June 20 - 26, 2021: Issue 499

New research finds 1 Million early deaths in 2017 attributable to fossil fuel combustion

June 14, 2021
An interdisciplinary group of researchers from across the globe has comprehensively examined the sources and health effects of air pollution -- not just on a global scale, but also individually for more than 200 countries. They found that worldwide, more than one million deaths were attributable to the burning of fossil fuels in 2017. More than half of those deaths were attributable to coal.

Findings and access to their data, which have been made public, were published today in the journal Nature Communications.

Pollution is at once a global crisis and a devastatingly personal problem. It is analysed by satellites, but PM2.5 -- tiny particles that can infiltrate a person's lungs -- can also sicken a person who cooks dinner nightly on a cookstove.

"PM2.5 is the world's leading environmental risk factor for mortality. Our key objective is to understand its sources," said Randall Martin, the Raymond R. Tucker Distinguished Professor in the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis.

Martin jointly led the study with Michael Brauer, a professor of public health at the University of British Columbia. They worked with specific datasets and tools from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, the Joint Global Change Research Institute at the University of Maryland and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, as well as other researchers from universities and organizations across the world, amassing a wealth of data, analytical tools and brainpower.

First author Erin McDuffie, a visiting research associate in Martin's lab, used various computational tools to weave the data together, while also enhancing them. She developed a new global dataset of air pollution emissions, making it the most comprehensive dataset of emissions at the time. McDuffie also brought advances to the GEOS-Chem model, an advanced computational tool used in the Martin lab to model specific aspects of atmospheric chemistry.

With this combination of emissions and modelling, the team was able to tease out different sources of air pollution -- everything from energy production to the burning of oil and gas to dust storms.

This study also used new techniques to remote sensing from satellites in order to assess PM2.5 exposure across the globe. The team then incorporated information about the relationship between PM2.5 and health outcomes from the Global Burden of Disease with these exposure estimates to determine the relationships between health and each of the more than 20 distinct pollution sources.

As McDuffie put it: "How many deaths are attributable to exposure to air pollution from specific sources?"

Ultimately, the data reinforced much of what researchers already suspected, particularly on a global scale. It did offer, however, quantitative information in different parts of the world, teasing out which sources are to blame for severe pollution in different areas.

For instance, cookstoves and home-heating are still responsible for the release of particulate matter in many regions throughout Asia and energy generation remains a large polluter on the global scale, McDuffie said.

Apples to apples 
One unique aspect of this research is its use of the same underlying datasets and methodology to analyse pollution on different spatial scales.

"Previous studies end up having to use different emissions data sets or models all together," said first author Erin McDuffie. In those instances, it is difficult to compare results in one place versus another.

"We can more directly compare results between countries," McDuffie said. "We can even look at pollution sources in places that have implemented some mitigation measures, versus others that haven't to get a more complete picture of what may or may not be working."

And natural sources play a role, as well. In West sub-Saharan Africa in 2017, for instance, windblown dust accounted for nearly three quarters of the particulate matter in the atmosphere, compared with the global rate of just 16 percent. The comparisons in this study are important when it comes to considering mitigation.

"Ultimately, it will be important to consider sources at the subnational scale when developing mitigation strategies for reducing air pollution," McDuffie said.

Martin and McDuffie agreed that, while a takeaway from this work is, simply put, air pollution continues to sicken and kill people, the project also has positive implications.

Although pollution monitoring has been increasing, there are still many areas that do not have the capability. Those that do may not have the tools needed to determine, for instance, how much pollution is a product of local traffic, versus agricultural practices, versus wildfires.

"The good news is that we may be providing some of the first information that these places have about their major sources of pollution," McDuffie said. They may otherwise not have this information readily available to them. "This provides them with a start."

Erin E. McDuffie, Randall V. Martin, Joseph V. Spadaro, Richard Burnett, Steven J. Smith, Patrick O’Rourke, Melanie S. Hammer, Aaron van Donkelaar, Liam Bindle, Viral Shah, Lyatt Jaeglé, Gan Luo, Fangqun Yu, Jamiu A. Adeniran, Jintai Lin, Michael Brauer. Source sector and fuel contributions to ambient PM2.5 and attributable mortality across multiple spatial scales. Nature Communications, 2021; 12 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-23853-y

The map above shows that almost no country is untouched by the combustion of coal; only the small Pacific Island of Tokelau had zero coal-combustion related deaths in 2017. That same year, coal combustion was attributable to about 540,000 deaths worldwide. (Image: Global Burden of Disease-Major Air Pollution Sources)

Studying wombat burrows with WomBot: a remote-controlled robot

June 8, 2021
A new robot -- named WomBot -- that can be used to explore and study wombat burrows is presented in a study published in the journal SN Applied SciencesWombats reside and sleep in burrows and occupy a different burrow every four to ten days. Parasitic mites that cause sarcoptic mange, a serious disease affecting wombats, are thought to be transmitted when wombats occupy each other's burrows but it has not been clear whether conditions within burrows promote this transmission.

Researchers from La Trobe University and the University of Tasmania, Australia developed WomBot in order to study environmental conditions within wombat burrows. The robot is remotely operated and moves using continuous tracks, similar to a tank tread. Its top speed is 0.15 metres per second and it is able to climb inclines of up to 22 degrees. Environmental sensors in WomBot can measure the temperature and humidity of a burrow while a gripper attached to its front can be used to place and retrieve additional environmental sensors. Front and rear cameras enable burrow visualisation. WomBot is 300 millimetres long and weights two kilograms, equivalent to one third of the length and one tenth of the weight of a wombat.

Robert Ross, the corresponding author, said: "Wombat burrows are challenging to study as they are narrow, muddy, can be dozens of metres long and contain steep sections and sharp turns. WomBot allows us to enter and explore these burrows without destroying them or using expensive ground-penetrating radar. This can help us better understand the environmental conditions within burrows that may facilitate sarcoptic mange transmission."

The authors used WomBot to explore a total of 30 wombat burrows in Tasmania during September 2020. They found that the average temperature inside the burrows was 15 degrees Celsius and the average relative humidity was 85%. Environmental sensors left in the burrows over a 24 hour period recorded that temperatures remained mostly constant at 11 degrees Celsius and relative humidity ranged from 85 to 95%. Temperatures outside of the burrow during this time ranged from three to 15 degrees Celsius and relative humidity ranged from 70 to 95%.

Previous research has suggested that the conditions that promote maximum survival of scabies mites are temperatures around 10 degrees Celsius and relative humidity between 75 and 97%, similar to the conditions observed inside the wombat burrows. The authors estimate that female mites could survive for between nine and ten days at the entrance to a wombat burrow and between 16 and 18 days inside a burrow, potentially allowing them to infect wombats.

Robert Ross said: "Our findings indicate that the environmental conditions within wombat burrows may facilitate sarcoptic mange transmission by promoting mite survival. WomBot could potentially be used to help reduce the spread of sarcoptic mange by delivering insecticide or ensuring burrows are empty before being temporarily heated in order to eradicate mites."

The authors caution that the environmental conditions observed over a 24-hour period within the burrows used in their study may not be representative of conditions inside all wombat burrows throughout the year. Further research could use WomBot to create three dimensional reconstructions of burrows or to collect soil samples from burrows in order to study mite prevalence.

Robert Ross, Scott Carver, Elizabeth Browne, Ba Son Thai. WomBot: an exploratory robot for monitoring wombat burrows. SN Applied Sciences, 2021; 3 (6) DOI: 10.1007/s42452-021-04595-4  Photo:  Wombat robot alongside a model wombat for comparison, supplied

Teenagers at greatest risk of self-harming could be identified almost a decade earlier

June 15, 2021
Researchers have identified two subgroups of adolescents who self-harm and have shown that it is possible to predict those individuals at greatest risk almost a decade before they begin self-harming. The team, based at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge, found that while sleep problems and low self-esteem were common risk factors, there were two distinct profiles of young people who self-harm -- one with emotional and behavioural difficulties and a second group without those difficulties, but with different risk factors.

Between one in five and one in seven adolescents in England self-harms, for example by deliberately cutting themselves. While self-harm is a significant risk factor for subsequent suicide attempts, many do not intend suicide but face other harmful outcomes, including repeatedly self-harming, poor mental health, and risky behaviours like substance abuse. Despite its prevalence and lifelong consequences, there has been little progress in the accurate prediction of self-harm.

The Cambridge team identified adolescents who reported self-harm at age 14, from a nationally representative UK birth cohort of approximately 11,000 individuals. They then used a machine learning analysis to identify whether there were distinct profiles of young people who self-harm, with different emotional and behavioural characteristics. They used this information to identify risk factors from early and middle childhood. The results are published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Because the data tracked the participants over time, the researchers were able to distinguish factors that appear alongside reported self-harm behaviour, such as low self-esteem, from those that precede it, such as bullying.

The team identified two distinct subgroups among young people who self-harm, with significant risk factors present as early as age five, nearly a decade before they reported self-harming. While both groups were likely to experience sleep difficulties and low self-esteem reported at age 14, other risk factors differed between the two groups.

The first group showed a long history of poor mental health, as well as bullying before they self-harmed. Their caregivers were more likely to have mental health issues of their own.

For the second group, however, their self-harming behaviour was harder to predict early in childhood. One of the key signs was a greater willingness to take part in risk-taking behaviour, which is linked to impulsivity. Other research suggests these tendencies may predispose the individual towards spending less time to consider alternate coping methods and the consequences of self-harm. Factors related to their relationships with their peers were also important for this subgroup, including feeling less secure with friends and family at age 14 and a greater concern about the feelings of others as a risk factor at age 11.

Stepheni Uh, a Gates Cambridge Scholar and first author of the study, said: "Self-harm is a significant problem among adolescents, so it's vital that we understand the nuanced nature of self-harm, especially in terms of the different profiles of young people who self-harm and their potentially different risk factors.

"We found two distinct subgroups of young people who self-harm. The first was much as expected -- young people who experience symptoms of depression and low self-esteem, face problems with their families and friends, and are bullied. The second, much larger group was much more surprising as they don't show the usual traits that are associated with those who self-harm."

The researchers say that their findings suggest that it may be possible to predict which individuals are most at risk of self-harm up to a decade ahead of time, providing a window to intervene.

Dr Duncan Astle said: "The current approach to supporting mental health in young people is to wait until problems escalate. Instead, we need a much better evidence base so we can identify who is at most risk of mental health difficulties in the future, and why. This offers us the opportunity to be proactive, and minimise difficulties before they start.

"Our results suggest that boosting younger children's self-esteem, making sure that schools implement anti-bullying measures, and providing advice on sleep training, could all help reduce self-harm levels years later.

"Our research gives us potential ways of helping this newly-identified second subgroup. Given that they experience difficulties with their peers and are more willing to engage in risky behaviours, then providing access to self-help and problem-solving or conflict regulation programmes may be effective."

Professor Tamsin Ford from the Department of Psychiatry added: "We might also help at-risk adolescents by targeting interventions at mental health leaders and school-based mental health teams. Teachers are often the first people to hear about self-harm but some lack confidence in how to respond. Providing them with training could make a big difference."

Stepheni Uh, Edwin S. Dalmaijer, Roma Siugzdaite, Tamsin J. Ford, Duncan E. Astle. Two Pathways to Self-Harm in Adolescence. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 2021; DOI: 10.1016/j.jaac.2021.03.010

Untapped rice varieties could sustain crop supplies in face of climate change

June 15, 2021
Local rice varieties in Vietnam could be used to help breed improved crops with higher resilience to climate change, according to a new study published in RiceEarlham Institute researchers are part of an international collaboration with genebanks and rice breeders in Vietnam -- championed by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to help abolish world poverty and hunger -- are aiming to identify varieties that can survive an increasingly unpredictable climate.

The new genomic data they have generated will significantly support efforts to breed resilient rice crops for optimum global production.

The unparalleled geography and history of Vietnam, together with its diverse range of ecosystems and latitudinal range, means it has been blessed with a vast diversity of rice landraces.

Rice production in Vietnam is of enormous value, both as an export commodity and a daily food staple for the more than 96 million people who live there. An important part of diets worldwide, rice is a healthy, versatile and cheap carbohydrate.

However, climate change is threatening its wide availability, with the country's unique geography and environments putting Vietnam at particular risk.

Critically, it is the world's poorest that are most dependent on this crop, who are also under the most threat from climate change -- amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting food and nutrition security for billions of people.

Green super rice
To fully understand the uniqueness and potential of this native crop diversity, the research team analysed 672 Vietnamese rice genomes; 616 were newly sequenced, which encompass the range of rice varieties grown in the diverse ecosystems found throughout Vietnam.

The team of scientists discovered a previously overlooked 'I5 Indica' large rice subpopulation in some regions of Vietnam, which had not been used before to produce the more common elite rice varieties resulting from previous rice improvement studies.

These locally adapted rice varieties provide a potential source of novel genes that carry important agronomic traits, which can potentially be leveraged by future rice breeding programmes.

This will help with a new generation of 'Green Super Rice', designed to lower production input while enhancing nutritional content and suitability for growing on marginal lands -- resulting in a sustainable and resilient rice to better withstand extreme weather conditions.

First author Dr Janet Higgins at the Earlham Institute, said: "Vietnam has a rich history in rice breeding, especially at the local level. The adaptation to multiple environmental conditions and regional preferences has created a wide range of varieties.

"Studies like this suggest that this diversity constitutes a largely untapped and highly valuable genetic resource for local and international breeding programmes."

To understand how rice diversity within Vietnam relates to worldwide varieties, the team analysed nine landrace subpopulations that were likely adapted to the demands in the different regions of origin.

They then compared this new data to the previous global study on rice diversity in Asia, consisting of fifteen worldwide Asian subpopulations (from 89 countries) in the publicly available '3000 Rice Genomes Project'. From this, the Earlham Institute researchers discovered how the new rice varieties native to Vietnam were related to the global Asian data set -- leading to the I5 Indica subpopulation finding.

Sustainable rice breeding
This genetic diversity is a highly valuable resource when the highest rice production areas in the low-lying Mekong and Red River Deltas are enduring increasing threats from climate changes -- unpredictable weather patterns, increasing sea levels causing overflow of saltwater, and consequential drought in the upland areas.

Dr Higgins, explains: "Improved varieties, which are high yielding but can also be grown sustainably, are needed to ensure we can continue to meet the worldwide demand for rice. Salt and drought tolerance are related critical traits which need to be addressed in order to secure future rice production.

"This requires agronomic, smart crop management practices and genomic solutions to stop the vicious cycle of rice contributing to global warming due to greenhouse gas emissions from crop fields, and areas of production being threatened by climate change.

"We are now analysing the Indica I5 subpopulation in further detail. We hope to try and detect regions of the genome which have been selected in the Indica I5 subpopulation and relate these to traits of interest for sustainable rice crops.

"It would be fantastic if the IRRI were in a position to incorporate some of the Indica I5 varieties from Vietnam we describe in our study in their future breeding programmes. We believe this new data will massively help optimise sustainable rice production for global demand while protecting our planet."

Janet Higgins, Bruno Santos, Tran Dang Khanh, Khuat Huu Trung, Tran Duy Duong, Nguyen Thi Phuong Doai, Nguyen Truong Khoa, Dang Thi Thanh Ha, Nguyen Thuy Diep, Kieu Thi Dung, Cong Nguyen Phi, Tran Thi Thuy, Nguyen Thanh Tuan, Hoang Dung Tran, Nguyen Thanh Trung, Hoang Thi Giang, Ta Kim Nhung, Cuong Duy Tran, Son Vi Lang, La Tuan Nghia, Nguyen Van Giang, Tran Dang Xuan, Anthony Hall, Sarah Dyer, Le Huy Ham, Mario Caccamo, Jose J. De Vega. Resequencing of 672 Native Rice Accessions to Explore Genetic Diversity and Trait Associations in Vietnam. Rice, 2021; 14 (1) DOI: 10.1186/s12284-021-00481-0

Rudeness leads to anchoring; including in medical diagnoses

June 10, 2021
Have you ever been cut off in traffic by another driver, leaving you still seething miles later? Or been interrupted by a colleague in a meeting, and found yourself replaying the event in your head even after you've left work for the day? Minor rude events like this happen frequently, and you may be surprised by the magnitude of the effects they have on our decision-making and functioning. In fact, recent research co-authored by management professor Trevor Foulk at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business suggests that in certain situations, incidental rudeness like this can be deadly.

In "Trapped by A First Hypothesis: How Rudeness Leads to Anchoring" forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Foulk and co-authors Binyamin Cooper of Carnegie Mellon University, Christopher R. Giordano and Amir Erez of the University of Florida, Heather Reed of Envision Physician Services, and Kent B. Berg of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital looked at how experiencing rudeness amplifies the "anchoring bias." The anchoring bias is the tendency to get fixated on one piece of information when making a decision (even if that piece of information is irrelevant).

For example, if someone asks, "Do you think the Mississippi River is shorter or longer than 500 miles?," that suggestion of 500 miles can become an anchor that can influence how long you think the Mississippi River is. When it happens, it's difficult to stray very far from that initial suggestion, says Foulk.

The anchoring bias can happen in a lot of different situations, but it's very common in medical diagnoses and negotiations. "If you go into the doctor and say 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' that can become an anchor and the doctor may get fixated on that diagnosis, even if you're just having indigestion," Foulk explains. "If doctors don't move off anchors enough, they'll start treating the wrong thing."

Because anchoring can happen in many scenarios, Foulk and his co-authors wanted to study more about the phenomenon and what factors exacerbate or mitigate it. They have been studying rudeness in the workplace for years and knew from previous studies that when people experience rudeness, it takes up a lot of their psychological resources and narrows their mindset. They suspected this might play a role in the anchoring effect.

To test their theory, the researchers ran a medical simulation with anaesthesiology residents. The residents had to diagnose and treat the patient, and right before the simulation started, the participants were given an (incorrect) suggestion about the patient's condition. This suggestion served as the anchor, but then throughout the exercise, the simulator provided feedback that the ailment was not the suggested diagnosis, but instead something else.

In some iterations, before the simulation started, the researchers had one doctor enter the room and act rudely toward another doctor in front of the residents.

"What we find is that when they experienced rudeness prior to the simulation starting, they kept on treating the wrong thing, even in the presence of consistent information that it was actually something else," says Foulk. "They kept treating the anchor, even though they had plenty of reason to understand that the anchor diagnosis was not what the patient was suffering from."

This effect was replicated across a variety of other tasks, including negotiations as well as general knowledge tasks. Across the different studies, the results were consistent -- experiencing rudeness makes it more likely that a person will get anchored to the first suggestion they hear.

"Across the four studies, we find that both witnessed and directly-experienced rudeness seemed to have a similar effect," says Foulk. "Basically, what we're observing is a narrowing effect. Rudeness narrows your perspective, and that narrowed perspective makes anchoring more likely."

In general, the anchoring tendency is usually not a big deal, says Foulk. "But when you're in these important, critical decision-making domains -- like medical diagnoses or big negotiations -- interpersonal interactions really matter a lot. Minor things can stay on top of us in a way that we don't realize."

To provide additional insights into this phenomenon, the researchers also explored ways to counteract it. Rudeness makes you more likely to anchor because it narrows your perspective, so the researchers explored two tasks that have been shown to expand your perspective -- perspective-taking and information elaboration.

Perspective-taking helps you expand your perspective by seeing the world from another person's point of view, and information elaboration helps you see the situation from a wider perspective by thinking about it more broadly. Across their studies, the researchers found that both behaviours could counteract the effect of rudeness on anchoring.

While these interventions can help make rudeness less likely to anchor people, Foulk says these should be a last resort. The best remedy for the rudeness problem?

"In important domains, where people are making critical decisions, we really need to rethink the way we treat people," he says. "We never really did allow aggressive behavior at work. But we're fine with rudeness, and now we're learning more and more that small insults are equally impactful on people's performance."

And it needs to stop, he says.

"We tend to underestimate the performance implications of interpersonal treatment. We hear 'If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.' It's almost like being able to tolerate people's treatment of you is like a badge of honor. But the reality is that this bad treatment is having really deleterious effects on performance in domains that we care about -- like medicine. It matters."

This is the fourth paper in a string of Foulk's research showing that rudeness negatively impacts medical performance, where the impacts can be much bigger -- and much more dire -- than the insults, he says.

"In simulations, we're finding that mortality is increased by rudeness. People could be dying because somebody insulted the surgeon before they started operating."

Binyamin Cooper, Christopher R. Giordano, Amir Erez, Trevor A. Foulk, Heather Reed, Kent B. Berg. Trapped by a first hypothesis: How rudeness leads to anchoring. Journal of Applied Psychology, 2021; DOI: 10.1037/apl0000914

Soaking up the sun: Artificial photosynthesis promises clean, sustainable source of energy

June 15, 2021
Humans can do lots of things that plants can't do. We can walk around, we can talk, we can hear and see and touch. But plants have one major advantage over humans: They can make energy directly from the sun. That process of turning sunlight directly into usable energy -- called photosynthesis -- may soon be a feat humans are able to mimic to harness the sun's energy for clean, storable, efficient fuel. If so, it could open a whole new frontier of clean energy. Enough energy hits the earth in the form of sunlight in one hour to meet all human civilization's energy needs for an entire year.

Yulia Puskhar, a biophysicist and professor of physics in Purdue's College of Science, may have a way to harness that energy by mimicking plants.

Wind power and solar power, harnessed by photovoltaic cells, are the two major forms of clean energy available. Adding a third -- synthetic photosynthesis -- would dramatically change the renewable energy landscape. The ability to store the energy easily, without requiring bulky batteries, would dramatically improve humans' ability to power society cleanly and efficiently.

Both wind turbines and photovoltaics have downside in terms of environmental effects and complicating factors. Pushkar hopes that artificial photosynthesis might be able to bypass those pitfalls.

"We and other researchers around the world are working incredibly hard to try to come up with accessible energy," Pushkar said. "Energy that is clean and sustainable that we can create with nontoxic, easily available elements. Our artificial photosynthesis is the way forward."

Photosynthesis is a complex dance of processes whereby plants convert the sun's radiance and water molecules into usable energy in the form of glucose. To do this, they use a pigment, usually the famous chlorophyll, as well as proteins, enzymes and metals.

The closest process to artificial photosynthesis humans have today is photovoltaic technology, where a solar cell converts the sun's energy into electricity. That process is famously inefficient, able to capture only about 20% of the sun's energy. Photosynthesis, on the other hand, is radically more efficient; it is capable of storing 60% of the sun's energy as chemical energy in associated biomolecules.

The efficiency of simple photovoltaic cells -- solar panels -- is limited by semiconductors' ability to absorb light energy and by the cell's ability to produce power. That limit is something scientists could surpass with synthetic photosynthesis.

"With artificial photosynthesis, there are not fundamental physical limitations," Pushkar said. "You can very easily imagine a system that is 60% efficient because we already have a precedent in natural photosynthesis. And if we get very ambitious, we could even envision a system of up to 80% efficiency.

"Photosynthesis is massively efficient when it comes to splitting water, a first step of artificial photosynthesis. Photosystems II proteins in plants do this a thousand times a second. Blink, and it's done."

Pushkar's group is mimicking the process by building her own artificial leaf analog that collects light and splits water molecules to generate hydrogen. Hydrogen can be used as a fuel by itself via fuel cells or be added to other fuels such as natural gas, or built into fuel cells to power everything from vehicles to houses to small electronic devices, laboratories and hospitals. Her most recent discovery, an insight into the way water molecules split during photosynthesis, was recently published in the journal Chem Catalysis: Cell Press.

Scientists in Pushkar's lab experiment with natural photosystem II proteins and synthetic catalysts combinations in attempts to understand what works best -- and why. She also puts a priority on using compounds and chemicals that are readily abundant on Earth, easily accessible and nontoxic to the planet.

Progress in artificial photosynthesis is complicated, though, by the fact that photosynthesis is so multifaceted, a fact bemoaned by biochemistry students everywhere.

"The reaction is very complex," Pushkar said. "The chemistry of splitting water molecules is extremely intricate and difficult."

Scientists have been working on artificial photosynthesis since the 1970s. That's a long time, but not when you remember that photosynthesis took millions of years to evolve. Not only that, but scientists believe that, unlike flight, communication or intelligence, photosynthesis has evolved only once -- about 3 billion years ago, only about 1.5 billion years into Earth's existence.

Pushkar posits that within the next 10-15 years, enough progress will have been made that commercial artificial photosynthesis systems may begin to come online. Her research is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Roman Ezhov, Alireza Karbakhsh Ravari, Gabriel Bury, Paul F. Smith, Yulia Pushkar. Do multinuclear 3d metal catalysts achieve O–O bond formation via radical coupling or via water nucleophilic attack? WNA leads the way in [Co4O4]n. Chem Catalysis, 2021; DOI: 10.1016/j.checat.2021.03.013

Fashion for pointy shoes unleashed plague of bunions in medieval Britain

June 11, 2021
The British have suffered for their fashion for centuries according to a new study suggesting that a vogue for shoes with a pointed tip led to a sharp increase in hallux valgus of the big toe -- often called bunions -- in the late medieval period. Researchers investigating remains in Cambridge, UK, found that those buried in the town centre, particularly in plots for wealthier citizens and clergy, were much more likely to have had bunions -- suggesting rich urbanites paid a higher price for their footwear in more ways than one.

The fashion for extremely pointy 'poulaines' can be seen in this detail of a 15th century illuminated manuscript.

A University of Cambridge team also discovered that older medieval people with hallux valgus were significantly more likely to have sustained a broken bone from a probable fall compared to those of a similar age with normal feet.

Hallux valgus is a minor deformity in which the largest toe becomes angled outward and a bony protrusion forms at its base, on the inside of the foot.

While various factors can predispose someone to bunions, from genetics to muscle imbalance, by far the most common contemporary cause is constrictive boots and shoes. The condition is often associated with wearing high heels.

Archaeologists analysed 177 skeletons from cemeteries in and around the city of Cambridge and found that only 6% of individuals buried between 11th and 13th centuries had evidence of the affliction. However, 27% of those dating from the 14th and 15th centuries had been hobbled by longstanding hallux valgus.

Researchers point out that shoe style changed significantly during the 14th century: shifting from a functional rounded toe box to a lengthy and more elegant pointed tip.

In a paper published today in the International Journal of Paleopathology, the team from Cambridge University's After the Plague project argues that these "poulaine" shoes drove the rise of bunions in medieval Britain.

"The 14th century brought an abundance of new styles of dress and footwear in a wide range of fabrics and colours. Among these fashion trends were pointed long-toed shoes called poulaines," said study co-author Dr Piers Mitchell from Cambridge's Department of Archaeology.

"The remains of shoes excavated in places like London and Cambridge suggest that by the late 14th century almost every type of shoe was at least slightly pointed -- a style common among both adults and children alike."

"We investigated the changes that occurred between the high and late medieval periods, and realized that the increase in hallux valgus over time must have been due to the introduction of these new footwear styles," said Mitchell.

First author Dr Jenna Dittmar, who conducted the work while at Cambridge, said: "We think of bunions as being a modern problem but this work shows it was actually one of the more common conditions to have affected medieval adults."

The remains came from four separate sites around Cambridge: a charitable hospital (now part of St John's College); the grounds of a former Augustinian friary, where clergy and wealthy benefactors were buried; a local parish graveyard on what was the edge of town; and a rural burial site by a village 6km south of Cambridge.

Researchers conducted "paleopathological assessments," including inspecting foot bones for the bump by the big toe that is the hallmark of hallux valgus.

They found a sliding scale of bunion prevalence linked to the wealth of those interred on each site. Only 3% of the rural cemetery showed signs, 10% of the parish graveyard (which mainly held the working poor), creeping up to 23% of those on the hospital site.

Yet almost half those buried in the friary -- some 43% -- including five of the eleven individuals identified as clergy by their belt buckles, carried the mark of the bunion.

"Rules for the attire of Augustinian friars included footwear that was 'black and fastened by a thong at the ankle', commensurate with a lifestyle of worship and poverty," said Mitchell.

"However, in the 13th and 14th centuries it was increasingly common for those in clerical orders in Britain to wear stylish clothes -- a cause for concern among high-ranking church officials."

In 1215, the church forbade clergy from wearing pointed-toed shoes. This may have done little to curb the trend, as numerous further decrees on indiscretions in clerical dress had to be passed, most notably in 1281 and 1342.

"The adoption of fashionable garments by the clergy was so common it spurred criticism in contemporary literature, as seen in Chaucer's depiction of the monk in the Canterbury Tales," said Mitchell.

Across late medieval society the pointiness of shoes became so extreme that in 1463 King Edward IV passed a law limiting toe-point length to less than two inches within London.

The majority of remains with signs of hallux valgus across all sites and eras within the study were men (20 of the 31 total bunion sufferers). The research also suggests that health costs of foot fashion were not limited to bunions.

Dr Jenna Dittmar found that skeletal remains with hallux valgus were also more likely to show signs of fractures that usually result from a fall e.g. those to upper limbs indicating an individual tumbled forward onto outstretched arms.

This association was only found to be significant among those who died over 45 year old, suggesting youthful fashion choices came back to haunt the middle-aged even in medieval times.

"Modern clinical research on patients with hallux valgus has shown that the deformity makes it harder to balance, and increases the risk of falls in older people," said Dittmar. "This would explain the higher number of healed broken bones we found in medieval skeletons with this condition."

Jenna M. Dittmar, Piers D. Mitchell, Craig Cessford, Sarah A. Inskip, John E. Robb. Fancy shoes and painful feet: Hallux valgus and fracture risk in medieval Cambridge, England. International Journal of Paleopathology, 2021; DOI: 10.1016/j.ijpp.2021.04.012

Huge prehistoric croc 'river boss' prowled queensland waterways

June 14, 2021
A new species of large prehistoric croc that roamed south-east Queensland's waterways millions of years ago has been documented by University of Queensland researchers. PhD candidate Jorgo Ristevski, from UQ's School of Biological Sciences, led the team that named the species Gunggamarandu maunala after analysing a partial skull unearthed in the Darling Downs in the nineteenth century.

Artistic representation of Gunggamarandu maunala. Credit: Eleanor Pease.

"This is one of the largest crocs to have ever inhabited Australia," Mr Ristevski said.

"At the moment it's difficult to estimate the exact overall size of Gunggamarandu since all we have is the back of the skull -- but it was big.

"We estimate the skull would have been at least 80 centimetres long, and based on comparisons with living crocs, this indicates a total body length of around seven metres.

"This suggests Gunggamarandu maunala was on par with the largest Indo-Pacific crocs -- a Crocodylus porosus) -- recorded.

"We also had the skull CT-scanned, and from that we were able to digitally reconstruct the brain cavity, which helped us unravel additional details about its anatomy.

"The exact age of the fossil is uncertain, but it's probably between two and five million years old."

Gunggamarandu belonged to a group of crocodylians called tomistomines or 'false gharials'.

"Today, there's only one living species of tomistomine, Tomistoma schlegelii, which is restricted to the Malay Peninsula and parts of Indonesia," Mr Ristevski said.

"With the exception of Antarctica, Australia was the only other continent without fossil evidence of tomistomines.

"But with the discovery of Gunggamarandu we can add Australia to the 'once inhabited by tomistomines' list."

Despite its discovery, the fossil skull of Gunggamarandu maunala remained a scientific mystery for more than a century.

The specimen piqued the interest of then-young graduate student Dr Steve Salisbury in the 1990s, but a formal study was not done until Mr Ristevski began his examination.

"I knew it was unusual, and potentially very significant, but I didn't have the time to study it in any detail," Dr Salisbury said.

"The name of the new species honours the First Nations peoples of the Darling Downs area, incorporating words from the languages of the Barunggam and Waka Waka nations.

"The genus name, Gunggamarandu, means 'river boss', while the species name, maunala, means 'hole head'.

"The latter is in reference to the large, hole-like openings located on top of the animal's skull that served as a place for muscle attachment."

Alejandro Serrano‐Martínez, Fabien Knoll, Iván Narváez, Stephan Lautenschlager, Francisco Ortega. Neuroanatomical and neurosensorial analysis of the Late Cretaceous basal eusuchian Agaresuchus fontisensis (Cuenca, Spain). Papers in Palaeontology, 2020; 7 (1): 641 DOI: 10.1002/spp2.1296

No, it’s not just a lack of control that makes Australians overweight. Here’s what’s driving our unhealthy food habits

Gary Sacks, Deakin University and Sally Schultz, Deakin University

Public health experts have long argued that when it comes to preventing obesity, we need to stop blaming individuals.

Our new online tool, released today, confirms we live in an environment where the odds of having a healthy diet are heavily stacked against us.

Unhealthy foods are readily available and heavily marketed to us by the food industry. This makes it very easy to over-consume unhealthy foods. It also makes it very difficult to consistently select healthy options.

Our online tool – Australia’s Food Environment Dashboard – brings together the best-available data to describe Australia’s food environments. For the first time, we have a clear picture of the ways our environment drives us to consume too much of the wrong types of foods.

How healthy are Australia’s food environments?

Supermarkets heavily promote unhealthy food

Australian supermarkets are a key setting in which unhealthy foods are pushed at us.

More than half of the packaged food on Australian supermarket shelves is unhealthy. At end-of-aisle displays, unhealthy products are promoted much more often than healthier products.

Read more: Supermarket price deals: the good, the bad and the ugly

Unhealthy products are also “on special” almost twice as often as healthy foods. What’s more, the discounts on unhealthy foods are much larger than the discounts on healthier foods.

And at checkouts, it’s almost impossible to pay for groceries without being exposed to unhealthy foods.

All of this intense marketing for unhealthy foods contributes to the unhealthy mix of products in our supermarket trolleys.

It’s difficult to ignore all the prompts to buy junk food. Shutterstock

Children’s exposure to junk food promotion

Australian children cannot escape unhealthy food marketing. As they travel to school, and play and watch sport in their community, kids are exposed to a constant barrage of promotions for unhealthy food and drinks.

When they turn on the TV they will see more than twice as many ads for unhealthy food compared to healthy food.

And when kids are on their mobile devices, they are hit with as many as ten unhealthy food and drink ads every hour.

It’s worse in more disadvantaged areas

Our dashboard shows food environments in disadvantaged areas are less healthy than those in advantaged areas. The cost of a healthy diet is generally higher in low socioeconomic areas and is much higher in very remote parts of Australia.

Critically, the cost of a healthy diet is simply unaffordable (meaning it costs more than 30% of a household’s income) for people on low incomes and those living in rural or remote areas.

Read more: Supermarkets claim to have our health at heart. But their marketing tactics push junk foods

People living in low socioeconomic areas are also exposed to more promotions for unhealthy food. A study in Perth, for example, found low socioeconomic areas had a significantly higher ratio of unhealthy food ads to healthy ads within 500m of schools, compared to high socioeconomic areas.

Some good news stories

While almost all the key aspects of food environments in Australia are currently unhealthy, there are some areas that support health.

Our major supermarkets are leading the way in displaying the Health Star Rating on their home-brand product labels, which helps consumers make more informed food choices.

Read more: We looked at the health star rating of 20,000 foods and this is what we found

Some state governments have shown great progress in creating healthier environments in their hospitals and other health services, by offering water and nuts in vending machines, for example, rather than sugary drinks and lollies.

People line up for vending machine
Some hospitals are providing healthier options in their vending machines. Shutterstock

Greater monitoring is needed

Unhealthy diets and obesity are leading contributors to poor health in Australia. For that reason, it’s critical to closely monitor the key drivers of our unhealthy diets.

We’re pretty good at monitoring our exposure to other key health risks and taking public health action accordingly. For example, the government has successfully reduced road fatalities through a range of measures, including prominent identification and eradication of traffic “black spots”.

Now we need the same level of attention paid to our food environments, where there are still some key gaps in our knowledge.

For example, while most state governments have policies to guide foods available in schools, only Western Australia and New South Wales monitors and/or reports adherence to policies.

In many other areas, such as food promotion, data is not routinely collected. This means we often need to rely on data that’s a few years old and that might only be relevant to small geographic regions.

Little boy on bed watching TV
Data isn’t routinely collected on food promotion. Shutterstock

Governments need to take stronger action

The unhealthy state of our food environments indicates much stronger policy action is needed from all levels of government in Australia.

The National Obesity Strategy which is currently in development and now overdue, can provide the framework for Australian governments to fix up the “black spots” in our food environment.

Improvements can be made by introducing globally recommended policies, such as taxes on sugary drinks and higher standards for how the food industry markets its unhealthy food and drink products.

These actions can help ensure all Australians have access to food environments that support healthy diets.

Read more: How much longer do we need to wait for Australia to implement a sugary drinks tax? The Conversation

Gary Sacks, Associate Professor, Deakin University and Sally Schultz, PhD Student, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Many of us want to take our dogs on public transport, but others shudder at the thought — what’s the solution?

Jennifer Kent, University of Sydney and Corinne Mulley, University of Sydney

We’ve been looking at the ways people travel with dogs and what it says about attempts to shift towards a more sustainable and healthier transport system. Our research first established that trips with dogs in Australia are both common and car-dependent. This is because Australia has some of the highest rates of dog ownership in the world but we are relatively unusual compared to other countries in that we restrict people taking dogs on public transport.

We are interested in how this situation might be changed. Our recent research explores why some people might not want dogs on public transport, and how these concerns can be managed.

This research, published in the International Journal of Sustainable Transportation, reports the results of an analysis of 163 comments made on a Conversation article about dogs on public transport. About 40% of comments supported the idea. A similar proportion expressed disapproval.

Read more: Riding in cars with dogs: millions of trips a week tell us transport policy needs to change

The trouble with dogs

Many of the negative comments included simple statements about the smell of dogs. Others referenced more complex concerns such as hygiene and disease.

Several focused on the impact on people with allergies to dogs. These comments often pointed out that the rights of people with allergies and of those who do not like dogs should take precedence over the rights of dogs and dog owners.

Some comments referred specifically to concerns about the operation of the transport system. They raised issues such as the increased cleaning workload for facilities, the need to replace upholstery more regularly, as well as concern about who would pay the costs of accommodating dogs on public transport.

There were several passionate comments about dog attacks. Statements that dogs are dirty and dangerous often either implicitly or explicitly referenced the notion that dog owners cannot be trusted to control, or minimise the impact of, their dog.

Many claimed that canine and transport contexts are different in Australia, suggesting a policy that works in, for example, a European country would not work in Australia. Sentiment that Australia is somehow “behind” countries in Europe often underpinned these comments.

Read more: Australians love their pets, so why don't more public places welcome them?

We need to listen to objections, but there are solutions

Many of the comments contained opinions that were obviously posted with some emotion. Dogs are, indeed, a polarising issue. This polarity reflects the common perception that there are “dog people”. Policy change proposals must consider the opinions of those who support pets on public transport and those who don’t.

Two dogs with paws up on fence
Dogs can evoke very different responses in people, from finding them cute to seeing them as dirty and dangerous. Author provided

Our analysis, however, does provide several reasons Sydney’s public transport agencies should consider a policy to allow dogs to travel on public transport.

First, negative comments were more likely to demonstrate unfamiliarity with the operational details of a policy that permits dogs to travel on public transport. For example, physical separation of those travelling with dogs could overcome many of the concerns about smell and even allergies. This separation is easily attainable on trains and also possible on buses.

Similarly, concerns about payment could be resolved by ensuring a ticket must be bought for dogs prior to travel, with the fare based on the cost to the system. This may also go part way to alleviating the sense that allowing dogs on transport is a clash of rights between dog owners and non-owners.

Third, negative comments suggesting Australia’s dogs and dog owners are somehow less responsible than their European counterparts are not supported by empirical evidence. Positive local experiences of travelling with well-behaved dogs could soften negative perceptions.

Read more: We need a better understanding of how we manage dogs to help them become better urban citizens

What might a policy change look like?

The analysis does suggest opposition could be allayed in time. However, the policy would have to be applied with care.

Other cities that have managed this shift could be consulted for strategies to ensure the policy works well in practice. In Milan, Italy, for example, dogs are allowed only on the first and last carriages of the metro. No more than two dogs are allowed on a bus at any one time.

Two dogs sitting on a bench at a bus top
Dogs are allowed on buses in Rome, Italy, but no more than two at a time. Shutterstock

In Gothenberg, Sweden, only one dog is allowed per bus and the dog must board at the rear of the bus. On trains, dogs are permitted to travel in the last carriage only. In Dublin, Ireland, dogs over a certain size must travel near the guard’s bay on trains.

Read more: Curious Kids: is it true dogs don't like to travel?

It’s not just about the dogs

Travel with dogs might not seem like a priority issue for public transport systems. We argue, though, that Australia’s heavily car-dependent cities need public transport that meets our need for the less obvious, “messy” trips that make up modern lives in cities. By looking beyond the car for these trips, we can develop a system that Australians can use for more than just the journey to work.

This analysis, however, demonstrates the complexity of dragging our public transport systems up to the task of competing with the private car.The Conversation

Jennifer Kent, Senior Research Fellow in Urbanism, University of Sydney and Corinne Mulley, Professor Emerita, University of Sydney, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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.