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Earth's building blocks formed during the solar system's first million years, study finds

An artist’s concept of the disk of swirling material that surrounds a young star, eventually coalescing into planets. A new study rewrites the analysis of carbon in the young solar system, which could help us locate habitable planets in other star systems. Image courtesy: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/JPL-Caltech.

CHICAGO, IL.- When people think about the most important ingredient for life on other planets, they usually talk about water. But there’s another element that makes our existence possible. “We’re carbon-based life forms,” said University of Chicago geophysical scientist Fred Ciesla, “and carbon is an important part of keeping a mild climate.” It can also be used as forensic tool to piece together how the earth and solar system must have formed. In two papers, Ciesla and colleagues at California Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan and the University of Minnesota laid out a history of carbon in the formation of the solar system. By examining carbon, the scientists found that a large fraction of the Earth's building blocks probably formed soon after the solar system did—within the first million years, much earlier and more precise than the previous estimate of sometime within the first 150 million ... More

Researchers find link between apes in Africa and 10-million-year-old ape fossils in Hungary, Spain   Artificial intelligence to explore the biomolecular world   Foetus in bishop's coffin was probably his grandson

A reconstruction of the skull of Rudapithecus from Micro-CT scans. Image courtesy: David Begun.

TORONTO.- An analysis of prehistoric ape fossils previously discovered in Hungary and Spain is adding weight to the theory that the ancestors of African apes and humans evolved in Europe before migrating to Africa between nine and seven million years ago. A re-examination of the inner ear canals of two extinct great ape fossils from approximately 10 million years ago – Hispanopithecus from Spain, and Rudapithecus from Hungary – shows a close relationship with humans and living African apes, according to a study by an international team of researchers published recently in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The specimens date back to a period three to four million years before the oldest known potential pre-human from Africa, the six to seven-million-year-old Sahelanthropus from Chad. “The new evidence from the inner ear supports the hypothesis that hominines originated in Europe and dispersed into Africa along with many oth ... More

Underwater view of a metasurface consisting of gold nanorods. Image courtesy: © Aurélian John-Herpin / 2021 EPFL.

LAUSANNE.- The tiny world of biomolecules is rich in fascinating interactions between a plethora of different agents such as intricate nanomachines (proteins), shape-shifting vessels (lipid complexes), chains of vital information (DNA) and energy fuel (carbohydrates). Yet the ways in which biomolecules meet and interact to define the symphony of life is exceedingly complex. Scientists at the Bionanophotonic Systems Laboratory in EPFL’s School of Engineering have now developed a new biosensor that can be used to observe all major biomolecule classes of the nanoworld without disturbing them. Their innovative technique uses nanotechnology, metasurfaces, infrared light and artificial intelligence. The team’s research has just been published in Advanced Materials. In this nano-sized symphony, perfect orchestration makes physiological wonders such as vision and taste possible, while slight dissonances can amplify into horrendous cacophonie ... More

Peder Winstrup in his coffin. Bishop Peder Winstrup died in 1679, and is one of the most well-preserved human bodies from the 1600s. Image courtesy: Gunnar Menander.

LUND.- Bishop Peder Winstrup died in 1679, and is one of the most well-preserved human bodies from the 1600s. Researchers at Lund University in Sweden may now have solved the mystery of why a foetus was hidden in his coffin in Lund Cathedral. DNA from the bishop and the foetus, along with kinship analyses, has shown that the child was probably the bishop's own grandson. Something is protruding between Bishop Peder Winstrup's two calves. The X-ray reveals small bones. Could it be an animal? When the image is studied more closely, the osteologists from Lund University can see faint signs of what is to become the collarbones - it is a human foetus. Inside the coffin they find the bundle, wrapped in a piece of linen cloth. Judging by the length of the femur, it was 5-6 months old and stillborn. The discovery raised a number of questions - one of them was why it was in the bishop's coffin. “It was not uncommon for small children ... More

Undetected Coronavirus variant was in at least 15 countries before its discovery   Scientists shed more light on molecules linked to life on other planets   Understudied mutations have big impact on gene expression

An elderly woman wearing a face mask walks in a restricted area after cases of COVID-19 were detected in Havana, on April 7, 2021. Yamil Lage / AFP.

AUSTIN, TX.- A highly contagious SARS-CoV-2 variant was unknowingly spreading for months in the United States by October 2020, according to a new study from researchers with The University of Texas at Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. Scientists first discovered it in early December in the United Kingdom, where the highly contagious and more lethal variant is thought to have originated. The journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, which has published an early-release version of the study, provides evidence that the coronavirus variant B117 (501Y) had spread across the globe undetected for months when scientists discovered it. “By the time we learned about the U.K. variant in December, it was already silently spreading across the globe,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, the director of the COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at The University of Texas at Austin and a professor of integrative biology. “We estimate that the B117 variant probably a ... More

Composite of images of the Venus transit taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory on June 5, 2012. The image, taken in 171 angstroms, shows a timelapse of Venus’s path across the sun. Image: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/SDO.

SYDNEY.- The search for life on other planets has received a major boost after scientists revealed the spectral signatures of almost 1000 atmospheric molecules that may be involved in the production or consumption of phosphine, a study led by UNSW Sydney revealed. Scientists have long conjectured that phosphine – a chemical compound made of one phosphorous atom surrounded by three hydrogen atoms (PH3) – may indicate evidence of life if found in the atmospheres of small rocky planets like our own, where it is produced by the biological activity of bacteria. So when an international team of scientists last year claimed to have detected phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus, it raised the tantalising prospect of the first evidence of life on another planet – albeit the primitive, single-celled variety. But not everyone was convinced, with some scientists questioning whether the phosphine in Venus’s atmosphere was really prod ... More

UC San Diego computer science Ph.D. student Mehrdad Bakhtiari, the paper’s first author. Image courtesy: UC San Diego.

SAN DIEGO, CA.- An international team of researchers led by computer scientists at the University of California San Diego have identified 163 variable number tandem repeats (VNTRs) that actively regulate gene expression. In a paper published in Nature Communications this week, the researchers provide new insights into this understudied mechanism, how it may drive disease and other traits and could ultimately impact patient care. VNTRs are common genomic variations that appear as repeated DNA sequences longer than six base pairs. “VNTRs have been difficult to identify through sequencing information, particularly short reads,” said Vineet Bafna, a professor in the UC San Diego Department of Computer Science and Engineering and senior author on the paper. “We developed a fast computational method to identify these variations, which gave us a new lens to observe their potential impact on gene expression and disease.” While VNTRs are one o ... More

A better nasal swab for Covid-19 testing   Diabetes drug could prevent brain damage in children receiving radiation for tumours: U of T study   SMART researchers develop 15-minute immune-profiling assay

The startup OPT Industries began producing nasal swabs to address the shortage as hospitals attempted to ramp up Covid-19 tests. Image courtesy: OPT Industries.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.- Over nearly seven years researching 3D printing systems in MIT’s Media Lab, Jifei Ou SM ’14, PhD ’19 began to suspect the work could lead to better products. He never could have imagined it would help address supply shortages caused by a global pandemic. Since March of last year, Ou’s company, OPT Industries, has been working with hospitals to deliver a new type of nasal swab for Covid-19 testing. The swabs make use of thin, hairlike structures Ou developed while at MIT. Tiny woven lattices within OPT’s swabs allow them to absorb and release more fluid than conventional swabs. The MIT spinout uses a continuous manufacturing approach that allows it to scale up printer production with demand. To date, it has supplied over 800,000 swabs to a number of health care and at-home testing organizations, helping to meet a shortage that had threatened hospitals’ testing capacity. In the ... More

Cognitive deficits from radiation can result from killing newborn neurons that underly learning and memory.

TORONTO.- Radiation can be life-saving for a child with a brain tumour. But the therapy can also cause damage to the brain that leaves deficits in cognitive function, including learning and memory challenges. Now, thanks to funding from Medicine by Design, a University of Toronto scientist and her team are closer to finding a way to protect the brain from damage for children who must be treated with cranial radiation by using a drug commonly used to treat diabetes. “We found that if we gave metformin, which is an approved, safe drug used to treat diabetes, as a pre-treatment in animal models, we could actually stop the damage from happening,” says Cindi Morshead, a professor and chair of the division of anatomy in the department of surgery in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine. The study, published in the journal Cell Reports Medicine, builds on previous work done with metformin. Last summer, Morshead and researchers from The Hospital ... More

Kerwin Kwek stands next to an experimental setup for profiling immune cells using a microfluidic DLD assay. Image courtesy: SMART.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.- Researchers from Critical Analytics for Manufacturing Personalized-Medicine (CAMP), an interdisciplinary research group at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore, have developed a new label-free immune profiling assay that profiles the rapidly changing host immune response in case of infection, in a departure from existing methods that focus on detecting the pathogens themselves, which can often be at low levels within a host. This novel technology presents a host of advantages over current methods, being much faster, more sensitive, and more accurate. The new assay is described in a paper titled, “Label-free biophysical markers from whole blood microfluidic immune profiling reveals severe immune response signatures”, published recently in Small, a weekly peer-reviewed scientific journal c ... More

Fewer breast cancer cases between screening rounds with 3D-mammography   Personalized Structural biology aids cancer treatment decisions   E-cigarettes help smokers quit for good

3D-mammography, to the right, gives a more detailed image. Image courtesy: Lund University.

LUND.- “Our results indicate that 3D-mammography, or digital breast tomosynthesis, possibly detects cancers that would otherwise have been diagnosed later at a more advanced stage”, says Kristin Johnson, doctoral student at Lund University and radiology resident at Skåne University Hospital. A large prospective screening study conducted at Skåne University Hospital in Malmö (Malmö Breast Tomosynthesis Screening Trial) between 2010 and 2015 included almost 15,000 women who received both 3D-mammography and traditional mammography. In 2018, the researchers published results from the trial showing that 3D-mammography detects just over 30 percent more cases of breast cancer compared to traditional mammography. This time, the researchers compared cancers detected in between screenings, so called interval cancers. The women who received 3D-mammography were matched by age and screening date with women in a control group who wer ... More

Cancer specialists at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, in partnership with biochemists and structural biologists across the Vanderbilt University campus, are taking “personalized” cancer therapy to a new level.

NASHVILLE, TN.- Cancer specialists at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, in partnership with biochemists and structural biologists across the Vanderbilt University campus, are taking “personalized” cancer therapy to a new level. Using computer modeling and a structure-based approach, Christine Lovly, MD, PhD, Jens Meiler, PhD, and their colleagues are studying the functional consequences of genetic mutations and how those changes can drive cancerous growth. This approach, which they call “Personalized Structural Biology,” moves beyond tumor genomics alone and leverages Vanderbilt’s strengths in protein structure to create a framework for understanding mutations found in patient tumor samples. This Personalized Structural Biology framework is already yielding insights that the researchers hope will lead to more precise therapeutic targeting of cancers and better outcomes for patients. “For many mutations in ca ... More

E-cigarette user blowing a cloud of aerosol (vapor). The activity is known as cloud-chasing. Image courtesy: micadew.

BRISBANE.- E-cigarettes may be more effective in helping smokers quit than nicotine replacement therapies such as patches and gum, according to University of Queensland research. Lead author Dr Gary Chan from UQ’s National Centre for Youth Substance Use Research said there was increased global evidence to support the effectiveness of using e-cigarettes to assist smokers in quitting. “Our study found e-cigarettes are 50 per cent more effective than nicotine replacement therapy, and more than 100 per cent more effective than the placebo,” Dr Chan said. “Electronic cigarettes containing nicotine may be more effective than nicotine replacement products because they deliver a small amount of nicotine to alleviate withdrawal symptoms and provide a similar behavioural and sensory experience as smoking tobacco products.” The study looked at 16 different smoking and vaping trials, with a total of 12,754 participants. It assessed ... More

More News
How spinifex gets its hole
SYDNEY.- Anyone who has visited the Australian outback would be familiar with spinifex grasses, which cover almost a fifth of our continent. Like many scientists, they may have also wondered why this iconic arid grass grows in striking ring shapes. Previous studies have tested whether spinifex rings could be caused by termites, water availability or nutrient depletion, but none has provided a convincing explanation. Now scientists from UNSW Sydney have found that pathogenic soil microbes play a role in how the spinifex got its hole. Their study, the first of its kind in an arid ecosystem, has been published in the Australian Journal of Botany. Professor Angela Moles and Neil Ross from UNSW Science's Evolution & Ecology Research Centre tested the idea that an accumulation of pathogenic soil microbes might impede seedling emergence and ... More

Biodiversity 'hot spots' devastated in warming world
PARIS (AFP).- Unless nations dramatically improve on carbon cutting pledges made under the 2015 Paris climate treaty, the planet's richest concentrations of animal and plant life will be irreversibly ravaged by global warming, scientists warned Friday. An analysis of 8,000 published risk assessments for species showed a high danger for extinction in nearly 300 biodiversity "hot spots", on land and in the sea, if temperatures rise three degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, they reported in the journal Biological Conservation. Earth's surface has heated up 1C so far, and the Paris Agreement enjoins nations to cap warming at "well below" 2C, and 1.5C if possible. National commitments to slash greenhouse gas emissions -- assuming they are honoured -- would still see temperatures soar well above 3C by century's end, if not sooner. So-called ende ... More

U of T scientist receives Gairdner International Award for metabolism research
TORONTO.- A scientist at the University of Toronto has been jointly awarded a 2021 Canada Gairdner International Award for research that has helped revolutionize treatments for type 2 diabetes, obesity and intestinal disorders. Daniel Drucker receives the honour with Joel Habener of Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital, and Jens Juul Holst of the University of Copenhagen, for research on glucagon-like peptides – hormones that emanate from the gut to control insulin and glucagon, which work in tandem to balance sugar levels throughout the body. The award comes as U of T celebrates the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin, a finding that paved the way for a century of ground-breaking research at the university and its partner hospitals – and just a week before the Insulin100 global symposium. “I am extre ... More

New national study of long-term impacts of debilitating lung damage from COVID-19
MANCHESTER.- A new national study will investigate the long-term effects of lung inflammation and scarring from COVID-19. The study, launched with £2 million of funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), aims to develop treatment strategies and prevent disability. Many people recovering from COVID-19 suffer from long-term symptoms of lung damage, including breathlessness, coughing, fatigue and limited ability to exercise. COVID-19 can lead to inflammation in the lungs due to the infection and the immune system’s reaction to it. The inflammation may improve over time, but in some people it persists. In severe cases, the lungs may become scarred. The scarring causes stiffness in the lungs, which can make it difficult to breathe and get oxygen to the bloodstream, resulting in long-term breathlessness and difficulty managing daily tas ... More

Antiparasitic drug could prevent Covid-19 lung damage
LONDON.- Using robotic technology to screen over 3,000 approved drugs known to be safe in humans, researchers found Niclosamide – a drug used to treat tapeworm infections – was effective at stopping the viral replication and fusion of lung cells seen in patients with Covid-19. The researchers say that this drug could be a very promising treatment to ensure people infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus do not go on to develop serious long-term lung damage. The team at the School of Cardiovascular Medicine & Sciences previously studied the lungs of 41 people who died from Covid-19. They found that several lung cells were much larger than usual in 90 per cent of patients. Multiple lung cells had joined together to create large virus-infected lung cells. They discovered that the ‘Spike’ protein - that sits on the outer surface of coronavirus - is resp ... More

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On a day like today, Nobel Prize laureate Robert Burns Woodward was born
April 10, 1917. Robert Burns Woodward (April 10, 1917 - July 8, 1979) was an American organic chemist. He is considered by many to be the most preeminent synthetic organic chemist of the twentieth century, having made many key contributions to the subject, especially in the synthesis of complex natural products and the determination of their molecular structure. He also worked closely with Roald Hoffmann on theoretical studies of chemical reactions. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1965. The first major contribution of Woodward's career in the early 1940s was a series of papers describing the application of ultraviolet spectroscopy in the elucidation of the structure of natural products. Woodward collected together a large amount of empirical data, and then devised a series of rules later called the Woodward's rules, which could be applied to finding out the structures of new natural substances, as well as non-natural synthesized molecules.


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