were the same shape as modern humans doesn’t necessarily mean that they were used in the same way. With the technology of the time, it was hard to verify the argument one way or the other.”However advances in 3D imaging and computer modelling allowed A/Professor Wroe’s team to revisit the question.”By analysing the mechanical behaviour of the fossilised bone with micro x-ray imaging, we were able to build models of the hyoid that included the intricate internal structure of the bone. We then compared them to models of modern humans. Our comparisons showed that in terms of mechanical behaviour, the Neanderthal hyoid was basically indistinguishable from our own, strongly suggesting that this key part of the vocal tract was used in the same way.”From this research, we can conclude that it’s likely that the origins of speech and language are far, far older than once thought.”Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by University of New England. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Shocking behavior of a runaway star: High-speed encounter creates arc

Roguish runaway stars can have a big impact on their surroundings as they plunge through the Milky Way galaxy. Their high-speed encounters shock the galaxy, creating arcs, as seen in a newly released image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.In this case, the speedster star is known as Kappa Cassiopeiae, or HD 2905 to astronomers. It is a massive, hot supergiant moving at around 2.5 million mph relative to its neighbors (1,100 kilometers per second). But what really makes the star stand out in this image is the surrounding, streaky red glow of material in its path. Such structures are called bow shocks, and they can often be seen in front of the fastest, most massive stars in the galaxy.Bow shocks form where the magnetic fields and wind of particles flowing off a star collide with the diffuse, and usually invisible, gas and dust that fill the space between stars. How these shocks light up tells astronomers about the conditions around the star and in space. Slow-moving stars like our sun have bow shocks that are nearly invisible at all wavelengths of light, but fast stars like Kappa Cassiopeiae create shocks that can be seen by Spitzer’s infrared detectors.Incredibly, this shock is created about 4 light-years ahead of Kappa Cassiopeiae, showing what a sizable impact this star has on its surroundings. (This is about the same distance that we are from Proxima Centauri, the nearest star beyond the sun.)The Kappa Cassiopeiae bow shock shows up as a vividly red color. The faint green features in this image result from carbon molecules, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, in dust clouds along the line of sight that are illuminated by starlight.Delicate red filaments run through this infrared nebula, crossing the bow shock. Some astronomers have suggested these filaments may be tracing out features of the magnetic field that runs throughout our galaxy. …

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Solar-induced hybrid fuel cell produces electricity directly from biomass

Although low temperature fuel cells powered by methanol or hydrogen have been well studied, existing low temperature fuel cell technologies cannot directly use biomass as a fuel because of the lack of an effective catalyst system for polymeric materials.Now, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a new type of low-temperature fuel cell that directly converts biomass to electricity with assistance from a catalyst activated by solar or thermal energy. The hybrid fuel cell can use a wide variety of biomass sources, including starch, cellulose, lignin — and even switchgrass, powdered wood, algae and waste from poultry processing.The device could be used in small-scale units to provide electricity for developing nations, as well as for larger facilities to provide power where significant quantities of biomass are available.”We have developed a new method that can handle the biomass at room temperature, and the type of biomass that can be used is not restricted — the process can handle nearly any type of biomass,” said Yulin Deng, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and the Institute of Paper Science and Technology (IPST). “This is a very generic approach to utilizing many kinds of biomass and organic waste to produce electrical power without the need for purification of the starting materials.”The new solar-induced direct biomass-to-electricity hybrid fuel cell was described February 7, 2014, in the journal Nature Communications.The challenge for biomass fuel cells is that the carbon-carbon bonds of the biomass — a natural polymer — cannot be easily broken down by conventional catalysts, including expensive precious metals, Deng noted. To overcome that challenge, scientists have developed microbial fuel cells in which microbes or enzymes break down the biomass. But that process has many drawbacks: power output from such cells is limited, microbes or enzymes can only selectively break down certain types of biomass, and the microbial system can be deactivated by many factors.Deng and his research team got around those challenges by altering the chemistry to allow an outside energy source to activate the fuel cell’s oxidation-reduction reaction.In the new system, the biomass is ground up and mixed with a polyoxometalate (POM) catalyst in solution and then exposed to light from the sun — or heat. A photochemical and thermochemical catalyst, POM functions as both an oxidation agent and a charge carrier. POM oxidizes the biomass under photo or thermal irradiation, and delivers the charges from the biomass to the fuel cell’s anode. The electrons are then transported to the cathode, where they are finally oxidized by oxygen through an external circuit to produce electricity.”If you mix the biomass and catalyst at room temperature, they will not react,” said Deng. “But when you expose them to light or heat, the reaction begins. The POM introduces an intermediate step because biomass cannot be directly accessed by oxygen.”The system provides major advantages, including combining the photochemical and solar-thermal biomass degradation in a single chemical process, leading to high solar conversion and effective biomass degradation. …

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Theory on origin of animals challenged: Some animals need extremely little oxygen

One of science’s strongest dogmas is that complex life on Earth could only evolve when oxygen levels in the atmosphere rose to close to modern levels. But now studies of a small sea sponge fished out of a Danish fjord shows that complex life does not need high levels of oxygen in order to live and grow.The origin of complex life is one of science’s greatest mysteries. How could the first small primitive cells evolve into the diversity of advanced life forms that exists on Earth today? The explanation in all textbooks is: Oxygen. Complex life evolved because the atmospheric levels of oxygen began to rise app. 630 — 635 million years ago.However new studies of a common sea sponge from Kerteminde Fjord in Denmark shows that this explanation needs to be reconsidered. The sponge studies show that animals can live and grow even with very limited oxygen supplies.In fact animals can live and grow when the atmosphere contains only 0.5 per cent of the oxygen levels in today’s atmosphere.”Our studies suggest that the origin of animals was not prevented by low oxygen levels,” says Daniel Mills, PhD at the Nordic Center for Earth Evolution at the University of Southern Denmark.Together with Lewis M. Ward from the California Institute of Technology he is the lead author of a research paper about the work in the journal PNAS.A little over half a billion years ago, the first forms of complex life — animals — evolved on Earth. Billions of years before that life had only consisted of simple single-celled life forms. The emergence of animals coincided with a significant rise in atmospheric oxygen, and therefore it seemed obvious to link the two events and conclude that the increased oxygen levels had led to the evolution of animals.”But nobody has ever tested how much oxygen animals need — at least not to my knowledge. …

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Four unknown galaxy clusters containing thousands of galaxies discovered 10 billion light years from Earth

Four unknown galaxy clusters each potentially containing thousands of individual galaxies have been discovered some 10 billion light years from Earth.An international team of astronomers, led by Imperial College London, used a new way of combining data from the two European Space Agency satellites, Planck and Herschel, to identify more distant galaxy clusters than has previously been possible. The researchers believe up to 2000 further clusters could be identified using this technique, helping to build a more detailed timeline of how clusters are formed.Galaxy clusters are the most massive objects in the universe, containing hundreds to thousands of galaxies, bound together by gravity. While astronomers have identified many nearby clusters, they need to go further back in time to understand how these structures are formed. This means finding clusters at greater distances from Earth.The light from the most distant of the four new clusters identified by the team has taken over 10 billion years to reach us. This means the researchers are seeing what the cluster looked like when the universe was just three billion years old.Lead researcher Dr David Clements, from the Department of Physics at Imperial College London, explains: “Although we’re able to see individual galaxies that go further back in time, up to now, the most distant clusters found by astronomers date back to when the universe was 4.5 billion years old. This equates to around nine billion light years away. Our new approach has already found a cluster in existence much earlier than that, and we believe it has the potential to go even further.”The clusters can be identified at such distances because they contain galaxies in which huge amounts of dust and gas are being formed into stars. This process emits light that can be picked up by the satellite surveys.Galaxies are divided into two types: elliptical galaxies that have many stars, but little dust and gas; and spiral galaxies like our own, the Milky Way, which contain lots of dust and gas. Most clusters in the universe today are dominated by giant elliptical galaxies in which the dust and gas has already been formed into stars.”What we believe we are seeing in these distant clusters are giant elliptical galaxies in the process of being formed,” says Dr Clements.Observations were recorded by the Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (SPIRE) instrument as part of Herschel Multi-tiered Extragalactic Survey (HerMES). Seb Oliver, Head of the HerMES survey said: “The fantastic thing about Herschel-SPIRE is that we are able to scan very large areas of the sky with sufficient sensitivity and image sharpness that we can find these rare and exotic things. …

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Investigating the fiber of our being: How our gut bacteria metabolize complex carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables

We are all aware of the health benefits of dietary fiber. But what is dietary fiber and how do we metabolize it?Research at the University of Michigan Medical School, the University of York’s Structural Biology Laboratory, and institutions in Canada and Sweden, has begun to uncover how our gut bacteria metabolize the complex dietary carbohydrates found in fruits and vegetables.Trillions of bacteria live in human intestines — there are about ten times more bacterial cells in the average person’s body than human ones. Known as “microbiota,” these bacteria have a vital role to play in human health: they are central to our metabolism and well-being.The research team has uncovered how one group of gut bacteria, known as Bacteroidetes, digest complex sugars known as xyloglucans. These make up to 25 per cent of the dry weight of dietary fruit and vegetables including lettuce, onion, eggplant and tomatoes.In a recent issue of Nature, the researchers reported on a particular gene sequence that allows Bacteroidetes to carry out this function. They show that about 92 per cent of the population harbors bacteria with a variant of the gene sequence, according to a survey of public genome data from 250 adult humans.Understanding how these bacteria digest complex carbohydrates informs studies on a wide range of nutritional issues. These include probiotics (the consumption of ‘beneficial’ micro-organisms as a food supplement) and prebiotics (the consumption of foods or supplements intended to stimulate the production of healthy bacteria in the gut).”Its been appreciated for a long time that our symbiotic gut bacteria provide us with greatly expanded abilities to digest dietary fiber. However, the precise details of how this happens remain largely unexplored,” says co-corresponding author Eric Martens, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology at the U-M Medical School. Martens is participating in the Host Microbiome Initiative, part of the U-M Medical School’s Strategic Research Initiative.Large-scale genome sequencing efforts, like the Human Microbiome Project, have focused on the community of microorganisms that live in the human gut. But these approaches can only uncover functions that have already been experimentally described, and much of what is sequenced is still unknown.”In this study, we took an empirical approach to decipher how one model gut bacterium digests one type of fiber that is abundant in the foods we eat. We were subsequently able to fit our findings into a much larger picture because of the existing data that the Human Microbiome Project has already gathered. …

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Cortical convolutions controlled in sections: Non-coding DNA sequence affects brain’s characteristic folding, study shows

Researchers have tied a particular gene to the development of cortical convolutions — the prominent but enigmatic folds covering the surface of the human brain. Their discovery should shed some light on these characteristic contours, which have been the subject of wild speculation for ages, and perhaps also provide a better understanding of how such brain ridges form, how they evolved from our pre-human ancestors and, ultimately, how they influence brain function.The exact role of cortical convolutions remains unknown, but theories have abounded. (Some, for example, have suggested that the folds act as the body’s cooling system and others have even proposed that Albert Einstein’s genius could have been traced to a single cortical fold on his brain.)Now, leveraging advances that permit a closer look at how these folds develop, research published in the 14 February issue of Science shows that a mutation affecting GPR56 causes cortical convolutions around the brain’s Sylvian fissure — a particularly deep indentation — to develop thinner and more convoluted than usual. The finding, which suggests that genes may assert control over the brain’s physical folding on a section-by-section basis, provides insight into the mysterious cortical development process.”There is already a list of genetic mutations that cause abnormal neocortical folding, which can be used for prenatal testing,” explained Byoung-il Bae from the Division of Genetics and Genomics at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, one of the lead authors of the Science report. “We intend to add this mutation to some of the panels.”Bae and colleagues from around the world investigated the genomes of five individuals with abnormalities on Broca’s area, or the language center of the brain. These study participants were from three different families — one Turkish and two Irish-American — and they suffered from refractory seizures as well as intellectual and language difficulties.The researchers found that all five patients harbored a mutation on a particular regulatory element that influences the GPR56 gene. Such regulatory DNA doesn’t code for any proteins itself but promotes the expression of genes elsewhere on the genome. Geneticists have long-suspected that such non-coding regions of the genome could play important roles in evolution. To observe the specific effects of the GPR56 “promoter” DNA sequence, Bae and his team used genetically modified mice.They discovered that low expression of GPR56 (gauged by low levels of mRNA) decreases the production of neuroprogenitor cells — those that will eventually give rise to neurons — around Broca’s area and the Sylvian fissure. By contrast, overexpression of the gene boosts the production of such progenitor cells in that region. …

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Is zinc the missing link for osteoarthritis therapies?

Osteoarthritis is a leading cause of disability, characterized by the destruction of cartilage tissue in joints, but there is a lack of effective therapies because the underlying molecular causes have been unclear. A study published by Cell Press February 13th in the journal Cell reveals that osteoarthritis-related tissue damage is caused by a molecular pathway that is involved in regulating and responding to zinc levels inside of cartilage cells. A protein called ZIP8 transports zinc inside these cells, setting off a cascade of molecular events that result in the destruction of cartilage tissue in mice. The findings could lead to a new generation of therapies for osteoarthritis.”No evidence available to date clearly indicated that zinc plays a causal role in osteoarthritis,” says senior study author Jang-Soo Chun of the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology. “In our study, we revealed the entire series of molecular events in the osteoarthritis zinc pathway, from zinc influx into cells to cartilage destruction.”When the cartilage breaks down in osteoarthritis, the bones rub together, causing pain, swelling, and stiffness. This tissue destruction is caused by proteins called matrix-degrading enzymes, which are produced by cartilage cells and are the key culprits responsible for degrading the extracellular matrix — the structural support system that surrounds cells and holds them together. Because matrix-degrading enzymes require zinc to function, Chun and his team suspected that zinc levels inside of cartilage cells may play a role in osteoarthritis.To test this idea, the researchers first examined cartilage from osteoarthritis patients as well as a mouse model of the disease. They found abnormally high levels of a protein called ZIP8, which is embedded in the plasma membrane of cartilage cells and is involved in transporting zinc inside of these cells from the outside environment. Zinc influx through ZIP8 activated a protein called metal-regulatory transcription factor-1 (MTF1), which in turn increased levels of matrix-degrading enzymes in cartilage cells. Through genetic experiments in mice, the researchers showed that this zinc-ZIP8-MTF1 pathway plays a key role in causing osteoarthritis-related cartilage destruction.”Our findings suggest that local depletion of zinc or pharmacological inhibition of ZIP8 function or MTF1 activity in cartilage tissue would be effective therapeutic approaches for the treatment of osteoarthritis,” Chun says. …

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Primitive artificial cell turned into complex biological materials

Imagine starting from scratch with simple artificial microscopic building blocks and ending up with something much more complex: living systems, novel computers or every-day materials. For decades scientists have pursued the dream of creating artificial building blocks that can self-assemble in large numbers and reassemble to take on new tasks or to remedy defects. Now researchers have taken a step forward to make this dream into a reality.”The potential of such new human-made systems is almost limitless, and many expect these novel materials to become the foundation of future technologies,” says Dr. Maik Hadorn from Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences at ETH Zrich, who conducted the research as a postdoctoral research fellow at University of Southern Denmark (SDU).Over the last three years he and the colleagues Eva Boenzli, Kristian T. Srensen and Martin M. Hanczyc from the Center for Fundamental Living Technology (FLinT) at SDU have worked on the challenges of making primitive building blocks assemble and turn into something functional.”We used short DNA strands as smart glue to link preliminary stages of artificial cells (called artificial vesicles) to engineer novel tissue-like structures,” says Dr. Maik Hadorn.As part of the EU-sponsored project MATCHIT (MATrix for CHemical Information Technology) Dr. Maik Hadorn and coworkers have earlier showed that short DNA strands can guide the self-assembly process of artificial vesicles; that two types of artificial vesicles can be linked in a way predefined by the person conducting the experiment, and that assembled structures can be reassembled, when triggered externally.In their most recent scientific article, published in Langmuir in December 2013, the researchers from SDU, in collaboration with colleagues from Italy and Japan, not only increased the complexity of the self-assembled structures that are now composed of several types of artificial vesicles — they also loaded one vesicle type with a basic cellular machinery derived from bacterial cells. This enabled these vesicles to translate an encapsulated genetic blueprint into a functional protein.Put together the researchers have managed to engineer controlled assemblies that are visible to the naked eye and that resemble natural tissues in their architecture as well as in their functionalities.Methods of constructing simple artificial structures have been known for decades, but only the use of DNA strands that act as a smart glue has allowed the researchers to overcome shortcomings of precedent methods and to engineer higher-order structures of predefined and programmable architecture.”As the artificial vesicles resemble natural cells both in size and composition, they are an ideal starting point for a multitude of applications. One application can be a temporal support for wound healing: A wound may be covered with assemblies of vesicles that are tailored in a patient specific manner. …

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Looking back to the cradle of our universe: Astronomers spot what may be one of most distant galaxies known

NASA’s Spitzer and Hubble Space Telescopes have spotted what might be one of the most distant galaxies known, harkening back to a time when our universe was only about 650 million years old (our universe is 13.8 billion years old). The galaxy, known as Abell2744 Y1, is about 30 times smaller than our Milky Way galaxy and is producing about 10 times more stars, as is typical for galaxies in our young universe.The discovery comes from the Frontier Fields program, which is pushing the limits of how far back we can see into the distant universe using NASA’s multi-wavelength suite of Great Observatories. Spitzer sees infrared light, Hubble sees visible and shorter-wavelength infrared light, and NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory sees X-rays. The telescopes are getting a boost from natural lenses: they peer through clusters of galaxies, where gravity magnifies the light of more distant galaxies.The Frontier Fields program will image six galaxy clusters in total. Hubble images of the region are used to spot candidate distant galaxies, and then Spitzer is needed to determine if the galaxies are, in fact, as far as they seem. Spitzer data also help determine how many stars are in the galaxy.These early results from the program come from images of the Abell 2744 galaxy cluster. The distance to this galaxy, if confirmed, would make it one of the farthest known. Astronomers say it has a redshift of 8, which is a measure of the degree to which its light has been shifted to redder wavelengths due to the expansion of our universe. The farther a galaxy, the higher the redshift. The farthest confirmed galaxy has a redshift of more than 7. …

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Credit card-sized device could analyze biopsy, help diagnose pancreatic cancer in minutes

Pancreatic cancer is a particularly devastating disease. At least 94 percent of patients will die within five years, and in 2013 it was ranked as one of the top 10 deadliest cancers.Routine screenings for breast, colon and lung cancers have improved treatment and outcomes for patients with these diseases, largely because the cancer can be detected early. But because little is known about how pancreatic cancer behaves, patients often receive a diagnosis when it’s already too late.University of Washington scientists and engineers are developing a low-cost device that could help pathologists diagnose pancreatic cancer earlier and faster. The prototype can perform the basic steps for processing a biopsy, relying on fluid transport instead of human hands to process the tissue. The team presented its initial results this month (February 2014) at the SPIE Photonics West conference and recently filed a patent for this first-generation device and future technology advancements.”This new process is expected to help the pathologist make a more rapid diagnosis and be able to determine more accurately how invasive the cancer has become, leading to improved prognosis,” said Eric Seibel, a UW research professor of mechanical engineering and director of the department’s Human Photonics Laboratory.The new instrumentation would essentially automate and streamline the manual, time-consuming process a pathology lab goes through to diagnose cancer. Currently, a pathologist takes a biopsy tissue sample, then sends it to the lab where it’s cut into thin slices, stained and put on slides, then analyzed optically in 2-D for abnormalities.The UW’s technology would process and analyze whole tissue biopsies for 3-D imaging, which offers a more complete picture of the cellular makeup of a tumor, said Ronnie Das, a UW postdoctoral researcher in bioengineering who is the lead author on a related paper.”As soon as you cut a piece of tissue, you lose information about it. If you can keep the original tissue biopsy intact, you can see the whole story of abnormal cell growth. You can also see connections, cell morphology and structure as it looks in the body,” Das said.The research team is building a thick, credit card-sized, flexible device out of silicon that allows a piece of tissue to pass through tiny channels and undergo a series of steps that replicate what happens on a much larger scale in a pathology lab. The device harnesses the properties of microfluidics, which allows tissue to move and stop with ease through small channels without needing to apply a lot of external force. It also keeps clinicians from having to handle the tissue; instead, a tissue biopsy taken with a syringe needle could be deposited directly into the device to begin processing.Researchers say this is the first time material larger than a single-celled organism has successfully moved in a microfluidic device. …

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What’s behind a #1 ranking? Open-source LineUp software enables granular analysis of subjective ranking systems

Behind every “Top 100” list are a generous sprinkling of personal bias and subjective decisions. Lacking the tools to calculate how factors like median home prices and crime rates actually affect the “best places to live,” the public must take experts’ analysis at face value.To shed light on the trustworthiness of rankings, Harvard researchers have created LineUp, an open-source application that empowers ordinary citizens to make quick, easy judgments about rankings based on multiple attributes.”It liberates people,” says Alexander Lex, a postdoctoral researcher at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). “Imagine if a magazine published a ranking of ‘best restaurants.’ With this tool, we don’t have to rely on the editors’ skewed or specific perceptions. Everybody on the Internet can go there and see what’s really in the data and what part is personal opinion.”The first dynamic visualization software of its kind, LineUp allows users to assign weights to different parameters to create a custom ranking. For example, users might look at the raw data behind university rankings and decide for themselves the relative importance of student-faculty ratios or the number of citations per faculty member.So intuitive and powerful is LineUp, that its creators — Lex; his adviser Hanspeter Pfister, An Wang Professor of Computer Science at SEAS; Nils Gehlenborg, a research associate at Harvard Medical School; and Marc Streit and Samuel Gratzl at Johannes Kepler University in Linz — earned the best paper award at the IEEE Information Visualization (InfoVis) conference in October 2013.LineUp is part of a larger software package called Caleydo, an open-source visualization framework developed at Harvard, Johannes Kepler University, and Graz University of Technology. Caleydo visualizes genetic data and biological pathways — for example, to analyze and characterize cancer subtypes.”LineUp really was developed to address our need to understand the ranking of genes by mutation frequency and other clinical parameters in a group of patients,” explains Pfister. “It is an ideal tool to create and visualize complex combined scores of bioinformatics algorithms.””We started thinking about how we can make this easy for biologists to understand and how we can tell them what the most important parts of the dataset are,” says Lex.While LineUp is still being applied to formal genetic research, the group has chosen to also apply their work to simpler, more familiar ranking problems — for example, the healthiness of different foods, best employers, or the best places to live.LineUp introduces a dynamic element to the static analysis usually done on an Excel spreadsheet. It allows the user to immediately consider or ignore columns in a dataset by simply dragging them into or out of the window. It also enables side-by-side comparisons of alternative weighting systems.And of course, not all metrics contribute to an item’s rank the same way. Higher values of some metrics imply a higher rank, but not in all cases. …

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