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Ancient fish reveals how vertebrates put their heads together

The ancient fish Eriptychius helps to fill in the evolutionary gap between early jawless fish like Haikouichthys (pictured) and later examples such as the galeaspids. Image courtesy: © Talifero.

LONDON.- Scientists are facing an evolutionary puzzle head-on. Almost 99% of vertebrates are known as gnathostomes, with distinctive skulls that have been adapted for a wide variety of lifestyles. Their heads are believed to have evolved from jawless, poorly protected ones that only animals like hagfish and lampreys still have today. While there have been a few theories about how this process happened, a lack of well-preserved fossils has meant they’ve been difficult to prove. However, new research into an ancient fish called Eriptychius might finally bridge this gap, with its fossils providing the first evidence of how early vertebrates began to protect their brain using a series of mineralised cartilage elements. Dr Richard Dearden, the lead author of the new paper, says, ‘On the face of it, Eriptychius is not the most beautiful of fossils. However, by using modern imaging techniques we showed that it preserves something unique: the oldest three-dimensionally preserved vertebrate he ... More

Split gene-editing tool offers greater precision   A mysterious blue molecule will help make better use of light energy   When cancer takes a deadly turn: NUS study sheds a new light on cancer metastasis

Hongzhi Zeng (left) and Ananya Lingineni. Image courtesy: Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University.

HOUSTON, TX.- To make a gene-editing tool more precise and easier to control, Rice University engineers split it into two pieces that only come back together when a third small molecule is added. Researchers in the lab of chemical and biomolecular engineer Xue Sherry Gao created a CRISPR-based gene editor designed to target adenine ⎯ one of the four main DNA building blocks ⎯ that remains inactive when disassembled but kicks into gear once the binding molecule is added. Compared to the intact original, the split editor is more precise and stays active for a narrower window of time, which is important for avoiding off-target edits. Moreover, the activating small molecule used to bind the two pieces of the tool together is already being used as an anticancer and immunosuppressive drug. According to a study published in Nature Communications, the tool developed by Gao and collaborators performed well both in human cell cultures ... More

Artistic rendering of the unusual behavior of azulene. Image courtesy: Tomáš Belloň / IOCB Prague.

PRAGUE.- Researchers at IOCB Prague are the first to describe the causes of the behavior of one of the fundamental aromatic molecules, which fascinates the scientific world not only with its blue color but also with other unusual properties—azulene. Their current undertaking will influence the foundations of organic chemistry in the years to come and in practice will help harness the maximum potential of captured light energy. Their article appears in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS). Azulene has piqued the curiosity of chemists for many years. The question of why it is blue, despite there being no obvious reason for this, was answered almost 50 years ago by a scientist of global importance, who, coincidentally, had close ties with IOCB Prague, Prof. Josef Michl. Now, Dr. Tomáš Slanina is following in his footsteps in order to offer his colleagues in the field the solution to another puzzle. He and his colleagues ... More

Prof Lim Chwee Teck showing an image of a ‘mechano-resilient’ cancer cell undergoing extensive deformation as the cell is squeezed through a narrow channel. Image courtesy: NUS.

SINGAPORE.- The ability of cancer cells to metastasise, or spread from one part of the body to another, is one of the reasons why cancer can be extremely challenging to treat. However, the process that drives metastasis is complex and not fully understood. In a recent study, scientists from the National University of Singapore (NUS) pulled back the curtains on the complex interactions between tumour cells and the microenvironment, and showed that some cancer cells are resilient to mechanical stress and such cells also have a stronger ability to multiply rapidly to form secondary tumours. “Understanding how some cancer cells can survive mechanically-induced cell death is key to preventing the spread of malignant tumours, and paves the way for more targeted therapies,” explained lead author of the research Professor Lim Chwee ... More

Quiet cables set to help reveal rare physics events   New organoids boost pest rabbit control   Assessing unintended consequences in AI-based neurosurgical training

Chemist Isaac Arnquist examines a sheet of ultra-pure copper cables designed for physics experiments. Image courtesy: Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

RICHLAND, WA.- Imagine trying to tune a radio to a single station but instead encountering static noise and interfering signals from your own equipment. That is the challenge facing research teams searching for evidence of extremely rare events that could help understand the origin and nature of matter in the universe. It turns out that when you are trying to tune into some of the universe's weakest signals, it helps to make your instruments very quiet. Around the world more than a dozen teams are listening for the pops and electronic sizzle that might mean they have finally tuned into the right channel. These scientists and engineers have gone to extraordinary lengths to shield their experiments from false signals created by cosmic radiation. Most such experiments are found in very inaccessible places—such as a mile underground in a nickel mine in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, or in an abandoned gold mine ... More

Close up of rabbit liver organoid cells. Virus proteins in green. Cell nuclei in blue. Liver cells in red. Image courtesy: Dr Egi Kardia CSIRO.

CANBERRA.- Australia has been locked in a battle to control rabbits since the 1950s. Rabbits cause huge damage to our environment. They compete with native species, overgraze native plants and cause erosion. High rabbit numbers can also help sustain large populations of other invasive species, notably feral cats and foxes. A recent global assessment report by the United Nations found invasive alien species such as rabbits are the leading cause of biodiversity loss and species extinction in Australia. Keeping their numbers low over long periods of time is essential for Australia's biodiversity and rural industries. The best way to control rabbits across the landscape is to use self-sustaining biological control (biocontrol) methods. Biocontrol uses biological agents such as natural enemies or diseases to manage pest species. European rabbits infest two-thirds of Australia and are a serious threat to our native species. Rabbits are expensive to control using poisons, burrow ... More

A trainee using a virtual reality neurosurgical simulator. Image courtesy: The Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital).

MONTREAL.- Virtual reality simulators can help learners improve their technical skills faster and with no risk to patients. In the field of neurosurgery, they allow medical students to practice complex operations before using a scalpel on a real patient. When combined with artificial intelligence, these tutoring systems can offer tailored feedback like a human instructor, identifying areas where the students need to improve and making suggestions on how to achieve expert performance. A new study from the Neurosurgical Simulation and Artificial Intelligence Learning Center at The Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital) of McGill University, however, shows that human instruction is still necessary to detect and compensate for unintended, and sometimes negative, changes in neurosurgeon behavior after virtual reality AI training. The study has been published in JAMA Network Open. In the study, 46 medical students performed a tumor removal ... More

Inverse vaccine' shows potential to treat multiple sclerosis, other autoimmune diseases   Gene required for root hair growth, nitrate foraging found in grasses   Team discusses the blueprint for ultrafast spintronics

Prof. Jeff Hubbell in his laboratory at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering. Image courtesy: Matt Marton.

CHICAGO, IL.- A new type of vaccine developed by researchers at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering has shown that it can reverse autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes in lab tests — all without shutting down the rest of the immune system. Trials are only just beginning in humans, but researchers say the method holds promise. “In the past, we showed that we could use this approach to prevent autoimmunity,” said Jeffrey Hubbell, the Eugene Bell Professor in Tissue Engineering and lead author of the new paper. “But what is so exciting about this work is that we have shown that we can treat diseases like multiple sclerosis after there is already ongoing inflammation, which is more useful in a real-world context.” A typical vaccine teaches the human immune system to recognize a virus or bacteria as an enemy that should be attacked. The new “inverse vaccine ... More

Comparison of wild-type growing root hairs (left) and the BUZZ mutant with little root hair nubs, as seen through a scanning electron microscope. Image courtesy: Karen Sanguinet, Washington State University.

PULLMAN, WA.- Scientists have found a plant gene that drives the growth of root hairs, the tiny structures that help plants find water and nutrients in the soil. Identified by a team led by Washington State University researcher Karen Sanguinet, the gene, dubbed "BUZZ," causes faster-growing, denser webs of roots and may also determine how plants find and use nitrates, a prime source of nitrogen essential to plant growth. Nitrates are also used in fertilizers that can pollute the environment as runoff, and this genetic discovery could ultimately help plant scientists find ways to grow crops more sustainably. "Nitrate runoff and nitrogen use efficiency are some of the preeminent issues facing agriculture," said Sanguinet, associate professor in WSU's Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. "If you can understand the genetic mechanisms that control nitrate uptake and signaling, as well as how ... More

Prof. Wecan Jin (left) and his graduate student Chunli Tang (right) in the lab with the PPMS. Image courtesy: Wencan Jin.

AUBURN, AL.- Assistant Professor Wencan Jin and his team at Auburn University's Department of Physics are pushing the boundaries of technology with their latest publication on spin dynamics in two-dimensional (2D) van der Waals magnetic systems. Published in Physics Reports, this seminal review work delves into the nitty-gritty of magnetic behaviors and their ultrafast dynamics in atomically thin materials, exploring its transformative potential for next-generation technology. Since graphene burst onto the scene in 2004, the realm of 2D materials has been a hotbed of research. But the game-changer came in 2018 with the emergence of 2D van der Waals magnetic materials. These materials are more than just flat; they have unique magnetic properties that could redefine our technological capabilities. "Our work presents an overview of the significant progress in probing spin dynamics of 2D magnetic materials. Moreover ... More

How can solar energy installations prioritize ecosystems?   Fast-track strain engineering for speedy biomanufacturing   AI could make studying birds easier

How ecosystem services and attributes in degraded agroecosystems, rangelands or other low-statured ecosystems might be enhanced by an ecovoltaic approach. Image: Nature Ecology & Evolution (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41559-023-02174-x.

FORT COLLINS, CO.- Solar energy will be an integral part of a more sustainable future, but with current technology, generating the amount of power needed in Colorado alone would require using roughly the land area of Denver. That's a lot of space—and potential disturbance to ecosystems, especially when you consider that in the past, energy companies have typically first graded the land and then put gravel or short, easy-to-mow turf grass beneath their solar panels. Agrivoltaics—the dual use of land for both solar installations and agriculture—offers an alternative way to generate renewable solar energy. Now, two Colorado State University researchers are proposing taking this a step further through what's known as "ecovoltaics," which co-prioritizes energy production and ecosystem servic ... More

An imagining of a biomanufacturing-driven future. Image courtesy: Bianca Susara/JBEI.

BERKELEY, CA.- Using engineered microbes as microscopic factories has given the world steady sources of life-saving drugs, revolutionized the food industry, and allowed us to make sustainable versions of valuable chemicals previously made from petroleum. But behind each biomanufactured product on the market today is the investment of years of work and many millions of dollars in research and development funding. Berkeley Lab scientists want to help the burgeoning industry reach new heights by accelerating and streamlining the process of engineering microbes to produce important compounds with commercial-ready efficiency. A team led by senior scientist Aindrila Mukhopadhyay has developed a workflow that combines CRISPR gene editing with a suite of computational models of microbial gene expression and enzyme activity that can be used to predict the necessary gene edits. Their latest work was recently published ... More

Student teams up with researchers to solve thorny challenges of reviewing hours of video captured in the wild. Image courtesy: Ivana Schoepf.

EDMONTON.- Artificial intelligence could make studying birds easier, thanks to the work of a University of Alberta student. Priscilla Adebanji, a computing science student at Augustana Campus, spent her summer experimenting with AI to improve the analysis of U of A research video showing red-winged blackbirds and their nests. The tweaks, once fully developed, could save hours of time needed to manually review the video to identify specific birds — a task vital to her work, says Augustana professor Ivana Schoepf, who is exploring the effects of parasitism on bird behaviour. Currently, the only way to detect the identity and actions of each bird is by listening for their distinct calls, which means reviewing hours of video. It also requires expertise, Schoepf notes. “There has to be a level of knowledge about bird biology, and it also takes time to learn the birds and their calls.” Though existing software can track the ... More

More News
Study explores mechanical properties of molybdenum disulfide nanoribbons with armchair edges
ISHIKAWA.- The properties of nanoribbon edges are important for their applications in electronic devices, sensors, and catalysts. A group of scientists from Japan and China studied the mechanical response of single-layer molybdenum disulfide nanoribbons with armchair edges using in situ transmission electron microscopy. They showed that the nanoribbon Young's modulus varied inversely with its width below the width of 3nm, indicating a higher bond stiffness for the armchair edges. Their work, published in the journal Advanced Science, was co-authored by Associate Professor Kenta Hongo and Professor Ryo Maezono from JAIST and Lecturer Chunmeng Liu and Lecturer Jiaqi Zhang from Zhengzhou University, China. Sensors have become ubiquitous in the modern world, with applications ranging ... More

Ancient Amazonians intentionally created fertile "dark earth"
CAMBRIDGE, MA.- The Amazon river basin is known for its immense and lush tropical forests, so one might assume that the Amazon’s land is equally rich. In fact, the soils underlying the forested vegetation, particularly in the hilly uplands, are surprisingly infertile. Much of the Amazon’s soil is acidic and low in nutrients, making it notoriously difficult to farm. But over the years, archaeologists have dug up mysteriously black and fertile patches of ancient soils in hundreds of sites across the Amazon. This “dark earth” has been found in and around human settlements dating back hundreds to thousands of years. And it has been a matter of some debate as to whether the super-rich soil was purposefully created or a coincidental byproduct of these ancient cultures. Now, a study led by researchers at ... More

Keeping Vilsmeier reagent in the flow: From toxin to medicine in one go
KOBE.- The Vilsmeier reagent is necessary for producing a large range of pharmaceuticals, but its unstable nature and toxic precursor phosgene are challenges for its use. A new process that efficiently produces phosgene, the Vilsmeier reagent and the desired products in one flow is poised to make the industry greener and safer. For the production of many active pharmaceutical ingredients, a chemical called Vilsmeier reagent is necessary, but it is extremely unstable. That's why it is produced on-site and on-demand wherever possible. In addition, the currently used methods for producing the reagent either use phosgene, which is itself an unstable and highly toxic chemical, or if phosgene is avoided result in toxic or difficult-to-remove by-products. Kobe University chemist Tsuda Akihiko specializes on ... More

Team develops laser-based ice-core sampling for studying climate change
SAITAMA.- Researchers led by Yuko Motizuki from the Astro-Glaciology Laboratory at the RIKEN Nishina Center in Japan have developed a new laser-based sampling system for studying the composition of ice cores taken from glaciers. The new system has a 3-mm depth-resolution—about three times smaller than what is currently available—meaning that it can detect temperature variations that occurred over much smaller periods of time in the past. The new laser melting sampler, or LMS, is expected to help reconstruct continuous annual temperature changes that occurred thousands to hundreds of thousands of years ago, which will help scientists understand climate change in the past and present. The study was published in the Journal of Glaciology on Sep 19. Tree rings can tell us how old a tree is, and t ... More

Researchers offer insights into solid-electrolyte interphases in next-gen aqueous potassium-ion batteries
TOKYO.- Lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) have become immensely popular as the go-to power source for a wide variety of electronic devices and vehicles over the past two decades. Although it is hard to overstate the transformative effects that LIBs have had on modern societies, this technology has a fair share of disadvantages that cannot be ignored any further. These include the limited availability of lithium as well as safety and environmental concerns. These drawbacks have motivated scientists around the world to look for alternative battery technologies, such as aqueous batteries. Potassium-ion batteries (KIBs) are a prominent example; these batteries are made from abundantly available materials and are much safer than LIBs. Moreover, KIBs can utilize a water-in-salt electrolyte (WISE), which mak ... More

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First device to spot organ transplant rejection

On a day like today, Nobel Prize laureate Charles Brenton Huggins was born
September 22, 1901. Charles Brenton Huggins (September 22, 1901 - January 12, 1997) was a Canadian-American physician, physiologist and cancer researcher at the University of Chicago specializing in prostate cancer. He was awarded the 1966 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for discovering in 1941 that hormones could be used to control the spread of some cancers. This was the first discovery that showed that cancer could be controlled by chemicals. Huggins established a method to measure the effect hormone changes have on prostatic function. He found out that castration or estrogen administration led to glandular atrophy, which could be reversed by re-administration of androgen. In 1941 the beneficial effect of androgen ablation on metastatic prostate cancer was realised when Huggins and Clarence Hodges treated patients by either castration or estrogen therapy. They monitored the prostate size and therapeutic efficacy by measuring serum prostatic acid phosphatase levels and concluded that androgenic activity in the body influences prostate cancer, at least with respect to serum phosphatase. Huggins was the first to use a systemic approach to treat prostate cancer.


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