Tag Archives: Competition

People are less likely to catch common cold if they’re already infected with influenza

Flu and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses. It can be difficult to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone because they have similar symptoms. In general, colds are usually milder than flu and are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose while influenza (the flu) can have very serious associated complications.

A new study by scientists from the Medical Research Council-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research found that people were less likely to catch either influenza or a common cold-causing rhinovirus if they were already infected with the other virus. Understanding how these distinct viruses hinder each other could be useful to improve forecasting models that predict respiratory disease outbreaks and strategies for controlling disease spread.

It has been observed before that common cold infections appear to be less frequent in the influenza season and vice versa. The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first study with enough samples to provide strong evidence for this interaction at both the population and individual level.

Samples from 44,230 cases of acute respiratory illness, in 36,157 patients, were tested for 11 types of respiratory viruses over nine years in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. Using this data, the researchers found that 35% tested positive for a virus and, of those, 8% were co-infected with more than one type of virus. The study looked at how 11 viruses interacted and found relationships between some of the other virus pairs, but these were not consistent at both the individual host and population level, which the study did find for influenza A and rhinovirus.

The most striking interaction they found was between influenza A viruses and rhinoviruses, a type of virus that can cause the common cold. Computer modeling of the data found that the inhibitory interactions between influenza and rhinoviruses appeared to occur within individual people as well as at a population level. Patients with influenza A were approximately 70% less likely to also be infected with rhinovirus than were patients infected with the other virus types.

The first author of the paper, Dr Sema Nickbakhsh from MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research at the University of Glasgow, said: “One really striking pattern in our data is the decline in cases of the respiratory virus rhinovirus, which is typically a mild common cold-causing virus, occurring during winter, around the time that flu activity increases. In the same way as lions and spotted hyenas compete for food resources in the Masai Mara, we believe respiratory viruses may be competing for resources in the respiratory tract. There are various possibilities we’re investigating, such as these viruses are competing for cells to infect in the body, or the immune response to one virus makes it harder for another unrelated virus to infect the same person.”

Viruses from the same species – for example, different strains of influenza – could be expected to compete or generate an overlapping immune response in the body, but the researchers say what makes these findings interesting is the interaction between completely different types of viruses.

Dr Pablo Murcia, who led the research, said: “Traditionally people have studied viruses in isolation – you study only flu or rhinovirus – but we’ve shown here that we need to also be studying these viruses together like it’s an ecosystem. My team are now doing experiments to try and understand how respiratory viruses, including influenza and rhinovirus, interact. If we understand how viruses interact and how certain viral infections may favor or inhibit each other, then maybe we can develop better ways to target viruses. Studying interactions between viruses could help to explain why different viruses circulate in different seasons or why they affect different age groups, and within the body why certain types of viruses infect different parts of the respiratory tract, like the nose or the lungs.”

An example of how these viruses could also affect each other’s spread at a population level is the scenario where a person infected with one virus is more likely to stay home and consequently not catch another virus. Limitations of the study include: 1) the correlations observed cannot show what is causing these interactions and 2) samples were only taken from people with symptoms of a respiratory infection, so it may not capture how the viruses behave in people who do not develop symptoms.

AI is starting to beat us at our favorite games: Dota2

It started with chess. It moved on to Go. Now, AI is ruining computer games for us after beating humans in Dota2.

Screenshot from Dota2.

There’s a distinct difference between games like chess and Go as compared to most strategy computer games: vision. In the first case, the board is open and visible to everyone. But in computer games, you often have what is called the fog of war — enemy units, and often terrain, are hidden from the player unless directly explored. For Artificial Intelligence (AI), dealing with this type of uncertainty is incredibly problematic and difficult to manage. Chess and Go are also turn-based games, whereas in Dota2, the computer needs to react and adapt in real-time.

[panel style=”panel-default” title=”Dota2″ footer=””]Dota2 (originally: Defense of The Ancients) is a free-to-play team game played 5v5. Each team occupies a base on one side of the map, and the purpose of the game is to destroy the other base. Each of the ten players independently controls a powerful character, known as a “hero”, who all have unique abilities and different styles of play. During a match, players collect experience points and items for their heroes to successfully battle the opposing team’s heroes in player versus player combat. A game typically lasts about 30-60 minutes. [/panel]

To teach AIs to play the game, OpenAI, a nonprofit AI research company co-founded by Elon Musk, used a technique called reinforcement learning. Essentially, the AI is given the basic capability to play the game and then is left to its own devices. It plays more and more, learning from its mistakes and improving iteration after iteration. The programmers set different reward criteria that it tries to optimize this trial-and-error approach, but there’s no shortcut — it needs to play a lot of games.

To reach its current level, the AI had to play 180-years’ worth of games every day for 19 days. Then, it was faced against very skilled amateurs (ranking top 1% in the game) — and it beat them. Of course, there’s still a way to go before the AI can square off against the best of the best, but beating skilled players is extremely impressive, particularly considering the sheer amount of chaos and hidden information in the game. It also works as a proof of concept, showing that the AI can improve in a reasonable amount of time, and there’s no reason why it couldn’t progressively improve until it masters the game and becomes unbeatable.

We’ll see if this is the case a bit later. The International 2018, Dota’s flagship tournament, is set to kick off in August, when an exhibition match will be held between leading pro players and these AIs. I can’t wait to see what happens.

Potato math: Student wins $250,000 for developing computer model that could saves farmers billions

Students have won $1.8 million for outstanding science projects at the oldest and most prestigious science competition in the United States for high school seniors.

The winner wanted to apply math in a way that can help people — and he did. Image credits: ZooFari / Wikipedia.

Each year, about 1,800 papers are submitted at the Regeneron Science Talent Search (previously known as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, and then as the Intel Science Talent Search). Out of these papers, one belonged to Benjamin “Benjy” Firester. Benjy wanted to use math in a way that can directly benefit people, ending up with an unlikely focus: the potato.

Benjy developed a computer model that predicts how weather patterns are likely to spread the spores of the late blight fungus (Phytophthora infestans), which causes billions of dollars in potato and tomato crop damages every year. The microorganism is also responsible for tragic events such as the Irish Potato Famine.

Benjy’s program used data from farmers (such as blight location) and weather reports of the region (including humidity and wind direction) to predict where the blight is likely to spread. Farmers could use this data to assess blight risk and use or reduce preemptive fungicide accordingly.

His project titled “Modeling the Spatio-Temporal Dynamics of Phytophthora infestans on a Regional Scale,” could one day save farmers a lot of time and money — and save a lot of food in the process.

“Benjy’s project melds several different STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields” said Sudarshan Chawathe, chair of the judging panel. “His use of existing data to make predictions is innovative, and we are impressed by Benjy’s long-term commitment to his research.”

Of course, Benjy wasn’t the only prodigy in the competition. Coming in second place and winning $175,000, Natalia Orlovsky, 18, examined the response of lung cells to vaping. She was shocked to learn that these electronic cigarettes are marketed specifically at teens, branded as a safe alternative to cigarettes. While vaping is less damaging than smoking, it’s still not safe. Natalia used human cells cultured in Petri dishes to study this effect and found that e-cig liquid itself caused cells to produce chemicals associated with stress. She also studied the effect of nicotine, finding that vaping stresses human cells even when no nicotine is present.

Third place $150,000 were awarded to Isani Singh, 18, for her work on women with Turner Syndrome, a genetic abnormality that affects development in females, in which the second sex chromosome is missing. Adapting a lab protocol, Singh was able to provide evidence that Turner Syndrome sufferers do have some cells with two X chromosomes.

“Congratulations to this year’s Regeneron Science Talent Search top winners,” said Maya Ajmera, President and CEO of Society for Science & the Public and Publisher of Science News. “I am in awe of the finalists’ passion, creativity and commitment to scientific ingenuity. The incredible history of accomplishments by past winners suggests this year’s winners will become tomorrow’s scientific leaders.”

Indeed, there was an overwhelming sense of optimism as the young participants presented their impressive work. Just as it was meant more than 70 years ago, the competition seems to bring an oasis of optimism in a scenery mostly dominated by negativism. Like Ajmera, I can’t help but feel hopeful.

“[The students] will not only make the world a better place by applying their creativity and dedication to solve the many intractable problems we face today, the finalists will go on to conduct basic and applied research at universities and companies throughout our nation,” Ajmera added. “And because of the finalists…I feel so hopeful.”

The first ten competitors receive special awards (and prize money decreasing down to $40,000), and all finalists receive a $25,000 award.

This science talent competition is one of the oldest, most prestigious, and most successful ones in the world. The Society for Science & the Public began the competition in 1942 with Westinghouse Electric Corporation. Since then, over 22,000 participants have been named semifinalists and 2,920 have traveled to Washington, D.C., as contest finalists; thirteen of them went on to win the Nobel Prize, and two earned the Fields Medal,  while eleven have been awarded the National Medal of Science. Many others have won numerous accolades in all fields of science and engineering. The most recent Science Talent Search alumni to receive a Nobel Prize is Kip Thorne, who won the Prize in Physics in 2017 for his work on gravitational waves.

Flower competition.

Plants actively gauge their competition and switch strategies to one-up them

Competition isn’t only for animals, a new study has found. According to the paper, plants will size up their neighbors and then tailor a strategy to out-compete them for resources — or, in the worst case, to be frugal when outmatched.

Flower competition.

Image credits Engin Akyurt.

People aren’t the only runners in the rat race: researchers from the University of Tübingen’s Institute of Evolution and Ecology have shown that plants will actively try to one-up their competition (neighbors) in a quest for more resources. To do so, they will gauge the competition’s abilities and choose between several competitive strategies, tailoring them to their neighbors’ stature and densities.

Growing strong

In broad lines, animals handle competition through three overarching behavior patterns: confrontation, avoidance, or tolerance. Exactly which one an animal will pick in a given situation depends largely on the balance of capability between itself and its opponent. If the other guy is bigger, stronger, or otherwise more capable, animals will likely back down and prefer toleration or avoidance over direct competition — that’s why nobody messes with the bouncer at the club, for example.

When plants step on each others’ toes, it usually involves access to light. Plants will use multiple cues to pick up on the presence of competitors, such as a reduction in incoming light quantity or in the ratio of red to far-red wavelengths (R:FR, frequencies that are used up in photosynthesis). Since plants aren’t big on moving around, competitive responses typically include out-growing their neighbors to reach the best light (confrontational vertical elongation), or increasing efficiency in low-light conditions (shade tolerance) when they lose the growth battle. Some plants, such as clonal colonies, can also employ avoidance behaviors by growing away from their competition.

However, what we didn’t know is whether plants actually decide what strategy will work best in a given scenario, or if they just pick one at random and hope for the best.

“These three alternative responses of plants to light competition have been well-documented in the literature,” says lead author Michal Gruntman. “In our study we wanted to learn, if plants can choose between these responses and match them to the relative size and density of their opponents.”

For the study, the team worked with the clonal plant European cinquefoil (Potentilla reptans). Different light-competition scenarios were simulated using vertical strips of transparent green filters. These reduced both the quantity of incoming light as well as its R:FR ratio, just like actual plants would. The team could simulate neighboring vegetation of any height and density simply by altering the shape or number of filters.

Experimental set-up.

The experimental design and measured variables. Scenarios included short-sparse (a,c), short-dense (b,d), tall-sparse (e) and tall-dense (f) neighbouring vegetation.
Image credits Michal Gruntman et al., 2017, N.Comm.

The results suggest that P. reptans will pick a strategy that directly counteracts its competition. When faced with short but dense neighbors that could not be avoided laterally, the plant showed the highest confrontational vertical growth among all scenarios. Tall but sparse neighbors coaxed the plant into lateral avoidance. Finally, when faced with competitors that were both dense and tall so neither lateral nor vertical avoidance was possible, the P. reptans hunkered down and developed the most pronounced shade-tolerant characteristics.

The findings suggest that plants can estimate the density and competitive ability of their neighbors, and then decide on the best adaptive strategy to counter them. They also provide new evidence for plants’ ability to process and use complex information when adapting to their environment.

“Such an ability to choose between different responses according to their outcome could be particularly important in heterogeneous environments, where plants can grow by chance under neighbors with different size, age or density, and should therefore be able to choose their appropriate strategy” says Gruntman.

The paper “Decision-making in plants under competition” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Support gets you to start working out but competition powers you to the end, study finds

Competition, not support, may be the way to motivate people to exercise, a new study found.

Image credits Jean Beaufort / Publicdomainpictures.

Lack of exercise is a pretty big health issue. Even though a lack of physical activity has been tied to increased risk to a host of conditions, a large part of Americans don’t follow the official recommendations for exercise —  69% of those aged 18-24 in 2014, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, to be exact.

Motivation to take up and continue with their routine seems to be the biggest factor against exercise. But framing physical activity in a competitive mindset might help, a new study reports. Teeming up with friends is a good way to start up a new routine, for example, as it’s easier to deal with the psychological toll of changing behavior in a group — but what happens after you’ve started?

A study from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania looked at the effect a much larger group — social media — can have on our motivation. It involved 790 graduate students from the University of Pennsylvania, who signed on for an 11-week long program named “PennShape”. It consisted of weekly exercise classes such as running, spinning, yoga, and weightlifting along with fitness training and nutrition advice, all managed through a website the team created. By the end of the program, those with the highest rate of attendance won cash prizes and other rewards.

To test the effect social media has on exercise motivation, the researchers divided the attendees between one of four “conditions”. These were either supportive/competitive — with team/individual rewards for attending the classes — a mixed condition, and a control group. Participants in each condition were organized in teams of six. The social-competitive condition teams received individual incentives, the social-support condition teams received team incentives. The mixed condition (with both supportive and competitive relationships inside the team) could compare their team’s performance to 5 other teams’ performances. The control condition only allowed participants to attend classes with individual incentives.

Each of the groups could check their progress via online leader-boards, but they saw different data. The competition group could see how well the other teams did. The competition-focused individuals in the combined group could see how well other anonymous members performed. For the support group, the participants could chat online and encourage their teammates to exercise. They had no information about how well the other teams performed. The control group did not know about any social connectivity on the website.

Raising the bar

The competitive groups delivered. Attendance rates were 90% higher in the competition-motivated group and the combined group than the others. Average attendance rates for the competition group was 35.7, for the combined one 38.5, with control and social support taking last places with 20.3 and only 16.8.

So not only didn’t the support team help much — the team thinks that they might have in fact reduced the exercise the participants did. So if you want to use social media to help motivate people into doing exercise, framing it as a competition is the way to go. As senior author Prof. Damon Centola explains:

“Most people think that when it comes to social media more is better. This study shows that isn’t true: When social media is used the wrong way, adding social support to an online health program can backfire and make people less likely to choose healthy behaviors. However, when done right, we found that social media can increase people’s fitness dramatically.”

“Supportive groups can backfire because they draw attention to members who are less active, which can create a downward spiral of participation.”

“Framing the social interaction as a competition can create positive social norms for exercising. Social support can make people more dependent on receiving messages, which can change the focus of the program,” adds lead author Jingwen Zhang, PhD.

But by placing the spotlight on those with the best results, competitive groups increase motivation. People naturally look to those who exercise the most and are inspired to do the same, setting higher expectations for their performance than they would’ve otherwise.

“In a competitive setting, each person’s activity raises the bar for everyone else. Social support is the opposite: a ratcheting-down can happen. If people stop exercising, it gives permission for others to stop, too, and the whole thing can unravel fairly quickly,” Centola concluded.

The full paper “Support or competition? How online social networks increase physical activity: A randomized controlled trial” has been published in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports.