Lab Notes

Short stories and links shared by the scientists in our community

Why is this nebula shaped like a butterfly?

A physicist dives into the science behind a new Hubble photo

Katherine McCormick

Quantum Physics

University of Washington

Hubble recently released a breathtaking new photo of the Butterfly Nebula. Its delicate clouds of gas stretch outward like wings, in a perfect embodiment of the form and spirit of its eponym. But being a physicist, of course I couldn't just appreciate the picture. I had to ask, "Why is it shaped that way?"

Some scientists believe that before the Butterfly Nebula was a nebula, at its center was a binary star system, orbiting in the plane that is now viewed as the body of the butterfly. A thick, oblate cloud of dust orbited with the stars on this central plane.

Butterfly Nebula

Butterfly Nebula


At some point, the larger of the two stars ran out of fuel. No longer able to support its own weight with the outward pressure created during fusion, the core of the star collapsed in on itself. As it became smaller, the pressure and temperature at its center grew larger — the heat suddenly reigniting the fusion. The outer layers of the star were flung outward at the sudden return of the push-back from the core. They blasted away from the star in all directions, but the thick disk of dust slowed the gas traveling along the orbital plane. The result was two opposing jets of hot gas racing away from the star at hundreds of thousands of miles per hour, creating the wings of the butterfly.

In the newest photo, they’ve looked at radiation all the way from UV wavelengths to infrared, learning more about this mysterious object than ever before. The new picture reveals streaks of ionized iron across the bottom of the left wing and top of the right wing. Scientists aren’t sure yet why it doesn’t have the same symmetry as the wings, but it could be a clue about more complexities inside the butterfly yet undiscovered.

A number of mysteries about the Butterfly Nebula remain hidden: for example, scientists still aren’t positive their binary star theory is correct. But there is little doubt that the impetus of the huge ejection of gas into the wings of this nebula was the dramatic death of a star. Just as the butterfly is a universal symbol of transformation, the Butterfly Nebula's story, too, is a tale of rebirth.

It's past time to treat international students as more than just money makers for universities

While the #StudentBan is not a threat right now, the shortcomings that it exposed still are

Adriana Romero-Olivares


University of New Hampshire

Eight years ago, I was packing my home and entire life in Mexico to move to the US to pursue a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California-Irvine. Those were easier times, although it did not seem like it at the time. I spent a few months worth of income to pay for paperwork to apply for an F-1 student visa, and to pay for other documents to enroll as a graduate student. This was after I dedicated months to emailing professors everywhere in the US, hoping that one of them would reply to my email and would invite me to apply to join their lab. It was also after spending time and money paying for standardized tests, official document translations, and application fees. It was a one-and-a-half-year process but in July 2012, I was finally moving to the USA to pursue my PhD. It was a dream come true. 

It was also a dream come true for the University of California because I had a full scholarship from my home country that paid for the entirety of my international tuition and fees, which were around $35,000 per year. My scholarship allowed me to pursue my PhD in the USA, and to UC Irvine it provided basically “free labor” as well as prestige. 

I paid taxes and did all of the typical graduate student responsibilities. I also dedicated a lot of my time to doing outreach to bring science to underserved communities around Orange County and Southern California. By the time I graduated in 2017, I was a stellar student, with three publications with UC Irvine's name on them. I co-organized summer science camps for middle school girls that brought money and a good reputation to my university and program. I mentored students of all ages. I was a good “citizen” of my program, of my university, and of Orange County. 

Like me, most international students leave their families and everything that they are comfortable with to pursue the dream of graduate school. They bring with them the hope of being welcomed and treated fairly by their American peers. I have experienced this, but I am one of the lucky ones. 

It is no secret that international students and postdocs will withstand abuse and other injustices just so they can keep their visa, which is always tied to their university. Many universities receive international students without having a system to deal with the unique challenges that international students face, such as having no credit history, which complicates finding a place to live and leaves international students vulnerable to landlord abuse. Many international students are people of color, and universities, especially predominantly white institutions, do not have resources to ensure safety of these students within the university and in the community at large. 

These challenges are further complicated due to a lack of community and support. Making friends in the US, especially if you are coming from Global South countries and/or non-Westernized countries, is extremely challenging. Many times, I have seen how western Europeans, Australians, and Canadians are rapidly accepted in the local community, while many Latinx, Asians, and Middle-Easterners are not. 

There are over one million international students in the US. The ICE Student Ban may no longer be a threat, but universities still need to change how they handle international students. We are people too, but many universities have historically valued us only by the amount of money we bring. We improve higher education not only by the money that we bring, but by our unique perspectives, our research productivity, and our willingness to give back to American society.  

Traditional Chinese medicine could help treat COVID-19

Chinese doctors took this approach with SARS in 2003, and are hoping it could work again

Vivian Su


University of Southern California

Over the last couple of months, COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) has spread from China to the rest of the world at an unprecedented rate. In China, over 85% of COVID-19 patients have undergone Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) treatment, which utilizes herbal products and mind and body practices to promote health. While it is difficult to imagine how these mysterious mixtures of herbs may be capable of fighting powerful pathogens, we must remember that plants have unique chemical properties, just like pills and vaccines, that allow them to do so.

In 2015, Tu Youyou received the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering the compound artemisinin, a component of anti-malarial drugs. Instead of being created synthetically in a lab, artemisinin was isolated from the plant Artemisia annua, or sweet wormwood, an herb already widely used in TCM. This remarkable discovery showed that there were scientific explanations for how these mystifying TCM remedies healed the body, and that they had true clinical significance.

Because TCM had already been used to combat the SARS-CoV outbreak in 2002 and SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 are very similar, researchers at the Institute of Chinese Medical Sciences and the University of Macau assessed the overall effectiveness of TCM in treating SARS-CoV symptoms by conducting a literature review. By doing so, they hoped to gain a better understanding of how the specific chemical compounds present in TCM herbal formulas can be used to combat the current COVID-19 pandemic.

The researchers started by analyzing clinical research that had been done previously during the SARS-CoV outbreak. Chest X-rays were taken periodically for both a control group receiving only Western treatment and experimental groups receiving both Western and TCM treatments. The X-rays for both of the experimental groups showed that the patients' lungs were clearing up faster than those in the control group. Ingredients in various TCM herbal formulas were also found to have effects on coronaviruses. 

For example, the active compound glycyrrhizin in licorice root was found to potentially inhibit replication of the SARS virus, as well as ginseng and eucalyptus extracts. Rhubarb and lychee extracts inhibited activity of an enzyme vital to viral reproduction. Shuang Huang Lian, an herbal formula prepared from multiple flowers, reduces inflammation by inhibiting cytokines, or signaling proteins that help regulate immune responses. 

As of now, the Chinese government has wholeheartedly embraced TCM as an effective treatment for COVID-19. There are currently more than 300 ongoing clinical trials examining the effects of TCM herbal treatments on patients. However, more rigorous scientific research and clinical trials are definitely needed to determine the efficacy of TCM in treating COVID-19.

The current COVID-19 pandemic and the research on TCM has reminded us that no matter how technologically advanced we become, we are still products of nature. When vaccines aren’t available or our technology fails us, we should not hesitate to turn over every rock to treat this disease.

Josseline Ramos-Figueroa


University of Saskatchewan

COVID-19 está afectando actualmente a más de 8 millones de personas en todo el mundo. Si bien la propagación se ha contenido en algunos países, la falta de un tratamiento real pone a muchos pacientes en riesgo de muerte y daños a largo plazo. Aunque las personas infectadas pueden desarrollar anticuerpos y superar esta enfermedad, muchos jóvenes y mayores de edad no son capaces de defenderse.

Dado que el desarrollo de un fármaco eficaz puede tomar varios años, los científicos han estado examinando medicamentos actualmente en el mercado que podrían ser reutilizados para tratar a los pacientes de COVID-19. ¿Hay alguno que haya tenido éxito o al menos muestre potencial?

La respuesta es sí y no. En sólo una semana, tres fármacos propuestos para el tratamiento del nuevo coronavirus han cambiado de camino. La primera, la hidroxicloroquina, es un medicamento antimalárico. Fue inicialmente autorizado para el uso de emergencia por la Administración de Alimentos y Medicamentos de Estados Unidos (FDA), este medicamento ahora ha sido revocado como un tratamiento para COVID-19. La FDA ha dicho que no hay evidencia que garantice que la administración oral de hidroxicloroquina o cloroquina puede ser eficaz en el tratamiento de la enfermedad. Por otro lado, hay evidencia de que en su lugar podría plantear riesgos cardíacos para algunos pacientes.

El segundo es remdesivir, un medicamento antiviral. Este medicamento, actualmente aprobado para uso de emergencia por la FDA, ha demostrado sólo potencia moderada sin efecto estadísticamente significativo en reducir el número de muertes. Sin embargo, estudios detallados han revelado un mecanismo de acción muy específico mediante el bloqueo de la maquinaria viral a cargo de su replicación. Gilead Sciences, la empresa que hace este medicamento, está buscando maneras de hacer un version del fármaco que podría ser inhalado como un polvo o inyectado por vía subcutánea. Remdesivir se administra actualmente por vía intravenosa, ya que no se puede degradar en el hígado.

Por último, a partir del 16 de junio, la dexametasona, un medicamento corticoide, ha demostrado salvar vidas de pacientes gravemente enfermos. Esta droga ampliamente disponible y barata fue la única en un grupo de cinco tratamientos incluidos en el ensayo RECOVERY que muestran una disminución estadística del número de muertes en uno de los ensayos aleatorios más grandes del mundo. Este nuevo hallazgo se considera un gran avance y ofrece cierta esperanza, ya que este medicamento está ampliamente disponible en los estantes farmacéuticos en todo el mundo.

Historical paintings can tell us how our food evolved

#ArtGenetics is a new project that aims to let us see through premodern artists' eyes

Maddie Bender

Microbial Disease Epidemiology

Yale University

Today's watermelon isn't what it used to be — literally. Tomatoes, wheat, corn, and most other crops grown now have been domesticated by humans over tens of thousands of years. We have artificially selected the plants we eat to taste milder and be more bountiful. 

A textbook example is Brassica oleracea, a single species that includes kale, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage, all through artificial selection.

The rapid domestication of crops poses a problem for people who want to understand pre-modern societies. If the Romans weren't talking about our kind of wheat when they used a word for wheat, what were they talking about? A paper published Wednesday in the journal Trends in Plant Science suggests that biologists should start looking in a surprising place: artwork.

"Garland of Fruit and Flowers," Jan Davidsz de Heem, 1650-1660

The two Belgian co-authors argue that artwork depicting food can augment the picture that traditional methods like literature analysis and paleobotany create of past societies' diets. They term their project #ArtGenetics, and they propose that biologists, art historians, and museum-goers team up to catalogue foods spotted in artwork and compare their morphologies to what we see today.

Not every artist has embraced naturalism — recording things as they appear in front of you, true to form — so the co-authors suggest that roses be used as positive, non-food controls. We've kept good track of how they've been domesticated, and many varieties that were grown hundreds of years ago are still grown today. This way, a rose depicted naturalistically can add credibility that another plant featured in the artwork was represented as the artist saw it. Through #ArtGenetics, the co-authors hope that we can catch glimpses of premodern societies through their artists' eyes.

Dogs appear to navigate using Earth's magnetic field

New research shows this remarkable ability is not so far-fetched

Jaime Chambers


Washington State University

Life is full of tales of dogs’ remarkable homing abilities: from the movies, to books, to real-life examples such as Bobbie the Wonder Dog, who traveled 2,800 miles to reunite with his family. According to new research published in eLife, a dog's navigation isn’t just led by their nose and heart — but by Earth’s geomagnetic fields. 

A team of researchers let dogs do what they do best: run to their heart’s content, then return to their favorite human. Scientists set a couple dozen dogs loose in the woods over 600 times — rigged with GPS collars and cameras — and mapped their journeys out and back.

Dogs use a variety of navigation styles on their return trip, researchers found. Over half of the dogs “tracked,” opting to follow the same path outward and homeward, while about one-third “scouted,” blazing a new trail on their way back. 

The “scouts” took seemingly haphazard routes, but their journeys shared an interesting common feature. They all began with a brief “compass run” — a short dash along the north-south geomagnetic axis. 

This sprint didn’t last long — about 65 feet or so — but it was consistent across the tests. The amount of sun and the wind’s direction didn’t alter the pattern, ruling out the hypothesis that sight or smell were at play. Dogs’ breed, sex, size, and familiarity with the location didn’t have an effect either.

What’s up with this north-south oriented dash? It could signify how dogs calibrate their inner navigation system, researchers suggest. They posit it’s a canine orienteering starting point — dogs' way of comparing their mental map with Earth’s geomagnetic fields.

If this all sounds far-fetched, consider the mounting evidence for canines’ magnetic sensitivities. Dogs possess a light-sensing molecule called cryptochrome 1, associated with magnetic sensing abilities. Canines even prefer to poop and mark their territory along a north-south axis.

It’s likely dogs lean on other senses to navigate, including that remarkable nose. But their sensory universe might be more multidimensional than we can fathom -- rippling with odors that tell stories, and magnetic fields that tug them home. 

Eating more fiber feeds whipworm parasites in our guts

New research shows that interactions between diet and parasites might make people with whipworm infection sicker

Marnie Willman


University of Manitoba Bannatyne and National Microbiology Laboratory

Has your doctor ever advised you to increase your fiber intake to improve your overall health? Well, if you've got a parasite, it turns out that is terrible advice! Researchers at University of Copenhagen have discovered that parasitic gut worms (in particular, Trichuris muris, a whipworm) survive and reproduce easier in mouse gut tracts that have higher levels of fermentable dietary fiber. 

Trichuris muris is a mouse parasite that is used as a model to study human T. trichiura infections. T. trichiura is a roundworm humans can catch via ingestion of soil, like on our hands or food, that has been in contact with infected feces containing eggs or larvae. While these parasites can be a problem anywhere, they are most prevalent in warm or humid climates

Reseachers fed mice inulin and T. muris eggs in their food to understand how they interacted in the gut

Tiia Monto [CC BY-SA 3.0]

These researchers were interested in the correlation between lack of dietary fiber and chronic intestinal inflammation. They decided in particular to study inulin, a soluble fiber derived from plants that is also a prebiotic. Prebiotics feed your "good" gut bacteria, stimulating their reproduction and ultimately leading to a healthy gut microbiome. 

They fed mice a high or low dose of T. muris eggs in addition to inulin in varying doses in their food, and observed the result. They saw that some of the mice had showed an immune response related to gut inflammation (similar to symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome in humans). Normally, these responses are good for eliminating bad bacteria or food contaminants. But in this case, the immune response did not eliminate the parasites. They actually stayed in mice guts up to 35 days post-infection! This is because inulin caused the growth of Proteobacteria, a gut bacteria that happens to be T. muris' favorite snack. 

It turns out dietary inulin and high doses of T. muris parasites together caused severe inflammation and gut microbiome imbalance that made the perfect environment for parasitic persistence. This study points scientists toward studies on the interactions between inflammation, diet, and parasite load to help people affected with parasites. 

Pancreatic cancer hides from the immune system by destroying the cell’s danger signal

Stopping the cancer cells from degrading the signal shrunk the tumors

Allison J Matthews


Tufts University

There is an entire branch of our immune system that has evolved to recognize when something is wrong inside a cell, and it revolves around a group of proteins called MHC-I.

MHC-I is a little pedestal that cells use to display their proteins for immune cells called T-cells to inspect. If everything is normal and healthy, the proteins on the MHC-I pedestal won’t cause any alarm, and the cell is allowed to continue happily growing and dividing. However, if something in the cell has gone awry – whether that is viral infection, bacterial infection, or cancer – what gets displayed on the MHC-I can signal a problem. In that case, a T-cell will immediately kill the cell to nip the problem in the bud.

In a perfect world, this would work every time and our immune system could always stop cancer in its tracks. But some cancers are able to avoid detection by the immune system by not producing MHC-I at all.

A recent paper led by scientists at the NYU School of Medicine and the University of California - San Francisco showed that pancreatic cancer cells recycle and degrade MHC-I complexes so fast that there are almost none on the cell surface to signal that something is wrong.

To try to increase the amount of MHC-I present on the surface of cancerous cells, the researchers treated pancreatic cancers of mice with chloroquine, which prevents the cells from degrading MHC-I complexes. When this was combined with immunotherapy, they saw that more T-cells flooded the area around the tumor, and that this was correlated with a significant decrease in tumor size and weight. This discovery has the potential to improve treatment for cancers that were previously resistant to immunotherapy, making it a promising new strategy to combat them.

A new malaria vaccine made from the rodent malaria parasite is effective in humans

It reduced parasite load in clinical trial volunteers by 95%

Rita Ponce

Evolutionary Biology

Polytechnic Institute of Setúbal

Malaria is a life-threatening disease transmitted to humans by infected mosquitoes. In 2018 alone there were 228 million cases and 405,000 deaths worldwide, affecting mostly children under five years of age. Scientists have long been looking for an effective vaccine, but haven't yet been able to produce one.

Human malaria is caused by five species of Plasmodium parasites, with Plasmodium falciparum the most deadly of them. But there are other Plasmodium parasites that can infect and cause malaria in other mammals. About ten years years ago, a group of researchers in Portugal, led by Miguel Prudêncio, decided to explore the possibility of using a rodent parasite called Plasmodium berghei in a vaccine against malaria.

They developed a P. berghei parasite genetically modified to look like P. falciparum, meaning that it carried P. falciparium proteins on its surface. Being a rodent parasite makes it non-pathogenic to humans, and as it was covered by proteins from the human parasite they reasoned that it could potentially induce an immune response to the human parasite. They deliberately chose a protein active during the stage where the malaria parasite infects our livers. Acting at this stage blocks the life cycle of the parasite and prevent it from reaching the bloodstream. 

A clinical trial for this rodent-inspired vaccine started in 2017. Last month the results of the first stages of this trial were published in Science Translational Medicine. The trial involved 24 healthy adult volunteers in the Netherlands. After the trial showed that the new vaccine was safe at the tested doses, it entered phase two, aimed at testing the efficacy of the immunization. The vaccinated volunteers were actually infected with the human malaria parasite P. falciparum. When compared with the unvaccinated control group, the volunteers had 95% less parasites in their liver and also produced antibodies that recognized P. falciparum.

While the vaccine did not confer full protection to the infection, it looks to be a promising approach and may lead the way to create an effective malaria vaccine.

Some seagrasses work harder than others to slow climate change

Seagrass meadows lock "blue carbon" away in mud and sand

Meghan Zulian

Oceanography and Marine Science

University of California, Davis

Carbon dioxide captured and stored in the ocean is called blue carbon. Seagrass meadows, in particular, are important blue carbon sinks, storing massive amounts of carbon in mud and sand for hundreds to thousands of years. Seagrass meadows are large shallow-water areas where the seafloor is covered with seagrass growing in mud or sand. By keeping the carbon out of the atmosphere, they help regulate our climate system. However, a recent study of an Australian estuary found that seagrass meadows are not all equally good at storing carbon.

When the researchers of this study analyzed mud and sand samples from in the seagrass meadow, they found huge variation in its ability to store carbon. Their analysis revealed that carbon storage increases with a higher proportion of mud and carbon inputs from local, non-seagrass sources such as runoff from nearby land. The lead author of this study and a postdoctoral scientist in the research group I work in, Aurora Ricart, said, "this and similar studies will improve quantification of seagrass carbon stocks and tell us more about their capabilities as global carbon sinks." 

With better characterization of high carbon storage seagrass meadows, governments can determine which meadows need protection. This will secure their ability to store carbon long into the future, helping mitigate climate change.

The US is deporting scientists. I’m one of them

ICE is using COVID-19 confusion as cover to force immigrant scientists out

Dan Samorodnitsky

Senior Editor

On Monday, US Immgration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced changes to policy that require international students to choose between attending in-person classes in the fall or leaving the country. The State Department will not issue visas for students at universities teaching online-only in the fall. This leaves many at universities not offering in-person classes with an impossible choice: transferring schools to fulfill this arbitrary request and risk catching COVID-19, or leave their lives and work behind. Otherwise they face being deported. A researcher I’ll call M reached out to me and described their situation. 

“Everyone is telling me to stop being pessimistic but I’m being realistic. I contribute so much to this society and now I have a fear of ICE.”

M is a student and instructor on an F-1 visa at a large, public research university. Leaving the US means going back to their home city, a COVID hotspot where local officials are withholding test results from the public. 

Going home and continuing to work from there is an impossibility, because of both an enormous time difference that would make teaching difficult, on top of a lack of consistent internet access. Without consistent internet access their work cannot be done. Documents used for research contain sensitive information and they fear even accessing the documents may result in reprisal or invasions of privacy.

Neither ICE nor M’s university are operating in good faith. ICE’s stipulations for attendance don’t match the university’s, so neither can be satisfied. Minimal face-to-face classes (not enough to satisfy ICE) are being offered, which M sees as just a way to catch COVID-19 and a threat to their life. University administration is preventing students from reaching out to elected officials for assistance.

“I’m way too scared to post anything on social media right now.”

Their university, and by extension the local government, uses international scientists as a source of revenue (counting them as a resident and demanding student fees), without access to many grants offered to other students. Now they are being tossed capriciously out of the country by the federal government after being used as a source of income by the state government.

“I’ve lived in [multiple parts of the US] and I know about ICE and how they deport people and children. I’ve been a scientist and published in all the right journals and it means nothing right now.”

Seventy-five percent of STEM graduate students do not consistently feel like they belong in graduate school

Most students feel negatively or neutral about whether their professors understand the hardships they face

Josseline Ramos-Figueroa


University of Saskatchewan

Do I belong here? If you have ever asked this question, you are not alone. This basic need of acceptance reflects on our inherent desire and motivation to form and keep interpersonal relationships, wherever we are, or wherever we want to be.

Low sense of belonging or social exclusion often lead to anxiety, depression, and stress, ultimately influencing our behavior. From a student's perspective, seeing professors that look like us can help us feel like we belong in academia. So, to understand the gender and racial or ethnic underrepresentation at the professoriate level in STEM fields, researchers from the chemistry department at the University of California - Berkeley have investigated graduate students' senses of belonging.

They used a visual narrative survey to evaluate how much students related to 15 different situations. They used this technique instead of plain text to convey emotion through the facial expressions, postures, and social interactions of characters in the pictures. These scenarios were chosen to evaluate students' reactions and senses of belonging, as well as previously undefined factors such self-perceived intelligence, value, competence, productivity, and independence.

The researchers found that about 75 percent of students sometimes or rarely felt happy and accepted, like they belonged. Most respondents indicated that students had some form of support from their peers but felt negatively or neutral about whether faculty (meaning, professors) understand the hardships they face. Members of underrepresented racial or ethnic groups were less likely to feel a sense of belonging than members from the majority. Similarly, female-identifying respondents felt less like they belonged than male-identifying respondents

This study is important in that it addresses graduate students, whereas most similar studies have only focused on undergraduate students. To increase diversity in the STEM professoriate, academia clearly needs to change, and one sorely needed fix is to make all people feel like they belong in the ivory tower.

Moving – even in virtual reality – can increase our creativity and problem-solving

Feeling low on ideas? Trick yourself into thinking you are moving

Adithi Ramakrishnan

Developmental Neuroscience

College of William and Mary

Creativity in the workplace makes an individual an innovator and a  company a changemaker.  However, cultivating creativity in an office setting can be challenging. Research suggests that moving around while thinking can have positive impacts on our creativity. But having company employees come up with ideas while sprinting on a treadmill isn't exactly ideal, nor is it feasible for everyone. 

 A group of researchers in France and India has built on this idea by making individuals feel that they were moving, to see if that would provide the same creativity bump as does actually moving. In their study, published in the journal Thinking Skills and Creativity, they used virtual reality to "transport" 32 volunteers to an imaginary empty train car. Half of the volunteers experienced a still car, while the other half saw lights pass them by in the train windows, as if they were in motion and going through a tunnel.  

While in the virtual reality environment, the study volunteers participated in tests designed to measure divergent creativity, the ability to come up with many different ideas to solve a problem, and convergent creativity, the ability to drill down to one correct solution based on many ideas.  Once each participant’s creativity was scored, the researchers compared the scores of the participants in stationary train cars with those in moving train cars.  

The participants who conducted their creativity tests in a virtual  moving train showed higher amounts of divergent creativity compared to those in still trains. From this, the researchers concluded that the simple perception of movement can improve our creativity and idea generation, whether or not we are actually moving. So if you are feeling low on ideas, strap on some virtual reality goggles and hop on a train, plane, or boat to recharge!

Special white blood cells heal our wounds with jolt of energy

These cells, called macrophages, can both cause and alleviate pain

Sahana Sitaraman

Neuroscience and Behavior

National Centre for Biological Sciences, India

Pain is a way for our bodies to tell us that we are hurt, and we should take care to protect ourselves from further harm. This signal manifests in the form of inflammation and hypersensitivity to touch, at the site of injury. Once the injury is healed, the associated symptoms also resolve themselves. But in some cases, even after the inflammation subsides, the pain persists for months or years, which can lead to decreased quality of life for people with this long-term (or chronic) pain. While physical therapy and medication can help relieve pain, they are unreliable at best and can sometimes lead to opiod addiction.

To find robust methods of pain relief, we need to understand how our bodies resolve pain naturally and how that process is disrupted in case of chronic pain. In a recent study (currently posted as a pre-print) by scientists based in the Netherlands and the US, researchers unraveled how immune cells, called macrophages, relieve pain caused by damage to sensory cells. 

Macrophages are known for their ability to ‘eat’ foreign particles in our body. They also play a substantial role in both the initiation and mitigation of pain. Two types of macrophages are involved in these processes: M1 and M2. The former initially crowd around a wounded area, causing inflammation and pain. As the wound heals they are then replaced by M2 macrophages, which ease these symptoms. The researchers found that an imbalance in the levels of these two types of macrophages can cause chronic pain. 

The way that M2 macrophages alleviate pain is fascinating. A wound disrupts the energy-producing cellular machinery, called mitochondria, of surrounding sensory cells. M2 macrophages actually transfer their own mitochondria into the affected cells in small balloon-like structures, easing the pain sensation. This suggests that therapies aimed at increasing the mitochondrial transfer from M2 macrophages into cells around our wounds, giving them a jolt of energy, could help relieve chronic pain.

Geologists find evidence of two new supervolcano eruptions at Yellowstone

Their trends suggest that the next eruption won't happen for a long time

Some 8.7 million years ago, much of what is now Idaho was torched by clouds of hot volcanic ash, destroying all vegetation and animals in sight. The supervolcano, Yellowstone, was erupting. This was Yellowstone’s largest eruption on record.

Super-eruptions can decimate entire regions, and their cocktail of ash and gases can alter the climate. But, even though they eject huge amounts of material, there are very few documented super-eruptions in the geologic record. So we don’t fully understand why they are so big or how often they occur. Now, details of the Yellowstone supervolcanic eruption are documented in a new study published in the journal Geology.

Yellowstone’s ancient eruptions scattered volcanic debris across the northwestern US. There are so many deposits — covering an area tens of thousands of square kilometers — that it can be difficult to tell each eruption apart. To get around this, volcanologists collected detailed identifying information, including chemical and chronological data, on each geological deposit. 

Volcanic ash from Yellowstone

Volcanic ash from Yellowstone


When they looked at the data, they found that much of the volcanic debris, which was thought previously to come from repeated smaller eruptions, had the same chemical makeup and age. In fact, these deposits were produced by two previously unrecognized super-eruptions. Both eruptions were searingly hot, and would have baked the landscape in a thick coating of molten volcanic glass. The youngest of the two, known as the Grey’s Landing super-eruption, is dated to roughly 8.7 million years ago, and, according to the volume of debris released, is 30% larger than all other eruptions recorded from Yellowstone. 

Recognition of these events brings Yellowstone's total number of eruptions during the late Miocene to six. That makes for one eruption about every 520,000 years. Since then, however, the pace of eruptions has slowed to once every 1.5 million years. 

The evidence seems to suggest that Yellowstone is slowing down. And if this trend continues, the next super-eruption won't happen for another 900,000 years. Predicting eruptions is however a risky business, and the United States Geological Survey still maintain a permanent monitoring network on Yellowstone — just in case. 

Some black widow spiders choose mates carefully — others just eat them

New research explores why some female spiders are pickier mates than others

Hannah Thomasy


University of Washington

If you’re a female black widow spider, it can be tough to know who to mate with. If you’re not picky at all, you may mate with the first male that comes along, missing out on other, better males that come by later. On the other hand, if you’re too picky and wait a long time, you might run out of available males and miss the opportunity to mate altogether. 

So how do female spiders decide how picky they can be? New research sheds light on the complex world of spider sex.

Scientists from the University of Toronto thought that early life social context might play a role in mate choosiness. The researchers set up their experiment at Island View Beach on Vancouver Island, which is known to have an especially dense population of black widow spiders. 

island view beach

Island View Beach on Vancouver Island is known for a high population of black widow spiders.


Researchers placed cages with immature female spiders either close to (within 1 meter) or far from (more than 10 meters) another wild female spider. Once the spiders had matured, researchers took them back to the lab and introduced them to potential mates.

Females that had grown up far from other spiders jumped quickly at the chance to mate. But females raised near other spiders were more picky. These spiders were more likely to reject the males — sometimes even eating the potential mates. Their findings shows that female black widows can adjust their mate choosiness in response to population density.

Antibody testing is increasing, but what do the results mean?

The answer to whether people previously infected with COVID-19 are immune remains unclear

Claire Hews


University of East Anglia

The novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 was first identified in December 2019 and is now responsible for over 9.2 million cases of Covid-19 worldwide (correct as of 24 June 2020). But currently, the long-term immune response, and whether exposure protects against future infection, is unknown.

This recent lab note highlighted an interesting study in Cell which reported that non-hospitalized patients who have recovered from a mild COVID-19 infection carry T cells that target SARS-CoV-2. T cell responses may provide better routes for immunity and vaccine development than the other ‘arm’ of the immune system — the B cell response — even though the latter response has received far more attention to date than T cells. 

B cells produce antibodies which are important in immune system recognition and memory of features of pathogens called antigens. Antibody testing is increasing, enabling identification of individuals who have been asymptomatically infected with SARS-CoV-2. 

A key question remains: are people with antibodies immune from reinfection? A June study in Nature Medicine has addressed the antibody response of asymptomatic patients. The researchers reported that their antibody levels begin to decrease 2-3 months after infection, and that they exhibited a weaker immune response to infection compared to symptomatic patients. Therefore, we certainly shouldn’t depend on the idea that having antibodies for SARS-CoV-2 means that a person is immune. Allowing recovered patients to resume their normal lives without masks and social distancing is not as simple as first thought.

Our knowledge about the novel coronavirus is rapidly expanding. It remains unknown whether the T cell or B cell response actually provides long-lasting, or any, immunity to reinfection with SARS-CoV-2. But, studies such as these are fundamental in our continued understanding of this disease and will certainly be important knowledge for vaccine development and continued social distancing strategies.

Researchers develop a better test for the parasite that causes river blindness

The WHO estimates that 205 million people in African countries are at risk of infection

Marnie Willman


University of Manitoba Bannatyne and National Microbiology Laboratory

A parasite prominent in sub-saharan African rivers called Onchocerca volvulus (pictured above) is one of the 17 neglected tropical diseases selected by WHO in 2003 for directed control or elimination. Transmitted by bites of Simulium blackflies that breed in rivers, the parasite causes 'river blindness'. Approximately 500,000 people are visually impaired by the disease, and many more have other symptoms of the disease. The WHO estimates that 205 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are at risk of infection. 

The biggest barrier to treatment of the parasite is lack of proper diagnostic tools. Currently, an ELISA-based test that determines presence of an immune response specific for the parasite is used. However, this test does not discriminate between active and past infections, nor does it cover all potential markers for the parasite. As a result, it too-commonly returns false-negative readings

A study led by scientists at the National Institutes of Health identified other biomarkers that can be used for more accurate detection of the parasite. Their test was able to determine whether the infection was old and recovered or active, and had more accurate results compared to the previous method. 

The biomarkers they identified, along with others, could also be used in the future for more sensitive platforms for surveillance. The testing procedure found by this group has a sensitivity rate of 94% (meaning, it correctly identifies positive cases 94% of the time), and the researchers describe a way by which the test could even reach the WHO-recommended rate of 99%. 

Time-restricted eating may reduce disease in the elderly without limiting calories

Pilot study shows increased exercise capacity and glucose tolerance

Raj Trikha


Colorado State University

As people age, both exercise capacity and glucose tolerance decrease, playing a role in the development of many chronic diseases.  Calorie restriction has been shown to attenuate the development of these declines; however, it is not recommended for the aging population due to its other adverse events. Are there other interventions that keep some benefits obtained from calorie restriction to promote healthy aging without the drawbacks? 

Time-restricted eating is a dietary intervention that alters the timing of eating without changing the types of foods a person eats. It requires eating daily within a limited window, usually 8 to 12 hours per day, that often begins in the morning and ends in the afternoon. Previous research in both animals and humans have demonstrated that time-restricted eating can mimic some of the benefits of longer duration fasting and calorie restriction. 

food salad chocolate diet

Time-restricted eating doesn't restrict calories or types of food

By Brenda Godinez on Unsplash 

Earlier this year, researchers tested a time-restricted eating regimen in healthy older adults. They found that the six-week intervention produced slight, but noticeable improvements in exercise capacity and glucose tolerance. The results from the present study suggest that time-restricted eating could reduce health issues that come with age.

Time-restricted eating also reduced participants' hunger. Most diets, on the other hand, result in increased and prolonged feelings of hunger.

These results demonstrate time-restricted eating to be a safe and feasible intervention that may reduce the development of chronic problems as people age. This pilot investigation lays the foundation for future long-term dietary studies examining time-restricted eating in older adults with and without chronic diseases. 

Tweeting about research results in three times more citations

Social media is proven to help share new science with the public

Dori Grijseels


University of Sussex

An important part of science is sharing the findings, both with the general public, and with fellow scientists. The main method of sharing science is done by writing articles that are published in academic journals. However, most people are not subscribed to the Annals of Thoracic Surgery, and thus may not be aware of the latest articles that came out. This means that a lot of articles never reach the general public, or sometimes even fellow scientists. A new study by the Thoracic Surgery Social Media Network shows that tweeting might be the solution.

Their team divided 112 journal articles into two groups. They only tweeted about the articles in one group, and not in the other, and only sent out one tweet on each article. They then looked at how this changed how much attention the articles had gotten a year later. They found that the articles that they tweeted about received on average more attention, which they measured using Altmetric, a measure of the amount of interaction with a certain article through social media and the press. So a higher Altmetric score means that more people have heard about the article.

However, tweeting out articles did not just change how many people heard about the science. The study also found that the articles they tweeted about received more citations, on average three times as many, meaning other researchers used the findings in their own studies. This is quite a big deal for scientists, as it reflects how important their work is within their field. 

Overall, tweeting about research articles can have a big impact in how far the article reaches and how it impacts future research. So the advice to any researchers who want their articles to be read: Tweet about them!

Prehistoric white sharks can help us save sharks in modern day

How researchers found a two to five million year old shark nursery

White sharks may have a guaranteed spot on Shark Week but there is still a lot to learn about this famed fish. 

Sharks have been around for millions of years. The earliest fossil of Carcharodons, the genus of the white shark, dates back to 16 million years ago. Yet today, white shark populations are considered vulnerable to becoming endangered due to overfishing.

Protecting these sharks can be tricky. There are white shark aggregation sites around the world, but each of these populations have different behaviors and migratory patterns. Scientists are studying each existing population to inform local policy and management. 

White shark hot spots

White shark hot spots

CC 4.0

It isn't just modern populations of sharks that can provide us with useful insight. Understanding how white sharks thrived millions of years ago could help us protect them today. 

Researchers have proposed a location in Coquimbo, Chile as a nursery for white sharks during the Pliocene Epoch, a period of geologic time that spans from 5.33 million to 2.58 million years ago. 

A nursery habitat is an area that contributes more juveniles of a species to the adult population compared to other areas. To be considered a nursery, the area in question had to fit three criteria: be a shallow water environment, have an abundance of resources, and be dominated by juveniles white sharks. 

Shark Tooth

Shark tooth

Eddie Fouse

The researchers collected white shark fossil teeth from three different places. They used measurements of the teeth to estimate the total length of the individual sharks. The total length of a juvenile white shark was considered to be between 175 cm to 300 cm. In Coquimbo, there was a higher proportion of juveniles compared to the other study sites. The researchers also found signs of potential prey species and evidence that this area was once a shallow-water marine habitat. 

Nursery habitats helped protect young sharks millions of years ago. Identify and conserving modern nursery habitats could be an important factor in keeping white shark populations stable today. 

Guinea pig evolution can teach us about human history in the Americas

Indigenous people kept them as pets and traveled with them over 1000 years ago

Adriana Romero-Olivares


University of New Hampshire

Guinea pigs are pets, they’re culturally important, they're food,  they're therapy animals, and they are “guinea pigs” in scientific research. You may have seen or heard of them, and wondered if they're enormous hamsters, or just pigs from Guinea — but they are none of these things. Guinea pigs are domesticated rodents from the Americas and they’ve been associated with humans for up to 7000 years

Guinea pig trade outside of the Americas, started in the late 15th century when Europeans introduced them to Europe as “upper-class” pets. Three centuries later, medical researchers started to use them as laboratory animals for study, and now, guinea pigs can be found almost anywhere in the world. Because of this, guinea pigs make an excellent tool for understanding human history and our relationship with domesticated animals. 

Guinea pig

Guinea pig

 Adriana L. Romero-Olivares 

In a recent study, scientists looked at ancient DNA from guinea pig specimens recovered from archaeological sites in Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe, and the United States. They found that guinea pigs left South America, and into the Caribbean, around the 6th century, through existing human networks and trade routes. The work provides some of the earliest evidence of guinea pig domestication and distribution, over thousands of years ago and across long-distance continents far before Europeans arrived in the Americas. 

The idea that they’re low maintenance “starter pets” is a huge misconception. They are charismatic, have their own personalities, are extremely vocal and social, eat a lot, poop a lot, and need to be cleaned a lot. But as a guinea pig pet owner, my life has been brightened by guinea pigs for over 15 years. I plan to have guinea pig pets until the day I die. And in doing so, perpetuating a strong bond and evolutionary history dating back thousands of years. Thank you guinea pigs, for teaching us so much.

Scientists' new trick for tracking bacterial infections makes cell walls glow

This technique allows doctors to tell the difference between two different kinds of inflammation

Lauren Gandy

Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Chemical Biology

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

When you experience a bacterial infection, knowing the site of infection helps doctors determine a treatment regimen. Today, clinicians figure out where these pathogens are using radiotracers – compounds with radioactive atoms that react to the X-rays and magnetic field employed by CT and MRI imaging technology. However, clinicians using these radiotracers, such as those that have radioactive fluorine (18F) or gallium citrate (88Ga), suffer from a distinction problem: they cannot distinguish live infections versus a pathogen-free inflammatory response.

Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco came up with a clever solution: synthesize a radiotracer from the building blocks of bacterial cell walls. That way, as the bacteria grow and replicate at the infection site, each live cell is incorporated with a glowing radiotracer. They proved that their radioactive carbon (11C) radiotracer integrated nicely into the bacterial cell wall in the top pathogenic bacteria for hospital settings, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphlococcus aureus — including MRSA. 

But if you have an infection in your intestines, where your normal microflora live, will the radiotracer be taken up and incorporated into their cell walls rather than the pathogenic invaders? The researchers answered this question by comparing the radiotracer's location in various organs in normal mice (with normal microbiome) and microbe-free mice. They found that when the radiotracer integrated into the intestines, overall radiotracer incorporation was low, and the difference between microbe-containing and microbe-free organs was minimal. Notably, these 11C amino acids showed significant differences between live cells and dead cells, allowing clinicians to distinguish between live infection sites and sites of inflammatory responses.

Overall, the ease of creating these compounds and great incorporation efficacy into invading pathogens points to an easy translation of this radiotracer from the academic to clinical setting. 

Herbivore teeth deep in a South African cave give clues to what the climate was like thousands of years ago

Scientists used carbon and oxygen isotopes to reconstruct past rainfall patterns

Lambert Baraut-Guinet

Climate Science

Lincoln Park Zoo

The Nelson Bay Cave, near the coast of South Africa, was excavated between the 1960s and the 1970s. It contains Stone Age remains and is also an important site to uncover past climate fluctuations, thanks to the traces of past animals (such as shells and teeth) the archaeologists found inside.

Between twenty-three and twelve thousand years ago, the cave was not facing the ocean, as it does today. During this period, known as the Last Glacial Maximum, sea level was 120 meters below what it is now, and the cave was facing the vast grassland now known as the Agulhas Plains. There are a lot of unknowns about what happened between that time and the beginning of the Holocene, when the ocean rose and submerged the Agulhas Plains.

To study these climatic changes, a team of scientists from the University of Cape Town, the Natural History Museum of Utah, and Nelson Mandela University studied the remains of herbivorous animals, related to cattle, found in the cave to look for changes in their diet. When an animal eats, some of its body tissues record the chemical signatures of food it has eaten. Scientists can measure this with isotopes, which are slightly altered versions of standard chemical elements. By measuring carbon and oxygen isotopes in herbivore teeth, the scientists could understand how the environment the food grew in changed over time. They identified a shift in the vegetation available at that time, which seems to have been caused by a change in rainfall patterns. This finding is another piece the puzzle of what climate around the world was like during the Last Glacial Maximum.

To understand SARS-CoV-2, scientists found its wild cousins

The original host of this virus is still in question, but studying similar viruses can help us figure out how it evolved

Francesco Zangari

Molecular Biology

University of Toronto

SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, has infected over 9 million people globally and accounted for nearly 500,000 deaths as of June 23. This has led to a global effort whereby researchers have mobilized their labs to better understand the virus. 

However, the exact source of the virus has still not been determined. To understand the origin of the virus causing the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers are screening the environment for all types of coronaviruses, such as those found in bats. These efforts will allow researchers the ability to map out the start of the virus' spread.

To further study coronaviruses in circulation, a group of scientists used samples from 227 bats in the Yunnan Province in southern China. The individual samples were collected between May - October 2019. Researchers next determined the viral strains in the samples and discovered two unique coronaviruses called RmYN01 and RmYN02. 

Upon further examination, it was determined that RmYN02’s DNA sequence was very similar to SARS-CoV-2. However, there were significant differences in regions the virus uses to enter human cells. Looking closer, researchers noted the RmYN02 virus had only one of six critical anchors SARS-CoV-2 uses to enter human cells. These results were surprising considering the overall DNA similarity.

However, the DNA sequence of the RmYN02 virus did reveal unique mutations thought to be only found in SARS-CoV-2. This points researchers to the fact that this is a close relative of SARS-CoV-2. The origin of SARS-CoV-2 is still the subject of much debate, and it will be difficult to prove with certainty how it jumped from its host to humans. In the meantime, scientists are gathering data on other coronaviruses in an effort to prevent future pandemics.