June 15 - 21, 2014: Issue 167

Pittwater Online News receives a lot of information from various sources each week. For Your Interest and Bemusement:

 President Obama's Bilateral Meeting with Prime Minister Abbott of Australia - by The White House - June 13, 2014 - remarks to the Press following bilateral meeting.

 Grand swirls from NASA's Hubble: Intermediate spiral galaxy NGC 1566

June 11, 2014 – A new Hubble image shows NGC 1566, a beautiful galaxy located approximately 40 million light-years away in the constellation of Dorado (The Dolphinfish). NGC 1566 is an intermediate spiral galaxy, meaning that while it does not have a well-defined bar-shaped region of stars at its center - like barred spirals - it is not quite an unbarred spiral either. The small but extremely bright nucleus of NGC 1566 is clearly visible in this image, a telltale sign of its membership of the Seyfert class of galaxies. The centers of such galaxies are very active and luminous, emitting strong bursts of radiation and potentially harboring supermassive black holes that are many millions of times the mass of the sun.

NGC 1566 is not just any Seyfert galaxy; it is the second brightest Seyfert galaxy known. It is also the brightest and most dominant member of the Dorado Group, a loose concentration of galaxies that together comprise one of the richest galaxy groups of the southern hemisphere. This image highlights the beauty and awe-inspiring nature of this unique galaxy group, with NGC 1566 glittering and glowing, its bright nucleus framed by swirling and symmetrical lavender arms.

This image was taken by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) in the near-infrared part of the spectrum. A version of the image was entered into the Hubble's Hidden Treasures image processing competition by Flickr user Det58.

The above story is based on materials provided by NASA.NGC 1566, an intermediate spiral galaxy. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Flickr user Det58

 Genes found in nature yield 1918-like virus with pandemic potential

June 11, 2014 - An international team of researchers has shown that circulating avian influenza viruses contain all the genetic ingredients necessary to underpin the emergence of a virus similar to the deadly 1918 influenza virus. Searching public databases, the researchers, led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, identified eight genes from influenza viruses isolated from wild ducks that possessed remarkable genetic similarities to the genes that made up the 1918 pandemic flu virus. The 1918 or "Spanish flu" pandemic was one of recorded history's most devastating outbreaks of disease, resulting in an estimated 40 million deaths worldwide.

The new work was published today (June 11, 2014) in the journal Cell Host and Microbe. It shows that "there are gene pools in nature that have the potential to cause a severe pandemic in the future," says Kawaoka, an international authority on influenza and the senior author of the new report.

To assess the risk posed by a virus that could acquire all eight of the 1918-like genes, the team used reverse genetics methods to generate a virus that differed from the 1918 virus by only 3 percent of the amino acids that make the virus proteins. The resulting virus was more pathogenic in mice and ferrets that an ordinary avian flu virus, but was not as pathogenic as the 1918 virus and it did not transmit in ferrets via respiratory droplets, the primary mode of flu transmission.

Since pandemic risk escalates when a virus become transmissible, Kawaoka's group then conducted additional experiments to determine how many changes would be required for the avian 1918-like virus to become transmissible in ferrets, a well accepted model for influenza transmission studies. The researchers identified seven mutations in three viral genes that enabled the pathogen to transmit as efficiently as the 1918 virus. The resulting virus, composed of genetic factors circulating in wild and domesticated birds, demonstrates that the genetic ingredients for a potentially deadly and pandemic pathogen exist in nature and could combine to form such a virus, according to Kawaoka.

The new study is important because it shows the potential risk of circulating strains of avian influenza viruses, Kawaoka explains. Knowing what genes to look for, he says, can help predict the likelihood of an emerging strain of pandemic flu and, importantly, help scientists devise strategies for countering such a pathogen.

Critically, the research provides additional insight and evidence for the mechanisms responsible for adaptation of avian influenza viruses to mammals. One mutation in the novel transmissible 1918-like avian virus, for example, is responsible for increased virus growth in mammalian cells. Mutations in hemagglutinin, a protein found on the surface of influenza viruses that binds to host cells, alter the protein's stability, a change that could potentially enhance the virus's ability to infect the upper respiratory tract of humans.

The same mechanisms were associated with effective transmission of H5N1 avian viruses, as reported in an earlier study, and the newly emergent H7N9 virus infecting humans in China also seems to possess some of the same qualities.

A key finding of the new study, notes Kawaoka, is that sera from individuals vaccinated with the current seasonal influenza vaccine (which protects against 2009 H1N1 influenza, a related virus) reacted with the novel transmissible 1918-like avian virus. That discovery suggests that protection against a potential pandemic threat exists in the currently available vaccine. In addition, the team showed that the novel transmissible virus is expected to be sensitive to the antiviral medication oseltamivir.

The transmission studies were conducted under specially designed high-containment conditions, using commensurate biosafety practices, at UW-Madison with approval of the university's Institutional Biosafety Committee. The draft manuscript was reviewed by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in keeping with the institute's implementation of the United States Government Policy for Oversight of Life Sciences Dual Use Research of Concern.

"The point of the study was to assess the risk of avian viruses currently circulating in nature," explains Kawaoka, who, in addition to his appointment as a professor in the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, holds a faculty position at the University of Tokyo. "We found genes in avian influenza viruses quite closely related to the 1918 virus and, to evaluate the pandemic potential should such a 1918-like avian virus emerge, identified changes that enabled it to transmit in ferrets.

"With each study, we learn more about the key features that enable an avian influenza virus to adapt to mammals and become transmissible," says Kawaoka. "Eventually, we hope to be able to reliably identify viruses with significant pandemic potential so we can focus preparedness efforts appropriately."

Tokiko Watanabe, Gongxun Zhong, Colin A. Russell, Noriko Nakajima, Masato Hatta, Anthony Hanson, Ryan McBride, David F. Burke, Kenta Takahashi, Satoshi Fukuyama, Yuriko Tomita, Eileen A. Maher, Shinji Watanabe, Masaki Imai, Gabriele Neumann, Hideki Hasegawa, James C. Paulson, Derek J. Smith, Yoshihiro Kawaoka. Circulating Avian Influenza Viruses Closely Related to the 1918 Virus Have Pandemic Potential. Cell Host & Microbe, 2014; 15 (6): 692 DOI: 10.1016/j.chom.2014.05.006

Photo: Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with Spanish influenza in a hospital ward at Camp Funston. The 1918 pandemic was one of history’s most devastating outbreaks of disease, resulting in an estimated 40 million deaths. Credit: U.S. Army

Soccer. A Man And His Sport. by NFSA - Published 11 Jun, 2014

Made by the Commonwealth Film Unit 1971. Directed by Donlad Murray. This film tells the story of Soccer In Australia from the nursery teams of three year olds right through to junior and club football to the international sides that are beginning to show signs of promise. It shows footage from the 1969 World Cip qualifier between Isreal and Australia featuring Soceroos captain and legend Johnny Warren.

 Subseafloor bacteria survive by over-activating DNA-repair and antibiotic target genes

June 13, 2014 – The subseafloor is home to over 1/3 of the bacteria on the planet, but up until recently it was unclear if this huge microbial biosphere was alive and dividing. Now the same group that demonstrated this activity has shown that bacteria from the hostile sea-floor environment have adapted by over-activating stress response and DNA-repair mechanisms, to cope with the harsh conditions. Subseafloor sediment contains Earth's largest habitat for microbial life - over 1/3 of all the planets microbial biomass. By drilling deep into the sea floor and taking samples, it can be proven that the subseafloor contains a variety of microbial lifeforms, but it's only in the last year that researchers have proven that sea floor microbes are actually active in in their natural sea-bed situation - it is difficult to analyse lifeforms which live hundreds of metres below the sea surface because of their low activity levels. A group of researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and University of Delaware developed techniques to analyse the messenger

RNA (mRNA) molecules produced by subseafloor microbes. Unlike DNA, which is a fairly robust molecule that can survive intact for thousands of years under certain conditions, mRNA (messenger RNA) has a short half-life. It is produced by cells, which are "turning on" genes, so it is an indication that genes are active. This means that mRNA can be used as evidence (a proxy) for present biological activity.

Lead researcher William Orsi said: "This is the largest microbial biosphere on Earth, composed of cells living deep beneath the surface. We have recently shown for the first time that these cells, the "deep biosphere," are actually dividing and not in a dormant state. This means that the deep biosphere is active and due to its sheer size likely plays an important role in global elemental cycles over geological timescales." Now in a presentation to the Goldschmidt conference in Sacramento, California, Dr Orsi will detail just how these seabed bacteria had managed to survive in such an inhospitable environment.

"It's a really difficult environment to study, so understanding how microbes survive there has been a puzzle" he said, "but we have discovered that they ramp-up some coping mechanisms which have helped them adapt to this stressful environment, where they exist under high pressure and are starved of nutrients."

The group sampled drill cores from the continental shelf off the coast of Peru. They compared gene expression at several depths spanning 5-159 meters below the seafloor. They found that the expression of DNA repair genes, such as recA, increases with the amount of time the microbes have been buried in the seafloor.

Dr Orsi continued: "Subseafloor microbes have adapted to live in especially harsh conditions. We found that they significantly overexpress genes involved in cellular stress responses like recA. This gene is a central to the bacterial "SOS response," which is a way bacteria cope with many different environmental stressors including antibiotics. We have found that subseafloor microbes increasingly express this gene with time after they become "buried alive" in the subseafloor."

"High-throughput omics techniques are proving to have a range of applications in sedimentary systems. For example, marine sedimentary paleogenomics is a new field, which is opening windows into the past effects of climate on marine life. Dr Marco Coolen is the leader of this new field, and we worked together to analyse ancient plankton DNA from the Black Sea. We showed that it opened to the oceans around 9,600 years ago and that historical large-scale climate changes had a significant effect on marine plankton. These techniques are difficult, but they can tell us how biology responds to climate changes over geological timescales. Looking into the past can help us predict the future effects of climate change on marine life."

The above story is based on materials provided by European Association of Geochemistry. 

 A TELESCOPE IS BORN – June 11, 2014

It may look like just dots on a page, but an image of distant galaxies taken last week represents a huge step forward for CSIRO's Australia SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope in Western Australia.

ASKAP is developing and proving technologies for the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, which will start construction in Australia and South Africa in 2018. The image shows that ASKAP is now working as a fully fledged radio telescope after just a few months of commissioning.

Chief of CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science Dr Lewis Ball is leading a delegation of scientists and engineers presenting the results in Europe.

"These ASKAP results are generating great excitement in the office of the SKA Organisation in Manchester, UK, and at an SKA science meeting currently taking place in Italy, because they clearly demonstrate the revolutionary potential of CSIRO's new phased array feed technology," Dr Ball said.

Initial commissioning of ASKAP is being done with six of the telescope's 36 antennas.

"ASKAP is now functioning properly as an aperture-synthesis telescope," CSIRO's Dr David McConnell, who leads the ASKAP Commissioning and Early Science team, ACES, said.

"We've never had a telescope like this before. We can see that the novel aspects of its design really do work, and that it will outperform a conventional telescope."

Dr McConnell said when the ASKAP commissioning team saw the new image, they "practically fell off their chairs".

The image, of a region of sky near the south celestial pole, is the equivalent of a black and white photo, but made from radio waves.

This image covers 10 square degrees on the sky - 50 times larger than the full Moon - and was made from nine overlapping regions ('beams') captured simultaneously.

The quality of the image vindicates ASKAP's two novel features: 'phased array feeds' - new technology developed by CSIRO - and a special axis of rotation on each antenna.

The phased array feeds act as 'radio cameras', allowing the telescope to see large areas of sky at once.

"This image shows that the phased array feeds are stable over the 12 hours it takes to make an observation like this," Dr McConnell said.

"Now we can start to use the other advantages of phased array feeds, such as changing the beam size and shape for particular kinds of observations."

As the telescope tracks radio sources, the phased array feed is kept in a fixed orientation to the sky, thanks to a special axis of rotation built into each ASKAP antenna.

"With a conventional telescope we would have expected artefacts from bright sources at the edges of each beam," Dr McConnell said.

"With ASKAP we don't get that, because the phased array feed is held at a constant angle to the stars."

The dynamic range of the image was 50,000:1, which would be a good result from a mature telescope, let alone one in commissioning.

Even at this early stage, ASKAP was able to make the new image twice as fast as any comparable telescope in the Southern Hemisphere.

When completed, ASKAP will be able to survey the sky 25 times faster still, and will be the world's premier survey telescope for centimetre-wavelength radio astronomy.

ASKAP has also made a 'snapshot' of a single galaxy, NGC 253, from radio waves emitted by neutral atomic hydrogen gas (HI), the fuel for making stars. This is the telescope's first image of the HI in a galaxy.

The image captures both the intensity of the radio waves - how much HI is present in each region - and how the galaxy is rotating - which parts are approaching us, and which receding.

"If the first image was like a black-and-white photo, this one could be compared to a colour photo," Dr McConnell said.

"What we're looking for here is the equivalent of 'colour balance' - if there's a proper balance of the radio waves at all the different frequencies used in the image.

"Happily, that balance is good. The image compares very well with one made by our established Compact Array telescope."

Acknowledging CSIRO's achievement with ASKAP, Australian SKA Project Director Professor Brian Boyle said "the future of radio astronomy has arrived".

The phased array feeds (PAFs) used for these commissioning tests are of the so-called 'first generation' design. Procurement is now under way for even better 'second generation' PAFs, which tests have shown will meet their ambitious performance targets. The PAF design last year won awards for innovation from Engineers Australia and the technology is expected to find applications outside radio astronomy.

 Is background TV harming your toddler’s language development?

June 11, 2014 - We already know how important parent input is in developing children’s language skills, and that a reduction in child-directed language could have a negative impact on their language development. New research suggests that the presence of background TV is a significant factor in reducing this vital input, affecting both the quantity and quality of language spoken by parents to their children. In the study, published in the Journal of Children and Media, parents of toddlers aged 12, 24, and 36 months were observed interacting with their children while they played during a 60 minute session, with a TV program on in the background for half of that time. Background TV is defined as content designed for older children or adults. While the TV was on, the quantity of words and phrases as well as the number of new words spoken by the parents was lower than when the TV was off. However, the length of the phrases spoken was not affected.

Given that the language used by parents is so intrinsically linked with child language development, the results of the study suggest that prolonged exposure to background TV has a negative influence. In light of findings that American children under 24 months watch an average 5.5 hours of background TV per day, the effect may be substantial.

Author of the study, Tiffany A. Pempek, comments "Our new results, along with past research finding negative effects of background TV on young children's play and parent-child interaction, provide evidence that adult-directed TV content should be avoided for infants and toddlers whenever possible. Although it is impractical and probably not desirable for parents to play with their young child all of the time, children do benefit greatly from active involvement by parents during play. Ideally, parents should play with their child without the distraction of TV in the background."

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently upheld their recommendation discouraging media exposure for children under 2 years of age. While previously the guidelines focused on foreground media exposure, recent reports have noted the potential harm of background exposure as well, a form of media which parents may not be aware has any effect on their child at all. Further research is needed to ascertain if any form of media which disrupts parent-child interaction will have a similar effect, such as mobile device use, reading newspapers, or speaking on the phone.

Tiffany A. Pempek, Heather L. Kirkorian, Daniel R. Anderson. The Effects of Background Television on The Quantity and Quality of Child-directed Speech by Parents. Journal of Children and Media, 2014; DOI:10.1080/17482798.2014.920715

 Evolution and venomous snakes: Diet distinguishes look-alikes on two continents

June 10, 2014 – On opposite sides of the globe over millions of years, the snakes of North America and Australia independently evolved similar body types that helped them move and capture prey more efficiently. Snakes on both continents include stout-bodied, highly camouflaged ambush predators, such as rattlesnakes in North America and death adders in Australia. There are slender, fast-moving foragers on both continents, as well as small burrowing snakes.

This independent evolution of similar body forms in response to analogous ecological conditions is a striking example of a phenomenon called convergence. Yet despite similarities in outward appearance, a new University of Michigan study shows that look-alike snakes from the two continents differ dramatically in at least one major attribute: diet.

"Most biologists tend to assume that convergence in body form for a group of organisms implies that they must be ecologically similar," said U-M evolutionary biologist Daniel Rabosky. "But our study shows that there is almost no overlap in diet between many of the snakes that are morphologically very similar."

Rabosky is an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and curator of herpetology at the U-M Museum of Zoology. He is co-author of a paper on the topic to be published online June 10 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.The first author is U-M doctoral student Michael Grundler.

While North America is home to at least seven distinct groups of "advanced" snakes, only one major group - the elapids - colonized Australia roughly 12 million years ago. Elapids, which have hollow, fixed fangs through which they inject venom, are found worldwide and include king cobras, coral snakes, mambas and kraits.

Over millions of years, evolution allowed Australia's elapids to diversify and specialize through a process called adaptive radiation. They settled into varied habitats and split into roughly 100 species that include snakes with some of the most toxic venom known: taipans, brown snakes, death adders and tiger snakes.

Over time, the Australian snakes took on most of the body forms found in North American snakes.

Grundler and Rabosky compared those body forms by analyzing preserved specimens in the collections of the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, the Field Museum of Natural History and the Western Australian Museum. They made measurements of head and body dimensions from 786 specimens representing 248 species.

"We found that the morphologies of Australia elapid snakes have evolved into the same types of body forms seen across a much more diverse set of snakes from North America," Grundler said. "For example, Australia has the death adder, a stout-bodied ambush predator that looks, for all practical purposes, like a typical viper.

"Vipers are a family of fanged, venomous snakes that includes pit vipers such as rattlesnakes, copperheads and bushmasters. But the death adder is not a viper and is in fact much more closely related to other Australian elapid snakes, most of which look nothing like vipers."

Grundler and Rabosky surveyed the published literature for data on the feeding habits of snakes on both continents. The feeding habits were placed in eight prey categories: invertebrates such as insects, earthworms, mollusks and crustaceans; fish; amphibians; lizards and snakes; lizard and snake eggs; birds; bird eggs; and mammals.

In many cases, Australian and North American snakes that are similar in appearance differ greatly in their diets, the U-M researchers found.

For example, most small snakes that live in sand or leaf litter in North America eat invertebrates such as spiders, scorpions, slugs and centipedes. But in Australia, those snakes tend to be specialists on lizards and other snakes.

The physical similarities between North American and Australian snakes are thought to reflect evolutionary advantages that those body forms provide for locomotion, foraging, or habitat use, according to the authors.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Michigan. The southern shovel-nosed snake is a small, desert-dwelling species of Australian elapid snake that feeds almost exclusively on lizard eggs. Credit: Photo by Daniel Rabosky.

 Science Aids Mushroom Growth. Australian Diary 45. by NFSA Published on 10 Jun 2014

Made by The National Film Board 1951. Directed by Jack S Allan. A look at how science is involved in the commercial cultivation of mushrooms.

 Cracks in Pluto's moon could indicate it once had an underground ocean

June 13, 2014 – If the icy surface of Pluto's giant moon Charon is cracked, analysis of the fractures could reveal if its interior was warm, perhaps warm enough to have maintained a subterranean ocean of liquid water, according to a new NASA-funded study. Pluto is an extremely distant world, orbiting the sun more than 29 times farther than Earth. With a surface temperature estimated to be about 380 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (around minus 229 degrees Celsius), the environment at Pluto is far too cold to allow liquid water on its surface. Pluto's moons are in the same frigid environment.

Pluto's remoteness and small size make it difficult to observe, but in July of 2015, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will be the first to visit Pluto and Charon, and will provide the most detailed observations to date.

"Our model predicts different fracture patterns on the surface of Charon depending on the thickness of its surface ice, the structure of the moon's interior and how easily it deforms, and how its orbit evolved," said Alyssa Rhoden of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "By comparing the actual New Horizons observations of Charon to the various predictions, we can see what fits best and discover if Charon could have had a subsurface ocean in its past, driven by high eccentricity." Rhoden is lead author of a paper on this research now available online in the journal Icarus.

Some moons around the gas giant planets in the outer solar system have cracked surfaces with evidence for ocean interiors - Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus are two examples.

As Europa and Enceladus move in their orbits, a gravitational tug-of-war between their respective parent planets and neighboring moons keeps their orbits from becoming circular. Instead, these moons have eccentric (slightly oval-shaped) orbits, which raise daily tides that flex the interior and stress the surface. It is thought that tidal heating has extended the lifetimes of subsurface oceans on Europa and Enceladus by keeping their interiors warm.

In Charon's case, this study finds that a past high eccentricity could have generated large tides, causing friction and surface fractures. The moon is unusually massive compared to its planet, about one-eighth of Pluto's mass, a solar system record. It is thought to have formed much closer to Pluto, after a giant impact ejected material off the planet's surface. The material went into orbit around Pluto and coalesced under its own gravity to form Charon and several smaller moons.

Initially, there would have been strong tides on both worlds as gravity between Pluto and Charon caused their surfaces to bulge toward each other, generating friction in their interiors. This friction would have also caused the tides to slightly lag behind their orbital positions. The lag would act like a brake on Pluto, causing its rotation to slow while transferring that rotational energy to Charon, making it speed up and move farther away from Pluto.

"Depending on exactly how Charon's orbit evolved, particularly if it went through a high-eccentricity phase, there may have been enough heat from tidal deformation to maintain liquid water beneath the surface of Charon for some time," said Rhoden. "Using plausible interior structure models that include an ocean, we found it wouldn't have taken much eccentricity (less than 0.01) to generate surface fractures like we are seeing on Europa."

"Since it's so easy to get fractures, if we get to Charon and there are none, it puts a very strong constraint on how high the eccentricity could have been and how warm the interior ever could have been," adds Rhoden. "This research gives us a head start on the New Horizons arrival - what should we look for and what can we learn from it. We're going to Pluto and Pluto is fascinating, but Charon is also going to be fascinating."

Based on observations from telescopes, Charon's orbit is now in a stable end state: a circular orbit with the rotation of both Pluto and Charon slowed to the point where they always show the same side to each other. Its current orbit is not expected to generate significant tides, so any ancient underground ocean may be frozen by now, according to Rhoden.

Since liquid water is a necessary ingredient for known forms of life, the oceans of Europa and Enceladus are considered to be places where extraterrestrial life might be found. However, life also requires a useable energy source and an ample supply of many key elements, such as carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus. It is unknown if those oceans harbor these additional ingredients, or if they have existed long enough for life to form. The same questions would apply to any ancient ocean that may have existed beneath the icy crust of Charon.

This research was funded by the NASA Postdoctoral Program at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, administered by Oak Ridge Associated Universities, and NASA Headquarters through the Science Innovation Fund.

Alyssa Rose Rhoden, Wade Henning, Terry A. Hurford, Douglas P. Hamilton. The interior and orbital evolution of Charon as preserved in its geologic record.Icarus, 2014; DOI:10.1016/j.icarus.2014.04.030

This artist concept shows Pluto and some of its moons, as viewed from the surface of one of the moons. Pluto is the large disk at center. Charon is the smaller disk to the right. Credit: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)

 Earth is around 60 million years older than previously thought - and so is the moon, new research finds

June 10, 2014 - Work presented today at the Goldschmidt Geochemistry Conference in Sacramento, California shows that the timing of the giant impact between Earth's ancestor and a planet-sized body occurred around 40 million years after the start of solar system formation. This means that the final stage of Earth's formation is around 60 million years older than previously thought. Geochemists from the University of Lorraine in Nancy, France have discovered an isotopic signal which indicates that previous age estimates for both the Earth and the Moon are underestimates. Looking back into "deep time" it becomes more difficult to put a date on early Earth events. In part this is because there is little "classical geology" dating from the time of the formation of the Earth - no rock layers, etc. So geochemists have had to rely on other methods to estimate early Earth events. One of the standard methods is measuring the changes in the proportions of different gases (isotopes) which survive from the early Earth.

Guillaume Avice and Bernard Marty analysed xenon gas found in South African and Australian quartz, which had been dated to 3.4 and 2.7 billion years respectively. The gas sealed in this quartz is preserved as in a "time capsule," allowing Avice and Marty to compare the current isotopic ratios of xenon, with those which existed billions of years ago. Recalibrating dating techniques using the ancient gas allowed them to refine the estimate of when the Earth began to form. This allows them to calculate that the Moon-forming impact is around 60 million years (+/- 20 m. y.) older than had been thought.

Previously, the time of formation of the Earth' s atmosphere had been estimated at around 100 million years after the solar system formation. As the atmosphere would not have survived the Moon-forming impact, this revision puts the age up to 40 million years after the solar sytem formation (so around 60 million years older than previously thought).

According to Guillaume Avice: "It is not possible to give an exact date for the formation of the Earth*. What this work does is to show that the Earth is older than we thought, by around 60 my.

"The composition of the gases we are looking at changes according the conditions they are found in, which of course depend on the major events in Earth's history. The gas sealed in these quartz samples has been handed down to us in a sort of "time capsule." We are using standard methods to compute the age of the Earth, but having access to these ancient samples gives us new data, and allows us to refine the measurement."

The xenon gas signals allow us to calculate when the atmosphere was being formed, which was probably at the time the Earth collided with a planet-sized body, leading to the formation of the Moon. Our results mean that both the Earth and the Moon are older than we had thought."

Bernard Marty added "This might seem a small difference, but it is important. These differences set time boundaries on how the planets evolved, especially through the major collisions in deep time which shaped the solar system."

*The oldest rocks of the solar system have been dated to 4,568 my ago, so the Earth is younger than that.

The above story is based on materials provided by European Association of Geochemistry. Relative sizes of Earth and moon. Credit: © Antony McAulay / Fotolia

 Human language's deep origins appear to have come directly from birds, primates

June 11, 2014 – On the island of Java, in Indonesia, the silvery gibbon, an endangered primate, lives in the rainforests. In a behavior that's unusual for a primate, the silvery gibbon sings: It can vocalize long, complicated songs, using 14 different note types, that signal territory and send messages to potential mates and family. Far from being a mere curiosity, the silvery gibbon may hold clues to the development of language in humans. In a newly published paper, two MIT professors assert that by re-examining contemporary human language, we can see indications of how human communication could have evolved from the systems underlying the older communication modes of birds and other primates.

From birds, the researchers say, we derived the melodic part of our language, and from other primates, the pragmatic, content-carrying parts of speech. Sometime within the last 100,000 years, those capacities fused into roughly the form of human language that we know today.

But how? Other animals, it appears, have finite sets of things they can express; human language is unique in allowing for an infinite set of new meanings. What allowed unbounded human language to evolve from bounded language systems?

"How did human language arise? It's far enough in the past that we can't just go back and figure it out directly," says linguist Shigeru Miyagawa, the Kochi-Manjiro Professor of Japanese Language and Culture at MIT. "The best we can do is come up with a theory that is broadly compatible with what we know about human language and other similar systems in nature."

Specifically, Miyagawa and his co-authors think that some apparently infinite qualities of modern human language, when reanalyzed, actually display the finite qualities of languages of other animals - meaning that human communication is more similar to that of other animals than we generally realized.

"Yes, human language is unique, but if you take it apart in the right way, the two parts we identify are in fact of a finite state," Miyagawa says. "Those two components have antecedents in the animal world. According to our hypothesis, they came together uniquely in human language."

Introducing the 'integration hypothesis'

The current paper, "The Integration Hypothesis of Human Language Evolution and the Nature of Contemporary Languages," is published this week in Frontiers in Psychology. The authors are Miyagawa; Robert Berwick, a professor of computational linguistics and computer science and engineering in MIT's Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems; and Shiro Ojima and Kazuo Okanoya, scholars at the University of Tokyo.

The paper's conclusions build on past work by Miyagawa, which holds that human language consists of two distinct layers: the expressive layer, which relates to the mutable structure of sentences, and the lexical layer, where the core content of a sentence resides. That idea, in turn, is based on previous work by linguistics scholars including Noam Chomsky, Kenneth Hale, and Samuel Jay Keyser.

The expressive layer and lexical layer have antecedents, the researchers believe, in the languages of birds and other mammals, respectively. For instance, in another paper published last year, Miyagawa, Berwick, and Okanoya presented a broader case for the connection between the expressive layer of human language and birdsong, including similarities in melody and range of beat patterns.

Birds, however, have a limited number of melodies they can sing or recombine, and nonhuman primates have a limited number of sounds they make with particular meanings. That would seem to present a challenge to the idea that human language could have derived from those modes of communication, given the seemingly infinite expression possibilities of humans.

But the researchers think certain parts of human language actually reveal finite-state operations that may be linked to our ancestral past. Consider a linguistic phenomenon known as "discontiguous word formation," which involve sequences formed using the prefix "anti," such as "antimissile missile," or "anti-antimissile missile missile," and so on. Some linguists have argued that this kind of construction reveals the infinite nature of human language, since the term "antimissile" can continually be embedded in the middle of the phrase.

However, as the researchers state in the new paper, "This is not the correct analysis." The word "antimissile" is actually a modifier, meaning that as the phrase grows larger, "each successive expansion forms via strict adjacency." That means the construction consists of discrete units of language. In this case and others, Miyagawa says, humans use "finite-state" components to build out their communications.

The complexity of such language formations, Berwick observes, "doesn't occur in birdsong, and doesn't occur anywhere else, as far as we can tell, in the rest of the animal kingdom." Indeed, he adds, "As we find more evidence that other animals don't seem to posses this kind of system, it bolsters our case for saying these two elements were brought together in humans."

An inherent capacity

To be sure, the researchers acknowledge, their hypothesis is a work in progress. After all, Charles Darwin and others have explored the connection between birdsong and human language. Now, Miyagawa says, the researchers think that "the relationship is between birdsong and the expression system," with the lexical component of language having come from primates. Indeed, as the paper notes, the most recent common ancestor between birds and humans appears to have existed about 300 million years ago, so there would almost have to be an indirect connection via older primates - even possibly the silvery gibbon.

As Berwick notes, researchers are still exploring how these two modes could have merged in humans, but the general concept of new functions developing from existing building blocks is a familiar one in evolution.

"You have these two pieces," Berwick says. "You put them together and something novel emerges. We can't go back with a time machine and see what happened, but we think that's the basic story we're seeing with language."

Miyagawa acknowledges that research and discussion in the field will continue, but says he hopes colleagues will engage with the integration hypothesis.

"It's worthy of being considered, and then potentially challenged," Miyagawa says.

Shigeru Miyagawa, Shiro Ojima, Robert C. Berwick, Kazuo Okanoya. The integration hypothesis of human language evolution and the nature of contemporary languages.Frontiers in Psychology, 2014; 5 DOI:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00564

Illustration: "Yes, human language is unique, but if you take it apart in the right way, the two parts we identify are in fact of a finite state," Miyagawa says. "Those two components have antecedents in the animal world. According to our hypothesis, they came together uniquely in human language."

Credit: Illustration by Christine Daniloff/MIT

Of Interest – Language of the Birds:wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_of_the_birds

The Language of the Bids: Folk Tales From the Russian, by Verra Xenophontovna Kalamatiano de Blumenthal, [1903], at sacred-texts.com 

Nankeen Kestrel perching in the breeze by BIBYTV - Published on 11 Jun 2014

This video shows a Nankeen Kestrel (Falco cenchroides) perching in a sea breeze at Clovelly Beach, NSW.

 What is a Habitat Stepping Stone?

A habitat is an animal’s surrounding physical environment. All animals, from the smallest bug to the largest mammal (including us), need certain things within their habitat to survive and to thrive. By providing the types of food, water and shelter that benefit local wildlife, you can create a habitat link between the existing wildlife corridors in your area. Over half of Australia's threatened species and ecosystems occur within the urban fringe, and Ku-ring-gai is home to 12 threatened animal species and 18 threatened plants.

Different animals need different habitat elements. A kookaburra needs a high branch from which to scout for food, while small birds such as finches and fairy-wrens need dense and prickly shrubs in which to hide. Plants and animals need each other for survival, so it’s important that our urban areas support a large range of birds, bees, butterflies, frogs, lizards, mammals and more. The greater the variety of Food, Water and Shelterelements you have in your garden, the more native wildlife you will help.

The habitat elements on this website have been chosen for the Ku-ring-gai area of Sydney, but many would suitable elsewhere in Australia.

If you pledge to add at least three elements to your place, you can create your very own habitat stepping stone. There are 60 to choose from, so go ahead – be creative!

See: www.habitatsteppingstones.org.au


Rob Stokes MP Minister for the Environment Minister for Heritage Minister for the Central Coast Assistant Minister for Planning 

Nature lovers from across the world are invited to submit photos for a photography competition to showcase the beauty and importance of national parks. 

Environment Minister Rob Stokes said the competition is a celebration of the crucial role national parks play in sustaining the health of our planet. The photos will be on exhibition during the IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney during November. 

"The Saved photography competition encourages professional and amateur photographers, as well as Instagram lovers, to get out and about in our national parks and start snapping,” Rob Stokes said. 

“NSW has some of the most diverse and awe-inspiring landscapes in the world. We are surrounded by beaches, wilderness and world heritage areas. 

"We want to see what places you love to visit and the parks, animals and people living or working in the places that inspire you.” 

“National parks not only conserve many threatened species but contribute to global food and water supplies and provide clean air, medicine and jobs for millions of people around the world.” 

The competition categories are: 

• Parks: images and stories about national parks of the world; 

• People: images and stories about the interaction between people and nature; and 

• Planet: images and stories about the sustainable use of natural resources in protected areas including the conservation of habitats and species. 

Entries are due by 30 September and the winning pictures will be on display at the IUCN World Parks Congress to be held from 12 - 19 November in Sydney. 

Fondly referred to as "Nature's Olympics" the event will bring together 160 countries and global experts from organisations including UNESCO, the United Nations Environment Program and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

You can submit photos via the competition website www.wpcsaved.com

 Crown Lands Legislation White Paper - NSW Government invites submissions on the Crown Lands Legislation White Paper

The NSW Government recently undertook a comprehensive review of all the legislation that regulates Crown land. The Government plans to develop consolidated, streamlined legislation to underpin the management of Crown land in the future. The White Paper contains proposals to develop one new piece of legislation that will replace eight existing Acts, streamline existing provisions, simplify the management of Crown reserves and reduce red tape.

The White Paper can be downloaded from the 'Consultation Website' link located at the bottom of this section.

You can submit your comments in writing to NSW Trade & Investment in any of the following ways:

Post: Crown Lands Review, NSW Trade & Investment, PO Box 2185, DANGAR NSW 2309

Email: Submit your feedback using the 'Crown Lands Information' link under 'More Information'.

The Government invites written submissions on the White Paper until 20 June 2014.

Comprehensive review of NSW Crown Land Management

As part of the NSW Government’s commitment to cutting red tape and updating legislation to improve outcomes, a comprehensive review into the management of Crown land has been completed. The Review started in June 2012, with the aim of improving management of Crown land and increasing the benefits and returns from Crown land to the community.

The Review report has been considered by Government and the Government’s response to the report is now available:

Crown Lands Management Review Summary and Government response (PDF 1.22MB)

Crown Lands Management Review Report 2013 (PDF 1.1MB)

White Paper

The Crown Lands Legislation White Paper contains proposals to develop one new piece of legislation that will replace eight existing Acts, streamline existing provisions, simplify the management of Crown reserves and reduce red tape.

 Crown Lands Legislation White Paper (PDF 920KB)

Comments are welcome on the White Paper and will be open until 20 June 2014 at 5pm. For more information about the White paper and how to make a submission, go to White Paper consultation.  

See all links to Documents pages at:  HERE

 Chase Alive celebrates 25 years

Chase Alive, which has seen more than 500 volunteers take visitors on a journey through the national parks of northern Sydney, has celebrated 25 years in action.

Chase Alive has been an important part of the visitor experience in Ku-ring-gai Chase and Lane Cove national parks and relies on the valuable contribution of volunteers' time.

Volunteers run regular tours in Ku-ring-gai Chase and Lane Cove national parks, as well as once-a-year guided walks to view the exceptional wildflowers in Muogamarra Nature Reserve. Chase Alive members also manage Kalkari Discovery Centre in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, welcoming visitors 364 days a year.

If you're interested in the natural environment and cultural heritage, want to share your passion with park visitors and can commit to a minimum of 8 hours per month, contact the Kalkari Discovery Centre on 02 9472 9300 to request an information pack


A new cost-effective technology to treat mining wastewater and reduce sludge by up to 90 per cent has been used for the first time at a commercial mine.

The technology, called Virtual Curtain, was used to remove metal contaminants from wastewater at a Queensland mine and the equivalent of around 20 Olympic swimming pools of rainwater-quality water was safely discharged.

Sludge is a semi-solid by-product of wastewater treatment and reducing the amount produced has huge environmental and economic benefits.

"Our treatment produced only a fraction of the sludge that a conventional lime-based method would have and allowed the mine water to be treated in a more environmentally sound way," CSIRO scientist Dr Grant Douglas said.

"Reducing the amount of sludge is beneficial because the costly and timely steps involved to move and dispose it can be reduced."

Given the Australian mining industry is estimated to generate hundreds of millions of tonnes of wastewater each year, the technology opens a significant opportunity for companies to improve water management practices and be more sustainable.

"The technology can produce a material high in metal value, which can be reprocessed to increase a miner's overall recovery rate and partially offset treatment costs," Dr Douglas said.

Virtual Curtain utilises hydrotalcites, which are minerals sometimes found in stomach antacids, to simultaneously trap a variety of contaminants - including arsenic, cadmium, and iron - in one step.

Dr Douglas and his team developed the technology after discovering that hydrotalcites could be formed by adjusting the concentrations of common wastewater contaminants, aluminium and magnesium, to an ideal ratio and then by increasing the pH.

"By using contaminants already present in the wastewater we have avoided the need for expensive infrastructure and complicated chemistry to treat the waste," he said.

"If required, the treated water can be purified much more efficiently via reverse osmosis and either released to the environment or recycled back into the plant, so it has huge benefits for mining operators in arid regions such as Australia and Chile.

"It is a more efficient and economic way to treat wastewater and is enabling the global mining industry to reduce its environmental footprint and extract wealth from waste."

The licensed technology, which can be applied to a range of industrial applications, is available through Australian company Virtual Curtain Limited.

 Turning wastewater into rainwater - by CSIRO - published June 11, 2014

 Time to go wild about whales

The highly anticipated whale season is here and 2014 is tipped to be particularly special, with experts predicting between 16,000 and 18,000 whales to pass the NSW coastline over the coming months.

Download the Wild About Whales smartphone app, which provides a map of the latest whale sightings, and allows visitors to log their own sightings.

The app also contains information about different whale species, tips for spotting whales, and tours to help make the most of your whale watching coastal adventure in NSW’s national parks.

You can also share your whale sightings on Twitter with the @wildaboutwhalescommunity using #whaleon, or share your own photos and experiences on facebook.com/wildaboutwhales

People can start their own coastal adventure atwww.wildaboutwhales.com.au, to find the best spots in our national parks to see whales and to enjoy other great coastal adventures. 

More information about whales can be viewed atwww.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au

 Improved health and increased funding for Great Barrier Reef - Joint media release, 12 June 2014

The Great Barrier Reef is in safe hands with the release of a report card showing a combined effort from both the Commonwealth and State Governments has improved the quality of water entering the reef catchment. The Great Barrier Reef Report Card 2012 and 2013, released today by Federal Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt MP and Queensland Minister for the Environment and Heritage Protection Andrew Powell MP, shows the efforts of farmers and graziers have made a real difference.

The report card measures progress in action taken to improve water quality in the reef between July 2009 and June 2013.

“While recent extreme weather events have hindered our efforts to strengthen the health and resilience of the reef, the report card confirms significant progress has been made to improve water quality entering the reef lagoon,” Mr Hunt said.

“I’m delighted we have met the Reef Plan’s immediate goal of improving the quality of water entering the reef. This is a massive achievement after a long period of decline.”

To further support the outcomes of the report, The Commonwealth and Queensland Governments are investing $15 million from the Reef Trust as part of a strong commitment to improve the health of the iconic Great Barrier Reef and ensure its long-term protection.

The first investments to be made from the Reef Trust include:

$5 million Dugong and Turtle Protection Plan

$2 million for crown-of-thorns starfish control

$5 million to improve water quality from runoff in the wet tropics region, in particular nitrogen.

$3 million to improve grazing management practices in the Burdekin and Fitzroy regions to reduce sediment runoff.

Queensland Minister for Environment and Heritage Protection Andrew Powell said the important investments from the Reef Trust will build on improvements already achieved through a combination of initiatives.

“Nearly 30 years of monitoring by the Australian Institute of Marine Science has shown that the key impacts on the reef continue to be severe weather events such as cyclones, crown of thorns starfish and coral bleaching,” Mr Powell said.

“It is why we have committed another $35 million a year to reduce runoff and improve water quality in last week’s State budget.

“The Newman government is doing more to protect the Reef than any government before it we are delivering what we promised- and we are seeing measurably improved outcomes.

“While the Newman Government works with our farmers to implement best management practice systems, the federal government is continuing investment into reducing crown of thorns starfish.

“By working together I am confident we have the appropriate processes, resources and environmental protection mechanisms in place to ensure the Great Barrier Reef continues to be among the best managed World Heritage areas in the world.”

Minister Hunt said the Australian Government’s election commitment to develop a Reef 2050 Plan to guide the sustainability, management and long-term protection of the Great Barrier Reef has also made great progress.

“Chief among these is the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding to jointly deliver the Reef Trust and the release of the first phase of projects to be delivered by the Trust,” Mr Hunt said.

“We also acknowledge the significant progress made towards finalising the Great Barrier Reef strategic assessment being undertaken by the Queensland Government and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

“The recently released Queensland Port Strategy builds on the commitment made by Queensland last year to restrict any significant port development within and adjoining the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area to within existing port limits.

“The impending completion of the strategic assessment fulfils a key recommendation of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. Once finalised, it will aid the preparation of the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan for protecting the reef and coastal zone.”

The Federal and Queensland Governments are also establishing a Reef 2050 Partnership group comprising a wide range of stakeholders who understand the issues and challenges facing the Great Barrier Reef.

The Partnership will work together and draw on the best expertise, science, policy and planning to ensure the long-term protection of the iconic reef.

“Getting the Great Barrier Reef's management and protection right is a top priority for both the Commonwealth and the State Governments,” Mr Hunt said.

“We are committed to protecting this world heritage listed icon now and for future generations.”

 Third warmest May in satellite record might portend record-setting El Niño

June 13, 2014 – May 2014 was the third warmest May in the 35-year satellite-measured global temperature record, and the warmest May that wasn't during an El Niño Pacific Ocean warming event, according to Dr. John Christy, a professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at The University of Alabama in Huntsville. The global average temperature for May was 0.33 C (about 0.59 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than seasonal norms for the month. The warmest May was in 1998, during the "El Niño of the century." Temperatures in May 1998 were 0.56 C (about 1.0 degrees F) warmer than normal. May 2010 -- also an El Niño month - was second warmest at 0.45 C (0.81 degrees F).

While May 2014 was not officially an El Niño month, indications are that an El Niño is forming in the eastern central Pacific off the equatorial coast of South America. Even if that El Niño is nothing spectacular, it might become a record setter simply because it is getting a warmer start, Christy said. "The long-term baseline temperature is about three tens of a degree (C) warmer than it was when the big El Niño of 1997-1998 began, and that event set the one-month record with an average global temperature that was 0.66 C (almost 1.2 degrees F) warmer than normal in April 1998."

January through August of 1998 are all in the 14 warmest months in the satellite record, and that El Niño started when global temperatures were somewhat chilled; the global average temperature in May 1997 was 0.14 C (about 0.25 degrees F) cooler than the long-term seasonal norm for May.

"With the baseline so much warmer, this upcoming El Niño won't have very far to go to break that 0.66 C record," Christy said. "That isn't to say it will, but even an average-sized warming event will have a chance to get close to that level."

Compared to seasonal norms, the coldest place in Earth's atmosphere in May was over the northern Pacific Ocean, where temperatures were as much as 2.08 C (about 3.74 degrees Fahrenheit) cooler than seasonal norms. Compared to seasonal norms, the warmest departure from average in May was along the western border of Kazakhstan. Temperatures there were as much as 4.18 C (about 7.52 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than seasonal norms.

As part of an ongoing joint project between UAH, NOAA and NASA, Christy and Dr. Roy Spencer, an ESSC principal scientist, use data gathered by advanced microwave sounding units on NOAA and NASA satellites to get accurate temperature readings for almost all regions of the Earth. This includes remote desert, ocean and rain forest areas where reliable climate data are not otherwise available.

The satellite-based instruments measure the temperature of the atmosphere from the surface up to an altitude of about eight kilometers above sea level. Once the monthly temperature data is collected and processed, it is placed in a "public" computer file for immediate access by atmospheric scientists in the U.S. and abroad.

Neither Christy nor Spencer receives any research support or funding from oil, coal or industrial companies or organizations, or from any private or special interest groups. All of their climate research funding comes from federal and state grants or contracts.

Global Temperature Report: May 2014

Global climate trend since Nov. 16, 1978: +0.14 C per decade

May temperatures (preliminary)

Global composite temp.: +0.33 C (about 0.59 degrees Fahrenheit) above 30-year average for May.

Northern Hemisphere: +0.33 C (about 0.59 degrees Fahrenheit) above 30-year average for May.

Southern Hemisphere: +0.33 C (about 0.59 degrees Fahrenheit) above 30-year average for May.

Tropics: +0.17 C (about 0.31 degrees Fahrenheit) above 30-year average for May.

April temperatures (revised):

Global Composite: +0.19 C above 30-year average

Northern Hemisphere: +0.36 C above 30-year average

Southern Hemisphere: +0.02 C at 30-year average

Tropics: +0.09 C at 30-year average

(All temperature anomalies are based on a 30-year average (1981-2010) for the month reported.)

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Alabama Huntsville. Global Lower Troposphere v5.6 Anomaly 1978-2014. Credit: UAH

Health papers published this week:

How much testosterone is too much for women after menopause?

June 10, 2014 – Testosterone supplementation for women is a hot topic. A new pharmacokinetics study of a brand of testosterone cream for women approved in Western Australia has been published online inMenopause, the journal of The North American Menopause Society (NAMS). For women after menopause, it took 5 mg, the lowest dose of this product, to raise testosterone back to a premenopause level. "In the United States we do not yet have an approved testosterone product designed for women," says NAMS Executive Director Margery Gass, MD. "As a result, American women sometimes rely on custom-compounded testosterone prescriptions that may deliver much higher doses than the Australian product and raise women's testosterone to levels higher than normal, potentially producing untoward side effects." According to Dr. Gass, there are no long-term studies of the effects of testosterone treatment on women's overall health. We do know that too much testosterone in a woman's body may result in excess body hair, acne, male-pattern hair loss, enlarged clitoris, deeper voice, liver damage, unhealthy changes in cholesterol, depression, aggression and more. And, the voice changes and clitoral enlargement may be irreversible.

Researchers from Monash University in Melbourne and the University of South Australia in Adelaide tested two different doses of the testosterone cream product known as AndroFeme (5 mg and 10 mg doses). After 21 days of daily administration, the 5-mg dose brought postmenopausal women's peak blood levels of total testosterone right into the normal premenopausal range - with a peak slightly above the upper limit of the premenopause normal and 24-hour average to slightly below the limit. The 10-mg dose raised testosterone levels to a higher peak but only somewhat higher than the norm (50%) over 24 hours.

"Since custom-compounded formulations are not FDA approved and are not routinely checked for dose content, it is difficult to know how a given formulation will affect women's testosterone levels. Women should be cautious about what dose of testosterone they are receiving and whether they really need it." advises Dr. Gass.

Ensieh Fooladi, Stephanie E. Reuter, Robin J. Bell, Penelope J. Robinson, Susan R. Davis. Pharmacokinetics of a transdermal testosterone cream in healthy postmenopausal women. Menopause, 2014; 1 DOI:10.1097/GME.0000000000000259

Key step toward a safer strep vaccine

June 11, 2014 - An  international team of scientists, led by researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, have identified the genes encoding a molecule that famously defines Group A Streptococcus(strep), a pathogenic bacterial species responsible for more than 700 million infections worldwide each year.

The findings, published online in the June 11 issue ofCell Host & Microbe, shed new light on how strep bacteria resists the human immune system and provides a new strategy for developing a safe and broadly effective vaccine against strep throat, necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating disease) and rheumatic heart disease.

"Most people experience one or more painful strep throat infections as a child or young adult," said senior author Victor Nizet, MD, professor of pediatrics and pharmacy. "Developing a broadly effective and safe strep vaccine could prevent this suffering and reduce lost time and productivity at school and work, estimated to cost $2 billion annually."

Efforts to develop such a vaccine have been significantly hindered by complexities in how the human immune system reacts to the bacterial pathogen. Specifically, some patients with strep infections produce antibodies that cross-react with their own heart valve tissue, leading to rheumatic fever and heart damage. Though rare in the United States, rheumatic fever remains common in some developing countries and causes significant disability and death.

The Cell Host & Microbe study suggests a way to circumvent the damaging autoimmune response triggered by strep. Specifically, the researchers noted that the cell wall of strep is composed primarily of a single molecule known as the group A carbohydrate (or GAC) which, in turn, is built from repeating units of the bacterial sugar rhamnose and the human-like sugar N-acetylglucosamine (GlcNAc).

Previous research has indicated that GlcNAc sugars present in GAC may be responsible for triggering production of heart-damaging antibodies in some patients. Nizet said the latest findings corroborate this model, and suggest that eliminating the pathogen's ability to add GlcNAc sugars to GAC could be the basis for a safe vaccine.

"In this study, we discovered the strep genes responsible for the biosynthesis and assembly of GAC, the very molecule that defines the pathogen in clinical diagnosis," said first author Nina van Sorge, PharmD, PhD, a former postdoctoral fellow at UC San Diego who now leads her own laboratory at Utrecht University Medical Center in the Netherlands. "This discovery allowed us to generate mutant bacterial strains and study the contribution of GAC to strep disease."

The researchers found that a mutant strep strain lacking the human-like GlcNAc sugar on the GAC molecule exhibited normal bacterial growth and expressed key proteins known to be associated with strep virulence, but was easily killed when exposed to human white blood cells or serum. The mutant strep bacteria also lost the ability to produce severe disease in animal infection models

"Our studies showed that the GlcNAc sugar of GAC is a critical virulence factor allowing strep to spread in the blood and tissues," van Sorge said. "This is likely important for the rare, but deadly, complications of strep infection such as pneumonia, necrotizing fasciitis and toxic shock syndrome."

The researchers also identified a way to remove the problematic GlcNAc sugar so that a mutant form of the bacteria with only rhamnose-containing GAC could be purified and tested as a vaccine antigen.

"We showed that antibodies produced against mutant GAC antigen helped human white blood cells kill the pathogen and protected mice from lethal strep infection," said Jason Cole, PhD, a visiting project scientist from the University of Queensland, Australia, and co-lead author of the paper. "Because GAC is present in all strep strains, this may represent a safer antigen for inclusion in a universal strep vaccine."

Researchers plan to assess the new modified antigen against other candidates in advanced strep throat vaccine tests in nonhuman primates beginning later this year in Atlanta, Georgia, funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia.

"It is satisfying to find that a fundamental observation regarding the genetics and biochemistry of the pathogen can have implications not only for strep disease pathogenesis, but also for vaccine design," Nizet said.

Nina M. van Sorge, Jason N. Cole, Kirsten Kuipers, Anna Henningham, Ramy K. Aziz, Ana Kasirer-Friede, Leo Lin, Evelien T.M. Berends, Mark R. Davies, Gordon Dougan, Fan Zhang, Samira Dahesh, Laura Shaw, Jennifer Gin, Madeleine Cunningham, Joseph A. Merriman, Julia Hütter, Bernd Lepenies, Suzan H.M. Rooijakkers, Richard Malley, Mark J. Walker, Sanford J. Shattil, Patrick M. Schlievert, Biswa Choudhury, Victor Nizet. The Classical Lancefield Antigen of Group A Streptococcus Is a Virulence Determinant with Implications for Vaccine Design. Cell Host & Microbe, 2014; 15 (6): 729 DOI:10.1016/j.chom.2014.05.009

Chemo-radionuclide therapy halts neuroendocrine cancer

June 9, 2014 - Advanced cancer of the neuroendocrine system can lead to dismal prognoses, but a novel therapy is packing a punch by uniting powerful radionuclide treatment and chemotherapy drugs, revealed researchers at the Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging's 2014 Annual Meeting. The research findings show that the experimental therapy led to stabilization or regression of patients' cancer in about 70 percent of cases a year after completion of the treatment, now called peptide receptor chemo-radionuclide therapy (PRCRT). The therapy is just catching on across Europe and Australia and now in U.S. clinical trials.

"Results of this study suggest that PRCRT is a highly effective treatment option for patients with progressive NETs with high somatostatin receptor expression," explained Grace Kong, MBBS, principal investigator for this study conducted at the Centre for Cancer Imaging, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne, Australia.

Neuroendocrine tumors (NETs) are those that develop within a multiplicity of organs throughout the body that have nerve cells and interact with the endocrine system through chemical signaling made possible with various hormones. These tumors usually develop along the intestines and lungs, but they can also be found in the pancreas and many other sites, although rarely. For this study, researchers observed patients who had undergone at least three courses of treatment with Lutetium-177 DOTA-Octreotate, which is prescribed for inoperable patients with NETs expressing somatostatin hormone receptors. This study included a high proportion of grade two disease, which is more aggressive and associated with adverse prognosis. Researchers added a radio-sensitizing chemotherapy for 63 out of the 68 patients in the study.

All of these steps together produced encouraging responses in a majority of subjects, with 72 percent survival at two years. More than half of patients were still alive past the five-year mark after therapy.

"The high objective response and long median survival even in patients with more aggressive tumor biology warrant further studies comparing it with other targeted therapies recently approved, despite much lower response rates," Kong added.

The above story is based on materials provided by Society of Nuclear Medicine.

MRI shows brain abnormalities in late preterm infants

June 10, 2014 - Babies born 32 to 36 weeks into gestation may have smaller brains and other brain abnormalities that could lead to long-term developmental problems, according to a new study published online in the journal Radiology. Much of the existing knowledge on preterm birth and brain development has been drawn from studies of individuals born very preterm, or less than 32 weeks into gestation at birth.

For the new study, researchers in Australia focused on moderate and late preterm (MLPT) babies - those born between 32 weeks, zero days, and 36 weeks, six days, into gestation. MLPT babies account for approximately 80 percent of all preterm births and are responsible for much of the rise in the rates of preterm birth over the last 20 years. Despite this, to date there have been no large-scale studies published on brain alterations associated with MLPT birth that may provide insight into brain-behavior relationships in this group of children.

"In those very preterm babies, brain injury from bleeding into the brain or a lack of blood flow, oxygen or nutrition to the brain may explain some of the abnormal brain development that occurs," said the study's lead author, Jennifer M. Walsh, M.B.B.Ch., B.A.O., M.R.C.P.I., from the Royal Women's Hospital in Melbourne, Australia. "However, in some preterm babies, there may be no obvious explanation for why their brain development appears slow compared with babies born on time."

To learn more, the researchers performed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exams on 199 MLPT and 50 term-born infants (greater than 37 weeks gestation) between 38 to 44 weeks of gestation. They looked for signs of brain injury and compared the size and maturation of multiple brain structures in the two groups.

While injury rates were similar between the two groups, MLPT birth was associated with smaller brain size at term-equivalent age. In addition, MLPT infants had less developed myelination in one part of the brain and more immature gyral folding compared with term-born controls. Myelination - the formation of a fatty insulating sheath around some nerve fibers - and gyral folding - the folding of the cerebral cortex to increase the brain's surface area - are important processes in early brain development.

The findings suggest that MLPT birth may disrupt the expected trajectory of brain growth that would normally occur in the last two or so months in utero, according to Dr. Walsh.

"Given that brain growth is very rapid in the last one-third of pregnancy, it is perhaps not surprising that being born during this potentially vulnerable period may disrupt brain development," she said. "Brain growth is very complex, involving not only the neurons with which we think and do things, but also the other brain cells that support the neurons and are vital for normal brain function."

The researchers are hoping to learn in greater depth the impact that moderate to late preterm birth has on the brain, so that they can then begin to try different treatments designed to improve brain function and long-term outcome in these infants.

"Medications, along with early intervention to help parents understand their baby's needs, have been effective in helping very preterm babies catch up to their term-born peers," Dr. Walsh said. "However, whether any of the existing treatments will help babies born between 32 and 36 weeks is unknown, as they have not been studied very much at all."

The researchers plan to follow the infants in the study group through childhood to learn more about the relationship between brain abnormalities and later outcomes. They also are assessing additional MRI information about brain structure and function in these children.

"Understanding what problems they have and what might be causing them is the first step in trying to improve their long-term outcome," Dr. Walsh said.

Jennifer M. Walsh, Lex W. Doyle, Peter J. Anderson, Katherine J. Lee, Jeanie L. Y. Cheong. Moderate and Late Preterm Birth: Effect on Brain Size and Maturation at Term-Equivalent Age. Radiology, 2014; 132410 DOI:10.1148/radiol.14132410

Game changer for leukemia therapy may lead to less clinical treatment

June 10, 2014 - Australian researchers are zeroing in on a promising new approach to killing off cancer cells in patients with leukemia. In a study led by the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) and the University of Adelaide's Centre for Personalised Cancer Medicine, researchers have found that cancer cells decide whether to live or die after a short period of intense exposure to targeted therapy, opposing the current requirement for continuous treatment.

The researchers say this study presents a new treatment strategy which will translate to a significant reduction in side effects for patients. The results have been published online ahead of print in the journalLeukemia.

"This discovery is paradigm shifting," says Professor Deborah White, Director, Cancer Research with SAHMRI and University of Adelaide professor. "Our findings are not just applicable to chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) therapy, but to all targeted cancer treatments.

"In our research, we're looking for methods that will result in the cancer cell killing itself. This would provide an improved treatment and reduce the risk of cancer relapse."

As a consequence of this finding, Professor White and colleagues identified a new target in resistant and persistent disease. They show that by blocking a common protein they can more effectively cause death in leukemia cells.

Professor White and her research team, including University of Adelaide PhD student Lisa Schafranek, have been investigating the role of a common protein known as STAT5.

"The activity of STAT5 appears to be a critical determinant of the decision for cancer cells to live or die," says Miss Schafranek, a Leukemia Foundation of Australia PhD scholar.

"Our research has found that by blocking STAT5 in conjunction with exposure to a regular anti-cancer treatment, we were able to more effectively target the leukemia cells. We now also better understand the timing required for the combined treatment to be effective."

L Schafranek, E Nievergall, J A Powell, D K Hiwase, T Leclercq, T P Hughes, D L White. Sustained inhibition of STAT5, but not JAK2, is essential for TKI-induced cell death in chronic myeloid leukemia. Leukemia, 2014; DOI:10.1038/leu.2014.156

Leukemia drug found to stimulate immunity against many cancer types

June 11, 2014 – A class of drug currently being used to treat leukemia has the unexpected side-effect of boosting immune responses against many different cancers, reports a new study led by scientists at UCL (University College London) and the Babraham Institute, Cambridge. The drugs, called p110δ inhibitors, have shown such remarkable efficacy against certain leukemias in recent clinical trials that patients on the placebo were switched to the real drug. Until now, however, they have not been tested in other types of cancer.

The new study, published in Nature, provides the first evidence that such drugs can significantly restrict tumor growth and spread and reduce the chances of relapse for a broad range of cancers. The researchers at UCL, the Babraham Institute and Queen Mary University of London, together with scientists from Genentech, South San Francisco, showed that inhibition of the p110δ enzyme helps to boost the body's immune system to kill tumor cells. The research was funded by Cancer Research UK, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Wellcome Trust.

"Our study shows that p110δ inhibitors have the potential to offer effective immunity to many types of cancer by unleashing the body's own immune response," says study co-leader Professor Bart Vanhaesebroeck of the UCL Cancer Institute, who first discovered the p110δ enzyme in 1997. "p110δ is highly expressed and important in white blood cells, called 'leukocytes'. Given that leukemias are the result of leukocytes becoming cancerous, they are a natural target for p110δ inhibitors. Now, we have shown that blocking p110δ also has the remarkable effect of boosting the body's immune response against leukemias as well as other cancers."

The team showed that inhibiting p110δ in mice significantly increased cancer survival rates across a broad range of tumor types, both solid and haematological cancers. For example, mice in which p110δ was blocked survived breast cancer for almost twice as long as mice with active p110δ. Their cancers also spread significantly less, with far fewer and smaller tumors developing. Survival after surgical removal of primary breast cancer tumors was also vastly improved, which has important clinical implications for stopping breast cancer from returning following surgery. The team's data further show that following p110δ inhibition, the immune system could develop an effective memory response to completely fight off the cancer.

Lead author Dr Khaled Ali, who is now based at Amgen, San Francisco, says: "When we first introduced tumors in p110δ-deficient mice, we expected them to grow faster because p110δ is important for the immune system. Instead, some tumors started shrinking. When we investigated this unexpected effect, we found that p110δ is especially important in so-called regulatory T cells which are suppressive immune cells that the tumors engage to protect themselves against immune attack."

The p110δ enzyme is a member of the PI3-kinase family, and is sometimes called PI3Kδ. p110δ and the other PI3Ks are hot drug targets for the pharmaceutical industry as they are implicated in many cancers and are readily druggable.

"Our work shows that p110δ inhibitors can shift the balance from the cancer becoming immune to our body's defenses towards the body becoming immune to the cancer, by disabling regulatory T cells," says study co-leader Dr Klaus Okkenhaug of the Babraham Institute. "This provides a rationale for using these drugs against both solid and blood cancers, possibly alongside cancer vaccines, cell therapies and other treatments that further promote tumor-specific immune responses."

Professor Nic Jones, Cancer Research UK's chief scientist and director of the Manchester Cancer Research Centre, said: "Treatments that train the immune system to recognise and kill cancer cells are showing huge promise in several types of cancer. This new finding, although only at an early stage, offers the potential to develop more treatments that can do this in many more cancers, including ones that have real need for more effective treatments such as pancreatic cancer.

"If the findings hold true in cancer patients this could make a big difference to many of them. The good news is that because the drugs used in this study are already being used in the clinic, we could see rapid translation of this research into patient benefit."

Khaled Ali, Dalya R. Soond, Roberto Piñeiro, Thorsten Hagemann, Wayne Pearce, Ee Lyn Lim, Hicham Bouabe, Cheryl L. Scudamore, Timothy Hancox, Heather Maecker, Lori Friedman, Martin Turner, Klaus Okkenhaug, Bart Vanhaesebroeck. Inactivation of PI(3)K p110δ breaks regulatory T-cell-mediated immune tolerance to cancer.Nature, 2014; DOI: 10.1038/nature13444

'Master' protein identified in pulmonary fibrosis

June 11, 2014 - This spring has brought rare but tangible moments of progress against the devastating lung disease idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), which afflicts millions of people worldwide. Two drugs recently showed promise in clinical trials, and now a study in Science Translational Medicineoffers both an unprecedentedly deep explanation of how the disease progresses and introduces another potential therapeutic avenue. The new study features a central figure: an evolutionarily ancient protein called "chitinase 3-like-1" (CHI3L1). The authors implicate it as the "master regulator" of what appears to be a tragically errant repair response to the mysterious lung injuries that give rise to the disease. In describing how CHI3L1 works in IPF, the research also points to a strategy for treatment.

The report demonstrates that CHI3L1 is produced to help in response to the injury. It feeds back to protect injured cells from dying and simultaneously stimulates tissue repair to patch the damage that has occurred. But the study also shows how this dual role contributes to the ultimate problem. If IPF resulted from a single injury, like a paper cut, CHI3L1 would decrease the injury and cause local scarring while it restored tissue integrity. In that case, the amount of scarring would not be excessive and tissue function would not be significantly altered. But in IPF lungs, cells undergo ongoing injury, so CHI3L1 is chronically elevated and scar tissue accumulates. As CHI3L1 rescues cell after cell, the scarring builds up, eventually compromising the lung's ability to breathe. In IPF, 70 percent of patients die within five years.

"The CHI3L1 is doing exactly what it is supposed to do - it is designed to shut off cell death and decrease injury," said Dr. Jack A. Elias, a co-senior author of the study and dean of medicine and biological sciences at Brown University. He is joined on the paper by a host of his former colleagues and students at Yale University where the research occurred. "But at the same time it is decreasing cell death it is driving the fibrosis. You've got this ongoing injury so you've got these ongoing attempts to shut off injury which stimulate scarring."

"This research lays the foundation for potential therapies that would be designed to diminish injury and ameliorate fibroproliferative repair." Credit: Scott Kingsley for Brown UniversityIn patients and the lab

The research team, including co-senior author Erica Herzog of Yale and co-lead authors Yang Zhou (who is transitioning to Brown from Yale), Huanxing Sun of Yale, and Hong Peng of Central South University in China used various means to uncover CHI3L1's central role in IPF.

They compared tissues and serum from normal patients, outpatients with IPF, and patients with an acute exacerbation (AE) of IPF. In AE, widespread lung injury is superimposed on the pulmonary fibrosis, which frequently occurs before patients die. In lung biopsies and serum, they found that CHI3L1 levels are elevated in both tissue compartments in the outpatients with IPF and that the levels of CHI3L1 correlated with their disease progression. In the patients with AE, elevated levels of CHI3L1 were not noted, showing that the levels of CHI3L1 decrease right before the patients die.

"This demonstrates that the CHI3L1 plays a key role in controlling lung injury in this setting," Elias said.

After documenting that elevated levels of CHI3L1 correlate with ongoing fibrosis and scarring and that a lack of the protein associates with widespread cell death, the team engaged in several manipulations of CHI3L1 in mice to see how levels and the clinical outcomes might be related. (In mice, CHI3L1 is also called BRP-39.)

Scientists can induce an IPF-like response in mice using a drug called bleomycin. In mice given bleomycin, the researchers found that the levels of CHI3L1 declined at first and then surged. At the times when the protein levels were low, cell damage occurred, and when the protein surged, the excessive scarring set in.

In previous research the team had engineered several lines of genetically modified mice. Some were transgenic and can produce CHI3l1 on chemically delivered command. Other mice were engineered to never produce BRP-39 - the mouse version of CHI3L1 - at all.

Using these mice, the researchers found that if they triggered CHI3L1 production early after administering bleomycin, the mice fared well, experiencing less injury, less damage and less scarring than controls. If they waited several days after bleomycin to trigger CHI3L1, the mice fared very poorly and scarring and mortality went up.

Mice who couldn't produce CHI3L1/BRP-39, had acute lung cell damage, somewhat like AE patients who have a relative deficiency of CHI3L1. However, without CHI3L1 they did not generate much scarring.

All of these findings were supplemented with several other experiments that were designed to learn how CHI3L1 interacts with other cells involved in the tissue repair response in both human and mouse lungs. The experiments, including studies conducted in a bioengineered 3-D model of lung tissue seeded with relevant cells, showed that CHI3L1 regulates a pathway that recruits cells such as macrophages and fibroblasts that produce the scarring, or fibrosis.

In all, the results show that CHI3L1 plays a fundamental role in the course, if not the origin, of IPF. An ongoing buildup of it results in excessive scarring. Too little and cells die much more frequently.

"To my knowledge this is the first comprehensive paper that's been able to explain the many facets and presentations of IPF," Elias said. "It explains and links the injury and the repair responses that are critical in the disease. It also provides an explanation for the slowly progressing patients and the patients that experience acute exacerbations."

Toward treatment

Elias said he hopes the insights will lead to new therapies for IPF. The idea would be to preserve the cell-protecting function of CHI3L1, while tempering its ability to stimulate tissue scarring and repair.

There may indeed be a way to do that, Elias said. Some data suggest that the mechanisms for each CHI3L1 function - cell protection and tissue repair - involve different pathways and or receptors. In people, therefore, separate drugs could hypothetically enhance the injury prevention pathway and temper the repair pathway. Indeed, drugs that block a key repair pathway receptor exist and are undergoing testing in other diseases, Elias said.

"This research lays the foundation for potential therapies that would be designed to diminish injury and ameliorate fibroproliferative repair," Elias said.

Yang Zhou, Hong Peng, Huanxing Sun, Xueyan Peng, Chuyan Tang, Ye Gan, Xiaosong Chen, Aditi Mathur, Buqu Hu, Martin D. Slade, Ruth R. Montgomery, Albert C. Shaw, Robert J. Homer, Eric S. White, Chang-Min Lee, Meagan W. Moore, Mridu Gulati, Chun Geun Lee, Jack A. Elias, and Erica L. Herzog. Chitinase 3–Like 1 Suppresses Injury and Promotes Fibroproliferative Responses in Mammalian Lung Fibrosis. Science Translational Medicine, June 2014 DOI:10.1126/scitranslmed.3007096

White bread helps boost some of the gut's 'good' microbes

June 11, 2014 - White-bread lovers take heart. Scientists are now reporting that this much-maligned food seems to encourage the growth of some of our most helpful inhabitants - beneficial gut bacteria. In addition to this surprising find, a new study also revealed that when looking at effects of food on our 'microbiomes,' considering the whole diet, not just individual ingredients, is critical.

Sonia González and colleagues note that the bacteria in our guts, or our microbiome, play an important role in our health. When certain populations of bacteria drop, people become more prone to disease. One of the most effective ways to maintain a good balance of the microbes living in our guts is through our diets. To figure out what dietary ingredients promote helpful bacteria, several studies have looked at the effects of individual fibers and probiotics. But few researchers had investigated the role of polyphenols, which are common in much of what we consume - spices, teas, fruits and vegetables - or how polyphenols and fibers together help balance our gut microbes. González's team wanted to fill that gap.

To do so, they asked 38 healthy adults questions about their diets and figured out which bacteria were present in the participants' stool samples. Their analysis revealed that pectin, a compound in citrus fruits, lowers the levels of some helpful bacteria. This is contrary to previous research on pectin alone. The researchers suggest that pectin interacts with other substances in oranges, leading to this unexpected effect. Their most novel finding, they said, was that white bread boosted Lactobacillus, a group of beneficial bacteria.

The authors acknowledge funding from the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation.

Adriana Cuervo, Lorena Valdés, Nuria Salazar, Clara G. de los Reyes-Gavilán, Patricia Ruas-Madiedo, Miguel Gueimonde, Sonia González. Pilot Study of Diet and Microbiota: Interactive Associations of Fibers and Polyphenols with Human Intestinal Bacteria. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2014; 62 (23): 5330 DOI: 10.1021/jf501546a

Combined MMRV vaccine shows slight rise in adverse events

June 9, 2014 - The combined measles-mumps-rubella-varicella (MMRV) vaccine shows a slightly increased risk of febrile seizures in children, compared with the previously separate vaccines for MMR and varicella (chickenpox) (MMR+V), according to an article in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal).The MMRV vaccine was developed for young children to reduce the number of needles they receive. However, the combined vaccine has been associated with slightly higher rates of febrile seizures.

Febrile seizures can accompany high fever in young children; although distressing, they are not associated with ongoing health issues.

"Combining MMR and varicella into a single vaccine decreases pain for children and distress for parents, thus addressing common barriers to vaccine uptake, and may improve vaccination coverage levels and decrease immunization delivery costs," writes Dr. Shannon MacDonald, Faculty of Medicine, University of Calgary.

"Febrile seizures are typically self-limiting and rarely have long-term effects, but they can be extremely distressing for parents, may precipitate acute care visits and may undermine confidence in immunization programs."

To determine whether there is an increased risk of febrile seizures from the combined vaccine, researchers looked at data on 227 774 children aged 12 to 23 months who received either the MMR+V or the MMRV vaccine between 2006 and 2012 in Alberta, Canada.

The researchers found a slight increase in the relative risk of febrile seizure with the MMRV vaccine compared with the MMR+V vaccine - about 1 excess seizure for every 2841 doses administered in the 7- to 10-day period after vaccination. Although this rate is double that for the MMR+V vaccine, the absolute risk is relatively small. The researchers suggest counselling parents about the risk of fever and to use children's fever medication to alleviate symptoms.

Two versions of MMRV are used in North America. Canada uses the Priorix-Tetra formulation, as does Australia, Italy and Germany; the United States uses ProQuad. Priorix-Tetra is also approved for use in many member states of the European Union.

This study's findings are consistent with the results of a study of the US version of the vaccine.

"It is a matter for debate whether the choice of separate versus combination vaccine is a policy decision or a choice for parents to make in consultation with their vaccination provider," the authors conclude.

Shannon E. Macdonald, Douglas C. Dover, Kimberley A. Simmonds, Lawrence W. Svenson. Risk of febrile seizures after first dose of measles–mumps–rubella–varicella vaccine: a population-based cohort study. CMAJ, June 2014 DOI:10.1503/cmaj.140078

Quest for long-lasting blood: Scientists developing one-size-fits-all artifical blood

June 9, 2014 – A team of scientists at the University of Essex are hoping to develop a one-size-fits-all, third generation artificial blood substitute. Every day thousands of people around the world have their lives saved or improved thanks to someone giving blood.

But imagine how many more lives could be saved if a long-lasting blood substitute could be found, which could easily be stored at room temperature and available to all patients, regardless of their blood type.

This is the challenge a team of scientists at the University of Essex are hoping to overcome with their Haem02 project to develop a one-size-fits-all, third generation artificial blood substitute.

Led by Professor Chris Cooper, the research team are developing an artificial blood substitute that is a safe, long-lasting, virus-free alternative to current blood transfusions available to all countries and immediately accessible at the site of natural disasters.

Haemoglobin is the key protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen around our bodies. The Haem02 team aim to create an artificial haemoglobin-based oxygen carrier (HBOC) that could be used as a substitute for blood lost in surgery or trauma.

However, attempts so far to make a safe and effective HBOC have proved problematic as outside the protective environment of the red cell, haemoglobin can be toxic. The beauty of the product being engineered at Essex is that it is detoxified by the body's own defences.

As Professor Cooper, a biochemist and blood substitute expert, explained, the implications of manufacturing a product with a shelf life of up to two years were huge.

"It means we could overcome some of the inherent problems with transfusions as there would be no need for blood group typing and a longer shelf life means you are able to stockpile the supplies necessary for major disasters. It also offers the opportunity for routine transfusion support in ambulances or at remote inaccessible locations," he explained.

The quest to create artificial blood is big business, with the past 25 years seeing up to £2 billion invested globally on research into a usable alternative and many major US companies falling by the wayside in the hunt for a substitute.

After winning over £1.5 million of funding from the Medical Research Council (MRC)'s Biomedical Catalyst funding programme and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)'s Super Follow On Fund, the team from Essex are a step further towards the commercialisation of a viable artificial substitute. Their engineered haemoglobin product has already been granted patents in the US and Australia and has a patent pending in the EU.

"This is an exciting time for artificial blood research in Britain," explained Professor Cooper. "This funding allows our team to take to first step on the road to bridging the gap between top class research and the commercialisation of a product."

Currently over 85 million units of donated blood are given to people worldwide for use in hospitals. However, there are growing concerns about its use in routine operations. With the number of potential and active blood donors decreasing worldwide, the challenge is to have enough blood in the right place at the right time and be assured of its quality, purity and efficacy.

Some artificial blood products are licensed for use in South Africa and Russia but have failed to get a licence in the UK or in the United States.

For more details about Haem02 please visit: www.haemO2.com.

Disclaimer: These articles are not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Pittwater Online News or its staff.

 NASA announces two upcoming undersea missions

June 11, 2014 - NASA is returning to the bottom of the ocean. Twice this summer, aquanauts participating in the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) will conduct activities on the ocean floor that will inform future International Space Station and exploration activities. These studies provide information that correlates directly to life aboard the space station, where crew members must frequently perform critical tasks that present constraining factors similar to those experienced in an undersea environment. "It is both challenging and exciting for our astronaut crews to participate in these undersea missions in preparation for spaceflight," says Bill Todd, NEEMO project manager at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. "It is critical that we perform science applicable to NASA's exploration goals in a high-fidelity space operational context. The extreme environment of life undersea is as close to being in space as possible."

NEEMO 18, a nine-day mission beginning July 21, will focus on studies in behavioral health and performance, human health issues, and habitability. Astronaut Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will command NEEMO 18. He will be joined by NASA astronauts Jeanette Epps and Mark Vande Hei and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Thomas Pesquet.

NEEMO 19, which begins Sept. 7 and runs seven days, will focus on the evaluation of tele-mentoring operations for ESA. Telementoring is when a crew member is given instruction for a task by an expert who is located remotely but is virtually present via a video and voice connection. NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik will command this second mission. He will be joined by Canadian Space Agency astronaut Jeremy Hansen, ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen, and Herve Stevenin, ESA's Head of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) Training at the European Astronaut Center in Cologne, Germany.

Both NEEMO missions will include EVA objectives and engineering investigations to mature technologies and training techniques for use on the space station and in asteroid exploration. These EVAs will focus on evaluating man-machine work systems and EVA tools and techniques for exploration tasks in varying levels of gravity ranging from that of asteroids to the gravity of Martian moons and Mars itself. The EVAs also will evaluate techniques to address re-planning of exploration operations accounting for different communications time delays.

The missions also will investigate tools to help astronauts learn new procedures while in flight. One such tool for the "just in time training" that is delivered to the crew in orbit is "intuitive procedures." These procedures use a combination of text, pictures, and videos to instruct the crew on how to perform a task that they were never trained on, and are presented in a way such that the crew understands it quickly.

The NEEMO crews will live 62 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, 5.4 nautical miles off the coast of Key Largo, Florida, in Florida International University's undersea research habitat Aquarius Reef Base, along with two professional habitat technicians.

For more information about NEEMO, the crews and links to follow the missions on Facebook and Twitter, visit: www.nasa.gov/neemo