Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Great apes and COVID-19: Experts raise the alarm for endangered species

A mountain gorilla in the wild. Endangered great apes are susceptible to human respiratory diseases, warns Emory disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie.

By Carol Clark

Primate experts warn that the global human health emergency of COVID-19 also threatens our closest living relatives — endangered great apes.

Nature published their commentary raising the alarm that non-human great apes are susceptible to human respiratory diseases. The 25 authors call for urgent discussions on the need to severely limit human interaction with great apes in the wild, and in sanctuaries and zoos, until the risk of COVID-19 subsides.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a critical situation for humans, our health and our economies,” says Thomas Gillespie, a disease ecologist at Emory University, and a lead author of the commentary. “It’s also a potentially dire situation for great apes. There is a lot at stake for those in danger of extinction.”

Some countries have already suspended great ape tourism, and others with ape tourism and field research need to seriously consider following suit, the authors write. They add that the same applies to sanctuaries and zoos where great apes and humans are in closer contact.

While great ape tourism will inevitably plummet due to the pandemic, all it takes is one infected visitor to spark catastrophe, the experts warn.

The non-human great apes include chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas, which live in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, and orangutans, which are native to the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists chimpanzees and bonobos as endangered species, while gorillas and orangutans are critically endangered.

Habitat loss, poaching and disease are the primary threats to the remaining great apes.

Even exposure to viruses that have mild effects in people, such as those causing the common cold, have been associated with mortality events in wild primates. Because the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is fatal for some humans, experts fear it could potentially prove devastating to great apes. Evidence suggests COVID-19 may be transmitted by people who have only mild symptoms, and perhaps even those who are asymptomatic.

“People who are younger, who may be less at risk for severe illness from COVID-19, are the ones who are more apt to be hiking into the national parks of Africa and Asia to see great apes in the wild,” Gillespie says. “It would be extremely difficult to monitor whether they were infected with COVID-19 since they may not have obvious symptoms.”

Great ape tourism has contributed to conservation in many positive ways, providing an economic incentive for governments and individuals to support their protection. Donors are needed to help shore up marginal economies facing the loss of tourism dollars and to continue to protect the health of people and the great apes in the wild, Gillespie says.

Tourism has habituated wild great apes to not fear humans, he adds. Without staff to patrol and protect them, the animals would become even more vulnerable to poachers.

“Essential staff needs to remain in place,” Gillespie says. “But we need to make sure that staff numbers are low and that they are engaged in proper processes to protect themselves, and the apes, from exposure to COVID-19.”

Gillespie studies how germs jump between wild animals, domesticated animals and people. Through this “One Health” approach, he aims to protect humans, ecosystems and biodiversity. As a member of the IUCN, Gillespie helped develop the organization’s “Best Practice Guidelines for Health Monitoring and Disease Control in Great Ape Populations.” In 2017, Gillespie co-authored a landmark report detailing that 60 percent of the more than 500 primate species worldwide are threatened with extinction, while 75 percent have declining populations.

Fabian Leendertz, from the Robert Koch-Institute, Germany, is co-lead author of the Nature commentary. Additional authors include experts involved in primate research, conservation and policymaking from around the world.

“As professionals working with great apes,” the authors conclude, “we bear a responsibility to protect them from our pathogens. We hope for the best but should prepare for the worst and critically consider the impact of our activities on these endangered species.”

Spillover: Why germs jump species from animals to humans
Experts warn of impending extinction of many of the world's primates

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Dealing with disruption: Tips from an academic scientist

Emory chemist Jennifer Heemstra (@JenHeemstra) will moderate a Twitter chat, #COVIDisruption, on Wednesday, March 25  from 3 to 4 pm. The chat is one of a series organized by Chemical and Engineering News Magazine on topics of interest involving academia and the pandemic. (Photo by Kay Hinton)

By Carol Clark

Efforts to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic have caused K-12 schools to shutter, driven universities from on-campus to remote learning, and forced laboratory scientists doing research that is not immediately critical to saving lives to stop experiments and close their facilities.

Jennifer Heemstra, associate professor of chemistry at Emory University, is working to adapt to many new realities, like people across the Emory community and around the globe. By March 18, she had shut down her lab, which is run by a team of 16 students and post-doctoral fellows. Their many projects included synthesizing molecules as tools for diagnostics, gene therapy and drug delivery. When the lab doors shut, other doors opened onto new challenges for everyone involved.

Heemstra, who is also a spouse and parent of two young children, Tweeted: “Waking up and realizing I have two new job titles: Professor at an online university and first- and sixth-grade homeschool teacher.”

“It’s been really challenging,” Heemstra admits by phone, more than a week later. “It’s fun to spend more time together as a family, but I’m not a natural work-life integrator. I enjoy intense days at work and then coming home to be a mom. But blending work with the rhythm of family life is more difficult than I expected.”

It’s this kind of frankness that has earned Heemstra more than 48,000 followers on her lively Twitter feed (@jenheemstra). While her career is thriving, Heemstra is no stranger to academic disruptions and disappointments. She draws from her own experiences to encourage others to learn and grow from setbacks.

Heemstra writes a column for Chemical and Engineering News Magazine, a leading trade publication, called “Office Hours.” It covers topics like the importance of human relationships to science and how to create a supportive environment in a research lab.

“As scientists, we are trained to do research,” Heemstra says. “But there are many other things involved in managing a lab, like leading and motivating teams of people. Apparently, there was a gap that needed to be filled for chemists talking about the ‘people’ part of doing science.”

On Wednesday, March 25, Heemstra will moderate a Chemical and Engineering News Magazine Twitter chat, #COVIDisruption, from 3 to 4 pm ET, focusing on the impact on faculty. The chat is part of a #COVIDisruption series by the magazine (@cenmag), running at the same time each day from March 24 to March 27. Different moderators will take questions on topics of interest involving the pandemic and academia, such as the impact on employment, the switch to online teaching and graduate student mental health.

“This pandemic may be one of the biggest challenges many of us face in our careers and our lives,” Heemstra says. “One of the toughest parts of it right now is the uncertainty of the situation.” 

Heemstra invites anyone seeking community to join in the Twitter chat on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, here are a few coping strategies she recommends.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s important to reach out to family, friends and colleagues when you need it, and to tap any institutional resources at your disposal. Emory, for example, has a web site listing support services for the well-being of students, faculty and staff. “Dealing with the impact of COVID-19 is not easy for anyone, but I’m so thankful in this moment to be a faculty member at Emory,” Heemstra says.

Acknowledge the loss. Even though we’re in a global crisis, it’s normal to feel badly about how it’s impacting you personally. “It’s okay to let yourself mourn the loss of the experiences you thought you were going to have,” Heemstra says, whether you’re a senior who will not get to walk across a stage for commencement or a PhD candidate having to defend a thesis virtually.

Find some higher purpose. Missing out on lab research, or other experiences you had planned, means you’re helping to reduce infection rates by staying home. “That a huge purpose,” Heemstra says. “Look for opportunities to help others however you are able.”

Cultivate community. “During Zoom calls with team members and collaborators we spend a good amount of time listening to everyone’s stories about how we’re coping,” Heemstra says. “That’s been unbelievably therapeutic. Hopefully, one thing everyone can gain from this experience is going beyond texts and emails to having more real conversations.” If you’re feeling isolated, consider joining one of the many online social groups popping up, everything from virtual book clubs to Twitter’s #COVIDCafe, where researchers from around the world gather in small groups to chat about how the pandemic is affecting them.

Practice gratitude. Be thankful for the healthcare workers on the frontlines of the pandemic, and all the other people providing essential services, from cashiers to police officers. Learn to appreciate small things, like the chance to take a walk on a beautiful spring day. “When you’re going through a difficult situation, you realize that so much of what you put your energy into is just noise,” Heemstra says. “This crisis may be a chance to think about what really matters and to learn to focus on that.”

'Bilingual' molecule connects codes for life

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Getting back to chemistry basics: How simple soap saves lives

"Even now, I don't think most people spend a full 20 seconds washing their hands," says Emory chemist Bill Wuest, who researches disinfectants. "But maybe if they understood the chemistry of soap and water it would make them more conscious of the need to do so." 

By Carol Clark

Scientists are rushing to find effective treatments and vaccines for the COVID-19 infections sweeping the globe. Meanwhile, social distancing and hygiene are the best defense.

Emory University chemist Bill Wuest — who researches disinfectants — recently appeared on The Weather Channel to explain how washing your hands with plain soap and water can destroy the coronavirus that causes the infections, to help minimize its spread.

“There are so many unknowns about this pandemic that are driving fear and leading to irrational actions, like panic buying of toilet paper,” Wuest says. “It’s important to focus on what we do know — washing your hands properly and often with soap and water can help reduce your chances of getting infected with many pathogens and for spreading them to others.”

Soap and water work through the hydrophobic effect, a basic chemistry concept that explains why oil and water don’t mix. The effect drives protein folding, a process that alters the structures of amino acids and allows them to perform different functions within a cell.

“I usually use the example of protein folding to teach the hydrophobic effect to chemistry undergraduates,” Wuest says. “But now I realize that soap provides a much more relatable example.”

Soap molecules have hydrophilic heads — meaning they cling to water molecules — and tails that are hydrophobic — which means “water-fearing.” When immersed in water, the soap molecules form into tiny balls, called micelles, with their hydrophobic tails pointed inwards. While the soap molecule tails want to avoid water, they are attracted to oils and fats.

Many bacteria and viruses, including coronaviruses, are encased in a fatty acid membrane. In the most simplistic terms, the soap molecule tails poke into these bilayer membranes, breaking them apart, and destroying the pathogens.

Wuest urges people to choose plain soaps and hand sanitizers that do not contain antibacterial ingredients. 

Warmer temperatures boost the hydrophobic effect, and may help hand soap to lather and remove grime or microbes sticking to your skin, just as hot water and soap helps remove grease from a kitchen pan. Wuest recommends lathering your hands in water that’s warm to the touch. Evidence suggests it’s best to spend at least 20 seconds washing your hands to remove more germs, he adds. 

Wuest plans to use the soap and water example in his Chem 202 classroom from now on. Emory’s Chemistry Unbound curriculum is designed to give undergraduates context for real-world problems and solutions. Although washing with soap and water may sound too basic a topic for college students, Wuest now realizes that it is not.

“This pandemic has changed the way I think about teaching,” he says. “Even now, I don’t think most people spend a full 20 seconds washing their hands, but maybe if they understood the chemistry of soap and water it would make them more conscious of the need to do so.”

Hand washing is important to reduce illnesses and deaths for many diseases, including seasonal influenza, he notes.

If soap and water is not available, hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol is also effective at breaking up the membranes surrounding coronaviruses and bacteria. It should be rubbed thoroughly into the hands until all the liquid evaporates, Wuest says.

Wuest is a Georgia Research Alliance Distinguished Investigator and associate professor in Emory’s Department of Chemistry. He is also a member of the Emory Antibiotic Resistance Center.

For everyday use in a non-medical setting, Wuest urges people to choose soaps and hand sanitizers that do not contain antibacterial ingredients. Proper use of plain soap and water or an alcohol-based sanitizer product is key, he stresses.

“I worry that there could be a spike in antibacterial resistance in a few years if too many people start using antibacterial products to clean their hands,” he says.

Chemists teach old drug new tricks to target deadly staph bacteria

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

A peek into the minds babies are born with

Understanding how an infant's brain is typically organized may help answer questions when something goes awry. (Photo by Cory Inman)

Within hours of birth, a baby’s gaze is drawn to faces. Now, brain scans of newborns reveal the neurobiology underlying this behavior, showing that as young as six days a baby’s brain appears hardwired for the specialized tasks of seeing faces and seeing places.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published the findings by psychologists at Emory University. Their work provides an early peek into the visual cortex of newborns, using harmless functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

“We’re investigating a fundamental question of where knowledge comes from by homing in on ‘nature versus nature,’” says Daniel Dilks, associate professor of psychology, and senior author of the study. “What do we come into the world with and what do we gain by experience?”

Read the full story here.

How babies see faces: New fMRI methods open window into infants' minds
Babies have logical reasoning before age one, study finds

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

New DNA origami motor breaks speed record for nano machines

Through a technique known as DNA origami, scientists have created the fastest, most persistent DNA nano motor yet. Angewandte Chemie published the findings, which provide a blueprint for how to optimize the design of motors at the nanoscale — hundreds of times smaller than the typical human cell.

“Nanoscale motors have tremendous potential for applications in biosensing, in building synthetic cells and also for molecular robotics,” says Khalid Salaita, a senior author of the paper and a professor of chemistry at Emory University. “DNA origami allowed us to tinker with the structure of the motor and tease out the design parameters that control its properties.”

The new DNA motor is rod-shaped and uses RNA fuel to roll persistently in a straight line, without human intervention, at speeds up to 100 nanometers per minute. That’s up to 10 times faster than previous DNA motors.

Read the full story here.

DNA origami takes flight in emerging field of nano machines
Nano machines take speedy leap forward with first rolling DNA-based motor

Monday, March 2, 2020

Atlanta Science Festival creates a climate for discovery

The festival opens with an immersive, theatrical event on Friday, March 6, called "2100: A Climate Odyssey," which will propel audience members 80 years into the future.

By Carol Clark

The Atlanta Science Festival will take the city by storm March 6-21 as science-themed activities pop up throughout the metro area, starting with the launch extravaganza — “2100: A Climate Odyssey.” 

Atlanta’s Out of Hand Theater and the Weather Channel collaborated to produce “2100: A Climate Odyssey,” set at Ferst Center for the Arts at 8 pm on Friday, March 6. Tickets are $20 online, or $10 if you use the coupon code “HALF.” This immersive, theatrical event will propel audience members 80 years into the future, to explore the possible effects of a changing climate.

“The premise of the event is that, in the year 2100, we have gathered for the largest mass teleportation in North American history, to visit places impacted by climate change,” says Ariel Fristoe, founder and artistic director of Out of Hand Theater.

A torrential rainstorm hits Midtown Atlanta, right outside the auditorium. Broadcasts from actual Weather Channel personalities will make the storm seem like a real event. More broadcasts will take the audience around the world and from the future, covering ways that life may be different. The broadcasts will include commercials for products spurred by a changing environment. (Bug chips, anyone?)

“The production is based on science, but it’s also entertainment, aimed at ages 10 and up,” Fristoe says. “It will include a lot of humor and at the end, we’ll have a question and answer session with real scientists. It’s going to leave people feeling empowered. We’re going to talk about things everyone can do now to prepare for the possible effects of climate change and actions you can take to mitigate those effects.”

Fristoe is an Emory graduate who teaches arts administration at Emory. She is also the daughter of Vincent Murphy, the former long-time artistic director of Theater Emory. “My great joy is I get to use my skill as a theater artist to work on causes that I care about, and to get other people to care about them as well,” she says.

Science enthusiasts of all ages are mesmerized by the interactive exhibits of the annual Physics Live! The Emory event will take place on Friday, March 20 this year.

Founded by Emory, Georgia Tech and the Metro Atlanta Chamber, the first Atlanta Science Festival was held in 2014.

“This year we have nearly 140 events — up from 100 events our first year — at venues throughout the metro area,” says Meisa Salaita, executive co-director of the festival. “As more people experience the festival, more people want to contribute and to become part of it, so we just keep growing.”

Two perennial festival favorites — Chemistry Carnival and Physics Live! — return this year to the Emory campus on Friday, March 20, from 3:30 to 7 pm. Emory science faculty and students will explain their research, give lab tours, and entertain with games like Peptide Jenga, a change to play with giant soap bubbles and tastings of liquid nitrogen ice cream. Hundreds of visitors are expected to turn out for the events, held in the Mathematics and Science Center and Atwood Chemistry Center. 

“Garden Detox,” on Saturday, March 14, from 3 to 5 pm at Historic Westside Gardens, features a team from Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences. You can bring a soil sample from your yard in a Ziploc bag and the scientists will test it for contamination from heavy metals. Learn about potential risks and simple ways to clean your soil if you’re planning to start a garden.

“Queer Scientists Panel” is a new event this year, on Wednesday, March 18 at 7 pm at Waller’s Coffee Shop. Emory’s Center for Selective C-H Functionalization is sponsoring this event, which will celebrate the contributions of LGBTQ scientists.

Oxford College and Emory’s Center for the Study of Human Health are sponsoring “Comic Strip Science” on March 18 at 7 pm at the Carter Presidential Library. Scientist and artist Garfield T. Kwan will talk about how his Squidtoons comics walk the line between scientific accuracy and visual appeal. Kwan will also be featured at the Oxford campus on Friday, March 20 at 2 pm in an event called “Discovering Science through Art.”

Emory chemists draw crowds every year for the "Ping Pong Big Bang" at the "Exploration Expo," the festival's culminating event, set for March 21.

“Become an Archaeologist” returns this year, allowing kids to join Emory experts to learn how to extract DNA and put ancient objects and skeletons back together like a puzzle. The event will be held Thursday, March 19 from 6 to 8 pm at Brownwood park Pavilion in East Atlanta Village.

“Health Hacks Coding Workshop” will feature Emory mentors to spark inspiration for participants who want to immerse themselves into the foundations of coding in ways that can improve health. No coding experience is required for this event, on Friday, March 20 from 4 to 7 pm in Emory’s Psychology Building, room 230. Click here to see more events with an Emory connection.

The festival culminates on Saturday, March 21, with the Exploration Expo at Piedmont Park — a day-long, free carnival of science with hundreds of hands-on activities. More than a dozen booths will feature Emory faculty and students who will engage crowds in activities like testing the air quality in the park that day, learning how vaccines protect against pathogens and the Ping Pong Big Bang.

Special funding from Delta Airlines, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, Emory and others has helped the Atlanta Science Festival extend its programming and events year-round under an umbrella non-profit organization Science ATL. In addition to the annual festival, the organization produces a Chief Science Officers leadership program for middle and high school students, a science communication fellowship for college students, a 5K Race Through Space and many other educational science opportunities. Learn more at

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Spillover: Why germs jump species from animals to people

"Whenever you have novel interactions with a diverse range of species in one place you can have a spillover event," says Thomas Gillespie, an Emory disease ecologist.

When a disease spreads from one species to another it is known as a “spillover event.” Although not yet confirmed, preliminary evidence suggests that the virus that causes COVID-19, the 2019 coronavirus disease, may have originated in horseshoe bats in China. It may have spread to another species which in turn infected humans at a Wuhan live animal market, or “wet market.”

Thomas Gillespie, associate professor in Emory University’s Department of Environmental Sciences, and Rollins School of Public Health, is a disease ecologist who studies how germs jump between wild animals, domesticated animals and people. Through this “One Health” approach, he aims to protect humans, ecosystems and biodiversity.

Most of Gillespie’s research is focused in Africa and Latin America where his team is characterizing the diversity of new viruses and other pathogens in tropical forests. In the following interview, Gillespie explains how shrinking natural habitats and changing human and animal behaviors can add to the risks of spillover events.

Bats are linked to outbreaks of Hendra, Marburg and Nipah viruses, the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa in 2014 and the SARS virus outbreak in China in 2002. Why do bats keep cropping up as prime suspects? 

One quarter of mammal species overall are bats. And in tropical systems, bats make up 50 percent of the mammalian diversity. Most bats feed on insects or fruit, but there’s a huge range of bat behaviors. There are bats that eat other bats, bats that eat fish and bats that drink blood. We are still discovering new species of bats. And each of these myriad bat species carries a suite of different pathogens. Bats are able to host different viruses without getting sick.

So bats, and the pathogens that bats carry, are numerous. And bats and humans are both mammals. This relatedness means we’re more likely to get a pathogen from a bat than from a cricket, for instance.

Some evidence suggests the virus that causes COVID-19 may have originated in horseshoe bats. (Getty Images)

Why are wet markets hot spots for disease spillover? 

Wet markets bring together a really broad range of animal species from different parts of the world. These animals are not eating what they would normally eat in the wild. They are stressed, which lowers their immunity and makes them more susceptible to pathogens. They are kept in cages where they are defecating on one another and, perhaps, through the cages onto other species of animals. They are also being butchered at the markets. Cutting up an animal and getting its blood on you is a good way to get a pathogen. All these factors make wet markets a perfect storm for cross-species transmission.

Whenever you have novel interactions with a diverse range of species in one place — whether that’s in a natural environment like a tropical forest or in an artificially created environment like a wet market — you can have a spillover event.

How are land use changes driving spillover? 

Major landscape changes are causing wildlife to lose habitats, which means more species may become crowded together while also coming into closer contact with humans. We see this in the United States, where suburbs fragmenting forests raise the risk of humans catching Lyme disease. Altering the ecosystem affects the complex cycle of the Lyme pathogen, which involves ticks, mice and deer. And people living close by are more likely to get bitten by a tick carrying Lyme bacteria. 

Logging and subsistence agriculture in Africa are reducing habitat for wild primates. They have less forest to forage in. That can make them unhealthy and more susceptible to disease. And it may drive them to risk encounters with humans, raising risks of the exchange of pathogens. In Uganda, for instance, crop raiding by red-tailed guenon monkeys led farmers to put cattle feces on their corn to make it less attractive to the monkeys.

And everyone is talking about the problem of the wet market in Wuhan, but what about the effects of the nearby Three Gorges Dam project? It is the world’s largest hydroelectric power station, built on the Yangtze River in an area that was previously a mix of secondary forest and agricultural land. Many of the animals that used to live in that area likely died when their habitat was destroyed, but bats can fly. Where did they go? How did they adapt?

How does your research address these kinds of problems? 

Most people don’t realize that we haven’t yet catalogued the full diversity of life, everything from viruses to mammals. At the same time, we need to understand more about how changing landscapes and novel interactions between humans and other species influence spillover. Why has one pathogen jumped across species while another one hasn’t? It’s important to gather data so we can use it to identify potential hot spots and risky behaviors. That may help us reduce the number of major spillover events, saving lives and preventing enormous economic losses.

Ebola's backstory: How germs jump species
Ecosystems hanging by a thread
Experts warn of pending extinction of many of the world's primates
In Madagascar, a health crisis of people and their ecosystem

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

New synthesis methods enhance 3D chemical space for drug discovery

Graphic shows the dirhodium catalyst developed used to synthesize a 3D scaffold of keen interest to the pharmaceutical industry. The Davies lab has published a series of major papers on dirhodium catalysts that selectively funcitonalized C-H bonds in a streamlined manner.

By Carol Clark

After helping develop a new approach for organic synthesis — carbon-hydrogen functionalization — scientists at Emory University are now showing how this approach may apply to drug discovery. Nature Catalysis published their most recent work — a streamlined process for making a three-dimensional scaffold of keen interest to the pharmaceutical industry.

“Our tools open up whole new chemical space for potential drug targets,” says Huw Davies, Emory professor of organic chemistry and senior author of the paper.

Davies is the founding director of the National Science Foundation’s Center for Selective C-H Functionalization, a consortium based at Emory and encompassing 15 major research universities from across the country as well as industrial partners.

Traditionally, organic chemistry has focused on the division between reactive molecular bonds and the inert bonds between carbon-carbon (C-C) and carbon-hydrogen (C-H). The inert bonds provide a strong, stable scaffold for performing chemical synthesis with the reactive groups. C-H functionalization flips this model on its head, making C-H bonds become the reactive sites.

The aim is to efficiently transform simple, abundant molecules into much more complex, value-added molecules. Functionalizing C-H bonds opens new chemical pathways for the synthesis of fine chemicals — pathways that are more direct, less costly and generate less chemical waste.

The Davies lab has published a series of major papers on dirhodium catalysts that selectively functionalize C-H bonds in a streamlined manner.

The current paper demonstrates the power of a dirhodium catalyst to efficiently synthesize a bioisostere of a benzene ring. A benzene ring is a two-dimensional (2D) molecule and a common motif in drug candidates. The bioisostere has similar biologicial properties to a benzene ring. It is a different chemical entity, however, with a 3D structure, which opens up new chemical territory for drug discovery.

Previous attempts to exploit this bioisostere for biomedical research have been hampered by the delicate nature of the structure and the limited ways to make them. “Traditional chemistry is too harsh and causes the system to fragment,” Davies explains. “Our method allows us to easily achieve a reaction on a C-H bond of this bioisostere in a way that does not destroy the scaffold. We can do chemistry that no one else can do and generate new, and more elaborate, derivatives containing this promising bioisostere.”

The paper serves as proof of principle that bioisosteres can serve as fundamental building blocks to generate an expanded range of chemical entities. “It’s like getting a new Lego shape in your kit,” Davies says. “The more Lego shapes you have, the more new and different structures you can build.” 

Zachary Garlets, a former member of the Davies lab who currently works for the biopharmaceutical firm Bristol-Myers Squibb, is first author of the paper. The project was a collaboration between the Davies lab and computational chemists from UCLA (Jacob Sanders and K.N. Houk) and medicinal chemists from Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research (Hasnain Malik and Christian Gampe). 

The paper follows another recent demonstration of the potential for generating novel scaffolds relevant to pharmaceutical research using the method. That work, a collaboration between Emory chemists and AbbVie, was published in the journal Chem.

Chemical catalyst turns 'trash' to 'treasure'
Chemists find 'huge shortcut' for organic synthesis
Creating global bonds

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Physics secrets of giant bubbles

A study inspired by street performers making gigantic soap bubbles led to a discovery in fluid mechanics: Mixing different molecular sizes of polymers within a solution increases the ability of a thin film to stretch without breaking. The journal Physical Review Fluids published the results of the study by physicists at Emory University.

The findings could potentially lead to improving processes such as the flow of oils through industrial pipes and the clearance of polluting foams in streams and rivers. The results also hold implications for backyard bubble-blowing enthusiasts.

“This study definitely puts the fun into fundamental science,” says Justin Burton, associate professor of physics at Emory University and senior author of the paper.

Click here to read the full story, including Burton's favorite recipe to make your own giant soap bubbles.

Emory physicist Justin Burton, left, experiments with giant soap bubbles on the Quad with Stephen Frazier, who received his masters in physics from Emory and is first author of the discovery. 

How lifeless particles can become 'life-like' by switching behaviors
The physics of a glacial 'slushy'
Physicists crack another piece of the glass puzzle

Monday, January 27, 2020

How personality predicts seeing others as sex objects

"Understanding the personality traits associated with sexual objectification allows us to identify those at risk of having this attitude and to potentially design an intervention for them," says Emory graduate student Thomas Costello, first author of the study. (Getty Images)

By Carol Clark

Several personality traits related to psychopathy — especially being openly antagonistic — predict a tendency to view others as merely sex objects, finds a study by psychologists at Emory University. The journal “Personality Disorders: Theory, Research and Treatment” published the study, which the authors believe is the first to identify key personality correlates of interpersonal sexual objectification.

The #MeToo movement has raised awareness of the ongoing problem of sexual harassment and sexual assault, notes Thomas Costello, a PhD candidate in psychology at Emory and first author of the study. Much less is known, he says, about those likely to think of someone as little more than their sexual parts.

“Understanding the personality traits associated with sexual objectification allows us to identify those at risk of having this attitude and to potentially design an intervention for them,” Costello says. “This is important because sexual objectification can be a precursor to sexual harassment and sexual violence.”

Psychopathy is a personality disorder associated with a constellation of characteristics, such as boldness, impulsivity, narcissism, cold-heartedness, disinhibition and meanness.

Most people who have some personality traits associated with psychopathy do not fulfill the criteria for full-blown psychopathy, explains Emory psychology professor Scott Lilienfeld, senior author of the paper and an expert on personality disorders.

“These so-called ‘dark’ personality traits occur on a continuum, like height and weight or blood pressure,” he explains. “Many people have at least some of these traits to some degree, and other people may not have any of them to a high degree.”

For the current study, the researchers wanted to test whether traits underlying psychopathy — which is associated with sexual aggression, harassment and violence — could provide a framework for understanding and statistically predicting attitudes of sexual objectification among the general population.

The study used a self-reporting survey that included questions about attitudes, as well as behaviors, regarding sexual objectification and measurements of psychopathy-related personality traits. The researchers collected data from 800 U.S. community members drawn from Amazon Mechanical Turk, an online crowdsourcing platform.

An analysis of the data showed that meanness, or being antagonistic towards others, was the strongest predictor for attitudes of sexual objectification, followed closely by disinhibition. Cold-heartedness and boldness were also predictors, but the effect sizes were smaller. 

“We were surprised that cold-heartedness — or being a callous, detached person — was not as good a predictor as meanness, or being openly malicious,” Lilienfeld says.

The survey participants included both men and women. As expected, more men than women scored higher on the sexual objectification scale. But psychopathic traits were even better predictors of attitudes of sexual objectification in the female respondents.

“It may be that social norms are much stronger against women sexually objectifying others, so this attitude would be less likely to be expressed, except among women with higher degrees of these dark personality traits,” Costello says.

He hopes that the #MeToo movement may also increase societal pressure against men perceiving others as sex objects.

“The ongoing cultural conversation and growing awareness of the problem of sexual objectification is a great opportunity for research into why it occurs,” he says.

Co-authors of the study include Emory graduates Brett Murphy (now a post-doctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and Ashley Watts (now a post-doc at the University of Missouri at Columbia).

Psychopathic boldness tied to U.S. presidential success
What is a psychopath?

Friday, January 17, 2020

Emory mathematician ignites acclaim for one of year's top discoveries

"Pure mathematicians are like poets and philosophers," says Hao Huang, with an illustration of the sensitivity conjecture. "We're trying to get at larger truths, in the simplest way possible." (Photo by Kay Hinton)

By Carol Clark

A European heat wave provided the final spark Emory mathematician Hao Huang needed to crack one of the most important, and baffling, open problems in theoretical computer science.

Discover Magazine named Huang’s proof of the sensitivity conjecture one of the “Top 50 Science Stories that Matter” for 2019, due to the simplicity of the proof and the conjecture’s implications for processing information. And Popular Mechanics called Huang’s achievement one of “The 10 Biggest Math Breakthroughs” of the year.

Mathematicians and computer scientists had grappled with the sensitivity conjecture for three decades without success. Huang, an assistant professor of mathematics, became intrigued by it in 2012.

“I spent a lot of nights thinking about this problem,” Huang recalls, estimating that he pondered it off and on over the years for hundreds of hours. “I eventually became obsessed with it.”

In late June, Huang’s wife, Yao Yao, a mathematician at Georgia Tech, was an invited speaker at a conference in Madrid, Spain. Huang tagged along, with the idea that he would spend a few days sightseeing while his wife attended the meeting.

A heat wave swept through Europe, however, and Madrid temperatures reached 105 degrees. “I had to stay in my hotel, in an air-conditioned room,” Huang says.

During this forced confinement, Huang doubled down on the sensitivity conjecture. A key idea emerged. “I finally identified the right tool to solve it,” he says.

The sensitivity conjecture relates to Boolean data, which maps information in a true-false, or 1-0 binary. Boolean functions are one of the most basic of discrete subjects — like numbers, graphs or geometric shapes, Huang explains. Boolean functions also play an important role in complexity theory, as well as in the design of circuits and chips for computers.

There are many complexity measures of Boolean functions and almost all of them were known to be mathematically related. The only unknown case, the so-called sensitivity of a Boolean function, measures how sensitive the function is when changing one input at a time.

Mathematicians proposed the sensitivity conjecture in 1994 concerning this unknown case, but no one had been able to prove it.

Finally, sitting in a Madrid hotel room to escape the stifling heat, Huang came up with a simple algebraic method for proving the conjecture.

“I was quite excited,” Huang recalls. “And then I calmed down and started checking the work.”

His wife also checked the proof when she returned to the hotel from the conference.

Once he was convinced of its accuracy, Huang posted the work on his homepage.

Mathematicians and computer scientists from around the world lauded the proof. “Amazingly short and beautiful,” wrote Gil Kalai, a mathematician at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Claire Mathieu of the French National Center for Scientific Research described Huang’s proof as “a precious pearl” in Quanta Magazine.

The list of people who tried to solve the sensitivity conjecture and failed “is like a who’s who of discrete math and theoretical computer science,” Scott Aaronson, from the University of Texas, told Quanta.

Huang believes the method he developed may have the potential to be applied to other combinatorial and complexity problems important to computer science. He is happiest, however, about the crisp elegance of the work.

Often, he notes, mathematical proofs can go on for 100 pages or more and be too complex for all but the most specialized of readers to grasp. In contrast, Huang’s proof consists of two pages and every college level math major can understand it.

“Pure mathematicians are like poets and philosophers,” Huang says. “We’re not focused on whether our work has an immediate impact. We’re trying to get at larger truths, in the simplest way possible.” 

It’s a completely different mindset from an engineer, he adds. “Engineers want to make things work, however possible,” he says. “Theoretical mathematicians want to understand how things work in their most natural way.”

A native of Shantou, a coastal city of in southern China, Huang says his love of math emerged in his childhood. He attended a high school specialized in mathematics and later graduated from Peking University.

Many of his classmates went on to careers in technology or finance, but Huang prefers academia and its focus on pure math. “I love the flexibility of it,” he says. “All I need is a pen and paper. I can work on a train or in an airplane — or in a hotel room.”

Huang is not resting on his laurels following his proof of the sensitivity conjecture. “There are a lot of elegant theorems and beautiful conjectures out there that we don’t yet know how to prove,” he says.

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Wednesday, January 8, 2020

'Bilingual' molecule connects two basic codes for life

The new molecule holds the potential for diverse biomedical applications, says Emory chemist Jennifer Heemstra (right), senior author of the paper. She is shown in her lab with graduate student Colin Swenson, first author of the paper. (Photo by Kay Hinton)

By Carol Clark

The nucleic acids of DNA encode genetic information, while the amino acids of proteins contain the code to turn that information into structures and functions. Together, they provide the two fundamental codes underlying all of life.

Now scientists have found a way to combine these two main coding languages into a single “bilingual” molecule.

The Journal of the American Chemical Society published the work by chemists at Emory University. The synthesized molecule could become a powerful tool for applications such as diagnostics, gene therapy and drug delivery targeted to specific cells.

“Much like a translator enables communication between two people from different regions of the world, we envision that our bilingual molecule will enable us to mediate new forms of communications between nucleic acids and proteins in the cellular environment,” says Jennifer Heemstra, associate professor of chemistry at Emory University and senior author of the study. 

Nucleic acids store information in an “alphabet” of four bases, known as nucleotides. Peptides and proteins use an entirely different alphabet, made up of 20 different amino acids.

“The nucleic acid language is easy to speak, but kind of limited,” Heemstra says. “While the protein language is incredibly complex and difficult to predict. Both of these molecules have developed exquisite properties over billions of years of evolution.”

Previously synthesized molecules have focused on the properties of either nucleic acids or amino acids. The Emory researchers wanted to harness the powers of both information systems within a single molecule.

The challenge was enormous, drawing on techniques from organic chemistry, molecular and cellular biology, materials science and analytical chemistry. The researchers built a protein scaffold and then attached functioning fragments of nucleotides and amino acids to this framework.

“The two different codes needed to be synthesized separately and then brought together into the scaffold,” says Colin Swenson, first author of the paper and a graduate student in the Heemstra Lab.

The resulting bilingual molecule is stable, made of inexpensive materials, and highly generalizable, giving it the potential for diverse biomedical and nanotechnology applications. “It’s like a programmable, universal adaptor that brings proteins and nucleic acids together,” Heemstra says. “We hope that other researchers are inspired to think about different ways that it might be applied.” 

The Emory chemists are now exploring using the bilingual molecule for targeted drug delivery to particular cells. “It’s essentially a stimuli-sensitive container,” Heemstra says. “We’ve demonstrated that it can bind to drug molecules. And it’s programmable to fall apart in the presence of specific RNA molecules that are more abundant in cancer cells.”

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