Future Protection Found in the Past

By: Kate Good

As the world struggles to create “nature friendly” technology to compensate for our gas-guzzling vehicles and electricity needs, a major solution to global carbon increase has been overlooked. Collaborative research from forest scientists and over 13 universities suggests that the best way to combat global warming is by protecting indigenous lands

Deforestation of indigenous lands causes large amounts of carbon dioxide to be released into the atmosphere, by creating protected areas where the natural habitat is preserved, hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide will be prevented from entering into the global carbon cycle.

Described as a  “win-win” situation, the protection of indigenous lands will slow forest loss, conserve biodiversity while simultaneously preserving local cultures.

Industry and urbanization does not only pose a threat to natural environments, but cultural ones as well. While this approach seems to be a step backward in the movement to create new “green” technology, logically it makes the most sense.

Research shows that all of the indigenous lands and protected areas (ILPAs) in the world contain more than 312 billion tons of carbon. It is projected that the protected areas founded between 2003 and 2007 could prevent over one-third of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions of carbon dioxide from being released by 2050.

In areas such as Brazil, indigenous lands account for approximately four times the area of already existing national and state protected lands, however, without protection, these lands face the direct threat of deforestation.

Brazilian Rainforest

The expansion of industrial land as apposed to the establishment of protected natural areas is not only costly in the monetary sense but also environmentally. Rather than looking to assuage the damage caused by industrialization, efforts to protect and maintain indigenous lands holds a long-term benefit to the health of the environment.

Over the course of the December climate talks in Copenhage, developed countries agreed to financially support poor nations in protecting their forests from deforestation, however there is no governmental mechanism in existence to carry out these changes.



Time for scabby knees

By Nina Jean-Jacques

Have you ever wondered how you get those scabs after you cut yourself? You may already know that it’s due to blod clotting. More studies on blood clotting found the time it takes for blood to clot can be determined by something in the blood – genes.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh discovered three genes that are responsible for blood clotting. They performed the study at the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology. The researchers used blood samples from a group of people in the Edinburgh area who were aged over 70. These participants are also a part of the Lothian Birth Cohort 1921 and 1936, which has been studying the participants since birth.

The study used a test called activated partial thromboplastin time to measure clotting time and examined thousands of genes. The genes that were found to assist in blood clotting are F12, HRG, and KNG1. These genes are found in healthy people. The researchers on this study are trying to encourage the start of studies on genes of those that suffer from blood clotting disorders such as deep vein thrombosis and some types of stroke. The researchers are all so excited to discover such a large genetic component in clotting.

blood clotting disorder - deep vein thrombosis

Researchers solve viral superinfection mystery

By Liz H. ‘10

Interaction between a T-cell (purple) and another cell of the immune system.

The ability of a common virus known as CMV to cause a “superinfection” and infect humans multiple times has puzzled scientists until recently.  Researchers at the Oregon Health and Science University Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute have reported the mechanism that CMV uses to evade the immune system and re-infect humans, in a study published in the April 2nd issue of Science.  Their findings shed light on how this virus may be used in the development of CMV-based vaccines for other diseases.

Cytomegalovirus (CMV) does something that not many viruses can do:  it can re-infect people who previously have been infected by CMV and have already developed an immune response to the virus.  This is unusual for a virus, because the immune system usually “remembers” previous infections with viruses and other pathogens and can mount a strong immune response upon re-infection with a specific pathogen.

The researchers studied CMV-infected monkeys in order to understand how the virus overcomes detection by the immune system.  They discovered that CMV avoids a special type of white blood cell called CD8+ T cells, which are responsible for killing cells that are infected with a pathogen.  CD8+ T cells recognize infected cells by small molecules on the exterior surface of infected cells known as MHC I.  These molecules display small pieces of an invading pathogen and present them to the T cells.  This presentation of infectious material ultimately signals T cells to start destroying infected cells.

In order to evade these T cells, CMV makes proteins that interferes with the presentation of viral pieces by MHC I molecules and stops them from recruiting T cells to infected cells.  “In essence, CMV is able to cut off an infected cell’s call for elimination. This allows CMV to overcome this critical immune barrier during re-infection,” explains author Klaus Frueh.

The study has interesting implications in the design of CMV-based viral vaccine vectors.  Viral vaccine vectors contain a modified, harmless virus that carries a vaccine for another pathogen to the body.  Although the body develops immunity to the pathogen, it also develops immunity to the viral vector, which means that the viral vector can only be used for one type of vaccine.  Since CMV does not elicit an immune response upon re-infection, it makes an attractive vaccine vector candidate that could potentially carry vaccines against other pathogens, such as HIV, hepatitis C, tuberculosis, and malaria.

CMV is a member of the herpesvirus family and infects 50-80% of the US population by age 40.  Most people do not have any symptoms of CMV infection and do not become ill.  But for those with weakened immune systems, including infants and the immunocompromised, CMV can cause serious complications.  With this new understanding of how CMV evades the immune system, scientists may be able to start utilizing the virus for the benefit of human health.

Want more information?

CMV infection

Press Release

Nano probes: the future of drug delivery?

by Johnathan Nieves ’11 

Scientists have developed an extremely small probing device that is capable of binding to a cells surface and eavesdropping on its internal electrical activity. This may help to provide insight into how cells communicate and how they respond to medication delivered through the probe.    

Ever think we could spy on a cell? We have been able to for almost thirty years now, but a new technique is purported to no do it substantially better. Stanford Researchers recently (March 30) published a paper describing their success in developing a nanometer-scale probe capable of binding and becoming a part of a single cell’s membrane.  The paper, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, offers insight into the ability for researchers to eavesdrop on the inner electrical activity of individual cells. The use of the nano probe as a conduit for inserting medication into a cell’s interior is also being cited by the Stanford researchers.    

The study, spearheaded by Nick Melosh and Benjamin Almquist, focused on designing a probe in a way that allowed it to mimic a component of the cell membrane. The cell membrane, or cell wall, is the outermost encapsulating structure of a cell that protects it from the outside environment. The key to the probe’s easy insertion and the great affinity it has for the cell membrane is due to its engineering. The probe was engineered in a way that allowed it to mimic a type of cell membrane gatekeeper protein – a molecule naturally found in the cell membrane that regulates what enters and exits the cell.      

Image depicting the nano-probe binding to the cell membrane. (Credit: Benjamin Almquist, Stanford University)

“What we have done is make an inorganic version of one of those membrane proteins, which sits  in the membrane without disrupting it,” said Melosh. “The probes fuse into the membranes spontaneously and form good, strong junctions there.” The attachment is so strong, “we cannot pull them out. The membrane will just keep deforming rather than let go of the probes.” The 600-nanometer-long probe has integrated so well into membranes that the researchers have dubbed it the “stealth” probe.    

Current methods involved in cell probing are limited in that they only allow access to the cell for few hours. Additionally, the methods are extremely destructive and damaging to cells. Melosh and Almquist are the first to implant a cell probe with very little damage to the cell.      

Up to now, poking a hole in a cell membrane has largely relied on brute force, Melosh said. “We can basically rip holes in the cells using suction, we can use high voltage to puncture holes in their membranes, both of which are fairly destructive […]; many of the cells don’t survive.” That limits the duration of any observations, particularly electrical measurements of cell function.    

“Ideally, what you’d like to be able to do is have an access port through the cell membrane that you can put things in or take things out, measure electrical currents … basically full control,” commented Melosh. “That’s really what we’ve shown – this is a platform upon which you can start building those kinds of devices.”    

Melosh and Almquist are currently working with human red blood cells, cervical and ovary cancer cells to demonstrate the functionality of the probes in living cells.    

To view the press release pertaining to this article, click here.

Biodiesel beats petroleum yet again

By Amy Woolf

A late 2009 study found that biodiesel gives more energy back to the earth than it takes in its synthesis. The study, done by the U. S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Idaho, found that for every unit of energy that it takes to produce biodiesel, 4.5 units is returned to the earth. When conducting this study, the researchers took into account all aspects of biodiesel synthesis and mathematically compared it to the process that yields petroleum.

The study was based on biodiesel synthesized from soybean oil, which is the resource used most commonly to make biodiesel. Energy is saved because the main source of energy used to grow soybeans is solar. The modern soybean also needs fewer pesticides than in the past and it also has the ability to grow in fields that are not as thoroughly tilled as previously needed, which saves energy. Biodiesel can also be synthesized from recycled resources, like used cooking oil, which would raise the positive energy outcome even more.

There was a similar study done by the USDA in 1998 that also showed a positive energy balance for biodiesel – 3.2 units as opposed to the 0.84 units from petroleum diesel. The energy efficiency of biodiesel has improved while the efficiency of petroleum diesel remains about the same.


Press Release

Tricky tumors grow and spread

The tumor has transformed its outer layer to mimic lymph node tissue to avoid detection by the immune system.

By Sara Braniecki

Researchers from Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) published a study in the March 2010 issue of Science explaining how tumor cells avoid being destroyed by the immune system.  The researchers believe that knowing how cancerous cells avoid the body’s immune system could lead to a future understanding of how to use the body’s natural defense mechanism to destroy cancerous cells.

Tumors make themselves and the surrounding area seem perfectly normal by disguising themselves as lymph nodes, which are a key part of the immune system that filters the blood and traps foreign particles.  Due to the disguise, the immune system is not phased and has no reason to take any destructive action on the cancer cells.

The researchers focused on a protein in genuine lymph nodes that attracts cells and instructs them to carry out defensive functions for the body.  Some tumors make their outer layer, with which the immune system would come into contact, appear as lymph node tissue by secreting this protein that the researchers were studying.  Since the tumors secrete the protein, they attract immune cells.   The immune cells are tricked into thinking the tumor is healthy rather than foreign.  Thus the tumor is not destroyed by the immune system, allowing it to grow and spread.

According to one of the researchers, Jacqui Shields, the concept that tumors mimic lymphoid tissue to alter the host’s immune response represents a new understanding of tumors’ interactions with the lymphatic system.  This will possibly open up a new area of study, and hopefully open up new understanding for cancer therapy.

Further information.

No Time to Exercise? Think Again

By Abby Larson

Not having enough time is no longer an excuse to avoid exercising.  Scientists at McMaster University in Canada published a study in The Journal of Physiology on short term high-intensity interval training (HIT), which consists of a series of short bursts of intense exercise with short recovery breaks in between.  They found that HIT works as well in building muscle and improving oxygen delivery to muscles as long term exercise.

The study, headed by Professor Martin Gibala, was performed on college students on a stationary bike with a workload at about 95% maximum heart rate.  Gibala found that doing 10 one-minute sprints on the stationary bike with one minute of rest in between resulted in the same physical benefits as long duration endurance biking.  This means that the muscular benefits of exercise can be achieved with less time and less exercise.  However, long-term exercise is still necessary for weight loss to maximize calories burned, but short-term, high intensity exercise is far more beneficial that no exercise at all.

The reasons behind these results are not yet known, but Gibala found that HIT activates some of the cellular pathways that are associated with producing the health benefits from endurance training.

These findings are not just for athletes trying to get into shape.  The scientists at McMaster think that a less “all-out” HIT method can be beneficial for people who require the benefits of exercise but are not advised to exercise for prolonged periods of time.  The team’s future research will examine the effects of HIT on the elderly, obese, and people with metabolic diseases such as diabetes.

So next time you only have 10-20 minutes to exercise, hop on a stationary bike to try this time-efficient and effective form of exercise.   Remember, though, that exercise plans should be catered towards an individual’s fitness goals.

Time to Get Paranoid about your Thyroid

By: Shelly Hwang

April 3, 2010

Most young adults from the ages of 18 to 44 don’t give much thought to their thyroid, but a study published earlier this month in Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association reveals increased risk of stroke in young adults with an overactive thyroid.

So what exactly is an overactive thyroid? Hyperthyroidism, or an overactive thyroid, is a condition that causes overproduction of thyroid hormone, which increases metabolism and causes sweating, diarrhea, weight loss, and nervousness. Hyperthyroidism is common, affecting about 0.5-2% of the worldwide population, particularly young adults. The study shows an association between hyperthyroidism and ischemic stroke, which is the most common type of stroke caused by blocked arteries in or leading to the brain.

The study compared data on 3,176 young adults diagnosed with hyperthyroidism between January 1998 and December 2001 and 25,408 patients without thyroid disease, with the average age being 32 years. After five years, 198 of the 28,584 patients developed ischemic stroke (0.7%), with 1% of the hyperthyroidism patients and 0.6% of the comparison group having a stroke. After accounting for many factors such as age, gender, high blood pressure, diabetes, and an irregular heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation (AF), the risk of hyperthyroidism patients having a stroke was 44 percent higher than those without hyperthyroidism.

In adults over the age of 60, Hyperthyroidism is known to be associated with AF, which occurs when the heart beats irregularly and ineffectively and can lead to a stroke. However, the risk of stroke in younger people with hyperthyroidism has not been previously studied. This study could lead to a new screening process for young adults to help lower risk of developing a stroke sooner than expected.

Press Release

American Stroke Association

Happy New-Geologic-Epoch!

By Marci Wills, April 4, 2010

Get out your party hats, because we may soon be welcoming in a new geologic epoch! Some scientists believe that humanity has affected the Earth so drastically over the past two centuries that changes may be significant enough to mark a new age of geologic time. Last week, earth scientists Jan Zalaseiwicz, Mark Williams (University of Leicester, UK), Will Steffen (Australian National University, Canberra), and Paul Crutzen (Max-Planck-Institute for Chemistry, Mainz, Germany) formally made the case for the addition of the “Anthropocene Epoch” to the Geologic Time Scale in the American Chemical Society’s journal, Environmental Science and Technology. More importantly, they warn that the Anthropocene could be accompanied by Earth’s next great mass extinction.

Evidence for the Anthropocene appears irrefutable from space

The Geologic Time Scale partitions 4.57 billion years of Earth’s history into four eras which contain shorter periods (For example, the Mesozoic era includes the Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous periods) and even finer epochs. Currently we live in the Holocene epoch which began ~11,000 years ago with the end of the most recent ice age.

Transitions between major divisions on the time scale are marked by observable changes in the sedimentary record worldwide. Usually, these are associated with upheavals in the planet’s climate and biodiversity. In their paper last week, the four scientists argue that “The scale of change taken place so far, or that is imminent or unavoidable, appears to have already taken the Earth out of the envelope of conditions and properties that mark the Holocene Epoch”

In addition to widely recognized changes in atmospheric composition, global temperature rise, melting polar ice, and rising sea levels, the study argues that many other human-induced effects are plainly visible on the Planet. Humans have brought about an order of magnitude increase in worldwide erosion rates, and the Anthropocene can be recognized by a variety of human-made sediment layers; the concrete of our roads and cities, the soils of our fields, and the polluted muds of estuaries, to name a few.

Most importantly, these scientists suspect that the Anthropocene may coincide with the world’s 6th mass-extinction event. Already, current extinction rates are estimated to be 100 to 1000 times greater than the normal background level and another 10-fold increase is expected this century.

The geologic time scale is overseen by multiple governing bodies under the International Union of Geological Sciences, all which will have to be convinced before “The Anthropocene” is officially adopted. But according to these four researchers, “However these debates unfold, the Anthropocene represents a new phase in the history of both humankind and of the Earth, when natural forces and human forces become intertwined, so that the fate of one determines the fate of the other. Geologically, this is a remarkable episode in the history of the planet”


Zalasiewicz, J., Williams, M., Steffen, W., Crutzen, P., 2010, The new world of the Anthropocene: Environmental Science and Technology, v. 44, p. 2228-2231.


Live long and prosper

Justin Williams ’13

On April 1, 2010, scientists funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council at the University of Birmingham uncovered a gene that is strongly related to the lifespan in Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) and three of its close relatives. Scientists used longevity of life, immunity, and resistance to stress as the main determinants of the worms lifespan.

Activation of DAF-16 gene promoting increased resistance to stress.

Head researcher Dr. Robin May explains the purpose of their research: “We wanted to find out how normal ageing is being governed by genes and what effect these genes have on other traits, such as immunity.” To do this,  they looked at a gene that has been known to play an important role in the ‘dauer’ stage of development and influence the longevity of life in worms, gene DAF-16.

To figure out the exact role this gene plays in the worms lifespan, researchers sought out the relationship between the worms lifespan/resistance to stress and that its expression of the DAF-16 gene. To induce stress in worms scientists exposed “them to high temperature, heavy metals and a range of bacterial and fungal diseases.”

Their results were very promising. As they expected, the DAF-16 gene and it’s expression in worms positively correlated to their lifespan, and, in general, “higher levels of DAF-16 activity correlated with longer life, increased stress resistance and better immunity against some infections.”

Although this study was performed on worms, scientists have high expectations for the implications in humans. Researchers say that “it is possible that this knowledge could open up new avenues for altering ageing, immunity and resistance to stresses in humans.”