Friday, December 17, 2010

Beer, bugs and brains: Hot topics in 2010

It’s been a stellar year for the natural and social sciences at Emory. Beer, bugs, brains and rock climbing were popular themes, but advances in the quest for solar fuels and our understanding of the origins of life also ranked high. Here’s a roundup of the hottest topics on eScienceCommons during 2010.

Ancient brew masters tapped drug secrets: It appears that the art of making antibiotics, which officially dates to the discovery of penicillin in 1928, was common practice nearly 2,000 years ago. The drugs were in the beer. The story made news around the world, and will be the subject of an upcoming Discovery Channel documentary.

Another discovery that took the modern pharmaceutical industry down a notch: Monarch butterflies use drugs. Experiments show the insects can identify medicinal plants to cure themselves and their offspring of disease. The findings are the best evidence to date that animals self-medicate.

Brain trumps hand in Stone Age tool study: How did prehistoric toolmakers make the leap from simple flakes of rock to a sophisticated Acheulean hand axe? An area of the brain associated with language appears to be the key.

Physics theory wipes out: The “exceptionally simple theory of everything” proposed by a surfing physicist does not hold water, according to a rock climber who did the math. This complex story about a mysterious structure known as E8 caught the imagination of the social media world. Rock climbing may have been only incidental to the E8 story, but it is truly the sport of nerds. Check out this video explaining what it’s like to fall 40 feet down a sheer cliff face.

Tiny aphids hold big surprises: Pea aphids, expert survivors of the insect world, appear to lack major biological defenses, according to the first genetic analysis of their immune system. Aphids have evolved complex relationships with beneficial bacteria, and it’s possible that the weak immune response developed as a way to keep from killing off these microbes. Why should we care? Growing evidence shows that our hyper-clean society may be eliminating bacteria that the human immune system needs to fend off disease, from depression to cancer.

Midlife suicide rate rising: Baby boomers are driving a dramatic rise in suicides among middle-aged people. The reasons behind the disturbing findings are unclear, but statistics indicate that the upward pattern in midlife suicide is continuing. The research is cited in this New York Times article, "Boomers hit new self-absorption milestone: Age 65."

Babies do math: Even before they learn to speak, babies are organizing information about numbers, space and time in more complex ways than previously realized, a study finds. It’s almost like we’re born with a ruler in our heads.

Biology may not be so complex: A biophysicist identified parameters for several biochemical networks that distill the entire behavior of these systems into simple equivalent dynamics. The discovery may hold the potential to streamline the development of drugs and diagnostic tools.

The missing link to life? Chemists discovered that simple peptides can organize into bi-layer membranes. The finding suggests a “missing link” between the pre-biotic Earth’s chemical inventory and the organizational scaffolding essential to life. Technology is rapidly driving the search for the origins of life, including spectral surveys of small organic molecules in the “cool universe” of deep space.

The drive for solar fuel
: Chemists developed the most potent homogeneous catalyst known for water oxidation, a crucial component for generating clean hydrogen fuel using only water and sunlight. The goal is to imitate Mother Nature and create a water oxidation catalyst that will cheaply and efficiently perform artificial photosynthesis.

And, finally, we get back to bugs with the news that wasps nested with dinosaurs 75 million years ago. Wired Science named the discovery one of "The Year’s Best Fossil Finds.” An Emory discovery about a fish trace fossil was also featured in a New York Times article, "A bottom feeder leaves traces below."

Looking forward to bringing you lots more big stories in 2011, including a major announcement for math in January. Watch this space!

2010: A Science Odyssey

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Obama receives syn-bio ethics report

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues today released its "Report on the Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies." The report, available at, includes 18 recommendations for negotiating the risks and benefits of the emerging field of synthetic biology.

Here's a good summary of the panel's recommendation's on Andrew Revkin's Dot Earth.

Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, chairs the commission and James Wagner, president of Emory University, serves as vice chair. They were among a panel of 13 scientists, ethicists and public policy experts who studied the implications of synthetic biology, following the May 20 announcement by the J. Craig Venter Institute that it had inserted a laboratory-made genome into a bacterial cell, creating an organism not found in nature.

The panel held three public hearings during the past five months in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Atlanta. The commission heard from a range of experts and the lay public, as they considered possible actions government could take to prevent potential problems as synthetic biology continues to develop.

Synthetic cell: A step closer to 'recipe for life'
Entering the era of living machines
Fiction, facts and values of synthetic biology

Climate change, from the hooves up

Cattle call on climate change: East Africa faces a stark reality of higher temperatures and decreasing rainfall. Photo by Dana Hoag.

In East Africa, pundits aren’t debating whether climate change is real. Temperature has already increased and precipitation has decreased in some parts of the region, where many people depend heavily on rain-fed agriculture for survival. Even slight variability in climate affects rural livelihoods in dry areas of Ethiopia and Kenya, in densely populated communities already faced with widespread poverty and limited supplies of food, water and livestock forage.

A new project is looking at the issue of climate change in East Africa from the hooves up. Known as CHAINS, the project is focused on how climate variability, animal diseases, natural resource management and land use are influencing livestock commodity chains in semi-arid and arid regions of Ethiopia and Kenya.

While previous research has focused on brokers, traders and export firms that are higher up in the economic chain, the new project is looking at the pastoralists who are actually producing the livestock that support these systems, says Emory anthropologist Peter Little.
Maasai people in Kenya rely heavily on cattle for their livelihoods. Photo by Dana Hoag.

“It seems likely that uncertainty over extreme climatic events, especially their frequency and intensity, and their effects on human and animal welfare, markets, animal disease and conflict will continue in the region and even worsen during the next decade and beyond,” Little says.

Emory researchers will work with scientists from Pwani University College in Kenya, Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia and the International Livestock Research Institute. They will interview pastoralists and others involved in the livestock chain, from production to final sale. The aim is to collect information to help communities manage risks and improve their livelihoods amid the forces of climate change.

The first CHAINS site centers on northeastern Kenya, where disease and drought are exacerbating land-use conflicts and disrupting cattle movements and trade. The second site is located in the Boran plateau of southern Ethiopia, where it is unclear if small-scale producers of goats, cattle and camels are benefiting from a growing export trade. In addition, large-scale commercial farming operations, drought and disputes over territorial boundaries and wells are undermining indigenous pastoral systems.

CHAINS builds on previous work that Little and his collaborators have done in East Africa on livestock markets and climate change adaptation. Other researchers in the project include Steve Stahl from the International Livestock Research Institute; Workneh Negatu from Addis Ababa Univeristy; Hussein Mahmoud from Pwani University College; Andy Catley from Tufts University; Polly Ericksen from the Livestock Research Institute; and Uriel Kitron and Carla Roncoli, both with Emory.

CHAINS is funded through the Livestock-Climate Change Collaborative Research Program, established through a U.S. AID grant to Colorado State University’s Animal Population Health Institute and the university’s Institute for Livestock and the Environment.

Blazing a new path for development work
Somalia, pirates and global food relief

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Is TRON's 'futuristic' world outdated?

The original “TRON” movie came out in the 1980s, during the heyday of arcade video games like “Pac-Man” and “Space Invaders.” The ground-breaking technological movie, about a hacker actually entering a computer-generated universe, was a huge hit.

“When that film came out, it was considered beyond mind blowing,” says Emory physicist Sidney Perkowitz, who compares the impact of “TRON” to “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

“People really grabbed onto the idea of being sucked into a digital world, but now we take that a little more for granted,” Perkowitz says. “Many of us are in a digital world, not exactly in the form of bytes running through a computer, but we have social networking, we have game consoles that can almost read our minds.”

Jeff Bridges, the star of the original “TRON” returns in “TRON: Legacy,” opening this weekend. The special effects are better, but has the idea of entering a digital universe become old hat?

One of the most outdated aspects of the original “TRON” is the SHIVA laser, used to “disassemble” Bridges so that he could be projected into a computer. “That seems a little extreme now,” Perkowitz says. “We all now live in a digital world, and we all know how to recreate our personalities and upload them into a digital world.”

'Unstoppable' physics
Is 'Iron Man' suited for reality?

Friday, December 10, 2010

The math of your heart

The science of cardiovascular mathematics dates at least to the 1700s, when the pioneering Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler developed a model for fluid dynamics while studying blood flow in arteries. “The love between math and medicine goes back a long time,” says Emory mathematician Alessandro Veneziani. But it was not until the past decade or so, he adds, that advances in computing and diagnostic imaging put fluid dynamics at the cutting edge of medicine.

“My dream is that medical simulation will become part of the daily routine of medical doctors,” he says.
When it comes to analyzing blood flow problems, you can't beat math. Photo by Carol Clark.

Veneziani’s lab uses math and computer simulations to investigate blood dynamics, and support physicians in the diagnosis and treatment of cardiovascular diseases. “Blood flow problems are really difficult, so we need sophisticated mathematics to solve them,” Veneziani says. “Like weather forecasting, which is also based on mathematical models of fluid dynamics, we are creating models to forecast outcomes for patients.”

His research has helped improve the odds for babies with a heart defect known as left-ventricle hypoplasia. Through computer simulation, surgeons can now predict the optimal size and placement of the artificial aorta needed to keep a newborn alive while awaiting a heart transplant.

A recent grant from the Brain Aneurysm Foundation is supporting Veneziani’s research into the tears in neural blood vessels that create balloon-like bulges. Using complex equations to predict the likelihood of rupture in aneurysms could help doctors determine whether to operate, or forego the risky surgery and simply monitor the patient.
Emory bioengineer Marina Piccinelli develops software to turn medical images into geometric models.

The mathematical engineers in Veneziani’s lab work closely with physicians in the Emory School of Medicine and other institutions to develop the cardiovascular models. Some of the problems they are working on include bicuspid aortic valve defects in newborns, atherosclerosis and ventricular dissynchrony.

The process begins with differential equations to describe the blood dynamics. Medical images from individual patients are then pixelated into geometric representations. Finally, computer software is used to simulate the flood flow, and all of the data is merged.

“Now we are providing the medical doctors not just an image, the situation at a given instant, but a dynamical image, including the simulation of blood inside,” Veneziani says. “We can compute the stress of the blood on an arterial wall and a lot of relative indexes for providing the medical doctors with a better picture of the situation.”

The image processing software used in the process, the Vascular Modeling ToolKit (VMTK), was developed by the M. Negri Institute in Bergamo, Italy, and Emory. The simulation software, LifeV, was developed by the EPFL (the Ecole Polytechnique Federale of Lausanne, Switzerland), the Politecnico di Milano in Italy and Emory.

Both VMTK and LifeV are open-source, available free for download from the Internet. “We want other researchers to use the software to solve blood flow problems, and to give us feedback, so we can keep refining and improving the code,” Veneziani says.

The math of rock climbing
The math of card tricks, games and gambling

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Are depressed people too clean?

Rates of depression have steadily grown, and researchers think one cause may be the loss of healthy bacteria in today's cleaner, modern society.

In an article published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, Emory neuroscientist Charles Raison and colleagues reviewed the mounting evidence that disruptions in ancient relationships with microorganisms in soil, food and the gut may contribute to the increasing rates of depression.

According to the "hygiene hypothesis," the modern world has become so clean, we are deprived of the bacteria our immune systems came to rely on over long ages to keep inflammation at bay.

“We have known for a long time that people with depression, even those who are not sick, have higher levels of inflammation,” Raison explains. “Since ancient times benign microorganisms, sometimes referred to as ‘old friends,’ have taught the immune system how to tolerate other harmless microorganisms, and in the process, reduce inflammatory responses that have been linked to the development of most modern illnesses, from cancer to depression.”

Experiments are currently being conducted to test the efficacy of treatments that use properties of these “old friends” to improve emotional tolerance. “If the exposure to administration of the ‘old friends’ improves depression,” the authors conclude, “the important question of whether we should encourage measured re-exposure to benign environmental microorganisms will not be far behind.”

What aphids can teach us about immunity
The quest for inner peace and happiness

Monday, December 6, 2010

The holidays and the 'happiness paradox'

The Washington Post writes about the "happiness paradox," based on a recent Emory conference on the topic:

Before you rush off to the mall or join the office holiday party, some A-list religious leaders want you to know one thing: The happiness derived from tearing open a coveted gift or downing a tasty beverage will fade before the final stanza of "Auld Lang Syne." And all you'll be left with in the New Year is an empty wallet and a hangover.

In fact, the consumer-driven culture whose engine revs this time of year is probably "the most efficient system yet devised for the manufacture and distribution of unhappiness," says Lord Jonathan Sacks, Britain's chief rabbi.

So, if iPods and eggnog won't do the trick, what will make us happy?

Sacks was one of four prominent religious leaders invited by Emory University in Atlanta this year to answer that eternal question. "The Pursuit of Happiness Conference," organized by Emory's Center for the Study of Law and Religion, also included the Dalai Lama, Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a noted Muslim scholar at George Washington University.

In a nutshell, their common advice might be dubbed the "happiness paradox": the more you give, the happier you get. In that way, Sacks said, spiritual happiness is the "greatest source of renewable energy we have."

"If I have a certain amount of money and I give some to you, I have less," Sacks said. "But if I have a certain amount of friendship or love or trust and I give it to you, I don't have less, I have more."

Read the whole Washington Post article

Are hugs the new drugs?
Ditch the guilt and be happy

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Wilderness trail leads to Emory stories

Life is like a Cliff shuttle: It tends to go full circle. Kim Urquhart's vacation took her back to her college years as an adventure guide in New Mexico, and around to her current role as editor of Emory Report.

By Carol Clark

During her college years, Emory Report editor Kim Urquhart spent her summers working at the Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico. A high-country wilderness spread over more than 200-square-miles, Philmont is rich in wildlife and history.

“Philmont is like Mecca for Boy Scouts,’” Urquhart says. “It was the ultimate summer job.”

Urquhart worked as a photographer, as a mountain-bike instructor at a backcountry camp, and as a guide to the petroglyphs and archeological sites of the ancient Pueblo people who inhabited the area as far back as 1200 BC.

One fall, she extended her stay to work as an Autumn Adventure guide. The Autumn Adventure program allows all-adult groups to experience Philmont, which is normally geared to teenaged Scouts.
A feisty Western hognose snake greets hikers on a Philmont trail. Photo by Kim Urquhart.

Urquhart recalls that her most memorable time was leading an all-woman crew, the mothers of Cub Scouts from Norman, Oklahoma, on a backpacking trip. Something about being out in the wilderness forges bonds with people, she says. “You’re experiencing all this beauty with people of different ages and interests, but you all share this love of the place.”

The group of women kept returning each year. They stayed in touch with Urquhart, and this fall, they asked if she would join them for the 15th anniversary of their Philmont adventures. So in late September, Urquhart spent her vacation with the women in her old stomping grounds: Philmont’s North Ponil Canyon.

She didn’t exactly get away from it all, however: The group was guided by Allison Vinson, who graduated from Emory in May with a degree in environmental studies.
Allison Vinson puts her environmental studies degree to good use as a wilderness guide. Photo by Kim Urquhart.

“I couldn’t help myself,” Urquhart says, explaining why she worked on a multi-media slide show of Vinson during her vacation (see below). “It was fun to find an Emory connection in this remote canyon.”

Vinson comes from a long line of Emory alumni, and counts environmental studies’ Lance Gunderson and Oxford College sociologist Mike McQuaide among her most influential teachers.

“Coming to Philmont was good for me right after graduation, because I’m able to use what I learned in college,” Vinson says. “My goal is to educate people about conservation through hands-on learning.”

In addition to guiding, Vinson has worked as an invasive species specialist at Philmont, and wrote a chapter in the Philmont field guide to flora and fauna.

Despite all the time she had spent in Philmont, Urquhart learned a lot of new things thanks to Vinson. “She talked about how in an Emory botany class she started a field notebook that she wrote in almost every day,” Urquhart says. “She had it with her and still uses it.”

Fire ecology was another topic Vinson knew well. “Fires had burned through where we hiked, changing the face of the canyon,” Urquhart says. “I’d go to a secret spot that I remembered, and it would be gone.”

In transit between Philmont and Atlanta, Urquhart had dinner in a Santa Fe restaurant. One of the eccentric locals started telling her about his home: A bus that he bought through a surplus sale and parked in the desert nearby.

“He showed me a picture on his cell phone, and it was a Cliff shuttle!” Urquhart says.

The man explained that he couldn’t drive the former shuttle bus because it runs on natural gas, and there are no local sources. But sometimes he pretends he’s going somewhere by flipping the signs from “Haygood Drive” to “Clifton Road.”

And with that irresistible Emory story, Urquhart’s vacation became a true busman’s holiday.

Alumnus support new science building
Insider's guide to Georgia barrier islands
Going off the grid for Spring break
A policy of 'no child left inside'