Tag Archives: white

Our white blood cells could be ‘reprogrammed’ to lower inflammation on demand

White blood cells receive ‘orders’ from our bodies to cause or subdue inflammation, a new paper reports, as a natural part of the immune response.

A mouse macrophage engulfing two particles at the same time (unrelated to the study).
Image via Wikimedia.

They argue that this effect can be used to prevent Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS), which affects some COVID-19 patients. ARDS is a type of respiratory failure caused by a buildup of fluid in the lungs.

Pimp my immune response

“We found that macrophage programming is driven by more than the immune system — it is also driven by the environment in which the macrophages reside,” said lead author Asrar Malik, the Schweppe Family Distinguished Professor and head of pharmacology and regenerative medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).

Macrophages are those immune cells that find a threat, wrap around it, and start digesting it. However, the new findings showcase that they also play a part in controlling inflammation. While a natural part of our bodies’ efforts against infection, and quite effective against them, excessive or prolonged inflammation can also damage our own tissues and organs.

In essence, these cells both cause and keep inflammation in check. The team analyzed how they determine which of the two approaches they use at any given time using mice. Their goal was to help patients suffering from excessive inflammation and conditions such as ARDS while infected with the coronavirus.

“We demonstrated that lung endothelial cells — which are the cells that line blood vessels — are essential in programming macrophages with potent tissue-reparative and anti-inflammatory functions,” said Dr. Jalees Rehman, UIC professor of medicine and pharmacology and regenerative medicine and co-lead author of the paper.

The researchers found that one protein, R-spondin-3, was present in high levels in the blood during injury and inflammation. The next step was to genetically-engineer lab mice to lack this protein in these cells — which led to the macrophages no longer dampening inflammation.

“Instead, the lungs became more injured,” said Bisheng Zhou, UIC research assistant professor of pharmacology and regenerative medicine and first author of the study. “We tried this in multiple models of inflammatory lung injury and found consistent results, suggesting that blood vessels play an important instructive role in guiding the programming of macrophages.”

The findings point the way towards a promising avenue of treatment for ARDS, but could also help us understand why some patients have better outcomes after a COVID-19 infection than others. Our own immune response has been shown to cause an important part of the damage associated with this disease. Poor vascular health or other underlying conditions that affect our blood vessels could impact our recovery, the team believes.

While the study only worked with lung tissue, it’s likely that those in other organs would show the same mechanisms, according to the authors.

The paper “The angiocrine Rspondin3 instructs interstitial macrophage transition via metabolic–epigenetic reprogramming and resolves inflammatory injury” has been published in the journal Nature Immunology.

Partial supernova sends a white dwarf barrelling through space

Researchers at the University of Warwick report finding a white dwarf barreling through space at great speed. The source, they say, was likey a “partial supernova” which ejected the core of the star.

Artist’s impression of the partial supernova.
Image credits University of Warwick / Mark Garlick.

Sitting at about 40% the mass of our sun, white dwarf SDSS J1240+6710 is much smaller, and denser. Data from the Hubble telescope allowed researchers to confirm that its atmosphere is an unusual mix of gases.

A peculiar star

“There is a clear absence of what is known as the ‘iron group’ of elements, iron, nickel, chromium and manganese,” explains a statement from the University of Warwick.

“These heavier elements are normally cooked up from the lighter ones and make up the defining features of thermonuclear supernovae.”

White dwarfs are born when a star completely consumes its fuel. Most of its mass blows away to form a nebula, leaving behind a white-hot core. They usually have atmospheres consisting of hydrogen or helium, the researchers add, with traces of carbon and oxygen produced as the star grew old.

This particular one, however, was made from oxygen, neon, magnesium and silicon. Furthermore, the lack of elements in the iron group points to it undergoing a “partial supernova” before it died. Heavier elements are formed by light atoms being pushed together in stars as they explode.

Its speed — this solar remnant is travelling at around 559,234 mph — would indicate that it was thrown out in the event.

“This star is unique because it has all the key features of a white dwarf but it has this very high velocity and unusual abundances that make no sense when combined with its low mass,” says Professor Boris Gaensicke from the Department of Physics at the University of Warwick, lead author of the paper.

“It has a chemical composition which is the fingerprint of nuclear burning, a low mass and a very high velocity: all of these facts imply that it must have come from some kind of close binary system and it must have undergone thermonuclear ignition.”

The paper “SDSS J124043.01+671034.68: the partially burned remnant of a low-mass white dwarf that underwent thermonuclear ignition?” has been published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Researchers are one step closer to saving the northern white rhino from complete extinction

Researchers in Europe have fertilized a rhino egg in vivo and then successfully transferred it back to the female. Their plan is to now perform the same procedure for the northern white rhino, to save the species from extinction.

Rhino.

Rhinos are under extreme pressure from habitat loss and poachers.
Image via Pixabay.

The procedure was performed by an international team of European researchers at the Chorzow zoo in Poland and involved a southern white rhino female. The work came as part of the BioRescue Project, an international team of scientists and conservationists trying to use IVF to save the almost-extinct northern white rhino.

Last of their kind

“This is the first positive proof that the entire procedure we’ve developed in theory can be successful,” said Thomas Hildebrandt (link in German) of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, who participated in the project.

There are only two northern white rhinos left in the world — and they’re both females. The last male (whose name was Sudan) died in March 2018 shortly after starting a Tinder account. However, researchers had preserved frozen samples from several males beforehand, as a kind of insurance policy that the species won’t be completely wiped out. Due to a lack of northern white rhinos, they’re testing the IVF transfer on southern white rhinos, a closely related sub-species whose numbers have stabilized in the wild. They now report that the transfer was successful.

As such, the BioRescue team was applied for permission from the Kenyan government to harvest eggs from the last two surviving northern rhino females — a mother and daughter called Najin and Fatu — and are currently awaiting a reply. Kenya’s ambassador in Germany, Joseph Magutt, said his country supports the effort but didn’t say how long it would take for the process to move forward.

The IVF technique is required in this case because the two females are unable to bear offspring themselves; once their embryos are fertilized in the lab, they will be implanted in a southern white rhino surrogate mother.

However, not all is rosy. Hildebrandt says that ultrasound tests show the embryo transferred at Chorzow zoo has grown, but that it’s smaller than expected. As of yet, it’s also unsure whether the embryo will implant in the female’s uterine lining, resulting in a pregnancy. In the meantime, the BioRescue team is working on ways to turn preserved skin cells (from deceased rhinos) into eggs or sperm.

Should it be successful, the technique would offer a safety net for other species on the brink of collapse — and there are many. A recent United Nations report warned that a million species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades, largely because of human activity.

Why is snow white?

Every time it snows, the world turns white, even for the briefest of moments. Today we’re taking a look at why that is.

Snow street.

Image via Pixabay.

You likely hear the song “White Christmas” played every time the winter holidays swing around. It goes to show just how deep cultural associations between snow and its color — that striking, pure, sparkling white — run. If you think about it, however, something doesn’t add up. Snow is basically made up of tiny crystals of water (ice) caked one on top of the other. Water isn’t white; nor is ice, for that matter.

Logic dictates that there must be another element coming into the mix to make snow, well, snow-white. There is. To whet your appetite, it’s basically the same process that makes polar bears appear white. So let’s see what it is.

Color me surprised

To get a clearer picture of why snow appears white, we need to take a look at what generates color in the first place.

Our eyes are basically sensors designed to pick up on a particular spectrum of electromagnetic radiation — which, surprise, surprise, we call the ‘visible light’ spectrum. We perceive different wavelengths or intervals of this spectrum as different colors: ‘wider’ waves look red to us, while ‘narrower’ waves appear to be blue.

Light is pretty much like any other type of radiation. When it hits an object, it can pass through, interact with it, or be reflected completely. Objects take on different colors because their individual building blocks (atoms or molecules) vibrate in response to different frequencies of energy (such as that carried by light). They absorb a particular band of energy to sustain this vibration — which transforms it to heat. The light frequencies which don’t get absorbed can keep going through this material (which makes it transparent or translucent) or get reflected (making the material opaque).

What you see as ‘color’ is the blend of all energy intervals or bands from the visible spectrum that a material doesn’t absorb. Think of white light as a sum of all the colors canceling each other out. To get a particular shade, then, you need to do one of two things. You can subtract its opposite, which we call its ‘complementary’ (here’s a handy color wheel), from the mix, leaving that particular color ‘uncanceled’. Alternatively, you can absorb all other wavelengths and reflect only the color you want.

As an example, leaves appear to be a fresh green because chlorophyll absorbs the wavelengths corresponding to red and blue. Their complementary colors are green and orange/yellow. Leaves absorb only a fraction of the green wavelengths, and what’s reflected creates their color. It’s particularly interesting to note that sunlight is heavy in the green-wavelengths of light. Plants want red and blue light because they’re the less energetic parts of solar radiation. Going for the green spectrum would actually radiation-fry the leaves’ biochemical gears.

Don’t judge a snow by its color

If you put a chunk of ice next to a handful of snow, it’s pretty easy to tell that their colors do not match. One looks basically like solid water while the other is all glimmery, white, and definitely not transparent. So what gives?

Well, first off, caution to the wise: ice isn’t transparent — it’s translucent. Some of the atoms in the ice molecule are close enough to alter lightwaves as they come into contact. Think of it like the light having to squeeze between these atoms as it passes through ice. It doesn’t bother the light very much, but it does ‘bend’ its trajectory a little. Put your finger in a glass of water, and the submerged part will look skewed compared to the rest of your hand; it’s the same process at work.

Shape and size also make an appearance here. Snow is made up of many tiny ice crystals stacked together. When light encounters snow, it goes through the first layer of crystals and gets bent a little. From here, it passes to a new crystal, and the process repeats. Kind of like a disco ball, the snow keeps refracting light until it’s bent right out the pile. Since ice is translucent (doesn’t absorb any wavelength of light), the color of this light isn’t altered, so it’s still white when it exits the pile of snow to hit your retina.

Powder snow.

Matte but glittery.
Image via Pixabay.

The small size of ice crystals in snow also gives it that ‘matte but glittery’ look. Smooth objects reflect light specularly, or like a mirror. Rough surfaces scatter the light they reflect instead, which is why we can perceive texture from looking at an object. The crystals in snow are smooth, so each reflects light specularly. From the right angles, you can see this as tiny, bright reflections on the ice. When clumped up together, however, the crystals scatter light overall. Because the way light falls on it helps create the color, snow can take shades of blue, purple, or even pink in certain circumstances — when it’s in shadow, for example.

As for the polar bears, they’re not really white. Their fur is actually pretty dark in color. Polar bears’ coats are made of two layers of hairs, one short and thick, the other a bit longer and more sparse. This second, longer coat is made up of transparent hairs with hollow interiors. Much like in the case of snow, light falling on these hairs scatters (thanks to light-scattering particles inside the hollow cores) and is reflected back out, giving the bears a white appearance. Salt particles in between the hairs left over from ocean water evaporating after a swim further enhance this effect.

Titanium dioxide nanoparticles.

White paint might be causing a lot of Type 2 diabetes, preliminary research finds

A pilot study from The University of Texas at Austin suggests white paint and Type 2 diabetes might be linked.

Titanium dioxide nanoparticles.

Titanium dioxide nanoparticles.
Image credits University of Turin.

In the mid-20th century, titanium dioxide (TiO2) overthrew lead-based compounds (which were really toxic) as the go-to white pigment. Today, it’s the most widely used white pigment, mixed into everything from food and medication to plastic and paper. We rely on this substance a lot, as we’re producing in excess of 9 million metric tons of the stuff per year.

However, the pigment may not be as harmless as we’ve believed. Preliminary research has found TiO2 crystals embedded in pancreas tissue afflicted with Type 2 diabetes (T2D).

The white tint of diabetes

The team worked with 11 pancreas specimens, 8 from donors with T2D and 3 from donors who didn’t have the condition. The specimens were provided by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation nPOD at the University of Florida at Gainesville.

The last three samples didn’t contain any detectable levels of TiO2 crystals. The 8 specimens with T2D, however, all had TiO2 crystals embedded in their tissues. The researchers report finding over 200 million TiO2 crystallites per gram of TiO2 particles in the specimens of donors with diabetes.

It’s particularly suspicious to find TiO2 crystals in all of the T2D specimens since titanium dioxide doesn’t have any known role in human biology. Furthermore, while plenty of different salts and other metallic compounds have a role to play in our bodies, there is no known role for titanium salt or another type of titanium compound in our biochemistry.

“Our initial findings raise the possibility that Type 2 diabetes could be a chronic crystal-associated inflammatory disease of the pancreas, similar to chronic crystal-caused inflammatory diseases of the lung such as silicosis and asbestosis,” said Adam Heller, the study’s lead author.

Heller is a professor in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering in the Cockrell School of Engineering. He has had a life-long career of diabetes research, for which he received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2007.

Statistics from the World Health Organization show that the number of diabetes patients has quadrupled over the past four decades, reaching some 425 million known cases today. T2D represents the majority of these cases.

Although rising obesity rates and higher average life expectancy (which means more people reach old age) are considered the main factors driving this increase in T2D, the team isn’t convinced. Heller suggests that the increased use of titanium dioxide during these past few decades may be a key, if overlooked, driver of the condition.

“The increased use of titanium dioxide over the last five decades could be a factor in the Type 2 diabetes epidemic,” he said.

“The dominant T2D-associated pancreatic particles consist of TiO2 crystals, which are used as a colorant in foods, medications and indoor wall paint, and they are transported to the pancreas in the bloodstream. The study raises the possibility that humanity’s increasing use of TiO2 pigment accounts for part of the global increase in the incidence of T2D.”

The findings, right now, are far from convincing — but they are, potentially, very far-reaching. This was only a pilot study, with a very limited sample; Heller will repeat the study using a larger sample.

The paper “Association of Type 2 Diabetes with Submicron Titanium Dioxide Crystals in the Pancreas” has been published in the journal Chemical Research in Toxicology.

Sudan with guard.

The last male white rhino boldly goes on Tinder to save its species

As far as we know, there’s only one male white rhino still alive on the planet — and his name is Sudan. In a bid to ensure his specie’s continued survival, the Ol Pejeta Conservancy group joined hands with Tinder to raise the money required for the ongoin conservation species.

Sudan with guard.

Sudan with one of his guards.
Image credits Make it Kenya / Flickr.

Tinder may just have got its heaviest user ever. Starting today, users on the app will see Sudan’s profile pop up among their choice of potential dates. If you swipe right, you’ll get a message with a link to donate for a worthy cause: all the money will be used to fund ongoing research into Assisted Reproductive Techniques for the species.

“But why not do it the old fashioned way?” you might ask. “That’s the point of Tinder, right?”

Well, yes, but as it happens, 42-year old Sudan, who the app described as “the most eligible bachelor in the world”, currently lives under heavily armed guard at the conservancy in Kenya with two female rhinos, Najin and Fatu. They’ve been unable to breed for a number of reasons (especially old age), but not all is lost as there are 17,000 other potential females to do the deed. But they’re far away and capturing then shipping them to the conservancy is not only expensive, it’s also dangerous for the beasts.

Though to be honest, what lady wouldn’t brave some dangers for a profile this good?
Image credits Tinder.

And even if they get there, success is not guaranteed. So Ol Pejeta needs to raise US$9 million (8.2 million euros) to fund research into assisted reproductive techniques, which will be used to breed a herd of 10 northern white rhinos to stave off extinction. One technique named ovum pick-up, which has been developed on southern white rhinos, will be tailored to Sudan’s species and expanded on for this purpose. The team plans to collect eggs from the females Najin and Fatu, fertilize and re-implant them into surrogate females.

“This represents the last option to save the species after all previous breeding attempts proved futile,” said Ol Pejeta Conservancy CEO Richard Vigne. “Saving the northern white rhinos is critical if we are to, one day, reintroduce rhinos back into Central Africa.

“They contain unique genetic traits that confer upon them the ability to survive in this part of Africa. Ultimately, the aim will be to reintroduce a viable population of northern white rhino back into the wild which is where their true value will be realised”.

The research effort is already underway at various institutions in the US, Europe, and Japan. Right now, what the rhinos need is funding. So if you have some cash burning a hole in your poket take your smartphone and swipe, swipe, swipe for Sudan.

“Financial support remains the biggest challenge to this project. To win this run against time, it is crucial to find major funds as quickly as possible,” said Steven Seet, Head of press and communications at the Leibniz-IZW which is part of the research consortium.

Astronomers discover the first white dwarf pulsar in history, ending half a century of searching

Scientists at the University of Warwick have discovered the first white dwarf pulsar we’ve ever seen. The super-dense body is housed in an exotic binary star system 380 light-years away from Earth.

Image credits Mark Garlick / University of Warwick.

Professors Tom Marsh and Boris Gänsicke of the University’s Astrophysics Group together with Dr David Buckley from the South African Astronomical Observatory, have made astronomical history — they have identified the first white dwarf pulsar humanity has ever seen, in the neighboring system of AR Scorpii (AR Sco). Astronomers have been on the lookout for this class of pulsar for over half a century now.

Small but lively

AR Sco is only 380 light-years away from Earth, in the Scorpius constellation. It has two stars — a very rapidly spinning former star known as a white dwarf pulsar, and an actual star known as a red dwarf — locked together in a 3.6-hour orbit.

The red dwarf isn’t very noticeable in and of itself. It weighs one-third of a Solar mass (the biggest ones reach one-half of a solar mass). It ‘burns’ hydrogen just like our Sun but at a much slower rate. So it’s not particularly hot or very bright at all. Standard red dwarf across the board.

However, its choice of companions creates some spectacular interaction which brought the scientists’ attention to the system in the first place. Its neighboring pulsar isn’t much bigger than Earth, but it’s an estimated 200,000 times denser. Like other pulsars, it’s a very lively celestial body.

What sets it apart is the way it formed. Neutron stars/pulsars are the naked cores of huge stars squashed by supernovae into pure matter — they’re one huge atomic nuclei, without any empty space for electron orbits or personal space or whatnot. It’s the closest a star can get to a black hole without turning to the dark side. The white dwarf pulsar is smaller, less dense, and formed after the outer layers of a Sun-like star breezed away into a planetary nebula.

“White dwarfs and pulsars represent distinct classes of compact objects that are born in the wake of stellar death,” NASA explains.

“A white dwarf forms when a star similar in mass to our sun runs out of nuclear fuel. As the outer layers puff off into space, the core gravitationally contracts into a sphere about the size of Earth, but with roughly the mass of our sun. […] neutron stars are even denser, cramming roughly 1.3 solar masses into a city-sized sphere.”

“Pulsars give off radio and X-ray pulsations in lighthouse-like beams.”

A white dwarf pulsar, like AR Sco, doesn’t cool off into a black dwarf but retains enough energy to accelerate subatomic particles as a pulsar.

“Similar to neutron-star pulsars, the pulsed luminosity of AR Sco is powered by the spin-down of the rapidly rotating white dwarf that is highly magnetized,” the paper reads.

It has an electromagnetic field 100 million times more powerful than our planet’s and makes a full rotation in just under two minutes. Because of this gargantuan magnetic field, AR Sco acts kind of like a natural particle accelerator. We’re talking about monumental levels of energy here. Matter inside it is squashed down to extreme conditions and emits huge levels of radiation and charged particles as focused ‘beams’. These occasionally whip at its neighbor, causing the entire system to spectacularly brighten and fade every two minutes.

Whipped bright

“The new data show that AR Sco’s light is highly polarised, showing that the magnetic field controls the emission of the entire system, and a dead ringer for similar behaviour seen from the more traditional neutron star pulsars,” Prof Marsh says.

The beams radiate outwards from the pulsar’s magnetic poles. Think of it like a huge lighthouse in space spinning really fast. Each time the beam hits the atmosphere of the red dwarf, it speeds up electrons there to almost the speed of light. This interaction is what causes the red dwarf’s brightness to flicker. It suggests that the star’s inner workings are dominated by its neighbor’s kinetic energy — an effect which has never been observed before, not even in similar types of binary stars.

Graphical simulation of a pulsar. Credit: Giphy.

Graphical simulation of a pulsar. Credit: Giphy.

“AR Sco is like a gigantic dynamo: a magnet, size of the Earth, with a field that is ~10.000 stronger than any field we can produce in a laboratory, and it is rotating every two minutes. This generates an enormous electric current in the companion star, which then produces the variations in the light we detect,” Professor Boris Gänsicke added.

The distance between the two stars is around 1.4 million kilometers — which is three times the distance between the Moon and the Earth.

The full paper ‘Polarimetric evidence of a white dwarf pulsar in the binary system AR Scorpii’, has been published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

White Nose Bat Syndrome spreads deeper into the U.S. — first case confirmed west of the Rockies

The first case of white nose syndrome, a disease that has wreaked havoc on bat populations in the eastern U.S. has been identified west of the Rockies. The disease’s spread threatens to drastically impact bat populations there, altering ecosystems throughout the country.

Hikers discovered a little brown bat with white nose syndrome on a trail east of Seattle last in mid-March this year, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Geological Survey announced on Tuesday. This marks the first incidence of the deadly fungus west of the Rockies. The ailing bat was taken to an animal shelter, where it died two days later.

Picture of a little brown bat with white nose syndrome, taken in New York state, Oct 2008.
Image credits to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters.

USGS National Wildlife Health Center’s Wildlife Disease Diagnostic Laboratories branch chief David Blehert thinks it’s “surprising and unusual” to find the fungus spread this far west — the closest the syndrome has been identified before was Nebraska, some 1,300 miles from the site.

 “We’ve been dreading this,” said senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity Mollie Matteson in an interview for The Huffington Post. “This is a drastic jump.”

“This is the first time, to our knowledge, that there has been a long-range jump of the fungus,” Blehert said.

Caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructan, white nose syndrome can wipe out entire bat colonies. It gets its name from the white fuzzy fungal growths on the noses, wings and ears of affected bats. The devastating disease spreads throughout bodily tissue, disrupting physiological processes and interrupting essential hibernation periods, causing bats to waste away.

It has already caused the deaths of more than 6 million bats in the eastern U.S, in what some describe as the steepest decline or North American wildlife of the past century.

Seven different species of cave hibernating bats in 28 U.S. states and five Canadian provinces have been affected by white nose syndrome since 2006, when the first case was recorded in upstate New York. Two of these species are native to Washington state.

“I wish I could be optimistic, but given what we have seen on the East Coast, it’s hard to,” said Sharlene E. Santana, assistant professor of biology at the University of Washington.

“We knew it was coming [to the West], but we didn’t know it would be so soon,” Matteson said.

Range of white nose syndrome.
Image credits Washington Department of FIsh and Wildlife.

Blehert’s analysis of the Washington bat revealed that the disease was at an advanced stage, suggesting it had been present in the area for quite some time. Genetic sequencing indicates that the animal is a native to the area.

“We don’t know how the fungus got there,” Blehert said.

The fungus could have been transported bat-to-bat — which would have taken an extraordinarily long time. Or, as Blehert suspects, through human travel and trade, one of the largest spreader of infectious diseases. Humans aren’t affected by the fungus but act as carriers and are believed to (unknowingly) play a central part in transporting the disease across the country. Hikers’ and spelunkers’ clothes and gear can transport the fungus, according to the researchers.

Little brown bat with white-nose syndrome in Greeley Mine, Vermont, March 26, 2009.
Image credits Marvin Moriarty/USFWS, via flirk.

Unfortunately there is no proven method to cure the disease or at least halt its spread.

“We had hope that by the time [white nose syndrome] started to spread to the West, that there were more effective treatments in place,” Matteson said.

Scientists are now looking into the genetic code of the fungus to determine its point of origin and try to set up precautions to halt its spread around the world — the fungus most likely arrived in the U.S. on a human carrier from Asia or Europe where it’s endemic. They’re also looking into creating a vaccine that could give the bats a fighting chance against white nose syndrome.

“For years, we have been saying there needs to be stricter protocol put in place to minimize the chance of a jump like this via human transmission,” Matterson added.

Authorities are now putting abandoned mines and caves under lock-down to protect resident bat colonies. Federal agencies encourage visitors to decontaminate themselves and gear before entering an area with bats, but Matteson argued decontamination should be mandatory.

“We have species that are at risk of going extinct; it’s the least that could be done.”

Bats are an integral part of an ecosystem, and scientists are concerned about the chain reaction their loss might have on plant and animal life, including humans. If the bat population declines, insects would thrive and devastate agricultural areas. Populations of disease-carrying insects would also be left unchecked.

However, there might still be hope. Because bats in the western U.S. tend not to hibernate in large groups, the disease might not spread as widely or quickly from bat to bat. But far less is known in general about how bats hibernate on the West Coast, Matterson said, which means the bats could already be dying.

“As the case in Washington indicates, the disease has already been there for a couple years, and it just got discovered this past month,” she added.

“One of the huge problems with white nose syndrome has been that the [government] response was slow to get off the ground, it was disorganized, a lack of leadership, there wasn’t any decontamination requirement for western public lands, no cave closures.”

“There will be more in the future,” she concluded. “We need to learn our lesson.”

Wildlife officials encourage people who encounter sick or dead bats to report it via an online reporting tool or telephone hotline, 1-800-606-8768.

This protein might be the key to developing the fabled slim-pill — that actually works

Either because of the quality of our environments or due to the radical shifts in diet and lifestyle we’ve seen since the industrial revolution, more and more people around the world are becoming overweight. This translates into a growing number of patients suffering from associated conditions, such as diabetes or cardiovascular diseases. As most of us can’t muster enough motivation to exercise (sans drugs, that is) many pin their hopes on the pharmaceutical industry finding a pill to burn love handles right off.

And such a pill could be available sooner rather than later — an international team has discovered that by inhibiting Gq protein production in adipose tissue, cells can be re-purposed from storing fat to burning it.

Prof. Dr. Alexander Pfeifer and Katarina Klepac from the Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology at University of Bonn.
Image credits Barbara Frommann/Uni Bonn

Adipose or fat tissue is usually made up of white cells that store energy, brown cells that burn it to heat us up when we’re cold and beige cells that can perform either role. In the case of significantly overweight people this type of tissue contains a large number of white cells but lacks the brown variety. Prof. Dr. Alexander Pfeifer from the Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Bonn has spent the last few years researching a way to make the cells switch from one role to the other.

“We are looking for targets for new pharmaceutical products to one day be able to effectively combat obesity as the cause of numerous widespread diseases, such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease,” Pfeifer said.

Pfeifer worked closely with a team made up of members from San Diego and Bethesda, USA, Gothenburg, Sweden and the Universities of Heidelberg and Leipzig in Germany. They observed that mouse and human brown fat cells have a particularly high number of Gq protein receptors. As this protein is known to function as a medium for information transfer within the body, the team decided to test if it could perform the switch they were looking for.

When they activated the Gq protein in mouse fat cells, the number and quality of the brown cells decreased.

“On the other hand, if Gq is blocked with an inhibitor, more brown fat cells mature,” says Ph.D. student Katarina Klepac from Prof. Pfeifer’s team.

This also holds true for beige cells, and the team now has their hopes pinned on them. As they don’t have a fixed role in adipose tissue, blocking the Gq protein causes them to develop primarily into fat-burning mechanisms. The team re-checked their theory using human cells cultured in the laboratory, with the same effect.

“Even in human fat cells, it was shown that brown fat cells can grow much better once Gq proteins were blocked,” says Prof. Pfeifer.

According to him, this could be the starting point for the development of active substances which boost fat burning in obese patients. But their work is still in an early phase, and more work has to be done before it can lead to a safe and efficient drug.

“To date, there are no drugs which directly cause white fat cells to convert into brown fat cells. However, we still have a long way to go,” Pfeifer concludes.

The full paper, titled “The Gq signalling pathway inhibits brown and beige adipose tissue” has been published online in the journal Nature Communications and can be read here.

 

Trying to lose weight? (of course you are) — fish oil to the rescue

The fatty acids in fish oil (such as omega-3) help with a wide range of conditions, with WebMD detailing benefits ranging from improving the health of the heart and circulatory system all the way to fighting dyslexia, kidney disease and improving your child’s IQ.

Adding to this already impressive list of benefits, scientists from the Kyoto University found that feeding fish oils to lab mice made them gain considerably less weight than their fish-less counterparts. Their work suggests that fish oil determines the transition of fat-storing cells to fat-burning cells; should the same process occur in humans, fish oil could help us reduce weight gain and counteract the body’s natural loss of fat-burning cells as we age.

Fish oil capsules.
Image via sciencealert

Most of our fatty tissue’s primary function is to store energy for our other cells to dine on in case food is scarce but it isn’t limited to acting as a pantry. Where white fat cells store fat, brown fat cells are specialized in breaking it down — metabolizing it to keep our body’s temperature stable. These cells are more prevalent in our youth and they make it easier for us to burn through our adipose reserves, but their numbers go down as we age.

Researchers have also discovered a third type of fat cell they named beige fat cells. They function much like the brown variety of fat cells in both humans and mice, and are also known to become scarcer as we age. And this is where fish oil comes into play.

“We knew from previous research that fish oil has tremendous health benefits, including the prevention of fat accumulation,” said food scientist Teruo Kawada from Kyoto University. “We tested whether fish oil and an increase in beige cells could be related.”

Multilocular or Brown Fat tissue, a special adipose tissue involved in burning fat reserves to maintain body temperature.
Image via allposters

For the study, the team fed one control group of mice fatty food, and the other with the same diet with fish oil additives mixed in. The results, published in the journal Scientific Reports, detail the weight changes of the animals and show that the group that had fish oil included in their diet gained between 5 to 10 percent less weight in total and 15 to 25 percent less fat. Not bad for a little oil, but why does it happen?

Their theory is that the oil activates sympathetic receptors in the digestive system that directs storage cells to metabolize fat. In essence, the fish oil determines the transformation of white cells to beige cells, increasing the rate at which the tissue burns fat and leading to a spike in energy expenditure — and all this energy comes from the white cells, reducing the rate of fat accumulation and ultimately, weight gain.

The results of the mice experiments are very encouraging, but right now we don’t really know if the findings also apply to humans. Further studies are needed to determine this, but the team believes that fish oil could become an effective treatment for obesity.

“People have long said that food from Japan and the Mediterranean contribute to longevity, but why these cuisines are beneficial was up for debate,” said Kawada. “Now we have better insight into why that may be.”

 

Depression in children changes the brain for life

Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, looking into the effects depression has on the brain have found proof linking the disorder with abnormal brain development in preschoolers. Their study, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, shows how gray matter is thinner and lower in volume in the cortex, an area of the brain that plays a key role in processing emotions.

The findings may help explain why children and others who are depressed have difficulty regulating their moods and emotions. The research builds on earlier work by Luby’s group that detailed other differences in the brains of depressed children.

Image via deviantart

Feeling gray?

Joan L. Luby, Samuel and Mae S. Ludwig Professor of Child Psychiatry, and her team compared the brains of 90 children who had been diagnosed with depression as preschoolers with those of 103 children that didn’t suffer from this disorder. The study involved several clinical evaluations of the children as they aged, including three MRI scans as they grew older; the first scans were performed when the children were 6 to 8 years old and the last at ages 12 to 15. A total of 116 of the subjects received all three brain scans.

“What is noteworthy about these findings is that we are able to see how a life experience — such as an episode of depression — can change the brain’s anatomy,” said first author Joan L. Luby, MD, whose research established that children as young as 3 can experience depression.

“Traditionally, we have thought about the brain as an organ that develops in a predetermined way, but our research is showing that actual experience — including negative moods, exposure to poverty, and a lack of parental support and nurturing — have a material impact on brain growth and development.”

The brain is made up largely of two types of tissue, while and gray matter. White matter predominantly contains axons with some support cells thrown in the mix, and its role is to connect different parts of the brain and transmit information to and fro. In contrast, gray matter is rich in brain cell bodies, and associated with cognition and information processing.

So let’s say that I am a neuron and you reading this, another neuron. Together we make up gray matter and process, share and create information and ideas. White matter would then be the high-speed cables, servers and so on that makes up the Internet and allows you to read what I’m typing.

The proportion of gray and white matter isn’t fixed through time. We know that around puberty, the amount of gray matter begins to decline as communication between neurons gets more efficient and redundant processes are eliminated. But Luby’s team wanted to see how depression influences the brain, and this is why the study was carried out over such a long period.

“Gray matter development follows an inverted U-shaped curve,” Luby said. “As children develop normally, they get more and more gray matter until puberty, but then a process called pruning begins, and unnecessary cells die off.”

“But our study showed a much steeper drop-off, possibly due to pruning, in the kids who had been depressed than in healthy children.”

The cables are there, but there’s no one on-line

Deanna M. Barch, PhD, (left) and Joan L. Luby, MD, examine brain images for differences in brain tissue between children diagnosed with depression as preschoolers and those who were not.
Image via eurekalert

The data also shows a correlation between the drop-off in gray matter volume and thickness in the brain and the severity of depression — the more severe the condition, the more loss in volume and thickness was observed. They also had information about the subjects’ families, and when studying the brains of children whose parents suffered from depression — meaning the kids were at higher risk of developing the condition themselves — they didn’t see any abnormalities unless the child had suffered from depression too.

This is how the team determined that depression played a fundamental role in gray matter development. MRI also showed that the differences in gray matter volume and thickness were typically more pronounced that differences seen in other brain structures known to take part in processing emotions.

Luby explains that because gray matter is involved in emotion processing, it is possible some of the structures involved in emotion, such as the amygdala, may function normally but the cortex may be unable to regulate signals coming from it properly.

The team now plan to perform brain scans of even younger children, to see if depression may cause pruning in the brain’s gray matter to begin earlier than normal, changing the course of brain development as a child grows.

“A next important step will involve determining whether early intervention might shift the trajectory of brain development for these kids so that they revert to more typical and healthy development,” said Barch, also the Gregory B. Couch Professor of Psychiatry.

Luby said that is the main challenge facing those who treat kids with depression.

“The experience of early childhood depression is not only uncomfortable for the child during those early years,” she said. “It also appears to have long-lasting effects on brain development and to make that child vulnerable to future problems. If we can intervene, however, the benefits might be just as long-lasting.”

Ultra-white beetle could inspire next generation of paper and paints

The physical properties of the ultra-white scales on certain species of beetle could inspire researchers to make better, whiter paper, plastics or paint, using far less material.

Image via Cambridge University.

The Cyphochilus beetle, native to South-East Asia, is whiter than paper or even milk teeth. The whiteness of its body is caused by a thin layer of a highly reflective natural photonic solid in its scales. A new team investigation the beetle and its scales found that the white scales are able to scatter light more efficiently than any other known biological mechanism, which is how they are able to achieve such a whiteness.

In nature, there are several animals which are very white; they have this color for varying purposes, such as camouflage, communication or thermo-regulation (in very hot areas). However, being white is a rather complicated thing – you have to reflect all wavelengths of light with the same efficiency. The ultra-white Cyphochilus beetle does this through a dense, complicated network of chitin – a molecule similar in structure to cellulose commonly found in nature in the shells of mollusks, on the exoskeletons of many insects and in the cell wall of fungi.

“These scales have a structure that is truly complex since it gives rise to something that is more than the sum of its parts,” said co-author Dr Matteo Burresi of the Italian National Institute of Optics in Florence. “Our simulations show that a randomly packed collection of its constituent elements by itself is not sufficient to achieve the degree of brightness that we observe.”

Chitin is not very good at reflecting light itself, but over millions of years of evolution, the beetles have developed a complex network with extremely thin chitin filaments. It’s important for insects, especially flying insects, to be very light, so the chitin network has to be very efficient and light, like a painter who needs to whiten a wall with a very small quantity of paint. 

“Current technology is not able to produce a coating as white as these beetles can in such a thin layer,” said Dr Silvia Vignolini of the University’s Cavendish Laboratory, who led the research. “In order to survive, these beetles need to optimise their optical response but this comes with the strong constraint of using as little material as possible in order to save energy and to keep the scales light enough in order to fly. Curiously, these beetles succeed in this task using chitin, which has a relatively low refractive index.”

The exact mechanism through which they evolved this way still remains unknown – but that doesn’t mean that we can’t inspire technology from it. In recent times, many engineers have turned to nature for inspiration, with great results.

“The lessons we are learning from these beetles is two-fold,” said Dr Vignolini. “On one hand, we now know how to look to improve scattering strength of a given structure by varying its geometry. On the other hand the use of strongly scattering materials, such as the particles commonly used for white paint, is not mandatory to achieve an ultra-white coating.”

The results of this study could have a myriad of applications, most notably enabling white materials such as paper, plastics, paints, as well as white-light reflectors inside new-generation displays to be made whiter more efficiently with less material.

Journal Reference: Matteo Burresi,Lorenzo Cortese,Lorenzo Pattelli,Mathias Kolle,Peter Vukusic,Diederik S. Wiersma,Ullrich Steiner& Silvia Vignolini. Bright-White Beetle Scales Optimise Multiple Scattering of Light. Scientific Reports 4, Article number: 6075 doi:10.1038/srep06075