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Science Policy Around the Web July 30th, 2019

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By Mary Weston, PhD

Source: Wikimedia

Sea of Galilee earthquakes triggered by excessive water pumping

A new study suggests that excessive water pumping near the Sea of Galilee is responsible for triggering earthquakes.  

Two swarms of small earthquakes have occurred in the same spot beneath the Sea of Galilee in the last 7 years. Earthquakes in this region are not uncommon since the sea lies on a fault line, a crack in the earth where sections of plates slide to cause quakes. However, these low magnitude quakes, 5 in 5 days in 2013 and 12 in July 2018, are mysterious because they lack the typical mainshock/aftershock pattern.

The Sea of Galilee supplies up to a third of Israel’s domestic water but, due to a growing population and poor rainfall to refill the lake, people have been pumping groundwater from wells near the lake since the 1990s. Previously, researchers have found that injecting fluid into the ground can cause earthquakes, a technique used in hydraulic fracturing/fracking. Similarly, injecting water into geothermal vents can also cause quakes. Thus, the study’s coauthors wondered if rapid removal of groundwater from an area may also trigger earthquakes.

 The research group compared the dates, locations, magnitudes, and depths of earthquakes to groundwater levels in the area’s aquifer. They observed that quakes occurred after large groundwater decreases during 2007-2013 and again from 2016-2018. The reason for the quakes is not clear, but the researchers propose a model where extracting groundwater decreases the forces that push the rocks on both sides of the fault together, locking them in place. As one of the study’s co-author’s Dr. Emily Brodsky explains, “Pulling the water out allows the rocks to kind of relax away from one another, and therefore unclamps the fault.” 

This research has important implications. The Dead Sea Transform fault, which runs underneath the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, has historically been responsible for much larger quakes. While these swarms along the fault are minor, sometimes small quakes can trigger much larger ones. Additionally, there is substantial groundwater pumping occurring in California near the San Andreas fault, which is similar to the Dead Sea fault. These findings may explain why California has slightly more earthquakes during hot months, when groundwater pumping is at its max. Finally, the study recommends that those living above major faults use caution when removing excessive groundwater or risk ultimately causing a major quake.

(Michael Price, Science Magazine)

 

 

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July 30, 2019 at 3:06 pm

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Science Policy Around the Web – July 18th, 2019

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By Silvia Preite

New therapeutic nutrition strategy corrects malnutrition by fostering a healthy gut

Malnutrition represents a major global health problem world-wide, causing nearly half of all deaths among children under 5 years of age. According to an estimate by UNICEF/WHO/World Bank, the number of children under 5, in March 2019, with wasting was more than 49 million. Moreover, impaired nutrition in the first 3 years of a child`s life can lead to failure to thrive, neurodevelopmental delay, and other long term health complications.

Commensal microbiota colonizing the gut is composed of a high number of bacteria, fungi and viruses, influences many normal body functions and is implicated in several health conditions, including obesity, autoimmunity and responses to cancer therapies. Two recent articles published in the journal Science report that specific food combinations promote the development of a mature gut microbiota that fights malnutrition and supports growth. As healthy children age from infants to toddlers, their gut microbiota composition progressively matures as well. In contrast, analysis of fecal samples from children in Bangladesh revealed that commensal bacteria remain immature in profoundly malnourished subjects. Animals reconstituted with immature microbiota showed impaired metabolism, less muscle formation, and weaker bones highlighting the importance of mature bacteria in the growth and development of children. 

Additionally, the authors found that a specific combination of food promotes healthy commensal bacterial that boosts body growth. Specifically, Microbiota-Directed Complementary Food (MDCF), containing chickpea, peanut and soy flour and raw banana, fostered microbiota maturation in mice and piglets transplanted with immature microbiota to a greater extent than a standard milk powder and rice-based Ready-to Use Supplementary Food (RUSF). The improved efficacy of MDCF compared to RUSF was further supported by a 1 month clinical trial conducted in 63 undernourished Bangladeshi children (12-18 months of age). Specifically, MDCF was more effective in promoting the engraftment of mature bacteria, resembling the ones in healthy children, and improved blood biomarkers associated with healthy development and immune function.

            Although the long-term consequences of these nutritional regimens remain to be assessed, these studies open opportunities for the use of new food supplements to help children recovering from malnutrition. Moreover, these discoveries can be used to improve the nutrition of well-fed children to support the development of healthy microbiota.

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July 18, 2019 at 9:59 am

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Science Policy Around the Web – July 16th, 2019

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By Allison Cross, PhD

Source: MaxPixel

Are dinosaur fossils ‘minerals’? The Montana Supreme Court will decide high stakes case

A property rights dispute over fossils found on a Montana ranch is now in the hands of the Montana Supreme court and the decision could have wide-spanning implications, affecting how fossil hunters operate and putting into question the ownership of fossils currently in private and public collections around the world. 

The dispute began over a piece of land in Garfield County, Montana previously owned by George Severson.  The property is located inside the Hill Creek Formation, a famous and extensively studied dinosaur fossil site spanning through Montana, the Dakotas and Wyoming.  In 2005, Severson’s sons sold the surface rights of their property to another family, the Murrays, while retaining the mineral rights.  Since this sale, the Murrays and an amateur fossil hunter, Clayton Phipps, began excavating the land.  They unearthed multiple rare fossils including the complete fossils of two dinosaurs that appear to have been fighting when they died, a triceratops foot and skull, and a complete T. rex.    

The discovery of these rare and valuable fossils sparked an ownership dispute among the Severson (who have the minerals rights to the land) and the Murrays (who hold the surface rights).  Historically, fossils have been considered part of the surface property and when the Murrays filed a lawsuit seeking ownership of the fossils the district court sided on their behalf.  The Seversons then appealed to the 9th circuit, who in a surprising decision, sided on their behalf. This decision concerned many, including the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, and the Museum of the Rockies. The 9th circuit was asked to reconsider the case and, after granting the rehearing, the court vacated their earlier decision and sent the question up to the Montana Supreme Court. 

The Severson vs. Murray dispute over fossil ownership has left many worried about ownership challenges to important fossils currently in academic, museums, and private collections. In April, Montana enacted a law stating that fossils are not minerals and therefore belong to the surface estate.  This law, however, but does not apply to existing disputes. 

(Jeremy P. Jacobs, E&E News, Science)

Potential Causes of Irreproducibility Revealed

Scientists and the public have long been concerned about how experiments performed in the lab will translate to patients.  These concerns are heightened by the recently acknowledged lack of reproducibility within science, particularly in the biological sciences.  If scientists in different labs are unable to reproduce the same in vitro data, we should not be surprised when these findings fail to translate to humans.  

In an attempt to explore some of the factors affecting reproducibility, five research labs in the NIH LINCS Program Consortium performed the same experiment and compared results.Each lab aimed to quantify the responsiveness of mammalian cells in culture to anti-cancer drugs. Drug response assays like those performed by these labs are considered relatively simple and are standard during drug development.  

The results of this multi-lab study, along with analysis of the technical and biological factors affecting reproducibility between the five labs, were recently published in Cell Systems. In the published study, each lab received the same detailed protocol and were provided cells, media, and drugs from the same source.  Despite this, initial experiments performed by the five groups revealed drug potencies that varied as much as 200-fold. 

Researchers were able to identify some technical factors contributing to the inconsistent data, including differences in the method used for cell counting and edge effects and non-uniform cell growth in the culture plates.   The groups were able to improve their replicability by using more standardized protocols and randomizing locations of controls and technical replicates in the cell culture plates to reduce biases introduced by edge effects and uneven cell growth.  Though these changes did result in more consistency, the replicability remained higher within groups than between groups.  

Though this study demonstrated that controlling for variability is helpful in obtaining reproducible data, James Evans, a University of Chicago researcher not involved in the recent study argues “the point isn’t just to get reproducible effects.” In order to improve the translation of preclinical findings, Evans explains “We want reproducible effects that are going to be robust to subtle changes in the experiment.” 

(Abby Olena, The Scientist) 

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July 16, 2019 at 4:42 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – July 12th, 2019

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By Mohor Sengupta, Ph.D.

Source: Maxpixel

CDC made a synthetic Ebola virus to test treatments. It worked

During the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in Guinea, West Africa, infectious samples containing the virus were shared by local government with international scientific communities. Using these materials, Dr. Gary Kobinger and his team developed and tested the efficacy of a monoclonal antibody vaccine at the Canadian National Laboratory. The same vaccine, ZMapp, and other therapies are currently being deployed in the most recent Ebola outbreak, which is the second largest outbreak so far. Beginning in ] 2018 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), this outbreak is still on the roll. Unfortunately, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not have any viral samples this time, meaning they were unable to test the efficacy of ZMapp and other drugs against the recent viral strain. 

Scientists at the CDC, led by Dr. Laura McMullan, constructed an artificial virus from the sequence of the current strain shared by DRC’s National Biomedical Research Institute (INRB). The group used the sequence data to perform reverse genetics and generate the authentic Ebola virus that’s currently infecting scores of people in Ituri and North Kivu provinces of DRC. 

“It takes a lot of resources and a lot of money and a lot of energy to make a cloned virus by reverse genetics. And it would be so much easier if somebody had just sent the isolate”, Dr. Thomas Geisbert, who is not involved in the work, said. 

The CDC group established the efficacy of current treatments (a drug called Remdesivir and the vaccine ZMapp) on the viral strain by using their artificial virus for all the tests. Their work was published Tuesday in the journal Lancet.

For all four Ebola outbreaks that the DRC has seen, healthcare authorities have not shared viral specimens with foreign Ebola researchers. Instead, the whole genome sequence was provided every time. With the whole genome sequence data, the Lancet paper noted that there are at least two Ebola strains in DRC that have independently crossed into the human population.  

Reasons for not sharing viral samples by DRC are not known but it is a roadblock to rapid and efficient treatments in affected geographical regions. McMullan said that shipping of samples across such large distances is often a logistical issue and requires permission from several authorities and coordination of many people. 

 (Helen Branswell, STAT)

Plastic Has A Big Carbon Footprint — But That Isn’t The Whole Story

We are all too familiar with ghastly images of dead whales with plastic-filled stomachs. These images are compounded by pictures of how much waste is generated, such as a picture of a twenty-story high mound of plastic trash in a developing country that appeared in a recent news article. While there is worldwide concern about how to eliminate use of plastics, there is very little discussion about the environmental impact of the materials that will replace plastic. 

Plastic has a high carbon footprint. In a recent report the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) has broken down the individual steps of greenhouse gas production, from the beginning of plastic production until it ends up incinerated as a waste. Manufactured from oil and natural gas, plastic production adds to carbon footprint right from its cradle when gases and oils leak into the environment. Subsequently, delivery of raw materials to the production sites further add to the burden. Being among the most energy intensive materials to produce, plastic production takes a heavy toll on energy, water and electricity. Finally, when plastics are incinerated, greenhouse gases end up in the environment. 

But what about the materials that commonly substitute for plastic, such as paper, compostable plastic, canvas or glass? What is their carbon footprint in production stages? Research by several independent groups has revealed that these materials leave an even larger carbon footprint during their production. Data have shown that polyethylene plastic bags not only used lesser fuel and energy throughout production, they also emitted fewer global-warming gases and left lesser mass of solid wastes, when compared with paper bags and with compostable plastic bags. Being more durable than other materials, use of polyethylene bags are more energy friendly than use of paper bags. 

Research done on behalf of the American Chemistry Council has shown that replacing plastic would eventually do more harm to the environment than their use. Finally, consumer habits count. If people don’t reuse plastics, then its advantages over paper cease to exist. Of course, the problem of permanent waste and global health consequences are issues that cannot be overlooked. The solution might lie in using plastics more wisely and re-using them as much as possible. 

(Christopher Joyce, NPR

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July 12, 2019 at 3:18 pm

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Science Policy Around the Web – July 3rd, 2019

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By Neetu Gulati, Ph.D.

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay 

The US opioid epidemic is driving a spike in infectious diseases

Opioid use has skyrocketed in the US in the past 20 years, and addiction kills tens of thousands of people each year. Now, opioid use has been linked to an increase in infectious diseases as well, which may pile on to an already extreme public health concern.

One cause for concern is that opioids themselves may be making people more susceptible to infection, though the reason for this is unclear. One study found that people treated at veterans’ health facilities who took medium or high doses of prescribed opioids for pain management were more susceptible to pneumonia, for example. Another cause for concern is that unsafe injection practices may mean that users of illicit opioids could lead to an increase of infections. Bacterial infections, such as those caused by Staphyloccocus aureus, can enter the bloodstream of opioid users through non-sterile needle usage or unclean sites of injection. If these bacteria reach the heart, it can lead to damage and possibly the need for a transplant. For example, a study done in North Carolina found a tenfold increase in heart infections among drug users in the state over a 10-year period.

As if the increase in infections was not bad enough, another major challenge is that the pattern of outbreaks associated with drug use may not be the same as that of non-drug-affiliated outbreaks, meaning it is difficult to predict where and when infections might occur. Furthermore, as Georgiy Bobashev, a data scientist at RTI International, pointed out, drug users “don’t have good practices and they don’t have good connections with people who have been injecting drugs for a long time.” In tackling the problem, it will be important to consider the social component of predicting outbreak patterns among drug users. It will also be important to treat opioid use as a disease without stigmatizing drug users, commented Carlos Del Rio, a global-health researcher at Emory University.

(Sara Reardon, Nature)

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July 3, 2019 at 3:13 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – June 25th, 2019

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By Ben Wolfson, Ph.D.

Image by Darwin Laganzon from Pixabay 

North Korea claimed to be free of HIV. But infections appear to be surging

Since its first diagnosis 1981, HIV/AIDS (Human immunodeficiency virus infection and acquired immune deficiency syndrome) has infected more than 70 million individuals worldwide and resulted in 35 million deaths.

HIV/AIDS is classified as a pandemic, with infected individuals found throughout the world. However, as of a December, 2018 World AIDS Day event, North Korea reported no known cases, crediting this to widespread testing and prevention methods.

A new paper has reported that these data were false, and that in fact following a North Korean “patient zero” in 1999, HIV/AIDS infections have slowly ballooned. These findings come from a collaboration between North Korean scientists and DoDaum, a nonprofit in North America that runs health and education projects in North Korea. While officials originally asked DoDaum not to discuss the increasing prevalence of HIV/AIDS in North Korea, the North Korean Ministry of Public Health felt they had to overcome traditional reticence in order to seek help in targeting HIV/AIDS.

While both a cure and vaccine remain elusive, widening usage of Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), also called Truvada, has the potential to significantly reduce new HIV infection. PrEP has been shown to be more than 90% effective at preventing new HIV infections, and remains underutilized in most countries, including the USA. This is in part due to cost, a factor which is the subject of a new bill introduced in the Senate that would make PrEP free to most patients.

(Richard Stone, Science)

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June 25, 2019 at 5:37 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – June 21st, 2019

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By Neetu Gulati Ph.D.

Image by Kathy Bugajsky from Pixabay 

Tech disorder? Smartphones linked to bizarre horn-like skull bumps

Two Australian researchers published a study inScientific Reports this year with an unusual discovery: people are growing horn-like bone spurs at the base of their skulls. They found these protrusions on around 400 adults aged 18 to 86, and larger growths were found among younger people. Bone spurs usually do not cause pain or require treatment, but if they become too large can become a problem.

While the study originally did not get much press, it has broken headlines recently after a BBC article covering how modern life is transforming the human body. The authors in the original research article hypothesized these bone spurs could be due to “sustained aberrant postures associated with the emergence and extensive use of hand-held contemporary technologies, such as smartphones and tablets.”

While the article has led to sensationalized media accounts, some experts have questioned the validity of the conclusions, saying the study lacks a control group and cannot prove cause and effect between the spurs and technology. Furthermore, there may be bias in the study because the subjects are people with enough neck problems to warrant visiting a chiropractic clinic, where the authors of the study work.

Regardless of the exact cause of the bone spurs, numerous cases of “texting neck” ailments and similar problems have occurred as technology use as increased since the early 2000s. Dr. David Geier, an orthopedic surgeon, commented that the study “isn’t going to convince people not to use their phone. But small changes like putting pillows under our laptops and holding the phone or tablet higher up and away from our laps can promote better posture.” Others, such as Dr. Evan Johnson, an assistant professor and director of physical therapy at the New York-Presbyterian Och Spine Hospital, commented that the bone spur “is a really big ‘So what?’ moment… The fact that you have this little bony projection in your skull, that means nothing.” It will be important to see if these projections get worse over time, to the point of leading to pain.

(Dr. Shamard Charles, NBC News

Type A blood converted to universal donor blood with help from bacterial enzymes

Donor blood plays a critical role in the healthcare system. However, there is a constant shortage of blood for transfusions around the world. Blood shortages are made more complicated because blood transfusions cannot be done with just any blood, the patient and donor blood types must be compatible or else the recipient’s body can have a deadly immune response to the donor blood. The immune system recognizes specific sugar molecules on the surface of red blood cells, which denote blood as one of the four types: A, B, AB, or O. Blood type O is coveted as universal donor blood, because it lacks these unique sugar molecules, also known as antigens, so they are not recognized as “foreign” in a patient’s body, even when given to people with other blood types. 

Now, researchers have discovered a way to convert type A blood to type O, using a combination of two bacterial enzymes to remove the “A-defining” antigens. Harvey Klein, a blood transfusion expert at the National Institutes of Health, commented on the work, “this is a first, and if these data can be replicated, it is certainly a major advance.”

Previous attempts by researchers to remove the A-defining antigens from blood have had limited success, because the enzymes used were not very efficient. In the most recent study, bacterial enzymes identified from a human stool sample removed the sugars in human blood efficiently using only tiny amounts of the enzymes. If these findings can be translated to practical application, the amount of universal donor blood could nearly double, as type A blood makes up approximately 1/3 of the blood supply. To get to that point, more work needs to be done to confirm that these enzymes are not altering anything else in the blood.

(Elizabeth Pennisi, Science)

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June 21, 2019 at 2:59 pm