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Plant-eating lizards on the cusp of tooth evolution

3D reconstruction of the skull of an Amazon racerunner (Ameiva ameiva) captured through an X-ray micro-CT scan. Complex teeth with multiple tips ("cusps") are visible on the jaws. This feature—also seen in the dentition of early mammals—evolved many times in independent lizard groups. Image courtesy: Fabien Lafuma, University of Helsinki.

HELSINKI.- Researchers at the Universities of Helsinki and Lyon and the Geological Survey of Finland found that complex teeth, a hallmark of mammals, also evolved several times in reptiles, prompting the evolutionary success of plant-eating lizards. However, contrary to mammals their tooth evolution was not unidirectional. The study, published in Nature Communications, reveals that several lizard groups evolved teeth with multiple tips ("cusps") that allowed new plant-based diets and higher speciation rates—that is, how fast new species appear. Surprisingly, tooth evolution was more flexible in lizards and snakes than mammals, revealing a more nuanced view of tooth and dietary evolutionary adaptations in vertebrates. Scientists have richly documented the connection of tooth shape and diet in mammals, showing very diverse teeth fuelled their evolutionary success. But what about other toothed animals? The authors chose to study squamates ... More

From Covid to cancer: High hopes for 'versatile' mRNA   NASA launches Lucy probe to explore Jupiter asteroids   New nanowire architectures boost computers' processing power

Messenger RNA's job in the body is to help deliver specific instructions from DNA to cells. Image: Mufid Majnun, Unsplash.

PARIS (AFP).- The coronavirus pandemic has made vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna and the mRNA technology that they use into household names. These types of jabs are new but researchers have been working for decades to try to figure out how to use messenger RNA for other vaccinations and to treat illnesses from AIDS to cancer. Messenger RNA's job in the body is to help deliver specific instructions from DNA to cells. In the case of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna jabs, lab-generated mRNA tells human cells to create antigens -- proteins that are similar to ones found in the Covid-19 virus. Thanks to those antigens, a person's immune system learns how to fight the virus and neutralise Covid if it enters the body. After the cells create these proteins, the body breaks down the mRNA instructions and gets rid of them. Such direct communication with cells is revolutionary -- classic vaccines aimed to provoke an immune response by injecting a neutralised form of a virus or antigens into the system. ... More

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with the Lucy spacecraft aboard is seen in this 2 minute and 30 second exposure photograph as it launches from Space Launch Complex 41. Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

WASHINGTON, DC (AFP).- NASA launched a spacecraft called Lucy on a 12-year mission to explore Jupiter's Trojan asteroids for the first time on Saturday, gathering new insights into the solar system's formation. The Atlas V rocket responsible for propelling the probe took off at 5:34 am local time (0934 GMT) from Cape Canaveral. Named after an ancient fossil of a pre-human ancestor, Lucy will become the first solar-powered spacecraft to venture so far from the Sun, and will observe more asteroids than any probe before it -- eight in all. Lucy will also make three Earth flybys for gravity assists, making it the first spacecraft to return to our planet's vicinity from the outer solar system. "Each one of those asteroids, each one of those pristine samples, provide a part of the story of the solar system, the story of us," Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission, told reporters on a call. Lucy's first encounter will be in 2025 with a ... More

Valerio Piazza characterizes nanowires to optimize their electrical properties. Image courtesy: © 2021 EPFL Alain Herzog.

LAUSANNE.- Piazza, a scientist at EPFL’s Laboratory of Semiconductor Materials, studies semiconductors on a nano scale. His focus is nanowires, or nanostructures made of semiconducting materials, and his goal is to move transistors beyond their saturation point. That’s because transistors are everywhere – in cars, traffic lights, and even coffee makers – but their miniaturization capacity is reaching a limit because existing designs are nearly saturated. “The main challenges we now face in processing power relate to overcoming the transistor saturation point, which we can do with nanowires and other kinds of nanostructures,” says Piazza 2020 Piaget Scientific Award. Much of the recent improvement in processing power stems from advancements in microfabrication methods. These methods are what have allowed engineers to develop compact, yet sophisticated electronic devices like smartphones and smartwatches. By reducin ... More

China's 'space dream': A Long March to the Moon and beyond   Plankton head polewards   Accelerating the discovery of new materials for 3D printing

Astronauts (L-R) Ye Guangfu, Zhai Zhigang, and Wang Yaping the second crew for China's new space station, speak at a departure ceremony before their launch on the Shenzhou 13 spacecraft. STR / AFP.

BEIJING (AFP).- The arrival of three astronauts at China's new space station on Saturday marks a landmark step in its space ambitions, its longest crewed mission to date. The world's second-largest economy has put billions into its military-run space programme, with hopes of having a permanently crewed space station by 2022 and eventually sending humans to the Moon. The country has come a long way in catching up with the United States and Russia, whose astronauts and cosmonauts have decades of experience in space exploration. Soon after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, Chairman Mao Zedong pronounced: "We too will make satellites." It took more than a decade, but in 1970, China launched its first satellite on a Long March rocket. Human spaceflight took decades longer, with Yang Liwei becoming the first Chinese "taikonaut" in 2003. As the launch approached, concerns over the viability of the mission caused Beijing to cancel a live television broadcast at the last minute. But it went smoothly, ... More

A jellyfish is drifting with other plankton particles. ETH Zurich researchers expect many organisms to head to the poles and form new communities – with unforeseeable consequences for marine food webs.

ZURICH.- Ocean warming caused by anthropogenic greenhouse-​gas emissions will prompt many species of marine plankton to seek out new habitats, in some cases as a matter of sur-​vival. ETH Zurich researchers expect many organisms to head to the poles and form new communities – with unforeseeable consequences for marine food webs. The ocean is teeming with microscopic plants and animals known collectively as plankton. Each individual organism is tiny, yet, taken as a whole, this free-​floating community delivers important ecosystem services. For example, plant-​like plankton, or phytoplankton, use photosynthesis to fix carbon from carbon dioxide, making them a key driver of the oceanic carbon cycle. Phytoplankton are also a food source for zooplankton, which, in turn, nourish fish and marine creatures up to and including the blue whale. As the climate heats up and ocean temperatures rise, researchers expect to see ... More

Researchers at MIT and BASF have developed a data-driven system that accelerates the process of discovering new 3D printing materials that have multiple mechanical properties. Image courtesy of the researchers.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.- The growing popularity of 3D printing for manufacturing all sorts of items, from customized medical devices to affordable homes, has created more demand for new 3D printing materials designed for very specific uses. To cut down on the time it takes to discover these new materials, researchers at MIT have developed a data-driven process that uses machine learning to optimize new 3D printing materials with multiple characteristics, like toughness and compression strength. By streamlining materials development, the system lowers costs and lessens the environmental impact by reducing the amount of chemical waste. The machine learning algorithm could also spur innovation by suggesting unique chemical formulations that human intuition might miss. “Materials development is still very much a manual process. A chemist goes into a lab, mixes ingredients by hand, makes samples, tests them, and comes to a final formulation. But rather than having a chemist who can only do a couple of iteratio ... More

New technique, effective in mice, could help advance the use of probiotics   How the brain deals with uncertainty   New fibers can make breath-regulating garments

To protect against stomach acid, the researchers coated a probiotic strain of E. coli bacteria first in tannic acid, then in a polymer called L100. Image: Frenjamin Benklin, Unsplash.

MADISON, WI.- Scientists studying probiotics, beneficial bacteria that show promise for their ability to treat inflammatory bowel disease and other intestinal disorders, continue to face a problem: How to keep probiotics from getting obliterated in the gut before they can be helpful. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Pharmacy think they have a solution involving a dual-layer protection system that can keep probiotic bacteria alive in the lower intestine long enough to help treat or prevent colitis in a mouse model of the disease. Quanyin Hu and postdoctoral researcher Jun Liu have filed for a patent on their double-protection technique, and with their collaborators, published their findings in the journal Nano Today. If the new technique shows similar effectiveness in clinical trials, it could help advance the use of probiotics. The research addresses one of the biggest limitations of treating disease with probi ... More

The mediodorsal thalamus forms a crossroad of connections that integrate signals from prefrontal cortical areas and helps coordinate their activity to generate optimal decisions. Image courtesy: Arghya Mukherjee.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.- As we interact with the world, we are constantly presented with information that is unreliable or incomplete — from jumbled voices in a crowded room to solicitous strangers with unknown motivations. Fortunately, our brains are well equipped to evaluate the quality of the evidence we use to make decisions, usually allowing us to act deliberately, without jumping to conclusions. Now, neuroscientists at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research have homed in on key brain circuits that help guide decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. By studying how mice interpret ambiguous sensory cues, they’ve found neurons that stop the brain from using unreliable information. The findings, published in the journal Nature, could help researchers develop treatments for schizophrenia and related conditions, whose symptoms may be at least partly due to affected individuals’ ina ... More

The key features of the new fiber architecture include its extremely narrow size and use of inexpensive materials, which make it relatively easy to structure the fibers into a variety of fabric forms. Image courtesy of the researchers.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.- A new kind of fiber developed by researchers at MIT and in Sweden can be made into clothing that senses how much it is being stretched or compressed, and then provides immediate tactile feedback in the form of pressure, lateral stretch, or vibration. Such fabrics, the team suggests, could be used in garments that help train singers or athletes to better control their breathing, or that help patients recovering from disease or surgery to recover their breathing patterns. The multilayered fibers contain a fluid channel in the center, which can be activated by a fluidic system. This system controls the fibers’ geometry by pressurizing and releasing a fluid medium, such as compressed air or water, into the channel, allowing the fiber to act as an artificial muscle. The fibers also contain stretchable sensors that can detect and measure the degree of stretching of the fibers. The resulting composite f ... More

A decade after gene therapy, children born with deadly immune disorder remain healthy   Carbon from a cosmic source   Delhi outbreak highlights challenge of reaching herd immunity in face of Delta variant

Dr. Donald Kohn, distinguished professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics at UCLA. Image courtesy: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- Over a decade ago, UCLA physician-scientists began using a pioneering gene therapy they developed to treat children born with a rare and deadly immune system disorder. They now report that the effects of the therapy appear to be long-lasting, with 90% of patients who received the treatment eight to 11 years ago still disease-free. ADA-SCID, or adenosine deaminase–deficient severe combined immunodeficiency, is caused by mutations in the gene that creates the ADA enzyme, which is essential to a functioning immune system. For babies with the disease, exposure to everyday germs can be fatal, and if untreated, most will die within the first two years of life. In the gene therapy approach detailed in the new paper, Dr. Donald Kohn of UCLA and his colleagues removed blood-forming stem cells from each child’s bone marrow, then used a specially modified virus, originally isolated from mice, to guide healthy copies of the ADA gene int ... More

Partners in space: massive stars often occur in close binary systems in which one star takes mass from its companion. Image courtesy: © ESO/M. Kornmesser / S.E. de Mink.

GARCHING BEI MÜNCHEN.- Many things work better in pairs. The production of chemical elements is no exception. Many elements are formed inside stars during fusion processes. Carbon plays an important role in this because it is the basis of life and thus ultimately of human beings. But how effective is the cosmic source of this important building block? A study led by the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics shows that massive stars produce twice as much carbon when they have a companion star. The researchers know that massive stars are essential in the synthesis of all heavy elements – from carbon and oxygen to iron. Although most of these stellar heavyweights are born in multiple star systems, previous models have looked almost exclusively at single stars. An international team led by Robert Farmer from the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching has now calculated the carbon footprint of massive stars that are partners in a binar ... More

Workers place signage to block off seats inside a cinema in Manila on October 14, 2021, ahead of the reopening of movie houses following a sharp fall in the daily number of coronavirus infections and increased vaccinations. Maria Tan / AFP.

CAMBRIDGE.- The severe outbreak of COVID-19 in Delhi, India, in 2021 showed not only that the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 is extremely transmissible but that it can infect individuals previously infected by a different variant of the coronavirus, says a team of international scientists writing in Science. SARS-CoV-2 had spread widely throughout India in the first wave, with initial results from the Indian Council of Medical Research finding one in five (21%) adults and one in four (25%) 10 to 17-year-old adolescents had been infected. The figures were much higher in Indian megacities: By February 2021, over a half (56%) of the individuals in Delhi were thought to have been infected. Since the first case of COVID-19 was detected in Delhi in March 2020, the city had experienced multiple outbreaks, in June, September and November 2020. After reaching a high of almost 9,000 cases daily in November 2020, new cases steadily declined, with very few new infections between December 2020 and March 2021. The ... More

More News
A laser concept developed by Pitt physicists could surpass a 60-year-old limitation
PITTSBURGH, PA.- Maser? Mamer? Lamer? Whatever it is, it’s not technically a laser — but it could soon do the job of one better than any that exist today. A team of Pitt physicists recently published a design that would surpass a theoretical limit on the effectiveness of lasers that’s barely changed in more than 60 years, opening new potential applications and maybe even necessitating a name change for the technology. Ideally, a laser would maintain a pure color no matter how long it shines, a property that physicists refer to as coherence. “If a laser is coherent, that’s like a really good clock,” explained Department of Physics & Astronomy Assistant Professor David Pekker in the Kenneth P. Dietrich College of Arts & Sciences. “But in real life, that’s not how lasers work.” Instead, they drift. The frequency ... More

New statistical study finds link between protein evolution and thermal variation
TOKYO.- A recent statistical study has revealed some of the constraints and directions in the evolution of the structure and function of proteins. Better models of protein structural dynamics may allow researchers to understand more of this fundamental mystery in living organisms. Proteins perform essential functions such as material transport, immunity and catalysis. The various functions of proteins have evolved gradually over the course of evolution. Due to thermal noise, or the random motion of atoms, proteins shift their structures while performing their functions. These dynamics usually happen in short time scales, from microseconds (millionth of seconds) to milliseconds (thousandth of seconds). Meanwhile, genetic mutations may also lead to variations in protein structures, leading to the evolution of proteins. Such an evolu ... More

Social media and AI can measure the aesthetic quality of landscapes
LAUSANNE.- The extent to which we enjoy an outdoor activity – such as hiking in the mountains, going for a run or paddleboarding – depends largely on the beauty of the surrounding ecosystem. For example, landscapes that contain a crystal blue sea, rolling hills covered in yellow and lavender, or a stream trickling across a bed of rocks can be a boon to both our physical and mental health. This sense of well-being is one of the factors examined in ecosystem service (ES) assessments, which quantify the contributions of landscapes to people’s well-being in order to inform environmental policy. To support these assessments, a team of scientists from EPFL and Wageningen University have developed a new type of model that uses artificial intelligence to incorporate people’s aesthetic enjoyment of a landscape. Their mod ... More

How bacteria create a piggy bank for the lean times
MONTREAL.- Bacteria can store extra resources for the lean times. It’s a bit like keeping a piggy bank or carrying a backup battery pack. One important reserve is known as cyanophycin granules, which were first noticed by an Italian scientist about 150 years ago. He saw big, dark splotches in the cells of the blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) he was studying without understanding either what they were or their purpose. Since then, scientists have realized that cyanophycin was made of a natural green biopolymer, that bacteria use it as a store of nitrogen and energy, and that it could have many biotechnological applications. They have tried producing large amounts of cyanophycin by putting the enzyme that makes it (known as cyanophycin synthetase) in everything from E. coli to tobacco, but without being able to make enough ... More

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Concrete footbridge without pouring concrete

On a day like today, German physicist and chemist Gustav Kirchhoff died
October 17, 1887. Gustav Robert Kirchhoff (12 March 1824 - 17 October 1887) was a German physicist who contributed to the fundamental understanding of electrical circuits, spectroscopy, and the emission of black-body radiation by heated objects. He coined the term black-body radiation in 1862. Several different sets of concepts are named "Kirchhoff's laws" after him, concerning such diverse subjects as black-body radiation and spectroscopy, electrical circuits, and thermochemistry. The Bunsen–Kirchhoff Award for spectroscopy is named after him and his colleague, Robert Bunsen. Kirchhoff's first law is that the algebraic sum of currents in a network of conductors meeting at a point (or node) is zero. The second law is that in a closed circuit, the directed sums of the voltages in a closed system is zero.


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