Friday, July 10, 2020

Georgia Coast Atlas: A portal to hidden stories

The rich biodiversity of the Georgia coast includes the roseate spoonbill, shown in a marsh on Sapelo Island. Photo by Anthony Martin.

The Georgia Coast Atlas is a public, online gateway to the dynamic ecosystems and intriguing history of the state’s 100-mile-long coast and barrier islands. Emory University’s Department of Environmental Sciences and the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship launched the ambitious project. It showcases scholarship in science and the humanities, weaving together research, fieldwork and technology to create an unprecedented resource for educators, conservationists, students and the general public.

The interactive trove — made up of stunning flyover video, oral and written stories and annotated maps — keeps expanding through the efforts of Emory students and faculty.

“The main aim of the Atlas is to show how special the Georgia coast is as a place,” says Anthony Martin, a professor of practice in Environmental Sciences. “Secondly, it documents how the region is rapidly changing.”

Read the whole story here.

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Wednesday, July 1, 2020

World Zoonoses Day: 'We have to act now to avoid even bigger catastrophes'

"The primary risks for future spillover of zoonotic diseases are deforestation of tropical environments and large-scale industrial farming of animals, specifically pigs and chickens at high density," says Emory disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie. (Getty Images)

By Carol Clark

On July 6 in 1885, Louis Pasteur successfully administered the first vaccine against rabies, one of the most feared diseases of that time. The bite of an infected animal transmits the rabies virus to humans, leading to an agonizing death without the vaccine.

World Zoonoses Day, held July 6 every year, marks this major breakthrough in the fight against zoonoses — diseases caused by germs that spread between animals and people. And yet, 135 years later, despite tremendous advances in science and medicine, the world is struggling to respond to the novel coronavirus — the latest devastating pathogen to spill over from animals.

“We are at a crisis point,” says Thomas Gillespie, associate professor in Emory University’s Department of Environmental Sciences and Rollins School of Public Health. “We have to act now. We cannot forsake this moment. If we don’t radically change our attitudes toward the natural world, things are going to get much, much worse. Pandemics will become increasingly common. What we are experiencing now will seem mild by comparison.”

Gillespie served as an expert reviewer for a report by the United Nations Environmental Program and partners, “Preventing future zoonotic disease outbreaks: Protecting the environment, animals and people in a post-COVID-19 world,” to be released July 6.

“The primary risks for future spillover of zoonotic diseases are deforestation of tropical environments and large-scale industrial farming of animals, specifically pigs and chickens at high density,” Gillespie says.

A disease ecologist, Gillespie studies how germs jump between wildlife, domesticated animals and people. Through this “One Health” approach, he aims to protect humans, ecosystems and biodiversity.

"We're all feeling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic," Gillespie says. "That's created a sense of urgency that we haven't seen with past discussions of climate change and land-use change."

While vaccine development is important, pathogens can leap from animals to humans much faster than scientists can develop vaccines and treatments. “We also need complementary approaches that focus on the environment,” Gillespie notes. “It’s far cheaper to invest in the prevention of infectious disease outbreaks than to deal with the consequences of a pandemic.”

Gillespie is contributing his “One Health” expertise to an upcoming United Nations forum on the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.

“The silos have broken down,” Gillespie says. “There is growing awareness that we don’t need a separate forum on climate change and another one for pandemics. Discussions about the environment and health should be integrated and not considered separately so that we can gain momentum. We really need to be sprinting right now. Climate change and the increase in pandemics are both signals that we have reached a tipping point.”

Genetic sequencing links the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 to horseshoe bats in China. The first detected outbreak sprang from a live animal market in Wuhan. Gillespie points out, however, that the coronavirus may have been circulating in remote, rural areas before it was detected in Wuhan, a city of 10 million where population density fueled rapid transmission.

He notes that no one has studied the ecological impacts of China’s Three Gorges Dam project. The world’s largest hydroelectric power station, it was built on the Yangtze River on what was previously a mix of secondary forest and agricultural land.

“Live animal markets are definitely dangerous places when it comes to spillover events,” Gillespie says, “but shutting all of them down won’t solve the bigger issue. The markets are just a small piece of a much bigger problem.”

Deforestation to make way for palm oil plantations, which changed the roosting habits of bats, was linked to a major Nipah virus outbreak in Malaysia. Evidence suggests that similar deforestation in West Africa for palm oil production may have played a role in outbreaks of Lassa fever and Ebola.

A meta-analysis by Gillespie and colleagues quantified how fragmentation of forests by agriculture facilitates the spread of pathogens from wildlife. Optimal rates of spillover occur once 40 percent of the forest cover disappears. “That opens a window where you’re going to see more germs jumping species,” Gillespie says. “And tropical environments are at primary risk for pathogen spillover due to simple mathematics — there is a much richer diversity of species living in the tropics than in other environments.”

In the developed world, and rapidly developing parts of the world, people are eating more animal protein and fried food than is recommended for human health. To meet the demand, corporations are clearing natural habitats for cattle ranches, for soybean fields to feed the cattle, and oil palm plantations for cooking oil.

Many species are endangered by these actions. Habitat loss, poaching and disease are the primary threats to the remaining great apes, Gillespie says. COVOID-19 poses a particularly dire situation for apes in danger of extinction, he adds, including bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. Due to genetic similarities, they are highly susceptible to human respiratory diseases. Gillespie serves as an adviser on great apes to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and has worked to develop IUCN guidelines during the pandemic to limit human contact with the animals while also protecting them from poachers. Gillespie and colleagues created the “Non-human Primate COVID-19 Information Hub” to serve as a real-time resource on the issue.

Current policies fail to factor in the costs of wholesale extraction of resources and the destruction of natural habitats, Gillespie warns. Nature will persist, he adds, even as biodiversity diminishes.

“Nature will push forward, evolution will happen, without regard to human suffering,” Gillespie says. “Meanwhile, we’re ignoring how dependent we are on nature and how fragile we are in the grand scheme of things.”

Gillespie starts off his undergraduate Conservation Biology class with a quiz. Among the questions: How many people are there on the planet? Has the world reached its human carrying capacity?

The last item on the quiz asks students to list 10 species that occur in Atlanta. “None of the students ever writes Homo Sapiens,” Gillespie says. “Many people don’t think of themselves as part of nature anymore. They have this artificial sense that we’re apart from it.”

The pandemic is shifting perspectives. “We’re all feeling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Gillespie says. “That’s created a sense of urgency that we haven’t seen with past discussions on climate change and land-use change. People are recognizing the linkages between our financial and agricultural systems, the environment and our health. It’s critical right now to make the message as understandable as possible to as many people as possible.”

Follow Thomas Gillespie on Twitter: @BiodiversHealth.

Related:
Great apes and COVID-19: Experts raise the alarm for endangered species
Spillover: Why germs jump species from animals to people
Bat ecology in the era of pandemics

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Emory-led consortium explores brain and behavior, across the tree of life

“Our consortium will create tools to study motor control in any species or behavior,” says Emory biologist Samuel Sober, co-director of the new consortium, funded by the Simons Foundation.

By Carol Clark

The Simons Foundation awarded scientists from Emory University and their collaborators $2.5 million to develop new tools to study how the brain controls behavior in vertebrates. Named the Simons-Emory International Consortium on Motor Control, the project brings together eight research groups from three countries that use cutting-edge techniques to explore connections between the firing of neurons and the movement of muscles. Their work spans a range of behaviors in an array of species, from songbirds and monkeys to rats and mice.

The consortium will kick off with a virtual symposium on Friday, June 26, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. EDT. Eight neuroscientists will each give a 10-minute talk about a not-yet-invented tool they wish they had today to transform the field. The speakers will include Chethan Pandarinath and Lena Ting (both from Emory and Georgia Tech), Amy Bastian (Kennedy Krieger Institute), Rui Costa (Columbia University), Amy Orsborn (University of Washington), Andrew Pruszynski (Western University) and Philip Sabes (from the University of California San Francisco and Neuralink). The talks will stream live on YouTube, and registrants from around the world can ask questions in real-time via an online chat feature.

The symposium’s theme reflects the ambitious goals of the consortium. “Often in neuroscience, labs are working on one species in relative isolation,” says Samuel Sober, director of the new consortium and an Emory associate professor of biology. “Our consortium is unique because our members are investigating not just different species but different motor skills, from how songbirds vocalize to how monkeys move their arms. And we’re working together to develop new methods and apply them to a really wide range of problems.”

Sober’s lab, for instance, developed technology for recording and analyzing how the precise timing of neurons firing controls vocal behavior in songbirds. “Our consortium will create tools to study motor control in any species or behavior,” Sober says. “We will provide a framework to allow researchers to reveal the mechanisms of motor agility across the tree of life.”

The Simons Foundation is a leading, private philanthropical organization dedicated to advancing research in basic science and mathematics.

Solving mysteries about how the brain and muscles of different animals work together may one day benefit humans dealing with neural system injuries, says Gordon Berman, co-director of the consortium and an Emory assistant professor of biology.

“Motion and movement are the basic building blocks of behavior,” he says. “I view the consortium’s work as a critical, early component to ultimately map what you’re thinking in your head to actually producing a movement. Such insights could help in the design of prosthetic limbs that move in response to a person’s thoughts or computer interfaces that assist people with spinal cord injuries.”

Berman’s research group uses tools from theoretical and computational biophysics to understand how changes in neural activity affect how animals move and vice versa.

“One thing I’m particularly interested in is how those patterns change over the course of learning a skill,” Berman says. “I play the piano. As I learn a new piece of music how does the code between my brain and my fingers change?”

Other members of the consortium include Chethan Pandarinath, assistant professor in Emory’s Department of Neurosurgery and in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory. His group is using sophisticated methods of artificial intelligence and machine learning to better understand how large networks of neurons in the brain encode information and control behavior.

A fourth consortium member from Emory is Ilya Nemenman, professor of physics, and a pioneer in developing algorithms for analyzing the information content of biological signals.

Additional members include Megan Carey (Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Portugal), Rui Costa (Columbia University), Abigail Person (University of Colorado, Denver) and Andrew Pruszynski (Western University in Canada).

“By sharing new tools, algorithms and ideas through research collaborations, group meetings and a joint post-doctoral training program, we will transform how neuroscientists explore motor behavior,” Sober says.

In addition to streaming live, the June 26 symposium, “The Inaugural Simons-Emory Workshop on Motor Control,” will be recorded and remain on YouTube for future reference. The symposium will be the third in a series of virtual events sponsored by the Emory College of Arts and Sciences’ Theory and Modeling in Living Systems initiative.

Related:
BRAIN grant to fund study of how the mind learns
Birdsong study reveals how brain uses timing during motor activity

Monday, June 15, 2020

Cleaning tips from a chemist who researches disinfectants

“I doubt that many people read the directions carefully on the cleaning products they use, but it’s important to do so,” says Emory chemist Bill Wuest, an expert in disinfectants.

By Carol Clark

Many household cleaners, once ubiquitous and taken for granted, are flying off store shelves faster than they are restocked, as people strive to keep surfaces free of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released a survey on consumer knowledge and practices for disinfecting coronavirus and found that 39 percent of the respondents had misused cleaning products.

“This pandemic has caused me to think more about the knowledge of cleaning protocols of the everyday person,” says Bill Wuest, an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University who studies disinfectants. “It’s important to communicate our research to the general public to generate clear messages.”

An active ingredient commonly seen in household cleaners, including some disinfectant sprays and liquids, and anti-bacterial sanitizing wipes and soaps, are quaternary ammonium compounds, or QACs.

One of the first QACs to enter the marketplace as a cleaning agent was benzalkonium chloride. Known as BAC for short, it was introduced in Lysol around the beginning of the 20th century, became widely adopted by the manufacturers of a range of cleaning products, and has remained a staple ever since.

In fact, if you read the labels of the cleaning supplies in your household, you will likely see benzalkonium chloride listed among the active ingredients on at least one of them, if not more. “There are basically four or five QACs, including BAC, that have been the workhouse disinfectants for around 100 years, on the frontline of most homes and hospitals,” Wuest says. “Very little has been done to change them around, because they work so well against many common bacteria, viruses, molds and fungi and they’re so simple and cheap to make.”

QACs are surfactants, or surface-acting agents, he explains. Their molecules have an ammonia atom at the center of two methyl stubs and two long carbon chains. In the simplest terms, the positively charged heads of the carbon chains are drawn to the negatively charged fatty membranes encasing many bacteria and viruses, including coronaviruses. The heads of the carbon chains act like spearpoints, breaking apart the fatty membranes and causing the pathogens to disintegrate.

The Wuest lab is a leader in studies of QACs. One issue Wuest and his colleagues have identified is the fact that a few bacteria strains are slowly developing some resistance to BAC. If that trend continues, it could cause serious problems years down the road for sanitation in hospitals. In the U.S. alone, at least 2.8 million people get antibiotic-resistant infections, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, leading to more than 35,000 deaths.

Research has frequently confirmed that QACs work against influenza viruses as well as bacterial strains and coronaviruses that have similar outer membranes as SARS-CoV-2.

Wuest offers the following tips for consumers.

Avoid “antibacterial” sanitizers and soaps 


BAC is the active ingredient in most “antibacterial” wipes, hand sanitizers and soaps. Wuest recommends choosing plain soap or plain alcohol-based sanitizers whenever possible, to avoid potentially contributing to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. While products containing BAC are convenient and practical, especially for cleaning large surfaces, plain soap and water also work well against coronaviruses and other common pathogens.

Follow instructions closely 


“I doubt that many people read the directions carefully on the cleaning products they use, but it’s important to do so,” Wuest says. He notes that some products state that, after application, the cleaning agent needs to stay on the surface being sanitized for several minutes before being wiped off.

Never mix cleaning agents 


Consumers should never try to mix cleaning agents to try to “improve” them, Wuest stresses. Bleach combined with ammonia, for example, generates toxic chloramine vapor, which will cause chemical burns to the eyes and lungs and can permanently damage the respiratory system. Even mixing bleach with the seemingly innocuous ingredient of household vinegar is dangerous, as that combination creates deadly chlorine gas.

“Never mix any cleaning product with another cleaning product,” he says. “It’s an extremely dangerous thing to do, as many of the ingredients are hazardous if not used as directed.”

Check latest CDC recommendations


For more guidance on cleaning in the era of COVID-19, Wuest points to a web page, Cleaning and Disinfection for Households, outlining current recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Related:
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Monday, June 1, 2020

First-year students' stories of a pandemic: Study seeks data to help them flourish

The data gathered from student stories "may help us to create interventions to support students who may be struggling as they navigate disruptive and stressful events," says Emory psychologist Robyn Fivush.

By Carol Clark

The Silent Generation grew up dealing with the Great Depression and World War II. Now the first-year college students of Generation Z are coming of age amid climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The whole world was opening up to students that started college last fall,” says Robyn Fivush, an Emory professor of psychology and director of the Institute for the Liberal Arts. “They reached the threshold of adulthood. And then the pandemic hit, pulling the rug out from under them. What does it mean for their dreams of research, of travel, of what they want to do with their lives? It creates an even more uncertain future at a point when they were just starting to home in on their passions and form their adult identities.”

Emory University is one of five universities across the country collaborating on a study focused on narratives written by first-year college students from last fall about their experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic. The longitudinal study will follow the students for a year or more to track their psychological well-being and academic performance. The goal of the study is to determine whether the self-narratives can predict better outcomes for the students, and to gather data for any interventions that may be needed to help students to have more rewarding and successful academic experiences.

Fivush, director of the Family Narratives Lab in Emory’s Department of Psychology, is a leader in the field of narrative identity — how we use stories to understand ourselves and to make sense of the world and our place within it. She launched the student narratives study in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Kansas, the University of Missouri, the University of Utah and Western Washington University.

“I’ve become particularly interested in college-age individuals because it’s such an important time in the formation of identity,” Fivush says. “Even though the majority of Americans do not go away to college, the ones that do are living away from home for the first time, learning time management, how to feed themselves, how to interact with peers and how to make their own decisions.”

The researchers are recruiting students from all five of the universities now for the study. They hope to enroll between 600 and 1,000 participants to write two detailed narratives. The first narrative asks them to describe an event that best captures the challenges they have faced as a result of COVID-19. The second narrative focuses on an event that best captures what they have learned about themselves as a result of COVID-19.

Participants will also fill out questionnaires at the start of the study, and at periodic intervals during the course of it. The questions cover the participants’ living situations and their physical health. They also aim at assessing the participants’ levels of anxiety, stress and depression, whether they are flourishing, and whether they are experiencing positive personal growth and making academic progress.

The hypothesis is that more coherent, positive narratives will be predictive of better mental health, more effective identity processing and better academic progress. “The data may help us create interventions to support students who may be struggling as they navigate disruptive and stressful events,” Fivush says.

Students from lower-income families and first-generation college attendees were already more at risk for not making it to graduation so the fallout from the pandemic may be especially difficult for them to navigate, Fivush says. “If we don’t get some really deep data about what they are experiencing and how they are making decisions we are not going to be able to help them to stay the course and graduate,” she says. “It’s vital to understand and support them. Education remains the single most important path to upward mobility and for resolving inequalities.”

The researchers launched the study with available funds as a year-long project, and they will release useful data as it becomes available. They are currently writing grants to secure funding to extend the study for longer.

Fivush has served in administrative roles at Emory designed to create more integrated and reflective experiences for undergraduates. “I really enjoy administrative work because it’s a chance to think strategically about education and what it is that we’re trying to accomplish,” she says. “Emory is well-situated in terms of its resources and its commitment to the undergraduate experience. We are teaching the change agents and the leaders of tomorrow. The role we play as educators is critical for the future of the world.”

Generation Z, or those born from around the mid-1990s to early 2010s, now make up the largest segment of the population and are the first true “digital natives” — those who have never known the world without the Internet.

“Every college student has a smart phone and is continuously flooded with information,” Fivush says. “That has broken down and fractured shared social narratives. It may give you more leeway to create your own story. On the other hand, it makes the world more complicated, more ambiguous and uncertain. And all of those things can make the identity journey more challenging.”

Related:
How family stories help children weather hard times
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