skip to content

Centre of African Studies

 
Subscribe to University News feed
Updated: 16 min 9 sec ago

Slow spin of early galaxy observed for the first time

Fri, 01/07/2022 - 03:45

For the study, published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, an international team of researchers analysed data from a galaxy known as MACS1149-JD1 (JD1), obtained from observations by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an assembly of radio telescopes in Chile.

The galaxy is so far away that its light comes to us from a time when the Universe was only 550 million years old – 4% of its present age.

The researchers, led by Tsuyoshi Tokuoka of Waseda University, found subtle variations in the wavelengths of the light indicating that parts of the galaxy were moving away from us while other parts were moving towards us. From these variations, they concluded that the galaxy was disc-shaped and rotating at a speed of 50 kilometres a second. By contrast, the Milky Way, at the Sun’s position, rotates with a speed of 220 kilometres per second today.

From the size of the galaxy and the speed of its rotation, the researchers were able to infer its mass, which in turn enabled them to confirm that it was likely 300 million years old and therefore formed about 250 million years after the Big Bang.  

“This is by far the furthest back in time we have been able to detect a galaxy’s spin,” said co-author Professor Richard Ellis from University College London (UCL). “It allows us to chart the development of rotating galaxies over 96% of cosmic history – rotations that started slowly initially, but became more rapid as the Universe aged.

“These measurements support our earlier findings that this galaxy is well-established and likely formed about 250 million years after the Big Bang. On a cosmic time scale, we see it rotating not long after stars first lit up the Universe.”

“Our findings shed light on how galaxies evolved in the early Universe,” said co-author Dr Nicolas Laporte, from Cambridge’s Kavli Institute for Cosmology. “We see that, 300 million years after massive molecular clouds condensed and fused into stars, a galactic disk has developed and the galaxy has acquired a shape and rotation.”

“Determining whether distant galaxies are rotating is very challenging because they only appear as tiny dots in the sky,” said co-author Professor Akio K. Inoue, from Waseda University, Tokyo “Our new findings came thanks to two months of observations and the high resolution achieved by combining the 54 radio telescopes of the ALMA observatory.”

The further away a galaxy is from Earth, the faster it appears to move away from us. As objects moving away emit light shifted towards longer wavelengths (“redshifted”), this means we can calculate their distance, and in turn their age, from the extent of redshift.

Past studies have found JD1’s redshift to be 9.1, meaning what we see is from when the Universe was 550 million years old. In the latest study, the team picked out variations in the redshift across the galaxy, indicating differences in the speed at which the galaxy was moving away from us, meaning that, relatively speaking, one side was moving away while the other side was moving closer.

From the new observations, the team concluded that JD1 was only 3,000 light years across (by comparison, the Milky Way is 100,000 light years across) and that its total mass was equivalent to 1-2 billion times the mass of the Sun.

This mass is consistent with the galaxy being about 300 million years old, with most of the mass coming from mature stars that formed close to the start of the galaxy’s life.

The finding supports earlier evidence from the same researchers, who came up with the same age estimate for JD1 in a paper published last year, using a different technique based on the brightness of light at various frequencies. They determined the age of six galaxies including JD1, concluding that cosmic dawn – the moment stars first lit up the Universe – occurred 200 to 300 million years after the Big Bang.

The research was supported by MEXT in Japan, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, the European Research Council under the EU Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, and the Kavli Foundation.

Reference:
Tsuyoshi Tokuoka et al. ‘Possible Systematic Rotation in the Mature Stellar Population of a z = 9.1 Galaxy.’ The Astrophysical Journal Letters (2022). DOI:

One of the most distant known galaxies, observed in the very earliest years of the Universe, appears to be rotating at less than a quarter of the speed of the Milky Way today, according to a new study involving University of Cambridge researchers.

ESO/C. MalinThe Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) by night


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

Chandra Observatory shows black hole spins slower than its peers

Thu, 30/06/2022 - 17:10

Supermassive black holes contain millions or even billions of times more mass than the Sun. Astronomers think that nearly every large galaxy has a supermassive black hole at its center. While the existence of supermassive black holes is not in dispute, scientists are still working to understand how they grow and evolve. One critical piece of information is how fast the black holes are spinning.

“Every black hole can be defined by just two numbers: its spin and its mass,” said Julia Sisk-Reynes of Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy (IoA), who led the study, published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. “While that sounds fairly simple, figuring those values out for most black holes has proved to be incredibly difficult.”

For this result, researchers observed X-rays that bounced off a disk of material swirling around the black hole in a quasar known as H1821+643. Quasars contain rapidly growing supermassive black holes that generate large amounts of radiation in a small region around the black hole. Located in a cluster of galaxies about 3.4 billion light-years from Earth, H1821+643’s black hole is between about three and 30 billion solar masses, making it one of the most massive known. By contrast, the supermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy weighs about four million Suns.

The strong gravitational forces near the black hole alter the intensity of X-rays at different energies. The larger the alteration the closer the inner edge of the disk must be to the point of no return of the black hole, known as the event horizon. Because a spinning black hole drags space around with it and allows matter to orbit closer to it than is possible for a non-spinning one, the X-ray data can show how fast the black hole is spinning.

“We found that the black hole in H1821+643 is spinning about half as quickly as most black holes weighing between about a million and ten million suns,” said co-author Professor Christopher Reynolds, also of the IoA. “The million-dollar question is: why?”

The answer may lie in how these supermassive black holes grow and evolve. This relatively slow spin supports the idea that the most massive black holes like H1821+643 undergo most of their growth by merging with other black holes, or by gas being pulled inwards in random directions when their large disks are disrupted. 

Supermassive black holes growing in these ways are likely to often undergo large changes of spin, including being slowed down or wrenched in the opposite direction. The prediction is therefore that the most massive black holes should be observed to have a wider range of spin rates than their less massive relatives.  

On the other hand, scientists expect less massive black holes to accumulate most of their mass from a disk of gas spinning around them. Because such disks are expected to be stable, the incoming matter always approaches from a direction that will make the black holes spin faster until they reach the maximum speed possible, which is the speed of light.

“The moderate spin for this ultramassive object may be a testament to the violent, chaotic history of the universe’s biggest black holes,” said co-author Dr James Matthews, also of the IoA. “It may also give insights into what will happen to our galaxy’s supermassive black hole billions of years in the future, when the Milky Way collides with Andromeda and other galaxies. 

This black hole provides information that complements what astronomers have learned about the supermassive black holes seen in our galaxy and in M87, which were imaged with the Event Horizon Telescope. In those cases, the black hole’s masses are well known, but the spin is not.

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Chandra X-ray Center controls science operations from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and flight operations from Burlington, Massachusetts.

Reference:
Júlia Sisk-Reynés et al. 'Evidence for a moderate spin from X-ray reflection of the high-mass supermassive black hole in the cluster-hosted quasar H1821+643.' Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (2022). DOI: 10.1093/mnras/stac1389

Adapted from a Chandra press release.

 

Astronomers have made a record-breaking measurement of a black hole’s spin, one of two fundamental properties of black holes. NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory shows this black hole is spinning slower than most of its smaller cousins. This is the most massive black hole with an accurate spin measurement and gives hints about how some of the universe’s biggest black holes grow.

X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Cambridge/J. Sisk-Reynés et al.; Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA; Optical: PanSTARRSH1821+643, a quasar powered by a supermassive black hole


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

Professor Suchitra Sebastian to receive the Schmidt Science Polymaths Award

Thu, 30/06/2022 - 12:30

Professor Suchitra Sebastian from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory has been awarded the Schmidt Science Polymaths award. Schmidt Futures, a philanthropic initiative founded by Eric and Wendy Schmidt, announced ten new recipients of the award, which provides $500,000 a year, paid through their institution, for up to five years to help support part of a research group.

The Polymath programme makes long-term bets on recently-tenured professors with remarkable track records, promising futures, and a desire to explore risky new research ideas across disciplines. The awardees are the second group to receive the Polymath award, joining just two other exceptionally talented interdisciplinary researchers named in 2021. The awards build upon Schmidt Futures’ commitment to identifying and supporting extraordinary talent, and growing networks empowered to solve hard problems in science and society.

Professor Sebastian’s research seeks to discover exotic quantum phases of matter in complex materials. Her group’s experiments involve tuning the co-operative behaviour of electrons within these materials by subjecting them to extreme conditions including low temperature, high applied pressure, and intense magnetic field.

Under these conditions, her group can take materials that are quite close to behaving like a superconductor – perfect, lossless conductors of electricity – and ‘nudge’ them, transforming their behaviour.

“I like to call it quantum alchemy – like turning soot into gold,” Sebastian said. “You can start with a material that doesn’t even conduct electricity, squeeze it under pressure, and discover that it transforms into a superconductor. Going forward, we may also discover new quantum phases of matter that we haven’t even imagined.”

Other awards she has received for her research include the World Economic Forum Young Scientist award, the L'Oreal-UNESCO Fellowship, the Lee Osheroff Richardson North American Science prize, the International Young Scientist Medal in Magnetism, the Moseley Medal, the Philip Leverhulme Prize, the Brian Pippard Prize. She is an ERC starting and consolidator grant awardee. Most recently, she was awarded the New Horizons in Physics Prize (2022) by the Breakthrough Foundation.

In addition to her physics research, Sebastian is also involved in theatre and the arts. She is Director of the Cavendish Arts-Science Project, which she founded in 2016. The programme has been conceived to question and explore material and immaterial universes through a dialogue between the arts and sciences.

“The very idea of the Polymath Award is revolutionary,” said Sebastian. “It's so rare that an award selects people for being polymaths. Imagining new worlds and questioning traditional ways of knowing - whether by doing experimental theatre, or by bringing together art and science, is part of who I am.

“And this is why in our group, we love to research at the edge - to make risky boundary crossings and go on wild adventures into the quantum unknown. We do it because it's incredibly fun, you never know what each day will bring. To be recognised for this by Schmidt Futures is so unexpected and exciting, the possibilities this award opens up are endless. I look forward to embarking on new quantum explorations, it’s going to be a wild ride!”

The awards build upon Schmidt Futures’ commitment to identifying and supporting extraordinary talent, and growing networks empowered to solve hard problems in science and society. Each Polymath will receive support at the moment in their careers when researchers have the most freedom to explore new ideas, use emerging technologies to test risky theories, and pursue novel scientific research that traverses fields and disciplines; which is otherwise unlikely to receive funding or support.

“The interdisciplinary work that could herald the next great scientific breakthroughs are chronically under-funded,” said Eric Braverman, CEO of Schmidt Futures. “We are betting on the talent of the Schmidt Science Polymaths to explore new ideas across disciplines and accelerate discoveries to address the challenges facing our planet and society.”

Hopeful Polymaths from over 25 universities submitted applications outlining research ideas in STEM fields that represent a substantive shift from their current research portfolio and are unlikely to receive funding elsewhere for consideration to the Schmidt Science Polymaths program. Existing Polymaths’ ideas range from the artificial creation of complex soft matter like human tissue, to the development of synthetic biology platforms for engineering multicellular systems, to the discovery of exotic forms of quantum matter. The impact of this type of interdisciplinary research could result in innovations previously thought impossible like a 3D printer for human organs, climate change-resistant crops, or the unknown applications of quantum matter.

“Single-minded -specialisation coupled with rigid research and funding structures often hinder the ambition to unleash fresh perspectives in scientific inquiry,” said Stuart Feldman, Chief Scientist of Schmidt Futures. “From climate change to public health, the Schmidt Science Polymaths utilise the depth of their knowledge across a breadth of fields to find new ways to solve some of our hardest problems for public benefit.”

Cambridge physicist Professor Suchitra Sebastian to join group of ten recently tenured professors named to Polymath Program, awarded up to $2.5 million each for interdisciplinary research support.

To be recognised for this by Schmidt Futures is so unexpected and exciting, the possibilities this award opens up are endless. I look forward to embarking on new quantum explorations, it’s going to be a wild ride!Suchitra SebastianNick SaffellSuchitra Sebastian


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

UK organisations release annual statistics for use of animals in research

Thu, 30/06/2022 - 10:41

This list coincides with the publication of the Home Office’s report on the statistics of scientific procedures on living animals in Great Britain in 2021.

These ten organisations carried out 1,496,006 procedures, 49% or nearly half of the 3,056,243 procedures carried out on animals for scientific research in Great Britain in 2021. Of these 1,496,006 procedures, more than 99% were carried out on mice, fish and rats and 83% were classified as causing a similar level of pain, or less, as an injection.

The ten organisations are listed below alongside the total number of procedures they carried out in 2021. Each organisation’s name links to its animal research webpage, which includes more detailed statistics. This is the seventh consecutive year that organisations have come together to publicise their collective statistics and examples of their research.

 

Organisation Number of Procedures (2021) University of Oxford 207,192 University of Cambridge 199,203 UCL 185,278 The Francis Crick Institute 183,363 University of Edinburgh 172,100 Medical Research Council 169,989 King's College London 111,750 University of Glasgow 103,271 University of Manchester 87,535 Imperial College London 76,325 TOTAL 1,496,006

 

A further breakdown of Cambridge’s numbers, including the number of procedures by species and detail of the levels of severity, can be found on our animal research pages.

Understanding Animal Research (UAR) has also produced a list of 63 organisations in the UK that have publicly shared their 2021 animal research statistics. This includes organisations that carry out and/or fund animal research.

All organisations are committed to the ‘3Rs’ of replacement, reduction and refinement. This means avoiding or replacing the use of animals where possible; minimising the number of animals used per experiment and optimising the experience of the animals to improve animal welfare. However, as institutions expand and conduct more research, the total number of animals used can rise even if fewer animals are used per study. 

All organisations listed are signatories to the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research in the UK, a commitment to be more open about the use of animals in scientific, medical and veterinary research in the UK. More than 125 organisations have signed the Concordat including UK universities, medical research charities, research funders, learned societies and commercial research organisations.

Wendy Jarrett, Chief Executive of Understanding Animal Research, which developed the Concordat on Openness, said:

“Animal research remains a small but vital part of the quest for new medicines, vaccines and treatments for humans and animals. We know that the majority of the British public accepts that animals are needed for this research, but it is important that organisations that use animals in research maintain the public’s trust in them.  By providing this level of information about the numbers of animals used, and the experience of those animals, as well as details of the medical breakthroughs that derive from this research, these Concordat signatories are helping the public to make up their own minds about how they feel about the use of animals in scientific research in Great Britain.”

Professor Anne Ferguson-Smith, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research at the University of Cambridge:

“Animal research continues to be an important part of biomedical science, but as research institutions it is vital that we do not take public support for granted, and instead explain clearly why and how we work with animals and the steps we take to ensure good animal welfare.

“Since first signing the Concordat in 2014, Cambridge University has strived to be as open about our animal research as possible, sharing a wealth of information and case studies, and continuing to engage the public. We believe it’s important to show leadership in this area and we hope our efforts make a difference and show others within the sector what can be achieved.”

Adapted from a press release by Understanding Animal Research.

 

The ten organisations in Great Britain that carry out the highest number of animal procedures – those used in medical, veterinary and scientific research - have today released their annual statistics.

Animal research continues to be an important part of biomedical science, but as research institutions it is vital that we do not take public support for granted, and instead explain clearly why and how we work with animals and the steps we take to ensure good animal welfare.Anne Ferguson-Smithfilo on GettyWhite research mice


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

YesLicense type: Attribution

‘Hologram patients’ developed to help train doctors and nurses

Tue, 28/06/2022 - 16:00

HoloScenarios, a new training application based on life-like holographic patient scenarios, is being developed by Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (CUH), in partnership with the University of Cambridge and Los Angeles-based tech company GigXR. The first module focuses on common respiratory conditions and emergencies.

"Mixed reality is increasingly recognised as a useful method of simulator training,” said Dr Arun Gupta, consultant anaesthetist at CUH and director of postgraduate education at Cambridge University Health Partnership, who is leading the project. “As institutions scale procurement, the demand for platforms that offer utility and ease of mixed reality learning management is rapidly expanding."

Learners in the same room, wearing Microsoft HoloLens mixed-reality headsets, are able to see each other in real life, while also interacting with a multi-layered, medically accurate holographic patient. This creates a unique environment to learn and practice vital, real-time decision making and treatment choices.

Through the same type of headset, medical instructors are also able to change patient responses, introduce complications and record observations and discussions – whether in person in a teaching group or remotely to multiple locations worldwide, via the internet.

Learners can also watch, contribute to and assess the holographic patient scenarios from Android, iOS smartphone or tablet. This means true-to-life, safe-to-fail immersive learning can be accessed, delivered and shared across the world, with the technology now available for license to learning institutions everywhere.

Alongside the development and release of HoloScenarios, an analysis of the new technology as a teaching and learning resource is being led by Professor Riikka Hofmann at Cambridge’s Faculty of Education.

“Our research is aimed at uncovering how such simulations can best support learning and accelerate the adoption of effective mixed reality training while informing ongoing development,” said Hofmann.

“We hope that it will help guide institutions in implementing mixed reality into their curricula, in the same way institutions evaluate conventional resources, such as textbooks, manikins, models or computer software, and, ultimately, improve patient outcomes.”

Junior doctor Aniket Bharadwaj is one of the first to try out the new technology. "Throughout medical school we would have situations where actors would come in an act as patients. With the pandemic a lot of that changed to tablet based interactions because of the risk to people of the virus,” he said.

“Having a hologram patient you can see, hear and interact with is really exciting and will really make a difference to student learning."

The first module features a hologram patient with asthma, followed by anaphylaxis, pulmonary embolism and pneumonia. Further modules in cardiology and neurology are in development.

Delivered by the Gig Immersive Learning Platform, HoloScenarios aims to centralise and streamline access and management of mixed reality learning, and encapsulate the medical experience of world-leading doctors at CUH and across the University of Cambridge.

The new technology could also provide more flexible, cost-effective training without heavy resource demands of traditional simulation, which can make immersive training financially prohibitive. This includes costs for maintaining simulation centres, their equipment and the faculty and staff hours to operate the labs and hire and train patient actors.

This story is reproduced from the Cambridge University Hospitals website

A new partnership involving Cambridge University Hospitals (CUH) and the University’s Faculty of Education, brings medical training using “mixed reality” technology one step closer. The project aims to make consistent, high-level and relevant clinical training more accessible across the world.

The demand for platforms that offer utility and ease of mixed reality learning management is rapidly expandingDr Arun GuptaClinicians at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, using HoloScenarios, a new training application based on life-like holographic patient scenarios


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

Messaging on healthy foods may not prompt healthier purchases: study

Tue, 28/06/2022 - 10:37

People making food-buying choices are often faced with adverts or other descriptions such as ‘low calorie’ (healthy) or ‘tasty’ (less healthy) to influence their decisions, so how effective are health-conscious nudges in moving consumer behaviour toward healthier lifestyles?

A study published in the journal Appetite finds that healthy cues standing alone have, surprisingly, little impact in prompting more healthy buying decisions, while ’hedonic‘ or pleasure-linked cues reduce healthy choices by 3%.

When healthy and non-healthy prompts are presented at the same time, however, the healthy prompts had a protective effect in fully neutralising the non-healthy nudges, perhaps by triggering an ’alarm bell’ to activate control processes.

The study was based on 1,200 Dutch participants and the sample was selected to be representative of age, gender, and income for the Netherlands.

The study fills some important gaps in understanding how these cues affect food-buying choices. Previous studies had largely been based on small samples and narrow populations (such as university students), and were based on healthy messages standing alone rather than alongside non-healthy cues.

“The practical impacts of our findings are two-fold: the results cast doubt on the effectiveness of health-goal cues to boost healthy food choices, but they suggest that healthy primes could prevent less healthy food choices by countering hedonic cues through the interaction of the competing messages,” said co-author Lucia Reisch, El-Erian Professor of Behavioural Economics & Policy and Director of the El-Erian Institute of Behavioural Economics & Policy at Cambridge Judge Business School.

The results were largely unaffected by factors including gender, hunger, dietary restraint and body mass index. The study’s methodology mimicked an online supermarket, and presented the competing healthy and hedonic cues through advertising banners for cooking recipes – which contained texts including such phrases as ‘healthy’ or ‘low in calories’ (with images of low-caloric meals such as a quinoa salad), and ‘just delightful’ or ‘heavenly enjoyment’ (with photos of tempting foods high in fat or sugar such as an apple tart). To test healthy or non-healthy messages standing alone, the impact on choice was compared with advertising banners unrelated to food such as tissues.

Participants made 18 choices through the mock supermarket, each time selecting one product out of six alternatives (three healthy and three not) through a mouse click.

Based on previous knowledge of health-goal priming effects, the researchers had hypothesised that health goal cues would result in more healthy food choices.

“Our results do not support this hypothesis,” the study says. “Given the high statistical power of the current study, our observed null effect cast some doubt on the generalisability of the frequent positive findings of health goal priming to the population level.” The research did find that the placement of the advertising banners mattered, with more healthy choices resulting when the healthy prime was in the top position rather than a lower position.

“From a public health perspective, the fact that we used very similar stimuli to change behaviour through a health and a hedonic prime but only managed to reduce healthy choices compared to neutral control is relevant,” concludes the study, which uses the term ‘prime’ to describe cues or nudges.

“If it is, all else equal, easier to activate hedonic goals through environmental cues, public health campaigns will be at a technical disadvantage compared to efforts through food advertisement and marketing campaigns. Further research should replicate our findings to test whether the observed differences between health and hedonic goals were linked to our specific experimental design or are universal.”

Reference:
Jan M.Bauer et al. 'Battle of the primes – The effect and interplay of health and hedonic primes on food choice.' Appetite (2022). DOI: 10.1016/j.appet.2022.105956

Originally published on the Cambridge Judge Business School website.

Healthy food cues standing alone don’t prompt healthier buying decisions, but they may counter advertising for sugary and fatty foods, says study co-authored by Cambridge researchers.

Franki Chamaki via UnsplashSupermarket aisle


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

Highly antibiotic-resistant strain of MRSA that arose in pigs can jump to humans

Tue, 28/06/2022 - 08:00

The strain, called CC398, has become the dominant type of MRSA in European livestock in the past fifty years. It is also a growing cause of human MRSA infections.

The study found that CC398 has maintained its antibiotic resistance over decades in pigs and other livestock. And it is capable of rapidly adapting to human hosts while maintaining this antibiotic resistance.

The results highlight the potential threat that this strain of MRSA poses to public health. It has been associated with increasing numbers of human infections, in people who have and have not had direct contact with livestock.

“Historically high levels of antibiotic use may have led to the evolution of this highly antibiotic resistant strain of MRSA on pig farms,” said Dr Gemma Murray, a lead author of the study, previously in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Veterinary Medicine and now at the Wellcome Sanger Institute.

She added: “We found that the antibiotic resistance in this livestock-associated MRSA is extremely stable – it has persisted over several decades, and also as the bacteria has spread across different livestock species.”

Antibiotic use in European livestock is much lower than it has been in the past. But the researchers say that ongoing reductions in antibiotic use on pig farms - due to recent policy changes - are likely to have a limited impact on the presence of this strain of MRSA in pigs because it is so stable.

While livestock-associated CC398 is found across a broad range of livestock species, it is most commonly associated with pigs. Its rise has been particularly evident in Danish pig farms where the proportion of MRSA-positive herds has increased from less than 5% in 2008 to 90% in 2018. MRSA doesn’t cause disease in pigs.

“Understanding the emergence and success of CC398 in European livestock - and its capacity to infect humans - is vitally important in managing the risk it poses to public health,” said Dr Lucy Weinert in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Veterinary Medicine, senior author of the paper.

The success of CC398 in livestock and its ability to infect humans is linked to three mobile genetic elements in the MRSA genome. These are chunks of genetic material that give the MRSA certain characteristics, including its resistance to antibiotics and its ability to evade the human immune system.

The researchers reconstructed the evolutionary history of two particular mobile genetic elements called Tn916 and SCCmec that confer antibiotic resistance in MRSA, and found they have persisted in a stable way in CC398 in pigs over decades. They also persist when CC398 jumps to humans – carrying with them high levels of resistance to antibiotics commonly used in farming.

In contrast, a third mobile genetic element called φSa3 – which enables the CC398 strain of MRSA to evade the human immune system – was found to have frequently disappeared and reappeared over time, in both human-associated and livestock-associated CC398. This suggests that CC398 can rapidly adapt to human hosts.

“Cases of livestock-associated MRSA in humans are still only a small fraction of all MRSA cases in human populations, but the fact that they’re increasing is a worrying sign,” said Weinert.

Intensification of farming, combined with high levels of antibiotic use in livestock, has led to particular concerns about livestock as reservoirs of antibiotic-resistant human infections.

Zinc oxide has been used for many years on pig farms to prevent diarrhoea in piglets. Due to concerns about its environmental impact and its potential promotion of antibiotic resistance in livestock, the European Union will ban its use from this month. But the authors say this ban may not help reduce the prevalence of CC398 because the genes conferring antibiotic resistance are not always linked to the genes that confer resistance to zinc treatment.

MRSA was first identified in human patients in 1960. Due to its resistance to antibiotics it is much harder to treat than other bacterial infections. The World Health Organisation now considers MRSA one of the world’s greatest threats to human health.

The findings are published today in the journal eLife.

The research was funded by Wellcome, the Medical Research Council and the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Fund.

Reference

Matuszewska, M, Murray, GGR. et al: ‘Stable antibiotic resistance and rapid human adaptation in livestock-associated MRSA.’ ELife, June 2022. DOI: 10.7554/eLife.74819

A new study has found that a highly antibiotic-resistant strain of the superbug MRSA – methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus – has emerged in livestock in the last 50 years, probably due to widespread antibiotic use in pig farming.

Cases of livestock-associated MRSA in humans are still only a small fraction of all MRSA cases in human populations, but the fact that they’re increasing is a worrying sign.Lucy WeinertMark HolmesPig farm


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

YesLicense type: Attribution-Noncommerical

Chance to find out more about pioneering Cambridge Maths School at open days

Mon, 27/06/2022 - 10:59

The new specialist, state-funded sixth form - opening in Mill Road, Cambridge, in September 2023 – is being developed in partnership with the University of Cambridge, where the open days will be hosted. The free events, on Saturday, 9 July and Tuesday, 12 July are aimed at Year 10 students, but are open to all students who are starting to consider their A-level options.

The Eastern Learning Alliance (ELA) - a multi-academy trust with schools across Cambridgeshire and East Anglia – will run the Cambridge Mathematics School, where talented students from across the East of England will study maths and further maths, and then choose from physics, chemistry, biology or computer science A-levels. 

Working with the University’s Faculty of Mathematics, and drawing on its outreach and widening participation expertise - in particular the success of the Millennium Mathematics Project (MMP) and its NRICH programme - the Cambridge Maths School aims to attract more female students into maths subjects, more minority ethnic students, and more students from socially and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. The School is also working with the Cambridge Mathematics project - a collaboration between Cambridge University Press and Assessment, and the Faculties of Education and Mathematics - to create an innovative mathematics curriculum. 

Clare Hargraves, Headteacher of the Cambridge Maths School, said: “The open days are the first opportunity for many school students to find out about our plans for the School and its pioneering learning, and we are delighted to be able to share our excitement with them. We want to stimulate students’ passion for mathematics through an extraordinary curriculum that connects ideas and inspires young people – we hope as many as possible can come along to the open days and discover more.”

Book tickets for the Cambridge Maths School open days, taking place 9 and 12 July at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Mathematical Sciences, Wilberforce Road, Cambridge.

*Ahead of the open days in July, the Cambridge Maths School’s first outreach enrichment events are taking place in June, for Year 9 and 10 students. Activities will be provided by the University’s NRICH and Isaac Physics outreach programmes, among others. The in-person ‘Eureka Days’, at Cambridge’s Centre for Mathematical Sciences, are designed to inspire curious mathematicians. The sessions will feature a paper crane physics challenge, ‘Dragon Quiz’, a session designed around the importance of collaboration, and a talk exploring ‘the hidden maths behind the digital world, from World War II to Wi-Fi’ by mathematician and public speaker Dr James Grime, presenter of the YouTube channel Numberphile

School students from across the East of England will find out more about the new Cambridge Maths School at a series of open day events in July.


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

Intensive farming may actually reduce risk of pandemics

Fri, 24/06/2022 - 14:18

In a paper, published earlier this week in Royal Society Open Science, Harriet Bartlett and colleagues found that there is a lack of sufficient evidence to conclude which way of farming is least risky and that there is evidence that the move away from intensive farming might actually increase the risk of pandemics. They call for more research to be done before changing policies or incentivising a particular type of farming.

“High-yield or ‘intensive’ livestock farming is blamed for pandemics, but those calling for a move away from intensive farming often fail to consider the counterfactual – the pandemic risk of farming less intensively and particularly the consequences for land use,” says the lead author, Harriet Bartlett.

Globally, we are now producing four times more meat than we did in the 1960s. Most of our meat, eggs and dairy now come from intensive farms, but such farms are thought be risky due to their crowded conditions which increase the chance of diseases ‘taking off’ and spreading rapidly.

However, intensive farms need less land than extensive (e.g. ‘free range’) farms to produce the same amount of food – both to grow their feed and to rear their animals. This is key because growing demand for livestock products has caused dramatic habitat loss, which means we are now farming in places where livestock and people are coming into frequent contact with wildlife. This contact with increasingly disturbed, stressed, and infected wildlife makes the spillover of zoonotic viruses into people or livestock more likely.

If we were to switch from the current system to one based on extensive farming, we would need substantially more land to meet demand – resulting in the conversion of habitat roughly the size of Brazil and India between 2009 and 2050. This could increase the contact between people, livestock and stressed wildlife – including wildlife that might well host the next pandemic virus.

Intensive farms may have a greater risk of takeoff, but extensive farms may have greater risk of spillover.

Worryingly, we simply do not know which risk is more important for preventing future pandemics, and so it is currently impossible to determine which types of farms carry least risk overall.

COVID19 has demonstrated the huge potential impact of zoonotic diseases, and this study highlights that more research is urgently needed to identify how we minimise the risk of another pandemic.

Reference:

Bartlett H, Holmes MA, Petrovan SO, Williams DR, Wood JLN, Balmford A. 2022 Understanding the relative risks of zoonosis emergence under contrasting approaches to meeting livestock product demand. R. Soc. Open Sci. 9: 211573. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.211573

Scientists evaluated the evidence that intensive livestock farming is causing pandemics, with surprising results. They find that intensive livestock farming could actually reduce the risk of future pandemics, compared to non-intensive farming.

Those calling for a move away from intensive farming often fail to consider the counterfactualHarriet BartlettGetty images Portrait of young woman farmer holding fresh eggs in hands


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

Developmental dyslexia essential to human adaptive success, study argues.

Fri, 24/06/2022 - 00:00

Cambridge researchers studying cognition, behaviour and the brain have concluded that people with dyslexia are specialised to explore the unknown. This is likely to play a fundamental role in human adaptation to changing environments.

They think this ‘explorative bias’ has an evolutionary basis and plays a crucial role in our survival.

Based on these findings − which were apparent across multiple domains from visual processing to memory and at all levels of analysis − the researchers argue that we need to change our perspective of dyslexia as a neurological disorder.

The findings, reported today in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, have implications both at the individual and societal level, says lead author Dr Helen Taylor, an affiliated Scholar at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge and a Research Associate at the University of Strathclyde.

“The deficit-centred view of dyslexia isn’t telling the whole story,” said Taylor. “This research proposes a new framework to help us better understand the cognitive strengths of people with dyslexia.”

She added: “We believe that the areas of difficulty experienced by people with dyslexia result from a cognitive trade-off between exploration of new information and exploitation of existing knowledge, with the upside being an explorative bias that could explain enhanced abilities observed in certain realms like discovery, invention and creativity.”

This is the first-time a cross-disciplinary approach using an evolutionary perspective has been applied in the analysis of studies on dyslexia.

“Schools, academic institutes and workplaces are not designed to make the most of explorative learning. But we urgently need to start nurturing this way of thinking to allow humanity to continue to adapt and solve key challenges,” said Taylor.

Dyslexia is found in up to 20% of the general population, irrespective of country, culture and world region. It is defined by the World Federation of Neurology as “a disorder in children who, despite conventional classroom experience, fail to attain the language skills of reading, writing and spelling commensurate with their intellectual abilities”.

The new findings are explained in the context of ‘Complementary Cognition’, a theory proposing that our ancestors evolved to specialise in different, but complementary, ways of thinking, which enhances human’s ability to adapt through collaboration.

These cognitive specialisations are rooted in a well-known trade-off between exploration of new information and exploitation of existing knowledge. For example, if you eat all the food you have, you risk starvation when it’s all gone. But if you spend all your time exploring for food, you’re wasting energy you don’t need to waste. As in any complex system, we must ensure we balance our need to exploit known resources and explore new resources to survive.

“Striking the balance between exploring for new opportunities and exploiting the benefits of a particular choice is key to adaptation and survival and underpins many of the decisions we make in our daily lives,” said Taylor.

Exploration encompasses activities that involve searching the unknown such as experimentation, discovery and innovation. In contrast, exploitation is concerned with using what's already known including refinement, efficiency and selection.

“Considering this trade-off, an explorative specialisation in people with dyslexia could help explain why they have difficulties with tasks related to exploitation, such as reading and writing.

“It could also explain why people with dyslexia appear to gravitate towards certain professions that require exploration-related abilities, such as arts, architecture, engineering, and entrepreneurship.”

The researchers found that their findings aligned with evidence from several other fields of research. For example, an explorative bias in such a large proportion of the population indicates that our species must have evolved during a period of high uncertainty and change. This concurs with findings in the field of paleoarchaeology, revealing that human evolution was shaped over hundreds of thousands of years by dramatic climatic and environmental instability.

The researchers highlight that collaboration between individuals with different abilities could help explain the exceptional capacity of our species to adapt.

The findings are published today in the journal, Frontiers in Psychology.

The research was funded by the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship, University of Strathclyde.

Reference

Taylor, H. and Vestergaard M. D: ‘Developmental Dyslexia: Developmental Disorder or Specialization in Explorative Cognitive Search?’ Frontiers in Psychology (June 2022). DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.889245

Researchers say people with Developmental Dyslexia have specific strengths relating to exploring the unknown that have contributed to the successful adaptation and survival of our species.

“The deficit-centred view of dyslexia isn’t telling the whole story. This research proposes a new framework to help us better understand the cognitive strengths of people with dyslexia.”Dr Helen TaylorYoung boy steadily makes his way through a dense forest of trees and cow parsley. He stands out in the green in his bright red jumper.


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

YesLicense type: Public Domain

Duke and Duchess of Cambridge unveil first portrait at Fitzwilliam Museum

Thu, 23/06/2022 - 15:07

Their Royal Highnesses were greeted by Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen J Toope and Fitzwilliam Director Luke Syson, who accompanied them up the Museum's grand staircase to view the contemporary portrait by award-winning British artist Jamie Coreth.

“The University of Cambridge was delighted to welcome Their Royal Highnesses, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, on their visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum to unveil a new portrait,” Professor Toope said.

The first official joint portrait of The Duke and Duchess, was commissioned in 2021 by the Cambridgeshire Royal Portrait Fund, held by the Cambridge Community Foundation, as a gift to Cambridgeshire.

With this brief in mind, Coreth worked to incorporate the City of Cambridge into the portrait by painting the background with the tones and colours of many of the historical stone buildings that are synonymous with the city. The portrait also includes the use of a hexagonal architectural motif which can be seen on buildings across Cambridge.

"It is very exciting to be the place where the public can see this splendid double portrait of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, by Jamie Coreth, the first ever painted. We’re particularly pleased that its display at the Fitzwilliam will jump start a new phase in programming for children around art and creativity," Luke Syson Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum said. 

Members of the public will be able to view the portrait at the Fitzwilliam for an initial period of three years, after which the artwork will be exhibited in other community spaces and galleries around Cambridgeshire. The painting will also be loaned to the National Portrait Gallery for a short time in 2023 to mark the Gallery’s reopening.

During their visit, Their Royal Highnesses met with Jamie Coreth, supporters of the project, and Lady Sibyl Marshall – the wife of the late Sir Michael Marshall, who originally proposed the idea to create the portrait.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited the University of Cambridge to unveil the first official joint portrait of themselves at the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Coreth + Fine Art CommissionsThe Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, 2022 by Jamie Coreth


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

Cambridge confers honorary degrees

Wed, 22/06/2022 - 14:55

The University’s Chancellor, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, presided over the congregation, which is held inside the Senate-House and conducted in both English and Latin. Around 400 staff, students and other guests were also in attendance.

The honorary graduands this year are;

Professor Kwame Appiah - Kwame studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Clare College and did his PhD there. He is an Honorary Fellow at the College. He is also the present Leslie Stephen Lecturer. A Professor of both Philosophy and Law at New York University, Appiah has taught philosophy, African studies, and African American studies at the University of Ghana and at Yale, Cornell, Duke and Harvard Universities.

Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr - The filmmaker, literary scholar, and institution builder, Henry Louis Gates Jr, came to Clare College, of which he is an Honorary Fellow, to study for his PhD. Currently Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard, Gates is known for pioneering theories of African and African American literature and has created more than 20 films, including a ground-breaking genealogy and genetics series, Finding Your Roots. Gates, affectionately known as Skip, said “All honours are a blessing, of course, but it is difficult to imagine one more meaningful than recognition from one’s alma mater.”

Professor Edith Heard - The epigeneticist and developmental biologist, Edith Heard, is an Honorary Fellow of Emmanuel College, where she read natural sciences before obtaining her PhD at Imperial College London, investigating gene amplification in rat cells. She is currently Professor of Epigenetics and Cellular Memory, Collège de France, and Director General of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). Edith said: “Today we are living in a truly exciting time for the life sciences. I believe that the University of Cambridge and EMBL are two great institutions that exemplify how science and technology can come together to advance discovery and inspire the next generation of scientists.”

Professor Sir Roger Penrose - The mathematical physicist and philosopher of science, Roger Penrose, studied mathematics at University College London before coming to Cambridge and St John’s College, of which he is now an Honorary Fellow, to complete a PhD on tensor methods in algebraic geometry. He is now Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics Emeritus in the University of Oxford. Knighted and appointed to the Order of Merit, Roger Penrose received the Nobel Prize for Physics, jointly with Reinhard Genzei and Andrea Ghez.

Professor Elizabeth Robertson - The developmental biologist Elizabeth Robertson came to Cambridge after reading zoology at the University of Oxford and worked for her PhD in the Department of Genetics and as a graduate student at Darwin College, of which she is now an Honorary Fellow. Currently a Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellow and Professor of Developmental Biology in the Dunn School of Pathology at Oxford, Robertson is a pioneer in developmental genetics.

Professor Sir Simon Schama - The historian and art historian, Simon Schama, was an undergraduate at Christ’s College, of which he is an Honorary Fellow, winning a starred first in history and going on to a Fellowship and to direct studies in the subject. A recent Leslie Stephen Lecturer, he is presently University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University. A prolific scholar, writer and critic, his  television work has included work as writer and presenter of sixty BBC documentaries. He said “this is a celebration of the empire of knowledge which is the only empire worth belonging to.”

Dr Ali Smith - The author, playwright, academic and journalist, Ali Smith, is an Honorary Fellow of Newnham College, of Clare Hall and of Lucy Cavendish College, as well as Senior Fellow Commoner in the Creative Arts at Trinity College. After reading English language and literature at the University of Aberdeen, coming first in her class and winning their Bobby Aitken Memorial Prize for Poetry, she first came to Cambridge and Newnham to begin work on a PhD in American and Irish modernism. Ali is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Professor Wole Soyinka - The playwright, poet, novelist and political activist, Wole Soyinka is an Honorary Fellow of Churchill College and has held visiting appointments at Cambridge, Legon, Atlanta, and Yale. He is presently Professor Emeritus, Dramatic Literature of the Obafemi Awolowo University. His numerous plays, poems, novels, essays and short stories won him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986.

Professor Sir John Walker - The biochemist and molecular biologist, John Walker, is an Emeritus Fellow of Sidney Sussex College and Honorary Professor of Molecular Bioenergetics. While working at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge he developed protein sequencing to interpret early DNA sequences leading to the discovery of triple over-lapping genes in bacteriophages, and proof of modifications of the genetic code in mitochondria. His investigation of the enzymatic process creating adenosine triphosphate led to a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, awarded jointly with two other scientists.

Dr Judith Weir - The composer Judith Weir was born in Cambridge to Scottish parents and first studied composition with Sir John Tavener. Now an Honorary Fellow of King’s College and of Trinity College she is the first female Master of the Queen’s Music. Internationally acclaimed for orchestral and chamber music, but perhaps better known for operas and theatrical work, her compositions often draw on sources from medieval history and the traditional stories and music of Scotland. She is President of the Royal Society of Musicians.

Bright sunshine beamed down on the distinguished ten guests who gathered to receive an honorary degree from the University of Cambridge on 22nd June. The conferment of honorary degrees is one of the highest accolades the University can bestow upon people who have made outstanding achievements in their respective fields.

This is a celebration of the empire of knowledge which is the only empire worth belonging toSir Simon Schama


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

No ‘safest spot’ to minimise risk of COVID-19 transmission on trains

Wed, 22/06/2022 - 05:00

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London, developed a mathematical model to help predict the risk of disease transmission in a train carriage, and found that in the absence of effective ventilation systems, the risk is the same along the entire length of the carriage.

The model, which was validated with a controlled experiment in a real train carriage, also shows that masks are more effective than social distancing at reducing transmission, especially in trains that are not ventilated with fresh air.

The results, reported in the journal Indoor Air, demonstrate how challenging it is for individuals to calculate absolute risk, and how important it is for train operators to improve their ventilation systems in order to help keep passengers safe.

Since COVID-19 is airborne, ventilation is vital in reducing transmission. And although COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted in the UK, the government continues to highlight the importance of good ventilation in reducing the risk of transmission of COVID-19, as well as other respiratory infections such as influenza.

“In order to improve ventilation systems, it’s important to understand how airborne diseases spread in certain scenarios, but most models are very basic and can’t make good predictions,” said first author Rick de Kreij, who completed the research while based at Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. “Most simple models assume the air is fully mixed, but that’s not how it works in real life.

“There are many different factors which can affect the risk of transmission in a train – whether the people in the train are vaccinated, whether they’re wearing masks, how crowded it is, and so on. Any of these factors can change the risk level, which is why we look at relative risk, not absolute risk – it’s a toolbox that we hope will give people an idea of the types of risk for an airborne disease on public transport.”

The researchers developed a one-dimensional (1D) mathematical model which illustrates how an airborne disease, such as COVID-19, can spread along the length of a train carriage. The model is based on a single train carriage with closing doors at either end, although it can be adapted to fit different types of trains, or different types of transport, such as planes or buses.

The 1D model considers the essential physics for transporting airborne contaminants, while still being computationally inexpensive, especially compared to 3D models.

The model was validated using measurements of controlled carbon dioxide experiments conducted in a full-scale railway carriage, where CO2 levels from participants were measured at several points. The evolution of CO2 showed a high degree of overlap with the modelled concentrations.

The researchers found that air movement is slowest in the middle part of a train carriage. “If an infectious person is in the middle of the carriage, then they’re more likely to infect people than if they were standing at the end of the carriage,” said de Kreij. “However, in a real scenario, people don’t know where an infectious person is, so infection risk is constant no matter where you are in the carriage.”

Many commuter trains in the UK have been manufactured to be as cheap as possible when it comes to passenger comfort – getting the maximum number of seats per carriage. In addition, most commuter trains recirculate air instead of pulling fresh air in from outside, since fresh air has to be either heated or cooled, which is more expensive.

So, if it’s impossible for passengers to know whether they’re sharing a train carriage with an infectious person, what should they do to keep themselves safe? “Space out as much as you reasonably can – physical distancing isn’t the most effective method, but it does work when capacity levels are below 50 percent,” said de Kreij. “And wear a high-quality mask, which will not only protect you from COVID-19, but other common respiratory illnesses.”

The researchers are now looking to extend their 1D-model into a slightly more complex, yet still energy-efficient, zonal model, where cross-sectional flow is characterised in different zones. The model could also be extended to include thermal stratification, which would offer a better understanding of the spread of an airborne contaminant.

The research was funded in part by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Reference:
Rick J. B. de Kreij et al. ‘Modelling disease transmission in a train carriage using a simple 1D-model.’ Indoor Air (2022). DOI: 10.1111/ina.13066

Researchers have demonstrated how airborne diseases such as COVID-19 spread along the length of a train carriage and found that there is no ‘safest spot’ for passengers to minimise the risk of transmission.

We hope this research will give people an idea of the types of risk for an airborne disease on public transportRick de KreijSeksan Mongkhonkhamsao via Getty ImagesWoman wearing a mask on public transport


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

Maternal microbiome promotes healthy development of the baby

Tue, 21/06/2022 - 14:20

A new study has found that a species of gut bacteria, known to have beneficial effects for health in mice and humans, changes the mother’s body during pregnancy and affects the structure of the placenta and nutrient transport - which impacts the growing baby.

The bacteria, Bifidobacterium breve, is widely used as a probiotic so this study could point to ways of combating pregnancy complications and ensuring a healthy start in life across the population.

The research involved scientists from the University of Cambridge, the Quadram Institute, and the University of East Anglia and is published today in the journal Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences.

Microbes in our gut, collectively called the gut microbiome, are known to play a key role in maintaining health by combating infections, and influencing our immune system and metabolism. They achieve these beneficial effects by breaking down food in our diet and releasing active metabolites that influence cells and body processes.

Little is known about how these interactions influence fetal development and the baby’s health pre-birth. To address this, Professor Lindsay Hall from the Quadram Institute and University of East Anglia, and Dr Amanda Sferruzzi-Perri and Dr Jorge Lopez-Tello from the University of Cambridge analysed how supplementation with Bifidobacterium bacteria affected pregnancy in mice.

Hall has been studying Bifidobacterium and the microbiome in very early life, previously showing how providing specific probiotics can help premature babies. These bacteria rise in numbers in the microbiome during pregnancy in humans and mice, and alterations in its levels have been linked to pregnancy complications.

Sferruzzi-Perri said: “Pregnancy disorders affect around one in ten pregnant women. This is worrying, as pregnancy complications can lead to health problems for the mother and her baby even after the pregnancy.”

“This study, carried out in mice, identifies the maternal microbiome as a new player in the communication between mother, placenta and fetus. Finding out how this form of communication works and how to improve it may help many women who develop pregnancy complications, as well as helping their developing child.”

‘Germ-free’ mice - lacking any microbes – can be bred to allow comparisons with other mice that have a ‘normal’ microbiome. This can provide valuable insights into the role of the microbiome in health - such studies can’t be carried out in humans.

In this study, the researchers also looked at the effect of feeding germ-free mice the probiotic Bifidobacterium breve.

In the germ-free mice, the fetus did not receive adequate sugar and failed to grow and develop properly. Excitingly, providing Bifidobacterium breve to germ-free mice improved fetal outcomes by restoring fetal metabolism, growth and development to the normal levels.

Lacking the maternal microbiome also hampered the growth of the placenta in a way that would affect fetal growth, and more detailed analysis identified a number of key cell growth and metabolic factors that appear to be regulated by the microbiome and Bifidobacterium breve.

“The placenta has been a neglected organ, despite it being vital for the growth and survival of the fetus.  A better understanding of how the placenta grows and functions will ultimately result in healthier pregnancies for mothers and babies,” said Lopez-Tello.

The researchers also found that the microbiome affected key nutrient transporters, including those for sugars within the placenta that would also influence the growth of the fetus.

“Our findings reveal that the maternal microbiome promotes development of the placenta and growth of the fetus,” said Hall.

“We think that this is linked to the altered profile of metabolites and nutrients, which affects nutrient transport from mother to baby across the placenta. Excitingly it appears that adding in a probiotic Bifidobacterium during pregnancy may help to boost how the placenta functions, which has positive effects on the baby’s growth in the womb.”

These findings are strong indicators of a link between the microbiome of the mother and the development of the baby, but in this first study of its kind there are limitations.

This study focused on one single bacterial species, and whilst this showed that Bifidobacterium breve had positive effects on germ-free mice during pregnancy, this is not a natural situation. Future studies are needed to confirm these effects in a more natural and complex microbiome.

The study was carried out in mice and cannot automatically be translated into treatments for humans. The knowledge provided in this proof-of-concept animal study is critical for guiding future studies in humans - to uncover whether the human maternal microbiome has similar effects. If that is the case, it could provide a relatively simple and low-cost way to help improve pregnancy outcomes with positive benefit for the life-long health of the mother and her child.  

The research was funded by Wellcome and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Reference

Lopez-Tello, J. et al:  ‘Maternal gut microbiota Bifidobacterium promotes placental morphogenesis, nutrient transport and fetal growth in mice.’ Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences, June 2022.

Adapted from a press release by the Quadram Institute.

Researchers studying mice have found the first evidence of how a mother’s gut microbes can help in the development of the placenta, and the healthy growth of the baby.

This study, carried out in mice, identifies the maternal microbiome as a new player in the communication between mother, placenta and fetus.”Amanda Sferruzzi-PerriHall Lab, Quadram Institute Bifidobacterium breve


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

YesLicense type: Attribution

“Reductive” models of wellbeing education risk failing children unless improved, researchers warn

Tue, 21/06/2022 - 01:11

In a new compendium of academic analysis, researchers argue that despite decades of investment in ‘positive education’ – such as programmes to teach children happiness and mindfulness – schools still lack a proper framework for cultivating pupil wellbeing.

The critique appears in Wellbeing and Schooling, a book launched on 21 June. It compiles work by members of the European Health and Wellbeing Education research network, which engages specialists from around the world.

It argues that many education systems, including in the UK, treat wellbeing education reductively, generally viewing it as a means to drive up attainment. It links this viewpoint to the prevalence of one-size-fits-all models such as the ‘happiness agenda’: a sequence of initiatives which have tried to promote ‘happier living’ in British schools in recent years. These typically focus on training pupils to adopt a positive mindset. Commonly recommended methods include keeping gratitude journals and recording happy memories.

The authors suggest that such approaches, while useful, have limited impact. Instead, they say wellbeing should be “an educational goal in its own right”. Fulfilling that requires a more nuanced approach, in which pupils engage purposefully with the circumstances that influence their wellbeing, as well as their own feelings.

Their book presents various examples from around the world of how this has been achieved. They range from system-wide strategies, such as the use of ‘Transition Years’ in Ireland and South Korea; to small-scale programmes and pilot studies, such as a project co-created by parents and teachers in New Zealand which drew on indigenous Maori heritage.

Wellbeing is typically conceptualised as having two dimensions: a ‘hedonic’ aspect, which refers to feelings and personal satisfaction, and a ‘eudaimonic’ aspect; a sense of meaningful purpose. Ros McLellan, an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, who co-edited the book, said most wellbeing education focused only on the hedonic dimension.

“If education doesn’t also guide children towards doing things that they find worthwhile and meaningful, we’re failing them,” McLellan said. “We limit their prospects of becoming successful, flourishing citizens. Life satisfaction is also more complex than we tend to acknowledge. It’s about dealing with both positive and negative experiences. Just running lessons on how to be happy won’t work. At worst, it risks making children who aren’t happy feel as if that’s their own fault.”

There is some evidence that wellbeing education, as presently realised, is failing to cut through. The Children’s Society has reported that 306,000 10 to 15-year-olds are unhappy with their lives, while one in eight feels under pressure at school. Other research on pupil stress raises questions about why the standard policy justification for wellbeing education remains the “positive impact on behaviour and attainment”.

One chapter in the book, co-authored by Professor Venka Simovska, from Aarhus University, Denmark (together with Catriona O`Toole), raises concerns that the happiness agenda overlooks the fact that some pupils inevitably find it difficult to suppress negative emotions, and fails to reflect whether focusing solely on positive feelings is beneficial for wellbeing.

“Students are faced with ever-increasing exhortations to be upbeat, to persist in the face of challenges, to display a growth mindset, to be enterprising and resilient,” the researchers write. “Repeated over time, this can give rise to an atmosphere of toxic positivity, particularly for those whose life experiences and living conditions do not lend themselves to feelings of cheery enthusiasm.”

As an alternative, they point to the recent revival in Scandinavia and elsewhere of Bildung, a German educational philosophy that links independent personal development to wider notions of purpose and social responsibility.

Informed by this tradition, schools in Denmark have applied a participatory and action-oriented pedagogical model to health and wellbeing education. The model starts by encouraging students to discuss an issue, for example how they feel when in school, then the teacher guides the students to critically explore the dynamics – either within their school or beyond – which might influence this, and envision creative possibilities for positive transformation.

Teachers and students together then develop programmes which address these structural influences and try to bring about change. The result has been school-level projects that address issues such as social inequality, marginalisation and discrimination related to health and wellbeing. “One could describe it as a form of citizenship education, but focused on school-related or wider societal determinants of wellbeing,” Simovska said.

The book also underlines the need to avoid generic, often Eurocentric, responses to promoting wellbeing in school, to consider complexities of culturally sensitive and multicultural environments, and to focus on both local circumstances and the specific needs of different demographic groups.

One chapter examines Ireland’s use of an optional ‘Transition Year’, in which students focus on developmental activities and work experience, partly to help them become more “fulfilled citizens”. This has inspired the introduction of ‘Free Years’ in South Korea. The South Korean model, however, necessarily involved adaptations to address local issues. Most obviously, Free Years, introduced in 2013, are compulsory, reflecting deep nationwide concerns in South Korea “about student wellbeing and stress in a high-stakes academic environment” – manifest in rising rates of school violence and youth suicide.

Another chapter reports how researchers at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, orchestrated a series of wānanga – traditional Maori knowledge-sharing gatherings – for parents and teachers on New Zealand’s South Island, to examine local communities’ ideas and priorities for wellbeing.

Teachers used these to devise effective strategies for helping pupils to develop positive relationships and express emotions, often drawing on Maori culture. In one particularly touching example, a primary school teacher introduced a symbolic Maori Stone into her classroom, to which children could ‘transfer’ thoughts and feelings. She found it became a useful tool for working through moments of unrest and disagreement.

McLellan believes such cases illustrate how a more nuanced approach to wellbeing education is particularly feasible in primary settings. “Arguably, it’s important we start as young as we can,” she said. “The examples in the book also show what amazing things teachers and schools can do, if we give them the resources and space to implement really effective, comprehensive, socio-ecological and culturally sensitive wellbeing education.”

Wellbeing and Schooling: Cross Cultural and Cross Disciplinary Perspectives is published by Springer, within the book series of the European Educational Research Association’s book series titled Transdisciplinary Perspectives in Educational research. The book will be launched at an event on 21 June.

An improved vision for wellbeing education should replace the over-simplistic approaches currently employed in many schools, such as happiness lessons, which risk creating an “atmosphere of toxic positivity” for pupils, experts say.

If education doesn’t also guide children towards doing things that they find worthwhile and meaningful, we’re failing themRos McLellanTeacher speaking with students


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

KPMG and the University of Cambridge unveil new partnership to reimagine the world of work, starting with mental wellbeing

Mon, 20/06/2022 - 17:23

The University of Cambridge and KPMG have today unveiled a new partnership to understand how the world of work is changing, starting with what really works when it comes to supporting employees’ mental wellbeing.

The partnership is a global first and sees the University of Cambridge bring together researchers from different disciplines to better understand the factors that affect mental wellbeing at work. It will show how different kinds of supports can boost individual mental wellbeing, enhance productivity and promote a healthy workforce for the future. 

KPMG will open its doors to Cambridge researchers, who will assess the effectiveness of the mental wellbeing initiatives the firm currently offers to its c.16,000 UK employees. This will develop an evidence base of what works and how new support measures can be developed and evaluated to meet employees’ future needs. The firm will use these insights to invest in and evolve its package of mental wellbeing support.

The firm will also share its research with the wider business community, to help them support their own workforce and reduce attrition and wellbeing related absence. It also aims to provide empirical evidence clearly demonstrating the link between employee mental wellbeing and improved productivity. 

Jon Holt, Chief Executive of KPMG UK, said: “Mental wellbeing is a global issue and a leading concern on the minds of the business leaders I speak to. Businesses need research and data to help them invest in the right areas to support their staff through a huge period of change, as we emerge from the pandemic and introduce new ways of working.

“But mental wellbeing at work is an under researched area and it is hard to access empirical data evidencing clear links between mental wellbeing policies and better employee health. 

“This partnership with the very best academics in their field seeks to address this and provide real answers on what works. It aims to help leaders support their people to thrive at work, which in turn will lift productivity and deliver wider benefits to the economy.”

Professor Gordon Harold, who is leading the Mental Wellbeing programme for the partnership, said: "Mental health is the bedrock of a healthy, productive and positive society. By 2030 depression will be a leading cause of mortality and morbidity globally, with significant implications for individuals, society and the future of work. Promoting positive mental health and supporting those who experience or are at risk of mental ill health is now a national and global priority.”

Professor Andy Neely, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Business Relations at the University of Cambridge said: “Work – what we do, how and where we do it and what it means for individuals, organisations and wider society – is changing. This ambitious partnership will bring together Cambridge researchers from a wide range of disciplines to reimagine the world of work and to co-create with KPMG effective strategies and interventions that will benefit both its workforce and those of organisations worldwide.

“Finding the best ways to support mental wellbeing at work is an urgent and important task, and the starting point for this partnership which will explore more broadly how can we enable meaningful work that addresses society’s needs.” 

The announcement is part of KPMG’s £300m three-year strategy to transform and grow its business, as it invests in new insight and services to support its clients and its people.  

It also forms part of a wider partnership between KPMG and the University of Cambridge, which aims to examine the big issues affecting work and society, such as the impact of digital technologies, the global distribution of work and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG), and to provide evidence-based, actionable insights. In September last year, the firm unveiled a training programme with Cambridge Judge Business School, which will deliver ESG training to KPMG’s 227,000 global workforce.

Read more about the Future of Work partnership here.

Published 21 June 2022

New five-year partnership on the ‘Future of Work’ will examine the big issues affecting the modern workforce and offer practical, research backed solutions to employers

Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

Gene discovery indicates motor neurone diseases caused by abnormal lipid processing in cells

Mon, 20/06/2022 - 02:35

Motor neurone degenerative diseases (MNDs) are a large family of neurological disorders. Currently, there are no treatments available to prevent onset or progression of the condition. MNDs are caused by changes in one of numerous different genes. Despite the number of genes known to cause MNDs, many patients remain without a much-needed genetic diagnosis.

The team behind the current work developed a hypothesis to explain a common cause of MNDs stemming from their discovery of 15 genes responsible for MNDs. The genes they identified are all involved in processing lipids - in particular cholesterol – inside brain cells. Their new hypothesis, published in the journal Brain, describes the specific lipid pathways that the team believe are important in the development of MNDs.

Now, the team has identified a further new gene – named TMEM63C – which causes a degenerative disease that affects the upper motor neurone cells in the nervous system.  Also published in Brain, their latest discovery is important as the protein encoded by TMEM63C is located in the region of the cell where the lipid processing pathways they identified operate. This further bolsters the hypothesis that MNDs are caused by abnormal processing of lipids including cholesterol.

“This new gene finding is consistent with our hypothesis that the correct maintenance of specific lipid processing pathways is crucial for the way brain cells function, and that abnormalities in these pathways are a common linking theme in motor neurone degenerative diseases,” said study co-author Professor Andrew Crosby from the University of Exeter. “It also enables new diagnoses and answers to be readily provided for families affected by some forms of MND”

MNDs affect the nerve cells that control voluntary muscle activity such as walking, speaking and swallowing. There are many different forms of MNDs that have different clinical features and severity. As the condition progresses, the motor neurone cells become damaged and may eventually die. This leads to the muscles, which rely on those nerve messages, gradually weakening and wasting away.

If confirmed, the theory could lead to scientists to use patient samples to predict the course and severity of the condition in an individual, and to monitor the effect of potential new drugs developed to treat these disorders.

In the latest research, the team used cutting-edge genetic sequencing techniques to investigate the genome of three families with individuals affected by hereditary spastic paraplegia – a large group of MNDs in which the motor neurons in the upper part of the spinal cord miscommunicate with muscle fibres, leading to symptoms including muscle stiffness, weakness and wasting. These investigations showed that changes in the TMEM63C gene were the cause of the disease. In collaboration with the group led by Dr Julien Prudent at the Medical Research Council Mitochondrial Biology Unit at the University of Cambridge, the team also undertook studies to learn more about the functional relevance of the TMEM63C protein inside the cell.

Using state-of-the-art microscopy methods, the Cambridge team’s work showed that a subset of TMEM63C is localised at the interface between two critical cellular organelles, the endoplasmic reticulum and the mitochondria, a region of the cell required for lipid metabolism homeostasis and proposed by the Exeter team to be important for the development of MNDs.

In addition to this specific localisation, Dr Luis-Carlos Tabara Rodriguez, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Prudent’s lab, also uncovered that TMEM63C controls the morphology of both the endoplasmic reticulum and mitochondria, which may reflect its role in the regulation of the functions of these organelles, including lipid metabolism homeostasis.

“From a mitochondrial cell biologist point of view, identification of TMEM63C as a new motor neurone degenerative disease gene and its importance to different organelle functions reinforce the idea that the capacity of different cellular compartments to communicate together, by exchanging lipids for example, is critical to ensure cellular homeostasis required to prevent disease,” said Prudent.

“Understanding precisely how lipid processing is altered in motor neurone degenerative diseases is essential to be able to develop more effective diagnostic tools and treatments for a large group of diseases that have a huge impact on people’s lives,” said study co-author Dr Emma Baple from the University of Exeter. “Finding this gene is another important step towards these important goals.”

The Halpin Trust, a charity who support projects which deliver a powerful and lasting impact in healthcare, nature conservation and the environment, part-funded this research. Claire Halpin, who co-founded the charity with her husband Les, said “The Halpin Trust are extremely proud of the work ongoing in Exeter, and the important findings of this highly collaborative international study. We’re delighted that the Trust has contributed to this work, which forms part of Les’s legacy. He would also have been pleased, I know.”

Reference:
Luis-Carlos Tábara et al. ‘TMEM63C mutations cause mitochondrial morphology defects and underlie hereditary spastic paraplegia.’ Brain (2022). DOI: 10.1093/brain/awac123

Adapted from a University of Exeter press release.

A new genetic discovery adds weight to a theory that motor neurone degenerative diseases are caused by abnormal lipid (fat) processing pathways inside brain cells. This theory will help pave the way to new diagnostic approaches and treatments for this group of conditions. The discovery will provide answers for certain families who have previously had no diagnosis.

Andriy Onufriyenko via Getty ImagesNeuron


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

Heart surgery delays will cost lives, warns research

Fri, 17/06/2022 - 10:19

Urgent action is needed to clear the backlog of people with a common heart condition who are waiting for lifesaving treatment, according to research published in the journal BMJ Open. The researchers have warned that a lack of action could result in thousands of people dying while waiting for treatment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to thousands of heart procedures being postponed and record waiting lists. Previous work has estimated that 4,989 people in England with severe aortic stenosis missed out on life-saving treatment between March and November 2020.

Aortic stenosis develops when the heart’s aortic valve becomes narrowed, restricting blood flow out of the heart. Prompt treatment is vital for people diagnosed with severe aortic stenosis, as around 50 percent will die within two years of symptoms beginning.

Now, an international team of researchers, including from the University of Cambridge, has modelled the impact that increasing treatment capacity and using a quicker, less invasive treatment option would have on waiting lists. Even in the best-case scenario, they found that the waiting list would take nearly a year to clear and over 700 people would die while waiting for treatment. The research was funded by the British Heart Foundation and the EPSRC Cambridge Centre for Mathematics of Information in Healthcare.

The traditional treatment for aortic stenosis involves replacing the narrowed valve, most commonly through open-heart surgery (a surgical aortic valve replacement, SAVR). However, a newer keyhole procedure called a transcatheter aortic valve implantation (TAVI) is increasingly being used and is now recommended for patients aged 75 and over.

The researchers investigated the impact that increasing treatment capacity and converting a proportion of operations to the quicker TAVI procedure would have on the backlog. They looked at how long it would take to clear the backlog and the number of people who would die while waiting for treatment.

They found that the best and most achievable option involved a combination of increasing capacity by 20 percent and converting 40 percent of procedures from SAVR to TAVI. This would clear the backlog within 343 days with 784 deaths while people wait for treatment.

“This simple yet relevant model tackles the critical question of how to clear waiting lists and is easy to interpret in practice,” said study co-author Professor Houyuan Jiang from Cambridge Judge Business School.

The team say they want to see greater collaboration at local and national levels to agree the changes needed that can ensure that people with severe aortic stenosis receive life-saving treatment as quickly as possible.

Before the pandemic around 13,500 SAVR and TAVI procedures were performed each year across the UK. Increasing capacity by 20 percent would represent one or two additional TAVI procedures each week per centre.

“We think that with local and national collaboration this increase is achievable,” said study co-author Professor Mamas Mamas from Keele University. “Furthermore, we have created an algorithm that NHS Trusts can use to work out the best approach locally.

“Since November 2020 the UK has been hit with further waves of COVID-19 which have led to extreme pressure on the NHS and additional delays to treatment. We expect that number of people waiting for treatment in recent months will be even higher than the figure we used in our study. Doing nothing is simply not an option. If we continue as we are currently thousands of people will die from untreated aortic stenosis.”

“Our approach does not put the onus on only management or doctors, but creates a joint solution that is easier to implement in practice,” said co-author Professor Feryal Erhun, from Cambridge Judge Business School.

“As this modelling study shows, even increased use of this quicker and less invasive procedure won’t be enough to overcome the impact of COVID-19 related delays and stop people with aortic stenosis dying while waiting for treatment,” said Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation and consultant cardiologist. “Cardiac care can’t wait. The NHS desperately needs additional resources to help it tackle the backlog of care and ensure that heart patients receive the treatment and care they need.”

Reference:
Christian Philip Stickels et al. 'Aortic stenosis post-COVID-19: a mathematical model on waiting lists and mortality.' BMJ Open (2022). DOI: 10.1136/bmjopen-2021-059309

Adapted from a BHF press release.

Pandemic has delayed lifesaving treatment for thousands of people with severe aortic stenosis. 

Our approach does not put the onus on only management or doctors, but creates a joint solution that is easier to implement in practiceFeryal ErhunThierry Dosogne via Getty ImagesSurgeons performing heart surgery


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

Molecular 3D-maps unlock new ways of studying human reproduction

Thu, 16/06/2022 - 16:20

The study also provides a crucial reference for foetal tissue generation in the lab - such tissue is in short supply but is needed for drug screening and studies into stem cell-based treatments to regenerate body tissues in diseases like Parkinson’s, for example.

Embryos develop from a clump of cells into highly organised structures. However, until now the signals orchestrating this transformation have remained hidden from observation inside the womb.

Measuring gene activity in three dimensions, researchers have generated molecular maps of the second week of gestation as it has never been seen before. Their work is published today in the journal Nature.

“This work will provide a definitive laboratory reference for future studies of early embryo development, and the embryonic origins of disease,” said Dr Thorsten Boroviak in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience and senior author of the study.

The second week of gestation is one of the most mysterious, yet critical, stages of embryo development. Failure of development during this time is one of the major causes of early pregnancy loss and birth defects.

In previous work, Boroviak showed that the first week of development in marmoset monkeys is remarkably similar to that in humans. But with existing methods he could not explore week two of development, after the embryo implants into the womb.

A new laser-assisted technique enabled the team to track down the earliest signals driving the establishment of the body axis - when the symmetrical structure of the embryo starts to change. One end becomes committed to developing into the head, and the other end becomes the ‘tail’.

The team discovered that asymmetric signals come from the embryo itself and from transient structures that support the embryo during its development – the amnion, yolk sac, and precursors of the placenta.

“Our virtual reconstructions show the developing embryo and its’ supporting tissues in the days after implantation in incredible detail,” said Boroviak.

The blueprint unlocks new ways of studying human reproduction and development. In the future, the team plans to use their new technique to investigate origins of pregnancy complications and birth defects using engineered embryo models. Understanding more about human development will help scientists to understand how it can go wrong and take steps towards being able to fix problems.

The pre-implantation period, before the developing embryo implants into the mother’s womb, has been studied extensively in human embryos in the lab. On the seventh day the embryo implants into the womb to survive and develop. Very little was previously known about the development of the human embryo once it implants, because it becomes inaccessible for study.

Boroviak’s team used implanted embryos of the marmoset, a small New World monkey, in their study because they are very similar to human embryos at this early stage of development.

This research was funded by Wellcome. It was reviewed and approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee of the Central Institute for Experimental Animals (CIEA). All animal studies were performed according to the German Animal Protection Law and approved by German Primate Center.

Reference

Bergmann, S. Penfold C.A. and Slatery E. et al: ‘Spatial profiling of early primate gastrulation in utero.’ Nature, June 2022. DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-04953-1  

Scientists have identified the biochemical signals that control the emergence of the body pattern in the primate embryo. This will guide work to understand birth defects and pregnancy loss in humans.

This work will provide a definitive laboratory reference for future studies of early embryo development, and the embryonic origins of diseaseThorsten BoroviakLaser-assisted analysis of a marmoset embryo after implantation


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

New approach topples major barrier to commercialisation of organic flow batteries

Thu, 16/06/2022 - 16:00

The process works a bit like a pacemaker, periodically providing a shock to the system that revives decomposed molecules inside the batteries. Their results, reported in the journal Nature Chemistry, demonstrated a net lifetime 17-times longer than previous research.

“Organic aqueous redox flow batteries promise to significantly lower the costs of electricity storage from intermittent energy sources, but the instability of the organic molecules has hindered their commercialisation,” said co-author Michael Aziz from Harvard. “Now, we have a truly practical solution to extend the lifetime of these molecules, which is an enormous step to making these batteries competitive.”

Over the past decade researchers have been developing organic aqueous flow batteries using molecules known as anthraquinones – composed of naturally abundant elements such as carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen – to store and release energy.

Over the course of their research, the team discovered that these anthraquinones decompose slowly over time, regardless of how many times the battery has been used.

In previous work, the researchers found that they could extend the lifetime of one of these molecules, named DHAQ but dubbed the ‘zombie quinone’ in the lab, by exposing the molecule to air. The team found that if the molecule is exposed to air at just the right part of its charge-discharge cycle, it grabs oxygen from the air and turns back into the original anthraquinone molecule — as if returning from the dead.

But regularly exposing a battery’s electrolyte to air isn’t exactly practical, as it drives the two sides of the battery out of balance — both sides of the battery can no longer be fully charged at the same time.

To find a more practical approach, the researchers developed a better understanding of how the molecules decompose and invented an electrical method of reversing the process.

Researchers from Professor Clare Grey’s group in Cambridge’s Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, carried out in situ nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) – essentially ‘MRI for batteries’ – measurements and discovered the recomposition of active materials by an electric method, the so-called deep discharge.

The team found that if they performed a deep discharge, in which the positive and negative terminals of the battery get drained so that the voltage difference between the two becomes zero, and then flipped the polarity of battery, forcing the positive side negative and the negative side positive, it created a voltage pulse that could reset the decomposing molecules back to their original form.

“Usually, in running batteries, you want to avoid draining the battery completely because it tends to degrade its components,” said co-first author Yan Jing from Harvard. “But we’ve found that this extreme discharge where we actually reverse the polarity can recompose these molecules — which was a surprise.”

“Getting to a single-digit percentage of loss per year is really enabling for widespread commercialisation because it’s not a major financial burden to top off your tanks by a few percent each year,” said Aziz.

The research team also demonstrated that this approach works for a range of organic molecules. Next, they aim to explore how much further they can extend the lifetime of DHAQ and other inexpensive anthraquinones that have been used in these systems.

“The most surprising and beautiful thing to me is that this organic molecule can transform in such a complex way, with multiple chemical and electrochemical reactions occurring simultaneously or sequentially,” said co-first author Dr Evan Wenbo Zhao, who carried out the work while he was based at Cambridge, and is now based at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands. “Yet, we are able to unpick many of these reactions and let them happen in a controlled fashion that favours the operation of a redox flow battery.”

The research was supported in part by the US National Science Foundation, the Centre of Advanced Materials for Integrated Energy Systems (CAM-IES); the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), both of which are part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Reference:
Yan Jing et al. ‘Electrochemical Regeneration of Anthraquinones for Lifetime Extension in Flow Batteries.’ Nature Chemistry (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41557-022-00967-4

Adapted from a Harvard University press release.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University have developed a method to dramatically extend the lifetime of organic aqueous flow batteries, improving the commercial viability of a technology that has the potential to safely and cheaply store energy from renewable sources such as wind and solar.

The most surprising and beautiful thing to me is that this organic molecule can transform in such a complex wayEvan Wenbo ZhaoAndriy Onufriyenko via Getty ImagesSolar panel close up


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

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

 

CAS Mailing list