Friday, December 17, 2010

Beer, bugs and brains: Hot topics in 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2010: A Science Odyssey

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Obama receives syn-bio ethics report

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

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

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

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

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

Climate change, from the hooves up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Is TRON's 'futuristic' world outdated?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 10, 2010

The math of your heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Are depressed people too clean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 6, 2010

The holidays and the 'happiness paradox'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the whole Washington Post article

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

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Wilderness trail leads to Emory stories

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

By Carol Clark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Solar fuels move into higher gear

The Emory Bio-inspired Renewable Energy Center (EBREC), aims to duplicate natural processes of photosynthesis, to generate clean, sustainable sources of solar fuel. Photo by Carol Clark.

The debut of the Zing Solar Fuels/Photochemistry Conference, set for Dec. 1-4 in Puerto Morelos, Mexico, is one more indicator that solar energy is hot.

“It’s a very fast-moving field,” says Emory inorganic chemist Craig Hill, co-chair of the new conference. “Things are moving so quickly, that the other major conferences aren’t frequent enough to keep up with the key technical advances.”

Hill is a leading developer of water oxidation catalysts, a crucial component to split water into oxygen and protons for the production of solar fuels. Other Emory chemists presenting at the conference include Tim Lian, who is researching quantum technology to absorb light and drive reactions; and Brian Dyer, who is researching microbial catalysis by the protein hydrogenase, to convert protons into hydrogen.

“It’s an extremely exciting time for solar fuels research,” says Hill, an internationally known pioneer of green chemistry. “Interest in solar energy is growing all over the world, and it’s becoming a priority for funding in almost every country that has a research establishment.”

The movement from fossil fuels to cleaner and more sustainable forms of energy “is not going to be a dramatic, abrupt event,” Hill adds. “It’s incremental change.”

Water oxidation advance aims at solar fuel
Bringing new energy to solar quest

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Burning with passion for the world

The burners are on high for Marshall Scholar Shivani Jain, whether she's cooking for the homeless in Atlanta or using art to teach environmental education in Africa.

“My father always told me that you should burn with passion and love for the rest of the world. You should take what you learn outside of yourself and apply it,” says Shivani Jain. The Emory senior is taking that advice to heart, planting seeds of change from Atlanta to Africa as she blazes through a degree in sociology.

Jain recently received a Marshall Scholarship for advanced studies in Britain. She plans to study global health and economic development at University College London, health policy at Cambridge University, and infectious disease control at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“I still can’t believe I got it,” Jain says of the highly competitive, all-inclusive scholarship. “It’s starting to sink in.”

Jain grew up in greater New Orleans. Her father came from Punjab, India, and her mother is from Calcutta. She was a junior at an all-girl’s Catholic high school when Hurricane Katrina hit, sending her off to boarding school in northern Louisiana.

“It didn’t make sense for me to be at home anymore,” Jain says. “My school was closed and the city was like a war zone.”

Being uprooted and sent to the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts “turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” Jain says. “I was exposed to much more diversity, in terms of the students’ varied religious and ethnic backgrounds.”

Jain began her Emory career at Oxford College, thinking she would major in political science, until she enrolled in a class taught by sociologist Michael McQuaide. The course on globalization and the developing world included a trip to a remote village in Ecuador. “It changed my world view,” Jain says. “The people there are much more connected to their natural environment. Their health system is rooted in shamanistic ideology.”
Trying on Kente cloth in Ghana. Jain's field work in Ghana inspired her to create a non-profit organization, RISE Glocal.

Her love of cooking led Jain to help organize the Emory Culinary Club, which feeds the homeless and assists organic farmers. Her interest in women’s issues and theater inspired her to direct, produce and act in “The Vagina Monologues,” aimed at preventing sexual violence. Her involvement with the Barkley Forum debate team moved her to teach debating skills to teens in inner-city Atlanta.

“I like to use what I’m learning in the classroom,” Jain says.

Under the guidance of Emory sociologist Tracy Scott, Jain interned at hospital wards in greater London, and did comparative studies of health systems in the U.S and the U.K. Last year, she traveled to Ghana, to assist in a study of water sanitation policies in the capitol of Accra. She interviewed people who lived in slums, without latrines or running water.

“Many people didn’t see a problem with their children wading in the gutter water, even though they knew it was dirty,” Jain says.

Staggering deficits in education, infrastructure and policies may seem hopeless to some, but to Jain, they signal a call to action. So Jain and Neema Iyer, a graduate student in the Rollins School of Public Health, founded a non-government organization, RISE Glocal. It uses creative arts to bypass culture and language barriers and connect people to health and environmental education through their own music, poetry and drama. Based in the United States, RISE Glocal now operates in Ghana, Sierra Leone, Jordan and Mexico.

“I’m pretty busy,” Jain concedes. “In general, my thoughts are racing. Sometimes being so involved means you sacrifice other things, but I enjoy what I do and wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Going off the grid for spring break
Bridging math, biology and ecology
Scholar reads the classics -- and bones

Monday, November 22, 2010

Obama awaits report on synthetic biology

What is synthetic biology? The field is so new, and so complex, that even those working at its frontiers cannot give a single definition.

“Synthetic biology represents only the latest link in a long chain of scientific innovation,” said Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania and the chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

The creation of the first self-replicating synthetic cell last May prompted President Obama to seek the commission’s advice on the rapidly advancing field. Last week, Emory hosted the third and final meeting of the commission on synthetic biology, before the panel submits its recommendations in December.

“Imagine programmable, biological micro-factories, producing fuels and pharmaceuticals and fertilizers and food, materials and hormones and enzymes. Imagine the prospects even for genetic vaccinations,” said Emory President James Wagner, vice chair of the commission. “Of course, in addition to the excitement, there is a good deal of concern.”

What if organisms produced in laboratories are more robust than ones found in nature? Could we be interfering in the natural order of life? Could this new technology be used for malevolent purposes?

Over the course of the two-day meeting, the commission heard from experts, and members of the public, as it debated 19 provisional recommendations. One calls for an independent body to correct sensational claims in the media around synthetic biology. Another calls for federal agencies to regularly assess security and safety risks as the science advances.

Gutmann told the journal Nature that because synthetic biology is still in its infancy, “if our recommendations are followed, there will not be a ‘flash point’ that ignites public deadlock like we’ve seen in other areas of science.”

Click her to watch complete Web casts of the Nov. 16-17 meeting held at Emory.

Synthetic cell: A step closer to 'recipe for life'
Fiction, facts and values of synthetic biology

Friday, November 19, 2010

Bridging math, biology and ecology

Josh Keller, hiking in Austria, loves exploring the outdoors, as well as different scientific fields.

“As long as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed working on analytical puzzles,” says Josh Keller, an Emory senior majoring in math and linguistics and a Rhodes Scholar finalist. He hopes to spend his career solving health puzzles at the intersection of math and biology, and also help others understand those results.

“Many people don’t have the familiarity with numbers that comes naturally to me,” he says, “but numeracy is a critical ability for everyone in modern society.”

Keller spent part of his freshman year conducting research in a chemistry lab. “I was deliberate about exploring a lot of different areas,” he says, explaining how he expanded upon his interest in math and discovered his passions for language, ecology and the environment, and human health.

In his junior year, Keller joined a project modeling the transmission patterns of dengue fever. For his honors thesis, he is applying partial differential equations to epidemiological data, to try to improve models for tracking the spread of rabies in raccoons.

Building bridges between math, epidemiology and ecology can help control the spread of all kinds of infectious diseases, from rabies to deadly strains of influenza, he says. “I want to investigate and model practical biological issues with profound detail. But I also plan to be an instructor and a public figure who can relay that information in a helpful and meaningful way.”

Keller has served as a math tutor, a teacher’s assistant for linguistics, a freshman peer advisor and a leader of Bible study groups. He is president of Emory’s Wesley Fellowship and has participated in the Ethics and Servant Leadership Forum and the Open Door Community, which provides assistance to the homeless.

A Goldwater Scholar, Keller was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa his sophomore year. He has received high departmental awards in math and computer science, as well as in German – a rare honor for a non-major.

Mosquito monitoring saves lives and money
From swine flu to dengue fever, rising risks
Burning with passion for the world

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Diapers yield developmental data

By Robin Tricoles

With the help of babies and more than 5,000 of their diapers, Emory researchers have developed an accurate, noninvasive way to determine estrogen levels in infants. The method, described in the journal Frontiers in Systems Biology, will allow comparisons of estrogen levels in human infants and their long-term reproductive development as well as the development of sex-specific behaviors, such as toy preference or cognitive differences.

What’s more, the method will allow researchers to look at how early disruption of the endocrine system affects long-term maturation, a growing concern among physicians.

Surprisingly little is known about hormone levels during human infancy. Previous human research has focused on the measurement of hormones in blood, urine and saliva. The new data are the result of using fecal samples collected from cotton diapers. With this novel approach, the researchers successfully measured the fecal levels of estradiol, a type of estrogen.

The well-known importance of estradiol’s role in postnatal development of the body, brain and behavior has in recent years raised specific concerns about how exogenous estrogens, or environmental estrogens, such as those found in soy, fruits and vegetables, plastics and common household items, affect lifelong health.

“The development of robust, noninvasive methods to measure these hormones in infants allows us to further investigate the association between postnatal hormone production and the development of sex-specific biology and behavior,” says Emory anthropologist Michelle Lampl, senior author of the paper.

“The development of an assay to measure estrogen from diapers might initially strike one as unnecessary or strange, but the need is real,” says Sara Berga, chair of gynecology and obstetrics at Emory’s School of Medicine. “We understand very little about the hormonal dynamics that occur during early development precisely because we lack a reliable way to track hormones in neonates and very young children. Having a way to track this critical hormone that influences behavior and the development of many important tissues, including the brain, will allow us to understand normal. This really is a great leap forward.”

The paper’s authors include anthropologist Amanda Thompson at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Emory anthropologist Patricia Whitten; and Michael Johnson of the University of Virginia Health System.

Previous studies in primates have shown a close parallel between fecal levels of estradiol and serum values. Likewise, a comparison of fecal steroid levels between the study infants and previous studies of human adults shows an overlapping pattern, a pattern that is also seen in infant serum when compared with adult serum.

“These observations are the first report of human infant fecal estradiol levels and they provide a new tool for investigating early human development,” Lampl say, who also serves as associate director of the Emory/Georgia Tech Predictive Health Institute. “Because infant diapers are plentiful, fecal samples can be collected frequently and over a long period of time. Future longitudinal studies will allow the association between fecal levels of steroids and physiological measures to be assessed, and expand our understanding independent of serum measures.”

How childhood makes us who we are
The secret lives of lemurs

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Explorer of the 'cool universe'

Artist's impression of the Herschel space telescope, which is revealing a surprising array of activity in cold, dark regions where interstellar material condenses. Credit: ESA, D. Ducros.

Emory astrochemist Susanna Widicus Weaver will soon begin one of the first broad spectral surveys of small organic molecules in deep space. Her lab’s research proposal – to search for the raw materials of life in star-forming regions – recently won 42 hours of observing time on the Herschel Space Observatory.

“The process for applying is incredibly competitive, and 42 hours is a huge amount of time, so we’re ecstatic,” Weaver said. “I actually watched the Herschel instrument evolve over the past 10 years, so I have to pinch myself that this is actually happening.”

Astrochemistry draws on astronomy, laboratory spectroscopy and chemical modeling to study chemical mechanisms in space. Weaver is skilled in all three of these specialized areas.

Weaver studies chemical mechanisms in space.
As a graduate student at Caltech, she would visit the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and marvel at the technology going into building the Herschel instruments. Headed by the European Space Agency, Herschel became the largest telescope in space when it launched last year. The scope’s 3.5 meter-diameter mirror offers an unprecedented view of the “cool universe,” the domain of objects like tiny stars and molecular clouds that barely emit light. It may not seem as glamorous as looking for new planets, but scientists believe that the cool universe holds secrets for how life forms. Herschel operates in the far-infrared range, penetrating the veil of gas and dust shrouding these cooler realms by bridging the gap between infrared and radio astronomy.

Weaver’s research is focused on that gap, in the terahertz frequency range. At Emory, she is developing the technology to search for the building blocks of life in this largely unexplored area of deep space. Students are helping her build a high-sensitivity spectrometer to record the terahertz transmission frequency of transient molecules that are key building blocks to forming simple molecules of sugars and amino acids.

Weaver theorizes that these transient molecules are present in deep space. On Earth, however, they are unstable, existing only for the blink of an eye. So Weaver is developing methods to make the molecules and keep them stable in a laboratory environment. Using spectroscopy to record the spectral “fingerprints” of the molecules gives the lab a guide to search for them in space.
Stellar pregnancy and birth in the Milky Way. Credit: ESA/HiGAL Cosortium.

Weaver and her students are frequent visitors to the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory on the Mauna Kea volcano of the Big Island of Hawaii, where they acquire terahertz spectra with a 10.4-meter radio astronomy dish. This dish is a powerful device, situated in a high, dry and dark location, but observations are still hampered by the Earth’s atmosphere, which blocks most far-infrared wavelengths, while also producing its own far-infrared radiation. Observing terahertz radiation from the ground is like trying to see stars on a cloudy night.

“That’s the reason that the Herschel telescope is so incredible. This is the first time we can observe molecules in the terahertz range from space,” Weaver says.

Weaver and her students will use their time on the Herschel observatory to search for a range of simple molecules that they have identified as key to prebiotic pathways in interstellar chemistry, such as acetic acid, methyl formate, glycolaldehyde and methanol.

“Most previous observations have targeted a few specific molecules, but we want to open that up and get a better idea of the average composition of the clouds in star-forming regions,” Weaver explains.

Tracing our origins to the stars

Tapping secrets of the social brain

Gary Stix writes in Scientific American:

Emory University just announced at this week's Society for Neuroscience meeting that it is establishing a Center for Translational Social Neuroscience.

The objective will be to bring in bigwig scientists like psychologist Frans de Waal from the school's Yerkes National Primate Research Center to marshal a body of basic research on social bonding and translate it into drugs or behavioral interventions that can help autistic children and those suffering from the kinds of social deficits that can occur with schizophrenia. These studies will also shed light on how the normal social brain works.

"The overall goal is to foster collaboration between people trying figure to out how to treat autism patients and people who are working with animals who can come up with clever ways of stimulating the social brain and bring these people together to make translation happen," says Larry Young, the center's director, who uses prairie voles (unusual because they are monogamous mammals—see photo) to study social relationships.

Read the whole article in Scientific American.

The science of love
How early nurturing affects adult love
Schizophrenia: What we know now

Monday, November 15, 2010

Entering the era of living machines

Imagine being able to program an innocuous organism to clean up hazardous waste. Or generate a clean, cheap fuel. Or destroy cancer cells.

Emory scientists are among those working at the forefront of synthetic biology – the engineering of biological functions and systems not found in nature. This rapidly accelerating field holds tremendous promise, but raises challenging questions about ethics, security and safety.

Have an interest or concern about synthetic biology? Now is the time to express it. On Nov. 16-17, Emory is hosting a public meeting of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. (Watch videos of the event by clicking here.) It’s the third and final meeting of the commission before it issues recommendations to President Obama on synthetic biology.

“We look for a good turnout from interested members of the public, as well as teachers, students and practitioners in fields that touch on synthetic biology,” said Emory President James Wagner, vice chair of the commission.

If you are unable to attend, you can still have your say. Written comments on the topic can be emailed to

Synthetic cell: A step closer to 'recipe for life'
Fiction, facts and values of synthetic biology
Bringing new energy to solar quest
Peptides may hold missing link to life

Friday, November 12, 2010

Physics flies off the rails in 'Unstoppable'

It’s a gripping premise: “1 million tons of steel. 100,000 lives. 100 miles to impact.”

The new movie “Unstoppable,” features a runaway train, loaded with toxic chemicals, speeding towards a town with a bend in the tracks. It’s actually loosely based on a 2001 incident when a renegade locomotive was halted just short of Kenton, Ohio.

But is the science in “Unstoppable” accurate? Could the train’s impact decimate a town?

Emory physicist Sidney Perkowitz applies the basic formula of kinetic energy – one-half the mass times the speed squared – to compare the impact of the “Unstoppable” train to nuclear bombs and an asteroid.

A hydrogen bomb carries energy equivalent to 20 million tons of TNT. A train weighing one million tons, traveling at 50 miles per hour, as the movie’s publicity describes it, would carry the equivalent of 60 tons of TNT. “That would be a major explosion,” Perkowitz says.

But can a train really weigh 1 million tons?

“I think whoever wrote the publicity forgot the difference between tons and pounds,” Perkowitz says. If the train had a weight of 1 million pounds, then it would only have the energy of 60 pounds of TNT.

“That’s certainly enough to take out a building,” he says. “It would turn an SUV into molecules and it would be a terrible crash, but not enough to take out a whole city block.”

Interesting science, but not likely to stop movie goers in their tracks. “It sounds like a fun film,” Perkowitz says. “I would sit back and munch some popcorn and let the train run over me, and not worry too much about the math.”

Check out this video of Perkowitz talking about the physics in the movie “Iron Man,”
and how it has some basis for reality in the U.S. military.

Sound too far-fetched? Watch this news video from CNN, below, about a half-man, half-robot contraption developed by the defense contractor Raytheon:

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Are astronauts at risk for lung cancer?

NASA photo

Researchers from Emory's Winship Cancer Institute and the Medical College of Georgia are launching a new cancer research initiative – into space.

NASA awarded a team of investigators from both institutions $7.6 million to study how space radiation may induce lung cancer. The award establishes a NASA Specialized Center of Research (NSCOR), consisting of a team of scientists with complementary skills.

Interplanetary space travel could expose astronauts to conditions where they are chronically exposed to types of radiation not normally encountered on earth. One of these is high energy charged particles (HZE), which results in complex damage to DNA and a broader stress response by the affected cells and tissues.

There is no epidemiological data for human exposure to HZE particles, although some estimates have been made studying uranium miners and Japanese atomic bomb survivors, says Ya Wang, a radiation oncologist and director of the NSCOR at Emory.

Animal experiments show that HZE particle exposure induces more tumors than other forms of radiation such as X-rays or gamma rays. Because it is a leading form of cancer, lung cancer can be expected to be prominent among increased risks from radiation even though astronauts do not smoke. However, the risk for astronauts remains unclear because the dose of HZE astronauts are expected to receive is very low, Wang says.

Read more in this Winship news release.

Scientist tackles ethics of space travel

Ditch the guilt and be happy

Mary Loftus, associate editor of Emory Magazine, describes the top 10 things that religious leaders say about happiness in the Huffington Post:

One of the things that most irritated me about Sunday school -- and there were many, including the fact that I had to wear tights, keep quiet and not ask why God wasn't a girl -- is that we were told, however covertly, that happiness was selfish.

Religion, I came to believe, was all about self-sacrifice. How could we be happy when babies in Angola were starving (or being sent to purgatory by the Pope)? How could we be happy when already we bent so readily toward sin? How could we be happy when we had to constantly be on guard against greed, pride, sloth, lust and gluttony (i.e., cool stuff, bragging, hanging around, casual sex and cookies)?

Come to find out at a recent "Summit on Happiness," hosted by Emory University's Center for the Study of Law and Religion, many of the world's religions have nothing against humans seeking to be happy.

Can I really ditch the guilt and go for the gusto?

According to spiritual leaders from the Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist traditions, the answer is yes -- with a few conditions.

His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, the star of the show, has said that the very purpose of life is to be happy, so long as "one person or group does not seek happiness or glory at the expense of others." He didn't disappoint at the summit, sticking up for happiness as well as world peace at every opportunity, and laughing or chuckling fairly consistently throughout the event.

The Dalai Lama was joined on the panel by Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and Islamic scholar Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University.

They agreed wholeheartedly that faithfulness and happiness were not mutually exclusive.

Click here to read the top 10 things she learned about spiritual happiness.

The quest for inner peace and happiness
Breathe in, breathe out, be happy

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Brain trumps hand in Stone Age tool study

By Carol Clark

Was it the evolution of the hand, or of the brain, that enabled prehistoric toolmakers to make the leap from simple flakes of rock to a sophisticated hand axe?

A new study finds that the ability to plan complex tasks was key. The research, published today in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE, is the first to use a cyber data glove to precisely measure the hand movements of stone tool making, and compare the results to brain activation.

“Making a hand axe appears to require higher-order cognition in a part of the brain commonly known as Broca’s area,” said Emory anthropologist Dietrich Stout, co-author of the study. It’s an area associated with hierarchical planning and language processing, he noted, further suggesting links between tool-making and language evolution.

“The leap from stone flakes to intentionally shaped hand axes has been seen as a watershed in human prehistory, providing our first evidence for the imposition of preconceived, human designs on the natural world,” he said.
"For the past two million years, stone tool making has been the most common and consistent human technology," Stout says. Photo by Carol Clark.

Stout is an experimental archeologist who recreates prehistoric tool making to study the evolution of the human brain and mind. Subjects actually knap tools from stone as activity in their brains is recorded. (Watch the video, above, to see how Stone Age tools were made.)

“Changes in the hand and grip were probably what made it possible to make the first stone tools,” Stout said. “Increasingly we’re finding that the earliest tools required visual and motor skills, but were conceptually simple.”

For this study, Stout used a data glove to record the exact hand postures of the research subject across a range of prehistoric technologies. He teamed with Aldo Faisal, a neuroscientist at Imperial College London, and archeologists Jan Apel of Gotland University College in Sweden and Bruce Bradley of Exeter University in Devon, England.

The researchers compared the manual dexterity for the tasks involved in making two types of tools: Oldowan flakes and Late Acheulean hand axes. Simple Oldowan stone flakes are the earliest known tools, dating back 2.6 million years. The Late Acheulean hand axe, going back 500,000 years, embodies a higher level of refinement and standardization.

“I assumed that the manual dexterity was going to be greater for making the hand axe,” Stout said. “But we found that the hand gestures were so similar that we couldn’t distinguish them.”
The leap from stone flakes to a hand axe was "a watershed in human prehistory," Stout says. Photo by Carol Clark.

A previous study by Stout found differences in the brain activation associated with Oldowan versus Acheulean technologies. It was unclear, however, whether the difference was due to higher-level behavior organization or lower-level differences in manipulative complexity.

The results of the data glove study point to higher cognition. “The advances of Late Acheulean technology were not about increased dexterity. They were about the ability to plan complex action sequences,” Stout said.

A hand axe requires the maker to begin with a precise, symmetrical end in mind. A variety of tools are involved, from a large rock to rough out the basic shape of the axe, to a softer implement, such as an antler billet, to thin and sharpen the edges.

The ongoing research could lead to new understanding of the modern human brain. “For the past two million years, stone tool-making has been the most common and consistent human technology, done by virtually every society,” Stout said. "It’s an important human behavior that probably helped shape our brains.”

Brain expert explores realm of human dawn
A brainy time traveler

Monday, November 1, 2010

Tracing our origins to the stars

The color mosaic of the Orion Nebula and nearby star-forming region. Credit: NASA, ESA, M. Robberto (Space telescope Science Institute) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team.

Discover Magazine writes about how scientists are searching for the origins of life in deep space by teasing out different strands of the story of prebiotic chemistry:

Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and other atoms knock about in nebulas, sometimes freely and sometimes bound up with ice and dust. They arrange themselves into elaborate molecular structures. Meteorites abound with organic compounds, which rain down on any nearby planets.

Helping to weave all those strands into a single, elegant narrative is an Emory University astrochemist with a providential name: Susanna Widicus Weaver. Through a series of models and experiments, she has demonstrated that ultraviolet radiation can break chemical bonds and split molecules into highly reactive fragments called radicals. It is difficult for radicals to do much at -440 degrees F, but when the temperature warms even slightly (as when a star begins to form), the radicals merge to form larger molecules …. In a major 2008 paper, Weaver predicted an abundance of such radicals in dust clouds. A thorough search of interstellar ice grains by infrared astronomers should determine whether radicals indeed play a primary role in constructing prebiotic molecules. …

We know that meteorites contain amino acids and even nucleobases, but not whether they scooped up those molecules from dust clouds or created them later, on their interplanetary course. “We really don’t know where the chemistry in the dust cloud stops and where the chemistry in meteorites starts up,” Weaver says. She notes that the answer has tremendous implications for one of science’s most fundamental questions: How common is life throughout the universe?

Read the full article in Discover.

Explorer of the 'cool universe'
Seeking clues to life in stardust
Peptides may hold missing link to life

Thursday, October 28, 2010

In praise of tiny, perfect moles

It’s far into the future and science can do pretty much anything. Rabbits are a luminous green, pigs have human brain tissue and lions have been genetically spliced with lambs. That’s the premise of Margaret Atwood’s latest book “The Year of the Flood.”

Adam One is the leader of a sect known as “God’s Gardeners,” devoted to the blending of science and religion. Most of human life has been obliterated, but God’s Gardeners believe in the healing power of song. As the world is ending, they sing the praises of Earth’s creatures, like the tiny, perfect mole. And the little carrion beetles “that seek unlikely places. We turn our husks to the elements and tidy up our spaces.”

You’ll get goose bumps and giggles watching these videos of Elizabeth Saliers, backed by Emory musicians, singing some of the hymns from the novel. The special performances were for Atwood herself, while she was at Emory recently to give a series of talks on science fiction.

Related: Imagining new worlds

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Mosquito monitoring saves lives and money

Photo by Carol Clark

Cutting surveillance for mosquito-borne diseases would likely lead to an exponential increase in both the number of human cases and the financial costs when a disease outbreak occurs, according to an analysis by Emory University.

The Public Library of Science (PLoS) published the research
, led by disease ecologist Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec.

“Our analysis shows that halting mosquito surveillance can increase the management costs of epidemics by more than 300 times, in comparison with sustained surveillance and early case detection,” he said.

The research was prompted by a U.S. government proposal last spring to slash funding for the vector-borne disease program of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Congress ultimately voted to retain the program’s budget at the same levels, for 2011.

“This analysis provides scientific-based evidence of the need for more funding of mosquito surveillance, not less,” said Uriel Kitron, a co-author of the study and the chair of Emory’s Department of Environmental Studies.

Emory scientists are monitoring both mosquitoes and birds in Atlanta, to learn how West Nile virus moves through an urban center. Photo by Carol Clark.

Diseases spread by mosquitoes and other blood-sucking vectors are major public health risk worldwide. They include a wide variety of bacterial, parasitic and viral infections, such as malaria, West Nile virus, dengue fever and Lyme disease.

The Emory analysis used data from two outbreaks of dengue fever in Cairns, Australia, that occurred in 2003 and 2009. (Dengue fever, an extremely debilitating viral disease spread by mosquitoes, can be fatal.) A mathematical model was applied to the Cairns data to evaluate the economic impact of hypothetical epidemic curves, plotted against different response times. A response within two weeks of the introduction of the pathogen was assumed to occur with active disease surveillance in place, and delays of six-to-eight weeks were assumed when active disease and vector surveillance were eliminated.

In Cairns, where mosquito surveillance is active, the reactions to the dengue fever outbreaks were rapid. The costs of the epidemics – including vector control, case diagnosis, blood screening and work days lost to disease – totaled U.S.$150,000 for the 2003 outbreak and $1.1 million for the 2009 outbreak.

The analysis showed that a delayed response of four-to-six weeks to both Cairns dengue outbreaks would have resulted in drastically escalated costs of up to U.S.$382 million. A slight increase in the virulence of the strain could have multiplied the cost by another 10 times.

Cairns has a tropical climate similar to South Florida, where a dengue fever outbreak occurred in 2009, Vazquez-Prokopec noted. “Predictions based on our analysis show that, if the Miami area had not had a surveillance system in place, the costs to control the Florida outbreak could have been higher than the entire U.S. budget for mosquito surveillance,” he said.

Related: From swine flu to dengue fever, rising risks

While the modern-day United States has been relatively unscathed by vector-borne disease, it is not immune to a host of new and emerging pathogens, the researchers warned.

The emergence of West Nile virus (WNV) in New York City in 1999 spurred better mosquito surveillance, and serves as an example of the consequences of a delayed response. By the time a correct diagnosis was made and proper controls were initiated, the pathogen had spread throughout the country. By the end of 2008, WNV had generated 28,961 known cases and 1,130 fatalities.

Co-authors for the study also include Emory disease ecologist Luis Chaves and S. Ritchie and J. Davis from the Cairns Tropical Public Health Unit.

Sewage raises West Nile virus risk
Urban mosquito research creates buzz