Posts about university research

Tropical Lizards Can Solve Novel Problems and Remember the Solutions

Brainy Lizards Pass Tests for Birds

[Duke biologist Manuel Leal] tested the lizards using a wooden block with two wells, one that was empty and one that held a worm but was covered by a cap. Four lizards, two male and two female, passed the test by either biting the cap or bumping it out of the way.

The lizards solved the problem in three fewer attempts than birds need to flip the correct cap and pass the test, Leal said. Birds usually get up to six chances a day, but lizards only get one chance per day because they eat less. In other words, if a lizard makes a mistake, it has to remember how to correct it until the next day

Leal’s experiment “clearly demonstrates” that when faced with a situation the lizards had never experienced, most of them were able to devise a way to solve the problem. Their ability to “unlearn” a behavior, a skill that some mammalian species have difficulty in, is the mark of a cognitively advanced animal, said Jonathan Losos, a biologist at Harvard who was not involved in the study.

To see if the lizards could reverse this association, Leal next placed the worm under the other cap. At first, all the lizards bumped or bit the formerly lucrative blue cap. But after a few mistakes, two of the lizards figured out the trick. “We named these two Plato and Socrates,” Leal said.

It is very cool to see what scientists keep learning about animals.

Related: Insightful Problem Solving in an Asian ElephantBird Using Bread as Bait to Catch FishCrows Transferring Their Understanding to Novel ProblemDolphins Using Tools to Hunt

Research on Ancient Roman Concrete Will Allow the Creation of More Durable and Environmentally Friendly Concrete

Analysis of samples of ancient Roman concrete pinpointed why the best Roman concrete was superior to most modern concrete in durability, why its manufacture was less environmentally damaging – and how these improvements could be adopted in the modern world.

“It’s not that modern concrete isn’t good – it’s so good we use 19 billion tons of it a year,” says Paulo Monteiro (U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory). “The problem is that manufacturing Portland cement accounts for seven percent of the carbon dioxide that industry puts into the air.”

Portland cement is the source of the “glue” that holds most modern concrete together. But making it releases carbon from burning fuel, needed to heat a mix of limestone and clays to 1,450 degrees Celsius (2,642 degrees Fahrenheit) – and from the heated limestone (calcium carbonate) itself. Monteiro’s team found that the Romans, by contrast, used much less lime and made it from limestone baked at 900˚ C, or lower, requiring far less fuel than Portland cement.

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions is one powerful incentive for finding a better way to provide the concrete the world needs; another is the need for stronger, longer-lasting buildings, bridges, and other structures. Roman harbor installations have survived 2,000 years of chemical attack and wave action underwater. We now expect our construction to last 50 to 100 years.

The Romans made concrete by mixing lime and volcanic rock. For underwater structures, lime and volcanic ash were mixed to form mortar, and this mortar and volcanic tuff were packed into wooden forms. The seawater instantly triggered a hot chemical reaction. The lime was hydrated – incorporating water molecules into its structure – and reacted with the ash to cement the whole mixture together.

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Human Gene Origins: 37% Bacterial, 35% Animal, 28% Eukaryotic

The percent of human genes that emerged in various stages of evolution: 37% bacterial, 28% eukaryotic, 16% animal, 13% vertebrate, 6% primate. The history that brought us to where we are is amazing. Eukaryotes include animals, plants, amoebae, flagellates, amoeboflagellates, fungi and plastids (including algae). So eukaryotic genes are those common to us and other non-animal eukaryotes while those classified as animal genes are shared by animals but not non-animal eukaryotes.

We are living in a bacterial world, and it’s impacting us more than previously thought by Lisa Zyga

Bacterial signaling is not only essential for development, it also helps animals maintain homeostasis, keeping us healthy and happy. As research has shown, bacteria in the gut can communicate with the brain through the central nervous system. Studies have found that mice without certain bacteria have defects in brain regions that control anxiety and depression-like behavior. Bacterial signaling also plays an essential role in guarding an animal’s immune system. Disturbing these bacterial signaling pathways can lead to diseases such as diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and infections. Studies also suggest that many of the pathogens that cause disease in animals have “hijacked” these bacterial communication channels that originally evolved to maintain a balance between the animal and hundreds of beneficial bacterial species.

Scientists have also discovered that bacteria in the human gut adapts to changing diets. For example, most Americans have a gut microbiome that is optimized for digesting a high-fat, high-protein diet, while people in rural Amazonas, Venezuela, have gut microbes better suited for breaking down complex carbohydrates. Some people in Japan even have a gut bacterium that can digest seaweed. Researchers think the gut microbiome adapts in two ways: by adding or removing certain bacteria species, and by transferring the desired genes from one bacterium to another through horizontal gene transfer. Both host and bacteria benefit from this kind of symbiotic relationship, which researchers think is much more widespread than previously thought.

We want badly for the message in ‘Animals in a bacterial world,’ to be a call for the necessary disappearance of the old boundaries between life science departments (e.g., Depts of Zoology, Botany, Microbiology, etc.) in universities, and societies (e.g., the American Society for Microbiology, etc.). We also want the message disseminated in college and university classes from introductory biology to advanced courses in the various topic areas of our paper.”

Very cool stuff. This amazing facts scientists discover provide an amazing view of the world we live in and how interconnected we are to other life forms in ways we don’t normally think of.

Related: People’s Bodies Carry More Bacterial Cells than Human CellsMicrobes Flourish In Healthy PeopleTracking the Ecosystem Within UsForeign Cells Outnumber Human Cells in Our BodiesBacteria Beneficial to Human Health

How Corn Syrup Might Be Making Us Fat

How Corn Syrup Might Be Making Us Hungry–and Fat by Katherine Harmon

…Glucose lowered the activity of the hypothalamus but fructose actually prompted a small spike to this area. As might be expected from these results, the glucose drink alone increased the feelings of fullness reported by volunteers, which indicates that they would be less likely to consume more calories after having something sweetened with glucose than something sweetened with more fructose.

Fructose and glucose look similar molecularly, but fructose is metabolized differently by the body and prompts the body to secrete less insulin than does glucose (insulin plays a role in telling the body to feel full and in dulling the reward the body gets from food). Fructose also fails to reduce the amount of circulating ghrelin (a hunger-signaling hormone) as much as glucose does. (Animal studies have shown that fructose can, indeed, cross the blood-brain barrier and be metabolized in the hypothalamus.) Previous studies have shown that this effect was pronounced in animal models…

Most of the science indicates calories consumed is by far the dominant factor in weight gain. Different foods with the same calories can affect how hungry you feel. Thus the biggest factor in reducing weight gain seems to be reducing calories and one way to help is to eat food that leaves you feeling full and avoid foods that don’t.

The science is not completely clear though on whether certain diets can have a significant affect above and beyond calorie levels. I am skeptical of such claims, however. There are concerns beyond calories for healthy eating – getting a well balanced diet is important.

Healthy physical activity is also important. Burning off calories with exercise allows more consumption without weight gain. And exercise is important for health not just to avoid gaining weight.

Related: Researchers Find High-Fructose Corn Syrup Results in More Weight GainDoes Drinking Diet Soda Result in Weight Gain?Waste from Gut Bacteria Helps Host Control WeightModeling Weight Loss Over the Long TermHow Caffeine Affects Your Body

Parrots Given “Names” by Their Parents and Use Them Throughout Their Lives

Parrots learn their ‘names’ from their parents

Parrots, which have long amused us for their ability to imitate our vocal patterns, actually learn to caw their “names” from their parents, says a new Cornell study. The research offers the first evidence that parrots learn their unique signature calls from their parents and shows that vocal signaling in wild parrots is a socially acquired rather than a genetically wired trait.

Previous research had shown that all wild parrots use unique “contact calls” that not only distinguish each bird individually, but also communicate their gender, and the mate and larger group they belong to.

“Parrots can have extremely long periods [leading up] to independence, and this is thought to be related to their large brains,” explained Berg. The same goes for primates, he said, with humans in particular being “off the charts” when it comes to a lengthy stage of child dependence.

More research is required, to better understand the evolution of and interaction between these physical and behavioral traits, he said. “We still don’t have good explanations of how these behaviors help wild individuals survive and reproduce in nature,” he said.

The paper offers some possible explanations: Perhaps the parrots’ far-ranging journeys to “communal foraging sights” are what impress upon each parent the need to have their fledglings’ names sorted out — not unlike human parents’ need to call for their children by name at a crowded fair.

I enjoy learning more fun and cool stuff about the animals we share the world with. They are quite an interesting bunch of creatures.

Related: Crow Using a Sequence of Three ToolsFriday Fun: Crow Sledding, Flying Back Up and Sledding Down AgainBackyard Wildlife: HawkFriday Fun: Dancing Parrot

Key Indicator for Malignant Melanoma Found

Skin cancer detection breakthrough

The researchers found that certain biochemical elements in the DNA of normal pigment-producing skin cells and benign mole cells are absent in melanoma cells. Loss of these methyl groups — known as 5-hmC — in skin cells serves as a key indicator for malignant melanoma. Loss corresponded to more-advanced stages of melanoma as well as clinical outcome.

Strikingly, researchers were able to reverse melanoma growth in preclinical studies. When the researchers introduced enzymes responsible for 5-hmC formation to melanoma cells lacking the biochemical element, they saw that the cells stopped growing.

“It is difficult to repair the mutations in the actual DNA sequence that are believed to cause cancer,” said Christine Lian, a physician-scientist in the Department of Pathology at BWH and one of the lead authors. “So having discovered that we can reverse tumor cell growth by potentially repairing a biochemical defect that exists — not within the sequence but just outside of it on the DNA structure — provides a promising new melanoma treatment approach for the medical community to explore.”

Because cancer is traditionally regarded as a genetic disease involving permanent defects that directly affect the DNA sequence, this new finding of a potentially reversible abnormality that surrounds the DNA (thus termed “epigenetic”) is a hot topic in cancer research, according to the researchers.

In the United States, melanoma is the fifth most common type of new cancer diagnosis in men and the seventh most common type in women. The National Cancer Institute estimates that in 2012 there will be 76,250 new cases and 9,180 deaths in the United States owing to melanoma.

Thankfully scientists keep making great progress in understanding and finding potential clues to treating cancer. And big gains have been made in treating some cancers over the last few decades. But the research successes remain difficult to turn into effective solutions in treating patients.

I am thankful we have so many scientists doing good work in this difficult and important area (cancer).

Related: Webcast of a T-cell Killing a Cancerous CellNanoparticles With Scorpion Venom Slow Cancer SpreadDNA Passed to Descendants Changed by Your LifeResearchers Find Switch That Allows Cancer Cells to Spread

Antibiotics fuel obesity by creating microbe upheavals

Antibiotics fuel obesity by creating microbe upheavals

We aren’t single individuals, but colonies of trillions. Our bodies, and our guts in particular, are home to vast swarms of bacteria and other microbes. This “microbiota” helps us to harvest energy from our food by breaking down the complex molecules that our own cells cannot cope with. They build vitamins that we cannot manufacture. They ‘talk to’ our immune system to ensure that it develops correctly, and they prevent invasions from other more harmful microbes. They’re our partners in life.

What happens when we kill them?

Farmers have been doing that experiment in animals for more than 50 years. By feeding low doses of antibiotics to healthy farm animals, they’ve found that they could fatten up their livestock by as much as 15 percent.

Ilseung Cho from the New York University School of Medicine has confirmed that hypothesis. By feeding antibiotics to young mice, he has shown that the drugs drastically change the microscopic communities within their guts, and increase the amount of calories they harvest from food. The result: they became fatter.

I continue to believe we are far to quick to medicate. We tremendously overuse anti-biotis and those costs are huge. They often are delays and systemic and given our current behavior we tend to ignore delayed and systemic problems.

The link between the extremely rapid rise in obesity and the overuse of anti-biotics is in need of much more study. It seems a possible contributing factor but there is much more data needed to confirm such a link. And other factors still seem dominant to me: increase in caloric intake and decrease in physical activity.

Related: Science Continues to Explore Causes of Weight GainWaste from Gut Bacteria Helps Host Control WeightHealthy Diet, Healthy Living, Healthy WeightRaising Our Food Without Antibiotics

Virus Kills Breast Cancer Cells in Laboratory

Some very exciting and good news from Penn State. Researchers have found a virus that kills breast cancer cells. It is great to read about research breakthroughs like this. Of course, most of these announcements never become practical solutions, unfortunately. And if they do it is many many years later and almost always in much less exciting ways than the headlines. Still, the percentage that do make it through the process into workable solutions provide us great benefits.

Virus kills breast cancer cells in laboratory

Adeno-associated virus type 2 (AAV2) is a virus that regularly infects humans but causes no disease. Past studies by the same researchers show that it promotes tumor cell death in cervical cancer cells infected with human papillomavirus. Researchers used an unaltered, naturally occurring version of AAV2 on human breast cancer cells.

“Breast cancer is the most prevalent cancer in the world and is the leading cause of cancer-related death in women,” said Samina Alam, research associate in microbiology and immunology. “It is also complex to treat.”

“We can see the virus is killing the cancer cells, but how is it doing it?” Alam said. “If we can determine which viral genes are being used, we may be able to introduce those genes into a therapeutic. If we can determine which pathways the virus is triggering, we can then screen new drugs that target those pathways. Or we may simply be able to use the virus itself.”

AAV2 does not affect healthy cells. However, if AAV2 were used in humans, the potential exists that the body’s immune system would fight to remove it from the body. Therefore, by learning how AAV2 targets the death pathways, researchers potentially can find ways to treat the cancer without using the actual virus.

In ongoing studies, the Penn State researchers also have shown AAV2 can kill cells derived from prostate cancer, mesothelioma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. A fourth line of breast cancer cells — representing the most aggressive form of the disease — also was studied in a mouse breast tumor model, followed by treatment with AAV2. Preliminary results show the destruction of the tumors in the mice, and researchers will report the findings of those mouse studies soon.

The fight against cancer has many promising breakthroughs. We have made some great progress. Still the fight is extremely difficult and we have many more frustrations than successes.

Related: Webcast of a T-cell Killing a Cancerous CellSynthetic Biologists Design a Gene that Forces Cancer Cells to Commit SuicideResearchers Find Switch That Allows Cancer Cells to Spread

An Apple a Day is Good Advice

Apples really are healthy food. They provide fiber and nutrients without a large amount of calories. Including them in your diet can contribute to a healthy lifestyle.

How apples can make you skinnier & 4 more health benefits of apples

Packing in quite a bit of soluble fiber (4 grams per medium apple) for a modest amount of calories (95) makes apples a filling, sweet snack. Plus, a medium apple counts as 1 cup of fruit, so after eating one you’re well on your way to meeting your daily fruit quota (around 2 cups for adults on a 2,000-calorie diet). They also are a good source of immune-boosting vitamin C (providing 14% of the Daily Value).

a survey of eating and health habits, found that people who had eaten apples in any form over the past day were 27 percent less likely to have symptoms of metabolic syndrome than those who didn’t. The apple eaters also had lower levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation whose presence in the blood suggests an increased risk for heart disease and diabetes.

Our study suggests that ursolic acid increases skeletal muscle and brown fat leading to increased calorie burning, which in turn protects against diet-induced obesity, pre-diabetes and fatty liver disease,” Christopher Adams, M.D., Ph.D., UI associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Iowa.

Until quite recently, researchers believed that only infants had brown fat, which then disappeared during childhood. However, improved imaging techniques have shown that adults do retain a very small amount of the substance mostly in the neck and between the shoulder blades. Some studies have linked increased levels of brown fat with lower levels of obesity and healthier levels of blood sugar and blood lipid, leading to the suggestion that brown fat may be helpful in preventing obesity and diabetes.

Related: Even Bears Like ApplesApple Farmer Uses Pigs Instead of PesticidesFood Rules: An Eater’s Manual

Scientific Inquiry Process Finds More Evidence Supporting Einstein’s Theory

As scientists have been able to see farther and deeper into the universe, the laws that govern its expansion have been revealed to be under the influence of an unexplained force.

In a paper on the arXiv, Astrophysical Tests of Modified Gravity: Constraints from Distance Indicators in the Nearby Universe, are a vindication of Einstein’s theory of gravity. Having survived several decades of tests in the solar system, it has passed this new test in galaxies beyond our own as well.

In 1998, astrophysicists made an observation that turned gravity on its ear: the universe’s rate of expansion is speeding up. If gravity acts the same everywhere, stars and galaxies propelled outward by the Big Bang should continuously slow down, like objects thrown from an explosion do here on Earth.

This observation used distant supernovae to show that the expansion of the universe was speeding up rather than slowing down. This indicated that something was missing from physicists’ understanding of how the universe responds to gravity, which is described by Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Two branches of theories have sprung up, each trying to fill its gaps in a different way.

One branch — dark energy — suggests that the vacuum of space has an energy associated with it and that energy causes the observed acceleration. The other falls under the umbrella of “scalar-tensor” gravity theories, which effectively posits a fifth force (beyond gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces) that alters gravity on cosmologically large scales.

“These two possibilities are both radical in their own way,” University of Pennsylvania astrophysicist Bhuvnesh Jain said. “One is saying that general relativity is correct, but we have this strange new form of energy. The other is saying we don’t have a new form of energy, but gravity is not described by general relativity everywhere.”

Jain’s research is focused on the latter possibility; he is attempting to characterize the properties of this fifth force that disrupts the predictions general relativity makes outside our own galaxy, on cosmic length scales. Jain’s recent breakthrough came about when he and his colleagues realized they could use the troves of data on a special property of a common type of star as an exquisite test of gravity.

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Using Nanocomposites to Improve Dental Filling Performance

After a dentist drills out a decayed tooth, the cavity still contains residual bacteria. Professor Huakun (Hockin) Xu says it is not possible for a dentist to remove all the damaged tissue, so it’s important to neutralize the harmful effects of the bacteria, which is just what the new nanocomposites are able to do.

Rather than just limiting decay with conventional fillings, the new composite he has developed is a revolutionary dental weapon to control harmful bacteria, which co-exist in the natural colony of microorganisms in the mouth.

“Tooth decay means that the mineral content in the tooth has been dissolved by the organic acids secreted by bacteria residing in biofilms or plaques on the tooth surface. These organisms convert carbohydrates to acids that decrease the minerals in the tooth structure,” says Xu, director of the Division of Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering in the School’s Department of Endodontics, Prosthodontics and Operative Dentistry.

The researchers also have built antibacterial agents into primer used first by dentists to prepare a drilled-out cavity and into adhesives that dentists spread into the cavity to make a filling stick tight to the tissue of the tooth. “The reason we want to get the antibacterial agents also into primers and adhesives is that these are the first things that cover the internal surfaces of the tooth cavity and flow into tiny dental tubules inside the tooth,” says Xu.

The main reason for failures in tooth restorations, says Xu, is secondary caries or decay at the restoration margins. Applying the new primer and adhesive will kill the residual bacteria, he says.

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