Posts about university research

Crows can Perform as Well as 7 to 10-year-olds on cause-and-effect Water Displacement Tasks

In Aesop’s fable about the crow and the pitcher, a thirsty bird happens upon a vessel of water, but when he tries to drink from it, he finds the water level out of his reach. Not strong enough to knock over the pitcher, the bird drops pebbles into it — one at a time — until the water level rises enough for him to drink his fill.

Highlighting the value of ingenuity, the fable demonstrates that cognitive ability can often be more effective than brute force. It also characterizes crows as pretty resourceful problem solvers. New research conducted by UC Santa Barbara’s Corina Logan, with her collaborators at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, proves the birds’ intellectual prowess may be more fact than fiction. Her findings, supported by the National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program, appear today in the scientific journal PLOS ONE: Modifications to the Aesop’s Fable Paradigm Change New Caledonian Crow Performances.

photo of Corina Logan

Researcher Corina Logan with a great-tailed grackle and a night heron at the Santa Barbara Zoo. The zoo is one of the sites where Logan is gathering data to compare and contrast the cognitive abilities of grackles and New Caledonian crows.
Photo Credit: Sonia Fernandez

Logan is lead author of the paper, which examines causal cognition using a water displacement paradigm. “We showed that crows can discriminate between different volumes of water and that they can pass a modified test that so far only 7- to 10-year-old children have been able to complete successfully. We provide the strongest evidence so far that the birds attend to cause-and-effect relationships by choosing options that displace more water.”

Logan, a junior research fellow at UCSB’s SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind, worked with New Caledonian crows in a set of small aviaries in New Caledonia run by the University of Auckland. “We caught the crows in the wild and brought them into the aviaries, where they habituated in about five days,” she said. Keeping families together, they housed the birds in separate areas of the aviaries for three to five months before releasing them back to the wild.

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iPhone Addition as Alternative to Expensive Ophthalmology Equipment

Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have developed two inexpensive adapters that enable a smartphone to capture high-quality images of the front and back of the eye. The adapters make it easy for anyone with minimal training to take a picture of the eye and share it securely with other health practitioners or store it in the patient’s electronic record.

The researchers see this technology as an opportunity to increase access to eye-care services as well as to improve the ability to advise on patient care remotely.

The standard equipment used to photograph the eye is expensive — costing up to tens of thousands of dollars — and requires extensive training to use properly. Primary care physicians and emergency department staff often lack this equipment, and although it is readily available in ophthalmologists’ offices, it is sparse in rural areas throughout the world.

“Adapting smartphones for the eye has the potential to enhance the delivery of eye care — in particular, to provide it in places where it’s less accessible,” said Myung. “Whether it’s in the emergency department, where patients often have to wait a long time for a specialist, or during a primary-care physician visit, we hope that we can improve the quality of care for our patients, especially in the developing world where ophthalmologists are few and far between.”

“A picture is truly worth a thousand words,” he added. “Imagine a car accident victim arriving in the emergency department with an eye injury resulting in a hyphema — blood inside the front of her eye. Normally the physician would have to describe this finding in her electronic record with words alone. Smartphones today not only have the camera resolution to supplement those words with a high-resolution photo, but also the data-transfer capability to upload that photo securely to the medical record in a matter of seconds.

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Looking Inside Living Cells

Johns Hopkins’ molecular biologist Jin Zhang explains how she uses light to see where and when within cells specific molecular processes occur and what happens when they go wrong.

Related: How Lysozyme Protein in Our Tear-Drops Kill BacteriaScience Explained: How Cells React to Invading VirusesNobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2012 for Reprogramming Cells to be PluripotentWebcast Exploring Eukaryotic Cells

Starting a Career in Science to Fight Cancer

Keven Stonewall Preventing Colon Cancer from VNM USA on Vimeo.

Keven Stonewall is a student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison working to prevent colon cancer.

Related: I Always Wanted to be Some Sort of ScientistHigh School Student Creates Test That is Much More Accurate and 26,000 Times Cheaper Than Existing Pancreatic Cancer TestsWebcast of a T-cell Killing a Cancerous Cell

Open Source Seeds

I find the current status of government granted patents to be very flawed, including patenting life.

Plant Breeders Release First ‘Open Source Seeds’

A group of scientists and food activists is launching a campaign Thursday to change the rules that govern seeds. They’re releasing 29 new varieties of crops under a new “open source pledge” that’s intended to safeguard the ability of farmers, gardeners and plant breeders to share those seeds freely.

Irwin Goldman, a vegetable breeder at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, helped organize the campaign. It’s an attempt to restore the practice of open sharing that was the rule among plant breeders when he entered the profession more than 20 years ago.

Good for them. This needs to be supported. The crazy practices of seed companies shouldn’t be legal but they pay lots of cash to politicians and the corrupt politicians (which seems to be an awful lot of them) write bad policy and encourage bad regulation.

Even those administrators taking control of universities have subjugated the search for knowledge and improvement to seek monetary gain instead of what the universities used to prioritize. It is a shame and those that have distorted universities so much should be ashamed.

Initial efforts that lead to the bad place we find universities in now were to promote the adoption of university research. To do so they partnered with business in sensible ways. Then administrators saw money was being made and turned the priority into making money and if that meant restricting the benefits to society of university research so be it. This has created universities that have lost ethical foundations and have destroyed a big part of the value universities used to provide society.

Related: Open-Source Biotech (2006)Scientists Say Biotechnology Seed Companies Prevent Research (2009)The A to Z Guide to Political Interference in ScienceArduino: Open Source Programmable HardwareMoney Is Corrupting Our Political Process

Goats Excel at Learning and Remembering a Complex Tasks

I like research showing animals using intelligence that seems advanced, for example: Crow Using a Sequence of Three ToolsInsightful Problem Solving in an Asian ElephantBird-brains smarter than your average apeTropical Lizards Can Solve Novel Problems and Remember the SolutionsPigeon Solves Box and Banana Problem.

I also like open access science, and this has both: Goats excel at learning and remembering a highly novel cognitive task

The majority of trained goats (9/12) successfully learned the task quickly; on average, within 12 trials. After intervals of up to 10 months, they solved the task within two minutes, indicating excellent long-term memory. The goats did not learn the task faster after observing a demonstrator than if they did not have that opportunity. This indicates that they learned through individual rather than social learning.”

The individual learning abilities and long-term memory of goats highlighted in our study suggest that domestication has not affected goat physical cognition. However, these cognitive abilities contrast with the apparent lack of social learning, suggesting that relatively intelligent species do not always preferentially learn socially. We propose that goat cognition, and maybe more generally ungulate cognition, is mainly driven by the need to forage efficiently in harsh environments and feed on plants that are difficult to access and to process, more than by the computational demands of sociality. Our results could also explain why goats are so successful at colonizing new environments.

The experiment was done with domesticated goats. I also learned this from the article, which I didn’t know before:

Domestication is known to strongly affect brain size. Consistent reductions in brain size relative to body size, as well as in brain size parts, have occurred in many domestic species.

Related: Orangutan Attempts to Hunt Fish with SpearFriday Fun: Bird Using Bait to FishPhoto of Fish Using a Rock to Open a Clam

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Refusal to Follow Scientific Guidance Results in Worms Evolving to Eat Corn Designed to Kill The Worms

An understanding of natural selection and evolution is fundamental to understanding science, biology, human health and life. Scientists create wonderful products to improve our lives: vaccines, antibiotics, etc.; if we don’t use them or misuse them it is a great loss to society.

There is also great value in genetic enhanced seeds and thus plants (through natural human aided processes such as breeding and providing good genetic material over a wide area – distances that would not be covered naturally, at least not in a time that helps us much). Genetic Modified Organisms (GMO) food, in which we tinker with the genes directly also holds great promise but has risks, especially if we forget basic scientific principles such as biodiversity.

Voracious Worm Evolves to Eat Biotech Corn Engineered to Kill It

First planted in 1996, Bt corn quickly became hugely popular among U.S. farmers. Within a few years, populations of rootworms and corn borers, another common corn pest, had plummeted across the midwest. Yields rose and farmers reduced their use of conventional insecticides that cause more ecological damage than the Bt toxin.

By the turn of the millennium, however, scientists who study the evolution of insecticide resistance were warning of imminent problems. Any rootworm that could survive Bt exposures would have a wide-open field in which to reproduce; unless the crop was carefully managed, resistance would quickly emerge.

Key to effective management, said the scientists, were refuges set aside and planted with non-Bt corn. Within these fields, rootworms would remain susceptible to the Bt toxin. By mating with any Bt-resistant worms that chanced to evolve in neighboring fields, they’d prevent resistance from building up in the gene pool.

But the scientists’ own recommendations — an advisory panel convened in 2002 by the EPA suggested that a full 50 percent of each corn farmer’s fields be devoted to these non-Bt refuges — were resisted by seed companies and eventually the EPA itself, which set voluntary refuge guidelines at between 5 and 20 percent. Many farmers didn’t even follow those recommendations.

Using extremely powerful tools like GMO requires society to have much better scientific literacy among those making decisions than any societies have shown thus far. The failure of our governments to enforce sensible scientific constraints on such use of genetic engineering creates huge risks to society. It is due to this consistent failure of our government to act within sensible scientific constraints that causes me to support efforts (along with other reasons – economic understanding – the extremely poor state of patent system, risk reduction…) to resist the widespread adoption of GMO, patenting of life (including seeds and seeds produced by seeds).

Wonderful things are possible. If we grow up and show a long term track record of being guided by scientific principles when the risks of not doing so are huge then I will be more supportive of using tactics such as GMO more easily. But I don’t see us getting their anytime soon. If anything we are much less scietifically minded and guided than we were 50 years ago: even while we bask in the glorious wonders science has brought us on a daily basis.

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Battery Breakthrough Using Organic Storage

Battery offers renewable energy breakthrough

a metal-free flow battery that relies on the electrochemistry of naturally abundant, inexpensive, small organic (carbon-based) molecules called quinones, which are similar to molecules that store energy in plants and animals.

The mismatch between the availability of intermittent wind or sunshine and the variable demand is the biggest obstacle to using renewable sources for a large fraction of our electricity. A cost-effective means of storing large amounts of electrical energy could solve this problem.

Flow batteries store energy in chemical fluids contained in external tanks, as with fuel cells, instead of within the battery container itself. The two main components — the electrochemical conversion hardware through which the fluids are flowed (which sets the peak power capacity) and the chemical storage tanks (which set the energy capacity) — may be independently sized. Thus the amount of energy that can be stored is limited only by the size of the tanks. The design permits larger amounts of energy to be stored at lower cost than with traditional batteries.

This looks like a very interesting field of research. Storing power remains one of the challenges for renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. This is especially true if the use is disconnected from the grid, but is even true for grid-connected uses. Especially as increasing the amount of wind and solar energy make it increasingly likely that surplus energy is created at certain times.

The research seems to allow for sensible size home storage setups. At the commercial level the volume needed is very large. Another concern to be addressed is how many cycles the “battery” is good for before it degrades; current experimentation show no degradation after 100 cycles but consumer/commercial usage will need thousands of cycles.

Related: Battery Breakthrough (solid sodium metal mated to a sulphur compound by an extraordinary, paper-thin ceramic membrane)Energy Storage Using Carbon Nanotubes (2006)Chart of Wind Power Generation Capacity Globally 2005-2012Recharge Batteries in Seconds

80% of the Antibiotics in the USA are Used in Agriculture and Aquaculture

Citing an overabundance in the use of antibiotics by the agriculture and aquaculture industries that poses a threat to public health, economics professor Aidan Hollis has proposed a solution in the form of user fees on the non-human use of antibiotics.

In a newly released paper published (closed science, sadly, so no link provide), Hollis and co-author Ziana Ahmed state that in the United States 80% of the antibiotics in the country are consumed in agriculture and aquaculture for the purpose of increasing food production.

This flood of antibiotics released into the environment – sprayed on fruit trees and fed to the likes of livestock, poultry and salmon, among other uses – has led bacteria to evolve, Hollis writes. Mounting evidence cited in the journal shows resistant pathogens are emerging in the wake of this veritable flood of antibiotics – resulting in an increase in bacteria that is immune to available treatments.

If the problem is left unchecked, this will create a health crisis on a global scale, Hollis says.

Hollis suggest that the predicament could be greatly alleviated by imposing a user fee on the non-human uses of antibiotics, similar to the way in which logging companies pay stumpage fees and oil companies pay royalties.

“Modern medicine relies on antibiotics to kill off bacterial infections,” explains Hollis. “This is incredibly important. Without effective antibiotics, any surgery – even minor ones – will become extremely risky. Cancer therapies, similarly, are dependent on the availability of effective antimicrobials. Ordinary infections will kill otherwise healthy people.”

Bacteria that can effectively resist antibiotics will thrive, Hollis adds, reproducing rapidly and spreading in various ways.

“It’s not just the food we eat,” he says. “Bacteria is spread in the environment; it might wind up on a doorknob. You walk away with the bacteria on you and you share it with the next person you come into contact with. If you become infected with resistant bacteria, antibiotics won’t provide any relief.”

While the vast majority of antibiotic use has gone towards increasing productivity in agriculture, Hollis asserts that most of these applications are of “low value.”

“It’s about increasing the efficiency of food so you can reduce the amount of grain you feed the cattle,” says Hollis. “It’s about giving antibiotics to baby chicks because it reduces the likelihood that they’re going to get sick when you cram them together in unsanitary conditions.

“These methods are obviously profitable to the farmers, but that doesn’t mean it’s generating a huge benefit. In fact, the profitability is usually quite marginal.

“The real value of antibiotics is saving people from dying. Everything else is trivial.”

While banning the use of antibiotics in food production is challenging, establishing a user fee makes good sense, according to Hollis.

Such a practice would deter the low-value use of antibiotics, with higher costs encouraging farmers to improve their animal management methods and to adopt better substitutes for the drugs, such as vaccinations.

Hollis also suggests that an international treaty could ideally be imposed. “Resistant bacteria do not respect national borders,” he says. He adds that such a treaty might have a fair chance of attaining international compliance, as governments tend to be motivated by revenue collection.

Hollis notes that in the USA, a move has been made to control the non-human use of antibiotics, with the FDA recently seeking voluntary limits on the use of antibiotics for animal growth promotion on farms.

Related: Raising Food Without AntibioticsOur Dangerous Antibiotic Practices Carry Great RisksWhat Happens If the Overuse of Antibiotics Leads to Them No Longer Working?Antibiotics Too Often Prescribed for Sinus Woes

DNA Contains Gene Control Instructions

Scientists discover double meaning in genetic code

Scientists have discovered a second code hiding within DNA. This second code contains information that changes how scientists read the instructions contained in DNA and interpret mutations to make sense of health and disease.

“For over 40 years we have assumed that DNA changes affecting the genetic code solely impact how proteins are made,” said Stamatoyannopoulos. “Now we know that this basic assumption about reading the human genome missed half of the picture. These new findings highlight that DNA is an incredibly powerful information storage device, which nature has fully exploited in unexpected ways.”

The genetic code uses a 64-letter alphabet called codons. The UW team discovered that some codons, which they called duons, can have two meanings, one related to protein sequence, and one related to gene control. These two meanings seem to have evolved in concert with each other. The gene control instructions appear to help stabilize certain beneficial features of proteins and how they are made.

The discovery of duons has major implications for how scientists and physicians interpret a patient’s genome and will open new doors to the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

“The fact that the genetic code can simultaneously write two kinds of information means that many DNA changes that appear to alter protein sequences may actually cause disease by disrupting gene control programs or even both mechanisms simultaneously,” said Stamatoyannopoulos.

The wonder of DNA continues to amaze.

Related: Epigenetic Effects on DNA from Living Conditions in Childhood Persist Well Into Middle AgeDNA Passed to Descendants Changed by Your LifeDNA based Algorithmic Self-Assembly

Better Health Through: Exercise, Not Smoking, Low Weight, Healthy Diet and Low Alcohol Intake

These 5 activities/state reduce the risk of chronic diseases: regular exercise, not smoking, healthy bodyweight, healthy diet and low alcohol intake. How these were defined

  • not smoking
  • body mass index (BMI): 18 to under 25
  • diet: target was to be 5 portions of fruit and/or vegetables a day, but since almost no one meet that target they reduced the acceptable rate to 3 as accepted as ‘healthy.” Also a diet with less than 30% of calories from fat was required.
  • physical activity: walking two or more miles to work each day, or cycling ten or more miles to work each day, or ‘vigorous’ exercise described as a regular habit
  • alcohol: three or fewer units per day, with abstinence not treated as a healthy behaviour.

Healthy Lifestyles Reduce the Incidence of Chronic Diseases and Dementia: Evidence from the Caerphilly Cohort Study (PLoS open science publication).

The numbers of men judged to be following a healthy lifestyle were as follows: 179 (8%) followed none of the five behaviours, 702 (31%) followed one behaviour, 814 (36%) followed two, 429 (19%) followed three, 111 (5%) followed four or five behaviours and only two (0.1%) followed all five behaviors.

Within a representative sample of middle-aged men, the following of increasing numbers of healthy behaviours was associated with increasing reductions in several important chronic diseases and mortality: an estimated 50% reduction in diabetes, 50% in vascular disease and 60% for all-cause mortality. These results therefore confirm previous studies and provide further data on the association of lifestyle with cognitive impairment and dementia, with a reduction of about 60% in cognitive impairment and about the same in dementia. These reductions, and especially those in cognitive function, are of enormous importance in an ageing population.

Healthy habits reduce dementia risk (Cardiff University press release):

The people who consistently followed four or five of these behaviors exp
experienced a 60 per cent decline in dementia and cognitive decline – with exercise being the strongest mitigating factor – as well as 70 per cent fewer instances of diabetes, heart disease and stroke, compared with people who followed none.

Principle Investigator Professor Peter Elwood from Cardiff University’s School of Medicine. “What the research shows is that following a healthy lifestyle confers surprisingly large benefits to health – healthy behaviours have a far more beneficial effect than any medical treatment or preventative procedure.

Christopher Allen, Senior Cardiac Nurse at the British Heart Foundation, which part-funded the study, said:

“The results of this study overwhelmingly support the notion that adopting a healthy lifestyle reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease and dementia.

Related: Examining the Scientific Basis Around Exercise and Diet ClaimsHealthy Diet, Healthy Living, Healthy WeightStudy Finds Obesity as Teen as Deadly as SmokingPhysical Activity for Adults: Inactivity Leads to 5.3 Million Early Deaths a YearToday, Most Deaths Caused by Lifetime of Action or Inaction

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