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Discovery of ‘new rules of the immune system’ could improve treatment of inflammatory diseases, say scientists.

University News - Tue, 18/06/2024 - 16:02

This overturns the traditional thinking that regulatory T cells exist as multiple specialist populations that are restricted to specific parts of the body. The finding has implications for the treatment of many different diseases – because almost all diseases and injuries trigger the body’s immune system.

Current anti-inflammatory drugs treat the whole body, rather than just the part needing treatment. The researchers say their findings mean it could be possible to shut down the body’s immune response and repair damage in any specific part of the body, without affecting the rest of it. This means that higher, more targeted doses of drugs could be used to treat disease – potentially with rapid results.

“We’ve uncovered new rules of the immune system. This ‘unified healer army’ can do everything - repair injured muscle, make your fat cells respond better to insulin, regrow hair follicles.  To think that we could use it in such an enormous range of diseases is fantastic: it’s got the potential to be used for almost everything,” said Professor Adrian Liston in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Pathology, senior author of the paper.

To reach this discovery, the researchers analysed the regulatory T cells present in 48 different tissues in the bodies of mice. This revealed that the cells are not specialised or static, but move through the body to where they’re needed. The results are published today in the journal Immunity.

“It's difficult to think of a disease, injury or infection that doesn’t involve some kind of immune response, and our finding really changes the way we could control this response,” said Liston.

He added: “Now that we know these regulatory T cells are present everywhere in the body, in principle we can start to make immune suppression and tissue regeneration treatments that are targeted against a single organ – a vast improvement on current treatments that are like hitting the body with a sledgehammer.”

Using a drug they have already designed, the researchers have shown - in mice - that it’s possible to attract regulatory T cells to a specific part of the body, increase their number, and activate them to turn off the immune response and promote healing in just one organ or tissue.

“By boosting the number of regulatory T cells in targeted areas of the body, we can help the body do a better job of repairing itself, or managing immune responses,” said Liston.

He added: “There are so many different diseases where we’d like to shut down an immune response and start a repair response, for example autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, and even many infectious diseases.”

Most symptoms of infections such as COVID are not from the virus itself, but from the body’s immune system attacking the virus. Once the virus is past its peak, regulatory T cells should switch off the body’s immune response, but in some people the process isn’t very efficient and can result in ongoing problems. The new finding means it could be possible to use a drug to shut down the immune response in the patient’s lungs, while letting the immune system in the rest of the body continue to function normally.

In another example, people who receive organ transplants must take immuno-suppressant drugs for the rest of their lives to prevent organ rejection, because the body mounts a severe immune response against the transplanted organ. But this makes them highly vulnerable to infections. The new finding helps the design of new drugs to shut down the body’s immune response against only the transplanted organ but keep the rest of the body working normally, enabling the patient to lead a normal life.

Most white blood cells attack infections in the body by triggering an immune response. In contrast, regulatory T cells act like a ‘unified healer army’ whose purpose is to shut down this immune response once it has done its job - and repair the tissue damage caused by it.

The researchers are now fundraising to set up a spin-out company, with the aim of running clinical trials to test their findings in humans within the next few years.

The research was funded by the European Research Council (ERC), Wellcome, and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Reference: Liston, A. ‘The tissue-resident regulatory T cell pool is shaped by transient multi-tissue migration and a conserved residency program.’ Immunity, June 2024. DOI: 10.1016/j.immuni.2024.05.023

Scientists at the University of Cambridge have discovered that a type of white blood cell - called a regulatory T cell - exists as a single large population of cells that constantly move throughout the body looking for, and repairing, damaged tissue.

It's difficult to think of a disease, injury or infection that doesn’t involve some kind of immune response, and our finding really changes the way we could control this response.Adrian ListonLouisa Wood/ Babraham InstituteDr James Dooley, a senior author of the study, in the laboratoryIn brief
  • A single large population of healer cells, called regulatory T cells, is whizzing around our body - not multiple specialist populations restricted to specific parts of the body as previously thought.
  • These cells shut down inflammation and repair the collateral damage to cells caused after our immune system has responded to injury or illness.
  • Tests, in mice, of a drug developed by the researchers showed that regulatory T cells can be attracted to specific body parts, boosted in number, and activated to suppress immune response and rebuild tissue.
  • Current anti-inflammatory drugs used for this purpose suppress the body’s whole immune system, making patients more vulnerable to infection.
  • The discovery could lead to more targeted treatments, with fewer side-effects, for issues from lengthy COVID infections to autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis. Clinical trials in humans are now planned.


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Cambridge achievers recognised in King's Birthday Honours 2024

University News - Sat, 15/06/2024 - 05:00


Professor Tony Kouzarides, Professor of Cancer Biology, Senior Group Leader at the Gurdon Institute and Director and Co-Founder of the Milner Institute, has been awarded a Knighthood for his services to Healthcare Innovation and Delivery. Professor Kouzarides said: “I am delighted to receive this honour, which reinforces the importance of translating basic research into therapies by engaging academic researchers with healthcare businesses.”

Professor Barbara Sahakian, Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology in the Department of Psychiatry and a Fellow at Clare Hall, receives a CBE. Professor Sahakian, who is known for her research aimed at understanding the neural basis of cognitive, emotional and behavioural dysfunction in order to develop more effective pharmacological and psychological treatments, is honoured for her services to Research in Human Cognitive Processes. Professor Sahakian said: “I am delighted to receive this prestigious award which recognises my research on human cognitive processes in health, psychiatric disorders and neurological diseases. I am grateful to my PhD students, post-doctoral fellows and colleagues for their collaboration."

Professor Christine Holt, Professor of Developmental Neuroscience, receives a CBE for services to Neuroscience. Professor Holt said: "I'm surprised and thrilled to receive this honour. It's a marvellous recognition of the research that has involved a whole team of talented, dedicated and inspiring colleagues over many years."

Professor David Menon, founder of the Neurosciences Critical Care Unit (NCCU) at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, has been awarded a CBE. Professor Menon, who is noted for his national and global clinical and research leadership in traumatic brain injury, is honoured for his services to Neurocritical Care. He said: “I am deeply honoured to be nominated for a CBE and accept it on behalf of all those who have worked with me, during what has been – and continues to be – a very rewarding career.”

Professor Patrick Maxwell, Regius Professor of Physic and Head of School of Clinical Medicine receives a CBE for services to Medical Research.

Alexandra Bolton, Director of the Climate Governance Initiative is awarded an OBE for services to the Built and Natural Environment. Alexandra said: "This wonderful and humbling recognition makes me in turn recognise the talented people who, throughout my career, have selflessly given me support, guidance and advice. I am enormously grateful for the honour, and for all those who have helped me along the way."

Professor Peter John Clarkson, Director of Cambridge Engineering Design Centre and Co-Director of Cambridge Public Health receives an OBE for services to Engineering and Design.

Professor Anne-Christine Davis, Professor of Mathematical Physics receives an OBE for services to Higher Education and to Scientific Research.

Professor Shruti Kapila, Professor of History and Politics receives an OBE for services to Research in Humanities.

Details of University of Cambridge alumni who are recognised in the King's Birthday Honours will be published on www.alumni.cam.ac.uk.

The University extends its congratulations to all academics, staff and alumni who have received an honour.

Academics and staff from the University of Cambridge are featured in the King's Birthday Honours 2024, which recognises the achievements and service of people across the UK, from all walks of life.


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Video analysis of Iceland 2010 eruption could improve volcanic ash forecasts for aviation safety

University News - Thu, 13/06/2024 - 15:29

When Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010, it ejected roughly 250 million tonnes of volcanic ash into the atmosphere: much of which was blown over Europe and into flight paths. With planes grounded, millions of air passengers were left stranded.

Forecasts of how ash will spread in the aftermath of an explosive eruption can help reduce impacts to aviation by informing decisions to shut down areas of airspace. But these forecasts require knowledge of what is happening at the volcano, information that often can’t be obtained directly and must instead be estimated.

In the new study, the researchers split a 17-minute film into time segments to understand how the Eyjafjallajökull ash cloud grew upwards and outwards as the eruption ensued.

“No one has previously observed the shape and speed of wind-blown ash clouds directly,” said Professor Andy Woods, lead author of the study from Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences and Institute for Energy and Environmental Flows. Their new video analysis method was reported in Nature Communications Earth and Environment.

By comparing characteristics of the ash cloud, such as its shape and speed, at time intervals through the video, the researchers were able to calculate the amount of ash spewed from the volcano.

That rate of ash flow, called eruption rate, is an important metric for forecasting ash cloud extent, said Woods. “The eruption rate determines how much ash goes up into the atmosphere, how high the ash cloud will go, how long the plume will stay buoyant, how quickly the ash will start falling to the ground and the area over which ash will land.”

Generally, the higher the ash plume, the wider the ash will be dispersed, and the smaller the ash particles are, the longer they stay buoyant. This dispersal can also depend on weather conditions, particularly the wind direction.

Volcanoes across the world are increasingly monitored via video, using webcams or high-resolution cameras. Woods thinks that, if high frame rate video observations can be accessed during an eruption, then this real-time information could be fed into ash cloud forecasts that more realistically reflect changing eruption conditions.

During the 17-minute footage of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption, the researchers observed that the eruption rate dropped by about half. “It’s amazing that you can learn eruption rate from a video, that’s something that we’ve previously only been able to calculate after an eruption has happened,” said Woods. “It’s important to know the changing eruption rate because that could impact the ash cloud dispersal downwind.”

It’s usually challenging for volcanologists to take continuous measurements of ash clouds whilst an eruption is happening. "Instead, much of our understanding of how ash clouds spread in the atmosphere is based on scaled-down lab models,” said Dr Nicola Mingotti, a researcher in Woods’ group and co-author of this study. These experiments are performed in water tanks, by releasing particle-laden or dyed saline solutions and analysing footage of the plume as it dissipates.

Woods and his collaborators have been running lab experiments like these for several years, most recently trying to understand how eruption plumes are dragged along by the wind. But it’s a big bonus to have video measurements from a real eruption, said Woods, and the real observations agree closely with what they’ve been observing in the lab. “Demonstrating our lab experiments are realistic is really important, both for making sure we understand how ash plumes work and that we forecast their movements effectively.”

Reference:
Mingotti, N., & Woods, A. W. (2024). Video-based measurements of the entrainment, speed and mass flux in a wind-blown eruption column. Communications Earth & Environment (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s43247-024-01402-x

 

Video footage of Iceland’s 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption is providing researchers from the University of Cambridge with rare, up-close observations of volcanic ash clouds — information that could help better forecast how far explosive eruptions disperse their hazardous ash particles.

Árni FriðrikssonEruption at Eyjafjallajökull April 17, 2010.


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What’s going on in our brains when we plan?

University News - Tue, 11/06/2024 - 10:46

In pausing to think before making an important decision, we may imagine the potential outcomes of different choices we could make. While this ‘mental simulation’ is central to how we plan and make decisions in everyday life, how the brain works to accomplish this is not well understood. 

An international team of scientists has now uncovered neural mechanisms used in planning. Their results, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, suggest that an interplay between the brain’s prefrontal cortex and hippocampus allows us to imagine future outcomes to guide our decisions.

“The prefrontal cortex acts as a ‘simulator,’ mentally testing out possible actions using a cognitive map stored in the hippocampus,” said co-author Marcelo Mattar from New York University. “This research sheds light on the neural and cognitive mechanisms of planning—a core component of human and animal intelligence. A deeper understanding of these brain mechanisms could ultimately improve the treatment of disorders affecting decision-making abilities.”

The roles of both the prefrontal cortex—used in planning and decision-making—and hippocampus—used in memory formation and storage—have long been established. However, their specific duties in deliberative decision-making, which are the types of decisions that require us to think before acting, are less clear.

To illuminate the neural mechanisms of planning, Mattar and his colleagues—Kristopher Jensen from University College London and Professor Guillaume Hennequin from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering —developed a computational model to predict brain activity during planning. They then analysed data from both humans and rats to confirm the validity of the model—a recurrent neural network (RNN), which learns patterns based on incoming information. 

The model took into account existing knowledge of planning and added new layers of complexity, including ‘imagined actions,’ thereby capturing how decision-making involves weighing the impact of potential choices—similar to how a chess player envisions sequences of moves before committing to one. These mental simulations of potential futures, modelled as interactions between the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, enable us to rapidly adapt to new environments, such as taking a detour after finding a road is blocked.

The scientists validated this computational model using both behavioural and neural data. To assess the model’s ability to predict behaviour, the scientists conducted an experiment measuring how humans navigated an online maze on a computer screen and how long they had to think before each step.

To validate the model’s predictions about the role of the hippocampus in planning, they analysed neural recordings from rodents navigating a physical maze configured in the same way as in the human experiment. By giving a similar task to humans and rats, the researchers could draw parallels between the behavioural and neural data—an innovative aspect of this research.

“Allowing neural networks to decide for themselves when to 'pause and think' was a great idea, and it was surprising to see that in situations where humans spend time pondering what to do next, so do these neural networks,” said Hennequin. 

The experimental results were consistent with the computational model, showing an intricate interaction between the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. In the human experiments, participants’ brain activity reflected more time thinking before acting in navigating the maze. In the experiments with laboratory rats, the animals’ neural responses in moving through the maze resembled the model’s simulations.

“Overall, this work provides foundational knowledge on how these brain circuits enable us to think before we act in order to make better decisions,” said Mattar. “In addition, a method in which both human and animal experimental participants and RNNs were all trained to perform the same task offers an innovative and foundational way to gain insights into behaviours.”

“This new framework will enable systematic studies of thinking at the neural level,” said Hennequin. “This will require a concerted effort from neurophysiologists and theorists, and I'm excited about the discoveries that lie ahead.” 

Reference:
Kristopher T. Jensen, Guillaume Hennequin & Marcelo G. Mattar. ‘A recurrent network model of planning explains hippocampal replay and human behavior.’ Nature Neuroscience (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41593-024-01675-7

Adapted from an NYU press release.

Study uncovers how the brain simulates possible future actions by drawing from our stored memories.

Andriy Onufriyenko via Getty ImagesMetaverse portrait


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Genetics study points to potential treatments for restless leg syndrome

University News - Mon, 10/06/2024 - 10:00

Restless leg syndrome can cause an unpleasant crawling sensation in the legs and an overwhelming urge to move them. Some people experience the symptoms only occasionally, while others get symptoms every day. Symptoms are usually worse in the evening or at night-time and can severely impair sleep.

Despite the condition being relatively common – up to one in 10 older adults experience symptoms, while 2-3% are severely affected and seek medical help – little is known about its causes. People with restless leg syndrome often have other conditions, such as depression or anxiety, cardiovascular disorders, hypertension, and diabetes, but the reason why is not known.

Previous studies had identified 22 genetic risk loci – that is, regions of our genome that contain changes associated with increased risk of  developing the condition. But there are still no known ‘biomarkers’ – such as genetic signatures – that could be used to objectively diagnose the condition.

To explore the condition further, an international team led by researchers at the Helmholtz Munich Institute of Neurogenomics, Institute of Human Genetics of the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and the University of Cambridge pooled and analysed data from three genome-wide association studies. These studies compared the DNA of patients and healthy controls to look for differences more commonly found in those with restless leg syndrome. By combining the data, the team was able to create a powerful dataset with more than 100,000 patients and over 1.5 million unaffected controls.

The results of the study are published today in Nature Genetics.

Co-author Dr Steven Bell from the University of Cambridge said: “This study is the largest of its kind into this common – but poorly understood – condition. By understanding the genetic basis of restless leg syndrome, we hope to find better ways to manage and treat it, potentially improving the lives of many millions of people affected worldwide.”

The team identified over 140 new genetic risk loci, increasing the number known eight-fold to 164, including three on the X chromosome. The researchers found no strong genetic differences between men and women, despite the condition being twice as common in women as it is men – this suggests that a complex interaction of genetics and the environment (including hormones) may explain the gender differences we observe in real life.

Two of the genetic differences identified by the team involve genes known as glutamate receptors 1 and 4 respectively, which are important for nerve and brain function. These could potentially be targeted by existing drugs, such as anticonvulsants like perampanel and lamotrigine, or used to develop new drugs. Early trials have already shown positive responses to these drugs in patients with restless leg syndrome.

The researchers say it would be possible to use basic information like age, sex, and genetic markers to accurately rank who is more likely to have severe restless leg syndrome in nine cases out of ten.

To understand how restless leg syndrome might affect overall health, the researchers used a technique called Mendelian randomisation. This uses genetic information to examine cause-and-effect relationships. It revealed that the syndrome increases the risk of developing diabetes.

Although low levels of iron in the blood are thought to trigger restless leg syndrome – because they can lead to a fall in the neurotransmitter dopamine – the researchers did not find strong genetic links to iron metabolism. However, they say they cannot completely rule it out as a risk factor.

Professor Juliane Winkelmann from TUM, one of senior authors of the study, said: “For the first time, we have achieved the ability to predict restless leg syndrome risk. It has been a long journey, but now we are empowered to not only treat but even prevent the onset of this condition in our patients.”

Professor Emanuele Di Angelantonio, a co-author of the study and Director of the NIHR and NHS Blood and Transplant-funded Research Unit in Blood Donor Health and Behaviour, added: "Given that low iron levels are thought to trigger restless leg syndrome, we were surprised to find no strong genetic links to iron metabolism in our study. It may be that the relationship is more complex than we initially thought, and further work is required."

The dataset included the INTERVAL study of England’s blood donors in collaboration with NHS Blood and Transplant.

A full list of funders can be found in the study paper.

Reference
Schormair et al. Genome-wide meta-analyses of restless legs syndrome yield insights into genetic architecture, disease biology, and risk prediction. Nature Genetics; 5 June 2024; DOI: 10.1038/s41588-024-01763-1

Scientists have discovered genetic clues to the cause of restless leg syndrome, a condition common among older adults. The discovery could help identify those individuals at greatest risk of the condition and point to potential ways to treat it.

By understanding the genetic basis of restless leg syndrome, we hope to find better ways to manage and treat it, potentially improving the lives of many millions of people affected worldwideSteven BellDANNY GWoman covered with white blanket


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Earliest detection of metal challenges what we know about the first galaxies

University News - Thu, 06/06/2024 - 15:52

Using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), an international team of astronomers led by the University of Cambridge observed a very young galaxy in the early universe and found that it contained surprising amounts of carbon, one of the seeds of life as we know it.

In astronomy, elements heavier than hydrogen or helium are classed as metals. The very early universe was almost entirely made up of hydrogen, the simplest of the elements, with small amounts of helium and tiny amounts of lithium.

Every other element that makes up the universe we observe today was formed inside a star. When stars explode as supernovas, the elements they produce are circulated throughout their host galaxy, seeding the next generation of stars. With every new generation of stars and ‘stardust’, more metals are formed, and after billions of years, the universe evolves to a point where it can support rocky planets like Earth and life like us.

The ability to trace the origin and evolution of metals will help us understand how we went from a universe made almost entirely of just two chemical elements, to the incredible complexity we see today.

“The very first stars are the holy grail of chemical evolution,” said lead author Dr Francesco D’Eugenio, from the Kavli Institute for Cosmology at Cambridge. “Since they are made only of primordial elements, they behave very differently to modern stars. By studying how and when the first metals formed inside stars, we can set a time frame for the earliest steps on the path that led to the formation of life.”

Carbon is a fundamental element in the evolution of the universe, since it can form into grains of dust that clump together, eventually forming into the first planetesimals and the earliest planets. Carbon is also key for the formation of life on Earth.

“Earlier research suggested that carbon started to form in large quantities relatively late – about one billion years after the Big Bang,” said co-author Professor Roberto Maiolino, also from the Kavli Institute. “But we’ve found that carbon formed much earlier – it might even be the oldest metal of all.”

The team used the JWST to observe a very distant galaxy – one of the most distant galaxies yet observed – just 350 million years after the Big Bang, more than 13 billion years ago. This galaxy is compact and low mass – about 100,000 times less massive than the Milky Way.

“It’s just an embryo of a galaxy when we observe it, but it could evolve into something quite big, about the size of the Milky Way,” said D’Eugenio. “But for such a young galaxy, it’s fairly massive.”

The researchers used Webb’s Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) to break down the light coming from the young galaxy into a spectrum of colours. Different elements leave different chemical fingerprints in the galaxy’s spectrum, allowing the team to determine its chemical composition. Analysis of this spectrum showed a confident detection of carbon, and tentative detections of oxygen and neon, although further observations will be required to confirm the presence of these other elements.

“We were surprised to see carbon so early in the universe, since it was thought that the earliest stars produced much more oxygen than carbon,” said Maiolino. “We had thought that carbon was enriched much later, through entirely different processes, but the fact that it appears so early tells us that the very first stars may have operated very differently.” 

According to some models, when the earliest stars exploded as supernovas, they may have released less energy than initially expected. In this case, carbon, which was in the stars’ outer shell and less gravitationally bound than oxygen, could have escaped more easily and spread throughout the galaxy, while a large amount of oxygen fell back and collapsed into a black hole.

“These observations tell us that carbon can be enriched quickly in the early universe,” said D’Eugenio. “And because carbon is fundamental to life as we know it, it’s not necessarily true that life must have evolved much later in the universe. Perhaps life emerged much earlier – although if there’s life elsewhere in the universe, it might have evolved very differently than it did here on Earth.”

The results have been accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics and are based on data obtained within the JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey (JADES).

The research was supported in part by the European Research Council, the Royal Society, and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

 

Reference:
Francesco D’Eugenio et al. ‘JADES: Carbon enrichment 350 Myr after the Big Bang.’ Astronomy & Astrophysics (in press). DOI: 10.48550/arXiv.2311.09908

Astronomers have detected carbon in a galaxy just 350 million years after the Big Bang, the earliest detection of any element in the universe other than hydrogen.

NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Brant Robertson (UC Santa Cruz), Ben Johnson (CfA), Sandro Tacchella (Cambridge), Phill Cargile (CfA)Deep field image from JWST


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Electrified charcoal ‘sponge’ can soak up CO2 directly from the air

University News - Wed, 05/06/2024 - 16:00

Researchers from the University of Cambridge used a method similar to charging a battery to instead charge activated charcoal, which is often used in household water filters.

By charging the charcoal ‘sponge’ with ions that form reversible bonds with CO2, the researchers found the charged material could successfully capture CO2 directly from the air.

The charged charcoal sponge is also potentially more energy efficient than current carbon capture approaches, since it requires much lower temperatures to remove the captured CO2 so it can be stored. The results are reported in the journal Nature.

“Capturing carbon emissions from the atmosphere is a last resort, but given the scale of the climate emergency, it’s something we need to investigate,” said Dr Alexander Forse from the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, who led the research. “The first and most urgent thing we’ve got to do is reduce carbon emissions worldwide, but greenhouse gas removal is also thought to be necessary to achieve net zero emissions and limit the worst effects of climate change. Realistically, we’ve got to do everything we can.”

Direct air capture, which uses sponge-like materials to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, is one potential approach for carbon capture, but current approaches are expensive, require high temperatures and the use of natural gas, and lack stability.

“Some promising work has been done on using porous materials for carbon capture from the atmosphere,” said Forse. “We wanted to see if activated charcoal might be an option, since it’s cheap, stable and made at scale.”

Activated charcoal is used in many purification applications, such as water filters, but normally it can’t capture and hold CO2 from the air. Forse and his colleagues proposed that if activated charcoal could be charged, like a battery, it could be a suitable material for carbon capture.

When charging a battery, charged ions are inserted into one of the battery’s electrodes. The researchers hypothesised that charging activated charcoal with chemical compounds called hydroxides would make it suitable for carbon capture, since hydroxides form reversible bonds with CO2.

The team used a battery-like charging process to charge an inexpensive activated charcoal cloth with hydroxide ions. In this process, the cloth essentially acts like an electrode in a battery, and hydroxide ions accumulate in the tiny pores of the charcoal. At the end of the charging process, the charcoal is removed from the “battery”, washed and dried.

Tests of the charged charcoal sponge showed that it could successfully capture CO2 directly from the air, thanks to the bonding mechanism of the hydroxides.

“It’s a new way to make materials, using a battery-like process,” said Forse. “And the rates of CO2 capture are already comparable to incumbent materials. But what’s even more promising is this method could be far less energy-intensive, since we don’t require high temperatures to collect the CO2 and regenerate the charcoal sponge.”

To collect the CO2 from the charcoal so it can be purified and stored, the material is heated to reverse the hydroxide-CO2 bonds. In most materials currently used for CO2 capture from air, the materials need to be heated to temperatures as high as 900°C, often using natural gas. However, the charged charcoal sponges developed by the Cambridge team only require heating to 90-100°C, temperatures that can be achieved using renewable electricity. The materials are heated through resistive heating, which essentially heats them from the inside out, making the process faster and less energy-intensive.

The materials do, however, have limitations that the researchers are now working on. “We are working now to increase the quantity of carbon dioxide that can be captured, and in particular under humid conditions where our performance decreases,” said Forse.

The researchers say their approach could be useful in fields beyond carbon capture, since the pores in the charcoal and the ions inserted into them can be fine-tuned to capture a range of molecules.

“This approach was a kind of crazy idea we came up with during the Covid-19 lockdowns, so it’s always exciting when these ideas actually work,” said Forse. “This approach opens a door to making all kinds of materials for different applications, in a way that’s simple and energy-efficient.”

A patent has been filed and the research is being commercialised with the support of Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s commercialisation arm.

The research was supported in part by the Leverhulme Trust, the Royal Society, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge.

 

Reference:
Huaiguang Li et al. ‘Capturing carbon dioxide from air with charged sorbents.’ Nature (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-024-07449-2

Researchers have developed a low-cost, energy-efficient method for making materials that can capture carbon dioxide directly from the air.

The first and most urgent thing we’ve got to do is reduce carbon emissions worldwide, but greenhouse gas removal is also thought to be necessary to achieve net zero emissions and limit the worst effects of climate change. Realistically, we’ve got to do everything we canAlex ForseAlex ForseSample of activated charcoal used to capture carbon dioxide


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New instrument to search for signs of life on other planets

University News - Wed, 05/06/2024 - 15:00

The ANDES instrument will be installed on ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), currently under construction in Chile’s Atacama Desert. It will be used to search for signs of life in exoplanets and look for the very first stars. It will also test variations of the fundamental constants of physics and measure the acceleration of the Universe’s expansion.

The University of Cambridge is a member institution on the project, which involves scientists from 13 countries. Professor Roberto Maiolino, from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory and Kavli Institute for Cosmology, is ANDES Project Scientist.  

Formerly known as HIRES, ANDES is a powerful spectrograph, an instrument which splits light into its component wavelengths so astronomers can determine properties about astronomical objects, such as their chemical compositions. The instrument will have a record-high wavelength precision in the visible and near-infrared regions of light and, when working in combination with the powerful mirror system of the ELT, it will pave the way for research spanning multiple areas of astronomy.

“ANDES is an instrument with an enormous potential for groundbreaking scientific discoveries, which can deeply affect our perception of the Universe far beyond the small community of scientists,” said Alessandro Marconi, ANDES Principal Investigator.

ANDES will conduct detailed surveys of the atmospheres of Earth-like exoplanets, allowing astronomers to search extensively for signs of life. It will also be able to analyse chemical elements in faraway objects in the early Universe, making it likely to be the first instrument capable of detecting signatures of Population III stars, the earliest stars born in the Universe.

In addition, astronomers will be able to use ANDES’ data to test if the fundamental constants of physics vary with time and space. Its comprehensive data will also be used to directly measure the acceleration of the Universe’s expansion, one of the most pressing mysteries about the cosmos.

When operations start later this decade, the ELT will be the world’s biggest eye on the sky, marking a new age in ground-based astronomy.

Adapted from an ESO press release

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) has signed an agreement for the design and construction of ANDES, the ArmazoNes high Dispersion Echelle Spectrograph.

ESOArtist's impression of the ANDES instrument


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‘Missing’ sea sponges discovered

University News - Wed, 05/06/2024 - 13:56

At first glance, the simple, spikey sea sponge is no creature of mystery.

No brain. No gut. No problem dating them back 700 million years. Yet convincing sponge fossils only go back about 540 million years, leaving a 160-million-year gap in the fossil record.

In a paper released in the journal Nature, an international team including researchers from the University of Cambridge, have reported a 550-million-year-old sea sponge from the “lost years” and proposed that the earliest sea sponges had not yet developed mineral skeletons, offering new parameters to the search for the missing fossils.

The mystery of the missing sea sponges centred on a paradox.

Molecular clock estimates, which involve measuring the number of genetic mutations that accumulate within the Tree of Life over time, indicate that sponges must have evolved about 700 million years ago. And yet, there had been no convincing sponge fossils found in rocks that old.

For years, this conundrum was the subject of debate among zoologists and palaeontologists.

This latest discovery fills in the evolutionary family tree of one of the earliest animals, connecting the dots all the way back to Darwin’s questions about when the first animals evolved and explaining their apparent absence in older rocks.

Shuhai Xiao from Virginia Tech, who led the research, first laid eyes on the fossil five years ago when a collaborator texted him a picture of a specimen excavated along the Yangtze River in China. “I had never seen anything like it before,” he said. “Almost immediately, I realised that it was something new.”

The researchers began ruling out possibilities one by one: not a sea squirt, not a sea anemone, not a coral. They wondered, could it be an elusive ancient sea sponge?

In an earlier study published in 2019, Xiao and his team suggested that early sponges left no fossils because they had not evolved the ability to generate the hard needle-like structures, known as spicules, that characterise sea sponges today.

The team traced sponge evolution through the fossil record. As they went further back in time, sponge spicules were increasingly more organic in composition, and less mineralised.

“If you extrapolate back, then perhaps the first ones were soft-bodied creatures with entirely organic skeletons and no minerals at all,” said Xiao. “If this was true, they wouldn’t survive fossilisation except under very special circumstances where rapid fossilisation outcompeted degradation.”

Later in 2019, Xiao’s group found a sponge fossil preserved in just such a circumstance: a thin bed of marine carbonate rocks known to preserve abundant soft-bodied animals, including some of the earliest mobile animals. Most often this type of fossil would be lost to the fossil record. The new finding offers a window into early animals before they developed hard parts.

The surface of the new sponge fossil is studded with an intricate array of regular boxes, each divided into smaller, identical boxes.

“This specific pattern suggests our fossilised sea sponge is most closely related to a certain species of glass sponges,” said first author Dr Xiaopeng Wang, from Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences and the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology.

Another unexpected aspect of the new sponge fossil is its size.

“When searching for fossils of early sponges I had expected them to be very small,” said co-author Alex Liu from Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences. “The new fossil can reach over 40 centimetres long, and has a relatively complex conical body plan, challenging many of our expectations for the appearance of early sponges”.

While the fossil fills in some of the missing years, it also provides researchers with important guidance about what they should look for, which will hopefully extend understanding of early animal evolution further back in time.

“The discovery indicates that perhaps the first sponges were spongey but not glassy,” said Xiao. “We now know that we need to broaden our view when looking for early sponges.”

Reference:
Xiaopeng Wang et al. ‘A late-Ediacaran crown-group sponge animal.’ Nature (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-024-07520-y

Adapted from a Virginia Tech press release.

The discovery, published in Nature, opens a new window on early animal evolution.

Dinghua YangArtist's impression of Helicolocellus


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Exercising during pregnancy normalises eating behaviors in offspring from obese mice

University News - Tue, 04/06/2024 - 19:00

Previous studies in both humans and animal models have shown that the offspring of mothers living with obesity have a higher risk of developing obesity and type 2 diabetes themselves when they grow up. While this relationship is likely to be the result of a complex relationship between genetics and environment, emerging evidence has implicated that maternal obesity in pregnancy can disrupt the baby’s hypothalamus—the region of the brain responsible for controlling food intake and energy regulation.

In animal models, offspring exposed to overnutrition during key periods of development eat more when they grow up, but little is known about the molecular mechanisms that lead to these changes in eating behavior.

In a study published today in PLOS Biology, researchers from the Institute of Metabolic Science and the MRC Metabolic Diseases Unit at the University of Cambridge found that mice born from obese mothers had higher levels of the microRNA miR-505-5p in their hypothalamus—from as early as the fetal stage into adulthood. The offspring of obese mothers chose to eat more specifically of foods that were high in fat, which is consistent with fat sensing being disrupted in the hypothalamus.  

Dr Laura Dearden from the Institute of Metabolic Science, the study’s first author, said: “Our results show that obesity during pregnancy causes changes to the baby's brain that makes them eat more high fat food in adulthood and more likely to develop obesity.”

Senior author Professor Susan Ozanne from the MRC Metabolic Diseases Unit and Institute of Metabolic Science said: “Importantly, we showed that moderate exercise, without weight loss, during pregnancies complicated by obesity prevented the changes to the baby's brain.”

Cell culture experiments showed that miR-505-5p levels can be influenced by exposing hypothalamic neurons to long-chain fatty acids and insulin, which are both high in pregnancies complicated by obesity. The researchers identified miR-505-5p as a regulator of pathways involved in fatty acid uptake and metabolism – high levels of the miRNA make the offspring brain unable to sense when they are eating high fat foods. Several of the genes that miR-505-5p regulates are associated with high body mass index in human genetic studies, showing these same changes in humans can cause obesity.

The study is one of the first to demonstrate the molecular mechanisms linking nutritional exposure in utero to eating behavior. 

Dr Dearden added: “While our work was only carried out in mice, it may help us understand why the children of mothers living with obesity are more likely to become obese themselves, with early life exposures, genetics and current environment all being contributing factors.”

Reference
Dearden, L et al. Maternal obesity increases hypothalamic miR-505-5p expression in mouse offspring leading to altered fatty acid sensing and increased intake of high-fat food. PLOS Biology; 4 Jun 2024; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3002641

Adapted from a press release by PLOS Biology

Maternal obesity in pregnancy changes the eating behaviors of offspring by increasing long-term levels of particular molecules known as microRNAs in the part of the brain that controls appetite ­– but this can be changed by exercise during pregnancy, a study in obese mice has suggested.

We showed that moderate exercise, without weight loss, during pregnancies complicated by obesity prevented the changes to the baby's brainSusan OzanneEngin_Akyurt (Pixabay)Fast food meal of burger and fries


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YesLicence type: Public Domain

New open-source platform allows users to evaluate performance of AI-powered chatbots

University News - Tue, 04/06/2024 - 11:34

A team of computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians and cognitive scientists, led by the University of Cambridge, developed an open-source evaluation platform called CheckMate, which allows human users to interact with and evaluate the performance of large language models (LLMs).

The researchers tested CheckMate in an experiment where human participants used three LLMs – InstructGPT, ChatGPT and GPT-4 – as assistants for solving undergraduate-level mathematics problems.

The team studied how well LLMs can assist participants in solving problems. Despite a generally positive correlation between a chatbot’s correctness and perceived helpfulness, the researchers also found instances where the LLMs were incorrect, but still useful for the participants. However, certain incorrect LLM outputs were thought to be correct by participants. This was most notable in LLMs optimised for chat.

The researchers suggest models that communicate uncertainty, respond well to user corrections, and can provide a concise rationale for their recommendations, make better assistants. Human users of LLMs should verify their outputs carefully, given their current shortcomings.

The results, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), could be useful in both informing AI literacy training, and help developers improve LLMs for a wider range of uses.

While LLMs are becoming increasingly powerful, they can also make mistakes and provide incorrect information, which could have negative consequences as these systems become more integrated into our everyday lives.

“LLMs have become wildly popular, and evaluating their performance in a quantitative way is important, but we also need to evaluate how well these systems work with and can support people,” said co-first author Albert Jiang, from Cambridge’s Department of Computer Science and Technology. “We don’t yet have comprehensive ways of evaluating an LLM’s performance when interacting with humans.”

The standard way to evaluate LLMs relies on static pairs of inputs and outputs, which disregards the interactive nature of chatbots, and how that changes their usefulness in different scenarios. The researchers developed CheckMate to help answer these questions, designed for but not limited to applications in mathematics.

“When talking to mathematicians about LLMs, many of them fall into one of two main camps: either they think that LLMs can produce complex mathematical proofs on their own, or that LLMs are incapable of simple arithmetic,” said co-first author Katie Collins from the Department of Engineering. “Of course, the truth is probably somewhere in between, but we wanted to find a way of evaluating which tasks LLMs are suitable for and which they aren’t.”

The researchers recruited 25 mathematicians, from undergraduate students to senior professors, to interact with three different LLMs (InstructGPT, ChatGPT, and GPT-4) and evaluate their performance using CheckMate. Participants worked through undergraduate-level mathematical theorems with the assistance of an LLM and were asked to rate each individual LLM response for correctness and helpfulness. Participants did not know which LLM they were interacting with.

The researchers recorded the sorts of questions asked by participants, how participants reacted when they were presented with a fully or partially incorrect answer, whether and how they attempted to correct the LLM, or if they asked for clarification. Participants had varying levels of experience with writing effective prompts for LLMs, and this often affected the quality of responses that the LLMs provided.

An example of an effective prompt is “what is the definition of X” (X being a concept in the problem) as chatbots can be very good at retrieving concepts they know of and explaining it to the user.

“One of the things we found is the surprising fallibility of these models,” said Collins. “Sometimes, these LLMs will be really good at higher-level mathematics, and then they’ll fail at something far simpler. It shows that it’s vital to think carefully about how to use LLMs effectively and appropriately.”

However, like the LLMs, the human participants also made mistakes. The researchers asked participants to rate how confident they were in their own ability to solve the problem they were using the LLM for. In cases where the participant was less confident in their own abilities, they were more likely to rate incorrect generations by LLM as correct.

“This kind of gets to a big challenge of evaluating LLMs, because they’re getting so good at generating nice, seemingly correct natural language, that it’s easy to be fooled by their responses,” said Jiang. “It also shows that while human evaluation is useful and important, it’s nuanced, and sometimes it’s wrong. Anyone using an LLM, for any application, should always pay attention to the output and verify it themselves.”

Based on the results from CheckMate, the researchers say that newer generations of LLMs are increasingly able to collaborate helpfully and correctly with human users on undergraduate-level maths problems, as long as the user can assess the correctness of LLM-generated responses. Even if the answers may be memorised and can be found somewhere on the internet, LLMs have the advantage of being flexible in their inputs and outputs over traditional search engines (though should not replace search engines in their current form).

While CheckMate was tested on mathematical problems, the researchers say their platform could be adapted to a wide range of fields. In the future, this type of feedback could be incorporated into the LLMs themselves, although none of the CheckMate feedback from the current study has been fed back into the models.

“These kinds of tools can help the research community to have a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of these models,” said Collins. “We wouldn’t use them as tools to solve complex mathematical problems on their own, but they can be useful assistants if the users know how to take advantage of them.”

The research was supported in part by the Marshall Commission, the Cambridge Trust, Peterhouse, Cambridge, The Alan Turing Institute, the European Research Council, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

 

Reference:
Katherine M. Collins, Albert Q. Jiang, et al. ‘Evaluating Language Models for Mathematics through Interactions.’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2024). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2318124121

 

Researchers have developed a platform for the interactive evaluation of AI-powered chatbots such as ChatGPT. 

Anyone using an LLM, for any application, should always pay attention to the output and verify it themselvesAlbert Jiangda-kuk via Getty ImagesChatbot


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Vice-chancellor on how Cambridge can drive UK economic growth

University News - Mon, 03/06/2024 - 15:53

The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Deborah Prentice has written an article for the Financial Times reflecting on the University’s role as a driver of economic growth, innovation and productivity far beyond the city and its surrounding region.

She starts by comparing her current role with the one she had at Princeton in the United States where she worked for more than 30 years, latterly as its Provost. She discusses how Cambridge contributes to the UK at a scale and with a significance that no single US university can match, outlining its clear role to play as a national university, in the service of the country:

"Cambridge already contributes around £30bn each year to the UK economy. This delivers benefits right across the country. It is Europe’s 'unicorn' capital. Over the past three decades, 178 spin-outs and more than 200 start-ups connected to it have emerged, including semi-conductor giant Arm and the global life sciences firm Abcam. This success is no accident. For years, Cambridge has done things differently. The university’s intellectual property management policy is liberal, providing greater freedom to our researchers and ensuring that they benefit from the commercialisation of their ideas. We have established science parks, venture capital funds and accelerator programmes. Cambridge is now a globally significant place to start and grow businesses."

To continue with this success, she argues, Cambridge needs to be able to attract the brightest minds to the UK, something she considers to be at risk if the new government continues to pursue policies that make it appear unwelcoming to those from outside the UK:

"... they send a not-so-subtle message that foreigners are not welcome here. That alone is enough to deter talented students and academics, who are increasingly looking to the US, Asia, to other parts of Europe — our competitors for talent — for a warm welcome. Indeed, for Cambridge to sustain the success of our innovation ecosystem we need the brightest and best from the UK and around the world to come here — especially as postgraduate research students — and for a better environment to support them."

She urges that government to not just focus on infrastructure but to create an environment that supports other objectives in areas such as patents, licences, spin outs, industry collaborations and venture funding. This kind of reform, she says, would help universities like Cambridge really take off: 

"Britain is in a global competition; I know first-hand that what US universities spend on research in Boston and Silicon Valley is many times larger than what we see coming from our leading institutions in the UK. Despite this, Cambridge is ranked first globally for science intensity; we should aspire for it also to be the leader in translating research for economic impact. At the moment it is very good, but not yet great. The lessons for incoming ministers set on solving this country’s productivity under-performance are there to be learnt from our example, in terms of the barriers we face and the support we lack. This is both a huge challenge and huge opportunity for whoever wins the general election."

 

We need the brightest and best from the UK and around the world to come hereProf Deborah PrenticeDeborah Prentice


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Rainforest wildlife under threat as below-canopy temperatures rise

University News - Mon, 03/06/2024 - 10:05

Crucial strongholds for biodiversity are under threat as temperatures are rising in tropical forests, the world’s most diverse terrestrial ecosystems, a new study reveals.

It has been long assumed that the forest subcanopy and understorey – where direct sunlight is reduced – would be insulated from the worst climate change impacts by the shielding effect of the forest canopy.

A new study, published today in the journal Nature Climate Change, used a microclimate model to examine temperatures beneath the rainforest canopy across the global tropics.

This showed that between 2005 and 2019, most of the world’s undisturbed tropical forests experienced climate conditions at least partially outside the range of historic conditions. Many areas had transitioned to almost entirely new temperature averages.

Until recently, temperatures beneath the canopy in rainforests have remained relatively stable, meaning that the wildlife that lives there has evolved within a narrow range of temperatures. This leaves it poorly adapted to deal with temperatures outside this range.

The study found pronounced shifts in climate regimes in a significant proportion of tropical forests, including globally important national parks, indigenous reserves, and large tracts of ecologically unfragmented areas.

Recent studies in largely undisturbed, or primary lowland tropical forests have found changes in species composition and significant declines in animal, insect, and plant populations. These changes are attributed to warming temperatures and are consistent with the findings of the new research.

"Tropical forests are the true powerhouses of global biodiversity, and the complex networks of species they contain underpin vast carbon stocks that help to mitigate climate change. A severe risk is that species are no longer able to survive within tropical forests as climate change intensifies, further exacerbating the global extinction crisis and degrading rainforest carbon stocks," said Professor David Edwards at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences, a study co-author.   

“Our study challenges the prevailing notion that tropical forest canopies will mitigate climate change impacts and it helps us understand how to prioritise conservation of these key areas of biodiversity effectively,” said Dr Alexander Lees, Reader in Biodiversity at Manchester Metropolitan University, a study co-author.

He added: “It is paramount that distant, wealth-related drivers of deforestation and degradation are addressed and that the future of those forests acting as climate refuges is secured by effecting legal protection, and by empowering indigenous communities.

“Notwithstanding the fundamental need for global carbon emission reductions, the prioritisation and protection of refugia and the restoration of highly threatened forests is vital to mitigate further damage to global tropical forest ecosystems.”

“Tropical forests, home to many of the world’s highly specialised species, are particularly sensitive to even small changes in climate,” said Dr Brittany Trew, Conservation Scientist for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and lead author of the study.

She added: “Our research shows that climate change is already impacting vast areas of pristine tropical forest globally. To provide species with the best chance to adapt to these changes, these forests must be protected from additional human-induced threats.”

“The world's rainforests are incredible reservoirs of biodiversity, harbouring species that live in micro-environments in which climate conditions are generally stable. Thus, they are particularly sensitive to any changes brought about by climate change. It is vital that we take measures to safeguard these ecosystems from human pressures,” said Ilya Maclean, Professor of Global Change Biology at the University of Exeter and senior author of the study.

The study was made possible through a global collaboration that included researchers at Mountains of the Moon University, Uganda; Universidade Federal do Pará, Brazil; the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation and Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco, Perú. It was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Reference: Trew, B.T. et al: ‘Novel temperatures are already widespread beneath the world’s tropical forest canopies.’ Nature Climate Change, June 2024. DOI: 10.1038/s41558-024-02031-0

Adapted from a press released by Manchester Metropolitan University

Assumptions that tropical forest canopies protect from the effects of climate change are unfounded, say researchers.

A severe risk is that species are no longer able to survive within tropical forests as climate change intensifies, further exacerbating the global extinction crisis and degrading rainforest carbon stocks.David EdwardsAlexander LeesRainforest on the south-eastern edge of Amazonia, Brazil


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Cuckoos evolve to look like their hosts - and form new species in the process

University News - Thu, 30/05/2024 - 19:05

The theory of coevolution says that when closely interacting species drive evolutionary changes in each other this can lead to speciation - the evolution of new species. But until now, real-world evidence for this has been scarce.

Now a team of researchers has found evidence that coevolution is linked to speciation by studying the evolutionary arms race between cuckoos and the host birds they exploit.

Bronze-cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of small songbirds. Soon after the cuckoo chick hatches, it pushes the host’s eggs out of the nest. The host not only loses all its own eggs, but spends several weeks rearing the cuckoo, which takes up valuable time when it could be breeding itself.

Each species of bronze-cuckoo closely matches the appearance of their host’s chicks, fooling the host parents into accepting the cuckoo.

The study shows how these interactions can cause new species to arise when a cuckoo species exploits several different hosts. If chicks of each host species have a distinct appearance, and hosts reject odd-looking nestlings, then the cuckoo species diverges into separate genetic lineages, each mimicking the chicks of its favoured host. These new lineages are the first sign of new species emerging.

The study is published today in the journal Science.

“This exciting new finding could potentially apply to any pairs of species that are in battle with each other. Just as we’ve seen with the cuckoo, the coevolutionary arms race could cause new species to emerge - and increase biodiversity on our planet,” said Professor Kilner in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, a co-author of the report.

The striking differences between the chicks of different bronze-cuckoo lineages correspond to subtle differences in the plumage and calls of the adults, which help males and females that specialise on the same host to recognise and pair with each other.

“Cuckoos are very costly to their hosts, so hosts have evolved the ability to recognise and eject cuckoo chicks from their nests,’’ said Professor Naomi Langmore at the Australian National University, Canberra, lead author of the study. 

She added: “Only the cuckoos that most resemble the host’s own chicks have any chance of escaping detection, so over many generations the cuckoo chicks have evolved to mimic the host chicks.”

The study revealed that coevolution is most likely to drive speciation when the cuckoos are very costly to their hosts, leading to a ‘coevolutionary arms race’ between host defences and cuckoo counter-adaptations.

A broad scale analysis across all cuckoo species found that those lineages that are most costly to their hosts have higher speciation rates than less costly cuckoo species and their non-parasitic relatives.

“This finding is significant in evolutionary biology, showing that coevolution between interacting species increases biodiversity by driving speciation,” said Dr Clare Holleley at the Australian National Wildlife Collection within CSIRO, Canberra, senior author of the report.

The study was made possible by the team’s breakthrough in extracting DNA from eggshells in historical collections, and sequencing it for genetic studies.

The researchers were then able to combine two decades of behavioural fieldwork with DNA analysis of specimens of eggs and birds held in museums and collections.

The study involved an international team of researchers at the University of Cambridge, Australian National University, CSIRO (Australia’s national science agency), and the University of Melbourne. It was funded by the Australian Research Council.

Reference: Langmore, N.E. et al: ‘Coevolution with hosts underpins speciation in brood-parasitic cuckoos.’ Science, May 2024. DOI: 10.1126/science.adj3210

Adapted from a press release by the Australian National University.

Two decades of cuckoo research have helped scientists to explain how battles between species can cause new species to arise

This exciting new finding could potentially apply to any pairs of species that are in battle with each other...the coevolutionary arms race could cause new species to emerge - and increase biodiversity on our planetRebecca KilnerMark LethleanMale wren (left) brings food to a cuckoo fledgling (right)


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Earliest, most distant galaxy discovered with James Webb Space Telescope

University News - Thu, 30/05/2024 - 12:04

Found in a region near the Hubble Ultra Deep Field by the JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey (JADES) team, these galaxies mark a major milestone in the study of the early Universe.

“These galaxies join a small but growing population of galaxies from the first half billion years of cosmic history where we can really probe the stellar populations and the distinctive patterns of chemical elements within them,” said Dr Francesco D’Eugenio of the Kavli Institute for Cosmology at the University of Cambridge, one of the team behind the discovery.

Because of the expansion of the Universe, the light from distant galaxies stretches to longer wavelength as it travels, an effect known as redshift. In these galaxies, the effect is extreme, stretching by a factor of 15, and moving even the ultraviolet light of the galaxies to infrared wavelengths where only JWST has the capability to see it.

Modern theory holds that galaxies develop in special regions where gravity has concentrated the cosmic gas and dark matter into dense lumps known as ‘halos’. These halos evolved quickly in the early Universe, rapidly merging into more and more massive collections of matter. This fast development is why astronomers are so eager to find yet earlier galaxies: each small increment moves our eyes to a less developed period, where luminous galaxies are even more distinctive and unusual.

The two newly discovered galaxies have been confirmed spectroscopically. In keeping with the collaboration’s standard naming practice, the galaxies are now known as JADES-GS-z14-0 and JADES-GS-z14-1, the former being the more distant of the two.

In addition to being the new distance record holder, JADES-GS-z14-0 is remarkable for how big and bright it is. JWST measures the galaxy at over 1,600 light-years in diameter. Many of the most luminous galaxies produce the bulk of their light via gas falling into a supermassive black hole, producing a quasar, but at this size JADES-GS-z14-0 cannot be this. Instead, the researchers believe the light is being produced by young stars.

The combination of the high luminosity and the stellar origin makes JADES-GS-z14-0 the most distinctive evidence yet found for the rapid formation of large, massive galaxies in the early Universe. This trend runs counter to the pre-JWST expectations of theories of galaxy formation. Evidence for surprisingly vigorous early galaxies appeared even in the first JWST images and has been mounting in the first two years of the mission.

“JADES-GS-z14-0 now becomes the archetype of this phenomenon,” said Dr Stefano Carniani of the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, lead author on the discovery paper. “It is stunning that the Universe can make such a galaxy in only 300 million years.”

Despite its luminosity, JADES-GS-z14-0 was a puzzle for the JADES team when they first spotted it over a year ago, as it appears close enough on the sky to a foreground galaxy that the team couldn’t be sure that the two weren’t neighbours. But in October 2023, the JADES team conducted even deeper imaging—five full days with the JWST Near-Infrared Camera on just one field—to form the “JADES Origins Field.” With the use of filters designed to better isolate the earliest galaxies, confidence grew that JADES-GS-z14-0 was indeed very distant.

“We just couldn’t see any plausible way to explain this galaxy as being merely a neighbour of the more nearby galaxy,” said Dr Kevin Hainline, research professor at the University of Arizona.

Fortunately, the galaxy happened to fall in a region where the team had conducted ultra-deep imaging with the JWST Mid-Infrared Instrument. The galaxy was bright enough to be detected in 7.7 micron light, with a higher intensity than extrapolation from lower wavelengths would predict.

“We are seeing extra emission from hydrogen and possibly even oxygen atoms, as is common in star-forming galaxies, but here shifted out to an unprecedented wavelength,” said Jakob Helton, graduate student at the University of Arizona and lead author of a second paper on this finding.

These combined imaging results convinced the team to include the galaxy in what was planned to be the capstone observation of JADES, a 75-hour campaign to conduct spectroscopy on faint early galaxies. The spectroscopy confirmed their hopes that JADES-GS-z14-0 was indeed a record-breaking galaxy and that the fainter candidate, JADES-GS-z14-1, was nearly as far away.

Beyond the confirmation of distance, the spectroscopy allows further insight into the properties of the two galaxies. Being comparatively bright, JADES-GS-z14-0 will permit detailed study.

“We could have detected this galaxy even if it were 10 times fainter, which means that we could see other examples yet earlier in the Universe—probably into the first 200 million years,” says Brant Robertson, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California-Santa Cruz, and lead author of a third paper on the team’s study of the evolution of this early population of galaxies. “The early Universe has so much more to offer.”

The two earliest and most distant galaxies yet confirmed, dating back to only 300 million years after the Big Bang, have been discovered using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), an international team of astronomers today announced.

These galaxies join a small but growing population of galaxies from the first half billion years of cosmic history where we can really probe the stellar populations and the distinctive patterns of chemical elements within themFrancesco D’EugenioNASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Brant Robertson (UC Santa Cruz), Ben Johnson (CfA), Sandro Tacchella (Cambridge), Phill Cargile (CfA)Infrared image showing JADES-GS-z14-0 galaxy


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Clare Hall, Cambridge and LUT University, Finland sign agreement on fellowships and global climate prize

University News - Tue, 28/05/2024 - 16:11

Clare Hall, Cambridge and LUT University, Finland, establish a Visiting Fellowship programme and joint Global Prize for Solutions to Climate Change Threats. Please read more about this story here

We very much look forward to welcoming high-flying academics from LUT over the years to come to our unique interdisciplinary research communityClare Hall President Alan ShortCredit/Clare HallLUT Rector Juha-Matti Saksa and Clare Hall President President Alan Short and signing the joint agreement


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Cambridge research receives £5 million boost for ‘world-leading’ cardiovascular research

University News - Tue, 28/05/2024 - 12:10

The funding will support the university to cultivate a world-class research environment that encourages collaboration, inclusion and innovation, and where visionary scientists can drive lifesaving breakthroughs.

Professor Martin Bennett, BHF Professor of Cardiovascular Sciences at the University of Cambridge, said: “This is a fantastic achievement from the whole Cambridge team. This award will support our multiple research programmes identifying new targets and treatments for vascular disease and heart failure, new ways to reduce the consequences of diabetes and obesity, and how we can get our research used to treat patients.”

The Cambridge award is part of a £35 million boost to UK cardiovascular disease research from the British Heart Foundation. It comes from the charity’s highly competitive Research Excellence Awards funding scheme. The £5 million award to the University of Cambridge will support researchers to:

  • Combine their expertise to work on cardiovascular diseases and in populations with high unmet need.
  • Identify new markers and disease targets for a wide range of cardiovascular diseases, and test new drugs in clinical trials.
  • Develop new ways to diagnose cardiovascular disease and harness the power of artificial intelligence from imaging and health records to identify people at highest risk.
  • Generate user-friendly risk communication and management tools to improve the prevention and management of cardiovascular disease.

Professor Bryan Williams, Chief Scientific and Medical Officer at the British Heart Foundation, said: “We’re delighted to continue to support research at the University of Cambridge addressing the biggest challenges in cardiovascular disease. This funding recognises the incredible research happening at Cambridge and will help to further its reputation as a global leader in the field.

“With generous donations from our supporters, this funding will attract the brightest talent, power cutting-edge science, and unlock lifesaving discoveries that can turn the tide on the devastation caused by heart and circulatory diseases.”

Research Excellence Awards offer greater flexibility than traditional research funding, allowing scientists to quickly launch ambitious projects that can act as a springboard for larger, transformative funding applications.

The funding also aims to break down the silos that have traditionally existed in research, encouraging collaboration between experts from diverse fields. From clinicians to data scientists, biologists to engineers, the funding will support universities to attract the brightest minds, nurture new talent and foster collaboration to answer the biggest questions in heart and circulatory disease research.

The University of Cambridge has previously been awarded £9 million funding through the BHF’s Research Excellence Awards scheme. This funding has supported research that will lay the foundations for future breakthroughs, including:

  • Research showing that low doses of a cancer drug could improve recovery after a heart attack. The drug boosts activity of anti-inflammatory immune cells that can cause harmful inflammation in blood vessels supplying the heart. It’s currently being tested in clinical trials to see if it benefits patients.
  • A new risk calculator to enable doctors across the UK and Europe predict who is at risk of having a heart attack or stroke in the next 10 years with greater accuracy. The calculator has been adopted by the European Guidelines on Cardiovascular Disease Prevention in Clinical Practice.
  • Developing imaging and artificial intelligence tools to improve diagnosis of heart and vascular disease by enhancing analysis of scans for disease activity and high-risk fatty plaques. These tools can be rapidly implemented to support diagnosis, treatment and prevention.
  • A study investigating whether an epilepsy medication could help to prevent strokes in people with a common gene variant. The change in the gene HDAC9 can cause it to become ‘overactive’ and increase stroke risk. The epilepsy medication sodium valproate blocks the HDAC9 activity, so could reduce stroke risk in people with the variant.
  • Discovery of rare and common changes in the genetic code that influences proteins and small molecules in the blood, helping us understand the development of cardiovascular diseases and identify novel drug targets.

Adapted from a press release by BHF

The University of Cambridge has received £5 million funding from the British Heart Foundation (BHF) to support its world-class cardiovascular disease research over the next five years, the charity has announced.

This is a fantastic achievement from the whole Cambridge team. This award will support our multiple research programmes.Martin BennettLloyd MannProfessor Martin Bennett standing outside the Victor Phillip Dahdaleh Heart and Lung Research Institute


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US Food and Drug Administration approves Cambridge-developed artificial pancreas

University News - Fri, 24/05/2024 - 13:39

This means that even more people living with the disease will be able to use this life-changing app. For the first time, the FDA authorised the use of the artificial pancreas system in pregnancy.

CamAPS FX, produced by Cambridge spinout company CamDiab (www.camdiab.com), is an Android app that can be used to help manage glucose levels in people with type 1 diabetes, including during pregnancy.  

The app allows a compatible insulin pump and a compatible continuous glucose monitor to ‘talk to each other’, creating an artificial pancreas.

The CamAPS FX closed loop algorithm was given FDA authorisation on Thursday 23 May. It had already been CE-marked for use in the UK and the EU.

CamAPS FX creator Roman Hovorka is Professor of Metabolic Technology at the Institute of Metabolic Science and Department of Paediatrics at the University of Cambridge, where the technology was developed.

He said: "We set out to help people with type 1 diabetes and their families live better lives and we’re delighted that the FDA has reviewed the safety and effectiveness of CamAPS FX and has given the technology its approval."

"It has been extensively tested and we’re proud that it is considered by many to be the best algorithm out there."

CamAPS FX is already used by more than 27,000 people in 15 countries across Europe and Australia. Artificial pancreas systems such as CamAPS FX have been granted approval for wide use by the NHS in November 2023 by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).

Read more about the device here

An artificial pancreas developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge has been granted approval by the USA’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use by individuals with type 1 diabetes aged two and older, including during pregnancy.

We set out to help people with type 1 diabetes and their families live better lives and we’re delighted that the FDA has [...] given the technology its approvalRoman HovorkaCamDiabPhone showing CamAPS FX


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Imperceptible sensors made from ‘electronic spider silk’ can be printed directly on human skin

University News - Fri, 24/05/2024 - 10:23

The method, developed by researchers from the University of Cambridge, takes its inspiration from spider silk, which can conform and stick to a range of surfaces. These ‘spider silks’ also incorporate bioelectronics, so that different sensing capabilities can be added to the ‘web’.

The fibres, at least 50 times smaller than a human hair, are so lightweight that the researchers printed them directly onto the fluffy seedhead of a dandelion without collapsing its structure. When printed on human skin, the fibre sensors conform to the skin and expose the sweat pores, so the wearer doesn’t detect their presence. Tests of the fibres printed onto a human finger suggest they could be used as continuous health monitors.

This low-waste and low-emission method for augmenting living structures could be used in a range of fields, from healthcare and virtual reality, to electronic textiles and environmental monitoring. The results are reported in the journal Nature Electronics.

Although human skin is remarkably sensitive, augmenting it with electronic sensors could fundamentally change how we interact with the world around us. For example, sensors printed directly onto the skin could be used for continuous health monitoring, for understanding skin sensations, or could improve the sensation of ‘reality’ in gaming or virtual reality application.

While wearable technologies with embedded sensors, such as smartwatches, are widely available, these devices can be uncomfortable, obtrusive and can inhibit the skin’s intrinsic sensations.

“If you want to accurately sense anything on a biological surface like skin or a leaf, the interface between the device and the surface is vital,” said Professor Yan Yan Shery Huang from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, who led the research. “We also want bioelectronics that are completely imperceptible to the user, so they don’t in any way interfere with how the user interacts with the world, and we want them to be sustainable and low waste.”

There are multiple methods for making wearable sensors, but these all have drawbacks. Flexible electronics, for example, are normally printed on plastic films that don’t allow gas or moisture to pass through, so it would be like wrapping your skin in cling film. Other researchers have recently developed flexible electronics that are gas-permeable, like artificial skins, but these still interfere with normal sensation, and rely on energy- and waste-intensive manufacturing techniques.

3D printing is another potential route for bioelectronics since it is less wasteful than other production methods, but leads to thicker devices that can interfere with normal behaviour. Spinning electronic fibres results in devices that are imperceptible to the user, but don't have a high degree of sensitivity or sophistication, and they’re difficult to transfer onto the object in question.

Now, the Cambridge-led team has developed a new way of making high-performance bioelectronics that can be customised to a wide range of biological surfaces, from a fingertip to the fluffy seedhead of a dandelion, by printing them directly onto that surface. Their technique takes its inspiration in part from spiders, who create sophisticated and strong web structures adapted to their environment, using minimal material.

The researchers spun their bioelectronic ‘spider silk’ from PEDOT:PSS (a biocompatible conducting polymer), hyaluronic acid and polyethylene oxide. The high-performance fibres were produced from water-based solution at room temperature, which enabled the researchers to control the ‘spinnability’ of the fibres. The researchers then designed an orbital spinning approach to allow the fibres to morph to living surfaces, even down to microstructures such as fingerprints.

Tests of the bioelectronic fibres, on surfaces including human fingers and dandelion seedheads, showed that they provided high-quality sensor performance while being imperceptible to the host.

“Our spinning approach allows the bioelectronic fibres to follow the anatomy of different shapes, at both the micro and macro scale, without the need for any image recognition,” said Andy Wang, the first author of the paper. “It opens up a whole different angle in terms of how sustainable electronics and sensors can be made. It’s a much easier way to produce large area sensors.”

Most high-resolution sensors are made in an industrial cleanroom and require the use of toxic chemicals in a multi-step and energy-intensive fabrication process. The Cambridge-developed sensors can be made anywhere and use a tiny fraction of the energy that regular sensors require.

The bioelectronic fibres, which are repairable, can be simply washed away when they have reached the end of their useful lifetime, and generate less than a single milligram of waste: by comparison, a typical single load of laundry produces between 600 and 1500 milligrams of fibre waste.

“Using our simple fabrication technique, we can put sensors almost anywhere and repair them where and when they need it, without needing a big printing machine or a centralised manufacturing facility,” said Huang. “These sensors can be made on-demand, right where they’re needed, and produce minimal waste and emissions.”

The researchers say their devices could be used in applications from health monitoring and virtual reality, to precision agriculture and environmental monitoring. In future, other functional materials could be incorporated into this fibre printing method, to build integrated fibre sensors for augmenting the living systems with display, computation, and energy conversion functions. The research is being commercialised with the support of Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s commercialisation arm.

The research was supported in part by the European Research Council, Wellcome, the Royal Society, and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Reference:
Wenyu Wang et al. ‘Sustainable and imperceptible augmentation of living structures with organic bioelectronic fibres.’ Nature Electronics (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41928-024-01174-4

Researchers have developed a method to make adaptive and eco-friendly sensors that can be directly and imperceptibly printed onto a wide range of biological surfaces, whether that’s a finger or a flower petal.

Huang Lab, CambridgeSensors printed on human fingers


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One in two children with ADHD experience emotional problems, study finds

University News - Wed, 22/05/2024 - 09:00

In research published in Nature Mental Health, the team found that as many as one in two children with ADHD show signs of emotional dysregulation, and that Ritalin – the commonly-prescribed drug to help the condition – appears to be less effective at treating this symptom.

ADHD affects around one in 14 young people under the age of 18 and in around half of these cases it persists into adulthood. The condition causes problems including hyperactivity, impulsivity and a difficulty to focus attention.

It has become increasingly clear that some people with ADHD also have self-control problems, affecting their ability to regulate emotions. For example, one in 50 (2.1%) children with a diagnosis of ADHD also have a mood disorder, such as depression, while more than one in four (27.4%) have an anxiety disorder. Many also have verbal or physical outbursts due to an inability to regulate their emotions.

These problems were thought to be a result of other symptoms associated with ADHD, such as problems with cognition and motivation. But today’s study shows that emotional dysregulation occurs independently of these.

The researchers examined data from the ABCD Study, a large longitudinal cohort that tracks the brain development and mental health of children from across the United States. Data on ADHD symptoms was available for just over 6,000 of these children, allowing the researchers to attribute a score to each individual indicating their likelihood of having ADHD.

A team of scientists from Fudan University in Shanghai, China, and the University of Cambridge identified 350 individuals within the cohort who had high symptom scores that met the clinical cut-off for ADHD. Two-thirds (65.7%) of these were male.

Parents or guardians of the children and adolescents in the cohort had previously completed a series of questionnaires, which included questions that related to emotional behaviour, for example:

When my child is upset, he/she has difficulty controlling his/her behaviours.

When my child is upset, he/she knows that he/she can find a way to eventually feel better. 

When my child is upset, he/she starts to feel very bad about him/herself.

The researchers found that half (51.4%) of the individuals in the high-symptom group showed signs of emotion dysregulation and this was independent of cognitive and motivational problems.

Among children with only low-ADHD symptoms at both ages 12 and 13 years, those with a high scores of emotion dysregulation at age 13 years were 2.85 times more likely to have developed high-ADHD symptoms by age 14 years compared with those with a low score of emotion dysregulation.

When the researchers examined brain imaging data available for some of the participants, they discovered a particular region of the brain known as the pars orbitalis that was smaller among children who scored highly for ADHD and emotional problems. The pars orbitalis is at the front of the brain and plays an important role in understanding and processing of emotion and communication as well as inhibitory control over behaviour, which may explain some of the behaviours seen in ADHD.

Professor Barbara Sahakian from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Clare Hall said: “The pars orbitalis is a well-connected part of the brain, and if it hasn’t developed properly it might make it difficult for individuals to control their emotions and communicate with others appropriately, especially in social situations.

“Parents and teachers often say they have problems controlling children with ADHD, and it could be that when the children can’t express themselves well – when they hit emotional difficulties – they may not be able to control their emotions and have an outburst rather than communicating with the parent, teacher or the other child.”

Professor Sahakian hopes that acknowledging emotion dysregulation as a key part of ADHD will help people better understand the problems the child is experiencing. This could lead to using effective treatments for regulation of emotion, such as cognitive behavioural therapy.

The findings may also point to potential ways to help the child manage their emotions, for example by using cognitive behavioural techniques to learn to stop and think before they react and to express their feelings verbally, or use techniques such as exercise or relaxation to calm themselves or alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.

This may be particularly important as the researchers found that Ritalin, the drug used to help manage ADHD symptoms, does not appear to fully treat symptoms of emotion dysregulation. Identifying the problem earlier would allow for alternative, more effective interventions to help the child better manage their emotions, potentially helping the individual in adulthood.

Professor Qiang Luo from Fudan University and a Life Member at Clare Hall, Cambridge, said: “If you're having trouble controlling your emotions, this can lead to problems with social interactions, which further exacerbates any depression or anxiety that you might have. It also might mean that you're saying things or doing things that exacerbate a situation rather than calming it down. Teaching vulnerable individuals from an early age how to manage your emotions and express yourself could help them overcome such problems further down the line.”

While it is not clear exactly what causes these problems in the first place, the researchers found signs of a link to possible dysfunction of the immune system, with individuals who exhibited signs of emotion dysregulation showing higher percentages of certain types of immune cell.

Professor Sahakian added: “We already know that problems with the immune system can be linked to depression, and we’ve seen similar patterns in individuals with ADHD who experience emotion dysregulation.”

The research was supported by the National Key Research and Development Program of China, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Program of Shanghai Academic Research Leader and the Shanghai Municipal Science and Technology Major Project.

Reference
Hou, W et al.  Emotion dysregulation and right pars orbitalis constitute a neuropsychological pathway to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Nature Mental Health; 13 May 2024: DOI: 10.1038/s44220-024-00251-z

Cambridge scientists have shown that problems regulating emotions – which can manifest as depression, anxiety and explosive outbursts – may be a core symptom of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

When the children can’t express themselves well – when they hit emotional difficulties – they may not be able to control their emotions and have an outburst rather than communicatingBarbara SahakianConstantinis (Getty Images)Teenage boys fighting on way to school


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Award winning author and former MPhil in African Studies student Mary Ononokpono talks about how her work has been inspired by our MPhil programme

 

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