Thursday, October 29, 2009

An inside look at outrage

What makes a suicide bomber tick?

“Outrage is a distinct emotional state, but almost nothing is known about its physiological effect on functional systems of the brain,” says neuroeconomist Gregory Berns, director of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy.

Berns is leading a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study of the brain when sacred values are perceived as being attacked or diminished. The U.S. Air Force and Navy are funding the study, focused on beliefs about religion, government policy, and other values that evoke strong feelings.

“Given the importance of sacred values and the potential for triggering violent conflict, it is important to understand how sacred values become intertwined in decision making,” Berns says. He believes that knowledge of how the brain reacts to irreverence of closely held beliefs could help lead to peaceful solutions during conflict negotiations.

“The Department of Defense is aware that it does no good to bomb a building if it creates more terrorists,” Berns says, “so it is keenly interested in understanding what drives an emotional reaction that is so strong that it has the potential to obliterate rational thinking. The outcome of this study could be a fist step in bringing people together who have opposing value systems.”

Related stories:
"Decisions, Decisions: The biology behind the sometimes irrational, often emotional, choices we make"

Star-crossed queen gets twinkle in her eye

Cassiopeia, a vain queen in Greek mythology, bragged that she and her daughter Andromeda were so beautiful that they put the sea nymphs to shame. Naturally, this boast angered Poseidon, who sent a sea monster to destroy her realm. The queen’s disgrace is also evident in her constellation. She sits in a chair that rotates around the North Star, putting her in an undignified upside-down position half the time.

At least she has something interesting to look at – within her gaze lies a Delta Scuti variable star. Emory astronomer Horace Dale identified the star’s classification last week, during an exercise of the advanced astronomy lab he teaches, and it was officially entered into the Variable Star Index on Oct. 22.

A variable star is one that changes its luminosity over short periods of time. In layman’s terms: It twinkles. And we’re talking a true twinkle, as opposed to the false twinkle-effect that the Earth’s atmosphere gives stars. When the first variable star was identified in 1638, it disproved theories by Aristotle and others that the stars were eternally the same and fueled the astronomical revolution sparked by Galileo’s telescope in 1609.

A Delta Scuti pulsating variable is an older star with gases that are rapidly expanding and contracting in both spherical and oblong shapes. Out of the 200 billion stars in our galaxy, only about 400 are known Delta Scuti. Dale is credited with identifying two of them, including another one in the Cassiopeia constellation that entered the index in 2007.

“Not many people are looking for them,” Dale says, explaining that it's painstaking work to identify one. Changes in luminosity must be measured over time to produce a light curve, such as the graph, above, from Dale’s most recent find.

Dale is on a mission to identify more. “I think it’s very important,” he says. “If you want to find out who we are, you have to look at the stars first, because that’s where we came from. Where do you think you got all the carbon in your body? It’s a product of the nuclear fusion process of stars. Carl Sagan said it best: We are made of star stuff.”

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

No bones about it: A great place to work

The Scientist magazine's readers ranked Emory as the 5th Best Place to Work in Academia in the United States. The ranking was based on a survey of more than 2,350 life scientists with a permanent position in an academic, hospital, government or research organization. The scientists represented 94 US institutions and 25 institutions from the rest of the world.

Emory ranked especially high in the categories of "peers" and "job satisfaction." The top four institutions were Princeton University, University of California-San Francisco, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. The top international institution was the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics.

Read the full survey results.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A new twist on an ancient story

“Evolution is a theory that we have more experimental evidence for than any other theory, and yet 50 percent of the population of the United States doesn’t accept it,” said David Lynn, professor of chemistry and biology, during a recent Creativity Conversation with choreographer David Neumann. “Maybe we’ve taken the wrong path in talking about evolution. In science we do a good job of conveying facts, but not a good job of telling the stories – what makes it human.”

Lynn’s research focuses on the origins of life. His desire to find new ways to explain science to the public inspired him to collaborate with Neumann, and the Seattle troupe Lelavision, as they developed dance performances. Their works, including Lelavision's "Warm Pond" (see photo), recently premiered in Atlanta.

“I was deeply influenced by the manner in which evolution operates and using those structures – contingencies and chance operations – in the structure of the dance,” Neumann said. “Sometimes when you utilize chance there’s a fantastic discovery.”

Watch a video of the conversation between Lynn and Neumann:

Related story:
Dancing with the scientists

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Cascade Range: Chemistry to climbing

Can you combine a high-powered career in chemical cascade research with a mountaineering hobby and still have time to form human bonds? Sure, if you rope colleagues into both adventures.

Emory’s Albert Padwa (above at Mount Rainer in 1984) gives a perspective of his 48-year career in a recent issue of the Journal of Organic Chemistry. The cover (see below) was designed by Emory chemist Stefan Lutz and features Annapurna, Nepal, the site of Padwa's latest climb.

What makes for excellence in science? “To me, it’s pushing out into completely new territory,” Padwa says.
Here’s an excerpt from the JOC article:

“I associate the top of mountains with success, achievement and freedom. In contrast, the lower part of the mountain possesses many obstacles and challenges which need to be overcome. This is really not so different from bringing a chemical project to fruition and getting it published…

“Because of the rate at which they increase molecular intricacy, cascade reactions have received considerable attention from my research team over the past 25 years. The development of sequences that combine transformations of differing fundamental mechanisms broadens the scope of such procedures in synthetic chemistry and provides me with continuing challenges for reaching an ‘ideal summit.’”

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bug splatter study is data driven

The next time you take a road trip, think before you clean the bug splatter off your car. Those insect remains may actually be more interesting than your vacation photos.

“It turns out that your car is a sampling device for understanding the biodiversity of all the places you’ve been,” says James Taylor, a computational biologist at Emory.

Genome Research recently published a paper by Taylor and collaborators that applied advanced DNA sequencing techniques that are traditionally used on microbial samples to look at insect biodiversity. “We were curious whether these techniques would work for more complex organisms,” Taylor says.

To collect genetic material for the study they used the bumper and windshield of a moving vehicle. Two samples were collected: on a drive from Pennsylvania to Connecticut, and on a trip from Maine to New Brunswick, Canada.

“We found that there is a huge amount of insect diversity, but what was really surprising was to see the enormous amount of novel sequence,” Taylor says. “It’s indicative of how poorly we have sampled the whole tree of life in genome research so far. There’s an enormous amount of species out there.”

Road tested

Taylor is a co-developer of Galaxy, an open-source software system for analyzing genetic data. The Galaxy developers recently refined the system, creating the Galaxy metagenomic pipeline that allows a research team to integrate all of the data, analyses and workflows of a study, and then publish this material as a live online supplement.

The bug splatter paper served as the first test of the metagenomic pipeline.
“I believe that this study is one of the most transparent and reproducible bioinformatics papers ever,” Taylor says. “Anyone can go online, follow links and see every step of our analysis and exactly what parameters were used. And they can take our data and do their own analysis of other questions.”

No computational experience is required to use the free Galaxy system, Taylor says. “All of science is becoming computationally intensive, so tools like this are needed to improve transparency.”

DNA sequencing technology is getting cheaper, opening more doors for research by small investigators, and Taylor is focused on serving this niche.

“Nowadays, you can have a crazy idea like studying bug splatter and without a lot of money or work, you can go out and do it just to see what’s there,” he says.

Related story:
Mapping genomics of complex ant system
Plug your data into the Galaxy

Monday, October 19, 2009

Icons of evolution

Nancy Lowe goes to church more often than most. All she has to do is step outdoors, where she finds the sacred in nature. During breaks from her job as a lead research specialist in biology, you might see her sketching a leaf or a bug somewhere on campus.

“I’m an artist and a naturalist,” she says. “Working as a lab technician is my day job.”

Lowe’s art is featured in the ongoing exhibit at Emory Library’s Schatten Gallery, marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” The eclectic show includes original editions of “Origin,” panoramic “nanoscapes” captured by electron microscopes and a retrospective of how poet Ted Hughes’ work evolved.

Lowe’s contribution is a series of luminous paintings called “Species Icons.” On canvases glinting with gold leaf, a pitcher plant wears a halo and tube worms are strung with jewels.

“Medieval religious icons seem to glow with a certain power,” Lowe says. “They’re old and precious. I wanted to combine that feeling with the careful attention to detail in scientific illustration of organisms. For me, that’s what’s sacred – the amount of geological time that it has taken to evolve these species.”

The paintings also grew out of a question that Lowe says she’s pondered for years: “Now that evolution has become our primary creation story, what should we put on our stained glass windows?”

After graduating from the Art Institute of Chicago, Lowe worked in video and film before discovering her love of illustrating nature. She volunteered as an artist for a species inventory project in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. She regularly teaches art, in addition to making her own. The name of her web site, "look at your fish", comes from 19th-century naturalist Louis Aggasiz. He would give his students a pan containing a pickled fish and leave them alone to stare at it for hours.

Careful observation is important to art, as well as science, she says. “I want my students to ask, ‘What’s this little bristle for on this bug?’ and realize that every structure is connected to some function. It all comes back to evolution.”

A microscope can distance scientists from their subjects, Lowe says. “We’re looking at things now through a molecular and a genetic lens. That is a more cerebral pursuit. I think we’ve lost something about teaching students to love the organism.”

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Staring expert named 'visionary'

Two Emory faculty members were named among the “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World” by the Utne Reader: His Holiness the Dalai Lama, whose vision sparked the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, social critic and author of “Staring: How We Look.”

In the first book on the basic human interaction of the prolonged gaze, Garland-Thomson borrows from psychology, biology and imaginative culture to explain why staring is such a powerful impulse. She writes that people with disabilities, who are so often subjected to second looks, can take control by helping to change the perception of starers.

Why are you looking at me like that?
Why we long to look and look too long

Friday, October 16, 2009

Fish vision makes waves in natural selection

Emory researchers have identified the first fish known to have switched from ultraviolet vision to violet vision, or the ability to see blue light. The discovery is also the first example of an animal deleting a molecule to change its visual spectrum.

Their findings on scabbardfish, linking molecular evolution to functional changes and the possible environmental factors driving them, are in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This multi-dimensional approach strengthens the case for the importance of adaptive evolution,” says evolutionary geneticist Shozo Yokoyama, who led the study. “Building on this framework will take studies of natural selection to the next level.”

The research team included Takashi Tada, a post-doctoral fellow in biology, and Ahmet Altun, a post-doctoral fellow in biology and computational chemistry.

For two decades, Yokoyama has done groundbreaking work on the adaptive evolution of vision in vertebrates. Vision serves as a good study model, since it is the simplest of the sensory systems. For example, only four genes are involved in human vision.

"It's amazing, but you can mix together this small number of genes and detect a whole color spectrum," Yokoyama says. "It's just like a painting."

The common vertebrate ancestor possessed UV vision. However, many species, including humans, have switched from UV to violet vision, or the ability to sense the blue color spectrum.

Fish provide clues for how environmental factors can lead to such vision changes, since the available light at various ocean depths is well quantified. All fish previously studied have retained UV vision, but the Emory researchers found that the scabbardfish has not. To tease out the molecular basis for this difference, they used genetic engineering, quantum chemistry and theoretical computation to compare vision proteins and pigments from scabbardfish and another species, lampfish. The results indicated that scabbardfish shifted from UV to violet vision by deleting the molecule at site 86 in the chain of amino acids in the opsin protein.

“Normally, amino acid changes cause small structure changes, but in this case, a critical amino acid was deleted,” Yokoyama says.

“The finding implies that we can find more examples of a similar switch to violet vision in different fish lineages,” he adds. “Comparing violet and UV pigments in fish living in different habitats will open an unprecedented opportunity to clarify the molecular basis of phenotypic adaptations, along with the genetics of UV and violet vision.”

Scabbardfish spend much of their life at depths of 25 to 100 meters, where UV light is less intense than violet light, which could explain why they made the vision shift, Yokoyama theorizes. Lampfish also spend much of their time in deep water. But they may have retained UV vision because they feed near the surface at twilight on tiny, translucent crustaceans that are easier to see in UV light.

"Evolutionary biology is filled with arguments that are misleading, at best," Yokoyama says. "To make a strong case for the mechanisms of natural selection, you have to connect changes in specific molecules with changes in phenotypes, and then you have to connect these changes to the living environment." 

Last year, Yokoyama and collaborators completed a comprehensive project to track changes in the dim-light vision protein opsin in nine fish species, chameleons, dolphins and elephants, as the animals spread into new environments and diversified over time. The researchers found that adaptive changes occur by a small number of amino acid substitutions, but most substitutions do not lead to functional changes.

Their results provided a reference framework for further research, and helped bring to light the limitations of studies that rely on statistical analysis of gene sequences alone to identify adaptive mutations in proteins.

Related stories:
A fish-eye view of natural selection

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Averting the next food crisis

While the United States battles an obesity epidemic, people in some areas of the globe face a daily struggle to find nutritionally adequate and safe foods. Emory anthropologists Craig Hadley and Kenneth Maes wrote an article for The Lancet, proposing a new global monitoring system for food insecurity:

"The theme of this year's World Food Day on Oct 16, 'Achieving food security in times of crisis,' reflects the tremendous interest in food insecurity raised by the 2008 food crisis. Yet, as the world confronts the links between global food insecurity and crises, we still have little systematic knowledge about who was affected by the 2008 food crisis and to what extent. The lack of timely data, and the failure to account for heterogeneity in human responses, have led to general predictions that are surely inaccurate and have prevented a nuanced understanding of the crisis. This lack of knowledge is rooted in methodological and conceptual shortcomings."

Read the whole article.

Related stories:
Get a masters in sustainable development

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Dancing with the scientists

Will Chemistry Chair David Lynn wow the campus with an interpretive dance on DNA?

Sorry, folks, Lynn will not be performing. However, he did put his toe in the world of dance through collaborations with New York choreographer David Neumann and Seattle’s Lelavision Physical Music group.

Lynn and Neumann will hold a discussion on “Where Dance and Science Meet,” Thursday, Oct. 15 at 4 pm. This weekend, the science-art experiments take the stage in the form of Neumann’s “Big Eater” and “The Accumulation of Change,” combining Lelavision’s kinetic musical sculpture with Lynn’s research on molecular evolution.

Click here for details of all these events.

Watch a video of last spring's initial collaboration with Emory scientists and artists:

Monday, October 12, 2009

Richard Gere on Emory, Tibet and shyness

From a couple of flirtatious reporters at Washington's POLITICO:

"Who would have guessed that a man who makes a living on the big screen would actually be camera shy?

"Richard Gere proved he can get as nervous in front of the lens as the rest of us when POLITICO spoke with him at an Emory University-hosted reception at the Mayflower Hotel on Friday, where he was on a panel discussing the connection between science and spirituality.

'"This is scary,' the star once voted the 'sexiest man alive' said when he came face to face with a flip-cam."

The ripple effect of a Nobel in Economics

Tracy Yandle was vacationing in the Smoky Mountains when Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economics. “I had the radio on in the cabin, and when I heard the news I went outside and started jumping up and down,” says Yandle, associate professor in environmental studies. “Intellectually, and personally, it’s just a wonderful thing to me.”

Ostrom, a leading scholar of how communities can effectively regulate common resources, was Yandle’s dissertation advisor at Indiana University. Yandle focused on the market forces of fisheries in New Zealand – one of the only systems in the world that had privatized to allow fishermen to buy and sell the rights to catch a certain amount.

After she began her research, in 1999, the fishermen started using their fishing rights as leverage. “They realized, ‘If we have catching rights, we own a part of the fishery and we want a say in it,’” Yandle recalls.

In a panic, Yandle called Ostrom to report: “I’m doomed, the entire system is changing. It’s not a market system anymore.”

Ostrom advised her to go with the flow. “She said, ‘This is exciting, a self-governing organization is forming before your eyes,’” Yandle says. “She helped me to see that clearly, and to figure out a way to study it.”

After joining Emory in 2001, Yandle continued to dig deeper into this new angle of research. She is currently studying the quantity and quality of property rights required to get people involved in managing a natural resource.

Ostrom “is a wonderful example of an interdisciplinary thinker,” Yandle says. “She’s one of the key people in forming natural resource economics, through her work at the boundaries of economics, political science and organizational thinking."

The Nobel laureate’s mentees in the Emory environmental studies department also include Lore Ruttan, who was a post-doctoral fellow under Ostrom.

In his NYT column, John Tierney describes Elinor Ostrom's work disputing "the tragedy of the commons" theory.

Can neuroscience read your mind?

Paul Root Wolpe, director of Emory Center for Ethics, wrote about neuroimaging and personal freedom for

"Neuroscience has, for the first time, demonstrated that there may be ways to directly access human thought--even, perhaps, without the thinker's consent. While the research is still preliminary, the science is advancing at an astonishing rate. While many obstacles need to be overcome and the technology is not yet practicable, the implications for our current state of knowledge are profound. ...

Watch an earlier "60 Minutes" interview with Wolpe, on the science of mind-reading.

"Neurotechnology is making its way into business, politics and other civic realms as well. The booming field of neuromarketing has been peering into the brains of consumers as they think about products or look at advertising. Political scientists have used fMRI to try to determine voter preferences, and a book by Emory psychologist Drew Westen, titled "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation," drew on such research and played a prominent role in the Democratic strategy in the last presidential election. ...

"While our abilities in these areas are still quite limited, and while there is always the possibility that the technology will never progress to the point where it can extract truly useful information from anyone, the time to think about the implications of this endeavor is now, before the technology is upon us. The appeal of the technology to the state is obvious. So we need to ask ourselves: What are the limits of the use of this technology? Should we ever allow the courts, or the state, to demand access to the recesses of our minds?"

Read the full article.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Warning to campus squirrels

With thousands of people and cars swarming about the Emory campus, it is easy to lose sight of the daily dramas of wildlife going on all around us. An observant visitor captured this photo of a hawk that swooped in near the Asbury Circle bridge on Wednesday, hunting squirrels. Andrew Harwood, assistant pastor of United Methodist Church, used a Nikon D40 to get the shot.

And who better to comment on the photo than Gary Hauk – vice president of the University. “This reminds me of a startling moment some years ago when my office was on the Quad side of the fourth floor in Administration,” Hauk said. “My computer was set up next to the window, and one afternoon I was typing away and happened to look up and out the window, just as a red-tailed hawk swooped up in front of the window toward the roof, beating its wings frantically while carrying the heavy load of a squirrel in its talons. Awesome!”

Unless you're a squirrel.

Scenes from our wild campus

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The science of love

Can love potions move from fairy tale to fact? Studies are showing the potential to chemically manipulate affection and social bonding.

“A single molecule can have a profound effect on relationships,” said Emory neuroscience Larry Young, during his recent “Life of the Mind” talk. His research involves prairie voles, highly social animals that tend to form life-long bonds with their mates.

An infusion of oxytocin, a hormone associated with neural rewards and addictions, can cause female prairie voles to become attached to the nearest male, while the hormone vasopressin spurs males’ interest in a female. Male prairie voles with a genetically limited response to vasopressin were less likely to bond to a mate. Other researchers have identified similar behavior in human males with this genetic trait.

But what about plasticity of the brain, asked religion scholar Bobbi Patterson, who led a conversation with Young, following his lecture. Patterson studies how ancient contemplative communities practiced shaping their minds. Their ultimate goal was for love and compassion, minus the intense hormonal urges. “The biochemistry of the brain, they thought of that as the juices of human behavior, the passions – things that would get you in trouble by sexual behaviors or violence – they would try to block that by training the mind,” Patterson said. “When humans are involved in love and compassion, there’s this sense of making a choice.”

Studies have revealed that even prairie voles have a great deal of plasticity, and that their experiences can shape their hormone levels and their behaviors, said Young. He also cited Emory research showing that women who were seriously abused as children have low oxytocin levels as adults.

“Much more of our behavior is probably determined by cortical structures that are sort of integrating what is the social structure, what is expected of me,” Young said. “You can inhibit or activate certain of these components much more easily than a vole.”

Still, biology plays an undeniable role in our ability to love and form social bonds, he said. “A lot of people say, ‘Doesn’t that take away a lot of the magic?’ But, to me, it’s even more beautiful to think that love is being produced through neurotransmission.”

Related stories:
How early nurturing affects adult love
'Orgasm Inc' takes on female Viagra
What is the chemical basis of love?
Transgenic voles key to unlocking pair-bonding secrets

Friday, October 2, 2009

Shining a light on green energy

Graduate student Chantelle Anfuso works with lasers in Lian's lab.

The physical chemistry lab of Tim Lian specializes in ultra-fast spectroscopy, electron transfer processes and quantum dots – nano-particles that hold promise for everything from electronics to medicine and renewable energy.

In collaboration with scientists at Emory and elsewhere, Lian's team is studying ways to convert the sun’s energy into cheap and clean solutions to the global energy crisis. “Solar energy conversion is very complex,” he says. “Spectroscopy allows us to break it down into small, fundamental steps that you can study carefully.”

Quantum dots (in above photo) are good at absorbing light and could provide energy to drive reactions needed for solar energy conversion processes.

“These are all very challenging scientific problems,” Lian says, adding that it will take many people, working across disciplines, to make solar energy go mainstream. “We have to solve these problems, because using fossil fuels is not sustainable."

Read more.

Related stories:
A biochemical path to solar energy
Chemistry's crucial catalyst

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Separate and unequal?

1954 edition of the Topeka State Journal from Kansas State Historical Society

More than half-a-century after Brown v. Board of Education, racial segregation in the schools appears to be a leading source of the academic achievement gap between young black and white children, according to a study by Emory sociologist Dennis Condron.

His findings were published in the October issue of the American Sociological Review.

Condron was perplexed by prior research showing that schools narrow the achievement gap among students of varying social classes while widening the gap between black and white students. To tease out possible reasons for this difference, he analyzed data from the Kindergarten Cohort of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.

He found that between the fall and spring of first grade, black students’ reading and math skills fall almost two months behind those of white students. After controlling for other factors, the data suggested that racial segregation of schools was a primary driver of this early black-white learning disparity. In contrast, out-of-school factors explained the growth of social class gaps.

“This research adds an important piece to the puzzle of when and why social class and black-white inequalities in academic achievement emerge,” says Condron, assistant professor of sociology. “And I hope it raises awareness that social class and black-white achievement gaps come from different sources to some extent. We tend to speak of ‘the’ achievement gap, but in reality different gaps probably have different sources and require different solutions.”

His research also indicated that regardless of social class, black students are less often taught by certified teachers than are white students, and black students are far more likely than white students to attend predominantly minority schools, high-poverty schools and schools located in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The findings are “a reminder of a persistent problem,” Condron says, decades after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka struck down state laws establishing separate schools for black and white students.

“De facto segregation remains high these days, with important implications for education,” he says. “When it comes to both housing and schools, race trumps class as the central axis upon which blacks and whites are segregated. Real solutions to the black-white achievement gap lie far beyond schools and require changes to society more broadly.”