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