Sylvan Serenity

A light, milky mist and a wall of rigid trees prevent too deep a look into this forest in Länsi-Aure, Finland. Your Shot community member Jekaterina L. submitted this image, taken on a morning in autumn.

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from National Geographic Photo of the Day

NASA Dedicates Facility to Mathematician, Presidential Medal Winner

NASA will commemorate the many contributions of retired mathematician Katherine Johnson to America’s space program during a building dedication ceremony at 2 p.m. EDT Thursday, May 5 — the 55th anniversary of Alan Shepard’s historic rocket launch and splash down, which Johnson helped make possible. The ceremony will air live on NASA Television and

from NASA

Here’s how parents of kids with rare disease found what may be blockbuster drug.

Here’s how parents of kids with rare disease found what may be blockbuster drug.

Here’s how parents of kids with rare disease found what may be blockbuster drug.

Two parents’ quest to save their twin daughters’ lives from a rare, degenerative genetic disorder may end up saving and improving the lives of millions.

After digging through medical literature and fitting pieces of data together, the non-medically trained couple contacted German researchers and suggested that a chemical called cyclodextrin may be able to treat atherosclerosis—the hardening of arteries with cholesterol-rich plaques, which is a precursor to heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases.

The researchers, Eicke Latz at the University of Bonn and colleagues, followed up on the parents’ hypothesis and found that in mice, cyclodextrin indeed blocked plaque formation, melted away plaques that had already formed in arteries, reduced atherosclerosis-associated inflammation, and revved up cholesterol metabolism—even in rodents fed cholesterol-rich diets. In petri dish-based tests, the researchers found that the drug seemed to have the same effects on human cells and plaques.

The findings, published Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine, suggest that cyclodextrin—a drug already approved for use in humans by the US Food and Drug Administration—may be highly effective at treating and preventing heart disease.

Currently, cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death worldwide, and around 43 percent of Americans have high cholesterol, which can lead to atherosclerosis. Typical treatments include statins and other cholesterol-lowering drugs, which are not always effective, particularly when patients don’t adhere to doctor-prescribed, low-cholesterol diets.

While Latz and co-authors stress that clinical trials are needed to validate the effects of cyclodextrin, the researchers note that it would be fairly easy to repurpose the drug to treat and prevent cardiovascular diseases.

But, while cyclodextrin’s road ahead may be clear, its path to medical treatments was oddly bumpy.

Sweet solution?

The chemical, which is simply a bunch of sugar molecules assembled in a ring, is already widely used in medications and foods. Because the outside of the ring is hydrophilic (it mixes with water) and the inside of the ring is hydrophobic (it doesn’t mix with water), cyclodextrin can trap chemicals inside the ring and help them mix into medicines and foods. In medications, cyclodextrin acts as a ‘carrier’ that make active drugs dissolve better in the body. Cyclodextrin is also used in foods, such as mayonnaise, sweets, and butter, to stabilize flavors and emulsifications and to remove cholesterol. But besides its role as an additive, it was largely overlooked by researchers.

One of the first inklings of cyclodextrin’s therapeutic potential came in a 2004 scientific publication. Researchers were searching for a treatment for an ultra-rare genetic disorder called Niemann-Pick type C disease (NPC), which likely affects only a few hundred patients in the US. The disease is caused by a genetic mutation that breaks a protein responsible for shuttling cholesterol in cells. Because cholesterol is a vital building block to cell membranes and various organic molecules, its transport through the body and its cells is critical for proper health. In the absence of a working transporter, cholesterol gradually piles up in cells throughout the body, causing organ dysfunction, neurodegeneration, and eventual death.

NPC is sometimes called childhood Alzheimer’s because kids with the disease are often diagnosed after they develop symptoms similar to dementia, including deteriorating memory, balance, and verbal skills.

In the 2004 study, researchers presented data that a neurosteroid—given with the carrier cyclodextrin—seemed to help mice that were genetically engineered to have a broken cholesterol transporter. A single dose, the researchers found, doubled the life expectancy of the mice.

While other researchers rushed to repeat the experiment, which validated the finding, it took several years for researchers to figure out what was really going on: that the neurosteroid had no effect on the mice at all—it was the cyclodextrin.

Enter the Hempels

As researchers rolled out data on cyclodextrin, a couple named Chris and Hugh Hempel in Reno, Nevada, paid close attention. In 2007, their twin daughters, Addi and Cassi, then three years old, were diagnosed with NPC. As doctors repeatedly told them there was nothing to be done, the parents kept digging into the research and looking for a cure.

They found cyclodextrin and initially tried using it in oral doses, which is known to be safe. However, the chemical couldn’t effectively reach the brain that way. The couple made headlines with their tireless efforts to get drug companies, the FDA, and doctors to let them try out intravenous treatments of cyclodextrin for their twins—and they won. Regular treatments gradually improved—although didn’t cure—the twins’ conditions. Cyclodextrin is now in clinical trials to treat other kids with NPC.

Meanwhile, in 2010, Latz and colleagues published a study in Nature showing that cholesterol crystals, which accumulate along arteries when there’s too much cholesterol in the blood stream, can trigger inflammation. The immune response then produces a snowball effect eventually leading to the development of plaques—layers of cholesterol crystals, immune cells, and calcified lesions in the artery wall. Upon reading the study, Chris Hempel contacted Latz and told him about their experience with cyclodextrin clearing cholesterol from cells. Perhaps the sweet chemical could also clear it from plaques.

In mice fed high-cholesterol diets, cyclodextrin cleared away plaques and helped prevent more plaques from forming, Latz and his colleagues found. The chemical also activated cholesterol metabolism that boosted clearance of the waxy substance from arteries, plus dampened inflammation responses that spur atherosclerosis.

Using blood vessel tissue from human patients with atherosclerosis, researchers found that cyclodextrin induced the same changes in the human cells as it did in the mice.

The study, which includes Hempel as a coauthor, shows that cyclodextrin is a promising new treatment for atherosclerosis in humans, the researchers conclude—all thanks to some motivated parents.

Science Translational Medicine, 2015. DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aad6100  (About DOIs).


April 28, 2016 at 01:42PM
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You have an unique microbiome, as does your city and office


Image sources: Samiran Sarkar via Shutterstock/CDC Image Library


Last week, in an issue of Nature Microbiology, we got a glimpse at the new, revised tree of life: a sprawling, unruly diagram that proved just how little we know about the world around us. All of the organisms we normally think of—animals and plants—are only a tiny fraction of the whole story. Most of the billions of life forms on Earth are bacteria.

A new era of scientific discovery is emerging—one that combines microbiology and our newfound ability to collect and process the microbial life around us and inside of us. In fact, you have a unique community of microbes that you carry around with you—scientists call this your “microbiome” and estimate it contains 100 times the amount of genetic information as your actual DNA. These bacteria affect everything from your digestion to your skin, and companies are already racing to market products that enhance the natural effects of your own vibrant microbial community.

Now, a paper published this week in the microbiology journal mSystems shows that even cities have their own unique bacterial fingerprints, too—as do offices. And yes: Your phlegmy coworker is part of it.

Learn More
© 2016 Chase et al.

Your Office Has A Signature, And It’s Mostly Skin

The researchers, led by John Chase of Northern Arizona University’s Center for Microbial Genetics and Genomics, wanted to study the microbial communities in offices—reflecting a growing interest in the microbiomes of built environments, or “BEs” as they’re often abbreviated in research. “We know that microbes in the [built environment] affect human health,” they explain. “However, until recently, very little was known about the microorganisms that cohabit with us in these environments.”

To study them, they started spec’ing.

They chose a specific type of carpet, a ceiling tile, and a brand of drywall to install in nine different offices across three cities—San Diego, Toronto, and Flagstaff—each in a different climate zone. Using the same material allowed them to compare whether, say, the floor under your desk is teeming with more bacteria than your wall. (Yes, it is.)

They also collected very personal samples from office workers—not only skin, snot, and saliva, but also fecal matter—to find out how their unique microbiomes affected the office’s. Then, over the course of a year in each office, the team collected bacterial samples from each architectural material swatch, creating a calendar of the office’s bacterial ebb and flow.

Our Nasal Microbes, Ourselves

What did they find? First of all, that our offices are fairly hermetic spaces. These tightly controlled environments are “microbial wastelands” and “desert-like environments where microbes passively accumulate,” microbiologist Sean Gibbons writes in a commentary published with the study. “Humanity’s transition from the outdoor environment to the built environment has reduced our exposure to microbial diversity.” In fact, a lot of the microbes came from humans—about 30% from human skin, while a “small but consistent” amount from nasal matter.

But the team also decided to run an unusual test on the results: They created an algorithm that guessed which city a sample came from based on its microbes. Shockingly, it could guess with 85% accuracy—while within a given city, it was pretty bad at telling the specific offices apart.

That would suggest that each city has its own unique signature of bacteria, influenced by its people, its environment, its infrastructure, and its weather. Just as we think of humans from New York or Los Angeles as having certain relatively common characteristics, the microbial populations within cities might share some proclivities, too.

But truly understanding these types of communities will be a decades-long endeavor. As science journalist Sarah Zhang discovered when she had the microbiome of her apartment sequenced last year—and found that much of it was “unclassified” or unknown—this is an emerging field and an emerging technology.

So for now, the details of these vast urban oases of bacteria will remain largely unknown beyond the fact that they do indeed exist, resting just beyond the reach of our current technological capabilities. We’re standing at the brink of discovering this new world—one that we can’t see but that flourishes inside us, our buildings, and even our cities.


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April 28, 2016 at 01:06PM
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Hubble Telescope Captures Sharpest Image Yet of Mysterious Red Rectangle

Hubble Telescope Captures Sharpest Image Yet of Mysterious Red Rectangle

Hubble Telescope Captures Sharpest Image Yet of Mysterious Red Rectangle

Star HD 44179

An image of star HD 44179, surrounded by an extraordinary structure known as the Red Rectangle. This image was captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

: ESA/Hubble and NASA

A striking new image captured by the Hubble Space Telescope delivers a deep look into a mysterious cosmic object called the Red Rectangle Nebula.

The Red Rectangle, so named because of its bizarre shape and striking color, is a nebula — a cosmic of gas and particles. In this case, the nebula is formed by the central star, HD 44179, which is reaching the end of its life and shedding most of its mass into space.

The source of the red light emitted by the Red Rectangle baffled scientists for more than 30 years. The same kind of red emission was seen throughout the Milky Way and in other galaxies, but scientists weren’t sure what created it. The mystery was finally solved in 2007: The glow comes from strange activity at the molecular level inside clusters of dust.

This new image gives scientists the best understanding yet of the structure of the Red Rectangle, according to a statement from NASA. Instead of a rectangle, it appears that the nebula around the star is shaped like an “X,” with ladder-like rungs of glowing connecting the four arms.

The star at the center of the Red Rectangle is similar to Earth’s sun and is responsible for those evenly spaced lines as it releases gas and other material to create the nebula and its distinctive shape. NASA experts now believe the star is also a close binary (meaning it has a stellar partner), and is surrounded by a dense area of dust, according to the statement.

The star at the center of the Red Rectangle will eventually leave behind a hot white dwarf that will give off ultraviolet radiation that will cause the surrounding gas to glow.

Follow Kasandra Brabaw on Twitter @KassieBrabaw. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on

    April 28, 2016 at 01:00PM
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    Increased water stored on land has slowed sea level rise by 20%, study finds

    for Climate Central 17 hours ago

    Vast volumes of water falling as rain and snow have stayed on land in recent years, slowing the rise of the seas, new research has revealed.

    Water is constantly evaporating from oceans and moving to land, where it’s stored fleetingly in lakes, snowpacks, soil and tree canopies, before flowing back again.

    SEE ALSO: More rain, less snow for U.S. winters

    The land "has been taking up water,"

    The land "has been taking up water," said NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist John Reager, who led the study published Thursday in Science. "That’s been slowing the rate of sea level rise."

    The effect may have been temporary, and it has not been enough to protect coastal residents from profound shoreline changes triggered by global warming.

    The new study relied on NASA gravity data from 2002 to 2014 to track the changes in the amount of water stored on land. The finding excluded water stored in glaciers, which continued to decline as warming temperatures caused them to melt.

    Because of global warming, high tides are lapping an average of 8 inches higher than they were in the 1800s, causing routine flooding along the East and Gulf coasts. Several feet or more of additional sea level rise is anticipated this century, threatening roads, pipelines, buildings and residents around the world.

    Seas have been rising about 3.2 millimeters (one-eighth of an inch) yearly since the early 1990s. The rate is projected to pick up pace as more water melts from glaciers and ice sheets, and as warming oceans continue to expand.

    SEE ALSO: West likely to be stormier with climate change

    Because of the high amounts of water being trapped on land, the rate fell to 2.4 millimeters from 2002 to 2014

    Because of the high amounts of water being trapped on land, the rate fell to 2.4 millimeters from 2002 to 2014, slowing sea level rise by a quarter, according to the findings from the study.

    During the 12-year period studied, Reager said it’s enough water to fill Lake Huron — which between Michigan and Ontario is one of the world’s biggest lakes — was drawn out of the oceans and stored on land.

    One of the lesser-known causes of sea level rise is the pumping of groundwater out of aquifers for irrigation and other uses, which eventually ends up in the oceans. The researchers discovered that twice as much water was trapped on land from 2002 to 2014 than was pumped out of aquifers.

    Some of the additional water stored on land would have been trapped in new reservoirs, such as China’s Three Gorges Dam. But the analysis showed the effect of new and expanded reservoirs was minor.

    Instead, the changes appear to have been caused by the whims of long-term weather patterns.

    Red blotches show regions where water was lost from land from 2002 to 2014; blue shows water gains.

    "What you see here is a multi-year trend in terrestrial water storage that’s not related to groundwater depletion or any reservoir storage," said Marc Bierkens, a hydrology professor at Utrecht University, who was not involved with the study. "It’s related to climate."

    Bierkens and other scientists lauded the study, saying it filled in important data gaps, improving understanding of how natural cycling of water around the planet is affecting sea levels.

    "It’s the first time that total terrestrial water storage has been monitored," Bierkens said. "Not modeled, but monitored — over more than a decade."

    Scientists aren’t sure whether the pattern they discovered is part of a longer-term trend linked to climate change and increasing storminess, or part of a shorter-term cycle linked to natural variations in the weather.

    But many suspect it’s part of a cycle, which may mean seas will rise even more quickly than anticipated in the years ahead.

    "We think it could even reverse and go in the other direction," Reager said. "It could be an accelerator for sea level rise."

    This article originally published at Climate Central here

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    A full catalog of the Antarctic ice shelves that should terrify us

    The ones nearest collapse are holding back meters of sea-level rise.

    The ice meets the sea.
    Matthias Braun, University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany

    Even with decades of melting, much of the world’s water lies trapped in ice that sits on land. If Antarctic ice melted entirely, it’s estimated that ocean levels would rise by roughly 60 meters—a nearly incomprehensible figure.

    But a lot of it wouldn’t reach the ocean by melting. Instead, large areas of the Antarctic ice sheet sit on rock that’s below sea level. Were the ocean to reach these sheets, the ice would break up and float off while melting, a process that could raise sea levels relatively suddenly. Now, researchers have performed a catalog of all of the ice that empties into the ocean in Antarctica, allowing us to identify those that pose the largest threat of rapid sea-level rise.

    You can view Antarctica as having four types of ice. Inland, there are large ice sheets, some of which sit at sea level, others below. Some of the ice in these sheets flows to the coast through the exit glaciers, which often pass through narrow valleys on their way to the coast. At the coast, you’ll find the third type: permanent floating ice shelves, which can extend for miles into the ocean. Beyond those, you will find seasonal ice, which expands in the southern winter but contracts again when summer arrives.

    The ice shelves play a key role in the dynamics of Antarctic ice because they provide resistance to the flow of ice through the exit glaciers. The ice has to push against the shelves to flow. This in turn buttresses the ice sheets, keeping them from dumping their contents into the ocean.

    Further Reading

    2002 Larsen B ice shelf collapse likely due to rising temps

    Examination of the seafloor reveals details of the ice’s history.

    The stability of the ice shelves helps control the dynamics of Antarctic ice, which is rather unfortunate, since a number of them have experienced some rather dramatic breakups over the last few decades. And in keeping with our understanding, the disintegration was generally accompanied by an acceleration of the glaciers that feed into this area of the ocean.

    How worried about these collapses should we be, and are there other areas of Antarctica we should be watching nervously? To answer this question, the authors built a model of ice flow that incorporated all the data we have on the structure and strains on Antarctic ice shelves. With the ice in place, they then modeled the decay of the ice shelves by breaking off icebergs from the edges and determining whether the missing ice resulted in an acceleration of the exit glaciers.

    Where possible, they compared their model results to recent cases where we have data from ice shelf collapses to confirm that everything was working as expected.

    The results suggest that there are some stark differences among the ice shelves. The Brunt/Stancomb-Wills Ice Shelf could lose more than 35 percent of its material without significantly affecting the flow of glaciers; the Shackleton Ice Shelf could afford to lose more than 25 percent. Others, like the Dotson Ice Shelf, have nearly nothing to give up before ice starts flowing faster into the ocean.

    More generally, the area emptying into the Indian Ocean and along the Queen Maud Land are relatively stable. By contrast, the ones emptying into the Amundsen and Bellingshausen Seas are the least stable.

    This is good news for the model, since the latter are some of the areas that other researchers, looking at real-world data, have shown to already be destabilized. It’s bad news in the sense that the glaciers in that area lead to ice sheets that sit on land below sea level. Invasion of that area by sea water could potentially lead to a relatively rapid rise in ocean levels of more than two meters.

    Nature Climate Change, 2015. DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE2912 (About DOIs).

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