The idea of computer versus human has been intriguing. Humans have built computer algorithms that perform incredible feats – Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo and AlphaZero are mastering complex games of Go and chess, and defeating human champions faster than anyone thought possible.
But, there is a place where humans are teaching computers how to solve problems, not the other way around. One research group in Washington has asked the public to help them pursue one of the knottiest problems in biology: how do proteins fold?
In 2008, Professor David Baker’s lab at the University of Washington, with other collaborative institutions, developed and released FoldIt, a downloadable game accessible to anyone with a computer. The game would teach players the basics of protein structural biology, then challenge them to predict the structure a given simulated protein would fold into. Players can wiggle, shake, or swing the protein around to arrange it into its most stable configuration.
The players ended up excelling and going beyond just predicting structures. By 2011, they were helping stumped scientists solve the structures of real life proteins – for example a retrovirus protein (for a monkey virus similar to HIV). The following year, in 2012, they took an enzyme designed by scientists and modified it in FoldIt by rearranging part of the structure so it worked 18-times better.
The players then took it another step forward. Now, researchers have reported in a recent paper published in Nature Letters that citizen scientist gamers, by playing FoldIt, came up with their own design for stable protein structures from scratch.
The authors of the paper, led by University of Washington research scientist Brian Koepnick, took 146 player-designed proteins from the simulated world of FoldIt and synthesized them in the lab. Out of these, 56 were stable in real life, with 20 different types of folds (like a helix or a bend), one of which has never before been observed in nature. When the researchers used biophysical techniques to obtain detailed 3D structures of four of the player-designed proteins, they saw that the real-life structures were pretty spot on with what the players designed on the computer.
Proteins are molecular machines responsible for running each and every cell that make up every single living organism on earth. Their functions come from their structures, in the same way that a hammer's ability to drive nails comes from the flat surface on its head. Proteins are made of amino acids, arranged with each one connected to the next like beads on a string. Amino acids, each with their own properties and preferences, can push and pull on each other to force the entire protein into a stable shape. But it’s hard to predict how amino acids connected in a 2D linear chain will arrange themselves into a 3D structure.
The human body alone is predicted to have at least 10,000 types of unique proteins. To experimentally determine even one protein’s structure in the lab is a long, tedious, and expensive process that isn’t even guaranteed to work. So we strive to be able to predict a protein’s structure with just its amino acid sequence without having to put in that time. Unfortunately, there’s no direct translation from amino acid to 3D structure. There are just too many possibilities for a chain of amino acids to arrange itself. Computers can simulate protein folding and run through the possibilities to find the most stable structure faster than we ever could.
If protein structures are hard to predict and harder to customize, they’re even harder to build from scratch. Consider predicting how a 2D linear chain of amino acids folds into a 3D structure versus having a 3D structure in mind and going backwards, predicting what amino acids you can use to design it. The possibilities are vast even for a computer to handle. Yet, everyday gamers learned to fold proteins in ways that set them apart from computer algorithms.
To understand the players' methods and strategies for designing proteins, the authors looked through snapshots of their structures throughout their design process. They noticed that players would frequently go back to earlier versions of their structure to try out other options of folding their protein. As a result, gamers end up exploring a complex variety of possibilities while most typical computer-automated programs would consider two options, make the decision, and move on.
This also meant that to arrive at a final stable structure, players tried out more unstable structures to try new possibilities, which the computer program would avoid to maintain the most stable structure it could throughout the process. Human gamers are also known to have pattern-recognition skills and puzzle-solving intuition. Couple these traits with some creativity and natural human curiosity, and you get another step further towards understanding how proteins fold.
Structural biologists are driven by the idea that “structure equals function.” It means that knowing a protein’s structure allows us to understand how it functions. If proteins play a role in every single living organism, knowing how each one works is powerful knowledge. While this set of player-designed structures had no biological purpose, new designs could. “Since proteins are part of so many diseases, they can also be part of the cure. Players can design brand new proteins that could help prevent or treat important diseases,” say FoldIt's creators. Isn’t this one step closer?
Luyi Cheng studies
and Structural Biology
Molecular Biology and Structural Biologyat
People playing video games on their laptops, looking very intense.
Gene manipulation paved the way for a brand-new chapter in science. Could atom manipulation lead to the same revolution? Would it allow us to create new and exotic molecules? Apparently so!
Chemists have been long fascinated by the idea of manipulating carbon atoms and add to the list of carbon allotropes. These type of structures should theoretically exist; however, making them in the chemistry lab has thus far resulted in little success. The main problem is the high reactivity of carbon rings with oxygen, which causes them to quickly undergo chemical reactions and break down into other compounds once they are formed.
But now, chemists at the University of Oxford and the IBM research lab in Switzerland have successfully used an atom manipulation technique to create a new chemical structure fully made of carbon, called a carbon ring.
Engineering the carbon ring was a delicate process. First they created a carbon-oxygen structure, which they laid on a copper plate covered with sodium chloride, or common table salt. Then, they applied an electric current to the structure to remove the oxygen atoms one by one and obtain the circular 18-carbon ring. They did all of this while peering through special high-resolution microscopes that allowed them to see individual atoms, approaches called scanning tunneling and atomic force microscopy.
The carbon ring is called a cyclocarbon, and early analysis has found that this molecule acts as a semiconductor - meaning that it could be very useful in the future as a tiny transistor. More importantly, this new atom manipulation technique may lead to a burst of new research, and potentially the generation of other new molecules.
a black and white molecular model made of plastic
Whether it’s encouraging the use of reusable cups, banning plastic straws, or charging customers for plastic bags in grocery stores, it’s clear that some companies and policymakers are beginning to take measures against the growing issue of plastic waste. It's easy to imagine science as an answer to our current sustainability crisis, as it offers the development of new environment-friendly materials, low emission technologies, and the production of discoveries and evidence that can help us fight climate change. But could those working on the solution also be contributing to the problem?
According to an audit at the University of Washington, disposable gloves, made from nitrile or latex, are a laboratory's main contribution to landfill waste, making up around a quarter of the waste sent to the trash by scientists. Gloves contaminated with chemicals are considered hazardous waste, and must be disposed of accordingly to ensure public and environmental safety. Some researchers choose to reuse gloves that are still clean after one use, but this is not always possible — gloves can get sweaty, tear, and are sometimes tricky to put on once they’ve come off. Importantly, gloves are mainly a prevention measure and do not always become contaminated, so they are thrown in the trash rather than the hazardous waste bin, ending up in a landfill. Instead, gloves could be recycled.
In the last five years, the University of Edinburgh's School of Chemistry has diverted one million gloves — 15 metric tons of plastic — from landfill waste. The department was the first in Europe to sign up to the KIMTECH Nitrile Glove Recycling Program, also known as RightCycle, run by Kimberly Clarke Professional, a multinational consumer goods corporation, and TerraCycle, a company that specializes in recycling unconventional items. The scheme is operated not only in the United Kingdom, but also in the United States, with laboratories at the University of California Santa Cruz, University of Illinois, University of Texas Austin, and Purdue University signed up to the program. Between 2011 and 2017, more than 360 metric tons of waste — about 24 million gloves — were diverted from landfill because of the program. The nitrile gloves are turned into plastic granules that, after blending with other recycled plastics or being milled into a powder, form composite raw materials that can later be processed and turned into bins, garden equipment, furniture, or even rubber flooring and ground covering for sports facilities.
Tim Calder, Waste Management Officer for the University of Edinburgh's School of Chemistry, came across the scheme when talking to a Fisher Scientific representative who mentioned the nitrile glove recycling program. Calder bought 200 collection boxes in February 2014 and notified laboratory staff that they could take one to their lab on request. Since then, when the boxes are full, they are taken down to a larger collection point in the school’s stores facilities, which are emptied every six to eight weeks by TerraCycle. “I was involved with sustainability at the University and looking for new opportunities,” says Calder. He believes the initiative has been successful because “the staff and students here have been happy to do their bit.”
According to a 2015 estimate, around 5.5 million tons of plastic are produced in bioscience research facilities alone every year — so why aren’t recycling programs more popular? The reason why many single-use plastic products, including laboratory gloves, are not conventionally recycled, is that doing so is not usually economically viable. Collecting and processing them through regular streams costs more than the value of the material left at the end. However, this particular recycling scheme works because TerraCycle collects a range of hard-to-replace plastics, from a variety of institutions, which are processed and then combined to make composite materials that can be processed into useful products. Participating laboratories only have to pay for the transport of the gloves to their nearest collection warehouse location.
The School of Chemistry is currently the only department at the University of Edinburgh to take part in the RightCycle program, despite sharing a campus with other science facilities. Even when individuals have the initiative to adopt more sustainable practices in their labs, it is difficult to know where to start, or how to design programs that can be upheld in the long-term and will be embraced by students and staff. Each university or research institution has different protocols for how laboratory waste streams are handled, so a collective effort between building managers, laboratory staff, and department heads is crucial for the success of such initiatives. The implementation of the glove recycling scheme in current universities has often relied on the initiative of staff or students, which is often rare as researchers are often already too busy to spend their time developing sustainable policies for their departments. Institutions should instead fund a position dedicated to supervising the management of waste, someone who can liaise between their institution and recycling companies, as well as looking at how to make sustainability a priority in the department’s policies.
In fact, there are other laboratory materials that recycling programs could target: researchers go through plenty of other single-use plastic items daily, such as pipette tips, petri dishes, and vials. Currently, chemical contamination limits the amount of material that can be recycled, but future efforts should focus on finding ways to neutralize equipment contaminated with common solvents to enable their recycling. To reduce plastic waste, facilities could also look at replacing plastic equipment with reusable glassware where possible, or recycling the plastic packaging in which chemicals are purchased.
The question of sustainability in the lab goes beyond plastic waste, with increasing efforts to adopt a "circular economy" approach by recovering used solvents for reuse, sharing leftover chemicals between departments, and creating chemical management systems to ensure an efficient distribution of resources. As these lab practices become more widespread, they will serve to not only minimize waste, but also save funds and materials.
Simone Eizagirre studies
University of Cambridge
University of Cambridge.
A plastic glove being thrown in hazardous waste garbage bin.
This week, over 8,300 researchers, exhibitors, and journalists arrived in Houston to attend the 2019 American Society of Human Genetics’ (ASHG) Annual Meeting to learn more about cutting edge research in the field of human genetics and genomics. Interestingly, one issue kept popping up throughout the ASHG meeting: the lack of diversity in human genomics research.
This isn’t a new issue.
The human reference genome — the sequence to which all DNA is mapped in reference to — is largely based on individuals of European descent, making it difficult for individuals from under-represented groups to benefit from current progress in genomics. In fact, 70% of the human reference sequence actually originates from a single individual. While this reference genome has helped pushed the field forward, it doesn’t accurately represent our global genomic landscape.
Researchers are aware of this issue — and here’s how they’re tackling diversity in genomics research.
One remarkable effort is being carried out by the Human Hereditary and Health in Africa (H3Africa) consortium, which was launched in 2013 to address the under-representation of African individuals in genomics. H3Africa, with support from the National Institutes of Health, sequenced the entire genome of 426 individuals from 13 different countries, providing a more complete picture of Africa’s genomic diversity.
In the opening ASHG plenary session, Neil Hanchard, assistant professor at the Baylor College of Medicine, shared that this large-scale sequencing effort identified over three million novel single nucleotide variants — which have not yet been observed in current (largely European) genomic databases. For example, surveyed populations from Mali and Botswana had at least 6,000 novel common variants. This concept of "rare" and "common" variants is particularly important since how frequent a variant is in a population is often used to infer pathogenicity (i.e. how damaging it is). The H3Africa consortia’s initial findings show that some previously classified pathogenic variants are in fact not rare and are found in variable frequencies across African genomes.
“This is a starting point,” said Hanchard at the plenary meeting. “African genomes have the potential to inform the [genomics] field more globally.”
In a similar vein, a group of US researchers sequenced over 300 genomes from around the world, including both male and female individuals from different sub populations. By looking at breakpoints and sequence content, the researchers were able to use a technique called de novo assembly to align unique sequences (which previously could not be mapped) to the reference genome, thus constructing a more representative, and detailed, reference genome.
In addition to ongoing efforts like the ambitious All of Us program, these efforts can together help us move towards a future where people everywhere — regardless of their geographic location or ethnicity - will all be able to reap the benefits of human genomics research.
Torn black and white headshots of eight different women.
The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) entered into force in 1982, with the express purpose of ensuring “the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources.” This focus on conservation was revolutionary because other similar international environmental agreements took single-species approaches to regulating fisheries, whereas CCAMLR took an ecosystem-based approach to preserving the Southern Ocean as a whole. In its opening lines, the convention insisted on the “importance of safeguarding the environment and protecting the integrity of the ecosystem of the seas surrounding Antarctica.”
While the text of the convention endorses taking an ecosystem-based approach to protecting Antarctic marine living resources, implementing these principles has been a more gradual process. Initially, CCAMLR focused its attention on immediate concerns such as managing krill fisheries and then in the 1990s on reducing illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing within the Antarctic. In the last two decades, however, CCAMLR members have sought to more fully implement the holistic management principles articulated in the early 1980s by establishing a representative network of marine protected areas (MPAs), with two major successes: the designation of the South Orkney Islands Southern Shelf and the Ross Sea Region MPAs.
Despite these successes, other threats remain. In particular, some member countries have sought to advance their own agenda and engage in unrestricted fishing by reinterpreting the Convention and downplaying its roots as a conservation instrument. While the Convention’s definition of ‘conservation’ does include ‘rational use,’ it so strongly lays out the limited circumstances under which fishing may take place that this further highlights the intent of the original architects of the agreement, who intended for it to be a conservation-oriented instrument consistent with the principles of the Antarctic Treaty System. These efforts to undermine the convention have not gone unnoticed, and other parties have pushed back to ensure that CCAMLR remains able to protect the Southern Ocean ecosystem.
Hammering out international environmental agreements and keeping them up to date is no easy task, and one that I explain more in a new paper, published in Aquatic Conservation. It examines the process of reaching consensus on proposed conservation measures to better understand the role of informal and external drivers in establishing large-scale networks of MPAs. Based on these insights, I also outline a series of recommendations for transboundary conservation efforts, which are likely to become increasingly more important as we tackle climate change and other large environmental issues.
two penguins with ships in the background
There's been a bevy of heavy metal, superpower-imbuing robotic suits in pop culture — think Halo, Avatar, or Iron Man. In fact, these fictional portrayals were what inspired researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute in the Biodesign Lab to develop a new exosuit.
Initially, the goal of the exosuit project was to develop military applications. (Not surprising, considering the project was funded primarily through DARPA.) The researchers combined traditional robotics with flexible fabrics and lightweight parts, resulting in a soft, wearable design.
The scientists realized this technology could also be a medical tool. Kathleen O’Donnell, a staff industrial designer at Harvard’s Wyss Institute, met with clinicians and quickly honed in on stroke patients, who often suffer from weakness and loss of control in one side of their body. O'Donnell's team envisioned designing a suit that could be attached around the waist and calf, to help stroke patients balance their strides, reducing the effort it takes to walk. Volunteers were soon recruited as study participants, and a team of roboticists, industrial designers, control engineers, and physical therapists began designing, testing, and iterating the suit.
The team quickly faced several major challenges. “We have algorithms that measure the way you walk and try to predict when are you taking a step so that we can time the assistance,” explains O'Donnell. This kind of responsive assistance was easy to control in soldiers, since they tend to walk with symmetric, regularly-paced strides. But stroke patients tend to walk with different compensations and irregularities.
“Everybody walks a little bit differently after their stroke. They have different compensations they may use. One person might hike their hip up as they’re walking. One person may swing their leg around as they’re walking,” says O'Donnell. “We had to understand how to ignore [the compensations] to some extent, but still get the information that we needed about their gait to time the assistance with their particular gait pattern.” This personalized capability required the team to build adaptable algorithms that adjust the suit's required assistance with every step. The resulting exosuit never imposes how to walk — it just helps the patient walk naturally.
Another major difference between soldiers and stroke patients is body type. While it’s easier to design for the typically fit physiques of soldiers, stroke patients' physiques vary widely. Since the suits need to attach closely to a patient’s body, individual body types can significantly change the design of the suit. O'Donnell explains, “From an apparel design side, understanding both the range and mechanisms we were using to attach [the exosuit] as securely as possible to the patients became more challenging.”
With a diverse group of patients, the team built a toolbox of strategies to individually fit an exosuit to every user. During one testing and recording with a patient, O'Donnell describes the patient's transformation as dramatic. “Her foot looked so much more confident, so much more stable. She was able to stand up straighter.” While she acknowledges that fitting the suit required time, even without any optimization, the change in patients was frequently instantaneous.
From the beginning, O'Donnell and her team focused on patient volunteers who had experienced strokes and could immediately benefit from the exosuit. “It has been such an amazing process to work with all these volunteers from the community,” says O'Donnell. “Our first volunteer is still one of the volunteers who comes in, five years later.” Licensing the technology from the Wyss Institute, O'Donnell guided the transition of the exosuit and began to manage clinical trials in the hopes of making the suit available to the millions of stroke patients in the United States today.
So far, the exosuit has been tested on more than 40 patients. Of course, there will be potential challenges in scaling the technology. “We have made as much of an effort as possible to get as diverse a range of patients as we can. That includes body sizes and types, walking speeds, [and the] types of assistive devices they use,” O'Donnell says.
Giving freedom back to stroke patients is just the beginning. O'Donnell says the exosuit could help many other kinds of patients too. Other injuries or disorders are also on their minds. “We are starting in stroke, but we could potentially see suits for MS [multiple sclerosis] or suits for Parkinson’s.” With the ability to quickly alter and control the assistance, the exosuits could help people undergoing physical therapy by providing assistance when needed and taking it away to help rebuild strength. On the other side of the spectrum, the exosuit could be used at home to provide general, consistent assistance. Luckily, being made out of fabric helps reduce the overall cost of the exosuit. The possibilities for exosuits in medicine will be exciting to watch.
Joshua Peters studies
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
A man going through physiotherapy/physical therapy in a gym.
It's hard to know what early humans ate. Since we can't ask them, in order to gain insight into the evolution of the human diet, scientists are generally forced to combine what we know about living primates with fossil records. And what we thought we knew about gorillas is that they're adapted to chew tough vegetation for hours on end, using the sharp crests on their molars to shear through tough leaves and stems. Teeth like these aren’t supposed to be able to be used to crack open hard nuts — but that’s exactly what primatologists in Loango National Park in Gabon recently observed one group of western lowland gorillas doing.
After watching Loango gorillas chow down on Coula edulis nuts for over three and a half years, Adam van Casteren of Washington University in St. Louis and colleagues from the Max Planck Institute published their surprising findings in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. These nuts are approximately the size of ping pong-balls, and are a seasonal resource in tropical west African forests; in this part of Gabon, they're only available from December through February, but are an energy-rich source of food.
During the 77 days that gorillas were seen eating the nuts, the large apes weren't cracking them open with rocks, the way you might have seen chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys doing in nature documentaries.
The gorillas were doing it the old fashioned way — with their teeth. This behavior was surprising to the researchers, because while gorillas have powerful jaws and chewing muscles, they don't have the kinds of flat, rounded molars that mammals who routinely crack hard foods open do. The sharp cusps on gorillas' molars are an adaptation to the fibrous vegetation that makes up most of their diet (though western lowland gorillas do also eat a lot of fruit). But these cusps are a biological liability when it comes to eating hard objects, because they don't distribute force the way a lower, more rounded cusp would. A cracked tooth could compromise a gorilla's ability to eat and a serious infection could be life-threatening.
So the researchers decided to test how hard the C. edulis nuts are, using what's called a portable universal testing machine, which measures force. They found that the average peak force needed to break the nuts open was just over 2700 N; this is about the same as required to crack open a macadamia nut's shell, something no sane human would attempt to do with their teeth. Then the scientists compared these measurements to predictions from previous research on how much force is needed to chip gorilla teeth, and what their maximum possible bite force might be. It turns out that the Loango gorillas are basically pushing their teeth to the limit. The range of measurements the researchers got from the testing machine comes close to the predicted maximum forces possible for gorilla jaw muscles to produce, and for their teeth to withstand.
While the frequency of this feeding behavior in the Loango group was inherently surprising (gorillas eating hard objects is extremely rare), what it might mean for our own dietary evolution is also intriguing.
In the hominin fossil record, there’s a longstanding debate over what drove the increase in size of chewing anatomy over time, especially in the australopithecines and members of the genus Paranthropus. Was it lots of repetitive chewing of tough vegetation, like gorillas normally do? Or was it hard-object feeding, like nut cracking? Both of these feeding strategies are considered challenging, because they require either frequent loading of the chewing anatomy — think how your jaw gets sore after chewing gum for hours — or the production of high bite forces. The new data on the Loango gorillas reframes this debate, because it turns out anatomy doesn’t give as clear of a signal about behavior as we thought.
Today, humans eat all kinds of different things — we're the ultimate dietary generalists. Teasing out whether our hominin relatives were similarly undiscriminating will require many different types of evidence, from the anatomy of fossils, to the isotopes incorporated into their bones via their diets, to the pits and scratches left behind on the surfaces of their teeth. But the surprising observations in Loango will spark a rethinking of form-function relationships — the relationship of a body-part to its purpose. As they had enlarged chewing muscles and jaws, our hominin ancestors and cousins could have been more flexible in their food choices we originally thought; they might have been specialized for one diet, but very capable of eating another when their preferred resources were scarce.
Rather than thinking of big chewing muscles and jaws as an adaptation to a single challenging diet, this new finding probably means we've been underestimating just how broad early hominin diets were.
Darcy Shapiro studies
While rabies is relatively rare in humans in the United States, it's much more common in wildlife like raccoons, skunks, and bats. In fact, rabid raccoons have been identified in every state along the Atlantic coast. Since no wild raccoon wants to be trapped and stuck with a needle, the vaccines are instead put into baits, which the raccoons find and eat. Now, scientists and wildlife managers in Virginia are distributing a vaccine for raccoons that could prevent them from getting rabies. These baits have been used in the United States in one form or another since the 1990’s in foxes and coyotes as well as raccoons — but the project only recently came to southwest Virginia.
Although rabid animals are found across the country, so far raccoon rabies is limited to the Eastern Seaboard, and wildlife managers are hoping to use these vaccines to make sure it stays that way. Rabies is a pretty scary disease, so limiting its spread is extremely important. Symptoms, which may not develop for weeks or months after a bite from an infected animal, start off seeming like the flu — a fever, chills, muscle weakness, a headache — but quickly get much worse. The rabies virus attacks the brain and nervous system, and as the disease progresses patients may have anxiety, confusion, psychotic symptoms, a fear of water, and sometimes paralysis before they fall into a coma and die.
Most residents of first-world nations with advanced medical systems rarely worry about rabies because vaccines are readily available for both them and their pets. However, rabies remains a significant threat worldwide, particularly in rural areas of the Global South. Every year more than 59,000 people die from rabies, about half of whom are children under the age of fifteen. Globally, 99 percent of human cases are caused by contact with rabid dogs. Although they have not yet been widely implemented, studies on similar vaccinated baits have shown promise in combating rabies in dogs and thus in reducing risk to humans.
The international healthcare and economic burden of influenza in the United States alone is approximately $11.2 billion annually. Our best defense, the flu shot, takes almost a full year of planning to produce, made by groups such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This flu shot is generated months in advance of flu season (which runs from October to March in North America), based on the three "biggest risk" strains in southern hemisphere countries that have already experienced their flu season for the year.
Contrary to popular belief, the flu shot does not have any live influenza virus in it. Exposure to dead flu virus particles stimulates an immune response, and makes immune cells and antibodies able to fight off the virus. These antibodies are "remembered" by the immune system, so that if your body comes in contact with that particular flu strain again, it has specialized immune cells waiting in the wings to quickly combat the invader. Some people may feel slightly ill or warm after getting their flu shot, but this is the immune system building up its defense for future fights against this bug, not an actual flu infection itself.
Given this potential protection, it is surprising that the proportion of people who get the flu shot in a given season is low in North American countries, where the shot is readily available. During the U.S. 2017-2018 influenza season, just 45-50% of the U.S. population reported getting their flu shot. Vaccination rates in Canada are even lower, at approximately 37% of the population.
Vaccination rates matter because those of us who do get our flu shots protect those who are unable to get the shot for medical reasons, like immunocompromised individuals. This is called "herd immunity", meaning that enough people in a population are vaccinated to protect the unimmunized from getting the flu. The vaccination rate required to achieve herd immunity for flu is about 80%, far greater than current vaccination rates in the U.S. and Canada.
There are two predominant vaccine formulations available in North America: a live, weakened version of the virus (for example FluMist, available as a nasal spray), and a killed, injectable vaccine (the flu shot). While women are not encouraged by healthcare professionals to get the live vaccine during pregnancy, it is safe for them to receive the killed vaccine. Because their bodies need to protect the growing fetus as well as themselves, pregnant women have altered immune responses compared to non-pregnant individuals that make them more susceptible to severe influenza infection.
In a study published in the journal Cell Host and Microbe at the end of the 2016-2017 flu season, a team of German scientists led by Géraldine Engels set out to understand how pregnant women's bodies respond to flu infections. They infected pregnant mice with the H1N1 flu strain (commonly known as Swine Flu) to test their immune responses to the virus. They measured amounts of several immune cells and the amount of virus detected in the lung tissue of the pregnant mice after infection. They found that that pregnant mice tended to harbor more virulent (i.e. more harmful) flu viruses than non-pregnant mice. In other words, the viruses are able to take advantage of a "distracted" host immune system and turn the body into their playground, becoming more pathogenic and capable of causing severe disease as they replicate.
The results of this study make the problem of low vaccination rates even more alarming. The CDC reported a vaccination rate of approximately 54% for pregnant women in the U.S., similar to the national average, but according to Engels' research, the remaining 46% of unvaccinated pregnant women may be at higher-than-average risk of passing more dangerous flu viruses to others.
A large reason why many people in developed countries do not vaccinate against seasonal influenza is because they believe it is a low threat virus. We vaccinate for chicken pox, measles, mumps, and polio because they are life-threatening illnesses, but are less fearful of the flu because it has a low death rate among healthy people. But practice makes perfect, and viruses get a lot of practice, randomly swapping out different genetic information across generations to get the perfect combination to infect as many hosts as possible. The flu this year is different from the flu of last year, and some strains of flu can lead to high death rates even in healthy people.
Some propaganda says the influenza vaccine is harmful to pregnant mothers and developing fetuses. But many clinical studies have shown that these side-effects are not linked to the seasonal flu shot. The CDC advises women at any stage of their pregnancy to receive the seasonal influenza vaccination, due to the many adverse effects that influenza infection can have on a fetus, such as neural tube defects, a serious and often fatal developmental problem.
Prevention is key when it comes to influenza infections, particularly seasonal influenza. Even if you got your flu shot last year, you should know that the dominant seasonal flu strains change from year-to-year, so each year is a fresh slate. Getting your vaccination is as important for those who cannot be vaccinated as it is for you. The flu shot is low-cost, readily available, and safe for pregnant and non-pregnant individuals alike. The power to prevent the next deadly flu epidemic — and protect the next generation — could be in your (pharmacist's) hands.
Marnie Willman studies
University of Manitoba Bannatyne
and National Microbiology Laboratory
University of Manitoba Bannatyne and National Microbiology Laboratory.
pregnant woman standing against a black background
Vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus) do drink blood, which can be off-putting. However, vampire bats are also very cuddly, at least with one another. Female bats cluster together for warmth, share food, and groom their cuddle-mates by licking each other’s fur. Being groomed can reduce stress, lower heart rate, and promote cooperation.
It’s clear that bats benefit from being groomed, but not why others volunteer to be the groomer. Bat grooming often prompts animal behavior researchers to ask: why do animals do nice things, like grooming?
To study when bats are willing to groom one another, researchers at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute set up two tests for a colony of female vampire bat. In the first test, scientists rubbed water on the fur of each bats’ back, and then measured the amount of time each wet bat spent being groomed by other bats.
As expected, bats were groomed more after getting wet. So, it appears that vampire bats will help out a friend in need. However, the second test showed that groomers weren’t only motivated by helping one another.
In the second test, scientists grouped a few female bats in clear cages for 30 minutes at a time, watching for each moment when one bat groomed another. The scientists noted what was happening just before each grooming event to measure how often the bats were grooming themselves before leaning over to spare a lick for a friend.
The researchers found that one bat is most likely to groom another if the groomer has just been grooming herself. In short, some bats agree to groom others just because they like to lick. Perhaps the act of grooming reduces anxiety, just as being groomed does.
Studying the details of how animals cooperate is useful for understanding how social groups stay together in nature. For vampire bats, grooming isn’t all about utilitarianism or the fear of punishment. Sometimes, bats groom because they want to.
vampire bat snarling while sitting on wood log
I saw a tweet the other day that sent chills up my spine.
I'm jealous of Californians who get to spend all week sitting in the dark with all their tarantulas. https://t.co/hNNX8EdTzu— Alex Wild (@Myrmecos) October 9, 2019
I'm a field biologist, so I've spent plenty of time in the company of creepy crawlies, and I wouldn't call myself an arachnophobe, but something about sitting in a room where the lights have been shut off to prevent massive fires driven by a climate change-induced drought surrounded by migrating tarantulas sounds like my "The Day After Tomorrow" nightmare.
The mass tarantula migration is actually the least worrisome part of this story. Male tarantulas across the western part of the United States are migrating right now in search of mates. Tarantulas, with their huge, hairy bodies, look intimidating, but actually are not dangerous to humans. They have intricate courtship rituals that occasionally end up with the male as a meal instead of just a mate. And although this year's migration is slightly larger than it usually is, this is a normal phenomenon that happens from about mid-August to mid-October each year. Even if you (understandably) don't want to share your space with these eight-legged furballs, experts say that if you spot one you should just leave it alone.
But something much more frightening than migrating tarantulas is happening in California at the same time. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E), the main power company for much of the heavily-populated Bay Area, has shut off power to 800,000 customers in the region in the face of a red-flag wildfire and wind warning. High winds and increasingly dry weather caused by climate change mean that the entire area is — again — at risk of going up in flames.
And this lack of preparation is, on some level, just a combination of greed, incompetence, and willful disregard for the environment. PG&E was found responsible for last year's deadly Camp Fire in Paradise, California, after faulty power lines sparked the blaze. And in April, the company was admonished by a judge for paying out shareholder dividends instead of trimming trees around dangerous lines. Now a large portion of California residents are paying the price as they spend unknown amounts of time in darkness.
U.S. infrastructure is simply not prepared for climate change. Hundreds of thousands in California are now reaping the whirlwind of that inaction. PG&E's sloth and ignorance put people, particularly those that rely on electricity for medical devices, in grave danger. There's many horrifying aspects of this story, but the one that stands out to me is that the only backup plan for people who need power for life sustaining medical equipment is for them to call an ambulance (presumably on their own dime).
Update, 3:30pm Wed: If you are power-dependent for medical reasons and in a potential shutoff area, please use your own resources to relocate to an unaffected area. If unable to relocate and power loss will cause immediate life threat, call 911 for transport to an Emergency Room. pic.twitter.com/JtR2EIY06g— City of Berkeley (@CityofBerkeley) October 9, 2019
As many have said time and time again, the most vulnerable among us will be the first to experience — and are already experiencing — the impacts of climate change. People are going to suffer and die, and it won't just happen in huge dramatic ways like hurricanes and drought. It'll happen in lots of mundane, insidious, and unnecessary ways. Like not having access to electricity to power a breathing machine, or not having an air conditioner during a heat wave.
So by comparison I'm fine with the tarantulas.
yellow and black tarantula
In 2015 MIT cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Rebecca Saxe took a magnetic resonance image (MRI) of herself kissing her son, the first of its kind in the world. Writing about the experience for Smithsonian Magazine, Dr. Saxe said that she and her collaborators took the image “because we wanted to see it.” This arresting image, the MRI Mother and Child [you can see it at the Smithsonian link above], is both extremely modern, captured with cutting edge technology, and timeless in its imagery.
Now, four years later, a version of the image with red blobs lighting up the brains of both the Mother and Child, has gone viral again. Some posts about the image falsely conclude that the bright colors reflect the biology of the parent-child bond, mainly the release of hormones like oxytocin (the so-called ‘love’ hormone). Recently, Dr. Saxe took to Twitter to set the record straight.
My MRI Mother and Child has become the focus of a controversy this weekend.— Rebecca Saxe (@rebecca_saxe) September 12, 2019
Here’s the story.
The ‘blobs’ in the image aren’t hormonal at all, but are results from a scientific study on how infant brains process visual information conducted by Dr. Saxe herself. The colors on the image reflect parts of the brain that used more oxygen (in that actual infant and mother) while viewing faces compared to oxygen use in brains viewing natural scenes. In fact, there isn’t yet any way to directly measure the release of oxytocin or its levels in the brains of living humans. The closest we can come is to measure its levels in blood or saliva, or to measure how brain activity changes when we give someone oxytocin. Developing methods to measure oxytocin in human brains is an area of active research, but it will probably be many years until we’ll be able to use them to study infants.
close up of feet of a baby wrapped in a white blanket
Exposure to trauma is a common human experience — approximately 70% of us go through at least one traumatic event during our lifetimes. Many go on to recover from the trauma, which gets stored away as a bad memory.
However, in a subset of people, trauma persists in their minds and infiltrates their daily lives. They experience intrusive thoughts, such as reliving the experience through “flashbacks." They tend to avoid anything related to the event, and have changes in mood and in their physical and emotional reactions to everyday occurrences. Eventually, people who experience these symptoms may be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a chronic condition in which people continue to experience problems after a traumatic event.
PTSD is very prevalent, affecting between 7-10% of the population in the US. However, not everyone who has experienced trauma goes on to develop PTSD or other stress disorders. What’s different between people who do and do not develop PTSD?
Just like a poor diet and family history of heart problems can increase your risk of heart disease, different factors work together in tipping the balance towards risk of developing PTSD. And although many societal factors, like a lack of a support system and family instability, can increase the risk of a person developing PTSD, risk and resiliency may also lie within the trillions of connections in the brain.
Researchers have long suspected that features within the brain can be partly responsible for a person's susceptibility to trauma-induced stress. However, these have been difficult to unravel since PTSD patients are usually examined after their traumatic event, which precludes scientists from learning about biological elements that were there before the trauma occurred.
In a new research study published in Nature Communications, a group of researchers from Pennsylvania State University led by Nanyin Zhang, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine, have turned to rats that develop PTSD-like behaviors to test whether the variability in stress responses among humans could be linked to brain characteristics.
Zhang and his colleagues used resting state functional magnetic resonance imaging (RS-fMRI) to image the brains of rats before exposure to a predator scent, in this case fox urine, which mimics a stressful and traumatic experience. During exposure to the scent, animals freeze in their place, a sign that they are scared. Right from the start, they observed that not all rats responded the same way: some rats froze for a long time (a behavior they called “high-freezing”) while others froze for a shorter amount of time (“low-freezing”). Over a ten-minute observation period, high-freezing rats froze for about 40% of the time, or four minutes, while the low freezing rats only froze for about 90 seconds.
Zhang and the other researchers then delved into why these two groups responded so differently to the same stressful event. When the rats were re-exposed to the scent, both groups spent more time avoiding the predator scent than rats that had not been exposed to the scent. But they also found that rats that were part of the low-freezing group stayed farther away from the scent mark, suggesting they were more avoidant than the high-freezing group.
The researchers also performed a test called the elevated plus maze, which measures anxiety-like behavior by examining how much time rodents spend in open areas compared to closed areas. Six days after the initial scent exposure, they found that the low-freezing rats still exhibited heightened anxiety-like behavior, spending more time in the closed areas, while the high-freezing animals spent about the same amount of time in open areas as rats that had never been exposed to the predator scent.
This heightened anxiety-like behavior was accompanied by differences in their hormonal responses. Low-freezing animals had a more prolonged response of corticosterone, a hormone known to regulate stress responses. Surprisingly, only low-freezing rats exhibited responses and behaviors usually associated with PTSD. “Animals exposed to trauma exhibit differential threat response, and those displaying low-freezing behavior are vulnerable animals” says Zhang in an e-mail. It appeared that, due to their heightened stress responses, the group of low-freezing animals became susceptible to developing PTSD-like behaviors.
As they suspected, the researchers found that the traumatized rats' brains were wired differently, even before exposure to the predator scent, which may have determined their behavioral responses. Correlation analyses, which study the strength of a relationship between two factors, revealed 15 specific neural circuits associated with freezing time. Mainly these circuits were involved in olfactory and stress-related brain areas. For example, some connections to the amygdala, a key brain area that controls the stress response, were stronger in the low-freezing animals that developed PTSD-like behaviors. This suggests that pre-existing features in brain connectivity in rats may predispose animals to the development of PTSD-like behavior after a traumatic experience.
One caveat of the study is that they only studied male rats. Now, Zhang and his collaborators are conducting the same experiments in female rats. As women have two to three times higher risk of developing PTSD than men, female rats may present an even higher susceptibility to developing PTSD-like behaviors.
The authors propose that link between brain connectivity and PTSD could be similar in humans. Studies in humans have found that differences in certain brain areas, such as the hippocampus, which plays a role in learning and memory, may be a risk factor for developing PTSD after trauma, while other studies suggest increased activity of the amygdala as a potential risk factor. The study in rodents reinforces the idea that these differences may be there prior to trauma, increasing risk to developing PTSD.
If these results are confirmed in humans, it may provide a guide of brain connectivity that can determine an individual’s risk for developing PTSD after exposure to a threat or after trauma. Zhang believes these could be identified to prevent development of PTSD: “I hope this research will encourage more effort to examine subjects’ pre-existing conditions in clinical studies. This may help determine the risk of assigning an individual to a highly stressful environment, and thus reduce the rate of PTSD.” Possibly by looking at these specific circuits during routine scans, clinicians may be able to identify risk prior to entry into professions with high levels of stress, such as firefighters and airline pilots.
Understanding why specific circuits contribute to PTSD and other stress disorders will better inform patients and clinicians about the roots of the disorders. And hopefully, help us identify individual vulnerability by looking at connectivity through brain scans to be able to intervene before trauma occurs. But the results are just an interesting association for now. Zhang and his group plan to take it one step further: “The next step is to determine the causal relationship between the neural circuit function and animals’ response to threat, and long-term PTSD-like behaviors.”
Claudia Lopez-Lloreda studies
University of Pennsylvania
University of Pennsylvania.
A paramedic talks to a patient on a darkened street next to an ambulance with its lights flashing.
Have you ever wondered why you wash your rice — or soak it overnight — before cooking it? Perhaps you wash your rice grains to enhance taste, reduce starch levels, or maybe that's just the way your family has always prepped rice. Thanks to a tip from science communicator Samantha Yammine — who came across Dr. Nausheen Sadiq's neat finding while live-tweeting a forum on Diversity and Excellence in Science — it turns out there is another reason why, as washing rice actually helps reduce the concentration of heavy metals, like chromium, cadmium, arsenic, and lead.
Heavy metal contamination in crops can be caused by human activities, such as mining, fertilizers, pesticides, and sewage sludge. Compared to most cereal crops though, rice (Oryza sativa L.) actually accumulates more heavy materials, like cadmium or arsenic, where long-term heavy metal intake can cause health risks. For example, long-term arsenic exposure leads to skin disease, high blood pressure, and neurological effects. This is especially important to consider as rice is a staple food across the globe.
In a recent study, researchers investigated the effects of different cooking methods (normal, high-pressure and microwave cooking) on the concentration, bio-accessibility and health risks posed by three heavy metals (cadmium, arsenic and lead) in two strains of brown rice. After cooking 100 grams of brown rice grains, researchers evaluated bioaccessibility (i.e. how much of the heavy metal is released for absorption) by mixing rice samples with simulated gastric fluid, and then used spectrometery to measure heavy metal concentration. Lastly, the researchers calculated the health risk posed by the heavy metals by calculating values such as the average daily dose.
Overall, the researchers found that instead of the three different cooking methods, it was the washing process which significantly reduced concentrations of cadmium, arsenic and lead, suggesting that the reduction may be due to rice morphology. For example, lead is found largely in the outer compartments of rice kernels, so lead is more likely to be removed during rice washing.
In contrast, the three cooking methods did impact bioaccessibility i.e. how much of the heavy metal would be released for absorption by the body. Here, washing and soaking isn't enough as rice absorbs water poorly at 25°C. This finding was also reflected in calculated values: the average daily doses of cadmium, arsenic and lead were lower in washed and cooked rice, compared to raw rice.
It's worth noting that the European Commission has enforced limits on heavy metal levels - for example, arsenic is currently limited to 200 parts per billion (ppb) for adults and 100 ppb for infants. Both the U.S. and Canada currently have no limits in place for arsenic in food — though Canada is currently reviewing a proposal to add maximum levels for arsenic found in white and brown rice, while the U.S. FDA has previously released a (non-binding) risk assessment, suggesting the same 100 ppb levels as Europe.
So the takeaway here is that yes, your family and all those professional chefs have been right all along. Yes, washing rice involves sacrificing some of its nutritional value, but doing so means you can reduce the levels of heavy metals present in grains, and still enjoy dishes like rice cakes. And returning back to Yammine's reporting, Saudiq actually shared that by soaking and washing rice for ~5 mins, you can get rid of 50-100% of these elements. (Thanks Sam!)
Rice in a white bowl
We often think of moths as boring and plain, especially in comparison to their more colorful siblings, the butterflies. However, moths can be just as colorful, and the green forester moth (Adscita statices), with its shiny green body and wings, is a great example of this. But this particular moth doesn’t always have its brilliant green colour. In fact, if you were to spot it early in the morning, it might have a rusty red color. It changes its color to green during the day and when night falls, the green forester moth will turn red again.
In a new study, researchers from the University of Fribourg and Lund University investigated this curious phenomenon. They used electron microscopy to look at what the tiny scales on the green forester's wings are made of, and a combination of microscopy techniques and optical modelling to figure out how the moth achieves this colour change.
The researchers found that the moth wing scales contain a pigment which gives them their colour, like in many other insects. Interestingly, the green forester moth has two distinct types of scales: black ground scales, and coloured cover scales which have minuscule holes (50-300 nm wide) in the scales that can take up water. When these holes in the scales fill with water, it causes a distortion of the light and turns the moth from green to a rusty red. Because of this dynamic colour changing, the researchers have dubbed these moths ‘living water vapour sensors.’
This ability allows the moths to be camouflaged in the morning and evening using the red colour in its native habitats, such as the reddish brown stems of meadow plants. On the other hand, the green colour both signals to birds that the moth is poisonous, and to potential mates that they are a good mate choice. However, it does come at a cost. The water vapour that gets trapped in the wings will make the moths heavier and will therefore make flying harder.
How exactly the moth evolved this humidity-dependent colour-changing ability — despite it causing problems for flying — is still an open question to be answered by the scientists.
The green forester moth next to a plant. Shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license (i.e. credit needed, free to adapt/re-use, including commercial purposes).
As storms become more severe and more frequent, people around the world will need to get better at recovering from disasters. After Hurricane Maria struck in September 2017, for example, Puerto Ricans had to become experts in disaster recovery overnight. One such newly-minted authority is Christine Nieves, who has a vision of apoyo mutuo, or mutual aid.
Nieves left Puerto Rico when she was 18, after spending years feeling trapped on the island. She finished her education at UPenn and Oxford, but while living in the mainland United States, she realized that she didn't have a sense of community. So she decided to return home, just a few months before Hurricane Maria made landfall.
Nieves now lives in a small, mountainous community in Puerto Rico called Mariana. She wasn't concerned when she heard that a hurricane was on its way. "We didn't know what was coming," she said. Nieves remembers telling her mother, "I'm ready! We're going to be fine," — but the storm was much more destructive than expected.
After the worst of the hurricane was over, Nieves and her neighbors were in rough shape: Like most of the island's towns and cities, there was no electricity, no running water, and no cell phone service. People in Mariana knew that because of their isolated location, it would take days for government aid to reach them, so they took matters into their own hands.
Nieves and her partner decided to start a community kitchen. They got permission to use an industrial kitchen space. Finding food and cooks was a little bit harder than they anticipated, at least at first. Immediately after the hurricane, it was difficult or impossible to call anyone, so they had to go door to door to contact people. “When everything collapsed, there was a different system left," Nieves said. That effort made Nieves realize how reliant they had been on phones and the internet. "We need to really strengthen and understand how our infrastructure is fragile. But at the same time, we need to create systems that are not fragile, and not tech-related,” Nieves said.
She asked people, "What do you love to do? Do you want to come and join us?" Nieves ended up with a small team of local residents who had been hit hard by the storm, but still wanted to help. People contributed whatever they could, from beans to vegetables to bags of rice. Young people brought hot food to elderly neighbors. By the end of the week, the community kitchen was feeding 300 people every day. Even more importantly, everyone had a job to do.
In some ways, this may sound like an idealistic community of preppers. But instead of an individual person building up a cache of canned food and guns so they can hole up and wait out a disaster, Nieves says that mutual support brings communities together.
Community-based mutual support is totally different from how disaster recovery is usually approached. In many places, including parts of Puerto Rico, disaster survivors eat government-provided MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat) and wait in long lines to receive water or charge their phone. That's not to say they don't want to do anything, but sometimes all there is to do is wait.
In Nieves’ model, mutual aid allows community members play an active role in the survival and rebuilding process. It's not a new concept, but it's one that was necessary in Mariana: Government officials didn't reach Nieves' community until 12 days after the storm subsided.
Nieves pointed out that once help arrived, there was an additional layer of complication: many of her neighbors don't read English, so they were unable to understand the directions on the MREs that were distributed. They ended up eating them cold or without knowing what they contained.
So, even after some aid started coming in, the community kitchen continued. "Being able to eat something vibrant that was cooked with love transmits hope. We saw the difference between big operations that were giving you just enough food so that you wouldn't die, and the abuelas [grandmothers] who were going to give you a big plate so that you would be full and nourished for the whole day, with a smile."
Mariana spent nine months without electricity from the grid, and six without water. Even now, it isn't back to anything resembling normal. "There are a lot of blackouts, so there is a constant state of not knowing if you're going to need gas for your generator. You don't know if your food is going to rot. If you depend on electricity for oxygen, dialysis, anything ... good luck," Nieves told me.
Still, Nieves has hope that the lessons her community learned after Maria will help other towns in the future. "We believe that this is a model, or at least a series of ingredients, that every community needs to have if they're going to survive," she told me. "Communities are our best chance at adapting. Together we might be able to create more."
Gabriela Serrato Marks studies
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
A older woman prepares dinner in a dark kitchen in Puerto Rico.
A recent study in the journal PNAS injected rabbits with hormones to look at a potential link between the female orgasm and ovulation. The stock images (as seen below) used to promote the study had scientists and journalists up in arms on Twitter.
I'll let the tweets speak for themselves:
1. This study was in rabbits. RABBITS.— Bethany Brookshire (@BeeBrookshire) October 6, 2019
2. That whooshing sound? That's the sound of the opportunity to post cute, like-getting lil' rabbits going right over PNAS' head. https://t.co/EaZ77Hx4Sk
If female orgasm were evolutionarily intended to induce ovulation why does the ability to orgasm develop before the physiological ability to reproduce? https://t.co/mbGNWS5x7d— Jennifer Gunter (@DrJenGunter) October 6, 2019
People are mad about a scientific journal using this photo ... but not about it being another study whose premise is that female orgasms are some bizarre mystery of nature. Like all female physiology must be explained as a means to pregnancy ... and this study of rabbits is proof https://t.co/nIySSVRW90— James Hamblin (@jameshamblin) October 7, 2019
Won’t link to it. BUT. Rabbits are induced ovulators, i.e. intercourse triggers ovulation. So this is a bad system in which to test a flawed hypothesis. But way to suggest orgasm leads to pregnancy and legitimatizing the myth that getting pregnant means you “enjoyed it.” pic.twitter.com/EmBCwnFGHC— Dr. Julienne Rutherford, professional placentrix (@JNRutherford) October 6, 2019
This is SO WRONG change the image the study is about rabbits. JFC. https://t.co/z8zoyg6Rn5— Sarah Parcak (@indyfromspace) October 6, 2019
Misleading blurb and the wrong photo for a study on rabbits treated with ovulation drugs. Come on @PNASNews @pnas! We expect you to do better. If using a photo for this study then we want to see what a female rabbit orgasm looks like and not a human model faking one. https://t.co/8ZbgQKn5j8— Michal Tal (@ImmunoFever) October 6, 2019
On 6th October (9:24 PM EST), the PNAS journal offered an apology and took down the offending tweets.
Recent tweets that went out from @PNASNews about the paper, “An experimental test of the ovulatory homolog model of female orgasm,” were inappropriate and offensive. We have taken the tweets down. We apologize and are reviewing the decision-making with those involved.— PNAS (@PNASNews) October 7, 2019
angry rabbit in grass
What if you could melt the most dangerous parts of cancer cells into oblivion? Scientists are getting closer to making this a reality.
A team of chemical biologists from Yale University and Oregon Health and Science University, led by Yale postdoctoral researcher George Burslem, have shown that combining an existing cancer drug, imatinib, with a new form of drug that dramatically dissolves disease-causing proteins, can have powerful effects on chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) cancer cells.
Their findings, published recently in the journal Cancer Research, show that adding this therapy, called a PROTAC, to a standard cancer drug treatment can improve the effectiveness of the original drug.
CML is a type of cancer that affects bone marrow and the blood. It causes marrow to produce too many white blood cells, which can lead to tumor growth. It makes up about 15 percent of all leukemia cancers. According to the World Health Organization, around 100,000 people are affected by CML each year. In 2001, a breakthrough drug, imatinib, sometimes known by its commercial name Gleevec, was approved for treating CML patients.
Imatinib is seen as a landmark drug because it was the first of its kind to target a specific process in cancer cells that isn’t found in healthy cells (instead of just targeting rapidly dividing cells in general). In CML, the difference is caused by a mutated version of a protein called ABL1.
Proteins are molecular machines in our cells that carry out all sorts of jobs. Rogue ABL1 proteins work in combination with other proteins to command CML cells to replicate uncontrollably. Imatinib works by plugging a gap in the ABL1 protein, which stops it from carrying out its mission.
Although it was an important discovery in so-called "targeted cancer drug" development, the effectiveness of imatinib could be improved. Some 80 percent of CML patients end up on the drug for life or, if their cancer mutates, they develop drug resistance and imatinib no longer works for them. The Yale and Oregon researchers sought to address this issue of drug resistance in CML patients.
Enter PROTACs: rather than just plugging a protein like imatinib does, PROTAC drugs make use of an existing process in our bodies for recycling unwanted proteins. The PROTAC latches onto the offending protein and then calls over other proteins in the body, called ligases, which mark the unwanted molecule as trash. The cell's waste disposal system then obliterates it.
PROTAC stands for “proteolysis targeting chimera.” “Proteolysis” literally means “breaking down proteins,” and a chimera is a fire-breathing female monster from Greek mythology that has a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail. This technology has been in development for over 20 years, with the first-ever PROTAC study published in 2001.
Much like a chimera, a PROTAC is made up of three parts: the head, which fits into the disease-causing protein; the tail, which recruits the destroyer ligases; and a molecular chain that links the head and the tail. When developing PROTACs, chemists vary the head, tail, and linker chain length to find the perfect molecule that will degrade their protein of choice.
Initially, the researchers tried making a PROTAC that plugged into the same gap in ABL1 as imatinib, but it didn’t work particularly well. It didn’t fully degrade all of the ABL1 in the cancer cells.
So they changed tactics and tried to find a pre-existing molecule that fits into a different pocket of ABL1 to incorporate into their PROTAC template. Proteins have large, complex, 3D shapes with all sorts of crevices, some better targets than others for designing molecules that fit into them. Sufficiently plugging a gap in a protein with a drug molecule stops the protein from being able to carry out its normal function, a bit like how getting a key (the drug in this case) stuck in a lock (the gap) prevents you from opening a door.
Starting with a known lab-tested molecule meant they could make the PROTACs much more quickly than if they were starting from scratch. Encouragingly, they were far more successful with this version. Burslem and his colleagues were able to show that treating CML cancer cells with a combination of imatinib and their newly developed PROTAC killed more cancer cells than imatinib alone could.
They also showed this dual treatment didn’t have any effect on healthy cells. Combination therapies are becoming more common in cancer treatment to combat drug resistance, but this study is the first of its kind to combine a traditional drug with a PROTAC.
The discovery of this combination therapy gives a potential new option for CML patients who aren’t responding to imatinib by itself. Another PROTAC, designed to treat a form of drug-resistant prostate cancer is currently in clinical trials and, if successful, this ABL1 PROTAC is also likely to follow suit with animal and then, hopefully, patient trials.
There are now entire research conferences dedicated to PROTACs and this clinical trial will test whether the hype about this new kind of therapy is worthwhile. PROTAC research, in general, is becoming increasingly popular as researchers revisit proteins they previously thought were “undruggable,” such as the MYC (myelocytomatosis) oncogene, which can trigger multiple cancers, and tau, a protein involved in Alzheimer’s disease.
The rules of drug development are changing: proteins don’t just have to be plugged by small molecules these days. We can potentially apply old drugs in new ways using PROTAC technology. The combination of plugging and dissolving proteins could lead to another breakthrough in treating diseases like CML — a relief for tens of thousands of patients around the world.
Fiona Scott studies
and Chemical Cancer Biology
University of Sussex
Chemistry and Chemical Cancer Biologyat
University of Sussex.
a welder using a torch to melt metal
Reports of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like chlamydia are on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), chlamydia is the most common notifiable disease in the U.S., and among the most prevalent of all STIs in the world.
STIs are a serious public health matter, and chlamydia in particular is associated with a host of devastating burdens to individuals and society as a whole. Patients with chlamydia often do not present clinical symptoms, a dangerous feature of this infection, as untreated cases of chlamydia can lead to serious health outcomes for young women, including pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy and infertility. It has been reported that this inflammatory condition may facilitate other infections such as HIV.
Exactly how the cervicovaginal microbiome (the microbial community in an individual's cervix and vagina) might affect a woman's susceptibility to STIs is poorly understood. But, a type of bacteria called Lactobacillus are thought to play a protective role in the cervicovaginal environment. Researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine set out to understand the relationship between host and vaginal microbiome in an effort to identify how Lactobacillus might protect a woman from contracting chlamydia.
They found that Lactobacillus species that produced a specific shape of lactic acid molecule (called an isomer, in this case called D(−) lactic acid) were associated with protection against chlamydia and lower epithelial cell proliferation rates. One specific type of this bacteria, Lactobacillus iners, that did not produce D(-) lactic acid also provided little protection against chlamydia.
Our immune systems and microbiomes work hard to protect us from infection, and this paper is a great reminder of that. Further research is needed to improve our understanding of the role of the cervicovaginal microbiota in protection against STIs. This understanding could help us develop therapeutic strategies to minimize the burden of STIs and improve women’s health.
Pink stethoscope health doctor
In densely vegetated tropical forests, caves can be incredibly difficult to find. The entrances are sometimes tiny, just big enough to squeeze into, or covered with branches and leaves. Even when you have exact GPS coordinates, caves that haven’t been visited in a while can blend into the rest of the environment.
That means that it’s particularly difficult to find unmapped caves. Unfortunately, those undisturbed caves can also be the best places to find geological or archeological samples. That’s why , a graduate student at University of Texas - Austin, is trying to find a better way to search for caves. We first met last year, when we went caving in Belize. She’s a great caver because she is an accomplished rock climber, knowledgeable geologist, and pretty much completely fearless. I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that she had been finding caves in Belize that hadn’t been visited by humans for centuries.
Although you may think that geologists just go out to the field with rock hammers and whack stuff, is extremely computational — she’s using machine learning to find the unmapped caves. Her approach combines LiDAR images (using lasers to create 3D maps) with other information about the terrain, like slope and distance to streams. Though the hasn’t been peer reviewed yet, it has been tested (cave reviewed?): she successfully used the machine learning to and sinkholes during a summer of ground-truthing.
Now that Donn knows her algorithm works, she’s going to add more training data and expand her analysis area. In the future, this research could be used to find more caves, but also to better manage wide swaths of forested areas.
The exit of a cave to the outside, seen from inside the cave.
In general, neuroscientists consider anthropomorphizing animal behavior to be a faux pas. But increasing evidence indicates that many human behaviors can be observed in other animals, if only in a rudimentary form. Well-known to many people who keep rats as pets is their ability to play. Recently, researchers in Germany published a study on play behavior in rats, specifically the game hide-and-seek. This game may seem relatively simple, but requires complex behaviors including decision-making and perspective-taking.
Fascinatingly, rats were able to learn to be both hiders and seekers. The game began when rats were placed in a box. If the box was open, the rats learned that this meant they were supposed to go and hide. The rats were able to strategize hiding location and showed a preference for an opaque box hiding place rather than a clear box. If the lid was initially closed, the rats learned that this meant they had to go and find the experimenter.
The experimenter would pet and tickle the rat at the end of the trial. In many tasks used in modern neuroscience, food is used as a reward, but in this study, the social interaction and the "fun" of the activity were enough to motivate the rats to learn this complex behavior. Further supporting this, the researcher saw that rats were having “fun” as evidenced by excitement behaviors such as freudensprung (“joy jumps”), and rats re-hiding after being found.
To understand underlying processes of this, electrical signals were recorded from the prefrontal cortex, a brain region involved in learning and social behavior. These recordings showed a subset of cells were activated during play and specifically when the box was closed (the game start cue). Scientists are still trying to figure out the implications of the neural activity that was recorded during these play activities. While we cannot see what the rats were thinking, this study does present important evidence of play behavior in rodents. Hide-and-seek is a complex game that allows for several aspects of the cognition to be studied (decision making, navigation, perspective taking). A task like this has lots of promise to be used to study the basis for animal behavior which could have potential implications in furthering our understanding of human behavior.
person in a lab coat holding a white lab rat
person in a lab coat holding a white lab rat
On the eve of the September UN Climate Action Summit, young women and men around the world mobilized by the millions and told global leaders: “You are failing us”.
They are right.
Global emissions are increasing. Temperatures are rising. The consequences for oceans, forests, weather patterns, biodiversity, food production, water, jobs and, ultimately, lives, are already dire — and set to get much worse.
The science is undeniable. But in many places, people don’t need a chart or graph to understand the climate crisis. They can simply look out the window.
Climate chaos is playing out in real time from California to the Caribbean, and from Africa to the Arctic and beyond. Those who contributed least to the problem are suffering the most.
I have seen it with my own eyes from cyclone-battered Mozambique to the hurricane-devastated Bahamas to the rising seas of the South Pacific.
I called the Climate Action Summit to serve as a springboard to set us on the right path ahead of crucial 2020 deadlines established by the Paris Agreement on climate change. And many leaders — from many countries and sectors — stepped up.
A broad coalition -- not just governments and youth, but businesses, cities, investors and civil society — came together to move in the direction our world so desperately needs to avert climate catastrophe.
More than seventy countries committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, even if major emitters have not yet done so. More than 100 cities did the same, including several of the world’s largest.
At least seventy countries announced their intention to boost their national plans under the Paris agreement by 2020.
Small Island States together committed to achieve carbon neutrality and to move to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030.
Countries from Pakistan to Guatemala, Colombia to Nigeria, New Zealand to Barbados vowed to plant more than 11 billion trees.
More than 100 leaders in the private sector committed to accelerating their move into the green economy.
A group of the world’s largest asset-owners — responsible for directing more than $2 trillion — pledged to move to carbon-neutral investment portfolios by 2050.
This is in addition to a recent call by asset managers representing nearly half the world’s invested capital – some $34 trillion – for global leaders to put a meaningful price on carbon and phase out fossil fuel subsidies and thermal coal power worldwide.
The International Development Finance Club pledged to mobilize $1 trillion in clean energy funding by 2025 in 20 least developed countries.
One-third of the global banking sector signed up to align their businesses with the Paris agreement objectives and Sustainable Development Goals.
The Summit also showcased ways in which cities and global industries like shipping can achieve major reductions in emissions. Initiatives to protect forests and safeguard water supplies were also highlighted.
These steps are all important — but they are not sufficient.
From the beginning, the Summit was designed to jolt the world and accelerate action on a wider scale. It also served as a global stage for hard truths and to shine a light on those who are leading and those who are not. Deniers or major emitters have nowhere to hide.
I will continue to encourage them to do much more at home and drive green economic solutions around the world.
Our planet needs action on a truly planetary scale. That cannot be achieved overnight, and it cannot happen without the full engagement of those contributing most to the crisis.
If our world is to avoid the climate cliff, far more is needed to heed the call of science and cut greenhouse emissions by 45 percent by 2030; reach carbon neutrality by 2050; and limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century. That’s how we can secure the future of our world.
Too many countries still seem to be addicted to coal – even though cheaper, greener options are available already. We need much more progress on carbon pricing, ensuring no new coal plants by 2020, and ending trillions of dollars in giveaways of hard-earned taxpayers’ money to a dying fossil fuel industry to boost hurricanes, spread tropical diseases, and heighten conflict.
At the same time, developed countries must fulfill their commitment to provide $100 billion a year from public and private sources by 2020 for mitigation and adaptation in developing countries.
And I will make sure that the commitments that countries, the private sector and local authorities have made are accounted for -- starting in December at the UN Climate conference in Santiago, Chile. The UN is united in support of realizing these initiatives.
Climate change is the defining issue of our time.
Science tells us that on our current path, we face at least 3 degrees Celsius of global heating by the end of the century. I will not be there, but my granddaughters will.
I refuse to be an accomplice in the destruction of their one and only home.
Young people, the UN – and a growing number of leaders from business, finance, government, and civil society – in short, many of us – are mobilizing and acting.
But we need many others to take climate action if we are to succeed.
We have a long way to go. But the movement has begun.
This article appears as part of Massive's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 300 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
Antonio Guterres stands at a desk in front of a calving glacier
En la víspera de la Cumbre sobre la Acción Climática de las Naciones Unidas, celebrada en septiembre, millones de jóvenes se movilizaron y transmitieron el siguiente mensaje a los dirigentes del mundo: “Nos están fallando.”
Las emisiones globales van en aumento al igual que las temperaturas. Las consecuencias, ya de por sí funestas, que eso conlleva para los océanos, los bosques, las condiciones meteorológicas, la biodiversidad, la producción de alimentos, el agua, los puestos de trabajo y en última instancia, para la vida misma, irán empeorando.
La ciencia no engaña pero en muchos lugares la gente no necesita de mapas o gráficos para entender lo que está pasando, les basta con asomarse a la ventana.
El caos climático se vive en tiempo real en California y en el Caribe, en África y en el Ártico y en muchos lugares más. Los que menos han contribuido al problema son los que se más están sufriendo.
Lo he visto con mis propios ojos en Mozambique, devastado por un ciclón; en las Bahamas, arrasadas por un huracán; y en el Pacífico Sur, donde el nivel del mar sigue subiendo.
Convoqué la Cumbre sobre la Acción Climática para que fuera el punto de partida del camino que debemos recorrer si queremos cumplir los plazos cruciales del 2020, que se fijaron en el Acuerdo de París sobre el cambio climático. Muchos dirigentes de diferentes países y sectores acudieron al encuentro.
Gobiernos y jóvenes, empresas, ciudades, inversionistas y miembros de la sociedad civil se unieron para adoptar las medidas que el mundo tanto necesita a fin de evitar una catástrofe climática.
Más de 70 países se comprometieron a alcanzar un volumen neto de emisiones de carbono igual a cero, a más tardar, en 2050, aunque los principales emisores no lo hayan hecho todavía. Más de 100 ciudades, entre ellas varias de las más grandes del planeta, siguieron su ejemplo.
Al menos 70 países anunciaron su intención de impulsar la aplicación de los planes nacionales derivados del Acuerdo de París, a más tardar, en 2020.
Unidos, los pequeños estados insulares se comprometieron a alcanzar la neutralidad en carbono y utilizar solo energías renovables, a más tardar, en 2030.
Distintos países, de Pakistán a Guatemala, pasando por Colombia, Nigeria, Nueva Zelandia y Barbados, prometieron plantar más de 11 mil millones de árboles.
Más de 100 dirigentes del sector privado se comprometieron a acelerar su transición a una economía verde.
Algunos de los mayores propietarios de activos del mundo, responsables de gestionar fondos de un valor de más de 2 billones de dólares, se comprometieron a transformar sus carteras y realizar inversiones neutras en carbono, a más tardar, en 2050.
Todo esto se suma al llamado hecho recientemente por un grupo de gestores de activos que representan casi la mitad del capital invertido del mundo (unos 34 billones de dólares) para que se ponga un precio significativo al carbono y se eliminen gradualmente los subsidios a los combustibles fósiles y la energía térmica a base de carbón.
El Club Internacional de Instituciones Financieras para el Desarrollo se comprometió a movilizar 1 billón de dólares para financiar el uso de las energías limpias, a más tardar, en 2025, en 20 de los países menos desarrollados.
Un tercio del sector bancario mundial se comprometió a armonizar sus prácticas con los objetivos del Acuerdo de París y los Objetivos de Desarrollo Sostenible.
En la Cumbre también se explicó cómo las ciudades y algunos sectores, como el del transporte, pueden reducir las emisiones de forma considerable. También se destacaron distintas iniciativas para proteger los bosques y salvaguardar los recursos hídricos.
Todas estas medidas son importantes pero no suficientes.
Desde un principio, la Cumbre se concibió como un medio para abrirle los ojos al mundo y acelerar la toma de medidas a mayor escala. El encuentro sirvió para presentar una dura realidad y señalar a quienes están tomado medidas y a los que no lo están haciendo. Los negacionistas o los grandes emisores no tienen dónde esconderse.
Seguiré alentando a todos a hacer mucho más en sus países y promoviendo las soluciones económicas verdes alrededor del mundo.
Necesitamos tomar medidas a una escala verdaderamente planetaria. No es algo que podamos conseguir de la noche a la mañana o sin la plena participación de quienes más contribuyen a esta crisis.
Si queremos alejarnos del precipicio climático, hará falta hacer bastante más para responder al llamado de la ciencia y reducir las emisiones de gases de efecto invernadero en un 45 %, a más tardar, en 2030; conseguir la neutralidad en carbono, a más tardar, en 2050; y limitar el aumento de la temperatura a 1,5 grados hacia finales de siglo. Así es como podremos garantizar el futuro del planeta.
Parece que a demasiados países les cuesta romper su dependencia al carbón pese a que ya existen alternativas más baratas y limpias. Debemos avanzar mucho más en la fijación del precio del carbono asegurando que no se abran más plantas de carbón después del 2020 y dejando de desperdiciar el dinero que los contribuyentes ganan con el sudor de su frente y que suma billones de dólares en la moribunda industria de los combustibles fósiles, que no hace más que aumentar los huracanes, propagar las enfermedades tropicales e intensificar los conflictos.
Al mismo tiempo, los países desarrollados deben cumplir su compromiso de aportar 100 mil millones de dólares al año procedentes de fuentes públicas y privadas, a más tardar en 2020, para fines de mitigación y adaptación en los países en desarrollo.
Me aseguraré de que los países, el sector privado y las autoridades locales respondan a los compromisos que han adquirido y lo haré a partir de este mismo mes de diciembre durante la conferencia de las Naciones Unidas sobre el clima que tendrá lugar en Santiago de Chile. Las Naciones Unidas apoyan unánimemente el cumplimiento de tales iniciativas.
El cambio climático será lo que defina nuestra época.
La ciencia nos dice que, de seguir por este camino, el sobrecalentamiento global habrá aumentado como mínimo, 3º Celsius a finales de siglo. Yo ya no estaré en este mundo, pero mis nietas, sí.
Me niego a ser cómplice de la destrucción del único hogar que tienen.
La juventud, las Naciones Unidas y un número cada vez mayor de dirigentes del mundo empresarial y financiero, el sector público, la sociedad civil y, en suma, muchos de nosotros, nos estamos movilizando y tomando medidas.
Sin embargo, necesitamos que muchas más personas se sumen a nuestra lucha para poder triunfar.
Tenemos un largo camino por recorrer pero ya hemos dado el primer paso.
This article appears as part of Massive's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 300 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
Antonio Guterres stands at a desk in front of a calving glacier
Many think we’ll see human-level artificial intelligence in the next 10 years. Industry continues to boast smarter tech like personalized assistants or self-driving cars. And in computer science, new and powerful tools embolden researchers to assert that we are nearing the goal in the quest for human-level artificial intelligence.
But history and current limitations should temper these expectations. Despite the hype, despite progress, we are far from machines that think like you and me.
Last year Google unveiled Duplex — a Pixel smartphone assistant which can call and make reservations for you. When asked to schedule an appointment, say at a hair salon, Duplex makes the phone call. What follows is a terse but realistic conversation including scheduling and service negotiation.
Duplex is just a drop in the ocean of new tech. Self-driving cars, drone delivery systems, and intelligent personal assistants are products of a recent shift in artificial intelligence research that has revolutionized how machines learn from data.
The shift comes from the insurgence of "deep learning," a method for training machines with hundreds, thousands, or even millions of artificial neurons. These artificial neurons are crudely inspired from those in our brains. Think of them as knobs. If each knob is turned in just the right way, the machine can do different things. With enough data, we can learn how to adjust each knob in the machine to allow them to recognize objects, use language, or perhaps anything else a human could do.
Previously, a clever programmer would "teach" the machine these skills instead of a machine learning them on its own. Infamously, this was involved in both the success and demise of IBM’s chess playing machine Deep Blue, which beat the chess grandmaster and then world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. Deep Blue’s programmers gained insights from expert chess players and programmed them into Deep Blue. This strategy worked well enough to beat a grandmaster, but failed as a general approach towards building intelligence outside chess playing. Chess has clear rules. It’s simple enough that you can encode the knowledge you want the machine to have. But most problems aren’t like this.
Take vision for example. For a self-driving car to work, it needs to "see" what’s around it. If the car sees a person in its path, it should stop. A programmer could provide the car a hint to look for faces. Whenever it sees a face, the car stops. This is sensible but a recipe for disaster. For example, if someone’s face is covered, the car won’t know to stop. The programmer could amend this by adding another hint, like looking for legs. But imagine someone whose face is covered crossing the street with groceries covering their legs. Many real-world problems suffer from this sort of complexity. For every hint you provide the machine, there always seems to be a situation not covered by the hints.
Vision researchers were constructing hints like these until a breakthrough in 2012, when Geoffrey Hinton and colleagues at the University of Toronto used deep learning to forgo manually constructing hints. They "showed" a machine 1.2 million images, from which it constructed its own hints about what components of an image indicated which type of object it was. Based on these hints, the machine was able to categorize complex images, including types of bugs and breeds of dogs, with unprecedented accuracy.
The deep learning breakthrough transformed artificial intelligence. Key deep learning researchers won this year’s Turing Award, akin to the Nobel Prize of computing. Deep learning has also become part of our daily lives. Google's search engine, Facebook's social network, and Netflix's movie recommendations all use deep learning.
However, artificial intelligence research has suffered from gross underestimates of difficulty from the beginning. A famous gaffe comes from MIT's 1966 Vision Project, in which an undergraduate was rumored to have been tasked with getting a computer to see like humans do in the course of a single summer.
This is not an isolated incident. The greater history of forecasts in artificial intelligence reveal surprising truths. Expert and public forecasts for human-level artificial intelligence don’t differ significantly and people seem to have strong inclinations to predict 15-25 years out, no matter what year the prediction was made in. And forecasts throughout history, according to those who study forecasts, "seem little better than random guesses."
Yet the limitations of deep learning are the true cause for concern. Even with the aid of deep learning, machines struggle with concepts that are common sense for humans. An example of this is the difficulty that machines have learning to play video games. A growing community of researchers are using deep learning to build artificial intelligence that can play Atari games. What’s interesting is that some Atari games, like Montezuma’s Revenge, are trivial for children to learn but incredibly difficult for machines, even with deep learning.
The crux of it boils down to keys and doors, and the idea that keys open doors. In other words, common sense. A game like Montezuma's Revenge reasonably expects the player to know that keys open doors before they play, so that when a door won’t open, the next obvious move is to find a key. But this line of reasoning is nowhere to be found in artificial intelligence without the knowledge a human has of doors. If these were limitations exclusive to video game playing, then maybe it wouldn't matter. Yet they extend everywhere deep learning is used. Take the above-mentioned self-driving cars, which heavily rely on deep learning. If you place specially designed stickers in clever positions on the road, you can cause self-driving cars to veer into oncoming traffic. Humans generally have the sense not to veer into oncoming traffic.
More work pops up each year addressing common sense and deep learning, though with limited success. As a result, there are some deep learning aficionados with much more sober, humble forecasts of human-level artificial intelligence. Take for instance what Yann LeCun, a recipient of this year’s Turing Award, said: “Machines are still very, very stupid. The smartest AI systems today have less common sense than a house cat."
Joey Velez-Ginorio studies
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
A white robot looks up towards the camera.
The protein bar looks completely normal: a toasted almond square peppered with a bright confetti of dried fruit, nuts and seeds. I take a bite — and then another. It tastes like tart, aromatic cherries and it’s robustly chewy, as a protein bar should be. The only thing noticeably out of the ordinary is that it’s exceptionally tasty. But, upon further inquiry, there’s something else unusual about this particular bar, a secret ingredient you’d never guess: algae.
“You won’t know you’re eating algae,” says Miguel Calatayud, chief executive officer of iWi, a Texas-based nutrition company that creates sustainably-grown algae-based nutrition products. “Our algae protein is not green, and it’s not going to taste like algae. Basically, it tastes awesome.”
“Super-food” is an overused term that marketing campaigns have applied to everything from goji berries to wheatgrass, but in terms of its nutritional value, algae genuinely qualifies. It’s packed with essential amino acids and omega-3s, and beta-carotene, chlorophyll and other healthy fats, like omega-7s and 9s, and it’s high in protein. It’s also genuinely sustainable: it requires no freshwater to grow and can do so on land that cannot support other types of crops. On top of all that, it absorbs carbon dioxide, helping to combat global warming.
Fish and krill do not, in fact, produce their own omega-3. Instead, they get it by consuming algae like Nannochloropsis. “We go directly to the source,” Calatayud says. This allows iWi to more efficiently harvest omega-3s that would otherwise be lost in the transfer from one trophic level of the food chain to the other.
Omega-3s are broken into three major types of fatty acids, but iWi focuses on one in particular: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). EPA can help with everything from joint pain and heart health to the alleviation of depression and anxiety. iWi produces EPA in a patented polar lipid form, meaning it is extremely bioavailable—or readily absorbed by the body. It has an absorption rate 2.3 times higher than omega-3 from fish oil, and at least 50 percent higher than krill oil.
Although Nannochloropsis is completely vegan, it produces lipids that are typically found in fish, like EPA Omega-3. Nannochloropsis contains higher amounts of essential and branched chain amino acids than both beef and fish. “Traditional crops typically miss one or two essential amino acids, but microalgae provide all essential amino acids,” says Eneko Ganuza, VP of Research and Development at iWi. .
iWi’s omega-3 supplements are already available at 13,000 stores, and it recently partnered with ADM, a major supply chain management company, to get its omega-3 out to food companies across the world. Its protein bars will hit shelves later this year, and Calatayud imagines that Nannochloropsis will eventually be sold as a condiment, ingredient, shake mixer and more. His ultimate vision, however, is global in scope.
Nannochloropsis’ nutritional profile could make it a key asset in addressing the planet’s impending food crisis, Calatayud says. Feeding the 10 billion people projected to populate the world by 2050 will require a 70 percent increase in food production, according to a report published in August by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Almost thirteen percent of the world’s population is currently undernourished, the authors point out, and multi-regional food crises are an impending threat due to global warming.
“There needs to be a farming revolution and a complete change of the existing global food supply chain,” Calatayud says. “Our algae is certainly one necessary step in order to solve that challenge as we can use non-arable land, salt water and CO2 to produce massive amounts of protein, nutrients and oxygen.”
Microalgae could also help alleviate another global crisis in that it is completely vegan. According to the IPCC report, we can all help combat global warming by shifting our eating habits away from meat and fish toward more sustainable, vegetable-heavy diets. Cattle are especially bad news for climate change: they produce high levels of methane — a greenhouse gas around 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide — and virgin forests around the world, including the Amazon rainforest, are continuously being cleared to make way for pastureland. This land clearing in turn releases greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to driving 600 million cars.
While Nannochloropsis offers a multitude of advantages in terms of nutrition and sustainability, Calatayud knows that flavor will always be the highest priority for most consumers. Shoppers might give a green product a try, but if it doesn’t taste good, they won’t buy it again. So, rather than solely focusing on producing a product that checks all the sustainability and nutritional boxes, iWi also strives to be the best in the market in terms of flavor and value. In this way, sustainability is just an added bonus.
“It’s easier to change the world than to change consumer habits,” Calatayud says. “But we need consumers to be onboard if we really want to change the world.”
By 2050, a mind-boggling 10 billion people will inhabit the Earth. By the time we reach that milestone, many of us will likely be undernourished. Given trends in land use and food production, our ability to feed ourselves in the near future is increasingly at risk, warns a report written by more than 100 experts from 52 countries, published in August by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Luckily, there is a new, promising way of doing just that.
Human activity has already degraded a quarter of the planet’s ice-free surface to the point that it is now agriculturally useless, and these dead zones will continue to grow as the climate changes. To ensure that we can produce enough food to meet the needs of our children and grandchildren’s generations, we need to figure out how to make better use of the limited space we have left. To avoid this future of scarcity, we must increase the productivity of our land.
iWi, a Texas-based nutrition company producing algae based products, thinks marine vegetables could be a significant part of the answer. “Our goal is to create a sustainable food solution for everyone on our planet,” says Miguel Calatayud, chief executive officer of iWi. “We’re doing that by cultivating marine produce outside the ocean, on land that can’t be used for other crops.”
In order to appreciate what a game changer algae could be, it helps to understand how the world’s food production system currently operates. We’ve already claimed much of the planet for ourselves. According to the IPCC report, 70 percent of the earth’s ice-free surface is taken up by agriculture, cities and other forms of human development. This presents a catch-22: in our need to feed our growing population, we contribute to forces that will make that task increasingly difficult. Land use change for agriculture, livestock, and other human activities accounts for 23 percent of total global carbon emissions, according to the IPCC report, and the problem is only growing. Fires, for example, currently rage on either side of the globe—in the Amazon rainforest and in Indonesian Borneo and Sumatra — in places where deforestation has made way for livestock and palm oil plantations, respectively.
Even as we clear more land for cultivation, we are simultaneously losing land to climate change-driven desertification. According to the IPCC report, half a billion people live in areas of the world that are turning into deserts. Rising temperatures and erratic weather are also wreaking havoc on crop yields, as is soil loss. Crop fields throughout the U.S. Midwest sat barren and water-bogged all summer due to extreme flooding. Arable land—or land with favorable conditions for growing crops—is becoming scarcer even as we need it more than ever.
This is where algae comes in. While it isn’t a blanket solution to the world’s impending land crisis, it does offer a win-win solution for a planet with increasing food production needs but decreasing space to meet those needs. Nannochloropsis, the type of alga that iWi grows, can be raised on non-arable land — including deserts — where no other crops could grow without significant, unsustainable investments. “Arable land is becoming scarce,” says Jakob Nalley, Director of Agronomy at iWi. “But we can potentially grow our algae on arid land, which covers 46 percent of the surface of the planet — limiting the burden of current food production in arable land.”
iWi grows its Nannochloropsis in 165 acres covered with vast, larger-than-football-field-sized saltwater ponds in the New Mexico and Texas desert. Unlike terrestrial plants, Nannochloropsis requires no soil and no freshwater. As a photosynthetic organism, its only real requirement is plenty of sunshine. It’s also surprisingly climate tolerant: it can survive anywhere that temperatures don’t drop below freezing for consecutive days or exceed 45°C for long periods of time.
Nannochloropsis happens to produce more essential amino acid per acre than any other farmed food — plant or animal — that the iWi researchers know of. Unlike corn, soy or many other traditional crops, iWi harvests the full plant rather than leaving behind roots, stem or leaves, which helps Nannochloropsis also pack about 300 times more essential amino acids per acre of land per year than peas. Put another way, the equivalent amount of essential amino acids produced by 150 acres of land used to grow Nannochloropsis would require 45,000 acres of land used to grow peas.
These off-the-chart productivity measurements are what first attracted Calatayud to algae. He previously worked as chief operating officer of a Spanish frozen food company that grew 700 million pounds of vegetables per year, from broccoli and corn to artichokes and green beans, and later became founder and chief executive officer of a similar company in the U.S. While he enjoyed the work, he found himself longing “to make an impact in the world and do something that would be meaningful for my kids and others.” It was at that critical moment that he discovered Nannochloropsis.
On top of all that, iWi’s alga is not contributing to climate change as a net CO2 producer. Microscopic marine algae produce half of the world’s oxygen, and Nannochloropsis is a part of that. “This, by far, was the most spectacularly efficient and productive crop I’ve ever seen on our planet,” Jakob says. “It’s using resources that otherwise would not be utilized, including non-arable land and salt water, and it consumes carbon dioxide and releases oxygen.”
Calatayud also emphasizes that while Nannochloropsis helps solve the problem of how to raise crops in an increasingly crop-unfriendly world, it does not compete with traditional crops for land, because traditional crops could not be grown there. One of the places where iWi currently grows its alga, for example, was abandoned by cotton farmers due to the high salt content of water and soil, a common attribute of arid land. “We use the land nobody else wants,” Calatayud says. “We’re not bringing an alternative to existing vegetables, but a highly-productive addition to common crops, as we are not competing with them for arable land or fresh water.”
Have you ever found yourself irritated by mosquitoes in a hot and humid climate, despite the insect repellent you've repeatedly slathered all over your body? If chemicals don’t work for you, then perhaps graphene-based clothing may help!
Graphene is very unique as far as any material goes. Despite being only atomically thin, it is dense, electrically conductive, and 200 times stronger than steel. Scientists have exploited graphene and its derivatives (such as slightly oxidized graphene) for all kinds of applications; the latest yet is to ward off the pesky mosquito.
Researchers at Brown University exposed skin patches for five minute intervals to ~100 pathogen-free female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes (the bane of dengue fever, yellow fever, and Zika virus) and monitored their activity. The results showed that dry graphene oxide-covered skin never permitted a single mosquito bite, unlike the unprotected skin or cheesecloth-only controls, where bite numbers could range between five to 20. Fewer mosquitoes landed on protected skin, and even if they did, they never dawdled. From these observations, the researchers concluded that the graphene-based films masked the molecular signals mosquitoes needed to sense a live presence. Graphene’s impermeability essentially rendered human victims invisible to mosquitoes.
When the researchers smeared the graphene-protected skin with human sweat or water, mosquito landings were much more frequent. However, this time, if graphene-based films became too wet, they swelled and became porous—and the underlying skin became vulnerable to mosquito bites. Here, only the excellent mechanical strength of reduced graphene-based films (i.e. with reduced oxygen functionality) barred mosquitoes from reaching the skin layer to take a bite, showing that using reduced graphene-based films in wearable technologies can provide mosquito bite protection in both dry and wet conditions.
Perhaps mosquito-bite prevention by graphene-based materials is not a surprising result. These materials have already been used in water filtration, for encapsulation, and to lace plastics and metals as a means to enhance overall mechanical strength. Graphene wearables have also generated much buzz as graphene’s electrical conductivity allows for the design of ‘smart clothes’, whilst its mechanical strength enables the fabric to accommodate stresses generated by body movement.
But to prevent mosquito bites is probably the most creative application yet. An overkill, perhaps? Nevertheless, it would be a tremendous relief to humans cohabiting with mosquitoes—we know how tenacious these pests can be.
Anopheles gambiae mosquito, having landed on the skin surface of its host, in the process of obtaining its blood meal.
Making perfect crêpes can be tricky, but science may have just made breakfast easier. Researchers in France have developed a computer algorithm to demonstrate the best way to pour the batter and tilt the pan to make perfectly flat crêpes. Admittedly, flipping pancakes seems like a frivolous thing to do in a lab, but experiments that sound silly often help scientists answer important questions — the implications of which stretch far beyond the kitchen.
Simple experiments are the foundation of science. The simpler the experiment, the easier it is to analyze the results, draw conclusions, and design future research. Many of these experiments involve everyday objects or tasks that seem too basic for scientists to investigate. In reality, this kind of research can be applied to complex phenomena, and inspiration from everyday objects often leads to new scientific insights.
For example, when the lead scientist in the aforementioned crêpe study was wondering how to make his crêpes cook more evenly, he realized the way that crêpes solidify in a pan is reminiscent of coating surfaces with films of plastic, metal, and even chocolate. Using pancakes allowed his team to model how gravity affects materials solidifying on a surface, which has applications to manufacturing circuit boards and solar cells.
Alternatively, researchers may deliberately choose a basic material to model a system that is more difficult to study. Researchers at Cornell and MIT once spent months breaking spaghetti, and even developed a device to do it more precisely. From a pasta eater's perspective, this study is only helpful in that they determined that you can prevent your uncooked spaghetti from shattering if you twist and bend it at the same time. (Unfortunately, you have to do it one piece at a time — and they aren’t selling their device!) More importantly, this helped them model how any brittle rod breaks, and how twisting affects the fracture. Understanding this is critically important for designing bridges and other structures built with rods.
Other experiments might seem silly because they return results that seem obvious. Scientists do these experiments because they need evidence for basic principles before studying more complex processes. In 2016, for instance, scientists at the University of Oxford asked people how close they were with their Facebook friends, and determined that only a fraction of someone’s Facebook friends are true friends. Sure, this seems obvious (who could really be friends with 3,000 people?), but scientists needed baseline data to compare online friendships with offline friendships. The researchers were then able to determine that human friendship has similar limits online and offline. This kind of incremental evidence is crucial to building general theories about friendship.
In other situations, doing an experiment to establish evidence for a long-held belief can yield unexpected results. Until recently, researchers and economic experts believed financial gain motivated dishonesty. To test this, researchers “lost” 17,000 wallets around the world and waited for people to return them. Shockingly, wallets containing more money were returned at a higher frequency than those with little or no money. Additional data suggested that an aversion to viewing themselves as thieves motivated people to return the wallets. Although this series of experiments was straightforward, the results unexpectedly debunked a widely-held belief about human behavior that could have inaccurately influenced future research. That's why doing a simple experiment to prove something that seems obvious is good practice.
Unfortunately, press coverage about these types of experiments sometimes omits important details about the scientists’ motivations or the wider implications of their findings, leaving readers with a false impression. In fact, competition for federal funding continues to increase as politicians deem fewer experiments "worthy". But the misconception that scientists sit in a lab eating pancakes, playing with spaghetti, or stalking people on Facebook couldn’t be further from the truth.
Prestigious, peer-reviewed academic journals published each of the experiments above before popular media and politicians ever reported — or distorted — the findings. To reach publication, experts thoroughly critique the experimental design, data, and conclusions, which that can take months. Carrying out an experiment and publishing the results is a lengthy and expensive process, so no scientist would waste time on something frivolous.
Experiments don't always make sense out of context, so it's worth looking at the original publication and reading the abstract or introduction. These sections will usually tell you what the authors really wanted to know. But even if you don’t have a chance to read the paper yourself, you can rest assured that there was a greater purpose to that unconventional experiment than the headline.
Molly Sargen studies
A person spreading butter on a stack of pancakes, with syrup and coffee next to the plate.
Eneko Ganuza grew up in Spain’s Basque country, not far from the sea. As a student studying oceanography, he fell in love with a seemingly unlikely specimen: microalgae. He was captivated by the way the microscopic plant-like organisms transformed miles of ocean into brilliant algal blooms, giving life to countless other marine creatures.
“Algal blooms are like a rainforest of life in the desert of the ocean” he says now.
Ganuza went on to become a leading microalgae scientist. As vice president of research and development at iWi, a Texas-based nutrition company that produces algal-based products on one of the world’s largest algae farms, he now applies his knowledge of one of the world’s smallest plants to solving global problems. Ganuza and his colleagues at iWi firmly believe that marine microalgae could help alleviate many of our most pressing environmental problems—foremost among them, freshwater shortage.
“It’s fair to say that water has been the underlying reasons for a lot of wars,” Ganuza says. “As the climate changes, this is becoming a more and more critical issue.” And indeed, according to the Pacific Institute, a non-profit group dedicated to protecting and preserving global fresh water, water has been at the heart of over 600 known conflicts around the world. Competition for that life-giving resource is only set to increase in the future, as fresh water becomes scarcer in much of the world due to drought and saltwater encroachment in coastal areas. A report released by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in September warns that sea levels are very likely to rise between 2- and 3.6-feet by 2100 (but the rise could be much higher, to as much as 6.5 feet, should the Antarctic ice melt faster than predicted).
Despite these strains on our planet’s freshwater supply, the demand for that resource is increasing, including for water-hungry crops and livestock, not to mention hydropower development and other human needs. By some estimates, as the human population continues to balloon, the world will suffer a freshwater shortage of 40 percent by 2050. “That’s tomorrow, by the way!” says Miguel Calatayud, chief executive officer of iWi. “My son will be 36, then, and probably fighting in the third world war—for water.”
Another IPCC report, published in August, warns that humans are exploiting the world’s water resources at an “unprecedented rate.” Central to this problem, the authors write, is our food production system. A breathtaking 70 percent of the world’s freshwater is currently used for producing crops and raising livestock. According to a 2010 UNESCO report, soybeans require 1,000 gallons of fresh water for every single pound of produce, chicken requires 4,300 gallons, and beef requires 17,700 gallons. And a single pound of almonds requires a whopping 23,700 gallons of fresh water.
If the cultivation of microalgae continues to spread around the world, it may help lighten the strain on our precious freshwater resources. Nannochloropsis, the type of microalgae that iWi grows, is a marine species. It thrives in brackish or salt water — not fresh water. This means the iWi system requires three orders of magnitude less water (5 gallons of fresh water per pound) to produce food than any other terrestrial crop.
While water for growing Nannochloropsis could come in the form of fresh water enhanced with salt and nutrients, it could just as easily come from the ocean. It could also come from vast underground salt and brackish water reservoirs found all over the world—including in many deserts and arid places where traditional agriculture is hardly viable. iWi currently relies on such aquifers at its Texas and New Mexico farms.
“Many arid areas on the planet are full of groundwater, but the problem is, it can’t be used because of its high salinity,” Calatayud says. “We can grow our algae in that salt water, which otherwise couldn’t be utilized to produce any other crop.”
Another boon for Nannochloropsis’ attractiveness as a sustainable, hardy crop is that it’s not overly picky about the salt content of the water it’s grown in. It’s equally happy in water that has about half the salinity of seawater, or in water that has nearly twice the salinity—or anything in between. “That means we can account for much of the evaporation, while the salinity of the cultures keeps building up in the ponds,” Ganuza says. That’s helpful, because the iWi tanks are completely exposed to the open, dry air. Their tanks in Imperial, Texas, don’t even have artificial lining, but instead just rely on the nearly impermeable clay-heavy soil that naturally occurs there.
Open-air cultivation of this sort is completely normal in the farming world, and iWi has demonstrated that microalgae can be grown like any other crop. “Industrial microbiology is very much based on running closed systems under sterile conditions,” Ganuza says. “But this is the simplest way of producing microalgae that you can imagine—we are farming.”
Perhaps most importantly of all, iWi is able to recycle about 95-97 percent of the water used to grow its Nannochloropsis (product recovery and processing account for the lost three percent). At the Columbus, New Mexico, farm, for example, iWi harvests roughly 30,000 gallons of pond culture to make 300 gallons of concentrated algae, and then returns just under 29,000 gallons of water to the pond for reuse. To recycle the water, the algae is micro-filtered out using a hollow fiber membrane system, which is a low-energy, chemical-free technology. Only crystal-clear water is left behind, and that’s put right back into the pond.
Calatayud imagines eventually democratizing algal farming by bringing similar systems to remote areas in Africa, Asia and beyond—to the types of places that have plenty of saltwater reservoirs and open space, but not enough fresh water to grow crops. “The world is full of areas like this that nobody uses,” he says. Nannochloropsis could be a source of export income, he believes, as well as a local source of food. “In addition to alleviating the global pressure on fresh water resources,” Calatayud says, “we could really make a positive difference for families and communities around the world.”
Autoimmune diseases are disorders where the body’s defense system turns on itself. This group of diseases, which includes rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, represents one of the top 10 causes of death in women. Automimmune diseases are currently primarily treated by immunosuppressive drugs which hold the immune system in check, but this type of therapy comes with the risk of developing severe infections and various other side effects.
Recently, a team of international researchers have found that distracting the body’s immune system by targeting its attention elsewhere could be an effective alternative to long-term immunosuppression with pharmaceuticals. They discovered that injecting antibodies against red blood cells into mice forced their immune systems to re-direct their efforts toward these specific cells, sparing other tissues from attack. They found that this approach was an effective treatment in various models of mouse arthritis, preventing the infiltration of inflammation-causing immune cells into the joints.
Anti-red blood cell antibodies derived from healthy volunteers are in fact already being used to protect the rhesus positive (Rh+, referring to the plus or minus sign after your ABO blood group) babies of Rh- mothers, and such medications could be re-purposed to treat various other autoimmune diseases. This method of treating autoimmune diseases is promising in that it may decrease our reliance on immunosuppressant drugs someday down the line.
Red blood cells and purple neutrophils, a type of immune cell
Red blood cells and purple neutrophils, a type of immune cell