November 17 - 23, 2019: Issue 429

Bacteria in the gut may alter ageing process

November 14, 2019
An international research team led by Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) has found that microorganisms living in the gut may alter the ageing process, which could lead to the development of food-based treatment to slow it down.

All living organisms, including human beings, coexist with a myriad of microbial species living in and on them, and research conducted over the last 20 years has established their important role in nutrition, physiology, metabolism and behaviour.

Using mice, the team led by Professor Sven Pettersson from the NTU Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, transplanted gut microbes from old mice (24 months old) into young, germ-free mice (6 weeks old). After eight weeks, the young mice had increased intestinal growth and production of neurons in the brain, known as neurogenesis.

The team showed that the increased neurogenesis was due to an enrichment of gut microbes that produce a specific short chain fatty acid, called butyrate.

Butyrate is produced through microbial fermentation of dietary fibres in the lower intestinal tract and stimulates production of a pro-longevity hormone called FGF21, which plays an important role in regulating the body's energy and metabolism. As we age, butyrate production is reduced.

The researchers then showed that giving butyrate on its own to the young germ-free mice had the same adult neurogenesis effects.

The study was published in Science Translational Medicine yesterday (13 November), and was undertaken by researchers from Singapore, UK, and Australia.

"We've found that microbes collected from an old mouse have the capacity to support neural growth in a younger mouse," said Prof Pettersson. "This is a surprising and very interesting observation, especially since we can mimic the neuro-stimulatory effect by using butyrate alone."

"These results will lead us to explore whether butyrate might support repair and rebuilding in situations like stroke, spinal damage and to attenuate accelerated ageing and cognitive decline."

How gut microbes impact the digestive system
The team also explored the effects of gut microbe transplants from old to young mice on the functions of the digestive system.

With age, the viability of small intestinal cells is reduced, and this is associated with reduced mucus production that make intestinal cells more vulnerable to damage and cell death.

However, the addition of butyrate helps to better regulate the intestinal barrier function and reduce the risk of inflammation.

The team found that mice receiving microbes from the old donor gained increases in length and width of the intestinal villi -- the wall of the small intestine. In addition, both the small intestine and colon were longer in the old mice than the young germ-free mice.

The discovery shows that gut microbes can compensate and support an ageing body through positive stimulation.

This points to a new potential method for tackling the negative effects of ageing by imitating the enrichment and activation of butyrate.

"We can conceive of future human studies where we would test the ability of food products with butyrate to support healthy ageing and adult neurogenesis," said Prof Pettersson.

"In Singapore, with its strong food culture, exploring the use of food to 'heal' ourselves, would be an intriguing next step, and the results could be important in Singapore's quest to support healthy ageing for their silver generation."

Group leader Dr Dario Riccardo Valenzano at the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing in Germany, who was not involved in the study, said the discovery is a milestone in research on microbiome.

"These results are exciting and raise several new open questions for both biology of aging and microbiome research, including whether there is an active acquisition of butyrate producing microbes during mice life and whether extreme aging leads to a loss of this fundamental microbial community, which may be eventually responsible for dysbiosis and age-related dysfunctions," he added.

Professor Brian Kennedy, Director of the Centre for Healthy Ageing at the National University of Singapore, who provided an independent view, said, "It is intriguing that the microbiome of an aged animal can promote youthful phenotypes in a young recipient. This suggests that the microbiota with aging have been modified to compensate for the accumulating deficits of the host and leads to the question of whether the microbiome from a young animal would have greater or less effects on a young host. The findings move forward our understanding of the relationship between the microbiome and its host during ageing and set the stage for the development of microbiome-related interventions to promote healthy longevity."

The study builds on Prof Pettersson's earlier studies on how transplantation of gut microbes from healthy mice can restore muscle growth and function in germ-free mice with muscle atrophy, which is the loss of skeletal muscle mass.

Parag Kundu, Hae Ung Lee, Isabel Garcia-Perez, Emmy Xue Yun Tay, Hyejin Kim, Llanto Elma Faylon, Katherine A. Martin, Rikky Purbojati, Daniela I. Drautz-Moses, Sujoy Ghosh, Jeremy K. Nicholson, Stephan Schuster, Elaine Holmes, Sven Pettersson. Neurogenesis and prolongevity signaling in young germ-free mice transplanted with the gut microbiota of old mice. Science Translational Medicine, 2019; 11 (518): eaau4760 DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aau4760

Computer scientists develop new tool that generates videos from themed text

November 14, 2019
In a world of novice photographers and videographers, capturing a deluge of content via their smartphones and handheld devices, there is a need for an intelligent, easy-to-use tool for automating the creation of movies and video montages. To date, many quality videos still rely on professional frame-based editing tools to manipulate raw footage and produce a coherent video with a captivating storyline.

A global team of computer scientists, from Tsinghua and Beihang Universities in China, Harvard University in the US and IDC Herzliya in Israel, have developed "Write-A-Video," a new tool that generates videos from themed text. Using words and text editing, the tool automatically determines which scenes or shots are chosen from a repository to illustrate the desired storyline. The tool enables novice users to produce quality video montages in a simple and user-friendly manner that doesn't require professional video production and editing skills.

The team is set to present their work at ACM SIGGRAPH Asia, held Nov. 17 to 20 in Brisbane, Australia. SIGGRAPH Asia, now in its 12th year, attracts the most respected technical and creative people from around the world in computer graphics, animation, interactivity, gaming, and emerging technologies.

While existing video editing tools still demand knowledge in video processing and editing, the researchers' new method allows novices to create videos that tell stories more naturally. Write-A-Video, say the researchers, allows users to create a video montage by simply editing the text that accompanies the video. For example, adding or deleting text, and moving sentences around convert to video-editing operations, such as finding corresponding shots, cutting and rearranging shots, and creating a final video montage result.

"Write-A-Video uses current advances in automatic video understanding and a unique user interface to allow more natural and simpler video creation," says Professor Ariel Shamir, Dean of the Efi Arazi School of Computer Science at IDC Herzliya. "With our tool, the user provides input mostly in the form of editing of text. The tool automatically searches for semantically matching candidate shots from a video repository, and then uses an optimization method to assemble the video montage by cutting and reordering the shots automatically."

"Write-A-Video also allows users to explore visual styles for each scene using cinematographic idioms generating, for example, faster or slower paced movies, less or more content movements, etc." explains Dr. Miao Wang from Beihang University.

When selecting candidate shots from the video repository, the method also considers the aesthetic appeal of the shots, choosing those that are ideally lit, that are well focused and are not blurry or unstable. "At any point, the user can render the movie and preview the video montage result with an accompanying voice-over narration." says Professor Shi-Min Hu from Tsinghua University.

The team's research shows that intelligent digital tools combining the abilities of humans and algorithms together can assist users in the creative process. "Our work demonstrates the potential of automatic visual-semantic matching in idiom-based computational editing, offering an intelligent way to make video creation more accessible to non-professionals," says Shamir.

For the study, the approach was tested on various pieces of themed text and video repositories, with quantitative evaluation and user studies. Users without any video editing experience could produce satisfactory videos using the Write-A-Video tool, sometimes even faster than professionals utilizing frame-based editing software. At SIGGRAPH Asia, the team will demonstrate the Write-A-Video application and showcase a variety of examples of text-to-video productions.

The team includes Miao Wang (State Key Lab of Virtual Reality Technology and Systems/Beihang University and Tsinghua University); Guo-Wei Yang (BNRist/Tsinghua University); Shi-Min Hu (BNRist/Tsinghua University); Shing-Tung Yau (Harvard) and Ariel Shamir (IDC Herzliya, Israel).

A video illustrating the project can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/357657704

Insulin can increase mosquitoes' immunity to West Nile virus

November 13, 2019
A discovery by a Washington State University-led research team has the potential to inhibit the spread of West Nile virus as well as Zika and dengue viruses.

In a study published today in the journal Cell Reports, researchers demonstrated that mammalian insulin activated an antiviral immunity pathway in mosquitoes, increasing the insects' ability to suppress the viruses.

Mosquito bites are the most common way humans are infected with flaviviruses, a virus family that includes West Nile, dengue and Zika. In humans, both West Nile and dengue can result in severe illness, even death. Zika has been linked to birth defects when pregnant women are infected.

"It's really important that we have some sort of protection against these diseases because currently, we don't have any treatments. If we're able to stop the infection at the level of the mosquito, then humans wouldn't get the virus," said Laura Ahlers, the study's lead author and a recent Ph.D. graduate from WSU. Ahlers is now a post-doctoral fellow with the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

Working first with fruit flies, which have similar immune responses to mosquitoes, Ahlers and her colleagues identified an insulin-like receptor in the insects that, when activated, inhibits the replication of the West Nile virus in the flies. The researchers then elicited this same response in mosquitoes by feeding them blood containing elevated insulin. Subsequent tests showed activating this receptor was also effective in suppressing dengue and Zika in insect cells.

While it was already known that insulin boosts immune responses in mosquitoes, this is the first time insulin's connection to a particular immune response pathway, called JAK/STAT, has been identified. It is a significant step toward the long-term goal of creating an intervention, said Alan Goodman, WSU assistant professor and the corresponding author on the paper.

"If we can activate this arm of immunity through the insulin receptor in the mosquito, we can reduce the overall viral load in the mosquito population," Goodman said. "If the mosquitoes are carrying less virus when they bite you, they will transmit less of the virus, and there's a better chance you won't acquire the disease."

Laura R.H. Ahlers, Chasity E. Trammell, Grace F. Carrell, Sophie Mackinnon, Brandi K. Torrevillas, Clement Y. Chow, Shirley Luckhart, Alan G. Goodman. Insulin Potentiates JAK/STAT Signaling to Broadly Inhibit Flavivirus Replication in Insect Vectors. Cell Reports, 2019; 29 (7): 1946 DOI: 10.1016/j.celrep.2019.10.029

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.

Trauma and kids: The role of the early childhood teacher

November 12, 2019
As catastrophic bushfires continue to rage across New South Wales and Queensland, thousands of people are reeling from the devastation. It's a shocking start to Australia's fire season, but beyond the physical damage, the emotional scars persist, especially for Australia's youngest citizens.

Now, in new research from the University of South Australia, researchers have explored the growing uncertainty faced by children aged 0-8 years in disaster zones, finding that early childhood teachers hold a vital role in supporting children dealing with trauma.

Globally, nearly 535 million children -- nearly one in four -- live in countries that affected by conflict or disaster, with hundreds more displaced as they seek safe refuge overseas. Today, many families and children are integrated into Australian schools, bringing with them many experiences of personal trauma.

Lead researcher, Professor Marjory Ebbeck, says we must not underestimate the role that an early childhood teacher plays in securing the emotional development of a child.

"Teachers hold a unique place for a young child. Outside their family, they're one of the most trusted and familiar faces who, in their role as a teacher, provide a welcoming and secure environment for the child to learn and develop," Prof Ebbeck says.

"When young children are confronted by trauma -- whether through natural disasters such as Australia's bushfires, or humanmade disasters such as conflicts in the Middle East ¬¬- they carry all their worries, confusion and emotions with them, and that's where teachers need to be prepared.

"Unfortunately, despite the push from international agencies to include the needs of children in disaster preparation and risk reduction strategies, few have filtered down into education programs, which means there are still large gaps in the system."

Right now, many early childhood teachers will be caring for young children who have lost their homes and precious possessions due to the fires across NSW and Queensland. No doubt, these teachers are doing everything they can to support their students, but as Prof Ebbeck says, they may not have the the right training to be successful.

In lieu of a child-specific national disaster strategy, Prof Ebbeck says there are many things teachers in childcare, preschool or early primary school can do to prepare.

"Helping a child through an emergency or trauma requires a holistic approach that not only encompasses socio-emotional development but also practical strategies, both pre, during and post emergency," Prof Ebbeck says.

"Educating children about emergencies is essential and teachers should involve their class in practice sessions so that in the event of a real emergency, children will know what to do. It's important for children to have confidence in their teachers' ability to keep them safe.

"Part of this is about being aware of what's happening in the world -- teachers can use current events to educate children in their environmental studies classes.

"Safety of children and teachers is always paramount. It's critical that teachers know their school's emergency plan, evacuation procedures, and understand how they should respond in specific events, such as bushfires.

"Of course, communication is vital. Keeping parents informed about what their children are learning is important, especially in the case of a real emergency. It also helps create a circle of trust between parents, children and teachers."

Today, with more than 600 schools and colleges closing their doors today due to bushfires in NSW and Queensland, Prof Ebbeck says teachers should be prepared to support children who may have suffered.

"There are several strategies teachers can use to help children reintegrate into the school environment," Prof Ebbeck says.

"We recommend:
  • Checking in with the child's parents -- make sure they have enough of the essentials -- food, clothing, and somewhere to stay.
  • Making sure your classroom is safe, both physically and emotionally -- familiar and welcoming surroundings create a sense of security and belonging for children.
  • Listening to children -- don't avoid difficult questions. Children are curious and need to work through their worries and concerns.
  • Delivering consistent and predictable routines -- children love routines. Having a safe, predictable environment creates stability and security.
  • Checking in on friendships -- make sure the child is still engaging with their peers and friendships helps them build confidence, and well-being.
  • Providing opportunities for expression -- dramatic play and artwork enable children to freely express and explore their feelings.
  • Maintaining trust- building secure relationships are essential. A trusting, caring environment provides the best basis to build self-esteem and resilience.
"There's no doubt the role of the teacher is complex, especially when their students and community are confronted by trauma or disaster.

"And, while we cannot prevent disasters from happening, understanding more about what teachers can do to prepare for and respond to an emergency situation, can certainly help."

Marjory Ebbeck, Hoi Yin Bonnie Yim, Ting Wei. Preparing children for an uncertain future: the role of the early childhood teacher. Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 2019; 0 DOI: 10.1080/10901027.2019.1617808

First evidence of feathered polar dinosaurs found in Australia

November 12, 2019
A cache of 118 million-year-old fossilised dinosaur and bird feathers has been recovered from an ancient lake deposit that once lay beyond the southern polar circle.

Feathered dinosaur fossils are famous, but known from a handful of localities worldwide. Examples from the Southern Hemisphere are especially rare, and mainly include only isolated feathers.

An international team of scientists has analysed a collection of 10 such fossil feathers found in Australia, which reveal an unexpected diversity of tufted hair-like 'proto-feathers' from meat-eating dinosaurs, together with downy body feathers, and wing feathers from primitive birds that would have been used for flight.

Uniquely, the fossil feathers from Australia were all entombed in fine muddy sediments that accumulated at the bottom of a shallow lake close to the South Pole during the Age of Dinosaurs.

"Dinosaur skeletons and even the fragile bones of early birds have been found at ancient high-latitudes before. Yet, to date, no directly attributable integumentary remains have been discovered to show that dinosaurs used feathers to survive in extreme polar habitats," said Dr Benjamin Kear from Uppsala University in Sweden, a leading author on the study.

"These Australian fossil feathers are therefore highly significant because they came from dinosaurs and small birds that were living in a seasonally very cold environment with months of polar darkness every year."

The fossil feathers were discovered in the Koonwarra Fish Beds Geological Reserve, which is a heritage listed site 145 km southeast of Melbourne in Victoria, Australia.

"Fossil feathers have been known from Koonwarra since the early 1960s, and were recognised as evidence of ancient birds, but have otherwise received very little scientific attention. Our study is thus the first to comprehensively document these remains, which include new specimens that were examined using cutting-edge technologies," said Dr Thomas Rich of the Melbourne Museum in Australia, who has led numerous expeditions to the Koonwarra locality.

A suite of advanced microscopic and spectroscopic techniques was employed to determine the anatomy and preservation of the Koonwarra fossil dinosaur and bird feathers.

"The Koonwarra feathers are preserved in incredible detail," said fossil bird expert Professor Patricia Vickers-Rich of Monash University and the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne.

"There are even tiny filament-like structures that would have 'zipped' the feather vanes together, just as in the flight feathers of modern birds."

However, unlike the structurally complex feathers of birds today, which are characterised by interlocking branches called barbs and barbules, different kinds of small dinosaurs had coverings that comprised much more simpler hair-like 'proto-feathers'.

"Dinosaur 'proto-feathers' would have been used for insulation," said Dr Martin Kundrát, of Pavol Jozef Safarik University in Slovakia, a leading author on the study.

"The discovery of 'proto-feathers' at Koonwarra therefore suggests that fluffy feather coats might have helped small dinosaurs keep warm in ancient polar habitats."

Microscopic remains of possible melanosomes ? cellular structures that contain colour pigments ? were also detected on several of the fossil feathers found at Koonwarra.

These traces occurred across the uniformly dark feather surfaces, as well as in distinct bands that might represent original patterning from the polar dinosaurs and birds.

Melanic residues have been reported on fossil feathers from elsewhere around the world, and are widely acknowledged as indicators of dinosaur colouration.

The densely packed fossil melanosomes occurring on the Koonwarra feathers could suggest dark colours that perhaps assisted in camouflage, visual communication, and/or heat absorbance in cold polar climates.

Possible preservation of biomolecules was also assessed, but proved to be too degraded, and were apparently lost during weathering of the rock.

The Koonwarra fossil feathers provide the first record of dinosaur integument from the ancient polar regions, and hint what was once a global distribution of feathered dinosaurs and early birds.

Some of the fossil feathers found at Koonwarra are on display in the '600 Million Years' exhibition at the Melbourne Museum in Australia.

Martin Kundrát, Thomas H. Rich, Johan Lindgren, Peter Sjövall, Patricia Vickers-Rich, Luis M. Chiappe, Benjamin P. Kear. A polar dinosaur feather assemblage from Australia. Gondwana Research, 2019; DOI: 10.1016/j.gr.2019.10.004

Study shows link between health and size of social group

November 14, 2019
A new study has found that crows living in large social groups are healthier than crows that have fewer social interactions.

The research, led by Dr Claudia Wascher of Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), has been published this week in the journal Animal Behaviour.

Dr Wascher and her colleagues studied a population of captive carrion crows over a six-year period. They monitored the behaviour of the crows in different sized groups and measured friendship by ranking the birds using a sociality index.

At the same time, they studied the crows' droppings to measure for the presence of coccidian oocyst, a gastrointestinal parasite that can represent an important health threat for birds.

Increased exposure to parasites and disease transmission is considered as one of the major disadvantages of group living. This new study, however, shows the opposite effect.

The researchers found that crows with strong social bonds, living with more relatives, and in larger groups, excreted a significantly smaller proportion of droppings containing parasites than less sociable crows.

The study did not find a connection between health and the crow's dominance within the group, but found that male crows (33%) were slightly more likely to carry the parasite than females (28%).

Dr Wascher, Senior Lecturer in Biology at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), said: "Crows are a highly social bird and we found that crows with the strongest social bonds excreted fewer samples containing coccidian oocyst, which is a common parasite in birds.

"It is a commonly-held belief that animals in larger groups are less healthy, as illness spreads from individual to individual more easily. We also know from previous studies that aggressive social interactions can be stressful for birds and that over time chronic activation of the physiological stress response can dampen the immune system, which can make individuals more susceptible to parasites.

"Therefore the results from our six-year study, showing a correlation between sociability and health, are significant. It could be that having close social bonds reduces stress levels in crows, which in turn makes them less susceptible to parasites.

"It could also be that healthier crows are more sociable. However, as many of the birds we studied were socialising within captive family groups, dictated by the number of crows within that family, we believe that social bonds in general affect the health of crows, and not vice versa."

Claudia A.F. Wascher, Daniela Canestrari, Vittorio Baglione. Affiliative social relationships and coccidian oocyst excretion in a cooperatively breeding bird species. Animal Behaviour, 2019; 158: 121 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2019.10.009